Monday, 19 December 2016
If Damien Chazelle's previous film, the Oscar-nominated Whiplash, was a depiction of the pursuit of artistic excellence taken to the extreme, then his latest (just his third feature) is a sunshine-and-lollipops look at artists pursuing their dreams: a Hollywood fairy tale refracted through a prism of song and dance, hyper-colours and a seemingly endless supply of sunny days.
Opening in winter (the film's story unfolds over 12 months), Chazelle sets the tone with a one-take opening number set on an L.A. bridge during a traffic jam. That's where our protagonists -- aspiring actress, Mia (Emma Stone), and jazz pianist, Seb (Ryan Gosling) -- briefly meet cute.
That meeting, however, isn't friendly but the pair will meet two more times, and the third time's the charm with romance ensuing. La La Land is thus a typical boy-meets-girl story, albeit one interspersed with song, as both struggle artistically -- Mia suffers rejection after rejection at various auditions, while Seb's dream of owning his own club means having to sell-out his jazz purist ideals -- before achieving success.
Success, of course, breeds success but it also kills romance, with their sunshine-y relationship souring as a result.
That said, La La Land isn't particularly deep or emotionally resonant. What it does have is charm: Stone and Gosling's chemistry (it's their third on-screen pairing) radiates off the screen. The perfectly-matched pair sell the romance even if Chazelle can't quite achieve the bittersweet ending that he's going for.
Friday, 16 December 2016
Although not the least bit subtle, Amma Asante's retelling of the real life love story, between an African prince and a British woman in 1947 England, boasts some genuinely moving, even stirring moments.
That most of those are provided by David Oyelowo when his royal character addresses his people should come as no surprise: Oyelowo played Martin Luther King to great effect in 2014's Selma where, among many award-worthy elements, he gave good speech. His Seretse Khama, heir to the throne of Botswana, has a dream too: to make his vast but sparsely populated nation thrive.
It's not a dream shared by the British colonial powers-that-be, who seize upon the prince's marriage to Englishwoman, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) -- a union disapproved of on all sides -- to drive a wedge between Seretse and his uncle, the Regent (Vusi Kunene), and further their own interests and those of newly-apartheid South Africa; the lovers becoming unwilling pawns in an ideological battle and political land grab.
But Seretse, and even more so Ruth, prove to be made of sterner stuff. When the going gets tough -- Seretse exiled to England and Ruth forced to endure a pregnancy, alone in her strange new homeland -- the couple dig in.
Romantic and old fashioned, Asante's film may not be particularly nuanced -- Jack Davenport's British diplomat is a twirled moutsache shy of a pantomime villain -- but in her leads, the director has two sets of capable hands; to deliver the emotional truth of the core relationship, and the film's 'love conquers all' (and racism can go fuck itself) message.
Walt Disney Studios Films
Disney animation has undergone somewhat of a rebirth since the late noughties, now rivalling their younger but smarter sibling, Pixar, in both visual and narrative storytelling: Wreck-It-Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia all on par with or besting their stablemates.
And yet, much like it has since the days of founder Walt Disney, the focus has remained on female-driven narratives. But other than Tiana, the heroine in 2009's delightful The Princess and the Frog (2009), those women -- in Tangled (2010), and Frozen (2013) -- have been white. No more.
Joining Tiana, and her 1990s sisters, Pocahontas and Mulan, is Moana: a Polynesian princess with a thirst for adventure and, equally refreshing, no interest in romance. Moana wants to see the world beyond the reef of her island paradise, but her father, the Chieftain, forbids anyone, male or female, to venture that far.
Encouraged by her incorrigible grandmother (Rachel House), and an impending environmental disaster, Moana (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho) defies her father (Temuera Morrison) and sets sail across the Pacific in search of the demigod, Maui (Dwayne Johnson), whose help is required to return the heart (an emerald stone) to the goddess Te Fiti, and in doing so, restore balance to the world (the reasons for this recounted vividly by grandmother in a folktale which opens the film).
From the creative team behind Disney's Aladdin (which this reviewer shamefully admits to having never seen), Moana is a colourful adventure full of heart, spirit, and humour. And its 'girl power' and pro-environment messages are delivered sans sledgehammer.
Not so effective is the music. Much has been made about the songs having been penned by Lin-Manuel Miranada, the brains behind the Broadway behemoth Hamilton. But unlike most Disney musicals, you'll be hard-pressed to remember a tune let alone an entire song once you leave the cinema. They work fine in the moment, but there is no Let It Go showstopper in this female empowerment story.
Still, with Moana, Disney animation proves it has set its new course in the right direction.
Wednesday, 7 December 2016
Matthew Holmes had always wanted to make an Australian western; a fascination with Australia's colonial and bushranger history since his early teens planting the seeds for a Ned Kelly film. But when someone else made that film (Gregor Jordan's 2003 feature starring Heath Ledger), a life-long dream seem quashed.
“Then someone told me 'there are a lot more bushrangers out there than Ned Kelly'. After doing some research, I learnt there are some pretty fascinating characters out there. And after discovering Ben Hall in 2007, I've had that [film] as my goal all along,” Holmes says.
