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The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything film posterSynopsis

About the cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his early life in Cambridge, and his marriage to Jane Wilde played by Felicity Jones.  He is struck down by motor-neurone disease and how the marriage copes with that.  Jane develops a friendship with a choirmaster and there is eventual separation in the Hawking marriage.  Hawking becomes world famous.

Review

The movie starts out as another stab of the mid 20th century heritage industry courtesy of the Cambridge middle classes: chaps in tweed suits, debutantes and fusty Victorian attitudes all round.  It shows the Britain of Harold McMillan which is a fashionable film obsession these days.  Hawking is the very bright guy who meets arts student Jane, then he in inflicted with motor-neurone disease.  I’m sure the reality of their suffering is worse than what we see in the film.  Eddie Redmayne’s acting makes for uncomfortable watching and I’m not wholly convinced of the case for it to be acted, no matter how good.  The focus of the film does shift towards Jane, who is all self-sacrificing stoicism.  She is patronizingly told that she must be lucky to have him, she must have wondered what kind of luck it is that involves the surrender of her own personality and career.  She forlornly sits in the kitchen trying to write on Spanish poetry when she gets the time.  The domestic tensions are well handled and discreetly British.  Hawking seems at times oblivious of the severity of the demands made on her, so we’re invited to step through a film in which what’s left unsaid tiptoes round his dreadful condition.  The big problem with this movie is the same as that with Beautiful Mind, Imitation Game etc.  Accept the premise that reverence is sanctified envy, then the public’s worship of the elite maths that we can’t understand looks fairly idiotic.  Do we worship it because we can’t understand it?  Come to think of it, we do despise what can be easily understood, don’t we?  The film’s trick is to entangle this sentimentality with the heroism of Hawking’s physical sufferings and they should not be entangled.  No doubt Hawking’s peers argued with his maths but in place of our understanding of it we ask science to answer questions beyond its remit.  The film worships at this shrine and questioning it seems rather churlish.  It’s the science version of Shadowlands about C.S. Lewis and his marriage.

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Posted by on February 9, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Behind the Candelabra

Behind the Candelabra film posterSynopsis

By Steven ‘Sex Lies and Videotape’ Soderbergh.  About the pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his homosexual relationship with Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).  Based on Thorson’s book about his affair and the jealousies that led to their acrimonious split.  Thorson had started out as an animal trainer for movies.  It shows Liberace getting Thorson to undergo surgery to emulate his own ordeal.  It shows Liberace at his piano performances and his death from Aids.

Review

Hollywood studios would not touch this film so it was premiered at the Cannes film festival, presumably because it’s too explicit in the way it deals with homosexuality.  The big surprise for mainstream cinema is that Matt Damon and Michael Douglas have played mainstream machos (imagine Redford or Eastwood playing a pair of queens!) and here they are not only camping it up but showing the two men in an honest and direct way, though one might still offer the caveat that they might feel easier playing queens rather than ordinary people in such a relationship, after all, quite a few actors have played camp.  Liberace’s stage performance makes Elton John look sedate, I’m reminded more of Andy Warhol (like him Liberace was a Catholic).  It’s amazing that Liberace’s blue rinse audience appear to have been ignorant about his sexuality.

The film follows their daily life in what Liberace called “palatial kitsch”. His candour over his affluent tasteless slum does not diminish one’s visceral revulsion against its tackiness and spiritual desolation, where is the zebra skin couch?  Again, one thinks of the pathos of this spiritual squalor as in Sunset Boulevard.  Liberace’s keyboard talent does not extend to his awful taste in pictures or furniture.  Now of course, many affluent people in the rich world emulate Liberace in the horrors of plastic surgery and manipulation, and sexual callousness in what we call oxymoronically “celebrity culture”.

