Thursday, 17 December 2015
To bastardise the late, great film critic, Roger Ebert, it is not what a film is about but how it is about it. The inverse of that philosophy could be applied to Suffragette, a film that for all its importance and ambition is commendable more for its intent than its execution.
For although well-intentioned, Suffragette lacks the fire in the belly which drove its protagonists to break the law and fight the power. Hand-held cinematography is about as radical as Sarah Gavron's period drama-history lesson -- about the British suffragette movement's fight for women's voting rights -- gets, though it is well served by Carey Mulligan's central performance.
She plays Maud, a 24-year-old wife and mother who has spent her entire life in the laundry where she works; it's where her mother worked before her, and where, from the age of 7, she's had to wash and iron, day-in and day-out, as well as endure the sexual advances of her employer.
But with the arrival of Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) comes a new friend and a glimpse of something more. It's 1912, and the suffragette movement is becoming increasingly more active -- with the encouragement of Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in a brief cameo) -- in its push for women's voting rights. Violet is a suffragette and quietly encourages Maud to become involved.
Meetings lead to protests which leads to arrest, and although her husband (Ben Whishaw) insists she be done with this nonsense, a fire has been lit in Maud; slowly fanned by her new found sisters and their push for equality. That flame isn't just fueled by anger but by hope. But hoping and wishing doesn't win battles, and Maud soon learns that the fight has to be taken to the establishment with no time for niceties.
Some viewers, particularly those born in a post-feminist world, may be shocked by the level of entrenched sexism, and the violence -- meted out by both sides -- committed to maintain or destroy the status quo. It's when the film, and Maud, fires up that we catch glimpses of what Suffragette could have been.
But no matter how committed Maud, or Mulligan, is, Suffragette never rises above solid film making. It's far too polite when, like its heroines, it should be kicking and screaming.
Thursday, 12 November 2015
Starring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon and Laura Dern
In this timely thriller, hard-working single father Dennis (Andrew Garfield) and his mother (Laura Dern) are cruelly evicted from their home. Desperate to get his house back, Nash goes to work for the wealthy and ruthless businessman Rick (Michael Shannon) – the very man who repossessed Nash’s home. It is a deal-with-the-devil that comes with an increasingly high cost – on Carver’s orders, Nash must evict families from their homes; in return, Nash is promised a lifestyle of wealth and glamour. As Nash falls deeper into Carver’s web, he finds his situation grows more brutal and dangerous than he ever imagined.
Thanks to Madman Films we have double passes to 99 HOMES to give away. Keep an eye on our Twitter feed (@TheLennoXFiles) for your chance to win.
In Cinemas Nationally November 19.
Tuesday, 27 October 2015
From the team behind acclaimed documentary Senna, comes this insightful and moving portrait of iconic singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse. A pop star with soul; Amy’s rare musical ability made her a star, while her chaotic personal life stole headlines. With rare interviews and never-before-seen archival footage, Amy takes us behind the headlines to reveal a prodigiously talented young woman whose life ended far too soon. With this film, the world will fall in love with the real Amy Winehouse and her music all over again.
Thanks to eOne Home Entertainment, we have three DVD copies of AMY to be won. Keep an eye on our Twitter feed (@TheLennoXFiles) for you chance to go in the draw. Note: Competition open to Australian residents only.
AMY IS AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY, DVD & DIGITAL OCTOBER 28.
Saturday, 26 September 2015
PAN (Roadshow Films)
This prequel to J.M. Barrie's ever-popular creation tells of how 'the boy who could fly' came to Neverland; starting out in a Dickensian boy's home in WWII London before being whisked away by space pirates to work in the mines (digging for fairy dust) operated by Blackbeard (a scenery-chewing Hugh Jackman). From there it's all action set pieces and exposition as young Peter (Levi Miller) and his accomplice, James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), team with native warrior, Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), to prevent Blackbeard from getting his hands on the richest deposit of fairy dust imaginable. There's also the possible fulfilling of a prophecy that Peter could be 'The Chosen One'. Perhaps a little dark for the little ones (this isn't Disney's animated Peter Pan), Joe Wright's mish-mash of styles (aided greatly by collaborators Seamus McGarvey (cinematography), Jacqueline Durran (costumes), and Aline Bonetto (production design) is still an oddly enjoyable tale; succeeding by being better than what one expected from this ostensibly unnecessary origins tale.
SICARIO (Roadshow Films)
Fifteen years after winning an Oscar for Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, Benicio del Toro is once again a player in the war on drugs. And little much has changed in the intervening years: the drugs keep flowing over the Mexican border into the US, cartel violence extends to both sides, and the Americans are either helpless against or complicit in the corruption. Seconded from the FBI to aid in another US agency's clandestine insurgence into Mexico, Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) has her eyes well and truly opened to the horrors being committed on both sides. And while Blunt's performance is perfectly fine, her character is an anchor and a conduit; merely there to serve as our eyes in this Hell. There's no denying the skill of Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (nor the majesty of Roger Deakins' cinematography), but it's not nearly as urgent or as thrilling as Johann Johannson's score would have us believe.
THE VISIT (Universal Pictures)
Not exactly a found footage horror film, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest at least has the distinction of being a well shot handheld experience; unlike so much of the Paranormal Activity films, The Visit is always easy to look at even if not all that much is happening. And stuff usually only happens at night when Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ben Oxenbould), who’ve come to stay with their estranged grandparents in the remote mid-west and are documenting everything on camera, hear things go bump – and scratch, thump, scream and vomit – in the middle of the night (well, not long after their 9.30pm curfew actually). Just what’s up with Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) is more of a reveal than Mr. Shyamalan’s trademark twists but there are enough jump scares, a good dose of humour and two engaging performances by the young leads (Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!) to keep you oscillating round the perimeters of your seat.
Wednesday, 23 September 2015
What drives us as a species to undertake challenges which test our endurance and could very well result in our deaths? Hubris? Stupidity? The pursuit of glory? A death wish? Whatever it is, it has seen humankind scale the greatest heights on Earth and proceed beyond them to the Moon.
'Because it's there' seems to be the obvious answer as to why we challenge ourselves to climb a mountain or go into space, but what in turn drives those adventurers to make the journey home when shit hits the fan, all that could go wrong does go wrong, and death seems like the only -- and easiest -- option?
The desire to conquer and the will to survive are at the heart of two films currently in, or about to land in cinemas: Baltasar Kormakur's Everest (Universal Pictures) and Ridley Scott's The Martian (20th Century Fox): each boasting elements of both the disaster and the survival film genre, with differing kinds of thrills and varying degrees of success.
Everest recounts a disastrous 1996 expedition on that titular mountain, where a group of climbers from around the globe sought to scale the world's highest peak. All were expert climbers and up for the physical challenge; not just the endurance required to climb day after day and endure unforgiving weather conditions, but also the effects of altitude which can compromise the lungs, cause swelling of the brain and, ultimately, can result in death.
These events, which sees things go from bad to worse, unfold in a matter-of-fact manner; Kormakur and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and William Nicholson seemingly determined to honour the memory of those who didn't survive the climb without needlessly embellishing their ordeal. That we care so much about who lives and who dies perhaps has more to do with the skill of the actors -- Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, and Jake Gyllenhaal -- than the screenplay, which doesn't flesh them out a great deal: phone calls to family members (Robin Wright plays Brolin's wife; Keira Knightley, with Kiwi accent, is Clarke's expecting spouse) providing emotional touchstones.
Not surprisingly, where Everest excels is in recreating the conditions faced by the climbers -- snow, cold, freakish storms, occasional small avalanche -- and in depicting the mountain itself: location shooting and CGI blend almost seamlessly to put you in their shoes, their flimsy tents, and on the unforgiving mountainside. (The use of 3D format is neither here nor there, though to see it on an IMAX screen would be something.)
A giant step beyond Everest and the Moon is Mars. We haven't yet put a human on the Red Planet but in Ridley Scott's The Martian, set in a not-too-distant yet recognizable future, we have. And we've managed to leave one behind.
Botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead following a Martian storm with his fellow space travelers forced to abandon him. Watney, left to his own devices and company, has to ration his supplies -- as well as grow food on a planet that has no oxygen -- long enough to keep himself alive until he can be rescued. That's more than 100-odd days so in his own words, he's going to have to science the shit out of it.
So, too, does Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard, who manage to make the techno-babble as uncomplicated as possible whilst giving us a (presumably) plausible but no less fantastical depiction of what one person may do in order to survive on a desolate planet in the hopes of returning home.
And it's the scientists who are the heroes back on Earth, too. NASA's best and brightest minds (headed up by Chiwetel Ejiofor) work feverishly to calculate how best to rescue Watney, while the NASA chief (Jeff Daniels) counts the beans, and the head of media relations (Kristen Wiig) hopes she's going to be able to provide the media -- and the world -- with a feel good story whilst preparing for the worst. There's just no good way to spin losing an astronaut twice.
