Inception (the movie): Great expectations or?

Last night we saw Inception. Readers of this blog will know that I occasionally review movies but that when I do it’s usually an Australian one. After all, this blog’s prime focus is Australian (particularly Australian literature). However, my fingers regularly tap their way onto other turf, and on this occasion I’ve decided to write about this American movie, given all the hype that’s been surrounding it.

Am I being churlish to say that we were not overwhelmed? That’s not to say that we didn’t enjoy it, because we did, but it didn’t have quite the wow factor we were expecting. Is this due to a “high expectations” jinx or would we have felt that anyhow? It’s an intelligent and clever film: the plot develops from an intriguing premise that plays with the intersection between dreams and reality. DiCaprio does a good job; Ellen Page is as gorgeous and watchable as ever; the whole cast in fact is fine. There’s a neat little in-joke for movie fans: the song, Non, je ne regrette rien, plays a significant role in the plot which also features Marion Cotillard who played Piaf in the 2007 biopic, La vie en rose. The story’s complex multiple layers are developed logically and so can be pretty easily followed once you realise what’s going on. Hans Zimmer’s music is powerful – almost, but not quite, too so at times. I say “not quite” because that sort of powerful music suits the genre. The resolution has a little bite to it, and the ending leaves a door slightly open… So what’s the problem?

The problem is that it is an intelligent action-adventure movie but lacks, for us, a real emotional heart. We understood Cobb’s (the Di Caprio character) dilemma, intellectually, but we weren’t really given an opportunity to believe, or feel, it. We were told there was a great love story there but it was not set up well enough to convince us of it – and so the “journey” he takes through the film lacks the psychological intensity that we would have liked. And this gap is not filled by any of the other stories. The dying tycoon’s son’s story, for example, is pretty sentimentally stereotypical (or is that vice versa!), and the relationships between the other characters are superficial though there is an attempt to develop some level of emotional intelligence in Ariadne (the Ellen Page character). The result is that I never felt concerned for the characters. I was intellectually interested in what was going on but I wasn’t fully invested in what would happen. It’ll probably work out ok, I thought, so why worry. Did others feel this?

And so my recommendation? Do go see it. It’s an artful and rather original movie that demands some thought and concentration from the audience, and its action-adventure nature makes for a fun ride. Just don’t expect emotional engagement or psychological complexity because I don’t believe you’ll find it – and that, for me anyhow, stops a good film from being a great one.

Animal Kingdom (Movie)

If you thought No Country for Old Men was grim, take a look at the new Australian movie Animal Kingdom which won the World Cinema Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. While No Country for Old Men was chilling in its portrayal of – there’s no other way to say it – evil, Animal Kingdom is more “down and dirty”. It deals with the escalation of violence between a relatively small-time (or so it seemed at the start) crime family and the police – and comprehends those grand themes of love, loyalty and betrayal. It’s set in Melbourne in the 1980s, a time when lawlessness was, let’s say, a little rife not only among criminals (ha!) but within the police force. I can’t remember the last time I saw a drama that brought so many shocked gasps from the audience – even when you knew what was going to happen!

The focus of the story is “J” (Josh), played by newcomer James Frecheville, whose mother dies at the start of the film. This results in his moving in with his grandmother and uncles, they making up the crime family in question. Josh, not yet 18 years old, quickly finds himself in a tricky situation from which he seems unable to extricate himself. As the criminal behaviours increase, so does our awareness of just how dysfunctional Josh’s extended family is, not to mention how murky the so-called “law” is, so that we, the audience, become almost as disoriented as Josh about who to trust. The film is beautifully controlled right up to the end: it has a (partially) satisfying resolution but at the same time leaves much unresolved. How good is that?

There is not a dud amongst the cast. Frecheville’s playing of Josh as a rather naive, (superficially) expressionless and uncommunicative teen is so well done that it’s hard to tell when he actually grows up, but grow up he does do as the film progresses. It is in his interests though not to let on…and that certainly adds to the tension for the audience.  Jacki Weaver (who went to my old high school – that of the “whispering gums”) plays the increasingly disturbing – or is it disturbed? – unsubtle mother of her family of criminals with great subtlety. Her true colours are a long time coming out though you suspect that, being the mother of such a family, those colours are there! (The gorgeous) Guy Pearce manages to play the sensitive cop so sensitively that he comes across as real, rather than sentimental as can happen with such roles. And Ben Mendelsohn (last reviewed here in Beautiful Kate) plays the most unhinged of the criminal brothers with a quiet coldness that is truly scary. The rest of the cast is equally good … but it’s time to move on to ….

First time director David Michôd’s direction is sure. The camera is often low and in your face – so that you really are in there with the characters much of the time. The lighting is, appropriately, mostly subdued. The pace is slow, but not too much so, as nothing is overly dwelt on. There’s no playing for our emotions here: things happen, people react, and we move on. (I’d love to give an example or two but don’t want to spoil it). Some significant scenes aren’t shown at all – Michôd gives his audience the benefit of the doubt that we will get it.

A quick Google search brings up a number of tags for this film. Teen drama, Gangster film,  and Thriller are some I’ve seen. I, however, prefer plain old Crime drama. Whichever way you classify it, though, this is a film to see – but only if you don’t mind gritty, confronting films. If you prefer your movies light and cheery, go see Sex and the City 2!

Bran Nue Dae

Broome

The gorgeous colours of Broome

You could hardly get two more different films than Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah and Rachel Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae. Both are directed by indigenous Australians and both address indigenous Australian issues but, wow, how differently they do it. While Samson and Delilah is spare and almost without dialogue, Bran Nue Dae is exuberant and highly verbal. Of course it is, it’s a musical set in 1969.

There’s nothing I would rather be
Than to be an Aborigine
and watch you take my precious land away.

You have to see it to fully appreciate the contrast between the joyful (in fact cliched-musical-style) presentation of this song and the sting in its tail. Bran Nue Dae started life as a set of songs written by indigenous Australian musicians about growing up in Broome in the 1960s. Some time later, these musically eclectic songs were transformed into a musical that was a hit at the Festival of Perth in 1990. Rachel Perkins has apparently long wanted to adapt it for film. I have not seen the original play and so cannot comment on how the film compares with the original. Others can do that if they wish: I’m not always convinced that it is a worthwhile exercise to compare originals and their adaptations. Judge each work on its own terms is, I think, a better policy.

Briefly, the plot. Willy’s devout mother has scrimped and saved so he can go to boarding school in Perth and train to be a priest, but Willy (newcomer Rocky McKenzie) has met a girl (Jessica Mauboy), in his hometown of Broome, and is not so sure that priesthood is what he wants. Following conflict with the school’s priest (Geoffrey Rush), he heads back home from Perth, more or less under the wing of newly met Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Sigley). They obtain a ride with a hippie couple (Missy Higgins and Tom Budge), and the rest as they say is …. The encouraging thing about the film is that it celebrates our similarities (this is, after all, a coming-of-age story) while at the same time recognising significant differences (specifically the cultural dislocation experienced by indigenous people).

Comedy always seems to me to be a little tricky to review. There is such a fine line between being funny and being cringe-making. This film has the odd awkward or cringe-making moment – it verges on vaudeville and has its share of stereotypical if not downright cliched scenes. But these moments are few – and in fact they are, I’m sure, self-consciously there. Perkins wants us to make the connections between traditional musical comedy and her movie so that we can see its subversiveness – and it is subtly (or not so subtly) subversive. I found it genuinely funny – but with enough satire and moments of pathos (such as the references to deaths in custody) – that I got the message as well.

This film is at the other end of the black-white dialogue in Australia from Samson and Delilah. It is also starkly different from Rachel Perkins’ other musical (but definitely not comedy) film, One night the moon, which deals tragically with the refusal to engage in dialogue. It too is a spare film. These are both great must-see films, but it is also good to see humour being used in this important but mostly oh-so earnestly explored area.

