Film Review: Tracks

tracks

(2013) Australia, 112 minutes

DIRECTOR: John Curran, CAST: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver | RATING: 4/5

In 1977, 25 year-old Robyn Davidson trekked through 1700 miles of Australian desert with no traveling companions except four camels. Her reasons were personal and she had no interest in publicity or making money as part of her journey. She eventually agreed that part of the trip would be covered by National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan.  A year later, the article was published and generated worldwide interest. In response Davidson wrote an account of her experience that became the international best seller Tracks.

In the past thirty years there have been numerous attempts to make a film adaptation of Tracks. One version even had Julia Roberts in the Davidson role. The usual difficulties of film financing as well as the specific logistical difficulties of making a movie wholly in the desert were constant obstacles. Eventually, producers Emile Sherman and Iain Canning optioned the book and have created a version that is likely to find favour with fans of Davidson’s original account.

The movie depicts a young woman who has had a tough childhood and has grown into a self-reliant adult. This movie version of Davidson is spiky, independent and on something of a half-conscious quest. We, the audience, arrive at some kind of understanding of her character through observation of her arduous trek. This is not a film of overt statement and emotional speeches. It is, in fact, a film of very few words at all. For one section of her trip, Robyn has an Aboriginal guide called Eddie  (Roly Mintuma) and the duo do not share a language. They communicate through sounds and gestures.  Most of her spoken communication with English speakers seems no clearer. She is a doer rather than a talker.

Davidson spoke at the 2013 Sydney Writers festival about her original journey. She is not keen on terming it as spiritual or the experience as mystic. Now as then, she wants to avoid other people labeling her or analyzing her motives. However, the interest in her and in this movie is absolutely about people’s drive towards self-discovery through testing their physical boundaries. The movie leads you to the conclusion that she traveled through a place that most people avoid, to avoid the mental and emotional turmoil of others. At the festival, Davidson spoke of being in a place where she could clear her mind

Director John Curran (PRAISE 1998) and writer Marion Nelson have done a first class job in adapting Davidson’s work to the screen. Mia Wasikowska bears some physical resemblance to the 25 year-old Davidson, but her real gift is in fully embodying a loner going through an intense internal and external experience. The lack of declarative dialogue means we mostly have to rely on reading Wasikowska’s body language and eyes to understand the Davidson character. The performance is beautifully judged so the audience is allowed insight into a fundamentally reserved character.  Interestingly, if you do some reading on how others describe Davidson there is the suggestion that the screen version isn’t as outgoing and open as the woman herself.

Mandy Walker’s cinematography is stunning. As clichéd as this may sound, the desert is like another character in the film. The light, texture, heat, dust and sheer physical presence is brilliantly up there on the screen. Davisdson herself has pointed out that her journey was not in the height of summer and that the crew was sometimes dealing with greater temperature variation than she experienced. But just in case that makes it sound like Davidson’s trip was a walk in the park with camels, sometimes she was dealing with highs of 51 degrees Celsius.

The team behind this movie have brilliantly adapted their source material. They have told a powerful story in a nuanced way. The end result is an inspiring tale that I hope will connect across a broad audience.

This review also appears at AccessReel.com

Film Review: Dallas Buyers Club

EXCLUSIVE: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto film scenes together for The Dallas Buyers Club in New Orleans.

(2013) USA, 117 minutes

DIRECTOR: Jean-Marc Vallée | CAST: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto| RATING: 2.5/5

Ron Woodruff is an electrician and rodeo cowboy in 1985 Dallas. He is a hard-living character who suddenly finds himself unable to burn the candle at both ends. He is diagnosed with AIDS and is given 30 days to put his affairs in order. He panics and searches for alternative medicines. AZT is the only available treatment in the United States and is not necessarily available to all. The drug is still in the clinical trial stage.

He is in denial not only about the death sentence he feels he has received, but in having a so-called “gay disease”. Ron Woodruff is homophobic. The reaction of his equally homophobic friends is to abandon him.

Woodruff eventually travels to Mexico and discovers a range of treatments. None are approved by the powerful Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use back in the United States. He begins transporting the drugs back to the States and soon runs into trouble with medical authorities.

His partner in these illegal activities is Rayon an HIV-positive transgender woman. They meet in hospital and at first, Woodruff cannot deal with her. Eventually, he learns some kind of understanding of Rayon and they form a bond.

In order to avoid charges for selling non-approved medicines, Woodruff hits upon the scheme of charging those seeking the drugs a membership to the ‘Dallas Buyers Club’. Membership costs, but the drugs are free.

The world portrayed by DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is rich with a promise that is not delivered on. Certainly, a reminder of the horror of the AIDS epidemic is a strong subject for a drama, however I found this treatment of the story to be baffling.  As a friend said to me just after the movie finished, “It’s about how Ron Woodruff learned to be nice to gay people.”  And indeed, this strand of the story is handled in a simplistic manner. The other strand seems to be “FDA bad, entrepreneurship good.”

