DVD review: The Men Who Stare At Goats (2010)

Review first published on Movie Muser, 2010  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Robert Patrick. Directed By: Grant Heslov

Fox Mulder was right. The truth really was out there, all along. But, as Jon Ronson’s excellent 2004 non-fiction book demonstrated, the reality of what certain elements of the US military and government were up to in the 70s and 80s, was far stranger than anything in The X-Files.

There’s the army general, for example, who became so convinced that he could will his body to pass through solid objects that he actually physically ran into his office wall. He failed to go through it. He just crashed into it.

Then, there are the military operatives who, taking their cue from an earlier science fiction franchise, named themselves “Jedi warriors”. And then there are the men who stare at goats themselves: a crack division who become convinced that they could actually kill animals merely by deploying their ‘psychic’ powers while staring at them, causing their hearts to explode. Goats are judged to be the perfect test subjects for these experiments, it is revealed. While many soldiers felt uncomfortable staring at dogs, it is apparently much harder to forge an emotional bond with a goat.

Yet while the book was by turns hilarious and fascinating, there are causes for concern here. For one thing, this isn’t a documentary. Director Heslov has gone down the route of dramatising a non-fiction book – a feat attempted before by Richard Linklater on his version of Eric Schlosser’s ‘Fast Food Nation’. The result then was a failure. Ewan McGregor is also cast unconvincingly as a fictional American journo (presumably based on the book’s author Ronson, which is odd as both men are British anyway) partly, it is presumed, so the ‘Star Wars’ star can make play of the story’s Jedi references.

The film also makes little attempt to confront the darker aspects of the book. The bohemian freethinking of the First Earth Battalion ultimately led to some of the torture methods used in the War on Terror, but this is only alluded to here.

Despite everything, this still manages to be a consistently entertaining, compelling and amusing film. It doesn’t hurt that a bit of effort has been made on the extras, although neither the commentary from director Heslov or from the book’s author Ronson are as exciting as they could have been. Other featurettes, however, give added weight to a narrative that is always difficult to fully believe.

This is, however, fascinating enough to overcome most of its flaws. And yes, in case you’re wondering, one goat did die during the many goat staring experiments. It may well have been just a coincidence, but for safety’s sake, perhaps don’t try it out on your hamster at home. Just in case.

Bonus features:

Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion Featurette

Project Hollywood: A Classified Report From The Set Featurette

Audio Commentary with Director Grant Heslov

Audio Commentary with Author Jon Ronson

Character Bios

Deleted Scenes

Rating: 4 out of 5


Overall Verdict:

Undeniably a bit of a mess, but the story is bizarre and fascinating enough to win the day.

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

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DVD review: The Last Station (2010)

Review first published on Movie Muser, June 2010  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Director: Michael Hoffman

Cast: Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Anne-Marie Duff, Paul Giamatti, Kerry Condon, John Sessions

Running time: 107 minutes

Russia: 1910. With the First World War and the Russian Revolution still a few years off, ageing War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy (Plummer) might be expected to be enjoying a peaceful retirement. In fact, torn between the conflicting demands of his strong willed wife Countess Sofya (Mirren) and those of his increasingly zealous Tolstoyan followers, the author’s life is barely less turbulent than the events of one of his great novels.

The Last Station is less about Tolstoy himself than the plethora of characters surrounding him. The most sympathetic is perhaps young Valentin Bulgarov (McAvoy), a brainy but self conscious acolyte of the author. Arriving at the Tolstoy Estate as the author’s new private secretary, Valentin soon finds his loyalties divided. Should he side with the clique effectively led by his boss Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti), in attempting to build a personality cult around the author or with the more reasonable wishes of Tolstoy’s undeniably unstable wife?


For a film dealing with such weighty issues, the first half of The Last Station is remarkably cheery stuff. Perhaps wary of scaring off his audience, director Hoffman devotes much screen time to the sneezing and reticent McAvoy’s tentative relationship with ballsy proto-feminist Masha (Condon). Only in the second half, does the film’s mood darken to a suitably more sombre state, yet the change is so dramatic (McAvoy’s character also transforming overnight) that it unbalances the film. 

The film is beautifully acted, however, Plummer almost looking like an American (okay, Canadian) reincarnation of Tolstoy at times and Mirren equally great as his long-suffering spouse, a woman clearly prone to emotional volatility, expressed through occasional gun-play and chicken impression, but who nevertheless has good reason to feel aggrieved.

The accompanying commentary and interviews give some insight into a project which was apparently in the pipeline for around twenty years. But ultimately it’s a problem of tone. Too lightweight in the first half, while too melancholy (and despite dramatic events, frankly, dull) in the second, somehow The Last Station never quite scales the epic heights it threatens to achieve.
Overall Verdict: Great performances elevate a film which falls just short of Tolstoyan brilliance itself.

Film review: The Iron Lady (2011)

Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Olivia Colman, Richard E. Grant, Alexandra Roach, Nicholas Farrell, John Sessions

Directed By: Phyllida Lloyd

Running Time: 105 minutes

UK Release Date: January 6th, 2012

Certificate:12A

Rating: 3 out of 5

Review first published on Movie Muser, January 2012  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Review: Nobody divides popular opinion quite like former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. To some she is the nation’s saviour who triumphed in the Cold War and saved the country from an assorted army of lefties, Argentinians and unruly trade unionists, reversing decades of national decline. To others, her selfish and greedy policies wrecked our NHS, public services and schools and left a legacy of rising unemployment and crime from which we’ve never recovered. 

Perhaps for this reason, large sections of this film, avoid politics completely, instead focusing on the octogenarian Thatcher of today as she copes with the onset of old age, senility and comes to terms with the death of her beloved Denis (Jim Broadbent). Streep is firmly in the Oscar class as the elderly Thatcher and Broadbent is great if perhaps a lot more jolly and fun-filled than one imagines the real Denis to have been.

But it’s a shame that so much time is devoted to imagined ideas about the state of Thatcher’s mind as the flashbacks when they do finally get going have so much material to include. We do, however, get a convincing sense of how Thatcher (initially Margaret Roberts, played by Alexandra Roach) rises up from her lowly Grantham origins through the snooty smoky male-dominated Westminster world, surprising everyone, including apparently herself by eventually becoming the first woman prime minister.

A few bits don’t ring true: the scenes of a happy Thatcher family home life seem somewhat idolised (although Olivia Colman is great as daughter “Cawol”) and a sequence where the Lady suddenly reveals she knows the price of Lurpak to her Cabinet seems rather bizarre.

Inevitably, as this is a Margaret Thatcher biopic most of the key events of her tenure are viewed entirely from her own perspective. We see the Falklands War and the Miner’s Strike. For some reason the strike (1984) not the war (1982) occurs first in this version, although as these are her random memories so arguably this is just misleading and needlessly confusing rather than just plain wrong.

But her opponents are never presented as being reasonable: they are either toffee-nosed wets or ugly hairy protesting lefties. Only towards the end, when Thatcher’s relentless single-mindedness on issues like the disastrous Poll Tax and her bullying of unlikely nemesis, Sir Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) unwittingly precipitates her downfall, does the screenplay lose sympathy with its subject. And even then it’s implied these failings could be an early manifestation of her illness.

But ultimately, while the strange perspective does effectively undermine the film, it’s hard not to be moved by Streep’s touching performance of a lioness in the winter of her life.

Overall Verdict: A flawed biopic but Meryl Streep deserves an Oscar for her performance. And at least the film doesn’t go on and on and on.