A Little Chaos (2014)

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Film review of the drama about a female gardener at the court of Louis XIV, directed by and starring Alan Rickman and co-starring Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts. Scroll to the bottom to leave any comments.

Director: Alan Rickman. BBC Films/Lionsgate et al. (12)

Drama

1star - Awful give this one a miss

 

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The Butler (2013)

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Director: Lee Daniels. Follow Through/Weinstein/Salamander et al (12A)

DRAMA

Cast & Credits

Producers: Lee Daniels, Cassian Elwes, Buddy Patrick.
Writer: Danny Strong.
Camera: Andrew Dunn.
Music: Rodrigo Leao.
Sets: Tim Galvin.

Forrest Whittaker, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jnr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelewo, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schrieber, Robin Williams, Clarence Williams III, Mariah Carey, Alex Pettyfer.

SYNOPSIS

Seen through the eyes of butler Cecil Gaines (Whittaker) who serves five US Presidents from Eisenhower to Ronald Regan, the Civil Rights movement impacts on America, from the peaceful minded sit-ins that garner initial headlines to the more confrontational actions of the Black Panthers. Cecil maintains a dignified, apolitical stance throughout, despite the involvement of his troubled son (Oyelewo).

REVIEW

American cinema, like American society, has a chequered past in terms of confronting race relations. From the vast, blockbuster epics that romanticised slavery and the ‘Old South’, the antebellum genre of The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939), the vague, fluffy¬†apologia of Intruder in the Dust (1949),¬†Pinky¬†(also 1949 – clearly ¬†year for it) through to the likes of In the Heat of the Night (1967)¬†to the rare, hard-hitting likes of Mississppi Burning (1988) and Spike Lee’s output after this, there has been a fitful desire to look deep into the issues at hand on screen.

We are now four years in to the tenure of the U.S.A.’s first ever African-American President (he gets name-checked toward the end too) and new political eras tend to usher in artists who wish to reflect the¬†societal changes this can bring.

With this in mind, a brace of films are being released into the mainstream that are tackling/talking about racism and its invidious effects head on, such as the soon to be released 12 Years a Slave as well as the much anticipated biography of Nelson Mandela. They look to be more hard-hitting than this slightly reserved offering from Daniels (The Paperboy, 2012).

Reserved in that there is a certain sugar-coated casing to the messages being propagated.  The annoying use of soft-focus photography during the early scenes making one blink as if watching the film through saccharine contact lenses. The photography is glisteningly well utilised throughout, like that of Gone With the Wind, but in this case frustratingly detracts from the very serious events chronicled. There was a concern in this reviewer that we may be subject to the type of broken-backed Hollywood-ised exploration of racism that American cinema has veered toward so often in the past.

The characters too seem to be holding themselves back somewhat – Carey’s characters is raped by her ‘owner’ Pettyfer, an act not seen and which leaves her so emotionally unbalanced that she never vocalises a word again, but here is represented only by the swiftest of screams. Her husband does nothing, not even a grimace at what he cannot prevent. Whittaker has enormous dignity in the title role, but perhaps too much – what does it take for him to scream the house down after hearing umpteen racist viccistiudes at work? Surely no one can be this saintly?

But there is grit in amongst the candy-floss visuals and Daniels lets his camera interrogate some harrowing scenes in looming close-up, the restaurant sit-in and the preceding racism training sequences; a terrifying bus ride hijacked by the Ku Klux Klan and, even more horrific, President Lyndon B. Johnson (Schrieber) taking a dump and asking for prune juice as he tries to pass a motion.

The last point also highlights the smart humour that peppers the script. Lines such as “We have no tolerance for politics at the White House” raise a good few laughs. The frequent use of the ‘N-word’ is enough to pull you up out of your seats, it’s prevalence, never over done, is slightly depressing when one considers that co-star Winfrey has been largely instrumental in¬†eradicating this ghastly word from polite conversation. Writer Strong, however, needed a script editor with more balls to rein in the Presidents-as-narrative-structure approach as he hurtles through the premiers at an alarming and panic attack-inducing rate.

