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Thursday, 23 November 2017

Some Thoughts: Justice League

The reason why Hollywood loves superheroes has nothing to do with why fans love superheroes. Since the advent of television, Hollywood has been in the business of providing audiences with what television can’t provide, and for the last twenty years or so that’s meant big budget spectacle. But as the technology for on-screen destruction has improved, it’s been increasingly difficult for human beings to plausibly survive the carnage on screen. How to provide the massive levels of destruction audiences now demand yet satisfy their conflicting desire to watch movies featuring actors? Superheroes (but not until Hollywood tried vampires and people living inside a computer game).

So when it's said that the reason Justice League has bombed – relatively speaking – is because it’s not faithful to the characters, it’s reasonable to raise an eyebrow. Superman and Batman have been around in comics for 75 years; they’ve been everything from grim “realistic” figures to space clowns to your Dad in a bad outfit. Meanwhile on the Marvel / Disney side of the street, almost none of their movie characters have been anything like their (equally varied) comic book versions. And who cares? These are characters so generic they have to be put in weird brightly coloured outfits so people can recognise them: so long as they solve problems with their fists, they’re good.

Likewise when people complain that Justice League is tonally all over the place. They’re not wrong, but since when has that been a problem for a superhero movie? Everybody loved the most recent Thor movie, even though that lightweight romp couldn’t have been further in tone from the dour fantasy of the character’s previous film. Batman is a character scarred for life by seeing his parents murdered in front of his eyes as a child… so he dresses up as a bat and spends millions on gadgets so he can go punch random criminals: being tonally all over the place is why people like superheroes.

Today it seems that if you can think of something you liked in a previous movie, it’s a): in Justice League and b): it’s why Justice League is no good. When did jokes and banter become a bad thing? Right about the time Justice League hit cinemas. And if having a bulky and often largely CGI bad guy with a generic evil scheme to destroy the world is now a major negative, that rules out literally every single Marvel bad guy plus all the DC ones back to The Joker in The Dark Knight.

Don’t forget, there was a stretch where every Marvel movie had the exact same ending – heroes fighting on a large object falling out of the sky – and nobody cared. The ending of Man of Steel involved a big fight where supposedly thousands died (off screen) and that was bad; Justice League has a big fight in a largely deserted small town and the heroes are shown rescuing people and that’s… also bad? People are griping that Joss Whedon took over Justice League when Zach Snyder stepped aside after a personal tragedy: Edgar Wright was all but fired from Marvel’s Ant-Man and audiences didn’t seem too fussed there.

All of which suggests that whatever it is that people are reacting to in these films, it’s not what they say they’re reacting to. They clearly don’t care about consistent characterisation, original storytelling, or anything else they say they do, because if they did they’d be a lot more picky. What they really like is what we all like: confidence.

Movies boil down to someone – or a group of someones – telling us a story. And telling a story well takes confidence. If a storyteller has a great story packed with interesting characters and exciting developments but they stumble over the order of things and mumble during the important bits, the experience is going to suck. Likewise, if the story is poor but they tell it well it’ll be a good time even if afterwards we realise it didn’t make any sense.

At the moment, Marvel movies have confidence. Even when Disney is firing directors and ordering reshoots, it’s because the executives have confidence in what they’re trying to do. They’re not brilliant guys making genius moves: Thor: Ragnarok is exactly the film you’d get from an executive saying “Guardians of the Galaxy did well, make Thor more like that”. But even when they mostly suck – hello, Doctor Strange – they feel like films the makers had confidence in.

On the whole, DC movies do not have that confidence. Wonder Woman did, largely because it felt like for once DC had the jump on Marvel with a female superhero; they knew the time was right for what they had to sell, so as long as they made a film that wasn’t complete garbage it would work out. But otherwise their line-up has been a muddled mess of brutal edits and reshoots that have resulted in films that don’t leave people feeling like they’re watching a story anyone feels confident in.

Without that confidence, it doesn’t matter if the performances are good, the jokes are decent, the fight scenes are well-handled (and compared to pretty much every other recent superhero movie, Justice League at least shows signs that someone thought about the various characters' different levels of ability and how they could be effectively used in a fight) or anything else. They’ll never come together to make a decent film.

And if you want to watch a film where a bunch of supposedly entertaining things never really come together to make a decent film, we already have Justice League.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

In his first English-language film, The Lobster (2015), Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos introduced us to a weird sanitorium world where unmarried people fought desperately against the clock to find a mate. The punishment if they failed: being surgically reincarnated as an animal. A similar bizarre and macabre sensibility inhabits Lanthimos’ second English-language film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, though here it’s a simpler – and it must be said, less interesting – story with obvious roots in the Greek tragedy of Agamemnon, with the impossible lose-lose choices the hero must face after making a fatal mistake.

