The Science of Silkening Our Language

Focused senior life science professional pipetting solution into the pettri dish.  Lens focus on the red droplets on the glass.

If you’re a Generation X-er like myself, you may remember the above headline as a parody of the slogan of a shampoo called Silkience. The Science of Silkening Your Hair was the promise with every bottle. I guess the name itself was a portmanteau word that shoved silk together with science in an unholy humentipeding of the two commonly used dictionary terms. The sharp-eyed amongst you will recognisehumentipede as a portmanteau neologism recently invented by me in the previous sentence. And yes, I have sewn together the word human and centipede and thus blatantly ripped off the rather repellent concept invented by Dutch filmmaker Tom Six for his series of Human Centipede movies.

I come neither to praise Tom Six nor mention his work any further, I am here to discuss words and the writing of same.

The science of silkening one’s hair sounds good. It is supposed to bring on thoughts of dedicated lab technicians testing myriad emulsions in different quantities on dry, normal and greasy strands of hair. Like Thomas Edison experimenting with 1600 materials to find the perfect lightbulb filament, the dedicated women and men of the Silkience Institut de Cheveux no doubt worked tirelessly to create the perfect shampoo and conditioner. And who’s to say in the months leading up to the Silkience launch in April 1979, that isn’t exactly what happened behind the scenes at the Gillette company?

The reason I am name-checking Silkience is that the word rubs me the wrong way. It’s taken me thirty-five years to say it, but there it is!  It annoys me as much as the terms advertorial, infotainment or cosmeceutical. These humentipedazzled words are the invention of those who think the language needs more sizzle. And that’s because the people who most enjoy pormanteau neologisms work in advertising where selling sizzle is what they do. There’s a bit of sleight of hand involved in the term advertorial for example. It’s advertising in the form of an editorial. The form gives the advertisement the authority that an editorial has theoretically, although it could be argued that it has, in fact leached editorials of some of their legitimacy. Infotainment. Information and entertainment. Actually, it’s neither. No one in the civilised world has ever sat back and stated, “Well, I was thoroughly infotained!”

I am suggesting, in an English teacherly way, that our language needs extra sizzle like Bernard Tomic could do with more confidence. It’s got sizzle to burn, baby! Many pormanteau words are faddish and therefore date poorly ( just like: “insert topical celebrity reference here”.) Having said that, I will go to war Snake Plissken style with any mofo who tries to remove “brunch” either from the dictionary or the menu.

Film Review: Under The Skin

under-the-skin-jpg

(2013) UK/USA, 108 minutes

DIRECTOR:Jonathan Glazer | CAST:Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams | RATING: 4/5

“Alien disguised as attractive young woman seeks unattached young Scottish men. Object: to harvest their life essence. Mostly based in Glasgow, but prepared to travel. Has own windowless van.”

This is more or less the story of Jonathan Glazer’s new feature UNDER THE SKIN. Obviously there is no fourth-wall breaking personal ad. tipping off the male population of Glasgow. UNDER THE SKIN is not a gender-switched remake of the musical comedy EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY (1988), as much as I want such a thing to exist.  It is instead a science fiction art film that drip-feeds its story to the audience. It is adapted from a novel of the same name by Dutch-Australian-Scottish writer Michel Faber.

Scarlett Johansson plays the unnamed extraterrestrial. We, the audience are almost always with her as she travels through the countryside, suburbs and city. None of these environments is particularly inviting. There’s a harshness about this world. The Alien is ever watchful as she scans the streets for her next victim. She stops and asks for directions and establishes whether these men are expected anywhere, if they have a family or partner who might miss them, then she offers them a ride in her van. The suggestion is clear. There could be sex in the offing. Many men get into the van. They are never seen again.

This unsettling tale is made even more so by the abstractness of the storytelling. The Alien is mostly an observer who speaks hardly at all. There is nothing explained in dialogue, everything the audience learns is through observation. This is a tale of how rather than why. Beneath the surface story, there are ideas about sex, loneliness, gender, communication and family. It is ridiculously easy for the Alien to find victims. There are many men who are unmoored from ties to others. She needs to find men whose disappearance won’t raise the alarm immediately.

Director Glazer usually works in commercials and music videos. We have him to thanks for Jamiroquai’s 1996 Virtual Insanity clip. He also directed the critically acclaimed features SEXY BEAST (2000) and BIRTH (2004). He has brought that experience to bear in all departments of his new film. He has given us beautifully composed images skillfully blended with top-notch visual effects. The cinematography often presents scenes in wide shots that force us to observe events unfolding, rather than relating to the emotions of the participants. We are detached from getting too emotionally involved. Remarkably, the close-up footage shot in the van, involves mostly untrained actors. Glazer placed a dozen small cameras in the cabin and had Johansonn drive around Glasgow genuinely attempting to pick up men. So the casual responses, chit-chat and flirting are all the more fascinating for not being scripted. This element of the movie plays almost like a documentary or perhaps like reality TV (Snog, Marry, Harvested?).

