Monday, March 30, 2009

Easy Virtue: Jessica Biel's BMW 328 time traveller

In my review of Easy Virtue I suggested some mischief took place:
An anomaly is the spectacular BMW sports car. A German car was hardly the choice so soon after the war. It also seems an anachronism, probably about a decade too early. Maybe BMW were sponsors or paid for product placement. That badge just keeps appearing in close up.
Thanks to my neighbour who is a MG TC devotee, I have found the answer. He has a copy of The Automobile magazine that featured the sports car on its front cover in November 2004.

It's a BMW 328, manufactured between 1936 and 1940.

Larita Whittaker (Jessica Biel) was clearly a woman ahead of her time.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Not So Gran Torino

The setting for Gran Torino is the Global Financial Crisis' 'Ground Zero': the suburbs of 'Motor-City' Detroit before the worst of the sub-prime meltdown.

I didn't review Gran Torino when it was first released because I was disappointed with it. It deserves big ticks for: good acting; a tight script and topicality. But the crosses are a lot to bear from such great filmmakers: lack of originality; pedestrian predictability and a dearth of insights. Going by the box office and its continuing presence in Australian cinemas I seem to be in a small minority.

This is a story that has all the elements to make some indelible statements about modern urban society in countries like the U.S. and Australia. It has similarities to the recent Oz film The Combination that explored similar issues in Sydney. We have the clash of cultures and generations. Racial and ethnic tensions. Drugs, guns and gangs. Unemployment.

Walt Kowalski is a widower, a Korean War veteran living next to Hmong refugees. He is an alien in his own neighbourhood. This old autoworker and his classic 1972 Ford Gran Torino represent a past glory that has long faded. Clint Eastwood does modern alienation better than anyone. He’s as bitter as the beer that is his constant companion.

However, his character does not move far beyond the stereotype: the redneck who learns to open up his heart of gold; the poor communicator who is misunderstood; the gun toting but ultimately selfless vigilante; the tough, silent enigma who triumphs over his prejudices. His best friend is his dog Daisy. As the official website's Production Notes announce, “They don’t make them like they used to.”

The rest of the cast do an admirable job: Bee Vang as Thao Vang Lor, the teenager who Walt mentors; Ahney HerSue as his sister Lor; Chee Thao as their Grandma.

Nick Schenk’s screenplay is tight but overly sentimental and very predictable. Still it’s a praiseworthy effort for a first timer screenwriter. It certainly suited Director/Producer Eastwood’s acting style: the stare, the locked jaw. At times he feels like a cross between Michael Douglas in Falling Down and Gary Cooper in High Noon .

So what are the messages of Gran Torino? Prejudice breeds in ignorance. All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. The work ethic and self-reliance are the way out.

This film says little new about multi-cultural societies or the possibilities for reconciling their deep-seated problems. We see the good, the bad and the ugly side of community: family, prejudice and gangbangers. The macho ethos that dominates so much of modern life is skimmed over. We discover during a visit to the barber that real men aren’t racist, sexist, ignorant and rude. That’s just the way they interact with their mates.

The ending is clichéd and unsatisfactory in most respects. You would have expected the blatantly telegraphed punches to rankle Million Dollar Baby’s creator a bit more.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Easy Virtue: more nasty than naughty

Easy Virtue did not live up to expectations. Jessica Biel is the best thing about this film. She plays Larita, the unwelcome addition to the English upper crust Whittaker family. Jessica hits just the right note in a version of Noel Coward’s 1925 play that seems off key in many ways. She has the look required of a rally-driving femme fatale, with strong features and typically American teeth. As well she shows the talent to make a bigger splash in the Hollywood star pool in the near future.

Director and Co-writer Stephan Elliott has suggested that the screenplay was softened to make a comedy of manners out of Coward’s very biting social satire. The play has been described as a:
… savage attack on the hypocrisy of the early 1920s — and the way in which it used Victorian standards, already outdated by war, to destroy the lives of those it could not control...
Rediscovered 'Easy Virtue' Is a Revelation : Coward's Early Prime
To a large extent Elliott failed in his endeavour to tone it down.

