Friday, January 31, 2014

Review: Dallas Buyers Club

Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

Ron Woodruff (Mathew McConaughey) lives life in the moment.

On the outskirts of Dallas he scratches out a meager, but seemingly satisfying, existence. He works as a casual electrician, lives in a run down mobile home, hustles up a few extra bucks from the rodeo and consumes a cornucopia of toxic substances for fun. He's a genial character for the most part, but also sports a short temper and deeply ingrained homophobia, traits shared by most of the pack he runs with.

Ron also sleeps around and, as he lives in the mid 1980's, this puts him in the path of a mysterious new illness. AIDS has come to America and the crushing effects of this incurable disease are only just starting to be felt. Ron and his friends read about AIDS in the local paper, but consider themselves far removed from any reality where this disease could manifest itself. There is no place for AIDS in staunchly conservative, staunchly heterosexual, middle America.

So when a work accident lands Ron in hospital, he is shocked beyond shock to be told that a routine blood test has revealed he has this terrifying affliction. The doctor tells him (ridiculously callously, so setting up his role as one of the movie's villains) that there is no cure, no available treatment and that he has 30 days to live.

Sentenced to death, Ron passes through various emotional stages in the ensuing days; denial, anger, frustration, despair. And finally hope, when he hears about an experimental treatment for AIDS, the drug AZT. But AZT is not approved for general consumption - it's confined to tightly controlled test groups - and when Ron's efforts to find a regular supply are thwarted, he begins to explore more unorthodox options.

His research takes him to Mexico, Japan, Europe and anywhere else he can find any sort of substance that may prolong his life. He starts shipping these exotic compounds back to the States and selling them on to other sick, desperate people who have run out of options. To circumvent US legal restrictions, Ron sets up the Club of the title, so that what he is actually selling is membership, not meds. The hook is that many of his customers are gay, which forces Ron to confront his prejudices...

... and you can probably guess the rest. Ron learns a few things and becomes a better, broader person, there's some heartache and the Government and Big Pharma are cast in a poor light before a suitably downbeat ending. Groundbreaking this movie ain't.

But what it is, is a vehicle for its star, and Mathew McConaughey has earnt all of the raves and awards that he has accumulated to date. His lead performance here is nothing other than incandescent, lighting up every scene he appears in (most of them) with seemingly effortless brilliance.

Ron Woodruff is a charismatic, flamboyant character, and a drawling Southerner to boot, and so any portrayal of him risks the imprint of caricature. But McConaughey avoids this and simply seems to inhabit his skin, so entirely convincing that you forget you are watching a performance at all. The character he creates is equal parts bluster, bonhomie and bigot, with these different facets appearing at unexpected, and often inappropriate, times. The humanity of this combination is entirely compelling.

But McConaughey is so good, that the rest of the movie almost suffers by comparison.

After a nicely textured opening - Ron's life and world are deftly sketched in a few scenes - the film's style soon settles to earnest afternoon TV melodrama. The simple story is set in motion and then gently left to unwind by rote. You've got the boo-hiss villains (the aforementioned doctor and a gormless, mustachioed twit from the Federal Drug Administration), the cute and kindly lady doctor (a mediocre Jennifer Garner) and some representatives from Dallas' gay underground (all variations on some well worn stereotypes).

One of these is Rayon, a transvestite portrayed by Jared Leto, who has received some raves and an Oscar nomination for his efforts. While Leto's performance is sincere, and shows some craft, the character he plays is really no more that a campy cliche, replete with squeaky voice and overblown emotions. It's a flashy part, but empty. As a foil for Ron, this could only be a disappointment.

The film puts its characters into conflict and seems to want to make some points about the ills of society; individual rights stifled by bureaucracy, the power of money to buy influence, the deadly toll of prejudice. But ultimately, these issues are only dealt with in a superficial way, and none of this simplistic moralising has any real resonance.

Which doesn't really matter, as long as Ron/McConaughey is readily on hand.

DBC is an entertaining, middle ground movie with one very obvious standout. Catching the central performance is the reason to see this film, and it is well worth it. McConaughey has ound form late in his career and is at the very height of his powers here. You wonder what else he is capable of, while you wonder at his portrayal. Anything else that take away from this will be a bit of a bonus.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Rates:  *  *  * 

Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a character you've met before. He's young, brash and driven entirely by the pursuit of money. Even if you haven't met him in real life, then you'd certainly know him from countless movies and TV shows, where his type is often used to drive plots and score points about the rotten-ness of modern, American style, capitalism.

