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Rating History

Martha Marcy May Marlene
5 years ago via Flixster

It's all about running: running away from something awful; running to something awful; running from fear; running from pain, immediate pain and pain more deeply rooted. It's all about Martha, who is renamed
impressed me as much as Jennifer Lawrence did in Winter√Ę(TM)s Bone, another intelligent movie from the indie sector that I saw in 2010. The parallels here were all the more exact in that John Hawkes appears in both.

In Martha Marcy May Marlene he plays Patrick, a sinister and manipulative Charles Manson-type figure heading a sinister and manipulative Manson-like Family, a cult commune living in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. It is this that Martha is running away from, an idyll of idiocy that serves as a cover for abuse and death. To begin with we don't know anything of this; we simply see Martha, without explanation, fleeing through the woods.

She runs to another family, that of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Ted (Hugh Dancy), her priggish and unimaginative architect husband. They have a large lake-side home in rural Connecticut. So it√Ę(TM)s from bucolic authenticity to bucolic plasticity that Martha journeys. This is the first time that the sisters have had any contact in two years and Martha gives little in explanation of where she has been or what she has been doing, other than she has split from a boyfriend. Bit by bit we gain some comprehension in flashbacks to her previous life in the Catskills.

Lucy, on the other hand, is uncomprehending in her attempts to comprehend her innocent yet damaged sister, though it would seem obvious that she needs help, a victim of some deep-rooted trauma. Lucy√Ę(TM)s world, and that of Ted, is one of shallow materialism, a world that Martha challenges and unsettles. Martha, the holy innocent, shocks her uptight sister when she bathes in the nude. She shocks her further by asking if married people fuck, only to drop in to the bedroom at night when Lucy and Ted are fucking! She can't sleep; all she wants is comfort and companionship. For her sex was always communal, when it wasn't ritualised and private abuse.

The film is really a study in dissonance and paranoia, a message heightened by its abrupt ending. Martha has escaped Patrick but he has obviously taken possession like a demon, even so far as stripping of her previous identity and her previous name. She fears pursuit. Perhaps she is being pursued or perhaps it's all in her mind; we are never quite sure.

The enigma here is deeper, deeper than the brain-washing that Martha has undergone in her two years in the Catskills. There are unanswered questions about who and what she is, where she has come from, questions that go into her background and that of her self-assured and unimaginative sister. She is certainly damaged by her time with Patrick, a gaunt and hellish guru who spouts the usual psychobabble one associates with such people (death is pure love etc.), but her lack of emotional anchor, the very thing that makes her so vulnerable, is surely explained by something unsaid in her upbringing.

Poor Martha, she simply can't adjust to the comfortable bourgeois existence of Lucy and Ted. She is haunted and we are haunted by the past. She is between worlds, neither fit for the one nor for the other. Unable to let go of her former life, she phones 'Marlene' (all the women in the cult have to address the outside world as 'Marlene'), immediately terminating the call only to be called back. This compounds her paranoia, her fear of pursuit.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a mesmerising movie. One can't be quite sure where we are, in reality or in a nightmare, a nightmare that is reality. It's full of tantalising ambiguity, of fractured ways of seeing, a tale of innocence not corrupted but amplified by corruption. It's a brilliant cinematic essay on psychological disorientation. Like all the best thrillers it's a thriller of the mind.

J. Edgar
J. Edgar (2011)
5 years ago via Flixster

I waited an age for one biopic only to have two come along at once! Well, almost at once. It‚(TM)s not long
I waited an age for one biopic only to have two come along at once! Well, almost at once! Well, almost at once. It's not long since I saw Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, a stunning performance in a less than stunning film. Now I‚(TM)ve seen Leonardo DiCaprio, one of my favourite actors, play J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar, a stunning performance in a less than stunning film.

Hoover, the long standing Director ‚" Dictator might be a better word - of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is in many ways an even more controversial figure than Thatcher. A man of impeccable moral stature, the self-appointed guardian of all that was good in American life, he had no scruples at all in subverting civil liberties in pursuit of his particular ends. At his funeral then President Nixon said that he was;

"‚¶one of the giants‚¶He personified integrity, he personified honour, he personified principle, he personified courage, he personified discipline, he personified dedication, he personified loyalty, he personified patriotism."

