Film Binge

I went on a bit of a film binge over the long weekend and gorged on four movies in one day. It was completely marvellous. From a foreign-film-oscar-nominee to a glossy Meyer rom com, with a British rollick and a Judd Apatow-crew effort for good measure, I truly ran the gamut. Just call me cinematically cultured and be done with it. Or don’t, because I’m clearly not. Anyway …

10am, clutching a coffee in the cinemas: Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon)

Whilst less palatable breakfast fare than, say, a chocolate croissant, this film was as brilliant as everyone promised it would be. A damning portrait of village life where everything festered beneath a surface no one wanted to scratch, Das Weisse Band is quietly intense and beautifully shot. Plenty of moments occur just off camera, so we’re allowed to imagine the devastation on a character’s face as he farewells his dead wife, or a child’s pain as they receive ten lashes for misbehaving. And our imagination, as Michael Hanneke so rightly understands, can often be a dark well to draw from.

Trespass review

2pm, clutching a cup of tea on the couch, under a blanket: Easy Virtue

I’ve seen this film so many times, courtesy of pay TV, and it never grows old. An adaptation of Noel Coward’s 1925 play of the same name, Colin Firth, Kirsten Scott Thomas and Ben Barnes join forces to form a suitably eccentric English family still struggling to recover from the emotional and fiscal ravages of war. Coward’s scathing wit and razor sharp social commentary makes it difficult for this film to lose, particularly when handed by Firth and Scott Thomas. The only thing I find myself continually niggled by (during my repeat viewings) is the casting of Jessica Biel as The American whose very existence offends everything old-money England stands for. Biel is competent and hugely watchable … but can’t seem to match the weight of the cast’s heavy hitters. I often mentally recast Rachel Weisz in the role, just for fun.

Trespass review

5pm, clutching a wine on the couch, under a blanket: It’s Complicated 

Merryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Nancy Meyer and California make for a polished, pretty, glossy rom com with substance. There was plenty here to recognise – as one of three children of parents the same age as Alec and Merryl’s characters (who also have three children) – and the family dynamics are well done, without tipping into the classic American over-sentimental territory. Plus the concept of older men leaving their wives for younger women, and those younger women wanting kids when the older men have done that dash, is explored quite deftly. Rather enjoyable.

9.15pm, clutching a coffee in the cinemas: Get Him to the Greek

Funny in most parts, gross (yet still funny) in others, Russel Brand’s accent and adlibbing combined with Jonah Hill’s facial expression and physicality make for two hours of senseless fun. Rose Byrne’s turn as a popstar is tremendous, I sort of wish there was more. P Diddy tried a touch too hard, made all the more evident by how little his cast mates had to try for comedic success – but, all in all, a lot of fun.

Animal Kingdom

Review originally published by Onya Magazine on 8/6/2010

When Australians do film well, we do it bloody well. The humour is dark and unforgiving in its familiarity. The lack of sentimentality is more emotionally controlling than any contrived Hollywood epic could ever hope for. We have a way of telling our stories – in literature as well as film – that, when done well, resonates uncomfortably deeply. Animal Kingdom – from its opening scene which makes an afternoon viewing of Deal or No Deal unbearably sad – to its inevitably tragic final moment, is one of these stories.

When seventeen year old Josh Cody’s (Frecheville) mother dies, he calls the only family member he knows he still has – his estranged Grandma. In doing so, he is ushered back into the fold of a family long-entangled with crime, living under the scrutiny of a police squad determined to sort things out on their own terms. One senseless killing is paid back with another and Josh becomes embroiled in a terrifying mess that seems to have just one destructive conclusion.

This is writer/director David Michod’s debut feature film and he is rewarded richly by his exceptional cast. As the shy, borderline socially inept Josh, newcomer James Frecheville does extraordinarily well; in fact, the second scene of the film is one of the most effective I have seen in a long time. Jacki Weaver imbues her family matriarch with an underlying sense of deep psychosis – unwavering blue eyes, a perpetually chipper voice and an insistence on giving her sons a lingering kiss on the lips – all contribute to an unsettling, amoral woman who will do anything for her sons. Guy Pearce and Joel Edgerton are dependably good (better than good) as Detective Leckie and Barry Brown, and Sullivan Stapleton and Luke Ford do excellent jobs of eking empathy out of viewers for questionably motivated characters.