Johansonn puts in a solid performance as the Alien. She has not been this interesting onscreen for some time. Earlier in her career, when she appeared in movies like GHOST WORLD (2001), LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) and GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING (2003) she seemed to be mixing it up between the indie and the mainstream. Lately her roles have been mainly in bland big budget pictures. Sure, she’s good as Romanoff in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but this new film reminds us that she is an actor capable of more.

UNDER THE SKIN is repetitious in parts and does not reveal itself fully at any point. It’s a movie for those who want to put together the story themselves and then dwell on what they have seen afterwards. It’s a slow-burn with some lovely visuals, disturbing moments and excellent music by Mica Levi.

This review originally appeared in AccessReel.com on 6th July 2014

Film Review: The Rover

The Rover

(2014) Australia, 102 minutes

DIRECTOR:David Michod | CAST:Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson | RATING: 3/5

THE ROVER has a jaunty sounding title. The idea of roving or wandering the countryside has always had a romanticism about it. The dream of leaving the confines of a city and living off the land is the stuff of legend and folk music. It’s also how 7/10 grey nomads plan to spend their retirement. However there are no happy wanderers in this movie. Director David Michod’s latest feature THE ROVER is set in the near future of Australia, ten years after an economic disaster called The Collapse. It plays out entirely in the desert. Jauntiness is in short supply as are food, ammunition and petrol.

Guy Pearce is a loner called Eric. His car is stolen by a gang of robbers whose heist has gone wrong. Two of their number, brothers Henry (McNairy) and Rey (Pattinson) are injured and separated. Eric has a burning determination to get his vehicle back and eventually Rey becomes his hostage. Eric and Rey travel through the desert looking for Henry and the rest of the gang.

For the most part, THE ROVER is a slow-burning, two-hander road movie. Eric is a broken man whom we suspect was angry to begin with. The theft of his car gives focus to his fury. He intimidates and manipulates Rey who is out of his element. Rey and his brother are originally from a southern part of the USA. They travelled to Australia to work in the mines. Rey is a simple young man who seems lost without his brother telling him what to do. Although Eric is clearly a threat to Henry, Rey attempts to ingratiate himself with the aggreived older man. This is his go-to survival method.

Eric and Rey are two damaged souls reluctantly journeying across a hot and dusty landscape. Along the way, they meet the local inhabitants; people who are the remnants of communities, struggling to survive. The rule of law has vanished. The police are gone and now a military force attempts to keep order in heavily weaponised armoured vehicles. Despite this, people mostly have to protect themselves. Whatever is left of the government is far away in Sydney. Early on, Eric enters an opium den. The owner (Gillian Jones) makes her living prostituting teenage boys. Nothing is being produced in this land, so people who aren’t digging rocks out of the ground have little to trade except sex and drugs.

Writer/director Michod and his co-writer Joel Edgerton have created a universe of unremitting bleakness. The post-apocalypse portrayed by the Mad Max films is a world of hope compared with Australia after The Collapse. There is no joy here. Loss and anger are the only surviving emotions in this land. In as much as the movie fits into the apocalypse genre, it also takes its place with narratives about foreigners in the inhospitable Australian interior. It sits comfortably alongside novelist Patrick White’sVoss or John Hillcoat’s 2005 film THE PROPOSITION.

Whether this film will be a hit with fans of Michod’s ANIMAL KINGDOM (2010) remains to be seen. It is an intense experience with two excellent central performances. Pattinson is very good indeed as Rey and this could represent a game-changer for his career. Pearce’s murderous Eric exceeds his best work in LA CONFIDENTIAL (1997) and MEMENTO (2000). However audiences may feel the story itself not particularly accessible. I found it needlessly enigmatic at times. While I appreciate being allowed to connect-the-dots to understand the world of the film, I thought too much was left unsaid about the consequences of The Collapse.

Originally published in AccessReel.com on 30th June 2014

Film Review: Yves Saint Laurent

Yves-Saint-Laurent(2014) France, 105 minutes

DIRECTOR:Jalil Lespert | CAST:Pierre Niney, Guillaume Gallienne, Charlotte Le Bon | RATING: 3/5

French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent died in 2008 aged 71. Now, six years later, YSL fans and cinephiles are blessed with not one, but two films celebrating the man Wikipedia describes as one of the greatest names in fashion history. First cab off the rank is YVES SAINT LAURENT directed by Jalil Lespert. The second film, more tersely entitled SAINT LAURENT is due for release in October and is directed by Bertrand Bonello. There is still time for the Bonello version to gain an eye-catching OLIVER!-style exclamation mark to make it stand out from its rival.

