Tag Archives: review

The Ghost Writer (a review)

There seems to be a weighted significance in every shot of The Ghost, albeit a mundane significance in most; a glance at a page, a turn of a tap, the ex-Prime Minister resting his hands on a full-wall window.  There is not a wasted shot, but, then again, it could easily have shed many of them.  It’s a paradox vital to the decent mystery thriller.  One is uncertain of the unrest – the mysterious mood and the cause itself – so every element is granted a lingering suspicion.  Some objects fade in the narrative.  Others drop out to return at a pivotal plot reveal much later, almost cathartic in its recognition and the pursuing uttering of “Of course” to oneself in the theatre’s night.  There is a wonderment of companionship when the character on-screen realises something the very moment you do; mouth agape, important document dropped to floor, popcorn missing the mouth to collect in the lap’s rubbish tip.

It is a restrained film in its editing and pace.  And hardly any violence depicted at all.  Then why is there such foreboding?  Alexandre Desplat’s score (flickering between a Christmassy enchantment and booming threat) is too inconsistent and sometimes invasive to warrant for much.  The film’s stormy weather is effective, but often blows into cliché.  It lies in the traces of violence and perversity left in each scene.

Pulsing lights are frequent; warning lights on the back of a ship, outside an estate’s entrance gate, the beating illumination of a ringing mobile phone, the island’s lighthouse.  The set design is also important.  Adam Lang, the ex-Prime Minister, decorates his house with a series of nightmarish paintings.  Red is persistent, in an introspective Rothko way, and is scattered in violently in them.  As though the war crimes Lang is accused of took place in his very house, so complacent in his position, or maybe, so haunted by his decision, they are left there scarring the walls.

However, it is in the dialogue and actors where the tangible menace most evidently lies.  They issue their threats in the most disguised form – plain delivery!  When Ghost (Ewan McGregor’s ‘ghost writer’ is never given a name) boards Lang’s plane, he remarks that this is the first time he has flown on a private jet.  “Let’s hope it’s not your last”, replies Lang’s assistant, Amelia Bly.  Said in such a discarded, sarcastic way, as so often happens in reality, becomes a snarling threat – given emphasis by the suspicion and paranoia compounded beforehand.  As I noted before, the pace is restrained, but in the way a rabid dog is restrained; forcing its way closer and closer, bearing its teeth and tongue, back paws pushing the earth aside – but always inches away.  Teeth are bared in these dialogues, enough to remind you of what remains on that leash – and the inevitable knowledge that its handler will hold on for only so long.

For The Ghost is a very entertaining and engrossing thriller.  But this is also its main flaw.  In its conclusion (which is as redemptive as the final scene in Michael Clayton, oddly enough also starring Tom Wilkinson), it conforms and contorts into all the conventions typical of its genre.  The conspiracy theory is revealed.  Everything is once again black and white.

This is in opposition to the scenes before it, which pose some interesting questions – questions, might I add, which prompt a response from one, which makes one contemplate.  The thriller narrative, of course, doesn’t want to accommodate an ambiguous ending, where one would leave the cinema still contemplating, and instead neatly wraps things up.  One question posed, which I found the most intriguing and the film’s greatest moment, arose when Ghost confronted Lang about the conspiracy theory which lay beneath the accusations of war crime.  Lang, at its end, is invigorated with anger – not of an arch-villain, but of a real, regretful human being.

He shouts that if he could do it all again, he would make airports have two queues; one with no searches or regulations, with everyone’s liberty and freedom intact; the other controlled strongly, with checks and intelligence sourced from torturing terrorist suspects.  Which one then would parents send their children on? he venomously concludes.  That he says all this with such passion, yet aware of its own abhorrence, makes one realise that he is much like us.  He shares the same disgust of torture tactics, yet has clearly advocated its use.  But this has most probably made his country safer.  What, then, of us?  Of our complicity with this all?  The idea that the torture of few for the safety of many is a very uncomfortable truth, and it bursts from almost nowhere in a thriller film which has set Lang up to be a great evil.

Sometimes, when someone is placed in a position of extraordinary power, and makes decisions which impact the lives of many, it is very easy to consider them an embodiment of pure evil.  Sometimes they may be right.  But most of the time, I expect, and a case made in The Ghost Writer, they are hardly any different from us.  As uncomfortable as that may be.

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The Blind Side (a review)

This film is poison.

And a poison in cinema is a very dangerous one at that.  Its malevolence comes from cinema’s ability to make you forget that you exist.  To completely immerse one in the fictional world it purports.  This is where the danger lies, because one is so invested, it is so easy to lose oneself – to become sucked in to a story and characters and beauty and flow, only to sacrifice all critical distance.  I was a victim to this myself in The Blind Side, leaving the theatre inspired and happy.  It took a good half hour and a viewing of Shutter Island to remind me how uncomfortable The Blind Side’s first half made me.

