Friday, 25 November 2011

The Ides of March

This film title gives an appropriate nod to intrigue and betrayal. Set in the world of the American Democratic Party primaries where candidates contest the party nomination to become the Presidential candidate, it is filled with mind games, crossing and double - even triple crossing and loyalty that goes punished and also unrecognised. It shows politics to be a messy and brutal game. I am happy to leave it to those who are not afraid to sully their hands. The film even ends with words like 'integrity' and 'honesty' filling the air as Steve (Ryan Gosling) seems paralysed as he faces the choice of collusion or whistle-blowing.

This is the second Ryan Gosling film I've seen in two days and I must say the characterisations should have been streets apart - but let me also say his acting style makes Keanu Reeves look multi-dimensional! Directed by and starring George Clooney, with Leonardo DiCaprio as one of the producers, and with Philip Seymour Hoffman (Paul) and Paul Giamatti (Tom), this film was always going one that was well acted and well shot. I particularly liked the way scenes were often lit with pools of darkness and shafts of light to pick up and amplify the themes of honesty and deceit.

The story turns on Steve's decision not to disclose a meeting he had to his boss Paul. Or does it? The fact that the meeting led to nothing seems inconsequential but not to Paul when he summarily dumps Steve from the team. Steve is bewildered. This comes immediately after Steve has lectured an intern on the rules of political life and told her than when you screw up that's it - game over! Working out exactly whose integrity is compromised is difficult. It is as though hierarchies of integrity are established which play personal integrity off against institutional integrity. An interesting game.

For a brief softer moment the film explores the pain of the choice of whether or not to go through with an abortion to protect integrity. Whose integrity? The poor girl involved - Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) is seen wrestling with the moral and emotional cost of what the system is forcing her to do. A moment of indiscretion can lead to a life-time of guilt and regret. When the right course of action can seem so black and white to some whilst the person at the centre can only see grey is a powerful visualisation of the inner battle that abortion causes for the female (and usually the violated,) party. The fact that Molly wanted to climb the political tree as quickly as possibly is relevant but does it mitigate the choices she felt she faced and the way in which she resolved the conflict? I don't think so.

No-one comes out of this story with any credit - least of all Mike Morris (Clooney) the central political figure. What it does show is how spin doctors ply their trade, work the press and play the long game. As unsavoury as the subject matter is, this is nevertheless a well crafted, acted and delivered film. Well worth the investment of a couple of hours. I'll give it 7.5/10.

After three different cinemas in three days - I'm off on holiday so it may be a while before I post again!


From the trailers and hype, I was really looking forward to this film. I was hugely disappointed. There are some cool car chase scenes, but not that many given the way the film is set up. The central character Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a movie stunt driver by day and a getaway driver by night. It is clear he has impressive driving skills but his character is one dimensional and vacuous. His life is completely empty and he seems incapable of displaying any emotion. He also suffers from a twisted morality that works one way in one context and another way in a different context.

The film quickly slides into a regular mobster movie with contracts being taken out on everybody. Pursuits and murders follow and become entwined with the Driver's developing love interest in his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan). The whole plot gets over complicated because the mobsters are unable to untangle who is a criminal and who is an innocent bystander caught up in the melee.

The story lurches from one encounter to another without any real progress and in the end turns into a circular murder-fest involving the central characters. Where the film delivers the greatest disappointment is in the graphic and gratuitous depiction of the way in which many of the people meet their end. It is simply unnecessary and now comprises a series of images I would like to delete from my internal video wall! Why were these things included in this way? Is it to give the film credibility for those who need spurting blood and exploding guts and brains to render a movie watchable? If so, this should have been consigned to some niche market and not put on general release.

The characters are very stereotypical, the acting lacks finesse and the plot lacks credibility. The only bright exception is Carey Mulligan's performance. As I said - very disappointing. One to avoid. I'll give it 4/5 - which is generous!

