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.