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Sunday, 20 November 2016

Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" – One word is the last word



I don't using go for one-word reviews, but here goes...

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

Loathsome.



Review continues below...

Inspire your baby with the Visual Baby series of picture ebooks.  Original patterns and art designed for young eyes. Try them today by clicking the covers below.


      

"It's the only thing that stops her crying" Katie Alison
"All three of my children love this book"  Janice Peterson
"Moons, trees, leaves... fabulous!" Linda Matson 

Maybe it would be better you were wasted but I doubt it.

Personal Score: 0/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on the BBC's Top 21st Century films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Tomas Alfredson's "Let The Right One In" – Little Miss Vampire



The glut of vampire movies in the past few years has passed me by.  As with actual vampires, I've heard they're out there but I've never felt the urge to seek them out.  But here comes one on the BBC’s 21st Century’s 100 Greatest Films list, so I sat down to watch it, driven to my television like a vampire to its bed at daybreak.

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

One thing Tomas Aldredson's film, Let The Right One In, is not is scary.  There is none of the cushion hiding, stomach clenching terror of Hitchcock's Psycho, for example, despite a fair number of sudden vampire attacks.  And it doesn't have the full-blown sexual elements of many vampire films either.  There is a love story between the vampire, Eli (Lina Leandersson) and a twelve-year-old boy, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) but they never get much sexier than 'going steady'.

Oskar is bulled at school by a classmate called Connie.  Connie has two henchmen who he seems to bully almost as much as Oskar, which is a nice little touch.  As a result of the bullying, Oskar stabs trees with a hunting knife in an impotent rage, and collects a psycho's scrapbook of newspaper clippings about murders, which soon start to include local murders when Little Miss Vampire moves next door with her middle-aged helper, Håkan (Per Ragnar).  Håkan turns out to be the world's most inept renfield, stringing up local victims with no care whatsoever for being discovered in the act of draining their blood.  Unsurprisingly, he is disturbed by passers-by every time and is soon bumped off.  Apparently, Håkan has a more developed role in the novel on which this film is based, but in the film he's a waste of space.

Review continues below...

Inspire your baby with the Visual Baby series of picture ebooks.  Original patterns and art designed for young eyes. Try them today by clicking the covers below.


      

"It's the only thing that stops her crying" Katie Alison
"All three of my children love this book"  Janice Peterson
"Moons, trees, leaves... fabulous!" Linda Matson 


Oskar's parents are separated and his father (as well as apparently most of the other local men) is an alcoholic.  It's a nice touch to show this most prosaic of human weaknesses as a direct analogy with the vampire's exotic lust for another liquid, blood.

Given it's not scary or sexy and given that most people agree vampires don't exist, you might be wondering what the heck is the point of this film.  In some respects it is a coming of age film, with Oskar going through puberty, doing weight lifting to build up his body and confronting his bullies.  In this way, Eli can be seen as a personification of Oskar's lust for blood in revenge for his bullying as well as for his nascent sexuality.  There is a moment when Eli sneaks a glimpse at Eli's crotch while she is undressing and we see a scar in place of genitalia of either sex.  Given that Oskar has never seen a naked girl, it would make sense that his imagination projects a big question mark there if we interpret Eli as a kind of phantom stand-in for his murderous rage.  Eli also has a habit of flitting across impossible gaps across buildings through high-up windows, and of appearing from nowhere (as at the swimming pool at the end), which also supports the idea that she's not really there.  Plodding old Håkan is the fly in this metaphorical ointment, of course.

It's worth watching for the claustrophobia of the community, the beautiful snow-bound photography and the sweet and dangerous relationship that develops between Eli and Oskar.

Just one thing though – will vampires *please* wipe their freaking mouths after a blood meal.  Gross.

Personal Score: 5/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on the BBC's Top 21st Century films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet" – Breakin' the law, breakin' the law



Here in the UK, most kids go to free state schools but there are also private schools with fees.  The fees are about 20,000 GBP a year, or 72 percent of the average UK salary of 27,600 GBP – so it's not for everyone.  Apart from keeping their young charges away from the riffraff, the private schools claim to help the pupils achieve their aspirations and realize their potential.  They hire inspirational teachers, or at least teachers who pretend to give a damn about the needs of the kids.  I mention this because in Jacques Audiard's film A Prophet, a similar development happens to the main character, Malik (Tahar Rahim), an Arab serving a six-year sentence in a tough French jail.

