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Category Archives: American Film

The Greatest Showman

Rarely does a film come along that I can praise without reservation or qualification, but this is one. So much so that it’s barely worth writing about.

What do you say about a film that hits the mark on character, balances it with plot and inspires us to be our best selves?

Nothing. Just watch the damn film. Annually at the very least. Forever.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 3 January 2018 in American Film, Film, Twentieth Century Fox

 

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Burnt

This post contains minor spoilers. Not enough to ruin the film, but more than I would usually give, so proceed at your own risk!

burntBurnt is one of those great little films that really gets around your prediction instinct. The plot, in a way, is really quite predictable, but it disguises itself exceptionally well.

Essentially, the film is based on the formula for an action film. It utilises the late twentieth century chronotope of the gruff and superficially unpersonable hero, but casts him as a chef with a questionable history of drug use and alcoholism, determined to prove his value, in this instance, by attaining a third Michelin Star.

Bradley Cooper, of course is the perfect man for the job. Cooper embodies the masculine stereotype, but both his manner and his filmography allow him the leeway to delve into more unexpected waters, particularly as a sensitive and relatively accepting human being.

He is supported in this endeavour by much more nuanced casting. As a heroine, Helene (Sienna Miller) makes a shrewish entrance and, though following a similar trajectory to Shakespeare’s Kate, develops in a much more textured manner to matching Cooper’s Adam. Daniel Bruhl completes a love triangle, with his character Tony engaging with Adam’s obnoxious quest out of an unrequited love. His depiction of this character is exciting in being so understated. Neither his appearance, nor his portrayal of Tony rely on gay stereotypes, and it is refreshing to see such a subtle portrayal of a queer character, especially when the character’s orientation is a key element of the plot.

Burnt may not be a brilliant film, it may not boast spectacular dialogue or a unique plot arc, but it does surprise with some beautifully drawn characters and the perfect ending.

 
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Posted by on Monday, 9 November 2015 in American Film, Film, Weinstein Company

 

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Paper Towns

Paper TownsThis year, two films with names starting with the word paper have impressed me. I’m not sure what to make of that. I’m not even sure what I should make of the fact that two films with names starting with the word paper have been released this year. Nonetheless, it seems to be a good formula, because both of them are bloody brilliant.

Paper Towns is an American Indie film, and if there’s any negative generalisation you can make about American films, American Indie films are the exception that proves the rule. American films sacrifice plot intrigue for dramatic licence. American Indie films don’t. American films have superficial characters that barely even remind you of humanity. American Indie films don’t. American films make a lot of money at the box office. American Indie films don’t. Okay, that last one wasn’t negative, but you get my drift. Want to understand the American psyche? Spend some time with their Indie offerings and you’ll encounter the sweet, sour, ugly, beautiful soul of America.

Paper Towns delivers a deeply engaging plot centred on the protagonist’s crush on his neighbour, a girl who develops a habit of disappearing. It’s a kind of coming of age story, kind of a road movie, kind of romantic comedy, but, as with all good Indie films, it defies categorisation.  Its characters really get under your skin. They’re characters you can really care about, drawn with such a fine verisimilitude that you don’t even notice the archetypes being presented. Antagonists, too, are never left to wallow in the audience’s antipathy, but they come to life as fully developed characters worth as much respect as protagonists, if not as much love. Stories like this are rare.

This is genuine storytelling. I have seen a lot lately that doesn’t quite engage me as I wish it would, but this just held me enthralled from beginning to end.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 15 July 2015 in American Film

 

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Big Hero 6

big hero 6In the opening moments of this film, I loved its playfulness and cross-cultural references like the name of its location in San Fransokyo and the Asian touches on the Golden Gate Bridge. The animation grabbed me immediately, and it was easy to engage with the characters. Of course, you’d expect that from these guys. Disney are masters of the dramatic arts and know how to play them to commercial advantage, and they’ve built an empire on engaging audiences across ages and cultures.

The film concerns Hiro, a young robot enthusiast who develops a brilliant new concept for robotics in order to gain a scholarship for his brother’s university. He succeeds, but the death of his brother and the theft of his concept present a need to turn from Hiro to hero before he takes up his place in academia.

