As it is in Heaven

When I say As it is in Heaven is a Scandinavian Sister Act, I mean no disrespect to either movie. Both films feature a wild-haired, fish-out-of-water protagonist who unwillingly becomes involved in teaching harmony to a characterful, cacophanous choir, thereby allowing both choristers and choirmaster to discover joy and music, independence and community, redemption and love. There’s even a frosty religious zealot in both movies, proving once again that there’s no hypocrite like a religious hypocrite.

The difference of course is in the telling; As it is in Heaven is a gentle, moving human drama shot in the Swedish Norrland (in and around the rural towns of Kalix, Boden, Gallivare and Lulea, apparently) as the grim and gloomy winter slowly gives way to the promise of spring. Over 185 days, the characters fill in the gaps between their given lines and define themselves both as individuals and as part of a broader, connected family. It’s a lovely film, utterly winning in its humanity, and uniformly brilliantly acted. Look out in particular for the painful rebellion of the Preacher’s wife, and for the subtle kindnesses of the damaged Lena.

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Quantum of Solace

Strangely enough, I wasn’t really looking forward to Quantum of Solace, the 22nd Bond offering. In South Africa, movie critics roundly labelled the movie as dull, muttering that the artsy German director couldn’t “do” action, and they hinted darkly that the demise in standards marked the end of the Bond franchise globally. 

So to be honest, I was really pleasantly surprised. I mean, it’s not an outstanding film, and some of the more talkative moments feel awkward and they’re poorly lit. But it’s still got a enough of the old Bond legacy (cars, girls, glamorous locations) to make it striking, whilst moving ahead with the newer, grittier, brawlier Bond of the Daniel Craig era.

Taking up the story immediately after the death of Vesper in the previous film, Bond starts hunting down the people responsible for her death. The journey takes him from Siena to Haiti (with Panama playing grubby stand-in), then to Austria and finally to the deserts of Bolivia, where the criminal mastermind – weedy, nasty Dominic Greene – is undertaking a cunning plan to monopolise scarce water supplies.

So it’s got Bond islands, and Bond car chases along mountain roads and it’s got Bond hotel rooms and Bond girls at champagne-swigging parties. The most striking location is perhaps Greene’s eco-hotel in the desert – which is actually the space-age workers’ quarters at the Paranal Observatory, high in the Atacama Desert, Chile. There’s more at The Times on how to travel like Bond, and Nubricks goes a step further with ideas on how to buy property in the various locations. No gadgets in this movie though.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Ok, now that the movie’s finally out, it’s probably finally safe to talk about this…..

Although Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull features all sorts of Cold War triple agent spy-jinks and McCarthy-esque witch-hunts for hidden Reds, it would appear that most feared were those who might have tried to steal the movie’s secrets. The final credits even include a Confidentiality Co-ordinator, for heaven’s sake.

But check out this story from the New Haven Independent from May 2007 on the planned filming of the motorbike chase through the university, and you’ve basically got an entire run-down of what audiences would see on screen two years later. It’s bizarre. But it is actually a fairly typical Film Commission dilemma; oh so often, enthusiastic local journalists overwhelmed by the big stars and the Hollywood machine suddenly in their backyard, blurt out significant plot spoilers to the local community at time of filming. It’s even problematic with tv commercials, and it’s made so much worse when it’s the Film Commission that has facilitated the introduction. 

Bearing in mind that bit-part actor Tyler Nelson was sued for revealing a couple of Indie plotlines to his hometown newspaper, Oklahoma’s Edmond Sun, I’m surprised Lucasfilm didn’t jump on this one like, well…..Bad Guys.

 

Anyway, is the movie any good? Well, it certainly means to be; it’s light hearted, quick witted, self-referential fun. On the plus side, Shia Laboeuf is snake-hipped (Yes, he IS Indie’s kid)and Cate Blanchett is curiously sympathetic for a baddie, and the action leaps from location to location with typical gusto (New Mexico and Hawaii, as well as Conneticut). On the minus – though it doesn’t ever try to hide the fact that it’s nineteen years since Indie’s last outing – the producers chose to surround him with a lot of really OLD people, it’s kind of odd. Maybe youth wasn’t actually the target demographic?? 

