Thursday, 16 November 2017

IN THEATRES: Justice League

Following the death of Superman,  Batman gathers a team of super-powered peeps to take on an interplanetary threat that could destroy the planet.

Here it is - the latest holding action in Warner Bros campaign to bring their DC properties to the screen.

This movie is not a masterpiece. This movie is not a disaster. This movie is a stopgap that tries to fix or ignore what happened in the movies that came before it. Just as BvS was a reaction to Man of Steel, and Suicide Squad was a reaction to BvS (and its own trailer), Justice League feels like a reaction to all of those movies (including Wonder Woman).  

Re-written, re-shot and re-colour-corrected, Justice League is a mixed bag - vaguely entertaining and possessed of a certain pace (it comes in at 121 minutes, which is nice).

Directed by Zack Snyder and an un-credited Joss Whedon, the movie feels like someone started with one idea, and then was replaced by someone else with a different idea. Honestly, the main reason I decided to review this movie was morbid curiosity: Would Snyder's over-saturated excess sync with Whedon's penchant for character dynamics over set pieces.

Watching the movie, I could not really tell. The tone is certainly more dynamic than Snyder's previous movies. But while the re-shoots probably helped, the story still feels clunky and the characters feel half-baked. There are beats that are clearly Whedon, but the character stuff never really gels in a way that feels cumulative.

As far as the catalyst for bringing our heroes together, Steppenwolf is one of the most uninteresting and generic villains to come around in a long time: he is just a generic CG god-ling, with no interesting motivation or characterisation to speak of. Ciaran Hinds is always good value (he's great in Tomb Raider 2), but Steppnwolf is such a colourless villain you could have cast anyone in the role. His design is not even that interesting - he looks like a minor character from a Ray Harryhausen movie. He never feels like a genuine threat for the team, and honestly he does not feel like the right villain for the medium: he feels more like the bad guy in a TV pilot - he's just there so the good guys have a reason to come together.

Our heroes are not much better.

Superman, such a non-entity in the previous movies, is here presented as a symbol of hope. It does not stick because the movie does nothing to make that feel believable. We get a neat flashback at the top (a child's iPhone interview with Superman) and an extended talking scene with Lois Clark in a CG farm-scape. That's it: we're still stuck with two movies worth of backstory that boil down to four hours of filmmakers who do not know what to do with Superman. So when Batman talks about Superman being a beacon of hope, it rings hollow because he has never been shown to act like any kind of role model. When he makes his return in the third act, he may be acting more like Supes (i.e. giving a shit about people), but it never feels like a big catharsis for the group. It just feels like a plot point.

Batman's character is similarly hamstrung. He gets a good rapport with the Flash and a leaden flirtation with Diana (it might be a good idea, but not based on this chemistry).

One real bum note is Gal Gadot, who oscillates on an almost scene-by-scene basis from sparky and invested to wooden and amateurish (there's one confrontation with Bruce Wayne where she goes full-on soap opera). I chalk it up to the re-shoots and the lack of Patty Jenkins to help with the performance.

Because this is the first time most of the Justice bros have appeared onscreen, the movie has to stop dead to introduce them and their respective worlds. Of the new characters, the easy highlight is Ezra Miller as Barry Allen/The Flash. The scenes setting up his relationship with his dad, and his dynamics with the team all feel the most well-realised. It helps that aside from his powers, he is the most ordinary character in the movie (he even trips over at one point).

Jason Momoa's Aquaman will probably be great in his own movie. Here he is hamstrung by being only one of a group of surly bad asses. He is funny and charismatic, but he feels side-lined.
Ray Fisher's Cyborg needed so much more build-up. We are introduced to him too late in his evolution. He is already a CG-augmented character when we meet him, and it is difficult to feel the tragedy the filmmakers intend because we never get a sense of what his life was like before his accident. It does not help that his powers never really feel like a curse. This is a rare blockbuster that could have used more breathing room.

If you are looking for some cool action scenes to tide you over, you are out of luck. They are still airless collections of CGI poses. The lack of genuine scale and lack of tactile threats (and collateral damage) makes the movie feel really small. And because of the extended tinkering, there are a lot of really obvious green screen backdrops. And look out for Henry Cavill's CG lip - it is very weird and very obvious.

