Tag: antipodean

A Galloping Genesis

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Many beautiful things have screened over the years at the Toronto International Film Festival, and many of the works I’ve enjoyed most didn’t involve famous people or the related screaming-fan hype. Good storytelling still matters a lot in my world. This year, I made a conscious effort to attend the kind of fascinating movies that made me love TIFF in the first place.

I’d heard very good things about The Dark Horse from its premiere at the New Zealand International Film Festival back in July. The subject matter intrigued because it hit on my interest (if not talent) in chess. I grew up with a chess-mad friend and knew the names of many greats, including Kiwi champ Genesis Potini, the so-called “dark horse” of the New Zealand chess world. Now I don’t played chess myself, but I appreciate the elegance of the game and the depth of passion that comes with it, to say nothing of its many committed players. The Dark Horse, based on a 2005 documentary about Potini, chronicles his efforts in founding the Gisborne-based Eastern Knights chess club as he simultaneously attempts to deal with his mental illness and help his nephew escape a nightmarish home life.

Rather than The Dark Horse being a trite, cutesy melodrama about mental illness, it offers a refreshing, unflinching look at a complex man, his realities, and the community he inspired. The film opens with Genesis (played with magical intensity by Cliff Curtis) walking through a downpour, amidst busy traffic, a colorful quilt draped over his shoulders, speaking a mix of Maori and English, manically repeating words and phrases. In real life, Potini worked hard to make peace with his illness while working to give disadvantaged youth a sense of hope, despite incredible odds at both macro and micro levels. These mix of challenges are reflected in simple, effective ways throughout the film (the anxious pill-taking, the terrifying nosebleed, his sleeping rough in a rainstorm) though perhaps nowhere more strongly than in the scenes between Genesis (“Gen”) and his troubled brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapi, in a heartbreaking performance). His house is a party headquarters for thuggish fellow gang members, not a proper environment in which to raise his sensitive teenaged son, Mana (played with searing vulnerability by James Rolleston). When Ariki angrily shouts at Gen that “The world doesn’t want him!” (about Mana), we suspect he could be speaking about any number of the kids we’ve seen Gen work with. There’s an ugly if necessary subtext here, one that gives important pause.

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However, far from giving in to despair, we see how the kids are able to flower, with diligence, discipline, patience, and kindness. Gen cultivates a deep sense of pride in their culture while fostering a true sense of self-worth and innate purpose. The scenes of the kids picking various chess pieces that represent who they are, and relating that to Maori mythology, is positively lyrical, but done in the most simple and elegant of ways. There is no soaring orchestral score, there are no cutesy quirks from any of the kids. Playing chess is not mere strategy on the board but necessary methodology in life; are you a Queen, a King, a pawn, a rook? The Dark Horse asks us to consider these questions not only of ourselves, but about those whom we might not think twice about, those whom we might write off, point fingers at, ostracize, ignore. Is there possibility? Can we guide them to “the center” as Gen is always urging his students to do on the board? Is there a better way to checkmate? The game’s mix of methodical and precise, of individual and community, is nicely realized onscreen, with scenes that alternate between Gen’s gentle engagements with the community, his difficult dealings with family, and his passionate, frequently tormented solo endeavors.

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Director James Napier Robertson has done a masterful job in painting a mesmerizing portrait of a talented, troubled man who wanted to make a difference in the lives of those around him. He wisely lingers on faces and uses many long shots, silently observing the world of gangs, violence, and abuse without judgment or patronage. The audience is watching pure being unfold, whether it’s Genesis contemplating his next move (in life and/or on the board), a good friend expressing silent worry, a father letting go of the son he knows he can’t take care of, a teenager too scared to go home. Curtis is particularly moving in expressing the challenges Genesis faces in attempting to ride the waves of his mental state while processing the desperation around him. This is an Oscar-worthy performance, one that mixes pathos, anger, fear, pain, and a deep, extraordinary beauty. There’s something very soulful about the way Curtis uses his eyes, capturing with riveting stillness a touching vulnerability and intense knowingness, all at once.

Knowing the events and people in the movie are real imbues The Dark Horse with an automatic sense of humanity, but Robertson smartly avoids any kind of Hollywood-hokey tone. His smart, sensitive script, creative cinematography (with liberal use of documentary-style hand-held filming), and clearly trusting relationship with his actors touches at the heart of something beautiful but rare in film these days: grace. It’s a feeling I couldn’t help but experience as I looked out at the movie’s cast and crew Saturday afternoon. As was expressed, making a film is an act of faith, just as seeing one is; the glory and the genius of The Dark Horse is how much that faith is so beautifully expressed, and so authentically rewarded. We come away blessed, strategizing next moves, entirely in the presence of the divine. To quote the film’s tagline, bravery is contagious — but indeed, it turns out, so is grace. Burn down the school!