Much of the success of The Martian relies on the star power of Matt Damon, who makes Watney an affable fellow. In fact, so happy-go-lucky is the botanist you're left thinking his greatest challenge to survival is not a lack of oxygen or a high-carb diet but enduring the disco-filled iTunes catalog left behind by his captain (Jessica Chastain).
Watney, and Goddard's screenplay, has little time for existentialism or quiet reflection about the possibility of death. In space no-one can hear you scream, but apparently one never feels the need to, however alone and doomed they appear to be.
In that sense, Everest is more of a realistic (i.e. downer) tale of survival as opposed to the optimism of The Martian, yet it's Ridley's film that will have you on the edge of your seat, gripping your armrest or mimicking Wiig's permanent hand clasp. It's big budget movie-making that succeeds in being entertaining without dumbing down for the audience.
If only the film had been brave enough to make Watney less humorous hero and more human. That may be the only area in which Everest trumps The Martian. As a fact-based story, we're made keenly aware of the consequences as a result of those climbers' perilous mission, and their legacy. Sometimes the real heroes aren't the ones who climb the mountains or who go into space; they're the ones who are left behind.
Wednesday, 16 September 2015
Kicking-off Tuesday September 22, the annual Queer Screen Film Fest brings a selection of local and international queer feature films and documentaries to Sydney; beginning with opening night film Boulevard, featuring one of Robin Williams' final screen performances, and closing with the highly-anticipated Freeheld (pictured above), fresh from its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. You can check out the program for yourself on the Queer Screen website (http://queerscreen.org.au/) but here are previews of three of the films screening at the Fest.
Ostensibly this Aussie drama/thriller seems like an odd choice for a queer film festival but without giving too much away, this tale of a young ex-con determined to go straight does have a queer bent. Out of prison and prepared to turn his life around, Merv (Alex Russell) is about to marry Paula (Jessica de Gouw) when an old acquaintance from his criminal past makes a surprise visit. That's Pommie (Sullivan Stapleton), just out of prison and ready to collect on the promises made by Merv when behind bars. Stapleton exudes both menace and sexual magnetism (the 1970s wardrobe somehow amplifying the effect) as he ingratiates himself into Merv's new life, but you just know things can't end well. Directed by Tony Ayres (TV's The Slap), Cut Snake is a tense, often violent film which revolves around Sullivan's towering performance.
Cut Snake screens at the Queer Screen Film Fest on September 23, and receives a limited national release from September 24.
Lily Tomlin is in near-perfect form as the cantankerous titular character in Paul Weitz's dramedy. A poet-cum-academic still mourning the loss of her partner of 38 years, we meet Elle Reid (Tomlin) in the process of breaking up with her younger lover of four months, Olivia (Judy Greer). And the day is only going to get more emotional from there: Elle's teenage granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), shows up on her doorstep in need of help. $600 for an abortion to be precise. And grandma, the liberal feminist and pragmatist that she is, is prepared to help, but having cut up her credit cards as a statement against, well, something or other, the two have to go in search of the funds; Sage's mother (a terse Marcia Gay Harden) not being an option. Of course the star of the film is Tomlin (already earning Oscar buzz), who gets to play the grumpy old woman to great effect, throwing off witty asides and pearls of wisdom with equal measure. But there's an emotional depth beneath the curmudgeonly veneer, which Tomlin seems more interested in mining than does Weitz's screenplay.
Grandma screens at the Queer Screen Film Fest on September 24. It will receive a home entertainment release in 2016.
Based on a true story, and inspired by the 2007 documentary of the same name, Freeheld is a timely story about equality for the LGBTQI community. When, in 2003, police detective Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) is diagnosed with Stage-4 cancer, she requests that her police pension be left to her partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page, one of the film's producers). And although the New Jersey state had allowed for same-sex partners of civil unions to receive their partner's pensions, the Freeholders (a group of five middle class, heterosexual white men) decide against granting Laurel's request. So ensues a campaign, led by Laurel's police partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon, best-in-show), and amplified by political activist, Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), for justice. For all its good intentions and prescience, not to mention its top-notch cast, Freeheld is a rather awkwardly produced film; more telemovie than cinematic, perhaps because of budget constraints. Still, it packs an emotional punch.
Freeheld screens at the Queer Screen Film Fest on September 27, and opens nationally November 5.
Monday, 14 September 2015
After the box office successes of Happy Feet (2006) and Red Dog (2011), it wouldn't take a genius to suggest making a film combining penguins and dogs. How fortunate then for the producers of Oddball that there existed a real-life tale of inter-species co-operation from which to draw inspiration.
In the Victorian coastal town of Warrnambool exists a colony of little (nee fairy) penguins whose existence -- not to mention profitable contribution to the local tourism industry -- was once threatened by foxes with an appetite for destruction. Wild life rangers could only do so much to protect the birds, who came into land of a night time to sleep and mate, until an outside-the-box solution was hit upon: a guard dog.
Not any guard dog, but a Maremma. Kind of like a shaggy labrador, a Maremma is an Italian dog bred specifically to protect livestock. But Oddball, one of two Maremmas owned by local chook farmer, Allan "Swampy" Marsh (Shane Jacobson), didn't seem to possess that protective gene; watching out for his master's chickens was not his forte. Causing mayhem in the town, however, was.
After one too many destructive rampages through the streets of Warrnambool, Swampy is issued an ultimatum: keep Oddball out of town and out of trouble or its curtains for the canine. But redemption comes in the unlikeliest forms, and when Swampy notes that Oddball's dormant protective gene is awoken by an injured penguin, he and his granddaughter, Olivia (Coco Gillies), hit on an idea, one that will kill two birds (not literally) with one stone.
For Swampy's daughter, Emily (Sarah Snook), is the local wildlife ranger and keeper of her late mother's flame; she was the one who created the penguin sanctuary which is in danger of being shut down by the local council if its population drops below ten. That possibility has Emily thinking of leaving town altogether and starting a new life in New York with Bradley Slater (Alan Tudyk), a tourism adviser. But neither Swampy nor Olivia wants that to happen.
How events unfold from there and are resolved are never really in doubt (even less so if you're aware of the actual Warrnambool penguins story), but director Stuart Macdonald, and screenwriter Peter Ivan, manage to provide enough humour and charm in Oddball to keep audiences engaged and smiling.
That said, there's perhaps too much emphasis on the human characters' problems and not nearly enough of the cute penguins and playful pooch to keep the little ones from getting restless. Parents will be relieved to know, however, that unlike that other pooch picture, Red Dog, no tissues, or uncomfortable conversations about mortality, will be required. All's well that ends well in this fairy (penguin) tale.
Wednesday, 2 September 2015
20th Century Fox Films
A film adapted from a young adult novel featuring a cancer-stricken girl: didn't we see this film last year? Kind of. But whereas the 'girl' (played by Shailene Woodley) was very much the focus of the John Green adaptation, The Fault In Our Stars, the titular female in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, and written by Jesse Andrews based on his own YA novel) is a supporting player.
The focus is very much on the 'Me'. That's Greg (Thomas Mann), an adolescent in his final year of high school who has managed to navigate that intrinsically American hell relatively unscathed; keeping a low profile by avoiding membership of any particular clique, and keeping on friendly terms with pretty much everyone. Spending his lunch times away from the cafeteria and taking refuge in the office of his history teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), further aiding and abetting his under-the-radar high school existence.
Not that Greg is without friends, or as he terms it, a co-worker. That would be Earl (RJ Cyler), Greg's sidekick since early childhood who also spends his lunch hour in Mr. McCarthy's office. Earl also shares a similar passion for art house cinema; he and Greg making their own short versions of cinema classics with punny titles and strictly for their own viewing pleasure (though Greg's stay-at-home dad (Nick Offerman) is a fan).
But Greg's insular world is upended when his mother (Connie Britton) insists he visit Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who has been diagnosed with leukemia. Rachel's as nonplussed as Greg is to have an unwelcome guest at her pity party, but the two soon discover a similar sense of humour and what begins as a begrudging good deed on Greg's part soon develops into friendship.
Some have complained that the Rachel character is a mere plot device, conceived to elicit unearned tears, or, at worst, she is a token female. Earl, too, is arguably underused -- the token black friend designed to highlight the white guy's 'goodness' -- but as the title states, it's all about Greg. And Greg, like all adolescents, is selfish and self-absorbed; Mann succeeding in keeping our protagonist on this side of tolerable, and Rachel and Earl keeping him in-check.
Where Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is headed is probably never in doubt (even as Earl's narration insists otherwise), but Gomez-Rejon and Andrews manage to navigate the YA minefield with more than a modicum of wit and pathos. Compared to another recent film featuring a M-M-F teen triumvirate, Rick Famuyiwa's Dope, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl may not be as joyous but it's arguably more self-assured.
Wednesday, 19 August 2015
When you grow up black in Los Angeles, in a suburb colloquially known as The Bottoms, not much is expected of you. So it should come as no surprise when Malcolm (a terrific Shameik Moore) is literally laughed out of the office of his high school principal when he tells him he's aiming for a place at Harvard.