In post Great War England the landed gentry are fading and failing. Easy Virtue presents them as a nasty, selfish, spiteful, indeed hateful breed. The only really sympathetic character in the dysfunctional Whittaker family is Colin Firth as the defeated and ineffectual lord of the manor.

They exemplify the decline of the British Empire after a generation of young men “took the King’s shilling” in 1914. Neither Whittaker nor his rural lifestyle has recovered. The neighbours all limp their way through the story, both literally and figuratively. Nevertheless, it’s business as usual with a foxhunt, and shooting and black-tie parties.

Ironically the easy virtue is a quality that applies to the English hosts not their notorious new family member. Their complete lack of any personal principles is only matched by their atrociously bad manners. Kristin Scott Thomas’ totally unsympathetic character, Mrs. Whittaker, doesn’t quite fit and I suspect Kristin has been more faithful to Coward’s original. This is a disappointment after her brilliance in the French I’ve loved you for so long. Mrs. Whittaker takes no prisoners and is prepared to destroy her children’s chance at happiness to achieve her own ends.

It’s a decadent society, not in its easy virtue but in its social and financial decay. The children are pampered and dependent. By and large the cast does them justice. Katherine Parkinson, of Doc Martin fame, continues her penchant for eccentric roles as daughter Marion. Kimberley Nixon does not have as much success as her dim witted sister Hilda. Ben Barnes does a more than serviceable job as John Whittaker, Larita’s dashing new husband. He also looks the part.

The film relies as much on visual humour as wit for its comic moments: a risqué can-can, the butt end of a chihuahua, a roll in the hay, a tango, a hovering man servant. As you should expect from a Coward adaptation, there is some very clever dialogue. However, the wit is often lost in the rushed delivery. Elliott seemed reluctant to let the audience savour the lines. Anyway, it’s hardly ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. The audience were not exactly bubbling. Kris Marshall, as the clever young butler Furber, saves many of the scenes with a controlled comic performance.

Its look and the sound track help to make this an enjoyable sensual experience. There are even occasional ventures into musical comedy as Jessica, Ben and Colin sing a few old standards. These include Noel Coward’s ‘Mad About The Boy’ and ‘Room With A View’. The finale is Billy Ocean’s ‘When the Going Gets Tough’.

An anomaly is the spectacular BMW sports car. A German car was hardly the choice so soon after the war. It also seems an anachronism, probably about a decade too early. Maybe BMW were sponsors or paid for product placement. That badge just keeps appearing in close up. The motorcycle also looks a bit like a 1920s BMW.

The movie’s tagline is ‘Let’s Misbehave’. Don't expect a romp or a farce. It is more nasty than naughty.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Combination: Testosterone Rules

After all the conflict at the opening sessions in Sydney, only one other person was in the St Kilda cinema at lunchtime on Saturday to see The Combination. A pity, because this is an Aussie film with attitude. It’s a good story, competently told. Actor and now director, David Field’s first effort is tight and straightforward.

George Basha wrote and stars in this Lebanese/Australian tale of star-crossed lovers. It’s more like West Side Story than Romeo and Juliet, a clash of cultures in the modern city. George, as the street toughened John Morkos, does tough guy very well but his delivery of love scene dialogue is a bit flat. Firass Dirani as brother Charlie is a rising star. He handles a difficult part without slipping into melodrama. Doris Younane’s performance as their widowed mother Mary is a very professional one.

Testosterone rules: school “gangs”; youth, drugs and crime; the boxing gym; knives and even guns. The background noise includes the 2005 riots in the Sydney beach suburb of Cronulla between Lebanese and so-called “old” Australian youths.

Don’t expect a clash of religions as well. Ironically the only openly Christian group are the Lebanese. The stereotypes just won’t fit. The messages of this film are not subtle. John’s girlfriend Sydney (Clare Bowen) gets the standard assimilation lecture from her father.

