Film Review

Review: A Most Violent Year (2014)

Opens:February 26 Genre:Thriller-drama Duration:125 minutes ★★★★☆ Writer-director JC Chandor proves he is not only the most exciting new US filmmaker, but also one of the most unpredictable and wide-ranging with his third feature, a powerful drama set in early 1981 New York. Chandor’s debut, Margin Call, was a riveting piece about the irresponsibility of Wall Street. The startling follow-up, All is Lost, was a virtuoso tale about a lone yachtsman fighting for survival. A Most Violent Yearoccupies thematically similar turf to Margin Call, yet the look and feel of the film are very different. Oscar Isaac cements his growing reputation as a major actor with a mesmerising lead performance as a tax-avoiding, but otherwise straight-arrow, oil heating entrepreneur trying to survive in a world where his competitors are all out to crush him by robbing his trucks at gun-point. Matching, and sometimes even surpassing, him in intensity is Jessica Chastain as his Lady Macbeth of a wife, the daughter of a gangster businessman. The locations – noisy overpasses, riverside wasteland and inner-city dereliction – give a vivid, period sense of the Big Apple’s rotten underside, echoing the feel, if not quite the stories, of such classic movies as Serpico…Continue reading Get unlimited digital…

February 16, 2015
Film Review

Review: Galore (Rhys Graham)

Local producers and funding bodies really need to place a moratorium on sensitive (they’re always sensitive) coming-of-age stories – thenational cliché of Australian cinema. Every prominent national film industry has its popular genres – French comedy, English period drama, Indian musicals – but would-be-lyrical films about teens are a weird anomaly in this country. Despite the odd success, they’re only popular with filmmakers, not cinemagoers, and often mediocre at best and politely dull at worst. Rhys Graham’s meaninglessly titled directorial debut, the Canberra-set Galore, is almost pure pastiche. Buttery summer photography? Tick. Girl and boyfriend trouble? Of course. Drinking to excess at wild parties? Sigh. Half of this story of teen angst seems to consist of two female best friends (Ashleigh Cummings and Lily Sullivan) semi-whispering to each other – but what arethey saying? There seems to be a lesbian subtext, but it’s never clear if this is intentional. The film throws away its most promising element, a climactic backdrop of the 2003 Canberra bushfire emergency, by failing to build it into the narrative in a sufficiently dramatic way. It does feature a well-staged car crash though. Let’s give it that. Continue reading Get unlimited digital access from $3 per…

June 11, 2014
Film Review

Review: Broken Circle Breakdown (Felix van Groeningen)

This Oscar-nominated blast of a Belgian film about a pair of lovers who perform in a bluegrass band named The Broken Circle Breakdown is one part musical, one part romance and one part weepie. It would be entirely understandable to find the notion of a Belgian bluegrass musical a wee bit suspect. Could these European lowlanders play convincingly in this rustic American style? Turns out they can. So clear your head of any awkward preconceptions and prepare for a wild emotional ride that takes you from the heights of amorous passion to the depths of despair, its terrific music serving as both hum-dinging entertainment and ultimately as healing force. The script was a straight narrative. Johan Heldenbergh co-adapted it from his play with director Felix van Groeningen. However, during editing van Groeningen took scissors to the chronology and reassembled the tale in a partly non-linear order. This could, of course, have made for a right old mess, but instead the story is coherently rendered while infused with freshness and plenty of surprise. Adding immensely to the film’s considerable success are its appealing leads, Johan Heldenbergh as snaggle-toothed banjo picker Didier, and Veerle Baetens as his vivacious blonde true love, Elise, a tattooist…

April 20, 2014
Film Review

Review: Healing (Craig Monahan)

The premise of Craig Monahan’s Australian film about a convict’s relationship with a wedge-tailed eagle is reminiscent of the 1962 Burt Lancaster drama, The Birdman of Alcatraz, though with one major change. Where the US film was mostly set indoors, Healing is located in a low-security prison farm in Australian bushland, giving the bird (and metaphorically the film) the chance to spread its magnificent wings. The film’s target audience however is unclear. Unlike the Australian pelican-and-boy movie classic Storm Boy, which captivated both adults and children, the too-literally named Healing is likely to bore the kids. The film’s true star is the lyrical avian cinematography by Andrew Lesnie, of The Lord of the Rings renown. Down on the ground, Dony Hany plays bird-fancying Iranian prisoner Viktor with a gruff taciturnity that’s often alienating, despite the gradual deepening of his attachment to his winged friend. Elsewhere there are too many distractions: a sub-plot about drug dealing in the jail is seriously uninteresting, and Viktor’s make-up is plain weird. Is he sunburnt (in which case why he is the only prisoner who is)? Or is this a poor attempt at making him look Iranian – and if so, how come his visiting…

April 20, 2014
Film Review

Review: Belle (Amma Asante)