Oh, but how are the mighty fallen. He also, according to his many detractors, personified venality and corruption, a message that his been relentless hammered ever since, to the point where his legacy, his very real contribution to fighting crime and subversion using the latest techniques, has been obscured under a mountain of superfluous and vicious tittle-tattle.

J. Edgar, directed by Clint Eastwood and based on a script by Dustin Lance Black, goes some way towards rehabilitation. It paints a more nuanced portrait of a complex and driven man. Still, it does not avoid the old canards, the wholly unproven contention that Hoover was a closet homosexual and cross-dresser.

That the old queen never came out is clearly the fault of his mother, a commanding performance by Judi Dench, who tells him that she‚(TM)d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son. A life of frustrated sexual tension lies ahead, touched on in Hoover‚(TM)s relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), his long-standing deputy at the FBI.

My criticism here is that Hoover‚(TM)s sexual preferences, whatever they were, are not that material to the story of his life and times. His principle relationship was not with Tolson or with Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his life-long secretary and confidant, but with the FBI, the organisation which he created virtually single-handed, or rather shaped into a tough, modern crime fighting force out of the old amateurish and bumbling Bureau of Investigation in the Justice Department.

I admire Eastwood as a director; I hugely admired movies as diverse as Gran Torino and Million Dollar Baby. But I have to say that there is a falling off with J. Edgar, signs that he is no longer quite in command of the medium as he once was. The pace is uneven and too much of the story is taken for granted, particularly over the kidnapping and death of the infant son of Charles Lindberg, the aviator, a defining moment in the history of crime in America.

Incidentally, speaking of aviators, DiCaprio seems to slightly reprise his depiction of Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Like Hughes his Hoover uses a handkerchief to clean his hands after he greets someone, another hint, presumably, of deep-seated personal neurosis.

On a more technical point it was a huge mistake to allow actors playing their young selves also to play their old selves, caked under ever more grotesque and ridiculous layers of rubber, to the point where they resemble puppets. This was an error avoided in The Iron Lady, where the young Margaret and the old Margaret are entirely different people. As J. Edgar cuts back and forward between the present and the past a considerable amount of time must have been spent in donning and discarding prosthetics!

It's a thoughtful film, though perhaps not thoughtful enough. Even so, setting the central performances to one side, it‚(TM)s also a plodding and ponderous one, coming close to its subject, then skipping away. After some two hours I was no closer to understanding the real Hoover than I was at the outset.

The thing I found most frustrating was the failure to draw parallels between the Red Scare that swept America after the First World War, touched upon in detail, and more modern concerns and threats. The central question about Hoover‚(TM)s career surely must the extent to which it is legitimate to subordinate civil liberties to national security in times of emergency, not his chaste and asexual personal affairs. Director and writer are to be commended for humanising the man, but, as another reviewer writes, they have in the process created a kind of bureaucratic version of Brokeback Mountain.

The Iron Lady
The Iron Lady (2012)
5 years ago via Flixster

There is one compelling reason to see The Iron Lady - Meryl Streep's performance as Margaret Thatcher. This is not acting; it's almost as if an uncanny doppelganger has come to life, a performance which seems to clone the real-life Thatcher; her speech patterns, her mannerisms, her movements, her gestures; a fine observation of the finest details. This really is iron. The movie itself, though, is a little more like wood.

I have no hesitation at all in saying that Margaret Thatcher only stands comparison with Oliver Cromwell as the greatest commoner in English history. When people like Ted Heath, her immediate predecessor as leader of the Conservative Party, and John Major, her immediate successor, are long forgotten, her legacy will continue to inspire and divide. She will continue to be loved and hated: a Roundhead for the Cavaliers, a Cavalier for the Roundheads; there can be no indifference here.

