Pioneer Review: Deep Water, Shallow Story

C+

  • Writtern by Nikolaj Frobenius, Hans Gunnarsson, Cathinka Nicolaysen, Erik Skjoldbjærg, and Kathrine Valen Zeiner
  • Directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg

Early in this Norwegian thriller, two brothers—both highly-skilled deep-sea divers—have a talk. The one who’s a loving husband and father tells his bachelor brother that this will be his last dive; he wants to spend more time with his family. And so the clichés begin.

Set in the early 1980s, Pioneer’s plot wraps around a competition over which country will control a very lucrative oil pipeline in the North Sea. Will it be virtuous Norway, or the evil United States? The movie doesn’t play coy about who it’s rooting for. All of the Americans are crude, violent, and involved in an evil, murderous conspiracy. Many Norwegians are involved in the conspiracy, as well, but at least they feel guilty about it.

image

The surviving brother, Petter (Aksel Hennie, star of wonderful thriller Headhunters), is blamed for the fatal accident. But he knows it’s not his fault. How could it be? He’s the star of the picture!

As Petter begins to look into the matter, people start trying to kill him. He’s even run off the road by one of those evil American divers. Mind you, no one is really taking his claims seriously at this point. Here’s a suggestion for anyone running an evil conspiracy: If someone is publically talking about your murderous work, and everyone else assumes that this person is crazy, his death in a car accident involving one of your employees will do your public image more harm than good.

Call it a thriller by the numbers. The twists and turns of the plot are almost all predictable. Really, did you possibly expect that the friend helping him wouldn’t turn up dead?  What’s more, Petter just isn’t all that interesting a protagonist.

The movie improves considerably in the last act, when the climax I expected didn’t happen. That was nice, but I had to wait for more than an hour to be surprised by a plot turn

Director Erik Skjoldbjaerg and his merry band of four co-writers never bring up the big question: Should this oil be tapped at all? I guess that raising the planet’s temperature and risking disastrous oil spills are acceptable goals if it helps Norway.

Approaching The End: Imagining Apocalypse in American Film

Film noir led to apocalyptic cinema. When human society has no clear moral boundaries, the end of the world is but a plot twist away.

imageAt least that’s the argument that Peter Labuza sets out to prove in his new, very short book, Approaching The End: Imagining Apocalypse in American Film. I can’t say that he really and truly succeeds.

After a first chapter arguing the differences between noir and melodrama, he discusses 10 films in moderate detail, showing their connection both to traditional noir and end-of-world themes. First, he discusses three classics from the golden era of noir that touch on issues of the then new atomic bomb:

  • Kiss Me Deadly
  • The Lady from Shanghai
  • The Big Heat

He follows that by examining three more recent films that display both noir tropes and touch on Christian conceptions of the apocalypse:

  • God Told Me To
  • The Rapture
  • Days of Heaven

Next, Labuza takes on noir-sci-fi crossbreeds that suggest a technological end of days:

  • Strange Days
  • The Terminator
  • They Live

Finally, he covers one film "that deals with a number of apocalyptic narratives through media saturation and the post-9/11 social environment."

  • Southland Tales

I’ve bulleted all of these films for a reason. The more of these films you’ve seen, and the better you know them, the more you’ll enjoy this book. Reading Labuza’s discussion of a film you haven’t seen is a laborious task; you’ll get little out of it except boredom and spoilers.

Things get more interesting (I wouldn’t go so far as to call them entertaining) when he discusses a film you know. Consider Days of Heaven, which I wrote about in 2011. Labuza notes (as I and others have) that the film places a B noir plot into a self-consciously artistic and beautiful mise en scene, and slows it down to an atmospheric pace.

The physical land thus acts as a temporal space of the past, a time of innocence made into a physical space. However, this supposed spatial heaven, which seems like the promise of an afterlife, has been plagued with the same troubles as human society.

image

He also discusses the religious themes promised by the film’s title.

