DVD Review: Sensation


The opening minutes of Sensation are not a stimulating thrill ride or a feast for the senses. In fact, they could be described as bleak. I’m going to be careful not to mislead you here; I don’t want the word bleak to imply that the early scenes are moving, or interestingly dark. Instead, I mean bleak as in “without hope or expectation of success or improvement”. The world of central character Donal is defined by its dullness and the fact that it is never likely to change. His uneventful life has left him numb, and so emotionless that when he discovers his father dead on the stair lift, he uses the remote to bring the cold corpse slowly down, rather than rushing up.

You may find that, as I did, the start of Sensation will induce that “where have I seen him before?” feeling. This was the most pressing thing about the film for its first quarter of an hour, that nagging frustration that is impossible to shake.  So I paused the film, utilised a well known internet search engine and discovered that lead actor Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Donal, also played Bill Weasley in the last few Harry Potter films. Cue the knowing nod that accompanies the phrase “I knew I recognised him!”. Curiosity quenched, I could now begin to concentrate on the film itself.

Following the funeral of Donal’s father we watch a young man shuffle through a very lonely existence. The really disheartening thing about Donal’s grief is that it is so minimal. He had clearly been expecting his father’s death and we do not really witness any sadness relating to it. It’s also clear that Donal’s loneliness goes back far, far further than the eventual demise of his sick dad. His best friend Karl, who lives in a caravan on Donal’s farm land, suggests that the funds freed up by his father’s death might be the making of Donal. But Donal has no idea how to use the cash wisely in the nothingness of the Irish countryside. His only half plan is to move to Dublin.

This complicated, but essentially sympathetic portrayal of Donal, is offset by hints towards a darker side of his character. That initial moment where he waits for the stair lift’s grim and personal cargo to descend is both shocking and repulsive. It’s symbolic of Donal’s laziness, lack of drive and dangerous naivety.  Whilst Donal’s problems are real and capable of inspiring sympathy, his only solace is sordid and shameful. Ignorant of girls and relationships, Donal is fascinated by sex. However, his perception of sex is skewed by the internet. His only experience of it comes from the online world, where he sports the nickname of “Sweetdick” in a chat room. He masturbates furiously, in a way that seems to be a brutal release. He seems to have little awareness of intimacy, although a dim desire for it grows once he has satisfied his raw lust.

Suddenly not lacking in cash after receiving a sizeable inheritance, Donal’s first port of call is a website advertising escorts. One of them, called Courtney, has been recommended to him by an online chat room buddy. At first, he tentatively asks for an hour with her, only to be persuaded over the phone that the “full girlfriend experience” will be worth his while (and hers, financially). They meet in a restaurant, where she is surprised that he actually wants to eat. She reassures him that seduction is not necessary, but Donal orders a chicken kiev anyway. That’s where the civilized behaviour stops though. Back at his farm, Donal rapidly enjoys what he’s paid for. As Courtney says later, this is not Pretty Woman.

But the parallels are certainly there. Donal has money, albeit not on the scale of Richard Gere’s millionaire, but enough to make him of use to Courtney, whose real name is Kim. When events ensure that Kim and Donal get to know each other personally, they begin to form an ambiguous bond. Their feelings are tested and disguised because of the shadowy, theatrical business of the sex trade. Donal starts out wanting to help Kim rescue herself. He then falls for her, before ending up seeing her as a commodity.

Boiled down to its basics, Sensation is a simple story about two very different, lonely people crossing paths. It stands above this classic blueprint because of the strength of its characterisation and acting. Donal is volatile and unpredictable because of his troubled youth, and Kim is determined and twisted because of her profession. You’re never quite sure where their true loyalties lie. In this way Sensation is realistic, with its incorporation of modern themes and the lack of trust between a group of people who have recently joined forces in a backstabbing industry. However, Sensation also has many weak points. Its fringe characters are less well acted and unconvincingly drawn. The ending is rushed and more than a little predictable, and sections of the film drag. In my view, this is an excellent effort from writer/director Tom Hall. It is occasionally funny, although not to the point of laughter, and ultimately touching, despite a difficult subject matter.

