Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Monthly Round-Up: Best Films I Saw in May

So it's that time again - the end of the month. This would usually be the opportunity to revisit everything that has happened over the last month; the type of films I have been watching, the ones that impressed me (and the ones that did not), a recap of Festivals and other significant events (like the LAMMY's). But I feel like I have been covering that on a weekly basis through my Monday Links post, so I won't go too crazy here. I'll stick with a quick recap of the the films I watched, with a few personal recommendations from the bunch.

I'd first like to thank the Mad Hatter of Dark of the Matinee for his shout out to my blog on his recent MatineeCast Episode (#34 with Kai Parker). Here is the man who I think sets the bar for film blogging in every way; from his fantastic reviews, to his awesome Podcast, to his all-round creativity. I mean, he was nominated for 8 LAMMY Awards! If I can cover the upcoming Sydney Film Festival half as well as he covered TIFF last year, or Hot Docs, then I will feel accomplished. Huge cheers for the mention good sir, I was stoked. I do hope that we can catch up for a beer one day!

I'd also like to shout out to Sam Fragoso, creator of Duke and the Movies. Sam is just 16 years of age, but is already writing high quality (and frequent) reviews for a number of online publications, including Anomalous Material. The guy writes about at least three new releases a week, which is very impressive. He has been a huge support for me over the last couple of months. We even contemplated working on a Podcast together, but decided to make it a challenge of the future. He's destined to be an elite in this industry and a critic to keep an eye out for.

LAMMY and SFF information and my Monthly Recommendations after the jump...

Monday, May 30, 2011

Critiquing the Modern Relationship in 'Closer'

American director Mike Nichols' screen adaptation of Patrick Marber's award-winning stage play Closer received much popular and critical acclaim following its release in 2004. Marber took the project of writing the screenplay, and attracted the stars Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Clive Owen to the central roles of Alice, Anna, Dan and Larry. The film, like the play on which it is based, has been seen by some as modern and tragic version of Mozart's opera Cosi Van Tutte with references made in both the plot and the soundtrack. One of the central themes in Closer is the relationship between the ethical and the aesthetic spheres, of representation and reality. Nichols' text focuses upon the impossibility of intimacy between men and women due to selfishness, male jealousy, the uncontrollable nature of sexual lust, and the universal subscription of the modern cult of 'self-fulfilment'.

Nichols' past experience as both a film and theatre director made him an interesting selection to direct the screen adaptation, utilising his skills of controlling stage actors to transform the dialogic exchanges between these Hollywood stars previously written for the stage into known landmarks of London. Patrick Hayes argues: "Closer should not be seen as a film, but a play that has been filmed. Although there have been challenges to the plot, the dialogue is written for the stage, not for the cinema." This effect is minimalised somewhat by the use of the natural London locations, but predominantly the film relies on the 'stagey' locations to house the drama. We can also take into account the audience's expectations of the actors' personalities and previous roles in playing a part of our perception of their characters, questioning whether these actors would have been as effective on stage. It is interesting to note that Clive Owen, who plays Larry in the film, had previously played the role of Dan in the stage play, the character offered to Jude Law.

Monday Links 30/05

Well, so ends yet another busy film week. I started the week by re-watching Bullitt and The Last of the Mohicans. Great films! I then predominantly stuck to new releases. I still have to see Angele et Tony and Of Gods and Men, but I managed to keep to the schedule by seeing The Hangover Part II, Get Low and Snowtown. While the first two viewings were pretty disappointing, the latter was one of the most unsettling films I have seen in some time. It is a superbly crafted Australian crime drama and one of the year's best films to date. Certainly worthy of all its post-Cannes praise.

I also re-watched Winter's Bone, which was just as good as on first viewing, and ended the week by watching City Island last night. This was a film I had heard of by name only, but knew nothing about. While it had some amusing moments, and a pretty good performance from Andy Garcia, the Rizzo's felt like such an artificial dysfunctional family, that its lack of realism and predictability left me disinterested.

Here are some links for y'all:

The Reel Bits, the collaboration between Australian film critics, Richard Gray and Sarah Ward, has recently been covering the 2011 Spanish Film Festival. Sarah also reviewed the newly released Get Low.

Luke from Journalistic Skepticism reveals his number #1 Film in his Top 100 Countdown.

Jack at Jack L. Film Reviews wraps up his Silent Movie Marathon with Nanook of the North, and reveals his Top 5 Phillip Seymour Hoffman Films.

Castor and Nicholas review Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris at Anomalous Material. I'm really looking forward to this film.

Film Forager is up for Best Blog at the LAMMY's so I thought I'd check out Alex's reviews. His review of Bridesmaids really has me interested in seeing the film (I formerly was not).

Stevee at Cinematic Paradox debates whether Rooney Mara has what it takes to be the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Bonjour Tristesse reviews the new Julian Schnabel film, Miral.

Anna at 5plitreel reveals why One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is one of her favourite films of all time.

Katina Vangopoulos of Cut Print Review was at Cannes. She really liked Drive.

I can't wait to see 13 Assassins at the Sydney Film Festival. CS of Big Thoughts from a Small Mind shares his thoughts on it.

Many critics have panned Pirates: On Stranger Tides, but none so well as Tom Clift from Movie Reviews by Tom Clift. He gets it spot on.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

First look at Fincher's 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'

Well, a Red Band trailer of David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was leaked online today. I'm not going to say too much about it (because the trailer says it all), other than the fact that it looks absolutely awesome. I really hope Fincher only decides to re-adapt The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It was easily the best of the Swedish trilogy, with the latter two films proving to be pretty bad. I personally didn't like where the story went either, and think that the first novel works as a stand alone. I hope that Fincher's adaptation will too. Rooney Mara (The Social Network) looks perfectly cast!  

Saturday, May 28, 2011

First Thoughts on 'Snowtown'

Having just seen Snowtown, the much discussed debut feature from Justin Kurzel, I am currently unsure how to judge my experience. This extremely unsettling Australian drama is based on the true events surrounding the 'Bodies in the Barrels' murders in Adelaide from the late 1990's. Receiving near-unanimous praise after its screening at Cannes earlier in the month, and picking up a special mention at Critic's Week, Snowtown was the centre of controversy during the week when prominent Australian entertainment editor, Richard Wilkins, ended his scathing review with a rating of zero stars.

He says: "I think it is the most disgusting, horrific, depraved and degrading film I have ever seen. This is as close to a snuff movie as I ever want to see. I don't care if it's rooted in truth or not, it's appalling. I've seen it so you don't have to." 

In his review, he does raise some genuine concerns regarding the unjustified gratuity of the violence, but the film refrains from presenting very little on-screen violence. The threat and presence of violence, and other socially unacceptable behaviour is in every vein of this film, though. I'm not familiar with the events, though I was alive at the time, but communities and individuals like the ones presented here, sadly exist in this country.

You will experience no enjoyment from watching this film. It is distressing, uncomfortable viewing and one of the ugliest portrayals of a vulnerable Australian community I have ever seen. Surrounding these unlikable people (portrayed mostly by untrained actors) with the most destructive behaviour imaginable, the film is endowed with themes of pedophilia, prejudice, irrational paranoia, drug abuse, animal cruelty and murder. All it takes is one man to promise justice on community prejudice for others to be swayed into supporting him.

