Film Reviews:

My Top Five Films about Politics

Warning: Spoilers, mostly mild ones.

 

Do you think anyone will ever make a film inspired by Trump’s White House or Boris’s Number Ten? If I were a screenwriter, I’d be finding plenty of juicy material in the current goings-on. In fact, certain recent events make the Watergate scandal seem somewhat tame.

And speaking of Watergate, here are my top five films with political themes.


 1. All the President’s Men (1976)

 

My all-time favourite political film is adapted from the bestselling non-fiction book of the same name by journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

What makes this film so great? Obviously the casting of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the two journalists, the preppy Woodward and the dishevelled Bernstein. They are the perfect odd couple.  Then there's the source material, a story so Machivellian that in our '70s naivety, we couldn't quite believe it was true.

The film begins with a bungled break-in at the offices of the Democratic Party. Soon Woodward and Bernstein discover links to the White House. With the support of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), they persist in their investigation, even in the face of White House attempts to close them down.

At the time, we were shocked and appalled by the Watergate affair and the fact that the President turned out to be a crook. Nowadays, it seems like small play compared to what has been happening under Trump’s regime – the Ukrainian quid pro quo scandal being the tip of the fatberg. Nevertheless, All the President’s Men still resonates more than forty years after it was made.


In a nutshell . . .

This is one of the best suspense thrillers ever made, and all based on fact.


 2. Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939 poster).jpg


Where there’s political power, there will always be corruption. But you only need one honest man to fight for truth and justice. In this case, it’s Jefferson Smith (aka James Stewart) who is elected to the US Senate where his personal mission is to fight for ‘lost causes – the only causes worth fighting for’. Mr Smith’s idealism doesn’t sit well with fellow politicians from his home state who try to bring him down by circulating forged documents and fake stories. Sound slightly familiar?

 

In a nutshell . . .

Capra’s film was a ground-breaker in dealing with political corruption and and nepotism in post-Depression America and is just as relevant today. Perhaps more so. The film is a bit creaky and the acting often veers towards histrionics, but if you're a movie buff, it’s worth a look.


 3. The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Ghost Writer poster.png


Unlike All the President’s Men, The Ghost Writer is a work of fiction, yet it feels very real. A corrupt former Prime Minister, played with charming malevolence by Pierce Brosnan, is struggling with his memoirs and wants a ghost writer to pen them for him.

Enter Ewan McGregor, who arrives by ferry at the PM’s house on a windswept island. If you thought being a politician’s ghost writer would be a bland occupation, think again. Referred to only as 'The Ghost', McGregor soon discovers hidden documents that reveal the former PM is hiding some very dangerous political secrets. Is there anyone our Ghost Writer can trust? The PM’s wife? The professor? Or perhaps the senior politician who claims he has dirt on the ex PM?

In the best thriller tradition, there is a knock-you-for-six ending that will leave you reeling.


In a nutshell . . .

An intelligent thriller which will draw you into its dark and sinister world.


 4. The Ides of March (2011)

The Ides of March Poster.jpg

 

Ryan Gosling is a novice campaign director, working for Governor George Clooney, a charming Presidential hopeful competing in the Democratic primaries. In this film, nobody is as they seem and everyone wants to win at all costs, from the campaign managers to the candidates themselves. There’s collateral damage along the way but no-one seems to care.

An outstanding cast, including the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Governor’s chief of staff and the ever-reliable Paul Giametti as the opponent’s campaign manager, lifts this film above your run-of-the-mill political thriller.


In a nutshell . . .

A riveting drama about political and personal machinations with plenty of twists.


 5. Dave (1993)

Dave poster.jpg

Wikipedia

 

Ostensibly a romantic comedy, there is far more to Dave than that. The titular hero is an ordinary guy who runs an employment agency and has a part-time job impersonating the President. When the real President suffers a stroke, the White House Chief of Staff (a delightfully devious Frank Langella*) recruits Dave to take Potus’s place.

The President’s wife (Sigourney Weaver), who is estranged from her husband, soon works out there is an imposter in the Oval Office but keeps this to herself as she finds Dave’s kindness and honesty rather refreshing. So does the American public who are delighted to see that their President has become a new and better man following his stroke. 


