Archive for May, 2013

Posted: May 21, 2013 in movie reviews

Frances Ha ***1/2 (out of five)

11169480_oriIf, like me, your most thrilling adventures were had in art houses seeing the golden age of American Indies in the eighties and nineties – the early Spike Lees, Michael Moores and Kevin Smiths, the Linklaters and Sayleses and, indeed, the early Baumbachs – then Noah Baumbach’s new film Frances Ha will take you back to a very sweet place before its actual storytelling qualities take you in. Shot almost entirely with a static camera, in long takes (and very often aping the early-indie style of an entire scene simply being one still, long take), in black and white that looks like film stock from c.1991, the film is almost certainly an homage to those days, and those films.large_Frances_Ha_4

What’s very cool is that it’s also definitely more than that. A defiant character study (I think Greta Gerwig, as the eponymous Frances, is not only in every scene of the film but may actually be in every shot of the film), Frances Ha traces a brief but important year-or-so in the life of a somewhat aimless, somewhat privileged, somewhat ambitious, somewhat likable New Yorker. The film boldly – and ultimately successfully – vastly favors character definition over plot, and favors character detail over laughs – although the second half (much more than the first) is very funny.

1776496Baumbach has definitely made more sophisticated films, and by sophisticated I guess I mean more technically and thematically ambitious. In many ways, Frances Ha is a love letter. It is in no way hidden that Baumbach and Gerwig are a couple, that they wrote this film together for her to star in, and that they’ve got another child – by which I mean film – on the way. The way Baumbach shoots Gerwig, especially towards the end, is full of love (and the film is very “early Woody Allen” at times, and Gerwig very much evokes Dianne Keaton in Annie Hall, if not in behavior, then as Muse). This is not a bad thing. Just because Baumbach obviously loves her, it doesn’t mean we can’t too. There’s something about her. If this is her calling card film, she deserves it. If it’s simply a quietly amusing, ultimately satisfying, richly detailed portrait of One Girl in the Big Apple – well, that deserves it too.

images The Great Gatsby *** (out of five)

The new, hugely publicized (and hugely expensive) Great Gatsby has a beautiful dedication to the source novel, and an artificial look: the exhaustive use of computer-generated or supplemented backdrops, the digitally enhanced colors, the extensive post-production manipulation of imagery, and the over-abundance of ADR (automated dialogue replacement, or “looping”, or having the actors re-say their lines in a studio months after their scenes were shot) give the enterprise, at times, the feel of a cartoon, and, when such levels of digital manipulation are combined with the flavour of music the film embraces (which I love), it (sensually) resembles no recent film more closely than Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. This is not the insult it may sound like: there is no doubt that Snyder has seen Moulin Rouge, the previous film of Baz Luhrmann’s that The Great Gatsby most resembles, and I reckon Snyder is hugely influenced by Lurhmann’s style. The concept of Lurhmann being in turn influenced by Snyder seems to fit both of their profiles as the pre-eminent post-modern filmmakers who are completely embraced by, and only work within, the Hollywood system at the very heights of the budget game.images-1

The first five minutes are so dunderheaded, so obsessed with 3D effect, rapid editing, over-use of voice-over narration, and Tobey Maguire acting wide-eyed that I became very, very worried, and, indeed, the first hour is ludicrous and uninvolving, composed of a series of parties that are obsessed with 3D effect, rapid editing, Tobey Maguire acting wide-eyed and iOta, given so many “swoop-ins” as he does a quick jazz-hands shimmy-shake in the middle of a dance-floor pool that you think he’s going to get to have a real character arc (he does not).

the_great_gatsby_posterWhat’s interesting is that the second hour and a bit of this hundred and forty-two minute film becomes involving and engaging. The absurdly-paced cutting slows down to dramatic, rather than bombastic, levels; the actors are allowed to act (including Tobey Maguire being allowed to drop his eyes down to normal, narrower levels); and, as the source novel dictates, the parties stop, and with them, the excess.