The Legend of Ben Hall, a mostly privately-funded, 140-minute film, is a retelling of the last nine months in the life of the bushranger who, despite his gang terrorising New South Wales in the 1860s, never actually took a life. "It could have been blind luck that he never killed anybody. But I believe he had a code, and had an aversion to taking lives,” Holmes suggests.
And yes, he is prepared for the criticisms, should they come, about "glorifying" a criminal. “My goal was to break down the romanticism of it. It's a fascinating story and that's why I'm telling it. I'm not trying to judge it, right or wrong, or put Ben Hall on a pedestal. Nor am I trying to tear him down. I'm just trying to study him and say, 'here is a fascinating man, let's look at him warts and all', and let the audience decide."
“With Ben Hall, I tried to make something very realistic, and we stuck very closely to the historical accuracy of the story. We played it exactly as I believe it was, not only to make it entertaining as a film but a faithful adaptation of history," Holmes explains. Helping to immerse audiences in the story is the lack of big name Australian actors. Relative newcomer Jack Martin, making his feature film debut, plays the title role; cast as much for his resemblance to the man as for his acting ability.
“I wanted to get people who looked as close to a carbon copy of the historical person as I could. The fact that they're all unknown and fresh faces helps the audience make that leap, that 'I'm watching Ben Hall and his gang now', because they have no other reference for these actors, which is good in that sense,” Holmes says, though admitting it's a double-edged sword when it comes to marketing and sales. “It's harder to sell the film in the market place because we don't have Hugh Jackman on the poster. But as a person who goes to the movies, I really don't care who's in it, I just care that they're good."
And Holmes can't wait for audiences to see his film; The Legend of Ben Hall set to premiere in Forbes, the town where Ben Hall is buried, just weeks after our chat. “I'm really looking forward to just showing people. I've been sitting on the film for so long, waiting to show people, this for me is the exciting time: I've done the hard work, now I finally get to show it to an audience. I'm actually really excited about it."
The Legend of Ben Hall (Pinnacle Films) is in select cinemas now.
This interview also appeas in the December issue of Cafe Reporter magazine.
Wednesday, 23 November 2016
Two war films, directed by two Oscar-winning directors, Hacksaw Ridge (Icon Films), by Mel Gibson, and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (Sony Pictures), by Ang Lee, couldn't be more different: the former an old school Hollywood film based on a true story of one soldier's beliefs under fire in WW2; the latter embracing new technology to tell a fictional tale of one soldier's struggle to come to terms with his worldview after deployment in Iraq in 2004.
Based on the exploits of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist and conscientious objector who enlisted in World War II as a medic, saving 70 lives in one day during the battle of Okinawa, and several more in the ensuing days - and all whilst refusing to carry a gun -- Hacksaw Ridge plays like a propaganda film, one as much about patriotism as it is faith; perhaps more so the latter given it is a Mel Gibson film, and its lead is played by Brit, Andrew Garfield. (The film was also shot in Australia, and boasts an extensive local cast in supporting (Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths plays Doss's parent) and minor roles.)
That casting is both distracting and a little cringe-inducing (more so, one suspects, for Australian audiences) in the film's first half, which concerns itself with Doss's domestic life and his romance with Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer).
Ostracized by his platoon, and sounded out for abuse by his drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn), Doss refuses to quit, even when imprisoned and threatened with a court marshal.But it's in the theatre of war where Doss excels. So, too, the film. As the bullets fly and various limbs do, too, Hacksaw Ridge -- and Gibson -- comes into its own. Brutal and bloody, Gibson doesn't skimp on the horrors of war, and it's a good thing that the director chose to be old fashioned in his approach and didn't follow Lee down the 3D route.
Since winning an Oscar for the 3D visual extravaganza Life of Pi (2012), Lee has wanted to further push the envelope; choosing to shoot Billy Lynn not just in 3D but at 120 frames per second, for a more immersive and 'real' experience. (The 120fps won't be too immersive for those of us who found Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy to be an ugly, over-lit eyesore.)
For better or worse, Billy Lynn will not be shown in Australian cinemas in its 120fps, 4K or even 3D format, so the technology is really neither here nor there, and Lee's film will have to rely solely on story to engage its audience. (Why Lee felt this story required the new technology to tell it may only be answered by seeing it in the intended format.)
Private Billy Lynn (also played by a Brit, newcomer Joe Alwyn), following his heroics in Iraq which were captured on film and went viral, has been brought home, along with his Bravo platoon, for a victory tour culminating in a halftime celebration at a Dallas football match. Set over the course of a day, Billy flashes back to events in Iraq, and that fateful day, as well as to his homecoming in Stovall, Texas, and his chats on the porch with his anti-war sister (Kristen Stewart), who feels partly responsible for Billy's enlisting in the first place.
Ultimately, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk delivers a 'support the troops, not the war' kind of message, with the uncomfortable suggestion that having seen action, the only place a soldier will ever truly feel at peace again is at war, and with their fellow soldiers.
That's a common theme in both films, for even the initially despised Desmond Doss comes to be embraced by his platoon. And it's pretty hard not to embrace Garfield's 'aw shucks' portrayal of Doss, giving us much more to work with than Alwyn's mostly internalized performance as Billy.
And as a side-by-side comparison of war films, Hacksaw Ridge is the slightest of victors.
