If you see wide swaths of cornstalks in a Hollywood movie, chances are you’re either watching yet another Superman reboot (Man of Steel opens June 14!), or you’re seeing farmland that’s under some kind of extreme peril, either from floods, droughts or the shady business practices of giant multi-national agriculture conglomerates. As far as Hollywood is concerned, farmers are the last true American patriots, as red, white & blue as any Chevy truck ad. Representatives from Tinseltown don’t care to venture over to the Midwest terribly often but when they do, it tends to bring out the hot-blooded American jingo in ‘em.
Which is why it’s curious that filmmaker Ramin Bahrani — long hailed an indie stalwart after Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo — has chosen the flatlands of Iowa to present his next directorial effort. Along with co-screenwriter Hallie Elizabeth Newton, Bahrani has crafted a mudflap-and-grain melodrama that purports to involve the confounding failure of the American soul in the dusty heartland.
Rahrani, whose previous films have involved no shortage of small, well articulated moments, has gone big swoon here, with compromised fathers and vengeful sons, cuckolded wives, and shady agri-businesses getting cutthroat with the small family farms that used to chalk off the endless rows of green squares throughout the state.
Embodying the conflicted nature of the once-prosperous farmhand, we have Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), a loquacious farmer and seed salesman, a little too proud to be the number one seller in seven Iowa counties. Whipple, who has a perpetually cranky back and a habit of popping breath mints at regular intervals, is a born huckster. He glad-hands everyone in town, looking for the sales angle even at the funeral of one of his farming compatriots, and trumpets his reliable success as if he’s done something truly groundbreaking. He’s also running an affair with the former head cheerleader (Heather Graham) of his high school football team, and has resorted to using shady business practices in the past when his damaged reality didn’t quite match up to his imagined glory.
Whipple has two sons, Grant (Patrick Stevens), whom we only see in the opening credits, shot home-movie style, leaving the farm to go to college; and Dean (Zac Efron), a wanna-be NASCAR driver with smoldering eyes and a strong desire to do something — anything — in order to avoid his likely destiny on the family farm.
Whipple, in perpetual motion, afraid to sit still for even a moment to contemplate what he’s done to reach the level of success he’s aspired to, walks bottled up, his hands at his sides in a half-curl, ready either to shake someone’s hand or clench up in a stressed anxiety fist.
One gets the feeling that Bahrani was shooting for a kind of slightly heightened verisimilitude with the film (in the course of things, you’ll find out more than you ever would have wanted to about GMOs, best seed-washing practices, and crazy 8 car races), but with its various stars (and former teen idols) and the somewhat unnatural sheen of overwrought drama, it comes across as an elaborate stab at play-acting. A costume drama, only instead of bustiers and petticoats, the principles are decked out in Levi’s and plaid shirts.
Like a damaged raft on a raging river, the whole thing starts springing leaks the more weight is placed on it. By the time you get to the (obviously still breathing) dead body lying amongst the broken corn stalks near the end, it more than feels as if its totally lost its way, a poor yield on a dubious harvest.
It’s become increasingly apparent that reality shows have spoiled our sense of true adventure. Watching gaggles of idiotic D-list celebrities and aspiring wanna-be’s parading about on remote islands and desert landscapes in torn-up rags, plotting against one another (or paired up and sent on ludicrous “missions” on international terrain) has become synonymous with what used to be our sense of wonder at true adventurers, willing to risk their lives in order to pursue titanic human achievements or scientific discovery, humbled and made noble by their efforts. The world was watching them, but unlike our rag tag reality show ship of fools today, these brave souls generally only appeared before they left and right after their return: The rest of their adventure was what only they knew and the rest of us pined to hear about.
One such adventurer, Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen), in this mostly fact-based account, did his damage in the immediate aftermath of WW II. In order to prove his theorem that Polynesia was populated not by Asians, as was the long-held belief, but by Peruvians, crossing some 5000 nautical miles on nothing much more than an elaborate raft, he and a small assortment of makeshift crewmembers, were driven to prove it through their own first-hand experience.