Despite the success of 1970s teleseries Roots, cinema has dragged its heels on serious depictions of the slave era. Amazing Grace, the 2006 British picture about William Wilberforce’s abolition struggle, may well have paved the way for the recent Oscar winner, 12 Years a Slave, but it had only one black role, and a minor one at that. This good-looking British film from black director Amma Asante takes a different approach to both those stories by examining a significant legal case that helped to weaken the slave trade from the viewpoint of a young, black heiress, Dido Elizabeth Belle (impressive newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw). This illegitimate daughter of a sea captain and a West Indian woman is brought up in luxury by her father’s (Matthew Goode) aristocratic uncle – Britain’s Lord Chief Justice (Tom Wilkinson). Her skin colour and illegitimacy mean she suffers the slings and arrows of her adaptive family’s shame. The upside is she has a chance to quietly intervene in the legal case around the Zong massacre, a famous mass drowning of slaves. Though the story is set up elegantly, by the halfway point it’s obvious where it’s headed and it ploddingly sets about going there. Continue reading…

April 20, 2014
Film Review

Review: Fading Gigolo (John Turturro)

We’re at that time of year, following the Academy Awards but before the start of Australian film festival season, when independent film distributors release all kinds of oddities – films not necessarily bad, sometimes very good, but a bit harder to package or sell than the preceding Oscar glam mob. Such is this quirky New York comedy-drama written and directed by John Turturro, best known, of course, as an actor. He stars as a hard-up, middle-aged man persuaded by his former bookstore-owner employer (Woody Allen dialling up his standard schtick) to try renting out his sexual services. Photographed in rich autumnal russets, and accompanied by a smoky Gene Ammons jazz soundtrack, this is often mildly pleasurable and full of quirky details that make it perfectly easy to watch. Who knew Brooklyn had an Orthodox Jewish cop squad using bicycles as well as cars? The male leads are given strong support by Liev Schreiber, playing a lovesick cop; Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara as sharp clawed sex tigers; and, cast right out of left field, Vanessa Paradis as a chaste Jewish widow. But Allen’s pimp patter sounds retrieved from his wastepaper basket, and in the end these shenanigans are much ado about little. Continue reading…

April 20, 2014
Film Review

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

There are certain filmmakers whose purpose it would seem is to emblazon their directorial signature across their work in as flamboyant a way as possible – think of David Lynch, Michel Gondry, Peter Greenaway or our own Baz Luhrmann. You can add to that list The Grand Budapest Hotel’s US director and co-writer, Wes Anderson. You need to see only one of its obsessively symmetrical frames, designed with fanatical detail down to the last costume stitch, to instantly know who it was who made it. Whether this delights or sends you screaming up the wall, there’s no mistaking this film’s uniqueness. If you’re up for it, there is much fun to be had from recognising a never-ending parade of well-known actors in minor roles (Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe et al) in this children’s film made for adults set in an enchanting dollshouse world, aka the fictional East European republic of Zubrowka. Grand Budapest Hotelhas a lively Russian doll of a narrative in which we learn via a series of flashbacks within flashbacks how the elegant former concierge (Ralph Fiennes) of the grandiose hotel of the title became its owner during the 1930s. Whether you call this an exaggeratedly tall tale or…Continue…

April 10, 2014
Film Review

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen Brothers)

Inspired by the salty memoirs of folk musician Dave Van Ronk, a close contemporary of the young Bob Dylan, the latest film from the inventive Coen brothers examines a crazy week in the life of folkie Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) as he struggles to make it in the heady 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene. In the past, Coen brothers films might have poked fun at such a sincere hero, but Davis’s commitment and talent are taken at full face value, with Isaac singing his own parts beautifully, as do Carey Mulligan as his romantic ex and Justin Timberlake as her new singing partner. At its heart, this is a rags to rags story, focusing on what it must feel like to be (and here one has to paraphrase Dylan) on your own. Not just a complete unknown, but sleeping on floors, always hard up and utterly desperate to catch even a modest-sized break in what is an essentially deaf and uncomprehending music world. That’s the path of every young performer who ever set out to make it to the top in the big city, and the Coens capture the uncertainty of the vicarious fame-game more vividly than any film I’ve ever…

January 16, 2014
Film Review

Review: Austenland (Jerusha Hess)

In an era where Harry Potter gets a theme park, surely it’s not too long a literary bow to draw a similar tribute to Jane Austen. In fact, it’s a rather charming premise for a romantic comedy, especially when you lead is the impossible likable Kerri Russel playing a hapless 30-something cashing in her savings for a chacne to walk in Austen’s slippers. And the pedigree only continues with Flight of the Conchords co-star Brett McKenzie playing the incredulous, costumed help, and the writer of cult-comedy classic Mapoleon Dynamite, Kerusha Hess, at the helm. So why isn’t Austenland worth the price of admission? For starters it’s a bad sign when your funniest scene is the end credits. If only the quik and the ribald frivolity evident there had found tis way into the film proper. Russell and a gratingly over-the-top Jennifer Coolidge do their darndest to raise some eyebrows and burst some corsets, but like a weak cup of tea, their efforts are largely watered down. Austern fans will nevertheless chuckle at a few twists on convention – to wit JJ Field makes for an admirably dashing Mr. Darcy – but for a real trip, I’d suggest tracking down the TV series…Continue…