Lespert’s movie begins with Saint Laurent (Niney) already something of a star in the French fashion world. We see him visiting his parents in their home in Oran, French Algeria. Saint Laurent, whom I will refer to henceforth as “Yves” for brevity, is from a wealthy family and is adored by his mother.  He has a quiet and deferential manner and had at one time considered the seminary in order to become a priest. Now, despite his young age, he is working for Christian Dior. His designs are well regarded by his mentor.

Yves’s story is to some extent narrated by his one-time life partner Pierre Bergé (Gallienne). The real Bergé was co-founder of the Yves Saint Laurent Couture House and Yves’s long time business partner. He has given Lespert’s production his blessing by opening up the YSL archives for reference purposes and loaning of couture items. This gives the movie a certain level of historical authority that will please fans of YSL fashion. Fictional Bergé’s memories give some shape and a timeline to the movie which otherwise has the usual pitfalls of the biopic–pacing and episodicity (which sounds like a made up word but isn’t).

Saint Laurent was a shortening of the family’s surname.  When Yves started using this more compact handle he was branding himself in the modern sense of that term. The film shows Yves’s identity shifting bit-by-bit, year-by-year. He is dealing with the public perceptions of being an icon and his own perceptions of what it means to be an artist with a rock star profile. Sometimes his changes were conscious, sometimes less so. Yves is named Dior’s head designer in 1957 at the age of 21 after the death of Christian Dior.  From this point onward, the pressure on Yves is enormous. He becomes a news story. His designs are scrutinised and commented upon as part of a national conversation. What he does is part of the culture and has a status akin to art. This way of seeing fashion is not the norm amongst we Anglophonic types, I believe we tend to view it as trivial and disposable. Committing to this film requires one to appreciate Yves Saint Laurent’s status as a French national treasure and a creative genius.

Many of the movie’s livelier scenes occur in the first half. Another truism of the biopic is that the road on the way up tends to be more engaging than the plateau of success or even the road down. Young Yves is capable of fixing a troublesome design with a few deft pencil lines. It’s the equivalent of movie Glen Miller writing Moonlight Serenade. Geniuses do what they do. Yves is less brilliant at living his life outside the atelier. He is mentally and emotionally fragile and relies heavily on his lover Bergé. He is by his side as Yves struggles to create his own fashion house. The story moves forward. These scenes of Yves engaged in his work and amazing the world is the pulse of the picture. If you buy into it, then Lespert has recreated the dazzling ambience of early 1960s French couture. Fashion was an international business even then, before it became enmeshed with celebrity and excess in the 1970s.

By the time the movie is in its jet-set-me-generation-sex-drug-and-more-sex phase, then it becomes a little less engaging. As Bergé observes, Yves is no longer the seminarian of his younger days. He becomes distracted by his celebrity and all the trappings of success. For those who crave portrayals of indulgence and moral laxity in the spotlight of the media, there is much to enjoy here. There are also moments when things get a little risible. The groundbreaking 1971 Liberation collection is presented in a short sequence reminiscent of the high-tone sex scene in EYES WIDE SHUT (1999). Remember your password – fidelio .

The performances of the leads are excellent. Niney’s Yves is an enigmatic, delicate character who is self-involved to a fault but who has moments of clarity and self-knowledge. Gallienne anchors the film, much as the Bergé character anchors Yves. His is a solid presence and he presents a fully rounded character. Bergé is is not always admirable, but his love for Yves is where he is at his best. Canadian actress Charlotte Le Bon plays model Victoire Doutreleau. She is Yves’s first muse. Their relationship was reported to have a “platonic perfection”.  The film makes her the quasi third side to a triangle with Yves and Bergé. Le Bon who has been a model herself, does a lovely job playing a woman who misunderstands power and suffers as a result.

This review is also posted at AccessReel.com

Film Review: Frank

 

Frank-Movie(2014) UK-Ireland, 95 minutes

DIRECTOR:Lenny Abrahamson | CAST:Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy | RATING: 3/5

How much you enjoy the new movie FRANK will depend on how you feel about Indie movies, Indie music, ironic humour and stories about emotionally immature man-boys. Domhnall Gleeson plays Jon, a young Englishman with a dead-end job who lives with his parents. His mind is frequently stuck in a fervent internal monolog because his outer life is desperate and friendless. The music he writes and plays in his room is his only means of self-expression. The music scene is his connection to the world. It’sthe single living artery in a bloodless existence. Which is why he keeps an eye out for any new band passing through the small, unnamed seaside town where he lives.

When the unpronounceable band, Soronprfbs, appears, he is excited. They seem to have an impressively underground reputation. They are the very definition of an act whose music you never heard of. Their electronically infused art-rock is deeply self-indulgent, but what sets them apart from any similar outfit is their lead singer Frank. Over his street clothes, he wears a large, almost spherical, fibreglass head with cartoony features sculpted into it. Before his voice hits the mic, it is audible via a speaker built into the cranial shell. Frank sings and speaks to the world through the head. He wears the alienating contraption 24/7. No one has ever seen his real face.

