Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: Tornado Alley 3D

Tornado Alley 3D
Dir. Sean Casey
Year: 2011
Aus Rating: G
Running Time: 43mins

It was some 11 years ago that I saw my first IMAX film, as well as my first film in 3D. The movie was CyberWorld in which a collection of short 3D animations – including The Simpsons’ famed third dimensional episode – were strung together in a rather lousy way. It was nothing more than a clip reel for the technology, but it worked on my teenage brain. Much has changed since then, with the IMAX brand now expanding to even bigger sizes and screening Hollywood blockbusters like The Dark Knight (I chuckled upon seeing a poster for Real Steel at the Melbourne Museum’s IMAX theatre), whilst 3D has advanced so much that we can now watch it at home on our high definition televisions without the need for those uncomfortable blue and red tinted glasses.

Both mediums are so fully integrated into the cinema-going experience that I was surprised to find sitting down to watch a 43-minute 3D documentary on the IMAX screen actually still has as much novelty value as it once did. That giant screen is still awe-inspiring, as is the idea of these documentarians lugging around the massive IMAX cameras for years at a time to put a barely feature length film to celluloid. Sitting down in an IMAX seat – a genuine IMAX seat, not one of those multiplex quote unquote versions – is daunting and I can just remember

With Sean Casey’s visceral Tornado Alley, the IMAX and 3D formats are put to rather exceptional use, and it works as a telling reminder of the impact they can still have. Audiences have no doubt seen tornado footage dozens, if not hundreds, of times before on their flat 2D television screens, but witnessing it on such a scale – the IMAX screens in Sydney and Melbourne are amongst the largest cinema screens in the world – is completely different.

In Tornado Alley, Sean Casey follows a team of scientific tornado chasers whose goal is to apparently live out the plotline of Jan de Bont’s windy blockbuster Twister and research the hows and whys of tornado formation. Parallel to that he follows his own mission to capture the inside of a tornado with an IMAX camera from inside his reinforced tank. Images of Mad Max are to be expected once you see this less scientific and more macho beast of an automobile that’s for sure. Weighing 14,000 pounds and customised with bullet-proof glass, a 6.7 litre turbo diesel engine and a 92 gallon fuel tank (thank you official website), this car known as TIV2 is built purposely to withstand the impact of being in the centre of a category 5 tornado and can travel at 100mph. There are even spikes that dig into the ground of added holding power! Casey intercuts between these two missions whilst throwing around graphs, charts, weather patterns and other scientific mumbo jumbo to appease teachers taking their classes on field trips under the pretence of “education”.

Usually when a documentarian inserts himself into the film it becomes more about their smugness and desire for attention than anything else, but Casey’s passion for storm chasing is so infectious that it works and his half of the film proves more fascinating than the less chest-beating weathermen that he shares the roads with. There’s grandeur to his half of the film that lifts the film above a mere dry science lesson and with editing reminiscent of a Hollywood disaster movie it’s certainly exciting when that funnel is charging towards the screen. And in 3D, of course.

The IMAX cameras capture astounding images of the American south (known as “tornado alley” due its high frequency of storms) and they look stunning projected onto the big screen. If Bill Paxton (yes, from Twister – oh the hilarity) constantly, and lifelessly, narrating to us about the “warm moist air” had been excised, I would have been more than happy to keep watching for longer than the three quarters of an hour running time. Still, if it’s been a while since your last traditional IMAX experience then Tornado Alley could be an exciting remedy. B

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Spielberg, von Trier & Katie Holmes Together at Last

No, not like that!

The poster for Steven Spielberg's War Horse is everything I expected and even less. Much like last year's poster for The King's Speech, which I had correctly predicted would be boring in every possible way, so too did I expect the poster for War Horse to feature the lead male actor and his horse in this exact poster with those exact amber-tinted rays of sun peering behind them and that exact formation of clouds. In fact, two other recent horse movies have used the same colour palate and structure - Secretariat and The Cup. Hell, even the DVD cover for The Black Stallion is the same! Horses don't get no respect, apparently.


On the other hand, I am completely and utterly in love with these posters for Lars von Trier's Melancholia. They are gorgeous, aren't they? Of course, they've gotten quite a bit of attention today because one of the following six "character" posters is actually of the writer/director/persona non grata himself, Lars von Trier. That's some ballsy art they're using right there, and I love it. LOVE IT. One great thing (amongst many, obviously) about older posters is seeing who were the stars of the day, and it's always wonderful to see directors, writers and producers credited so heavily. I'm not sure any of them personally wound up on a poster apart from Alfred Hitchcock, but gosh I wish it happened more. Bonus points for the hilarious seal of disapproval from the Cannes Film Festival right there in the corner.

Lastly, I am loving this locally designed poster for Hopscotch's release of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. The film is getting a limited release, I believe, due to its financial disappointment in America, but due to its Aussie connection (it was filmed here and features several Aussie actors) it's not going direct-to-DVD like most probably would. Loving the typeface most of all here, but the entire thing is moody and if they couldn't go all creepy picture book aesthetic for it then this is still pretty darn good.

A Few Best Trailers?

Okay, just one, but it's for A Few Best Men so just ignore the misnomer entry title, okay?

