Jindabyne – a Review

‘Jindabyne’ is a new movie by Ray Lawrence, the acclaimed director of ‘Lantana’ and ‘Bliss’. The story of a group of men who discover the body of a murdered woman while on a fishing trip has been adapted from a short story by Raymond Carver.

The story, ‘So Much Water So Close To Home’, has been used in film before. The 1993 Robert Altman movie ‘Short Cuts’ featured an adaptation of this story. But on that occasion it was only one of a dozen or so Carver stories included in the movie, with its large cast and multiple interwoven storylines.

By devoting an entire movie to the story Lawrence is able to take his time developing themes and ideas. There are observations on parenthood, grief, love, spirituality, male-female dynamics, amongst others. And by making the murdered woman an indigenous Australian, the film is able to explore cultural differences, prejudice, and reconciliation. There is actually too much going on, and one of the faults of the film is its inability to tie everything up satisfactorily.

The two lead actors, Gabriel Byrne, an Irishman, and Laura Linney, an American, blend in well with the cast of Australian actors that populate the small Snowy Mountains town of Jindabyne. They play Stewart and Claire, a husband and wife already battling to hold together a fragile marriage. Stewart’s discovery of the body, and his subsequent actions push them both to breaking point. Byrne, in particular, excels as a man grappling with feelings of guilt and denial.

Of the Australians, Deborra-lee Furness stands out as Jude, the wife of one of the fishermen, struggling to mask her own doubts and vulnerabilities, while John Howard offers stoic support as her husband, Carl. Other familiar faces include Chris Haywood, Charles Tingwell (in a brief cameo) and Max Cullen.

Haywood’s role as the girl’s killer is one of the film’s major mis-steps. By not only identifying the killer, but also getting him to interact with Claire, Lawrence creates an unnecessary distraction. On a couple of occasions you feel the film is almost about to morph into a Hitchcock thriller.

For me, the other mistake is the sub-plot involving Stewart and Claire’s son, Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss), and Jude’s difficult granddaughter, Caylin-Calandria (Eva Lazzero). The moments spent with the children are among the weakest in the film.

But there are many more effective moments to offset these, including some fine scenes with Byrne and Linney. The other ‘star’ of the show is the Snowy Mountains landscape. Ray Lawrence is particularly skilled at using landscape as a tool, often to illustrate or accentuate the feelings of his characters.

The film ends with a reconciliation of sorts as the major characters gather with the indigenous people to mourn the death of the young woman. Given the prejudice shown by some of the townspeople, such a development seems unlikely, however, it does give the film some sense of closure.

‘Jindabyne’ is not a complete success, and those thrilled by ‘Lantana’ are likely to be disappointed. But it is a beautiful looking film containing many fine performances, and a welcome addition to the current crop of quality Australian films.


Cars – a Review

After seeing the teaser trailer for Cars about a year ago I was preparing myself for the first Pixar failure. The story sounded dull, and the characters looked clumsy and unconvincing. But not only is the movie far from a failure, it is among the best of the Pixar collection.

It shouldn’t work. The fact that it does, and does so well, is a tribute to the skills of Pixar’s artists and storytellers. I must admit, the car is far harder to anthropomorphise than the insect or the fish, and it did take a while to warm to the characters, but by the end of the movie I actually cared about them.

The story follows the career of cocky young racing car named Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) who gets waylaid in the quiet backwater of Radiator Springs on his way to race for the Piston Cup in California. At first, he proves unpopular with the locals, and his over-confident city ways only get him into more trouble. But, as Lightning gets to know the residents of Radiator Springs – Mater the Tow Truck, Sally the Porsche, Fillmore the hippie VW, and town patriarch, Doc Hudson – they begin to see a more likeable, generous side of him.

Of course, during his stay in Radiator Springs, Lightning learns much about life. He falls in love with Sally the Porsche, finds a new ‘best friend’ in Mater, and uncovers the secret history of Doc Hudson (voiced by screen legend and racing buff Paul Newman). He also learns of the town’s former glory days, before it was bypassed by the interstate freeway.

Will Lightning get the ‘girl’, save the town, earn the respect of Doc, and win the Piston Cup? These various plot strands come together nicely in the last moments, and there is still room for a few unexpected developments.