Through a series of coincidences, Jon is asked to replace the band’s keyboardist. Immediately, he finds himself plunged into the dark emotional funk that permeates this tense collection of misfit players. None of them appear to have functioning people skills. They are a gang of self-involved dreamers lead by a man who is possibly living his life as performance art. Jon has trouble bonding with these damaged folk. Whether this is his lack or theirs is difficult to say.

Jon and the band travel to Ireland (Wicklow) to record an album in a ramshackle facility that consists of a run-down caravan, office and Bavarian-style chalets. He has no clear idea of what he should do, so he begins taking video footage of rehearsals and tweeting about their progress. YouTube and Twitter become an outlet for his sense of bewilderment. It’s also an opportunity to present some good gags about social media. We are privy to Jon tweets and the replies from Soronprfbs fans, haters and trolls.

The process of recording is exhausting thanks to Frank’s perfectionism. As Jon floats through his new circumstances, you sense he is looking for transformation. He has never been cool or valued in any way. He is seeking a kind of epiphany. Frank with his enigmatic world-view, not to mention his frozen, continually surprised expression, seems like a potential guru or mentor. He’s a man with a big empty head, who won’t judge others.

The first half of FRANK is littered with the stereotypes of life on the road. The second–stronger–half offers some answers to the enigma of a lead singer hidden in plain sight. As we learn more of Frank, the deadpan comedy recedes and we are given greater insight into the fragile personalities of the band members. Michael Fassbender is excellent in the title role. He let it be known he wanted the part and he does great things with it, despite having his voice and eyes obscured. Scoot McNairy (currently in David Michod’s Australian film THE ROVER) also makes a strong impression as the manager Don. Maggie Gyllenhaal is Clara, the aggressive theremin player who thinks she is the only one who truly understands Frank. Domhnall Gleeson does a solid job with the problematic lead role. His is the most relatable character and provides us with our way into the insular world of Soronprfbs, but Jon is struggling with his own demons. He is half-conscious at best and therefore something of an unreliable narrator.

Director Lenny Abrahamson has made his biggest film to date with this UK-Irish co-production. The film’s co-writers, playwright Peter Straughn and journalist Jon Ronson wrote their screenplay based on Ronson’s own experiences playing in a band led by a man in a papier-mâché head. In the 1980’s, the late Chris Sievey created the persona of Frank Sidebottom, an aspiring pop singer from Timperly, Manchester. Sievey’s Frank was comedic, whereas the movie’s Frank is a serious musician who hails from Kansas. The design of the movie head is very similar to the one Sievey wore. Ronson and Straughn have given their Frank some of the qualities of outsider musicians like Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston. In this way, their screenplay is something of a love letter to outsider music. Soronprfbs aren’t looking for mainstream success and Jon doesn’t understand why not.

FRANK is a slow starter and a little hard to crack into at first, however it has an entertainingly dry wit and is a poignant look at the sort of world that sensitive people build to protect themselves.

This review is also posted on AccessReel.com

Content Sponge #7

Eureka

Content Sponge #7 is here! After a mere 18 month absence it returns to brighten the lives of those who missed it, which is no one. Did you call? Did you email? Did you text? Neither did we and yet, here we are with a handful of short reviews concentrating on the telly we’ve ingested over the past month. The ‘we’ in this case being Content Sponge and myself. (It’s not weird, OK?)

Talking of absences EUREKA (11 Mondays 11.30pm) is back on the free-to-air! The Ten Network has held back the fifth and final season for reasons known only to themselves. Yeah, I guess I could have viewed it some other way, like getting the box set, but there are times when I like being all Generation X-ish and so I’ve been recording eps on my Korean Teevo and zapping through the ads, just like we did in the VHS era.

Eureka is a town full of geniuses in Oregon. They are employed by the Department of Defense, and a company called Global Dynamics, to come up with brilliant inventions. It’s a modern day version of the Manhattan Project. Most episodes have a formula; an invention will go wrong and wreak havoc. The series plays with the old somewhat anti-science ‘there are some things that man was not meant to know’ idea. The solution to the problem-of-the-week is always scientific, so the cake is had and eaten simultaneously…by Schrödinger’s cat. The show is science fiction and doesn’t drift into fantasy which is one of the many things I like about it.

The fifth season arc involves the events following the launch of the spacecraft Astraeus. The main characters in the cast are now Zane, Henry, Alison, Fargo, Jo Lupo and Sheriff Carter. Colin Ferguson’s genial comic presence as Carter ties the whole thing together. Like the spy show CHUCK, this series has done well to squeeze 5 seasons from its premise, many series run out of puff long before they hit this milestone.