*Frank Langella also played a chilling Nixon in Frost Nixon, another excellent political film based on the famous interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon.


In a nutshell . . .

Can a rom com about politics be deeply insightful? You bet!


Afterword

I couldn’t end this article without mentioning some outstanding television series with politics at their heart.

 

The West Wing (1999-2006)

The first few seasons are a tour de force, featuring quick-fire ‘walk and talk’ scenes delivered by an impeccable cast. At the heart of the series is President Josiah Bartlet, played by the magnificent Martin Sheen, who had previous experience in the Oval Office as JFK in the 1983 miniseries Kennedy.

For those of us who suffered through the George W. Bush years, The West Wing provided an alternative political world led by an intelligent and capable statesman.

Following the departure of scriptwriter extraordinaire Aaron Sorkin, the series started to flag, but it did give us a Hispanic President (Jimmy Smits) in the final year.


A snippet of trivia –Elisabeth Moss who plays June in The Handmaid’s Tale rose to fame as Martin Sheen’s daughter Zoey in The West Wing.

 


House of Cards (1990)

This is the original BBC series, which I found far superior to the more recent American version. The late Ian Richardson plays the nefarious and manipulative Francis Urquhart who plots to become leader of the Conservatives and then PM. The ending is truly shocking.


The Politician’s Husband (2012)

Written by the talented Paula Milne, this miniseries stars David Tennant as a leadership aspirant and Emily Watson as his wife, a woman with political ambitions of her own. There is a fine supporting cast including Ed Stoppard and Roger Allem and lots of twists culminating in a pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you ending.

 

The Thick of It and The Hollowmen

Who says politics can’t be humorous? Particularly when the humour is of the satirical kind. The British series features the incomparable Peter Capaldi as spin doctor Malcolm Tucker, a man renowned for spicing his conversations with picturesque profanities. Meanwhile The Hollowmen is a biting Australian satire targeting politicians and bureaucrats alike.

 

Deborah O’Brien

February 2020

Film Review:

'1917'


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The madness and futility of the First World War have been the inspiration for many fine films, beginning in 1930 with Lewis Milestone’s version of the Erich Maria Remarque novel, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, which was a daring story for its time, showing the horrors of war from the perspective of German infantrymen.

In Sam Mendes’s ‘1917’, it is the British soldiers with whom we sympathise, but in other ways, the themes are similar - incompetent and ego-driven generals, and troops who are treated as cannon fodder. Mendes, however, also gives us leaders doing their best in impossible circumstances.

'1917' is based on a story told to Mendes by his grandfather, Alfred, to whom the film is dedicated. Alfred Mendes served as a messenger on the Western Front and this is a very personal project for his grandson.But what makes ‘1917’ unique is the way it is filmed as a continuous shot or, at least, the illusion of one. By using this technique*, Mendes enmeshes the viewer in the story and, for the most part, it works unobtrusively.

The protagonists are two lance corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), who are tasked to carry a vital message to the colonel of the Devonshire battalion that the planned attack on what they think is a weak, retreating German army should be called off; otherwise the Devons will be slaughtered. For Corporal Blake, this mission is particularly close to his heart - his brother is a lieutenant with the Devons. 

Blake and Schofield embark on a nine-hour trek marked by heart-stopping incidents. There is also a poignant encounter with a French woman and baby in a scene which reminds us that humanity can exist in the hell of the Western Front. But possibly the most moving moment of the entire film involves a rendition of the hymn, ‘Poor Wayfaring Stranger’ – it brought tears to my eyes.

‘1917’ does not have leading men in the traditional sense. Blake and Schofield are played by little-known** actors, and this relative anonymity makes our identification with them that much stronger. There are some ‘names’ in the cast – an almost unrecognisable Colin Firth as the general who sends the boys on their mission, Andrew Scott (Moriarty from ‘Sherlock’) as a world-weary lieutenant who couldn’t give a damn, and the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch in a brief but nuanced performance as a frazzled colonel.

‘1917' has already won a Golden Globe for Best Drama, and I anticipate an Academy Award to follow for the film and its director.


