Friday, December 26, 2014

The Best Films of 2014

I love the movies.

I remember, exactly, when the love affair started. I was about 17, Year 12, and I'd been out with a few friends. And by 'out' I mean; we'd been hanging around the beach after dark, drinking UDLs and smoking weed. This is pretty much all there is to do in a country town when you're in Year 12.

In any case, I'd wandered home, skipped past my mother as quickly as possible ('Hi... Yeah... Ok, night') and flopped out in front of the TV in my room. It was about 10pm and one of the networks was showing Casablanca, which I'd not seen before.

And wasn't interested in watching then either. I mean, old movies? They were for old people. But - and you can feel the world shift on its axis a bit right here - I couldn't be fucked finding something else. So I watched it.

And that was it really. The next day I went to the local video store and rented everything in the classics section that had a familiar title.

Years, decades, later, I have that couch-Casablanca moment to thank for another year spent in the dark, obsessively eating mints. And I am very thankful indeed.

And now... my favourite movies of the year.



10. WHITE GOD 


Sporting some of the year's most indelible images, and one of its most outlandish concepts, this Hungarian drama was a worthy winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes this year. Writer/director Kornel Mundruzco deftly balances a number of plot strands, then cleverly links them all back to his central point; power corrupts, and causes the powerful to do terrible things to the powerless. While this theme is simple, it in no way detracts from the originality of the presentation. The hypnotic stillness of the opening and closing  - Budapest, abandoned - stands in stark contract to the chaotic scenes mid section, where an uprising of stray dogs turns on the worst elements of society. The boldness of the approach is simply stunning, while the ambiguous ending leaves much to ponder. A unique movie experience.




9. THE DIRTIES 


Matt (Matt Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams) are close friends and nerdy misfits; they cling to each other while they try and navigate the difficulties of their American high school, bullied and maligned at every turn. But Matt has a temper, and an anarchic streak, and also has a plan to pay back everyone that has wronged him. Tragic, real life events in America have lead to a raft of high school shooting movies in the last few years, but we have never seen these events depicted like they are here. The Dirties is wickedly, hilariously funny, mining the shopworn high school setting for some very black comedy, that spills over into the more serious part of the film to remarkable effect. Multi talented Matt Johnson writes, directs, edits, produces and shines in all areas, although his bravura performance as the manic main character leaves the deepest impression. His rapid fire dialogue and ludicrous ideas are funny, stupid and brilliant, all at once. Provocative and thrilling.




8. FORCE MAJEURE


Vacationing in the French Alps, a well off Swiss family seem to have it all worked out; father Tomas Johannes Kuhnke) is the satisfied centre of the universe, with wife and two kids comfortably in his orbit. But this tranquil picture is disrupted by Tomas' cowardly reaction to an avalanche, an act of god that shakes his family's faith and uncovers previously glossed over tensions. The role that fate plays in our lives is given a thorough examination in this subtle, beautifully crafted drama, which also touches on the corrupting influence of materialistic society. Tomas and his wife have lived in their insulated cocoon for so long they have lost touch with who they are, and don't like what they see when forced to re-examine themselves. This harsh critique of their existence and character climaxes in one of the most intriguing scenes of the year; an ending where the finest of details communicates volumes.  An intelligent and stylish film.




7. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL


American independent director Wes Anderson's eighth feature arrived with the now expected preliminaries; a beautiful, retro poster, an energetic trailer, and a lengthy cast list filled with a group of names to make other auteurs weep (how many other director's can call on the likes of Bill Murray, or Tilda Swinton, for one scene parts?). Likewise, the film itself displays Anderson's trademark style; a many splintered narrative, a vigorous music score, remarkably detailed production design and a happy-sad narrative that pitches laughs against tragedy. That this all works so well, despite the familiarity, is a testimony to how good Anderson and his team are at what they do. The story of a legendary hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes) involved in a madcap scramble for a stolen painting, this is one of the director's best films, containing some of his funniest jokes and, perhaps, his most melancholy final act. It's manically entertaining, while still finding time for reflection, and perhaps no one can walk that tightrope as well as Wes. 




6. TRACKS


In a year in which it was hard to write about any Australian film without attaching the word 'dreck', there was one, and only one, saving grace; this wonderful, moving adaption of Robyn Davidson's 1970's book about her solo trek across the Simpson Desert. All the more remarkable is that this is very tricky filmic territory; Davidson (brilliantly played here by Mia Wasikowska) was a difficult, insular woman and her narrative consists of one long, lonely march into a void. Hardly the stuff of a conventional narrative. But in the hands of director John Curran (responsible an eternity ago for the equally excellent Praise) the film is compelling, as the characters physical journey turns into an emotional one. And the more obvious plot turns that do show up come with genuine impact; Davidson losing her camels, and the fate of her dog, will have you wide eyed and white knuckled (and, probably, a blubbery mess). Primarily though, this movie is about personal courage, and the importance of carving your own path, and serves as a showcase both for a young actor and a young woman, unafraid of either. 



5. WHIPLASH


Veteran character actor JK Simmons (Spiderman, many others) has waited his whole career for a part like this; Terrance Fletcher, the charismatic, messianic head teacher at a prestigious private music school. Into Fletcher's domain steps naive wannabe Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a talented drummer so dedicated that he casts aside his cute girlfriend lest she interfere with his goals. The clash of wills, and psychologies, between teacher and student powers this remarkable character study, pushed to great heights by two brilliant performances, both among the year's best. The creative process, and the nature of artistic license, are dissected in a series of bold, thrilling scenes, as excessive behaviour is excused in the name of art.  Fletcher's line, 'There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job' ' was probably the most discussed quote of the year, and a fitting shorthand for the places this film gets too. Unexpected and exhilarating.




4. NIGHTCRAWLER


Having delivered memorable recent turns in Enemy and Prisoners, Jake Gyllenhaal continues a terrific creative run with his most dazzling performance to date; Lou Bloom, a petty criminal and hustler who slithers into a job shooting freelance footage for the nightly news. Gyllenhaal's Bloom is intelligent and highly capable, talented and adaptable... and also vicious, egocentric and sociopathic. Travis Bickle with clearer goals and cable internet. And Gyllenhaal's transformation into this bug eyed, slick haired narcissist is something to behold, a chameleon act worthy of some award attention. The surrounding film offers sharp satire of the modern TV industry, where 'anything goes' has become a watchword for success. Writer/director Dan Gilroy packages his story for maximum impact, and there is not a wasted scene or moment throughout a very taught two hours. In an era of 140 minute gross out comedies, this almost feels like a revolution.




3. TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT


Sandra (a deglamourised Marion Cotillard), will lose her job, and her family their house, if she cannot convince her co-workers to forsake an end of year bonus that otherwise pays her salary. The film follows Sandra over the time period of the title, as she desperately tries to convince her colleagues to help her, while she also juggles two kids and manic, medicated, depression. The latest from Belgian duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (L'EnfantRosetta) is a simply constructed film in the neo-realist style (entirely filmed on location, with no music score) that delivers with sledgehammer impact. Watching Sandra be repeatedly knocked down by the difficulties of her life, and still try to find a way back up, was the most emotional experience I had at the movies this year, and one that was difficult to watch at times. The vivid reality of the film is entirely absorbing, and the sense of watching a real person crumbling, impossible to distance yourself from. But there are wonderful, uplifting moments for Sandra as well, and the fragile hopefulness of the ending is a blessing, after the harrowing struggle of the previous two hours. Sandra's sign off - 'We fought a good fight!' - is something I will think about, long after some of the flashier films on this list have faded from memory. Essential. 




2. BOYHOOD


Filmed in installments over a dozen years, versatile director Richard Linklater's breathtaking feature is a one of kind take on the classic coming of age tale. With deft segue ways between the yearly sections (effectively a collection of short movies, edited together) we watch the characters physically age and emotionally mature. At the forefront is the boy of the title, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), but part of the pleasure of this work is that all of the main characters take us on a journey; trying new things, surviving reversals, reflecting on what has happened to them. The sense of time passing is palpable and each character's mini story believable and engaging. Coltrane shines in an indelible debut, and is well backed by Patrica Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who have their best roles in years playing his estranged parents. While the film's epic length begins to tell, a little, towards the end (there is, perhaps, one emotional climax too many), this unique film is rich, subtle and demanding of repeat viewings. Brilliant.



1. THE GREAT BEAUTY


With his prime some way behind him, aging writer/socialite Jep (veteran Toni Servillo) takes stock of his life. He also parties hardy, whisking through a dizzying array of clubs, restaurants, get together's, openings and events. These parallel lifestyles define the character and drive the film, as the narrative shifts between scenes and eras to highlight the conflicting elements of this complex man. Jep moves in a rarefied atmosphere but the contours of his life are familiar; the powerful echo of a first love, the frustration of unresolved choices, the tenderness of a meaningful connection, 

Writer/director Paolo Sorrentino rightly won an Oscar for this extraordinary, deeply layered film, which stands squarely alongside some of the classic works of Italian cinema (we're mainly talking Fellini here, although the touchpoints are numerous). It is, in equal measures, funny, melancholy, sentimental, cynical, silly and profound, and its philosophical musings are balanced against some broad satire (organised religion and the art scene, being particular targets). At times, it is messy and chaotic, but this sits well with the films themes. After all, what life an easily be defined? How would you even start?

Towards the end of the movie, Jep considers death, knowing his own isn't much further away. He reflects via voice over, 

'This is how it always ends, with death. But first there was life, hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah...' 

It's a cryptic ending, to a film wide open to interpretation; is he saying that as his life was full, his death becomes insignificant? Or just the opposite, that the commotion of his life really just disguised the emptiness that he now has to face?

The beauty of this magnificent movie is that it is unafraid to pose questions of this magnitude, and equally comfortable to leave them open. A bona fide classic for the ages.


Also very good...

  • Blue is the Warmest Colour
  • Calvary
  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • Housebound
  • Particle Fever
  • Mr Turner
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Happy Christmas
  • Ne Mes Quitte Pas
  • Enemy

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Worst Movies of 2014

There are some obvious ones missing from this list.

I didn't watch A Winter's Tale (nor could I ever imagine doing so), and a dislike for both Nicole Kidman and Grace Kelly kept me away from Princess Grace: Weepy Pants. And I couldn't force myself to Transformers 4, even though I had a free ticket.

All of which made most of the 'Worst Of' lists I've seen.

So this is a personal selection, from the 80 or so features I did watch this year, and it comes with the usual provisos; the author is neither very educated, nor very awake (most of the time), and his long term addiction to Eclipse mints can be a film watching handicap.

With that in mind, an otherwise definitive list of the years worst films.


10. GODZILLA



Having slumbered for 15 years since it's last, disastrous, reboot, the world's most famous monster seemed ready for another tilt at the big time. And, on paper, this movie seemed highly promising; a hip young director (Gareth Edwards, of Monsters fame), a big budget and a surprisingly heavyweight cast, including Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche, even Walter White himself (Bryan Cranston, terrific as an earnest engineer). But, apart from an exciting set up sequence in a stricken nuclear power plant, this silly, clumsy film almost entirely failed to deliver. The big guy is fun, but there is entirely too little of him, and way too much of wooden leading man Aaron Taylor-Johnson, badly miscast and utterly woeful. Some of the action sequences have potential, but even these are hampered by a hyperactive editing style, that cuts away from the monster mayhem right as things are about to get smashed. What should have been a rollicking, popcorn munching thrill ride ended as just another overpriced session at the IMAX, followed by a looong walk home.. 




9. PREDESTINATION



Serpentine plotting can serve a movie well, but there are some guidelines; the twists have to be carefully concealed, the ending a surprise and the scenarios along the way credible. Abandoning all three early on, this local time travel thriller tries to make up with effort what it lacks in subtlety and polish. And imported leading man Ethan Hawke does his best with the giddy material, gamely keeping a straight face while pursuing a criminal named The Fizzle Bomber. Also in the mix is 2014's most obvious woman pretending to be a man (local gal Sarah Snooke, trying hard), a high tech violin case and Noah Taylor, doing a fair impression of the Cancer Man from the X Files. There's a lot of energy and enthusiasm on display here, but only a little craft, which makes for a largely unsatisfying flick. The plot twists only get sillier, and more laughable, the longer it goes. Bold ambition in film makers is laudable but, unfortunately, even the best intentions can fall flat.




