‘Mary and Max’ – ‘All humans are imperfect’

Mary and Max is a 2010 stop motion animated film by Adam Elliot. It is narrated by Barry Humphries: Mary is voiced by Toni Collette and Max is voiced by Philip Seymour-Hoffman.

Mary is a young Australian girl with a distant, overworked father and a kleptomaniac, alcoholic mother.

Mary is bullied at school and lonely. She finds herself in a post office and discovers a telephone book of American addresses. A curious child who has no-one to answer her questions, she selects a random address and her correspondence with Max begins. Their letters to each other are natural and honest. Mary tells Max about a neighbour who is agoraphobic.

He’s scared of outside, which is a disease called homophobia.

Max is a 44 year old Jewish atheist who is morbidly obese and has Asperger’s Syndrome. He is isolated and, despite having an anxiety attack when he reads Mary’s letter, he is compelled to write back to her. A bond develops, despite Max having difficulties relating to other people.

Max knew nothing about love. It was as foreign to him as a salad sandwich.

Their relationship is poignant and charming and it begins because they both have a liking for chocolate and a TV cartoon show. Max is able through his letters to explain to the young Mary that he has problems with relationships.

People often think I am tactless and rude. I cannot understand how being honest can be improper. Maybe this is why I don’t have any friends.

Their letters serve to develop their characters. Mary is unsupported at a time in her life where she is looking for a strongly influential role model and, in Max, Elliot is showing us a caring and heroic individual who is thoughtful and generous, even though he is misunderstood and marginalised by society.

I was born Jewish and used to believe in God but I’ve since read many books that have proven God is just a figment of my imagination. People like to believe in God ’cause it answers difficult questions, like where did the universe came from, do worms go to heaven and why do old ladies have blue hair. And even though I’m an atheist, I still wear my yarmulke as it keeps my brain warm.

Max has a breakdown: he is institutionalised and his correspondence with Mary stops for several years. Then on his 48th birthday, Max’s fortunes change with a lottery win.

Not much has happened since I last wrote except for my manslaughter charges, lotto win, and Ivy’s death.

Mary has grown up, married childhood sweetheart Damien (Eric Bana); she goes to university and writes a book on Asperger’s Syndrome with the intention to cure Max. He feels misunderstood, exploited and rips the letter M from his typewriter.

The rest of the story line is not to be spoiled for people who haven’t seen the film, but the characters’ lives take unexpected turns and the tension is palpable.

At the end of the film, Mary and her baby visit Max in New York. The ending is surprising, powerful and  the music Que Sera Sera is used as an ironic semiotic for the unexpected things which happen in life.

The impact of Mary and Max is twofold. Firstly, it is the intention of Elliot not to avoid the important discussion of issues such as loneliness, childhood neglect, alcoholism, depression, suicide, anxiety, isolation and the importance of friendship. Asperger’s Syndrome is dealt with in detail and, although not everyone with AS will manifest all of Max’s problems, the film serves to show clearly that autism and other ‘disabilities’ are in fact not the lens through which we should see the whole individual, but that the individual should be accepted wholly for who they are. Max writes to Mary:

Dr. Bernard Hazelhoff said if I was on a desert island, then I would have to get used to my own company – just me and the coconuts. He said I would have to accept myself, my warts and all, and that we don’t get to choose our warts. They are part of us and we have to live with them. We can, however, choose our friends, and I am glad I have chosen you.

The second strength of Mary and Max is the remarkable impact of the medium of stop-motion animation which renders the film both informative and funny. The characters are beautifully created and the use of music and the witty script are completely effective and the rapport between all the characters is bittersweet and heartwarming.

Taken for what it is, an animated film which has a message but is, at the same time appealing, moving and thought-provoking,  Mary and Max is a really good film to be enjoyed and treasured. It is certainly not just for children.

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Tetro, anyone? Not for me, thanks.

Have you ever seen a trailer for a film and thought ‘This looks brilliant. I must watch it.’ Then you watch it and all the best bits were in the trailer and the rest of the film is just not for you? That’s Francis Ford Coppola’s black and white film, ‘Tetro’.

It’s quite an old film now – it came out in 2009 – and I hadn’t seen it, but the trailer depicted a lively film with a strange and quirky rapport between two brothers, one a young ingénu and another eccentric and jaded. The younger, Bennie, is now a waiter on a cruise ship and he visits his older brother, Tetro, in Buenos Aires. Tetro is crotchety, not pleased to see him, he refuses to call him brother. He lives with Miranda, a psychiatrist who has nursed him back to health and now she panders to his every need.

At first it looks like Tetro – played quite well by Vincent Gallo – is an interesting character. He’s mercurial, enigmatic, charismatic and petulant. At first, it feels like we’re watching a play by Tennessee Williams: both men share an overbearing father who somehow destroyed their lives and, in particular, was the abusive driving force behind Tetro’s disappearance. So when the brothers meet, there is some unravelling of their past to be done and sparks will inevitably fly.

The acting is good. Certainly, Gallo as Tetro and Maribel Verdú as Miranda do their best with an implausible script. Alden Ehrenreich as Bennie is credible, despite looking like Dicaprio as Arnie Grape.