Wednesday, 16 November 2016
The title for Ken Loach's latest social drama, penned by regular collaborator Paul Laverty and winner of this year's Palme D'or, reads like the opening line to someone's last will and testament.
But the death being examined by Loach isn't that of the titular Daniel, a widower recovering from a heart attack and caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to government assistance. It is the death of compassion in a country where conservative bureaucracy rules and duty of care has been abandoned; its citizens are no longer seen as people but clients, mere numbers.
Ruled unfit to work by his doctor, Daniel (a terrific 'every man' performance by Dave Johns) must apply for unemployment benefits. But the welfare department's own health care professionals have deemed him fit to look for work (You can raise your arms abover your head? You're good to go!), which he must do in order to receive financial aid.
It's during the first of many frustrating visits to the employment office where he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), who, with her two young children, has been relocated to Newcastle from London; social services unable to find her accommodation in that city and prepared to move her north in spite of existing family connections in one place and no job prospects in the other. She, too, is just a number.
Daniel and Katie form an instant friendship: the elder man finding purpose in repairing her rundown apartment and helping out with the kids; she with not just a babysitter but a father figure who encourages her job search efforts and desire to continue her studies.
But if the system is frustrating for Daniel, its effects on Katie are worse. Unable to afford enough food she often goes without meals, leading to a heartbreaking scene in a food bank. The situation gets even worse for Katie, her suffering not unlike that of a heroine in a 1940s Hollywood melodrama.
But what is melodrama but heightened reality? Loach and Laverty are very much focused on the reality of modern Britain, and a bureaucracy where every decision seems to be ruled upon by 'The Decisionmaker'; an anonymous entity like something out of a dystopian sci-fi film.
Not that I, Daniel Blake is all doom and gloom; the film celebrates the little guy and grassroots community support. But it has no sympathy for big government, nor should it. It's an angry film, and Australian audiences will not be able to comfort themselves with the thought that 'at least it's not like that here'. Too late, Australia, we're already there.
Saturday, 17 September 2016
Bridget Jones is back! That is, the Bridget from the first film, 2001's Bridget Jones's Diary, and not the seemingly brain-damaged Bridget from the 2004 sequel Edge of Reason.
A little older (aren't we all) if not much wiser, Bridget (Renee Zellweger) is once again single; her relationship with Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) having ended in the interim with the human rights lawyer now married to someone else.
And what of Hugh Grant's pervy publisher Daniel Cleaver? He's out of the picture -- literally. (Grant opting to make a film with Meryl Streep rather than return to this franchise.)
But Bridget, now with a successful career behind the scenes of television news, still finds herself preoccupied with the competing attentions of two men: Darcy, and online romance guru Jack Quant (Patrick Dempsey), one of whom is the father of Bridget's unexpected and wholly unplanned for baby.
Mildly amusing, Bridget Jones's Baby succeeds mostly on the audience's prior relationship with, and good will towards Bridget. You can't help but root for the hopelessly romantic singleton who is often her own worst enemy. And Zellweger, who hasn't been seen on screen lately, easily slips back into the role; once again nailing the accent and making us care about a woman who, now in her 40s, refuses to give up on the idea of Prince Charming (Bechdel Test be damned!).
Friday, 2 September 2016
A home invasion thriller which soon sees the invaders turned victims, Don't Breathe will have you on the edge of your seat, and occasionally reaching for an inhaler (though there's a chuckle or two among the gasps).
When the occupier of said home -- a blind Gulf War veteran (played by Stephen Lang) mourning his daughter who died in a vehicular manslaughter accident -- fights back, it's game on. Not that our empathy with the trio of burglars -- Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) -- is at a premium to begin with; they're not a particularly likable brood, and when they decide to target a mourning blind man because of a presumed large cash compensation stashed somewhere in his home, we're automatically rooting for the Vet. But then . . .
The less you know about writer-director Fede Alvarez's Don't Breathe going in the better. There's dark twists and even darker reveals which make the already bloody proceedings inky black and guiltily good. It's a cat-and-mouse (and rottweiler) thriller that will have your expectations and allegiances shifting as constantly as you'll shift in your seat.
Wednesday, 20 July 2016
Sassy and saucy, we've not seen a Jane Austen heroine quite like Lady Susan Vernon. Not that Austen's oeuvre has been without its share of beeyatches, but they're usually an impediment or rival to the heroine achieving her goal of happy matrimony. They're never the protagonist. And they've never been played on the screen quite as deliciously as Kate Beckinsale.
Adapted by writer-director Whit Stillman, from an unfinished Austen novella titled Lady Susan, Love & Friendship could just as easily have been titled All Is Fair In, for Beckinsale's Lady Susan Vernon is not above doing all that it takes to achieve her aims; that is, financial security for herself, and her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), via advantageous marriage. What's love got to do with it?
Duplicitous, adulterous, scheming and conniving, Lady Susan is the antithesis of Elizabeth Bennett, and those who've only ever enjoyed Austen as a witty forebear to the modern rom-com will be a little perplexed to find the villain driving the narrative. And they will be equally as perplexed to find themselves -- against their better nature -- rooting for her.
So delightfully wicked are Lady Susan's observations, asides and put downs, and so perfect are Beckinsale's delivery of them, that you can't help but be won over. Not since My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), where Julia Roberts' famed smile turned maniacal in her attempts to upend that titular event, has the bad girl been so much fun to watch.