8. THE BABADOOK



Also from the local industry, this low budget, wannabe-supernatural thriller has cut a bit of a swathe on the festival circuit, garnering great reviews and a spot on the New York Times best films of the year list. All the more surprising then, that the film is neither scary, nor suspenseful, nor can come up with a better ending than the most obvious plot device in the history of boogeyman films (Oh! It's all in the weird characters head. I mean, really?). This is writer/director (and onetime actor) Jennifer Kent's first feature and, unfortunately, it shows; the amateurish direction and editing entirely fails to create any atmosphere, not at all helped by a terrible performance from Daniell Henshall, wretched in the crucial role of 'The Troubled Child.' The mysterious book that puts the story in motion (pictured above) is creepy, which makes you wonder what Tim Burton and an animation studio could have done with this. But in these hands it is simply dull, and so very obvious.




7. THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY


Writer-director Ben Stiller has an excellent track record with his own films; they're mostly really good, and, occasionally, really awesome ('Cable Guy', 'Zoolander'). But this, a re-make of a Danny Kay vehicle based on the novel of the same name, is an almost total misfire. The buttoned down office drone Stiller plays at the start of the movie we've seen many times before, and his transformation into a romantic global adventurer is trite when it isn't tedious. The meaning of life, Stiller's Mitty works out, is 'Follow your heart,' a message you may have already picked up from every other film ever made. Much more offensive than this, though, is the relentless product placement that dominates large tracts of the narrative. Suffice to say that the internet dating site and pizza chain that sponsored this turkey got their money's worth. The one saving grace, and it's worth a little something, are some beautiful images from the film shoot's far flung locations, but you can get these at nationalgeographic.com too, and their advertising is much less crass.




6. GONE GIRL


American director David Fincher has had a bit of a mid career sea change; away from the edgy material of his earlier films (Se7en, Fight Club), towards pulpier, mainstream fodder (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). Very much in the latter vain is this ludicrous, overheated thriller, which Fincher has brought to the big screen straight from the discount book bin at the local airport. The story - pretty young wife goes missing, neglectful hubby looks guilty - starts off well enough, but just cannot resist tipping its hand early. The big reveal, as to the whereabouts of the wife, comes after about forty minutes and, with this, goes any reason anyone may have had in watching the rest of it. Which is not to say that the remaining two hours aren't lively; there's a new twist every ninety seconds, and each one goes soaring to new heights of craziness; corrupt lawyers, trailer trash criminals, kinky sex, an evil yuppie and a boo-hiss tabloid TV host all dive in to this mess and wriggle around. And that's without mentioning the laughably named Detective Boney, and her prissy sidekick, ineptly questioning everything in sight. The only thing more ludicrous than the way these plot strands ties together is the earnest commentary that has accompanied the film, of the 'biting satire of our media obsessed times' variety. Good satire is a rapier, and this is more like a rubbery bludgeon. 




5. KILL ME THREE TIMES


Continuing a dismal 2014 for the local film industry (and I'm not even done yet, see below), this barely released and little seen action comedy took high concept film making to the very lowest levels. Because, on paper, the conceit behind this looks promising; cast acerbic British comedian Simon Pegg against type as a hitman, then let him make like the Man With No Name in a rural Australian town populated by dimwits. Really, I'm pretty keen to see that movie. Or I was, once. But, unfortunately, in order to flesh out this synopsis, the film makers have opted to lean on every lame, worn out stereotype in the formula movie playbook. So; the main story revolves around a bar owner who's wife is cheating on him; he wants to kill her; he is also a drunk; then there's a life insurance scam; and a corrupt cop; and... well, who cares really. You've seen it all before, done much better. The couple of laughs that Pegg does engender (and he does quite well really, considering how bad the rest of this is) only serve to highlight what could have been, in more skillful hands.




4. A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST



One man TV industry Seth McFarlane (Family Guy, Robot Chicken) scored a big hit two years ago with his first foray into movies; Ted, a gross out comedy with McFarlane as the voice of a foul mouthed teddy bear. For this, his excruciatingly unfunny follow up, McFarlane has returned as writer, director and producer, and also installed himself as leading man, front and center in every single shot across the endless run time (watching this it was hard not to imagine his directing style, 'How about another close up of my giant head? Yes, another one!'). Much of the comedy is meant to derive from McFarlane's mild character interacting with a parade of macho Western cliches, but his supreme awfulness, his relentless, arrogant, wankery-ness, will have you rooting for any one of the villains to pick him off. You certainly won't be laughing, unless you think someone saying 'Fuck' a lot is funny. Worst of all, McFarlane's obsession with himself means that the well credentialed supporting cast - Liam Neeson! Giovanni Ribisi! Charlize Theron! - are all relegated to the sidelines. You wouldn't imagine any of them would be back, when 'Seth McFarlane's Third Movie' is inevitably released.



3. THE AMAZING SPIDER MAN 2



2012's Spider Man reboot was a very odd duck; Sam Raimi's popular reboot trilogy was still pretty fresh, and the thought of going through a new origin story with different actors seemed bizarre. But if that first installment seemed curious, it now looks like a masterwork in comparison to this inept, utterly atrocious sequel. Every single element required for a successful multiplex flick has gone awry here; the villains are goofy (and poorly motivated), the story is convoluted and endless, the special effects look like they were knocked up on an app. Even our leads, the normally brilliant Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, look... distracted? Bored, even. Everyone involved, it seems, has cottoned on to the pointlessness of this movies existence, and reacted accordingly. 'Just get it done! And then we can move on to the next one.' A dismal example of contemporary, big studio film making, where the film is almost secondary to the product placement and toy sales. You really hope that there won't be another one of these, while, at the same time, you know there will be.