 

 

The film has several problems for me: it is indulgent, boring, contrived, implausible, over-complicated and pretentious.

Harsh words, certainly, but just watch the scene where Tetro walks towards the awards ceremony carrying an axe and his subsequent interchange with Bennie,  where the poor actor playing Tetro has to repeatedly beg his ‘brother’ to kill him. It just doesn’t work.

Subsidiary characters are stereotypes. The camera shows several women’s bodies from an aesthetic male viewpoint: the film stems from a rigid concept where women exist to serve men and I was never going to get much from such a conceit. Poor Miranda does everything for Tetro, only to be harangued, blamed, stood up and ignored. She even pours his breakfast coffee and gives him spiritual and career guidance. We see in flashback the scene where she fell in love with him. She was his psychotherapist and he was aloof and damaged, a gifted writer burned out and in need of being rescued and revived. So of course this beautiful woman rescues him and dedicates her life to his genius and continues to do it against odds and abuse. Not my sort of film at all!

The story which follows includes Tetro’s patriarchal misuse at the hands of his father who is a genius conductor. Tetro is damaged for so many reasons: flashbacks show us his part in a car accident involving his opera singer mother and his loss of true love, provoked by his egomaniac father. Bennie’s mother is in a coma. Some of these scenes are shown as ballets and we’re supposed to drop our jaws at the meaningful moment. It doesn’t work: it is pretentious and improbable and all the while, the women are rag dolls, drudges, dupes or dead.

There is a scene where Tetro is driven to Patagonia by Miranda where he will, finally, be rewarded for his genius. We see the sparkling light from the sun on the snow of the mountain range reflected in his eyes like daggers, blinding him and making him look hollowed and mesmerised. This is just too indulgent.

It’s hard to equate Coppola with this film; here is the director who brought us ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘The Godfather’.

I suppose everyone has their off days. ‘Tetro’ was certainly his!

‘Howl’ is a fantastic fusion film.

Love the poem, love the man, love the film.

‘Howl’ is a 2015 film about the landmark obscenity trial in 1957, concerning ‘Howl’, Allen Ginsberg’s signature poem. It features excerpts from the poem as we see beat poet Ginsberg reading his work to an adoring audience of famous writers such as Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac. The film takes us back to a time in the fifties when jazz was blowing in the clubs and there were fixed ideas about what made poetry valid and acceptable and what was considered to be breaking the boundaries of decency. Ginsberg is a pioneer poet and his work changed public perceptions.

We cross cut to the trial where ‘Howl’, Ginsberg’s first published piece, was considered obscene because it dealt with  subject matter and used language which had been previously taboo. A few years later, in England, D H Lawrence’s Lady ‘Chatterley’ was put through the same ordeal. Both writers works are seminal and influenced the freedoms we share as writers and readers.

‘Howl’ is considered to be one of the great works of American literature. It has a hallucinatory style which tumbles from the page and the tongue. It is dedicated to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met in a psychiatric institution.

‘Howl’, the film, will not be to everyone’s taste. I think it may be better suited to people who love poetry, performance poetry and who are interested in the seminal jazz age and have a vested interest in hearing James Franco, who plays Ginsberg, read chunks of the poem out loud in his strong, musical voice. It’s not your standard linear story.

It’s not an easy  film: it’s not divided into three or five acts. Three strands interweave and some people may find this halting as it interrupts suspension of disbelief or emotional investment.

For me, the three parts of the film worked well. Franco as Ginsberg reading his work or being interviewed by an unseen reporter is the main element of the film,  which fills in detail and biography. The trial of ‘Howl’ which, interestingly Ginsberg doesn’t attend, is fascinating in its own right for the comparison of witnesses: experts who demonstrate hypocrisy by suggesting that ‘Howl’ is obscene  and has no literary merit contrasting with others who consider the talent of Ginsberg to be a breakthrough in literature.

The third strand is an animated interpretation of the poem, which we see as a graphic interpretation as Ginsberg reads. It may be somewhat crude and dated as animation, but it serves perfectly to illustrate the poet’s intention and puts his own experiences at the heart of his writing.

James Franco is well cast as Ginsberg. He recreates the poet’s conviction, his vulnerability and his  engaging personality credibly. The era of the Beat Generation with its new thoughts about freedom, the music, the influential characters and the integral arts movements are evoked colourfully and I found the film worked well.

Some people will prefer an interpretation which is less documentary and more linear and perhaps therefore more satisfying as a biopic. I can see the merits of such a film but, although not a Hollywood blockbuster, ‘Howl’ is interesting for its unusual interpretation. Its format of poetry, trial scenes and visual graphics works well on screen and it is a celebration of Ginsberg’s unique and thrilling talent.

I watched ‘Howl’ with people who knew nothing of the Beat Generation or the poetry of Ginsberg, and they found it exciting, so it’s not just for poetry fans like myself.

The brothers Grimsby: definitely mad for it.