Given that the subject is still alive, The Iron Lady, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, was always going to be a controversial film, all the more controversial because there is a strong focus on the alleged effects of Baroness Thatcher's dementia. As a plotting device it works, at least up to a point, focusing in and out of the key events in her remarkable life. But the state of her mental health takes far, far too much time, crowding out so much of greater significance.

It's a sympathetic portrait, certainly; it humanises a woman that so many have demonised, but it really casts her achievements somewhat into the shadows. The highlights are all there but presented in a rather shallow, episodic fashion, sung out, if you like, as political karaoke, appropriate enough, as Lloyd's only other movie was the smash hit Mamma Mia.

The narrative is also rather confusing, events not coming in sequence. Moreover, Thatcher's observation that a woman would never be Prime Minister in her lifetime was made in 1970, not after she became leader of the Conservative Party, when it stood to reason that a woman was likely to become Prime Minister if she managed to win a general election!

In so many ways The Iron Lady is more of a personal odyssey, the Journey of the Grocer's Daughter, from hopeful dawn to sad twilight. As a biopic it simply does not stand comparison with Oliver Stone's Nixon, which managed to humanise another controversial figure without skimping on the political substance. It's also too ambitious in scope, far less focused than The Queen.

As a movie it's really more about aging and loss than anything else, and it might be best appreciated on that level. It managed to beguile and infuriate me by turns; beguile because of the sympathetic intimacy; infuriate because I wanted so much more, wanted to understand just what motivated her to act and believe as she did. I simply got no proper sense of the real Thatcher, the woman within the politician, the politician within the woman.

The play on Alzheimer's reminded me of Iris, the 2001 biopic on the life of the writer Iris Murdoch, all the more so as Jim Broadbent reprises his role as supportive partner in the midst of decline. In The Iron Lady he is there as Denis, Baroness Thatcher's husband, except that he is not there at all, merely a ghostly companion in her own demented mind, the only person with whom she continues to share intimacies. Broadbent's performance is dryly amusing, though perhaps a little too much of the amiable buffoon.

The flashbacks take us to Grantham and the early days of then Margaret Roberts, full of wide-eyed admiration for Alfred (Iain Glen), her grocer-come-politician father, a living representative of the kind of solid, unassuming virtues that made England the greatest nation of shopkeepers in history. Young Margaret is played by Alexandra Roach, another wonderful performance, second only to that of Streep. In what I thought the best scene in the movie we see her from above, freshly elected to Parliament, a flash of young and feminine blue in the midst of middle-aged masculine grey.

There are two other performances I would flag up, that of Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe, Baroness Thatcher's onetime cabinet colleague and eventual political assassin, and Olivia Colman, who plays her daughter Carol with affection and devotion, receiving little in return from a mother who is too self-absorbed, a mother who clearly prefers Mark, her distant, and absent, brother.

Still, with all of the wooden inadequacies, I came away from The Iron Lady with an even greater sense of affection for the best British peace-time Prime Minister; a woman who was tried time and again and not found wanting; a woman who had the guts and determination to see things through; a woman who had the courage to tackle fascist thugs, trade union bullies and European bureaucrats - enemies without and within - when nobody else did, certainly not the dead sheep and appeasers with whom she was obliged to share office. Her betrayal in the end was the shabbiest act in Conservative Party history, a political assassination from which it has taken two decades to recover.

The Ides of March
5 years ago via Flixster
½

One simply knows what a political thriller entitled The Ides of March is going to be about: treachery and assassination in one form or another; it's the fate of Julius Caesar, it's the soothsayer's warning, continually given and continually ignored; it's all in the game of politics, the world's second oldest profession.

There are no secrets to this movie: it's a good old-fashioned morality tale, reasonably well scripted and very well directed by George Clooney, who also plays Governor Mike Morris, a Democrat hoping to secure the presidential nomination by notching up an important primary victory in Ohio, a bleeding heart-liberal enough to make bleeding heart's bleed! He also happens to be a moral hypocrite. Ah, there's the rub!

