Capricorn One (Hyams, 1977)

capricorn_one

Toss an arm-load of rotten eggs into a crowded street and chances are five out of every ten’ll hit a conspiracy theorist convinced we never went to the moon at all. I’m still not convinced about that. What I do know is that O.J. Simpson nearly made it to Mars. Yes, nearly. That is, until powerful men from On High decided to shut an almighty trapdoor on his face with compatriots Sam Waterston and James Brolin buried deep in the hole with him.

Back in 1978 these great actors – well, two great actors and O.J. – were venerated astronauts, but their long-awaited mission to Mars became an expenditure the American government could no longer justify to itself. Of course, that didn’t stop them orchestrating an elaborate pantomime to appease the flag-waving multitudes, and running with it to the bitter end.

They hijacked the three patriots – perplexed but unafraid at first – from the Capricorn One, secreted them in an old military warehouse for months on end and let the American public believe in the ‘reality’ of unexplored outer limits of space being breeched by mankind for the very first time.

A kindly doctor is charged with explaining the situation to our three heroes and he bemoans the quirks of fate in an eloquent manner, levering his argument with that old standby: this is for the Greater Good of the world’s greatest nation.

Quite a production this would be, sealing a trio of men in the tomb of a makeshift set made up of tinfoil crafts and red sand. They denied them access to the outside world naturally – even their blissfully unaware families who would wait, biting their trembling nails, for every minute detail of the flight to be relayed back to them.

Then something horrible happens: many months into this elaborate hoax, this simulation that even NASA officials believe to be real, a heat shield separates aboard the imaginary shuttle. Normally this would mean death for its occupants. Suddenly three astronauts sequestered in the desert are having their corpses described to the rest of the world via news reports.

Yes – it’s time to run! And they do, though not getting very far at first in a plane with mere droplets of fuel in its tank. So into the desert they race on foot, spreading out on different routes to avoid a mass capture. Will they be eliminated one by one? Or can at least one of them reach even a tiny, forlorn pocket of civilisation so that the biggest conspiracy in history can be blown wide open?

Director Peter Hyams either had a very vivid imagination or he knew something the rest of the world could only conceive of in their most outlandish, probably drunken, speculations. But Capricorn One, like his later, equally entertaining films Outland (1981) and The Star Chamber (1983), is slick, superior entertainment with a smart screenplay that defies the illogicality of its set-up to become something entirely plausible.

His casting is crucial to the film’s effectiveness, with Sam Waterston and James Brolin providing real authority. True, it’s hard to hold your own against the method stylings of O.J. and that dazzling array of empty, inscrutable glares he can seemingly conjure at will, but somehow they pull it off.

A fine – and for once, tempered – Elliot Gould plays reporter Robert Caulfield who becomes drawn into the conspiracy when his lowly NASA console-operating friend Elliott Whitter (Robert Walden) gets wind of processes at work on the ‘flight’ that don’t quite compute. When his nosy queries become a little too irksome to Dr. Kelloway (a brilliant Hal Holbrook), he’s made to disappear like smoke as if he never existed. An effective form of elimination unless the apparent illusionist’s most trusted confidante is a nosy journalist. Even Telly Savalas turns up in an inspired and hilarious small role late in the game as an abrasive crop-dusting pilot.

Exceptional widescreen cinematography from Bill Butler, who was fresh off Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) at the time, and a punchy, militaristic score from the greatest film composer in history, the legendary Jerry Goldsmith, complete the package. Though spread over two hours, Capricorn One still feels remarkably tight, assiduously cutting back and forth from the plight of the astronauts to the strained efforts of the elite few attempting to uphold the monstrous façade at whatever the cost. This remains fantastic B-grade fare from a decade that rarely disappoints.

Advertisements

Shame (Bergman, 1968)

skammen_68_d

Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 masterpiece is one of his finest achievements, probing the caustic, calcifying shame of war and, as if with a blunt instrument, the forces that irreversibly alter our moral perspective and the wavering identity of our own humanity.

On a small, remote island two former concert violinists, Jan (Max von Sydow) and Eva (Liv Ullmann) live in the lengthening shadow of a civil war that rages on across the waters. They exist simply, tending to their small farm, struggling desperately to make ends meet whilst combating tedium. Though they love one another, offhand, antagonistic remarks may be evidence of tiny fissures opening up in their relationship. In Jan, Eva perceives weakness and resistance to fully grasp the enormity of their situation. He would rather retreat and take solace in headaches that seem manufactured to divert attention from his more glaring masculine shortcomings.

The opening half hour is a mundane examination of the couple’s uneventful routine, which includes sojourns to the mainland to sell their modest range of crops. All this is meticulously established, belying the confusion to follow. When trouble arrives it seizes them with fear and uncertainty, upending the secluded domesticity that has cocooned them until now. Fighter planes roar by, explosions sound in the distance, coming ever closer, and Bergman devises a set-piece to rip these people from their stasis, tossing them into an open cauldron where morality becomes blurred and destruction reigns.

