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Friday, 23 February 2018

Review: Lady Bird

Lets get this out of the way: As the awards season gathers pace, Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut Lady Bird is in severe danger of being overhyped. Be warned, it’s the kind of modest, indie coming-of-age story we’ve seen a million times. Set in a vaguely nostalgic 2002 and 2003, it’s episodic and stylistically simple, with a guitar-heavy soundtrack. It hits the familiar beats: Prom Night, painful conflicts with parents and falling outs with best friends; the pursuit of popularity, the loss of virginity and the wisdom that comes when grand dreams crunch up against reality. But Lady Bird is written, directed and performed with such tenderness, spiky humour and attention to detail, that it’s a delight to behold.
Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a dramatic and somewhat pretentious 17-year-old who insists on being called by the name ‘Lady Bird’. Her kind-hearted father, Larry (Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Tracy Letts), is a computer programmer struggling with depression and unemployment. Her overworked mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), puts in double shifts as a nurse to support the family and send Christine to a Catholic school, where she’s a merely mediocre student. It’s no wonder that Marion rolls her eyes in exasperation whenever Christine talks about her dreams of attending an expensive East Coast college, far away from the dull but pretty suburbs where they live. (“Sacramento is like the mid-west of California,” Christine whines, just like another discontented Sacramento character this year, Ben Stiller’s Brad in Brad’s Status.) And yet Lady Birdplays like an inadvertent love letter to the humble charms of that very particular place in America.
Read the full review here at SBS Movies.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Review: Black Panther

The introduction of then-prince T'Challa (Chadwick Bozeman) to the Marvel cinematic universe in Captain America: Civil War was the high point of the film. That wasn't really a surprise: one of the things Marvel does best is introduce new characters to its ever-expanding universe, and the already-announced Black Panther movie already had a lot riding on it. But that scene in Civil War held out the promise of two separate things; the Black Panther movie we now have only delivers on one.

With T'Challa's father killed in Civil War, the young prince is clearly next in line to the throne of secretive and super-advanced African nation of Wakanda. It turns out to be a very long line, as it's roughly forty-five minutes into the film before the story finally kicks into gear. Not that what happens before T'Challa goes on the hunt for resource-plundering bad guy Klaw (Andy Serkis with a gun arm) isn't interesting or important; the lengthy sequence where T'Challa has his Black Panther powers (basically super strength and healing powers gained via a magic plant, plus yet another super-suit) stripped from him so others can challenge for the throne pays off later in two different ways.

The best superhero movies are constantly moving forward - dynamism is part of the genre's appeal. Black Panther takes its time introducing everyone in its extensive supporting cast, including T'Challa's ex (Lupita Nyong’o), the leader of his all-female guards (Danai Gurira) and the nation's chief scientist-slash-Q from James Bond-slash-T'Challa's little sister (Letitia Wright). Then there's Forrest Whittaker and Angela Basset as elders, Michael B Jordan as big bad guy Killmonger, and Martin Freeman as the token link back to the rest of the Marvel Universe; the way this film juggles a massive cast and makes them all useful without grinding to a complete halt is one of its more impressive achievements.

Over the last few Marvel films it's become increasingly clear which elements individual directors are allowed to put their own stamp on, and which ones are standardised across the Marvel brand. Interestingly, production design is one area where directors are given somewhat free reign; after Doctor Strange's Inception riffs and Thor's bright Jack Kirby settings, director Ryan Coogler takes Black Panther full Afrofuturist with Wakanda's capital. Together with the large cast, this makes it a location that hopefully we'll see more of in future films.

