The Butler (2013)

Real-life story of White House butler struggles to make us connect with historic moments.

The ButlerUSA
2.5*

Director:
Lee Daniels

Screenwriter:
Danny Strong

Director of Photography:
Andrew Dunn

Running time: 130 minutes

The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines, a black man who served as butler in the White House in the second half of the 20th century, and the landmark events he witnessed with almost unfettered access to the corridors of power.

Opening on a cotton plantation in the 1920s, we see the young Cecil’s mother being dragged to a shed by the white landowner, and as she screams and the many workers around pretend not to hear anything, for fear of retribution, we cringe. The film certainly evokes some powerful moments from the tainted history of the United States, but we also cringe because the roles of the landowner, the young Cecil and his mother all seem so incredibly simplistic and wholly lacking in complexity.

Luckily, Vanessa Redgrave shows up. She stars as the landowner’s mother, and while she is an old white woman with obvious power to wield over her slaves, she leaves the dirty business to her son. Meanwhile, she attends to the needs of the young Cecil, who – his mother having become emotionally unstable after the rape and his father having been shot because he (more or less tacitly) condemned the treatment of his wife – is turned into a servant in the mansion.

Redgrave’s appearance is brief but satisfying, as we plainly see her being slightly conflicted by devotion to the boy’s well-being while also conscious of the as yet unbridgeable divide between them because of the colour of their skin.

The rest of the film, however, is a terrible let-down. Instead of focusing on Gaines’ emotional and intellectual journey from a plantation to the White House, from the South to Washington, D.C, the film flashes through many pivotal moments in the nation’s history without showing how they affect his way of thinking, leaving us to believe he is unaffected by the societal tremors that shake the country, the result of Selma, the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Panthers and the presidents of the United States.

The tension could have been an interesting one: Gaines (played as an adult by Forest Whitaker) is a man who wants to provide for his family, and he has a genuine skill, namely to serve and to serve well, but is he betraying his own people, many of whom are dying in Alabama and Mississippi and across the country as they stand up against intolerance?

Like Helen Mirren’s character, Mrs. Wilson, in Gosford Park, he knows when the president will be hungry, and he knows when the president will be tired, perhaps even before the presidents knows it himself. But he learned a long time ago that he is a black man in a white house, and that he was not hired to contribute or interfere with politics.

His son, who goes to school in the Deep South around the time of the civil rights revolution, has a very different idea, and he is constantly at odds with his father’s apparent passivity in the face of continued injustice. But given how little we actually see of a movement toward racial equality on the side of the presidency, with the possible exception of Kennedy (even Lyndon B. Johnson’s role is downplayed), we cannot understand why Gaines sticks up for his white masters with such foolhardy narrow-mindedness. He may be frustrated with his son’s tactics, but why do we get the feeling he pooh-poohs the strategy, too? Gaines never offers an alternative to his son’s idea to be a Freedom Rider or to sit at a lunch counter where only whites are served.

It cannot be overstated how simple the film is, how predictable every single scene is, or how little we learn about the slow march toward full equality (underlined by the inevitable scenes with Barack Obama’s 2008 election at the end of the film), particularly the painfully slow awakening of Gaines’ own civil rights conscience. Daniels’ attempts to get us closer to the character by having him speak to us throughout are unsuccessful and on the contrary become rather irritating.

The Butler’s screenplay surely presented producers with an easy opportunity to tell a story that was rather uninteresting but whose context of inequality between the races is still valid today despite the Obama epilogue. James Marsden is charming and clearly inquisitive as John F. Kennedy, Jane Fonda is delicious as Nancy Reagan (although a large swath of the United States is bound to be furious with this casting decision), and Gaines’ son Louis is visibly tortured by what he sees as his duty to fight for equality even though his father is serving some of the cream of the political hypocrites.

The insight into Gaines’ character is minimal, as he seems to be isolated from the tides of history breaking on his doorstep for most of the duration of the film. Given that director Lee Daniels is both black and gay, we frankly would have expected him to tell a story about persecution with much more intimacy and understanding instead of merely reciting the vague outlines of history that skim over decades of important events without pausing to take in their meaning and significance.

The Butler is a crude depiction of U.S. history and actually diminishes the many landmark achievements of its civil rights heroes.

Redemption (2013)

In Redemption, a former British soldier who endured a tragic episode during his tour of duty in Afghanistan tries to put his life back together and gets some unexpected help from a local crime lord and a Polish nun.

redemptionUK
2.5*

Director:
Steven Knight
Screenwriter:
Steven Knight

Director of Photography:
Chris Menges

Alternate title: Hummingbird

Running time: 100 minutes

Although his name points to potentially religious overtones that could dovetail with the film’s title, Joseph “Joey” Smith (Jason Statham), who shares his name with the founder of Mormonism, never projects any measure of spirituality. In fact, the closest he comes to addressing issues of faith is his occasional but very cursory reflections on whether his behaviour is good enough to redeem him from past mistakes.

Unfortunately, given their implicit significance for Joey, Redemption spends precious little time fleshing out these past mistakes. The opening scene, which is deliberately fragmentary but whose inadequacy and bad staging is revealed in later scenes that slightly elaborate on the action, is apparently the inflection point for Joey. In Afghanistan’s war-torn Helmand Province, Western military men are shot to pieces; shortly afterwards, a Middle Eastern man is marched through a market towards certain death at the hands of his captor, a Western soldier. This seemingly random scene, the only one to take place in Afghanistan, is one of Joey’s mistakes.

