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Monday, 24 December 2007

I'm Not There


You can read my review of this strange, baffling tribute to Bob Dylan over at Eureka Street magazine online. - Rochelle Siemienowicz

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Atonement

Like it or not, certain kinds of films get a free pass when it comes to class and Atonement ticks all the right boxes. First, it's based on a novel by Ian McEwan (Endless Love) so it's got literary cred on its side, not to mention a story that's actually about something more than glamorous people talking loud and saying nothing. Second, it's (in part) a love story set against the backdrop of the Second World War - think a less morally dubious version of the extremely classy The English Patient. And third, the characters are all either English gentry or their grimy yet studly servants, and decades of ABC miniseries have trained us to see snooty types in dinner jackets in the 1930's as class all the way. Usually all this class would be hiding a whole lot of not much at its core (again, think The English Patient), but thankfully all this effort hasn't been wasted on a featherweight story.

It's the 1930s, and Briony(Saoirse Ronan) is a precocious child busy writing plays and stories in her family's huge mansion in the English countryside while her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightly) is slowly circling Robbie (JamesMcAvoy), the made good son of a former servant. Briony thinks she's worldly and wise, but when she jumps to conclusions about her sister's relationship -and then uses those conclusions to tear their lives apart - she soon realises that she's nothing more than a painful meddler. Her efforts to right her wrong make up the second half of the film, and while they initially seem to be setting this film up to be little more than a very well crafted and highly entertaining tale of love lost and (perhaps) found again, it's the revelations towards the end regarding exactly how far Briony is willing to go to engineer a "happily everafter" that lift this from a engaging but lightweight romance to something really special. You might even call it classy.

Anthony Morris

Thursday, 20 December 2007

No Country for Old Men


Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian, The Road) isn't the cheeriest of writers at the best of times, while in recent years indie film stalwarts the Coen Brothers have drifted into making lightweight, disposable, and worst of all, forgettable films (remember The Ladykillers? Didn't think so). The Coens once had form when it came to offbeat crime (Blood Simple, Fargo), but the success of their adaptation of McCarthy's relatively lightweight yet still dark andbrooding No Country for Old Men was far from the sure thing it once would have been. Turns out those fears were groundless: not only is this a triumphant return to form for the Coens, it actually marks something of a departure for them in terms of crime drama as they (mostly) reign in their quirky humour to stay true toMcCarthy's bleak lament for a barren place that exists as much in men's hearts as it does the physical world.

It's 1980, and when trailer park resident Llwewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad, complete with a ute full of drugs and a satchel full of cash, he decides to take the money and run. That puts him in the sights of the extremely deadly Chigurh (Javier Bardem in a nightmare-inducing performance), while local sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to put the pieces together.

The film's lean, stripped-back style comes largely from the novel - there are long silent sequences here that simply involve people going about their work, which sometimes results in murder - but its the kind of thing the Coens did brilliantly in their earlier films and they clearly haven't lost the knack. The three lead performances are all amazing: Brolin is perfect as a decent man not sure how over his head he is, Bardem seems like he should be a jokevillain but turns out to be the scariest thing on screen this year, and Jones (who doesn't appear onscreen until half an hour in, but turns out to be the film's central character) continues his recent run of quality work as a worn down man unsure of the worth of his work. There's plenty of sly humour and dry wit on offer, but where the Coen's earlier work would squeeze a note of redemption into the grimmest of events (think of the end of Fargo), this winds up in a way that's both quietly real and totally devastating. This is one of the year's best films.

Anthony Morris

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

September


The year is 1968, and on a farm out in the West Australian wheat belt two teenage boys are good friends: Ed (Xavier Samuel) is the white son of the farm's owner, and the aboriginal Paddy (Clarence John Ryan) works for Ed's father alonside his own dad in return for food and board on the property. And for a long time that's pretty much all there is to this film, as writer / director Peter Carstairs is content to let images speak louder than words as scene after slow-paced scene involves little more than the two teenagers hanging out together around the farm. Then the government, in a well-meaning act of compensation, makes it mandatory for Aboriginal workers to be paid the same as everyone else and things start to fall apart between both the teenagers and their fathers. If you're looking for a high-energy, hard-hitting parable about race-relations in this country, keep walking. This film is content to be its own thing, and while the story might have wider implications that's for you to find. Closer to a tone poem than anything else, this is well-acted and often beautifully shot with long moments of near-wordless visual power. But for those who like things to happen in their viewing, the leisurely pace might start to get to you after a while.

