Short Reviews: Weekend (2011)

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Weekend tells the story of Russel (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New), two men who meet in a bar one night and end up spending a weekend together. I’m hesitant to call it a love story only because it seems the characters themselves would baulk at the suggestion that they’re in love after such a short timeframe. Weekend is, however, a very romantic and very intimate film that grounds itself in reality and is all the better for it.

Russel is a decent-looking, adequately-employed and suitably-social (albeit a bit awkward) man who nevertheless seems to be wandering around in a state of semipermanent ennui. He’s immediately drawn to Glen – handsome, confident, vivacious, and what starts as a one-night stand goes a slightly different route the next morning, where you get the sense that both of them feel like they should be making themselves scarce but neither really wants to.

Weekend is a triumph of character. As much as he fits the “nice, quiet guy” bill, Russel has his flaws – he’s presumptuous and stubborn, and a bit of a layabout (his ennui is almost certainly self-inflicted). It’s much more evident in Glen – equal parts charming and cavalier as he is brash and obnoxious. But lest they sound unlikeable, the movie’s success is that they’re not only likeable characters, they’re real and relatable. Much of the growing connection between the two of them comes from both being ever so mildly irritated with the other one, but happy that they pushed through the irritation and got to know them a bit better.

It comes about that Glen is actually set to leave for the US to study at an art school at the end of the weekend. This of course puts a time limit on the budding romance, and causes things to intensify a little between them. But refreshingly, the film doesn’t end with Glen changing his entire plan on a whim, and the stock-standard mad-rush-to-the-train-station-before-the-loved-one-leaves is really just Russel getting a lift with a friend so that he and Glen can have a bit more time together.

And at the film’s end, who can really say if they’re in love or not? Glen and Russel certainly (probably) wouldn’t, but it’s clear there’s a connection that’s been made, a hell of a lot of feeling involved, and both of them would be thinking about the other for a long time. It’s to the film’s credit that it manages this without being overly-sentimental or dramatic, which makes it feel all the more real and potent.

It’s also to the films’ credit that it doesn’t try to do more than tell its story. There is no moralising or speechifying from the characters; neither Glen nor Russel serve as metaphors for LGBT issues at a larger surface – they’re just two guys who meet and have a weekend’s worth of story together, and the film just lets you in on what’s happening. It’s not necessarily a love story, but it’s certainly incredibly romantic.

Short Reviews: The Hunter (2011)

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Sweeping vistas of forested mountains! Stunning imagery of rivers, roads, snowy peaks, trails! Places I have been to and can recognise!

The Hunter is something of a curio for me, having been shot entirely in my home state. As such, it comes with an added layer of “spot the location” which is always fun to play, but given that the last film I got to do that with was Arctic Blast, it’s a welcome relief to have a movie that’s actually, y’know, good to play it with.

Willem Dafoe plays a shady mercenary named (or codenamed) Martin, hired by a shady organisation to hunt down the last surviving Tasmanian Tiger. Under the pretence of studying Tasmanian Devils for the university (I enjoyed that it’s simply “The” university), he travels to Tasmania to begin the hunt, but not without his fair share of setbacks: the house he’s staying in has no power, the landlady Lucy (Frances O’Connor) is catatonic, her insufferable kids seem to have no boundaries, and to cap it off, he’s mistaken for a Greenie by the local logging community who turn their hostility towards him almost instantly.

After some initial help from a local named Jack (Sam Neill), Martin sets out on his hunt, isolated in the uninhabited mountain range for days at a time, returning to Lucy’s homestead periodically to resupply. Over time, he begins warming up to the kids and helping Lucy recover from her catatonia; warmth develops in their relationship and he starts feeling conflicted between his shady task and the connections he’s made with Lucy and her children. But lest that sound like the beginnings of a rom-com, remember it’s Willem Dafoe we’re talking about – this is the beginning of a very quiet and understated, but solidly effective thriller.

The Hunter is many things – beautifully shot, wonderfully performed (Dafoe’s intensity is captivating, O’Connor’s warmth and determination an absolute comfort), incredibly atmospheric, and very much off the beaten track of your usual thriller. It’s not without its flaws – a shocking turn of events towards the end of the film seems either cruel or shoehorned in (or both) – but it’s put together so well it can overcome its shortcomings.

