dir: Lauren Greenfield
It takes a certain kind of character to handle being wealthy and powerful. Few people have the stones for it. It’s not for common mortals like us to be rich and famous, no. We would buckle under the tremendous weight of such awful responsibility. The rest of us peasants should be grateful that we don’t live under the dread of such burdens.
If you haven’t noticed, there’s a downside for these brave people. They have to develop heroic defence mechanisms to protect themselves from the harshness of reality and the envy of the lower orders. As an example, you might have noticed that whenever a celebrity or wealthy person does something obviously, demonstrably wrong, then any criticism levelled at them is dismissed as hate from the “haters”. Haters, you see, are the envious, poisonous masses who dream up all sorts of untrue perfidy in order to bring down their betters. It’s the only explanation.
It’s the only way to make sense of a reality that previously seemed to bend to your every whim. If things always seemed to go your way because you were powerful and top of your game, and that your self-directed wilful free ride somehow ends, it’s because of the haters. It can’t be because you did something wrong, ever. It can’t be that you were complicit in a corrupt system, never that.
It can never be you, because you are still an exemplary embodiment of awesomeness, and being brought low would be impossible unless all the Lilliputians ganged up simultaneously to bring you down. They’re always waiting, their resentment building, hungering for that perfect moment to exact their pound of flesh.
We call it ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ here in this great wide brown land of ours known as Ostraya. Of course, the people invariably who’ve used the phrase to demonise their detractors, singular titans of industry like Alan Bond, Alan Jones, Kerry Packer, Matthew Newton, Sam Newman, Martin Bryant (probably), were or still are singular, unrepentant pieces of shit who’ve never acknowledged the awful stuff they’ve done and will never admit they were at fault at any point for anything awful that they did in their lives. We’re talking about bullies, sadists, domestic abusers, liars, thieves and complete arseholes, for whom anything bad that happened to them is solely because of someone else’s envy.
The Queen of Versailles is about neither the actual palace of Versailles, or the Queen of such, who doesn’t exist. It’s about some people who were extremely wealthy, who are now only rich. They were so wealthy before that they wanted to build a replica of Versailles in Orlando, Florida, across the swamp from Disney World, and they started building it, pouring in 75 or so million dollars of cheap, borrowed money, as a tremendous ‘fuck you’ to the rest of the world.
And why did they have to build a concrete McMansion version of Versailles? Because they could. Did it have to be a place with 30 bathrooms? Well, yes. Why not, you filthy communist? Who are you to say whether they should have 25 bathrooms or 35 bathrooms? Who are you to impose your will on people clearly better and more American than you, you low income nobodies?
dir: Michael Haneke
That guy, what do they call him? Oh yeah, the Grim Reaper.
As if life itself isn’t enough of a reminder of it, this movie reminds us why the Reaper is always preceded by the adjective ‘Grim’.
We live our lives knowing that they will end, but, to function every day, to find meaning in the little things, we have to push that thought and its attendant fear out of our minds. I’m not pretending I came up with the Denial of Death concept, or that I’m Ernest Becker. I wish. Things I’d do with all those royalties.
But we know, we know. Everyone one of us, everyone we know, who we love or hate, all of us go into that great oblivion, and thinking about it too much crushes us.
So we watch a film about two seniors, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), people who’ve lived fulfilling and meaningful lives together, who’ve aged the way we all do, who still, somehow, thought the ‘end’, whatever form that would take, would somehow skip over them, at least for a while longer.
But ‘this’ is ‘it’. To be betrayed by one’s body despite not having done anything ‘wrong’. It is to be helpless in the face of mortality, like we all are, but still feel the inherent unfairness of it, because it’s always going to feel unfair.
Death is not unknown to me. People have died around me, through illness, through suicide, through old age. My parents, though, still live, thankfully, blessedly. They are the age of the two main characters here, and it was impossible to see the flick without thinking of them, and without thinking about their inevitable decline into helplessness and death, and how much I dread that for them.
Anne and Georges are upper-middle-class Parisians, both lovers of and experts in the field of music, both of an age that implies they’ve been together 50 or 60 years. They attend concerts and live their fussy lives in the way we’d all aspire to at their age. When they come back from the piano concerto of one of Anne’s protégés, the door to their apartment has been crudely jimmied open with a screwdriver. Their world has been rudely invaded, even though nothing’s been taken (yet).
But the ‘invader’ is already inside. Next morning, during breakfast, Anne has a strange moment of unresponsiveness, scaring Georges. He’s not sure what’s happened, or what to do, but we know, for a number of reasons, that it’s not going to be good.
Turns out it was a stroke. A mild stroke, but it reveals a more potentially serious problem, which gets operated on, with disastrous results.
What else can we do in the face of the person we share our life with becoming helpless? We look after them as best we can. But what do you do when you yourself are fairly aged and can barely look after yourself? You do the best you can to look after both of you. After all, why else would this film be called Amour?
This is a film which contains a specific circumstance, but it’s lived by millions of people, has been and will be ever more. The details and the ‘intruder’, the aspect of mortality that invades our lives and takes us down, but not before reducing us in every way possible, differ from what’s experienced by Anne and Georges, but all the same, we all know this story.
It’s the depiction of it that is most confronting, even though it’s not gilded in any way or minimised, downplayed. This film isn’t a story about a couple to whom ‘stuff’ or a plot happens and someone dies at the end: it’s about the journey towards that death, and the impact on the people who are experiencing it, being, in this case, a loving old couple.
