Sunday, 27 December 2015

Round VII

Creed






I confess I had never seen a Rocky movie before, nor been convulsing with the desire to before this month, and, for all those who find themselves in similar situations, the antidote to your vast lack of enthusiasm is Ryan Cooglers Creed. Sylvester Stallone returns as the Italian Philadelphian boxer, now retired, but the fight here belongs to Adonis Johnson, aka Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboas longtime rival, Apollo Creed. Coogler also co-wrote the script with Aaron Covington, and this is evidently a very personal project. I've written before that remakes, sequels, and otherwise formulaic stories are not aesthetically marked by that status, and do not signify a lower tier of cinematic quality, as some film pundits seem to continually suggest, and Creed is an exemplary illustration of my assertion.

The action kicks off in Los Angeles in a juvenile detention centre where the young orphan Adonis, an inmate, is in a fight with some other boys (all inmates are black). A woman comes to see the duly confined boy and offers to take him in. She is Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), Apollos widow, who has come to terms with his infidelity and intends to take care of his son. Adonis lives by his mothers name, Johnson, and we find him again as an adult, fast-tracked on a shimmering career path in banking, and boxing on a Mexican circuit on weekends. Mary Anne tries to discourage him, reminding him of the immense harm it caused his father (among many other horrible instances, Apollo Creed was killed in the ring), but still supports him in his decision to leave his job and California and pursue boxing in Philadelphia.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

The Fans Strike Back

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”




If, like me, you were under the impression that what George Lucas has by now compelled dozens of obliging actors into calling “the Force” was something of a Spinozian God, what a pantheist might call “Nature” or “the Universe,” you will no doubt be somewhat puzzled by the title of the new Star Wars film. Why would an impersonal deity ever have been asleep? However, if you’ve come to consider the Force of the title as a metaphor for the saga itself, or the thrust that drives the movie-making monolith, the title makes total sense, and couldn’t be further from an untruth. The series has lain dormant for at least 10 years, since the release of Episode III, The Revenge of the Sith, though many of the fans (who, as you know, comprise virtually all Anglophone populations around the globe) may contend that the last sparks of the immanent divinity were seen as far back as in 1983, when The Return of the Jedi rounded off the first trilogy in the franchise.

Star Wars is – and, since its initial arrival in 1977, always has been – a cartoon on a vast scale, in a live action format, infused with the odd coupling of a mystical underpinning and a post-60s humanist and revolutionary atmosphere. What George Lucas has furnished us with has never been anything like great cinema, or even rather good cinema, but a thin escapist fantasy that mass popularity and fanboy frenzy have sustained over three and a half decades. Admittedly it’s altogether successful in this regard, even for someone as resistant as I to the whole rigmarole – I never quite forgot I was watching a vast Wagnerian puppet show, though my surroundings and my home planet faded quickly enough from my consciousness, which was just as well considering all the noisy philistines the franchise seems to attract into the theatre.

NOTE WELL: While the single spoiler that follows is well marked, if you’d like to retain the surprise of watching the film for the first time, read no further until you’ve seen the film.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Spectral Success

“Spectre”




Laying it on thick has always been a popular approach at the movies. Filmmakers found it to be a possible means of expressing mounting pressure on the psychic front and studios learned that, if teased in a trailer, it can draw great numbers of moviegoers, eager for a couple of hours of diversion and sensual bombardment. Sometimes the trick works stunningly, as in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, in which Eva Green, smeared with red lipstick and wrapped in a tight red dress, struts about Collinsport, repeatedly appealing with ever-lowering necklines to the carnal interests of Johnny Depp. As the story and its small-town setting sank lower and lower into Gothic folly, Green’s lip-smacking torrent of histrionics surpassed the boundaries set by both Burton and Depp on every front. Sometimes it doesn’t work quite as well, as can be seen in a large number of films every year, which flop despite – or, more likely, because of – large and overbearing elements, sown together by swarms of producers for what is hoped to be maximum impact. As with everything at the movies, the success of the mode of overdoing it relies on the intuition of the filmmakers.

In Spectre, that intuition fails – most irreparably. Sam Mendes and the production team, following up on Mendes’s 2012 mega-hit Skyfall, wished to replicate that release’s success, and devised Spectre to be bigger and louder where Skyfall was big and loud, to stretch further where Skyfall had reached into James Bond’s family history, and to offer even more of the faux-seriousness, faux-darkness-and-ominousness, faux-character-detail that Skyfall had set up. I suspect what these filmmakers neglected to observe was that to further feed on audience hype and consumerist frenzy with a sequel, one should either make that sequel obligatory viewing by refusing to tie up loose ends in previous entries (as was done, rather necessarily, with the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings sagas), or leave audiences waiting an extravagantly long time for it (as was done, twice now, with the Star Wars franchise).