Reminding me of Josh Cody in Animal Kingdom, Jamie Vlassakis was the socially awkward youngster swayed by the self-righteousness of outspoken members of the community. With a throbbing soundtrack, impeccable direction and fantastic performances (especially Daniel Henshall as John Bunting), this is certainly one of the best films I have seen this year. I would argue it is better than last year's Animal Kingdom. Right now, I can't write a feature length review for this film, because I am unsure how to proceed. I'll leave it UNRATED presently.

*Update 29/05: I have decided to give the film a rating of 4 Stars. One of the best Australian films I have seen in some time, but one I will likely never watch again.

Trailer, Trailer, Trailer

Here are a couple of trailers for films opening next Thursday: X Men: First Class and Julia's Eyes. There is also a trailer for Alexander Payne's new film, The Descendants, after the jump.

While I despised X-Men Origins: Wolverine and lost almost all interest in X-Men, this new film (which features an awesome cast), looks very cool. It has more potential than most of the blockbusters this season. A friend of mine saw an advanced screening the other night, and while he enjoyed it, I sensed his response wasn't overly enthusiastic. Still that current 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes can't be an accident. 

Here is the trailer for X Men: First Class, which was the best part about my On Stranger Tides experience. 

This trailer is for Julia's Eyes, a Spanish horror thriller produced by Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) and starring Belen Rueda (The Orphanage). It was the closing film at the recent Spanish Film Festival and feedback was strong. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

Cinema Stories: A Recent Good Deed

I work pretty regularly at my local cinema; selling tickets, distributing oversized popcorns and making coffees for the old timers etc. But more often than you might expect, part of the job is to make the decision for the customer about what film they are going to watch that day/night. There are people that come to the cinemas with no idea what they are going to watch. I find that unnatural. As far back as I can remember, I have made the trip to the cinema with an agenda to watch a specific film.

Of course, it depends on the person, but for the impatient and often late people that turn up and demand, "What's good?" or "What's Barnaby's Choice about?" or "Give me a run-down of every film you are showing within the next minute" (while I cut you off if you mention subtitles), I find little to admire. Get your shit together, people. The second quote, which I have heard on two occasions refers to 'Barney's Version' of course. But, because we work there, they believe we know everything about every film that is released (including what's playing at a rival multiplex), the kinds of films they interested in, and what fits into their schedule ("I have to be out by 6pm"). Often, it is quite easy to select a film. More often, it is not so.

New Release Review: Get Low (Aaron Schneider, 2010)

Get Low is inspired by the true story of Tennessee recluse Felix 'Bush' Breazeale, who attracted national attention and a large assembly when he threw himself a living funeral party in Roane County in 1938. To draw a crowd to this highly irregular memorial, Felix sold lottery tickets offering his valuable plot of land as the prize. Afterwards, he explained, "he just wanted to hear what the preacher had to say about him while he was alive."Utilising intriguing source material screenwriters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell collaborate with director Aaron Schneider to create this bizarre but critically acclaimed period drama. It features fantastic performances from Robert Duvall and Bill Murray, while Sissy Spacek and Lucas Black co-star.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

New Release Review: The Hangover Part II (Todd Phillips, 2011)

For anyone considering seeing The Hangover Part II please know this: If you have seen and enjoyed the often-hilarious Golden Globe winning original, you should know exactly what to expect from the sequel. The films are almost identical; so much so that you could even claim Part II is a straight up re-make, only now set in Bangkok instead of Vegas. Co-writer and director Todd Phillips (The Hangover, Due Date) tries to once again utilise the features that worked so successfully the first time around, making a series of substitutions to key elements in an attempt to provide a twist on the premise. This time, to name just a few, instead of finding a baby in their hotel room they discover a very intelligent chain-smoking monkey, instead of losing their friend Doug, they lose Teddy (the younger brother of Stu's fiance) and instead of Stu losing a tooth, he gains a facial tattoo. Some of these changes are clever and appropriate, while others are not. But you can be assured, that things get amped up amidst the chaos of sweaty, seedy downtown Bangkok.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Releases 26/05

Released in Australian cinemas tomorrow are four new features: The Hangover Part II, Soul Surfer, Get Low and Of Gods and Men.

The Hangover Part II - Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), Alan (Zach Galifianakis) and Doug (Justin Bartha) return to the screens for another adventure. This time they travel to Thailand for Stu's wedding. After the disastrous bachelor party in Las Vegas, Stu is taking no chances and has opted for a safe, subdued pre-wedding brunch. But when the Wolfpack get together, things don't go as planned and the group find themselves in a musty Bangkok hotel room with one of their comrades missing (this time the younger brother of Stu's fiance) and no memory of their escapades the night before. This has a near-identical structure to the original, which is enough to consider it a re-make, though it does make several substitutions (a monkey instead of a baby, and a facial tattoo instead of a missing tooth). Though darker and more outrageous, this fairly predictable sequel (with an awful conclusion) is not as effective because of that reason. It's still entertaining, but don't expect to have as much fun as in Vegas.

15 Movie Questions Meme

I have noticed on Cinematic Paradox and [Film] Girl, Interrupted recently this 15 Movie Questions Meme (courtesy of Anna at Defiant Success). I had no post planned until tonight, when I hope to see and review Angele et Tony, so I thought I'd give it a go too. 

1. Movie you love with a passion.

The #1 Film of the Decade: There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

2. Movie you vow to never watch.

Pirates 5. Please let this franchise end. 

3. Movie that literally left you speechless.

I'm going with the most recent cinema experience to leave me speechless, which was Incendies. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Classic Throwback: The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, 1992)

Today I thought I would dedicate my Classic Throwback post to a film I consistently find to be a rousing, exciting and moving experience. That film is Michael Mann's soaring historical epic from 1992, The Last of the Mohicans. Set amidst a rich, turbulent and authentically recreated era of United States colonization and warfare, Mann has endowed the film with a number of thrilling and intense combat sequences, an inspiring and believable romance and a grand sense of adventure. It is also a great story. With excellent performances from Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe, and featuring stunning cinematography and an Academy Award winning score from Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman, The Last of the Mohicans stands alongside Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven as one of the finest adventure epics of the decade. The film is based on the James Fenimore Cooper novel, though I believe it more closely resembles George B. Seitz's 1936 film adaptation (which I haven't seen) than the source novel.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Monday Links (23/05)

Well, the LAMMY nominations are in and congratulations to all the deserved nominees. I believe the full list of nominees will be posted on the LAMB in a couple of days time, or you can listen to the LambCast (links after the jump) to find out also. I managed to surpass 50 Followers this week too (now on 53), which is a small, but commendable feat. Thank you to everyone who has stumbled across or been linked to my blog and shown your support. The daily comments are very much appreciated. There are so many great writers out there who continually inspire me and challenge me day after day. The development of this blog would not have been possible without you all.

Onto the films I saw this week, after being befuddled by Last Year at Marienbad and continuing my Cronenberg Marathon with Crash, I mostly covered a lot of new cinema releases this week. I saw Water for Elephants, Mad Bastards (capturing the last session of its brief two week run at my cinema), and then Your Highness and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The latter were back-to-back and I was not at all impressed by either, as you may have figured. I ended my week by re-watching The Descent (scaring the shit out of myself again) and Shaun of the Dead (having been coerced by the comments of Nick and Rachel on the recent Demented Podcast).

