The Past

Welcome back to our occasional feature of reviewing new films frustratingly close to the end of their cinematic run. Today is the turn of French drama Le Passé or The Past.

The-Past

Written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, The Past is stylistically and thematically similar to his Oscar-winning A Separation, but with the drama moved from Tehran to Paris. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns from Iran to the home of his French wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo), in order to finalise their divorce, complicated by the presence of her new boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim) and a whole bunch of children.

131079_blThe best dramas succeed on the strength of their characters, and The Past is no exception, as each person feels completely real, no matter how limited their screen time. This makes it easy to invest in the intricate details of their lives, with great performances all round. Farhadi brings the same level of emotional complexity that made A Separation so compelling, with a similar narrative structure and no easy answers. Layers and layers of revelation each completely change our attitude towards the slowly unfolding story, as every character brings their own subjective interpretation of the same events, like Rashomon but without the samurais.

elfilm-com-the-past-160587This drip-feeding of exposition does feel contrived, in a way it never did in A Separation. It’s unlikely that anyone would actually reveal increasingly startling information at such regular intervals in real life. Every few minutes someone seems to say, “you know why that is, don’t you?” before sharing a dramatic revelation. They withhold everything and release it in well-timed bursts like those plug-in air fresheners, in a way no one would ever do were they not a character in a drama. Even the idea of someone going to live with their ex who’s now in another relationship stretches plausibility, feeling more like the premise for a sitcom. Also, it might just be the translation in the subtitles, but people repeatedly talk about someone who’s in hospital because they “committed suicide”, when they surely only attempted suicide.

While not as good as A Separation, Farhadi’s new film succeeds once again in making us think about the way events are interpreted. It’s never sugary like the occasionally similar What Maisie Knew, but never bleak thanks to Farhadi’s sense of humanity. His interest in families and the way adults’ behaviour affects children is thought-provoking, while his brilliantly drawn characters allow us to believe in the somewhat contrived narrative.

A Hotel Triple-Bill

A recent stay in an Israeli hotel left me with limited viewing options, thanks to the TV in my room exclusively showing movies in which Brendan Fraser gets attacked by animals. Avoiding these like the plague or a charity person in the street, here are the three films I managed to find in English:

fair-game-1995-01-g

Fair Game (1995)

No, not the Sean Penn one from 2010. Not since Gary Oldman and Gary Barlow have two entities with the same name represented such an obvious gulf in quality. This Fair Game stars Cindy Crawford and one of the Baldwins who isn’t Alec.

MSDFAGA EC008William Baldwin plays Max Kirkpatrick, one of those names that exists solely in the world of ’90s action cinema. Max is a cop who has to protect Cindy Crawford’s sexy lawyer from a rogue KGB cell led by Steven Berkoff, who are trying to kill her for reasons that are initially unclear, and remain unclear right up until the credits roll after 90 minutes of incompetent action, ridiculous dialogue and softcore sex.

It’s a notoriously bad film, picking up three Razzie nominations, all of which it would probably have won had it not been up against Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. Not only did first-time director Andrew Sipes never make another film, judging by his IMDb entry he disappeared completely.

336995.1

Love Object (2003)

Love Object is a horror film about Quinn from Dexter falling in love with a sex doll that appears to be based on Elizabeth Banks. But at no point does he wear a striped shirt. Now that’s scary.

elizabeth-banks-shoulder-length-blonde-hairstyle

Sex Doll

Elizabeth Banks

Elizabeth Banks

The film follows through on its weird premise with surprising effectiveness. Writer/director Robert Parigi takes ideas from American Psycho and Vertigo and runs with them, sometimes too far, but in a way that’s always interesting, funny and scary. The theme of objectification is tackled with dark humour and creepy surrealism.

Love Object is an example of strong ideas transcending technical clunkiness. As sometimes happens in the case of low-budget horror films, the clumsy technique works in the film’s favour by adding to the overall weirdness, with dodgy lighting and aesthetic lurches adding to the feeling of something being not quite right. Desmond Harrington plays this strangeness well and there’s a welcome appearance by Rip Torn; two things you don’t want to happen to a sex doll.

img10

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

In something of a coup for Israeli hotel TV, they showed a film I’d actually heard of, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Obviously a film called Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters isn’t likely to win any Oscars, but it’s even worse than its 15% score on Rotten Tomatoes suggests.

jeremy_renner_hansel_and_gretel_witch_hunters_1280x800_27536The plot is of course explained in the title, and it’s no surprise to discover that this is as far as anyone involved got. The name is the joke, the premise, the story… it’s the entire movie. There’s a trend for this kind of lazy crap, whereby something classical is given a B-movie subtitle, such as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It’s easy to come up with your own, mine include William Shakespeare: Ghost Buster and The Three Bears VS The Seven Dwarves. Try it yourself!