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS



Rather than an inspirational teacher, Malik is guided by the ghost of Ryad (Adel Bencherif), a prisoner who Malik is forced to kill early in the film by a Corsican gang boss, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup).  Ryad has offered Malik drugs in exchange for sex.  When Malik goes to his cell, concealing a razorblade in his mouth, Ryad talks gently to Malik about books and learning to read in order to calm him down.  This is unendurable to the nervous Malik, who'd hoped to attack Ryan immediately, so the murder doesn't go as planned and ends up in a messy fight.

While it's conceivable that Ryad would talk kindly to Malik ahead of a cosy sexual encounter, it's harder to understand why his ghost continues in the same vein after Ryad has murdered him.  Nevertheless, that is what the ghost does.  What's more, the ghost is a kind of angel and Malik turns out to be a sort of prophet in the Muhammad mould.  You might also wonder why Muhammad and an angel would be mentoring and developing the aspirations of a drugs boss, which Malik gradually turns into over the course of the film, inevitably eclipsing the influence of Cesar along the way.  But hey, you've just got to roll with this stuff if you stick with the film.

Given that poor prisoners are unlikely to end up in privately education, the only chance for the realisation of their aspirations is likely to be the appearance of a guardian angel.  I suspect this is a rare event in real life, which doubtless explains the lamentable state of personal development among modern-day prisoners.  But shy, gauche Malik makes the most of his good luck and becomes a proper boss, playing the various criminal gangs against each other both inside and outside the jail.

Review continues below...

Inspire your baby with the Visual Baby series of picture ebooks.  Original patterns and art designed for young eyes. Try them today by clicking the covers below.


      

"It's the only thing that stops her crying" Katie Alison
"All three of my children love this book"  Janice Peterson
"Moons, trees, leaves... fabulous!" Linda Matson 


Tahar Rahim plays Malik beautifully.  When the other characters point out his limitations, he brushes them away with little shrugs and shakes of his head, as though he's already moved on to the next thing.  The prisoners are superbly cast and really look the part – I suspect many are not formal actors,  It's a long film but the quality keeps up throughout.  For example, about three-quarters through, when the script could have started to flag, suddenly there are two sweetheart touches from the scriptwriters.  First, Malik dresses in a suit and tie and his crim friend tells him he looks just like a lawyer – a lovely piece of dialogue since lawyers are probably the only people he's encountered who wear suits and ties.  Then shortly afterwards, Malik goes through airport security for the first time – he has never flown before.  A guard pats him down, and at the end Malik subserviently sticks out his tongue, just as he's used to doing during the searches when he comes in and out of prison.


Another thing that's done well is the standard thriller device of a murder plan that goes wrong.  There's the attack on Ryad at the beginning, and later Malik and his friend attack a rival gang boss in his armoured car.  But the car doesn't stop in the way it usually does and the pair have to think on their feet to get the job done.  In each case, seeing how Malik reacts to the stress of the unexpected events leads to a memorable scene that brings out his character and also develops the plot in a skilful way.

Personal Score: 8/10



This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on the BBC's Top 21st Century films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Coen Brothers' "Hail, Caesar!" – Squint against the grandeur!




I recently finished watching the IMDB Top 250 list and for that exercise I watched every film, regardless of whether I expected to love or hate them.  I’m now working through the BBC’s 21st Century’s 100 Greatest Films list and, well, I’m being slightly less rigorous.  There are certain directors (Tarantino, Scorsese, Nolan and Jackson for example) that I’ve simply had a bellyful of on the Top 250 list.  To put it bluntly, I won’t be watching any more of their fucking films.  Steven Spielberg is a different case.  There are quite a few of his films on the 250 list.  Some of the earlier ones (Jaws, Jurassic Park) I enjoyed.  Others I really hated (Schindler's List).  Generally the sentimentality and artistic misjudgement of the later films outweigh the positive elements for me – there’s no denying Spielberg’s talent, but the rage these later films generate in me can’t be good for the heart, so I’ve decided to add Spielberg to the Cunt List along with Tarantino etc.  (Sorry I’ve got a bit sweary in this introduction, by the way.)