Jordan Belfort is an archetype: The wide eyed nobody in pursuit of the American dream.

At the start of this movie, Belfort lands an entry level job for a big Wall Street firm in the mid eighties. You know he's a bit green because he rides the bus to work and is polite to his managers, most of whom treat him like an exceptionally foul piece of garbage. The lone exception is eccentric broker Mark Hannah (an electric Matthew McConaughey) who takes the youngster under his wing and teaches him a few things about life in the fast lane (none of which would be fit for discussion in polite company).

Belfort is quickly hooked.

He thrives on the hustle and adrenalin of the financial markets and aggressively works his way up to a trading spot. And then... October 19, 1987. Black Monday; collapse, ignominy, disgrace. Our hero barely has a chance to start abusing his own underlings before the firm he works for goes under and he is swept back to the suburbs.

Starting over, Belfort takes a job at the very bottom of the financial food chain, trading penny stocks (stocks for companies that are too small to list on the stock market) for a tiny firm that operates in a strip mall. But his brief tenure on Wall Street has served him well. His polished sales pitch and relentless approach soon enables him to turn this crummy position into a lucrative money spinner. Never mind that the stocks he trades are, essentially, worthless.

Belfort does so well that he is soon able to break out on his own. He starts his own firm and takes, for his initial batch of traders, a loose collection of some of his old high school friends, who look and act like the cast of Dazed and Confused ten years on. Conventional money industry people they are not. But Belfort is able to coach, bully, cajole and bribe them into following his sales script and, within another short space of time, has them all fleecing the suckers, right alongside him.

The firm, given the grand sounding name of Stratton Oakmont, expands and expands again. It's a bona fide American success story... only with hookers and cocaine. Although, come to think of it, what could be more American than these things? Only money, and Stratton Oakmont is awash with that as well.

As the millions roll in, Belfort and his friends kick start a kind of never ending, competitive, workplace party. As well as prostitutes, and more and varied types of drugs, there are also dwarves, marching bands, animals, fist fights, a river of booze, vomit and every type of public embarrassment you could ever imagine. Brokers who can hack the pace, and survive the lifestyle, make a lot of money, and most of the firm's clients do not.

Belfort leads the charge, adopting the most outrageous tactics at work and play, outdoing everyone in his consumption of everything. He buys mansions, fancy cars, an enormous yacht and a helicopter and trades in his plain Jane wife for a supermodel babe in the time it takes to listen to one line of voice over. He indulges his appetites so outrageously that you start to feel a bit hungover and tired on his behalf.

The outcome of all of this chaos is predictable. The authorities eventually move in, shut down the firm and make a few arrests (Belfort spends 22 months in jail for insider trading). They turn off the music and tell everyone to go home. A brief epilogue makes it clear that Belfort has learned nothing from what has happened to him and, in the final scene, even seems to indicate that he's still out there somewhere, planning his comeback...

To say that The Wolf of Wall Street is over the top is to show considerably more restraint than any of the characters depicted. This is a story of excess. And excess on top of excess.

Director Marty Scorsese has shown us this type of character, and similar stories, before. A lot of pundits have drawn a comparison between this movie and his 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas, and there is some validity in placing them alongside one another. The arc of the central characters - young innocent thrives in a shifty environment, success goes to his head, ends up losing everything - is the same in both, and the underlying message of each movie - the darkness that shadows much of the glitter of America - is also similar.

But where Goodfellas is a rapier, this movie is a bludgeon. Or, like a truckload of bludgeons being dynamited and driven off a cliff. TWoWS is long on style, like all of the director's films, but short on subtlety. It is also about half an hour longer than Goodfellas, which is telling when the narrative is set across about one fifth of the time. Excess seems to be at play not just on screen, but behind the scenes.

That being said, there's plenty here to distract your attention.

Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a memorable performance as the hyperactive, amoral narrator and even manages to imbue a little charm into someone who, by any objective analysis, should be totally reprehensible. He is well backed by a game supporting cast, who cut loose as the movie requires. Jonah Hill is hilarious, if a bit one note, as Belfort's right hand man and fellow traveler, and there are nice turns from Rob Reiner as Belfort's father and Margot Robbie as his trashy wife.

The production design, sets and costumes are all what you would expect from a top shelf director like Scorsese, who also shows he still knows his way around a set piece. And there are laughs to be had throughout, particularly crazed scenes involving delayed reaction Quaaludes and much funny dialogue. In fact, the movie works best when it plays as a black comedy, and isn't stretching for anything else. It's difficult to know what you could take away from this, besides a few belly laughs, in any case.

