Tuesday, 26 February 2013
Truth is often stranger than fiction and there's nought as queer as folk. Both adages could be readily applied to Bart Layton's documentary, The Imposter, a fantastical true story about a missing boy and the boy who never was, and a family who were either traumatised by grief or something more sinister.
In 1993, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay went missing from his small Texas town. In Spain in 1996, authorities detained a 16-year-old whom they believed to be the missing American teen. But was he? That's a no, and that's not a spoiler as The Imposter reveals very early on that the 16-year-old is in fact 22-year-old Frederic Bourdin, a French national of Algerian descent who doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to the blonde-haired blue-eyed boy he purports, in his thick-accented English, to be.
Just how this master manipulator came to convince not only the authorities but the family of Nicholas Barclay -- his elder sister travels to Spain to positively identify her brother and take him home with her; the rest of the family accepting the "boy" as their kin -- will have you simultaneously guffawing and scratching your head, as Bourdin explains his technique and thought processes, and the duped family (sister, mother, brother-in-law) their thoughts and emotions.
Throw in, too, the FBI agent who oversaw the repatriation of "Nicholas", initially falling for his 'too elaborate not to be true' tale of abduction by the military for use and abuse in a European sex slavery ring (no, seriously), and the Texan private detective who is convinced almost immediately (the ears have it!) that this boy is not who he claims to be, and mounts his own investigation.
It's at about this point that the film takes another turn, and I won't spoil that surprise for you needless to say that the sympathy you've developed for the family of Nicholas Barclay -- his mother especially, and in spite of their gullibility -- begins to waiver.
The Imposter is a film as much about the ability to deceive as it is the desire to believe; one can't succeed without the willingness of the other. And the "star" of The Imposter is Frederic Bourdin, a sociopath whose desire to belong, to recapture an idealised childhood and home life he never experienced, is his driving force. He's charming and funny in his to-camera confessions, but his "fuck the world, I only care about me" attitude reveals his heart of darkness.
Bourdin is by no means a Tom Ripley, lacking the necessary sophistication (and the capacity to kill to achieve his aims), but his ability to improvise on the fly, to convince others not of the truth but what they wish to believe, is a scarily impressive skill set which one can't help but begrudgingly admire whilst hoping never to experience first hand.
Bourdin makes The Imposter a fascinating story if not a great documentary. It's not a good sign whilst watching a doco to be thinking "this would make a great movie"; when The Imposter finished I was left somewhat unsatisfied.
We tell fairy tales to both entertain and instruct; The Imposter's preposterously true tale raises more questions than answers, and its lack of closure -- Bourdin may now be married with children and living in Paris, but Nicholas Barclay is still missing -- provides cold comfort rather than happy ever after.
Sunday, 24 February 2013
Marry in haste, repent at leisure they say. Nat (Rose Byrne) and Josh (Rafe Spall) don't necessarily repent but it's not too long into their marriage, following a whirlwind courtship, that the two discover that opposites -- she's an English rose and PR rep; he's a larrikin and novelist with writer's block -- actually repel rather than attract.
And while writer-director Dan Mazer's non-rom-com isn't necessarily anti-marriage, it certainly advocates making sure you're marrying 'the one' and not the first one to propose.
Nat and Josh are already in marriage counselling when the film begins, less than a year into their marriage, and relaying their problems to a less than interested counsellor (Olivia Colman) who has marital problems all her own. We then proceed to flashback to reveal the events which have brought them to this impasse; not surprisingly, there is a third party involved on both sides.
Nat's perfect match would seem to be her new client, Guy (Simon Baker), a charming, slightly too earnest American businessman, while Josh's ex-girlfriend, Chloe (a non-blonde Anna Faris), whom he unofficially broke-up with when she left for Africa on a four-year humanitarian mission but with whom he has remained friends, still carries a torch for him. Cue various romantic misadventures as both marrieds attempt to prevent their hearts and hormones from overruling their heads and vows.
