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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Terrence Malick the eccentric genius of the cinema, a fit successor to
Stanley Kubrick? Eccentric, sure, genius, I'm not so convinced.
On the positive side, every frame of this film is beautifully shot, the editing is wonderful and it is a visual feast. The theme, period and setting, growing up in the Texas town of Waco in the 1940s and fifties are all beautifully invoked. The acting is superb, especially the kids playing the O'Brien brothers, Jack, RL and Steve. And there's not much wrong with Brad Pitt's performance as their father. The mixed in creation sequences to which Kubrick's designer contributed are also spectacular. But why oh why bundle the two together? It's the Last Picture Show meets 2001. The reclusive Malick seems to think he has no need to explain himself but this film is said to be an autobiographical exercise. Malick's upbringing was not particularly horrendous on the evidence here. Like anyone with half a brain he is concerned with the ultimate questions about life what are we here for, who is God, what does he want of us, what it's all about, and these questions arise in Texas as well as everywhere else. Putting all this into a movie about growing up though is just too big a call. The acting is great, but the actors are rather hobbled by the dialogue, or lack of it. It might as well be a silent film, for all it advances the story. We get more sense out of the narration. I don't quite know why the book of Job is quoted. Of course mankind was not present at the creation. Malick has a rather comprehensive background in philosophy and doubtless had a point to make, but I suspect its right over most viewers' heads. Abstract concepts are not easy to film and Malick at least has to be respected for trying, but there are too many loose ends and inexplicable incidents for a coherent argument.
What does work well are the portrayals of the relationships between father and son, older brother and younger brother and mother and son. There is very little insight into the parents' relationship, which rings true, since children seldom understand it, at least while growing up. I was a bit bothered by the closing sequence where a disullusioned adult Jack (Sean Penn) meets the rest of his family and his younger self (I think) on a beach in what seems to be a state of rapture. The universe can hardly be explained by reference to a religious myth and I find it hard to believe that someone with Malick's background in philosophy would give any credence to it. Perhaps it was a gesture to the religious right, but why bother they are perfectly capable of producing fairy tales themselves.
I thought The Thin Red Line, based on James Jones' novel was a truly brilliant piece of work, especially since the novel had been filmed previously. Perhaps Malick is one of those directors who sees new possibilities in others 'work, rather than one who is an original creator. Compared to Thin Red Line, this film is gorgeous to look at, but a real dogs' breakfast otherwise. I was annoyed when I saw people walking out half way through, but at the end I had to acknowledge they had a point.
Corporate downsizing was recently rather adroitly presented in "Up in
the Air" from the point of view of the bringer of bad news, suavely
played by George Clooney. In this film television producer John Wells
("ER", "West Wing") looks at the issue more from the point of view of
the victims. He does not concentrate on ordinary folk, but on three
corporate high flyers abruptly parted from their affluent lifestyles.
Chief among these is Bob Walker (Ben Affleck), thirty-something and
regional sales manager for Boston-based transport equipment
conglomerate GTX. Bob is living beyond his means anyway, and soon the
big house and Porsche are gone and he and his family have moved in with
his parents, his supportive wife Maggie (Catherine De Witt) going back
to her old job as a nurse. Bob finds his new circumstances hard to
take, but, ground down by the aftermath of his sacking and the
fruitless search for a new job, he goes to work for his builder
brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner).
Meanwhile his former superior Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) is also laid off, but getting a new job at 60 is virtually impossible and, lacking emotional support from his wife he turns to the bottle. The third sacked executive is Glen McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), a co-founder of the company and number two in the hierarchy, who happens to be having a discreet affair with the chief down-sizer, HR person Sally Wilcox (Maria Bellow).
