Content Sponge #7

Eureka

Content Sponge #7 is here! After a mere 18 month absence it returns to brighten the lives of those who missed it, which is no one. Did you call? Did you email? Did you text? Neither did we and yet, here we are with a handful of short reviews concentrating on the telly we’ve ingested over the past month. The ‘we’ in this case being Content Sponge and myself. (It’s not weird, OK?)

Talking of absences EUREKA (11 Mondays 11.30pm) is back on the free-to-air! The Ten Network has held back the fifth and final season for reasons known only to themselves. Yeah, I guess I could have viewed it some other way, like getting the box set, but there are times when I like being all Generation X-ish and so I’ve been recording eps on my Korean Teevo and zapping through the ads, just like we did in the VHS era.

Eureka is a town full of geniuses in Oregon. They are employed by the Department of Defense, and a company called Global Dynamics, to come up with brilliant inventions. It’s a modern day version of the Manhattan Project. Most episodes have a formula; an invention will go wrong and wreak havoc. The series plays with the old somewhat anti-science ‘there are some things that man was not meant to know’ idea. The solution to the problem-of-the-week is always scientific, so the cake is had and eaten simultaneously…by Schrödinger’s cat. The show is science fiction and doesn’t drift into fantasy which is one of the many things I like about it.

The fifth season arc involves the events following the launch of the spacecraft Astraeus. The main characters in the cast are now Zane, Henry, Alison, Fargo, Jo Lupo and Sheriff Carter. Colin Ferguson’s genial comic presence as Carter ties the whole thing together. Like the spy show CHUCK, this series has done well to squeeze 5 seasons from its premise, many series run out of puff long before they hit this milestone.

Which brings me to DOCTOR WHO (ABC Sundays 7.40pm). It is 34 seasons old if you’re numbering from the beginning in 1963, but only 8 seasons old if you go from its 2005 reboot. I am wondering if it’s gasping for breath somewhat. If regular Spongers cast their mind back two-and-a-half-years you may recall I wasn’t enamoured of the series then and had some unkind things to say about Doctor 11, Matt Smith. I wasn’t a fan.

I am a fan of Peter Capaldi, the actor who plays Doctor 12 in season 8 of Nu-Who. I’ve liked his work since the Bill Forsyth film LOCAL HERO (1983). However, not even his undoubted excellences as an actor can make up for the ‘meh’ quality of the current season. Despite liking this new Doctor, I still don’t like the writing. Showrunner Steven Moffat keeps cranking out material that I find sub-par. On the good side, Jenna Coleman finally has a character rather than a cipher to work with, so her performance has improved immensely. Sadly, six episodes in, I find I don’t care too much about adventures of this new Time Lord, which is how I felt for the entire Matt Smith era. Looking online, I see there are plenty who disagree and find interest in the old series still, so I believe I am the problem here. I believe I have just seen it too much since my childhood and nothing about the concept feels fresh any more. So perhaps it’s time to stop watching a show aimed at a much younger audience to whom all this seems new.

MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D (7 Mondays 9.30pm) is clearly for the younglings, what with all the murderous super-villains and deadly betrayals. Season 1 gave us the Mother of all hostile takeovers when Hydra, the evil organization that was always hidden within S.H.I.E.L.D., stepped out of the shadows and showed their 21st century Nazi selves. Unusually this was foreshadowed by a series of films (the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and came to a head on television simultaneously with CAPTAIN AMERICA: The WINTER SOLDIER at the movies.

Unfortunately, a large chunk of the audience had abandoned AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. by this point. This was due mostly to its feeling more like a supernatural procedural than the kind of thing Marvel fans were looking for. Not being a Marvel fan, I never worry about elements like the accuracy of TV Deathlok character compared to comic book Deathlok. It isn’t on my radar. From the get-go, I enjoyed the team dynamic and smart-assery of Season 1 . However, since the storyline intersected with the MCU’s Hydra arc, I think the series has improved. Fictional S.H.I.E.L.D survived Hydra and the show survived its drop in ratings and was somehow renewed for a second season. Showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen are proceeding with noticeably greater confidence in their material.

This is the Internet, so arguably, Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro and Jane Kennedy of Working Dog Productions have been responsible for some of the best comedy (i.e. champagne comedy) on Australian television; from FRONTLINE through to THE PANEL and THANK GOD YOU’RE HERE they have produced some solid hits.

Their latest, UTOPIA (ABC Wednesdays 8.30pm) has garnered a lot of positive attention and I’m not sure why. (Just to be clear, I’m talking about the Australian comedy series, not the UK drama series from Channel 4.)  The premise is that Rob Sitch’s character Tony is the head of the fictional NBA-Nation Building Authority and he is more or less surrounded by incompetents. To his chagrin the NBA does little except trumpet its successes through social and mainstream media. The template for the show is the slightly less funny THE HOLLOWMEN (2008) and ultimately their much funnier FRONTLINE (1994).

