Friday, May 31, 2013

Monthly Round-Up: May Viewing

In May after a slow start (I was on holiday, and needed a break) I still ended up watching 34 films. The diversity surprises me as much as ever. 

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

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

The Rocket (Kim Mordaunt, 2013) - Provoked immense joy. Fragments of history and Laos villager tradition/struggles built tension but it is the relationships that are truly special. Wonderful film.

The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006) - Awe-inspiring, century-spanning romance deals with the quest to rejuvenate life and the acceptance of mortality in realms of science and religion. An ambitious film of ideas and feeling, it is also very well acted by Jackman/Weiss and has incredible visuals and soundscape. I sat mouth agape.

The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013) - This epic and ambitious storytelling provokes audiences by continuing to evolve a large-scale narrative while incorporating relatable anxieties, emotional conflicts and acts of fate. The tension is palpable, standout sequences linger and the acting is of a high quality. Mark it up as two for two for one of the most promising filmmakers in the industry in Derek Cianfrance. 

Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013) - Add BLACKFISH to your Sydney Film Festival lineup (June 7 and 8), or at least consider seeing it when it hits cinemas later in the year. Incredible documentary insight into the marine park Orca shows, the decades of incidents involving the trainer death and injury, the indecency of the conditions and the greedy cover-ups and public manipulation. The footage is shocking, the accounts very moving. Wow.

Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013) - Extremely intense and atmospheric. Proceed with caution upon entry to this surreal and unsettling tale of underworld revenge and redemption, mysticism and justice, but marvel at the beauty of Refn’s obsessively considered aesthetic and the syncing audio/visual beats. This is a heavyweight film from a brilliant auteur.

Solaris (Steven Soderbergh, 2002) - An excellent re-imaging of Stanisław Lem's classic novel.

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

Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973) - Decade-spanning study of 60/70s NYC cop corruption and fiery bio-drama of the man who opposed the precinct alone. Classic Pacino role.

New Nightmare (Wes Craven, 1994) - Wes Craven's return to the franchise incorporates vivid dreamscapes with the icon villain making a return to terrorize the lives of it's creators (Heather Langenkamp/Wes Craven), in talks to make another film, for real.

Star Trek Into Darkness (J. J Abrams, 2013) - A stunning character-driven adventure further tests the Kirk/Spock alliance and pits them against formidable foe in Benedict Cumberbatch. I liked INTO DARKNESS more than Abrams' STAR TREK, my lone exposure to the phenomenon, especially in terms of an engaging antagonist, Kirk/Spock's clashing attributes and hero determinants, the exciting action sequences and striking visuals. It is a shame about the final minutes because it's unpredictability is one of it's strengths. As I'm not a Trekkie I'm unlikely to see it again but it kept me entertained.

The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981) - Not as much fun as the sequels but the gore barrage is of a formerly-unseen extreme. Good lord.

Primer (Shane Carruth, 2003) - ??? Wore me out. Low budget conception with a fascinating premise doesn't offer an audience any aid in navigating complex timelines.

Sinister (Scott Derrickson, 2012)

Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, 2013) - Oddball, raw b+w recreation/fiction of an 80's man v machine chess tournament had me fooled. Tech-jargon/nerd-weird aplenty. Footage feels plucked from a forgotten archive with awkward hotel room exchanges between wacky programmers as they philosophize future of AI. Some arcs begin to wear out their welcome ad the pace had me squirming at times but it might be strangest experience you have at the Sydney Film Festival.

The Land of Hope (Sono Sion, 2013) - Sion's affecting family drama looks at the recovery from being uprooted by natural disaster and nuclear fallout with realism and empathy. The two families make tough decisions with the youngsters forced to deal with paranoia, come to accept responsibility, and their parent's stubborn commitment to one another and their place. It is a tad long but this can be forgiven due to the very personal study. Remarkable how natural the relationships feel. The photography is clean, simple and observatory and though a fictional story the location work is terrific.

It's About To Rain (Haider Rashid, 2013) - Algerian family fights unrecognized Italian citizenship, bureaucratic oppression, forced expulsion. Relevant and important. Features a fine performance from Lorenzo Baglioni, a student in love with his country who provokes media involvement in family's plight.

