Brilliant: The Hunt


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“THE HUNT” IS the latest film from Thomas Vinterberg, a director who started out the Dogme movement with his breakthrough work, “Festen”. It’s a gripping, brilliantly told drama about a kindergarten assistant, Lucas (the outstanding Mads Mikkelsen who we know as Le Chiffre from “Casino Royale”, and who was also recently the protagonist in the superb “A Royal Affair”) who has been accused of improper intimacy by one of his –six year old – students.

The accusation is so startlingly outrageous that Lucas is stunned by it. The child is the daughter of his best friend and someone he was especially caring toward. That this tender, morally upright man could be accused thus by the child, aggrieved by his admonishment of her, is absurd.

Unlike “Doubt”, another film about accusation, “The Hunt” is not about doubt. It’s a study in group hysteria. There’s an immediate – and absurd – assumption that, despite all that’s known about him, even by the friends he’s known all his life, Lucas is assumed to be guilty by pretty much everyone, barring his loyal son and a friend.

These two are seen as the few pillars of reason in a world that has suddenly shifted to a dark side of irrational hate and fear.

In one hard to watch scene, he’s attacked in a supermarket by its employees who don’t want his ‘sort’ there. He’s shunned by the small, local community, even as their kids, reflecting the hysteria of their parents, fantasize about him having abused them in the cellar of his house. (And as it turns out, his house has no cellar)

“The Hunt” follows Lucas’ story as his life shreds. The movie begins with a deer hunt; we quickly realize that he has become the animal. He is the hunt.

For if Islamic Jihad is the terrorism that forms the backdrop of our modern lives, pedophilia has become its private counterpart. And, in a reaction to the decades (centuries?) in which pedophiles were allowed to get away with their abusive behavior, shielded by cassocks, fame and incompetent policing, nowadays the tendency is to assume that the accuser is justified.

The innocence of the child carries an assumption of honesty and easily overwhelms adult denial.

And this is the position that Lucas finds himself in. He is a lone figure trying to stand up to the zeitgeist of the times with its demands for blood and its assumption of guilt.

This is one of those beautifully well-constructed movies – every scene fits perfectly in place to establish context, illustrate character and allow the meaning of the story to unfold at its own tensely leisurely pace.

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it’s a noir: The Paperboy


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“THE PAPERBOY”, LEE Daniels’ latest work (he also gave us “Precious”), tells the story of two reporters – Matthew McConaughey as a slimy Ward Jansen and David Oyelowo (“Complicit”, “Lincoln”) as a faux Englishman, Yardley Acheman – who journey down to a hot, sweaty Southern swampland in search of an award-winning story and the truth: what they believe to be the wrongful imprisonment of one Hillary Van Wetter – a deranged, drooling John Cusak. Van Wetter is supposed to have disemboweled the local sheriff and is in death row.

They enlist the aid of Charlotte Bess, a highly sexed, bleached-blonde beauty (Nicole Kidman, steaming up the screen) who –for reasons that are never explained – has taken to corresponding with Van Wetter and has fallen in love with him. She becomes the central object of lust and desire, by the incarcerated Van Wetter and the Jansen’s young brother Jack (Zac Efron as an Oedipal stud, forever strutting up and down in his underpants, all hormones all the time).

The whole story is narrated through the memory of the Jansen’s maid, Anita (Macy Gray), a stoic figure who has managed to shoulder off racist abuse and simply carry on.

The search for the truth – set amidst the town’s close-lipped, prejudiced conspiracy of silence – is the movie’s central theme. Daniels introduces us to a world where the villains are as unattractive and unsympathetic as the protagonists and where, he suggests, the truth, never obvious, remains ever elusive and ambiguous.

All this in an atmosphere of sweaty (literally – as everyone sweats in the movie) lust and sex. In one, you could say climatic, scene Nicole Kidman reprises the “Basic Instinct” crotch shot as she titillates a shackled Cusak. The sex grows more and more debased as the movie heads toward its dark denouement, revealing as it goes, the grimy truths of Daniels’ characters.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that he chose Jimmy Stewart as often as he did in his movies because Stewart bought him ten minutes. By this he meant that Stewart’s persona was so well known and loved by the movie-going public that he came with huge positive affection…so as a writer, Hitchcock didn’t have to spend ten minutes creating a likeable film persona; Stewart bought him that. He could simply get on with his tale.

