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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Review: Queen of the Desert

Queen of the Desert (2015): Written and directed by Werner Herzog.  Starring: Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis, and Robert Pattinson.  Running Time: 128 minutes. 

Rating: 2/4

**for safety’s sake, a minor spoiler warning, since I can’t really talk about this movie without comparing it to the historical record**

            Gertrude Bell is easily one of the most remarkable, brilliant, fascinating, complex, and downright badass women you’ve never heard of.  Compelled early on to leave the straightjacket of Victorian English high society, she traveled extensively throughout the Middle East prior to, during, and immediately following World War 1, developing almost unparalleled knowledge of and appreciation for the rich cultural, architectural, and artistic history of the various Arab and Bedouin tribes she encountered.  She quickly became completely fluent in Arabic, and through her linguistic and diplomatic skills, she gained the personal trust of some of the most important and powerful Arab princes of the time.  After the fighting ended, she and her close friend T.E. Lawrence played perhaps the biggest role in creating the Middle East as we currently know it, helping define the modern-day (and entirely ahistorical) borders of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, ensuring that the prince Ibn Saud gained regency over Saudi Arabia, and seeing that two of her closest friends, the brothers Faisel and Abdullah Hussein, received rule over, respectively, newly-created Iraq and Jordan.   

            It is an incredible legacy to try to fully comprehend, one where her own personal triumphs are arguably overshadowed by the very dark and violent legacy her influence over the shaping of the region still has.  Saudi Arabia and Jordan are still ruled by these respective families to this day, and the Saudi family in particular has been and remains one of the biggest financiers of Islamic fundamentalism in the world.  The artificial borders she and other British officials insisted on creating, which threw together combustible mixes of religious and ethnic groups that had long been antagonistic towards each other, were combined with top-down, authoritarian styles of government that, together, have been the genesis of almost a century of violent, armed conflict, culminating in the violence we now see consuming Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. 

            I begin with this brief review of geopolitical history in order to provide you with at least a small idea of just how much ripe material for a great movie there is imbedded in the story of Gertrude Bell.  Her own experiences are remarkable enough, and when you also consider how her shadow still lingers over the Middle East to this day, you’ve got enough there to make another historical, socio-politically relevant masterpiece like Selma or 12 Years A Slave.  Or at the very least another Lawrence.  What we get, much to my disappointment, is considerably less than that. 

            We start with a very rushed and exposition-heavy opening, meant to establish Gertrude’s restlessness, reputation for getting into trouble, and fervent desire to escape Britain.  Her father, always willing to accommodate (until he isn’t at a later point in time) gets her an assignment with a relative in the consulate in Persia (today Iran).  This was the first encounter with the larger world that would lead Gertrude to set off on her later wanderings.  It was also the first of her several forays into romance (none of which ended happily)- she falls in love with one of the lower officials, Henry Cadogan (played here by a still-stoned James Franco), but since he is of neither money nor high birth, her father says no.  She returns to England for a time to try to convince him otherwise, but her plans are tossed completely in the air when word arrives that her beau has died quite suddenly and (of course) tragically. 

            It’s a breaking point, of sorts- with nothing to hold her back, she sets her sights on the larger Middle East, at this time still mostly under the heel of a dying Ottoman Empire.  With a few trusted Arab guides, she sets off on regular forays into the wastes of the desert, drawn to how dream-like and free her life there is.  It is during one of her first trips to a British excavation site that she meets a young T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson), and the two strike up a deep, lifelong friendship, anchored by their mutual appreciation of Arabic culture and the immense amount of history to be found in the region.  Through a series of harrowing escapades, she identifies the key power players amongst the tribes, and as a result, she becomes increasingly invaluable to a British government hoping to divvy up the spoils of the coming war, even though her presence and expertise are about as divisive as you can imagine- some see her as a pestering nuisance, and others fall head-over-heels for her (literally). 

