Enough Said? Notes on James Gandolfini

This post originally appeared on RogerEbert.com on 4 November, 2013. http://www.rogerebert.com/balder-and-dash/enough-said-notes-on-james-gandolfini/ 

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Turning and turning in the widening gyre of 2014 Oscar predictions, a nomination for James Gandolfini in Nicole Holofcener’s “Enough Said” is making the rounds as choice gossip. Already a decorated actor, who died suddenly of a heart attack in June this year, Gandolfini was yet to play a love interest in a romantic comedy—with perhaps the shady exception of “Romance & Cigarettes “(which is excellent). If you were fortunate to know the actor outside of the nefarious family man Tony in David Chase’s operatic “The Sopranos,” you may have observed with what equanimity he played tough guys and military men who were impaired by their shortcomings or haunted by personal failures. He didn’t become Tony until he was in his late thirties, but placed on either side of his smaller roles in film, Tony becomes the centerpiece—a life of compromised masculinity that the performer both deliberately and inadvertently channeled through his craft.

When he wasn’t a wise guy, Gandolfini undercut martial stature with a series of soldier parts. In “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” Big Dave Brewster is a buffoon whose every gesture he flitters out like a punch line, sparring with an invisible opponent. At this stage (2001), well into his status as the Don of New Jersey, it is an impressive feat to find a distance from Tony. The Coens, aware of this task, make his size a little more ridiculous; he sits small in his suit, the cigars are bigger. He is also briefly featured in a frilled apron, which I take as a little wink to Edward G. Robinson’s uncharacteristic attire in “Scarlet Street”.

In “The Last Castle,” opposite the impossibly virtuous Robert Redford, Gandolfini plays bureaucratic prison warden, Colonel Winter. He wears glasses that magnify his eyes to a cartoonish dimension. His speech is so precise on every consonant—every syllable issued with such desperate control—that his buttoned-down repression makes him figure pathetic, wound so tight that his shame in Redford’s war-hero shadow, is screaming from behind his pursed lips. We feel everything he doesn’t say.

In Armando Ianucci’s sensational “In The Loop,” he is another military man whose experience and jurisdiction is constantly called into question. His vitriolic encounter with Peter Capaldi sees him again made a fool of and his playroom war strategies with the gorgeous Mimi Kennedy reflect how ludicrous it is that anyone should project expectations onto a man based on his position, or his battle history. Kennedy warns that he tread with care in that child’s bedroom. He picks the paper up off the floor and dolefully (and delightfully) scrunches it between his hands.

Apart from Tony Soprano, “Killing Them Softly” was the first of his roles to magnanimously swathe esteem and place an aura of splendour around the actor. It wears its homages to gangster films and “The Sopranos” like scouts badges, which in itself is a kind of mimicry of the show. He plays Mickey, a hired gun on parole, recruited by Jackie (Brad Pitt) to help him carry out a hit. The warm tones of the restaurant’s décor are coloured around his tinted steel frames. He gives a monologue—about his wife wanting a divorce, and him wanting her back—and the camera keeps with him, drawing us into his sorrow without actually moving. He moves us. His body turned away from Pitt, his brow flexing as he loses his argument with himself, his gaze falling to another place, a different conversation. His gestures imply the space between New Orleans and his home. We imagine that this place is New Jersey.

In “The Sopranos” pilot, Chase and Gandolfini were still configuring the episode structure, tuning tonal kinks—they knew not what it was. They use voice-over for the first and last time. Tony Soprano hadn’t yet that buttery, heavy-tongued Jersey accent that Gandolfini perfected by the time the show was picked up. He is already an intimidating figure, standing taller than all of his co-stars. When Christopher boasts that he should go to Hollywood, Tony violently pulls him up from out of his chair, as if his nephew were made of straw. According to Chase, this was Gandolfini’s suggestion. It bears a striking resemblance to Brando’s sudden accost of Al Martino early in “The Godfather” (also a conversation about Hollywood). Brando was a method actor. He gained weight. He wore weights in his jaw to sag his cheeks. Gandolfini didn’t need to accessorize his volcanic nature; just illuminate it, with the occasional cigar.

Learning Tony’s tells is part of the engagement that “The Sopranos” offers. Tony is a prolific liar, to everyone he knows, including himself. In the program’s fifth episode, “College,” he lifts that awed expression to Hawthorne’s words, “No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” Gandolfini is, like Tony, an excellent liar, most particularly when viewers are in on it, when we know the truth, whether Tony does or doesn’t. Tony understands Hawthorne’s words. His look is not one of confusion, but of a concealed fear at his impossible situation. What truths these lies reveal about the character are headily immersive—enormous—and it’s probably the point at which “The Sopranos” became cinema, and it was partly because Gandolfini could lie to us convincingly and unconvincingly at once.