Steven (Colin Farrell, bearded and paunchy) is a middle-aged heart surgeon who regularly meets up with a troubled and fatherless teenage boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan). They drink coffee and exchange stilted pleasantries and gifts, and eventually the boy is invited home to meet Steven’s wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman) and two children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). To explain more would spoil the story’s unspooling, but it’s sufficient to say that as his children fall ill with a mysterious ailment causing paralysis and finally bleeding from the eyes, Steven is forced to choose which of his family members must be sacrificed.

Lanthimos has his actors speak in affectless monotone, delivering dialogue that’s both absurd and banal. Steven tells colleagues at a dinner that his daughter has begun menstruating, and nobody bats an eyelid. Anna announces at the dinner table that ‘Bob has nice hair. We all have nice hair.’ There’s an eerie comedy in this. Everybody comments on Kim’s beautiful voice, though when she sings (Ellie Goulding’s triumphant ‘Burn’), her voice is weak and ordinary. This blank automaton-like performance style serves to underline this story is a metaphor, and its characters are puppets in service to Lanthimos’ somewhat sadistic entertainment.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer succeeds in taking us to a place that’s grotesque and puzzling, though thanks to interesting and starkly beautiful shot compositions by DOP Thimios Bakatakis and editing by Yorgos Mavropsaridis (both of whom also worked on The Lobster and Dogtooth), it’s not boring or ugly, merely sterile. Whether you really want to spend time in this space where children, paralysed from the waist down, drag themselves around the house and plead for their lives, while their parents weigh up the options and values of each child, is worth pondering before you submit to this increasingly disturbing psychological horror.

Aristotle wrote that the function of the stories of tragic heroes was to produce fear, compassion and then to enjoy the purification of catharsis. The problem with The Killing of a Sacred Deer is that nobody is heroic, compassion is absent and there’s no real catharsis – and ultimately no point.

- Rochelle Siemienowicz


Thursday, 9 November 2017

Review: Murder on the Orient Express


As you’d expect from a billion dollar industry, Hollywood likes to play it safe. Christmas movies at Christmas, blockbusters during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer, romantic movies in February, a horror movie for Halloween. When they do experiment, it’s usually in the form of reviving a genre that’s fallen out of favour: do audiences secretly crave the return of the western? Occasionally these test firings lead to a fully-fledged revival – smart science fiction, usually a rarity at best, has been turning up once a year every year since the success of Gravity – but more often even when they do work they’re seen as a once-off (remember The Lincoln Lawyer?). So the big mystery here is: will Murder on the Orient Express see a revival of the big screen murder mystery?

It’s the 1930s, and after solving a high profile case in Palestine famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh, who also directs) – who here seems to operate largely as an agent of the British military – is requested to return to the UK ASAP, which means a last minute seat on the Orient Express. Surrounded by a mix of colourful characters, one stands out: shady US art dealer Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who seems concerned his dubious past is about to catch up with him. The train is stranded in the mountains due to an avalanche, Ratchett is found stabbed to death in his room, and Poriot has a new case to solve – one in which it seems everyone has something to hide.

In today’s multi-media landscape, genres rarely die – they just move to another platform. The murder mystery has been stretching out comfortably on television for the last few decades, so it’s hardly surprising to modern eyes this adaptation (which comes in at under two hours) seems a little rushed, especially with a dozen or so suspects to be dealt with. The mystery itself is skimmed over, perhaps because it’s assumed many viewers already know how it’ll all end: the 1974 adaptation was a huge hit and the story is one of Agatha Christie’s more gimmicky ones (and it doesn’t exactly play fair with those who like to solve the mystery based on all the clues provided), so downplaying that side of things isn’t a fatal flaw.

Branagh instead focuses on charm, starting with his own performance. While there are a few hints at a deeper backstory (a photo of a lost loved one, comments about the curse of always seeing the flaws in the world around him), his Poirot is largely a chipper, charismatic character who’s played big enough to be fun without completely overwhelming the film. As far as the rest of the cast goes, the hammier the performance the better, which puts Leslie Odom Jr. and Daisy Ridley at a disadvantage despite getting a hefty slice of screen time. Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe and Penelope Cruz go hell for leather in their relatively brief on screen moments, but it’s Michelle Pfeiffer who steals the show; with this and her work in Mother!, she’s definitely on the comeback trail.

This is never anything more or less than solidly entertaining, an enjoyable time-waster of a film that’s always nice to look at with a story that requires zero effort to follow (after all, it’s about a man constantly explaining things to everyone around him), a polished mood that moves from the slightly grim to the slightly quirky with nary a bump or rattle, and a conclusion that carries no weight whatsoever. Unless you’re still emotionally involved in the 90 year-old kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, a brutal real-life crime Christie shamelessly used as backstory. Maybe at the time a few readers thought “too soon”; now it’s as bloodless and remote as everything else here.