But it is also one of the film’s mistakes because the parts are so disjointed that the director already loses us in the opening seconds. We tell ourselves that, “Obviously, the importance will be revealed later in the film”, but the only reason the shootout is memorable is because it looks so bad: There is no setup of place nor character, and we merely get a shot of six seated men in uniform suddenly starting to shake violently to the rhythm of gunfire on the soundtrack before they spit blood. This is gruesome, but we don’t see why we should care. When we realise much later that this was in fact a point-of-view shot, the setup (and the observer’s apparent ability to escape this bloodshed entirely) makes even less sense.

Following this prologue, the narrative quickly shifts gears to one year later on the streets of London, where we find the city’s homeless being preyed on by a small group of aggressive scoundrels. One of the vagrants hits back with some surprising skill and manages to flee the scene. He ends up breaking into a vacant apartment in the city centre, behind Soho and Temple, which he will occupy for the rest of the story as he puts the pieces of his life back in order. His real name is Joey Smith, but the time has come for him to reshape his identity – and with it, his destiny.

However, the story of the apartment is a little too ridiculous for words. It belongs to a well-known photographer who has conveniently left for six months in New York City without setting the alarm. Also, perhaps most preposterously, this man’s wardrobe fits Joey like a glove. In fact, it would not have been much of a stretch to expect a revelation that Joey is in fact the same photographer, a fellow called Damon, but with amnesia, as we never see what the real tenant looks like until the very end of the film. Such a turn of events would not have been much worse than what we get here.

Joey befriends a Polish nun who serves soup to the homeless, initially to ask about the whereabouts of Isabel, a girl with whom he used to share a cardboard box on the street. This relationship with Isabel is sorely underexplained, and it is impossible to imagine why he is so desperate to find her. On a parallel track, some people from his past turn up, but they serve as mere reminders of a life that is a world away, and aside from the vague contours of the war in Afghanistan there is no account of the twists and turns that led him to this point. 

The nun, Cristina, another character with a religion-inflected name, is another blank slate whom we know little about until late in the film when she abruptly becomes a major part of the storyline, even though Joey’s own development is shallow and has very few milestones.

Luckily, Benedict Wong brings some gravitas to the proceedings in his role as Mr. Choy, a senior figure in one of London’s triads. Word from Joey’s employer, the owner of a Chinese restaurant, reaches him that this is a man who knows how to fight back, and before long Joey works for Mr. Choy and drives around the City doing dirty work with a poker face and receiving wads of cash that he ends up stuffing in his (rather, Damon’s) freezer.

Redemption‘s visual style is as muddled as its content. At various points, there are unexplained inserts of grainy footage taken from the perspective of a surveillance camera or a drone, and while the latter refers back to Joey’s time in Afghanistan, the visuals are too infrequent, too inconsequential and too inconsistent for the film to utilise them in an effective manner, and the connection to the events onscreen is tenuous at best. By contrast, compare the masterful inclusion of surveillance and other unconventionally obtained footage in David Ayer’s End of Watch.

Although more restrained than most other films starring Jason Statham, the film does not have the talent behind it to make the most of its Afghanistan setting nor the intelligence to increase the relevance of the drone shots. Statham is a calming presence in the middle of much that is directionless, but director Steven Knight would have to wait until his subsequent film, Locke, to redeem himself.

Spring Breakers (2012)

Nipples, mounds of flesh galore in this love letter to drunk and unruly teenagers spending their spring break in hedonistic Florida.

spring-breakersUSA
3*

Director:
Harmony Korine

Screenwriter:
Harmony Korine

Director of Photography:
Benoît Debie

Running time: 90 minutes

If blond teenage girls watched more James Bond movies, they’d be able to better spot a bad guy. One giveaway, which the girls in Spring Breakers discounted, proving an unfortunate lack of wisdom: The bad guy often has metal teeth. In this particular film, he also sports corn rows, raps to pleasure-seeking spring breakers and makes his money the same way his idol Scarface did: with lots of guns and drugs.

This film is a very superficial depiction of slow-motion, sunlit hedonism, complete with an orgy of alcohol and the odd lesbo-curious moment between two or more drunk girls, usually writhing together to make the men around them even more horny. At the end of the film’s first act, the girls encounter Alien (James Franco), said rapper with the metal teeth, who has taken a liking to them and bails them out of jail when they are arrested at one of the city’s many locations where hedonism is taking place en masse.

The rest of the story, which luckily runs only 90 minutes in total, goes downhill fast, as some of the girls decide to head back home, having seen too much they can never unsee, while the survivors get lured in by Alien’s devious ways, his money and his power. However, unlike the mediocre drug film Savages, the characters that stick together show very little depth, and we skip from scene to scene with very little sense for the danger in which the girls find themselves.

This artifice afflicts the entire film, which plays more like a music video than anything else. There are numerous flash-forwards, which don’t really make us curious about the direction of the story as much as they disrupt our desire to have some grip on the sequence of events. At the beginning, the viewer may easily find herself wondering whether this will all turn out to be a dream, or perhaps just a side effect of all the liquor we see young people downing, often through a funnel.

