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.