Monday, December 31, 2012

New Years Catch Up Part I: The Grey, The Color Wheel, Love Story, On the Road, Pitch Perfect

I always have such grand plans to review all the movies that I see, before inevitably forgetting and letting them slide into the recesses of my mind. Even though it is hard to deny that after that initial flurry of week-of-release excitement the desire to write may dwindle, I also think it's wrongheaded to think discussions on films have a shelf life of their opening weekend box office report. Alas, we're here today to take a look at some films that recently made their way to Australian screens and that I've had a chance to see on DVD. What better way to wring in the new year than with a look back on the old ones?

The Grey
Dir. Joe Carnahan
Country: USA
Aus Rating: MA15+
Running Time: 117mins

Put me in the minority, but I found Joe Carnahan's "Liam Neeson vs the Wolves" adventure film/existential philosophy retreat to be as chilly as its Alaskan setting. From the opening sequence with its nauseating narration and foretelling blasting in neon - "I know this is where I belong, surrounded by my own. Ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes. Men unfit for mankind." Hmm, do you think the film is about these men confronting their demons and atoning for sins? - to its silly, abrupt ending, I found The Grey lacking in both adventure film thrills, and moral quandaries. Featuring a repetitive structure and lacklustre use of the frame from cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi who far too often fall back on rote imagery and camera placements, I found its lofty aspirations not met.

Seemingly at odds with what it wants to be, Carnahan never truly finds the right balance between the extreme action adventure title that sees Liam Neeson say such ridiculously survivalist dialogue as "we're going to shove [this branch] up this thing's ass, then we're going to eat it." - and the film that attempts to address its themes in a more prosaic manner. A smarter film would have deemed the flashbacks to Neeson's wife unnecessary, and would have found less blatant ways of extolling its virtues about god, faith, and fate. By the seemingly umpteenth wolf chase sequence I had long given up taking The Grey seriously, which is a real shame because the filmmakers were taking it far too seriously for far too long. That it ends on such a high farce moment makes me suspect that Carnahan was unsure how to handle the potentially prickly ethics at the screenplay's core, and instead continued to fall back on scenes that hold as much emotional weight as something from a fictional Liam Neeson Movie spoof. C-

The Color Wheel
Dir. Alex Ross Perry
Country: USA
Aus Rating: N/A
Running Time: 83mins

This film isn't for everybody. In fact, it's very hard to pigeonhole this sophomore feature from Alex Ross Perry (I have not seen his debut, Impolex) as being for anybody in particular, rather unsuspecting open-minded types who respond to its strange charms. Still, charms it has, as the actors navigate their way through a story that covers an entire spectrum, much like the color wheel of the title. It's little surprise to learn that stars Perry and Carlen Altman were stand-up comedians, but their foray into cinema shows remarkable restraint and skill as they limited the use of improvisation and utilised incredibly textural 16mm film. Despite navigating the same sort of boutique twentysomethings-have-feelings-to terrain of other films from the "mumblecore" wheelhouse - as a matter of fact, writer/director/star Perry appeared in Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture, itself a film that hovered around the fringes of the mid-to-late-'00s movement of ultra low budget filmmaking - The Color Wheel blooms into a refreshing and frequently candid take on bizarre adult-sized children and their fluctuating levels of morose.

Last year's winner of Indiewire's best "unreleased" film, it's easy to see what they saw in The Color Wheel. This abrasive take on familial relationships - the film covers a road trip between complicated siblings - navigates some typically tricky territory, up to and including a final act that spirals in unpredictable directions. It's a testament to the screenplay by Perry and Altman, as well as their performances, that the film is able to veer between such silly sweetness and such peculiar harshness with ease. It has a daring wit to it that is brave and uncompromising as it finds countless entertaining scenarios to thrust its frequently unlikable characters into. The Color Wheel is a striking breakthrough that should get enough people excited to allow Perry to expand beyond the boutique. B

Love Story
Dir. Florian Habicht
Country: New Zealand
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 94mins

Perhaps a perfect double feature pairing for The Color Wheel is Florian Habicht’s endearing scattershot romance, Love Story. Yes, the title is the same as a much more famous film from the 1970s, but Habicht’s take is a very modern look at romance through the prism of a changing society that is as comfortable with cameras as filmmakers are with new ways of utilising them. Habicht has made a very literal “docu-drama”, a film that purports to be about the burgeoning romance between a New Zealand tourist (that would be director/writer/star Habicht) and a woman he meets on the subway of New York on her way to Coney Island, which is interspersed with crowd-sourced moments of reality (or “reality”, who really knows?) where this curly-haired lank of a man asks people around the city what and how he should do to make this woman love him.

