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Sucker Punch (2011)
Incredible visuals; imagery that will stay etched in your mind for a long time
"Sucker Punch," the latest barrage on the senses from writer-director Zack Snyder ("300", "Watchmen") is his first film that's based on his own source material. And it proves to be quite stunning definition of pop filmmaking. In a triumphant marriage of style and tone, Snyder has created his own "Kill Bill" by going deep down into the rabbit hole. A glorious pastiche of colour, CGI and kinesis, "Sucker Punch" even through its obvious flaws, has set a new bar for graphic storytelling that attempts to transplant the purity of imagination onto the cinema screen.
Essentially cohering around a simple premise -- hot chicks kicking ass and taking names, the film's bravura opening charts Baby Doll's (Emily Browning) institutionalisation by a wicked stepfather after her mother's death and her introduction to the asylum where damaged young women are sent to be kept away from society. She meets the people-in-charge, Blue (Oscar Isaac) and Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) as well as the other girls in the institute: Rocket (Jena Malone) and her sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Amber (Jamie Chung) and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens).
The story that follows Baby Doll reveals a larger canvas of a clever narrative conceit that coincides three realities together ("Inception" comparisons, tread lightly); the first being the asylum, the second is a burlesque brothel run by Blue and trained by Gorski and the final and most resplendent one is Baby Doll's hyper reverie focused on destroying the forces of evil -- be it shogun titans, zombie Nazis or killer androids. The darker the reality preceding it, the deeper and more risky the wormhole of fantasies go. There is a real sense, despite its tremendous parade of visual set-pieces that Snyder wanted a narrative strong enough to endure the weight of spectacle, and in many respects he has. He uses the age-old device of character quests to propel the plot, peppering it with familiar consequences until he doesn't. The flow culminates in an intriguing final act that sets it a mark higher than anyone would have expected, or even needed from a film that already proudly wears its stripes as pure escapist entertainment.
Snyder goes the way of Tarantino in appropriating and amalgamating artistic and stylistic influences from the most conspicuous of genres and mediums. Within the real world or whatever the relative equivalent of what exists in this film's dark and twisty tone, the film uses templates in the vein of sexploitation female prison grind-house features from the 60s and 70s like "Love Camp 7", "99 Women", "Caged Heat" and the grandmother of them all, 1950's "Caged". As the film progresses into its action-oriented enterprises, it quickly recalls the dizzying array of cut-scenes from video-games and punk anime-style design in how it encompasses the digital environment. Snyder's thematic goal is to situate the idea of imagination as a coping mechanism for terror, a concept seen recently in "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Tideland". The landscape of the mind is uniquely realised here by Snyder, who etches a remarkable amount of detail into each CGI frame, an hyperbolised celebration of artifice and invention that is at once magnificent and exhilarating as it is compelling and spellbinding.
Werner Herzog once posited that the dearth of new and unique imagery that do not reflect the times we live in will be the death of civilisation. If anything, "Sucker Punch" truly defines the generation of filmmaking we exist in -- a sophisticated and passionate emblem that delivers an overload of sugar high through the ideals of creating and maintaining a creative medley of pop-culture influences, bridged together with keen commercial sensibilities. Suddenly, Snyder holding on to the helms of the next Superman film makes more sense than it ever did.
Loong Boonmee raleuk chat (2010)
Life as a moebius strip.
In the 2010 Palme d'Or winning "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives", Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has elevated himself into a true visionary of the medium. His oeuvre culminating here in what must be called his magnum opus. Twining politics and intellectualism together by holding his native land close to his heart, he explores history, memories and cinema itself.
