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Thursday, 17 May 2018

'It's been a long time since anyone looked after my [W]hole.' Some thoughts on TULLY

I saw Tully a few days after visiting a pelvic physiotherapist. I've been in a lot of pain lately after abdominal surgery, and the gentle touch of this practical young woman brought tears to my eyes. Her waiting room was crammed with prams and tired, lumpy-looking new mothers. 'Up to ninety per cent of women who've given birth vaginally have some kind of prolapse,' she told me, proceeding to put her gloved fingers inside me and feel for the places where my own baby had arrived fifteen years ago.

Nobody talks about this kind of damage, not really. And nobody talks about the grief and exhaustion of relentless early motherhood, except to joke about it, and say it's all worthwhile and you don't really remember the pain.


Tully is a film written by Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult), herself a mother of three, and while it's supposedly a comedy, it's the most honest representation I've seen on screen of the despair that comes with maternal drudgery and extreme sleep deprivation. Directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air), the film stars Charlize Theron as Marlo, a mother of two, heavily pregnant with her third baby. She's tired, sad and angry. She swears a lot and doesn't even try to be nice to the school principal when discussing her special needs son. Marlo's husband (Ron Livingston) is a good man, but he's struggling to pay the bills and afraid his wife is going to fall apart emotionally the way she did the last time she gave birth.

So when Marlo's rich brother offers the baby-gift of a night nanny to help with the graveyard shift, it seems a guardian angel has arrived on the doorstep. The nanny, Tully (Mackenzie Davis) is a strange, dreamlike creature, a young woman with flat, bared midriff and a stock of fairychild wisdom.  How can she possibly help? And yet her touch is practical, confident and quiet. She tells Marlo she's there to take care of both baby and mother, the whole unit, the whole person. Marlo replies with a laugh: 'It's been a long time since anyone took care of my hole.' And off she goes to bed for the first proper sleep in a long time.

Charlize Theron has always been a fearless actress, careless of her beauty and quite prepared to gain weight for roles. (Think of her unrecognisable turn as thuggish serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, 2003). In Tully, Theron shows the convincing physicality of a nursing mother who hasn't had time or energy to look after herself. With the cruel honesty of the young, her own daughter asks her what's wrong with her stomach. But the night nanny's help makes a huge difference. Marlo starts to return to life, and to summon back the kind of carefree, courageous young woman she was before motherhood.

There are few things in life as inescapable as parenthood. Tully is a kind of fantasy about being properly supported to bear, endure and - and even enjoy - this reality. There are some plot developments which may have you scratching your head or feeling let down at the film's close. But representation matters, and seeing this common (yet not commonly shown) part of human life on screen is a joy, and a relief in itself.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

A new comedy from Academy Award®-nominated director
Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”) and
Academy Award®-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (“J
uno”). Marlo (Academy Award® winner
Charlize Theron), a mother of three including a new
born, is gifted a night nanny by her brother
(Mark Duplass). Hesitant to the extravagance at fir
st, Marlo comes to form a unique bond with
the thoughtful, surprising, and sometimes challengi
ng young nanny named Tully (Mackenzie
A new comedy from Academy Award®-nominated director
Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”) and
Academy Award®-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (“J
uno”). Marlo (Academy Award® winner
Charlize Theron), a mother of three including a new
born, is gifted a night nanny by her brother
(Mark Duplass). Hesitant to the extravagance at fir
st, Marlo comes to form a unique bond with
the thoughtful, surprising, and sometimes challengi
ng young nanny named Tully (Mackenzie

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Review: Life of the Party

When she’s dumped by her husband two minutes after they drop their daughter off at college, Deanna Miles (Melissa McCarthy) bounces back fast. Unfortunately her method of bouncing back is to sign up for college alongside Maddie (Molly Gordon) and finally get her degree in archeology. Deanna’s good-natured but cloying efforts to be “one of the gals” soon makes her the center of attention, especially among Maddie's somewhat quirky peers; clearly there's going to be big trouble ahead. 

But this film – a reworking of the 80s Rodney Dangerfield classic Back to School so bland it's hard to figure out why they bothered – is firmly determined to avoid any trace of drama or conflict. Often it feels like all involved would rather be making some kind of "you can do it!" inspirational text for middle aged women looking to restart their lives. Which is fine, but those things aren't exactly known for bringing the laughs.

So rather than picking up any of a dozen obvious plot threads, or even exploring the handful of ones they do establish, Deanna’s return to university rapidly becomes a trouble-free fantasy of sleeping with hot guys and reclaiming the identity her loveless too-soon marriage stripped from her. And that's all.

