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A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year film posterSynopsis

1981 is the year when Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) gets into the New York heating oil distribution business, but he wants to do it legitimately.  He inherited his business from his criminal father-in-law.  He makes a deposit on a waterfront deal and has 30 days to close the deal or risk losing it all.  He wants to persuade the District Attorney (David Oyelowo) of his legitimacy, and he must protect his business from violent competitors.  Jessica Chastain plays his business-shrewd wife.  Morales’ employees are afraid since they are in the firing line.  Will Morales’ business survive?

Review

Oscar Isaac looks like Al Pacino (especially when in Scarface), so it comes as a bit of a shock to learn of Morales’ aspirations towards legitimacy, in fact he makes a big deal about it, as if he expects us to congratulate him when he says “I AM NOT A GANGSTER”.  He is goaded into chasing one of the thugs who attacked his employee, he gets rough with him but does not shoot him.  The street and waterfront scenes of New York recall the dour gritty look of the seventies like in Serpico.  The interiors are gloomy and tacky, was 1981 really this grim?   When, as a well dressed businessman, Morales gets out of his car to negotiate with the DA and the police one expects somebody to get shot but it doesn’t happen.  The feel is Sidney Lumet and Scorsese, the waterfront could be On the Waterfront from 1954.  The film is all the more fascinating precisely because it shuns the easy option of violence.  Resorting to guns can be counter productive to the usual pursuit of profit in spite of the numerous “it’s business” excuses for violence in the Godfather and other gangster films.  Morales is trying to maintain self respect as his patriarchal pride is wounded when his wife Anne offers her help in his business problems.  When the DA orders a search of the Morales house it looks like a re-tread of Eliot Ness pursuing Al Capone but Anne makes it look like the hounding of a respectable yuppy household.  The presence of a gun in the house startles because it seems out of place.  Chastain’s Anne looks like Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface but she is too intelligent to be overawed by the threats inherent in the ropiness of business dealings.  Her father was, after all, a criminal who succeeded through violence.  When there are business meetings we think about the pomposity of Mafia procedure, especially when suspicious recriminations fly about over Morales’ rival,s but no-one comes in waving Capone’s baseball bat.  Excellent.

 

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Posted by on February 20, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Filth

Filth film posterSynopsis

About a corrupt policeman Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy).   He plots and schemes to get ahead in the police force.  He despises his colleagues and his boss (John Sessions) and his arch rival (Imogen Poots). He drinks hard, takes drugs and is into sexual abuse.  His wife and child leave him.  He goes to brothels in Henbury with Eddie Marson whom he corrupts.  He uses his membership of the freemasonry to get ahead. He descends into hell even further.  Will he be rescued by love…?

Review

Insofar as it’s drugs in Scotland it seems a partial throwback to Trainspotting, which itself owed a lot visually to William Burrough’s Naked Lunch.  Robertson’s drug visions get creepier as he descends into a deep pit of solipsistic mayhem fuelled by alcoholic guilt and self loathing.  He feels responsible for the death of his brother from a heap of coal. He seeks release in facile self-serving put downs of his colleagues.  In one hilarious scene he imagines his colleagues in degrading scenarios, their faces in close up going from portraits by Lucian Freud to Francis Bacon.  As you’d expect amidst the relentless scatalogical grind there is a lot of repetition which gets wearisome.  McAvoy gurns his face and manically laughs in a repeat of his performance in Trance. After a while you feel you’ve been sharing the drink and drugs with McAvoy.  The screen jumps about like a Danny Boyle on amphetamines.  We’ve seen so many cynical cop movies that a policeman wallowing in a moral sewer is hardly remarkable.  Filth attempts to make some poignant contrasts between Robertson’s psychic disintegration and the beauty of a snow swept Scottish town ornamented with innocent Christmas songs.  If Sunshine on Leith is the lyrical possibility of Edinburgh then Filth is like a pilot for the ultimate bad cop.  His nihilism is mildly funny but only in an obvious way as he snivels his way to hope of redemption from the usual grounded good woman as Madonna.  Jim Broadbent usually plays Jim Broadbent, and here he does a sort of bad Woody Allen turn as an Australian psychiatrist.  Eddie Marson is the classic wimpy husband abused by his bored wife, the characters and the story are punchy but after a while you feel you’ve been flattened.