Algorithms (Ian McDonald, 2013) - Fascinating look at India's blind junior chess masters and their passionate mentor/former champ as they compete in elite tournaments. It stresses equality - a game won with the mind, not the eyes - and addresses the politics of differentiation between impaired vision and total blindness. I'm hopeless at chess so watching these young kids understand the game as they do is incredible. 

A River Changes Course (Kalyanee Mam, 2013) - Beautifully shot slice of Cambodian life examines reliance on depleting agriculture and the hardships as a result, and the shift to urban industry. In the three families followed older siblings are required to leave school and work as their parents struggle with traditional ways of living.

Paycheck (John Woo, 2003) - The Woo-typical spark-frenzy action dominates the second half but an intriguing, if dated-looking, on-the-run/time travel mystery.

 Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984) - Watched Ghostbusters for the first time properly and except for losing interest for a while there in the middle, it was fun. Murray's comedy is always great and it was a surprise to see Ernie Hudson in a pre-OZ role. Some dated effects, but the Marshmallow Man finale is epic.

 The Meaning of Life (Terry Jones, 1983) - Witty commentary on religion and conception, death and the afterlife, as well as some expectedly amusing songs, but some very tedious bits too. Very hit/miss. Doesn't stack up to Life of Brian or The Holy Grail. 
Satellite Boy (Catriona McKenzie, 2013)
A Place For Me (Josh Boone, 2013) - Pleasant indie drama looks at a family of writers in varying stages of success, who find themselves shaped by love/life experience. Alt-rock influenced soundtrack, a nice performance from an endearing Kinnear and likable Collins/Lerman chemistry lift it above some inertness and convenience.

Drift (Morgan O'Neil and Ben Nott, 2013) 

 Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez, 2013)

The Big Wedding (Justin Zackham, 2013) - Not the train wreck I expected. Courtesy of the classy veteran cast (De Niro and Keaton especially) there are enough inappropriate laughs and genuine relationships to keep one amused throughout, despite some the arcs (overstuffed and contrived) wallowing in heavy-handed silliness.

The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, 2013) - Despite glimpses of the heart and passion that truly drives Gatsby's dream, his elaborate front (Luhrmann's outrageous excess - the first party sequence is a test of your allegiance to his vision - and the terrible 3D) overwhelms any semblance of humanity. Dull narration, bland performances - except for Di Caprio and Debicki - a wasted s/track, and general visual incoherence tainted faithfulness. Caraway is such a passive nobody, with no hopes and dreams, that his continued idolization of Gatsby's romanticism and hope becomes tiring. My enjoyment came and went, I was reminded of my fondness for the novel, but this is a disappointing effort, overall.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (Alex Gibney, 2013) - A sprawling data-heavy exposé on much more than Assange and his creation. The extensive work is impressive and Gibney has traced a lot of avenues to put this mess into some order and tried inventive ways to spruce up the material. The immorality of deciding what to publicly reveal and keep harboured up is a provocative angle, and with Assange gallivanting around Norfolk with future Australian government aspirations and Manning suffering from dire treatment in prison, viewers will leave divided on whether this is justice. But, having processed so much information and felt next-to-nothing, this emotionally vacant doco falls well short of Gibney’s best work, losing focus by following tangents that are interesting but limit the film's overall impact.

Mistaken For Strangers (Tom Berninger, 2013) - Backstage groupie POV of The National's tour of Europe becomes director's self-reflexive study of himself and the creative process. Tom is both a frustrating and sympathetic character as we see him struggle to find and accept his place, and break out of the shadow of big bro.

Greetings From Tim Buckley (Daniel Algrant, 2013) - As son Jeff prepares to participate in a tribute concert to late father, we get glimpses of Tim's short career. I wish the whole film had as much passion as the final performances. The portrayals aren't exactly flattering but Jeff's spontaneous talent is engaging.

Woyzeck (Werner Herzog, 1979) -  Kinski is out of control in unnerving lesser-Herzog, story of an oppressed, psychologically-scarred soldier's streak of madness. Even at 82 minutes, and big gaps in the plot, WOYZECK seemed to drag on.

Snitch (Ric Roman Waugh, 2013)

The Hangover Part III (Todd Phillips, 2013) - The Hangover Part II was pretty much a straight-up rehash of the first film, and even that was more inventive than Part III. Horrifying.


There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) - One of the greatest films EVER.

Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009) - Grubby-stylish primeval spiritual odyssey feels like it is set on another planet. Mikkelsen compels without saying a word.


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