Ben Mendelsohn deserves a special paragraph because he is, quite simply, mind-blowing. A quiet tour de force, he spreads tentacles of malevolence throughout the film so stealthily, in such an underplayed manner, that exactly how terrified you are of his flat-eyed Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody, and how terrified you are of what he’ll do, sneaks up on you and grabs you by the throat.

Tension is maintained by never really leaving the main characters – by not getting caught up in the drama of the genre’s usual trappings. The crimes are shocking enough. The retribution isn’t formalised, it is dealt out by the key players according to their own twisted ways of believing it all works. Slow motion and tight, lingering shots on the actors’ faces are routinely used, heightening the sense of constant dread that bubbles beneath the surface of the film from beginning to end.

When I walk out of Australian films like this, it makes me feel proud of what we can produce – and relieved that in amongst the mediocre, we are still creating such excellent films. Animal Kingdom is incredibly good. Incredibly. See it.

Film Review: The Bounty Hunter

Here’s the thing; you have to let Butler have his Scottish accent otherwise it’s simply unbearable. He gnashed his way through the abominable The Ugly Truth (and, okay, that movie had more basic flaws to worry like, I don’t know, a script) and now he’s chewed through The Bounty Hunter with a mouth full of gobstoppers.

The Bounty Hunter could have been good. Jennifer Aniston has superb comic timing, she and Butler have obvious natural chemistry and respect for each other and the premise has room for tension and clever comedy. But from the opening sequence it splutters along, less punchy, more try-hard, reliant on gimmicky characters rather than wit and tension.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Jennifer Aniston. Of course I do, it’s Jennifer Aniston. And Gerard Butler is a charming, unfairly attractive Scotsman who, when not grinding his jaw around an American accent, is capable of being quite a screen presence. So it pains me to have to give this film such a comprehensive thumbs down.

The somewhat loose, inconsistent (largely unfunny) script has no climax; it attempts, unsuccessfully, to interweave three subplots, resulting in a completely unsatisfying resolution that smacks of afterthought. Not enough time is spent on the relationship between Butler and Aniston’s characters which means one doesn’t really care whether they are reunited or not; and, even though Aniston works her lines like a pro and emerges as the only bright spot of the film, Butler simply fails to match her – and that’s a big disappointment.

Un Prophete

I finally got around to seeing Un Prophete last night and Tahar Rahim’s performance makes me even more depressed Kristen Stewart won the Rising Star BAFTA. I know, I know, it was voted for by the public and she’s far more publically visible. And I know, I know, it helps to have vampire teeth marks on your neck, or a werewolf who can’t keep his shirt on, lusting after you and your sullen mouth. But my Lord, really? Kristen Stewart? Over Carey Mulligan? And Nicholas Hault? And now, because I’m aboard the cultured foreign-film-train, I can say, Tahar Rahim?

Anyway, Un Prophete is a must see. It’s up for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and even though I haven’t seen any of the other nominees, Un Prophete was such a feat I will say with admitted ignorance, it should win. And Rahim, in his debut feature film role, deserves every nomination, award and piece of praise he gets. He is truly outstanding, making the almost unbelievable story of his character, Malik El Djebna, an illiterate prisoner who rises to the top of the twisted world of crime whilst behind bars, completely believable.

A head cold has robbed me of my ability to think critically and put those thoughts into eloquent prose, so rather than review the film myself, I’ll direct you to Beth Wilson’s review on Trespass.

Film Rant: Valentine’s Day

I’m trying to muster up the energy to review this film. It’s everything the cynics thought it would be and more. In fact, it’s dreadful. It’s long, convoluted and incoherent with more plot flaws and holes than I could keep track of. In fact I gave up keeping track at about the same time I gave up concentrating and began thinking of design ideas for Trespass. Valentine’s Day is cliché to the nth degree, which is fine (there is no such thing as a Rom-Com without at least one cliché; formula defines the genre) if there is a touch of self-reflexivity about it, but there was none. The cast is utterly charmless (minus Julia Roberts, Bradley Cooper and an occasional gleam from Ashton Kutcher, Anne Hathaway and Topher Grace … I know that’s five actors, but in a cast of thousands, it’s a drop in the ocean of charm) and this is largely because they were given nothing to work with – although, in the case of Jessica Alba, Emma Roberts and the irritatingly little precocious child who fills the Adorable-Smart-Child-In-Love role, it’s largely because they can’t act.

The ‘funny’ moments are boring/overplayed with the nadir being reached towards the end at Jessica Biel’s character’s I Hate Valentine’s Day party – which involves the requisite spurned women and gay man lamenting their double crossing dates and lonely hearts. There’s even a drunken I Will Survive karaoke rendition at an Indian restaurant. It’s hideous. That’s not the only mortifying scene – there’s plenty of cutsie moments with the kid who has fallen in love with someone in his classroom and is trying to let her know (apparently children can bicycle anywhere in LA – it’s totally safe, their babysitter will eventually find them in her beaten up Volkswagen, and they’ll have a cute little heart to heart about love). There’s also a harrowingly boring/unnecessary/ unfunny scene where Emma Roberts’s character tells the Grandparents of the child she babysits that she plans on having sex with plenty of men over the course of her natural life. Oh and let it be said – Queen Latifah’s character is completely unnecessary. In general.

And who, may I ask, thought it was a good idea/possible/believable/okay to have the main character propose to his long term girlfriend at breakfast, be rejected by lunch time and fall in love with his best friend (who was in love with an adulterer up until, oh, about two hours ago) by sun down? Even by romantic-comedy standards, that’s stretching the audience friendship. You’re asking them to suspend enough belief as it is.

I’m getting angry writing about this film, so I’m going to leave the real reviewing to Jess Paine on Trespass (because God knows this isn’t a review so much as a rant) – keep your eyes peeled for it on the 13th. But I will leave you with this … for God’s sake I wish writers would stop having their female characters overeat/gorge/binge when they’re depressed and then talk with their mouths full whilst gesturing wildly with the chocolate box. NO MORE.

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Film Review (not bite sized): Nine

First published in Trespass 16/01/2010

The perfect movie musical should leave you singing for hours after the lights have come up. You should want to leap from your seat as soon as the credits roll and dance down the cinema aisles, jazz hands a-wriggling. Musical numbers should soar, dance routines should fizz, and the scenes with neither should be tight and slick and maintain the necessary pace. And most importantly, movie musicals need structure to avoid the slippery descent into the old music-video-montage.

Nine, the latest from Chicago director Rob Marshall, has so many stars in it, it should be blinding. It has some wonderful moments of energy and visual beauty but the film is overall inconsistent and at times incoherent with the unfortunate niggling feeling bubbling beneath the surface that the story simply isn’t worth telling.

Originally a film (1963’s 8 ½ ) Nine was turned into a Broadway production (1983 and then again in 2003) and has now finds its latest incarnation as a film, under the direction of Rob Marshall. It tells the story of Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) a famed Italian director in the 1960s who has hit a creative wall with his impending film, Italia. Unable to eat, sleep and at times breathe, he is confronted by the crumbling of his hedonistic lifestyle as his mistress (Penelope Cruz) grows dangerously attached, his wife (Marion Cotillard) increasingly saddened and disappointed by his adultery and his muse (Nicole Kidman) disenchanted with their working relationship . In an effort to breakthrough the anguish, he reflects on the women from his past and present, including his mother (Sophia Loren) Vogue journalist (Kate Hudson) seamstress and confidante (Judi Dench) and local prostitute from his childhood (Stacey Ferguson).

The cast largely handle the singing adequately. Clearly Fergie nails her number, Be Italian, and Kate Hudson isn’t half bad in her high energy Cinema Italiano. We all know Nicole Kidman can hold a tune and Penelope Cruz is far too saucy in her solo to even notice moments of questionable pitch. But they aren’t helped by the music, which, save for one or two numbers, is somewhat forgettable.

There’s a battle between a Nicole on auto-pilot and a, frankly, underwhelming Sophia to see whose face can move the least (it’s a tie) and the always on form Judi Dench teaches them both a lesson in graceful ageing. Kate Hudson is cute and suitably minxy (and she can move) and we are spared the potential singer-actress disaster because Stacey Ferguson doesn’t act. Penelope Cruz is vulnerable and expressive and Daniel Day-Lewis is completely believable (and forgivable) as a self centred, enabled creative genius. But it’s Marion Cotillard who quietly steals the show, pulling at the reins of a horse that threatens to lose control and indeed sight of itself, and providing the film with much needed genuine emotion. She does this despite having one of the more lyrically questionable numbers in the entire film.

