Archive for the ‘Adventure’ Category

deepwater_horizon_film

Director: Peter Berg

Screenplay: Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand

Country: USA

Runtime: 107 mins

Cast: Mark Wahlberg (Mike Williams), Kurt Russell (Jimmy “Mr Jimmy” Farrell), Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), John Malkovich (Vidrine), David Maldonado (Kuchta), Kate Hudson (Felicia), Dylan O’Brien (Caleb Holloway)

“Hope ain’t a tactic”: Director Peter Berg’s angry depiction of the well from hell sticks the knife into BP

Towards the end of Deepwater Horizon, based on the disastrous 2010 oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, a group of survivors drop to their knees and recite The Lord’s Prayer. Upon the line “Deliver us from evil” the camera cuts to the rig, completely engulfed in flames, reminding us of a line spoken earlier: “This is the well from hell”. Indeed, the actual incident killed eleven workers, injured seventeen others and devasted marine life (210 million gallons of oil spilled into the ocean).

I headed to the cinema with a certain degree of trepidation, concerned that this might in some way be an exploitative film that maximised thrills at the expense of reality. I never expect total accuracy from a cinematic dramatisation of real-life events – the demands of story-telling rarely allow that – but it is important that the broad picture is roughly accurate and, in the case of a tragedy like this one, is respectful to those who risked or lost their lives.

In any event, Deepwater Horizon struck me as deeply respectful to the plight of the riggers, though BP executives will no doubt feel they have been painted as pantomime villains (especially with Malkovich channelling his familiar evil side as BP representative, Vidrine). There isn’t much time for in-depth characterisation, but three people in particular are foregrounded to elicit our sympathies. The first of these is Michael Williams (Wahlberg), who we see in the opening scenes spending his last breakfast with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter Sydney (Stella Allen). The latter gives us a potted account of how oil is created, in the form of an essay written for school, and also demonstrates how drilling works, using a can of coke.

The second key figure is “Mr Jimmy” Harrell (Russell), a rugged no-nonsense figure of authority who has the last word on whether or not drilling can proceed. The third is Andrea Fleytas (Rodriguez), the only woman that we see on the rig and whose sensible judgment when disaster strikes is overruled by a bullying male colleague.

The first hint of danger comes when the helicopter transporting workers to the rig experiences a birdstrike. Upon arrival at the free-floating Deepwater Horizon platform, Williams and Harrell are concerned to discover that the previous team have not conducted safety checks on the cement casing around the production equipment. BP’s representatives, Vidrine and Kuchta (Maldonado), blithely assert their confidence in the integrity of the cementing, on the basis of no evidence at all, and are obviously motivated by the fact that a planned experimental drilling operation is behind time and over budget. Harrell insists on a safety test, but when the results are somewhat ambiguous he allows himself to be pressurised into permitting drilling. This leads to a blowout in which methane escapes from the well and up the drillshaft, where it ignites on the platform.

The subsequent depictions of fire, explosions and desperate attempts to control the situation, whilst assisting the injured, are absolutely compelling. For those of us who have ever wondered what an oil rig disaster must be like, this imagining of such an event is a terrifying eye-opener. I was so swept up in events that it was only later that I realised that a considerable amount of CGI must have been involved. It doesn’t show.

If ever there was a picture of human vulnerability, it is surely Kurt Russell’s Jimmy Harrell waking from unconsciousness, naked on the floor of what used to be a shower, half-blind, and his body peppered with glass. After being rescued by Williams, he himself resumes the direction of operations.

It is quite something that a Hollywood movie should so clearly stick the knife into a multi-billion dollar corporation, but that is exactly what Deepwater Horizon does to BP. And it does so without resorting to cliché. Director Peter Berg has chosen to tell this story in a straightforward unfussy way. It just happens to be one hell of a story.

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Speed Sisters

Director: Amber Fares

Country: Palestine, USA, Qatar, UK, Denmark, Canada

Runtime: 80 mins

A high-octane documentary that offers thrills as it rides roughshod over stereotypes

Amber Fares’s thrilling high-octane documentary about the first all-female street car racing team in the Middle East begins with a statement of intent from the 19 year old reigning champion: “I want the whole world to know there is a girl called Marah Zahalqa who represents Palestine”. By the end of the film I felt like shouting not just Marah’s name in the street, but the names of all the other team members. They are Maysoon (the manager), Noor, Mona, and Marah’s closest challenger – Betty.

