Saturday, August 2, 2014

Revisiting the 2014 Blockbuster Season

With Guardians of the Galaxy (Aug 7) and The Expendables 3 (Aug 14) still to hit screens, we are nearing the end of the 2014 Blockbuster Period.

This year I will begin the season with Noah (March 27) and end it with The Expendables 3, which I won't be seeing.

I feel like I have missed a few of the bigger budget releases along the way - I didn't bother with The Muppets Most Wanted, Divergent, Transcendence, Tranformers 4 or Rio 2 for example - but the season came on strong late with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy after the disappointment of Captain America and Godzilla and the completely forgettable blandness of the latest X-Men installment. 


Here's how I rank the one I saw:

Excellent (4-4.5) - The Lego Movie, Bad Neighbours, Edge of Tomorrow, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Decent (3-3.5) - Noah, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Godzilla and How To Train Your Dragon 2

Eh (2-2.5) - The Other Woman, X-Men: Days of Future Past and 22 Jump Street.

Ugly (0.5-1.5) - The Amazing Spider-man 2 and A Million Ways To Die In The West.

Not many people enjoyed the hilariously Seth Rogen/Zac Efron turf wars in Bad Neighbours as much as I, and it seems like X-Men is heavily favoured. So, my rankings will be topsy-turvy for many.

I know there were many out there who felt strongly about Godzilla either way, while I came out straight down the middle. The monster effects are incredible, the catastrophic scale and the effective mounting of dread impressive, but the human story was blundered badly. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is not the guy you want to lead an audience through an unbelievably convenient series of close encounters. I was rarely on the edge of my seat, but remained in constant awe of the colossal spectacle. And yet, a few hours after seeing it, I couldn't summon much enthusiasm. As it turns out, the film's best sequence appeared in that first teaser - the reason it was one of my most-anticipated films of the year.

I absolutely hated The Amazing Spider-man 2, which was as loud and overstuffed as Raimi's Spiderman 3 and was watchable only when Garfield and Stone shared the screen. 22 Jump Street successfully ran a pretty exciting reboot series into the ground with an overload of meta humour that wore out its welcome and barely masked the generic 'college' story, despite winning chemistry (again) from Tatum and Hill.

I had forgotten I had even seen Days of Future Past mere hours after watching it, and what is most angering about it is it's existence as a $200 million clean slate for the franchise. Only McAvoy turns in a performance worth mentioning, despite it sneakily being the best 'Wolverine' film to date.

Noah is the season's strangest blockbuster and for all its failures, it offers plenty that is thought-provoking. Its sensory splendour and consistent intensity demanded the cinema environment. How To Train Your Dragon 2 was a visually spectacular sequel that took a darker turn, failing to match the predecessor's sense of fun.

The Winter Soldier, an anticipated follow-up to one of the better Marvel adventures, had the worst 3D of the season and was unfortunately punishing in it's final act, despite a welcomed return for Black Widow (who deserves her own film).

The Lego Movie was bursting with colourful inventiveness, and wonderful animation, and in addition to being crazy and hilarious it manages to go into surprisingly profound territory about identity and imagination, delivering a potent message about the power of one against corporate conformity, and the limitless creativity present within us all.

Tom Cruise, after the underrated Oblivion last year, is part of another winner in Edge of Tomorrow. Liman knows the ingredients of the summer blockbuster, and his thoughtful film strikes a compelling balance of high-stakes action spectacle, character-driven drama and timely injections of humour to ensure that its clever concept never wears out its welcome. The concept draws from the best of inspirations (Groundhog Day meets Aliens) and it really worked.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an intimate, complex character-driven sci-fi/war hybrid that offers a relentless barrage of intense, unpredictable and deeply affecting moments of moral conflict, and an astounding fusion of visual effects and choreographed battle sequences. Incredibly, the epic Dawn improves upon the surprisingly-excellent Rise in almost every capacity, offering thought-provoking commentary on humanity and the differences that may bring opponents to war – despite the mutual desire for peace – amidst unfathomably consistent tension and aesthetic spectacle.

