reviews

The Handmaid’s Tale: Episode one

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Given the current political and social climate, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale feels particularly prescient, arguably more so than ever. Taking a recognisable western society and transplanting it into a future in which women are merely used for their reproductive and domestic uses, does not feel entirely removed from our own current reality, and it is that familiarity that makes The Handmaid’s Tale so affecting.

Offred (Elizabeth Moss) is a handmaiden, a woman forced to offer her body in hopes of procreation. In this future, the birth rate has rapidly dropped, leaving those women who have previously demonstrated their ability to conceive to act as handmaidens (or be forced to a short life of painful, debilitating manual labour). Using flashbacks, the narrative interweaves multiple timelines:

  • Offred’s life now, placed with the commander and Serena Joy, forced to offer her body to the commander as part of the reproductive ‘ceremony’.
  • Offred’s life prior to the full installation of the regime, in which she, her husband and daughter attempt to escape to Canada.
  • Offred’s life before the regime, in which she is a happy college student.
  • Offred’s life in the early days of her indoctrination, in which she is compelled, through systematic threats and violence, to become a handmaiden.

In this patriarchal theocratic society, women have no rights, they have no sense of agency. This system of contributing to population growth is clearly loathed by Serena Joy, who feels threatened by the fertile Offred, yet she cannot question the events. Offred is forced to endure this treatment, determined to survive. She affords herself little opportunity to dwell on her situation, recognising that a propensity to reflection merely makes her life more difficult to withstand.

The adaptation takes the wise decision to avoid too much exposition. Thus, the audience is immediately thrown into narrative action as we witness Offred’s attempts to escape with her family. The scenes in which we are privy to Offred’s desperation and clear devotion to her daughter instantly create empathy. The audience is already on her side before we are introduced to the ways of her life now. This empathy is crucial, as it is Offred’s story that the audience is asked to invest in. Without the creation of a successful connection her plight, and the plight of all the women suffering under the regime, would not engage and in turn encourage analysis.

Much of the narrative thus far is formed through Offred’s compelling voiceover. Her description of the world around her, rather than lessening the action, actually invites audience partipation. Linguistic clues are casually used: the domestic housekeepers are referred to as ‘marthas’, Offred refers to people potentially being an ‘eye’, and she notes that Nick, the commander’s driver, is considered to be too low status to be provided with a woman.

As expected, Elizabeth Moss is sublime: her Offred is both vulnerable and utterly determined. Moss imbues Offred with humanity and intelligence as she struggles to navigate her day to day life without allowing its oppression to overcome her. Alexis Bledel is similarly effective as Ofglen, a fellow handmaiden. The pair’s interactions with one another, as they meet each day to complete the shopping for their respective households, convey the suspicion and guarded manner in which they now live their lives. Equally wary of each other, they converse in the regime’s rhetoric extolling the rehearsed lines as a means of protection.

The muted colour palette creates imagery that is both beautiful and horrifying, encouraging focus. The handmaids’ garb of red and white convey violence and vulnerability, consistently reminding the viewer of both the role of the handmaid and the danger with which they exist.

The first episode largely centres on introducing the viewer to this world, introducing reference points for the viewer to return to. We learn of Offred’s prior life, and her friendship with Moira (a brilliant Samira Wiley) as it was before the regime, and their relationship during their initiation process. Moira has existed within this world for longer than Offred, and helps her to negotiate her way through in order to ensure her survival. While we know little of the full extent of the government’s machinations, the first episode begins to imply its cruelty. This is an intelligent narrative device, allowing each detail – the ‘ceremony’, the hanging of those perceived as traitors to the state due to their sexuality or occupation – to resonate, without isolating. It is this level of detail that helps to create the diegesis of the narrative. This is a world that is both far removed from our own, yet presents as a vision of what could happen if those with such political leanings were afforded power.

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Tyrannosaur – Review

There is no doubting the sincerity of Paddy Considine’s feature-length directorial debut: certainly the Considine-penned script is almost grotesque in its moments of clarity. Despite this, or indeed directly due to this, Considine’s film has been accused of appealing to a comfy middle-class, depicting brutal working-class stereotypes almost as a form of voyeuristic amusement.

Arguably, Considine’s film involves itself in political and social discourse through its depiction of problems supposedly endemic within this society. Importantly these issues are not self-contained, but rather leak out across social classes: the most heinous crimes depicted in the film take place within a comfortably middle-class home.

