Sleeping through 1917

I think Sam Mendes is a great director. Revolutionary Road, The Road To Perdition and American Beauty are all fine films. I was, therefore, looking forward to seeing 1917, which has been getting great reviews and recently won a Golden Globe.

Unfortunately, I didn’t count on my sleeping “problem” affecting any enjoyment. For over 18 months, I’ve been experiencing insomnia. Until recently, this hasn’t impinged on my movie viewing activities. But only 10 minutes into 1917 and I was nodding off – even snoring. (Thankfully, no one was sitting nearby.)

I can tell you a few things about the first half of the movie. Tommen Baratheon (Dean Charles-Chapman) dies, but not by jumping from the Red Keep. And Robb Stark (Richard Madden) doesn’t die – there was no Red Wedding. I can tell you that Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch all appear briefly, but Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent and Martin Freeman do not. There were lots of explosions, lots of running and lots of hiding, but the rest was a fuzzy blur.

Luckily, I was able to rouse myself into consciousness for the second half of the movie. After the loss of Tommen, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) is left on his own to deliver an urgent message to a distant Colonel. Along the way he encounters a sniper, a village in flames, a woman in hiding with an orphaned child, and a raging river (think The Revenant). Schofield climbs out of the river over the swollen bodies of dead soldiers.

Every one of these sequences is brilliantly filmed (cinematographer Roger Deakins), directed and acted. Schofield’s travels through the ruined village are particularly hellish. As you might have heard, the film has been edited as if one long take, which really takes you into the soldier’s experience and heightens reality.

Having finally and luckily found the command post in question, Lance Corporal Schofield then has to deal with obstructive and disbelieving superiors, who are already in the process of commencing the attack Schoefield has been tasked to prevent. His message is finally presented to the commander, Colonel MacKenzie, (Sherlock), who reluctantly accepts the orders, stops the attack, then unceremoniously tells Lance Corporal Schoefield to “fuck off”.

There are no medals, heroic chants or speeches of gratitude for Schoefield. Exhausted and hungry, he wanders into a nearby field, leans back against a tree, and sifts through photographs of his family.

I recommend 1917. But see it with both eyes open.

1917

This must be the place – a Review

This must be the place is the new film from acclaimed Italian director, Paolo Sorrentino. It features a compelling central character and lots of memorable images but, unfortunately, doesn’t do very much with them.

Sean Penn is Cheyenne, a bored, retired rock star (with an uncanny resemblance to The Cure’s Robert Smith) who lives in an Irish mansion with his adoring wife, Jane (Frances McDormand). Cheyenne is quietly spoken – his voice little more than a whisper – and due to a back problem, walks with a stiffened zombie-like shuffle.

We are introduced to Cheyenne as he stumbles around Dublin suburbia, frightening shoppers, obsessing over his share portfolio, or playing matchmaker to a couple of young friends. We also meet a mother grieving over the disappearance of her son, Cheyenne’s obnoxious friend, and a rock band looking to record their first album.

When Cheyenne hears that his father is dying, he travels to New York, but arrives too late to patch up a longstanding rift between the pair. He learns that his father – a Holocaust survivor – had spent his life searching for the Nazi officer who’d terrorised him. Cheyenne decides to take up the search.

The remainder of This must be the place ventures into familiar ‘quirky’ road movie territory, as the rock star travels aimlessly across the US, meeting an assortment of oddballs and eccentrics.

While Penn’s performance is one of the film’s highlights, the uncommunicative nature of the character makes it very hard to empathise with him, or even understand his motives at times. Initially, the Frances McDormand character provides us with a ‘window’ into Cheyenne’s world, but once the ‘action’ moves to the US we are on our own.

The American portion of the film is filled with secondary characters, but none are given any great depth, and they seem to come and go without purpose. For example, Cheyenne befriends a lonely waitress and her son, and a bond seems to grow between them. However, before the relationship can develop, or acquire any purpose in the film, Cheyenne leaves them, and their appearance seems ultimately pointless.

This must be the place looks lovely and every frame appears painstakingly constructed. Yet this also lends the film an air of pretentiousness, as does the movie’s preoccupation with odd, unexplained images or scenes. At times, the film even resembles a music video, with its succession of seemingly unrelated images.

I really wanted to like This must be the place. It has all the elements of an interesting, entertaining movie, but somehow fails to deliver.