But Malcolm is not your typical ghetto youth. He has no gangsta affiliation; he studies hard; has an obsession, along with his best buds, Jib (Tony Revolori), and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), with 1980s geek culture, and also plays in a punk band with them.
Malcolm is also deceptively ambitious, and it's this characteristic which all of the adults in his life -- said principal (Bruce Beatty); Dom (Rakim Myers), the neighbourhood drug pin; Jacoby (Roger Guenveur Smith), the criminal lawyer whose more the former than the latter -- underestimate when he and his pals come into possession of a bag full of drugs.
Those drugs belong to Dom, as does Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), who inspires Malcolm -- whilst also fueling his hormones -- to take charge of a very dangerous situation and make it work to his advantage.
Not that Dope, from writer-director Rick Famuyiwa, is a heavy-handed, hand-wringing cinema verite look at life in the 'hood. It's essentially a buddy comedy with its trio of fresh-faced leads keeping things light. (And 10 points if you can name the last American teen film where none of the protagonists were white.)
Issues of race, gender and education are raised but they're done so, for the most part, with a gentle hand; a coda where Malcolm reads his Harvard entrance essay to the audience is, however, unsubtle and unnecessary. (So, too, is producer Forest Whitaker's infrequent narration.)
And if Dope doesn't manage to sustain the fun-filled pace of the first half -- Malcolm's plan for the drugs getting the film bogged down and convoluted -- the charm of Moore and his cohorts remains winning. You'll be cheering for them, and unlike the school principal, you'll be laughing with, not at, Malcolm.
Monday, 17 August 2015
In spite of the tendency for melodrama in Kurt Sutter's screenplay, and the inherent cliches in any boxing film, Antoine Fuqua's Southpaw manages to be an engaging bout -- due in no small part to Jake Gyllenhaal's bulked-up performance -- if not a TKO.
Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope (as in, The Great White), a middle-heavyweight boxer whom we meet on the night of his biggest win. His wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), a childhood sweetheart who, like Billy, came up through the foster care system, thinks it's time he hung up the gloves and enjoy the spoils of his victories. And given his post-fight state -- a swollen face, blood dribbling from his mouth -- it's easy to see why.
His manager, Jordan Mains (Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson), however, wants at least another three fights -- and a multi-million dollar pay-for-view contract -- out of his man, including a bout with the world champ, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez).
But events conspire to bring Billy to his knees and financially undone. They also see his bright young daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), removed from his custody and into foster care. Billy needs to win her back but he needs to be a winner again first. Thus Southpaw becomes a story of both redemption and a comeback, as Billy takes a job as night janitor in a downtown gym operated by trainer, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), a no-nonsense guy who doesn't tolerate swearing or self pity.
Of course, where Southpaw goes from here is never in doubt. That we care about that outcome is in great part to Gyllenhaal's performance of this broken man who wants only to be with his daughter and knows only one way to get what he wants in life: to fight for it. It's another impressive performance by Gyllenhaal, the physical transformation as startling and extreme as the one which saw him lose weight to creepily embody a sociopath in Nightcrawler (2014).
Billy's relationships with both Tick and Leila make the cliches at work in Fuqua's film bearable (the film having lost much of its energy when McAdams departs), and thankfully Southpaw isn't all dour and downbeat; there's some much needed humour in Billy and Tick's to-and-fro, including an excellent gag about Whitaker's infamous eye. (Naomie Harris is there, too, as Leila's sympathetic case worker but sadly she's not given nearly enough to do.)
Southpaw doesn't bring anything to the ring that you haven't seen before: it's a scrapper not a contender.
Friday, 7 August 2015
Amy Schumer is so hot right now. Her stand-up shows are sell-outs, clips from her Comedy Central TV show, Inside Amy Schumer, go viral on a regular basis, and she's all over the media decrying sexist stereotypes and defying mainstream expectations of what a female celebrity should be. (And given recent unfortunate events in the US, she's also become an unlikely anti-gun advocate.)
Schumer now brings that same level of crass though sharply-tuned humour and love-me-or-fuck-off presence to the big screen in Trainwreck, a rom-com penned by the comedienne and directed by Judd Apatow (of Knocked Up fame).
She plays Amy, a writer for a men's magazine (S'Nuff), who drinks like a fish, is partial to weed, wears clothes that would seem to be a size too small, and who enjoys an active sex life. But Amy doesn't do sleepovers or repeats, though she is sort of seeing someone (John Cena) but not exclusively which comes as a surprise to him.
Yes, Amy is the traditional male character in this scenario. And the female? That's Aaron (Bill Hader), a sports surgeon who's nice, sincere and a tad on the dull side but whom Amy, upon being assigned by her editor (a shiny-shiny Tilda Swinton) to do a feature article on, falls for (after first falling drunkenly into bed with him).
Yet in spite of the Schumer's brand of humour, and yes, her "non-traditional" leading lady attributes, Trainwreck still subscribes to the rom-com tropes. And somewhat disappointingly, that includes the female character changing for and acquiescing to the male character's ideals.
But before that disappointing denouement, Trainwreck is an hilarious comedy and one of Apatow's better films (although like most of his work, it could still afford to lose 15-to-20 minutes). It doesn't reinvent the genre, but it does announce the arrival of a new comic voice and most welcome screen presence.
Tuesday, 4 August 2015
THE DIVERGENT SERIES: INSURGENT raises the stakes for Tris as she searches for allies and answers in the ruins of a futuristic Chicago. Tris (Woodley) and Four (James) are now fugitives on the run, hunted by Jeanine (Winslet), the leader of the power-hungry Erudite elite. Racing against time, they must find out what Tris’s family sacrificed their lives to protect, and why the Erudite leaders will do anything to stop them. Haunted by her past choices but desperate to protect the ones she loves, Tris, with Four at her side, faces one impossible challenge after another as they unlock the truth about the past and ultimately the future of their world.
Thanks to Entertainment One, we have 3 INSURGENT prize packs to give away, including a DVD copy of INSURGENT plus a key ring. Keep an eye on our Twitter feed (@TheLennoXFiles) for your chance to win. Note: competition open to Australian residents only.
INSURGENT is available to own on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD August 12.
Thursday, 23 July 2015
"Fiction is worthless!" decries Sherlock Holmes, the famous (and fictional) sleuth, at one point in Mr. Holmes. What then would he make of a film (directed by Bill Condon) based on a novel (by Mitch Cullin) which imagines the retirement of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic detective?
Now in his ninety-third year, and relocated from his Baker Street London address to a house by the sea where he is tended to by housekeeper, Mrs. Monroe (Laura Linney), and her precocious son, Roger (Milo Parker), Holmes (Ian McKellen), who really needs a carer, is battling time and senility. But he is also battling the past.
In particular, the detective is troubled by his last case which he is struggling to recall; hoping to write an account of it to right two wrongs: the fictional and fanciful accounts of his other cases by long-time partner, Doctor John Watson (whose books Holmes declares as "penny dreadfuls with an elevated prose style"); and what actually transpired in that last case more than 30 years ago and which continues to niggle at the back of his mind.
But memory is not Holmes' friend. The sharp and perceptive mind which made him such a formidable detective -- his powers of deduction second to none -- is gradually giving in to time; slipping and fading. In his friendship with Roger, cultivated as Holmes teaches the youngster to tend to his beehives, Holmes is encouraged to continue writing; Roger as keen as his hero to know how the case was resolved. But memories of that final case come fleetingly to him, throughout the day and in his sleep.
Sherlock Holmes has enjoyed a pop culture resurgence in the last several years, with Robert Downey Jnr. bringing him back to the big screen, and both Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Jonny Lee Miller (Elementary) embodying modern-day television incarnations; each actor providing the sleuth with a mixture of arrogance and the autistic. At the very least, we can be thankful that Condon and McKellen have not given us an all-knowing egghead who sits somewhere on the spectrum. This Holmes is fallible, vulnerable. Human.
It is also refreshing to see Ian McKellen in a straight role for a change. For the best part of 20 years the British actor has either appeared on screen as the mutant super villain, Magneto (from the X-Men series), or as Gandalf the Grey, the wise but fair-weather wizard in Peter Jackson's adaptations of J.R.R Tolkein's Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
The last time McKellen did anything this dramatic was in another Condon film, Gods and Monsters (1998), which also scored the actor his first Oscar nomination. A reasonable deduction would suggest that awards aren't in McKellen's future, but his turn as Sherlock Holmes is an impressive one; shifting between the detective still in his prime, and the feeble old man who clings to his greatest possession -- his mind -- for dear life.
Linney is fine, too, in a small role and with a working class English accent, but it's Milo Parker who deserves second billing. The young actor as equally precocious as Roger, a kid with a mind ripe for learning and who wants so much more than his mother (and deceased father) achieved in life.