We don’t learn much about the inner lives of the characters. We are left to wonder why school student Zeus (Ali Haidar) has the heart of a murderer. Their seemingly irrational behaviour is easy to understand using the usual social stereotypes. Until John confronts his mother when she blames him for Charlie’s criminality. John asserts personal responsibility, his own and Charlie’s. He challenges the web of multi-cultural and economic determinism that has been set up so far in the film. We all live with choices we make.

Tony Ryan plays Wesley, the owner of the gym where John works and trains. His aboriginality gives an added racial dimension. There is further irony when he offers John a way up through boxing.

First-timer Clare Bowen, fresh from the south coast of New South Wales, gets the rookie award. She has that relaxing Toni Collette quality that makes you think you know her from somewhere. You can’t help feeling at home with her character. However, apart from her family, we are left without any history for Sydney or real explanation for why she can withstand all the pressure to walk away. Perhaps this is essentially just a love story after all. And a story about families.

This is another Australian film that deserves a bigger audience. Catch it while you can.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Watchmen: Not Everybody Wants To Rule The World

Who’s watching the Watchmen is one of its themes. Apparently lots of people are, if early box office is any indication.

Others can buy into the disputes between the filmmakers and purists of DC Comics about this story of comic book heroes. The graphic novel hasn’t been my preferred genre since the 1950s but I have enjoyed some of the film adaptations of the less well known super heroes and villains such as Sin City, V for Vendatta and Iron Man. Perhaps the best of the recent ones was Hell Boy.

There have been high expectations for this epic and not just because of its technical brilliance or its length (160 minutes). It doesn’t meet all of them. It’s too long. Catering for a mass audience unfamiliar with the scenarios of the original comics would have been a factor. This movie has a number of love stories, betrayals, and an Armageddon climax. All set against a political background of Richard Nixon as continuing President in 1987. Tricky Dicky just won’t keep way from the cinema lately. Wikipedia has a comprehensive entry that is bound to be regularly re-written by enthusiasts.

It would also been caused by trying to write a screenplay that does justice to its galaxy of super heroes: Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino) and her daughter Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup), The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), and Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley). It’s hard to fault any of the cast.

Fittingly the costumes are first class. Rorschach’s mask, with its morphing ink blots, is superb. Makeup is also very well done.

The sets and props have an eighties feel despite a few anachronisms. The Owl craft tickled some old memories of Buck Rogers and other fifties matinee serials. Buck once superfluously remarked in the 1979-80 TV series that everything that had happened so far was in the past. We knew that it was in a 25th Century future. Watchmen takes place in a parallel 1980s universe. Watergate journalists Woodward and Bernstein have been neutralised. The Oscar winning adaptation of their story All the President's Men would never have been made. A U.S. victory in Vietnam War is secured by the intervention of super heroes. Pure fantasy!

If you’re not into the sight of blood, this isn’t for you. As well as extreme violence, the explicit sex means that it’s not a young kids’ movie. Dr. Manhattan has rather kinky tendencies. The young love birds only get it off after some action in costume to the strains of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’.

The themes are probably of little interest to many action fans. This is a meta-hero film that explores the ethics of intervention in human affairs and of appropriate means to an end. It’s the kind of philosophical discussion that the Greek gods might have had on Mount Olympus. The ancient world permeates the whole production. As well as the Greeks we have Egyptians and Persians. Very much the stuff of modern sci-fi.

Watchmen has a dramatic impact when seen on a large screen with the audio turned right up. Migraine territory. Director Zack Snyder has given us a sensual delight otherwise. The computer graphics have the usual high glitz despite working in an old-look context. Tyler Bates’ very effective score owes a debt to many previous films. The ubiquitous Bob Dylan lends The Times They Are a-Changin' to our ears. The compilation of old hots includes: Jimi Hendrix's version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’, Simon & Garfunkel's ‘The Sounds of Silence’, Jimi Hendrix's 'All Along the Watchtower’ and a version of Tears For Fears' ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’.

