Drinking Buddies (2013) D: Joe Swanberg

•November 2, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Drinking Buddies

Drinking Buddies

The minimalist plot of Drinking Buddies involves brewery co-workers Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde) who clearly have a connection but are each involved with somebody else; Luke with Jill (Anna Kendrick), his girlfriend of six years and Kate with her boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston). When all four come together at a beach-side house for a weekend, the drama of their relationships unfolds.

This thin plot is deliberate. In fact, there was never a script given to the actors who were simply told the events that had to happen during each day of filming. Understandably, driven by a quartet of very capable actors, this makes for incredibly natural and realistic dialogue. At some points, there are even awkward silences which are so real they will make some viewers blush.

Director Joe Swanberg (Art History, Caitlin Plays Herself ) has put together the latest example of the ascendant indie genre Mumblecore (known for its low budgets, less well known or even amateur actors and naturalistic dialog. Shot in a real brewery, Drinking Buddies has moments that feel like vérité and is brave enough to have not much going on in character conversations. The situations on display are all as realistic as the dialogue; Johnson and Wilde are actually drunk at one stage and the camera never intrudes on any of the moments it captures.

While there isn’t any life-altering revelations unearthed by all of this realism, Drinking Buddies is an impressive showcase of its format and the skills of its four lead actors. In part seemingly a deification of alcohol and the old adage In Vino Veritas, Swanberg’s film will make you want to see more Mumblecore and most likely need a cold beer.

Brave performances and direction make a refreshing binge. 4 stars.

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The Town (2010) D: Ben Affleck

•October 5, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The Town

The Town

Ben Affleck’s second feature as director is a vivid and lingering look at a single square mile of Charlestown, Boston. Charlestown has a reputation for housing the most bank robbers and armoured car thieves in all of the USA. Affleck co-wrote the screenplay which is based on the novel by Chuck Hogan.

The Town is the tale of Doug MacRay, career criminal, whose childhood friends form part of his robbery outfit and whose father is in prison for the same crimes. On the job that opens the film, one of the gang, the unhinged Jem (Jeremy Renner) takes Claire, a young female bank manager, hostage (Rebecca Hall).  She is released unharmed, but Claire, it turns out, lives in Charlestown. Jem wants her dead, in case she identifies them, while Doug trails her to a laundromat where they meet and strike up a relationship. MacRay, we learn early on, wants out of the life. Of course, there’ll need to be one big score before he ends his criminal life.

If the final score sounds familiar, it’s because it is a key plot device of most heist films – and The Town borrows a little from some memorable films. Namely, the 1970s violent gun-heavy action of Sam Peckinpah and the dialogue-heavy drama of Sidney Lumet. The three main set pieces of the film evoke the car chases, bank robberies and hostage situations of the best crime films of the 70s. Even the autumnal sheen of The Town lends it a 1970s mission-brown warmth.

With shooting done on-location in Boston, The Town takes place among the red brick, steel and concrete of its urban setting. The camera is given enough freedom to make it subtly vérité but not in the overtly handheld way that has been overused for years now. Characters are quickly hurled together to create the necessary plot points, but once there are handed long and sometimes labored dialogue tracts to share. While the time to explore character isn’t a bad thing, it can at times slow down the pacing of the film – especially in the 150+ min Extended Cut version.

It is refreshing to see this kind of film making in the modern age, however. What Affleck has done with The Town is update the 1970s bank heist film with a touch of Western storytelling. Everything for a blood-thirsty Western film is here – like outlaws and guns, a romance and  corruptible and murderous lawmen on a mission. Once upon a time, Doug MacRay would have been the lone Western hero making his last stand at high noon. Affleck’s  heist film it seems is an urban Western where the viewer’s sympathy lies with the charismatic outlaw and his pretty, innocent girl while violent lawmen try to bring him down.

In reality, The Town is not nearly up to the standard of films such as Dog Day Afternoon, The Getaway and The Killing, but it displays quite a few worthy directorial chops from Affleck and is a step in the right direction back to the days of crime films with a conscience and a brain.

A violent heist film with a smart nod to the best of the 70s. 4 stars

Being Elmo (2011) D: Constance Marks and Philip Shane

•January 15, 2012 • 1 Comment

Being Elmo : A Puppeteer's Journey

Being Elmo

Since November of 1969, the vibrant and original PBS institution that is Jim Henson’s Sesame Street has been enthralling, entertaining and educating children all over the world. Sesame Street features a cast of iconic muppets including Ernie and Bert, Cookie Monster, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, as well as human hosts and a swathe of lesser known muppets. Among them is a furry red monster called Elmo who has had various voices and personalities since the 1970s. One day in 1984, a young puppeteer gave him the voice and the personality that has since seen him become the show’s most enduring character – and the only non-human to ever testify before U.S. Congress.

