AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is a compelling example of the difficulties of transferring the theatre to the screen. Roman Polanski managed it well in his adaptation of Yasmin Reza’s play, “Carnage”, as did Ron Howard with “Frost/Nixon” and even Rob Marshall with “Chicago” (less well done was John Patrick Shanley’s production of “Doubt”). These movies, in their wordiness, retained a sense of the theatre, but the directors offered audiences dimensions that clearly the stage couldn’t. For one thing, their directors know how to re-interpret the acting – away from gesture to facial nuance.

Director John Wells (mainly TV shows) doesn’t manage this leap of media. For him, the idea of adaptation centered mainly on injecting physical movement (cars driving along empty roads etc) and scenery. But Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer prize-winning play, which must have been an exhausting, invigorating audience experience in the theatre, becomes in Wells’ hands, simply a shrill, melodramatic soap opera.

The action centers around the gathering of the Weston clan after the death of their father Beverly (Sam Shepard) in their sprawling country farm. It’s a glittering setting, fretted with stars: Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) is the drug-addicted, foul-mouthed self-centered, bitchy mom. Daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson, so brilliant in “Masters of Sex”), all suffering from compromised relationships, have dragged along their significant (not by any means, better) halves: Bill (Ewan McGregor) has recently left Barbara (Roberts) for a younger woman; Steve (Dermot Mulroney), supposedly about to marry Karen is a sleazy lecher and Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), a weepy, sniffling wimp, is Ivy’s cousin and secret lover.


Hovering around this emotionally distraught, hysterical group are Violet’s sister, and Little Charles’ mother, Mattie (Margo Martindale – so good in “The Americans”), her husband Charlie (the inimitable Chris Cooper) and ‘the kid’, Jean (Abigail Breslin), Barbara and Bill’s troubled teenage daughter.

In a story about the use of truth as a weapon, and secrecy as, sometimes, the only protection we have, you’d think that such a sterling ensemble, stirring this cauldron of family dysfunction, couldn’t possibly go wrong. You’d be wrong.

Violet Weston is the emotional center of the story. It’s her abusiveness and self-loathing that has probably initiated the kind of personal traumas all her daughters suffer from. And John Wells understandably places the burden of carrying the emotional tenor of the story on Meryl Streep’s broad shoulders. But either as a result of his directing, or Meryl’s interpretation of the role, she brings such a yelling, strident caricature to her portrayal that even Julia Robert’s counterpoint of quiet anguish and steely determination cannot moderate Meryl’s overly theatrical excess.

The result is that the very real issues the play deals with – trying to understand the elements that make and break relationships  – are transformed into a series of scene-stealing pot-boiler vignettes without any real narrative or emotional arc. The characters shout at each other. Frequently. Lurid revelations of secret liaisons are revealed; lives barely held together by lies are destroyed by lacerating truths. Basically, it’s the kind of stuff that, in this telling, makes you feel can only happens in plays.

Wells and Streep have turned Letts’s thoughtful insights into a tabloid exposé.

The acting is also surprisingly un-even. Apparently writer Letts was concerned about the use of British talent (McGregor and Cumberbatch) that producer Harvey Weinstein had insisted on (to broaden the appeal of this very Americana story). He apparently said that the end result proved his misgivings wrong. Nope. He was right. McGregor and Cumberbatch seemed overawed by the company of their peers. Even when the focus is on them they seem to drift off center, uncertain how to cope with all this venting anguish. Only Dermot Mulroney: seductive, sleazy, amoral, held his own amongst the strong female acting talent on display.

The pity of it all. ‘twas a missed opportunity.



YOU HAVE TO give Martin Creed points for his new ‘exhibition’ (wittily and challengingly named, “What’s the point of it?”) now on at the Haywood.

It’s not so much an exhibition of art – more an attempt to immerse the visitor into a dimension resembling an entire life (his life? a life?). The “it” of the title pretty much sums up every non-religeous person’s existential question…or maybe just a more banal question about the exhibition.