2. MONUMENTS MEN


Unlike a few films on this list, Monuments Men is technically well made and has everything money can buy. It looks a treat. It also has a roll call of brilliant, hip character actors filling all of its major parts, undoubted testimony to the popularity and pull of writer/director George Clooney. So there really is no excuse, none, for the dismal fiasco that has resulted here. A potentially interesting story - art experts rescuing stolen art treasures from the Nazis - given the laziest, most half hearted treatment imaginable, rounded off by a booming chorus of 'rah-rah the Yanks saved everyone' bullshit. Jingoism! From George Freakin' Clooney! If I hadn't had my mind slowed by two hours of this dreck, I would've been totally outraged. Offensive to the sensibilities, numbing to the mind, an outright failure in every important way. Phew, that felt good.





1. WOLF CREEK 2


To cap off a year of, largely, terrible Australian films, comes the very worst of the bunch; a long delayed sequel to an already forgettable Australian slasher flick from 2005. Back behind the wheel for this second installment is John Jarrett, making like the Freddy Kruger of the outback in his tattered hat and red shirt. But, as Jarrett's Mick Taylor is no longer a fresh concept second time round, the film makers have tried to add some new elements to his grimace and stab routine. So, like a crazed version of Barry McKenzie, Mick is now a nationalist, which a regularly stated hatred of anyone not from Australia (which doesn't stop him killing a local farmer and cop, of course). 'Clever take on the current state of National issues' anyone? Mick's also lost his sense of humour, as the wise cracks from the first movie have been wound back to him saying 'Yeah?' aggressively. The director, Greg McLean, also chucks in a horrendous, utterly pointless, sequence that shows Mick mowing down a group of kangaroos with a semi trailer (the absolute low point, of my film watching year). It's all in the service of being shocking and provocative, and you feel that there is nothing the team behind this wouldn't stoop to, to get these labels attached; 'Have Mick eat someone's balls! Rape a dingo! Choke someone with vegemite!' Talent-less, worthless, junk, utterly devoid of any merit.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Punter's View of MIFF


I'm not a film critic. I'm no sort of film expert. I don't know very much about very much.

But I like movies. And, if you live in Melbourne and you like the flickers, MIFF is where it's at. Three weeks, hundreds of films and an endless supply of mints. That's right, I like my mints too. So if you hear a mint tin rattling while you're sitting in the dark at MIFF, good chance that's me.

Anyway, the following are my thoughts on what I'm catching this year, as I catch them...


WHITEY: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA vs JAMES J. BULGER



Rates:  *  *  1/2

James 'Whitey' Bulger was a hoodlum who cut a swathe through Boston for five decades, terrorising his enemies and turning himself into an underworld celebrity. On the run for the last 15 years of his spree, the FBI listed him as public enemy # 2, immediately behind Osama Bin Laden. In a sphere where notoriety is synonymous with success, he made it right to the top.

But when he was finally caught in 2012, Whitey had a surprise in store for his captors; he claimed that high level law enforcement officers had protected him from prosecution for years, pretending he was an informant so they could use him in a variety of corrupt schemes. These allegations get an airing as Whitey goes on trial for murder, triggering some very strange behaviour from the District Attorney's office. A cover up in the middle of a high profile murder trial is so audacious as to seem utterly absurd, but the film makers have a lot of evidence to indicate this is exactly what happened.

Whitey opens with a truly bravura moment - one of the gangsters victims recounts being attacked by him - but after this remarkable start, the film soon settles into a well worn, overly familiar groove. The corruption that the film makers sniff out is interesting, and undoubtedly in the public interest, but their recounting of it is pedestrian. Worse, by focusing the film so narrowly, we miss the opportunity to get a greater sense of this nefarious individual, his life and influence. 

This film may appeal more to an audience already familiar with the basics of the Whitey story, but in any other context it seems too slight to sustain a full feature. Not without its merits, but disappointing overall.

BLIND



Rates:  *  *  * 

Having suddenly lost her sight to a degenerative illness, middle aged, middle class school teacher Ingrid (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) has retreated from the world. Cocooned in the apartment she shares with her workaholic husband Morten (Henrik Rafaelsen), frustrated and bored, she finds escape by concocting an elaborate, internal fantasy. In this, she imagines a lonely young single mother, Elin (Vera Vitali), also struggling as her sight fails, starting an affair with Morten after they meet in an internet chat room. Slowly, the two stories start to converge as it is revealed both 'reality' and 'fantasy' contain elements of each other, and that Ingrid is not a very reliable witness.

This chilly, carefully constructed Norwegian drama has an elaborate facade, but a somewhat plodding narrative. While it is easy to feel for Ingrid, her reserved nature, and difficulty expressing herself outside of her day dreaming, makes her a hard character to fully invest in. Sporting a much livelier character, Elin's parallel plotline proves much more satisfying, aided enormously by a wonderful, heartbreaking performance from Vitali. The game way she tackles all of the obstacles life puts in front of her stands in stark contrast to Ingrid's reticence, which I suppose is the point, but this can't help but make one strand more interesting than the other.

Writer/Director Eskil Vogt has some fun wrong footing the audience, and there are some great lightbulb moments, which probably explains the (mostly) rave reviews this has received. But while there are some fine elements here, this mostly feels like a collection of good ideas that don't quite translate into a fully fledged movie.


FISH & CAT



Rates:  *  *  *

In an isolated, rural part of Iran, a group of university students converge on a lake for a relaxing weekend of camping and kite fighting. But on the property next door, strange things are afoot; menacing Babak (Babak Karimi) and his two offsiders run mysterious errands in the forest, and seem to have designs on the campers themselves...

The set up for Fish & Cat suggests a classic teen camp slasher flick but, while there are elements of this, what this movie delivers is something far stranger. For starters, the entire film is shot in one continuous take, which writer/director Shahram Mokri employs as a device to mess with the audience's sense of time and space. The character's walk carefully constructed paths that loop back on themselves, the camera shifting from one character to the other as they intersect, which dislocates the narrative and allows the action to be depicted from multiple points of view.

Which doesn't really give a sense of it. 

The techniques at use in this film probably defy concise explanation, beyond stating that they are unique, and have an almost hypnotic effect. And the first half of Fish & Cat, where the looping structure is established and a sense of dread is palpable, is very strong and completely absorbing. But this gives way to an overly talky second half, where the tension ebbs away and the repetitive nature of the film becomes tiresome. At 137 minutes, ultimately we get just too much of a good thing.

Still, the film makers clever touches mean there is a lot to enjoy here, particularly for punters who think they've seen it all.