I Give It A Year is a mostly standard British rom-com (produced under the Working Title shingle) although it is injected with an above average dose of 'blue' humour which has become the staple of American comedies in the second decade of the new millennium (Mazer is also known for working with Sacha Baron Cohen). Most of that smut is provided by Stephen Merchant as Josh's best friend, Danny, who is seemingly void of the ability to self-censor, vocalising every inappropriate thought he has.
But Merchant is rivalled in the laugh stakes by the always-welcome Minnie Driver as Nat's sister, Naomi, whose cynical and acerbic appraisals of love, marriage and Justin Bieber provide a fair share of yuks and guffaws. Driver certainly has more spark than either Byrne, who continues to exercise her comic chops following Bridesmaids (2011), or Faris, who seems to have had her personality dimmed by the darker colouring of her hair.
Baker, too, registers little more than as a handsome love interest but Spall, last seen in Life of Pi and who played the boorish William Shakespeare in Anonymous (2011), fits comfortably into that traditional mumbling, fumbling British romantic lead archetype although he's by no means the heir apparent to Hugh Grant.
And I Give It A Year is no Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994), but it is a fun and diverting engagement. See it with that special someone you're about to break-up with.
Wednesday, 20 February 2013
With barely enough time for the living dead corpse of the Twilight franchise to grow cold (or should that be warm up?) following its climax last year, another tale of teen love between a mere mortal and the supernatural has materialised.
Beautiful Creatures, based on the Young Adult novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl and adapted by writer-director Richard LaGravenese, is a Romeo and Juliet-style romance where witches replace vampires and the temperature is noticeably higher, and not just because of its Deep South setting.
Having spent the summer suffering feverish dreams of a mystery girl, Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), a 16-year-old who manages to be both bookish and athletic in his South Carolina town, is intrigued by the new addition to his high school. That would be the dark-haired, milky white-skinned Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), niece of the town recluse, Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), and descendant of the town founder.
Naturally, the outsider is ostracised by the student body but Ethan, who's fond of reading banned literature, is intrigued. He's not about to be dismayed by his peers' furrowed brows or those of Lena, who rebuffs his charming advances until his Southern charm wears her down and wins her over.
At the risk of incurring the wrath of Twi-hards, it has to be said that Ehrenreich and Englert bring a lot more warmth and personality to Ethan and Lena than did Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson as Bella and Edward in the Twilight films.
And even the revelation that Lena is actually a teen witch doesn't much deter this Romeo. Actually, in 2013 the w-word is no longer acceptable; Lena and her kind prefer the term 'Caster' (as in spell caster).
But if it walks and talks like a witch then it must be, according to the townsfolk, a Devil worshipper. LaGravenese's film has a healthy disrespect for Christian fanaticism, having much fun at the expense of those who cling to the Bible whilst shunning anyone different. "What would Jesus do?" is not a thought that has occurred to these people.
More disturbing than amusing, however, is the thinly disguised misogyny at the heart of the story's premise: that girls, once they enter womanhood -- begin menstruating, discover their sexuality -- become a force to be reckoned with and, if they turn to the dark side, to be feared.
If a female Caster is pure of heart, she will remain so when she is "Claimed", but Lord help us all if she should not be a good girl and is claimed for the dark. That female sexuality should be viewed as something to be feared is a troubling notion to posit at the heart of a film (and book) targeted at a YA audience.
Lena's 16th birthday is fast approaching and the family are concerned she'll go the way of her mother, Sarafine (Emma Thompson, chewing scenery like a mad cow), a powerful dark Caster who is currently possessing the body of the town's leading Bible thumper, Mrs. Lincoln.
Sarafine, along with Lena's cousin, Ridley (Emmy Rossum), have come to claim Lena for the darkness, but Macon, Ethan, and his carer, Amma (Viola Davis, somehow managing to keep a straight face), who knows more about the supernatural world than she's been letting on to her young charge, are determined to keep her in the light.
After the surprisingly charming set-up, the remaining two-thirds of Beautiful Creatures (I'm not sure where that title comes from?) is less engaging, as the hocus pocus hokum comes to the fore (with some less than magical visual effects) and there's more ham on display than can be found on a pork farmer's Christmas dinner table.
