Sunday, November 30, 2014

Monthly Round-up: November 2014 Viewing

I watched 30 films in November.

In other news we have completely finished Entourage. I had never ventured beyond Season 7, because I was disappointed by what the show had stooped too. But, on a re-watch Season 6 is the show's weakest season. Vince going out of control in Season 7 has a much more convincing and authentic progression than I remember, and both Drama and Turtle have interesting arcs. Ari aside, because Piven is so good, Turtle has grown into the show's unlikely MVP. S7 ends with one of the show's greatest celeb references - following Vince's altercation with Eminem at a party he gatecrashes. Drama defends Vince and gets beaten up in the process, despite being held back. He has this to say about this situation:

"If it wasn't for Jordan Farmar and that guy Kevin Love, I think I would have killed somebody." - Drama.

Who thought of this? NBA players Farmar and Love (who played for the Lakers and Timberwolves respectively at the time) appear as themselves, but in the mess of bodies it is hard to identify them. Every ep has oodles of references to celebs past and present, and guest involvement, but this might be my favourite of them all.

Anyway, here's what I saw in November.

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

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne, 2008) - One of the greatest documentaries I have ever seen. I can't believe I didn't hear about this back in 2008. Devastating.

Why Don't You Play in Hell? (Sion Sono, 2013) - The better of the Sono pair I watched this month. How can you not enjoy this? It's a fast and furious ascent into the ridiculous, but you have to admire its manic energy and ability to fuse informed commentary on the transition into the Digital era, and it's idolization of an era passed, with a story that is so impressively complex. And the ending is full-on chaos. Sono knows exactly what he is doing - technically genius, it is so well constructed and consistently hilarious. One of the most enjoyable cinema experiences I have had this year.

Thief (Michael Mann, 1981) - Hotshot criminal caught between professional allegiance and clean sanctuary, to the sounds of Tangerine Dream. Caan at his big-ego best and it looks amazing. They don't make them like this anymore. Mann's credible world and characters resemble Cassavetes and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Mann's career greatness to follow contained within his debut.

Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014)

Tokyo Tribe (Sion Sono, 2014) - I don't know what to say. Tokyo Tribe is one of those experiences you can't believe happened. Amazing.

We are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 2013) - The confidence here. Gets that 13-14 year old awkwardness spot on. Forming a band is just a form of antagonistic rebellion to begin with - until the pair begin to have a blast with the idea, discover that punk is a real ideal, forge a new friendship and mold their identity and independence as a result. The three girls, all non pros, are perfect. I had a smile on my face through most of this. Good stuff.

Phase IV (Saul Bass, 1974) - I liked this trippy classic sci-fi, but I don't really know why. The conception and execution of the ant sequences is incredible. How was this even done? Even the human story was fascinating for the most part - the implosion of humanity when threatened by one of the smartest of Earth's creatures, and the aggressive obsession to understand and communicate with a force outside of the claustrophobic lab, when the answers lie within. I watched the alternate ending on Youtube afterwards. WTF. Better than the other one, though.

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

New Releases (27/11/2014)

In cinemas this week: Nightcrawler, Men Women and Children, Particle Fever, Fat Pizza Vs. Housos, A Thousand Times Goodnight, Serena and Jimmy's Hall.

Nightcrawler - A pulse-pounding thriller set in the nocturnal underbelly of contemporary Los Angeles. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Lou Bloom, a driven young man desperate for work who discovers the high-speed world of L.A. crime journalism. Finding a group of freelance camera crews who film crashes, fires, murder and other mayhem, Lou muscles into the cut-throat, dangerous realm of nightcrawling -- where each police siren wail equals a possible windfall and victims are converted into dollars and cents. Aided by Rene Russo as Nina, a veteran of the blood-sport that is local TV news, Lou thrives. In the breakneck, ceaseless search for footage, he becomes the star of his own story. Quite simply one of the elite films of the year. Absolutely blown away by this one. 

Men Women and Children - Follows the story of a group of high school teenagers and their parents as they attempt to navigate the many ways the internet has changed their relationships, their communication, their self-image, and their love lives. The film attempts to stare down social issues such as video game culture, anorexia, infidelity, fame hunting, and the proliferation of illicit material on the internet. As each character and each relationship is tested, we are shown the variety of roads people choose - some tragic, some hopeful - as it becomes clear that no one is immune to this enormous social change that has come through our phones, our tablets, and our computers.