Martin invites us inside his head. As you’d expect -from an artist- there are (acrylic) painting-like objects on some of the walls. But these are almost there merely to distract us, the way Eliot said the words of his poetry are there merely to distract us while its poetry did the work. There’s also what can only be described as an experience of his relationship with his mother ( a vast beckoning Motel- type neon sign with the word “mother” in lights, looming and rotating high enough so that it won’t knock your head off, low enough so that you’re nervous and uncomfortable in its presence. He must have been in awe of her). There are multiple sundry stacks of ” things” (there’s even a neon “things” sign hanging on a wall) such as empty boxes of miscellaneous domestic appliances (which presumably are in use at home), wooden planks and metal beams (the physical infrastructure of his life/home), chairs neatly layered one atop another, and therefore stripped of functionality (just like art)


And, oh yes, in the courtyard outside, just in case it was all too cerebral, past a warning sign, a large video of a penis slowly growing erect. Call it the art of tumescence. Or call it boasting

You enter the main hall ( with the intimidating “mother” neon sign) by squeezing past an over-stuffed sofa – perhaps a reflection of the artist’s difficult entry into the world… and into the World of Art. The visitor, by being squeezed into his exhibition has inadvertently yielded control to the artist. This room displays a scatter of objects (including a ball of crumpled paper… rejected art?) and is lined by sixty metronomes, each one set at a different beat. The visitor is physically sandwiched between the birthing neon “mother” above and the tick tock of passing time, of death, at his feet. There is a giant portrait of the artist on one of the walls; silent witness to it all

Each room ( there are about six) offers what might be called the flotsam and jetsam of the things that shape and describe a life, a state of mind – some serious stuff to ponder ( is a chair deprived of its function still a chair, or does it merely become an objet of contemplation and aesthetic harmony? Is a collection of balls an image of a sporting life or some sort of post-Platonic, Aristotelian perspective on the need to catalogue as means of ordering life?) and some jokey stuff to laugh at (on one wall, there are a number of framed doodles, as if to suggest:”I’m an artist; this is an Art Gallery, so QED, this shit is art!” Next to it there are four large photos of ‘laughing people’. Friends of the artist guiding the viewer not to take it all too seriously)

One room features a curtain which slowly draws back, theatrically, to reveal the view outside. The view is both of ‘the real world’ (and thereby punning on the old idea of art as looking thru a window) and, bathetically, of a brick wall. This isn’t art that can be hung and sold…the removal of the wall would mean its destruction. So what’s the point if it? Possibly, therein lies the idea: the curtains reveal the potential of freedom to come, of walls coming down.

I really do admire artists who have the balls (we’ve seen them) to tackle such daunting subjects as “MY LIFE” without feeling intimidated by the many who must come in, look around, shrug and dismiss it all as crap.

They wouldn’t have gotten the point

INSIDE LLEWIN DAVIS: Better to stay outside


INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS starts on a dour depressed note and stays there for the next two hours or so. There are no highs or mediums. It’s all low, all the time. The dreariness of the protagonist’s loser life remains unvaryingly and unremittingly bleak.

The movie’s based loosely on the life of folk singer Dave Van Ronk, who, like Llewyn,, also cut an album called “Inside Dave Van Ronk”, but whose career went nowhere after a young, newcomer to the folk scene, Bob Dylan, stole his one hit song and his one chance to fame and glory. Llewyn has no such excuse. The movie covers the last few weeks of his life as a – failed – singer, before he chucks it all in to return to the merchant navy… to merely exist, as he sees it, instead of living.

Llewyn is a man afraid of the past and scared of the future. For him, the past is a singing partner who killed himself (something you’d want to do after seeing this film) and a two-year old child he never even knew he had; the future, where he refuses to sacrifice the potential of royalties for the immediacy of a session fee, looks mightily like his catatonic father. As a result, he lives in a sort of permanent present, drifting from sofa to floor, barely managing to make ends meet. In this life of living only for the now, nothing can ever change – for the better or for the worse – unless he can escape from the fundamental cause of his troubles: himself.

He’s not a bad singer, and indeed, much of the music, written by Oscar-winner T. Bone Burnett and Todd Kasow (“No Country for Old Men”, “August: Osage County”, “The Fifth Estate”), is pretty good. Llewin’s problem is that he’s a prick: a self-absorbed, artist-anguished, selfish asshole. His personality is repellent. Far from getting inside Llewin Davis, his prickliness keeps everyone out.

His one act of selflessness, and a suggestion that there may, someday, be hope for him, is his knee-jerk reaction to look after a cat that’s been inadvertently shut out of a friend’s apartment, just as Llewyn is shut out from friendship. But really, he’s doomed. This is no story where the hero finally sees the light, or where diligence pays off, or where integrity to art is finally rewarded, even posthumously. Rather it’s the story of a man who, even when he’s down, gets (literally) kicked down further. As Jean, his sister, tells him (accurately) “Everything you touch turns to shit, you’re like King Midas’ idiot brother”. It’s the story of a life which goes from worse to worser.