            Given the depth of narrative potential here (only some of which I’ve had the space to mention), it’s actually quite astonishing to me how little of it ends up on-screen.  I’m really kind of in shock.  Up to this point, I would have said Tomorrowland was the biggest disappointment of the year, but at least Tomorrowland had some sequences of true cinematic poetry.  Queen of the Desert, on the hand, wanders like Gertrude herself through the directionless desert, with no effort to wrestle the disparate and scattered moments from her life into anything resembling a cohesive narrative. 

            This is especially true in the second half.  We get bits of the information she gleans during her travels and are provided some sense of its later importance, and while I was able to piece together what was I was seeing, I think I have an unfair advantage over most viewers in that I have actually read the biography of Bell the screenplay was (largely) based on.  None of the many, many, MANY threads connecting the events surrounding Bell, Lawrence, and the war and our present world are touched on, except in the most cursory of blink-and-you’ve-missed-it ways.  Even the easy catch, telling her story as a heroic triumph of a kickass woman over that damn, silly patriarchy, is mostly ignored.  A few moments of her telling off British officials for presuming to give her orders are the sorts of scenes that should be definitive for a film like this (or at least Oscar-baiting), but because they occur with no setup and with no indication of how much she had to go through to get that point, they inevitably fall flat. 

            Perversely, the most structurally and tonally cohesive section of the entire film is the least interesting part of it, specifically Bell’s first dating misadventure with James Franco’s Cadogan at the Persian embassy, which takes up almost a third of the entire running time.  It is, perhaps, important to understanding what later motivated her, but it’s treated as an epically tragic short film in its own right (not to mention that it takes a VERY big, and in my opinion inexcusable, liberty with the circumstances of the man’s death).  And it’s just not that interesting, especially when compared with all the other heady stuff the film could have focused more on later. 

            All of this is a real shame, because the movie does at least look very good (this is still Herzog, after all), and the cast assembled (Franco aside) is more than up to the task of playing their respective characters.  This was a great role for Kidman, and I’m quite sorry she didn’t get more, less romance-obsessed material to work with.  And- although this will be heresy for many- Robert Pattinson continues to prove the Twilight films a fluke by holding his own quite well as Bell’s contemporary, the much-more-legendary T.E.  No, it’s no Peter O’Toole- no one can do Peter O’Toole- but he effectively elevates the criminally small number of scenes he’s in, and honestly, I would have gladly taken more. 

            Ultimately, the movie is not actively bad- I have certainly seen worse this year- but it doesn’t soar the way I’d hoped, the way it should have.  Viewers with no previous knowledge of Bell or of the history she was part of will hardly leave the theater better informed than before.  Which just might be the worst possible outcome for this type of film.  Gertrude Bell has gotten a shameful lack of attention in our culture, long deserving of her own biopic.  She deserves a better one that what she got here. 

-Noah Franc   

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review: Taxi

Taxi (2015): Written and directed by Jafar Panahi.  Starring: Jafar Panahi, Hana Saeidi.  Running time: 82 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4 

            There are obviously a lot of passionately divided opinions about the nature of the recent nuclear accord reached between the US and Iran.  It will be a long, long time before we can ultimately assess how positive or negative the effects of this deal will be, but I think it is already safe to say that they will be momentous either way, and like any sane person, I am hoping for the best outcome possible.  This is mostly for the obvious big-picture, geopolitical reasons, but I also have a smaller, personal motive for pulling for the agreement thing to succeed- maybe, just maybe, increased ties to the global order and greater economic prosperity will nudge the Iranian government towards loosening its restrictive domestic policies, and the director Jafar Panahi and other artists like him will finally be able to walk free, to create and tell the stories they currently have to keep hidden in the recesses of their minds. 

