Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Some Good Films

They say that we Dubliners attend the cinema more often and in greater numbers per head of population than most other cities in the world.  That's what's said here, at any rate.  However, even if this contention is not true, the cinemas always seem to be packed whenever I go.  Anyway, I've viewed many wonderful films of late, so I'll give a very brief commentary on four recent ones I've seen, starting in the reverse order of viewing.

(1) Carnage:

Despite its provocative title, this film isn't a thriller.  In fact, the title is deliberately provocative.  What drew me to this film in the first place was its controversial but brilliant director Roman Polanski, not to mention its equally talented cast - Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz.   The whole action takes place in an apartment and at times in the corridor outside it.  Given its tiny setting - in fact almost a theatre space - would immediately remind one of being at the theatre.  Indeed, one would not be too far wide of the mark in that conclusion as this film is based on a play called God of Carnage (originally Lay Waste To England For Me) by the playwright Yasmina Reza. (Reza's parents were both of Jewish origin, her father Iranian, her mother Hungarian and she was born in Paris in 1960)   The play and film concern two pairs of parents, one of whose child has hurt the other at a public park, who meet to discuss the matter in a civilized manner. However, as the evening goes on, the parents become increasingly childish, resulting in the evening devolving into chaos. The play was a success in its original language, French, and has been equally acclaimed in its other English-translated productions in both London and New York. 

The film is by turns moving and profound, funny and lighthearted - just like life.  One feels that the cast are plumbing their own depths in trying to make sense of what life is about anyway.  I remember one of our great national poets, Patrick Kavanagh, saying that life is neither tragedy not comedy, but rather tragi-comedy.  How true he was and this wee film (it lasts a little more than an hour) concurs with the poet's conclusions about life.

Adapted, then, from Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play, Roman Polanski’s new film is the year’s most scathing, shocking, unsettlingly honest and surprisingly hilarious comedy.  It does not surprise me that Polanski has been called "the director of small spaces," because he makes every little movement and facial expression significant.   As I've outlined above both sets of parents try to solve their sons' fighting in a civilized manner.  At least that's their initial intention, but like all good drama we cannot help suspecting that there is more at stake here and that things are not quite as they seem.   What begins cordially soon descends into chaos as tempers flare, secrets are revealed and the Scotch starts to flow.   Then one lady vomits over the coffee table, drenching in the process the art books of the hostess.  Life is certainly not mere superficial convention as the masks of each character is gradually peeled off.

With the stunning quartet of stars delivering no-holds-barred performances under Polanski’s ruthlessly tight direction, Carnage, according to its publicity at any rate, is destined to be a prime contender this award season.   This is an excellent short film, tight and spare in its dialogue.  I'd go to it again and again for its insights into life and for its sheer fun.  Then, despite their parents' involvement, the youngsters make up of their own accord anyway.  We're left with many questions as all good drama and all good films should so do.  Why do parents have to fight their children's battles for them?  Are they living their own lives out vicariously through them?  These are questions only.  I don't have any answers.  The truth is never simple and very seldom if at all pure!

(2) J.Edgar

This movie is worth seeing for the performance of the wonderful Leonardo diCaprio alone - one of my favourite actors, and for the fact that the inimitable Clint Eastwood directed it.  Again I'm biased because he is one of my favourite actors and my most favourite director.  Now that I have nailed my prejudices firmly to the mast, let me say that the subject of the film is one of the most enigmatic, powerful and conflicted Americans of the twentieth century, viz., John Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) was the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States.  Eastwood and the screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have re-created wonderfully that period in the nineteen-twenties and thirties in the USA when a righteous, conservative young man, influenced by an overpowering mother who believed that her son was born for position in society, could win over all he came in contact with by his persuasiveness.  Indeed, the New York Times puts it succinctly when it says that this young man "with a stentorian style could electrify a nation."