But while T'Challa's introduction in Civil War promised an opening up of the Marvel universe, pointing the way towards a film with a largely black cast and mostly black creatives behind the camera, it also involved one of the more breathless and thrilling action sequences in the Marvel universe. Unfortunately this doesn't stretch that boundary, instead serving up a handful of standard action sequences before an all-in climax that features a number of decent ideas (combat rhinos!) but also a lot of firmly average CGI-heavy fighting that feels generic in a way much of this film firmly pushes against. The average action is even more disappointing as Killmonger is one of the best Marvel villains to date, a true counterpoint to T'Challa with an evil scheme that actually makes sense as something more than an excuse for drone shoot-outs and fist-fights in the path of a speeding train.

Black Panther does so many things right that it feels mean-spirited to focus on the by-the-numbers elements that increasingly drag down Marvel's films. Where previous films have countered the rote nature of what they're required to do with humor or action, this focuses on world-building, creating a cast and setting that deserve more than a single film. Which is presumably what Marvel intended: action is fleeting, but a nation's story can run and run.

Anthony Morris

Thursday, 8 February 2018

My Life in Film: the memoir film review

I'm the first in line to decry the death of the traditional film review. I loathe the clickbait take-down culture that's replacing measured and contextualised film criticism and entertaining consumer-oriented newspaper and magazine film reviews. Sometimes it scares, the frenzied speed with which every new film must be evaluated through the lens of identity politics, often by writers who lack any other analytical tools with which to measure or experience cinema.

But lately I've been enjoying my own kind of non-traditional film writing, revelling in the overt subjectivity and freedom of writing memoir-infused film reviews. My own life and relationships have provided the starting point for essays about films that have touched deeply in one way or another. Perhaps this is a little self-indulgent, but to me it feels like an honest and thoughtful way to acknowledge the intertwining of my life and the many hours I spend watching films, and I try to bring my experience as a traditional reviewer into the discussion so there's a real sense of what the film itself is like - the way it's made and the themes it tackles.

These pieces have been published in Neighbourhood, a monthly arts and culture magazine delivered to inner-city suburbs in Sydney, with a complementary online site.

You can read the three memoir reviews I've written so far at the links below:

Phantom Thread and the Everyday Sadism of Marriage

In which I confess to the occasional urge to kill my partner, and discuss the normal marital sadism of cohabitation, inspired by Paul Thomas Anderson's brilliant dark romance Phantom Thread (pictured above).

Brad's Status and the Anxiety of Middle-Class Parenting  

In which I bemoan the way questions about my son's schooling bring out competitive instincts and basic human fears.

Blade Runner 2049: Does the Ability to have a Relationship Grant us a Soul?

The love story in this film touched me deeply and made me think of my own illicit love affair and the longing to make it 'real'.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Review: Phantom Thread

 Part of what makes Paul Thomas Anderson's films so enthralling - well, maybe not so much Inherent Vice - is that they're almost always primarily about people coping with other people. They're relationship dramas where often the nature of the relationship remains hidden. But with Phantom Thread Anderson seems to show his hand early: this is the story of a bond between a man and a woman, and if it never quite seems fully sexual, matters of the heart are always at the fore.

The 1950s British setting allows fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) to be as stiff and stodgy as possible and still be taken seriously; a decade later and he'd be wildly out of tune with society, a decade or two earlier and to us he'd seem like a joke. As it is, he's defiantly out of style - "couture" is a dirty word to him - while still raking it in making one-off gowns for nervous or vaguely sinister society matrons.

But while his place in the world seems set from the outset, everyone around him is presented in a much more uncertain fashion. His first paramour is disposed of after making too much noise over breakfast; she's disposed of by his secretary / assistant Cyril (Lesley Manville), who we only gradually learn is also his sister. And when, while on a visit to his country retreat, Woodcock meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), he sweeps her into his life without ever bothering - as far as we see - to learn a single thing about who she is or how she came to be working in a small town cafe.

What follows then, is the story of Alma's struggle to become real - to be seen by Woodcock as his equal, and to have their relationship acknowledged as a true partnership. As first she tries to raise herself up, allowing him to dress her and make her part of his world; when it becomes obvious that she's on a path that will never lead to a place by his side, she resolves to bring him down. The twist here is that he welcomes it, accepting her extreme methods as perhaps the only way he can escape from himself - which, after all, is one of the reasons we yearn to fall in love.