Sunday, 1 November 2015

High-Wire Acts

“The Walk”


Joseph Gordon-Levitt, perched on a wire more than 400 m above the ground, in "The Walk"

For the acrophobic, The Walk will prove to be more nightmarish than director Robert Zemeckis’s earlier film Flight, starring Denzel Washington, was for those afraid of flying. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Philippe Petit, who, while perched on the Statue of Liberty’s torch, narrates his daring plot – an entirely true story – to suspend a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and walk across it, over 400 metres above the ground.

Zemeckis, cinematic trickster that he is, wastes no opportunity for 3-D visual stunts in filming Petit’s charmingly French origin story, nor in his preliminary visits to the towers, still under construction, nor in the actual walk between them. We take Petit’s point of view, walking to a rooftop a few dozen metres away with a palpable void beneath; we take the crowd’s point of view from the street, surveying the ominous gap between themselves and the wire walker; we see him from above; we see him from below; we plunge down to the street and swoop back up the side of one tower; we move along the wire with him, praying for no lapses in his concentration nor in the load-bearing support of the wires. Petit’s stunt in 1974 took place over about 45 minutes, and though Zemeckis has trimmed this down somewhat, it’s still an awfully long time to be holding your breath.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Opening the Box

“Dis Ek, Anna”


Izel Bezuidenhout (as Anna), Nicola Hanekom, and Morne Visser in Sara Blecher's "Dis Ek, Anna"

Dis Ek, Anna opened throughout South Africa on Friday 23 October 2015, with one of the most anticipated releases ever for a South African film, mostly due to the popularity of the two books from which it’s adapted – Anchien Troskie’s Dis Ek, Anna (“It’s Me, Anna”) and Die Staat Teen Anna Bruwer (“The State vs Anna Bruwer”). The essential subject of the film is known to most people, whether or not they’ve read the book: Anna, as a 12-year-old girl, is repeatedly raped by her paedophile stepfather. The event that triggers the telling of her story is nearly as well known: Anna, as a 30-year-old woman, arrives at her stepfather’s house one evening, and when he answers the door she shoots and kills him. These are the two crucial facts of the film. Based on the anticipation among South African audiences for its release, stoked by the film’s screenings at the Durban International Film Festival in July and the Silwerskermfees in August (where it won Best Feature Film, Best Director, and Best Actor for Morné Visser) and the film’s overwhelmingly positive receptions there, most people have decided that its precisely what they’d like to go see.

Dis Ek, Anna is directed by Sara Blecher, who also directed Ayanda, which opened three weeks ago, and Otelo Burning, released in 2011. With Dis Ek, Anna she takes a clear stance of condemning child rape, but shows no perspective or even interest in the characters of her story. In any of the scenes where the stepfather, Danie (played by Morné Visser), molests or rapes Anna (Izel Bezuidenhout), Blecher’s camera tactfully moves into a position where nothing distasteful is shown, while still efficiently conveying all the necessary information. An obvious reason for this is that it would be illegal to show much more of Bezuidenhout – who is still a child – but Blecher has personal reasons as well. We can’t stand to see an adult man raping a young girl, and Blecher can hardly stomach the thought. She leads up to each instance of molestation bearing the notion that if we actually saw it, we would be repulsed, and probably even psychologically damaged in some way. Her images successfully convey, mostly pre-emptively, the horror she feels when she contemplates Danie’s actions. The outcry that broke out when Dis Ek, Anna was given the age restriction of 18 (SVLN) by the Film and Publication Board – for apparently containing images that may be considered pornographic – was just; there is no visible nudity in the film, and nothing in here is erotic or rousing. It’s the furthest from pornography any sex could be.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Stage Craft

“Venus in Fur”

This is one of my first reviews, written before I had a blog, when I first saw this movie. Youll notice disparities between my current writing and the writing found in this early work. I hope the difference reflects well, if not on me, at least on your judiciousness.

A moment from "Venus in Fur," hopefully hinting at the titillation on offer here

Like most great films, and indeed many good films, Venus in Fur, Roman Polanski’s latest endeavour, can inspire, and has inspired, a good deal of discussion on what it’s about: sex and power; art and life; the artifice of the theatre and how that helps the art form help us deal with our questions; the simultaneous logic and absurdity of desire, etc.

But why choose? And why not consider that it could also be about the film’s auteur, or at least that some understanding can be gained from looking at Mr Polanski’s life and career? A Holocaust survivor, an exile and a fugitive, a victim of great loss and suffering, a sex offender, Mr Polanski does not often play at autobiography in his films, but does seem to tackle, or at least engage with, some of his personal demons in his films. The film is based on the play by David Ives, which in turn in based on the 1870 Austrian novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masochs, from whose name and work we’ve derived the world “masochism”. That novel was based largely on the life and relationships of its author, and Mr Polanski has certainly left his mark on this adaptation. The female part, Vanda Jourdain, is played by his wife Emmanuelle Seigner, and her foil, Thomas Novachek, is played by Mathieu Amalric as an impersonation of his director, unless his diminished stature, nervous energy and neat haircut are all a coincidence.

