“The Post” – Truth at what price?

 

This is my review of  “The Post”  .  
It can be no coincidence that Steven Spielberg’s engrossing film, “The Post” has been produced in the first year of Trump’s presidency, with the heightened concern over the freedom of the press to expose government suppression of the truth in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts”.

In 1971, The Washington Post had its first female publisher in the form of Katharine Graham, who had assumed this role in the family firm after her husband’s suicide. Brilliantly played by Meryl Streep, who has gained her 21st Oscar nomination for this part, despite being a glamorous society hostess, Graham often suffers from a crippling lack of confidence, and it is clear that the suave advisors on her Board assume the right to manoeuvre her into making the decisions they favour. This film reminds us continually that, however oppressed some “Me Too” women may feel now, sexual inequality was ingrained into society fifty years ago to an extent most young people may find hard to credit.

Graham has taken the initiative to employ the abrasive Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) as chief editor. His irritation knows no bounds when the arch-rival paper, “The New York Times”, lands the scoop of publishing the leaked “Pentagon Papers” which reveal how, over three decades, four successive presidents, including the charismatic Kennedy, have lied to the public over the fact that resources are being poured into fighting a war which cannot be won in Vietnam, at the cost of thousands of young American lives. When Nixon’s regime gets an injunction served on “The Times” to halt production, the baton passes to “The Post”, if they want to risk taking it. If they can track down the source of the leak and obtain the leaked documents, should they publish the details instead? Since Bradlee compromised his position in the past when socialising with the Kennedy family, how can he condemn Graham if she tries to shield McNamara, the author of the incriminating papers which he never intended for public consumption? About to float her business as a public company in order to gain vital investment support, will the vacillating and dominated Graham find the courage to take a stand as a matter of principle?

What could be a dry film is in fact quite gripping since, with a good script, some excellent acting (apart from the odd mumbler), and attention to period detail, it raises some important issues. To what extent should newspapers protect their sources? Do unethical means of obtaining information justify the ends? Should one jeopardise people’s jobs and the future of a newspaper for the sake of a principle? When might revealing the truth be against the national interest?

It is fascinating to see the recreation of a computer-free world in which papers have to be produced with hand-set type by vast, cranking machinery. Stolen papers have to be reproduced page by page on a snail’s pace copier. But is it credible that after painstakingly cutting the “top secret” note off each sheet, no one thought to number the pages? Or that even the most quick-witted journalists could make sense so quickly of 4000 odd pages which had become mixed up?

I liked the touch of a silhouetted Nixon at a White House window as he petulantly issues orders that no one from “The Post” is ever to be admitted to the building again, together with the foreshadowing of the Watergate break-in which was soon to bring him down.

Darkest Hour – a dogged Churchill despite his “black dog”.

This is my review of the film  Darkest Hour

In this film which has attracted attention for Gary Oldman’s remarkable transformation into what many regard as an uncanny replica of Churchill, the focus is on a fraught period in May 1940 when European states were falling like ninepins as German troops scythed through them, Italy was collaborating with the Third Reich, France about to capitulate and the entire British land army trapped at Calais and Dunkerque.  In what seems a hopeless situation, and anxious not to repeat the carnage of young men in World War 1, a wily Lord Halifax manoeuvres to force Churchill to agree to peace negotiations with Hitler, with Mussolini acting as intermediary. We know that ultimately, Churchill will not give in, so the interest lies in seeing how, with the entire War Cabinet and the King against him, scant help from an America sworn to neutrality, and such a dire military position in mainland Europe, he can possibly survive as Prime Minister, if he persists In taking what looks like an increasingly forlorn stand.

No punches have been pulled over the portrayal of Churchill as, frankly, a physical mess – a large cigar perpetually in one hand and tumbler of whisky in the other, or close by, with a bottle in view for a top up.  He has clearly made major mistakes in the past, is at the best of times irascible, capricious, inconsiderate, over-emotional yet inexplicably adored by his long-suffering wife  played by Kristen Scott-Thomas –  who has perhaps worn better through being less self-indulgent.