Which brings me to DOCTOR WHO (ABC Sundays 7.40pm). It is 34 seasons old if you’re numbering from the beginning in 1963, but only 8 seasons old if you go from its 2005 reboot. I am wondering if it’s gasping for breath somewhat. If regular Spongers cast their mind back two-and-a-half-years you may recall I wasn’t enamoured of the series then and had some unkind things to say about Doctor 11, Matt Smith. I wasn’t a fan.

I am a fan of Peter Capaldi, the actor who plays Doctor 12 in season 8 of Nu-Who. I’ve liked his work since the Bill Forsyth film LOCAL HERO (1983). However, not even his undoubted excellences as an actor can make up for the ‘meh’ quality of the current season. Despite liking this new Doctor, I still don’t like the writing. Showrunner Steven Moffat keeps cranking out material that I find sub-par. On the good side, Jenna Coleman finally has a character rather than a cipher to work with, so her performance has improved immensely. Sadly, six episodes in, I find I don’t care too much about adventures of this new Time Lord, which is how I felt for the entire Matt Smith era. Looking online, I see there are plenty who disagree and find interest in the old series still, so I believe I am the problem here. I believe I have just seen it too much since my childhood and nothing about the concept feels fresh any more. So perhaps it’s time to stop watching a show aimed at a much younger audience to whom all this seems new.

MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D (7 Mondays 9.30pm) is clearly for the younglings, what with all the murderous super-villains and deadly betrayals. Season 1 gave us the Mother of all hostile takeovers when Hydra, the evil organization that was always hidden within S.H.I.E.L.D., stepped out of the shadows and showed their 21st century Nazi selves. Unusually this was foreshadowed by a series of films (the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and came to a head on television simultaneously with CAPTAIN AMERICA: The WINTER SOLDIER at the movies.

Unfortunately, a large chunk of the audience had abandoned AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. by this point. This was due mostly to its feeling more like a supernatural procedural than the kind of thing Marvel fans were looking for. Not being a Marvel fan, I never worry about elements like the accuracy of TV Deathlok character compared to comic book Deathlok. It isn’t on my radar. From the get-go, I enjoyed the team dynamic and smart-assery of Season 1 . However, since the storyline intersected with the MCU’s Hydra arc, I think the series has improved. Fictional S.H.I.E.L.D survived Hydra and the show survived its drop in ratings and was somehow renewed for a second season. Showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen are proceeding with noticeably greater confidence in their material.

This is the Internet, so arguably, Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro and Jane Kennedy of Working Dog Productions have been responsible for some of the best comedy (i.e. champagne comedy) on Australian television; from FRONTLINE through to THE PANEL and THANK GOD YOU’RE HERE they have produced some solid hits.

Their latest, UTOPIA (ABC Wednesdays 8.30pm) has garnered a lot of positive attention and I’m not sure why. (Just to be clear, I’m talking about the Australian comedy series, not the UK drama series from Channel 4.)  The premise is that Rob Sitch’s character Tony is the head of the fictional NBA-Nation Building Authority and he is more or less surrounded by incompetents. To his chagrin the NBA does little except trumpet its successes through social and mainstream media. The template for the show is the slightly less funny THE HOLLOWMEN (2008) and ultimately their much funnier FRONTLINE (1994).

UTOPIA and THE HOLLOWMEN both suffer from a lack of edge. Gleisner, Sitch and Cilauro who write the episodes, are rather kind to their subjects. Doubtless this well-intentioned, good hearted approach speaks well of them as human beings, but it leaves me wondering what their series are about. THE HOLLOWMEN is set in a policy advisory unit created by the Prime Minister. The political world presented to the audience is civilized and free from bitterness or bastardry. Something similar is going on in UTOPIA. Hardly anyone is jockeying for position­–the one character who clearly was doing this was brought on for a single episode­–and there is no backbiting or blame shifting. What office worker on the planet can say this, let alone anyone who has worked in a government department?

Sitch’s Tony is the exasperated boss of a group of dim, barely-skilled workers. The power dynamic is more like an ever-patient schoolteacher wrangling six-year-olds. The only one who understands her job and tries to do it to the best of her abilities is Nat. Nat is played by Celia Pacquola and her understated performance is one of the pleasures of the show. There are funny moments and good observations. In the last episode they got a lot of mileage out of Tony’s new frosted glass door (“Close it until you hear a sound”). The way the arrival of snacks tend to slow down meetings absolutely has the ring of truth about it. But the bigger picture stuff isn’t there. I find it difficult to accept that someone with as little outward ambition as Tony is heading up the Authority. For a series that seems to be a satire of Australian bureaucracy, the subject of power and ambition is rarely visited.