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Carancho

Carancho posterSynopsis

Set in present Argentina, it’s about Sosa (Ricardo Darin) who is a Carancho (Spanish for vulture), he is a lawyer who gets traffic accident victims inadequate compensation owing to his firms syphoning off from the full amount, his firm is “The Foundation”. There is a paramedic Lujan (Martina Gusman) who is initially suspicious of  Sosa but who responds to his friendly approaches.  She is a drug addict who finds herself tainted by association with Sosa and she is beaten up by Sosa’s Foundation colleague.  In order to get a client to pick up money, he uses a sledgehammer on the client’s leg to fake an accident when the client throws himself at a car.  The client dies.  Sosa is in conflict with clients and the Foundation.  He wants away, he and Lujan go on the run…

Criticism

It starts off well, like a sort of docudrama where Lujan and her colleague Pico pick up calls and go to the aid of the accident victims.  It’s all in hectic close up, the grimness of their job accentuated by the lonely roadways and the gloomy underfunded wards which in E.R. would scarcely qualify as broom cupboards.  The office Sosa works in is tacky and claustrophobic like in Darin’s other film Secrets in their Eyes.  Ricardo Darin is likeable in that other film, here he starts out as a beaten up ‘Vulture’ and ends up as a thug on the run.  It’s difficult to feel any sympathy for him.  He seems to have an attack of conscience and strives for full compensation for one or two accident victims but he’s too dirtied by his ambulance chasing job.  He looks like the scavenger he is, grey faced and battered, sniffing around other people’s tragedies.

Lujan starts out as a good looking, self possessed young professional who wouldn’t take any nonsense from any man, so her relationship with Sosa looks like a weary capitulation rather than anything convincing, more like a fantasy of male wish fulfilment rather than anything realistic.  Indeed she falls apart and is passive about her life being in danger.  When she gets beaten up by the Foundation goon, Sosa takes predictable macho revenge, none of the main characters turn to the law which for the plot convenience is of course wholly corrupt.  What starts out as a seemingly realistic look at accident tragedies in Argentina (the statistics are huge and horrifying) ends up in the second half succumbing to conventional macho thuggery and gangster crime with gunfights added at the end.  This is not a screw tightening of plot tension and plausibility, it’s a surrender to the entertainment imperatives of mainstream cinema.  Anyway, it’s more glamorous than showing hospital staff martyred by tragedy and overwork, isn’t it?  It’s the usual hypercritical celebration of violence, supposedly justified by the “choreography” of the flash camera work as if there isn’t enough violence in traffic accidents.  We get a few scenes of grieving women and angry men as if to lend moral possibilities to Sosa’s work.  He lost his license (we are never told why) and he wants to go straight but doesn’t seem to have the means to get free of his ghoulish work (unless it’s to get his hands on a lot of money).  In how many films have we seen this, the guy who wants to be decent and to get away but who leaves corpses in his blood strewn means of escape?  The later part lets this film down.

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2012 in Film Reviews, World cinema

 

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J. Edgar

J. Edgar posterSynopsis

Covers the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s chief J. Edgar Hoover from early anti-Communist crusader to his control of the FBI from the ’30s to his death in 1972.  It sees his establishment of ideologically and personally acceptable personnel, of new crime hunting methods used in tracking down such people as Hauptmann, the alleged murderer of Lindbergh’s kidnapped child.  It looks at his supposed capture of gangsters and in the 60’s his attempted blackmailing of Martin Luther King.  It also looks at his manipulative role with the Kennedy family in the early ’60s.  It’s all told in flashbacks.  We see his relationship with his secretary (who rebuffs him as a possible marriage partner) and his gay friend Clyde Tolson.  We see his dominating mother and her influence on his life.

