Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Martha Marcy May Marlene

This is a disturbing drama about 'self' and identity. It is written and directed by Sean Durkin and establishes him as a major player in the vibrant American Independent Cinema genre. It won Durkin Best Drama Director at Sundance 2011 and the film was nominated at the same festival for the Grand Jury Prize. This film was made with a budget of less than $1m and shot over just 24 days. The lighting and editing, along with the soundtrack are all first class.

It is impossible to deal with this film without discussing its story - but I don't necessarily think that this would significantly diminish its impact if you've not already seen it.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a young twenty-something when she arrives at a farmhouse in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains. The farmhouse is home to a commune called the family led by Patrick (John Hawkes). The family are seeking an alternative lifestyle and are trying to develop the farm to be self-sufficient. Patrick is given to spouting a kind of Marxist/Buddhist philosophy with a very dangerous and subtle psychological twist. He is able to manipulate and control the members of the commune to the extent that the women become his, and all the other men's sex slaves. We are shown that it is really only the women who do any work around the place and they prepare the daily meal which is first served to the men and then they get to eat anything that is left. Patrick leads by instilling terror and fear which is backed up by sexual, psychological and emotional rape. All of this causes the (female) members to lose their sense of self and any notion of individuality.

On arrival, Martha is renamed Marcy May by Patrick and thus begins the process of stripping away her identity. When any of the women in the commune answer the phone, they do so using the name Marlene - an additional way of diminishing a view of self. Clearly it appears from the outset that Martha does not have a strong sense of self-identity which is not helped by the fact that she had recently lost her mother. Her father abandoned the family early on and her only surviving relative is her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson).

Quite near the start of the film, early one morning Martha plucks up the courage to leave the commune and although she is pursued she manages to escape. In a wonderfully emotionally charged scene, laden with the psychological angst and confusion she is experiencing, Martha phones her sister with whom she has had no contact for more than two years. Lucy agrees to come and pick her up.

Lucy is recently married to a British Architect Ted (Hugh Dancy) and they have just begun their summer vacation on a rented lake house in Connecticut - a chance to get away from New York City. From the outset Martha's behaviour is at odds with the neat and angular expectations of Lucy and Ted. Such has been the effect on Martha's psyche that she is unable to distinguish between dream and memory, fiction and reality.

In a constant series of flashbacks that cut between the two contexts - the farmhouse and the lake house - seemingly triggered at random, Martha's story and her experiences in the commune are slowly unfolded. The editing is so clever that you are never quite sure which context you are seeing until it becomes clear thus mirroring the confusion in Martha's mind.

The tension in the story and in the relationship between Martha, and Lucy and Ted builds throughout the film and it becomes increasingly clear that Martha needs more support and help than Lucy and Ted are able to offer. As is sometimes the case with this kind of film, the ending is not what you would expect - or necessarily wish for. It leaves you to carrying doing analysis and thinking about the final images.

This film is not comfortable viewing or family entertainment. It is however very well conceived and executed and explores a dark and difficult area with integrity and without being over-dramatic. It offers a chance to discuss the two sets of values embodied by the commune and by Lucy and Ted. It also offers an opportunity to explore the relationship of self-identity within community and how our experiences and contexts help to shape and reshape our understanding.

Moreover, this film shows what can be achieved with talent, creativity, imagination, a small budget and in a short time frame. I'm sure we will see lots more from Sean Durkin. I'll give 8/10.

Monday, 6 January 2014

The Hobbit - The Desolation of Smaug

I am not a devotee of Tolkien - in the sense that I didn't transition puberty with LOTR clutched under my arm. (Or is that just a male clergy thing?) I appreciate his creativity and the scope of his tales from Middle Earth. The characters, the archetypes, the landscapes, the dualistic struggle, the unlikely hero all of these create resonance in some way. I went to see this because I felt it was important in terms of cinema - maybe I'd simply swallowed all the hype!

A group of Dwarves, a Hobbit and a Wizard on a road trip chased by ugly flesh-eating Orcs can only really deliver so much innovation in terms of narrative and CGI-tatstic visuals. You know there will be fights with much beheading, weapons to bludgeon creatures to death and scenes where old enmity threatens to prevent the formation of much-needed alliances. You also know there will be unexplained bits of the plot - especially surrounding sleeping dragons and the like. But hey - this is based, to some degree on a 250 page novel and something has to give to spin it out to 9 hours of cinema!

There is plenty of blood and gore and some wonderful use of weapons - especially the Elves with their bows and arrows. I particularly liked the party escaping in barrels pursued by the gormless Orcs. The chance encounter with Bard who is able to smuggle them into the Lake-Town and who happens to have in his possession the only weapon capable of killing Smaug the dragon sets up the film for a nail-biting climax, or should I say instalment three? Their progress through Mirkwood Forest is a little unbelievable and the spiders turn the whole thing into a horror movie. 