He met with a challenge early in the third season of the show when actress Nancy Marchand (who played Tony’s mother Livia) died during the hiatus, causing a major story restructure and the need for a graceful cover-up. Tony visits Livia to discuss her recent arrest for trying to use stolen airline tickets that he had palmed off on her. Gandolfini has a conversation with a body-double in a chair, and a digital patchwork of Marchand’s shining moments gather some likeness of her being. It isn’t entirely a success, but Gandolfini is still marvellous. Tony’s anxiety at the possibility of his own mother testifying against him is conveyed with abrupt despondency. He is rushed, flustered, pacing and grabbing for all kinds of props and conversation to fill a significant void. It also recalls their first argument in the pilot episode, and is orchestrated beautifully, considering the mournful circumstance.

In the final episodes of “The Sopranos,” when Tony’s monster is revealed and then abruptly banished from Dr Melfi’s office—a harsh farewell that forces us to engage the criminal—Gandolfini made the transformation seamless. All these feelings toward this sociopath have been dormant within us, glimpsed on several occasions but concealed, seen through the eyes of those who love him much stronger than those averse to him. We were suddenly accountable. Our desire for a positive outcome for Tony finally appears perverse, wrong, and impossible. In the last moment, we finally learn what it is to be Tony. What the world looks like to him. What every scene must have felt like for its star. There again, for the last time, was that awed expression. And then the light went out on “The Sopranos”.

It is difficult to distill such an immense performance—in terms of substance, not just duration—into a few paragraphs. Gandolfini was his best opposite Edie FalcoMichael Imperioli and Vincent Curatola. All altercations and sentiments shared between he and them, those breaths between words, when his eyes would gaze into theirs, those fleeting seconds of silence, full of passionate intensity, those forlorn endeavours to placate one another, hard blinking, truth striking, truth erupting, are when his sad eyes can hold the entire room in orbit.

With few exceptions, James Gandolfini played men who were in conflict with the limits of their masculinity; a gangster who has panic attacks (“The Sopranos”); a military man who has never been in combat (“The Last Castle”, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and—in some sense—”Not Fade Away”); a monster who fears abandonment (“Where The Wild Things Are”); a hit man whose addictions have numbed him (“Killing Them Softly”); a brute whose first kill haunts him (“True Romance“); a kidnapper who befriends his hostage (“The Mexican“). His legacy offers years of a man’s life and the sum of his parts form a vivid, and beautiful semblance of modern manhood. It is a rare combination of choice and accident that an actor’s roles should narrate such an assemblage. He was an artist. He had something to say.

 

Film Review: Pain and Gain

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pain and gain
It’s 1994. Bodybuilder and personal trainer, Daniel Lugo, takes a rundown gymnasium and turns it into a resort with tight, tanned strippers at poolside and oiled-up buff guns pumping iron, all shining and shimmering in Miami’s rippling eternal day. Lugo, despite his flair for physical makeovers, wishes to extend his eye to painting his entire world as a reflection of his personal, physical success but he doesn’t have the dough that his clients do, and his “thoughts” – if you can call them that – are incapable of penetrating the cosmetic. Danny, though he doesn’t know it, is a moron.

After convincing fellow trainer Adrian (Anthony Mackie) that he should have a life worthy of his body, the two encounter a third accomplice, ex-con/weight lifter/born-again Paul (Dwayne Johnson), and devise a plan to kidnap Lugo’s wealthy client, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), and extort his property and wealth by torturing him until he signs it over. Though the enormous Doyle is reluctant, partly convinced that what Lugo suggests is perhaps not a good idea, he is pacified by Danny’s “I’m a doer” attitude, and inspired, by the immortal (and wonderfully potent/transparent) words:

“I’ve watched a lot of movies, Paul, I know what I’m doing.”

It is no particular flex for Wahlberg to play dumb. This role was practically written with his credits in mind. In Lugo he combines the naïve, underclass Derk Diggler of Boogie Nights with the wily, however manic Tommy Corn of I Heart Huckabees but it is actually his own invention – and not so much his cinematic history of affectionate folly, that most suits him to Daniel Lugo – that of 90s rapper-come-Calvin-Klein-model (or was it the other way around?), Marky Mark. Wahlberg did himself live what Daniel Lugo would consider the high life in the mid-90s before P.T. Anderson extended an opportunity. And there is a wink to those white briefs that’s hard to miss.