Filmed in a kind of washed out grey (by Oscar nominated Bruno Delbonel), no light is ever allowed to enter into this grim story of a grim life.

The director/writer team of Ethan and Joel Coen have picked up a fair share of awards and nominations for “Inside Llewin Davis” and it’s been solidly praised across the board. The cast is outstanding, with bit-player Oscar Isaac in the lead, jousting with ex-lover Jean (a venomous Cary Mulligan – all sweetness on stage and foul-mouthed sourness off). John Goodman as a record producer, Ronald Turner is a heroin shooting wreck of a man: a vast physical embodiment of failure. The art direction is beautifully honed, with carefully constructed scenes that reek of the early days of Queens and Greenwich Village. “Sex in the City” art director Deborah Jensen helps you smell the curling cigarette smoke in the grey fog of lonely performance venues and The Gaslight Café. And the music, as we’ve noted, is marvelous.

But, despite it all, despite this carefully observed life of this unremittingly unpleasant man, there’s nothing here that’s worth two hours of a viewer’s life. The movie offers no new or interesting insights into any of the threads the story follows: self-belief v selfishness; integrity v commercialism; how we try to fit in to the world around us. It’s as dreary as its hero, as dour as his life.



“THE WOLF OF Wall Street” is as brash, loud, excessive and debauched as its subject – the amoral, testosterone fuelled, coke snorting, pussy lusting, money addicted, gangster world of Wall Street. The, um, street that basically controls the world. It’s also occasionally, very funny, deliciously well-written (thank you Terrence Winter who also wrote most of “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire”), but overall, despite the outsized talent of its director – Martin Scorsese – not very good.

It’s the story of the real wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, who conned millions of people from millions of dollars and who was subsequently found out, ratted on his friends and served the grand time of thirty six months in prison (about a quarter of the time a Black youth would have served had he or she been caught with a joint). The movie is based upon Belfort’s book (more ka-ching for the criminal), so it’s, let’s say, one-sided. In “The Wolf…” Scorsese takes the bold step of mirroring the life-style of excess with a filmmaking style of excess. The acting is broad (it’s “Wall Street” meets “The Hangover”), the ironies obvious, themes are hammered in (money is a drug like Coke or Quaaludes; brokers are fundamentally amoral and dishonest; to this misogynist world, women are no more than their anatomies and an easily accessible service) and, despite it’s so called factual content, the credibility, non-existent.

Call this money porn.

Samuel Johnson accused Milton in “Paradise Lost” of siding with the devil, this dark, fallen angel, who was a far more attractive personality than that of God. So it is here. Despite his overt mockery of the culture of excess, you can’t help but feel that Scorsese is fully indulging his inner Lothario in this wild romp of coke-sizzling nudity.

And yet, and yet, it’s not boring, though the middle was repetitive and sagged somewhat. As I noted, it’s often funny, such as when a Quaalude doped Belfort (Leo DiCaprio channeling Chaplin) drags himself down the steps of a country club to snake into his car and bump, crash and smash his way home; there are many vignettes that work brilliantly and there’s a stand-out cameo from a gaunt Matthew McConaughey as the very embodiment of the drug-fuelled, slightly crazed culture of Wall Street.

It’s just that, as a whole, in its mockery, parodying programs of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” it’s as empty as them. It’s a movie that slaveringly describes a kind of lifestyle even as it mocks it. It’s a dishonest movie that wants you to be revolted even as it seduces you to lust… after the cars, the homes, the wealth, the glamour, the nakedness, the sex.

Leo can be a fine, compelling and nuanced actor. But the demands of “The Wolf…” – part slapstick, part pathos – confirms that he’s not a natural comic. For in the end, he appears more of a stock character: a baddie we’re supposed to hiss at, and not a fully rounded person. Jonathan Hill, as his partner, Donnie Azoff, pulls off his role with greater subtlety…but by far, the most watchable actor in this porno-fest was Margot Robbie as Belfort’s increasingly cold, high maintenance pin-up bride, Naomi. In this very man-oriented flick, she was the one to watch.


The pity of it all!

As a parable of the culture of excess, it lacks the subtlety to convince. Far from recoiling with “the horror, the horror” of it all, it never reaches up above the navel long enough to deliver any intellectual resonance, not to mention, hint at the lives of the poor folks who were suckered in by this charlatan.