When it came out on DVD, I bought a copy of The Brothers Grimsby because the two main actors are both highly skilled. Mark Strong is a ubiquitous performer who has excelled in so many films, from  Our Friends in the North to Sherlock Holmes, from Kingsmen to Anna Karenina and RocknRolla. He has been in Prime Suspect and also in Twelfth Night. Strong is a versatile and consummate performer and in this film he stars alongside Sacha Baron Cohen.

Baron Cohen studied History at Cambridge before being tutored by a French drama teacher called Philippe Gaulier,whose style of physical theatre, mime and clowning owes much to Jacques Lecoq, the guru of movement-based theatre. Other students of Gaulier include Emma Thompson, Simon McBurney of Theatre de Complicite and Helena Bonham Carter, who have all acquired strong skills under Gaulier’s tuition. Baron Cohen’s training has been evident in all of his clown roles and Grimsby is no different.

I could take or leave Ali G: I didn’t like Bruno and I refused to be offended by Borat. I did quite enjoy The Dictator and I believe that there is a place in comedy for iconoclasm and pushing barriers. This said, I laughed out loud at The Brothers Grimsby from start to finish. It is a genuinely funny film.

The story is straight from the Blood Brothers genre: separated as orphans, Sebastian becomes a secret agent with MI6 and his elder brother, Nobby, is a heavy drinking football- mad father of eleven who lives in an English fishing town. The brothers have been separated for 28 years but Nobby is ever-hopeful that they will be reunited one day. They finally meet at a benefit where Sebastian is attempting to foil an assassination attempt. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong and there are scandalous occurrences involving Daniel Radcliffe before the brothers embark on a picaresque adventure to save the world. Their exploits culminate in a climax of action in Chile at an England vs. Germany football final.

There are some hilarious scenes. Without giving away too many spoilers, the spy on the run and his hapless brother hide from assassins inside an elephant’s vagina. Nobby imitates James Bond in South Africa and seduces the wrong woman. Nobby’s kids save the day more than once and there is a beautiful speech, Braveheart-style, at the end of the film where Nobby incites the football fans of Grimsby to rise up and fight against oppression. The end of the film is predictable but hilarious as fireworks explode in strange places and even Donald Trump has a minor role, albeit an ignominious one.

The Brothers Grimsby is a film which didn’t receive good ratings. This is probably because the same old jokes about penises and oral sex and bottoms are reinvented in a new context. I found it funny, quite harmless, charming, satirical and, in its own way, a bit of political lehrstucke in the Brechtian style as family loyalty is supremely important for Nobby. It’s not the type of film I watch often, but it is pure escapism  and it’s lively and iconoclastic and well performed. It’s best watched as a mates’ film, with a few beers and some tacos after a hard day when belly laughs are needed most.

It is also quite uncanny how Baron Cohen and Strong evoke a parody of Liam Gallagher and Vin Diesel as two bungling spies. It’s conceptually both clever and ridiculous, as most of Baron Cohen’s stuff is. I enjoyed it!

 

 

Cumberbatch’s ‘Third Star’ left me startled

I’d just been out with friends to The Star, my local pub, for a very lively evening and we came back home and chose a movie. What better than to settle down and  watch ‘Third Star’? We were all in the mood for a strong plot, with an actor who always delivers a fine performance, and the film has great reviews. We opened a bottle and pressed play.

It’s at this point that I have to warn you, you have to be in the mood for this movie.

Another film which passed me by at the time, Benedict Cumberbatch’s ‘Third Star’ is a story which many people will love. It came out in 2010, and it will suit people who like bittersweet films with a strong element of catharsis and a powerful lachrymose ending.

‘Third Star’ is at times poignant, comical and utterly credible. It features superb acting by Cumberbatch and his three co-stars, Tom Burke, JJ Feild and Adam Robertson. It was the debut film of Australian director Hattie Dalton

It is about four friends who take a camping trip to Barafundle Bay in West Wales, so the film features some incredible scenery, which is one of its great strengths.

The story line, without spoilers, is that Cumberbatch’s character, James, is terminally ill and his three closest friends decide to grant his birthday wish and they set off to Wales with an unwieldy wheelchair, a pack of morphine, some fireworks and a tree.

The characters are not always likeable but there are real tensions between them which make the story line work well. There are moments of clever comedy and the script contains some genuinely funny one-liners and some surprisingly raucous scenes, such as the punch-up outside the pub.

Two minor idiosyncratic characters help the well-crafted plot along: the four friends meet a ferryman, complete with unsubtle makeup who asks a ludicrous price for the return journey, and a semi-naked beachcomber in search of Darth Vader.

There are moments where the characters bond; moments where the angry James strikes out and moments where there is friction and dislike, creating characters which blend and fracture and a storyline which breathes pathos. It is an ironic tale of coming-of-age.

Audiences will gasp in delight at the scenery: the beach, the forests, the big skies and sunsets and the dark nights lit by a log fire around which the friends meet to talk, to argue and to celebrate. The film is also abundant with visual metaphors: blown-out candles on a cake, flying crows, crumbling gravestones, rolling waves, fireworks, open skies (both night and day).