Criticism

This is directed by Clint Eastwood who as a conservative Republican can’t be expected to be overly critical of that reactionary monster and he isn’t.  The  criticisms tend to be ineluctable because they are too obvious: Hoover was corrupted by absolute power which undermined the very ideals he claimed to be defending.  So that in the name of individual liberty he used blackmail, wire tapping, and other manic bureaucratic surveillance techniques, what a cosmic irony!  Eastwood’s film wants us to believe Hoover was a decent geek whose control freakery was at first the lovable quirk of an overly mother dominated young man.  He was determined to hunt down all perceived opponents of his conservative America, suffocating intellectual dissent in the process.  We are given hints of the Howard Hughes school of sociopathy by his loonily controlling mother, it’s a wonder he survives it (though he did put on her dress).  He seems to have lived in an antiseptic chamber of effete spite (bodily contact not welcome).  Eastwood’s criticism is gentle (eerily so), we learn that Hoover did not personally arrest gangsters, as if we believed otherwise!  His rule was unaccountable and his self righteous paranoia factored into a red neck witch hunting mentality.  Others were sacrificed to enhance his career: was there conclusive proof about Hauptmann’s guilt?  He nearly destroyed Martin Luther King by slander.  Anyone who crossed him he could threaten with impunity.  Leonardo di Caprio tries to convey understanding for his despicable actions but he only succeeds in making Hoover look pathetically deluded and isolated.

The use of prosthetics has been remarked on, how it makes the actors look in old age like plaster mummies.  It seems the technology of prosthetics in cinema is still not properly developed, the actors do look like they’ve been in a flour fight.  At times the film looks like a camcorder’s spying on a prosthetics party: very weird.  Prosthetics of course are not meant to be flattering if it shows older age (but it should convey natural aging), but the crudity of this art cannot do this.  Naomi Watts as Helen Candy looks frumpy, maybe she should sue Eastwood.  Armie Hammer plays Clyde Tolson, his initial demurrals against Hoover’s criminality succumb to his control.  The film says that Tolson’s gayness was not reciprocated, so it derives interest from a controversial relationship whilst keeping Hoover free of what makes it interesting.  One’s sympathy for Armie Hammer or Tolson is killed early on since they were willing cronies and only seemed to have eleventh hour attacks of conscience.  They were morally compromised drudges.

The film tries to take too much on.  It has to cover a career from the twenties to 1972, we see nothing of the ’40s and ’50s.  Hoover’s career should have been covered by two or three films.  The only satisfactory voice in the film is that of fellow rogue Richard Nixon who dismisses Hoover as a creep.  Like The Iron Lady it’s told in flashbacks about an unlovable right wing figure.

Biopics

This gets me onto the two biopics.  The Iron Lady and J. Edgar and their flashbacks through the prosthetics department.  We seem to be witnessing the cosy domestication of right wing thugs and since we’ve been suffering right wing political thuggery since the 1980’s, I suppose it’s hardly surprising.  Why not make a cosy biopic about Al Capone?  We could see him in old age (we can slap on a lot of white make up even though he was only 47 when he died), and he can tell his lovable story in flashbacks.  Forget the misunderstandings about the occasional killing, after all he was a misunderstood family man and a well meaning businessman.  Don’t pay any attention to that nasty Eliot Ness who was only envious anyway.  We could get Robert de Niro to bring a tear to our eyes as he plays good old Al singing Italian ballads.