This trio of performances, the cinematography (Thomas A. Schliessler) and score (Carter Burwell) make Mr. Holmes an enjoyably watchable film, but one more polite than alive. The central mystery which Holmes hopes to recall is not all that intriguing, and a subplot involving Holmes' recent trip to Japan in search of prickly ash -- a plant regarded for its restorative powers -- is more distracting than anything. That said, Mr. Holmes is far from elementary.
Wednesday, 15 July 2015
Walt Disney Studios Films
After the excesses of Age of Ultron -- including a platoon of superheroes and a European city dropping from the sky -- Marvel Studios have decided to dial it back, and down, for their next outing. And although Ant-Man doesn't always live up to the adage that good things come in small packages, there's enough action and humour in Peyton Reed's film to ensure it's not the smallest contribution to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
A prologue set in 1989 introduces us to scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who has succeeded in producing a serum and a super suit that can reduce humans to the size of ants whilst retaining their human-size strength. But falling out with Howard Stark (John Slattery), father of future Iron-man, and still mourning the loss of his wife, Pym hides his research away.
But the so-called Ant-man project needs to be dusted off when, in present day San Francisco, Pym's one-time protege and now owner of his company, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), comes ever closer to producing his own shrinking super suit; Cross prepared to sell to the highest bidder rather than aid a higher cause. Hank needs a hero, and much to the chagrin of his one-time estranged daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), he decides upon Scott Lang (Paul Rudd).
A cat burglar recently released from prison, Scott is determined to go straight for the sake of his young daughter. But unable to hold on to a steady job, and with the constant nudging of his former cellmate cum housemate, Luis (Michael Pena), Scott is soon falling back on his old ways.
That brings him into possession of the Ant-man suit and eventually Hank Pym -- the scientist using a robbery as an audition to prove Scott's mettle -- and not before long the Pyms and the crim are in training for a heist to steal the rival suit from Cross. Cue a montage of Scott mastering the ins and outs of the suit, how to wrangle a selection of ants, how to throw a punch (and take one), and how to navigate the fraught relationship between father and daughter.
This latter theme adds a dollop of schmaltz to proceedings, making Ant-Man the most noticeably 'Disney' of the Marvel films to date. And while Reed (with thanks to original helmer, Edgar Wright, and co-writer Joe Cornish) manages to make it something different to the Iron-man, Thor and Captain America films, Ant-Man is by no means a Guardians of the Galaxy breakout. And Paul Rudd (with all due respect) is no Chris Pratt.
Indeed, Rudd's charisma, along with Scott's body, seems to have been reduced; reined in perhaps by the film's PG rating? An always affable, charming and warm screen presence, it's somewhat of a surprise that Rudd (who apparently had extensive input into the character and script) doesn't register in the same way that Pratt did in Guardians (and subsequently with Pena getting the majority of the laughs).
Signalling the end of MCU's Phase Two (for those keeping count), Ant-Man doesn't go out with a whimper but more a less-than-expected bang. The film is not so much sub-par as sub-atomic, if you will.
Wednesday, 24 June 2015
20th Century Fox Films
Thomas Hardy's Bathsheba Everdene may lend her name to The Hunger Games heroine but the only arrows being fired in this beautiful looking adaptation (penned by David Nicholls; directed by Thomas Vinterberg) of the author's Far From The Madding Crowd are by cupid. Not once, not twice but thrice.
Such is the allure of Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan, radiant as ever), the farm girl cum heiress, that she draws the attentions of three suitors. The first is Gabriel Oak (a warm Matthias Schoenaerts), a shepherd who proposes to Bathsheba (within the film's first few minutes) before the pair have had a reversal of fortunes; Bathsheba receiving her uncle's inheritance and Gabriel losing his flock and livelihood to an overzealous sheepdog.
Bathsheba politely rejects Gabriel's proposal ("I would want a husband to tame me and you wouldn't be able to do it."), as she does William Boldwood (a vulnerable Michael Sheen), the wealthy neighbour of her uncle's estate who becomes smitten with her following a Valentine's Day prank.
Although the marriage would be advantageous land-wise, Bathsheba is an independent woman; the kind who doesn't ride side-saddle and who is happy to muck-in with the workers when needed. But Bathsheba's also human and prone to romantic fervor, so when the handsome but caddish Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) arrives she throws caution to the wind, marrying in haste and repenting at his drunken leisure.
And while a loveless marriage is some kind of tragedy, that's about as tragic (unusual for Hardy) as it gets in Far From The Madding Crowd. A subplot involving Troy's pregnant lover (an under-utilized Juno Temple), missing her trip down the aisle due to a church mix-up (and thus the reason for his drunken cruelty0, isn't given enough screen time to render it in any way affecting.
Indeed, there's very little in the film in which to get emotionally invested. For all the beautiful trappings -- the sun-dappled cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen; costumes by Janet Patterson -- and fine performances (Mulligan and her trifecta of leading men are all solid), the episodic nature of the story and the almost inevitable ending (even those who haven't read Hardy's novel will guess at and/or be pleased by the denouement) combine to make Far From The Madding Crowd a satisfactory but far from satisfying viewing experience.
Monday, 22 June 2015
Icon Film Distribution
Biopics of musicians usually follow the same template: birth, rise, fall, redemption, rise. And then possibly death. Regardless of their race, musical genre and status within music history, it too often seems that one musician's life is as standard as any other.
Taylor Hackford's Ray (2004), about the life of Ray Charles, was closely followed by James Mangold's Walk The Line (2005), about Johnny Cash, and other than the two men being of different colour, there was very little difference in either musician's life story. So it was somewhat refreshing when Todd Haynes's I'm Not There (2007), a biopic-of-sorts of Bob Dylan, took the almost revolutionary route of having the role performed by six different actors, male and female, black and white, child and adult.
Director Bill Pohlad's Love & Mercy isn't quite so revolutionary as that film but in splitting the story of Brian Wilson, the creative force of 1960s pop sensations The Beach Boys, into two halves -- with each half having a different actor perform the main role -- much of the musical biopic cliche is avoided (although the parallels, both in story and structure, with Scott Hicks' Oscar-winning Shine (1996) are strong).
Set in the late 1960s and the late 1980s, we meet two Brian Wilsons: one (Paul Dano) at the height of his creative powers but on the verge of a breakdown; and another (John Cusack) on the other side of that breakdown trying to find his way back through a haze of medication and bad advice.
Those drugs and that advice are dispensed by Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giammatti), Wilson's therapist and legal guardian. But it's when Wilson meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a one-time model now Cadillac salesperson, that the possibility of escape and new beginnings for the musician present themselves.
As good as Cusack is in these 'modern' scenes -- an at times incoherent babbler, a lost man-child -- it's Banks who really shines. Melinda may look like a Barbie doll but she's made of sterner stuff, and not one to be dissuaded from rescuing the man she's come to love even when faced with a Svengali-like Landy (Giammatti relishing the 'bad guy' role).
But it is Paul Dano who truly impresses in Love & Mercy. As the younger Wilson, Dano brings a wide-eyed innocence to the role of the musician who literally moves to his own beat; hearing things that no one else can. Of course that sensitivity also makes him vulnerable. Throw in an oppressive father and some LSD, and Wilson's breakdown -- just as his musical experimentation becomes ever bolder -- seems inevitable.
Those scenes of Brian creating and recording his music in the studio, improvising, collaborating, experimenting -- "Can we get a horse in here?!" -- are some of the film's best. Not surprisingly, Love & Mercy boasts both an excellent soundtrack as well as sound design; the growing noise in Brian's head as integral to the story as The Beach Boys' greatest hits.
If the modern scenes don't quite boast that same level of fascination, the strength of Cusack, Giammati and especially Banks' performances will keep you engaged. But like some of those great Beach Boys songs, it's the performance of Dano you won't be able to get out of your head.
Thursday, 18 June 2015
Walt Disney Studios Films/Pixar
Pixar are back! Not that they really ever went away, but with no release in 2014, and Monsters University (2013) and Brave (2012) not living up to their promise -- and the announcement of some unnecessary sequels to fan favourites: Finding Nemo, Toy Story, The Incredibles -- it seemed the animation studio which had rarely put a foot wrong (Cars (2006) and Cars 2 (2011) excepted) had run out of ideas.
Not that the premise of Inside Out -- the competing emotions inside one's mind -- is wholly original (1980s sit-com Herman's Head, anyone?) but as applied to an 11-year-old girl, directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen (and the writing team), have created something else: a rich, brightly-coloured adventure full of imagination, wonder and, yes, emotions.
Riley is your typical pre-teen: two loving parents, close friends, a skilled ice hockey player and a generally bright and bubbly kid. And like every other kid -- and parent, and dog, as witnessed in Inside Out -- Riley has five main emotions driving her thoughts and actions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust.
Joy (Amy Poehler) has been with Riley since the second she was born, and as the "eldest" she has assumed control of the command centre that is Riley's mind. It's here that Joy and the other emotions -- Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) -- steer their charge through each day, creating new core memories; the ones she'll keep forever.