If Dawn is the most compelling, and powerful of the blockbuster crop, Guardians of the Galaxy is the most fun. I was thoroughly entertained throughout James Gunn's strange and unorthodox MCU refresher. Such a relief that it exists. The chemistry between the core group of misfits is just one of the areas this film excels in, but that was more than enough. And how about Chris Pratt, the central hero of two of this year's most entertaining films. I loved the humor in The Avengers, but this is even funnier.

So, what were your favourites from this year's Blockbuster crop? A few years back we had The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. Last year we had Pacific Rim, Iron Man 3, Oblivion and The World's End. This year might in fact be the strongest. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, especially, has a real shot at making my EOY Top 15.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Monthly Round-Up: July 2014 Viewing

One of my busiest months of the year for work, most of the films I watched this month were new releases, or work-related titles. Usually binged over the weekends. I also worked my way through most of Frank Herbert's masterful Dune, finished Season 7 Part 1 of Mad Men and the entire 1st Season of Broadchurch. Fantastic. 

Best New-To-Me Films (In Order of Preference) 

-------- Essential Viewing --------


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014)


Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, 2014)


Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014) - How fun was this? I was thoroughly entertained throughout James Gunn's strange, but welcomed unorthodox refresher, addition to the Marvel universe. The story resembles other Marvel adventures, and the villains are...villainous, but the spectacular and exciting action is handled very well, the humour is frequent, hilarious and quotable, and the the core band of misfits - Pratt, Saldana, Cooper, Diesel and Bautista - work together brilliantly. It is completely unexpected, but they all have their moments. Cooper is making a habit of being best in show (even if he never actually 'appears'). There are some really rough edges to these larrikins - drunken bar brawls and concepts passed as plans - and that's the winning formula. Terrific soundtrack, too. Some of the film's minor (and barely consequential) flaws have become clearer to me but I loved that this was a Star Wars/Firefly hybrid more than another Avengers. I wonder what would have happened if this came out when The Avengers did? It deserves the same applause.


Begin Again (John Carney, 2014) - Ruffalo-led films rarely go sour, and I'm slowly becoming a Knightley fan. Few films this year have entertained me more. Loved the music.


All This Mayhem (Eddie Martin, 2014) - Two natural talents, bros, the Barnes and Elias (Platoon reference) of skateboarding, make it big - but a heartbreaking squander and swift plummet is to follow. Covering 25 years, and full of shocking revelations, this is an exhilarating documentary about two young Melbourne guys who rise from Bogan-nothingness to world stardom. But that fame takes a tragic toll. Features the work of Chris King, the editor of Senna. The best Australian film of 2014 so far.



Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski, 2013)


Rudy (David Anspaugh, 1993) - The definitive 'get straight back up when you're knocked down' film. Inspiring story of a young man who took the road less taken.

-------- Essential Viewing --------

Monday, July 28, 2014

Trailer: Nightcrawler

Have you seen the trailer for the creepy looking Jake Gyllenhaal-starring Nightcrawler? Definitely going to be catching this one at TIFF in September.

New Releases (31/07/14)

In cinemas this week:  A Most Wanted Man, Lucy, These Final Hours, The Selfish Giant, The Keeper of Lost Causes and Some Velvet Morning. 


A Most Wanted Man - When a half-Chechen, half-Russian, brutally tortured immigrant turns up in Hamburg's Islamic community, laying claim to his father's ill-gotten fortune, both German and US security agencies take a close interest: as the clock ticks down and the stakes rise, the race is on to establish this most wanted man's true identity—oppressed victim or destruction-bent extremist? Stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his final screen roles, Rachel McAdams and Willem Dafoe.

Lucy - From La Femme Nikita and The Professional to The Fifth Element, writer/director Luc Besson has created some of the toughest, most memorable female action heroes in cinematic history. Now, Besson directs Scarlett Johansson in Lucy, an action-thriller that tracks a woman accidentally caught in a dark deal who turns the tables on her captors and transforms into a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic. Review by Matt Zoller Seitz at rogerebert.com

These Final Hours - A self-obsessed young man makes his way to the party-to-end-all-parties on the last day on Earth, but ends up saving the life of a little girl searching for her father. Their relationship ultimately leads him on the path to redemption.

