Posts Tagged ‘ #cinefile ’

#cinefile: MMMM & the year so far …

so, corn poppers,

once more Oscar’s ceremony draws near, and i’m just about getting round to feeling appropriately underwhelmed. i will offer my usual thoughts on the runners and riders in a separate post, but before we get to that, i wanted to bring you up to speed with the films i’ve seen over the last few weeks that constitute the start of this calendar year.

it’s generally been a good few weeks of cinema, with only a couple of unbelievably bad/borderline racist offerings for me to get my teeth and claws into.

i will begin with a lengthy review of one film, and then run through some briefer opinions concerning others, in no particular order.

so, let’s go (spoilers, as ever, ahoy):

Martha Marcy May Marlene

MMMM (it so should have had the Crash Test Dummies on the soundtrack), or eminemineminem as i like to call it, is a small, artful movie from first-time director Sean Durkin.

i missed the previews, so i paid cold hard cash (well, actually i used one of the free tokens that came with my cinema membership) to see the first screening, at lunchtime three weeks ago yesterday.

just as it started, an old man arrived, sat behind me and proceeded to consume a seemingly endless supply of sandwiches, each drawn, carelessly, from a rustling plastic bag.

however, despite Captain Crinkle’s best attempts to annoy me, i found myself intrigued by this mellow yet compelling drama.

the ems all belong to the same and central character, played brilliantly by Mary-Kate (Trent, let’s not forget Trent) and Ashley’s younger and clearly more talented sister, Elizabeth, and each represents a name that she adopts or is given during the film.

we first meet her running away from someone or thing. she phones her sister, who comes to pick her up ‘somewhere up-State’. from the apparent ‘safety’ of her wealthy sister’s out-of-town (Manhattan) weekend retreat in leafy Connecticut, we learn, through flashbacks, how Martha (her given name) came to be running.

around two years earlier, she had followed a friend into the Catskill Mountains and was there introduced to and joined an ‘alternative community’ lead by ‘Patrick’, a brooding soul played superbly John Hawkes.

when she arrives, Patrick decides she ‘looks more like a Marcy May’, and so thereafter she is. the community has strict rules, strange ways and predictably abusive power-dynamics at its heart. when anyone answers the phone at the community house, if asked, they refer to themselves as Marlene Lewis. and so MMMM she and it is.

painted wide with greens, browns and crisp greys and (rather like Drive, but less successfully) edited to be curt in places and languid elsewhere, in essence, MMMM is a reflection on a woman trapped between two horrors; two realms where she is subject to different kinds of oppression.

in one setting she is forced to relinquish control over her self – it is a profound irony that one of the first things we hear Patrick say is “it’s your body”, a jibe directed at someone who has been ignoring his advice about the dangers of smoking.

the community indulges the ‘other’ American dream: the one about life without trappings or boundaries. as things progress, we witness not just the kind of closed internal (sexual) oppressions that we might naturally associate with weird ‘cults’, but also shocking, random and apparently cathartic acts of violence towards outsiders.

M’s sister, Lucy, and new husband, however, live a life which is both completely opposite and yet also (Durkin assures us) quite the same. returning to the mahogany and brushed steel ‘reality’ of her high-flying sister’s large lakeside bolt-hole, M flounders. what they see as her pathological weirdness and lack of regard for the mores of polite, middle class society, annoy buttoned-down, über-Manhattanite brother-in-law, Ted – “people can’t just do as they please, it’s against the rules” – and cause neurotic, would-be control-freak Lucy to despair.

Lucy and Ted are the epitome of the oppressive socialisation from which Patrick’s no-less middle-class community offers ‘liberation’. the evils of one are both the cause and result of the evils of the other – they are what René Girard might call mimetic twins.

Lucy, played by Sarah Paulson (Deadwood, Studio Sixty on the Sunset Strip) is at once Patrick’s antipode – dependable, wholesome, sensible, married, wealthy, all-American – and yet also stiflingly and joy-crushingly conformist, fearful, self-obsessed, materialistic, all-American. Patrick is a radical, a sexual deviant, an abuser; a weak man – part Charles Manson, part Cinque Mtume. but, also part John the Baptist, he is authoritative and magnetic to those he leads and to whom he teaches ‘freedom’ and simplicity of life.

Hawkes is rough and grizzled; sometimes sage, sometimes wild. Paulson is perfect, porcelain and prim, top lip curled slightly over bottom – scrappy, yet vulnerable.

as we begin to worry that the community might be trying to track her down, M’s mind seems to begin to break. as she descends into what seems like madness, we are left with a conundrum: while there is no doubt that life in the community damaged her and she is better off away from it, there is no escaping the fact that it is the apparently normal world of luxurious Connecticut that finishes her off.

i guess the criticism to which Martha Marcy May Marlene is most vulnerable is that, perhaps, likely out of uncertainty concerning its audience and their powers of perception, it overplays its hand in places. at points, the juxtaposition of the two arenas feels overly crisp, and the ending is perhaps a little too conveniently ambiguous. having said this, i was engrossed by the performances and came out with plenty to ponder.

Shame

i saw a pre-Christmas preview of Shame, but went again in January when it hits the cinemas. given that every reviewer and her dog have written profuse amounts how great it is, you hardly need me to chip in my penny. so, let’s just say it’s great. it is great.

A Dangerous Method

there are few things that can make me feel at ease when preparing to watch a film starring Kiera Knightley, but having the words ‘David Cronenberg’, ‘Viggo Mortensen’, ‘Michael Fassbender’ and ‘Vincent Cassel’ near to her name on the poster is one of them. in short, she is the worst thing in ADM by a furlong, but her flailing efforts fail to ruin what remains a good movie.

besides Knightley, it’s not any of the people involved at their best, but it doesn’t have to be to make for a compelling watch. it offers less of an insight into psychoanalytical concepts than Eyes Wide Shut, but offers a far more interesting reflection on The Great War than (the not great) War Horse (zzzzzzz).

Young Adult

if you (like me) have been happily watching New Girl and (unlike me) have been wondering whether the idea of a thirty something woman who acts like a teenager could be a good premise for a film, here you have your answer. no. apparently Diablo Cody chose to respond to the question of whether she’d be able to do good and different work after Juno, by proving that no,  she wouldn’t. either.

