The Way

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Dentist Tom Avery (Martin Sheen) flies to the Pyrenees to collect the body of his estranged son, Daniel, who has died suddenly in a storm.  Daniel (Emilio Estevez) was at the beginning of the much traversed, and historical Camino De Santiago or “The Way”, a two-month pilgrimage from the Pyrenees to Santiago embarked upon by hundreds annually. Despondent and alone in a foreign country, Tom cancels his appointments back home, and decides on a whim to walk the way with Daniel’s ashes.

Tom attracts three other lone trekkers. The first is a large, jolly Dutchman Joost (Yorick Van Wageningen) who is walking to lose weight, but the first in line to consume all the wine, lamb, goat’s cheese and other culinary indulgences the Spanish country has to offer. The second is the cynical, sexy, Canadian Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) who believes she might quit smoking if she can traverse the entire Camino trail. Finally, if not unnecessarily, James Nesbitt plays Jack, the neurotic Irish writer, found yelling at himself amidst hay stacks, and walking to amend his writer’s block.

The film jokingly addresses its own “into the wild” clichés with Sarah remarking that she despises the tech comforts that she’s escaping as she adjusts her iPod earphones, and the groups’ grateful night spent in an extremely lavish hotel, ditching the hotel bunks and sipping champagne.

The intimacy that this father/son project exudes carries us through its awkward beginnings in which Sheen’s performance is convoluted with a TV movie score and an abundant use of fade-outs transitioning every other scene. Sheen himself is excellent as an ageing father numbed with sorrow, and he brings the tired dialogue an honest and genuine confusion, embracing his feeble appearance – although the unaffected patriarch he was continues to haunt him. The indie aesthetic, and true nature of the director and the actor’s relationship, is like a blanket of support; the journey of the two characters is mirrored by Sheen and Estevez’s journey to make a movie.

Each pit stop brings revelations about each character, but observing the mere dynamic of their walk – who leads, who talks, who trips – is just as telling. They are constantly addressing their reasons for walking the Camino De Santiago – it is very vocally argued by Jack, in the position of writer and immediate observer, making the film experience a little lighter than it needs to be for its audience. Toward the end of the journey, the film gives itself over to marvellous, disquieting sights and reverent religious ceremony. The Camino De Santiago, although traditionally a Catholic pilgrimage, is undertaken by people of all faiths and will certainly be considered by anyone who watches this ultimately moving and beautiful film.

* a version of this post originally appeared at filmblerg.com

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

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Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is a visceral modern retelling of the famed tragedy. It begins, as the young Prince is vexed from his sleep by a haunting vision. The queen, a meticulous matriarch, enters to hush him but is repelled by his plea of affection, unable to embrace or console her frightened child. When he awakes in the morning, there is a light-hearted shift to the everyday operation of royalty, as though this neglect is commonplace.

As the melancholic Prince arrives at the lake – depressed by a brush of affection from a flapper in a cocktail dress – the dance is no longer limited by routine domestication (getting dressed, waving to your subjects) or shaped to fit its modern surroundings (clubbers bopping their heads to disco music) and the production shifts to adopt ballet as its sole expression – the ballet belongs to the swans where in the palace, all physical countenance is to be controlled, suppressed.

The duality of the socially lavish palace and the anonymous refuse of the lake tempt two beings to tread both worlds. The Prince is ecstatic at his liberation from his dutiful commitments, and is delivered by the tenderness and freedom with which he interacts with the lead swan/Stranger (the irresistible Richard Winsor) who is likewise drawn to the world to which the Prince belongs. The two wish to possess each other, but in both cases, are not made to survive beyond the restrictions of their own environments.  This cataclysmic push/pull of tame and wild is gloriously expressed through a series of dances at the ball, each with a stronger Latin influence than the last and an escalating sexuality.

Bourne’s ballet is largely different from the traditional production and it is fitting that this recent cinematic release reflects its bold reimagining in digital 3D. In most cases 3D boosts the price of hundred-million-dollar blockbuster admissions, but here art makes use of a potentially heightened cinematic experience. The dance at Swan Lake that captivates the Prince and delivers him from near death is the scene in which the 3D device enhances the viewing. A ballet – best viewed live on the stage in any case – ought to benefit from an extra dimension when confined to a screen but the performance would have been just as dazzling and tragic thanks to impeccable choreography, that eminent Tchaikovsky score and an extremely handsome cast. This production is an unforgettable cinema experience.