* The same technique was used to great effect in 'Birdman'. See my review here:

http://www.deborahobrien.com.au/index.php/blog/by-theme/12-blog/182-film-review-birdman

** George MacKay played Ned Kelly in 'The True Story of Ned Kelly' (2019) alongside Essie Davis and Russell Crowe.

Deborah O’Brien

27 January 2020


 

Home in the Highlands

 

LIFE AT WHITE GABLES: THE INSIDE STORY


The Flying Carpet


Livingroomx


Although I’ve penned hundreds of words about the garden at White Gables, I haven’t written much about the house itself and its interiors. That’s because we’ve been working hard to repair damaged walls and floors and deal with a series of surprises that didn’t appear in the building inspection report. The hard work is mostly over and several rooms are finished, but there are still some mysteries to unravel.

For example, why do the lights cut out whenever it rains? Our trusty electrician has investigated thoroughly but can't find the answer. Are there ghosts at work at White Gables? While we await a solution, we’ve installed night-lights in every room - fortunately the power points still work, no matter how long or hard it rains. Torches have been placed in key positions, and in the kitchen there’s a desk lamp on the counter-top so that if the ceiling lights go, I can cook dinner by lamplight! 

But back to the real story. My tale of the first major purchase for White Gables. This is how it happened.

When we moved into the property last December, I found myself with a vast formal living room, 7 metres by 6 metres, with a 5.5 metre (18 foot) vaulted ceiling. Unfurnished, it looked even bigger than it had at the inspections. 


WG Bookcasecropped

For those of you who've read my story, 'A Tale of Two Chandeliers', here's the original chandelier! 
We also inherited the gorgeous oak bookcase and library ladder.


How was I going to turn something that looked like an auditorium, complete with echo, into a cosy sitting room? Yes, you guessed it! Add a rug, a very big one!

But where would I find one big enough for this room, without paying a fortune for it?

I spent hours browsing online before coming across a traditional design in muted shades of grey, cream and blue which I hoped would form the perfect backdrop for my existing cream sofas. What’s more, the price was very good indeed.

Fast forward to Monday morning, 9am. After a weekend of vacillating, I decided to buy the rug. Call me old-fashioned but I never place an order online when there's a phone number I can ring. At the top of the home page, there was a one-800 number operating ‘24/7’.

The voice that answered my call was bright and cheery:

   ‘Hi. This is Brad. How may I help you?’

   His American accent caught me off-guard. ‘You’re American!’ I said, forgetting my manners.

   ‘That’s right, ma’am. You’ve just phoned North Carolina.’

   ‘Oh!’ I gulped. ‘But I’m in Sydney, Australia.’

   ‘Don’t worry, it’s a free call. We have a lot of Australians buying our rugs.’

   I was on the point of thanking him for his time and hanging up. After all, it would be ridiculous to buy a rug from America – the freight alone would cost a fortune.

   ‘Which rug are you interested in, ma’am?’ Brad continued.

   It couldn't hurt to give him the details. 

  'Yes, we have that rug in stock,' he replied. Then he told me the price - it was exactly the same as the amount which had appeared on the website.

  ‘I’m assuming we're talking US dollars here,’ I said. 

  ‘No, ma’am,  the price is in Australian dollars.'

  While I was processing that particular piece of information, he added: 'And delivery is free.’

  ‘Free delivery to Australia!’ I squeaked, having recently paid forty dollars to have a new fridge delivered from twenty kilometres away.

  ‘Absolutely, ma’am. And it should arrive within ten days.’

The deal was too good to refuse, but a little voice in my head was saying: perhaps it’s too good to be true. Nevertheless, I supplied my details, paid by credit card and was informed that a tracking number and receipt would be zooming their way to me via email.

As soon as I pressed ‘End’, doubts began to fill my head. Would I ever hear from the company again? Did it really sell rugs, or was it simply an elaborate scam set up to snare gullible home decorators like me?

Later that day I happened to mention the internet purchase to a friend when she phoned for a chat.

   ‘You bought a rug from America!’ she exclaimed.

   ‘It’s a reputable company,’ I said, trying to convince myself.

   ‘I hope you haven’t bought yourself a flying carpet,’ she tittered. ‘The kind that flies away and is never seen again.’