Bay is all style, and often to the point that his films are un-viewable, and like Danny, his intentions (if any) rarely penetrate the cosmetic surface of his craft. However, here, the style not only informs that content, the two are completely, artfully inspired by one another. Such a marriage was likewise achieved in another recent Floridian film, Soderbergh’s Magic Mike.

The use of Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ is profound. The tragedy of the song’s lyrics works beautifully with the fate of the film’s subjects and the song’s own reputation, or misrepresentation by (some) fans – based largely on its style – is so cleverly camouflaged by Bay’s 90s artifice. The entire film looks like a music video, from slow-motion strutting to camcorder Jeep cruising to fluoro-thonged booty-watching.

Though it appears to come as a surprise to some, Pain And Gain is largely a comedy – in the precise way that The Sopranos was. The dialogue is full of malapropism and wordplay, but delivered with such humourless, heartfelt persuasion by Wahlberg, that many of the lines – certainly in the theatre I viewed it in – were not met with the laughter they deserved.
Lugo, with a sense of purpose that enables him to lie his way through every stockade they meet, navigates fearlessly through a myriad of fuck-ups. The film piles the fumbles and failures of these men on so high that it’s dizzying, and then the way in which they address these hurdles – exchanging a chainsaw that was used to dismember someone at a hardware store – is excruciating and hilarious.

Ironically, the film’s comic compliment is dislocated by the presence of comedians Rebel Wilson and Ken Jeong, who belong to an evolution of humour that not only doesn’t suit the true-to-life story or genuine convictions of the criminal trio, it doesn’t suit the 90s and unfortunately these two are, at times, distracting. However, their talents elsewhere forgive them this trespass.
Dwayne Johnson doesn’t appear to get the joke, which is the best compliment to his performance. The arrival of Ed Harris as Ed Du Bois and Michael Rispoli (essential Sopranos cast member) as king pin Frank Griga give the film its second wind after a brief cool-down following the torture scenes. Harris, the only throw back to the golden age gangster flick, is a handsome, retired private eye with a voice so rich and sweet, it will rouse an attraction in the actor that even his long-time admirers haven’t felt before. Du Bois is also the narrator, whose mysterious vocals introduce the film into a noir framework, swathing Bay’s gangster’s paradise with even more Miami heat. Pain And Gain, though a small-scale story for Bay, is cinema on steroids and it sweats style.

Tribute to James Gandolfini and Tony Soprano

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tony dream

To know me, is to know that I’m a fanatical devotee of The Sopranos. I received enough condolences today from friends and even people that I’ve never met expressing their sorrow at the passing of actor James Gandolfini, that anyone would think I knew him personally (though, of course, I didn’t). I was first made aware of him as Bear in Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty (1995), a stunt man who moonlights as muscle for a gangster, involving his three-year-old daughter in his operations. Though initially an antagonist to Travolta’s character, Chili Palmer, Bear became an ally, and my young heart swelled for this bear-like person, this brute, yet compassionate, criminal.

I didn’t catch onto the Sopranos craze until about 10 years later when I was 17, electing (unlike the majority of my year 12 colleagues) to study this show over Degrassi Junior High for our media class. At the same time, in my literature class, I was studying W.B Yeats’ poetry and a correlation between the two had been well established before the Dr. Melfi uttered the prophetic warning “the falcon cannot hear the falconer” (from The Second Coming) during a therapy session in season four. The show became, for me and thousands of others, the great serial poem about of the end of civilisation, or as a friend describes it, the great American novel of the 21st century.

I should also admit, although it is well known to many, that I have obstinately refused to watch the final episode of the series that first aired six years ago on HBO. My reasons hardly make sense to me anymore, aside from the promise that there is another chapter waiting, that I’ve denied myself, 59 final minutes of drama with my loved ones. I am not deaf to the glory or, for some, the disdain of the show’s final moments, but perhaps this tragedy, which would incontrovertibly offer some of Gandolfini’s finest work, is a reason for me finally say farewell to Tony and the Sopranos.

In the pilot episode, Chase and Gandolfini are still working out some tonal kinks in regards to the basic structure of show. The Tony Soprano voice isn’t yet the buttery, gargled, thick-tongued Jersey brogue that Gandolfini perfected by the time The Sopranos was picked up. He was already an intimidating figure, and memorably a character actor whose roles were mostly of an underworld variety and filling the shoes of a mafia boss – the sort of characters that have turned the great performances in American history from Brando, De Niro and Pacino – was a relatively seamless step for the heavy-footed, little known performer.

