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Sunday, 24 May 2009

Samson and Delilah


There are movies we go to see because they look like a good time, and there are movies... no, actually people only go to the movies if they look like a good time. Mind you, that good time can be educational, or the good time that comes from putting yourself through an ordeal that you hope will broaden your view on the world. But usually people go to movies hoping to enjoy themselves, which is where the excellently made Australian film Samson and Delilah might find itself in a bit of trouble. To state the obvious up front: this is a first-rate piece of story-telling, and a clear front-runner for Australian film of the year. Basically a silent film for large stretches, it tells the story of two teenage Aborigines living in a small isolated community near Alice Springs . Samson (Rowan McNamara) lives in a concrete shack, sniffs petrol, and spends his days mucking around. Delilah (Marissa Gibson) is a more serious soul who passes her days helping her elderly grandmother with her dot paintings. Samson clearly likes Delilah, she tolerates him, and when a series of events sees them travel together to Alice Springs the pair are forced to get by in a world that has nothing for them.

Written and directed by Warwick Thornton, his first feature-length film draws you into a world many of us know nothing about, and in the early scenes there are moments of comedy and warmth that bring the leads (who both give compelling and completely believable performances) to well-rounded life. But this isn't just a character study, and once the duo relocate to Alice Springs it all comes crushing down in a series of extremely bleak scenes that turn this into the kind of blunt message film that most of us saw enough of at school. There's no denying that Thornton 's point is an important one, or that the events he shows are all-too-real. But when a film hammers away at the same note for as long as this one does, it's hard not to imagine some viewers choosing to disengage. Samson and Delilah contains some excellent film-making and an extremely powerful point. Unfortunately, the two don't always combine as well as they should.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #453)

Ghost of Girlfriends Past


It sounds like the most painful idea for a movie ever: a slick womaniser (Matthew McConaughey) is visited Christmas Carol-style by the titular Ghosts (Past, Present, and Future) and ends up seeing the error of his sleazy ways. But in our very own Christmas Miracle - in May, no less - the end result turns out to be a lot more fun than anyone had any right to expect. And why? Through the simple application of one of the most basic rules of story-telling: if your story is about a bad guy who turns good, first off he has to actually be a bad guy. So for roughly the first half of the film we get to enjoy seeing the always charming (but rarely put to good use) McConaughey as the most sleazy man alive, riffing out pick-up lines that make no sense but thanks to his charm get the job done on-screen and seem all-too believable in real life. Meanwhile, the movie's plot moves forward briskly as he heads off to the mansion of his now-dead but still ghostly Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas, having a lot of fun as a old-style womaniser) for his brother's wedding, only to find his former true love (Jennifer Garner) there as the Maid of Honour. The ghostly goings on are Uncle Wayne's way to turning his nephew from his womanising course and into his true love's arms, which again sounds sappy but actually works thanks to just-enough self-awareness to prevent this from taking itself too seriously right up until the end, when full-on declarations of love are exactly what the story (and the audience) demand. Sure, it's a chick flick - and worse, one where the guy actually changes for a girl - but it's fun and funny, and a lot more entertaining than a concept this lame has any right to be.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #453)

Star Trek


Writer / director J.J. Abrams (Mission Impossible 3, TV series Lost and Alias) is very good at what he does. But it's only now with Star Trek that's he's been given a project where what he does has matched what's required. He's brilliant with characters - so long as things are kept light, funny, and (sometimes) sexy. He can put together thrilling action - so long as we're not meant to think anyone's in real danger. And he can pace a film so you barely have time to catch your breath - which is only a good thing when the story and the characters don't require any kind of in-depth analysis. In his previous projects, these strengths have often verged on weakness: here's they're exactly what this reboot of the Star Trek franchise needed, and the result is one of the most fun and exciting Hollywood blockbusters of the decade. The story is surprisingly easy to follow, especially considering it involves time travel and two versions of one character walking around at the same time: when the evil Nero (Eric Bana) appears from the future in a giant spaceship and starts trashing the galaxy, it's up to cocky space cadet James T Kirk (Chris Pine) and the emotionless half-Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto) to figure out how to get along for long enough to save the galaxy from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. All your favourite characters from the original Star Trek are here, and they all get just enough on-screen time to be both funny (Karl Urban as Dr 'Bones' McCoy is a kak) and competent, while the interplay between Kirk and Spock is the heart of the film and both actors play it to perfection. With a very large cast of characters (Spock's parents also get a look-in) and a lot of action to cram it something had to give and sadly it's Bana's role, which ends up being more of a plot device than a classic Trek villain. But that's the only flaw here and it's a very minor one: if there's a better blockbuster of any kind of this year then 2009 will be an amazingly good year for movies.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #452)