The cross-cultural elements are particularly interesting, and on the surface at least, reinforce the values of multiculturalism. But I just felt uneasy as I started to notice cultural stereotypes creeping in. Despite a broad brush being applied in the races of the animated characters, it can be observed with some objectivity that all the notable Asian characters were nerds, all the characters with political, financial or academic power were Anglo-Celtic, and the muscles belonged to the African American. Not racist by any means, and the way in which these characters contributed to the functioning of the symbolically-hybridised San Fransokyo is a respectable image, but really, Disney? Is it necessary to reinforce these stereotypes? Could you not just shake it up a little bit? For the kids? Maybe?

To their credit, there are some strong, understated female role models here. The gender balance is better than the race balance, and the catchphrase “woman up” is one I hope will resonate with my daughters. The film is also very strong in character development. Though one of the characters dies early in the film, his presence remains palpable throughout, thanks to the treatment of the central character, whose grief is brilliantly established and expressed.

This really is an excellent film. It has a unique and engaging story, well-developed characters and beautiful animation. But I just feel that little bit uncomfortable with the way it reinforces stereotypes, so I have some hesitation in praising it too highly.

 

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Fury

furyWorld War Two movies really should be sold by the dozen. I mean how many times can we just keep rehashing this? With the 70th anniversary of the end of the war less than a year away, principally between Hollywood and Europe, it seems, from a cursory search of IMDB, that the rate of production regularly exceeds 40 feature films per year, with no sign of abatement. And despite the severity of the Asia-Pacific Theatre, we are predominantly focused on Europe.

So I didn’t really go to see this film because I thought it would be something remarkable or special or even noteworthy. There’s a new WWII movie for just about every week of the year. I just felt like going to the cinema, and this one was on at the right time.

And really, that’s about how this one should be valued. It’s not a bad film by any means. It has a strong plot, interesting characters, great explosions, confronting gore and just the right amount of novelty (I’ve never seen a tank battle portrayed quite like this before). It has some profound  little lines like “Ideals are peaceful, history is violent”, which are included subtly enough for my taste, and in some way justify the bordering-on-extreme degree of violence depicted here.

And that’s really all there is to it. There is no attempt to glean any new insight into humanity from the species’ darkest days. No spark of genius or flash of brilliance. There’s some valour, perhaps, but really, when we’re churning out so many films on this theme, there is absolutely nothing remarkable about this film.

So I don’t know why I’ve made any remarks at all…

Except to comment that maybe, just maybe, it would be good to start issuing licences for people who want to make films about WWII, or some kind of system that gives us an indication of whether this is just regurgitation or whether there’s something new to be said. I certainly think that there is more to be learned from this period in human history, and I’m very keen to see Angelina Jolie’s upcoming foray, but still… filmmakers, please; can we just explore the humanity of war a little more?

 
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Posted by on Monday, 1 December 2014 in American Film, Columbia Pictures, Film

 

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Gone Girl

gone girlEvery now and then a movie comes along that just hits all the right notes. For me, when this happens it is usually a film that defies categorisation. Gone Girl is such a film.

Engaging, endearing and focused turns to confronting and unnerving as this two hour adventure unravels. Just as you feel you’re approaching a defined denouement, the film takes a wild turn and plunges you back into uncertainty. It is very cleverly crafted to ensure that you know just enough to want to know more, but not enough to sit comfortably.

The film clearly presented its marketers with lots of challenges. It defies categorisation into a genre. It has multiple climaxes. It can’t be said to be “Film X meets Film Y”. And it twists like a cut snake. The resulting marketing guff that claims this story gets at the heart of a modern marriage, then, is hardly surprising. Of course it does nothing of the sort, but it does present one of the most intense and surprising films I’ve ever seen, regardless.

Ben Affleck is at his most intense, striking an excellent balance of pathos and not-really-giving-a-shit. His prevailing presence in the first substantial trajectory of the plot overshadows Rosamund Pike, who, when she gets a chance to shine, genuinely takes over as the lead character; the gone girl. Her performances truly hinge on what the audience doesn’t know, and the mystery in her character becomes the focal point as the film approaches its unnerving end.

Yes. If you like a nice and tidy conclusion to the plot, give this one a wide berth. But for a couple of hours on a roller coaster, you can’t go far wrong.

 
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Posted by on Tuesday, 21 October 2014 in American Film, Film

 

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Boyhood

BoyhoodI feel very generous. I’ve just donated three hours of my life to one of the most vain films I’ve ever encountered.

It sounds good in theory: make a film about adolescence and use the same actor throughout, but film it over twelve years so that the physical changes are naturalistic. In reality, it just doesn’t cut it. And not just because it’s too long.

