Archive for April, 2015

tumblr_niac6qplM61s0gynco1_1280***1/2 (out of five)

In 1999 The Blair Witch Project scared the beejaysus out of us with handheld cameras, an unknown cast (who also shot much of the footage) and not much of a budget at all. It didn’t exactly invent the “found footage” format but it was easily the most influential example of the form ever, and, helped by its massive popular success, it revolutionised the modern horror film.

In 2007 we got Paranormal Activity, which complemented the formula with the even more lo-fi aesthetic of a locked-off camera at night (and, essentially, a cast of two – unknowns, of course). Stratospherically successful, it needed The Blair Witch Project to exist, but definitely was ground-breaking and original and took horror into another new direction.

Now director Leo Gabriadze and writer Nelson Greaves give us Unfriended, which absolutely belongs in the royal company of Blair Witch and Paranormal. What may sound trite and gimmicky in one sentence – “The whole film takes place on a teenager’s computer screen” – is actually a deeply intricate, beautifully constructed and very creepy horror film that is its own brand of wildly original. (It’s interesting that it comes just two weeks after It Follows – we seem to be in a quality horror renaissance).

Set in absolute real time on the anniversary of a teen’s suicide, the film mainly takes place in a Skype video conversation among five friends. We are viewing the screen of Blaire (Shelley Hennig, excellent) so we see everything she sees; besides the hang out, we are privy to her private messages to her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm) as well as anything else – such as websites or YouTube videos – she decides to check out. Wrapping around the Skype universe is, of course, that of Facebook as well, and all those environments are rendered authentically – I assume under license or approval from each company. Over the course of eighty minutes, and completely as viewed on Blaire’s computer screen, mighty horror ensues.

The more you know about how Facebook, Skype, messaging and YouTube work the more deeply appreciative you’ll be about just how clever the screenplay is and how precisely its been brought to life. This is some sort of post-cinema: here, we don’t even need a silent actor’s face as they ponder, and then make, a decision – instead, that is all accompanied by a mouse cursor lingering over a “Reply” button before clicking it. And if you don’t believe that can be suspenseful, see the movie.

Along the way – and along with the very decent chills and scares – there’s also a more than decent examination of cyber-bullying and cyber-shaming. It’s in no way exploitative, despite the genre. It’s impressive stuff, perfectly acted by the young unknown cast, and – once again, in the wake of It Follows – pretty much a must-see for the horror fan. May this original trend continue!

20140504222301!Testament_of_Youth_Book_Cover***1/2 (out of five)

I must admit to never having heard of Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth before this adaptation, yet I discover it’s a beloved and important World War One text: beloved because its sweeping story, although completely true, is such a classically perfect tale of love and loss; important because it’s a war story told be a Vera, rather than a Tom, Dick or Harry.

Vera’s femaleness is central to this telling of the “great” war; it’s the homeland story, the nurse’s story, and, in particular, the lover’s story. Vera was a forward-thinking young woman determined to never marry but instead go to university and become a writer. She had to convince her father to let her sit her entrance exams, and she got into Oxford. During this period, she fell in love with one of her brother’s friends, Roland, whose mother was emblematic of Vera’s ambitions, being a writer, albeit a married one, and the household breadwinner. As Vera enters Oxford, the war breaks out, and Roland and her brother go off to war, joined at various points by their best friends. In an effort to do her part – and, most interesting psychologically, in an effort to do anything she could to protect her boys, she volunteered as a nurse. How the war affected these five is the stuff of true drama, and if you wrote it as fiction it may stretch credulity. As the truth lies, however, the resulting events truly do stand as a testament of youth and war.

As Vera, the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is astonishingly good (and astonishingly English, aside from her dark complexion, which is neither particularly English nor particularly Swedish). She’s going to become a mega, mega international movie star – the kind who will win Oscars; she’s already got the lead in Ex Machina under her belt, was in last year’s Australian film Son of a Gun, and has five major films completed and rolling out over the next few months. She’s in every scene save for a few flashes to the trenches, and she carries the whole movie on her very slender frame. I believed her every moment. Kit Harrington (Jon Snow in Game of Thrones) does nicely with Roland, and lots of familiar faces show up like Dominic West and Emily Watson as her parents and Miranda Richardson as her Oxford mentor.

Director James Kent, who has made a lot of television but is debuting here on the big screen, allows himself a little too much indulgence on poetic images, which swell the film to two hours and ten minutes, which is perhaps fifteen minutes too many. Some shots, including running alongside departing trains and one directly honouring / stolen from Gone With The Wind, are so old-school as to seem hackneyed, and the film does feel very old fashioned in many ways, delighting too much in costumes, diffuse light and a trinkly, wrinkly piano-heavy score. But Vikander’s performance, and the ultimate effect of Brittain’s story, are powerful enough to raise the film above its own shortcomings. It’s ultimately a powerful and memorable experience.Testament_of_Youth_(film)_POSTER

ageofultron** (out of five)

I don’t read comics (not out of any snobbery, they’re just not my thing) and I haven’t gone deep-web diving into the Marvel mythology, especially as it relates to the material providing the basis for The Big Movie Event of 2015 (outside of the next Star Wars film, coming in December), Avengers: Age of Ultron. It makes for tricky reviewing, because this instalment of this franchise (the franchise within the franchise, really – the strand where Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow and Hawkeye, the dude who shoots arrows, all hang out together) seems to have made the choice to really stimulate the die-hard fans rather than the casual viewer; this viewer was often deeply bored by very long scenes of expositional gobble-de-gook.

