Director: Jacques Audiard
France, 2009, 155mins, rated 18
Screening: The Phoenix, 22 January 2010
Where Jacques Audiard’s previous two films, 2001’s Read My Lips and 2005’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped, both flirted with Noir-ish elements of the French criminal underworld, his latest film, A Prophet, immerses us fully in the dark hinterland of France’s criminal underclass. Inspired by conditions he'd witnessed when screening one of his films in a French prison, Audiard brings us an epic, sprawling and intense thriller that works as both a coming-of-age journey and a stark exposé of the French penal system – with all its institutional racism and corrupt gangster operations.
Director: John Hillcoat
USA, 2009, 119mins, rated 15
Screening: The Phoenix, 8 January 2010
That Hollywood has finally discovered Cormac McCarthy is a timely honour to this great American writer; but what took it so long to see the cinematic potential of his work? One of the most consistent and critically-lauded contemporary authors, McCarthy has burrowed deep into the American psyche over his 45 year writing career. And yet it’s only within the last five that the movie industry has noticed how perfect his simply drawn characters, grand themes of alienation, conflict and loss, and dramatically visual prose are for adaptation to the big screen.
Although it’s a departure from the revisionist Western settings of McCarthy’s previous four novels, the scope, characters and themes of The Road are universal and the narrative inherently cinematic. To make it work well on screen, a director with a strong visual style was vital. It must have been quite a gamble choosing Australian John Hillcoat, who only has one other feature under his belt (2005’s The Proposition), but, artistically at least, the gamble paid off.
The Road is set in the not too distant future and follows the plight of a father and son dealing with a world that has suffered a dreadful, unspecified, cataclysm. With their surroundings reduced to a desolate wasteland devoid of virtually all life, and with their fellow survivors forming into cannibalistic hunting packs, the pair head south towards the coast with the hope of finding some sort of salvation from the bleak emptiness of their day-to-day struggle.
What sets The Road apart from other post-apocalyptic films is the graphically naturalistic way in which the aftermath is portrayed. The film is shot mainly on location, and special mention has to be given to the work of Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, whose haunting photography helps give the film its authentic feel. The majority of the camera work is suffocatingly close, giving the shots a claustrophobic feel that replicates the oppressive clouds of ash described in the book. When there are occasional wide or long shots, the landscapes are morbid, bleak and infertile, dominated by blankets of thick dark cloud.
Filmed through the winter in Pennsylvania, Oregon and Louisiana (including parts of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans), there is a stark natural trauma to nearly all The Road’s shots. The sense of doom is heightened by the washed-out and underexposed lighting, which reduces the colours to dull tones and the light to a torpid haze. To complement the bleak look, sound design is also used to great effect. In a technique that’s been best exploited by David Lynch over the years, The Road uses an almost constant background mix of rumbling, crackling and tearing sounds, giving the unnerving sense that the very earth outside the frame is breaking apart. Conversely, one of my criticisms would be the choice of music. Not only did I find Nick Cave’s score a touch too apparent, I thought the need for music was entirely unnecessary.
The narrative of the road is subtly paced, with much of the scenario being either inferred or hinted at through flashback scenes. It is left to some short, sharp sequences of very tense action and the strength of the actors to keep the film moving. Coming from a relatively inexperienced director, the performances in The Road are particularly impressive. Viggo Mortensen, playing the father, is especially convincing, conveying with a desperate intensity the tortured sufferings of a man whose world has been torn apart. Beaten down and reduced to living like a hunted animal, the father has lost much of his pride, but must keep strength for his son. Torn between the urge to survive and protect, or the choice of ending his and his son’s further suffering (as we see others have done) is a constant mental battle for him.
