Archive for June, 2016

milesahead_1800x1000d***

Like many, I went through a serious Miles Davis phase. When, a couple of years ago, I heard that Don Cheadle – one of current cinema’s most dynamic actors – was going to play Davis in a movie, I got excited. The match seemed perfect. Cheadle is an adaptable actor but through all his characters there is a sense of magnificent self-regard tempered by great intelligence. Perfect for Miles.

The good news is that Cheadle’s performance in Miles Ahead, which is also his debut feature film as a director (he also co-wrote the script), is sublime, everything you’d want it to be. He’s got the look, the poise, the voice, the hubris, the supreme arrogance, the wit, the smarts, the fear – the whole package. Davis wrote a rather unconventional and extremely intimate memoir, so the things going on inside his head are available, and Cheadle has obviously plundered like a pirate. His Davis feels like the man who not only wrote the book but played the horn. (Incidentally but crucially, Cheadle’s trumpet playing in the film always looks – to my unskilled eye at least – damn perfect). The film portrays Davis in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and Cheadle strikes perfect notes in them all.

The other good news is that the movie looks absolutely sensational. Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer shot all of the material that takes place in the 50s and 60s on Super 16mm, and the grain effect he achieves, combined with the immaculate period art direction of Korey Washington and production designer Hannah Beachler, not only makes the film feel as though it was shot in period but also routinely and eerily mimics the look of Davis’ album covers from the time. The effect is that those photographs, burned into the memories of those of us who revere Davis, spring to life as scenes. It’s very, very clever.

Unfortunately, all of this brilliant, top-notch work is undermined by a seriously misguided script. The scenes set in the 50s and 60s deal specifically with Davis’ doomed relationship with his wife Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi, from The Invitation) while the “contemporary” action, the stuff set in the 70s – when Miles was long-haired, wild, and living in hibernation in his NYC Brownstone – is a silly and mostly invented buddy flick that sees Miles team up with a Rolling Stone reporter, Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) to recover a stolen session reel. Because this section is so patently false, it has no gravity, no stakes, and its frustrating emptiness colours the truer, more emotionally engaging marriage story. Worse still is that both stories consistently undermine each other by butting in and ruining the momentum; neither ever gets up a fair head of steam, with the result that the film becomes drawn-out and, I hate to say, boring: something a film about Miles Davis really can’t afford to be.

There’s no rule, artistic or otherwise, to say we can’t speculate or have fun with a real person in the context of a fictional work, but the shenanigans that take up well over half of Cheadle’s film simply aren’t dramatically engaging. They’re not just an invention, they’re a bad invention. It’s a great shame, because so many of the elements of this film are truly wonderful – enough, actually, to just justify a trip to the cinema. Recommended with serious reservations.

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**1/2

Everybody Wants Some!!, Richard Linklater’s bizarre follow-up to his multiple Oscar-nominated masterpiece Boyhood, seems almost deliberately obtuse, anachronistic and technically deficient. It is also, by the end, rather charming, which is its saving grace. For awhile – at least the first half hour – it feels like a total disaster.

It’s being promoted as “the spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused”, Linklater’s much loved 1993 film which introduced us to an astonishing range of young actors, including Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Adam Goldberg and Jason London. I can’t help feeling that, while being associated with a Linklater project will get their feet in doors, the cast of the new film won’t be as immediately embraced, because their performances, collectively, are very weird. They’re all on the same page, but it’s a strange, over-the-top, cartoonish page that makes them less loveable than the stoned high school denizens of the earlier film.

Essentially, they’re playing archetypes bordering on stereotypes. Collectively, they’re a group of college kids – in the days leading up to the a start of the academic year – who live together because they’re on the school’s fabled baseball team. Individually, they’re the clown, the stoner, the southern dummy, the dandy, the know-it-all and so on, and all seem to have been directed by Linklater to play up the characteristics of their type as much as possible, to the detriment of actual characterisation.

The film is set in 1980, the lads all want to “get some” – sex – and the film’s politics are no more advanced than those of Porky’s (1981) which is, incidentally, a better movie, and has the benefit of looking more comfortable in its own period clothes.