That Thor, an unlikely leader for such an ocean-based expedition as he couldn’t even swim, proved all the skeptics wrong is only part of this remarkably gripping story. Convinced beyond all reasonable doubt of his theory, he insisted that they build their craft exactly the way the ancient Peruvians (Tikis) would have done, using ropes instead of wires, wooden stakes instead of nails and ancient cotton for his lone sail.
This doesn’t entirely sit well with members of his five-man team, including Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), an engineer-turned-refrigerator-salesman, who had absolutely no experience on the water or with science. So callow and unlikely is Thor’s crew, only one member can even correctly identify starboard — that would be Bengt Danielsson (Gustaf Skarsgård), Thor’s oldest friend and a former sailor for the Norwegian Navy. Rounding out the assortment, we have Knut Haugland (Tobias Santelmann), a seasick radio operator, Torstein Rabby (Jakob Oftebro), a dashing young gun with a love of adventure, and the lone Swede, Erik Hesselberg (Odd Magnus Williamson), a rugged ethnographer who shoots the footage of their voyage with a sturdy 16-mm camera.
Despite our early assumption that Thor will indeed be proven right by the time the end credits roll, filmmakers Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg fill their film with all the glorious spectacle and terrifying possibility of the Pacific. Along their journey, the crew endure heavy storms, lashing waves, their own internal bickering, and a plethora of giant great white sharks that seem to follow them just below the surface waiting for the slightest misstep.
Through it all, Thor maintains his rigid held belief in himself and his theory, constantly reassuring the crew by exhorting them to “have faith.” In one telling moment just at the beginning of their voyage, Thor takes in the panorama of ocean all around him — suddenly it’s just them and their tiny boat against the full potential fury of nature. The camera follows his gaze in a sweep around the horizon, with blue churning water in all directions, and at last resides back on his face, his look not one of apprehension but unbridled joy. That resolve is tested, of course, throughout the course of their 101 days at sea, and the film doesn’t let him carry that optimism as an empty banner.
Such is the clarity and skill that the film is made that the shark scenes appear horrifically, frighteningly real. In one heart-stopping sequence, a crewmember slips off the raft and into a tumble of great whites, already inflamed by the smell of blood in the water, and the remaining crew of the raft have to watch in horror as things go from bad to worse before someone attempts to intervene.
Instead of giving us a glad-handed, mailed-in adventure story where the outcome is never seriously in doubt no matter what horrific odds appear to be stacked against our heroes, Rønning and Sandberg’s skillful film keeps us edgy and uneasy even when we think we know how things will turn out.
The result is a fine adventure story, one that holds you fast, and offers you a glimpse of just how courageous and willfully stubborn you had to be when you were truly breaking new ground, and not just filming the 19th season of a repetitive drone of a reality series.
J.J. Abrams is a man who clearly understands the important beats and movements of a well-timed action flick, the ways to set up his audience for the big finish in order to leave them breathless, but he’s not so good with the subtleties. He’s all quick pans, dizzying camera work and 21st Century hyper-edits, all of which succeeds in inducing a head rush, so much so that its only after the movie ends and the lights come back on that you realize how inane and overstimulating the whole thing was.
With his second Star Trek installment, Abrams has more or less kept us where we left off last time. James Kirk (Chris Pine) is still irresponsibly bedding down comely alien women and making absolute hash of the Star Fleet regulations he’s supposed to commit to heart; Spock (Zachary Quinto) is still discovering the painful emotional experiences of his human half in a tumultuous relationship with this new-jack Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana); Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) still gets to complain about everything; and the Enterprise and the rest of her steady crew are all finding out just how much damn fun it is following a captain who refuses to follow the rules when they don’t suit him.
Shortly after we begin, however, things take a turn for the worse. Kirk, due to an absolute whopper of a disregard for the Prime Directive (take no action that interferes with a planet’s development), loses his command of the Enterprise right around the same time Star Fleet is struck from within and a huge secret command center is reduced to rubble. No sooner does the high command convene an emergency meeting than they are all attacked by a rogue Captain (Benedict Cumberbatch), who seems to harbor a great deal of animosity towards Star Fleet for reasons yet unknown.