12 YEARS A SLAVE: Masterpiece


“12 YEARS A SLAVE” is, without doubt, one of the best movies made in the last decade. Steve McQueen’s groundbreaking masterpiece is one that finally engages and confronts the horror of slavery (Alex Haley’s TV series, “Roots” was released in 1977). Slavery is a fundamental part of the American experience that Hollywood has consistently either shied away from or preferred to address via the noble efforts of White liberators (“Amistad”) or faux heroes (“Django Unchained”, “Mandingo” et al).

The movie offers an unflinching look at the dreadful inhumanity of slavery, a system, justified by economics (free labour – capitalism’s wet dream!) and endorsed by religion (McQueen cleverly juxtaposes readings from the bible with the scenes and sounds of brutality) that institutionalized torture and dehumanized all involved, from the slaves who were no more than beasts of the field to the slavers themselves, even the so-called benevolent ones.

The movie’s strength is that it is both a rich kaleidoscope of the moral issues at the heart of slavery, and also the very intimate and personal story of one man’s loss of and struggle to regain freedom. More than this, director McQueen’s look at slavery is so much more than an accurate portrayal of an historical period: slavery becomes a lens through which we can view much of what the US is today.

The story is an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s autobiography, one of the few books written about slavery by slaves. Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor in a towering performance) was a free man in New York, in 1841 (more than twenty years before the –US- Abolition) who was drugged, chained, shipped and sold into slavery in New Orleans. There he remained a slave – property to a series of slave owners (one Mr. Forde, Benedict Cummerbatch and Edwin Epps, Michael Fassbender)– until a chance encounter with a Canadian carpenter and abolitionist (Brad Pitt) provided his route to freedom.

McQueen does not shy away from showing us the physical and emotional brutality of the system: the slaves were treated either like animals – flogged at will or made to perform at request – or as sexual property, raped. This systemic brutality and malevolence was so much the norm that desensitized slaves would simply get on with their day in the face of torture. In one scene, Solomon is ‘toed’ (This is a punishment in which the slaves were hung by the neck and barely kept alive by their ability to just about touch the ground with their toes.) As he is left hanging there, gagging and swaying from a picturesque branch, children play in the background; others go about their chores (Abu Ghraib anyone?)

But even as he immerses us in the reality of slavery, McQueen and his composer (the extraordinary Hans Zimmer) are very restrained. He never uses the score to underlie the horror of what we’re experiencing. Here is a director who trusts his visual sense and his audience enough, that he feels no need to resort to melodrama.


At its heart, the story pits Solomon against Epps, slave against slave-master, Black against White, the powerless against the powerful. For Solomon to be free, he needed not only to regain his freedom papers, but to liberate himself from powerlessness. Or to bring this somewhat up to date, it’s what Eldridge Cleaver in “Soul on Ice”, a hundred years after Abolition, saw as the fundamental American class war: between the super-masculine menial and the omnipotent administrator. During the Antebellum years, one in four free Whites owned slaves. Nowadays 10% of all African Americans are in prison. The liberation from powerlessness (Solomon is initially rendered powerless as a precursor to being sold into slavery), informs much of the movie.

It begins with its two overriding themes, potentially routes out of powerlessness: money and deception (Money, deception? We could be talking about “The Wolf of Wall Street” here). We are introduced to Solomon as a well-regarded violinist (even then it was OK to be Black as long as you were a performer) in Saratoga, New York, preparing to send his family off for their annual three-week retreat somewhere. This is the world of a dandy-ish Solomon and a world of The North, where free men can walk unmolested on the streets (an artistic exaggeration). The movie dwells on these images –of nobility – to offer the dramatic contrast with the South where the image is essentially one of degradation. It’s a North/South, freedom/slavery divide that McQueen wants to highlight…a divide that still perhaps defines the US.

Solomon’s first act is a mercantile one: he’s engaged in purchasing a bag for his wife (later, as a slave, he’s sent with a bag to purchase merchandise for the wife of the plantation owner). There is discussion about the costs. Later he is persuaded to go to Washington (Solomon rationalizes that he’ll be gone and back before his wife and family ever found out) because he’s offered a ton of money. Of course he’s kidnapped and sold… for a ton of money. McQueen dwells on the slave auction, where the retailer, Freeman (Paul Giamatti) points out the strengths of each of his offerings, like any good salesman would. Conscience plays no part in these transactions: whether families stay together or split apart is irrelevant. It’s all about the economics of the sale.