Particle Fever - Imagine being able to watch as Edison turned on the first light bulb, or as Franklin received his first jolt of electricity. For the first time, a film gives audiences a front row seat to a significant and inspiring scientific breakthrough as it happens. Particle Fever follows six brilliant scientists during the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, marking the start-up of the biggest and most expensive experiment in the history of the planet, pushing the edge of human innovation. As they seek to unravel the mysteries of the universe, 10,000 scientists from over 100 countries joined forces in pursuit of a single goal: to recreate conditions that existed just moments after the Big Bang and find the Higgs boson, potentially explaining the origin of all matter. But our heroes confront an even bigger challenge: have we reached our limit in understanding why we exist? Directed by Mark Levinson, a physicist turned filmmaker, from the inspiration and initiative of producer David Kaplan and masterfully edited by Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient), Particle Fever is a celebration of discovery, revealing the very human stories behind this epic machine. It successfully turns the analysis of complex theories into an accessible and inspiring document of grand, and revolutionary, scientific breakthrough. ★★1/2

1000 Times Good Night - Rebecca (Juliette Binoche) is one of world's top war photojournalists, capturing dangerous and chilling images in the most dire landscapes, all in an effort to shed light on the real cost of modern war. But she's also a wife and mother, leaving behind a husband and two young daughters every time she travels to a new combat zone. After a near-death experience chronicling the ritual of a female suicide bomber, husband Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) levels an ultimatum: give up the dangerous profession or lose the family she counts on being there when she returns from each assignment. Yet the conviction that her photos can make a difference keeps pulling at Rebecca's resolve, making it difficult for her to walk away entirely. With an offer to photograph a refugee camp in Kenya, a place allegedly so safe that daughter Steph (Lauryn Canny) is allowed to join her, Rebecca comes face to face with just how much she risks each time she steps back into the fray. 

Serena - Adapted from the novel by Ron Rash, director Susanne Bier's romantic period drama Serena details the deteriorating relationship between North Carolina timber magnate Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) and his fiercely independent, entrepreneurial-minded wife Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) following a devastating miscarriage. A woman who isn't afraid to speak her mind and relishes the opportunity for manual labor in the forest, the enigmatic Serena subsequently grows intensely jealous of the woman who previously bore her husband a son, and quickly begins to unravel over suspicions that Pemberton is sheltering his illegitimate family.

Jimmy's Hall - In 1921 Jimmy Gralton's sin was to build a dance hall on a rural crossroads in Ireland where young people could come to learn, to argue, to dream... but above all to dance and have fun. Jimmy's Hall celebrates the spirit of these free thinkers. The film is set in 1932 and follows events when Jimmy returned from a decade in New York and re-opened the hall. The film is freely inspired by Jimmy's life and turbulent times. 

Weekly Recommendation: Nighcrawler is brilliant. If you don't see it, you are seriously missing out. Jake Gyllenhaal's performance is incredible. I fear I have oversold this, having been blabbing about it since I saw it at TIFF, but I hope you enjoy it. Particle Fever isn't essential cinema viewing, but it is a very interesting documentary that makes large volumes of stats and data pretty accessible to an inquisitive viewer. I have Serena and Men Women and Children lined up this week so we will see how they go (reviews are poor), but if I get the chance to see Ken Loach's Jimmy's Hall I won't pass that up either.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Review: Mr Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014)

Mr. Turner is a dense, challenging biographical drama of ugly sounds and gorgeous visuals, sets and costumes. Veteran British filmmaker Mike Leigh (Naked, Secrets and Lies and Another Year) canvases the period spectacularly, while Cannes Best Actor-winner Timothy Spall (The King’s Speech) completely embodies the vile but fascinating J. M. W Turner, one of the great 19th Century British painters.

There is essentially very little plot to Leigh’s 12th feature, with the titular artist’s interactions with others driving the narrative along, revealing more about the man, the period, how his cumbersome frame and loathsome attributes fit awkwardly into the world and the legacy left behind. They are very interesting, despite being accompanied by Turner’s aggressive grunts and difficult-to-discern oratory. We are introduced to Turner when he is already at the height of his fame, and over what I took to be several decades we witness his creative decline, his emotional suffering over the death of his father, his impaired health, and the relationships that defined the last years of his life, in particular with Sophia, a widowed seaside woman he falls in love with. Turner travels consistently as an inspiration for his work and was a respected (if unruly) member of the Royal Academy of Arts. There is a lot to digest in this film.