And this may indicate what keeps this movie from really making much of an impression. If your film is about shallow, narcissistic people, perhaps there is no way you can make a wholly satisfying film about them. The end result is as hollow as the lifestyles depicted.

So while TWoWS is technically slick and a bit of nasty fun, the experience of watching it is an empty one. Even numbing. And three hours of this is a lot to take.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review: 12 Years a Slave

Rates:  *  *  *  *

Pre civil war America was a country sharply divided. A cluster of wealthy, industrialised Yankee states in the North, where black Americans lived free, sharply contrasted with a sprawling collection of impoverished, agricultural Dixie states in the south.

This part of history is familiar to nearly everyone.

But what can be forgotten, with the end of the civil war nearly 150 years in the past, is just how stark the line between these two versions of the United States was. And the specifics of this division is what this coruscating drama, based on a real life memoir of the same name, serves to remind us of.

Solomon Northup (Chitwetel Ejiofor) lives a comfortable, middle class life in New York in the 1840's. He's a successful violinist, happily married with two kids and a modest house in the suburbs. Solomon is a cultured man, intelligent, well traveled and well spoken. As a black man, he is also a target.

When Solomon's wife goes away for a stretch of work, he takes a temporary job providing musical accompaniment for a travelling circus. At the end of a successful run, two of Solomon's fellow performers, white dandy's both, take him out for a lavish, celebratory meal. Solomon drinks too much, passes out and wakes up in a basement in chains, having apparently been given up and sold as a runaway slave by his dinner companions.

Imprisoned, beaten and humiliated, Solomon's old life is erased in an instant as he is smuggled by boat into the deep south and sold in a slave market in New Orleans. His protests are either ignored or met with violence. A fellow 'slave' warns him to keep his head down and not to let on that he is educated, lest he provoke further retribution. A different black kidnappee is stabbed to death when he tries to prevent a white overseer raping his wife.

The brutal suddenness of Solomon's kidnapping is utterly shocking. A metaphoric slap in the face, to match the literal ones the character faces on screen. In a moment he is transported from comfort, love and safety to an ugly, unforgiving place, where none of the rules he is familiar with apply.

Although Solomon is almost fortunate, when he lands in the south, in that he is initially sold to a relatively benign master, Mr Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford treats his slaves gently and allows Solomon to display some of his talents as an engineer and musician. But circumstance soon forces Solomon to the cotton plantation of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a violent and unpredictable man.

Epps swaggers about his holdings like a drunken tyrant, frothing at the mouth and whipping and abusing his slaves at will. At times, his torments take a more surreal turn, as when he regularly forces them out of bed in the middle of the night to dance in his dining room. Epps also has a perverse fascination with one of his slave girls, Patsey, who attracts his lust and the worst of his sadism in equal measure.

Solomon and Epps do not get along and the master threatens to kill his slave several times, always for trivial reasons. Or, for no obvious reason at all. Solomon, and all of his fellow slaves, are depicted as never more than one moment, one mis-step, away from arbitrary execution. Their lives hang in the balance every hour of every day and they do all they can to keep their heads down, to make themselves as invisible as possible while carrying out their onerous tasks.

A truly impossible assignment.

British director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) has already forged a reputation for making uncompromising drama out of characters in desperate circumstances, and his latest movie is every bit as good as his previous efforts. His depiction of the slave era south is unforgettable; stunning, vivid, horrifying and even, at times, quite beautiful. There is a depth to his vision that makes this historical era feel like a real place and the scenarios the characters face are entirely convincing. An indicator of how well this story has been realised is the relentless tension that accumulates throughout; after two hours I had to pry myself out of my seat and rub my eyes, almost in a daze.

In the lead role, veteran actor Ejiofor gives the performance of a lifetime. His handsomely open face, gentle nature and innate decency immediately engender sympathy, which makes witnessing his ordeal all the more difficult. Similarly, when the robust character of the opening scenes gives way to the shell shocked survivor of the second half - as the horrors mount up, Ejiofor adopts an open mouthed look of abject terror that never alters - the breaking down of his personality is heartbreaking to watch. By the time he is freed, Solomon wears the look of a man who will never unsee the things he has seen, permanently altered by the unbearable burden of his memories.