Overall, the movie is meh. It has some funny scenes, and has a better grasp of the characters' personas (character development, less so) than the previous DC movies, but it cannot help feeling like what it is: a studio mandate to have a superhero franchise. These characters do not belong together because they want or need to: it is because Warner Bros wants some of that Marvel money. It is a better movie than expected, but not much by much. If you are not a die hard fan, give it a miss till it comes out on home media. If you are in the mood for a big blockbuster, go see Thor: Ragnarok instead.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Runaway Train (Andrei Konchalovsky, 1985)

Manny (Jon Voight) is a popular inmate at Alaska's Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison. His popularity and repeated escape attempts have made him an enemy in Associate Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), who tries to have him killed. After he survives a stabbing, Manny and fellow inmate Buck (Eric Roberts) make another escape attempt.

They manage to escape the prison and find their way onto a train. Freedom is within their grasp.

However, little do they know that the train they're on has no driver and no brakes. As it speeds up,   the inmates and locomotive engineer Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) have to find a way to get to the front of the train and slow it down.

This movie holds the dubious distinction of being the best movie Golan-Globus ever made. Israeli movie producers Menahem Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus had come to the United States in the late seventies intent on cracking Hollywood.

After buying the small company Cannon, they produced a series of genre pictures geared toward the American market: amongst their output were films starring Chucks Bronson (the Death Wish sequels) and Norris (Missing in Action; Invasion USA and The Delta Force), as well as ninja movies, the He-Man movie Masters of the Universe and the space vampire epic Lifeforce. While they could boast some strong casts and decent budgets, Cannon's movies were renowned for their emphasis on cheap exploitable elements (action, sex and violence) over things like comprehensible narratives and character development. Golan in particular was infamous for cutting budgets (read up on what they did to Superman IV), tossing in bizarre story beats (Ninja III) and editing action movies to emphasis the action over the story (Invasion USA, Cobra and almost every other movie they made).

The fact that this company made Runaway Train - and that it turned out the way it did is almost unbelievable.
Based on a script by Akira Kurosawa and directed by respected Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky (co-writer of Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev), Runaway Train is an excellent action drama that also acts as a meditation on our understanding of freedom and control. Our protagonist, veteran convict Manny yearns for freedom and prides himself on his ability to survive and overcome any obstacle that he has to face. His foe is the prison warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), who is equally determined to impose his will upon all the inmates under his control. He sees Manny as a test for his ability to control the prison.

While on the surface the movie repeats the 'one man bucks the system' theme of a lot of eighties action films, Runaway Train is more of a critique of the machismo behind these characters - it runs through the movie, from the way prisoners and guards bond over a shared love of magazine centrefolds; the misogynistic insults male characters throw at each other; and the casual abuse that Manny and fellow escapee Buck (Eric Roberts) subject train employee Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) to.

Because of the nature of their predicament, Manny is forced to recognise the limitations of his loner ethos. He may be a badass, but because of his posturing he has injured himself too badly to proceed alone. When he eggs Buck on to complete the mission (to the extent of refusing to let him back inside the train when he is stranded outside), Manny is forced to confront the pointlessness of his own philosophy - he is just as abhorrent as the man (Ranken) trying to take him back to prison.
Even the film's ending reinforces the movie's critique: As the train races toward a dead end, Manny chains Ranken to the engine and decouples it from the rest of the cars, saving Buck and Sara. 

At the end, he gets his freedom, but at what price?

Manny and Ranken are locked in a battle of wills that can only end with their deaths. Like the train they are trapped on, these men are headed towards their own destruction. Manny at least possesses the awareness to bring their conflict to an end.

As far as performances go, this is Voight's show. Violent, selfish and cunning, he is totally believable as a veteran convict. After his work in the seventies, Runaway Train was one of the few times in his career where he found a role showed off his chops.

Roberts was nominated for an Oscar for his role but he comes off as histrionic and self-conscious next to Voight's vibrant naturalistic performance. De Mornay is just flat; she is good at self-containment and emotional resonance (Risky Business; The Hand that Rocks the Cradle), but this role requires the opposite. Sara is meant to be an average joe in an unbelievable situation, but De Mornay never feels genuinely agitated.

Ranken (John P. Ryan)
The one performance that matches Voight's is John P. Ryan as Ranken - he brings an arrogant swagger to the warden that makes him easy to hate. His smooth demeanour is a great misdirect - when disrespected his response is a violent outburst, an emotional shift that is all the more disconcerting for how quickly it takes for him to revert back to his smug facade. His maniacal pursuit of Manny is so believable he actually helps make the film's final narrative contrivance (Ranken's showdown with Manny in the locomotive) work.

While the picture never feels like a Cannon picture, neither does it feel particularly locked down to the eighties. Because of how utilitarian the setting is, there are few elements which feel too contemporary. There are no pastels or familiar hairstyles - all the characters look worn down, scarred and dirty. The train itself is a marvellous piece of production design. Its exterior charred and smashed after a collusion with another train, it resembles a scarred beast, rocketing loose on the tracks.