I'm sure there will be plenty of people - ahem - who will be eagerly awaiting a higher quality version of this newly released trailer for obvious reasons (to put it bluntly: there is partial Xavier Samuel nudity), but I thought I'd post it anyway. As previously promised there is Olivia Newton John swinging from a chandelier, but there's also Xavier with a British accent, a gimp mask, "hilarious" animal jokes and... umm... yeah. The word "madcap" will surely be used by somebody, so why not me? A Few Best Men, directed by Stephen Elliot, is clearly going for the broader comedy that is more popular with the mainstream audiences (good work on worming Death at a Funeral in there, as this certainly feels like a wedding companion piece), and is expected to be released on Australia Day (26 January) next year. I say "expected" because that's also the proposed release date for the next Working Dog film, and I find it highly unlikely that these two films would go out to the public on the same day. Australians may be overly patriotic on the 26th of January, but it's a hard ask to get them to see one Aussie film a year let along two in the same weekend. Let's wait and see. As for now, here's the trailer via Inside Film.

Monday, September 26, 2011

TV Through the Ringer

I rarely find myself watching new television these days. I tend to wait for DVD and gorge myself on episodes like a string of candy jewels. One, then another, and another, and another! I have apparently found myself becoming one of those people that tsk tsk-ing commentator columnists says has no attention span and wants every now NOW NOW! Except, I don't want it now; I want it later, but all at once. I'm also more a fan of revisiting old shows, because I at least know what I'm getting myself into and I find myself worrying I devote so much time to a series of television and not enjoying it. With every year comes new shows and many of them will not last longer than a single season, whilst many others won't last longer than a few episodes. It is basically a crap chute as to what ones will last and I'd rather sit and wait. And even then... Boardwalk Empire? Hmm, I'll pass.

While I am definitely interested in 2 Broke Girls, Pan Am and New Girl (as well as finally getting around to Game of Thrones and several others), it was CW's Ringer, however, that I knew I absolutely had to watch from the get go. The idea of our beloved Sarah Michelle Gellar back on a long-form series was something I wanted to be on board with immediately. Having seen the pilot and the second episode, I can say that I am actually a lil bit hooked. It's completely ridiculous and a lot of the enjoyment I have gotten from it is for that very reason rather than anything about craft or acting skill. Gellar is suitably impressive, but I think soon enough she'll truly realise how absurd the whole thing is and be as entertaining as I know she can be. Think season 2 of Melrose Place, when any sense of dramatic realism was thrown out the window for murdering husbands and cheating spouses.

It's funny that the show Ringer most clearly reminded me of was Twin Peaks. I doubt Ringer will ever reach the dense, rich heights of those foreboding mountains of the early 1990s, but that thick soapy residue that David Lynch and Mark Frost trowelled onto their series is very much evident here. And that's part of why I am loving Ringer so much already. It is so deliciously soapy what with its silly identical twin sister plot line, the lush best friend, the cheating wife, the salacious co-worker, assassins and hitmen. The moment Siobhan (sidebar: Siobhan?) emerged in the second episode in Paris speaking French and wearing big sunglasses, a leather trench, leopard print bag and a big ol' hat I just couldn't contain my happiness. I am glad the second episode nixed the awfully repetitive mirror reflection shots (Black Swan this is not), and may this show never go anywhere near a visual effects green screen ever again. That boat sequence is surely already a part of television folklore, yeah? Still, it's hopelessly addictive if you're on the right wavelength (I imagine many will not be), and I truly did find myself shouting at the screen "oh my god!" when something particularly scandalous happened before the commercial break. Will Ringer prove to be a one season wonder like Desperate Housewives? More than very likely, but until then...


Other than Ringer, I haven't checked out anything new other than X Factor USA for the simple reasoning that Simon Cowell + Paula Abdul + Cheryl bloody Cole was too hard to refuse. Such a shame that Cheryl was canned half way through the debut episode because she was a hoot and the crowd seemed to be liking her, too! While Nicole Scherzingerburger is a rather big downgrade, I will give Ms Hungry Jacks herself one thing and that's her Blanche Devareaux-inspired quip about celebrating her 21st birthday. That was funny and startlingly self-aware. Still, the idea of a woman whose first solo album was apparently so misjudged that it never got released is a judge on a program finding somebody with "the x factor" seems particularly ironic. I just hope that, if I end up watching for of this slickly-produced series ("slick" doesn't even begin to cover it, really; it's impeccably polished) that I don't end up seeing that woman who sang Aretha Franklin's "Natural Woman" pouring buckets every single time. As good as she was, she seems like the type to do that. Although, it'd be easy to forgive if they just kept cutting to host Steve Jones looking like this, don't you agree?

I also managed to watch the first episode of Glee's third season. I found its highs were exactly as high as before, but it's lows just as low, too. I imagine they're only bothering to give Mr Shuester anything to do like that dreadful glitter bomb thing out of contractual obligation. Maybe that's why they keep giving that actor just terrible material (well, worse than some of the others') because they hope he'll want to leave. Same goes for all the adults, actually, who are all entirely disposable and the show would be greater without them. Just think, all the airtime devoted to Will and that moppet girlfriend of his (whose almost sex scenes are so cringe-worthy they deserve their own peppy "CRINGE!" intro so we know to press mute) could actually be going to Mercedes or Santana+Brittany or... well, anyone. Anyone except Artie. They got rid of Sam who was beginning a potentially interesting relationship with Mercedes, and now they've thrown her in a relationship with some anonymous extra. Sigh. Thankfully there were still some fun musical numbers (hello "Anything Goes"), the ever-growing Rachel/Kurt storyline that is taking some really interesting directions, and a welcome change of pace for Quinn (the actress' name skips my memory, unsurprisingly). Not sure what Finn was doing this episode other than playing drums. What was that about? Did Ryan Murphy finally get fed up with the actors' inability to dance? Hmmm.