UTOPIA and THE HOLLOWMEN both suffer from a lack of edge. Gleisner, Sitch and Cilauro who write the episodes, are rather kind to their subjects. Doubtless this well-intentioned, good hearted approach speaks well of them as human beings, but it leaves me wondering what their series are about. THE HOLLOWMEN is set in a policy advisory unit created by the Prime Minister. The political world presented to the audience is civilized and free from bitterness or bastardry. Something similar is going on in UTOPIA. Hardly anyone is jockeying for position­–the one character who clearly was doing this was brought on for a single episode­–and there is no backbiting or blame shifting. What office worker on the planet can say this, let alone anyone who has worked in a government department?

Sitch’s Tony is the exasperated boss of a group of dim, barely-skilled workers. The power dynamic is more like an ever-patient schoolteacher wrangling six-year-olds. The only one who understands her job and tries to do it to the best of her abilities is Nat. Nat is played by Celia Pacquola and her understated performance is one of the pleasures of the show. There are funny moments and good observations. In the last episode they got a lot of mileage out of Tony’s new frosted glass door (“Close it until you hear a sound”). The way the arrival of snacks tend to slow down meetings absolutely has the ring of truth about it. But the bigger picture stuff isn’t there. I find it difficult to accept that someone with as little outward ambition as Tony is heading up the Authority. For a series that seems to be a satire of Australian bureaucracy, the subject of power and ambition is rarely visited.

Panel show REALITY CHECK (ABC Wednesdays 9.00pm) has screened in tandem with UTOPIA. Both have completed their run. REALITY CHECK takes its cues from Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder stable mate THE GRUEN TRANSFER. Rather than taking on advertising, REALITY CHECK lifts the lid on reality TV (duh!). The panelists have experience in the reality form either as contestants that made it into the entertainment biz, like Poh Ling Yeow or Rob Mills, or as producers like Julian Cress or Marion Farrelly. The host is stand-up and radio presenter Tom Ballard.

The show has hit its stride quickly. Absurd scenes from international reality programs are mocked and the experts are asked about what is staged and how. Australia’s THE BLOCK and BIG BROTHER are often the examples used, but frequent panelist Ian “Dicko” Dickson brings in his experience of being an AUSTRALIAN IDOL judge and a CELEBRITY APPRENTICE AUSTRALIA contestant. If you’re not a fan of the form, this show won’t change your opinion, but if you are curious about what goes on behind-the- scenes, it provides some interesting answers.REALITY CHECK is a fun and palatable way for people like me to experience reality programming without putting in the hours.

Film review: Good Vibrations

GOOD-VIBRATIONS(2012) UK-Ireland, 103 minutes

DIRECTOR:Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn | CAST:Richard Dormer, Liam Cunningham, Dylan Moran | RATING: 4/5

When the evolution of punk is raised at suburban dinner parties, it is usually discussed as a movement of the musical zeitgeist in the mid-1970s, located in the United States and Great Britain.  You’ve heard this kind of thing said over the croquembouche many a time. Not only does this leave out Australia’s undeniable contribution to the scene, but it also excludes cities like Belfast, Northern Ireland.

GOOD VIBRATIONS is the story of Terri Hooley, a man who was a lynchpin of the Belfast punk scene. In a dazzlingly fast introduction we get a feeling for Hooley’s childhood and we are left in no doubt of his passion for music. The story progresses quickly to the 1970s and into the depths of The Troubles. Hooley has no interest in sectarian violence and tries to walk his own path. By not taking a Protestant or Catholic side, he finds himself with few allies and in potential danger. Some of his friends leave Belfast, but Hooley makes the decision to stay in the city he loves.

Rather than keep his head down, Hooley opens a record store called Good Vibrations.  At first, he is motivated by the spirit of reggae. He feels music will bring together those, like himself, who don’t want to fight. One day, Hooley has an epiphany, he discovers the local kids don’t give a toss about reggae or any of the old music he stocks at Good Vibrations. Their music is punk. The more Hooley learns, the deeper he gets involved in punk. Soon he gets involved in organizing gigs and the record store becomes a central point of information for the local scene.

Co-directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn have taken the screenplay by Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson and created a lively, inventive and heartfelt tribute to a scene which thrived in dire circumstances.  There is plenty of humour and energy in the movie, but the threat of violence pervades the lives of these Belfast punks.