Meanwhile an email had pinged into my inbox, containing the tracking number. When I clicked on the link, an official-looking page appeared on the screen, announcing that my rug had left the North Carolina warehouse and was already in a sorting centre in Cincinatti. If this was a scam, they’d gone to a lot of trouble to make it seem authentic.

On Thursday of that same week I checked the tracking info again, expecting the rug to be still in the USA, if indeed it existed at all. But the information on my computer screen indicated differently:

        Parcel arrived Sydney Airport 11pm Wednesday.

        Parcel cleared Customs 8am Thursday.

        Parcel with courier 8.45am Thursday.

        Delivery to purchaser by 4pm Thursday.

Impossible! I thought to myself. After all, I’d only ordered the rug on Monday morning. 

At 2pm that day, there was a knock on the front door. Outside, a courier was holding what looked like a dead body wrapped in heavy green plastic. After he left, I dragged the ‘body bag’ inside and set to work with a scissors to cut it open. Finally, the rug emerged, rolled up and folded in half, like a sandwich wrap. I tried to unroll it in the hallway but it was too big.

 

WG Rug in body bagx

WG Rug Foldedx


That night my son and I lugged the rug into the living room, where we unfurled it, stood back and surveyed the purchase.

   ‘What do you think of it?’ I asked him.

   ‘It’s perfect!’ he replied.

 WG Working on Great Room

Here's the rug after we unwrapped it. The folds came out easily.
I took this picture on the day after settlement. It was December 2 
and as you can see, my priority was decorating the Christmas tree rather than furnishing the room!
And there's that chandelier again!


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WG Living room from stairsx

The sitting room with the furniture in place.


When my credit card bill arrived later that month, the first thing I did was to check the amount I’d paid for the rug. It was exactly as specified. No extras, taxes or customs duty.

Lesson learnt: There are still people left in the world you can trust.


WG Christmas and Cody cropped 

Cody gives the rug his seal of approval.  

Postscript: Not long after I purchased my rug, the Australian Government decided to introduce GST for overseas internet purchases under $1000. I’d bought the rug just in time.

And some good news – our trusty electrician solved the blackout problem – it turned out that rats (we like to call them native mice) had gnawed through the insulation around an electrical wire running under the house to the garage. The faulty wire has now been replaced and there are no more blackouts.

 

Deborah O’Brien

24 July 2018


 


Home in the Highlands


LIFE AT ‘WHITE GABLES’


Autumn

 

Autumn tree square

 

After a long, dry summer in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, I was eagerly anticipating the arrival of autumn. But as March merged into April, the record heat wave continued unabated. Finally, at the end of April, temperatures began to drop and we even had some rain. Great, I thought to myself, autumn is here at last.

But at White Gables it didn't look like a cool-climate autumn at all. Why were my fruit trees still green and leafy when only a kilometre away in the main street of our village, the deciduous trees lining the footpaths were boasting glorious autumnal hues? Had autumn decided to bypass White Gables altogether?

I happened to mention my conundrum to a gardening friend who lives nearby, and her explanation was so obvious I couldn’t believe I hadn't thought of it myself. White Gables is sheltered by a ridge on the coastal side of town – that means the temperature is a degree or two warmer than elsewhere and consequently autumn arrives a few weeks later.


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The first tree to realise it was autumn was the Japanese maple on the left. 


When the much-anticipated season finally reached White Gables, it didn’t just sneak in like an embarrassed guest ashamed of arriving late. Instead, it made a grand entrance, transforming the garden into a mass of colour almost overnight. Suddenly the fruit trees glowed yellow and orange, and the rose bushes burst into flower after months of inactivity.


Roses and verandah500

Pink carpet roses are repeat-flowering - just trim off the dead roses but beware of the thorns!


Sasanqua camellias, inconspicuous during the summer, now produced a myriad of blooms. Even the poor rhododendrons, which had barely survived months of heat and drought, started to make flowers. Fortunately, they came to their senses and realised it was autumn, not spring, and they'd better stop flowering and conserve their energy, or they might not make it through the winter.  

Among the fruit trees, the pears were the first to turn golden and lose their leaves, followed by the weeping cherries whose canopies thinned out as their yellow leaves drifted lazily to the ground, forming a rich carpet of mulch on the ground. After that, it was a competition between the apples, apricots, peaches, plums and figs to see which of them would shed all their leaves first.

