Archive for May, 2011

Waltz and Byrne Go Large

Posted: May 23, 2011 in movie reviews


I went into WATER FOR ELEPHANTS with the best intentions: although this was a Robert Pattinson film, I was going to give it a fair go, not letting my gut-wrenchingly horrendous memories of REMEMBER ME cloud my critical judgement. It had, on paper, a lot actually going for it: Christolph Waltz, Reese Witherspoon, and a setting (on a circus train in 1931) that I found immensely appealing. Alas, alas… sure, there is some excellent period detail: the train itself, and the various circus accoutrements, are beautiful both in design and realization, and there’s a fair amount of historically interesting detail relating to the harsh realities – and intriguing joys – of circus life during The Great Depression. But the story itself is laboured and predictable: if you’re offered a love triangle between Pattinson, Witherspoon and Oscar Winning Nazi Waltz, who do you think is going to win? The elephant itself (Rosie in the film, Tai in real life) is truly beautiful and capable, but if you’re hoping for many scenes of training, you’ll be disappointed, as the movie prefers to focus on its dull love story rather than the sensational world of the circus. It’s a sadly wasted opportunity, and made more unpalatable by the recent viral footage of Tai being cruelly trained by her owners. Also, be warned: there are graphic simulated depictions of cruelty to animals (including Tai), the overall effect of which is not pleasant. Christophe Waltz and Reese Witherspoon are terrific, which only highlights Pattinson’s lack of dramatic heft; Waltz looks set to have a massive career playing the guy with menacing charm (or charming menace), following firmly in the wake of Christopher Walken.


I suspect James Wan set out to make the world’s best haunted house film; POLTERGEIST or the original AMITYVILLE HORROR will probably keep that title, but Wan’s film delivers many scares of the “shock you with sudden loud music and a demon’s face!” variety. Rose Byrne is really rather terrific given that her role mainly requires her to look various levels of concerned (from rather concerned to freaking terrified!!!); I predict here and now that she is going to become a MAJOR Hollywood movie star, up there with the Chalizes, Nicoles and Reeses. If she can rock a limited role in a straight-down genre pic like this, and play hysterically funny in GET HIM TO THE GREEK and the upcoming BRIDESMAIDS, and get away with honours in dramatic fare like ADAM and her TV series DAMAGES, what is she not capable of? Patrick Wilson provides ho-hum support, but beyond Byrne the star here is Wan’s direction, which really did have me on edge for much of the film. Make no mistake: this is B-Movie fare all the way; if you want a really scary story that will haunt you for days, SNOWTOWN is everything you’re looking for; INSIDIOUS will give you 103 minutes of jolt-scary fun.

SNOWTOWN ****1/2

SNOWTOWN, the debut feature from Justin Kurzel, is, in my opinion, an instant classic – and immediately stakes a claim for one of the ten best Australian films of all time. It is also one of the most unsettling films I have ever seen in my life, up there with HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, JACOB’S LADDER, THE BOYS, WAKE IN FRIGHT, A SERBIAN FILM and the first thirty minutes of BAD BOY BUBBY. Examining the true story of the seduction of Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) into the serial-killing gang lead by John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) in the late 1990s, the film is unrelentingly grim, brutal, and terrifying. Rather than employ anything close to sensationalistic, lurid or exploitative techniques, Kurzel instead takes an extremely precise, thoughtful and “artful” approach that is far more disturbing than traditional examples of “horror film” direction. The actors – almost entirely composed of local non-actors Kurzel gathered from the Adelaide suburb where the bulk of the film takes place – perform the story with ultra-realism, an aesthetic echoed in the production design and art direction (Fiona Crombie and Chris Jobson, who both deserve acclaim and awards for their devastatingly good work here). Kurzel starts the story slowly, letting us in on the underprivileged and quietly desperate lives of his main characters, and the arrival of Bunting, who will end up destroying countless lives, goes without any underlining, any dramatic “effect” at all, so that he creeps up on us as he did those whom he corrupted. As far as I could tell, it is not until at least forty minutes in that Kurzel uses any music, and so, while the film is not shot “documentary style”, the realism of the acting and design, and the bravely elliptical editing by Veronika Jenet, give us a sense that we are observing absolute real life – and what a grim life it is; the socio-economic milieu of the film is as much a horror as Bunting, in its way: there’s not much hope here. Eventually, Kurzel begins to use music, and it’s some of the most terrifying music you’ll ever here (composed by his brother Jed Kurzel), and little by little adds slightly more stylistic touches in the sound design and framing (the brilliant cinematography is by ANIMAL KINGDOM’S Adam Arkapaw) to start really messing with our heads; basically, the filmmaker here is echoing Bunting’s methods of seduction, and creating in our heads an echo of the desecration of Vlassakis’ own mind: we have been lured in by reality but are now at the whim of a master manipulator, and our descent into a world composed of nothing but nightmare is unstoppable. We await the next grotesquery with dread but also anticipation: it is at least more interesting than the banal, tragic life we are rapidly leaving behind. To achieve this sense of audience complicity – with one of the most monstrous movie villains ever – is an utterly astonishing feat from a first time feature filmmaker, and must reflect an enormous amount of planning and thought. Kurzel follows Michod as Australia’s Next Great Filmmaker; SNOWTOWN is definitely, and defiantly, Australia’s Next Great Film, and the scariest it has ever produced.