Continue Reading at An Online Universe

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

New Releases (20/11/2014)

In cinemas this week: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, The Dark Horse, Maps to the Stars, The Good Lie and Rock the Casbah.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 - After seemingly destroying the Games for good, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself recovering in District 13, with her mother and sister and leaders of the Panem rebellion. District 13 is led by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), who along with her allies including Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Katniss’ mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and publicity representative Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), attempts to convince Katniss to become the beacon of hope for the rebellion. She is distraught having learned that her fellow Games competitor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has been captured by the Capitol’s tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and by the horrors she discovers have been afflicted on District 12 and beyond. Her reactions to the atrocities and military-escorted contact with enemy forces are then broadcast around Panem, including the Capitol, who retaliates with their own propaganda broadcast in an attempt to intimidate Katniss and quash the strengthening rebellion.

The Dark Horse - Starring an extraordinary NZ cast; Cliff Curtis (Whale Rider and Boy), James Rolleston (Boy) and Kirk Torrance (Outrageous Fortune) The Dark Horse is an inspiring true story based on the life of a charismatic, brilliant but little-known New Zealand Hero and chess champion - Genesis Potini, aka Gen. It is an emotionally-charged, provocative drama about a man who searches for the courage to lead, despite his own adversities - finding purpose and hope in passing on his gift to the children in his community. Curtis is terrific as a bipolar ex-chessmaster who takes some troubled youngsters under his tutelage and teaches them that the tiny world of chess offers many paths, and not everyone needs to follow the one assigned by their circumstances. Really quite affecting. ★★★1/2

Maps to the Stars - With this tale of a secret-filled Hollywood family on the verge of implosion, director David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence) forges both a wicked social satire and a very human ghost story from our celebrity-obsessed culture. Meet the Weiss family, who are making their way in a sun-soaked Southern California rife with money, dreams, fame, envy, angst, yearning - and relentless hauntings. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a famed TV self-help therapist, whose "Hour of Personal Power" has brought him an A-list celebrity clientele, including Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore, Cannes-winner for her performance). Meanwhile, Cristina Weiss (Olivia Williams) has her work cut out managing the career of their disaffected child-star son, Benjie (Evan Bird), a fresh graduate of rehab at age 13.

The Good Lie - They were known simply as "The Lost Boys." Orphaned by the brutal Civil war in Sudan that began in 1983, these young victims traveled as many as a thousand miles on foot in search of safety. Fifteen years later, a humanitarian effort would bring 3600 lost boys and girls to America. In The Good Lie Philippe Falardeau, (writer and director of the Oscar- nominated Foreign Language film Monsieur Lazhar) brings the story of their survival and triumph to life. Sudanese actors Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, and newcomer Nyakuoth Weil, many of whom were also children of war, star alongside Academy Award-winner Reese Witherspoon and Corey Stoll.  

Weekly Recommendation - The Dark Horse is my pick of the two that I have seen, but I can imagine when Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2 are viewed together, they will prove to be much more satisfying. As a once David Cronenberg fan - his last two have been disappointing - I am looking forward to Maps to the Stars, and I adored Falardeau's last film Monsieur Lazhar son I am intrigued by The Good Lie.  

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (Francis Lawrence, 2014)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is the first cinematic half of the third and final installment in the Hunger Games franchise, based on the best-selling novels by Suzanne Collins. Francis Lawrence, who directed the excellent second film, Catching Fire, returns to direct, and the story continues to follow Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as she becomes a reluctant hero and symbol of hope for Panem after escaping the Third Quarter Quell Hunger Games.

After seemingly destroying the Games for good, Katniss finds herself recovering in District 13, with her mother and sister and leaders of the Panem rebellion. District 13 is led by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), who along with her allies including Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Katniss’ mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and publicity representative Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), attempts to convince Katniss to become the beacon of hope for the rebellion. She is distraught having learned that her fellow Games competitor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has been captured by the Capitol’s tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and by the horrors she discovers have been afflicted on District 12 and beyond. Her reactions to the atrocities and military-escorted contact with enemy forces are then broadcast around Panem, including the Capitol, who retaliates with their own propaganda broadcast in an attempt to intimidate Katniss and quash the strengthening rebellion.

Continue reading at An Online Universe

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

New Releases (13/11/14)

In cinemas this week: The Drop, Winter Sleep, My Old Lady and Lets Be Cops.