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Less Hype, More Enigma

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Lately I find myself less and less likely to express an unpopular opinion on the internet. Whether it’s the drain on energy, or the fact I just don’t have either the time or the inclination to sit and follow a long thread of comments, arguments, trolling, and insults, I find staying silent is frequently the best option. That decision has lead me to value in-person conversation more than ever, but it’s also lead me to feel disenfranchised with web culture in and of itself, and lead me to only write about something when I feel really, really strongly about it, and even then, I tiptoe.

Consider this a stomp and not a tiptoe. I was initially entranced with the new trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road, the far-overdue fourth installment in the Mad Max film series. George Miller, the original filmmaker, has created a very atmospheric set-up designed to excite and enthrall. And yet, as the trailer wore on, it felt like a deliberate, well-designed set-up. I know trailers have a function: to excite, to whip up hype, to inspire passion, all of which translates into dollars. But watching Fury Road, I was entirely conscious of being manipulated, of being hyped up and purposely excited. The spiky designs, the color schemes, the fast cars… all looked like stuff I had loved long ago. As the trailer ended, all I could think of was something I read years ago: something has to be great because it is great, not because it reminds you of something great.

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The first formal essay I ever wrote was about heroism in the Mad Max movies. Typing it out on an old manual typewriter, my pre-teen brain was doing mental aerobics just thinking about all the cinematic heroes I’d seen in the past. My child-like ideas around the nature of heroism (affirmed in movies like Superman and Star Wars) came crashing down when I saw The Road Warrior. It was like nothing I’d ever seen: brutal, funny, violent, sad, action-packed, profound, with eye-catching designs, campy characters, and thrilling action sequences. There was an authenticity to it, one that I later learned sprang directly from an antipodean sensibility central to its flavor and identity. The rough-and-tumble combination of dark humor and intense violence (perhaps best manifest in the lethal boomerang of the Feral Kid), old-school action (crossbows!), and a keen longing for home (literal and figurative), combined with smart sprinklings of camp, ribald humor, and a total lack of self-consciousness gave The Road Warrior its deliciously Aussie flavor and assured its position in film history.

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Its predecessor shocked me because, for all of its futuristic trappings, Mad Max is a human drama played at the scale of an action movie. It’s also an action movie that’s interested in humans — our failings, our hurts, our weaknesses, and our entirely-familiar desire for revenge. It’s upsetting, and yet compulsively watchable. The economy with which some scenes were shot (the burnt hand of Max’s partner dropping from a sheet, the ball rolling along the road where his family is ultimately murdered) underline the simple, elegant blurring of good and bad in Miller’s world. Such blurs were deeply disturbing to my young teen mind, and gave me more than a few nightmares. The contrast between Gibson’s baby-faced cop and the brutality of his actions — it’s a contrast which silences, awes, haunts, and disturbs; here is a man who is neither likable nor unlikeable, but simply someone trying to get by in horrible conditions, with no set goal or destination beyond getting gasoline to keep on keepin’ on. The brutality of his choices reflect the brutality of his world, inner and outer. There is more than a whiff of existentialism at play here, one that strongly flavors the entire series.

The third installment in the Mad Max series was a letdown for fans, who found it too cute, too camp, too outright silly. The kids in the movie were, in retrospect, stand-ins for Ewoks in so many senses, and it was just too cute by a longshot. Still, there are certain outlandishly so-camp-they’re-brilliant aspects I like about Beyond Thunderdome, particularly the fight space of the title, a surreal way of meting out justice that combines the poetry of Cirque du Soleil’s high-wire acts and all the shrieking energy of a Monster Truck rally. Thirty years on, it’s still tacky, odd, humorous, and very visually compelling. I only wish the sequence had been longer.

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Another aspect of Thunderdome I cherish is the presence of Tina Turner; her Aunty Entity is fierce, angry, a clear outsider made good. Sure, it was trick casting, but it wasn’t some blonde, pouty-mouthed, fashionable, pretty, young model playing the role, and that meant (and still means) a lot; it was a woman who already had a career in another world and was clearly having the time of her life. With spring earrings, a knight-like metal dress (!), and a huge blonde wig, Turner’s Auntie is bloodthirsty and smart; it was (is) fun watching her driving a tricked-out car at top speed through the desert. (One of my mother’s best friends at the time I saw Thunderdome was a top female drag-racer; it was nice to see the smarts and energy I knew in real life so nicely translated into a character onscreen.) Turner wasn’t the young, soft, cutesy girlfriend-of-anyone, but rather, smart, efficient, The Boss. It was strange to see her flirting with the enigmatic hero too, holding all the cards of power, dancing around another side of him that hadn’t been revealed — and, some of us were hoping, would never be revealed. After the loss he suffered, Max is purposely never soft, never romantic; the world he lives in just doesn’t allow it. While the pair came from similar places emotionally (if not experientially), each character had handled their respective tragedies in wildly different ways. They were survivors, past good and evil. Still, I will forever be grateful to Miller for not stripping Aunty of her power and turning her into a mere love interest in service to the hero.

