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The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil film posterSynopsis

Based on Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel.  Naomi Watts plays Kitty who marries Edward Norton’s Walter who is a bacteriologist.  It’s the early 1920s and they go off to China.  Watts has a brief affair with Liev Schreiber then goes off to her posting where Toby Jones plays Waddington, the British consul.  The Norton-Watt’s relationship is divorce material but they learn love and respect through life and work.  She gets into voluntary work and Norton tries to eliminate cholera, winning over an initially sceptical army officer.  It ends tragically.

Criticism

This is a familiar story featuring Victorian morality against the forces of love, sex, and work.  Norton at least has a purpose in his Chinese posting, whereas Watts is required to be decorative and bored.  She finds redemptive purpose in voluntary work (helping the nuns in the local school).  Norton is righteously unforgiving towards Watts for ‘betraying’ him but eventually respects Watts’ striving for authenticity and purpose.  The characters are familiar from ‘colonial’ dramas, there is comical disparity between the emotional repression expected of Brits abroad and their real sexual and psychological needs.  Toby Jones seems to be the precursor of Graham Greene exiles in British imperial ennui, world weary as they are a sympathetic source of wise advice and emotional counsel.  Their faces are mask-poised over the anticipated emotional revelations.

The Chinese themselves are from familiar casting: the no-nonsense grandmother, the cooperative orphans, the resentful officer contemptuous of imperialist foreigners, the stoical death scenes, the competing values of British noblesse oblige and Chinese endurance in the ‘bitter sea’ of China, the suspicious questioning of the foreign’s motives.

The rural scenes invite lyricism: the vivid green grass, the beehive mountains, the shot of dense colour through silk, the contemplative lingering over the portentous juxtaposed with the unexpectedly beautiful.  The acting always holds the attention. Quite absorbing.

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Posted by on October 28, 2012 in Film Reviews, Out on DVD

 

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The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games posterSynopsis

Set in a dystopian future, “Panem” (“Bread” as in the Roman “Bread and Circuses”) is run by an effete oligarchy who run a ruthless tribute state.  They rule over 12 districts kept in a state of 19th century industrialism.  Each district must provide two people in a “reaping” to appease Panem’s rulers.  Once selected the two will be submitted for a televised gladiatorial contest, twentyfour of them will fight it out to the death and there can only be one winner.  The contestants will be monitored by surrounding hi-tech.  Before being sent to the killing ground, the two district 12 contestants (starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen and Josh Hutcherson as Peta Mellark) are feasted and given celebrity treatment by Stanley Tucci as the TV prima donna.   Katniss Everdeen gets into the arena and there is a twist at the end.

Criticism

This is very entertaining but also highly derivative.  The sci-fi influences are many: 1984Logan’s RunThe Island of Dr Moreau, The Handmaid’s Tale,  Rollerball, West World, Lost, Lord of the Flies, Steven King’s Running Man, reality TV The X Factor and I’m a Celebrity Get me out of here.  Critics have talked about this being a satire on reality TV, but one should remember that some sixty or seventy years ago sci-fi predicted the gladitorialization and ritual  humiliation contestants on celebrity wannnabee TV, so this film has come full circle on that prediction by giving it an opportunistic relevance for teen audiences inured to the humiliating idiocies of Britain’s Got Talent.  The stylized broadcast hunt is then an old story in sci-fi, this film adds 21st century hi-tech to it.  The authoritarian control of resources with the consequent impoverishment of subject peoples living in industrial and craft serfdom is familiar from such as 1984, The Handmaids Tale, and Zardoz.  The juxtaposition of decadent, jaded, ruling classes surrounded by primitivized  resentments is pretty well worn, but it works to a degree in this film.  The ruling classes are dressed like 1980s New Romantics in a mixture of Blade Runner post modernist stylistic absurdities parading in some Roman court presided over by Nero or Elagabalus.  This closely replicates Zardoz and reminds me of that Joni Mitchall song from 1985 about the parasitism of the privileged on poorer people, they will resort to artifice (hi-tech games), brutality (killing), and innocence (the exploitability of vitality all for vicarious gratification).  Woody Harrelson is amusingly cynical as their contestants’ mentor and is an ex-winner.  Jennifer Lawrence hones her hunting skills as she did in Winters Bone.  Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones send up the likes of Simon Cowell smarmily ready to set up victims for the mob’s amusement.  Donald Sutherland is the big boss reminding the games organizer that sentiment towards subject people is unmerited, their exploitation must continue.

