DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Noah

After rebooting his career with two small scale earth-bound pictures, The Wrestler and Black Swan, to my surprise Aronofsky launched back into big idea cinema with the previously unfilmed biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood. It’s a strange mix of epic swagger and Hollywood heroism and the intellectual cinematic gymnastics which Aronofsky has been known for. Ultimately it’s mildly rewarding and nothing of the intense feelings of emotion he made his name for in his more successful pictures.

Noah (2014) dir. Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connolly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman

By Alan Bacchus

This is probably the scale that his truncated version of The Fountain was meant to be, $100m+, massive CG-enhanced Lord of the Rings worthy wideshots, and a grizzled bearded zealot looking for a spiritual connection to the almighty which may or may not be in his head. It’s a shame the picture fails to make good on the prospect of meeting Aronofsky’s gritty indie aesthetic to big scale cinema.

Aronofsky’s intentions are well sound. Noah’s character trajectory is admirably scuffed up. At first he’s characterized as a pious man with a connection to God, whose foretold the coming of an Armageddon of sorts – a cleansing of the world of its sins, through the power of water. And it’s Noah’s task to save the animals of the earth and rebuild the world up from a place of goodness. Helped by a team of rock giants, descendants from the sins of Cain (of the Cain/Abel story), Noah builts his ark just in time to avoid the flood as well as an army of chaos-mongers led by an equally grizzled zealot played by Ray Winstone.

By the time the picture ends Noah becomes a fanatical psychopathic hell bent on completing his task even if it means the murder of his own family. Despite all the spiritual mumbo jumbo which represents some of the more stylish auteur moments in the film, Noah’s turn towards fanaticism is the most interesting angle to this story.

This film has an even bigger challenge than most biblical epics, such as The Ten Commandments, because the film is set in a world, time and environment we can’t identify with. We’re not in Jerusalem or Egypt but at a time only 10 generations removed from Adam and Eve, thus a near metaphysical world without any identifiable cultural characteristics. Aronofsky’s choice to shoot in the barren and unrecognizable Iceland hinterland is admirable but mostly dull and bleak.

Only in this day and age where computer effects make anything possible on screen can we yawn at the flood sequence. Yes, the ark and its hundreds of species of male and female animals are sufficiently rendered with CGI, but we know it’s all fake and thus subconsciously it fails to impress.

Just past the midpoint the flood has come and gone, but with 40mins of running left, where else could the picture go. Noah’s transition from hero to tortured villain comes as a surprise and teases us with the most accessible moral quandary of the film.

With this story out of his head now, I hope Mr. Aronofsky will go back to titillating us with his street level style of storytelling.

Noah is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Home Entertainment

**½

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Amistad

Steven Spielberg’s slavery drama exemplifies the late-career inconsistencies of the hitmaker. Startling moments of dramatic intensity and eye-popping depiction of the horrors of slavery are marred by heavy-handed preachiness. Thus, like many films of the post 80’s era we can admire the film but never feel fully satisfied by it in the end.

Amistad (1997) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Stellan Skarsgaard

By Alan Bacchus

The opening scene represents a fresh departure in his visual aesthetics. Janusz Kaminski’s bold macro-lensed camera capture enslaved African Cinque (Hounsou) escaping his chains of bondage with eye-popping intensity. We’d see Spielberg and Kaminski use this technique later in Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report, but they test it here first and the effect makes for one of Spielberg’s best opening sequences in his entire filmography.

After Cinque and his fellow captives take over the ship it’s met by an American vessel, then taken into custody by federal authorities who assume they are mutinous slaves. Defended by the righteous lawyer Roger Baldwin (McConaughey), Cinque finds himself in the middle of a court battle with a number of parties claiming either compensation for the men or outright ownership. These claims make for strange but startlingly sad absurdities about slavery and America’s place in this disturbing period in history. Mr. Spielberg is not subtle identifying these absurdities. Typically, performances are loud and boisterous and don’t allow for any kind of interpretation or reflection. It would appear Spielberg would mature years later with a more nuanced depiction of similar themes in 2012’s Lincoln.

Beyond the broad issue of slavery Spielberg finds strong drama and conflict in the communication barrier between Cinque and his lawyer. It’s a refreshingly original bit of storytelling, whereas most other films would have found a translator immediately in order to create dialogue between the characters, the struggle to communicate the most basic information makes for some of the best moments in the film.

The long narrative, which stretches to over two and half hours clips along thanks for David Franzoni’s evolving story. A number of stories within the story (such as the communication struggles) adequately breakdown the film into digestible pieces, set pieces and episodes to the point we’re rarely looking at our watches.

Unfortunately Spielberg can’t avoid the banalities of the central courtroom storyline which in the midpoint threatens to grind the film to a crawl. But the film is jump started in the midpoint when he crafts a remarkable flashback sequence which visualizes Cinque’s journey from Africa to Washington with uncompromising horror. I can’t imagine the difficulty in shooting scenes of men and women, completely nude chained to one and other, beaten, whipped, and in the film’s most startling moment, thrown of the side of the boat.

Unfortunately outside of this sequence and the opening revolt the rest Amistad never meets the power of these scenes. It’s Spielberg’s least interesting film visually as well. Rudimentary coverage and camera movement create a strange episodic television quality, especially in the courtroom scenes.

Any life left in the film is completely sucked out by the truly awful final speech by Anthony Hopkins who, as John Quincy Adams steps up in the Supreme Court with an excruciatingly overwrought and noble speech which saves the day for Cinque.

That said we’re left with a genuinely poignant moment of Cinque on another boat bathed in the light of one of Spielberg classic motifs, the setting sun.

**½

Amistad is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Home Entertainment

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Crocodile Dundee

The story of the rustic Aussie cowboy Michael J. “Crocodile” Dundee character brought to the vacuous Manhattan lifestyle in the height of Reagan-era 80’s decadence milks every ounce of comedy and charm from this scenario. It was an unlikely megahit in 1986, but even today the film remains highly watchable thanks to the easy-going naturalism and uber chemistry from its two newbie stars Paul Hogan and Linda Kozlowski.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Breaking the Waves

Von Trier’s extravagantly conceived neo-realist fable seems now like a monumentally significant film in the cinema of the new millennium. Laying out Von Trier’s grandiosly tragic and melodramatic journey of her golden heart heroine under the handheld griminess of Von Trier’s shaky documentary style creates a strange but inspired cinematic experience unlike anything that came before it. Not only did it jump start the Dogme movement but legitimized the lo-fi aesthetic for all filmmakers to come.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Riot in Cell Block 11

Cinematic tough guy Don Siegel first exemplified himself as a director with vision with this razor sharp prison thriller, at once as a first-rate claustrophobic thriller but also as a critique of the inhumane conditions in US prison system at the time.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Considering the massive overkilled marketing push behind this film, the inspired mix of absurdest humour and sharp satire make Anchorman 2 a genuinely pleasant surprise. The almost 10 years between the first film and this one is worth the wait. While the character of lovable buffoon Ron Burgundy and his outlandish gags and set pieces are finely tuned, it’s the film’s sharp critique of the commodization of modern news which sets the film apart from other money-making franchise ventures, such as 'The Hangover'.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Agony and the Ecstasy

With Easter coming around, this also means the season of a historical epics – both in theatres and home video. Agony and the Ecstasy was one of the bigger films of its day, a 70mm showcase, telling the story of the Michelangelo and his tempestuous relationship with Pope Julius I who commissioned the surly artist to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. As usual with this kind of the film, the superb production value carries the weight over a dull story and hammy characterizations of historical figures.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

What a pleasure to see at age 70 Martin Scorsese, into the latter stage of his career, deliver one more sprawling crime picture, in this case a film which acts like a capper to a trilogy including Goodfellas and Casino, three pictures connected by the director's blistering cinematic pace, it's fascinating viewpoint into three segments of high stakes crime and corruption and it's sympathetic portrait of three contemptible characters. Once again Scorsese succeeds.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

George Washington

David Gordon Green’s dreamy feature debut renowned for its swath of Terrence Malick affectations feels even more warm and inviting fourteen years later. The consciously lazy narrative of a group of rural Texan kids, black and white, co-habitating happily, and growing up impervious to the pretty bleak squalor around them, is the functional foundation for Green’s lush tonal aesthetic. Essentially the film is made up of small moments of infectious and hypnotising beauty, moments and scenes which don’t always coalesce together fluidly, but collectively whet our palette through its nostalgic filter of childlike naivete.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen’s already celebrated picture consciously manages to find a medium ground between the intimate and avant-garde roots of his earlier pics and the broad historical canvas of American slavery. As devastating it is to see slavery depicted on screen he never seems to match the level of visceral impact as his debut Hunger. Thus, however powerful and moving there’s a feeling he’s tamed himself for the sake of American and Hollywood acceptability.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

A Brief History of Time

The story and science of renowned astro-physicist Stephen Hawking was given the Errol Morris cinematic treatment in A Brief History of Time in 1991. Morris’ ability to probe deep into unique idiosyncratic characters is put to the ultimate test in Hawking, the wheelchair bound genius with no way of communicating other than his hand controlled clicker and computer-translated voice. And yet through his inert facade emerges perhaps the most enlightening character study he’s ever made.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Saturn 3

There’s very little to praise in Saturn 3, the much-maligned Razzy-nominated science-fiction film from 1980, which appears like a stain on Stanley Donen’s ('Singing in the Rain', 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers') esteemed filmography. At the time, we could admire Donen’s desire to step into another genre, similar to Robert Wise’s success with 'Star Trek The Motion Picture' a year prior, but even with relaxed expectations today, the film never rises above a mere curiosity-piece for the talent involved.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Tess


Thomas Hardy’s tragic 19th century novel adapted as a luscious period film by Roman Polanski is a unique notch on his filmography rarely discussed or acknowledged. Made in 1979 after his escape to France, the film beautifully rounds out Polanski’s long and successful career as it remains one of the three pictures of his nominated for best picture and best director (along with Chinatown and The Pianist).

Thursday, 6 March 2014

300 Spartans


With today’s eyes this version of the Battle of Thermopylae serves only ‘Sword and Sandal’ genre enthusiasts (although this one was Greek-made with Hollywood involvement) and curiosity seekers interested in the origins of Frank Miller’s cult graphic novel 300 and by association the monumentally successful Zach Snyder film. Otherwise it’s a dull historical actioner from start to finish.