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Tree of Life

Tree of Life posterSynopsis

Set in Waco Texas in the 1950s.  It starts out with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain learning about the death of their son.  We go forward to Sean Penn thinking about his past.  He is an architect adrift in the steel and glass of the 21st century.  We then hear about grace and nature from the mother.  We learn about lessons in spiritual disinterest from the Book of Job.  We get voice-overs talking in prayer or poetry.  Then we see shots of the origins of the universe.  A dinosaur puts its foot on a sick dinosaur’s neck and then releases its foot.  Then we see domestic life:  Brad Pitt, the strict patriarch bullying his two sons.  They go to church, we see Pitt at work.  We see a man having a fit, people are arrested by the police. Pitt goes abroad and the two boys play and enjoy freedom.  Pitt then loses his job. and acquires some wisdom in life.  Then we get to see Sean Penn wandering on a beach with lots of people, his younger self and family, set to religious music.

Criticism

THe special effects of this film are by Douglas Trumbull who did the effects for 2001 and there have been comparisons between Mallick’s film and Kubrick’s.  At this point it’s interesting to compare the two film makers who have achieved cult status.  If you are a film director who wants to achieve  this status, you make a film once every few years (in Mallick’s case it’s five films in nearly forty years).  You become an eccentric recluse, you don’t give interviews but you deliver the odd aphorism or oracular statement.  You only talk to favoured journalists and critics.  You cover your film in secrecy and your perfectionism is legendary.  You always go way beyond your budget because your film is years in the making.  Your tantrums are famous and every big name actor wants to work with you.  Kubrick and Mallick share these lovable traits.  Because they both use Douglas Trumbull on the cosmic imagery in 2001 and Tree of Life, one can compare the two.  2001 has been called an algebra of metaphors, it’s all quite coherent but in Tree of Life the symbolism doesn’t work, it lacks poetic progression and consistency.  We get a juxtaposition of cosmic scenes, sea life and volcanoes.  Then we get hand held camera close ups of this Waco Texas family sometimes living the American Dream:  all dreamy soft peaks into the bliss of Christian family life until the tyrannical patriarch ruins it all by providing the film with its concession to mere drama.  It’s as if David Attenborough’s Life on Earth footages are mixed up with suburban camcorder scenes.  Where is the tree of life?  They plant a small tree and that’s all.  I expected some sort of thematic development around a biological or symbolic tree but it didn’t turn up.  At the end of the film we get the embarrassing kitsch of Sean Penn strolling around a beach with lots of extras who look like they’ve strolled out of a Mormon service.  These images of nature and religious mysticism  look like commercials for insurance or cars.  People have satisfied looks on their faces as they reach out to one another.  The voice overs seem to be poetic but sound like pretentious whisperings from some failed pop music lyricist.

The characters are ‘American Dream’ stalwarts and on that count are highly suspect.   Brad Pitt may play a brute but he’s supposed to be fundamentally decent because he’s a hardworking Christian.  Interestingly, his hokey piety does not prevent him from being very cynical about his fellow human beings.  The mother is by contrast a gentle soul who looks like an Anglo-Saxon Madonna.  We see her giving water to convicts later floating round a tree for Pete’s sake.  Sean Penn as Pitt’s grown up son is exiled in the steel and glass Babylon of corporate worldliness and wants us to know we took the wrong turning from the Edenic bliss of innocent family life.  He looks like a tapir with haemorrhoids and at the end of the film.  I hoped he’d walk into the sea and not come back.  The kids are casting from the Bible, one’s a goody and the other is like dad.  Mallick knew he had to have drama so he took the easy option of dad being the domestic tyrant.

Mallick is a Christian and his view of nature seems interestingly ambivalent.  He does not share the gnostic view that nature is evil but he does think it is implacably cruel and we must show our humanity by rising above its’ assaults  There are moments of mercy:  the dinosaur, withdrawing its foot from the neck of a wounded dinosaur, the fiery cosmic forces that become grasses and flowers, and sea life but it’s sentimentalized as well.  As in Badlands and the Thin Red Line we get syrupy music celebrating National Geographic prettiness.

