Margin Call (US, 2011)

This can't be right

Imdb says this film cost under $4m to make which suggests its excellent cast (Spacey, Irons, Bettany, Moore, Tucci) made the movie because they wanted to make a statement against the banking system that’s still sending millions into destitution after the 2007 collapse. Writer-director, J.C. Chandor (it’s the first time he’s directed a feature), has done an excellent job in dramatically portraying what happened when it all went ‘tits-up’ in September of that year. Though I think the casting of Kevin Spacey, as the banker with a heart, is wrong; he always has something of the sleaze about him, a residue of earlier roles.

The real sleazeball is Jeremy Irons, who tells his computer-whizzes to explain the situation to him as if they were talking to a dog. The word oleaginous may have been created for Irons in this role: the salesmen who only cares about sales. And that is the root of the problem, when salesmen call the tune then any pretense that a company is offering a service and value for money goes. When I worked for The Times, the ad manager explained he wasn’t ashamed of being in sales as that is what drove capitalism. Clearly, and this was the mid-’80s, he felt some shame about a job that didn’t produce anything and what’s gone after – particularly in financial services – is shameful. I was taught that accountants’ first rule is ‘prudence’, but that was the ’80s too. Since then accountants have often been complicit in the ‘making money at any cost’ (except to themselves) mantra that infected, and still infects, many businesses. Cameron can moan about ‘anti-business’ rhetoric but it is business that has severely damaged the British economy.

I’m not sure anyone who is vague about what caused the financial crisis will fully understand it from this film (read Michael Lewis’ Big Short) but that’s not the film’s fault; Inside Job (US, 2010) is a documentary offers more technical explanations. Only so much can be explained by a drama that’s trying to engage a large audience, and this is a readily engaging film. It’s a shame it only took $5m in North America.

A mention should also be given to up-and-coming Zachary Quinto who takes a lead role and produces.

Tyrannosaur (UK, 2010)

Painful life

Peter Mullan + council estate = it’s bloody grim. This is in the tradition of realist British cinema but I wonder if there’s a tendency to try and make the slice of working class life even grimmer than the last one we’ve seen. To be fair the writer-director Paddy Considine balances the portrayal of class by ensuring that Hannah (Oliva Colman) is abused on a posh estate, but I can’t help feeling I’ve seen enough of grim representations of ordinary people’s life.

It is part of the excellence of the film, performance and script, that Mullan’s Joseph can be introduced kicking his dog to death and become likeable. These characters, even Eddie Marsan’s ‘respectable-but-scumbag’ James, are all human; there is no caricature. Best of all is Colman, who’s churchy-charity shop character is devastatingly portrayed. Without spoiling: I thought the climax contrived and unnecessary to the drama.

I look forward to a realist film about working class life that isn’t grim. Made in Dagenham showed how class solidarity can take on the ruling classes. That was set, however, in the 1960s and it could be that Thatcher’s legacy was to destroy working class cohesion. If so, then battered and disturbed characters may be all we have left.

Carnage (Fr-Ger-Pol-Sp, 2011)

OMG my handbag!

What’s the point in filming a play? Shakespeare’s robust enough to take virtually anything but a one-set, four-hander…? Well, you get to cast Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet; not to mention John C Reilly. And they are a treat; particularly Winslet: an arched eyebrow is enough to convey her annoyance at her husband’s use of his mobile phone. But is that sufficient?

It would have been if the play had lived up to its billing: carnage. However there just wasn’t enough of it. It was meant to be skewering bourgeois pretensions, (particularly liberal) but at the film’s fade out I assumed there’d be a second act when things would really get serious.

There wasn’t.

Life in a Day (US-UK, 2011)

Seeing the world

A brilliant idea, inviting anyone to submit a YouTube video about their life on 24th July, 2010, and then editing it into a feature. The producers also made camcorders available to places in the world where they are scarce in an attempt to avoid a skewed view. Much of the material, it was reported, was unusable, both for technical and content reasons, however they clearly had enough to make a riveting film.