When Richard Linklater appeared on the screen at the beginning and said hello to the cinema chain we had just entered and told us the name of the film we had just bought tickets for, I thought it was just a little marketing stunt. It wasn’t until halfway through I realised that this film is not a story but an exercise for its creator.

The problem is there’s no point to the film. It’s a fiction, but it’s so confused about what it’s about that it’s not really about anything. There are a series of events, some fortunate and some less so. The adolescent journey is depicted naturalistically from the boy’s transition from childhood into adolescence to his transition from adolescence into adulthood, but there is little to tie this story together as a coherent story. It just goes from one episode to another, often skipping over major events in the plot.

Judging by the title, the film should be about the boy. For the most part it follows the awareness of the boy, but occasionally it diverts from that rule. It spends more energy, I think, on his parents, and the theme of parenting, but then it loses this plot thread by the end because it goes back to the boy from the title.

The thing is, as much as I was bored most of the time I spent watching, the characters are still engaging. I’d prefer it if I could just dismiss it as a boring film, but it’s not boring; I wanted to know what happens, because the characters, particularly Ethan Hawke as the father and Patricia Arquette as the mother, are absolutely fascinating. The boy, played by Ellar Coltrane, was likewise completely enthralling.

It’s just that nothing much happens, and it takes three hours for this nothing much to happen to these fantastic characters.

I think this one got bitten by the novelty bug, and instead of a story it became a mere exercise in film making.

 
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Posted by on Sunday, 20 July 2014 in American Film, Film, IFC Productions

 

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12 Years a Slave

12 years a slave12 Years a Slave is one of the more interesting examples of films to take slavery as its theme in the last couple of decades. There is a preponderance of films about the American Civil War, but the era that went before it and the circumstances leading to the war are not so well documented.

12 Years a Slave certainly redresses this. As the story of a free black man from New York set in the antebellum of the American Civil War who is enslaved in the south for twelve years (ta-da!), it clearly demonstrates a cause for the United States to grapple with the question of slavery in the 1860s, and in so doing fills a void in the dramatic canon on the subject.

The film is beautifully shot, and though it oversentimentalises in the way most American films do, and occasionally glosses over the plot in favour of a clever turn of phrase, I can almost excuse these ills given the nature of the subject matter and the skill of the screenwright and director.

The performances of the many well-known white actors in this film are likewise worthy of praise. Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and Paul Giamatti in particular provide a splendid bed for Chiwetel Ejiofor’s chilling performance as Solomon Northrup, and the equally empathic Patsey played by Lupita Nyong’o.

But what I am most fascinated by is the persistence of the recent obsession of Hollywood with slavery. The theme is certainly relevant, with slavery continuing in many parts of the world today, and slavery bears some comparison with other social justice issues, but that doesn’t seem to be the motivation and I don’t quite know what to make of it.

What seems most interesting about this modern slew of films about the American slave trade is that it stands alone, seemingly as a purely historical fascination, these films being almost entirely backward-looking. No allegories seem to be being made to more modern struggles like feminism or marriage equality, though they’d be easy references to make. The filmmakers seem to be ignoring the more recent practice of slavery, which continued well into the twentieth century even where it was ostensibly banned (for instance, Queensland and the British outposts in southern Africa), and more oddly in those places where slavery has continued into the twenty-first century.

These films don’t seem to be making much of a stand against modern slavery or against any modern societal ill in the way that stories such as The Crucible clearly denounced the persecution of Communists in the 1950s. They seem to sit merely as a historical account, and although they reinforce the anti-slavery position of the United Nations, they seem to be have little point beyond this, so I am surprised at the continuation of the theme.

Regardless of the reasons for these films, their quality is stunning. I just hope they find a purpose if they’re going to keep making them.

 

 
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Posted by on Saturday, 15 February 2014 in American Film, Film, Regency Enterprises

 

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The Place Beyond the Pines

SPOILER WARNING: my apologies, but what I want to say about this film requires a spoiler, so if you’re going to see it, do so before reading, though I really wouldn’t bother.

place beyond the pinesI’m not quite sure what to make of The Place Beyond the Pines. It’s not a bad film, really, but I did come to the end and wonder what it was I’d just watched, and why. I don’t insist that every story needs to have a point, a story can certainly be just a story, but I can’t help thinking that all the writer really wanted was that elusive excuse to kill a protagonist immediately after the exposition (the psychosis of writers’ innate desire to kill protagonists, though, is a subject for another post).

