Monday, October 1, 2012

Catching Up with Ai Weiwei, Southern Wild Beasts & Time-Travelling Willis

I'm playing a bit of catch up here on some films currently in release at local cinemas. Such are some of the problems that arise with seeing new release films so far in advance, or on DVD screener. One can forget, and it certainly doesn't help that I am generally quite bad with following release dates. Don't get me wrong, I adore getting the chance to see Pitch Perfect at the same time as the yanks, but by the time its December release date rolls around I'll probably be all "wait, that didn't come out already?" As for Looper though, we should just be thankful that distributors are seeing the benefits of releasing films at the same time as overseas, and not just the $200mil epic blockbusters. The film industry would benefit greatly from more occurrences of this.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Dir. Alison Klayman
Country: USA
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 91mins

This will make a perfect future companion piece to another excellent 2012 documentary, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present. Alison Klayman's debut film sees her take on the role of director, writer, producer, cinematographer, and sound recordist and has ended up making one of the finest documentaries of the year. Klayman must be a talent to watch given all the hats she appears to have worn during the production of this film. Jumping off from her work on an episode of Frontline about Chinese artist and activist (activist artist? the two are indeed intertwined) Ai Weiwei, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a thoroughly smart and educational look at a man who has left an indelible impression upon the Chinese and global art world with his thought-provoking work.

For somebody such as me who came to the world of Ai Weiwei with no knowledge whatsoever, I found Never Sorry fascinating. The chance to learn about such an important figure is something I covet - other recent examples include the Abramovic doco, Wim Wenders' Pina, and Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop - and while the filmmaking certainly isn't as audacious those latter two titles, its simplicity is respectfully in tune with the artist it examines. Klayman's luck came in being able to capture several high profile moments in Weiwei's life, including several art exhibitions included a famed Tate Modern piece featuring 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds, his assault at the hand of Chinese police, Weiwei's initiative to document the names of Chinese children killed in the devastating 2008 earthquake, and his mysterious disappearance and subsequent cone of silence placed around him by the government. As periods of time in a person's life to capture, this is certainly a constantly eye-opening one.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry opens with rather inauspicious discussion between the artist and the camera, musing on the inherent smartness of cats (he has over 40) and in particular one feline that has figured out how to open doors like humans (but not close them). It's a comical way to open a documentary that eventually pokes at some very serious and damaging fires of Chinese politics. It's also incredibly timely to, navigating the ways that Weiwei has utilised social media, and in particular Twitter on his smart phone, in this modern age to document the world he sees. Without it Never Sorry would have been a great history lesson, but with it there is an urgency and allows Klayman to liven up the proceedings with visuals and POV-style images. B+

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Dir. Benh Zeitlin
Country: USA
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 93min

Fantastical visions in the bajou don't come as distinctive as this (er, have there been many of those?) debut film from American director Benh Zeitlin. Moving up from shorts, his familiarity with the form is clear as passages of Beasts of the Southern Wild play out as if conceived as shorts and pasted together once repurposed to the story. If I wasn't terribly moved by the experience, I certainly appreciated the technical skill put into it and was startled by some of the images that he and cinematographer Ben Richardson were able to capture. The swirling mix of greens, blues, and purples all give the film a rich, unique style courtesy of the decision film in the positively rustic Super 16mm

Through the eyes of Hushpuppy (the sensational-for-a-six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis - let's not get ahead of ourselves here and start throwing around Anna Paquin superlatives, okay) we see a world of celebratory decay. Some will call it "poverty porn", but those people probably don't actually live in poverty so as to be so obnoxiously crass. I admit to finding the two lead characters rather unflattering ones to anchor a movie, and thus found the movie hard to grasp. Somewhat obvious illusions to Where the Wild Things Are are only accentuated by the score of Zeitlin and Ben Romer that sounds like cuts from an Arcade Fire instrumental album. Thankfully brisk at only 93 minutes long, the editing of Crockett Doob and Affonso Gonçalves certainly allows for a childlike attention span, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film to surround yourself with, but I found its attempts at tear-wrenching to be ultimately a bit too shallow. B-

Dir. Rian Johnson
Country: USA / China
Aus Rating: MA15+
Running Time: 118mins

Fun fact: Rian Johnson's winningly original science fiction actioner is the same length as Todd Graff's fluffy church choir musical, Joyful Noise!

While that film was inarguably too long, I couldn't help but suspect Johnson has a longer version of Looper still stirring in his mind. Much like other audacious films of the same ilk - think Alex Proyas' Dark City, or Ridley Scott's Blade Runner - there's certainly an even less mainstream film waiting to get out that isn't saddled with some distracting narration and the obvious necessity of deviating towards audience-placating guns and mind-twisting physics over the human drama of the second half.

The narrative of Looper is so complex and riddled with the potential for surprise that I think it's best to go in knowing as little as possible. Everybody knows that Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play the same character, brought together by science in the future - that much everyone can surely accept is okay to know about beforehand - but I really appreciated the way that Johnson's screenplay deviated from the expected. Even once it has introduced the character that the film is really all about, it continues to confound expectations in the way it goes about building the intensity and revealing the layers of character that are so important the success of a film that is most definitely about more than just the whiz-bang effects.

Sadly for a film as proudly original as Looper, it has been handed a musical score that I absolutely loathed. A generic piece of Hollywood pap by the director's own brother ("oops" on their account) that sounds more at home in a bland sci-fi flub like the recent Total Recall remake. Thankfully, the visuals are exceptional and really make a believable world out of 2040. Whereas other films work with the idea that every building in the world will be demolished at some stage soon and replaced by 100-storey glass skyscrapers, Looper - thanks to the visual effects blended with the production design of Ed Verreaux and art direction of James A Gelarden - presents a world that is a mix of high-scale glam and seething decay. It's an all too believable world that helps sell the films loftier story devices like time travel.

Ultimately though, Looper is a stern reminder that the mind has always been and will always be a far more dangerous weapon than guns and ammunition. It presents moral questions and does so with the figurative angel and devil on our shoulder in the form of Gordon-Levitt and Willis. If the end is all a little bit too neat and tidy then so be it because elsewhere Looper is working overtime to be as bold and creative as possible. B+

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