The Drop - A new crime drama from Michaël R. Roskam, the Academy Award nominated director of Bullhead. Based on a screenplay from Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone), The Drop follows lonely bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) through a covert scheme of funneling cash to local gangsters - "money drops" in the underworld of Brooklyn bars. Under the heavy hand of his employer and cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), Bob finds himself at the center of a robbery gone awry and entwined in an investigation that digs deep into the neighborhood's past. This is a strange film. A slow-building, character-driven Brooklyn underworld-set thriller that feels different, thanks to Roskam's direction. It is always interesting, despite some plot holes on reflection. Hardy is terrific. Gandolfini ditto in his last (?) role. ★★★1/2

Winter Sleep - Aydin, a former actor, runs a small hotel in central Anatolia with his young wife Nihal with whom he has a stormy relationship and his sister Necla who is suffering from her recent divorce. In winter as the snow begins to fall, the hotel turns into a shelter but also an inescapable place that fuels their animosities. This year's Palme d’Or winner from Nuri Bilge Ceylan (the extraordinary Once Upon A Time In Anatolia) is a riveting, beautifully photographed portrait of middle-age re-evaluation and revelation in historically and economically crippled Anatolian isolation. Amazing.

My Old Lady - Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) is a down-on-his-luck New Yorker who inherits a Parisian apartment from his estranged father. But when he arrives in France to sell the vast domicile, he's shocked to discover a live-in tenant who is not prepared to budge. His apartment is a viager - an ancient French real estate system with complex rules pertaining to its resale - and the feisty Englishwoman Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), who has lived in the apartment with her daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas) for many years, can by contract collect monthly payments from Mathias until her death. 

Lets Be Cops - It's the ultimate buddy cop movie except for one thing: they're not cops. When two struggling pals dress as police officers for a costume party, they become neighborhood sensations. But when these newly-minted "heroes" get tangled in a real life web of mobsters and dirty detectives, they must put their fake badges on the line. 

Weekly Recommendation: Winter Sleep is one of the best films I saw at the Sydney Film Festival earlier in the year. It is long, but I was riveted the entire way. The Drop features one of Tom Hardy's best performances (think about that) and very much worth your time. They are pretty niche films, though, so I expect they will have their detractors. I enjoy watching Damon Wayans Jr. and Jake Johnson but Lets Be Cops looks abysmal. 

Review: Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014)

Pride is British feel-good drama at its very best, featuring one of the strongest ensemble casts of the year. It is not only an inspiring and important film about the fight for equality and how strength in numbers amongst multiple marginalised groups has the potential to change a nation’s values, but it’s also full of frequent humour and irresistible energy. Coupled with the charm is an ever-present feeling of substantiality in its exploration of the period and the heroes that made such an unlikely union possible. Written by Stephen Beresford and directed by Matthew Warchus, Pride has understandably been internationally celebrated, including winning the Queer Palm at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Pride is based on true events, depicting a London group of smart and determined gay and lesbian activists, led by Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer, The Riot Club), who raised money to help families affected by the 1984 British miner’s strike. The nation-wide Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) campaign was spawned from this, but the National Union of Mineworkers was reluctant to accept donations due to their concern about being publicly associated with a gay group. The LGSM decided to take their donations directly to Onllwyn, a small mining town in Wales, where their generosity was welcomed by their union spokesperson Dai Donovan (Paddy Considine, The World’s End). After overcoming initial conflicts with the community at large, friendships begin to forge and the alliance began to raise publicity.

Continue reading at An Online Universe.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Revew: Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014)

In the latest film from the great Dardenne Brothers (Rosetta, The Kid With the Bike) Marion Cotillard is wonderful as Sandra, a still-depressed mother of two who decides to fight for her job by asking her colleagues to vote in favour of her returning to work and keeping her salary, over a generous and financially-cushioning bonus.

On a Friday fourteen of her sixteen colleagues voted in favor of the bonus, but Sandra is convinced to fight for another chance and manages to persuade her boss to hold a blind, uninfluenced ballot on Monday. Over the course of the weekend, barely able to hide her shame and embarrassment, she pays each of them a personal visit, pleading her case (the importance of her salary, her improved health), but always with an understanding of their equally stressful financial situations. She asks them to make a very difficult decision, to take a sacrifice for her - for some, a friend - and the passing on a rare economic crutch.

In this film we see inspiring increases in Sandra's self-worth, having been sidelined by depression, just as self-pity heartbreakingly brews with each encounter. Many of her work colleagues are not monsters; some felt guilty for taking the bonus and claimed to be pressured in, agreeing to vote in her favor, while others provide sound arguments why they won't change their minds. There is a profound moral dilemma here, and an audience is challenged to consider how they would respond. There are several twists and turns that have huge significance, but save for one particularly misfitting development with one colleague, the Dardennes are completely respectful of the sort of person Sandra is to the very end.

Throughout this film suspense builds whenever Sandra knocks on a door, or makes a call. We have no idea how this colleague is going to respond, and despite the repetitious structure there is tension throughout. This is a small film about a universal crisis.