Alan Hume's photography is unfussy, reinforcing the downbeat tone with a muted colour palette that makes the film feel more like a documentary. Since this was the eighties, the score is based on synths, it is incredibly spare and alien - in fact, there is no score for the entire first act, until the introduction of the train. In look and feel, it feels out of time.

On its release in December 1985, Runaway Train was a critical success, with Voight and Roberts received Oscar nominations for their performances. It was Cannon's crowning achievement. A series of big budget flops and in-fighting between Golan and Globus would see the company collapse within five years of Runaway Train's release.

If you have a chance, check out Runaway Train. It has a few narrative contrivances, and some of the acting is rote, but these elements are relatively minor. As much of a high concept thriller as a character drama, Runaway Train is one of the most underrated films of the eighties, and the jewel in Cannon's crown. 

More than that, it is just great movie. Check it out.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

RAMBLIN' RANT: In which a SEVENTH SON gets TULIP FEVER and loses his mind

These reviews is prime evidence that a good cast does not a good movie make. I became a big fan of Alicia Vikander after I saw A Royal Affair and Ex Machina. And as with all actors you like, eventually you run into some pot holes - and that is where I am now with Vikander. 

Let's get to the movie which is currently in theatres.

Tulip Fever (dir. Justin Chadwick)
Set in the Netherlands during the tulip craze of the 17th Century, a young artist finds love and inspiration in a young married woman (Alicia Vikander) who is commissioned to paint. As their love grows, they come up with a plan to escape her wealthy husband (Christoph Waltz) and make a new life together... Whatever. 

The only good thing about this movie
This review is basically a public service announcement - if you saw the poster and thought it might be good, stay away. This movie is garbage. 

If you have seen any minor period movie since Shakespeare In Love, then you will have  a rough idea of what to expect with this. A young hot cast; based on a book; produced by the now-disgraced Harvey Weinstein. However, this movie feels like that trend reaching its endpoint.  

Right from the beginning, this movie is off. Like Rogue One, this movie speeds from character to character, and location to location so fast that nothing feels established. You don't know who the main character is you do not know what the plot is (for awhile), you do not know what the tone is, and by the end you do not know why you bothered watching this POS in the first place.

Watching this movie was like getting at a Ferris wheel. Everything is spinning and you cannot focus on anything.

The actors are stranded - I cannot tell if it is the script or the edit, but I could not get a handle on any of them. The movie is so chopped up and busy that I could not tell you who any of these people were. Vikander, DeHaan and Christoph Waltz all feel like they are in neutral. This is based on speculation but I feel like part of the reason I cannot describe these performances in more detail is because the movie never establishes any character for them to build off. Maybe there was a script or an edit where these performances were more developed. The supporting cast (Holly Grainger, Jack O'Connell and Judi Dench) are fine, but there is an abyss in the middle of this movie that dampens the impact of everyone's contributions. 

Ugh. Thinking about this movie makes me sick. Go see Thor: Ragnarok or Brigsby Bear instead. 

Seventh Son (dir. Sergei Bodrov, 2015)
The witch Queen Malkin (Julianne Moore) has escaped her prison just in time for the centennial blood moon. It falls to elderly witch hunter Gregory (Jeff Bridges) and his green apprentice Tom (Ben Barnes) to defeat Malkin and her army before the blood moon is full.

A throwback to eighties fantasy like Dragonslayer and Willow, it is easy to see why Seventh Son failed - a wooden protagonist; Jeff Bridges's strange accent; the rote story. It just lacks a little special something to stand out. However, on its own modest terms, Seven Son is fun.

The acting is a real mixed bag, and your mileage may vary as to how that affects your enjoyment.   Ben Barnes is a complete blank and Jeff Bridges buries himself in a fantasy version of his True Grit accent. It is absolute insanity. There is something kind of watchable about him, but not in the way the filmmakers intended.

Someone who needed to go for broke is Julianne Moore. One of the best actresses working today, she is weirdly off-game here, never finding the right take for her OTT villain.

Thankfully for this review the standout performance - and character -is Alicia Vikander as young half-witch Alice. She leans into the character's duality, giving Alice a small measure of ambiguity that makes her far more interesting than the role probably was on the page. Clearly an early gig (this movie was shot in 2012), she is utterly captivating in her few scenes.

This movie has three editors, and it has clearly been cut down to the nub. The film moves quickly through the key plot points to the ending, which improves its watchability but it means the movie lacks its own character. With Barnes in the lead, the character dynamics are leaden as hell. 

