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.