So it’s a high-concept with low-results, thanks to its horribly confused style. The whole thing leaves you asking: who is this for?! There’s the CGI monsters of a fun fantasy romp, and the nudity, swearing and gore of an 18. As for the two leads, you’d be hard pressed to find two actors with less charisma than Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner without reaching for some sort of Who’s Who of boring people. She’s named after a stupid plot point from Dream House and he’s so dull he doesn’t even have a proper face.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters doesn’t even live up to its title. It simply yawns its way to an inevitable conclusion one CGI fight at a time. The visuals are terrible, the 3D conversion making it impossible to see anything, which is probably a blessing in disguise. The only interesting thing about the film is that Will Ferrell served as a producer, which goes some way to explaining its intentions. It’s clearly all meant to be a joke, but it’s not even slightly funny. It doesn’t even try. Naturally, the sequel is currently in development.

Animal Crackers

A popular defence of Marxism is that it was “funnier at the time”, and while this may be true, from a modern perspective we can’t help but see it as a template for totalitarianism. Similarly it would be great to be able to go back to 1930 and watch the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers in a packed auditorium, but a modern viewing yields very few laughs.

The plot centres on a piece of art that’s being unveiled at a socialite’s party to celebrate the return of a great explorer (Groucho Marx) from his around the world travels. It’s fairly light on story, with its assortment of fairly disconnected scenes feeling more like a series of rather weak sketches, or even a variety show during some of its musical interludes.

It has a smattering of funny moments, but they’re overwhelmed by the huge number of groan-inducing gags that feel like watching a bloke whose mates all reckon he’s really funny at the pub try stand up for the first time. The explorer, describing his travels, says “the Elks come down for the water hole. They were disappointed. They wanted an alcohol.” Oh dear oh dear. Some lines just don’t make any sense. When the explorer is attempting to get two women to marry him he says “One woman and one man was good enough for your grandmother, but who wants to marry your grandmother?” Silliness isn’t enough for hilarity.

Being old doesn’t have to be detrimental to a comedy, as my review of The Great Dictator will show you. The dialogue here is very fast and tightly written, but also falls short of the quality required to be consistently funny. Similarly the slapstick is fairly tiresome.

Originally a play, this is made in a very theatrical way, with long takes, all actors facing the camera at most points, and Groucho repeatedly talking to the viewer. I think it would be far more enjoyable live. Here the actors try and play to an absent audience which doesn’t work at all. It might be better with a laughter track, something I don’t think I’ve ever said before.

Noah

Long-time portrayer of gruff, pseudo-historical leading men Russell Crowe takes centre stage again as the unfortunate soul selected to save humanity from God’s genocidal wrath.

2 at a time, please

Joining Noah are his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and three sons, Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japeth (Leo McHugh Carroll). They also have adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson), and are guided by Noah’s hermit grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). But that’s not all, there’s a race of angels trapped in the bodies of stone giants on hand to build the ark, ward off attackers and generally plug plot holes. Noah embellishes its source material so much it would make Peter Jackson gasp. For three hours.

When interpreting the story of Noah’s Ark for the big screen, a writer faces a number of problems. One of the biggest is that it’s hard to show God wiping out humanity without making him look like the bad guy. This is addressed in the film’s opening minutes, through a bit of Biblical embellishment that makes Noah the only remaining descendent of Seth, Adam and Eve’s good son, and everyone else on the planet an evil descendent of Cain. That is, except Ila, who is presumably a child of one of the evil people, not being related to Noah. In this respect it’s true to its source material, as the women are not real characters, existing outside the paradigm of it being relevant who they are descended from, like some alternative species, there to lend their ovaries to men so their bloodlines can be continued.

Room for an extra Crowe?

Ila’s purpose is really so that the ray of hope for humanity’s survival doesn’t have to be Noah’s sons impregnating their mum, but like so many of the decisions in this film made to solve plot holes, it creates many more. If there;s one good descendent of Cain, how do they know there aren’t more? They save the animals for being innocent, but what about all the children? Ila and Shem’s kids aren’t the product of incest, but who’s going to have kids with them? The film conveniently ends before the inbreeding begins, unless there’s a post-credits scene I missed.

Maybe I’m over thinking it, but I struggle to see how anyone could detach themselves from the fact it doesn’t make any sense enough to enjoy it. The only think that’s watertight in this film is the ark. And this would be the same if this was a piece of original mythology created for the screen. In fact, the recent Thor films provide a more convincing portrayal of how ancient mythology could tie into the real world. Thor.

For its flaws, Darren Aronofsky approaches this almost-unfilmable story in the right way: by treating it as a piece of fantastical mythology. God is never called by name, instead referred to as “The Creator”, in perhaps the best creative decision in the movie. “God” has connotations with an infinitely powerful and infinitely good being, at odds with a character who commits genocide. Treating it as a piece of mythology, with characters at the mercy of an entity very different from the modern understanding of God, is the only way it could really be handled.

But there are still miracles when it suits the plot. The animals know how to get to the ark, and can be put to sleep for the entire journey; rich, fertile land springs up for Noah and co to build from, and water swells from the ground, so we’re still left wondering why The Creator doesn’t just wipe out the bad guys in a heartbeat and be done with it. He sends stone monsters and fertile land to aid Noah. Why not just send him an ark?

