Saturday, 28 January 2012

Moneyball or how to waste your money on a cinema ticket

Films like Moneyball make me want to quit watching films all together. The carefully crafted story arch is so conventional and predictable that the over two hour long story turns into an endless torture. We are forced to watch one-dimensional, over-inspirational characters struggling through their existence, but whose relentless spirit and wholesome moral code secures their success and sets a positive example for the enthused audience.

The Hollywood producers see stories like Moneyball as certain moneymaking machines that hit the chord with the cinema-going populous who becomes enticed by the award season hype. As if the ‘Oscar-nominated film’ was a genre of its own; these films have such strong conservative structure which is not only banal but insulting to any intelligent being.

Monayball, The King's Speech, The Fighter, Invictus, Milk, Dreamgirls, Capote, Walk the line... How much more can we endure?

Into Eternity - a short-lived depiction

In many respects Michael Madsen's film Into Eternity reiterates a very similar documentary called Countdown to zero. Both films debate on the very same issue of dealing with the sources of nuclear power and depict their subjects from the very same, distrustful angle. Countdown to zero focused mainly on analysing the pros and cons of using nuclear power as weaponry. Into Eternity provides an in-depth discussion over the safety concerns surrounding the growing production of nuclear waste.

Yet the difference that is most striking about the two films is their use of different narrative devices. While Countdown to zero was more of a report whose aim was to raise awareness of the issue and propagate reducing the number of atomic bombs at hand, Into Eternity is an evocative piece which uses a poetic language to emphasise the uncertainty of a world in which the nuclear waste will most probably outlive our civilisation.

The film makes some very excellent points, stressing how difficult it is to speculate over how successful the attempts of concealing the nuclear waste are going to be. We are told that the waste remains radioactive for about 100,000 years and the attempts of the Finnish entrepreneurs to build the first underground facility that is designed to serve its purpose for that enormous amount of time is a herculean task.

As terrifying and eye-opening the subject of the documentary is, the film itself is too vague at presenting the possible dangers of exposing the concealed nuclear waste. That vagueness is probably caused by a very limited amount of research available at the time of making it and so the film is doomed to run out of steam about half way through its duration by repeating the same one-liners and warnings over and over again.

Informative, but not necessarily destined for a cinematic exhibition. 

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Artist's artistry's art

It is quite telling about the state of Hollywood that the most enigmatic film of the Oscar line-up is a movie that recalls the prominence and glamour of the Golden Age, a period almost a hundred years past. The Artist is a walk down memory lane which reveals Hollywood’s longing for what once was, but even more so it expresses sheer disappointment with the cinema of today.

The film tells the story of George Valentin – a character loosely inspired by a real silent film star of the 1920’s, Rudolph Valentino. George is at the top of his game, making one hit film after another while simultaneously getting praise from audiences and producers. At one of his film premieres he accidentally meets a young aspiring actress and soon-to-be star, Peppy Miller. Her character’s origin is a bit harder to identify than Valentin’s; there is something of Greta Garbo’s relentlessness in her smug attitude towards fame, mixed with the innocence of a girl-next-door type supplied by the likes of Marilyn Monroe. The two make an emotional connection which is tested by a gradual change of dynamics between them as George loses his estate and career while Peppy becomes the most successful star of the ‘talkies’ era.

The film captures one of the most significant moments in the entire history of cinematography – the beginning of the sound film era which radically changed the perception of the cinematic experience. The film’s obvious metaphor is the director’s commentary on where cinema is today. The beginning of 2011 saw some of the most prominent film critics and scholars labelling this decade as the beginning of the age of post-cinema. The most recent transformation of cinematography from a theatre-based projection into an omnipresent virtual stream of audio-visual images is possibly just as revolutionary as the synchronised sound was in the 1920’s/ 30’s. Yet for many of us the invention of services as pay-per-view, iTunes, Bluray or Netflix don’t come as shocking. In the consumerist market we are expected to be prepared for constant improvements of our electronic devices and expansion of services offered to us. Many of us don't even realise how significant these changes are and how different the relationship between films and cinema-goers is now from what it was a few decades ago.

And this is where The Artist comes in. The film is a reflection on all of these technological achievements and more. By utilising the cinema’s most archaic aesthetic devices from intertitles to the over-emphasised body language and facial expressions the film brings our attention to the language of film and its use in engaging with our emotions. It reminded me of what once Michael Haneke once did in his Funny Games when the director crafted a very thrilling and at times terrifying story just to expose our instinctive compulsion to connect with the fictional characters. Of course Hazavanicius’ The Artist is much more subtle that Haneke’s Funny Games. He conveys his critique very appropriately to the era he portrays, through his characters’ overjoyed smiles and positive attitude as well as naive laughter and corny jokes.

The Artist is even more charming when it implements its game of aesthetics – most notably in the dream sequence in which George feels trapped by his inability to speak in a world that suddenly gains sound. The film ends on a positive note with Valentin finally catching up with the new industrial standards of the ‘talkies’ era and taking one step ahead with his female counterpart Peppy by seducing their befriended producer (John Goodman) with an idea for a musical. That scene alone captures cinema's continuous evolution and hybridisation as a conundrum for the industry which keeps re-adapting and reinventing itself. The Artist encapsulates that industrial challenge but at the same time it shows that there is no time to grieve. The show must go on! 

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Bore Horse

It neighs, heroically ploughs the field, knows how to communicate with other horses and it even brings peace for a day between the German and English camps on the fronts of World War I. But what the titled horse from War Horse cannot do is to make its whereabouts worthy of a 2 ½ hours cinematic spectacle.

Spielberg not only proves with his latest film how much he lost touch with reality, but he also demonstrates his cockiness in how little he cares to acknowledge that we don’t live in the year 1950 anymore. The film reminds me of the Lassie series emphasising on all tediousness and banalities of the genre. It tells a story of a boy who feels a profound bond with his horse and not even war can change these feelings and separate these two characters. With its over the top music score and awfully brushed cinematography War Horse runs in the same category as Gone with the wind once did. The problem is, Scarlet O’Hara was turned into a horse and Spielberg deludes himself assuming that people who live in the age of facebook still care to sit through a melodramatic fairy tale of such grand proportions.

Yet many reviews of the film show that there are a lot of people who still truly enjoyed the spectacle. My guess is that the name ‘Spielberg’ did something to their receptoral capabilities. As if the grand master who once directed Jaws was beyond any form of criticism. The critics’ conformism when it comes to challenging the director of E.T. is staggering to say the least. But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps there are indeed many animal lovers out there who feel the unfathomable need for a rebirth of the dull storytelling of pre-1960’s Hollywood. If so, my sincerest apology to all of you.

But I like to think that this aesthetic experiment with War Horse is Spielberg’s practical joke. He is testing his audiences on the amount of crap they are willing to swallow if spoon-fed by the lord and master who once brought them Jurassic Park. If that’s the case – bravo Mr Spielberg, bravo! It looks like you fooled them all!

Taking sideways with "The Descendants"

I always considered having to watch the line-up of the Oscars potentials a necessary evil. One wants to remain relevant to what is going on in Hollywood and since these films will be the most talked-about flicks for the next couple of months it becomes an unfortunate obligation to watch them.

There was however some hope in Alexander Payne’s latest film The Descendants. Mostly because of Payne’s previous movie Sideways which impressed audiences around the world when it was released in 2004. My personal wish was for The Descendants to prove the same cinematic qualities as Sideways, and according to the initial reception by the critics, Payne’s latest film had a fair chance to even outdo his previous flick.

The film tells a story of Matthew King, a middle-aged lawyer living with his family on the island of Oahu. After an unfortunate boat accident, his wife is put on life support and the remaining members of the family are forced to pick up the pieces and learn how to move on without her. It is a dialogue-driven story that takes us on an emotional journey through Matthew King’s mourning process. Yet for a story about death, there is an awful lot of laughter in Payne’s film. As if the director did not want to spoil the beautiful landscapes of Hawaii with a gloomy narrative, he turns for humour in places where jokes aren’t necessarily needed.

There is very little that can be said about the story arch and the character development. All of it seems so scripted and predictable that it becomes un-sport like to point out every single weakness in this review. Aesthetically the film is just as disappointing; considering the epic scale of the surroundings in which Payne sets his story, very little of that magnificence is used in the film. Matthew King underlines many times throughout the film how profoundly his family is bound with the land of Hawaii as there is Hawaiian blood that flows through their veins. But nothing in his behaviour suggests such exceptionalism.  His attachment to the land is purely sentimental and apart from the thread relating to King’s real estate deals there is nothing truly substantial tying his story to the Hawaiian heritage. The place of the action might therefore be considered purely coincidental, depriving Payne of his enquiry into King’s family being "the descendants." 

What we are left with is a film that is lacking its raison d’être. A quality that certainly doesn’t disqualify it as an Oscar potential, but makes it unworthy of attention for anyone who sees beyond the awards season.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

What is most shameful about "Shame"

Ingmar Bergman had written and directed back in the 1960’s a film called Shame. It was psychoanalysis of human behaviour during a time of war. The film investigates what shameful acts one is willing to commit when threatened with violence.

What Steve McQueen’s Shame tried to portray is slightly different. There is no war where the action of McQueen’s film takes place. Yet the title suggests that even in the time of peace there is still something we should be ashamed of. Brandon Sullivan, superbly played by Michael Fassbender, is a 30-something man living in contemporary New York City. His life revolves around the office work and sex parties after hours. There isn’t much more than that to his existence, sex seems to be Brandon’s only source of entertainment as suggested by his plainly looking apartment where the porn-filled laptop is the usual point of interest.

Brandon’s existence is disturbed by the arrival of his overly-sensitive sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). She wants to create a bond with her brother by forcing him to spend some time with her while she gets her life back on track. The two are the complete opposites; Brandon is very introverted, expressing himself only through sex, while Sissy gets very emotional with everyone around her, becoming extremely vulnerable to pain and suicidal at times. Very early in the story it becomes rather obvious that Brandon will at some point become inevitably influenced by his sister’s behaviour and that will result in some kind of disturbance in his life.  

The story of Shame is pretty straight forward and there are very few surprises awaiting those who trusted the film’s PR campaign promising some kind of controversial content. The only outrageous thing about Shame is how blatant McQueen is in imposing his insolent morals on the audience. The film not only disappoints as a story with its cheap rom-com moments and predictable outcomes, but it also angered me as a libertarian. The single-handed assumption that the main character’s frivolous life-style deserves some form of moral retribution is shameful in itself. Why should Brandon be condemned by having lots of sex? The director seems to be unable to answer that question himself. I purposefully recalled Ingmar Bergman’s film of the same title, as his investigation into the emotional power of shame had a psychological foundation. There is no such enquiry done in McQueen’s film. Through the character of Sissy we see Brandon’s shortcomings in the sensitivity department and we are probably to assume his lack of moral conduct which transgresses into sex. Far-fetched assumption indeed!

The Russian Hours - "Elena"

Intricacies of human relationships – especially those bound by the institution of family – is the most evident theme recurring throughout Zvyagintsev’s filmography. Yet while both The Return and The Banishment worked best as allegorical assessments of the Russian society, Elena shifts slightly to a neo-realist convention.

Elena is forced to choose between remaining an obedient wife or proving herself as a caring mother; When asked by her unemployed son for financial support she is confronted by her husband who has no intention in indulging his step-son’s needs. She is however convinced that she has an obligation as a mother to give the support that is asked for – especially that her middle-class husband can afford such expense.

Elena lives in two worlds. One is the world of obscurity symbolised by the old apartment block in which her son resides together with his constantly growing family. The other is the world of luxury which she entered upon marrying her wealthy husband, a source of comfort but loneliness at the same time. The financial differences between the two worlds are not however what bothers Elena the most. Her conundrum resonates from an inability to switch between two different moral codes both worlds appear to operate on.

Zvyagintsev reflects on Russia as a whole through Elena’s self-conflicted character. She personifies two different aspects of the Russian society – the post-communist Russia, troubled by social instability and bound by religious dogma, and the modernist Russia, financially secure but cold and calculated in its pragmatism. Elena’s paradox is that by following her moral principles she commits a crime which inevitably turns her into a cold pragmatic. In the end, Elena’s sense of morality is tied to her emotions and these lead her to carry out questionable judgments.

Zvyagintsev’s story has definitely less mysticism to it than his previous films but that only shows that the director can inject some diversity without compromising his style of filmmaking. The music used in the film is slightly too evocative of Philip Glass’ score to The Hours. However, assuming that this parallel was intentional, the music emphesises perfectly the heroine’s emotional state. Zvyagintsev’s ability to identify with his female alter-ego is remarkable to say the least. The feminine element is present in all of his films, but with Elena Zvyagintsev pushes the boundaries even further. He channels his female lead Yelena Lyadova to a level comparable with what Ingmar Bergman once achieved through Liv Ullmann. Yet no matter how masterful, he remains unassuming in his craft, making sure that our whole attention is directed at no one else but Elena. And very much so, Elena portrays precisely what the title promises to deliver.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Abraham meets Lumière in "Footnote"

Eliezer Shkolnik’s life is turned upside down when his life-long research of an ancient Talmudic manuscript is proven worthless by one of his rival scholars. As if that was not enough, his son is about to receive the Israel Prize, the most prestigious recognition in Israel which Eliezer aspired to all his life. But to give his bitter story a comedic twist, a newspaper that announces the winners of the Israel Prize mistakes Eliezer for his son and leads him to believe that his scholarly efforts will finally be appreciated after all.

The story of Footnote parallels with the symbolism of the Talmudic teachings, accenting on certain aspects of morality concerned with an act of sacrifice. We see Eliezer as a committed scholar who spends his days on a thorough dissertation of the Talmudic texts, making his world revolve around the grim interiors of the library at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But as he deepens into his work he grows more and more detached from his family, turning into a neglectful husband and a jealous father. He is a purist who strongly believes in the purpose of his work and undermines everyone who tends to take a different approach to the ancient texts he studies – including his son.

Uriel discovers that his father meets a strange woman during the days he spends at the University. The cloud of mystery surrounding these meetings suggests that we will not be able to have a clear outlook on the character and therefore we are unfit to make any judgement about his sense of morality. The director of the film chooses to remain playful throughout instead of giving us definite answers. But his playfulness doesn’t stop at creating a dynamic story; he conceives an amalgamation between the aesthetic approaches used in literature and those used in crafting a cinematic experience. We see several footnotes flashing on the screen, whenever the director diversifies the main plot by providing some background to each character’s story. The dichotomy between the two main characters, one representing science and facts (Eliezer) and the other representing fiction and interpretation (Ulrik) is a feature that brings to focus the film’s main strength – its cultural inter-textuality.

The father-son relationship and its complexities are what drives the narrative of Talmud and inspires a plethora of Judaic traditions and rituals. The director dwells on these complexities and in the process of telling the story of Footnote the director exposes his own intimate relationship with the subject. As far as the film goes I wish there was a bit more intimacy built between the characters and the audience. Cedar puts too much attention on the cerebral entanglements of the story omitting the emotional side of each character. Even though the covenant to which Cedar engages his audience isn’t necessarily of Abrahamic proportions, the film has enough stamina to make it worthwhile. 

Monday, 2 January 2012

The Ides of Mr Clooney

One might wish that more on-screen time was given to Paul Giamatti and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in The Ides of March – the latest flick brought to us by the Hollywood mogul Gorge Clooney. Knowing how much potential the film has with the quad of male leads it is a little disappointing that the story focuses almost exclusively on the Clooney-Gosling duo. But that’s the consequence of following almost word by word the play Farragut North on which the screenplay to The Ides was based. 

Truth be told, the film is enjoyable through most of its duration, mostly because of its nicely done editing and clear, yet conventional aesthetics. There is unfortunately less excitement in the storyline department. The first half of the film feels like one long sequence taken out of an HBO drama. It has some very promising stylistic features and as it moves at its considerably slow pace, it feels as if it may have been building up to something grand. But for a feature film which The Ides of March is, the flick runs out of steam pretty quickly. In addition to that, the twist which drives the second half of the narrative is both predictable and underwhelming.

I was reminded of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours as the film was heading towards its climax. An affair with a young woman and its moral as well as pragmatic consequences is the driving force for both films. But while Woody Allen shapes his storyline attempting to find out what is the purpose of guilt in our lives, Clooney stops at asking a faint and clichéd, “are human beings moral?” Stephen Meyers (Gosling) compromises his integrity for a career in politics, while Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) reinforces his unethical act of adultery by making unscrupulous arrangements with  Meyers. The matter of guilt does not even enter the universe in which Meyers and Morris rival their male egos, and perhaps the lack of that aspect of consciousness in both men’s thinking is the director’s way of bluntly stating that politics is a game only for those who are able to silence their consciousness. But if so, the film falls into its own intellectual trap, as for anyone who has even the slightest idea about the world in general, such an assumption about politics is a no-brainer. 

Even if we are to speak strictly about The Ides’ relevance to other films, we are to discover  that the same theme was discussed in almost all political dramas, beginning with the all-time classic Mr Smith Goes to Washington, ending with Good Night and Good Luck, or more recently, Lions for Lambs.

The last scene of the film in which Stephen Meyers is about to give an interview, leaves us with the man staring directly into the camera. The mechanism of an open ending has its use in a variety of genres, but in case of The Ides of March feels completely out of place. It seems to be regarded as a mysterious and exciting way to finish the film, assuming that the audience will wonder over the meaning of that last glance. Instead, the ending feels rushed and inconclusive, as if Clooney did not quite know what else to add. Interestingly enough Clooney might have proven something that he did not intend – that films themselves are very much like politicians. With its amount of Golden Globes’ nominations and the potential success at the Oscars, one can only compare The Ides of March to Clooney’s character, Governor Morris. Similarly to Governor’s political campaign, the film’s true tour de force is its marketing promotion. Will it be enough to grant Mr Clooney the grand prize?