- Anthony Morris 

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Review: Suburbicon

White picket fences and mailmen who know your name, this is 1950s suburbia, complete with cookies and milk. It’s also complete with the dark and sinister undertones we’ve come to expect from every contemporary film set in that period. And this is a Coen Brothers production after all (FargoNo Country for Old Men), with the socially conscious George Clooney (Good Night, and Good LuckThe Ides of March) in the director’s chair. So it isn’t long until big cracks appear in the pastel façade, blood gets spattered on horn-rimmed glasses and some basic social justice messages get smashed home in what feels like a dated and somewhat pointless farce. 
Read the full review by Rochelle Siemienowicz at SBS Movies here.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

20 Feet from Stardom

The history of showbiz is littered with stories of talented people left out of the limelight – valiant professionals whose unsung efforts enabled brighter stars to shine. In this excellent documentary, directed by Morgan Neville and produced by the late A&M Records executive Gil Friesen, the spotlight is turned onto background vocalists, or ‘backup singers’ – the artists whose voices we’ve all heard, bringing life to the hits, but whose faces we’ve never seen.

Those faces, it turns out, are mostly female and mostly black. The daughters of preachers and churchgoers, these women learnt their trade harmonising in choirs and singing Baptist hymns, where the focus was on ‘the blend’ – the joining of many individual voices into a sweet-sounding whole. This mysterious merging is effectively illustrated in the film by a scene featuring the synchronised patterns created by a flock of black birds swooping in unison through a blue sky.
Read the full review by Rochelle Siemienowicz here at SBS Film online.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Farewell My Queen

Review by Rochelle Siemienowicz

Why do we continue to be fascinated by the doomed and decadent French queen, Marie Antoinette? Cinema and literature keep finding fresh angles to explore and exploit her ongoing charisma, and Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen provides all the pleasures –  and more – that we expect from this subject. There are extravagantly beautiful costumes, stunning cinematography and visions of lavish excess and emotional intrigue. Most importantly, the film offers insights into the (possible) personality and motivations of Marie, that frivolous and pitiable creature whose pretty neck will always be on the edge of the guillotine when we watch her from our historical vantage point.

Watching the queen is also the chief pleasure and obsession of the film's central character, Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), a young girl employed in the palace library and called upon regularly to read aloud to the queen. Sidonie's devotion is wonderfully portrayed by Seydoux, whose full-lipped, unmade-up beauty and candid intensity recall a very young Scarlett Johansson (especially in Girl With a Pearl Earring). Rushing along corridors, falling over her skirts in her desperation to please her majesty, Sidonie lives and breathes for the moments she spends in the queen's presence. Meanwhile, Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) lives and breathes to see and touch her own best friend (and perhaps lover), the pragmatic and cat-eyed Mme. de Polinac (Virgine Ledoyen).
The Sapphic love-triangle element of this plot is never overplayed, though both Sidonie and Marie are shown experiencing all the breathless desperation and anguish of women in love with someone who doesn't return, or deserve, their level of ardour and the final betrayals are breathtaking. Kruger is brilliant at portraying the young queen's nervy absorption in her own romantic dramas, even as the palace walls are crawling with political turmoil and rumours of beheadings.

Filmed on location at the Palace of Versaille (with cinematography by Romain Winding), and set over the course of a few days leading up to the fall, Farewell My Queen is particularly good at suggesting how separate and removed Versaille remains –  a complex social world unto itself, far from the concerns of the French people, right up until the moment when the gates collapse.

A worthy addition to the collection of films about Marie Antoinette, this one succeeds as the ultimate costume drama  one where the clothes are both sublimely pleasurable to look at and also irreducibly meaningful to the story's progression. The sumptuous costume design is by Valérie Ranchoux & Christian Gasc, with every element describing the characters' journey and psychology, from the single dress owned and adapted by the servant Sidonie, to the fine white linen nightdresses donned by the queen as she lolls about in bed. A special mention has to go to that poisonous green gown (it's almost chartreuse, but not quite) worn in the movie's final scenes and featured in the promotional poster. It's well worth seeing the film to find out exactly why it matters.

(Farewell My Queen - released in Australian cinemas by Transmission on Thursday 6 June 2013)

Monday, 15 April 2013

Rust and Bone

Review by Rochelle Siemienowicz

When disaster befalls us, the pity of others is sometimes the hardest burden to bear. This simple truth forms the premise for Rust and Bone, a sublimely beautiful and surprising tale of friendship, violence, disability and love. When Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) first meets boxer-cum-bouncer Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) they have little in common. He’s a brutish single father on the verge of homelessness; she’s a beautiful and haughty whale trainer. But after a tragic accident, Stephanie finds Ali’s no-nonsense physicality and lack of sympathy a blessed relief. An understanding develops between them, but the progress of this couple’s journey towards intimacy is anything but predictable.

Set in the French Riviera town of Antibes, the film revels in both the sparkling seaside and the ugly economic underbelly of the region. Such contradictions and contrasts abound, for director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet), together with cinematographer Stephane Fontaine and composer Alexandre Desplat, has created a work of art that is simultaneously realist and expressionist; shockingly blunt at times, yet mysterious and profoundly romantic. 

(This review previously appeared in edition 429 of The Big Issue magazine: 29 March - 11 April)