Anthony Morris

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Hitman

There's no real reason why movies based on video games have to have bland and generic stories - they just do. It's tempting to suggest that it has something to do with the nature of the games themselves: if games only need simple, straight-forward storylines to hang their action on, then that's why their movie versions are so simplistic. But then surely the writers and directors could fill in the space left by the games' simple story with unique and interesting material? Whatever the reason, Hitman is a perfectly serviceable action thriller that ends up a boring chore to watch thanks to the determination of the behind-the-camera crew to make a movie containing no original material whatsoever. 47 (Timothy Olyphant, who does his best with almost nothing to work with) has been trained since childhood to be the world's deadliest assassin, but when he's betrayed by his employers over a botched (or is it?) attempt to kill the Russian president, he has to kill a whole bunch of people so... well, so he can then kill a whole bunch more people. With a plot stitched together Frankenstein's monster-style from a dozen better movies it can't really fail, but eventually the complete lack of originality starts to sink in and once your attention wanders you start to ask inconvenient questions. Like why does a supposedly untraceable hitman have a shaved head with a barcode tattooed across the back of it when it makes him instantly recognisable? And why does a super-secret organisation of killers stamp their logo on all their tools of the trade? If you've never seen an action movie before in your life, then you'll enjoy this; otherwise, go watch The Professional again.


Anthony Morris

Monday, 10 December 2007

Rescue Dawn


In the mid-90's acclaimed film-maker Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Fitzcarraldo) made Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a documentary telling the story of German-born US navy pilot Dieter Dengler and how he escaped from the Viet Cong after being shot down over Laos in the early days of the Vietnam War. Unusually, that version wasn't enough for Herzog, and in Rescue Dawn he tells Deiter's story once again, this time in an often powerful yet never fully satisfying recreation. The problem isn't with the casting: Christian Bale plays Deiter and gives a gritty, intensely physical performance in a role that for the most part requires him to be caged like an animal or trekking through thick jungle. The support cast is equally strong, especially Steve Zahn as a fellow American and escapee who's spirit has been all but crushed by captivity. And the story itself ticks all the right boxes, especially in the long months in the POW camp as Dieter slowly scrapes together the pieces that will first give the prisoners their dignity back, and then give them the means to break free. But in the jungle sequences, where the film really should have its strongest emotional impact, things don't feel quite right. There's no denying that these scenes are well handled, and the aimless and increasingly desperate nature of the escapee's wanderings in a land where both nature and the population are out to finish them off is convincing. Still, Herzog feels like he's either holding back (Rescue Dawn is a rare effort on his part to work within the traditional movie industry) or lost his way: for a director who's made his career with fiercely powerful and unflinching looks at the relationship between man and nature, too often this feels like standard (but well-made) Hollywood fare. It's a good film rather than a great one.

Anthony Morris

Gabriel


Reviewers often get the stink eye from the general public for their supposed blind support for the local film industry. And rightly so: a reviewer's job isn't to give a film marks for trying hard, or making do with no money, or keeping local technicians in work. You the viewer don't care about that stuff... which is a problem because that's pretty much all Gabriel has going for it. It's not a complete stinker, mind you: this story of gun-toting demons and angels warring over an urban Purgatory has a moderately effective and heavily stylised look to its visuals, the performances are mostly competent in a super-serious Matrix bit-player way, and the story itself features a couple of well-handled twists, which is a lot more than the usual Hollywood fare. But they can't make up for the fact that the action isn't that exciting, the characters aren't anything new, the story is wall-to-wall cliches, and the whole thing has the unmistakable and leaden feel of a series of video game cut scenes strung together. The movie-makers clearly have the technical ability to put together a decent film, but when you're telling a story as tired and humourless as this one "decent" doesn't cut it.