Fairy Tales

“Maleficent”


This is, I believe, the first review I ever wrote, long before I considered starting a blog. Youll notice disparities between my current writing and the writing found in this early work. I hope the difference reflects well, if not on me, at least on your judiciousness.

The regal Angelina Jolie, grabbing attention and holding it with a firmer grasp than the all-share holds over a coke addict

In Maleficent, Disney’s new live-action release, the 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty gets the “Wicked treatment”, in which the well known tale is told from the perspective of its villain, providing a back story to explain her malice and inviting us to sympathise with someone we’ve been taught to distrust and despise. Unlike Wicked, however, Maleficent does not act as a parallel to its source, but is a re-telling, shifting the “good” and “bad” sides and giving an entirely different conclusion to the story.

If any of the early Disney classics were to be chosen for adaptation into a contemporary 3D CGI-laden blockbuster, Sleeping Beauty might just be the best choice. Often hailed as one of Walt’s best, it features magnificent stylised designs by the painter Eyving Earle, also the film’s art designer, giving it a truly unique look, a lush score by George Bruns, based on Tchaikovsky’s music for the ballet, moments of grandeur and one of the most menacing villains in the canon. It was also the first to be photographed and released in the 70mm-widescreen format and the last fairytale adaptation by the studio until The Little Mermaid, 30 years later, long after Walt Disney’s death. The visuals of this film, stunningly rendered by the photography crew and effects artists, don’t look like a photo-real copy of Earle’s gorgeous paintings, but rather like another rendition of the same universe. The forest has the same charming quaintness and calmness in its isolation from the castle, which has the same medieval austerity, though this time with a harsher atmosphere about it because of the people who inhabit it. The director, Robert Stromberg, was production designer on Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, and this film takes place in another rich dreamscape, though it’s a little less superbly bizarre than Avatar or Alice, because it professes to exist on our planet.

Looks Like Rain

Noah


This is one of my first reviews, written before I had a blog, when I first saw this movie. Youll notice disparities between my current writing and the writing found in this early work. I hope the difference reflects well, if not on me, at least on your judiciousness.

An example of a distinctive image in Aronofsky's idiosyncratic Biblical epic "Noah"

Nearly sixty years after the release of DeMille’s vast epic The Ten Commandments, and ten years after the significant success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Darren Aronofsky and Paramount have taken the sizeable risk of producing a biblical epic, the story taken directly from scripture, and releasing it as a major commercial feature.

Naturally, it took time to get the project backed and produced, with Aronofsky beginning work on the script in 2000, and continuing with it, along with his collaborator Ari Handel, intermittently between other ventures until they released it as a graphic novel in French in 2011, under the title Noé: Pour la cruauté des homnes (Noah: For the Cruelty of Men). After this was published, a deal was struck with Paramount for a budget of $130 million, still no mean sum in Hollywood terms.

I can report that Aronofsky’s persistence – and Paramount’s capital – have paid off… somewhat. The film, not without flaws, is mostly a success, in some ways a marvel, and often an entertaining work, not to mention one of the craziest big films in years. It’s not a subtle work, but Aronofsky has not aimed for restraint and understatement here. He’s made a film telling an ancient, archetypal story, loaded with celestial beings, centuries-old patriarchs, supernaturally-endowed plants and trees, sacred animals, divine retribution and, bizarrely, environmentalist fury. The parts of Noah that don’t work really and truly don’t. But the parts that do sweep you away entirely.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Out In Africa

While You Weren’t Looking


This article originally appeared in Perdeby, and is reprinted here with the editors permission.

Petronella Tshuma and Thishiwe Ziqubu as lovers from the opposite sides of the tracks in Catherine Stewart's "While You Weren't Looking"

The thesis of Catherine Stewart’s new film While You Weren’t Looking, which opened on 2 October, is made explicit by the lovelorn gay lecturer Mack (Lionel Newton), who tells his students, “If you can ‘queer’ gender, you can ‘queer’ anything.” He means that the broad-mindedness of the openly homosexual, bisexual, and sexually explorative characters in the film – as well as those who approvingly accept them – is precisely what is required for South African society to move into the non-racial, non-sexist, progressive state to which it aspires.

Noble though the film’s position be, it fails to match this vision with artistry. With its clumsy dialogue and artificial performances, the film doesn’t take a sympathetic look at the lives of queer South Africans as much as it retreads jaded stereotypes – the gay art lovers, the gaudy feather boas – and tries (and fails) to kindle discussion on the problems they face. We have a gorgeously inclusive Constitution, as the characters assert, but in spite of this – or, perhaps, because of it – problems still arise.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Off the Rails