It all starts in a small town in the South, where four girls with little money and fewer prospects desperately want to get out of this hell hole of a place and make it to spring break in Florida, where all the other kids their age have headed. The three blond girls (whom, by the end of the film, I still couldn’t tell apart) decide to rob a store with a sledgehammer and a squirt gun, and when they are successful they approach the naïve churchgoer Faith (Selena Gomez) and take her along for the ride to St. Petersburg, Florida.

A believer of the goodness in people and in things she cannot see, we hear Faith often speaking on the phone to her grandmother about what a spiritual place Florida is, how nice the people are and how she wished to come back the next year to spend spring break with her.

Naturally, Faith will be the first one to either get hurt or be wholly disillusioned by the experience, or both, but while director Harmony Korine could have used this for dramatic purposes, he dumps her character as soon as she has second thoughts about spending time with the smooth-talking Alien.

In the role of Faith, Gomez is better than expected, although she has too many annoying bits of dialogue that overtly explain how unhappy she is in her home town and why she had her heart set on spring break.

The film refuses to dig below the surface, and in the end the girls who end up enjoying the high life the most are the ones whose actions have them led them to next to no moral reflection.

Many sequences are stretched beyond their limits – most prominent among them the slow-motion opening scene that may or may not be a fantasy and another in which a drunk Alien accompanies himself on the piano as he contemplates his troubles.

But there are also two excellent scenes: the robbery, staged in a single take as the driver circles the building, so we can see everything happening through the windows; and a cleverly edited swimming pool scene in which the camera constantly dips below the water level but when it seems to rise up out of the water again there are no droplets on the lens. The film also delivers a constant sense of impending doom by adding the sounds of guns being loaded to the soundtrack at unexpected moments.

Spring Breakers is almost exactly what you would expect: a silly little movie about drunk girls who like to party and eventually party so hard they end up living with a drug lord. If you’re into boobs and many slowed-down close-ups of gyrating, thonged bottoms, you might like it. If you watch films for their stories, you’ll be disappointed.

The Counselor (2013)

A drug war on the border does not produce the most original of storylines, but the raunchy film certainly includes its fair share of brutality.

counselorUSA
2.5*

Director:
Ridley Scott
Screenwriter:
Cormac McCarthy
Director of Photography:
Dariusz Wolski

Running time: 115 minutes

Novelist Cormac McCarthy is known for his sombre vision of humanity, and the two best-known films made from his work, the Academy Award–winning No Country for Old Men and the harrowing post-apocalyptic The Road, were both shrouded in a suffocating pessimism about the direction of the world.

Such pessimism is on minimal display in Ridley Scott’s The Counselor, which doesn’t even have a touch of the McCarthy melancholy we would expect. Instead, the images are crisp, imbued with a stark clarity that is wholly at odds with the clumsy narrative. Although the content is far from joyful, and the film contains countless scenes of people getting killed whom we would have preferred to see alive, the overwhelming sense of doom of the other two films is almost entirely absent from this one.

The titular “Counselor”, otherwise nameless for whatever reason, is the main character. Irishman Michael Fassbender brings an indefinable and entirely appropriate accent to the role, providing him with just the right amount of enigma. He is a lawyer who lives a happy life in the border town of El Paso, Texas, and has just proposed to his girlfriend, the fragile and religious Laura, played by Penélope Cruz.

The utopia of their existence soon disappears, however, when he decides to take part in a drug operation that is high risk but even higher reward. The risk becomes real when, because of a few coincidences that stretch back all the way to his appointment by a court to defend a murderer in a Texas jail, the cartel suddenly has the Counselor in its sights, and the cartel should not be messed with.

Members of the cartel engage in an escalating torrent of violence, and their preferred method of killing someone invariably seems to involve decapitation. In the first scene between the Counselor and drug lord Reiner, an unlikely friendship that is never explained, Reiner mentions a device called the bolito, which is a motorised decapitation device that, when we inevitably see it used, produces thick blood splattering directly onto the camera in a way we haven’t seen in a long time, if ever, in a film that is not a comedy.

Scott struggles with tone, as his characters can be both funny (we need look no further than Reiner’s cold-hearted girlfriend, Malkina, having an orgasm while making love to the front windshield of his Ferrari) and ruthless, but the ups and downs are never smoothly stitched together. Reiner, one of the most important individuals in the narrative, always seems out of his depth, with much of his dialogue consisting of three words: “I don’t know.” And yet, he is supposed to be the big kahuna in the area.

The Counselor isn’t much more eloquent, and a surprising number of his lines invoke the Almighty. But God is nowhere to be found in this wasteland of a film. Not that Scott is incompetent, but we simply cannot relate to these people whose relationship with each other is vague and whose motives for acting the way they do are never examined.

In one of the opening scenes, the Counselor has flown from El Paso all the way to Amsterdam – just to buy a ring for his fiancée, mind you – where he has a long, recognisably McCarthy-like talk with the diamond dealer about the brevity of life. It is more of a monologue by the dealer (not coincidentally played by Wings of Desire’s angel, Bruno Ganz), and it would look great on the page, but in this beast of a film it feels out of place and quite silly. 

Cheetahs pop up onscreen from time to time, perhaps as a reminder that we should be mindful of those creatures that are graceful but can incite terror and inflict terrible harm to those who are not as fast or as clever. Although in some ways it resembles the cheetah, the film is also closely aligned with the jackrabbit, as it scurries hither and thither in a vain struggle for survival before the ineluctable bloodletting.