I wonder if it’s because it doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be – a serious examination of war crimes and the Holocaust, a reflection on fame and its consequences, or a simple ‘fish out of water’ comedy.

In the end, unfortunately, This must be the place is none of these.

 

Reviewed by Candy

Curb your Enthusiasm – Season Eight – a Review

When a television comedy enters its eighth season you expect it to be ‘jumping the shark’ pretty soon, if it hasn’t already done so – in an effort to recharge a flagging show, its producers will desperately (or lazily) introduce a kooky relative, a mad dwarf, a man from space, or all three.

I initially thought Curb your Enthusiasm might have reached its ‘shark-jumping’ moment in Season Six, when Larry reluctantly takes in a family of black refugees. Then, in Season Seven, it was a Seinfeld cast reunion that smelled a little too much of ‘shark’. But both seasons had their share of solid stories and very funny situations.

Season Eight greets us with little novelty at all, apart from a mid-season switch to New York locales. And it might be one of the strongest seasons yet.

Larry and the Curb team have always been adept at juggling multiple storylines, then having them come crashing together in some outrageous conclusion. But I don’t think they’ve done it quite so cleverly and hilariously as they have in Season Eight.

For example, Episode Three manages to combine a golf tournament, a Palestinian chicken restaurant, Marty Funkhauser’s return to devout Judaism, an affair, a couple of annoying habits and Larry’s ‘social assassin’ skills to wonderful effect – along the way are many memorable Larry ‘moments’. (‘I’m going to fuck the Jew out of you,’ shrieks Larry’s Palestinian lover, while Marty Funkhauser fumes under his yarmulke in an adjoining room.)

Later in the season, we learn of Larry’s traumatic childhood Mister Softee memories, the results of which ruin a softball tournament and his sex life. The same episode includes some very funny scenes with a damaged car passenger seat (‘This chair is a fuck machine!’ declares Leon).

As usual, there are appearances of ‘real life’ celebrities. Larry battles Rosie O’Donnell for the affections of a bisexual lover, angers Ricky Gervais by talking throughout his stage performance, and in the season finale, Larry feuds with Michael J. Fox, claiming that Fox is taking advantage of his Parkinson’s illness to get back at him.

The only disappointment with Season Eight is the departure of Cheryl Hines, who played Larry’s extremely patient wife. With their divorce finalised in the first episode, she only appears in one short scene.

There is no one outstanding episode – like ‘Beloved Aunt’ in Season One, or ‘The Doll’ in Season Two – but that is possibly because they’re all pretty, pretty good. They’re so good it’s quite possible the show has a few more ‘sharkless’ seasons left in it.

Long live Larry!

Reviewed by Candy

Season Eight of Curb your Enthusiasm will be available to buy on DVD in Australia in June 2012.

Carnage – a Review

We’ve all been in the sort of situation that requires we behave with tact and restraint, rather than the seething anger we actually feel – disputes with neighbours, family quarrels, traffic incidents etc.

Carnage, the latest film from Roman Polanski, is about one of those situations. Only on this occasion, despite the best intentions of most of the participants, tact and restraint are abandoned in favour of hysteria.

Ethan, the son of Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster), has been hit in the face with a stick, resulting in some damage to his teeth. The protagonist is Zachary, the son of Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christolph Waltz and Kate Winslet). All four parents decide to meet at the Longstreet’s apartment to discuss, and hopefully resolve the situation.

Initially, the Longstreets are almost overbearing in their hospitality, with Penelope talking without interruption, and Michael forcing food and drink on the more restrained Cowans. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Alan Cowan is less than pleased to be there, paying more attention to his mobile phone than the matter at hand.

The meeting is drawn out further when Nancy, suddenly nauseous, vomits across the Longstreet’s coffee table, on which there are several expensive art books. As Penelope’s already nervous disposition deteriorates, the afternoon starts to go downhill, particularly when Michael introduces a bottle of Scotch.

Couples turn on each other, husbands scream at wives, the women laugh at the men.

Carnage is based on the play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza (who also co-wrote the screenplay). However, there is no attempt to hide its stage bound origins, with the entire movie (barring the short scenes that bookend the film) taking place in the one apartment. For me this worked in the movie’s favour, adding a claustrophobic effect – for the characters, there is no escape, only endurance.