 
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Posted by on January 28, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Brighton Rock

Brighton Rock posterSynopsis

From the Graham Greene novel about a gangster called ‘Pinkie’ Brown who murders another gangster who was photographed with a potential witness, Andrea Riseborough as Rose.  In order to neutralize her as a witness threat, he marries her (wives couldn’t testify against husbands if they didn’t want to; it was not legally permitted until recently).  There is a rival gangboss Collioni who nearly has Pinkie killed .  Pinkie murders Spicer, the titular head of Pinkie’s gang, thrusting a stick of rock in his mouth.  Pinkie is pursued by Helen Mirren who has gangsterish pals and there is John Hurt as a rival businessman to Pinkie’s gang.  This Rowan Joffe  film is set in 1964 Brighton, the era of Mods and Rockers.  The gangsters do their worst while the police are distracted dealing with the rioters.  We see Pinkie among the Mods, he and Rose are both Catholics.

Criticism

The first Brighton Rock film was made by the Boulting Brothers in 1947 from Greene’s 1938 novel.  Richard Attenborough’s snarling baby face was a lot more menacing than Sam Riley’s.  Riley looks like a composite of David Gilman and Leonardo di Caprio, when he’s angry he looks like a choirboy with haemorrhoids.  This story is of course about a Catholic gangster and his Catholic girlfriend and Greene reminds us of his faith:  he can suss Rose’s Catholicism, Pinkie prays before he thinks he’s about to be killed, the secular wedding means they both commit ‘mortal sin’, he thinks atheists have got things wrong, there is a hell.  I haven’t read the novel yet so I don’t how Greene deals with it there but in this film it’s contrived and forced, it looks too much like they’re toying with it.  Pinkie murders and knows he has committed ‘mortal sin’ but leaves it at that.  Where are the agonies of guilt, a tortured conscience?   Rose goes to church and prays to the mother of God, so we get the conventionally exotic token of catholicism, but the film fails to make it interweave with their everyday lives possibly because I suspect it doesn’t understand Catholic psychology of half a century ago.

Furthermore Joffe’s movie succumbs to the Life on Mars syndrome.  This is the habit of films these days to make the mid 20th century look so tacky it’s almost Dickensian.  Admittedly, Brighton in 1964 was not exotic but there was some affluence.  In this movie, just looking at the damp, fungus smelly interiors is enough to give anyone tuberculosis.   Perhaps this is in dark contrast to it’s mirror image opposite: the Postman Pat fantasy world of Richard Curtis.  This version of Brighton looks moth eaten and seedy, a spiv’s paradise of flyblown cakes and cheap tobacco.  There is the usual desperate clinging on to lower middle class respectability that makes me think of the novel Chesil Beach.  Philip Larkin wrote poems about Britain trying to enjoy itself at fairs at the seaside and it’s a ‘Punch and Judy’ hell of frowstiness.  The film cleverly makes the seafront at Brighton look like a setting for a funfair horror.  Britain was just about to discover affluence and was confused by the alarming economic power of the young, but that does not come across in Joffre’s film.  Pinkie and Rose are in a sort of fake Catholic preserve and the Mods and Rockers seem to bounce off its  hermetically sealed bell jar.  Mirren and Hurt play the types that in Ealing films were played by Googie Withers, Jean Kent and Donald Sinden, all sleazily getting their style through osmosis with cheap gangsters, all taken with a gin and tonic of course.  Most of the characters in this film talk in would-be portentous Chuck Norris tones, and it does get to sound like a parody of London urchin’s guvnor and “mind the dusty aspidistras, me old cock sparrer”.

That this is set in 1964 is not just about Mods and Rockers, it was the last year in which capital punishment was still a grim threat to anyone getting into murder.  The last hanging was in August 1964, so that menace should give an edge to this story.  It just about manages that.  Pinkie is afraid of this even though he is all bravado to the police.

As for Pinkie being pure evil (as Terry Eagleton suggested) he may have been the usual ontological lack in the novel but here he just looks like a crook who might be capable of redemption.  He records his voice for Rose, starting with “I should say I love you” but then goes on to say something vicious.  Rose plays the record but the needle sticks at “I love you” so she misses the rest and this is an eloquent comment on how this could have been a better film.

