Wednesday, 29 August 2012
With nods to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest, but in very much his own distinct style, Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom tells the tale of two young lovers, Sam and Suzy (newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, respectively), and a violent storm headed for a little New England isle in the summer of 1965.
Sam and Suzy aren't exactly star crossed lovers, but as “troubled children” each 12-year-old recognises in the other a kindred spirit when they first meet – Sam in his Khaki Scouts uniform; Suzy dressed as a raven for an amateur production – in the summer of 1964. One year later, after a series of written correspondences, the pair meet again and run away together.
Given that they are on a small island, New Penzance, Sam and Suzy know that they aren't really going to escape. They're not so much literally running away but metaphorically: one last hurrah before puberty, their loss of innocence, and the demands of the adult world which requires one to put away childish things, such as their shared interests in fantasy books and French pop music (Suzy bringing along her little brother's record player).
The adults in their lives – Suzy's lawyer parents (Frances McDormand, and Anderson regular, Bill Murray); the island constabulary, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis); Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton); and Social Services (Tilda Swinton), for Sam is an orphan and a ward of the State – react to this turns of events as though two inmates from a maximum security prison had escaped.
An over-reaction to two kids alone in the “wild”, or are they just responding to the sudden introduction of excitement that's lacking in their own tiny lives on this tiny isle?
Sam's fellow Khaki Scouts, not particularly fond of the runaway to begin with, see the boy's flight as both a betrayal of their Troop, and as an opportunity to test their tracking and hunting skills (Lord of the Flies is more these boys' reading style).
Wes Anderson is very much about style, one which is often labeled 'quirky' and 'whimsical', and sometimes intended as a backhanded compliment at best. But his previous film, the fantastic stop-animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), is (for shame) the only one of his previous six films I've seen – and I adored it.
And Moonrise Kingdom – with its period details, hyper-real colours and production design, and flights of fancy – could just as easily have worked as animation. But Anderson, and co-writer Roman Coppola (yes, brother to Sofia, and son to Francis Ford), have imbued the artifice with such warmth and heart that you wouldn't begrudge the actors – old pros (there's also Harvey Keitel as a Scoutmaster, and Bob Balaban, dressed like a Christmas elf, as the narrator-of-sorts) and newcomers alike – their fun.
Don't deny yourself, either, this wonderful little gem of a film.
Wednesday, 22 August 2012
Akin to watching your parents not only talk about sex but attempt to 'get it on', David Frankel's Hope Springs, penned by Vanessa Taylor, is an awkward viewing experience. It is also, in spite of its unimpressive rom-com trailer, a warmly enjoyable drama (with comic moments) about attempting to rediscover that romantic spark in a long-term relationship.
Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have been married 31 years. Their two kids have grown and flown the nest, and Kay thought this turn of events may have precipitated a return to both romantic and, yes, sexual, intimacy between the couple. But Arnold, who has been sleeping in the spare room for a few years following a back complaint, hasn't seen any reason to shake-up their situation.
Arnold goes off to the office every morning, after being served coffee, eggs and bacon by Kay as he reads the paper, while Kay is left alone and unfulfilled. Arnold's in a pattern, Kay's in a rut, and it's make or break time. Sick of watching her husband doze off while watching the golf channel of an evening, Kay books two flights and a week-long therapy session in Great Hope Springs with the aim of restoring the intimacy to their relationship.
Given that the doctor facilitating these in-depth counselling sessions, Feld, is played by Steve Carell, you might think they are a laugh-riot. But no. There are moments of humour but they arise from Kay and Arnold's unease when discussing their sex lives. Carell is playing it straight; Streep and Jones are on show here, and they deliver.
Awkward, reticent and, in Arnold's case, not at all happy to be there, the pair squirms and blushes their way through the sessions which are by turns amusing and emotionally honest. It requires a stronger director than Frankel to keep Streep's little ticks in check (she can roll her eyes one too many times for my liking), but while the role of devoted yet neglected housewife is not a stretch for the actress, she excels just the same.
And Jones, with his craggy features and thankfully more engaged than he was in Men In Black III, makes for a complicated study in manhood. We may never get to the real source of Arnold's intimacy problems - generational? psychological? physical? - but Jones manages to make the gruff husband empathetic.
But not everything is resolved between Kay and Arnold when they depart Great Hope Springs; returning to separate bedrooms, and seemingly separate lives. And when Annie Lennox's Why starts playing late in the film, I had hoped Frankel would have the balls to end the film with the song's final line: You don't know what I feel. Cut to black. The End.