After seeing this film a couple of times I’ve come to regard it as a self indulgent celebration of literal mindedness.  We know nature is immense and beautiful, and life is mysterious, but Mallick takes a whole film and a lot of preachy nonsense to tell us so.  Full marks for attempting things that most film makers might not dare to do, but it still fails.  Its visionary ambitions are undermined by folksy Sunday school triteness, so I can understand those French audiences laughing at this and walking out of the film.  I weakened at moments as I hoped I would be watching a masterpiece, but really it’s all pants.

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Posted by on July 28, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Made in Dagenham

Made in Dagenham posterSynopsis

About the 1968 strike at the Ford factory in Dagenham by women machinists who are declared unskilled labour.  They eventually fight for equal pay with men and they are led by the initially reluctant Sally Hawkins when Geraldine James steps down and accepts her as spokesperson.  The foreman is Bob Hoskins who is sympathetic to the women’s cause because he had to live on his mother’s wages and life was very hard.  They take their dispute to the management and the Michigan bosses find out about the strike and want it stopped.  Hawkins has trouble with her male chauvinist husband as well as with male chauvinist trade unionists and communist party bosses.  Geraldine James’ husband kills himself and this motivates James to join the striking women who make an impression at the TUC. conference, and then meet Barbara Castle who has to deal with American bosses and Harold Wilson.  In the end the women win and the Equal Pay Act comes out in 1970.

Criticism

Watching this film aroused curiosity, nostalgia and embarrassment for me.  Curiosity because this is yet another film dealing with recent history and it shows the same faults as other films with similar ambitions.  It’s as if this takes its cue from soap operas of the time, turning characters into broadbrush caricatures.  Trade unionists and women act like TV- depicted so called ‘ordinary people’.  It’s almost a humorous soap opera parody of working life and betrays the same fascinated misperception that middle class Marxists were hampered with at the time.  We only see working people at moments which reassuringly illustrate their ordinariness: concern with money, sexuality, relationship with bosses and other workers as if there is no life beyond these cosy predictabilities.  We are in Mike Leigh country here, I half expected Timothy Spall or Jim Broadbent to come on, playing sturdy avuncular  figures.  It would have been better to have Ken Loach directing this, though I only have a little more time for Loach than I do for Leigh.  I think they have both made a career out of turning working people into noble savages.  Showbiz perceptions of working people and work at the time came from Coronation Street and Miriam Karlin in a comedy called The Rag Trade.  I worked in a couple of factories just after this 1968 strike and they were nastier places than this film shows.   In Made In Dagenham the factory floor is a sort of performance art industrial theatre where personalities clash in a vaudeville stunt, whereas in reality factories were monotonous.

Sally Hawkins plays a cockney sparrer, a bit like Poppy in Happy Go Lucky.  We see an early example of her bravery when she confronts the maths master who’s into corporal punishment (weren’t they all happy to cane pupils then?  Mine was).  Anyway her inarticulate decency hyperventilates like Billy Budd faced with Claggarts’ vileness.  Then she is the feminist hero confounding the chauvinist insecurities of her boring husband.  She gradually acquires articulate self confidence but it’s all done in a sort of moralistic heartwarming way, beloved of Hollywood.  It’s interesting that striking trade unionists can now be regarded as heroes.  Imagine trying to make such a film in the heyday of the strikes in the late 70s.  Of course, it’s now at a safe distance and we can all shed hypercritical tears for what’s quaint.  Hawkins gains that sentimental male approval beloved of patriarchs with a conscience, and I squirmed.  Rosemund Pike plays the Cambridge educated wife of one of the Ford managers and she develops covert sisterly sympathies with Hawkins.  It’s fascinating to see her suffering the patronizing imbecilities of her husband and it does concentrate the mind on how recent and still prevalent male stupidity was and is.  The problem is that this is all done in a jarringly moralistic way, it’s almost Dickension in its simple sentimentality.  Twenty first century audiences swallow this anodyne morality play and it amazes me.  Then there’s the jarring note of Geraldine James turning up with the strikers after she had pulled out because of her marital miseries with her mentally unwell husband.  It reminds me of the Comic Strip comedy team who did a Hollywood spoof on the miners’ strike.

Bob Hoskins did his usual rent-a-working-class stereotype, he’s been doing it since playing a Cockney soldier in Zulu Dawn.  Hoskins is likeable but too ready with the timely noble sentiment.  He is the cow eyed stalwart shedding a tear at the triumph of the just.