Weerasethakul's follow-up to 2006's "Syndromes and a Century" follows the final days of Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), an ailing old bee farmer, who returns to his countryside abode in the north-eastern jungles with his sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and a male caretaker, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). Weerasethakul attributes Boonmee's ailment -- kidney failure -- with an autobiographical nod to details of his father's own passing. The narrative structure stands at its most absurd but also at its sturdiest when Boonmee's state of mind and body brings forth the ghosts of his demised family members: his lost son Boonsong, who is now part of the monkey spirits residing in the jungle and has transformed into a striking hirsute crimson-eyed ape-man; and his dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), who appears at the dinner table in a remarkable scene where the veil between the living and the dead come down in the gentlest way possible.
The main scope is limited to these characters, as we observe them in moments of gilded reticence as they navigate through this time of great personal revolutions, food and final thoughts are divulged, until the deep wisdom of the film and filmmaker bubbles up to the fore. Deeply meditative and gentle, it brings us on a journey without tugging us along to show us one point after another; its mien remains as organic and serene to the nature of the filmmaker and its characters' own journey.
Ostensibly a film about transition, transmigration and the ontology of our evolution -- who we once were, who we are now and who or what we will become -- Weerasethakul pulls together ancient mysticism and visual cues to form an amorphous narrative that speaks about existence of the living earth and its relationship within and of itself; and how environments shape its denizens as individuals. The film contemplates our cosmic existence and attempts as serenely as possible to reassure us that everything is in order, that it all makes sense and that we are where we were meant to be. Reconciling his belief in the spirituality infused into nature and its relationship with the human experience, his belief in the idea of animism captivates Weerasethakul who regards the reincarnation of the soul and spirit into different forms; life never ends and death feeds into the next plane -- the renascence of energy and spirit and a transcendence beyond an established, ephemeral identity.
The song ends but the melody continues to linger -- the easy friction between the film's human and spiritual realms, proffered by the use of magic-realism, is at once supremely stirring as it is assuredly calming. In an excursion by Boonmee into one of his past lives, a particularly resplendent vignette of an aging princess yearning to be young once again who offers up her physical self to a talking catfish who promises her the beauty she once possessed. Entrenched with the otherworldliness of a ghostly folk tale from Weerasethakul's own youth and fanciful and erotically charged as Weerasethakul's own recent films, it points towards the filmmaker's syncretism of his own fractures memories and refined aesthetics.
There is a sense that Weerasethakul set out to make a film about his home and the vanishing spaces that his mind once occupied but along the way, stumbled upon the synthetic truth of cinema -- the film transforming into an earnest ode to the forgotten national cinema of his youth. He has described it as a way of preserving the memory -- the fabric of that point in the nation's cultural landscape -- through a hazy melange of related myths, idealised imagery and the shared experiences. He uses traditional techniques to create something new and revolutionary, eliciting a wonderful sense of exploring and pushing the boundaries of the medium by exploring the metaphysical through cinema and artistic fervour. By invoking the power of the screen and its abilities to meld its spatial and temporal realities with our reality beyond the projection, Weerasethakul observes the medium's propensity to not just reflect but alter history and the revision of certain truths.
Photographs play a large part of Weerasethakul's ode to permanence and the sense of past lives lived but never forgotten. Time is evoked as a Moebius strip where the past, present and future are in concurrent unity when members of his lost family turn up to relive the past or when Boonmee comments on the state of how things were before describing a future existence that begins to look remarkably like a present-day portrait of oppression in the volatile political maladies plaguing Thailand. Weerasethakul slyly alludes to political components inherent in his work -- a monk who finds ataraxic comfort in modernity rather than in the austerity of his robes or monkey spirits being led to torture by armed soldiers.
Touching on the dark history of the Nabua region it is set in and Boonmee recollecting his own role in the mutual slaughter of the Communists to Jen by invoking karma in considering his current illness, that he somehow deserves his fate. Jen responds that she was proud for having her father for serving the nation, yet resisted the violence by going into the jungle and hunting animals as well as communicating with them. This symbiosis of regret and avoidance signifying the suppression of violence as a natural impulse of humanity serves great purpose in looking through Weerasethakul's perspective of our natural internal states.