DVD Review: The Deep Blue Sea


Think of post-war Britain and an archive of stock images springs to mind. There was the tyranny of the rationing card and the pile of rubble down the road that used to be a neighbour’s house. There were widows, orphans and military veterans. Cigarettes were a stylish release from the everyday gloom, rather than a health risk. Pubs were indispensable social hubs full of heart warming camaraderie and spontaneous singing.

Life in Britain after the eventual triumph of 1945 then, trudged on as if viewed through a sepia lens. In short, all was brown. Dresses, walls, shirts, cars, pubs, drinks, underwear, sheets, food, packaging and carpets, were all various shades of drab. Surely, despite the truth underlining it, this clichéd view of how things were then must be a gross simplification? Apparently no, according to director Terence Davies, that was just how it was. Speaking in an interview from The Deep Blue Sea’s special features, he claims that you only ever saw primary colours on particular sweet wrappers, along with the occasional glimpse of red when someone got engaged.

Davies has been widely praised for his total understanding of post-war Britain. He lived through it in his formative years and talks about personal memories in the interview on the DVD. He has also expressed his knowledge of the subject numerous times on film, in fictitious and factual form. Despite The Deep Blue Sea being an adaptation of a Terence Rattigan play, Davies’ own independent influences are evident throughout. At times these directorial flights of fancy give the film a lift, but at others they feel like thoroughly artificial flourishes that deflate the drama.

Much of The Deep Blue Sea is told in flashback as its protagonist, Rachel Weisz’s Hester Collyer, recovers from an attempted suicide attempt. Initially we are wrapped up in the mood of the story and Davies does appear to have a masterful command over the details of the period. Quickly though, the background to Hester’s affair with Tom Hiddleston’s pilot Freddie Page becomes extremely tiresome. There is the odd interesting flashpoint, such as a quietly dramatic dinner with Hester’s mother-in-law. Here, Hester is lectured on the downsides of passion, whilst her husband, Simon Russell Beale’s much older judge, looks on passively. Hester defiantly stands her ground, convinced of the importance of excitement in such a dull world. She does not hate her husband; in fact they mostly get on well and share platonic affection. But Hester craves something more in her life.

That something more turns out to be a younger man, and perhaps the sex such a man can supply on demand. Hiddleston is handsome and charming, pulling off a decent impression of a restless RAF chap. It’s easy enough to see why Weisz jumps for him over Russell Beale. However, the supposed passion of their affair never really comes across. This might be because of the sensibilities of the time. Or it might be because of what happens in the final part of the film.

I was very tempted to write off The Deep Blue Sea as tasteful melodrama until its climax. For all the praise heaped on the performances of Weisz and Hiddleston, they appeared to be sporadically brilliant, but more often ridiculous. Hiddleston’s pompous pilot was 90% impersonation, 10% acting. Weisz’s Hester was beautiful but unrealistically pathetic. Then a shouting match outside a pub saves The Deep Blue Sea from drowning in its period features. The argument between the lovers is so loud and fierce that it makes up for many of the terrible lines in the script. This is not just because we finally see some drama in drab 50s London, but also because the narrative finally gets an injection of believable characterisation.

Page and Screen: Thinking about kids? Don’t read We Need To Talk About Kevin this Mother’s Day


Mother’s Day (or Mothering Sunday, according to my traditionalist Dad) is when we celebrate the unsung heroes of society. Mothers are the underappreciated glue holding together such fundamentals of everyday life as law, order and excessive cleanliness. There is no higher calling than motherhood. Political leaders, from Stalin to Cameron, have recognised that a good mother, providing a solid foundation for a good family, is the perfect platform for a great nation. Who do men beg for in their darkest hour? Not their wives, but their mothers. Whose betrayal pushes Hamlet to the brink of madness? His mother’s. And who saved the day in the last Doctor Who Christmas special? You guessed it, the mum.

In the build up to Mother’s Day, the commercialised clutter clogging up the high streets is physical evidence of the cult of motherhood. The perception is that this is the one day of the year that we openly show our gratitude to the women who brought us into the world. Lionel Shriver’s now well known book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, is bold enough to suggest that mothers are often showered with too much praise and attention. In fact, it is largely about the way society continually worships its mums and the burden this places on ordinary women who don’t fall completely in love with the role. The novel has a controversial reputation and this is just one of the big ideas within its pages with the potential to shock.

