Saturday, 28 January 2012
Just how far would you go for love? Or more precisely, to reclaim your love? In The Vow, a romantic drama "inspired by real events", a car accident sees one half of a married couple lose part of her memory -- her entire relationship with her husband -- and the other half of the couple trying desperately to bring it - and win her - back.
Leo (Channing Tatum) and Paige (Rachel McAdams) are a happily married Chicago couple, seemingly still in the honeymoon phase of their marriage, when fate, disguised as a big ass truck, intervenes; smashing into their parked car and sending Paige through the windscreen.
She survives the accident but once she wakes from her induced coma it seems a chunk of her memory didn't. Paige can't remember ever having met Leo, let alone marrying him and making a life with him. I'm an artist? I was studying law. Who's the President? Obama?! And if we're married, why don't you know my parents?
Paige's parents are played by Sam Neill and Jessica Lange, who are given scant to do but fill the role of well-moneyed wasps and minor villains. They don't much care for Leo and they see their daughter's predicament as an opportunity to repair their once strained relationship.
All the while, Leo is competing against the in-laws, Paige's ex-boyfriend (a smarmy Scott Speedman), and Paige herself, struggling to come to terms with the Paige that Leo so loves, to win his wife back.
Surprisingly, it's Channing Tatum who walks away with 'best in show' honours in The Vow. His lovesick puppy look works for the material, even more so when he doesn't speak (and shirtless doesn't hurt either). McAdams, always a warm screen presence, who has yet to find that great role following her breakthrough in 2004's The Notebook, is again likeable here but for the most part she's outperformed by her changing hairstyles.
But neither can overcome the flatness at which all of these events play out. There are no peaks or valleys; everything unfolds on the same lacklustre wavelength. And for a romantic drama, The Vow is seriously lacking in both departments as well as any sense of urgency (it's a long 104 minutes).
Whether that has to do with the direction of feature film debutant, Michael Sucsy (who made the acclaimed television miniseries Grey Gardens, with Drew Barrymore and Ms. Lange), or the five credited screenwriters (including Sucsy) is probably six of one and half a dozen of the other.
You won't be missing anything if you don't choose The Vow as your date night viewing this Valentine's Day, and much like McAdams' Paige, you'll soon forget it if you do.
No doubt already known to most as the "sex addiction film", artist-cum-director Steve McQueen's sophomore effort, Shame, arrives in Australian cinemas two weeks after its leading man, Michael Fassbender, was "snubbed" in the Academy Awards' Best Actor category for his figuratively, and quite literally, naked performance.
Fassbender plays Brandon, the sex addict in question. A New York corporate type, Brandon lives alone in his sterile high rise apartment with nothing for company but a huge cache of pornography and the occasional female escort. And when at work, without access to either - his office computer is confiscated to be cleaned of online porn: "must have been the intern" - Brandon visits the men's room to relieve himself.
Addict or compulsive, Brandon's sexual (over)drive - his shame - causes or enables his solitary existence; he's never been in a relationship longer than a few months and he certainly doesn't believe in marriage or the monogamous state. Emotions and connections are kept at arms length, and that includes family.
Sissy (Carey Mulligan) is Brandon's younger sister, who is as expressive and emotionally needy as he is shut-off, and when she arrives, unannounced and uninvited, to stay with him while in town to perform as a lounge act, it precipitates big brother's free-fall.
"You trap me", Brandon hisses at Sissy in one of their many fraught encounters. Indeed, every scene involving Fassbender and Mulligan (better served here than in 2011's Drive, but still not used nearly enough) had me on edge and feeling more than a little queasy. Given Brandon's compulsion and the pair's seeming lack of inhibition around each other, one almost suspects events to take a too familial turn.
The nature of their relationship, and what may have transpired in their youth, is never explored in Shame, nor how Brandon came to suffer his addiction/affliction. McQueen and screenwriter, Abi Morgan (who also penned The Iron Lady), aren't so much concerned with Brandon's rise (no pun intended) but his fall, most of which takes place in one crazily eventful night.