Cars is not devoid of clichés and stereotypes (grouchy patriarch versus young upstart, the obsequious Italian tyre merchants), but given the freshness of the rest of the film, and the lush visual treatment, these can probably be forgiven. The movie is stunning to look at, with some gorgeous landscapes and many other beautiful details. Indeed, it is the fine details that set Pixar movies ahead of the rest, and Cars is no exception, with each frame filled with original ideas and images.

As is usual for Pixar movies, there are plenty of jokes. It’s not as funny as Monsters Inc or the Toy Story movies, but there’s still enough to amuse most people. Stay alert during the final credits. I laughed most at a series of gags slipped in when most people were filing out of the cinema.

Judging by the number of previews screened before Cars, computer animated films are here to stay (at least, for a while). Unfortunately, few filmmakers seem to be able to balance the various elements of the animated film as well as Pixar.

You can see why they might want to keep trying though. John Lasseter and friends make it all look so easy.

Candy – a Review

I really wanted to like Candy. After all, it’s not often I get to review a movie bearing my own name. But despite my best efforts to embrace the film, something about it fell short, and I came away feeling somewhat disappointed. Given the strength of the source material it really should have been something special, rather than a solid but unremarkable drama.

Candy is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by acclaimed Australian poet Luke Davies, and details the relationship between the titular Candy, a beautiful young artist, and Dan, her aimless heroin-addict boyfriend. The movie makes some alterations to the story, omitting some scenes and characters, while developing others. Candy’s parents, merely background characters in the novel, have been given a higher profile, and the couple’s heroin-addict friend and mentor, Casper, has also become a more important figure.

The movie follows the couple’s gradual decline – from the first euphoric encounters with heroin, to the descent into prostitution and petty crime, and the inevitable madness and dissolution. It’s a grim tale, and there’s not much in the way of a plot beyond this sketchy outline. Candy and Dan experience the occasional glimmer of hope, a lighter moment or two (thanks mainly to Geoffrey Rush’s Casper), but for the most part it’s pretty desperate stuff.

Candy will remind you of other ‘heroin movies’, however, it has neither the humour of Trainspotting, nor the visual style of Requiem for a Dream, to offset the relentless squalor. Apart from a handful of scenes, the incidents are generally mundane and unspectacular – Candy and Dan shoot up, sit around, steal things, and shoot up some more. In its favour it does offer a more realistic portrayal of the addict’s lifestyle than either of the aforementioned movies. This is due, for the most part, to the fabulous performances of the two young leads – Abbie Cornish as Candy, and Heath Ledger as Dan.

Cornish and Ledger are well supported by Noni Hazelhurst and Tony Martin as Candy’s parents. The few scenes featuring all four actors are among the best in the film (in particular the doomed ‘country lunch’).

There are a few other standout scenes. The sequence detailing Candy and Dan’s efforts to stop taking heroin is appropriately horrific, and the couple’s marriage reception is cringingly awkward (Dan shoots up in the toilet then falls asleep while talking to Candy’s relatives).

The film’s conclusion is one of its weaker points. Unlike the novel, in which Candy and Dan’s relationship just fizzles out over time, the film attempts to end their romance in one dramatic scene. The resulting encounter is somewhat forced and doesn’t quite ring true.

Go and see Candy, if only for the performances of Abbie Cornish and Heath Ledger. It might not be the best film you’ll see this year, nor the most entertaining, but its portrayal of love and addiction is honest, insightful and quite moving.

Inside Man – a Review

Inside Man is a caper movie – the ‘perfect’ crime, a battle of wits between criminals and police, and surprising plot twists. But with Spike Lee directing, it is anything but a straightforward caper movie. In the hands of another director the movie might have remained standard action fare, but Lee is interested in dialogue, character and the small details.

The movie opens with the criminal mastermind, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), addressing the camera from within what we believe is a prison cell. He tells us that he has committed the perfect crime. We then flashback to the crime itself, following Dalton’s group as they hold up the bank, take hostages, and put their plan into operation.

Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and partner, Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are the detectives assigned to oversee negotiations with the criminals, along with uniformed police captain, Darius (Willem Dafoe). As the negotiations progress they learn that things are not as they seem.