Obviously The Road is not a feel good movie, but don’t let that put you off. Certainly it’s heart-wrenching and often very distressing, but it’s also exceptionally well made and a beautifully constructed fable. Handled with sensitivity, honesty and taste, The Road is a very rewarding movie that raises numerous questions about our future as both a species and a civilisation. By showing us what we stand to lose, it hopes to make us appreciate what we’ve got. That there is no grand conclusion, merely a glimmer of hope in the continuation of ‘the fire’, makes this film all the more thought provoking as a story, and refreshing as a piece of cinema.
by William Thomas
Director: John Hillcoat
USA, 2009, 119mins, rated 15
Screening: The Phoenix, 8 January 2010
Viewing The Road, my fears of Hollywood having meddled in this post-apocalyptic fable by author Cormac McCarthy were put to rest. The film is actually a remarkably faithful adaptation of the book. Its lead – a craggy, sunken-eyed Viggo Mortensen – puts in a fine performance as the gaunt, bearded survivor. His voice, a rasping broken whisper, provides the film’s occasional narration and works well as a device. It certainly helped allay my fears that McCarthy's own lyrical voice might be lost in the re-telling – his pared down poetry of despair being the only beautiful thing in an otherwise harrowing, nightmarish journey without respite or a clear end.
I needn't have worried in this regard, for The Road is certainly a harrowing film. The washed out scenery which director Hillcoat has assembled (without, it might be noted, the use of heavy CGI), is a paean to a landscape scoured clean of hope. He does a fine job as well in introducing a new element, in the sounds of a groaning, creaking, disintegrating nature. There is no sanctuary for the lingering survivors of the unexplained global disaster, no way stations or empty houses which are not stalked by the spectres of hunger and fear.
Through this bleak landscape, the nameless man and his son trek carrying "the fire," which is either a fable of their own to keep hope alive through the long nights, or else a last, fading glimmer of civilization. You are free to choose which, but in the suffering faces of both boy and man, there is something that seems to suggest a knowing nod to the latter. They also carry a gun, with only two bullets left in it, making it perhaps less a tool for the defence of their lives than a means of a less than horrific exit from its misery. For they are not alone, either on the road or in this ashen wilderness.
While the pair seem only a few canned goods away from succumbing to either sheer starvation or numbing cold, this is not what they fear the most. Cannibalistic gangs of equally begrimed humans prowl the dead earth. When the last tin of food is gone, and the final two humans sit down facing each other over the cold grey ashes, that will be the last. The evidence of this unravelling is seen as they travel, in the form of skulls and ribcages picked clean from a world devoid of any species but their own. In one important exchange, a fellow wanderer muses on the fate of the last living human. Would they know? It wouldn't matter he concludes, they'd just be.
A lot of The Road is of course just that, being. Life whittled down to its most primal urge. Hiding, running, shivering in the terrible grey light, the two do what they must to survive, and at the same time, cling to their own fragile humanity. In this at least, much of what made the book so moving, shines through. Hillcoat has done an excellent job with the locations to paint a portrait of a world that is not just dying, but is already dead and gone.
All that remains then is the man and the boy whom he is determined to protect with his last breath. All they have is each other and their binding, fierce love. If I have a complaint, if the film stumbles where the book soldiers on, it might be in those sequences where the few other human survivors enter the film. There is a subtle something – missing from the shambling cannibals and the few other survivors that the pair meet – a depth perhaps. It is where the film looses its focus when compared to the book, if anywhere, and starts to resemble other, lesser takes on the same grim subject.
It is a problem that most adaptations face, being forced to shoehorn the full complexity of a book, even in this case a relatively short one, into the span of a mere two hours. The two main protagonists are adroitly done, in broad strokes at least, but some of the others seem to have been left on the margins or painted in less fully. There is an important scene involving a pregnant couple, either entirely missing from the film or else reduced to a flickering event seen only from a distance. A later encounter with an older blind man, prophetically named Ely, is likewise not as fully fleshed out in the film as it is in the book. Commonplace, perhaps, but in these instances, it weakens the story, or at least the motivations of the two main travellers, as these encounters are formative ones which more fully explain and explore the fears and insecurities held by the man and boy.