To remind us we are in the 60s we get the usual soundtrack of hits, and of course TV must be in black and white like in Life on Mars.  This film succumbs to the dramatic requirements which insist on cartoonish simplicity.  Miranda Richardson plays Barbara Castle, gets her feistiness quite well.  John Sessions is good as the wearily pragmatic politician who had to keep the Americans happy, he plays Harold Wilson.  Did the women strikers see themselves as pioneering feminists?  The film certainly says so:  Hawkins puts her partner right about his claims to saintliness based on surrendering his lordly rights.

Where are the Marxists, the factory gate paper sellers and agitators?  They’ve been edited out, they’d get in the way of the feel good factor, wouldn’t they?  There is nothing about the wider political context.  The women are wheeled onto the public arena like Pocohontas paraded at the court of King James and the film seems happy with that trivialization..

This movie arouses nostalgia because it exposes, without meaning to, the cruel limitations of trade unionists.  There was no vision beyond a decent striving for any better life than the capitalists would grant.  Not really true to life then but occasionally entertaining and the acting is good.

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Posted by on July 10, 2011 in Film Reviews, Out on DVD

 

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Potiche

Potiche posterSynopsis

Set in 1977 in France, directed by Francoise Ozon.  It’s about the owner of an umbrella factory, Fabrice Luchini playing Robert Pujoi.  His wife is the potiche of the title, a trophy wife played by Catherine Demeuve as Suzanne Pujoi.  They have an idealistic student son played by Jeremie Renier and a daughter played by Judith Godreche.  Robert Pujoi is a tyrannical boss, when he falls ill it gives a chance for the rest of the family to run the factory.  Suzanne contacts an old flame Babin (played by Gerard Depardieu) because there is a strike at the umbrella factory.  Babin is the communist trade union boss and Suzanne feels she can do business with him.  She turns out to be quite successful and Robert Pujoi must fight to get back his ownership of the factory (with the help of daughter and shareholders).  Suzanne then competes with Babin to be mayor of this town in northern France, she wins, and it’s a victory for women.  The trophy wife had had a few lovers and was quite freewheeling and her husband did not know about this.

Criticism

This is of course another chance to tour the 1970s and its retro wallpaper, bad hair and tight clothes.  It seems like a sort of French answer to Made in Dagenham, yet another chance to show an era that’s recently gone, but is in some ways pretty remote.  Like the English film, it’s about characters dealing with an industrial dispute, though it’s more lighthearted than Dagenham.  It does remind you though that in the supposedly liberated era of the late 20th century, French women had, and have, some battles to fight.  Witness the shinanigans in the French government and the sexism that’s still rampant.  Deneuve herself plays a bored wife (we’ve had a great many since Madame Bovary), who realizes ker own talent in the boardroom.  She takes on the primitive sexism of her husband, and then the sentimental self pitying sexism of Banin who once had an affair with her, he thinks her son is his, then is told he might not be.  The movie seems to be saying that, whatever the political posturing of the men, they are all sexist and Suzanne has got the measure of them.  When Babin gets jealous, Suzanne puts him in his place by telling him that he has had his share and should be grateful for that.  Strong independent women existed before Carla Bruni, Sarkozy is only the latest in a world of comical husbands.  Robert Pujoi is a cross between Basil Fawlty and Sarkozy.  He throws tantrums when he’s been crossed and when Suzanne asks for a divorce he becomes a self pitying wreck.  He has been cuckolded by Suzanne and is no match for her self belief.

Suzanne takes on Babin and beats him in the election and this could be the start of a new era of feminist self assertion.  The umbrella factory is a reference to the musical of 1964 called Les Parapluies de Cherbourg which starred Deneuve.  The musical was all singing and no speech, Deneuve revives the spirit of that musical in her election victory.

The politics of workers’ strikes was to come to an end by the 80s.  Margaret Thatcher triumphed over Scargill and the miners.  The limitations of labourism are as obvious here as in Made in Dagenham.  Trade union disputes wanted better treatment and better pay from capitalists, that should not be confused with socialism.  When capitalism changed in the 80s, labourism went into decline.  This movie sharply observes the era of the 70s:  the male trade union negotiators in their leather jackets and walrus moustaches.  Where were the women?  The communist mayor became a familiar and avuncular part of French provincial  life and there was nothing threatening about it, indeed it became quite homely

The light hearted soap opera feel about this film recalls the Brian Rix farces in the theatre ( this actor was famous for losing his trousers in the comedies he acted in).  The details of 70s domestic life also reminded me of Mike Leigh’s Abigails’ Party a play about the horrors of the new affluent vulgarity.  Deneuve lives in a horrifyingly well ordered and affluent house.  The son goes through the routines of idealistic rebellion and later you think he’s a bit camp and maybe he’s got a gay friend, but the film draws back from this.  The daughter is an Abba clone who is status seeking.  The household also reminds me of Fawlty Towers, the male boss is a figure of fun and the women are the real brains.