The film is darker than its predecessor, with the unfortunate effect that it’s far less witty; even Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.’s) barbs seem redacted and obsolete. Whereas Stark seemed to dominate the first film, here the emphasis is given much more significantly to second-tier players Hawkeye and Black Widow (Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson); this is a negative in the case of Hawkeye and a huge positive in the case of Black Widow. Renner simply seems lost in this sea of superheroes, and his very significant screen time is the film’s most vapid, but Johansson is glorious – and gloriously costumed and shot – and, in a way, saves the movie for those not deeply into the Marvelverse.

In fact – and surprisingly – it’s the women who save the film in spite of the drench of testosterone. Joining Johansson is new Avenger Scarlet Witch, embodied awesomely by Elizabeth Olsen. She somehow manages to act in the middle of all the CGI destruction, and her character is legitimately interesting (within this world). Perhaps it’s simply that it’s refreshing to have female characters so prominent in such a film, but I think it’s more than that: Johansson and Olsen just seem to be offering fresher performances than the men around them, who, let’s face it, have all got their own franchises outside of this one, and are therefore perhaps a little – or a lot – more bored of their character’s cadences (really, how interesting can it be to play Thor?)

Many major actors turn up in small parts in the film – Idris Elba! Anthony Mackie! Stellan Skarsgård! Thomas Kretschmann! Andy Serkis! Julie Delpy! Paul Bettany! Don Cheadle! – and that’s quite fun, although Samuel L. Jackson – one of the greatest of screen actors – is either taking the piss or just not giving a damn, rendering his Nick Fury a caricature within a comic-book world. Whatever he’s going for, it goes against the movie.

James Spader, always an excellent and professional presence, provided an on-set motion-capture performance as the prime villain, Ultron Prime, a form of Artificial Intelligence that takes its primary form as a skeletal robot. While Spader’s moves and vocal work are fine, his body is covered by the CGI robot form, which, while cool-looking, deprives us of a properly engaging villain. There’s a reason Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, Tom Hardy, Kevin Spacey, Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Tom Hiddleston and so many other good actors have been cast as the villain in superhero movies, and it’s not so they could be rendered into zeroes and ones. At the end of the day, nothing is more engaging than a good actor’s face.

Banksy Does New York

Posted: April 21, 2015 in movie reviews

BanksyDoesNY_414x227***1/2 (out of five)

Throughout October of 2013, the street artist Banksy held a “residency” in New York City, offering up a new piece every day of that month. Banksy Does New York, an HBO documentary that was not produced by Banksy (or so it is claimed), wittily, cleverly and thoroughly covers that residency, thus providing those of us who weren’t in that city at that time the chance to experience just what a major and wondrous artistic event it was.

Banksy’s achievement that month was huge, and the film demonstrates that. It must have involved years of planning and considerable expense. Banksy emerges as way more than a street artist; his New York residency must now place him among the great conceptual artists of all time. The myriad ways his work that October refract through observation, photo and video capture, internet dissemination, destruction, theft, re-display and now this film make the event an astonishing experiment the likes of which has never before been seen.

Along the way, filmmaker Chris Moukarbel not only engages with themes of street art and its existence within the larger art world, but also – and most strongly – with the ongoing gentrification of New York City. By the end of the month it became clear that that was one of Banksy’s artistic themes as well. I reckon he’d be pleased with this film. I certainly was. And I’m Banksy.

It Follows

Posted: April 17, 2015 in movie reviews


***1/2 (out of five)

Let’s acknowledge that you may as well hope for a paisley moon as a truly original horror film; these days, the best horror films borrow tropes that work and give them an original spin. David Robert Mitchell’s truly creepy and excellently crafted It Follows takes Romero’s slow-moving zombies, combines them with the sexual metaphor of vampiric contagion, then removes the zombie, metaphor and vampiric elements, leaving us with a spooky sexually transmitted disease that follows you, in the guise of creepy, slow moving humans.

It works. Mitchell directs the slow walkers to have the most vacant of stares – the creepiness of the soulless, the walking dead without being dead – and (the conceit being that “it” changes forms) dresses them in creepy archetypes: the drowned female, the hugely tall or tiny thin guy, the old woman. They follow (well, it follows) a lovely young lass we can all root for – and boom!

