Saturday, 8 March 2014
2013 was a great year for female roles in film, which is to say a better than average list of films boasting strong female characters. And even if the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences chose more safely from among those eligible for the Best Actress Oscar (Cate Blanchett's turn in Blue Jasmine excepted), that there were more than five to choose from is something of a victory in and of itself.
Early in 2014 and that trend of strong-willed, independent and even spunky heroines looks set to continue with Tracks (Transmission Films, now showing) and Wadjda (Hopscotch Films, March 20), the latter a 2013 title which makes its way into Australian cinemas after a successful festival run and awards campaign around the world (although, ironically, one which did not end with a much-anticipated Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film).
Tracks, directed by John Curran and adapted by Marion Nelson from the bestselling book by Robyn Davidson, depicts the infamous journey of Davidson (a perfectly-cast Mia Wasikowska) who, in 1977, trekked from Alice Springs to Uluru (then still called Ayers Rock) then westward across the West Australian desert to the Indian Ocean, some 1,700 miles in mostly searing heat (the landscape beautifully photographed here by Mandy Walker).
The daughter of a one-time adventurer, Robyn is determined to learn how to train the camels which will accompany her on her trek, and complete the adventure on her own. Well, as much as humanly possible. Four camels and her trusty dog, Diggity, will accompany her. And when aboriginal custom dictates, an elder, Eddie (Roly Mintuma), will guide her through sacred land.
Though he speaks little English, Robyn finds Eddie far more agreeable company than Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), the photographer whom National Geographic, who are bankrolling the expedition, have assigned to document Robyn's journey across the interior; Rick's frequent rendezvous' with Robyn becoming more and more appreciated as the elements and events begin to take their toll on the young woman who, like Garbo, simply wants to be alone.
"You could die out there", suggests more than one doubter before she departs, to which Robyn replies not so much with words but a silent, inner shrug. Robyn doesn't have a death wish but she has somewhat of an accepting fatalism. The destination isn't the point of the journey but nor, it seems, is survival.
Wasikowska, an interesting looking actress who continues to choose interesting projects (2010's Alice In Wonderland excepted), has the ability to convey a great deal whilst saying very little. As the voice-over narration lessens and the journey progresses, it's left to Wasikowska's searching eyes and weather-beaten face (not to mention Walker's exceptional lensing work) to chart the physical, psychological and emotional terrain, the occasional and not entirely necessary childhood flashback withstanding.
Not so epic but no less ambitious is young Wadjda's desire to own a bicycle, specifically the green-framed model with the streamers on the handlebars which sits out front of her neighbourhood toy store in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It costs 800 riyals but Wadjda, an enterprising young lass played perfectly by Waad Mohammed, isn't about to let money or dogma-based sexism -- women don't ride bikes! -- deter her from her goal: not just to own a bike but to race her best (male) friend, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani).
It would be easy, and understandable, to equate young Wadjda's ambitions with those of the film's writer-director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, not only the first woman to direct a film in Saudi Arabia but the first person, period. Cinema has been banned in the Middle Eastern country for some 30 years. And in a country where women aren't even permitted to drive, making a film or indeed, riding a push bike, are near revolutionary acts.
Yet as political as Wadjda is -- how can it not be? -- Al-Mansour is never heavy-handed with her message of female self-empowerment nor the oppressive State in which her young heroine finds herself living. Smart, entrepreneurial and flexible, Wadjda knows how to get what she wants. Not one for religious observance (she finds the headscarf an annoyance more than anything), Wadjda seizes on the opportunity to enter a Koran recitation competition when she learns the prize money is a much needed 1,000 riyals.
A Hollywood film would make this competition and the heroine's preparation the focus of the story but Al-Mansour chooses to observe Wadjda as she goes about her school and home life; the young heroine witnessing her mother's struggle to please a husband who must first please his family by finding a second wife to bear him a son; her elder peers' struggle to reconcile their faith with adolescent preoccupations like magazines, nail polish and boys; and the easy way in which Abdullah moves through the world simply because he is male. Although a kind-hearted boy who promises to marry Wadjda when they're old enough, he's no match for the young lady on any level.
Like The Rocket last year (both films screening at the Sydney Film Festival), Wadjda is a crowd pleaser but in the best sense of the word. It's appeal and emotions are universal and not lowest common denominator; you'll boast a huge smile and maybe be a little misty-eyed at film's end because you actually care about young Wadjda and her hopes and dreams.
Here's hoping 2014 brings more films like Tracks and Wadjda, and even more female characters like their heroines: independent, single-minded, strong-willed and smart.
Thursday, 20 February 2014
Jiro dreams of flying and designing beautiful airplanes. Near-sighted from a young age and thus unable to become a pilot, Jiro joins the aircraft division of a major Japanese engineering company in 1927. His genius is soon recognized, and become one of the world's most accomplished airplane designers.
THE WIND RISES chronicles his life and the key historical events that affected it - The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, The Great Depression, the tuberculosis epidemic, and Japan's plunge into war. Jiro meets and falls in love with Nahoko, develops and cherishes his friendship with his colleague Honjo, and innovates tremendously, leading the aviation world into the future.
