Saturday, 2 January 2016

Review: Frozen River

I recently watched Courtney Hunt’s 2009 ‘Frozen River’ (nominated for two Academy Awards). I felt that it was such a thought-provoking watch that I should express just what I found so impressive about this film.

Examining the hardships of raising a family in poverty as a single mother, Frozen River is a raw reflection of a world often ignored by Hollywood. Left by her gambling-addict husband to support their two sons alone, Ray - being pushed to desperation – joins Mohawk reservation resident Lila and the pair engage in smuggling illegal immigrants to earn money.

The film’s style is so effective in its naturalistic approach that it feels like a documentary at points. I wouldn’t say that it fits into any specific genre label, despite exhibiting the sense of anticipation found in a thriller and the emotional elements to a drama. Hunt’s film could, however, be described as ‘socially realist’ (that is, to point up the everyday conditions of the working classes). The film has, though, been

described as belonging to the extension of social realism, ‘Neo-Neo Realism’ – the desire to ‘escape from escapism’ after world-shaping events such as World War Two and 9/11.

The film manages to explore social, feminist and racial concerns without entering into the realm of melodrama, cliché or self-pitying characters. The audience is not immediately encouraged to like the protagonists but does eventually align with both Ray and Lila as they grow as individuals and endure their struggling to get by.

Reviews including Stephen Holden’s in The New York Times argued that Frozen River had ‘no political axes to grind’. While this may be true, I did think that Hunt’s film was making a profound comment on the impossible situation for those on the edges of society and how that situation, although similar, can differ solely due to race. This is evidenced when Lila tells Ray troopers will not stop them because she is white.

Courtney Hunt said in an interview: ‘I just think if a story is good enough to compel people to watch it, then it’s a good movie.’ Frozen River certainly tells a good story – more than that, it is an important story. When up against the wall to keep a family going, people will do whatever it takes and yet, the reality of the struggles of the working class are far from popular, Hollywood material. Surprisingly gripping, Frozen River is more than worth a watch.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

A Definite Top 10: ‘The Graduate’

Yesterday I watched Mike Nichols’ ‘The Graduate’, perhaps for the 50th time. It’s safe to say it’s one of my all-time favourite films. I think it’s difficult to find a film that manages to deal so well with such thought-provoking issues as self-identity and alienation, in both a serious and lighthearted way.

Dustin Hoffman maintains that he and Katherine Ross were last resorts for the roles of confused graduate Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson (the sensitive daughter of Mrs. Robinson). However it’s difficult to think of better alternatives.  The film explores Benjamin’s sense of a lack of meaning in his life, alongside his relationship with both Elaine and his previous affair with her mother.

The soundtrack of Simon and Garfunkel songs is, for me, one of the best elements of the film. Aside from being a massive fan of the music itself, the sense of both fragility and certainty in the words and songs perfectly mirrors Benjamin’s own state. The song ‘The Sound of Silence’ fits his condition in the film so well – as well as just being a wonderful song.

The originality of the directorial style is another way in which ‘The Graduate’ marks itself out. While appearing a classic rom-com (Doris Day was considered first choice for the role of Elaine), the film manages to offer a refreshing twist in its style. For example in the famous shot of Benjamin through Mrs Robinson’s legs, as well as the camera acting as Benjamin’s vision when he wears the scuba goggles. This was very different in filmmaking at the time and is still interesting to watch today – making it an exciting kind of rom-com.

The script, written by Beck Henry, was adapted from Charles Webb’s novel. Some of the lines – delivered by Hoffman in the most brilliantly awkward way – are just hilarious. My favourite scene by far is Benjamin telling his parents he’s decided to marry Elaine, despite her not knowing… ‘well, what makes you think she wants to marry you?’ his father asks, ‘oh she doesn’t. To be perfectly honest she doesn’t like me.’ It’s difficult to describe just how amusing the contrast is between Benjamin’s confidence in such a bizarre declaration and his parents’ bewilderment.
I also love the slightly unorthodox, ‘happy’ ending (I won’t explain incase anyone hasn’t seen it) which leaves the viewer satisfied without feeling that they’ve been cheated of a credible ending. While Benjamin and Elaine are together, there is definitely a sense that their escape is full of uncertainty – seen through the separate shots of their concerned faces. It’s most definitely worth a watch or re-watching if it’s been on the shelf for the last 10 years… I’d say its brilliance lies in dealing with issues that certainly don’t lose significance over time, in way that makes the viewer laugh, cringe and reflect – somehow all at the same time.