Terry Hooley was a controversial figure at the time, although he has since been honoured in his hometown. There are some who find the man portrayed in this biopic too flawed and unlikeable. Hooley has definite shortcomings, however I was impressed with Richard Dormer’s portrayal of the Godfather of Belfast Punk. The actor shows us a fractious, mouthy, main-chancer who refuses to let the ugliness of the times destroy his love for music or his home.

This review is also posted at AccessReel.com

Film Review: Grace of Monaco

Grace of Monaco(2014) France-USA, 103 minutes

DIRECTOR:Olivier Dahan | CAST:Nicole Kidman, Tim Roth, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, Paz Vega | RATING: 3.5/5

It is 1962 and France is pressuring Monaco to change its laws because wealthy French citizens and companies are moving to the tiny principality and using it as a tax haven. French president, Charles de Gaulle is determined to retrieve the taxation he believes rightfully belongs to France and is prepared to create an international incident in the process. Prince Rainier III, Monaco’s reigning monarch, disagrees and the nation becomes locked in an unequal struggle with its larger neighbour. What can save the bite-sized state from de Gaulle’s political over-reach? Could it be former Hollywood star Grace Kelly, now Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco?

Not since STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999) with its trade embargo storyline, have movie audiences been lucky enough to be immersed in the drama of an administrative dispute between political entities. However, writer Aresh Amel and director Olivier Dahan have cleverly intuited that a tale of taxation will only excite some, whereas all are fascinated by the dazzling lives of royals and movie stars.

American Grace Kelly was, of course, both. She became a Hollywood star in films like Alfred Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954), TO CATCH A THIEF (1955) and REAR WINDOW (1954). She also won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in THE COUNTRY GIRL (1954). She was a bona fide star from a wealthy background who was also a fashion icon of the era. It was while she was part of a US delegation at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival that she met Prince Rainier. They married in 1956 and she became the Princess consort of Monaco.

The European and US media lost their collective mind over this pairing.  They covered the wedding in minute detail. The fact that Kelly was a commoner and an American meant the union with Prince Rainier was described as a ‘fairytale’.  This particular idea has been recycled numerously since for Britain’s Princess Diana, Catherine the Duchess of Cambridge and Australia’s own Danish royal, Princess Mary to name but three. Regular non-royal women marrying princes are always supposed to be living a dream come true.

GRACE OF MONACO begins with the idea that the fairytale wedding performed for the cameras has become a rather more mundane marriage six years on. Her Serene Highness is not accepted by the people as one of their own. Her spoken French is not yet second nature. Worse still, she seems not to know how to be effective as the Princess. Her search for a place in this world leads her to consider a return to acting. She is visited by Alfred Hitchcock and asked to consider the title role in a new film he is preparing, the psychological thriller MARNIE.  While Grace struggles with her identity, Monaco struggles through the months of the French taxation blockade.

The trouble with GRACE OF MONACO is that it attempts to tie together too many elements. There are numerous ideas teased into the daylight and then dropped. For example, Kelly was thought of as regal when she was in Hollywood, but is portrayed as slightly awkward when surrounded by these sophisticated Europeans. Feminism is given a nod when we see Rainier’s negative attitude regarding Kelly’s work as an actor. She was arguably at least as good at her original job as he was at his. The movie works hard to convince us that the Prince and his advisors spent much of their time engaged in political machinations. However, it also wants to hit us with the Glamour of Grace. This unwieldy mix doesn’t make for a convincingly authentic biopic. In fact, GRACE OF MONACO feels somewhat like an old-fashioned movie, made in 2013, for US$30 million.

That makes this concoction very entertaining to this writer. I enjoy old movies. I like how at one moment it’s a bit like ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953) and then reminds one of WHISKEY GALORE! (1949). A quick survey of the critical drubbing GRACE OF MONACO has received shows that other reviewers were not so kindly disposed. A new old movie is clearly not what they were looking for.

Grace is presented somewhat implausibly as an Eliza Doolittle character with two Henry Higgins figures to guide her. One is Frank Langella playing Father Francis Tucker and the other is Dereck Jacobi playing an expert in royal protocol, Count Fernando D’Aillieres.  Both actors are in fine form. Langella purrs through all of his lines. Jacobi is deftly theatrical in his scene–stealing role. All their stuff with Kidman is fun or melodramatically entertaining at least.

Kidman is good in her role. It’s the movie that’s askew. Tim Roth is somewhat lost as Rainier. The casting of Robert Lindsay of television’s MY FAMILY as Aristotle Onassis is pretty weird. Has Europe run out of senior Greek actors? The other star of the show is costume designer Gigi Lepage. Unlike the DIANA movie which strove to match precisely the wardrobe of its title character, Lepage was required to create costumes in the style of Princess Grace, not exact copies. She worked with Dior, Balenciaga, Hermes, Cartier and Swarovski among others to achieve this. Kidman doesn’t look like Kelly, but her years wearing haute couture on the red carpet have stood her good stead.

