Archive for the ‘Film Reviews’ Category

As one who is old enough to experience life in the UK under Margaret Thatcher as well as her legacy in the following decades, I went to see The Iron Lady with the anticipation that it would shed some light on the woman so dominant in my formative years (after my Mother, Grandmother and female school teachers). I had heard charges that this film was too sympathetic to a woman who was perceived as an uncaring, insensitive monster by many, especially in Scotland, where the majority did not vote her into power. My views on her politics are as complex as this country’s system of government and I tried to leave those at the ticket booth before watching this film.

It opens with a frail, widowed Mrs Thatcher buying a pint of milk and paper at a grocer’s  shop,  harking back to her days on the other side of the counter at her father’s small business. Working in retrospect, Phyllida Lloyd walks us through Margaret’s life via jarring memories in a fug of senile disorientation. I would have preferred that these flashbacks were  few and far between as they were over-dramatic, oversimplified and seemed like Channel 5 were handed the directorial baton and told to churn out a limp, caricature-filled afternoon TV movie. Even Meryl Streep’s portrayal fell short during these snippets, failing to show the intensity of the Iron Lady’s stare and the cutting force of her authoritarian bearing. Streep is more powerful and moving as the rust-encrusted, elderly stateswoman suffering hallucinations- involving spritely and touching dialogue with Jim Broadbent as a mischievous Dennis Thatcher. There was no schadenfreude on my part in watching the demise of this once powerful woman. I would not wish this illness on anyone or their families. However, it was fascinating to see her being treated like a petulant child by her carers as well as being locked in by her Special Branch armed guards while she still occasionally demonstrated the stubborn fervour and stern philosophy that had propelled her into power.

This was not a fitting biopic for such an imposing presence in 20th Century world politics. It was bereft of the power, spirit and determination that Margaret Thatcher showed throughout her years in power. It failed to adequately show the heights of her megalomania as well as the extent that the country, then her party, poured scorn on her style of leadership.  At the end of the film, I felt I learned nothing that I had not experienced myself at the time of her governance. The best sections of the film showed the human mortality of a proud woman,demonstrating that no matter how powerful we are, we cannot lead ourselves away from our own decline. My opinion of Thatcher the politician had not changed nor had my sympathies towards her personality. If the film had as much power as the eponymous Lady, then maybe this would have had more impact on me.

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With 3-D movies becoming so ubiquitous, the magic of cinema is wearing off as more and more humdrum flicks are poured at us from every box office orifice. Previously, CGI perfection and action sequence bombasts became formulaic and jaw-achingly dull for the average cinema goer.  Thankfully a wonderful piece of film making has emerged in the form of The Artist. This is modern cinematography stripped bare of all whistles and bells: no 3-D, no CGI, no colour, barely any spoken dialogue, not even filmed in wide-screen. This, far from holding back any enjoyment of the theatregoer’s experience, rekindles their long lost passion for cinema in its pure form. Indeed, the film is set in Hollywood(land) of the 1920s and 1930s, straddling the last major technological milestone in cinema since the digital revolution: the advent of talking pictures.

[Press PLAY (and listen while you read)]

Sumptuous black-and-white magic from Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo

Every player  in The Artist is, necessarily in a film with almost no talking, visually arresting. Jean Dujardin cuts a suave dash as George Valentin, a huge silent star unwanted in a new era of vocal acting. With landscaped chin, lacquered hair and moustache clipped to an eyebrow pencil line, Dujardin’s face and physicality fascinates throughout the film’s 100 minutes. His acting is comic without being farcical; tragic without being hysterical. His co-star, budding blossom Peppy Miller, played by an engaging Bérénice Bejo, remains charming, demure and level-headed even when achieving the heights of talkie fame. She never forgets the role of Valentin in her success and watches, while trying to attenuate, his private demise  as he witnesses her very public ascension to super-stardom. Bejo does this with an unbent sensitivity, her engaging mouth filling the screen with her smile or quivering with unfettered sadness at the man left behind.

The faces of Bejo and Malcolm McDowell do all the talking in this scene

The supporting actors, although less physical, all have faces full of depth and character. Even a flash appearance from Malcolm McDowell as a jobbing extra delivers a comic vignette full of facial subtlety and wrinkled brilliance.

Hazanavicius, through Bejo and a hatstand, treats us to this funny yet touching scene

The director, Michel Hazanavicius, cannons a well aimed, pared down shot straight to the emotional core, uncluttered with dialogue. The depth of the monochrome montage screams sophistication and the soundtrack swells and dips with the action on screen. Hazanavicius brilliantly portrays an enormous sense of fun and excitement from the start with clever editing and use of movement to compensate for the lack of Foley sound or speech, which is never a disadvantage in this film. This makes almost every moment edge-of-seat tense which does lose fervour in the middle, possibly in order for the audience to catch breath before being shot at again during the dramatic ending. The director himself has been quoted as saying that he has used the silent format not as an homage to bygone days but a storytelling tool. He does just that, making an amazingly refreshing new film and helping audiences of all ages to rediscover the raw and beautiful art of cinema at its purest.

[Click here for the official trailer]

From the very beginning of Nick Murphy’s period thriller, it seems that the awakening of Florence Cathcart (a plucky yet vulnerable Rebecca Hall) has already taken place. An enlightened young woman by 1920s standards, she is (Cambridge) university educated, a scientist, a published author, an inferred atheist and, most shockingly of her time, wearer of trousers while barking orders at men.

A professional myth buster, exposing fraudulent mediums feeding off the fear and grief in the aftermath of the First World War and influenza pandemic, she is called upon to investigate reported ghost sightings at a mansion turned boarding school- having been the scene of a long forgotten murder of course. Not only does she have to battle the myth and superstition of the paranormal but the prejudices of an early 19th Century patriarchal society which she does with a single-minded fervour.

However, her hardest battle is with her own sanity, which she seems to lose as the film progresses. Through a series of unexplained events and drastic, violin screeching cut-tos , the director takes us through the supposed haunted passages of the house as well as the troubled mind of Florence. Aided by a supporting cast of physically and mentally scarred war veteran turned schoolmaster, Robert Mallory (Dominic West); matron and ardent fan of Florence’s work, Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton) and frightened child (Isaac Hempstead Wright), Florence closes her eyes tightly to her previously enlightened state and awakes in a world of apparitions, superstitions and acute awareness of her own loneliness. Ironically each character’s solitude and sadness draws them closer together but leaving them more mentally isolated.

The ending to the film is far less shocking than saddening. Reminiscent of other costume thrillers, the viewer is thrown a few red herrings before being treated to a retrospective glance at explanatory scenes. The truth, once exposed, is far more jarring than the  scattering of eerie moments throughout the last 100 minutes, showing that the evil perpetrated by the human mind and body is far more incomprehensible than any perceived spectral presence. This dissection and degradation of the human psyche  is certainly explored in the film but is lost in a supernatural fug of ghostly set ups and thriller-by-numbers moments. The paradox, however, is that both aspects could not sustain the film on their own. Once the real horrors are known, they resolve to be one and the same, showing us that however scared we are of the darkness of the truth, we still shut our mind’s eye tight, even though this makes the truth even darker.

In this recession hit cesspool that we wade through today, times are hard for the small businessperson. We often hark back to the glory days in the mid eighties when the the self-employed were kings among men, mass unemployment provided cheap labour and the national minimum wage was only the stuff of a communist’s dream. This was the age of the yuppie, the brickish mobile phone, the tape-loading home computer and, of course, the Ghostbusters: men who knew all too well what small business implementation meant.

The three who dared to dream: (from L-R) Drs Venkman, Stantz and Spengler

The founders of the Ghostbusters (Drs Spengler, Stantz and Venkman) were firmly ensconced in the academic gravy train before being made redundant due to the perceived lack of moral and financial viability of their research. With no funding and only their ideas, as well as some purloined laboratory equipment, these three, instead of going cap-in-hand to the unemployment office, used their bold initiative and set up their own small business: Ghostbusters.