Panel show REALITY CHECK (ABC Wednesdays 9.00pm) has screened in tandem with UTOPIA. Both have completed their run. REALITY CHECK takes its cues from Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder stable mate THE GRUEN TRANSFER. Rather than taking on advertising, REALITY CHECK lifts the lid on reality TV (duh!). The panelists have experience in the reality form either as contestants that made it into the entertainment biz, like Poh Ling Yeow or Rob Mills, or as producers like Julian Cress or Marion Farrelly. The host is stand-up and radio presenter Tom Ballard.

The show has hit its stride quickly. Absurd scenes from international reality programs are mocked and the experts are asked about what is staged and how. Australia’s THE BLOCK and BIG BROTHER are often the examples used, but frequent panelist Ian “Dicko” Dickson brings in his experience of being an AUSTRALIAN IDOL judge and a CELEBRITY APPRENTICE AUSTRALIA contestant. If you’re not a fan of the form, this show won’t change your opinion, but if you are curious about what goes on behind-the- scenes, it provides some interesting answers.REALITY CHECK is a fun and palatable way for people like me to experience reality programming without putting in the hours.

Film review: Good Vibrations

GOOD-VIBRATIONS(2012) UK-Ireland, 103 minutes

DIRECTOR:Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn | CAST:Richard Dormer, Liam Cunningham, Dylan Moran | RATING: 4/5

When the evolution of punk is raised at suburban dinner parties, it is usually discussed as a movement of the musical zeitgeist in the mid-1970s, located in the United States and Great Britain.  You’ve heard this kind of thing said over the croquembouche many a time. Not only does this leave out Australia’s undeniable contribution to the scene, but it also excludes cities like Belfast, Northern Ireland.

GOOD VIBRATIONS is the story of Terri Hooley, a man who was a lynchpin of the Belfast punk scene. In a dazzlingly fast introduction we get a feeling for Hooley’s childhood and we are left in no doubt of his passion for music. The story progresses quickly to the 1970s and into the depths of The Troubles. Hooley has no interest in sectarian violence and tries to walk his own path. By not taking a Protestant or Catholic side, he finds himself with few allies and in potential danger. Some of his friends leave Belfast, but Hooley makes the decision to stay in the city he loves.

Rather than keep his head down, Hooley opens a record store called Good Vibrations.  At first, he is motivated by the spirit of reggae. He feels music will bring together those, like himself, who don’t want to fight. One day, Hooley has an epiphany, he discovers the local kids don’t give a toss about reggae or any of the old music he stocks at Good Vibrations, their music is punk. The more Hooley learns, the deeper he gets involved in punk. Soon he gets involved in organizing gigs and the record store becomes a central point of information for the local scene.

Co-directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn have taken the screenplay by Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson and created a lively, inventive and heartfelt tribute to a scene which thrived in dire circumstances.  There is plenty of humour and energy in the movie, but the threat of violence hangs pervades the lives of these Belfast punks.

Terry Hooley was a controversial figure at the time, although he has since been honoured in his hometown. There are some who find the man portrayed in this biopic too flawed and unlikeable. Hooley has definite shortcomings, however I was impressed with Richard Dormer’s portrayal of the Godfather of Belfast Punk. The actor shows us a fractious, mouthy, main-chancer who refuses to let the ugliness of the times destroy his love for music or his home.

This review is also posted at AccessReel.com

Film Review: Grace of Monaco

Grace of Monaco(2014) France-USA, 103 minutes

DIRECTOR:Olivier Dahan | CAST:Nicole Kidman, Tim Roth, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, Paz Vega | RATING: 3.5/5

It is 1962 and France is pressuring Monaco to change its laws because wealthy French citizens and companies are moving to the tiny principality and using it as a tax haven. French president, Charles de Gaulle is determined to retrieve the taxation he believes rightfully belongs to France and is prepared to create an international incident in the process. Prince Rainier III, Monaco’s reigning monarch, disagrees and the nation becomes locked in an unequal struggle with its larger neighbour. What can save the bite-sized state from de Gaulle’s political over-reach? Could it be former Hollywood star Grace Kelly, now Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco?

Not since STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999) with its trade embargo storyline, have movie audiences been lucky enough to be immersed in the drama of an administrative dispute between political entities. However, writer Aresh Amel and director Olivier Dahan have cleverly intuited that a tale of taxation will only excite some, whereas all are fascinated by the dazzling lives of royals and movie stars.

American Grace Kelly was, of course, both. She became a Hollywood star in films like Alfred Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954), TO CATCH A THIEF (1955) and REAR WINDOW (1954). She also won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in THE COUNTRY GIRL (1954). She was a bona fide star from a wealthy background who was also a fashion icon of the era. It was while she was part of a US delegation at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival that she met Prince Rainier. They married in 1956 and she became the Princess consort of Monaco.

