Talking Movies

April 24, 2014

Tracks

The omnipresent Mia Wasikowska gets to use her own accent for a change as a real-life explorer in 1970s Australia.

art-Tracks-Movie-1-620x349

Robyn Davidson (Wasikowska) wants to be alone. And not in the ‘get out of my room/house’ Greta Garbo sense, more in the Calvin & Hobbes ‘I want to live a million miles from anyone’ way. Arriving in Alice Springs, she circles her dream of escaping into the Outback with some camels and crossing the Australian desert to reach the Indian Ocean. She slaves for German camel-trainer Kurt Posel (Rainer Bock) learning the craft, but Afghan rival Sally (John Flaus) becomes her true mentor. She says goodbye to her Pop (Robert Coleby) and sister Marg (Emma Booth), who don’t understand her motivation. Her best friend Jenny (Jessica Tovey) does, but scuppers Robyn’s desire to be alone by introducing her to National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver). Along with Aboriginal elder Mr Eddy (Rolley Mintuma) Rick helps her survive the desert.

Tracks is a very well made film. Mandy Walker’s photography of the striking scenery impresses as much as her work in Australia (when Baz Luhrmann let her actually film Australia), John Curran’s direction is as measured as ever, and the use of actual grouchy camels rather than the CGI creations you’d have half-expected/feared is very refreshing. Marion Nelson’s adaptation of Robyn Davidson’s memoir, however, disappoints.  We’re teased with elliptical reveals of the reason Robyn wants solitude; but it’s a substitution of cinematic convention for true psychological probing. Jenny seems to introduce Rick to stymie what she never articulates – Robyn’s death-wish; a fear verbalised by sister Marg, who the script mocks for suburban conformity. And, as much as I Am Legend, without a faithful dog (Diggity, NCIS fans will rejoice is actually named Special Agent Gibbs), the protagonist would be toast.

Tracks could use a lot more detail on the actual practicalities of arranging the supplies for a 2,000 mile trek across a desert, and the mechanics of how navigation, establishing camp, feeding camels et al actually happens. But at the same time towards the end you get the distinct impression that Curran actually wants to make a film trippier than a PG-13 rating allows for. There’s a lot of weird nudity with Wasikowska skinny-dipping and trekking naked, shot from behind or far away, which is oddly prurient; and seems a belated attempt to depict the madness that inspired the trek as well as that inflicted by the trek. So, oddly, by charting a middle course between those two extremes of narrative technique Tracks has something to annoy everyone who wants to quibble. But there can be no quibbling about the acting. Driver is quite funny as the awkward Yank, and Flaus’ mentor is very empathetic.

Tracks is a solid, enjoyable film, but despite Mia Wasikowska’s commitment in the lead it never really catches fire.

3/5

Advertisements

November 19, 2013

Potentials: Francis Lawrence

In this, the first of a series of occasional features, I’m going to argue the case for Francis Lawrence having the potential to be a great director of the future.

Francis-Lawrence-Camera

Who the hell is Francis Lawrence? Glad you asked. Francis Lawrence is the director of ConstantineI Am Legend and Water for Elephants. He came from music videos, just like David Fincher. He had a happier initial time of it in mainstream commercial movies than Fincher’s Alien 3 nightmare debut, even if the ending of I Am Legend got completely changed in post-production on him, but it appears that that bruising experience was enough to send him into mini-exile. Lawrence took some time after I Am Legend before helming another movie. Before 2011 IMDb at one point listed him as being involved in developing 7 different projects simultaneously – all with the same proposed release date… While this exercise in development hell or development indecision was going on in Hollywood, Lawrence turned to TV; directing Ian McShane in the drama Kings, a modern re-telling of the rise of King David in the Torah. Kings was inevitably cancelled and so Lawrence hitched a lift on the Twilight bandwagon with 2011’s period romance Like Water for Elephants starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson.

I’m a bigger fan of Lawrence’s three films than most. I’d rate Constantine as Keanu’s best film since The Matrix, at that time. I’d rank I Am Legend very highly as an exercise in suspense, until the dog dies and everything goes to pieces. And I actually think Water for Elephants is a good film, despite its critical mauling. But more importantly I think all three films display some qualities that bode well for Lawrence really imposing his style on Hollywood. Water for Elephants is as measured in its pacing as Lawrence’s previous two films, even if it seems a world away in content. In an age of action editing that reduces everything to a CGI Impressionist swirl, Lawrence is willing to hold shots, wring the suspense out of his sequences, and make the geography of action legible. But his liking for restrained CGI in his two blockbusters explains the joy he found in working with animals, his visual style does convey magic at times; even managing to impart beauty into night-vistas glimpsed from the train which are obviously CGI.

Another strong point derived from his liking for sustained shots and measured sequences is that he has a neat eye for framing, a skill declining rapidly in a world of steadicam. And framing to a large extent is what lies behind an ability to do stomach-churning suspense that Hitchcock would have appreciated. Just think of the expert lengthening of the shadows when Will Smith is suspended in a street with vampire dogs waiting to rip into him when he falls into shade. Lawrence also has a genuine skill for getting fine performances from his actors, especially in supporting roles. Jim Norton is genuinely affecting in what should be a walking cliché of a role in Water for Elephants, much as pre-Oscar Tilda Swinton made her mere handful of scenes immense in Constantine. Then there’s villains…

Lawrence does villains exceedingly well. Christoph Waltz’s August in Water for Elephants is as nuanced a villain as previous Lawrence antagonists. Socrates says that no man would knowingly do evil. Gabriel in Constantine thought she was doing good, that mankind was not worthy of the gift of salvation and needed to be truly tested. The vampires in I Am Legend are the next evolution of humanity, they have bonds of kinship and leaders that motivate their actions. August is a man desperate to escape the Great Depression by pushing his animals and performers, and when he whips the elephant he is overcome with remorse, and offers all his whisky to soothe her wounds as well as explaining that he was enraged by his wife’s endangerment. The fact that we see August commit animal cruelty but only hear about him red-lighting people makes his end rage seem like an Othello-like product of jealousy rather than motiveless malignity. The subtlety of August’s portrayal was not obvious from the trailer. And even Touch, the unloved Kiefer Sutherland TV show had a pilot directed by Lawrence in which Titus Welliver’s villain was revealed to be a damaged hero rather than a true villain. Lawrence didn’t write that, but it’s hard not to think that such a reveal attracted him to Tim Kring’s script. Such an ability to invest villains with real complexity is unusual, and it would be refreshing to see it in a blockbuster where another quality he’s displayed finds a natural home. If August’s nuances were not obvious from the trailer for Water for Elephants then neither was the chasteness, a few stolen kisses, of the romance between Jacob and Marlene until they literally jump. It echoes the chaste relationships in Constantine and I Am Legend, and it seems tailor-made for PG-13-land…

Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire is Lawrence’s next movie, and it’s out on Thursday, with Lawrence already committed to directing its two sequels. I think Lawrence has the potential to be a future great. Whether he realises that potential is largely down to whether he’s brought his skills truly to bear on his greatest opportunity.

July 6, 2011

On Reading

I’ve just failed, yet again, to achieve one of my long-standing perfect reading scenarios and it’s made me reflect about my various ways of reading novels.

The perfect reading scenario in question involves reading F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby while listening to Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto in F by George Gershwin. This of course involves reading the sparkling prose of the poet laureate of the Jazz Age to the accompaniment of the music of the Jazz Age’s pre-eminent composer, whose works might well have been performed at Gatsby’s parties. This should be done lounging outside in the sunshine; usually possible if done on the 4th of July – which is a vital component of this scenario; and drinking something deliciously iced, but undertaken; as ‘a broken series of successful gestures’ if you will; over the course of an afternoon and evening so that you get to Nick Carraway’s magnificent peroration about night falling on Gatsby’s mansion just as the sun goes down…

Oddly enough, purely by accident, I achieved a perfect reading scenario recently for Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon; in this case the scenario being entirely weather appropriate. I read the first 70 pages outside in the summer sunshine, perfectly suiting the reminiscences by Grady Tripp of his Kerouac wanderlust youth. The second half of the book, however, found me reading and reading on a thunderously wet day even as Grady Tripp, Terry Crabtree and the other characters resolved all their complicated problems during a terribly rain-sodden Pittsburgh weekend. And then, amazingly, just as Tripp achieved a final epiphany during the downpour I heard something. Birdsong. The rain here had stopped, the sun had come out, the birds were singing their relief; and damn if Chabon’s epilogue didn’t immediately return to a sunny small town in Pennsylvania.

That sort of thing, however, hardly ever happens. Most of the time the way I read is decided by the book’s length, not esoteric synchronicities. A short book like I Am Legend or Fight Club I tend to blast thru in one sitting. Meanwhile Robert B Parker’s Jesse Stone novels, masterpieces of pared-down quip-laden pulp fiction, are best devoured in three (one hundred-page) sittings over three days. Kathy Reich’s Temperance Brennan thrillers are longer and more substantial, so they’re best lapped up over two consecutive weekends. Finally there’s the way to read Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander novels. A chapter or two at a time, but spaced out so that the entire ten chapter novel takes at least two weeks. Only that way can one truly savour the flavour of each chapter, and O’Brian’s hilarious predisposition to writing chapters that deliberately ignore the preceding chapter’s cliff-hanger.

Nearly all these ways of reading require setting aside a chunk of time for that purpose. But of course one could say the same about writing anything worth reading…

December 1, 2009

The Box

Donnie Darko writer/director Richard Kelly ends his rollercoaster decade with an attempt to edge back towards the mainstream by aping I Am Legend and releasing a Christmas horror based on a Richard Matheson story. Kelly succeeds, to an extent, as his third film as director is closer in feel to his sublime Donnie Darko than to his vey muddled sophomore effort Southland Tales which was delayed for years before being given a notional distribution. But getting more coherent doesn’t mean getting better…

The Box opens promisingly, speedily establishing the lives of happily married couple James Marsden and Cameron Diaz and their twelve year old son living in Washington DC in an acutely observed 1976. The Viking exploration of Mars dominates the TV news, and this family, as Marsden’s NASA scientist and aspiring astronaut designed its camera system. A series of unfortunate events (including an incredibly odd scene featuring a creepy pupil disrupting teacher Diaz’s class) serve notice that this is one of those many, many films in which things will not go well for James Marsden. And sure enough into their money worries comes a mysterious box with a button under a glass dome, left on their doorstep with a card from Arlington Steward. Frank Langella is wonderfully sinister as Steward who visits them to explain the function of the button: if pressed two things will happen, someone they do not know will die instantly, and he will pay them 1 million dollars…

Langella is a fine actor yet Kelly does a very unsettling Two-Face style CGI make-up job on him to communicate otherness, though it is so effective it makes the plonky 1950s B-movie music that accompanies him seem scary. The 1950s B movie vibe ramps up as paranoia sets in that Mr Steward wants more from the couple than just a simple decision on whether or not to push the button and that he might not be working alone. Coincidences, a baby-sitter with a secret, an inexplicable killing by another NASA employee and a punch up at a wedding rehearsal dinner all broaden the terror of the story efficiently but then Invasion of the Bodysnatchers intrudes too obviously and our heroes start reading books explaining the plot. You are now leaving Darkoland, welcome to Southland. Cue embarrassingly bad special effects involving water, mutterings of conspiracies and aliens and alien conspiracies, and half-explained sub-plots involving time-travel, moral tests and free will.

Marsden is nicely sympathetic as the hero, infinitely more effective than Diaz whose now fading looks highlight her feeble acting skills, but the script’s convolutions defeat his best efforts while Langella’s villain is over-explained out of existence. There is much to like here but Kelly’s persistent concern with elaborate conspiracies suggests only low budgets which restrain his imagination can inspire him to succinct brilliance. Paradoxically, avoiding The Box could improve his work.

2/5

November 17, 2009

I’d Rather See the Wires

Possibly it was Lou Ferrigno’s cameo in The Incredible Hulk that inspired this piece. Everyone smiles at seeing Lou Ferrigno do his cameo, but he’s only alone in making the obligatory cameo with Stan Lee because Bill Bibxy is dead, otherwise Bixby and Ferrigno would be making their cameos together in the way Lee and Ferrigno shared their cameo in Ang Lee’s Hulk.

Which begs the question why shouldn’t two people play the Hulk and Bruce Banner? Why is it considered absolutely necessary for the Hulk to be a fake CGI creation? What if, to use the suggestion of the characters in Mark Millar’s The Ultimates in casting a film of their own lives, Steve Buscemi was to play Dr Bruce Banner and then transform him into say The Rock who would be painted green and shot with LOTR style tricksy perception filming techniques to tower over everyone else (a bit more than usual). Would it really be any more ridiculous than a plainly CGI creation rampaging around a plainly green-screened location throwing plainly CGI objects about at a plainly CGI villain with a few actual actors and physical props dotted here and there to give some feeling of reality to proceedings, unlike say Attack of the Clones’ over-dependence on pure CGI constructions around actors forlornly stranded in green-screen deserts.

It seems that CGI has become the first option in the blockbuster film-maker’s bag of tricks. I Am Legend’s vampires we were told were CGI creations rather than actors wearing vampire prosthetics and make-up because the producers wanted the vampires to be terrifyingly agile. Well, yes, they were terrifyingly agile, but did it really make up for the silliness that ruined 40 minutes of high tension when we first glimpsed them in all their shockingly obvious CGI glory? If only some technology existed for making actors seem super-humanly agile, some way of making people run up walls, and levitate in air, some way of – oh wait, it does, it’s called wire-work and you may have seen it used extensively in The Matrix where it looked, at least it did the last time I checked, extremely cool rather than silly, and beat the mortal crap out of the use of CGI Keanu v CGI Hugo Weaving in Reloaded’s showpiece fight scene which ended up looking…silly.

Cinema produced marvels for damn near a hundred years before CGI took over. The Thing has no CGI whatsoever, can you imagine anyone having the inventiveness to do that now? CGI has stopped being a technological tool that we marvel at, it’s become meat and potatoes, and the over-reliance on it by lazy film-makers has left special effects somewhat less than special. ‘How did they do that?’ is always now answered by ‘Oh, they just CGI’d it – of course’. That’s why the truck-flip in The Dark Knight drew astonished gasps from audiences. So here’s a plea for the next over-digitised summer blockbuster – I’d rather see the wires.

September 28, 2009

Pandorum

There’s an intelligent sci-fi film in here somewhere but it’s bludgeoned to death by the typical Paul WS Anderson computer game approach.

Ben Foster, Henchman of the Year in my 2007 Film Awards for his psychotic turns in 3:10 to Yuma and 30 Days of Night, graduates to leading man status and acquits himself well. However he does so in a film that lifts large chunks from Joss Whedon’s 2005 film Serenity. Perhaps the passing physical resemblance between Foster and Serenity’s Alan Tudyk saw writer/director Christian Alvart suffer some unconscious free-associating while co-writing the script about psychotic cannibals in outer space.

Foster plays the unintentionally hilariously named Corporal Bower (pronounced Jack Bauer) who awakes from hyper-sleep on the super-space ship Elysium some hundreds of years from now to find something has gone badly wrong with the power, navigation systems and crew… He wakes his commanding officer Lt Payton (Dennis Quaid) and their struggle against amnesia regarding their identities, mission, and the basic functions of the ship’s equipment is all nicely intriguing before Foster sets off on a trek to fix the nuclear reactor. At this point he meets Antje Traue, who plays the obligatory busty scientist with a tight top, greasy hair and kung-fu skills, and Cung Le, the token Asian character, who gardens when not being a ninja. Predictably enough getting to the nuclear reactor involves completing a number of levels first, sorry, navigating a number of layers of the ship.

These levels are populated by the CGI villains, who appear to have strayed in from I Am Legend, but are still terrifying. I hate fast-moving scary monsters, you should see me squirm when demons move in missing frames every week in Supernatural. Meanwhile back on the secondary bridge Dennis Quaid once again proves that he is a remarkably under-appreciated screen presence as he tries to guide Foster thru the ship, before another crew member appears… Twilight villain Cam Gigandet does surprisingly well in what is basically a two-hander against Quaid. Gigandet has a pretty boy physique but his eyes somehow always hint at something deeply sinister, a fabulous asset in a film which plays on the fact that memory-loss is endemic among the crew and no-one knows just what happened to the ship. Gigandet’s scenes with Quaid are more interesting than the running from cannibals action as they both start to get paranoid and accuse the other of suffering from Pandorum, a wonderfully conceived deep-space illness that starts as an uncontrollable twitch of the hand before escalating to a certainty that the ship is cursed leading to a suicidal mass-evacuation of hyper-sleep pods into the empty wastes of space.

Alvart’s film can be very clever, especially in its creation of a very plausible future Earth riven by conflict over food-supplies, or the tiny touch of laser-shaving, but producer Anderson’s trademark drivel sinks it.

2.5/5

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.