For all the commendable sensitivity Fassbender brings to his role, his character is simply too weak to even know where to start managing this situation that is only somewhat of his own making. He lacks the wisdom of those in Ciudad Juárez whose help he seeks late in the film – people who have spent their lives reflecting on the fragility of life.

The Counselor does not look or feel like the other big films that have been produced from McCarthy’s work, but that is not its only fault. Except for the mostly superfluous meditations on life and death, not dissimilar from Tommy Lee Jones’s droning in No Country for Old Men, it brings nothing new to the type of film we already know about drug-running across the border.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

In snow-swept Wyoming, the temperature rises quickly when a group of gun toters is forced to stay indoors.

hateful-eightUSA
2.5*

Director:
Quentin Tarantino

Screenwriter:
Quentin Tarantino

Director of Photography:
Robert Richardson

Running time: 175 minutes

The Hateful Eight is Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film. It is another Western, just like his previous, devious Django Unchained. It is another work of drama whose flamboyant dialogue has memorable, comedic turns, just like almost every single one of his previous films. And just like all of his previous seven films, this one is not for the faint of heart, as the climax is drenched in blood, guts and pieces of brain. But The Hateful Eight is also Tarantino’s worst film.

Running close to three hours, it is almost entirely contained to a single location, not unlike his début feature, Reservoir Dogs. But while Reservoir Dogs was nearly half the length, it also pulsated with energy throughout, whereas The Hateful Eight spends more than an hour percolating, keeping the audience in less-than-rapt attention before the first shots are fired, and the violence quickly escalates into a bloody avalanche.

Shot in magnificent widescreen and screened in the unusually wide aspect ratio of 2.76:1, which even surpasses CinemaScope in width, this film looks magnificent at the outset. Shortly after the American Civil War, a stagecoach with a bounty hunter and his female prisoner, an alleged murderer, picks up another bounty hunter stuck in the cold without his horse, and then a sheriff. The sweeping vistas of Wyoming are covered in thick white snow, and a blizzard is moving in fast. The four unlikely traveling companions make their way to Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they join at least four others and wait out the cold. But this is where things get bogged down.

It is a long slog, even with more than eight people present inside the open-plan building. Despite tension so thick that even the strike of a sword would not suffice (which, perhaps, is why so many guns are drawn), there is little atmosphere until this talkie turns into a good ol’ murder mystery. The reason things feel so static is because we are dealing with a single location, and because Tarantino’s script is short on quips and more into long-form conversations between the numerous characters.

The other problem is the aspect ratio, as we never get a shot of everyone together, and there are no suitable landscapes to be found inside the wooden building. The only time when the vast amount of screen space is utilised judiciously is during shots obtained with a split diopter, in which foreground action is in focus in one half and background is in focus in the other half.

A quick rundown of the dramatis personae suggests ample room for action, which turns out to be minimal: Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who alleges he is a personal friend of President Abraham Lincoln; John Ruth (Kurt Russell), the bounty hunter with the stagecoach; Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), his prisoner; Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), the town’s dimwitted new sheriff; Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a Brit by birth and an executioner by profession who is this film’s version of a Christoph Waltz character before he inexplicably takes a backseat; Bob (Demián Bichir), a Mexican with little to do in the story; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a soft-spoken rancher visiting his mother; and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a quiet man who fought for the South and is one of those whites who cannot stand blacks, making the presence of Warren all the more inconvenient.

Jackson has by far the juiciest role in this film, which reminds us time and time again that he is the only black man in a cast of whites. As in Django Unchained, the n-word is casually thrown around, but so is the b-word with reference to the screaming Daisy, who has a disturbing penchant for getting roughed up by her male companions.

But in this film the racial epithet does not have the same stinging quality it did in Tarantino’s previous film, and its use is therefore not only questionable but downright offensive. Nonetheless, and perhaps not at all by chance, Jackson and Jason Leigh are the two stars of this show, which transforms from a theatre play into a murder mystery into a veritable grand guignol, while Tarantino harks back to his Pulp Fiction days by playing ever so slightly with the timeline.

This latter maneuver feels like nothing more than a gimmick, however, and emphasises the element of surprise rather than suspense. By contrast, consider how adroitly Tarantino managed the suspense in the dialogue-heavy but gorgeously staged opening scene of Inglourious Basterds. In his latest film, he dispatches with such poetic terror and instead gives us pages of dialogue before bullets rip through bodies and characters start vomiting ghastly quantities of blood.

The Hateful Eight does not live up to its title, as almost all the individuals trapped inside the haberdashery have their gentle sides and try, mostly in despair, to get the upper hand on those around them. Far from being hateful, they are mostly just bland, and moments like when Joe Gage’s face is revealed in a classic Sergio Leone close-up simply do not match this lackluster depiction of cabin fever.

Tarantino has great fun sticking it to those characters that are racist crackers, but in a film that takes nearly 90 minutes to gain speed, he is really trying his viewers’ patience, and even the rowdier second half does not do much to improve the tedium of the first. Although The Hateful Eight is Tarantino’s eighth, it is not hateful, but it sure ain’t likeable either.