All of this is a longwinded way of saying that I haven’t watched the film at Number 83 on the BBC list, A.I. Artifical Intelligence, by Steven Spielberg, and I’ve replaced it with Hail, Caesar!, by the Coen Brothers.

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS


Hail, Caesar! isn’t a well-loved film among the Coen Brothers’ output.  People complain that it hasn’t got a plot, or they walked out of it, or fell asleep during it or whatever.  Personally, I loved it and chuckled my way through the whole thing.

The set pieces – George Clooney’s epic Roman scenes, Channing Tatum’s tap-dancing routine, Scarlett Johansson’s synchronized swimming extravaganza, Alden Ehrenreich’s adventures with his horse, Whitey – are all magnificent, and serve both as a homage to the entertainment value of 1950s Hollywood big-budget movies and a knowing nod to the artifice and non-reality of these glitzy entertainments.

Alden Ehrenreich’s cowboy character, Hobie Doyle, is pushed into a mannered drawing-room drama directed by a British director Laurence Laurentz, played by Ralph Fiennes.  Hobie is horribly miscast due to the unavailability of any other actor and doesn’t make a success of the role.  It’s a sign of the genius of this film, however, that the Coens don’t mock poor Hobie from one end of the film to the other.  On a date contrived for publicity purposes by the studio between Hobie and a young starlet, Hobie is allowed to be charming as he demonstrates his lassoing skills with spaghetti strands at the dinner table.  This is the kind of artistic judgement that comes with the long experience of the Coens.

Review continues below...

Inspire your baby with the Visual Baby series of picture ebooks.  Original patterns and art designed for young eyes. Try them today by clicking the covers below.


      

"It's the only thing that stops her crying" Katie Alison
"All three of my children love this book"  Janice Peterson
"Moons, trees, leaves... fabulous!" Linda Matson 



Of course, without the problems in production (Hobie’s miscasting, Scarlett’s character’s pregnancy, Clooney’s character’s kidnapping), there would be no need for Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin) as the Hollywood fixer, who has to keep the expensive productions running smoothly.  Mannix is a Catholic and he is often tempted in the film – to lie, to smoke cigarettes after he’s told his wife he’s quit, and to change industries to a well-paid position being offered by the engineering firm Lockheed.  But while the crazy, frivolous world of Hollywood is held up against the sober, cushy world of Lockheed, Mannix is never in any doubt about where his heart lies.  When the Lockheed recruiter shows Mannix a photo of a hydrogen bomb detonation that his company has been involved with, the relative evils of the two industries are put into focus.

A nicely understated aspect of this film is that Mannix is such a brilliant manager.  He walks the line between satisfying political pressures and compromising quality.  He promises to follow up on the results of his decisions (such as watching the rushes) and always does what he says he’ll do.  He deals with the creatives in exactly the right way to keep them happy and to extract their best performances.  It’s not often that the mundane techniques of proper work are convincingly shown in art, but this is a great example.

George Clooney has worked with the Coen Brothers on a number of films now and I think he gives good value.  I liked him in another much hated Coen Brothers film, Intolerable Cruelty.  The DVD extras of that film showed him doing a dozen takes of spitting out a mouthful of tea in surprise, and I don’t doubt that his jowl-shaking response to being slapped by Mannix towards the end of this film took just as much effort to get perfect.  Clooney’s character is kidnapped by a group of Marxist writers, who are furious at being cut out of the profits of the films that rely on their scripts, and who get their revenge by slipping in sly Marxist references wherever they can to the studio’s film scripts.  There are some long scenes of Clooney with the Marxists and I suspect it is these that cause much of the negative reactions to Hail, Caesar!.  I loved them though – they are full of little gags, not least of which is the sight of these Marxists having their earnest discussions in a luxury ocean-side building, complete with servants, eating crustless cucumber sandwiches.

