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 Uncategorized

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.

 

Bros

Posted: July 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

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 Uncategorized

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 Uncategorized

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.

A Month ‘Till Sunday

Posted: July 4, 2014 in Uncategorized

Calvary **1/2 (out of five)

MV5BMTc3MjQ1MjE2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTMzNjE4MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_Writer / director John Michael McDonagh has stated numerous times that the idea for Calvary was borne during a heavy drinking session with star Brendan Gleeson, and unfortunately the sort of slapped-dash nature of a night on the tiles is ever-present in the finished film’s maddeningly vague and unfunny “black comic” screenplay, its often facile direction, and even its desperately uneven cinematography. It’s a self-satisfied mess.

Perhaps its strongest crime is its steadfast refusal to have any point of view, preferring to fence-sit outrageously, asking us to care for “one good priest” while semi-condemning – well, perhaps obliquely, barely condemning – well, making mention of – the Catholic Church’s astonishing history of housing child abusers within its representative ranks.

The set-up is rather clever – a man “confesses” to a priest (Gleeson, subdued to the point of being bland) that he plans to kill him the following Sunday. We then count-down to that Sunday, High Noon style, as Gleeson has a seemingly unending series of two-hander scenes with the town’s self-consciously quirky populace: the slag, the wife-beater, the rent-boy, the rich dick… you get the picture. Each becomes a “suspect” for the murder that is yet to be committed, but caring “who’s gonna do it” becomes trying as the performances vary wildly, from passable (Chris O’Dowd) to astonishingly bad (Isaach De Bankolé).

Last year Philomena gave us a very funny Catholic tale that also struggled to contain its rage: it was blistering both ways, funny and furious. Calvary is the opposite: it couldn’t be tamer, and its straining attempts at humour consistently fall very, very flat.

Everyone Is Here

Posted: July 3, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Last Impresario ***1/2 (out of five)

TheLastImpresario_P_normalSydney-based filmmaker Gracie Otto has fashioned an enormously entertaining documentary about Michael White, the British theatrical producer best known (or unknown, according to the poster’s clever tag – “The most famous person you’ve never heard of”) for The Rocky Horror Show, O Calcutta, Sleuth, and the movies Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and My Dinner With Andre.

Told in the current favoured style of letting a multitude of interview subjects – most of whom you know of – tell the story of White’s career and life by passing the narrative ball without the intrusion of voice-over or title cards (the excellent editing is by Karen Johnson), the tone is buoyant, upbeat, optimistic and glamorous, as, it appears, White has been all his rather fabulous life.

White’s had his troubles – booze, drugs and women, natch – but these are elided over, Otto focusing her gaze much more on what is important: the brilliant career. Almost everyone that White worked with seems to be still alive and willing to chat (though Tim Curry is a very obvious omission) and they’re all great company, though Barry Humphries steals the show with the best of bon mots.

White himself – still alive too – gave Otto full access to his archives and himself, and, although there’s not a tremendous amount of actual footage of him, he’s a terrific guest at his own party. Since his friends are all so much more famous than he is, he seems content to let them do the most talking. All very delightful.