Said protagonist is, in this instance, Luke Glanton, a circus stunt motorbike rider played rather passively by Ryan Gosling, who discovers that the woman he had a fling with on his previous visit to an upstate New York backwater has given birth to his son. Quitting his job, he turns to robbing banks, which ultimately leads to his demise, and the rather flaccid cop who shoots him in the line of duty becomes the new protagonist. I couldn’t help but chuckle aloud when an inter title announced we were moving forward fifteen years and a pair of protagonists (the sons of the first two) emerged as a duo.

I’m not sure what I think, partly because this film does well what I think all stories need. It is driven by its plot, which is a tick, though the convolutions in that plot are are not really justified by what they return to the viewer who carefully follows them. It boasts some well developed and nicely performed characters, which is a tick, though none of the characters are very likeable, nor do they elicit enough empathy for me to care what becomes of them. The cinematography is beautiful and moody, which is a tick, but these lovely images don’t quite pull the disparate elements of the plot and characters together the way they should. And it has a subtle soundtrack that supports the mood, but doesn’t really take it anywhere new (not really a tick at all).

Really, this is a trilogy of short films with a contiguous plot. They might not be separable, as they share a single exposition, but they are three very distinct stories. I can’t be too harsh on the film because all three are interesting, but I’m not sure that they’re quite interesting enough for two and a half hours of slow-moving American angst.

And so what I’m left with is a film that I think I like, but I’m not quite ready to give it a tick. I guess what I fear most, though, is that I may write a little like this. My characters can be held aloof from their viewers and my plots aren’t always worthy of the effort required to follow them. I hope, therefore, that a decent number of people like The Place Beyond the Pines more than I do.

 

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Lincoln

lincolnI was really looking forward to seeing Lincoln. His figure looms large over American history, and the particular juncture at which he held office in American history makes his story ever more relevant to a broad international audience. So when I found it so disappointing, I decided to wait a while and process it more before posting on it. And it’s been a worthwhile exercise, even if only for the study of historical narratives.

What this film suffers from the most is trying to tell the whole story of Abraham Lincoln’s final, event-filled years. It’s a common mistake for makers of historical films; to attempt to cram into a film of a couple of hours the full breadth and depth of several eventful years. The first two scenes illustrate the problem with this film perfectly. We begin with Lincoln being treated as a major celebrity by loyal soldiers, who for some inexplicable reason quote one of the president’s speeches back at him. Granted it’s a great speech, but I’m not convinced he’d forgotten it and needed the reminder, nor am I enamoured of the pathetic doe-eyed image of the American soldier so besotted with the president as to do such a thing. This scene is followed by the one thing screenwright Tony Kushner made a perfect call on; to use Mrs Lincoln to humanise and ground the celebrity. Had the story been mostly told through her eyes or in her presence, it would have made a much stronger impact, it would have held together more consistently as a narrative. Mrs Lincoln plays a significant role as the story progresses, but this role is too small for the attempt to narrate and humanise what is otherwise a docudrama mainly suitable for a midday slot on television. And of course, it isn’t helped by the longish written history lesson viewers are subjected to before the first scene even begins!

Whatever the creators have failed at, they have at least put to rest the myth of Honest Abe. Instead, Lincoln is depicted as the consummate politician, manipulative and conniving enough to achieve his goal, demonstrating both his leadership and his conviction. The mythical hero of history is in this film depicted as we know modern politicians; distrusting of democracy and determined to do good in spite of democracy’s aversion to good. It is a demonstration of the futility of democracy to see Lincoln connive and subvert the democratic process, only to turn the accusation of these ‘evils’ against Jefferson Davis.

This paradox, though, leaves me a little confused. I am not sure if the creators intended to depict Lincoln as a hypocrite, because he is otherwise shown as the consummate hero. I’m no fan of Westminster democracies, nor of the American congressional system. Both are subject to extreme subversion (in fact without subversion they’re entirely dysfunctional), and I like the way this film depicts that. But I am not convinced this was the intention of the screenwright. Too often the system is praised. Too often these characters have me convinced that they believe in their democratic processes. At the end of the film, I remain unsure as to what is being communicated.

This is a valiant attempt to tell an epic story, but it is unfortunately clouded by too many spectres of issues: democracy’s flaws; racial equality; gender equality and power all get a run, but none of them quite come into focus as well as they ought, mainly because the central character is a hypocrite, and his hypocrisy is not quite justified (not in the context of the film, that is; the historical figure of Lincoln had very good reasons for his lying, cheating and scheming).