The old cliché of the journal, narrated by its author and dropped at a newspaper, is used to give coherence to the convoluted plot. This added film noir element shouldn’t be necessary. As the director’s cut of Blade Runner showed, it’s usually better without the voice over.

If you’re tired of Batman and Spiderman retreads, then this could be the movie for you. If you’re a fan of the comics, then you might want to wait for an extended director’s cut due later in the year. Too much is obviously not enough for some people!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Frozen River: what goes around...

If you think times are tough, then make sure you see Frozen River to put life in first world society into perspective. It is the story of two women who put their lives and freedom on the line for their children. Melissa Leo’s stellar performance was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress in a Leading Role. Hollywood doesn’t have many good roles for women of a certain age but the independents keep finding them.

This story is set on the U.S./Canada border. The St.Lawrence River runs through a Mohawk reservation when it isn’t iced-over, dividing New York State and Quebec Province. Leo plays Ray Eddy whose husband has skipped off with the little money they had to indulge his gambling addiction. She is a middle-aged mother of two boys whose one ambition is to buy a “double-wide” trailer home for them. Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) is a young Mohawk widow who wants to get back her baby son.

People smuggling creates their partnership and cements their friendship. Together they brave the ice, the underworld and the police to pay for their dreams. This is a film about the under-class: not the superficial stereotypes of trailer trash and indolent indigenous, but individuals, with all their idiosyncrasies, barely surviving even in good economic times.

Apparently the filming was completed in 24 days on a Panasonic Vericam. Ironically it’s now a Sony Classics Picture. It’s another independent movie that outshines most of its rich Hollywood cousins. Writer/director Courtney Hunt has given us a well-structured script that is tightly realised. There is nothing quite like being short of money to focus the mind. It’s certainly true of our protagonists, even if they do make a number of shaky choices.

Hunt deals with several controversial issues including border protection, refugees, the war on terrorism and tribal culture. Not to mention personal and legal responsibility. If you think her treatment of these themes has simple political correctness, then look more closely. As the women tread outside the law they maintain their own strong personal morality. But don't expect Thelma and Louise. There is no glamour in a convertible here. They'd freeze to death.

A couple of examples will no doubt rile those who see these issues in black and white. Most of the illegal aliens are Chinese. Ray doesn’t feel right about smuggling Pakistanis, with almost fatal consequences. She’s not even sure where Pakistan is but she does not want to chance trafficking terrorists.

Ray’s 15 year old son T.J. steals credit card details from a Mohawk woman to get money for a Christmas present for his little brother. His punishment by the Tribal Patrol is to apologise face to face to her. Full stop.

Throughout the film he spends time renovating a pedal-driven carousel. It had very distant echoes for me, of the 1956 film of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical Carousel. It is about an unemployed father-to-be who gets killed committing a robbery to help finance his child’s future. What goes around?

You’d better move fast to catch this one at the cinema, which it deserves.

Friday, March 6, 2009

W. - With God On His Side

Unless you’ve been in coma for the last 8 years, it is impossible not to have an opinion about George W. Bush and his years as leader of the “free world”.

W. was a disappointment as a president. In many ways so is the movie W. Oliver Stone has presented the George W. Bush most of us know about. Drunk, wastrel, drifting from job to job, living in dad’s and brother Jeb’s shadows. Then AA, born again Christian, family man, successful Texas Rangers baseball team owner, Texas Governor and finally the ultimate office. His early life as the black sheep of the Bush clan transformed into a remarkably successful electoral career after becoming Governor of Texas in 1994. His actual achievements are more contentious.

I can’t bring myself to read the intimate details of W.’s White House or his family life so others can argue about the accuracy of his backstage life. Given Stone’s notorious tendency to make-believe, National Security Council meetings may not have finished with a prayer.

This story revolves around Junior’s relationship with his father, the 41st President of the United States of America. George Senior was a one-termer so son had the last laugh on father. Both now face the same probable judgment by history, namely failed presidencies.

Stone uses W.’s unsuccessful run for Congress in 1978 to set the scene for his later political triumphs. His Democrat opponent paints W. as a blue blood carpetbagger with loose morals. George remarks afterwords that he’s going to get the Christian and the Texas bits right next time. His background of patrician family and Washington (or Bushington as they joke at one stage) insider disappeared during his governorship of Texas. He became a god-fearing man’s man. Guns, god and gaols were a winning formula.

Josh Brolin is made for the part. He has the square jaw and the vacant look. He makes George’s propensity for singular verbs with plural subjects seem a virtue at times. Toby Jones, as key Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove, has a lead role in this film and is convincing as the poll driven spin doctor. A typical exchange:
Karl Rove: If you can't stand in front of those guys two minutes and come up with one plausible answer what the hell are we running for governor for?

George W. Bush: Just tell me what to do, whatever it takes. Look if I need to read the whole damn Constitution I'll do it.
In the scene that follows he coaches Bush in giving answers at press interviews. It’s a gem on the art of political veneer, of polishing the cue ball.

I always thought that W. read an excellent speech and gave effective responses to obvious questions as long as he kept to the script. He came a long way from his BBC interview before the 2000 election when he was unable to name either the President of Pakistan or the Prime Minister of India. He was explaining his South Asia policy but obviously hadn’t been briefed on these details. When Hamas won the Palestinian election he was completely flabbergasted at a press conference. Also not in the script.

Most of the political insiders in this tale are well known. The members of the cast have varying success in mimicing them. Richard Dreyfuss as Vice President Dick Cheney is brilliant, Ellen Burstyn shines as Barbara Bush and it’s hard to tell when it's Bruce McGill or CIA Director George Tenet on screen.

Scott Glenn doesn’t capture Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s cheeky glint in the eye and Thandie Newton does not do justice to Condoleezza Rice, making her appear far too obsequious. This kind of imitation is hit-and-miss. It is rare for it to work as well as it did in Frost/Nixon but then there was a greater distance from the protagonists. Ultimately it’s a case of good acting winning over physical or vocal imitation. Elizabeth Banks’ Laura Bush is a case in point, becoming the person rather than an impersonation. Jeffrey Wright also pulls off a serviceable Secretary of State Colin Powell by playing it fairly straight.

James Cromwell has played a lot of Presidents but he’s far too engaging compared with the dull, colourless George H. W. Bush. It’s hard to believe that he ever used a line like, “Who do you think you are... a Kennedy? You're a Bush. Act like one.”

The structure of the film, with its flashbacks to key moments in W.’s life, works well. The “present” is mainly his first term in office with the emphasis on the Iraq war. At times the selection of events seems bizarre such as the peanut choking incident. Despite many references to 9/11 we don’t see either his worst or his best moments. The incident when Bush seemingly panicked in the classroom that day and the war president speech at ground zero are omitted. The reconstruction of the Mission Impossible aircraft carrier speech adds nothing new to our understanding of this piece of propaganda. The script often lacks originality or insight in dealing with these events.

The war room has eerie echoes of Dr. Strangelove. Peter Sellers as French President Jacques Chirac would have been a great match. You get the feeling that W. would have benefited from watching a few anti-war movies and reading the occasional book. The War President was more of a Sports President.

Nevertheless George W. has an inner life. Besides a dream when his father confronts him in the Oval Office, his psyche centres on baseball with his successes and failures played out on the field. Clichés about left field and curve balls seem to be lurking throughout the film. The luncheon debriefing on Weapons of Mass Destruction is a prime example. "Why wasn't I told."

There isn’t much that subtle about this film, especially the music. The score helps to move the story along with appropriate numbers like Winging My Way Back Home. The final credits finish with Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side”:
So now as I'm leavin'
I'm weary as Hell
The confusion I'm feelin'
Ain't no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God's on our side
He'll stop the next war.
Oliver Stone’s third film in his U.S. Presidents series, following JFK and Nixon, is hard to classify. Comedy, farce, tragedy. It depends on the point from which you view W.’s political record. There is certainly a lot of dark humour.

