A review of the important new film “Women Talking”

February 12th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

I really enjoyed the 2012 film “Take This Waltz” written and directed by the Canadian Sarah Polley, but we’ve had to wait a decade for her next fiction film “Women Talking”. This is based on a fiction work which in turn was inspired by real events. The fiction work was the best-selling 2018 novel by Miriam Toews and the real events were the systematic drugging and raping of women of all ages in a Mennonite colony in eastern Bolivia which came to light in 2009.

The film could easily have been a play (and I suspect will become one) since it has all the characteristics of traditional theatre: an ensemble performance of dramatic speaking roles in one setting with any action alluded to rather than actually depicted. Over a period of just 24 hours, eight women of different ages – all victims of abuse – gather in a barn to debate whether they should stay or go.

Each woman has strong lines but, in a stellar cast, the outstanding actors are Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy and Frances McDormand (who has a smaller role but a producer credit). There is only one speaking role for a man (when did you last see that in a film?): Ben Whishaw as the community’s teacher and the group’s scribe. The colours are so muted that often it looks like a black and white film, but writer and director Polley ensures that the range of viewpoints are far from black and white. Hard questions are posed to provoke serious thought.

The film – like the novel – is represented as “an act of female imagination”.

One can only imagine that, in a community of some 2,000, these women would be given the time and space to hold such a debate. One can only imagine that women denied all but minimal education and subject to a lifetime of submissive obedience could suddenly have the confidence and eloquence to make these sophisticated arguments. One can only imagine that so many women and children could be organised to break-out from such a controlled and repressive community with no idea of where they are going.

But, in this fictional sense, Polley – like Toews before her – is empowering women who had no power and giving a voice to women who were not heard. Whether fiction or fact, whether then or now, this is an immensely relevant and timely contribution to the long-needed #Metoo movement.

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An interesting scientific question for you

February 8th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

If you were able to fly at the speed of light while holding a mirror in front of your face, would you see your own reflection?

The answer is: yes – because the speed of light in a vacuum is a fundamental constant of nature.

This question and answer comes from “The Joy Of Science” by Jim Al-Khalili which I’m reading just now.

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A review of the cult movie “Manhunter”

February 5th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

In 1991, “The Silence Of The Lambs” was a massive hit and seemingly introduced the cinematic world to Dr Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins). There was a sequel “Hannibal” (2001) and two prequels “Red Dragon” (2002) and “Hannibal Rising” (2007). However, actually it all started in cinematic terms – the series of four novels began in 1981 – in 1986 with “Manhunter” which was remade as “Red Dragon” (the title of the original novel), but the original film made very little impact.

“Manhunter” was written and directed by Michael Mann and any film of his is worth viewing, but it must be admitted that this one is not easy viewing. This is mainly because most of the film is a slow exposition of the detailed procedural techniques utilised by FBI agent Will Graham (William Petersen) in the tracking down of the killer Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan). Hannibal Lecter is on screen for only a short time and here is played by Brian Cox. This is a stylish work with careful use of colour, notably Mann’s hallmark blue, but we have to wait too long for real action.

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The man in charge of how the United States is spending $400 billion to shift away from fossil fuels

February 3rd, 2023 by Roger Darlington

This is the kind of news that gives me hope that we can combat the climate emergency.

“Deep in the confines of the hulking, brutalist headquarters of the US Department of Energy, down one of its long, starkly lit corridors, sits a small, unheralded office that is poised to play a pivotal role in America’s shift away from fossil fuels and help the world stave off disastrous global heating.

The department’s loan programs office (LPO) was “essentially dormant” under Donald Trump, according to its head, Jigar Shah, but has now come roaring back with a huge warchest to bankroll emerging clean energy projects and technology, writes Oliver Milman.

Last year’s vast Inflation Reduction Act grew the previously moribund office’s loan authority to $140bn, while adding a new program worth another $250bn in loan guarantees to retool projects that help cut planet-heating emissions. Which means that Shah, a debonair former clean energy entrepreneur and podcast host who matches his suits with pristine Stan Smiths, oversees resources comparable to the GDP of Norway: all to help turbocharge solar, wind, batteries and a host of other climate technologies in the US.”

This is an extract from a story in the “Guardian” newspaper. You can read the full story here.

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A review of the new Indian film “Gangubai Kathiawdi”

February 2nd, 2023 by Roger Darlington

Non-Indian viewers will initially be mystified by the title of this Hindi-language film, but it refers to a real person on whose life the work is loosely based. She is Ganga Jagjivandas Kathiawadi whose story was documented in the book “Mafia Queens Of Mumbai” written by S. Hussain Zaidi.

In spite of this true life origin, the movie is preceded by a lengthy disclaimer insisting that it is “not intended to be a biography” and is “not designed to hurt or distain” any individual, community or religion. I guess this sensitivity from the film’s producers is because the lead character is a prostitute and the work calls for prostitution and the rights of prostitutes to be respected – a radical position in any country but especially India.

The same disclaimer calls on viewers to see the film as “for the purpose of entertainment” and this two and a half work does indeed entertain with the essential Bollywood features of a few songs and dances. But this is a superior Bollywood movie with fine acting – including an outstanding titular performance by Alia Bhatt – and some splendid camerawork (the story is set and filmed in Mumbai).

