Archive for January, 2013

It has been ten years since Arnold Schwarzenegger took on a lead role in a film. His stint as The Governator of California from 2003 to 2011 didn’t leave room for as much as a cameo, but appearances in The Expendables films have eased him back into film work. The Last Stand sees Schwarzenegger return to his muscular heroics, defending the small American town of Somerton Junction on the Mexican boarder from a petrol-head drug lord called Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega).

While The Last Stand will not be 65-year-old Schwarzenegger’s last film, it plays with a cheeky humour that Arnie fans and cynics alike will look upon with pleasure. His character Ray Owens, once a LAPD narcotics cop, has settled down to country living for a bit of peace and quiet, only to be jolted out of it by Cortez. The narrative construction is familiar, yet Schwarzenegger’s ten-year hiatus from acting adds freshness to the material; the way he looks and carries himself seems “old” (as he amusingly describes himself.)

Arnie’s strengths are at the fore here, yet the film is weakened by a plot line involving the FBI hunt for Cortez. Having lost the drug lord in Las Vegas the FBI, headed by the rather angry Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker), pursue him as he approaches Somerton Junction in his custom built Corvette. The FBI are intended to represent the modern, sleek operation in contrast to Arnie’s small town policing, yet their dull scenes serve to take potentially entertaining screen time away from Arnie.

However, South Korean director Jee-woon Kim stages the film’s action (for that is the true purpose of the film) with an entertaining eye for American genre traits (nods to Dirty Harry and American Westerns) and a flare for violence. The action has impact, with a satisfying Peckinpah-esque punch. The film’s defining setpiece where Owens and Cortez race muscle cars through a cornfield is a particularly inspired collision between the modern and the rural. Arnie’s acquisition of various old fashioned firearms (including a WWII era chain gun, mounted in a school bus), also leads to memorable shootouts.

The Last Stand is far from the greatest Schwarzenegger movie, but it is a satisfying, satirical and ultimately consistent return following his ten years in politics. It also reminds us of Arnie’s unique ability to turn simple, even banal dialogue into gold. When he declares “I’m the sheriff!” with utmost conviction, we know we’re back in the hands of a true Hollywood action hero.

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Of all the American presidents Abraham Lincoln has probably received the most bizarre cinematic treatment of late. From being impersonated with gusto in Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely (“Abe fuckin’ Lincoln!”), to slaying vampires in Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, Lincoln’s recent cinematic legacy has been colourful. The thing it hasn’t actually done is account for his humanitarian legacy.

However, from the opening shot of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln we know the man is in for deeply reverential treatment. In the opening scene Spielberg lenses Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) from a saintly low angle, as he talks with two black Union (North) soldiers during January 1865 of the American Civil War. It is the latter days of the conflict and Lincoln is determined to bring slavery (still legal in the Southern states) to a close with the end of the war. He needs substantial votes in the House of Representatives to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, but in spite of the pressure he maintains a zen like calm.

Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is not a man of great volume, but when he speaks others listen. He has remarkable talents as a storyteller and humourist, which Day-Lewis captures endearingly. Day-Lewis shows Lincoln as capable of maintaining a sublime self-control; this affords him an enormous aura of authority. When he does raise his voice it is a force to be reckoned with. Day-Lewis’ physical transformation into Lincoln is also enthralling too; his tall skinny frame and large hands make him a gentle giant. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a complete contrast to his volcanic menace Daniel Plainview, in P.T Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.

Tommy Lee Jones role as Thaddeus Stevens, the abolitionist Congressional leader, is an essential yang to Day-Lewis’ ying. Lee Jones represents the backbone of the cause for abolition in the House of Representatives and as such his performance is laden with an authentic anger. Lee Jones contrasts with Day-Lewis with his hot temper in the face of Representatives who attempt to justify slavery with talk of God. There is a touch of softness, even secretiveness about him though, as we cannot dismiss his dependence on a black wig (which contrasts with his aged face.) Like Lincoln he is endearing, though more fiery than wise.

Spielberg controls the narrative (which plays out like a tense legal drama) and his vast supporting cast with an accomplished touch. His directorial approach is subtle, eschewing any kind of visual excess, yet we know from the opening moments that this is a work by Spielberg the auteur. His work with long time collaborators including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams helps push the narrative forward, without ever forgetting the priority: to showcase Lincoln, the man with the will to sign the Thirteenth Amendment.

