Archive for April, 2012

Paradise Lost

Posted: April 30, 2012 in movie reviews

Wish You Were Here *****

Last year, Justin Kurzel made his feature film directing debut with Snowtown, and I thought it was the greatest film of the year. Now along comes Wish You Were Here, also by a debut feature filmmaker – Kieran Darcy-Smith – and the challenge has, for me, been issued: let’s see another film this year top this one.

The thing that marked Snowtown so much – or at least, that made it so astonishing – was its complete and utter assurance. Kurzel may have been making his debut, but he obviously knew exactly the story he wanted to tell and how he wanted to tell it. Likewise, Darcy-Smith is totally in control of his material (and brilliant material it is); he’s surrounded himself with excellent performers at the top of their games, an expert cinematographer, and, I can only presume, a crew of excellence, because the result is, essentially, perfect: there is not a moment in the whole thing that didn’t have me gripped.

Four Australians have a holiday in Cambodia; three come back. That’s all I’m going to say about the plot, because this is a mystery thriller, and it relies on slow (and very deliberate) revelation. (This plot point – that only three come back – is revealed at the very beginning of the film, and I feel bad for the group who came in and sat down about eleven minutes late – they were in for a confusing time).

Darcy-Smith wrote the deeply satisfying script with Felicity Price, who also takes one of the central roles in the film. It confidently embraces a fractured narrative that ranges across time and between two countries without ever being confusing or obfuscating. Indeed, it does the very opposite – it grips you like a vice. The last time I was this tense for a whole movie was… Snowtown. Although nothing like that film in terms of content or style, it has the same sense of dreadful tension; as a suspense thriller, it is an unqualified success.

All the performances are top-notch. Joel Edgerton has the most difficult role and he is fantastic. The film rests heavily on his shoulders and he doesn’t put a foot wrong. His character, Dave, is extremely well written (well, the whole movie is) and Edgerton mines him for all he’s worth. It would make sense to acknowledge it as a “role of a lifetime” because it’s got everything a film actor could possibly want – needs, desires, wants, secrets, backstory, goals, obstructions, flaws, heroics, emotionalism. He’s going to win a lot of awards for his work here.

Price, Teresa Palmer and New Zealand TV star Antony Starr all also deliver flawless performances. I’d never seen Starr before (actually I have, in The World’s Fastest Indian, but I didn’t know it then) and, on the basis of this, I have huge hopes for his success. In many ways he has the “simplest” part, but he makes a hell of an impression.

Jules O’Loughlin’s cinematography (and camera operation) are sublime and filled with actual storytelling. He are Darcy-Smith use the camera ingeniously to reveal points of character, plot, motivation and suspense. O’Loughlin turns many scenes on their heads, as they are happening, by employing racks of focus and subtle dollies (echoing the “zoom out” effect) among other techniques; this is sophisticated work, arising from a deep understanding of each characters’ many levels, shades and contradictions. He also shoots Sydney and Cambodia in fresh ways, while always making the characters the absolute primal points of interest in each shot; there’s nothing in this movie that’s there “because it’s pretty”. (In one shot we glimpse one-third of the harbour bridge!) His excellent footage is edited masterfully by Jason Ballantine – who, I imagine, will also be picking up some awards, as this film is complex both structurally and emotionally, and he nails it.

It is a measure of this film’s meticulous attention to detail that there are two minor characters – I’m not going to reveal them – that have no other credits on IMDB, because, I am sure, they’re actually from the professions their characters fulfill. Likewise, there are two government employee characters cast with street-level realism in mind, and one of Australia’s finest stage actors has been employed to play a small, silent role (which he does brilliantly). It’s that kind of considered, thoughtful, thorough film.

When you look at the premise, there are two things that may concern you: being a mystery involving visitors to Cambodia, will the film provide satisfying resolution, and will it avoid racism? Yes on both counts. Wish You Were Here is deeply excellent on every level it chooses to operate.

Baguette Porn

Posted: April 24, 2012 in movie reviews

Romantics Anonymous ** (out of five)

A lot of movies get made in France. In Australia we get to see quite a few of them, too, but even our bumper crop is a mere handful of all that are made and distributed in France – which always makes me examine why any particular French film sees the light of distribution here. Sometimes it’s obvious: the film made a squillion bucks in France and / or elsewhere, or it’s just so undeniably entertaining that any distributor would be mad not to run it.

