Monday, 9 February 2015

Noah: The Dark World

Noah (USA 2014)
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenwriters: Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel (based on the book by an anonymous Israelite author)
Producers: Scott Franklin, Arnon Milchan, Mary Parent
Cast: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lemon, Douglas Booth, Anthony Hopkins
Screening: Embassy Theatre, Wellington

If you told me that Darren Aronofsky was making movie about the Genesis story of Noah and the ark, and it would be aimed at a relatively mainstream audience, would try and rationalise the odd morality of the Old Testament, would star Russell Crowe back in Gladiator mode, feature Lord of the Rings-like action sequences with rock monster golems, and showcase the superb talents of Clint Mansell (composer), and Matthew Libatique (cinematographer), I would have had two thoughts:

1. This will be rubbish;  and

2. It will, however, at least not be boring.

Unfortunately, I was only right about point 1.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Online Storm

The cast for the rebooted Fantastic Four is out, and it confirms rumors that Michael B. Jordan is to play Johnny Storm, aka the Human Torch. The inevitable racist reaction has erupted, with various threads on IMDb making calls to boycott the movie coming up on IMDb.  One person commented that Johnny Storm will be black because:

"... he flammed on too long and he burnt to a crisp?
I personally would be okay with that."

On the other hand, there was a better attempt at humour on this subject with the topic Disrespectful to the source material.

"They made the creative decision to set the origin story in 1961, and depicting the setting as anything else would be treating the source material like garbage"

The 'boycott' reaction for Fantastic Four, and the appalling reaction from many to Janelle Asselin's critical assessment of a comic book cover, is another reminder (not that we need it) of the massive bigotry and insecurity that simmers under the surface of parts of our supposedly enlightened 21st Century 'western' world.

I was going to post a comment here about how a genuinely progressive move by Fox and Marvel would be to also cast (say) Lupita Nyong'o as Johnny Storm's sister Sue Storm.

But Zeba Blay at Shadow and Act has already done so, and far better than I could have done. So just read that instead.


Thursday, 10 April 2014

Home again

Nebraska (USA 2013)
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriter: Bob Nelson
Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa
Cast: Will Forte, Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach
Screening: Lighthouse Cuba

In Nebraska Woody (Dern) stubbornly tries to walk from his home state of Montana to the neighboring state of Nebraska because he believes he's won a million dollars, which he can collect at the relevant head office. His wife (Squibb) and sons Ross (Odenkirk) and David (Forte) know it's a some sort of magazine subscription scam (a la Readers' Digest).

David decides to resolve the impasse by agreeing to drive Woody to Nebraska to claim the purported prise. On the way, they stop at Woody’s old hometown where, against David’s advice, Woody tells a few people about his 'big win'. This prompts many of his old friends, family and acquaintances to do their best to remind Woody about what he supposedly owes them.

The family dynamics on display here are authentically realised. I especially appreciated the awkward distant family encounters, such as cousins only able to converse about car engine sizes and how fast they drove from one small town to another.

Nebraska is a film about people – in particular 'provincial', working class people - losing connections to the world around them as they grow older.

David and the rest of the family struggle to understand Woody's desire to pursue the apparent promise of a million dollars, thinking it's simply a case of a senile old man being gullible. While there’s obviously an element of truth to that, David eventually comes to recognise Woody’s self-realisation that, despite all he had been through in his long life (and that was quite a lot, as you'll see watching the film),  he had not actually stamped his own identity on even his small part of the world. Or at least, that's how Woody felt. This was his chance for a legacy.

Like a lot of classic American cinema, Nebraska has an uneasy relationship with some of the USA's salient ideals, in particular the much vaunted American value of individualism. Nebraska suggests that Woody's feelings of disconnection and insignificance were not merely the result of individual character failings, but were at least in part the result of the social structures and pressures around his working class milieu.

By the end of the film Woody has arguably, despite his delusion that he'd won a million dollars, handled those pressures much more nobly than many of his home-town residents who chased his winnings for much more selfish reasons. On the other hand, as Woody drives the new truck that David bought him in consolation for not winning the big prize, some of his old friends seem to be quite happy to simply wave at him appreciatively as he drives past. It's a happy ending, in a way, but also a reminder that a lot of the people chasing Woody's imaginary wealth weren't cartoonishly bad people, but were in fact not much different from Woody himself.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Gold standard

Eureka (UK/USA 1983)
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Screenwriter: Paul Mayersberg (based on a book by Marshall Houts)
Producer: Jeremy Thomas
Cast: Gene Hackman, Teresa Russell, Rutger Hauer, Jane Lapotaire, Mickey Rourke, Joe Pesci.
Screening: Paramount Cinema (Wellington Film Society)
In Eureka, determined prospector Jack McCann (Hackman) finds his fortune in gold in the Yukon, becomes one of the world's richest men, and buys his own Caribbean island ("Eureka"), where he discovers money can't by him happiness.