And, hey look! You can actually see the dancing. Whatta a shock.

So do pipe up and tell us what you've been watching. Anything good? Anything bad? Anything?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Half a Face, Double-Ds, Another Hangover(?) and Something to Tickle Your Fancy

Poster! Posters! Get your movie posters!

Two posters recently have taken on the motif of a face dissolving into something else. In the case of this Mouth Taped Shut poster for David Fincher's Americanised The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (is it official, is it fan-made?) we have Daniel Craig's rough face disappearing into a white silhouette profile shot of Lisbeth Salander, played by the unseen Rooney Mara. It's all very ABBA, if ABBA took on some black and white arty Bergman-esque identity crisis. I'm not quite sure if the poster is any good because apart from the slight appearance of a nose ring there's nothing that makes this look like anything other than just a fashion spread for a swank magazine (and even then). Is Craig here even in character? Does he ever actually have a character outside of his costume (whether that be Bond's tux, Cowboys & Aliens' chaps, etc)?

Still, it's better than the poster for The Iron Lady. Phyllida Lloyd's Meryl Streep-led biopic of Margarat Thatcher - otherwise known as "omgmerylstreepISmargaretthatcher" and little else - should be trying to make itself look as polished and professional as possible after the visual "what is this? a camera?" debacle that was their last collaboration, Mamma Mia!, but instead they've bitten off more than they can chew. If they wanted to go with this design then why do such a mediocre job? It's hardly awful, but it's definitely far from good. The way the lopsided imagery of London is grafted onto the face of Streep just doesn't look good enough, unfortunately. One image doesn't bleed into the other in any natural way, they merely connect through the easy magic of Photoshop. No real skill appears to have been used in making this concept so I can't help but feel it's a wasted opportunity.

I do quite like the colouring, what with its regal blues and reds, although I'm getting a very American vibe from them, as if this should be a biopic about Hillary Clinton rather than Thatcher. I still can't get a read on this film though. They really do appear to be presenting it as a piece of hero worship ("NEVER COMPROMISE" for instance), which is a terrifying prospect for a film about Margaret Thatcher!

It's funny how obvious one thing can be to somebody and how oblivious others can be to the same. The other day on Twitter some people were discussing the new (disappointing) poster for The Rum Diary, Johnny Depp's latest back-to-the-well outting. When I finally glanced upon said poster I was struck by how much it looked like nothing more than The Hangover Part III, a similarity that had completely bypassed my friends. Nevertheless, this poster looks EXACTLY like a poster for The Hangover, which is kinda sad and desperate, don't you think?

And then there's this poster for Piranha 3DD, which already gets 5 stars for its title alone. They have re-used the imagery of the sharp-fanged fishies as was used in the original, but have seemingly upped the stakes to include a waterpark. However, perhaps it's too above my pay grade (what pay grade?) to suggest this, but wouldn't the poster have been better if... umm... ya know, there had been people at the waterpark? Like, big-breasted girls travelling down the waterslide on their way to becoming piranha dinner? Or am I crazy for suggesting that? I mean, the film uses a woman's bra size as it's title, I don't think they're fooling anybody here. Oh well. I look forward to them explaining how piranha can live in chlorinated water.

Lastly, a poster that is unremarkable in every way, but gets bonus points for using the phrase "tickle your fancy", which is such a wonderful bon mot that I'm sad it doesn't get used more often. The movie is Hysteria and I believe it's based on The Vibrator Play so you know what it's all about. Hopefully this is Maggie Gyllenhaal back in her sexually adventurous mode (ala Secretary, Happy Endings) rather than the morose, monotone Maggie Gyllenhaal we've been having to deal with lately.

Do you dear readers have any recent favourites?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Dir. Werner Herzog
Year: 2011
Aus Rating: G
Running Time: 90mins

The career of German director Werner Herzog is a long and varied one that has mixed feature films with documentaries, forming a resume that has yielded as many classics (Aguirre: The Wrath of God) as misfires (this year’s first Herzog title, My Son My Son What Have Ye Done). He’s even eaten a shoe on camera! Unfortunately, somewhere in these last few years Herzog has became a bit of a hipster joke with his appearance on The Simpsons and an online meme where a Herzog impersonator narrates a particularly verbose edition of Where’s Wally. There are certainly parts of his latest film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which feel like one big absurd gag being pulled by the director. It could’ve been good if it were actually funny, alas…

Read the rest at Trespass Magazine

I liked it better than My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done if that's any conciliation.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: Abduction

Dir. John Singleton
Year: 2011
Aus Rating: M15+
Running Time: 106mins

There came a moment as I watched Abduction when I realised that there was no actual abducting going on. None whatsoever, unless you count the audience members’ time and sanity, in which case the abduction is nobody else’s fault but their own. Why the filmmakers titled their film with such a misnomer is just one of the many questions left unanswered by this wholly awful, yet shamefully funny, teen-oriented action thriller from the once great – and Oscar nominated– director John Singleton.