But it's not all bad, and it's rarely dull, but the after taste left by the sexist undertones of Beautiful Creatures is a little bitter. A little more judicious editing on LaGravenese's part may have resulted in far more potent, less pungent brew.
Monday, 18 February 2013
Old age is one of those taboo subjects in film; it's rarely seen nor discussed in any real depth. But Michael Haneke's Amour asks -- forces -- us to look at this inevitable stage of life square-on as his two protagonists are faced with declining health and the spectre of death.No, Amour (Love) is not a date movie but it is a study of love, questioning just how far you would go in support of your significant other. Til death us do part: an actual promise or mere words?
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are a long-time married couple. Now retired music teachers, they live in a spacious Paris apartment which reflects their cultured yet modest lifestyle and tastes. They're only child (Isabelle Huppert), based in London, visits occasionally but the pair seem to keep themselves to themselves, with the occasional night out to a music recital.
Then one morning during breakfast, and mid-conversation, Anne blanks out. Georges can't seem to rouse her and when she "awakens" moments later he's somewhat annoyed. "Is this a joke?", he asks. "What?" Anne has no idea what's just happened. It's the first sign that she has suffered a stroke, and Anne's health is only going to worsen. Conversely, the bonds of their marriage, while severely tested, will strengthen.
Haneke adopts an unflinching approach to his story and his characters' predicament. The film is comprised of many long, still takes suggesting the unhurried pace at which Georges and Anne live their lives, and the slow decline of Anne's physical health (at first partially paralysed she worsens, losing the ability to speak). There is also no score; all music is incidental. Haneke is an unsentimental filmmaker but while Amour is unflinching, it is not an unfeeling film.
After the first stroke, which paralysed the right side of her body, Anne is assigned a wheelchair to aid her mobility. But a subsequent attack leaves her bedridden and she gradually loses her ability to speak. Georges, although hiring a nurse at first, feeds and dresses his wife and tends to her bathing and toilet needs. He is the dutiful and loving husband, but even his patience is tested: a slap to the face is mere child's play in the Haneke universe, but here, under these circumstances, is a shocking and violent act.
Trintignant and Riva deliver powerful yet subtle performances as Georges and Anne. Icons of French cinema -- both have been making films for more than half a century: Trintignant best known for A Man and a Woman (1966); Riva for Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) -- bring both an authenticity to their roles (they are not "playing" old), and that pang of sadness when we realise that, like us, they were once young, beautiful people with their lives ahead of them.
The silent stoicism of Trintignant and the physicality of Riva are impressive in there seeming simplicity but speak volumes even when neither does. Not for nothing has Riva been a mainstay throughout the 2012-2013 awards season (will she win the Best Actress Oscar at this year's ceremony, which just so happens to coincide with her 86th birthday?), but this is a double act, and any acknowledgement of one should include the other.
And neither would succeed without Michael Haneke. The Austrian director is fully in control of his medium: there is nothing in Amour that shouldn't be there; it is sparse and precise, unadorned and brutally honest.
Having won the major prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival with The White Ribbon, a two-and-a-half-hour, black and white film about the origins of evil in a pre-WWI German village, Haneke claimed the Palm d'Or again in 2012 with Amour, proving, along with his leads, that age shall not weary them though the years condemn.
Note: an edited version of this review appears on the Fuse Magazine website:
Thursday, 14 February 2013
I believe in the law and support the police, but sometimes the law is an ass and justice isn't so much blind as selectively blinkered. West of Memphis, Amy Berg's compelling documentary about the 1993 Robin Hood Hills murders in Arkansas, is proof-positive of those latter sentiments and that when it comes to the prosecution of certain crimes, truth -- and logic -- are the first casualties.
Understandably, community passions were running high after the bodies of three 8-year-old boys were pulled from a river, one of them bound and each with signs of sexual abuse and mutilation. "Satanic cult" some people cried, with echoes of 1600's Salem, and like people for generations since those times, a scapegoat, rather than a culprit, was sought.