So despite some great performances from the cast, fine characterisation and a rich plot, I found Lincoln struggled to deliver on clarity.

I think the magic bullet, the thing that would truly make this American history come to life in film, would be for it to be created by a foreigner. Americans take either too emotional or too factual a view of their complex history, and as a result, they slim down their historical figures to two dimensions. A foreigner would have enough distance from the material (and from the mythology Americans have built up around their history) to do it properly, and avoid these pitfalls. It would require a sympathetic foreigner, so a Canadian probably wouldn’t do. I suspect that if the story of America’s biggest political hero were to be told by an Aussie or a Brit, they’d hit the nail on the head. For my money, Lincoln is too confused a film to  be worthy of the praise it’s getting.

So as you look for great films on this period of American history, I think Django Unchained the better choice.

 
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Posted by on Sunday, 3 February 2013 in American Film, Dreamworks, Film, Twentieth Century Fox

 

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Django Unchained

Django UnchainedI’ve never been a big fan of Quentin Tarantino‘s films. Most offend on my most cherished traditions of storytelling — character and plot — so I pay them less heed than I might otherwise do, but Django Unchained is a true exception. Sure, I liked True Romance, and Pulp Fiction isn’t without its charms. Inglorious Basterds is a fine piece of cinema too, but Django Unchained is a refined, glorious masterpiece. A film worthy of the attention Tarantino usually gets for the more flimsy of his work. I will give three reasons why I think this film alone is worthy of all the praise that has been lavished on Tarantino for all of his lesser films put together.

First, it has a plot. And not just an “I need an excuse to shoot so many scenes of blood and gore” kind of plot. It has a narrative. As in its central characters have a context in which to be, and not a flimsy one, but a solid, relatable, engaging one. A slave — Django — is bought in Texas by an anti-slavery German bounty hunter for the knowledge he has of the bounty hunter’s target. In exchange for Django’s help, he agrees to free him and share his earnings. The two become friends and colleagues and the German learns the story of Django’s wife, and they set out to free her from slavery also.

Second, it has characters that speak like real people. Not all of them, mind you, but a whopping majority, which is more than can be said for most of Tarantino’s characters (it’s also more than can be said for half of the movies made in the United States in the last 50 years). Most of them tend instead to opt for trite one-liners or metaphors or abbreviations of concepts that are supposed to make us think they’re really cool, but these characters are so damn cool they don’t need the pretence and can speak in full sentences like human beings. I like that. It gives them depth and develops relationships and shows me people I can relate to.

Third and best of all, Django Unchained has that wonderful quirk of Tarantino’s; the ability to draw us into the violence as if it is the realisation of our deepest, darkest instincts. It’s the karma we westerners of the 21st century wish we could exact upon the evil of the past. The wish that we could punish slave-owners for their sins, or take revenge on Hitler or upon that bully who just wouldn’t let up. I think this is what has sold so many of Tarantino’s films (that and truly beautiful cinematography that doesn’t just glorify, but truly beautifies, violence), and why I’ve often been willing to forgive the lack of plot or the superficiality of the characters or the ridiculous illogicality of the combat. Someone who deserves to suffer the full force of their victim’s fury is getting even more than the full force of it. Payback’s not just a bitch, she’s a tsunami of violence, desolating everything in her path.

And while this has always been the element I’ve liked in Tarantino’s films, in this instance, he doesn’t sacrifice character and plot to deliver it. And that is why Django Unchained is the film that redeems his ouvre.

 
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Posted by on Friday, 1 February 2013 in American Film, Columbia Pictures, Film, Weinstein Company

 

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Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings PlaybookThis is a romance story for those who don’t tolerate a lot of nonsense. And it is seriously one of the best romance films I’ve ever seen.

We meet Patrick, played by Bradley Cooper, in a mental institution as his mother delivers a court order for his release. It is soon revealed that he was institutionalised with bi-polar disorder following an incident following his discovery of his wife’s infidelity. Now on a restraining order to stay away from her, he seeks to prove that he’s worthy of his wife’s love and trust through positive living and a few trite aphorisms.

Before long, he encounters Tiffany, a widow suffering depression with whom he strikes a strong and immediate bond. From there the plot is basically predictable; they fall in love, he denies it, eventually changes his mind, yada yada yada. But it doesn’t matter, because these characters are so strong. Characters like these are hard to come by. There’s something so much more genuine than the average romance film offers.