Joseph (Peter Mullan) finds himself at times working himself into a powerful, maddened frenzy, a frenzy often exacerbated by his frequent alcohol indulgence. Considine’s direction honestly and often graphically depicts the consequences of Joseph’s anger. At the film’s opening, Joseph, angered by an altercation, kicks his dog to death. Destroying an animal that he loved, and that faithfully loved him in return. Nothing is safe nor sacred from Joseph’s anger, and his self-realisation often comes too late, unable to prevent his committing acts of violence and criminality.

After one such event of wanton abuse, Joseph takes shelter in a Christian charity shop. Hannah (Olivia Colman), working there, offers both a cup of tea and her prayers, praying audibly to an increasingly distraught Joseph.

Joseph, much like the viewer may be inclined to do, believes that Hannah, who he learns lives in the wealthy ‘Manor Estates’, is both ignorant and naive: how could she know of his problems? As it quickly transpires, Hannah, despite her apparent happy demeanour, is suffering under a verbally and physically abusive husband (a chilling Eddie Marsan).

Many have commented on the relentless, horrific nature of the film, certainly Considine’s direction never shies away from its depiction of debasement: although some acts, seemingly deemed too much to bear witness too, are left for us to learn verbally. Certainly the film depicts a bleak reality, but for me its bleakness demonstrates a form of social realism. Whilst we are left with a sense of hope during the film’s final moments, there are no Hollywood endings here: characters are forced to deal with the consequences of their actions.

The cast are all wonderful, Marsan is deeply terrifying and Mullan’s Joseph is complex enough for us to both damn his acts whilst empathising with his current state. For me, however, it is Colman that stands out in her brutally honest, hugely brave portrayal of Hannah. Known previously for her comedic roles in such comedies as Peep Show, Colman’s dramatic abilities are a revelation. Her gentle moments of faux joviality as she greets a customer with all-too-apparent bruising are heart-breaking in their futility. Colman provides the much needed emotional centre to the film; there are no ambiguities with her, we simply feel empathy for her. This is not to say her character is any less complex than Mullan’s Joseph, certainly her relationship with her husband is fraught with complexities, but rather her Hannah evokes our sympathies more easily.

Undoubtedly Tyrannosaur is a harrowing experience, depicting varying inhumane acts. Despite this (certainly little to recommend itself for some viewers), Considine’s film should surely be viewed by all those who feel fit to experience the often visceral nature of the film.

4/5

The Ghost Review

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Amid the storm of bad publicity that Roman Polanski has experienced in the last years, his latest offering The Ghost is, despite his difficulties in making the film (editing the film under house arrest in Switzerland), an exceptionally well-crafted political thriller.

Ewan McGregor stars as a two-bit commercial writer, more accustomed to writing the memoirs of so-called showbiz celebrities than ex-Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), and it is precisely his lack of political knowledge and his belief that it is ‘heart’ that truly makes a biography sell that leads to his appointment, taking on the job in the wake of the previously appointed writer’s suspicious death. Soon after his appointment, Lang is back in the news, accused of war crimes; suddenly McGregor’s unnamed writer is in far deeper than he could have anticipated.

Lang’s media savvy Prime Minister, in his politics, unavoidably echoes the Blair years; especially in his close relationship with America. This very deliberate decision, to reflect recent politics in turn aids the film’s narrative, making the events of the film seem almost unnervingly close to reality. The tension of the film is constant throughout, from the cold-opening showing the body of the deceased ghost writer, to the film’s ending; with the final act taking place off camera, there’s almost a sense of relief when the film ends.

McGregor, Danny Boyle work aside, is not a great actor, but under the direction of Polanski manages to serve as a fairly credible and engaging protagonist, whilst the rest of the cast are pitch-perfect; Brosnan’s Lang is especially memorable, almost larger than life in his characteristics, as is Olivia Williams as the ever incisive and intelligent Ruth Lang.

The Ghost in Polanski’s hands is wonderfully shot, the grim atmosphere and continual rain serves to add to the increasing isolation of McGregor’s writer as he feels more and more overwhelmed by his appointment. Yet The Ghost will not be remembered as a classic Polanski film: Polanski has done far better (Chinatown especially), yet the film’s on edge and claustrophobic atmosphere does hark back to Polanski’s glory days. Public scandal aside, there is little doubt that Polanski is a masterful director, capable of creating tension-filled, narrative driven films.