It’s called Love, it’s called Amour, but it’s even, for much of it, about how little that love compensates or alleviates what they go through. Sure, love all you want, love as much as you can, but the horror of what Anne endures isn’t made that much easier even with the tender ministrations of Georges, or his loving ways.
dir: Tom Hooper
This might shock you, or anyone else, but I thought Les Misèrables was glorious.
What, I’m not allowed to like a musical? You, of all people, are going to cast aspersions on my sexuality?
Fah, well, obviously I’m not totally comfortable with going out on a limb and praising a hellishly successful film based on a hellishly successful West End/Broadway musical based on a book no-one finishes reading, but I’m a rebel like that. It’s just my way.
I’ve never seen nor heard anything from the musical my entire adult life. If I did (which is probably the case; it’s been impossible to ignore at certain times), then it slid off my brain like lube off a duck’s back, being a topic I never had interest in. 1980s musicals all come down to a horrible agglomeration of Cats / Evita / Starlight Express / Phantom of the Opera, none of which ever sparked any aspect of my curiousity, and I probably know more about rugby than I know about those kinds of icky musicals.
So I come to this story and to these songs very much a virgin, probably much alike the young Fantine (Anne Hathaway), naïve and hopeful, when she first met the man who would go on to ruin her life by despoiling her virtue with his honeyed lies, only to abandon her when autumn came. The difference for me is that while this film seduced me wantonly, I am left alive and grateful at its end, and not toothless, tubercular and utterly destroyed, though it almost feels like that after all the goddamn crying.
This film, this production, doesn’t try to do any more with the initial Victor Hugo story than it needs to, since it isn’t an adaptation of the novel, but of the musical from the 1980s. So there is an inbuilt audience for this movie that has greeted it the way meth addicts greet a visit from the meth dealer fairy: open arms, open legs, and open mouths (not filled, alas, with ground-down teeth).
Such an audience has its opposite. That’s how the universe is structured; matter/anti-matter, positive/negative, Spice Girls / The Spazzies. And goddamn, does that opposite group hate it. Far more people are calling this the worst thing they’ve ever endured, from root canals to colonoscopies, and, of course, they’re entitled to their worthless opinions, as are we all. Part of it I think is that it’s a musical, and the mass audience for musicals isn’t there like it was in, I dunno, the 1940s.
And operas and Gilbert and Sullivan follies aren’t exactly on the lips and Twitter streams of most people these days. Even more than that, I think there’s a kind of snobbery at play at well. It’s the very popularity of the musical in the 1980s and 1990s that (some) people remember and look down on, as if such a musical is somehow a ‘lower’ form of entertainment.
Oh, those unwashed, easily entertained masses, what with their bread and circuses and Ed Hardy clothing; they’re just so vulgar, aren’t they?
Truth be told, this is pretty much the attitude I had towards this whole ‘event’ before I watched the flick. I was expecting something of sub-Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber quality simply because of the multitude of simpering middle-aged women who’ve gushingly informed me that watching a production of Les Miz was the highpoint of their otherwise cat-filled lives. The ubiquity of it kind of made me loathe it without actually being ubiquitous enough for me to know anything about it, know any of the songs or recognise any of the music.
So. When I finally got to watch it, I felt like I was being expertly punched in the face, heart and groin by an epic, overblown, passionate, histrionic production that never paused, never relented in its depiction of a profoundly bleak and unfair world in which the only possible salvation comes from moments of grace, mere moments of kindness.
After all, it’s called Les Misèrables. My French isn’t that great, but I think that translates to The Miserables, but I’m not completely sure. Maybe I should look it up.
dir: Steven Chbosky
I’m a romantic, but I’m also fairly cynical. I watch a lot of movies, a hell of a lot, as you can probably see from just scrolling down a bit. Most movies don’t move me. Most movies provoke little more than mild interest while their playing, and I sometimes get that curious sensation of walking out of a cinema or pressing stop on the Blu-Ray player or switching cable channels, and being unable to remember, for the life of me, what I just watched.
Few movies move me. The Perks of Being a Wallflower moved me, a lot.
Why do they keep making films and television shows about high school, about coming of age? Because those of us who survive it remember it our whole lives, and we’re always hoping for some way to go back and get it right.
My heart was breaking for Charlie (Logan Lerman) within minutes of the film starting, and then, for the rest of its duration, it kept rebuilding that heart meticulously before smashing it again and again. I felt so much for this character that I started finding it absurd that I was so moved by it.
I’m not so easily moved to tears, but some elements of the human condition appeal to me endlessly, and always will, I hope. Charlie is about to start high school in Pittsburgh, I think, in the early 90s, and he’s dreading it. He has a number of reasons, the main one being that he’s a wallflower, someone who feels they are perpetually on the outside, looking in.
He is terrified of spending school, the rest of his schooling, alone, and calculates the days remaining. As in, the days left until he can go to college.
To him, it looks like everyone else makes friendships effortlessly. They’re always laughing (other people are always happy when you’re stuck in this amber of social anxiety), and the majority of his interactions are with bullies, who don’t even have the decency to put any effort into their bored cruelties. They act as they act because school is an ecology and a hierarchy, and teenagers, after all, are the most conformist creatures of all, rarely rejecting the pushes and pulls they feel.
That’s not a fair thing to say, they’re all different, most of them are decent people already, but for many they have a long way to go before getting there, if at all. Charlie is a sweet kid, which makes his disaffection and his isolation all the more painful. There are people who should be outsiders, and isolated, because they’re horrible shitty people who bring misery to everyone near them, whereas Charlie is alone because he’s shy, sensitive, desperate, and all the other kids can smell it on him, and mock him for it.