The characters with the apparent mental illness offer great insights into humanity, and those without a diagnosis are shown to waver in their ability to control their senses also. We need more stories that depict varying degrees of mental health, rather than the old paradigm of being either sane or insane. This film does it beautifully, and is well worth a look.

 
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Posted by on Friday, 1 February 2013 in American Film, Film, Mirage Enterprises, Weinstein Company

 

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower

the-perks-of-being-a-wallflower-posterStories can broaden your horizons or deepen your insight. Many of them fail to do either, and this is what I would call a dud movie, though my bar isn’t very high really; even Quantum of Solace broadened my horizons a little! It’s only occasionally that you encounter a story that so closely aligns with your own experience—whether in the abstract or in the literal sense—that you just find yourself completely immersed in it. I haven’t encountered it for some time, and I may have forgotten what it was like, because The Perks of Being a Wallflower just took my breath away.

The story of a quiet kid with a troubled past who finds the beginning of high school difficult is hardly new; in fact it’s just about as cliché as they come, but this film provides such a rich backstory and such expertly-developed characters that there is no sense of the cliché about it. It doesn’t take this Pollyanna approach that fools us into thinking that everything will be alright, but it still takes a glass-half-full sort of attitude to life’s dark periods.

The cast, led by an older-than-his-years Logan Lerman, are each one perfectly cast and wonderfully directed. Emma Watson shakes off completely the stain of Hermione Grainger and is the glue drawing attention back to the somewhat depressed protagonist. They are immersed in a world of 1990s grunge-esque culture that doesn’t allow any room for stereotypes without banning them altogether.

The nineties is something of a nondescript decade. Its specific characteristics are not instantly recognisable, and because of a slowed birth rate in developed countries in the 1970s, there are a relatively small proportion of us who think of it as our coming-of-age era, making it an unpopular choice for writers of historical fiction. The decade was characterised by a nervousness that resulted from financial downturns and shifting cultural values. This was the first decade when a critical mass of westerners came to see discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation or political alignment as intolerable evils, and actually ceased to tolerate them. It was a time of flux, and as such, it defies the kind of definition and clarity the preceding decades enjoy. Add to that the prevailing winds of artistic expression and fashion being a postmodernism that borrowed and redefined aesthetics and oeuvres from the past century, and it really isn’t an easy time to narrow down. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is, I think, the first film made after the nineties that depicts the decade faithfully.

And how! I was 18 again. I felt like I knew these characters and belonged in these spaces. And there was nothing so distinctly American as to be foreign, which really is an achievement for an American film.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower hits that amazing balance of being perfectly mainstream in aesthetic, but with those deeper qualities of impeccable characterisation, a thoroughly engaging story, and a deep moral purpose. And not your deep-as-whale-poo kind of deep; deep like plays-your-heart-like-a-violin deep. Most American films find these qualities elusive, and it is a great relief to enjoy an American film that takes storytelling seriously.

 
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Posted by on Sunday, 2 December 2012 in American Film, Film, Mr. Mudd, Summit Entertainment

 

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The Way

There seems to have been a slew of films about journeys or pilgrimages from American film makers lately. Either that or I’ve just started noticing them. At any rate, I haven’t seen any as good as The Way.

The film, written by Emilio Estevez (who I had no idea could actually write), is the story of a man who finds himself walking El Camino de Santiago following the death of his son on the pilgrimage, and whereas most of these pilgrimage films I’ve been seeing are either a little light on character or a little too heavy, The Way has just the right balance, and drives forward beautifully, even surviving some very obvious product placement.

It could be a tearjerker if you’re that way inclined, but unlike others that could fit that bill, it doesn’t go out of its way to try to generate a deeper pathos than is necessary, and this is so very refreshing, especially from the Americans. This is the kind of story I want to be able to write.

Of course, the problem with pilgrimage films is that they give me itchy feet, but I always seem to be wanting to go somewhere, so I don’t suppose that matters much. Anyone want to join me in Spain in a decade or two?

 
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Posted by on Friday, 3 August 2012 in American Film, Film, Filmax Entertainment, Icon Entertainment

 

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The Adventures of Tintin

Late though I might have been, I finally managed to take the kids along to see The Adventures of Tintin. They weren’t that interested at first, and I can understand why, since the marketing is targeted at a higher age group and is certainly intended to attract adults. And by the time we went, it was no longer showing at Limelight, and we had to settle for Hoyts.