And so, if you like to have a laugh – but with a little bite in it – go see Bran Nue Dae.

Sherlock Holmes (the movie)

This will neither a book nor a film review be – since I’ve never read a Sherlock Holmes book, and I don’t really feel inspired to review Guy Ritchie’s new film, Sherlock Holmes. That’s not to say I (in fact we) didn’t enjoy the film, we did well enough. It’s just that it didn’t fully captivate us. It’s very stylish, and the cast, particularly Robert Downey Junior, not only did a convincing job but they were great to look at too!

Pipe

Smoke Pipe (Courtesy: OCAL via clker.com)

Chacun à son goût, as they say. I’ve now seen Bright Star twice. And, I could probably see it again. Some others though find it a little slow. I, on the other hand, felt there was just a little too much “adventure” and skulking round in Sherlock Holmes. It’s pretty predictable…good triumphs over evil, the little twists provide no real shock…but it is fun, and it is nicely made. I would recommend it on that basis – and if you are a Ritchie or Holmes fan, I expect you’ll like it a lot.

I am one of those people who like to sit through the credits. Not only do I like to see the list of music used (and this is always near the end) and the locations, but you never know what you might discover. Sometimes just a name you know, sometimes you are given some extra information, and sometimes the credits are an art-form or entertainment in themselves. Sherlock Holmes falls into this last category. The credits were gorgeous to look at … and I had to laugh when the Costume Designers’ names came up. The image shown alongside their names (Jenny Beavan and Melissa Meister) was the one scene in which Downey (as Holmes) wore nothing but a cushion! For a stylishly recreated period movie, that has to have been intended…and is one of those little jokes that rewards we who sit through the credits.

Bright star, or a thing of beauty?

What can ail thee knight at arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

I have always loved these opening lines  of John Keats‘ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. The first two lines with their mystical, but also traditionally Romantic, melancholy, just roll off the tongue. You want to read them out loud. The third line though, with its harder sounds, starts to suggest something different, and this difference is delivered in the wonderful shock of the shorter last line with its more staccato like rhythm. This, by the way, is my rather idiosyncratic introduction to the recent biopic, Bright Star, about John Keats and Fanny Brawne. I’m not being totally idiosyncratic though as several lines of the poem are recited in the movie…

Bright Star, which is also the title of a Keats’ poem, was written and directed by the wonderful Jane Campion (whom we Aussies like to call our own though she was born in New Zealand). According to the credits she based much of her script on a biography of Keats by Andrew Motion. The film is set in the last years of Keats’ life (surely this is not a spoiler?) between 1818 and 1821, so the fashions are exactly those I love – Regency. Through this and a host of other details, the film feels historically accurate – in tone and look at least. I only know the basics of Keats’ life so can’t really comment (without doing a lot of research!) on its veracity to the details of his and Fanny’s story. But, as I’ve said before, I’m not sure that matters if the essence of their story is achieved, and I believe it is.

John Keats' grave, Rome

John Keats grave, Rome (Courtesy: Piero Montesacro, via Wikipedia, under CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The film has an elegaic feel – in its muted colours, slow pace, and the rather  (unusually so for a period piece) spare music. This spare use of (spare!) music is carried through to the credits during which, instead of music, we hear Ben Whishaw recite Keats’ poetry. Despite its slow march towards its inevitable conclusion, however, the film also has some light moments, many of them in the lovely family scenes which include Fanny’s brother and sister.

One of the endearing things about the film is Fanny’s comment early on that poetry “is a strain” to understand. Poetry is not an easy art form – how many people have you heard say “I don’t get poetry”? – and there is something reassuring in having that validated.  After all, Fanny is, in a way, everygirl – compassionate but also a little wilful, somewhat coy but at the same time rather knowing. She is, as conceived by Campion and played rivettingly by Australian actor Abbie Cornish, entirely believable as a universal teen girl, but one living in the early 19th century.

In a scene between the lovers (albeit an unconsummated love), Whishaw, as Keats, recites the film’s eponymous poem:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.