Malick juxtaposes the human conflict with the conflict of nature through biblical, apocalyptic imagery—the swarms of locusts, but especially the repeated depictions of fire. There are fires in the opening shots at the factory; in an early moment of the harvest, as the camera gazes into one of the tractors; in a brief mention by Linda during the voiceover recalling Ding-Dong’s story of an apocalyptic fie; and then, finally, during the fire that destroys the crops.

This book opened my eyes to new ways of interpreting Malick’s film. For instance, I had never caught on to the story’s relationship to the Genesis tale of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt. On the other hand, he failed to convince me that there’s anything apocalyptic about Days of Heaven.

But as you might guess from the above quotes, Labuza writes in the word-heavy, over-intellectualized style of an insecure academic. The whole book reads like a thesis. Even when what he had to say was interesting, his writing style made reading it feel like a chore.

If you’ve seen enough of these films, and you have patience with this type of writing, you might find Approaching the End interesting. You can skip the sections on film you haven’t seen or haven’t seen recently. You might even want to take the time to see them first.

The book’s publisher, The Critical Press, sells its e-books directly, without copy protection. When you buy the book, even without a physical form, you’ve really bought it.

Wild: Hiking, Health, and Heroin

A drama

  • Written by Nick Hornby, from a memoir by Cheryl Strayed
  • Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life, until she walked into the real wild and got herself together. I don’t know or care whether the film is accurate to Strayed’s memoirs or experience. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that it’s a powerful story of loss, love, fear, and personal courage.

Cheryl’s three-month hike along the Pacific Crest Trail makes up the film’s spine. (I’m calling the real person Strayed, and the character in the movie Cheryl.) As played by Reese Witherspoon (who also Executive Produced), Cheryl starts the journey woefully unprepared. She’s packed too much to carry. She bought the wrong stove fuel. Her shoes don’t fit properly.

Of course she learns along the way. Other hikers she meets give her help and advice. She becomes physically stronger. She learns through practice. She occasionally dips back into civilization, and especially enjoys a stop in Ashland, OR.

But the hike is largely pictured as difficult and dangerous. She runs out of water. She gets lost in the snow. More than once, she faces the very real possibility of rape.

The film never fully explains why she went on this arduous journey. But the flashbacks, which take up a good portion of the film’s running time, give us a clue. Unlike the main journey, the flashbacks are not told chronologically.

Many of the flashbacks involve her mother (Laura Dern), a woman who embraces life despite the many nasty turns it has given her. Poor and single, she loves her children deeply, and finds great joy in their company and in life itself. Her death by cancer at much too young an age clearly left a deep mark on Cheryl.

And then there’s the matter of her marriage, which Cheryl destroyed with her drug abuse–including a period of heroin addiction–and her habitual promiscuity. Her ex-husband is still her confidant and best friend. This is very much a young woman who needs to make a big change in her life.

One minor technical complaint: Wild was shot with the Arri Alexa XT, one of the best digital cameras around. For most movies, it’s all you need. But for capturing the beauty of the great outdoors, 35mm film still surpasses the best digital camera–even if the image is screened digitally.

And yet, I can understand the choice to use the Alexa. Much of Wild was shot in difficult locations, and carrying multiple thousand-foot-rolls of 35mm film would have made a difficult shoot much more difficult.

Besides, this film really isn’t about the beauty of the great outdoors. Only once does Cheryl stop to admire the view–and that time, the view includes full frontal male nudity.

Wild concentrates on something more basic than visual beauty. It’s really about the difficulties and dangers of those wild outdoors, and how a challenge can change a person for the better.

Physics Saturday: Interstellar and The Theory of Everything

I saw two very different movies on Saturday, but both were about physics. Well, sort of. Physics and fiction don’t blend together unless you can work in suspense, romance, tragedy, horrible diseases, and special effects.