Speed Sisters follows these racers through two seasons of the street car championship, during which director Fares drives donuts over stereotypes about Palestinian women. In the conservative city of Jenin we see the young women walking around with their heads uncovered, long hair flowing. Marah’s father tells us he has always supported her ambition to race cars and has made sacrifices for her. When her grandfather says she ought to have a job that would get respect, such as being a doctor, dad points out that she is respected. He’s right, too. It’s not just the female audience at races that cheer on the women; the men are cheering for them as well. The biggest problem for the team is not the conservatism of Palestinian society, but the Israeli occupation.There are few places to practice and to get to race events the women must waste hours getting through checkpoints, sometimes with soldiers tear-gassing stone-throwing youths as the traffic passes through.

Towards the end of the first season some tension arises within the team after Betty is awarded a race win despite having infringed the rules. There is a suspicion that the racing authorities recognise the publicity value of her photogenic good looks and are trying to tilt the championship in her favour. Betty herself emphasises her femininity, getting herself prettified so as not to appear a “tomboy” and doing pouty photoshoots after getting a sponsorship deal. However, just when it appears that Betty might be turning into a sporting pantomime villain (rather like Tony Hawk in All This Mayhem), the occupation rears its ugly head and draws our sympathy back to Betty.

Whilst on the way to practice, the car carrying a few of the girls runs over a rock and they stop to check for possible damage. A hundred or so metres away there is a group of Israeli Defense Force soldiers. One of them, completely unprovoked, fires a tear gas canister which hits Betty in the back. This act, deliberate and cruel, is caught on camera for all to see. The girls speed away with Betty on the back seat, in pain and crying. The attack leaves a particularly nasty bruise, from which she recovers, but who knows what psychological scars might remain? On another occasion, one of the girls, upon smelling teargas, remarks that it reminds her of her childhood.

I don’t want to give away the results of the championship, but the rivalry between Betty and Marah continues until the last moment of the final race, and the final update before the credits tells us that the rivalry will continue into the next season.

Speed Sisters is troubling, thought-provoking and ultimately uplifting. This is the best documentary I have seen so far this year.

Rating: 5/5

 

 

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Director: Ridley Scott

Writers: Drew Goddard (screenplay), Andy Weir (novel)

Country: USA

Runtime: 141 mins

Cast: Matt Damon (Mark Watney), Jessica Chastain (Melissa Lewis), Kristen Wiig (Annie Montrose), Jeff Daniels (Teddy Sanders), Sean Bean (Mitch Henderson), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Vincent Kapoor)

Ridley Scott’s latest SF blockbuster is mildly diverting but don’t expect too much

Ridley Scott is responsible for some of cinema’s best-loved science fiction films, such as Blade Runner and Alien, as well as successful movies in other genres (Thelma and Louise). However, recent years have seen duds such as The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Does The Martian represent a return to form? Well, not quite, though it’s definitely an improvement of sorts.

The story follows the plight of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who finds himself stranded on Mars, believed dead, after his crewmates abandon the planet to escape an oncoming storm. A botanist by training, Watney devises a way to extend his limited food supplies by growing potatoes on Mars’ barren surface, though he does remain suspiciously healthy for a man who spends months and years eating only spuds (albeit garnished with ketchup). When he eventually manages to mend his damaged communications he contacts NASA, who then have to figure out how to rescue him.

I enjoyed the early parts of the film best, as Watney patches up a wound  sustained in the storm and then sets about the business of surviving incommunicado on the inhospitable red planet. However, once NASA begin putting their rescue mission together disbelief becomes harder to suspend. The number of problems that arise and the increasingly far-fetched and risky solutions that are developed simply serves to remind us that we are watching a Hollywood blockbuster. All these critical problems are presumably a device to distract us from the story’s main shortcoming – we never seriously entertain the possibility that Watney won’t survive (I’m not even going to flag this up as a spoiler).

Although realism may be too much to ask of a SF movie set in the far future, nonetheless The Martian doesn’t even strive for psychological plausibility. Would Watney really be so relentlessly cheerful after months on a barren planet with no one to talk to? For most of the film we know nothing about his life. Does he have a wife? Children? Is there anyone he might be thinking about and anyone who might be worrying about him? Is there any particular reason for us to emotionally invest in this character other than that he seems like a generally ok guy?

Back at NASA big name actors are wasted in roles that are not fleshed out. Jeff Daniels is the Head of NASA who must push the organisation’s top brains to put together a rescue plan, whilst managing PR with a view to future funding. Sean Bean is the no-nonsense team leader for whom the rescue takes precedence over PR bullshit, even if it means breaking the rules. Even more cruelly wasted is Chiwetel Ojiofor as a boffin who must convince everyone that his mad ideas will work.

