Archive for July, 2014

Slow. Fiercer!

Posted: July 29, 2014 in movie reviews

Snowpiercer **1/2 (out of five)

Snowpiercer-2Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer is an exotic and very flawed wildebeest, an often inspired, sometimes lethargic adaption of a French graphic novel, funded mainly by the Korean government and starring a strange panoply of British thespians but with the couldn’t-be-less-British American (Captain America himself!) Chris Evans in the lead. It will not be to everyone’s taste, but there are those who will go bonkers for it.

Seventeen years after humankind has frozen itself to death in an ill-judged assault on global warming, the Last Remnants Of The Human Race all live jam-packed on a very large train that endlessly circles the earth, one revolution a year. The rich live in the front and the poor in the back, and the poor want more than their daily protein bars. They revolt – lead by Evans – by moving through squads of armed guards towards the front of the train.

Snowpiercer MovieScenes of battle are highly originally conceived, and other set pieces highlight Bong’s idiosyncratic visual flair. Those pesky “in-between” scenes are far less successful, containing Bong’s style of strange, forced humour that I challenge anyone else to find funny. This was also the problem of Bong’s breakthrough hit The Host, and that film, like this one, could have been much leaner and meaner by the simple eradication of these “comic” interludes.

But that’s Bong’s style and he’s sticking to it. While it means Snowpiercer is inconsistent, tonally jarring and very often simply boring, it also means we get to see a truly weird, offset, intriguing imagination at work, resulting in an imperfect, but somewhat original, action picture.

There are many deficiencies. If, like me, you like some interior logic within your sci-fi / fantasy / action movie framework, you’ll find Snowpiercer seriously frustrating, the biggest problem by far being the conception of the train itself. Each of the carriages is a simple tube, most with a single aisle down the middle, so, theoretically, there would always be people travelling through carriages to get to other ones – but no-one ever does. Thus, the old people are in the garden carriage, the wealthy diners are in the dining car, and so forth, but no-one is going to and fro. There are no signs of toilets, kitchens or beds. Evans travels the whole length of the train, so we see pretty much all its inhabitants, and there simply aren’t enough to add up to the world that is being talked about. And, outside of the protein bars being created for the poor, there is no evidence of any sort of manufacturing or food preparation (outside of a single sushi carriage) yet, as I’ve said, people are dining, dressing, dancing and so forth.

While some of the scenes – pretty much broken down into the differing carriages – are intriguing and imaginative, some are the opposite. So the “party car”, which could have been wildly imaginative (how do you party in a train carriage, being on a perpetual speeding train, as part of the Last Remants Of The Human Race?) is incredibly generic – DJs, sunglasses inside, people punching the air. It’s almost as though Bong makes his films to some sort of hierarchy, lending his imagination to some sequences with great effort and letting others being banal, uninspired and dull.

The dialogue is sometimes dreadful, and at its worse in the climactic sequence, which is far too long, wordy, stilted and terribly on-the-nose. Indeed, the last act is far less exciting than the first two, going against not only action-movie wisdom but movie-movie wisdom. In this respect Bong almost seems to be thumbing his nose at storytelling convention, to his own film’s great detriment. There is an awesome 90 minute movie lurking within these very bloated 126.snowpiercer-an-audacious-sci-fi-blockbuster

Dude, Club, Posse

Posted: July 26, 2014 in movie reviews

Hercules *** (out of five)

hercules_0If you go see the new version of Hercules, take your laundry. It’s the perfect movie to have on in the background while you fold it. The gag of this one – based on a comic book series – is that this Hercules is not actually the son of Zeus but just a very strong dude. He leads a rag tag group of mercenaries – you know, an archer, a seer, a hothead, a battle-scarred axe-wielder – and comes to the aid of John Hurt (for gold). Very well shot and edited battle scenes follow.

The other gag of this one is that they’ve surrounded Dwayne The Rock Johnson with brilliant (mostly British) actors, and watching them enjoy themselves on this silly, expensive production is much of the fun. Ian McShane – who seems drunk for most of his scenes – has a great time, as does Rufus Sewell, Hurt, Joseph Fiennes and Peter Mullan (think of the Pinter play you could stage!) The biggest letdown is that we don’t get to see enough of Johnson’s natural charm and charisma. The screenplay has a lot of verbal and visual jokes (which don’t work) but doesn’t give very many of them to Johnson, who is actually very adept at pulling that kind of thing off. As such Hercules’ posse is more interesting than Hercules.