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelly -- teenagers, outsiders, and, one of them (Echols), heaven forbid, a Goth -- were arrested and charged with the murders with no evidence to support the arrests but on the word of a forced confession from Misskelly, who just happened to be mentally challenged.
West of Memphis details how, over the ensuing 18 years, the West Memphis 3, as they became dubbed, sat in prison while family, friends and supporters (including celebrities (Johhny Depp), musicians (Eddie Veder), and doco exec producers, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh) fought the good fight for their release.
And all the while the Arkansas legal system turned a blind eye and a deaf ear; not just to the pleas but the subsequent DNA evidence (not available in 1993) which proved all three were innocent, and that the perpetrator was much closer to home. A great deal of West of Memphis, and the team fighting for the 3's release, is devoted to doing the law's job for them; mounting the case for another suspect with evidence and basic questions which police and prosecutors seem to have ignored, and blithely continue to do so.
These events have been depicted in three previous documentaries -- the Paradise Lost trilogy -- but it matters not if you haven't seen those films. Amy Berg's 147-minute, exhaustive doco does an exemplary job of detailing the case from beginning to end. It also benefits from hindsight, with two decades of material to draw from and its being made after the somewhat bitter-sweet victory of the West Memphis 3 in 2011.
West of Memphis will infuriate you just as many of the talking heads -- mostly representing the law -- will frustrate you; you'll guffaw at the resistance of the police and prosecutors to get at the truth of the crime. And that's the real crime depicted in West of Memphis: three little boys lost their lives (and three young men lost half of theirs) and the law steadfastly refuses to do anything about it. The law truly can be an ass.
Tuesday, 12 February 2013
"All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players." Acclaimed playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter, Tom Stoppard (for Shakespeare In Love) has seemingly used the Bard's words as his inspiration in adapting Russian author Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Never having read Tolstoy's classic, I can't say if director Joe Wright's film is a faithful adaptation or the definitive screen version (there have been several over the decades), but this Anna Karenina is definitely unique.
The bold and striking conceit of Stoppard and Wright is to have the action of Anna Karenina take place within the confines of a theatre; sets and lighting changes, actors both players and audience when required, and we see on-stage and backstage, and even up in the rafters. Occasionally Wright breaks through this fourth wall and takes us into the "real world" of the Russian countryside but for the most part we're in the artificial and cloistered confines of a playhouse.
That playhouse is of course metaphor for Imperial Russia where, in 1874, the aristocratic classes, although decadent and indulgent, adhere to a strict social code: a married man may take a lover but his wife may not; divorce will disgrace her not him. For someone is always watching, and if you go off script you will incur the wrath of your fellow players.
Anna Karenina opens with a flurry of activity as the affair of Stiva Oblonsky (a playful Matthew Macfadyen), with his children's governess, becomes known to his wife, Dolly (Kelly MacDonald). Stiva's not so much sorry but sorry that he was caught out, and enlists the help of his sister, Anna (Keira Knightley), to travel from St. Petersburg to Moscow to placate Dolly and earn her forgiveness.
Anna, married to Karenin (Jude Law), a rising star in Russian politics, who knows it is Dolly who has been wronged but also loves her brother and understands how society works, has never contemplated an affair. That is until now. Arriving in Moscow via train (locomotives are a running, portentous theme throughout Wright's film, and anyone with a passing knowledge of the book knows why), she is introduced to the young and dashing Count Vronksy (Aaron Johnson) by his mother (Olivia Williams), a woman who would seem to have a scandal all her own in her past.
Sparks fly -- literally, as the train settles on the frozen tracks -- and Anna begins having thoughts and feelings she's never had before. And although married, and although it is understood that Vronsky will propose to the pretty teen princess, Kitty (Alicia Vikander), Anna throws caution (and society's script) to the wind, beginning an affair with the handsome cavalry officer and setting in motion the inevitable tragedy.