Despite these shortcomings, The Martian is diverting enough, especially if your expectations aren’t too high.

Rating: 3/5

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Exodus2014Poster

Director: Ridley Scott

Writers: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian

Country: UK / USA / Spain

Runtime: 150 mins

Cast: Christian Bale (Moses), Joel Edgerton (Ramses), John Turturro (Seti), Aaron Paul (Joshua), Ben Mendelsohn (Viceroy Hegep), Maria Valverde (Zipparah), Sigourney Weaver (Tuya), Ben Kingsley (Nun).

Not so much an epic, as an epic failure

If 2014 is anything to go by, filmmakers just can’t do historical epics like they used to. William Wyler (Ben Hur) and Stanley Kubrick (Spartacus) would appear to have nothing to worry about in the competition stakes. I thought Noah was pretty bad (reviewed here on 5th April), but in retrospect it did at least have a fairly bonkers quality that made it watchable. Ray Winstone fighting Russell Crowe, together with those living stone creatures, had some entertainment value. By contrast, the deadly earnestness of Exodus: Gods and Kings, together with the lack of any dramatic tension, makes for an excruciatingly dull 150 minutes.

The story begins in Egypt, 1300 BCE, where a bunch of white guys have somehow bucked the regional tendency towards dark skin and rule the roost, keeping a large number of Hebrews as slaves. Ramses (Joel Edgerton) and Moses (Christian Bale) are brothers, though Ramses appears to have senior military ranking despite having less understanding of military tactics. On a trip into town Moses is appalled at the terrible way the Hebrew population are treated, but then it turns out that he himself is actually a Hebrew and not Ramses’ brother at all, a fact that is revealed by a local elder called Nun (Ben Kingsley).

When Ramses discovers the truth he banishes Moses to the wilderness. Sunburnt and thirsty, Moses finds water and rest at a tiny outpost in the middle of nowhere. At the watering hole some local blokes are trying to muscle in before a group of thirsty girls, but Moses flashes his imperial sword (not a euphemism) and the men back off. One of these girls has maintained a good moisturising regime and has brightened herself up with some eyeliner and lipstick; guess which girl Moses falls in love with? So Moses marries Zipporah (Maria Valverde), who bears him a son, Gershom (Hal Hewetson).

When Gershom is nine, he tells Moses that climbing the nearby mountain is forbidden by God, because mum says so. So of course Moses tries to climb it. In the Old Testament such disobedience would normally be punished with a little mild genocide, but on this occasion Moses only suffers a falling rock to the head and thereafter receives visitations from God in the form of a young boy, Malak (Isaac Andrews). Malak tells Moses that he should journey back to Egypt to witness how bad the social conditions have become. Zipporah isn’t too keen on Moses disappearing on this quest, thinking – not unreasonably – that the whole visitation from God thing was just a delusion brought on by the blow to Moses’s noggin.

But back in Egypt, Moses discovers that Malak was right. The Hebrew slaves are suffering badly. Moses gets a group of followers together and trains them up as a fighting force. However, they can’t take on the army directly because they are so badly outnumbered. Therefore, Moses’ plan is to destroy provisions that are en route for the civilian population, thereby making them angry at the rulers and so fomenting instability. This is basically terrorism, of course, but maybe that’s OK when God’s on your side (because, obviously, God takes sides). As it happens, God (Malak) turns up and tells Moses that his methods will take far too long. “Watch this”, says God, “I’ll show you what real terrorism looks like”, and launches a series of attacks on the civilian population, not to mention the local animals. First of all, he wipes out all the fish in the sea. This is followed by plagues of frogs, lice, and flies. Moses visits Ramses and tells him that worse is to come unless he relents and frees the slaves. Ramses says that this is not economically viable, so then God starts to wipe out the livestock and visits plagues of boils and locusts upon the people, as well as hail, thunder, and darkness.

Even Moses starts to think that God is going a bit far when he reveals his plan to kill all newborn children, but God tells him that no punishment is harsh enough for those who have enslaved his chosen people for over 400 years. Nonetheless, Moses is able to mitigate the effects of the almighty’s genocidal rampage by advising the local Hebrews to smear lambs’ blood over their front doors as a protective agent. But God’s war crime works: when Ramses discovers that his young child is dead, he relents in the face of Biblical firepower and frees the slaves. Moses then entreats the Hebrews to follow him to the promised land and so they head off into the wilderness with him. By now, Ramses has got his act together again and sets off with his army in pursuit of Moses.