Based on the book "Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes?" by Marshall Houts, Eureka is an ambitious film by director Nicolas Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg. It features excellent performances from Hackman and Russell (playing McCann's daughter, who is also the wife of Claude).

Eureka is a study of greed and obsession, a treatise on the way realpolitik interweaves with family politics, and a searing critique of greed and capitalism.

It is also complete rubbish.

This is a shame, as somewhere under this cinematic failure is a potentially great film about the USA. Paul Thomas Anderson must have seen this - so parallel in many ways are the stories of Jack McCann and of Day-Louis' Daniel Plainview from 'There Will Be Blood'. (The "stricking gold; stricking oil" scenes early in each film are especially similar.)

But almost everything Anderson does right, Roeg does wrong. Roeg's stylistic affectations were never more distracting from the narrative - never more a challenge to the audience "suspending disbelief" and being lost in the film - than in Eureka. These affectations are at their worst in the first act, where they aren't just weird, but downright goofy.

The last act is also fails, although this more the fault of the screenplay itself than Roeg's direction of it. For example, the court scene where Rutger Hauer's Claude, defending himself from a murder charge, cross examines his wife Tracey (Russell), is a great idea for a climax. She has to essentially savage him as a person (and, more broadly, deconstruct all the issues and events in the film) as a way of demonstrating that he can't be guilty of murder. It's a great ruse, but (unlike some other scenes) badly written: repetitive, overlong and melodramatic. Russell's performance here is both suburb and yet absurd - but she can only work with what she's been given.

The middle act, in particular, had just enough wit, coherency, and intrigue to make me think this film had the makings of something strong. So much so that I couldn't bring myself to give this mess less than a two star rating on Letterboxed and 5 out of ten on IMDb . But that's the best I can do. Like Russell, I can only work with what I've got.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Yes, another blog about cinema

To kick things off, a quick look at the first four films of the Wellington Film Society's 2014 programme...

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, UK 2012)
The notion to build a horror film around a foley artist working on a horror film is genius - one the best "meta" or "postmodern" narrative ideas ever. The final result is sound (sorry) but not striking, mostly due to a third act and denouement that's interesting, but nothing more.

Esterhazy (Izabela Plucinska, Germany/Poland 2009)
Esterhazy, along with the companion film at the 10 March screening of the Wellington Film Society, Rabbit a la Berlin, is a short inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War (or so we thought - thanks Putin for bringing that one back up again!) and the fact that large rabbit populations were actually quite happy in the no man's land between East and West Germany.

Given my general dislike for both claymation and stories involving animal analogues for human issues, this film was never going to win me over in a major way. But there's enough charm in the efficient 25 minute runtime of this short to win me over... just a little.

Rabbit a la Berlin (Bartosz Konopka, Anna Wydra, Germany/Poland 2009)
Like Esterhazy, Rabbit a la Berlin makes a kind of social allegory out of the rabbits situated, indeed prospering, in the 'death zone' between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. In this case, the rabbits have it 'easy' and are somewhat stagnant as a society. Then the Wall comes tumbling down, and suddenly they are faced with change, displacement and other challenges.

The film was vaguely interesting, but the uneasy mix of quasi-faux documentary and almost-satire didn't really work. It ultimately failed as a work of unusual natural history, and it didn't give enough substance for the audience to get its teeth into the politics or social commentary.

Zazie dans la metro (Louis Malle, France 1960)
How to explain Zazie dans le metro to a modern audience? Caro et Jeunet meets Chuck Jones with a dash of the Zucker brothers' Top Secret.

Or something like that.

Based on the book by Raymond Queneau, the film features 10 year old Zazie, who has to stay in Paris with her Uncle Gabriel for two days while her mother spends some time with her new boyfriend. Zazie determines to explore Paris, in which she has various adventures, as her pursuers have various misadventures.

In many respects, Malle's film hasn't dated well. The frequent use of sped-up editing in particular now seems kind of naff, even in a comedy.

The story's little more than an assemblage of cartoonish set pieces, but it still manages to go from diverting to actually quite engrossing about two-thirds of the way through in the Eiffel Tower sequence, and the hypnotic jazz montage scene shortly after.

All screenings of the Wellington Film Society are at the Paramount Cinema.


ETA: My next post will be Thursday, 27 March for a review of NOAH.

ETA 2: I was so unmotivated by Noah that I have decided to leave that review till Sunday, 30 March. I'll post my Eureka review on Saturday.