Pope Joan

Pope Joan is such an interesting character and her story, based as it is on a centuries-old “legend”, is such an interesting concept; that in the middle ages, a German woman of exceptional intellect, learning, and courage, overcame the man-made limitations on her sex and rose to the top of her field, (albeit disguised as a man), and ended her days as the Pope in Rome. Remarkable.

Shame then that the 2009 movie is pretty much awful: dull and unremarkable. For a story of such natural dramatic tension – how does it feel to live your life in disguise? how does it feel to be held back from your vocation by narrow sexism? what is it like to know you might at any moment be uncovered, shamed and put to death? how do you balance physical needs with those of the role you’ve chosen to play? – it tackles these giddy issues only in passing, and instead plods along with all the flair of a BBC docudrama circa 1974. It tells us how Joan got there (complete with detached narrator’s voice-over) but gives us none of the introspection that might have made Joan conflicted, human, and thus interesting.

John Goodman aside, the supporting cast is just bland enough to not be able to tell if they are all being dubbed into English. And locations-wise it’s pretty boring too; a suitably low-rise Rome is recreated in the harsh, bleached light of Ouarzazate in Morocco. Terrible waste of a traumatized life.

Sex and the City 2

What a dog’s breakfast! And I don’t mean Sarah Jessica Parker. Or at least I don’t just mean her. The whole of Sex and the City 2 is a flagrant, farcical, wince-making attempt to cash in on the relative kudos of the previous film, and of course of the longer-running tv series.

This time round, under the flimsiest of pretexts, the spoilt, self-obsessed and increasingly unpleasant women head off to Abu Dhabi for a vacation of preening and falling about and whining and performing excruciatingly bad karaoke. In the process they do tremendous damage to the Emirate’s reputation as a tourism destination. And, like a fake Louis Vuitton bag – cheap, gaudy, inauthentic, dishonest and ugly – it wasn’t even filmed on location in the UAE. In spite of the efforts of the well-funded Abu Dhabi Film Commission, the production was wisely rejected by the censorship board and ultimately filmed in (an embarrassed and ashamed) Morocco instead.

The film’s utter lack of sincerity is literally gob-smacking and I found my mouth going “0” on more than one occasion – though the gay wedding scene is particularly, excruciatingly stomach-churning. Honestly – and this is from someone who liked the first movie – this film is utter, unadulterated rubbish. It may actually be an affront to Islam, but quite frankly, it’s also an affront to common sense, basic human decency and to anyone who ever bought a movie ticket.

Traitor

Traitor is a subdued little story about a Muslim soldier called Samir (Don Cheadle) who’s deep-deep-deep undercover as an explosives expert with a  ruthless terrorist cell. When his government handler – the only one who knows he’s one of the good guys – is shot dead, Samir must avoid being clapped in chains by the FBI, prevent an appallingly grandiose nation-wide atrocity AND not blow his cover with the wingnuts.

So, it’s an almost-really-good film. I call it “subdued” in my opening, because with all that malarkey going on, it’s not a tense or thrilling ride in the style of, say, a Bourne movie. Having said that, it’s not without interest either  – the insights into the workings of the terror cell itself are fascinating, chilling and considerably more thought-provoking than the usual. Traitor filmed in Toronto, Marseilles and Marrakech in Morocco, though none of the locations are particularly stand out. Ultimately the whole thing is held together by the excellent performances of Cheadle’s Samir, and Guy Pearce as the relentlessly dogged FBI agent – though there’s a schadenfreude-esque plot twist towards the end that is particularly satisfying. Worth a squizz.

Green Zone

Green Zone takes place in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam and the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Baghdad. Of course, it turns out that WMDs – on which, you’ll recall, the case for war was made – are notable only by their absence. But rather than continuing just to ask the boring where? question, Chief Roy Miller (stubby Matt Damon) starts asking something much more tricky: a why? Why, exactly, are their no WMDs to be found in Iraq? Ain’t that the 740 billion dollar (and counting) question……?

So I won’t give away the plot, but suffice it to say that once the question is asked, a whole heap of troubles begin for Chief Miller. The film has of course been slammed as being anti-American, but I have to say, I didn’t see it that way. I saw it more against those kinds of Americans who thought that marching into a foreign country about which they knew little and cared less, on the flimsiest of pretexts, and with the scantest of plans, in order to drive “regime change” in the name of Democracy was a really chipper idea. People like that don’t come off terribly well in the film. But really nor should they.

Obviously the toppling of Iraq’s government has not yet resulted in the creation of a peaceful, progressive, democratic, Western-leaning, forward-thinking, oil-producing hub in the Middle East (well, the oil bit’s happening, which, if you were cynical, might be cause for comment) so there’s zip chance in a billion that anyone’s going to be filming on location there any time soon. (save of course for knife-wielding Islamicists, chopping the heads off aidworkers over the internet)

So given the above, where would you go to film Iraq? Well Morocco’s served well in the past. So lock that in. And bits of Spain (Murcia and Valencia for instance.) But I loved most of all that the interiors of Saddam’s Palace of Nouveau Richenesse were recreated from the completely gilded and soulless Marriott Renaissance Hotel at Heathrow Airport. Even if it’s not a property owned by that unrepentant old hypocrite Doug Manchester, the Renaissance clearly deserves a boycott based on its criminal interior decor alone. So now you know.