Young Adult is neurotic self-reflection (near M. Night in Lady In The Water territory) stretched thin over a canvas of writers’ block. yuck.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

i hate Tom Hanks. i hate his stupid face and his stupid career, and even despite the fact that his character dies near the start (a would-be cause for celebration), this is a particularly egregious entry into the ‘Hanks bank’. however, there is far more here to loathe than just a single awful man.

one danger in making a film about a real life (mass) disaster is that the need to focus on a small number of people (the ‘human interest’ imperative) can cause you to belittle the scale of the tragedy. another, is that Hollywood norms might cause genuine anger, fear and pathos to be replaced by cheap, bile-inducing melodrama.

i’ve not read JSF’s novel, but Stephen Daldry and Eric Roth’s film not only falls into both these traps, it seems to revel in them. and, what is more, rather like Titanic, ELaIC also chooses the blandest, most annoying and dislikable characters imaginable on which to lay all the emotional, and in this case politico-ideological, baggage.

even in an age of Transformers, it would be difficult to think of a more horrible, American-in-the-worst-kind-of-way, movie. yes, ‘stories’ can be uplifting; children are fragile, have powerful imaginations and charming innocence and can learn valuable life-lessons; everyday details can become bearers of special meaning; we get it. and it’s offensively saccharine.

there is a moment in this plane crash of a movie when an ‘incredibly close’ Hanks follows up the line “if things were easy to find, they wouldn’t be worth finding” by mugging straight down the lens ➔

i kid you not, i literally gagged.

it’s hardly worth saying, but the trouble is that in real life we have to battle the paradox that we experience both a crippling dearth and a huge excess of meaning.

neither of these makes every piece of old crap we find when our fathers die part of an elaborate and meaningful game. this film would have been far better if the audience had learned early on that the key this kid was so tenderly brushing on his face (who the fuck does that?) was something his dad had picked up in the street and forgotten to throw away, and if the kid had never learned anything.

i think little of most involved, but genuine shame on John Goodman and Max von Sydow (‘of those to whom much has been given …’ and so on).

i was glad that despite being in the trailer, Where The Streets Have No Name didn’t actually feature, although i can think of no more fitting a forum for it.

Ps. “My dad always said that I was different than everyone else” –  you can’t be ‘different THAN’ something, you physically annoying, stupid-hatted, faltering voiced little moron, you have to be ‘different FROM’ it, and you are only that if the thing in question happens to be good.

Ps. the contents of the deposit box is … Osama Bin Laden.

The Iron Lady

there is no such film.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

given that racism persists among the old, and seems to be back in fashion among the young, i guess it was time for a British film to be made starring all our favourite screen crusties aimed at all our favourite normal crusties, designed to meet them and us where we’re at.

all (half)joking aside, apart from the one mentioned above that doesn’t exist and the one mentioned below that sadly does, you’d do well to find a more conservative Brit-flick made in the last twenty years.

although i liked Slumdog Millionaire, i thought Dev Patel was the worst thing in it, and i also think it’s by far his best work. i hated him in Skins, and The Last Airbender spoke for itself. here, seeing his annoyingly cheery face popping up everywhere to reassure, accept money from or run, shoelessly around Dame Judi or Bill Nighy every five seconds, was just horrible.

his (and everything else’s) Indian-ness is turned up to eleven, and it’s all too much for me.

let’s see: India – despite being obviously all noisy and dirty, it’s very colourful isn’t it?! such a vibrant culture, when you get passed it all. also, the food will give you the runs. but once you see, i mean really ‘see’, you will be tremendously enriched. spiritually. it’s basically Eat, Pray, Love for people who liked Calendar Girls. Orientalism and exoticism have rarely been more prominent since Kipling or It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. although …

Black Gold

ignoring the documentary about coffee from a few years back, there are two films currently kicking about called Black Gold. therefore, let us be clear: i mean this one, not the other one. the other one’s got Billy Zane and Mickey Rourke, whereas this one is set in the 1930s.

OK, so once we know what film we’re talking about, we’re good to say that it’s ‘epic’ (in a bad way), dull and overly long (see ‘epic, in a bad way’, and Seven Years in Tibet), politically and aesthetically exoticist (i know everyone’s saying it, but it really does look like the 70s, ‘Full of Eastern Promise’ Turkish Delight advert) and the accents are all crap.

it’s basically The English Patient meets Aladdin narrated by Puss In Boots.

if you want to watch a proper sand-based epic, rent Laurence of Arabia. if you want a brilliant movie about oil, greed and corruption with insightful contemporary resonances, watch There Will Be Blood. if you want turbans and silly voices try Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves.

however, i like Mark Strong (is what i repeated to myself on the bus on the way home).

Rampart

co-written by James Ellroy and based on the fallout from the exposures surrounding the LAPD’s anti-gang Rampart Division in the late 90s, the film follows the un-inspiringly named, but quite superbly portrayed Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), a vile, vicious, violent and vindictive cop who having learned all of that at the academy, is now, thanks to political shifts, having to deal with becoming an anachronism.

there are few better established Hollywood clichés than the maverick cop – just dirty enough to get the job done – but rather like Training Day, Rampart is about the utter failure of marshall rule. here, however, the tone is quite different to, and the human element is pushed further than in, Fuqua’s (near) masterpiece. how does a violent, criminal cop care for his kids? here we are in territory more usually covered by sprawling dramas like The Wire and (more relevantly) The Shield.

Harrelson puts in a performance that makes you think of his very best work (Natural Born Killers, No Country For Old Men, A Scanner Darkly, Zombieland, Kingpin and NOT EDtv), and is aided by skillful turns from Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver and Anne Heche. what is more, the annoying, stary guy from Alpha Dog and Pandorum proves what he managed in 3:10 to Yuma wasn’t a fluke.

there’s a chance it might not be all it’s being heralded by some to be, but don’t hold that against it.

#cinefile: 2011 in reflection

although it is fairly

clichéd, i still feel that there is value in using the start of a new year to reflect on the experience of the year that has passed.

i’ll understand if you have an aversion to reading yet another person’s rundown of the year; but for those gracious enough to humour me, here are my reflections on 2011 in film.

