dir: David Yates
Betterer and betterer…
Order of the Phoenix is probably the best of the Harry Potter films thus far, but that seems kind of redundant to point out. The story itself, of a young wizard, his friends and allies, and the evil arrayed against them, and the author herself have been improving over time. The story is getting more complicated, deeper and richer, and, as such, it is getting harder and harder for me to maintain my disdain for the books and the people who wank on about them all the time.
As with the more recent flicks, they just go straight into it, with no shilly-shallying about. There’s plenty of references to happenings and characters from the previous films/books, but not in the sense of summarising the whole premise for the clueless coming in. It’s assumed that if your bum’s on the theatre seat, you know everything that’s transpired over the course of the story, or at least have some idea.
dir: John Carney
How many times are you likely to watch this flick, if at all? Once. How many times will you listen to the CD? Once. How many times will you hear the Oscar-winning song Falling Slowly that features in the film and is likely going to be used in every ad trying to sell everything from haemorrhoid creams to fighter jets and cheese-in-a-can? Probably dozens of times.
Once is a very simple, very unambitious flick that is nonetheless quite charming. It is billed as a romance, but really, it’s about two people who meet, sing and play some songs together, and that’s it. There’s really not much else to it.
The story, such as it is, looks at The Guy (Glen Hansard) who repairs vacuum cleaners in his dad’s shop. He also busks on the streets singing his own songs. In an amusing exchange to open proceedings, he spies a junkie who looks like he’s going to try to steal the change dropped on his guitar cover. When the junkie does what is expected of him, and The Guy has to chase him down, it seems like the junkie and the Guy know each other quite well.
The Guy meets The Girl (Marketa Irglova), a Czech immigrant with a daughter and some musical ability. Guy and Girl are brought together by their love of music, but not by any romantic connection. Though they might, in an ideal world, be able to get drunk and fuck like crazed weasels, in their actual world, there are too many obstacles to achieving this at the start.
dir: Susanne Bier
It’s a testament to the abilities of the actors involved, and the skill of director Susanne Bier that this story, which sounds like the most contrived melodrama you could ever imagine, works, and works well. Bier is one of only a handful of Danish directors I can think of (the others being notorious overwrought hack Lars Von Trier and the guy who made the scuzzily vile Pusher trilogy), but she shows here why she’s such a respected director both at home and internationally.
The key is effective drama. In this entire film, there is but one scene that doesn’t work acting-wise or dramatically. That’s one scene out of dozens. That’s a pretty good hit to miss ratio.
Jacob (played by Mads Mikkelson, who most people would know as the villain from the most recent Bond film) is a strange, nervy kind of guy who works at an Indian orphanage. He speaks fluent English, and a bit of the local language, but clearly he’s not from around here, though he’s spent twenty years in the country.
Orphanages need two things to keep running: an energy source derived from harvesting the misery of orphans, which is an abundant, renewable resource, and donated money from wealthy philanthropists with guilty consciences. Jacob’s orphanage needs money to continue. When word comes that a Danish organisation is willing to give the orphanage millions of dollars worth of blood money, with the one precondition being that Jacob himself has to return for a brief visit to Denmark, Jacob is surprisingly reluctant.
dir: Paul Greengrass
Jason Bourne gets the job done.
If you sent him to the supermarket, he would power through the aisles, hip-and-shouldering other customers out of the way, strategically rolling cans of kidney beans under the feet of pensioners and somersaulting over the shelves in his single-minded determination to get to the cat food before anyone can stop him. During his manic dash towards the checkout counter, he would be plotting intercept vectors and ambush choke points whilst mentally calculating the savings he’s making versus the current cost of 1400 other brands of cat food that he memorised prior to entering the store.
If anyone got in his way during his exit strategy towards the carpark, he’d kill them, probably with the cat food, even if it was in those soft foil sachets. The cat food would be unharmed and still tasty when he force-fed it to your cat using a funnel and some improvised explosives.
dir: Matthew Seville
Who doesn’t love a bit of aural every now and then?