If there's a serious flaw in this beautifully made film, it's that by keeping Alma a mystery to us, the reasons why she goes to such lengths to keep Woodcock in her life remain a mystery too. We see her enjoy his company and the life he offers, but we never really get to know her heart - unlike Woodcock, who in his more monstrous moments simply doesn't have one. It's a gothic romance about a woman dashing herself against a rock that lies where her lover's heart should be, but for a romance to work we need access to someone's heart, somewhere in the story.

Perhaps casting Daniel Day-Lewis is enough. He's a joy to watch here - as is Krieps, always convincing as his equal, coming across as a woman who actually does have secrets rather than just a background the film couldn't be bothered filling in - and perhaps the thrill of seeing Day-Lewis enjoying himself as a floppy haired bickering shit is enough to justify Alma's passion. The point here isn't the why, but the how; how in this hermetic, ritualistic world devoted to making objects of great beauty, there can be a place - if only, as it turns out, a secret place, hidden from sight as if stitched into the lining of a jacket - for messy, passionate love.

Anthony Morris

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Review: Sweet Country

Few Australian films these days feel relevant let alone essential, but Sweet Country, an outback Western set in 1929, is one of those films. The second narrative feature from Indigenous director Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah, 2009), Sweet Country is beautiful, important and utterly gripping, from its first close-up of black tea and white sugar boiling in a billy as racist violence occurs off screen, heard but not seen. The mystery of this conflict, and its eventual consequences, are unspooled in a confident and original narrative that's exciting despite its unhurried bleakness and the intimations of inevitable tragedy.

Inspired by real events, with a screenplay by sound recordist David Tranter and writer Steven McGregor (Redfern Now, The Mystery Road series), the story concerns an Aboriginal stock-hand (Hamilton Morris) on trial for the murder of a white man. Flashing forwards and backwards in time, (sometimes for the briefest of moments, like a flicker of memory or prescience) the film traces the events leading up to the murder, involving the stockman's wife (Natassia Gorey-Furber), a shell-shocked war veteran farmer (Ewen Leslie) and a mischievous mixed-race boy (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan). We follow the pursuit of the accused man and his wife across vast and stunning landscapes by a bloody-minded police officer (Bryan Brown in fine and familiar form), with a gentle Sam Neill in the role of the kind Christian farmer who employs the accused and tries to be the voice of reason. Matt Day plays the judge sent from the city to preside over the dusty outdoor courtroom. These scenes are stunning in the economy and eloquence with which they depict the absurdities and cruelties of dealing with Indigenous experience within the white legal system.

Thornton is an accomplished DOP as well as director. (His cinematography credits include Radiance and The Sapphires as well as his own shorts, documentaries and features.) Here he gives the impression of simplicity, but using images captured with double-mounted cameras and post-production processing, the grain of natural elements is presented in contrast to the lack of grain in human structures and skin. It's a subtle effect, felt rather than seen, but giving fresh spirit to the much-photographed Northern Territory landscape. Simplicity is evident too in the complete lack of a musical score, and yet this adds rather than detracts from the film's emotional impact.

Sweet Country premiered in September 2017 at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize, and went on to win the Platform Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival. Frequently likened to two other excellent Australian films, The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005) and The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002 ), Sweet Country is, in its own way, more sophisticated and nuanced than those films, with light and shade in characters on both sides of the racial divide. And while Sweet Country is an angry film, likely to inspire rage and shame in the white viewer, there's something hopeful about seeing a story so well told, and in looking Australian history full in the face.

Sweet Country is in Australian release from 25 January 2018.