Some people will find the film clichéd and sentimental: some will find it beautiful, mesmeric and tragic. Some will think the ending morbid and hard to watch while others will find meaning and comfort in the final scenes.

The four actors explore the theme of friendship and male symbiosis well and their skill creating credible, although at times difficult individuals and a strong but changing rapport is impressive.

It is a film which may divide audiences: some will find it uplifting, others will think it morose, but you can’t fault the cinematography for it’s images of savage natural beauty or the acting for its accuracy and conviction. Again, Cumberbatch excels, and it is his talent which propels the film forward and makes sense of the the contrived ending.

For me, the film isn’t a post-pub pic: I’d have been better watching something with more vibrant action or with a tendency to satirical comedy. But when it’s raining outside and you want to feel really miserable, or if you’re in the mood for a film where you know you’re fortunate to be in good health, then this is a great choice.

I will certainly be travelling to Pembrokeshire, having seen this film, to seek out the fabulous beaches. ‘Third Star’ ignites the desire to go camping with friends and sit around log fires enjoying star-filled skies and wild landscapes.

I won’t be going in the sea, though!

How would you bet on the next James Bond?

Like so many other people, I had always disliked James Bond films. I suppose the 007 movies have become a cultural reference point for British people: we know a bit about the actors, the villains, the traditional genre and the theme tunes. I didn’t like the Connery Bond; even if we allow that it is of its time, it established a farcical playboy pattern where the bad girlies were nearly always killed off and superfluous. They were sprayed with gold paint to suffocate in their own skin, eaten by piranhas, drowned, stabbed, shot or – my own personal unfavorite – forced to fight another woman barefoot for her man.Of course, the good girls stayed pliable and acquiescent, or at least became so by the end of the film for the last sexist punch line.

I loathed their awful names too. Kissy Suzuki, Plenty O’Toole. Mary Goodnight, Wai Lin, Chew Mee and Pussy Galore. Oh, and don’t forget the unimpressively reductive name, Bibi Dahl. Even if we accept the dated ethnocentricity and misogyny, the characters still lacked depth and imagination. But then Roger Moore was aptly called Roger Moore, so I suppose that set some kind of standard.

I rarely watched early Bond movies unless I was round someone else’s house at Christmas. Then Daniel Craig came along and improved the genre by being a little more multi-faceted. His Bond had some kind of chip on his shoulder from being an orphan. He fell in love with Vesper, who was an unusual and strong woman. He tried to rescue her and he grieved when she died. He had a credible rapport with Dame Judi Dench’s ‘M’ and, as he became older, his body occasionally failed him and he became more vulnerable, while still falling back on his usual experience and courage.

This version of Bond was more watchable as the villains became more complex and interesting. I liked the updated Le Chiffre with his tears of blood but my favourite was Raoul Silva, a character with the type of unpredictability and guile seen in formidable villains such as Hannibal Lecter. Silva was played superbly by Javier Bardem and he, Craig and Dench made the film ‘Skyfall’ memorable and disturbing through their screen presence and skilled performance.

So now Daniel Craig, having reformed the genre and made it modern and more palatable, may be leaving the role, and the top contenders are lining up to become Bond. Here is a superb opportunity for the franchise to change character and move forward again. The next Bond could be black, gay, even female – to give the franchise a contemporary twist and to build on the subtle revolution in style that Daniel Craig has brought to the role.

Idris Elba (6/1) is gritty and has style, humour and panache, and could make a really fresh and interesting Bond. Kate Beckinsale (1000/1) would make the role realistic, resonant and completely individual. Aidan Turner (8/1) could make the leap from Poldark to predictably handsome secret agent and Eddie Redmayne (66/1) would certainly add emotional depth and complexity to the role. Jason Statham (50/1) would bring Cockney bravado and endless swagger – and imagine the fight scenes!

Even Beyoncé is 1000/1.

But this is an opportunity to think even further outside the box, isn’t it?

I would love to see David Haye (N/A!) do Bond, all charm and dreadlocks and boxing gloves. Or maybe someone else would bring a bit of individuality and a new challenge to the role, someone who isn’t doing a lot at the moment. Think Jose Mourinho (1000/1 – seriously), Jeremy Clarkson, Ed Miliband (both N/A). Scratch Clarkson – he is better villain material, perhaps with wired teeth and a little cat on his knee. Richard Hammond, maybe? (Also N/A)

An exciting debut would be Jeremy Corbyn (1007/1 – again, I am not making this up) as Bond, facing the terrors of bowler hatted villain Boris Johnson while Teresa May shoots from the hip in the driving seat of  a foreign convertible? Or perhaps the judges of The Voice could line up as villains, Will.i.am and Boy George throwing mini missiles as their chairs swivel round and our intrepid Bond would be Olly Murs or Adele, singing and dodging the way to safety?

The safest choice for the next Bond would be Tom Hardy (favourite at 2/1) or Benedict Cumberbatch (50/1), both actors being highly rated for their versatility and immense talent. Cumberbatch’s interpretation of Hamlet blew me away. Hardy is prolific too, and he has yet to offer a performance which has been less than stunning. He has made otherwise mediocre and mundane films shine and good ones glorious.