Moses gets a bit lost in the mountains and calls upon God for assistance. But guess what? Despite all the help that Moses gave God, God’s nowhere to be seen when Moses needs a bit of help with the old map-reading business. Maybe God tired himself out with all that genocide stuff and was having a rest. Still, somehow Moses gets his people to the Red Sea which – as we all know – conveniently parts in order that they can cross to the Holy land. Moses is reunited with his son and his wife who, when he rocks up at their home, is still wearing full make-up. No sooner has Moses returned when God gets him busy chiselling the ten commandments into lumps of stone. “I quite like that you don’t always agree with me” God tells Moses, thus revealing a bit of a soft spot that the Old Testament God doesn’t normally extend to dissenters.

And that’s about it story-wise. I’m not qualified to say how closely Exodus follows the Old Testament story of Moses. However, the tale presented here is seriously lacking in dramatic tension. Moreover, I found it difficult to care about Moses and his battle with Ramses. Christian Bale does a perfectly fine job as Moses, though the story doesn’t really allow him to shine. In fact, all of the actors are somewhat overwhelmed by the combination of CGI and 3D (perhaps the 2D version works better). It is as if Ridley Scott was so concerned about conveying visual epic-ness that the basics of storytelling got left behind. In some films 3D works really well. Gravity is probably the best example. But in Exodus the screen just seems too busy, which is a distraction.

Rating: 3/10

Interstellar_film_poster

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan

Country: USA / UK

Runtime: 169 mins

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, MacKenzie Foy, Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, John Lithgow, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Josh Stewart.

An entertaining and ambitious sci-fi epic

Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster, Interstellar, is an entertainingly ambitious, if flawed, sci-fi epic. It begins in a near-future where food supplies are dwindling, as a result of blighted crops. Presumably this is the result of global climate change, although this is not spelled out and, in fact, we never go beyond rural America to find out what is happening elsewhere in the world. The opening scenes are given a documentary feel thanks to the inclusion of some talking head segments from senior citizens reminiscing about the ‘dust bowl’ that they had lived through (these are actually clips of people describing 1930s Dust Bowl America).

Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a widowed former engineer and NASA pilot who now reluctantly farms corn. His daughter, Murphy (MacKenzie Foy), is a chip off the old block but her brainiac tendencies don’t go down well at school, where the kids are taught that the Apollo moon landings were a hoax designed to prompt the Soviet Union into wasting money on rockets and other “useless machines”. Cooper is told that his children would be better off “learning about this planet, rather than reading fantasies about leaving it”. But when “Murph” becomes convinced that there is a ghost in her bedroom, Cooper’s investigations uncover a gravitational anomaly that is causing strange dust patterns on Murph’s bedroom floor. This discovery leads them ultimately to a top secret NASA base.

Because the American public no longer have any appetite for exploring space, the agency is now operating in a clandestine fashion. Their Lazarus Project, headed by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), has been sending missions to planets beyond a wormhole in space. Cooper is recruited to lead another mission beyond the wormhole, together with Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), physicist Romilly (David Gyasi), geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley), and robots TARS and CASE (voiced, respectively, by Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart). The wormhole appears to have been constructed by some alien intelligence, so Plan A is to return with the technology to save the Earth, but if this fails then Plan B is to recolonise a planet with the stored fertilised seeds from a variety of humans. However, Cooper is desperate to return from the mission because he wants to save his family. In addition, thanks to Einsteinian relativity Cooper’s children will age faster than him in his absence, therefore it is imperative for him that the mission goes as smoothly as possible (needless to say, it doesn’t).

For much of the first half of Interstellar, I couldn’t help ponder with some amusement as to whether the film would enrage some of the more anti-science US Republicans. You know, the ones who deny the reality of man-made climate change, who think it is arrogant to believe that people could disrupt God’s work, and who think that the end-of-the-world will involve the faithful being transported to heaven in the “rapture”. Whatever its faults, Interstellar comes across as a resolutely pro-science film, asking us to think beyond our immediate concerns and to work for the good of our species. A scene where we learn that school textbooks have been revised to show that the moon landings were faked brings to mind those American school districts that have tried to remove or water down material on evolution. Whilst some of what passes for scientific explanation in Interstellar is Dr Who-style hokum, nonetheless in a wider sense it treats its audience as intelligent adults, particularly in the aspect of the storyline that relates to relativity.

The second half, or perhaps final third, of the film is somewhat weaker as the ideas are gradually submerged beneath a swathe of frenetic action, except close to the schmaltzy ending where we get an outlandish explanation for certain events that occurred earlier on. The acting is serviceable, rather than outstanding, though this probably isn’t the kind of film that is likely to produce Oscar-worthy performances. However, even though a fair bit of suspension of disbelief is necessary, Interstellar is never less than entertaining.

