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Here's a 'must-see' film, which after a long-awaited but anticlimactic
screening I would rebrand as 'see if you must'. The one awe-inspiring
fact about Werner Herzog's much-admired 'Aguirre, Wrath of God' (1972)
is that it got made at all.
As messianic as the maker himself, the film charts an ill-fated 16th Century Spanish Crown expedition to Peru and the Amazon in search of the fabled gold of El Dorado.
Tranquil wide shots belie the true nature of the place. The heat stifles, the raging river demoralises, the paucity of food consumes. The nobility are quickly overpowered by the unforgiving environment.
Capitalising on the band's resignation from their quest, a rebel soldier, Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), inspires a mutiny and assumes leadership. He pushes the men to their limits, forcing them to go further, faster. Meanwhile the 'Indian' slaves free themselves of servitude and periodically resurface to arrow their former captors to death.
The expedition doesn't enervate Aguirre as it does the others. It enlivens him. As his sanity declines, he declares that he will marry his daughter before conquering other places and then overthrowing the monarchy.
Kinski was one of those die-for-your-art actors. Steely-blue eyes set among an intense, rough face gave him the look of a noble hobo. He might well have come closer to the crazed characters he played than any other international star. Herzog often used him, though theirs was love-hate relationship, and their fights are the stuff of legend.
There are many memorable moments in 'Aguirre'; indeed I best remember it as a series of quite dazzling set pieces. Take the raft scene where a horse loses control and dives into the river. Or the superbly edited shot of a head being lobbed clean off. Or the final scene, featuring an army of common squirrel monkeys.
The opening long shot remains the most breathtaking: the entire crew slowly snake their way down an imposing mountain; a visceral metaphor reflecting their insignificance a sequence that would only be done with CGI today.
Throughout, the film is visually arresting and remarkably static, except for occasional paroxysms. It's an arduous watch and I think overrated, but you may genuinely not see anything quite like it except for other Werner Herzog films.
F. Scott Fitzgerald would have loved this film. Baz Luhrmann stays true
to the spirit of the book whilst preserving his directorial integrity.
In some ways it's a perfect marriage. Both are men of style and
lyricism, of romance and passion.
I read the book only a few days before my screening the first time I have ever done so. I was expecting a tawdry adaptation but Luhrmann has actually made the best film of his career. I needed his imagination to fill the blanks in mine.
I quickly realised, as I followed every single detail with childlike awe, that this adaptation is piously faithful to the book. Perhaps it's better described as a literal translation. Words and precise sensory details not just scenes are lifted from page and pasted to screen, as when Nick Carraway first sees Daisy in her East Egg mansion. The 'coloured' references are appropriately kept in, and the party scenes are faultless.
The players are sensational. Carey Mulligan simply IS Daisy. Waiflike, elegant, beautiful, innocent which man wouldn't devote his life to her? Amitabh Bachchan does much to bring Bollywood closer to Hollywood with his brief but key turn as shady 'businessman', Meyer Wolfshiem (a bold but brilliant casting decision).
Joel Edgerton also perfectly embodies his role as the macho philanderer Tom Buchanan. He's never been better really. Tobey Maguire is likewise excellent as Nick Carraway, the narrator from whose perspective the story is told. To be truthful it's a thankless role because he has only to look awestruck every time he sees Gatsby. Fortunately, Maguire and DiCaprio are real life friends, so the awe does not have to be feigned.
Highest praise is reserved for DiCaprio, one of the few great actors yet to receive an Oscar. His take on Gatsby wouldn't have been out of place in the time of Bogart, Cagney and Lancaster. Indeed his entrance is as memorable as the quick pan upwards to Bogie's face in Casablanca, or Welles's chair spin in Citizen Kane. When reading the book I struggled to see who could play Gatsby. Two seconds of DiCaprio's movements made it obvious.
Some question if the book is indeed a classic. Whatever the merits of the book (I think there are many) I believe the story of a boy who dreams of greatness, then pursues it to validate the love of a woman, only to die vainly, pitifully, should resonate with anyone with a heart.