It's also a refreshing change to see an Austen heroine subverting both the patriarchy and the author herself. It might be a man's world but Lady Susan knows how to play the menfolk like a fiddle. The women around her know exactly what she's up to but the men, no matter their intelligence, seem oblivious to her scheming.
Well, all but Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry). The husband to Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), best friend and confidant to Lady Susan, has threatened his American wife with a returned exile to the new world should she continue their acquaintance. The likes of her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards), his brother-in-law, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel, quite fetching in a Regency wardrobe), and the dim-witted but financially-endowed Sir James Martin (a scene-stealing Tom Bennett) are blindsided by Lady Susan's charm and beauty.
Beckinsale, best known for her role in the Underworld franchise and a series of other forgettable actioners, relishes the opportunity she has been gifted by Stillman (whom she worked with 18 years ago on The Last Days of Disco) and Austen, delivering a career-best performance. Trading leather catsuits for Regency costumes has worked wonders for the actress.
Fans of Beckinsale's werewolf franchise may not be so easily converted, but those who seek out Love & Friendship are in for a treat. Period.
Tuesday, 5 July 2016
Likened to a spiritual successor to one of writer-director Richard Linklater's earliest films, Dazed and Confused (1993), Everybody Wants Some!! also picks up where his previous film, the impressive Boyhood, left off; that film's protagonist, having been followed from the age of six through to high school graduation, leaving home for college.
It's 1980 and three days out from the commencement of the Fall semester at a Texan university when first-year student Jake (Blake Jenner) arrives at the off-campus house which he will share with seven other students, all teammates on the university baseball team. A second house of eight ball players is next door.
The coach announces there is to be no alcohol on the premises and women aren't to progress above the first floor but we suspect he knows he's already struck out on both counts. And there's plenty of boozing and some womanizing in Everybody Wants Some!! but this is no frat house comedy. Bad neighbours these guys may be but the film isn't concerned with what goes on in these jocks' jocks: there's far more talk than action, this is a Richard Linklater film after all.
And Linklater is a master of simultaneously capturing both the profound and the mundane in the every day and the passage of time. It's a theme which preoccupies much of his work -- Boyhood, the Before trilogy -- even if Everybody Wants Some!! doesn't quite reach the same heights, particularly emotionally, of those films. Male bonding and its inevitable competitive nature are examined here but there's no scarring or even bruising; Linklater's characters' punches are more prodding than probing and everything occurs in a late summer haze reeking strongly of beer and weed, rendering events more mellow than malicious.
It's fun and ephemeral and might leave you asking 'what was the point of all that?' But then, most booze-soaked long weekends tend to have that effect. The further you get from it the more fondly you may recall it.
Sunday, 26 June 2016
On a sunny afternoon, five girls -- all siblings -- decide to walk home from school, taking a detour to the beach where they frolick in the water with some fellow (male) students. But by the time they arrive home, word has spread like wildfire -- or Chinese whispers -- and the girls' grandmother berates them for their "indecent" behaviour.
From here on, the grandmother and uncle of the girls, orphaned several years ago, will gradually make their home a prison whilst they attempt to preserve the girls' purity and marry them off; virtual house arrest and virginity tests just some of the punishments and indignities meted out to the vibrant, spirited young women trying to find their way in the world.
That world is modern day Turkey, which, although officially a secular society, boasts a Muslim population of some 95%, with conservative observance more rigid in the rural regions of Turkey, where Deniz Gamze Erguven's debut feature is set. By turns joyous, maddening, sad and hopeful, Mustang isn't so much a critique of Islam but of patriarchy everywhere, which seeks to control women's sexuality, and by turns, their joy, lives and very freedom.
But these sisters aren't so easily imprisoned. Even as the metal bars go over the windows and one-by-one male suitors are brought to the house with the prospect of a marital match, these young women bend, and even break the rules as much as they can.
Erguvan, co-writer Alice Winocour, and the five extraordinary young actresses (Gunes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan, Ilayda Akdogan) do similar things with your nerves and your heart, so invested are you in the plight of these siblings.
20th Century Fox Films
It's the end of the world as we know it -- again. And no director takes quite such a delight in the destruction of our planet -- be it via alien invasion, atomic bomb-created giant lizard, meteorological phenomena or it simply imploding from the inside out -- as does Roland Emmerich. From Independence Day in 1996, through Godzilla (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and 2012 (2009), the German-born blockbuster maestro has been finding new ways to tear planet Earth a new one.
Twenty years later, he's back -- along with Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman -- to finish the job the alien invaders began in 1996. It's a long time to wait for an unnecessary sequel to a film which, by no means a classic, has its admirers; it's certainly not without its big, dumb and fun charms, especially when viewed through a prism of nostalgia. The film is very much of its time.
Sadly, Independence Day: Resurgence is very much of its time: spectacle without awe, popcorn fun without a hint of wit. It's camp and self aware some may argue, but a team of five writers have failed to inject the screenplay with any sense of urgency, thrills or human emotion (not many films would have you rooting for the occupants of a school bus to be crushed underfoot by a giant alien queen).