But when Riley's father lands a new job in San Francisco, Riley is uprooted from her comfortable mid-Western life, and everything that was once safe and familiar -- to her and her emotions -- is gone. Riley's life is thrown out of whack and so, too, is her emotional command centre.
Joy and Sadness are jettisoned from their post and forced to make their way back before it's too late (Riley -- or rather Anger -- having hit on the idea of running away back to the Midwest where all of Riley's core memories were created). Somewhat ably assisted by one-time imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Joy and Sadness must work together to restore order to the chaos.
If it weren't already brave enough for a children's film to tackle emotional well-being, Inside Out acknowledges that joy and sadness are two sides of the one coin; that one emotion can make the other more sweet or take the edge off.
Joy wants Riley to he happy all of the time but being happy 24-7 is not healthy, and forced happiness isn't happiness at all. (And to be honest, Poehler's Joy is a tad insufferable.) Besides, Sadness is vital: it allows Riley's parents to know when she's vulnerable and in need of comfort and reassurance. Just as Fear keeps us safe and Anger allows us to vent, Sadness provides both a release and a 'waving hand' when adrift in an emotional current.
If that makes Inside Out sound too deep for your average tike, it's not. There's plenty of colour and movement -- it goes without saying that the animation is world class -- and humour for both child and adult alike.
But in daring to go deep, to acknowledge the emotional complexity at childhood's end, Pixar have reaffirmed themselves as not just the premier animation studio but as the foremost producers of intelligent family fare. Welcome back.
Saturday, 6 June 2015
Lily Tomlin is in near-perfect form as the cantankerous titular character in Paul Weitz's dramedy, Grandma. A poet-cum-academic still mourning the loss of her partner of 38 years, we meet Elle Reid (Tomlin) in the process of breaking up with her younger lover of four months, Olivia (Judy Greer). And the day is only going to get more emotional from there.
Later that morning, Elle's teenage granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), shows up on her doorstep in need of help. $600 for an abortion to be precise. And grandma, the liberal feminist and pragmatist that she is, is prepared to help, but having cut up her credit cards as a statement against, well, something or other, the two have to go in search of the funds; Sage's mother (a terse Marcia Gay Harden) not being an option.
So follows a long day's journey into night as these two women from the same gene pool but very different generations see their relationship evolve over the course of the day, and it is revealed that the sins of the mother (or grandmother) or often visited upon the child.
And Elle's complicated past is revealed with each new encounter (Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Pena), most notably Karl (Sam Elliot), a man who has been holding a torch for, and bearing a grudge against her for 40 years. Elliot's is the only male voice in a film that is very much -- and thankfully so -- about women. Bechdel Test passed!
Of course the star of the film is Tomlin, who gets to play the grumpy old woman to great effect; throwing off witty asides and pearls of wisdom with equal measure. But there's an emotional depth beneath the curmudgeonly veneer which Tomlin seems more interested in mining than does Weitz's screenplay.
Still, talk of an Oscar nomination for Tomlin which followed the film's premiere at Sundance in January should be put down to Festival fervour and nothing more. Fine as the veteran actress is, this isn't a great performance, but a standout one in a small film. That said, a Golden Globe nod wouldn't be out of the question.
Grandma screens again at the Sydney Film Festival on June 8, 6.30pm at Event Cinemas.
Sony Pictures Australia are distributing the film locally but no release date has yet been set.
Monday, 18 May 2015
In the opening credits of this Argentinian film, cast and crew are represented by an image of an animal: lion, fox, crocodile etcetera. Yes, people are animals. And while that metaphor may not be subtle (though a whole lot more subtle than it was delivered in Luc Besson's Lucy), the rest of Damian Szifron's third feature is a punchy, bloody and at time raucous evocation of said metaphor.
Across six vignettes (including the pre-credits tale set aboard a plane), Szifron explores with humour and violence, through the absurd and the bloody, our violent and vindictive nature; how quick we are to anger and to embrace our basest impulses.
Along with those passengers all booked aboard a doomed flight, there is the waitress at the roadside diner who is confronted with the man who ruined her family: will she poison his dinner like the cook suggests she should? Meanwhile, on a stretch of quiet road outside of the city, a well-heeled man insults a 'redneck' only to wish he hadn't when car trouble strikes and the offended driver catches up with him.
This vignette, arguably the best of the six, plays out almost like a horror film before machismo and city-v-country rivalry are reduced to little boy fisticuffs and a fiery denouement.
The fourth and fifth vignette's in Szifron's film are perhaps more specific to Argentina: a city engineer becomes increasingly exasperated and infuriated by the corrupt bureaucracy. He's as mas as hell and he's not going to take it any more; meanwhile a hit and run by a rich kid sees his parents, the family lawyer and even the humble gardener too easily prepared to take advantage of the country's corroded legal system.
These two segments, more politically and socially pointed, halt the film's earlier, punchier style but Szifron ends his anthology on a high: a wedding which sees a post-nuptial bride go berserk when she discovers, mid-celebrations, her new husband's infidelity. Hell hath no fury like a bride betrayed. (This reviewer has already cast Gaby Hoffman and Bradley Cooper in a feature-length remake.)
Like any anthology, not every story is as effective as the one before but overall Wild Tales is a satisfying whole. And while those expecting a project produced by Pedro Almodovar to contain some kink, camp or even just a tad more sex may feel a little cheated by proceedings, Szifran deftly handles the shifting tones and styles of each tale.
With an Oscar nomination (for Best Foreign Language Film) now under his belt, Damian Szifron is another name to watch in the ever-growing list of impressive South American filmmakers.
Sunday, 10 May 2015
The female yin to Alejandro G. Inarritu's Oscar-winning yang, Birdman, Olivier Assayas takes a look at the ageing actor's lot from the female perspective -- and in the very beautiful visage of Juliette Binoche -- in Clouds of Sils Maria.
Binoche plays Maria Enders, an acclaimed French actress who got her break in the theatre 20-odd years ago in the stageplay, Maloja Snake, by Wilhelm Melchior; playing a young chanteuse, Sigrid, who seduces her older female employer.
It's while on a train to Switzerland and a tribute for said playwright, that we first meet Maria and learn of Wilhelm's death. But the show must go on, as they say, and so insists Valentine (Kristen Stewart), Maria's personal assistant, handler and confidant. Far less acerbic and combative than Emma Stone in Birdman, Valentine is Maria's conduit to 21st century life: social media, Hollywood, and the hottest talent in front of and behind the camera.
That includes Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), a European stage director who is planning a new production of Maloja Snake and who wants very much for Maria to be involved; this time playing the elder role of Helena. For various reasons, including her mentor's recent death and, of course, vanity -- she is no longer the younger woman -- Maria's not-so keen.
But Valentine insists, and Klaus is persuasive, and so actress and assistant retreat to the Swiss Alps to rehearse -- the two reading and replicating the young-and-old female dynamic; life-imitating-art-imitating-life -- as Maria also familiarizes herself with her future co-star, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz); Google searches revealing a talented yet tumultuous Lindsay Lohan-like starlet, one who is all butter-wouldn't-melt in preliminary meetings, and something else entirely once the work begins.
Like Birdman, Assayas's film is meta, but it's far less arch about it. Clouds of Sils Maria is an intertextual, and arguably far more intellectual -- and certainly more talk-y -- exercise than Inarritu's dark comedy of backstage life.
And similar to Birdman, Sils Maria has a similar disdain for superhero films: Maria has done her stint in tights, hanging from wires in front of green screen, but scoffs at Valentine's suggestion that playing a mutant requires the same level of emotional truth as, say, Lady Macbeth.
It's these kinds of back and forths between Binoche, the classical actress, and Stewart, the 'modern' one, which give Clouds of Sils Maria its verve and punch. Not surprisingly, Binoche is thoroughly convincing as a haughty, refined yet emotionally vulnerable woman coming to terms with her past and her age, but it's Stewart who will surprise and impress many. She commands the screen in a quieter and, for her, less fidgety role; never once becoming lost in Binoche's shadow, and being greatly missed when she's not on screen.
Like that of Sigrid and Helena's, Valentine and Maria's relationship is fraught, competitive and not without a sexual element. As the pair read through their lines, you're asked to read between them and like the weather phenomenon which lends the play its title -- cloud formations which snake their way from Italy and through the Swiss Alps -- what you see is open to interpretation.
Less of a Rorschach test is the overall effect of the film itself: Assayas has given us one of the year's best.
Thursday, 16 April 2015
The synopsis for Noah Baumbach's latest film -- a middle-aged couple's career and marriage are overturned when a disarming young couple enters their lives -- reads a lot like a 1990s sexual thriller. Far from it.
Baumbach is known for his smart, often caustic take on middle class, pseudo intellectuals and while the younger couple may not be all that they at first seem, the action in While We're Young remains out of the bedroom and relatively light on.
Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a documentarian and film producer respectively, though they never collaborate on the same project: Josh has been filming a doco on "power in America" for the best part of a decade now with little end in sight; Cornelia produces the films of her father, Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), a legendary documentarian whom Josh none-too-subconsciously tries, and fails, to live up to.
Drifting from their friends who have recently had a baby, Josh and Cornelia fall in with Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried); two 25-year-olds who are fun and spontaneous, and view the world as theirs to embrace and conquer at will. They collect vinyl records, watch "old" films on VHS and have beach parties in the street of their New York neighbourhood. Yes, they are hipsters (adjust your disdain accordingly).
Darby makes her own brand of ice cream while Jamie is an aspiring filmmaker, which sees Josh form a fast connection with the young man; reinvigorated by his energy and eager to become both a mentor and collaborator. Between dinners, night tours of train tunnels, trips to hip-hop dance classes and a suburban Shaman, the two couples become almost inseparable.
Josh and Cornelia also become unrecognizable. But are they losing themselves or merely rediscovering the passions and youthful zeal they abandoned when they moved from their 20s into their 30s and beyond? And are Darby and Jamie all sunshine and lollipops or are they too good to be true?
Noah Baumbach's characters often occupy a similar world to those of Woody Allen's: middle class, college-educated liberals (though mostly Gen X as opposed to Allen's baby boomers) who almost always work in artistic or intellectual fields. And they are almost definitely white. And in the case of Josh and Cornelia, and especially Jamie and Darby, they are insufferable.
But While We're Young is no less fun for that, so long as Baumbach sticks with the culture clash between Generation X and Generation Next. The ways in which the older couple try to imitate the younger's fashion and spontaneity, and how the young take everything from the older's youth -- movies, music -- and re-purpose it with all new meaning and no distinction between high and low art, makes for some amusing, if obvious, moments.
It's when the writer-director manufactures a conflict between the older and younger filmmakers in the third act that the film trades in its comic edge; taking on a semi-serious tone about truth and authenticity in art and life, and losing steam as a result.
Some species eat their young but in the human world, you either make way for them or you get eaten. And in While We're Young, hipsters are no less ambitious in spite of their laissez faire lifestyle. Not that the film condemns them for that, but neither Josh -- nor Baumbach -- is quite ready to secede to them just yet. The war wages on, amusingly so.
Monday, 13 April 2015
In the most creepily effective piece of safe sex promotion since the Grim Reaper campaign of the 1980s, comes writer-director David Robert Mitchell's It Follows: a creepy-as-fuck parable about the dangers of unprotected sex.
But Mitchell's young protags don't have to contend with chlamydia (pfft, they wish!) but something far more sinister. For in this instance, STD stands for Sexually Transmitted Demon and once you've been infected (via sexual intercourse with someone already carrying the bug) you have one course of action: pass it on ASAP and hope that person passes it on just as quick, or else the Demon will come and fuck you up.
After a couple of dates with the slightly older Hugh (Jake Weary), college student Jay (Maika Monroe) decides to go all the way. But her post-coital bliss in the backseat of his car soon turns to horror with the introduction of some chloroform. Thankfully Jay is neither raped nor murdered but she soon realises that what her beau has done to her is arguably far worse.
Jay is now infected with a relentless (though slow moving) demon, which can appear in any guise but only to the carrier, and which is only dangerous should it get its hands on you. Jay's best bet? To pass the disease on to someone else and hope they do the same. One willing recipient is Paul (Keir Gilchrist), friend to Jay's younger sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe), who's had a crush on the older girl since childhood. Tormented though she is, Jay, unlike Hugh, is not so eager to pass on the disease so freely.
Kelly, Paul, their friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and neighbour Greg (Danny Zovatto), rally to support the unraveling Jay, even though they can't see what she does. They also don't go to their parents or the police because who'd believe them? Also, you don't talk to grown-ups about sex!
Like the horror films of the 1970s-80s, It Follows -- which save for the use of mobile phones has a very 1980s aesthetic -- plays on the theme of sex as sin and death as punishment. Those teens who indulge in carnal activities are bound to regret it most painfully: punished for partaking in 'the original sin'; those who remain virgins get to live through the night. Ironically, sex is both the poison and the cure in It Follows, and like herpes -- or HIV -- the "disease" just can't be rid of.
And like the best horror films, the protag is female. Maika Monroe's Jay may not be as kick-ass as say, Neve Campbell's Sidney in the Scream films, or Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in Alien, but she is strong-willed with a functioning moral compass (though it does divert from true north on one occasion). She also gives great cry face.
Monroe, strongly resembling Brie Larson, also has a passing resemblance to a young Chloe Sevigny. This in turn recalls Sevigny's character in Larry Clark's Kids (1995), who spends the entirety of that film trying to prevent the boy who infected her with HIV from passing it on to another unsuspecting girl. Intentional or not, it adds another layer of interest to a horror film that is already operating on a more intellectual level than your average teen slasher flick.
It's an impressive and mostly assured second feature by David Robert Mitchell but by no means perfect: the score by Disasterpeace is often just as distracting as it is effective, and just what was the motivation behind going to the old swimming pool in the third act?
Others have taken issue with the film's ending, which isn't a climax (no pun intended) so much as open-ended. But that's more in keeping with the theme of sexually transmitted infections, particularly if you want to read It Follows strictly as AIDS parable.
Either way, It Follows will leave you unnerved and feeling uneasy long after the house lights come up. But maybe don't see it on a first date; that could kill the mood whilst also provoking some awkward post-film chat.
Wednesday, 25 March 2015
You don't have to be familiar with the television adventures of Shaun The Sheep to enjoy the woolly little guy's first big screen adventure. Given that Shaun is a stablemate of Wallace and Gromit, that is to say Aardman Animation, you can rest assured you're in reliably safe and entertaining hands (directing duties performed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak).
A mischievous sheep who causes his owner, The Farmer, and the farmer's dog, Bitzer, no end of trouble, Shaun is always leading his flock astray. This time, it's off the farm and into the big smoke following a series of events -- set in motion by Shaun's eagerness to upend the monotony of day-to-day life on the farm -- which has seen The Farmer stranded in town and without his memory.
So begins a near dialogue-free (fans of the TV show will know that no-one speaks in actual words) escapade where sight gag upon sight gag, and many a film reference fly by as Shaun, his fleecy friends, and Bitzer must somehow recover their human (who finds 15 minutes of fame via the social media maelstrom) whilst evading capture by the maniacal animal control guy.
Charming, funny and moving at a cracking pace, Shaun The Sheep Movie should delight young audiences, as well as those adults who are attuned to the Aardman sense of humour.
As always, these school holidays will be full of loud and colourful studio computer animation competing for your child's attention but in his own quiet way, Shaun is the one guaranteed to give you the most bang for your (jum)buck.
Monday, 23 March 2015
Walt Disney Studios Films
Everyone loves a princess, most especially Disney; their empire is built on them: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and of course, Cinderella. Classic animated films which have been adored for, and by, generations.
Now, in a bid to make what is old new again, Disney have begun making live-action versions of their back catalogue of animated classics, beginning last year with a revisionist take on Sleeping Beauty; viewing the action from the point of view of that tale's villain, Maleficent (Angleina Jolie in fine form even if the film was not).
And now comes the turn of Cinderella -- directed by Kenneth Branagh and penned by Chris Weitz, best known for his gross-out work on the original American Pie -- to go to the live-action ball. And Branagh's certainly got the storybook look right. Shot on film (by Haris Zambarloukos), he captures every production (Dante Ferretti) and costume (Sandy Powell) design detail, while CGI fills in the magical blanks; turning pumpkins into stagecoaches and mice into thoroughbreds (thank you, Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter)).
But technological magic can't do much to enliven proceedings. For all her beauty, Lily James' Cinderella is a bit of a pill. Not nearly as docile as Elle Fanning's Sleeping Beauty, she still views the world through rose-tinted glasses even after the death of her beloved father (Ben Chaplin), and her enforced servitude to her step family.
'Have courage and be kind' Cinderella repeatedly tells herself, so often in fact that you wish her evil stepmother (Cate Blanchett, not nearly chewing enough of the scenery) would just drop the passive-aggressive routine and go all-out aggressive on her stepdaughter's petticoat-ed behind.
For strangely, and sadly, this Cinderella is much more classic than expected. Absent is any hint of feminism, the kind which propelled Frozen, that more recent of Disney princess animation, and Maleficent: no man was going to get the better of Jolie's lover scorned (Fanning's Sleeping Beauty, on the other hand, only ever had one fate).
Even 2007's Enchanted, where Amy Adams played a storybook princess come to modern day New York, knowingly played with the Disney fairy tales' antiquated notions of princesses, Prince Charmings and inevitable wedded bliss.