The Bride (2015)

Hyperstylised adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding drowns in chichi and exhausts with meandering dialogue and too many slow-motion scenes.

the-bride-la-noviaSpain
2.5*

Director:
Paula Ortiz

Screenwriters:
Javier García

Paula Ortiz
Director of Photography:
Miguel Ángel Amoedo

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: La novia

If all the slow-motion scenes in Paula Ortiz’s The Bride, an adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s popular Blood Wedding, were shown at normal speed, the film would likely be at least 30 minutes shorter. Besides these inexplicable visuals that produce a work that is so exasperating it is almost comical, the film is also doomed from the start because the hyperstylised, overly sentimental depiction of the play presents us with an incessant stream of dialogue that continuously remind us of the story’s theatrical origins.

The opening scene already spells trouble. A bride flounces about in the mud, before taking her horse to a home, dilapidated and half-ruined, in the middle of the arid Spanish countryside, where three people, including her father and newly acquired mother-in-law, are waiting for her. She (her name is never given) tells the woman she has come back because she is ready to die, and she explains why she left her equally anonymous husband during the reception and scuttled away with the mysterious, brooding one named Leonardo: While her fiancé/husband offered her safety and stability, she was attracted by the risk and uncertainty that Leonardo represented, never mind that he is married to her cousin.

But the scorchingly bright light all around these characters make it appear, at first, that this is a scene straight from heaven, or hell, but much more likely from purgatory. The landscape is arid and desolate, and the atmosphere among the group is woeful. Unfortunately, this first sequence lets the cat out of the bag by spelling out the major thrust of the story before it has even happened: This is the bride who left her husband on their wedding night to steal away with the man who makes her so lascivious.

Now, it has to be said, it would be a challenge not to sympathise with the Bride, as the hunky Leonardo is presented time and again as a silent type whose shoulder-length black hair elegantly frames the stubble on his face and his come-hither eyes.

But the fact that we know how all of this turns out makes the entire build-up to the wedding rather tedious. Granted, there are a few scenes in which we see Leonardo on horseback stalking the Bride, his presence (albeit in the background) a chronic reminder of opportunities as yet unseized. Throughout, the landscape takes the rather ludicrous form of sexual appetite, as on many occasions we see rock outcroppings looking like giant phalli that have sprung up from the barren wasteland.

Things finally start to get tense by the time the wedding rolls around, where Leonardo shows up (after all, he is married to the Bride’s cousin) and visibly sets the Bride’s heart aflutter. But every now and again, the film stalls out with extended slow-motion shots, or in the case of the anticipated sex scene, nearly an entire slow-motion scene that inspires laughter instead of either passion because of the act, or the dread because of the consequences.

At other points, including one moment during the sex scene, the film grinds to a halt to make it possible for a character to deliver a long speech that obviously originates in Lorca’s text. Such occasions are painful, as there is no movement in the frame, and the vast range of possibilities that the medium of film has to offer are not utilised to support the words.

One visual highlight, however, is a procession of roughly a dozen characters over a ridge that stretches from left to right across the screen. We see them moving along at sunset, and they appear only as silhouettes, thus calling to mind the macabre Dance of Death at the end of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet), except that here the characters are not strung together but are moving forward of their own accord.

Whenever the film focuses on the sexual tension between the Bride and Leonardo, it is absolutely enthralling, but these moments are very few and far between. The far-flung exoticism of the landscape (the film was shot in Turkey’s otherworldly Cappadocia region) is a very good choice of location, but the unnecessarily lengthy presentation of some of the scenes and the refusal to sketch some major characters, like the Groom, as anything more than mere tools for the narrative’s mechanics is disappointing. This is not just a tragic story but a tragedy of a film.

 

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015

The Martian (2015)

Sentimental and sloppy, this depiction of Mars may well be more realistic than its predecessors but has a long way to go to catch up to the focused brilliance of Gravity.

the-martianUSA
2.5*

Director:
Ridley Scott

Screenwriter:
Drew Goddard

Director of Photography:
Dariusz Wolski

Running time: 140 minutes

On a planet more orange than red, a botanist is reduced to eating vegetables grown in his and his former crew members’ excrement. That sounds a little icky, but the premise is obviously fascinating. One man has to survive the elements, including a lack of the two most crucial elements for human existence — oxygen and water — and wait it out until a rescue team can locate him and bring him back.

Matt Damon stars as said botanist, Mark Watney, who is left behind for dead by his five fellow astronauts during an evacuation from Mars, where they had been stationed for close to three weeks as part of the Ares 3 mission. Thanks to a bit of luck, which in this film always arrives just at the right time, and with remarkable frequency, Watney survives, but has to combat extreme loneliness and a decreasing supply of food and water.

Fortunately, the botanist has an oxygenator and enough hydrogen (thanks to the copious amount of fuel) for him to make water, which he subsequently uses to irrigate his newly cultivated nursery inside the mission’s space habitat. He is mighty creative, and it seems like everything he puts his mind to turns out to be a complete success.

That is certainly one of the film’s major dramatic issues. Despite the fundamental fact that this is a man alone on an entire planet with very few resources and, at least initially, no contact with the (outside) world, his psyche does not seem particularly affected nor do we see him struggle to accomplish any tasks. Granted, astronauts do receive an extraordinary amount of training prior to lift-off, but the sheer effortlessness of Watney’s actions here makes it seem like this whole survival business is a cinch, which serves absolutely no dramatic purpose for the viewer.