I’m yet to see Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Shriver’s novel and would be interested to hear your thoughts below readers, because inevitably the hype around the book has focused on the high school shooting that the narrative grows towards. I feel that the themes relating to the violence raised by the story are secondary to other issues Shriver illuminates with her writing. For me the most convincing parts of the book, where both Shriver’s style and substance were at their best, was early on, as central character Eva contemplates having a child and then finds the experience of birth and early motherhood underwhelming and depressing. In an article for The Guardian last year, Shriver claims to be happy with Ramsay’s “thematically loyal” version of her book. But the marketing has focused on Ezra Miller’s angry and angst ridden adolescent, rather than Tilda Swinton’s struggle with motherhood, and one of my friends was horrified that ordinary looking John C. Reilly was chosen to play handsome husband Franklin.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is at its most horrifying when Eva feels totally trapped by her son. She is certain that her bawling infant harbours feelings of resentment and hatred towards her. The book actually becomes less and less frightening as we get closer to the shooting itself. Teenage Kevin is brooding, spiteful and distant, and his mother has come to accept their detachment somewhat. The preceding enforced attachment is far more chilling. In general the characters and ideas are more engaging and powerful early on; in fact the book runs out of steam as we slide towards the atrocity, with the twist at the end not proving revelatory enough to make up for this.

Shriver’s phrasing, imagery and dialogue are all exemplary at times, but occasionally the format, of letters to her absent husband, feels artificial and forced, leading to clumsy writing lacking in subtlety. I was fascinated by Eva as a career woman, gripped by the debate she had with herself about becoming a mother. Perhaps Shriver is at her best during these sections of the novel because juggling a successful career is what she knows well. Eva was pressured into motherhood and it’s appalling to witness her regrets and pure disgust at herself for feeling nothing towards her own offspring. How many mothers feel compelled to have kids because it’s normal, because of peer pressure? How many find themselves chronically disappointed afterwards? The book concedes its originality when it loses sight of this disturbing observation, resorting to painting Kevin as some sort of evil, devil child, ought to wreck his mother’s life.

I am essentially saying that the scariest idea in We Need To Talk About Kevin is not emotionless kids and teenagers suddenly killing their classmates with arrows. It is in fact the notion of something you have great expectations for turning out to be crushingly disappointing. What if that first kiss is just an awkward clash of tongues and intermingling saliva? What if the FA Cup final ends 0-0? What if the sex on your honeymoon is someway short of ecstasy filled spiritual union? As film fans, we perhaps know this fear better than most. Imagine watching Raging Bull or Citizen Kane and thinking nothing more than “meh”. With adaptations, the fear is especially acute. What if, when I finally see Ramsay’s adaptation, she has failed to capture all the things I’ve mentioned above that I liked about this book? But this fear is perhaps a vital part of the thrill of watching adaptations, and life in general. The knowledge that you might be disappointed just makes it so much better when you’re not.

With Bin Laden dead and a Presidential election imminent, is it time to drop costly and invasive airport security?


Without wishing to be too dramatic, it seems clear that the world is entering a phase of transition between eras. The parameters of a post-9/11 world are fading and blurring. Osama Bin Laden, the symbolic figurehead of the terrorist threat, is dead and (controversially) buried. A huge financial crisis has sparked a political shift towards liberal, hands-off and most crucially, cheaper government. Things that looked essential in 2001, such as a military presence in Afghanistan, are far harder to justify in 2012. Barack Obama’s first term has been one of stepping back in terms of foreign relations, in an attempt to cool America’s volatile image, despite rising tensions in the Middle East.

Yet domestically Obama has struggled to deliver the hope and change he promised in 2008. He has failed to erase many of the reactionary creations of the Bush administration. People remain detained on dubious legal grounds at Guantanamo Bay, despite the President’s election promises to the contrary. His pledges on greener energy have fallen short. Ambitious and divisive bills on health care and the economy have been sanitised by the American political system. And as governments across the globe tighten their budgets, Obama’s administration has come under increasing attack for spending too much and failing to deal with waste.