Well, not quite. The race into town looks like it’s out of The Phantom Menace and the servants of both houses are still choreographed – in movement and acting style – to resemble robots in a Busby Berkeley flick (all dancing, no thinking!) But the novel’s most dramatic scenes, starting with the scene at the Plaza Hotel and continuing through you-know-what-all-else, are exceptionally well done, and achieve a dramatic power that really sucks you in.

This is an interpretation of Gatsby (minor spoiler alert) that revels in the idea of Gatsby and Daisy as two psychopaths (or at least social sociopaths), lovers whose disregard for others, as they pursue their own twisted desires, is bonkers. Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan get this aspect of their personalities across well, particularly DiCaprio, who is completely unafraid here to play an extremely unhinged and unlikeable man (and for her part, Mulligan plays Daisy as someone you definitely don’t want to be obsessed with). What’s never clear, in the slightest, is why these two are obsessed with each other – but perhaps that’s the nature of obsession.

After the hardest first hour, Maguire does his best with the second, and makes Nick Carraway at least somewhat acceptable as a lead character. But the film’s standout performance without a doubt is that of Joel Edgerton, who, let’s face it, gets the best material, both in book and film, as Daisy’s husband Tom. Combustible, despicable / noble and perhaps the closest to believable in this universe of bygone weirdos, Edgerton also seems best to understand how to act for Luhrmann’s mise-en-scene: he’s Bluto to DiCaprio’s insane Popeye, but in his hands, Bluto knows he’s in a cartoon.

In the end, is the film entertaining? Bizarrely, that’s the hardest question. It isn’t, and then it is, despite the fact that it’s structured the opposite way (to be ludicrously entertaining, then dramatically involving, which in the world of this film’s grammar kind of means “boring”). The best scene in the film, which was also the best scene in the book, and the best scene in Elevator Repair Service’s theatrical World-Wide smash Gatz, is the Plaza Hotel scene. Some stuff is so good, even when you go all bells and whistles around it, if you play the main melody right, the rest, she just falls into place.

This Ain’t California ***1/2 (out of five)

Callgirl_Plakat.inddMarten Persiel’s elaborate ruse This Ain’t California purports to be a documentary about the birth and growth of the skateboarding scene in the GDR and East Berlin in the 1980s, particularly following its most dynamic member, “Panik”, through huge amounts of contemporary Super 8 footage, archival propaganda and television material from the period, and new interviews with Panik’s old crew. The thing of it is, Panik never existed, the old crew are actors, and, most impressively – most impressively – the Super 8 footage is mainly, or entirely, deliberately shot for this film. It’s a fiction, but one that illuminates a period and a scene, supplying footage – and a mythical leader – where there wasn’t either.

Marten Persiel

Marten Persiel

As a style of storytelling, the film’s grandparent would be Zelig, Woody Allen’s excellent and very funny story of a “human chameleon”, which similarly faked old footage to blend in with footage from the time. (Interestingly, the recent film No also uses very outdated video camera technology to match its shots with footage from Pinochet’s plebiscite in Chilé in the 1980s). As a “fake” documentary, it got me. I saw it believing I was seeing a “true” documentary, and I fell for it hook, line and sinker, telling some skateboarding friends about how extraordinary it was that one of these skaters had a father who was a diplomat, who was thus able to supply him with so much Super 8 film that the entire rise and fall of this East Berlin scene was documented so thoroughly. It seemed to be too good to be true, and it was.

ThisAintCaliforniaNevertheless, and even knowing the artifice, it’s an excellent and extremely enjoyable film. Indeed, knowing the artifice, it’s way more impressive. Persiel also uses beautiful hand-drawn animations to tell his story in what amounts to a kaleidoscope. It speaks to the last days of the GDR, the heady rush of skater rebellion, and myth-making in equal measure. However true it isn’t, it’s a lovely evocation of what might have been.

This Ain’t California plays as part of the Festival Of German Films from Friday 3rd May. Details

You can hear my interview with Marten Persiel on MOVIELAND on Saturday 11th May at 5pm on your local ABC radio station around Australia or here: