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.

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.

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.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Blue Jasmine: Woody Misses the Streetcar

In 1980 I attended a Woody Allen doubleheader in Lisbon. The matinee session was a packed house, a clear indicator of his international popularity in those days. One of the films was Manhattan. I remember laughing loudly during both movies. It was a tad embarrassing as most of the audience were reading the subtitles so my responses were a couple of seconds ahead of the rest.

Allen's latest effort as writer/director, Blue Jasmine, is supposed to be a comedy/drama but the humour passed me by. It's a tale of two sisters. Ginger (Sally Hawkins) is sure that glamorous sister Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) "got the better genes" but the irony bursts out fairly quickly. It parallels the contrast between suitors Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard). In fact, the same could be applied to their husbands Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) and Hal (Alec Baldwin). If there is a moral to this story, it might be that in terms of wealth, intellect and personality, more is less in terms of successful relationships.

There are some solid performances. Blanchett is wasted in this role. Using a Lauren Bacall's accent to play a modern version of Streetcar Name Desire's Blanche is a puzzle. Critics have made the links. Perhaps Alec Baldwin role in the movie remake or Cate's stage role flagged their observations.

If Blue Jasmine is an allegory for modern America's dystopia, its dysfunctional society and economy, then it is a very clumsy, in your face, effort. Don't expect much subtlety here.

Variety called it a 'dramedy'. Perhaps the comedy/drama tag is a mistake. Woody brings little humour to the dark side he is painting. It is doubtful that the Portuguese would be chuckling in their droves for this, but my assessment seems to be very much in the minority.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Best Offer: Not Enough Sting in the Tale!

Writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore's The Best Offer is an Italian film in English with Australian and Dutch leads. Geoffrey Rush plays Virgil Oldman with Sylvia Hoeks as Claire Ibbetson. Virgil is a top-end art and antiques dealer with mysophobia - a hygiene freak. His signature gloves play an important role in the mystery. Rush carries off the role of the eccentric with his usual ease.

On the other hand (no pun intended) Claire seems to suffer two fears: agoraphobia (open spaces) and scopophobia (being seen). It's not the stuff of which romance is usually made. Rush carries off the role of eccentric with his usual ease. It is hard to tell whether Hoeks' performance is wooden or it stems from the character.

My biggest disappointment with this movie is that its surprise climax is too easy to guess. Its overly long 131 minutes probably contribute to this. Too much free time to speculate! Perhaps the subtlety was lost in translation. The inclusion of an historic automaton as plot device has echoes of Martin Scorsese' Hugo.

Like Rush, Donald Sutherland is well cast as the roguish Billy Whistler. He is as well-worn as his character's unimaginative name. Come to think of it so is Virgil's surname. Jim Sturgess adds the youngman stud factor as Robert. The ambiguity of his occupation of artificer is another of the hints. Anyway, enough spoilers already.

The high quality photography, sets and costumes give the film a charm and elegance that help to redeem its rather pedestrian plot. If you try to block out the hints and blatant clues, The Best Offer is an agreeable enough experience.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Stories We Tell: In Their Own Words

Stories We Tell was our third documentary in a row at the cinema. It's a good thing it's extensive use of re-enactments puts it somewhere between the non-fiction and fiction categories. Canadian writer/director Sarah Polley is the focal point of this family story. It is basically a quest. Sarah goes, video camera in hand, in search of her stage actor mother Diane who died when she was eleven. It becomes a story about identity, family and relationships that is impossible to explain further without spoiling it.

Diane's second husband is former actor British-born Michael Polley. Michael is very much the film's narrator and gets two bites at reconstructing the past. He reads his version of their history, as well as being interviewed by his daughter.

In fact all the key family members are interviewed at length and so are many others involved in this saga. They are invited to "describe the whole story in your own words". Of course we don't get the complete interviews or the whole story. Clever editing builds the mystery and the tension. There is even a one-line sting in the tail, just when you think you have it all figured out.

There extensive use of home movies, some apparently genuine and others using actors in 're-creations'. You can usually tell which are not 'authentic' - the actors are usually better looking than the people they're playing. She explores the nature of point of view, multiple realities and memory. It is also about who owns the stories. Stories We Tell operates at several levels. It is a meta-documentary for those who like to sift the more abstract layers.

Sarah's mob are impressive. Just subjecting themselves to this examination must have been daunting enough. Handing her control of the story takes real faith. Their participation and cooperation indicate the warmth they feel for her and their trust in her character and her ability as a filmmaker.

Sarah Polley is an auteur of the highest calibre.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Salinger: Hunting for Holden

Writer/director/producer Shane Salerno has given us an in-depth look at J.D. Salinger's life.

The most enlightening part of the story, for those unfamiliar with his history, involves Salinger's war experiences, which included the D-Day landing and a holocaust death camp. Apparently he had six chapters of Catcher in the Rye with him at the Normandy landing so his literary direction and themes were probably well charted before these horrors.

Doubtless his war service had a lasting effect on his views on public life. However, his reputation as a recluse seems exaggerated as he seems to have had a circle of loyal friends, including in his local community. His wives, children and partners have a different slant as he locked himself in his writing shack for weeks at a time.

He shared a deep rejection of the celebrity culture with To Kill a Mocking Bird's Harper Lee. The same cannot be said for the long list of Arts celebs who give their insights into Salinger's life and character. They range from Gore Vidal to Martin Sheen. The interviews with his writing and publishing colleagues, and friends from the early days shed much more light. Thank goodness, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer weren't around for the making of the documantary.

His fascination seemed to be not only with young women but with youth itself, as his iconic character Holden Caulfield attests. His self-deprecating J.D. is for juvenile delinquent gives a clue. His early romance with teenager Oona O'Neill, who married Charlie Chaplin, is presented as part of a pattern that continued in future relationships.

At 2 hours, it's at least half an hour too long. Some of the episodes of admirers tracking down their elusive idol do not warrant the treatment given them. Many of the reenactments and cinema scenes of Salinger writing also add little to our understanding. Lost count of the number of times Cornish–Windsor Covered Bridge appears as a filler to a minor diversion in the narrative.

For fans of his writing, there is the promise of lots of fiction publications of his post-1960s works commencing in a couple of years time.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Gatekeepers: Israel "Winning the Battles, Losing the War"

When we were in Jordan last month (Aug 2013) we spoke to a Palestinian who lives and works there. He had gone to an Israeli university before moving to Jordan. He remarked that if they did not have enemies, they would tear themselves apart. His comment reverberated after watching Dror Moreh's documentary The Gatekeepers.

The film centres on revealing and candid interviews with six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service: Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri, Avraham Shalom.

It divided into 7 segments, as outlined on Wikipedia:
  • No Strategy, Just Tactics – covering the emerging role of the Shin Bet from the Six-Day War and the occupation of the Palestinian territories
  • Forget About Morality – about the Bus 300 affair
  • One Man’s Terrorist Is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter – about the peace process following the Oslo Accords
  • Our Own Flesh and Blood – about Jewish terrorism, including the Jewish Underground and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin
  • Victory Is to See You Suffer – about negotiations with the Palestinians during the Second Intifada
  • Collateral Damage – about the assassination of Yahya Ayyash and other prominent Hamas militants
  • The Old Man at the End of the Corridor – consisting of reflections on the activities of the Shin Bet and their ethical and strategic impact on the State of Israel

These are the men who had responsibility for targeted assassinations of the enemies of Israel, prisoner interrogations, the lives and deaths of their Prime Ministers. They would weigh the possible loss of "innocent" lives, the so-called collateral damage. They were dedicated to doing what it takes to protect the State of Israel. It is a job they did with passion and commitment. Several of the interviewees see religious parties and the political parties of the right opposed to a real settlement with the Palestinians as key obstacles to securing last peace and security.

Some of the quotable quotes;

Carmi Gillon:
"For Israel, it's too much of luxury not to speak with our enemies. When we refuse to talk, we make a mistake."
"We are making the lives of millions unbearable, into prolonged human suffering, ... it kills me..."

Avi Dichter:
"You can't make peace using military means".

Ami Ayalon:
“We’re winning all the battles ...and we’re losing the war.”
"You can't make peace using military means".

Yuval Diskin:
"What's unnatural is the power you have to take three people, terrorists, and take their lives in an instant..."

Avraham Shalom:
“we have become cruel, to ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population, using the excuse of the war on terror.”

Yaakov Peri: “when you leave the service, you become, a bit of a leftist.”

This is a must-see documentary for all who are interested in understanding the Middle East and the continuing quest for a negotiated peace.

The talking heads are never boring. They are effectively complemented by archival footage and computer animations by Mac Guff. It was nominated for the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Tabu: Paradise Regained

The footprints of Portuguese Miguel Gomes, as director, co-writer and narrator of Tabu, are everywhere. It is a truly original piece of film making, despite the debt he acknowledges to F.W. Murnau's 1931 silent movie of the same name.

In fact, Miguel reckons Murnau's is a better film. There is lots more in the interview below.

Its short prologue is a strange tale centring on a lone European on safari. A crocodile and a mysterious woman are links to the main story. This ambitious work is refreshingly different. Its cast includes several strong performances. Part 1 (Paradise Lost) is set in Lisbon where Pilar (Teresa Madruga) helps her elderly neighbour Aurora (Laura Soveral). When she finds Aurora's lost lover Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), he reveals the secrets of their fatal romance.

Part 2 (Paradise) takes place in colonial Africa. Apparently there was no written script. Gomes chose to shoot on location in Mozambique. Young Ventura (Carloto Cotta) is a cross between Errol Flynn and Rudolph Valentino, with young Aurora (Ana Moreira) a fitting femma fatale. The deft use of silence helps to take this melodrama to another level, especially through its quirky humour.

The dialogue in Part 2 is silent, but other sounds and music are present. The sequences with the band performing are priceless. The film has clean, crisp black and white photography in 1.37:1 aspect ratio, a silent movie format.

Tabu is not an overtly political piece, despite its connections to the Portuguese colonial wars of the 1960s. The audience is left to draw its own conclusions.

Miguel Gomes' movie has all the hallmarks of a cult classic. One for true cinephiles.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Cinema Takes: Film Titles A-Z

Film Titles A- Z

20 Feet from Stardom
A Fantastic Woman
A Serious Man
About Elly
Animal Kingdom
Apart Together
Attack the Block
Beautiful Kate
Billy the Kid
Blue Jasmine
Bran Nue Dae
Bright Star
Brighton Rock
Broken Embraces
Burn After Reading
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Cane Toads: The Conquest
Capitalism: A Love Story
City of Life and Death
Closed for Winter
Crazy Heart
Darkest Hour
District 9
Drive My Car
Easy Virtue
Eden is West
Empty Nest
Fish Tank
Flame and Citron
Frozen River
Fugitive Pieces
Get Low
Gran Torino
How I Ended This Summer
Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno
In A Better World
In the Loop
In Search of Beethoven
Inglourious Basterds
It's Complicated
I've loved you for so long
Julie & Julia
Kill Daddy Goodnight
Last Ride
Lemon Tree
Let the Right One In
Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed
Mad Bastards
Man on Wire
Milk of Sorrows
Monty Python's Almost Final Cut
Murch - Walter Murch on Editing
Of Time and the City
Pardon My French
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict
Rachel GettingMarried
Samson Delilah
Rust and Bone
Searching for Sugar Man
Ship of Theseus
Silent Wedding
Slumdog Millionaire
Social Network
Soundtrack for a Revolution
Stories We Tell
Summer Hours
The Banshees of Inisherin
The Bastards
The Best Offer
The Boys are Back
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
The Class
The Combination
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dressmaker
The Grocer's Son
The Gatekeepers
The Hedgehog
The Hurt Locker
The Killer Inside Me
The King's Speech
The Ornithologist
The Other Side of Hope
The Reader
The Rocket
The Schoolgirl's Diary
The Tall Man: Death in Paradise
The Visitor
The Way Back
The Wrestler
Thrilla in Manila
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Up in the Air
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Waltz with Bashir
Wild Tales

Thursday, May 9, 2013

NO: 'Happiness is Coming'

No completes a trilogy about his home country by Chilean director Pablo Larraín, following Tony Mareno (2008) and Post Mortem (2010). Fifteen years after taking control of Chile in the bloody coup of 11 September 1973 General Augusto Pinochet called a plebiscite to endorse his leadership. No leads us through the media campaigns in the shoes of fictional advertising colleagues who direct the opposing TV spots. These were 15 minute segments over 27 nights before the vote. The originals can be accessed on the official website.

The film has the feel of a documentary quite deliberately. It uses archival footage that merges almost seamlessly with the modern takes shot on analogue U-matic videotape in 1.33 (4:3) aspect ratio. Some will find the loss of quality annoying. It certainly blurs the line between the real and the imaginary but that's one of the movie's strengths.

Gael García Bernal stars as René Saavedra who brings his background in TV commercials to the political task that many feel a lost cause from the start. Bernal clearly revels in roles that reflect his personal philosophy such as Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries.

There has been criticism of No because it does not tell the full story of the campaign and exaggerates the importance of the advertising approach with its upbeat 'Happiness is coming' theme and rainbow logo. Some even see it as glorifying the advent of politics as marketing. That might have been the case in Chile given its fifteen years of dictatorship and censorship but western democracies had embraced the political spin merchants in the early 1970s if not long before.