Here is Keats expressing the paradoxical nature of life and love, the way permanence and impermanence can exist side by side. This is rather poignant given the facts of his life: he died at just 25 years of age but his poetry has become firmly entrenched among our classics.

If you are interested in Keats’ story, or if you like films that slowly but beautifully evoke a past era, then this is likely to be a film for you. If, on the other hand, you like something with a bit of zing and an element of surprise, then you might best look elsewhere… For me though, this film is “a thing of beauty”.

Can the Coens be serious?

Of course they can! In fact many of their films are comic with a dark side. This is particularly so of the first film of theirs that I saw, Fargo. It is one of those films you don’t forget. I don’t blog about all the films I see, and when I do blog about them, it’s usually an Australian film. Our industry is so overlooked – in Australia, let alone the world arena – that I like to do my bit. But, it is hard to resist commenting on a Coen Brothers film – and so I’m not going to (resist that is!). The film I’m talking about is their latest, A Serious Man.

A Serious Man chronicles a couple of weeks in the life of physics professor Larry Gopnik at the point that everything starts to unravel for him. It all starts (ostensibly) when a failing Korean student attempts to bribe him and his wife asks for a divorce. It’s all downhill from there as the hapless Larry’s fortitude and attempts to be a good and “serious man” are tested again and again. If you have a biblical background you will see parallels here with the story of Job. As for me, I reckon there’s a bit of the Everyman in him. Before his story starts, however, there is a funny little sepia-tone prologue set in a Polish shetl in which a man invites home another man who had helped him on the road, except that the wife believes that the man had died years ago and that her husband had introduced a dybbuk (evil spirit) into the house. These characters are never referred to again but they set the tone, introducing the idea of bad things happening – and of those things perhaps having some supernatural origin.

Like all Coen Brothers films, this is a stylish movie – it has that sort of heightened naturalism (or is it realism!) that I tend to love (like you also find in Mad Men). The details of its midwestern 1960s setting are beautifully rendered, the characters are both larger and smaller than life (if you know what I mean), the music is apt as ever, and it mocks and it mocks and it mocks our failings as human beings. Interestingly, it does not use a named cast as many of the Coens’ recent movies have. It’s also very Jewish. It’s imbued with that Jewish sense of fatalism (“why is God doing this to us?”) and is presented with typically Jewish self-deprecating humour. Some criticise it for being stereotypical – and it is. But that’s part of its humour. If you don’t get that sort of humour – if you don’t see the humanity behind it – you won’t like the movie.

When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies… (Rabbi Marshak)

We can’t ever really know what’s going on. (Larry)

Now, I have to warn you that my son, a very keen Coen fan, did NOT like this movie. Well-made he said, and he giggled a bit he said, but he found it mean-spirited and oppressive. He’s not the only one. It seems that this movie is splitting critics. Our very own Margaret and David are split: Margaret gave it 2 stars out of 5, while David gave it 4. Margaret, like my son, felt it was mean and unlikeable, whereas David, like me, found it funny with its own sense of warmth. How can the same film have two such opposing points of view? So, if you haven’t seen it, don’t take my word for it – you know what to do!

The boys are back

Fleurieu Peninsula

Southern end of the Fleurieu Peninsula, taken 2007

I would like to say that the real star of Scott Hicks’ latest movie, The Boys are Back, is the Fleurieu Peninsula because it is absolutely stunning. The rolling hills, the waving golden grasses, the glimpses of blue sea, not to mention wonderful stands of gums are enough to entertain even if the rest of the movie fails to. However, this is not the case. This is an enjoyable movie – not a perfect one, not a particularly innovative one – but an interesting story, well told.

The basic plot, for those who haven’t heard, is that sports journalist, Joe Warr (Clive Owen) becomes a single parent when his wife dies rather suddenly of bowel cancer. Having been a fairly absent father, and now grief-stricken, he is not well-equipped to parent his 6-year old son who is coping with his own grief and inability to fully understand the situation. Throw into the mix the sudden arrival of his 14-year old son from a previous marriage and you have the makings of chaos. And chaos is what ensues. Joe decides that the way to manage the all-male household is to have no rules – or very few anyhow – but as the movie progresses this does not prove to be a winning formula.