Friday, 8 February 2013

A Game of Corruption and Morality in Politics.

16 November, 2012

Directed by: 
Steven Spielberg

Produced by:
Steven Spielberg
Kathleen Kennedy

Written by: 
Tony Kushner
(Based on ‘Team of Rivals: The political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”
by Doris Kearns Goodwin)

Daniel Day-Lewis
Sally Field
David Strathairn
Joseph Gordon-Levitt
James Spader
Hal Holbrook
Tommy Lee Jones

Summary: Lincoln’ tells the story of Abraham Lincoln’s role in pushing through the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution (which abolished slavery), exploring the struggles he faced with his cabinet, gaining votes from Democrat representatives and his own family. Set against the backdrop of the American Civil War in 1865, Lincoln faces a crisis of conscience in whether to end war (and chance the Thirteenth Amendment not passing) or to use the war as a means to support ending slavery. This film looks at how arguably the most important piece of legislation in American history was passed through corruption (with representatives being offered federal positions in exchange for voting for the bill).
My Favourite Scene:  My favourite scene was the vote on the amendment in the House of Representatives. When it is announced that there is a rumour that Confederate representatives are ready to discuss peace, there is a moment of panic as both parties decide that the vote should be postponed if there is a chance of peace.  A message is rushed to Lincoln, who denies that there are envoys that are in, or will be in, the city. This is technically a truthful statement, as he has ordered them to stay away! As a consequence, the voting goes ahead and the bill is passed by a margin of two votes.

I thought that this scene conveys what politics really is. Although at times it can appear to simply be old, white men in suits making boring decisions about issues that do not really matter, it is actually voting for change which has the power to completely alter a country. This scene also demonstrates that it is necessary at times in politics, to play the game and not tell the entire truth in order to make something happen, which one knows to be right – eventually the important thing to consider if whether the ends justify the means.

My Favourite Quotes: 
Abraham Lincoln: I could write shorter sermons but when I get started I’m too lazy to stop.

Thaddeus Stevens: The most liberating constitutional amendment in history, passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.

Abraham Lincoln: Euclid's first common notion is this: Things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other. That's a rule of mathematical reasoning and its true because it works - has done and always will do. In his book Euclid says this is self evident. You see there it is even in that 2000 year old book of mechanical law it is the self evident truth that things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other.

My Thoughts: The film was a fantastic portrayal of Abraham Lincoln’s struggle to secure the abolition of slavery. Not just the Republican’s issues (such as the civil war) but also the political issue of securing votes through undemocratic means. The film also explores Lincoln’s own issues with his wife’s instability and objection to their son serving in the army – due to the death of their first son.

However ‘Lincoln’ was not entertaining in a conventional way, in that it is quite demanding of the audience (or at least a UK audience). Unless one has a good understanding of American history and politics, it is a little challenging to fully understand the process of the bill. At some points, I was wondering about the importance of particular individuals and (until I did some research subsequently) I could not work out why Republicans would support abolishing slavery and Democrats, oppose it! I did not feel that there was really an adequate explanation of how slavery would divide individuals on the political spectrum.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance was undoubtedly the best element in the film! I felt he really captured a statesman torn between love, friendship and his political conscience. There were some very moving scenes and I’d bet on Day-Lewis nabbing that Oscar for best actor! However I did struggle in making a connection with any of the other characters, but perhaps what I saw as the underdevelopment of some characters is not so important in a film primarily concerned with one character.
Overall I think that, despite perhaps some underdevelopment in the issue of slavery and  characters, ‘Lincoln’ is a very good film. There are moving scenes relating to politics, family and war. However I also felt it lacked any sort of flair… but it could be argued that that is to be expected in a primarily historical film. There was some talk about the accuracy of the events, with some saying that it had exaggerated what had actually occurred. Historian Joshua M. Zeitz, writing in The Atlantic, said: "Lincoln is not a perfect film, but it is an important film.” I share this conclusion. ‘Lincoln’ may not be completely accurate or entertaining throughout, but it gives an interesting presentation of one of the most important events in American history, with an extremely memorable performance from Daniel Day-Lewis.


Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Guns, girls and bad guys. But a little different...

23 October, 2012

Directed by 
Sam Mendes

Produced by:
Michael G. Wilson
Barbara Broccoli 

Written by:
John Logan
Neal Purvis
Robert Wade

Daniel Craig 
Javier Bardem
Judi Dench
Ralph Fiennes
Naomie Harris
Berenice Marlohe
Albert Hinney

Summary: A hard drive containing the details of all undercover NATO agents in terrorist organisations has been stolen. The task begins of hunting down the culprit. The search digs into the past of ‘M’, while the future of the British Secret Service is placed in jeopardy. As usual, Bond is called upon to save the day...

My Favourite Scene:
 When Bond meets the villain, Raoul Silva, there is the usual exchange of sly insults. However in this film, Silva attempts to push Bond beyond his comfort zone by caressing him and saying “there’s a first time for everything...” to which Bond responds “what makes you think this is my first time?”
I thought it was interesting to have one ultra-masculine character exhibit power over another through questioning his sexuality. However Bond just plays along... It was different to a typical power scene of weapons and pride-bruising and showed a different angle to the ‘ladies man’ Bond.

My Favourite Quotes: 
James Bond: “Everyone needs a hobby...”
Raoul Silva: “So what’s yours?”
James Bond: “Resurrection.”

Raoul Silva: “She sent you after me, knowing you’re not ready, knowing you would likely die. Mommy was very bad.”

My Thoughts: I really enjoyed Skyfall. It was entertaining, thought-provoking in parts and quite different to any previous Bond film. There was a definite feeling of it moving with the times. 

The usual, excepted sexism was somewhat absent in Skyfall. Bond’s agent with him at the beginning of the film in Turkey was a woman who was as powerful and destructive as him - although there was a scene in which Bond laughs at her losing both wing mirrors due to careless driving... The character of M became more heroic, although unable to defend herself. Although it is not fair to say this Bond film has eradicated all the misogyny evident before, it has most definitely progressed in changing the presentation of female  characters.

There was also a sense of Skyfall moving with the times as the idea of the Britain’s role in the world was challenged throughout. Many characters made remarks  concerning the Secret Service’s view of Britain as an Empire. There was even an inquiry into the actions of MI6. This portrayed a more political angle to the Bond film, and therefore made it more realistic. For once, it seemed that the Secret Service could be held accountable.
I also liked the villain. Rather than an outdated ugly, creepy man (which subliminally encourages people to believe anyone whose doesn’t look completely normal must be bad) Skyfall had a mentally-scarred ex-agent whose behaviour was driven by a sense of betrayal rather than a crazed thirst for world-power. 

Overall, I had quite high expectations for Skyfall because I’d heard very good things about it and it definitely met my expectations. Bond and M were far more interesting characters and the film was nothing like the formulaic Bond films of previous years. Skyfall is absolutely worth a watch. 


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Feel the Beat

On the Road
October 12th, 2012

Directed by:
Walter Salles

Produced by:
Nathanael Karmitz
Charles Gillibert
Rebecca Yeldham
Francis Ford Coppola

Written by: 
Jose Rivera
Based on Jack Kerouac’s novel ‘On the Road’

Garrett Hedlund
Sam Riley
Kristen Stewart
Amy Adams
Tom Sturridge
Danny Morgan
Alice Braga
Elisabeth Moss
Kristen Dunst
Viggo Mortensen

Summary:  ‘On the Road’ tells the story of young deep-thinking writer Sal Paradise and his relationship with the wild Dean Moriarty – the epitome of the Beat Generation. The pair embark on a journey across America with Dean’s lover Marylou - encountering various interesting people and events along the way. The group (whose only consistent members are Sal and Dean) manage to leave their mark wherever they go. The film follows scenes from the book that has not yet been writing – we see Sal begin to write in the final scene.

My Favourite Scene: An interesting scene in ‘On the Road’ is where Marylou is talking to Sal while driving, with Dean sleeping in the back of the car. Marylou is saying how she wants a normal life with a house and a baby, and that she knows Dean will leave her soon. Dean then wakes up grinning and says ‘I just had a great idea. You guys are gonna love it.’
This scene shows the impact of Dean Moriarty. While Marylou knows Dean will never give her what she wants and that he won’t stay with her, she still stays with him. This seemed to be the case with so many of the people Dean encountered. They knew that they would get nothing from him, and some even knew he would cause them pain in the end, but his free-spirit and approach to life was enough to want to keep him in their lives.
My Favourite Quotes:
Dean Moriarty: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I do all these dumb things and think in all these distorted ways. And now I’m burning up.”

Sal Paradise: “The only ones for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

My Thoughts: After reading ‘On the Road’ (which is one of the best novels I’ve ever read) I was very interested to see how Salles’ would translate the journey into a film. In fact, while in San Francisco earlier this year I saw the car that was used in this film in the Beat Museum – which is definitely worth a visit if anyone ever visits San Francisco! I bought tickets to watch the UK premiere of the film at the British Library and left disappointed, but reminded of the essence of the Beat Generation.

 I definitely felt that ‘On the Road’ powerfully displayed the way of life of the Beat Generation. It portrayed the free-spiritedness and love of experiencing life that makes them such a fascinating group of people. However it also showed how easily this can damage. Dean Moriarty (based on Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady) felt absolutely no responsibility towards anyone. In the end, neither of his wives could deal with his one-sided view of sexual liberation. Indeed much of the behaviour in the film shows a distinctly repressive attitude towards women. Dean felt that it was fine to leave his wife to care for their child while he and Sal went out for the night. Although there were women involved with the creation of Beat philosophy and literature, they remained marginalized and insignificant in comparison.
As always, a film which has been made out of a book can never meet expectations.  I felt that some very significant elements of the novel were missing. In the novel, the scenes seemed to mould together and create a world. The film didn’t quite have the same effect. Much of it felt repetitive and directionless. However many would say that this echoes the spirit of the drifting journey in ‘On the Road’. I did feel that a strong part of the film was the way in which jazz music was used in the evocation of the Beat Generation, as was the presentation of a 1950s America of ‘Jitterbugging’, bebop and open roads rather than freeways. 
Overall, I couldn’t help but feel that this film dragged on (I subsequently discovered that it had been cut by 15 minutes following the Cannes premiere!) I think it would have worked better if Salles had adapted the novel more – telling the story of Sal’s journey in a different way. This would have made it more interesting. The story works well in the world created by the novel, but not so much as a film.  I found ‘On the Road’ entertaining but not inspirational.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The ultimate protest

15 March, 2008

Directed by: 
Steve McQueen

Produced by:
Laura Hastings-Smith
Robin Gutch

Written by: 
Enda Walsh
Steve McQueen

Michael Fassbender
Liam Cunningham

Summary: ‘Hunger’ follows the lives of imprisoned members of the IRA, including Bobby Sands, as well as a guard at the Maze Prison in 1981 Belfast. The film leads to the hunger strike which brought the IRA head-to-head with Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and resulted in the death of ten IRA members.

My Favourite Scene: The main scene in ‘Hunger’ is a 15 minute conversation between Bobby Sands and a priest (Father Dominic Moran). In this scene, Sands tries to justify his decision to  call a second hunger strike and the priest attempts to make him change his mind.

This entire scene is shot from one angle. We only see the two figures, but not their facial expressions. This makes the scene focus on the words of the characters, which I found interesting. Rather than watching them, I found myself listening to the words and making a mental picture instead. This was the one scene that actually explained the motivations behind the actions in the film.

My Favourite Quotes: 
Bobby Sands: (referring to When you’re hung from a cross you’re gonna say anything. Jesus offers him (the thief being crucified next to Jesus) a seat next to his daddy in a place called paradise, you’re always gonna put your hands up and have a piece of that.
Father Dominic Moran: Aye. Even when it’s nailed to your cross.
Father Dominic Moran: (In reference to smoking pages of the Bible as cigarettes) Anyone work out which book is the best smoke?
Bobby Sands: We only smoke the Lamentations. A right miserable cigarette.

My Thoughts:  Having studied this period in history, I was interested to see how McQueen was going to present the IRA’s struggle. Watching ‘Hunger’ reminded me of the strife that took place but I also felt that it was quite lost as a film. I think unless one has some knowledge of the events in Northern Ireland, it would be quite difficult to understand what was happening!

‘Hunger’ raised the issue of prison conditions and the treatment of, debatably, prisoners of war. This problem is one that resurfaced recently with ‘Abu Graib’ prison in Iraq.  This film only proves the words of documentary-maker Michael Moore: “Immoral behaviour breeds immoral behaviour”.  ‘Hunger’ is most defiantly thought-provoking and shocking – with many scenes being extremely difficult to watch.