Douglas as Liberace shows us the nuanced human being under the twitching camp mask that’s sometime reptilian and sometime easily wounded.  The bedroom scenes are a scary mix of insecurity and paranoid jealousy.  We should have expected it, but it is a shock when we learn that those Elvis-in-a-light-socket wigs covered baldness.  In mainstream films we always know we’re in rich decadence when we see bathers drinking champagne in a marble jacuzzi, and so here.  Debbie Reynolds plays Liberace’s Austrian mother, she is so unrecognizable that I thought it might be Meryl Streep doing another elderly lady impersonation.  The various businessmen and lawyers are shysters in mutton chop whiskers and flared trousers, and they all look like wretched scavengers.  Great Performances.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Les Misérables

Les Misérables

Synopsis

As nearly everyone on this planet knows, this is a globally successfull musical based on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.  It’s about Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) persecuted by his obsessive pursuer Javert (Russell Crowe).  Valjean becomes a thief and uses his loot to become a respectable mayor.  He takes the persecuted waif Fantine (Anne Hathaway) under his wing, she dies and he looks after her daughter Cosette who grows up to be played by Amanda Seyfried.  It’s French revolutionary time in the 1830s.  Cosette becomes romantically involved with Marius (Eddie  Redmayne) who is romantically pursued by Eponine (Samantha Banks). Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen play a pair of crooked innkeepers.  The barricades go up, Valjean and Javert meet again, and will Cosette learn the truth and find happiness?

 

Review

I’m not usually an aficionado of filmed musicals, their plots are crudely simple and characters are embarrassing as they mime their way through sentimentalized absurdities.  I was prepared for more of this in Les Misérables, however in spite of the usually forgettable music, in spite of Russell Crowe’s singing (sounding like a wounded cow ), and in spite of relentlessly sung dialogue, this film is quite enjoyable.  I actually wanted to sing as I left the cinema.  Les Misérables is energetic and passionate, a lot of the time it seemed more like sung acting than characters simply singing songs.  The actors sing as they perform, there is no miming from dubbed recordings and this is quite impressive.  Anne Hathaway held her notes and our attention through the “Dream” song.  Samantha Barks reprised her Nancy role, as she was equally impressive.  The acting always seems sincere and passionate and unselfconsciously often melodramatic.  The sets are amazingly detailed like the prints of Gustave Dore summoned in gloomy colours.  The revolutionaries strike poses as if for a David painting.  Paris in Les Misérables looks like a stage set for an opera and this is surely apt, the plaster elephant like an opera sentinel against the stacked furniture of the barricades.  The unrealistic absurdity of piled up furniture against gunpowder and infantry emphasizes the staginess, as does the impossibility of the Paris streets bursting into song!  Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers are hilarious as they provide Oliver Twist comic colour (they remind me of Fagin and the Artful Dodger).  Helena Bonham Carter also reprised her Sweeny Todd role but she should be careful.  In Les Misérables she wears bad make up and a fright wig, in Alice in Wonderland she wears bad make up and a fright wig, she does the same in Sweeny Todd and Great Expectations.  She really must get away from this predictable casting, maybe it’s Tim Burton’s influence.  Anyway, Les Misérables shows that you don’t have to have a good singing voice, just join in the fun.

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Take This Waltz

Take this Waltz posterSynopsis

Margot (Michelle Williams) meets David (Luke Kirby) going to Nova Scotia.  It turns out that they live on the same street in Toronto.  Margot lives with her husband Lou (Seth Morgan) who writes about chicken meals.  Margot keeps meeting up with David, using his rickshaw, then at his place and they form a relationship.

Criticism

This is a love story set in the more colourful arty side of Toronto.  The buildings are painted in dense colours Frida Kahlo would have favoured, and the interiors are full of arty bric-brac that Poppy in Happy Go Lucky would have liked.  Margot’s meetings with David are a sort of poetic sparring, his dialogue is quirky.  By contrast Lou seems a bit uptight.  Margot has mixed feelings about their relationship.  When Margot meets David at the airport she tells him she doesn’t like being between places and she carries this into her relationship, she seems indecisive and capricious.  The point here is that the very ambivalence is an emotional state which must be taken on its own terms.  In films and in life we expect some kind of resolution, that the emotional trajectory will end in decision based on affirmation or rejection but the indecision in itself an emotional state we shouldn’t try to manipulate.  David is frank about is feelings for Margot but Lou is married so he feels he can be taciturn in not needing to affirm his marital prerogatives.  Margot chafes at Lou’s quirks and his predictable routines, he cooks chicken dishes all the time.  The sex between Margot and David has been criticized for being coldly jarring with the subleties that precede it, but I think that its very perfunctoriness is a joke on the more pompous coyness you get in rom coms.  They make love in art gallery bohemia to the music of Leonard Cohen’s Take this Waltz with its melancholy violin and its appropriately allusive imagery.

