A feel-good movie if there ever was one, Nigel Cole's MADE IN DAGENHAM tells the story of the 1968 strike by the women workers of Ford's plant in Dagenham that ultimately resulted in the passage of equal pay legislation in Britain.  While it's a little too frothy, and the return to our current cultural climate outside the darkened theatre is something of a downer afterward, it's a solid film to spend a couple of hours with, and features the always fantastic Sally Hawkins as Rita O'Grady, a composite of several real-life women who lead the movement.

Like most films based on political movements/activists like this, there's a certain trajectory that's expected to play out on screen: person has injustice, person takes action against their adversary, person overcomes injustice.  And to be sure, MADE IN DAGENHAM follows this precisely, never really wavering from its path, though it has some nice surprises here and there, mostly in the ways it deals with the interpersonal and familial relationships at stake.  Rita and her husband Eddie have a pretty healthy relationship, and while there are trying moments that would likely hit any family going through an income crisis as they have (especially once the strike by the women causes a plant-wide shutdown), it really comes through that they love and care about one another, and there are plenty of apologies to go around.

As the film tracks the encounters with management and their spineless self-serving union leaders, and the disappointments experienced by the women at their hands, the film moves along at a fairly quick pace, finding its footing in the swift dialogue and the pleasure of watching such skilled actors at work.  It doesn't really matter that the story itself is predictable - they'll never really make the kind of movie that ends with the decimation of unions' bargaining rights - because the film's charms are its quiet moments and often boisterous interactions.  And the actors are more than capable of buoying a film like this.

Sally Hawkins, who I've already mentioned, and who most audiences may know from her lead role in Mike Leigh's HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, is once again a charming on-screen presence and proves that she really should be in many many more movies (a quick check of her IMDB tells me she'll be in at least two films in the coming year, which I'll happily check out just because.)  She's helped along by some strong supporting work from the two prominent male cast members: Daniel Mays as her husband, and the incomparable Bob Hoskins as a low-level union rep that actually has the balls to get the job done as it needs to be, bypassing politics and getting right to the heart of the problem.  But the film's biggest jaw-dropper is the sheer amount of female acting chops on display, with all of its major moments revolving around women and the stifling feelings they have when they are spoken down to and about by males running everything without ever being asked what they might actually feel best suits their interests.

Underneath its light surface is a darker commentary about the ways in which male-centric societal discriminations shade even our own thoughts about who is important and should be important in not just everyday interactions, but even in the simple act of watching a film - even one such as this that really puts the voices of women right out in front.  Hoskins and Mays aside, the major characters that drive the film are all the friends of Rita who stand behind her and support her giving voice to their concerns as women.  Miranda Richardson is a hoot as Barbara Castle, who is still the only woman ever to have held the office of First Secretary of State in Britain, and Rosamund Pike turns in a really tight performance as Lisa Hopkins, a highly educated woman kept underneath the power structure in both Britain and her own household by her husband, who is the labor relations director for the Ford company in the U.K.

The real heart and soul for, and the most conflict when sticking up for her sisters for Rita, comes from her best friend, Connie, played by the wonderful Geraldine James.  Connie's husband, George, is a former soldier who is experiencing what we now know is PTSD, and some days are obviously better than others.  Their relationship as husband and wife, which may be a shadow of its former self, is powered by pure love, and ultimately, George sees his wife as someone who deserves everything she has been fighting for.  The denouement of this particular section is very sad and poignant, but it provides the story with just enough oomph and impetus to get over the hump of making sure Rita's friendships really do see her through to the end.  Really, it's a touching moment when Connie, who was once the spokeswoman for the girls, and Rita both enter the labor union's conference together.

It's not really a surprise to see such good acting in a British film.  Half of their acclaimed talent currently fills U.S. productions anyway.  But it is a surprise to see a film that really attempts to get to the heart of its female characters, and provide a realistic view of their relationships with one another and their families, and with society-at-large.  MADE IN DAGENHAM may be a rather light-hearted affair, but there's enough going on beneath the surface concerning sexism and its inherent role in every facet of Western culture that it really is worth a second look beyond the cursory first glance.  Even if it is just for the sheer amount of wonderful performances, which given such great work in smaller roles by the likes of Andrea Riseborough and Jaime Winstone, et al, I really haven't even tipped the bucket on.