But marriage to a prince (Game of Thrones' Richard Madden) is all that awaits Cinderella in 2015. Sure he disappoints his court by marrying below his station and for love, and little girls, for whom this film is squarely aimed at, will eat it up with a spoon. Tweens and older, however, will be well aware that it's Cinderella who's being sold short, even if she -- and this gorgeously mounted production -- looks like a million bucks.
Thursday, 19 March 2015
War film or thriller? Yann Demange's debut feature (from a lean screenplay by Gregory Burke) could conceivably be called both. Set on the streets of Belfast during The Troubles, the mise-en-scene is very much war zone: riot gear, angry mobs and burnt-out cars. But when a British soldier gets left behind enemy lines, '71 quickly becomes a white-knuckle ride and we're with Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) every bloody step of the way as he tries to make it back to base undetected.
But it's not just the locals whom Hook has to avoid. Having inadvertently stumbled upon a fraternization plot with the local IRA by undercover British operatives (led by the severe-faced Sean Harris), it soon becomes apparent that our man on the ground will have to evade friend as well as foe if he's to make it back to the barracks alive.
Stabbings, gun shots and even a bomb blast all befall the put upon Hook, whose survival is as much to do with his training -- the film's opening scenes telegraphing the obstacle course he'll later encounter -- as it is the kindness of strangers. A plucky young lad (an impressive Corey McKinley) with ties to a Loyalist leader becomes his first ally before an explosive turn of events places him in the care of a father (Richard Dormer) and daughter (Charlie Murphy) (the latter with ties to a hotheaded IRA foot soldier, Sean Bannon (Barry Keoghan) with a trigger finger and itching to break away from his elders).
O'Connell, no stranger to physically bruising performances having played the martyred P.O.W. Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken ('71 was actually completed before that film), here plays a different kind of hero. Not sainted or impossibly indestructible, O'Connell's soldier feels every bit of pain inflicted upon his body, he even cries on more than one occasion. Die Hard in Belfast Demange's film is not. Hook has one hell of a night, and you're along for the nerve-racking ride.
Aiding in that effect is Tat Radcliffe's handheld cinematography*. It's enough to make Paul Greengrass envious while giving some audience members (and certain film critics) motion sickness, but it serves a purpose: putting the audience in the moment and in the rattled frame of mind of the protagonist. You'll leave '71 feeling almost as battered, if not as bruised, as Hook. (*Radcliffe apparently shot the night scenes on digital and the day scenes on film.)
'71 proves well worth the almost 14-month wait following its Berlin Film Festival premiere back in 2014; a wait presumably to leverage Jack O'Connell's role in the much more high profile Unbroken. A nerve-jangler bound to give your armrest -- or your partner's arm -- a workout, '71 not only confirms O'Connell's arrival as an actor, but announces the arrival of a talented filmmaker in Yann Demange.
Tuesday, 17 March 2015
"It is my name!" cries a defiant John Proctor at a pivotal moment in Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Accused of witchcraft during the Salem trials, Proctor refuses to sign his name to a guilty confession, one which is a lie: he's prepared to die for the truth.
The stakes weren't quite as life and death for Margaret Keane, which may be one reason why she surrendered her name so easily. The San Francisco-based artist agreed to live a decade-long lie by allowing her second husband, Walter Keane, to claim ownership her iconic works: paintings of big-eyed, waif-ish children.
All of this came to light in a 1960s trial after the marriage between artist and con artist had disintegrated, and it is this relationship which is the focus Big Eyes, Tim Burton's surprisingly prosaic re-telling of one of the great art hoaxes of the 20th century.
Working from a screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who penned Burton's delightful 1994 film, Ed Wood), Big Eyes is Burton's most straight-forward and dramatic film, well, ever. And it would seem that without his usual smatterings of the gothic and the macabre (nor regular accomplices, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter), the director is at a loss to inject any life into proceedings.
That doesn't stop Christoph Waltz as the gregarious Walter from chewing scenery like a gourmand who just ended a two-week juice cleanse, in a performance which overshadows if not outshines the solid (though not award-worthy) work being done by Amy Adams as Margaret Keane. Blonde but not mousy, Margaret, whose already abandoned one marriage, knows what she wants.
But one of the big problems with Big Eyes is that it's never fully explained why Margaret agreed to go along with the lie, and for so long. Money was an obvious factor: the Keanes were raking it in when the 'Big Eyes' works went from gallery art to kitsch sensation; the creepy-sad images appearing on all manner of printed matter and selling as fast as they could be produced.
There's also Walter's charismatic/bullying nature and the inherent patriarchal sexism of 1960s America, but none of this is explored in any meaningful way. Margaret agrees to the lie and spends the rest of the film biting her tongue, and her bottom lip in consternation.
In some ways Big Eyes mirrors Ed Wood. That earlier film is about an artist -- Edward D. Wood Jr. made B-films in the 1950s -- whose ambitions well exceeded his grasp (and talents); he's often credited with directing "the worst film ever made", Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). And Walter Keane is a similarly ambitious yet talentless man. He wants so much to be an artist, a success and a respected man, that he begins to believe the lies he's constructed.
That then begs the question: aren't Burton and his writers then committing another disservice to Margaret Keane, by making her husband the centre of attention? Margaret may have walked from an Hawaiian courtroom victorious and with her artistic authorship reinstated, but whose story is really being told?
Perhaps Keane would have been better served if Burton (apparently an avid collector of her work) had let the artist speak for herself, and a little more loudly
Wednesday, 11 March 2015
Essentially the Pinocchio story in sci-fi plating, Neill Blomkamp's third feature asks the question integral to most science fiction: what does it mean to be human? Or in the case of Chappie, the titular police robot turned sentient being, when does a machine's evolution lend it human status?
In 2016 South Africa, law enforcement is conducted by robot police produced by the Tetravaal Corporation (headed by Sigourney Weaver). Their creator is Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), who is on a personal mission to create artificial intelligence; one that will grow, learn and evolve as any human would. And into the 900th-odd day of his experiments, the idealistic young Dr. Frankenstein succeeds.
But like any birth, Chappie's is complicated and bloody. Within moments of making his breakthrough, Deon is abducted by a trio of low-level gangsters -- Ninja, Yolandi (their actual names; members of South African hip hop group, Die Antwoord) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) -- who have hit on the idea of taking one of the robot police officers for themselves to do their criminal bidding. And who better to help bend (i.e. reprogram) one to their will then the creator?
Thus Chappie (an impressive motion capture performance by Blomkamp mainstay, Sharlto Copley) is born in an abandoned warehouse in the outskirts of Soweto, where his low-life family who take charge of the robot's education will also wrestle with the robot's growing humanity, and their own consciences.
Blomkamp, again working from his own screenplay as he did with his impressive debut, District 9 (2009), and not quite so impressive follow-up, Elysium (2013), throws so much into the mix -- including Hugh Jackman's anti-A.I. ex-soldier -- that most of the working elements of Chappie are easily lost among the spare parts. With nods to so many other films -- Robocop, Short Circuit, Metropolis -- and the aforementioned literary influences, Blomkamp's film could easily be dismissed as pastiche. Like Chappie himself, the film is a hodge-podge of bits and bobs and not all of them well oiled or firing on all cylinders.
The star of the film is of course Chappie. Copley invests the robot with such innocence, wonder and heart that it's hard not to care for the little guy (once the initial Jar Jar Binks fears dissipate). While not quite in the Andy Serkis-Gollum-Caesar league of performance, it's a nonetheless impressive mix of voice acting, motion capture and CGI. Artificial intelligence may still be a ways off (as far as we know), but the future is now in film making.
Wednesday, 4 March 2015
It's around this time of year, in the post-awards season lull and those seemingly quiet months before US summer blockbusters flood the local multiplexes, that we often see a 'con' movie arrive: movies that trade in deception, twists and double dealings and all manner of misdirections.
In 2009 it was Tony Gilroy's Duplicity, with Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, and in 2013, Danny Boyle's Trance, with an amnesiac James McAvoy, which gave our grey matter a workout -- or a light jog, depending on your powers of deduction.
This year it's Focus, directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, and which more closely resembles Duplicity, with its attractive leads, sexy chemistry and ongoing tit-for-tat one-upmanship. Those attractive leads are Will Smith and Margot Robbie, who play Nicky and Jess, respectively; teacher and student in the art of the con.
We're not sure why master conman Nicky would want to take the novice Jessy under his wing (other than the obvious aesthetic reasons) but she soon blossoms under his tutelage and inevitable affections. But just as soon as the two seem to be falling in love -- the greatest con of all? -- he abandons her, heartbroken, in New Orleans following a well-executed Super Bowl sting involving a Chinese high roller (an energizing cameo by B.D. Wong).
Three years later and the pair's paths cross again, this time in Buenos Aires where Nicky is employed by a Formula-1 team owner, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), to dupe his competitors into thinking they've scored the formula for his super-fast fuel. Or some such. The details aren't as important as the interplay between Nicky and Jess; the latter realising that he may have made a mistake in letting Jess get away. But just what is she doing in Buenos Aires, and in the company of Garriga?