I don’t know why I particularly wanted to see this movie, as I never read the comics or had any experience of it before, but the trailer had me enthralled, and I was really keen. Obviously, the usual problem with films that you’re really eager to see is that they fail to live up to expectations. Not the case with Tintin.

The characters are really engaging, especially the bumbling detectives who are simply the most hilarious of characters. Tintin himself is endearing in a very personable way, since he is admired by all the characters for his prowess, but is nonetheless genuinely concerned with other people’s welfare. He is, at the same time, subject to frustrations and these shine through with pristine dialogue and amazing animation.

I’m not normally a fan of animation that looks too realistic, I’d usually prefer cartoons to look like cartoons, but in this context it just works.

The Adventures of Tintin is barely a children’s movie; there is a fairly long-running theme of violence, but it is handled well, and though my daughters (age 10 and 7) tensed up a lot, I never felt uncomfortable with the level of violence they were seeing.

This is a great film, especially for its characters, but also for its excellent animation.

 
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Posted by on Saturday, 28 January 2012 in American Film, Film, New Zealand Film

 

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127 Hours

SPOILER ALERT: this post contains references to the ending of the film.

A true story about a chap who literally gets stuck between a rock and a hard place for 127 hours sounds like a pretty boring premise for a film, doesn’t it? But, perhaps because the film was directed by one of the UK’s best directors, and perhaps because the survivor of this ordeal was far more practical and down-to-earth than your average American, this is a brilliant story.

Its protagonist, Aron Ralston, could well have been turned into a sickly sweet caricature, but Boyle’s deft use of his hallucinations, memory, premonitions, or whatever you want to call them, are handled in a way that firmly grounds him in the reality of his circumstance. The film doesn’t try to pretend that Aron never gave up hope, and it is his constant prevarications between hopelessness and persistence at the only option available to him that makes him both real and truly inspirational.
There have been some ridiculous stories about people finding the blood and gore too much. My suspicion is that these folk must have been completely shielded from any exposure to blood in their entire existence to be so extremely squeamish. There is nothing particularly extreme about the depiction of the removal of Aron’s forearm, you might just need a strong armrest to grab hold of at a few critical moments. Limelight Cinemas’ hardware held up fine!
 
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Posted by on Monday, 14 February 2011 in American Film, Film

 

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True Grit

I may again have to eat my words. I’ve often lamented that the advent of remade films in the last decade signifies the death of creativity. Doing something ‘again’ is for the theatre; films can simply be played again, so there’s no point, and you should put your energy into making new ones. Well, now Joel and Ethan Coen have done it, and it is yet another remake of a film that I think is entirely worthy of the treatment. What’s worse is that having enjoyed this film so much, I may now have to watch a few Westerns to find out whether this really is one.

True Grit was first made in 1969. It is the story of a fourteen year old girl who seeks to revenge for her father’s murder and goes looking for a man of ‘true grit’ to undertake the fearsome task. She finds the same in Sheriff ‘Rooster’ Cogburn, a disreputable man with a drinking problem and a dislike for the one other person who cares about seeing the murderer hang. And so begins a journey into the Arkansas wilderness, and the wilderness of human emotions.

Firmly ensconced within the Coens’ aesthetic oeuvre, this film is something really special. Despite being weighed down by overly loquacious and rather pretentious dialogue (which I think may be the norm for Westerns), the story hums along with engaging characters and a beautiful vision of Winter in the old west. Rather than soaking in a puddle of sentimentality, though, it explores the complexity of human emotions in the wake of life-changing events. In this, it diverges from what I had thought Westerns were all about. I understood them to be simplified and over-emotional excuses for a bit of gun-slinging; True Grit is nothing of the sort. I may just have to watch a few to see if I need to rethink my assumptions!

An ageing Matt Damon is an excellent foil for an old Jeff Bridges, but neither hold a candle to Hailee Steinfeld who gives a commanding performance as the ineffable Mattie Ross seeking vengeance for her father’s death. The casting and execution of this role was surely critical to the success of this film, and Steinfeld really carries both the plot and the substance of the story.

Now, I’ve hardly seen any Westerns in my time, and have never been a fan of the genre (not that I’m a fan of any genre per se), so I can’t comment on whether this is a reinvigoration of a tired genre of film-making, but it certainly is a fine piece of cinematography. It is, perhaps, the best film I’ve seen from the Coen Brothers, and that is really something.

 
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Posted by on Monday, 7 February 2011 in American Film, Film

 

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The Social Network

Despite a few moments where truth seems to win out over storytelling, The Social Network tells a genuinely engaging story and does so with some empathy for a diversity of characters. It does this with some rather dry historical material, and it does develop a very human story, although it is a little on the superficial side.