Lincoln therefore, is indubitably Daniel Day-Lewis’ show, but this reminds us of the adept directorial talent that Steven Spielberg possesses. It also recalls the heartfelt approach to storytelling that Spielberg has exhibited throughout his illustrious Hollywood career. While Tarantino’s slavery epic Django Unchained sought catharsis through violence, Spielberg’s Lincoln (with its fine central performance) is a keen rumination on the theme of human dignity.

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Cinema has not dealt well with slavery. In 1915 innovator D.W Griffith attempted to justify segregation in Birth of a Nation. Since then robust genres have formed chronicling human atrocities including the Vietnam War and the Holocaust, yet there is little of note on the trade of human flesh. Save from a small handful of films (Roots, Amistad, Goodbye Uncle Tom), we must admit that cinema is at a loss. It has failed to account for a historic subject that is loaded with revulsion and shame.

If shame is the reason for this inadequacy, then it takes an utterly shameless ego to change things. That ego is Quentin Tarantino. Igniting the issue of slavery with great vivacity, Tarantino has eschewed questions of taste and gone for the jugular; his take on slavery is a brutal homage to Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Spaghetti Western Django. Spike Lee may have taken offence to Tarantino’s genre treatment, but Django Unchained is cinema at its most cathartic.

The film unfolds the story of Django (Jamie Foxx) a slave who is emancipated by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a flamboyant German bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist. Schultz liberates Django promising to free him, providing he helps locate three wanted men called the Brittle Brothers. Django grabs the opportunity with relish, as the Brothers sold his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) to notorious slaver Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Broomhilda’s German name stirs Schultz’s noble soul and he, in turn, endeavors to aid Django in her liberation.

The challenge of tackling the material in Django Unchained pushes the cast to perform moments of brilliance. Foxx and Waltz’s rapport is fine tuned, with Foxx’s illiteracy playing counterpoint to Waltz’s wordy panache. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a career best as Candie, the demented, incestuous slaver. Samuel L. Jackson, appearing as Candie’s self-hating right-hand-man Stephen, performs an extraordinary and troubling turn. Tarantino’s use of the n-word controversially abounds, but it is symptomatic of the characters and their time.

Tarantino’s much discussed use of violence is on show in Django Unchained, but it feels like something of a side note next to the violent verbal outbursts of his characters. Where Inglourious Basterds impressed largely due to Christoph Waltz’s scenes, Django Unchained is a tour-de-force across the board; as such is it by far the greater film. It also features moments of utter hilarity, particularly when a lynch mob discovers the tribulations of riding horses with bags on their heads (which prompts an ingenious cameo from the ever-bumbling Jonah Hill).

Cameos in Django Unchained are a prominent feature. Tarantino maintains a dialogue with film history, casting Franco Nero (the original Django from Corbucci’s film) as the only other white character of grace in the film. The moment where he and Foxx meet is inessential to the film’s narrative, but vital in Tarantino’s cinematic lineage. The one cameo that disappoints is Tarantino’s own turn as an Australian. It makes us wonder why Tarantino could not hold back, given the many great Australian actors currently working in Hollywood.

Minor gripes about length also aside, Django Unchained is Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction. While Kill Bill was pure pulp and Inglourious Basterds was ultimately silly, Django Unchained feels like it has a place in the world. Tarantino has revived the excitement of the western genre (which has become somewhat serious of late), while giving slavery a prominent platform in popular culture with which to generate debate. When Django enacts vengeance on his white oppressors, Tarantino’s unapologetic style of filmmaking has never felt so justified.

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The scene is post war 1940s, a lush Hollywood noir back drop. Gangster Mob-boss Micky Cohen (Sean Penn) is pushing his own drug and prostitution rackets, moving away from his Chicago peers, and trying to create his own LA Empire. Enter Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), the shining moral compass of this story. Despite being a man of compelling action, O’Mara is aware how ineffective his low level arrests have on this gangster empire.

His superior, Chief Parker (Nick Note), approaches the Sergeant with a proposition: wage an unsanctioned guerrilla war on these gangsters from the shadows. And like that O’Mara begins recruiting his rag tag unofficial police team: a gunslinger, his apprentice, a knife welding beat cop, an ex-military communications expert, and fellow college and charmer Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling). From here the gang conduct tactical raids on Cohen’s organisation.

So far, this all sounds reminiscent of a film we’ve seen a hundred times before, correct? And you know what, it is. It’s a very obvious recipe that the filmmakers are following. The content is like an action film check list, including an unfortunate amount of  ‘Zack-Snyder-slowmo and an idealistically tidy ending. But despite Gangster Squad’s formulaic make-up, it’s still worthwhile because what is done is done well. As long as you are under no illusions about the nature of this beast it’s an enjoyable ride.