When AIDS hit America an extremely complex series of events occurred. Health authorities were accused of doing too little. People with AIDS were mostly young and died incredibly quickly because there was no cure. The idea of an incurable plague challenged the assumptions of First World medical supremacy. The fact that many who contracted AIDS were from the gay community led others to declare HIV/AIDS to be a punishment from God for what they perceived as the wickedness of homosexuality. It was a time of great fear and upheaval.

That reality is merely hinted at here. I understand that it isn’t fair to criticise the film for not being ANGELS IN AMERICA, but it doesn’t even take on the depth of the story it has a license to tell. Ron Woodruff is portrayed as a heterosexual good ol’ boy who somehow catches a so-called gay disease and then puts his energies into fighting the overreach of big government. We are given no great insight into Woodruff’s earlier life or current thoughts. If anything he is portrayed even more sketchily than Rayon. She is somewhat of a construct who is saintly and wise and seems to be in the movie because the homophobic character needs a transgender character to challenge his straightness.  We do however, meet her father and get as glimpse at her former life. It all feels somewhat formulaic and didn’t ring true for this reviewer.  This goes doubly for the tacked on relationship with the concerned doctor played by Jennifer Garner.

Which is to take nothing away from the performances of McConaughey or Leto. McConaughey has moved away from his shirtless version of the good ol’ boy. His performances in films like THE LINCOLN LAWYER, MUD and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET show a greater depth of characterisation than his earlier, lightweight leading man roles. He has always been watchable, but lately he has done some of his the best work and is choosing great projects. Despite having a long career, Leto’s work has never made an impression on me until now. It is for the fine performances of these actors that the movie is getting so much attention in award season.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is a movie for audiences who want a simple story about how a man is redeemed by battling against a deadly illness, the government and Big Pharma. For anyone looking for a straightforward film about this kind of human struggle, this movie will be a satisfying experience.

This review also appears on AccessReel.com

Film Review: Uncharted Waters

Uncharted Waters

(2013) Australia, 85 minutes

DIRECTOR: Craig Griffin | CAST: Wayne Lynch |RATING: 3/5

UNCHARTED WATERS is Madman Entertainment’s documentary feature about Australian surfing legend Wayne Lynch. Beginning his journey in Lorne, south-west Victoria, he made an impression on a board from the age of twelve, although he remembers an affinity for the ocean from even earlier. Those who saw him surf as a fifteen-year-old described him with terms like boy wonder and child prodigy.

He won title after title in the late 1960s. The way he surfed was innovative and he is credited for changing how others surfers understood what was possible. Australians were wowed when they saw him in competition; Americans saw what he could do through influential movies like Paul Witzig’s EVOLUTION. Surfing writer Drew Kampion observes that before Lynch, the lines of surfing tended to be horizontal and that Lynch brought it verticality.

Writer, producer and director Craig Griffin has made a film which is good on detail (we find out Lynch’s first board was an Arthur Milner balsa) but it also has a laidback flow to its presentation. The use and sourcing of historical film, photographs and music is excellent. There is plenty of footage from home movies, competitions and theatrically released surf films (like EVOLUTION). The audience is left in no doubt of the style of goofy footer Lynch in his heyday.

The subject of the documentary is a quiet character with an unassuming attitude given to saying things like, “Don’t work against nature. Don’t try to dominate.” Lindy Lynch is on hand to speak about her husband and there is an investigation of the personal side of his life to give the story balance. Lynch was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and this affected his life for a period of time in the 1970s.

The line-up of talking heads is impressive with a large number of Lynch’s friends and colleagues being tapped for their recollections. Among those interviewees are Barton Lynch, Nat Young, Rip Curl founder Doug Warbrick , Bob McKnight from Quicksilver, Dave Parmenter, Sam George, Rusty Preisendorfer, Duncan Campbell, Gerry Lopez, David Sumpter and Albie Falzon.

Griffin’s movie is well made and kudos need to go to the departments of editing (Sara Edwards), sound-editing (Nick Batterham) and music (Craig Kamber). I am in no way a surfer and I was engaged by this documentary for its 85 minute length.

 

This review also appears at AccessReel.com

Film Review: Her

Her-Movie

(2014) USA, 126 minutes

DIRECTOR: Spike Jonze | CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Pratt, Rooney Mara |RATING: 3.5/5

In the San Francisco of the near future, a man called Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) struggles with his life post his divorce. Theodore has a job writing love letters for people who can’t. He is depressed and lonely and when not working, fills his hours playing computer games. He occasionally has contact with his friend Amy (Adams) but his life is in a holding pattern. Then he purchases a new generation operating system that is intelligent, sentient and intuitive.

Theodore chooses the ‘female’ option when deciding what sort of voice the new OS requires. The OS names herself Samantha (Johansson). Within moments of interacting with her, Theodore begins reacting to Samantha like a person, despite her physical form being a smartphone and an earpiece. Eventually Theodore and Samantha begin a relationship.

Whether this relationship is real is one of the central questions of Spike Jonze’s HER. It’s a logical extension of the idea that artificial intelligence will soon be indistinguishable from organic life. Jonze has taken this thought into territory that would likely upset Senator Cory Bernardi. The film asks whether a human can have a fulfilling relationship with a sophisticated computer program that learns, evolves, creates and has a sense of humour.

The world Theodore and Samantha inhabit is very like the present with futurist tweaks. Although Samantha is a genius compared with Apple’s Siri, her reason for existence is the same. We want technology to simplify our lives, so we make it smarter, stronger and faster than we are and we make it in our own image. There are humanoid robots that can dance, run and carry heavy objects. We want computers that can take care of our chores as swiftly as we can speak our demands. We imagine even smarter machines to take care of all our needs. If these come to pass, why couldn’t we fall in love with these brilliant, better versions of ourselves?

How much you can buy into this idea will have a bearing on how much you will enjoy HER. There are many scenes of Theodore interacting with the disembodied voice of Samantha. It should be said that if any actor can persuade you of this reality, it’s Joaquin Phoenix. His performance made this film for me. He brilliantly embodies a range of relatable emotional states. Johansson, whom I’ve always thought of as having a flat voice, does as an excellent job giving Samantha presence.

HER is a film of ideas. The painful realities of day-to-day life are not part of this world. San Francisco is portrayed as some kind of benign technology campus. Jonze is projecting a future of sleek, uncluttered design that allows for the occasional whimsical touch. Politically and economically, Theodore appears to live in a utopian world where the remaining struggles are personal.

Theodore loved being married. He loved his wife. Who is he now he is divorced? He explores questions of self-definition in and outside of a relationship. Some will consider the kind of journey he goes through to be self-indulgent and middle class. As I am both things, I was engaged by Theodore’s grappling with these big ideas. If you are hoping that HER will involve Samantha and the other OS’s controlling human minds, and heralding the rise of the machines, then you’re likely to be disappointed by the quiet, small, detailed film Jonze has actually made.

There were times when HER reminded me of Jake Schreier’s 2012 film ROBOT AND FRANK. That also asked questions about how we will interact with technology in the future. At other times, I was put in mind of BLUE VALENTINE (2010) as designed by Jony Ive. At 125 minutes, I thought the movie was overly long, but ultimately I found it thoughtful and entertaining.

 

This review also appears at AccessReel.com

Film Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

inside_llewyn_davis

(2013) USA, 105 minutes

DIRECTOR: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen | CAST: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Max Casella, John Goodman |RATING: 3/5

It is 1961, Greenwich Village, New York City. Llewyn Davis is a musician struggling to make it in the folk scene. He has management and a record label. He performs regularly at folk hot spot The Gaslight Café. However he is discontented. The reality is his record has not got him the attention he wants, he is not particularly sought after as a performer and he is sleeping on a succession of friends’ couches.

However, this being a Coen Brothers’ movie, none of the above details is a spoiler. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is seven days in the life of a man who believes, quite correctly that he has talent, but has no idea of how to capitalise on it. One of his fears is he might not be a success as a musician, but he is oblivious to all the obstacles that are holding him back.

The movie is yet another emotionally-detached character study from the Coens, yet the reviewers who describe it as one of their warmer films have a point. This is a measure of how icy it can be in the Coen universe. The movie is also a beautifully shot, production-designed, performed and directed period piece. In American terms, the brothers work with peanut-sized budgets, yet the result is always visually stunning. They are often described as craftsmen.

The astute reader may feel a ‘but’ is imminent and I would hate to disappoint you. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS received the Grand Prix when it screened at Cannes last year and the brothers remain critical darlings, whom many consider master filmmakers, BUT, for others they make films with unrelatable characters who go on journeys, where events happen but ultimately have no point. Such was my feeling about observing Llewyn Davis for a week of his life in 1961. Yes, the details are engaging, the Coens know how to present a world that draws you in, but I wasn’t sure why I should spend any time with the rather touchy Llewyn Davis.

Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of the title character has justly attracted praise. It is a beautifully nuanced performance of a man who is thinned-skinned and sensitive to his own needs and almost completely closed off to the needs of others. The type Davis represents will be very familiar to most people. Isaac, who has a solid musical background, sings Llewyn Davis’s songs beautifully. It is here that we understand that despite his deficiencies of character, Llewyn is not a joke.

The other performances are as good as we have come to expect from these filmmakers. John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan and F. Murray Abraham all do solid work in peopling this early ’60s folk setting. In a way, they are more like characters on the margins of Davis’s vision. The title is accurate, we are inside Llewyn Davis. We are trapped deep within his fears and inadequacies.

If you have seen Coen films before and enjoy their subtle humour and wry observations of human nature, then they have another gift for you to enjoy. If you feel the Coens carefully create movies that are dense inaccessible in-jokes, then INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS will not persuade you otherwise.

 

This review also appears in AccessReel.com

Film Review: American Hustle

Christian Bale;Bradley Cooper

(2013) USA, 138 minutes

DIRECTOR: David O.Russell | CAST: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Evangeline Lily, Louis C.K., Elisabeth Röhm |RATING: 3.5/5

Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) is a small time con artist who dreams of bigger things. He is searching for a soul mate and believes he has found one when he meets fellow con artist Sydney Prosser (Adams). Their relationship is passionate and fulfilling. The one flaw in this perfect scenario is that Irving is married to Rosalyn (Lawrence) and he feels an obligation to his adopted son.