Lana Del Ray's angelic vocals help to evoke pathos, particularly her moving track whose lyrics 'Will you still love me when I'm no longer yours' encapsulate the story beautifully. On the other hand, Jay Z's music, presumably only used because he's oddly an Executive Producer, is an awkward juxtaposition, but luckily it is too brief to be a major distraction.
In some places there is a bluntness to the storytelling which undermines the power of the book. The beginning feels very rushed as the camera darts from one shot to the next. But these are mere peccadilloes in what is otherwise a glorious film, which masterfully captures the wild hedonism of that enviable era.
What a shame, though how predictable, that the multiplexes chose not to
show Mira Nair's brave and provocative political thriller about the
intricacies of fighting extremist Islam.
Nair uses Mohsin Hamid's fictional novel to explore very real Western attitudes towards the East in the ongoing 'war on terror'. She has directed a film of huge cultural, political and moral significance at a critical juncture between the Muslim and non-Muslim world.
Rising star Riz Ahmed (Four Lions) gives a memorable lead performance as Changez, a Pakistani immigrant in New York, who has an identity crisis in the wake of 9/11. He returns to live in Lahore when an MIT professor has been captured and held ransom there by terrorists, who use him as leverage to make demands of the US.
Posing as a journalist, Secret Service Agent Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) visits Lahore to interview Changez, who has developed a reputation for being anti-American. The US authorities believe that Changez, if not a terrorist, at least knows something about the kidnapping. They exert pressure on him by harassing his family, a move which only deepens his hatred.
During their interview, Changez asks Bobby to make a judgement about him only after hearing his entire story, and Changez's reminiscence allows for the film to unfurl as a flashback of epic proportions.
Raised in a secular, literate Muslim household in Pakistan, Changez finds it easy to break the covenants of his religion. He consumes alcohol, eats pork and sleeps with non-Muslims, everything Islam forbids. He wins a scholarship to study at Princeton in the late 90s, where he claims never to have scored a B.
There he is headhunted to work for a prestigious valuation firm where he ensures a rapid promotion by impressing his boss (Kiefer Sutherland). On the day of his promotion the towers come down. He tells Bobby that instead of feeling sadness, he felt awe. 'David had struck Goliath'.
Ahmed gave his most famous performance in Lions, but this is his greatest. As an 'Asian' (I abhor the term but include it for your convenience) man myself, I have long had to suffer stereotypical performances by brown-skinned actors, who are used by ignorant directors to add colour and Schadenfreude to their ignorant stories. Ahmed transcends all that. This time we're analysing the reactions of White actors.
Changez's hatred of America germinates slowly, against his will, as his life slowly falls apart. Colleagues turn on him. The bond he had with his widowed girlfriend Erica (Kate Hudson) withers. Ordinary citizens view him as the enemy. His choice to move back to Pakistan is made for him.
Nair purposely shows much of Changez's life back home, as one of her clear aims is to challenge some key stereotypes. Changez's father (Om Puri) is a distinguished poet, not a farmer or rickshaw puller. The family is quite well off, not destitute. And the country is generally shown to be colourful, vibrant and civilised, instead of corrupt, backward and dangerous, as we normally see.
The horror of the recent Woolwich (London) terrorist attack may do something to restrict the impact of this excellent film. Paradoxically, the attack serves to reinforce the arguments of the film. It makes several points, makes them powerfully and forces you to in future question what you are told.
With only three features Jeff Nichols has cemented his reputation as a
writer-director to be reckoned with. Mud is a skillful blend of love,
coming-of-age and revenge story which takes place in Arkansas, an old-
fashioned part of America where the young still call their elders 'sir'
and just about everyone can tie a bowline or fix a car.
Building on his superb performances in Killer Joe and Magic Mike, Matthew McConaughey stars as the eponymous Mud, a mysterious fugitive marooned on a Mississippi island, where he dreams of reuniting with his beloved Juniper (an authentically trashy Reese Witherspoon).