The large, talented cast give Ejiofor strong backing. McQueen muse Fassbender is in top form as an unbalanced man with few redeeming qualities, while film newcomer Lupita Nyong'o makes an indelible impression as the tragic Patsey. The terrible treatment she endures from nearly everyone, and her begging Solomon to kill her as her only escape, are among the most difficult scenes to watch, in a very difficult movie.

There are times when 12 Years a Slave sacrifices subtlety for impact (the overuse of closeups in some scenes, Hans Zimmer's bludgeoning score in others) but mostly this is a slave movie unlike any we've seen before. While the viciousness of slave life has been depicted many times on screen, it is doubtful that any of these earlier efforts carries the same crushing weight as this.

This is, simply, a wrenching movie experience. Something that you survive. Something that you will think about for a long time afterwards. Like a holocaust movie, only set in America. While the film is not a happy one, it is undoubtedly a positive thing that it be seen and discussed and will, quite rightly, form part of the ongoing debate regarding race and racism, in America and around the world.


Saturday, January 18, 2014

Review: Her

Rates:  *  *  *  *

In the near future, humans and computers have developed a near symbiotic relationship.

Future people have their home system, their laptop and their portable i-Style devices same as us, but these different elements have been woven into one amorphous whole, in a way that is still out of our reach. One operating system runs everything in your personal network, and all of the electronic gadgets that you use during the day, including your work station, are overseen by this disembodied electronic PA.

Future people are effectively connected to this network 24 hours a day, and nearly everything they do links to it in some fashion.

Future people also have a predilection for bright shirts and dorkily high, beltless pants.

This is the background presented to us in the new Spike Jonze film her, a nearly un-categorisable movie that blends romance, comedy, drama and sci-fi elements.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a likable sad sack knocked about by a recent divorce. While most of the components of his life seem in place - nice apartment in a modern filing cabinet, steady job writing personal letters on behalf of clients, wardrobe of pastel shirts and tweed slacks - Theodore is a reserved, insular man and very lonely.

But when he purchases the latest version of an operating system for his personal network, he gets more than he bargained for. His new OS comes with an artificial personality; a programmed but infinitely adaptable system that learns from everything it experiences and develops its character in consequence, much as humans do (and evil computers do in other films, shortly before they decide to destroy humanity).

Dubbing itself Samantha, the OS and Theodore quickly move beyond checking emails and scheduling appointments and begin to develop a genuine friendship. They talk constantly and explore the city together (Theodore wears an ear piece and carries a small digital camera, so Samantha can see and hear) and the effect they have on one another is pronounced. Theodore's sense of fun and optimism returns, after a glum hiatus, while Samantha develops and matures exponentially.

Even though one member of the duo is a disembodied computer program, their relationship makes perfect, logical sense.

That the two characters then fall in love shows the kind of risks Jonze is willing to take, and what makes him such an exciting film maker. In terms of mis-matched, odd couple lovers this would have to rank at the pointy end of any analysis of this plot device from film history.

Theodore and Samantha go on dates, coo at each other and even (inventively) have sex. They sometimes argue and annoy each other, but they also talk, work things out, find a way to overcome the things that come between them. And so, they are like every other couple that has lasted more than 5 minutes in each other's company, in movies and in the real world.

Despite the unusual nature of the relationship, their ups and downs feel very real and carry emotional weight. As a viewer, you wish them well, hope they make it, but can't shake the feeling that something will go amiss. That the rules of movie narrative, and life, almost demand that things will not end as happily as everyone hopes they will.

There's a wonderful, though melancholy, sequence early in the film where Theodore tells Samantha about the end of his marriage. How he and his wife grew together and changed and explored and that this was exciting... and that it was these same factors that also ended up pushing them apart. That they changed too much and no longer fit together. Without giving away too much of the plot, this serves as a marker of how the story plays out, and the bittersweet tone behind the events on screen.

Writing, as well as directing, for the first time, Spike Jonze has created perhaps his most complete movie to date. The manic energy of his first two - brilliant - films (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) has dissipated, replaced by a mature, reflective tone. While this was also present in his last film, Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze has created a much more fully developed narrative this time round.

The world that his characters inhabit in her is vividly realised (praise is deserved here for the production design team) and, while ravishing to look at, is entirely convincing. Similarly, his characters are written in a subtle, sophisticated way, that allows them space to move and breathe, to be unpredictable in the way real people are.