Blurbs: Special Edition 2

I know, I know, where did I disappear to?  I'm back, this time with a vengeance.  I'm going to have some 2010 wrap-ups and polish off a few articles I didn't get around to posting.  First up, a super-long edition of Blurbs (really long this time out).  Without further ado:

THE KING'S SPEECH (Tom Hooper, 2010)
A movie that really hinges on the performances of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush and completely delivers on both counts.  The story's plot is nothing spectacular: the King of England has a stammer and seeks speech therapy so he can lead the nation in proper royal capacity, but the screenplay has some of the best dialogue in recent memory (along with THE SOCIAL NETWORK it holds a place with me for making an uninteresting subject interesting just because of the ways in which people communicate and find importance in communication) and Tom Hooper's direction is refreshingly restrained and classical in style.  I enjoyed the off-center shots of the two leads, and it's nice to see something that's not quite so flashy.  Even the fog-shrouded exteriors seem subdued and refreshing in their simplicity.  One of the smaller cinematic pleasures I had this year is watching the bickering back and forth between Rush and Firth, two fine actors in a fine film that may not be the best, but which is still deserving of one's time.

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (John Sturges, 1955)
One of my favorite films of all time, I recently watched this after having not seen it in about six years and was re-enamored with it.  Spencer Tracy's portrayal of hard-as-nails Macreedy, the one-armed veteran come to Black Rock with a mysterious purpose.  Met with a town hiding a dark secret and the determination to do whatever to make sure it never comes to light, Macreedy faces this opposition head on.  In an iconic performance, Tracy takes on the whole town, populated by a superb cast playing the townspeople: Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan and the inimitable Lee Marvin.  A social tirade against racism and igorance, A BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK manages to hit all of its intended notes and rattle some nerves in a meager 81 minute run-time, which is more than most other films could ever dream of.

SEASON OF THE WITCH (Dominic Sena, 2011)
While not a total waste of time, the film's improbable (and horribly computer-generated) final twenty minutes almost dismantle the enjoyment I had of watching a mostly-reliable B genre picture starring Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman as two Knights on the lam escorting a witch to her trial at an abbey several days away.  Honestly, I think this film falls apart based on the direction alone, making choice after choice, from the overall tone, which waffles between camp and seriousness, to the aforementioned CGI-laden debacle of the finale.  Dominic Sena has made exactly one film worth a real look (KALIFORNIA) and as bad as I wanted it to, SEASON OF THE WITCH does nothing to further a sub-genre of horror/fantasy I feel is due for a comeback.  I guess TRUE BLOOD's upcoming witch-filled storyline will have to keep my hopes up for the time being.

Producer/Creator/Writer Shawn Ryan has already seen one of his best creations cancelled by FX (the best show of last Fall, TERRIERS), but he's giving it another go with the so-far-so-good cop show THE CHICAGO CODE.  Following a group of officers and detectives banding together to take down a corrupt politician, there are shades of THE WIRE at play, though things are starting to widen a bit, growing to show a more subjective view of various characters through voice-over narration and small throwaway moments that might be trimmed from a show not on a network production scale (though this season will feature only 14, there are normally 22 episodes a season as opposed to half that number).  Aside from surface level comparisons, though, the feel of the show is much more in tune with Ryan's work on TERRIERS and THE SHIELD, albeit a little less gritty and featuring a police department actually fighting for justice, which is a welcome change to the current television procedural climate.  Fantastic performances from Jennifer Beals as the department's superintendent and Jason Clarke as a detective determined to make the case buoy the show and really propel it into the must-watch realm few shows reach for me.

THE GOLDEN COMPASS (Chris Weitz, 2007)
I didn't mind this film, though I could tell as someone who hasn't read any of Philip Pullman's trilogy that it glosses over a WHOLE lot of stuff.  But, I think as a non-fan audience member it worked for what it was: an epic start to a trilogy that there's no way to condense into a single set of three films in the first place.  That, in a nutshell, is the problem of adaptation in general for the fantasy genre.  The very nature of the beast requires a fair amount of condensing from an often bloated, world-creating novel that spares not a single chance to describe small and seemingly inconsequential scenes in oft-excruciating detail.  Fans of the books do hate this movie, and probably with justified reasoning.  But, it is what it is, and if you want to see how bad film adaptations of really good and highly revered works of children's lit can turn out, you might want to try THE SEEKER: THE DARK IS RISING from the same year.  Yeesh.

DOGHOUSE (Jake West, 2009)
I have a soft spot for any sort of British horror-comedy.  This offering, following a group of men who attempt to cheer up their friend following a devastating break-up with his girlfriend by taking a holiday to a small town that boasts a ton of single women per capita, is a lighter affair that features some imaginative takes on zombification and some fun kills.  The should-be-more-popular fan favorite Danny Dyer and Stephen Graham headline as two of the guys up against a town in which all of the women have become the subjects of a secret military experiment that makes them aggressively pursue and kill all men in the area.  This one's fun for fans, and may even win a few converts.  Worth checking out.

Oh my word, this is brilliant television.  I've loved listening to Karl Pilkington on the Ricky Gervais Show podcast for the past few years, but I never imagined something like this would ever happen.  For those of you not familiar with him, his friend Ricky Gervais describes Karl as a "round-headed, ape-like moron," and while that may seem mean-spirited, it's not completely wrong as a description of the television personality we're given.  He's actually just an average man, uncomfortable around anything he's never been exposed to or has no previous notion of, and this leads to absolutely hilarious observations, non-sequitirs, odd-ball analogies and brilliant unscripted physical comedy.  This may be the best thing I've seen on TV since November, and it's definitely the best reality-based show to come along in a long, long time.

TRUE GRIT (The Coen Bros., 2010)
There's a lot to admire in this re-adaptation of Charles Portis' classic Western, but far and away the best aspect is the discovery of Hailee Steinfeld, the fifteen year-old actress who more than holds her own with some of the best actors ever to appear on celluloid.  As Mattie Ross, the plucky and determined daughter out to track down her father's murderer, Tom Chaney, she displays the same wisdom of an older soul her character has as well, and she really is amazingly talented.  And while it doesn't pack the same punch as their recent few films for me, this is another home run for the Coens, and again marks their place as one of the best filmmaking duos working today.

BLUE VELVET (David Lynch, 1986)
Upon multiple viewings, BLUE VELVET only becomes increasingly more disturbing and creepy.  Eventually I stopped paying attention to the thin plotting (and the intricate workings of the dream-like logic employed in the film) and began focusing on the nightmarish nature of every single thing in this film, from opening credits to the very end.  Seriously, even Laura Dern's character gives me the willies.  Another recent discovery: Dean Stockwell as Ben is an even more disturbing person than Frank Booth.  In just that one scene in which he lip-synchs Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" he walks away with the movie, and the whole vibe of the apartment, the retro-decor and fashions, the casual nature of the abusive relationships...it's almost too much to take.  I watched this a couple of times around my obsession with Aronofsky's BLACK SWAN and it was an illuminating experience for me.  The nature of dreams, nightmares, and mental breakdown swirling around us at all times, and the simple act of watching a movie in effect being similar - well, let's say I may still be a little too close to it all.  In any case, this is Lynch's masterpiece, and deserves to be thought about constantly by anyone who can stand to.

An amazing show about the problems facing adaptations of award-winning British comedies for American audiences.  Featuring a really hilarious Matt LeBlanc, and some razor-sharp writing, the story of Sean and Beverly, the creators of BAFTA-winning show "Lyman's Boys" watch in horror as their show is picked up for a pilot by network executive Merc and becomes the opposite of what made their show a critical favorite overseas.  After replacing the show's star with Matt LeBlanc, the show's entire story changes, becoming a sitcom about a hockey coach and being retitled "Pucks!"  It may hit a little too close to home for those of us who have seen this exact thing happen in reality, but it's still a fantastic show that pays off by building upon its previously introduced jokes and satisfying us with an appropriately awkward and bittersweet finale.