But this is an opportunity like no other,to find someone groundbreaking as  the next choice of Bond. If Daniel Craig decides not to be the next 007, here is a heaven-sent opportunity to shake it up and make it rock and roll.If only Lemmie were still with us, he’d get my vote.

Now that would be some movie!

‘The Program’ – blood bags, syringes and sleuth.

I watched ‘The Program’, the biopic of Lance Armstrong’s exploits, which deals with his fight against cancer and his decision to take performance enhancing drugs in order to become a Tour de France winner.

The film relates the story of Armstrong, from his early days of being a competitive young rider, through his battle with cancer, to his tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey on live TV. The story is shown from the perspective of journalist David Walsh, on whose book ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ the film is based. Walsh suspected Armstrong’s success was due to his use of banned substances, and ‘The Program’ is largely about his hunt for evidence. We all know the story: at first, cycling has its hero in Armstrong, the champion of seven consecutive Tours de France and the legend of the Livestrong Foundation campaign, supporting people with cancer. Walsh’s accusations ended in a court battle from which Armstrong emerged victorious and ranks closed, until individuals found themselves in a position where they had to tell the truth and Armstrong’s status fell from champion to cheat.

The film deals quite openly with the doping in cycling and we understand the younger inexperienced Armstrong’s  competitive desire as he reaches an epiphany, having lost a hard race, and he realises he must make a career decision based on pure scientific data: he will not win based on his merits alone, and he is faced with the choice of  remaining a noble competitor or having science on his side in the shape of EPO and testosterone or HGH, and becoming a winner.

Armstrong embarks on a programme of drugs and a powerful propulsion to seven titles and world-wide admiration.

If you are looking for a film which tells the viewer how to feel about Armstrong, showing his background and character in depth, then this film will not be satisfying. We see hardly anything of his courtship, his wife, his family. His relationship with Sheryl Crow is not mentioned. When we see him at home, he is alone, with only his framed yellow jerseys for company. This highlights the solitude of his performance as a cyclist, his blinkered dedication and how he was teetering on the brink of detection, avoiding it craftily for so long.

Ben Foster plays it exactly how it is: Armstrong is a doper on a bike, infected with a desire to win. There isn’t much else to him at this stage in his life: hunger for victory consumes him and, if he cheated the world, he cheated with conviction. We see him inside his team caravan, needles in his arm, needles ready and primed in trainers before the race, used needles hidden inside drinks cans and then disposed of in bins: the plot and the strategies were well planned and slickly executed. We see delaying tactics so that he could pass off blood samples to avoid detection and we see him practising for press conferences in the mirror, smiling, modulating his voice: ‘I have never used performance enhancing drugs.’

We see Armstrong’s bravery and his humanity as he sinks into a wheelchair after cancer treatment and there is a tender moment when, much later, he visits Jack, a cancer sufferer, and offers him his time: we know Armstrong understands the boy’s situation exactly.

Armstrong is nothing more than a talented athlete consumed with hunger to be the best. It is clear from this film why substances were used widely by cyclists: it was the only way to win; victory is a cyclist’s raison d’être, and the film portrays this perfectly.The film is, if anything, about cyclists’ mentality: their dedication, their desire and their blind single-mindedness, without which they would not ever be a valid competitor.

Ben Foster dabbled with such substances himself in order to prepare for the role, and his performance is honest and informed. He does not hold back – Armstrong is created with sweat and lies, dilated pupils and controversy – but there is a humanity to the character. As Foster says ‘That’s what Lance did – he went to war with his body. That shifts your consciousness.’

This isn’t a romantic film or a moving film: it is, at times, more of a documentary and it hits hard. Much of the footage is genuine and there is a priceless and moving  moment where we hear Phil Liggett commentating on the Tour de France television programme, praising Armstrong with superlatives and refuting the existence of doping in the sport.

This is a film for people who know and love cycling. They will admire Foster’s performance and Armstrong’s situation will strike a chord, however they feel about banned substances.

It is a film for people who know nothing about cycling, but who are intrigued by the doping scandal, how it unfolded and how Armstrong rose to the heights of hero then descended to the depths of villainy, and what desire, instincts and convictions compelled him, what chances and risks he took, and what sacrifices he made. Those who are interested in a journalist’s battle to tell the truth against the background of media adulation will find the film captivating in its realism.

For those who want a rounded story, well told, with a nicely finished ending, this may not be the film for you, but ‘The Program’ carries with it some good performances and some interesting thoughts about competition and the desire to be the best, the cost and the pain, and the inevitable Paradise Lost.

High rate for the H8ful Eight

I need to review my habit of going to the cinema and buying tickets in Row A. I choose to sit at the front, partly because I am a bit myopic and partly because if I don’t sit there, someone with a big head will come and sit directly in front of me. However, Row A and the pre-film warning about bloody violence should be enough to persuade me to move back to Row D.

But it never does. I still spend the gory moments peeking between my fingers. And ‘The Hateful Eight’ doesn’t disappoint with its gory moments.