I don't know if Tolstoy intended his novel as melodrama, but in the heightened world of the theatre, and as his heroine unravels, Joe Wright's Anna Karenina certainly becomes increasingly (soap) operatic.
Knightley, a muse of sorts for Wright having given two of her best performances in his two best films -- Pride and Prejudice (2005); Atonement (2007) -- becomes increasingly emotionally unhinged, though fabulously looking whilst doing so.
Not for nothing has costume designer Jacqueline Durran been nominated for an Oscar; ditto production designer, Sarah Greenwood, cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, and composer, Dario Marianelli. Each is crucial in bringing this artificial world beautifully to life.
Unfortunately, Wright can not do the same. What I failed to get from this interpretation was any great sense of passion between Anna and Vronsky, nor of the ultimate tragedy. Still, compared with other recent bold re-imaginings of literary classics -- Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights and Michael Winterbottom's Trishna (based on Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles) -- Anna Karenina is never less than dazzling; there's always something to occupy your mind and your eye if not capture your heart.
Monday, 4 February 2013
20th Century Fox Films
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, is one of America's most revered leaders, and perhaps best known to the rest of the world as the man who brought about the end of slavery in the US (by virtue of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution) and who died not too long afterwards by an assassin's bullet whilst enjoying a night at the theatre.
Steven Spielberg's Lincoln focusses on the final four or so months of his life in 1865 in which President Lincoln pushed for the passing of the 13th Amendment whilst also attempting to bring an end to the Civil War. But the film is no stuffy history lesson.
The beauty of Spielberg's film, penned by playwright Tony Kushner (Angels In America), is that it makes the political personal and the processes by which bills are passed a fascinating and, yes, fun exercise in the machinations of democracy. The biggest surprise with Lincoln is the rich vein of humour which courses through the film.
There's no surprise, however, in the performance delivered by Daniel Day-Lewis. He towers over the film but not in the bully boy way his Daniel Plainview did Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007). Softly spoken for the most part, Lewis' Lincoln is a thoughtful and considered man (ignore the trailer which has him speechifying to dramatic effect) but equally as elusive (he'll recount an anecdote to avoid answering a question) and stubborn.
He could end the Civil War almost immediately if he agreed to the South's terms i.e. maintain slavery, but the President wants to achieve both aims and, as it's his second and final term in office, Mr. Lincoln is going for broke (President Obama, take note).
That means the man who bore the moniker, Honest Abe, is not above soliciting and "buying" votes from opposed senators, both within his own Republican party and the Democrats (Australians may be taken aback, given modern America's left wing-right wing split, to learn that it is the Republicans who wish to abolish slavery and the Democrats who do not), deploying three negotiators (James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson) to persuade the more agreeable, fence-sitting and susceptible-to-inducement members of the House to cross the floor.
In no need of such persuasion is Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a Republican who not only calls for the abolishment of slavery but that all men -- black and white -- be recognised as equals under the law, a bridge too far even for the great Abraham Lincoln (one problem at a time).
Jones imbues Stephens with a crotchety warmth, and much of the film's humour, but he also provides Lincoln with one of its truly poignant moments when, behind closed doors and sans wig and political bluster, he bares his heart and soul. Not for nothing has the veteran thesp been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Solid, too, is David Strathairn (as Secretary of State, William Seward), one of many recognisable character actors (including Hal Holbrook and Jackie Earle Haley) who populate Lincoln; with more than 100 speaking parts, Spielberg's film is virtually wall-to-wall facial hair. The rare exception is Sally Field who, as Mary Todd Lincoln, the President's wife, assists in the film's aim of making the political personal.
Mary still grieves for the son she lost to illness and wants Abe to prevent their eldest, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is eager to join the battle from doing so. Some have found Field's performance distracting but Mary's grief (and possible mental health problems; she was known as 'Mad Mary') reminds us that as iconic as he was to become, Lincoln was, first and foremost, a husband and father.
In adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals, Kushner has successfully captured both the public and the private spheres of an historical figure. He also brings history to life and demystifies the democratic process without dumbing it down. Make no mistake, Lincoln is a dialogue-heavy film, written, unsurprisingly, as if for the stage and in the vernacular of the times. It's occasionally hard work but never like homework.