The Captain then flees to Cronos, the home planet of the Klingons, which, he assumes Star Fleet would never try to infiltrate for fear of starting a war. Naturally, this kind of mission is all Kirk needs in order to re-establish his command, a move blessed by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), an old-school warhorse commander who might be hiding a thing or two in his motivations.
Along the way, old-school “Star Trek” fans are given innumerable shout-outs, from the appearance of a tribble to famous lines — “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” (Dr. McCoy’s infamous “I’m a doctor, not a…” construction also gets trotted out) — even a throwback cameo from an old friend, all of which is throwing raw steaks to the lions, as it were.
All of which is made necessary by a plot that strains even the lowered standards of Big Action Flick fare. The film’s midpoint twist shocks you into submission at first, but an even remotely longer glance confirms that it makes almost no damn sense. It’s a re-hash of a re-hash of an episode from the TV show’s original first season, which might initially enlist gasps but quickly becomes almost comically ridiculous upon any sort of reflection.
The rabid fans of “Star Trek” are legion and legendary, back in the TV show’s initial mid-’60s run, they were the first fanbase to galvanize and successfully petition a TV network to bring back and otherwise absolutely doomed show (though, as the end result was the seriously misbegotten third and final season, “success” is somewhat qualified), and they have been supporting creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision more or less ever since, through various TV spinoffs, an animated series and innumerable feature films — most of which, pretty terrible. When TV demigod J.J. Abrams was brought in to reboot the original show, it was with the implicit idea that he would attempt to bring the original flavor of the TV show, while greatly enhancing its breadth, and re-populating the cast with hot, young actor facsimiles.
Most problematic of the first Abrams’ film was Chris Pine’s Kirk. For all his showy, pot-bellied bluster in later years (that pesky third season was when things started to go downhill for William Shatner), the first two seasons of Shatner’s captain were stalwart. Kirk was a man driven by his responsibilities, sometimes overwhelmed by them, but never less than gallant and respectful. Pine’s young Kirk was none of those things, a wise-cracking, sleazy lothario who abused authority and refused to keep anything in his pants.
In the new installment, most of the actors have benefitted from the previous experience. The whole ensemble feels more comfortable in their roles, more connected to each other, yet Pine is still playing Kirk as a particularly shameless frat boy, bedding down twin alien women and disregarding the squares in the Star Fleet hierarchy as he sees fit.
Fortunately, Abrams downplays Kirk’s involvement in the film’s thrill-rush climax, giving Spock the lion’s share of the most pivotal action scenes. By the end, it would appear as if Kirk has finally learned a thing or two about commanding a starship (his earlier boast to a higher-up that he’s “never lost” a crewmember despite his freelancing, shall we say, goes by the wayside), so we can only hope by the next inevitable sequel we get less of this preening, petulant captain and more of a true and reasoned leader of men.
‘Coming of age’ doesn’t just mean sexual awakening, it also has to do with the moment you realize all the ways in which adults can make horrific choices and pay for them for the rest of their lives.
In Jeff Nichols’ Arkansas Delta drama, our protagonist, Ellis (Tye Sheridan), is a 14-year-old boy with all the playfulness of a lifer in a penal colony. His youthful joy has been driven out of him by his hard-charging father (Ray McKinnon), a fisherman living on the river, who puts an enormous emphasis on the work they do together, selling his catch door-to-door in a nearby small town. Together with his faltering mother (Sarah Paulson), Ellis spends his brief pockets of free time with his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), lazing around the river and looking for any kind of adventures to call their own.
On one remote island, they find a large boat trapped up in the forest canopy — a holdover from a recent flood, they believe — and, more amazingly, a man living out of it. Sun-baked, greasy-haired and abundantly tattooed, Mud (Matthew McConaughey) comes to them a bit like a specter; suddenly appearing on the beach and fishing right next to their boat.
Mud is there under mysterious circumstances — we find out later, those involve his obsession with his childhood love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) — and most likely wanted by the cops for a murder rap. But he’s outwardly friendly and charming (“What d’ya say, boys?”), and something in his solemnity and protective reverence for Juniper strikes a chord in Ellis, who is in the process of trying to secure a girlfriend even as his parents’ marriage is crumbling all around him.