Enter bank boss, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), who has something in the bank he wants to remain secret, and Madeline White (Jodie Foster), the power-broker he hires to protect his interests. We soon learn that Russell is no simple bank robber, and that there is more at stake than a pile of cash.

To reveal much more would spoil the fun, suffice to say that you will probably leave the movie scratching your head and wondering why and how certain things happened. It’s that kind of movie. I would have liked a bit more information about Russell’s background and motivation, while Madeline White’s role is hazy at best.

Clive Owen is well cast as the cool, arrogant criminal, and Washington cruises in his role as the imperfect police detective, but Dafoe is wasted, and Jodie Foster’s role is surprisingly undemanding.

There are sprinklings of Spike Lee’s humour and politics – a racially charged conversation between Frazier and a street cop, the Sikh accused of being an Arab terrorist, the glimpse of Grand Theft Auto style videogame violence. And you can’t help but wonder if the treatment of the hostages by the police is a comment on post-911 America.

There are also a few clichéd moments – the banter between Frazier and Russell, the final confrontation between the cops and the bank chief. And the undercooked romantic scenes between Frazier and his lover add nothing (apart from some very corny references to ‘Big Willy and the twins’).

Inside Man will probably not be remembered as a great Spike Lee movie, but it is an engrossing and entertaining take on the genre that will keep you involved until the final credits.

The Academy Awards 2006

The 2006 Academy Awards will go down in history as ‘The George Clooney Oscars’. And that’s not just because George managed to have himself nominated for just about every award. This year Hollywood outdid itself in recognising movies with a social conscience – racism, intolerance, homosexuality, freedom of speech, terrorism, transexuality – the ‘Best Picture’ nominations might have been picked by liberal-minded George himself.

Of course, all this liberal thinking wasn’t going to make the night any more enjoyable. I was expecting a dull evening, but I wasn’t prepared for an evening quite so dull. The sombre atmosphere might have had something to do with host, Jon Stewart, whose low-key approach to presenting the event verged on the soporific. The little-known (at least in Australia) New York comic had the charisma of a cardboard cutout, and his deadpan mock-serious delivery simply meant that no one knew when they were supposed to laugh (which wouldn’t have been a problem if his comments had been funny).

There were the usual uneven attempts at comedy – a montage of clips from Western movies that reflected on the genre’s ‘contribution’ to queer cinema; a truly awful ‘skit’ on how not to give an Academy Award acceptance speech; and Ben Stiller’s (actually quite funny) ‘special effects’ demonstration.

The funniest things were (as usual) the unintentionally funny – a freakish Dolly Parton performance, Charlize Theron’s dress (the bow on her shoulder was enormous, almost a second head), John Travolta’s haircut (Friar Tuck-meets-Ed Straker), and Keanu Reeves (not only can he not act, he cannot even not act – if you know what I mean).

There was an overdose of montages (in fact, Jon Stewart’s funniest line was ‘next we have Oscar’s salute to montages’) – film noir, epics, biographical movies – as well as a self-congratulatory look at ‘movies that mattered’.

Academy Award musical moments are, by default, always exceedingly awful. This year’s efforts were no exception. Apart from the aforementioned bizarre Dolly episode, there was a dire song from the movie Crash featuring slow-motion zombies and a burning car wreck, and a hideous rap effort ominously called It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp. (The Pimp song won, although, admittedly, it didn’t have much competition.)

And the good things about this year’s Awards?

It was nice to see Phil Hoffman get recognition for his work in Capote. He’s been a solid performer in ‘indie’ movies (Happiness, Boogie Nights, Magnolia) for over 10 years, and if he was ever going to win an Oscar this was his chance.

Well done also to Nick Park, Ang Lee, Dion Beebe, Robert Altmann, Larry McMurtry, and Mr Clooney (of course).

Uma had the best frock. Naomi had the best hair. And Dolly had the most frightening cleavage.

And, of course, the biggest upset of the night was Crash winning Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain. This movie has been languishing on dvd rental shelves for over six months. It received solid, but unexceptional reviews, and was almost entirely forgotten until a couple of weeks ago when Oscar buzz about the movie’s chances started filtering into the media.