The European and US media lost their collective mind over this pairing.  They covered the wedding in minute detail. The fact that Kelly was a commoner and an American meant the union with Prince Rainier was described as a ‘fairytale’.  This particular idea has been recycled numerously since for Britain’s Princess Diana, Catherine the Duchess of Cambridge and Australia’s own Danish royal, Princess Mary to name but three. Regular non-royal women marrying princes are always supposed to be living a dream come true.

GRACE OF MONACO begins with the idea that the fairytale wedding performed for the cameras has become a rather more mundane marriage six years on. Her Serene Highness is not accepted by the people as one of their own. Her spoken French is not yet second nature. Worse still, she seems not to know how to be effective as the Princess. Her search for a place in this world leads her to consider a return to acting. She is visited by Alfred Hitchcock and asked to consider the title role in a new film he is preparing, the psychological thriller MARNIE.  While Grace struggles with her identity, Monaco struggles through the months of the French taxation blockade.

The trouble with GRACE OF MONACO is that it attempts to tie together too many elements. There are numerous ideas teased into the daylight and then dropped. For example, Kelly was thought of as regal when she was in Hollywood, but is portrayed as slightly awkward when surrounded by these sophisticated Europeans. Feminism is given a nod when we see Rainier’s negative attitude regarding Kelly’s work as an actor. She was arguably at least as good at her original job as he was at his. The movie works hard to convince us that the Prince and his advisors spent much of their time engaged in political machinations. However, it also wants to hit us with the Glamour of Grace. This unwieldy mix doesn’t make for a convincingly authentic biopic. In fact, GRACE OF MONACO feels somewhat like an old-fashioned movie, made in 2013, for US$30 million.

That makes this concoction very entertaining to this writer. I enjoy old movies. I like how at one moment it’s a bit like ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953) and then reminds one of WHISKEY GALORE! (1949). A quick survey of the critical drubbing GRACE OF MONACO has received shows that other reviewers were not so kindly disposed. A new old movie is clearly not what they were looking for.

Grace is presented somewhat implausibly as an Eliza Doolittle character with two Henry Higgins figures to guide her. One is Frank Langella playing Father Francis Tucker and the other is Dereck Jacobi playing an expert in royal protocol, Count Fernando D’Aillieres.  Both actors are in fine form. Langella purrs through all of his lines. Jacobi is deftly theatrical in his scene–stealing role. All their stuff with Kidman is fun or melodramatically entertaining at least.

Kidman is good in her role. It’s the movie that’s askew. Tim Roth is somewhat lost as Rainier. The casting of Robert Lindsay of television’s MY FAMILY as Aristotle Onassis is pretty weird. Has Europe run out of senior Greek actors? The other star of the show is costume designer Gigi Lepage. Unlike the DIANA movie which strove to match precisely the wardrobe of its title character, Lepage was required to create costumes in the style of Princess Grace, not exact copies. She worked with Dior, Balenciaga, Hermes, Cartier and Swarovski among others to achieve this. Kidman doesn’t look like Kelly, but her years wearing haute couture on the red carpet have stood her good stead.

The Royal Family of Monaco have called this film a fictionalised account of Grace Kelly’s life.  This seems more than fair. This movie is not an accurate rendering of Princess Grace in the early 1960s, rather it’s a melodrama with odd casting choices, political manoeuvering, family intrigue, fabulous frocks and stunning millinery.

GRACE OF MONACO runs for 103 minutes. I am swimming against the tide of “worst film ever’ reviews and rating this a 3/5.

This review was also posted at AccessReel.com

Film Review: Le Week-End

Le Week-End(2013) UK-France, 93 minutes

DIRECTOR:Roger Michell | CAST:Lindsay Duncan, Jim Broadbent, Jeff Goldblum |RATING: 3.5/5

Nick (Broadbent) and Meg (Duncan) are a couple from Birmingham in their late middle age. They are spending the weekend in Paris to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary. Their relationship is going through a fractious and tense stage. When they arrive at the hotel they originally stayed in, Meg decides that it is unsuitable for her needs. They go looking for alternative accommodation. This obstacle begins their weekend of soul-searching. SPOILER ALERT: Nick and Meg find somewhere to stay.

LE WEEK-END feels loosely plotted. Meg and Nick wander all over Paris working out where they will have lunch or dinner. They are in the midst of a huge ongoing conversation. Nick wants to smooth things over, to make nice. Meg feels angry and wants to change her life in some profound way. The film has character development rather than story per se. It is the strength of writer Hanif Kureishi’s script that neither Nick nor Meg remains stuck in one mode; their emotional states, their feelings towards each other are mercurial. Both have reached an age where their next decisions will dictate the rest of their lives; there is no more time to get it wrong. They can’t hide in their jobs. She is bored of her teaching work. He is having difficulties with his professorship. They cannot find solace in each other. However, they still have a connection that holds them together, although not tightly so.