We saw this in “Arbitrage”, (even though this was just a passably average film) where Richard Gere is such a seductive personality that, even though we may disapprove of his character’s conniving, manipulative ways, he still manages to seduce the audience into rooting for him to ‘get away’ despite ourselves.

One of the problems with “The Paperboy” is that there is no Jimmy Stewart persona. The nature of the story demands this kind of obfuscation between truth and lies, good and evil. But Daniels so relishes showing us – exclusively – the nasty, seedy side of his characters (and we’re happy that McConaughey has finally moved away from gormless romcoms to playing seedy, which is his real métier) that he never allows us to empathize with anyone.

The result is a ‘caring deficit’. Basically, as an audience, we don’t give a shit about any of the people we’re spending this ninety minutes with; so that the emotional drama of the tale becomes seriously compromised.

Indeed, because he’s so intent on making his point about the hazy ground where truth and lies merge, the narrative truth of the story falls off the tracks. For as the story unfolds, there are multiple revelations and twists that take place. These make good intellectual/thematic sense – but they lack dramatic relevance. From a story-telling perspective, they become irritations and irrelevances; they contribute little to the plot.

Net, net, “The Paperboy” is a reasonably well-acted, seriously flawed, thematically overburdened movie.

It’s one, to be genre appropriate, I say “noir” to

Forgettable: Robot and Frank


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“ROBOT AND FRANK” has all the ingredients to add up to a good film. The story has great comic potential: it’s set in the near future when an ageing, forgetful Frank (Frank Langella as an old curmudgeonly loner) is forced by his son (James Marsden) to accept the 24 hour care of a robot. The robot can do pretty much everything: cook, clean and chat. Frank slowly accepts the companionship of this robot as his past life as a cat burglar begins to emerge and as he trains the robot to help him steal.

Peter Sarsgaard voices the robot; and along for the ride are Susan Sarandon as a friendly librarian, Live Tyler as Frank’s peripatetic daughter and Jeremy Strong as scumbag Jake.

Good actors all.

The movie bristles with ideas – of ageing, memory, the demise of the library and paper books, the role and responsibility of children to their parents etc.

Put them all together and all these fine ingredients leave you with a bland, tasteless dish. This is a drama that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be: a meditation on dementia, a caper movie, a comedy, a heart-jerker. It’s as though either Christopher Ford, the writer, had a few movies in mind and decided to combine them all into a one-size fits all bundle; or Jack Schreier, the director gave everyone an equal say as to what type of movie he should be directing.

There’s a whole new genre of movies out there these days catering to the grey market. From “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” to Dustin Hoffman’s latest, “Quartet” to, of course, the award winning “Amour”. Some of them work brilliantly – those that do manage to address serious themes and tackle the problems of ageing with finesse and – often – charm.

“Robot and Frank” fails on all areas – it serves up the reality of dementia in such a way that you feel Frank just has a summer cold that’ll go away soon enough; and it presents us with a family relationship that’s as trite and superficial as you usually find only in romcoms.

For a film about fading memory, this one is best forgotten

THEATRE: The Audience


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IN “THE AUDIENCE”, at the Gielgud Theater in Piccadilly, Helen Mirren reprises the role she (and writer Peter Morgan) created in her majestic portrayal in “The Queen”.

This entertaining, hysterically funny play, offers a window into the twenty minute weekly meetings Her Majesty has with her Prime Ministers. These meetings are not recorded, and she ain’t talking. So this is Daltry’s (deftly staged) imaginative, fictional account of what might well have taken place in her meetings with a smattering of the twelve Prime Ministers who have – so far – served under her, from an imperious, lecturing Churchill to a doltish, pompous Cameron.

It’s a play about human character: Daltry brilliantly offers us the quickest of sketches into the prime ministers he introduces… all as foils for his creation of a beautifully rounded sense of his fictional Queen.

Mirren gives us a master class of acting, combining flawless comic timing with an evocation of the deeply human, lonely, dignified, empathetic person behind the crown. We see the two persons she needs to be – both the icon (and there’s a marvelous scene in which Cecil Beaton is shooting the Royal portrait that even now graces all her stamps and coin) and the person within.