On one of their boating adventures two intrepid boys, Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland), stumble upon a speedboat which is somehow stuck up a tree. They discover that it belongs to Mud, and after a nervy initial encounter the boys form a clandestine bond with him. They make a deal: the boat in return for food.
We know that there must be sinister reasons for someone to be out here alone. But the boys, barely teenagers, come from unstable backgrounds and are lone children in their homes. Mud treats them like adults and endears himself to them. The boys are easily charmed and therefore have no reason to be suspicious.
Nichols's film, as with his Take Shelter, develops the story gradually. The plot is revealed sparsely, incrementally, which keeps us guessing. And then follows one of the most sudden and heart-pounding endings you're likely to see. Another great American director, Sam Peckinpah, was famous for the same technique.
We first suspect then learn that Mud is on the run for a cold-blooded murder. The way he justifies his action is especially chilling. Instead of condemning him, he makes us or at least me sympathise with him. That's the genius of McConaughey's performance he has to be simultaneously hateful and likable.
There are vestiges of his Joe Cooper from Killer Joe. He whispers dialogue through an Arkansas accent, and is no less arresting despite a dirty constitution and chipped front teeth.
Nichols was overjoyed with the two boys. With good reason. Both deliver prodigious performances, particularly Tye Sheridan, who assumes the lead role for much of the film and clearly has a future in movies. He is moved by Mud's love for Juniper, and helps them to reunite to give meaning to his own precarious life.
Dressed in a palette of autumnal browns and yellows, the film has an authentic quality. Nichols directs with a keen eye for detail and mood. There are frequent shots of eels and crawling insects animal metaphors, another Peckinpah trademark.
I have a small criticism. We learn that Mud's dreamy perception of his relationship with Juniper is a delusion. It is implied that he is as violent as the many men she has been with during her time with him, and that her departure from him is a recurring event. I found it difficult to believe that somebody as selfish and deceitful as Mud would be this 'committed' to anyone.
Gus Van Sant's Promised Land is an eco film with a difference. Rather
than simply condemn big business for any one of its practices, it makes
a more constructive point by suggesting that profits do not have to
trump ethics. The two can go together.
Matt Damon and Frances McDormand are two middling employees of Global, a $9 billion natural gas company. Their job is to go to towns across America, where there is shale gas, to buy people off in return for their precious resource.
The key to their job is to fit in with the locals dress, socialise and act like them so that they can win their confidence. Once they do this, they usually find that people sign their dubious contracts, promising them unimaginable wealth, with gullible gusto.
Their latest victim is an antiquated farming community with a particularly lucrative quantity of gas underneath their lush fields. Unfortunately for Global, despite their backward façade, the people are far from ignorant.
Hal Holbrook plays and is perfect as the wise old voice of opposition. It's amazing how many times he has played this role without it once being uninspiring. As a retired professor, he assertively points out the environmental flaws of fracking (drilling for gas) to Damon, who finds the professor's knowledge and integrity too much to handle.
What makes this challenging viewing is that Damon and McDormand are essentially good people, McDormand more obviously so. They aren't two of Global's heavies; they're small fry. Indeed, they come to this latest town without even knowing the full facts. Damon has trouble reconciling his job with his own background, as he grew up with the sort of townsfolk he's now bamboozling.
Damon is back to the kind of role he does best cerebral, dialogue- driven and thought-provoking (Good Will Hunting, Dogma, The Talented Mr. Ripley, etc). McDormand gives an atypical performance because she is allowed to be more than simply Damon's female counterpart. Her character is developed and given a story. A nice distraction in the film is seeing her flirt with the local gun store owner (Titus Welliver).
It's a good role for Democrat Damon. He co-wrote and co-produced the film, and it was at one stage meant to be his directorial debut, so this wasn't merely 'a role' for him. The story must resonate with him. The point it makes is to give people facts and choices, not BS and threats.