 
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Posted by on June 3, 2011 in Film Reviews, Out on DVD

 

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Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom poster

Synopsis

Set in Melbourne in the 1980’s, it starts off with teenage Josh watching TV, his mother is dead next to him, dead from a heroin overdose.  He then gets involved with his relatives, a bunch of criminals who specialise in bank robberies.  Their house is under surveillance by police.  This criminal family, the Codys, are ruled over by matriarch  Jackie Weaver, a diminutive blonde.  Two of the Codys are shot by the police, one of them wanted to go straight and get into the stock market.  One member of the family is a lawyer and helps out legally, but of course does not help the police with their enquiries.  One of the Codys was shot in his car, the other does a runner in Ned Kelly country.  Ben Mendelsohn plays Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody who is a really vicious criminal.  He hotshots Josh’s girlfriend, thinking she might betray them to the police.  He goes to jail but Jackie Weaver gets him out.  He gets away with that murder after killing a couple of cops.  Josh meets up with policeman Guy Pearce who plays a humane cop called Leekie.  Josh is put under witness protection but Jackie Weaver’s family get away with the murders.  Using vigilante justice, Josh kills ‘Pope’ Cody.

Review

The critics have lined up to praise this unremarkable film.  They’ve strained at the ‘animal kingdom’ metaphor, but these criminals are an insult to animals, they are mundane thugs.  Pope Cody just looks bovine, so maybe that’s an apt epithet that might justify the title.  This is just another sordid little film that pays inexplicably close attention to these morally witless wastes of time.  It’s supposed to be a close and original look at criminals, but it looked to me more like a documentary about weirdly dysfunctional people set in  Neighbours houses.  These priceless louts spend all day snorting coke and undermining each other’s sanity.  The only faintly interesting Cody gets killed, aware of a different way of life.  Houses always look immaculate, nobody seems to attend to the ordinary details of life.

Josh is a thoroughly unsympathetic person, not just the usual surly adolescent, but seems almost catatonically stupid, the sort of automaton who could walk through world war without blinking.  At least Tarantino’s  goons have a sense of humour, this guy hasn’t any claim on our attention   His girlfriend is a bit sympathetic and she introduces him to her parents who are weak and well meaning, still, visiting a couple of psychopaths  jacking up on heroin is not the smartest move she ever made.  The matriarch reminds me of the blonde matriarch in The Fighter, and of course she’s like Barbara Windsor being the mother of the Kray twins, a character familiar to the point of comedy  She is clever and manipulative but as far as competition goes she is like a pike in a pond of minnows.  She threatens effectively using police contacts but she can be as mindlessly sociopathic as the rest.  The one sympathetic character is the policeman Leekie.  He talks about the shortness of bugs’ lives in a much longer lived forest, and this ponderous metaphor is presumably meant to justify the film’s title.  He tries to win Josh round to the better part of himself, which for me was invisible at the start of the film, his  sympathy seems lost on Josh.  We know Leekie is solid and decent because he is a family man, cinema’s ultimate badge of approval.  We know he’s got the soul of a social worker.  He’s probably as baffled as the rest of us as to know how criminals can enjoy  their egregious ways of earning a living.

For seventy or eighty years we’ve had the often unedifying spectacle of cinema’s loving fascination with dangerous criminals, it’s vicarious thrills and erotic voyeurism can’t explain the whole of it.  A much better job was done by Sydney Lumet’s Before the Devil knows You’re Dead, which expertly shared the awful claustrophobia of a criminal life.  It shared how people get into a horrifying situation, so there is a human tragedy behind the crime, while Animal Kingdom wallows in crime as such and doesn’t bother to enquire into the circumstances that made people criminals.  This overrated tosh comes  nowhere near Lumet’s film.  People didn’t have small mobile phones in the 1980’s, did they?  They did in this film.

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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