It is a pity because the movie is built on some interesting ideas about the nature of good and evil. Both Bridges and Moore are presented as cut from the same cloth - they are both willing to use the same methods to achieve their goals, with no concern for anyone who gets in the way. Their love - hate relationship is mirrored in the romance between Barnes and Vikander.  It is a potentially meaty subtext, but the movie is so anxious to move the plot forward that it never builds to anything interesting.

If you are in the mood for an amiable time-waster you could do worse than Seventh Son.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

IN THEATRES: Brigsby Bear

Okay, this one's a bit complicated. DEEP BREATH.

Unknowingly kidnapped as a baby, James (Kyle Mooney) has grown up knowing only two things: the underground bunker where he lives with his 'parents' (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), and the TV show Brigsby Bear, which is delivered to the bunker every week on old VHS tapes. Little does he know that Brigsby Bear has been created by his 'parents' as a way to manage his curiosity and imagination.

Rescued by the police and re-united with his real family, James struggles to adapt to the real world, a place which is much bigger than he is used to, and filled with things like parties, sex and movies on huge screens. The only thing that is missing is the next episode of Brigsby Bear.

Determined to know how the series ends, James realises there is only one thing he must do: finish the story of Brigsby Bear himself.

This movie is my favourite of the year so far.

There are so many elements of this story which, if portrayed in the wrong way, or with too much emphasis, could have tipped it over into simply disturbing. But the filmmakers manage to walk a tightrope, crafting an uplifting fable that never dips into overt sentiment or mawkishness. There is a melancholy to James's love for Brigsby Bear - it is both a connection to a life he cannot give up, and marks a deeper desire for self-expression that provide James with a bridge to his new life. 

The best part of James's (Kyle Mooney) trajectory is that it is entirely based on his own initiative and agency. Brigsby Bear is both the framework for his imprisonment, but it has also given James the tools he needs to break out of that framework.

At a subtextual level, the movie is an interesting examination of our relationship with cultural products. Despite its origins, Brigsby Bear is a typical children's educational programme, one which is designed with the purpose to stimulate young minds according to a specific intellectual and moral framework. What this movie emphasises is our ability to re-read and repurpose cultural products according to our own desires and beliefs (look at the po-mo resurrection of eighties action star Chuck Norris; for a more negative example, look at Pepe the frog). Despite the creators' intentions, the way an audience engages with a cultural product is never fixed. James' captors use Brigsby Bear as a vehicle for James's education and entertainment - they never consider it as a vehicle for James's own freedom of thought.

Kyle Mooney is brilliant as James. With a character as sheltered as this, it would be easy to  play him as a caricature or a joke, but Mooney roots James's awkwardness in the character's desire to learn. James is smart and caring - the tools he uses to express himself are just different from everyone around him. The movie's greatest success is that his emotional maturity is ultimately an outgrowth of his own personality. You get the sense that his resolution of Brigsby Bear is not the resolution of his own emotional journey, but an indicator that James is capable of finding his own way.

James's earnest belief in his goals is matched by his empathy and interest in other people. As someone who has grown up knowing only his 'parents', James is always open to new people and experiences. And what I loved about his characterisation is that his drive is based on a sense of empathy, a desire to connect with people. These qualities end up being the catalysts which enable his family and friends to rally around his dream of bringing Brigsby Bear to a conclusion. 

The whole cast are terrific. The great thing about all the performances is that they are all keyed into the movie's delicate handling of tone. Because the premise is based such a dark, complex issue, every component of the movie has to cater both to the hope underlying the central theme, and the complex emotional negotiations that James and his family have to go through in order to form some kind of bond.

There is an honesty about the performances of James's family (Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins and Ryan Simpkins) which provides the movie with a sense of real weight. Their roles are not showy, but they ground the movie in a sense of genuine grief and confusion that ensures that viewer is always aware of what this family has gone through. This juxtaposition between the family's tragedy with James's flights of fancy could have been an exercise in poor taste if this context were ignored or lampooned - but the filmmakers give this backstory the space it needs, and allow it to feed into the story in believable and nuanced ways (which I will not spoil).

James's collaborators are also terrific, and their interactions make for some of the movie's most deft pieces of character revelation. Jorge Leneborg Jr. is extremely likeable and believable as James's new friend Spencer, a budding young filmmaker who sees the potential in James's scheme. Alexia Demie is also good as Meredith, a young woman who brings James into the realm of adult sexuality - they share two significant scenes, and these scenes in particular exemplify the dramatic sleight of hand the script delivers.