This is a witty and enjoyable film and its’ characters are just about savvy enough to avoid being completely embarrassing.  Naturally, the silly husband treats his secretary as his plaything and she gets feminist revenge on him.  The one curious lack in this is that all the people are Caucasian, there are no Algerians, Vietnamese, or black Africans.

 
 

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Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids posterSynopsis

Co-written by Kristen Wiig as Annie, it’s about her preparations for her mate, Lillian’s, wedding.  Lillian is played by Maya Rudulph.  Annie had a cake business which went bust.  She has friends with whom she plays the bridesmaid:  with rich Helen (Rose Byrne) another friend, with her obnoxious boys, another is gentle, and another is the wisecracking Rita (Wendi Mclardon Covey).  Rita looks disconcertingly like an overweight Ricky Gervais.  Annie has a boyfriend (Jon Hamm) with whom she has a jokey relationship.  Then she meets an Irish cop (Chris O’Dowd ) who is the usual nice guy who seems to promise deliverance.  The bridesmaid friends eat in a Brazilian restaurant and get food poisoning so they end up dumping anywhere in the bathroom of a posh bridal shop.  Lillian does her toilet in the street,  she is wearing a big wedding dress.  Annie bitches about the rituals and gets at Helen’s poshness.  Annie gets stoned on a plane and then she’s kicked off it.  The wedding turns out well after Maya’s misgivings.

Criticism

I laughed quite a bit at this film which is funnier than both Hangover films but I have doubts.  It’s a woman’s picture and it’s all about the supposed miseries of being left on the shelf and I”m uneasy with that.  Annie can get whoever she wants yet she’s prone to self pity so that your sympathies for her bridesmaid status are not activated.  She alienates the Irish cop who sleeps with her, by berating him for seemingly taking her for granted.  She can pick and choose.  She’s cynical about men yet wants conventional wedded bliss.  She expresses this cynicism in her job in a jeweller’s shop, she deliberately alienates prospective customers telling them that lasting friendships are illusory anyway, unsurprisingly she gets the sack.  She’s kicked out of her flat (Matt Lucas is the smarmy landlord) and goes to mother who watches Tom Hank films.  At a posh engagement reception (naturally organised by posh Helen) she competes in unctuousness with Helen as they keep grabbing the microphone from each other, Lillian is embarrassed.  At another reception Annie goes berserk at the affluent bad taste on show, letting out all her bitterness at life..

This film may be about empowered women in which men (except for the Irish Cop) have only peripheral roles but it’s really a mainstream rom-com, more conventional than it cares to admit.  The old assumptions about marriage are never challenged.  We get the same celebratory bad taste about marriage that we always get in Hollywood films.  I can remember from the 1970s that a white wedding was considered kitsch and out of date.  Germaine Greer alluded to this in The Female Eunuch. Then came the 1990s and Four Weddings and a Funeral and ever since we’ve had the cliche of the bride in white either running down a street, or being late, or thumping somebody.  Here the bride toilets in the street, is this supposed to be liberating?  Weddings have been the big deal in Hollywood, obvious rituals of status success and money.  We never see poorer people getting married, do we?  Marriages’ impossibly romantic expectations never seem to be questioned, so being a mere bridesmaid is quite naff.  The film celebrates a kitschy wedding at the end and this makes it quite conservative and more of a rom-com, though  admittedly with more than average caustic wit.