He just longs, longs for friendship, for connection with the kids around him. Something like this has to be delicately done to avoid being mawkish or making the protagonist seem like a self-centred jerk, and the film manages that throughout. I would expect that the director ‘gets’ how important it is to tell Charlie’s story properly, since the same chap who wrote the novel directed the flick, and did a tremendous job sensitively bringing it to life.
dir: Benh Zeitlin
It’ll come as no surprise to you, dear reader, that I don’t always understand the films I watch. I watch a lot of films, but that doesn’t mean I’m any better at deciphering them than anyone else, including and especially you.
Often that lack of understanding infuriates me, and makes me think less of the flick and the people involved, because I blame them for it. Other times it’s just a reason to be bored, which negates any effort to expend any brain power nutting it out because it doesn’t seem worthy of such labours.
Other times that confusion, if that’s what it is, doesn’t matter, and is of a piece with what I’m watching, and instead of causing me to pull away because of it, it allows me to let go, at least a little bit, of the nagging, querulous critic in my head, and just be embraced by the film. Some of my favourite films defy logical, precise, plodding explanation as to everything that happens in it, what it all means, how it happened or why.
I’m not saying that Beasts of the Southern Wild is now one of my favourite films of all time (it’s a pretty long and potentially embarrassing list), but it manages to capture some of the elements that provoke deep feeling in me, or at least it provoked in me some of the feelings that I mentioned previously.
I can’t think of another film like Beasts of the Southern Wild. It is a chaotic, formless, wet hot mess that I can’t begin to explain or justify, but it not a beautiful story in spite of all that, but probably because of it.
Upon hearing some details of it, people will probably write it off as a magic realist take on the Hurricane Katrina disaster, and while the references and the allusions are inevitable, I would hazard to guess that it’s not about that, really. Then again, I could be wrong about a whole bunch of things both in life and in this film.
Really, it’s about the fierce love of a father for his daughter, and of a daughter for her father, in a chaotic, dangerous, watery world. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhanè Wallis) is a six-year-old girl living in a strange swampy place in Louisiana the residents call The Bathtub. There’s a levee stopping the high waters from further swamping this below sea level place. Guess what's about to happen, go on.
dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
This is a remarkable film, a very long film, in which very little happens. It's about something fairly important, in that three car loads of gentlemen for most of the film's length are driving around the bleak landscape of Central Anatolia for an important reason, but that reason seems to be out of proportion with the journey they endure.
In essence it becomes less about a murder investigation and more about the men involved, even though we get the barest amount of information about them. And then they drive on and on.
As the film opens, there are three men we observe behind a window, chatting about stuff and laughing, and then one of them gets up and looks out the window. This takes a fair amount of time.
The next we see, after the titles, is a barren landscape in fading light, as a bunch of cars drive across, looking for something. It will be a long time for us and them before they find anything. More so for us.
What follows is a very naturalistic, very mundane police procedural, but don't for a second confuse it with a CSI: Turkey. It's not a forensic investigation or even an investigation. These chaps know who committed the crime, and the guilty are there with them as they drive around in their cars. In fact, there's not a scintilla of mystery to the proceedings. There's just cold hard reality.
Can there be beauty in the mundane? We regard 'beauty' as being something almost rare, or extraordinary, and it truly can be. But we make the distinction between something of surface glossiness and something possessing depth, at least I hope we do. It would seem inelegant or even inappropriate to describe this flick as a beautiful film, because there's nothing obviously beautiful about the set up or the realisation. It's also a very painstakingly slow film. When people in the flick do anything, they do all of it. There aren't a bunch of establishing shots or montage-like edits getting us anywhere, ever. When they need to drive somewhere, they drive the whole time there, and we're with them the whole time. As the sun sets on this fairly grim part of the world, it takes a long time setting. Much is made of the natural light used for much of the flick, and it really does help in making you feel not as an omniscient observer, but as someone who's actually there, having to endure the passage of time, and the petty disagreements and obstacles along with the other characters.
As for those characters, well, they're a strange bunch of people. They're not David Lynch strange, or riddled with quirks and tics as in a Wes Anderson movie; it's just that they seem like they're fully realised but banal characters who live this life and endure all its mundanity for reasons we're never going to find out and that we don't need to know. And we should already know this stuff, since we've been working with them for ages already.
dir: Christopher Nolan
The Dark Knight Rises is a very good film, let’s just get that out of the way right from the start. It was like nothing I expected, and exceeded what were insanely high expectations right from the beginning and especially at the end. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s the best Batman flick we’re ever going to have access to in this universe.
In that other parallel universe, they’ll keep making great Batman flicks, Heath Ledger’s still alive, and the law of diminishing returns doesn’t apply. We, on the other hand, are stuck here in this sucky one for the duration.
Eh, it’s not too bad. After all, we have two great Batman films, at least.
I didn’t like Batman Begins that much, and I had a couple of issues with the second one too (over-edited, visually incoherent at times), but this third one not only gets everything right, but it is entrenched within the story told by the first two movies. It doesn’t stand entirely alone, and is the better for it.
It’s interwoven with the other two, with actions and decisions made in the first two films coming back to haunt all the main characters. Within that is a lot of stuff, to put it mildly. It doesn’t feel overstuffed, but it does feel like they’re trying to encompass every single level of seriousness and complexity anyone ever aspired to have in a superhero movie but was too afraid to ask for.
If Batman Begins was Year One, just to draw analogues with the comic books from which these stories sprang, and Dark Knight was a blend of Killing Joke and The Long Halloween, then Dark Knight Rises is something of a meld of The Dark Knight Returns, the Knightfall storyline and Cataclysm / No Man’s Land, which sees both Gotham and its protector broken. A starting point doesn’t dictate an ending, though. The two Nolan brothers took those storylines and transformed them into something completely their own, which is a great, great thing.