Things ratchet up, story-wise, from there, with Mud’s desire to “save” Juniper running directly against the desire of a man named King (Joe Don Baker), a twisted bail bondsman whose son Mud killed trying to defend Juniper. King has put together a squad of bounty hunters, intent on finding Mud and making him pay dearly for his trespass.
The story picks bits and pieces from an assortment of high school required reading texts: Echoes from both “Huckleberry Finn” and “Great Expectations” abound, but, like Stephen King’s novella “The Body” (the basis for “Stand By Me”), it is most effective as a kind of adolescent trap door. Nichols’ presents Ellis as a young, pragmatic kid whose fledgling steps into adulthood are plagued by their unusually high stakes. He wants to protect his mother from his father’s rages, but wants to protect his father from losing his ancestral house on the river if his mother leaves them. He wants to cultivate his own romantic interest, but the older girl he’s interested in (Bonnie Sturdivant), considers him thoroughly expendable around her friends. Finally, he sees a kind of honorable chivalry in Mud’s quest for Juniper and risks everything to help him, only to find Mud’s story is a great deal more complicated — and compromised — than what he was lead to initially believe. All he wants is to do things the right and noble way, but the world around him simply won’t let him. Absolutely no one is available to take him up on the offer.
Nichols, an Arkansas native, has a great feel for the land, and many of the remote people who populate it. Physical details are significant to him, from the old, rusty pistols mounted up in Ellis’ room near the opening credits, to his father’s busted-up sense of honor. Atmospherically, it works well, even as the story becomes increasingly spun-up. The ending, which culminates in a single night of violence and reprisals, might seem more than a tad pat, but it’s saved largely by its anchor in its characters’ plight. Ellis’ journey isn’t complete — in fact its really just starting — but he’s gotten more than a head start into the complexity and contradiction of the adult human condition.
It seems as if no filmmaker in history has spent more time in the woods than Terrence Malick. His films evoke the crosscurrent of nature and its interaction with mankind with an almost singular zeal. He is known for his terse, lyric storytelling — his last film Tree of Life was a near-masterpiece of small subtleties, epic sprawl and a cinematic vivaciousness that left the viewer completely enthralled and curious (or, conversely, totally disengaged and bored to tears, but that’s another story).
His enigmatic new film — a sort of rumination on love and temperance I first viewed at last year’s TIFF — leaves so much else unsaid and out of the frame, as it were, he gives us precious little to draw from other than his unique camera work and the physical beauty of his cast. He wants to tell us the story of a doomed romance with as little cumbersome connective tissue as possible, but like a minimalist architect who finally just does away with walls and a roof altogether, he’s stripped it so far down, he’s almost entirely cut out our interest.
The film begins, we are to believe, at the start of a love affair between the reticent Neil (Ben Affleck, who for all his screen time perhaps says 2 or 3 full sentences the entire film), an American visiting Paris, and a gorgeous Ukrainian woman, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), who has a lovely 10-year-old daughter named Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). The couple cavort in fields, dance in the streets, playfully wrestle in the sand of a French beach, and climb up the steps of an old, medieval castle in Mont Saint-Michel to look out over the land and deeply into each other’s eyes. In soft VO (another device Malick used to good effect in his previous film), we hear Marina’s voice questioning the power and sustain of their love, even as they live the life of a couple in a particularly high-end fragrance commercial.
Soon enough, they’ve moved to the States, into a hideous ranch house in an Oklahoma subdivision, and, unsurprisingly, the couple is having trouble. We know this because we see snippets of anger and fury between them, see the cold way they interact, and before long, Marina’s visa is over and she returns to Paris with her daughter.
Meanwhile, Neil meets Jane (Rachel McAdams), a beautiful rancher, and embarks on a carbon copy affair — substituting the dreary flat fields of the U.S. plains for the French countryside — with the exact same recriminating result. At this point, Marina, deciding at last that there’s nothing for her in Paris (!), gets married to Neil back in the States and predictably encounters many of the same issues as before.