It is rare for a Bollywood film to be headed by a female actor and Alia Bhatt must have taken a risk in portraying a prostitute so positively, but the outcome is a triumph and highly recommended. Credit too to the director and writer Sanjay Leela Bhansali who was brought up in south Bombay (now Mumbai).

Catch it on Netflix.

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A review of the new movie “The Fabelmans”

January 30th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

I can understand why Steven Spielberg – who directed, co-wrote and co-produced this work – regards it with such affection. It is his most personal film to date and largely auto-biographical.

I can appreciate why so many critics have supported the movie. A central stream of the narrative is why we love movies and how to make one and critics love films about filmmaking.

For myself, however, while I found this was an accomplished and entertaining work with both pathos and humour, it is nothing special as a film and, in my view, far from Spielberg’s best or most memorable (think – to take two very different cases – of “ET” or “Schindler’s List”).

Newcomer Gabriel LaBelle does fine as the 16 year old Sammy Fabelman (a thinly disguised version Spielberg), while the adult characters in his life are all well-played: Michelle Williams as his eccentric pianist mother, Paul Dano as his dependable scientist father, Judd Hirsch as a bombastic uncle, and Seth Rogan as the family’s best friend. And there’s a nice touch with director David Lynch playing veteran moviemaker John Ford in a short closing segment.

The movie successfully interweaves two lessons: how the adults in our life are not perfect and how film can ‘see’ life in new ways. But, for me, this two and a half hour work is less than the sum of its parts.

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Word of the day: EGOT

January 26th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

I confess that I had never heard the term EGOT until recently when I watched the Todd Field “Tar”.

The term refers to the top four media awards: the top awards in television (Emmy), music (Grammy), film (Oscar), and theatre (Tony). Some have called it the grand slam of show business and only 17 stars have achieved it.

More information here.

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A review of the controversial new film “Tar”

January 26th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

I confess that I had never heard of the American Todd Field before this work (he has only made two previous films, the last being 16 years ago) but “Tár”, which he wrote, produced and directed, will ensure that every serious cinema-goer will now be familiar with him.

His eponymous character is a Lydia Tár, a fictitious female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, a lesbian of audacious achievement with a complicated personal life. In this role, Australian Cate Blanchett is rarely off the screen and gives an outstanding performance which is a veritable tour-de-force.

The three most important support roles are all women too: German Nina Hoss as Sharon, Tár’s partner and first violinist in the orchestra; French Noémie Merlant as the maestro’s’s personal assistant Francesca; and British-German cellist and actress Sophie Kauer as Olga, a gifted young musician from Russia who has just joined the orchestra. Rarely does a movie have so many great roles for women.

The script is cracking and crackling and Todd Field, himself a musician, clearly knows a lot about classical music. The sound is fantastic and includes some of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Visually the film is always captivating.

In spite of all these great attributes, the length (158 minutes), the pacing (a slow beginning) and the opacity (even the title itself) of “Tár” make this a demanding work for the viewer. You have to pay attention to every scene and every line and, even then, it will not always be clear (I had to check out the plot outline on Wikipedia afterwards). There is so much going on – abuse of power, identity politics, and art/artist issues – and often understanding is delayed or obscure.

But truly this is a magnificent film which (rightly) will win a stack of awards.

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A review of the 1936 Chaplin classic “Modern Times”

January 22nd, 2023 by Roger Darlington

This is absolutely a Charlie Chaplin film: he wrote, produced and directed it, he composed the music, and he is the star who has one of the few and small speaking roles (actually it is a gibberish version of a song). Given the date, it should really have been a work of sound, but mostly it is a traditional silent movie complete with text cards, so it is a kind of bridge between the silent and the talkie eras.

It is the last Chaplin film to feature his trademark little tramp, but this time the nameless character is a factory worker and the story is a satire on the brutalising effects of new technology and unemployment told through a succession of visual and aural gags – perhaps the most memorable being him being sucked into a huge machine of circling cogs. Some at the time regarded the film as too political and we do see the Chaplin character (accidentally) leading a workers’ protest and being imprisoned as a suspect communist.

The work highlights the scourge of poverty in this Depression era, although the representation of a gamin’s life is rather blunted by the obvious beauty of Paulette Goddard (it’s no wonder that Chaplin married her).

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A review of the classic Spanish film “The Spirit Of The Beehive” (1973)

January 22nd, 2023 by Roger Darlington

This Spanish-language film is the archetypical art house product and critics adore it. It is very, very slow and very, very opaque and I confess that I found it hard work, although I admired the haunting cinematography with its stark terrains and muted colours.

It was director Victor Erice’s first film and the key to its opacity is that it was filmed and set in a small Castillian town during the later days of the Franco dictatorship. So everything is a metaphor – not least the beehive which is probably an allusion to the mindless droning of Spaniards forced to comply with the demands of a queen bee.

All the characters in the story have the same name as the actors playing them, which apparently was to assist the two young girl actors Isabel and Ana who are frankly remarkable.

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