Independence Day 3 has apparently already been greenlit. If we must have that unnecessary sequel, here's hoping it takes at least another 20 years to reach us. By that time, the real destruction we as a species are inflicting upon Mother Earth may have already taken its toll.
Thursday, 2 June 2016
Even before all the pennies drop and the cards revealed in the thriller Money Monster, Jodie Foster's fourth foray behind the camera as director, most people will already be on the side of Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell), the gun wielding man who takes a New York TV station hostage live on air.
Kyle is venting his frustrations at both the network's on-air financial adviser, Lee Gates (George Clooney), and Ibis Clear Capital, the corporation which lost all of his savings when they experienced a"glitch" which wiped out $800 million of shareholders' money. Kyle is understandably angry, both at Lee for promising viewers that the stock was a safe bet, and at the company's leaders (including Dominic West), who refuse to provide any more solid explanation for the loss.
Of course, not everything is as it seems. And as events unfold in real time (with a fudge here and there), Gates's producer Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), ever-present in her host's earpiece, works feverishly to get to the bottom of the mysterious glitch while keeping things in the studio from escalating.
Thriller, Wall Street smack down and (social) media commentary, Money Monster may not always successfully marry its genres but it's never less than entertaining; Clooney, Roberts and O'Connell (with a persuasive New Yawk accent) are all very good.
And while it would be easy to dismiss the film's attempts at post-GFC moralising -- especially given the presence of two of Hollywood's 1 percent-ers -- there's enough drama and tension (and humour) to ensure audiences are suitably rewarded for their investment.
Walt Disney Studio Films
Though not as messy as Tim Burton's 2010 Alice In Wonderland -- which somehow managed to gross $1 billion at the international box office and yet required six years for a sequel -- Alice Through The Looking Glass, this time directed by James Bobin (The Muppets) isn't able to manage any real interest in its narrative; one which sees Alice Kingsley (Mia Wasikowska) return to Underland and embark on a time travelling mission to discover what happened to the family of the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) before he mortally succumbs to his melancholy in the present day. Sacha Baron Cohen adds some pep to the adventure as Time, but Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter, reprising their roles as sibling royal rivals, offer very little. And while the feminist ethos which bookends the film (Alice is now a sea captain and remains steadfastly resistant to the demands of men) is admirable, it may be wasted on the younger audience who are there simply to be wowed by the surreal characters and landscapes (which may or may not be in 3D depending on your screening).
Friday, 20 May 2016
Despite its sitcom premise of smothering mother and ungrateful daughter uncomfortably co-existing in the wake of the husband and father's death, The Meddler manages to be a poignant comedy-drama about grief and mother-daughter relations.
Writer-director Lorene Scafaria is certainly fortunate to have landed Susan Sarandon for the role of Marnie, the Brooklyn widow now residing in sunny LA to be close to her screenwriter daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne). Similarly, Sarandon has been equally gifted; the role of Bonnie arguably the best she's had since winning her Oscar for Dead Man Walking 21 years (!!!) ago.
With too much time and money on her hands, and not nearly enough time with her daughter -- when Lori is not trying to finish a script before TV pilot season, she's lamenting the loss of her actor boyfriend -- Marnie fills her days and nights doing good deeds for others; gay wedding planning here, taxiing an Apple store employee to community college there.
Of course what Bonnie is really trying to do isn't so much stave off boredom but her loneliness and yet-unresolved grief, a grief which neither mother and daughter seem prepared to deal with; as Marnie reaches out to her daughter and a shared history, her daughter shies away, unable to see her mother without acknowledging the man missing from the picture.
Although there may be another man in Marnie's life, if she just lets her guard down. Borderline retired cop Zipper (J.K. Simmons), a divorcee with his own distant daughters and a hen house full of substitutes, could be just what the doctor prescribed if Marnie could sit still long enough to find out; Sarandon and Simmons sharing a warm rapport.
There's nothing revelatory or profound about The Meddler; it plays in a much quieter register, even if Marnie's Brooklyn accent is anything but subtle. But beneath that squawk and bravado, Sarandon lets us see the woman. And like with any mother, when you aren't trying to escape her, you can't help but want to hug her.
Wednesday, 11 May 2016
Giants, and mermaids, and Dolan, oh my!
The full program for the 63rd Sydney Film Festival has been announced with 244 films from 60 countries screening across the 12-day Festival in June, ensuring there is something to satisfy every film fetish (from vampire mermaids to all-purpose corpses) and age group.
Kudos to local distributor Transmission Films, who have scored the honour of both the Opening and Closing Night slots: the former the latest release by local filmmaker, Ivan Sen, Goldstone; the latter Whit Stillman's delightful Jane Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship.
But in between Day 1 on June 8, and closing night on June 19, there is plenty to watch. Steven Spielberg makes his SFF debut with his Roald Dahl adaptation, The BFG, screening as part of the Family Films program (which also features the fifth installment in the Ice Age franchise, Collision Course), while for the first time, a 15+ rating will be used for 93 of the titles, meaning teenagers will not miss out on those films which would previously have received an automatic 18+ rating.
As always, there will be titles fresh from the Cannes Film Festival, with not one but two favourite auteurs' latest titles screening: Pedro Almodovar's Julieta, and Xavier Dolan's It's Only The End of the World, starring Marion Cotillard (pictured above, le sigh). There are also titles and prizewinners from Venice 2015, and Sundance and Berlin 2016.