As a sort of storytelling subplot, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a Catholic priest living in town, experiences the exquisite suffering of his faith, helping people in need while he himself begins the question the existence of his creator.
Just what all this means is readily open to interpretation, but what it matters to the viewer is decidedly less certain. Malick’s style, honed down to its substantial essence in Life, is to offer small pieces of scenes strung together with faint snatches of dialogue, leaving it up to us to fill in all the missing information. It’s an informal, non-linear style that emphasizes the interior nature of our consciousness at the almost total expense of story.
When it works, it operates under our direct gaze, opening portals in our subconscious that drive into the very basics of how we internalize sensation and emotion. Life was as moving and powerful as it was because it incorporated this technique with a child’s POV, interpreting everything through a young mind not yet able to decipher any of the codes and morays between their parents and the world around them.
When it doesn’t, such as here, the effect is laborious, pretentious and, it must be said, melodramatically skimming along the surface of its characters — precisely the opposite of Malick’s intentions. If Tree of Life was a wonder of compression of time and form, a lifespan that told the movie and a whole new way which enthralled some and left others either completely grasping at straws or shuddering and frustration, this is almost precisely the converse. It’s almost as if Malik is attempting to answer the critics that claimed his previous masterwork was pointless and confusing: If you didn’t like that one, he’s saying, try this on for size.
At this point, Tom Cruise has appeared in so many sci-fi movies in his career, it’s starting to feel as if he really is from the future. An impending time where honorable, hard-fighting men get spunky haircuts and spend the vast majority of their time in extreme close-up, grappling with futuristic gizmos and laser blasters and driving expensive looking multiwheeled vehicles.
This happy exchange occurred over the last couple of weeks with the editor of a site I was inquiring about. All names, save my own, have been redacted. Consider all typos properly sic’ed.
On Feb 20, 2013, at 6:13 PM, XXXX @ XXXXXXXXX wrote:
I am an editor from XXXXXXXX.
If you are still wanting to write for our site this is how things usually go:
There is a 3-4 week Trail Run where you would be sending me reviews, and I’d post them up on XXXXXX for you.
We ask that you send us links to any personal blog, or pages you’d like us to promote for you!!
If we think you are a good fit, and hire you on with us, you’ll get your own account and also $XX for every 300words you write for us.
I know that probably seems extremely small to someone with as many accomplishments as you, I wish I could offer more
but we are a small site! I am hoping to be able to give everyone raises soon.
Okay! The only thing I will ask you to refrain from writing about is something you hate entirely. I am trying to keep XXXXXXX on a positive note.
Now, I know that most movies you are never going to love from beginning to end, and of course you can touch on the parts you disliked, opinion is key on a blogging site.
I just will not post a review full of hate. It drives me crazy.
On that note, go crazy! Email me whenever you are done, with whatever you want me to put up!
**Make sure you put your name, and any social media links about yourself that you’d like to me to promote(twitter, facebook, personal blog)!!**
Thank you for considering.
On 2013-03-27, at 8:53 AM, Marchant Piers wrote:
Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. Can you send me an example of a “review full of hate” so I know what it is you are specifically referring to?
Rather than the small payments, that’s the part of your letter that made me most nervous. I certainly don’t go into a film expecting to despise it, but some films are absolutely hateful, and I would not like to be in a position where I have to soft-pedal my feelings because of your site’s positive mandate. That feels restrictive and wrong-minded to me.
On Apr 13, 2013, at 11:07 AM, “XXXX @ XXXXXXX” wrote:
Then we will not be working together!
There are plenty of hate filled review sites you can go apply too! :)
On another note, if you don’t like a movie it’s your opinion! You have no real experiences or qualifications in the movie industry…you have no idea what it takes to make a movie! The review industry is already saturated with a bunch of angry people tearing apart GOOD movies because they don’t understand it or they just didn’t like it.
It’s not wrong to try and make a site filled with positive reviews for people looking to hear positive things about upcoming movies and reviews.
Your response has done nothing but show me that your an ass, who’s actually looking to write mean things because NONE of my other writers have had problems keeping it positive, and they also knew what I meant!