The film is also pretty mainstream in the way the overweight Rita is made to get Annie out of her self pity.  Why Rita?  Doesn’t this underline the snobby vanity of Annie and the other (thinner) women?  Furthermore, Annie’s relationship with the cop is predictable, he’s the nice guy so you know he will get her in the end, and we can all feel good about it.  Still, there’s a good comedy scene where Annie and Helen try to get the cop’s attention, so they go through cartoonish routines of traffic offences, which he ignores.  Annie’s rancourous envy is undermined by the self parody of her tantrums.  It looks as if she wants to be that paragon of conservatism, the happy marriage partner.  Each of the bridesmaids seems to be a fully rounded character and yet they have unthreateningly conventional quirks:  rich bitch, sweet, cynical, earth mother with advice.  Sometimes amusing but conventional.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Submarine

Submarine posterSynopsis

A film about an unprepossessing adolescent set in the 1980s in Swansea, directed by Richard Ayoade, from a novel by Joe Dunthorne.  Ben Stiller is involved in it.  It stars Craig Roberts and Oliver Tait, a sharp witted and observant schoolboy (we are given to understand).  He bullies a slightly corpulent girl in order to win over Jordana (Yasmin Paige) who wears a red duffel coat.  She seems to dominate Oliver.  His parents are played by Noah Taylor, who is a marine biologist, and Sally Hawkins, who works in an office.  She is getting bored with hubby and has designs on Paddy Considine who plays a leather clad, would-be mystic .  Oliver has fantasies, he imagines the public grief at his demise.  He poses as a philosopher.  He plays host to Jordana, using boxed wine and prawns and then a candle lit bedroom.  Jordana’s mother has cancer and Jordana rejects Oliver for not visiting her mother in hospital.  In order to get her over her grief for her mother, he tries to poison her dog, thinking that such an action will get her used to grief.

Criticism

This is quite funny for the first half, though you might find your laughter getting self consciously thin.  It’s a coming of age film and I think it’s apposite to list the cliches of this kind of film.  The Graduate has a lot to answer for.

a) The lead character is usually an unprepossessing sulky young man or woman but has one or two supposedly cool confederates.

b) The lead character is usually sexually inept but keeps girlfriend anyway.  If a girl, she is bright and scares boys off.

c)The lead usually makes a great fuss about learning things the rest of us take in our stride.

d) The lead usually has hippy liberal parents into sexual liberation.  They always try to  keep up with fashionable ideas and of course they are shamefully uncool.

e) The parents are usually played by actors like Stan Tucci or Noah Taylor.  Dad is usually a sexual failure and figure of fun.

f) The hero’s house is always clean and his/her parents never seem to work.

g) Freeze frame with titles indicate some moments of comic insight.

h) The voice-over threads relentlessly through the film. There is a tone of.disparagement of teachers and pupils, usually such comments focus on physical quirks or personality deficiencies.

i) Just to get some intellectual credibility, the lead must either read or name drop Friedrich Nietzsche, compulsory for adolescents..

j) So the star has to be a nerdy existentialist.

k) There is posturing with flattering fantasised self image, like Billy Liar.

l) There is some obligatorily silly friend or family relation of the nerdy hero.  They are usually some self deluded uncle or old flame who is so uncool.

m) There is the inevitable heart to heart with Mum or Dad, usually in the bedroom.

n) Somebody manages to be ill or die and this is supposed to be a wake up call.

o) If it’s set in a particular decade there will be anachronisms.

p) There is usually a leitmotif (quirky of course) and this explains the title.

q) There always must be a highly obtrusive soundtrack of guitar twanged ballads of teen angst, usually superfluous to understanding the lead (should you want to).

r) The main characters are always middle class.  Submarine is guilty of a) b) c) e) f) g) h) i) j) k) l) m) n) o) p) q) r) s) t) u) and r).  Oh dear, all of them.

SThe funny bits cannot distract from the film’s obvious lack of originality.  Its precursors go from The Graduate and Here we go round the Mulberry Bush to Adrian Mole and Juno and The Scarlet A.  The last two are by far the best of the lot.  There is the same smug self regard sinking into suffocating  self absorption.  For all the intelligence of the lead in Submarine, he is slow to learn about himself – cliche (c).  Like similar characters, he might be a dark horse to his more alpha-male aspiring school colleagues, but he is often cowardly and snobbish, and of course he gets the girl in the end.  Jordana goes around in a vivid red duffel coat which is of course an uncool article of clothing.  We are meant to think of the midget in Don’t Look Now, she turns round and slashes Donald Sutherland with a knife.  In Submarine someone turns round to him but it is not Jordana.  The coat is visually stunning in a landscape of greys, browns and greens, it’s like a splash of scarlet paint over a grey canvas

There is fashionable amusement with the quirks of other decades.  Oliver invites Jordana to a meal and he has a box of wine on the table and I wonder if that’s more 70s than 80s.  Cliche (l) is embodied in Paddy Considine.  He plays a leather trousered would be mystic, all Allen Partridge insecurity and medallion man gormlessness.  His hairdo is a mullet, he drives a star spangled van straight out of a 1968 rock tour.