I assume Linklater has made something autobiographical here, and maybe, in his memory, these guys have become huge, almost grotesque personalities which he’s cast and directed his actors to match. It makes for a very disconnected viewing experience. Thankfully, his lead actor, Blake Jenner, is allowed to let a touch of naturalism seep in, and when, in the film’s third act, he’s allowed to develop a romance with a freshman played by Zoe Deutch (who feels here like a new Anna Kendrick), we’re finally allowed in. For many it may be way too little, way too late.

Mustang_french

***1/2

At this year’s Academy Awards, the race for Best Foreign Language film came down to two horses: Mustang (which neatly fits the metaphor, yeah?) and Son of Saul. It’s completely understandable that the latter won: it’s a rather revolutionary work, which justified re-visiting the holocaust by its bold technique and astonishing integrity. Mustang is not revolutionary, it’s just a very solid and well-constructed film that is eye-opening without being heavy-handed.

Five sisters go to the beach after their final class for the semester. There they play in the water with some boys. It is a sequence of pure beauty and delight: young people enjoying a classic vibe. School’s out, and they are free.

But there’s the rub – because they’re in a Black Sea town in Turkey, not Sydney or Santa Monica, and a local old lady, watching from afar, doesn’t like what she sees. The sisters are orphans, living with their progressive or at least easy-going grandmother, and when the nosy old biddy dobs them in to their uncle, he takes it upon himself to tighten the reins. These beautiful free, somewhat wild horses are going to be broken.

The magic trick of Mustang is that it’s a scathing indictment of traditional patriarchal control in modern Turkey without being at all heavy handed. You’re in for the story and the message comes free. I had no idea this stuff went on in contemporary Turkey; that exposes some ignorance on my part and made the film all the more powerful.

The performances are all terrific but the girls are just sublime. The actresses – the youngest is thirteen – are astonishingly believable as sisters. In the opening, sunny, completely enticing early scenes, when the “mustang” is free, the way the girls move together, through the streets and open spaces of their town, is extraordinary. They flow like a single organism that contracts and expands, exchanging positions, following and leading, their energy seemingly binding them on invisible elastic cords, not so much like a school of fish as an amoeba.

Warren Ellis contributes a score made up of cello, flute and violin that suits the tone of the film perfectly, which is dreamy, soft and fluid, despite the imposing subject matter. It’s the debut feature for writer / director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who made the film for just €1,300,000. We’ll be hearing more from her.

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***1/2 (out of five)

If you prefer Wagner to Mozart, dark chocolate to milk, or even Lennon to McCartney, you may prefer Duncan Jones’ epic fantasy Warcraft to anything coming out involving people who can fly, mutate, avenge or be super. I certainly did. It’s an astonishingly designed vision of an alternate universe that is brutal and savage and yet often gorgeous to behold.

You’ve got to like the orcs, though. The film spends a lot of time with them (much to its credit, as they’re far more interesting than the humans). I loved them. Their intense, spectacular musculature is entertaining enough to keep you engaged on its own, their features are relentlessly intriguing – their big hands, crazy thumbnails, upward fangs – but it is their bling that is the most spectacular. One of them wears what looks like a dinosaur skull on each shoulder, and when he turns around, you realise that their vertebrae drape down his back and swish behind him, like a spinal cape. Their piercings – including through their oversized teeth – are also something to behold.

As its title suggests, it’s a tale of war, between humans and orcs (and, to be specific, also within the orc community). The humans come out surprisingly well – Travis Fimmel and Ben Foster particularly. But it’s the orcs’ show, and the mo-cap actors, lead by Toby Kebbell (the Cassius-like Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) are excellent, their growling, thunderous voices suiting the extremity of their visual beings.

Duncan Jones made the intriguing Moon and the thrilling Source Code. Unlike a few indie darlings who have been trampled in their recent moves to the two hundred million dollar club, he seems to have kept control of his material. The film is very often extremely visually exciting, the frequent battle scenes are excellent (including a pleasing amount of orc-on-orc action) and the soundtrack, by Game of Thrones’ Ramin Djawadi, appropriately massive. In Australia, the film is called Warcraft: The Beginning. I look forward to The Middle.

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*** (out of five)

Anna Kendrick is just too adorable, and Sam Rockwell just too cute, in this very uneven but ultimately passable RomCom guns-and-guts mash-up. Kendrick plays a bit of a hopeless case who may be a bit nuts; on the rebound from being dumped, she falls fast for a nice dude and the feeling is mutual. Pity he’s an international hit man trying not to be killed by others cut from the same cloth. Or maybe it’s not a pity. Maybe some serious action is just what she needs.

The supporting characters are all sub-par Tarantino wannabe, but Kendrick and Rockwell (despite a pretty huge age difference) have palpable chemistry, and the final moments of the film work so well that they kind of make the whole thing vaguely wonderful in retrospect. It’s shot colourfully in New Orleans which contributes to the fun, as our übercute little couple stumble around in silly shirts, dodging bullets and drinking fluffy cocktails.

image*** (out of five)

Fernando León de Aranoa’s film about aid workers in the last days of the war in the Balkans has a strange, disembodied feel. That’s partly due to the extremely naturalistic, low-key performances of Benicio Del Toro, Tim Robbins, Olga Kurylenko and Mélanie Thierry; it’s partly due to the film’s tone and genre, which is incredibly dry wartime satire; and, perhaps mainly, it’s because the film’s subject matter just seems so distant. The Balkans conflict, to many of us (and perhaps I’m only expressing my own ignorance) was distant and has receded into a fog given the ongoing wars that consume us; a film satirising that conflict’s bureaucratic absurdities seems like an artefact discovered on the shelf of a holiday rental.

Not nearly as biting or angry as M*A*S*H or Catch-22, but certainly within the same sub-genre as those war satires, A Perfect Day – whose ironic title embodies the film – gets by on the gentle interplay between the double act of Del Toro and Robbins (the comedy duo we’ve been waiting for!) They’re aid workers in the Balkans, they’ve got a big fat male body in a well, it’s contaminating the local village’s water, and their rope is broken. Over 24 hours they’ve got to get more rope and get that body out. But the endless idiocracy of war keeps getting in their way – which is all the more infuriating because the war is actually over, it’s just not everyone agrees on that yet.

It feels like an adaptation of a novel, and it is – one that was published in 2004. It feels out of place and time, confusing and arbitrary – not that a film about one of the more confusing and arbitrary conflicts in recent memory shouldn’t. If you’re a big Del Toro fan, it’s a good chance to see him as the lead, which is all too rare.

The Sydney Film Festival 2016 has begun very, very well. Tickled and Goldstone are sublime. Certain Women is alright, but a very strange pick for the Competition.

 

Tickled

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

It’s a difficult – perhaps stupid – thing to give a “star rating” to a documentary. (You could say the same about any film, or any work of art, but it’s a requirement of my particular gig and I actually don’t mind it as a point of focus.) Some docos have subjects so compelling that you’re partially awarding your prize to the subject, not the artist; but then, it was this artist who “found” the subject, or at least went to the effort of making a film about it, or at least went to the effort of making a really good film about it… You see the dilemma.

Regardless, Tickled is so compelling, so thoroughly engrossing, so totally enjoyable, that it deserves the kind of praise that accompanies the big important docs – you know, the ones that change your life and get the big star ratings. See this movie. It’s amazing, astonishing, jaw-dropping, revelatory, brilliant.

You’ll notice I’m avoiding talking about the film itself; that’s completely deliberate, for the less you know, the better. Ostensibly it’s about the dark underbelly of competitive endurance tickling. Say what? Exactly.

New Zealand pop culture reporter David Farrier goes noodling about looking for his next fun, light, easy-going story, finds an audition notice for competitive endurance tickling, thinks “WTF??”, follows it up, and gets hit with hateful correspondence about his own sexuality of such mind-boggling nastiness that he simply has to go deep, enlisting his filmmaking buddy Dylan Reeve to join him. And that’s all in the first 300 or so seconds of the film. Things get weirder from there.

If the definition of a good film is one that keeps you wanting to know what happens next, Tickled is among the greatest ever made. You cannot look away. Don’t drink a batch of water, coffee, beer, whatever before you go in, because woe-be-tide you have to go to the toilet and miss a moment. This is breath-taking stuff. The only reason I can’t give it five stars is that I feel like it could’ve gone an extra mile in really relating its findings to the grander human condition; regardless, this is a genius piece of documentary filmmaking. I want it to be nominated for Best Feature Length Documentary at the next Academy Awards. That may sound like a long shot, but only because of the subject matter’s inherent weirdness. In terms of proficiency and engagement, Tickled is an instant classic, one that will appear on “Top 50 Documentary” lists forever.