Read the rest at Trespass Magazine

I haven't laughed that much in a long time!

Speaking of John Singleton though, it was just last week that I watched Boyz n the Hood for the first time. Singleton was nominated at the Oscars for Best Director (and remains to this day the youngest nominee in that category) as well as Best Original Screenplay, and it's easy to see why. I had intended on discussing it, but the enthusiasm was drained out of me when I was doing some research on it and it slowly sunk in that there was so much talent there, but somehow it didn't amount to much. Singleton himself has seemed to have carved out a career as an action director - albeit, a refreshingly colour blind one (but that still doesn't explain the inexplicable casting of a native American in a role in which none of his parents are of the same race) - but I'd like another film with the raw guttural power of Boyz than Abduction. Even if I am as big a fan of 2 Fast 2 Furious as you're likely to find around this neck of the woods.

Still, beyond Singleton, how Hollywood managed to fumble the ball on two generations of stunning black beauties is beyond me. Angela Bassett's role here isn't so much bigger than her stock supporting character in Green Lantern, but Bassett's "Reva Styles" is still a wonderfully rich character, a dichotomy on what many audiences expect a black single mother to be. Nia long, on the other hand, has had a career that never really took off. Great supporting roles in Boyz, Soul Food and so on lead to multiple series on second rate TV series (Third Watch) and has, as of late, only been doing voice work on The Cleveland Show. Not even a red hot role in Alfie could stir up much interest. How sad.

As for the men? Well, sure, Lawrence Fishburne was a part of one of the most successful franchises of all time (that'd be The Matrix), but ten years after that he's appearing on CSI so make of that what you will, and I don't even want to go into the careers of Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding Jr, okay? And despite his leading man looks, Morris Chestnut (perhaps my favourite performance in the film) has, like Nia Long, a career made up of mostly supporting roles in a collection of films that range from bad to middling. Truly disappointing. Still, as they say, we'll always have this one great film and Boyz n the Hood is just that! An electric, at times messy (but all the better for it) look at a culture that so few actually have any real experience of. Full of layered characters that are more than just cliches and performances that match. A-

As for Ab(s)duction? Z+!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Now here is a poster that will surely capture a bit of attention for itself.

British quads are becoming increasingly popular amongst watchers of movie art since they're usually able to use their re-proportioned size to a vastly different effect, combined with the fact that no other country produces them meaning the company's that design them tend to go in very unique, different ways to the American concepts. The design below, for Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala, is a wonderful example of how the utilise the quad's wide canvas. It gets the film's message across simply, but does so with a cheeky charm and is almost endearing. If you can't think of an interesting way to sell your film about a drug-pushing, gun-toting beauty queen then something's wrong and I think this design does it perfectly.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Wrath of Herzog

The career of German director Werner Herzog has been a fascinating one to unveil. Well-known today more for his eccentricities and distinct accent as well as his ever-loopy films and well-received nature documentaries, Herzog is a director I find maddens as much as he endears. And, let's face it, given the type of films he makes, "maddens" is very much a word I am sure Herzog would appreciate. I can't say I've been a fan of his two films from this year - Cave of Forgotten Dreams and My Son My Son Look What Ye Done - but even his failures are unique and hold a place in the man's career that deserves discussion. The albino crocodiles wouldn't be too happy otherwise.

I feel like I've barely been able to scratch the surface of Herzog's career, but this year I've managed to see two of his most famous titles: the twin Amazonian titles of Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God. The former of which I have already discussed, but the latter I just got around to watching during last night's wild and windy thunderstorm. It felt like appropriate whether. Both use the Amazon river and its surrounding rainforest as stunning muse to tales of folly by men who fall deeper into madness the further they progress. Star Klaus Kinski gives a performance here that feels like the very sort of fever dream his Aguirre characters begin to suffer from late into the film. The way his face contorts and his eyes pierce, it's no wonder Herzog cast him in his own remake of Nosferatu!

The film is sumptuously lensed by Thomas Mauch in lush greens and browns, the Amazon certainly looks as amazing as you expect. However, what I found particularly fascinating about the cinematography was now smoothly the camera floated around the proceeding despite the terrain. There's one early scene amongst a rocky enclave that I thought was impossible to be as delicately handled as it was, and yet the footage clearly speaks for itself. The music by Popol Vuh is hypnotising with its swirling and atmospheric combination of synthesisers, guitars and traditional pan pipes. I was impressed most of all by the immaculately realised costume work (by whom I am not sure, there doesn't appear to be a designer credit for the film) that looks both cheap and community theatre-esque, but also beautifully authentic. Rustic - and suitably rusty - is a great way to describe the armor worn by the conquistadors, but I also loved the tattered, rich velvet worn by the two women of the cast (Helena Rojo and Cecilia Rivera) as well as the traditional Peruvian garb worn by the "slaves". Seeing this designs floating around Mauch's stunning photography really did make Aguirre feel like it was from another era before filmmaking was even invented.

More than anything, however, I felt Aguirre: The Wrath of God was a mood piece. It drifts about with some scenes playing out with no dialogue, whilst others feel like dream sequences. It is both epic - that opening march sequence down the cloud-cluttered mountain is like something from Pressburger & Powell's Black Narcissus, but without matte or modern day CGI - and intimate. There's a romance to it, as it washes over a viewer like liquid. I didn't too much care for the stuff with the animals, especially since it's hard to accept that Herzog had anything close to an animal safety act to work by, but it's nice knowing Herzog put his actors through as much as he did that beautiful horse or those adorable monkeys (there's a whole story about those monkeys on the film's Wikipedia entry).