A Tarantino film is always a big deal to go and see, because his other films have been so ground-breakingly creative and quirky. Expectations are always high. ‘The Hateful Eight’ takes place inside a stagecoach during a snowstorm in Wyoming, and then most of the film is set inside Millie’s Haberdashery, which is a stagecoach lodge. It is some time after the American Civil War, maybe in the 1880s or 1890s.

The premise is that a bounty hunter, John Ruth, is bringing in a murderer, Daisy Domergue, to be hanged in the next town. The drama comes from the fusion and interaction of the characters in the lodge and the constant undercurrent of tension that Daisy will be aided by one of the other characters to make an escape.

The film is divided into six chapters and the action revolves around the enigmatic character of Samuel L. Jackson as Major Marquis Warren and the rapport, stuffed with farcical dishonesty and machinations, between a strong cast which includes Tim Roth, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mark Madsen and Bruce Dern. Walter Goggins as Sherrif Chris does a plausible impression of Jim Carrey throughout the whole film and it is good to see Channing Tatum featuring in a slightly more demanding role as bad boy, Jody.

The action is bloody beyond all expectations and, as you know, I will never offer spoilers, but there are scenes where other directors may have offered a murder with a pint of blood and Tarantino will give you a truck load, complete with recognizable bits of brain. It is definitely the hyperbole of violence which makes those moments horrifically and hysterically funny.

Tarantino has always been the master of using music as a quirky semiotic in his film and there is a great moment where Bob the Mexican plays Silent Night on the piano during a scene of mischief. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack is cheekily used to make moments impactful, too.

For me, two things make this film great. Firstly, Tarantino’s ability to mix shock and the unexpected with credible twists and turns. I spent little time wondering what would happen next or trying to predict outcomes, as I was so involved in the moment of the storyline.

Secondly, the action is so fast-paced and when the story does slow down, the skilful acting makes each moment a morsel of brilliance. For example, Samuel L Jackson has a monologue about killing a white man: I won’t spoil the excitement and tell you who it is or when, but just take a moment to listen to the arrogance, the hubris, the lethargy and the resentment in his voice. Superb!

It is part of Jackson’s repertoire of  moody moments throughout the film which make his character effortlessly brilliant. The same is true for the other actors. Roth is a genius: you dislike and distrust him before you know what he is. Madsen and Jason Leigh are multifaceted and interesting and Demian Bichir as Mexican Bob is hilarious.

Add to the superb acting Tarantino’s gift for keeping an audience in suspense then throwing the unpredicted into the mix, and you have a great film. There are moments of sheer brilliance: the rough rapport between Russell and Jason Leigh, filled with almost unnoticeable seconds of tenderness; the symbolism of Major Warren’s letter from Lincoln, the snowstorm outside and the crackling heat inside the lodge. The flashback to ‘what happened before’ is as exhilarating as it is elucidating and moments such as the coffee, the  ‘huevos’ and the final ending will stay with you for a long time.

You will know Tarantino’s style  by his previous films. This one does not disappoint. It surprises, it shocks, it provokes thought: it is at times a bit uncomfortable and at times it makes you laugh perhaps when you shouldn’t but, above all, it goes way beyond the visual spectacle of white snow and red blood and it offers some stunning performances from some well cast and superbly directed actors. It has venom and intelligence, wit and mischief. It is a drama which takes place in a single room, but this isn’t Chekhov’s ‘Cherry Orchard’!

Go and see it. Get row A!

‘The Homesman’, a ‘homely’ woman and why I was bored with it all

Picture the scene: I invite round some friends, we order a nice take- away and watch a movie. Expectations run high as we choose the 2014 film ‘The Homesman’, starring and directed by Tommy Lee Jones, and also starring Hilary Swank and Meryl Streep. There’s a good cast, a promising film, and critics are calling it the best film since Eastwood’s ‘The Unforgiven’, so we think it will be good. The wine is open, the slipper socks are on and the food is delivered bang on time: crispy papadums, a tasty sagwalla and some nice basmati rice. We all snuggle down and press the on button, and the title comes up: ‘The Homesman’.

Firstly, we are treated to Swank, whose character is self-sufficient and independent and a dreamer. She is Mary Bee Cuddy, 31 years old, single and single-handedly working her smallholding in 19th century Nebraska. She ploughs, she pumps water, she cooks, all this in a dress, with a smile on her face as wide as the Nebraskan landscape. She invites some grubby local farming guy to dinner, proposes marriage after singing sweetly to him and he has the audacity to turn her down. We discover he thinks she is ‘plain as an old tin pail… and bossy.’

I write this gender imbalance off as 19th century patriarchal culture and I continue to try to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the movie.

Mary Bee then volunteers to cross difficult terrain in order to fetch three ‘mad women’ back home, to be cared for in the church, because the dishonourable menfolk of the town refuse to make the journey; she is brave and determined and has leadership and team spirit. Before she begins her quest, she saves the life of a weak, aimless army deserter who is a cheat and a coward, who calls himself ‘George Briggs’, and she cajoles him into accompanying her, as recompense for her charity.

The ‘mad women’ have lost their wits through abuse and bereavement and their men are quite happy to let them go, like they would send an old mare to the knackers or chuck out a broken chair, so the wives are packed up, chained and barred in an old wagon.

Swank is great in this film. Her character is plausible and poignant: she has guts and panache, but it ends badly when she proposes to the unprepossessing and unpleasant Briggs. He turns her down but, when she appears at his sleeping bag, naked, he is kind enough to give her a quick seeing to, and of course this reinforces her lonely plight, and there is a shocking outcome the next morning.

We are led to believe that such was the dilemma of women in the 1850s, a choice between bad marriage or the lonely and demoralising social lowliness of spinsterhood. So good old Briggs brings the loony ladies to a sweet home where the church can look after them, after he has meted out a few punishments to some bad men and become a bit of a rogue hero on the way, binge shooting and setting fire to a hotelier who will not give them food.

He buys shoes for a barefoot sixteen year old, telling her sentimentally that Mary Bee was the best of women, and then he abruptly suggests that the kid marries him. No wonder she turns up her nose. It was enough to put me off my roti.

Everyone wants to look good, of course, but that ‘good’ should not be decided by someone else: certainly not the contemporary George Briggses of this world.

If the film intended to show me that a woman’s lot was not a happy one – there they all are, strong, lovely, and alone in an unforgiving landscape while the only male, a whisky-soaked deserter, was there to judge them plain or mad, turn down their advances, chain them up and call all the shots – then it did it’s job well. I would go further. Swank’s Mary Bee was neither plain nor useless, although Lee Jones’ Briggs was both of these things his rejection cost her dearly. The film gave me no logical reason why she should be so suddenly desperate, other than the prevalent history and culture, and it is odd that she proposes to the one-dimensional Briggs out of the blue, moments after castigating him for his bad character.

The ‘mad women’ were parodies, stereotypes, hissing and wailing at one moment, then staring into space, and then being meek, doing as they were told. They were neither credible people nor objects of pathos. They were tangential to the story, other than being ‘mad’ and, once deposited at the church where kindly Meryl Streep, a vicar’s wife, said they’d be looked after, they were forgotten for the rest of the film. Their care, cure and rehabilitation didn’t matter at all. Despite being the impetus for the story, there is no emotional investment, by the audience, in them or in their future.

I got nothing from this film. It was disjointed in its story line and I thought it was a little unclear about it’s purpose. It was indulgent and too long, and if it intended just to be bleak and show us how tough it was to be a woman 150 years ago, then Tommy Lee Jones’ character didn’t serve to make that point credibly. Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee begins the film strongly: then all of a sudden she is so desperate, even a bum won’t have her, so she immediately loses all hope.

I didn’t feel that the positive role model who failed so miserably made much sense – the wonderful Hilary Swank, giving up so readily when she had so much to offer – and for so little in Tommy Lee Jones! Maybe that was the whole point, but then the film went on to turn the hapless Briggs into some sort of quasi-messianic dispenser of justice who gambled and drank and danced on a boat while his memo to Mary Bee floated off into indivisibility, becoming, just as she was, unnoticed. Was that the point, as he ambles on to the end, drunk and raucous?

It’s at this point that if the film’s moral is one which shows women’s meagre lifestyle and their few options, I hope women of our time have changed considerably, and are no longer faced with the lack of choices which caused Mary Bee to do what she did. I am surrounded by airbrushed Facebook images of females who put up gorgeous pictures of themselves so that friends and various sycophants will tell them how lovely they look. Some people still dress little girls as pink princesses and urge them to simper and stamp their feet: the aspiration is that they will ‘break hearts’ when they grow up but we should maybe urge them to break rules and to become independent, strong and to follow their own desires.

I know women who deny themselves and castigate themselves so they will not go unnoticed, or that they will appear more attractive to others. What they look like is of most importance to them, and it comes before health, happiness or self-respect. How good they look is entirely based on someone else’s opinion. Like poor Mary Bee Cuddy.

The most beautiful women I know radiate inner confidence: they don’t care less about what others think of their appearance. Of course they look good and want to look good, on their own terms, in their own skin. One woman I know is fifty, attractive because of her wit, her iconoclasm, her intellect and her refusal to take on board others’ expectations. Another one I know is in her twenties, fiercely clever, fiercely independent, following her own future – no one would dare to write on her face book page ‘Oh you look gorgeous, babe.’ She knows she looks good, but she is focused on much bigger issues like having fun and being successful on her own terms. Everyone wants to look good, of course, but that ‘good’ should not be decided by someone else: certainly not the contemporary George Briggses of this world.

I didn’t like ‘The Homesman’ as a film: it was lengthy, prevaricating and, at times, pointless, but if it tells us anything, it is that Mary Bee should have ignored the old drunken bum, not rescued him and gone on instead to live her own life, singing and ploughing and cooking, and looking great pushing the plough and horse in her dress, and she should have paid no attention to those who called her plain and bossy. She was strong, lovely and admirable.

Mr Nice Guy might have turned up one day – they usually do, there are many of them out there – and the ones she propositioned weren’t worth the paper from my takeaway meal. And, of course,  if Mr Right didn’t turn up, she could have invited the three ‘mad women’ round for peach pie and had a bloody good time on her own terms.