At 2:41 long, it is an endurance test - but one which I felt was less arduous than the first instalment. With Peter Jackson at the helm and a story that is so well know, you pretty much know what you will be getting. The only question is, will the oohs and the aahs be big enough for the demanding audience that wants so much from this franchise? Let's hope the final part of the trilogy is spectacular. I'll give it 7/10.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The Hunger Games - Catching Fire

Saw this later the same day! I'm all gamed out for the time being!!

The story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) continues and heads in a mostly predictable direction for much of the film. The same format for the Hunger Games is there, the same issues are dealt with but this time there are one or two interesting twists. The good acting continues - especially from Lawrence but there are strong supporting roles too. Once or twice the dialogue is poor and stutters as it tries to carry the story. In one scene Peeta finds a pearl in a clam and he just says to Katniss "For you" and she replies "Thanks" and takes the pearl. Perhaps I missed a deeper significance.

There is however significant character development in this film and the introduction of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee adds a machiavellian gravitas and depth as to begin with his character is ambiguous in his intentions. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) is let off the leash in this outing as is Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy)  and they both shineI am told by them that knows these things that the story is very close to the book. Seldom a concern for me as I prefer to see a film before reading the book - it makes visualization so much easier!

This film is set only one year after the first instalment but Katniss' little sister Primrose (Willow Shields) seems to have grown up all at once! The 75th Hunger Games are created in a particularly cruel and pernicious way - the work of a really twisted mind. This all serves to heighten the tension and raise the stakes which is ably demonstrated in the creation of the 'Mockingjay' as the symbol of resistance. Katniss' love triangle with Gale and Peeta develops into a ambiguous and confusing menage a trois. It is not clear (to me) how this will be resolved.

So, we await the third and final instalment. Will Katniss succeed in leading an insurrection and overthrowing President Snow? If so what kind of way of being will emerge? Will it be the end of the Hunger Games? Will she hook up with Gale or Peeta - or play them both along? So many questions - I'll have to wait for the third film. Reading a book is such hard work! I'll give this one 8/10.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

The Hunger Games

I accidentally deleted my first review of this film and have been sulking for more than 2 weeks because Blogger doesn't allow undelete! What irks me more was the fact that I was very pleased with what I had written - hopefully this will at least be okay!

I know I was slow off the mark catching up with this. I was wondering what an apocalyptic story aimed at teens, set out in a trilogy, about teens killing one another would be like. I found it to be a gripping drama that excited my moral imagination and which raised a number of interesting ethical questions. However, a story predicated on teenagers having to fight to the death in a media spectacle is a questionable basis for an uplifting film. Yet, the viewer cannot help but be inspired by the emergent heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and wonder where the story will go.

The film raises a number of important issues:

  • The abuse of wealth and power
  • The subjugation of the oppressed - a form of apartheid
  • The power of the media to shape social understanding
  • Justice and the struggle for freedom
  • Our collective need for a saviour figure to follow
Some of them it addresses and some are left open - possibly to be explored in the sequels. 

Many teens today spend a lot of time within the virtual worlds of video games where first person shooter games are common. This film follows that format as Katniss volunteers at the annual reaping to take the place of her sister in the 74th Hunger Games. Each year two teenagers, one male one female, are chosen from each of the 12 Districts to compete within a locked environment where the winner is the survivor. 

But the film is more than simple 'shoot em up'. It shows us substitutionary sacrifice, distaste for the horror of war, an innate reluctance to take another life, how wealth can causes a numbing of compassion and how power corrupts. In essence it offers viewers - and teens in particular - an arena in which to exercise their moral imagination and explore the right and wrong of a range of fundamental social ethical issues. Today's teens have grown up only in a post 9/11 world - for them there is no other lived experience to draw from. They, like many today, sense that morality is skewed and they want to find a way of making meaning that allows them to reset their moral compass to follow something more organic, more believable and something which they can own for themselves. 

Katniss Everdeen is a reluctant heroine but she does give hope to the marginalised, the oppressed - the hope-less. On one level she is just a resourceful girl from District 12, on another level she is the face that can rally the common people and inspire them to rise up. When President Snow (Donald Sutherland) says, 'the only thing stronger than fear, is hope' I got the feeling that this was giving permission for the hope that Katniss inspires to ultimately topple Snow's reign of fear. Let's see where the sequels take us.

I felt that the film paid homage to other films in it's conception, design and delivery. The Truman Show is an easy parallel to spot. Films like 1984, Hannah, Harry Potter, District 9 and Gladiator also find a resonance. 

Because of the central premise of the film I wanted to not like it. I was however gripped, drawn in, made to feel empathy for Katniss and her family and friends. I jumped and cringed in the appropriate places and as a piece of escapist entertainment I was hooked. Does that mean I had to suspend moral judgement as I watched? Maybe. Does it mean that the issues the film raises and the characters through which they were raised have repeatedly come back to me as I have continued to reflect on the film and its meaning - absolutely! I'll give it 8.5/10.