Wednesday, 15 January 2014
For me, 2013 was a great year for film because I connected with films from a great variety of genres, and not just my movie mainstays, horror and superhero flicks. Getting out to the cinema was also made easier with the renovation and extension of the Dendy Newtown. So many more films to choose from, and new, comfortable seating!
In a year when the quality of television increased to compete for my viewing time, film still came out on top. Still, viral marketing often proved to be more interesting than the film it was meant to be promoting: that telekinetic 'woman in the café' stunt used to promote the Carrie remake was all kinds of amazing.
I've come up with a list of 20 films that rocked my year. I’ve also included a few that deeply disappointed me, a few that I sadly missed out on seeing (but hope to catch on DVD), and some upcoming releases that can’t come soon enough.
1. Iron Man 3
The boldest of the Marvel superhero films was unpredictable and daring. Topping my list for the tireless repeat viewings since seeing it in the cinema, and for featuring my favourite action scene ever – the barrel of monkeys rescue sequence.
2. 009 Re: Cyborg
A re-boot of sorts, I caught this gem at the Real Anime Festival and was exhilarated and impressed with the action, amazing use of 3D, and the themes it tackled.
3. An Adventure In Space And Time
Including this BBC television movie might be bending the rules slightly seeing as it didn’t get a cinema release, but the quality and enjoyment factor makes it a contender. A very special way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my favourite science fiction show (Doctor Who, of course).
5. The Conjuring
6. Rust And Bone
7. Behind The Candelabra
8. The Wolverine (the extended mature cut)
9. Pacific Rim
10. Machete Kills
12. A Band Called Death
14. The Way, Way Back
15. Cloud Atlas
16. Silver Linings Playbook
17. John Dies At The End
19. Evil Dead
20. Return to Nuke ‘Em High Part 1.
Disappointments: Man Of Steel, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, What Maisie Knew, 100 Bloody Acres, Interior. Leather Bar, Oz: The Great And Powerful, Star Trek Into Darkness.
Missed opportunities: Stories We Tell, Upstream Colour, The Rocket.
My most anticipated releases for 2014: X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Interstellar, The Raid 2: Berandal, The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence).
Monday, 13 January 2014
In a not-too distant yet totally recognisable future, technology has become even more ingratiated into our everyday lives -- and more sentient. There's no flying cars (damn you, Jetsons!) in Spike Jonze's vision of a futuristic Los Angeles (an almost seamless amalgam of that city and Shanghai, captured with a summery sheen by Hoyt Van Hoytema), yet smart technology has become even more highly developed than in 2014.
But while the human mind may have a challenger for the best computer ever devised, in Her, Jonze's first film directing his own screenplay, the human heart proves to still be the most complicated. And Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who writes other peoples' intimate correspondences for a living, discovers that first hand.
Theodore is in a pre-divorce malaise (his wife, played by Rooney Mara, is glimpsed in 'happier time' flashbacks) when the high-panted (the only negative aspect of the future, it would seem) sad sack decides to upgrade his operating system to a new, artificially intelligent program; one which can be assigned a male or female voice and which develops and grows the more it learns about its user and the world in general.
Understandably, Theodore chooses a female voice for his OS which comes in the smoky, inviting tones of Scarlett Johansson, who christens herself Samantha and, like a similarly named TV witch, brings a certain magic into the lonely letter writer's life. But what starts out as a modern convenience soon becomes something more, something deeper: could Theodore be falling in love with his OS?
Yes he is, but in spite of the ostensibly high concept and potentially humour-laden premise, Jonze's study of hi-tech modern love in the 21st century is an emotionally intelligent, highly affecting tale of connection which, although set in the future, speaks very much to the now: about our reliance upon and immersion in the virtual world, and the ways in which that relationship effects how we relate with the people in our real, day-to-day world.
Phoenix's Theodore is not as socially awkward as, say, Ryan Gosling's titular protag in Lars and the Real Girl (2007), a dramedy about one man's search for human connection via a sex doll surrogate; Theodore's reluctance stems from his divorce, once bitten twice as shy etcetera etcetera. And he has friends, well, one: Amy (Amy Adams, practically mousey compared to her American Hustle incarnation), a documentary filmmaker whom he dated for all of five minutes in college, and who happens to live in Theodore's apartment building.
Otherwise, he's pretty much closed off to the social aspects of the world. Ironically,Theodore's relationship with Samantha opens him up to its possibilities, including excursions to the beach and double dates with work colleague, Paul (Chris Pratt).
It's arguably Phoenix's warmest, most engaging screen performance to date (the actor better known for his intense portrayals of complicated men, such as Freddie Quell in 2012's The Master). Bespectacled and moustachioed, his Theodore, while only a tad goofy-creepy, is empathetic: who hasn't had their heart broken yet taken a more cautious (or unorthodox) approach to dating in the aftermath? And Jonze and Phoenix have Theodore switch between stereotypically male and female positions as his relationship with Samantha evolves and becomes increasingly complicated.