Not a radical departure from expectations but a solid sci-fi actioner
It is important to note that despite it's perspicuous title, Nimrod Antal's "Predators" is no reboot of its establishing material. It's a honest-to-goodness sequel to the first two Predators films; a long awaited one at that after a couple of detours into the realm of crossovers into the "Alien" universe. It does however represent a stylistic update and intriguing expansion of the franchise's filmic mythology that also spans Dark Horse Comics' graphic novels and its video games.
However, if there ever were to be a more convincing statement of intent in relaunching this franchise, it would have been putting its marquee producer Robert Rodriguez to work in a film so suited to his aesthetics and stylistic idiosyncrasies. But Rodriquez's pick to helm this film almost proves to be reason enough to watch this given that Nimrod Antal is one of the most exciting directors around these days. Antal's direction has always coincided with his a strong sense of atmosphere and character development. With his fascinating debut, "Kontroll" and his cleverly constructed meta-slasher, "Vacancy" as well as with last year's taut action spectacle "Armored", Antal has shown himself to be an effective genre director in that he's both comfortable in affirming a particular genre as he is deconstructing it. And in "Predators", he infuses it with not just a showcase of tried and tested sci-fi ideals but also a discernible impression of a robust horror film.
Antal keeps things moving along at an exhilarating pace by introducing a rag-tag team of mercenaries and criminals getting air-dropped into a highly tropical and vegetative alien planet tailored by the ruthless and single-minded Predator race as a game reserve for the insufficiently armed humans and other prey. Its mise-en-scene immediately hearkens back to the jungle warfare of the first "Predator". As the movie gods demand, the herd gets thinned as the race of alien hunters reveal themselves to be superior in both their technology and understanding of game theory. Kept alive by de facto leader, the preternaturally perspicacious Royce (Adrien Brody), the band of humans begin to formulate their plan of survival against the truly fearsome Predators and their formidable weaponry.
Brody's presence seems almost folly at first a gruff vocal inflection worthy of Christian Bale's in "The Dark Knight" underscores a predictably rote tough guy but to his credit, a good actor always manages to sell his act despite himself. Like his character, who sees no virtue in human connection but instead adopts a ranger-like approach to survival, Brody doesn't seem to create much chemistry with his cast mates in his relatively new role as action hero. The rest of its main supporting cast are split of into archetypes Alice Braga is Isabelle, an Israeli soldier and its burgeoning conscience, Topher Grace plays Dr. Edwin, the geeky comic relief and notably, the talented Walter Goggins of TV's "The Shield" and "Justified" is the smarmy knife-wielding death-row convict, Stans. Also, rounding of the surviving humans is the reticent Yakuza gangster, Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien) and the relatively noble Chechnyan soldier, Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov).
Antal manages this character list well enough. As the chase progresses, you get a distinct feel of each human before they start to fall victim to their raison d'être. Besides a late flurry of actual and conspicuous violence, "Predators" actually fares better in its early scenes where the humans explore their predicament and the film plays the suspense card remarkably well. There's an actual interest in finding out the psyches of these mysterious humans who are hunters and monsters on Earth but scurrying mice on the Predator's turf.
If anything else, the script provides little genuine surprises in it storytelling. Given its inherent similarities, the film bares a stunning amount of resemblance to last year's terrific "Pandorum" where a space crew wakes up with no memory onboard a vessel designed as a Noah's Ark of sorts to vicious creatures hunting them. There's a scene with Laurence Fishburne as the planet's loony veteran survivor that cribs more than just mood but actual dialogue from the superior film.
"Predators" doesn't change the game too much but as far as delivering a solid and experience to its fanbase, it releases itself from the shackles of relying on crossovers and re-establishes the Predator as one of Hollywood's most fertile sources of sci-fi villains.