The Royal Family of Monaco have called this film a fictionalised account of Grace Kelly’s life.  This seems more than fair. This movie is not an accurate rendering of Princess Grace in the early 1960s, rather it’s a melodrama with odd casting choices, political manoeuvering, family intrigue, fabulous frocks and stunning millinery.

GRACE OF MONACO runs for 103 minutes. I am swimming against the tide of “worst film ever’ reviews and rating this a 3/5.

This review was also posted at AccessReel.com

Film Review: Le Week-End

Le Week-End(2013) UK-France, 93 minutes

DIRECTOR:Roger Michell | CAST:Lindsay Duncan, Jim Broadbent, Jeff Goldblum |RATING: 3.5/5

Nick (Broadbent) and Meg (Duncan) are a couple from Birmingham in their late middle age. They are spending the weekend in Paris to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary. Their relationship is going through a fractious and tense stage. When they arrive at the hotel they originally stayed in, Meg decides that it is unsuitable for her needs. They go looking for alternative accommodation. This obstacle begins their weekend of soul-searching. SPOILER ALERT: Nick and Meg find somewhere to stay.

LE WEEK-END feels loosely plotted. Meg and Nick wander all over Paris working out where they will have lunch or dinner. They are in the midst of a huge ongoing conversation. Nick wants to smooth things over, to make nice. Meg feels angry and wants to change her life in some profound way. The film has character development rather than story per se. It is the strength of writer Hanif Kureishi’s script that neither Nick nor Meg remains stuck in one mode; their emotional states, their feelings towards each other are mercurial. Both have reached an age where their next decisions will dictate the rest of their lives; there is no more time to get it wrong. They can’t hide in their jobs. She is bored of her teaching work. He is having difficulties with his professorship. They cannot find solace in each other. However, they still have a connection that holds them together, although not tightly so.

The ageing of the Baby Boom generation means films like this one are becoming more common. It has similarities with Mike Leigh’s ANOTHER YEAR (2010) which also starred Jim Broadbent and LATE BLOOMERS (2011) where a couple played by William Hurt and Isabella Rossellini have to deal with encroaching old age and also have to discover what they mean to each other now their children have adult lives and have left home. Nick and Meg are struggling with practical, emotional and existential questions. Where they should eat next is also of great importance.

Kureishi and director Roger Michell have created a serious drama with a light touch. I usually find Jim Broadbent rather full-on in more naturalistic parts and therefore enjoy his work more in movies like MOULIN ROUGE (2001) and the Harry Potter films. However, he is at his best here. You understand Meg’s antipathy towards him and yet we see his positive sides, too. Lindsay Duncan is excellent in portraying an ever-shifting, never-satisfied character who is at her wit’s end. Relatively late in the piece, Jeff Goldblum is introduced as an old university friend of the Broadbent character. He gives a performance that is full Goldblum, yet the odd line phrasings and beats are perfect for his character who is like an academic Tom Grunick.

Kureishi and Michell’s film will probably appeal to those who enjoyed their work on the Peter O’Toole vehicle VENUS (2006). That also dealt with issues of mortality and redefining one’s life in its last quarter.

This review was also posted on AccessReel.com

Film Review: Half of a Yellow Sun

half-of-a-yellow-sun

(2013) Nigeria/UK, 111 minutes

DIRECTOR:Biyi Bandele | CAST:Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anika Noni Rose |RATING: 3/5

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN is based on the 2006 novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The story follows four lives as the Nigerian Civil War descends in 1967. Olanna (Newton) and her twin sister Kainene (Rose) are the central relationship of the story. Their family is wealthy and both the daughters are English educated. They are going to make a mark in Nigerian society. The quartet is rounded out by Olanna’s boyfriend, an academic, Odenigbo (Ejiofor) and his young houseboy Ugwu (Boyega).

Olanna and Odenigbo live a non-traditional life in the university town Nsukka. She maintains an apartment, but for all practical purposes moves in with Odenigbo, even though they do not marry. There are frequent gatherings at Odenigbo’s house where the intellectual set from the university talk about the state of the country post independence. They discuss the British. They talk about how Nigeria itself is a colonial construction.  Odenigbo says the British made them “Nigerians”. They are really the Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa and Fulani people, he says. Anyone who has recently seen the film HANNAH ARENDT will find an interesting similarity in the portrayals of talky, discontented academic cliques.

The houseboy Ugwu watches the comings and the goings of the household. He is from a village and has a more traditional upbringing, yet is loyal to Odenigbo and Olanna. Kainene takes up running the family’s many business interests and has a relationship with another of what her sister refers to as her “English boys” a man called Richard (Joseph Mawle). For her part, Kaneine mockingly refers to Odenigbo as “The Revolutionary”.