This is a carefully crafted movie with some very competent acting and good lines but to me it fell rather flat. The story arc is predictable, and the villains are clichés. The three main characters are well drawn but it's hard to feel a lot of sympathy for them. Actually I did have some respect for Tommy Lee Jones' character, who did at least mourn the fate of a corporation which used to make things reduced to shuffling paper to keep up the share price. Ironically the paper shuffling makes him richer (he is a substantial stockholder in GTX). There are many other minor characters but most are paper thin. Craig T Nelson as the CEO does a nice study in unbridled greed and Kevin Costner is suitably blue collar as Jack the builder. Maria Bello's good looks interfered with her portrayal of the corporate Medusa compare Tilda Swinton in a similar role (with Gorgeous George) in the far more dramatic "Michael Clayton. Tilda was beautiful, but also quite crackers, and both more dangerous and more believable.
I suppose if this were a TV movie I'd rate it as well above average, but the story is too trite to score well as a feature movie, the happy ending rather contrived and the excellent cast is under-utilized. Put it another way, I've seen better.
The story of a small group of people escaping from a Siberian Soviet
prison, part of the "Gulag" in wartime and walking 4000 miles to
freedom looked a trifle grim in the trailer, but Peter Weir has managed
to produce a rather beautiful film out of it, using Bulgaria and
Morocco as locales rather than Siberia and the Gobi desert. Only
Darjeeling in India plays itself. My only trouble with it is the rather
uneven character development. The story lends itself to ensemble
playing but we learn little about two or three of the walkers. In the
case of the lead character Janusz (Jim Sturgess) who is the source of
the story this is explicable as we are seeing the others though his
eyes, but it has to be said that both "Mr Smith" (the excellent Ed
Harris) and the Girl (Saiorse Ronan) leave a lasting impression.
I know there is some doubt as to the authenticity of the story, taken from a 1955 book by Slavimir Rawicz a former Polish army officer, and indeed what the group are supposed to have done looks impossible but that's not a problem, because the relationships ring true. It is remarkable how an almost random collection of individuals, including one with a very unsavoury past, can, driven by sheer necessity, wind up functioning as a team. Partly this is due to the leader actually having some navigational knowledge and therefore inspiring confidence in the others. Mr Smith remarks early on that the Janusz has a serious weakness; he is kind, but when the chips are down we see that even the hard-bitten Mr Smith is capable of compassion.
Strangely enough, after the initial scenes in the prison camp, and the escape, there is not a lot of drama. The group encounter very few people on their travels and those they do meet take little interest in them (perhaps they had not heard about the bounty for escapees). Obtaining food and water is obviously a big issue, so mind out for the messy hunting scenes. I was astounded at how well their footwear stood up to the punishment; my hiking boots are not good for 400 miles let alone 4000. Actually they must have wandered around a bit - the northern end of Lake Baikal and Lhasa in Tibet are about 1800 miles apart, though the prison camp was somewhere north of the lake. It's also not clear how long the walk took, but at times it seemed like years. Weir's great achievement is to keep us watching a very drawn out tale. Personally I think I would have died of boredom if I had been in this particular walk, if starvation hadn't got me first.
This must be the least "Coenish" of the 10 or so movies of Ethan and
Joel Coen that I have seen. At first impression it is a
straight-forward adaptation of Charles Portis's novel, including the
use of much original dialogue which is distinguished by its lack of
crude language. It is not a remake of the 1968 film for which John
Wayne got an Oscar for best actor, though Jeff Bridges has been
nominated as best actor for his take on the same character, Rooster
Coburn. I thought he mumbled too much, but was otherwise very
Several things stand out. One is the sumptuous production values the 19th century frontier is painstakingly re-created and the rugged landscape captured. Another is the authentic dialogue, even though one of the characters, the vengeance seeking 14 year old, Mattie Ross (a very convincing Hailee Steinfeld) is wildly improbable. The story itself, the hunt for the father's killer, is told without too much contrived drama, though there are some suspenseful moments and a certain amount of bloody action. The film is also beautifully paced. Some may find the opening scenes in Fort Smith drag a bit, but they are essential to the realisation of the characters. As the search gets under way there is enough action to keep us interested.