There are no cultural or political indicators or side-taking in Bergman’s screenplay; his focus remains universal, intent on exposing the human experience to its instinctive core, throwing ordinary people against an allusive brick wall to see how they cope on a deeper, psychological level.

Shot with typically invasive depths of perception by Bergman’s legendary collaborator and friend, Sven Nykvist, the film burns with the intensity of gripping, realistic sequences that chart the tumultuous first invasion of the island and later, the demoralising turn of events that has far more frightening implications. As with all Bergman films there are a host of indelible images that linger in the mind like banshee howls of agony, and Shame is no exception.

You simply can’t put a value on the contributions Ullmann has brought to Bergman’s body of work. Every performance of hers is textbook perfect and yet informed by a technique that contains little you could ever learn from an acting classroom. Her ethereal beauty is only part of the mystique that surrounds her like an aura. Her haunted, extraordinarily expressive face stunningly encapsulates the horror, fear, joy, and physical surrender of every scenario Bergman sets before her on a page. She may well be the greatest actress of any era, pointed moments of close-up all too often revealing her mesmerising power and the camera’s love for her, whether in silent contemplation or bringing one of Bergman’s brilliant monologues to life.

It must be said that von Sydow is just as sublime, integrating the descent of man into his nuanced portrayal of the traumatised Jan, a man pushed to the point of madness by a mass of complex, seething emotional responses: greed, jealousy, bitterness. Bergman’s vision of disintegrating minds is characteristically dark and uncompromising. The disquieting final section of Shame offers little in the way of hope or relief, enwrapping a few desperate survivors in the muted, wasted shells of their bodies, drifting to nowhere on a sea that is dead in both a literal and metaphorical sense.

Only God Forgives (Refn, 2013)

only_god_forgives_ver6

With the cool quotient amped up to mega-freeze, Ryan Gosling’s performance in Nicolas Winding Refn’s second most recent film establishes a new frontier for minimalist acting. It’s as though the pair have re-imagined ‘Driver’ from their previous collaboration before bleeding every last vestige of emotion from him – emotion he didn’t exactly possess in spades in the first instance. The result is a vacuous, unctuous portrait of violence and revenge, lacking not in cinematic power but in subtext and delicacy.

Only God Forgives is, predictably, stunning to behold: every frame bears the mark of Refn’s extraordinary gift for stylisation for its own sake, fetishistically inflicting striking reds into intricate, painstakingly arrayed set-ups. It’s a shame then that such remarkable care in sculpting scenes with vivid gradations of light and colour is squandered on a transparently empty narrative that barely registers. Gosling’s Julian is a mamma’s boy, held fast in a rigid psychological grasp by the poisonous Crystal, (Kristin Scott Thomas). When she decrees revenge for the killing of her other son, a conscienceless murderer in his last moments as well, Julian becomes her pawn.

But revenge takes a while and Julian’s nemesis-to-be, absurdly corrupt and murderous Thai policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), has a few bodies to sadistically add to the pile as well. This slow motion dance of death will have its inevitable denouement to be sure, and whilst the vacancy that fills out Refn’s lacklustre narrative ultimately sinks it, there’s a trail of memorably staged scenes to admire along the way.

Cliff Martinez, seemingly often channelling Vangelis through a retro synth sound, produces a savage musical beast in accompaniment. His score, more often than not pushed to the foreground by Refn for maximum impact, gives the unfolding drama its contrived sense of horror. It’s one of his finest scores, though its life beyond the film may be limited.

Is Gosling even acting here? If so, he’s establishing new borders for what the term encompasses; his lone, abstract expression, monotonously worn, has revealed suggestive subliminal powers in the past – in Drive (2011) of course, and even recently in The Place Beyond the Pines (2013). Here, it becomes a wearying device employed by Refn to deflect any definable human cognisance of what’s to come. These are not to be taken seriously as humans anyway; Julian and Chang are just near-statues being robotically manoeuvred into place for the inevitable final confrontation.

Only God Forgives (2013) is a disappointing step backward for the prodigiously talented Refn; his screenplay is absolutely the worst of his career. Yet, his garish, deliberately provocative intermingling of violence, colour and aesthetic perfectionism still guarantees a feast for the senses, if not the intellect.

Up the Yangtze (Chang, 2007)

uptheyangtze

Yung Chang’s brilliant new documentary feature is a very difficult one to watch as it heartbreakingly charts the human cost of China’s relentless stampede towards further progress. With great effect he illustrates the perverse ironic extremes, taking us inside the luxurious cruise ships on their ‘farewell’ tours of the Yangtze – mostly obnoxious American tourists inside – whilst China’s own people live in the most unimaginable poverty on the river’s banks, slowly being swallowed by the rising water as the Three Gorges Dam project reaches its inevitable conclusion.