The events of that night are no doubt responsible for Shame receiving an R-rating in Australia (which I think is unnecessary), and may have others thinking that, much like Fassbender throughout the film, the Emperor has no clothes.
For there is an argument to be made that McQueen's film, as intense and discomfiting as his 2008 debut, Hunger, isn't nearly as deep and meaningful as it thinks it is - that it's as empty as its protagonist's existence - despite the use of the almost-incessant classical music to have you believe otherwise.
But there's no denying the intensity of Michael Fassbender's performance. He commits fully to the role of a man unable to control his urges, or his anger, and who is sent into a downward spiral as a result. It's a bravura performance deserving of all the accolades it's garnered thus far (Academy be damned!).
Of course, it's absurd to rank art, or single out a mere five performances as "the best" in any given year. As equally absurd as leaving Fassbender (and Michael Shannon in Take Shelter, for that matter) out of just such a list. For shame.
20th Century Fox Films
Found footage films have been enjoying a steady popularity with cinemagoers, and film producers, for some 12 years following the success of The Blair Witch Project, the handy cam low-budgeter which racked up big scares and even bigger box office in 1999.
Of course, film producers like the 'found footage' genre (which more often than not is also horror) because it usually involves little financial output for potentially high gain. Chronicle, the feature film debut of director Josh Trank, would appear to have a higher budget than most others in this genre, but then that has a lot to do with the film's focus on superpowers rather than horror (not to mention the backing of 20th Century Fox).
When three high school students happen upon a tunnel-like crater in the woods, they investigate further where they discover a glowing, crystal-like meteor. Through mere exposure, the meteor endows the trio with telekinetic powers which, like a muscle, become stronger the more they are used (a bloody nose is an irritating side effect).
The boys - Andrew (Dane DeHaan), an outsider who is bullied at school as well as at home by his dad, an alcoholic nursing his bed-ridden wife; Matt (Alex Russell), Andrew's cousin, who likes to quote philosophy and thinks himself above the general high school populace; and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), the high school hero currently running for president - try out their new found powers. Though tentative at first, it's not too long before they're moving vehicles with the power of their minds, defying gravity and eventually taking to the skies.
Following a telekinetic snafu, the boys decide to set some rules for themselves - with great power comes great responsibility, yadda, yadda, yadda - which they agree to. But given that they weren't the best of buds to begin with, and with Andrew's home life deteriorating, those rules are soon broken and all hell breaks loose.
It comes as no surprise when Andrew decides to go Carrie on everyone's asses, and 'Hulk' out (you won't like him when he's angry) in down town Seattle. The problem for me was, I didn't find Andrew at all sympathetic.
Chronicle is told predominantly from Andrew's point of view (conveniently buying a video camera the day before the story begins and documenting his every waking moment) but the bullied outsider with a dying mum is a whiny wuss who, even if he hadn't been corrupted with alien superpowers, would most likely have become some sort of sociopath.
Still, all three leads are impressive as the adolescents (they even look like teenagers!) who have to cope with the double edged sword of superpowers on top of high school, home life and hormones; Max Landis's screenplay is as much about puberty blues as it is super-sizing.
And it's an impressive debut for Josh Trank, not only revitalising the superhero film but the 'found footage' genre as well (even if he does cheat somewhat towards the end with the p.o.v). 20th Century Fox were obviously happy with the result: there are conflicting reports that Trank has been tapped to re-boot their Fantastic Four franchise.
*Maybe he could also direct the talked about live-action version of Akira? My viewing companion informs me that Chronicle references that 1988 animated feature significantly.
Friday, 13 January 2012
It's 1927. The iconic hillside sign still reads Hollywoodland and the movies - black and white, and silent - are a relatively young entertainment but are at the height of their popularity. And George Valentin (charm personified, Jean Dujardin), a vowel shy of Rudolph and with a passing resemblance to Clarke Gable, is the leading man of choice.