In Batman Begins, the main villain Ra's al Ghul, leader of the League of Shadows, decides that Gotham, like Carthage before it, must be destroyed. It's part of the natural balancing-of-the-world function that they like to think they provide, gratis, of course. Gotham, not really a stand in for New York, and more the metropolis of all Metropolises, is seen as being way too big for its britches. Arrogant and hubristic like an American college student on holidays overseas, the League decides the city and everyone in it must burn.
dir: Asghar Farhadi
Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi) are seeking a separation, a divorce, in other words. They plead their respective cases to the judge. The judge, in this case, is the camera. For five minutes they argue at each other through the ‘judge’, who keeps admonishing them for whatever they are trying or not trying to do.
They make their plaintive statements, in Nader’s case fairly passive-aggressive statements, to us, pleading for us to understand which one is in the right. The thing is, though, they are trying to use the law to get what they want: Simin doesn’t really want a divorce, she wants the whole family to leave Iran, so she wants custody of their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), to make Nader come with them to places unknown, but far away from here.
The judge’s voice says, with hidden menace, “What’s wrong with living here?” The question is left unanswered, because this is the place where answering honestly can fuck up far more than just your day. Especially for Iranian women.
This is Iran, and I can’t imagine the scenario in which a court grants a woman anything there, including an uncontested divorce. Nader won’t let go of Termeh, because he knows his wife will never leave Iran as long as Termeh stays with him. And Simin might as well be talking to statues, regardless of her determination, regardless of how right or wrong she may be.
This all sounds like too much drama, but it’s pitched at just the right human level. It’s not melodramatic or over the top, it’s not Kramer Vs Kramer Persian style mixed with Nineteen-Eighty-Four: it’s people with real emotions dealing with the bizarre Iranian legal system to get what they think they deserve.
But that’s the problem: to hope for satisfaction from such a legal system, any legal system, but especially this one, is to hope in vain. It’s not just the vicissitudes of the legal system at fault, but the aspects of people’s personalities and their actions that render people both right and wrong at the best and worst of times.
It’s impossible for those of us not living in Iran, and not that conversant with all the various complexities therein, to watch a flick like this without seeing it as an indictment of the oppressive regime they live under. Every Iranian flick, every flick that mentions Iran is unavoidably seen through that lens. It’s also the kind of place that jails and beats its directors and their families, as director Jafar Panahi found out several months ago, the poor bastard.
I try to sarcastically derive all my knowledge of people, political systems and places from movies, so all I know of Iran comes from films like the ones made by Jafar Panahi, Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and the graphic novels (and movie Persepolis) of Marjane Satrapi. It’s a limited perspective in some ways, because it means the sum and total of my impressions are derived from the views of upper-middle-class creative types with the skills and the contacts to dance the razor’s edge between creating art and pissing off the mullahs that would see them jailed and unemployed for the next twenty years.
In other words, if you don’t know from some source just how rich Iranian history is, and how fucked up Iranian society has been since the Revolution, you’re not listening hard enough, and elements of a film like A Separation will look like life on some alternate reality Earth.
dir: Joe Carnahan
Bleak, brutal, beautiful.
But enough about my previous relationship…
The Grey is one of the bleakest things I’ve seen since The Road, which was that horrifying post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy adaptation, which was the bleakest thing I’d read since Blood Meridian, which was the bleakest thing since my previous relationship. Plus, it’s got wolves, just like my previously relationship.
Yes, enough about ruthless predators that won't be satisfied until your bones are scattered, limb from limb, across a desolate landscape…
But how could there ever be enough? The Grey is not really the film that it seems to be, at least, the film that they are marketing it as.
Yes, it seems similar to films like Alive (where a Uruguayan rugby team survive a plane crash in the Andes Mountains, get over their squeamishness and learn to love cannibalism), or Flight of the Phoenix (bunch of guys survive a plane crash in the desert, only to face death from the sun and guys on horses with guns). No, this is totally different.
In The Grey, a bunch of guys crash in Alaska, and face harsh conditions and wolves, and struggle to survive in a place where survival is unlikely.
The difference, the profound difference is, this isn't a survival story. It's a story about the struggle itself to survive: what is it, do we all have it in varying amounts, what's the point of it; the usual drill.
Actually, it's a very unusual drill. There is a difference, This flick has variously been described as a macho resurgence in cinema (it's not, it's always been dunderheadedly macho), a celebration of alpha dog masculinity (well, kinda), a recruitment poster for the NRA (bullshit), a celebration of animal cruelty (bullshit), or a flick trumpeting Man's victory over nature (nup, not by a long shot). There’s also a bunch of people saying there’s a strong spiritual component to the flick (there is), and that the flick can be seen as a celebration of faith in the Christian God.
If so, I wonder what holy incense these crazed and hallucinatory dullards are mixing in with their pious milkshakes to achieve such visions, since the flick seems to be the opposite, if nothing else, it’s arguing that God, like Nature, doesn’t give a fuck about us.
dir: Martin Scorsese
With delight, I watched this, with great delight in my heart.
If you’re reading this review, you know that I watch a lot of films, and a lot of them I even review. Those reviews, you would know, are to my benefit and to your detriment as a reader. I’m sorry about that. Really, I am. I wish I were a better reviewer; someone who could encapsulate succinctly and with wit what is great and what is less great about certain movies in this artistic medium I prize the most, after literature, puppetry and the accordion, of course. And I wish I could say it all without having to resort to the boring bullshit a billion other (paid) bunglers routinely trot out to justify their verbosity.