Yung, a Canadian of Chinese ancestry, concentrates on two young people from different backgrounds who seek work on the cruise ship – Bo Yu Chen (“Jerry”), an arrogant young man from a reasonably well-off family who can sing and charm with his good looks but see only dollar signs in the offering with this new job.

Then there’s Shui Yu (“Cindy”), whose family the film concentrates on the most; her parents are poor beyond any concept of the term we can possibly imagine in Australia, with no education or money to assist their three children, barely able to survive on rice and noodles as they live in a horrible rundown shack on the Yangtze’s banks, already having moved once to avoid the rising tide and soon needing to move again.

We watch Shui and Bo Yu’s journey aboard the ship, learning to fit in with the crew as they try to become the perfect employees, increasing their English skills and winning over the respect and tips of the carefree tourists. And yet despite the overwhelming circumstances destroying their lives, Shui’s father elects to ‘see’ the benefits of the Dam in terms of strengthening China even further. Even more amazing is how this family of five remains a loving family unit, unified by the pain of their lives under these desperate conditions – parents who love, in their primitive way, and dare to hope for a better life for their children.

Chang’s film is a powerful document of this country’s changing face, and a potent illustration of the immense gulf that exists between rich and poor, and between perception and understanding.

How can you not be moved when you see Shui’s father walking his meager, falling-to-pieces wardrobe up a steep hill on his back or see the looks of derision and pity on the faces of wealthier Chinese passersby as they watch these impoverished people wheeling their forlorn possessions up a mountainside to escape the voracious waters that are coming for them with all the force of the hand of God Itself.

There are so many other powerful images too – the tears in Shui’s eyes as her parents, in their dirty clothes, are given a tour of the cruise ship, which must surely seem like a spaceship to them; a series of shots in time lapse showing the extent of the river’s progress, Shui’s family ‘home’ soon absorbed by the mighty river, and then forgotten, whilst the cruise ship powers by, catering to the oblivious and wealthy, not a second wasted on the world being laid to waste around them.

Aided by a haunting score by Olivier Alary, which chimes in like a beautiful but sad lament to these forgotten people, Up the Yangtze lingers in the mind like the memory of a wound that refuses to heal; it’s an important documentary and one which should be seen by all.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Ramsey, 2011)

kevf7q8vd3p

 

From its chillingly abstract opening half hour to its more mundane dissection of an unnatural, antagonistic mother and child relationship, Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) retains a power to disturb in the way it neatly interweaves the evolvement of evil against the backdrop of normality it seeks to poison.

The film opens elliptically like the placement of puzzle pieces – from different strands of time – artfully arranged into a mosaic of raw emotional extremes. Though jumbled, overlapping and chaotic, a series of disturbing impressions emerge. From the haunted, detached stares of Eva (Tilda Swinton) we see a woman and mother grasping for sanity amid turmoil that is portentously hinted at but never fully disclosed. The most distressing revelations are reserved for the final segment of the film when the psychological war between Eva and her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) culminates with a truly noxious and personal statement from the boy to his mother.

Though I’m not a fan of her earlier work (in fact, 2002’s Morvern Callar is a film I hated with a passion), I wholeheartedly acknowledge that Ramsay’s direction here is stunning. Idiosyncratic and impressionistic, her approach often bears a strong whiff of Nicolas Roeg about it. The way she manipulates time, colour, and perception is masterful in the way of Don’t Look Now (1973) for example, providing a structural narrative power that only refracted cognitive stirrings as subjective as these can provide.

As ever the incomparable Swinton’s stark, non-classical looks provide the basis for a flawless, relentlessly magnified portrayal of deep-rooted emotional truth. She has few peers in modern cinema with her Eva standing alongside other recent, equally compelling characterisations in Young Adam (2003), Julia (2008), and I Am Love (2009). In the key role of the Kevin as a teenager, Miller, who has grown impressively into his frame since City Island (2009), is also impressive, though perhaps fractionally too one-dimensional.

The film is not without flaws. John C. Reilly is miscast, though not detrimentally, as Eva’s blissfully ignorant husband, whilst the credibility of Kevin’s rendering is infinitesimally offset when unnecessarily allowing the boy’s behaviour to become more overt and uncomfortable to watch. Two scenes immediately come to mind here: his ludicrous devouring of a chicken just after his mother tentatively offers to take him out for dinner, and the abnormally intense scrutiny of Kevin devouring a lychee immediately following a scene in which he’s caused the loss of his young sister’s eye.