But talkies (movies with sound) are on the way in, and as Valentin refuses to be wired for sound, much to the chagrin of the studio head honcho (John Goodman), his days of stardom seem to be numbered. Conversely, the fortunes of Valentin fan and wannabe starlet, Peppy Miller (a delightful Berenice Bejo), are on the rise.
Peppy fast becomes the face - and voice - of the new generation of Hollywood, and as the world enters the Great Depression, so too does Valentin. Putting all of his money into a silent epic which bombs, he's left penniless and also left by his wife (Penelope Ann Miller); his companion and co-star, Jack (Uggie the scene-stealing dog), remaining steadfast.
But will Valentin's pride be the end of him, or will Peppy, aided by Valentin's loyal chauffeur (James Cromwell) be able to avert a tragedy?
Arriving in cinemas the week after it received 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and Director for Frenchman Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist is riding a wave of popularity, hype and, yes, backlash. But believe everything (positive) you've heard and read about The Artist: it's a beguiling piece of movie-making magic.
Like Martin Scorsese's Hugo, its main Oscars competition, The Artist celebrates cinema; past and present, old technologies and new. Some have dismissed the film by Hazanavicius, previously known for his series of secret agent spoofs, OSS 117, as a novelty and gimmick. That may be, but it's a lovingly crafted, cleverly executed one which he and his cast fully commit to.
Hazanavicius adopts the techniques of silent films - which were never truly silent to begin with - whilst occasionally using sound cleverly and judiciously. He also references a number of Hollywood classics, silent and talkie, most notably Singin' In The Rain, which The Artist shares a basic plotline, a couple of scenes which tip their hat to Citizen Kane. Even a classic line from Greta Garbo gets a run.
But you don't need to be a film buff or historian to enjoy The Artist; it's pleasures are simple but highly rewarding. Nostalgic whilst simultaneously bold - how else to describe a black and white, silent film in the digital age with 3D on the rise? - Michel Hazanavicius's love letter to cinema speaks to anyone whoever fell in love with, or at, the movies.
Snakes On A Plane. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Buried. Title, plot synopsis and spoilers all in one. It may be a case of Hollywood being lazy, particularly when it comes to the high concept Snakes (2006) (where one suspects they came up with the title first), but sometimes the title is just a jumping off point (pun intended).
Certainly Jesse James (2007) was a far more involved (and even longer) film than its all-encompassing title. And with Man On A Ledge, director Asger Leth serves up a serviceable thriller which is concerned with much more than the titular potential jumper (though it's much closer to Snakes than Jesse James in execution).
Walker (Sam Worthington) checks-in to a downtown New York hotel, has what one suspects is a last supper (lobster and fries?), and proceeds to climb out onto the building's ledge, after first removing all trace of his fingerprints from the room.
Walker's high enough off the ground to make an impression on his body, if not the sidewalk, should he jump, which is what he threatens to do unless the NYPD call in their top, though troubled, negotiator, Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks).
She's on the outer with her NYPD brethren (which includes Ed Burns) following her recent failure to prevent the death of a fellow cop. Mercer takes her time in uncovering the jumper's true identity (which we learn early on in a flashback sequence) but she quickly intuits that he's not your usual jumper.
Walker is actually Nick Cassidy, a former NYPD cop wrongly imprisoned for the theft of a multi-million dollar diamond belonging to a wealthy businessman (Ed Harris, playing evil and cashing a cheque).
Escaping custody while attending his father's funeral, it's soon revealed that Cassidy has gone out on a ledge, literally and figuratively, to prove his innocence and right some wrongs. He's aided in his mission by his kid brother, Joey (Jamie Bell), and Joey's girlfriend, Angie (Genesis Rodriguez, who obviously got the part when Megan Fox found something - anything - else to do).
It's hard not to go into much more detail without becoming too spoiler-ish suffice to say things become a bit more active, and far more silly, when Mercer begins to suspect Cassidy is telling the truth, Joey and Angie put their part of the plan into action, and Cassidy leaps into the fray as well.