A Serious Man (2009)
"A Serious Man" is the quintessential Coen Brothers film
If "No Country for Old Men" was their most pitch-perfect counterpoint of their idiosyncratic cinematic form, then "A Serious Man" is their most personal and exploratory to date. In many ways and especially in its inquiring spirit, "A Serious Man" is the quintessential Coen Brothers film. It resonates with the inherent absurdity of life, the harsh dualities of creation and the great cosmic prank of being. In the film's seemingly disjointed prologue set in Poland and spoken in Yiddish with accompanying subtitles, a man returning home brings home a visitor who might or might not be a dybbuk (a lost soul) to a suspecting wife, which sets the tone for the film's concerns over the danger of unexamined faith.
With their latest film, they look at serious issues faced by serious people. It regards the disintegration of a late 60s Midwestern Jewish family through the experiences of soon-to-be-tenured physics professor Larry Gopnik (exquisitely played by Michael Stuhlbarg), a representation of the Biblical Job. He's a good man by all accounts. Honourable and serious in his convictions, he faces personal tribulations of a cheating wife (Sari Lennick), a traitorous friend (Fred Melamed), a kooky brother (Richard Kind) and two children who steal from him (Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus). Add to that the temptations of a Korean exchange student (David Kang) attempting to bribe him for better grades and a promiscuous pot-smoking neighbour (Amy Landecker) who sunbathes nude. This convergence of sufferings in a short span of time lead him to analyse his perceptions on his Jewish-American faith and to reconcile the idea that man and God might not be on the same path, or whether there ever was a path to begin with.
Evoking the tenor of an Anton Chekhov comic tragedy, the very notion of a tested faith against the backdrop of suburban rituals with the era's onset of American consumerist values on the warpath, is a daunting reminder of our place in the universe. The fatalistic tinge is made even more palpable in the film when considered along with the nihilistic streak set in the Coens' shared consciousness. They weave together fundamental philosophical inquiries of identity, existentialism and morality through a perfect conflation of characters. Larry primarily searches for clarity and answers through three rabbis, who attempt to comfort him with platitudes of God's will, placate him by convincing him of greater plans through droll anecdotes or just plain refuse to see him. The film asks questions through Larry that are not answerable and at its most Coen-ness, the film pleads with us to just "accept the mystery". What is our place? Where do I go from here? Is God guiding me? At one point Larry asks, "Should I be nicer to people?" The rabbi replies: "It couldn't hurt." Bookended by its fascinating prologue and a bravura finale, the Coens have once again made a film that is not just a showcase of a technical mastery of their profession, but a film that discusses and digests key humanistic ideals. At its core, "A Serious Man" resembles the primal scream silently emanating from the heart of every man and woman who, in their daily communion of navigating the finer points of compromise in their lives, come face to face with the overwhelming odds that their existence is akin to a piece of rock hurtling through space random, unknown and searching.
Låt den rätte komma in (2008)
Poetically revitalising and sincerely entrancing film
Tomas Alfredson's cult sensation "Let the Right One In" fundamentally boils down to an adolescent love story amidst a torrent of violence, blood and the moody topos of the vampire mythology. It opens on a repressive, wintry suburb in 1980s Sweden and relents, with patient observations, the film's key motif of alienation. As if frozen in time, the shots as it pulsates to the erratic rhythms of a dream turn into a piercing look into the lives of the occupants in an apartment complex guarding secrets and hidden desires but it shifts into focus when a bullied boy with a mop of yellow hair and pale skin who yearns for retribution finds a protector through the avenging affection of an undead pubescent girl.
Instant attraction belies the idiosyncrasies apparent between the 12 year-old Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) and the scrawny young Eli (an irresistibly eerie Lina Leandersson) who notices him at the playground as he continuously thrusts a knife into a tree, reenacting his quest for revenge against the school tyrant. She's drawn to his blistered emotionality perhaps his wounded humanity and he is drawn to the novelty of her awareness of him. They eventually find solace in each other's loneliness. We understand this societal disconnect because Oskar is a product of a broken environment, void of attention and concern while Eli is essentially a predator of instinct and devastation as the director Alfredson feeds this forced isolation into the film's abiding theme of disaffection with a remarkably assured visual mastery of grey and grit that captures the stony and unyielding mood of bleak frustration within each occupant of the apartment complex. But he still manages to punctuate these moments of deep silence and menacing creepiness with an assertive show of force intense images of terror and shock that rivals the best genre films in their indelibility.
