Review: Steve Jobs

The most successful films about non-fictional figures tend to focus not on their entire lives, but rather a part of them. A tight focus means that a story doesn’t get bogged down under extraneous facts that don’t matter in the now on the screen. Steve Jobs is a movie composed, essentially, of three scenes — and they’re scenes so constructed that the sheer factuality of it all doesn’t strictly matter. This is verbose drama about a cult icon that shows both his following and his intense acidity.

Steve Jobs follows the launches of three products across 14 years. Before each launch speech, Jobs (Michael Fassbender, Macbeth) meets with key figures in his work and life and either settles or sets off blood feuds with each of them. Guided by marketing manager Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, The Dressmaker), Jobs negotiates encounters with ex-lover Chrisann (Katherine Waterston, Sleeping with Other People), his daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine), Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, The Night Before), and Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, The Martian).

Those familiar with the work of Aaron Sorkin (TV’s The Newsroom) will instantly recognise Steve Jobs as his work. There is an intense amount of dialogue in the script, and a lot of it is delivered while walking; the entire movie feels like a construct rather than a naturalistic representation of events as they were. This works because Steve Jobs never asks to be taken literally. It has the flavour of factuality without the delivery of same, and it is much more satisfactorily received that way.

Stylistically, director Danny Boyle (TV’s Babylon) has split the film’s three eras across three stocks and each brings a completely different feel to the piece. The rare moments of informative typography are perfectly matched to their timeframe, and there are staggering amounts of pristine Apple and NeXT products and promotional materials on stage.

The script and direction sing best together in the scenes between Jobs and Sculley, executed in the “modern day” and flashbacks run side by side. Pitch black rain elevates a scene of Steve Jobs to a level of high drama that it doesn’t otherwise showcase, but it feels earned regardless. Boyle and Sorkin take a person who has become almost mythologised in the years since his death and have shown both the idolatry that was heaped upon him — even when he was consciously not doing his best work — and the fierce and sometimes insensitive passions that drove him.

The performances never descend into caricature or impersonation. Fassbender looks far less like Jobs than Ashton Kutcher did in 2013’s Jobs, but he inhabits the role as well as he does any other; that he can sell the dangerously heavy sentimentality of the final stretch of the father/daughter drama of the script speaks volumes of his talent. Winslet exhibits a pragmatic warmth as Hoffman, though her accent is occasionally wonky. The rest of the cast put in fine turns, particularly the three incarnations of Lisa, and established Sorkin veteran Daniels.

Steve Jobs is a successful movie largely by virtue of its artifice. A character drama told almost exclusively through the wings and dressing rooms of a series of theatres, this is a surprisingly artful film. Though it will undoubtedly mean more to people somewhat intimately familiar with Apple’s history, Steve Jobs is a nevertheless affecting piece of cinema that never attempts to canonise its subject matter.

 

 

Steve Jobs opened in Australian cinemas on February 4, 2016.

Directed by: Danny Boyle.

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Katherine Waterston, Mackenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, Perla Haney-Jardine, Seth Rogen and Jeff Daniels.

Review: Dirty Grandpa

In 2016, there’s very little point in trying to analyse Robert De Niro’s career. He does what he feels like, and he sometimes swings himself Oscar nominations. Of far more concern is Zac Efron, who goes from a DJ movie with a character named Squirrel to… whatever this is.

Dirty Grandpa is an early contender for the most offensive film of 2016, and not in the “it’s so funny, because you can’t say that!” way, but in the “that’s not funny, and you shouldn’t have said it” sense.

The day after his grandmother’s funeral, uptight lawyer Jason Kelly (Efron, We Are Your Friends) has to escort his Grandpa Dick (De Niro, Joy) to Florida to visit an old army buddy. Dick wants to show Jason some fun before his heavily choreographed wedding to Meredith (Julianne Hough, Safe Haven), so he tricks him into a trip to Daytona Beach.

No one in Dirty Grandpa is sympathetic, not the dream-crushed Jason, nor the horny Dick, and especially not Meredith, who has the lazy double-whammy of being shrewish and Jewish. Efron literally sleepwalks through the role, the type of part that he had explicitly taken time out to avoid. You can’t have a scold if his foil is also a horrible person, and they only barely learn anything from one another. Efron remembers his hidden potential through the intervention of his old college buddy Shadia (Zoey Deutch, Vampire Academy), but forgets to have significant screen time with her.