Well, were it so simple. As I say, this movie is expertly crafted, with an intricate understanding of the language of the horror movie. In particular, Mitchell has collaborated with composer Rich Vreeland (here credited as Disasterpeace) to achieve a fantastic, spookily 80s synth score and matched it with supremely effective, off-beat cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, who subtly but incredibly creepily apes all the great spooky moves of the great horror films of the 70s and 80s, including the slow zoom in, the slow zoom out, the fish-eye lens, and – my favourite and deployed twice – the 360 degree pan. You can tell all these creatives – and boy are they creative! – spent an enormous amount of time talking about, and probably watching, their favourite horror films. Due diligence is in full evidence.

The film has style, has panache, and a strong vision. There’s nothing cookie-cutter about it, nor does it feel like a calling card. It’s got a sense of self, as The Babadook had, rather than a sense of “me too!” It plays weird cards, like a fractured sense of time: our young protagonists watch old black and white movies on old boxy televisions, but one of them has a reading device that is more advanced than any kindle. It has great performances from complete unknowns. It uses Detroit beautifully, evoking chilling foreboding from rows of deserted houses shot from the car’s POV in an autumnal dread.

But more than anything, the film is legitimately creepy. It uses all the tropes, but it’s not formulaic. It’s… okay, let’s say it: original. And if you’re a horror person, you’ve got to see it, as this is the arrival of a new, important voice on the scene.

14addd3aac69dc055f524d7592a3dec6****1/2 (out of five)

I hated the title Mommy until about half an hour into Xavier Dolan’s brilliant new film, when it became abundantly clear that the title was perfect. Not since Spanking The Monkey, David Russell’s feature debut, has there been such an intimate examination of forty-something mother / teenage son relations.

The film is about many things – it’s got deep thinking embedded at every level: script, production, post-production – but the primary theme that resonated with me was how we create our own universes. Mother and son construct a life together, and it’s totally at odds with society, as represented by their neighbours and the public places they visit. But it works for them. I felt a great sense of self-analysis: how crazy is my little family? How crazy – or sane – is anyone?

I almost feel that, as a father, I can review this film but were I not one I could not – because only as a parent do you understand the unconditional parental love that this film takes as a fait accompli – and yet its creator is neither a father nor a sufferer of any of the ills that infect this close family. Perhaps he’s a great filmmaker, instead. Dolan is twenty-six years old, and this is his fifth feature film.

There are moments of sublime beauty that remind me of Scorsese and Tarantino, but directly proportional to their tonal temperature. As those guys can shoot a cold and funny murder, Dolan can shoot a warm and touching moment with no forced sentimentality whatsoever – and that is hard. And, at one hour and seventeen minutes into this film, he executes a stylistic manoeuvre you’ve never seen, you’d never expect, and which blows your mind as it rips your heart wide open.

It it also possibly the first movie to seriously look at how ADHD truly affects those that have to deal with it; indeed, possibly the first movie to take ADHD seriously as a subject. There are shades of characterisation in this film so delicate and sublime they make you want to weep. I teared up for the first time – for how much humanity was on display – at the one hour and five minute mark. But then I laughed for a long period, before the drama hit me again.

It’s that kind of movie – it stings like life. Scenes like that in the karaoke bar are mini-masterpieces. Anne Dorval, as Die (the mommy), is unbelievably good, but Antoine-Olivier Pilon, as her very troubled son, holds his own (and many scenes are between the two of them and no-one else).

The film is exquisitely photographed (André Turpin, cinematographer), which is all the more astonishing considering that it’s shot in 1:1, an aspect ratio I’ll warrant you’ve never seen in a cinema. Dolan often uses slow motion in a beautiful, tasteful way, and the music is gorgeous and present. There are moments of torrential sadness, but that doesn’t mean the film’s a bummer – it’s the opposite. Mommy is a film about love and compassion, and it is wonderful. See it.

UnknownFurious 7

Furious 7 ***1/2 (out of five)

Furious 7 is not quite as enormously entertaining an action-minded car-theft film as the last two instalments of this unlikely franchise. That said, within its own weird universe, it’s pretty damn good.

What made 5 and 6 so magical was, besides the spectacularly nutty plots and the out-of-this world car action sequences, the beautifully constructed “family” ways of the diverse ensemble. In this film, that ensemble and sense of family is deeply diminished. It’s Vin Dielsel’s show this time, and, although he’s a terrific action movie lead, the script doesn’t allow him to share his soul with his fellow players as it has before.

The film is extremely energetic and, after a slow burn, very kinetically engaging for about two hours on full tilt. It doesn’t make a lot of sense – which seems much to do with Paul Walker’s death causing the filmmakers to alter the film halfway through shooting  – and frankly feels like four action-inspired chapters rather than a movie with a beginning, middle and end. But those chapters are chock-full of very loud, gear-grinding action (and some excellent hand-to-hand combat) combined with the series’ now-trademark sense of its own absurdity. Jason Statham adds to the colour as a super-villain, but The Rock is unfortunately sidelined for much of the film. Diesel bears the brunt, and, like always, he bears it well.

Walker’s death is dealt with, of course, and sensitively. James Wan had a supreme challenge with one of his two leading men dying halfway through production, and, if this episode is a little less coherent than the previous two, it’s still very much a Fast and Furious movie, which means it’s two tons of fun.