No well deserved its Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film for 2012.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Rust and Bone - De rouille et d'os

Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os) is an unusual romance, by director and co-screenwriter Jacques Audiard. Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts are strange bedfellows to say the least. When they meet Stephanie is a killer whale trainer and Ali is a kick boxer cum bouncer but things change quickly for both of them.

It's kind of The Wrestler meets Free Willy, Fight Club without the hype.

He's having trouble getting used to looking after his 5 year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure). She is about to face an even greater adjustment.

The film has a very hard physical edge, which is fitting for the director of the powerful 2009 film A Prophet. This is not the territory of sitcoms or Hollywood rom-coms.

It is a French language film , set mostly in Antibes in southern France. The strong cast includes Corinne Masiero as Ali's battler sister Anna.

Without slipping into a spoiler, it's fair to say that the use of Computer-generated imagery (CGI) leaves you wondering about the how virtual is the reality.

Rust and Bone is a grim and disturbing but fundamentally uplifting tale. Not for the faint-hearted.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Hitchcock: The Master at Work

Three films that helped to seal my lifelong love of cinema were directed by Alfred Hitchcock: Vertigo, Rear Window and Psycho. So I went to see Hitchcock with some trepidation. Fortunately, it lived up to its promise.

Set against the making of Psycho in 1959, its main element of suspense is a personal one. His relationship with wife and artistic partner Alma Reville provides much more tension than the fairly conventional Hollywood dramas about budget, director's cut or official censorship.

It's a classy cast. Hithcock would have enjoyed working with them, especially the blondes. The leads carry off their parts with deceptive ease. Anthony Hopkins (Hitch) carries the weight of the Master comfortably, except when his paunch retains its iconic shape whilst lying down. Helen Mirren (Alma) and Scarlett Johansson (Janet Leigh) are superb. Tony Collette and Jessica Biel don't miss a beat either.

The film has the 1950s Hollywood look and feel: the studios, the Beverley Hill's house and pool, the beach shack, even the suits. It's bright, clean, colourful, crisp. All part of the American Dream. At times it reminded me of the movie Beloved Infidel about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheila Graham, which had similar backdrops and was also made in 1959.

This is one for the big screen. Hopkins' shower scene is at least the equal of the original.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Search for Sugar Man Rodriguez

After watching Searching for Sugar Man at Melbourne’s Shadow Electric open-air cinema last night, the full house must have had only one thought: where do you get Rodriguez’s records.

This quality documentary throws up all the clichés: amazing, incredible, heartwarming, authentic, genuine, too-good-to-be-true. Like more than one of interviewees in the film, there was a niggling doubt throughout that this couldn’t be a factual account, that it is an elaborate fabrication.

Detroit local Sixto Rodriguez made two albums in the early 1970s, which bombed in his home country but were very successful in apartheid South Africa and later. Many of his fans were white opponents of the regime.

His fate was a mystery He was rumoured to have committed suicide but fans such as Steve 'Sugar' Segerman kept the quest alive. Sixto was unaware of his fame. This is the story of the search for this unlikely musical icon.

The Independent has an excellent interview with Director/writer Malik Bendjelloul. When he discovered the mystery of Rodriguez, he felt it was “the best story I’d ever heard”. It certainly is one of the best. Not too many cinema audiences applaud as ours did during the credits.

Malik also answers a lingering question ‘Was it only white South Africans that were fans of Rodriguez?’ Do yourself a favour and read the conversation, but not before seeing the film.

One of the highlights is meeting his daughters: Regan, Eva and Sandra. It’s clear that his unique approach to life has rubbed off on them, except for his laconic nature. Rodriguez’s workmates help us to understand their mate. Fellow construction worker Rick Emmerson helps to reveal a little of the enigmatic Sixto. He’s a silver-tongued fellow philosopher. Rodriguez has a Bachelor of Arts with a philosophy major.

There is lots of stuff about Rodriquez at Segerman’s official website –‘all the facts’, backed up by a Facebook page, and a twitter account @sugar_man.

Please see Wikipedia for the latest.

To finish, a couple of verses from the song Sugar Man from his first album Cold Fact:

Sugar man, won't you hurry
'Cos I'm tired of these scenes
For a blue coin won't you bring back
All those colors to my dreams

Sugar man you're the answer
That makes my questions disappear
Sugar man 'cos I'm weary
Of those double games I hear

I give it 5 stars - because I can.