There are moments during Aguirre that I actually thought of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, what with the ways they look at nature and the way we connect to it. There is a shot involving butterflies in here that reminded me of Life so much that I thought Malick may have borrowed it. Both films tell quite small, intimate tales yet do so on a grand scale. Difference is that Herzog's film doesn't bloat the running time, but instead keeps it to a rather boutique 93 minutes, thankfully resisting the urge to turn this into an E-P-I-C. Herzog defies the expectations with Aguirre: The Wrath of God and in doing so crafted a truly beguiling experience that is almost unlike anything else. If I continue to navigate the rocky terrain that is is Mr Herzog's filmography, I can only hope to find more films like this. B+

Friday, September 16, 2011

Frances Bay in The Black Lodge

Oh the things one learns whilst trolling around on IMDb. When investigating the resume of actress Frances Bay, who passed away today at age 92, I discovered that in her 150 roles she played three women named "Sylvia", two librarians and so many characters simply named "Old Lady" that I couldn't even count them all. For a woman who only started acting in her 50s (she spent the majority of her life being a housewife), Frances Bay sure did get a lot of work. I guess she knew her niche of being able to play small parts portraying old ladies, aunts, grandmas and in one special occasion "Evil Old Lady" in an episode of high camp soap opera Passions.

While most online obits seem to be focusing on Bay's role in Happy Gilmore first and Seinfeld second, the role I obviously remember her from most is as Mrs Tremond in David Lynch's Twin Peaks saga. As a supposed inhabitant of the black lodge, Mrs Tremond and her grandson Pierre Tremond appear twice in the television series (however, only once played by Bay, but it's one of the best episodes!) and most memorably in the film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, when she appears outside the diner to offer Laura Palmer a painting that would "look good on your wall." It's the sort of cameo performance that routinely goes under-looked when not played by a famous person, but yet adds so much. She also appeared in Lynch's Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, so it's obvious Lynch had a fondness for her as he does many of his regular acting troupe.

Frances Bay made guest appearances on many, many television programs including The Golden Girls (she's the lady Sophia helps get a refund on a piece of meat at a supermarket if you're, like me, a tragic of that show and know it's episodes inside and out), Empty Nest, Charmed, Diagnosis Murder, Quantum Leap, Fame, Happy Days, Clueless and, of course, as Mabel Choate, the lady with the infamous marble rye. Some of her feature film roles include the aforementioned Lynch movies and Billy Madison, as well as The Pit and the Pendulum, Stranger than Fiction, Single White Female and Arachnophobia. RIP.

The Fog of Tilda

Lynn Ramsay's first film in some nine-odd years, We Need to Talk About Kevin, has been enciting some interesting artwork. We recently threw the spotlight onto this beautiful design that was all charcoal shadows and pale green Rosemary's Baby inspired lighting. I was also particularly fond of the British quads that also utilised a heavy colour saturation concept but threw in a deliciously wicked tagline, one of the year's best; "Mummy's little monster..."

It seems local Australian distributor, Hopscotch films, have decided to go down a completely different path for their marketing. Set to be released on 10 November, the Aussie key art (designed by Mark Gowing) places star Tilda Swinton front and centre... well, behind a partially fogged up window, dripping with condensation. Placing Swinton's big ol' head right there is a good decision for a film like this in the current marketplace (she's the most sellable aspect, surely), but they've been able to do it without producing something boring and ugly like most posters that feature an actor's face and little else. I'm loving the way she appears to be fading into the background, making use of Swinton's exotic porcelain look, but am not loving that touch of "is she crying or is it just water on the glass?" They get away with it, but just barely! What do you think dear readers?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Without Sandra Bernhard, I Am Nothing

I had been a fan of Sandra Bernhard for many years now. Having grown fond of this lanky lady through reruns of Roseanne, her outstanding role in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy, her brief appearance in Madonna's Truth or Dare documentary,the crazy appearances of Letterman and for her deliciously wicked Excuses for Bad Behavior, Part I album from 1993. I had long tried tracking down a copy of her 1990 pseudo stand-up comedy film Without You I'm Nothing. Having finally been successful, I can say without a doubt that it lived up to everything I had heard from its dearest fans.

Without You I'm Nothing? Without Sandra Bernhard I'm nothing!

Directed by John Boskovich and, quite improbably, produced by Nicolas Roeg, Without You I'm Nothing is very much a curiosity of a film. Similar to Bette Midler's Divine Madness in its mix of stand-up comedy and cabaret style musical numbers, the film is actually not a documentary at all. Filmed several years after the her "smash hit one-woman show" took Broadway by storm (according to her), Without You I'm Nothing sees Bernhard perform her act in front of a crowd of sceptical African Americans and includes feature film effects that wouldn't be possible in a simple films stand-up show like those of the equally provocative Margaret Cho (Without You I'm Nothing, Notorious C.H.O.). It's a risky gamble, especially when her dedicated fans would have gone along either way (it made a surprisingly robust $1.2mil at the US box office), and yet it pays off. Without You I'm Nothing is unique and truly a one of a kind work that succeeds at providing a dramatic platform for Bernhard's stage act.