Sarah Silverman plays Margot’s sister in law Geraldine, and you feel she would have no time for Margot’s labyrinthine self involvement.  They do exercise in a swimming pool with elderly women, a cooperative fun activity in contrast with the self absorbed attitudinizings of Margot and her men.  A fascinating visit to the trendy Toronto middle classes.

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights posterSynopsis

Andrea Arnold’s version of Emily Bronte’s story about Kathy and Heathcliffe.  The film tries to take in most of the novel.

Criticism

We’re used to costume dramas with bonnets and posh voices.  Laurence Olivier played a 30’s Heathcliffe and Merle Oberon played Kathy, and of course it was very Hollywood.  We’ve even had Cliff Richard as Heathcliffe for Pete’s sake!  In the novel Heathcliffe is described as a gypsy but here he is black and so it’s an original view.  If white guys can play Othello, why not black actors playing Heathcliffe, and here it works.  There is the racial edge to the brutal treatment he gets from Kathy’s brother and local workers.  He sets off their stolidly resentful xenophobia and it’s very raw along with sexual passion and revenge, just like the weather on the Yorkshire moors.  In fact there’s an awful lot of wind and rain which of course dramatizes things.  If there’s a good rainfall no character will miss the opportunity to go outside and sit in it.   The hand held camera practically pushes our faces into the mud and grass.  Sometimes it looks stunning, quite primeval, as in the rain the moors can look like churned up graves or trenched up mounds of slave laboured earth.  However for me this film is a bit of a cop out because it grabs you by the throat and forces attention as if Arnold might be afraid that if she shows people sitting on the moor and talking in calm weather then it wouldn’t be exciting enough, she relies on the weather to propel the action and dialogue.

We get lots of visceral wallowing in nature all raw, we see trapped rabbits and the slaughtering of a sheep.  The interior of the house is so dark, any candle or firelight only seems to accentuate the gloom.  After all, it’s always grim oop north!

I don’t think Arnold’s film is as radical as it likes to think it is.  The breathless running around in bad weather, the handheld camera shots are just as much a convention as the black and white films of the 30’s and 40’s.  Each is dramatic in a different way, but this Wuthering Heights is a pared down, Ted Hughes, view of nature and people which suits its arthouse orthodoxy.  I kept expecting the kid from Kes to come running across the moors.  The later part of the film, when Kathy has married Linton, looks more like a conventional costume drama.  The young Kathy is dark haired and square faced, the older Kathy is thin faced like a young Greta Scacchi, the difference is ludicrous.  Linton himself is wimpy.

Still, whether intentionally or not, Arnold’s Wuthering Heights forcibly draws attention to the brutalities of suffering, sex, money and power that for all their frills and bonnets, costume dramas can never really distract from.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Tree

The Tree posterSynopsis

Starring Charlotte Gainsborough as the wife of a Queensland chap who has a heart attack whilst driving his daughter.  As he dies he crashes his car into the tree next to his house.  The family is of course in bereavement and the daughter thinks her dead father’s spirit lives in the tree.  Gainsborough finds a new romantic interest who offers to cut down the tree after its branches have crashed through the roof of her house.  Gainsborough defends her tree hugging daughter and tells the boyfriend to get lost.  There is a storm and the house is wrecked.  They leave the house.

Criticism

The director is Julie Bertuccelli who worked with Kieslowski on Three Colours.  This could have been a better film but I haven’t read Judy Pascoe’s book from which it is made.  It could have been like The Wickerman but to be fair if you’ve got young kids in the film then you’re a bit restricted in what you can do.  An only adult film could have had Gainsborough making love with the tree or decorating it with strange totems.  She could have cavorted with the evil in nature like she did in Antichrist.  If this had been made by Mallick it would have been called The Tree Of Life and we would have gone off on a cor blimey cosmic trip.  It could have been like Twin Peaks and the tree would be surrounded by Druids.  It could have gone all mystical like Picnic at Hanging Rock.  It turns out to be an averagely decent film about a family coping with a father’s death but it’s not overly subtle on the subject of grief – in fact, Gainsborough squeaks a lot and gives a performance almost as wooden as the tree.  The boyfriend is the usual macho-man with designer stubble, who turns up to lend a manly hand to the women in trouble.  We’ve seen a lot of this kind of guy since that awfully nice designer bloke in Julia Robert’s Sleeping with the Enemy.