The parents responsible for the cliche offences d) e) f) g) m) are Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins.  Noah Taylor looks like the perfect wally dad.  He can be relied on to offer good natured platitudes to the son he is not supposed to understand.  Sally Hawkins has become the face of Mrs Englishwoman for all decades from the debutantes of the 1950s, to Dagenham housewife of the 60s,  to a 21st century manic  optimist.  If she’s not careful, she will be wheeled onto more films to provide comfort for right wing nostalgics.  She is our contemporary answer to Deborah Kerr, the professional Englishwoman.  No doubt Americans lap this sort of thing up.  They love to hear Limmies being clever and humorous, and these sort of glorified TV productions that have been turned into films tend to be well worked rungs up the Hollywood ladder. This would have been better as a shorter TV production.

Occasionally funny but very derivative.

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now posterSynopsis

Set in Vietnam in the late 60s.  Martin Sheen plays Willard sent on a mission to kill Kurtz (Marlon Brando), an American officer who has turned into a mad mass murderer in the jungle.  Willard is in a patrol boat with a surfer, a pilot, a young soldier, and a would be chef.  On the way they meet Robert Duvall directing gunships onto suspected Vietcong positions but it looks like a massacre of defenceless peasants.  They come onto a concert in the middle of the jungle and they murder Vietnamese on a trading boat, thinking they’ve got weaponry.  Willard reaches Kurtz and meets Dennis Hopper as a photographer who worships Kurtz.

Criticism

This is based on Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness set in the Congo looted by Belgian colonialists.  It has since become a cliche, the dark heart of colonialists in Africa.  Coppola transposes this into the US degradations in Vietnam.  In the 60s and 70s there were plenty of anti-war films and this seems to be anti-war but there are some interesting ambivalences.  Robert Duvall with his helicopter gunships looks like a clownish war criminal but the film lingers over these exploits and sails into a choreography of Wagner’s music and the insane delight in destruction and carnage.  There’s a creepy feeling that though the viewer of course must be repelled by this savagery, still there is some sort of mysticism here which goes beyond our cosy categories.  Why don’t we feel any reservations about violence in thrillers and westerns?

Martin Sheen plays Willard as a cynical commentator who appears to be corrupted by his work.  He is happy to murder a wounded Vietnamese woman and this act undermines his bragging rights in anti-war cynicism, he is surely a part of the militarist evil that he so casually despises.  Willard spends a lot of time speaking in tones of breathy portentousness, rolling his eyes sideways in unconvincing paranoid edginess.  This is supposed to be a dramatic response to the surrounding evil but Sheen’s acting looks like a substitute for real thought, we are meant to think the film engages with great issues of evil but I think it’s into a sort of Nazified chic.

Brando plays Kurt as a mumbling psycho presiding over his jungle killing fields.  He quotes from T.S. Eliot about the Hollow Men.  This is probably a reference to Conrad’s depiction of Kurtz as a human void lacking the psychic wholeness that would enable him to avoid evil.  This is the caricature of the Nietzschean ‘hero’ who is beyond Christian decadence, like Harry Lime in The Third Man.  Apocalypse Now is fascinated with the evil it should deplore.

Dennis Hopper plays that figure we have come to loath – the excitable guy who talks lots of hero worshipping blather, usually to someone who’s just come off a plane or a boat.  It’s the sort of hectic self promotion that allows no response or criticism.  They look like they’re off their heads.  Hopper does this in a film which is set in a killing field in Cambodia, the film was made in 1979.  The truth about Pol Pot’s killing fields was just being made known to the world.  There is a big debate about this but turning massive suffering into any kind of artistry is at best controversial.