The wild west is long gone and westerns are no longer fashionable, though the Coens did a successful modern version of one in "No Country for Old Men". The rugged frontiersman, of which Rooster is a shining example, is no longer a heroic figure. They were brutal times - justice was rough and public hangings frequent and Rooster was no better than he ought to be. Yet he is capable of heroism, unlike his opponents (leaving aside Indians, who do not feature in this story).
The relationship between Rooster and Mattie evolves from service provider - customer to something more like father daughter. At least you feel she is the sort of daughter Rooster could be proud of. But in the end he is too emotionally stunted to persevere and he slips out of her orbit.
Anyway, this is a very fine "late western" and very entertaining. But it reminds us that myths fade, and what was admirable 50 years ago may be semi-barbaric today. "How the West Was Won" is a bit like Bismark's sausages. Its better not to watch them being made.
Based on Nick Hornby's novel, this is a case study of soccer fanhood,
or hopeless Arsenal supporteritis. The fan, played by Colin Firth in
good-humour mode, is brought by his usually absent Dad (Neil Pearson)
to a match as a twelve year old and is instantly hooked. He grows up
(if that's the right phrase) to become an English teacher in a London
comprehensive school and coach of the first XI soccer team, but he's
still an ardent Arsenal fan, a team that hasn't (as of 1988) won a
championship. He falls in love with a fellow teacher (Ruth Gemmell) but
she finds life with a sports addict hard to take. Will he get the girl
and his team (Arsenal) the championship? Stay tuned!
This is a nice fuzzy warm sort of movie which gives the viewer lots of quiet chuckles. There is a somewhat understanding headmaster (Ken Stott), pleasantly cheeky children, and lots of like-minded fans. There is certainly lots of solidarity. How sane adults can become sports addicts I find impossible to understand fully, but a large part of it seems to be the buzz you get from a sense of belonging to something bigger than you a substitution for religion perhaps.
I saw this film only a few days after seeing Daniel Aronofsky's
acclaimed ballet movie, "Black Swan", which may well propel the hard
working Natalie Portman to a well-deserved Oscar. I thought it was a
brilliant but rather cold and nasty piece of work. In this earlier
film, notable for the resurrection of the wayward Mickey Rourke's
career, the approach is much more sympathetic. In both films Aronofsky
gets the audience inside the main character's mind in fact we hardly
go outside it. Mickey's Randy the clapped out wrestler is a familiar
figure. and not difficult to understand. Pro wrestling as practiced in
the US is entertainment rather than sport, but Randy's body can no
longer put up with the physical abuse involved. Randy knows this, yet
he cannot embrace retirement, or at least life in alternative
employment, in his case behind a supermarket delicatessen counter. He
also has personal issues, an estranged daughter and his relationship
with a pole-dancer, the latter played by the always interesting Marisa
Mickey puts in a faultless performance. His Randy exudes bravado but his aggression is well under control. In his quieter moments he shows gentleness and sensitivity. Unfortunately his propensity for hell-raising interferes with his personal relationships, though his ring performance is less affected. We know things are not going to end well but they do end neatly.
The world of pro wrestling is not seen in a glamorous light and the film is unlikely to boost trade. While we get a very clear picture of what might drive a competitor like Randy in this business, I was at the end of the day no clearer about what motivates the audience. Is this some survivor of a more atavistic age where people derive pleasure from seeing others bashing each other up? Boxing, in comparison, is much more structured and physically skilled. In pro wrestling we seem to be satisfying some pretty primitive desires. Randy the Ram knows what his audience wants and will just about kill himself to give it to them, but the audience won't really care if he dies on the job.
"Black Swan" packed a bigger emotional punch than "The Wrestler". Yet I felt for the wrestler but not for the ballerina. Aronofsky is one of those directors who can coax a stunning performance out of apparently ordinary actors, and there must be a long queue outside his casting agency.
According to some historians, the couturier Coco Chanel and the
modernist composer Igor Stravinsky had a brief affair in the early
1920s. Stravinsky was married with a family while Coco was unattached.