A few random thoughts on the rest of the supporting players:

It's great to see Mark Hamill doing something this different - in addition to playing Terry, James's 'dad', he also gets to make use of his vocal talents, voicing all of the characters in Brigsby Bear. His characterisation for the show's villain bears a striking resemblance to his most famous animated role.

Greg Kinnear gets a small but scene-stealing role as Detective Vogel, a friendly cop involved with James's rescue. Beneath his bland exterior, Vogel has a secret regret: he wanted to be an actor. His re-discovery of his inner thespian is emblematic of how the movie portrays James's effect on other people: James shows an interest in his dream - with no ulterior motive - and unintentionally provides a platform for Kinnear's character to try achieving it. 

By the end of this movie, I actually wished I was the kind of person who cried at movies. This movie really hit me on a visceral level. Not only is it a study of overcoming trauma, Brigsby Bear is a tribute to the power of imagination and curiosity to enrich one's life and relationships. It is a love letter to creativity. And it is not the creativity of a single mind, but creativity as a shared, communal experience. 

Brigsby Bear is as weird and funny as you think it is, but it is also an extremely intelligent and empathetic portrayal of a man discovering the joys of human companionship. Just wonderful.

Friday, 3 November 2017

NZIFF 2017: Thrillers

Here is Part 3 of the Midnight Ramble's reviews from the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Six Days (dir. Toa Fraser)
From 30 April to 5 May, 1980, a group of Iranian Arab gunmen held a group hostages at the Iranian Embassy in London. Members of an ethnic minority, their ultimate aim was to gain sovereignty for the Arab-majority province of Khuzestan. After the Thatcher government refused to negotiate with the gunmen, the Special Air Service staged a raid on the Embassy building and killed the hostage-takers. The event signalled a major shift in the way governments dealt with hostage situations, and established the SAS in the public consciousness.

A dramatisation of the  siege, 6 Days is the new film from New Zealand filmmaker Toa Fraser.

Since his debut, No. 2, a decade ago, I have been fascinated by the breadth of his filmography: you have a family drama, a period piece with a dash of magical realism; The Deadlands, a straight-up action flick; and now this movie. It is great to see a local filmmaker avoid the usual paths of new filmmakers: A lucky few, like Peter Jackson and Roger Donaldson, get to go to Hollywood (which is no guarantee  of success in itself - see Lee Tamahori and Geoff Murphy). Others have carved out a career in TV (like Crush director Alison Maclean). Others fade into obscurity.

6 Days is not the first attempt to dramatize the siege. The action movie Who Dares Wins was released in 1982 starring Lewis Collins (from the TV series The Professionals). Basically a home-grown version of a Cannon film, it stirred up a bit of controversy for its jingoism, but is basically forgotten today.

Unlike the filmmakers behind Who Dares Wins, Fraser plays the events straight. He frames the story from several different perspectives - the leader of the SAS team (Jamie Bell); the police negotiator (Mark Strong); the leader of the terrorists (Ben Turner); the BBC reporter on scene for the final assault (Abbie Cornish); and the politicians attempting to work out the overall plan. These shifting perspectives prevent the movie from establishing an easy good - evil binary. This is not an action movie; it is meant as a docu-drama of the events and people involved.

Acting by most of the cast is good; particular standouts are Jamie Bell and Mark Strong.

Bell is fantastic as Rusty Firmin, the leader of the SAS team. He plays the role with no histrionics or machismo - he carries himself with the quiet confidence of a professional, not an action hero, and it adds to the movie's verisimilitude. It is a testament to Bell's abilities that this restrained, professional character remains highly compelling. But Rusty is not the most interesting character in the movie.

That character is Mark Strong's negotiator Max Vernon. Vernon is a man stuck between placating the hostage-takers and jumping through the various hoops the government keeps throwing in his way. While the preparations for the raid are propulsive and more 'cinematic', the negotiator's section of the movie is the most resonant aspect of the movie.

While the movie's fidelity to the real events is laudable, it works against the movie dramatically.

With all of these different perspectives, the movie lacks an overall sense of focus. The most dramatic plot lines are the SAS raid, and the police negotiator's relationship with the hostage-takers, yet these dramatic lines are watered down by cutaways to Cornish's Kate Adie  and the political machinations behind the scenes. While both of these subplots feed into the overall story, they feel padded out, and should have been cut down. Aside from her arrival at the finale, Adie's subplot is pointless - her role is just to wait outside and narrate what is going on.

Before the screening, Adie herself introduced the movie and related a tid-bit of information which was missing from the movie: Apparently she was not supposed to be at the embassy on the final day, but the senior correspondent left early because of a dinner party. This story, with its inference of casual sexism, could have given her character more of an arc, but the movie never references this twist of fate.

Ultimately 6 Days is a decent movie, but it is not as good as it could be.

Malglutit (AKA Searchers, dir. Zachariah Kunnik)
When his wife and daughter are kidnapped, a father and his surviving son head out into the unforgiving cold to get them back.

Throughout this movie, I was wondering what a Hollywood take on this would look like. That lack of an outside perspective is one of the most interesting aspects of this film. What I liked about this movie was the lack of ethnographic exposition about the characters' culture and lifestyle. Had this story been framed through an outsider's lens, I'm sure this would have been foregrounded in an unnatural way. Writer-director Zachariah Kunnik handles the story with an emphasis on functionality and narrative economy. He trusts the audience to figure out what is going.

With its laser focus on characters trying to survive in a tough environment, this movie feels like a distant cousin of Mad Max: Fury Road. While the heroes are defined by their communal spirit, the villains are defined by their selfishness, which in this environment is incredibly destructive.

Like Fury Road, at its most basic level Malglutit is a western. The story was inspired by John Ford's The Searchers, only without that film's racial dynamics. Instead, the moral delineations are based on the characters' relationship with notions of survival.

The western influence is most overt at a visual level. Alternating between roving handheld close-ups and still wide shots, the film evokes the iconography of the western, but instead of the POV being that of white colonists entering alien territory, it is indigenous characters making their way through an environment that they understand and have a relationship with.

On a purely aesthetic level, there are several shots in the film which are genuinely jaw-dropping: marvellous vistas in which our heroes are tiny figures dwarfed by white plains and jagged mountain ranges. One of the most striking examples of this visual style (and one of the most thematically resonant) is the final showdown, which is framed an extreme long shot with hero and villain positioned in the corner of the frame. Humanity's struggles are more incidental to the environment they live in.

As far as the characterisation and acting goes, it is very spare. As the protagonist Kuanana, Benjamin Kunuk manages to feel like an ordinary guy, rather than some kind of one-note vigilante. My personal favourite was Karen Ivalu as Kuanana's wife Tagaq. Though she is a prisoner, she is always trying to escape. Her best moment is also one of the film's funniest sequences - her kidnapper demands a cup of tea and she splashes him in the face with it. Great stuff.

The other notable aspect of the film is the score, by Tanya Tagaq and Chris Crilly. A mix of synth textures and a variety of human vocalisations, it acts another layer that removes the film from a western frame, while functioning in a similar way.

It takes a little bit of time to get going, but once the chase begins this movie becomes extremely accomplished thriller. Pleasingly stripped-down, the film does not try to elaborate on its central premise and is all the better for it.

A strong example of a different perspective on a familiar idea, Maliglutit is worth checking out.

Other festival reviews


Live Cinema


Tuesday, 31 October 2017

AFS Screenings: The Last Command & Ministry of Fear

Here are my last reviews of the Auckland Film Society screenings for 2017. This year's screenings offered a great selection of movies, and these screenings have made for some nice deviations from all the new releases I have watched. Let's start with the Academy Award-winning The Last Command.

The Last Command (Joseph von Stenberg, 1928)
An elderly Russian immigrant (Emil Jannings) working as an extra in Hollywood reminisces about his previous life as a high-ranking member of the imperial aristocracy in the former Russian Empire.

I first heard about this film in a biography of the great director Ernst Lubitsch. Reportedly, he had heard the story and passed it on to a writer, who then turned it into a script. For whatever reason, Lubitsch's involvement ended there and the movie was helmed by Joseph von Stenberg, the director of Marlene Dietrich's most famous films in the 30s.

Leading man Emil Jannings was one of the great character actors of German cinema who made the move to Hollywood. His reputation declined after he returned to Germany to work in the Nazi films. As the General, Jannings is great. His style is more theatrical than contemporary viewers may be used to, but he also displays an understanding of the medium - he makes good use of his eyes and economic body movements to convey the character's discipline and confidence.

It is an extremely cinematic performance, in that he understands how to moderate his performance for the camera - this is particularly evident in his portrayal of the character after the revolution. A broken man after the fall of Imperial Russia, he is a hunched, twitchy figure - a total contrast from the dynamic, haughty character he is in his prime.

For his performance, Jannings won the inaugural Best Actor Oscar at the first Academy Awards. He remains the only German actor to win the trophy.

The rest of the cast are all fine, but it is hard to pick any other standouts. One notable cast member is William Powell. It is strangely poignant to watch the future star here - in just over a year, sound would sweep Jannings out of fashion while offering Powell a chance at stardom.