It's perhaps too early in the year to label Man On A Ledge one of the worst of 2012. Silly, yes, but not the worst. It's certainly not Abduction bad; the 2011 Taylor Lautner starrer which was so bad it was almost good.
But the latest Hollywood vehicle for Aussie Sam Worthington, who has yet to shine post-Avatar, will require a brain in neutral, a suspension of disbelief, and a leap of faith in order to win over its intended audience.
20th Century Fox Films
Hype is never a good thing for a film, especially one which you have to wait too long to see. Martha Marcy May Marlene was probably more heavily praised than hyped, but having to wait almost 12 months to see writer-director Sean Durkin's directorial feature debut, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2011, was never going to help.
Not that the wait - or the hype - is entirely the fault of the film; I missed the chance to see it at the Sydney Film Festival back in June of 2011. Conversely, Martha Marcy's absence from the current Hollywood awards season probably helped lower my expectations for the film.
That's not to say that Durkin's film, or the central performance by Elizabeth Olsen (the source of most of the hype and awards buzz), is bad or even a disappointment. Overrated perhaps, but again, not entirely the fault of the film.
We first meet Martha (Olsen), or Marcy May, when she decides to escape from a cult she has fallen in with in upstate New York. Marcy May is the name given to her by the cult's charismatic leader, Patrick (an effectively creepy John Hawkes), whose spell she at first falls under but whose ways - sexual abuse of the female members, violence against people whose homes they raid for food, money and supplies - finally prove too much.
Martha seeks refuge in the Connecticut home of her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and Lucy's architect husband, Max (Hugh Dancy), but she is unable to shake her memories of her time with Patrick - the film flashes back and forth between the present in Connecticut and her past with the cult - or the fear that his followers will arrive at any moment to take her back.
Matters aren't helped by the attitudes of Lucy, who abandoned Martha to relatives while she attended college following their parents' death, and Max, both seemingly indifferent to, and with an out right lack of sympathy for Martha's wildly inconsistent moods and continual unravelling.
Elizabeth Olsen is transfixing as Martha/Marcy May (the Marlene from the title is the generic name the women of the cult use when answering the phone). Olsen's rounded face is simultaneously watchable yet predominantly void of expression; sunny and bright in her early days with Patrick's group, she perfectly conveys the mental fragility and state of anxiety in which Martha exists following her escape.
Olsen's aided greatly by Durkin who sets the unsettling tone early on. There is a pervading sense of dread throughout Martha Marcy almost from the beginning. We observe the daily rituals of the cult which seem innocent enough, but once Martha makes a break for it, the tension kicks in and a sense of unease persists through to the final credits.
And the ending of Martha Marcy has upset some audiences, leaving them feeling short changed by Durkin; that the abruptness of the ending is a cop out. But I'm less inclined to anger. Not necessarily one for closure or full disclosure, I much prefer that the film ends before the seemingly inevitable climax that is alluded to earlier in the film, and which I had been dreading.
The ending as it stands could be viewed as either a strength or a weakness of the first time feature director, but Durkin - along with Olsen - has announced his arrival, and I will be interested to see what both talents, sans hype, do next .
Wednesday, 11 January 2012
Warner Bros. Films
If windows are the eyes to the soul, then J. Edgar Hoover, founder of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, possessed a very dark soul indeed. As effectively portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Hoover's eyes are a beady black, revealing very little white and nary a glint as though in a permanent squint; always thinking, always analysing people and situations.
Perhaps that made him the best candidate to found the organisation which treated crime fighting as more than a job but a science. Of course, it would too easily explain why such a man - one with a zeal for justice and a strong anti-communist bent - would abuse the power of the office he held for some 50 years.
J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood's biopic penned by Oscar-winning scribe (for Milk, 2008) Dustin Lance Black, serves as a potted history of the United States in the first half of the 20th century, as well as a study of a man who dedicated his life to his work and success at all costs; leaving little time for a social life, friends or lovers.
