Talking Movies

October 12, 2015

Suffragette

Carey Mulligan stars as a young suffragette in 1912, whose life falls apart as she becomes ever more militant in her fight for the vote.

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Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) works long hours in an East End laundry. Her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) also works there, delivering the freshly-laundered clothes. Their boss is a tyrant, but that’s the way of it in 1912. But when Maud is caught in the middle of a violent protest by Mrs Drayton (Lisa Dillon), and Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) comes to work at the laundry, the door is opened to a new world. Maud finds herself testifying in front of Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) as part of a campaign by Alice Haughton (Romola Garai) to convince Parliament that working women deserve the vote. Little does Alice know that her husband, Cabinet Minister Benedict Haughton (Samuel West), is simultaneously ordering Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) to break the ring circling around chemist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). And Steed targets newcomer Maud…

‘The Time is Now’ proclaims Suffragette’s posters. What is the contemporary relevance? Pankhurst proclaims “We want to be lawmakers, not lawbreakers.” We also hear “We will not respect the law, if the law is not respectable.” Lincoln ignored the similar contradiction in his legalistic philosophy. He wanted to make slavery illegal, but if he doesn’t respect the existing law, despite wanting everyone else to respect his future law, then he’s guided not by law but a higher ethical imperative. So his opponents could claim a similar ethical imperative when not respecting his law. Suffragette’s politics are as muddled as expected from Iron Lady scribe Abi Morgan. Maud’s petulant “They lied to us” is shot down by Gleeson’s “They didn’t lie. You were promised nothing, and you were given nothing.” Yet the opening scroll tells us 50 years proved peaceful campaigning was a waste. Does Morgan know how long Catholic Emancipation took? The eternity it took for the Chartists’ demands to be met? (And we’re still waiting on one, annual elections).

Gleeson’s Irish detective makes you realise that blowing up post boxes, smashing in random shop windows, GBH, and dynamiting the Chancellor’s summerhouse aren’t civil disobedience. These are outrages, which, Fenian or Anarchist, were a feature of the times. There’s a more interesting period-appropriate Conradian tale floated when Steed tries to recruit Maud as a double-agent, but this is too simplistic a film for that. Eduard Grau renders 1912’s East End grimy and occasionally dreamy in his grainy, close-in camerawork, and Mulligan and Gleeson are on fine form as the antagonists. The problem is the script. Meryl Streep appears for two scenes as Pankhurst, but Brick Lane director Sarah Gavron shies away from contrasting Pankhurst’s comfortable fugitive life with Maud losing everything when Sonny shuns her for fear of unemployment and further ostracising by their neighbours. The closing scroll proclaims that because of Pankhurst women of property over 30 got the vote, i.e. Pankhurst, not Maud. WWI might deserve that credit, but in either case Maud was merely an expendable pawn.

Suffragette’s final image; women marching at Emily Davison’s funeral as Maud narrates; is jaw-dropping for historical obliviousness. Less than 14 months later, millions of men would march to death.

2.5/5

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June 14, 2012

Red Lights

Buried director Rodrigo Cortes is in more expansive form with this supernatural thriller in which a quest to debunk a fake psychic leads to unnerving discoveries.

Cillian Murphy stars as Tom Buckley, a physicist working as an assistant to Sigourney Weaver’s medium-busting professor Margaret Matheson in Columbus, Ohio. Armed with an array of scientific measuring equipment and a healthy scepticism about the supernatural they expose fake haunting and teach a college course on parapsychology. The loving bond between Buckley and Matheson, which sees him almost standing in for her comatose son, is the best thing about this film and once the film focuses on Buckley ignoring her advice and going out on his own it loses a good deal of its humanity. The object of Buckley’s solo run is the world’s most famous psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), returning to the fray after 30 years in retirement following the death of his greatest doubter at a performance. Buckley becomes consumed with refuting Silver’s apparently real powers.