Trainwreck


Subway smooches

Having been newly appointed as a journalist for the Entertainment section of Perdeby (the campus newspaper for the University of Pretoria), when I watched Judd Apatow's new film Trainwreck, I was delighted to have finally found a mainstream movie with a main character to whose career I could relate, in more than an entirely broad and admittedly minimal sense. “What?” you ask in amazement; “There aren’t hundreds of movies out there with Trotskyist dialectical humanist aesthetes and aspiring polymaths with a view to a career in the actuarial discipline, who also possess a distinct disdain for the chores and responsibilities of academic training?” It is difficult to believe, I grant you, but Selznick simply wasn’t making those movies then, and Spielberg isn’t making them now. And, though I have certainly seen movies before now that feature journalists - and loved some, such as All About Eve, which features a journalist doing pretty much the job I shall be doing (a little less sardonically than he, I hope) - I wasn’t a journalist when I watched them. Now, having started a blog and having been assigned the task of writing articles on certain topics by certain dates, I have a new appreciation for the work done by Amy Townsend (the protagonist of Trainwreck, played by Amy Schumer), and some sympathy for the difficulties she faces doing it.

I definitely must state, for the shorthand record, that my delight in Trainwreck is not mainly because of this coincidence in job titles, nor was it the main source of my excitement to see the film. That would be, firstly, that it is directed by Judd Apatow, one of my favourite and one of the finest filmmakers active in mainstream cinema today, and, secondly, because it stars - and was written by - Schumer, no doubt the funniest and most talented young lady currently working in American comedy. And the film delivers on the expectations of his and her breathlessly ardent fans: Trainwreck is crafted and polished throughout with Apatow’s remarkable good sense and flair for tone, placing the camera in an optimal position and keeping it there until the frame is filled with his ideas and his images; and the crisp, tremendously funny dialogue and one-liners is worthy of the best of Schumer’s routines and sketches on her Comedy Central show, Inside Amy Schumer.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Wise Guys

DVD Notes: “GoodFellas”


Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, and Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's gangster epic "GoodFellas"

On this day, the 19th of September, 1990, the first audiences were shown Martin Scorsese’s newest film, GoodFellas, based on a true story of a life in the mob, and rounding off a decade of a few commercial disappointments in the star director’s career, despite the continued support for him from most critics and his overwhelming beginning to the decade with – what I maintain is his greatest cinematic achievement – Raging Bull. But GoodFellas proved a success – commercially and especially critically – and began a new decade with rays of hope (for his career, that is – no one doubted the quality of his output) for the man whom it was now something of a cliché to call “America’s finest filmmaker”.

Scorsese really was America’s finest filmmaker, and, I affirm, retains that title today, though not on his own – he shares it with Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, To the Wonder) and Wes Anderson (whom, incidentally, Scorsese named as “the next Scorsese” a few years after the release of GoodFellas). And GoodFellas remains one of his most popular films. (Perhaps the most popular, but it’s difficult to compare public opinion of works released over a range of more than 40 years.) It’s the movie people kept talking about for a decade and a half – with many naming it as the best movie of the 90s – until Scorsese finally won his single Oscar for The Departed, when the conversation changed to something like, “I rather like The Departed… He should have won for GoodFellas, though.” It was quite right, I should think, for moviegoers to hold his earlier hit in a little higher esteem than his Bostonian remake, but since his Academy Award victory he’s surpassed even the achievement of GoodFellas with the triad of Shutter Island, Hugo, and The Wolf of Wall Street. These are the films of post-LaMotta Scorsese that stain the moviegoer’s imagination, and haunt his consciousness.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Big Dreams

DVD Notes: “Hairspray


John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky, in one of the less naturalistic moments of "Hairspray"

Movie musicals go as far back in cinema history as recorded sound does: the very first feature film with a synchronised soundtrack, The Jazz Singer, was a musical, and opened a floodgate to a torrent of musicals, with literally dozens being released in the mainstream cinema every year for the next few decades. This spate abated a little in the 60s, but has never died down, and today we're still being treated to more than a mere trickle in mainstream fare. Just last year, movie musicals released included AnnieThe Book of Life, Get On Up, Into the WoodsJersey BoysLegends of Oz: Dorothy's Return, Muppets Most Wanted, Rio 2, and Sunshine on Leith.

Obviously the genre warrants, indeed requires, a fair degree of stylisation; it would strain most audiences' credulity if actors, playing completely natural characters in a respectably natural environment, were to interrupt their colloquialisms and street-corner philosophies with a pop ballad or tap dance. The exception, obviously, is the entirely naturalistic musical in the mode of Once and Begin Again, where the characters perform songs as part of the story, and the modest songs are not composed as an escape from unadorned reality.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Cutting Down to Size

“Ant-Man”



Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, embodying superhero grandeur

