Archive for August, 2013

Taking Off

Posted: August 30, 2013 in movie reviews

The Rocket ***1/2 (out of five)

TheRocket_A4posterKim Mordaunt’s debut fiction feature, following his absolutely stunning feature documentary Bomb Harvest, takes lessons learned from that film and spins a story into the mix. Bomb Harvest looked at the horrendous scar of unexploded bombs that absolutely blanket Laos, dumped mercilessly and relentlessly by the Americans during the Vietnam War, and which continue to harm civilians nearly half a century later, the most at risk of whom are the poorest and least educated.

The Rocket isn’t about bombs per se but they certainly cast their shadow over the story of Ahlo, a young Laotian village boy who is considered to be cursed by his grandmother because he is a twin (his sibling having died in childbirth). When he and his small family are forced to move to make way for a new dam, Ahlo’s insistence to bring his boat brings about a tragedy. In accepting his outsider status, he forms a friendship with a young girl and her eccentric uncle, and ultimately enters a competition for home made rockets in order to win enough money to buy a house.20133391_1_IMG_FIX_700x700

Australian Mordaunt set himself not just a heroic but a stratospheric level of difficulty with this undertaking, working with non actors in a foreign land in a language he was far from fluent in (one of the film’s producers acted as his translator). That the film exists at all is a huge achievement. The fact that it’s really good is astonishing.

At the most basic level, it’s a fascinating look at Laotian village culture and inhabitants. The instant acceptance of these people to having to leave their homes because the government tells them to will strike a bizarre chord with westerners, particularly Australians whose own version of the government land seizure story, The Castle, is all about refusing to move. But westerners don’t live in a Communist country, and a well-timed shot reminds us that Laos is one (I’m not sure if I knew that – did you)? There are a lot of similar, cleverly deployed shots that inform as they also occasionally astonish, such as of a massive, already existing dam. The cinematography is beautiful and haunting (Andrew Commis); this is a film where you can practically feel the humidity.

large_The_Rocket_2The story is not perfect, and the performances are of necessity uneven. The tragedy that kick-starts Ahlo’s journey feels almost too heavy to be dealt with, and the movie doesn’t really deal with it; having said that, this could be a cultural reading that isn’t in line with how Laos deal with grief and loss. Sitthiphon Disamoe, as Ahlo, has a winning presence, but his inexperience shows itself when he has to deal with the film’s most tragic elements, and Thep Phongam, as the eccentric, James Brown-obsessed Uncle Purple, doesn’t make the most of what, on paper, would easily have been the film’s most exciting character.

1370701509-australian-red-carpet-premiere-of-the-rocket-for-sydney-film-festival_2131476But The Rocket is that unusual beast amongst films these days: a true original, depicting a culture rarely filmed, observed with a respectful but never overly reverential eye. In Competition at the Sydney Film Festival this year, it lost to Only God Forgives; the main criteria of that Competition – audacity – is in total display here. The Rocket makes Only God Forgives look like a rip-off, and The Rocket, in that competition if not at the many festivals where it has been scooping awards, was itself ripped off.

Stoker *** (out of five)

stoker_ver3_xlgStoker is an acquired taste. It’s completely stylized in an over the top way. Actors are not directed to act in a realistic manner (there’s no Stanislavsky going on here). Instead, they’re breathing props, serving the mise-en-scene of Director Chan-wook Park, who directs them via translator. This is not a problem, as long as you accept that this is what Stoker is. Everything about it is heightened, and it bears no relation to reality. I liked it. It’s haunting and strange.

Is it a horror movie? No, it’s way too art-house for that. A truly eccentric curiosity of a film, it observes a teenager, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska, who seemingly can do anything) deal with her father’s death and the introduction of her father’s brother Charles (Matthew Goode) into her stilted, formal family, which consists only of herself and her uptight mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). It’s a tiny, inverted, gender-switched take on Hamlet, with the court replaced by a a single family and a couple of (unexplained) servants.stoker1

Everything about this movie is strange and unpredictable; it may take place within some concept of the American rich, but really it takes place within the mind. The filmmaking is never anything less than completely controlled and precise. It’s a weird (and fun) experience: like peering into the mind of a crazy genius on an off day. I liked the mood of Stoker: gothic, dark, strange and melancholy. It’s like a really creepy Sunday afternoon.