It’s an interesting idea, and Habicht does well to rarely fumble the many balls he has flying about the air at any one time. However, one’s enjoyment of Love Story will surely depend almost entirely on your ability to enjoy the peculiar persona that Habicht inhabits. This New Zealand art student, via Germany, is an odd duck and I’m sure he fits the bill for certain hipster credentials. I found his act wore thin by the film’s final act – I certainly wouldn’t have objected to them cutting 10 minutes from it, or at least the cereal sequence – but at least his sparring partner in Masha Yakovenko remains a visually arresting presence throughout. She lends a particularly melancholy presence to the proceedings that gives the film a far more intriguing authenticity than any number of bumbling scenes of public distraction (although the taxi sequence has to be seen to be believed). Still, it’s a curio originality is a refreshing delight far more often than a hindrance, and that’s something to smile about. B-

On the Road
Dir. Walter Salles
Country: USA / UK / France / Brazil
Aus Rating: MA15+
Running Time: 140mins

The week that Walter Salles’ On the Road was set for release into Australian cinemas, it was announced that the film’s American distributor would be trimming the near two-and-a-half-hour film to a more palatable length. Knowing that Australian cinemagoers got the unabridged version makes for a curious viewing experience. As I watched the much delayed Jack Kerouac adaptation I found myself recalling Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux – only further enhanced by the end credits that has Coppola’s name, his son Roman, and the American Zoetrope production house spread throughout – which I viewed for the first time several years ago. It was the only version of the film I could attain and, having never seen the theatrical cut (despite my preference being to see theatrical before any altered editions) I was hardly surprised to discover later which scenes were new additions as they were inevitably the film’s weakest moments. I am intrigued to know what has been cut out of On the Road for its international release if for no other reason than to prove myself right on the film’s virtues and missteps.

Virtues and missteps it most certainly has, mind you. Much to my surprise, I found myself very much enjoying Salles’ more character-minded take on Kerouac’s novel and found its meandering flurries of excess frustrating. For instance, the sidebar sequence with Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee (actually William S Burroughs) felt remarkably similar to the French plantation sequence in the aforementioned Redux. Still, if Salles and his screenwriter Jose Rivera – the two collaborated on the thematically similar The Motorcycle Diaries – are prone to waffling, then they can be more or less forgiven given the task of adapting a novel such as the Beat Generation’s defining moment of On the Road.

Thankfully, he has amassed a collection of collaborators that have served his extremely well. I can take or leave Sam Riley, but the work of Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Sturridge, and a flock of fleeting supporting players manage to make the film’s somewhat ponderous ways far more accessible. Gustavo Santaolalla’s superb locational score plays with an assortment of instruments in frisky ways, whilst the cinematography of Eric Gautier amplifies the sublime location work. Whether it’s a misty dirt road, a cluster of cacti along the Mexican border, a Colorado mining town, or the post-war lights of Manhattan, On the Road constantly looks beautiful and lush. Whether that goes with or against the book’s intentions I’m not sure, but I enjoyed this road trip through America through the eyes of modern day soul-searchers. B

Pitch Perfect
Dir. Jason Moore
Country: USA
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 112mins

The makers of campus choir comedy Pitch Perfect have clearly modelled their perky musical on the stellar blueprint of Bring It On. While its buoyant energy is as catchy as the smartly arranged pop-heavy soundtrack, director Jason Moore hasn’t quite transferred the risqué wit of his Broadway puppet musical Avenue Q to his debut feature.

Surely nobody can mistake Pitch Perfect for original. Its underdog/girl power storyline is older than the classic teen films it references, most notable of which is John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club. Thankfully, the cast – predominantly actors in their mid-to-late 20s, naturally – give it their all and make for bubbly fun. Anna Kendrick’s barely masked contempt for the material is right in line with her character’s post-emo moping, whilst loud and boisterous Rebel Wilson, Anna Camp, and Brittany Snow are working overtime to wring laughs out of the thoroughly thin material. By the toe-tapping finale, however, its joy de vivre proves too infectious to truly resist.