Other than his mother (a vinegary Judi Dench), the only people Hoover takes into his confidence are his personal secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who rebuffs his marriage proposal but proceeds to loyally man his office for five decades, and Clyde Tolson (a dapper Armie Hammer), a law graduate who fast becomes Hoover's #2 man in the office and his #1 man away from it. (The film does everything to suggest the two men were "in love" if not lovers.)
Much like the man himself, J. Edgar is torn between what it is and what it wants to be: a study of a complicated man whose public life was at cross purposes with his private emotions. And much of that confusion stems as much from Black's screenplay as it does the historical figure himself, for while Hoover's official life was a matter of public record, his personal life remains purely speculative.
Black's and Eastwood's handling of the Edgar-Tolson relationship is, for the most part, as coy as the two men themselves; Hammer's Tolsen looks at DiCaprio's Hoover with undisguised admiration, a goofy smile always upon his face. And while they may dine together twice a day, every day, and occasionally hold hands, there ain't nothing dirty going on.
But those intimate moments we do witness, including one melodoramatic moment in a hotel room, but particularly in the men's old age - the film spans 50-odd years, flashing back and forth as Hoover recounts his story to a succession of handsome young FBI agents - hints at an altogether different, more interesting film.
Eastwood's handling of the political aspects of Hoover's career and impact, however, are less successful. When Hoover meets with the sitting U.S. president - he served eight of them, keeping secret files on each - the effect is almost laughable; President Nixon (Christopher Shyer) and Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) are borderline pantomime caricatures. Other notable events, such as the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, are similarly unconvincing.
Still, as a film attempting to examine the human side of a reviled conservative political figure, J. Edgar is more successful than the recent The Iron Lady, where Meryl Streep brilliantly portrayed an aged Margaret Thatcher but which saw director, Phyllida Lloyd, and screenwriter, Abi Morgan, skimp on the British PM's less than perfect time in office and the socio-political fallout.
Whether J. Edgar paints a sympathetic portrait of a reviled man, one who attempted to blackmail Dr Martin Luther King (whom he deemed an enemy of the State) to prevent him accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, may well depend on your politics. For mine, Eastwood and Black's even-handedness sees Hoover remain unlikeable if not entirely evil, black beady eyes not withstanding.
Monday, 9 January 2012
While Weekend owes a minor debt to the lo-fi, two-hander films Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) - Richard Linklater's wonderful walk-and-talk pieces about possible soul mates, played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke - writer-director Andrew Haigh's second feature is very much an original, and arguably far more emotionally resonant.
When out on a Friday night, Russell (Tom Cullen) meets Glen (Chris New), or we assume he does. We don't witness the meet-cute but the pair wake up the next morning in Russell's bed. The previous night is a bit of a blur to them both, although Glen distinctly remembers rescuing Russell "from Gollum", a less than attractive potential pick-up.
Glen is an artist, and just happens to have brought along his dictaphone, hoping to involve Russell in an impromptu interview for a project he's working on. Russell, not surprisingly, is reticent at first; he's reserved by nature as opposed to Glen's more forthright demeanour. They are polar opposites, but could they also be soul mates?
What begins as a one night stand quickly takes on another dimension; the pair agreeing to meet up after Russell's shift at the local aquatic centre - where he works as a lifeguard and endures the lunch room sex talk of his straight co-workers (presumably Russell isn't out to all) - where a night-in with food, wine, drugs, sex and lots of conversation ensues.
Gay or straight, audiences shouldn't have trouble identifying with the characters and situations in Weekend. Haigh, who also edited Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000), deals with a universe of emotion which is less about sexuality - though it is refreshing to see three dimensional gay characters front and centre - and more about connection.
Newcomers Tom Cullen and Chris New give perfectly realised performances: subtlely nuanced, full of humour and heart, and real. Cullen's Russell is a quiet man whose sexuality is not his defining feature; New's Glen is, by comparison, an extrovert who believes everything one says and does is a statement if not necessarily a political one.