Then there’s a film like Romantics Anonymous, which I really believe is being distributed – and quite widely – here because it is just so darn French. Last week I called Battleship “explosion porn”. Romantics Anonymous – and certain other films of its’ type – might be called “baguette porn”. Which is to say, films that light the baguettes in the way that a very expensive travel advertisement does.

There may not be an extremely well-lit closeup of a baguette in Romantics Anonymous, but there’s everything else. Every café, restaurant and little shop is lit exquisitely and conforms to everything we want to think about Parisian life (I’m guessing the city involved is Paris; it’s never mentioned, and, to the film’s credit, there are no shots of the Eiffel Tower). But it’s more than this: the film willfully dips into the tropes of those French films that have been the most popular worldwide of all, including – in fact, very strongly including – the most beloved of all, Amelie.

Quirky, slightly cartoonish performances and visual style? Check. Cute-as-a-button heroine? Check. Distance from reality? Check. It even bills itself – on the Australian posters at least – as “Amelie Meets Chocolat.”

The reason it “meets Chocolat” is that it’s set in the wild, wacky world of chocolate-making.  Our quirky, painfully shy heroine (cute-as-a-button Isabelle Carré) is a monumentally talented chocolate maker who’s painful shyness means she’s only ever marketed her creations under the anonymity of pretending to be a male “hermit”. When she seeks work at a small chocolate-making company, she begins to invent new chocolate ranges for them, all the while hiding behind the false identity of the hermit and falling in love with her painfully shy boss (Benoît Poelvoorde).

Does all this sound a little twee, a little too cute? It is, and its depiction of the chocolate world simply doesn’t ring true. I suppose it’s meant to be a fairy tale of sorts, and that’s fair enough, but there is another great problem. The central conceit of the film is that this pair of chocolate-crossed lovers are soooooo painfully shy that not only are relationships difficult for them, simply talking to members of the opposite sex are near catastrophic events. What this results in is constant twitchy, shy, uncomfortable-silence acting between Carré and Poelvoorde, and it becomes a little unbearable.

It’s nice to see a romance amongst an underrepresented demographic, begin the forty-somethings, and if you really like French ambience, this film is drowning in it. But don’t expect Amelie or Chocolat; this film is far less witty, charming and moving than those films, no matter how desperately it tries to emulate them.

A Great Use of Time

Posted: April 23, 2012 in movie reviews

The Clock ***** (out of five)

Playing daily, for free, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until 3 June.

Christian Marclay’s 24 Hour experimental film The Clock has been written about in many places as it continues its tour of the world’s great modern galleries. I could write about it for a very long time, as it had a greatly profound effect on me. But one thing The Clock does is make you aware of time, and I’ll be aware of my own and of yours, and keep it relatively brief.

In case you don’t know, The Clock is a twenty-four hour film that loops back into itself – so, really, it never ends. It features many, many scenes and fragments of scenes, cut from many many movies (and some television programs) featuring a mention – most often visually, by the inclusion within the frame of a clock or watch – of the current time. Among the many genius aspects of the film’s construction is that it is a clock; it tells the time precisely. For example, you might be watching a section of the film at 7:48pm – and you’ll see a scene with a clock on the wall, and that clock says 7:48pm. The entire film tells the time in real time. The first time you venture in and check it out, this realization is astonishing.

I’ve seen about five hours of The Clock, over two different sessions. Essentially I’ve seen from about eleven in the morning until four in the afternoon. I very much want to go back late at night – I suspect the hours between midnight and dawn will be very different (in Sydney, at the MCA, the only time you can see this section of the film is on Thursday nights, when the museum stays open all night specifically for this film).

It is mesmerizing, and the only reason I left on both occasions was because I needed to be somewhere else. I could easily watch six or seven hours of it in a session. In fact, allowing for going to the toilet, eating a little something, and occasionally dropping off where I sat, I imagine I could watch the whole thing in a continuous sitting.  (Marclay has specified the couches for the audience as part of the actual experience, and they’re certainly comfortable enough for this, including the napping). I would actually love to do this, as I think the experience of drifting off and re-awakening with this thing would be fantastic. Your dreams and the experience of the film would dance together.