The only person comfortable in the script is spring breaker Lenore, played by an Aubrey Plaza (TV’s Parks and Recreation) all too game to throw herself across the screen. Plaza is the only person who knows exactly what movie she’s in, and she attacks it with gusto. It helps that every line that she has is simply innuendo rather than charged with some sort of insult — it also gives De Niro a chance to rise above the rest of his material to have something approaching fun, and to make the man a legitimately “dirty” Grandpa instead of a racist misogynist homophobe.

It never quite gets there, but it does prove the potential value of a sex comedy starring De Niro and Plaza. Neither of them care about the finished product that is Dirty Grandpa, but they’re coming at it from completely different directions.

What Dirty Grandpa really comes down to is not the cast, but the script. Poached from the increasingly meaningless Black List, John Phillips’ screenwriting debut is carefully optimised so that each line has the maximum amount of crassness and meaninglessness. There are pop culture references that Phillips was unable to tie into the story, so they float freely, and two beyond awful characters just won’t stop showing up. Adam Pally (Life After Beth) is bad enough as cousin Nick, but Jason Mantzoukas (The Night Before) has reached a career low as omnipresent drug dealer and entrepreneur Pam.

The heavy lifting is done offscreen; Dick charms people that he has previously made enemies of, but we never understand how (the shorthand is “marijuana”, because of course it is). This is all brought to bear by director Dan Mazer (I Give It A Year), who possibly looked at the dailies, said “good enough”, and sweetened the constant lesbian jokes and references to ALF where he could. It’s a zero effort game, a bad trip in every sense of the word.

It makes sense that Dirty Grandpa was made: boobs, bongs and beers are not without their appeal. But you can follow a similar formula — as Efron has done before in Bad Neighbours — and handle it with sensitivity. The modern era has plenty of room for vulgarity, which can definitely be artful, but there’s little purpose for bigotry for its own sake. Dirty Grandpa has a couple of jokes that work and live up to its name, and Aubrey Plaza was beamed into it from another planet but in every other way it is an abject failure.

De Niro can still do as he pleases, and Efron hasn’t quite lost all of his credibility, but Dirty Grandpa augurs poorly for both of them — and for poor career diehards.

 

 

Dirty Grandpa opened in Australian cinemas on January 28, 2016.

Directed by: Dan Mazer.

Starring: Robert De Niro, Zac Efron, Zoey Deutch, Aubrey Plaza, Julianne Hough, Adam Pally and Jason Mantzoukas.

Review: Room

Generally speaking, studios don’t release films where the audience is better off knowing nothing before they go in. Room is one of those rare beasts where you should just put your faith in the system and show up. That may not be possible in a world where a film like Room has so much Oscar buzz, so read on regardless.

Five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay, The Smurfs 2) was born in “Room”. Knowing only four walls, he lives with Ma (Brie Larson, Trainwreck) and avoids the visiting Old Nick (Sean Bridgers, TV’s Rectify). When Ma comes up with an escape plan, Jack has to face the outside world for the first time.

Adapted by Emma Donoghue from her best-selling novel of the same name, Room works as a movie but it’s a clear case of taking something lyrical and making it literal. While we get a lot of narration from Tremblay’s Jack, it’s not the same as an exclusively child’s-eye view. The audience is naturally more worldly and smarter than Jack, so the more opaque elements of the story become immediately transparent. This is offset marginally by Tremblay’s performance, which is as detached as it needs to be. There’s no sense of the world opening up, as you might expect, but rather a sense of increasing brightness — very literally so.

Larson is admirable in the role of Ma, but Joan Allen (A Good Marriage) is Room‘s true utility player. Her performance is powerful and grounded, and she helps to restore normalcy when one may have expected that would never have been achievable again. Allen is the movie’s single most human asset, throwing some of the film’s darker themes into relief and partially filling the void at Room‘s core.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) takes a heavy hand to proceedings, making sure that whatever isn’t spelled out in the script — largely by characters loudly proclaiming to each other how hard every thing is — is visually represented. There’s no room for ambiguity or imagination in something so institutional in its aesthetic. A story like Room‘s is one that demands poetry and the suggestion of escape. The film version offers only one avenue of that, and there’s nothing pretty about it whatsoever. By taking a middle road between gritty realism and impressionism, Room doesn’t succeed at either approach.