When we heard of Marvel Studios’ overarching plans for a film series adapted from a few of their comic books, and we heard the number of films to be made and released as part of the series, and we heard that this series would not be known as a franchise but, rather dauntingly, as a Universe, I’m sure there was more than a handful of us who blanched. As we all know, a Bond film every two or three years makes for the right blend of lasting interest and good taste, with just enough disdain shaken in, and no stirring up of desperation. At least one massive CGI-laden blockbuster every six months threatens, initially, a bombardment, and, afterwards, a stream of discrete non-events. For if every entry is a spectacle and a gratifying thrill, then soon enough none of them is all that spectacular nor all that thrilling. We had also learned, from the few superhero movies made before this mighty plan was announced, that the ignorant among us are not often provided for in a superhero movie’s exposition. Of course, by now, even the unschooled heathen such as myself have learned that the hoary, leathery pensioner who ubiquitously crops up in each entry is none other than Stan Lee, whose imagination we have to blame or to thank for the recent insurgence; and that no vat of toxic waste (a trusty MacGuffin if ever there was one) is ever far away enough from a Hollywood star to allow the incredulous among us to settle comfortably in our seats. But still I found, with equal measures of annoyance and disconcertment, that I was required to have seen Iron Man (preferably along with its sequel), some attempt at a film about The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America before watching The Avengers – or at least be familiar with the premises and outcomes of each of these films – unless I wished to be deprived of much of my sure footing for most of that amalgamate film’s setup.

And, now having completed Phase 2 of the overall scheme, the critical reaction to the results seems not to have been overly joyous, though box office success persists. Critics have repeatedly complained of replicated plots and storylines, of thin and uninteresting characters, of over-reliance on digital imagery, and of a general (and, if I may say so, vaguely demonstrated) breakdown in culture. I do not align myself with these consensus critical views: I have written that conventional and simplistic storylines are not inherently weak; I find that a character does not only consist of the text he or she speaks, but also of the actor’s performance, and these have not been found wanting nearly as often or as dismally as some critics would have you think; I think any filmmaker is entitled to use as much digital imagery as he deems necessary or suitable, and this also is not in itself a weakness; and I don’t see how this titanic influx of films to our theatres is in any way a depletion of culture. It’s absurd to think, as it seems some critics do, that if there weren’t Marvel blockbusters, or at least not so many, that those who flock to see them would instead be going to see black and white Polish films about nuns, or adaptations of Thomas Hardy novels. Rather, Marvel is keeping audiences gazing at screens instead of looking away.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The Psyche of Gotham

DVD Notes: “Batman Returns”





In Batman Returns, Tim Burton’s 1992 sequel to the initial instalment in the Warner Bros.’ Batman series, starring Michael Keaton as Gotham City’s chiropteran custodian, Burton and his writers give us three separate villains: the domineering and greedy tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken); the trust-fund miscreant, penguinly-constituted to an indeterminate degree, Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito); and the wily vixen, posing as the diffident secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer). But this is not the unwieldy overcrowding of Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (with the unsavoury threesome of Electro, The Green Goblin, and Rhino); rather, when Batman is added to the mix, it’s the staging of an eerie fantasy, a ménage à quatre, complete with leather and psychosis. Imagine, if Emma Stone, as Gwen Stacy, had swathed herself in skin-tight red latex, contorting and unfolding in all imaginable directions, how much good it would have done for the morale of the endangered citizens of New York, not to mention the stamina of Peter Parker.

Each of these unambiguously nasty pieces of work shares with Batman/Bruce Wayne the trait of a dual personality. Shreck’s case is simple and miserably common: he has the businessman's smiling and charming public persona for the people of Gotham, but ruthlessly plots capitalist thievery from them in his board room meetings. Meanwhile, in the less genteel parlours of Gotham City, Cobblepot prefers to travel under a mononym: Penguin. Where Cobblepot (a scam) is an unfortunately misshapen, yet tender and benevolent man, Penguin is a coarse, lecherous, avaricious crime boss, more fiendish fowl than foul human. And Selina Kyle, when she finds herself hors de combat due to a forceful act of Shreck’s (not the usual one you’d expect a CEO to foist upon his secretary), instead of taking a sick day, assumes a feline alter ego, endowed with eight lives to spare. She calls her doppelgänger Catwoman, fixes sharp nails on to the gloves of her new, shimmering black leather suit, and prowls the night in brilliant red lipstick, condescending with equal disdain upon greasy male criminals and their helpless female victims.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Lack of Christianity in “God’s Not Dead”

“God’s Not Dead”




A problem faced by Christian artists – not only filmmakers, but also poets, painters, and rappers – arises from the idea that a believer’s faith encompasses their entire identity, and so their work: where faith is fixed, is there room for invention? Does a Christian filmmaker have a peculiar and personal worldview to imbue his films with, distinct from that of other Christians? Can he create, embellish, or discover a self by way of cinema, where Christianity has not already provided for this? The very best devotional art would argue in the affirmative, and the music of Bach, the poems of John Donne, and films such as Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder prove some of the most daring and original, while also profound and heartfelt works existing. To contradict Dr Samuel Johnson, great minds and great wit do not sink under the heft of the good and evil of eternity, not merely content with calm belief and humble adoration.

Unfortunately, Harold Cronk, the director of the overtly Christian film God’s Not Dead, seems no great wit at all. I’m not aware if Cronk is Christian himself, but the film’s subject and story allow for no other stance. The main plot, a sort of update of the David and Goliath tale, is simple enough, both immediately obvious in purpose, and ludicrous in conception. A first year university student, Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), aspiring lawyer and devout evangelical, enrols in a philosophy course taught by the zealously atheistic Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo). Intent on not disappointing astute forecasters in the audience (and those of us who saw the trailer), the two partisans collide, in the first class no less. Radisson – obnoxious, high-handed, and fanatically protective of his reputation – requires each student in the class to hand in a signed statement of just three words: “God is dead.” He insists that anyone who disagrees will have no luck in arguing to the contrary, and a failing grade surely awaits anyone who tries. This consensus affirmation, he claims, is in the interest of efficiency, so that a section of the syllabus, with a conclusion agreed upon by millennia of respected philosophers, may be gotten through with minimum fuss. Josh refuses to hand it in, citing his faith, and Radisson commands that Josh must then contend his case over three lectures, with the class deciding the winner.

Friday, 24 July 2015

What I See in “House of Cards”

“House of Cards”


Kevin Spacey as the deliciously corrupt Frank Underwood, first a leader in Congress, then a leader in the White House

The problem with television, expressed briefly in an op-ed piece by film critic Armond White for the New York Times, is that, being made for screens meant to fit into the average living room or bedroom, the creators of a show are not as driven to artfully reflect their ideas and their vision in the images of the show as filmmakers are with a movie. The view is that there is literally too little space to fill the screen with the representation of a director's consciousness, and rather than focusing too intently on composition of shots, on peculiar performances, on mise en scène, the show runner concentrates effort on a continuous and compelling story, because that is what can be sustained, and where a viewer's interest can hope to be held, for a three-episode, or twelve-week, or seven-year run. Story is the triumph of television, and a show's chief creative force is not the director, but the writer. White refers to what many commentators are calling the current state of affairs being broadcast on our home appliances: “the golden age of television”.

Nothing beats the big screen. Simply put: Film is a visual art form and television is merely a visual medium. It’s generally accepted that television is a producer’s, or show runner’s, format, where content is developed to support advertising, but all this talk about “television’s golden age” overlooks the fact that television has never proven to be a medium for artists – or auteurs – who express themselves personally and, primarily, visually.

Although White is not the most revered critic alive, he is a strongly idiosyncratic one, and a highly intellectual one, and he speaks with great honesty and, though many would pettily dispute it, reverence for cinema. From these comments on television (mine, and White's which I've shown here), you've no doubt sussed out where the title of this post is going - the merit I find in House of Cards which is absent in many other series (including a number which I do enjoy, and wolf up expeditiously, such as Game of Thrones, House, CSI, Parks and Recreation, Friends, and my favourite of all, 30 Rock) is the attention given to the images that appear on the screen. Not to put too fine a point on it, what I see in House of Cards is what I see on House of Cards.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

No Ground Broken

"San Andreas"


A minor consequence of the shift along the eponymous fault line in "San Andreas"

In “San Andreas,” we are introduced to a Caltech seismologist named Lawrence Hayes (played by Paul Giamatti), who informs a documentary director (Archie Panjabi) – for the audience’s benefit – of a new method he and a colleague have developed, which predicts earthquakes along known fault lines. And, he grimly pronounces into her camera, a cataclysm is on its way to California that will crack the earth open, and be felt thousands of miles away. But, for all his gloomy portent and geological savvy, Professor Hayes failed to foresee the coming of The Big One, the earth-shatterer that will irreversibly alter whatever landscape it happens upon.

Its name is Dwayne Johnson (“The Rock”) – the only actor who looks bigger than whatever car or aircraft he’s just stepped out of. He plays Ray, an Air Rescue pilot, whom we meet at the opening, in a thrilling sequence where he tips his helicopter side to side, to fly into a crevasse where he must save the distressing damsel whose car has tumbled down. It’s a manoeuvre of great daring and jaw-dropping skill, as well as a stratospheric decibel-count, which nicely sets the tone and volume level for the next 100 minutes. Who would think, after witnessing Ray’s heroic deeds, that he is the one in need of rescue? In the wake of the loss of their one daughter, he and his wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), have become estranged, and he rarely sees the surviving daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Divorce papers are delivered to him, and he discovers that Emma is moving in with an architect, Daniel (Ioan Gruffud).

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Mirth at a Funeral

DVD Notes: “Bernie”


Jack Black as the jolly assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede, pampering a widow before murdering her

Bernie is a cavalcade of small town accents, mannerisms and sensibilities. The director, Richard Linklater, along with his screenwriter, Skip Hollandsworth, not only colour in what was already a fine and detailed and, importantly, fascinating illustration with the amount of attention they give peripheral characters in this bizarrely true story, but they lay a glossy finish over it, and display it with the height of dignity and delight. Linklater is not the Coen brothers, who, in films like Fargo, paint ironic and deriding pictures of the middle-American people among whom they grew up, satirising their civility and sending up their idiosyncrasies. Linklater clearly has tender feelings for the people and places he films – important dramatic characters, and townspeople alike.