November 28, 2013
Film Review

Review: Kill Your Darlings (Radcliffe)

Following on the heels of Walter Salles’s adaptation of the Jack Kerouac classic,  On The Road, comes this bildungsroman about another key writer of the beat era, the poet Allen Ginsberg, in his formative college years. Identified here mainly through his signature bulbous spectacles, Ginsberg looks more like an older Harry Potter than the rotund, bearded figure familiar from photos and film footage of the time – hardly surprising given he’s played by Danie Radcliffe. This may sound like stunt casting, but the British actor, to his credit, pulls off the challenge , forgetting about trying to literally impersonate Ginsberg and manages to give an admirably nuanced performance. Leading the young poet into temptation with a series of anarchic pranks and adventures at Columbia University in 1944 is a group of rebellious bohemians including the spirited Kerouac (Jack Huston) and cadaverous William Burroughs (Ben Foster). Standing above them all is the motley crew’s de facto figurehead, the now largely forgotten Lucien Carr, charismatically incarnated by newcomer Dane DeHaan. I’m not sure John Krokidas’s lively debut film makes the Beats very likeable – to this reviewer they come across as a gang of spoiled and pretentious young jerks. But that insight (if indeed it is intentional) is not without value. Continue reading Get unlimited digital access from $3 per month Subscribe Already a subscriber? Log in

November 21, 2013
Film Review

Review: Mr Pip (Laurie)

The first half of this New Zealand adaptation of a novel by Lloyd Jones presents the appearance of a sentimental feelgood movie – a kind of Dead Poets Societyor Goodbye Mr Chipsset on the tropical Pacific island of Bougainville in 1991. Despite a guerilla war going on in the background, white Englishman Mr Watts (Hugh Laurie), takes great pride in playing the role of the inspirational teacher and turning on his local pupils to the joys of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectationsin classic cultural imperialist style. Then something unexpected happens and what had looked to be a film you could safely take your granny to see turns into something liable to cause severe family recriminations and knife fights. Director Andrew Adamson, the director of films in the Shrek and Narnia series, certainly makes the early scenes easy to slip into without overloading the sentiment. Xzannjah (just the one name) is charming as his teenaged star pupil, Matilda, imagining herself and other locals in a localised revision of the Dickens tale that runs in a parallel story. What he hasn’t been able to do is pull offthe story’s central narrative shock in a way that preserves its unity rather than…Continue reading Get…

October 31, 2013
Film Review

Review: About Time (McAdams, Curtis)

Richard Curtis has done it again! If that name doesn’t ring a bell, then his films certainly will:  Four Weddings and A Funeral,  Notting Hill,  Love Actually… Curtis is that clever breed of man who can make you laugh, and make you cry with his joyous brand of sentimentality. About Time takes a similar trajectory – filled with awkward romance, colourful characters and daffy dysfunction writ large. But don’t let the poster fool you: this isn’t anotherstory of a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her. This is an ode to fathers and sons. Beautifully warm and reflective, Curtis sets up the romance of Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mary (Rachel McAdams) via a secret time-travel ability passed down from father (Bill Nighy) to son. Tim duly takes up the mantel, and has a bit of fun –  Groundhog Day-style – wooing Mary, but as the years tick by, the bittersweet truth of time is painfully revealed. Gleeson is a revelation as Tim, stepping into Hugh Grant’s archetypal shoes with his own gangling charm and effortless comedic timing. McAdams is adorable as always, but it is the pairing of Nighy and Gleeson that really hits home. So…

October 3, 2013
Film Review

Review: The Act of Killing (Oppenheimer)

This brave, mind-bogglingly horrific yet mesmerisingly surrealistic documentary has had jaws dropping at its various film festival outings around the globe including Sydney and Melbourne. Executive produced by two giants of the documentary world, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, who signed on after seeing early edits, the film is a hauntingly innovative expose of a crime of genocidal horror in Australia’s backyard – the mass liquidation of Communists by the Indonesian dictator Suharto in 1965 following a failed Communist coup attempt. US-born filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer had initially tried to make a film based on the experiences of the surviving victims. But finding them reluctant to speak he instead tracked down some of the killers, a motley group of ex- gangsters and paramilitary members, and encouraged them to both talk about and re-enact their unpunished crimes for his cameras in scenes both gruesome and weird. The film doesn’t glorify or excuse the killers, whose reminiscences are especially confronting in being so insouciantly expressed, but seeks to understand how the perpetrators have managed to live with their actions. The result is something we’ve never seen before – a new type of film – call it psycho-documentary – that’s not just about mass…

September 26, 2013