According to the scriptwriters their paths had crossed before, in 1913,
when the "The Rite of Spring" a ballet by Diaghilev with music by
Stravinsky opened in Paris, causing such a commotion that the police
were called. Coco was one of the audience who liked the piece. Seven or
so years later she invited Stravinsky and his family to live in her
elegant suburban villa. Stravinsky's wife Katerina was suffering from
TB. It's not long before he and Coco are making passionate love and not
long after that the rest of the household twigs to what is going on.
The affair does not last long though it impels Stravinsky to the
completion of one of his major works. To him, charming and successful
as she is, Coco is not an artist, merely a shopkeeper, and he does not
dissent when Katerina points out Coco buys people.
Coco went on to make a fortune out of perfume as well as clothes and Stravinsky became a major 20th century composer. She seems to have gotten over Stravinsky fairly quickly and indeed continued to support (anonymously) his work. Stravinsky on the other hand seems to have been shaken to the core. He did, after all, have something to lose, whereas Coco was a free agent.
This production is all that you would expect from a European director it is all beautifully framed and shot Coco's own designs are much in evidence and the story proceeds at a stately pace. As Stravinsky, Mads Mikkelsen, best known as a Bond villain in Casino Royale, is every inch the uptight Russian composer, while Anna Mougladis is rather enigmatic as Coco. She likes the music and likes to support artists, but just why she takes a liking to Stravinsky is not evident, unless you accept Katerina's view that she likes to buy pretty people as well as things. Here the film makers have given us a film of beauty, but one which does not explain itself. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, we can all work out our own scenarios, but aesthetic considerations seldom amount to the full story.
I'm afraid this movie falls within the brilliant but nasty class, or to
put it another way it deals exclusively with the darker side of human
nature. There is no light and shade, no humour, just a careering down
the slope to inevitable disaster. We are very effectively put right
into the mind of the principal character, a girl-woman who is an
outstanding dancer but a very fragile human being in a tough
environment. Her mother, a former dancer, has undoubtedly pushed her
hard, but you can't put Nina's troubles down to Mum alone. There is
Thomas the Svengali like choreographer who is trying to arouse her
dormant sexual feelings to get a better performance, and jealous other
dancers. Plus, I suppose, the bitch-goddess success, more evident in
New York than just about anywhere else.
Director Darren Aronofsky succeeds only too well in putting us inside Nina's mind. The loud soundtrack makes even the subway's clatter sinister and Tchaikovsky's music (played backwards apparently) menacing. The shaky hand-held camera adds to the claustrophobic malaise, though the grey concrete of backstage Lincoln Center (not the actual place) is pretty grim as well. A ballet movie for masochists, I thought. Even so, Natalie Portman puts in a brilliant performance. She is absolutely convincing, as are her delusions. It is certainly difficult to distinguish between what is actually happening and what is merely the product of Nina's addled imagination. I also liked Mila Kunis as the over-eager understudy/competitor and Barbara Hershey as Nina's controlling but anxious mother.
Classical Ballet is normally a refined form of theatre, and the production here follows the conventions and then trashes them. There is too much suffering and not enough art, it seems. I don't know whether the original writer was trying to make a point about the suffering required to produce great art, but Aronofsky certainly makes Nina suffer. He also makes a mess of Tchaikovsky's work, which is conveniently out of copyright and unacknowledged except in the very small print. I don't think I'll be rushing to see his next film.
This is an intriguing movie, still fresh in my mind despite having seen
it some weeks ago. I was surprised at the "warts and all" portrayal of
Facebook's putative founder Mark Zuckerberg, who, being now seriously
rich, can afford the very best defamation lawyers. A good alternative
title would have been "Citizen Zuckerberg" though he apparently still
lives in a nondescript suburban house and drives an old car.