No, honestly, I wish I were a better reviewer, so that I could credibly explain why I loved Hugo so much, so that you, too, could feel the joy that I felt, and get a glimpse of how it felt to watch it. Yes, even cynical old me feels joy whilst watching a film, very rarely, but it happens. Aiming that high dooms any enterprise to failure, no doubt, but it should be perfectly obvious that failing at something doesn’t stop me from doing it. Au contraire, to get into the vernacular of it, au contraire, mes amis.
Hugo is based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, and it should come as no surprise that this film is about a boy called Hugo who lives in the Gare Montparnasse train station, in the 1930s. He doesn’t just hang out there, dodging the dogged and limping local constable (Sacha Baron Cohen), and trying to eke out a meagre existence by stealing: he literally lives within the walls and towers of the train station, keeping the clocks running on time.
dir: Terrence Malick
It’s a beautiful film, trying to encompass in its scope, the entire world, the entire human experience, the entire universe. With such mighty ambitions, how can Malick not fall short? How could any of us not fall short?
The fact that the scope of his reach and the magnitude of his grasp are so close to each other means that when one exceeds the other, it doesn’t represent the failure that it would for other filmmakers. There are very few filmmakers (with money) like Malick, and his films are their own genre. As such they’re only really comparable to each other, not as much with other films.
You can only really know if you can enjoy a Malick film by having watched a few, and having immersed yourself in them, know what to expect. They are not conventional, they don’t follow a pattern, they don’t unfold in a conventional manner, and, mostly, they’re overflowing with beautiful cinematography, and the vast majority of the thoughts and intentions of the characters are delivered through internal monologues (voiceover).
So the following, endemic to his films, might not be for you: hours and hours of sporadically edited nature footage, interspersed with people walking around in a daze, with people whispering drippy philosophical bullshit like ‘where do you end, and I begin? How can a just god keep us apart, here, so distant from the apex of humanity’s innocence? I saw you today in the outstretched hand of a beggar, and I cried. And where’s that ham sandwich I ordered half an hour ago? Surely it can’t take them that long to heat up a fucking ham sandwich and make a goddamn coffee, can it?”
dir: Lee Unkrich
Yeah, I know, it’s hardly brand new fodder worthy of reflection and critique. But Pixar flicks are the pinnacle of the animated heap: every release is an event, they make more money than Jesus, and nobody does it better.
And I love their flicks with a passion, the kind of passion most other people reserve for quaint garden gnome collections or pointless sports results. Thus, reviewing their latest gift to us, the luddite, barely computer-literate, unwashed masses, is less of a necessity than an obligation.
Toy Story 3 is as great as any of the other flicks in the series. Ranking them is pointless. You could point out that yet again the technical expertise envelope has been pushed even further out, with computer-generated animation second to none, but that misses the point. These movies are beloved not because of the quality of the graphics, but because of the quality of the story-telling, and the deep nostalgia they inspire in adults.
Oh, yeah, and kids probably love them too. My three-year-old thought it was wonderful, but she’s just three, with a limited appreciation of the long history of cinematic animation and she barely knows anything of the seminal work of obscure Belgian animators from the 1930s who put together their cartoons with parchment, tallow candles and shadow puppets constructed from sheep stomachs and bandaged scabs.
My daughter just knows what she likes, and she likes these Toy Story movies. And she loved this third one possibly a bit more than the others, but to me they’re all part of a joyous continuum.
dir: Debra Granik
It’s criminal that it’s taken this long for Winter’s Bone to be released into the cinemas of Australia. It’s a damn shame. Usually the length of time it takes certain films to appear here doesn’t bug me, because 600 flicks get released each year, and for every flick I’m not getting to see, there are dozens of others I could be seeing instead.
But there’s something about this flick that, on some level, makes me angry that I had to wait eight or so months before I could see it in the salubrious confines of the Cinema Nova multi-arty-plex.
The film itself, and the main performances, are better than fine, they’re great. There’s some problems arising with the ending, but I can forgive them since for around 100 minutes, Winter’s Bone, which is essentially a detective story, had me riveted to my seat. There’s not a fire, disaster or siren’s call of promised orgasmic pleasures that could have coaxed me out of that seat before the end.
On the other hand, I know these kinds of films that seem to focus on, shall we say, the salt of the earth, reek of condescension and insult to those who think they’re being exploited or mocked. It doesn’t strike me as relevant, but then, I’m not from the Ozarks or the Appalachian Mountains, and I wouldn’t know moonshine from shoe shine.
dir: Pou Soi Cheang
There’s this thing about Hong Kong films: most of them aren’t good, and most of them are the same. The rare good ones, to people who don’t watch a lot of Hong Kong flicks, could be indistinguishable from the bad ones.
Actually, that’s probably not entirely true. The really bad ones usually have lots of annoying screaming, people eating snot and Stephen Chow pretending to laugh until food falls out of his mouth.
But good goddamn do they get it right when they get it right. The last of the contemporary HK directors that I considered worthy of following each and every project that came down the chute was Johnnie To, with his atmospheric and contemplative crime dramas. Now I have to look out for this chap, Soi Cheang, as well, because I haven’t seen something this good in a while.
The problem is that it won’t be easy to translate the ineffable ways in which this very slight, very moody, and virtually silent flick gets everything so right into a worthwhile film review. Of course, it’s never stopped me before, so it’s not going to stop me now, is it?
There’s this crew of people, four of them, and their job is to carry out contracts on selected targets. Yes, they’re assassins, but their job is not only to kill people, but to make it all look entirely like an accident, happenstance, a random and unfortunate occurrence.