Writer John Ajvide Lindqvist condenses his novel into a strictly brutal and raw affair, with a removed sense of amusement attached to a serrated edge consider how matter-of-factly Eli's "meals" are delivered to her or the droll tête-à-têtes between Eli and Oskar. But the real power of the film doesn't derive from the film's traditional horror tropes but of the poignancy wrenched out of the awful depictions of puberty and adolescence. It is, above all else, a gutting interpretation of the coming-of-age that contends with the feelings of bloodlust it augurs in young, artless scapegoats like Oskar and countless of other youths.
Eli becomes Oskar's salvation not just through the promise of protection but one that justifies his existence and inherent self-worth. It begins as a despairing tale of fear and resentment and ends on a note of hope and renewal. And it is in its ending that "Let the Right One In" rapidly instigates a quality of genius, as it validates the film's powerful emotional core. It is at once enriching and thematically functional.
"Let the Right One In," demands not so much an open mind but an open heart. It is a poetically revitalising and sincerely entrancing film that transcends its genre trappings and simply becomes a terrific film capable of profound currents of compassion in its world of frigid callousness.
Edward Zwick continues giving backhanded Hollywood compliments to oppressed minorities in the "Defiance", headlined by the newly minted A-list presence in Daniel Craig as a blond-haired, blue-eyed saviour to hunted Jews in 1941 Belarus. Just as in "Glory", "The Last Samurai" and most egregiously in "Blood Diamond," Zwick finds little but potent ways of insulting his through a veil of good intentions and it doesn't show signs of stopping here. But surprisingly, Zwick manages to create a grim world here based on true events and characters making it more than a little affecting set in the claustrophobic forests, brought down to earth with swirling ideas about the price of survival in a time hardly worth living in.
For all its over-the-top pitches, it is stupendously manipulative in how much effective pathos it wrings out of its leading men. It revolves around a dynamic of quiet anger and deep convictions to what four brothers believe should be the best way to lead their people into the brighter light that they know has to shine one of these days. The eldest, Tuvia Bielski (Craig) advocates an agrarian society that depends on a more defensive approach of elusive subsistence of growing, stealing and rationing food. His two youngest siblings, Asael Bielski (Jamie Bell) and Aron Bielski (George MacKay) join this form of resistance. However, Zus Bielski (Liev Schreiber) by far the most appealing character chooses to fight back with the help of the scheming remnant Soviet Army, at times even letting his desire for continued vengeance obscure the idea of his identity in a period when that's all that is needed to be exterminated.
At its most melancholic, "Defiance" asks questions of the deep paradoxes in being Jewish. It questions, quite relevantly, the necessity of killing in order to survive a raid on Nazis is juxtaposed with a joyous wedding of young Jews and the expendability of present humanity to preserve future generations. But for its entire story's intrinsic worth, Zwick does bring a sledgehammer approach to most of the proceedings. When Nazis or Jews aren't getting gunned down, the silence is filled with rousing speeches on valour in the face of adversity, romantic gazes and religious iconography (courtesy of an old rabbi) of Moses/Tuvia leading his people towards the Promised Land. It does draw away the idea of victimisation and fatality of a Nazi period film but doesn't do very much to create a lasting intent of realism, just the pursuit of idealism.
Overly familiar romantic comedy that trades on European sensibilities for a distinctively American atmosphere
In writer-director-star Til Schweiger's second directorial outing, "Rabbit Without Ears" (following a semi-refreshing "Barefoot"), he plays yet another hedonistic Teutonic cad spun round by an unlikely, socially awkward girl. It's an overly familiar romantic comedy that trades on European sensibilities for a distinctively American atmosphere.