The only major challenge for Watney comes in the second half, mere seconds after the director of NASA tells his colleagues their plan to rescue him will work only on the assumption that everything on Mars keeps going well. Without so much as a breather, the film cuts to a giant explosion on the Red Planet that all but eliminates Watney’s chances of survival in the long term.

This is one of two unbelievable low points in the film. The other comes during the rescue at the end, when multiple problems, including speed and altitude, make it appear there is no way for the team to extricate Watney from the planet’s atmosphere. But lo and behold, as if by the hand of God, Watney inexplicably manages to steer himself right up to the spacecraft with minimal effort.

Compare this scene with the opening of Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning Gravity, in which we get a real appreciation of the smallness of man and the near-futility of his actions in an environment as unfathomably extensive as outer space. In Gravity, things often go wrong, and when they do, the character responds with emotion-fuelled but not emotion-driven reactions while putting all her scientific knowledge to use. In The Martian, Watney is clearly intelligent, but his intelligence and creativity are a simplistic solution to the screenplay’s lack of desire to develop any of the obstacles he has to overcome.

This is not where the film’s problems end, however, as the cinematography is an absolute disaster, too. Consider the shot that re-introduces us to the Martian landscape following the calamitous wind storm that sent the crew members off into space and left Watney to fend for himself. Instead of calmly presenting us with the spectre of one man on the planet, Scott decides to fly over the landscape like a majestic eagle looking for prey. In the words, exactly at the moment when the director should be conveying the desolation of his main character, he opts for a point of view that suggests some being floating right above him.

At another point, there is an absurd camera movement when the camera, clearly hand-held, rushes towards Watney at a particular action-packed moment inside the habitat. Scott, who is known as a serious director because of films he made more than 20 — some would say more than 30 — years ago, should now throw in the towel. While one may admire his above-average devotion to creating a more-or-less realistic depiction of life on Mars, the screenplay also combines the sentimentality of an Independence Day with the mind-numbing verbosity of Cast Away.

In the latter film, which Robert Zemeckis directed in 2000, Tom Hanks spent most of the film on a deserted island and spent most of the time speaking out loud to a basketball, “Wilson”. In The Martian, even though we get many different points of view (a conventional but deeply alienating way of providing a God’s-eye panorama of events), Watney makes continuous video logs, which ensures that not a minute of silence intrudes on the film’s generally chaotic propulsion.  

Down on here, there is plain confusion among some of the most intelligent minds in the world. Teddy Sanders, the director of NASA, is played by an expressionless Jeff Daniels; Chiwetel Ejiofor channels a frustrated head of Mars missions whose every effort is stymied by Sanders; NASA’s director of media relations always discovers important information right as it is made public, and she never know what to do; and astrodynamicist Rich Purnell acts like a stoned college student rather than the genius behind the execution of the final act.

The film is divided into too many points of view, from Watney on Mars and his team on the Hermes spacecraft to astronomers at NASA in Houston, the scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Purnell in what appears to be a dorm room rather than at office, and even the Chinese National Space Agency, which comes to the aid of its American counterparts out of sheer, unadulterated big-heartedness. Clearly, Scott was scared to bog us down with a two-hour close-up of his main character’s actions all alone on Mars, but if J.C. Chandor could tackle this problem head-on in All is Lost, with unrelenting success, why did Scott have to be such a coward?

The Martian is focused on box-office success like a laser as it tries to inject humour (mostly via the disco music that the mission commander, Melissa Lewis, left behind upon evacuation to Watney’s great dismay) into the goings-on. But we cannot take events very seriously when everything keeps going rights, every time. Sure, there is a missile misfire and an explosion on Mars, but these issues are resolved within a scene or two and without any major time spent on the development of these solutions. Scenes such as Apollo 13’s brainstorming sessions to “invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole” are sadly missing here, as we only get an abridged final presentation of the solution played for laughs, which detracts from the hours of overtime spent coming up with a plan that makes sure the person being saved doesn’t die in the process.

Although entertaining, the film loses focus and skips over important stages on Mars by padding itself with scenes of comedy played on Earth. Scott does very little to distinguish his film from similarly conventional fare, especially insofar as (the lack of) character development is concerned, and delivers a film far less intelligent and creative than its main character supposedly is.

Buried (2010)

Buried [2010]USA/Spain

2.5*
Director:
Rodrigo Cortés
Screenwriter:
Chris Sparling
Director of Photography:

Eduard Grau

Running time: 95 minutes

A high-concept like almost no other, Buried has an immensely ambitious premise that will draw throngs of viewers interested in seeing whether the film could possible find a way to deal with the restrictions it imposes on itself. It is a restriction of place, as the entire film takes place in a very small space: a coffin underground, inside which the main character wakes up during the black screen that opens the film.

While Quentin Tarantino played with the same idea in Kill Bill: Vol. 2, the audience will be right to wonder whether an entire film following the same approach could be as entertaining. But the actor playing the role also has to be up to the task, as he has to carry the entire film on his shoulders, and has to keep our attention for the full 95 minutes of the running time. The film therefore makes us ask two very important questions: Does the film overcome its self-imposed hurdles, and does the actor hold our attention?