Once sold, once his freedom – and his name – like his clothes, has been stripped away, Solomon, now called Platt, has been redefined – from free man to chattel. As chattel his worth lies exclusively on the extent of his output. In a naive attempt to ingratiate himself to his new owner, Ford, Solomon struts his intelligence to demonstrate a more economical means of transporting logs. Later as the property of Epps (to whom he is offered in repayment of a debt), he’s evaluated solely on the weight of cotton picked that day. As such, his economic value is significantly less that that of Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o in her debut role), Epps’ unwilling mistress. Solomon manages to earn some money from playing his fiddle, which he tries to parley for getting a letter out to his sponsors in the North. Beyond the intimacy of Solomon’s finances, the film observes clearly that really the only factor controlling slave owners as ruthless and sadistic as Fassbender’s Epps is not morality or God, but the reality that a dead slave is a loss of income.

Slavery? It’s the economics, stupid.

Within this system, the only real route to survival is through deception. In reality, the flight to freedom (to the North, via the underground railway), sporadic group and individual rebellions, and (in the West Indies) escape to hidden areas such as the Maroons in Jamaica, belie the image of the docile, ever compliant slave. But the image of the compliant slave is one born of deception. Solomon hides his literacy; his showy, flashy lifestyle on the North becomes internalized and secretive. He manages to steal and hide away a scrap of paper and he lies about a letter he’s written. Solomon survives because he successfully manages to inhabit his slave persona of Platt. McQueen shows us multiple other examples of subterfuge – from the flashy ‘house niggers’ content with yielding to the whims of their concupiscent masters – to those others who would turn away from helping fallen colleagues so as to avoid any charge of complicity.

This inner life of subterfuge, the feigned Uncle Tom docility, is contrasted with the outer life of degrading manual labour and physical abuse.

Here, McQueen leans on the towering performance of Ejiofor to communicate and humanize this internal/external divide…the external pacifism v the internal anger. Ejiofor’s performance sees his physical comportment shift from the free man as strutting peacock to the slave as slump-shouldered beast of burden. The only glimpse of the truth beneath the lie of his sagging shoulders is Ejiofor’s eyes that blaze with resentment, anger and determination. And McQueen let’s his actors get on with the job. The director eschews the cheap trick of quick cuts and endless reaction shots. His camera lingers on faces so that thoughts, emotions, desires have time to register as they flicker across the eyes. And at this Ejiofor is a master. In one scene, Solomon’s reaction is one of embarrassment, guilt, shame, relief and pride. Ejiofor communicates this without a word needing to be spoken.

Michael Fassbender give us an equally powerful performance…necessary to balance Ejiofor’s strong presence. As Epps, Fassbender is a loathsome being: a drunken, self-contemptuous, dangerous bully. Whenever he enters the scene, he carries with him a charge of danger and threat. It is a characterization that epitomizes the institution.

“12 Years a Slave” deserves the Oscar. But can a story about the shamefulness of slavery written to make us uneasy and made by an English director with English actors beat out the jolly romp of “American Hustle” written to reassure our moral superiority over those scumbags?

Hmm; we wait with bated breath.

MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM. Better than expected


TOO LITTE ATTENTION is paid to the screenwriters, many of whom manage to conjure up clear, credible stories out of vast tomes that dwell on the often un-filmable inner-life of people, and manage to contain it all within the two to three hour framework of a movie. And so this review pays homage to the English writer, William Nicholson whose craftsmanship has helped bring to life the magnificent “Gladiator”, Cate Blanchett’s “Elizabeth, the Golden Age” and (the risable) “First Knight”. It was his skill that was able to take Mandela’s biography (Mandela has been credited as one of the screen-writers) and fashion it, in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”, into a taut, well acted, nicely directed and very human drama.

What could so easily have been a dramatized quasi-documentary history lesson is a fully-rounded, engagingly powerful story about a ‘born leader’. The story is about a man whose moral evolution segues from that of a flightily randy, self-absorbed striver (he was quite the ladies’ man) to a reluctant freedom-fighter, driven by anger and absorbed by the injustice of the system, to a man of peace and forgiveness dedicated to an almost impossible ideal of human togetherness.

Reviews have criticized the movie for being overly reverential, more about the icon than the man. I disagree – in “Mandela…” we meet someone who tries (and fails) to balance his role as a caring parent with that of a national leader. It was Shakespeare in the “Henry V” trilogy who first identified the inherent conflict between man as friend and father with man as leader and king. Henry V must shrug off the ‘humanity’ of his earlier incarnation as Prince Hal to become the august, and cold, leader of his fledgling nation. So too, we see, as Mandela’s life shifts from lover to leader that his world narrows away from the personal to the political. In the few moments when he was allowed to see his family (once every six months; and not until they were over sixteen), his conversations with Winnie and his daughter cannot stay away from what is his and, by extension, his family’s only reality: politics and the fight for freedom. One of the strengths of “Mandela…” is that, rather than glossing over the man and simply showing the icon, like “Henry V”, director Justin Chadwick (mainly TV stuff and “The Other Boleyn Girl”) and writer Nicholson allow us to see to extent to which Mandela must sacrifice the man, subvert his feelings, contain his anger, corral his sexual desires (when he’s finally re-united with a damaged, vengeance-driven Winnie) to become the icon of the great leader.