Of the performances, Winfrey reminds those of us who do not recall¬†or who haven’t seen her in films such as¬†The Colour Purple (1985 and for which she was Oscar nominated as Best Supporting Actress) just how much of a powerful actress she can be. As Whittaker’s alcoholic, adulteress wife, she is gregarious, voluptuous and fragile as the wife neglected by her advancement oriented spouse. Oyelewo complements this with an impressively rebellious turn as her revolutionary son. There are telling, fun turns from Gooding Jnr., Kravitz and particularly Howard as Winfrey’s lover. Redgrave has a small but punchy cameo at the beginning as Pettyfer’s chillingly practical mother who does the kindest thing for the young Cecil and makes him a house servant after his family is destroyed.

Only Whittaker could have played this role bringing,¬†as he does to every part he plays, the right mix of gravitas, humour and sense of moral purpose to his character. Cecil is, as Martin Luther King notes toward the end of the film, no servile man but one who has in his own small way helped pave the way for African Americans to achieve equality by breaking down certain stereotypes that white Americans hold about them. He is a joy to watch and the ending, as someone attempts to direct him to the President’s office, is a smasher.

Love Actually (2003)

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Director: Richard Curtis. Universal/Studio Canal/Working Title/DNA Films. (15).

COMEDY


 


Producers:
Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Duncan Kenworthy.
Writer: Richard Curtis.
Camera: Michael Coulter.
Music: Craig Armstrong.
Sets: Jim Clay.

Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, Martine McCutcheon, Bill Nighy, Rowan Atkinson, Gregor Fisher, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andrew Lincoln, Kris Marshall, Martin Freeman, Joanna Page, Sienna Guillory, Rodrigo Santoro, Edward Hardwicke, Billy Bob Thornton, January Jones, Claudia Schiffer, Shannon Elizabeth, Denise Richards.

SYNOPSIS

The love lives of eight very different couples in London are chronicled in the run up to Christmas.

REVIEW

Largely successful, Brit-portmanteau picture that could have been titled Luvvies Actually given how much of Equity’s register has been emptied to fatten up the cast list.

Right at the top of the bill (and that has never been an indication of quality in such star-studded pictures) is Grant as a love-lorn and single Prime Minister chasing clumsy new tea-girl McCutcheon. This is a gormless and charmless pairing, Grant’s aggravating, stuttering bluster by now¬†a cliche, a cinematic short-cut of performance. McCutcheon is a chirpy ‘cockernee’ sparra’. Well, what else would she be? Her post-¬†Eastenders¬†debut was never going to push expectations.

Such ego-heavy productions groan at the seams with performers ecstatically trying to out act each other. Oddly though, the turns that stick in the memory here are those that don’t try too hard. Neeson trying it on with thinly veiled supermodel Schiffer (ignore the awful child crowing them on), Rickman contemplates a mid-life affair encouraged by nice friend Thompson and there is a heartbreaking threesome in Knightley,¬†Ejiofor and Lincoln. The denouement to this particular thread of the story is literally a wrench, brilliantly and shockingly delivered by these actors.

There are still more powerful turns. In terms of comedy, Nighy and Fisher score most strongly in the entire film. They feature as a washed up eighties pop star and his long-suffering manager, trapped forever in a sexually unfulfilling bromance. Nighy is given one last shot at music immortality with a fairly ropey Christmas single. There can be no greater satisfaction for a cynical British audience, in this part of the story at least, to hear him refer (to Fisher’s horror) to Ant and Dec as “Ant or Dec” and note to their audience of largely under 15 year olds: “Kids, don’t buy drugs. Become a rock star and people will buy them for you”. This has to be the best line that Curtis has ever dropped into a motion picture screenplay. Thank you Richard!

For drama though, take a bow Ms Linney. One of the handful of visiting foreigners in this film, she can hold her head up high that, on celluloid at least, she juggles a difficult storyline perfectly as a woman trying to placate a mentally unbalanced brother and maintain the interest of horny Brazilian colleague Santoro. She deserves an Oscar for managing to keep her hands off him. This is the most impressive straight performance in the whole film.