 

WG Molly autumn

Molly guarding the back door in the shade of the cherry tree.

 

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Autumn is bulb planting time.  I bought 100 daffodil bulbs from a lovely elderly gentleman at the local markets,
who was almost giving them away. 
After planting the bulbs under the pear trees
I began to regret I hadn't bought bluebell and hyacinth bulbs as well. Perhaps next year . . .


In the lavender garden the fragrant flower-heads turned a deep blue-purple, attracting a swarm of fat little bees which buzzed from flower to flower with such joyful enthusiasm that they barely noticed WGH* setting up his tripod and photographing them in close-up.


WG Bee and Lavender

 

WG Weeping cherry

Weeping cherry and lavender bushes at the kitchen door.

 

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Above and below:  Lavender and rose bouquets from the autumn garden at White Gables.

 

Lavender bouquets

 

 

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The quintessential autumn rose. Pic: WGH


In less than two weeks it will officially be winter. And if autumn came late to White Gables, winter will no doubt do the same. The preponderance of French lavender in the garden suggests winter might be considerably milder here than the more exposed parts of the district. Although I'll miss the 'mellow fruitfulness' of autumn, I'm looking forward to bare branches silhouetted against a cloudless sky, and early bulbs sprouting from the rich basalt soil. 


WG Mist small

Keats called autumn the 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness' - he was right!


*WGH = World’s Greatest Husband – it says so on his coffee mug.


Deborah O’Brien

17 May 2018

Read more about White Gables in my Home in the Highlands Blog below.
Just scroll down for:

    Finding the Dream House

    The Secret Garden

    A Tale of Two Chandeliers



Home in the Highlands



LIFE AT ‘WHITE GABLES’


A Tale of Two Chandeliers


All my life I’ve been fond of chandeliers – as a child I even had a miniature one in my dolls’ house! So, last spring, when I spotted the listing for White Gables online and read the description of the living room with a “vaulted ceiling showcasing an impressive glass chandelier to its best advantage”, my heart soared.

Then I browsed the images and couldn’t believe my eyes. The glass chandelier certainly made an impression, but not a positive one. If truth be told, it resembled a piñata exploding over a light fitting.


WG Old Chandelier square 


But apart from the chandelier, the house looked great – a quintessential Highlands home complete with wide verandahs and tall gables. I knew I just had to see the place for myself.

Fast forward to the inspection day . . .

By the time I had climbed the front steps to the wraparound verandah, I was already in love. At the door I gave the real estate agent my particulars and was ushered into the foyer. From there I entered the spacious living room where the aforesaid chandelier was hanging from the 18-foot (5.5 metres) ceiling.

‘What do you think of it?’ the agent asked conspiratorially when she caught me staring at the colourful light-fitting.

As I tried to come up with an answer that wouldn’t offend her, she continued:

‘If this was my house, it would be the first thing I’d replace.’

She was right, of course. On December 1, settlement day, we rang the local electrician but he couldn’t come till after New Year. For the next four weeks, whenever I walked past the chandelier I lowered my gaze. At Christmas I convinced myself it looked festive. But when I took pictures I lowered the camera so that the light-fitting wasn’t in the shot.

I was at pains to explain to guests that the chandelier had come with the house. If anyone expressed the slightest interest in it, I would ask whether they’d like to have it. As a gift. But nobody wanted it. ‘It wouldn’t suit my house,’ they said diplomatically. Or: ‘It’s too big for my place.’

In the same way that I’d scoured the internet looking for the right house, I now sought the perfect chandelier. In the process I didn’t come across anything that looked like ours.

However, we did eventually find a vintage chandelier which was both simple and elegant, with just the right proportions for the room and at a very acceptable price. When the electrician turned up to install it, I offered him the old one for nothing, but he politely declined. I wasn’t really surprised.


WG Chandelier square closeup

The replacement chandelier at White Gables.

What I like about the new chandelier is its subtlety. It doesn’t grab your attention – it just fits comfortably in the room, like a trusted friend.

What happened to the old chandelier? Well, it’s packed in a crate in the garage, awaiting a trip to the recycling centre, where I’m hoping someone will take pity on it and give it a good home.

 

Deborah O’Brien

24 April 2018