There's definite chemistry between Smith and Robbie, and it's the Australian, fresh off her Hollywood breakout role in Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, who shines here; making the most of what threatens to be a merely decorative role being by turns funny, smart and, yes, sexy.
Intentional or not, it's these romantic distractions which make Focus an enjoyable diversion as you wait for the inevitable other shoe to drop. It's a con movie, after all, so you suspect that at any or all times Smith's Nicky, and the directors (who also wrote the screenplay) may just be pulling the wool over our eyes.
That said, they don't always have faith in the audience's intelligence: explaining each con in elaborate detail afterwards to make sure we're paying attention, or simply paying attention to how clever they are.
No matter. Focus is a shiny, shimmery diversion which occupies your mind for enough of the time that it takes to lift 100-odd minutes of your life. You won't win big but you'll have at least been entertained by Focus, and at this time of year at the movies that's an impressive trick in itself.
Wednesday, 25 February 2015
20th Century Fox Films
If you enjoyed your first stay at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, then there is no reason why you shouldn't check-in for a second time. The same guests from the 2012 hit are back -- Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy -- and Richard Gere has also booked what passes for a suite in this refurbished Indian hotel for those in their twilight of years (though not the twilight of these old pros' careers).
But as with many a sequel, lightning fails to strike twice. Not that Marigold 2 is a bad film, more a pale imitation of its predecessor. Like returning to a vacation spot filled with wonderful memories, everything is more or less the same but that sense of magic is no longer there.
There's also the spectre of death hanging over John Madden's film which is not to be unexpected in story populated by post-retirement ex-pats in Jaipur, India. What is a little more unexpected -- perhaps more so for younger viewers tagging along with the parentals or grandparents -- is the saltiness of the conversations and the amount of geriatric sex (all off-screen, of course). Fifty shades of grey, indeed.
So while ambitious local hotelier, Sonny (Dev Patel), and his fiance, Sunaina (Tina Desai), try to keep their cool and their heads in the lead-up to their wedding -- complicated somewhat by Sonny's trying to impress whom he believes to be a hotel inspector, Guy Chambers (Gere), sent by a possible American investor -- the residents of the Marigold are dealing with matters of the heart. And the bedroom.
Evelyn (Dench) and Douglas (Nighy) are obviously meant to be together but her new job as a procurer of textiles for a garment operation, and his general nervous-nelly ways have failed to see their seemingly inevitable relationship consummated. Even Douglas's wife Jean (Penelope Wilton), who returns to Jaipur seeking a divorce, is a little surprised she can't invoke adultery as legitimate grounds.
Meanwhile, the randy ladies man, Norman (Ronald Pickup), seems to have found love with Carol (Diana Hardcastle) but can't decide if monogamy is a blessing or a curse, while his business partner at the Viceroy Club, the equally-randy Madge (Celia Imrie), is torn between two wealthy local suitors.
And then there's Maggie Smith's Muriel, who may not have any interest in romantic shenanigans but who reminds everyone that when it comes to brutal honesty, she's the grandmother of them all. A redeemed bigot in the first film, Marigold 2 finds Muriel overseeing the hotel's operations but planning for a time when she may no longer be around.
Regardless of the strength of the material (Ol Parker once again fulfills script duties), it's a delight to see an old pro like Smith reveling in it all and with seemingly little effort. The same goes for the rest of the veteran cast who make the film an amiable delight, even if The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel does linger a little too long beyond an appropriate check-out time.
Monday, 23 February 2015
The district attorney in A Most Violent Year informs us that 1980 saw the highest rate of murders and rapes in New York City -- ever. But in early 1981, where J.C. Chandor's drama unfolds amid post-Christmas snow, things are just heating up and the most dangerous game in town is the heating oil business.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) has just purchased a river front property that will take his Standard Heating Oil company into the big leagues -- and the big leaguers aren't happy. Even as the ink is drying on the contract, one of Abel driver's, Julian (Elyes Gabel), is pistol-whipped and left on the highway as his truck and cargo are stolen.
The competitive world of heating oil may not sound like the basis of a good thriller but Chandor slowly turns up the heat -- the 30 days Abel and his wife and business partner, Anna (Jessica Chastain), have to come up with the rest of the money to secure the land deal serves as a ticking clock device -- in a film which recalls those of the 1970s, and not just aesthetically: character is more important than action and everything is revealed in what is and, more importantly, what isn't said.
As well as securing finance and battling their competitors, Abel must also deal with that pesky D.A. (David Oyelowo), who is investigating the corrupt heating oil industry and is determined to bring charges against Standard Heating Oil; charges which Anna and business partner, Andrew (Albert Brooks), may know more about then they're letting on.
Like the film, Isaac's magnetic performance is quietly on the boil. There are parallels between Isaac's Abel and Llewyn Davis; both men struggling to make a go of their chosen professions. But where Llewyn was his own worst enemy, Abel strives to be as honorable as his situation allows: he chooses to take 'the most right path'; wanting to succeed in a corrupt industry without stooping to the level which is seemingly required.
Chastain's Anna on the other hand is prepared to roll up her sleeves and get dirty, and beneath her Krystle Carrington hair and Armani wardrobe, Anna is a lioness. (There's the suggestion that Anna's family, who Abel does not want involved in his business affairs, may belong to "the family".) It's just a shame that Chastain isn't given enough screen time to fully unleash the Lady Macbeth within.
That's a minor quibble, for Chandor has written and directed a solid and engaging drama which is first and foremost about its people. After the GFC-centred talk-fest Margin Call (2011), and the one-man survival tale All Is Lost (2013), Chandor has made arguably his best film yet; aided greatly by Bradford Young's cinematography, and production and costume design which, while period-perfect, doesn't call attention to itself (nor does the soundtrack; thankfully absent of late '70s-early '80s chart hits).
Don't be misled by the title or the heating oil subject matter; A Most Violent Year is a gripping human drama.
Wednesday, 11 February 2015
A brilliant high school student and his friends uncover blueprints for a mysterious device with limitless potential, inadvertently putting their lives in danger.
To celebrate the release of PROJECT ALMANAC we have 5 double inseason passes to be won. Keep an eye on our Twitter feed (@TheLennoXFiles) for your chance to enter the draw. Note: Movie tickets valid in Australia only.
ONLY THE MOVIES FEBRUARY 26.
©2014 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Watch the trailer here:
Tuesday, 10 February 2015
*This is a piece which was originally intended to run in the February 2015 issue of Cafe Society magazine*
It's an international publishing phenomenon that's about to become a much talked about film, but why has Fifty Shades of Grey been so popular? As the old adage goes, sex sells but is it as simple as that? And will the film (opening just ahead of Valentine's Day!) satisfy the book's millions of fans or prove to be a terrible tease?
Released upon an unsuspecting public in 2011, the Fifty Shades trilogy (yes, there are three books), written by British author E.L. James, has gone on to sell more than 100 million copies worldwide; 4 million of those in Australia. The books detail the sexual relationship between literature student, Anastasia Steele, and the more experienced Christian Grey, an entrepreneur with a mysterious air who becomes Anastasia's sexual mentor and master.
"E.L. James captured both romance and eros. Readers found the story liberating and at the same time totally addictive," says Brett Osmond, Marketing and Publicity Manager for Random House Australia, who publish the book in Australia. "E.L. James was able to craft the right balance and to combine this in a story that readers couldn’t put down. It’s very clever and disarmingly entertaining."
Mason says he genuinely believes Fifty Shades was "the right story at the right time". And it is not just about the sex. "In reading thousands of reader comments it is the romance, not the sex, that readers highlight and remark about," he says, by way of explaining the book's popularity.
It remains to be seen if the film adaptation of the book, released by Universal Pictures Australia, will be as warmly received. Directed by artist-turned-director, Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy, 2009), there has already been some conjecture about whether or not the film will feature the explicit sex detailed in the book (if not, then what is the point?), with some suggestion that there will be two cuts of the film.(This has since been denied.)
Irish actor Jamie Dornan (from TV series The Fall) won the coveted role of Christian Grey (after initial choice, Charlie Hunnam from TV's Sons of Anarchy dropped out), while Dakota Johnson (star of sit-com Ben and Kate, and daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) will play Anastasia Steele. But will the lack of marquee names hamper the film's box office pulling power (no pun intended)?
One thing in the film's favour is that there is a built-in audience, and even in the absence of big name stars there will still be a high level of curiosity about the film, its explicitness and its fidelity to the book. "I imagine that everyone who loved the books will want to see the film. We can’t wait!" Mason says.
Of course, it won't just be women buying tickets. And even if men profess to seeing the film only because their partner "dragged them along", there's no doubt more than a few husbands and boyfriends will be just as keen to see if the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey is equally as beneficial. "I know of a number of men who’ve found the books both entertaining and educational," Mason says.
Fifty Shades of Grey opens in cinemas February 12; the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is published by Random House Australia.