This review was originally published in The Big Issue

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Wee Bit of Nonsense

I see some strange things on the internet, and this is certainly one of them. I was unaware before just now that there was a film out there called The Wee Man and that it's out this year. 2013, not 70 years ago when words would pop up in their modern contexts as opposed to the giggly or inappropriate context of today - The Gay Divorcee would certainly be given a swift retitle if made now (note to Hollywood: do not remake The Gay Divorcee. While I guess we can give the producers some props for using a name that is (one can only assume) entirely relevant and sticking to it despite the laughs that may come at their production's expense... or, we could just point and giggle at the idea of somebody releasing a movie called The Wee Man. Could The Wee Man's title along make it an early Irina Palm d'Or contender for 2013?

Or maybe I'm just entirely juvenile and am the only one who finds it funny. That could definitely be the case.

Review: Les Misérables

Les Misérables
Dir. Tom Hooper
Country: UK
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 157mins

An adaptation of one of the world’s most famous musicals is always going to be fraught with danger. The fans demand a certain amount of faithfulness to the material, but there are very real differences between stage and screen and the creation of a musical universe can be a tricky tight rope that many audiences will naturally resist. Les Misérables is directed by Tom Hooper and it’s arguable as to whether he has handled the adaptation of Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s acclaimed stage version of Victor Hugo’s classic novel in a way that will win over newcomers and non-fans alike, but his old fashioned take is frequently exhilarating and adamant in its unwavering desire to not be dolled up and be given a hip makeover.

Read the rest at Trespass Magazine

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Masque of Andrew Lloyd Webber

Of all the songs to have stuck in my head whilst watching a Roger Corman/Vincent Price horror movie, "Masquerade" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera wasn't one I would have expected. However, as I watched Corman's 1964 production of Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque of the Red Death last night, I couldn't help but have Webber's second act showstopper of 1986 from buzzing around my mind. From the moment the mysterious "red death" figure appears on screen in the opening minutes, I was humming it. It's my favourite song from the production - and the subsequent 2004 musical adaptation, directed by Joel Schumacher - so that's a relief, but it was distracting, especially given The Masque of the Red Death is so good.

In Poe's original 1842 short story, as well as the film, an unknown masked figure appears at a masquerade ball held at the castle home of Prince Prospero. He wears a costume made of bright red fabric, a colour Prospero clearly asked his guests not to wear, and proceeds to spread the devastating "red death" (essentially a fictional version of the Bubonic plague or tuberculosis) amongst the wealthy elite. In the many incarnations of The Phantom of the Opera, the masked Phantom appears at the opera house's masquerade ball donned entirely in red (and his famous mask) during a masquerade ball and demands the company perform the piece he has written for Christine Daaé. "Paper faces on parade," and so on. The moment remains a fabulous scene in every film version I've seen It's a fabulous number and one that I was completely unaware of being inspired by Poe's story.

Though the plague to his doorstep had spread
His own Satanist orgy he'd led
There this skunk who liked watching
Such drunken debauching
Found he hated the horror of red.

As for Corman's film, it's all rather fantastic. I loved the design, bringing Poe's prose of the multi-coloured rooms to life. While the castle sets obviously look less than authentic, that's should hardly be a criticism for a film such as this. As Corman films go, it's surely one of his most lavish. Vincent Price is a particular treat here, too. I mean, he always is, but he's even better than usual. It's hardly surprising that Corman himself has cited The Masque of the Red Death as one of the three favourite films he ever directed. I really do need to check out more of his stuff, especially his Poe adaptations with American International Pictures, which I think were a lot like an American version of Hammer. Right? Either way, I'd recommend The Masque of the Red Death in all of its satanic worshipping goodness.