And as Samantha, Scarlett Johansson gives what could be the best performance of her career, one that doesn't see her appear on screen at all. Within her recognisable tone -- which ably conveys warmth, intelligence, doubt, joy, and sadness -- the actress manages to create a living being out of virtual thin air. We have to believe in and invest in the relationship between Theodore and Samantha, and Johansson's voice work makes that leap easier and all the more rewarding.
At a little more than two hours, Jonze's screenplay perhaps runs out of things to say about this post-modern romantic dilemma but even as it's buffering, there's much to enjoy, admire and contemplate in Her. You may even find yourself questioning your own relationships -- human and technological -- and asking which are more rewarding and "real"? But you best be prepared for the answer.
Wednesday, 8 January 2014
20th Century Fox Films
Similar to another 2013 film, Andrew Adamson's Mr. Pip, The Book Thief focusses on a young female protagonist who, in dark times -- Papuan civil unrest in Mr. Pip; World War II in The Book Thief -- finds solace and salvation in literature.
And similar to that other film (based on the novel by New Zealander, Lloyd Jones), The Book Thief, adapted from a YA novel by Australian author Markus Zusak, has a peculiar hook: where Mr. Pip's heroine disappeared into an imaginary world inspired by Dickens, the events in Zusak's story are narrated by Death.
For whatever reason, Death (voiced by Roger Allem) has taken a particular interest in young Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) who, after the death of her younger brother and arrest of her Communist mother, is sent to live with the well-meaning though rough-edged couple, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson); Hans the soft touch to Rosa's stern facade.
It's with this couple and in their German village (the production design more storybook than gritty realism) that Liesel will not only learn to read but find a makeshift family; not just with Hans and Rosa, but with Max (Ben Schnetzer), the Jewish man who comes to hideout in their basement, and inspiring Liesel in her literary pursuits; and with Rudy (Nico Liersch), the neighbour boy and classmate of Liesel who is smitten with her the moment he lays eyes on her.
Directed by Brian Percival, best known for his work on TV's Dowton Abbey, and adapted by Michael Petroni, The Book Thief proceeds episodically and rather ploddingly. There's no great drama in this war time tale -- other than the possible discovery of Max in the basement -- as Liesel discovers both the wonder and power of the written word in a time where the burning of books is encouraged and individual thought is not.
Still, Sophie Nelisse is an engaging heroine even if the French-Canadian actress (so good in 2011's Monsieur Lazhar) isn't so confident with her English (this is the type of WWII film where everyone speaks English with varying approximations of a German accent). It's left to Rush and Watson to do the heavy lifting, and they do so with the lightest of touches.
Markus Zusak's novel was a best-seller and no doubt fans of the book will enjoy this presumably faithful if uninspired adaptation (not having read The Book Thief, I can't attest to the film's fidelity with regards to story or spirit). And in spite of the emotional ending -- not so much hard-earned as extracted -- one can only surmise that whatever Death (with his infrequent and only mildly distracting narration) found so fascinating in this story was mostly lost in the translation from page to screen.
Monday, 6 January 2014
Walt Disney Studios Films
In 1934, Australian-born author, P.L. Travers wrote the first in a series of children's book about the magical nanny, Mary Poppins. And for the next 20 years, House of Mouse mogul, Walt Disney, after a promise made to his daughters, pursued the author for the film rights. It wasn't until 1961, and faced with financial problems, that Travers begrudgingly agreed to travel to Los Angeles and meet with Disney to discuss a possible film version of her beloved book.
But the only thing tighter than Travers' perm was her grip on Mary Poppins. The author (Emma Thompson) had continually resisted the advances of Walt Disney's purchase of her children's tale of the au pair with a talking umbrella who arrived on the East wind (you can understand Disney's attraction) lest a film version include singing, dancing and -- heavens to Mergatroid! -- animation. Travers wasn't about to sign over her creation, or creative control, without a fight.
We know who won that battle in the end -- Walt Disney didn't get rich by taking no for an answer or by placing artistic integrity above commercial gain -- but Saving Mr. Banks, directed by John Lee Hancock (2009's The Blind Side) and penned by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, would have you believe that Travers' capitulation to Disney's demands was for the better.
Thus we get scenes of Poppins pre-production (which Travers insists be recorded) where screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the songwriting Sherman Brothers, Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard (Jason Schwartzman), roll their eyes and bite their tongues at every one of Travers' objections to grammar, set design, character facial hair, and the invention of words for songs. It's the uptight Brit versus the fun Americans, and you just know who you're supposed to root for.
We're also treated to flashbacks of the author's childhood in Queensland (though not shot in Australia), where her banker father (a fine Colin Farrell) instilled in the young lass (played by young Aussie, Annie Rose Buckley) the power of imagination. His drunkenness and irresponsibility also left Travers with daddy issues, or at least according to Saving Mr. Banks; the title referring to both the patriarch in her book and the past which haunts the author. The best exorcism, according to Walt? Letting go.