Everyone knows their job, and more so they know how to look at a particular environment meticulously in order to figure out a sometimes incredibly complicated way to take someone out with what’s available to them, or the innocuous stuff they can inject into the environment to have the cumulative affect of snuffing out some poor triad boss’s lights.
They are led by Kwok-Fai, or Brain, as his team call him (Louis Koo), who is a very uptight but effective leader. He clinically observes every location until he can feel comfortable that he’s taken every variable into account. And then, after exhaustive reconnaissance and theorising, and only then, do they put their complicated plan into action.
Being meticulous, and with their objective being not only the ending of the target’s life, but the overarching requirement to make the deaths look like accidents, it’s not anywhere near as easy as just finding the right place to pull a trigger. These deaths are intricate works of art.
dir: Spike Jonze
Where the Wild Things Are is a beautiful film. It’s touching and sweet, scary but deeply felt, but I don’t really think it’s for children. I don’t even think most kids under the age of ten would really get that the Maurice Sendak book, of twenty or so pages, really connects with this film apart from the similarity in the merchandising. Sure, the imagery is the same, but the story has been greatly transformed by Spike Jonze, David Eggers and the forests and beaches of Victoria.
I have happily read the book to my daughter a stack of times, and so I know how profoundly expanded the story is in the movie. As to whether it’s true in spirit and intent to the book, you’d have to ask noted and thoroughly aged curmudgeon Maurice Sendak, who’s still alive, who wrote and drew the book nearly fifty years ago, and who I’m sure is happy to collect cheques for the film rights. I suspect deep down Sendak would hate this film if he ever sat through it, that’s just my gut instinct.
My instincts are often wrong, I have to admit. What I don’t think I’m wrong about is that this really couldn’t connect with kids for fairly serious and pervasive reasons, self-same reasons that would make it appeal perhaps to their elders.
There’s something simultaneously intellectual, inspired and childish about Spike Jonze and the flicks he’s been responsible for. He has tremendous control of the visual medium that he earns his crust from, but he’s more than happy to aim those skills at the ‘kid’ inside adults rather than the kid in kids.
My only real evidence for this is that his rendering of Where The Wild Things Are is completely lacking in treacle or schmaltzy saccharine, but is not averse to being incredibly twee and cutesy, and so goddamn hip that it hurts. But even more than that, the flick is suffused with such keen melancholy, and such a golden, halcyon longing for the freedom and joy of childhood that of course it would have to look strange to the kiddies.
dir: Duncan Jones
Moon is an absolute throwback, to a kinder, gentler, colder era of cinematic science fiction, and it wasn’t until this flick came along that we knew we needed it so much. I won’t go so far as to say this is an utterly brilliant flick, because there aren’t really any elements of tremendous originality or mind-blowing complexity at play. But it is, all the same, a tremendously good flick. Really, really good flick.
Of course, it will bore the hell out of you if you’re expecting explosions, gunfights or aliens bursting out of people’s chests.
Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the sole occupant and operator of a mining facility some time in the future. This facility, surprisingly enough, happens to be on the moon. Earth’s moon. The world’s energy needs are being taken care of by this facility, which uses harvesters to extract helium-3 from the surface of the moon, which Sam sends them back at regular intervals. He does general maintenance, fix-it jobs the robots and automated parts of the facility can’t take care of, and drives out with a buggy to the harvesters to fix things that have gone wrong.
dir: Warwick Thornton
Samson and Delilah is unlike any other film, Australian or otherwise, in its depiction of Aboriginal characters or an Australian story. It is unflinching, and brutal, and beautiful. It might take its name from the biblical story, but this tale is far more real, current, tragic and yet hopeful in its ultimate realisation.
It is not an enjoyable flick. There isn’t much dialogue. It’s as meticulously crafted as any work of art you’re likely to ever see, but its purpose isn’t to entertain. Though there is occasional humour to leaven the grim circumstances of these lives, it remains true to the characters and the reality of their situation. A situation not exclusive to the characters in this film.
It’s not easy going, not by any stretch. But then, why should it be?
In an isolated community in the Northern Territory, Samson (Rowan McNamara) wakes up, sniffs petrol for a while, rubs his head then gets up and wanders around. He has nothing to do all day. The isolated community is so small that it probably consists of about 5 shacks, a shack church and a shop. Heat vibrates off everything. A communal phone rings and rings, but no-one answers it.
Music is what wakes Samson up each morning. His brother (Matthew Gibson) and his terrible band play the same song all day long. They play it all day long every goddamn day. The repetition, like the oppressive heat, is maddening but reassuring in its permanence. The phone keeps ringing unanswered.
dir: Lynne Ramsay
Goddamn. God. Damn.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is pretty brutal. Actually, it’s beyond brutal. It’s one of the most brutal depictions of the terror involved in becoming a parent that I’ve ever seen.
It’s terrifying enough becoming a parent, bringing a new person into the world, trying to shepherd them towards becoming a decent person (if you have the capability or inclination, that is, because I’m sure there’s plenty of terrible parents who don’t give a damn). Mix in with that those feelings of ambivalence, of momentary regret a parent might have, lamenting the loss of their freedom, of their self-determination sacrificed on the altar of being a ‘good’ parent, which can manifest in anger towards that child, and consider the range of emotions that conjures up.
And then wonder whether monsters are born or made, and whether that monster, which is your own, became so because of everything you did, some of the things you did, or nothing you did, and know that there can never be a definitive answer, and there you have the crux of this whole, harrowing story.
Such a complicated premise isn’t going to be told in a straight-forward fashion, so the story jumps around in time, creating parallels and juxtapositions through the different timelines that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Throughout all looms that titan of cinema known as Tilda.