Although one movie is a big, expensive Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster, and the other a British Indiewood biopic, their titles are almost interchangeable.

C+ Interstellar
Christopher Nolan’s space epic tries hard to be another 2001: A Space Odyssey–plot points, individual shots, and at least one character comes straight from Kubrick’s work. But whereas Kubrick explained very little, Nolan fills his picture with badly-written expository dialog. And despite all that, the movie still confuses audiences. And when it’s not confusing, it’s often dumb.

image

Not that Interstellar is a complete loss. It’s visually stunning, and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available. It’s often exciting and suspenseful. And for most of its runtime, it carries a strong sense of doom for both the main characters and the human race as a whole. It’s set in a near future where the few remaining people are facing eventual starvation (oddly, there’s no violence). NASA sends four humans (you guessed it; two white men, one white woman, and a black man–guess who dies) through a wormhole to find a habitable planet.

image

Despite the holes in the science and the plot, and despite a female astronaut (Anne Hathaway) who behaves in an offensively stereotypically female way, I still found the picture reasonably interesting and enjoyable. That is, until the interminable third act. In the last hour, everything slows down to a crawl, the story and scientific logic collapse into a black hole, and the whole thing makes no sense at all. It’s explained, but the explanation doesn’t hold up.

image

I saw Interstellar in 70mm at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater. I’ll write another post about the presentation.

B+ The Theory of Everything
No one in this Stephen Hawking biopic blasts into space and dives into a wormhole, but the theories that suggest such things are possible play an important supporting role. Far more important roles are played by love, romance, and disabilities.

The film concentrates on Hawking’s first marriage, to Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). She proposes to Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) soon after he’s diagnosed with motor neuron disease, with doctors giving him about two years to live. They broke up 25 years later, and he’s still working 24 years after that.

image

Like so many British pictures, Theory provides a showcase for great acting. Jones plays Jane from a young college girl to a middle-aged mother, still in love with her husband but frustrated with the responsibilities thrust upon her as her husband deteriorates. Other respected talents in the cast include David Thewlis and Emily Watson.

But Redmayne has the big, showy role, and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t walk away with an Oscar next year. His Hawking doesn’t just age over the movie, he deteriorates. At first he’s just clumsy. Then his hands and feet don’t quite work properly. Slowly he becomes the Hawking we know, crumpled in his wheelchair, using a mouse-like device in his one good hand to communicate to the world via an electronic voice. Redmayne catches not only Hawking’s brilliance and his disability, but also his impish humor. I’m not quite ready to say this is the best performance of the year, but it’s certainly the most noticeable.

The Theory of Everything pushes no cinematic boundaries. If you’ve ever seen a 21st century British film set in the 20th century, you know exactly what you’re going to get. But that doesn’t make a bad film. In fact, it’s a very good one. It’s just not exceptional.

Birdman, Dear White People, & Citizenfour–new movies I’ve seen recently

Here are three new films I caught in theaters recently.

A- Birdman
image
Michael Keaton plays a has-been movie star hoping to gain artistic respectability by writing, directing, and performing in a Broadway play. But as he goes through rehearsals and previews, everything seems to be spinning out of control. What’s more, he either has supernatural powers or believes that he has them. Edward Norton plays an actor who already has the respect of critics, but is only fully himself when he’s on stage. Also in the cast: Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, and Emma Stone. Like Hitchcock’s Rope, it’s not really shot in a single take, but is designed to give that impression. But unlike Rope, the gimmick works this time, perhaps because digital technology made this sort of thing possible. Much of the film is hysterically funny. But the picture is just a bit too long for the story or the idea, and in the end it doesn’t quite satisfy. From Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Babel was my favorite film of 2006.