He is greatly aided in this by some fine acting, particularly Joaquin Phoenix in a change of pace role. Centre stage for nearly the whole film, Phoenix maintains just the right tone from start to finish and shatters the perception that he is only suited to playing angry weirdos. He is well backed by Amy Adams, who shines in a smallish part as Theodore's best friend and neighbour.

The other main player, the operating system, is voiced by Scarlett Johannson, who gives a slightly one-note performance (interestingly she replaced original cast member Samantha Morton, when Jonze was unsatisfied with this aspect of the shoot. Morton remains credited as an associate producer). There are also times when the story wanders a little, and the running time (more than two hours) is probably a little longer than is necessary.

But these are minor quibbles.

Funny, well observed and moving,  her  transcends the novelty items in the plot and emerges as an affecting look at the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. It makes its points about how humanity's interaction with technology is evolving early, and then switches gears to show us how, even in an altered future, the things that we will have to deal with are much the same as they are now. And much the same as they always have been. The more things change, the more they remain, fundamentally, the same.

A bold, intelligent movie, as fearless as its principle characters prove to be. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: Philomena

Rates:  *  *  *

In mid twentieth century Ireland, a terrible fate awaited unlucky Catholic girls who found themselves unmarried and knocked up. Disowned by their conservative families, they were effectively imprisoned in convents, forced to work at grueling manual labour while their infants were put up for adoption. Often the parents would tell friends and family that the girl had died.

Such was the fate of Philomena Lee (well played in her youth by Sophie Kennedy Clarke), whose one night stand eventually leads her to disgrace and captivity in one of these cruel institutions (territory which has been covered by the movies before, most notably 2002’s harrowing The Magdalene Sisters). At age three, her son is adopted away and she is forced to work four more years scrubbing sheets in a hellish laundry before being sent on her way to start over.

The story picks up many years later when Philomena, now elderly (and played by Judy Dench), is trying to find her missing son. She has been stymied by the church – they tell her all their adoption records have been destroyed in a fire – and the local Government seems disinterested. Philomena’s daughter then meets the recently sacked (and somewhat disgraced) spin doctor and former journalist Mark Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) and tries to get him engaged in her mother’s plight. Initially dismissive (Sixsmith tells her that human interest stories are for cretins), his lack of career options make him reconsider and the promise of an expense account from a magazine editor make him positively enthusiastic.

Mark is soon on the case, the trail leading Philomena and Mark from rural Ireland to America and some gentle road movie adventure.

Steve Coogan produced and co-scripted this adaptation of the real life Mark Sixsmith’s 2009 non-fiction book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, and he clearly saw in the author a plum role for himself. And Coogan is fine, in an uncharacteristically subdued role, nicely capturing the prickly superiority, but underlying decency, of this frustrated career-man.

But Coogan’s underplaying, while mostly effective, also stands as an indicator of what I found unsatisfying about this movie. It’s a very… restrained piece. Emotions are largely kept in check, people’s responses are modulated, voices are rarely raised. As one of the test pilots wives put it in The Right Stuff, ‘Everyone’s always maintaining an even strain.’

The character of Philomena is even more problematic. As well as keeping her emotions largely out of sight, save for the odd tear, there’s something inconsistent about the way she’s been written. At times she’s a verbose chatterbox, playing to stereotypes for both the Irish and the elderly, and at others she offers mostly silence pierced with an occasional pointed remark. Similarly, she’s at one moment depicted as so unworldly that a modern five star hotel makes her giddy (Chocolates! Buffet breakfast! Pillows!) and in the next as so sophisticated that she doesn’t turn a hair talking sexuality with complete strangers.

Dench’s performance is solid, and a welcome change from the iron lady she’s played in the Bond films lately, but I couldn’t help but wonder if she was the right person for this part. Her Irish accent comes and goes somewhat, and there is little chemistry between her and Coogan, a serious problem in an odd-couple movie like this one.

Her story ark also steadfastly refuses to give the audience an emotional payoff.

Despite all the terrible things that were done to her, Philomena never questions her faith, nor shows much sign that she feels anger, or even frustration, towards the nuns and the church. Just the opposite, in fact, as she chastises Sixsmith for getting angry on her behalf. Even when, at the end of the movie,  she is confronted with a nun who not only tormented her when she was younger, but also deliberately kept her grown up son from finding her before he died, she just turns away and moves on, with barely a word of recrimination.

While I imagine that this ending is true to the source material (they surely would've used a more rousing one if it were available), it does give the film a rather muted conclusion. Which is, I suppose, in keeping with the overall tone.