Gandolfini was met with a challenge early in the third season, when actress Nancy Marchand, who played his reproachful mother Livia, died during the hiatus of the show, causing a major story restructure and the need for a graceful cover-up, so that the show may continue without interruption. Tony visits his mother to discuss her recent arrest for trying to use stolen airline tickets that he had given her. Gandolfini has a conversation with a body-double in a chair, and a digital patchwork of Marchand’s shining moments attempt to gather some semblance of her absent being. It isn’t entirely a success, but Gandolfini is still marvellous. Tony’s anxiety at the possibility of his own mother testifying against him is conveyed with abrupt despondency from the actor. He is rushed, flustered, pacing and grabbing for all kinds of props and conversation to fill the voids. It is also just another destructive encounter for Tony, and it is carried off with true reverence, considering the mournful circumstance.

Early in season six, Tony is shot by his uncle several times and goes into a coma. Usually actors do little more than play dead when this fate befalls their vessel, but Tony wanders a dream state as a different person. Gandolfini drops the accent, he looses the brooding impatience, or causal indifference, that Tony has with the service industry, and becomes a polite, though somewhat frustrated salesman who forgets his name and is mistook for a guy named Kevin Finnerty. That a television actor should have the opportunity to demonstrate an out of body experience, is a situation that is commonly associated with sitcom, or soap opera, and (while The Sopranos is largely a soap opera) audiences grimaced at the absence of their boss, instead of watching, with wonder, this new and totally alien incarnation.

There is always an immense pleasure in learning and recognising Tony’s tells. He is a prolific liar, to everyone he knows – and as Gandolfini raises that dough-eyed, lazy-jawed expression to Hawthorne’s words, “No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true,” it is perhaps a little early in the program for Gandolfini to grasp precisely the proliferation of this performance in his career or in motion picture history, but he like Tony, was an excellent liar and most particularly when viewers were in on it, when we knew the truth, whether Tony did or didn’t. Tony understood Hawthorne’s words. His look was not one of confusion, but of a concealed fear at his impossible situation. He realises that his centre of deceit cannot hold in every aspect of his existence. What truth those lies revealed about the character was headily immersive, only because Gandolfini was able to lie convincingly and unconvincingly simultaneously.

Where we would follow him, Gandolfini would lead, and in the final episodes of The Sopranos, when the laughter had long ended, and Tony’s monster was slowly revealed and then abruptly banished from Dr. Melfi’s office; a harsh, bitter farewell that finally tore the veil from our eyes, that forced us to engage the criminal, the animal, the beast. Gandolfini made the transformation seamless, as though all these feelings toward this sociopath had been dormant within us, glimpsed on several occasions but hidden, seen through the eyes of those that loved him much stronger than those who felt nothing but aversion.

It is difficult to distil such an enormous performance into a few paragraphs. Gandolfini was the best opposite Edie Falco and Michael Imperioli, all altercations and sentiments shared between them are easily his finest work. Those breaths between words, when his eyes would gaze down at either of these actors, these strong, fleeting moments of silence – brimming with sound and fury – truth striking, truth wounding, are when Gandolfini’s sad eyes could hold the entire room in orbit.

SFF 2013 Film Review: Everyday

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everydayThe word “everyday” – and not “every day” – suggests that perhaps this film, shot in a documentary style (with four children who are actually brothers and sisters) over a period of 2 years intends to capture an essence of, perhaps ironically, the spectacle of the ordinary day-to-day existence of its’ subjects: a single mother, Karen (Shirley Henderson), with four children who often visit their father, Ian (John Simm), in prison. The circumstances are not common, yet Winterbottom’s fictional story renders them as commonly as he can. The film’s mundaneness does churn a kind of lust for some devastating plot twist, or at least something momentous borne of the true relationship of these children, thrown into a pretence and then instructed to act like themselves, or not act at all. There appears to be enough control – whether cleaned up in post, or directed – that keeps the film, true to its design, as boring as humanly possible. And yes, this plainness, this artful reconstruction of the “everyday” is by no means ironic, it is in fact so accurate, that it’s somewhat off-putting.

Henderson, whose severity makes her an actress deeply suited to comedic or tragic extremes, brings a morbidity to Karen that alienates her from the young actors playing her children. They appear to be frightened of her. Although Winterbottom is sympathetic to her struggle – a woman who travels long distances to see her husband, works at local pub, is put-on by her husband’s neglectful mother, considers an affair with another man – Karen doesn’t seem to have any connection to the children. Her time spent with them exhausts her, and there is no moment in the film when she finds any joy in their company. She is their slave.