"'Ow much you getting paid then John?" "Erm, well - 'ow much they paying you then Ian?"

“‘Who’s up for a trip down the boozer then?”

The whole thing is gore free, almost entirely bloodless and obviously aimed at the widest possible audience, which it possibly will get in the late summer in the United States, and certainly in those “foreign” markets that savour spectacle over dialogue. It’s not bathed in a sepia wash, it has nothing to say about the condition of mankind now, then, or otherwise, and it doesn’t even pretend to be educational. This is a B picture that aspires to nothing else, and it’s quite a good one. Brett Ratner directs with no particular flair, but he sets an easygoing, comfy tone, and maintains it. I look forward to the inevitable franchise.

Venus in Fur ***1/2 (out of five)

venus-in-fur-international-posterEvery good movie offers its own pleasures. Roman Polanski’s adaptation of David Ives’ play offers us a unique set of them: the moments an actor transitions.

Actors transition all the time from one state of being to another but it’s rare that a film is all about those moments. Here, there is immense reward watching Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) slip from state to state, identity to identity, character to character, as beguiled Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) follows along. He is a playwright about to direct his own adaptation of Venus in Fur; she is an actress who has not only arrived late to audition, her name isn’t even on the list. But she’s good; my, is she good, particularly at all that domme stuff…

Polanski now has a trilogy of “filmed plays” in his collection, along with Death and the Maiden (1994) and Carnage (2011); there’s also Macbeth (1971), but that’s a different kettle of fish, being epic and unabashedly cinematic. With these plays he doesn’t seek to expand them too far at all beyond their theatrical reach, and this one is the purest and most theatrical: it’s a two-hander, it’s in real time, and it’s set in a theatre. Along the way, Polanski has become the best in the world at this sort of intimate adaptation; he defines, and delineates, the single space we’re in so well, that not only does it begin to feel like a mansion full of different rooms, but when Thomas, late in the film, moves into a corridor backstage, it has the same impact as when a Bond or Bourne goes to a new continent.

"He looks like me? Non..."

“He looks like me? Non…”

The script, co-written by Polanski with Ives from Ives’ play, is good, but what you’re really watching is the acting. Amalric is great, but the role here is Vanda – it’s all about Vanda – and Seigner takes it and gets everything she can from it. It’s a role to die for, she knows it, and she doesn’t waste the opportunity. Some actors are lucky to get a “role of a lifetime” (being married to the director can help that luck along, I guess) and it’s a great responsibility. Seigner passes with all colours flying proudly. Played on the US stage by an actress in her very young 20s, Seigner, at 47, owns it.venus-in-fur-2

I have a curious quibble with the subtitling: whenever Vanda and Thomas shift into speaking lines from the play she’s auditioning for – which is all the time – the subtitles go into italics. This is spoon-feeding the reader and goes against the film’s actual and intended feel: when Seigner/Vanda shifts into the words of the play, she doesn’t make air-quotation marks or otherwise announce that she’s back into the text – it’s all in the magic of an actor’s transition, and, oftentimes, the intent of her words is deliberately vague – is she playing the part now or playing at something else? The italicised subtitling effectively removes this entire layer of the film’s mystique. It’s a bad choice.

Life’s Work

Posted: July 22, 2014 in movie reviews

Once My Mother *** (out of five)

once_my_mother_xlgOn the face of it, it would seem Sophia Turkiewicz has spent her entire career making films about her mother and herself. Her 1978 short, Letters from Poland, and her 1984 feature, AFI-nominated Silver City, were both inspired by her mother’s story, as was her discarded short Helen. Having spent the next three decades directing diverse television (The New Adventures of Black Beauty, Bananas in Pyjamas, A Country Practice, Mirror Mirror, Something in the Air and Escape of the Artful Dodger) she returns to her mother’s story – and, this time very specifically, her own – in an unconventional documentary.