NE ME QUITTE PAS



Rates:  *  *  *  *  1/2

Marcel and Bob are long standing friends on the edge of society. Living in a small village in rural Belgium, they pass their days in slow motion; chatting, walking in the forest and drinking vast quantities of rum. Marcel's wife leaves him for another man, Bob tentatively tries to reconnect with his twenty something son... and they both drink vast quantities of rum. 

And that's about it.

It's obvious from the above that plot is not the key element in this subtle, beautifully observed character study, a film made even more remarkable for being a documentary. Although how the film makers - Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koeverden - found their subjects is anyone's guess. At first glance there is nothing remarkable, nor even very interesting, about this average pair of Joe Nobody's.

But as the film progresses, the largely unobtrusive camera teases out hidden elements of each man's character, and reveals much about the wider society they live in. There are no great climaxes, no obvious life lessons and only a little melodrama, and yet the film only gets more engrossing, the longer it goes. Much as the main characters themselves tackle their lives, the pleasure of this movie is in many small details, and shared moments. 

A highly unusual film, with profound depths.


WHITE GOD




Rates:  *  *  *  *  1/2

Lili (Zsofia Psotta) has two fairly lousy parents; separated, her mother is off to Australia for three months with her lover, dumping her at short notice on her taciturn, emotionally withered father Daniel (Sandor Zsoter). Conflict arrives immediately in the shape of Lili's dog, a lovable mutt called Hagen, who Daniel can't stand. After one tense day, Daniel abandons Hagen on a curbside, unwittingly reproducing the act that had brought Lili to him, and making an enemy of his daughter.

But Hagen is a resourceful pooch, and makes out surprisingly well on his own; he quickly falls in with a large group of other abandoned dogs and they roam the backstreets of Budapest, scratching up a bit to eat and getting into mischief. Their adventures take a dark turn as Hagen is dragged into an underground dog fighting ring, then abandoned in a nightmarish shelter. Faced with a grim end, Hagen triggers an uprising among the other abused animals, and they turn the tables on their tormentors in a surreal and thrilling fashion.

That all of White God  serves as a fairly straightforward metaphor for what oppressors everywhere do to the oppressed, in no way detracts from the simple power of the concept. And director Kornel Mundruczo engineers ample opportunities to reinforce his message, with different variations on the same theme; parents mistreating their children, bullies mistreating gypsies, society picking on cross breed dogs. The hopeful part is the uprising bit, and the clear lesson from history that the mistreated will only tolerate what is done to them for so long.

The presentation of these ideas takes the viewer on a wide ranging journey; from the hypnotic stillness of the opening sequence to the dynamic chaos at the end. In a remarkable performance, Psotta provides a central plank binding the narrative, and much is communicated about what is happening by the fluctuating expressions on her young face. Budapest too, provides a handsome backdrop and has been ravishingly photographed.

Bold, bizarre and stylish, White God is undoubtedly one of the most original, and thought provoking, films of the year.


VIRUNGA




Rates:  *  *  *  *

Established in 1925, Virunga National Park was Africa's first National Park and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Area in 1979. Pride of the park is a population of mountain gorillas - exceedingly fragile and increasingly rare - but a wide variety of rare flora and fauna make the park their home.

Virunga is also dead centre in one of the world's trouble spots; armed militia, leftover from the Congolese and Rwandan civil wars, operate with impunity, refugees from both conflicts roam the area, and poor people of all descriptions prey on the park's animals, poaching them for black market trophies.

This earnest, frequently soaring, documentary seeks to highlight these differing influences on the park, the positive and negative, by focusing on a dedicated group of people striving to protect it. On the frontlines are the park's rangers, who go out on patrol armed to the teeth, never knowing when violent conflict will erupt (at one point, the film mentions that 130 rangers have been killed in active duty). While in the background, a hard working French journalist (Melanie Gouby) tries to uncover the corrupt efforts of British firm SOCO to mine for oil within the park's boundaries (an action prohibited by Congolese law).

While both narrative strands hit their mark, it is the ranger's that is the most compelling; many have remarkable back stories and the relationship they have built with Virunga's gorilla population is incredible to see. Some of the gorilla's simply see these men as their parents, and their playfulness and need for affection is entirely captivating. The backstory is more straightforward - corporate corruption is, sadly, no longer shocking - but the case against the multinational is well made.

A fine, well crafted documentary that sheds light on a neglected corner of the world. Find out more.



GERMAN CONCENTRATION CAMP FACTUAL SURVEY



Rates:  *  *  *  *

The naked prisoners would be looking up at the showers from which no water spouted, or perhaps at the floor wondering why there were no drains. It took some moments for the gas to have much effect. But soon the inmates became aware that it was issuing from the perforations in the vents. It was then that they usually panicked, crowding away from the pipes and finally stampeding towards the huge metal door where they piled up in one blue, clammy, blood-spattered pyramid, clawing and mauling each other even in death.

 - William L. Shirer, 'The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich'.

The holocaust is one of the most terrible events from all of human history, and one of the most extensively covered. I always wonder, just how all of the thousands of words and countless movies about this tragedy could ever hope to convey such an event. The terror, the loss, the suffering; all available mediums seem somehow inadequate, regardless of how potent they may be (and the excerpt above is from a chapter on the Final Solution, which is undoubtedly the most horrifying thing I've ever read). 

Nevertheless, it is important to remember, and in this vein comes this powerful, thoroughly shocking documentary. Filmed in 1945 as the Allies liberated camps across Germany, the footage was originally deemed too disturbing for a wide audience, particularly as America and England shifted their focus to fighting communism (in which fight they hoped to enlist as much of Germany as possible). 

Painstakingly re-assembled in the last decade by an expert team at London's Imperial War Museum, the finished product is an imperfect movie, but a telling historical document. There are scenes and images in this that will remain indelibly burned into your memory, and may haunt your dreams. The subject matter seems particularly pertinent, as other MIFF films (and the nightly news) remind us of ongoing conflicts around the world, where different groups of people find any excuse to do terrible things to each other. 

A disturbing indictment of the worst of human nature, and something well worth reflecting on.