The source material comes from everywhere but there is no doubt that Marclay has focussed more strongly on films and faces that are in the collective consciousness of the majority of people who will see the film, and that’s part of the fun. Lots of famous faces appear, from lots of famous movies. What’s really interesting is their recontextualisation. We’ve all seen a particular clip from When Harry Met Sally, say, over and over (the restaurant scene: “I’ll have what she’s having”); we’ve seen it on television shows about romantic comedies, about Meg Ryan, about Billy Crystal, about food, about Rob Reiner, and we’ve seen it on the Academy Awards a billion times. But Marclay doesn’t show the orgasm or the zinger line – he shows the fragment with the clock. Likewise, when, in other areas, we’ve seen a clip from The Sting, it’s almost always at the poker table from the film’s climax. But we see other clips from The Sting here, clips that mention the time, and it reminds us that that film is not just Redford, Newman and Shaw at that poker table but an entire movie, and one we may want to revisit.

So you’ve got the recognition factor, and you’ve got the curiosity factor, but there’s so, so much more. Marclay’s brilliance is that he’s edited these thousands of clips into the appearance of a narrative. If we see someone run over in the street, we then see someone at the window of an apartment, looking down on something then turning away in distress. The clips are from two different films – one may be in colour, one in black and white – but Marclay has matched them so well – including through camera angles – that they appear as to have always been designed to be cut together. Not only that, he plays with the sound design, so that the screams of the onlookers at the car accident roll into the shot of the person at the window – linking the two films across time and space. Elsewhere, he does the same trick with music, so that the doom-laden score of one film clip may carry into the next – even if that second clip is from a wacky comedy. In this contextualization, however, the second clip ceases to be comedic, because it’s informed by the first, and the new music frames the second clip in a totally fresh light.

The ultimate result of all of this is, in essence, an unbelievable exercise in sustained, unrelieved suspense. Clocks and watches are seen in movies, or people mention the time in movies, usually when time is of the essence. Someone is racing to beat the clock (the opening sequence of Spiderman), or something is happening at a pre-determined time and that time is approaching (High Noon); things are giddy when movies show clocks and time, the stakes are high and the onscreen characters are in turmoil and anxiety. It’s this resultant suspense that makes The Clock so consistently watchable – you’re always wanting to see what happens next, even though you have no consistent characters or story to guide you there. Marclay has discovered, in his use of clocks and time, that the pure mood of suspense is enough to drive our attentions, to keep us hooked. The most recent time I went to a session, three hours passed incredibly easily – but a three hour narrative film has to be extraordinary to hold my attention. And what’s even more amazing – I was always aware of the time.

Explosion Porn

Posted: April 17, 2012 in movie reviews

Battleship * 1/2

Battleship always sounded like a silly idea. It’s perhaps the most basic of board games, relying more on luck than skill, and it doesn’t have characters, like CLUEDO or even MONOPOLY. I’m a huge board game nut – always have been – and I never liked it. Even Backgammon seemed to require more strategy and tactics. So it seemed like pretty slim source material. Then came the posters and trailer, which revealed that the big twist would be that the film wouldn’t concern battleships fighting each other, but battleships fighting battleship-like aliens. This wasn’t in the board game but was obviously borne out of some marketing genius at Universal, who saw the billions of dollars being generated by Paramount’s Transformers franchise and thought, let’s do that: let’s make our own Transformers. So they called up Hasbro, the toy company that makes the Transformers toys, and said, “What else you got?” Answer: “Well, we’ve got that old hoary game Battleship…” Which has led to the stupidest poster tag-line in history: “From Hasbro, the Company That Brought You TRANSFORMERS”.