Room is a literary film, in that it may have been better off confined to the page. By taking something beyond normal comprehension and committing it to screen without any sort of filter, it loses some of its horror. Room has the combined talents of Larson, Allen and Tremblay behind it, but it boasts a banality that robs it of the punch that it needs. This is low impact cinema, but not entirely without its merits.

 

 

Room opens in Australian cinemas on January 28, 2016.

Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson.

Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy and Sean Bridgers.

Review: Carol

Todd Haynes (TV’s Six By Sondheim) has made a name for himself in the field of hermetically sealed period pieces: riots of colour, buttoned down feelings that are desperate for release, and women hungry for more and better. Carol is an excellent addition to his canon, a progressive period piece that surprisingly reflects the mood of its source material.

1953: When shopgirl Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara, Pan) sells a train set to Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett, Truth), the two become captivated by one another. Against the wishes of Carol’s estranged husband Harge (Kyle Chandler, Netflix’s Bloodline) and the advice of her longtime friend (and ex-lover) Abby (Sarah Paulson, TV’s American Horror Story), they drop everything and travel together.

Carol is a series of moments crystallised onto film. Haynes has such a handle on his material and actresses that it seems as if an entire world has been captured on the other side of the screen, making Carol a truly immersive experience. Blanchett, Mara and Paulson inhabit Carol, and you feel as if you could yourself.

Blanchett plays Carol as a woman who knows exactly what she wants and sees no reason why she shouldn’t be allowed to have it. The role could easily come across as predatory — there are a good sixteen years between the actresses, and Mara is playing younger than her real age — but Blanchett’s performance is so sensitively calibrated that her desire is far more enveloping than selfish.

Despite her own acting experience, Mara is still able to play the part of a wide-eyed ingenue. Therese’s elfin innocence is one of a character finding herself as the movie progresses, and not just through the intervention of Blanchett’s more worldly Carol.

The actress’ individual strengths would be meaningless without the chemistry between them. Their commitment to each other is palpable, and the slow escalation of their dynamic is marvellous. When their relationship finally reaches the line that it has tiptoed around from the beginning, Haynes’ hand shows itself — there is nothing lurid about a scene that would have run for nine minutes in the hands of a director with more ego.

The anchor for the pair is Paulson’s Abby, the film’s most pragmatic element. Paulson endows the role with sorrow without being sad or tragic, and her understatement offset’s Mara and Blanchett’s performances exquisitely.

The confidence with which Carol is made reflects its authorship. Originally published as The Price of Salt in 1952, Patricia Highsmith’s novel is an unlikely product of its time. Adapted by Phyllis Nagy (Mrs. Harris), Carol depicts relationships between women without judging them, leaving that to largely unsympathetic characters who gradually fade out of significance as the radiance around Carol and Therese begins to glow. We are able to see them as they see themselves, and that filter makes Carol a much richer piece as a result. That’s not to say there’s no edge to the work or consequences for the choices that the characters make, but that we’re never told that Carol is wrong despite the decade in which she operates.

Carol is a snow globe of a movie: an ornate and delicate piece, frozen in time. Lavishly designed and performed with precision, it’s a love story that deserves to endure.

 

 

Carol opened in Australian cinemas on January 14, 2016.

Directed by: Todd Haynes.

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson and Kyle Chandler.

Review: The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained) has long been an advocate of genres, having presented to date seven more or less discreet films. The Hateful Eight instantly declares itself “Tarantino’s Eighth Film” out of his currently proposed ten, reminding us of his mortality. He has returned to the arena of the Western to present us with something familiar, but in a completely unexpected way: The Hateful Eight is a modern artefact, assembled using long-dormant film technology, a long, bloody, worthy affair that invites you to feel every frozen moment.

As a blizzard is setting in, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell, Fast and Furious 7) is escorting Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Welcome to Me) to Red Rock, where she will be hanged and he will collect her $10,000 bounty. They pick up fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson, Avengers: Age of Ultron) and alleged incoming Red Rock sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, American Ultra) on the road, and are forced to take shelter from the storm in a general store. There they must fight paranoia and decide if they can trust literal hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth, Selma), cow puncher Joe Gage (Michael Madsen, TV’s 24), Mexican Bob (Demián Bichir, Machete Kills), and retired Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern, Nebraska).

