War is F**ked.

Posted: October 27, 2014 in Uncategorized

Fury **** (out of five)

fury-headerDavid Ayer has written some hardcore men-with-men films: U-571 (a submarine in war movie), Training Day, Dark Blue (an excellent and thrilling look at the LAPD during the Los Angeles riots) and End of Watch (which he also directed) among them. He likes to write (and now direct) men in uniform, in camaraderie, in crisis, and his politics always find sympathy with his men, even if they’re corrupt, anti-heroic, criminal, or worse. All of these men have dirty jobs, Ayers’ films seem to say, and the men are gonna get dirty doin’ ‘em.

This theme repeats itself in Fury, which is to tanks as U-571 was to submarines and End of Watch was to LAPD squad cars. Set in a tank (named FURY) in the very, very waning days of World War Two, it is a post-Saving Private Ryan anti-war film that manages, in its third act, to become an old-fashioned World War Two rabble-rouser where instead of lamenting man’s inhumanity to man, you’re cheering on our (anti?)heroes to shoot them Nazis but good.

The structure is simple, and repetitive: tank travels and we get to know the men inside; tank sees action; repeat… up until a certain point. There are two scenes in the film’s first two acts that deviate from this essential structure, and they are both very fine, examining two sides of what the war has done to the tank’s commander, Don “Wardaddy” Collier. These scenes are original, which is important, because much of the rest of the film’s set-up is not. We meet a crew, and they get a new man, who may as well have been named “Audience Surrogate” but who is actually called Norman, is as fresh-faced as they come, and played by Logan Lerman. Norman is a young clerk, baffled to be assigned to the machine-gun of a tank, and will have to become a man by the end credits. “Wardaddy” Collier will be his teacher, mentor, Jedi-master.

As Collier, Brad Pitt has been prettier, cuter, hotter and sexier, but he’s never been as manly-man handsome as he is here (with the possible exception of his role in Inglorious Basterds, which was the comic version of this). He’s very good, despite being lumbered with the film’s most portentous lines. Subtlety is not Ayer’s thing – at all. He wants his themes understood by everyone and he makes sure you get everything, even if he has to spell it out, which he does. As such, although a film of great clarity, it’s not actually a film of great depth. War is f**ked, and men in war do f**ked-up things: that’s about it.

But it’s exceptionally well crafted and each individual sequence is superb. There are half a dozen enormously entertaining set-pieces at least. In one, Ayer gives us a portrait of the nuts-and-bolts second-to-second tactics of close-range tank battle in a way that Peter Weir gave us ships in broadside combat in Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World. In another, we really get to see what tanks can do to a gorgeous little German town.

And then there is the finale, that third act, which jettisons war-as-hell and brings us war as adventure. It is a perfect half hour or so of movie, deeply soaked in an understanding of good climaxes from the full spectrum of action-oriented war films since they began to be made. The ensemble acting here, from the tank’s crew, feels awe-inspiringly authentic, never more than when these men are simply doing their jobs: loading ammo, firing ammo, and being terrified. Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal and Shia LaBeouf are the actors, and they’re great. Supposedly there was an enormous commitment made before production in creating the crew, involving boot-camps, actual tank training and the like, and it is reported that Ayer established a cult-leader like presence on set, admitting to playing “emotional games” with his men. Whatever the method, it worked.

This great last act may also be the one that turns you off, precisely because it is heroic. I bought into it all the way, and actually felt it was essential, because the first two acts are, frankly, relentlessly bleak. In the end, Fury is a war movie as much as an anti-war movie, and a damned fine one.

Buddy. It’s rich.

Posted: October 17, 2014 in Uncategorized

Whiplash **** (out of five)

hr_Whiplash_7Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is an extremely confident, stylish, brash and superbly crafted melodrama that manages, in its contained story, to examine ambition, elitism, bullying, musicianship, scholarship and many other underlying themes. It is taut, rigorous and menacing.

Andrew (Miles Teller, The Next Big Thing) is a drumming student at a fictional, Juilliard-esque music school in New York City – the best music school in the world, we are told, and, for the purposes of the story, have no reason not to believe. Andrew is invited into the prestigious Studio Band by its mythic leader Fletcher (JK Simmons, whose CV is one of the most wonderful in screen acting); Fletcher is a had taskmaster, to say the least, and Andrew is his new toy.

It’s a very original film, with resonances ranging from Black Swan to the first act of Full Metal Jacket. Our sympathies are constantly being undermined; Andrew is obviously extremely talented, but his ego doesn’t know how to form itself yet (he’s 19), and Fletcher may be the best thing or the worst thing in the world for him. At times the discourse really manages to reach profound examinations of the nature of artistic genius and how it should be treated – and treat others. Although the action is mainly confined to one room and to a few main characters, the cinematography is exquisite, and the many scenes of musicians at play – particularly Andrew at the drum kit (Teller does his own drumming, at least in wide shots) – are astonishingly well constructed visually and sonically. It a joy to behold and should be enjoyed in a good cinema.