Tree of Life wins Palme d'Or at 2011 Cannes Film Festival

For anyone that hasn't yet heard, the Palme d'Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival has been awarded to Terrence Malick's new film The Tree of Life. With huge expectations placed on his most recent work, Malick's decision to enter the film in the Official Competition was evidently a good one. While the film has tended to polarise opinions (expected for a film with so much hype surrounding it), most of the reviews have been very positive. I can't wait for my screening of the film at the Sydney Film Festival on June 14. Tying for the Grand Prix were Once Upon a Time in Anatolia from director Nuri Bilge Ceylan and The Kid With a Bike from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Other winners at the festival included Nicholas Winding Refn (Best Director, Drive), Jean Dujardin (Best Actor, The Artist) and Kirsten Dunst (Best Actress, Melancholia). Each of these films have captured my attention throughout the duration. Drive has a phenomenal cast and Melancholia is directed by Lars Von Trier, which means it is immediately worth a look. But I knew nothing about The Artist and I was made aware of it after it received such an ovation. It looks fantastic, and for Jean Dujardin to take out Best Actor for the film (which was playing Out of Competition) means that this is a film to look out for. It may even prove to be a strong Oscar candidate.

Quick Movie Ratings: Happiness and The Man Who Wasn't There

Happiness (Todd Solondz, 1998) - 4 Stars (B)

Happiness, directed by Todd Solondz, is a film about painfully flawed relationships that takes us into a territory few filmmakers would dare or indeed wish to delve into. A sloppy, heavy-breathing phone sex fetishist, a mousy New Jersey misfit and a desperate pedophiliac are just a few of the socially scarred, sexually frustrated loners who populate Solondz's film. The intertwining stories (which work in a similar way to Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia) present each of the characters as being on a quest in search of happiness in their lives but are seemingly unable to find it. These few moments of happiness are purposely shot in a unique way, extenuating their importance to the character. One such example is when pedophile Dr. Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker) first spots a child, Johnny Grasso, at the baseball pitch. The child is shot in sensual slow-motion from the perspective of Maplewood. We are, of course, familiar with the style, but certainly not the context of which it is shot.

Happiness is a dark comedy of highly dysfunctional manners, striking down the conventions of the normal suburban family life and showing the gritty side of a multi-sided spectrum. It also explicitly portrays inappropriate relationships with minors, and has references to depressive alcoholism, and all means of social disorder. But Happiness stresses the issue of the importance of children in America and the fact that they are the future of the country. Bill's wife Trish stresses the importance of education in their children's lives at the dinner table one night. Later in the film, in a scene completely opposed to this, Trish's happy home is broken when Bill drugs his 10-year-old son's schoolmate during an overnight stay and rapes him in his sleep. Dr. Bill Maplewood occupies the point at which the institution of family and individual desire violently collide, with the viewer witnessing his acts as they are unfolding in the present, making the molester as the heart of the viewer's understanding. Happiness can best be described as an indictment of suburban living and the modern American family and their inability to confront such serious problems. The film suggests that perversion lurks around every corner, even within the four walls of family homes. It's extremely confronting and results in uneasy viewing, but it succeeds in drawing a strong emotional response, be it laughter, sympathy or disgust, from every scene.

The Man Who Wasn't There (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2001) - 3 1/2 Stars (B-)

The Man Who Wasn't There, one of the Coen Bros. most overlooked films, tells the story of Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber who works with his brother-in-law at the local barbershop, and a man completely dissatisfied with his life. Set in 1949, this film is a reflective journey into the techniques of the 1940's film noir classics. Roger Deakins' beautiful black-and-white cinematography endows the image with shadowy, multi-layered activity, while many scenes are affected by half visible faces and wafting cigarette smoke. Ed is an ordinary American man. He lives in a typical suburban street, has a successful working wife (Francis McDormand), he plays bingo once a week and entertains guests for dinner. Ed's marriage to Doris is just for show, and he suspects she is having an affair with her boss. A shady business investment, which involves blackmailing Doris' boss (James Gandolfini), results in a series of bizarre consequences for Ed.

Despite being tagged as an 'ordinary modern man' and incapable of being a killer by his classy lawyer, the film concludes with Ed's arrest and sentence to the electric chair. He has but one regret; the fact that he will forever only be recognised as 'The Barber'. His chance to become more than a man that no-one noticed, culminate in a doomed investment in a new Sacramento dry-cleaning business. The Man Who Wasn't There is essential viewing, in that it is among every man's dreams to have a happy, successful and continually refreshed life. Failure to have this luxury produces actions capable of leading to 'outcast' status or a feeling of 'invisibility'. This is a very prominent theme in the film and a realistic existence for many people worldwide. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Genuine Scares: The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)

As I was watching Insidious the other day, I came to the realisation that there have been few films successful in genuinely scaring me. Insidious did a pretty good job, but Neil Marshall's The Descent is easily one of the scariest films I have ever seen. My second viewing of the film today confirmed this. I'm not claustrophobic or anything, but I hate ugly things appearing suddenly out of the darkness into an isolated illumination (torch, lantern etc). Freaks me out. I love that the film delays the entry of the 'Crawlers' until after half way, first offering up a number of natural fears for the women to process and overcome. Just when they thought their descent into an unmapped cave system could get any worse, out come the ravenous citizens.

Which horror film makes you jump out of your skin every time you watch it?

New Release Review: Your Highness (David Gordon Green, 2011)

Simply, Your Highness is an absolute waste of time, and is a looming presence in my calculations for 'Worst Film I have Ever Seen'. Words can't describe how much stupidity is thoughtlessly thrown at us in this film. Nothing works. Nothing at all. Directed by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) and written by Danny McBride, this idiotic, juvenile, crass and amateurishly-conceived-in-every-way fantasy comedy struggles to draw even a single laugh from its audience. Well, with the exception of one idiotic human being who laughed uproariously at the least funny bits, the rest of the cinema seemed to be little more amused than myself.

As much as Danny McBride brought to the film (including the few and only borderline-amusing moments) he is evidently the reason for the horrendous outcome of his project. No longer a supporting character or a sidekick, he is the central protagonist that no-one wanted, and with an 'outline' of scenes established by McBride and fellow screenwriter Ben Best, the cast are left predominantly to improvise however they like. I wonder how many takes they perused over? Left to the talents of better comedic actors, this premise might have worked. I was expecting there to be a number of spoofs on King Arthur and Knights of the Round Table, but it was little more than a stoner comedy featuring knights, riddled with endless profanity and penis jokes, terrible performances and horrendous visual effects.

Prince Thadeous (McBride) has spent his life watching his perfect older brother Fabious (James Franco) embark upon valiant quests and win the hearts of the people. Tired of being passed over for adventure, adoration and the throne, the lazy and bitter Thadeous has since settled for a life of wizard's weed, hard booze and easy maidens. In order to celebrate his latest victory, Fabious decides to marry his virgin girlfriend Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), but the ceremony is interrupted by the arrival of the evil sorcerer Leezar (Justin Theroux), who kidnaps Belladonna and imprisons her in his tower. Leezar, who is trying to take advantage of a prophecy that comes to fruition every 100 years, intends to impregnate Belladonna when the Two Moons converge (a ritual he refers to as 'The Fuckening') and spawn a powerful dragon capable of overthrowing King Tallious' (Charles Dance) rule.