Kevin Clash is Elmo’s puppeteer, and Being Elmo : A Puppeteer’s Journey is a look at the career path and passion of Clash. As Whoopi Goldberg narrates, the viewer is introduced to a kid from Baltimore who grew up obsessed with television and puppets. Making his first puppet from his Father’s trenchcoat, Clash was amazed by the seamless construction of the Henson muppets and set about trying to discover how it was done. He got the chance in 1978 when he met Kermit Love, a puppeteer who designed some of Henson’s best known puppets including Big Bird and soon introduced Clash to Henson.

To tell the story of Kevin Clash and Elmo, Directors Constance Marks and Philip Shane have assembled incredible archival footage that stretches as far back as Clash’s home movies as a teen performing puppet shows for the neighbourhood children, through his first meeting with Kermit Love and even the Macy’s Day Parade where he performed the role of Cookie Monster in his first Sesame Street gig. Coupled with interviews with his supportive parents and bemused siblings, admirers and former employees, as well as animated archival photos, Being Elmo creates an expansive, detailed portrait of a man who is exceptionally passionate about what he does and does it well.

More than a look at Clash’s career, Being Elmo can be read as a loving tribute to Jim Henson, the man whose vision and talent have given the world not only Sesame Street and The Muppets, but beloved family films such as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and the instantly recognizable Yoda from the Star Wars franchise. Almost every interview, every explanation and every frame in the film is fleshed out with the thread of Clash’s and others’ love for Henson and his legacy.

The film is warm and fuzzy like it’s muppet subject. It shows the dedication and talent of Kevin Clash, as well as his motivation to make Elmo the embodiment of love to children everywhere. What permeates this love and light though is the obvious sacrifices that Clash has made – missing important moments and quality time with his family while travelling the globe entertaining millions. The film doesn’t dwell too long on any of these sad implications though, which is perhaps its one flaw. It is obvious that Clash’s life as Elmo has taken an enormous toll on his real life but, much like Elmo himself, the film preferred to stay bright, upbeat and warmly happy. What was left out was quite telling – including any detail about Clash’s divorce from wife Genia.

Reluctance to ask the hard questions aside, Being Elmo is a wondrously entertaining look at the man behind a now much cherished character. Elmo has attracted a great deal of ire from stalwart fans of Sesame Street for speaking without pronouns and lowering the overall educational value of the preeminent show. Marks and Shane’s insight into Kevin Clash should soften even the most cantankerous critic, simply because the man is likable, warm, giving and completely, unselfishly dedicated to his craft and to continuing the legacy of the great Jim Henson. When a young girl who wants to be a puppeteer is brought to meet Clash near the end of the film, the parallels to himself and Kermit Love are lovingly held out for all to see. This film has its heart on its sleeve – and its heart is huge.

An enchanting tale of an artist and a world of muppet magic. 4.5 stars.

Straw Dogs (1971) D: Sam Peckinpah

•November 12, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Straw Dogs (1971) D: Sam Paeckinpah

Straw Dogs

Maverick director Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs has attracted perhaps the most controversy of any of the entries in his filmography, including the brutal Western genre classic The Wild Bunch. First and foremost, this controversy springs from a horrific rape scene and the misogynist undertones of the whole circumstance.

Bookish American mathematician David and his young liberal wife Amy have moved to the English country side where Amy grew up, to ostensibly escape the turmoil of the US. An old boyfriend and a number of locals are employed to finish up the country estate where the couple live. Before long, local dramas and the attention Amy is attracting from ex-lover Charlie and his friends draws the pacifist David into a violent clash.

From the start, Amy is explicitly sexualised, walking down a street in her town in a tight top without a bra. David is the opposite, with a dour cardigan and glasses, clearly feeling out-of-place. At the local bar when a drunken old man gets out of hand, David’s reaction to the violence is in stark contrast to the indifference of the locals.

The dichotomy between the “new” 70s man of learning and the “traditional” man of the land and labour is also set up from the start and Peckinpah puts the two in constant opposition. On more than one occasion, Amy ridicules and questions David’s masculinity. She sabotages his work, flirts with the hired help and even exposes her bare breasts to them through a window. All the while David is engrossed in his work and impotent to the slow boiling menace of the locals who are taking advantage of him and not finishing their jobs.