The scenes when Simm is visited in prison are great, if only for the two parents’ struggle to communicate honestly with each other in the presence of their children. They almost speak through them, laying blame for their son’s misbehaviour on her neglect or his influence in harsh whispers, followed by long silences. Simm’s prison time is only captured in his comings and goings from his cell. The cellmate may change, the room may change and his conditions of exit are gradually eased, permitting him to take outings with his family, on the order that he bring himself back to gaol. There is some freedom or respite in these outings, but the time is limited and both mother and father – the lovers – must return and complete their mutual sentences of imprisonment. It is a harbouring viewing experience, and rightly should be, because it bestows a sense of time that is enormous (it only runs for 106 minutes) and offers a contraceptive warning, that single-parenting, and loving a large family, is something you will have to do every single day.

SFF 2013 Film Review: The Land Of Hope

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land of hopeHaving only experienced Sion Sono through his previous film Himizu (which was an alienating experience), his new and apparently most “mature” effort, The Land Of Hope, was very much a pleasant surprise.

Set during a nuclear meltdown at the fictional prefecture of Nagashima, the film has a contemporary setting that interacts with the recent trauma of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, by acknowledging it into it’s parallel existence through the second-hand stories of it’s characters. Nagashima has a small township and a farming community to supply it. The story centres on the Ono and Suzuki families, both farmers and neighbours, and both made up of 2 parents, one adult son and their sons’ partners.

There a many moments of astounding beauty – too many to list – and one of the finest is the point at which the threat becomes real, and the barricade that renders Nagashima uninhabitable is erected right in Yasuhiko Ono’s front garden. Yasuhiko hears the evacuation sirens and runs out of the house to see men in radiation suits securing the area. The scene begins in black and white, like the extremes of the old man’s fear becoming reality – but also a frightening memory – and then colour is gradually, seamlessly returned to the frame, as he accepts this, and he becomes the first character to accept his fate. Yasuhiko is also haunted by the barricade stakes being driven into his land, a loud mallet hammering them deep like nails in his coffin, and later his son, Yoichi, shares this vision, of the stakes between them, of death barricading him from his father.

A similar case is Mitsuro Suzuki and his girlfriend Yoko’s shared experience with two small children wandering the evacuated township. In their efforts to search for Yoko’s parents, they briefly encounter a young boy and girl looking for a Beatles record in the wreckage. The little girl muses that Japan must move one step at a time, with a ritualistic demonstration of these steps, and a chant “One step. One step.” Mitsuru and Yoko are young adults and a little reckless, they dismiss this with detached remarks along the lines of “how do they know who the Beatles are?” and “they are very mature for their age,” but they are, were and will become this shared vision as they, and the film, progress.

With a magnificent, tragic score and suggestions of Ozu, The Land Of Hope is a mirror into which Japan may gaze to see it’s past of war and disaster, of modernity, of cinema, of ceremony, and mostly of the nation’s spirit, captured beautifully in a traditional dance at an imagined Spirit Festival that Yasuhiko’s wife, Chieko, recreates in the empty, snow-covered streets. Sono has composed a heartfelt love letter to his homeland that is also, in part, a eulogy. The Land Of Hope is definitely something to seek out and a favourite of the festival so far.

SFF 2013 Film Review: A Hijacking

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A Hijacking 2The opening scene of A Hijacking has Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), the chef aboard the cargo ship ‘Rozen’ calling his wife from the ship and apologising that he will be home 2 days late. Little does Mikkel know that the 2 day delay he predicted will drag out to months, when the ship is suddenly hijacked in the Indian Ocean, a few days short of Mumbai.

Though we get a glimpse of the sea life before the ship is seized, it is actually the corporate setting of Orion Seaways in Copenhagen that we are made familiar with and the particularly tactful and intelligent sales skills of its CEO, Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling). We first meet Peter taking over a deal that one of his employees is trying to finalise with a Japanese company and we learn quickly of his flair as a negotiator, and almost in the same scene, he learns that one of his ships has been hijacked by Somali pirates.

Peter and the board of Orion Seaways enlist the aid of Connor, a British professional who deals in terrorism and hijacking, and refuting Connor’s advice to bring in a third party to communicate with the pirates, Peter decides that he is the best man for the job.

Back on the ship, Mikkel, his captain and his friend Jan have been isolated from the other four crewmen on the ship. The captain has fallen ill, and Mikkel continues his duties as chef to a new, heavily armed and foreign leadership. He is soon introduced to Omar, who explains that he is only the translator between the pirates and Orion Seaways, though this information is suspicious and Omar is a person whose importance and power appear greater than he infers – a guise that may form part of their ransom practice.