Tallious gives his deadbeat son an ultimatum: man up and help Fabious rescue Belladonna or be banished from the castle. So a disgruntled Thadeous is joined by his loyal assistant Courtney and the heartbroken Fabious is joined by his Knights Elite, and they set out on their quest. It is revealed by the Wise Wizard (a weed-smoking and sexually perverted 'creature') that in order to kill Leezar they must retrieve the fabled Sword of Unicorn from a protected labyrinth. After being captured by Nymphs and forced to battle a giant hydra, they are defended and rescued by Isabel (Natalie Portman), a skilled warrior also seeking the head of Leezar. Double-crossing and betrayal ensues, resulting in Fabious' capture and imprisonment in Leezar's castle. Ultimately, it is left to Thadeous, with the help of Courtney and Isabel, to retrieve the sword, kill the horny Minotaur that prowls the labyrinth, rescue his companions and save the Kingdom.

None of the cast should feel proud about their involvement in this. The performances are atrocious. McBride manages to get his timing right on a few occasions, but through the improvisation, it is very often miscued. Franco looks like he is stoned for half of the film, and on several occasions, actually looks ill. You can also tell how disinterested Franco is. Come to think of it, I haven't seen him interested in anything other than 127 Hours recently. Both Zooey and Natalie put on these ridiculous British accents, and are hysterically bad. I really thought the film's highlight would be Justin Theroux (a man capable of being genuinely funny), but with the exception of a few moments, he is forgettable also. I do not want to know how much of the budget went towards special effects; but the lightning flung around by the sorcerers looks really cheesy. The fight sequences were very often unidentifiable too. The camera was thrown around haphazardly, capturing on more than one occasion nothing but feet and half of the struggle.

The plot is convoluted and the whole experience feels way too long. Events in time and space progress without reasoning or sense and characterisations are abolished in favour of a series of crude and meaningless exchanges and the diabolically juvenile series of events seem to have be thrown together in an intoxicated stupor. If the events themselves were genuinely exciting and entertaining, perhaps we could forgive the absence of heart or genuine motivation. But they're not. The comedy also suffers from an unfortunate curse that has plagued few comedies worse than this. It just isn't funny. From what I had heard prior to my cinematic experience, I found it less crass then I expected, but nearly every scene is riddled with 'fucks' and ends with a penis joke. Few people deserve to suffer the horror of this tripe.

My Rating: 1/2 Star (F)

New Release Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Rob Marshall, 2011)

On Stranger Tides is the newest addition to the immensely popular Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, once again starring Johnny Depp in his now iconic role as Captain Jack Sparrow. What has happened to this franchise? I remember Curse of the Black Pearl being one of the most enjoyable experiences of 2003. The second film in the series (though still a lot of fun) was pretty ordinary, but let's face it, the third one was awful. But come the 2011 blockbuster season, we find ourselves faced with another addition to this evidently-tired franchise. I had to admit, with no consideration given to the events in the first three films, an opportunity for Black Pearl screenwriters to flesh out some fresh ideas, the newish cast and a visionary new director (this time Chicago's Rob Marshall), things looked promising. While the big special effects ('disappointingly' underwhelming this time around), the predictable cartoonish gags and the all-round silliness will be essential to the entertainment, I wasn't expecting a rehash of the first film all over again. The plot, which is 'suggested' by the novel On Stranger Tides by Jim Powers, feels a lot like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, only this time with pirates, and is a failed attempt at freshening up a now beyond-mediocre franchise. It is uninspired, calculated, flat and often downright boring.

In this film, renegade pirate Captain Jack Sparrow crosses paths with the enigmatic Angelica (the beautiful Penelope Cruz), who is using his identity in an attempt to commandeer a crew to sail under the legendary pirate Black Beard (Ian McShane), who may also be her father. Jack, who possesses knowledge about the location of the fabled and desired Fountain of Youth is forced aboard the "Queen Anne's Revenge". He finds himself on an unexpected adventure, at first leading mutiny on board, and then meeting trust issues with his companions. Black Beard, who fears the prophecy of his impending death at the sword of a one-legged man, seeks the fountain to forever preserve his soul. Also vying for the fountain is one such one-legged man, Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), who is working with the British Monarchy and enlisted by King George II (what an over-the top performance) to lead the quest to stop the Fountain falling into the hands of rival Spanish conquistadors.

Working on a smaller budget than the previous films (a modest $200 Million) might explain the surprisingly unimaginative, overly loud and emotionally disengaging fight sequences. It really seems like Curse of the Black Pearl was either ahead of its time, or technology has not advanced. That can't be the case can it? The action sequences, which feature no large-scale ship battles, are restricted to hand-to-hand skirmishes or surviving aquatic assaults from mermaids. Most of them take place at night (which spells doom for 3D viewers), with many from the original feeling larger in scale, featuring more risky choreography, and are generally more entertaining. The early sequence featuring Depp and Cruz feels very much like the one between Depp and Bloom in Black Pearl. Captured in a dimly lit tavern with all kinds of useable props and platforms to swing around on and nearly fall off, this cliche riddled fight even culminates in the revelation that the disguised sword-bearer is a woman. Whoa!

Sparrow was originally written as a supporting character, but the premise of the film centres him as the lead this time. But he is reluctant, obnoxious and unenthusiastic, and has no desire for the spoils that reward this journey. He is a pirate at heart, destined to be on the high seas, taming the tides. He is coerced into joining Black Beard because he knows the way, and he has a minuscule hope he can once again spark up a romance with Angelica and commandeer the Black Pearl, which has been captured by Black Beard somewhere between the worlds of the first trilogy and this film. Depp's performance does have all the memorable quirks of Sparrow, though it all feels less amusing this time. Perhaps we have seen it a few too many times before. His jokes are now predictable ("There should be a Captain in there somewhere") and his drunken prancing and general rambunctiousness is now only mildly entertaining.

I don't know how the filmmakers could not have recognised just how staged and calculated everything feels. The entire plot is relayed to the audience in the first twenty minutes, destined to culminate in a showdown between the interested parties. In between, the pace is deadened by offering up a romantic interest for Jack's character, a mystery behind Angelica's true motives, and several shifted alliances. Essentially, the disjointed plot is set on covering a series of necessary plot points to drive the story forward, without worrying about the history of the  characters, their loose existence in this world and the intrigues of pirate lore. Okay, so we have captured the mermaid and surrendered a tear, now we need someone to claim the chalices from a ship hanging precariously over a cliff, and so on. Cameos like Keith Richards' one pop up to conveniently reveal key information, so the narrative can be stripped down to focus on having the parties reaching their desired destinations and simultaneously overcome the various conflicts that arise to further convolute the plot. But there is nothing at stake and no dramatic engagement. Neither Jack nor Barbosa desire the Fountain, and it is never really revealed why the Spanish desire it (perhaps I wasn't paying attention; it did happen a bit in the second half). The Fountain is merely a means to have all of these individuals (essentially) come in contact with one another, and this is frustratingly obvious. If you aren't disappointed by the climactic showdown, you are easily pleased. If On Stranger Tides does have one thing in its favour, its that the plot is kept pretty coherent. Amidst the myriad of supporting characters, who knew what was happening in At World's End?