Rating: 8/10

Director: Naji Abu Nowar

Writers: Naji Abu Nowar and Bassel Ghandour

Country: United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, UK

Runtime: 100 mins

Cast: Jacir Eid, Hassan Mutlag, Hussain Salameh, Jack Fox

An outstanding desert survival drama from a talented first-time director

It is 1916. A group of Bedouin sit around a nighttime campfire in the Arabian desert. A stranger approaches on a camel. He is a British Army officer (Jack Fox), trying to catch up with his regiment. The Bedouin welcome him into their group and the next day two of them set out to accompany the soldier across the desert. However, young Theeb (meaning “wolf”) refuses to be left behind by his older brother (both of them are orphans) and chases after the group on his donkey. The older Arabs are reluctant to take Theeb (Jacir Eid) along with them, but it is a long way back to their camp and the boy is persistent. They all travel together, but eventually tragedy strikes when they are attacked by other Arabs.

As the story develops it becomes more than just a tale of a small group trying to survive a journey in the desert (although it is very much about this too). It is about how encroaching modernity, exemplified by the Ottoman’s desert railway, threatens the survival of nomadic peoples.  The Bedouin in the film are all non-professional actors, drawn from the last remaining Bedouin tribe in Jordan. They turn in quite exceptional performances. Unfortunately, as neither the London Film Festival programme, nor iMDB, connect the actors’ names to the characters I don’t know who to praise for his portrayal of a black-clad Arab bandit that Theeb encounters. By turns desperate, angry, trusting and friendly, this is a performance that dominates the film. For a first-time feature-film director to obtain such performances from non-professionals is really quite something special.

An obvious point of comparison for Theeb is Lawrence of Arabia, especially in relation to the blond-haired English officer seeking assistance from the native Bedouin. Writing in Sight & Sound magazine, Nick James wrote that he saw Theeb as “an antidote to the imperial swagger of Lawrence of Arabia”. However, whilst it is difficult not to make the comparison, in reality these are two entirely different movies. I don’t even consider that Lawrence has “imperial swagger”, which strikes me as a fundamental misreading of that great film, whose protagonist sought to champion the autonomy of the Arab peoples. In fact, to the extent that the two films have any connection it is the way they invite the audience to side, or at least sympathise, with the Arabs rather than the British or the Turks. In conversation after the film, Director Naji Abu Nowar explicitly stated that he did not consider his film to be an “antidote” to Lawrence, and went on to express his great regard for David Lean and that movie.

The opening segments of Theeb lull the audience into a false sense of security. For about fifteen minutes or so the film moves along quietly at a fairly sedate pace, showing hospitable Bedouin conversing with each other, looking after their English visitor, drinking from wells, and also depicting the slow careful pacing of camels through the desert. Then, just as you have convinced yourself that Theeb is going to be some sort of arty meditation on desert living, there is a shock that had many of the people around me cry out and raise their hands to their faces (OK, I admit it, I did this too). A few minutes later there is another shock that will most likely make you jump up in your seat. At one point the woman in the seat next to me was covering her eyes with her hands, like a child watching the Daleks circa 1973. From hereon in the film becomes a gripping drama.

Theeb is one of the most memorable pieces of dramatic cinema that I have watched this year and has deservedly won plaudits for director Naji Abu Nowar, including director prize at the Venice Film Festival Horizons section and Arab Filmmaker of the Year prize from Variety at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Rating: 9/10

USA 2013

Director: Josh Feldman

Writers: Josh Feldman & Britton Watkins

Runtime: 84 mins

Another low-budget entry at Sci-Fi-London 2014, Senn is an ambitious visually impressive movie with echoes of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Senn is the name of the main character (played by Zach Eulberg), a lowly production line worker on some godforsaken planet owned by an oppressive corporation. Senn regularly finds himself drifting away into bizarre waking dreams, to the point where his girlfriend Kana (Lauren Taylor)  is concerned that he will be “delisted” and assigned the lowliest possible job – sifting waste.

One day, as Senn’s waking dreams are threatening to get out of control, a vast alien spaceship arrives. Realising that this is an opportunity they must take, Senn and Kana are whisked away to the Polychronom, an ancient object that has somehow chosen Senn for a purpose unknown. Senn and Kana’s alien host is a called We (Wylie Herman), a being that appears in human form, like an eager-to-please butler, but who is actually the manifestation of some kind of dimensional energy. We and his fellow beings wish to understand the Polychronom, but in order to do so need to study Senn. However, Senn turns out not to be the first organism to be chosen by the Polychronom, and it seems that others have met unfortunate fates. What will the future hold for Senn?