The otherwise hackneyed story of greedy corporations steamrolling people to maximise profits is given a clever twist (though you'll predict it before the reveal) involving a sprightly young man called Dustin, who rallies the town into opposing Global's onslaught.
A lovely little scene nearing the end makes a wonderful moral point. A young girl is selling lemonade at 25 cents a cup. Damon buys a cup for higher the price, telling the girl to keep the change. The girl refuses the extra change. Damon asks why. The girl points to her sign and says the price is 25 cents. A fair deal is a clear deal. Big business can learn a lot from that little girl.
Why not cut the pretence and call this film, 'We Hate North Korea'?
That's really all this film is: a childish warning from the ever-
paranoid US to the Hermit Kingdom to tone down its bravado. It's the
kind of film George W. Bush would call a masterpiece.
Aaron Eckhart stars as US President Benjamin Asher, who turns his back on his friend and trusted Secret Service Agent, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) because he saved him and not his wife in a fatal car accident.
Banning is relegated to a desk job, which he hates because he's much more productive when executing people in as few moves as possible. Luckily for him, his pencil pushing doesn't last long, as the North Koreans turn rhetoric into radicalism by mounting a full-scale surprise attack on Washington DC.
While a sophisticated fighter plane (which impressively blasts out a halo of rockets to defend itself against attack) causes mayhem from the sky, a well-ordered, precipitous assault takes place at ground level. Refuse trucks park in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and open fire on the gates. Citizens emerge out of panic-stricken crowds and detonate bombs to allow entry onto the lawn. Then a small army shoots its way into the White House to continue the carnage until the President and key members of his staff are captured. It takes just 15 minutes for the White House (codenamed Olympus) to fall.
That sequence is the single most impressive part of Antoine Fuqua's paranoid propaganda piece. I never once questioned the plausibility of the attack because we've seen too much to question what's possible. What I did question was Mike Banning volunteering himself as essentially the only form of resistance against this unprecedented terror attack.
Honestly, an invincible comic creation would take more care. Banning strolls into the White House amid a rampaging gun battle, totally oblivious to the prospect of a pointless death. I just thought he was arrogant.
And then I fell asleep. When I awoke 30 minutes later, my wife kindly assured me that I had missed nothing of importance. Banning had moved from one wing to another, surreptitiously executing a few goons along the way, while Asher and co. were toyed with by Kang (Rick Yune), the head terrorist as he made impossible demands of Acting President, Speaker Trumbull (Morgan Freeman).
Never mind why Kang is putting himself out like this - it's preposterous. First timers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt wrote this hogwash. Is it a coincidence that their first names sound a bit like the word 'cretin'? Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Robert Forster and Dylan McDermott are reliable in their bit parts but why add to the production invoice?
For those who won't sympathise with the President's plight, his son Conner is used as the secondary victim. He cleverly conceals himself in the White House walls, and Banning has to rescue him before he saves the world from being blown to pieces. As if he didn't have enough on his plate.
The film begins with the line, 'Everything in this film is fiction and
fantasy; any resemblance to real life is purely coincidental'. This is
acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's opening conceit, his
attempt at irony, for what is undoubtedly his worst film to date.
Billed as 'A feel-good celebration of human sexuality', it neither perks you up, nor entices you to pop a cork. It is devoid of wit, originality and skill. I laughed not once. I came away feeling low and full of regret.
The story if one can honestly call it that is this. A technical fault causes an aeroplane to fly around in circles until a clear runway is found for a safe landing. Meanwhile the all-gay crew entertain the eccentric passengers everyone from a former Dominatrix called Miss Take (hah hah), a virginal clairvoyant who claims she can smell death, a disgraced business man, a Mexican hit man and a drug mule.
The crew's awful burlesque of the famous Pointer Sister song (which the film usurps for its title) meant to be the film's pinnacle turns out to be its nadir. But no. Lower depths are found, thanks to the stream- of-consciousness plot, which is a stream of banality and embarrassment. One of the crew has the bright idea of spiking passengers' drinks with the drug mule's mescaline pills but not without first nosing to check how well they were smuggled.
Ennui becomes too much for some who decide I think influenced by the pills to let carnality take over. I should have joined the elderly gentleman who left as soon as the clairvoyant did what she really ought not to have done to the sleeping man. But, like a man determined to confront a phobia, I stayed to endure the nightmare.
Please do not think this is one of those so-bad-you-must-see-it films. In case my diatribe has still not convinced you to stay away, tell me if you find this funny. A steward wipes something from the lip of another steward who has just visited the bisexual pilot. Disbelieving the reason for his disappearance, he licks his finger to confirm what he thinks it is. (Let me provide a clue: it isn't milk.)
Any fool knows that a joke is not always funny in another language. So, if nothing else, Almodovar proves that the worst of American humour is a whole lot worse in Spanish. Worst of all, 'I'm so Excited' manages to be something which most films, no matter how immoral or subversive, cannot be: pointless.
Somewhere in Harmony Korine's tenuous tale of teenage angst there's a
point. But for some reason all I seem to remember are all those
slow-motion shots on a sun-kissed beach of rowdy teenagers, drunk and
highout of their minds, acting up in nothing but their birthday suits.
It's 'Kids' all over again.
The film follows a fearsome feminine foursome on their mission to do whatever it takes to get enough money to enjoy spring break, that supposedly special time for American youths which sees them forget their studies to concentrate on the more important part of school life getting absolutely wasted.
Chubby-faced cherub Selena Gomez and voluptuous Vanessa Hudgens swap the Disney channel for the Adult one, as they prowl around half-naked with two other girls on the streets of Florida's neon night time. Cash strapped, they decide, inexplicably, to hold up a diner with water pistols! They triumph in their daring raid but are quickly jailed for forgetting to remain inconspicuous.
A gangster-rapper named Alien (James Franco) bails them out on the condition that they be his personal playthings. This is where the story gets carried away with itself. The girls' transition from independent women to teeny-bopping slaves is so sudden and incredulous that I felt cheated.
Two girls become scared of Alien's violent, excessive world and decide to go home. The other two stay and become his bodyguards as well as lovers. Alien plans to takeover the Florida coast underworld but knows this will require killing his former boss (Gucci Mane).
At this point the story dies and gives way to random horseplay, involving armed robberies, wanton murders and Alien wooing his two slave girls, in one example by singing a Britney Spears song. Other distractions include scene repetition, and Alien's incessant mouthing of 'spring break' in voice-over.
Franco, buff and braided, gives a towering performance that excuses him for the shambles that was 'Oz'. It must have been a very difficult character to get right because of how idiosyncratic it is. Every bad choice could have led to disaster. Not sure he gets the accent totally right, though, unless 'y'all' is meant to come out as 'you all' in a Southern drawl.
One pivotal scene instantly repelled me. Alien shows off his awesome arsenal in his beach house ('look at all ma she-at' he repeats) while the two girls feign interest. Suddenly they have him at gun point and force him to do what no man should have to do to his own gun. They scare him, ridicule him and take pleasure in doing so. But then there's more incredulity: they give up the act and allow themselves to be fondled by him.
If the story had courage and respect for its feminist tone, it would have been much better to run with a story of how the two girls use Alien to live a life of excess and then turn against him at his most vulnerable moment. That would be a spring break to remember.
The violence arising out of the infamous rivalry between Birmingham's
two most prominent gangs, the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew,
whose postcodes B21 and B6 separate them by only a mile, has
blighted the city for years.
Millions of pounds have been spent trying to address the problem. Communities have been divided. Innocent lives have been lost, while others have been irrevocably shattered. One Mile Away may well be the most significant attempt to resolve this historic problem once and for all.
Winner of the Edinburgh Film Festival's Michael Powell award for best British film, Penny Woolcock's documentary is a milestone. It transcends the medium by not just highlighting a problem, but by actively trying to tackle it. As proof of her commitment, she was able to persuade former MP James Purnell and key Northern Ireland peace architect Jonathan Powell to back this project; James as a Producer, Jonathan as an adviser.
While the main aim is to broker a truce between 'Burgers' and 'Johnsons', the film also acts as a clarion call to young boys and girls to repel the lure of gang life and choose a more auspicious path.
Dylan Duffus, aka D-Boy, and Matthias Thompson, aka Shabba, are the two very brave young men who take a big but necessary risk in bringing their respective gangs together. Initial efforts to enlist support for peace are met with great suspicion. Gang members on both sides accuse the men of having ulterior motives. But they persevere in spite of their odds.
It would be wrong to judge this documentary solely in terms of its cinematic merit, though it is very well made. It is engaging, impeccably researched and deeply moving. The national resonance it is sure to have will be down to the fact that it has been made by a film maker who is really operating as a compassionate social activist.
QT rewrote history in Inglourious Basterds to give Jews some poetic
justice, and now he empowers the black male with a Western that
presents the horrors of slavery whilst still being a rootin', tootin'
revenge flick that ranks with his best.
As the titular protagonist, Jamie Foxx is appropriately subdued as the freed slave, who strategically accepts Dr King Shultz's offer of a bounty-hunting partnership in order to buy his wife from sadistic plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). He doesn't have a lot to do other than represent black oppression, which he does by well, being black.
The role of Shultz required a German, so Christoph Waltz was the obvious choice. He is unquestionably brilliant, as he was in Inglourious, and though he's not playing a Nazi this time, you get the sense that he's Col. Landa's saintly twin. It's touching that he helps Django because he views him as Siegfried in the famous German myth: a man who goes through hellfire to rescue his beloved (a tender, affecting Kerry Washington), who completes the myth by having the name Broomhilda von Shaft.
DiCaprio is the film's biggest surprise. He had serious misgivings about playing Candy, his first (and possibly last) out and out villain. What will audiences think when they see him give the order for a runaway slave to be ripped apart by wild dogs? QT warned him to go all the way, otherwise audiences wouldn't forgive him; a very apt directive, which DiCaprio has firmly adhered to. His superb performance comes almost entirely from his character's pomposity. QT describes him wonderfully as the petulant boy king, the Louis XIV who is so bored with his inheritance (the fourth largest cotton plantation in Mississippi) that he gets his kicks from brutal Mandingo fights.
QT's dialogue is, as always, sensational. Lyrical, eloquent, witty, playful, ingenious that's always been his most impressive contribution to cinema. This is the least QT-looking film of his repertoire, but only because this is his most conventional (or least unconventional). A Western, as this is, has fixed associations and images. QT is careful not to impose his knack of creatively subverting genre (too much) to detract from the serious message which he clearly wishes to make.
For all the flak QT gets for his approval of cinematic violence, I don't think this is a particularly violent film. We're talking here of the antebellum South, two years before the Civil war. It would be an injustice not to show violence, and an even bigger injustice not to show a true depiction of violence. In fact, the implied violence (Django hanging upside down, waiting to be castrated) is more unsettling than the comic book violence we mostly get.
QT wanted to avoid making this a historical film with a capital 'H'. To do so, he said, would have defeated the purpose. Samuel L. Jackson's character, Stephen, exists to prove this. He runs 'Candyland' (superb writing) as proxy lord of the manor, but resents any other free black. He treats his house slaves with a deeper contempt than Candy would, perhaps because it's a way of assuring his own longevity. He's more grotesque than Candy and would be a memorable villain if he didn't make us laugh so much with his bespoke jive.
The soundtrack is terrific and the pacing is astonishing considering the 165-minute length. Some of the influence from Sergio Leone Westerns has found its way into this film. Is this one of QT's best? No. Should you see it? You must. QT has made his political points loud and clear; he's got us all talking about America's forgotten holocaust. But has he given cinema the mythical black hero he intended to?
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