Something else that irked me was that the gags were so conveniently constructed. I mean, there always happens to be a cart passing by whenever Jack requires to jump onto something, and platforms are readily available to clamber onto. Everyone in the theatre knew that as soon as the pastry got caught on the chandelier, it would end up in Jack's mouth by scene end. It becomes an ever-worsening series of lowly attempts at humour. Once upon a time, this worked. I usually love Hans Zimmer's scores but I could not shake the realisation that it felt like a re-working of John William's 'Republic' theme from The Empire Strikes Back. Overall, I was frustrated by how many of the ideas were rehashed from earlier films in the franchise and how sporadic and misguided the screenplay was. You could always forgive the lack of 'plot' in the earlier films because they were so much fun. But sadly, that doesn't exist here either. Oh, and it's now in 3D. If I saw it in 3D I may have given it even less. Come to think of it, there is almost nothing to like about it, period.

My Rating:  1 Star (D-)

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Office: Creed's Blog

Since I have decided to partake in a double-feature of Your Highness and Pirates 4 tomorrow (I know, what quality) I wasn't in the mood for watching any films and thought I'd make it an early night (though it has just passed midnight). Stay tuned for my reviews of these two over the weekend. I desired nothing more than a few episodes of The Office after work this evening. I stumbled across a few classic moments, but this is one of my favourites:

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Films of David Cronenberg Vol. #2

Naked Lunch (1991) - 4 Stars (B)

I was listening to Mad Hatter's The MatineeCast the other day and he was talking with Anna Tyorinoja about the 'weirdest films they have ever seen'. Hatter mentioned this film, and while I only saw it this week, I think it ranks up there amongst the weirdest films I have ever seen. David Cronenberg's bizarre and near incomprehensible version of the life of William S. Burrough's draws from the inspiration behind a number of the man's works, but most notably his controversial novel, Naked Lunch, which is the result of the central protagonist's writing throughout the film. It is not a straight adaptation of the novel, but Cronenberg draws elements, characters and locations from the novel and rearranges them. Other elements from the film are drawn from the writer's experiences during the process of writing the novel, but also some of Burrough's other novels. I don't know that Naked Lunch is Cronenberg's most controversial film, that prize goes to Crash, but it is easily amongst his most widely discussed and critiqued. The only advice I can give when tackling this surreal and creepy film is to exterminate all rational thinking.

I will attempt to summarize the plot, though this is no easy feat. William Lee (Peter Weller) is a dedicated insect exterminator who finds that his wife Joan (Judy Davis) is stealing his insecticide for recreational drug purposes. Lee is obsessed with his 'bug powder', and when his supply runs out during a job, he seeks to confiscate his colleagues'. When Lee is arrested by the police, he comes to the conclusion that he is hallucinating because of insecticide exposure, picked up for carrying an illegal black-market cure for bug-powder addiction. He believes he is a secret agent whose controller (a giant bug) assigns him the mission of killing his wife, who is agent of an organisation called Interzone Inc. After escaping custody and returning home to find his wife sleeping with his writer friend Hank, he shoots Joan during a William Tell routine (a fatal accident Burrough's himself was guilty of; the death of his wife Joan Vollmer at a party in Mexico City). Burroughs fled to the United States where he was convicted in absentia for homicide. Burrough's expressed Joan's death as the starting point of his literature career, exactly the way it is also portrayed in the film.

Having inadvertently accomplished his "mission", Lee flees to Interzone, where Interzone Inc. is based, and spends his time writing reports on his mission, which ultimately become the novel 'Naked Lunch'. Clark Nova, one of Lee's 'living' typewriters, tells him to find Dr Benway (Roy Scheider), by seducing Joan Frost (also Judy Davis), a doppelganger of his dead wife. Frost's husband Tom (Ian Holm) is a writer Lee befriends. Some very strange things happen; there are many references to Lee hallucinating and becoming addicted to a drug called 'Black Meat'. His typewriter transforms into a talking bug, and actually attacks and eats a typewriter lent to Lee by Tom Frost. There are some pretty unsubtle homosexual undertones too. It seems the norm for writers in Interzone to accompany young men to parties, and Lee must befriend some of these young men to survive in Interzone. Lee eventually locates Benway, who is the head of a narcotics harvesting operation which produces Black Meat, drawn from the guts of giant centipedes. Lee's journey takes many peculiar turns but he ultimately finishes his report (which is actually the bare bones of his novel) and flees to another town called Annexia with Joan Frost. I don't really want to discuss the conclusion, it is seriously befuddling.

While the plot will prove incomprehensible to most viewers, there is a story that can be deciphered, but I think it is necessary to have read Burrough's novels and have some understanding of the man. I don't think it really matters because there is something about Naked Lunch that makes it different from anything you have ever seen before. Cronenberg has endowed this bizarre and surreal experience with beautiful, orange-hued visuals. The skin of the characters glistens, and Interzone is made to appear like a dusty, humid and foul realm, home to all assortment of strange individuals. Howard Shore is once again the man behind the score, though this time he has collaborated with jazz musician Ornette Coleman. The performances, though over-the-top in almost every sense, are uniformly good. Peter Weller's noir protagonist drifts through Interzone, and his dry intellectual wit and stony gaze make him really interesting. He also never seemed to move his mouth. Judy Davis and Roy Scheider were solid in support, but nearly everyone else come across as vile caricatures, which aid to enhance the films surreality. I've been considering whether to watch it again ever since I saw it, so I must have enjoyed it.

Crash (1996) - 4 Stars (B+)

Based on the J.G Ballard 1973 novel of the same name Crash tells the story of a group of people who take sexual pleasure from car accidents. It certainly is a daring premise, and there is plenty to commend (especially the incredible performances, the sublime use of the camera, and the score by who else, but Howard Shore). The coverage of the character's driving is especially well done. They aren't exactly pursuits, just very aggressive driving, and shot from a variety of perspectives and angles, from within the car's interiors and from an exterior force. More intense than some of Hollywood's most elaborate vehicular pursuits, we are aware that these characters are consciously hoping to crash for the sexual rush that accompanies it.

Set in Toronto, James Ballard (James Spader), a prominent film producer, has a disconnected and unhappy marriage to his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger). With the relationship diminished to cold and unenthusiastic sex, the film opens with each partaking in their own infidelities. Their sex life is only given a spark later when they vividly discuss the details of these extramarital encounters. When driving home from work late on night, Ballard's car collides head on with another, killing the male passenger. Surviving, but trapped in the wreckage is a woman, Dr Helen Remington (Holly Hunter). In hospital he meets her again, and also a scarred man named Vaughn (Elias Koteas), who at first seems to be an accident and injury photographer. Upon leaving hospital, Ballard and Remington meet and start to have an affair, one primarily fuelled by their shared experience of the car crash. All of their sexual encounters take place in vehicles.

In an attempt to make sense of their arousal following the violent car wreck, Ballard and Helen attend a cult meeting of Vaughn's, which is actually a recreation of the accident that killed James Dean, with authentic cars, stunt drivers and injuries. Shortly later, transport ministry officials break up the event and the group flees to Vaughn's base, where they meet fellow fetishists and followers, and watch videos of constructed car crashes. Ballard befriends Vaughn and on occasions drives his convertible around town while he picks up and uses street prostitutes in the back of the car. The series of sexual encounters between the group wildly vary, including a dalliance between Vaughn and Christine, Ballard and another of the group members, Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), and even Ballard and Vaughn. They all take place in cars, living out Vaughn's philosophy that a car crash is a "fertilising rather than a destructive event, mediating the sexuality of those who died with an intensity that's impossible in any other form." Okaaaaay. Crash is essentially a metaphor for the extremes of human obsession, and is not easy viewing.