SOURCE CODE, the new technological thriller from Duncan Jones (who debuted rather spectacularly with MOON) is a thrilling, enormously fun ride from start to finish. From the opening credit sequence, full of almost over-the-top dramatically jazzy music, helicopter shots and a 1970s-style font, this film screams “You’re here to have a good time!” Pure escapism at its very best, the film follows beautifully in MOON’s wake by sharing with it the virtues of sound interior logic, unity of time, place and action, excellent acting (from Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright) and stylish production design, then adds some thrilling action, a dash of romance and, above all else, an absolutely cracking pace. It might sound ridiculous to think that the pich for the film could have been “it’s GROUNDHOG DAY meets INCEPTION” but that’s pretty darn accurate. Recommended for all audiences.

THOR ***1/2

THOR is a strange beast – both the movie and the character. Given his own movie so that he can soon join the World’s Biggest Superhero Movie ever, Marvel Studios’ upcoming THE AVENGERS, Thor sticks out like a thor thumb (thorry) because he is not actually a superhero but rather a Norse God who happens to live in outer space. The nutso qualities of this are in start contrast to the traditional “origin” stories of more regular superheros like Spider-Man and The Hulk who get their super powers from chance exposure to radiation or other scary chemical sources (and who were really born in response to a 1950s fear of The Bomb) and makes “regular guys who dress up in suits” like Batman and Iron Man seem positively pedestrian. Interestingly, the best of the current crop of Superhero flicks are those featuring Batman and Iron Man, the former because of Christopher Nolan’s dark and adult-oriented direction and the latter because of Robert Downey Jr.s’ adult-oriented performance. THOR is geared towards kids and adults will find it ludicrous and silly, but they may also find it surprisingly entertaining, as it is directed with a surprisingly light and deft touch by Kenneth Branagh as a kind of “Shakespeare In Space Lite.” Actually, only about half the film is set in space, and that is by far the most entertaining, with Anthony Hopkins playing it as straight as he can as Odin, Thor’s old Dad, faced with tossing his son and heir from his sparkling, extremely clean gold-and-silver kingdom for picking a fight with the nasty Frost Giants (yes, it’s a silly movie). The other half of the movie is set on Earth, in New Mexico, as banished Thor is discovered by a somewhat wacko storm-chasing cosmologist (played somewhat sincerely by Natalie Portman) and tries to figure out what a Norse God should do on boring old Earth. These scenes are humour for children, with pratfalls and low-aiming jokes, and not nearly as good as the space stuff; a blossoming romance between Thor (the hugely-muscled and certainly charismatic Australian Chris Hemsworth) and Portman’s UFO-geek is as ludicrous as any developing attraction between an Alien Norse God and an obsessed ET fancier. Take an eight year old boy with you to increase your chances of a rollicking, if more-than usually ridiculous, time.