The cast is strong, with Clive Owen and Julia Blake (playing his mother-in-law) being the best-known names. The boys, played by young newcomer Nicholas McAnulty and George MacKay, are engaging but realistic. The music, by Hal Lindes, once a member of Dire Straits, is understated with just a bit of an edge, and effectively underscores the emotions without over-sentimentalising them. The cinematography is traditional but lovely – with an obvious but nice contrast made between golden sunny Australia and blue damp England.

The story is adapted from a memoir titled The boys are back in town by British columnist Simon Carr. It is sad and funny and, at times – perhaps particularly for women (says she being sexist) – infuriating as Joe misses clues from his sons regarding what they need. Housekeeping is not my forte but even I wanted to get stuck into the kitchen to bring it back to some level of organisation and hygiene, and as for silly boy stunts involving cars and the non-use at times of proper restraints – well, let us just say that I’m a mum!

There are some cliched moments, but overall the script is good and Hicks holds it all together to create a warm and tender but not simple movie about grief, parental and sibling love, and, really, just getting on with life when things don’t go your way. I’d recommend it. After all, if you find the story not to your liking, there is always the scenery!

The gritty viewing gets grittier…

Miranda Otto, 2006 (Photo by Diane Krauss, via Wikipedia, using Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Miranda Otto, 2006 (Photo by Diane Krauss, via Wikipedia, using Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0)

A few months ago I wrote a post called A day of gritty viewing. Since then I’ve blogged about more gritty Australian films: Disgrace, Beautiful Kate, and Balibo. And these aren’t the only gritty films to have been produced in Australia this year. The latest to hit the cinemas, though, is Blessed (directed by Ana Kokkinos). This is one hard-hitting film.

It is an adaptation (by several writers including Christos Tsiolkas) of a quite differently titled play – Who’s afraid of the working class? – and is told in two parts. The first part follows the lives of 7 children, most of whom roam the streets under little or no parental control; and the second part explores their mothers, all of whom are battlers in one way or another. No back stories are provided for them but they’re not needed. Theirs are pretty archetypical stories so you get the picture:

  • the single mother addicted to gambling (Miranda Otto);
  • the serial monogamist mother who needs a man no matter how much damage he does to the children (Frances O’Connor);
  • the working mother with a weak husband who leaves it to her to keep it all together  (Deborra-Lee Furness);
  • the single piece-worker (and also religious) mother struggling to make a good life for her children (Victoria Haralabidou); and
  • the now-elderly mother who adopted an Aboriginal child and kept him apart from his mother (Monica Maughan).

It’s a wonderful ensemble cast – and there are more, including Sophie Lowe who also starred in Beautiful Kate. Through interweaving stories that never feel forced, the film explores the love between mothers and children and how too often this is strained by those external circumstances (most often poverty and the struggle to survive) that can get in the way of the ability to express “true” feeling. Some of the children have been damaged by experiences they shouldn’t have experienced (and I’m talking about abuse here of course) … which brings me back to the title and the double whammy contained in its combination of truth and irony.

It’s nicely shot by Geoff Burton. The night scenes, the strong contrasts, the minimal use of colour evoke well the challenges confronted by the characters in the mostly less-than-pretty parts of their city. Kokkinos direction is also sure, starting with the moving opening scenes of sleeping children which somehow manage to convey their innocence while also suggesting something darker lying beneath. If there’s a criticism to be made it could be that the film is just a little too politically correct. Not having seen the play I don’t know how closely it follows the original but there is a sense here of trying to get in all of society’s contemporary ills. That said, with strong stories and a cast that never goes near stepping over the bounds into melodrama, it works and you accept it.

I don’t always feel the need to avoid spoilers in a review – but I will here. I will simply say that it is gritty – but there is hope too, not in the sense of long-term answers but in a recognition that by reconnecting with the love that binds, you can keep going.