At the bottom of it, the plot is pretty thin too. Basically, Indiana is asked to help a colleague in distress who has apparently found El Dorado, the fabled Amazonian City of Gold. He’s chased there by a Russian psychic with Louise Brooks hair, several angry natives and some extremely hungry ants. And that’s about it. Oh, and did I mention the aliens?  

Still, there’s always the theme tune; I challenge you NOT to be humming it on the way out of the theatre.

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……

Your Winnipeg

The sister of our very fabulous friend Di lives in Winnipeg in Canada. Why any sensible, sun-drenched South African should make a life in a city where the average temperature is minus three, and it’s dark for nine months of the year (ok, it isn’t really, it just seems that it is) is beyond comprehension.

Given my general bafflement, I’m therefore quite looking forward to searching out Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg – a place he affectionate deems “the Sleepwalking Capital of the World.”

 As reported in May’s Vogue:

….Maddin takes a drag, faltering Manitoba city and, like a princess kissing a particularly homely frog, turns it into something enchanting…….

Nearly Nailed by Political Interference

In the greater scheme of things, how an interfering official in the State of South Carolina dealt with the filming of the new Jessica Biel, James Marsden, Jake Gyllenhaal movie Nailed is a lesson on how not to engage with the film industry.

In Nailed, Biel’s character Alice is a sweet, small-town waitress who gets a nail lodged in her head in an accident, and begins acting in an erratic and outrageous (read sexual) manner as a result. Uninsured, she heads to Washington to fight for better health care and ends up falling for a clueless new congressman (Gyllenhaal) who must summon the political courage to save her.

 

South Carolina was selected as the location for filming largely due to a competitive incentive programme driven by the South Carolina Film Commission. (The incentives are in the form of a cash rebate, paid to the production company within 30 days of final audit. How it differs from tax credit-based incentives is clarified here.) But according to Mattheus Mei at the Leonardo’s Notebook blog, the State’s unpopular Commerce Secretary, Joe Taylor, actually tried to block filming in the State, because he didn’t like the sexual content of the script. 

‘It actually took maneuvering around the Secretary and confronting the legislature directly that was crucial in landing the film in Columbia. It was so bad that last week the Senate apparently had to have a committee meeting calling members of the Film Commission, the Commerce Department and the film itself to count before it to discuss the film – including the Film’s Director.’

Now anyone who has worked at the intersection between government and film knows that there are a whole heap of objections (some valid, some entirely spurious) to the efficacy and applicability of incentives. And it really depends on the creativity of the sitting politicians to grasp – and manage appropriately – the economic potential thrown up by the film sector.

But as I discussed at the last AFCI Cineposium in New Mexico, there’s a little thing known as the Law of Unintented Consequences that always comes back to bite you: in this case, the self-important opinions of an (elected?) official.

Sadly, it looks like it’s adding up to a fairly lousy experience for the producers. Inspite of a production that involves at least two of the most beautiful people in film – AND features the luminescent Catherine Keener to boot – this hasn’t been an easy shoot.  Veteran actor James Caan apparently left the film set three weeks ago in a dispute with the director over the way his character should choke on a cookie (I kid you not) And then on Friday, the South Carolina State newspaper reported that The Screen Actors Guild had called all its members, including Gyllenhaal and Biel, on strike, after film producers did not keep enough money in accounts to pay actors. They’re back at work now, apparently, but my, I’m sure the producers will all have really fond memories of Columbia, SC……..