Director Josh Feldman, whose background is in graphic design, brings a great visual sensibility to Senn, providing the kind of images you wouldn’t normally expect to see in a low budget production. There is also a good soundtrack by Cubosity Music.  The film has some nice flashes of wit, too, especially in the person of We, who is depicted brilliantly by Wylie Herman. Lauren Taylor gives a solid performance as Kana, as does Taylor Lambert playing Senn’s friend Resh. Unfortunately, I was less convinced by the performance of Zach Eulberg himself, whose acting seemed a bit awkward at times.

Despite the film’s various good points, it is rather let down by the writing. There is the nugget of a good idea in the basic story, but there is barely any dramatic tension, no conflict to keep the viewer’s attention. Everything just kind of rolls along until the end. No matter how good the visuals and music are, it is good writing that is at the heart of any movie. Partway through the film I realised that just as Senn’s thoughts were drifting away again, so were mine.

Rating: 5/10

Tracks_2013

Australia / UK 2013

Director: John Curran

110 minutes

 

Most of us occasionally wish we could get away from other people for a while. Anyone who has deliberately gone seeking solitude, however, will have discovered just how elusive that is. Other people seem to turn up in the remotest places. So it was when, in 1975, Robyn Davidson set out to trek across the Australian desert with just three camels and her black labrador, Diggity, to keep her company. Tracks, written by Marion Nelson and directed by John Curran, is based on Davidson’s 1980 book recounting her epic journey.

We never truly learn what motivated this extraordinary trek, but a number of possible factors are provided. The opening scene hints at a traumatic childhood event, intercutting images of Robyn walking across a shimmering desert landscape with flashback images of the young Robyn making some kind of painful departure from home (later, we learn that her mother’s suicide and the failure of her father’s business meant she had to go and live with an aunt, leaving her father behind with the pet dog that was to be put down). In one monologue Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) refers to her dissatisfaction with the “indulgent” lifestyles of those around her, to her own inability to stick to anything she tries, and to a desire to be alone. In Alice Springs, the starting point for her journey, Davidson experiences misogyny and witnesses anti-Aborigine racism, all of which suggests further reasons for wishing to escape into the desert. Indeed, it is telling that the first person who behaves with kindness and generosity is a camel farmer of Afghan descent.

Having spent many months learning how to work with camels, Davidson still needs to raise funds to buy enough camels and to cover the cost of supplies. When her solitude is interrupted by a rather unwelcome visit from some friends and their companions, a National Geographic photographer, Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), leaves her the magazine’s contact details. He tells her they would jump at the chance to sponsor her trip in return for some journalistic coverage. Initially reluctant, she eventually gets in touch and the deal is made. Consequently, she balks when her journey is interrupted at intervals by the appearance of Smolan in his Land Rover, asking her to pose for photographs. At one point her relationship with a group of Aborigines is compromised when Smolan is spotted taking photographs of a secret ceremony. But is not just Smolan who disrupts Davidson’s journey. She is a curiosity for passing tourists, especially once the news of her adventure starts to spread, and eventually other journalists want in on the action.

Even in the outback Davidson is unable to full escape society’s absurdities. She is refused entrance to the area around Ayers Rock / Uluru on the basis that camels are not allowed in. When asked what the issue with camels is, the (white) warden tells her “This is a sacred site”. Meanwhile, camper vans full of gawping tourists with cameras are allowed through. Aboriginal society also turns out to be a man’s world. Davidson is told she cannot cross a sacred site unless accompanied by a (male) aboriginal elder. Fortunately, an elder by the name of Eddie (memorably played by Roly Mintuma) offers to help and the two strike up a good relationship, to the extent that she asks him to escort her a little further once they have left the site. When a dead kangaroo needs slicing for food, Eddie takes the knife from her, telling her that this is the man’s job. This is the one aspect of the film where I would have liked to have had some inkling of Davidson’s thoughts. It is hard to imagine that she would have approved of such male domination, yet she always appears respectful to the aborigines she meets. Later, when Davidson is about to cut up a kangaroo herself she hallucinates Eddie’s presence and stops what she is doing.