Goldstone

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

Now showing at the Sydney Film Festival
Opening across Australia 7 July

Three years ago Ivan Sen’s film Mystery Road opened the Sydney Film Festival. This year his new film, Goldstone, did the same. It was a great show of respect for Sen – and indeed, on stage, Festival Director Nashen Moodley called Sen “one of the greats.” But it was also deeply thematically and contextually satisfying, because Goldstone continues the story of Detective Jay Swan, played in both films by Aaron Pedersen, a supremely talented actor and also a true “movie star”, possessing that undefinable “it” – you only know it when you see it, especially on the big screen. He’s incandescent.

You don’t need to have seen Mystery Road to appreciate Goldstone, and indeed, there’s no reason not to see Goldstone as soon as you can and then check out Mystery Road, at home, as a prequel – it would work well that way, as Goldstone is to Mystery Road as The Road Warrior was to Mad Max: the first film in each case (Mad Max and Mystery Road) sketches everything in beautifully, while the second is some sort of masterpiece.

Jay Swan is the ongoing detective Australia needs. He’s Indigenous, for a start, and he’s also tall, strong and handsome. He’s got issues, but his brain never falters, and nor does his aim with a rifle. He’s heroic, a cross between Sam Spade and pretty much any character ever played by John Wayne. And Goldstone is very much a cross between the hard-boiled detective story and the western, with the vast desert outback as its milieu.

And what a milieu. This is the most beautiful movie – along with The Revenant – I’ve seen in years. Like that movie, a lot of Goldstone was shot at “golden hour”, the crew meticulously planning all day then shooting like hell for a couple of hours as the sun set. It’s like a negative image of The Revenant; that film was all snow and trees and water, while here is all sand and sky and not a drop to drink, except beer, which, like in all good outback Aussie tales, is a character unto itself.

Sen might shoot beautifully but Goldstone, unlIke the shallow Revenant, is also thematically rich and deep. Favoring image and physical performance over dialogue (again like Revenant) but utilizing a twisty, sophisticated plot, Sen delivers an artful pot-boiler, a boiling, roiling poem of callousness and intrigue that operates as a very direct but never “on-the-nose” metaphor for no less than the history of Australian white settlement. This, while also having the best gunfights since… Mystery Road.

Sen is not afraid of ambiguity, and as such, in the detective story arena, Goldstone is reminiscent of The Big Sleep: not everything gets answered, there are red herrings and loose ends and scenes simply for the sake of themselves. But, in the western arena, Goldstone aspires to The Searchers: it is about a lot more than guys and guns. Simultaneously a small story set against a massive landscape and a huge story told within the world’s smallest community, Goldstone is a stunning, original piece of cinema and not to be missed on the big screen.

Certain Women

*** (out of five)

Taking the concept of “low-key” to new heights, Kelly Reichardt’s new film is not for my student who commented, after watching Jason Reitman’s Young Adult (which I consider rapidly paced), “It’s like the stuff they cut out of normal films”. Slow to the point of being provocative (“Can you take it? Can you sit still?”) Certain Women manages to be engrossing almost entirely due to milieu.

That milieu is Montana, a part of the world that has been alluded to or portrayed in gun-totin’ westerns but rarely as a minor hotbed of extra-marital affairs, lesbian crushes and personal injury lawsuits. That makes the film sound exciting, which it is not. Certain Women is determinedly “slice-of-life”; the acting is straight modern realism, the stories all entirely possible in the real world (they’re adapted from three short stories by Maile Meloy), and the shooting and editing style slow. Like, really slow. At one point there is a shot of a horse barn (is that what they call a house for horses?) that goes on, with minimal human interaction, for about nine hours. I jest, of course, but seriously, did the editor leave the room?

It’s all highly intentional, of course, and thank goodness. Reichardt is no slouch and she has a strong, personal voice. The film has an internal belief system, a structure that you’re either gonna get on board with or not. I did. But be warned. It’s a very, very quiet, deliberate and precious piece of cinema. It’s entertaining in the barest sense of the word, but it is thought-provoking, eye-opening and intriguing in the quietest. Why in the world it is in contention for the Sydney Film Festival’s Prize – which awards “the most courageous, audacious and cutting-edge new cinematic creations” – is beyond me. It is none of the above.