Saturday, March 31, 2012

Darkness Visible

Australian novelist Julia Leigh wrote and directed the strange Sleeping Beauty (reviewed on this blog some months ago) and wrote the titular novel upon which The Hunter is based.

Once again ignoring parts of reality she doesn't like, she bases her ecological or landscape thriller on a what-if notion.

That is, what would happen if there were still one so-called Tasmanian tiger alive, one which had a quality that would make an aspect of its DNA desirable to a multi-national corporation.

Nothing entirely far-fetched about that. There is a case in South Africa where some or other multinational wants to use a Bushman (or San) hunger-suppressant for dieting reasons. The question is, what do the Bushmen (the name they prefer) get out of it?

So it's a matter of ethics and indigenous medicinal rights.

In this film, Willem Dafoe plays the hunter who will get the last "tiger" so that his employee can get a similar advantage from the animal. But the last "tiger" was seen a few decades ago and the film involves a lot of Dafoe traipsing through a breathtaking Tasmanian wilderness.

If he is infinitely more watchable than Ryan Gosling, then it still doesn't prevent this thriller from being boring, especially when compared with the next film on the menu.

I have quoted a Time critic who said the Sundance Film Festival does nothing but promote families-in-crisis movies, but last year there was the very watchable, scary and Oscar-nominated regional drama, Winter's Bone. This year writer/director Sean Durkin won the prize as best director for Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Every now and again we read about some or other cult gone wrong in America. Always there are the basic similarities. They are run by some kind of charismatic man who has more than one sexual partner in a commune-like setup, they are isolated, and they think that the "real", materialistic America stinks.

The ironic beauty of this commune is that it's rather ramshackle, it's right next to a public road and its leader, Patrick (John Hawkes being as terrifying as he was in Winter's Bone), is a sleazebag philosopher who nevertheless manages to coerce the other women into preparing his next sexual initiate with drugs.

He really gives the impression that he's merely a medium for weak people's gullibility, yet never have I seen or heard a more terrifying folk song than the one he plays. It's creepy in a way no tricksy slasher porn can be.

The film more or less starts where most Hollywood movies on the subject would end: Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) leaves the commune to go and live with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). From there on director Durkin manages to keep us in a state of uncertainty and building suspense as he switches back and forth from rundown commune to upper-crust lacustria.

If the former is shown as scary, the latter is not portrayed as all that normal or desirable either. In fact, Lucy's concerns with household cleanliness by the lake, trying for a baby and placating her burnt-out engineer husband come across as patently sterile and absurd.

The uncertainty is achieved by way of claustrophobic close-ups so that we're never quite sure where we are and, occasionally, who is whom. This is the whole idea. Like many aspects of religion, the idea is that personality is subjugated to doctrine, hence the title. Identity is variable, ultimately meaningless.

Finally, you just wait for the cult members (nice, normal-looking folk) to catch up with Martha and her stressed-out pregnant sister and do unspeakable things to them. That it is left up to our imaginations makes it all the more terrifying.

Robert Redford's attempt at creating a more truthful form of American cinema via his Sundance Institute is finally paying off, handsomely.

Neil Sonnekus 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Skins of the Mother

Almadovar’s latest melodrama – or gender thriller - covers just about everything.

Firstly, he revisits the notion of abduction as he did in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Apart from the collapse of the euro and the alleged failure of multiculturalism, human trafficking is one of the big social issues in Europe at the moment.

This time the abductor is a clinically cool, almost Frankenstein-like surgeon, Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), who is obsessed with replicating human skin. He says it’s to develop a thick enough hide to resist fire and malaria-infested mosquitoes – a sexy subject for philanthropists like Bill Gates.

But doctor Ledgard has a tragic past and darker purposes, which a fellow scientist points out cross the ethical line by a country mile, which is where our not so good doctor lives – in the country. There in his medieval castle he has his surgery, which he drives to and from in his ultra-expensive white BMW sport coupe.

That’s also where he keeps his captive, Vera, played by Elena Anaya – who looks like an impossibly beautiful brunette model who can also act. The modelling metaphor is not gratuitous: the film was made avec Jean Paul Gaultier’s participation.

Ledgard looks at his exquisite captive lying in the same way as the Venus d’Urbino, a copy of which, of course, adorns his walls. But this is Almadovar, so she is not only his captive, she is also…well, to tell more would be giving away the putative secret of the movie, which takes almost two hours to arrive.

Inevitably there will be the mother-son relationship – two variables – in this film about the auteur’s obsessions with cross-gender identity, youth, neurosis and high fashion.

Men are either dazzlingly handsome, but cold, like Ledgard, or  hot, macho rapists, like his lunatic half-brother. Fathers don't feature, and the mother (Marisa Paredes) takes responsibility for producing two lunatics.

There is only one comic moment in a Bunuel-like detour when a fat man (played by the director’s brother and producer) sells his wife’s old clothes to a dress shop lady to ensure that if his wife does come back to him, as she usually does after she's left him, she won’t have anything to wear.

Otherwise it’s all beautiful people to look at, beautifully scripted, shot, acted, scored (by Alberto Iglesias), dressed - the works. In fact, it’s probably European cinema at its peak, but as only half a European I found it difficult to buy into it as a cautionary tale of how revenge corrupts - or how sexual appearances should be treated as merely skin deep.

For all its fascinating twists and turns, the tale, if not its auteur, seems to suffer from vagina envy. Dig a bit deeper and you could even read it as being self-hating of the same notion. This isn't helped much by the fact that, for all its supposed anti-superficiality, it resembles the epitome of narcissism: a glossy fashion magazine.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Let's Talk About Parenting

The first thing I did after seeing We Need to Talk About Kevin is to find out whether the screenwriter and director have children.

As it happens, Rory Kinnear and Lynne Ramsay are married and, not surprisingly, they don’t. This can only be a good thing because they might just produce the kind of spineless darling that good old liberal mollycoddling does.

But it rarely produces a Kevin. That is, a mass murderer of the Columbine variety. What causes that generally is parental neglect of one sort or another; parents who are so involved with the TV programmes of  their own miserable lives that they have no clue what their offspring are up to.

But then Wikipedia suggests that author Lionel Shriver doesn’t have children either, though apparently her book is about a woman who has “ambivalent feelings” towards her son. That’s one story, the film is entirely another, and if Shriver thinks the adaptation of her novel is "brilliant" it might have more to do with her contract than her feelings.

Anyway, at first the film gives us an indication that the ironically named Eva (played by the David Bowie of film, Tilda Swinton) is suffering from postpartum depression, a very common occurrence, and that she’s incredibly sensitive to noise. Her baby screams incessantly and pneumatic drills and lawn mowers just add to the audial assault. On that front she has our full sympathy.

Miraculously, the faceless doctor says Kevin’s fine as a toddler and doesn’t prescribe anything in a nation that is gaga on tranquilisers. Throw in a quick scene of two female victims bonding in the waiting room and jump to Kevin being the kind of wilful, manipulative brat that needs a good smack – or some kind of line being drawn - instead of being indulged on his way to becoming a psychopath socially or a full-blown demon theologically.

What happened in between? Has Eva come to hate Kevin? Has her marriage fallen apart? No, on both scores. She persists with Kevin and she’s still married to Franklin (John C Reilly), who does we don’t know what for a living. When she’s down he’s there to offer the boy the kind of time and love most children crave. In fact, he can see no wrong in his darling son.

Yet the older Kevin (Ezra Miller) has become a sneering, 16-year-old authorial vehicle for what’s wrong with society: it watches TV not about goody two-shoes but psychopathic killers. True enough. Only once do we see that he might be a little like his mother. That's when she actually has an opinion about something, saying she thinks most fat people are thus not because they have medical problems but because they’re always eating. He is much more in character when he tells her that the only honest thing she ever did was lose her rag with him and throw him to the floor, breaking his arm.

But the film is not trying to indict the parents, as it should. Instead we sit through a very interestingly directed film (pick up on the theme of red, as in tomatoes, wine, paint: blood), and surely some of us think Swinton should have won the Oscar rather than Merryl Streep, whose (also female) director seemed to work on the laughable premise that for being such a monster Margaret Thatcher was cursed with dementia.

To crown it all, Kevin finally seems if not remorseful then doubtful, and maternal love will nourish his societal reintegration as he waits out the next 25 years or so in prison. This reeks of a creative compromise to give the film the redemptive kind of ending Hollywood seems to insist upon.

If the acting from Swinton and Miller is excellent, then it's undermined by the fact that the story they're telling us has absolutely nothing to do with reality.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Short of It

Unless you’re a chess fanatic and know that the world champion is actually a 22-year-old Norwegian, the only other thing his country is famous for right now – apart from having the highest standard of living in the world - is a lunatic who mowed down a host of innocent children on an island outside Oslo and thinks he deserves a medal for it.

Actually, in other circles Norway is also famous for an artist called Edvard Munch and in yet another, more up-to-date fashion, a writer called Jo Nesbo.

The first thing you notice about him in the flesh is that he’s one of those slight kind of guys who's buffed himself up a bit. He isn't that short, as such, just slight-ish, self-effacing, quirky.

He was in Auckland to promote a film punted as Jo Nesbo's Headhunters (three cheers for writers getting a bit of acclaim!) and tried to give the leading man, Aksel Hennie, a wake-up call from all of us. The iPhone got through to an answering service and the entire auditorium wished Hennie a “good morning!” from the opposite end of the world.

Were there any questions before the movie started? Yes, what did he think of the adaptation of his book? Unlike Lionel Shriver and Paul Theroux he didn’t praise it like they did We Must Talk About Kevin and Mosquito Coast respectively. Instead he said it was like asking a gynaecologist whether he thought the women he’d just treated was sexy.

He also said he’d written the book in two months, told his publisher that it took a year and a half and that he didn’t think he’d plagiarised anyone.

Anyway, the first thing you notice about Hennie’s Roger Brown is that he’s short. In fact, he gives us his exact measurements. Then he shows us how much shorter he is than his partner, Diana (Synnov Macody Lund), one of those unbelievably tall, blonde, blue-eyed Nordic goddesses.

Roger’s got it all: the babe, the job, the hi-tech mansion, and the debt. Brown – there’s no reason given for this very Anglo name - might be a successful corporate headhunter by day, but somehow he’s got to afford that mansion so he does what the more complex collector/thief Ripley from the Patricia Highsmith novels does. He steals art, starting with a Munch etching by way of introduction.

One of the people he is talking to about a CEO position for a big multinational is an ex-military man (make your own deductions) who just so happens to own a Rubens worth about $100 million. Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is also nice and tall, like Diana, who wants the baby that Roger doesn’t want to talk about.

What follows is not only a very slick thriller, but also an action-laden meditation on modern relationships and being, well, vertically challenged. In fact, one farm-toilet scene says it's really shit to be short, literally. More comedy comes from Roger’s partner in crime, who’s in love with his Russian prostitute, and two identical fat cops - Tweedledum and Tweedledee no doubt.

So there you have it. The kind of thing Hollywood struggles with: clever entertainment.

Neil Sonnekus

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Bad Ideas for March

George Clooney has done and said some interesting things politically. For one, he has seemed to be quite serious about making a difference in Darfur.

As far as Barack Obama is concerned: “I’m a firm believer in sticking by and sticking up for the people you’ve elected,” he told ABC News.

That means he doesn’t thinks Obama is perfect, but he’s the man Clooney voted for - and punted - and he’s standing by him, which is admirable.

Furthermore, he has made it quite clear that he’s aware of the fact that the US media are polarized in terms of which paper or TV channel supports which party, so in The Ides of March “we wanted to talk about how we elect people and the deals we make along the way.”

That certainly happens. Clooney seems almost obsessed with the mechanisms of (American) power, and he knows how to portray them effectively. Ryan Gosling and Philip Seymour Hoffman and their opponent, played by Paul Giamatti, deliver flawless performances as campaign managers of one ethical stripe or another. Note that it’s mainly a boys’ affair.

Seymour Hoffman’s speech on political loyalty is something to savour, as is Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack, but here lies the rub. Clooney: “I knew that the only way I was going to be allowed to [make the film] - because I’m a Democrat and I’ve been sort of loud about it at times - was that I’d make [my presidential candidate] a Democrat so that the flaws are [those] of a Democrat.”

And boy, his Mike Morris sounds almost too good to be true, even as a Democrat. He’s into the kind of technology that wouldn’t require oil; he isn’t a Christian or a Muslim; the only thing he believes in is upholding the US Constitution. In fact, he seems to believe in everything someone else believes in: George Clooney.

Then, after a real homey scene with his screen wife (Jennifer Ehle as the lovely power-background wife), we discover that he’s as big a shithead as John Edwards, who was getting an intern pregnant and trying to cover it up while his wife was dying of cancer. Good luck, and good night Mr Edwards.

But this is not clever politics, let alone controversial. In fact, it’s effectively an admission of failure on Clooney’s behalf. If he, with all his star power, couldn’t make a film that goes beyond what Noam Chomsky calls “manufactured consent”, then where does that leave him? Or us? Do we care about the American electoral system? Do Americans? Will the majority of them, just because he’s in it? Perhaps.

But then they might just take him literally when he praises the Republicans’ effective (but appalling) strategies and shows us that atheist Democrats are not to be trusted. And again, does the rest of the world really care for this kind of exceptionalist drama, one way or the other?

Neil Sonnekus