Among the previously announced titles, personal standouts include John Carney's Sing Street (another musical gem from the director of Once and Begin Again), and Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some!!, the director's first film since Boyhood (which played at SFF in 2014), and a spiritual companion piece to his 1993 feature, Dazed and Confused.
But there's too much to mention here, so why not check out the SFF website, and snap up some tix.
Wednesday, 6 April 2016
You either like Michael Moore and his brand of politics or you don't. The good news for those who don't, is that you can enjoy his latest documentary as less a polemical exercise and more of a travelogue. In Where To Invade Next, Moore, Democrat, documentarian and citizen journalist, travels throughout Europe -- and dips into North Africa -- to take a snap shot at what social policies various countries are employing to make them succeed; policies he wants to claim for America and bring them back home as the 'spoils of war'.
Moore readily admits that he's cherry picking on his expedition; picking out the best bits from each country and not focusing on their failings. That's why we feel just a tad jealous at Italy's seemingly plethora of paid vacations and public holidays, and five months of paid maternity leave; why we're a little skeptical of Portugal's leniency on drug-related offences; why we look on in awe at Norway's penitentiary system, where "maximum security" doesn't mean what it does in most other countries, especially America; and why you can't help but get a little teary-eyed at the way the teachers in the Finnish education system wholeheartedly embrace their role, not just for molding young minds but for producing well-rounded people.
Then there's free university education in Slovenia, for locals and foreign students; and the ways in which the equality of women has impacted so strongly on both Tunisia (yes, Islamic Tunisia) and Iceland, a country which elected its first female president back in 1980, and which is one of the few countries to jail those (men) responsible for the the 2008 global financial crisis.
Like Donald Drumpf, Michael Moore wants America to be great again. Unlike Drumpf, Moore is sincere. Sadly, in America, where corporations rule and equality is often equated with Communism, that doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon. Not even if Moore's preferred candidate in the upcoming presidential elections, Bernie Sanders, were to cause major upsets by defeating fellow Democrat, Hillary Clinton, and then Republican front runner, Drumpf, to set his "revolution" in motion. (One doubts Americans will be 'feeling the Bern' anytime soon.)
Of course, a more balanced investigation would have also looked at the negative aspects of each of these countries' social policies, and one could argue that, if so inclined, Moore's exercise could have produced an incisive television series where each week he looked at a country's good and bad aspects and how they could be applied to the United States.
As it is, Where To Invade Next is an eye-opening, pleasant if overly long edu-vacation. You'll love what you see in the brochure, but you'll have to abandon the tour group and your guide, Mr. Moore, to get a sense of what each country really has to offer.
Wednesday, 30 March 2016
Did you see last year's real-life disaster film Everest? Other than Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Jason Clarke and a New Zealand-accented Keira Knightley, do you recall any of the actors playing the Sherpas? The mountain guides assisting the Westerners mounting the summit of the world's largest mountain. Or the names of any of the Sherpa characters? No, me neither.
For whatever reason -- plot economics; conscious or unconscious erasure of 'the other'-- the Sherpas' story wasn't deemed important enough to the narrative being told, even if, truth be told, no narrative about Western climbers on Everest -- from Edmund Hillary onwards -- would have been possible without them.
Jennifer Peedom's documentary, Sherpa, seeks to redress this imbalance; telling the story of the villagers -- and one man in particular, Phurba -- who risk life and limb every year to escort hundreds of Westerners to the top of the world (and for a fraction of the money which the Nepalese government makes from the very lucrative tourist trade).
These men know that with each climb they may not return to their families, but they also know that one or two good climbs a season will provide enough money to see them through the year.
The Sherpa are a dignified and peaceful people, but in 2013, some of them retaliated violently towards their Western employers when they were verbally disrespected. Since then, tensions between the Sherpas and the climbers have been frosty, and when a disaster of great magnitude strikes on the mountain the following year (the year that Peedom fortuitously decided to follow their story), not-so old and decades old resentments -- bubbling away since 1953, when Tenzing Norgay lead Hillary to the top and was all but forgotten for his efforts -- resurface.
Peedom's film is an examination of a little-known culture; a clash of cultures between the Sherpa and Western entitlement; and between the old Sherpa and the young. It also looks at the necessary evil of economics which makes for not-so-happy campers.
Beautifully shot (cinematographers Hugh Miller, Renan Ozturk and Ken Sauls shot more than 400 hours of film), Sherpa presents both sides of the Sherpa-Westerner relationship, although you'll be hard-pressed to come out of the screening feeling any kind of sympathy for the tourists.
Thursday, 24 March 2016
If, as they say, we get the politicians we deserve – and boy, must we have been collectively awful of late – then we probably get the superheroes we deserve, too. And judging by Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder's second foray into the world of the Man of Steel (following 2013's film of that name), audiences again are about to suffer a form of karmic retribution that will leave many asking themselves 'what the hell did we do to deserve this?'.
Well, given the box office success of superhero films over the past decade (mostly Marvel), including that of the much-maligned Man of Steel, the answer to that question would be plenty. And Zack Snyder is very much the school bully, pinning you down and slapping you with your own hand whilst teasing 'stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself'. Like it or not, we've consented to the superhero masochism and BvS is the latest punishment.
