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2014

The Book of Life

The Book of Life

Live your life so people remember you fondly, seems to be the
message, either that or "Don't Die!", whichever.

dir: Jorge Gutierrez

2014

Sure, there are plenty of animated movies, perhaps too many of them, but few of them are based around the Mexican Day of the Dead, which isn’t, inherently, the kind of topic you’d think appropriate for kid fare.

There have been a few death-themed animations of the modern era, connected to Tim Burton (but not directed by him, since he never directed Nightmare Before Christmas, ParaNorman, Coraline or any of those: people just always assume he must have). It’s understandable, in that they aren’t that common. It’s a tough sell as a theme to the marketplace. Not the kids, who I’m sure mostly would be curious, if not Delighted!

It’s more their uneasy parents. Uneasy parents like me. I have long held that there is an association, a connection between kids accepting the mortality of the people around them and their own mortality, and the end of childhood. In the otherwise deeply terrible movie The Crow, the villain is introduced talking to his sister, saying something along the lines of “Childhood ends when you realise you’re gonna die”.

It’s irrational, I know, but I’ve never let go of that line. You’d think the take away I should have, um, taken away from that terrible movie is not to watch The Crow movies ever again. Instead I’ve managed to make the avoidance of talking about Death a staple of my lackadaisical and lacklustre parenting.

Rating:

The Water Diviner

Water Diviner

Rusty still has that "I'd kill you for the sandwich you're
eating" look in his eye, even in his attempt at 'prestige'
award bait drama! Is there nothing he can't not do?

dir: Russell Crowe

2014

I never thought I’d be typing the words “dir: Russell Crowe” at the beginning of one of my reviews, but then we live in a brave, new world where anything is apparently possible.

Anything is possible, to the extent that Crowe could make and star in a flick set around Gallipoli, and that it actually ends up being an okay film that I enjoyed.

Even more perplexing is that this is one of the few flicks I can think of where the Australians aren’t praised to the high heavens for their sun bronzed bravery on the sands of Gallipoli, and the Turks aren’t demonised for their actions defending their homeland. It may be this great nation’s foundation myth, but its utility in magnifying how great we Aussies truly are (for dying in great numbers in the service of the British Empire) isn’t used here.

It’s a far more personal story, in that it’s mostly about one chap (Crowe, good ol’ Australia’s Own Kiwi Rusty Crowe) trying to find the remains of his three sons who went and died on the shores of Gallipoli. So it’s not about re-prosecuting the war, or depicting a bunch of larrikins fighting and dying in splendidly heroic ways: it’s about a father wanting to fulfil his wife’s most heartfelt wish that her boys, if only in spirit, could be brought home to her.

Rating:

Pride

Pride

The union forever defending our rights!
Down with the blackleg, all workers unite!
With our brothers and out sisters from many far off lands!
There is power in a union!

dir: Matthew Warchus

2014

A few of the reviews I’ve read about this film, or at least ones I read before watching the flick myself contain the stock standard sorry phrase “you wouldn’t think there’d be much crossover between the 1980s British Gay Rights movement and the coal miners who went on strike, but Pride’s here to tell you, there was!”

Maybe that’s not entirely accurate; maybe I just imagined it. It’s just that the film itself plays off on the alleged jarring juxtaposition, and so the reviews mention the self-same seeming ‘paradox’: that the people you would imagine would least like ‘the gays’ end up accepting their existence.

Pride is no doubt heavily fictioned up, but is nonetheless based on the true story of what happened in the 1980s in Britain, in Maggie Thatcher’s Britain, more importantly. As the film tells us, activists for gay rights / equality under the law woke up one morning and found they weren’t being harassed by the cops anymore. Or at least, not as frequently. This didn’t come about because anything changed legally in the country: it came about because the cops were now too busy harassing and beating the crap out of the striking coal miners.

Rating:

Still Alice

Still Alice

To me the look on her face says "If I don't get the Oscar
for this, someone's going to get stabbed."

dir: Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland

2014

Still Alice is quite a sad film. I’m sure that’s not going to be a surprise to anyone that’s heard even a little bit about what it’s about. But it is truly sad.