One striking example of a wasteful post-9/11 hangover, that needs a rethink in a changing world, is the Transportation Security Administration or TSA. The logic behind this agency was clear back in 2001. The hijacks that enabled the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York represented a massive security breach. Perhaps what was needed, especially in a country as busy and powerful as the US, was a coordinated national approach to airport security. Private companies with loyalties to specific airlines might take their eyes off the ball, or fail to communicate with the authorities in time in the case of an emergency.

Anyone who has been on a flight since 2001 knows about the restrictions now in place. Adapting your luggage for security is a chore, but one most of us have grudgingly accepted. Harder to accept, however, are invasive procedures and the failure of such security measures. In Britain, the introduction of scans that render you practically naked on a screen caused a media storm. There have been high profile security lapses on both sides of the Atlantic, whether it be something slipping through as cargo, or someone smuggling a knife on board.

There are always going to be two sides to this debate. Some will argue that the security measures are ridiculous infringements on personal liberty, which also cost millions, if not billions, of dollars and pounds. Others will say that whilst the threat appears to be diminishing, it will only return if security is seen to lessen in any way. But in America at least, there appears to be a third, middle way emerging. Scrap the TSA, which is riddled with flaws and bureaucratic clutter, and bring in cheaper private companies.

The benefits of one agency coordinating a national approach, are perhaps outweighed by the TSA’s failures. They are shockingly detailed in this infographic from OnlineCriminalJusticeDegree.com.

TSA Waste
Created by: OnlineCriminalJusticeDegree.com

What are your thoughts? Do you trust private companies to protect you? Do we even need as many checks anymore?

Hours away from certain Oscar glory The Artist remains underappreciated and misunderstood


(Published over at Flickering Myth on Oscar night)

The infamous and incomparable Academy Awards are about to launch their annual global invasion. Nothing will be able to resist the onslaught. Facebook and Twitter will be colonised, blogs occupied and living rooms stormed. Of course, every year, one film is promoted to lead the assault by a mixture of critical buzz, hype and hyperbole. This year The Artist, an outside bet when it emerged on the festival circuit way back in 2011, leads the charge for golden Oscar statuettes. And yet everyone remains baffled by it.

For a throwback to yesteryear The Artist has been pretty controversial, certainly a lot more than last year’s juggernaut, The King’s Speech. There was the furore surrounding the cinemagoers who asked for their money back when they discovered that the film was silent. Then, more recently, there have been the attacks on The Artist’s Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Ignorant sceptics scoffed at the irony of a film without dialogue getting the chance to win recognition for its script. Soon their infectious dribble was plastered all over the web, in the form of tiresome tirades too numerous and forceful to argue with.

The Artist’s script, written by its director Michel Hazanavicius, is in my view the most deserving winner in its category at tonight’s ceremony. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s screenplay, in the adapted category, is in some ways a greater achievement because of the way it condenses the original novel. But the idea that because The Artist is silent it does not tell a compelling story or craft magical moments is plainly ludicrous. There is far more to a screenplay than dialogue, as most film fans will know. Its main competitors for original screenplay are crude (Bridesmaids) or sporadically charming (Midnight in Paris), and not that original.

You might say that The Artist is not at all original. Before I saw it I suspected it to be an exercise in nostalgia, pandering to critics pining for Hollywood’s golden age. After you’ve seen it, you know that the film does a lot more than look back charmingly into the past. It does copy classics from the past with its gimmicks, flourishes and rise and fall structure. But it has its own completely unique perspective. The frustrating thing for fans of the film is that still, on Oscar day itself, The Artist is talked about only in terms of charm, musicality and entertainment.

On Friday Lisa Allardice posted to the books blog of The Guardian, inspired by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris to speculate about which literary era would be the best to travel back in time to. In her introduction however a casual reference to The Artist irritated me. She says that in “direct contrast” to The Artist, Midnight in Paris is all about words. The thing that most surprised me after seeing The Artist was how much it is completely about words and language, despite being silent.

Hazanavicius uses his film’s modern day vantage point to look at the lost era of silent cinema, but he also uses silent movies to look at communication in the present day. Jean Dujardin’s George Valentin struggles throughout the story to express himself; as a professional, a lover and an artist. The scene where sounds suddenly burst into Valentin’s dreams is a perfect example of both this commentary on the saturation of modern day culture and the analysis of one character’s battle with the human condition.