Challenge of the biopic, Redux

Back in July I posted about biopics and about the tensions inherent between fact and fiction in what is, essentially, a dramatisation. Despite this – despite the fact that I know I can’t rely on them for the facts – I like biopics. Of course, I don’t like all biopics, and there are some I like more than others. The reasons I like them are, I was going to say, rather capricious, but perhaps idiosyncratic is a better word. Depending on the particular film, I may like it because:

  • I am interested in the person; and/or
  • I am interested in the subject (literature, dance, theatre, music, etc) or the era (World War 2, the Regency or Tudor periods, etc); and/or
  • I like the director; and/or
  • It is simply a good film!

In the case of biopics I’m a bit more relaxed about quality – and when I say this I mean I am more relaxed regarding cinematic style and innovation. Being relaxed about quality though doesn’t mean I like poor performance, poor scripts, poor direction. It just means I’m more tolerant of, shall we say, less cinematically challenging films if they are biopics. This probably doesn’t make sense to anyone else, but there you are!

And, I have to say, that most biopics we see are of the conventional variety. That’s not to say that there aren’t innovative biopics out there  – because there are  (such as, for example, the relatively recent and exciting I’m not there about Bob Dylan) – but most, it seems to me, are not. This is certainly the case with the one I saw this weekend, Mao’s Last Dancer. It is conventionally told – but the story itself is so powerful, who cares? From my memory of the book, the film is “true” to his story even if the facts have been stretched here and there for dramatic effect. It is, anyhow, worth seeing for the three actors who play Li Cunxin, and for the gorgeous dance sequences choreographed by Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon.

Image courtesy Clker.Com

Image courtesy Clker.Com

It just so happens that in the October issue of Limelight is an article by Lynden Barber called “Hollywood goes classical”. It’s about biopics of musicians. In it he quotes Australian composer Nigel Westlake as saying:

I don’t think there would be any historian who would consider these films anything more than entertainment and as about as historically accurate as Gladiator.

Well, I ask, why would an historian, or anyone, expect a biopic to be historically accurate? A biopic is not a documentary but a dramatisation. Do we read/see Shakespeare’s history plays for history? No! And neither should we look to biopics for verifiable historical fact. We can, though, expect them to provide some truths. In the case of Mao’s Last Dancer those truths include the resilience and mental strength exhibited by a boy removed from his home at a young age by “the state” and forced to make his own way in the world.

I am of course being somewhat disingenuous here. A biopic does need to be reasonably factual – otherwise, why not make a film about a completely fictional character – but we should not expect it to be citable fact. This makes it a rather slippery beast – and one that is fun to talk and write about!

The Young Victoria

As I wrote in a past post, I do love a biopic! And this week I saw another one, The Young Victoria. In many ways it covers much the same ground as the 2001 miniseries, Victoria & Albert. Both show Victoria’s lonely childhood, the poor relationship between her mother and Victoria’s uncle the King, her mother’s poor choice of adviser, and the political manipulations from Europe to forge a match between her and Albert. However, while Victoria & Albert, being a miniseries and therefore longer, takes the story up to Albert’s death, The Young Victoria stops at the point where Victoria recognises that she can and should give Albert a “real” role in the palace/the monarchy. The essence of the story is not really spoilt by stopping it here – and, anyhow, the film fills in the rest of their story through a few end-titles.

As a biopic, it’s a lovely romance. As a film, it’s a pretty traditional costume drama. That said, the acting is excellent – with Emily Blunt as Victoria and Rupert Friend as Albert being particularly convincing. The costuming and the sets are sumptuous. The script is crisp and natural.  The music is full and strong, but a little heavy-handed in places, a little too traditionally appropriate to an historical royal biopic, if you know what I mean.

From my knowledge, the film is pretty accurate historically, with just a few bits here and there exaggerated for dramatic effect. It deals lightly but clearly enough with the various political agendas running at the time – as they related to Victoria. All in all, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable film…and if it’s about anything (besides, that is, being the story of Victoria and her Albert) it’s about the idealism of youth. What a lovely pair they made.