The Hateful Eight is a movie about trusting no one, but also the unlikely bonds found in bloodiness. Multiple alliances are quickly formed and obliterated and, while some ensemble members receive more material than others — in many ways, this is Jackson’s movie — this is a piece where every character and actor has a distinctive role and dynamic. The dialogue is characteristically dense, and it is testament to Jackson’s talent that he’s able to say much of it with a straight face. The lines are outlandish and don’t sound like something that a human would say, but these characters aren’t humans: they’re an octet of hate. Heightened reality is demanded, and it is delivered by a remarkably game cast.

It is with the outsized in mind that one must consider the use of violence in the film. Each time Daisy is brutalised by Ruth, Tarantino is not employing a literal punchline — though some viewers may choose to laugh. As the stakes grow higher and the violence against every party escalates, it becomes increasingly outlandish and legitimately funny. Gore replaces what realism there was, and every standoff demands a new set of rules. Tarantino’s splashy style does not disguise the careful balance and consideration that goes into concluding it just so.

The Hateful Eight is a film that largely takes place in enclosed spaces, but it was shot on Ultra Panavision 70, a format that hasn’t been used since 1966. This means that every scene is extra wide. Apart from the romance of technology that was literally resurrected for the projection of this film, the expanse of the screen serves to emphasise the claustrophobia of the close confines the characters are subjected to. While DOP Robert Richardson (Django Unchained) does get the chance to showcase some brilliant snowscapes, he mainly stays in the cabin — and you can be sure that you will be very familiar with Minnie’s Haberdashery after 187 minutes in the company of the Hateful Eight.

Despite its length, The Hateful Eight is a tightly composed film. The extended 70mm version greatly benefits from the intermission that splits it, even if the first half climaxes on notes that grow increasingly bizarre. The halves come together, but the progression of time reflected by the break is appreciated — and gives Tarantino an excuse to temporarily bring us out of the movie with some narration that may jar in the digital version, which exists without the artificially inserted barrier. We are reminded of the filminess of the endeavour, a gloss that does not wear off until the credits roll.

The Hateful Eight is a true Tarantino piece: at once familiar and entirely its own thing, it wears its indulgences and excesses with pride. With its high count of profanity, blood spatter, and spilled jelly beans, The Hateful Eight is a huge work crammed into 250 pounds of celluloid, bursting to be seen.

 

 

The Hateful Eight opened in Australian cinemas on January 14, 2015.

The roadshow 70mm The Hateful Eight opened in select Australian cinemas for one week only on January 14, 2016, with the digital cinema release opening around the country on January 21, 2016.

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino.

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walter Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern.

Review: The Revenant

If art is suffering, then everyone involved in the making of The Revenant was subjected to a lot of art. A famously difficult production and the fortunes of its star dominate much of the buzz around the film, and more than most, The Revenant invites you to marinate in its own metatextuality: this is an endurance test, a slog for audience, characters and crew alike.

In 1823, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street) is attacked by a bear and left for dead by fellow fur trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, Legend). Spurred by revenge, a grievously wounded Glass makes his way across the frozen country, dodging Arikara Native Americans and enduring the weather.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman or [The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance]) has made exhausting films in the past, and The Revenant is no exception. The opening scenes are shot as a series of very long takes, and the tortures that some cast members were subjected to were not faked for the camera. Technical prowess means that we are supposed to gaze in awe at a 360-degree view of a battlefield in which at least one terrible thing is happening to someone on screen at every moment. Given that the amount of investment we are supposed to have in most of the characters is approximately zero, it is difficult to see these scenes as more than carnage.

When the film shifts its focus DiCaprio’s Glass, it finds its proper element. Though Glass is confronted by a degree of hardships rarely visited upon individual movie characters outside of Iñárritu collaborator Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, the unrelenting harshness of his reality is offset by brief moments of lyricism. Glass is a relatable character with understandable goals that do not hinge on racism or pillage like many of his companions, and much of what happens to him on screen was something that DiCaprio was subjected to himself.

There is a valid question of technique here: if it would be so easy to fake much of this stuff, what is Iñárritu’s fixation on authenticity? The audience can’t taste the entrails, but the actors were certainly made to. The script is best described as mumbling, sold mainly on the backs of the two leads, and Domnhall Gleeson (Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens) as their boss and Will Poulter (The Maze Runner) as the impressionable young Jim Bridger. Iñárritu’s fingerprints are on every frame, and the whole project feels more like a snow box than an actual film.

