Archive for September, 2015

Macbeth

Posted: September 30, 2015 in movie reviews

5b998080223a61c068b738b2cc5d79ec*** (out of five)

There is a strong argument to be had that Macbeth is the best play ever written – better than Hamlet, better than King Lear. It’s leaner and cleaner than those plays, with a relentless narrative drive, exceptional characters and an absolute cracker of a plot. It’s a natural for big-screen adaptation, and there have been a bunch: Orson Welles made an excellent, claustrophobic, highly stylised Scottish-accent version in 1948, Roman Polanski made a supremely cinematic (and bloody) version in 1971, Australian Geoffrey Wright set his 2006 adaptation starring Sam Worthington among the criminal gangs of Melbourne, and there have been countless television and stage-captured versions as well.

Now Australian director Justin Kurzel, whose Snowtown I declared the Best Film of 2011, has taken a stab at it, setting his version in Scotland at the time the events are supposed to take place (around 1050 AD), with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the Macbeths. He’s currently shooting Assassin’s Creed with Fassbender and Cotillard, and Macbeth DOP Adam Arkapaw is there too, so obviously the collaborative spirit here is high.

The wind-blasted Scottish moors are quite obviously the perfect landscape for this cold-blooded story, and, in setting the story in its exact time and place, Kurzel exposes the severity of these characters’ lives, while also being able to obliquely comment upon our own expectations: Macbeth’s “castle” is a series of tents, Birnam Wood is hardly a rainforest, and god forbid we should expect the doctor to be up on the latest sound medical practice. This physical world is shot impeccably by Arkapaw, who is one of those cinema artists for whom the question of winning an Oscar is not “will he?” but simply “when will he?” He has a truly original and unique eye.

The production design by Fiona Crombie (who for some reason does not seem to have gone along with the gang onto Assassin’s Creed) is impeccable, complemented by Alice Felton’s authentic-seeming costumes and, in the battle scenes, the Scottish war makeup we remember so fondly from Braveheart. While these tents and leather garments, set on the moors like elements of a lonely outpost on a distant planet, may seem too contained to interest our eye for an entire feature film, they last the distance.

What becomes monotonous, unfortunately, is Kurzel’s and the cast’s huge decision to deliver almost all the dialogue in the whole movie in the same measured, quiet tones. Fassbender, Cotillard, Sean Harris (Macduff), Paddy Considine (Banquo), David Thewlis (Duncan) and Jack Reynor (Malcolm) all speak Shakepeare’s lines impeccably (and wait until you hear Cotillard’s excellent Scottish accent!) but, perhaps in striving for some sort of naturalism or authenticity, almost always extremely intimately. Perhaps a lot of theatre productions allow actors to shout too much, but the overriding choice here flattens the story out, keeping it tonally flatlined, and, at times – such as the discovery of Duncan’s body – actually seems to work against the spirit and meaning of the text. When Macbeth finally, just before the ultimate battle, yells out for Seyton to bring him his armour, his raised voice is as refreshing as a long cool glass of water.

There are sublime moments. The first battle scene is rip-roaringly brilliant, original and exciting, and sets up an expectation of high style and intensity that nothing in the rest of the movie lives up to (the second battle is so subdued as to be, frankly, a big disappointment). A no-dialogue, non-Shakespeare scene at the beginning sets up an aspect of the Macbeth’s emotional life that makes an awful lot of sense. The witches are well handled, the violence is cleverly portrayed, and an intriguingly edited mash-up of a couple of scenes immediately after Duncan’s death give Macbeth and Malcolm a scene, not in the original play, that, if not the perfect telling of the story, is certainly an interesting alternative way of presenting it.

There is plenty of precision, but at the expense of passion. We don’t need Shakespeare’s characters to be shouting all the time, god knows, but this is “a tale… of sound and fury”, and Kurzel’s decision to deny us that seems a little churlish. Shakespeare’s dialogue is verse – heightened language – and, in reducing it all to softly-spoken naturalism, one is, unavoidably, reducing it.

Review Wrap Up

Posted: September 28, 2015 in movie reviews

There have been a few flicks recently that I’ve reviewed for the ABC but neglected to post here. So here they are: THE VISIT, TANGERINE and THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY.