HOUSEBOUND



Rates:  *  *  *  *

When a two-bit robbery goes amiss, rebellious Kylie (Morgana O'Reilly) finds herself sentenced to eight months house arrest with her long estranged mother. Tedium ensues; Kylie spends empty days in front of the teev, broken only by the rekindling of some long standing arguments.

Only... Kylie's mother lives in a big, creepy old house. And there are some weird noises from the far corners late at night. And Kylie's mother soon says, 'I'm not the only one who used to think this house is haunted!'

From this well worn, haunted house template springs this uproarious horror film, which neatly balances scares and plot twists with a wicked sense of humour. The first half is all sharp set up, as the characters and the creepiness are established, but the film really cuts loose in the run home, as the reveal behind all the shenanigans breaks in several unexpected directions at once. Nothing is as it seems, but everything maintains its own loopy logic, making for a story that is giddy fun but still makes sense.

The film is anchored by O'Reilly, cute and fiesty in equal measure, and she is well served by two great supporting players; Glen Paul Waru, hilarious as a security guard who fancies himself an amateur ghost buster, and especially Rima Te Wiata, flat out fabulous as Kylie's verbose, eccentric mother. 

Ultimately, the film works better as a comedy than a straight out horror flick, but both elements are well served. A deadpan comic treat.



A HARD DAY




Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

Korean homicide detective Go Geon-Soo (Lee Sun-Kyun) is having a hard day that would've tested The Beatles flippant resolve; his wife has divorced him, his mother has passed away, internal affairs have found something incriminating in his desk and he's been caught drink driving. Oh yeah, and he ran over and killed a pedestrian while driving home. His increasingly frenetic efforts to extricate himself from these jams brings him into conflict with Detective Chang-min, a hard ass who moonlights as an underworld crime kingpin.

Fast, funny and engaging, A Hard Day (originally titled Take It To The End) is reminiscent of classic genre fare like Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys, but distinguishes itself with a very warped sense of humour. Black comedy abounds in the unfolding action (witness the Python-esque demise of one of Soo's colleagues), topped with mordant digs at the hierarchical nature of Korean society.

A Hard Day knows exactly what it is, and delivers within those parameters, making for an entertaining 90 minutes. Beware the US remake, undoubtedly being hatched in some studio think tank as I write.



THE INFINITE MAN




Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

Dean (Josh McConville) is a nerdy bloke who takes his fiesty girlfriend Lana (Hannah Marshall) to the world's most unappealing hotel for their anniversary.

Dean (Josh McConville) is a technology genius who invents a time machine and then travels back in time to woo his long suffering girlfriend, Lana (Hannah Marshall), back.

Dean (Josh McConville) is an emotional wreck who has never recovered from being dumped by his girlfriend, Lana (Hannah Marshall), for another man.

Dean (Josh McConville) is an incurable romantic who spends a year in the company of his girlfriend Lana (Hannah Marshall), as they discover the depth of their feelings for each other.

Dean (Josh McConville) stands at the centre of a maelstrom of time paradoxes, largely of his own devising, but to give away any more of the plot would be to do the film a disservice. For this clever, low budget Australian flick contains a lot of surprises, and many nifty twists, as it uncoils. First time director Hugh Sullivan makes terrific use of his limited resources and is well served by his cast; McConville and Marshall, both veteran TV actors, deliver likable turns and show plenty of chemistry, while Alex Dimitrades is hilarious in a supporting role as Lana's terminally dense ex.

While the film starts to run out of steam in the final third, this is mostly a very successful exercise in modestly aimed film making. Hopefully a pointer for bigger things for all involved.



THE DIRTIES




Rates: * * * * 1/2

You've met Matt and Owen before; the picked on kids, the bullied, the outcasts, the oddballs. Talented, smart and funny, their abilities are almost totally unrecognised in a high school culture focused on popularity and sporting prowess. This dorky duo cope by leaning on each other, and taking pleasure in a self created alternative world filled with classic movies, cult TV shows and self deprecating black humour.

Both are also sustained, to varying degrees, by elaborate revenge fantasies about taking down their tormentors, the Dirties of the title. Although Matt is the more obsessed of the two; Owen really just wants to fit in, and maybe sneak a date with his dream girl classmate. As the boys drift apart, Matt's last grip on grounded reality begins to slip...

That you can see where The Dirties is headed (broadly) in no way detracts from the overall impact of this dynamic, debate inducing movie. Multi talented Matt Johnson  drives the project; writing, directing, editing, producing and starring and shines in all areas, although his indelible performance as the manic main character leaves the deepest impression. Matt's rapid fire dialogue and ludicrous ideas are funny, stupid and brilliant, all at once.

We've seen high school shooting movies before, but never quite like this. The film mines the high school misfit territory for uproarious comedy and then, at a well judged moment, shifts the tone into something much darker. A lot of ideas are percolating behind the narrative, and no little social commentary. Provocative and thrilling.



BOYHOOD



Rates: * * * * 1/2

Six year old Mason (Ellar Coltrane)  inhabits a very familiar domestic world. His parents are separated, his mother (Patrica Arquette) struggling to balance parental duties alongside her other responsibilities, his slacker dad (Ethan Hawke) popping up from time to time in his black GTO. Mason goes to school, hangs out with his friends, fights with his sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter) plays computer games, puzzles over the behaviour of the adults around him and slowly, slowly starts to grow up. In three hours, 12 years and the main character's boyhood pass, leaving him poised on the verge of adulthood by film's end.

Filmed in installments over a dozen years, director Richard Linklater's remarkable new film is a one of kind take on the classic coming of age tale. With deft segue ways between the yearly sections (effectively a collection of short movies, edited together) we watch the characters physically age and emotionally mature. While Mason's development is at the forefront, all of the main characters take us on a journey; trying new things, surviving reversals, reflecting on what has happened to them. The sense of time passing is palpable and each character's mini story believable and engaging. The four principals all shine; with two terrific performances from newcomers Coltrane and Linklater well matched with the work of Arquette and Hawke, who both have their best roles in ages.

While the film's epic length finally begins to tell towards the end (there is, perhaps, one emotional climax too many), this is undoubtedly one of the years best films and may well be this versatile director's masterpiece. A film with a lot of depth and resonance, and much re-watch value. Brilliant.