Noise is a moody Australian character piece about a depressed Melbourne cop who’s not really that into his job. Despite the murder investigation going on around him, his story is tangential to the grand drama occurring outside his skull.
Some nutter goes crazy on a Melbourne suburban train, and shoots every person in a particular carriage. A girl, Livinia (Maia Thomas), who gets on the train just after her shift at Macca’s has ended and just after the massacre has occurred, sees the bodies and the killer as well, making her the only witness.
Concurrently, copper Graham McGahan (Brendan Cowell) at another train station gets a call on his CB radio, but doesn’t seem to be able to hear the dispatcher. His hearing problem gets worse until he collapses on an escalator.
dir: David Cronenberg
Eastern Promises, being a David Cronenberg film, promises more than it should and delivers more than you’d expect. There’s no shortage of flicks out there about organised crime, but it takes a unique one to stand out from the morass.
A look at the Russian mafia isn’t exactly new either. But the screenplay by Stephen Knight and the whole bloody production, overseen by one of the masters of cinema (even if he is Canadian), creates a living, breathing, unnerving story about, amongst other things, how nasty old people can be.
A pregnant fourteen-year-old girl (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) staggers into a chemist, bleeding all over the place. She gives birth to a tiny girl later in hospital, and promptly dies. The midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts) searches the poor girl’s belongings to find out where she comes from so see can give the little baby (who she’s named Christina, in honour of rapidly approaching Christmas) to her family.
The problem is, all she has to go on is a diary in Russian. Anna has a Russian background, but needs the diary to be translated. Propelling the plot forward, she also finds a card which directs her to a Russian restaurant called the Trans-Siberian in the heart of London.
dir: Robert Rodriguez
Now this is more like it…
The essential argument I’m going to put forth here is that Planet Terror gets right what Death Proof got wrong. The great difficulty I’m going to have pushing this barrow is that I can’t really pinpoint as to why, exactly.
Not ‘why’ as in ‘why am I bothering to inflict my thoughts again on an entirely uninterested populace’ but why as in why it works. And it does.
Fully embracing the 70s trashy movie aesthetic that it aspires to, Planet Terror is a balls-out, at times hilarious celebration of the best that trash cinema used to offer. The footage is deliberately grained up, butchered and cut and with all sorts of flaws and imperfections, including fake film burns and ‘missing’ reel segments. It also has the kind of dialogue that is as ridiculous as it is entertaining.
And it has a hot stripper with a gun for a leg taking on legions of zombie enemies with head and chest bursting alacrity.
dir: Brad Bird
The Pixar name still means something to audiences. They’ve made so many great computer-animated flicks that discounting them because of missteps (Cars) or being purchased by Disney for something obscene like 7 billion dollars and the kidneys of several thousand Asian children, seems wrong.
I’m reassured by Ratatouille, in that even if it’s not breakout tremendous like The Incredibles, or consistently entertaining and engaging like Finding Nemo, the Toy Stories or even Monsters Inc, it’s still pretty damn good and still several million miles ahead of the drek like Shrek and the other crap pumped out by Pixar’s rivals.
dir: Craig Brewer
The posters for this flick and the DVD are pure, purer, purest exploitation material. Big black man restraining a skinny white girl who is literally chained to him. The title reads “Black Snake Moan”, and your not unreasonable expectation is that this flick must be some kind of trashy crap. There’s an entire line of, uh, movies out there that focus on, um, interactions between African-American males and ‘white’ females. And the black snake they’re referring to is an entirely different animal.
You can debate the tastefulness of the promotion, and doubt the artistic merit of such an enterprise, but that would be doing this decent flick a grave disservice.
The Black Snake Moan of the title refers to the despair that can consume us whole in the face of a life spun out of control. Usually because of love gone wrong. Or stubbing your toe, whichever comes first.
The film opens and closes with ancient footage of genuine old school bluesman Son House pontificating about what the blues is about. Cut short, the blues is about the misery caused by interactions between men and women in love or lust. Same sex couples clearly are not part of this equation and need not apply. If a gay person with a broken heart listens to the blues and relates to it, then clearly they’re not gay enough.
dir: Ang Lee
You could say that the subject matter of Lust, Caution was a strange choice for Ang Lee, if it really was possible to contend such a thing. But he’s never been consistent in his film choices or in their content, so it really isn’t that strange, is it?