Plot holes aside this is in many ways impressive. But for all the action, spectacle, and narrative embellishment, there’s something sorely missing. It’s incredible that a film about a global flood can be so dry, as it takes itself far too seriously. There’s a fair amount of drama inserted into the film – meaning Noah has an arc, not just an ark (sorry) – but much of it comes from his fanatical interpretation of The Creator’s vague messages, leading him to cause harm to himself, his family and most of the human race. This makes him a hard character to connect to, particularly as Crowe never lets us warm to him. It’s not surprising that a film about the earth being wiped out is so devoid of life.

Despite an admirable effort, they can’t make this ludicrous story into a coherent narrative, and for all the spectacle, the zealots of the Bible are impossible for a modern audience to relate to. They do a fine job adapting the source material, but what results is still a film that’s better to avoid.

A Bronx Tale

This is the story of a young boy called C (Lillo Brancato and Franci Capra) and the challenges he faces growing up in a rough New York neighbourhood. He is torn between the straight and narrow tutelage of his father (Robert De Niro) and the quick path to success offered by local crime boss Sonny (Chazz Palminteri), who takes the boy under his wing.

This is the first of only two films directed by De Niro, and while inexperienced behind the camera, his knowledge of New York gangster movies from decades in the spotlight is clear. A Bronx boy himself, this is clearly a project of passion, which shines through the entire film.

At times it feels like it’s trying too hard to be a New York gangster movie, as it makes use of numerous clichés. Having a crime boss called Sonny is a staple of the genre, and other scenes are infused with a strange sense of déjà vu. But there’s no denying the quality on display.

Brancato is excellent as the teenage C, with a passing resemblance to Shia LeBoeuf, except he’s genuinely not famous. De Niro is assured as his father, fitting comfortably into the role as the hard working bus driver, and Chazz Palminteri is also good as rough but appealing crime boss Sonny.

With its childhood beginnings and New York setting it’s very similar to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (in which De Niro also starred), but a very tidied up version, with a neat circularity to it. But both films are in many ways a love letter to the city they feature. Neither shies away from the roughness of New York’s poorer areas, showing the impact such a life can have on youngsters, but they also both reserve a deep respect for the city, and the characters that inhabit it.

It tackles issues of poverty and racism head-on, and examines the cycle of violence that leads to family breakdown and death. And it also has a great bar fight. Made in 1993, this has the look and feel of the classics like The Godfather and Mean Streets. De Niro wisely chooses this aesthetic to capture the feel of the New York he grew up in.

De Niro constructs his film with passion and love, things which are sadly missing from his more recent work. This is a rich and enjoyable gangster film which may not represent a revolution in the genre, but shows De Niro is more than just a great actor.

 

The Woodsman

Sex offending is one of the toughest subjects you can tackle in a film, but there are some great examples of how to do it right. Films like Michael, Mysterious Skin and Little Children. And The Woodsman is another good example.

In one of his most challenging roles, Kevin Bacon plays convicted paedophile Walter, who works in a lumber yard after serving a 12 year sentence for child abuse. Bacon isn’t an actor who needs to go outside of his comfort zone like this, and that he chose this kind of role is admirable. He does a superb job with the character, with his anguish-filled, downtrodden expression usually reserved for those who have had to sit through those awful adverts he’s in.

Films like this have to walk a narrow line between showing the human side of someone most of society would simply brand a monster, and being too sympathetic, failing to show the magnitude of the impact the offender has on their victims. But with Bacon’s sensitive portrayal of this character, struggling to do the right thing, The Woodsman walks this line well.

This is a well handled, well directed film, that makes you think as well as providing a compelling human drama.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

A pair of brothers decide to rob a jewellery store, but when they bungle the heist, it sets in motion a chain of events that rocks their family to its very core.

While this qualifies as a crime thriller, for the fact it revolves around a jewellery theft, it often borders on a family drama, and it is this which makes it so strong. With its non linear story structure hinging around a very briefly depicted robbery, this has something of Reservoir Dogs about it, but with its focus on the emotional strain the crime takes on the perpetrators’ family it feels far less like a piece of light entertainment.

It’s anchored by outstanding performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as the hapless brothers who are cornered into the crime because of the miserable turns their lives have taken. Hawke’s character, Hank struggles to pay child support to his estranged wife, and Hoffman’s Andy, while in a well-paying job, is crippled by drug addiction. While they are certainly in no sense admirable people, with very few redeeming features, their revulsion to the consequences of their actions makes them believable.

At no point can this be accused of glorifying crime, as can many crime thrillers, as the full impact of the incident is shown on the victims, the perpetrators and their families. This is the last film from legendary director Sidney Lumet, and he shows no signs of losing his deep sense of humanity, nor his innovative approach to story telling.

At times gut-wrenchingly sad and very intense, this is a film that pulls no punches, and acknowledges that you need good, relateable characters to make a great crime movie, not just guns and drugs.