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Pessimistic View of the Future of Suburban Californian Women, 29 January 2015

In reviewing any film, it's important to keep one's feelings towards the plot and characters separate from one's judgment about the piece as a work of art.

This is especially true of Jill Soloway's low-budget film, whose characters are thoroughly despicable. Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) is a bored homemaker frustrated with her marriage to workaholic Jeff (Josh Radnor): unable to find satisfactory help from her therapist (Jane Lynch), Rachel adopts local hooker McKenna (Juno Temple) as her live-in nanny for her son Logan (Sawyer Ever). For the most part McKenna does a competent job, studiously keeping her personal and professional lives separate, while Rachel makes a good stab of not telling her middle-class friends precisely what she has done. Inevitably, however, the situation ends in tears, with Rachel's uncomfortable secret being discovered, and McKenna moving out amid acrimonious circumstances.

The film resembles DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES with added sexual spice, as it focuses on the empty lives of a group of well-to-do homemakers with plenty of money but little to entertain themselves except going to parent-teacher association meetings, or organizing events at their children's high schools. This boredom is what drives Rachel into the futile task of trying to 'rescue' McKenna. The fact that the younger girl might not want rescuing seems not to enter Rachel's head. At the end director Soloway invites us to reflect on who is the most morally culpable: is it Rachel, her husband, or the group of women she associates with?

Filmed on a low budget, but with a good eye for light and shade (much of the action takes place in bright Californian sunshine, an ambiance that seems especially inappropriate for the morally dubious material in the script), AFTERNOON DELIGHT makes a damning criticism of middle-class life, especially that practiced by people with too much money and very little self-awareness.

Nostalgic Trip Through BBC2 Comedy Both Familiar and Unfamiliar, 29 January 2015

This kind of program has its pleasures - of looking at comedy gold from the past, while understanding how and why some pilots failed to make it into six-part series. An example of the latter is a Madness pilot from the mid-Eighties written by Ben Elton and Richard Curtis, that proved beyond doubt that Suggs, although a competent singer, was no actor.

Some of the material was more familiar than perhaps the program liked to suggest - Ronnie Barker's SEVEN OF ONE was repeated on the BBC, while the pilot for QI eventually turned into a long-running series. Rik Mayall's Kevin Turvey turned up in several specials; it was nice to see this once more, proving beyond doubt that beneath the madcap exterior the late comedian was also a fine actor. From the Sixties we were treated to clips of Alan Bennett doing a humorous monologue (with the immortal acronym NORWICH - (K)nickers Off Ready When I Come Home, as well as examples of Spike Milligan's anarchic humor that formed the cornerstone of the Q series.

Inevitably there are some clips that will prove funnier to individual viewers than others, but the program as a whole gave a good survey of the range of cutting-edge comedy that the channel has provided in the past, and continues to offer to this day.

Psychological Analysis of Hidden Sexualities, 29 January 2015

Set in a lonely farm in Quebec, TOM A LA FERME concerns the inner life of the eponymous central character (Xavier Dolan) mourning the death of his lover. He goes to his lover's family's isolated farm for the funeral, and there encounters the mother (Lise Roy) and her other son (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), neither of whom were aware of the dead lover's sexuality.

The film concentrates on the gradual discovery by the family of their dead son's secret, and how it affects them. Francis is both horrified yet strangely affected; as the action unfolds, he develops an unnatural affection for Tom that is both sadistic and sexual. The mother seems to be unaware of what's happening around her, but perhaps she is just deliberately blinding herself to the truth as a means of self-protection. Tom finds himself imprisoned at the farm; even when his close acquaintance Sarah (Evelyne Brochu) comes to visit, he cannot contrive an effective escape.