“How does he manage to drink so much during the day,” enquires a disapproving King George V1 – “Practice” comes the quick-fire reply. Yet as depression due to lack of sleep born of anxiety  combines with his perpetual state of being not quite – or not at all sober –  to take their toll, he appears increasingly shambling and pathetic.

I will have to read another biography or two to establish whether this is a just portrait of “the great man”, but the film almost manages to redress the balance with the  flashes of self-deprecating humour, charm, and gift for delivering a thundering speech to mobilise his audience when required, enabling us to glimpse what his appeal must have been. Nowadays, a less deferential public than the one we see during his improbable trip on the Underground might be much more critical, except that our weakness for mavericks and celebrities can still  sway us to rally to a challenging course of action on emotional grounds.

It is in many ways a typical wartime period drama, with London crowds in 1940s style but unduly well-fitting and brand new clothing with sleek hairstyles. Even the London dustmen look too clean and tidy. Most of the interiors, a House of Commons chamber very different from Westminster, rooms in Buckingham Palace and Churchill’s residence seem very dark – perhaps to indicate the black-out.  Yet there is some excellent camerawork, sweeping down from the  London rooftops into grand inner courtyards of government buildings.

Our continual harking back to past glories and acts of bravado sometimes seems like a kind of ostrich-like escapism from our current problems – a kind of self-delusion, of which Churchill himself  was of course accused when he refused to negotiate with Hitler. With the wisdom of hindsight we can see that Churchill was right, although his moral justification only won through with the military  support of the Soviet Union and America.  The film glosses over the rejection of Churchill once the war was over. No longer needed to boost morale  and stubbornly battle on, his approach seemed not only outworn, but a barrier to the new drive for social change which the war had released.

This is a well-made film without being great which has inspired me to start  reading the biography of Churchill by Roy Jenkins which has lain on a shelf for years.

Three Billboards East of Ebbing, Missouri – A brew of comedy and violence too dark to see the depth

This is my review of: Three Billboards East of Ebbing, Missouri.

Furious over the lack of progress in tracking down her daughter’s brutal murderer, Mildred Hayes spends money she can ill afford to install three huge billboards on the outskirts of the well-named, typical Southern states small town of Ebbing, Missouri. The stark wording reads: “Raped while Dying”;  “And still no arrest”; “How come Chief Willoughby?”  The conservative, gobsmacked townsfolk are understandably appalled and disapproving; not least because Willoughby seems to be a decent man , although lamentably ineffectual in failing to fire his incompetent, racist side-kick Dixon, who is shown at one point torturing black suspects.  Some critics have deplored writer-director Martin McDonagh’s failure to treat race relations more sensitively, but that is not the main point of this film, focused as it is on Mildred’s desire to avenge her daughter’s death. When Mildred’s provocative action arouses an obsessive hostility in Dixon the stage is set for a one-woman feud with the police.

Mildred is a deeply flawed character, almost as bad as Dixon. Aggressive and foul-mouthed, she overacts when her wishes are obstructed. Perhaps she is driven by a sense of guilt over having parted with her daughter on bad terms, but she shows remarkably little concern for her long-suffering and surprisingly pleasant (in view of what he has had to put up with) son – it is the minor characters who are likeable in this film.  Just as Dixon may have been “driven to the bad” by a ghastly, smothering mother for whom he cares, Mildred may have been damaged in ways which are not made clear, apart from the inference that her ex-husband has left her for a teenage bimbo. It is perhaps “out of character” that such a tough, independent-minded woman should have tolerated a partner’s violence, and appear resentful over his departure. In a typical juxtaposition of violence and humour, we see  him one moment with his hands round Mildred’s  neck, the left  colluding with her in a sheepish, eye-rolling glance over his girl-friends inanity.

This film has won many awards and plaudits, audiences may be excited by the violent drama and be entertained by the “no holds barred” interplay of comedy and sociopathic brutality.  Compared to “run-of-the-mill” thrillers and action films, the film has an original take on the theme of victimhood, does not flinch at breaking taboos, and gives a talented and well-cast female actor the chance for a lead part. However, Frances Mc Dormand has the ability to rise to greater challenges than offered here. The film lacks the subtlety and depth to succeed at a deeper level.