Business cards are an important initial small business strategy

At first they only had an idea that they genuinely believed in: a paranormal reconnaissance and disposal service. With little or no market research, they collectively decided to risk Dr Stantz’s home, taking out a triple mortgage secured against the property in order to procure some fixed assets.  A high risk strategy that they staked against their service being exclusive to their chosen market.

Their first task was to search and snare  business premises, wisely choosing  one of the less salubrious areas of Manhattan for a property search. This resulted in their finding a ramshackle former fire station with a high level of interior and exterior maintenance requirements. Both criteria ensured initial start up costs were kept to a minimum while being able to stay within their target audience in the heart of New York City and the Tri-state Area.

Now with a work space, the three pioneers soon divided the labour: Dr Spengler became head of  research and development, ensuring their tools of the trade were operational as soon as possible; Dr Stantz procured more fixed assets, including a reasonably priced used vehicle, undertaking the maintenance work himself to slash costs; Dr Venkman became the human face of the organisation, encouraging his partners with humour and constructive criticism. A receptionist/secretary was hired in the form of Janine Melnitz, who with her New Yorker savvy and no nonsense attitude, was a great find in an already saturated job market. A strong branding exercise in the form of a striking logo and accompanying song was soon incorporated into the business, which awaited its first customers.

Well defined, low cost transport providing a strong brand image

After an initial slow period, as expected in any new business, the work soon trickled in, starting with just one customer, Ms Dana Barrett, with a seemingly small complaint, one which our intrepid entrepreneurs could easily handle. From then, possibly by word of mouth in the spirit world (or syndicated television advertising) their turnover increased exponentially. For the initial contracts with large corporations, including luxury hotels, they were able to charge higher fees being the only ghostbusting service within that area. Having a sliding scale of prices also meant that the ordinary customer was not priced out of the market, gaining them popularity with the bottom end of the demographic.

Additional labour was soon acquired in hiring Winston Zeddmore, with a strong work ethic based on monetary reward, and a brutal honesty in admitting that if the paycheck were right, he would believe in anything. Winston fitted in well with the other founders in providing a neutral sounding board and an additional common sense attitude in tandem with Dr Venkman.

Even with four operatives, three being executive board members, the unpredictabilty of working with the paranormal took its toll. The Environmental Protection Agency intervened causing an administrative as well as cataclysmic headache for the Ghostbusters and the city in general. After arrest, interrogation and incarceration, the exclusivity of the Ghostbusters’ business shone through and after a no nonsense meeting with the mayor, they were free to tackle the crisis at hand.

And so the Ghostbusters saw themselves go from disgraced academics to small business entrepreneurs to city saviours. With the right combination of ideas, talent and a previously untapped market, you too could become as successful. Just remember to never cross the streams of business and interpersonal relationships unless there is no other choice.

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[In my next essay “Ghostbusters II: What went wrong?” I will outline the errors in the Ghostbusters’ taxing and liability insurance strategies and how ultimately they managed to regain a foothold in a recession-riddled and cynical market.]

“We Need To Talk About Kevin”

Posted: October 30, 2011 in Film Reviews

Nature or nurture, that age-old debate about what makes us what we are, is laid out on screen for all to see in Lynne Ramsay’s film, We Need To Talk About Kevin. Through the memories of a once successful travel writer, Eva (Tilda Swinton), Ramsay retrospectively takes us on a stilted, troubled journey through the childhood of Kevin (Ezra Miller)- until his committing of an heinous crime at the age of 15.

Tilda Swinton, in a brilliantly sedate performance, is adept at playing the broken woman and strained mother, constantly worrying about her mental and physical distance from her son, his intense lack of morality played fantastically by 3 child actors, culminating in a brooding Ezra Miller. John C. Reilly, whose clown without makeup face at first seems incongruous to the mood of the film, subtly works in tandem with Swinton as the popular, oblivious, flippant father, Franklin.