The Blind Side’s poison is an obsolete moral system.  I won’t delve into the more obvious corruptions The Blind Side possesses (that a good, Christian, white family can ‘adopt’ a black youth from the projects – as patronising and colonial as it sounds heart-warming and ridiculous).  The film’s more worrying aspect comes from its focus on Christian morality.

The film is set in Memphis, Tennessee, and firmly in the social sphere of white bourgeois Americans whose matriarchs spend their free time organising charity balls and fundraisers.  Yes, a good deed, but there’s something deeply repulsive and better-than-thou about that way of giving.

In The Blind Side, for instance, when a character performs a good deed, they are often commended by their supporting cast as ‘Good Christians’, as though ‘good’ is a quality that mere humans do not posses.  I always consider things in terms of being a ‘good human’, or more cliché, a ‘good member of society’.  Ironically, this, and the notion of a ‘Bad Christian’ fill up the film’s own blind side – present, yet ignored.

To complicate this, all characters who ‘adopt’ Michael Oher – be it the family, the football coach, the chosen University – benefit from it.  The Christian focus on charity has always been on the giver over the receiver, and this selfishness is displayed in full abhorrence here, but, in Blind Side style, is firmly ignored, suppressed and disguised as simply being a ‘Good Christian’.  Mrs. Tuohy gains a self-serving happiness from helping Michael; the coach gets a star football player; Mr. Tuohy pleases his wife by agreeing – there is no sacrifice here.  Oscar Wilde outlined such concerns…

‘Christ was not merely the supreme individualist, but he was the first individualist in history. People have tried to make him out an ordinary philanthropist, or ranked him as an altruist with the scientific and sentimental. But he was really neither one nor the other. Pity he has, of course, for the poor, for those who are shut up in prisons, for the lowly, for the wretched; but he has far more pity for the rich, for the hard hedonists, for those who waste their freedom in becoming slaves to things, for those who wear soft raiment and live in kings’ houses. Riches and pleasure seemed to him to be really greater tragedies than poverty or sorrow. And as for altruism, who knew better than he that it is vocation not volition that determines us, and that one cannot gather grapes of thorns or figs from thistles?’

But then if we are to think of the other characters, it is almost impossible to do so.  There is the father, the teacher, the coach, Big Mike, the little (annoying) brother – characters defined by their relationship to the story, not by character itself.  To simplify this further, the film only ever provides one motive per character.  There is no change or development and thus no satisfaction from the story.  Likewise – there are no obstacles.  Consequently, the film’s first half is almost without any pace or interest altogether.

For the poison works twofold.  We have a moral infliction on one hand, a lowering of cinematic standards on the other.  The Blind Side’s danger comes from convincing us that it has passion, originality and meaning – it has nothing of the sort!  We, as spectators, are beaten into an idiotic putty and sculpted as they please.

But like I mentioned at the beginning, I too was drawn in.  As soon as the film gathers a little tempo (through sports montage, a near impossible device to fail with), one starts to invest.  We cheer for Michael as we root for the family and their anti-racist stance (but, make no mistake, it is nothing but an expensive mask covering indifference).  Even S.J., the little brother, can somehow provoke a few chuckles.

However, this is The Blind Side’s great threat – that it can make one forget how awful and poisonous the film actually is.  Maybe the smoke and mirrors approach accounts for Bullock’s Oscar win; her face largely inexpressive, never fully conveying any significant emotion.

This film is a cancer.  It will infect both spectator and cinema itself.  It devalues the art.  Film is so much more than this, and as long as tripe like The Blind Side continues to be made, cinema will forever be shackled to its lowest points of mediocrity – Republican/Christian propaganda.

Avatar – continuing underwhelment

After being disappointed that ‘underwhelment’ isn’t actually a word, in trying to describe how I felt this morning when I woke, I went searching for other people’s opinions to help clarify my own.  I’m confused by Avatar.  Not by the film of course, because it’s so retardedly simple (what, ‘retardedly’ isn’t either?), but of my own continuing reactions to it.

My companion that night summed it up perfectly: “completely underwhelming and overwhelming at the same time”.  A pretty good conclusion, and a contradiction which has kept Avatar in my thoughts for a lot longer than it deserves.

Here’s a brilliant audiovisual review of Avatar by RedLetterMedia.  It may not be as masterful as his 7-part Phantom Menace deconstruction, but still very insightful…

The Hurt Locker (a review)

By the most glorious of chances – a chance, I might add, which has a perfectly reasonable explanation and should not be reduced to fate, luck, fortune or any other absurd cause – I viewed both The Hurt Locker and In The Loop on the same day.  Even if the films were completely different, to see, or experience, anything in such close proximity would provoke comparisons.  Where the films were similar, where they contrasted, the difference in themes, performance, aesthetic techniques – a dialectic stance is inevitable in such instances.