The narrative jumps back and forth between the establishment of independence in 1963, the military coups of 1966 and the subsequent Nigerian Civil War that began in 1967. The Igbo people want to establish their own state called Biafra in the south-eastern part of the country. The yellow sun of the title refers to the design of the flag for the short-lived Republic of Biafra.

The people of the region are locked into a vicious two and a half year war. When Nigeria can gain no more territory through fighting, it blockades Biafra and causes mass starvation and disease. Although estimates of the dead were between 1 and 3 million, this part of the story is not told in harrowing detail. The audience is spared the nightmarish horror of the war in Biafra, but we still see lives torn apart by violence.  If war is what happens when diplomacy fails, then this film portrays the collapse of a society as a result of warfare. Director Biyi Bandele has portrayed the epic scale of the book with some success. Life moves slowly from order to chaos. The privileged existence of Olanna and Kainene is challenged in every possible way.

Without exception, the women of HALF A YELLOW SUN are strong characters. When their world is falling apart, it is their will that keeps the family together. Thandie Newton is excellent as Olanna, as is Anika Noni Rose playing Kainene. Rose is a Tony-winning American actress who was cast by Bandele on the strength of her performance in television’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Bandele, who is Nigerian, was under the impression that Rose was South African, which is a tribute to her acting abilities. All the performances in this movie are solid. Bandele’s feature is his first and by his account getting the production made was no certainty despite its being based on an international best seller; Newton and Ejiofor’s casting helped, as well as the many deals done with the Nigerian film industry.

Adiche’s novel has won critical acclaim and a dedicated readership. Director Bandele admits that in his adaptation of the novel, he has made different storytelling choices. Although he didn’t seek Adiche’s opinion during the development process, she has seen the film and approves of the result.  Bandele’s movie is epic in scope, but it maintains its focus on the personal. This is the only way to let an audience feel history, through its effect on the lives of characters we care about–in this the film succeeds admirably.

This review is also posted at AccessReel.com

Film Review: The Raid 2

the-raid-2-berendal(2014) Indonesia, 150 minutes

DIRECTOR: Gareth Evans | CAST: Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Alex Abbad, Arifin Putra |RATING: 4/5

In 2011 Welsh director Gareth Evans made his second feature THE RAID: REDEMPTION. It was an Indonesian action film that was a hit at home and well-received internationally. It was an exciting and violent movie that raised the bar for martial arts films much as Thailand’s ONG BAK had in 2003. Evan’s introduced world audiences to the Indonesian martial arts that comprise pencak silat.

Now the second movie of the proposed RAID trilogy has arrived. Titled THE RAID 2 or THE RAID: BERANDAL (which means thug), the story picks up directly after the the first movie. Iko Uwais plays Officer Rama, one of the few survivors of the SWAT raid on a Jakarta apartment block belonging to a crime boss. This failed action revealed the extent of police corruption and now Rama is going undercover to investigate further.

The investigation takes him into the heart of the Bangun crime family. Rama goes to prison and over time, works his way into Bangun’s organisation by making himself indispensable to Uco, Bangun’s son. Eventually Uco and Rama leave prison and become involved in the day-to-day dirty work of running a criminal empire. Bangun has an arrangement with the Japanese Goto family; together they have divided Jakarta between them.

A young non-aligned gangster called Bejo threatens the balance of power between the Bangun and Goto families. As Rama searches for evidence of police involvement with Bangun, the potential increases for an all-out mob war.

THE RAID 2 is an attempt to open out the world presented to us in the first movie. That film gave us a filthy, rat-infested apartment block filled with small-time criminals. They represented the scum of the city. Now, we are shown the big fish behind the organised crime. Rather than a floor-by-floor ascent to kill the big boss, the time span and scope of this new story is much larger. THE RAID 2 is obviously influenced by the Hong Kong crime flicks of the ‘80s and ‘90s. All the tropes about cops being undercover and the loyalty and brotherhood of the police versus the mob can be found here. What sets this film apart from the average Asian martial arts crime story are Evans’ skills as a director.  Even though we know the many of the story beats are coming, it’s the execution of the sequence that remains enthralling. Like watching a John Woo picture twenty years ago, we wait to see how Evans is going to pull off the hand-to-hand combat, the skirmish with machetes or the ambush on the opposing mobsters. His choices rarely disappoint.

Like the first RAID, this is not a movie about finely-tuned dramatic performances. Star Iko Uwais is brilliant at kicking butt on the cinema screen and he brings even more of this for the sequel. This sequel has a larger budget and there is simply more of everything including a Bournesque car chase sequence through the city.