The performances are resplendently colourful with Sean Penn painting a merciless picture of vicious cruelty and Ryan Gosling delivering the usual cool charisma. Brolin does what he can with very little to work with and his noir-like narration helps us empathise. The one performance I was particularly surprised by was Emma Stone’s; this modern, sassy, and verbose actress successfully slowing it down for the sexy subtleties of a femme fatale.

The real strength of the film however is the way that it knows its audience. We now seem caught in this ubiquitous plight of 12A compromises, each film appealing to the widest market possible. This film is violent, gory and remorseless about it. In the opening scene we witness a gangster tortured and ripped apart between two cars.  Gangster Squad is unequivocally an adult film for those with a taste for stylized violence.

Gangster Squad isn’t going to win any Oscars, nor is it going to break cinematic bounties. But it’s fun and exciting, like Hollywood used to make, a solid action film for the boys (and girls).  If you want guts, balls and blood Gangster Squad shoots you square in the face.

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To mark the retrospectives of the Lithuanian film maker and poet Jonas Mekas in London and Paris, we are reviewing one of the screenings of his masterpiece As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty.

Mekas is one of the leading figures of the avant garde film movement, his documentary films spanning over 50 years. Emigrating from his native Lithuania after the war, he found himself milling around the New York art scene in the 50’s and 60’s, encountering cultural icons such as Andy Warhol and John Lennon, as well as a who’s who of the independent film movement. His work consists of deeply personal fragments of his life, shot on a simple Bolex camera, much like a set of home movies.

As I Was Moving… is considered one of his most iconic works and has often been cited as one of the most influential films in cinema history. At 288 minutes long, it is an epic documentation of his time in New York with his friends and family. Collected together from approximately two decades worth of footage, it is Mekas’ celebration of a life full of highs. There are no lows to be found here. The ‘stars’ of the film are Mekas himself, his wife Hollis and young child Oona, as well as an endless array of friends, artists and co-conspirators. As it is shot on a functional Bolex, there is no sound except from the occasional narration from Mekas and a flurry of piano pieces on the soundtrack. We observe these people for nearly five hours, immerse ourselves in their lives and take delight in their joys, yet remarkably never hear a word uttered from their lips.

Mekas is a warm, croaky narrator, overlaying the poetic imagery with sage, repetitive ruminations on both the film and life in general. His broken English is oddly endearing, and he frequently harks back to the joys of ‘summer’s in Central Park’ and friends coming over for dinner. He describes his New York life as a ‘paradise’ full of simple pleasures. There is nothing spectacular in the film, just banal moments, which Mekas drily admits himself when he says, ‘nothing happens in this film’. In one sense ‘nothing’ is happening, but really everything is happening. Life is unfolding before our eyes. Mekas edits together the footage in a poetic and elliptical manner, cutting between images quickly and constructing them in a cyclical, hypnotic fashion. It actually recalls the recent work of Terrence Malick, the sense of flow that he was trying to achieve with The New World and The Tree of Life.

The film’s momentous length is both a strength and a flaw; only through this length of time can the audience fully immerse ourselves in their lives, and in turn contemplate our own lives, and yet, you wonder if Mekas could have gone on forever in the cutting room, forever adding to his work. In the film he actually admits that the film, like life, is forever moving on. At the four hour stage, it’s possible the audience was hoping this was just a mischievous bluff. But we can forgive Mekas for his eagerness to show off and celebrate his life. Although the film makes almost no mention of his past experiences, the film gains new poignancy when you are reminded that Mekas spent part of his youth in Nazi enforced labour camps. As I Was Moving… is a moving and joyful celebration of life, a rebuttal of past traumas and a statement of hope and optimism.

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When it was announced that David Fincher was making The Social Network, the film about Facebook, there was many a dissenting cry. The notion that a website could offer anything of substance to narrative cinema seemed absurd to some. In reality the film proved a roaring success, with seven Academy Award nominations, a Golden Globe for best picture and $224,920,315 at the box office.

Consider then Pixelschatten – Our Life Is Online, a low budget German drama based around a fictional blog, told entirely in point-of-view shots (from the eyes of the blog’s twenty-something editor, known as Pixel) and animations resembling web comment boxes. The film tells of the social networking experience from the user’s perspective, following a group of blog obsessed friends who fall out over incendiary and overly personal postings. Perhaps the film resembles what cynics had imaged the ‘Facebook movie’ to look like.