4/5

Invictus Review – Featured in The Ripple

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With an impressive number of accolades awarded for his directing abilities, Clint Eastwood should have been the ideal choice to direct the true story of Nelson Mandela’s attempts to reunite a still-fractured South Africa in the wake of the apartheid, through a South Africa Rugby World Cup victory. Eastwood has shown he is more than adept at directing large action set-pieces, and yet despite a truly inspiring story, the film fails to really engage its audience, on anything other than a relatively superficial level.

The film’s narrative opens with Mandela’s release on the 11th February 1990, and quickly skips forward to his election as President of South Africa in 1994. In the early days of his presidency, recognising the need to create cohesion, Mandela (Morgan Freeman) turns to the South African Rugby Team, ‘The Springboks’: previously a symbol of the apartheid. Mandela seeks to turn The Springboks, captained by Francois Pienaar (played by a well-cast Matt Damon) into a symbol of national pride in the ‘new’ South Africa.

This should make for an entirely-award worthy film, and it is notable that it is the the performances that have garnered Oscar recognition (Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon specifically), rather than the film itself. The film lacks pace, and at over two hours long feels far too long to sustain interest; Eastwood takes almost an hour to set up the events of the film spending far too long filming exposition. This exposition is used to demonstrate to the audience Mandela’s character, which is surely entirely unnecessary considering the recent nature of the events, as well as the reputation of Mandela himself. Thus the audience is shown endless scenes in which Mandela personally greets and recognises each individual, which, whilst appealing at the films inception, in turn allows Eastwood to quickly fall into lazily using this as a device to convey to the audience Mandela’s personality.

The film and the rugby scenes in particular are undoubtedly shot well, but Eastwood fails to create any sense of narrative tension: perhaps due to the recent nature of the events, meaning that its ending is already known to much of its audience. And yet there is still something distinctly lacking in Eastwood’s film. Despite pitch-perfect performances from both Freeman and Damon, along with the supporting cast, Invictus is ultimately a far too saccharine approach to such an important event.

3/5

A Serious Man Review

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The latest offering from the Coen Brothers could not be more different to their prior effort Burn After Reading. Feeling far more personal than their previous works, A Serious Man doesn’t feel like a Coen Brothers film; but that is by no means to its detriment. Instead, A Serious Man feels like an altogether more mature work, with the Coens moving away from the often over stylised and far too self-aware films that have made them so popular with cult viewers.

Larry Gopnick, in a modern day allegory of the Biblical Job, is going through a lot. His wife is leaving him, whilst using his money for her divorce lawyer; he has now been forced to live in a motel (dispiritingly named ‘The Jolly Roger’), and one of his physics students is threatening to sue him unless he is given a passing grade, coupled with his detached and often selfish children and an ailing brother, Larry is understandably feeling despondent.

A Serious Man essentially explores mans relationship with God, as Larry questions why he is going through such tribulations, and how he should act in response. We see Larry visit Rabbi’s in the hope of finding an answer which seems impossible to provide, yet it is important to note A Serious Man never judges the religion Larry is seeking an answer from, instead presenting such problems as part of the human condition; merely something that is experienced by all at some point.

Despite being steeped in Judaism, and thus often using terms secular audiences may be unfamilar with, the film remains accessible throughout, largely due to the entirely empathetic performance from Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry. In lesser hands, Larry’s ineptitude and acceptance of his wife’s treatment could have been grating, but Stuhlbarg ensures that Larry is likeable throughout, evoking a real feeling of affinity from its audience.

A Serious Man is a film that requires little from its audience, almost creating a passivity in the viewer, as Larry’s life unravels, yet this should not be read as a criticism; here the audience is merely the observer, invited to watch as Larry is forced to undergo ever emotionally taxing predicaments. Ultimately, A Serious Man, far from being the depressive viewing its subject matter suggests, is a film that invites its audience to reflect upon the ineffectuality of man.

5/5

The Twilight Saga: New Moon – Featured in The Ripple

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Following on from the huge box office success of Twilight, New Moon is the next instalment in author Stephanie Meyer’s thinly veiled metaphor for sexual abstinence.

Here, perpetually angst fillled Bella and Edward are forced to part ways, realising the danger his ‘kind’ present to her, he fears for her safety. Thus begins Bella’s downward spiral of depression-lasting several months, but only several seconds of exposition. With Edward out of the picture, it’s the turn of Jacob, Bella’s childhood friend who spends most of the film inexplicably shirtless, to take on the role of Bella’s protector.