All the same, this is not the kind of manipulative drivel that one usually associates with these kinds of dramas. It’s also not about the nobility of suffering, or about a beautiful woman getting some disease and expiring in the most delightfully photogenic manner.

Julianne Moore has rightly been nominated for this performance, but I’m not sure that she’s necessarily going to win. Her achievement in this role is often what she chooses not to do more so than what she actually does. There is a minimum of hysterics or melodramatics in the flick, which keeps it inline with the story as it is being told.

But at least she's subtle about it.

Alice (Moore) is delivering a lecture on linguistics. She pauses, trying to recall a word that is eluding her, and then it comes to her, and she moves on.

This is only the first step down a very long road.

Define ‘irony’. Irony is a professor of linguistics, a person whose field of study is the human brain’s ability to soak up language and the structures of the brain devoted to communication, and the idea of how words form a person’s concept of their own identity, and then have her lose it all as we watch.

Rating:

Selma

Selma

I, too, have a dream, that one day I'll be judged not by the content of my
character, but by the colour of my skin, because otherwise I'm screwed

dir: Ava DuVernay

2014

Time for more homework, me guesses.

Selma is definitely homework. Selma is the kind of flick most people only get to see because it gets mentioned at Oscar time (for people like me, I guess). Had it not been nominated for anything, anything at all, no-one would have seen it, and no-one would really have cared. Nor missed it, nor felt its lack in any substantial way, regardless of what Oprah might tell them.

What’s it about? Is it about that most beloved of Simpsons characters, Selma Bouvier and her many husbands, or her perpetual disdain for customers down at the DMV? Is it about Selma Blair, that actress from the 90s who doesn’t seem to have done much else since reaching her pinnacle in Todd Solondz’s Storytelling?

I mean, she did her bit for black/white relations in that harrowing film, but where's her parade?

No. It’s about something far more boring/important. It’s about African-Americans fighting for their right to register to vote in the South in 1965. It’s about them fighting for, and in many cases, dying for, a right most of us take for granted.

Because it’s about a specific event, you wouldn’t really call it a biopic of the very Reverend Martin Luther King’s life, and yet you couldn’t argue that he wasn’t the main character in this flick, because otherwise the main character would be… Selma, Alabama itself.

Rating:

Whiplash

Whiplash

It ain't worth it, people, this jazz stuff will just mess you up

dir: Damien Chazelle

2014

Well, whatever the template is in a flick like St Vincent, Whiplash would seem to be the absolute opposite.

This is not, in any way, a flick where an older curmudgeon is brought out of his shell by a younger person who teaches him to reconnect with his humanity and people and Russian prostitutes.

Oh good gods, no.

Whiplash is a superb film. I know, I’m a bit late getting to the table on this one, since it’s been nominated for stuff, and it made many reviewers’ 2014 Best of listicles. It’s up for Best Picture in a couple of weeks. J.K. Simmons has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Praising it now seems like throwing confetti after the limo has left the church.

It being superb doesn’t always make it easy to watch. It is tense, and energised, and frightening, in a lot of scenes. It is harrowing to watch what the main character Andrew (Miles Teller) endures for his art. It is disturbing to consider the points the film makes about sacrifice, about needing to suffer to become “great”, and about how, sometimes, it feels like the flick is endorsing the abuse we witness.

Rating:

St Vincent

St Vincent

I can't believe they didn't use a single song from the actual
St Vincent (Annie Clark) in this flick. Totally wasted opportunity.

dir: Theodore Melfi

2014

Old grumpy curmudgeons becoming less so (grumpy and curmudgeonly, not the old bit, since there’s no cure for that) over the course of a flick is a genre in and of itself. There’s this inherent belief, ably supported by movies, that even the most misanthropic dullard can be brought out of themselves by the attention and love of a much younger person.

It’s a template as old as movies themselves. The first movie ever was a home movie of a crotchety Thomas Edison screaming at people to get off his lawn at Menlo Park, until some filthy urchin teaches him to love again.