            Most Americans who know Panahi will likely know him for the Oscar-nominated This Is Not A Film, the title itself a biting play on the fact that Panahi was banned from making any films by the Iranian government following the failure of a series of post-election protests in 2009 (since then, he has been given tentative permission to “unofficially” make movies).  After that film received no small amount of international renown, he came out with Closed Curtains, about a man cooped up in a house covered in curtains (and from there the real-life parallels only get more obvious).  At the time, one critic wondered whether or not his prolonged captivity and the severe restrictions it places on his artistic freedom might eventually lead to him hitting a “creative wall.” 

            Now, though, Panahi has once again found his own unique way around the absurd circumstances he still finds himself subject to, proving, if nothing else, that true human creativity can never be contained, and will always out itself one way or another.  Indeed, why else would autocrats and dictators go to such extreme lengths to dominate, kill, or exile the artists before all others?  They know- even if many in the West have forgotten this- that true power to move and change the hearts and minds of an entire people comes not from scientific discoveries or rising stock indexes, but from the arts, and all the myriad and subtle tools they have access to that can shape our thoughts, words, and deeds. 

            Taxi is one of those films I would describe as a “meditation on existence,” if such a phrase makes sense.  With no apparent narrative thread in place, Panahi takes us into a typical Iranian taxi car, fixes a few cameras to the dashboard, and embarks on a day-long odyssey through the streets of Teheran.  Most of the film consists of short segments centered around one or a handful of passengers that get in, ask to be taken somewhere, and chat a bit with Panahi about pretty much anything under the sun before getting out.  There are two people that make extended appearances- in the first half, we get many earfuls on the benefits of selling pirated films from a street hustler, who instantly recognizes Panahi and knows he’s not a real taxi driver.  The second half is dominated by the presence of Panahi’s joyfully witty niece, who opens up by berating him for daring to pick her up in a mere taxi cab- it seems she’s been bragging to her classmates that her uncle is a famous filmmaker, and if they saw him now they would think she was lying.  As she puts it- “If you don’t want to think about your own career, then think about mine.” 

            I wrote “people” and not “characters” above because it’s not clear how much of the scenes and people presented are real things Panahi caught on film by chance, and how many of them were staged, or at least knew from the start they were in a film.  The hustler and a few other scenes with people that recognize Panahi, as well as the presence of his niece and her constant, almost fourth-wall-breaking chatter about filmmaking techniques and Iranian film laws, could certainly give off the impression that they had been directed at least somewhat.  Then again, a few other scenes come across as powerfully, viscerally real.  If they were real, it was an extraordinary stroke of luck that Panahi happened to pick the day for filming that he did.  If not, what a remarkable job he did in finding the perfect actors to play their respective roles.  Ultimately, whether or not all, some, or none of the scenes in the movie are real is a question I think I would rather not have answered.  At least, not yet. 

            If there is a key importance to this movie, it would be in how effectively it works in reminding viewers that, beneath all the rhetorical bluster about Satan and genocide exuded by the Iranian government, Iran remains a place like all other places- full of ordinary people, good and bad and in between, just trying to get by and create decent lives for themselves and their families.  This is especially the case with the women we encounter, who come in all shades of dress, age, and attitude, and will certainly relieve more than a few viewers of their own half-formed stereotypes about Iranian gender politics.  Each character- or person- is real in their own small way, and that is something beautiful.  It is such ordinary people that form the core of all nations and societies in this crazy world of ours.  And like all great movies, Taxi does its own small part to remind us of that. 

-Noah Franc 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Summer Blockbuster 2015 Report Card

            Another summer season ends, another school year begins.  And we all know what that means- REPORT CARD TIME! 

            Yes, after another round of studio and corporate pandering, it is time to assess whether any of the big-budget eye-spectacles we were forced to watch in 3D over the past few months lived up to the hype.  A proper blockbuster promises daring visual thrills, gut-wrenching chases, and seat-of-your-pants sci-fi/fantasy/comic-book action, plus enough zingers and one-liners to give the internet another winter’s worth of gifs and memes.  So today, we seek to assess which of 2015’s bloated cinematic miscreants are most worthy of the title “Summer Blockbuster Classic.”  And yes, I completely made that title up. 