The film is enthralling, and more so in the clean, corporate HQ that’s on the other end of the line. The pressure begins to eat away at Peter, as days turn to weeks and to months of negotiations. The events from the Copenhagen end play out like a game of cards, with bets being exchanged and reviewed carefully by both sides to see whose bluff will be called, as the stakes are raised and price reworked. It is an unusual occurrence in the current cinema, and perhaps because it is not an American hostage film, to see such a dangerous situation handled without any military action. The film could have worked beautifully on just the conversations between Peter and Omar, which are tense, nerve-wracking and show director Tobias Lindholm’s and Søren Malling’s obvious talent for drama.

SFF 2013 Film Review: The Human Scale

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human scaleThe Human Scale takes a single hypothesis, that traffic in urban areas is detrimental to people’s social health, and with the counsels, and city planners of many of the world’s fastest growing cities, considers planned and practised solutions to the un-organic manner in which people interact in mega cities.

The stars of the documentary are Gehl Architects, a Scandinavian company headed by Jan Gehl, a man whose research into the human activity of inner-city spaces has inspired architects world wide for over 40 years. Where cities have been planned around vehicles (privately owned cars) for the last 100 years, Gehl is interested in measuring pedestrian traffic and activity, the “human scale”, and takes his research to Dhaka, New York, Melbourne, Chongqing, Christchurch and other metropolitan districts. Copenhagen is used as a model for the potential sociability of a public space. In Copenhagen, 35% of the urban population cycle, while only 24% drive – unfortunately no such percentile was offered for any of the other cities the film explores, which makes this particular statistic a difficult to consider, though presumably fewer people ride bikes in all other countries.

The final city that the film assesses is Christchurch in the wake of its destruction in 2011 from a devastating earthquake. Planners were able to, and perhaps for the first time, consult the community of Christchurch about how the city may be restructured to cater for its inhabitants in a more social setting and although thousands of suggestions were put into a model for the government to consider, only a few suggestions may be heard. This is an ongoing dispute with that particular city and in the years to come, and perhaps with the aid and awareness of this film project may be shaped to greater effect.

What could potentially have been a more political film is almost purely a civil venture for director Andreas Dalsgaard and Jan Gehl, and whether or not it will be effective in changing the way we design cities is hard to tell. While attempting to make a film for the urban population of mega cities, it will probably only resonate with other architects and city planners, which is quite likely its intention. The film merely invites us in on the conversation, to see how far it has come. Unfortunately, it does plainly look like a commissioned corporate video for Gehl, and again, perhaps it is only Gehl who can and will make a difference. Definitely for architects.

SFF 2013 Film Review: Mystery Road

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mystery roadAt the opening night of the 60th Sydney Film Festival, director Ivan Sen and his leading man, Aaron Pedersen, spoke graciously of all the supporting performers in the film. Such praise was afforded them, because almost all other praise could only go to Sen, who added, charmingly, “I think I did everything else.”

Essentially a western, Mystery Road follows Jay Swan, an indigenous police detective, who, after an unexplained – presumably work related – stint in “the big smoke” returns to his hometown in central Queensland when the body of a local girl is found under the highway.

Jay is met with no warm returns, not from his former “colleagues” of the local police or by his ex or their teenage daughter. Determined to solve his first big case, Jay learns that the girls murder is linked to underage prostitution and drug trafficking and fails to solicit any support from the community in bringing such corruption to an end.

In fact, no one wants to help him. Which, aside from all the cowboy hats and the desert-like surroundings, brings classics like High Noon and Rio Bravo to mind and the violent finale/showdown brings it on home. The film is also, and largely so, a murder mystery but the procedural details – the film is almost entirely composed of interviews conducted by Swan – tend only to lay on thick the cultural divide that he is caught in, rather than involve you in any suspicions.

Pedersen is a strange cowboy, and it is hard to know where he begins and the character of Jay Swan ends. As Jay, he is uncomfortable in his clothes, an indigenous man with a badge, the kind of mix-up that has him walking a narrow line between the two extremely divided groups – there is a fantastic scene of him showing a local boy his gun in exchange for information. He also has a distinctive walk. Not quite John Wayne’s slanted swagger, but a heaviness in his stride that makes him both intimidating and awkward. The police, who include Hugo Weaving, are secretive and smart-mouthed, and have some of the worst on-screen eating habits to date. Jay’s disgust with these white fellas is written almost permanently on his face.