Whiplash-5547.cr2It is also, for much of the first two acts, quite a difficult watch, particularly if you’ve ever been the victim of bullying from an authority figure – a teacher, a boss, a parent. Indeed, if you’ve actually been traumatised at all by such a figure, this is probably not the movie for you – it’s too good at what it’s up to, and you might end up another of Fletcher’s victims. Likewise, there will be people for whom the film is just too brutish, nasty and cold, or who can’t relate to either of the lead characters, both of whom are pretty unlikeable. The experience is flinty and sharp and grim and shifty and could drive sensitive souls from the room – in this respect the film acts as Fletcher does, brow-beating us to see if we can stand the heat. And if we can, what does that say about us? Anything good? Or just that we can be cold too?

The film is somewhat unfairly balanced. We at least understand where Andrew is coming from – we have very important scenes with him and his loving, single father (Paul Reiser), but Fletcher begins and ends as furry: he’s respected as a teacher, but can he play? Does he have anything resembling a family (or friends, for that matter)? If this was Black Swan, it would be asked: “Does he actually exist?” (It isn’t, and he does).

Chazelle was born in 1985, and his previous work tends to be concerned with jazz and its place within a high-art, New-York hierarchy: you can live in the sophisticated world of certain fields if you’re good enough: if not, forget it. For Andrew, his placement within Fletcher’s class is life or death, and that’s imperative: if it wasn’t, he’d just try something else, dude. There’s something gloriously refreshing about a film finding jazz drumming instruction this thrilling. It’s also just an excellent film – if you can handle it. It’s tough.

Overscored

Posted: October 16, 2014 in Uncategorized

Before I Go To Sleep **1/2 (out of five)

Before_i_go_to_sleep_posterNicole Kidman and Colin Firth can do it now: they are masters of the art of screen acting. Both started off a little shakily, she a little too camera-aware (or vain, in blunter terms), he a little stiff. But  those days are long past and they can both take a role and bring about as much sincerity and integrity to it as it can possibly support. They’re both especially good at drama and thrillers  – and dramatic, or “adult”, thrillers.

Such a shame, then, that their completely professional and deserving work in plotboiler Before I Go To Sleep is undermined so savagely by the abysmal score, which, I reckon conservatively, underscores 90% of the running time. The heavy strings telling us – smashing us over the head with telling us – that something is up, or there is a clue being revealed, or someone is behaving oddly, are then shown up in decrepitude by the heavy strings telling us this bit is sad. Films rarely underscore all the way through – the Star Wars and James Bond franchises come close, and they’re a good example of the practice – and when they do it often signals a last-minute fear in the edit suite that the footage isn’t working hard enough to make us feel what it is the filmmakers want us to feel – which, in a dramatic thriller like this, is generally tension and suspense.

The thing about criticising a score, of course, is that it’s not necessarily the composer’s work you’re taking issue with: it’s the vast overuse of it. And then, it’s not always possible to mark that against the director: very few directors have final cut, and final cut includes final cut of the soundtrack. It could be a producer thing. So there’s nowhere to lay the blame. It has just happened, here, and it’s ruinous.

Score – and its overuse – aside, let’s look at the rest. The performances, as stated above and also from Mark Strong, are solid – very solid – and the underlying material, from a successful novel, is the kind of stuff beloved of Hitchcock and countless others, timeless, grounded stuff. It’s Memento meets Gaslight, which shows you how deeply its roots lie: films like this have been made since the dawn of movies. Kidman is in every scene; her character has to figure out something involving the two men; there are dark navigations of the mind to be made. There is no gore, no real violence; it’s a thriller your grandmama can love.

I love that Kidman, who is worth a billion dollars thanks to her career and also to one particular divorce, now makes movies based solely on the material. But she needs to get more involved in the edit suite. Before I Go To Sleep has all the right ingredients but it is not enjoyable: Tonally one-note – especially thanks to that score – it squanders its riches, which, when they’re Kidman and Firth, is a crime.

What Carte Blanche Can Do

Posted: October 13, 2014 in Uncategorized

Tammy * (out of five)

Tammy_poster
These days it seems more and more films get released straight to DVD and VOD, and not even because they’re so bad as to be unreleasable. Marketing is crazy expensive and if a studio or distributor thinks a film won’t cover its costs, straight to the shelf it can go.