For my interviews with M. Night Shyamalan of THE VISIT and Sean Baker of TANGERINE, go to https://itunes.apple.com/au/podcast/movieland/id668507582?mt=2

The_Visit-e14294761719141The Visit ** (out of five)

M. Night Shyamalan’s self-funded (five million dollar) mockumentary The Visit is a strange brew of humour and creepiness that seems to be intended for the teen market. Shyamalan has said that he recommends the youngest viewer be fourteen or above; I recommend the eldest being seventeen or below.

Australian child actors Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould play two (American) kids who go to stay with their grandparents whom they’ve never met. Trouble is, the grandparents are creepy, and as the kids discover more about them, the more they start to fear all sorts of terrible things.

The film is heavily padded and really lags, like a short story stretched to novella length. DeJonge and Oxenbould are both great (they are in every single scene, as the film is shot as though by them – it’s supposedly a documentary being directed by DeJonge’s character) but neither Deanna Dunagan nor Peter McRobbie are nearly scary enough as the grandparents. The film isn’t scary enough, and its uneasy blend of comedy and horror is jarring.

It could be that I’m simply the wrong audience; perhaps Night has crafted a perfect, safe little horror flick for teens. But as an adult entertainment, it’s not worth visiting.

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Tangerine *** (out of five)

Sean Baker’s fifth, very independent movie Tangerine is a queer odyssey, the story of a couple of trans (gender? sexual?) street prostitutes on their sometimes separate, sometimes united quests across Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve. Sin-Dee (the dominant Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is out in full force in search of her pimp and boyfriend, who, she’s heard, has been doing the nasty on her while she’s been in the nick (from which she’s just been released). The much more reserved – and much more sensible – Alexandra (Mya Taylor) is on a quest to fill a room – she’s performing torch songs that night at a bar and she needs an audience. Both girls are in desperate straits, and the hot sun, some dodgy johns and general apathy among the street denizens all stand in their way.

The film was shot on iPhones and been treated in post to exude a golden-orange glow that may explain its title (nothing else does, unless I missed something, which is possible whenever Sin-Dee is talking, because she talks fast and with sass). It’s funny at times, sad at times, and certainly a window into an exotic (and not in the fabulous way) world; it’s no masterpiece, but it is original, and these days that always counts for something.

dob-concept6lrgThe Duke Of Burgundy

***1/2 (out of five)

British über-auteur Peter Strickland follows up his wonderful and esoteric Berberian Sound Studio with this loving and exacting homage to late-70s soft-core sapphic porn. Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen and Studio’s Chiara D’Anna play a couple whose erotic world centres around the playing of highly deliberate and ritualised games of sadomasochism. While seemingly deeply satisfying, things may not be as idyllic as it seems on the surface.

This is a film all about surfaces, appearances, truths and fabrications. Its very existence is as artificial as a film can be, being so much a pastiche that, if you aged the film a little, you could pass it off as the real thing, a relic from 1978. Everything is completely at odds with reality; the ladies live in a European town of the imagination, populated only by women, many of whom also seem to favour BDSM, and all of whom either teach or study Lepidoptera. That’s right, the entire town – the film’s entire universe – is into butterflies and moths. And BDSM.

It’s an exercise, a strenuously intellectual one, with hot bondage and discipline to go with the endless self-referentiality. It will appeal to a limited group of high cinephiles, and those who always got off on the kind of fantasy soft-porn the film so dutifully replicates, and most of all, to the subset of folk who are both. That would be me.

Sicario

Posted: September 27, 2015 in movie reviews

sicario-movie-poster***1/2 (out of five)

Denis Villeneuve’s seventh feature is easily his most ambitious, and his best. It carries his strong and singular cinematic voice, is spookily rich in atmospheric and seemingly authentic detail, is expertly crafted and chock full of beautiful performances. Unfortunately it also suffers from Villeneuve’s propensity to wallow in ponderous self-satisfaction, and its storytelling is at times muddled and murky. Overall it’s absolutely worth seeing – and on the big screen, no doubt – but it’s a little frustrating.