The ageing of the Baby Boom generation means films like this one are becoming more common. It has similarities with Mike Leigh’s ANOTHER YEAR (2010) which also starred Jim Broadbent and LATE BLOOMERS (2011) where a couple played by William Hurt and Isabella Rossellini have to deal with encroaching old age and also have to discover what they mean to each other now their children have adult lives and have left home. Nick and Meg are struggling with practical, emotional and existential questions. Where they should eat next is also of great importance.

Kureishi and director Roger Michell have created a serious drama with a light touch. I usually find Jim Broadbent rather full-on in more naturalistic parts and therefore enjoy his work more in movies like MOULIN ROUGE (2001) and the Harry Potter films. However, he is at his best here. You understand Meg’s antipathy towards him and yet we see his positive sides, too. Lindsay Duncan is excellent in portraying an ever-shifting, never-satisfied character who is at her wit’s end. Relatively late in the piece, Jeff Goldblum is introduced as an old university friend of the Broadbent character. He gives a performance that is full Goldblum, yet the odd line phrasings and beats are perfect for his character who is like an academic Tom Grunick.

Kureishi and Michell’s film will probably appeal to those who enjoyed their work on the Peter O’Toole vehicle VENUS (2006). That also dealt with issues of mortality and redefining one’s life in its last quarter.

This review was also posted on AccessReel.com

Film Review: Half of a Yellow Sun

half-of-a-yellow-sun

(2013) Nigeria/UK, 111 minutes

DIRECTOR:Biyi Bandele | CAST:Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anika Noni Rose |RATING: 3/5

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN is based on the 2006 novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The story follows four lives as the Nigerian Civil War descends in 1967. Olanna (Newton) and her twin sister Kainene (Rose) are the central relationship of the story. Their family is wealthy and both the daughters are English educated. They are going to make a mark in Nigerian society. The quartet is rounded out by Olanna’s boyfriend, an academic, Odenigbo (Ejiofor) and his young houseboy Ugwu (Boyega).

Olanna and Odenigbo live a non-traditional life in the university town Nsukka. She maintains an apartment, but for all practical purposes moves in with Odenigbo, even though they do not marry. There are frequent gatherings at Odenigbo’s house where the intellectual set from the university talk about the state of the country post independence. They discuss the British. They talk about how Nigeria itself is a colonial construction.  Odenigbo says the British made them “Nigerians”. They are really the Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa and Fulani people, he says. Anyone who has recently seen the film HANNAH ARENDT will find an interesting similarity in the portrayals of talky, discontented academic cliques.

The houseboy Ugwu watches the comings and the goings of the household. He is from a village and has a more traditional upbringing, yet is loyal to Odenigbo and Olanna. Kainene takes up running the family’s many business interests and has a relationship with another of what her sister refers to as her “English boys” a man called Richard (Joseph Mawle). For her part, Kaneine mockingly refers to Odenigbo as “The Revolutionary”.

The narrative jumps back and forth between the establishment of independence in 1963, the military coups of 1966 and the subsequent Nigerian Civil War that began in 1967. The Igbo people want to establish their own state called Biafra in the south-eastern part of the country. The yellow sun of the title refers to the design of the flag for the short-lived Republic of Biafra.

The people of the region are locked into a vicious two and a half year war. When Nigeria can gain no more territory through fighting, it blockades Biafra and causes mass starvation and disease. Although estimates of the dead were between 1 and 3 million, this part of the story is not told in harrowing detail. The audience is spared the nightmarish horror of the war in Biafra, but we still see lives torn apart by violence.  If war is what happens when diplomacy fails, then this film portrays the collapse of a society as a result of warfare. Director Biyi Bandele has portrayed the epic scale of the book with some success. Life moves slowly from order to chaos. The privileged existence of Olanna and Kainene is challenged in every possible way.

Without exception, the women of HALF A YELLOW SUN are strong characters. When their world is falling apart, it is their will that keeps the family together. Thandie Newton is excellent as Olanna, as is Anika Noni Rose playing Kainene. Rose is a Tony-winning American actress who was cast by Bandele on the strength of her performance in television’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Bandele, who is Nigerian, was under the impression that Rose was South African, which is a tribute to her acting abilities. All the performances in this movie are solid. Bandele’s feature is his first and by his account getting the production made was no certainty despite its being based on an international best seller; Newton and Ejiofor’s casting helped, as well as the many deals done with the Nigerian film industry.

Adiche’s novel has won critical acclaim and a dedicated readership. Director Bandele admits that in his adaptation of the novel, he has made different storytelling choices. Although he didn’t seek Adiche’s opinion during the development process, she has seen the film and approves of the result.  Bandele’s movie is epic in scope, but it maintains its focus on the personal. This is the only way to let an audience feel history, through its effect on the lives of characters we care about–in this the film succeeds admirably.

This review is also posted at AccessReel.com