* a version of this post originally appeared at filmblerg.com

Back To 1942

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There are two distinct instances in 2012 ‘s retroactive cinema in which the human torso is decorated with symbols intended to pump war’s glaring hypocrisy from heart to toe, but which glare with such clotted, cluttered symbolism that all meaning begotten, coagulates, and dies. The first such instance is in Billy-Bob Thornton’s Jane Mansfield’s Car, in a scene where Skip (a Vietnam veteran played by Thornton) pins his combat medals on his bare pectorals, which are covered in scar tissue. The whole film is similarly filled with empty provocation, rolled out like factory-issue hindsight, unaware of its own temporal lapse and present audience. The second instance occurs in Xiaogang Feng’s Back To 1942, when a young Catholic priest presses his humongous holy bible – so thick and clean, it’s like a new microwave – to the breast of a dead child, to conceal a gaping, bleeding cavity, in the aftermath of an air raid. Father Sim, who has been spirited and vigilant in famine’s wake, begins to question his faith – and here, the bible’s incapacity to console a dying child, had audience members audibly scoffing.

During the Second World War, China’s central Henan province has suffered a drought, leaving the land baron, food scarce, and millions heading west in search of refuge and hope of state intervention.

The film begins with the most tedious credit sequence in the history of cinema: a real-life wartime speech by nationalist military leader, Chaing Kai-shek, which is over-long, repetitive but perhaps the only relevant device in the film. It is there because the republic’s propaganda side steps around the famine issue, and believes the war to be China’s only immediate threat. It is also rhythmically akin to the dawdling, bureaucratic conduct of the middle-ranking officers making feeble attempts at creating awareness – supremely boring scenes.

The massive population insurrection, or aimless journey plot, is too heavy, too laboured – fat with sentiment – bloated with images of hessian sacks emptied, turned inside-out, food stolen and eaten in a hastened and desperate manner. For a film about famine, it features far too many scenes of people eating. The landscape is so dense with flesh and activity, that dropping bombs – and it rains napalm – barely registers in the busy starvation drama.

With an ensemble of bad performances, a manipulative score – that has no resemblance to Chinese composition – and a camera that imposes as much of a threat as the Imperial Japanese Air Service, Back To 1942 is a backward reflection on an overlooked chapter in Chinese history, and something that you’ll be glad you hadn’t heard of until now.

* a version of this post originally appeared at filmblerg.com

Prometheus

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As we know, many of the hyped-up productions of 2012 all belong to established franchises; a reboot or remake (The Avengers, Dark Knight Rises, 21 Jump Street, The Hobbit, The Amazing Spider-Man, Men In Black III). You may address just how these films stand beside the already rooted successes of their prototypes, however, the greater supplements and sequels do often push their forerunners so far back in the viewers mind that they emerge completely independent of them and develop a wholeness that casts the previous into a mere echo of its newer, greater form (Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and The Dark Knight are notable examples). Is Prometheus one of these fine works? Does it steal fire from the gods that created it? No, not really.

Prometheus looks incredible and as a 3D experience, will not make you nauseous or anxious because your eyes are darting around erratically to synchronise the foreground and background – though it is largely a horror film so nausea and anxiety may occur anyway. The immense clarity of the picture is arresting in the first scene, and the sound design and score are likewise stirring but nothing that you didn’t already sample in the trailers.

The extra-terrestrials, in the H. R. Giger tradition (though the Swiss surrealist was not directly involved), offer both an explicitly vaginal AND scrotal beast  – finally men and women can be equally credited in the horror genre’s fixation with sexual disgust. The most frightening, claustrophobic scene occurs inside a machine designed to perform surgery without human aid – let the procedure be a horrifying surprise – the concept is almost worthy of Cronenberg and is fantastically gross.

Hype over Michael Fassbender’s turn as an android is not exaggerated. It is a performance that may cement for some the theory that he is actually a cyborg, as he does appear too good to be human in most performances. Director Ridley Scott recently expressed a wish for stronger female roles in films but Charlize Theron’s ambitious Vickers is just a man in a woman suit and feminine strength should not be measured in masculine faults. Dr Elizabeth Shaw (The Millennium Trilogy’s Noomi Rapace), despite some very tactical survival skills, is just a little ridiculous with her far-fetched mutual belief in genetic science AND Jesus. Christ, its 2093. Anyone would have preferred more time with Idris Elba’s cigar-puffing, space cowboy or Fassbender’s perturbing robot over these two poorly written creatures.