Emily Blunt, photographed as a real person by Roger Deakins (and more on his work in a bit) plays Kate, an FBI agent based in Phoenix, Arizona, who specialises in rescuing kidnap victims. After displaying some inspiring work in the film’s crisply intense cold open, she’s recruited by a shadowy “advisor” (Josh Brolin) to take her skills further toward the front line in the war on the Mexican drug cartels, and in accepting the gig, loses whatever shreds of innocence she may still possess.

In keeping with Villeneuve’s work – in particular Incendies (2010) and Prisoners (2013) – it’s a nasty, dirty, violent, relentlessly dark universe we’re presented with, and the story of Kate’s plunge into the grim realities of the USA’s more extreme foreign policies is told without sentiment, pity or, for that matter, hope. Mexico’s Juarez is presented as a modern hell and the situation with the cartels essentially untenable. The film is peopled with characters we don’t care for, doing things we might very well find repugnant, but, with Kate and her FBI partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) Villeneuve manages to construct a moral spine strong enough to carry us through the muck. Blunt has never been better; her Kate is simultaneously strong and fragile, knowing and naïve, and her dilemma is palpable and believable but never overplayed. It’s as though Blunt is letting us understand Kate in parcels, saving surprising and realistic aspects of her character for appropriate moments, and keeping some under soulful lock and key.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography is simply sublime. Switching unobtrusively from formal set-ups to documentary-reminiscent handheld, from technologically enhanced POV to cold, florescent brutalism, Deakins’ camera fills us with the choking dust of this desert world (the film is set between Arizona and Mexico). It’s unflashy stuff, but it’s the subtle work of a true master. The score, by Jóhann Jóhannsson (Oscar-nominated last year for The Theory of Everything) is flashy stuff, drawing attention to itself with intense, overwhelming bass chords, but it completely suits the film’s frightening, almost horror-movie aesthetic.

There were elements of the storytelling that I found madly frustrating; one extended episode, involving the excellent and swiftly ascending actor John Bernthal, still makes no sense to me after a whole sleep’s worth of pondering, and I’m going to have to ask a couple of highly film-literate colleagues – both of whom loved this film – if they can possibly explain it. Villeneuve’s pacing is eccentric to the point of detriment, and the final twenty minutes or so unfortunately get bogged down in self-seriousness; they are over-extended and slow.

There are some astonishingly great episodes, however, including an early mission to Juarez that is among the best sequences I’ve seen in a film this year. And second-billed Benicio Del Toro, as a shadowy advisor to Josh Brolin’s shadowy advisor, gives a perfect Del Toro performance (as opposed to a ludicrous Del Toro performance); The Bull has got his groove back. If this film pops up in the Oscar nominations – and it very well might, especially for cinematography, direction and original screenplay (Taylor Sheridan) – expect to see Del Toro get a nod. He’s simply awesome.

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON

Posted: September 7, 2015 in movie reviews

nwa1

***1/2 (out of five)

Rename this flick Straight Outta Compton: The Authorised Biopic of NWA, and you’ll have no problem slurping up its many pleasures. Any perceived oversights, white-washings and re-writings of history can be relegated to the internet, while up on the silver screen jazzy images, fine performances and awesome music can be smugly devoured.

Not that, even in this NWA fun-land, you’ll get a full blast of the boyz: Arabian Prince is written out completely and DJ Yella and MC Ren are essentially human props, acknowledged then forgotten. This is the story of Eazy-E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, and those three get what I reckon may be contractually fulfilling exact equality of screen time. You’ve been watching Ice Cube work on his solo album for two and a half minutes? Let’s see what Dre’s up to for two and a half minutes!

It’s rags-to-riches, told with punch, gusto and not a little anger (and where in the world would an NWA pic be without some righteous anger?) The concert sequences are superb, supposedly extremely faithful to the original events – check out the clarity of the extras casting, with the stadium only getting black once the boyz get to Detroit; they may have been straight outta Compton, but their fans were straight outta the suburbs as much as any ‘hood.

Once riches are achieved (and riches are achieved incredibly quickly: Straight Outta Compton, the only album the whole original group worked on together, was an instant megahit), the boyz fracture and fight. A lot of the second half of the film is taken up with contract disputes, but, given those involve Suge Knight of Death Row Records, they’re more interesting than they sound. On a personal level, something happens to Eazy-E, which explains why his interests on the film are represented by his family, while Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are full-blown producers on the film.