I suspect the reason this quite fine film has taken so long to get a release is a marketing one – it is both a conman movie, most similar in tone to CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (but on a very different budget), and a love story between two men that makes so much of homosexuality that it almost feels like “Queer cinema” – that is, cinema confined to queer audiences. Like CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, it’s based on the exploits of a real con-man (Steven Russell), and, like that other film, the story, while claiming to be entirely true, is at times so outrageous and brazen that we must remind ourselves that con-men might not make the most reliable sources of their own exploits. It’s snappy and colourful and often quite funny, and Jim Carrey as Russell rides a nice line between finding sympathy for his somewhat reprehensible lead con-artist and exposing his many faults, warts and all. Unfortunately, Ewen McGregor, as the titular Phillip Morris, the light of Russell’s life, is badly miscast as both American and gay – neither the accent nor his many “homosexual mannerisms” fit him properly and he simply looks awkward. However, he’s not in the film much, wheras Carrey’s in every scene, and he gives a performance worth seeing.


Let’s just get out of the way that this film – the fifth in the franchise – is ludicrous, ridiculous, with some unbelievably silly dialogue, a plot with holes big enough to drive a stolen bank vault through, and without much going on in the acting department. It is also fabulously entertaining from start to finish – if you can be entertained by expertly realised scenes of automobile destruction, punctuated by scenes of automobile racing, automobile stealing and general automobile appreciation. Vin Diesel and Paul Walker gather a group of criminally-inclined precision drivers (!) to gather in the Favelas of Rio and rip off Brazil’s richest criminal, and nothing – not an army of corrupt cops, an unmanageable city, a plan that makes no sense nor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson himself – is going to get in their way. Along the way about two hundred cars (in a conservative estimate) get smashed, gutted, thrown through the air into the side of fast-moving trains, and almost anything else imaginable and then some, all accompanied by the best metal-on-metal sound effects design you’ve ever heard. So many action movies these days fail in their very raison d’etre – they ruin the action with too much rapid editing, trying too hard to hide their CGI effects, cables and stuntpeople. FAST AND FURIOUS 5 – or, as its on-screen title attests, FAST 5 – is old-school motor mayhem, with action sequences so clearly and beautifully rendered that I was in awe of the filmmaking, even as the script left my head spinning. It’s like THE CANNONBALL RUN on steroids. Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson are also like Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson on steroids – you’ve never seen such biceps as Diesel’s until Johnson enters the picture with biceps about three times as big – and their fistfight exactly two-thirds through the film is accompanied by the type of sound effects you could expect from a modern Godzilla movie. Clash of the Titans indeed – when their forearms clap together later it’s like a volcano exploding. In its own way, brilliant. Don’t go if you really don’t like cars though…


The unnecessary remake of ARTHUR , starring Rusell Brand as Dudley Moore and Dame Helen Mirren as Sir John Gielgud (echoing her gender-switching take on THE TEMPEST as Prospera, following after Guldud’s Pospero in the earlier Tempest adaptation PROSPERO’S BOOKS) is very strange. It starts out brilliantly – the first scene, mainly between Mirren and Brand, is excellent – witty, dry, warm, slickly expositional, and genuinely funny. The last scene is almost unwatchable in its awfulness – sentimental, obvious, unnecessary and acted and directed without any conviction whatsoever. In between, the movie progressively gets worse – literally, each new scene is a little worse than the previous one; it’s like walking down some steps from quality to horrendousness. Likewise, the film, as it progresses, simply becomes less funny, such that the last third (or “act”) is, simply, not a romantic comedy but a romantic drama, not even trying to be funny (or if it is, failing utterly). Brand is cursed with, I would suggest, eighty percent of the films’ lines, and he is fine in the funny first third, desperate in the unfunny but at least pretending to be a comedy middle third, and lost at sea in the dramatic third – he simply doesn’t have the chops as a dramatic actor yet, and watching him deal with tragedy is painful. This is a movie that you leave once the jokes stop – maybe in time to get your money back.