Picking up 18-months after the events of Man of Steel and the destruction of Metropolis – caused as a result of the smackdown between Superman (Henry Cavill, aesthetically appropriate yet dull as dishwater) and General Zod (Michael Shannon), which levelled a great deal of the CBD – the world's opinion is divided on the Caped Crusader: hero of the people or a law unto himself? A congressional committee chaired by plain speaking Kentuckian, Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), seems to be swaying towards the latter while Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, pumped-up but sleepwalking), who watched helplessly as his company's Metropolis headquarters and those inside perished during that Kryptonian rumble, is very much of the Nietzschean opinion that this god must die.
Hence, it only takes a little maneuvering by tech millionaire Alexander 'Lex' Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, whose performance is either really good or really bad?) to fan the flames of tension between Superman and Batman, although it requires a really lame reason to get the two to finally duke it out; writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer are as equally to blame as Snyder for this not-so-super mess.
The actual showdown between the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight doesn't occur until the third act and takes up less than 20 minutes of the film's 153-minute running time. Before then, Snyder's not sure if he's directing a Superman film with a Batman subplot or vice versa, but to finish things off, or sweeten the deal, he unveils Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman (not showing much promise for next year's solo outing, although fingers crossed director Patty Jenkins has something up her sleeve).
Wonder Woman's there as part of the climactic battle, with a revived but mutated Zod, now known as Doomsday, and where an orgy of destruction, similar to the one which underscored Man of Steel's awfulness, is repeated here to even more bludgeoning effect. (Snyder heard your complaints, he just doesn't care!)
And unless you're a die hard fanboy with low standards, you won't care much either. Who wins, who loses; who lives, who dies. Whatevs. Granted these are comic book characters of superhuman strength but shouldn't we at least care about the titular outcome? Or what it is they're fighting for? Presumably that's humanity, their own if not ours, but Snyder and his heroes fail to inject any real human odds into this monumental showdown. Other than the studio's coffers, there are no winners here.
Thursday, 17 March 2016
Set in 1630, decades before the Salem witch trials in ye olde America, The Witch sows the seeds of what is to come for the god-fearing folk of New England in a period-precise though historically liberal retelling of events on the American frontier. That detail goes a long way in making the world of The Witch both highly believable and increasingly claustrophobic; debut director, Robert Eggers, who previously worked as a costume and production designer, getting both the look and feel of film just right whilst also keeping us almost as completely in the dark as the family at its centre.
Banished from the community at the beginning of the film, the family of seven (two adults, five children) forge a new life on the edge of the woods. But when their baby son disappears, and then their crops begin to spoil, grief and paranoia, combined with religious fervor, begin to cloud reason and before long everyone is jumping at ghosts -- and goats -- and accusations of witchcraft begin to fly.
The Witch will draw comparisons with The Crucible but it is without the McCarthy subtext or the the awakening of female sexuality which drove Arthur Miller's narrative. What it does share are those events' departure from common sense, making way for fear to take root. You can't have God without the Devil, and if faith is belief in the absence of proof, well, the events of The Witch are the other side of the same spiritual coin. It's an impressive directorial debut where the devil is very much in the detail, casting a claustrophobic spell until almost the very end.
A running motif in The Daughter is a lame duck, which is a bold move by debutante feature film director Simon Stone; a symbolic choice which he manages to avoid delivering on for two-thirds of the film's running time before an overwrought third act.
Adapting Henrik Ibsen's stage play The Wild Duck, which he has previously directed on the Sydney stage, Stone moves the drama from 19th century Norway to 21st century Australia and a frosty-looking small logging community, which is on its last legs just as the fiscally irresponsible proprietor (Geoffrey Rush) of the sawmill is to marry his second and much younger wife. It's this event which has brought estranged son, Christian (Paul Schneider), home and which stirs up a hornet's nest of secrets and lies, mostly involving Christian's former high school buddy (Ewen Leslie, best in show), his wife (Miranda Otto) and daughter, Hedwig (an impressive Odessa Young).
There's angst, alcoholism and daddy issues in this drama (also featuring a grizzled Sam Neill) that escapes its stage origins by embracing the outdoors, although there is still a lot of dialogue which Stone has attempted to circumvent by delivering some conversations as if almost telepathically (not quite Malick-like whispers, despite the visual cues cinematographer Andrew Commis takes from that reclusive director's recent outings). Overall, it's a solid debut for Stone.
Thursday, 18 February 2016
After almost half a century of marriage, could their be anything you don't know about your partner? On the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) is about to have her understanding of her relationship with husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) shaken to its core when someone from his past is literally unearthed.
That's an ex-lover of Geoff's who died during a backpacking holiday before Geoff and Kate even met. But it's not just the similar hair colour and name (the victim was Katya) that has Kate questioning everything about the man she loves, as one minor revelation after another results in seismic emotional activity.
Writer-director Andrew Haigh's previous film, Weekend (2011), was about two men making a connection within a 48-hour period before one of them left for overseas. Conversely, 45 Years is about a life-long couple discovering new and not-so likable layers about each other and themselves.
