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

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