Sen has constructed a slow-burning detective-western that does have an impressive cast of mostly minor characters – the highlight of which is an eccentric, happy-go-lucky Jack Charles, as an elder who appears to be the only well-wisher of the detective’s acquaintance. The film exhibits minimal action other than a sudden and significant amount toward the end, which is worth the wait. Aside from the re-tooling of all the characters’ vocals – which were incredibly deep and loud (though, perhaps the cinema’s fault) – and some strange framing choices, Mystery Road is a good Australian film and rare insight into indigenous life, both in a day-to-day dialogue and considering the racial myths that appear to be perpetuated – by both sides – about which side of the law a black fella belongs, and what lawfulness means in a community that no longer cares.

Oblivion

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It is 2077. Jack Harper (Cruise) and his work colleague/mistress, Victoria (Riseborough), live in isolation in a communications outpost stilted kilometres above the Earth’s surface. Jack works maintenance on security drones that patrol a barren post- apocalyptic New York and stave off attacks from “Scavs”, an alien race who invaded, after destroying the moon, 60 years ago triggering a series of natural disasters and plunging civilisation under mountains of dirt and dust. Humanity is survived by a colony situated on one of Saturn’s moons in a Borg-meets-Optimus-Prime’s-head space station, known as ‘the tent’ but Jack and Victoria remain on Earth to oversee the collection resources for the survival of the species.

In order to protect their mission in the event of capture by the Scavs (a race that dress like the alien in Predator, AKA ‘Predator’) he and Victoria underwent a mandatory memory wipe that erased their knowledge of anything beyond the past five years. Jack is haunted by dreams – or are they memories? – of a romantic rendezvous atop the Empire State Building with a different beautiful woman (Olga Kureylenko) and this fantasy gives heed to other flights of fancy that Victoria strongly discourages.

Rather than choosing a single influence, as he did with Tron Legacy, Kosinski uses a collage of sci-fi cinema. There are references to 2001, Moon, Prometheus, Tron Legacy, Independence Day, The Matrix, Looper, Wall-E, Predator, Equilibrium, Planet Of The Apes plus (as is the case with most large-scale productions these days) a pinch of Nolan, tossed in like a stigma of saffron to a risotto, giving it a refined taste. The Nolanisation of action epics is becoming a kind of cerebral implant in the collective blockbuster consciousness, with its “HUOOONG! HUOOONG!” sound effects and purposeful yet contemplative leading men. The difference, and Kosinski’s failure, is that Nolan creates self-contained universes that are not cheapened by the pop-culture to which they pay tribute. Jack’s lakeside retreat – a small haven he has made for himself through implausible means – is comically technophobic. Blasting “Ramble On” on an ancient turntable had nowhere near the impact that a cassette of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” did while launching James Cromwell into warp drive for the first time in Star Trek: First Contact.

Oblivion begs that viewers submit to its logic, but, ironically permits Jack to do the exact opposite for the furtherance of the plot. Its visuals and score are arresting (particularly in an IMAX cinema) but what might have been a political (security state story), environmental (Earth’s exhausted resources story) or humanitarian (refugees are people too) allegory is abandoned and New York is buried with all but baseball and sightseeing as the customs of its legacy.

The most complex player is Andrea Riseborough’s Victoria. As communications officer and romantic interest, Victoria doubly bears the brunt of Jack’s radical decisions whilst liaising exclusively with their commander, Sally (played with a matronly Texan accent by Melissa Leo) and combating feelings of jealousy toward Julia (Olga Kurylenko), whose true relationship to Jack is never called into question, and not even by Julia herself, as the reality of an apocalypse should strike her harder than every other character in the film. Riseborough is captivating and sexy, shining through her painstakingly administrative attire, but Julia’s resilience leaves very little for Kurylenko to work with, she is just a paper-thin fantasy. Cruise is good in apocalyptic/future fiction when under the watch of someone like Spielberg but is a little detached in this, which unfortunately works in favour of the plot, turning like a clothesline and tossing its pegless load to the wind.