Just as in "Barefoot" (a love story of a self-involved cad and a depressively sweet escapee from a psych hospital with an aversion to footwear), Schweiger uses the same sort of emotional modulation with a touch of transparent manipulation and a fair amount of feel-good montages to present its apparent mainstream appeal of the adorable differences between men and women. You could transplant everything here from a Frankfurt to New York setting while a Matthew McConaughey could easily play Schweiger's dapper hunk and a Sandra Bullock could slot in as his female co-star Nora Tschirner the latter being a dead ringer for the Hollywood star.
So what's a rabbit without ears but just another flaw to be overcome? Schweiger plays Ludo, a paparazzi reporter who sees his work and women as one venture. Till, he messes up and gets 300 hours of community service at a local day-care facility run by an ex-classmate, the frumpily attractive Anna (played by Tschirner) who still harbours an improbable resentment of Ludo and his teasing over 20 years ago.
But what's even more dubious is how easily these set-ups and facades drop to accommodate the inevitability of its central pairing. Ludo finds his redemption being surrounded by enamoured toddlers while Anna falls deeply into a void of self-esteem, which is to say into the arms of the obliviously receptive Ludo. It could just as readily be named "Men Are Dogs and the Women Who Love Them".
Schweiger lazily allows the strings to be seen. There are scenes so ludicrously over the top and undeveloped that questions about the writing and editing have to be raised. Characters cease to act like they were written and anachronistic scenes mar emotional pay-offs that could have been promising given the film's punchy performances and frequently wry dialogue.
Sex is fundamental to these upwardly mobile Germans, but the utter puerility of sex-faces and loud restaurant reveals aside, the understated view on sexual politics is particularly lurid. The strongly defined angular features of Schweiger augments an ability to convey quick nods of sympathetic posturing an incredibly useful tool that belies Ludo's selfish actions and blurs the perception beyond acceptable behaviour and the resulting consequences of its main pairing. Schweiger needs to rediscover the sweet emotionality of his previous film and disregard the rank superficiality of this film.
Cheap stunts and dumbed down politics
When Albert Brooks tried to reconfigure a massive cultural chasm into chuckles in the meta-comic "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World", he admitted markedly failure in finding common ground Americans weren't ready to laugh, but more importantly, Muslims weren't ready. This was way back in 2005 when the War on Terror still had that new car smell. Now, Morgan Spurlock of "Super Size Me" fame follows Brooks' muddled footsteps into oblivion as he looks for cheap stunts in the Muslim world. Not for any sort of truth or insight, but vulgar shtick. To call this a documentary or even a docu-comedy would seem fallacious to the standings of both genres.
Spurlock just isn't as interesting or humorous a personality as he assumes himself to be, which only serves to antagonise the idea of its premise being an odyssey into the treacherous abyss to find the world's most wanted man with only Spurlock as tour guide. He frames this sudden epiphany of a "dangerous post-9/11 world" with his wife getting pregnant. It's a faux-earnest set-up interspersed with ridiculous allusions to his impending fatherhood and his superfluous wife's presence in the film when it cuts away back home that becomes increasingly embarrassing as the film wears on, especially when it starts to become an excuse for Spurlock's failures and insecurities over his ill-conceived mission.
Approaching this staged existential quandary from a place of blissful ignorance towards the Muslim world, Spurlock feigns mock surprise at how different the Muslim population is compared to America's perception of it was they aren't all violent terrorists! Cut to Spurlock's histrionic astonishment over that nugget of information. And just as how easily he made his mock-realisation that a constant stream of fast food led to a death wish seem almost a quaint discovery, Spurlock leads the audience to think that he's doing some bold investigative work here by superficially interviewing the hoi polloi of the Gaza Strip and so-called relatives of Osama Bin Laden in Egypt. He makes his unexpected ejection from an Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood in Israel become his glib counterpoint to the idea that Muslims aren't bad eggs, but that Middle Eastern religiosity is just plain screwy and insular.
Spurlock frequently pollutes his geographical opportunity into pure performance. He makes a dog and pony show about the sociopolitical strife in the region when he obviously knows better. His rehearsed, pandered surprise at the world outside of Manhattan shows a man who doesn't think squat of his audience's own comprehensions on the Middle East since 9/11 and his film ends up becoming just as shallow as his phony-baloney egoist brand of "documentaries".
And only Spurlock seems equipped to turn his cultural ignorance into cultural arrogance completing his transformation into a boorish man-with-a-camera into a Michael Moore-ish buffoon oblivious to his own chicanery. He insincerely coheres his film into a single, predictably trivial idea that these Middle-Easterners are just like us from their love of family to their ultimate pursuit of peace on their land. Except Spurlock doesn't really believe that. To him, they are like us but they aren't really. His entire self-centred view of the Middle East engenders the film as a wholly facetious work of manipulation and even more egregiously, is ultimately condescending to the very subjects Spurlock explicitly extols at the end of his film.
Perhaps we get the real glimpse of Spurlock as a person when he deigns to ask a jocular Egyptian man whether he was about to blow up his car or when he dons distinctively Arabic garb and starts randomly assaulting Saudi Arabian women in the mall about Bin Laden's whereabouts. It is a particularly contemptible redneck hustle that only reveals Morgan Spurlock as the sort of Ugly American that his Middle Eastern interviewees denounce as the true cause of their cultural discordance. Who can blame them?
Mamma Mia! (2008)
Irrepressible camp, purely entertaining flaws and all
Stage director Phyllida Lloyd's film debut knows exactly what it is and what it means to a clamouring fanbase worldwide. Already one of the biggest ever musicals ever put to stage consistently selling out Broadway and the West End, its translation to the screen is now poised to be the biggest film musical of all time through its knack of reaching across generations (a theme that runs through the film) through a timeless soundtrack and the rare ability to garner repeat business. The film's force of showmanship is distinctive all right, and to be sure, "Mamma Mia!" utilises the preternaturally addictive ABBA catalogue to clever use by never veering far from its showcase tunes of instantly recognisable anthems. But there's a much more crucial factor to its commercial success than its inherently gratifying, time-tested Europop extravaganza, and that would seem to be how the viewing experience energises audiences into a frenzy before, during and after the film.
Each of them and you know who you are on a certain level view "Mamma Mia!" as a sort of audience participation, seen in the likes of originals like "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert", "Cabaret", "Grease", "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", "Hairspray" (circa 1988) and of course, its spiritual predecessor, "Xanadu". These films trade heavily on their camp sensibilities and tacky production numbers that go above a natural tolerance for kitsch and the hysterical. You'd be hard-pressed to not find shoes tapping, fingers strumming invisible chords and sotto voce singing at a screening room. This collective spirit of celebration, the utter gaiety of being apart of a harmonious thread is apparent everywhere in the film, particularly when a Greek chorus becomes suddenly apparent as its impressive array of acting talent attempt to sing their way out of paper bags.
What you hear is what you get. Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Stellan Skarsgard and its young lead, Amanda Seyfried are shoehorned into singing roles. The uninspired, contrived, threadbare story that strings most of ABBA's Top 20 hits together revolves around a soon-to-be-wed Sophie's (Seyfried) attempts to bring three men (Brosnan, Firth, Skarsgard) to the small, idyllic Greek island of Kalokairi for the very purpose of rooting out which of them is her biological father by bringing them face to face with her feisty single mother Donna played by an indomitable Streep. Never you mind its absolute farce of a premise, just admire its sheer audacity of even attempting it.