Of course, if a film is so bad as to be unreleasable – say, if an intended comedy is not at all funny – then it makes sense to put it out of its misery, as it were, not just for economic reasons, but for the sake of “face”. A truly appalling film embarrasses all associated with it, and an unfunny comedy, forcing its cast to mug, shtick and galumph their way through an appallingly unfunny script, is the most embarrassing of all. It’s even embarrassing for the audience.

Tammy should have been given this humane euthanasia. Instead, it is being thrust, kicking and screaming (and screaming and screaming) into our theatres. Don’t follow it in.

Melissa McCarthy – who also wrote the script, with the first-time director, Ben Falcone (her husband) – plays the titular Tammy, an unbelievably inconsiderate, childish dolt who, upon getting (absolutely justifiably) fired from her fast-food job, splits her hometown in her grandmother’s car, with her grandmother (Susan Sarandon), who also brings along six thousand eight hundred dollars in cash. What are meant to be high jinks ensue.

A disaster as a comedy from the first frame to the last, the film is also unbelievably, smotheringly cloying, heaping more unearned sentimentality, false pathos and super-saccherinated schmaltz onto its “odd couple” than any adult should ever have to endure. McCarthy and Falcone want us to weep, but this effort is as horrendously misguided as the supposed comedy, and the music score Falcone lays on thick is almost a parody of terrible, schmaltzy movie music.

The story goes that the primary investor for Tammy saw Melissa McCarthy’s performance in Bridesmaids and gave her carte blanche to make whatever film she wanted, with whomever she wanted as director (“Hey, husband!”) The lack of any sort of script development – and the painfully knock-kneed direction – are up on the screen for all to see. The worst film thus far this year, by far. Avoid.

Heavy Weather

Posted: October 9, 2014 in Uncategorized

Force Majeure ****1/2 (out of five)

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The most emotionally gripping experience I’ve had in a cinema thus far this year has been in Force Majeure, a masterpiece by young Swedish director Ruben Östlund. A well-off young family of four from Sweden are taking a skiing vacation at a high-end French resort. Something happens, and the ripples from that something are examined with nerve-shattering precision. Every scene is perfect.

If Gone Girl is the melodramatic portrait of marriage as hell, Force Majeure is the dramatic portrait of marriage as fragile. Everything about the bond between Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is perfect… until suddenly it is not. As the implications of this one event ripple, magnify and, most disturbingly, feed upon themselves, these two best friends are suddenly and horrifically outed as strangers.

There are strong stylistic influences from Kubrick – in the magnificent locked-off shots of hotel corridors, which, while immense, trap our two victims within the frame; of the incredible steadicam skiing shots; and in the rhythms of the editing, which allows for imagery – snowblowers, mountaintops, chair lifts – to add emotional atmosphere to the main story. I also felt great resonance with the films of Haneke, particularly Caché but also his more overtly “horrific” films such as Funny Games. And, in the use of a very early, very unusual, very big dramatic incident to upend our character’s lives, I thought of pretty much all the novels of Ian McEwan, but particularly Endless Love, with its fascinating hot-air balloon incident.

Besides the two leads, there is sublime – in fact, I have to again use the word “perfect” – acting from the two kids and from Kristofer Hivju as Thomas’ great mate who gets caught up in his great mess. What he goes through is what we, the audience go through – unbelievable, gut-twisting tension of the most intimate and realistic kind: social awkwardness that just makes you want to crawl away and die. Easily one of the films of the year; a must-see, and on the big screen, so you can’t escape. You’ve got to just sit there, and squirm.

Gone Girl **** (out of five)

Gone-Girl-2014-film-posterI remember still, very specifically, my decision to cease reading Gone Girl, the huge bestseller of 2012 by Gillian Flynn: it was making me depressed. Its worldview really got to me, and I was feeling grim and prickly because of it. Its depiction of the most basic human relationship, being “the relationship”, was bleak and nasty. A day or two without reading anymore of it, I felt better. Besides, it was badly written.

David Fincher’s extremely faithful adaptation of the book, scripted by Flynn, has left the same cold metallic and yucky taste in my mouth, but in a good way – indeed, in a really good way. I was reading the book over at least a week, but I can take feeling prickly and shifty about relationships for an afternoon, rather than going to sleep with it night after night. Also, the world of Gone Girl is far, far more enjoyable on screen than it was in the pretty loathsome novel.gone-girl

Of all Fincher’s films, this one is closest in style, tone and vibe to Zodiac, sharing in particular that film’s methodical, dogged pacing, certainly not fast but sure-footed and stately, measured and precise, surely influenced by the rhythm of police investigation. Like Zodiac, it’s a long film (two and half hours on the nose; Zodiac was two and three quarters) and it’s got a very similar colour palette, which is essentially shades of grey (funny that). When it’s a police procedural – and a fair amount of it is a police procedural – the resemblances would be uncanny, except, of course, there’s nothing uncanny about an artist painting in a particular way because that’s, for him, what the material demands.