CHEATIN'



Rates: * * * *

Ella is a rare, ethereal beauty; Jake a brawny, handsome hulk. When an errant dodgem car pitches these two together they (quite literally) fly into each others arms and fly away, their lives joined and transformed into a endless, passionate embrace. Morning coffee becomes a joyous dance, love making an operatic rhapsody.

Trouble enters this happy picture when Jake suspects Ella of adultery. His woe soon gives way to anger, manifested in an epic spree of womanising, the cheatin' of the title. Ella's attempts to right the ship take in a lot of tears, a contract killer and an underground magician called The Great Merto. All works out in the end, although nothing that happens en route is at all predictable.

Bill Plympton is a legendary, one man animation studio and his latest effort bears all of his trademarks; his hand drawn images have a rough, sketchy beauty and his flights of fancy dazzle on the big screen. His grand, over-the-top approach seems excessively broad at first, but beneath the splash of the presentation beats a heart of true emotional resonance. Jake and Ella are unreal creations, but their joy and sorrow become entirely tangible, and more engaging as the film progresses. You can't help but will them back towards each other, as the film moves to its conclusion.

A surprising, funny and inventive film, the work of a true artist.


PARTICLE FEVER



Rates: * * * *

Buried beneath the border between Switzerland and France, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the one of the largest and most complex things ever built by our species; 27 kilometres long, 25 years in construction, the product of 10 000 scientists and engineers producing hundreds of thousands of individually crafted parts. The scale of this remarkable project is bigger than putting a man on the moon, and has been compared to building the pyramids. The stakes are high, as some of the planets best minds hope the LHC may be able to unlock the fundamental mysteries of science; the origin and fate of the universe, the nature of matter, why everything around us is like it is.

This assured documentary takes us inside the LHC, starting with a light touch (but thrilling) general history of particle science, before focusing on some of the genius' who will put the machine to use. It's probably to be expected that the featured scientists are a little eccentric, but this doesn't detract from the goofy pleasure of spending time with them; a staff hip hop band that raps about the big bang, two physicists from Princeton who understand everything in their field but can't work out a simple piece of public art. The last stage of the movie captures the moment the LHC is finally turned on - something the more hysterical press had warned may cause Armageddon - which stands as a time capsule for this historic moment.

While the presentation of Particle Fever is straightforward, it is very well put together and is particularly successful in breaking complex ideas down into digestible portions. The subject matter is fascinating and the sense of standing at an important moment, on the verge of great discovery, is perfectly captured. Rich food for thought.


PREDESTINATION



Rates: * *

Boston 1975: In a parallel dimension, a lone wolf psycho terrorises the city with a series of seemingly random bombings, killing thousands. In dogged, if inept, pursuit is Temporal Agent Miles (Ethan Hawke), a hard bitten film noir cop with a time travelling violin case. Crossing his path at a key moment is John Doe (Sarah Snook), a tough minded misfit with a bizarre backstory.

And really, the violin case is just the beginning, as this loopy film sheds any semblance of credibility in the opening minute and, in place of this, substitutes an endless bombardment of silly characters, scenes and dialogue. Suffice to say that the thumbnail sketch of the plot above gives the merest hint of what is to come, as space travel, gender reassignment, manifest destiny, true love, time paradoxes and the nature of good and evil are all given a dizzy spin.

Through it all, Hawke does a good job of keeping his character on an earnest middle course, although I was less taken with co-lead Snook's turn than others have been ('brilliant' is the early word from elsewhere). Snook's character goes on a long, emotive, wildly improbable journey, and this sums up how I found her performance; captivating at times, unconvincing at others, uneven overall. She certainly tries hard, as do the creative duo behind the film; Brisbane writer/directors Michael and Peter Spierig (identical twin brothers) throw everything they've got at this, some of which works, a lot of which doesn't. There's no shortage of enthusiasm though, and it's hard to be too tough on a movie where the principle villain is given a name like 'Fizzle Bomber.'

Beware the Fizzle Bomber! I'm hoping to see that on the poster, when this comes to the multiplex.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Review: The Great Beauty


Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, the city of yearning.

                                         - Giotto Di Dondone (1266 - 1337)





Rates:  *  *  *  *  1/2

Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) has reached a milestone; he's just turned 65. To celebrate he throws a lavish, rooftop party, an act very much in keeping with his character. Jep is garrulous, verbose, a bon vivant and something of a scoundrel, the sort of character that defies simple adjectives. 

He's also a Roman, in that he has lived most of his life in the eternal city and has been shaped, and even defined, by it. Rome is depicted here as a city rich in culture; of food, language, art, conversation and history, all things close to Jep's guarded heart. 

Arriving in Rome in his early twenties, Jep quickly established himself as an author, publishing a classic work of melancholy romantic fiction. And then, just as quickly, abandoned serious literature live it up, making good money through journalism but devoting most of his energy to carousing. As he puts it, 'I didn't just want to live the high life, I wanted to be the king of the high life.'

A post he attained early and maintained, through four decades.




Now, with the end much closer than the beginning, Jep takes stock. While still drinking, dancing, talking, arguing and loving his way through an endless series of short days and long nights, he also finds moments to ponder the meaning of it all. Away from the crowds and the bustle, he walks along the Rhone, goes to art galleries, seeks out old friends, thinks about things long forgotten.

Jep is a restless man, easily distracted, contrary and contentious. And this episodic film is designed to reflect his character.

It's no surprise to learn that Jep never married and never seriously considered settling down. While this is presented initially as a lifestyle choice, it is subsequently revealed as also a bare necessity; he is a difficult person to be close to, and occasionally turns on even members of his closest circle with brute savagery.




But he can also be warm and generous, evidenced by the gentle relationship he strikes up with a middle aged stripper. And the romantic streak alluded to in his long ago first novel still surfaces, particularly when he reflects on the girl, now deceased, who inspired him to write it. These feelings, it seems, were subsumed, but never entirely repressed.

Ultimately though, Jep seems most at home with his own company; wandering the streets, absorbing the wonders that life has to offer. And these are many and varied. While the film has an almost elegiac tone at times, it also delivers marvels; a giraffe standing in an abandoned piazza, a flock of storks on a balcony at dawn, a famous art gallery explored by candlelight.




