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Center Stage

August 29, 2014

Center Stage (2000)
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Actors: Amanda Schull, Susan May Pratt, Zoë Saldana

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Synopsis: Young hopefuls join the American Ballet Academy in New York, and spend a semester gearing up for the all important dance workshop which will dictate who graduates to become members of the company.

Review: This unintentionally hilarious variant on the time-old high school/college/’Fame’ staple features some of the most rote storytelling and characterisation going, and if it wasn’t for the admittedly visceral and watchable ballet/jazz dance sequences it would be an irredeemable movie turkey.

Within ten minutes of the film’s opening, you’ve pretty much garnered the assortment of characters and how their likely trajectory will play out: there’s the young starry ingenue with confidence issues, there’s the sassy, sarcastic best friend who needs to take her profession seriously, there’s the highly strung perfectionist with the pushy parent, the ‘bad boy’ lothario star dancer, the ‘boy next door’ hunk who will ultimately prove the object of affection for the ingenue, and the token gay, unthreatening sidekick. In itself, those stock characterisations are all well and good, if only some of the politicking wasn’t so crass and unintentionally offensive. Shoehorning in a bulimia subplot for the perfectionist doesn’t work and stereotypes the condition, and Zoë Saldana’s Afro-Latina ‘outsider’ is a complete cipher, not accorded the backstory or romantic arc of other characters, and her little ‘epiphany’ at the end would have been that much more moving if the film had probed at why she had that terse exterior in the first place (a defence mechanism due to her class/race in such an elite institution?)

The film does attempt to add some depth to its bland concoction by the end (the vain star dancer may not get the girl, but he is unquestionably championed as an expert choreographer who spices up the ballet world), but it never really obscures just how blandly mainstream Center Stage‘s aspirations are. (August 2014)

Gravity

August 29, 2014

Gravity (2013)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Actors: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

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Synopsis: A shower of debris from failed a Russian missile strike on one of its own satellites careers into the shuttle and workstation of Astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). This leaves them floating aimlessly through Space, desperately trying to concoct a plan for survival.

Review: Gravity‘s trapped/action/contingency hook is straight out of the Classical Hollywood storytelling template and comes laced with the sort of sentimental character development common across many American movie genres. In particular, some of the dialogue and characterisation is gooey and bordering on the irredeemably unrealistic (particularly how chaotically ‘unprofessional’ Sandra Bullock’s Astronaut Stone appears to be, and how George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski resembles little more than a cipher of a relaxed, calm astronaut to counterbalance Stone).

Those quibbles aside, Gravity is unquestionably a unique, one-off viewing spectacle, and if nothing else, I was on the edge of my seat for the entire eighty-five minute running time. To say it’s an “impressive” feat of filmmaking is perhaps a slippery notion, as evidently a huge amount of money and work from an army of skilled technicians has gone into the making of this. To use an architectural analogy, what’s the better achievement, a state-of-the-art, modern monolith funded by the infinitesimal pockets of rich benefactors, or the ingenuity shown by one person in devising and building something from scratch (a filmic example would be Drake Doremus’ proficient Like Crazy made on a $2k camera)?

It’s hard to deny the spectatorial awe that Alfonso Cuarón has engendered by the story’s end as the film’s very title (and theme) of ‘Gravity’ reaches a moving and emotional conclusion – but in terms of Gravity‘s sci-fi IQ, it’s not really a patch on masterworks of the genre, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solyaris(August 2014)

Che: Part Two

August 19, 2014

Che: Part Two (2009)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Actors: Benicio Del Toro, Franka Potente, Demian Bichir

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Synopsis: Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) covertly enters Bolivia in late 1966 to effect a Marxist revolution there. Over the course of the next year, Guevara’s guerrilla movement suffers countless problems – from trouble recruiting local peasants, to low morale among his troops, his own cover being blown, and the CIA-supported Bolivian army slowly closing in on him….

Review: Steven Soderbergh’s strangely ascetic, de-iconicised and de-dramatised diptych on Che Guevara concludes with the necessarily muted counterpoint to the upbeat ascent of the Cuban Revolution of Part One. In Part Two‘s dense account of Che’s ultimate demise in a failed Bolivian uprising of 1967, Soderbergh really immerses us in the minutae of that frustration. This half of the story is a complete pictoral, tonal and dramatic contrast to the Cuban section: Cuba is portrayed in lush, tropical, verdant tones, where as Bolivia is shown as the mountainous, attritional, inhospitable territory it is; in Cuba, Guevara will only accept willing, educated, over-18s, while in Bolivia, Guevara desperately enlists anyone to his cause; and finally, the populace in Cuba are generally educated, behind the sentiment of Castro’s guerrilla movement, and Castro and Guevara are able to unite the various anti-Batista parties into one unitary force, while in Bolivia, the people are not only largely poor, provincial and uneducated, but more crucially – apathetic and indifferent to the cause. Again, Soderbergh’s austere narration and intent to wilfully frustrate a conventional, hagiographical account of Che will alienate some viewers, but I prefer to admire Soderbergh’s seriousness and steadfastness in diligently recreating this piece of history. (August 2014)

Nebraska

August 19, 2014

Nebraska (2013)
Director: Alexander Payne
Actors: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb

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Synopsis: Seventy-something Montana resident Woody (Bruce Dern) of ailing mind and body, conceives an obsession with a scam of a postal certificate he receives claiming him to be the recipient of a $1m prize-fund. Taken to setting off on-foot the many hundreds of miles to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his ‘prize’, Woody’s worried son, David (Will Forte) decides to drive Woody there instead, calling in on Woody’s many relatives in Hawthorne, NA en route….

Review: Nebraska finds Alexander Payne on more fertile ground again after what I felt was a misstep with the overly lenient and sentimental Hawaii family caper, The Descendants. It’s also one of the most pictorally concentric American films of recent years – Phedon Papamichael’s stunning black-and-white photography compliments the marginal ‘American Gothic’ subject matter to a T. It really is one of the best examples of form merging so organically into content, and augmented by the fact that Payne cast exactly the right faces and (non) names for the parts, Nebraska is evidence that Payne has now utterly nailed this genre of bittersweet, Middle America road movies down.

But therein lies the problem. Nebraska felt to me like an overly clinical film, far too dramatically managed and choreographed, and Payne is now in danger of boxing himself into a corner with his ‘signature’, relying on the same dramatic framework each time, only with different geographic locuses and plot hooks. Take Nebraska – it has all the hallmarks of a screenplay-by-numbers: a protagonist with a conflict, he sets out on a quest, there’s a nominal villain, lessons are learned, there’s conflict and resolution, then moments of crowdpleasing catharsis (when David strikes the sleazy Ed is one such case in point). Of course, Payne is intelligent enough to add nuance to the cruder elements of this storytelling formula, but even then, his conceits are telegraphed – Woody may not get his $1m, but he gets a cap which forlornly ascribes that he’s a “winner” (we get it!), and in the end, he gets all he truly wanted (a truck and a compressor, the chance to drive, a semblance of dignity back, and an opportunity to re-connect with his loved ones). Don’t get me wrong – if all Payne does for the rest of his career is play variations on this same template then I won’t be too disappointed, as he still comes up with cracking little tales and milieus (I think About Schmidt and Sideways are bona fide modern American classics), but how greater still if he could transcend all that for something a little less neat and prescriptive. (August 2014)

The Pledge

August 19, 2014

The Pledge (2001)
Director: Sean Penn
Actors: Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Aaron Eckhart

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Synopsis: Retiring Reno cop, Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson), is pulled out to the scene of a grisly rape and murder of a young girl on the night of his retirement party. Although nominally retired, Black develops an obsession for the case (mainly due to a religious ‘pledge’ he makes with the girl’s mother), and a misgiving over the wrongful conviction of the crime leads him to completely revamp his retirement plan to catch what he perceives to be the still-at-loose killer.

Review: The Pledge is a laudable piece of filmmaking by Sean Penn, where he really works some bold and novel elements into his story’s reasonably familiar canvas of a cop getting evermore obsessed by a murder case. First, there’s the hook of having the cop in question (Jack Nicholson’s Jerry Black) as a man who retires on the day of the seminal killing (Penn cross-cuts portentously between the aftermath of the murder and Black’s retirement party in the opening stages). Thus, The Pledge becomes not only an exercise in (and deconstruction of?) the serial killer genre but also a character study, as Black sabotages his own retirement plans and late-life peace of mind, for embedding himself in the rural Nevadan community where he believes the child killer may still be at large. Perhaps Penn didn’t need to include an actual deeply gothic religious pledge as plot motif, and postscripting the film with Black jabbering away at his frustrations à la King Lear is a touch overly-demonstrative, but Penn’s lustrous confidence in committing to such a profound psychological story is admirable.

Where Penn succeeds unequivocally is in his visual realisation of the film. He seems like a man who really knows his cinematic history (the work has a New American Cinema feel to it – not just through the inclusion of that movement’s icon, Jack Nicholson), and he creates some stunning pictoral moments – notably the haunting image of the dead girl dressed in red and splattered in blood against the snowy white rural backdrop, then the immense turkey farm where Black reveals to the girl’s parents the unconscionable horror of what has occurred. Penn intrinsically understands that in a story like this, there can be no happy endings, no epiphanies nor catharsis, as important portents and clues go unanswered as Black drifts into the mire of his obsession and bad luck. And the film was also ample proof that Jack Nicholson – some way past his sixtieth birthday – could still easily own such a serious, complex role as this one here. (August 2014)

Good Will Hunting

August 19, 2014

Good Will Hunting (1997)
Director: Gus van Sant
Actors: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Minnie Driver

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Synopsis: Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a blue-collar Boston orphan with the mind of a genius and an aptitude for solving some of the most complex mathematic algorithms known to man. When Will’s secret is outed by MIT professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård), Lambeau promises to take Will under his wing and help him find a job, in exchange for Will undergoing therapy with Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) to aid Will in coming to terms with his troubled past.

Review: Looking at Good Will Hunting completely dispassionately, it really shouldn’t work and would seem too much of a transparent ‘wish-fulfillment’ device for actors, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who have written themselves into this fantasy narrative which creates the ultimate ‘romantic’ character for a cool young thesp – anti-establishment, intelligent (a genius no less), macho – yet sensitive, vulnerable, and loved by an estimable woman. However….

What Damon, Affleck and director Gus van Sant have done is to negate the fanciful in the above scenario by placing it all into a fablistic framework whereby we readily suspend our disbelief over the realities of how a deprived young man from South Boston would be able to conveniently quote passages verbatim from cerebral history books, and could mark up some of the most difficult equations known to man in-between mopping the floors at MIT. Helping that ‘feelgood’, folsky feel is a lovely score from Danny Elfman (with choice soundtrack contributions from Elliott Smith), and great, bluesy cinematography from van Sant and Jean-Yves Escoffier.

It’s also a phenomenally well-acted film, and ironically – although Will Hunting is the centre of attention, and if nothing else, the role showcases Damon’s inherent smartness – it’s really the ensemble around Damon which makes the film. Minnie Driver, Stellan Skarsgård and Ben Affleck all create memorable characters, and let’s not forget Robin Williams’ turn as downtrodden therapist, Sean Maguire. It’s a deceptively good performance by Williams – the schmaltzy, empathetic raw materials of Maguire would seem to be heaven-sent for him, but he plays it absolutely straight, in very muted, dignified tones, which now acquire an even greater poignancy in view of his recent passing. (August 2014)

The Inbetweeners 2

August 19, 2014

The Inbetweeners 2 (2014)
Directors: Damon Beesley, Iain Morris
Actors: Simon Bird, James Buckley, Joe Thomas

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Synopsis: To shake off the doldrums of university and working life, Will (Simon Bird), Simon (Joe Thomas) and Neil (Blake Harrison) head to Australia to catch up with old pal, Jay (James Buckley), who is working ‘Down Under’….

Review: A near simulacrum of the first Inbetweeners movie, except set around the notion of a travelling holiday in Australia rather than a ‘lads on tour’ piss up in Crete, The Inbetweeners 2 satisfies itself with trotting out almost exactly the same trajectory as its predecessor, bar the marginally different canvas and set of support characters.

Perhaps the stand-out moment of the movie is the epic, ‘ironic’ promo film of Jay narrating his fantasy life in Australia – and although undoubtedly a logistical tour de force and having an obvious ‘tongue-in-cheek’ core running through it, this brash feature ironically betrays a lot of the problems with The Inbetweeners 2. Everything seems a lot cruder, and the perpetual straddling of the line of ‘poor taste’ feels less a challenging of the audience’s risqué threshold and more a slightly desperate attempt to gain cheap kudos. By all means, throw in the odd choice ‘shock’ moment of sexual smut, but the characters’ continual references to penises, “gashes” and faeces does tend to reduce their comic end-effect. And also – although recognising the need not to overly-intellectualise something that is generally intended to be a bit of harmless fun, and respecting that the film is characterising these boys’ world-view rather than valorising it – there’s an unquestionable misogynistic streak to The Inbetweeners 2. From the psycho girlfriend, to the insincere hippy chick, to the hysterical new-age wife going through some form of ‘comic’ breakdown, to Will’s MILF of a mother – women don’t come out of the film at all well.

Perhaps my favourite element to the Inbetweeners brand once again is that its ‘Englishness’ offers a nice contrast to the gilded shenanigans from a similar genre of films across the pond. Will’s nerdy intellectual has some great lines, and the best subplot of the film is his growing deconstruction of the pretentious, bourgeois cult of travelling, and having a laugh at the semantics of the word ‘spiritual’ which is grossly overused by the gang of cool travellers he comes across. (August 2014)

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