Review: The Master

The Master
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Country: USA
Aus Rating: MA15+
Running Time: 144mins

I was lucky enough to see the latest befuddling character study from Paul Thomas Anderson in glorious 70mm at The Astor Theatre a couple of months back when the writer/director visiting Australia. It's week-long season at the art deco movie palace has begun and if any readers out there caught it in a regular seasonal screening (digital or 35mm) and have wanted to revisit, then I can't recommend it enough on The Astor's huge screen. The story of a somewhat-cult and the tempestuous young man that drifts through its prologue existence is not one that many would normally associate with the 70mm format - used predominantly in mid-century film on large-scale epics, and then again in the 1980s as a vessel for films dominated by elaborate special effects - but that is perhaps why it is so fascinating. Anderson and his cinematographer Mihai Maliamare Jr, before now known primarily for his work on latter day Francis Ford Coppola titles, have twisted the large-frame celluloid format upon a story that might not otherwise have needed it, but which ends up providing the film with one of its most invaluable assets.

Similarly twisted is Joaquin Phoenix. His performance is all contorted and angular body movements mixed with a near schizophrenic, saliva-lavished take on Anderson's dense dialogue. It's arguable as to what the film is necessarily "about" - part of its charm, for sure - but much like Phoenix in real life and on screen, the film's curiously odd sense of being occasionally finds itself drifting, with some scenes feeling as if they hold little purpose to any grand central idea. The more obvious of The Master's theme is, of course, that of the father and son. Curious then that Anderson made the film about Phoenix's post-war drifter and Philip Seymour Hoffman's leader, when there was a perfectly fascinating turn by Jesse Plemons just waiting in the wings to be navigated. That Hoffman and Plemons share Hollywood's most uncanny familial casting since Mayik Bialik was cast as a young Bette Midler in Beaches only makes me wish the film had found more in their relationship to ponder. Plemons' Val Dodd emerges in the narrative as infrequently as his opinions remain the same. Which is to say, not a lot. There's a fascinating dichotomy in there that I have to admit I wish was a bit more central to the film's core.

Elsewhere, it is very easy to read a literal master versus slave theme into the proceedings, especially given the title. Hell, it practically begs some audiences to take the film's central relationship to a certain place, especially with its echoes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1982 adaptation of Querelle - Joaquin Phoenix's character is a sailor named Quell, hello. Anderson never really delves into anything of a homosexual nature, but the film's angel that war, or perhaps just Quell's own nature, has turned this man into a sexually empty monster is intriguing. As the opening scenes shows Quell attempting procreation with a woman made of sand and creating his own moonshine alcohol, he is probably a man that would do anything for a kick. I can't begrudge the film from not going in this direction or the other in terms of Quell's sexuality - Anderson clearly has other things on his mind, other things that he has touched on in other films - but I did feel at times that Anderson was letting this man off scot-free in this realm.

The Master is really a film about the fringes. It is a film that focuses on men who have found themselves on the fringe of a society that has rejected them in many ways. It's appropriate then that some of the finest work is found outside of the three men central to the film. Amy Adams, as the wife of Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, is a constant fascination of bubbling tension. Her face alternates between dim innocence and keen smarts as she constantly assesses her surroundings. Christopher Evan Welch appears briefly as a questioning dissenter of Lancaster's and in just one scene he marvellously walks a tightrope and breaks the film free of everything that the audience will likely be wishing it would address. While Miliamare's cinematography - and Jonny Greenwood's left of centre take on a traditional string-heavy music score - is perhaps The Master's most prominent technical achievement, I was also deeply fond of Mark Bridges' costume design. From Peggy Dodd's frilly, yet buttoned-up dresses that Michael Kors would describe as "Little House on the Prairie goes boating!", or the masculine-toned suits of Hoffman's Lancaster that strive for an aura of soothing authority, I was constantly hypnotised by Bridges' work. If the film has an unheralded high achiever, then it’s him.

