Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Theron Double-Feature: Prometheus & Snow White and the Huntsman

Pure sci-fi versus pure fantasy (I am a big sci-fi buff; not so keen on fantasy, but loved LOTR). Dark violent film versus dark violent film (dark is okay; violence I can live without). R.S. versus R.S.: Big-name director (Ridley Scott) versus no-name director (Rupert Sanders). Not-so-nice Charlize Theron versus almost pure evil Charlize Theron (What’s with that, Charlize? Tired of playing nice?). Moderate critical acclaim versus generally unfavourable reviews. The winner of this contest should be obvious, but perhaps the outcome will be less predictable than the films were.

The last sci-fi film Scott made is one of my thirty all-time favourite films (Blade Runner) and Alien is one of my favourite sci-fi films. I knew absolutely nothing about Prometheus going in (as it should be) and was unaware of its relationship to Alien, but it did not take me long to make the connection. That was still in the early parts of the film, when my sense of hope and wonder was still strong. It faded fast after that. 
Prometheus has incredible potential, touching on themes like the possible alien origin of humanity. But it’s not really about those fascinating themes. Instead, it’s about monsters and an android and Elizabeth Shaw (the new Ripley). In other words, it’s another version of Alien. That might have worked if all the action wasn’t so silly and predictable, utterly lacking in the suspense which made Alien great. 
The plot? The space ship Prometheus is on a mission to find the “engineers” who may have been responsible for planting human life on earth. Ancient symbols found on earth point them to a moon in a distant star system, where the explorers find an underground building full of “treasures”. Enough said.
Noomi Rapace is a fairly good choice to play Shaw, though it’s Michael Fassbender as David, the android, who steals the film. His character is much like that of Ash on Alien (I suppose that makes sense), willing to sacrifice humanity in the name of science and discovery. As for Theron, she is fine as Meredith Vickers, the person in charge of this venture, but her character, like many of the others, is completely wasted. We never get to know her, her actions are inconsistent and, well, the whole character part of the film is a mess as far as I am concerned, with people coming and going and dying without much concern or logic.
There are a couple of breath-taking scenes that are worth the price of admission, but even they are wasted in this derivative, ordinary sci-fi film. Maybe the obvious sequel will get at the bigger questions, but I won’t hold my breath.
Prometheus is a major disappointment. The various elements (acting, directing, cinematography, score) were all good, but someone forgot to write a compelling story (just as in Star Trek, The Avengers, etc.). Still, it was fun enough to get ***. My mug is up, but not with conviction.
Snow White and the Huntsman
The story is familiar to all, so predictability cannot be avoided entirely. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to be treated to a story that felt new. Charlize Theron plays the evil queen who wants to get rid of Snow White (played by Kristen Stewart) so that she can remain the fairest (I suppose that must refer to looks alone) in the land for all time. The main thing standing in her way is Chris Hemsworth (where did he come from all of a sudden anyway?) as the huntsman who takes it upon himself to protect Snow White.
Somewhere along the way, you know the seven dwarves will have to make an appearance. When they do, Snow White and the Huntsman immediately gained a half-star. I suppose the filmmakers could have used real dwarves, but they chose to collect a marvelous group of British actors to be CGI dwarves. I loved it! Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost and Toby Jones stole the film right out from underneath (pun intended) Theron, Stewart and and Hemsworth. Not that any of the latter were not up to the task. Theron, who is almost the centre of attention in the second part of the double-feature, was a little over-the-top, but I suppose that is to be expected. Stewart was fine as Snow White and Hemsworth was a good choice as the huntsman.
Snow White is a gorgeous film to watch and it has an excellent score by James Newton Howard. Up until the last fifteen minutes or so, I found it thoroughly entertaining (rather more so than Prometheus, I have to admit). Things kind of fell apart in the last fifteen minutes, though I should have seen it coming. Did I mention that there is far too much battle in the film? Sigh. I suppose that is also to be expected in a fantasy film.
Stewart’s Snow White may have won the day (come on – you know how the story ends), but Theron is still the fairest of them all (IMHO; surprise, Janelle, it’s not SJ).
Despite the poor ending, Snow White did the opposite of disappoint, so I will give it a rather weak ***+. My mug is up with a little more conviction, making Snow White the surprise winner of the evening, but maybe that had more to do with that nasty thing called “expectations” than with a truly objective subjective opinion. 

We Have a Pope

It is not all that often that I have such a mixture of conflicted feelings at the end of a film. Habemus Papam, or in English, We Have a Pope,  is a very unusual film. At times it seemed like it would become the kind of warm, humanistic comedy that made me love another pope film back in 1986 - Saving Grace. But that is definitely not where this film headed. 

There are brilliant and moving scenes in this film and there are points when it bogs down and gets very confusing - and yet that all together seems to be the point. I may be giving director Nanni Moretti too much credit, but I think the wandering confusion of some middle sections are probably quite intentional. There is a lot of lostness in this film. 

 I suspect one would have to be very deeply acquainted with the Checkhov play called The Seagull in order to understand some of that middle complexity. I was completely unfamiliar with this play, but learned from some internet browsing that, like the film, it has themes of acting and lostness. If a deep knowledge of this play doesn't open up depths of understanding in the confusing bits of the movie, then some mistakes were definitely made in the making of this film - however, I'll give the film the benefit of the doubt on this score.

What I was left with after this film was a deep lament on the lack of leadership in the world today. We have structured things in such a way that leadership often comes with a loss of personhood and real relationship. When Cardinal Melville is chosen pope (and interestingly he doesn't question the authority of the process), he realises that everyone he knew quickly began to disappear. When a psychoanalyst (Moretti himself) is called in to help, he is not allowed to discuss the pope's childhood or mother, sex, dreams, and he is not even allowed to know his patient's name. And this is no quick condemnation of religion in favour of secular psychology. The psychoanalysts don't accomplish much of anything even if they do offer some interesting perspectives. 

Catholic response has been fairly muted - they allowed parts to be filmed in the Vatican - all in spite of rather deft but scathing critique. What seems to make that devastating critique palatable is the very human warmth with which all the characters are portrayed. The people in charge are surprisingly kind and patient. The cardinals are very human and allowed some childlike and childish fun. Even the dopey reporter who is mocked is mocked with some degree of kindness. This is a world of very human characters looking for some direction but forced to confront the possibility that there might not be any direction coming. And humility is not a quick fix. Satisfying: no; potent: yes. ***

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Sound of My Voice

Another fascinating, mysterious and unusual indie film from Brit Marling, who starred in, and co-wrote, Another Earth last year. Sound of My Voice has so much in common with Another Earth, in terms of style and quality, that I am going to cut and paste a piece of my Another Earth review here (with changes/additions in parentheses):
“This quirky low-budget indie drama about (a young L.A. couple doing an exposé documentary of a new cult) is strangely compelling. The acting is not outstanding, the cinematography is of the handheld variety that I don’t usually like, and the directing by (Zal Batmanglij) has its share of flaws. And yet (Sound of My Voice) is always engaging and thought-provoking and the characters real and sympathetic enough to make me care. (Sound of My Voice) left an impression on me and made me think.”
This all applies to Sound of My Voice even though it tells a very different story than Another Earth. This time, Marling’s film is part thriller, because the young couple mentioned above get in over their heads. And this time there are even more unanswered questions to infuriate me. Both films involve central plot elements which are not explored in any way. This suggests, of course, that those plot elements are not what the film is about. That’s fine, but it’s still maddening for those of us who want stories to make sense in a logical way. I have heard that Sound of My Voice is the first of a trilogy, so maybe some answers are forthcoming, but I won’t hold my breath.
So what is Sound of My Voice really about? Not so much about cults, I think, as about faith and doubt. It is certainly a discussion-worthy film.
Whatever its flaws, Sound of My Voice is also my kind of film. I was caught up from the opening scene to the final moments, even with the handheld camerawork. So this gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Duncan, thanks for alerting me to this, and for your recommendation.

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Deep Blue Sea

The year: Around 1950. The place: London. The timeframe: 24 hours, with lots of flashbacks. The setting: Hester Collyer (played by Rachel Weisz) has just attempted suicide in her small apartment. The plot: Tries to explain how Hester has come to do this. Her long marriage to a wealthy judge was (or had become) devoid of passion, so when a much younger passionate man shows an interest, Hester leaves her husband to live with the young man. Needless to say, this does not result in happily-ever-after. The background: Based on a 1952 play by Terence Rattigan (and it feels like a play at times). The verdict: A dark unique work of cinematic art with a number of breathtaking scenes. And yet...
The Deep Blue Sea is also an unsatisfying, achingly slow-paced, relentlessly depressing drama which will appeal only to a very limited audience. It’s one of those films that makes the average filmgoer shake her head and wonder what the average film critic was smoking when they watched the film. When the credits began to roll at the end of the film, the man sitting next to me in the theatre turned to his wife and said: “What a complete waste of time.” I did not share his opinion but The Deep Blue Sea is not an easy film to enjoy. And yet...
The acting was stellar throughout, with Rachel Weisz superb in the lead role. The cinematography and score were outstanding. And the dialogue was obviously constructed with great care and precision (as one would expect from a play). Then there were the beautifully-filmed drawn-out scenes with long tracking shots which took my breath away. So in many ways, The Deep Blue Sea is a brilliantly-made film. And yet...
I find myself caught in a dilemma because I have almost no interest in ever seeing The Deep Blue Sea again. Based on my rating criteria, the film should therefore not deserve more than **+. But it was far too well made to receive such a poor grade and objectively deserves at least ***+. I am caught between understanding the disappointing reviews of the masses and yet also understanding the glowing reviews of the critics. What to do?
Sigh. I cannot, in good conscience, give The Deep Blue Sea a top rating when I am not sure I want to see it again. I cannot, in good conscience, give The Deep Blue Sea a lousy rating when it is such an exceptionally well-made film. I seem to have misplaced my mug.