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That doesn’t mean the chemistry between Tina Turner and Mel Gibson wasn’t beguiling. Rather, it felt very genuine, and very adult, shot through with knowing and lived-in experience. The seventeen-year age gap didn’t matter (and it still shouldn’t, really). I didn’t quite understand that kind of chemistry as a pre-teen, but I definitely enjoyed watching it. There was an undercurrent of knowingness between the two, past their characters, that felt genuine, and somehow, very true to the original spirit of Miller’s work. When Turner and Gibson appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, I didn’t hesitate to buy a copy and pour over its contents. It was fascinating to learn about a big production like Beyond Thunderdome and see how it fit in with the larger Max universe of Miller’s making. The Road Warrior would always have my heart, of course, and its sequel seems contrived and lightweight in retrospect, but there was something fun about the whole event-like nature of it at the time.

It’s that same kind of hype (albeit on a much grander, far more endemic scale) I sense with the trailer for Fury Road, along with a heft plateful of nostalgia for an older-style brand of action film, one without comic book heroes or CGI effects. And yet, Fury Road falls into the same old popular-movie tropes, with only the window dressing to remind us that it’s a Mad Max film. The intro itself, where our hero introduces himself, makes me wince; those of us who became familiar with Miller’s post-apocalyptic universe through The Road Warrior didn’t know (or care about) the main character’s name throughout most of it — indeed, our erstwhile anti-hero barely spoke. It’s hard for me to stomach the hero speaking here, let alone introducing himself; to do it in such a belabored, intentional way feels heavy-handed and more than a little manipulative. I don’t want an introduction! I don’t want to hear Max talking about a “world of fire and blood.” Where’s the enigma gone? Can we get him back please?

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From there, we’re shown a number of action sequences, full of tropes that recall the original Road Warrior, but with none of its scrappy resiliency, low-budget punk glam, or hard-scrabble brutality; the scenes shot are beautiful, the cars are beautiful, the extras are beautiful, the desert is beautiful, the wispy ladies-in-white (as if there was ever any softness, ever, in the original Mad Max movies) are beautiful (they’re models in real life…), the menacing baddies are beautiful, and of course, the lead is beautiful. I like Tom Hardy as an actor — he’s macho, charismatic, and an eminently likable screen presence (even when he’s scary) — but at this point in his career, he’s a very well-known entity within the industry. He is not in the position Mel Gibson was in back in 1981 — that is, an only semi-known actor in North America, with a history of work back home. Gibson was steeped in the antipodean sensibility that I think is so central to Miller’s work, and he brought no baggage or associations to the role. I must confess, I am disappointed a lesser-known, more chameleon-like Aussie/Kiwi actor wasn’t cast in the lead here. I know it would be unrealistic to expect a studio to finance a Mad Max sequel in that case, and that Hardy’s casting (“BANE!“) means a lot in financial / box office return terms, but perhaps my disappointment with casting here is reflective of a larger disgust with the state of the industry, one where lists of popular actors with long business relationships replace the right actors with long acting resumes (and the right accents. Sorry, Tom.). The casting (Hardy’s, along with Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, and Zoe Kravitz) feels more financial than creative, though I could be entirely wrong there. I only know that what I saw set off my cinematic bullshit radar something fierce. Rather than being “blown away” by the trailer, as so many were (and as was repeatedly trumpeted by numerous media outlets), I found myself feeling the gale force winds of the hype machine, standing back, looking around, and noting how it wasn’t even raining, let alone cloudy.

I know, it’s an unpopular opinion, perhaps I should’ve stayed silent, perhaps I’m wholly guilty of an ugly, misguided nostalgia. Someone please mansplain this to me! (Kidding; please don’t.) The hallmarks of the Mad Max movies are indeed in place with Fury Road, but those elements only remind me of something that changed my life and the way I perceive culture. What’s more, those elements (all very Hollywood 2014: the fashionable names, the cutesy girls, the surly voiceover, the intensely loud sound mix, the fast-paced, dramatic edits) didn’t endear me to the newer material, but rather, drove me away, highlighting a wedge between what I remember loving and what has changed in the wider cultural world. I can’t, of course, fully and properly judge Fury Road until its release in 2015, but when I do see it next year (and I plan to), it won’t be because of the gale-force hype winds shrieking at me to be TOTALLY BLOWN AWAY, but rather, a simple curiosity. I know I’m in the minority cocking an eyebrow this early in the game, but I’m willing to keep my critical mind intact; it’s the least — and the best — I can do.

Something has to be great because it is great, not because it reminds you of something great.

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