Make no mistake, this is Rampling's film and she commands the screen in her quiet, coiled manner and with her questioning eyes. The veteran British actress, known equally for her roles in French films, fully deserves her first Oscar nomination; Courtenay is also good as the husband who, while growing ever distant, can't seem to understand his wife's curiosity about a past that doesn't involve her.
It's a film that may resonate more with older, more experienced viewers but 45 Years makes for excellent post-film date conversations about where the truth lies, and if sleeping dogs should remain so.
In the recent trend of "based on actual Hollywood events" films, Trumbo more resembles 2012's Hitchcock than 2011's My Week With Marilyn but is even less successful or convincing than Anthony Hopkins' prosthetics were in that former film about the making of Psycho.
Bryan Cranston plays the infamous screenwriter Dalton Trumbo whose Communist Party affiliations saw him and fellow screen scribes on the outer during the early days of the Cold War. Unable to officially work for the studios, Trumbo produced some of his best work -- Roman Holiday, The Brave One, Spartacus -- under pseudonyms, much to the chagrin of Commie-haters and hunters like celebrity gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren).
Presumably it is the film's look at a dark period in Hollywood's history and how art triumphed over conservatism which has provided director Jay Roach's film, adapted by John McNamara from a book by Bruce Cook, somewhat of a free pass but it really is hard to fathom why Cranston has been in the thick of awards season. Or maybe voters are just big Breaking Bad fans? Either way, in a lacklustre year for Best Actor, this is the least impressive performance among them.
And Helen Mirren's SAG nomination is even more of a mystery. A bad American accent and popping in and out of the drama like one of the nasty aunts from TV's Bewitched, her Hedda Hopper-cum-patriotic warrior is more akin to a salacious scribe from Potter world's The Daily Prophet; Mirren's millinery more magical than her performance.
Perhaps if the film had focused on one particular instance -- like the writing of Spartacus -- rather than spanning four decades and hitting biographical plot points to little dramatic effect, Trumbo would have been both more entertaining and politically punchier.
In a year -- the second consecutive year, unfortunately -- where no performances by non-white actors were nominated for Oscars, one can sympathize with Will Smith. He'll be boycotting this year's Oscars ceremony, partly as protest for the Academy's continued failure to recognise diverse talent and partly because he's no doubt miffed that his latest dramatic turn, as a real-life Nigerian-born doctor who uncovered the link between America's favourite past time and brain damage, has gone unrecognised.
It certainly must sting when a far inferior performance by Bryan Cranston (see Trumbo) has had unanimous love across awards season. Smith's is a solid enough performance, with an admirable Nigerian accent, but the role is another in his list of Messiah Complex heroes, and the film itself is far less hard hitting than the subject it is detailing.
As one former NFL footballer after another succumbs to suicide brought on by mental issues, Pittsburgh mortuary doctor Bennet Omalu, already known to take his time with his deceased patients, begins to take a closer look at the brains of the victims and the sport that they loved -- a sport he has no interest in and hence his lack of reticence in tackling the problem.
Naturally, the powers that be at the NFL don't want to hear that their multi-billion dollar business is killing the men whose backs they're money is made off, so ignoring, silencing and discrediting Omalu has them turning defense into offense. But the good doctor's Kenyan-born wife, Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and mentor and boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks adding some much needed levity) have his back.
An important story and an important issue, Peter Landesman's film (based on a GQ article by Jeanne Marie Laskas) is rather prosaic, never hitting any dramatic heights nor scoring any emotional touchdowns.
Monday, 4 January 2016
JOY (20th Century Fox)
The third collaboration between David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence once again gifts the actress a great role, and as previously (in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) she runs with it even if the film itself doesn't always keep up. Based on the life of Miracle Mop creator, Joy Mangano, Russell's comic-drama follows its heroine as she overcomes obstacles (mostly her obnoxiously suffocating family, including Robert De Niro, Virginia Madsen and Edgar Ramirez) in the invention of her mop and then the creation, loss and restoration of her shopping network-funded wealth. Joy is a salute to both the feminist spirit and the capitalist pursuit; a rags-to-riches tale and a shaggy dog of a film. Now Showing.
THE REVENANT (20th Century Fox)
The ugliness of man set against the beauty and grandeur of nature, Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is the real star of Alejandro G. Inarritu's The Revenant, even as Leonardo DiCaprio suffers admirably in this frontier-set survival tale. Following a bear attack (an awesome scene), Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is left for dead by his trapping party, only to claw his way out of the grave and make his way through the frozen wilderness to avenge the murder of his son at the hands of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Too long at 2.5 hours, the faux-profundity of Inarritu's film may become tedious but the scenery never does. And DiCaprio may finally win an Oscar, even if not for his best performance. Opens January 7.
SISTERS (Universal Pictures)
. . . Are doin' it for themselves! 2015 seemed to be the year of females in comedy, and after the big laughs provided by Melissa McCarthy in Spy and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler round out the year (or kick it off, depending on your time zone), with this side-splitter. Kidult sisters Kate (Fey) and Maura (Poehler) return to their family home to throw a high school-style house party, recreating -- or in the case of the anal retentive Maura, simply creating -- the glory days. While not trying to out gross the boys, Fey and Poehler still go where male comics fear to tread and as a result, the laughs are plentiful. Opens January 7.