B+ Dear White People
image

Justin Simien’s first feature is funny, dramatic, and insightful, and successfully avoids preaching. The main characters talk about their philosophies and ideals, but they’re all young college students, and that’s what young college students do. And when they’re African-American students in an overwhelmingly white ivy league school, you should expect some anger in their talk. Samantha (Tessa Thompson), whose campus radio program provides the film’s name, is the most militant and political. Lionel (Tyler James Williams) wears a giant afro, writes for the school paper and is too insecure to come out of the closet. Everything comes together at the climax (this is not a spoiler) where a group of largely white students throw an extremely racist Halloween party.

B Citizenfour
It’s impossible to evaluate this documentary as a work of art. For one thing, it’s subject matter is so important that I’m inclined to ignore it’s narrative flaws. For another, it covers subjects that I write about professionally. I’m actually researching a piece right now on encrypted email, and one of the first images in the film is a PGP public key (don’t worry if you don’t know what that means). But I’ll try.

image

Laura Poitras starts the film with her own credentials as an activist filmmaker hated by the US government, but the real protagonist is Edward Snowden. Poitras and her camera were in the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden told Glenn Greenwald about the NSA’s horrendous destruction of our privacy, and those four days of interviews make up the film’s centerpiece. Snowden–a great American hero in Poitras’ view and in my own–comes off mostly as a self-effacing nerd who understands right from wrong. But the long discussions in the hotel room become visually boring, despite the important and fascinating story at their core. Things get better as the action moves elsewhere, mostly in court hearings and press conferences. It would have been better if Poitras had found a more visually interesting way to show what Snowden was explaining. Being a nerd myself, my favorite moment had Snowden criticizing Greenwald for using a too-short password.

The Better Angels

B+ Historical drama

  • Written and directed by A.J. Edwards

About half way through A.J. Edwards’ gentle exploration of our 16th president (and my namesake), it occurred to me that a native-born American who hadn’t paid much attention in history class might not realize that the film was about Abraham Lincoln. Names are seldom spoken, and if the very young protagonist was ever called Abe, Abraham, or Lincoln, I missed it.

This is the story of Abe’s childhood in the backwoods of Kentucky and Indiana; and his relationship with his mother (Brit Marling), his father (Jason Clarke), and the stepmother who came into his life a little more than a year after his mother’s death (Diane Kruger). It was these two women who recognized something special in Abe and made sure he got an education–a rare luxury for that time and place.

image

Edwards finds an unusual way to tell the story. There’s little dialog, and almost no exposition. The artful, widescreen, black-and-white cinematography makes heavy use of  a Steadicam and some very short lens. The resulting, heavy atmosphere produces a distancing effect, as if we’re watching an old memory.

And that, in fact, is what the film is meant to be. What little exposition there is comes from narration spoken in the character of Abe’s older cousin, Dennis, as an old man. Cameron Mitchell Williams plays the young Dennis; I don’t know who spoke the narration.

Braydon Denney, a talented child actor who looks remarkably like a young Abraham Lincoln, plays Abe as a boy torn between the backwards life that is all he’s ever known and a larger world that pulls his curiosity. He works hard in the fields, and enjoys roughhouse play with other kids. But he has a thirst that can’t be slaked by what’s in the woods. He reads whenever he can, and that’s limited by the hard, physical work and the few books available.

More than anyone else, his stepmother sees something special in Abe, and helps him get an education. His rough-hewn father doesn’t quite understand. He’s a strict disciplinarian, quick with a switch, without enough reading to understand the value of an education. But he loves Abe and the rest of his family, and he comes to accept what is happening.

At times the aforementioned cinematography (by Matthew J. Lloyd) gets in the way of the story. Several panning and tracking shots made the distortions caused by the short lens just plain annoying. But most of the time, the technique worked, creating the sense of a distant but very personal memory, centering on a poverty-stricken but very intelligent young boy. Who he will become is almost irrelevant.

The film opens Friday.

The Mediocre Fascist: The Conformist comes to Blu-ray

Fascist states don’t really need that many committed fascists. But they do need ambitious, unscrupulous, and cowardly people.