I mean, look at this CV: The Ice Storm, Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hulk and Brokeback Mountain.
If there is one consistency to point to, it's that these aren't superficial films. Clearly, he makes films about whatever he wants, and he is not bound by any genre or convention. For this he has loyal fans but an unpredictable output.
Lust, Caution looks at the blossoming, in more ways than one, of a young patriotic lass called Wong Jiazhi (Wei Tang), whose fateful job it is to infiltrate the affections and bed of a very bad man, being Mr Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). The film begins when she is already in place, and then flashes back to four years in the past, to show how she got to this precarious place in her life.
dir: Michael Winterbottom
Daniel Pearl was a journalist working in Pakistan when he was kidnapped by terrorists in 2002. He was held for several days, as his six-month’s pregnant wife Mariane Pearl, their friends, colleagues, fellow journalists and the Pakistani police and ISI security forces, US Embassy staff, FBI, the then Secretary of State Colin Powell and probably Batman as well all tried to secure his release.
If you never heard the story in the media because you were too busy downloading pirated media of all sorts and purposes, or you were watching slack-jawed and mouth agape at the antics of the latest reality television contestants instead, then perhaps the events depicted in A Mighty Heart will be exciting and new. Perhaps then the flick’s structure as an investigative thriller might thrill you.
Of course, if that was the case you’re also probably not likely to give a damn over the fate of a journalist, loathsome creatures that they are.
If you know what Daniel’s fate was at the hands of these vile bastards, then the question this flick might satisfy for you won’t be ‘what happened?’ so much as the how and the why of it.
dir: Andrew Dominik
Assassination is one of the most beautiful and mournful films you’ll ever see. It is long, and sad, from its first immaculately composed and photographed scene to its last. None of which will make it any more enjoyable an experience for the general audience that will be bored out of its collective fucking mind.
Though anyone seeing the film should know exactly what it’s all about from beginning to end from the title alone, what they might not expect is that the flick is really about both the deconstruction of a myth and the deconstruction of a person’s soul. Not a lot happens in the 160 or so minutes of screen time apart from the falling apart of a curiously larger than life persona.
These are the twilight years of Jesse James and his gang. At the advanced age of his mid thirties, James is plagued with physical and mental ailments that render him something of a paranoid wreck, and unknowable to the people around him. As the persistent voiceover keeps telling us, he trusts not a soul, and moves his family at a whim at the slightest hint of trouble. He moves between Kansas, Kentucky and Missouri, always restless, always harried even if the law is not on his trail.
dir: Anton Corbijn
It’s… hard for me to review something like this. Perversely, I have adored Joy Division’s music since I was a child, but I never much bought into any of the mythologising of Ian Curtis as a tortured genius who died far too much before his time by his own hand. I say ‘perversely’ because despite having listened to both Closer and Unknown Pleasures more times than you’ve masturbated, I never really had a burning desire to find out more about the events leading up to Curtis’s suicide.
Also, fairly recently, the Michael Winterbottom film 24 Hour Party People seemed to deal with the Joy Division and Curtis story with the care and attention it deserved, devoting half (the good half) of the flick to their tale. Sure, it might have had the depth of a puddle of spilt beer, but I wasn’t really hungry for more.
Control has managed to make a fool out of me, making me doubt the flick’s and maker’s intentions at first, and the validity of the central performance, before it absolutely and utterly drew me in before blowing me away.
It took half an hour of this two hour film before I could accept Sam Riley as Ian. It is, not discounting the scenes where the band is performing, a subtle performance which requires great skill in not rendering a character into a caricature. Reilly manages that in a grimly uncomfortable fashion.
dir: Werner Herzog
What is it about crazy men and jungles that Herzog can’t get enough of? Every flick he’s ever done seems like it’s been about one or the other, or both at the same time.