Jep ends his odyssey thinking about death, knowing his own isn't much further away. He reflects via voice over, 'This is how it always ends, with death. But first there was life, hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah...' It's a cryptic ending, to a film wide open to interpretation; is he saying that as his life was full, his death becomes insignificant? Or just the opposite, that the commotion of his life really just disguised the emptiness that he now has to face. 

One of the pleasures of this brilliant film will be puzzling over questions like these, for some years to come.

Italian director Paolo Sorrentino scored two years ago with This Must Be the Place, a quirky road movie featuring Sean Penn as reclusive musician known only as Cheyenne. And there are a number of associations between this earlier film and The Great Beauty; both are composed of a series of vignettes, instead of a conventional plot, and both centre on characters conducting a review of their lives.

Both Cheyenne and Jep are seekers; the former for his estranged father who he hasn't seen for many years, the latter for a connection of any sort that cuts through his cynicism and stirs his emotions. But while the characters share similarities, Sorrentino has also diverged and matured in his approach, now offering a film that is deeply linked to some of the great works of Italian cinema. There is much here that is indebted to Fellini and Minnelli, among many other masters.




There is also humour, amidst the reflections and pathos, some of it surprisingly broad. Sorrentino takes particular aim at the contemporary art world, where Jep works as a critic, and depicts the film's artists as a pack of shallow, pretentious charlatans, more concerned with maintaining their image than producing anything enduring. And there are also pointed potshots at organised religion, gender politics and Gen Y. While most of this is funny, some is just plain silly, or simply over-exaggerated, and so provides some of the film's few week spots.

Mostly though, this is an intoxicating, enchanting mix. A film that switches emotional modes rapidly and then nails them, one after the other. The funny parts are (mostly) funny, the thought provoking elements make you think, the silent stretches of contemplation are simply stunning.




Tying the disparate elements together is Servillo, a veteran actor who has always worked at home. His performance here is charismatic, charming, abrasive and always surprising. You keep waiting, expectantly, to see what the actor and the film throw up for you next, and you are rarely disappointed. There is so much going on here on different levels that it's really quite difficult to describe in a few paragraphs.

So we'll abandon that project right now, and end by saying that this is a film that is for anyone who has ever been interested in anything, who has ever loved, and who has ever had doubts. Which is a clumsy way of saying it has a universal message. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Movie Stars That Had Early Career Bit Parts on TV


Starting out, most actors will take any sort of assignment. Commercials, info-mercials, dinner theatre, whatever. For an up and comer then, a small part in a popular TV show is a comparatively prestigious gig, bringing with it immediate exposure to a large audience. These early credits are then often forgotten, if and when the actor makes it to the big time.

Here are 5 Hollywood stars who took an early bow on the small screen:



TIM ROBBINS

Fremmer in Moonlighting




When I was in primary school, this romantic-comedy-detective show was my favourite thing on TV, although it's nowadays best remembered as the vehicle that set Bruce Willis on the road to mega stardom. But it also provided an early career moment for another young actor. In the first episode of Season 1, Gunfight at the So-So Corral, the first character onscreen is Fremmer, a young wannabe hitman played by a fluffy haired, 27 year old Tim Robbins. Something of a TV veteran, there were bit parts in The Love Boat and Hill Street Blues before Moonlighting came along, Robbins tackles his part with gusto and his role here is memorably... goofy. His fight with an aging, top shelf hitman is a masterpiece of unintentionally silly slapstick, and the look on his face as he tries to get away is gormless enough to have come out of The Hudsucker Proxy. You can watch it here.






JENNIFER LAWRENCE


Mascot in Monk





Oscar winner, arthouse darling and tentpole franchise mainstay, Jennifer Lawrence is the girl that can do no wrong. With legions of fans and a queue of well credentialed directors lining up to sing her praises, it's almost hard to believe that her first credit on IMDB dates only from 2006. And, even more astounding, is such a minor part that her character doesn't even have a name! Who could treat J-Law in such a way? Unthinkable!! But there it is; in this episode from Season 5 of Tony Shalhoub's quirky detective series, Mr Monk and The Big Game, the girl wonder dons a bear suit and jumps around on the sidelines of a high school basketball game, before briefly pulling her head off to talk to the coach. Will wonders never cease? The scene is here.






BEN STILLER


Fast Eddie Felcher in Miami Vice




For me, Ben Stiller seems like such a product of the 90's that it's sometimes difficult to imagine his existence prior to Reality Bites. And yet, here he is in one of the previous decades most iconic shows, giving a high octane speed rap to a white suited Detective Crockett in Miami Vice. But, in this, Stiller definitely wasn't alone, as MV gave an early credit to a staggering number of Hollywood's biggest names, including Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, Liam Neeson and (very hard to imagine)... Helena Bonham Carter? Find a full list of the Vice's prominent guest stars here, and Stiller's motor-mouthed effort here.




EMMA STONE

Cynthia McAllister on Medium





And now for something... a bit icky. Rising star Emma Stone has made a name for herself playing a series of smart, hip, sassy young women in popular movies like Easy A and The Amazing Spider Man. But her first prominent role was on TV in the suburban psychic drama Medium, playing an altogether different sort of character. She even had a different name; born Emily Stone, she decided to take a stage name as the Screen Actor's Guild already had someone with this handle. She initially chose Riley Stone, which is how she is credited on Medium, before settling on Emma, a nickname her mother had for her when she was a child. As for the ickiness? Riley Stone plays Cynthia McAllister, a troubled young woman who has been bullied into an incestuous relationship with her father, a disturbing plot that you can get a snapshot of here.






HARRISON FORD

Beach Patrol Cop in The Mod Squad





As a movie star, Harrison Ford has been in some of the biggest, most successful films ever made. And, before that, he served a lengthy apprenticeship playing bit parts in B movies and TV serials, of varying quality. One of the bigger TV shows he was in (a list that includes Ironside, Gunsmoke and Kung Fu), he played a cop in the very first episode of this time capsule action drama, a role so tiny that he wasn't even credited. But there he is: Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Deckard, learning his chops on the beach patrol. And while I couldn't find an actual clip of this moment from the show, for a giddy Harrison Ford experience check out his even earlier cameo in The Great Escape here.