Eva is a women who feels responsible for her child and feels powerless to stop this relentless force of nature: right from Kevin’s birth, where her only respite from his incessant crying is to stand by a pneumatic drill, to his despicable crime, only revealed in detail towards the end of the film. Kevin’s victims’ parents, and most of the female population in town, blame her for this lack of control , having litigated her out of  home and job. The men tolerate her with a polite wave and a grimace; the women, aghast at her supposed failure as a mother, resort to physical assault. Throughout the series of vignettes from Kevin and Eva’s life together, we start to empathise with Eva’s situation, raising a child whom the phrase “little shit” becomes increasingly appropriate. At only two points are mother and son seen bonding, both times when Kevin is vulnerable and needs her most.

Ramsay’s method of slow release of the facts helps to mould our opinion of the main protagonists and who or what to blame for this child’s actions. She portrays the relationship as a battle of tortured spirits, both parent’s and child’s lives disrupted by each other’s presence. We have a priveleged window into their struggle for supremacy and control. The symbolism of  Eva carrying the sins of her son, is starkly outlined by the vivid use of red in almost every scene. From the red paint spattered shack she tries to clean through the whole picture, to the cans of tomato soup she hides behind to avoid a confrontation with a victim’s mother and a happier Eva covered in tomato juice at La Tomatina festival during her halcyon days as free spirited journalist.

Hiding from her son's legacy

Hiding from her son's past

The issue of nature over nurture is never resolved  in the film and rightly so.  This has not even been resolved in thousands of years of human existence. Kevin’s twisted nature is never doubted nor are the detrimental efforts of both parents. The extent of Kevin’s crimes, finally revealed to us at the end of the film, ultimately help us to empathise with Eva and her unbroken, yet strained love for her son, who left her a legacy of pain, loss and blame.

“The Ides of March”

Posted: October 23, 2011 in Film Reviews

Film

The main difference between British and American politics is that, even within a two party system, US political campaigning is rife with viscious internal backbiting, especially during the presidential candidate primaries. This is brought to the fore in The Ides of March, where staffer Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) has to negotiate the donkey-infested waters of mudslinging, not only between the two Democratic candidates, but also within his own campaign team.

Mike Morris, George Clooney’s Clintonesque Governor, vying for a seat in the Oval Office, a seemingly clean cut figure , provides a fine veneer for the underhand dealings of his campaign manager,Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman),pulling more strings than a loom weaver to try to give his man a chance at the big chair. Hoffman plays the part with a calm servitude, a grizzled campaigner who never needs to raise his voice. Gosling’s understated portrayal of the brilliant young prodigy provides a flexible morality for the first half, his character successfully promoting his man and policies without sacrificing his scruples. As in his previous outing in Drive, Gosling’s performance dramatically switches to a passionately charged yet focused burst  in the second half as Myers tries to deal with a drastic change in circumstances increasingly beyond his control.

Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon and Clooney’s screenplay (adapted from Willimon’s play, Farragut North) doesn’t have the snappy dialogue of similar political thrillers, such as Primary Colors but  there is a subtle wit to the script that is relevant to modern US politics, with speeches peppered with soundbites such as: “[I believe in no religion apart from the] constitution of the United States of America”. There is also some political insight into why promoting National Service for 18 year olds is a vote winner as those affected would be ineligible to vote against it. The premise that a President of the United States can get away with anything- such as bringing a country to war or bankruptcy- apart from having sex with an intern, is also brought to our attention.

Clooney’s direction is skilled in its imagery. He highlights the power of manufactured pomp by having the same speech read to both an empty room and a crowd of chanting supporters. Back room machinations and blackmail are sometimes held in front of a looming Stars and Stripes and the weather is employed as an emotional barometer, Gosling at one point seen weeping through a beautifully lit, rain-spattered windscreen.

The Ides of March has plenty of classical tragedy and modern political backstabbing that lives up to the portentous date in its title. The moral centre seems to shift from character to character and then completely disappears by the end of the film, leaving behind a trail of innocent victims, which seems all too common in politics these days.