See It Twice

Posted: August 19, 2013 in movie reviews

Upstream Color ***** (out of five)

MV5BMTQzMzQ4MDAyNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzE0MDk3OA@@._V1_SX214_Shane Carruth is an extraordinary filmmaker. His second feature proudly follows his debut Primer (2004) in its audacity, intellect and astonishing originality. Carruth does not make films for fools, but nor does he try and fool anyone; if you’re willing to look, it’s all there.

It would be easy, perhaps facile, to call Primer and Upstream Color “puzzles”. They are not, they are films, and brilliant ones at that. But they share elements with smart puzzles, those that reveal layers upon close inspection. Because that is precisely what Carruth’s two films do. At first watch – no matter how intense – they may remain elliptical. But – more than any other films I can think of – the more you look (or in this case, watch) the more they reveal, and the more they provide that beautiful, joyous sense of, “Of course! It all makes sense.”Upstream-Color-628x348-628x348

To describe the plot of Upstream Color in any detail would be more of a crime even than to detail that of Primer. Let’s just say that a criminally scientific experiment on a young woman results in an unlikely relationship being formed that opens up a quest for answers and truth. Beyond that, there is a pandora’s box of delights for the active viewer, a viewing experience quite unlike anything else going on in modern cinema. If I was a theatre owner, I’d offer a repeat viewing for free as long as you brought one new paying guest; in this way, much like Carruth’s films, I would perpetuate an algorithm that may ebb and flow but ultimately grow.

Upstream-Color3-640x334These are science fiction films set in the here and now, unburdened by special effects (or, for that matter, anything close to a big budget). They are films with excellent performances by unseen casts who obviously have a deep understanding and trust in their auteur’s vision. And they are beautiful – visually, sonically and intellectually.369569336_640

Upstream Color, like Primer, is difficult – perhaps more so. As such it won’t be around for long. Do yourself a favor – see Primer immediately, and then Upstream Color while it is still on the cinema screen. You can always look at them, and analyze them, later. Catch the beauty, and then, later on, ride the complex wave deep into Carruth’s obviously very imaginative, active and deeply switched-on mind. It’s a fantastic trip.

Divorce Movie? Done well? Sure.

Posted: August 18, 2013 in movie reviews

What Maisie Knew ***1/2 (out of five)

WHAT-MAISIE-KNEW_510x756Steve Coogan probably won’t sweep too many awards for his performance in What Maisie Knew, but there is a quiet scene between his character Beale and daughter Maisie (the extremely strangely named Onata Aprile) that is the best piece of screen acting I’ve seen this year. He never quite loses his Coogan-ness, but there is no more doubting he’s a sterling dramatic actor.what-maisie-knew-img02

Beale breaks up with Maisie’s mother Susanna (Julianne Moore, doing end-of-her-rope frustration like only she can) at the beginning of the film, and the events of the next eighteen months at so are seen expressly from Maisie’s point of view: what she doesn’t see or hear, we don’t see or hear. It’s a clever conceit and requires consistency, and the movie holds true to it, delivering an intriguing method of storytelling. Particularly I was struck by the clever sound design: often, characters retreat down hallways away from Maisie to avoid her hearing what they’re saying on the phone, and as they do, and Maisie turns away, their voices recede: you realize that, even as adults try and protect their children, children are also very good at protecting themselves.

"What Maisie Knew" Premiere - Arrivals - 2012 Toronto International Film FestivalA movie like this lives or dies on the strength of the child at its centre, and Aprile, who is, by default, in every scene, is excellent, completely natural and vibrant. Like Coogan, she will probably miss out on awards attention; Maisie, unlike Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) in Beasts of the Southern Wild, is quite passive, reacting to the events around her with often silent stoicism. If anything, Maisie as a character is a little too indefatigable; once in a while, you’d love her to throw a huge screaming tantrum and let her wretched parents know just what children they’re being.

iLike. iWish iLoved.

