Tuesday, 25 July 2017

FILM REVIEW: A GHOST STORY



Madman Films

In his fourth feature, writer-director David Lowery tells a story of grief; one uniquely told (as the title suggests) from the point of view of the deceased. 'Not so unique,' you say. 'Jerry Zucker's 1990 film Ghost did just that.' Well, yes. Kind of.

But Lowery's film is no supernatural drama where a dead man is helped pass over to the 'other side' by a streetwise, sassy-mouthed psychic. For one, it's near dialogue-free.

When Casey Affleck's character dies in an automobile accident, he returns to the weatherboard house he shared with his wife (Rooney Mara), watching over her as she mourns his death, eats pie, and goes about her life. Did I mention that he does so not as the visage of Affleck but as a man draped in a heavy white sheet, with black spots where his eyes should be?

Depending on your disposition, A Ghost Story will appear as either a silly and tedious exercise, or a profound and moving experience (or perhaps somewhere in between); Lowery's languid though only 90-minute film told from the perspective of the ghost, whose experience of time is both fleeting and eternal. The cinematography (by Andrew Droz Palermo) and score (Daniel Hart) add to the elegiac nature of Lowery's film, which is somewhat Terrence Malick-esque though without possessing the whispering voice-overs or (thankfully) twirling femmes (and Hart's score is more synthesizers than swelling symphonies).

As the days and the seasons pass, his wife eventually moves on and out; selling their home and leaving him behind. Another family moves in, then others. Years pass. The house is demolished and futuristic skyscrapers are built, but the ghost persists. Or he does until his loneliness becomes unbearable and he takes a flying leap off the building.

Can ghosts commit suicide? Perhaps not, since he materializes in pioneer days as a settler family pegs out where their homestead will stand. Time passes and before long we're right back where we started, witnessing events we've already seen through Casey and Rooney's eyes, but this time from the p.o.v of the ghost (as they say on Doctor Who, time is a great big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey).

A meditation on time, A Ghost Story asks whether, like great art, does love – or grief – endure? Is that our legacy as humans? Or, ultimately, does nothing matter? Again, your world outlook may determine your answer but there's no denying the uniquely beautiful way in which the questions have been framed.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

FILM REVIEW: DUNKIRK



Roadshow Films

Not nearly as harrowing as the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, Christopher Nolan's lean but unrelenting Dunkirk manages to remind us that war is indeed – as it always has been – hell.

With limited dialogue, immersive sound design, an at-times too insistent score (Hans Zimmer), and yes, impressive IMAX cinematography shot on 70mm (courtesy of Hoyte Van Hoytema), Nolan recreates the evacuation of British soldiers from the northern French seaport of Dunkirk as viscerally as possible (though blood and actual viscera are nowhere to be seen).

Unfolding in three overlapping time lines (which you will find either bold or gimmicky), Dunkirk is told from three points of view: a British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) trying to escape the precarious beach, with all manner of bad luck and German artillery befalling him; two Brit fighter pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden), charged with keeping their German counterparts at bay; and the crew of an English fishing trawler (captained by Mark Rylance), who answer the call to sail to France to rescue their boys.

It is the former timeline which is the most gripping, as young men (yes, including Harry Styles) struggle to stay alive until rescue arrives. Like Zimmer's score – and the Channel tide – the tension builds then subsides, only to be ratcheted up once more.

Indeed, Nolan's entire film is constructed as one big ticking clock, counting down not only until the rescue but that point where all three storylines converge. It's a device that keeps you close to the edge of your seat for the film's 106-minute running time (surprisingly short for Nolan), rendering the action effective if not necessarily affecting. Perhaps that is the point. Like Australia's own Gallipoli, which has generated an ugly nationalistic mythos, the story of the events Dunkirk is essentially one of failure and retreat: a turning point in the war, yes, but far from anything resembling victory.

Dunkirk is a Dutch word which translates as 'church in the dunes', but if there is a god, he had abandoned the British on that beach. The devil, however, is in the detail, and Nolan brings all of his cinematic prowess to bear on this tale which, while not celebrating war, honours British pluck and heroism. It's an impressive tribute.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

FILM REVIEW: BABY DRIVER



Sony Pictures

In his fifth feature, and only his second for Hollywood, writer-director Edgar Wright attempts to re-imagine the 'car heist' genre by melding it with that of the musical (sort of).

And while by no means a car crash, the emphasis on automotive gymnastics and a pumping soundtrack in Baby Driver comes at the expense of human emotion. You might be awed by the technical display but you won't necessarily care for any of those people behind the wheel.

Principally that person is Baby (Ansel Elgort): a sunglasses-wearing, iPod-listening young man with very little to say but who sees and hears everything. He's the go-to getaway driver for crime boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), who likes to mix up his crews for each heist but keeps Baby as a constant. Baby's a good luck charm, he's also in debt to Doc.

But when we meet him he's almost paid up - the old 'one last job' chestnut; Baby can see his way out of the life he has fallen into, and with romance blossoming between he and sweet diner waitress, Debora (Lily Rose), the future's looking bright. Of course life has a way of rear-ending you, and just when Baby thinks he's out -- and he and Debora might take to the open road with their super cool mixes blasting on the stereo -- he's pulled back in: forced to drive one more job for Doc.

Riding shotgun are Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), a sexed-up Bonnie and Clyde, and Bats (Jamie Foxx), a menacing, paranoid thug whose name is obviously a contraction of Bat Shit (as in crazy). And like the best laid plans in any heist movie, it all falls apart in spectacular fashion.

Rev heads will find much to delight in here, with Wright and his stunt car team producing impressive feats of precision driving which, unlike those in the Fast and Furious franchise, obey the laws of physics and logic (for the most part). There's also an insistent jukebox soundtrack to get your foot tapping and head nodding, but whether that qualifies Baby Driver as a musical remains debatable (I say no.).

What there isn't in Baby Driver is a care factor. Not on the director's part -- Wright deftly deploys his usual flare for quick cuts and quick wits -- but on the part of the audience. As sweet as Baby and Debora's romance is, and as noble as Baby's intentions are (ensuring the safety of his deaf foster father, Joseph (CJ Jones); trying to cause as little harm to bystanders as possible), it's hard to feel any sense of urgency for their safety. Will they make it out alive? Who cares? I didn't.

Baby Driver will thrill in the moment but it's the soundtrack, and not the characters, that will linger.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

MY MOST ANTICIPATED FILMS OF THE SECOND HALF OF 2017



Earlier this year I posted about my Least Anticipated Films of 2017, so in a bid to counter that negativity -- and as we reach the halfway point of the year -- I thought I'd select some of the films I'm really looking forward to seeing in Australian cinemas between now and New Year's Eve.

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
20th Century Fox
July 27

No reviews as yet but the early word from media screenings for this third installment of the Apes reboot is pretty darn good. With the Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, and then Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014, Fox showed they were capable of creating blockbusters with smarts. They also proved that motion-capture performances can be truly amazing. Seriously, how good is Andy Serkis as Caesar? Will this be the film that -- finally -- lands him an Oscar nomination? Matt Reeves is again at the helm as the apes and humans are once again headed for war.

ALI'S WEDDING
Madman Films
August 31

Winning the Audience Award at the recent Sydney Film Festival, this Australian comedy looks set to be the local breakout hit of the year. Co-written by actor, writer and comedian Osamah Sami (with Andrew Knight; Hacksaw Ridge, The Water Diviner), it is based on a true story from Sami’s life. After a reckless lie sets off a catastrophic chain of events, Ali (Sami), the son of a Muslim cleric, finds himself caught between his sense of duty to his family and following his heart. The film also stars Don Hany, Ryan Corr and newcomer Helana Sawires, who plays the Australian-born Muslim Osamah would prefer to marry and not the arranged bride of his parents' choosing. My Big Fat Muslim Wedding? Sounds like an invitation too good to pass up.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES
20th Century Fox
September 28

There are as many good films about tennis as Anna Kournikova has singles titles, so while Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (the creative team behind Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine) have a low net to clear, my hopes for Battle of the Sexes to be aces are pretty high. Emma Stone plays Billie Jean King and Steve Carell is Bobby Riggs, two American tennis greats and opposite ends of their careers in 1973, and opposite sides of the fight for sexual equality, when they decided to go head-to-head on the tennis court. From the trailer, the film certainly gets the 1970s look right, and, promisingly, it will also touch on King's sexuality. (I'm also hoping the film shows Riggs' first man v woman match; where he kicked the ass of one-time Australian tennis great, now loudmouth bigot, Margaret Court.)

PADDINGTON 2
StudioCanal
December 21

One of the delights of recent years was the first big screen outing for the much-loved book and TV show Paddington; the Peruvian bear with a penchant for marmalade and a knack for getting into trouble in his adopted London home. Perfectly voiced by Ben Whishaw, and supported by humans Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville and Julie Walters, Paddington 2 again sees the bear in the sights of a not-so nice Londoner; Hugh Grant taking up the evil mantle left by Nicole Kidman in the first film. It will be interesting to see if the Brexit vote has impacted the world of Paddington -- the first film was very much about an immigrant finding a new, welcoming home in London -- but if it has the same warmth, charm and British sense of humour as the first, then Paddington 2 should be a treat.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Sony Pictures
December 26

I haven't read the novel by Andre Aciman, but the glowing reviews following the Sundance premiere of Luca Guadagnino's adaptation (penned by James Ivory) of this gay coming of age tale -- as well as the overwhelmingly positive response from its Sydney Film Festival showing (jealous!) -- has made Call Me By Your Name my most anticipated film for the remainder of 2017. There's already awards buzz for this sun-drenched tale set in early 1980s Italy, where the teenage son of a professor falls for his father's intern (Armie Hammer). Timothee Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg and Hammer, seemingly gifted his best role since 2010's The Social Network, have all been praised for their performances. Now if someone could just make my dream project -- Armie Hammer as American tennis legend Bill Tillden -- that'd be great.