You need an example?? Of a review that’s not filled with hate? That tells me you are not a writer.
Have a nice day.
Sent from my iPhone
On Apr 13, 2013, at 11:11 AM, Piers Marchant wrote:
Ironically, your response was somewhat less than positive.
Best of luck!
•sent via iPhone•
Evidently, XXXX likes to keep her considerable stored vitriol exclusively for non-writer asses who dare question her mandates. Lesson learned.
As odious as the concept might be to film purists, it’s very difficult not to compare Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film to his previous monster masterwork, Jaws, from 1975. Difficult because Spielberg himself keeps relentlessly self-referencing his early masterpiece of tension and horror in an attempt to give this particular bubble-gum version a bit more bite. From key conception (withholding the big monster reveal until about a third of the way in the film) to scene-by-scene stealing, Spielberg wants us to recognize that he is very aware of the similar ground he’s covering with this picture.
The main difference is Jaws was a film for adults, made with little idea of the kind of impact it might have culturally and financially upon its release. Jurassic Park, meanwhile, is a far more conniving enterprise, a film for teens and pre-teens with more than half an eye on its enormous marketing potential (not for nothing is the logo for the island displayed throughout the film).
At the time of Jaws, Spielberg was a callow 28-year-old shooting his first major feature under incredibly trying circumstances (the various mechanical sharks they rigged for the film simply would not function properly which caused innumerable delays and ramping up the already considerable pressure on the young filmmaker by the minute). The fact that the film was made at all was something of a miracle, and the resultant megawatt impact of the movie — the original summer blockbuster — took nearly everyone by surprise.
By the time he made Jurassic Park 18 years later however, Spielberg had long since established his filmmaking brand and proven his phenomenal commercial bankability time and again. By 1993, there simply wasn’t a question of this dinosaur film’s popularity and merchandising possibility, it was a fait accompli, understood by all to be an utterly risk-free excuse to print money throughout its release. Made for $63 million, it grossed over $350 million domestically alone, to say nothing of the substantial merchandising income.
As a result, whereas Jaws felt surprising and risk-taking, Jurassic Park, for all its supposed attention to nature’s laws and lip service to chaos theory, feels anything but. In keeping with its track record, Universal’s decision to greenlight several horrific sequels, and now re-releasing the film with retrofitted 3D, is entirely in keeping with the cash cow legacy of the enterprise.
Viewing it again, 20 years after its first release, several points come to light.
1. The technology the film uses — primitive CGI — is still effective, even though the specific imagery is not much up to a modern standard. Spielberg, for all his bluster and schlock, is still, at heart, a hell of a filmmaker, and understood precisely how much computer imagery he could get away with and how much they still needed to use animatronic models to make the film feel ‘real.’ True, the mainframes Samuel L. Jackson and Wayne Knight use in the film could probably be outclassed by a single iPhone (and the 3D-style graphics the mainframe emulates are painfully slow) but there isn’t a single Loaf-of-Bread-Sized Cellphone Moment to make you outright chortle.
2. Despite Spielberg and screenwriters David Koepp and Michael Chrichton (working from the latter’s novel) giving Jeff Goldblum’s chaos-theory-mouthpiece Dr. Malcolm a speech about how John Hammond (played with gusto by Sir Richard Attenborough) and his park have overplayed their hand and merchandised something that should have been afforded respect (“You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now … you wanna sell it”), Spielberg and his team attempt to have it both ways — decrying the process that Hammond has attempted while still marketing the living hell out of the film they’ve made about that process. They even slip in a scene late in the film where a couple of the human characters attempt to elude a pack of Velociraptors by sneaking through the museum gift shop and scuttling right past those very same lunchboxes and t-shirts that Dr. Malcolm was complaining about that were, in fact, actually available on store shelves in time for the film’s release.