Philomena is an inoffensive drama with good intentions and good people involved. It is well made and gives earnest attention to a very serious subject. But it’s hard not to feel that more could have been made from the remarkable personal journey the central character experienced. By keeping the tone so resolutely low key, the writers and director (British veteran Stephen Frears) make this story less engaging than it could have been, with an equal reduction in the films emotional impact.

Solid but disappointing, overall.  

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review: Battle of the Sexes

Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

America in the late 60's saw global super power fallen on hard times; embroiled in a war in Vietnam, the economy crippled by oil shocks and one of their most notoriously evil Presidents overseeing it all in the White House.

So a good question for us might be: have things improved in the four decades since? The US is still embroiled in foreign conflicts and their economy is still a basket case. At least they have a better President now.

Another slant on this same question is the driving force behind this entertaining, pseudo-sports documentary; has the lot of women in America improved since the dawn of the modern feminist movement in the sixties?

Based on the evidence presented here the answer seems to be, 'Yeeeeessss... but.'

The film tackles this subject through an unusual prism: the founding of a professional tennis circuit for women and subsequent novelty challenge matches that were staged between leading women’s tennis players of the day, and an aging, loudly sexist, former men’s tennis champ. The sporting elements are then deftly set alongside the story of the fledgling women’s rights movement from the same era, showing how they were both facets of the same cultural moment.

Once women felt empowered to speak up for themselves, change came to every aspect of society where women were involved i.e. absolutely everywhere. Tennis was just one area that underwent radical change. The film energetically sets up both scenarios and links them together through some judicious editing and framing material.

The film opens in 1967, the last year tennis was played on an amateur basis. The sport was totally unrecognisable from the multi-billion dollar TV extravaganza that it is today. The leading players were low key athletes with little media profile and, outside of the US Open and Wimbledon, little attention was paid to them.

Professionalism arrived in 1968 and with it came greater financial rewards and a higher profile. From the outset, women were paid much less than their male colleagues (at Wimbledon in 1968, the men’s singles winner received 2000 pounds and the women’s 750 pounds) and were generally treated as second class citizens. The film explains this as in keeping with the standards of the day; commercials, TV clips and sound bites are shown that depict women in a limited, stereotypical fashion, cooking, cleaning, mothering and mostly treated like cattle.

As famous feminist activists like Susan Sondheim stood up for themselves in public, leading female tennis players of the time were inspired to demand equitable treatment as well. They organised their own breakaway tennis tour, risking their careers (bans were threatened) and played wherever they could find sponsors and a crowd. The success of this radical venture paved the way for all of the treasure that was to flow into women's tennis in the ensuing decades.

Enter Bobby Riggs.

Riggs was a 55 year old former tennis champ – he had twice won Wimbledon in his heyday – fallen on hard times. As professional women’s tennis began to blossom, Riggs reinvented himself as an outspoken 'male chauvinist pig' and challenged the top women's players to an exhibition match. When he played, and unexpectedly defeated, Australian champ Margaret Court, Riggs was able to drum up an enormous amount of media interest and dough, which he used to set up a second match.

Second time round, Riggs faced off against Billy Jean King, a top shelf American player who had also helped champion the breakaway professional women’s tour (something Court had not been involved in). Billed as ‘The Battle of the Sexes,’ the match was depicted as a cultural, as well as sporting, clash; feminism versus chauvinism, traditional values against contemporary ideas, the old against the new. Interest in the match was such that it had to be played in a football stadium to accommodate the crowd, and an estimated 90 million people watched on TV (making it the most watched tennis match in the history of the sport).

The second half of the movie focuses on this match, its protracted build up and aftermath and it is here that it most closely resembles a traditional sports doco. This part of the film is broadly entertaining, with King’s earnest professionalism and Rigg’s goofy bafoonery in stark contrast.

But the film makers never lose sight of the themes they establish in the opening half of the film, and find inventive ways to connect the dots between their keys points even as some iffy tennis re-enactments take over onscreen.

Riggs is a ridiculous symbol of something very ugly in society, but he is a symbol all the same and some of the film’s most telling moments come as his defenders (male and female) voice their support for his offensive pronouncements. And King’s victory, while a watershed moment for women’s sports, is also clearly positioned as just one small battle, among a much wider equal rights war (one that continues to this day).