            From here on in, a spoiler warning is officially in effect. 

Mad Max: Fury Road- A+

            Not only was Mad Max easily the best action film of the summer by far, in my book it still ranks as the best overall FILM that’s yet come out in 2015.  True, we still have four months’ worth of Oscar bait “prestige” pictures ahead of us (I am particularly excited to see Werner Herzog’s take on the life of Gertrude Bell), but all newcomers will have a tough time of it getting out from under this one’s shadow. 

            Given how insatiably exposition-heavy both the Marvel offerings and most other major action flicks of past years have gotten, Mad Max’s reliance on basic, clear, and precise visual design and cinematography to tell us everything we need to know in the first 15 minutes is something of a miracle to behold.   Tom Hardy carries himself with an incredible presence as Max, Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is a new gold standard for proper non-male action heroes, and the score is already on the shortlist for my Year’s Best list come awards season.  Plus, more than any other film on this year’s scorecard, Mad Max achieved the ultimate height of being just plain cool.  Cool to experience, cool to replay your mind afterwards, cool to see again, and cool to quote incessantly with your friends afterwards.  I mean, what else could you possibly want from the film? 

            Oh right.  That

Jupiter Ascending- A- (the “fun” version)

            Oh Jupiter Ascending.  What can I say?  It might be a bit unoriginal in its genre-mashing, but my God, what colors there are to behold here.  This movie not only has all the wheeling anime references we’re used to getting from the Wachowskis, it ALSO has one of the funniest shout-outs I’ve ever seen to Terry Gilliam’s 1985 classic, Brazil.  From start to finished, there is never a dull moment to be had here, from a hilariously outlandish airfight through downtown Chicago, to a swarm of royalty-smelling bees, to the wonderfully designed power station inside Jupiter itself, to…..Eddie Redmayne.  Oh dear, darling Eddie.  I thought we had learned our lesson after the Silver Linings/J-Law debacle, but our human memories truly do fail us, for we have once again awarded someone Oscar gold for the wrong performance.  That malleable face of yours has taught us a whole new level of joy, and we are forever in your debt. 

Avengers: Age of Ultron- B+

            Even though it does strain itself a bit too much by the end, and whether or not the franchise can move on from the original cast remains to be seen, there are still more than enough highs in this second Avengers go-around that I was quite glad I saw it.  Most of this can be credited to James Spader, whose salvaging of some shifty writing with his vocal work has provided us with easily the best, most fun single-movie villain we’ve gotten in one of these.  Its third act is a repetition of the NYC battle in the overall-better first one, but there are so many great moments to be had getting there that this was well worth the time spent by fans of the franchise. 

Tomorrowland- B

            Out of all the films on this list, Tomorrowland was easily the biggest personal disappointment for me.  I adore Brad Bird- I consider The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille to be among the greatest animated works produced in the last 20 years (and yes, I am counting Ghibli films when I say that)- so there truly is no proper way to express how exuberantly happy I was when the trailers for his first original live-action work started making the internet rounds.   Which only compounded by faint disappointment when the movie itself turned out to be…well, quite good, and vastly more interested than something churned by a Studio Committee, but a far cry from the transcendent visual experience I had been expecting. 

            Which is a real shame, because the movie still has some genuine high-flying moments when it hits its stride; the first jet-pack ride in a Tomorrowland still under construction, the Eiffel Tower liftoff sequence, a robot attack on George Clooney’s home, and a vibrant, emotionally powerful final sequence acting as a broad call to greater civic engagement all stand out as moments of genius that deserve to endure.  Sadly, most of the character arcs and motivations make little to no sense, the plot meanders after a solid first half, and what should have been a grand final battle end up feeling a little rushed, and too reminiscent of the less-interesting stylistic designs of the later Spy Kids movies.  It succeeds in most areas though, so any Bird fan at the very least should check it out at some point.  Brad is the kind of filmmaker who, even when he falls short, still gives us something fascinating to experience. 