3. Once the ride begins, and quickly falls into bloody chaos, the film more or less just keeps pounding at you. No rain storm is too small, no piece of seemingly extraneous information about dinosaurs goes unused, and no wrecked car hanging down from a tree will stay in place terribly long before it comes crashing down, branch-by-branch towards our protagonists. In this way, Spielberg employs the tried-and-true methodology he perfected in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, throwing as many things at the audience as he can in order for them not to notice terribly much the shabbiness of the script and the almost complete lack of characterization. Instead, we get storms, and mud and dinosaurs and electric fences and a velociraptor jumping up at us through a drop-down ceiling (still one of the more effective scares in the film). There’s a reason Jeff Goldblum was cast, I suspect, because he can smirk and snigger and chew up scenery with almost nothing to work with, which is largely what they’ve given him. The film is really just a series of set pieces hung together with a forgettable John Williams soundtrack.
For all its considerable faults and jaded cynicism, Spielberg has still given us a couple of truly memorable scenes. The initial onset of the T-rex remains a textbook example of building visual tension in a comic book vacuum, most notably, even if the overall effect of the movie makes you feel as used and cheapened as a bland amusement park ride. It’s depressing that the same director who gave us the brilliant and indelible SS Indianapolis scene less than 20 years before came back to hock this collection of tacky wares, but I suppose a guy’s gotta eat — really, really well.
Filmgoers lucky enough to have seen the brilliant 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days might well have wondered about the film’s out-of-nowhere wunderkind Romanian writer/director Cristian Mungiu, and just how this man had come to make such a masterpiece with his first feature. They might also have wondered if Mungiu would be the kind of one-hit wonder that litter the cinematic landscape, or if they were witnessing the beginning of a dazzling new auteur.
Now, with the release of his second full-length feature, we can safely say it’s the latter. Many of the same sorts of elements that made his debut so striking are back in play: the long, seemingly languid scenes, impeccable composition, extraordinary performances from his actors and indelible emotional confrontations.
Also like his first film, the central relationship is between two dearly devoted female friends. Alina (Cristina Flutur) has just arrived back in Romania from Germany in order to reunite with Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), who has joined a simple Orthodox convent on the outskirts of a small city, a series of farmhouses without running water or electricity. The two women met as very young children marooned in an orphanage together and, we are too infer, were lovers. Alina has come back in order to take Voichita and head away together as might have been their shared plan some years ago, but Voichita, now finding peace and solace at the convent, is reluctant to leave, and has transferred her more physical love for Alina into a sort of deep maternal care.
Rough, anti-social and deeply resentful of the way the convent has changed her friend, Alina violently strikes out against the priest (Valeriu Andriuta) and the other nuns with such fury, they fear she is inhabited by demons, which they eventually try to exorcise out of her with utterly damning results.
As careful and scrupulous as he is as a visual filmmaker, Mungiu is equally adroit with his screenplay. The film could have played as an anti-religious screed, yet another maverick running afoul of an all-powerful institution, Cool Hand Luke set in an Eastern European convent rather than a Florida prison, but Mungiu has a much different and more nuanced vision. He avoids that kind of big picture Hollywood deckstacking, and instead presents a much more complex and realistic story, in which everyone is slightly to blame and no one emerges with much solace.
For one thing, Alina, strong-willed and fierce as she is, is certainly no traditional heroine, not someone an audience can exactly root for. She’s there to steal away her lover by any means necessary, even over her lover’s own, perfectly legitimate, objections. Blunt, dull and myopic, it’s clear that all Alina has in her life is her relationship with Voichita, but that is at least somewhat by choice. As much love and encouragement as she receives at the convent and by her friend’s tender hand, she repels them entirely, and goes on fits of rampage, striking out against them, setting fires, deliberately undermining the basic tenets of their faith, in an effort to renounce the change in Voichita, who has found a place of meaning and hopefulness in her faith.
In other words, she’s deliberately hateful, even to her friend, cut off from any other emotion other than rage and obsessive desire. Voichita, for all her tender love and support of her troubled friend, never acknowledges the simple truth of their former relationship with any of her fellow nuns or the priest, who becomes increasingly embroiled in Alina’s psychic distress. Shamefully, she keeps that secret, even as it might have explained a great deal to the bewildered community of the convent.
