DVD Review: VIVA RIVA!

Congolese film VIVA RIVA! is unlikely to be precisely what you might think. Going in, it’s easy to expect yet another modern example of third cinema depicting the struggles of a developing nation, shot in the hyper-kinetic, gritty style employed most famously by Fernando Meirelles in 2002’s CITY OF GOD, and imitated by so many films since. So in a sense it’s admirable that director Djo Munga chooses a much more conventional shooting and editing style for VIVA RIVA!, and indeed much of the film is beautifully photographed and richly colourful, but by largely ignoring any larger issues (aside from the occasional suggested or tangential reference), we are left with a somewhat empty and at times silly film. That’s not to say that third cinema needs to be all bleakness and political issues, but in this particular case a little more depth would be welcome, as the primary story is so slight and uninspired that the whole exercise becomes frustratingly pointless. 

VIVA RIVA! follows the story of small-time hustler Riva (Patsha Bay Mukuna) who, having just hijacked a large supply of fuel, returns to his hometown of Kinshasa in search of seemingly nothing more than a good time. Running afoul of the local head gangster due to his pursuit of Nora (Manie Malone), Riva bounces around the seedier parts of the city, drinking with buddies and visiting brothels, before being tracked down by the Angolan owners of the stolen fuel. Unfortunately, most of Riva’s story holds little interest, and several side plots, particularly one addressing the extent of the corruption within Kinshasa, are relegated to nothing more than background information. For a country like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, international film distribution is unfortunately scarce, so the emptiness of VIVA RIVA! is especially disappointing, as surely there are more interesting and meaningful stories to be told.

DVD Review: THE WINNING SEASON

Within the opening five minutes of WINNING SEASON, it’s pretty safe to assume you know how things are going to play out. The underdog high school sports story is well-trodden ground, and writer-director James C. Strouse brings little new to the table, instead trying to cram in too many stand-by elements of the genre, bloating a film which, while familiar, is harmless fluff featuring decent performances from a cast who all perhaps deserve a little better. The always dependable Sam Rockwell plays Bill, a down-on-his-luck deadbeat hired by an old friend (Rob Corddry) to coach the local high school girls basketball team. The team members themselves (led by the tirelessly plucky Emma Roberts), each an unfortunately underwritten representation of various high school issues, all deliver solid work with the exception of recent Oscar nominee Rooney Mara, who can certainly scowl admirably but seems a little disinterested by her role.

While it’s likely that some will dismiss WINNING SEASON as too clichéd and derivative, truthfully it’s hard not to be at least a little charmed and swept up in a story like this. Rather than sleepwalking through what will certainly be a forgotten role, Rockwell brings genuine heart to Bill, demanding that audiences root for him and his girls. There are a few too many side-plots which see the narrative lose a little focus, but as the season progresses to its inevitable and predictable conclusion, there are plenty of sweet moments and chuckles along the way. The rules of this genre work well enough to see WINNING SEASON through, but attempting to subvert the conventions a little more probably would have resulted in a fresher, more satisfying film.

THE HUNGER GAMES

When a massive movie franchise comes to a close, often a hole can develop in the highly competitive market of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. Perhaps never before has that hole been as large as the abyss left by the HARRY POTTER series, given the rapid release schedule of those films. It’s 2012, and there’s no new POTTER. Some might argue that the TWILIGHT series fills the void, yet not only is that franchise little more than a punchline to all but the hardcore fans, it too is set to (hopefully) wrap up this year. Enter THE HUNGER GAMES, seemingly a sure thing based on the POTTER formula: hugely successful series of young adult novels? Check. Talented cast of young leads and respected character actors as support? Naturally. Large scale production and, crucially, marketing budget? You bet. So is THE HUNGER GAMES worthy of taking up the POTTER mantle?

Amazingly, it might be even better.

While no-one would suggest that THE HUNGER GAMES is the most original new property coming from the Hollywood machine, Lionsgate and director Gary Ross adapt Suzanne Collins’ source material in just the right ways, jettisoning un-cinematic elements and focusing on the meat of the story right from the opening frame. Rather than build the world of Panem through tedious exposition and backstory, Ross instead drops us directly into the grim life of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her journey to the Hunger Games, a perverse spectacle inflicted annually on 24 unfortunate teens. While the POTTER series certainly headed in a darker direction as it went on, THE HUNGER GAMES is horrifically bleak right from the get go, and Ross’ decision to show instead of tell, through the use of wonderfully expressive, fluid camerawork, paints an ugly picture indeed. There are so many refreshing elements at work here, with an active, independent, and strong female protagonist and a startling absence of overblown CGI, but it’s the nastiness that makes this film unique. Delivering a family appropriate experience while retaining the majority of the violence and unpleasantness of the novel is a delicate proposition which Ross mostly pulls off, but one can’t help wondering about the potential for a much harder, R-rated cut of the film. It’s an understandable issue to be sure, but an issue nonetheless.