Jurassic World- B

            Ah, the literal and figurative monster of the summer.  Jurassic World has already secured its place as one of the most wildly successful and profitable movies to date, and nothing I say for or against the film will alter that fact in any way, although it has not been without its controversies.  I can understand a lot of the complaints surrounding Bryce Dallas Howard’s character and how the story uses (or doesn’t use) her, although I have also seen plenty of strong arguments in her favor.  And yes, Chris Pratt is a far cry here from his scenery-chewing performance in last summer’s Guardians.  And yet, there is a nice reverence to the overall feel of the picture (my issues with the movie completely melted away any time they hearkened back to the original John Williams score), and the main action beats, when they do occur, are phenomenally breath-taking.  On the whole, it balanced out into a fun time at the movies.  Which is all I ask of these sorts of films. 

Ant-Man- B-

            I must confess- I am finding it harder and harder to write about Marvel movies.  Even at their best (Ironman 1, Avengers 1, Captain America 2), there is absolutely no deviation from story formula or character archetypes, and while that by no means makes them all bad, it does mean there’s a ceiling to how funny, original, or truly great any of them can get.  At least for now. 
            That said, while there is a lot speculation as to whether or not one of these films truly bombing, or at least not functioning well within the ‘Verse, could bring down the whole house of cards being built, Ant-Man defied the cries of doom by Edgar Wright fans and turned out….pretty okay, really.  It was fun, and has its moments of brilliance; being the man-child raised on Shining Time Station that I am, I may have squealed a bit at the use of Thomas the Tank Engine toys in the final battle sequence.  On the other hand, the story and main character arc do not deviate from The Formula in the slightest, the side characters barely register, and the bad guy/evil plan combo is…..kind of terrible, now that I think about it.

            Plus, in a strange coincidence that I am still at a loss to explain, Evangeline Lilly’s character wears the same type of outfit, has the same haircut, is the same type of no-nonsense hardass, AND gets the same phoned-in romance subplot arbitrarily tossed in at the very end of the film as Bryce Dallas Howard from Jurassic World!  They look and are written so similar, I actually thought for the entire running time of Ant-Man that it was the exact same actress.  Seriously, look!  Blink and they are one!  

            Those critical points aside, as with all Marvel movies, I certainly don’t regret seeing it, but, as well as with most Marvel movies, I have no plans to revisit it again.   

Jupiter Ascending- D (the “serious” version)

            Oh Jupiter Ascending.  What can I say?  I had such high hopes for you.  I knew I was going to get a lot of bombastic over-the-topness (it IS the Wachowskis, after all), but given how much effort they usually put into making their fictional worlds make some form of metaphysical sense, I did expect at least SOME narrative cohesion.  After years of being able to digest the fallout from the Matrix trilogy, I would have thought they might have taken some lessons to heart on the importance of having your lead actors come across as at least partially human, or if not, at least having some of the side characters fleshed-out enough to pick up the slack.  There are rumors that whole chunks of the film, including some world-building and character development, got left on the cutting room floor, and while that would make me interested in seeing a director’s cut, I can’t use it as a justification to excuse the terrific flaws that tear this theatrical film apart, glorious design by glorious design. 

            And of course, there’s Eddie Redmayne.  Good God, we gave an Oscar to THAT?  How much lower are your standards going to sink, Academy? 

            Wait….shit, don’t answer that.  I forgot David O. Russell has a new movie coming out this year.  Lord save u…I mean, all hail the Russell! 

            All in all, this was hardly a summer of note, especially when compared to last year’s crop of great offerings.  Ah well.  At least we avoided the apocalyptic fate that would have awaited us had the release of Batman v. Superman not been delayed, which would have given us a year with Avengers, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, AND Batman/Superman duking it out for box office dominance.  Sometimes, it’s the little blessings in life that count. 

-Noah Franc