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Young Adult

Young Adult posterSynopsis

This film, produced by Juno director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, stars Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary who was a prom queen at her school in Mercury, Minnesota.  Twenty years on she is a writer of children’s books.  She is a divorcee, an alcoholic, and she pulls hair out of her head.  She meets up with a former student, Matt Freehauf played by Patton Oswalt, who’d been beaten up on the mistaken assumption that he was gay.  He is the plump nerd who worships the prom queen.  Theron’s scheme is to win back her former boyfriend Buddy, played by Patrick Wilson.  He is happily married and has a child.  Theron causes embarrassment at the christening…

Criticism

This is about the potentially hazardous business of the nostalgic return to earlier life.  Theron is dissatisfied with her situation and she wants a triumph, to snatch her ex-boyfriend from his wife.  She is so confident of her ability to do that, one is persuaded that arrogance and vanity are beside the point, it’s something that has to happen.  Theron’s cheekbones don’t seem that high, so it’s the nose and eyes, right?  She treats (plump nerd) with polite disdain, then a sort of friendliness as she learns what happened to him.  This film spurns the chance to be a direct comedy of manners, it lacks wit and perception.  Theron should be the charismatic gang leader and trend setter who everybody wants to be with, the sort of superbitch whose jokes everyone laughs at, and whose cruelty everyone wants to preen themselves on her reflected glory, but here she’s a psychological accident zone and ends up looking petulantly sad.  Apart from the amiable Patrick Wilson, you wouldn’t want to spend too much time with any of these people, they are stuck in a provincial rut and don’t care to leave it.  Minneapolis is the big city they dream of.

When a person returns to their alma mater, what can happen is either embarrassment, revenge, expiation, or appeasement.  Ironically, the embarrassment comes from the ex-prom queen but the characters whose lives are mundane, see no reason to apologise for anything.  Revenge is a non starter since no-one has done her any harm.  Expiation is not in order, though Theron should apologise for her behaviour.  Appeasement is unnecessary since there are no outstanding concerns.  Theron presumably blames Wilson for not guaranteeing her present happiness, but was he expected to wait?  There don’t seem to be any Sliding Door moments in this film, no painful entering into a fateful decision.  It’s all well enough acted but there’s the feeling of a missed opportunity.

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Posted by on February 22, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Hugo

Hugo posterSynopsis

Set in Paris in 1931, it’s about a boy living a reclusive life in the Parisian railway station, a bit like Quasimodo living such a life in Notre Dame.  He plays a battle of wits with the station inspector played by Sacha Baron Cohen.  Hugo keeps a mechanical man, and the blueprint for it interests Ben Kingsley, a shop owner who is interested in its design.  He is befriending a girl who reads adventure books.  It turns out that Ben Kingsley used to be involved in the origins of cinema in 1895.  Hugo learns of this.  There are a few life stories in the railway station which may have happy endings: Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour might get together.  Sacha Baron Cohen might get together with the flower seller.

Criticism

Martin Scorsese’s tribute to cinema and it’s indebtedness to its origins in the Lumiere shows of 1895.  We’ve all seen the rocket flying into the eye of the moon.  Scorsese brings his documentary thoroughness to the story of early film.  The film’s tribute to film is illustrated by the little stories in the railway station: the orphan defying pompous authority, the kindly book-lending father figure (played by Christopher Lee), the Keystone cop figure, the friendship over a dog that can lead to marriage, the pompous policeman’s salvation through a flower seller.  These are the conventional plots of early silent movies.  The mythology of early Hollywood is enhanced by this because it shows ‘ordinary’ people overcoming adversity in a somewhat unreal setting yet at the same time that mythology is grounded in a more recognizable everyday reality.  Scorsese sets it up as close to a possible reality and has no need for melodrama to accentuate the sentimentality.

This is a charming fairy story where special effects are used to greatest effect in the palatial machinery of the railway station, the Gare du Nord with a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory makeover.  The streets of Paris in the snow look like an arty Christmas card.  I expected a sort of mechanical man take over of the Eiffel Tower where the boy could prance about like Quasimodo but that didn’t happen.  The mechanical man, who looks like the colossus in Metropolis, briefly comes to life to write about early cinema but Scorsese resists the temptation to have it take over the film as a sort of metal Pinnochio.  The mechanical man is like a futurist trophy, a promise of the technological possibilities of the 20th century with a hint of Faustian menace if misused.  Scorese tells us in this film that the First World War frustrated the development of Lumiere cinema, which was then inherited by Hollywood, and so this is Hollywood’s belated tribute.

Sacha Baron Cohen uses Pink Pantherish french, but he wisely doesn’t overdo it, he is a war hero having survived the trenches.  He is capable of redemption at the end.  Scorsese wants even the most unsympathetic figure to be capable of salvation and he wants to promote the power of cinema.  A superb fairy story.

 
 

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Kes

Kes posterSynopsis

About a northern lad in a poverty- ridden mining area of Barnsley.  He befriends a kestrel and he has problems at home and at school.  The film was made in 1969.

Criticism

This is Ken Loach and his thing about the ‘working class’.  I remember when this film came out, all the trendies in London loved it.  Of course they would, since it showed a quaint world of picturesque poverty and simple people in the cinematic equivalent of a Lowry painting.  The sixties were infatuated with kitchen sink dramas in their Wednesday plays and so forth.  I love that Monty Python sketch where there is a comical inversion of class roles:  the worker is a successful writer complaining about writer’s cramp and the posh lad is a miner enthusing about coal shovels.  Ken Loach and his leather jacketed squad must have been similarly comically out of place among the ‘real’ people of Barnsley.  Well intentioned it may be, but it cannot avoid being patronizing.  If you can cut these concerns out, then the film is quite poetic.  The boy’s relationship with the kestrel is like T.H. White meeting Ted Hughes in a lost world of rough and self sufficient kids.  The kestrel is a superbly lyrical presence as it soars over the dreary hard world of working class Yorkshire.  I’m sad at the passing of this toughness, although of course in most respects life has got better so there’s no need to be a Monty Python Yorkshireman bragging about the good old days.  The schoolteachers are the insecure cynics beloved of Pink Floyd parody in The Wall.  The observation of school life is funny and cruel, but I felt that the cruelty often wins out at the expense of the humour that’s supposed to balance it out.  Colin Welland is the wise mentor of the boy Billy Casper.  As a teacher you feel that Welland is a disappointed socialist, keen to eke out some potential from his pupils before they end up in an office or a factory.  Casper has story telling ability but this will never be realized as he lives with his thuggish brother.  Casper is routinely bullied so his only outlet is with nature.  For the trendies it must have been like watching some exotic Amazonian tribe, anthropological condescension appears to be an ineluctable aspect of such films.  This reminds me of another Monty Python sketch where a film crew desperately seek out social problems so they can make a documentary, only to find that no-one has any interesting life stories to tell of victimization.

Well meaning, but interesting more as an historical documentary that tell us something about the art of hawking.

 

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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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