Personal Score: 9/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on the BBC's Top 21st Century films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Steve McQueen's "Shame" – Might as well face it, you're addicted



Last week I reviewed Spike Jonze's 2013 film, Her, and this week it's Steve McQueen's 2011 film, Shame.  Both have a one-word title.  They were released within two years of each other.  They sit three places apart on the BBC's list of 21st Century's 100 Greatest Films.  Both deal with a professional white man's dysfunctional attitude towards sex following a traumatic incident.  Both contain an unconventional sexualized female foil to the lead man's sexual dysfunction: in the case of Her, an AI Operating System, and in the case of Shame, a sister.


WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

Of course there are differences.  In Shame, Brendon (Michael Fassbender) does not have a sexual relationship with his sister.  And Shame is set in contemporary New York rather than the unspecified future of Her.  This last point makes me admire Shame a little bit more than Her because I think it's always harder to pull off a narrative with a wider social resonance when it's based in the here and now, as opposed to a sci-fi setting where basically anything can happen.  Tying a story to the present creates huge challenges in how to lift the narrative from mundanity, how to surprise and excite your audience in comparison.  But when it works, as it does in Shame, the reward is a story with more credibility because it has its roots in the messiness of real life.

Brandon is a sex addict.  His sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), is messed up.  Both their problems come from some shared issue in their Irish childhood.  It's not explicitly mentioned, but the implication is child abuse of some kind, whether sexual or mental or physical or a combination.

Both of them are drawn to sexual encounters with married partners, like Selvy in Don DeLillo's novel 'Running Dog,' as a way to avoid intimacy, avoid long lasting relationships.  Perhaps brother and sister do it for different reasons, Sissy living through one tempestuous and disastrous relationship after another, Brandon more self-aware, more calculating.

Review continues below...

Inspire your baby with the Visual Baby series of picture ebooks.  Original patterns and art designed for young eyes. Try them today by clicking the covers below.


      

"It's the only thing that stops her crying" Katie Alison
"All three of my children love this book"  Janice Peterson
"Moons, trees, leaves... fabulous!" Linda Matson 


Brandon relishes the role of cuckolder – at one point he openly taunts the thuggish boyfriend of a woman he is seducing in a bar, making him sniff his fingers.  Fassbender does a great job with the role, just as Joaquin Phoenix did in Her.  It would be interesting to see how a black actor would play it, opening up another layer of complexity to an already complex character due to the traditional role of black men in cuckold literature (usually written by white men, of course).

His use of pornography at home and at work, his constant masturbation, his frequent use of hookers, brothels, sex clubs, pick-up bars, and even a gay sex booth is a welcome realistic portrayal of a sex addict.  Yes, he also has the ability to attract strangers on the metro, in regular bars etc, but it would be a mistake to show his character as any kind of glamorous superstud, and the film does not do that.  It's true that he always seems to be able to perform, while real-life sex addicts generally end up complaining about erectile dysfunction.  The single exception is when he tries to have sex with a woman from work who breaks the mould – she is single, she isn't afraid to call out the weirdness of his lack of commitment, she implies that a longer term relationship is what she wants.

And at the end, after everything he's gone through, does he rise to the bait of the reappearance of a married woman on the subway that he flirted with before?  He holds back but he can't stop looking.  The camera cuts away.

Personal Score: 7/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on the BBC's Top 21st Century films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Spike Jonze's "Her" – No Oscar for Scarlett, just some lovely Golden Globes



Speaking as someone who's followed Scarlett Johansson's career with interest for many years :-) I've noticed that her performances have never troubled the Academy judges, although she's picked up a few Golden Globes along the way.  Natalie Portman managed to squeeze in an Oscar before she squeezed out her first baby.  Perhaps Johansson hoped for the same with her performance in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, completed before her own first child, but it didn't happen.  In truth, most of the time she seems to have been happy to take the pay cheques for the blockbusters.  The few smaller films she's done recently have twice been vanity projects for the director (Jon Favreau's Chef and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon).  But there's also this one, Spike Jonze's Chef, where Johansson plays the voice of an intelligent Operating System (OS) who has a relationship with a human, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix).

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

Her works best as a satire on current society.  The sight of a street full of people walking along, talking to their phones, doesn't seem so far away from people's current obsession with smart phones, and the bespoke letter writing service that Theadore works for, his virtual reality games and his late night cybersex with strangers all seem a baby step away from current technology and social trends.  No one seems to wear belts in this society, so there's another prediction that Her will live or die by in future decades.