To this day, I still find how great she is as an actress to be staggering. It staggers the mind. This could be one of the most difficult roles of her career, a career abundant with difficult roles, but there’s no doubt that there’s no one else on the planet that could have played it as brilliantly as she does. Meryl Streep couldn’t have touched this with a ten-foot pole constructed entirely of Oscars on her best day. Of course Tilda deserves Oscars and such, but she’s not going to get them for this role. It’s way too much, and way too dark.
Her performance is too great, and the flick is too harrowing. She’s in almost every scene, and her acting has as much if not more to do with her physical performance, her body language, her grimaces of feigned levity, the pain and grief she carries in her eyes. This woman, when we first see her, is as happy as she’s ever going to be in these opening moments. Everything else, from then on, will be agony leavened only momentarily with brief moments where she forgets everything that’s happened. Only for the briefest of moments does she get slivers of grace.
It’s a lot to forget. Those opening moments try to encapsulate the freedom and joy Eva (Tilda Swinton) used to experience as part of her life. She’s at one of those festivals, Spanish, I think, where they celebrate harvest time, or the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, perhaps, by throwing tonnes and tonnes of tomatoes at each other. She’s covered in red, and ecstatic about it.
We see her in red quite often later on; red paint, red light, but for very different reasons. The intercutting of the two timelines shows us an Eva before she became a parent, and the Eva who she becomes long after Kevin has come along. Something terrible has happened, we slowly learn, and feel with increasing dread, that has rendered Eva something of the walking dead, but we’re not going to understand entirely until long after.
dir: David Fincher
It’s a fascinating story, and a terrific film, despite being about something so inherently banal. It’s not even really an origin story, along the lines of a biographical tale like the ones regarding the Manhattan Project, or the moon landing, or, you know, something important that was invented or achieved. It’s more concerned with (fictionally) illuminating the thinking of one of the main people involved in the creation of this online behemoth known as Facebook.
Written with an ear towards crackling dialogue, Aaron Sorkin, known for penning the scripts to such immediately familiar fare such as A Few Good Men and many an episode of The West Wing, has crafted a screenplay that tells us less about what was involved in programming up from scratch this most pervasive of online networks, and more about how someone with a genius level IQ, a resentment towards the privileged, no knowledge of how to treat people as people, and a complete inability to forgive perceived slights conjured up something adopted universally across the tubes of the internets that made him a billionaire, all before finishing college.
He didn’t just become rich. To borrow from a Chris Rock routine, there’s being rich, and then there’s wealth. Oprah is rich, Bill Gates is wealthy. Bill Gates would kill himself if he woke up with Oprah’s money.
Well, now Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) would kill himself if he woke up with Bill Gate’s money. And for what? Facebook? An online vanity site where you become inundated with vital info like what people had for breakfast, what their cats are up to, what tv cooking or renovation programs they like watching, or how much time they spent on Mafia Wars or Farmville or something equally life-affirming over the course of any given day? A place where you can reconnect with people you haven’t heard from or thought about in decades, and, once you find and friend them, lose interest in almost immediately?
dir: Akira Kurosawa
It seems pointless to praise a fifty-year-old film, 57 actually, at the time of writing, and to praise a film made by a highly praised director, in the shape of Japanese titan Akira Kurosawa.
Pointless has never stopped me before. In fact, pointless defines certain aspects of my more faux-artistic pursuits, so, if anything, writing a review of this strong film is amongst the most important things I’ll ever do today.
High and Low is a very familiar story: rich bastard protagonist, kidnappers kidnap a child, police get involved, and we wonder if the child will be saved and the criminals will get their comeuppance. But it’s made so long ago, and in such a calm, unhurried way, that it reinvigorates the elements themselves, making them seem so fresh even to people (like myself) utterly burned out on crime, police procedurals and mystery crap of this nature.
It’s based on an Ed McBain novel, but obviously the action has been transposed to Tokyo from the States. This isn’t a problem, since everything Kurosawa ever did was based on almost exclusively on non-Japanese texts. He makes it his own like he did with everything he ever stole from Dashiell Hammet, Shakespeare, Maxim Gorky, and George Lucas.
Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune, a regular feature of Kurosawa flicks), is a wealthy industrialist who lives in a square house on top of a hill that looks down upon a slum as one’s glance travels down to the sea. He is, in this, like Mifune is in everything, a gruff, blunt character who doesn’t so much talk as bark. Even before the plot kicks in, he argues with greedy executives, with his assistant, and his demure wife, like he’s a feudal lord, and they should feel honoured if all he allowed them was to lick the rice from his sandals.
dir: Jim Jarmusch
Jarmusch has always been a very idiosyncratic, in some ways quite limited director, but he made his magnum opus here. His films were interesting before and after it, especially Down By Law, Dead Man and Mystery Train, but Ghost Dog represents the pinnacle of his art form, for my money. I don’t have a lot of money at the moment, so I realise that’s not saying much.
On the surface it seems like a simple film: strange guy who calls himself Ghost Dog and pretends to be a samurai kills a bunch of people. And I guess it is. Simple, that is. But there is this persistent vision that permeates the flick, creating the urban world as seen through the lens of an ancient warrior’s code and Ghost Dog’s eyes which elevates the flick above its seemingly generic plot.
Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a large, ominous looking brother who meticulously and methodically plans and carries out assassinations. Though he is silent in all he does, we hear his voice in voiceover narrations, imparting the ancient wisdom of the samurai to us ignorant peasants in the audience.
dir: Mary Harron
It's a crime that it's taken this flick so long to get distribution in Australia, because this really contained probably the best performance by an actress in a film released in 2006. Sure, there's no way Gretchen Mol could have beat the murderous juggernaut that was Helen Mirren, but she deserved some recognition at least. It's only been released here yesterday (8/3/2007), and will probably have an ignominious two-week run before disappearing into DVD obscurity.