The pleasures of Carnage are watching Foster and Winslet – two of the best female actors of the past 20-30 years – in full flight. Jodie Foster’s transformation from genial host to apoplectic wreck is amazing. But Reilly and Waltz are no slouches either. Waltz plays his cynical lawyer with relish, as though amused with the havoc he is helping to wreak. Reilly too, reveals himself to be far from the friendly host he might seem.

Carnage will make you laugh and squirm – often at the same time. It’s a small, intelligent film with great dialogue and superb acting. If you prefer guns, robots and car chases, I’d suggest you stay away; otherwise it’s definitely worth seeing.

Stick around for the end credits too, as you’ll notice the two sons reconciling in their own way, suggesting that perhaps we unlearn as we grow older, and not the other way around.

 

Review by Candy

Young Adult – a Review

Mavis Gary is the ghostwriter for a series of failing teen novels. She is also depressed, an alcoholic, and desperately lonely. We meet Mavis shuffling through her mess of an apartment, guzzling Diet Coke for breakfast, and lazily attending to her small dog, whose friendly, excitable behaviour is a stark contrast to Mavis’s almost comatose movements.

As she struggles with the opening chapter to her latest novel, Mavis receives an email from an old high school boyfriend, Buddy Slade, announcing the birth of his first child. Somewhere in Mavis’s confused mind she interprets this as a sign that they should be reunited, despite the fact that he is happily married and now has a child.

And so, hurriedly packing her bags and hitting the road back to her hometown, Mavis begins her misguided search for happiness.

Young Adult is directed by Jason Reitman, and written by Diablo Cody, but those expecting another Juno will be disappointed, for Young Adult is a downbeat affair with a difficult central character.

Mavis is bitter, childish, a snob, deluded and often downright nasty. But as her plan to win back Buddy begins to unravel, she somehow gains our sympathy, perhaps because everyone has, at some time, experienced similar sensations – a disconnection from our roots, the realisation that we’ve been deluding ourselves (particularly when it comes to  relationships), and the realisation that we’ve been stuck in the past.

The success of Young Adult hinges on the performance of Charlize Theron, and to her credit, she is able to portray Mavis as a mean and selfish character, yet still somehow likeable. There are occasional moments when Mavis appears to see herself truthfully, and we can feel her hurting.

The movie’s other key character is Matt Freehauf, played by Patton Oswalt, As a teenager, Matt was brutally beaten, and still suffers from damage to his legs and penis. After meeting Mavis in a bar on her first night in town, Matt becomes her unlikely confidant and reluctant accomplice. We might wonder why Mavis would seek the company of the geeky Matt, but like her, Matt is an outsider.

Matt is also the only person who can see through Mavis and is not afraid to tell her, something she appears to resent, yet perhaps values.

Of course, Mavis’s attempts to reconnect with Buddy are cringingly awkward, climaxing in an embarrassing confrontation, during which Mavis manages to insult as many people as possible.

So what is Young Adult about? Is it a meditation on the meaning of happiness – the idea that happiness begins by changing how you think, not with what you have or haven’t got? Is it about the inability of some people to learn from their mistakes? Or the inability of some people to see beyond their delusions?

Does Mavis learn anything from her experience? ‘I need to change,’ she declares, and we really hope she does.

Young Adult is more a drama than a comedy, yet there is plenty of harsh humour to savour. But don’t expect another Juno. If anything, this is the ‘Anti-Juno’. It’s a good movie for sure, but you won’t necessarily leave the cinema smiling.

Marie Antoinette – a Review

‘Marie Antoinette’ is Sofia Coppola’s third movie about lonely young women trying to find their way in a difficult world. It is, perhaps, the least successful of the three, however, still manages to entertain and interest with its originality and luscious visuals.

At age 14, Marie Antoinette is sent from her home in Austria to marry Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) of France, primarily to cement an alliance between the two countries. Antoinette’s early days in Versailles are difficult, as she struggles to conform to rigid traditions and protocols, and (at first) unsuccessfully tries to consummate the marriage to her disinterested husband.

Eventually, Antoinette adapts to life in France. She acquires an entourage of close friends, attends operas and balls, bears two children, establishes a country house, takes a lover, and becomes Queen.

Beyond this, there is little plot to ‘Marie Antoinette’. There is no scandal or political intrigue, and few references to life beyond the walls of Versailles. We view the world as Marie Antoinette might have seen it, protected (or suffocated) by her life of privilege. This approach is a good from a psychological viewpoint, as it helps us understand how Marie’s character might have evolved, but it makes for slow cinema.