So why didn’t Brokeback win? According to friends and family, there are plenty of people out there who refuse to see the movie. It’s just too challenging. (And, apparently, there is a certain type of male who thinks that they will be ‘converted’ to homosexuality simply just by watching the movie.)

Could members of the Academy have suffered a similar attack of homophobia at the last minute, and opted for the less threatening alternative?

Maybe Hollywood is just not as enlightened as it thinks it is!

Match Point – a Review

Woody Allen has often talked of the role of luck in determining our fortunes in life. He devotes his latest movie Match Point to the exploration of this notion, while revisiting topics like justice, fidelity and guilt, all previously touched upon in movies like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hannah and her Sisters.

The movie’s main protagonist, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), experiences an extraordinary run of luck after settling in London. While coaching at an exclusive tennis school he meets Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a wealthy socialite, who invites him to a night at the opera. Chris is subsequently introduced to Tom’s sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), and parents (Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton). He is soon accepted into the family and, after marrying Chloe, finds himself with an important role in the family business and a swanky apartment overlooking the Thames.

Chris also meets Tom’s fiancé, Nola (Scarlett Johansson), a beautiful, but tempestuous, actress, with whom he is immediately infatuated. After some initial resistance, Nola succumbs to his advances, and they enter into a passionate though ultimately doomed relationship.

Despite the film’s study of typical Woody Allen themes, it is perhaps the most uncharacteristic of his movies. It is the first Allen film to be shot outside New York for many, many years. It is a ‘straight’ drama, although very different to his earlier ‘Bergmanesque’ efforts like Interiors, September and Another Woman. And it does not contain the usual cast of Allen intellectuals and their associated preoccupations (although the characters do like the opera, read Dostoyevsky, and visit the Tate Modern). The movie also contains an unexpected dose of sex and violence. These elements give the film a ‘freshness’ lacking in Allen’s recent movies.

Rhys Meyers is particularly good as the creepy, manipulative Chris Wilton, and the supporting cast, especially Emily Mortimer, is excellent. I did, however, wonder about Scarlett Johansson’s performance. While she did project the requisite smouldering sensuality early in the movie, her work in the later scenes, where Nola is required to behave with a certain amount of hysteria and anger, did not ‘ring true’, and appeared forced and awkward.

The ‘twist’ at the end of the movie is nicely done, and will not disappoint those who find a ‘Hollywood ending’ hard to swallow. However, there is an odd switch in perspective during these last scenes that I found quite jarring. Up to this point we have seen everything through Chris Wilton’s eyes. Suddenly we are privy to the thoughts and conversations of the investigating police. Given the subsequent developments, one can see why this change of perspective might have been necessary. I can’t help wonder if there might have been a better way of doing it.

Match Point is an effective, entertaining little drama that satisfies and stimulates, although long-time Allen fans might feel he did better with similar material in 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. There is no doubt that the relocation to London has invigorated Woody Allen’s filmmaking and, after several disappointing efforts, it’s nice to see the director pleasing both the critics and cinemagoers.

You might come away from Match Point wishing you were just a little luckier, but you won’t wish you were quite as lucky as Chris Wilton.

Brokeback Mountain – a Review

There’s a very good argument against reading any reviews before going to see a movie. How many times have you seen a movie and wondered if the reviewer had seen something completely different? Either the praise or the criticism just didn’t make sense. I made the mistake of reading too many reviews – both good and indifferent – before going to see ‘Brokeback Mountain’, and my mind was subsequently bristling with expectation. Before detailing my own impressions I’d like to correct a couple of misconceptions about the movie currently creeping into review pages.

Firstly, the sex scenes. I’ve read at least a couple of reviews that say director, Ang Lee, has somehow glorified the act of gay sex, that it has been rendered almost sacred. Well, I must have missed those scenes altogether, because the only sex scene I saw took place in the dark, and resembled wrestling rather than sex. There is also some kissing and hugging, but those preparing to be outraged by lots of naked man-on-man action are going to be disappointed.

I’ve seen the sorts of sex scenes described by these reviewers, and there are none of those in ‘Brokeback Mountain’.

Secondly, the hyperbole. ‘One of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen.’ ‘The best American movie of the last ten years.’ ‘It has restored my faith in cinema.’ How seriously can one take such comments?