——————

2011 in film was, very much like Libya, a land of contrast. on one hand it saw the unceremonious dismantling of the UK Film Council, whereas on the other lots of critics thought it made sense to juxtapose that with the success of The King’s Peach, which made Harvey Weinstein pots of cash.

of course as anyone who stops to think about it will learn, we won’t realise the implications of the end of the Film Council era for some time, but it made a neat story to pretend otherwise.

i saw some wonderful films this year, at least two of which have already floated to near the top of my all-time favourites, and a couple more that would fare well in a list of my favourite films of this century. alas, as ever, looking at the list of the top ten grossing films of the year leaves my heart cold and full of dread.

here are the films that we in the UK patronised the most:

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt II ..................... ($117m)
2. The King's Speech ......................................................... ($75m)
3. The Inbetweeners Movie ............................................... ($71m)
4. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides .................. ($54m)
5. The Hangover Part II ..................................................... ($53m)
6. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Pt I ........................... ($46m)
7. Transformers: Dark Of The Moon .................................. ($45m)
8. Bridesmaids .................................................................. ($37m)
9. Tangled ........................................................................ ($33m)
10. Rise of the Planet of the Apes ..................................... ($32m)

i don’t know about you, but i have to run my eye down to number eight before i find a film i even half enjoyed. these are not the sort of films that i want to be made, and yet that is precisely what the number$ indicate will happen.

i had the spirit-crushing experience of being at a New Year’s Eve party with a well-educated ‘chap’ in his late twenties who told me that The Inbetweeners Movie was his favourite film of the year, and that was at about 8 o’clock. #face as the kids say #palm.

beneath, i have listed, in reverse order, the ten films released last year that moved, challenged, amused, touched and/or entertained me most, with a short description of how or why. please feel free to take me to task in the comments section.

11. Source Code: not as captivating as Moon, but a solid and engaging, if more mainstream, follow-up from Duncan Jones. i like Jake Gyllenhaal.

10. Hanna: beautifully shot, intensely paced, impressively acted (esp. Eric Bana) and raising some interesting issues. ultimately a little overblown in places. warning: some girls will kill you dead.

9. The Adjustment Bureau: suffered from comparisons to Inception and its links with Mad Men, but still stands for me as a crisp, smart pulp-sci-fi-thriller. nice wardrobe. nice Anthony Mackie.

8. Rango: smart, funny and enjoyable across the age spectrum without being overly stratified and relying on the tired slapstick-for-the-kids-innuendo-for-the-adults formula. a cartoon film for film lovers. my family film of the year.

7. Super 8: an excellent movie slightly spoiled by something of a blown-out ending. when it’s good it’s sweet, full of the hopefulness of youth, superbly acted and soaked in the love of the film camera and what it makes possible. a movie made by the Spielberg that Dawson from Dawson’s Creek loved.

6. Friends With Benefits: a smart, well made, genuinely touching and fairly believable Hollywood rom-com is a very rare thing. this felt loose and self-deprecating enough to be amusing and uplifting when it wanted, but also packed a subtle emotional depth. it won’t change the world, but i left surprised and charmed.

5. The Skin I Live In: something of an homage to Eyes Without A Face, this is an intense and emotionally thick drama about repression, pride, revenge and damaged people. Almodovar if not at his very best then certainly close to it, in what stands as a successful and long-overdue reunification with Banderas.

4. Blue Valentine: simple in the best ways. aesthetically beautiful, technically near-flawless, emotionally devastating and fleshed out by brilliant performances from two wonderful actors. warning: some films cut deep.

3. Snowtown: based on the infamous ‘bodies in the barrels’ murders, committed in South Australia in the 90s, this is a hefty, hard-htting, gritty crime-pic (in the true sense of the word, like grit in your eye – and i don’t know if they grade grit, but if they do, coarse). dark and brutal, it shines harsh light on some uncomfortable truths about the shadow-side of community and the nature of the human condition. warning: intensely Australian throughout.

2. The Artist: while it’s not yet on general release in the UK, Michel Hazanavicius’ silent masterpiece was officially released last year, and besides, i saw a preview screening and this is my list, not yours. just a wonderful movie – uplifting cinema at its best. technically daring, crisply and intelligently shot and edited, superbly acted and joyful through and through. a real old-school treat with a dark, powerful truth at its heart.

1. Drive: masterfully shot and edited and thus shockingly contrasting in its tone, it’s both languidly ponderous and deliciously terse in just the right mix. the edgy, über-cool tone of the first 3/4s gives way to a brutal final section. the destructive internal logic of violence and vanity is laid absolutely bare and apparent passivity is re-cast as moral agency. the combination of an achingly good use of light and lens, a wonderfully taut script, pitch-perfect performances from golden Gosling and the utterly lovely Mulligan (with great support from Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks and Ron Perlman among others) and genuinely profound insight make this a neon-noir treat. the film Quentin Tarantino has been trying to make his whole career.

honourable mentions:
– Melancholia
– Biutiful
– Another Earth
– Senna
– Bridesmaids

*edit films i thought of too late
– Norwegian Wood (which i saw in 2010, but, as i was reminded today, actually came out in 2011 and is superb.)

some films that might have impacted this list if i’d got round to seeing them yet:
– Tree of Life
– Cave of Forgotten Dreams
– Neds

thanks for reading in 2011, please stay for a chat below and be assured that you are warmly invited to engage with all entries in the #cinefile that 2012 offers up.