Otherwise, UK On Screen has a list of the goodies.

Prince of Persia

In Prince of Persia, Jake Gyllenhaal pulls off the tremendous feat of becoming at once both more butch and more femme. Shot in Morocco, the plot revolves around a regicidal Royal who – eschewing more time-tested methods of removing his royal rivals (eg poison, gutting, beheading etc.) – devises a really outraegously convoluted plot whereby he’ll declare war on an innocent country, steal a magical dagger from a princess, and turn back time to a pivotal moment when (boo hoo!) he should have been the future king. Jake sets out to stop him.

So: Ben Kingsley, as the baddie, eats the furniture, and Ms. Fields once again revives her recurring role as an undercover English princess – though quite how she ends up in that desert beneath that duvet is beyond me. But it’s Prince-Charmingly-haired Jake who’s the most perplexing: doe eyed and recently buffed, very early on in the film, those Deliverance words sprang unbidden into my mind: “He got a real purdy mouth ain’t he?”

After that, I couldn’t really concentrate.

Body of Lies

Body of Lies is a strange film that’s handicapped to a degree by the fact that its two towering leads – diCaprio and Crowe – conduct most of their interactions telephonically.

DiCaprio plays Roger Ferris, a CIA operative in Iraq who’s distinguished from his fellow countrymen by actually liking the Middle East and Middle Easterners generally. But in spite of his fervour and relative decency, Ferris is continually undermined by his boss (Russell Crowe), a lard-ass cynic who observes and controls Ferris’ every move via real-time images from a high altitude spyplane. This way he also fucks up Ferris’ more sensitive relationships – budding girlfriend, Jordanian spy chief, Arab stoolpigeon, that kind of thing. The plot such as it is revolves around attempts to lure out a shady Bin Laden-ish recluse, mostly by prodding his ego via the creation of a fake rival terror outfit. Frankly they could have made a really good hour-and-a-half movie about that subplot alone.

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Babel

Caught Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel on tv again last night – a beautiful, gut wrenching and entirely appalling exposition of the confusions and mistakes and misunderstandings that separate us. In light of the xenophobic wrath unfolding in Johannesburg right now, it’s a timely reminder of umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – our humanity connects us, a person is a person through other persons. But then, Desmond Tutu is my hero.

Starring a toned-down Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, Babel features four stories that revolve around the central tale of an American couple on a vacation in Morocco. She is badly wounded when a bullet is fired through a tour bus window by a child playing with a gun. Meanwhile, back in America, the couple’s children travel into Mexico illegally with the family’s housekeeper, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), to attend her son’s wedding near Tijuana. They are accompanied by Amelia’s unstable nephew (Gael García Bernal). And far away in Tokyo, a deaf teenage girl named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) spins through the emotional upheavals of adolescence, disability and her mother’s suicide.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=syfU7drScwg; 350 350]

Each place has its own aural and visual palette, and the fine cinematography distinctly captures the harsh light and dessicated landscapes of Morocco and the Mexican border, as well as the neon chaos of Tokyo. As the movie jumps from place to place and time to time, we learn that the narratives are intertwined and, inspite of the misunderstandings of language (the cast speak Spanish, Berber, Japanese and sign language, as well as English) that everyone is somehow linked.

There’s an interesting insight into the director’s choice of locations and the impact of those choices on the film via the production notes at Movie Grande.

A couple of things stand out for me. Talking of the experience of filming on the edge of the Sahara, Iñárritu says: “The heat was brutal and uncomfortable, but it’s precisely what this story is about. This was not only method acting but method execution.”

And at the other end of the spectrum, Tokyo -the only urban location – was rife with its own challenges. Says Iñárritu; “Things work slowly there and there’s no film commission to help you through. There’s no permission to shoot anything, so you are always escaping from the police at every corner. We had to be brave and work like a guerilla-style crew, ready to improvise, moving fast.”

And that’s why we need Film Commissions……

Good Taste is a Deadly Attribute

My second Made in Cape Town movie of the weekend was Rendition, the first Hollywood production of South African director Gavin Hood, who won a Best Foreign Language Oscar for Tsotsi. Cinematography was by another high flying South African, Dion Beebe.

“Rendition” refers to the ability of the CIA to detain anyone suspected of terrorist dealings, and then to squirrel them away to foreign countries where they can be interrogated (read: tortured) indefinitely, without the fuss and bother of things like, oh, law, or due process. As the subject matter for a movie, it’s obviously pressingly relevant in these days of covert internment, interrogation and torture, post 9-11.

In Rendition, an Egyptian-American is snatched on the way home from a conference, and his pregnant wife has to try to find out what’s happened to him. The film begins in South Africa, though unfortunately only a few fleeting moments take place in Cape Town, against the gorgeous backdrop of Table Mountain.

The bulk of the action alternates between Washington DC and an undisclosed Third World, Middle Eastern country – which for filmmakers these days means Morocco.

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