Of course, this isn’t really a snapshot of the world on that day, the place is too multifarious for that, but the ‘directors’ (editors really) have done a terrific job in giving the film structure, from the early hours to midnight, and including wide ranging material, sad and happy.

The overwhelming impression is that there is more that binds us than separates us, and this has to be the truth as we belong to the same species. Differences shouldn’t divide, the world is a big enough place to include the multitudes, but could bring us together as difference is what makes life interesting. Any creed, or political system, that tries to change others is what needs to be changed (I am aware of the contradiction in that sentence).

This film, in its use of editing, reminded me of Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kino-apparatom, USSR, 1929) that portrayed city life in the Soviet Union. In these days of globalisation it’s appropriate that we can now document global life. Maybe if we can get a sense of the planet as a particular place, we would look after it better.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (US, 1956) and The Invasion (US-Aus, 2007)

What's the meaning life?

Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Invasion of the Body Snatcher, first serialised in Colliers Magazine, has been adapted four times for cinema. The original remains the best, an independent production starring Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter (both of whom have died in the last couple of years). I read the novel recently and enjoyed it, only the unthinking sexism of the time dated the story. It was remade in 1979 and 1994, as well as the most recent version, suggesting that the narrative is able to dovetail nicely with the zeitgeist.

The original film version’s title suggests it’s an exploitation movie, where the outrageous premise of the narrative is used to titillate audiences. However, even though it deals with alien seeds taking over humans, its tone is sober and clearly meant to be about the ‘threat’ of communism. It uses the trope of the time that under communism everyone is the ‘same’ (actually, everyone is ‘equal’) and individuals become soulless vessels. The original ending had Dr Miles Bennell (McCarthy) screaming ineffectually, in the midst of traffic, that ‘you’ll be next’ as no one believed him about the invasion. The financiers were frightened by the unresolved climax and foisted a framing device to offer audiences the traditional happy end. The director, Don Siegel, stated later that the ‘pod people’ were producers.

It’s a mix of horror and SF with some Expressionist mise en scene, particularly in the scene where the protagonists discover the pods. It’s ‘hard’ SF, that is to say that it deals with what it means to be human; most effectively in the climactic kiss between Bennell and Becky Driscoll (Wynter).

You are alone

The most recent remake was a major flop: it cost $80m and taking only $15m in North America. I’m not sure why, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig it rattles along at a satisfying pace and, by switching the protagonists’ genders, clearly updates the premise. In addition, we are more aware of the dangers of viruses now, so the 1950s ‘Red scare’ is replaced by tapping into fears about contagious viruses that will, almost certainly, create a disastrous pandemic in the near future.

Another change is that Dr Bennell is a parent (mother) and so much of the narrative is driven by her desire to protect her child. Is it ‘unmanly’ for a man to do the same? I suspect if Craig had been the lead then protecting Kidman would have been sufficient. However, an action film were a female protects the male love interest has yet to be made. As far as I am aware, all the iconic female action heroes (Ripley, Connor, Croft) remain manless at the films’ conclusions. Women may feel this is a good thing, only men require women, but there is surely room for one romantic coupling where the woman is the dominant?

Despite Bennell’s undoubted dynamism in avoiding capture, she shows plenty of skill with both cars and guns, I wasn’t entirely convinced we were watching a female ‘hero’ who was entirely proficient. Why, for instance, does she on two occasions throw away guns? Even with scriptwriters who are obviously trying to offer a strong female action lead it seems necessary to add a dose of ineptitude.

Kidman’s Bennell is a giant step forward from Wynter’s Driscoll, as you would expect given the 50 years between the films. Driscoll does help her ‘man’ once, and has to remind him that she is capable of action, but soon undoes the good work by displaying emotion (a sure sign of being human) when a dog(!) is threatened. She is also at home in the kitchen and unquestioningly prepares breakfast.