Bernie is based on a true story. I’ll try not to spoil much of it (but in my view, the pleasures of the film do not lie in the basic plot details). In it, we are told of an assistant funeral director in the town of Carthage in East Texas (“the Number One small town in Texas,” we are authoritatively informed) named Bernie Tiede (Jack Black). Linklater spends a significant portion of the film’s running time sketching in this oddly charming man for us, essentially as a brilliant performer. He arrives from out of town, and soon becomes a pillar of the community, knowing exactly how to behave for the bereaved, knowing how to sell an act (and make a sale) to the residents he comes into contact with, and a dedicated and fastidious aesthete, painstakingly preparing corpses for burial with cosmetics, and pursuing the greatest luxuries he can get his hands on.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

For the Fans

"Jurassic World"


The same logo as before

Think: a situation with a new malevolent dinosaur, even larger and more dangerous than the Tyrannosaurus Rex (like Jurassic Park III), but on the same island and with a similar - albeit much larger - commercial setup to the park in Jurassic Park, and with a feisty redhead female lead, just like Jurassic Park II. Also, Andy from Parks and Recreation takes on another dauntlessly heroic leading man role (so a type of Guardians of the Galaxy: Redux) and no character has learnt from the mistakes made by characters in any of the previous films (something like all of the Jaws sequels). The dialogue is mostly a signifier, and often redundant, sometimes even nonsensical (there're too many Michael Bay films to name here in comparison), but the action is often fun to watch - provided you remain emotionally detached from everyone and everything - and the vast and wanton destruction brought about seems a rather cynical move on the part of the filmmakers (Michael Bay again). Nick, of New Girl fame, tries to score with the female prison guard from Orange is the New Black, fails dismally, and is brutally emasculated by the bitchy Hilly from The Help. Stand by for sexless sexual frustration and cock-blocking (of a 16-year-old by his 12-year-old brother), and unromantic romance between the rugged dinosaur trainer and the cold and clinical corporate executive (basically all romantic comedies). There's nothing here you haven't seen, heard, or felt before, and nothing at all to stop you from partaking in the cultural (secular) sacrament of vaulting a vapid, stinted, and unimaginative commercial product to the cinematic event of the year.

For the General Movie-Goer

"Jurassic World"


A logo

There are dinosaurs and they eat everyone.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

The Sustained Silence in "Seun"

"Seun"



Seun is currently showing in theatres.

The new film by Darrell Roodt (who gave us Cry, the Beloved Country, Yesterday, and Jakhalsdans) takes as its subject the conscription of newly matriculated young men for the Bush War. At least, the recruitment of one matriculant (Deanre Reiners), in 1982. The boy’s name is Paul, and the film opens on his return home to his family’s farm in the Karoo from boarding school in Pretoria. He returns to a doting, protective mother (Elzette Maarschalk), and a quietly proud, but emotionally distant father (Chris de Clerq). Also waiting for him is Annemarie (Candice Weber), a daughter of one of the local couples, and ostensibly an old friend of Paul’s. We find that, while in front of their parents they’re polite and civil, the two are lovers (chaste, when we meet them), giggling over secret little notes and skinny-dipping together in the farm’s reservoir. They have only a few weeks together, however, before Paul must report for duty, sending him away to fight “those terrorists” for two years.

If, like me, you felt a small welcome shock at hearing of a movie about the South African conscripts (because not nearly enough literature or documentary on the topic exists), you are in for rather a disappointment in this film. If, again like me, you crave films that bravely take on an idea or a subject and artfully, stunningly bring about the realisation, the recognition, the heightening in your consciousness of that idea or subject, regardless of the setting and circumstances, you, too, should prepare yourself for discontent and regret here.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Lucy in the Mire, But Still With Diamonds

DVD Notes: “Across the Universe”


Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood indulge in an entirely sober make-out session

Along with the wave of new musical films that arrived with the new millennium after the genre had lain dormant for over a decade – Dancer in the Dark, Chicago, Dreamgirls, etc. – came the prominence of a subgenre, perhaps a companion to the new trends in pastiche and irony (of which Pulp Fiction was of course the greatest proponent): the jukebox musical. The jukebox musical is a musical which uses popular songs as its musical score, often with something in common, such as the original performing artist or recent billboard performance. The songs are strung together in a contrived context. Think Mamma Mia! and Moulin Rouge: shameless romance, character ludicrously breaking into song at the most awkward moments, a preposterous plot, often incoherent and wildly inconsistent in tone – and we can never get enough of it.