TOM A LA FERME concentrates on the ways in which people conceal their private inclinations, even from their nearest and dearest, and the damage that actually causes them. This is especially true of Francis, who emerges from the film as a seriously disturbed character, masking his sexual inadequacies beneath a veil of strength. Yet the process of self-discovery for all the characters is an enabling one - so much so that when Tom finally escapes from the farm, he does not appear very happy to have done so. The film ends with a shot of him re-entering the city of Montreal, the lighted skyscrapers flashing by outside his car windows, with his face set in an expressionless gaze as he drives. It seems that 'freedom' for him is nothing more than a form of imprisonment; by extension, therefore, his imprisonment at the farm was an opportunity to discover some form of freedom.

Filmed on a series of bleak winter days in stark, washed-out colors, TOM A LA FERME is a searing psychological examination of sexualities and how they are often willfully concealed.

Pointless Trot Through Familiar Material, 29 January 2015

Sometimes I wonder why certain programs are made at all. Filmed at the old Electric Cinema in Portobello Road, AL MURRAY'S GREAT British SPY MOVIES has the comedian presenting a leisurely survey of familiar material, ranging from THE IPCRESS FILE and THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD to the James Bond canon, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and SOME GIRLS DO. He enlists the assistance of Stella Rimington, the former director of MI5, Matt Forde (a comedian), and Matthew Sweet - the catch-all film expert who always seems to appear on this kind of program.

They all appear to be having a good time, but there are some inevitable disagreements: Rimington seems to prefer the more downbeat movies such as THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, while Forde favors the Bond canon, even though realizing that it bears little or no relationship to what the spy's life might be. Sweet chips in with a few comments about the relationship between such films and British identity, but one gets the feeling that such comments would have been far better suited to an historical documentary, rather than the extended chat-show that constitutes the format of this program.

The experience of looking at clips from old movies offers some incidental pleasures, but one can't escape the feeling that programs like this are particularly pointless, neither telling us much about the films nor giving the guests much opportunity to show their knowledge of the genre. It is the kind of celebrity-led piece that might attract viewers, but with little other apparent purpose.

Comprehensive Profile of a Remarkable Character, 29 January 2015

Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Polish journalist, died in 2007. Throughout his long career, which lasted from the communist era until the beginning of this present millennium, he spent much of his time in the revolutionary hot-spots of Africa, as the continent gradually transferred from a series of colonies into independent republics. He was never content just to report the facts, but rather tried to describe how ordinary people felt in the face of massive socio- political change.

What made him such a significant journalist was that, although ostensibly writing about Africa, Kapuscinski was always writing allegories about his own country as it lurched from crisis to crisis at the end of the communist era, leading up to the Solidarity rebellion of 1980. This proved to be a cataclysmic period in the history of a country which, as one witness rightly observes, had never really enjoyed the experience of independence throughout its entire one hundred and fifty-year existence; it had either been ruled by Prussians, the Germans and the Russians. Hence many Poles found it initially quite difficult to adjust to the responsibility of self-government. Kapuscinski used his own reports from Africa as ways of suggesting how that process might be enacted.

A thoroughly modest man, who never thought much of his achievements but remained a staunch nationalist throughout his life, Kapuscinski was the perfect example of a campaigning journalist who never lost the desire to report what he thought and felt, yet also remained mindful of the purpose of his articles. Modern journalists could benefit by studying his life in detail.

Pantomime (2014)
Vivid Depiction of the Strength of Amateur Dramatics in Britain, 28 January 2015

Set in Nottingham during the local dramatic society's production of a pantomime at the Arts Theatre, Jeanie Finlay's film depicts the struggles of trying to mount a production, from the elaborate rehearsal-period to the dress rehearsal and the first night. Things always seem to go wrong, but in the best theatrical tradition, everything turns out fine on the night.

Most of the familiar characters are there, from the laid-back director with professional experience, charged with the responsibility of trying to mold a large company into a performing unit; the harassed assistant with most of the backstage responsibilities, swearing and cussing at her actors and other helpers, who nonetheless thoroughly enjoys her job; the dame (who in pantomime tradition is actually played by a man) who sees the entire experience as an antidote to the loneliness of his personal life; and the principal boy (played by a woman) with a good voice plagued by insecurity.