Despite some wonderful moments and often beautiful and interesting visual sequences, Nine just doesn’t shine as brightly as it could. It’s too long, lacks the vital ingredient of structure and considering I spent the entire second half mentally recasting Nicole Kidman, it may or may not be a case of too many stars ruining the broth.

Bite Size Review: Fantastic Mr Fox

This is a gem of a film. Almost too funny in parts, director Wes Anderson has created a believable world of suit wearing badgers and beavers, all the while doing justice to the dark side of Roald Dahl’s children’s books.

The smooth toned George Clooney is Mr Fox, a chicken thief who once lived for the rush of stealing chickens. Following a heist that almost got him and his wife (Meryl Streep) caught, he has become a newspaper columnist, and they live a quiet life in a hole with their adolescent son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman). But it’s not enough for Mr Fox, who longs for the thrill of the steal. He masterminds a plan to break into each of the farms of Boggis, Bunce and Bean and in doing so, drags the animal community into grim danger which calls on all their natural wiliness to escape.

The stop-motion puppetry is hilarious in itself, with the puppets’ movements wonderfully reminiscent of things you used to watch as a child. The screenplay is tremendously snappy – 87 breezy minutes of crackling, laden, witty dialogue.

SEE IT. And by the way, the trailer does not do it justice. But here it is anyway.

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Top 3 Films of 2009

In keeping with the list mania happening over at Trespass, today we’re looking at the Top 3 Films of 2009. Below are my ‘high brow’ choices, but I can tell you now, I probably am better versed in the lower brow this year – I just didn’t sink my teeth into enough of the good ones.

***

Looking back, 2009 hasn’t been a good year for me and film. I seem to have seen a whole lot of shit, excuse my language, and done the old ‘must see …’ with the good ones and never actually seen them. So whilst I can say I heartily enjoyed The Hangover, Fired Up and Harry Potter, I didn’t get around to seeing Moon or Samson and Delilah. Shame on me.

But, of the higher brow films I did see, here are my picks …

3. Inglourious Basterds  (Quentin Tarantino, USA)

Weirdly, this wouldn’t be a film I’d list as a favourite – but it’s hard to go past the almost perfect opening scene that was so tense I didn’t let go of my arm rest for the duration. The film as a whole is imperfect but worth seeing for Christopher Waltz and Melanie Laurent.

2. Bright Star (Jane Campion, Australia)

Stunning – in cinematography, in the understated performances of the cast and in the, at times sparse and a wee bit slow, screenplay. Abbie Cornish is everything she has been touted as for years.

1. An Education (Lone Scherfig, UK)

A tremendous film. Hornby’s screenplay was a lesson in subtlety and wit and the performance turned in by Carey Mulligan was nothing short of a major arrival on the cinematic stage. A film to watch and then watch again, enjoying every finely crafted moment.

Oh and an honourable mention must go to Genova which was a lovely study of grief, set against the seductive streets of Genoa.

Bite Sized Review: Bright Star

Because I plan on seeing loads of films this summer and because the prospect of having to write in depth reviews of all of them will only make me resentful, I shall review in bite sized pieces.

Kicking off my summer of film-gorging, I caught Jane Campion’s Bright Star on the weekend. Read any review and the word beautiful will be mentioned. That is because, quite simply, no other word captures the essence of this film quite so succinctly. Slow at times, the script sparse in parts, but undeniably beautiful.

Bright Star tells the story of the intense and oh so lovely relationship between Keats (Ben Whishaw) and neighbour, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) using the poet’s waxing and waning creativity as something of a mirror to the love affair. Wishaw is suitably slim and wildly intelligent as the young Keats who never lived to see his poetry so highly revered. Cornish is what Scarlett Johansson would be if she acted with a little less mouth. Her Brawne has the feistiness and uncertainty of a teenager in equal measures and the scene where she learns of the death of her love is very well played indeed.  

Bright Star is just as its name suggests – it’s bright. Visually, it’s really quite fresh and with a modern feel (despite being set in 1818) with plenty of natural light bouncing of white walls and the crisp colours of Fanny Brawne’s frocks. The cinematography is one of the film’s biggest stars with love’s ache of longing captured in lingering shots of the famous English landscape.