His greatest flick, and one of my absolute favourites, is the utterly demented Aguirre: Wrath of God, which transpires on a river that passes through a candy-coloured brothel. No, wait, I meant to say South American jungle. The demented Klaus Kinski stars as the main crazy person.
Fitzcarraldo focussed on the actions of another crazy man who decided he’d somehow transport a massive riverboat through a jungle and over a mountain to the other side. The demented Klaus Kinski stars as the main crazy person.
His documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, looked at the true story of US Navy pilot Dieter Dengler, who was shot down over Laos in 1966 and taken prisoner in the jungle, going somewhat mad from starvation and torment. Rescue Dawn is a dramatic retelling of the same story. The ghost of Klaus Kinski stars as the inhospitable jungle itself.
dir: Ben Affleck
To me, and I suspect a lot of other audience members, the concept of a film directed by Ben Affleck starring Casey Affleck seems like one of those perfect storm conditions for a Shit Storm of the Century-type of outcomes.
And setting it in Boston amongst working class, criminal and trashy Southies? That’s like a tornado inside a hurricane inside a campaign of sustained aerial bombardment hitting your trailer park.
The suburb of Dorchester, which is both the setting for the film and where the book’s author Dennis Lehane was birthed and growed, looks like the trashiest, grungiest shithole in America. Whatever initial claim it might have had to being the Irish heart of old Boston is long gone. It looks like the kind of place that not only houses the highest levels per capita of Jerry Springer viewers, but also the greatest amount of participants in the show.
Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) is just another one of these Southie scumbags, who manages to be repellent and compelling at the same time. She’s one of those alcoholic drug addicts who would probably start a lot of sentences with the phrase “Now I’m never going to win a ‘Mother of the Year’ award, but…” and then proves it with her behaviour on a continual basis.
None of this really matters except for the fact that Helene’s little daughter Amanda (Madeleine O’Brien) has gone missing. The daughter she’s been horribly neglecting seems to have been kidnapped, and, according to the police, it doesn’t look good for her chances of being found alive.
dir: Johnnie To
Hong Kong director Johnnie To has made so many films that saying something like “and so I’m going to review the latest film by Johnnie To” is a pointless endeavour, because by the time you’ve finished writing the review, he’s put out another film.
At the very least I can say this is a recent film of his, and that I managed to catch it as part of a retrospective in honour of the great man that played recently at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Apparently he even came out to Australia for it, which is pretty sensational. He was probably pissed off that he couldn’t smoke in the theatre, if I can hazard a guess based on anecdote and on most of his films, in which every single goddamn character has to smoke constantly.
Of course even a fairly knowledgeable film watcher / movie goer would be saying to themselves, “yeah, and who the fuck is Johnnie To anyway, and why should I care?” And right you are.
dir: Sean Penn
There are films and books that purport to be about genuine individuals, about iconoclasts, rebels who are unlike everyone around them. Mostly it seems like it is praise for the latest sporting icon or actor/directors getting paid millions to indulge their affectations and the contempt they have for other people, in an easily marketable and digestible package. When the real thing comes along: a person in the modern age completely unwilling to live life like the vast majority of the people around him, we might not know what to make of him.
Into the Wild is based on a book by Jon Krakauer and looks at the life and times of one Christopher Johnson McCandless. The only really notable thing about this chap is that for seemingly no reason, but in reality a whole heap of reasons, he chooses to eschew the luxuries of modern life and travel the lonely road.
Upon graduating from college, McCandless (Emile Hirsch) decides to forego law school, gives his life savings of $24,000 to Oxfam, and hits the road. Yes, he’s romantically inspired by Kerouac’s On the Road, and the books of Jack London, and even Walden. But he doesn’t do this easily or in a cavalier fashion. He’s not pretending to play hobo: he abandons his life and any conception of making a go of the ‘regular’ life considered appropriate in modern America.
These events transpire in the early 90s, so it’s not like it was a long time ago, though you may be surprised at the amount of hippies and travellers whose paths he crosses on the way to his ultimate destination: Alaska. His ultimate ambition is to venture forth into the wilderness, to get as far away from civilisation and other people as possible, and to live. Live deeply.
dir: Frank Darabont
I watched this flick last night, and this morning, I made my way to work through a thick, chilling mist. I have to admit, for a second, I wondered what horrors the mist might hold for me.