But this isn’t only Nelson’s long walk: the movie also clearly shows the tremendous role Winnie played – through violence and insurrection and guerilla tactics – in securing freedom and an equal vote. She too was incarcerated (for eighteen months in solitary) – an event that enabled her to channel her anger and fear into ruthless activism. Naomi Harris’ (Miss Moneypenny in “Skyfall”) “Winnie is a stunning (mini) portrait as we see her change over the years from the young blushing coquette to a stern, unbending revolutionary.


At the heart of the movie lies this dialogue between the role of insurrection v that of pacifism. At one moment, after years in prison, Mandela comes face to face with a group of younger prisoners, fellow-freedom fighters/seekers, who seethe with anger and for whom the icon of the struggle is just a bent, broken, passive old man tending his tomatoes in prison. What Mandela shows them is that all struggles progress and leadership lies in understanding how to respond to its phases. The movie (and probably the book, which I have not read) suggests that both forces – anger/resistance/terrorism as well as the force of forgiveness – are necessary. Winnie was as important as Nelson. His strength was in recognizing when it was necessary to change; together they brought South African freedom, but only his grander vision secured its future.

Idris Elba’s Mandela is a towering piece of acting. Though physically as an aged Mandela, he looks more like Sydney Poitier than Mandela, the actor manages to show a character criss-crossed by tensions, contradictions and restraint. He creates a Mandela as a man of action tempered by introspection and driven by almost super-human ideals.

Elba, or Idrissa Akuna Elba, (most people will recognize him from “Luther” and “The Wire”; along with other gems such as “Thor”, “Ghost Rider” and that modern classic, “Pacific Rim”), a Londoner of Sierra Leonese and Ghanian ancestry, is part of a wonderful flowering of extraordinary Black English talent. He joins Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”) – of Nigerian heritage; David Harewood ( as CIA director David Estes in “Homeland”) and Adrian Lester (recent OBE winner and lead in the National’s outstanding production of “Othello”), both of Caribbean heritage, to lead a renaissance of Black acting in the UK. Add to them Steve McQueen, who directed “12 Years…” and you feel there’s something very special occurring right now in England.

AT THE MOVIES: Hollywood and Slavery


I AM EAGERLY awaiting the release of “Twelve Years A Slave” (things take long to reach over here in the UK) for many reasons: it comes with enormous pre-Oscar buzz; I’ve always admired the work of Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Inside Man”, “Love Actually”, “Dirty Pretty Things” etc. and who actually was ‘discovered’ by Spielberg and cast in that director’s first slavery themed movie – “Amistad”); Steve McQueen is one of the outstanding young British directors who made big news with “Shame” two years ago; and I admire Brad Pitt for having the drive to get the movie produced.

2012/13 were clearly big years for Hollywood. They were the years Hollywood discovered that slavery existed. In 2012, Spielberg in “Lincoln” ennobled a President for ending it (hooray for the White guys); Tarantino pulled off a miracle by exploiting the grammar of Blaxploitation movies without trivializing the subject, to conjure up a slave hero (the kind that can only exist in a Hollywood imagination), and now in 2013, a British director along with an Irishman (Michael Fassbender) and an Anglo Nigerian (Ejiofor) have come together to offer a story about American slavery.

But unlike “Lincoln” with revenues of $270M and “Django Unchained” with revenues of $425M, even the big name of Brad Pitt, and the enormous critical acclaim of “Twelve Years a Slave” haven’t been enough to get people into the cinemas (In the US, it pulled in a meager $38M… which was probably about the size of at Tarantino’s catering budget…but at least $3M more than “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”).

Hollywood has never shown much interest in slavery. Which is extraordinary: since slavery underscores so fundamentally the foundation of Southern wealth and the very nature of US race relations, you’d think there’d be more grist for the artistic imagination there.

But these three films are a recent cultural high point. Even if you went back twenty years, the number of slavery related movies up to 2012 is all of five! (Compare this with something Hollywood is much more interested in: money. In the last twenty years, there have been 19 movies about banking and Wall Street. Hollywood is, understandably, inextricably enmeshed with and deeply fascinated by money-makers and money– how it’s made, gambled, stolen and adored.)