The film clocks in at a hefty 150 minutes and if you’re a fan of the first movie you are likely to enjoy every moment. If you’re a fan of brilliantly choreographed action sequences and bloody, bone crunching fight scenes, then get along to see this one. Gareth Evans has made a bigger film that sets him up to do Hollywood action blockbusters should he want to.

This review also appears at AccessReel.com 

Film Review: Hannah Arendt

Hannah-Arendt-movie

(2013) Germany-France, 113 minutes

DIRECTOR: Margarethe von Trotta  CAST: Barbara Sukowa, Janet McTeer, Klaus Puhl, Axel Milberg |RATING: 3.5/5

In 1961, Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist is asked by The New Yorker to cover the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann. During World War 2, Eichmann was one of the SS officers responsible for organising the mass deportation of Jews to Eastern European extermination camps. Eichmann had escaped the Nuremberg trials (1946-49) by hiding in Austria and then Argentina. He was eventually captured by the Mossad, taken back to Israel and interrogated before standing trial in Jerusalem.

Arendt’s New Yorker reports were based on courtroom observation, watching film of the trial and reading transcripts, They formed the basis of her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. When Arendt saw Eichmann in the bulletproof-glass booth he sat in for the trial, she was surprised at his air of ordinariness. She didn’t detect a pathological mind or a sinister quality. Rather she found him incapable of critical thought. Arendt wrote that he displayed a kind of thoughtlessness that avoided all responsibility for his horrific acts. As far as Eichmann was concerned, his mission was to carry out state-sanctioned activities to the best of his ability. He committed unthinkable acts and was detached from them with his lack of thought and reflection. This was in part what she meant by her term the “banality of evil.”

The concept is actually much more challenging and nuanced.  Arendt’s defenders make it clear that she wasn’t minimising Eichmann’s actions or saying he was merely following orders. And this is where the film struggles with its material. In order to really understand what Arendt meant by the banality of evil, one has to read Eichmann in Jerusalem which is a lot more work than your average filmgoer (or indeed reviewer) is likely to do.

Director Margarethe von Trotta and her co-writer Pam Katz do everything possible to dramatise the development of Arendt’s ideas. We are introduced to her in the context of her American life where she is a respected academic with a couple of philosophical blockbusters to her name (The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition). She is part of a group that includes the soon-to-be-author Mary McCarthy (McTeer). She is an important member of an elite intellectual circle. Her present is contrasted with flashbacks to her life as a young student, when she had a relationship with her teacher Martin Heidegger. Her connection with the famous philosopher angered her Jewish friends because of his affiliation with the Nazis. It is clear that some considered Arendt a troublemaker and self-hating Jew well before the 1960s.

These charges and more were levelled against her after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. There were many who specifically read her work as blaming Jewish authorities of being complicit in the Holocaust. This argument has simmered for fifty years. The rigorousness of Arendt’s scholarship has been much challenged and defended. Von Trotta’s movie is undoubtedly pro-Arendt however we are allowed to see an intractable side to the philosopher. She will not relent on an idea simply because others don’t like it. She is more than prepared to lose friends in order to get at the truth as she sees it.

Hannah Arendt is a well made movie that convincingly sets up the early 1960s. When Arendt is in Jerusalem we are given a fascinating insight into Eichmann through Von Trotta’s choice to portray him with the actual trial film. We are given the opportunity to see some of what the world saw of the man in the glass booth. Being a biopic there is a certain episodic quality about the story telling. Many of the figures in Arendt’s life are wheeled on quickly and disappear just as quickly. Barbara Sukowa is excellent in the lead role. She gives Arendt a roundedness and depth, which is much needed. The script is filled with scenes where ideas are discussed by its intellectual characters. As absolutely necessary as this is, an audience has to pay attention in order to not get lost.

HANNAH ARENDT is an accomplished and thoughtful work about big ideas. Perhaps the best service this film performs is as a preview of Arendt’s writings. After seeing this film and doing the review I realise that a CliffsNotes version of her work is not sufficient to understand the idea of the banality of evil.

This review also appears at AccessReel.com

Film Review: The Monuments Men

The_Monuments_Men

(2014) USA, 118 minutes

DIRECTOR: George Clooney  CAST: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin |RATING: 2.5/5

It is 1943 and although the Second World War is far from over, there are men like art expert Frank Stokes (Clooney) who are concerned that the art treasures of Europe are in danger from the Axis powers. They are being stolen by the Nazis or worse still, destroyed in the collateral damage of battle. Allied Intelligence has discovered Hitler’s plan to steal the art from the occupied countries of Europe and display it in the proposed Führermuseum in Linz. Stokes persuades President Roosevelt that a special unit is required to save these endangered works of art. Stokes argues that an Allied victory will be empty if the finest art of Western Civilisation is lost.

