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*** (out of five)

Shane Black keeps writing the same movie over and over, but he’s very good at it. Indeed, no-one writes Shane Black movies as well as Shane Black does. The considerable charm of his latest, The Nice Guys, is that – while set in the ’70s – it gives you the warm fuzzy feeling of 1987, and specifically, the first time you saw Black’s magnum opus (as a screenwriter), Lethal Weapon.

Black directs in – channels – the style of late ’80s Hollywood big-studio product: everything – the shots, the editing, the music cues, the lighting – reminds you of the filmmaking of that period, Black’s golden era. It’s strange, as though he studied Richard Donner’s direction of Lethal Weapon as his own film school. Which, I guess, he kind of did.

This time around, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe play Black’s two mismatched wild cards. Gosling’s a boozy private dick, Crowe a lumbering (read: very overweight) literal hit-man, in that he hits people you pay him to hit, usually as a quick sucker punch as the target opens their door. Neither are sterling citizens, but they suit the milieu, which is LA at its smoggiest.

That smog is a great detail but also becomes central to the plot – which is surprisingly tight, and which makes up for the lack of actual jokes. After a while, when you’ve given up on laughing out loud, you start smiling for those old-fashioned reasons: you’re enjoying the characters and the scrape they find themselves in.

Obviously a film of this scale can’t be shot in sequence, but it feels like it was, because Crowe and Gosling’s chemistry really does develop and grow over the course of the film. Gosling does some juicy physical comedy including a fair amount of decent drunk acting. Crowe unfortunately reaches for laughs that aren’t there; he should’ve played it straight and mean. He also looks not tough but unhealthy, puffy and doughy. It works for the character, I suppose, but I was worried for the man.

Not half as much as I was worried for Kim Basinger. The Oscar winner (for LA Confidential, opposite Crowe) gives a performance so inept I couldn’t help but wonder if she was extremely drunk the entire shoot. She also looks hideous, in the way that only bad facial surgery makes one look hideous. I have no idea why she wasn’t sent home and her role re-cast on day one, as it is highly apparent she was in no state to work.

Black may be a one-trick pony, but that pony is still cute, and I enjoyed the ride. The ending is a blatant set-up for a sequel; I’ll be there.

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*** (out of five)

Taika Waititi is a talented individual and can tune into the New Zealand audience better than anyone – two of his films, Boy and now Hunt For The Wilderpeople, broke records as the highest grossing local films during their respective releases (and Hunt continues to make bank, in NZ and now as it releases worldwide). He’s written and directed a few episodes of the Funniest Television Series Ever Made, Flight of the Conchords, and there are many, many critics and civilians around the world who think his previous film, What We Do In The Shadows, was the funniest film of 2014/15.

His new film has charm aplenty, excellent performances, and a few huge belly-laughs – but how I’d have loved a lot more. Like What We Do In The Shadows, it’s got the perfect ingredients for an ecstatically funny movie, and then, unfortunately, delivers on that promise only in fits and starts. I laughed my ass off in the first ten minutes, and then began to wonder where the funny had gone.

Young teenager Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison, who will now become a huge unlikely movie star in the style and shape of Rebel Wilson) is a smart and compassionate but mischievous scamp who has been bounced around the foster system before ending up on the doorstep of kindly, childless farming couple Bella and Hector. Bella adores him instantly and  showers him with love; unfortunately, she dies pretty soon after his arrival, and, with the threat of child services taking him back and sticking him in “juvie”, he and Hector go bush. Fearing that Ricky’s been abducted by Hector, a manhunt – the Hunt for the Wilderpeople – ensues.

Waititi, who wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Barry Crump, is pretty fearless in his tonal palette, showing us, early on, a suitably bloody rural event that would definitely freak out little kids (the film is rated PG-13 in the US, PG in Australia). Our heroes are on the run partially because the authorities think Hector may be using Ricky as a sex slave, leading to a long (and deeply unfunny) gag about pedophilia. And there are guns, which get fired. It’s not your conventional, conservative kid’s flick, to its definite credit.

And yet, and yet… It’s such a shame it still suffers from the sentimentality and essential tropes of so much of this type of entertainment. Once you get past its risqué elements, you find a film practically begging to be adored. It’s got everything: sweeping, gorgeous aerials of the New Zealand landscape, action sequences, Lord of the Rings references (too many and always lame) and Rhys Darby, who is badly used by being forced to play an outsized kook rather than what he’s brilliant at: a deadpan one. It’s as though Taika is auditioning for the big time.

He’s got the part. He’s now directing Thor: Ragnarok. Finally, I can look forward to a superhero movie, because even though Waititi, for me, has yet to make a masterpiece, you just know he’s got it in him, and if it was a Thor movie – well, that would be hysterical.

Highly Strung

Posted: May 24, 2016 in Uncategorized

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

After five feature films, Scott Hicks had a monstrous world-wide hit with the seminal Australian feature film Shine in 1996 and went “straight” to Hollywood, making such films as Snow Falling On Cedars, Hearts In Atlantis, No Reservations and The Lucky One. But he’s always made films about art and music, including documentaries on INXS and Philip Glass. His new feature documentary Highly Strung is not so much about the art of playing the violin so much as the violin itself, not only as instrument but as object of lust, financial speculation and glamour.

The film follows the shenanagins – and that word is quite deliberate – of the members of the Australian String Quartet, based in Adelaide, leading up to and during a period of their recent history when they (a) took on new members and (b) managed to attain the goal of owning – and thus being able to play together – two violins, a viola and a cello, all made by the Italian master Guadagnini.

Hicks was there at the right time and place to capture some truly weird and remarkable twists and turns amongst the ensemble. As they say, “you couldn’t make this stuff up”, partly because the motivations of the characters are so mysterious – indeed unfathomable – wrapped up in ego and petulance but also the weird vibration of genius. It’s compelling, occasionally jaw-dropping stuff.

There is also a contrasting portrait of the Carpenters, a Manhattan-based trio who run their ensemble like a corporation. To the Australian mind-set, their shenanagins may be even more jaw-dropping. Suffice to say, they’re louder and more colourful than the ASQ in every way, except, perhaps, a good one.

You don’t need to have any appreciation for classical music or the violin itself to love this film. My only quibble was with the editing – I found the whole thing rather oddly structured, especially the final fifteen minutes or so. It’s a terrific story, but perhaps with a slightly different editorial approach it could have been an absolutely thrilling one.

Needless to say, the music is sublime.

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Lorene Scafaria’s portrait of a middle-aged woman and her adult daughter a year after mom’s husband has passed away may be autobiographical (with Scafaria being the daughter), or at least inspired by Scafaria’s true story, but it’s nevertheless riddled with cliché and trite situations that are very difficult to swallow.

Susan Sarandon plays the mom, and Rose Byrne plays the daughter, and they’re the two reasons to see the movie. They’re both great and the scenes they share are emotionally connected and true (there aren’t enough of them, unfortunately, but that’s the essential nature of the story – the mom has to learn to live outside of her daughter’s pocket). But Oscar winner J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) looks strained and embarrassed – hiding behind a bushy mustache – as a stereotypically too-good-to-be-true love interest for Sarandon; their sub-plot is treacly, ludicrous and cringe-worthy. Wait’ll you hear the 70s hit that wells up over their big moment; it’s unintentionally hilarious.

I’m not the demographic target for this film and I suspect, among that demographic, it’s going to be a big hit. The cinema I was in had about eighty patrons and I’m sure seventy-eight of them were women Sarandon’s age or older. They are a seriously powerful and cashed-up segment of movie-goers. They deserve better than the same old hash.

Green Room

Posted: May 17, 2016 in Uncategorized

green-room-poster1***1/2 (out of five)

Writer / Director Jeremy Saulnier made a huge impression on the cineaste circuit in 2013 with Blue Ruin, a meditative and highly original take on the revenge thriller. It won him the FIPRESCI Director’s Fortnight Prize at Cannes. His follow-up, Green Room, joins the canon of “under siege” movies – Rio Bravo, Assault on Precinct 13, Night of the Living Dead, The Mist, From Dusk Till Dawn, Panic Room, Home Alone etc – not with louder bangs, scarier invaders or more bloodshed but with originality, wit and subversion.

Our besieged this time are a low-rent touring punk band, our location is the “green room” or band room of a backwoods Oregon tavern, and the invaders are skinheads of the Nazi-loving variety. We begin in the afternoon and head inexorably towards nightfall. But as the story hits the most essential beats this sub-genre demands, the screenplay and direction surprise us with off-beat timing and unusual methods: people die at odd times in odd ways. It is jarring only in that it upsets the rhythms we’re used to: it bucks formula even as it adheres to it, and vice versa.

The biggest switcherooni of all – which like all of them, remains subtle – is the characterisation of the grand poobah villain, Darcy, the senior member of this chapter of facists, played (delightfully surprisingly) by Patrick Stewart. There is no scenery-chewing going on here; Stewart plays this man as cautious, rational and quiet. Instead of a “villain”, we get a real man with disturbing beliefs. It actually took me quite a while to cotten on to what was going on with Darcy, so ingrained was I to assume that the head of a skinhead party, in a siege movie, needed to be an evil, violent maniac.

Anton Yelchin and the other members of the band are all fine, but on the besieged side, it is (once again!) Imogen Poots, as one of the skins caught on the wrong side of the locked door, who steals the show. She is just breathtakingly watchable. She is soooo ready for the Hollywood A List, and I’m soooo glad she hasn’t accepted that invitation yet. As long as she’s making intelligent indies, I’m buying them.

The First Monday in May

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Workplace docs are a long-standing sub-genre of documentary; sometimes they’re a glimpse of the banal (Salesman), sometimes the unique (Leviathan) and sometimes the rarefied, as is the case here. The First Monday In May is the date of Anna Wintour’s fund-raising fashion gala in support of the Costume Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and where to seat Beyoncé is a vital part of her workday.

Wintour is an icon to a segment of the population, and, of course, she has been fictionalised to a wider audience in the novel and film The Devil Wears Prada (where her alter-ego was played brilliantly by no less than Meryl Streep). She’s also already been the subject of an excellent feature-length documentary, 2009’s The September Issue. She is every bit the fashion doyenne, and the denizens of her world – and the acolytes who surround her – expect her to be sarcastic, regal, bitchy, cutting and intimidating. She lives up to their expectations; how much she plays up to them only she knows. Or maybe she doesn’t: it’s possibly become ingrained, automatic.

The other major character in the film is Andrew Bolton, the curator of the Met’s Costume Department. He’s not a strong enough personality, perhaps, for his own feature-length cinema-released doco, but as a foil to Wintour he’s excellent company, and appears almost down to earth in the context of people such as Wintour’s editorial consultant, who happily appears on camera dressed like a giant green pear.

Interesting if not fascinating, your appreciation will increase the more you like the kind of stuff these people work on. If fashion is of zero interest to you you may still get by; if high-falutin’ people aren’t your style, though, you must avoid.

Whoever Was Using This Bed

Whoever Was Using This Bed - PosterA short film screening as part of the St Kilda Film Festival.

I read through the works of American short story supremo Raymond Carver when I was a kid. He’s been quite brilliantly adapted for screen in a couple of features – Altman’s Short Cuts and Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne – and there are literally dozens of short film adaptations of his stories, some of which are probably great and some of which probably are not – he’s a tricky writer to adapt, for a lot of reasons. Andrew Kotatko’s adaptation of Whoever Was Using This Bed is an intelligent, precise and mature short film that doesn’t rely on Carver’s innate abilities; in transposing this gripping little two-hander to the screen, Kokatko makes plenty of cinematic choices of his own, informed by his obvious deep regard for the source material.

Any two-hander needs great performances from both performers, and Jean-Marc Barr and Radha Mitchell excellently play off each other – and alone (in Barr’s case, as he deals with disturbing telephone calls) –  as a married couple dealing with a metaphysical crisis in the wee small hours. Although both use American accents, the film is set in an Everywhere, befitting one of Carver’s more esoteric and genre-laced works (the genre being toyed with here being the thriller or even ghost story).

Kotatko and cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson manage to wring elegant moves, surprising angles and evocative moods from their seemingly cramped location. Kotatko’s choice of having the couple’s belongings boxed, shrouded and covered adds to both the feeling of existential dislocation and the couple’s displaced universality – they may be in an Everywhere, but they’re also, at least as we find them, Nowhere.

This is short filmmaking at its most literate, in the best sense of the word.

The St Kilda Film Festival – one of the biggest and best short film festivals in the world – begins on the 19th of May. Whoever Was Using This Bed screens in Session 6 on May 21st.

https://www.stkildafilmfestival.com.au

bad-neighbours-2-quad***1/2

There is a moment early on in Bad Neighbours 2 (aka Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising in the US) when Dave Franco’s character Pete, a frat brother a few years out of college, is proposed to by his boyfriend at a poker game with his other frat bros, and accepts. As the two young lovers embrace, their three other bros jump up and down in delight, chanting “USA! USA! USA!” It is a moment of delight and defiance: this is modern America as we in Hollywood declare it, the moment seems to be saying, and if you don’t like it, f**k off. Later, in the end credits, it will be revealed that the film was shot in Georgia, which nearly lost hundreds of millions of dollars in film production earlier this year by proposing measures that, in practice, were homophobic. How delightful to imagine the legislators of Georgia watching this film and seeing good, clean frat boys celebrating the engagement between a couple of their own in such patriotic fashion.

One of those celebrating bros is Teddy, and he’s played, brilliantly, by Zac Efron, who has evolved not only into a terrific comedic performer but also a post-modern archetype: he is, at least in this movie, playing on two levels simultaneously, both as Teddy and as Zac Efron, gorgeous and ripped sex symbol, completely self-aware and yet completely committed to the surface performance. Thus we have him, at various times, ripping off his shirt for no reason, other than the reason we all actually know: he looks good with his shirt off and we want to see that.

The other major performance this time around, in a movie as delightful and silly – indeed, much more silly – than its similarly delightful predecessor, comes from Chloë Grace Moretz as Shelby, a freshman at Teddy’s old college who, with a couple of friends, decides to start her own sorority in Teddy’s old frat house, thus once again causing problems for their “adult” neighbours Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne). Moretz, for me, has either been badly used or not on game in her past few pictures, but she’s excellent here, to the extent that maybe silly comedy is her thing.

It’s certainly Rose Byrne’s thing. Of the original film, I wrote, “Byrne again proves herself the funniest of the new batch of Hollywood comedy queens.” She doesn’t get to prove herself so much this time around – she and Rogan are side characters, letting the young ones do the heavy lifting, which includes pratfalls, spit-takes and all manner of (successful) physical comedy amongst the film’s rapid-fire dialogue. Like everything in this movie, it’s touching: Aw, sweetie, let the kids have a go! I laughed a lot during this genial, high-spirited, extremely good-natured romp, and at the end I noticed I was wearing a massive smile. These characters have been really well nurtured, and if director Nicholas Stoller wants to bring us number 3, I say, bring it on.