September 23, 2011
Drama, Film, War
Film, film music, movies, picture, poster, review, score, soundtrack
Survival against impossible odds is one of cinema’s favourite subjects and while the genre has been plundered to the point of cliché by Hollywood, history is always keen to serve up another ordeal of suffering and escape that this particular well is unlikely to run dry very soon. Certainly the true tribulations of those involved has often been diminished by big screen treatments and this is exactly what Werner Herzog set out to disprove in his retelling of the experiences of pilot Dieter Dengler. Shot down over Laos during the infamous “secret” U.S. bombing campaigns of 1966 Dengler (portrayed by Christian Bale), was taken to a prisoner-of-war camp by Vietcong forces to await his release. With nothing but time on their hands, he and the other prisoners plot a daring take-over to quicken their chances at freedom.
Most of the others, including Gene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies) and Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) have been in captivity for several years, at a physical and emotional end and thus the plan is fraught with danger at every turn and becomes very psychologically taxing on all of them. Waiting for the rainy season, Dengler manages to file a nail in order to open their handcuffs but Herzog quite correctly focuses not on these intrigues but on the prisoners’ quite extraordinary personal stories. Most of them grow close through their combined task and goal but even this relationship is brittle as battles ensue between DeBruin who believes they will be released (and increasingly needs to hold on to this belief) and Dengler who makes the escape plan his life. It’s a fascinating portrayal that rests primarily with Christian Bale – his performance is intense and gripping to watch. He is never made a complicated or even particularly intelligent man but his will to endure is very powerful indeed. The POW-camp setting of course provided another opportunity for the actor to stretch the thin end of his yo-yo diet method acting “The Machinist” style but he seems to have restrained himself this time, quite unlike Davies who is terrifyingly meagre and bony.
Werner Herzog remains curiously anonymous throughout as both the storytelling and camerawork are played straight as it were. The style does not draw you in as in “Fitzcarraldo” or “Aguire” but it’s old-school, no frills filmmaking that simply observes. It’s tempting to call this style-less yet the film is never trite. The opening shot of a countryside going up in napalm flame is especially lingering. In the second half, the film does slow and the harshness of the Laotian jungle can never match the power of Herzog’s other jungle epos or indeed that of “The Killing Fields” to which it bears significant resemblance. While this isn’t the Khmer Rouge, the poverty of Laos seems similarly backward and hopeless, even before the war’s full expansion and Dengler’s tale in many respects mirrors that of Dith Pran. Another quibble must lie in the denouement which exudes a cheesiness that has been so keenly avoided up to that point. In sum however, it is great to see Herzog return to feature films after an extended spell making documentaries (then of course it could be argued that as a true story, this is a documentary as well) after mixed reaction to 2001’s “Invincible.” And certainly, as a powerful story of against-the-odds survival his is not amiss.
Klaus Badelt’s score to “Rescue Dawn” is suitably restrained, utilising a minimal string ensemble. The music swings between a beautiful noble or perhaps patriotic theme that also manages to embody pity and a schizophrenic cello solo playing to the wilder psychological aspects of the story. The former is relegated mainly to the opening and closing title but is a haunting theme that deserved repeated visits. The score makes for a strong album presentation that represent’s Badelt’s best effort of 2006 (though nowhere near his masterpiece “The Promise” of the year before) despite being much smaller in scale than that for Wolfgang Petersen’s “Poseidon.” Those wishing to hear the composer write for serious drama rather than his more regular action assignments will find much to like and while minimal, the music is respectful and dignified and perfectly fit for purpose.
“Rescue Dawn” is worth a look simply for another powerhouse performance from Christian Bale that suits him infinitely better than the Bruce Wayne persona. Similarly, it marks a welcome return to form for Werner Herzog who continues to be one of Germany’s best exports.
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July 31, 2011
Clint Eastwood, Film, Gran Torino, Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, movies, Nelson Mandela, poster, review
For an octogenarian it’s truly admirable how Clint Eastwood continues to churn out film after film, often managing multiple pictures a year. Most of his dramas have proven popular with audiences and a few disappointments aside, have real critical merit. In effect he’s one of those rare few in Hollywood that have managed super-stardom both as an actor and behind the camera as well. To follow up his “Dirty Harry” homage, the much lauded “Gran Torino,” Eastwood turned to a South-African true story for inspiration: Based on John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Changed a Nation,” the film tells of the immediate post-Apartheid era and the newly elected president’s efforts to unite his divided country.
Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) sees his triumph in rugby, the Springbock team seen as a symbol of white superiority and something most black South-African’s would be glad to see the back of. As the rugby World Cup is due to take place in the country, Madiba (Mandela’s clan name) is determined not to let an opportunity like this to transcend the racial tensions pass and is eager to see the hitherto underachieving national side triumph. Thus he turns to the team’s captain François Pienaar (Matt Damon), lending him encouragement, inspiration and one or two pieces of sound advice. The film follows their relationship as well as that of the president’s bodyguards that must also learn to look beyond their prejudice and suspicion of their co-workers and collaborate to protect the president at the rugby matches. Considering the choices, there was only ever going to be one man to play Nelson Mandela: Morgan Freeman’s trademark is that of a peaceful-soul with a God-like narrative tones, one he’s been perfecting since “The Shawshank Redemption.” It’s a perfect match and Freeman is the heart and soul of the picture and the subsequent Oscar nomination was well deserved indeed.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Damon’s role even if the acting is not at fault (he too was nominated). It’s the character of Pienaar that remains sorely underdeveloped throughout as he’s given far too little exposition. Instead he’s reduced to giving rather run-of-the-mill pep-talks and a lot of contemplative stares into space. This immediately makes the film falter as Mandela is no longer the focus come the lengthy final match sequence. Some of the sports action is well captured by Eastwood’s lens, the players colliding with full force and the crunching scrums are spectacular but the games lack a narrative arc and ultimately fail to thrill as they should. Some of the spectator shots and a rather out-of-place aeroplane sequence betray some clumsy digital effects wizardry. Sadly, Eastwood’s faithfulness to the events come at a cost and the viewer will yearn simply to hear Freeman’s reassuring overtones again. Those qualms aside, it’s the portrayal of the security guards that succeed in transmitting the eventual reconciliation when the montages threaten to descend into the utterly predictable. The troupe allow Eastwood not only some comic relief but a powerful platform to turn a forced collaboration into friendship and thus the true unification of South Africa.