The mother-daughter friction promised by the set-up never materialises beyond a few awkward looks, no-one has any problem with a mature-age student basically taking over the campus, while both the classroom drama (it turns out Deanna’s not great at giving presentations) and some minor sorority hassles are barely speed bumps in her relentless victory march towards a big party that - surprise! - turns out to be yet another triumph. 

McCarthy remains one of the more energetic comedy performers around, but this relies far more than it should on that energy. Just because we want her to succeed doesn't mean we want her to succeed effortlessly, especially when it means everyone and everything around her barely registers. Perhaps some of these ideas - the wacky friends, her archeology puns - seemed funny enough early on to balance things out and make this a comedy that would actually be funny for 105 minutes. 

They aren't. This isn't.

Friday, 4 May 2018

STRANGE COLOURS - Winner of the Best Australian Independent Film Award at the Gold Coast Film Festival

Last month I was one of the Jury members voting for the Blackmagic Design Best Australian Independent Film Award at the Gold Coast Film Festival (17 - 29 April 2018).

The prize (which includes $10,000 of Blackmagic camera equipment) was judged by four film critics from the Australian Film Critics Association: Luke Buckmaster, Lauren Carroll Harris, Cerise Howard and myself, and was won by Russian-Australian filmmaker Alena Lodkina’s impressive and poetic debut feature Strange Colours.

Set and shot in the remote opal mining community of Lightning Ridge, Strange Colours has been described as an inverted response to the outback horrors of Wake in Fright. Premiering to acclaim at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, and having its Australian premiere at the Gold Coast Film Festival, it's a film that features soft silky light, dreamy-pale landscapes and benign Ocker characters. These are wizened Aussie blokes, never seen without a VB in their hands, and yet they defy expectations with gentleness and good humour.

Written by Lodkina and Isaac Wall, Strange Colours stars Kate Cheel as a young woman from the big city who visits her estranged and ailing father (Daniel P. Jones, best known for his starring role in Amiel Courtin-Wilson's Hail). Sophisticated, surprising and beautiful, it's an Australian film to watch out for. The official website is here:

- Rochelle Siemienowicz

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Review: Avengers: Infinity War

Usually when critics complain that a blockbuster lacks things like character development or decent plotting or a satisfying resolution, what they're really doing is revealing that they have no idea what a modern blockbuster is meant to do. This isn't a slam on critics of Avengers: Infinity War - it's definitely a film with problems, even judged on its own terms - but this kind of film is bought and sold as spectacle first and foremost, and complaining that it isn't narratively satisfying largely misses the point.

The hook here is that this is the culmination of the last decade of Marvel movies, all 19 of them.  Obviously it's not: Marvel is great at leaving plot threads dangling at the end of one film and ignoring them in the next (were any of the plot points at the end of Captain America: Civil War ever mentioned again?). It's just another "everyone teams up to fight a really big bad guy" movie, and while it delivers on the "big", the "fight" side leaves a bit to be desired.

The story contains a lot of moving parts around a very simple core: giant space bad guy Thanos (a CGI'd Josh Brolin), who has spent the last six years since he had a cameo in the first Avengers movie doing very little, has finally decided to wrap up his quest for the Infinity Stones - six magic gems that when put together into the Infinity Gauntlet will enable him to kill off half the universe. As these gems are scattered across the universe (well, two are on Earth, which is handy), Thanos and his underlings make a variety of largely self-contained attempts to get ahold of them. That means despite the extremely large cast of characters -

- which would be Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Bruce Banner / The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt, Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Groot (the voice of Vin Diesel) and Rocket (the voice of Bradley Cooper), among others -

- most of them are clumped together in relatively manageable groups for their individual clashes with Thanos. Which makes him the central character here, a move that works largely thanks to a strong performance from Brolin as a bad guy who's more heartfelt true believer (in mass murder) than the usual power-for-powers-sake super villain. 

As what is basically a "greatest hits" showcase aimed at an audience excited simply to see Spider-Man and Star Lord in the same frame, some characters are served better than others. Iron Man gets a lot to do, which isn't surprising as he's probably on the way out; Steve Rogers doesn't get much, though maybe they're holding him back for the sequel. One note characters (Spider-Man, Star Lord) generally fare better than others with the limited space available, though both Dr Strange and The Vision are surprisingly central. It's no spoiler to say that not everyone makes it out of this alive, and that some deaths are clearly more permanent than others; part of the skill in putting this sort of film together is to know when a character's role is finished and they can be taken off the board.