Months pass and Stokes finds six other experts to join the team. Americans James Granger (Damon), Richard Campbell (Murray), Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and Walter Garfield (John Goodman). A British expert, Donald Jefferies (Hugh Bonneville) and a French one, Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) also join. They go by the collective nickname “The Monuments Men”.

After basic training in England, the unit journeys to Europe where the experts disperse to pursue different objectives. In Belgium, Jeffries goes after Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. Campbell and Savitz search for the 12-panel Van Eyck altarpiece stolen from Ghent cathedral. In Paris, Granger tries to persuade curator Claire Simone (Blanchett) to share her knowledge with the unit. She has reluctantly witnessed the systematic theft of French art by the Nazis. It is March 1945 and Granger hopes to secure her help when he shows her Hitler’s Nero Decree which orders the destruction of German infrastructure as Allied forces make their way across Europe. Granger fears this will mean the destruction of all the looted artworks.

For a history nerd like myself, I was excited by the premise of this movie. I wanted it to be like the trailer which sold me on the idea of a rag-tag bunch of academic types led by a grizzled Clooney fighting for the very preservation of Western Civilisation Itself!  However, the actual film is a rather conservative affair with pacing problems and a shifting tone. The release of the movie was delayed as the balance of the comedy and drama, was hashed out. The drama is mostly adequate and sometimes good. The various war set-pieces are executed with the polish one expects after SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and BAND OF BROTHERS. The humour barely gets there. Alexandre Desplat, the award-wining composer is called upon to sell the dodgy comedy with his score. Damon is also saddled with some of the comedy and yet Dujardin is given nothing. Such are the decisions of Clooney and his longtime co-writer, co-producer Grant Heslov. I think Damon is great, but when you’ve got a sure-fire audience charmer and comedian like Dujardin on board, give him something to do!

As much as I enjoyed individual scenes with these seasoned professionals doing their thing, overall I didn’t feel this was a strong and engaging film. It is occasionally entertaining in an way that reminded me of later era WW2 movies like VON RYAN’S EXPRESS (1965) or KELLY’S HEROES (1970), but without having anything like the same vitality. Although I believe the movie falls frustratingly between two stools, the Australian public disagreed and gave it the number one Box Office spot on its opening (St Patrick’s Day) weekend. Clooney’s film took $2,300,000 on 323 screens nationwide.

This review also appears at AccessReel.com 

 

Film Review: Tracks

tracks

(2013) Australia, 112 minutes

DIRECTOR: John Curran, CAST: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver | RATING: 4/5

In 1977, 25 year-old Robyn Davidson trekked through 1700 miles of Australian desert with no traveling companions except four camels. Her reasons were personal and she had no interest in publicity or making money as part of her journey. She eventually agreed that part of the trip would be covered by National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan.  A year later, the article was published and generated worldwide interest. In response Davidson wrote an account of her experience that became the international best seller Tracks.

In the past thirty years there have been numerous attempts to make a film adaptation of Tracks. One version even had Julia Roberts in the Davidson role. The usual difficulties of film financing as well as the specific logistical difficulties of making a movie wholly in the desert were constant obstacles. Eventually, producers Emile Sherman and Iain Canning optioned the book and have created a version that is likely to find favour with fans of Davidson’s original account.

The movie depicts a young woman who has had a tough childhood and has grown into a self-reliant adult. This movie version of Davidson is spiky, independent and on something of a half-conscious quest. We, the audience, arrive at some kind of understanding of her character through observation of her arduous trek. This is not a film of overt statement and emotional speeches. It is, in fact, a film of very few words at all. For one section of her trip, Robyn has an Aboriginal guide called Eddie  (Roly Mintuma) and the duo do not share a language. They communicate through sounds and gestures.  Most of her spoken communication with English speakers seems no clearer. She is a doer rather than a talker.

Davidson spoke at the 2013 Sydney Writers festival about her original journey. She is not keen on terming it as spiritual or the experience as mystic. Now as then, she wants to avoid other people labeling her or analyzing her motives. However, the interest in her and in this movie is absolutely about people’s drive towards self-discovery through testing their physical boundaries. The movie leads you to the conclusion that she traveled through a place that most people avoid, to avoid the mental and emotional turmoil of others. At the festival, Davidson spoke of being in a place where she could clear her mind

Director John Curran (PRAISE 1998) and writer Marion Nelson have done a first class job in adapting Davidson’s work to the screen. Mia Wasikowska bears some physical resemblance to the 25 year-old Davidson, but her real gift is in fully embodying a loner going through an intense internal and external experience. The lack of declarative dialogue means we mostly have to rely on reading Wasikowska’s body language and eyes to understand the Davidson character. The performance is beautifully judged so the audience is allowed insight into a fundamentally reserved character.  Interestingly, if you do some reading on how others describe Davidson there is the suggestion that the screen version isn’t as outgoing and open as the woman herself.

Mandy Walker’s cinematography is stunning. As clichéd as this may sound, the desert is like another character in the film. The light, texture, heat, dust and sheer physical presence is brilliantly up there on the screen. Davisdson herself has pointed out that her journey was not in the height of summer and that the crew was sometimes dealing with greater temperature variation than she experienced. But just in case that makes it sound like Davidson’s trip was a walk in the park with camels, sometimes she was dealing with highs of 51 degrees Celsius.

The team behind this movie have brilliantly adapted their source material. They have told a powerful story in a nuanced way. The end result is an inspiring tale that I hope will connect across a broad audience.

This review also appears at AccessReel.com

Film Review: Dallas Buyers Club

EXCLUSIVE: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto film scenes together for The Dallas Buyers Club in New Orleans.

(2013) USA, 117 minutes

DIRECTOR: Jean-Marc Vallée | CAST: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto| RATING: 2.5/5

Ron Woodruff is an electrician and rodeo cowboy in 1985 Dallas. He is a hard-living character who suddenly finds himself unable to burn the candle at both ends. He is diagnosed with AIDS and is given 30 days to put his affairs in order. He panics and searches for alternative medicines. AZT is the only available treatment in the United States and is not necessarily available to all. The drug is still in the clinical trial stage.

He is in denial not only about the death sentence he feels he has received, but in having a so-called “gay disease”. Ron Woodruff is homophobic. The reaction of his equally homophobic friends is to abandon him.

Woodruff eventually travels to Mexico and discovers a range of treatments. None are approved by the powerful Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use back in the United States. He begins transporting the drugs back to the States and soon runs into trouble with medical authorities.

His partner in these illegal activities is Rayon an HIV-positive transgender woman. They meet in hospital and at first, Woodruff cannot deal with her. Eventually, he learns some kind of understanding of Rayon and they form a bond.

In order to avoid charges for selling non-approved medicines, Woodruff hits upon the scheme of charging those seeking the drugs a membership to the ‘Dallas Buyers Club’. Membership costs, but the drugs are free.

The world portrayed by DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is rich with a promise that is not delivered on. Certainly, a reminder of the horror of the AIDS epidemic is a strong subject for a drama, however I found this treatment of the story to be baffling.  As a friend said to me just after the movie finished, “It’s about how Ron Woodruff learned to be nice to gay people.”  And indeed, this strand of the story is handled in a simplistic manner. The other strand seems to be “FDA bad, entrepreneurship good.”

When AIDS hit America an extremely complex series of events occurred. Health authorities were accused of doing too little. People with AIDS were mostly young and died incredibly quickly because there was no cure. The idea of an incurable plague challenged the assumptions of First World medical supremacy. The fact that many who contracted AIDS were from the gay community led others to declare HIV/AIDS to be a punishment from God for what they perceived as the wickedness of homosexuality. It was a time of great fear and upheaval.

That reality is merely hinted at here. I understand that it isn’t fair to criticise the film for not being ANGELS IN AMERICA, but it doesn’t even take on the depth of the story it has a license to tell. Ron Woodruff is portrayed as a heterosexual good ol’ boy who somehow catches a so-called gay disease and then puts his energies into fighting the overreach of big government. We are given no great insight into Woodruff’s earlier life or current thoughts. If anything he is portrayed even more sketchily than Rayon. She is somewhat of a construct who is saintly and wise and seems to be in the movie because the homophobic character needs a transgender character to challenge his straightness.  We do however, meet her father and get as glimpse at her former life. It all feels somewhat formulaic and didn’t ring true for this reviewer.  This goes doubly for the tacked on relationship with the concerned doctor played by Jennifer Garner.

Which is to take nothing away from the performances of McConaughey or Leto. McConaughey has moved away from his shirtless version of the good ol’ boy. His performances in films like THE LINCOLN LAWYER, MUD and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET show a greater depth of characterisation than his earlier, lightweight leading man roles. He has always been watchable, but lately he has done some of his the best work and is choosing great projects. Despite having a long career, Leto’s work has never made an impression on me until now. It is for the fine performances of these actors that the movie is getting so much attention in award season.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is a movie for audiences who want a simple story about how a man is redeemed by battling against a deadly illness, the government and Big Pharma. For anyone looking for a straightforward film about this kind of human struggle, this movie will be a satisfying experience.

This review also appears on AccessReel.com