The music of Clint Eastwood’s films continue to be a matter for debate. An avid jazz fan, Eastwood sometimes composes himself or else hands the duties to his son Kyle Eastwood and collaborator Michael Stevens. As with “Letters From Iwo Jima,” the latter has been the case here but unfortunately the restrained, minimalist style employed by both continues to be the weakest link in the Eastwood cannon. The soundtrack for “Invictus” is largely built around source songs that enhance the African elements of the story, including among others “World in Union ’95” which, based on a melody by Gustav Holst plays over the end credits. What little score there is, gets lost on the album and really contains only one cue of note – Madiba’s Theme – a hymn-based piece fused with humming vocals and Eastwood’s signature lingering piano. In sum, the score simply cannot muster enough inspiration that the film calls for and while blatant heroism isn’t required, there’s no evidence here that a world cup could actually be won. Considering the great “African” scores that Hollywood composers have written, it’s a shame that Eastwood couldn’t simply have hired someone more up to the task.
It’s all too rare (sadly) that a film about Africa can be so uplifting. Of course, because of a rugby game, South Africa did not become a paragon of peaceful co-existence but “Invictus” provides hope. Morgan Freeman is sublime as Mandela and proves once again he is at the very pinnacle of acting prowess. If only the script could have been a little sharper and less predictable, this could have been one of the Clint greats.
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July 9, 2011
Apollo Creed, Bill Conti, Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Film, film music, Gonna Fly Now, Gunna Fly Now, Hoosiers, Jerry Goldsmith, movies, Museum of Art, Oscars, picture, poster, Raging Bull, review, Rocky, Rocky I, Rudy, score, soundtrack, steps, Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, The Godfather
Think of every sports movie you’ve seen and know that none of them would be the same without “Rocky.” Not only did Sylvester Stallone’s underdog tale inspire generations of wannabe stars to dream big, it was highly influential in defining the emotional and heroic conventions of the modern zero-to-hero sport flick. It doesn’t check the boxes, it created many of them. In perfect counterpoint to cinema’s other big boxing event, “Rocky” remains highly optimistic in the face of its critics and continues to shine, even in the wake of five sequels (some better than others) and 35 years of Stallone’s career which could go only one way after this high – down. Perhaps most importantly it’s a masterclass of a case study in how to create cinematic gold with only the most limited of means and on a virtual shoestring budget. Watch and learn.
Ageing second class boxer Rocky Balboa (Stallone) doesn’t have much to live for. However when heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is out of a challenger and decides for an easy match against an unknown, Rocky is given an unexpected shot at a championship. Suddenly all those around him, including drunkard friend Paulie (Burt Young) and big-mouthed yet failed manager Mickey (Burgess Meredith) who previously passed him off, want in on the action. All this spectacle however, bothers Rocky less than Paulie’s sister Adrian (Talia Shire) who works at the local pet store and for whom he has always had feelings. Their romance develops slowly, awkwardly but surely and with some training, Rocky might actually have a chance in this fight. It’s easy to see where the film is going throughout but Stallone’s Oscar-nominated screenplay constantly one-ups the viewer with knuckle smart dialogue and clever exposition. Granted, there probably wasn’t much of a script in the first place – Stallone is simply playing himself throughout – but anyone who would doubt the macho’s brain capacity will be stumped at his instinctive feel for natural situations and flow of narrative. The fact that many sequences, including the film’s most beautiful on an ice-skating rink, were created out of necessity is testament to his talents as a filmmaker.
There are so many aspects of “Rocky” that make him so amiable: Firstly, he’s a gentleman and not a bum, he thoroughly admires his opponent and doesn’t actually want to win. Where the bull is raging, it’s “Rocky” that has the heart and hence the likability. There is one less-mentioned facet of the film though: While it is in essence Stallone’s film, it’s the supporting roles that are often overlooked. Talia Shire should be specifically mentioned for her flawless playing as an unusual romantic interest because in many ways the main focus of the film’s plot is a tender love story about two people that lead normal lives, only briefly emerging from oblivion – boxing is merely the stage for the drama. The first kiss she shares with Rocky is extremely poignant to watch. Sadly, her career in Hollywood never took off and is otherwise best remembered for her role as Connie Corleone in “The Godfather.” Not to diminish the film’s amazing triumph over adversity side though: There’s a very good reason tourists flock to Philadelphia every year to run up those steps in front of the city’s Museum of Art in track-suits and blaring out music. Sylvester just continues to inspire.
The film also launched the career of composer Bill Conti. Without doubt one of “Rocky’s” most iconic parts is the title theme “Gunna Fly Now,” written by Conti to accompany the movie’s major training montage. The song is largely responsible for the enduring popularity of the soundtrack release, as inspiring as the film itself and shamelessly optimistic. The remainder of the score tends to be somewhat neglected next to the song but is nevertheless a very strong effort by Conti and will likely remain the defining music of his career. Unfortunately, the album presentation is far from optimal, both in audio quality and length. In terms of a rounded score, some of the material Conti wrote for the subsequent sequels is superior. Do not let that deter you however. Even if only heard on a compilation, Bill Conti’s score is a worthy addition to every score collection and ranks next to Jerry Goldsmith’s works like “Hoosiers” and “Rudy” among the best in the sports genre.