The Revenant: Man v Nature, Man v Man?

I decided to test the hype for myself: I went to see ‘The Revenant’ at the cinema last night, sitting on the front row, right in front of the Big Screen. I wasn’t put off by the preamble warning about blood and gore and detailed injuries: I knew this was a film about some guys enduring the hardships of nature and that there would be a few battles and some token bloodshed. All the hype is right, though. It is a bleak film.

Directed last year by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the film is in cinemas now and it’s likely to win Oscars. The acting, sound track, cinematography, make up and costume and direction are all exceptional.

You will never be on the receiving end of spoilers from my film reviews: I absolutely respect that you want to go to see a film, suspend your disbelief and enjoy it without some inconsiderate writer butting in to tell you what happens in the best bits and what you should think. So, I will lay down a few hors d’oeuvres- in more ways than one, and hope that you’ll want to go and see it for yourself. (Remember this pun for when you watch it!)

‘It begins with a bloody battle which makes Macbeth look like a church tea party.’

I am the right person to review this film: as a female, a vegan, an animal lover, a pacifist, a believer in human rights, I should not have enjoyed this film at all. There are so many reasons why I should have found it too shocking or gratuitous. But it is an honest film, and if you can accept all the blood and guts and focus on the screen, watching the tale unfold, accepting the depiction for the story it is, the film is outstanding.

It begins with a bloody battle which makes Macbeth look like a church tea party. This is a violent film and the setting is harsh and brutal, like the men’s lives. The story line is predictable: it is a picaresque. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), sets out to achieve something important to him, a task of love and duty, and he has skills as a tracker, so we know where his journey will take him. His arch-enemy, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), is wicked, ruthless, cunning and must pay the price for his deeds. Catharsis and confrontation are inevitable from the opening scenes.

There will be criticisms: it is, in many ways,  DiCaprio’s ‘Passion’- he suffers, martyr-like, for his pure love and  then he rises ‘from the dead’ to complete his mission. We even see him in a church with Christ crucified as a backdrop. But we accept that the film is a platform for a remarkable actor who has always been prodigious. You may have seen him in ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’ as a teenager in the intense role of Arnie Grape.

There are some almost unwatchable scenes in ‘The Revenant’, some involving animals, and some involving combat, slaughter and  violence. There are only two women in the film: a dead wife and a rape victim, so some might say this is something of an andro-centric film. However, I think it has a universal significance for it’s visual and allegorical link to the savagery of nature. The characters are important but never developed: we know as much about them at the end as we do in the first few minutes. They are there as part of nature, to pit their wits against its forces. But none of that matters. They represent aspects of humanity and human behaviour and the will to survive hardship and loss.

The acting of Hardy and DiCaprio is everything you would expect: two sublime performers, both in the scenes they are together and apart, they are two instinctive dramatic geniuses of our age. Performance is an integral part of what makes this film work aesthetically.

And then there is the setting.

The scenery is stunning: snowstorms, rushing rivers, tall pines, huge skies and all the forces that nature can throw at mankind. The animals suffer and are killed  for their skins, for food and they are there for man’s taking, use and abuse: there is prejudice and suspicion amongst men, but the film is about survival, and DiCaprio’s Glass does exactly that. He survives against all possible odds.

It is hard to believe that some scenes, such as the one with the bear, are created by CGI: they are so realistic. ‘The Revenant’ is best seen on a large screen – get seats in rows A or B! The power, impact and colours of nature are truly overwhelming, and there is an irony there too, as the film was made against a time bomb of global warming, as DiCaprio has been saying in interviews about the film.

Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score is perfect and never obtrusive: much of the soundtrack, however, is silence, breathing, animal noises, the environment: all constant semiotics for the struggle between one  man and the elements or one man against another.

It is a brutal film, a shocking one, but we are safe in the hands of the actors: our journey is one where we readily believe the task Glass sets himself and, when the ending comes, it is exquisitely performed, the twists and turns highlighting hero meets villain against an unyielding backdrop. There is the reappearance of the ghost of ‘Braveheart’ in the last moments but the law of nature has triumphed and we forgive a moment of gratuitous sentimentality and revel in the power of the performance.

‘The Revenant’ is not a film for those who do not buy into the significance of the wilful traverse through an unkind environment, or Glass’ reasons for wanting revenge. It is not for those viewers who are easily shocked by the detailed gore or the harshness of man’s treatment of other men, women and animals. However, it is spectacular in its brutality and it’s a great film for those who enjoy breathtaking cinematography and consummate performances. I wonder if there are better male actors at the moment than Hardy and DiCaprio: I doubt it, as they are completely absorbing, credible and inspirational.

I hope the film wins many awards: it deserves to be remembered as a ground-breaking film on many levels: acting, directing, cinematography, sound, CGI. Nothing is held back: the excessive killing and bloodshed, the violence, the cruelty of nature and of mankind, and the battle of two forces, one against the other.The characters and the storyline, while not impressive for their depth, are detailed, perfectly delivered  and always moving.

I think it is, and will become, a great film of our time.