Synecdoche, New York




Writer (and now director) Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) likes creating worlds within worlds – which is part of his film's appeal for those who like to think their way through a movie, as every time we sit down to watch any movie at all we're already entering another world. But with his first directorial project, he takes this conceit more literally than ever: Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theatre director in the non-New York City town of Schenectady who scores a "genius grant" that provides him with a large chunk of change he can do whatever he likes with. It turns out that what he likes to do with it is recreate New York City in miniature inside a New York City warehouse, while his cast also replicate the goings on of the wider world – and of Caden himself. Which all sounds interesting enough, apart from an awful lot of fairly grim scenes about Caden's bad marriage (Catherine Keener, once again cast as a sour grump, plays his first, real-world wife; Michelle Williams plays his wife in the play) and failing health, but after a while it becomes clear that this massive, ever expanding replication of the world outside is nothing more than a massive symbol of the world outside. The reason why symbols work is because they reduce something down to an essence; when a symbol grows to be the thing itself, there's not a lot of point to it anymore. Luckily there's a different point buried in there somewhere about the fragility of life itself, and for some viewers that'll be enough. For others, who might prefer a film that actually gets around to being about something after two hours, there's still a few funny lines and some decent performances to cast a flicker of light in the gloomy cavern in which Caden (and Kaufman) work.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #452)

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Prey


It wouldn’t be fair to call Prey the worst Australian film of the year. Not because the year isn’t even half over – honestly, there is zero chance of a worse film coming along – but because despite its’ many, many, many, many flaws, it gets one thing right: it’s not boring. Sure, part of the reason why it’s not boring is because when you lose interest in the rubbish dialogue, appalling acting, and nonsensical plot you can always keep an eye out for some of the amazingly obvious bloopers scattered throughout this cheaply made car crash, but that takes nothing away from the fact that this roughly 75 minute long film (not counting the classic 80s horror movie trailers that were shown at the screening I attended) has just enough going on to keep you watching until the laughable final twist. So what’s it about? Buggered if I know, and I just watched it: various behind-the-scenes dramas – including the removal of the director – mean that this film most likely would have made very little sense even before the producers were forced to remove all culturally insensitive references to an Aboriginal curse. So we’re left with roughly half a story: a bunch of mildly attractive non-actors decide to drive out into the bush, only to get lost after buying a road map from Nicolas Bell (Bad Eggs, Newstopia, The Games – none of which were as funny on purpose as this is by accident) and ending up near some mystical sandpit on a soundstage where giant snakes turn people into flaming zombies or something. People promptly die, but not in an overly gory way despite someone being crushed under a car, someone else’s head exploding after being bitten by a zillion snakes and someone wandering off in a sandstorm and later being found with his back missing. Then someone gets their pointy new age crystal shoved through their chest and the survivors start chainsawing up the corpses to stop them coming back as zombies. Oh, and they drive around for a while but can’t seem to escape the soundstage, which only becomes a problem when they decide to leave one of their three cars behind – not having enough living bodies to fill three cars anymore – only for us to then be shown footage of the same three cars driving around trying to get out. Whoops. Fortunately there’s the dodgiest lesbian hand massage / seduction scene ever put on bad digital video to keep the laughs coming, not to mention a pointless (read: clothes-on) shower scene that takes place after four people have died in the exact same location as the shower - which, if nothing else, shows an admirable commitment to good hygiene. The ending makes no sense at all and presumably was filmed without a script, as it involves a previously evil-seeming ghost turning up to provide useful advice and save the day… or maybe it was bad advice and everyone goes to Hell, it’s honestly impossible to tell at this stage as clearly even the supernatural forces just want this film to end. It seems to have become a rule that if you want to make money in Australian film you make a horror movie, because no matter how rubbish it is you can always find some chumps who’ll pay to go see it. Prey puts that theory to a test more rigorous and extensive than anyone could have previously suspected possible. But hey, so long as there’s badly re-dubbed swear-free dialogue to look out for, you’ll never be bored.

Anthony Morris