Tuesday, 25 November 2014
Two very different films about the evils of two forms of media, new and old, Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children, and Dan Gilroy's Nigthcrawler, examine the relationships between the medium and the audience and discover a similar root cause: people.
MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN (Paramount Pictures), adapted by Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson from the book by Chad Kultgen, is a multi-narrative, multi-character study of the internet and its impact on human relationships among a group of white, middle class Texans.
There's the decline of sexual interest between a married couple (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) leading to adultery; meanwhile their 15-year-old son (Travis Tope) has become addicted to online porn. Then there's the father and son (Dean Norris and Ansel Elgort) coping with the hole left by the departure of wife and mother; the son quitting the football team and finding solace in the online gaming community). That same boy has also begun a fledgling romance with a girl (Kaitlyn Dever) whose mother (Jennifer Garner) tracks her every online movement, privacy be damned.
There's also another mother (Judy Greer) who is pimping her teen daughter (Olivia Crocicchia) through a private website in pursuit of her daughter's stardom. It's not pornographic, but one man's swimsuit catalogue is another's j.o. material, and, as mother and daughter soon find, once it's online there's no controlling it or how it is received.
Each of these stories asks -- without necessarily accusing -- if the internet is responsible for these issues or merely exacerbates them. Perhaps it's Reitman's refusal to make a declarative statement one way or the other, the film's much too earnest and not nearly light enough approach (save for Emma Thompson's anthropological voice-over narration), or simply the fact that a film about people on computers, tablets, and smartphones hardly makes for gripping viewing which renders Men, Women & Children only fitfully engaging.
Some stories and characters are more intriguing than others (to wit, more DeWitt!), while the lack of diversity -- apparently only white heterosexuals go online -- is also strikingly odd for a film set very much in the now.
After this film, and the somewhat unfairly maligned Labor Day (2013), Reitman may need to consider re-teaming with writer Diablo Cody, responsible for two of his better films, Juno (2007) and Young Adult (2011), and simply lighten up.
Pitch black but no less enjoyable for that, Dan Gilroy's NIGHTCRAWLER (Madman Films), his feature debut after a successful screenwriting career, looks at the declining standards in television news through the eyes of Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), novice cameraman and veteran sociopath who uncovers the world of freelance crime reporting on the night-time streets of Los Angeles and thinks, why not me?
An opportunist in need of work and hungry to succeed (Gyllanhaal thin and looking in need of a decent meal), Louis takes to his new career with relish, encouraged by the attentions of news producer, Nina Romina (Rene Russo), who senses Louis may not be playing with a full deck of cards but hey, he shoots good shit. And eager to impress -- and make more money selling his footage -- Louis, accompanied by his intern, Rick (Riz Ahmed), goes to greater, riskier and, yes, illegal lengths to get the money shot.
Nightcrawler is entertaining, gripping and not the least bit believable but Gyllenhaal is on fire: at once repellent and magnetic, and creepy as all hell. Louis Bloom has a dark heart and possibly no soul which, in the film's biggest, saddest joke makes him perfect for TV journalism.
Of course, the media has been skewered on film before, and much better than it is here. But then TV has never had a rival such as the internet before; competing for immediacy, authority and, above all, the audience. And as Nina knows and Louis soon learns, no one ever went broke appealing to the lowest common denominator.
Both films, each in their own and less-than-successful ways, seem to suggest that it's not the medium but the messenger and the audience who are at fault for the corrupted signal. Much like politicians and superheroes, we get the media we deserve.
If that's the case, we might want to take the opposite advice of Tim Leary, 1960s counterculture icon, and turn off and tune out. Or at the very least, log-off for an hour or two a day and be a little more judicious with our viewing habits. (Oh, and delete your browser history.)
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.
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.
Monday, 10 November 2014
20th Century Fox Films
Adapted by acclaimed crime writer, Dennis Lehane, from his own short story, Animal Rescue, The Drop is a low-key crime drama with an emphasis on mood over tension, and character over action. That's not necessarily a problem when you have actors like Tom Hardy, Matthias Schoenaerts, and James Gandolfini (in one of his final screen roles) doing their thing.
These guys are a pleasure to behold even as their characters test our loyalty or merely confirm our suspicions as we work our way through the murky milieu of director Michael R. Roskam's film. Set on the cold wintry streets and in the dingy bars of New York, The Drop unfolds at a deliberate pace, punctuated by bursts of action and violence; the first of which is a robbery on the bar once owned by Marv (Gandolfini), and where his cousin, Bobby (Hardy), serves the drinks.
The bar is also one of the many pick-up points for laundered money belonging to Russian (or East European?) mobsters, and when the joint is robbed late one night (yes, that's young Australian actor, James Frecheville, from Animal Kingdom as one of the gunmen), Marv and Bobby are under pressure to get the five grand back; without giving mob boss Chovka (Michael Aronov) cause to think they were involved, or rousing the suspicions of Detective Torres (John Ortiz) who is handling the case.
It's a man's world depicted in The Drop, one with an unspoken code and serious consequences for those who break it. Still, Hardy manages to give one of his softer characterizations yet. His Bobby is somewhat of a simpleton but when push comes to shove -- and when his girl and his dog are threatened -- a switch is flicked, and Bobby reveals his true colours and ultimately bares his soul.
That aforementioned girl is Nadia (Noomi Rapace, also with her edges softened), whom Bobby meets when late one night he finds a cute but injured puppy dumped in her trash bin. The dog and the girl both serve to leaven the sea of testosterone in The Drop but this fledgling romance -- between Bobby and Nadia, and a man and his dog (2014 seems to be the year for that sort of thing) -- further complicates Bobby's life.
Both Nadia and Rocco (as the dog is christened) once belonged to a mentally questionable low-level crim, Eric Deeds (Schoenaerts, unrecognizable from 2012's Rust and Bone, hovers between comical and menacing), a man who doesn't give up on those that he believes are his, even after he's thrown them away.
This triangle will come to a head, as will Marv's clandestine manoeuvrings, in the bar late in the evening of that annual American man-fest, the Super Bowl. It's here where The Drop ratchets up the tension and finally stirs from the almost-slumber it's been unfolding within.
While by no means boring, Lehane's screenplay proves, if anything, that a page-turner doesn't always make for a potboiler. Or that stretching a short story to a 100-page screenplay is necessarily a good idea, even if the characters are there. And it's the characters -- and fine character actors -- who reward your patience in The Drop.
Tuesday, 4 November 2014
Nanny. Photographer. Artist. American. French. Spy? The enigma who was Vivian Maier is mostly unraveled in John Maloof and Charlie Siskel's documentary, which follows the filmmakers' mission to discover the person behind the treasure trove of black and white photographs Maloof fortuitously stumbled upon at auction.
Maier's photographs (the negatives number in the tens of thousands) showed the woman to be an astute social documentarian of 20th century New York and Chicago; their streetscapes and the people who inhabited them captured in unadorned yet beautiful monochrome.
But how did such a prodigious and talented photographer go undiscovered? And even more curious, why did Maier work as a nanny for upper middle class families when she could have been so much more?
Maloof -- who inserts himself a little too much into the doco -- talks to the people who hired Vivian Maier as an au pair and the children she raised; each with similar recollections of the stern yet exciting woman with a French accent, an ever-present camera, and a dark side.
Like many a great artist, Maier had a troubled past and her own demons to battle but without family or close relations to help fill-in the blanks, Maloof and Siskel provide a fascinating yet incomplete portrait of the woman.
The photographs, however, speak eloquently and in volume to her artistry.