Few people will find a film about unhealthy and destructive fetishes appealing or enjoyable. It is neither, but you have to admire Cronenberg's dedication to his art and his willingness to continually push the boundaries of what he presents to his audience. The performances are absolutely incredible. James Spader, who is usually excellent, tackles an extremely controversial role. Who doesn't he have sex with in this film. The rest of the cast are great too, although with the exception of The Thin Red Line, I have never liked Elias Koteas too much.

The soap-like whispered dialogue was also very strange. I don't remember there existing a proper conversation, with the characters seeming to exist in a dream where time and space do not matter. All that exists is this 'fetish' that links all the characters together. It is their activity that tells the story. The sex scenes are extremely explicit, but so well simulated that they felt real. Cronenberg's use of the camera is also fantastic. Whenever the camera started a side track across the room, I expected it to end on a couple embraced in sex, and in most cases it did. As I mentioned above, the coverage of the driving is also really imaginative. Arguably the best feature is Howard Shore's score, which gave me shivers. Crash is a cold-hearted film that combines devastating violence and destruction with sexual energy; a combination that is socially reprehensible. I don't want to recommend this film, but for anyone interested in Cronenberg's work, it is one of his finest.

New Release Review: Mad Bastards (Brendan Fletcher, 2011)

Mad Bastards is the debut feature from writer/director Brendan Fletcher, a man who is both successful in setting a compelling drama in the not-often seen Kimberley region of Australia and making an audience aware of the rich culture that exists there. While this confronting and powerful tale often reveals a lack of confidence and skill to effectively drive its narrative and sustain its audience's interest, it does manage to impressively study three generations of life in the harsh Australian outback, and balance strong themes of community, wayward youth, masculine despair and redemption, domestic violence and alcoholism. Mad Bastards was an Official Selection at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

TJ (Dean Daley-Jones) has never seen his son. He is a troubled man with an attitude, a violent streak and a siding for the drink. He is a 'Mad Bastard', raised in a culture of domestic violence and alcoholism from which he has never recovered. Seeking to right the wrongs that have plagued his life, he hopes to heal the wounds he has caused to his son, Bullet (Lucas Yeeda), and become the father figure that the now misguided boy desperately needs. It is evident that Bullet has grown up under similar circumstances and TJ may be too late.

The film opens with Bullet throwing a Molotov cocktail at a house and being arrested by his grandfather, the local police chief. Instead of finding himself in a juvenile prison, he is escorted to a camp outside town where he spends a couple of weeks with fellow juvenile offenders being disciplined by a local elder, who takes them out into the wild where they hunt and learn how to behave. TJ, desperate to see his son, sets out from his Perth residence to cover the 2000 kilometres to a small town in the Kimberley region, meeting a host of colourful individuals along the way and discovering a new life infused with music, community and peace. Now it all sounds like quite a moving tale, but its predominantly a pretty depressing one. Despite the reliance on the close-up to draw us into these characters, we often find ourself distanced and a little put off by their personalities. While we eventually come to care for these characters, accepting that it takes time to resolve past conflicts, it is a bit of an ordeal watching their story unfold.

Mad Bastards features a great soundtrack from Alex Lloyd and the Pigram Brothers (who also appear in the film) which the film really relies on. With nearly every sequence accompanied by music, it hides the lack of confidence in the simple narrative sustaining the running time, and gives us a break from the intensity. There are lots of moments featuring TJ sitting in a vehicle, watching the landscape fly by and contemplating both his past, and what he will say to his son when he first meets him. We don't really learn much from these moments, but the catchy score effectively accompanies the images, and we choose not to mind. With the film shot on location, it is one of the best representations of Indigenous culture I have seen. Living closer to the city, TJ has never really known communities such as the one where his son lives. Everyone knows everyone else and they live day-to-day on hardships; relying on survival instincts and hunting, and communal gatherings, such as the ones presented throughout the film, to cling to a humanity. The film is so realistic, especially early on, that it is hardly enjoyable. But once TJ begins his quest, the intensity of the violence and the profanities are not so apparent and we start to relax.

In the second half there are a few moments when the drama seems a little staged. Having been introduced to a friendly elder in a nearby town, he bumps into him again and befriends him for the rest of his journey. He actually lives in the same town as Bullet, and knows everyone. I kept thinking, "who is this guy, and why was he destined to be TJ's companion?" Also, the relationship with Bullet's mother was aggravatingly predictable and melodramatic at times. Fletcher, who utilises non-actors in each of the roles, draws honest and moving performances from almost the entire cast, and it is clear in the interviews at the conclusion, that they have shaped their performances from personal experiences. Though its not shot in a particularly innovative way, the often beautiful captures of the surrounding environment, the unglamorous locations and the close-ups of these intriguing individuals, give it a lift. Mad Bastards has not done well at the Box Office, which is a shame because it really deserves to be seen by more people. If it is still playing at a cinema near you, it is well worth checking out.

My Rating: 3 Stars (C)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Releases 19/05

There are four films opening in Australian cinemas tomorrow: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Snowland, Oceans and Angele and Tony. 

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - I really really liked The Curse of the Black Pearl. I remember it being one of the most enjoyable film experiences of that year. The second in the series, though still fun, was pretty ordinary. I chose to forget all about the awful third instalment. Well, here we are again, with an unnecessary new addition to the franchise. This time it is in Disney Digital 3D. Jerry Bruckheimer is back as the producer, but this time he has Rob Marshall (Chicago) in the directors chair. Johnny Depp returns to his iconic role as Captain Jack Sparrow in what is sure to be an overlong action-packed adventure, riddled with big special effects, predictable gags and all-round silliness. Sparrow crosses paths with the enigmatic Angelica (the beautiful Penelope Cruz), who forces him aboard the "Queen Anne's Revenge", the ship of the legendary pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane). He finds himself on an unexpected adventure to find the fabled Fountain of Youth, and has trust issues with Angelica who may or may not be in love with him. It has just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, but is currently sitting on 42% on RT. I think most people know what they are walking into here. Geoffrey Rush returns also, but this seems to already be better than the third one with the substitution of Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom with Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane. Will pull huge Box Office numbers.

Snowtown - A bleak, gritty and uncompromising Australian suspense thriller from first time director Justin Kurzel. The film follows a teenager who befriends and finds a father figure in John Bunting, Australia's most notorious serial killer. His world is altered when confronted by fear and loyalty for the man. It was winner of the Audience Award at the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival, but this seems to be an ordeal to sit through.

Oceans - From DisneyNature, the studio that presented the record-breaking film Earth. Directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud dive deep into the very waters that sustain all mankind, exploring the playful splendour and the harsh reality of the weird and wonderful creatures that live within. Featuring spectacular never-before-seen imagery captures by the latest underwater technologies, Oceans offers an unprecedented look beneath the sea. If you're in the mood for a nature documentary, it should be amazing.