In Bernardo Bertolucci’s brilliant character study of a man lacking character, we see political murder as an act of a bureaucrat. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Marcello Clerici as a confused, emotionally cut-off cog in the wheel of Mussolini’s government in the late 1930s.

image

A civil servant with a "good" record, Marcello yearns for middle class respectability. To that end, he’s preparing to marry the bourgeois imageGiulia (Stefania Sandrelli), whom he doesn’t really love although he feels some fondness for her. Why shouldn’t he? She’d attractive and can hardly keep her hands off of him.

But their honeymoon provides an ideal tool for the government, which wishes to make a lesson out of Marcello’s old college professor–an anti-fascist activist now living in exile in Paris. Marcello, of course, takes the assignment.

While Trintignant plays Marcello as a nervous man who keeps his cards close to his chest, Sandrelli’s Giulia is an open book. She clearly adores her new husband, and doesn’t object in the slightest when he looks up an old professor. In fact, she becomes bosom pals with the professor’s much younger wife Anna, played by Dominique Sanda as a self-assured sex goddess.

Marcello soon starts ditching his wife to visit this irresistible woman (remember that this is their honeymoon). Anna lets him seduce her, possibly because she understands the danger and wants to control him. But sexually, she’s clearly interested in Giulia, who doesn’t quite understand this other woman’s advances.

But The Conformist isn’t about sex. It’s about a man desperate to fit into society, even if that society is evil.

For a serious political drama, The Conformist is a surprisingly beautiful film. The sets, clothes, and makeup are as glamorous as an old-fashioned MGM musical. Visually, the film is set in an idealized 1930s, even though the story looks coldly at the reality of that horrible decade. This gives the film a sense of people not quite living in the real world. They’re comfortable, but we know they won’t be comfortable for long.

image

 

Another curious aspect of this very serious drama: When it’s funny, it’s very funny. Not often, but on rare and brief occasions, it goes completely off the wall. There’s no reasonable way to explain the fascist bureaucrat with a desk covered in walnuts. But bits like this break the tension and never undermine the serious story.

The Conformist makes for great art and great entertainment. It’s sexy, vibrant, and suspenseful–with a story that makes you care not for the protagonist but for the people unfortunate enough to know him.

First Impression

imageThe Conformist arrives in a standard Blu-ray box inside a slip cover. The slip cover and the case display totally different graphics.

Inside, you’ll find one disc and a 27-page booklet, containing film credits and multiple short articles.

The first thing that comes up when you play the disc (after the FBI warning) is a logo for Video Cinema Arts Visions. Then the menu comes up.

The setup allows Italian or English audio, with English subtitles on or off. I selected the default: Italian audio, subtitles on.

How It Looks

The great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro shot The Conformist with the intention that it would be shown in dye-transfer Technicolor prints. The beautiful transfer provided by Kino recreates the saturated colors that made those prints special.

image

This is a film of colorful interiors and cold, snow-and-fog whites (I’ve never seen Paris look so chilly). Storaro captured these visuals magnificently. The Blu-ray does justice to his work.

How It Sounds

The slip cover announces that the audio would be in PCM stereo, which is odd because The Conformist was recorded and released in mono. The Video Cinema Arts Visions logo at the beginning of the movie is indeed in stereo. But once the movie really begins, it’s thankfully all mono.

And that’s uncompressed PCM mono. It sounds just fine.

And the Extras

Not much here. The only significant extra is a 57-minute documentary, In the Shade of the Conformist. It’s interesting when Bertolucci is talking, less so with the voice-of-god narrator. Fortunately, Bertolucci does most of the talking.

The only other supplement shows us two different English-language trailers–one from its original American release, and one from the 2013 restoration. The first one provides a good example of how fading color film can hurt a image.

In short, this is a great transfer of a great film. But the extras are slight.

The Conformist Blu-ray goes on sale November 25. Something to be thankful for just before Thanksgiving.

image

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 65 other followers