* a version of this post originally appeared at filmblerg.com

The Woman In The Fifth

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Ethan Hawke stars as Tom, a creepy American university professor who arrives in Paris to stalk his ex-wife and young daughter. His wife calls the police and he absconds, encountering subsequent bad luck and winding up broke in a dive of a hotel run by seedy, criminal seeming people. Motivated by a desperate bid for reunification with his daughter, Tom tries to establish himself in Paris despite these somewhat dire circumstances.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays the mysterious Margit who for some strange reason is the film’s namesake. She provides nurture and romance to Tom, and having previously been the wife of a writer, encourages him to return to writing and work on his second novel but there is something wrong with what freedom and pleasure she bolsters him up.

The film is mysterious but equally irritating. Photographer Ryszard Lenczewski paints Tom’s world in fragments, his gaze obstructed by blurry visions through his own glasses, through leaves and fences and security cameras. The lens motif is a familiar tool for experiments in narrative confusion in recent filmmaking but even after attempting to decipher the puzzles of Tom’s existence, whatever grainy underlying veracities, however confusing, are uninteresting.

Director Pawel Pawlikowski gets away with considerable sexism and racism by merely filtering it through an unreliable and unlikeable narrator but does device delineate or justify these characterisations? The French-Arab owner of the hotel and the French-African tenant are completely perverse, criminal, and unhygienic. They’re the only people in the film who make Tom look good. The Polish, immaculate, Ania (Joanna Kulig) – who is somehow in bed with this dangerous hotel owner – appears to require some kind of rescue from Tom and enchants him with Polish poems and songs – which makes her so explicitly an object of perversion.

Tom often finds himself on the other side of closed doors, shut off from others, but we’re grateful for that. He is pathetic, tightly wound and worrying on screen. His affairs are strange. All his relationships with women are fruitless and our own disinterest in Tom, and general confusion about what on Earth the film is going for, makes us eagerly await the end of every scene or for a door to open, just to see if some clear idea, or an unhindered frame might redeem this enormously flat depiction of madness and writer’s block.

* a version of this post originally appeared at filmblerg.com

Hannah And Her Sisters

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Hannah (Mia Farrow) is a retired actress with a dysfunctional family. Her mother is an alcoholic. Her husband, Elliot (Michael Caine), is obsessed with another woman. Her ex-husband Mickey (Allen) is a hypochondriac. Then there are her sisters, Holly (Dianne Wiest) – a struggling actress/writer/recovering addict, and Lee (Barbara Hershey) living unhappily with a tortured artist Frederick (Max Von Sydow) and the object of Elliot’s affection.

The film boasts the richest assembly of talent on screen in any of Allen’s 46 film career and, perhaps, in film history. Aside from the exemplary Allen regulars, (incl.  Sam Waterson, Julie Kavner, Daniel Stern) small parts are lived through iconic and treasured performers with Carrie Fisher as April, Maureen O’Sullivan as Hannah’s mother (Farrow’s mother in real life), Lloyd Nolan as Hannah’s father, and of course, Bergman muse Max Von Sydow as Frederick. The film gained both Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine Academy Awards Best Supporting Actor. Wiest deserved hers.

A tenor that is equally funny and moving, the film is a pitch-perfect balance of comedy and tragedy. This is shown in the unforgettable sequence that has Mickey’s tormenting cancer scare turn out to be nothing. Elated, he runs out of the doctor’s office and leaps joyously down the street until stopping suddenly, realising that his life will someday end, and resuming hypochondria within seconds.

With Hannah, Allen explores the many incarnations of art as philology, like a second language by which people can love. It is expressed in structure (architecture), in performance, as a movement (the delightful scene where Holly takes Mickey to a punk show – attributing his hearing loss), as a commodity (Dusty seeking work of Frederick’s to go with his furniture), as love-making – the sensual passages that Elliot gives Lee, and as a redemptive moderator between strong personalities, as in the lovely scene when Hannah’s parents, after a fight, settle at the piano and make music together.