Maintaining an entertaining tone and light touch from start to finish, this fascinating movie manages to be generally entertaining but still nail its targets. It’s thoughtful and thought provoking in equal measure, a skillful balance beyond the capabilities of many films. The presentation is not ground breaking – in fact, it is another example of what we have to come to expect from a contemporary doco – but is well handled and tightly packaged.

A top shelf piece of cultural commentary and a fun (if occasionally horrifying) time capsule.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Rates:  *  *

Scenario 1

Walter: When I was younger, I used to work at Papa John’s.

Other Guy: What’s that?

Walter: Oh, it’s like a pizza joint. Awesome pizza!

Other Guy: I like pizza!

Walter: Yeah!

Other Guy: What’s it called again?

Walter: Papa John’s.

Other Guy: Papa John’s?

Walter: Papa John’s.

Other Guy: Papa John’s… Okay. I might try it next time I’m out and about. Papa John’s!

Walter: Papa John's.

Scenario 2

Walter: Yeah hi, I’m trying to use my eHarmony Super Awesome Dating Account, but I’ve got a problem.

eHarmony Worker: What’s your problem beautiful?

Walter: It’s so awesome I can hardly believe it!

eHarmony Worker: A-ha ha ha ha ha!!!

Walter: A-ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!

eHarmony Worker: That’s funny. You’re really funny! And wonderful. All of our customers are wonderful!!

Walter: You really make me feel good about myself.

eHarmony Worker: You should feel good about yourself. Because you’re just super awesome.

Walter: That’s why I opened the account!

eHarmony Worker: A-ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!

Walter:  A-ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!  And all this for only $500 a year!!

Walter Mitty is a daydreamer. Unless you've been living on Mars these past seventy years (the original short story, ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,’ was published in 1939) you probably know this; the book is famous and there have been adaptations before.

For this new incarnation he’s been updated somewhat; he’s now a shy, insular, apartment  dweller in New York with a job about to swallowed by the pace of internet driven progress. And he’s also now a man quite happy to prostitute himself for a multimillion dollar company when the opportunity arises (see Scenarios 1 & 2 above).

The film opens with Mitty (Ben Stiller) sweating over whether or not to send a dating site message to a co-worker he’s sweet on. He stares at her profile, absorbs all of the (scant) details, absorbs them again, grits his teeth and decides to send it… then chickens out and sits down. The opening credits rolls as he fidgets and fusses and keeps changing his mind. And then, when he does pluck up the courage to hit ‘Enter’... his computer crashes. It’s a lovely sequence; neatly establishing the central character and making some nice points about life in the modern age. Unfortunately, the film pretty much peaks at this point, barely two minutes in.

Mitty works in the basement at Life magazine, transforming photo negatives into their famous, lavish images (something of an anachronism; Life went under more than 10 years ago). He’s good at his job but quiet and his colleagues think him a bit of an odd bod.

But when an aggressive new firm acquires the magazine and decides to turn it into an internet only publication, and sack pretty much everyone, Mitty is spurred to break out of his low key rut. He hits the road looking for Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), adventurous news photographer and grumpy iconoclast, hoping to track down a copy of a missing photo Sean had submitted for Life’s last cover. Mitty's travelogue takes him to Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan and one zany adventure after another (and the film makers really show their inventive side with their relentless plugging of Papa John's and eHarmony in these far flung locations).

Which creates something of a problem.

The original point of TSLoWM I took to be something like;

·         Daydreaming is nice.

·         But daydreaming is no substitute for real life.

·         Real life can be nice too if you give it a chance.

Which is a bit trite, but pretty solid. But instead of this, the movie opts for;

·         Daydreaming is nice.

·         But daydreaming is no substitute for real life...

·         ... providing your real life is crazier than what you've been daydreaming!

In other words, the movie has no point at all. And, after the opening half hour, it stops referencing Mitty's imaginings in any case. They seem to exist in the film solely to give the director (Stiller again) a chance to fool around with some fairly silly, and admittedly fun, sequences before the National Geographic photo journal takes over the plot. Towards the end of it all, Mitty says something like, 'And you know, I don't do that daydreaming stuff anymore...' and I thought, 'Oh yeah! The daydreaming thing!'

After two hours of global roving it felt like the plot device from some other film.

And long before the central character does, you know his wanderings are going to bring him out of his shell and help him get closer to his dream girl. It's as obvious as the realisation that eHarmony helped fund the production of the movie. And this can only mean that a certain inevitability hangs over proceedings, regardless of how hard everyone tries to keep it light and quirky.