A very different experience from Lionel Shriver’s source novel (which is told via lengthy letters written by Eva), Ramsay’s film is a strikingly different but equally brilliant work in which the switch of medium has rendered the ability to faithfully translate prose utterly negligible. Though the director’s stylistic approach will alienate some (with the unsubtle sprinkling of the colour red as an all too defining motif perhaps seen as further overkill), We Need to Talk About Kevin offers a striking, often shocking depiction of a profound maternal pain that will leave you reeling but desperate to experience the perverse brilliance of it all over again.

The Paperboy (Daniels, 2012)

ThePaperBoy_24x40.indd

What a wonderfully lurid, sleazy, twisted southern jewel this 2012 film from Lee Daniels is. Replete with off-beat characterisations, pointless diversions, and a swampy, murderous atmosphere, this is certainly a film that defiantly marches to its own beat. Does it have mass appeal? Not on your life. Is it packed with unsavoury elements sure to repel certain audiences? Yes, yes, yes!

In the 1960’s a lawyer, Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), returns to his small Southern home town to investigate the case of a man, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), he believes has been wrongfully arrested for murder. Aided by his Miami co-worker, British writer Yardley (David Oyelowo), naïve younger brother Jack (Zack Efron), and the woman, Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who, through letter exchanges with men in prison has finally settled upon Hillary as her perfect man, Ward begins to dig deeper into the case. The whole deliriously colourful episode is viewed as a flashback and narrated by the Jansen family’s all-knowing maid Anita (Macy Gray).

Though the narrative clearly plays second fiddle to the characters that heedlessly drive it along, a rough, raw vitality is what energises Daniels’ left-of-centre vision for adapting Pete Dexter’s novel to the screen. This rawness is also reflected in the often unconventional visual approach which sets a dulled, dirty colour scheme against strangely incongruous perspectives. You could argue the whole project has been haphazardly wrought but the approach feels daringly original in its own crazy way.

There are memorable scenes aplenty, including the notorious but hilarious urination scene involving Charlotte and Jack, and another vividly realised sexual encounter of sorts in the jailhouse. But it’s the work of the performers that will linger longest in memories. For McConaughey this the continuation of a hot streak which peaked again around this time with William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2012). Efron proves he’s capable of striking out successfully against his wholesome image whilst negotiating some tricky scenes with Kidman. Then there’s the startling Cusack who blows perceptions of his once romantic lead status to smithereens.

But it’s Kidman who shines brightest; her daring, luminescent turn is a wonder to behold. Rarely has she been more magnetic on screen, channelling every white trash vixen from a back-catalogue of Jerry Springer specials. Offensive, demented, lazily plotted and overflowing with extraneous lurid asides, The Paperboy (2012), for all its shortcomings, is at least a memorable, deliriously idiosyncratic concoction.

 

Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, 2012)

zero-dark-thirty-poster

 

Zero Dark Thirty is a sleek, well-oiled machine. This follow-up to The Hurt Locker (2009) from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal is a lengthy but compelling portrait of obsession that encapsulates terrifyingly modern definitions of terrorism and controversial means to an end. C.I.A agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), over the course of a decade, is portrayed via a resolute, systematic transformation of will. From naïve but flinty rookie operative – whose early exposure to the extraction of information via torture strengthens a weak stomach – she becomes the kind of lead investigator who will take no prisoners in her quest to see Osama Bin Laden’s influence eliminated.

Directed with the invasive, irresistible proficiency we’ve come to expect from Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is a remarkably immersive film though not without flaws. Taking into consideration the length and detailing in the script, the film does possess a sense of grinding relentlessness. This is partially a reflection of the central character, no doubt, but it does mean dramatic impetus is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of broadening the ‘bigger picture’.

Is Chastain’s work all it’s cracked up to be? It’s a steely, gripping performance, certainly, but somewhat devoid of colour or dimension. The relentless pursuit of the shadowy, messianic spectre of Bin Laden reveals a rare fortitude in Maya as her obsession blooms into an inexorable vendetta. We can certainly appreciate her integrity and passion on this level, but the one-track mode of thought tends to both enhance and detract from the film.

A host of quality support performances contribute to what is a flawless ensemble but Australian Jason Clarke deserves special mention for his work as the agent who becomes a valuable mentor to Maya after he first exposes her to the realities of wartime interrogation – scenes which are handled well and without any of the exploitative edge that the adverse publicity which surrounded the film may lead you to believe is present.

The ubiquitous Alexander Desplat turns in another subtly immersive score that – in the same vein of Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders’s work on The Hurt Locker – provides a dark undercurrent without ever drawing undue attention to itself. Then there’s the cinematography of another talented Australian, Greig Fraser, which contributes heavily to the increasingly palpable sense of naturalism conveyed, especially in the lengthy, tense final sequence as the compound that may house Bin Laden is finally breached.