Whether that statement is a declaration of love is tempered somewhat, as is the couple's entire weekend, by the imminent departure of Glen; he's heading to the U.S. where he's enrolled in a two-year arts course, leaving that Sunday evening. Will he go? Will he stay? Will love prevail?
Weekend is not a rom-com, and Andrew Haigh isn't interested in pat, audience-comforting resolutions; real life is never that simple. But I, for one, would be eager for Haigh, Cullen and New to revisit Russell and Glen in the near future, a la Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Another Weekend, perhaps?
*Also screening as part of the 2012 Mardi Gras Film Festival
Sunday, 1 January 2012
When Julia Roberts set out for Chicago to win back her ex-college beau from the matrimonial clutches of the chocolate-covered Cameron Diaz in P.J. Hogan's 1997 rom-com, My Best Friend's Wedding, she pulled out all the stops. It was the first time the star had used her flaming mange and mega-watt smile for evil instead of good, subverting our expectations of both the rom-com and its leading lady in the process.
Young Adult isn't a rom-com but a darkly comic tale which similarly sees its beautiful but troubled anti-heroine, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), return to her home town of Mercury, Minnesota to win back her high school sweet heart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson).
Never mind that Buddy is happily married and a recent first time father: Mavis views Buddy's situation as a domestic prison and she's come to break him out, friends and family be damned.
And Theron sinks her teeth into the monstrous role which doesn't require the prosthetics of her Oscar-winning turn in Patty Jenkins' Monster (2003): Mavis radiates ugly.
But director, Jason Retman, and screenwriter, Diablo Cody (teaming up for the first time since their 2007 Oscar-winning effort, Juno), aren't conducting a study in bitchery or setting Mavis up for an epiphany-inducing fall.
There may be a rude awakening in-store for this A-grade bitch who ruled the hallways of her high school and became a minor celebrity in her hometown - first by getting out of it, and then for her success as a published author (well, ghost writer) of a teen serial - but Young Adult is made of darker stuff, and not at all concerned with redemption.
That makes the film both bold and rare. There have been plenty of films where the protagonist has been unlikeable, but more often than not they recognise the error of their ways and perform a 180 degree character turn in the third act: all's well that ends well. That's not the case here.
Mavis Gary is profoundly unhappy, as attested to by her almost-permanent inebriated state and her string of instantly regrettable one night stands (the opening sequences of Young Adult succinctly sets up the pattern of Mavis's life perfectly). Of course, Mavis is a "success", so if she is unhappy, then it stands to reason that Buddy, or anyone who remained in Mercury, must be even more unhappy than she.
Anyone who grew up in a small town and managed to "escape" will recognise pieces of themselves in Theron's Mavis Gary. Whether the narcissism, superiority complex or the lingering if inexplicable unhappiness, her predicament is identifiable however extreme. Mavis is a grotesque but she's no less real for that, and Theron, Reitman and Cody ensure we never lose sight of the human beneath the horrid behaviour.
Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) certainly doesn't. A vaguely remembered classmate (they had neighbouring lockers), Matt bumps into Mavis on her first night back in town (at a bar no less), and immediately sees her for what she is. He's not afraid to call her on all her many faults or, as required, to call a spade a f**king evil bitch. But Matt is also the closest thing to a friend Mavis will find upon her return to Mercury.
Theron and Oswalt (star of the Cody-created TV show, United States of Tara, but best known as the voice of Remy the rat in Pixar's Ratatouille (2007)) make for one of the best odd-couple pairings of the year. A somewhat comic inversion of the Beauty and the Beast paradigm, the two make for excellent sparring partners, whose barbs not only bruise but sometimes cut deep.
The same goes for Young Adult. As much as you laugh at Mavis Gary's self destructive homecoming, you'll spend just as much time tut-tutting or cringing. Failure to connect with Mavis may result in a failure to connect with the film - the darkest, most adult work Reitman and Cody have done to date - but I'd recommend you take that risk.
Besides, you can always go home afterwards and watch My Best Friend's Wedding to get that bitter after-taste out of your mouth. Getting Young Adult out from under your skin, however, may prove somewhat harder.