#cinefile: moneyballs

my intentions have been noble, but the reality is that i’m getting behind with the film reviews that i’d like to be offering you.

therefore, here are some very brief thoughts on some films i’ve seen recently that offer little else than you would find in any film column or blog anywhere, followed by some more developed ones about one film that few others seem to have had.

o Snowtown is not that similar to Animal Kingdom, but almost as brilliant.
o the intriguing if odd mix of common dystopian themes in In Time comes out a little too po-faced to be properly engaging. however, i still have mad love for JT and Cillian Murphy.
o Ides of March is both less like Julius Caesar and more dull than i’d expected.
o while Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is painfully cliché ridden and predictable, at least this time no-one wears a prosthetic face that makes them look like Philip French. or do they?!

and so, to the matter at hand: Moneyball *SPOLIERS ahoy*

i’ve always liked Brad Pitt (often despite his films) and nowadays he’s the new Robert Redford. his performance here is strong (if a little face-touchy) as are those turned in by Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman, although, in truth, none of the roles is exactly demanding with the latter’s barely requiring that he break, as it were, a metaphorical ‘trot’.

so, the acting is solid and engaging and, what is more, things are shot very nicely too – a fact that will not surprise those that noticed the name Wally Pfister in small letters on the poster.

some advice for those who don’t take notice of cinematographers: a) you should b) Wally Pfister is the guy that made pretty much all of Chris Nolan’s films look nice c) yes, it is an amusing name.

so far then my assessment is in agreement with most critics, a facet that i will complete by emphasising that Moneyball is not, repeat not, a baseball film. should i want to remain in the same groove as all the critics i’ve read/listened to, however, i’d say that what it is really a film about is statistics.

the trouble is, it’s not. it’s really a film about why, despite everything, late-capitalism is good.

the subtitle of the largely biographical book on which the film is based is The Art of Winning An Unfair Game. as the film explains right from the off, the ‘unfair’ bit refers to the fact that the Oakland As (the baseball team managed by Brad Pitt’s failed-baseball-prodigy character, Billy Beane) are a small franchise in comparison to the big-boys of Major League Baseball, the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and so on.

“There are the rich teams”, Beane explains to his apparently overly-optismistic staff, “there are the poor teams, then there is fifty feet of crap, and then there is us. It’s an unfair game.”

what, it turns out, this essentially means is that as GM of the As Beane has around $50m a year to pay his players, where as the Yankees have more like $125m. this discrepancy is the source of the apparent ‘unfairness’ of Major League Baseball.

now it’s not that i’m unsympathetic to the idea that its unfair that some people have more money than others – on the contrary – but it’s just that that’s not the kind of thing i’d expect to be widely recognised within either the Baseball or Hollywood fraternities.

i mean Baseball is the great American pastime and Hollywood the great American mirror, but Capitalism is the great American way of life. surely when it comes to one company being more wealthy than another, fairness doesn’t come into it?

perhaps, then, this was going to be a shockingly counter-cultural, anti-Capitalist tale?

well. the ‘solution’ to this injustice that the real Beane got from his boss, but the fictional Beane gets from a plucky, young, Yale-educated stat-hound called Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill), who in-turn borrow it from a renegade sports author called Bill James, lies not in feeble flesh and blood, but simple, noble numbers.

if we ignore the conventional wisdom of scouts and sports analysts, Brand insists, we can put together a championship winning baseball team for relatively little money (NB: it is VITAL to remind yourself during the film that ‘no money’ still means millions of dollars).

the key to this ‘thrift’ is to cut through the layers of standard, misguided romance/hubris/superstition by ignoring the vagaries of the game, the players, etc. and simply utilising the purity of statistical data.

the chronic weaknesses of the normal approach are illustrated by virtue of parallel reflections on drafting and trading – the main two ways MLB teams get their players.

‘drafting’ refers to ‘the draft’, which, for those unfamiliar, is a system used in many American sports whereby the top, young amateur players are offered contracts by the pro franchises, who receive picks in a certain order. in Major League Baseball, the order is the reverse of the standings from the previous year, with the team with the worst record having the first pick, and so on. when each team has picked one player, that ’round’ ends and the process begins again until the talent pool is exhausted. this year, for example, this process lasted for fifty rounds and decided the fates of 1530 amateur players.

Beane, flashbacks show us, once ‘had it all’ and as such was hailed, even out of high-school, as baseball’s next big thing and drafted in the first round by the New York Mets. regrettably, it turned out that he couldn’t handle the pressure of the ‘big-leagues’ and his career floundered.

as such, Billy is himself a walking, talking, brooding example of the fact that the scouts and ‘experts’ don’t always get it right: cue “you don’t know for sure, man, I mean not for sure, for sure, you know, man” etc.

in a key scene, Beane – who turned down a Stanford scholarship to accept a large cheque from the Mets – asks Brand how he would have rated him as a rookie. Brand coyly admits that he would have recommended him for the ninth round, not the first, which would have made Stanford the more attractive option.

then we watch Beane and his team of coaches and scouts rank the currently available talent. it’s a charming but clunky round-table scene in which wizened old American men say “I like Cortez – pure swing”. “Robinson has great feet and a strong arm”, and such.

at the rhetorical and didactic peak of the scene, one man speaks out against a proposed player because he has an ugly girlfriend, which, it is suggested, is a sure sign of a lack of confidence. “I just don’t like the girlfriend. When the girl is a six-at-best like this, it’s never a good sign”. an anecdotal nail in the coffin of the romance of the game ‘as is’.

sweeping aside all this prejudice, pseudo-art and quackery, Beane takes Brand’s advice and picks his team using only statistics. they seek out cheap players who have a high .OBP (‘on base percentage’). Brand produces some complicated looking equations that boil down to one number – the average frequency with which each batter is required to get ‘on base’ in order for the team to exceed the average number of wins necessary to be the champions in an average season.

using this number, Brand and Beane set about identifying players who achieve the required score, but are underrated because of other issues – ugly girlfriends, being too old, too fat, too ill-disciplined, etc – which make them cheap.