Bella, in the wake of so many strong female characters in recent years, is irratatingly pallid, helpless and far too dependable on the men in her life, falling into despair at the loss of Edward. Obvious sexism aside,New Moon is dull and overlong with very little plot to sustain its running time. Whilst Catherine Hardwicke’s direction of Twilight succeeded in creating a fairly atmospheric and well shot rendition of the source novel, Chris Weitz’s direction of New Moon relies far too heavily on slow motion, making what should be the most entertaining moments of the films tedious and monotonous. Weitz struggles to find the balance between creating a teen drama and a fantasy film, with the film ultimately tipping towards the former, and as a result the fantasy elements seem superfluous at times.

The constant lingering looks between Bella and her love interests do little to develop any convincing feelings for the audience to engage with, the characters are so one-dimensional it’s almost impossible to understand what any of them see in each other.

In addition the acting hasn’t improved from the first film, with Robert Pattinson struggling to emote anything, whilst Kirsten Stewart brings very little range of depth to a character that is supposed to be the emotional focus of the film. Whilst fans of the franchise will no doubt be pleased with this latest instalment, with its record breaking box office success as testament to its popularity, New Moon is poorly edited, causing it to become needlessly confusing at times. It’s also gulity of taking itself far too seriously, treating the source material too reverentially, and lacks any narrative drive or tension.

1/5

Nativity Review – Featured in The Ripple

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Nativity! is such a nice, inoffensive and charming film that it’s impossible not to succumb to its seasonal charms. Martin Freeman plays Paul Maddens, a primary school teacher entrusted with the school’s annual nativity play; after a previous disastrous attempt and his girlfriend’s departure to Hollywood at Christmas five years before, Mr Maddens is far from being filled with yuletide cheer. Yet after an altercation with his previous friend, who as a teacher at the neighbouring rival private school produces the local critic’s (Alan Carr) choice nativity each year, Maddens is forced to come up with the best his hitherto ‘useless’, but soon to be endearing, pupils have to offer.

Maddens is unable to appreciate the subtleties of each individual pupil and the genuine affection they hold for him without the aid of Marc Wootton’s childlike ‘village idiot’ classroom assistant Mr Poppy. In a real classroom situation, Mr Poppy’s derision for taking on adult responsibilties would surely secure an immediate end to his career, yet in the environment of the film his character becomes increasingly comedic and appealing, often providing the most visual laughs.

Whilst the film doesn’t offer anything particulary new to the festive film catalogue and nor does it try to, it is certainly refreshing to see such normal children on screen, a world away from the highly polished and contrived performances of High School Musical and Camp Rock.

Freeman essentially plays the same character he’s been playing since The Office, but in a film in which the children take centre stage: all of whom act and improvise extremely well, Freeman’s difficulty in displaying any real acting capability doesn’t hinder the film in the slightest, and he is admittedly more than adept at dealing with the more emotional scenes of the film.

At any other times of year films like Nativity! simply wouldn’t work, it’s undeniably schmaltzy, and fairly emotionally manipulative, choosing some of the most adorable children on film. And whilst the flashback scenes of Madden’s happier times with his girlfriend have the potential to becomes cloying, they manage to steer clear of contriteness, It’s certainly not going to win any accolades any time soon, yet despite this, perhaps due to its simplicity, Nativity! is thoroughly enjoyable, and perfect Christmas time fare.

3/5

The Men Who Stare at Goats Review – Featured in The Ripple

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Based upon the non-fiction novel by Jon Ronson, The Men Who Stare at Goats tells of a military unit that specialises in the training of ‘super soldiers’, soldiers with supposed pyschic powers. Whilst in Iraq, investigative reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) happens upon this bizarre ‘Jedi’ training programme after meeting Lyn Cassady, played for laughs by George Clooney. Lyn is a member of these so-called ‘Jedis‘, and through a number of flashbacks informs Bob of the exact details of this highly secretive unit.

Before the films begins we are told that ‘more of this true than you would believe’, paving the way for a great deal of artistic licence, with the film deciding to err on the side of fiction. By failing to come to a concrete answer on the existence and factuality of these ‘Jedis‘, the film is neither true to life nor entertaining, and this ambiguity causes the film to suffer as a result. Its inability to decide if it is a heightened satire or a comedy ensures that the film ends up merely confused and unable to deliever on either account.