There is a sex scene in the 1956 version. One passionate kiss, when they think they are doomed, is followed by a fade out; the fade in is on a close up of cigarettes the following morning. The Production Code allowed no representation of sex, but it was important to include it as it is fundamental to being human; the subject of the film. The other version under consideration has no sex; is that because Kidman is playing a mother and mother’s aren’t deemed to be sexual? In the one scene that sex could happen, Bennell says she ‘can’t do it’, as it seems her relationship with Driscoll is new and she’s not ready. Surely if they had had sex at the point the scene later when the two are in conflict with each other would have had more poignancy.

The newer version does offer the possibility that humanity would be better off being ‘pod people’ as that would mean the end of war. Unfortunately they also insist that difference be eliminated so Bennell’s immune son would have to be disposed of. So not a good option after all.

Despite its reactionary politics, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of my  favourite films. It’s easy to ignore the framing narrative and McCarthy’s performance as the complacent small town doctor is good. The Invasion can’t match it but has some interesting devices to drive the narrative; for example, on at least a couple of occasions brief flash-forwards are interpolated a few times into a discussion about what the characters are going to do next. While the original focuses on the micro scale, the big budget means they go large and there are some chilling scenes of the city, Baltimore, being filled with soulless beings.

The Woman in Black (UK-Can-Swe, 2012)

Don't go in!

Hammer horror’s back, which will probably only be meaningful to the older reader. Defunct for 25 years, The Woman in Black is a welcome return for this purveyor of British horror movies; interestingly it’s only got a 12A certificate whereas the original Hammer benefited from salacious marketing emphasising the films’ ‘adult’ credentials.

In Britain the X-certificate (adults only) had replaced the H (for ‘horror’) certificate in 1951. In an attempt to differentiate itself from the new mass medium, television, film companies began using the X certificate as a way of branding their product as risqué and/or violent:

‘The number of films awarded an ‘X’ certificate by the British censor rose remorselessly from 1954 onward and especially at the end of the 1950s, when it quadrupled…’ (David Pirie, 1980, part 3, Hammer Horror Teaching Pack)

Indeed Hammer used the X in its marketing for The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and this film launched the production company on a successful series of Gothic horror movies including both ‘Universal’s’ 1930s monsters in Curse of Frankenstein (1956) and Dracula (1957). Using lurid colour, combined with the British theatrical tradition of acting (best exemplified by Peter Cushing), Hammer’s films were condemned by most critics and loved by audiences. Like the Victorian Gothic of its source material, Hammer movies sublimated the sexual into the violence of the monster. As censorship shackles lessened the sex became less sublimated and in the 1970s, when Hammer was struggling to survive economically, it produced exploitation  films such as The Vampire Lovers (1970).

Sensibly, as the studio wouldn’t be advised to compete with the ‘gorenography’ of the Saw series (US, 2004-10), it’s chosen a modern ghost story, by Susan Hill, for its comeback. Clever casting Daniel Radcliffe, in his first post-Potter role, ensured plenty of publicity for the $17m budgeted feature and it’s taken a healthy $35m after 10 days in North America. Despite its ‘lowly’ certificate for a horror film, there are plenty of spine-tingling-twitching-in-the-seat moments.

The film fits happily into the Hammer oeuvre with its Gothic house and suspicious ‘peasants’ though I wasn’t clear where it was set. Sight & Sound suggests the Fens, which makes sense, but the Settle-Carlisle railway is advertised on the train Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) travels on (our resident trainspotter – Roy – tells me the train’s all wrong). We even get the ‘classic’ scene when our hero enters the pub to glaring from the locals. However, there’s also more than enough to suggest the makers have learned from J-horror of how to make little details in the background as scary as big ones in the foreground.

I enjoyed the film even though I felt Radcliffe was little more than a lump of wood. I didn’t get a sense of the protagonist being reluctant to stay the night in the house that most of us wouldn’t enter in broad daylight. Hopefully the film will do well to continue a box-office renaissance for British cinema over the last 12 months. BAFTA, however, aren’t helping by claiming The Artist is the best film from last year.