Bernhard takes on several different personas throughout the 90 minute running time - gay disco diva, suburban housewife, stripper, Earth mother, etc - as she mixes personal memoir with absurd comedy. Like Margaret Cho would do to great affect many years later, Bernhard swings precariously on a tightrope between gags about race and sexuality. In fact, as the bright wordsmith Nick Davis reflected in his piece, she hooked her claws into the issue of white culture's appropriation of black culture long before anybody else did (most notably Warren Beatty with Bulworth. Through a dizzying array of glamourous costume and wig changes (right on through until she all but strips bare during a daring, risqué dance to Prince's "Little Red Corvette" in the final scene), Bernhard creates a character that is as confronting as it is hilarious. Mixed with seemingly non-sequitur sequences of a black woman (played by Cynthia Bailey) walking around time (occasionally naked), a none too subtle recurring joke at Madonna's expense and the constantly bemused reaction shots of the crowd, the film sure does have balls to spare as Bernhard takes her turn at pop standards sung by African American legends like Nina Simon and Tina Turner. That she makes fun of herself in equal measure through her comedy as well as mockumentary talking head interview segments is just some of the reason why she gets away with it.

I can't vouch for the original stage production from the mid 1980s, but the film is an uproariously funny journey into the brilliant mind of this crazy woman. Her spoken word segments are frequently full of tart zingers and fascinating rhythm. I got particularly amusement out of her story of how she used to pretend her mother was a waitress at a bar and after having ordered her meal she would ignore her. Or how about the brand-dropping satire piece that got in on that act a decade before Fight Club. If people are only aware of her insane Masha act from Scorsese's classic 1982 film or her latter day frequenting of LGBT cinema then Without You I'm Nothing could come as quite a shock, but it's place as a defining work of art is unmistakable. A

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Terrence Malick and the Days of Heaven

There's something truly exciting about being a cinephile and getting the chance to see one of your all time favourite films on the big screen. This past week I not only saw Jackie Brown on the big screen, but also Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven. It's long been a mission of mine to see it in a cinema at the first opportunity, and the Malick retrospective at The Astor Theatre provided just that and, oh, what a glorious experience it was.

Days of Heaven was presented in a double feature with Malick's first film, Badlands. In some respects this 1973 feature starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek is Malick's most disciplined film; his most structured. Each of the two films are a scant 90 minutes - scant compared to his three subsequent films that have all been in excess of two hours - but it's Badlands that has the most traditional structure of all. Playing out like an art version of Bonnie & Clyde, it bears the unfortunate hallmarks of its low budget and debutant filmmaking talent, and yet is always a fascinating film in many respects.

It's a crucial film in the career of Malick for more reasons than it simply being his first. It shows the obvious beginnings of his obsession with narration, American history, and most importantly of all his desire to explore nature and the way people relate to it, particularly out of refuge or violence. Explored here by the way Sheen and Spacek's runaway lovers can't outrun the law even as the landscape gets farther and wider, but consider also the way nature is used as a destination for moneyless romantics to escape to in Days of Heaven; the way the blood of soldiers becomes a part of the Pacific locations used in The Thin Red Line; the way body and soul are crushed by British settlers in The New World, but are ultimately revived by a simple garden; the way he examines the bruised souls of The Tree of Life through their connection to nature.

It's also a telling reminder that Malick has always been a brash and thrilling filmmaker. Those who have only seen The Tree of Life may be surprised by the thrilling way he films a car chase sequence in Badlands like a lost reel from Vanishing Point (not to mention the gunfight sequences of The Thin Red Line). While it may lack the now commonplace dreamlike cinematography, it does have a wickedly sly sense of humour - love the early comment about Sheen looking "just like James Dean" and the payoff one-liner late in the final act - and a natural, effortless vibe to it that is in stark contrast to The Tree of Life, which felt like it was straining desperately to be Malick's personal statement on the meaning of life. Badlands simply is life. B+

Days of Heaven, however, is the more typical film we've come to expect from Malick. I maintain that this is the perfect convergence of everything Malick has tried to do in all of his other films. He is able to convey so much through his images that he doesn't need the bloated running time that I felt hampered The Tree of Life. Its imagery is simply astonishing with Oscar-winning cinematography by Néstor Almendros that I consider the greatest of all time. So too is the music by Ennio Morricone, whose beguiling combination of peculiar instruments - what sound like pipes, harpsichords, strings and piano - is integrated so perfectly into the sound design of chirping insects, gusty winds and shimmering wheat crops.

Watching Days of Heaven within such close proximity to Badlands, I couldn't help but notice the similarities and striking differences between the two. Why had I not noticed the glaringly obvious similarities within Badlands and the final act of Heaven? As Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Linda Manz take to living as outlaws in nature after a silly, bravado-stroking act of violence, had I simply not wanted to notice? What was Malick trying to say by doing this, I wonder? Badlands has the most traditional plot of all of his movies, so was Malick trying to make a point that he wasn't going to play as nice in the future? Was this his way of retroactively changing a version Badlands that he wasn't happy with? Whatever the reason, it certainly worked and got enough people's attention.

Of the differences though, I found it particularly interesting in the way he portrayed women. Whereas Sissy Spacek was positively meek as a sparrow in Badlands, Brooke Adams has a strong presence, grounded firmly by her deep, throaty voice. Adams' performance is probably the film's finest - one I feel is routinely overshadowed by her most high profile co-stars Richard Gere in one of his gutsiest, Earthiest performances - as she feels most at ease with the locations and the least conscious of Malick's camera. When he catches one of her wide grins there is magic in the air, I swear.