By the time the audience is subjected to the violent attack of Amy by Charlie, it seems to be inevitable. When the violent scene turns sultry, the famed misogyny of Peckinpah is exposed. Along with Amy’s seeming resentment of David, Peckinpah seems to be saying that women want violent and chauvinist, highly sexual men. However, later as Amy recalls the attack while at the town church, she is shown to be suffering a good deal of post traumatic stress and the director perhaps redeems himself, although only slightly.

The intensity of the third act is built with the escalation of violence and by David’s decision to defend his home at all costs. The universal appeal of the Everyman fighting against all odds to defend his loved ones and exact brutal revenge is a theme that has been revisited in cinema a hundred times since – most notably the Rambo franchise and Commando. So despite the atrocious acts David perpetrates upon his aggressors, the audience (particularly men) will find themselves cheering him on.

Dustin Hoffman’s performance and Peckinpah’s tightly shot terror-and-gore-filled final act is a major part of the film’s endurance. Hoffman is perfect to play the at-first cowardly David, which makes his eventual quiet rage all the more exciting.

Peckinpah is not known for his positive or fair portrayal of women and Straw Dogs is the biggest of all his sins. The film was remade in 2011 and it will be interesting to see if the same misogyny pervades the piece. Still, it is clear that Straw Dogs has spawned a legacy of imitators and it can be argued it was a film at least a decade ahead of its time.

A flawed domestic thriller from a maverick master 4.5 stars

Melancholia (2011) D: Lars von Trier

•October 1, 2011 • 2 Comments

Melancholia (2011)

Melancholia

From the first seconds of Melancholia, director Lars von Trier lays out an apocalyptic scenario shot with melodramatic slow motion montage set to a classical score. Everything that follows is a gnawing depression befitting the film’s title.

In this case though, Melancholia is not the archaic name for mild depression, but a planet now heading toward Earth – hopefully to pass safely by. As Melancholia begins its approach, Justine and Michael (Kirtsen Dunst and Alexander Skarsgård) are having a wedding at the sprawling estate of Justine’s sister and brother in law, Gaby and John (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland).

The viewer soon learns all is not well among the bride and groom nor those around them. Justine is wracked with crippling depression, her domineering Mother and eccentric Father are divorced and bitter, while Gaby seems unfairly hostile towards her younger sister. Disappearing from the celebrations more than once, Justine is shown to be on the verge of complete breakdown, though the reasons are not immediately provided.

The somewhat bare-boned plot on the ground is overshadowed by the third act literally hovering in the sky. Von Trier bathes the whole film in a subdued hue of the blue of planet Melancholia which threatens to end life on Earth. A lumbering blue ball in the sky, a weakened and blue Justine and an overwhelming sense of rumbling inevitability permeate Melancholia. As the giant planet gets closer, the winds and the movement of the Earth increase along with the unease of the protagonists and the viewer.

Dunst is impressive as the defeated Justine, even subjected to von Trier’s seemingly gratuitous nude scene. Alexander Skarsgård plays a much simpler character to Eric Northman, his powerful vampire on cult TV hit True Blood, while his real life father, acting stalwart Stellan Skarsgård plays Justine’s power hungry ad agency boss with fitting lack of a soul. Kiefer Sutherland imbues John with wonder and awe at the approaching planet, yet manages to reveal his inner doubts quite effortlessly.

For some, Melancholia will seem an overly dull and dreary art film, while others will see a very well crafted representation of deep, dark depression. The labored drag of inaction and the dull blue and grey wash is the perfect way to paint melancholy, but there are occassional moments of filmic self-indulgence. What the viewer takes away will have a lot to do with what they bring. Those who’ve felt Justine’s sense of hopelessness and apathy will find more than those who haven’t.

A rolling blue ocean of dull ache and inevitability 4 stars

Fire In Babylon (2010) D: Stevan Riley

•July 16, 2011 • 1 Comment

Fire In Babylon

There have been a number of noteworthy sporting documentaries made in the past which have more than sport at their heart. Hoop Dreams and When We Were Kings spring immediately to mind with determination and struggle being a shared theme. While these films were US-centric in their subject, Fire In Babylon looks at a tumultuous time in the sport of Cricket – chosen summer game of England and her “colonies”. It is this colonisation that is somewhat at the centre of the film’s loftier themes.