Irving is a con man with the soul of a poet. Or so he believes. We are given to understand that he and Sydney are connected in some higher way through their cons. They’re not scummy grifters, they put the ‘art’ into con artist. Their affair and their business is put under strain when they become entangled with Richie De Maso (Cooper) a man with an overwhelming, yet mistaken faith in his own abilities.  Meeting Richie causes massive problems for the normally publicity-shy Sydney and Irving. They begin work on a big scam that has a public face. The con escalates and draws in more and more players.

Director David O. Russell’s AMERICAN HUSTLE is an entertaining movie that most audiences will enjoy during its rambling 138 minute length. Despite being based on the FBI’s notorious Abscam operation of the late 1970s, the story does not bear deep scrutiny. This is not a movie about the minutiae of a scam, nor of its takedown. The movie is a loose study of some broad, desperate characters. It delivers laughs and emotion through Russell’s vision of the 1970s. To quote THE CASTLE, “It’s the vibe of the thing”.

Russell has gone to great lengths to make his movie feel authentic; the retro hair, wardrobe and production design are all top notch. There are lashings of era-appropriate rock and pop on the soundtrack. The script name-checks the icons and obsessions of the time. The Watergate scandal is recent history and it affects the thinking of these characters.

AMERICAN HUSTLE is a high-wire act of a movie. In this respect, it is a little like the Coen brothers’ BURN AFTER READING (2008) in that it also has an excellent cast giving outsized but engaging performances that distract us from a preposterous story. Its actual influences seem to be GOODFELLAS (1990) and BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997).

I enjoyed the movie for its sizzle rather than any substance.  Audiences in Perth Western Australia obviously love this film. Unusually, It has been playing here since its premiere more than two months ago. That sort of thing used to happen back when AMERICAN HUSTLE was set, but no longer.Only the true crowd-pleasers have this kind of staying power these days.

 

This review can also be found at AccessReel.com

Film Review: The Desolation of Smaug

THE-HOBBIT-THE-DESOLATION-OF-SMAUG-Banner1

(2013) USA/New Zealand, 161 minutes

DIRECTOR: Peter Jackson | CAST: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lily, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace, Aidan Turner |RATING: 3.5/5

I wasn’t looking forward to SMAUG, THE DESOLATION OF. There were reasons. Mostly because the first part of the trilogy THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY was a messy and lacklustre affair. It did not compare well with any of director Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS movies.

The original book The Hobbit is a quite straightforward tale with an interventionist narrative voice. It has a kind of 1940s English nursery feel about it. Depending on your point of view, this can seem cosy or cloying. The Hobbit was written specifically for children. It has a quite different tone to that which Tolkien employed in his later Lord of the Rings novels. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were connected, but very different.  Unfortunately, in looking to make the movie prequels seem more congruent to their sequels, the original tale has become somewhat trampled and blurred.

The original story has hobbit Bilbo Baggins, accompanying a party of thirteen dwarves to Erebor, a.k.a the Lonely Mountain. Here the expedition’s leader, Thorin Oakenshield, hopes to regain the magnificent gold-filled kingdom of his grandfather. This involves locating a gem known as the Arkenstone and confronting Smaug, the dragon who conquered Erebor in the first place.

When we left AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, Bilbo and the dwarves were rescued from a protracted battle scene. They were dropped off at The Carrock by giant eagles and left in sight of the distant Lonely Mountain, leading us to wonder whether the eagles are like taxis and the dwarves just ran out of money.

The second movie, unlike this review, gets moving speedily.  I wasn’t fully into it until the 30-minute mark, but from there I was rarely bored. The flick is replete with excellent CG creatures. Beorn in bear form, the Mirkwood Spiders and of course Smaug himself are all excellently brought to life. The more humanoid folk are a little less interesting. All the orcs are dull and although they are visually different from each other, they feel like cookie cutter villains; seemingly one orc, multiplied.

There has been some attempt to more clearly distinguish the dwarves from each other. Thorin is obviously the Big Cheese. As King Under The Mountain, he is a handsome and rather tall dwarf whose connections stretch back generations to New Zealand’s Flying Nun Records. Fili and Kili are Thorin’s nephews and also fall into the ‘hot dwarf’ category. The rest of the crew are harder to sort. There’s Balin, the eldest, who reminds me of the actor and third Doctor Who, Jon Pertwee. There’s Bofur who reminds me of James Nesbitt from Cold Feet because he is played by James Nesbitt. From there it gets a little hazy. There’s one who seems gone but keeps returning, called Fifo, there’s a sculptor named Fimo, Nori the seaweed farmer, Ritalin, Ventolin, Oin, Gloin and Duh-Doin.

New to the trilogy is the elf character Tauriel played by Canadian actor Evangeline Lily. Like Liv Tyler’s Arwen in LOTR, Tauriel exists because it’s the 21st century and the story needs an ongoing female character. She is one of the elves we meet in Mirkwood. Orlando Bloom reappears as Legolas and he joins Tauriel in the running, jumping, shooting arrows and killing orcs bits. These are very entertaining. If you look closely, Mr Bloom looks a little older, but because he has the aid of world-class make-up and special effects and he is not as other mortal men, he gets away with it.  ­­

Oddly, there is something of a love triangle constructed between Tauriel and Legolas and Kili. It’s not in the book, but who am I to quibble? Can a dwarf not look upon an elf? Interestingly, Lily is on record saying that her one stipulation when she took the gig was to not be involved in a tacked on romantic subplot. When she was called back for the 2013 reshoots, apparently all that material had been added.