The Revenant is a movie that cost a lot of money to attain the perfection that Iñárritu expects of his work; despite its name actors and beautifully shot frozen vistas care of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Knight of Cups), it does not feel like a blockbuster. The marketing is in overdrive but, much like Birdman before it, audiences may shuffle out of The Revenant finding themselves more confused than anything else. In the 156 minutes of The Revenant, cinematic brutalism reaches new depths. When DiCaprio gazes into the abyss through the eyes of Glass, he asks if his suffering was worth it. The Revenant is accomplished, but it is not entertainment.

 

 

The Revenant opened in Australian cinemas on January 7, 2016.

Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter.

Review: Daddy’s Home

Leather versus khakis. Motorcycle versus family car. Rock versus smooth jazz. In Daddy’s Home, the list of contrasting character preferences only continues, as the film incessantly tries to establish a binary dynamic. Two men, constantly painted as opposites, wage a war for the hearts and minds of children biologically fathered by one but step-parented by another. Relying so heavily upon the shorthand of easy juxtaposition is a simple and overt approach — and, as it happily conveys a tale of competitive paternal posturing through an accumulation of clichés, it’s as complicated as the movie gets.

So unravels the story of Dusty Mayron (Mark Wahlberg, Ted 2) and Brad Whitaker (Will Ferrell, Get Hard), the former described as “Billy the Kid meets Mick Jagger”, the latter a mashup of every uncool father ever committed to the screen. They clash when Dusty decides to reconnect with his ex-wife Sara (Linda Cardellini, TV’s Bloodline) and kids Megan (Scarlett Estevez, Someone to Love) and Dylan (Owen Vaccaro, A Product of Me), only to find a new husband in the mix rather than a family eagerly awaiting his return. Cue a battle for supremacy that plays up Dusty’s machismo and preys upon Brad’s suburban nice guy tendencies. Cue attempts to buy affection, tests of strength and skill, and a hands-on weighing up of their respective manhoods — plus a dance battle and the learning of life lessons, aka shoehorning in a few standard feel-good antics as well as a reminder that the movie is aimed at an all-ages audience.

Literal appendage measuring — predicated upon Dusty’s virility, Brad’s x-ray induced firing of blanks and the reductive use of Sara’s stereotypical desire for a baby as yet another arena for one-upmanship — may be the film’s low point; however little that surrounds it could be considered to scale even modest heights. Never daring to do more than the obvious in both its tale and aesthetics, Daddy’s Home sticks with the banalities and bland execution its sitcom-like premise inspires. That not only spans the parade of supposedly comic emasculation that provides the feature’s main thrust, but the insertion of one-note supports. While Thomas Haden Church (Lucky Them), Hannibal Buress (Broad City) and Bobby Cannavale (Ant-Man) are all welcome inclusions talent-wise, they’re given few opportunities to improve their roles as an anecdote-telling radio executive, a contractor who Dusty uses to label Brad as a racist, and the doctor who starts the aforementioned act of physical comparison.

That’s Daddy’s Home‘s modus operandi, though: endeavouring to enliven patchy material through the efforts of likeable performers. Like the broad strokes employed to reiterate Dusty and Brad’s dissimilarities and reinforce their conflict, it’s a basic and blatant tactic that only highlights the film’s abundance of formula and absence of personality. Wahlberg and Ferrell comprised a fun odd couple pairing in their last shared screen outing, 2010’s The Other Guys, but here, forced into such restrictive parts and appearing rather bored as a result, they can’t repeat the same feat twice. Instead, the movie’s best use of one of its actors and its most memorable gag arrives via a brief but savvy stroke of casting mere moments before the end credits roll. At least writer/director Sean Anders (Horrible Bosses 2) and his frequent co-scribe John Morris (Dumb and Dumber To)  — tinkering with Brian Burns’ (Blue Bloods) story and screenplay — could manage that, although they also emphasise the visual monotony and narrative tedium of the preceding 96 minutes in the process.

 

 

Daddy’s Home opened in Australian cinemas on December 26, 2015.

Directed by: Sean Anders.

Starring: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini.

Review: Suffragette

There is no shortage of well-intentioned movies that aren’t particularly good. With Suffragette, there’s another to add to the surplus. Suffragette isn’t actually a study of how women got the vote; it’s a snapshot of a brief period in the suffragist movement piloted by a woman who didn’t actually exist. It’s not snappily told, and it’s shot in an ugly fashion — but at least its historical accuracy isn’t that dubious.