The Ides of March is about back-stabbing, yes, but it is also about the loss of idealism, the discovery of self-interest, the discovery that there is politics in playing politics. In the place of the white hope comes calculating cynicism, all explored through the central character; no, not through Governor Morris, but one Stephen Myers, his second best aide, brilliantly played by Ryan Gosling. Keep your eye on his steady metamorphosis, a joy and a revelation.

Based on Farragut North, a 2008 play by Beau Willimon, who worked on Howard Dean's frustrated presidential bid, The Ides of March could easily have descended into a clichť about crushed dreams. That it did not is a clear measure of Clooney's skill as a film maker. As drama, as a piece of theatre, it's very well constructed, though not flawless, something I'll come too a bit later. But the casting could not have been better, the acting impossible to improve.

For me the highlight here was Philip Seymour Hoffman as Paul Zara, Morris' campaign manager and Myers immediate superior. I've loved Hoffman ever since I saw him perform the lead in Capote, the 2005 biopic based on the life of one of my favourite writers. Here he is no starry-eyed idealist like Meyers. No, he's a hard-bitten realist but one with a strong ethical sense, loyalty being for him the highest virtue. In the end he becomes a victim, falling, Roman-style, on his sword, a sacrifice to the unscrupulous ambition of his subordinate.

Some of the minor performances are also very good, particularly Marisa Tomei playing Ida Horowicz, a reporter from the New York Times, whose friendship with Myers is as strong as her next scoop! At the beginning it is she who introduces a note of realism, warning Meyers that his hero will "let you down. They always let you down." A message, I think, for contemporary America, or at least for all the people who were fooled for some of the time by Barack Obama.

I say that Meyers is an idealist but, in the best tradition of tragic drama, he has a flaw in his character, one that helps move the action along. The degeneration starts when he accepts an invitation to meet with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager working for Morris' Democratic rival. Duffy wants to bring him over, though it all turns out simply to be a Machiavellian manoeuvre of a particularly clever kind. Meyers refuses but the meeting was sin enough, the details initially withheld from Zara. The serpent is now in the garden!

The weakness in the script, the artificiality, if you like, comes with Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), an intern working on the campaign team. If we are in the garden she is Eve, she is the love interest and the temptress. Now if there is one person to stay clear of it surely has to be her. But Meyers does not and neither, for that matter, does Governor Morris. As a hook it was impossibly far-fetched. Wood's character was completely unconvincing, oddly out of place in every sense. We are meant to believe that she is forward enough to proposition Meyers, though still naÔve enough to be seduced into unprotected sex by Morris, with consequences to follow.

I suppose the part served a deeper purpose, though, exposing some of the priggish hypocrisy of American politics. In the end Meyers, now a thorough-going opportunist, even prepared to walk over the body of his lover, dead by her own hand, tells Morris in a key interview that the American electorate will tolerate lies, war and bankruptcy, but what they will not tolerate is "fucking the intern."

In the end it's Meyers who does all the fucking. You see, he wasn't Brutus at all; he was Cassius, the man with a lean and hungry look. Now comes the big compromise and with that comes a deeper moral corruption. Morris in the White House will be Morris in a Whited Sepulchre.

The Ides of March is a serious film for serious people, a decent political thriller if a little lightweight at points, cerebral without being intellectual, engaging on a simple emotional level without being predictably trite. No, it's not a great movie, but it is one that treats its audience with respect, refreshing enough in itself. Whether this was Clooney's intention or not it's story that should make us all a little distrustful of political purity, in whatever form it's packaged and sold.

The Help
The Help (2011)
5 years ago via Flixster

I went to see The Help yesterday, the day it premiered in London. I imagine there is little point in saying this, but for those who have not seen it, or not heard of it (well, there might be a few!), it's a comedy drama set in the segregated South of the sixties, based on Kathyrn Stockett's novel of the same name.

It's my kind of movie, one that deals with serious and interesting themes in an adult way, one that has a serious and interesting story to tell, one that's so much more a shallow fest of special effects or tiresome thrills. I would have gone to see it at some point though perhaps not quite so soon, perhaps not with the same sense of curious urgency. Why, then, did I go with the premiere crowd? Simply because of an article in the Sunday Telegraph, one headed The Film Dividing America, written by Philip Sherwell. I'm going to come to that a tad later but first let me give you a straightforward review.