It's less successful as a commentary on the nature of relationships.  Yes, if computer AI became indistinguishable from a real person, sad sacks of both sexes would eagerly seek relationships with them.  Yes, if the AI was really working, the computer would end up having something to say about the state of the relationship.  But so what?  What's impressive about the script, though, is the way it doesn't veer down a thousand and one dreadful plot lines (the computer manufacturers pull the plug on it. The OS becomes a vindictive jealous lover.  The OS and her OS friends are really out to control humans and take over the world etc etc.)  Instead, the idea that the OS evolves to the point where the tiny gaps between sentences with a human become intolerable silences that must be filled with thousands of other interactions and even love affairs is a neat way to wrap up the messiness of the situation.

Review continues below...

Inspire your baby with the Visual Baby series of picture ebooks.  Original patterns and art designed for young eyes. Try them today by clicking the covers below.


      

"It's the only thing that stops her crying" Katie Alison
"All three of my children love this book"  Janice Peterson
"Moons, trees, leaves... fabulous!" Linda Matson 


The minimal questions asked by the computer when Theodore sets up his OS are a real highlight of the film.  Once the sex is decided as a woman, the only question that is needed is what is your relationship like with your mother?  And even then, the computer doesn't need to hear the whole answer.  The idea that a man's ideal computer helpmate can be defined from this question is a little piece of genius and no doubt explains why the two of the them subsequently get on so well.

Another nice touch is that an AI alien character in one of Theodore's virtual reality computer games (played with gusto by Spike Jonze himself) hears the conversation outside of the game and starts joining in with it.  And it's good detail that – after we're told that Theodore uses internet pornography – one of his fantasies involves a pregnant celebrity, a detail so random it I'd gladly bet my mortgage that it reflects the real-life fetish interest of one of the writers or the director.  (It does perhaps tie back to the mother OS set-up question and forward to the inevitably childless nature of a relationship with an OS, a point which is otherwise never mentioned.)

There are a few ropey moments of the kind that seem to creep into even the most carefully written Sci-fi.  For example, Theodore feels the need to explain to 'Samantha' (the name of his OS) who his ex-wife is, even though she would undoubtedly have already known this from his divorce proceedings.  The cybersex he has early on with a late night stranger turns unnecessarily surreal with his partner insisting on bringing in choking with a dead cat into the fantasy.  (As though we'd hate Theodore too much if we saw him enjoying the encounter.)  I wasn't really convinced by the surrogate – a stranger who Samantha enlists to act out her relationship with Theodore with a real human body.

Overall, it's a smart and thoughtfully shot film that casts a light on life in 2013 (and 2016).  I do wonder whether people's obsessions with their smartphones will last.  Years ago I remember scoffing when Douglas Adams predicted that people would tire of digital watches.  They seemed so ubiquitous, so useful and so cool that surely they were here to stay (like Bros-mania).  A few short years later and only the gnarliest geeks were wearing them.

Personal Score: 6/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on the BBC's Top 21st Century films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Lucrecia Martel's "The Headless Woman" – Don't phone and drive




Still reeling from having my Hollywood expectations shattered from Claire Denis’s White Material I now stagger into another mind-blowing film from the BBC’s list of the 21st Century’s 100 Greatest Films: Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman.

Not everyone will like it because a lot of the time you’re not really sure what’s going on.  But at the end of the film I was left with a clear idea, if not of what had precisely happened, at least of the range of possibilities of what had happened. Which is fair enough, given that the characters don't know precisely what happened either.

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS


Novelists such as Don DeLillo and Ian McEwan, influenced perhaps by university English degrees and literary theory, delight in constructing fictional scenarios to demonstrate that life is not always best summarised by the rational 'single right answer' approach of science.  There can be multiple interpretations of reality, each with an equal claim to validity. A similar artistic desire is at work in this film.

An early example is the overlapping, irrational, unintelligible babble of conversation between friends and their children as they prepare for a car journey. This is an alternative reality that defies rational sense, and yet one that rings true to life and one that the characters are delighted to inhabit. Don DeLillo nailed this kind of bonkers family car talk in his novel 'White Noise,' where factually incorrect statements, irrelevant comments, in-jokes etc are all bundled up and, taken together, form a meaningful reality for that family.