As if to lend a more rebellious profile to the family, the neighbours are uptight snobs.  Oddly, the next door house seems to disappear and re-appear throughout the film.  Perhaps Bertuccelli is more interested in mood than in anything as banal as a realistic place.  Queensland itself looks nice, it could be a good advert for the Queensland tourist board.

The girl is a sulky brat and the boyfriend is required to pass the usual tests.  Gainsborough suddenly turns against him and sides with the brat, the poor chap was only trying to help

We get a storm at the end, which of course is supposed to symbolize their reconciliation with dad’s death in a display of meteorological and emotional grief.  All very cathartic.

The film could have developed the symbolic possibilities of the tree but instead this Moreton Bay fig tree looks like it’s in need of a tree surgeon.  Like the tree, the script and acting could have done with some pruning.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2011 in Film Reviews, Independent films

 

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The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau posterSynopsis

Based on Philip K Dick’s 1954 short story, it’s about an aspiring.politician played by Matt Damon.  He meets Elise (played by Emily Blunt) but he should not marry her, this is decreed by the guys in suits and hats.  These are a sort of guardian angel who watch over humanity.  These angels have details of all our lives which must be lived according to the plan.  Elise must become a great dancer and Matt must become the President of the USA.   They end up running away from Terence Stamp, the chief angel, who tells Damon about the sorry state of unaided humanity and how angels must rescue people from themselves.  It turns out that Damon and Blunt should be together after all but they run through doorways into different places to do it.  One of the angels helps.

Criticism

This would be a decent Twilight Zone story but it’s stretched rather thin over a film, so the film makers of this have decreed that Blunt and Damon’s romance is the central part of the story.    They are fairly good as the central leads, each with a great future yet with the decency to topple ideas of ambition.  In a way the film is a sort of anti-Faustian pact, Damon wants nothing to do with the future the angels, or higher ups, have planned for him.  He inadvertently came upon them re-arranging human thoughts in accordance with the ‘plan’.  These higher ups wear ’50s hats and suits in plain grey and look like benevolent renegade Kafka bureaucrats.  It’s as if Philip Dick is satirizing the bland bureaucrats that have been a recurrent 20th century nightmare even though they work for the human good.  They work in huge Victorian buildings and their insistence on the protocols of destiny make them look unsympathetically pernickety.  Freedom of will is dismissed as a consumerist myth.  Stamp does his usual paternalistic man of wisdom, trying to be patient with Damon raging against destiny.  You could say that this is an updated Sliding Doors, an experiment with alternative outcomes.  It fits with the fad for the supernatural through a very earthly setting.  Blunt and Damon end up in a tower block as if to be shown the riches of the world: John Slattery from Madmen plays one of the angels and he looks indistinguishable from his role as a grey suited executive in the Madmen series.

The film also seems concerned with what motivates people to get into politics “the showbiz of the ugly” !!  Is it really disappointment in love or lack of it?  Certainly Damon is being groomed to be a successful congressman and he rails against the dishonesty and corruption that go into making a US politician.  He excoriates the image makeover that is supposed to appeal to different constituencies.  He experiences a Damascene conversion to truth and authenticity and this means that he is fighting the decrees of the angels.  Familiar stuff this, the power of lerv !!! This makes him a sort of sophisticated Mr Deeds.  He is not rebelling against politics, just its corruption and it doesn’t concern him in the least that he could ask the angels to manipulate the world for his benefit. He stands for decency, and whatever freedom we are capable of, and he will not have anything to do with manipulation for good or ill.

The film pointedly takes us round New York with its post-twin towers resonances.  It seems timeless though set in present time.  The plot really falls apart when we learn that there are no higher ups above Stamp, it’s us and our free will after all. Duh!   So all that running around from doorway to doorway is just a chance for us to watch Emily Blunt in a neat silk dress like in some perfume commercial.  A slight story skilfully stretched but reaches breaking point with Matt and Emily’s runathon.

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Posted by on May 18, 2011 in Film Reviews, Out on DVD

 

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