Pieces of Dan in Real Life

Anyone whining about the lack of success of the South African film industry need only to look at a movie like Pieces of April to understand what we’re doing wrong. Written and directed by Peter Hedges, April is a small, personal film, well told.  It stars Katie Holmes (post-Dawson and pre-Tom and therefore appealing) as an estranged daughter struggling to prepare a Thanksgiving meal for her dying mother and the rest of her dysfunctional family. A good portion takes place in the Lower East Side tenement block where April resides. It is a very human movie, full of sadness, good humour, wry insights and cracking one liners. The script is excellent and the performances are first rate; Patricia Clarkson was nominated for just about every award out there for her role as April’s dying mother. And there is Politics too; one of the most memorable scenes is when April’s black boyfriend (Derek Luke) goes out to what you’re set up to believe is a drug deal, only to realise that he’s actually gone to rent a suit to impress his girlfriend’s parents. See; Politics with a big P but without the trowel. Great script, great acting, small cast, few locations; South African film makers – never ever slow to wag a lecturely finger or bludgeon the audience with Issues – could learn a lot from this.

Anyway, I really only mention April because we caught Dan in Real Life at the cinema on Monday – a movie also co-written and directed by Hedges. Dan stars Steve Carrell and Juliette Binoche, and it has similar underlying themes to Hedges’ previous work; finding love, finding yourself, facing death and accepting the importance of family (however screwy, daft and inappropriate they may be.) Hedges also uses similar constructs including a central location where the family gathers – in this case a rambling timber-panelled home on Conanicut Island in the state of Rhode Island.

Like Louisiana, Rhode Island has a pretty aggressive and successful Film Incentive programme, and that’s why you’ll increasingly see RI locations appearing on screens before you. Dan was filmed in in the cities of Newport, East Greenwich, Jamestown, Westerly and Providence, with key scenes at Providence’s Seven Stars Bakery and the Point Judith Lighthouse in Narragansett.

However, the main focus is the family home (a monstrously ugly pile called “Riven Rock” located on West Bay View Drive in Jamestown) where the chaotic Burns clan gather en masse for bonding activitiesthat include family aerobics, family crossword puzzle races, family American football and family talent shows. I think we were supposed to learn from all this that the family unit, though it may be loopy, is warm and familiar and always supportive. Personally, if I’d been thrust into the midst of that zoo, I’d probably be considering doing a Jeremy Bamber.

Iron Man v. Ghost Rider

Someone up there was making a point; after the local release of the excellent Iron Man movie last week, the MNET Sunday night feature was Ghost Rider, another Marvel Comics superhero, this time starring Nicholas Cage.

The story’s set mostly in Texas, though it was filmed in Australia at the Melbourne Docklands film studios and in a place reportedly called “the motorcycle district” of Melbourne. There’s a video on the landscapes at the movie’s blogsite. I thought Australia did stand-in for the south rather well, though the crowd scenes at the Telstra Dome are created using computer-generated technology rather than real people. This is a recurring theme and flaw throughout the filming; cgi seems to always take precedence over things like substance, character and plot.

The dross that is Ghost Rider simply reiterates why Iron Man is so successful. Says Peter Hartlaub in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Ghost Rider” has everything you don’t want from your superhero movie, including lack of logic, boring action scenes, bad acting in the supporting performances, a brutally slow 114-minute running time and cringe-worthy dialogue…..”

However, (in homage to Rolling Stone Magazine) the real evil in this flick isn’t Blackheart, the Devil’s son, it’s the soul-sucking devil of modern cinema: Nicholas Cage. Possibly the worst ham actor of his generation, Little Nicky Coppola has rarely met a character he couldn’t crucify. In this case, he is reported to have shied away from portraying Johnny Blaze as Marvel’s original “hard drinking and smoking bad ass” but rather decided to “give him some depth.” For the eternally overblown, pompous, sledgehammerish Cage, that means feeding him Jellybabies rather than Jack, and making him a fan of Karen Carpenter. That’s it. That’s what Cage thinks gives depth. It’s rubbish, really, and while you’re watching him grimace and fake, you realise with genuine horror that his hairpiece makes him a dead-ringer for Sir Cliff Richard. Scary.