Truly a classic for all ages, “Rocky” is the feel-good experience that justifies endless repeats on Christmas television and a whole cult-following. Regardless of what Sylvester Stallone has made since, this remains the absolute top of his game.
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June 21, 2011
Alexandre Desplat, Brad Pitt, Cannes, CGI, Emmanuel Lubezki, Film, film music, Hunter McCracken, Jessica Chastain, Jurassic Park, Laramie Eppler, Michael Bay, movies, Palm d'Or, Philip Glass, picture, poster, review, score, Sean Penn, soundtrack, Terrence Malick, The New World, The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life, Tye Sheridan
The films of Terrence Malick are hieroglyphs and dream visions; their meaning or purpose often so cryptic that despite their obvious beauty they alienate many viewers. Great art is of course a matter of taste but the jury at Cannes saw fit to award “The Tree of Life” with the Palme d’Or. However anyone familiar with Malick’s back catalogue (a tiny five films in a career spanning almost forty years) will see their expectations fulfilled: the director’s thoughtful and meandering style permeates this picture as it did “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World.” It’s clear from the outset that the film isn’t for everyone – it’s not exactly Michael Bay after all – but if you have the patience to endure not only its running time but a few bumpier moments also, you will potentially be rewarded with a powerful and highly personal experience.
The film begins in the late 50s as Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) are informed of the death of their second son at the age of 19. Their tidy suburban lifestyle is torn apart. Simultaneously in the present day the couple’s eldest son Jack (Sean Penn) reflects on the same event as he goes about his work. As they question the significance of their story within the greater world and the universe, Malick launches into an abstract 20 minute montage, presenting images of space and nature before returning to 50s Texas to recount Jack’s formative years and the strained relationship with his father. It is difficult to coherently sum up the disjointed narrative that follows but perhaps the plot is only the means for posing much greater questions. Chief among these is the child’s innocence, the vision of a perfect or ideal world, a vision that is shattered almost immediately by a far grimmer reality. Mr. O’Brien is a devout Christian, a failed pianist who has become an engineer, trying to educate his sons through strict discipline thus choking off a more free spirited world embodied by Jessica Chastain. Malick calls this a choice between the way of grace or the way of nature – which might be which is an interpretation left to the viewer. The screenplay carefully sidesteps any mention of “God” (a greater being is simply referred to directly as “you”) but a spiritual significance can easily be divulged from the powerful images, if it be “Mother Nature” or otherwise is once again ambiguous.
The chosen setting of the 1950s is ideal for “The Tree of Life,” quite possibly hinting at a personal tale for the director. The look is absolutely authentic and Emmanuel Lubezki’s steadicam-driven images capture lend the picture a feel that is down to earth and natural. The entire cast is well chosen though the performances of the child actors easily eclipse what the adults can muster. Hunter McCracken leads as young Jack, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan filling the other two roles. McCracken in particular has all the makings not of a star but of a serious actor, displaying both restraint and a huge spectrum of emotions – he is without doubt the film’s greatest discovery. As the domestic relationship between the O’Briens deteriorates, the confusion at violence, the inability to understand a world that is so beautiful and yet so cruel are channelled through the boy and his experiences drive the film when Malick threatens to get lost in his own roundabout ways.
Several aspects do encumber the flow of the film some detractions are noteworthy. Several of the images presented in the montages seem out of place. A short episode with dinosaurs clarifies that Malick is expanding the question of significance across all of time but their presence feels jarring, CGI and out of place. Quite frankly if you have awesome images of space (and therefore time) why bother to bring Jurassic Park along? Arguably this montage as well as an extended coda presenting a utopia of sorts go on for a bit too long to maintain interest. It’s possible to simply sit back and enjoy the glorious imagery but the family drama is far more enthralling. Some will find the work in it’s entirety to be far too ambiguous or even too philosophical and spiritual – it certainly won’t speak to everyone. However “The Tree of Life” is in the end an ode to the wonder of our earth and all the life in it. If you consider it a masterpiece or not, Malick remains a mysterious master of his art and continues to dazzle with films that are just, well, refreshingly different from everything else that’s out there.
Among film composers, Malick’s work ethic of endlessly editing and re-editing is notorious. Very often Malick will substitute a written score with classical music at the last minute. Alexandre Desplat’s original score has been released on the soundtrack but unsurprisingly the end credits revealed a multitude of classical pieces, with Desplat’s work limited to less than 15 minutes. With music playing such a significant part in the film it is questionable why Malick hired a composer in the first place. On CD, the music makes for a pleasant if minimalist and relatively undemanding listen. The “great questions” are reduced to a simple piano theme that slowly turns this way and that much like the films itself. It’s reminiscent of some of Philip Glass’ work; nondescript but with an almost otherworldly beauty. In comparison to some of Desplat’s stronger works and to the classical replacements however, the music fails to reach quite the same level. And if you want to hear what was featured in the film, this is the wrong place to search.
“The Tree of Life” is in one word, beautiful. It’s not quite as powerful as “The Thin Red Line” but it’s unlikely you will see a more unusual film in 2011. Unusually for Malick, he has another film in the pipeline as soon as next year and you should definitely be stoked.
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April 15, 2011
Crime, Drama, Film
Casino, Corleone, Dances With Wolves, Film, film music, Forrest Gump, Francis Ford Coppola, gangster, Goodfellas, Henry Hill, Joe Pesci, Kevin Costner, Lorraine Bracco, Martin Scorsese, Michael Ballhaus, movies, Nicholas Pileggi, Oscars, Paul Sorvino, picture, poster, Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino, Ray Liotta, review, Robert De Niro, score, Shutter Island, soundtrack, Wiseguy
Gangster films truly inhabit a world of their own. With the possible exception of good science fiction, no other genre has assembled such a loyal following nor indeed witnessed such an incredible amassing of cinematic talent. As if any confirmation of the latter was necessary, 1990 became the year in which the “don crown” passed hands once and for all. Francis Ford Coppola, long awaiting a return to glory failed to hit bars he himself set twenty years earlier, his third and final entry to the Corleone saga desperately lacking in innovation. Into this breach leapt an eager Martin Scorsese with perhaps his greatest contribution to cinema. Amongst all of the Italian’s well-remembered films (and there are many indeed), “Goodfellas” is by some distance his most popular among fans and critics alike. And though not exactly robbed of an Oscar – “Dances With Wolves” is after all a very fine film – it was most deserving of the Best Picture and Director nods that year. Maybe Kevin Costner made the Academy an offer they couldn’t refuse. Nevertheless, as an exercise in narrative and storytelling the Scorsese is by all mean exemplary.
The film is an adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s book “Wiseguy,” the true story of three gangsters’ lives. Beginning in the 1950s, the film tells three decades of life in the mafia, the people, the jobs, the lifestyle and the drama. Growing up in Brooklyn, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) begins his mafioso career at the age of twelve simply because he’s always wanted to be a gangster. Initially running jobs for local mob man Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), Henry soon climbs up into bigger schemes, those of the highly paranoid Jimmy Conway (Robert de Niro) and the highly aggressive Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Together they lift money from just about everywhere, constantly playing cat-and-mouse with the law while living it up in an endless chain of nightclubs and bars. Initially captivated by Henry’s charms is Karen (Lorraine Bracco) but the marriage soon turns for the worse as she is drawn ever further in, yet ultimately left behind.
Everything gangster-aficionados will expect (and more), “Goodfellas” is high on it’s own substance, containing excessive violence, black humour and an absolute overload of the f-word (over 300 times, in all its extraordinary variations). And though “Goodfellas” is a roller-coaster of extreme proportions, its incredible how much of the action happens off-screen: What many a film would pride as a central showpiece, the infamous robberies fall by the wayside, Scorsese making it clear that he is less interested in the plot as opposed to exploring the world of organised crime these characters inhabit. The essence, the real flesh and blood of their mindset is drawn out in countless conversations, sometimes relaxed, more often tense and unpredictable, something many minor characters learn the hard way. It’s a fine line between the jokes and threats and often with horrific consequences as immortalised by Joe Pesci with “What do you mean I’m funny?” The screenplay, co-written by Scorsese and Pileggi is expert in turning 180 degrees when the audience least expect it in a style later translated by Quentin Tarantino for his own “Pulp Fiction,” playing with seemingly casual exposition that has the potential to ignite the situation at any moment.
Remarkable at all times is Martin Scorsese’s unparalleled style, though that superlative does not describe it sufficiently. An education in filmmaking would be a more fitting title for the way he directs Michael Ballhaus’ camera swoops, the sometimes slow, sometimes quick edits, the freeze-frames around every setting. Repeat viewings will be necessary to fully appreciate his talent for telling a narrative in such a free-flowing and entertaining manner. Yet again, the genius lies in the details – take the completely irrelevant preparation of a meal during that fateful day: On page it might seem daft but on film it’s a brilliant tool for cranking up the suspense and pressure in Henry’s cocaine-fuelled life one notch further. Lastly, yet by no means least, several large kudos must go the simply excellent cast, both the leads and bit-parts all appropriately cast. De Niro and Pesci are outstanding in almost everything they do but these are roles that help define careers. The very important core of the film however lies with Ray Liotta. Superb firstly as the young “apprentice” criminal and then later as organiser. His performance is much more restrained than either De Niro or Pesci, his reactions and emotions a little more measured to those of audience members to particular scenes. Sadly this role has so far proven Liotta’s only truly great one as he has since been typecast to a certain extent though never again by Scorsese.
“Goodfellas” does not contain a single note of original film music. Scorsese was one of the very first to experiment with pure source music in his films and would do so again with “Casino” and “Shutter Island.” All of the director’s personal choices, including period hits by Tony Bennet, Aretha Franklin and many more fit the film like a glove however. They perfectly evoke both time and place for every scene though never in a manner that could be considered flashy or drawing attention to itself. While a “Godfather” style score would doubtlessly have worked as well, the songs lend the film a uniques atmosphere and it would be futile to deny their effect. On the other hand, an extremely measly album presentation leaves much to be desired: Of almost fifty songs, the album features a mere twelve. A “Forrest Gump” like double-CD treatment would resolve the issue but until that arrives, the album for “Goodfellas” remains a significant disappointment for fans.
“Goodfellas” remains one of the defining movies within and without the gangster genre. It’s a masterpiece and a landmark in cinema that elevates Scorsese and his ensemble higher and higher as your appreciation will grow every time you watch it.
Songs on album
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April 12, 2011
Crime, Drama, Film
Africa, Best Foreign Language Film, Blood Diamond, Bonginkosi Dlamini, City of God, District 9, DVD, Fernando Meirelles, Film, film music, Gavin Hood, Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, Kwaito, Mark Kilian, Meryl Streep, Mothusi Magano, movies, Oscars, Paul Hepker, picture, poster, Presley Chweneyagae, review, score, soundtrack, South Africa, Stephen Dorff, Terry Pheto, The Power of One, Tsotsi, Tsotsitaal, Vusi Mahlesela, Zola
Films about Africa are usually much too hard-hitting to be able to strike a chord with mainstream audiences and with good reason: The picture of poverty that needs to be painted is so impossibly gruesome that viewers shy away. Hollywood has struggled with this in the past (Meryl Streep, Stephen Dorff et al) but for one of the first times, a South African film tackles the subject head on. Gavin Hood’s “Tsotsi” has had tremendous success at film festivals around the world and though a cinema release was limited, it seems people have sat up and taken notice. Aside from it’s obvious qualities in both acting and direction, perhaps part of its success can be attributed to the fact that it presents a somewhat hopeful picture, that despite the violence, disease and impoverishment, there are people who may be able to make a difference.
Very much inspired by both the tone and style of Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God,” Gavin Hood’s film tells of young Soweto gang leader, Tsotsi (meaning “thug” in the language of the townships) who, angry and confused after a confrontation with a friend hijacks a car, unaware of the baby on the back seat. After initial reluctance and coupled with complete helplessness the young man, played by Presley Chweneyagae, takes the young child with him, and looks after it in the harshness of the South African slums. With the threat of execution he attains the help of young mother Miriam (Terry Pheto) who has a child of her own and eventually cares for the baby on her own. This may not last however as both the police and the baby’s rich parents are after the young criminal. In a world too cruel to be believed by western eyes (yet every inch true, make no mistake), Tsotsi’s efforts are out of place but act as a fragment of hope for a society mired in poverty, lawlessness and crime. At the same time, the film is very much a desperate plea for help for people without any sort of direction or perspective, as Hood highlights through some of the supporting characters, a failed teacher student (Mothusi Magano) and a victim of the gold mines, now crippled and trapped in a wheelchair. The mixture of languages spoken by the characters – known as Tsotsitaal, thug language – adds a touch of odd familiarity and contributes to the film’s symbolism to a certain extent portraying people without identity or cultural heritage, never mind a chance of escape or a future.
The film relies on Chweneyagae’s portrayal of Tsotsi and the young actor commands his debut film with incredible power and depth. His character is one of few words and this yields a wholly different level of communication with the performer and the audience. The emotional connection most viewers will make is intense and although the film’s open ended nature does not permit a payoff, this is very much to the advantage rather than the detriment of the film. Two more conclusive endings were filmed but were both dropped by Hood in the edit (they are available as a DVD extra however) and though neither is very optimistic, to change anything from the final cut would probably take away from the emotional journey Tsotsi has gone through. Quite rightly walking away with the Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2005, “Tsotsi” does give a more hopeful impression than Meirelles’ slum-epic though it cannot equal it in terms of innovation and pure cinematic style. And though entirely different from “Distric 9,” “Tsotsi” too present a nation that is still caught up in the long shadow of its apartheid history. An awareness campaign launched in combination with the film and presented on some of the posters reminds of the figures that do not make for easy reading: South Africa reports over 18,000 murders per annum.
Though some original score does feature, selling point for the soundtrack were several songs performed by the South African musician Bonginkosi Dlamini, better known as Zola, who also plays a small part in the film. His merging of Kwaito and Hip-Hop are in keeping with many of the gangster aspects of the storyline, portraying “Tsotsi” at his most ruthless and cruel. To musically colour the rest of the screen-time and bundled into a second album is the original score material by Mark Kilian and Paul Hepker and featuring vocals by Vusi Mahlasela. The score is minimalist and, vocals aside not particularly African. Going almost completely unnoticed in the film (neither does the film require a lot of music), its album presentation is enjoyable with cues like “On the Tracks” and “Miriam Feeds Baby.” These serve as the main ideas in the score, the first for Tsotsi the second for the much more hopeful character of Miriam. Score fans looking for something to represent the African continent may do better with something like James Newton Howard’s excellent “Blood Diamond” or Hans Zimmer’s “The Power of One” however.
With “Tsotsi” Gavin Hood has made the leap to respected director and has been able to launch a Hollywood career though none of his follow-up works have been able to come close. The film presents terrible realities and does not make for easy viewing but neither is it entirely bleak in its outlook. Highly recommended.
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April 7, 2011
Drama, Film, Period
Atonement, BBC, Brenda Blethyn, Colin Firth, Dario Marianelli, Deborah Moggach, Donald Sutherland, DVD, Film, film music, Jane Austen, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Jennifer Ehle, Joe Wright, Keira Knightley, Matthew McFayden, movies, Oscars, picture, poster, Pride & Prejudice, Pride and Prejudice, Rachel Portman, review, Rosamund Pike, score, Simon Woods, soundtrack, Tom Hollander
For the fact that it remains one of the most universally popular books, Jane Austen’s deconstruction of 19th Century social politics has been the subject of surprisingly few direct filmic adaptions. Die hard fans generally proclaim the 1995 BBC mini-series starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth to be the definite, though naturally a running-time of almost six hours does bring certain advantages in terms of authenticity and complexity that a feature film can never lay claim to. It was perhaps appropriate then that the reins on any new version should be given to a director with a background in television. To call the end product of Joe Wright’s labours accomplished would be an understatement, the film is both true to Austen’s original and contemporary, well able to hold its own against a multitude of British period costume dramas. And despite a few narks from a minority of Austen faithfuls, “Pride & Prejudice” did exceedingly well at the box office as well as walking off with four Oscar nominations.
Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn) has but one goal in life, namely to find suitable husbands for each of her five daughters in 19th Century England. Things shape up with the arrival of two wealthy neighbours, the amiable Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) and the seemingly cold and distant Mr. Darcy (Matthew McFayden). There is an immediate attraction between the former and the eldest of the Bennet daughters Jane (Rosamund Pike) while animosities are nurtured between Darcy and our heroine, the free-spirited Elizabeth (Keira Knightley). Donald Sutherland keeps an eye on proceedings as the indolent Mr. Bennet. The story with its countless twists and misunderstanding (the pride and the prejudice in other words) is well known, correct and present though significantly sped up. Several plot strands and characters have been shortened or omitted entirely but what is left is the heart of Jane Austen’s novel. The social interactions between the sexes and the subsequent and inevitable awkwardness are well conveyed throughout as is the judgemental nature of all the characters. The segments of action that have been introduced – consisting largely of horse riding, ambient locations and pathetic fallacy – flow nicely around the “sitting around” static nature of the novel. Deborah Moggach has crafted a screenplay that manages to keep the atmosphere light despite the fluctuating emotions and the film is constantly witty, sometimes overly so.
A great actress in the making, Keira Knightley is pitch perfect as Elizabeth both in looks and performance, outdoing Jennifer Ehle in both departments. Her confrontations with Darcy carry all the passion from the novel though you’ll have to be on your toes to catch every word, so fast do the syllables roll off her tongue. It is also noticeable that Knightley (whether through instruction or not one cannot tell) adds a distinctly modern touch to the character. Her behaviour and actions seem altogether more feminist than the period would have allowed but in terms of updating the character she succeeds very well. Every performance will reflect its time and here it is certainly no detriment. Newcomer McFayden isn’t quite as convincing: His Mr. Darcy focuses on the character’s restraint and awkwardness than on the (if only seeming) pride. He simply looks in need of a jolt to wake him up. The rest of the cast perform remarkably however from Blethyn, Sutherland and the gorgeous Pike to a hilarious turn by Tom Hollander as clergyman-in-search-of-wife Mr. Collins. Likewise the entire production is authentically designed and beautifully captured through the lens of Roman Osin and as always with these period films, the sumptuous costumes are a dream. The only other caveat is an alternative ending shown to U.S. audiences and available as an extra on the DVD which piles on the cheese that Wright had done so well to avoid throughout. Very likely this was pushed by the studio that did not consider the existing denouement a big enough emotional payoff. But really, not necessary.
Earning his first Oscar nomination is Italian composer Dario Marianelli. He provides a score that is on some levels predictable but certainly superior to most other soundtracks in the genre. Seamlessly incorporating some English folk songs and a piece by Henry Purcell into his original music, the soundtrack for “Pride & Prejudice” is an extremely enjoyable and relaxing listen. The main theme is conveyed in the opening track “Dawn” and features exquisite solos by French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. A possible distraction for some listeners may be how the album breaks up the rhythm by inserting the lively dance music amongst the much more soothing underscore. Overall, Marianelli’s next score for Joe Wright would be the greater of the two but this score could well be taken as a great period score, on equal footing with much of Rachel Portman’s work.
“Atonement” two years later would prove Joe Wright’s masterpiece but “Pride & Prejudice” has much in its favour. The film should appeal to most sections of the Austen camp and to most viewers outside as well. At any rate it has no need to hide from the BBC version, and had it featured a better actor opposite Keira Knightley, it could very well have earned the highest marks.
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March 21, 2011
Comedy, Drama, Film
About Schmidt, Alexander Payne, Dermot Mulroney, Election, Film, film music, Hope Davis, Jack Nicholson, Jim Taylor, June Squibb, Kathy Bates, Louis Begley, movies, Omaha, Oscars, picture, poster, review, Rolfe Kent, score, Sideways, soundtrack
Alexander Payne is one of Hollywood’s unsung heroes, the man behind several top-notch drama films produced at the turn of the millennium, films that often take an unconventional look behind the mores of our accepted society. To follow up to the excellent “Election,” Payne takes us once more to Omaha, Nebraska to tell the story of a man examining his life on retirement, questioning what purpose he has served in this transient world and what difference he has made. Despite containing fewer satyrical aspects than its predecessor, “About Schmidt” nevertheless manages to be much more than just a comedy about old age and senility or, for that matter, a vehicle for its lead to show off the wackiness with which he so often performs. It is an examination and a reflection though with a keen eye for humour and cynicism and based on the novel of the same name written by Louis Begley.
After working at an insurance company all his life, Warren R. Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) finds that life after retirement isn’t all it’s made out to be. Yes, he and his wife Helen (June Squibb) have been married 42 years and own one hell of a camper-van, but Warren is increasingly frustrated with his empty life. As a distraction of sorts, he sponsors an African child Ndugu Umbo and through letters tries to pour out all the ill feelings in himself. When his wife dies however, he sets out to stop his daughter Jeannie’s (Hope Davis) marriage to Randall Hertzell (Dermot Mulroney with craziest hair and beard), a mattress salesman of whom Schmidt highly disapproves. His journey, in the aforementioned, oversized vehicle, becomes one of self-discovery as he revisits the important stations in his life, the house of his birth and his Alma Mater amongst others. These are of course the roles that Jack Nicholson loves to have fun with, and not for anything was this performance Oscar nominated. While he still gets the chance to play a deranged sleaze, the genius of his dual performance lie in his lengthy monologues with himself, providing not only great laughs but hit right on the man’s frustration and loneliness. Nicholson is spellbinding to watch both within comedy mode and without. He is the star of the show and while this does take away from the rest of the cast to a certain extent, the film wishes to show Schmidt’s journey and this is thus justified.
Proceedings get increasingly out of hand with the arrival of Randall’s relatives in the lead-up to the film’s climax. Led by Kathy Bates, they are a troupe of hippyish characters and the absolute opposite of everything the hardworking and conservative Schmidt stands for. Warren’s acceptance of their identity is never forced in a stereotypical direction by Payne and his screenwriting partner Jim Taylor however, rather sinking into obscurity just like Schmidt himself as he realises his whole life has had no meaning. The emotional distance between him and those around is painful to watch but neither does the script dwell on this, inserting a stab of comedy at the craziest of moments. The pictures, particularly the scenes in Omaha, have been desaturated, giving the film an atmosphere of gloom jarringly at odds with the comedy, just as intended. And while the colours do brighten on occasion, they are at one with Schmidt’s dejected feelings. Certain similarities with Payne’s other films will certainly be spotted by his fans. Overall, “About Schmidt” remains one of the most curious and at the same time accomplished films of the last decade. Not quite as captivating as “Sideways” perhaps – that film being the pinnacle of Alexander Payne’s talents – but certainly one to return to.
For “About Schmidt” Payne’s regular composer Rolfe Kent wrote a selection of themes that are instantly recognisable on film and separately on album. Led by a mainly string ensemble and notable appearances of bassoon, Kent’s score exhibits the quirky charms and diversity of the character’s emotions. The main ideas are presented in sequence in “The End Credits of About Schmidt” and consist of the fullest and greatest performance of the themes. However, the melodies have a remarkable ability to be used in countless different thematic settings, from tender harp solos to an off-beat, almost russian styled march in “The Fury of Schmidt.” The soundtrack to this film is a hidden gem (a very rare album to boot) and is very easily enjoyable. Kent’s superior thematic variations make this a score for repeat listens and can only be awarded the highest rating.
With “About Schmidt” Jack Nicholson has once again proved why he is one of the acting world’s top dogs. If his performance were to be the only reason to watch the film, it would doubtlessly be more than worth it. Combined with Payne’s excellent screenplay and direction, it becomes an outstanding film and constitutes the sort of solid drama the Hollywood is still capable of producing. Very much recommended.
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March 11, 2011
Action, Adventure, Drama, Film, Western
A Serious Man, Black Swan, Carter Burwell, Charles Portis, Clint Mansell, Coen brothers, Crazy Heart, Ethan Coen, Fargo, Film, film music, Hailee Steinfeld, hymns, Jeff Bridges, Joel Coen, John Wayne, Josh Brolin, Matt Damon, movies, No Country For Old Men, Oscars, picture, poster, review, Roger Deakins, score, soundtrack, True Grit
One could argue that the Coen brothers are essentially retelling the same story in every film they make. A crime that gets out of hand has been the basis of everything from “Fargo” to “No Country for Old Men” yet whether they have it play out in snow-covered North Dakota or turn-of-the-century Utah, the pair continue to find new ways to portray it and more often than not land themselves praise and plaudits from critics, audiences and the Academy alike. To follow up “A Serious Man,” Joel and Ethan turned to Charles Portis’ novel of the same name, a tale that had previously been adapted into one of John Wayne’s most enduring roles. However, nails have long been put into the genre of the classic western leaving breathing space only for contemplative reflections or portrayals of harsh and unforgiving worlds. Naturally, the Coens’ “True Grit” falls into this latter category: It’s a western with all the idealised gloss chipped away, presenting the wild west as it truly must have been – wild.
When her father is murdered, fourteen year-old Mattie Ross (new discovery Hailee Steinfeld) hires U.S. marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to bring in the killer, a fierce criminal by the name of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). In order to see the task through and to prevent the Marshall from simply disappearing with her money, the young girl insists on accompanying Cogburn. Also looking for Chaney is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who is portrayed to be the pole opposite of Cogburn, namely the heroic cowboy of old, smooth talking and handsome. Bridges on the other hand is cruel and untamed, taken by old age and drink, after “Crazy Heart,” a role that is tailored for the actor. Rambling and grunting in the most indistinct of southern accents he garbles throughout the film proving quite difficult to understand. It’s a winning performance but even that is an understatement: “True Grit’s” entire cast excel, led by Steinfeld who can proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with acting greats like Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. Her performance is the heart and soul but also the identity of the entire film as the story is told through her eyes. Her innocence clearly at odds with that of her male companions, Mattie Ross must quickly learn the ways of an unforgiving society. It’s a career-making role as much as Cogburn is a career-defining one for Jeff Bridges.
Plot-wise, “True Grit” is actually very, very simple but the means of its telling is masterful, the Coens are almost unmatched in Hollywood today. It’s as highly poetic a tale as it is philosophical in nature, told with their usual dose of dark humour within dialogue that is pitch perfect. The pacing is slow but never laborious, the audience allowed the time to take in the world and its looks. “Set pieces” like an early execution scene and the final shoot-out come as stabs of gruesome violence into a world that is filled with tension but at the same time very still. Coen regular, cinematographer Roger Deakins once again proves his worth for capturing the beautiful yet always harsh landscapes. Best seen on as big a screen as possible to fully appreciate the filmmaking craft, the film is a visual heaven to the nth degree. Somehow the cinematography and production design does hark back to the glory days of westerns and perhaps this betrays the Coens’ vision for the film: To tell a traditional western story but how it would actually have happened rather than how Hollywood would have portrayed it in the past. And in this they are of course much truer to Portis’ novel than the John Wayne version could ever have been. Love or hate (some people do) the Coen brothers, their ability to produce this kind of film after twenty years at the top of their game is wondrous.
Originally “True Grit” was not to feature any original music. However, after some deliberation with their composer of choice Carter Burwell, the Coens decided to use a hybrid approach. This involved the use of several old hymns that were adapted and arranged by Burwell into his own original score. It’s a very accomplished blend and the result far superior to Clint Mansell’s similar situation on “Black Swan.” Mattie’s religious upbringing is represented through “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” which becomes her signature and the film’s. The theme is performed with remarkable variation on piano and with full orchestra. For this film, Burwell has abandoned many of his experimental tendencies, making “True Grit” one of his most enjoyable scores ever. It’s a conservative approach but that is exactly what the film asks. Perhaps not technically “original” the score is immensely enjoyable both in the film and on album as well.
“True Grit” turned out to be the biggest loser on Oscar night with ten nominations an no wins, a fate it did not deserve. After the Coens swept away big with “No Country For Old Men,” it was unlikely that they would do it again. However, taking the film purely on its own merits, it is in fact superior to the eventual winner, a tale beautifully told in every way. It comes with the highest rating and highly recommended.
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March 8, 2011
127 Hours, A.R. Rahman, Amber Tamblyn, Anthony Dod Mantly, Aron Ralston, Bill Withers, Clemence Poesy, Danny Boyle, Dido, Enrique Chediak, Film, film music, If I Rise, James Franco, Kate Mara, movies, Mumbai, Oscars, picture, Plastic Bertrand, poster, review, score, Sigur Ros, Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire, soundtrack, Spider-Man, Utah
It has always been one of Danny Boyle’s greatest talents to take up a firmly niche concept and turn it into a product suitable for mainstream audiences. And with “Slumdog Millionaire” crowned with the film world’s greatest accolades, whatever his next project, its success was predetermined. And from the slums of Mumbai, Boyle turned to the autobiography of a man responsible for one of the most incredible against-the-odds survival stories in recent memories, though not very well known outside of adventurer circles. The tale of Aron Ralston’s ordeal is indeed a mind-bending one and deserving of a place on the silver screen. Perhaps the greatest plus for Boyle and his team was Ralston’s own seal of approval both for the picture as a whole and for its lead, the considerably talented James Franco.
It’s 2003 and Aaron Ralston (Franco) sets out on a hiking and climbing trip in the Utah desert, without telling anyone where he’s going. After meeting and helping two fellow adventurers, played by Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn, he continues on his own. As he descends into a particularly steep area of the canyon, he looses his footing on a rock, falls and gets his right arm trapped as the rock falls on top it. Over the period of the next few days he tries firstly to chip at the rock with his penknife, then to lift it, all to no avail. As his water supply begins to run short and he realises his life may be cut short, Ralston begins to record episodes of his struggles on his video camera, reexamining his life, sorry now that he hasn’t always appreciated it and the people around him fully. Finally, gathering up his courage, he begins a very painful last attempt to free himself. There are two main hurdles that this sort of documentary-style presents for the filmmakers and audiences: First, the fact that everyone will know how it ends. The key therefore is maintaining not only our interest but having us suffer (figuratively of course) as the protagonist must. In this, Danny Boyle and his writing collaborator Simon Beaufoy have succeeded but not in a conventional manner. Not for one moment is “127 Hours” boring. Aided by stirring images courtesy of Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle, the canyons are liberating and claustrophobic at the same time. Catching details like the life-giving water are captured imaginatively as are the flashbacks (including those with his former girlfriend played by Clémence Poésy) built into the plot. It’s been an extraordinary year for movies that take place partially inside of people’s minds but “127 Hours” thankfully never takes this too far.
Second is of course the performance by James Franco as Aron Ralston. Much better when in a canyon than when presenting award ceremonies, Franco has to be the heart and soul of the film and viewers can witness a star in the making here. His Ralston is lively, and headstrong but the realisation he is about to die is presented with remarkably restrained power by the actor. It is the sort of performance the Academy loves to reward (even if only with a nomination) but in terms of his career, this solo powerhouse should see him able to break out of the “Spider-Man” type roles he’s played up to now. There are elements of tragic and almost incongruous humour within the film, scenes that are curiously upbeat but then again, this will be true to Ralston’s original video recordings. Nevertheless, these moments will not be every viewer’s cup of tea and may produce some nervous, involuntary laughs. Also a warning to anyone with an aversion to seeing blood and gore, be prepared in the final act to cover your eyes. That said, some of the sound effects are almost more chillingly convincing than what needs to be shown on screen. A film like “127 Hours” might not get international exposure if Boyle’s name were not attached to it but regardless of its suitability as a niche, art-house or mainstream picture, it makes for a gripping view.
With “Slumdog Millionaire” a collaboration was born between Danny Boyle and Indian “Mozart of the Madras,” composer A.R. Rahman. For “127 Hours” Rahman focuses on Ralston’s moments of reflection through strings, guitars and most memorably with the eerie vocals of Dido with the signature song “If I Rise.” This theme will be most memorable for casual viewers and listeners and rewarded Rahman with yet another Oscar nomination. From the beginning, music is a central part to the film, through the songs played by the mountaineer on his MP3 player to those featured in the flashbacks and opening and closing montages. These include works by Bill Withers, Plastic Bertrand and Sigur Rós. However as with “Slumdog” if the songs are removed, the score’s effectiveness is much reduced, it’s the combination that make for a killer product. A.R. Rahman’s score alone is probably not worth the purchase.
Documentary-style filmmaking of the highest order, Danny Boyle’s followup to “Slumdog Millionaire” proves once again his talents as a director. Meanwhile, James Franco’s believable central performance is entertaining and moving at the same time. Your eyes will be glued to the screen.
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