The Selfish Giant - A contemporary fable about 13 year old Arbor (Conner Chapman) and his best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas). Excluded from school and outsiders in their own neighborhood, the two boys meet Kitten (Sean Gilder), a local scrapdealer - the Selfish Giant. They begin collecting scrap metal for him using a horse and cart. Swifty has a natural gift with horses while Arbor emulates Kitten - keen to impress him and make some money. However, Kitten favors Swifty, leaving Arbor feeling hurt and excluded, driving a wedge between the boys. Arbor becomes increasingly greedy and exploitative, becoming more like Kitten. Tensions build, leading to a tragic event, which transforms them all. This is a fine film. With disconcerting realism writer/director Cleo Barnard offers a tragically bleak look at a dire living where scrap pilfering is an enterprise, and a source of hope. Great performances. ★★★1/2

The Keeper of Lost Causes - This is the first adaptation of the bestselling Department Q crime novels by Jussi Adler-Olsen. Carl Mørck (The Killing) is a disgraced detective who is reassigned to the newly created Department Q, a basement-bound job filing cold cases, and allocated a new assistant, Assad, a smart young Muslim cop. Always one to go against orders, Mørck throws them headlong into the mystery of a missing politician’s disappearance five years earlier. Believing the case to be unsolved, they embark on a dangerous journey that will lead them into the dark underworld of Copenhagen. Nicely shot and performed with a compelling enough mystery (for a while) - a psychologically battered homicide detective is relegated to sorting through cold cases when one ignites an obsession. Testimonies cue flashbacks, and we begin to piece the truth together. Then we are privileged to an untitled POV and from there it falters. Wraps up pretty quickly and easily too. Some tension, but disappointingly generic.

Some Velvet Morning - Fred (Stanley Tucci) arrives at the doorstep of his beautiful young mistress Velvet (Alice Eve) after four years apart, claiming to have finally left his wife. But when she rejects his attempts to rekindle their romance, his persistence evolves into obsession - and a dark history between the former lovers comes into focus. A return to form for writer/director Neil LaBute, Some Velvet Morning is an astutely written portrait of a very modern romance. 

Weekly Recommendation: These Final Hours is an audacious and authentic apocalyptic thriller that also manages to be distinctly ‘Australian’, connecting with the audience on a personal level. While I took a little while to come around - my first impressions were confusing - I now admire this film for how powerfully it affected me. The Selfish Giant is also worth a look for viewers interested in one of Britain's most celebrated new directors. This week I also intend to see A Most Wanted Man, for Mr Hoffman, and Lucy, for Ms Johansson.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review: These Final Hours (Zak Hilditch, 2014)

After exiting the Sydney Premiere of Zak Hilditch’s These Final Hours, which has been on the festival circuit since the Melbourne International Film Festival last year (including a place in the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival this year) I was overwhelmed by somewhat volatile emotion. It is difficult to explain, because my first reaction to the film was not a positive one. While the film never ceases to be compelling, I had issues with some of the filmmaking, there were continuity problems and an ending shot we have seen in another film this year. On top of that I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience. The anxiety and anger that took over me resulted in me attacking, as a reflex, some elements of the film that I didn’t care for. Without much justification. This confusing emotion subsided later in the night, as I thought more about the film, and I began to realize that this sort of strong reaction is rare. I had to figure out what it all meant.


These Final Hours is an audacious and authentic apocalyptic thriller, but it also manages to be distinctly ‘Australian’ and connects with the audience on a personal level, whether you relate to these characters or not. Their behaviour is concerningly plausible, and Hilditch has absolutely nailed the details of suburban mayhem that would ensue. This is a provocative film in that it says things about the ugliness of humanity that we don’t think about day-to-day, but we know is true. The scariest thing about this sort of situation is not so much the ‘threat’, but the hysteria and unpredictability of others.