Posted: August 16, 2013 in movie reviews

Jobs *** (out of five)

HT_ashton_kutcher_jobs_nt_130703_2x3_384Ashton Kutcher is extremely good as Steve Jobs in Joshua Michael Stern’s Jobs, which covers the computer pioneer’s life from just after college to when he rejoined Apple in 1996 after having been forced from the company in 1985. The movie itself, however, is wildly uneven. It contains some of the most inspiring, moving, goosebump-inducing moments, scenes and speeches that I’ve seen thus far this year, but also some truly cringeworthy ones. It’s as though two different creative teams made the film, swapping scene-for-scene, and only one of them was any good.

Comparisons to The Social Network are inevitable, and Jobs is not in the same league. The Social Network had a great central focus, being the lawsuit over the creation of Facebook, where Jobs is content to be an extremely conventional biopic, telling the story of a man without necessarily finding the story about him.steve-jobs-movie-trailer

Nevertheless, the man is Jobs, who’s essentially a fascinating guy, and with Kutcher’s excellent performance and a stack of terrific supporting turns, the material holds even as some of the scenes wobble dangerously. It’s a business story showing the birth of a business man (from the womb of a purely creative one) and has no time for female relationships and completely avoids “the big C”, for which I was very grateful. A subplot about Jobs’ abandonment of his daughter remains just that, touched on but obviously not particularly favored by Stern or screenwriter Matt Whiteley. This is a film about boardroom battles, not battles of the heart.

I’m revising this review on an iPad, while my dog plays with the other dogs in the dog park. I wrote the initial draft on a MacBook after taking a couple of notes immediately after the screening by speaking into my iPhone. These are the tools of my trade and they were all, essentially, created for me by Steve Jobs. There was no way I was going to miss this movie, and there are a lot of people out there like me, whose entire lives involve products that have sprung directly from the mind of, or been heavily influenced by, Jobs. I’m glad the movie is as good as it is. Jobs, if he was anything approaching the pathological perfectionist he is portrayed as here, would probably tear it to shreds, finishing with the line, said in the movie to an employee he has just fired, “What are you still doing here?”

xlargeIf there is a theme to the movie, something beyond just telling a couple of decades in the life of a man, it is that Jobs was his own worst enemy (this is actually directly stated by a character, indicative of when the film gets too obvious and ham-fisted). We see Jobs lose his temper pretty early on, and he does it again about every fifteen minutes. It’s a flaw, but not a fatal one (the fatal one was “the big C”, and that’s a disease anyway). Unlike the vast majority of biopic subjects, Jobs was not a musician with a drinking or drug problem. His temper, as the film’s centrifuge of conflict, feels a little forced; since it’s not a “monster movie” like Mommie Dearest, Raging Bull and What’s Love Got To Do With It, the insistent scenes of Jobs losing his cool feel like the filmmakers grasping for conflict. The man changed the world, isn’t that enough story?

But obviously Jobs was temperamental, and obviously his huge vision brought him into conflict with those members of his board who were concerned with shareholders, and this dynamic forms the movie’s spine, with JK Simmons, one of the great comedians, giving an excellent straight dramatic performance as the Chairman of Apple’s board in the 1980s. Dermot Mulroney is terrific as Mike Markkula, the first proper Apple investor, and Josh Gad does a lovely, totally believable turn as Steve Wozniak. Women are barely a presence.steve-jobs-movie-release-date

There were moments in this movie that I was hugely moved. It is also terrific fun every time a major product makes its appearance: it’s the Apple II! Here’s Lisa! And now let’s bring out the Macintosh! The period detail is precise without being overbearing, there are nice music selections based on Jobs’ own preferences, and California is portrayed as almost a paradise, a sun-kissed land of warmth and color (wait till you see the Apple Campus!) Geeks will see this film; if you’ve never owned an Apple product it will essentially be of no interest; the unspoken lesson of the film is that, if you can afford a cinema ticket, you’ve probably, at least once, bitten the Apple.

The Dragon Breathes

Posted: August 14, 2013 in movie reviews

Red Obsession ****1/2 (out of five)

Red-Obsession-posterAs much an examination of contemporary Chinese character, ambition and taste as it is of the Chateaux and wines of Bordeaux, Red Obsession, from writer-directors David Roach and Warwick Ross, is a globe-trotting, hugely informative and thoroughly entertaining documentary that has been intricately crafted with as much care as the thousands of wines we see onscreen.