From the opening scene, which shows not only Zuckerberg’s dumping by girlfriend Erica Albright but also the reason for it, this film is distinctively about Mark Zuckerberg. He would be an awfully boring subject, though, without the rest of this impeccable cast. The standout is certainly Andrew Garfield‘s performance as Zuckerberg’s foil Eduardo Saverin, which almost singe-handedly salvages the damage done by the awkwardness of Jesse Eisenberg‘s Zuckerberg.

Eisenberg’s depiction of Mark Zuckerberg is discomforting. Of course, it is not an easy thing to depict a living celebrity, and this particular celebrity, as the king of geekdom, must be a particular challenge, but I was left wondering what kind of human being I was seeing. At times, he seemed to be dealing with a condition on the autism spectrum, rather than merely being socially awkward, and yet even this was not consistent. At times he would suddenly animate, then return to a morose obsessive. Perhaps this impression was what was intended. For all I know, this could be exactly what Mark Zuckerberg is like, but whatever the reason, it was disconcerting.

The major strength of this film is that although it’s a story about the development of Facebook intertwined with the story of a lawsuit, both of which threaten dullness, the human element is palpable and immediate. In fact (and I can’t believe I’m saying this about an American film), I think the story could have benefited from a little more pathos around its central characters. There is a very human story here, and it barely emerges from the more technical process of depicting historical events.

I suspect that this film will date quickly. I would guess that, unless some major legal battle puts an end to Facebook, this story will be told again and again, and the best expressions of it are still to come. Hopefully some of them will be written with more concern for the characters, and will be performed with greater clarity.

 
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Posted by on Monday, 25 October 2010 in American Film, Film

 

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Greenberg

Some films are a chore to watch, but many of these reward the viewer’s effort with a character that lives on well after the film has finished. Greenberg is such a film. Its central character, who exists in a cloud of mental illness,  faces a banal life, overshadowed by his failures and their impact on those around him. Miserable, perhaps, but the character is not merely recognisable; he elicits an empathy that outlasts his film.

This character, Roger Greenberg, superbly portrayed by Ben Stiller (who I had previously thought a mediocre actor) finds himself resident in his brother’s California home while the family is away after a stint in a psych ward in New York. His condition is never identified, and this is critical; he could be any one of us. Likewise the film’s heroine, Florence Marr (played brilliantly by the little-known Greta Gerwig), presents another kind of mental instability, and elicits a similar empathy.

It takes a special kind of writer to come up with an engaging script around the theme of mental illness, but that is precisely what writer Noah Baumbach has managed to achieve in Greenberg. It’s one of those films that survives being slow thanks to strong characters portrayed honestly and without a silly gush of emotion.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 28 July 2010 in American Film, Film, Scott Rudin Productions

 

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Robin Hood

Robin Hood is a bit of a marathon, and if you have a comfortable seat and a few hours to spare, it’s a vaguely worthwhile pastime. Unlike other renditions of the myth, this film draws its impetus from political machinations, and lets go of the story’s usual plebian roots. Surprisingly, this is actually a good decision, as it provides not only a novel context for the story, but also broader relevance.

Russell Crowe plays his typical alpha male with a softer side, only this time with a funny accent. This novelty is complemented by extremely modern dialogue; making the film in many ways a counterpoint to films of Shakespeare’s plays that place sixteenth century dialogue in a modern setting. This is the opposite; playing twenty-first century dialogue in a twelfth century setting, with the added irony of a post-colonial actor playing the Old Country’s chief hero. My strange little mind would like to have heard Crowe’s cultivated Australian accent placed into the context to see what other meanings could be derived, but of course that wouldn’t do so well at the box office, would it?

And the box office is what this film is made for. It is formulaic, rudimentary and appeals to the same values as every other film about underdogs made in the last couple of decades. It does absolutely nothing to distinguish itself from that genre, and sits somewhere in the middle of Ridley Scott‘s very palatable aesthetic.

Of more note than this film is the venue I saw it in. Perth’s Picadilly Cinema is a quaint venue, reminiscent of Canberra’s Electric Shadows. That’s all well and good, but this film needs chairs with a higher back and a clearer view of the screen. I came out with a sore neck and tired knees. Every city, especially Australia’s western mecca deserves a Dendy or a Limelight.

A good film, but a bit meh.

 

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