The Hunger Games is from a teen book, so might we get another teen franchise?  I hope not.  Some of the contestants are a-moral, and all are competents.  Their self conscious petulance betray an ambivalence that militates against the genuine cruelty in Lord of the Flies.  They are too readily the puppets of Panem, and plot wise this doesn’t convince.  Why don’t they turn on their masters if they have nothing to lose?  The story itself seems more overly contrived set pieces than a convincing tale about what would happen in this dystopia.  Anyway, it’s all good fun.

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy posterSynopsis

Based on Le Carre’s novel about cold war spying.  It’s about the high-up ‘mole’ in the British spying establishment, which is known as the ‘Circus’ because of it’s proximity to Piccadilly.  Gary Oldman plays ‘Smiley’, the spycatcher brought out of retirement to catch the mole.  One of the British spies, Prideaux, appears to be shot in Budapest as he tries to bring over a defector from Communism but he is tortured by ‘Carla’, Smiley’s most important opponent.  Smiley thought Carla had been executed.  Benedict Cumberbatch and Toby Jones are involved in a rooting out of the mole, as is Ciaran Hinds and Colin Firth.  They are all suspects known as Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  Ricky Tarr is another agent who also tries to bring in a would be Russian defector from Istanbul and something happens to her.  The mole is found but is he the right one ….?

Criticism

There is an atmospheric feeling here of the sixties and seventies even it does succumb too much to the Life on Mars compulsion to steep that era in Dickensian gloom.  Everything is horrible:  bad haircuts, retro furniture looking greasy and constant smoking, all very seedy and tacky.  Compared to now that era was shabby, but things get rather absurd.  Still, it does evoke the Len Deighton London of red double decker buses and of Michael Cain’s Harry Palmer.  Lots of anonymous people walking around in shabby raincoats and dispirited faces.

Smiley looks at his staff, who are his chief suspects, through the clinical glint of his spectacles, which make him look like he’s interrogating them from behind a malevolent window pane.  Smiley seems super competent, choosing his words with pedantic caution.  He negotiates the treacherous complications of espionage game playing, then acts as a sort of confessor for truth telling.  He is quietly cynical about the ultimate purpose of the spying racket: not so much a conflict about ideology or a way of life but more a cruel probing of weaknesses with a chess player’s urge to be ahead of the prey.  Photos of the chief suspects are stuck onto chess pieces.  I haven’t read the book but the film provides no great insight into the psychology of the spies, their career justifications tend to be more incantatory rather than clarificatory.  The captured mole confesses to an aesthetic preference for supporting communism which makes him seem capricious.  When Smiley talks about Carla, the chief Russian opponent, he tells us Carla is a fanatic and as such will always win, but then he says that the fanatic harbours a secret doubt – which surely undermines what he just said!

This film is a tribute to the spy films of the 60s and 70s.  Watching these films at the time (at the height of the cold war), I often wondered why anyone would bother to be a spy, the whole business seemed inherently futile.  Absurdly, neither side could win because the whole point was to maintain a stalemate, it was the human analogy of all those nuclear weapons pointed at each other, known as MAO (mutually assured destruction).  Spying looked like a chess game with no checkmate, but it was deadly serious, people killed each other.  It’s as if the the danger was spying’s self sustaining dynamic, so it needed no further purpose once the cynically tired excuse of opposing ideologies convinced no one.  However, the spy film propagates the very myth that there were no true believers, yet early in the 80s there were quite a few Russians communists in Afghanistan who thought they were doing good.

The film is certainly a corrective to the infantile tosh of James Bond.  In Tinker, Tailor,Soldier Spy the British skies are gloomy.  In Istanbul the spy looks onto sexual violence through lit windows.  This is the spy as voyeur, the decadent cynic.  It’s a tired male world where grumpy old men (seriously ‘underfucked’ in the words of the film), snap at each other through nicotine fog.  Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth play spies who must hide their gay sexuality.  Smiley goes to Oxford to talk to Cathy Burke’s character, they compare the heroism of the war with the unglamorous and sordid life of espionage.  Mark Strong is a schoolteacher who lives in a caravan, he’s some eccentric recluse as he mentors a unattractive pupil who is a natural outsider.  Their odd relationship reminded me of the TV series Callan where the spy Edward Woodward worked with an unprepossessingly unhygienic tramp called ‘Lonely’.  Mark Strong as Prideaux is not a stick hero, he is more like a dysfunctional bureaucrat than a social misfit.  The Circus throws parties which make self conscious nervous fun of communists as if they acknowledge that the two sides have much more in common than their publics would realize.  The film plays on this skilfully.  Mostly, an excellent film about cold war spying.  Just a couple of caveats.

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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