Where THE HUNGER GAMES perhaps doesn’t fare so well is in the internal strife faced by Katniss, particularly in regards to potential love interests Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Collins’ novel has much more freedom to explore, and even dwell on, Katniss’ emotional state through inner monologue, but given the nature of film, particularly a mainstream blockbuster such as this, much less room is left for introspection, and some of the character dynamics and relationships suffer in comparison. Katniss’ independence is unfortunately undercut by the franchise building mentality of the film, setting up an inevitable love triangle to be explored in two potential sequels. That said, she’s still a much more positive, appropriate female role model than TWILIGHT’s limp and passive Bella Swan, or indeed any young female character in recent memory. THE HUNGER GAMES is an important film at many levels, one which heralds the birth of the next big Hollywood franchise, and if the quality of the first installment is maintained then the sequels can’t come soon enough.

JOHN CARTER

It’s hard to believe, but it’s that time again. Blockbuster season. The increasingly lengthy part of the year when Hollywood studios throw the vast majority of their budgets at a handful of tent-pole releases, competing for audience dollars in a barrage of explosive effects, unimportant and underdeveloped plots, and the ever present corporate sponsorship deals. It’s a risky time for Hollywood; a successful blockbuster can develop into a cash-cow franchise for years to come, whereas a failure can dangerously cripple even the most powerful studios. In 2012, Disney gets us underway with JOHN CARTER, a project stuck in production limbo for decades, finally realised by Pixar director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, FINDING NEMO) making his live-action debut. Getting out of the gate early to avoid any potential competition is a clever move by Disney, yet it’s hard to imagine that JOHN CARTER will come close to the kind of box-office revenues needed to consider it a financial success. It’s not a bad film; in fact there is much to be admired about Stanton’s work on a difficult property, but it exists in an uncomfortable middle-ground of being perhaps too dense and metaphorical for mainstream audiences whilst probably too generic and clichéd to impress hardcore sci-fi/fantasy fans.

What impresses most about JOHN CARTER is how, for the most part, Stanton is allowed to run free with the strangeness of the world in which the film is set. There are moments of pure brilliance, both visually and thematically, where the movie that Stanton so obviously wants to make are allowed to shine through, recalling the majesty of the opening act of his previous film WALL-E. The film doesn’t hold your hand and get bogged down with excessive exposition, but rather trusts that audiences are familiar enough with the sci-fi genre that not everything needs to be spelled out. Disney have to be commended for taking an unexpected gamble and refusing to simplify much of the more complicated areas of the story, but unfortunately it’s probably a gamble that will not pay dividends. There are moments where the plot is perhaps a little too obtuse, and the hard sci-fi conventions don’t blend well with a dull, immaterial romantic sub-plot that sees the emotional core of the film come off as a little hollow. Another brave move was in the casting of an unproven, if not entirely unknown lead actor in Taylor Kitsch, who growls his way through the dialogue in a satisfactory but unfortunately uncharismatic manner.

Sadly, where JOHN CARTER is going to suffer most is in its familiar and unoriginal storyline. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ BARSOOM series of novels are something of a Rosetta Stone to the sci-fi/fantasy genre, stretching back a century to A PRINCESS OF MARS, the novel on which Stanton’s film takes the majority of its plot. Being such a beloved and influential series works against Disney however, as Burroughs’ novels have been imitated, borrowed from, and essentially plucked clean by almost every other film in the genre. Now, when JOHN CARTER arguably should be respected for being a true original, instead what results is a stylistically and thematically dusty work. Had JOHN CARTER been made 40 years ago, before STAR WARS, AVATAR, and any number of similar films, it would have undoubtedly been a smash, but as it is today, it’s difficult to view it as much more than the same hackneyed story we’ve seen before. It’s a shame that Burroughs importance to the genre will be completely over the head of most audiences, but a little more outside-the-box thinking from Stanton and Disney may have been able to salvage the film and introduce a new generation to his work. JOHN CARTER is not going to break Disney, yet the almost inevitably disappointing box-office is certainly going to hurt. It’s a fascinating start to the season, and for better or worse JOHN CARTER will almost certainly go down as the riskiest prospect on the blockbuster calendar.