Wednesday, 6 April 2016

FILM REVIEW: WHERE TO INVADE NEXT



Madman Films

You either like Michael Moore and his brand of politics or you don't. The good news for those who don't, is that you can enjoy his latest documentary as less a polemical exercise and more of a travelogue. In Where To Invade Next, Moore, Democrat, documentarian and citizen journalist, travels throughout Europe -- and dips into North Africa -- to take a snap shot at what social policies various countries are employing to make them succeed; policies he wants to claim for America and bring them back home as the 'spoils of war'.

Moore readily admits that he's cherry picking on his expedition; picking out the best bits from each country and not focusing on their failings. That's why we feel just a tad jealous at Italy's seemingly plethora of paid vacations and public holidays, and five months of paid maternity leave; why we're a little skeptical of Portugal's leniency on drug-related offences; why we look on in awe at Norway's penitentiary system, where "maximum security" doesn't mean what it does in most other countries, especially America; and why you can't help but get a little teary-eyed at the way the teachers in the Finnish education system wholeheartedly embrace their role, not just for molding young minds but for producing well-rounded people.

Then there's free university education in Slovenia, for locals and foreign students; and the ways in which the equality of women has impacted so strongly on both Tunisia (yes, Islamic Tunisia) and Iceland, a country which elected its first female president back in 1980, and which is one of the few countries to jail those (men) responsible for the the 2008 global financial crisis.

Like Donald Drumpf, Michael Moore wants America to be great again. Unlike Drumpf, Moore is sincere. Sadly, in America, where corporations rule and equality is often equated with Communism, that doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon. Not even if Moore's preferred candidate in the upcoming presidential elections, Bernie Sanders, were to cause major upsets by defeating fellow Democrat, Hillary Clinton, and then Republican front runner, Drumpf, to set his "revolution" in motion. (One doubts Americans will be 'feeling the Bern' anytime soon.)

Of course, a more balanced investigation would have also looked at the negative aspects of each of these countries' social policies, and one could argue that, if so inclined, Moore's exercise could have produced an incisive television series where each week he looked at a country's good and bad aspects and how they could be applied to the United States.

As it is, Where To Invade Next is an eye-opening, pleasant if overly long edu-vacation. You'll love what you see in the brochure, but you'll have to abandon the tour group and your guide, Mr. Moore, to get a sense of what each country really has to offer.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

FILM REVIEW: SHERPA



Transmission Films

Did you see last year's real-life disaster film Everest? Other than Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Jason Clarke and a New Zealand-accented Keira Knightley, do you recall any of the actors playing the Sherpas? The mountain guides assisting the Westerners mounting the summit of the world's largest mountain. Or the names of any of the Sherpa characters? No, me neither.

For whatever reason -- plot economics; conscious or unconscious erasure of 'the other'-- the Sherpas' story wasn't deemed important enough to the narrative being told, even if, truth be told, no narrative about Western climbers on Everest -- from Edmund Hillary onwards -- would have been possible without them.

Jennifer Peedom's documentary, Sherpa, seeks to redress this imbalance; telling the story of the villagers -- and one man in particular, Phurba -- who risk life and limb every year to escort hundreds of Westerners to the top of the world (and for a fraction of the money which the Nepalese government makes from the very lucrative tourist trade).

These men know that with each climb they may not return to their families, but they also know that one or two good climbs a season will provide enough money to see them through the year.

The Sherpa are a dignified and peaceful people, but in 2013, some of them retaliated violently towards their Western employers when they were verbally disrespected. Since then, tensions between the Sherpas and the climbers have been frosty, and when a disaster of great magnitude strikes on the mountain the following year (the year that Peedom fortuitously decided to follow their story), not-so old and decades old resentments -- bubbling away since 1953, when Tenzing Norgay lead Hillary to the top and was all but forgotten for his efforts -- resurface.

Peedom's film is an examination of a little-known culture; a clash of cultures between the Sherpa and Western entitlement; and between the old Sherpa and the young. It also looks at the necessary evil of economics which makes for not-so-happy campers.