Her Polish mother, old and somewhere on the dementia spectrum as she appears in this film, had an extraordinary wartime story, going from Poland to Siberia and on to Adelaide via a very unexpected (and intriguingly under-discussed) route. Once My Mother tells Helen’s story in the form of an investigation by Sophia, who also features prominently in the film on-camera today and as her younger self in much archival, personal footage. A central disruption to their story – Helen’s brief abandonment of Sophia at an orphanage – provides additional emotional conflict and potential catharsis.

It’s a very personal story, and Turkiewicz’s decision to construct her narration (spoken in Turkowicz’s vocal tones and rhythms by actor Jen Vuletic) as a series of questions and statements posed by Sophia to Helen unfortunately doesn’t invite us in but keeps the conversation between them; it’s a strange choice and an unfortunate one, and the narration is the film’s weakest feature. But the story itself is a cracker, encompassing World War Two and Australia’s great postwar immigration story simultaneously on a personal and global level, and there is a lot of very well-chosen and integrated archival footage. Just when the film feels too much like a home movie, it shows us the world.



Posted: July 15, 2014 in movie reviews

All This Mayhem ***1/2 (out of five)

exclusive-all-this-mayhem-poster-165497-a-1405006361-470-75The less you know about Tas and Ben Pappas, the skateboarding brothers from Melbourne who are the subject of Eddie Martin’s excellent documentary, the more you’ll have your eyes opened – first to the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of this unique sport, then specifically to this tale of two brothers who flew too close to the sun.

At first, its a charming, if not ground-breaking, peek at skating from a Melbourne perspective – specifically, the “Prahan scene” that grew up around a particular ramp in that suburb. As it goes on, and the Pappas brothers grow in stature, the sport reveals its contradictions, personalities, lingo (there’s a lot of lingo, particularly coming out of the mouth of Tas Pappas, and it’s great fun) and dangers – the ones you’d expect and the darker ones you may not.

Although, on the surface, the film is constructed simply – with interviews and archival footage – it really is constructed impeccably well. Martin and his editor Chris King do extremely mature things with tone, allowing us gently and humorously into a story that gains incremental, then monumental, heft. If, like me, the sport and the Pappas brothers aren’t familiar to you, there is a thrilling and disturbing story here, with a fully realised and exotic milieu, heroes, villains, a compelling story arc, and gasp-inducing twists and turns. Excellent. Or, I should say, sick. I was stoked.

Posted: July 13, 2014 in movie reviews

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes *** (out of five)

dawn_of_apes_teaser_posterI now have a fresh concern: that my infant daughter, when she’s old enough to pick her own video content, will watch the first two episodes of this new Planet of the Apes franchise in the wrong order. Being a smart little girl, she will naturally watch the apes enjoy their Dawn and then their Rise, and, sacré bleu! “Daaaddy!”

Even though they got the names wrong, this franchise, spearheaded by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (who wrote both Rise of the Planet of the Apes and this new Dawn) is getting many things right. Continuing to exist peacefully in the same cannon as the films started in 1968 (these films are prequels to those films, currently explaining how apes got smart and took over the planet, before Chuck Heston came back here and got entangled with them), Rise and Dawn, like the earlier films, have enjoyably different vibes, adding to the series’ epic-story feel.

The first was intimate, focusing on one ape – Andy Serkis’ Caesar – and his development under the caring gaze of human Will (James Franco). There were more humans than apes and the world was as we know it. This time, everything is different. Caesar leads a forest-dwelling tribe of hundreds of “smart” apes and the human race is almost entirely wiped out (by the disease launched at the end of the first film). No human characters from the first film remain, and many, if not most, of the scenes are simply between apes, speaking in their own language, and subtitled for us.

The-Planet-Of-The-Apes-Movie-Poster-movie-remakes-2571837-1024-768This stylistic shift is true to the series. Planet of the Apes (1968) was a cool, heady mind trip with a human lead (Heston) and a bunch of apes. There were ironic reversals of power, intriguing philosophical discussions, growing empathetic feelings, and, of course, there was one of the Great Reveals in all cinema at the end. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) went underground, had some new humans, and added mutated humans to the mix. Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes all continued to spin the story in different directions, with different settings and different ape / human ratios; each had its own vibe. This is one of the things that set it apart from other franchises, which tended to repeat themselves (and still do). It is was of the very cool things about Planet of the Apes.