Angele et Tony - Having done reasonably well at the French Film Festival, independent romance/drama Angele et Tony has now secured a small theatrical release. Angele, a beautiful young woman with a past, arrives in a small fishing harbour in Normandy. She meets Tony, a professional fisherman, who finds himself attracted to her although he likes her blunt ways. Tony hires her as a fishmonger, lodges her and teaches her the tricks of the trade. The young woman gradually adapts to her new environment and little by little Tony Angele manage to tame each other. It has received solid reviews, but I doubt this will do very well.

Weekly Recommendation: Everyone will see Pirates, and no-one will see the other three releases. I intend to check out Pirates and Angele et Tony, though I don't think I can 'recommend' either.

Trailers for 'The Artist' and 'Get Low'

I was recently made aware of a film currently making some noise at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival called The Artist. It is a silent film written and directed by Michael Hazanavicius and is set in Hollywood in 1927. It tells the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent movie superstar, whose career is threatened by the rise of talkies. For a young extra, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), suddenly the sky is the limit. The trailer is very moving and this is certainly one to keep an eye out for!

Before Water for Elephants I was distracted from my vigorous texting at the time to take notice of the Get Low trailer. This was a film that proved to be very popular overseas when it was released late last year and Robert Duvall nearly earned himself an Oscar Nomination for his role. The fantastic trailer has me intrigued, and it is set for release in Sydney on May 26. Be sure to check it out!

New Release Review: Water for Elephants (Francis Lawrence, 2011)

Directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz in the lead roles, Water for Elephants is the film adaptation of the acclaimed best seller by Sara Gruen. Through the commercial success of the novel, the rich historical period, the magical and romantic backdrop of circus life and of course the substantial pulling power of the cast, Water for Elephants was destined to draw solid numbers at the box office. Though not groundbreaking in any way, and lacking passion, it is a charming and reasonably well-told tale.

The structure is not particularly original; as the entire story is told as a flashback to 1931, a depression-riddled period of the United States amidst the Prohibition. Travelling circus acts were aplenty, and there was a fierce rivalry between owners, who fight for revenue by offering the best attractions, and are often forced to resort to corrupt and inhumane acts (on the spot firing of employees and animal cruelty) to ensure they can afford the glamorous attractions that will draw the crowds. The film is framed by a pair of scenes, those featuring an elderly Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook) as he relays the story of his involvement in 'the greatest circus disaster of all time'. After his eldest son had failed to bring him to the circus in town, he decides to sneak out of his aged care facility and see the show for himself. When he arrives at the venue he is too late, but one sensitive employee (Paul Schneider) escorts him out of the rain and tries to contact his facility. Intrigued by his sprightly personality, and his knowledge of history, he asks Jacob to tell his tale.

In 1931, a 23-year-old Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is only an exam away from graduating from Cornell University with a degree in Veterinary Sciences. As he sits down to take the exam he is relayed the news of his parents death from a car accident, and that his family home had been surrendered to the bank by his father is exchange for his tuition. Devastated, and now homeless, he sets out to look for work in the city. He stumbles across the travelling Benzini Brothers circus, stows away on the train, and is assigned work by a kind elderly employee. Instantly captivated by the beautiful Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), he notices a hoof injury on one of her performing horses. Declared an impostor, having snuck onto the train and taken advantage of food and shelter, he is introduced to August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz), the charismatic but menacing circus owner. Jacob is hired as the vet after August discovers his Cornell credentials and learns of his accurate observation of the horse's injury.

There are various tensions and conflicts that ensue between the three. Jacob is terrorised by August after he takes it upon himself to put down the injured horse, which is further complicated when Jacob emotionally bonds with Marlena (his wife). August unveils his newest attraction, a 53 year-old elephant named Rosie, and insists that Jacob train it. Jacob learns to control the gifted elephant by speaking in Polish, transforming the circus into a winning success once again. That is, until August finds out about the blossoming secret romance between his two most important employees, culminating in an intense struggle for her affections.

Water For Elephants is a good-looking film, with the cinematography, production design and costumes all impressive. The plot is also lifted to romantic heights by the accompanying score, which is guilty of being a little stagey at times. While the performances are all effective, it is unfortunate that the chemistry isn't strong enough to keep us engaged with these characters, nor like them very much. The affectionate relationships take tumultuous ups and downs, with often serious conflict quickly resolved in the next sequence. Pattinson's inexpressive performance, while it certainly doesn't have the world convinced he can be an adequate leading man, was better than I thought it would be. Reese Witherspoon (who I used to like very much, until her string of films following Walk the Line) was oddly cast and not altogether convincing. Clearly attached to the life that her husband has built for her, Marlena is reluctant to seek a life outside the Big Top. While it seemed inevitable that her and Jacob would end up together, the attention she gave him felt like she was taking him for a ride. There is a moment, I think after two brief encounters, when she says, "I'll be sorry to see you go." I don't know when she developed this care for him. Perhaps she was impressed by his guts to stand up to August. But there are implausibilities like this that affect our relation to the characters.

Christoph Waltz, who I thought would get a string of great roles following Inglourious Basterds, is typecast as a charismatic villain once again (much like in Michel Gondry's The Green Hornet). Having to blend charming qualities with his selfish and malicious nature, Waltz gives the best performance. His swift bond to Jacob, and his eager willingness to trust him, is somewhat of a character stretch for someone who finds it difficult to trust anyone. When Jacob later reveals that he had never actually graduated, it is waved off without a second thought. The romantic sequences give us absolutely nothing new and often fizzle with tired cliches. The film moves quickly to begin with, but then becomes quite tedious in the second half, feeling a lot longer than the scheduled 120 minutes. Still, despite losing interest there for a while, Water for Elephants remained entertaining enough, and the Depression-era context was recreated effectively. While August's lawless regime selfishly lets loose anyone it pleases, the romantic beauty of circus life is effectively conveyed.

While the spectacle is relayed in an early scene as Jacob strolls amongst the rising Big Top, it feels constrained in most sequences, save for the near unfathomable antics of Rosie the Elephant. The dramatic conclusion was unexpected, but welcomed. I was quite surprised by how intense the film became at the conclusion. There was a moment when Jacob contemplates killing August and it is shot and scored in a way that uncannily resembles Jim's rampage at the conclusion of 28 Days Later. Okay that may be taking it a bit far, but it was what came to me at the time. Believing the film to be more of a soppy romance (don't worry, there is plenty of that), this violent confrontation and famous disaster, though implied early in the story, still came as a surprise. The final images, a collection of home video reels of Jacob and Marlena with their children had a reminiscence that felt unnecessary. Overall, Water For Elephants is quite an enjoyable romantic drama. I imagine fans of the novel will not be disappointed, but for those unfamiliar to the story, you will find it pretty forgettable.

My Rating: 3 Stars (C+)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Is 'Last Year in Marienbad' Incomprehensible?