Using an interesting array of archival photographs, interviews with the films subjects (Michael Holding, Clive Lloyd, Malcolm Marshall, Viv Richards etc) and shock UK tabloid headlines, director Stevan Riley creates a sort of living scrapbook that tells the story of the lowest ebbs and eventual rise of the West Indies cricket team, who battled mediocrity while subject to appalling racism from crowds and opposing teams alike. At the time, Apartheid was in full swing within South Africa, a country who also fielded a cricket team.

Introducing the audience to the team as it was in 1976, led by Clive Lloyd and on tour in Australia, Riley maps a narrative arc not unlike an inspirational sports-themed action movie along the lines of Rocky. Here we have our heroes, an undertrained band of cricketers who are set upon by the twin evils of Australia’s fast bowlers and an Australian public who make them feel, in their words, like ‘travelling minstrels’. Humiliated by defeat at the hands of dangerous fast bowling in Australia, our heroes gather themselves and recruit some fast bowlers of their own, only to return to the cricketing stage and set the sport alight with incredible feats of athleticism and skill never before seen. We learn, in fact, that the team never once lost a test series between 1980 and 1993.

Punctuated by an incredible reggae and calypso soundtrack, as well as performances by Carribean musicians, Fire In Babylon is immensely entertaining. The film skillfully shows the link between the success of the team on the field and the development of a national character and self pride back in the West Indies – leading, it is posited, to a surge in creativity that reached Bob Marley & the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff and other famous Jamaican artists.

Many viewers old enough will remember when the “Windies” were the rock stars of the game, but some may not have paid much attention to the indignities to which they were subjected – including an offer to play in South Africa as ‘honorary whites’. Fire In Babylon is not just a film for fans of cricket or it’s history, but for those interested in this political history, or even just Carribean music.

Fire In Babylon opened the 14th Perth Revelation Film Festival and screens again on the 16th, 22nd and 24th of July. Check the site for details.

Inspirational story about a team who played for more than the win.
4 stars

Mars (2010) D: Geoff Marslett

•June 17, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Mars (2010)

Mars

Made on a modest budget of just $450,000, Geoff Marslett’s ambitious and entertaining rotoscope animated Mars, first opened in March of 2010 at South by Southwest and played the festival circuit until its official release in December of the same year. Mars plays in July as part of Revelation 14 Perth International Film Festival for two sessions only on July 20 and 23.

The year is 2015. The space race is not what you’d expect, with inept engineers, morbid ground controllers and a President dressed like a cowboy who smokes cigars at press conferences. Charlie Brownsville (Mark Duplass) is a likeable lug of an astronaut prone to heroics who along with New Zealander, Casey Cook (Zoe Simpson) and fellow American Hank Morrison (Paul Gordon) is chosen to be part of the first manned mission to Mars. The mission is proposed when it is discovered the Europeans have sent a robotic scout with artificial intelligence to the red planet. A romance quickly blossoms between the often goofy Charlie and the determined Casey as Mars’ tale becomes one of survival and sacrifice.

For those unfamiliar with it, rotoscoping is the process of animating live action film, frame by frame. Once upon a time, this was only achieved manually by hand. Now of course, it is achieved digitally and this is the method Mars uses. A similar rotoscope technique is employed (and patented) by Richard Linklater in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Those films had a substantially larger budget though and the difference in animation quality shows. Whereas Waking Life in particular had a more primary-coloured and fantastical gloss to represent the dream state, however, Marslett has kept Mars at a more realistic sheen. There are times in the film where the live action and the animation blur, but also times when the viewer is jolted by missing pixels and other anomalies.

There is a healthy dose of science fiction satire in Mars; with NASA needing to appease network television for ratings via satellite link ups between Charlie and two hip young TV hosts and a stab at the space race of the past with dubiously qualified Russians who load the original robot onto a shuttle doubling as cleaners. There is also stillness in the pace of the film when the mission is in deep space, bringing to mind many classic sci-fi features from 2001: A Space Odyssey  and Dark Star to the more recent Moon.

With comedy country singer Kinky Friedman turning in a lot of laughs as the President of the United States and the easy chemistry between the two lovers, there is much to like about Mars. Paul Gordon plays Hank with 90s style dry and sardonic apathy and Duplass is his usual, endearing man-child self as he was in Humpday and The Puffy Chair.

It is a testament to his passion for independent filmmaking that the director has created such an elaborately produced movie on a relatively tiny budget.  It reportedly took two years after live action production wrapped for the rotoscope process to be applied. This is Marslett’s first feature length film and it is an impressive start.

Amusing, engaging and ambitious feature debut. 4 stars