To begin I should say that I haven't read the novel, so I have no standard for comparison, though I understand from comments elsewhere that the book is better, which is most often the case.

What I can say is that I thought The Help was a good movie, a lovely combination of melodrama and human interest with some sparkling comic touches. It's not a great movie; the script is a little too flabby for that, and Tate Taylor's direction a little less disciplined than it should be. But, my goodness, some of the performances are gold, none more so than that of Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson, a black maid with attitude before people knew what attitude was!

It's the ideal chick flick, my ideal chick flick, and not simply because the action is mostly set in a female world! I was beguiled by so much I saw. Yes, it's mawkish; yes, it's manipulative (all the best movies are); yes, it covers so much unpleasantness with a gloss of sugary sweetness. But I don't care. The movie aims for the emotions and it's right on target, inducing tears and laughs by turns. I cried, I laughed; it hit my target.

I saw it and I understood it as a perspective movie (hold that in mind; it has an important bearing on what I intend to say later), looking at a particular issue, the racism of the unregenerate South, from a particular set of social and interpersonal relations: that between black maids and their white mistresses.

To my mind the characters recreated some memorable figures from the storehouse of American culture. Minny, for me, was a more contemporary version of Mammy, the housemaid from Gone with the Wind. Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelen, played by Emma Stone, another sparking performance, is a grown up Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, and not just because she serves in the role of a narrator; she has the same intelligent detachment from the world around her.

Skeeter is both part of the privileged white society of Jackson, Mississippi, and yet outside of it, alienated by its callousness, including the callousness of her own mother, responsible for the dismissal of a much-loved maid. She perceives the racism that others do not, the hypocrisy and the cruelty that her contemporaries do not, all married, comfortably housed and wholly reliant on exploited black labour. She is most uncomfortable with the truly awful Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard - the character was awful; her depiction was excellent!), the Wicked Witch of the South, who's Home Help Sanitation Initiative brings segregation into the home and workplace in the most degrading and humiliating manner.

It's Skeeter's alienation from the comfortable world of her upbringing, when the greatest influences, the nurturers and the carers, were the black housemaids, that leads to a new project: she, as a writer, will allow the submerged maids, the underpaid and exploited 'help' to speak for themselves.

From tiny voices a roaring storm grows. With some initial reluctance, the maids, headed by Minny, tell Skeeter their various stories, a stream that feeds into the wider consciousness of the day, increasingly shaped by the growing Civil Rights movement. The Help is a superbly acted and emotionally effective movie, an indictment of the old Jim Crow laws of the South, which still manages to be full of simple human warmth that overcomes even the deepest social and racial divides.

But it's the movie that's dividing America, so says the Telegraph. I actually think that's a gross exaggeration. The American reviews I've read, both positive and negative, show no deep fractures that I can detect. There are highly critical voices mentioned in the article. There is Wendell Pierce, the star of The Wire and Treme, who has described it as "passive segregation lite that was painful to watch", that it is a passive version of "the terror of the South." Then there is Max Gordon, a New York-based writer, who said that it ignored the real heroes of the era by ignoring the real horrors. "This is not the South of lynchings and beatings", he told the Telegraph reporter, "it's the comfortable Holywood take of the civil rights era."

He's quite right, of course: it's not the South of lynchings and beatings, but neither is it Mississippi Burning. As I said above, it's a perspective movie, a view of the past from a particular angle, of unequal and abusive power relations, which was surely far more typical of the times than lynchings and beatings.

The black actors, headed by Spencer, have come out in defence of the movie, criticising the laughable forms of political correctness, based on the assumption that there is only one way of looking at past injustice. I myself see the criticism as a form of maximalism - the insistence that only the big picture will do, that all history has to be gathered in an instant, that there are no small stories to be told. But there are, thank goodness, and there always will be, stories on a simple human level, stories that make for compelling cinema. I think that change does begin with a whisper, not a shout.