This brings me to one final, minor bump, found towards the end at the two's southerly travels, but not in the book. They encounter an unexpected sign of life in the flight of an iridescent beetle. The symbolism feels a bit forced, and unnecessary. There is hope, of a sort, already in the ending, so I’m not certain why the filmmakers veer away from the path they have so unflinchingly followed up until now. Perhaps the book's final message was rated somewhere as just too unbearably grim: that the good guys have lost, as well as the bad, and the fire is carried, barely flickering, towards a horizon that does not offer up any false promises. There is love – and the bond it forges in the human heart – but sometimes even this must be left by the wayside for life to move on.
by Eric Edwards
Director: James Cameron
USA, 2009, 165min, rated 12A
Screening: IMAX Waterloo, 6 January 2010
From time-hopping sci-fi franchises to mega budget histori-fiction romance-cum-disaster epics, James Cameron’s always been a profitable if fairly hit and miss filmmaker. His latest offering, Avatar, takes this formula to a whole new level, hitting big with an incredible new 3D cinematic process, but aiming low with a family friendly, finger-wagging science fantasy eco yarn peppered with well-trodden narrative clichés.
It’s the year 2154 and mankind, having squandered the earth’s natural resources, is plundering the galaxies for more. On the distant moon Pandora, the valuable mineral unobtanium (a vital source of energy, apparently) has been discovered and is being mined by the RDA corporation, supported in their efforts by an army of ex-marine mercenaries and small team of scientists – led by Sigourney Weaver’s Dr Grace Augustine.
Pandora is inhabited by the Na’vi, a species of ten foot tall blue-skinned cat-people who live in close natural harmony with their lush and bounteous planet and bear a ludicrous Jar Jar Binks-esque similarity to some super spiritual African jungle tribe. The story’s conflict lies with the Na’vi’s resistance to the aggressive mining programme of RDA, the fact that the biggest source of unobtanium lies directly beneath their sacred village, and the efforts of Sigourney Weaver’s scientists to win the Na’vi’s ‘hearts and minds’ before the marines destroy them.
The plot centres on Jake Scully, a paraplegic ex-marine sent to Pandora to replace his dead brother as a member of the ‘Avatar’ team. Sigourney Weaver and friends have developed a way to connect with the Na’vi by creating a team of genetically-engineered human-Na’vi hybrids (Avatars) controlled through some sort of virtual reality telepathic mind displacement by genetically matched human controllers. There’s certainly a lot more fiction than science going on.
And it basically gets sillier from there. However, it doesn’t much matter, as from the opening scenes of Scully waking from cryogenic sleep to the final – and all-too inevitable – epic battle sequence, this is film best enjoyed with the mouth hanging open and the brain disengaged. Avatar’s not a movie most people will be rushing to see for its narrative complexities and scientific foresight; it’s all about the spectacle, and my word does it deliver on that.
James Cameron has developed a new digital HD stereoscopic version of his Fusion Camera System to create Avatar. The results are a stunningly deep and absorbing visual experience that both delivers on this long-promised format and ushers in a new era of cinema. Not only is this 3D technology as revolutionary to the cinema experience as the first talkies or the advent of colour, but the fact that it (temporarily) eradicates piracy and will have people flocking back to the cinema is going to be a major boon for the industry on the whole.
Much of Avatar takes place in the lush bioluminescent forests of the imagined Pandora, and it’s here that Cameron is able to employ the new 3D technology to its best effect. The depth of field that the new process brings is quite extraordinary, and there are plenty of moments when you really feel enveloped by the scenery, as foreground elements seemingly extend out and surround you.
But overall, aside from some seemingly heartfelt jibes at US foreign policy and the profit-at-any-cost aggression of the military-industrial complex, Avatar is a film that is all spectacle and very little else. For all the hype and money, Avatar is little more than an enjoyable and exceptionally dynamic thrill for the eyes and ears. It exists purely in the moment (albeit a 2 hour, 45 minute moment) and leaves you with little more to take home once the credits have rolled than a worthy-but-flawed Roland Emmerich-esque warning, to relinquish our dependency on technology and reconnect with mother earth.
by William Thomas