The film readdresses the delivering experience of going to the movies. As Cecilia sought to escape from a depressed reality in Purple Rose, Mickey finds a reason to live when he watches Duck SoupFor Allen, art, more than anything, harmonises us, and makes life worth living. Hannah And Her Sisters is a celebration of art in all its forms, and is itself probably Woody Allen’s finest creation (the script alone is a work of art independent of the film), and should be his most enduring cinematic legacy, perhaps a leg above Annie Hall.

* a version of this post originally appeared at filmblerg.com

A Royal Affair

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Caroline Mathilde is Queen of Denmark (Alicia Vikander), married to the eccentric King Cristian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard). Depressed and bored with her husband, she forms a friendship with his newly appointed physician, Dr. Johann Struensee (the always pleasing Mads Mikkelsen)  – the two fall in love and together use their influence with the King to liberate Denmark.

A Royal Affairis an historical film but its historical accuracy is almost irrelevant because its urgency, its present significance, is overwhelming. Upon exiting the screening, your thoughts are just as likely to be with Julian Assange as with 18th century Danish summer-wear.

It is also, but not merely, a costume drama, centred on a forbidden affair between two passionate individuals, who come to love each other by sharing literature and ideas. The romance is achingly familiar, always blossoming in a sensuous traditional dance at a masquerade or ball – recall Maria blushing in The Sound Of Music or several instances in Jane Austen adaptations. The young Vikander is excellent as the queen – shy or indifferent or sensitive or cold or seductive or courageous – it’s an immense role and one that is a little flusher than you’d expect for a first major performance.

The film is captured beautifully, but framed in a way that, like its romance, is an exercise is costume drama production. This is not tedious, it is a device, and it is used in several different ways to wrap you in this romanticised era. The obvious comparison is Amadeusand only because the characterisation of King Cristian VII is much like Tom Hulce’s Mozart – funnier, because he is a consistent buffoon, and not a musical genius. Many of the dining room scenes brought Danish dogme film Festento mind. It may just be a very Danish thing to make awkward announcements at the dinner table?

Not often do audiences seek escape in elaborate period romance to find themselves amidst a reflection of the political/corporate hierarchies of the greater West. It is precisely this significance to now that this film resonates and opens itself up so we might reach right into it and become miscellaneous spectators at the gallows. It calls out to all our desires for the luxury of royalty, of intellectual romance, of the power to change the world, to control and manipulate the weak, to be rich and also compassionate, but almost throws this fantasy back in our faces. The historical accuracy is in its political frankness – which is so bold and refreshing.

* a version of this post originally appeared at filmblerg.com

The Amazing Spider-Man

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Young Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is left in the custody of his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) after his parents are forced to flee somewhere for some reason. Now, as a belligerent teenager, Peter seeks answers from his father’s associate Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) and Oscorp Industries – an energy company with a mutant spider division and a pretty tour guide/lab assistant who happens also to attend school with Peter Parker’s – and Peter gets bitten by a glow-in-the-dark arachnid and becomes Spider-Man an hour or so later.

Garfield overdoes it, too concentrated and eccentric for a Marvel hero. Unfortunately Rhys Ifans’s credentials as a great support actor (or is he?) don’t fit the corruptible but fundamentally sympathetic Spiderman nemesis that Alfred Molina perfected in Spiderman 2.

Covered with Sam Raimi’s leftover web residue, all surfaces have been tread from all angles and frames in some alternate universe. Where Batman Begins offered a distinctive genesis and re-imagining of the hero nearly 20 years after Tim Burton’s Batman  – surpassed by The Dark Knight – this is a recycled story told with less talent.

The film begs a keen ear to the genetic-trans-species-mutation-evolution-splicing but a deaf ear to its characters’ motivations – too much long-winded algorithm chatter equivocated with scenes of instantaneous limb re-growth.

Dr. Connor’s interest in curing the world of “human weakness” is an idiotic pretext for his experiment and he isn’t moved by a revenge fantasy or delusion – he just does it because he can do it, and does it to himself, which is inevitable for a mad scientist however still categorically stupid to most people. The hero’s rifling for identity has Parker indifferent at home, trespassing at Oscorp and invading the Stacey family apartment but he remains unchanged, and unburdened by his separate lives – as he was already an orphaned loser. He is instructed that he must do good, but with no evil in him with which to grapple – it’s too easy.