(this does mean the characters with no story tend to stand out in a "huh, are you still here?" way. Everyone in Steve Rogers' crew is surplus to requirements; Wakanda seems to have been chosen as the site for a big fight largely because that way no civilians will be hurt - it's definitely not because they thought of anything interesting to do with Black Panther)

Despite having directed what is generally considered to be one of the more cinematic Marvel movies in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directors Anthony and Joe Russo flub just about every fight scene here, reducing every battle to a murky blur of pummeling without style or flair between dozens of combatants who all either punch or fire energy beams. One area where the much-derided DC superhero movies have it over Marvel is an awareness that their characters' differing superpowers are what makes them interesting, so the fights are a chance to show them off; here Dr Strange's mystical powers or Scarlet Witch's magic just involve shooting and shielding like everyone else (except for the characters who punch people).

Many of the elements critics complain that these films are lacking are missing for a reason. The point of these films is to show off the characters - the more the merrier - making one-off moments that show off a character's core (marketable) attributes more important than traditional story-telling. Unfortunately, most of Marvel's characters' core attributes revolve around an ability to make quips at serious moments, so making the joke-free Thanos the lead was a wise move. Still, feeling like a series of intercut commercials for action figures isn't a bug; it's a feature. Despite the massive cast (and a couple of main Marvel characters are explicitly excluded) this still manages to remind us that there are still more new characters coming up from Marvel.

But fight scenes are the core rationale of this kind of blockbuster, and that's where this falls over. We're here to see Marvel mash all of their toys together, and when the mashing side of things is plodding and uninspired then the film as a film - as separate from the film as a chance to see your favourite characters meet up, or to test your deep cut Marvel Universe knowledge, or to see Stan Lee for what must surely be close to the last time - can't be considered a success. Superheroes live to fight, and marketing means they'll never die; it's only when the viewers lose interest that their existence is in any real danger.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Review: I Feel Pretty

Amy Schumer plays a woman whose life is turned around when she suddenly and irrationally becomes convinced she’s gorgeous; it's not exactly the most sure-fire concept for a movie in 2018, even if you haven't been reading the various "Amy Schumer's 'I Feel Pretty' is offending women" articles doing the rounds. 

But in bad news for outrage fans, the problem here has more to do with the marketing - Hollywood isn't great when it comes to selling comedies as anything more than crass high concepts - than the film itself; it turns out I Feel Pretty (okay, the title doesn't help) is actually a film in which Amy Schumer plays a woman whose life is turned around when she suddenly and irrationally becomes imbued with the kind of self-confidence most people would kill for.

Yes, the film initially focuses on how fashion world underling Renee Bennet (Schumer) is bummed out by her looks – but it’s clear as she struggles through her day that the real problem isn’t how she looks, but how she feels about those looks. So when a combination of a wish and a bump on the head has her thinking she’s a perfect 10 (importantly, it’s all in her head – there’s no scene where we see a fantasy version of her), it’s the new confidence this gives her that’s the real change. Now she’s going after her dream guy and her dream job, and nothing and nobody is going to stand in her way.

Unsurprisingly in 2018, this is extremely careful to focus on the empowering side of her condition. Even the side characters who you'd expect to be carrying much of the comedy workload - especially Michelle Williams as the hilariously soft-voiced boss of a fashion and make-up empire she's recently taken over from her watchful grandmother (Lauren Hutton) - end up being given a positive spin; those after snarky laughs (even at the expense of skinny models) will come away disappointed.

Being warmly funny rather than side-splitting (the running joke here is that Renee's confidence wins over people no matter what iffy situation she dives into, up to and including a wet t-shirt contest), this constantly threatens to become a blandly insipid rejoinder to numerous meaner films - Shallow Hal is usually mentioned somewhere around here. Hollywood comedies may be increasingly socially aware, but they're yet to come up with ways to make that awareness consistently funny; treating everyone with respect and consideration is an admirable goal, but as the basis for a high concept comedy "everyone gets along" is a tough sell.

Fortunately Schumer, playing a character that’s pretty much sweetness personified, makes Renee someone it’s impossible not to cheer for.  That also makes the extremely predictable third act fall flat: the main thing this film has going for it is seeing Schumer as a charming go-getter, and when that's gone this comes crashing to earth. Still, this is pretty much feel-good film-making personified (the only real bad guy is Renee’s lack of confidence); it’s so firmly committed to doing the right thing that wishing it might have been sharper or funnier just seems mean. 

Anthony Morris

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Review: Truth or Dare

"Horror" is a label that covers a wide variety of movies. Some, like the current A Quiet Place, are all about expressing a scary concept as purely as possible; others, like Get Out, use horror as a way to crack open wider issues. And then there are the ones where dumb but sexy people get killed off one by one. That's Truth or Dare. It's not very good.

To be fair, parts of Truth or Dare aren't all that bad, even if the story isn't exactly promising. When a group of uni students led by Olivia (Lucy Hale), each with their own various personal quirks (one's a drunk, one's a med student selling drugs on the side, there's a love triangle, etc), go on spring break to Mexico, they end up in a creepy abandoned mission playing truth or dare with a stranger who then reveals they're now all cursed to play the game until they die. They go home, forget about it, and then they start to die.