There is also the added fun/pride in the movie being filmed entirely in Tasmania. Perhaps it’s an insider’s bias, but watching this was almost a tactile sensory experience too – you can practically smell the forests, or what Lucy’s ramshackle-but-intimate house would feel like as you step over the threshold.

But perhaps the biggest surprise is its emotional and atmospheric resonance. One shot in particular (the shot of the movie, if you will) was done so quietly and sensitively that it was absolutely gut wrenching It’s a movie where not much is said, not much really happens – but it’s incredibly moving and thrilling all the same. And that is owed almost entirely to Willem Dafoe continuing his chameleonic career and Frances O’Connor anchoring in juxtaposition to his intensity and knocking it out of the park.

Short Reviews: “Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors: The Child Villains of Horror Film” by Dominic Lennard

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I opened my review of The Bad Seed with the following words: “So if further evidence was needed that all children everywhere are evil, enter Rhoda Penmark and The Bad Seed”. I’d intended the quip as a pithy little one, relying more on my curmudgeonly ways than any reflection of actual children, but it was still an easy one to make – do we in fact find children a bit creepy and evil?

It’s a subject that’s considered, addressed, refuted, supported, reinterpreted and discussed all throughout Dominic Lennard’s Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors: The Child Villains of Horror Film. Charting the depictions of delinquent all the way through to monstrous children in film from (roughly) the post-war era to the modern day, Lennard’s work doesn’t so much say “yes” or “no” to the question, but considers all ways of considering it.

He puts forward multiple readings and interpretations of a wide array of iconic child-focussed horror films (The Bad Seed, The Exorcist, The Village of the Damned to name but a few) but also asks the reader to put them in their broader context. Do we actually find children creepy, or is it a reflection of our own assumptions of childhood and societal discourses of innocence that are so easily corrupted and turned against us? Is innocence even a realistic concept, or do we rely on it to channel our own suppositions about childhood into something more meaningful? What is it about a child villain that’s so uniquely unsettling?

Over 9 separate chapters, each with its own focus, Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors presents a multitude of cogent arguments and theories on how we can read child villainy in film, and what our continued fascination with these films might say about us. Lennard takes into account the social context of each film’s creation and release and manages to chart a journey through the last near-century of cinema that not only provides a fascinating insight into the discussed films, but (for me at least) suggests that the social paranoias society has had around its children repeat and take the same form over time.

Of particular note is that this is a piece of academic writing that is incredibly accessible. Although familiarity with the films helps, Lennard is kind enough to provide enough context and synopsis of the films he discusses for the unfamiliar reader. Most importantly though, is that there’s not a wasted word and no needless adjectives to impress. This is not a piece of film writing to prove a point of how good the author is at writing about film – it’s instead a particularly well-written piece about a topic that is normally left to assumptions – either children are creepy or completely innocent. It’s well worth a read for anyone who has even a mild interest in horror cinema, and having waded through impenetrable academia for years, its light touch while still providing a wealth of insight and engaging material is very much welcomed.

 

Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors is available through Amazon and published by SUNY PRESS

 

Now for some full disclosure: Dominic Lennard is a friend of mine and former lecturer at UTAS. He generously provided me with a copy of his book knowing my interest in the subject matter, but didn’t request a review and certainly hasn’t commissioned anything from me (and I don’t have a wide enough readership for that to be worth anything). If my bias is up for question, know that I simply wouldn’t have written anything at all if I wasn’t genuinely impressed with it. Also, it’s really weird referring to someone you know by their surname to indicate authorship. That is all.

Short Reviews: Chappie (2015)

chappieCredit where credit’s due, Neil Blomkamp is inventive enough with his ideas to be able to do something different with an established trope. Into the oeuvre of highly intelligent robots combating their human overseers who want to shut them down, we enter Chappie, a case of Johnny 5 not so much being alive, as he is born and put through an existential storm of crime warfare.

However, as plagued District 9 before it, Blomkamp is a creator of light ideas that don’t support themselves for the run of an entire film. The initial interest generated by the concept peters out and the film is left to devolve into fairly standard fare. In Chappie’s case specifically, the issue is perhaps that there are too many conflicting ideas that interfere with each other, where as delving into one and exploring it – both plotwise and thematically – would have been more beneficial overall.