Much has been made about The Master's take on religion, predominantly Scientology. While I think it's impossible to not view the film through that context, I think Anderson and Phoenix are more concerned with telling a story about the invention of a man than the invention of a cult. Phoenix's Quell is somebody entirely lost, adrift in a world that doesn't quite know what to do with him (much like Phoenix himself within the Hollywood system, yeah?) His joining of The Cause is a very literal starting over, with a new mother and father to teach him the ways of the world. And like any child who grows up surrounded by one idea, he rebels. The Master is a dense piece of work from Anderson and it is one that rewards attention, even if the film's occasional lapses in cohesion may elicit a loss of attention in many viewers. The Master strives for more than it achieves, an opinion I also had of There Will Be Blood, but it remains a triumph of ambition. B

The Best (and Worst) Posters of 2012 - Part II

It's distressing when compiling a list such as this and I come to realise that almost any poster featured within the entire top (bottom?) 50 could have been a legitimate contender for worst of the worst. Literally, take your pick and it was a bona fide "worst!" pick at any given moment. I'm not as much a doomsayer as some others when it comes to the art of film key artwork, as I feel every year I have proven there is a substantial number of designs (and specific designers) that are original, unique, interesting, and feature a style worth paying attention to. This year, however, as I made up the list, it really did appear as if the bad designs just kept on coming and coming.

Whether it's bad Photoshop, bizarre spacial arrangements, disinterested star power, or ugly aesthetics, all 50 of the following posters remind me of Satanic garbles from one of those possessed idiots in The Devil Inside (which, yes, features twice on the list). Like the deranged flip side of my favourite poster biases, there are some posters below that bask in garish colours and simplicity that is actually just laziness. All of the 50 images below are an insult to the eyes, and no matter the budget of the film in question ($200mil John Carter; presumably miniscule Leave it On the Floor) they remain unforgivable and inexplicably released to the public. Enjoy, or, better yet, don't. Just shake your head and wonder where it all went wrong.

50. The Moth Diaries
49. Katy Perry: Part of Me 3D
48. Hope Springs

47. Parental Guidance
46. Men In Black 3
45. House at the End of the Street

44. Alex Cross
43. Killing Them Softly
42. Bait 3D

41. Joyful Noise
40. What to Expect When You're Expecting
39. Any Questions for Ben?

38. A Fantastic Fear of Everything
37. The Perfect Family
36. The Babymakers

35. Lay the Favorite
34. Here Comes the Boom
33. Keith Lemon: The Film

32. Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection
31. John Carter
30. Housos vs Authority

29. So Undercover
28. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
27. The Intouchables

26. Bait 3D
25. The Woman in Black
24. The Devin Inside

23. The Decoy Bride
22. Stolen
21. Battleship

20. Lawless
For being the yearly "Weinstein Fob Off". For the ugly-assed placements (the cast on the vest!!!). For covering Tom Hardy's face with an ugly hat.

19. Playing for Keeps
For the hideous colour uncoordinated panels. For a tagline that begs a response of "NOT THIS!"

18. Think Like a Man
For the OMGSOMANYPEOPLEAAAAAGGH! For terrifying me with this when I went to get a file.

17. Intruders
For failing miserably at whatever it was doing. For serious? For not being scary at all.

16. Alyce
For making want to get a tetanus booster just by looking at it.

15. The Door
The being so entirely drained of imagination. For not even attempting it.

14. Cowgirls n Angels
For shamelessly cribbing off of every other little-girl-and-her-inspirational-pet poster. For just everything.

13. Outside Bet
For... take your pick.

12. The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vincente Fernandez
For the indignity. For the colour palate brown.

11. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2
For that Photoshop. For the hilarious running action still. For being over.

10. The Cold Light of Day
For being cheap and lazy. For Terminator Sigourney.

9. Dark Tide
For being... overt.

8. Fun Size
For being a fake tanned hot mess for bad Photoshop and bizarre use of space. For the superhero baby who's actually an eight-year-old child (whod've thunk it?)

7. Freelancers
For... well, do I even have to say it?

6. This Means War
For being ugly for the most part, but also for having the year's most egregious use of Photoshop imaginable. For not even bothering to hide it.

5. Leave It On the Floor
For "Featuring SWEET DREAMS by BEYONCE". For being one big ol' gay mess.

4. The Devil Inside
For making me want to get ANOTHER tetanus booster.

3. Quartet
For being "part 1980s anti-apartheid concert poster, part Dulcolax ad." (thank you Guy Lodge!)

2. 360
For making a terrible concept even worse. For being so goddamn fucking ugly.

1. Freeloaders
For everything. For having its own star ask "is that real". For everything.

And how about you, dear readers? I know I've forgotten something (I always do), but this year had a particularly, er, stellar crop to choose from.