The Mist is one of those rarest of rare movies: something based on the works of Stephen King that doesn’t suck completely and utterly. Yeah, sure, people point out The Shining, Misery, Shawshank, Green Mile, Christine and that’s about it, as a way of saying that one of the world’s most prolific horror writers has had flicks translate well from their book origins.
Bullshit, I say, to them. For every Shawshank, there’s almost ten flops that make you want to tear your eyeballs out based on some scrap of cocktail napkin that the legendary crank hack scrawled something onto.
To be fair, I started looking through all the gems he’s had a hand or toe in, and there were plenty of other flicks that don’t suck completely that he’s been involved in.
Then again, there’s still Dreamcatcher.
Look, let’s just agree that not all of King’s stuff has translated well to the big or small screen, but then again, who’s stuff always does? Even ‘serious’ authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Louis de Bernieres have works that have sucked upon transformation into a film “property”, sucked in ways that make you want to just die, already.
dir: Joe Wright
Atonement is an exquisite rendering of an exquisite book, brought to life in a way that is surprising in the sense that good literary adaptations for the silver screen are rare.
Whilst I do find Keira Knightley’s anorexic and perpetually hungry features disturbing, she makes a decent Cecilia, in fact everyone seems perfect in terms of casting and what they bring to their roles. So full praise to the casting director.
Kudos to you, sir or madam, kudos.
What’s doubly surprising is that the book could be transformed so readily into so decent a film, sacrificing little that made the book so compelling. The three-part structure is intact, the key moments and situations as seen from crucial view points are well presented, and there’s even room for some directorial virtuosity in the form of an incredible long take on the beaches of Dunkirk.
dir: Gus Van Sant
Gus Van Sant really likes them teenaged boys. No, I’m not going for the obvious gag here, I mean that there really is something he seems to love in terms of capturing, trying to preserve this brief moment in their lives between the adolescent and adult worlds.
Paranoid Park has a really simple story fractured into pieces and told in a manner whose purpose seems to be less the telling of a story and more capturing how Alex, our main character, feels about stuff. That sounds like some deep shit, doesn’t it.
There is something enjoyable about watching a flick about a teenage kid that isn’t about popularity, that isn’t about getting laid, it’s not about the prom and it’s not about some stupid bet usually involving sleeping with one particular girl until the protagonist realises that the girl who truly loves him was the slightly tomboyish but still totally feminine best friend who was alongside all etc etc.
In terms of other flicks Van Sant has made, it’s also refreshing to watch him make a film about teenagers that isn’t about a Columbine-style massacre, about two morons wandering lost in the desert or the last days of a drug-addled rock star.
dir: Tim Burton
I’ve had a fight recently with someone over the use of the term ‘gay’. Not in the obvious context, but in the one very familiar in a pop cultural sense, especially amongst teenagers. Dear friends who are teachers report that the children in their charge use the term in the pejorative manner ie. “That is so gay” so often that it drives their teachers nuts. Thus they spend a certain amount of time trying to convince The Kids that using it in such a manner is homophobic and inappropriate.
It’s a phrase with the least of bad intentions that is so easy to use and so easy to overuse. In the worst manner, it does, essentially, equate something with something else in a manner that does discredit both the comparison and the comparer. Okay, so describing something as, “ohmygod that’s so gay” doesn’t necessarily mean that you hate gay people, but you are using it in the pejorative sense, and by default saying that being gay is a negative.
But my argument is that simply using the term in such a context isn’t the same thing. The word itself, gay, isn’t a slur in and of itself these days, sidestepping the issue of what nomenclature is acceptable when one is a member of the applicable grouping. The reason is that it has a separate meaning within that context apart from saying anything, either negative or positive, about what it’s describing.