Monday, 4 May 2015

The Birth of Hollywood, in Blood and Guts

DVD Notes: “The Birth of a Nation”


The thrilling ride of the KKK in D.W. Griffith's momentous war epic "The Birth of a Nation"

This year marks the centenary of the release of D.W. Griffith’s Civil War epic, generally regarded as the first major feature-length film – which would make this year the centennial year for feature-length narrative cinema. This blog is specifically devoted to this art form, and this would be an unfortunate milestone to pass up, and the film would be an unfortunate entry to be omitted. Regrettably, the film is also an unfortunate one to be included. Much has been written on the offensive and pernicious portrayals of black people in this film, which have been seen as such since the day of the film’s release. I say this is unfortunate, because it is in this spirit of prejudice and intolerance that modern cinema was born, and the very worst thing about this film and its offensiveness is that it’s an aesthetically brilliant achievement. (Richard Brody says as much in his blog post on the film, which can be read here.) It’s a great pioneering work, which made much of today’s cinema possible, and established many techniques and devices that have been used universally to great effect in the last century. Roger Ebert wrote of it, “The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.” We can, and probably should, hate this film for what it is, but we (movie goers and filmmakers alike) and our cinematic heritage are ineluctably in its debt for much of what we love.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Drollness of Dolls

DVD Notes: “Toy Story 2”


Woody, Bull's-Eye, and Jessie, like hipsters, play with a vinyl record amid 20th century paraphernalia

The sequel to the altogether cheery and beloved Toy Story, Pixar’s first release and surprise hit film, begins with a sequence which is the stuff of a 10-year-old’s nightmares, fed by a nourishing diet of video games and modern television. We’re brought out of this quickly enough into Pixar’s customary brightness, but soon taken into a real nightmare of one of the characters. While these two sequences take up relatively little of Toy Story 2’s brisk hour-and-a-half, they effectively serve to set up a tone of slightly more self-consciousness towards entertainment and play-time than we had in the first film, both directed by John Lasseter.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Stillbirth of a Nation

“Dear White People”


The Black Students Union, led by Tessa Thompson, objects to stereotypical fare at the local movie house

Dear White People is the debut effort of writer and director Justin Simien, a pertinent satire of racial politics and identity set in a success-oriented Ivy League school in the US – perhaps too pertinent for its own good. We’re presented with four black students: Samantha White, a Visual and New Media major (Tessa Thompson), Troy Fairbanks, Political Sciences (Brandon Bell), Coco Conners, Economics (Tenoyah Parris), and Lionel Higgins, Undeclared (Tyler James Williams). Each represents a different reaction to the mass society perception of them, which, not to put too fine a point on it, is largely – perhaps nearly exclusively – influenced by their race.

The film puts forward four methods of identification taken by black people in this environment, each demonstrated by one of these characters, and shows just how difficult it is for such a black person no matter what course of action they choose. They could champion and assert their blackness, taking pride in their distinct ethnic endowment, but this would lead to marginalisation and even hostility from white racists. They could try to bend their behaviour, appearance and carrying to conform to white culture – “lose the ’hood” as one character says rather condescendingly – resulting in disdain from other blacks, and also a particular aloofness from the whites to whom they seem to aspire. They could take a more fluid position, modulating their blackness up or down depending on their audience, and be sneered at by more resolute individuals (Sam derisively calls these Bojangle-types “ooftas” in her book on racial politics at the school, “Ebony and Ivy”). And there are those who’ve taken no designated course, hoping to remain relatively unscathed by conflict and politics, and spared the nuisance of being placed in a category, but they are just as marginalised and singled out as the rest, or even more so. And to be such a student, as well as being gay, makes it all the more difficult. (We presume the gay black student – spectator rather than participator for much of the story – is the stand-in for the black Simien, who publicly announced his homosexuality when the film was released.)

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Quickness and Quintessence

“Fast & Furious 7”


Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriquez, Vin Diesel, Tyrese Gibson, Nathalie Emmanuel and Ludacris take on Abu Dhabi in evening wear

In a number of ways, I think the car movie – movies concerning themselves with the sensual allure of automobiles, movies set on highways and racetracks, and movies in which the final frontier is ever higher and higher speeds – is cinema’s answer to literature’s pulp fiction. Both evade character development and strong political or social statements for a gripping narrative and for an ephemeral thrill in a reader or viewer. Both are often scoffed at by high-minded critics and art-lovers, but bolted down by the larger public, copiously and repetitively. And, while car movies, particularly in recent years, have been more blatantly commercial than hardboiled detective novels ever were, both have yielded works of enormous entertainment and fascination, with merit enough to challenge the views of the snobbish and provide more enjoyment than high-brow, more ambitious pieces – merits which cannot be dismissed even by those who jeer at the mass appeal of the unashamedly mercantile. It’s tempting for me to tell you here that the car movie reaches its apotheosis in Fast & Furious 7, but that would be exaggerating a little. And anyway, as I said in my introduction to this blog, there’s (probably literally) a myriad of important films I’ve yet to see, many of them decades – or even a century – older than this one, and so I cannot begin to conjecture on what the apex of any genre might be. (I’m given to understand, based on the many critical pieces I’ve read, that at least one of the greatest car movies by general cinephilic consensus is Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 classic, Breathless, as yet unseen by this eager spectator.)