Red Lights regrettably takes its place alongside Prometheus in what appears to be a regular parade of films all taking a bite at the poisoned apple of the relationship between faith and science. A poisoned apple because these films bring clichés and handwringing to the party and dump them there undeveloped and then expect a round of applause for tackling the topic. Buckley and Matheson represent empirical logic and cold disbelief, Silver and Matheson’s department rival Dr. Shackleton (Toby Jones) represent the uncanny and the will to believe, while Sally Owen (Elizabeth Olsen) is the student who, like Fox Mulder, wants to believe but falls in love with Buckley and so becomes his apprentice in the dark arts of detecting the hocus pocus of charlatan psychics. Olsen, so magnificent in Martha Marcy May Marlene, is tragically underused in this cipher role.

Cortes, shooting in Barcelona and Toronto, creates an impressively subdued winter atmosphere. The first confrontation between Buckley and Silver in which Buckley is scared out of his mind by Silver’s apparent telekinesis is very impressively staged, as are a number of very tense sequences of apparent menacing by Silver, while Murphy delivers the line “Ignore that, it’s just a dead bird” with wonderful aplomb as his character acclimatises to the uncanny hindering his debunking of Silver’s acing of Shackleton’s scientific tests of ESP abilities. Red Lights is a film with two intercut endings, one of which is delightful and clever, and one of which is truly terrible and inane. Cortes is a consummate actor’s director, and, unlike the immensely frustrating Buried, he also wrote this script but it fails when it prioritises paranormal pyrotechnics over compelling character development.

Red Lights is engaging for most of its running time, but it disintegrates utterly when it starts teeing up a revelatory conclusion even M Night Shyamalan would disavow.

2/5

September 29, 2010

Buried

Ryan Reynolds acts his heart out alone on-screen for 90 minutes in this real-time thriller but a weak script fails to match his efforts…

Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, a civilian truck-driver in Iraq who wakes up after his convoy is ambushed to find that he’s been buried alive with only 90 minutes of oxygen left. He’s been left a phone with dodgy reception and a fading battery, and he fruitlessly calls his wife’s voicemail, a preposterously annoying neighbour, and various American agencies before the kidnapper rings to instruct Conroy to record and send his own ransom video. Comparisons to Tarantino’s CSI: LV special ‘Grave Danger’, which placed Nick Stokes in a coffin with only 12 hours for Grissom and his team to find him before the oxygen ran out, are inevitable. There are superficial similarities; the presence of a deadly weapon in the coffin, the intrusion of menacing fauna, the desperation that alternates between despair and panic; but also a shameless riff on Tarantino’s wonderful “Are you a terrorist?” “Well I guess that depends. Are you terrified?” But director Rodrigo Cortes is no Tarantino…

Cortes never leaves the coffin for the duration of the movie. This isn’t as Hitchcockian as he’d like because A Single Man cinematographer Eduard Grau’s six-minute takes include a ridiculous tracking shot around the coffin that makes it feel larger than some bed-sits. Reynolds displays considerable dramatic chops along with some nice comedic touches but his performance is better than Chris Sparling’s script. There are high-points in the writing like Stephen Tobolowsky as a HR man using legal chicanery to backslide on an insurance pay-out, while Robert Patterson’s crisp British voice is marvellous casting for Dan Brenner, the SAS type in charge of tracking down Conroy’s location, but mostly by staging conversations in the dark Cortes remove the visual field of reference to such an extent that this becomes a radio-play.

That fact focuses far too much attention onto the script, and it doesn’t take experience in screenwriting to realise just how few routes this story can take. Conroy frustratingly sits on vital information – for no reason, and there is an outrageous Chekhov’s Rifle of a detail that is left hanging before paying off as part of ‘the very oldest trick in the book’ – used in the deeply frustrating ending. Buried wants, structurally, to have its cake and eat it, and this only underscores its lack of profundity. In the end this is just needlessly nasty (Reynolds is forced to cut off his finger, pointlessly), perhaps in the wrong medium, and lacks the emotional power and depth to match Reynolds’ performance.

Reynolds fans will appreciate a fine turn that is a master-class in creating empathy out of thin air, but fans of suspense or drama would do well to avoid a film that can’t deliver on its promises.

2/5

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