Continue reading at Graffiti With Punctuation

Monday, July 21, 2014

New Releases (24/07/14)

In cinemas this week: Snowpiercer, Still Life, Hercules, Deliver Us From Evil, Devil's Knot, Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie and Once My Mother.


Snowpiercer - The much-discussed sci-fi epic from director Bong Joon Ho (The Host, Mother). The film is set in the year 2031, and the world is a frozen and uninhabitable. Seventeen years earlier measures were taken to stop global warming, but the experiment was a disaster, killing everything in the process. Those lucky enough to survive boarded the giant rattling ark called the Snowpiercer, a train that circumnavigates the globe over the course of exactly one year. We are first introduced to those living in the back of the train, the lowest class. They sleep cramped together, their hygiene is appalling, their only source of food is a manufactured protein block distributed once per day, they are beaten and mistreated by the train’s guards and have been deprived everything that the upper class forward carriages consume in lavish excess. Amongst these tail-dwellers are Curtis (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell), Gilliam (William Hurt) and Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and they are desperate to shake up the world order. Continue reading at Graffiti With Punctuation.

Still Life - For over 22 years, life for the unassuming John May (an indelible performance from the extraordinary Eddie Marsan) has been his work for the local council in South London, finding the next of kin for those in his community who have passed away alone. But in this age of ‘efficiency’, John’s meticulousness and care is no longer deemed necessary, and he is abruptly made redundant. John is left with one assignment: a search for the relatives of an elderly neighbour, Billy Stoke.
As he journeys beyond London to piece together Billy’s past, John uncovers a life of mischief, misadventure, love and regret, most of all for an abandoned daughter, Kelly (Joanne Froggatt, Downton Abbey) whom John manages to locate. These two insular people are naturally drawn to each other, and as friendship blossoms, John’s outlook opens imperceptibly to life’s possibilities. Still Life is a resonant and universal celebration of dignity, community values and human connection, and ultimately, all that life is worth living for. If you can forgive a late blunder, you will love Still Life. It is delicate, beautiful, attentive and perfectly paced. Marsan is amazing. Incredibly sad, though. I don't cry often in films but I was tested here. ★★1/2

Hercules - Both man and myth, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) leads a band of mercenaries to help end a bloody civil war in the land of Thrace and return the rightful king to his throne. A tormented soul from birth, Hercules has the strength of a God but feels the suffering of a human. Unimaginable villains will test the mythical power of Hercules in director Brett Ratner’s take on the epic action hero.

Deliver Us From Evil - New York police officer Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana), struggling with his own personal issues, begins investigating a series of disturbing and inexplicable crimes. He joins forces with an unconventional priest (Edgar Ramirez), schooled in the rituals of exorcism, to combat the frightening and demonic possessions that are terrorizing their city. Based upon the book, which details Sarchie's bone-chilling real-life cases.

Once My Mother - When Australian filmmaker Sophia Turkiewicz was seven years old, her Polish mother, Helen, abandoned her in an Adelaide orphanage. Sophia never forgot this maternal act of betrayal. Now in middle age, as Sophia examines her troubled relationship with Helen, she discovers the story behind Helen's miraculous wartime escape from a Siberian gulag, her subsequent survival against the odds and the truth about an historic betrayal involving Stalin and the Allies. With Helen sliding into dementia, Sophia must confront her own demons. Did she ever truly know this woman who became her mother? Does she have it in her heart to forgive her? And is it too late?

Devil's Knot - In 1993 West Memphis, Arkansas was rocked by the brutal murder of three eight year old boys. The police very quickly accused three teenagers, claiming they had killed the children as part of a satanic ritual. Devil's Knot chronicles this harrowing true story from the perspective of one of the mothers, Pam Hobbs (Witherspoon) and the investigator for the accused boys’ defense team, Ron Lax (Firth). Whilst the parents and the community struggle to cope with the heinous nature of this crime and call out for those responsible to be brought to justice, Lax discovers that the prosecutorial case is based entirely on circumstantial evidence and prejudicial assumptions about the accused teenagers’ love of goth culture and heavy metal music.