In a recent interview, writer-director Martin McDonagh has deflected some critics with the explanation that, “the film isn’t about good or bad, left or right. It’s just about trying to find the spark of humanity in people – all people”. But this is not enough to make a film outstanding or even good. For that, it must enable one to see the world – people or situations – in a different way, which does not happen in this case. The arch-baddie is too exaggerated in his stupidity, bigotry and gratuitous violence to be credible, his dramatic change of heart is implausible. Some characters may indeed  display sparks of humanity, but that does not stop them from planning vicious acts of revenge likely to prove counterproductive, self-destructive or even unjust in being directed against the wrong targets.

Although writer-director Martin McDonagh may simply have run out of steam at the end, at least the ambiguous ending seems well-judged. Defenders of the film may argue that in taking an amoral stance, McDonagh leaves it to us to reflect on the issues involved.

Happy End – Heartless in Calais

This is my review of Happy End [DVD].

One often hears of the minutes if not hours of film discarded on the cutting room floor to extract the essence of what the director aims to convey. In this case, it is as if Michael Haneke has perversely challenged us to make sense of a film largely constructed from the shots which would normally be edited out. We hear about a character taking an overdose, crashing a car, even dying, but rarely witness these dramatic incidents. Often we do not realise that we have seen a significant event until its effect becomes apparent later. The scenes of glacial slowness, require great concentration, not only because they are mostly in French with subtitles, but also because one is continually trying not to miss the vital piece of action which may in fact not occur in a situation where basically not much is happening.

Despite its bleak theme, which appears to be the director’s stock in trade, the ironically-titled “Happy Ending” is leavened by moments of dark humour and has the ingredients for a gripping and moving psychological study of how we may damage each other. It involves the Calais–based Laurent family, their wealth made from the construction industry and other businesses, who all follow the bourgeois conventions of polite society in public, but seem incapable of real warmth, natural affection and normal emotion in private. They live out their dysfunctional relationships against the background of the impoverished black migrants who haunt the port town.

We initially experience their formal bourgeois life from the viewpoint of the approaching teen-age Eve Laurent who receives a somewhat reluctant welcome when she comes to stay in the extended family home with her father Edward, after her mother, his ex-wife, takes a lethal overdose of antidepressants. Eve appears outwardly to be an innocent, sensitive young girl, but from the outset there are signs of a troubling darker side to her character, leading one to speculate to what extent she may have been damaged by her self-absorbed parents’ neglect, or possibly inherited some of the family’s less appealing personality traits.

There is a cast to raise expectations high, with Jean-Louis Trintignant in the role of patriarch sinking into senility, from which he seeks to escape through suicide – unless he can find someone prepared to put him out of his misery– and Isabelle Huppert as his ambitious daughter Anne who is romantically involved with her British lawyer, played by Toby Jones. Anne’s important business deals are undermined by a serious accident on a building site for which her son Pierre may be to blame. Rejecting his mother’s love and her plans for him to take over the business, are his drunken outbursts due more to his sense of inadequacy than to a genuine anger over his family’s lack of concern for the poor as anything other than a source of cheap domestic labour?

For me the film does not work partly because it is like a single-phrase tune. As indicated already, the work is so fragmented, with long shots and overlong, disjointed, initially incomprehensible scenes and sociopathic characters, that I rarely felt engaged, was often frankly bored, only continuing to watch in the forlorn hope of an effective denouement which I never expected to occur.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

Howards End (DVD)”It’s the rich wot gets the pleasure”

This is my review of Howards End – TV Mini Series [DVD] [2017].

In what was to prove the end of an idyllic period for the leisured English middle classes just before the outbreak of World War One, E M Forster captures the tensions and lack of “meeting of minds” between the intellectual Schlegels, idealistic within their cocoon of unconscious privilege, who live comfortably on inherited money, and the much wealthier, pragmatic, materialistic Wilcoxes who have built a fortune “in trade” and have no compunction about “keeping the workers in their place”. Through a chance meeting of the Schlegel siblings with the bookish, music-loving clerk Leonard Bast, Forster explores the class divide of the early 1900s. Apart from his prickly dignity and the sense of obligation to the lover who is holding him back, we are never shown exactly what is going on in Leonard’s mind, although perhaps it is more effective for us only to see him from the viewpoint of the Schlegel sisters, keen to help him but not knowing how.

Some reviewers have dismissed this serialisation as a picture post card/chocolate box dumbing down primarily intended as a BBC export which will also boost the tourist trade. I admit that the sunlit green English countryside, vistas of grassy expanses above white Dorset cliffs against a backdrop of cloudless blue skies and calm blue seas are at times almost implausibly idyllic, together with an improbably clean white-stuccoed London, for the wealthy at least. Likewise, the exquisite attention to Edwardian detail is fascinating, although the clothes are in general too evidently well-fitting and brand new to be quite convincing. I also found unnecessary and slightly irritating the “political correctness” of a multi-racial cast which does not reflect accurately either Forster’s book or the reality of the society he was portraying.

None of this bothers me unduly, since the production seems true to the spirit of the novel, retaining the original dialogue, so that it sometimes seems stilted but is often sharp and expressive. Howard’s End itself appearing in the form of a rambling, characterful red brick dwelling surrounded by greenery and approached by a lane with magnificent overarching trees. The acting is excellent, although Michael Macfadyen seems too young a forty-something in the role of the patriarch Mr. Wilcox who falls for Margaret Schlegel, the serious-minded elder sister who has devoted herself to her orphaned siblings to the point of risking becoming an old maid. Not surprising then that she seeks “a real man” in the form of Mr Wilcox, even though the two are clearly fundamentally different in their attitude to life. The main characters, at least on the “middle class” side, are well developed. Margaret’s younger sister Helen, impetuous with a hint of instability, plays the role of the character prepared to challenge the system, but unequipped to cope unaided when “it comes to the crunch”.. Brother Tibby provides a further contrast as the hypochondriac, wimpish bookworm cosseted by his sisters, who do not seem to resent the fact that, being the male child, he is the one to go Oxford.

The story proceeds at a slow, almost dreamlike pace, but with moments of humour and a sense of real connection between the characters. The dramatic build up in the final episode seems too rapid, and somewhat disjointed, although this may reflect the structure of the original novel. It seems to me that the story is an intriguing family drama, without providing much profound insight, but I would need to reread the novel to decide whether the short-coming lies with Forster of the film-makers.

Although everyone may be a little wiser at the end, the wry truth remains that in any crisis the poor and the underdogs will tend to be the ones who lose out, but hints of the approaching war suggest that the idyll of Howard’s End may not last.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

The Florida Project (DVD) – The joy of childhood against the odds

This is my review of The Florida Project [DVD].

Lively, precocious Moonee runs wild with her small group of friends around the cheap motels where they all live encircled by fast roads, wasteland, the garish colours of grotesque orange- and witch-shaped cafes, not to mention a noisy helicopter pad, all on the fringes of the Florida Walt Disney fantasy land. It is an ugly, urbanised, artificial but sun-drenched world, with occasional flashes of natural beauty in a sunset, or a group of birds.

As the children’s freewheeling mischief leads to more risky escapades, one fears for their safety. Moonee’s immature young mother Halley, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, often high on drugs, more than a little crazy as she swings between uninhibited self-expression and violent outbursts when thwarted, also arouses concerns for Moonee’s future. As Hailey resorts to petty crime to pay her rent, it is clear that the little girl’s carefree world cannot last much longer.

This film conveys a child’s sense of joy in living, curiosity over every new experience, the ability to be happy with very little. One can see that Moonee risks being ruined by a lack of boundaries, frequently insufferable, noisy, mouthy, defiant and destructive, yet also with a strong sense of justice, loyal and generous to friends, acutely aware of the world around her although often unable to make sense of it. The moments of bonding with the free-spirited Halley who is more like a big sister than a mother are quite moving. Although clearly “unfit” to be a parent, Halley loves her daughter – too immature and self-absorbed to see how she is neglecting Moonee, she does not appear to consider giving the child up as a solution to ease her penniless state, but rather, being a child at heart herself, she knows how to create on a shoestring (or by stolen means) the magical experiences Moonee will never forget like making wishes outdoors at midnight as fireworks explode over Disney World.