The Amazing Spider-Man had a sole purpose: to utilise 3D in a comic book adaptation but the 3D is awful and everything perplexing the viewers’ experience of what should be (but aren’t) very impressive effects are inane and flimsy conversations. The film’s only improvement is Emma Stone’s revival of Gwen Stacey – an intelligent, competent science wiz as opposed to Kirsten Dunst’s defenseless struggling actress.

* a version of this post originally appeared at filmblerg.com

Hysteria

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The costumes for Hysteria were something out of A Christmas Carol (coats and hats and warm sort of nonsense) and the plot resembled a sex-comedy of Hollywood’s golden age but despite all its charming drapery – and you will observe some flamboyant drapery! – this is a film about the implementation of the vibrator by a doctor who developed carpal tunnel from manually relieving several women daily.

It’s a tricky idea to take on because all humour on the subject of masturbation has been exhausted, and the comedy relies heavily on odious puns, which were evolved and retired with the rise of Judd Apatow films and are only now viewable on d-grade releases like Date Movie, Meet The Spartans and the latest Twilight parody, Breaking Wind: Part 1.

The only actor at home on set is Rupert Everett, whose character is instrumental but appears only to be along for the ride. Gyllenhaal and Dancy are repellent. Maggie’s talent was completely dried out in her exceptional performance in Happy Endings and has been absent from all subsequent work.

The film is exceedingly silly, and any audience risks being too mature for its unsophisticated jokes, and at the same time, too conservative for some of its content. In any context outside of comic ridicule, the “treatment” performed on most of the women in the film, is voyeurism, but these women are made ridiculous – they are all old and/or frumpy – and then pacified with a new kind of shock therapy. These particular scenes in Dr. Dalrymple’s (Jonathan Price) practice are out of place. It is really two films: a morality tale, about a physician evaluating his sense of duty and the invention of the vibrator and how it was used in experiments on women suffering diagnoses of hysteria. I do imagine it looked much better on paper, as its framework does so strongly echo the great cinema of the forties.

This demonstration of hysteria, vastly different from Cronenberg’s more accurate telling through Keira Knightley’s contorted vessel, seems to be boiled down to mere sexual frustration. Women can’t relate to this anymore, well not the type of women who will ever respond to it. All this film will accomplish is vibrator sales to old ladies. You’re advised to stay at home. Please yourself.

* a version of this post originally appeared at filmblerg.com

Savages

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Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) have it made. Growing/selling large quantities of marijuana, they are supervised by a corrupt FBI agent (John Travolta), sharing a blonde-bombshell girlfriend and living in a beachfront home in Torrance, California. Their particularly potent genus of marijuana attracts the attention of a Mexican drug cartel that wants to produce this same genus, making the boys an offer they can’t refuse. They refuse anyway, and their girlfriend O (Gossip Girl’s Blake Lively) is kidnapped.

O, balancing the two contrary drug dealers (one hippy, one military), enables the safe, sexy and highly profitable business to run smoothly. She doesn’t actually do anything, aside from play the meat in the boys’ sandwich but it is up to her to narrate this crime story, suggesting, initially, that she may not be alive in its retelling – which is a superfluously enigmatic suggestion, much like everything she says. Having little to do with the business, O simply describes how her boyfriends make love to her differently and later spends much of the film blindfolded and scared.

The film offers a somewhat xenophobic depiction of Mexicans as scruffy-looking date-rapists. Lado, (Benicio Del Toro) leads an extensive, armed and angry Spanish-dribbling crew. He is sadistic, perverse and his glazed stare is pitiless and unsettling. Salma Hayek’s entitled and completely unimposing heiress – her husband ran things before her – dampens the cartel’s imposing affect but the film still seems happy to suggest that Californian drug-dealers are welcome to their safe success until those darn Mexican’s want a piece of the pipe.

The two partners are drawn into a very violent battle and allegiances begin to shift between the cartel crew, and that of the boys with their federal contact but little is made out their allegiance to each other as O clearly acts as a catalyst for the real love between the two of them. The matter of Ben’s humanitarianism (work with African children and cancer patients) and its conflict with the violence of a drug war is a more interesting and sadly overlooked component to his character. The marijuana issue is politicised by Ben’s influence, but director Oliver Stone doesn’t seem to resolve this, and the “unconventional” love-triangle that holds the film together is topical and nothing else. Ultimately, it is a pretty hollow experience – particularly its time-warped ending which is flimsy and unsatisfying.

* a version of this post originally appeared at filmblerg.com