The seemingly tacked on section that continues to bore me is the Necromancer stuff. Yeah, I get that it will lead to the giant Battle of the Five Armies in part 3. And it is the bit with Gandalf of whom there is too little. However, it doesn’t feel like it contributes to the forward motion of the story. I hear tell that the writers  (Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyes and Guillermo del Toro) raided The Hobbit footnotes, The Silmarillion, Finnish mythology and The Berenstain Bears Visit The Dentist in order to add to the relatively svelte narrative of the original book.

I saw the 3D High Frame Rate version. As usual, I don’t give a rat’s about 3D and it was neither here nor there or back again as far as I was concerned. The High Frame Rate seemed less obtrusive this time, but needs further development.

All up then, as a nit-picky easily disgruntled reviewer, I believe I am now sufficiently acclimatised to this new world. It is not the book version of The Hobbit. It is more like an epic-ified adventure, based on The Hobbit. A Raiders of the Lost Arkenstone, if you will. I was mostly entertained and felt drawn back into Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth.

Film Review: Thor – The Dark World

thor-the-dark-world-chris-hemsworth-thor-natalie-portman-jane-foster-600-01

(2013) USA, 112 minutes

DIRECTOR: Alan Taylor | CAST: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Kat Dennings | RATING: 2.5/5

THOR: THE DARK WORLD is the sequel the 2011 movie THOR. It is the third outing for the hammer-wielding crown prince of Asgard who also appeared in THE AVENGERS (2012). All three movies are part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which refers to the movie continuity created by Marvel Entertainment. It includes Iron Man and Captain America and will include the forthcoming GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014).

THOR: THE DARK WORLD has a fairly dull and unmemorable title. The Dark of the title reflects the involvement of its bad guy threat known as The Dark Elves. Turns out the Frost Giants of the first movie were not the lamest villains of the Nine Realms (a.k.a The Universe) it’s these guys. These naughty Elves want to kill Thor’s people the Asgardians. The Asgardians are portrayed as benevolent space knights, policing the Realms, maintaining order, stopping, frisking and profiling anyone who isn’t Asgardian. I may have made up the last bit.

In the olden times just after The Rolling Stones released their Steel Wheels album, the swarthy elves from Svartalfheim attempted to Destroy Everything and Make The Universe Dark. These guys are to the Nine Realms what the Tea Party is to US politics. Their leader, Malekith is like a deathly white, pony-tailed version of Ted Cruz. Their weapon of Mass Destruction was a cosmic power-slime known as the Aether. Luckily for all of us, the Dark Elves lost control of the Aether and they lost the war. Now thousands of years later, they are back in the ring to take another swing.

It’s all about timing, see. According to THOR: CITIZENS ON PATROL The Nine Realms are set to converge, thus bringing them closer together, thus requiring much less effort and energy to pass from one Realm to another. Enter astrophysicist and proponent of the Foster Theory, Jane Foster. She discovers the Realms are bleeding into each other. Yeah and she used to have a boyfriend from Asgard called Thor, but that’s not the main event here, people! Superhero movies cannot be about the ROMANCE! They’re about superhot beings fighting other superhot beings and BLOWING SHIT UP! KA-BOOM!

Sidenote: I guess someone could remake the movie of THE NOTEBOOK with superheroes and it would be about love, commitment, fidelity and not blowing shit up. I think it’s unlikely to happen because commonsense informs us that a male superhero is not great material for a monogamous relationship. Apart from Superman they’ve all got that rockstar-badass routine going on, they’re in better shape than an Olympic Village full of athletes and you will never be the centre of their attention. Captain Save-The-World doesn’t go missing for a couple of hours because he’s vaguing out at Bunnings, he’s  deactivating a dirty bomb at the U.N. And so it goes with THOR: THE LEGEND OF CURLY’S GOLD. It’s not really about Jane hooking up with Thor, which probably makes a certain type of fan breathe a sigh of relief, but it annoyed me. End of sidenote.

Thor’s family problems continue, his father Odin, is still the distant, controlling authority figure. They argue less frequently now, because Thor has evolved into a caring, modern warrior as a result of his hot, asexual triste with Dr Foster. The stepbrother Loki who went through a fascist phase in THE AVENGERS: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS is still pissed off at his brother and dad. He seethes indignantly in an Asgardian cell waiting for his revenge.

Thus is the stage set for a battle of unparalleled fury. Not since the last one of these Marvel movies has the threat been so menacing, has the universe been more in danger, have the stakes been so high.  You may find the familiarity of this set up makes portions of the film rather predictable.

The Dark Elves are not sufficiently well drawn to represent a threat. I also found most of the Asgard scenes rather dull visually and in terms of the story. The high ceilings, great halls and golden glow of Thor’s home have the feel of a glitzy mausoleum. Actors dress in faux armour, affect British accents and employ pseudo Olde English to create a yawn-inducing world of shining boringness. As in the first movie, the scenes back on Earth play with more snap.

There are things to like about this curate’s egg of a movie. It’s good to see Kat Dennings back as Darcy and Stellan Skarsgård as Erik Selvig. Renee Russo gets a couple of nice moments as Thor’s mother Frigga. (Apparently her time in the first movie was scaled back after editing). Chris O’Dowd from the IT CROWD has a pleasing comedic cameo. CHUCK’s Zachary Levi takes on the Errol Flynn-like character of Fandral (of The Warriors Three). He replaces Josh Dallas who had to complete his commitments on ONCE UPON A TIME. Hiddleston’s Loki remains a very entertaining creation. Watching him interact with Hemsworth is still great fun.

I wasn’t sold on this film, but I enjoyed myself more than I didn’t. After finding the first two thirds of the movie intermittently engaging, I was pleased to discover the last third was solid. The big climactic battle is executed with wit and humour to undercut its computer-generated been-there-before-ness. THOR: I AM…SASCHA FIERCE more or less defies criticism. Certain fans will give it a pass because of its Marvel-ness. They should go immediately to their local multiplex and pay for a ticket. If like me, you aren’t a Marvel fan, then you may find as I did that this sequel is not the equal of the original.

I rated the original THOR 3/5.

Content Sponge #6

Content Sponge 6

Shaun Micallef and Kat Stewart are Mr and Mrs Murder

Reading back over these Content Sponges, I have to admit the horrible truth. My television tastes are middle-aged, middlebrow, slightly left of centre. However, lest it be assumed that I only ever watch shows on ABC and SBS, I do occasionally watch commericial telly, but most of that stuff is so popular it barely needs a review.

For example, my pinko, lefty, indie loving latte-sipping friends give me very little respect for enjoying THE BIG BANG THEORY. It is more or less the number one sitcom on the planet right now, so what more need be said than, Hey Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, start writing Rajesh some decent stories, the “so metrosexual he’s practically gay” shtick is played out and Kunal Nayyar deserves better material.

MR AND MRS MURDER

Shaun Micallef’s show MR AND MRS MURDER for the 10 Network is nowhere near where it should be. The premise of a duo of crime-scene cleaners with a penchant for solving mysteries is solid. Having them as a married couple is a nice reworking of the Thin Man, Hart to Hart formula. The problem I fear, is Mr Murder himself.  Micallef is playing Charlie Buchanan as a bit of a goof. A little too much of his comic creation David McGahan is allowed to creep in. He comes off as an oblivious twit in his own comedy universe whereas the other characters, particularly Mrs Murder (Kat Stewart) are in a more straightforward comedy-mystery. Stewart is kicking arse in her role and that shows up what Micallef is doing.

The series has a well-credentialed team behind it­–Tim Pye, Kelly Lefever and Jason Stephens–so there is every chance they will be able to turn things around if the show is allowed to develop. Australians love their imported UK murder mysteries, and with Guy Pearce’s JACK IRISH tele movies rating well enough for more to be commissioned, the bar has been raised on Australian versions of this particular telly format.

THE DOCTOR BLAKE MYSTERIES

Speaking of this category, the DOCTOR BLAKE MYSTERIES have just run on my beloved, socialist ABC. As a period murder-mystery series it blows the MISS FISHER MURDER MYSTERIES out of the water. It looks good and the production design has an attention to detail that the dialogue doesn’t.  Every couple of lines has a modern clanger in it. Craig MacLachlan is working hard to play the part of a World War 2 veteran who is a former POW and now finds himself an alien in his hometown of Ballarat. Nadine Garner plays his housekeeper and once again shows talent way beyond the limitations of the role. The series unfortunately, lacks a little excitement.

WOULD I LIE TO YOU?

You might not have caught up with WOULD I LIE TO YOU? on Aunty, as silly buggers have been played with this show’s timeslot over the last year. All the love Stephen Fry’s QI receives, seems to be withheld from ABC’s other UK comedy-panel-show purchase. I like QI, but feel there are a number of episodes where the panel is coasting. The whole thing has a lightly intellectual gloss that belies the number of your basic sex and bodily function double entendre gags that fly around the set. In other words, the show isn’t as classy as it thinks it is.

By contrast, WOULD I LIE TO YOU? although slightly downmarket from QI seems the harder working and more enjoyable show In My Humble Opinion. This is despite its employing the usually tiresome, “Am I telling a lie or not?” game. I can’t overstate how much I loathe this in all other circumstances. It is right down there with “Battle of the Sexes” as a worn out format. Yet somehow, the WILTY? folk have made it work.

In its first two seasons, the host was the haughty Angus Deayton. Comedian Rob Brydon (GAVIN AND STACEY, THE TRIP) is a more genial character who works well with the team captains, David Mitchell (PEEPSHOW) and Lee Mack (NOT GOING OUT). Mitchell and Mack are perfectly cast as diametric opposites.  Mack works his Northern, working class shtick against Mitchell’s middle-class, university educated persona. Mitchell rants intellectually; Mack throws back rapid-fire gag lines. Brydon breaks things up beautifully with his slightly naïve act. He is a polished performer who knows how to read an autocue as though he is coming up with his introductions and recaps on the fly.