The movie is remarkable for more than just Jannings' performance. Joseph Von Sternberg delivers some incredible sequences - the way he intercuts between the general's party on his train, and the collapse of the Imperial state, juxtaposing the personal story against broader historical events.

The other notable sequence is the ending, in which real and reel life collide. Now working on a film about the revolution, and playing himself, the General reverts to his old self. Dressed in a rough facsimile of his former finery, he orders his 'troops' to fight on and save Russia. He then collapses and dies before the cameras.

Certain elements don't stand up as well - I was not sold on the romantic subplot - but as an example of what silent cinema can accomplish, The Last Command is terrific.

Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944)
Released from an asylum during the Blitz, Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is ready to return to normal life. But after he wins a cake at a local fair, events take a turn. A blind man attacks him on a train; he is accused of murder at a séance; a suitcase he is carrying turns out to be a bomb. Someone wants Neale out of the picture. With the police on his tail, and an unseen enemy in the wings, Neale is in a race against time to find out what is going on.

I have not watched too many Fritz Lang pictures, and that number is even lower for his Hollywood work. Prior to this I had only seen the terrific noir The Big Heat, and While The City Sleeps, which I can barely remember.

Adapted from a novel by Graham Greene (The Third Man, The Quiet American), Ministry of Fear is a really solid thriller with a palatable air of dread and paranoia. The basic plot mechanics are standard, but the atmosphere that this movie generates overrides any of its more prosaic components. The first half of the movie in particular is great as an exercise in mounting confusion as our hero is buffeted by events he cannot predict or control.

Shot entirely in a studio, Ministry of Fear's clearly artificial, limited mise-en-scene works in its favour. There is a sense of claustrophobia to the diegesis which - when combined with Lang's direction - roots the viewer in the protagonist's limited POV. As viewers, we feel as trapped as Neale does. The hyper-real settings only reinforce the sensation that Neale has found himself in an uncanny mirror of reality that he cannot comprehend or escape.

Fritz Lang's direction is the star here - it is not flashy or as innovative as his famous work, but it is fascinating as an example of a singular filmmaker working within the framework of classical Hollywood. And for a Graham Greene adaptation made under the Production Code, Lang's involvement is a major asset. Even in his 'entertainments', Greene's pessimism and adult themes did not generally find favour in Hollywood (which is why The Third Man and Brighton Rock - both British productions - were more representative and successful examples of his work).

Even though certain story elements have clearly been softened (Neale's reason for being in an asylum; the tacked-on happy ending), Lang's roots in German Expressionism allow him to undercut the clearly defined morality of the Hays Code by contradicting what the characters say with a clever use of mise-en-scene and cinematography (once again, see the scene in which Neale explains why he was in the asylum).

The acting is all good - Milland makes for a strong, empathetic lead - but the acting overall is solid rather than spectacular. It is a thrill when Dan Duryea shows up as a minor heavy (particularly the scene in the tailor's), but he is not in the movie enough to make a real impression.

With its hero trying to investigate a conspiracy, the story feels like something Hitchcock would have made - albeit minus the sexual dynamics or humour that decorated The 39 Steps or The Lady Vanishes. This is not a major deficit, but once the conspiracy comes into focus, the movie becomes more conventional, with the focus shifting toward a romantic subplot that feels more like a convention than a natural part of the movie.

While it is no masterpiece, Ministry of Fear remains a highly entertaining example of classical noir. Definitely worth a look.

Previous AFS reviews

Purple Noon (2015)

The Servant 

Eyes Without A Face 

Night of the Demon (2016)

Grand Central

Tales of Hoffman


Friday, 27 October 2017

IN THEATRES: Thor - Ragnarok

After he is ejected from Asgard during a battle with Hella (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) finds himself stranded on a strange world of scavengers, gladiatorial combat and Jeff Goldblum. Teaming up with the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Thor has to come up with a plan to escape and save Asgard from Hella's wrath.

This movie is awesome.

I was not a fan of the previous Thor movies -- they were a bit all over the place, and the character never made sense as the centre of attention - he always seemed to fit better as a straight man to the Avengers. But right from the announcement, everything about this movie sounded awesome: the premise; the director; the cast (Goldblum, Blanchett, and Creed's Tessa Thompson). And the first trailer was so much fun, it just validated my excitement.

Because Thor's previous films have never had a real consistent identity in terms of style or tone, he is the perfect vehicle for Taika Waititi's special brand of silliness.