The Dardenne Bros use an intimate approach to telling their stories; lengthy, unbroken takes, a curious camera that eavesdrops on these conversations and is expertly controlled. The musical accompaniments work brilliantly too. But it is their script, their core character, the tenuous conflict that emerges through an unfortunate economic landscape, that makes this film wholly affecting.

My Rating: ★★★1/2

Monday, November 3, 2014

New Releases (06/11/2014)

In cinemas this week: Interstellar, Two Days, One Night, Love, Rosie, My Mistress, Finding Vivian Maier and Rise. 

Interstellar - With our time on Earth coming to an end, a team of explorers undertakes the most important mission in human history; traveling beyond this galaxy to discover whether mankind has a future among the stars.

Two Days, One Night Sandra (Cotillard) has just been released from the hospital to find that she no longer has a job. According to management, the only way Sandra can hope to regain her position at the factory is to convince her co-workers to sacrifice their much-needed yearly bonuses. Now, over the course of one weekend, Sandra must confront each co-worker individually in order to win a majority of their votes before time runs out. With TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT, the Dardenne Bros. have turned a relevant social inquiry into a powerful statement on community solidarity, once again delivering a film that is simple on the surface but alive with both compassion and wisdom.

Love, Rosie - Rosie and her best friend Alex take a leap of faith, both on life and on each other, when they decide to go to the US together to attend university. But fate has other plans for Rosie. Over the next 12 years their lives change dramatically but the connection remains. 

My Mistress - What starts as a beautiful and strangely innocent affair between a vulnerable teenage romantic and a French S&M mistress soon becomes more dangerous.

Finding Vivian Maier - Who is Vivian Maier? Now considered one of the 20th century's greatest street photographers, Vivian Maier was a mysterious nanny who secretly took over 100,000 photographs that went unseen during her lifetime. Since buying her work by chance at auction, amateur historian John Maloof has crusaded to put this prolific photographer in the history books. Maier's strange and riveting life and art are revealed through never-before-seen photographs, films, and interviews with dozens who thought they knew her.

Rise - A true story about a young nurse falsely accused of rape. Stripped of his career and his freedom, Will is forced to survive maximum security jail. The film centers on an unlikely friendship formed with Jimmy, a hardened armed robber and the legal battle by a prominent lawyer who must compromise status and wage to prove his innocence.

Weekly Recommendation: Unfortunately, I can't go with Interstellar here. The story that drives Christopher Nolan's epic space opera doesn't work, and is poorly told, and his worst tendencies as a filmmaker aren't camouflaged by his often-stunning visuals. Thankfully, one of the year's best films is out this week - the Dardenne Bros' Two Days, One Night.   

Review: Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014)

The latest film from Christopher Nolan (The Batman Trilogy, Inception) is sure to be, for many, the most anticipated film of the year. This is especially considering the marketing tease of epic intergalactic exploration, the fact that it is shot in a combination of anamorphic 35mm and IMAX 70mm (and will be projected in both formats), and brings in the man behind the McConaissance. This may be Nolan’s most ambitious film yet, as he attempts to balance an intimate existential story about the power of love and its ability to bind humans and families together across time and space, with credulous scientific hypothesizing about cosmic physics and a challenging mission to save the world. At the same time it is his most intellectually wobbly, narratively goofy and surprisingly forgettable.

As fascinating as Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s ideas are, and as impressive as the former’s vision as a director is, this doesn’t hold up to even modest scrutiny. Failing to grasp how the startling final act revelations work is not a deal-breaker for me, but I can’t forgive the mediocre writing that plagues this film, in spite of its substantial visual artistry and the stunning depiction of unexplored regions of deep space.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a widowed engineer turned farmer, is living on an Earth that is slowly becoming increasingly environmentally devastated and uninhabitable. He is living on his farm with his late wife’s father (John Lithgow) and his two children Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet). He is grooming Tom to follow in his footsteps, while the inquisitive Murphy shares his love for engineering. Following a serious dust storm, which frequent the area and are worsening, Cooper and Murphy are led to mysterious coordinates by a strange (but easily accepted) gravitational anomaly in Murphy’s bedroom. She believes she has a ghost, but something has definitely been messing about with her books.

They find themselves at a top-secret NASA base run by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway). As it happens, a wormhole has been discovered near Saturn that can connect widely separated regions of space-time and act as a portal into another galaxy. Brand proposes that Cooper join his team of scientists on a voyage to find a humanly habitable planet in a parallel galaxy. Cooper struggles with the decision to leave his two children – Murphy is especially unforgiving, given the fact that he cannot promise a return – but he eventually decides to join Amelia, Doyle (an impressively bearded Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi) and a robot called TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) on the mission.

Continue reading at An Online Universe