Unfortunately, Hollywood particularly adores a certain kind of movie. A quick scan of the last 30 years of Oscar winners will give you an idea of what I’m talking about. It’s almost as though the movie is awarded ‘bonus points’ for daring to deal with such an issue. It’s a phenomenon that short changes both the subject and the movie.

So just how good is ‘Brokeback Mountain’?

It is certainly a beautifully filmed and directed film. The screenplay co-written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana is first rate, and adheres closely to the E. Annie Proulx short story from which it has been adapted.

The young cast – Heath Ledger (Ennis), Jake Gyllenhaal (Jack), Michelle Williams (Alma), Anne Hathaway (Lureen) – is impressive, particularly Ledger and Williams. Both roles demand that the actors articulate much of their hurt, frustration and anger by body language and facial expressions alone. There is a scene between the two where Alma confronts Ennis about his supposed ‘fishing trips’ with Jack, and the tension between them, previously expressed with minimal words, suddenly erupts into physical violence. It is a gut-wrenching moment.

Indeed, Heath Ledger’s performance is a revelation. Given his previous screen outings, one might have thought the task beyond him. But he inhabits the role, as all great actors do, and ‘becomes’ Ennis Del Mar.

The film’s greatest strength is its reliance on suggestion over explanation – the memory of a hug, a bloodied shirt, a phone call, a look, a smile. This comes to the fore particularly in the final scenes, when the story reaches its tragic conclusion, and Ennis is left alone with his few memories of a happier time.

‘Brokeback Mountain’ is, at its core, a tragic love story, filled with yearning and regret. Anyone – gay, straight, or otherwise – who has experienced such feelings will relate to the movie and its message. It is, indeed, a powerful film, and will, for whatever reason, walk away with a swag of awards at Oscar time.

Whether or not it is one of Hollywood’s greatest achievements is another matter altogether.

Broken Flowers – a Review

In recent years, Bill Murray has developed a screen persona that relies on silence, a handful of facial expressions and an air of gloomy indifference. The latest Jim Jarmusch movie, Broken Flowers, allows him to explore this screen persona to the full, however, it is this character’s inability to communicate that contributes to the film’s failure to satisfy.

The opening shots of the movie establish Don Johnston’s world. We meet his neighbour, Winston, who has a beautiful wife, and a brood of lively children. His house is chaotic, yet warm and full of life. In contrast, Don Johnston, having just been left by his latest lover, Sherrie (Julie Delpy), sits silent and alone in a cavernous living room. We watch him watch television, stare into space, then fall sleep.

We are given few clues as to what motivates Don. We learn that he made lots of money ‘in computers’ but can only assume that he is now retired, as he seems to have plenty of time on his hands. We are also told that he was/is something of a ‘Don Juan’, although it is difficult to imagine anyone with such a lack of charisma attracting much attention from the opposite sex.

Don receives an anonymous letter from someone claiming to be a former lover, who reveals that she has raised Don’s son, and that the son, now a teenager, has left in search of his father. Don consults Winston, a budding crime writer and amateur sleuth, and is encouraged to track down the writer of the letter and uncover the truth about his son.

The movie then follows Don as he travels the country in search of his former lovers: Laura (Sharon Stone) is a widower with a promiscuous daughter; Dora (Frances Conroy) is a married real estate agent; Carmen (Jessica Lange) is an animal communicator; and Penny (Tilda Swinton) lives on a ramshackle farm with bad-tempered bikers. The encounters grow increasingly awkward. There is little or no talk, and not much to suggest that there was ever any affection between Don and these women.

We are just as unsatisfied as Don when he returns home without having discovered anything more about his son or the mysterious letter. There are a few more developments before the movie’s end, but no resolution. That, in itself, is not a problem. There is no need for a ‘happy ending’ if the movie contains a sense of ‘journey’. We are meant to feel that Don has experienced something profound in Broken Flowers. Instead, we are left frustrated and puzzled. Without a clear ‘starting point’ it is impossible to get a sense of ‘journey’. In Broken Flowers we know as little about Don Johnston at the end as we did at the beginning.

Often ‘less is more’ is good, sometimes ‘just a little’ is better.