The 1964 film version of Mary Poppins has since become a family classic; winning 5 Oscars from 13 nominations, and, at the time, Disney's highest grosser. And as the old adage goes, history is written by the victors: any film about Walt Disney, produced and distributed by Walt Disney Studios, is bound to be whitewashed. Disney himself is but a bit player here (making absurd those who believed Hanks, admittedly fine, was a slam dunk for an Oscar nomination), and most of Travers' bio (bisexual, adopted son, spiritualist) have been excised completely.
Still, Emma Thompson is always a welcome screen presence. She doesn't make Travers likeable as such but she does well to keep her stubbornness, unfiltered honesty and "English-ness" from being a one-note bore (a snippet of voice recording in the closing credits reveals that the real P.L. Travers was indeed a stickler for detail with the voice of a patrician English school ma'am). Just as Travers does the large plush Mickey Mouse doll sent to her hotel suite, you begrudgingly embrace this prickly woman.
There's no denying that Saving Mr. Banks is, on one level, a very entertaining film, and I'll admit that even I was not immune to some of its humour and charm. The supporting cast, which also includes a sunny Paul Giamatti as Travers' limo driver, are all good. But there's an underlying insidiousness to the film: a suggestion that the proof is in the final pudding (though I've never actually watched Mary Poppins; certainly not from beginning to end) and that the ends justify the means.
Of course, filmmaking has always been about the marriage between commerce and art, symbolised here (unintentionally, I'm sure) when Travers, attending the L.A. premiere of Mary Poppins (which Disney did not invite her to), is escorted down the aisle of the red carpet by a certain anthropomorphized rodent, as though on their way to consecrate their unholy union.
If anything, Saving Mr. Banks is the story of how an entertainment corporation co-opted and corrupted one artist's vision, and that's a jagged little pill which requires more than a spoonful of sugar to help it go down.
Wednesday, 1 January 2014
And you thought your family had issues. Releasing at the time of year when most families have experienced some form of holiday-induced implosion, August: Osage County will (hopefully) make your recent family Christmas dinner showdowns look like a picnic in comparison.
Based on the award-winning stageplay by Tracy Letts (who also adapts here), and directed by John Wells, August: Osage County is about the Westons, a mid-western family who, in the process of gathering to mourn their patriarch (a briefly seen Sam Shepard), decide it's also the perfect time to unleash years of pent-up frustrations, resentments, and disappointments, as well as to air some skeletons and dirty laundry.
And leading the charge is the newly-widowed Violet (Meryl Streep). Suffering from mouth cancer, and popping her various medications like they were candy, Violet isn't about to let the death of her husband dull her wits or muzzle her sharp tongue. She doesn't pull her punches and no one -- from eldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts), to only grandchild, Jean (Abigail Breslin) -- is safe.
"You are in rare form today, Vi," comments brother-in-law, Charlie (a sympathetic Chris Cooper), at the post-funeral family lunch, and he might as well be talking about Streep herself. Violet Weston is the kind of role any middle-aged actress would love to sink her teeth into and Streep does just that. Yes she's chewing scenery but she does so with such menace and mirth that you can only watch in delighted awe (and be thankful that you're on this side of the screen).
Still, it's not the Meryl Streep show. August: Osage County is an ensemble piece and Wells, while he doesn't provide all that much in the way of directorial distinction, has assembled a terrific cast. Julia Roberts gives her best performance since 2004's Closer (another stage-to-screen adaptation about unlikeable people), as the daughter who moved away, married beneath her (an under-served Ewan McGregor) according to Violet, and lives with the fear that she's becoming more and more like her mother. The film is at its best when these two go head-to-head; even better when they literally throw down.
Juliette Lewis, as the flighty youngest sister, Karen, who also left Osage County and brings her latest beau (a comical Dermot Mulroney) to this family gathering, and Julianne Nicholson, as the middle sister, Ivy, who stayed close to home but may be about to finally spread her wings with the help of her cousin, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), are also good.
But it's veteran character actors Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale who are perhaps the film's MVP's. Cooper's Charlie may be the closest approximation of a decent person the Weston family has, and his defence of his son against his mother's constant disapproval is arguably the film's most poignant moment. And Martindale's Mattie Fae, jovial though not without venom, may be the only person whom Violet actually likes. Blood is thicker than water and although she would have good reason to, Violet seems disinterested in spilling Mattie Fae's.
Like the aforementioned Closer, and 2011's Carnage, another stage-to-screen adaptation about people you're quite happy to watch rip each other apart, August: Osage County deploys words as weapons: wittily, brutally. It's fun to watch, even as you may squirm in recognition at some of the Weston family's foibles. "Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," wrote Tolstoy, to which Tracy Letts subscribes with blistering, entertaining effect. The Westons' pain is the audience's gain.