The boat crew become increasingly demented, we’re meant to think they succumb to the horrors of war but they become automatons of killing.  Nothing is accountable in Apocalypse and this seems to include Coppola who opts out of judgements.  Willard tells us the would-be chef is not only too tightly wound up for Vietnam but for New Orleans, where he comes from.   There is a surfer who does a bit of surfing (to show the surreal theatricality of war I suppose) then gets into body painting, maybe he’s just read Lord of the Flies.

There is product placement which pioneered the visual stereotyping of Vietnam films:  the brandy, cigarettes, and the music by the Doors.  The film takes us from an Ernst Jung fascination for war (his book Storm Of Steel praised war) rather than All Quiet on the Western Front, and its protest against war, to a jungle-swarmed tourist kitsch depravity.

Visually impressive but some sort of accountable mentality is difficult to find in this film.  A sort of hip appreciation of war.  Probably went down well with backpackers in Bangkok and all places ‘exotic’.

 
 

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Oranges and Sunshine

Oranges and Sunshine posterSynopsis

Directed by Jim Loach about the deportations from Britain to Australia of 130,000 children, this only ended in 1970.  Emily Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, a social worker contacted by an Australian woman who had been one such deported child.  Humphreys assumes that if deported, the children must have been orphans but she learns the truth about single mothers not being allowed to keep their children.  Parents went searching for them but the children were sent to homes or exploited viciously by the Christian Brothers and others.  Humphreys must quit her job and work full time to uncover the shame of British and Australian governments.  In Australia she meets adults who were these abducted children and she soon realizes the emotional and bureaucratic magnitude of her task.  She befriends Len (David Wenham) who is initially hostile but then shows Humphreys the Bindom Christian Brothers Institution.  Humphreys did not want to get too emotionally involved but did so anyway, putting great strain on herself and her family.  Len and others contact their parents in the UK.

Criticism

This is the mixture of the Magdalena Laundries and Rabbit Proof Fence.  The former is about the savage treatment of girls in a convent run orphanage in Ireland and the latter is about forced adoption in early 20th century Australia.  The film is like a lid clattering on emotions about to explode.  The problem with these films is that often you don’t get the full picture so it can exploit and manipulate its selected truths, in this case some children probably got through the ordeal well.  Further more there may well have been a few genuinely well intentioned people involved in this but of course they are crowded out by the sad criminality that damaged lives.  Len is the emotionally hurt boy who got through adulthood without much damage.  He takes Humphreys to confront the priests who can only wilt under reproachful gazes, even the younger priests, who appear to be innocent of these crimes.

We still get the conventional cinematic gestures in this film.  Humphreys and Len win each other round after the usual suspicious sparring.  We get the life enhancing soundtrack, Cat Stevens on the car CD.  We get the hero’s long suffering family and her husband seems too patient to be true.  We avoid the family rows but Humphreys does get medical attention for stress.  Presumably ,Humphreys must have been consulted throughout the film but there are other too conventional moments.  We get embarrassed politicians and bureaucrats staring into their teacups, we get the heart-warming support from a bureaucrat complete with appropriate music what we could call a Richard Attenborough moment.,  Humphreys herself is very restrained, her face is a mask tautening under the strain of overwhelming emotion.  She perforce assumes a messianic role in the lives of these people which too easily translates into cinematic hokiness, though the film holds back from too much of that.  I had to fight the temptation to blubber as the film pays skilful homage to the gravity of the whole business.

There are other minor quibbles.  Humphreys is often too restrained, her social worker training enabled her to do this but it makes her look too detached on film.  No doubt when she was tracking down the Christian Brothers she was threatened but we have seen this often in cinema, as if the mere fact of being confronted or attacked is sufficient proof of the usefulness of the investigations.  Motives are unexamined but useful to raise the dramatic profile.  I was reminded often of the crusading tactics of Erin Brokovitch  which is one of the best of this kind of film.

This is a heartening film which rescues some victims from the obscenity of neglect of their sufferings.  Like his father Ken Loach, the director Jim Loach is concerned with the effect of social and political forces on the lives of those who must endure them. The showing of this is timely in a week when British crimes against Kenyan rebels in the 50s are being revealed.  One wonders how many more worm cans have yet to be opened.

The title Oranges and Sunshine refers to the promise made to the British kids that they would have plenty of sunshine and could eat oranges for breakfast when they get to Oz.  When are we going to get films showing the crime of the promotion of forced sterilization policies on the poor?  The ‘Who’s Who’ of socialist worthies were in favour of this in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

 

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