Having just put down a marvellous book called Between Man and Man by Martin Buber , I am left with the overpowering conviction that we humans are creatures who long for security in a very insecure world.  This existential feeling of insecurity fits in nicely with the career of J.Edgar Hoover who all his life preyed on the insecurities of others, even presidents, an account of whose "sins" and misdemeanours he kept on secret files so that he could "persuade" them to keep him at the helm of his baby, the FBI.  The New York Times review of this film is superb and it can be accessed here: ReviewNYTDiCaprio is wonderful as he captures brilliantly this conflicted, repressed (he kept his homosexuality a secret) and tortured soul who believed in his own propaganda, literally constructed a fictitious profile of himself as hero, while all the time he had feet of clay. Returning to a line from David Denby's review in the above named paper, I concur with a Buberlike intensity, that "Hoover, we realize, is obsessed with keeping America safe because he feels unsafe himself. Internal subversion is a personal, not just a political, threat to him. "

(3) The Iron Lady

The film begins circa 2008 with an elderly Lady Thatcher buying milk unrecognized by other customers and walking back from the shop alone. Over the course of three days we see her struggle with dementia and with the lack of power that comes with old age, whilst looking back on defining moments of her personal and professional life, on which she reminisces with her (dead) husband, Denis. She is shown as having difficulty distinguishing between the past and present. A theme throughout the film is the personal price which Thatcher has paid for power.  This writer's own mother has had dementia for the last eleven years and her brain is practically wiped clean of all memories now.  In a sense, this is more a film about dementia and what power does to a person rather than a straight bio-pic.  We really don't get to know Thatcher at all or what really motivates her as we see everything through the eyes of an ailing woman.  So what we get are fragments of history in flashback.  Picking dementia as the focus through which the film is created is perhaps its central flaw.  Being invited into the mind of a demented heroine is not a very secure vantage point from which to view the history of the longest serving British Prime Minister of the twentieth century, the only woman ever to have held that prestigious post.  However, the film is worth seeing for the wonderful acting of the brilliant and inimitable Meryl Streep.

(4) War Horse

This is a "good feeling" type of film reminiscent at stages of The Quiet Man (1952) which was directed by John Ford, especially in its opening scenes - rural England, the peasant life, fairs and especially the music which reminded this viewer of traditional Irish music.   However, the current film under review here is set in Devon, England, where a boy called Albert Narracott watches the birth of a thoroughbred foal and follows its growth with studied admiration. Much to the dismay of his mother, Rose, Albert's father, Ted, buys the colt at auction, despite a friend pointing out a more suitable plough horse for his farm.  Thus begins the young Albert's close relationship with this beautiful animal whom he affectionately calls Joey.  The film recounts Joey's journey from the farm in Devon to becoming a war horse and to his experiences on the Western Front in the First World War.  If you are an animal lover you will love this film.  As an animal lover, I have to admit that I was moved to tears at points in this film because I have long believed that the unconditional love offered humans by animals - especially dogs, dolphins and horses - is second to none.  Stephen Spielberg works his magic on his audience by drawing us into the "personal life" of Joey, and he does this subtly almost without our knowing it.  Indeed, I hasten to add that no animals were hurt during the making of this film in these days of wonderful computer-generated special effects.  Philosophically, though, it leads me to question again and again our treatment of animals (brutal at times) and to wonder whether we humans are really specist when we credit ourselves with being the most intelligent and possibly the most ethical of animals (at times).  Personally, this film raises the big question of humanity's evil nature, its estrangement from its own animal or bodily nature which leads it inexorably to cut the world to pieces including both humans and animals.  The WIKI tells us that War Horse

is a 2011 war epic motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg. It is based on both War Horse, a children's novel set before and during World War I, by British author Michael Morpurgo, first published in the United Kingdom in 1982, and the 2007 stage adaptation of the same nameThe cast includes David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Marsan, Toby Kebbell and Peter Mullan. The film is produced by Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, and executive produced by Frank Marshall and Revel Guest.  Long-term Spielberg collaborators Janusz Kamiński, Michael Kahn, and John Williams all worked on the film.The film is currently in contention for six Academy Awards and five BAFTAs. It was also nominated for two Golden Globe Awards. (See War Horse )
All in all, I loved this picture and would view it on a big screen again and again.  In short, it appealed to the romantic in me.


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