Brand describes their dream-team as “an island of misfit toys” – cue the soaring, jangly music and we see that romance has not been banished, but its perception is simply being reversed. in order to prevent us from seeing this as a tale about the replacement of human interests with the cold, harsh, impersonal efficiency of mathematics, the protagonists are portrayed as heroic for recognising the true talent (beauty) of those the system has overlooked or rejected. this, however, is a convenient fiction.

once the venture is set in motion, and the team built, pathos is added as the patchwork, collection of Raggy Dolls and rejects lose. and lose. and lose. cue commentator’s voice over the top of choppy losing-montage “They had an idea and they tried it, but it has failed. You cannot pick a baseball team on the basis of numbers.”

from our insider perspective, however, we know what the commentators don’t. the failures are the result of the team manager’s lack of belief in the system. Art Howe, played by Hoffman, refuses to bow to the numbers, and rearranges the roster of available players in line with his own, traditional perspective.

failing to convince him to do his bidding, Beane simply trades Howe’s preferred players to other teams, forcing him to fall in line.

as the film/season progresses and the new philosophy proves takes hold, there is a dramatic change in the team’s fortunes and they go from bottom of their division to its top, breaking a 100-year record by completing twenty consecutive victories.

so the definitely-not-a-sports-film does have a quintessentially sports-film-esque cliché. and with that, the romance returns, right? well not for me.

whichever way you square it – and Moneyball tires all kinds of ways – there is no getting away from the fact that at its core, the story is about the potential benefits to a company that result from treating its employees like numbers instead of like people. in the course of the film, players are traded and cut without the slightest concern for their interests. by the end i was thinking that at least the chauvinistic scout had noticed that the player had a girlfriend; at least he’d thought of him as human.

essentially what the Beane of the film does is ruthlessly remove all processes or working norms that treat his employees as anything other than numbers on a page. he invests everything the company has and takes every risk possible to establish himself as an impassive calculator with the power to add, subtract and dividing his staff at will.

he makes himself blind to any other aspect of the game and is guided only by the desire for the best statistical edge the money he has can offer. this sort of behaviour ringing any bells? what is more, it’s made fairly clear that he does all of this primarily as a result of the mental trauma caused by his own failure as a player (hmmmm, Dr Freud).

of course, in the film (and apparently in real life) the gamble pays off. despite the fact that the statistics concerned describe a slight, average advantage over a long period (i.e. long enough for natural variance to oven out) and the system treats all negative effects from other factors: form, health, happiness, etc. as ‘externalities’, the team performs massively beyond expectation over a very short period of time. oh, and the system gets the credit.

in truth, the change is so rapid and profound, that i would have thought any statisticians would want to look for another explanation other than the small, average edge the team had when it came to ‘getting on base’. however: first, when the team is losing everyone hates the system, then when the team is winning, everyone loves it. as a poker player the first lesson i learned was not to be results orientated – if you play well, your edge is profitable over time. the rest is just luck.

anywho, despite a dramatically successful season, the team loses in the first round of the post-season playoffs, failing to realise Beane’s dreams of a championship win. but, Beane and Brand (who then completely disappears into the background), have successfully proven their point. their approach, some captions tell us before the credits, has gone on to revolutionise baseball.

at the story’s conclusion Beane rejects a $12.5m offer from the Red Sox that, if accepted, would have made him the best paid sports GM in history. he does it partly because of his family, partly because of his desire to stay with the As and win a championship there, but mainly because he once made a decision based on money, and will never make the same error again.

perhaps, therefore, this undoes my theory that Moneyball is an apology for finance capitalism? well perhaps. however, if we learned anything from Wall Street in the 80s (the movie), Nick Leeson in the 90s and Wall Street in the 00s (the place), it should be that derivatives traders, hedge-fund managers and other late-capitalist apparatus, are not primarily motivated by money.

as Leeson and many others that followed in his footsteps more recently have admitted, what they were doing became nothing to do with money – instead it became a numbers game; a game that it became worth risking everything to win. now, i’m not saying traders would do it for the love – they are handsomely paid – but then it’s not their own money that they gamble with.

Beane might turn down the 12.5m, but he remains the GM of an MLB team, a job that commands a six figure salary. for me, the most telling line in the film is delivered by Arliss Howard who plays Red Sox owner John Henry. prior to Beane turning down Henry’s offer, they are chatting and Beane raises the fact that he had hear that Henry had hired Bill James, the guy who wrote the book from which Brand had originally derived the idea. Henry responds that he has no idea why it took someone so long to hire James. “Well”, Beane retorts, “baseball hates him.” Here is Henry replies:

“Yeah, well baseball can hate him. One of the great things about money is that it buys a lot of things; one of which is the luxury to disregard what baseball likes and doesn’t like, what baseball thinks and doesn’t think.”

ladies and gentlemen, i give you Moneyball or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Finance Capitalism.

#RIP: Ken Russell

Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell:
3rd July 1927 – 27th November 2011

with sadness we note the death of one of the greatest directors, photographers, music lovers and patrons of the arts to grace our times.

anima eius et animae omnium fidelium
defunctorum per dei misericordiam
requiescant in pace

Russell is best known for his adaptations of D.H. Lawrence’s Women In Love (1969), which stands as one of the all-time great British films, his dramatic, theological masterpiece The Devils (1971), and the film version of The Who’s rock-opera Tommy (1975).

despite being a keen fan of these great films, it is for another entry in his portfolio that i will best remember Russell. while it wasn’t until my late teens that i saw the films listed above, it was as a child of eleven that i sat transfixed by a late-night, BBC 2 broadcast of his techno-coloured, psycho-sexual odyssey, Altered States (1980).

in this hallucino-sci-fi classic, William Hurt plays a University research chemist (based on John C. Lilly) who takes first LSD, then a tincture made from Mexican Caapi vines, suspends himself in a flotation tank and attempts to record and reflect on the results.

apart from opening my eyes to the possibilities of the human mind, the human body and Drew Barrymore (who debuts), that night marked a key point in the development of my passion for films. as well as the strange wonders worked by Russell and Hurt in Altered States, a not-insignificant part of my love for it comes from John Corigliano’s superb (and superbly used) soundtrack.

Russell’s influence on the evolution of the modern film soundtrack is widely under-appreciated, yet profound. not only were the two films he released in 1975, Tommy and Lisztomania, two of the first motion pictures to feature Dolby-encoded soundtracks (something for which he fought hard), but also his passion for and superb use of music is evidenced throughout his back-catalogue.

those who only know Russell from his recent, eccentric appearances on reality TV are unlikely to be reading this blog, but if that’s true of you, i urge you to rent his films and therein encounter a true genius of the cinema.

i will leave you to seek out Altered States and Coriglino’s score, and instead conclude this eulogy with one of Russell’s favourite pieces – used expertly in a great performance scene his 1970 Tchaikovsky biopic, The Music Lovers.