In her previous movies, Coppola has successfully employed subtleties (minimal dialogue, environment, long moments of silence) to develop character and plot, and heighten sexual tension. But without a relationship like Bob and Charlotte’s in ‘Lost In Translation’ these subtleties only serve to highlight the current film’s ponderous pace.

Coppola’s other signature device – her use of popular music – is another that does not work so well in ‘Marie Antoinette’. While the likes of Air, My Bloody Valentine, Jesus And Mary Chain and Phoenix might have fit in perfectly with 70s America or 00s Tokyo, the use of post-punk and punk music in ‘Marie Antoinette’ is a little puzzling. I’m quite happy to spend all day listening to Gang of Four, The Cure, Bow Wow Wow and Siouxsie and the Banshees, but I’m not sure what it’s doing in a film about an 18th Century monarch. Other reviewers have suggested that the music reflects the hedonism of the time, but that doesn’t ring true for me. Punk music was born out a reaction against hedonism and excess, and contained a greater social and political awareness than previous pop music forms. A more appropriate music might have been 70s disco?

The cast is uniformly good. In the central role, Kirsten Dunst is radiant as Marie Antoinette. Strong support comes from Jason Schwartzman as her clueless husband, Rip Torn as the randy Louis XV, and Judy Davis as the Contesse de Noailles, while Steve Coogan, Rose Byrne, Asia Argento, Marianne Faithfull and Shirley Henderson have smaller roles.

As previously suggested, ‘Marie Antoinette’ is not an overwhelming success. It is beautiful to look at, amusing and moving at times, but not entirely satisfying. However, it does paint an empathetic, and ultimately poignant portrait of a young woman taken from her home and transplanted into a world where her every word and action is examined and criticised.

The Prestige – a Review

At the outset of Christopher Nolan’s new movie, ‘The Prestige’, we are told that a magic trick has three parts. ‘The Pledge’ or the set-up, whereby something ordinary is presented to us; ‘The Turn’, in which something extraordinary happens to the ordinary; and ‘The Prestige’, the ultimate twist or revelation.

Nolan’s movie follows a similar structure, employing the same sleight of hand as the magicians on-screen. Time shifts, parallel storylines and identity switches are skillfully woven together to produce a spellbinding tale of envy and revenge.

The movie opens at the trial of Cockney magician, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), who stands accused of murdering rival magician, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). We are shown a glimpse of Angier’s death, before being taken back to review the circumstances that brought the characters to this point. We learn of their origins as apprentices working with mentor, Cutter (the ever reliable Michael Caine), and of the terrible accident that saw them change from colleagues to bitter enemies.

These scenes are intercut with the story of Angier’s journey to Colorado to seek the aid of inventor Nikolas Tesla (the surprisingly convincing David Bowie). Angier is convinced that Tesla can build him a machine that will enable him to perform the greatest magic act of all – The Transported Man.

While Nolan has chosen to work again with Christian Bale and Michael Caine, the movie ‘The Prestige’ most resembles is not ‘Batman Begins’ but ‘Memento’. Like that earlier movie, the screenplay for ‘The Prestige’ was co-written by Nolan and brother Jonathan (adapted from the novel by Christopher Priest), and also, like ‘Memento’, we are given pieces of a complicated puzzle in a seemingly random fashion, and asked to make sense of them.

It helps that the performances are generally outstanding. Both Bale and Jackman excel as men pushed to extremes as their rivalry deepens and takes its toll on their personal lives. As already mentioned, Caine and Bowie lend solid support, while the women in their lives, played by Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall and Piper Perabo, are all quite marvelous (although Johansson’s small role doesn’t really test her skills).

The streets and theatres of 19th century London have been beautifully recreated, although ‘The Prestige’ is not a ‘widescreen’ period piece filled with lavish decoration. The sets are generally small, and the scenes intimate, focusing on the characters rather than their surroundings. The Colorado scenes achieve the same intimacy by using mist and fog to ‘enclose’ the actors.

‘The Prestige’ is the sort of movie that requires your full attention. Given some of the confused comments I overheard after the screening I attended, it’s easy to miss crucial information, particularly in the final scenes, where we discover that both Borden and Angier keep a terrible secret.

It is a hugely satisfying and enjoyable film, and further proof that Christopher Nolan is shaping up as one of the most original and accomplished cinematic storytellers of the decade.