The play makes it clear that as a constitutional monarch, she has no de jure role over British governance and must support whatever hair-brained schemes her first ministers have devised, whether she agrees to them or no. But, though she may be on the stamp, she’s no rubber stamp. We see a person who’s deeply well read, right-mindedly opinionated (Harold Wilson – her favourite minister according to the play – praises her for being a Labourite at heart) and unbowed by the forcefulness of personalities such as Churchill (Edward Fox as a hectoring, ageing lion) and Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne as a racist, heartless, driven Thatcher).

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These weekly sessions are seen as occasions for therapy (she hands a timid, overwhelmed, weeping John Major – Paul Ritter – her handkerchief to cry in), sparring (with Thatcher), and, with Cameron, for dozing (she nods off as he prattles on about high finance). There are also moments of relaxed sharing and camaraderie (Wilson appears on several occasions, initially as a defensive working class man, testy in the presence of the Royal Personage, and subsequently as a person with whom the Queen can actually have a real conversation and, almost, meeting of minds).

Blair never makes a –physical- appearance, but hovers in the wings somewhere, referred to several times – derisively – by Gordon Brown and – respectfully – by Cameron. And that’s Blair chameleon, mercurial personality for you – attacked by his party, admired by his opponents

What these meetings are not however, much to her frustration, are meetings of consultation. We see her try to nudge things in her direction. But there’s little more she can do than that.

And this is the – Shakespearean – core of the play: the divide between the call of duty (sit down, shut up and offer support) and the call of humanity (try to influence decisions that do the right thing). But whereas Price Hal, the boisterous human, morphs into Henry V, the dehumanized icon and protector of the realm, QEII, in a modern age, knows that she must balance them both.

She must balance her desire to be a good wife (she tries – in vain – to take Philip’s name) with the duty to be a good queen; balance –reluctantly – the acceptance of the racist demands of a Thatcher with her allegiance to the non-white world of the Commonwealth; balance her inhuman impartiality and discretion with her all too human partiality (expressed by a request to Wilson that he invite her for dinner); balance the artificiality of living in a palace with her identification with her subjects, from the loftiest to the lowest

It’s a balance that we see in every gesture of Mirren’s masterpiece performace.

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MOVIE: Side Effects


side-effects-rooney-mara-600x398Finally in this post Oscar’s season of discontent comes a watchably exciting movie – Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects”. Written by Scott Burns (who also did “Contagion” and the upcoming sequel to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), this movie actually nicely sucker-punches its audience into thinking it’s a ‘simple’ story of medical malfeasance and the hazards of our drug-addicted culture. It’s certainly that too, but there’s a fabulous twist half way through when you cotton on to the real story lurking beneath the surface. It becomes apparent that the side effects of the title refers to much more than drugs but to the side effects of lust and money.

The story offers us a delicious cast of fallen characters – Channing Tatum (bland and unconvincing and the weakest of the characters) is the most obvious crook in the line up, having just returned from four years in prison for inside trading (which he dismisses as “whatever that means”). His counterpart is Jude Law as Dr. Jonathan Banks – an upstanding, sympathetic healer. Banks is quickly revealed as less than upstanding – he’s  a slightly sleazy psychiatrist; someone who would, for the right cash in hand, probably have prescribed sleeping potions for Michael Jackson. Law’s character shifts from that of a slickly burnished charmer to that of an increasingly desperate, stressed out individual who, driven to the edge, becomes a man obsessed.

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This manic intensity is nicely counterbalanced by Dr. Victoria Siebert – Catherine Zeta Jones – cool, unruffled and deviously calculating. You know when a beautiful woman like Zeta Jones appears with her hair in a bun and over-sized glasses on her face, that the bun will come down and the glasses will come off. Just wait for it.

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Rooney Mara’s neuroses are at the center of the story. She conveys them brilliantly. This is an actress whose face shifts effortlessly from beautiful to dull to menacing in heartbeats.

And this is what Soderbergh has managed to achieve so well in this movie. By presenting us with such a flawed cast of mercurial ever shifting characters, he keeps us slightly off balance. He initially presents us with an object of sympathy – Rooney Mara’s Emily, a depressive woman unbalanced by life and theoretically rebalanced by the magical drug Ablixir, – but slowly he strips away this sympathy, leaving us in a world where we really don’t know who to trust and who to side with.

This is Soderbergh back to “Contagion” form. His last few outings – “Haywire” and “Magic Mike” were amateurish embarrassments. Maybe he should work with Scott Burns more often