Steeped in mediocrity, the film is a dissonant fuse of feckless film-making and unqualified brio. Lloyd underdirects every aspect of the film by playing it safe, giving way to an overly effusive and overly acted emoting by its usually terrific cast, proving that even the best of them stumble over tricky song-and-dance material. Brosnan gives a muscular performance even through throaty recitals, but Streep surprises with an impassioned salvo. But the musical performances have a delightfully novel quality of a night at a karaoke bar with awkward uncles and drunken mothers. They are rough around the edges, but remain charming, proving that not everything equates to the sum of its parts. "Mamma Mia!" wants to be an experience to be relished, with an intrinsic need to convert the unconverted by its purely stupendous force of ardent spectacle and delirious pizazz.
Zvyagintsev creates a stark, grave allegory of marital and familial disintegration
Andrey Zvyagintsev's "The Banishment" is a stark, grave allegory of marital and familial disintegration. The father, Alexander (Best Actor at Cannes 2007, Konstantin Lavronenko)a slight, lithe, laconic characterfaces an unconscionable choice midway through the film. His wife, Vera (Maria Bonnevie), is a quietly tired mother masking a great deal of uncertainty behind pained eyes and faded beauty. Their young children, Kir and Eva, sense that a storm is brewing. This is Zvyagintsev's despairing poetry on the toxic disconnect between loved ones, surveying the limbo between the way things are and the way it should be.
"I'm pregnant, but it's not yours," Vera says unhurriedly, looking at her husband imploringly, eyes beseeching, as they lounge on the patio of Alexander's hilltop childhood home in the countryside, far away from the bleak greys of the industrial city where they reside. In that moment, Alexander realises the shift from mental to physical infidelity, less mindful to the betrayal he refuses to talk about than he is to his pride taking a dent. For the first time, the angular complexity of Lavronenko's face twists into a wordless rage that reveals his only response to the malaise rising within this marriage.
Alexander meets surreptitiously with his shady brother Mark (Aleksandr Baluyev), a criminal sort that needed stitching up and a bullet removed from his arm in the dead of the night just days before. Mark informs Alexander of a gun he left up in a dresser at their father's home. The moral landscape opens up here with two pathsto forgive or to kill. Both choices demand a hefty price, but remain acceptable as long as one is able to reconcile one's self with it.
Zvyagintsev creates a dreary mood piece, sustained with tension and a deeply burdening excavation of secrets and silence. There's an exploration of miscommunication here, not lies. The unspoken becomes just as virulent as falsities; the emotional estrangement between people becomes a source of dehumanising decay. The story of family is timeless in its essence, but intermittent, it's intrinsic morality however, is everything. Once again, the past has a way of rearing itself into the future. Just as Zvyagintsev saw profundity in the role of the Father in his mesmerising debut, "The Return", he sees the same here in the dynamics between parents and of spouses. The themes remain similar, but the religiosity of his enterprise is clunkier and more obtrusive.
While the acknowledged influence is Andrei Tarkovskynature and pastoral simplicity as it relates to the inner self and the interplay of religious iconographythe resonance of the camera is plainly Zvyagintsev's. The director, once again working with the cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, seems incapable of framing an ugly image: the open spaces of the golden countryside becomes stupefying and the creaky house itself hinges on a chasm, a solitary wooden bridge is the sole connection to a world outside the confines of family. As the narrative bends and folds, so does Zvyagintsev's virtuosity with visual chicaneryimages and shots blend into one another, revealing the webs of space and time.
For all its technical poise, Zvyagintsev's story lacks the emotional veracity of his debut. From each shot, right down to its script, everything is so precisely composed that the film becomes antiseptic beneath the tragedy by justifying its theoretical banality with intense symbolism and inorganic actions. Characters have weight but no realitythey seem becalmed, even unaffectedthey are ideas acted upon, props for a rambling parable and dangerously on the verge of evoking ennui. But in spite of its inherently languorous sermon, Zvyagintsev tackles the film with the cinematic prose of epic literature by enveloping the film with an aura of solemnity and disquiet.