Zodiac had an epic feel but Gone Girl is very intimate; it only really has six characters of note and it’s really only about two of them. And that’s a big part of it’s icky allure: it’s as claustrophobic as a smothering relationship; even though our main couple, Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) live in a spacious house (which is by far the film’s primary location) they live in a very small town, and, when Amy goes missing, the media’s gaze, with its attendant (literal) spotlights, becomes a very small room indeed for Nick.

Nick’s got a cat, and, in one (seemingly) throwaway shot, we see that cat illuminated by scores of the media’s camera flashes before a door shuts them out; it is a brilliant moment, a Fincher moment, a true cinema moment: such an image would simply not play in a book and resonate on so many levels as it does here. Everything about Fincher’s films is precise, and every decision is fully committed: even the opening actor credits are whipped away from us a millisecond or two too soon, leaving us edgy. It’s all deliberate and it all works, because Fincher knows what he’s doing.

Flynn

Flynn

The Godfather and Jaws are always used to demonstrate how great movies can be made out of potboiler, “airport”, bestseller, low-brow – whatever you want to call them – books. I’ve always completely gone along with this, and so has Fincher. He’s the modern master of the book-to-big-screen adaptation, and he doesn’t do “literary” source material. He turns his hand to pulp and spins gold out of it. And bless him for it. I didn’t finish the book of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, either.

The performances are all excellent. Affleck has the hardest role – by far – and pulls it off, dare I say, perfectly. I have rarely given him kudos as an actor – her ruined his own film, The Town, with his performance – but he’s spot-on here, on-screen in almost every scene and getting all the little gradations – and there are many little gradations – right. There is no room for generalisation in Affleck’s role, and he rises to the occasion as precisely as Fincher demands.

Pike and Fincher

Pike and Fincher

I loved Kim Dickens, an actress I’ve always admired on television (specifically in Treme and Deadwood) as the cop; Carrie Coon, a Chicago-based theatre actor, as the twin sister; and Tyler Perry, who is a huge entertainment titan in the US but essentially unknown in Australia, where his films go unreleased, as the lawyer. I was less wowed by Rosamund Pike as Amy and Neil Patrick Harris as a suspect in her disappearance, but their roles are less grounded than the others and more prone to a slightly gimmicky approach. The weren’t bad, they were just a little bigger than the others.

Fincher doesn’t make bad movies and this is a very good one. Of his nine features, I’m going to put this on my list at number four, after Zodiac, The Social Network and Fight Club. That’s good company, on one hell of a list.

Fincher

Fincher

Hey Doll Face!

Posted: October 2, 2014 in Uncategorized

Annabelle **1/2 (out of five)

annabelle___hkg___main_1sht___chiAnnabelle, a sequel to The Conjuring (which I have not seen), is a haunted doll movie that aspires to class, with means both legitimate and dodgy. As a period piece – it’s set in the 1970s – it’s tastefully done, never overplaying the costumes, sets, props or (most importantly) hairdos. It’s gore free. And it actually spends a lot of time on character development. It’s most definitely not a schlocky, cheesy, cheapie slasher pic.

On the dodgy side of its attempt to earn a place alongside Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist rather than Bride of Chucky (it falls in-between, and a lot closer to Chucky), it casts a gentleman (Tony Amendola) who looks so like F. Murray Abraham that you spend too much time whenever he’s on screen wondering whether he’s F. Murray Abraham. This is exacerbated – to a true and noticeable degree – by the fact that the two leads, Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis, resemble – he quite strongly – Patrick Wilson and Naomi Watts. But the time someone who looked like a young Alfre Woodard turned up I really thought the filmmakers were taking the piss; it turned out that it was Alfre WoodRd, who must have a portrait in an attic somewhere. But it was never F. Murray, Patrick or Naomi.

The whole thing gets lost in an unfathomable plot that just may have made more sense if I’d seen The Conjuring. It certainly doesn’t stand on its own merits, story-wise, and, for a haunted doll movie, there’s not much haunted doll. The main baddies are demons who look for all the world like dudes with colourful face paint. They are not scary.

The first twenty minutes are involving (and contain one unintentionally hilarious moment) and then the thing gets more and more derailed, as though they were making it up as they went along (perhaps they were). But your young teens can go see it on their own; there’s nothing in it to warp their sensibilities, give them nightmares or make them ask awkward questions, and they’ll learn that once upon a time we didn’t have mobile phones.