The on-screen talent is ably supported by strong writing. The writers are good at choosing which autobiographical truths from the regulars and guests will ‘play’ well as a potential lie.  The formula makes the show fast-moving and continually entertaining.

 PLEASE LIKE ME

I tuned into the first two episodes of Josh Thomas’s PLEASE LIKE ME with only medium expectations. The trailers were interesting enough to hook my interest, but I was afraid that the thing that I find intermittently irritating about Thomas’s comedy might also permeate the show.

It’s like this, the older I get the more I expect comedians to say something. Comedians in general don’t necessarily see this as their mission. Young comedians in particular balk at meaning or messages.  Being ironic and random has been the favoured stance for twenty-something comedians since the 1980s. Sometimes Thomas says sharply observed and clever things. Other times he seems vague and unfocussed.

None of this makes any difference to his young fans, who absolutely love him. His place in their affections is as Matt Smith’s to Millennial Doctor Who fans. They will doubtless overlook his variable acting in the new series. He plays a younger version of himself, who in the first seconds of the first episode is dumped reasonably amicably by his girl friend who also tells him she believes he is gay. He denies this.

The Josh character then gets involved in an awkward love story with a guy called Geoffrey and a nicely detailed family story. The amount of storyline is ambitious. The conversation between Josh and his young friends is often, yes, random and ironic, but there was plenty happening in the episodes I saw. There were good character observations and witty dialogue. Some of this was lost in the verite mumbling a few of the whippersnappers indulge in.

The oldies in the series are well cast with HOME AND AWAY vet Debra Lawrence and David Robert playing Mum and Dad. Josh’s housemate Tom is played by stand up Tom Ward. Ward gets an “additional” writing credit for the series. I question the need for Tom to be quite so passive when the series has a passive main character.  He has a similar energy to Thomas’s so their scenes together have a degree of ease to them, but don’t pop.  Wade Briggs plays Josh’s new boyfriend. He makes Josh uneasy because he is simply too good looking. Their scenes together are very good.

 The series is credited to Josh Thomas and I expect there is a certain amount of adapted autobiography built into the storylines. I also expect that Liz Doran the series script editor is responsible for some of the series structural gifts.  In episodes 1 and 2 there is a certain clarity in the story telling that suggests the work of an experienced telly talent.

Director Matthew Saville (CLOUD STREET, NOISE) does a great job here. The look of the images is terrific and his understanding of how to stage a piece of visual comedy in particular and direct performance in general, is the show’s greatest asset. I hope Saville directs the entire series. Chris Lilley’s SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH certainly benefited from his stewardship.

If you don’t like Josh Thomas then this series won’t change your mind. As much as I enjoyed the first episodes, I do hope we see Thomas’s acting improve as the series unfolds. (It’s another version of the Micallef problem). Taking a stand up’s material and adapting it and their stage persona to screen can be a risky proposition. Sam Simmon’s and his team didn’t make the transition with the sketch comedy show PROBLEMS in 2012. So far, I think Josh Thomas and his people have done a good job.

To return to my opening paragraph of so long ago, I would argue that one of the reasons I end up reviewing so much material from our national broadcaster is that their commitment to paying for and developing drama and comedy is noteworthy, whereas I can find very little to say about the stream of Australian reality and lifestyle programming offered by the commercials.

Phil Jeng Kane

 

 

 

 

 

 

Content Sponge #5

Content Sponge_Les MizGet ready to rise, people of Paris!

Hail Zeitgeisters, here are some foreshortened, compressed and encapsulated reviews of films that I have glommed and ingested in the last two weeks.

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED

Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is an intern at a magazine in Seattle. She becomes part of a three person team who investigate a classified ad which reads: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”

The writer who heads up the investigation, Jeff (Jake Johnson) has an ulterior motive for going to the seaside town of Ocean View. He grew up there and has some unfinished business. The third of the trio is Arnau (Karan Soni) a bookish biology major who is interning for extra credit. Darius eventually meets Kenneth the man who placed the ad. He is an eccentric who works at the local grocery store. The pair click.

Safety Not Guaranteed is described as a comedy-drama. It could also be described as an Indie Rom Com with a touch of science fiction. However one categorises it, director Colin Trevorrow’s first feature film is a confident debut. Comedian/actor Plaza has a fan base from television’s Parks and Recreation and here she expands upon her usual deadpan palette of expression.  Indie all-rounder Mark Duplass does a solid job of the potentially time travelling Kenneth. Jake Johnson’s pushy, insensitive reporter Jeff is also nicely nuanced.

The film has a slight plot and relies upon an audience bonding with its characters. I saw this on a hot still night at the Somerville Outdoor Cinema.  One of my film-going companions hated this on the grounds that it is filled with whimsy. And it is indeed replete with a whimsical spirit. If that kind of thing bothers you, then avoid this at all costs. I found the conditions that I viewed this film in, less than conducive to enjoying it, but I was fully on board for the ride. Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly have crafted a sweet tale about some young people who are looking for direction.  (3.5/5)

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

Director David O Russell’s latest project is turning out to be the little movie that could. Made for $21 million by the Weinstein Company it has taken quadruple that amount worldwide; not that a film starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert Deniro can be precisely described as little, but in an era of tent-pole pictures like The Hobbit and The Avengers–big, expensive films designed to hoover up movie-goers’ readies–it’s heartening to see a film of a more human scale doing well at the box office.