The Artist is delightfully sweet, endearing and moving. I know this, even now, because as I write I am listening to tracks from Ludovic Bource’s sublime soundtrack. However, it is also about the limits and boundaries of language, what it can and cannot do. It is about much more than people give it credit for and there are many more meanings to discover from its simple story. It is worth bearing this in mind as its glamorous tidal wave washes away the competition at tonight’s Oscars. It’s the most interesting winner in years.

The Woman in Black


Daniel Radcliffe takes some unexpectedly large strides towards banishing the ghost of the Potter franchise from his CV, with this taut and traditional thriller from horror studio Hammer. The Woman in Black is absorbing, atmospheric and absolutely terrifying.

I looked at the trailer for The Woman in Black for X-Media Online last year. Aside from assaulting Radcliffe’s new project with pathetic Potter puns, I decided that, on the basis of the conventional trailer, cinemagoers were unlikely to be falling off their seats in terror on its release. How wrong I was. There is a chunk of The Woman in Black’s running time, perhaps half an hour in length, which consists of nothing but back to back scares in a big haunted house. I’m not sure precisely how long this section of the film was because I was writhing in my seat, reduced to a nervous wreck by the tension.

The trailer was so underwhelming because the story seemed so familiar. The empty house with ghosts lurking in the shadows has been done to death (pardon the pun). It’s impressive then that The Woman in Black hits all the right scary notes. Other reviews have argued that the film is ‘jumpy’ rather than frightening. There are certainly shocks aplenty via the usual tricks of reflections and whatnot, but these moments are elevated beyond a mere ‘jump’ by the quality of the execution and the intrigue of the story.

Gradually Radcliffe’s character, a lawyer called Kipps fighting for his job, begins to piece together the web of betrayal in the past of Eel Marsh house, eerily cut off from the nearest village by a causeway. Strange and tragic goings on start to connect around one woman’s dark and depressing life, as hysteria and hostility towards Kipps escalates in the village. The chilling scares are so unsettling because of their power to disturb as well as shock. The opening scene of the film hones in on creepy period details, like the faces of dolls, before three little girls do something inexplicable.

It’s perhaps not surprising that The Woman in Black doesn’t disappoint with its gripping story, given its pedigree on the page and stage. It’s a reminder that a simple tale, well told, can be cinematic gold, with the film comfortably beating The Muppets to top the box office. You could argue that Radcliffe has little to do, besides run around and look confused. But he does what’s required of him well and surprisingly convinces as a father (to an impossibly cute child actor). At the climax of the film we care about their fate and feel satisfyingly high on horror.

Birdsong: Part Two


The concluding part of the BBC’s grand adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong struck some emotional chords but ultimately felt like a sanitised version of the book’s raw honesty.

This adaptation has been swamped with praise from virtually all corners. It has a lot going for it, with fresh faced young leads making a name for themselves in Hollywood, lavish locations and high production standards. But for some reason I never really embraced it as I would have liked to.

Silly little things irritated me. For example the sun drenched trenches. We had to wait thirty four minutes for some appropriately miserable rain in this second episode and it turned out to be nothing more than a slight shower. There was a similar lack of precipitation in the first half. Granted the Somme offensive took place in the summer but Birdsong as a whole tracks Stephen’s progress through the entire war. More than the lack of rain, it was the constantly bright blue sky that unsettled me. I’m sure the outlook didn’t appear quite so sunny to the men.

Predictably the Somme sequences reined in the scale of horror and death presented in the book, although it’s impossible to tell whether this was an artistic choice or one necessitated by a lack of extras or BBC sensibilities. The setup to the battle worked well and I felt a truly moving attachment to the story for the first time, although this was largely squandered by the underwhelming brevity of the “big push” itself.

The key scenes with Jack Firebrace and Isabelle that followed were also disappointing in one way or another, meaning that the story fizzled out somewhat for me. However thanks to impressive period detail and a mostly assured performance from Eddie Redmayne Birdsong remained a worthwhile watch. In the end my hazy, idealised recollections of the book hindered my enjoyment of the story but there was little wrong with it overall.