Sadly that's not the case, and Hope Springs ends with a happy postscript. Before then though, it's an enjoyable and refreshingly honest look at marriage which should hit harder, and closer to home, for those in the same demographic as Kay and Arnold.
Sunday, 12 August 2012
Not so much a film as a campaign, Lee Hirsch's doco Bully wants to raise awareness of the seemingly endemic occurrence of student-on-student bullying in American schools. And he does. Following various kids and families affected by bullying – from kids beaten while riding the bus, or ostracized for their sexuality, to the parents dealing with the suicide of a child who couldn't take it any more – Hirsch effectively captures the horror and heartache of the problem.
He also captures the ineffectiveness of one school administrator to recognise the problem, or deal with it effectively (boys will be boys, kids can be cruel, it's just a phase), even when she's presented with filmed evidence of her pupils' monstrous behaviour towards one particular boy on the school bus.
That would be Alex. Born prematurely, and perhaps physically awkward as a result (his glasses and large lips have his classmates dub him 'Fish Face'), Alex has no friends and bears the brunt of his fellow students' physical abuse on a daily basis. Sadly, Alex has almost become accustomed to the abuse, even immune to it: negative attention is better than not being noticed at all, right?
When Alex's parents meet with said administrator, they're met with sincere smiles and a promise to do "something". But you just know this woman (who says she's ridden that same bus route as Alex and those kids are "just as good as gold") has no idea about what's really happening, what's at stake or what to do if she did.
Bully is designed to make you angry, and it does. And it should. But what it doesn't do is offer alternative points of view – why do these kids bully? what do their parents think? – or anything much in the way of a solution.
Other than concerned parents and citizens organising nationwide, and international anti-bullying rallies through social media (an area which is not addressed by Hirsch for its facilitation of bullying), there are no suggestions as to what to do to stamp out the problem at its root cause, or indeed what those causes may be.
And there is no counter-story to the depicted school administrator's ineffective means of dealing with (or even recognising) the bullying taking place in the corridors and on the buses. A look at a school successfully implementing an anti-bullying program, and how it deals with bullying behaviour would have made a nice change from the sadness of unheard children and incompetent authority figures.
(It must be noted that none of the children or families in Hirsch's film are from major American cities but middle America, where God is great and outsiders (or anyone "different") are not readily welcomed.)
Bully would be an excellent documentary to screen in classrooms; to hold a mirror up to the students' behaviour and its disturbing consequences. A classmate shouldn't have to drop-out of school because her sexuality unsettles others; one shouldn't have to resort to taking her mother's handgun on the bus to keep her tormentors at bay; and one shouldn't have to fashion a noose from an item of clothing and hang himself in his bedroom closet because the idea of going to school the next day is simply too much to bear.
Those examples are just three of the stories covered in Bully; Lee Hirsch effectively giving a human face to the anecdotes and statistics. Here's hoping it's not just the kids who heed the lesson.
A Bourne film without Jason Bourne sounds akin to a James Bond film without 007. Mission: impossible! But when star Matt Damon, and director Paul Greengrass, decided not to front up for a fourth instalment of the adventures of the amnesiac agent, Universal Pictures weren't about to retire their critically and commercially successful franchise gracefully.
Hence we have The Bourne Legacy. Helmed by Bourne series scribe, Tony Gilroy (director of the Oscar-nominated Michael Clayton (2007)), film #4's opening moments overlap with the closing events of #3, The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), establishing itself in the same universe but preparing the audience, fans and newcomers, for a new story and a new hero.
Legacy opens with a static shot of a silhoutted male figure floating in water, a nod to the final shot of The Bourne Ultimatum which saw Damon's Jason Bourne swimming off into the proverbial – and as it turned out, quite literal – sunset. The swimmer in Legacy's opening shot, however, is Jeremy Renner, whose Aaron Cross emerges from the icy waters in the Alaskan wilderness as part of a one-man, Bear Grylls-style training exercise.
Cross, like Bourne, is a U.S. government operative produced by a top secret initiative but as we're later informed, he and his fellow Outcome agents are “Treadstone without the inconsistencies”; Treadstone being the program which produced Bourne. That absence of inconsistency owes a great deal to the Outcome program's use of medication, regularly administered to the agents, and which enhances both their physical and mental capacities. And it's when Cross's supply of green (for braun) and blue (brains) pills runs dry that the operative goes rogue. His mission, unlike the amnesiac Bourne, is not so much personal as medical: he wants his next fix.