At one level, the film is a metaphor for life. It is about the necessity for compromise, cooperation, and the need for other people. Davidson has to compromise the purity of her ideal (a journey alone) in order to obtain the means to pursue it (the sponsorship deal, with its attendant consequences). She wants to be self-sufficient on her journey, but ultimately is only able to survive with the assistance of others. She wants to make her journey without other people, but strikes up important relationships with Eddie and Rick. At another level, Tracks is an odd-couple road trip movie, where Robyn Davidson and Rick Smolan are the mismatched couple. To begin with her proud, uncommunicative misanthropy is in stark contrast to his eager, puppy-dog chattiness. Eventually, however, she comes to value his presence and accept his help, and he feeds misinformation to his fellow journalists so that she is not being hounded by unwanted attention.

The Australian outback is, of course, a cinematographer’s dream, and Mandy Walker doesn’t disappoint in this regard, providing us with some stunningly beautiful images of this incredible part of the world. Garth Stevenson’s music soundtrack is rhythmic and hypnotic, but never intrusive. There is some mystery about the authorship of the screenplay. According to ABC News Marion Nelson is a pseudonym, and they speculate that the author might be the “fiercely private” Davidson herself. At the heart of everything is a splendid performance by Mia Wasikowska. Even though the film doesn’t attempt to pin down Davidson’s inner motivations, Wasikowska herself depicts a variety of emotions, by turn being tough, defiant, vulnerable, frightened, and confused. Even though we know Davidson survived her journey, the sense of danger that is portrayed is very real. One suspects that the location filming would have posed a real challenge, and this is the second strong performance this year by a female actor in a strange – to them – environment (the other being Scarlett Johansson wandering around Glasgow in Under The Skin).

As a survival story, Tracks makes for an interesting comparison with All is Lost, which was released just a few months ago. They are of course polar opposites, being, respectively, tales of desert and ocean survival, one featuring a woman as its central figure and the other a man (incidentally, Tracks passes the Bechdel Test – just). The central protagonist in each case is a tough loner with a minimal backstory (none in the case of All is Lost) whose survival ultimately depends on help from others. Both are very fine films, but for those who found the lack of other characters and lack of emotional variation a little hard to take in All Is Lost (I don’t count myself among such viewers) then Tracks should be rather more appealing in this regard. Certainly, I think it joins Walkabout and Wake In Fright as one of the great outback movies.

Rating: 9/10

 

Noah2014Poster

US 2014

Director: Darren Aronofsky

138 minutes

**This review is full of spoilers. If you know the bible well, this won’t matter, except to the extent that Noah the film isn’t entirely true to the story**

What to make of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah? Although not a believer myself, I was rather hoping to enjoy this film, just as I enjoy films about haunted houses despite not believing in ghosts. I admire Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins as actors, I enjoyed Darren Aronofsky’s previous two films (Black Swan and The Wrestler), and even the dumbest blockbusters can be fun. In anticipation that I might get more of a kick from wallowing in the film’s epicness rather than the story itself, I even coughed up a few extra Duane Eddy’s to see it at the IMAX. What a mistake. Noah’s problem is that it is just too epic for its own good. All subtlety is lost beneath a slew of CGI battles and a thundering soundtrack that, at times, would give Motörhead a run for their money in the volume stakes. There is absolutely no light and shade. Everything is treated so seriously that, by the time the Ark gets afloat it seems to be in imminent danger of sinking beneath the film’s overwhelming portentousness.

I am in no position to comment on how closely Noah follows the biblical story. Needless to say, some biblical literalists are already complaining that it doesn’t follow the “facts”. But really, who cares? We all know that “true stories” on the silver screen play fast and loose with the actualité, so I was happy just to take the story at face value. To begin with, after a bit of biblical scene-setting Noah starts seeing signs and having dreams that he realises is “the creator” (we never hear the word “God”) telling him about a coming disaster, a flood to punish mankind for their sins. The whole of humanity will be wiped out, but Noah will build an ark and save the world’s animals. Those animals are all birds, mammals, reptiles and insects, the dinosaurs having disappeared a few million years before. Exactly what the dinosaurs did to arouse God’s wrath is an issue left unexplored. The fish, presumably, are not endangered by the flood, and Noah does slip in a quick reference to them when recounting the story of how God made the world.

Noah starts to build the ark with the help  of a group of fearsome stone beings called The Watchers, who look like they were swept up off the cuttings room floor at one of the Lord of the Rings movies. The Watchers have this sob-story about how they were hunted and persecuted by humans, although this doesn’t quite add up because later on they turn out to be highly proficient at kicking human butt. Then Ray Winstone arrives on the scene playing Tubal-Cain, whose family have a bit of history with Noah’s family, and he warns Noah that he’s the daddy and that if Noah doesn’t get off his land there’s going to be trouble. Don’t worry, says Noah, I’m building this big ark to save my family from the terrible flood that’s going to kill you and your people. Then The Watchers start squaring up to Tubal-Cain and his mob, so they head off back home to make some more weapons.