Sometimes movies really are a different experience on the big screen. To have gone without seeing Days of Heaven at a cinema is to have not have experienced what cinema is all about. It magnified my emotions for this 1978 masterpiece to levels I didn't think possible. It is an epic film about boutique qualities (this and Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff would be an even more appropriate double feature in the future) and one that will forever move me in ways I can't possibly express. A+

Monday, September 12, 2011

"She's not crazy. She's the only honest one here!": The Week of Gwyneth

One of the internet's favourite whipping gals, the High Mistress of GOOP: Gwyneth Paltrow, has been having quite a week, hasn't she? For whatever reason, I've always loved this woman. Perhaps it's because she is so reviled by many that has kept my affections for her in tact all these years, but I'm glad she's stuck around and continues to tower over everyone with her superiority and sleek hair. Every time somebody mocks her for suggesting you rub the yolk of an ostrich egg over your skin for a perfect complexion, I laugh and think "that's exactly why she's amazing!" When did we stop enjoying the decadent lifestyles of celebrities?


Her week started off looking fabulous at the premiere of Steven Soderbergh's Contagion. [warning: gay fashion moment!] I'm not a fan of bows on dresses - lest we remember Renee Zellweger's ridiculous Oscar G-O-W-N from the year she wailed about on a mountaintop and won the Academy Award for Cold Mountain - but this one is particularly fetching. That ribbon down the spine is gorgeous.

[end gay fashion moment]

Then over the weekend she not only won an Emmy Award(!) for her guest work on Glee, but her film debuted at #1 at the US box office. Her role on Glee was definitely one of the most refreshing bits of that show's hit-and-miss second season and I'm glad she was rewarded there. You go for that EGOT, Gwyn! As for Contagion? Well, it's not out in Australia until December and, admittedly, her role is quite small (from what we've seen of the marketing), but considering it made more in its opening weekend than her last film, musical Country Strong, made in its entire run, I think she can take it as a win. Also: a win for Jude Law! But let's not get into that just now, okay?

Speaking of Country Strong though... to top off this week of Gwyneth, where she appeared to be all over the place on my internet, I watched her recently released Country Strong. This musical about an alcoholic country musician who leaves rehab for a comeback tour throughout Texas went direct-to-DVD here in Australia, but netted an Oscar nomination earlier this year for the track "Coming Home". The screenplay by Shana Feste - this curiously named woman, who also directed, was apparently inspired by none other than Britney Spears! - is full of wide-eyed clangers like "Don't ever wear satin on stage 'cause it wrinkles like anything and your sweat will show right through it," that put any heed on it being taken seriously. It's a shame then that so much of the film is so staggeringly average, never allowing it to take up it's rightful place as a true camp classic.

Right on throughout the film the costumes just aren't vulgar enough, the accents not hackneyed enough, the doe-eyed stare of Leighton Meester just not doe-eyed enough, and so on. If the opening scene, of Paltrow's character in a rehab facility, had been made with Joan Crawford she would look like a glamourous movie star with perfectly coiffed hair and wearing a fur stole, whereas this film merely posits her as a cleaner Kate Moss with her rehab chic look and sexy tousled hair (see below). Her breakdowns, frequent as they are, are hardly Mommie Dearest in size. Paltrow is suitably good with the ridiculously cliched material - never fear, there is a scene where a bottle of booze is thrown at a wall, so too is a scene where her mentor/manager/husband nods his head in approval of how far she's come - and would surely have won an Oscar if Country Strong had been made in, oh, 1956? I am sure Paltrow has a patent on a time machine to do just that, but they'll need to do some tweaking like during the scene where she wears leather pants to a Make a Wish Foundation meeting with a cancer-stricken boy. Oh yes.

The music is by far the best asset up the film's sleeve, with Gwyneth's crooning more than pasting mustre. "Me & Tennessee", "Country Strong" and the Oscar-nominated "Country Strong" are superb, but a plot strange surrounding the latter tune is confusingly left behind. In fact, many plot strands are left by the wayside or simply ignored. Why, for instance, would anybody let this woman be alone for longer than 30 seconds when she's just gotten out of rehab ("don't take someone out of rehab before the rehab!" says Garrett Hedlund's gravelly-voiced support musician) and has already caused havoc with new arena concerts due to falling off of the wagon? Why are Hedlund and Paltrow positioned as lovers and then suddenly not? Where does Meester's stage fright vanish to? How does Paltrow's "country music superstar" just get miraculously cured by film's end? Why does Tim McGraw know what "guyliner" is?

Perhaps there's something to be said for the sheer sincerity at Country Strong's core. Perhaps. When one character states of another's song titles that "these aren't songs, they're rides at Disneyland", I couldn't but feel the film knew its audience (country music fans) and was giving them something that would appeal to them more than anybody else. Consider it a multiplex Crazy Heart. Still, the way Feste seems completely unaware of her film's inherent silliness is disappointing. Despite the darkness it deals with, when a news report tells us that Gwyneth's Kelly Canter was "five months pregnant at the time, tripped over a microphone board and fell ten feet", there is no way a chuckle can't emanate as one imagines such a scene being filmed with Gwyneth wearing a fake stomach and tumbling down into a moshpit. I want that scene. I need that scene. Especially when just minutes later Paltrow's is warning Meester that "[laxatives] never work the way you want them to."