This leads Cross to Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), one of Outcome's medicos who performed quarterly physicals on Cross (whom she had only known as 5) and his colleagues. And talk about perfect timing: Marta has been targeted for termination by Outcome's head honcho, Col. Eric Byer (Edward Norton), who orders the destruction of all evidence of their program following the revelation of Treadstone to the U.S. media, courtesy of Bourne and the C.I.A.'s Pam Landy (Joan Allen, a series stalwart but sadly only glimpsed briefly here).
Having survived the first attempt on her life (a tense and somewhat disturbing scene – given recent events in Colorado – involving a gunman in her laboratory), Shearing is saved from termination by an Outcome team when Cross makes a house call on the good doctor.
The pair then take flight, by car to Canada firstly, and then literally hopping a flight to Manila, headed for the factory where Outcome outsources the production of the little blue pills Cross so craves. Ironically, this little blue pill sees the blood flow to his brain and not his 'little head': the rogue agent is driven by the fear of losing his increased mental ability more than anything else.
That mission, rather than the previous films' search for self, may render The Bourne Legacy less emotionally involving but that is countered somewhat by the chemistry between Renner and Weisz. Aaron Cross isn't the tortured soul that Jason Bourne was, but while he's been designed as a superior model his humanity often wins out.
Marta Shearing, having adopted a 'don't ask, don't tell' attitude to her research with Outcome, proves vulnerable and contrite when the results come back to bite her on the ass. But Weisz provides Shearing with an inner strength when the situation dictates. Although if there is to be a sequel, one suspects Weisz's doctor will meet a similar fate to Franka Potente, Jason Bourne's love interest who took a bullet early on in film #2, The Bourne Supremacy (2004), in order to 'spur' Cross on.
And there is already talk of a sequel, and of Matt Damon returning. For now though, fans of the Bourne franchise will have to make due with Legacy. Taken as a stand alone action-thriller it works well enough; the requisite action sequences, including a motorcycle chase on the motorways of Manila, are thrilling (and sans Greengrass's shaky-cam), and Jeremy Renner is suitably rugged yet empathetic.
But as a Bourne film, Legacy is easily the weakest entry in the franchise. Messrs Gilroy and Renner will need to double-up on their green and blue pills in the lead-up to #5, and not rely solely on a shot of Vitamin D(amon) to successfully complete -- or warrant -- another mission.
Saturday, 11 August 2012
When I read the brief synopsis for Bernie on imdb -- a mortician strikes up a friendship with a wealthy widow, though when he kills her, he goes to great lengths to create the illusion that she's alive -- I had suspected to be in for some Weekend At Bernie's-style corpse-carrying capers and hi-jinx. And that assumption wouldn't ordinarily be out of the question given the presence of Jack Black.
But writer-director Richard Linklater's mockumentary-like black comedy based on actual events is an altogether different beast. And so, too, is Mr Black who, in the titular role of Bernie Tiede, small town Texas mortician, renaissance man and friend to all, gives arguably the best performance of his career (outside of 2008's Kung Fu Panda, of course).
Bernie Tiede arrives in the small Texan town of Carthage to take up a position as assistant funeral director and fast becomes a popular resident (particularly with the women folk), as much for his customer service skills as his ability to make the loved ones' deceased look peaceful and, in some instances, better than they ever did in life.
Bernie, played by Black with a straight-backed walk not unlike Alfred Hitchcock and a moustache that would scream 'cad' in a silent film, may or may not be gay but so besotted is the community with this portly prince charming, who directs and performs in local theatre productions and leads a Boy Scout troop, that even a sexual peccadillo like that can be overlooked.
What they can't fathom, however, is Bernie's inexplicable relationship with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Inexplicable because the majority of the townsfolk regard the wealthy widow as an A-grade bitch. But Bernie and Marjorie seem to be two peas in a pod, accompanying each other around town, dining out and vacationing together; Bernie even becomes Marjorie's financial advisor.
And the money, according to Carthage District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), is the main reason why Bernie kills Marjorie. Davidson has the trial moved out of town once he realises that he will be unable to find a sympathetic jury, well, at least not for the victim. The townsfolk simply can't believe that Bernie would kill someone, and given that it was Marjorie Nugent, well, it's not really all that bad, is it?