Several points stand out. First the film makers have rather ingeniously used as a framing device two separate court cases dealing with who really invented Facebook, the social networking site, which I am happy to say I do not belong to. Second, Jessie Eisenberg's performance as Zuckerberg is uncanny. It may or may not be true to life but it is absolutely convincing. His Zuckerberg is either afflicted with Asberger's syndrome or else is seriously weird, yet somehow we connect with him. Third, his opponents in one of the cases are the egregious Winklevoss twins, two of a vanishing breed handsome rich WASP boofheads with an unshakable belief in their entitlement to privilege. They are also now seriously rich, though just a few days ago they lost an attempt in the Federal Court of Appeals to overturn their 2008 settlement with Zuckerberg. They are played by the same actor (Armie Hammer) who puts in two seamless performances. Fourth, Zuckerberg's treatment of his collaborator Eduardo Saverin, which leads to the other set of legal proceedings, is almost beyond belief. Fifth, all the litigation seems to be about a property right which does not exist, namely the ownership of ideas, though the lawyers try to dress it up by inventing contractual rights of doubtful provenance.
As a film, however, this one works very well. The supercharged and chilly atmosphere at Harvard College, where the super-bright slug it out with each other and the super-rich is superbly realized. You may have allies, but no real friends. This writer has some experience of the law school at Harvard and it all rings true. I'm not sure the origin of Facebook can be put down to Zuckerberg taking revenge on the girl who dumped him; Facebook was one of those things whose time had come, though no-one realized its full potential at the time. The Winklevosses, snobs that they were, saw it as a Harvard only site, while Zuckerberg thought the Ivy League colleges were about the total market, though of course he soon discovered the world was his oyster.
In retrospect, the George "Dubyah" Bush administration seems to have
been more incompetent than evil, but this movie holds the Bushies to
account for what was a completely malicious and unjustified act, the
outing of the covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, which put numerous
undercover operations and informants at risk, solely because her
husband former Ambassador Joe Wilson IV had the temerity to dissent
publicly from the White House line that the Iraqi dictator Saddam
Hussein had tried to buy uranium from Niger for bomb-making purposes.
It is also evident that the CIA's soundly based advice that Saddam's
bomb-making activities had ceased after the first Gulf War in 1991 was
studiously ignored by the White House in the run-up to the invasion of
Iraq in 2003.
The actual leaker, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage got away scot-free, a crucial matter not discussed in the film , but "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Chaney's chief of staff carried the can and nearly spent 30 months inside for lying to investigators before being pardoned by the President. The film focuses on Libby and implies he was the leaker, acting with the knowledge of Karl Rove, the man who described Valerie Plame as "fair game", and Vice President Cheney.
Director Doug Liman is best known as a producer of thrillers ("Bourne Ultimation" etc) but here he and the Butterworths (Jez and John Henry) as scriptwriters have focused not only on the political intrigue but also the effect the Bushies' bastardry had on Joe and Valerie's personal lives. This gives some great acting possibilities to Sean Penn as Joe and our very own Naomi Watts as Valerie, and they both rise to the occasion, although Sean Penn might be a little self-righteous for some tastes. The personal impact aside, what the leakers did was a good deal worse than anything Julian Assange has done, and it is ironic that some of the conservative commentators who tried to discredit Joe and Valerie are now in the front line of those attacking the Wikileaks founder.
Regardless of the politics, this movie is entertaining enough to pass the watch test despite some dodgy hand-held photography. Near the end Valerie has a meeting with a very senior CIA officer glimpsed earlier, on a park bench in front of the White House. This man, played by Bruce McGill, bears a remarkable physical resemblance to the then director of the CIA, George Tenet. He warns her that she and Joe are up against the most powerful men in the world and asks her to stay silent for the sake of the agency. Valerie points out the agency won't even give her family any protection against death threats, to which Tenet, if that's who it's meant to be, merely shrugs his shoulders. What are the film makers trying to say here - that the agency doesn't look after its own?
Both Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame were patriots and, I believe, from Republican backgrounds. This did not bother the leakers who clearly couldn't care less who they hurt in the propaganda battle over the Iraqi invasion they were determined to launch. This film is based on two books by Joe and Valerie so I suppose it is a somewhat partisan account. Nevertheless it is hard to imagine a film treatment justifying what was done to them. George Bush in his memoirs mentions the Libby pardon issue but is otherwise silent on who did what. Never mind, his place in history as one of the lesser presidents is assured.
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