So this goes to the heart of what is wrong with this film; it is neither funny enough to work as a comedy, nor effecting enough to work as a drama, nor fresh enough to work as a romance. The cast tries hard, the exotic locations provide some lush eye candy and the acerbic parody of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (a much worse film than this one) made me laugh out loud, but otherwise this is a misfire in nearly every respect.

Mostly unsatisfying to everyone bar the corporate sponsors.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Review: The Hobbit - The Desolation of Smaug

Rates: * * 1/2

So there’s a mountain. And some dwarves who used to live there. And they’re on a quest to move back in, helped by a hobbit and a wizard. The key sticking point is the dragon, who took over the dwarf mountain and now doesn't want to give it up.

This, in a nutshell, is the plot of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the venerable fantasy novel that has been thrilling audiences since it was first published in 1937. There’s more to it, but since the number of people who aren't familiar with the book can be counted on one hand (without the thumb) there’s probably no need to break it down any further.

This is also where the second Hobbit movie – The Desolation of Smaug – picks up; mountain, dwarves, quest, hobbit, wizard, dragon. The opening scene shows wizard Gandalf and dwarf leader Oakenshield meeting in a pub and hatching a scheme to claim the mountain back, which sets the whole plot in motion.

Which might seem a little strange.

I mean, as a starting point for a quest flick this is fine. But didn't we already have a near three hour movie before this one? Wasn't that meant to establish the characters, set the story up and advance the plot to a certain point? The answer, clearly, is no. Which makes you wonder what on earth that leaden paced first installment – An Unexpected Journey - was all about. The one thing that sticks in my mind about AUJ is the never ending dinner scene at the beginning, and that’s not a memory I want to revisit too often.

So TDoS makes clear that the previous film was almost entirely redundant, which goes to the heart of the problem with this series of films. While The Lord of the Rings books are epic length and so suited director Peter Jackson’s monolithic treatment of them, The Hobbit is a much simpler, shorter story and blowing it up into three movies was very obviously a dud idea. The excessive length of the overall project, with corresponding flat, aimless stretches, again hampers the new film almost as much as the first.

Although, this is not to say that TDoS doesn't have its strengths.

The opening hour – as our heroes run for cover in a sinister forest - is terrific. And the climactic battle with Smaug delivers the goods. These sections provide a much sharper story arc for this movie in comparison to the first, which gives a greater sense of urgency and import to what is happening on the screen.

So it is a shame that a lot of that impetus is lost during a plodding mid section. Our heroes spend an absolute eternity doing… not very much; after escaping from the forest elves they fanny about with a dreary boatman in Laketown for an age, hiding and bartering for supplies. Gandalf, meanwhile, leaves the bulk of the party to go off on his own for a bit, something he states he ‘would not do unless it was absolutely necessary.’ Curious then, that the point of this side mission is absolutely obscure; he summons up fellow wizard Radagast, breaks into an empty crypt with him, strokes his beard a bit and then sends Radagast off again. Subsequently, he heads to the ruined fortress of Dol Guldur and encounters a disembodied necromancer (you can probably guess who this is) and their orc army.

All of Gandalf’s solo adventures (not to mention Radagast’s greatly expanded role) are not in the book and so have been created specifically for the film, something the film makers have defended as part of their plan to ‘flesh out’ the story. That these scenes are among the weakest in the new movie demonstrates the hubris that surrounds this idea; ‘I think what Tolkien meant to say was…’

When film makers reinterpret material from another medium there are always changes required and fans who are unhappy with whatever these are. But what we have here are enormous tangents being added on to a tightly plotted little adventure romp. The new sub-plots, characters and dialogue add nothing, whatsoever, to the overall thrust of the story and, worse, their bloating of the narrative detracts from the fun bits.

As more than one reviewer has already pointed out, most readers could get through the 300 page book version of The Hobbit in about 6 hours. And countless millions have done so, over the decades.

But we have nearly reached this time threshold in the movie series and the end is not yet in sight. Another three hour installment will be waiting for us next Boxing Day, with who knows how many extra bits tacked onto it. And this suggests a director and writers who have lost perspective and their grip on the material. They seem to be making films to please themselves, and so are not making films very pleasing for the rest of us.

Jackson’s LoTR films were so successful that the director was able to release super expanded ‘Special Editions’ of each one to an audience hungry for more. With The Hobbit series you hope that maybe he’ll do the reverse; redact all the crapulent new stuff and release a three hour ‘condensed’ version that sticks to the original plot.

And that is one movie I’ll be very keen to see. Ho hum.