Sin nombre (Mex-US, 2009)

On the track to nowhere

I enjoyed this rather conventional take on migration and gangs, conventional in its narrative drive but unusual in its focus on Central America. There are two strands to the narrative: Sayra is trying to get to USA via Mexico and Caspar, who falls out with his gang leader; the two threads entwine as he tries to escape.

The portrayal of place is excellent, writer-director Cary Fukunaga (an American filmmaker) has done his research well. I particularly liked the scenes on the train, giving us a sense of the desperation of people who have no choice but to travel illegally; reminiscent of the ‘down and outs’ of the Great Depression in America. Less convincing was the gangs which are rather cliched; however that’s not to say that that isn’t how it’s like (how would I know?). I would have liked to see more of why young men are attracted to gang life (no doubt for economic reasons).

For us cosseted westerners, this is an ideal film because we can see the usually-vilified Others (illegals) and so understand better why they are forced to be illegal. This is far better than swallowing the tripe that the mass media peddle.

The Descendants (US, 2011)

Happy families

Trailer are often extremely poor as they show far too much of the narrative; despite this are probably the most effective form of marketing as, in cinemas, they show to a captive, target audience. Typically The Descendants‘ trailer (see here) gave far too much away but, it transpired, was also entirely misleading about the tone of the film. I should sue but this is an excellent movie. The trailer suggests an emphasis on the comedic, but the tone of the film is darker. That’s not to say there aren’t funny moments: Clooney running in beach shoes for instance.

Central to the film’s success is, of course, Clooney’s widely-feted performance. I’ve long admired Clooney, not only a fine actor, but because he also makes many interesting films. In some ways, when for example compared to the corporate malfeasance in Michael Clayton, The Descendants is slight. It’s focus is on the dynamics of family life headed by the ‘back up’ parent (Clooney) in the absence of the mother. Nevertheless, the melodrama of family relations is as important as revealing corruption in business and political life (see Syriana).

Particular mention should be given to Shailene Woodley as the protagonists’ elder daughter who aids in him in his quest to find out about his wife’s infidelity. She manages to combine the difficult role of bratty teen with mature-beyond-her-years understanding extremely well.

If you like Alexander Payne’s work, such as About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2002), then The Descendents will probably appeal to you in its offbeat, heartfelt probings of human vulnerability.

The Iron Lady (UK-France, 2011)

Streep's triumph

Nothing was going to get to me to see this film because Thatcher is one of the few people I’ve truly hated in my life (I still do). However, it dawned on me that as I’m teaching a topic called ‘Thatcher’s Britain’ (Mona Lisa, 1986, and Riff Raff, 1991) I needed to go. My reluctance was reinforced by reports that the film didn’t deal with her politics: a striking omission. It turned out I needn’t have seen it, the film tells us nothing about ‘her’ Britain, but I was bowled over…

…by Meryl Streep, who out-Streeps herself with a performance for which I do not have the superlatives. That didn’t surprise me, but I do think this is an extremely good film despite not dealing with the politics in any detail. Anyone who is not familiar with the evils of Thatcher’s Britain will not get much of an inkling of how divisive she was; although we seemed to heading for a similarly fractured society under Cameron’s coalition. The film is actually about dementia and it’s logical to choose a person who was one of the most powerful in the world for dramatic effect. Using a fairly standard biopic device of looking back, the film picks out key moments from her life (and history) but it’s focus, unlike many such films, is on the present and not the past.

The early years Thatcher, superbly played by Alexandra Roach, did enlighten me in its portrayal of the hideous patriarchy of the Tory party. Clearly, to get beyond that prejudice required an enormous degree of determination and if she ever had the ability to consider others, then it was probably squeezed out of her at this time.

Then there’s Streep who (almost) makes human in inhumane. She has been admired as a fine actor for many years. Much used to made of her ability with accents (Out of Africa‘s Danish for example) but that didn’t prepare me for her ability to portray the fiend of the ’80s. Whether it’s the politician about to topple Heath, or the eightysomething fragile old woman, Streep embodies Thatcher perfectly.

This is looking like another box office triumph for the UK Film Council backed film; the quango stupidly abolished by the Tories on entering office.