Beautifully shot (cinematographers Hugh Miller, Renan Ozturk and Ken Sauls shot more than 400 hours of film), Sherpa presents both sides of the Sherpa-Westerner relationship, although you'll be hard-pressed to come out of the screening feeling any kind of sympathy for the tourists.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

FILM REVIEW: BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE



Roadshow Films

If, as they say, we get the politicians we deserve – and boy, must we have been collectively awful of late – then we probably get the superheroes we deserve, too. And judging by Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder's second foray into the world of the Man of Steel (following 2013's film of that name), audiences again are about to suffer a form of karmic retribution that will leave many asking themselves 'what the hell did we do to deserve this?'.

Well, given the box office success of superhero films over the past decade (mostly Marvel), including that of the much-maligned Man of Steel, the answer to that question would be plenty. And Zack Snyder is very much the school bully, pinning you down and slapping you with your own hand whilst teasing 'stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself'. Like it or not, we've consented to the superhero masochism and BvS is the latest punishment.

Picking up 18-months after the events of Man of Steel and the destruction of Metropolis – caused as a result of the smackdown between Superman (Henry Cavill, aesthetically appropriate yet dull as dishwater) and General Zod (Michael Shannon), which levelled a great deal of the CBD – the world's opinion is divided on the Caped Crusader: hero of the people or a law unto himself? A congressional committee chaired by plain speaking Kentuckian, Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), seems to be swaying towards the latter while Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, pumped-up but sleepwalking), who watched helplessly as his company's Metropolis headquarters and those inside perished during that Kryptonian rumble, is very much of the Nietzschean opinion that this god must die.

Hence, it only takes a little maneuvering by tech millionaire Alexander 'Lex' Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, whose performance is either really good or really bad?) to fan the flames of tension between Superman and Batman, although it requires a really lame reason to get the two to finally duke it out; writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer are as equally to blame as Snyder for this not-so-super mess.

The actual showdown between the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight doesn't occur until the third act and takes up less than 20 minutes of the film's 153-minute running time. Before then, Snyder's not sure if he's directing a Superman film with a Batman subplot or vice versa, but to finish things off, or sweeten the deal, he unveils Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman (not showing much promise for next year's solo outing, although fingers crossed director Patty Jenkins has something up her sleeve).

Wonder Woman's there as part of the climactic battle, with a revived but mutated Zod, now known as Doomsday, and where an orgy of destruction, similar to the one which underscored Man of Steel's awfulness, is repeated here to even more bludgeoning effect. (Snyder heard your complaints, he just doesn't care!)

And unless you're a die hard fanboy with low standards, you won't care much either. Who wins, who loses; who lives, who dies. Whatevs. Granted these are comic book characters of superhuman strength but shouldn't we at least care about the titular outcome? Or what it is they're fighting for? Presumably that's humanity, their own if not ours, but Snyder and his heroes fail to inject any real human odds into this monumental showdown. Other than the studio's coffers, there are no winners here.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

MINI-REVIEW: THE WITCH



Universal Pictures

Set in 1630, decades before the Salem witch trials in ye olde America, The Witch sows the seeds of what is to come for the god-fearing folk of New England in a period-precise though historically liberal retelling of events on the American frontier. That detail goes a long way in making the world of The Witch both highly believable and increasingly claustrophobic; debut director, Robert Eggers, who previously worked as a costume and production designer, getting both the look and feel of film just right whilst also keeping us almost as completely in the dark as the family at its centre.

Banished from the community at the beginning of the film, the family of seven (two adults, five children) forge a new life on the edge of the woods. But when their baby son disappears, and then their crops begin to spoil, grief and paranoia, combined with religious fervor, begin to cloud reason and before long everyone is jumping at ghosts -- and goats -- and accusations of witchcraft begin to fly.

The Witch will draw comparisons with The Crucible but it is without the McCarthy subtext or the the awakening of female sexuality which drove Arthur Miller's narrative. What it does share are those events' departure from common sense, making way for fear to take root. You can't have God without the Devil, and if faith is belief in the absence of proof, well, the events of The Witch are the other side of the same spiritual coin. It's an impressive directorial debut where the devil is very much in the detail, casting a claustrophobic spell until almost the very end.