And if Hollywood’s output is a cultural barometer, what does this say about the US and its relationship with slavery? There are no shortage of films about the conquest of the American West (the Cowboy movie – the Western – has been a staple of Hollywood since the beginning of time); but where are the slaves? It’s as if either there’s been up to now a sort of cultural amnesia about this institution (too dark, too much without heroes), or that Hollywood, unaware of how to mass market and fully monetize movies about the topic (indeed, on African Americans as a whole), has simply shut the door on it.

2014 may see an evolution, and may actually be the year when the nation remembers that slavery existed. ( Indeed, there was a spate of slavery-related movies produced in 2013, such as “Belle”, “Savannah” “Tula” etc, most of which nobody saw and some of which are to be re-released this year)

And yet, even the applauded “Twelve Years A Slave” may itself offer a dubious proposition: It’s a terrible thing for someone to have been kidnapped and sold into slavery FOR TWELVE YEARS. But it’s important to remember that for most slaves, this wasn’t a twelve-year punishment: it was a punishment for life.

By the time slavery ended in the US, via the thirteenth amendment in 1865 (30 years after British Emancipation), there were four million slaves suffering under the lash. From the day the first nineteen landed in Jamestown in 1619, those freed (like Tarantino’s Django) were the exception rather than the rule. Let’s look forward to “Twelve Years…” as a major contribution to the topic and not a Hollywood cop-out.

AMERICAN HUSTLE: Genuinely good


THE (WELL DRAWN) characters in David O Russell’s magnificent “American Hustle” live in an absurdist universe where, in their very twenty first century world, the currency of worth lies in the extent of your money, power and ambition. And what glues these three, let’s call them bankerly, traits together is your skill as a con man: your ability to deceive, fool, lie and, as the film title suggests, “hustle”. There are strong elements of Absurdist Theatre in Russell’s movie, where the moral anchors of honesty, loyalty, friendship and love are largely absent; and the individuals have to seek out their own pathways without, as it were, a clear sense of meaning or a compass to act as a guide. Russell suggests that when people have to fall back purely upon their own character traits, without the shaping influences of either the law or a moral code, danger lurks around every plot turn.


The movie is a hoot: it begins with an act that pretty much defines what we’re about to experience over the next few hours: Irving Rosenfeld (a round-faced, blading, paunchy Christian Bale), who is probably the most decent person in the film, is glueing a piece of a wig to his head, so that his elaborate, Trump-esque comb over can somehow appear genuine. Rosenfeld is re-crafting his, now fake, appearance to be able to better deceive those easily fooled folks from whom he makes his living.


In a town where what matters is not who you are, but how you appear (and how is this ‘mere’ fiction?), hairstyles are a signature statement: Rosenfeld’s trashy Jersey-girl wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), like Bradley Cooper’s sleazily ambitious FBI agent, Richie DiMaso, maintains a routine of daily hair curling, as if that’ll somehow mask their double-dealing ways. Mayor Carmine (Jeremy Renner) presents us a persona as elaborately coiffured as his pompadour; seductress Sydney (Amy Adams in the role of her career) frizzes her hair, as if that could ever take anyone’s eyes away from her frequently almost bared breasts; and FBI chief Anthony (Allseandro Nivola) has a greed-is-good slick back to ensure that all who are around him recognize his power; and then of course there’s the most elaborate style of all – Rosenfeld’s comb over.



Deception is all: deception of others, or, perhaps Russell may even be suggesting, there’s a self-deception involved that may even be something that’s uniquely “American”. If European Absurdist theatre mapped out a world without a moral compass, in the US, meet the new post-modern world: the American Hustle.


The story is built loosely (as the opening credits warn, “some of this actually happened”) around the three central characters. And as is typical of Russell’s movies, the –elaborate- plot that ensues is all character-driven: every piece of crap that these characters do, results in ever more labyrinthine twists and turns.


Rosenfeld (Bale), an owner of a chain of dry cleaning outlets, is also a small time hustler, given to fleecing money from gullible, greedy fools. He’s been on the hustle since he was a kid, when, in order to drum up business for his dad’s glass company, he’d break the windows of shop owners. He meets and (don’t mind that he’s married – to Jennifer Lawrence’s character) falls heavily for femme fatale, Sydney (Adams), a small-time ex-stripper in search of re-invention. She successfully re-invents herself as a seductive English heiress so that the caliber of their, now joint, hustles can be enhanced. Their success leads them straight into the hands of the law: Ritchie (Cooper), a man with a fiancée who lives at home with his mother, but whose overweening ambition leads him into the loins of Sydney and into the construction of an elaborate, barely legal, scheme of entrapment (this is the bit that ‘actually happened”) called Abscam.