Early publicity had indicated that this was a sympathetic treatment of Bush. It does present him as having a mind of his own not just as a puppet of his advisors. It always helps if you are on a mission from god. “I believe God wants me to be president!” However, I can’t imagine it being a hit in the Bush family circle.

If you’re a political junkie, go along but be quick as it’s not likely to have a long run at the cinemas.

Thanks to New Matilda and Hoyts for complimentary tickets.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Combination sparks strong reactions

The new Australian film The Combination is getting international attention.

Lebanese-Australian writer Antoun Issa has posted for Global Voices about reactions to the movie:
An Australian film depicting Lebanese gang life in Sydney's western suburbs has sparked more than a series of reviews.

The film, “The Combination“, was pulled from several cinemas in Sydney after brawls broke out, following the screenings.

“The Combination” was eventually re-scheduled, however extra security was added to keep the troublemakers at bay.
Australian film on Lebanese gangs talk of the town
Haven't had a chance to see it yet so my review will have to wait.

The Reader: not just another holocaust movie

The Reader is a complex film that explores themes of love, barbarity, guilt, shame and secrecy. The triumph of the human spirit is often hard to find as the horror of the holocaust is revisited through a different lens, a seemingly ordinary but very flawed German woman.

There are many ghosts haunting this excellent movie besides its holocaust victims.

Twenty five years ago Meryl Streep won a Best Actress in a Leading Role in Sophie’s Choice. Kate Winslet took the glittering oscar prize this year in competition with Meryl’s outstanding portrayal of Sister Aloysius Beauvier in Doubt. Sophie and Hanna both have secrets that embody the mystery in each narrative. In Hanna's case her personal shame takes precedence over public condemnation but her secret is barely disguised from early on in the film. We are warned by a teacher's remarks that literature is about characters trying to keep their secrets hidden.

Amon Goeth, the crazed commandant from Schindler's List was played by Ralph Fiennes. He received a nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences certainly like holocaust movies.

It’s an exceptional cast who eat up their parts. Kate Winslet as former SS guard Hanna Schmitz deserved her Academy Award for a very believable and controlled performance. She doesn't rely on the hysteria much beloved by some Hollywood directors.

David Kross plays the young Michael Berg who meets and falls in love with Hanna when he’s 15. Like Kate’s, his performance is very convincing. Its sensitivity and subtly is complemented by Ralph Fiennes as the "mature" Michael. He specialises in this kind of wounded, introverted and ineffectual character.

Apparently some people were shocked by David’s immersion in “unhealthy” sex scenes with Winslet at such a vulnerable age (circa 18). It was fortunate for both that it was a summer affair given their frequent state of undress. More concerning was the health risk of all the cigarettes he smokes.

The scenes with Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz) and his law students bring an almost clinical examination of individual and collective responsibility for the Nazi genocide. He challenges them with the distinction between morality and law and the class visits Hanna's trial. It's too much for some of them. The court’s judgment is a stark reminder that the law is unlikely to deliver justice much less deliverance.

It is a holocaust story but, as survivor Ilana Mather (Lena Olin) remarks towards the end, there’s nothing to be learnt from the camps. If you want catharsis, go to a library. (When Michael visits Auschwitz I was struck by the eerie similarity of the huts to many long deserted shearing sheds in Australia.) Ilana is right - the experience did not steel his resolve.

St.Peter-like, Michael denies Hanna and remains silent when he knows he should speak up. It mocks the silence of the Nazi era. But this is not a morality play. We are left to make our own judgments. Hanna's response to what happened: “The dead are still dead.”

As Rohl urges Michael, “ If people like you don’t learn from what happened to people like me, then there’s no hope…”

For Hanna there is little hope of understanding and none of redemption.

It is tightly directed by Stephen Daldry, from a carefully structured screenplay by David Hare. If you haven’t read the novel by Bernhard Schlink, hopefully the film will stir your interest in getting a copy.