Yet PANTOMIME is nonetheless an affectionate tribute to the power of amateur dramatics to attract people from all walks of life - the man recovering from a stroke, the unemployed fifty-something who spends most of his days trying to escape from home, the children enjoying their first experience of performing on stage - and draw them into a community ritual that benefits everyone. There is not only a sense of shared endeavor and companionship, but a feeling of achievement at the end; that everyone had gone through the arduous task of rehearsal, and emerged at the other end so that they can perform on the first night.

Issues of 'quality' are perhaps unimportant here; it does not really matter whether the performance is very good or not (although the company as a whole do a remarkable job of unifying music, song and comedy into a coherent piece). What perhaps matters more is that the entire experience brings people together in ways which are perhaps not as common now as they might have been in the past, when entire communities lived and worked in small spaces. Contemporary life can be much more alienating, with people going to work and returning to their little boxes, and communicating mostly by smart-phone or the internet. Pantomime offers a unique opportunity to bring people into close proximity with one another in the rehearsal room or back stage, and learn something about themselves, as well as their fellow human beings.

Black Comedy of (Dis) Loyalty in a Gangster Family, 28 January 2015

Set in a mundane suburban area of Kent, DOWN TERRACE is the blackest of black comedies involving a family headed by Bill (Robin Hill) who in collaboration with his son Karl (Robin Hill) tries to discover the identity of an informant who shopped them to the police and thereby confined them to prison. There are several suspects among their intimate group, notably Eric (David Schaal), Garvey (Tony Way), and Councillor Berman (Mark Garvey). Meanwhile Eric and his wife Maggie (Julia Deakin) object to Karl's continuing relationship with Valda (Kerry Peacock).

Ably performed in semi-improvised style by a first-rate cast, Ben Wheatley's film emphasizes the culture of mistrust that permeates this so-called close network of criminals. Although professing loyalty to one another through frequent hugs and epithets ("You know I love you"), it's clear that no one really can rely on anyone else to be truthful either in their behavior or their responses to one another. This is a dog-eat-dog community in which only the fittest can survive. There are some gory moments in the film, but they are handled with such panache that we understand Wheatley"s purpose in including them - in a world where 'good' and 'evil' no longer exist, every behavioral move can be seen as absurd, even comic.

Tautly filmed with an astute use of close-up, pans and two-shots in tight spaces, DOWN TERRACE is a low (or perhaps) no-budget piece of work that nonetheless confirms the director's mastery of cinematic form. Highly recommended.

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Preposterous Thriller, 28 January 2015

Morten Tyldum's film is a very strange piece of work. Its premise is highly engaging: a successful headhunter Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) runs a criminal sideline together with accomplice Ove (Eivind Sander) in stealing valuable paintings. They are generally successful at it, but meet their match when they try to steal a valuable Rubens from early-retired business person Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coaster-Waldau). Roger becomes embroiled in a complex part where Clas is out to kill him, enlisting the help of Roger's wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund) and girlfriend Lotte (Julie R. Ølgaard) in the process.

From here onwards the story becomes something of a picaresque adventure, where Roger is pursued up hill and down dale by the vindictive Clas., Roger shows an astonishing ability to recover from the most terrible indignities, which include having to hide himself in a a pile of excreta, with only a breathing-tube to keep him alive; being pushed off a high cliff while being strapped into a car: being attacked by a wild dog: and returning to Lotte's house only to find himself being attacked by his knife-wielding girlfriend. The plot is full of implausibilities, mostly centering around Clas's apparent myopia, despite having the advantage of developing sophisticated tracking technology.

Eventually the story comes to a happy ending, but by then viewers have lost interest in what might be most charitably described as a preposterous thriller. John Andreas Andersen's photography creates a gray world full of menace and pouring rain, but even this seems wasted.