In the story that follows, no-one is spared.


Russell is brilliant in his ability to craft a story that allows us to be aware of both the black, broad-scale nastiness and amorality of almost all of the characters, as well as the greyer areas where, despite themselves, genuine love does flower and somehow, decency and nobility does emerge.


He also offers a nicely delicate touch that unsettles viewers by shifting the tonal values of the film from whacky comedy to terse, taut drama, all underscored by a marvelous sound-track. Suddenly the music of an era have become the music of an era…of cons, lies and videotapes.


SAVING Mr BANKS: Disney-esque



“SAVING MR. BANKS” is an entertaining, slick, hollow, Hollywood glamorization of Disney by Disney. We’ve had in the recent past, a number of examples where brilliant actors inhabited the skins of real people to offer us well crafted insights into the people and the forces that moulded them (think Meryl Streep as Thatcher or Julia Child and Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles etc.). But in “Saving Mr. Banks” director John Lee Hancock (“the Blind Side”) offers us a strange reverse in casting philosophy: Walt Disney, who must have been a fascinating man – part genius, part tyrant – is here transformed into Tom Hanks, dripping Hanks-ean charm; that spoonful of sugar that let’s the schmaltz go down wonderfully smoothly.

The movie is about the courtship by Walt of P.L.Travers, who Walt insists on calling Pamela (a marvelous Emma Thompson). P.L Travers is of course the Australian author of “Mary Poppins”, a woman who, embittered by the traumas of her past, transformed herself into a ‘proper’ British lady. She was a hard nut to crack – a tut-tutting, unsmiling, antagonistic opponent of Walt’s singing dancing vision of her book – and, as envisaged by writers, Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, an all round source of mirth.

The dramatic heart of the movie centers around a battle of wills – Walt’s (let’s just say Tom’s) folksy charm combined with the sweet innocence of the writers – brothers Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak…mainly TV roles and a small part in “Inglorious Basterds” and Jason Schwartzman) and Bradley Whitford (Don DaGradi) and the almost saintly goodness of her driver Ralph (the always watchable Paul Giamatti). Against all this earnest sweetness was pitted her steely, unrelenting sourness.

It’s a battle that is accurate (the movie plays us recordings of the real P.L.Travers complaining about the script to Disney). But it’s presented with such high gloss, honeyed, serio-comic Disney-esque showmanship, that while it delivers great charm and entertainment, not for a minute does it offer a trace of fictional, artistic credibility. This battle of wills (he’s the honey, she’s the medicine) is played out against Travers’ past – her gritty childhood in rural Australia. The young P.L.Travers (Annie Rose Buckley) was in awe of her father – a charming, loving, and generally irresponsible drunk (Colin Farrel). He stimulated her imagination and a desire to escape into worlds of fantasy, which for him, was a world of drink. The mode of escape for her long-suffering mother (Ruth Wilson) was an attempt at suicide.


And for P.L Travers, whose real name was Pamela Goff, escape meant the transformation of her life – her memories and the demons they contained – into the Mary Poppins story and into the creation of an entirely faked persona, that of the British Mrs. Travers (her father’s first name). It is the arrival of the brisk, no-nonsense Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths of “Six Feet Under”) into their harsh lives that, Director Hancock hammers home, crystalizes itself into the Mary Poppins character.

In the end, guided by Walt’s own traumatic back story, Pamela’s acceptance that she cannot escape her memories, her real self, results in her ability to finally release her creation into the hands of another. Mary Poppins is allowed to pass from the hands of one artist into the hands of another.

“Saving Mr. Banks” skirts on some interesting themes: the protective relationship of authors with their creations (Disney muses about his refusal to sell-out when as a young man, a well-connected financier tried to tempt him out of Mickey Mouse); the idea of art and the imagination not as escape but as a way of interpreting and making sense of reality (one of the reasons why she resists Disney’s version of her book so strenuously was that it wasn’t the reality she was addressing in the book); and indeed, the need to accept who you are – not escape into who you construct yourself as being.

But it merely skirts on these themes. This is after all a Disney movie – lovely, delicious sugary froth where all things end well and the sunsets are ever golden. For me it was a lovely, empty-caloried, fattening way to end the year. And we need a few empty, non-alcoholic calories from time to time.