Weekly Recommendation: This is the second Hercules film to screen in cinemas in 2014. Can you believe that? The Rock is an entertaining performer, but there is no way I am watching that. If there is one limited release film you should try everything to see - Dendy Newtown screen it here in Sydney, Nova in Melbourne - it is Snowpiercer. It is unlike anything you have ever seen. Still Life is another limited release - Palace Norton Street are screening it - with the potential to change the way you live your life. I am going to be checking out Deliver Us From Evil this week because I enjoyed Scott Derrickson's last film, Sinister. Reviews have not been favourable, however. Once My Mother sounds pretty powerful too.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

July Mini-reviews: Enemy and The Immigrant

Enemy - The second straight collaboration (with Prisoners) between Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Polytechnique) and the great Jake Gyllenhaal couldn't be more different from the other. This one is a mind fuck that is impossible to forget. As stylish as we have come to expect Villeneuve's films Enemy has a distinctly sickly look about it; a beige-golden colour-palette that suggests there is something sinister about the world we find ourselves in and not quite right about the character we start following - a dissatisfied, disheveled-looking and emotionally withdrawn history teacher with some unusual primal urges (Gyllenhaal). His days are stuck on repeat, and Villeneuve does a masterful job of conveying this. Then, watching a film late one night he sees himself. An extra who looks exactly like him. It isn't his imagination. He exists. He decides to track this man (also Gyllenhaal) down, and discovers that the only thing they have in common is their appearance. An analysis of the paranoia and confusion that couples such a situation - and the fallout of their 'meeting' on both of their lives - is satisfying enough, but this film is about something else entirely. Villeneuve doesn't give the audience any help along the way, offering up some terrifying images and never relinquishing the suspense. This is Gyllenhaal's film, and perhaps his career-best work, but Melanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon are excellent too. While I certainly didn't put the pieces together on this lone viewing, reflecting on the film with this 'theory' in mind, wow, it all makes sense. ★★★★1/2

The Immigrant I really liked James Gray's latest film - he also directed the excellent We Own The Night and Two Lovers - but I can't quite place what it was lacking for me. Some of the developments were predictable, and I wonder why I didn't feel emotionally involved for quite a while, considering the tragic story. Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda have sailed from native Poland to New York in search of the American Dream. After her sister remains quarantined on Ellis Island, Ewa finds herself working for Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) and forced into a life of prostitution. In order to rescue her sister, she works (and suffers) hoping that she will earn enough money for them to leave together. It is well acted (but that is no surprise), gorgeously photographed (it reminded me of the young Vito scenes in The Godfather Part II) and there is subtle complexity to the fusion of narrative arc and theme, and both intricacy and scope in the re-creation of 1920's New York. Both core characters grapple with the guilt of their morally-questionable actions - ultimately necessary to survive - and their reliance on each other in a desperate time when a single act of decency can change someone's life. Bruno admitting his selfishness, and acknowledging what Ewa has selflessly sacrificed is an immensely powerful moment, of which there are several in the film's superior final act. It has been said already, but the final shot is incredible. ★★1/2

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Review: Venus In Fur (Roman Polanski, 2013)

Directed by Roman Polanski (Chinatown, The Pianist, Carnage), and co-written by Polanski and American playwright David Ives, this film adaptationis based on Ives’ own Broadway play, which itself is inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s classic 1870 erotic novel Venus in Furs. If this sounds like a lot of adaptations, I assure you there are more to come here.


Within the film, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), a writer-director of a new adaptation of the novel, finds himself involved in an elaborate audition with an intoxicatingly sexy, aggressively energetic and unrelentingly persistent actress (Emmanuelle Seigner) who shares a name, Vanda, with his lead female character. After surviving the storm outside and arriving wet and disheveled well after Thomas has seen his last audition, she convinces Thomas to give her a chance and read with her. To his surprise she not only shows great understanding of the script and the intricacies of the character but has also brought along her own costumes and props.

Continue reading at Graffiti With Punctuation