London, 1912. Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan, Far From The Madding Crowd) is a washerwoman who unwittingly finds herself drawn into the women’s suffrage movement after her coworker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff, Before I Go to Sleep) is unable to petition the government on account of suffering a beating. Inspired by the (real) Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, Ricki and the Flash) and instructed in radicalisation by the (fictional composite) Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter, Cinderella), Suffragette covers roughly a year of developments within the movement.

Mulligan’s character exists as if to say “imagine all of the bad things that could happen to a young woman in 1912 London, because they’re happening to this one.” Suspension of disbelief is easier when you know something to have happened; when a movie attempts this approach with a fictional character, it feels laid on too thickly.

Mulligan’s dialogue, care of a script by Abi Morgan (The Invisible Woman), comes across as a series of sound bytes that could be cynically hashtagged and thrown out towards an uncaring world. It’s not that Mulligan isn’t committed to the character, but that nothing in the film is committed to Mulligan.

Sarah Gavron’s (Village at the End of the World) indifferent direction has produced a brown and washed out movie with excessive and inexplicably shaky camera work from Eduard Grau (The Gift). The most sympathetic character in the entire piece is policeman Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson, In the Heart of the Sea), and that’s because he’s written as the only sensible man in the piece.

The rest of the men in Suffragette are all furnished with moustaches so that they may twirl them like cartoon villains. Even Ben Whishaw (S.P.E.C.T.R.E.) as Maud’s husband uses his facial hair to hide behind the weakness of his character; at times it feels that he and Mulligan are out-accenting each other to prove their worth on screen. As for Streep, her involvement is limited to a single speech that Pankhurst is said to have delivered.

From a narrative perspective, Suffragette moves its fictional pieces across the board to culminate in an event that actually happened, spearheaded by a character who ironically is barely given a voice of her own. At this point, nothing about Suffragette has worked, from shot composition down to characterisation. It’s a relief when the credits roll.

Suffragette shows audiences the very real message that women have historically been poorly treated, but its own message has been poorly treated by everyone involved in its production. Neither compellingly made or told, Suffragette has the burden of prestige without the substance to back it up. After the coming awards season, Suffragette will likely never be spoken of again.

 

 

Suffragette opens in Australian cinemas on December 26, 2015.

Directed by: Sarah Gavron.

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw and Meryl Streep

Review: Joy

Joy opens with the legend “inspired by true stories of daring women.” It’s about Joy Mangano, a woman whose determination to make something of herself sometimes came at the expense of her family. But the factuality isn’t so important as the film itself, and the story of a man — writer/director David O. Russell (American Hustle) — and his muse, one Jennifer Lawrence. Joy is a piece of pure cinema, so self-consciously constructed and moulded around a professional relationship that it would be wrong to read it as a normal “movie”. Throw away your normal lens and take Joy for the singular experience that it is.

Joy (Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part Two) is a single mother who sacrificed her future for the sake of her parents, Rudy (Robert De Niro, The Intern) and Terry (Virginia Madsen, Lost Boy). She gets the idea to develop a revolutionary mop. Joy follows her as she stands up to her family, shops the mop around, and tries to protect her design.

Joy is a movie that is so confident in itself to the point that it doesn’t strictly care about its audience; certainly, it hopes that Lawrence will get you in the door, but its infatuation is with itself, the composition of a shot, the vacuum into which each scene is sealed. Each moment is its own work of art in service of a greater whole. This can be intoxicating, but it can almost feel suffocating. With no room to breathe, Joy is tight and may turn some away as it sucks others in.

Its unconventional approach to telling a relatively straightforward story carries a large amount of Joy’s appeal. An early montage that encapsulates a relationship from meeting to marriage to divorce is a particular standout, and Russell’s taste in music is, as always, on point.

Lawrence commands the movie, dominating every scene. Some of her most impressive work is against Isabella Rossellini’s (Enemy) financier Trudy, whose bizarre ideas about business lead to memorable turns of phrase and answers to questions that no one would ever expect to have posed to them. Though Joy is frequently treated like a doormat, Lawrence centres the character and provides her the strength needed to deal with the horrible people who beset her. This movie provides us with one of the most inexplicable line readings of Lawrence’s career, but she is otherwise immaculate.

Though ostensibly based on a true story, Joy feels surreal. While there is a story — satisfactorily told and resolved — Joy is dedicated to its craft. Joy continues the streak that Russell and Lawrence have going, though they are seemingly becoming less accessible with each iteration. If their collaboration is refined any further, they’ll end up making Fabergé eggs: exquisite works of art, not within everyone’s grasp.