Kudos then to Spielberg who, in arguably his most ambitious film since Schindler's List (1993), stays on message. He manages to keeps his sentimental tendencies in check for the most part, and to rein in composer John Williams, whose reverential but restrained score for Lincoln is the antithesis of his sledgehammer work in Spielberg's previous film, War Horse (2011). Kudos, too, to regular Spielberg collaborator, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, whose sepia browns and cool blues immerse us in this world of men and import.
And it's a world I was happy to be engaged in -- not once did I feel the film's 150-minute runtime -- and could easily see myself returning to. A second -- or third -- viewing could yield more pleasures, certainly from the dialogue alone. But one constant would be Day-Lewis' performance which, like the titular President himself, is unwavering. Both men win my vote.
Friday, 1 February 2013
"The Academy hates comedy" is an argument you hear almost every year during awards season when heavyweight, historical and just plain dramatic films receive most of the attention and pre-cursor accolades.
Of course, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association gives Comedy its own category at their annual awards show, the Golden Globes, but nobody takes them seriously (unless they want to market a film, or prove a point e.g. "see, the Academy got it wrong!").
This year, the Academy voters seem to have fallen head over heels for Silver Linings Playbook, with eight nominations, including Best Picture, and making it the first film in 31 years to score nods in all four acting categories.
Directed by David O. Russell, SLP is perhaps best described as a dramedy but it is more comic than dramatic even as it deals with issues of mental health and grief: Pat (Bradley Cooper) is bipolar; Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), is a grieving widow who refuses to do so under a veil, literally or figuratively. (The chemistry between these two as they each find their way, and each other, makes the film spark.)
But just as people decry the Academy's anti-comedy bias, many seem to be perplexed and dismayed at this display of affection for SLP. And I'm not sure why. O. Russell's film is no less entertaining or intelligent than last year's early Best Picture frontrunner, The Descendants; directed by Alexander Payne and starring George Clooney, it's another dramedy about family dysfunction.
Clooney starred in another early favourite dramedy in 2009, Jason Reitman's Up In The Air, which lost momentum when most critics' bodies and then the Academy voters decided they'd rather go to war in Iraq with The Hurt Locker than criss-cross the country with a frequent flying swinging bachelor. It makes as much sense to say that the Academy's choice that year means they "hate comedy" as it would to say they "support war".
Conversely, in 1998, the last time a comedy won the top prize, the Academy chose (wisely) to award Best Picture to Shakespeare In Love over Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. For all its period costumes and literary conceit SIL was a rom-com, and a damn fine one at that.
But why Silver Linings Playbook? Is it the best comedy of 2012? No, but then 21 Jump Street is hardly the kind of film the Academy is going to go for. Sure, in the privacy of their own homes the voters may pop the screener in the DVD player and laugh their asses off but it's not going to get their #1 vote on the ballot.
But why not Richard Linklater's Bernie, or Jack Black for Best Actor for that matter? Who knows, although exposure (i.e. campaigning) plays a major part in the Oscars and no one campaigns better, or harder, than SLP executive producer, Harvey Weinstein.
That's not to suggest that SLP's nominations were bought or voters bullied into it. There's an emotional component to Silver Linings Playbook -- whether rooting for the underdog as Pat tries to get his life back on track, or the budding romance between Pat and Tiffany; or the intentions of Pat's concerned though slightly nutty parents (warmly played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) -- which people genuinely engage with and respond to.
Will it win Best Picture? I don't think so. Does it deserve to? Well, it's not my favourite of the 9 nominees (that would be Lincoln) but it's not my least favourite either (that would be the heavyweight, historical and dramatic Les Miserables). But we may have to wait another year or two before we see a comedy win Best Picture, although last year's deserving winner, The Artist, was by no means a drama.
For now though, Silver Linings Playbook is a perfectly fine, smart and funny piece of entertainment for Oscar voters and prognosticators to use as therapy to work through their aversion to comedy.