It may not sound inspired to the unsuspecting viewer, but Pixelschatten is actually constructed with superb taste, confidence and remarkable naturalism (particularly given its subject matter). Director Anil Jacob Kunnel, shooting on what can only be described as a face-mounted-DSLR-rig, assembles an endearing cast of young German talent that work hard to reap genuine emotional investment from the audience.

We barely see Pixel (Ben Gageik) himself, as the film is told from his POV, yet Ben Gageik is clearly doing something right behind his face mounted camera. Scenes between he and girlfriend Suse (Zora Klostermann) resonate with youthful spontaneity as they go through familiar rituals of chatting, partying, having sex, falling out and making up. Kunnel shows us these many moments with intimacy, but without voyeurism.

The specific positioning of the camera rig being over the face, rather than above the head (ala GoPro mounted sport cameras) lends an increased sense of intimacy to Pixel’s interactions. It allows us to actually experience the relationship between he and Suse, as it positions us to read body language as we ourselves experience it. It also permits us, for better or for worse, to indulge in a lot of full-on snogging.

Within Kunnel’s approach to the material lies a great irony. The film set two forms of communication at counterpoint, placing the culture of online messaging next to (hugely intimate) face to face communication. We witness the frequent passive-aggressive behaviour that takes place online, and the inconsistency of modern communication as the individuals tailor their behaviour based on the alternating online/offline circumstances.

Pixelschatten is unlikely to ascertain the financial rewards of The Social Network, yet it is a similarly valid depiction of the intimate role that online communication plays in the lives of young people. With its choice ensemble and evocative digital cinematography it is an appropriately soulful depiction of a modern German youth who, in spite of their digital addiction, are very much in touch with life in all its vibrant intensity.

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Hors Satan is the sixth feature film by French filmmaker Bruno Dumont. Dumont’s previous films were mostly shot in rural landscapes, often in his native country, and featured marginalised characters undergoing both extreme trauma and spiritual transformation. He has a particular directing style, using long takes and razor sharp visuals to bring his worlds to life. Comparisons could be made with Robert Bresson and Michael Haneke but this would not do justice to his singularity. There are few people working in cinema today who can conjure up the ethereal atmosphere that Dumont can.

David Dewaele, a Dumont regular, plays ‘The Guy’, a mystical man who roams the wild coastline of Northern France. This is an otherworldly being that the local community reveres and looks to for support. When one of their children is ill, they seek his healing powers, and in turn he collects food from them daily. His only real relationship seems to be with ‘The Girl’, a gothic, troubled teenager played by Alexandra Lemâtre. Dumont hints at domestic unrest in her family; hints of abuse from her stepfather. She confides her problem to him, and he takes matter into his own hands. A clinical shot to the chest as her stepfather steps out of his barn.

This action sets off a chain of violent retribution, but it would be foolish to mistake this film for a typical lovers- on-a- killing- spree yarn. For one, their relationship is strangely sexless. ‘The Guy’ rebukes her longing advances, and his only dalliances with the fairer sex are purely spiritual. When a local girl is deathly ill, he revives her through sex. Yes, it sounds absurd on paper, but Dumont makes it work. The violence is also far from sensational, appearing at infrequent moments and devoid of any cinematic relish. Instead, the duo wander the wilds of the countryside, dwelling in sunlight and gentle breeze. ‘The Guy’ seems to be completely at one with his surroundings, indifferent to ideas of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but what exists before him.

Hors Satan, like Dumont’s previous work, is not for the restless viewer. It is full of long close ups of the two characters gazing into the landscape, little dialogue, and with banal meaning. There are few ‘events’ for the audience to grapple onto, Dumont allowing the landscape to almost flow through the viewer. Dumont uses a mixture of wide angle shots and close ups, and there is no sound editor to prettify the sounds of the coastline. Every footstep, every whistle of the wind, can be heard vividly on screen. These are important choices, allowing the audience to be completely immersed in the environment, beguiled by its beauty and indifference.

One film it is sometimes reminiscent of is Terrence Malick’s Badlands. It too features a couple too dysfunctional to operate in civilised society and finding comfort in the unbounded freedom that nature offers. There is a distinct parallel in Dumont and Malick’s thought processes as well; both seek to draw the viewer’s attention to nature and its power over mankind, using the sensory capabilities of cinema to express this idea. Like Badlands, Dumont’s film leaves us with more questions than answers but is similarly exhilarating. Although Dumont is an atheist, there are constant hints of spirituality and a higher power in his work, and Hors Satan continues in this vein. But perhaps for Dumont, it is the cinema that is all seeing, all knowing, all powerful.

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