Don’t go into Bright Star expecting everything to be felt for you. And don’t see it if you’re in an impatient frame of mine. See if when you’re quite ready to savour it – even when it gets slow. It’s a film you simply have to sit back and let wash over you. Particularly the final scene in which Cornish recites ‘Bright Star’ – close your eyes and just enjoy pure poetry.

Antichrist: The What, Why and How

This isn’t a film review. I’m not sure how I’d go about reviewing Antichrist, to be honest, but beyond that I’m more interested in the writing than the overall cinematic product. More specifically, I’m interested in the psychology tied up in the story and the depths von Trier plundered with the characters in order to achieve what it was he wanted.

Watching the film (with a cinema full of nervous, giggling males and, at one point, swearing and retching) I kept thinking to myself, ‘what, why and how.’

On some level, I do think all writers ask themselves, when they’re working on a project, what am I trying to say, why am I trying to say it, and how am I trying to say it? I think the why is of lesser concern, because for the most part, those who create works of fiction are not necessarily driven by justifiable needs – in the beginning – perhaps later, as the piece develops, why they felt the need to create it emerges. But certainly the what and the how weighs heavily as you make your way deeper and deeper into a creative piece, particularly if the story is deliberately driven by themes and concepts. And I think the what, why and how applies both to the little things – pieces of dialogue, imagery, descriptions – and to the broader themes of the story. It’s a matter of giving your readers/viewers an experience in a particular way, using certain tools that tell the story, raise the questions, confirm the familiar and induce the emotional response.

Antichrist is, to my mind, thematically driven. The notion of motherhood/female pleasure/guilt and sin and how it works within womanhood is played out through the stages of grieving … which could be where Antichrist sort of lost me, because the two concepts are so rich and layered in and of themselves, that pairing the two together in order to explore each other is somewhat brain-combusting and needlessly cluttered.

Antichrist essentially follows a couple who, following the death of their toddler (who climbs out a window and falls to his death whilst they are having sex) retreat to a cabin in the woods, Eden, in order to confront the mother’s greatest fears and repair the gaping wound grief has made. The husband, a therapist, attempts to ascertain the mother’s greatest fear, which she is unable to identify beyond Eden, where she spent a summer with her young son working on a thesis on Gynocide. She (and her name is simply She) unravels in the most violent way as He makes discoveries of her thesis notes which gets him closer to what she most fears; herself. Her gender, her believed inherent evil, her ability to watch her son climb to his death as she has sex – which she performs voraciously and violently throughout the film in either a nod to female sexuality and what function it performs, a part of her psychological unraveling or the guilt inherent in female please, or perhaps more specifically, in balancing motherhood with one’s primal pleasure based desires.

Von Trier allegedly wrote Antichrist as he was coming out of a bout of depression. Consequently the film offers glimpses into an element of humanity that is scary simply because it is within all of us. And I think that’s what he was driving at when creating the true horror of the film. He asks his audience to take a glimpse into the darkest parts of his imagination, the nature of his fears. And the nature of his fears seem to be what we are capable of when pushed – what can fester inside of us, skewing our world view until we have no concept of restraint or rationality. Things are truly scary not when they are simply gory or violent or frightening – but when we realize tha the ability to do these things resides, somewhere, in all of us. And beyond this, he taps into the historically and psychologically linked concepts of female sexuality and guilt, which can be felt on some level by most women – sex/pleasure/guilt/sin/femaleness have become tangled up in each other as a result of social conditioning for thousands of years. Von Trier’s guilt ridden female protagonist, who comes to, I think, understand gynocide and fear her gender and herself for their inherent evil capacity, seems to be an extreme symbol of these primal, intertwined threads.  Freud would have a field day.

I think, also, with some writers, another question they must, at some point, ask themselves is, how far am I willing to go, and this is particularly true of writers like von Trier who push. I don’t want to say ‘push boundaries’ because that’s such a boring expression, so I’m just going to say push. And in pushing so far, is this telling the story any more successfully?

I still don’t quite know what to make of Antichrist. I think it had the potential to do so much more. And perhaps, with time and distance and some stewing, I’ll come to see precisely what drove von Trier to tell this story the way he did. But for now I’m trying to decide whether he did the sticky, primal themes justice or not.