Sparely and authoritatively narrated by Russell Crowe (whose un-plummy, earthy voice is itself full of rich terroir, making him not an obvious but ultimately a perfect choice), the film examines, with appropriate measure, the region of Bordeaux and its history, its relation to business and finance, and the surprising tale of China’s recent infatuation with it and the wine that flows from its perfect soil. There’s a suspenseful hook, too: could it be that a “perfect vintage” has occurred in Bordeaux two years in a row? And what would that mean for the international wine market and Bordeaux itself? The telling is brisk and breezy and incredibly clear, spinning the tale with no judgement but obvious love for the reason everyone’s here: the wine

Uncommonly beautifully and artfully shot for the cinema experience by Steve Arnold and Lee Pulbrook, and featuring gorgeous original music by Burkhard von Dallwitz, Red Obsession is a feast for the senses as much as the mind. And I challenge you not to go buy at least an affordable bottle of Bordeaux the moment you leave the movie house. Highly recommended, and very much worth seeing on the big screen.

Hail The New Auteur King

Posted: August 13, 2013 in movie reviews

ELYSIUM **** (out of five)

elysium-firstposter-full2Finally, towards the tail end of a terrible series of Hollywood’s 2013 “summer blockbusters”, comes Elysium, an extremely expensive auteurist work that puts the Men of Steel, Iron, and those Rangers who roam Lone to shame.

Writer / director Neill Blomkamp has achieved, at the age of thirty-three, something extraordinary. He leaped from making short films to making the Best Picture Oscar-nominated spectacular debut feature District 9 in 2009 with a budget of thirty million dollars, that looked like seventy million; he has now followed that minor masterpiece up with a true, honest-to-goodness mega-blockbuster that cost a hundred and looks like one-fifty. And he is the single credited writer / director. This puts him in the company of James Cameron and — well, pretty much no-one else. Even Peter Jackson and Christopher Nolan write with partners and share writing credit. Elysium is the work of one mind, and Hollywood threw hundreds of millions (once you include marketing) at it and let it boil.Elysium

Even more astonishing, it’s a bloody good movie, a ripping yarn, a dark dystopian future sci-fi, full of action, astonishing imagery, a superb score (Ryan Amon), great performances (with one exception) and such an assured sense of style that I was continually bowled over… the sheer chutzpah of this guy is jaw-dropping.

Tonally a direct descendant of District 9, Elysium posits another dusty, dirty, overpopulated future city (this time Los Angeles instead of Johannesburg) but places a heaven for the very wealthy, Elysium, a space station, in the sky above, fully visible but unattainable by the earth’s wretched masses, now policed and administered by robots of varying, but inevitably lackluster, compassion. Matt Damon plays Max, an ex-con trying to get clean who, by a quick series of misfortunes, ends up stirring the entire pot that is this unequal existence. Action happens, along with a hell of a lot of brilliant production design.

Copley and Crew

Copley and Crew

Shalto Copley, the lead from District Nine, plays Kruger, Max’s chief antagonist, as a Terminator / Humongous (from The Road Warrior) type, a shit-kicking, bad-ass mo-fo who is just pure screen-time pleasure. Indeed, the film’s every moment acknowledges all sorts of influences we know and love, the Mad Max films being the most present, but including (obviously, not disguisedly) 2001, The Terminator, Children of Men and basically everything in-between. Blomkamp celebrates our love of the “dirty future”, revels in it, and then gives us a new classic of the genre.

This is excellent filmmaking, told with passion, precision and vision. It must be seen on the big screen, and, given the awful “epics” of the (northern) summer thus far, you’ll be grateful for one that finally delivers what they all promise: thrills, spills and chills. The only bum note is Jodie Foster’s performance as a military rogue agent; she tries something stylized, and it is so off-the-mark that it’s laughable (unfortunately), and, for worse measure, her entire performance has been quite obviously re-voiced at a later date, lord knows why. Everything else about this seriously thought-out ride is fine-tuned, and well worth your twenty bucks. Blomkamp is here to stay. Get used to him, and get excited.