Due to its Oscar win, and presumably a sense of victory for ‘independent’ cinema, The Hurt Locker was screened yesterday afternoon – 18:20 to be precise – at my local, independent cinema, Genesis.  Coincidentally, In The Loop was present on BBC iPlayer, having being screened earlier in the week on Sunday night, and as this was my only chance to watch it before its expiry date (the life of a student being so busy) I watched it only hours after having seen The Hurt Locker.

I very much enjoyed The Hurt Locker.  In the rare instances where I remembered I was watching a film, I recalled Hitchcock’s musings on cinema as instrument…

“I enjoy playing the audience like a piano”

In a lengthier quotation, Hitchcock asks his cinematographer to image a day when a machine, like a piano, exists, and all the director need do is hit a button on it to obtain a specific emotion from his audience.  The notion that if a director uses a certain shot at a certain time, it causes me laugh out loud is fascinating, and it was at full work in The Hurt Locker.  Not so much with the laughter response though.  A tense sequence of bomb diffusing needs to be portrayed.  Fine – we’ll use a series of cut aways of people watching, juxtaposing long shots with extreme close up.  Parallel editing, depicting two events unfolding simultaneously – we’ll use that too.  We can show someone running away, who is already established as the potential bomb planter beforehand, at the same time as showing someone diffusing the bomb.  Simple.  Can the bomb be diffused?  Will the enemy be captured? – too many questions need a response for one’s attention to stray.  This is a supreme method of emotional engagement, and one that Katheryn Bigelow uses to perfection, plucking one’s heartstrings just as Hitchcock plays his keys.

The human element too, of our boys in Iraq (soldiers, for me, despite being anti-war, seem to command a sense of respect – of sympathy) keeps one emotionally invested to an extreme.  That she manages to draw out, over the course of a feature film (130mins, in this case) the rather tired premise of “blue wire, red wire?” is commendable.  ‘Which wire to cut?’ has become such a gimmick in mainstream actioneers that it has resigned itself to cliché.  But this film answers the conventional, suspense building technique, the gimmick, with reality.  In a Warhol-esque style, bomb diffusion is robbed of all its style, of its spectacle.  In being desensitised from it through constant exposure, one is allowed to objectify it, to focus more upon the routine of it all.

The Hurt Locker is an extraordinary film, and I would recommend it to all.  However, as an Oscar winner, I teethe with it slightly.

I try not to judge, as I have yet to see Avatar (I’m booked in for the IMAX this Sunday night [is it meant to be written in capitals like that, or is it because when I think of the imax, I actually think IMAX?]), but the Oscar winner for Best Picture, for me, always signifies a certain style.  Every year I have a personal favourite American film.  2007 was Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  2008 was There Will Be Blood.  2005, like it matters, was Brick.  Now, although I don’t expect my favourite, American film of the year to win best Oscar, in my mind, it always stands out as the true winner, overshadowing the official ones.

For me (I fear I use that introduction to a point far too much), I always envision superior American film to be of a specific aesthetic, as an example of a national cinema.  Inherited from John Ford and Nick Ray, I always think of the mature American cinema as being slow, long panning shots.  A very restrained editing pace.  Very understated character motives.  My favourite example of this is Cool Hand Luke.  Slow…superficially deep (in a paradox I’ve only ever experienced the Americans to manage)…long shots of landscapes.  Like I said, I don’t expect my favourite American film of the year to win an Oscar (it won a best supporting actor Oscar – who? – George Kennedy – oh yeah, I REMEMBER HIM), but certain aesthetics are key, certain outlooks are needed.

The Oscars, contrary to what it would like to believe, will very rarely crown the world’s best film of the year.  It will barely even crown America’s best film!  Yet it is still representative of a conservatism to the American ideal.  As distorted as the Baftas are today by its subordinate status to the Oscars, the Oscars themselves are distorted by its love of excess, of success.  This year, instead, it came from a particular, political dialectic, between an underdog and its juggernaut.  As I said, I have yet to see the latter and refrain from judging, but I would suspect the more worthy, more traditionally worthy films, for Best Picture were ignored.

Now this is where the paradox stands up to me, shouting “erm…like, you’re full a shit”.  I looked at the nominations list for Best Picture in hope of evidence for defence against my claims.  No such relief.  There is no film here that embraces this mature, American style…

  • Avatar
  • The Blind Side
  • District 9
  • An Education
  • The Hurt Locker
  • Inglourious Basterds
  • Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
  • A Serious Man
  • Up
  • Up in the Air

Now, in order, I haven’t seen Avatar, from which I gather is a spectacle like no other – having accomplished incredible technological and commercial bounds (just note, how I left out ‘critical’)

The Blind Side, from what I understand from its trailer, is for idiots.

District 9, as much as I love shit blowing up, is just making up the numbers to 10.

An Education, again, I haven’t seen, but I fail to think it appeals to the American ideal  – it seems too in tune with the British style, from what I gather.

The Hurt Locker, as I neglected earlier (in account of its extraordinary merits), has the attention span of a 24-series camera operator, on Chomp bars and the editing pace of a serial, music television flicker.

Inglorious Basterds won’t win Tarantino an Oscar.

Precious, I haven’t seen, but from people whose opinions I respect, I gather it to be rather generic.  Only boosted by the ‘Oprah’ factor.

‘Up’, at the end of the day, as emotionally crippling as it is, will never get the award because it’s an animated film.

Up in the Air, likewise, although I haven’t seen it, I presume suffers from the same cartoon style that the Academy so readily distances itself from.

Now, I have left out A Serious Man.  Mostly because I believe that this was the most suitable winner.  It is an incredible film, and to be honest, my favourite film of the year (bar Sherlock Holmes).

However, and I’ll confess right now which may be due to the 350cl of whiskey I drunk whilst watching it, that In The Loop was my favourite film of the year.

Surprisingly, compared to the eventual Oscar winner, the film exhibited many similar techniques.  The only differences were the time – In The Loop happening in the lead up to a war, The Hurt Locker occurring during.  And the power level – The Hurt Locker obviously focusing on its soldiers, In The Loop centring on the moronic forces behind its policy.

In The Loop was just incredible.  The Hurt Locker was only incredible.

Both films used the same shaky camera, broken editing, but for different means.  In The Loop used it to stress the farce of it all, but The Hurt Locker used it to desperately grip onto reality through its connotations with documentary.

But here lies the problem.  The Hurt Locker, as brilliant and enjoyable as it was, could have been that special American film if it only wanted to be.  The Hurt Locker should not be about action.  For me, that doesn’t seem to be its point.  Instead it is about the routine of war, and the commonplace of shock.  All it needed to do was switch from its ADD style to a slow, restrained camera.  Long, static shots.

Now, this may rob some of its suspense and paranoia, which is the film’s other great strength.  Loosing this would reduce the viewing experience somewhat, but the film’s impact upon leaving the theatre would be immense.  One could then digest the film’s politics (made present by their absence) rather than be in a permanently submissive state.

As great and intelligent as The Hurt Locker is, it could have been so much more if it simply slowed itself down.

Revolutionary Road (a review)

Three words will reverberate around your cluttered conscience upon viewing REVOLUTIONARY ROAD; hopeless, emptiness and interesting.  The later is the fake label placed upon suburban life in 50’s America to conceal the reality of the formers; a spoken charade – a lie which all live in, but none are willing to confront.  The film’s (purposely) mundane social events are hyped as ‘interesting’ by these characters; Frank’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) explanation of how to market a new computer being the final ‘interesting’ point of Apirl’s (Kate Winslet) insanity.  Even un-extraordinary characters are described as ‘interesting’ when they are in fact scared, indecisive, pathetic men.  April declares to Frank that he is the most ‘interesting’ man she has ever met.  How can this be?  He is nothing but a fast talking waiter at this stage in their relationship.  Hardly anything about Frank is beyond average, yet April here declares him as everything but.

The cause lies deep in the ideal 1950’s social consciousness.  Behind the gritted teeth and fake civility is an immense dissatisfaction for a lifestyle built upon material possessions and the empty relationships of those who hurriedly married before setting off to war, only to survive and return to a bed that hardly knew them.

Problems are suppressed.  Realities are glossed over.  The only character in the entire film who consistently confronts and deals with the falseness of being (the Oscar nominated, and superb Michael Shannon) is one committed to a mental asylum.  Others allow their discontent to manifest itself in their sex lives – the two acts depicted on screen never lasting more than 10 seconds.  If the men are confined and limited by the suburban climate, then the women are shackled down and forced to smile.  They only exist to serve men, and it drives each one to their own, personal form of insanity.

The hopeless emptiness is embedded into every aspect of the film’s emotionally climatic scene (also its logical end point, Mendes opting to continue the film for a further 20 patronising minutes), the morning after Frank and April’s most intense clash.  Breakfast with the Wheelers has both knowingly ignore the previous night’s events, carrying on as normal, scrambled instead of fried eggs, orange juice et al.  The verging tears on Frank’s eyes are the rawest personifications of Revolutionary Road’s pent up emotions to this point.  REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is not a melodrama, a thriller or a realist work; it is a horror film, a cautionary tale to all those who accept the parameters which adult society forces upon them.