In Time

This film is thoroughly engaging and works well on at least two levels. The basic premise is that everyone has been genetically modified so that they stop ageing on their 25th birthday. This makes the film confusing in that everyone looks the same age - even though some people have reached a three digit age! Everyone has a clock implanted under their skin that counts down the amount they have left to live. On their 25th birthday they are given 1 year and when the clock reaches zero they simply drop down dead. They can earn, beg, borrow or steal time to increase their longevity but everyone needs to 'spend' time simply to live - a cup of coffee costs 4 minutes for example.

Time is the only currency in circulation and as with anything that denotes wealth there are the haves and the have nots. The film works on its first level because it really does prompt questions about what value we place on time. The central character Will (Justin Timberlake) is 25 plus 3, his mother Rachel (the ubiquitous Olivia Wilde) is 25 plus 25. They live and work in the ghetto where they rarely have more than one day credit on their clocks. They are forced to go to loan companies and pawn shops to get more time but the interest rates are high and many people are unable to make the  repayments - and so die.

We learn that this is how the ghetto works because it is an effective way of controlling the size of the population. To reduce the number of people - simple raise prices to make accommodation and basic commodities unaffordable. This is the second way in which the film works - as a commentary on the way wealth is distributed and the inequality of inheritance for both the haves and the have nots.

To travel out of the ghetto requires payment of huge blocks of time - a month at each transition. The film makes good use of its Los Angeles setting by contrasting the less desirable areas with the well-heeled lush downtown. As the story develops it becomes a tale of liberation of the oppressed. Street wise and well intentioned Will gets entangled with Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) - the daughter of the owner of the biggest time bank and time lending set up. They end up taking on the global system and try to bring it down whilst liberating the ghetto dwellers.

The story is nothing new (sadly) but the context in which it is set serves to act as a chilling reminder of our implicit complexity in a world system that discriminates and devalues on an all too arbitrary basis. At a time of 'occupy' demonstrations around our world, the resonance for me was disturbing.

The film is a fast-moving morality tale with lots of action. There are few twists as the story heads towards its inevitable conclusion. Suspense is always present as people's clocks run low. The script is in places lumpy and from time-to-time the plot lurched from one crude device to another. Overall it is a good watch that will challenge those who are prepared to engage with its ideas. Many of the sets are 'familiar' from the LA storm drains of Them to the ridged roof running sequence from The Matrix. Well worth a watch and one I'll be looking out for on disc. I'll give it 8/10.

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Cave of the Yellow Dog

Every now and again cinema presents a gift that encourages you to stop, reflect and wonder. This film is such a gift. Described as part documentary, part drama, this film offers a precious insight into nomadic life for a family on the Mongolian steppes. We spend some time with the Batchuluun family living in their two Yurts with only their livestock, wolves and vultures for company.

The lifestyle looks harsh by comparison with Western standards but there is no sense of regret or of missing out on anything. Running water is courtesy of the stream outside. The single light bulb works - if there is enough wind to turn the blades of the generator. Yet the family, mum, dad and three young children, live their communal life very happily. The children seem happy to do chores around the encampment and even enjoy playing with dried dung!

The oldest child - Nansal, has just returned from a term at school in the big town. She shares with her sister that there the Yurts are stacked up into the sky (apartments blocks) and people even piss inside their Yurts! The younger girl can only marvel at what the town must look like.

The story presents a very gentle style of Buddhism and the narrative arc is set within a Buddhist view of the reincarnation cycle. One day Nansal finds a dog hiding in cave which she befriends and takes back to the family home. Her father fears that the dog may have been running with wolves and will inadvertently attract them to attack their herd. He tells Nansal that the dog must go. I won't spoil the outcome for you!

This gentle film offers a privileged window into another world - a world which is under threat. The viewer cannot help but reflect on the challenges this family face, their rhythm of daily work and the effect the seasons must have on their way of life. Throughout the film the lure of the big town and a different life is never far away. This was just right for a Sunday evening watch - I'll give it 7.5/10.