Of course none of it would work without believable performances and the film’s got ‘em. With the best role and displaying the most acting chops, Jason Mitchell steals the show as Eazy-E, and I’m betting right now five large he’ll get an Oscar Nomination for Best Supporting Actor (five large is fifty bucks, right?) Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr. is, well, born to play his dad and it’s uncanny and kind of spooky. Watch Boyz N The Hood on a monitor alongside this (once it’s on VOD) and get your wha?? on. Corey Hawkins makes the least impression as Dr. Dre but the role, as written, is the least interesting (and the most saintly, which makes it the least interesting).

Paul Giamatti plays the band’s manager Jerry Heller in a companion piece to his Dr. Eugene Landy in Love and Mercy; he’s dependably great, perhaps even a little better than his normal excellent self. It’s hard to mention any female performances because I can’t remember any; oh yeah, Dr. Dre’s mom (Lisa Renee Pitts) was okay… this is the Authorised NWA story, after all, and for a lot of those years, bitches weren’t the main event, they were more like dessert.

It’s a fun ride, clear, colourful and quite revealing, with some oddball humour; depressingly, its truth-telling about the LAPD in the ‘80s resonates loud and clear today, and not just confined to the cops in Los Angeles. Thankfully, the music sounds as fresh as the message.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Posted: September 7, 2015 in movie reviews

Me-and-Earl-and-the-Dying-Girl_poster_goldposter_com_7*** (out of five)

Slightly contrary to its über-hip, deeply self-aware, post-ironic rhyming title, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is not a comedy, although there are certainly a wealth of funny ideas, lines and moments in its first act. The second and third acts, however, are as maudlin, grim and depressing as any other boy meets girl, girl is dying of cancer movie (and there have been quite a few of late).

It’s a strange one. Most of the elements work: the performances, the storyline, the characters, the milieu, the music and the cinematography are all fine, and the dialogue is often way, way above fine; however, it is glacially slow, and the tone is such a downer for those two acts that they feel like a betrayal of the first (and that spunky title).

As the Dying Girl, Olivia Cooke is masterful and moving and with one stroke establishes a movie career. All of her moments are winners, and then along comes a scene comprised of one single very long take with her in the foreground that takes your breath away: she’s not just good, she’s great. As “Me” and “Earl”, however, Thomas Mann and RJ Cyler are fine without being breath-taking, and you can’t imagine Hollywood getting excited about them as it will about Cooke – could she even get an Oscar nomination? If so, she would deserve it; all that stands in her way is the lacklustre material surrounding her.

I was getting very fidgety in the third act of this film; it feels much longer than its 105 minutes. If it wasn’t for Cooke, this would definitely only muster two and a half stars, despite all the groovily obscure art-house cinema jokes that I got every single one of.

The Gift

Posted: September 1, 2015 in movie reviews

gift_ver3***1/2 (out of five)

One thing, straight off the bat: don’t watch the trailer for The Gift. It ruins the movie. If I’d seen the trailer before the movie, I wouldn’t have bothered to see the movie.

And you should see the movie. It’s very good, a slick, well-constructed and original take on a trustworthy sub-genre of psychological thriller: the creepy guy who turns up in a nice couple’s lives, seems nice, probably isn’t. Joel Edgerton’s screenplay is less complex than his for Felony (2013), but more mature than that of The Square (2008); it’s a canny blend of originality and commercial appeal (and indeed, the film has been doing extremely well at box offices around the world – Edgerton, who also directed in his feature directing debut, can now expect plenty of scripts offered his way).

Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play the nice couple, Edgerton (triple threat!) the creepy guy who pops into their lives. Bateman in particular is sensational, displaying colours he’s never shown before; he’s truly maturing into a really fine actor. Hall is excellent too, so comfortable in playing Americans now it’s weird to think of her as Sir Peter Hall’s daughter.

Edgerton has really hit a six with this one, economically, artistically and creatively; Hollywood will be his oyster, at least until his next one. In the meantime, we the audience get to benefit from this clever spin on a trusted formula; for goodness’ sake, see it before you see the trailer.