The acting is generally excellent, from the children, Halley’s long-suffering friend and some of the real-life police and social workers in the cast, to William Dafoe in the role of the harassed caretaker who develops a soft spot for the appealing child and feckless young mother. The performance in this role by Bria Vinaite, the much-tatooed free-spirited first-time actress,who certainly looks the part, is a little too frenetic and exaggerated at times, which began to grate on me. Although it is sometimes hard to grasp the American drawl, some amusing one-liners come through clearly and it is generally pretty clear what is going on, except I did not understand that the gaudy wristbands Hallee was trying to sell were valuable passes to Disney World. The pace drags somewhat with repetitive scenes in the middle, although this may be intentional to reflect the reality of a child’s life. Despite building up in the end to a dramatic climax with a director who knows when to stop – if a little fancifully -, the film would have benefitted from sharper editing.

Recommended overall for its mix of humour and pathos in a realistic portrayal of children’s resilience, ability to survive and live joyfully against the odds.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Mesmerising

This is my review of Loving Vincent [DVD].

Unlike any film I have seen before, this hundred minute dramatisation of the differing explanation of Van Gogh’s death consists entirely of a remarkable animation of nearly sixty-seven thousand oil-paintings, skilful copies of ninety-four of his pictures, into which the characters have been painted in new poses as required.

The continual movement applied to Van Gogh’s broad strokes and swirls of colour are fascinating, as is the brilliant way actors who have been chosen for their likeness to real people whom he painted such as his physician Doctor Gachet, latter’s daughter Marguerite or the paint supplier and art dealer Père Tanguy, are given such life-like expressions and mannerisms recognisable as typical of the actors used. Although every effort has been made to use Van Gogh’s paintings, where it has been necessary to create new settings, these are shown in black-and-white, again painted, as in the scenes of his brother Theo, himself dying and mentally tortured soon after Vincent’s demise.

The theme may sound sombre, but is touched with moments of humour as the hard-drinking Armand Roulin, son of Vincent’s postman, always wearing his distinctive canary yellow jacket which apparently drove the film’s artists mad as they constantly cleared canvases to repaint it at another angle, fulfils his father’s instruction to deliver by hand to a suitable person Vincent’s last letter. Initially reluctant to do this, Armand becomes obsessed with the desire to obtain the truth and justice for the artist who may have been the victim of manslaughter rather than fallen prey to suicide in a psychotic moment.

Although there is something to be gained from coming to this film, as I did, with no prior knowledge of how it was made, there are some informative short videos about this on Youtube.

I also think it is helpful to be aware of the essential facts of Van Gogh’s life: he was a difficult man subject to great enthusiasms and mood swings, probably bi-polar. Taking up painting in his late twenties, he was supported entirely by his long-suffering brother Theo, never or barely selling a single picture in his lifetime. Captivated by the brilliant colours in the sunshine of Provence, he hoped to establish an artist’s colony there, only succeeding in falling out with Gauguin in a failed attempt to get this started. He was astonishingly prolific in his production of both paintings and letters decorated with drawings in the margins.

This film needs to be seen more than once, requiring intense concentration in the attempt to take in every clever or beautiful visual effect, as when the tossing of some object like an apple core prompts a flock of cawing crows to flap up out of a cornfield.

The “storyline” sometimes seems a little disjointed, the black-and-white scenes are the least satisfactory, often appearing blurred and weird, and the overall dreamlike quality may distance viewers from the characters. Yet the film still creates a sense of poignancy, and its technical achievement outweighs any minor criticism. ( A subjective view, but the choice of an inferior new recording in preference to Don Maclean’s original version of “Starry, starry night” in the final moments seems ill-judged.)

The visionary genius of conceiving this film in the first place, and the teamwork involved in producing it over a period of years seem to justify a string of awards.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars