Archive for June, 2011

Chop Chop!

Posted: June 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

KUNG FU PANDA 2 3D ** 1/2

 

The first fifteen minutes of Kung Fu Panda 2 3D include a disarmingly delightful title sequence, some excellent villainous voice work from Gary Oldman, and an unbelievably exciting fight scene that sets your expectations high for the film to come. The final twenty-five minutes feature an absolutely gorgeous – and surprisingly moving – memory sequence involving Po the Panda (Jack Black) finally allowing the memories of how he became an orphan become clear in his head while utilizing a complex Tai Chi move involving a single drop of water, followed by another extraordinary battle sequence, this time taking place on the Yangtze River at night, fires everywhere blazing red reflections on an ancient Chinese City. In between are forty minutes of boring filler.

 

It seems to me that feature-length animated films all suffer from being too long and padding out their mid-sections. I would prefer, say, a 40-minute Panda released with a forty minute Megamind from the same studio (in this case, Dreamworks); they could even give us a ten minute intermission and make double at the candy bar.

 

With the exception of the sequences mentioned above, there’s nothing here for adults. I say take two kids, and leave them together while you go for a beer in the middle forty minutes; come back refreshed for the end, suitably psyched to see Gary Oldman get his in a highly satisfying way.

Nothing to Blame Here

Posted: June 21, 2011 in Uncategorized

BLAME ***

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this new, concise Aussie thriller from first-time feature maker Michael Henry. It’s essentially well acted, beautifully shot, and the script has enough propulsion to sustain its very modest eighty-eight minutes. The only thing is that it doesn’t have a vital bone in its body – it’s not going to tell you anything about the state of the world, and the psychology of the characters unfortunately does not go anywhere near deep enough to reveal hitherto unknown or buried aspects of the human condition. It seems to exist purely to exist – that is, it feels like someone wanted to make a movie, so they made this, rather than wanting desperately to tell this story, and feature film seemed like the only way to do it. (In America, this would be called a “calling-card” movie, meaning that the filmmakers’ main motivation seems to have been to show the powers that be that they could make a movie so that they could get to make another, bigger budget movie – presumably with more personal themes). All that said, there’s nothing wrong with a quick little film with an attractive cast, a beautiful setting and a neat little story; if you want swift and undemanding, this is fine, well-made entertainment. Essentially it’s a home invasion story with a couple of twists; the invaders are all well-dressed and well-spoken; the victim maybe deserving of his predicament; and the gorgeous home is in the gorgeous Aussie bush on a gorgeous sunny Aussie day. The ensemble of invaders are a mixed bag: Kestie Morassi’s character, Cate, has the strongest backstory and the hardest choices, and thus almost inevitably she comes off the best; Simon Stone’s character is the most weakly written (and is also incredibly annoying, repetitive and shouty) so he inevitably comes off looking desperate, flailing to add some spine to a character that just doesn’t work. As the “victim”, the very charismatic Damian de Montemas has the best role because it’s the only one that’s unique; he pulls it off with admirable professionalism. BLAME won’t win any awards or be the jewel in the crown at any festivals, but if you like seeing Australian stories on screen, there’s no reason to miss this one, and I have no doubt that, as a calling card, this will launch the career of Michael Henry: we’ll hear more from him.

BRIDESMAIDS **

 

A terrible disappointment. Rose Byrne saves what is otherwise a film whose tone is so all over the place, the funny bits ruin the dramatic bits, and vice versa. The extremely talented Kristen Wiig plays a character who contributes so much damage to the preparations of her best friend’s wedding (an underused Maya Rudolph) that it is unthinkable that she would actually be welcome at the final event. Wiig has to straddle the two, divergent, tones of the film, at times playing super-broad comedy, at times crying alone in her car in what are meant to be highly affecting dramatic scenes; unfortunately her character comes off as really quite unlikeable in her self-possession. Melissa McCarthy, Rebel Wilson, Matt Lucas and Jill Clayburgh ham it up as though they’re in one sort of extremely broad comedy; the appealing Chris O’Dowd plays his “only-in-RomComs” romantic interest straight from the pages of a “How to play the romantic interest in a RomCom” book; and it is left to Ellie Kemper, Wendy McLendon-Covey and, most importantly, Rose Byrne to actually achieve a playing style that is both real and funny. Byrne’s character, easily the film’s most complex, has multiple shades; what could have been a villainess emerges as sympathetic, intriguing, and whole. Byrne is conquering Hollywood rapidly; she steals this film so completely, it must be obvious the time has come for her to get her big-budget lead: she’s the new Natalie Portman, and I hope she chooses her roles with the same degree of panache. She was too good for this film, but, ironically, it will be this film that makes her a big, big star: she needed it to show how she can take a sinking ship and not only save it, but save it with class.

 

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS **1/2

 

Thank goodness for the brilliant actor Michael Fassbender (INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, FISH TANK, HUNGER) because without him this prequel to the X-MEN franchise would be a fizzer. He plays the young man who will eventually become Magneto (Ian McKellan in the other films) and his performance is way more powerful and intriguing than we are used to seeing in a superhero movie. The main thrust of the film concerns his alliance with, and then divorce from, the young Professor X (James McAvoy, playing a young Patrick Stewart), and this is the meat of the film, and relatively compelling. The whole, expensive thing, however, is set off its rails by the necessary inclusion of a raft of young “mutants”, gathered by these two to help them deal with their societal differences. It would not be fair to single out the actors, for these characters are given dialogue not a third as rich as that given to the two men; they are also burdened with pretty silly, bordering on boring, powers; even worse than that, they are expected to lift the whole film’s dramatic weight by discussing – in facile terms – how they relate to the world at large, and in doing so we are meant to experience all sorts of reverberations – of the Holocaust, gay rights, indeed the entire world history of prejudice against minorities. Suffice to say, any film that includes a scene where a bunch of kids take on new, “super-hero” names while showing off their assorted butterfly wings and gorilla feet cannot bear this sort of meaningful association: THE PIANIST, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN or TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD this ain’t. In his defense, outstanding British director Matthew Vaughn (who made the best “superhero” movie of them all, KICK-ASS) keeps the mood outlandish when he can, utilizing a fair amount of fun 60s-kitsch (the film, uncomfortably, is set in the heyday of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and uses that as its dramatic backdrop), best embodied by January Jones (MAD MEN), who, in a James-Bond-style white catsuit, probably sums up the tone of the film as it should have been the whole way through. Rose Byrne plays it straight and once again brings a touch of class to her unfortunately ludicrous role as a top-flight CIA operative.

More Funny Cock and Bull

Posted: June 9, 2011 in Uncategorized

THE TRIP ***

 

Michael Winterbottom’s modest new film is a kind of weird sequel to TRITRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY (2005). One of the (many) highlights of that film was its opening sequence, a seemingly-improvised piece of repartee between Steve Coogan (playing a version of himself, named Steve Coogan) and Rob Brydon (playing a version of himself called Rob Brydon). That one scene seemed to sum up an entire friendship, with its inherent complications (including Coogan’s outsized competitiveness) and underlining fondness. In this new film (actually culled from a six-part television series made for the BBC) Coogan and Brydon maintain the characters they created for the first one, and a big part of the fun is wondering how close these filmic personalities are to their real ones. The plot – such as it is – has television and movie star Steve Coogan calling his friend Rob Brydon and offering to take him with him on a culinary tour of the North of England for THE OBSERVER newspaper. The sad reasoning behind this is that Coogan’s American girlfriend has decamped to the United States, leaving their relationship in an unsure limbo. Brydon accepts, and the two head off for a few days driving, eating and drinking. Then they come back to London, and the film ends. That’s it.

 

Your enjoyment of the film rests entirely on enjoying the company of Coogan and Brydon. I find the duo extremely talented and funny, and many sequences in the film are very, very, funny indeed – real laugh-out loud funny. Both are absolutely brilliant impersonators, and the funniest moments in the film are when the two try to out-impersonate each other over lunch, mainly using British actors as their fuel (particularly Michael Caine). Coogan’s persona is vain, needy and competitive while Brydon’s is almost over-the-top nice, although his habit of launching into impersonations all the time could drive you insane. The food element of the film is almost an afterthought: don’t go for the food, go for the company.

 

The film’s tone is distractingly offset by an incredibly melancholic Michael Nyman score and a terribly downbeat ending; this is also evident in the chief subplot, of Coogan trying to reconcile with his girlfriend over the phone, which is played as heavy drama. I don’t know why such an oppressive tone was applied to this otherwise frothy little film, unless it was to had dramatic heft to the television series. I actually suspect the series would work better than the film ultimately does, because the lunches – and, I hate to say, the impressions – get repetitive in a straight 107 minute dose, whereas they might have stayed fresh on a short weekly basis. Nevertheless, there are more laugh-out-loud moments in this film than in most, and that’s reason enough to see it at the cinema – especially with an appreciative, Coogan-friendly audience.

SLEEPING BEAUTY ****

WARNING: This article contains spoilers.

Mainly due to its low profile during production, SLEEPING BEAUTY caught a lot of people by surprise when it was announced in the line-up of the main competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Along with that announcement came release of the film’s trailer, and again, there was a lot of surprise around: what was this thing, with its undeniably Kubrick-influenced framing and titling? Eerily quiet, stylized, and most reminiscent of trailers for Kubrick’s final film EYES WIDE SHUT, the early trailer for SLEEPING BEAUTY looked so self-consciously arthouse – so deliberately pretentious – that I know many people who were instantly turned off by it. I, however, was mightily intrigued, because such a trailer, I felt, must be the tip of an iceberg that was either completely and boldly confident – or wildly, egomaniacally pompous.

Reports out of Cannes did nothing to aid my understanding of what the film might be, as it was the classic polarizer – it “divided” its screening’s audience; indeed, if you believed some of the reports, “half the audience booed while the other half cheered”. Hype and hyperbole are part of the whole Cannes thing, and it took a few days to hear first-hand reports, but when I got them, they certainly confirmed that the film really had gone down as a “love-it-or-hate-it” experience, and that, while many found it obtuse, some truly despised it, and a few were singing its praises, it definitely was “one of the most talked about films at the Festival.”

Not bad for a first-time filmmaker.

Julia Leigh, the writer and director of SLEEPING BEAUTY, is a novelist of some renown (THE HUNTER, DISQUIET), and I suspect part of the reason for her inclusion in this year’s Cannes Competition was the extreme “auteur” nature of her feature debut. SLEEPING BEAUTY has a bold authorial stamp; it is very obviously a singular vision, unconcerned with market forces or traditional concepts of filmic entertainment. Despite the trailer, it is not a desperate Kubrick knock-off; the similarities pretty much begin and end with her framing choices (in particular, LOLITA, THE SHINING, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and EYES WIDE SHUT), her austere and highly deliberate use of sound design (particularly evoking 2001) and her direction of her actors as flat-talking, disassociative servers of the text (2001, BARRY LYNDON, parts of THE SHINING). That said, even these tonal references go off-subject occasionally: her framing choices may, in Kubrick style, slowly move, after what seems like a filmic eternity (well over a minute in many cases), from perfectly, painterly-framed subject-central vistas to chilly medium close-ups, from which she will conclude the entire sequence; Kubrick was trickier and more fluid, by far, in his shots and editing, even in LOLITA and 2001. Her sound is far more austere than anything in Kubrick; it draws attention to itself (as did the sound design in Justin Kurzel’s similarly artistically ambitious SNOWTOWN) by eschewing any “score” for at least the first third of the movie, rather than Kubrick’s powerful, persuading use of (more often than not) existing or found music (particularly in 2001 and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE; the reverse can be seen in THE SHINING, which is almost entirely originally underscored). Her actor’s cool, and sometimes ludicrously over-anunciated, delivery of dialogue, which only really finds reverberations in Kubrick in 2001, is countered by her lead character’s naturalistic Australian accent, vernacular, and essence.

That lead character is played by Emily Browning, and thank goodness for her, because this is a film that focuses almost entirely on its protagonist, and the central casting is beyond essential: the wrong actor in this role would have destroyed a movie already taking enough risks. Browning and, presumably, her agent, have been unbelievably clever: her leading roles in this film and Zach Snyder’s recently released (and often terribly reviewed, though not that way by this author) SUCKER PUNCH have both been risky ventures, in films that have “divided critics and audiences”, yet will leave the actress in no possible short supply of offers: her boldness, beauty and acting chops in these films carve her out of the mainstream, Rom-Com, boring fare into an acting professional who must be instantly cast, not waited upon to see how she can “set the box-office alight”; I wouldn’t be surprised if Herzog, Tarantino and Woody Allen haven’t left messages with her agent’s desk, let alone a million and one indie filmmakers who may dream she may stay in their realm for awhile. Browning is not only incredibly beautiful, she is achingly youthful, and therein lies the genius of her casting, for SLEEPING BEAUTY is, really, only about one thing: age.

The three main events that form the centre of the very perverse plot of SLEEPING BEAUTY are the three visits Browning’s character, Lucy / “Sarah” (her escort / prostitute name) receive from three (presumably) rich, (undeniably) old men while she is asleep, under the druggy spell of a tea served to her by her Madam, Clara (an extremely gorgeous, controlled Rachel Blake). University student Lucy has eased herself into the world of Clara’s high-end escort service as a lingerie waitress, ostensibly to make rent money, but, under the surface but quite obviously, for more far-reaching, emotionally ambiguous needs. Things take a strange and more profitable turn when Lucy is “promoted” to be a “Sleeping Beauty”: an anaesthetized gorgeous zombie, knocked out overnight in a gorgeous bed in Clara’s home, earning money “for nothing” as her clients do as they will to her, with one rule: no penetration, for, as Clara tells her, her “vagina shall be a temple”.

The three men whom we see, explicitly, take advantage of this service are played, in order, by theatre veteran Peter Carroll, film and television stalwart Chris Haywood, and “Mad Max” villain (“The Toecutter”) Hugh Keays-Byrne, and the casting of these actors is intrinsic to the fabric of these three, extremely demanding sequences. Carroll’s character, MAN 1, is the most well-spoken, effete, and seemingly “civilized” of the trio; he hosts a dinner party where the other two are introduced to “Sarah”, the future Sleeping Beauty, which, although staffed by near-naked women, takes in Beluga caviar and the finest wines, with a Black Tie dress code. Later, during after-dinner drinks, the men sit in expensive chairs, seemingly entirely unaroused, as the waitresses fondle them without expression or passion. But that first night exposes them: Chris Haywood’s character, MAN 2, deliberately trips up “Sarah” in an act of random cruelty, while “MAN 3” (Keays-Byrne) stomps his fists on the table earlier in delighted anticipation of expensive caviar. The men are grotesques, completely divorced from any reality any real audience member might be expected to ever encounter, while Lucy and her workmates, when seen “backstage” – in the kitchen, in the bathrooms – are very real, Australian young women earning pocket money. Carroll has played hundreds of roles, but his persona as a performer is one of sophistication; Keays-Byrne will be The Toecutter until he dies, carrying with him the raw physicality and potential violence of that role; Haywood, amongst the three, has played both good and bad men with equal aplomb, applause, and, at times, audience revulsion.

Once the men enter the silent bedroom of the “Sleeping Beauty”, the themes of the film finally, and powerfully, emerge. Each wants something different from their experience, yet none is satisfied, as a sleeping beauty, it seems, may as well be a dead beauty. Carroll’s character wants to position the Beauty in such a way as to perfectly “spoon” her; Haywood’s more beastly man is horrendously, disgustingly reptilian and rapist-like; Keays-Byrne’s silver-pony-tailed gargantuan seemingly, and sadly, wants little more than to remind himself of his own strength: he picks up and tosses around the tiny sleeping body of “Sarah”, only to drop her unceremoniously onto the floor; being drugged, she notices nothing. The worst – the hardest scene in the film, the worst treatment our heroine receives, the kind of scene people walk out of movies during – is Haywood’s major scene as Man 2, who disobeys the rules and, explicitly and implicitly, violates the rules and the Beauty.

It is this scene – a tour de force by Haywood, and, to her credit, Browning, who remained “as asleep” for the filming of the scene – that reveals the themes of aging, and the despair of aging, and the hatred of aging, and the potential hatred of the young by the aged, that the film seems really about. Man 2, the only real “villain” in the film, is repulsive, despicable, disgusting – and unbelievably sad. There is no doubt that he could not possibly bring himself to say the things he does, to do the unbearably horrendous acts he does, were his subject awake, alive, a spirited, twenty-year old, vitalized young woman. As Man 2 violates the Sleeping Beauty – and our sense of the order of the Madam’s rules, and our sense of the whole order of the film itself, breaking down any idea of the “beauty” that has come so far – we quickly and horribly understand that he is not actually furious at women, nor at “Sarah” – he is furious at himself, as his own aged body, at his disability to get an erection “unless I take a handful of Viagra and some woman sticks two fingers up my anus”. The casting of Browning all comes together in this scene – tiny, child-like, white and translucent, a snapshot of perfection that only grows older by years, not days – she is everything this bald, impotent, ugly old man can never, ever be again – something of beauty, something that can sleep without the nightmare of self-hatred.

Much has been made in Cannes and elsewhere about the ambivalence with which Lucy accepts her terrible fate, and yet to me, this was the emotional truth that pulled me through the movie. Lucy is a complicated and real character, beset by certain financial woes, but whose emotional distractions and complications are more than hinted at. We don’t get her backstory, but we know what’s going on – something is propelling her, something bad, and she needs to learn – she needs to “wake up”. Her best friendship in the film, which exists, essentially, as a touching subplot, is with “Birdmann” (Ewen Leslie), a young alcoholic (and perhaps drug addict; we don’t know) who is preparing for suicide. Their relationship – seen in staccato moments throughout the first two-thirds of the film – is beautiful, and provides a world of emotional layering that subverts the coldness of the world of Lucy’s life as a sleeping hooker. She cares for somebody, and somebody deeply troubled, at that: it is plainly obvious that she herself is as devastated as he is, and her need for his friendship, and the tragedy that inevitably entails, is terribly moving. There is a great desperation in these scenes, and a sense of helplessness: as a viewer, you want to leap in, and say to both Lucy and Birdmann: just get it together, you two, and you could both have wonderful lives.

SLEEPING BEAUTY is some kind of masterpiece. It is my off-hand prediction that, were you to take a random sampling of thousands of people from all over the world, and all walks of life, and showed them this film, only about ten percent would claim to “enjoy” it: it’s that kind of “difficult” film. But for those who do appreciate it, I think they will find it enormously rich, complex, great food for thought: I have not stopped thinking about it since I saw it, and don’t think I will for quite some time. It’s a knockout of a debut feature, and, with SNOWTOWN, a fantastic addition to Australia’s revitalised new cinema of artistic bravery, bordering on recklessness. Great stuff; bring it on.

A New Spielberg, by Abrams

Posted: June 7, 2011 in Uncategorized

SUPER 8 ****

 

Steven Spielberg has not so much anointed an heir as cloned himself in the person of J.J. Abrams, who has written and directed the hugely entertaining SUPER 8 not just in the style of a certain type of Spielberg movie (ET, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK) but built literally around the same DNA: here we are in a Spielberg world, where young best friends ride their bikes on car-free streets from one family home to another; where kids are wiser than adults, adults are flawed, but very few of them are truly evil (except those who are, who shall get their comeuppance); where strange things happen and aliens exist. The stylistic templates of those classic Spielberg adventures are all here: the score (by Michael Giacchino) is so evocative of the kind John Williams has permeated Spielberg’s work with that I was convinced that Williams himself had scored the film (until the end credits set me straight); the framing, camera moves and cinematography are so familiar to us from those films that they can, at times, be exactly placed (there’s the crane shot from RAIDERS revealing what’s being carried out in the valley below! There’s the dolly in to the child’s face from ET as he looks at the cosmic event! There are the blue linear lens flares from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS!) The script, too, has so many Spielberg hallmarks (especially once you throw in Spielberg’s original story for THE GOONIES) that, given Spielberg was one of the producers on this film, you wonder why he just didn’t direct it himself. The answer, of course, is that he already has, at least three times; he doesn’t want to direct those early films again, but J.J. Abrams, who grew up on Spielberg films and admires his mentor greatly, obviously does, and thus we have a gift: a new Spielberg family movie just like the ones he made in the early eighties, that just happens to be the work of an acolyte. J.J. Abrams has succeeded mightily in his task. If SUPER 8 isn’t as moving as ET, as mysterious as CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, or as exciting as RAIDERS, it has heart, humour and sheer storytelling panache in spades. The acting is big-movie perfect, mainly from an enthusiastic and talented group of youngsters (including the truly astounding Elle Fanning, who was twelve when the movie was shot but plays fourteen); the 1970s steel-town atmosphere is beautifully realized without being obvious or overblown; the effects are first-rate and never superfluous. Most of all, it’s a warm and loving script in the big-Spielberg style, where every single scene propels the story forward in a vital way, where every physical detail in every scene tells a small story of its own, and where the magic of everyday life (being love) can co-exist with the magic of the otherworldly. It’s a young-love story with an alien, rather than the other way around, and as big-screen, mass-market, Friday night multiplex entertainment for all ages, it’s pretty faultless.

 

 

(Note: Films that are already definitely getting an Australian theatrical release are not included in this list)

 

A Letter to Elia

Armadillo

Black Venus

Brownian Movement

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

Corridor

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

End of Animal

Exporting Raymond

How to Start Your Own Country

Khodorkovsky

Le quattro volte

Letters from the Big Man

Martha Marcy May Marlene

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Senna

Stake Land

Tabloid

Take Shelter

Terri

The Guard

The Troll Hunter

The Turin Horse

This Is England ’86

Three

Top Floor Left Wing

Tucker & Dale vs Evil

Tyrannosaur

Windfall