Thanks to Madman Films, we have 5 double inseason passes to THE WIND RISES to give away to our Sydney readers. The Wind Rises is screening at both the Dendy Sydney and Event Cinemas, George Street Sydney. Keep an eye on our Twitter feed (@TheLennoXFiles) for a call out to enter the draw.
Only at the movies February 27.
Wednesday, 5 February 2014
All publicity is good publicity as they say, and while the producers of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom would take no joy in the death of their film's subject -- anti-apartheid campaigner and first black president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela -- late in 2013, they could be forgiven for delighting in the unintentional yet inevitable focus his passing would bring the film.
Conversely, Mandela's death also brings a greater level of scrutiny to the film, directed by Justin Chadwick and adapted by William Nicholson from Mandela's own autobiography, The Long Walk To Freedom. And the first hurdle, particularly for those who are sticklers for authenticity, is that leading man Idris Elba bears no resemblance to the man he's portraying.
A fine British actor with a commanding physical presence, Elba all but masters the distinct tone and cadence of Mandela's speech but it's his appearance that is at odds with the iconic face -- both young and old -- which we have become accustomed to over the years (even more so in the days following his death).
How you engage with the film may very well depend on your ability to set aside this discrepancy, as Long Walk To Freedom follows Mandela from his early days as a lawyer in 1942, through his 27-year incarceration on Robben Island, his triumphant release in 1990 and his historic election as not only South Africa's first black president but that country's first president elected under fully (one person, one vote) democratic elections.
More successful is Naomie Harris as Mandela's second wife, Winnie; less encumbered by the legacy of her character's real life status as 'the woman behind the man'. Last seen as Moneypenny in 2012's Skyfall, Harris brings a fiery intensity to her portrayal of Winnie who, with her husband incarcerated, is forced to raise their two daughters on her own whilst always under the surveillance and harassment of the police; even spending more than a year in solitary confinement.
The anti-apartheid cause radicalises Winnie to such an extent that it is their differing opinions of how South Africa should move forward which sours Mandela and Winnie's marriage and not the havoc the tyranny of time and distance that 27 years behinds bars would be expected to wreak. Yet the film doesn't demonise Winnie, which may have been tempting given her less than savoury actions both during and following her husband's prison time.
And to the film's credit, it doesn't deify Mandela. He's depicted as a womaniser and a lousy husband to his first wife, and a man prepared to resort to extreme measures in pursuit of a just cause. And in the days and weeks prior to his eventual release from prison, Mandela engages in private negotiations with the government in spite of what had been until then a one-in-all-in with his fellow ANC members and Robben Island inmates.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is a handsomely mounted but rather pedestrian look at one man's life and struggle, which was so much bigger than one man and perhaps too big to be contained within one film. Well-intentioned, the film lacks the passion of its hero.
Tuesday, 4 February 2014
In a similar vein to Knocked Up (2007) and (500) Days of Summer (2009) but not even close to being in the same league, Are We Officially Dating? is a rom-com from the male perspective. Actually, writer-director Tom Gormican's feature debut could easily be dubbed a 'bro-mantic comedy' given that most of the love on display in this intermittently amusing pap is circulated between the three male leads.
Chief among them is Jason (Zac Efron), a serial womaniser with a roster of female fuck buddies and a strong aversion to commitment. It's a lifestyle his friend and co-worker Daniel (Miles Teller) emulates with varying degrees of success; the charming if not-so obviously sexy Daniel assisted in his seduction attempts by Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis), who it seems is one of the boys.
Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) is the only member of the trio who has experience with an actual relationship. But given that his wife wants to divorce him for her lawyer who looks an awful lot like Morris Chestnut (a running joke which becomes less funny as the film progresses, and probably the further away from Hollywood the audience is), it's apparent he's no more clued in about what women want than his feckless buddies.
Mikey's also the most resistant when the three make a pact to indulge in their singledom and avoid the dating game. That pact is quietly jeopardized by Mikey's clandestine trysts with his soon-to-be ex-wife, Daniel's similarly on-the-down low hook-ups with Chelsea, and the not-so secretly developing relationship between Jason and Ellie (Imogen Poots).
After a one night stand, the two begin spending a lot of time together -- initially at Jason's insistence; making amends for suspecting Ellie of being a call girl -- but when his buddies begin to call him on it, and Ellie suddenly requires him to step up, he feels compelled to adhere to his personal code rather than his heart.
Whether speaking from experience or exaggerating for laughs, Gormican's screenplay mines the fallibilities of the bro-code, where pleasure should be foremost and love is a dirty word. And there are plenty of dirty words in Are We Officially Dating?; dick jokes abound as do instances of guys just being dicks. The film's characters may be a little (or a lot) sexist but the film isn't.
Unfortunately, it's not consistently funny nor does it examine some of the ideas that it hits upon. What it does have going for it is the easy chemistry between its leads. Efron (also an exec producer here) but particularly Jordan (Fruitvale Station) and Teller (The Spectacular Now) make for enjoyable company. They're very much on the up, and Are We Officially Dating? is merely a not-so memorable date on that upward trajectory.