However I thought it lacked any sort of direction. With the exception of the 15 minute conversation between Bobby Sands and the priest, the film was more like an assortment of scenes with artistic angles. This did make the film interesting to watch and a change from the so many films that require no effort. However many scenes were far too long, and came across as pretentious. I spent much of the film wondering when the plot or structure was going to be made clear.

‘Hunger’ reveals a gruesome struggle for Irish independence that resurfaced in the late 1960s and continued until the signing of the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ in 1998 . The film brought to light many issues and provoked a debate amongst my family about hunger striking and Margaret Thatcher’s approach. Many of the scenes of how the prisoners were treated left me intrigued as to what the British government actually did. Although ‘Hunger’ was shocking and interesting, I was left confused about what McQueen was actually trying to say.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Breaking barriers in San Francisco

26 November, 2008

Directed by 
Gus Van Sant

Produced by:
Dan Jinks
Bruce Cohen 

Written by: 
Dustin Lance Black

Sean Penn
Emile Hirsch
Josh Brolin
Diegro Luna
James Franco

Summary: Milk’ tells the story of how Harvey Milk became the first openly gay elected official in the US. The film illustrates his journey as a gay rights activist through the 1970s, as well as his battles against political activist Anita Bryant and politician John Briggs. ‘Milk’ incorporates Harvey Milk’s political and personal relationships – including those with his partners Scott Smith, Jack Lira, and his murderer and fellow City Supervisor, Dan White.

My Favourite Scene: A particularly thought-provoking scene in ‘Milk’ was the one in which Harvey is discussing the murder of a man he knew with a San Francisco police officer. The officer shows complete disinterest and is not concerned with the murder. He also disrespectfully calls his partner a prostitute. The scene ends with Milk saying ‘There’d be a dozen witnesses if they thought you boys had any real interest in protecting them.’ 

I felt that this scene illustrated the struggle gay men had to face at the time. The bigotry is actually seen in those who should be protecting them. The gay community in San Francisco face opposition from the police throughout the film. I thought this scene was very powerful in showing just how isolated many must have felt. The interesting camera angle added to this feeling, as the scene was shot in the reflection of a car wing-mirror.

My Favourite Quotes: 
Dan White: Society can’t exist without the family.
Harvey Milk: We’re not against that.
Dan White: Can two men reproduce?
Harvey Milk: No, but God knows we keep trying.

Harvey Milk: Politics is theatre. It doesn’t matter if you win. You make a statement. You say, ‘I’m here, pay attention to me’.

Harvey Milk: Anita Bryant has already said that the Jews and the Muslims are going to hell, so you know she has a shopping list.

My Thoughts: Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to work shadow with the San Francisco Chronicle for a week. While I was in the city I stayed with my uncle in the Castro area. It was here that I saw the Harvey Milk Plaza. I hadn’t actually known about Harvey Milk until then, and so decided to watch ‘Milk’. I found this film really interesting and enjoyable. Sometimes when one lives in a country where issues such as gay rights have progressed so much, it is easy to forget how different it once was. However it alsoreminds us we still have a way to go.

Something I really liked about ‘Milk’ was the incorporation of real footage, from police storming bars in the Castro to Anita Bryant talking about her beliefs. I think that the use of footage in this way reminds the watcher that these events actually took place. I did think that the film was slightly structurally confused. I find that it’s usually the case when the majority of a person’s life has to be squeezed into a film that it’s difficult for each part or character to be fully developed. I felt that Harvey and Scott’s relationship, as well as his and Jack’s, were lacking. However as Gus Van Sant chose to tackle both political and personal issues, this is to be expected.

A thought-provoking element to the film was Milk’s relationship with his murderer Dan White. Throughout the film it is suggested that Milk believed White was gay himself. The film conveys White’s conflicting feelings of Dan’s friendship with Harvey but also of his jealousy at Harvey’s success and popularity. The film presented their relationship in a very interesting way. 

‘Milk’ displays the fight of one man to change lives and portrays that, although the fight is not always easy, it is necessary. Despite not standing out in the way it portrays Harvey Milk’s life, the incredible story alone makes this film very watchable and reinforces the importance of standing up to make a difference, even if one is alone.