Despite the inclusion of Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey, the cast is surprisingly lacklustre. McGregor’s attempt at an American accent is appalling, whilst Clooney disappointingly holds none of his usual charisma. Through its narrative structure of jarring cliched flashbacks lazily serving as plot development, the film is disjointed, and despite having a relatively short running time feels far longer than is necessary. The plot devices employed are tired and clumsy: attempting to create sympathy and likeability for Bob through his wife’s departure in the opening of the film, or demonstrating the ‘Jedis‘ flagrant disregard for the standard military fare by showcasing a hippie love-in montage, with long hair in place of buzz cuts.

With little narrative, agenda or purpose the film becomes meaningless: failing to serve as an anti-war film, the attempts at comedy sit uneasily with its sensitive context. The Men Who Stare at Goats has potential, and treated in the right way could have proven to be an entertaining satirical examination of military madness, but with a plot that is almost non-existent and convoluted at best it simply makes for a dull and thoroughly dreary film.

2/5

Bright Star Review – Featured in The Ripple

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In her study of the chaste love affair between Fanny Brawne and John Keats in the three years prior to his death in 1821, Jane Campion (best known for The Piano) has in Bright Star dircted an intelligent and entirely beautiful film, which is not only her best film to date, but a film that is worthy of serious Oscar consideration.

Biopics about the creation of writing are notoriously dull and difficult, yet Campion prevents this through her choice of protaginist. Rather than Keats, Fanny is our focus; who, through her dressmaking is also a creator of something fine and admirable, as Keats is though his poetry. Wonderfully played by Abbie Cornish, Fanny is aware of her limitations in understanding poetry, remarking poems are difficult to make out. In seeking lessons from Keats (Ben Whishaw) in how to understand poetry, Keats teaches both Fanny and audience, with Fanny acting as mediator between our own understanding and the world of Keats’ poetry.

Campion interweaves Keats’ poetry with the dialogue of the film: the actors recite the poetry as it is created, or as Fanny attempts to understand what Keats has written; yet the film never feels staid or stuffy, but rather entirely naturalistic and unobtrusive throughout.

In part due to Campion’s directiorial style, alongside the quality of the cast (in particular Cornish, Whishaw and Edie Martin as Brawne’s younger sister), Campion is able to produce a film that is refreshingly slow placed, composed and intelligent. Keats here is not an untouchable genius, who in creating such poetry is above the common man, but earthy, entirely relatable, and pleasingly unaffected in his teachings to Fanny.

With a sparse score, the film allows the sounds of nature to take centre stage; we see Keats writing ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ not in a flurry of urgent creativity (as the temptation may have been), but rather serenely sitting under a tree as Fanny simultaneously produces her own creation.

In Bright Star Campion has created something truly beautiful; the cinematography is remarkable, and in a study of all encompassing, all consuming love, Campion has avoided the Hollywood route of melodrama and sexualisation, creating an intensely exquisite film. In showing the creation of Keats’ masterpieces, Campion has quite possibly created her own.

5/5

Surrogates Review – Featured in The Ripple

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In the near future the majority of the world’s population permanently stay in the safety of their own homes, instead choosing to live vicariously through ‘surrogates’: robotic counterparts who, more aesthetically pleasing than their human controllers, carry out every mundane task of day to day life. Thus the remote owner of the ‘surrogate’ is able to live entirely risk free, without any consequences of pain, injury or indeed death.

Bruce Willis stars as Agent Tom Greer, investigating a simultaneous murder of a surrogate and its human controller, a crime supposedly impossible. Thus begins an essentially interesting idea, which could have served as a commentary on the morals and motivations of a hugely technologically advanced society and the human condition itself, but due to poor execution lacks the ability or the inventiveness to offer anything new on the subject.

Willis is dependable as ever, but with a lack of character development he is left with very little to do, as the character of Greer is clichéd and poorly developed. The film attempts to create empathy for Greer by informing the audience early on that his young son died tragically, yet this simply serves as a reminder of lazy script writing. The death of his son serves no real narrative purpose other than attempting to add gravitas to the character in the easiest way possible.

Directed by Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), Surrogates boasts some decent set pieces, and the action itself is never dull. Unfortunately this is not enough to sustain interest, as the plot itself is very difficult to follow, largely due to its convoluted nature: the narrative lumbers along, unable to engage the audience throughout. Characters are underdeveloped and with an often nonexistent back-story, and as a result characters are barely distinguishable from one another.

With no characters to empathise with and root for, the audience is forced to adopt a largely passive attitude, resulting in the ending having very little impact. Surrogates therefore is ultimately a disappointment, and not because it is a fairly uninspired action film. Rather, Surrogates disappoints because it purports to be more than the run of the mill action film, and fails miserably in this task.

2/5