The answer to both, unfortunately, is ‘not really’. However, the film does immediately grab our attention, as we wonder whether the man we find in close-up, Paul Conroy, will escape from his coffin, and how he will manage to do that. That opening black screen, during which we share the actor’s disorientation and fear, is also a wonderful way to start, but what the film fails to do is stick to this approach. Instead, perhaps as a way to make us forget about the tiny space, director Rodrigo Cortés and his director of photography, A Single Man lenser Eduard Grau, employs very fluid tracking shots that circle Conroy’s body, trapped in a tight space we lose track of because of the ease with which the camera moves about.

The actor is Ryan Reynolds, not exactly known for serious roles. This was obviously meant to be Reynolds’s big break from his comedy and superhero work, with many a close-up letting us understand his frustration and despair when a single tear streaks down his cheek. But even though his situation would seem to be easy to empathize with, Conroy is not exactly a likeable character, as anyone offering him assistance on the other side of the line gets a response that doesn’t seek to convey anything other than hysteria at his own situation and the expectation that he will snap his fingers and others will locate and save him. On the other hand, his interlocutors, for the most part, are equally annoying, as they keep on asking him how he ended up in a coffin and how he phone them if he is so far underground. These conversations lead nowhere and become repetitive very quickly, suggesting the dialogue was mostly made up on the spot.

Conroy doesn’t seem to be very clever, either, as he continues to use his lighter to illuminate his surroundings, even when there is no particular need to do so, except to keep an audience used to seeing images at the cinema satisfied. Of course, the lighter won’t last forever, and while this may create some tension with the viewer (who knows there will come a point at which the lighter will fail, perhaps to the utter surprise of Conroy), it also speaks volumes about how stupid Conroy is. Except for humanitarian reasons, there is no reason why we would like to see Conroy survive this ordeal. At best, we expect to see how far underground he is, or where he finds himself.

Buried was obviously made on a very tight budget, although oddly there are a few stylised shots, including one that features a cutaway of the coffin, that seem to want to release us from the feeling of claustrophobia the film obviously elicits. This approach is difficult to understand, as the director undermines the very basic idea that Conroy must be saved within a small amount of time because he will run out of air, and so might the audience. Instead, Cortés lets his camera dance all over the place, including capturing panoramic 360-degree shots inside the confined space that ought to give us an impression of suffocation, not liberation.

There are a few uncomfortable silence and utter darkness, but these are too sporadic to have any real effect on the film, as they seem to be added almost as an afterthought. The heavy breathing, coughing and shuffling in the darkness with which the film opens set the tone, but that tone is crushed when the camera reveals a man stuck in a coffin but having a camera (the audience’s point of view) that can easily move around inside the space.

Buried could have been a very impressive effort to involve an audience ready to sympathize with a man stuck in a tight space, but we cannot, because the character is so bad and we simply don’t have the same experience of fear that he is supposed to feel. Also, since when does alcohol burn the way methanol burns? Or is our hero drinking methanol? There are many questions here that indicate a film badly conceived around a rock-solid central premise. This was not Ryan Reynolds’s big break, and unfortunately the stylistic excess would be repeated in the Cortés-produced Grand Piano.

Grand Piano (2013)

grand-piano-2013USA/Spain

2.5*
Director:

Eugenio Mira
Screenwriter:
Damien Chazelle
Director of Photography:
Unax Mendía

Running time: 90 minutes

Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano has a central conceit that has been incredibly effective in other thrillers, most notably Speed, Nick of Time and Phone Booth, but it squanders the potential of its idea by drowning it in style and spectacle without eliciting any fear or thrill in the viewer (not unlike the disappointing single-setting but visually extravagant Buried, which producer Rodrigo Cortés directed). In fact, one character’s actions during the climax are so wildly melodramatic, we cannot help but laugh at the utter absurdity of the staging and the lack of credibility.

The plot sees prodigious piano player Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), who has not performed in five years after having had a breakdown during his last show, coming back to the stage to play the piano his late maestro, Patrick Godureaux, so cherished. He is expected to play a piece titled “La Cinquette,” which will require him to do strenuous finger movements at a superhuman pace right at the end of the piece, and he is understandably stressed out.

In an effort to calm him down, his conductor tells him that no one expects him to play perfectly, and that the audience never notices tiny screw-ups in a piano performance anyway. However, Tom is about to get the fright of his life when he takes to the stage and opens his sheet music. There, in bright red ink, are little scribbles that tell him to play every single note perfectly lest his actress wife, Emma (Kerry Bishé), beaming with pride from her seat in one of the boxes, gets shot to pieces by a state-of-the-art laser-equipped rifle.

Tom suspects this is a joke, but when he notices a little dot of red light dancing around the piano, and then on his wife’s face, he breaks out in cold sweat. In one of many moments that repeat throughout the film, he runs offstage to audible gasps from the audience, while the orchestra continues playing, to his dressing room, where he finds more evidence that his life is in danger, as well as an earpiece to follow the instructions of his would-be assassin, voiced by John Cusack.

For the rest of the film, Tom will be sitting in the spotlight, from the looks of things speaking to himself but actually communication with the man he cannot see and whose intentions he knows nothing about, except that they may lead to his own assassination. But both this mysterious man and Tom are very talkative, and it would seem little concentration is required to play all the right notes, or perhaps this pianist is just unusually gifted, as there is a continuous back and forth between the two with no sign of Tom, whom the voice in his ear provocatively, playfully and punnily refers to as “a man of note,” missing a beat, or more importantly, a note.