Anthony Morris

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Beowulf


Computer-generated imagery has come a long way very quickly, but it still can't quite get the human face right. So in a strange way Beowulf's script (by fantasy author Neil Gaiman and one-time Tarantino collaborator Roger Avery) is too good for the current technology: sometimes subtle in mood and often relying on facial expressions to get across things the characters left unsaid (in short, acting), more than once it outstrips the ability of CGI animators to bring their human characters to life. But that said, the only way film progresses as a medium in through films like this, where the reach of all involved exceeds - sometimes - their grasp. Based on the Dark Ages epic poem, Beowulf is the story of, er, Beowulf (the voice of Ray Winstone), who arrives in a land under siege from the monster Grendel and promises the king (Anthony Hopkins) to rid the land of this blight. But while brute force and a bit of naked wrestling might be enough to tackle Grendel, his demon mother (Angelina Jolie) is another matter entirely. Unusually for this genre, which usually just powers blindly on to an all-action climax, this film's third act could almost be a separate film, as the much older and world-weary Beowulf is forced to face the mistakes of his past and try to put things right once and for all. Fortunately for action fans, this involves fighting a dragon, and it's the combination of narrative force and physical action that sets this above the average fantasy film. The animation works best when there's monsters around, but even in the human-only sequences (and there are plenty of them, with the of Beowulf, the King, and the King's wife - voiced by Robin Wright Penn - becoming quite the twisted love triangle) it's only the occasional stiff or stilted moment in the performances that jars. If Beowulf is the future of film, it's mostly because it's sticks close to that oldest of values: solid storytelling.


Anthony Morris

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Boxing Day


Chris (Richard Green) is tough. You can see from the tattoos he wears all over his bare chest and muscled arms that he's hard man. And yet, as this film opens, he's cleaning the house and setting the table like an uneasy housewife. He's on parole you see, and he's trying to prepare Christmas lunch for his estranged family – his brother’s ex-wife Donna (Tammy Anderson), and her teenage daughter Brooke (Misty Sparrow) who calls him ‘Dad’. It's a strange damaged little family, and of course the afternoon will not run smoothly.

For one thing, there is the ‘mate’ who turns up on the doorstep trying to involve Chris in a drug deal. And for another, there’s the abundant Christmas alcohol singing a siren song in the fridge. The tension here is almost unbearable as temptation after temptation presents itself to this man who’s trying so desperately for redemption.

Director Kriv Stenders (The Illustrated Family Doctor, Blacktown) has made one of the best Australian films of the year with this ultra-realist low-budget drama. The script, written – or more accurately ‘improvised’ by Stenders and Green, is totally convincing with its authentic Western suburbs rhythms and cadences. The incidental Aboriginality of the central character is perfectly integrated and never forced or contrived. Even the digital camera-work, so rough and unbeautiful, manages to work with the subject matter – though one does hope for a steadier steady-cam and a bit of glare-management in Stenders’ next film. Nevertheless, Boxing Day sets the bar high for Australian filmmakers, showing what can be done with a digital camera a decent script and a handful of talented performers.


Rochelle Siemienowicz

Interview


After controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim fundamentalist in 2004, his producers decided to continue with van Gogh’s plans for English-language versions of three of his films. Interview is the first of the remakes to be released as part of this project, but those lured by its controversial origins might come away wondering what the fuss was all about

Co-written and directed by Steve Buscemi (who also stars) this tale of a clash between political reporter Pierre Peders (Buscemi) forced to interview not-so-vapid starlet Katya (Sienna Miller) has the wordy nature of a stage play. For most of its length the two character circle one another warily, searching for a way to get under the other’s skin. There’s some nice moments here, and Miller’s performance is a decent one (even if, as a Hollywood starlet, she’s basically playing herself), but even at barely eighty minutes there are moments when the energy flags.

This film’s real saving grace is Buscemi himself. Miller might be conventionally beautiful, but he’s the one you can’t take your eyes off. Pierre is an arrogant, manipulative creep; Buscemi makes him compelling.

Anthony Morris