The story concerns Pat Solitano (Cooper) who has spent the last eight months in a mental institution following an incident involving his wife, Nikki. Pat has bipolar disorder and at the time of the incident was extremely stressed. He believes if he stays fit and reads the syllabus his wife is teaching her students, that he can get his life on track and reunite with the estranged Nikki. He has returned home to live with his parents (Deniro, Jacki Weaver). One night he goes to dinner and meets Tiffany, a recent widow who it turns out has been prescribed as many pharmaceuticals as Pat has and is now also trying to bring her life together.

Previously, I’ve only enjoyed Cooper as the A-Type, pain-in-the-ass he played in Wedding Crashers. I found him somewhat opaque in other roles. In SLPb, I felt that I could understand what made his character tick. Jennifer Lawrence is expectedly good; she has been strong in everything I have seen her in. Deniro was also solid. It’s good to see Australia’s Jacki Weaver having international success as the third act to an amazing career. Director David Michod’s casting her for Animal Kingdom (2010) has been a mitzvah.

Russell has adapted Matthew Quick’s novel of the same name, into a film that combines an Indie sensibility with the old school moves of a studio comedy from the 1930s. A lot of the last section concerns gambling and suddenly it feels like we’re in Little Miss Marker territory. Russel has said numerously in interviews that his chief reason for making this is that his son has bi-polar disorder and OCD and he wanted to show him in particular and audiences in general what this can mean for families.  This is Russell’s tightest and most accessible film to date. A crowd pleaser (4/5)

LES MISERABLES

Director Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s theatrical musical of Victor Hugo’s novel is finally out here in the world and is doing very well at the box office and in terms of award nominations. It has garnered nine BAFTA noms and eight Academy Award nominations and won several Golden Globes. It is more or less beyond criticism for people who take awards seriously; and beyond criticism for those who number themselves as fans of the stage musical. And yet, I found the 158 minutes of Les Miz, quite the endurance test.

Before you take up arms for Hugo, Boublil, Schönberg or Cameron Mackintosh, let me get several things out there. I love musicals. I knew Les Miz would be sung all the way through. I think Hugh Jackman is awesome and I always nearly always enjoy Anne Hathaway’s acting. So I didn’t go into this with any negativity, I thought the trailers looked good and I was looking forward to seeing a film version of a musical that I have never managed to see on stage.

I still plan to see it on stage because I don’t think Mr Hooper made the best of the material. Firstly, this decision to record all the singing live seems like a crazed act of sabotage. Movie musicals have used lip-synching since the 1930s. Yes, a live performance isn’t lip-synched either, but we, the audience are working with different expectations when we watch a live performance. Not only do I not expect a pristine vocal delivery from a theatrical Jean Valjean, but I also don’t expect to see into his eyes nor do I expect to sit about one metre away from Fantine when she is belting out I Dreamed a Dream.  Why combine the best visual toys and techniques without providing a similar level of polish for the songs? I think Hooper creates a disconnect between the images and the audio.

I was also put of by the frequency of the close ups and how I felt that affected my response to the performance. To go back to Hathaway’s barn-burning version of I Dreamed A Dream, I was right there emotionally until the acting started.  Hathaway is nailing the song and then she begins to act out its final third; she tears up, she sobs, she hyperventilates with sorrow. I got it, thanks Tom Hooper, this is the lowest point in Fantine’s very hard life. The music and the lyrics had combined beautifully to tell me everything I needed to know, but then everything is underlined three times with a red biro. THIS IS TRAGIC! THIS IS HEARTBREAKING! Yep, tear ducts drying.

By comparison, Samantha Barks in the role of Éponine delivers On My Own without any additional acting, she sings it beautifully and is very moving.  Most of the ensemble singing does the job, too. One Day More and Do You Hear The People Sing? are as rousing as you’d hope. The Master of the House sequence is wittily done.  The set pieces around the barricade are exciting. When the film is opened out to show us the milling, riotous crowds, then the spectacle of the story is up on screen where we want it. Although this will make me sound like David Stratton, some of the handheld camerawork is a bit subpar. There’s some slow reframing and the occasional focus problem. Seems like 60 million bucks doesn’t stretch to reshooting slightly duff takes.

In the end, I enjoyed the film more than not. Jackman and Hathaway are good. Russell Crowe is somewhat miscast. Amanda Seyfried is fine in the poorly-conceived role of Cosette (we care more for her as an infant than as a young woman). Eddie Redmayne whom I found annoying in his television roles like Birdsong, is good in this.  He plays the idealistic Marius who falls for the boring Cosette. Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are good, however it may be time for HBC to give anything with a mockney or Victorian feel a miss – at least for a while. I am rating the film 3/5 of on account of the numerous Les Miz earworms I’ve tried to eradicate over the last few days.