Thursday, 20 November 2014
The opening scene of The Dark Horse is reminiscent of Scott Hicks' 1996 Oscar-winner, Shine: a mentally fragile man wandering the streets mumbling and rambling walks out of the rain and into a store, impressing patrons with his skills. Not on the piano, as was the case in Shine -- where Geoffrey Rush as David Helfgott tickled the ivories and went on to win a statuette -- but on the chessboard.
The man is Genesis (Cliff Curtis) who was once a chess prodigy but whom life has inflicted many a defeat upon; the former champion now man-child is a patient at a mental health facility. But a return to chess will be his redemption, and will also serve to inspire a younger generation in The Dark Horse, which could be dubbed a feel-good film albeit the kind that leaves bruises.
For while writer-director James Napier Robertson's film has plenty of light moments -- provided mostly by the wide-eyed yet troubled kids whom Genesis comes to inspire; coaching them to a national chess tournament -- there's plenty of dark too. Not just Genesis's mental health issues but the fraught relationship with his elder brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapi).
Ariki is the head of a gang which he hopes to see his son, Mana (James Rolleston), initiated into before his ailing health leaves the young boy fatherless. But the same Maori mythology which Genesis uses to inspire his young chess charges has been corrupted into a toxic ethos of machismo by the gang, which provided a family for Ariki when he was himself a boy and left to his own devices after his younger brother's removal into mental care.
But Genesis can see it is not the right path for his bright and inquisitive nephew; Mana already struggling in the early stages of his initiation at the hands of the gang's second-in-command, Mutt (Barry Te Hira). Relations inevitably turn ugly between the brothers in the tug-o-war for Mana's welfare.
You'll no doubt know Curtis from countless Hollywood roles where he usually plays the police officer or bad guy of indeterminate ethnicity but you'll barely recognise the New Zealand actor here. With his shaved scalp and pot belly, the handsome actor has eschewed vanity to portray the troubled hero. And he succeeds, by keeping the physical tics to a minimum but keeping Genesis's bruised yet hopeful heart on permanent display.
And the film's heart is on display too, even as the story becomes as muddled as Genesis in the third act, where the various dramas -- the chess tournament, Mana's future, Genesis's health -- compete for your attention and emotions. Robertson's moves may not always be judicious but the result, while no check mate, is a sweet victory all the same.
Wednesday, 19 November 2014
Although billed as a satire of Hollywood, David Cronenberg's latest film mostly uses that setting -- with its superficial, self-involved people and self-made heroes and charlatans -- to examine the empty and dysfunctional lives of some of those who call L.A. home: picking at the scars of their familial bonds and inherent psychosis for comic and dramatic effect with mixed results.
Agatha's scars are on show for the world to see. Newly-arrived from Florida, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) was disfigured by burns suffered in a house fire in her youth. She wears long, black gloves in the L.A. sun to hide most of the wounds but they are visible on her neck. And only less visible, just beneath her wide-eyed facade -- she's Twitter friend's with Carrie Fisher! -- are the mental and emotional wounds which she's come to Hollywood to heal.
Agatha's famous connection lands her a job as the chore-whore for Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an actress whose phone rings less and less now that she's reached middle age. Havana has her sights set on playing the role made famous by her infamous mother, who died young and beautiful (and in a fire no less), and who has begun haunting Havana as a result of some deep therapy sessions.
Those sessions are with Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a successful self-help guru with a high-powered clientele, and a wife, Christina (Olivia Williams), who plays stage mum to their teenage son, Benjie (Evan Bird). Benjie is also seeing ghosts, partly because his success as a child star has lost some of its gloss following the onset of puberty and a stint in rehab for substance abuse.
And there's also Jerome (Robert Pattinson), a struggling actor-writer who pays the bills driving a limo. But one suspcets Pattinson's role in Maps To The Stars has been included merely as a none-too-subtle reference to his previous collaboration with Cronenberg, where he played a Wall Street hot shot who spent the majority of that film (Cosmopolis) being driven round in a luxurious town car.
These lives become more and more messily entwined as history rears its ugly head and truth will have its day. Blood will out -- figuratively and literally -- in Cronenberg's film, working from a screenplay by Bruce Wagner, but it's only sporadically fun; the Hollywood name-dropping and pot-shots not nearly enough to counter the story's increasing darkness as almost every character's pysche begins to give way under the burden of the past.