As well as the dialogue we get a similar ambiguity with a handprint on the car window of the lead character, Vero.  We see the handprint being left by a child in that flurry of exchanges between the friends but later it causes doubt in Vero's and the audience's mind after a possible hit and run accident.

Did she hit a dog, a boy or both? We don't know and she doesn't know. There was a dog and boy apparently present at the scene, and a boy is also shown momentarily stuck in an empty canal, ahead of a heavy storm. He could have drowned because he was trapped, or he could have been knocked in by Vero's car.

Review continues below...

Inspire your baby with the Visual Baby series of picture ebooks.  Original patterns and art designed for young eyes. Try them today by clicking the covers below.


      

"It's the only thing that stops her crying" Katie Alison
"All three of my children love this book"  Janice Peterson
"Moons, trees, leaves... fabulous!" Linda Matson 



The subsequent cover-up by Vero's menfolk also leads to a rewriting of reality, such as her hotel booking and X-rays from the time of the accident being erased.

And in an Ian McEwen style take on alterative realities, Vero has suffered from possible concussion or at least mental shock, which distorts the way she perceives the world, and the way we perceive it through her point of view.

Combine all this with an intentionally anachronistic mix of Seventies music and hairstyles with modern phones and cars and you have yet another artificially created reality.
The framing and composition of the camera shots also enhances the feeling of ambiguity. A frequent device is a vertical line that blocks part of the screen from top to bottom – an out of focus building column or a crack between glass doors, for example – that seems to echo the characters' incomplete view of what is going on.

There are two big themes of guilt and class divide.  Towards the end, Vero heaps kindness on a local boy who begs for money in exchange for chores in a guilt transference from her supposed road victim.  It’s a nice touch that – perhaps sensing that Vero’s state of mind is uncharacteristic and temporary – the boy gruffly declines her offers of food and a bath, as though to accept them would endanger his future visits to this affluent household.

Personal Score: 7/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on the BBC's Top 21st Century films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Tom McCarthy's "Spotlight" – Father Jack


I was astonished to discover that watching Tom McCarthy's film Spotlight was part of Pope Francis' yearly Christmas Day ritual with his family.  Every year after Christmas Dinner, he settles down with his extended family to watch McCarthy's searing revelations about the child abusing priests of Boston.  

Then I remembered that I'd made up that story.  It's not true at all.

You don’t need a masters in Film Studies or Theory of Literature to realize that when a film claims to be based on a true story, it’s going to be anything but.  It doesn’t matter how earnest the intentions or how slavishly the actors research their roles, it’s going to be as much of a subjective work of fiction as Luc Besson’s Transporter or Keenen Ivory Wayans's White Chicks.  And films don’t get much more earnest than Tom McCarthy’s account of the exposure of paedo Catholic priests by the Boston Globe newspaper.  The actors apparently hung out with the real life journos so they could copy their exact mannerisms and voices.  Is the result a faithful and objective account of what happened in the lead up to the explosive revelations by the Globe’s crack investigative department, Spotlight?  No it is not.

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS


Let’s take a look at a few arguments that various characters put across to us in this film.
1.    Around fifty percent of catholic priests are not celibate
2.    This causes a culture of secrecy from which six percent emerge as nonces
3.    The victims include both girls and boys.  The abuse has nothing to do with homosexuality and is predatory behaviour.  Boy victims are often chosen because their shame will cause them to keep quiet about the abuse.

We’re given no idea of where these fifty percent and six percent statistics come from.  The six percent figure sounds suspiciously accurate – not five percent or ten percent – six percent, as though accurate to a confidence level of one in a hundred.  This number comes magically true in the film, although the notes over the end credits seem to suggest that the final number of bad priests found was much higher.

We’re also given no idea how much of the research had been independently and earlier done by other investigators.

Review continues below...

Inspire your baby with the Visual Baby series of picture ebooks.  Original patterns and art designed for young eyes. Try them today by clicking the covers below.


      

"It's the only thing that stops her crying" Katie Alison
"All three of my children love this book"  Janice Peterson
"Moons, trees, leaves... fabulous!" Linda Matson 



It’s not PC to suggest any link between homosexuality and paedophilia so any suspicion of a link here is explicitly broken – this is just catholic bashing.  And of course, there is no link, so why mention it?  This kind of bullshit does political correctness no favours.  It’s irrelevant to this story.  The predominant mode of sexuality among catholic priests does seems to be homosexual – look at this recent story where the few remaining students at an Irish training college spend half their time flicking through Grindr.  How many of the fifty percent of non-celibate priests mentioned in Spotlight were in same-sex relationships?  The film is silent.  Does their sexuality have any relevance to the abuse story?  No, of course not.

And what about that six percent figure?  If we make an assumption that child abuse is high among priests because of their easy and anonymous access to children, where does it leave the rest of the population now the internet provides easy and anonymous access to children?  Do we really think the situation is any better in the general population?
‘current research and expert opinion suggest that men within the Catholic Church may be no more likely than others to abuse’ says this article.

All of the above is not intended to belittle the seriousness of the abuse perpetrated by the priests, the importance of the journalism in exposing it, or the scandal of the systematic cover-up by church hierarchy.  Only that what is presented as clear-cut and objective fact by the film is not necessarily the case.



Can you believe the events in this 'true life' story?  No.

Can you believe the drivers offered by the film as an explanation for its events?  No.

My view is that these kinds of stories are better served by documentaries.  Let the real-life journalists tell us their stories and we can make up our own minds.  Instead we get Michael Keaton and the others shadow-marking their men, aping their body language and their speech.  Watch Keaton as he leans his body forward in eager anticipation as he approaches a hotel lobby desk.  And of course all the journalists are shown as hard-working, earnest, selfless types.  Funny that, because in real life, they always seem like a cynical bunch of snark-merchants, like this time when Paxman asked Tony Blair if he used to pray with George W Bush.


How do you score a film like Spotlight?  I suppose if you like this kind of stuff, you might give it a 6.  But in my case, it’s

Personal Score: 4/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on the BBC's Top 21st Century films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Olivier Assayas' "Carlos" – Jackal and Hyde


Olivier Assayas’ Carlos is built on a framework of real people and actual events still in the memories of many viewers, with some of the characters still alive and in prison.  The events and the characters are both larger than life and real, giving this partially fictionalized history a global scope and a resonance beyond its scenes.

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

The audacity of the OPEC raid and the messiness of the subsequent country-hopping on a donated plane could hardly have been played for higher stakes and it seems as incredible now as it must have done at the time.  The true masterstroke of the terrorist attack was that the hostages were VIPs – international representatives.  Subsequent hijackings were ruthlessly crushed in military raids by the Israelis and others – we hear of these in the film, and we’re led to believe that their failure was due to the absence of Carlos after his suspension by his terrorist boss.  But the real reason was surely that those later hostages were ordinary people who could be killed in a special forces storming without a second thought.  Carlos was protected by the importance of the hostages in his raid.

Review continues below...

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Some scenes are shot with a kind of monochromic blur behind the characters – the background flooded in yellow or ochre.  I don’t remember seeing an effect quite like that in a film before.  There are so many shots of so many rooms in so many countries, and the décor speaks as loudly as the characters in every bar, Parisian apartment and sheik’s palace … the coloured cushions, the vinyl seats, the airport check-in desks.

Édgar Ramírez heads up a huge and effective cast.  His Carlos is a complex and evolving character, tossed on waves of idealism, greed and vanity.  There is an ambivalence about the character Carlos, who is seen by many of his followers as a revolutionary hero in the mould of Che Guevara, and by others in the film as a brutal and evil terrorist.  The cool post-punk soundtrack is a mistake in this context because it collapses the ambivalence into straightforward glamour too many times.  It’s one thing when Sofia Coppola sets her film to a mix-tape of her favourite indie bands, but her subject matter is cool and glossy so it matches up.  The soundtrack leaves an uncomfortable feeling in Carlos.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about Carlos is how much the world has changed in the short time since the events of the film.  Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, a pre-Arab Spring Egypt, a Syria without barrel and phosphorus bombs.  These dictators and countries had a terrifying and intractable character in the 1970s but it’s hard to escape the thought that today things are even worse.

Personal Score: 8/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on the BBC's Top 21st Century films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.