This movie is silly - wonderfully so. The plot is not particularly complicated, the character arcs are fairly simple, and the stakes are not particularly high. But my god, as a comedy Thor: Ragnarok is perfect.

Thor's previous movies have flirted with the more ridiculous aspects of his world, but never has the potential been exploited as thoroughly here. After clearing the slate of the previous movies' plot threads, Waititi drops Thor into the colourful world of Sakaar - a wonderful hodgepodge of different aesthetics layered on top of each other with no regard for design or purpose.

Taking up most of the second act, Thor's Sakaar-based adventures are the film's highlight, as the befuddled god-ling bounces from set piece to set piece, and environment to environment, with no control over what happens. He is also de-powered, becoming something of an everyman.

These movies are not good at character development. It's the downfall of almost all of the movies, even the best ones (Spider-Man: Homecoming suffered a bit from this), and so while the movie is built on Thor taking on his father's mantle, that struggle never feels that important, and the focus on the yucks and the supporting players helps carry the movie to the finish line.

Along with Waititi's directorial talents, a large part of the movie's success is the cast. Hemsworth has always been good as Thor, but here he seems looser and more alive. Pushing his character's characteristic braggadocious-ness into complete buffoonish-ness, Hemsworth becomes a gleeful part of Waititi's crazy gumbo.

The Hulk gets another great showcase, going from ball of rage to petulant teenager, shifting between berserker rage and insecurity that no body likes him. While Mark Ruffalo does make a welcome return, this is the first time that the Hulk felt like a genuine character, rather than just a force that the other characters have to contend with.

And then there is Tessa Thompson as the hard-living, hard-drinking Valkyrie. I've been a fan of hers for awhile, and she does not disappoint here. Not only is she a badass, the filmmakers make sure she is a part of the fun - too often female heroes have to be the straight man to the jokes, but Valkyrie is just irreverent as everyone else. Her insistence on maintaining her alcoholism is a running joke that is hackneyed as hell, but they find enough natural variations on the trope that never gets tired. What was also interesting is that her drinking is never used as a signifier of her growth (ala Dean Martin in Rio Bravo) - it ends up being a sign of her own agency. She'll help the big galoot, but that doesn't mean she has to do everything he says.

Cate Blanchett has a great time, coming on like a combination of Angelica Huston's Queen Witch from The Witches (1990) and the shifty CEO of a dubious start-up company. Compared with most Marvel villains, she has far more personality. As with Thompson, Blanchett is not isolated from Waititi's nonsense, but an active participant and catalyst. Her interactions with Karl Urban's Skurge are a delight.

The movie is filled with great minor characters. Waititi gives himself a great supporting role as Korg, an average joe gladiator who looks like an old paddock wall. NZ theatre heavyweight (and Waititi collaborator) Rachel House is also great as the Grandmaster's no-nonsense second-in-command, Topaz. 

Karl Urban's role as Skurge is small, but he gets his own little character arc which is kind of poignant. His character ends up highlighting the movie's one central theme - all the characters have a desire to feel valued, and the movie is about all of them finding that value (or not). 

And then there is Jeff Goldblum. 

This is no stunt casting. This is a real Jeff Goldblum performance. With their unified aesthetic and tone, Marvel movies can sometimes smother unique voices, but within Taika Waititi's Cocoon of Inanities, Jeff is allowed to go the full Goldblum. 

Playing an egomaniacal tyrant can be somewhat limiting, but Goldblum offsets the character's ego with his trademark neurosis, creating a contradiction that makes the Grandmaster seem more threatening and unpredictable, and giving the movie some of its darkest laughs.

In tone the movie is vaguely reminiscent of John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China, with Thor as the befuddled, overconfident Jack Burton (Kurt Russell). The colour palette is bright and vibrant, the mise-en-scene resembles a mid-nineties video game and the character design recalls the artwork of comic book legend Jack Kirby. While it is not as memorable as the Led Zeppelin song that recurs through the movie, the score by Mark Mothersbaugh adds another layer of zaniness to proceedings, pulling Thor: Ragnarok further away from the MCU into its own surreal plane of existence.

The story is a little shaggy, but it fits the loose, comedic feel of the movie. Even once the movie heads into the home stretch, the tonal shift is a benefit to the usual bombast. And the film's conclusion puts a neat spin on the usual 'one all-powerful thing vs another all-powerful thing', with our heroes more concerned with helping people escape than the mayhem.

This movie is a great time. The laughs come beginning to end, and the usual formula never feels like its reining in the madness. The characters, old and new, are funny and memorable, and I'm hoping we get to see more of them in the future.

Go see it multiple times with friends and alcoholic beverages.