I’m sure I could bore you further with these kinds of pointless semantic/semiotic arguments, and that you’d be thrilled to bits to have me indulge myself just that little bit more. Of course, all that this is really leading up to is me saying that musicals are really quite gay. Musical theatre, dinner theatre, musical movies: as gay as it gets. It just doesn’t get any gayer than that, with the possible exception of Cirque de Soleil.
dir: Marc Foster
The Kite Runner, based on the book by Khaled Hosseini, is a simple story about some Afghan people living through some interesting times.
I have a talent both for understatement, and for inaccuracy. More importantly, the story is about the life and character of a young man called Amir (Khalid Abdalla as an adult, Zekeriah Ebrahimi as a boy). He grows up in Kabul, in the 70s, under the watchful eye of his liberal, wealthy father (Homayoun Ershadi) and family friend Rahim (Shaun Toub).
He also has the constant companionship of servant boy Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada) who worships the very ground he walks on. His devotion to Amir is nothing short of heart-breaking, but, to me at least, the devotion is not the sadomasochistic dog-like devotion of a weak, dependant neurotic. Hassan’s loyalty is fierce and strong.
And it would need to be, because Amir himself is something of a coward. When confronted by other child bullies and thugs, it is Hassan who steps up for the fight, protecting his ‘master’, even when the reason that the thugs are harassing them is that Hassan is of a different tribal ethnicity (he is often referred to as a Hazara). Amir’s own father senses that there is something missing in Amir, which is only one of the sources that fuels his resentment.
dir: Todd Haynes
It’s amazing to me that anyone could ever have thought something like this could have worked. A bunch of people playing their own versions of Bob Dylan? What, one person imitating him wouldn’t have been enough, or tolerable? So getting twenty people to do it, clearly, is a better idea?
To me it’s apparent right from the start that some of the concept behind the way it ends up being done is that one person playing Dylan wouldn’t work. That it would be inaccurate or disrespectful to dare to do a Walk the Line or Ray on Bob Dylan, because he’s just soooo much more important and complicated, isn’t he?
On the other hand, by fracturing the narrative in such a way, and by having all the various actors play different Dylans, with different names as well, then it obviates the need to actually have a coherent narrative and the need to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.
I could be far more scathing and mockworthy about it, but it’d be fruitless. The fact is, regardless of why they decided to do it this way, it actually works. Perhaps I say that only because a) I don’t really care about Bob Dylan and b) I don’t necessarily see him as a figure worthy of adulation and worship beyond the merits of his music.
dir: Jake Kasdan
Walk Hard is, truth be told, a more honest, funnier and more musically adept biopic about Johnny Cash’s life than that film that came out a few years ago with Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon whose name doesn’t escape me for the moment. Truth be told, the one doesn’t exist without the other since Walk Hard is such a parody of both Walk the Line and Ray, not only in name but in structure and key moments as well. Substitute actual blindness with smell-blindness, and they’re virtually indistinguishable.
Oh, the structure. At the movie’s beginning, an aged Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) is about to go on stage, but seems to be waiting for something. A stagehand goes up and hassles him about the need to go onstage in short order. One of Dewey’s longstanding bandmates pipes up, “Can’t you see the man has to think about his entire life before he goes onstage?”
And, of course, from there the story moves back in time to where Dewey is but a boy, and playing with his much more talented and accomplished little brother Nate, who dreams of doing great things one day.
dir: Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud
Persepolis is an animated movie about the life of Marjane Satrapi, a French-speaking Iranian woman who grew up in the 70s / 80s in Iran and Europe. That might not sound like a particularly riveting choice of subject matter, but this is a fascinating life story told well with evocative handdrawn 2 dimensional artwork. Seriously.
As such, it’s probably the only animated movie about Iran many people will ever hear of during their short lives, and probably one of the only ones that tells the story of both the impact of the Shah on Iranian society, and the subsequent Islamic Revolution and war with Iraq in the 80s. As well, it tells it as a bitter-sweet work of art combined with a woman’s tale of coming of age in difficult circumstances.
No other film, animated or otherwise, in this century or any other, in French or any other language, is going to have a character deliver a rendition of Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger with as much conviction and as much hilarity as what occurs in the middle of this movie.