Having the Carthage townsfolk speak for themselves was an inspired choice by Linklater; their frank and funny to-camera reminisces about Bernie and Marjorie, not to mention their thoughts on non-East Texas residents are too honest to be scripted.
Still, after a while I grew weary of the talking heads discussing Bernie: I wanted more of what Bernie himself was thinking and feeling. And we don't really get that from Linklater's screenplay despite Black's terrific performance.
Linklater has worked with both Black and McConaughey before (the former on School of Rock, which earned Black a Golden Globe nomination; the latter in one of his earliest roles, 1992's Dazed and Confused), and he obviously knows how to get the best out of each.
McConaughey, who is on a roll of sorts following The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), Magic Mike and, by all accounts, Killer Joe (which I've yet to see), perfectly pitches his performance this side of caricature whilst still giving his hard-nosed lawyer (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Roy Scheider in Jaws) a comic countenance.
But the revelation is Black, who reins in his usual manic mugging and plays Bernie Tiede straight. Well, as straight as Bernie Tiede was. Black never strives for comic effect but underplays the inherently comic characteristics of this unlikely people's choice.
Sadly MacLaine, who's been playing crabby old women for three decades now, may not have all that much to do (she barely has any dialogue) but she gives Marjorie Nugent just enough bile, and a killer scowl, that you can understand how someone might be driven to kill her, and how no one really cared when they did.
Linklater, and fellow scribe, Skip Hollandsworth, perfectly capture the eccentricity and internal logic of small towns, and not just specifically American; as someone who grew up in country Australia, I know a thing or two about specious and selective moralising.
But all of the elements -- screenplay, direction, actors and the fact-is-stranger-than-fiction original story -- are near to perfect, making Bernie one of the best comedies of the year.
Wednesday, 8 August 2012
An all-girl soul group’s rise to fame in the 1960s may sound a lot like Dreamgirls, Bill Condon’s 2006 film version of the stage musical based on The Supremes and which garnered Jennifer Hudson an Oscar, but The Sapphires is very much an Australian story.
Also adapted from a stage musical, and based loosely on actual events, Wayne Blair’s feature directorial debut may not have the polish and gloss of its Hollywood counterpart but it has just as much soul and arguably a lot more heart.
When three Aboriginal sisters from an outback community perform in a local talent contest – and clearly light years ahead of their competitors – they may not impress the white locals but they win over Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd). A failed musician with a keyboard and a drinking problem, Dave recognises talent when he sees it, encouraging the trio to abandon their country and western repertoire in favour of soul music.
And the younger two of the sisters, Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy), know an escape from small town Australia when it drops into their lap. They encourage Dave to become their manager and chaperone them to an audition in Melbourne which, if successful, could see them performing for the U.S. troops in Vietnam.
Not so easily convinced or impressed is eldest sister, Gail (Deborah Mailman), who’s not about to surrender easily the leadership of her group to any man nor the microphone to her younger sister, who happens to be the better singer (Mauboy is no actress but the girl can sing).
Nor is Gail about to welcome back with opens arms their estranged cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbens), who lives in Melbourne and attempts to “pass” as white; Kay is a victim of 'the stolen generation', which the film only briefly but quite affectingly touches upon.
But just as all modern day films must be trilogies, all girl groups in 1968 require four members, and before you can sing “I heard it through the grapevine”, all four young women and the Irishman are Saigon-bound. Blair’s film, lensed by fellow director Warwick Thornton (of Samson and Delilah fame), was shot partly on location in Saigon and looks impressive, even more so given the no doubt budget constraints.
And even if the film isn't as self-assured story-wise when the Sapphires land in Vietnam -- I'll admit, I spent a lot of the film in the 'cringe' position -- the musical numbers, and the performances of O'Dowd, as the comically liquored-up Pygmalion, and Mailman, whose Gail is as fiercely protective of her heart as she is her sisters, manage to keep things afloat and spirits high.
The last Aussie musical, Bran Nue Dae -- also of an indigenous nature, and also starring Mauboy -- did surprisingly well at the box office with some $7 million. The Sapphires deserves to do just as well, and not just because it's the superior film.
We seem so rarely to make 'feel good' films in Australia nowadays that when something not set in urban suburbia and riddled with crime and drugs comes along, it's as though we're children who've been let out to play (i.e. the 2011 success of Red Dog).
And The Sapphires is feel good fun, and an unashamed crowd pleaser. It may not hit all the notes perfectly but you'll be hard pressed not to tap your feet or sing-a-long.