But what starts out as a very strong premise for tension is properly drenched in style, as Mira’s camera flies across the stage with wild crane shots, again and again surging over the orchestra towards Tom, and whooshily swirls around his one-in-a-million piano that contains the key (another pun the film plays with a bit too often) to his survival.

Elijah Wood’s big eyes are perfectly suited to the material, as the obvious curiosity he exudes fits with the enigma his character is trying to get a grip on. However, the character of his wife, Emma, is a big joke, and in a last-ditch attempt at tension during the climax, she is central to one of the most bizarre moments in the entire film, as she seems to pleasure herself with a song, performed impromptu for an adoring public, while her husband is running around trying to save them from looming execution. This detour into insanity will either have the viewer in stitches or make her cringe with embarrassment, as we simply cannot fathom how a story with such a serious premise could plumb such depths of farce.

Grand Piano has spectacle but no tension. We do not share the point of view of the audience but rather of the pianist, who on top of playing the most difficult piece of his life, seems to cope very well indeed with having his and his wife’s lives threatened by a lunatic who seems to be very handy with a gun. But wait until you hear what the assassin actually does for a living — one can hardly things could get much more preposterous! If Mira had defined his film more clearly as comedy, perhaps it would have been more enjoyable, but the strange combination of a life in danger and hilarious comedy in the final act make for an uneven viewing experience that few members of the audience will find satisfying. 

In a Bedroom (2012)

In a BedroomPoland

2.5*
Director:
Tomasz Wasilewski
Screenwriter:
Tomasz Wasilewski
Director of Photogaphy:
Marcin Martinez Swystun

Running time: 72 minutes

Original title: W sypialni

Not to be confused with the striking, New England-set 2002 masterpiece In the Bedroomdirected by Todd Field, the Polish In a Bedroom is a film that seems determined to gives us too little information every step of the way, using jump cuts not to create a sense of energy or rhythm but rather repetitive ellipses that quickly become tiresome and render the action uninvolving.

Edyta is a call girl who finds men over the Internet, but at their homes she drugs them and either takes their money or their food, or uses their out-of-town wife’s face cream. She doesn’t seem to have any particularly villainous intentions, but the reason she behaves this way is left unexplained until late in the film.

In the meantime, her anxious demeanour — which Tomasz Wasilewski conveys well enough and even manages to transfer to the viewer in a minimalistic but well-crafted scene taking place at a supermarket, where Edyta surreptitiously eats and drinks without paying — often makes her seem like she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and yet we know not why. Until she takes her first drag of a joint and immediately spills her secret: She has a son, somewhere, doing something, and she is not a part of his life, but she doesn’t want to talk about it.

“Let’s not say anything important,” she asks Patryk, a very nice young man in whose company she spends the second half of the film. Her involvement with him starts off in a sequence so fragmented and opaque, we simply cannot root for them to be happy together, because so much information has been withheld. We meet Patryk for the first time when he knocks on the bathroom door, where Edyta has taken refuge while waiting for her date-rape drug to take effect.

But this moment comes at the end of a mysterious yet interesting sequence of moments in which we see her — always wearing the same dress — next to or close to men sleeping on their beds next to her, and once, bizarrely, dressed in a towel, next to a woman on a couch in the living room, whom she tries to wake her up. We don’t know whether these moments are real or not, but they end with the brutal intrusion of Patryk.

Such brutal intrusions occur from time to time, and Wasilewski is adept at using them to both utilise an emotion generated by his story and present it in a way we were not expecting. One example is when Patryk is on the phone to a friend who may  have located his brother Bartek. He slams down the phone, and when he looks up, he notices Edyta around the corner, who has been eavesdropping. Instead of screaming at her, the cut to him in the rough seas, the camera loudly bobbing up and down in the water to the rhythm of his shortness of breath on the soundtrack, is a very good transition, but the scene lasts only a few seconds, and we don’t know when this takes place or even whether Edyta accompanied him to the beach.

The film is set in Warsaw, though Edyta is from Gdynia, and her being out of place is certainly significant, although we too frequently lack the detail to understand her behaviour or her desires. The camera is handheld but only slightly unsteady, which creates an unease that is difficult to pinpoint at first but a very good decision on the part of Wasilewski and director of photography Marcin Martinez Swystun.

The main problem In a Bedroom has is its presentation: The editing sometimes makes it seem this is only half a film, and all the interesting bits that connect the different shots and would have created a more cohesive narrative have been excised. The uneasiness this creates is of course the goal of the director, but for a viewer who knows very little about the central character and is saddled with her compulsive lying, we cannot even guess that what she says when she seems to be honest is in fact the truth, a fact that continues to alienate us until the very end.

This may be one of the most prudish hookers we’ve seen since Fellini’s Cabiria, but while a character arc would have helped us immensely to understand how she feels when she does this job, the disjointed narrative comprising wholly disconnected moments does little to inspire any kind of empathy, especially when she rejects the care of good Samaritans. A moment in an Internet café, when she is speaking to a potential client but we cannot hear the other person, is gorgeous, because it emphasises her utter loneliness, but in the end, the lack of empathy we have for a character whom we cannot understand and who does little to confront the pain and sadness in her own life except to keep running is not interesting at all.