Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Rocket: Festival of Hope

Australian writer/director Kim Mordaunt's The Rocket is a little gem. He sees the film as "a rite of passage story of a boy’s journey through grief, guilt and self-doubt - set against the timely universal themes of the displacement of people by industry and the legacy of war". It certainly fits that description but in many ways it is a classic fantasy, a young boy and his family's quest to regain the life they have lost, symbolised by finding a place to plant the mother's mangoes.

It's a feel good movie with fun and humour. However, at its core is a very serious drama. It has been banned in Laos, where it is set, apparently because it deals with the dispossession of villagers from their land to build dams. The film was Australia's nomination in the Best Foreign-language category for the 2014 Oscars but didn't make it to the short list.

The two children go well beyond the cliché of stealing the show. Sitthiphon Disamoe as 10 year-old boy Ahlo romps through the film with boundless energy, displaying the rare ability to handle comic and dramatic moments with equal ease. Loungnam Kaosainam gives her 9 year-old character Kia a real edge. Her full-on attitude is as infectious as Sitthiphon's.

Former stuntperson Sumrit Warin as Ahlo's father Toma, gives a rock-solid performance that matches his chiselled countenance, saying lots with minimal dialogue. Bunsri Yindi as grandma Taitok and Alice Keohavong as the mother Mali have the kind of presence you'd expect of skilled, experienced professionals.

The other show stealer is the accomplished Thep Phongam as Purple, so named for his James Brown fixation. In Mordaunt's words, Purple is "a powerful metaphor for Lao’s history. He was full of contradictions: a deep Lao heritage but also a clone of western US influence from the Secret War when the Lao Hmong tribes people were recruited by the CIA to fight for them". He is also a great clown.

The film was produced by Sylvia Wilczynski, who is the other half of the Australian film company Red Lamp Films with Kim Mordaunt.

As befits the magnificent setting in the hills of Northern Laos, we saw the movie at the Shadow Electric outdoor cinema at the former Abbotsford convent in Melbourne. Without creating much of a spoiler, it was also appropriate that the bats made their customary dusk journey overhead before the screening.

The applause at the end indicated The Rocket's impact. Not because it could have happened, but because it should!

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Friday, January 17, 2014

Philomena: Forgiven but not Forgotten

Stephen Frear's Philomena is a quality film, directed with admirable restraint and sensitivity. It's a familiar scenario. Jaded British journalist reluctantly takes on investigation on behalf of the powerless to set right past transgressions. In this case it's an Irish mother searching for her son 'stolen' in the 1950s.

It is tempting to find out how much of this film is 'based on a true story' but that's a bit like comparing the movie with the book. Nevertheless, it is quite legit to ask how much stored knowledge of the Catholic church's adoption policies and practices of the past, if any, the viewer needs to fully understand the issues raised or the personal anguish of the girls involved and their children. My exposure to many of the issues raised has been fairly extensive.

Steve Coogan is a pleasant surprise as journo Martin Sixsmith. He was also co-writer of the screenplay. Judi Dench is as professional as ever but that cheeky, knowing look she gives somehow doesn't match Philomena Lee's old-fashioned faith and lack of guile.

Wikipedia looks at accusations of anti-Catholicism. I thought the church got off lightly but let's not go into the 'churches abusing human rights' genre - it's very extensive.

There are a couple of bizarre twists towards the end that only a 'true story' can deliver without the necessity to suspend belief. It is based on Sixsmith's 'The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee' published in 2009.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

20 Feet from Stardom: Music to Our Ears

Director/writer Morgan Neville has given us a real goodie with 20 Feet from Stardom. Bad pun notwithstanding it lives up to its claim: ‘meet the unsung heroes behind the greatest music of our time’.

There are many great singers featured but the households names that appear such as Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Mick Jagger, Sting, David Bowie, Tom Jones, Stevie wonder, Ray Charles and Michael Jackson are not the stars of this first class documentary.

That honour goes to the backup singers: Darlene Love; Merry Clayton; Lisa Fischer; Judith Hill; Tata Vega; Jo Lawry; Claudia Lennear; Oren, Maxine and Julia Waters; and more. We’ve all heard them, even if we don’t realise it.

Despite their imposing voices, most of them have not become stars in their own right. Sheryl Crow who makes a brief appearance is one of the exceptions.

It is also a nostalgia trip for baby boomers as it ranges across the post-war period of popular music. Go to a cinema with a good sound system – well worth the effort.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Ship of Theseus: Sum of the Parts

Anand Gandhi's Ship of Theseus is ambitious in scope and and original in treatment for a first feature-length film. As director/co-writer he is both captain and helmsman.

This movie is three stories and one, which befits Theseus' paradox that begins the voyage. 'If the parts of a ship are replaced, bit-by-bit, is it still the same ship?'

It is a overly long film at 2 hours 20 minutes. That's three-quarters-of-an-hour per story. At times the slow pace is annoying until the importance of detailing everyday life becomes clearer.

The cast is well chosen. Aida El-Kashef plays Aliya Kamal, an experimental photographer. Neeraj kabi is Maitreya, the sick monk. Sohum Shah is Navin the young stockbroker. They face their own individual searches for identity and life's meaning. But the key is the sum of the parts.

This is a bold experiment in filmmaking. Its background development is explored on Wikepedia.

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Gravity 3D: Poor Pulling Power?

Gravity in 3D, as a space vehicle for Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, is disappointing. It is mostly action and little story. It is supposed to be Sci-fi but it contains little that is new in its technology. It is also heralded as a thriller but its predictability robs it of much of its disaster movie potential. There are not too many instances where you find yourself holding your breath.

It is a satisfying visual experience but the impact of the special effects is not groundbreaking. Its grand 3D potential was somehow lost in space. There were few wow moments.

It is basically a cast of two: scientist Dr. Ryan (what kind of name is that...) Stone and shuttle astronaut Matt Kowalski. The rest are just voices. Clooney spacewalks through his role without having to extend his acting beyond chat show level. Bullock has more to do and does it competently. Director and co-writer Alfonso Cuaróncan must take the blame for the over-the-top sentimentality.

As for the scenario, the longer it went, the sillier it became. Mercifully, it lasted only 91 minutes. It was a very small audience but it's difficult to say if that can be put down to Gravity's poor pulling power. Its box office and critical reception have been strong.

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