And the simple faith behind the church itself, its blind devotion to ancient scriptures and practices, is also very much in Mungiu’s crosshairs. The sense of security and bliss the women feel based not so much on a widening of their emotional sensibilities but a closing down around them, blinding them to the ways of the world around them (at various points, Alina rails against Voichita to “talk normally” and not as some blissed out cult member).
Mungiu’s delicate virtuosity is best summed up in the seemingly simple way he shows us the inner workings of his characters’ psyches. Time and again, he uses long, unadorned long shots of people sitting around a dinner table, conversations swirling around, and keeps his cameras focused not on what anyone is saying, but on the faces of his protagonists, their every twitch and turn offering a direct connection to their state of mind. His is a subtle, richly rewarding aesthetic that yields a phenomenal amount of emotion and pain with the most understated and subtle of touches.
If movies about music and musicians can be said to have one particular recurring trope, it’s that they far too often require the soundtrack to power them through every obstacle in the film’s path. We get it, music can solve almost any ills (especially if it comes from the heart!), but in the meantime, it’s like the films themselves rely on the music cover up any gaping deficiencies elsewhere.
Wayne Blair’s film, based on a true story, about three young Aborigine sisters and their cousin forming a girl band and touring Viet Nam at the height of both the war and the civil rights movement in the late ’60s, throws a veritable kitchen sink of issues at their heroines — prejudice, sexism, war, poverty, social injustice and, naturally, love — but good soul tunes, and their fine singing voices, carry them through with nary a scratch.
The young women — Gail (Deborah Mailman), the eldest and least-talented musically, but the glue that holds them all together; Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), the “sexy” one, who wants very much to get in trouble with boys; Julie (Jessica Mauboy), the most talented singer, but also the most petulant; and Kay (Shari Sebbens), the girls’ fair-skinned cousin, who was snatched off their reservation and “given” to some white parents in Melbourne — first meet up with Dave (Chris O’Dowd), a sloppy drunk working half-assed musician jobs, at a shady talent contest in the nearest town to the girls’ reservation. They lose the contest — we are to understand the prejudice in Australia at the time was still rampant — but get the idea that they could form a group together under Dave’s management and tour Viet Nam to entertain the U.S. troops stationed there.
One problem: The girls, whose musical aptitude comes from their doting mother, only know country songs. Dave correctly surmises that soul is the way to go for this particular gig and commences teaching them the basics of the genre. Before long, of course, the women, now dubbed The Sapphires, tighten up their game and take Indochina by storm.
Technically, plenty of other things happen at this point, as the women and their backing band embark on a whirlwind tour of the war-torn region, but nothing terribly much leaves a bruise. Friendships are re-kindled, sisterhood proves indefatigable and love begins to blossom between two unlikely sources (though you will likely see it coming a mile away).
It can be said the film is big hearted, and treats its characters with respect bordering on reverence (for good reason: It turns out co-writer Tony Briggs is the son of one of the original women), but it can also be said everything feels lost in service to the soundtrack, which is chock filled with such film-friendly standards as “I Heard it through the Grapevine,” “What a Man,” and “I’ll Take You There,” and unlike Les Miz, it is very easy to tell none of the music is sung live, and only one of the actresses (Jessica Mauboy, who does have impressive pipes) are actually singing the tunes themselves. What we have here, then, is a kind of Dreamgirls meets The Commitments, with the soundtrack asked to do much of the film’s emotional heavy lifting.
At one point, Dave makes a point to the girls about the difference between country and soul. Both genres are about loss, but country songs, he explains, people get their hearts broken and “they’ve given up” and are just “whining about it.” In soul, even if they get their hearts broken, they still are holding onto hope that they can make things right again. They don’t cave in, in other words, they fight for their love and happiness, even in the face of total failure.
The movie itself, by contrast, can be said to be light and sort of bouncy, the kind of thing you’ll doubtless see on standard cable channels for years to come (it comes as absolutely no surprise that this film is adapted from the stage show of the same name). There’s no dishonor in that, exactly, but one wishes it had dabbled a bit more in the darker side of soul music, a bit more shake, rattle and roll, then so meekly settling for a steady diet of sugar pie and honey bunch.