Country Strong is certainly an easy way to pass 117 minutes of your time, until the credits role and you realise the grand sum of those 117 minutes was a soundtrack that you can listen to without accompanying dialogue like "She's not crazy, she's the only honest one here", spoken after a particularly nasty drink-fuelled encounter. It's oddly old fashioned, which is disappointing since it was made in an era of celebrities that bounce from rehab-to-rehab and much could be said about the topic. It's message seems to be that life is tough, which is hardly enlightening. To quote the film: "Bullshit." "Bulltrue!" Yeah, I don't know what that means either. C

Friday, September 9, 2011

Review: Hobo with a Shotgun

Hobo with a Shotgun
Dir. Jason Eisener
Year: 2011
Aus Rating: R18+
Running Time: 86mins

Here’s a theory I would genuinely like to raise with Hobo with a Shotgun director Jason Eisener: If the directors of the 1960s and ‘70s grindhouse titles he so obvious adores had come into prominence today, would they make films as ugly and poorly done as this? Or would they, as I suspect they would, actually utilise the medium at their feet and allow their visions to flourish amidst the mountains of filmmaking possibilities.

Such is just one of the many, many problems with Eisener’s decrepit zombie corpse of a film. It trades on grindhouse cinema tropes from decades past, yet the people that made those films were making honest films through the only means possible. If it meant having to cast a lowly paid coffee shop waitress then so be it, but they surely never asked their cast to deliberately act like they’d just walked out of a lobotomy office. They also surely never made their films look dingy on purpose, drowning out the visuals when it’s been proven what can be achieved on a budget one sixth of the size in Gareth Edwards’ Monsters and plenty of others. Say what you will about the technical exercise that was Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s GrindHouse, but they made films that their heroes would make today if given the opportunity. They made films that took what they’d seen and interpreted it with modern day filmmaking methods. Hobo with a Shotgun, however, is nothing more than mere reproduction, right on down to the tokenistic poster designs and credit sequences.

Jason Eisener’s film arrives in cinemas with unique cache. It’s title and premise alone, as well as nudge-wink Tarantino-esque casting of Rutger Hauer, promised gullible festival audiences (of which I nearly was) a raucous good time, but it’s a rather cynical exercise. The grindhouse cinema Eisener is so desperately copying was made on the smell of an oily rag and a pit of fire in the belly to tell a story nobody else was willing to tell. Eisener’s only fire is to get a career in Hollywood by tricking festival audiences into seeing his film. It’s Eisener’s version of a child stamping his feet and waving his arms wildly exclaiming “look what I can do!” Sadly, what Eisener can do is not much more than sickening, mean-spirited, ugly trash. There isn’t anything energetic or joyful about Hobo with a Shotgun, nor anything brave, exciting and intellectually confronting. It looks ugly, is badly acted and crudely directed because that’s all Eisener was able to ascertain the original films were noteworthy for.

A hobo with no name arrives by train into a new town that is essentially lawless and overrun by criminal thugs. He witnesses the gruesome death of a stranger at the hands of a local gangster and before long sets out on correcting the town of its ills. The audience is asked to laugh along as this old, homeless gent struts about time laying waste to thuggery and hoodlums with a shotgun he purchased with money he wanted to use to buy a lawn mower. LOL, those homeless people are so weird! Of course, the violence is sickening, but always played for laughs. Especially the scene where a school bus full of young children is burnt to a crisp. That scene was hilarious, especially so when they brought it back as an even cheaper gag later in the film!!!

The entirety of Hobo with a Shotgun is nothing more than repugnant crassness, steeped in unpleasant violence and a seemingly endless bag of scum imagery. I was never so happy to walk outside of a cinema and bask in sunlight than I was after the morning screening of this film. Eisener shows such a distinct lack of understanding about film here, but the fact that since seeing it I have read so many fans of the film say “it’s meant to bad!” has made it even worse. Why would anybody want to watch a film that was deliberately made to be as bad as possible? When a filmmaker actively wants people to pay top dollar for a film that they admit is bad just so they can get cool points with the hip kids is insulting. Hobo with a Shotgun belongs in the trash. F

Review: Face to Face

Face to Face
Dir. Michael Rymer
Year: 2011
Aus Rating: MA15+
Running Time: 88mins

Ten people sit inside a recreation hall fitted with only a collection of sturdy, if uncomfortable, chairs and a table with cups and a jug of water on it in front of an unmanned bar. This is the no frills setting of Face to Face, an unfussy adaptation of the David Williamson play of the same name. Written and directed on a tightly-reigned leash by Michael Rymer (Angel Baby), Face to Face will never be mistaken for the most exciting film of the year, but it’s a bold one nonetheless that rewards viewers with spiky wordplay and tart performances from a cast of big names and lesser knowns.

Read the rest at Onya Magazine

I've noticed quite a few people this year have sworn off watching trailers and I can only hope enough people have successfully avoided watching the trailer for Face to Face. It's on YouTube if you want to search for it and find it, but I'd suggest otherwise since it is one of the worst trailers of the year. Possibly the worst. I hope people who did see it aren't sufficiently turned off so as to swear off seeing the film as it's really quite good (er, obviously, if you read the review). B