Four Stars
Rochelle Siemienowicz

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Review: The Maze Runner: The Death Cure

One of the more surprising things about the surprisingly entertaining third and final installment in the Maze Runner series is that it’s an action movie that uses its action to explore character. Or even just that it’s an action movie full stop: most YA franchises have focused on world-building and character-based drama, two things this film is barely interested in. It’s a generic post-apocalyptic world with only one modern city left and the story is barely more than a series of escalating rescue attempts. This breakneck pace occasionally leads to some head-scratching moments – one previously dead character returns with the explanation “I wasn’t dead – you just left me for dead”, while another important character introduces himself as “a businessman” and then in his next (and final) scene blows himself up for reasons that make no business sense whatsoever – but these are good plot problems to have, because they mean this is a movie that isn't interested in slowing down.

All you really need to know here is that on one side are Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), sidekicks Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden), and hard driving love interest Brenda (Rosa Salazar) trying to rescue bestie Minho (Ki Hong Lee) from the baddies, who include evil scientist Ava (Patricia Clarkson), evil thug Janson (Aiden Gillen) and possibly evil former gal pal Teresa (Kaya Scodelario). The bad guys are pretty bad, and not just because their corporation is called WCKD: they’re torturing kids who are immune to the mutant-zombie creating Flare Virus because tortured teens give off brain chemicals that could maybe be used to make a cure. 

(there’s an interesting question there about the ends justifying the means and so on, but this is too busy blowing things up to do more than occasionally wave in that general direction)

Usually a film like this would get less interesting the further away it moved from the central events of the story (to be fair, this film's minimalist approach to its characters does mean that the rare moments of drama between them carries real weight). “Action” in the old Hollywood sense of actions carried out by the lead characters (shoot-outs, blowing up bridges and so on) has largely been replaced by increasingly generic and special effects-heavy “spectacle” designed to look impressive but tell us almost nothing about the characters taking part, as seen in pretty much every superhero movie this decade. 

It’s only recently (and largely confined to the John Wick films in cinemas) that we’ve seen even a slight return to the idea that how a character operates in an action sequence might actually tell us something about them as a human being. Ideally action sequences in blockbusters should function the same way as musical numbers in musicals – the story is suspended to move into an area of pure cinema that gives us an insight into the character’s inner life – but in practice stunts and CGI take precedent almost every time.

Here though, the constant action (generally well handled by director Wes Ball, even if the bad guys can't shoot straight) actually does illuminate the differences between characters. WCKD city is repeatedly presented to us as a maze-like collection of streets and corridors, which makes sense considering trapping teens in a maze was the whole point of their evil scheme in the first film. But time and time again while the bad guys operate in two dimensions our heroes work in three: on at least three occasions where it looks like the bad guys have trapped Thomas and company they escape by moving vertically out of a previously horizontal situation. 

Partly that's simply because moving up or dropping down makes for a cool visual. But it also makes sense for who the heroes are and the world they want to create: if you’ve been trained to fight by being trapped in a maze, your idea of escape isn’t going to be running down more corridors or roads, but soaring over them. It’s no surprise then that the one character here who straddles both worlds is eventually presented with an escape that requires them to move from the horizontal to the vertical, the whole film building to a moment where survival literally requires them to embrace a new way of moving through the world. 

Which is pretty impressive considering it's also the same "you gotta jump now!" action movie climax we've seen a thousand times before.

Anthony Morris

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Review: All the Money in the World

Inspired by real events around the kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III in Rome in 1973, and based on John Pearson’s book Painfully Rich: the Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, Ridley Scott’s latest film is a tense crime thriller with an unforgettable monster at its heart. Like the heated media scrum around the real kidnapping, the film itself has attracted media furore because of the last-minute re-shooting and re-editing to replace disgraced actor Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in the role of the hard-hearted tycoon. The good news is that Plummer is perfect as the calcified miser who must win at all costs. Spacey would no doubt have created his own brilliant villain (perhaps one day we’ll see that version on a DVD extra), but now it’s hard to imagine anyone bettering Plummer’s Getty. Read the full review at SBS Movies.