And that was 100 years ago. There have been exactly 10,000 versions of this theme in the interim. They do it in every country, in every language. I’ve probably seen five versions of this in the last month alone.

When it’s done well, it’s as good as Pixar’s Up, or About A Boy, that one with Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult, a film I still have a lot of time for. When it’s bad, it’s creepy, or unearned, or just generally uncomfortable. Like As Good As It Gets, 90 per cent of Clint Eastwood’s recent movies, or many, many, many other versions of the theme.

Because it’s such a formula, it doesn’t really hold any surprises for us. What it does hold is ample opportunities for actors of a certain age to desperately grasp one last time for that Oscar that’s eluded them thus far.

Rating:

Paper Planes

Paper Planes

If you do it right, you get to be the Aussie ambassador to Japan!
No-one else wants the job, so it's more of a punishment than a prize

dir: Robert Connolly

2015

Of course Australia needs more Australian films that Australians want to watch. Australia Australia Australia we love you. We won’t have a sustainable film industry (with such a small population, with so much cultural cringe, with so much downloading possible) until we can make the big hits that support the other ‘quality’ productions that no-one other than a few hipsters, a bunch of confused pensioners on Cheap Mondays, and Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton want to see.

Paper Planes has been very successful. A caveat on that is that it’s been very successful for an Australian film. A decent outcome box office-wise for an Australian film would be the very definition of a disaster for most American flicks, but that’s a different argument.

And it deserves to be a success. It’s the very definition of a crowd-pleasing, mass audience family flick. It has the exact contours, rhythms and beats of an underdog triumph / sports movie (which is not a bad thing at all), and though it is constructed from bunches of clichés, the performances manage to wrest the material away from its more mawkish tendencies.

It’s also horribly, horribly emotionally manipulative. There are scenes so potent in their ability to wrest tears from the tear ducts of adults (as opposed to kids) that you feel like a fool crying over such clichés. But they work.

Rating:

Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman

You seem to have something stuck to your head.
Want me to, uh, get it for you?

dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

2014

This film is totally fucking nuts!

And that’s not a bad thing at all.

In fact it’s quite enjoyable, visually confronting, artfully constructed and pretty well acted by almost everyone involved. There is a lot of yelling, a lot of virtuoso camerawork, and a lot of people struggling for credibility.

It’s not unique in cinema to do this, but it’s very hard to watch this and not think that there are fourth wall breaking – meta elements in the flick, considering that Michael Keaton is playing a character called Riggan Thompson whose claim to fame is that he starred as the superhero in some flick called Birdman decades ago.

I hope that almost everyone knows that Keaton, who up until then had been considered a pretty successful comedic actor, also played a little known superhero called Batman in a couple of movies with Tim Burton.

No-one points out, of course, that they were pretty shitty movies. Well, the first one was, maybe the second one was okay.

Of course, Keaton hasn’t exactly been in the wilderness since then, having been in a stack of flicks. If there are autobiographical similarities between Keaton the actor and Thompson the character, perhaps they’re just coincidental.

Rating:

Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler

While you were sleeping, Jake Gyllenhaal was out
there being creepy

dir: Dan Gilroy

2014

For me at least, after watching this film, it’s been confirmed, as if these things really matter anyway, that the Academy has yet again dropped the ball when it comes to nominations for Best Actor. Nothing I’ve seen thus far from last year was as great as what Jake Gyllenhaal achieves in this film. For my money, Nightcrawler has the performance of the year.

It’s also an incredibly strong film in its own right, but, man, that performance is breathtaking.

Gyllenhaal, who’s generally never been a slouch in the acting department, really pulls out all the stops and gives this creepy, monstrous character his all. That should not imply that there is overacting all over the place. Nothing of the sort. Au contraire, to be accurate.

Well, mostly.

This is a performance up there with Lord Anthony Hopkins for Hannibal or Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, or Anyone as Richard Nixon, only this character is probably even more of a monster than those three jerks, and yet he is far more polite and courteous. His manner, however, barely hides the cold alien nature that lurks below his feverish eyes and gaunt cheeks.

Rating:

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