 

 

Joy opens in Australian cinemas on December 26, 2015.

Directed by: David O. Russell

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Virginia Madsen and Isabella Rossellini.

Review: Youth

Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty) has made English-language films with name casts before, but it’s hard to say that the decision to bankroll Youth was influenced by his Oscar win. Perhaps a largely inert movie about two older men hanging out in a Swiss luxury spa would have been a hard sell otherwise, but Youth has the capacity to pleasantly surprise its audience — and it does so repeatedly. Those not in the mood may find solace in the occasional bare breasts on display: there’s something for everybody in Youth.

Retired conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine, The Last Witch Hunter) has been diagnosed with apathy. On his yearly Swiss retreat with his film director friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel, The Ridiculous 6), he ruminates on his career, his marriage, and his relationship with his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz, The Lobster), who unexpectedly joins him in his convalescence.

Youth is a beautifully constructed film, a true example of a demimonde. Every shot is so well crafted that even the most incredibly banal subject matter — most often anhedonic old people in various states of undress under various levels of water — is rendered beautiful and significant. Caine and Keitel are as grand dames, holding court for all who will listen — from Keitel’s team of young screenwriters to the serious actor with a serious moustache who regrets having once made a robot movie (Paul Dano, Love & Mercy).

Despite Fred’s lack of enthusiasm, Caine manages to convey a warm sense of humour in his characterisation. He may not feel like doing anything, but the fabric of existence hasn’t lost its joy for him. Caine and Weisz in particular work superbly together, elevating each scene they share above the already remarkably high standards in place.

Some of Sorrentino’s dialogue clunks, particularly in two pivotal scenes: Rachel Weisz’s impeccably delivered, venomously heartfelt mud monologue grinds terribly at a particular twisty junction, and the face off between Keitel and his long term muse Brenda Morello (Jane Fonda, Netflix’s Grace and Frankie) is marred by an awkwardly phrased and repeated line. The attempt to avoid cliché results in an unnatural substitute that deflates the power of an otherwise closely directed, airtight scene. Keitel dominates the last quarter of the film, and the script begins to tip in a direction where you can never quite tell whether the words of wisdom he is imparting are deep and meaningful or simply trite. Very briefly, the thread is lost.

Eventually, Caine is restored and the poetry returns, but never as strong as it was. The moment of Youth has passed, but there are still pleasures to be found in both Caine and Weisz’s storylines as they travel towards the inevitability of their endings.

Youth isn’t as fleeting as its title suggests: there are shots, scenes and lines that will endure long after the film has ended. Beautifully shot and lovingly realised, Youth is a film that ultimately celebrates humanity, even if it’s largely through the lens of a couple of octogenarian men.

 

 

Youth opens in Australian cinemas on December 26, 2015.

Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino

Starring: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano and Jane Fonda.

Review: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

As franchises go, Star Wars is among the most legendary. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is the first instalment in ten years, and the first entrusted to a director other than George Lucas since 1983’s Return of the Jedi. J.J. Abrams proved himself as a rejuvenator of franchises with Star Trek (work he undid with Star Trek Into Darkness), and The Force Awakens is an excellent example. Star Wars is not only back, it’s back in a form close to the one that so many fell in love with nearly 40 years ago.

Runaway Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega, Half of a Yellow Sun) crash lands on Jakku. Charged with finding and returning the spherical astromech BB-8 to the Resistance, he escapes with Rey (Daisy Ridley, Scrawl), teams up with Han Solo (Harrison Ford, The Age of Adaline) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith), and together they elude the First Order and the dark-helmeted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, While We’re Young).

The Force Awakens is an example of the juncture where objectivity checks itself out of film: there is something fundamental about Star Wars done right that either works for you or doesn’t. When the words “A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away” come on the screen, a brand of movie magic that is impossible to bottle takes over. Williams’ iconic score matches with a crawl that for the first time in years is simple and sensical.

The return to form cannot be emphasised enough: The Force Awakens is a proponent of practical effects, for a galaxy that feels real and lived in. Every time you see BB-8 on screen, he was actually in front of the camera. The amount of care that went into realising the special effects translates to the movie as a whole, with logical characterisation and story progression, and carefully choreographed action scenes. A visual delight with a script that understands the history it represents, The Force Awakens feels like a rare beast.

More than an excellent franchise entry, The Force Awakens is a great movie in and of itself. The core trinity of BB-8, Finn and Daisy are given enough time to establish themselves as the fresh faces of the franchise before any of the legacy characters make their appearances, and they — along with destined-for-greatness Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina) — are definitely written and performed strongly enough to bring the franchise into a new generation.

On the villainous side, Hux (Domnhall Gleeson, Ex Machina) does an excellent job of making the First Order feel like it is operated by people with histories, and his dynamic with Kylo Ren is reminiscent of one that has not been present since 1977. There is a sense of some material having been cut for time, but Abrams’ take on the universe is one that accommodates developments happening off screen and is the better for it.

Abrams, working from a script he co-wrote with Lawrence Kasdan, absent from Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back, captures the look, feel and sound of Star Wars. More than almost any other movie released in 2015, The Force Awakens feels like it has a giant production team behind it — and one that has produced a legitimate cultural artefact rather than a mere product. While there are at least two instances of wholly unsubtle symbolism that are completely uncalled for, there are very few missteps, and a distinct lack of pandering.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens offers an entertaining movie and a promise of further enjoyment in the future, something that Star Wars fans haven’t been able to confidently feel for nigh on sixteen years. It’s not just a great piece of science fiction, or a great piece of cinema: it’s a new hope.

 

 

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens opened in Australian cinemas on December 17, 2015.

Directed by: J.J. Abrams.

Starring: John Boyega Daisy Ridley, Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill.

Review: The Night Before

Christmas movies have existed about as long as movies have themselves, and many of the early ones — Meet Me in St. Louis, It’s a Wonderful Life — endure to this day. Probably the most iconic Christmas film of the 21st century is Love, Actually, but true classics other than that one are still yet to be found.

The Night Before isn’t exactly a family Christmas movie, but it’s a dang funny one — and one that may be trotted out many times over the years to come. As a bonus, it even got a seasonally appropriate release date in Australia!

For fourteen years, best friends Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Walk), Isaac (Seth Rogen, The Interview) and Chris (Anthony Mackie, Love the Coopers) have spent Christmas Eve together. On the final year of the tradition, Ethan steals tickets to the legendary Nutcracker Ball, and the three of them try to keep it together long enough to get there.

The Night Before is a caper movie with copious amounts of drugs consumed but, unlike many films to which Rogen has attached his name, it is not a stoner movie. It is a true casserole of elements, all of which combine into one of the less predictable efforts of the year without coming across as an exercise in randomness. Director/co-writer Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies) never really attempts to balance the characters or their relative narrative weight; part of this is down to the improvisational nature of many of the comedy scenes, some of it to Rogen’s domination of this form of storytelling, and the rest due to a commitment to theme rather than detail.

Mackie’s Chris receives the least satisfactory overall storyline, but he gets the funniest set piece courtesy of repeated run ins with dedicated Christmas villain Rebecca Grinch (Ilana Glazer, TV’s Broad City), whose metatextuality is far more charming than irritating. Glazer is a highlight, but she’s far from the only supporting actor who turns in a remarkable performance: Mindy Kaling (TV’s The Mindy Project) gives great face throughout, and Michael Shannon (99 Homes) runs away with the movie each time he shows up as the mysterious drug dealer Mr. Green.

The Night Before even gets to have its cake and eat it too, with a grand romantic gesture that plays out as movies demand it, followed by an almost immediate deflation of the form. The film’s justification is more clever (and arbitrary) than many more self-serious comedies, and lends an anarchic air to what could easily have been read as a film about three men desperate not to grow up.

The script never celebrates the pathetic elements of Ethan’s character, and takes every opportunity to suggest that it is time he evolved. His arrested development is framed understandably, and his friends are sympathetic, but the movie is written from the perspective that being an adult is a necessary step rather than a drag. Extra points are awarded for making the character a frustrated musician without ever feeling the need to show the depths of his latent talent.

The Night Before is a well thought out Christmas movie about friendship and the families that people form. More than that, it’s a consistently funny film with some jokes with explosive pay offs for ridiculously long set ups. With multiple jokes that feel like complete justifications for the film in themselves, The Night Before could well become the vulgar Christmas classic the world deserves.

 

 

The Night Before opened in Australian cinemas on December 3, 2015.

Directed by: Jonathan Levine.

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Ilana Glazer, Mindy Kaling and Michael Shannon.