Not surprisingly, Julianne Moore is 'best in show' in Maps To The Stars. You could almost feel sorry for her tragic screen heroine as she descends into old age (as defined by Hollywood), obscurity and madness if it weren't for the fact that Havana Segrand is as venal and selfish as they come; her delight in winning a coveted role as a result of tragic circumstances revealing her stunted emotional maturity and the depths of her self-absorption.
Not for nothing Moore won the Best Actress prize at Cannes earlier this year, and Havana Segrand receives her gong too in the film's most inspired, funny, unsubtle and shocking moment. And Cronenberg's film boasts all those elements but rarely in unison and not nearly consistently enough. Maps To The Stars, while never dull, also never leads to a satisfactory destination.
Monday, 17 November 2014
MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN follows the story of a group of high school teenagers and their parents as they attempt to navigate the many ways the internet has changed their relationships, their communication, their self-image, and their love lives. The film attempts to stare down social issues such as video game culture, anorexia, infidelity, fame hunting, and the proliferation of illicit material on the Internet. As each character and each relationship is tested, we are shown the variety of roads people choose - some tragic, some hopeful - as it becomes clear that no one is immune to this enormous social change that has come through our phones, our tablets, and our computers.
Thanks to Paramount Pictures, we have 5 double passes to MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN to be won. Keep an eye on our Twitter feed (@TheLennoXFiles) and the #MWC hashtag for your chance to win. Note: entries open to Australian residents only.
ONLY AT THE MOVIES NOVEMBER 27
©2014 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Saturday, 15 November 2014
Knowing that the third and final book in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy would be split into two films (just like those popular book-to-film franchises Harry Potter and Twilight before it), it should come as no surprise that Mockingjay Part 1 is all filler, no killer.
Not that hardcore fans of the books and films will be overly disappointed: they're ostensibly getting more bang for their buck, even if we all know it's a case of getting more bucks for the studio behind the franchise rather than doing justice to Collins' story.
Yet one feels churlish for complaining if the off-shoot of such economics means we get more of the heroics of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). The arrow-shooting backwoods beauty whose refusal to die -- twice now -- has made her a people's champion, both in Panem and the real world, where strong female representation in film -- and female heroines, super or otherwise -- remains sorely lacking.
Extracted by rebel forces during her second tour of duty in the kill-or-be-killed Hunger Games, Katniss now finds herself deep in the bowels of the subterranean facilities of what was once District 13. Bombed off the map by the Capitol, its people, led by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), have been stock piling weapons and preparing themselves for a war against the ruling class of Panem.
And with Katniss, they may finally have the weapon they need to unite all 12 other districts in an armed uprising against President Snow (Donald Sutherland). But Katniss, despite her skills with a bow and her knack for not dieing is no soldier. Her strength lies in what she represents: a symbol of hope, and it's this symbol which Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) hopes to exploit in a series of propaganda films, aimed at inspiring the downtrodden district-dwellers to take up arms and join the revolution.
So it is, Mockingjay Part 1 is a study of the machinations of war rather than the battles themselves. Both sides use media manipulation to state and sell their cause: the Capitol for stability and the status quo (and by means of Katniss's fellow District 12 competitor, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)); the rebels for freedom and democracy through the unadorned, open-hearted visage of Katniss.
And neither side is above fudging the facts nor aiming for the soft spot, whether that be the heartstrings or the throat. While Coin prefers hope, Snow knows fear is an even greater motivator. Democrat and Republican, perhaps?
This of course, intentional or not, has parallels with current world events and the ongoing 'war on terror'. Perhaps unintentional, for to apply that framework to Collins' narrative and Francis Lawrence's film (backing up as director after taking the reins on Catching Fire), Katniss and her fellow rebels -- including Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Finnick (Sam Claflin), Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), newcomer Boggs (Mahershala Ali), and Effie (Elizabeth Banks, bringing some much needed mirth to proceedings) -- are the insurgents, the radicals; the ISIS or al-Qaeda to the Capitol's decadent, hedonistic, and soulless West. (And try selling that to middle America.)
Unsurprisingly, not a whole lot happens, action-wise, in Mockingjay Part 1 but to its credit, the film is never dull (though most of what transpires could have conceivably been condensed so that the final installment was one 3-hour film). As it is, it's all build-up with no pay-off; foreplay with only the promise of a future satisfying climax.
That final installment is still 12 months away and will presumably (hopefully) succeed in wholly winning over hearts and minds. For now, Mockingjay Part 1 should appease The Hunger Games fans without necessarily converting anyone to the cause.