Which isn't the worst fate in the world. It's kind of appropriate, considering the subject matter. And what is the subject? Why, it's the notorious Bettie Page, of course!
Bettie Page, for her time, was probably the main lust object and idealised non-attainable masturbation aid for squillions of men, lonely and otherwise, across America. She has probably been responsible for more shameful, furtive, blind-making male orgasms than Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe and the Virgin Mary combined.
But practically no-one could tell you anything about her apart from the fact that she was in millions of smutty, smutty pictures.
She's not a real person: she is an icon. An icon loses its origins and enters the realm of the purely symbolic at the point where the line between the source and the image disappears. All you can glean is in the expression on the face, the stance used to playfully hold the whip, with nothing else as background. As symbol, not person, she comes to symbolise a pure, perversely innocent sexuality to the masses.
Even when she was decked out in the most cumbersome and painful fetish wear on the planet, there was something about her which will make her memorable long after Anna Nicole Smith's breast implants have finally broken down in her grave. Which should be thousands of years from now.
As the film alludes to with the title, sure, she was infamous, but none of the jerk-offs jerking off to her knew anything about her. You can't really call the 50s an innocent time, but it's not like nudity, smut imagery or boobies were invented then. But it was a strange time where the normally Puritanical States was still trying to stem the tide in terms of what the US would become: the biggest producer and consumer of smut in the world. USA! USA! USA!
dir: Andrew Jarecki
And I thought I came from a fucked up family…
What is true in life is rarely shown with such clarity in films: sometimes in the pursuit of ‘truth’, the more information we are given, the more sides we try to understand regarding a conflict, the more elusive that ‘truth’ becomes. No example is as representative of that essential conundrum as this film by Andrew Jarecki, who has managed to make a compelling and disturbing documentary on his maiden voyage.
I know, using the words “compelling and disturbing” about documentaries is about as usually appropriate as saying “intelligent and life affirming” about a film with Adam Sandler or Melanie Griffith in it, but at least in this case it is appropriate, or at least accurate as far as I’m concerned.
Cutting through the meat of the story to its bare bones: a father and son are accused of abusing some kids in a quiet, bourgeois suburb called Great Neck, in New York. There is much conjecture as to whether the people concerned were guilty of the horrific array of crimes they were alleged to have committed. This film gives us pause, as viewers, forcing us to question that which we’re shown on a continual basis. At least, for those of us who find the story and the way in which it is told interesting. Someone bored by it would probably find it excruciatingly dull, but that certainly doesn’t apply to yours truly.
dir: Christopher Nolan
We don't really have 'event' movies anymore. No movie, because of the sheer quantity of flicks that come out, and the quantity of other potential things a person can do (and might prefer to do) instead of going to the theatre, can come out and dominate the landscape like it could in the past.
The days of something completely massive in its level of public interest, a flick that gets everyone to watch it and everyone to talk about it, are pretty much gone. The last such flick, one that almost everyone worldwide went to see at the cinema, everyone talked about whether they saw it or not, and everyone just knew of its very existence was Titanic.
It’s why Titanic is the all time box office champion, and will continue to be until something magically compels people to go back to the theatres instead of watching flicks on their home theatre set-ups, computer screens or handheld devices.
What’s really lost is the uniting effect or power that movies can have. Everyone saw and had an opinion on Star Wars. Everyone knows the theme from Jaws. Everyone, down to your immigrant, non-English speaking parents, your one-eyed, one-legged beggars and three-breasted midget hookers recognised the awful Celine Dion theme from Titanic, and learned what happens when an irresistible force (a giant iceberg) meets an immovable object (audiences consisting mostly of teenage girls and middle-aged women happy to pay 12 times to see the same 3 hours-plus flick).
So when a perfect storm of factors, coincidences, marketing seem to coalesce to make a film look like one of those major Events Of The Year, something that people’s great-great-grandkids will be talking about like it’s the Wright Brothers taking their first flight all over again, it really doesn’t amount to that much down the track. No flick, whether it’s The Dark Knight or Kung Fu Panda, really matters that much anymore. Because, ultimately, it’s one of millions of such products, which will be on DVD in a couple of months, and five more films will be released the following week to help you forget you ever saw it, even if it was pretty good.
dir: Steve McQueen
When I heard that there was this apparently really cool film that was going to come out, and that it was directed by Steve McQueen, my first question was: “Isn’t he dead?” My next question was “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck had nothing better to do with its fucking time?”
The answers to both questions, surprisingly enough, are “Yes” and “Not much.” Steve McQueen is some artist, not the classic actor from Great Escape, The Getaway and Bullit. The car did most of the acting in Bullit, I admit, but no, McQueen is some other guy which doesn’t mean that the original McQueen is doing a Tupac Shakur from beyond the grave, releasing stuff despite the minor inconvenience of being dead.
The one thing I’ve never heard or seen in any of the reviews of this flick, which have been uniformly positive, is that the film would actually make me sick. I’m not, as is my wont, exaggerating or embellishing like I usually do. In the last fifteen or so minutes of the flick, when Michael Fassbender, who plays Bobby Sands, really earns his keep, the image of his emaciated and lesion/sore covered body comes up on the screen.
When I saw this, I was overwhelmed by a feverish nausea, and I actually fainted. It’s the only time this has ever happened to me. I literally hit the ground. I still have a bruise and a swollen bit above my eyebrow where I hit a coffee table on my journey to the floor. No drugs or booze played any role in this. I wish I was making this up, but I’m not.