Atkinson, who shares Curtis’ love of the extended similie and that certain Oxbridge humour (they both worked together on the¬†Blackadder¬†TV series) ties elements of the movie together as an obsequious Department Store sales clerk in some ill advised pantomime, but the film still scores because the humour and feel-good factor are nicely balanced with believable festive angst.

Die Hard (1988)

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Film review of the action film starring Bruce Willis about a group of European terrorists who take over a Los Angeles skyscraper during a Christmas party.

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Director: John McTiernan. Twentieth Century Fox/Gordon/Silver. (15)

ACTION/ADVENTURE/FANTASY

 

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)

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Director: David Yates

 

ACTION/ADVENTURE/FANTASY

Producer: David Barron, David Heyman, J.K. Rowling. Writer: Steve Kloves. Camera: Eduardo Serra. Music: Alexandre Desplat. Sets: Stuart Craig.

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham-Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Robbie Coltrane, Brendan Gleeson, Jason Isaacs, Helen McRory, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Julie Walters, Mark Williams, David Thewlis, John Hurt, Imelda Staunton

SYNOPSIS

Young wizard Harry Potter (Radcliffe) is now a young man and almost graduated from Hogwarts Academy. Along with his friends Hermione (Watson) and Ron (Grint) he has to race against time to destroy a set of evil pendants and uncovers the most powerful objects in his magical world: the Deathly Hallows.

REVIEW

The seventh of eight films based on author (now co-producer) Rowling‚Äôs seven novels about boy wizard Potter (the final book is being split into two movies for ease of adaptation‚Ķand to earn a few extra pennies for Warner Brothers before the series takes its curtain call, no doubt) shows a clear progression in terms of stylistic¬†technique and maturity of handling what is essentially ‚Äėyoung‚Äô subject matter in the best film of the series so far.

It’s certainly a welcome trotter for Potter outside the now redundant confines of Hogwarts, a whimsical school whose cute fixtures and fittings (the animated pictures, endless moving staircases, creepy corridors and ghosts flying around) had long since outstayed their welcome.

We move almost immediately into high gear with some strong scenes of violence for a 12(a) rated movie, opening with a teacher being tortured in graphic fashion (something we return to later on). But this is a pretty grimly plotted outing altogether, death seeps not only into the title but also into every frame (the palate used by the cinematographer is unremittingly grey, drained of colour), even our heroic trio look consumptive.

Perhaps illness also explains their incessantly dull, wooden acting (particularly Watson), but this is a fault inherent in the entire series. It must have been daunting for three actors new to motion pictures to be surrounded by the cream of British Equity slumming it/queening it/lording it over them in often pointless and disposable character roles (Shaw, Griffiths, Walters ‚Äď you‚Äôve been spotted).¬†

There are, however, performances to savour and they are always the baddies ‚Äď Staunton isquiet megalomania behind twin-set and pearls and Bonham-Carter sexily sociopathic.

This film suffers from¬†maladies that¬†have also afflicted the other films¬†‚Äď there are far too many characters milling around for a sound-bite and far too many new people introduced into this heady mix. There¬†is too¬†much ‘business’ in the writing¬†leaving the narrative jagged (we hurry along from one scene to another and are then jolted into sedantry description) and cluttered. Kloves really needed a red pencil and blue scissors to hack a few situations out completely, particularly as some scenes are superfluous.

One thing Kloves does get spot on, is the humour. The film is frequently very funny and his cast jump at the chance to raise a few laughs, none more so than when, after his friends have cloned themselves as Harry to confuse his enemies, they re-group but wearing each other’s clothes and Harry ends up wearing a bra.

One moment to note, in fact to savour as it is probably one of the most dazzling images captured in modern film ‚Äď Hermione tells a story about death and three Princes and her narration is accompanied by a beautifully animated story that recalls the Shadow Plays of yore. An incredible moment that knocks the noisy whizz-bang of the other special effects into a cocked hat.