Meanwhile, Noah’s adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) is in love with Shem (Douglas Booth), but she is unhappy because she can’t bear him children. While she’s out in the forest she bumps into Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who is obsessively hunting for the berries he loves, even though (or because) he hasn’t seen one in years. Methuselah waves his hand over Ila’s belly and makes her fertile. Quite where he got this magical ability, and why he can’t use it to grow berries, is never explained. Eventually, Methuselah finds a single red berry, which appears to have some symbolic meaning in relation to the red apple that Eve scrumped in the Garden of Eden (and which appears in Noah’s dreams from time to time).

Eventually, the great flood happens, whereupon Tubal-Cain’s vast army of men try to storm the ark. Curiously, there don’t seem to be any women among Tubal-Cain’s people, except for one girl that Noah’s son Ham (Logan Lerman) tries to bring along for the ride. Sadly, she gets her foot caught in a trap and Noah won’t rescue her, which causes a strain in father-son relations. Anyway, The Watchers kick the crap out of Tubal-Cain’s men, except for Tubal-Cain himself who manages to stow away on the ark, albeit wounded. Tubal-Cain bides his time, building up his strength by scoffing the animals who, incidentally, have all been put to sleep (not in the euphemistic sense) by a magical potion that Noah has mixed. Tubal-Cain also gets some help from Ham, who is still mad at dad over the girl he left behind. Despite the fact the seas are in turmoil, and the ark is rectangular rather than boat-shaped, no-one gets seasick.

Eventually, there is a showdown between Tubal-Cain and Noah. Then Noah finds out that Ila is pregnant, which isn’t good news because God has determined that the extermination of the human race includes Noah and his family, but only once they have ensured the animals’ safety. He is even madder when he learns that Methuselah cured Ila of her barrenness, because his action constituted interference with God’s plans. It wasn’t Ila’s fault, says Noah’s wife Naahmeh (Jennifer Connelly), I asked Methuselah to do it. However, this doesn’t stop Noah from vowing to kill Ila’s child if it is a girl, because a girl could procreate with young Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), who is destined to be the last human left alive. If you can be bothered to think about it, this does of course raise the usual philosophical questions about how – if God is all-powerful – he was unable to stop Methuselah from acting against his will.

So far, so ridiculous. Nonetheless, throughout all this Russell Crowe is always watchable. He gives a very strong performance, albeit one which is not dissimilar from some of his previous roles. Crowe is best in the scenes prior to the Ark disappearing out into the oceans, when he has the opportunity to be quite animated. Once on the ark, he increasingly adopts the countenance of someone introspecting on all manner of troubling thoughts, a role he has been playing ever since 1999’s The Insider. However, when Noah learns of Ila’s pregnancy he starts to become quite megalomaniacal, and I felt that Crowe’s performance threatened to go just a little over the top at this point. Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah was his usual hypnotic screen presence, and Ray Winstone as Tubal-Cain was fearsomely excellent.

However, herein lays a problem. These three roles are the most significant for the film and are played to the hilt by the actors in question. They completely dominate the female figures. The various female performers do their best, but just cannot compete. Jennifer Connelly fares best out of the female actors, but being required to play a – mostly – dutiful wife against a husband who is enacting God’s will doesn’t give much opportunity to shine. The person who loses out most in the acting stakes is Emma Watson. She is good in the more intimate scenes, particularly when it is just her and Connelly, but her performance is painfully exposed in the more expansive scenes, especially in the presence of Crowe. Repeatedly, she does that slight movement of the eyebrows, and looking into the distance, familiar from the Harry Potter films, which is meant to indicate concern. In these scenes she is about as wooden as the ark itself. In a broader sense the film also doesn’t do Watson any favours. For someone who is presumably keen to escape the Harry Potter label, it can’t help when, at intervals, a large CGI-ed bird swoops into a landscape shot and begins flapping furiously. I couldn’t help thinking that here was a bird on its way to deliver a message to Hogwarts.

Story-wise, Noah calls to mind one of those atheistic Facebook memes that takes a bible story (sometimes the whole bible story), strips it of all archaic and flowery language, and summarises it in a few succinct sentences that would fit on a postcard. Seen this way, all God’s cruelties and inconsistencies – at least as recorded by the authors of the Old Testament – are thrown into sharp relief for comic effect. At the end of Noah, the ark and its inhabitants are all washed up in the middle of nowhere. Rather like the film itself.

Rating: 3/10