Django Unchained

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django

What will strike some viewers and elude others in Django Unchained is the casting of James Remar in 2 separate roles; one, Butch Pooch, who features briefly in the beginning, with a full beard and cowboy hat, and a second, Ace Speck, in a top hat, and a white moustache much later in the film. It could just be a western thing. Leone, still the reigning King of the Spag’ West, used Van Cleef and Volonte as different antagonists to Eastwood’s nameless wanderer. In HBO’s Deadwood, actor Garrett Dillahunt, who played Jack McCall returned in season 2 as Francis Wolcott. More recently, Paul Thomas Anderson cast Paul Dano as Eli, and his own brother Paul in There Will Be Blood, and although it was suggested to be a last minute decision by the director due to a drop-out, it opened up enough investigation about attaining similarities in characters, or how the same characteristics – that of greed, for example – are then likewise embodied in two separate actors, whose beliefs are different, but fate, the same. Paul Thomas Anderson’s casting choices may have no meaning beyond convenience, but the choice to double cast Remar is a deliberate and fascinating one by Tarantino, which encourages you to consider all the reincarnations that Django Unchained brings into play.

Inglourious Basterds revisited the darkest chapter of German history, which was also one of the greater military victories of the United States. In Django Unchained, we arrive at the pre-civil war holocaust of American history, set in the southern states. Tarantino’s analogous shaping of character and circumstance do as much to reference himself politically, as a multitude of other films stylistically. Where Waltz played the “jew hunter” in Basterds, here he is a German bounty hunter named King Schultz, who seeks the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) to identify three brothers who are wanted for murder and train robbery. Schultz gives Django his first beer, his first horse and first gun and the pair set out to hunt, and then to rescue Django’s wife who is the property of the sadistic, yet hospitable cotton tycoon, Calvin Candie (Leonardo Di Caprio).

Tarantino draws several parallels between his own filmmaking and the elaborate charade that they put on in order to rescue Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), informed by a heroic German legend with a princess of the same name and several suggestions of Greek mythology. It is almost a self-parody and the likeness of production and product, history and myth are constantly reinforced, in a perpetuated dualism. Tarantino knows well that, while he may seed a chain of events in Django, his own right to provide the African-American population with a western hero is a kind of suicidal gesture for a white guy. He himself appears in a cameo role as a slaver, but otherwise uses Schultz as his surrogate. This is evident from the recasting of Waltz, and Schultz’ own musing of Django’s legend, his reservations about Django (and, by association, Jamie Foxx) portraying a slaver (in their charade, and by association, in the film) and the all the performative risks correlated with material so sensitive, it could explode. Schultz is Django’s director; he concocts the scheme, and infers the necessity of a guise in order to infiltrate an empire where women are tortured and raped and men fight to the death for entertainment – the symbolic and actual extremes of human slavery. Both Tarantino, with the film, and Schultz, within the film, are aware that they are entering an arena. They are very sensitive to their spectators, and take pride and pleasure in their showmanship.

Schultz’ silver-tongue and gay attire, are signatures of his commitment to performance, propriety and the Southern values that appear to be absent in all whom he and Django come across. Though Candie’s attire resembles something that Capt. Rhett Butler may have been spied in, he very clearly lacks the sophistication that the American aristocracy aspire to in the presence of an actual European. Candie is, however, similar to the jew-hunter character that Waltz charmed and repelled us with in Inglourious Basterds, a parallel that is made profound when a particular exchange is prompted between the two of them toward the end of the film, which appears to carry with it an overwhelming mythological significance; all characters are faced with their past and futures, embodied in that which they have historically found or newly find abhorrent. An American history of violence and German future of violence are glimpsed in a kind of putrid twist of fate.

Tarantino’s own history of violence, which includes rape (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill vol 1), torture and mutilation (Reservoir Dogs, Inglourious Basterds), is something difficult to ignore and lends Django to accusations of racial and political profligacy. The film does contain some particularly distressing scenes of human cruelty, the kind that were only strongly implied in Basterds, not shown – but the charge doesn’t stick. He has always assumed full responsibility for his characters’ prejudices: recall his portrayal of Jimmy, “did you notice a sign on the front of my house that said ‘dead nigger storage’?” in Pulp Fiction.

Samuel L. Jackson’s “house nigger”, ostensibly the most despicable character in the film, wears all the extremes of Tarantino’s history of criticism about how he portrays race. Jackson like Waltz, but more considerably so, is a component of and collaborative allusion to Tarantino’s existing work. The three of them form a response to an ongoing critical conversation about his flippancy with race issues that started back with Pulp Fiction. The film is a fantasy of vengeance against history, criticism, and political propriety itself, which by all rights should be questioned, challenged, and reconsidered and which we know can be tremendously violent. Using mythology to realise the dark ages of human history does not necessary trivialise the plight of the persecuted. It is political satire and allegory that is achieved in Django Unchained and Tarantino, in all his incarnations, knows well enough that this business of being “politically correct” is just a manner by which we veil racism with a poorly fashioned white hood.