Rafael Orozco with The London Symphony Orchestra
conducted by André Previn – Allegro Non Troppo E Molto Maestoso
from Piano Concerto #1 In B Flat Minor by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

#cinefile: two months in movies

¡hola amigo!

please read on if you’re interested in a brief summary of my thoughts concerning the new films that i’ve seen and heard in the last two months or so. spoilers will be minimal yet possible. said films are:

o Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
o Friends With Benefits
o Melancholia
o Contagion
o Drive

i ended up being quite late to Tinker, Tailor… eventually catching it nearly a fortnight after release. by that time, my expectations were perhaps too high. i am a huge fan of Tomas Alfredson’s previous film, Let The Right One In, and although i have never read the source novel, i knew and admired the story from the 1979 TV adaptation. furthermore, the cast was difficult to look beyond: the words Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Toby Jones and Mark Strong on the same poster send a powerful message.

perhaps almost inevitably, however, i came away slightly disappointed. there was plenty of good stuff – Oldman, Hurt and Strong were stand-out excellent against a backdrop of really solid performances. the intelligent use of colour and unusual camera angles that added so much to Let The Right One In found its way in to TTSS, but i very much got the sense that Alfredson felt he was working with a revered text, and as a result chose to be (perhaps too) restrained.

my main gripe, aside from Kathy Burke’s seeming inability to do more than one voice, was with the pacing. while i enjoyed the slow, smoke-drenched scenes of John Hurt’s ‘Control’ musing at his desk early on, and later Oldman nudging around chess pieces in the same office, i felt that things were generally just a little too ponderous for the first three quarters, making the unfolding of events in the last quarter too rapid.

there are plenty of nice moments – not least Toby Jones’ ongoing impression of Brain from Pinky and the Brain – but for me something just wasn’t quite ‘clicked in’. to use a fabric-based analogy to express my initial feelings, if Let The Right One In is a clean square of thick, matt mid-grey, Highland-woven worsted wool (beautiful, but simple and utterly unfussy) and something like The Adjustment Bureau is a crisp strip of navy and white striped satin silk (thin, but bright and sleek), then TTSS is a long rectangle of high quality, well cut, dark brown Gabardine (smart, functional, but a bit dull).

it’s always difficult to judge the effect of prior expectations on how you read a film, but, reflecting a few weeks on, i’m not yet convinced that my first impression was a significant distortion.

…………………

the day after i saw TTSS, i watched Friends With Benefits, which despite playing out in the context of an equal but opposite set of expectations confounded them to the same degree.

although FWB is in some ways a standard, mainstream RomCom which is unable not to give in to several clichés, i also found it to be witty, warm and genuine in a way that so few such films are.

although clearly floated as an inverse, contemporised When Harry Met Sally, FWB manages to tip its hat in that direction without falling prey to “I’ll have what he’s having” wink & gun ploys. in fact it generally avoids all the usual pitfalls. the characters are well drawn and at ease with each other, the sex comedy is well observed and believable and the heart-felt moments are not choked by schmaltz.

in his acting career so far, Justin Timberlake has made a habit of being the best thing in mostly terrible movies – Alpha Dog and The Love Guru being my key witnesses here, but i would be willing to put The Social Network on the stand if you forced me. here, in the best film i’ve seen him in yet, his performance is genuinely strong – likeable and well-rounded yet understated; graceful even.

as one of three JT releases in the second half of this year – along with Bad Teacher and (the intriguing looking if Logan’s Run-esque) In Time – i’d say things look very good for his acting career right now.

likewise, Mila Kunis (who was the best, least hysterical, thing in Black Swan by some distance) chips in an equally strong and enjoyable performance in the context of that rarest of RomCom offerings, a charming, strong-minded, non-neurotic lead female character who is more understated than underwired.

furthermore, Woody Harrelson and Richard Jenkins round off a cast that is far more talented than it would need to be to sit comfortably alongside its peers. while, admittedly, this film isn’t going to change the world, it’s definitely a recent high-water mark on the harbour wall of a genre that often seems to satisfy itself with grounded ships.

basically, it’s like Friends, but with benefits: 1. it won’t be on TV every hour of every day for 15 years. 2. it’s pretty good.

…………………

perhaps more so than anyone else in contemporary cinema, Lars von Trier sharply divides opinion. although i am a fan of his films, i am in no doubt that he is a man who delights in appalling his friends let alone his enemies. perhaps he is a misogynist, perhaps a Catholic, perhaps a Nazi-sympathiser, or perhaps just a self-created, curdled mix of those two French phrases so beloved of film critics and writers, agent provocateur and enfant terrible.

his films, which are what interest and exercise me, are usually combinations of brutality and beauty, although this pattern is perhaps less obviously true of Melancholia than any other (excluding perhaps The Boss of It All).

here, von Trier tackles depression – a subject close to his head and mine. the film revolves around possibly the least subtle metaphor ever, an eponymous planet, on a collision-course with the earth, but in true von Trier style, the norms of suspense sci-fi are frustrated from the outset, when we see the impact occur and know that what we have witnessed will not turn out to be a false memory or an avoidable, possible outcome, but a simple flash-forward.

the film is not about whether the world will be destroyed, but about how various characters respond to the reality of its impending destruction. Jack Bauer, as you can imagine, is not up for dying, but this time he loses.

depression – which the film implicitly interprets as a palpable sense of the pointlessness and fragility of existence – is therefore not affliction, but liberation from a shared delusion, which, whether or not von Trier knows it, is actually a version of rather well-worn trope (if we substitute ‘depression’ for ‘madness’).

the performances and the visual style are strong and i found the film poignant, even if the message is predictably bleak. now that her stint as Mrs. Spiderman has passed, Kirsten Dunst is finally making good on the sophisticated potential of her performances in Interview with the Vampire and The Virgin Suicides. like Emily Watson (Breaking The Waves), but unlike Nicole Kidman (Dogville), Bryce Dallas Howard (Manderlay) or Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist), Dunst has a natural air of fragility which, in the hands of someone like von Trier, evoked (probably deliberately) a paternalistic dread in me. as it is, she receives far less rough treatment than Watson.

as a fellow MDD sufferer, i disagree with von Trier on the nature of depression, but i admired this film and would recommend it – however, if you haven’t and can, see Antichrist first.