So Dawn is doing things right by having an ape-centred story, and having Casear as the lead (Andy Serkis is first billed). There are a group of humans – survivors holed up in an area of San Fransisco, on the outskirts of which the apes live – and the story involves the two groups meeting and trying to decide whether to trust each other enough to co-exist. Our main human is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), and Gary Oldman, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee are also around.

The film’s problem – and it’s not a small one – is that it’s deeply predictable. Caesar and Malcolm are set up as good guys who want to make the whole ape / human thing work, and so, once we see a couple of apes on the one hand and a couple of humans on the other who are less willing to buy into the notion of happy coexistence, we know what’s coming, and it does. Of course the whole thing is a metaphor for race relations, and so it should be, as it always has been.

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-3Story aside, however, the execution is a marvel to behold. Getting a hundred apes to all look and perform as brilliantly as Caesar did in the previous film must have been prohibitively expensive, time-consuming and perhaps still simply technically unachievable, so the apes, when seen collectively (most of the time – usually the screen is filled with apes) look a little more “motion capture” and a little less real than before. This doesn’t matter. They still look freakin’ awesome, and the film simply has a slightly more storybook or animated quality. Who cares? The 1968 apes were obviously dudes in suits and they looked sweet. The forest village the apes have created is a masterpiece of production design, and the camerawork, the forest, the village and the apes (and, at night, a series of gorgeous fire pits) all combine to create a dazzling spectacle that, essentially, is unprecedented. Jean-Jacques Annaud (Quest for Fire, 1981) is gonna be blown away.battle-for-the-planet-of-the-apes-poster1

Best of all, the film’s unique – and often strange – quality simply adds to the potency of the franchise, both existing and still to come. It doesn’t matter that it’s not perfect, it matters that it’s got integrity, and it certainly does. It’s bold and quirky. My daughter, once she’s old enough to be into all these apes, will be able to say, of this one, “the one where the apes besiege San Francisco” or “the one with the fire-camps” or “the one with Gary Oldman”, just as we can say of the ’68-’73 series, “the one with the mutants”, “the one where the apes go back in time” or “the one with the big battle between the apes”. It’s thrilling to watch this always intriguing series continue, in very good hands.

Incidentally, the 2001 Planet of the Apes, directed by Tim Burton, was a remake of the ’68 film, is not part of the series, and best forgotten.


Teller’s Movie

Posted: July 6, 2014 in movie reviews

Tim’s Vermeer *** (out of five)

1509007_645300648845242_1236757350_nThe concept of Teller’s eighty minute documentary Tim’s Vermeer is simplicity itself: a man (Tim Jenison) sets out to prove a theory of how the Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer achieved his particular – spectacularly beautiful, phenomenally “lit” – style of painting. But what it turns out to actually be about is Tim Jenison, and what it means to be a member of the new (techno) rich in the United States of the 21st Century.

Jenison made his (obviously many) millions in the early tech boom, founding a company that has been involved with video games, 3D imaging, live broadcasting, and any number of technical innovations servicing the needs of those insatiable beasts. He is a “man of leisure”, or he could be. Instead, he devoted around four years of his life painstakingly creating the conditions to test his theory.

About half of this film is spent watching him undertake the most laborious aspect of this experiment, which is to say, watching him paint. As you can imagine, this is slow going, and is not helped by an amazingly repetitive musical score, which is, in a display of terrible directorial judgement, constantly repeated. If repeating something inherently repetitive is designed to infuse us with a sense of the painstakingly slow and arduous nature of what Tim is doing with paintbrush and canvas, it works thematically, but is death dramatically.

Nevertheless, the experiment itself has merit, Tim is an amiable (though far from fascinating) subject, and it is indeed intriguing to see someone who could do anything do this every day for four years – in a converted shed in Texas – when they could, for example, live in the great cities of Europe. Thank goodness he himself admits occasionally finding the going a bit monotonous, or this may well have been a portrait of a mad man, rather than simply an obsessed one.