Having just watched Alain Resnais' 1961 film Last Year in Marienbad, I must confess I fell victim to its hypnotic and often haunting atmosphere. While the cinematography is absolutely stunning and the score incredible, the events of the film are incomprehensible. I could make no sense of it at all. Following a non-linear narrative style, events from the present and the past are fragmented, mixed together and rhythmically repeated in a visual kaleidoscope. It tells the story of a love triangle set within a labyrinthine and spacious baroque hotel. One of the guests, an unnamed man, tries to persuade a married woman that they had shared an affair a year previously. She doesn't recall, but he begins to relay conversations and encounters involving the two, which culminated in her asking him to meet her at this hotel exactly a year later, so that they could elope from their highly formal society and their individual constraints. I guess we are never meant to know whether this previous encounter ever took place. I found it impossible to tell which scenes were in the present, and which was the recalled flashbacks. The woman has several costume changes (she wears white, and black) and even gets shot at one point, and while they were supposed to have met in Marienbad or some other town, all we ever see are a variety of alternate realities set within this one hotel. I really enjoyed the film, but the combination of the trance-like imagery and the solemn and monotonous voice-over made me a little dozy. Can anyone shed some light on this intriguing film?

Sydney Film Festival Preview: Five Trailers

Of course, Tree of Life is the most anticipated film at this year's Sydney Film Festival, but here are trailers for five other films I have tickets for and am pretty excited about: 

Win Win (Tom McCarthy)

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)

13 Assassins (Takashi Miike)

The Troll Hunter (Andre Ovredal)

Armadillo (Janus Metz)

The Films of David Cronenberg Vol. #1

The Fly (1986) - 4 Stars (B+)

Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), a brilliant but eccentric scientist, meets Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), a journalist for Particle Magazine at a meet-the-press event held by Brundle's financier, Bartok Science Industries. Seth invites Veronica back to his lab and shows her a project that will change the science world as it is currently known and could win him a Nobel Prize; a set of "Telepods" that allows instantaneous teleportation of one object from one pod to another. Intrigued by his idea and believing in his abilities, if also attracted to the man, Veronic agrees to document Seth's work. Although the "Telepods" can transport inanimate objects perfectly, he had so far been unsuccessful in teleporting living creatures with flesh, horrifically realised during the failed attempt on a live baboon (which appears to be turned inside-out).

Having managed to successfully reprogram his computer system to deal with living tissue, and having finally transported a live baboon, Seth decides to test himself. His judgement, however, is significantly impaired by alcohol and a paranoid fear that veronica is secretly rekindling her relationship with her editor and former lover (John Getz). As a drunk and jealous Seth prepares to teleport himself, a common housefly slips into the pod unseen. Shortly after his teleportation, Seth exhibits what at first appear to be beneficial effects of the process - heightened senses, increased strength, stamina and sex drive. With the DNA from the fly fusing with his own, Seth soon becomes arrogant and destructive, and once he recognises the discolouration of his skin and that he has started sprouting hairs and losing fingernails, it becomes very evident that something has gone horribly wrong.

Gradually deteriorating over the next few weeks, Seth comes to realise that he is losing his human reason and compassion, and is now being driven by primitive impulses he cannot control. Veronica discovers that she is pregnant and is unsure whether fertilisation occurred before or after Seth's transformation. Though horrified by the thought of bearing Seth's child (her anxiety is beautifully captured in a creepy dream sequence) she remains sympathetic of his existence and committed to helping the now sad and desperate man she once loved and admired. Separating it from many other gore-riddled 80's horror classics, is the powerful romance at the core, which captures Seth's desperation to cling to his humanity. Widely considered to be one of the great horror films ever made, it is surely one of the greatest remakes.

Some critics saw the film as a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic. It could be a representation for disease in general as Seth's skin becomes bruised and lumpy, his teeth fall out and he develops oozing pustules that gradually worsen. A truly tragic tale, The Fly relies on the effective performances and the chemistry between the leads, which endows this sci-fi horror with a romantic twist and a deeply affecting human drama. Jeff Goldblum, who would later be best known for his involvement in the Jurassic Park franchise, gives the finest performance of his career, while Geena Davis gives very commendable support.

The wonderful score was composed by Howard Shore, a favourite collaborator of David Cronenberg, and the superb make-up effects by Chris Walas deservedly won him an Academy Award. Cronenberg became renowned as a master of gore, and there are several stomach-churning moments once again. As one of his more complete masterpieces, he seems to effortlessly balance genres, infusing his often shocking use of gore with scientific breakthroughs, compelling performances and even some humour, while always being wary that his audience cares for the characters through a moving sense of humanity. Scanners and Videodrome are earlier Cronenberg works that I can recommend too, but The Fly is essential viewing.

Dead Ringers (1988) - 1 1/2 Stars (D+)

Dead Ringers is a psychological horror/thriller from David Cronenberg starring Jeremy Irons in the dual role as identical twin gynecologists, Eliot and Beverly Mantle. Why the British actor was cast for a film set in Canada is puzzling. I have developed a personal dislike for Irons' performances (both here and in Adrian Lyne's Lolita), though it is still impressive dedication to tackle this difficult and controversial role. He always seems to have the same cold stare etched across his face, and often seems flummoxed and lost for words. His soft-spoken monotone is also tiring and his characters, though psychologically troubled and on-edge, are decidedly boring. Cronenberg's screenplay is based on the novel, Twins, by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, which is loosely based on the lives of Stuart and Cyril Marcus. It is the story of twins who act as though they are one, and the woman who tore them apart.

Dedicated to their professions from a young age (a facet of the story relayed in two quick sequences), the twins completed their studies and are amongst the most revolutionary gynaecologists in practice, inventing their own surgical equipment that has distanced them from their competitors. In addition to being genetically identical and impossible to tell apart, the twins also live together and share women. Eliot is the more aggressive and confident of the two and seduces women who come to the Mantle clinic. When he tires of them, the women are passed onto the shy and passive Beverly, remaining aloof to the substitution.

When Beverly becomes attached to the troubled actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold), it upsets the established equilibrium between the twins. Beverly mistakes Claire's male assistant for her lover (an important plot element that comes across as a real stretch) and comes to believe that she is cheating on him. This sends him into clinical depression, prescription drug abuse and delusions about "mutant women". He has a macabre set of surgical equipment especially designed to work on these women, but he is assigned administrative leave when he first tries to use them on a patient, and subsequently collapses from drug withdrawal. Beverly's decline directly affects Eliot, who desperately seeks a way to return their lives to normalcy.

Unlike Videodrome and The Fly, which are quite short and energetically paced, Dead Ringers is dull and laborious. While taking the time to establish the bizarre relationship between the twins and revealing the ways that they are different, it does feel stagnant at times. While there are some unsettling moments; Beverly's consideration of using those malicious tools on a patient and his clamber onto the unconscious patient for a whiff of their oxygen are especially confronting. But the unsavoury drug use, the tied up sex and the vivid dream sequence are also unnerving. In no way is Dead Ringers a horror film, nor a particularly effective thriller. It actually has no likeable features.

Often it is difficult to tell the twins apart, especially when they both resort to drugs. It is briefly suggested that they believe their blood streams run in synch (as disconnected siamese twins). In order for them to understand and work with one another, they have to be in control of their actions and work in synch. When Beverly, for the first time, rejects his brother's assistance, they must either find a way to reconnect, or separate forever. Eliot's decision to start using hard drugs is never really explained and the concluding consequences seem unjustified. Though it is hard not to praise Jeremy Irons' performance, Dead Ringers is overtly symbolic, dully paced, visually unappealing, and doesn't possess a single likeable character. It is a brooding, unsatisfying experience and a disappointing addition to the resume of a master director I have recently come to admire.

In Vol. #2 of the Cronenberg Marathon, I'll be reviewing Naked Lunch, Crash and eXistenZ.