…………………

Contagion, as you will probably have already figured, is part limp, closet-racist disaster movie, part menacing public information film. yes, germs are coming to get us all, and a bit like the collapse of the global economy (ah, i get it), they will highlight and make fools of impotent politics and hamstrung bureaucracy in the process.

if you’re imagining a whirlwind of microscopes, hazmat suits and large-screen maps in command centres gradually going red as the spread of a virus is modelled over time, then prepare to be utterly unsurprised. if you also assumed that, with the so called Arab Spring muddying the waters of American popular discourse on the Middle East, the threat would likely originate from carelessnesses in China (the new economic superpower), then you, madamsir, are flying high. what’s more, if you’d also wager that Jude Law would probably be able to do a passable Australian accent, then, damn, you fell at the final hurdle.

why Steven Soderburgh (who i still think of as a solid director) got involved in this mess, i have no idea. although, if he’s trying to steer his career in a more Tony Scott direction, then perhaps that covers it.

if it’s true that some films, however pedestrian the concept or ropey the screenplay, are lifted to a higher plane simply by virtue of the quality of cast, then this film would seem a decent candidate for that phenomenon. however, despite the valiant efforts of Damon, Winslet, Cotillard, Fishburne, Paltrow and Bryan ‘in-everything-right-now’ Cranston (Jude Law failed to meet the requirement in the previous sentence), Contagion remains barely passable.

setting Jude Law’s abomination of a performance to one side, the biggest problem for Contagion is not that it’s clichéd, or that it’s heavy-handed (big, lead-lined hazmat gloves heavy-handed), but that it’s boring. what’s more, there are repeated attempts to raise ethical issues concerning entitlement to information/treatment/immunisation, but the characters concerned are so thin and the emotional bonds between them so weak that i couldn’t have cared less who lived or died.

although as a Soderbergh fan this film disappointed me, its many failings are largely unimportant. there are two things however, that struck me as genuinely problematic: 1. the way in which it will, regardless of Soderbergh’s intention, play into (as much as confront) the widespread culture of fear-mongering that plagues the US (and increasingly UK) media. and 2. the fact that at one point Lawrence Fishburne’s character, when challenged, during a TV news item, about the effectiveness of a widely available but unrecommended, natural medicine (Forsythia), reluctantly admits the potential benefits of homeopathy.

this might sound insignificant, but the role of Forsythia – whose effectiveness is downplayed by the government in order to encourage a larger up-take of a vaccine that in the opinion of the hero, sceptical journalist, played by Jude Law, is the result of a lucrative deal with a big pharmaceutical company – is rhetorically significant.

there is no really clear-cut message in the film, but a general theme about political incompetence is reinforced by the way the potential remedy is used. in a sense, Forsythia is the closest thing the film has to a hero. and that is why it’s so annoying that Lawrence Fishburne, the script writer, editor and Soderbergh himself clearly don’t know the difference between natural medicine (which is very likely a powerful and important skill that Western cultures have lost) and homeopathy (which is a load of old bollocks).

…………………

talking of people with a lot of films out at the moment – which we were. in relation to Justin Timberlake. earlier – smoulderingly uncertain, Canadian boy-man and recently crowned king of the feminists, Ryan Gosling has been busy, with three films out this year (equalling last) and more projects slated for next.

given that i ‘missed’ (and have no plans to catch up with) Crazy, Stupid, Love, and i’ve missed both the preview screening of The Ides of March last week and each screening since it opened, Drive is currently the only of this year’s ‘Gosling triple’ to hit my eyes.

Drive is a sleek, slow, stylish and brilliant pulp drama about a man whose mad drivin’ skillz, experience using them for getaways and simple desire to (quietly and respectfully) please pretty women are destined to carry him into a messy world of crime and violence. the “icecool guy who’s involved with the criminal underworld but somehow floats above its vagaries because of an autistic-like obsession with efficiency” conceit (as i like to call it) is pretty old hat, but it’s revived in the first three quarters of Drive to great effect *loudly clenches leather-glove-clad fist*.

in part, it reminded me of early Tarantino (True Romance, Reservoir Dogs), Mexico-trilogy-era Rodrigues, Stone’s Natural Born Killers and Lynch’s Wild At Heart – but in truth it’s less messy or darkly humorous than those films and is both more ponderous and more shiny. perhaps things like Rian Johnson’s Brick, or early Michael Mann (Thief?) offer up better comparisons?

certainly those hoping for fast-paced action sequences are in for a disappointment. despite flirting with certain classic male fantasies like the ‘regular’ looking car with hidden, super-charged abilities, Drive ends up quite far from an overtly machismo-fuelled joy-ride. while it has been superbly edited with expert restraint, the pace is generally slow – and while there are some chase sequences, the camera is relatively uninterested when it comes to all-out-thrill-seeking.

feminista favourite Gosling does a masterful job of silently staring out of windows while a neo-romantic synth score plays and caring about children. however, i was particularly struck by Carey Mulligan’s performance.

while it’s perfectly cromulent to read Mulligan’s character as a standard, passive female character, trapped in wake of the destructive actions of the men around her and stripped of all agency (she literally does next to nothing in the whole film), perhaps against the grain of the film (or perhaps not) i read her differently.

i’m not exactly what it was – small details in the character and performance; a look here, an expression there, the absence of a line – but something convinced me that Mulligan’s ‘Irene’ was (as her name suggests) meant not to be passive but actively peaceful (peace-like) in a counter-testimonial way.

in this sense, for me, Irene subverted not only the standard, background hum of violence surrounding her ex-con husband and various other nefarious types, but also the clinical, faux-impassivity of The Driver, which eventually gives way to his true ‘nature’ in the face of his desire to save her. *hint: the fable of the scorpion and the frog is not-so-subtley referenced throughout.

read one way, Driver is an aesthetically beautiful but morally dubious pulp fluff. taken another, it is something far more interesting, stimulating and impressive. either way, with the two leads joined by Bryan ‘Breaking Malcolm in the Bad Middle’ Cranston, Ron ‘Ever-Ugly’ Pearlman and Christina ‘Joany’ Hendricks, it’s definitely one to watch and ponder on.

given the way it struck me, it will be tricky for Driver not to top my list of favourite films of the year, and to be honest, the ‘decade’s best’ list is in its sights too.

…………………

fin. ished.

#cinefile: oscar rundown

so, friends, tonight is the night on which the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announce the winners of their annual awards for the 83rd time.

it wouldn’t be right to let the opportunity pass without joining the near-infinite throng of people who always offer their insignificant and largely uneducated opinion on which films should win, and (more importantly if real kudos is important to you) which films and people have been unbelievable overlooked by the boorish, lazy and out-of-touch Academy.

so here we go – what follows is my take on the films that 2010 built.

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Best Picture:

from the nominees, i would be fairly happy to see any of Inception, True Grit or Winter’s Bone win – with Inception being the choice that would probably leave me the most contented. of course, it will likely go to The Social Network or The King’s Speech, which i thought were both dullness warmed up. if Black Swan wins i will weep.

films that, in my opinion, were overlooked in this category include: Another Year, Made in Dagenham, Monsters, Perrier’s Bounty, Des Hommes et des Dieux and the brilliant Animal Kingdom (which qualifies by virtue of having opened in the States in August last year, even though it has already been released on DVD in Australia and has only just made it into UK cinemas this week).

Best Director:

i imagine this will have come down to a tight slug-fest between Fincherites and O. Russelaphiles on the panel, but, if you forced me, i’d have to bet on Fincher. while i wouldn’t be too displeased if the Coens won for what is a solid film (if some way off their best), i think it is little short of a scandal that Chris Nolan is absent from the list. i would give it to Nolan (for Inception), but would also have made mention of Mike Leigh (Another Year), Gareth Edwards (Monsters) and Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone).

if Darren Aronofsky wins it will be overdue reward in absolutely the wrong year.

Actor In A Leading Role:

there is really no point in even talking about this one. Colin Firth very clearly has it all wrapped up with a bow and a label saying ‘For Colin Firth’. it was, however, nice to see Javier Bardem nominated for Biutiful – which (for the Academy) should probably go down as something of a left-field move.

although, as we’ve established, it would only ever have been a token gesture, it would have been nice to have seen nods for Tahar Rahim for Un Prophète and George Clooney for The American.

Actor In A Supporting Role:

while the smart money is on Christian you’re ruining the fucking shot you prick Bale, I’d love to see John Hawkes win for Winter’s Bone.

as for those who were overlooked, recognition for Brendan Gleeson’s turn in Perrier’s Bounty and Guy Pearce’s performance in Animal Kingdom would both have pleased me.

Actress In A Leading Role:

here, again, the gamblers are seeing little-to-no value with Natalie Portman standing as odds-on to grab the gold, after early favourite Annette Bening apparently refused to follow through with her campaign (known as ‘pulling a Finney’). having not yet seen Rabbit Hole, i can’t comment on Nicole Kidman’s nomination, but i what i can say is that i will dance and sing loudly if, by the intervention of Thor, Freyja or Loci the god of mischief himself, either Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine) or Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) were to pip her to the post.

the former is a long-standing favourite of mine and a performer that has profoundly matured in the last six or seven years and is now a character actor of real polish. Lawrence, by contrast, wasn’t really on my radar until i was really struck by what is an astonishing contribution to an excellent thriller – strangely reminiscent of a toned-down Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers or Dusk Till Dawn.

if there were any justice in the world, Hailee Steinfeld would be nominated in this category rather than the next, for a brilliant performance in a role that stands as a lead by any measure. however, in truth, the fact she has been bumped down is probably testimony to the quality of her performance – assuming that the decision was essentially pragmatic. if, however, she does not win for best supporting female, then she will have been robbed of the significant and justified accolade of a Best Actress nomination at such a early stage.

Actress In A Supporting Role:

given that HBC’s performance in The King’s Speech is so inert that it is out-shone by at least two other females whose characters enjoy significantly less screen time when added together – Jennifer Ehle (as Myrtle Logue) and Ramona Marquez (as Princess Margaret) – it will be a travesty if she gets swept to victory by the film’s momentum, a la BAFTAs.

Amy Adams received a fairly worthy nod, but for me it really comes down to the wunderkind (Steinfeld) versus to two cold, hard, working-class mothers – Melissa Leo for The Fighter and Jacki Weaver for Animal Kingdom. I’d love it to be Steinfeld, it would be good if it were Weaver, but it will probably be Leo.

Animated Feature:

it’s difficult to oppose Toy Story 3’s nailed on win in this category too vehemently, especially considering that many critics have advocated for it winning the biggie (which just ain’t going to happen).

given that it’s a sparsely inhabited category this time round, it’s very sad that the Academy did not have the insight to nominate Chico y Rita, which is a really joyful and joy-making film, and was by far my favourite animation of the last year.

Documentary:

i haven’t seen many documentaries in the last year, but from what i have seen, Inside Job deserves to (and i think probably will) win. i’m so glad I’m Still Here was snubbed.

Foreign Language:

in line with the ignorance that allows this category to continue to carry such a colonialist title, the cohort this year is seriously lacking. Biutiful will no-doubt win, because it is the least foreign of all of them, but the real tragedy is not the transparency of the empty gesture that this category represents, but the absence of Un Prophète, Chico y Rita and Des Hommes et des Dieux.

i’m not going to waste time commenting on categories that no-one but the massivist nerds care about, but let’s just spare two good thoughts for Roger Deakins – a Brit, a gentleman and one of, if not the, greatest cinematographers of all time. if he wins for True Grit, it will ice yet another great year and yet another great collaboration with the Coens.

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right, well, with very little time left before the show tips off, i’m off to find a duvet and a pillow and to start creating a warm, comfy nest on the sofa.

happy oscaring.

#RIP: John Barry

John Barry Prendergast:
3rd November 1933 – 30th January 2011

with sadness we note the death of one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers, arrangers and orchestra leaders.

anima eius et animae omnium
fidelium defunctorum per dei
misericordiam requiescant in pace

born in York in 1933, Barry is, of course, best known for the unforgettable scores he composed for the James Bond film series, but these were but a few of his brilliant contributions to film and TV soundtrack history.

he scored Zulu, The Ipcress File, Beat Girl, The Quiller Memorandum, Game of Death, Midnight Cowboy, The Persuaders, and many, many more great films and TV programmes.

.

Beat for Beatniks by The John Barry Orchestra