Monday, 14 November 2011


Pierre (Roman Duris) is a professional dancer who develops a heart condition that ends his career. His only certainty of beating the disease is a transplant - but the doctors don't know if a donor can be found before it's too late. Upon hearing the news, his sister Élise (Juliette Binoche) immediately moves into Pierre's flat with her three children to look after him. As Pierre awaits an uncertain future, he spends his days surveying the Parisian skyline from his sixth-floor balcony whilst focussing his detailed attention on a beautiful girl living in a an apartment opposite and a girl in the local bakery. Pierre's reflections serve as a springboard for the film to reflect on the diversity, vibrancy, fulfilment and disappointment of some of the individuals that make up the Parisian populace. It is as though we are offered views of these people as being representatives of the wider population.

The story opens with a threat to the vitality of Pierre as he is faced with a stark and unwelcome reality. As he reflects on this through the life of the bustling metropolis, a picture filled with nuanced and intricate detail is painted for us as the lives of the characters interact and play out. The characters represent a sweep of Parisian society: a Professor, a promiscuous student, an architect, a social worker, a dancer, market traders and Benoît who, throughout the story, journeys from the poverty of rural Cameroon to the promised land and prosperity of Paris as an illegal.

As Pierre awaits the seemingly inevitable he begins to put his affairs in order by trying to make sense of his life. All around him the other characters live out similar processes with varying degrees of awareness. The death of the Professor's father triggers a mid-life crisis as he chases after one of his students. His brother, the architect, struggles with his own demons and new life comes as his wife gives birth to their first-born. The market traders who work hard and play hard are shown to be shallow yet at the same time honourable and respectful. Together they face the pain of separation, the longing of desire, guilt, grief and the enticement of a brief intimate encounter with a group of girls. Élise is shown to work in the female dominated world of social work where the case workers are women and the manager a man. Their collective meetings having the feel of socialist egalitarianism reminiscent of the Revolution era. Meanwhile the backdrop to all this is the Professor who is lured away from the Academy by the lucrative offer to narrate a TV documentary about the history of Paris and thereby the history of France. Meanwhile Benoît continues on his northerly pilgrimage.

This film delivers an engaging exposé of life at different levels of French society. It also underlines the need for inter-dependence as the characters lives become increasingly, but unknowingly intertwined. The characterisations are warm and compelling. The sub-titling is helpful and non-intrusive. Paris always presents a magnificent canvas on which to paint - even under fittingly watery autumnal skies. This is a film about life, about contemplating death, about loss, guilt, grief, love, intimacy, story, fulfilment, rebirth, families and about our innate need of community.

Well worth the investment of a couple of hours - particularly with Juliette Binoche and Mélanie Laurent in the cast! I'll give it 7.5/10.

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Help

This is a wonderful film - a gracious gift. Go and see it - now!

Set in Jackson Mississippi in the early 1960's this film explores slavery 60's style and the question it provokes is what would you have done if you'd been born into Mississippi's white elite? Would you have colluded with Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) or confronted with Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone)? Would you see Aibiline (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) as commodities to be owned or as human beings to be celebrated?

The unashamed racism that the film portrays feels like something from another era and not my childhood! Skeeter returns from university - perhaps a northern liberal university - to discover the family 'Help' has gone to live with her family in Chicago. She also finds the attitudes of her old friends who are now ladies of leisure to be stifling and unacceptable. As an aspiring writer, Skeeter pens an anonymous book based on the anecdotes and reflections of the maids employed by the wealthy white women of Jackson. The book reveals the pain and abuse suffered by the 'Help' as they are paid below the minimum wage and are excluded from the benefits of welfare and health care.

This film could major on the evil of one set of people owning another. In a way it does. (How is this different from buying non Fair-trade goods from the majority world?) But this film doesn't wallow in the violence and abuse suffered by Jackson's black community, it rises above that to demonstrate that grace is a universal currency that can be cashed in for the betterment of everyone.

This film reduced me to tears at three points. It is a moving story - a courageous story, where people who are trying to do the best for their family's, what you and I would wish to do, face an uphill battle but never lose sight of what it is to be human. The acting is brilliant and forces you to reflect on what would you have done in either situation? I also reflected on what it must have felt like for the actors in this film - both black and white. It can't have been comfortable on either side.

As I said this is above a movie about grace. Go and see it. I'll give it 8.5/10.