Landmark Comedy Compilation That Has Dated Badly, 21 January 2015

To criticize AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT on the grounds of obsolescence would seem an heretical thing to do. Monty Python had such a profound influence on the development of British comedy in the late Sixties and Seventies that their place in history is perpetually assured. And yet looking at the film nearly forty-five years later, it has to be said that much of the humor is puerile, the kind of thing that might be expected in a student production performed at the end of the spring semester. Some of the sketches go on far too long, while the more surreal moments - such as the opening sequence, involving a series of people trying not to be seen and getting blown up - are highly reminiscent of THE GOON SHOW, the groundbreaking radio program of the Fifties that provide much of Python's antecedents.

Nonetheless, for those that grew up with Python on television, film and the theater (as well as those fortunate enough to attend their series of concerts last year), AND NOW ... contains several immortal moments, such as the Parrot sketch, the upper-class twit of the year and the Lumberjack song. It's also interesting to reflect on what happened to the performers: Michael Palin, the singer in the last-named of these sketches, would eventually go on to become an established television documentary presenter and all-round celebrity appearing on innumerable tribute programs; while John Cleese would end up carving out a career as a film actor and (latterly) an autobiographer.

Some of the sketches could now be considered both sexist and racist; there are at least two occasions where viewers are encouraged to look at half-naked women and ogle them in a spirit more reminiscent of THE BENNY HILL SHOW than Monty Python. There is also one moment of dialog - obviously meant parodically - where Eric Idle talks about not wanting to live next door to "those kind of people" i.e. African-Caribbeans. Nonetheless, we should bear in mind that AND NOW ... is very much a product of its time; in the early Seventies such attitudes were still considered permissible (the ITV sitcom LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR had the white protagonist continually insulting his African-Caribbean neighbor). The location filming (such as it is) conjured up a now-vanished world of inner London, with traffic-free streets and a predominantly white population.

Definitely worth a look, but don't expect anything too humorous, especially if viewers are unfamiliar with the Pythons.

Starred Up (2013)
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Stark Prison Drama of Filial Relationships, 21 January 2015

Way back in 1979, Roy Minton's play SCUM caused a terrible stir when it was banned by the BBC on account of its excessive violence. The play was subsequently filmed, and still caused concern amongst audiences and reviewers alike for its stark content, especially a rape scene involving two male inmates of a young offenders' prison. STARRED UP follows in a similar tradition; there are some sequences of graphic violence, especially at the end, when young offender Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) suffers at the hands of sadistic assistant prison governor Haynes (Sam Spruell), while his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) runs amok in a desperate bid to save his son, killing a fellow-inmate and assaulting other officers in the process.

David Mackenzie's film focuses on the experiences of Eric, a nineteen-year-old young offender sent to an adult prison for a variety of offenses. Occasionally the action seems to veer in a familiar path, as Eric joins a psychotherapeutic group led by Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend) and appears to make considerable progress in the direction of becoming socialized; he starts to listen to people and take notice of their particular difficulties. However the film's plot refuses to offer any sentimental solutions by suggesting that much of Eric's problems can be attributed to his father, a serial offender who spent little or no time looking after his son (Eric was placed into care when he was three). STARRED UP shows father and son in an ambivalent relationship; they obviously care for each other yet cannot co-exist. Eric desperately looks for some kind of direction that Neville cannot offer; Neville, on the other hand, is guilty for the way he has (mis)treated his son but lacks any empathetic qualities. The only way he can protect Eric is through violence. The film refuses to offer us any comforting ending - although father and son are restored to one another, they have little or no hope of developing their relationship further.

Filmed in the old Crumlin Road and Maze prisons in Belfast, where many political prisoners were incarcerated in the past (the Maze was the location of the IRA hunger strikes, leading to the death of Bobby Sands), STARRED UP creates a harsh, uncompromising portrait of prison life, showing that it can destroy rather than reform the inmates, despite the government's protestations to the contrary. It's an uncomfortable yet compelling experience to watch.

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