The basic idea - that instead of possessing a person or place, a demon has possessed a game of Truth or Dare - isn't automatically a bad one, even if throwing in previously un-mentioned rule changes half way through isn't great and the "messed-up snapchat filter" face the demon gives people when speaking through them ranges from slightly creepy to downright laughable. The plus is the demon is attacking the bland teens on two fronts; either they do some stupid prank that'll probably get them killed, or they have to say something horrifically hurtful or dangerous. Unfortunately, their personal issues are largely out of The Bumper Book of Soap Opera Cliches; these are persons with no personality.

(shout out to Ronnie, the douchebag who appears out of nowhere to insert himself uninvited into the cool kids' Mexico spring break, does nothing but hit on every women on screen, and is the first to die. Guys like him are never the main focus, but they're always the most entertaining to watch)

These films are all about the set pieces and there are a handful of mildly effective ones here, including one that's more about causing emotional harm than throwing someone off a roof - in a rarity for modern teen horror, this actually has a (fairly chaste) sex scene between main characters that we get to see, though things don't go quite as the couple planned. But the straight-up kills are nothing special, while characters are too generic for the personal reveals to hit home; the various twists around a closeted character with a homophobic cop dad are presumably meant to be surprising and heartfelt, but just come off as the least possible effort to avoid the most obvious outcome.

A fast pace is this fizzle of a film's biggest asset. By the time it becomes clear that the initial promise of the premise isn't going to be lived up to - Ronnie's death isn't a classic, but it does suggest that the demon is going to serve up some memorable kills - we're (barely) invested enough in the characters' personal quirks to make the dull fatalities (barely) less than a deal-breaker. And by the time it's clear that the characters will always be two dimensional cut-outs, the end is in sight.

Just make sure you stay for the most hilariously rubbish green-screen "special effect" in recent cinema history - presumably the killer demon dared the film-makers to include it.

Anthony Morris

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Review: A Quiet Place

Less is usually more when it comes to horror. Nightmares don't require extensive backstories and lengthy explanations to scare the crap out of you. But turning a scary idea into a scary film is harder than it looks, and even when the idea seems sure-fire sustaining tension for an entire movie is something not even the best directors can pull off.

So while A Quiet Place isn't as fun or as memorable as many of the classic horror films of recent years, the one thing it is - and it's the one thing that makes it a must-see for horror fans - is relentlessly, brutally scary. There's no jokes, no snappy dialogue (there's almost no dialogue at all), the bare minimum of character development and what backstory there is you can get by just fine without. It's ruthless when it comes to cranking up tension; this is the rare film where the people around me (and yes, me too) were flinching at literally everything by the final half hour.

What if there were supremely lethal monsters everywhere and the only thing that attracted them to you was sound? It’s day 89 of this unpleasant situation, society has crumbled, almost everyone is dead and for the Abbott family a quiet trip into town for medicine has a dramatic ending when their youngest takes a shine to a battery-powered toy spaceship.
Cut to a year and a half later and life on the Abbott’s farm remains on a knife-edge: Lee (John Krasinski, who also directs) is working on building a working hearing aid for deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds, who's deaf in real life), who blames herself for what happened to her youngest brother. That makes her other brother Marcus (Noah Jupe) sad, while their mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt) is very pregnant. But mostly they remain very, very quiet (and talk with sign language), which means that any loud noise is jarring to hear (for the audience) and potentially fatal (for the family). 
Often films like this run through their ideas and fizzle out before the end. A Quiet Place doesn't have a whole lot of ideas - and some are never really explored; surely someone who was deaf would be more at risk of accidentally making a loud noise? - but Krasinski does an excellent job of wringing every possible drop of tension from them. Floorboards are noisy; giving birth is noisy; impaling your foot on a nail is noisy. Once that's been established, it's just a matter of making us squirm while we wait for the inevitable.

Much of what makes this drawn-out drama suspenseful rather than frustrating is the way it doesn't cheat. Making a sound is a fatal mistake, but it's one that's very easy to make. Walking around barefoot might not be the best idea, but in a world where sound equals death it's a reasonable choice to make; likewise when you've lost one young child deciding to have another is understandable even if babies aren't exactly known for their stealthy qualities.

But this wouldn't be half as effective without the performances. Krasinski honed his silent acting on nine seasons of The Office, and he puts those face-pulling skills to good use here as a man struggling to hold it together. Blunt is even better, but they're both outshone by Simmonds, who becomes the emotional core of the film without speaking a word. Her performance cranks up the tension even further; when someone this good is on screen, everyone else is expendable.

Anthony Morris