So all signs were grim, and all signs have been borne out. Besides being a blatantly obvious Transformers rip-off, Battleship is essentially explosion porn – a practically endless litany of stuff being blown up, with the destruction of Hong Kong thrown in for good measure. The dialogue is beyond bad. Taylor Kitsch, the bland new Hollywood-anointed blockbuster king, following in the footsteps of Shia LaBeouf and Sam Worthington, and who has the unfortunate distinction of having been John Carter, plays a hot-headed, off-the-rails young dude who finds himself by joining the navy, entering into some war games off Hawaii, and defending the world against sea-navigating, metallic aliens. Liam Neeson wanders around the bridge of another ship, muttering to himself and occasionally barking out nautical terms. He seriously looks like he just showed up one day, hurled a lot of sailor talk around, and banked his check. To call his performance acting would be like calling this movie art. It is so cynically manufactured – such a blatant attempt to suck money out of the Transformers audience – that it’s a little insulting.

The aliens essentially resemble the robots of Transformers and the film relies on a similar soundtrack of cranking gears, huge engine noises – and, of course, endless explosions. All this might be a little forgivable if the effects were really cool – but they’re not. They just look like effects. For a film that depends on the brilliance of its special effects, it’s a shame it only has (for this age) mediocre special effects.

On the up side, the pop star Rihanna is in it, as, of course, a stunning young naval officer, and she’s competent, and looks good in uniform, and the film definitely has a sleek, appealing look – the battleships are extremely well shot, and it’s nice to see big-scale action like this played out on clear blue water under sunny skies. But pretty faces and pictures only go so far. This is a very dumb, loud, blatant rip-off of a movie, and it’s tough to sit through. That Universal spent two hundred million dollars on it just beggars belief.


The Pirates: Band of Misfits ** 1/2

Aardman Animations have a deserved reputation for excellence. Pretty much everyone in the world loves the Wallace and Grommit  short films; a lot of people loved the Wallace and Grommit feature, Curse of the WereRabbit, and here’s plenty of fans of Chicken Run. Their two features using CGI rather than stop-motion, Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas, are less successful. They’ve returned to stop motion with the big, splashy The Pirates: Band of Misfits, but, in a real disappointment, this is the first time I’ve gone to an Aardman film and left feeling that there wasn’t anything in it for me.

I have no idea who Nick Park and his brethren thought the audience was for Wallace and Grommit, a fusty, tea-swilling English inventor and his deviously clever pooch, but the appeal proved to be universal. The short film The Wrong Trousers, which won the Oscar in that category, could be enjoyed by all ages; indeed, if anything, it felt like the writing was designed to be enjoyed by adults, but kids could, essentially, go along for the ride. Where we got a subversive glance at a very particular style of English life, kids got a lot of colourt and movement and a fantastic dog.

The Pirates: Band of Misfits goes in the other direction. It’s all about the kiddies. Yes, there are plenty of visual jokes going on – a signature of the Aardman style – and it’s fun to spot them – they’re jammed into the frame. But the script simply isn’t funny. I saw it in a packed cinema – and packed with kids – and yet there was barely a laugh the whole film. The jokes  sure weren’t working for me, but they weren’t working for the target audience either.

It’s a great shame, because there is so much work involved in this film. It supposedly took five years to make, involving 320 people including 33 animators working across 41 different shooting units. The design of the characters, sets and props are up to the Aardman standard – which is to say, phenomenal. Needless to say, the animation is absolute top-shelf. The voicework – by Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Selma Hayek and Jeremy Piven, among many others – is fine. But the script… it’s depressing. You really wish that they had taken the time to make the script as fabulous as the animation. I suppose, with the kind of time-consuming, laborious type of filmmaking that is stop-motion, it’s extremely difficult to change script things along the way. I’d suggest a bit more time in script development before they start building all the sets and puppets is key.

Afterwards, I asked a bunch of kids who had seen it what they thought. They all claimed to like it. I asked them if they thought it was funny. They all claimed they did. Which was strange, as these same kids were the kids in my audience, and they weren’t laughing.

Maybe kids don’t laugh out loud anymore. Maybe they just thought they liked it, or were claiming that it was funny because they saw a lot of colour and movement – or because the ads and posters had told them it was funny. One thing’s for certain: I’m not the intended audience for this one – by a mile – and it showed. So I have to wait… for another Wallace and Grommit movie. Those two know how to make me laugh, out loud.