The concept is that Johannesburg has introduced a robotic police force of “scouts” that have been overwhelmingly successful in assisting police to reduce the rates of crime and established criminal gangs in the city. The scouts’ developer Deon (Dev Patel) is kidnapped by a small gang (led by Die Antwoord, playing odd versions of their outlandish personalities) and forced to program a damaged scout to be at their service, however he programs it with his new AI which enables it to think, feel and learn like a human – the titular Chappie.

The idea is novel, and the execution of Chappie is fantastic, with Sharlto Copley lending a childlike naïveté and tenderness to the advanced AI that quickly endears him as a character, and makes scenes of his battles against the harsh realities of criminal life in Johannesburg very affecting. The juxtaposition of Chappie’s innocence against his gritty surroundings is the movie’s biggest – and perhaps only – strength.

The problem is that the movie tries to do too much – an existential study of what it means to be human with the difference between a soul and a consciousness, the interplay of small gang vs. large gang vs a very efficient police force, the battle between an artistic creator in Deon and the rivalry he faces from a moralistic military man (Hugh Jackman, sporting an awful mullet), and a character study of the dysfunctional “family” Chappie is raised by. The film never adequately explores the ideas presented in these scenarios as it trades off against giving each narrative thread as much time as possible, and it would’ve been a far smarter idea to pick one thread and roll with it deeply, rather than trying to keep too many narrative plates spinning.

Overall it’s disappointing that the film doesn’t better serve its title character, because the potential is there, and he’s a fascinating character in the first two acts, before the film inevitably runs out of narrative steam and devolves into an overplayed shootout. Chappie deserves better than that.

Short Reviews: Amélie (2001)

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Amélie is the story of a girl who devotes her life to brining happiness into the lives of the people around her. “It’s a movie that just makes you smile,” said any customer whoever bought a copy of it from me when I worked for a store that sold movies. And I would simply nod and agree, because the people who buy it are already converted into the church of Amélie. It’s a tale that’s cherished and cherishable; it’s a vibrant film that has the best of intentions and wears them on its sleeves.

On its release it was a resounding success, beloved by critics and audiences alike. Considering that the majority of the film’s wide-release dates came in the subsequent months following 9/11, I see this as no coincidence; it’s a perfect antidote for what was an inescapable torrent of tragedy and the world falling apart at the time.

It’s lavishly shot, showcasing the best retro-chic Paris that never existed (except for postcards and fake memories), and the still-incredible soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment to what is from cradle to grave, a story designed to delight.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s trademark uneasy-grotesque style is amazingly adaptable to bring about whimsy rather than distaste, and everything, including the central performance from Audrey Tautou as the title character is pitched just right – everything works in the film, all elements part of a cohesive whole that succeeds in becoming a one-of-its-kind moviegoing experience. And it does just make you smile.

On the other hand, revisiting the film after 10 years does let the mind wander onto the film’s more sinister elements, like Amélie’s outright sociopathy.

On one hand, Amélie reconnects a man with his childhood, leading to a profound and moving moment in his life; on the other, she invades his privacy to do so, and does it with glee. Elsewhere, she shepherds a blind man across the road and narrates the surroundings to him, “opening his eyes” as it were to what he’s missing out on, or alternatively, she accosts an elderly man and leads him away from what he’s familiar with; she exacts revenge on a cruel grocer and gives him his comeuppance via gaslighting – a form of mental abuse. She steals her father’s property, meddles in the love lives of a co-worker and customer, stalks a man she’s romantically interested in, commits fraud at the expense of her landlady, and intentionally damages a photobooth – and all of this while wearing that damned pixie-smile.

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But all of this is cute and quirky! I suspect it’s largely owed to the utterly-incredible soundtrack. Yann Tiersen’s lilting accordion and piano melodies capture the spirit of Amélie in equal measure to Tautou’s performance and cements her as the kind-hearted spirit the film intends instead of the unhinged sociopath she could’ve been.

So sure, it’s one of the happiest, most escapist and utterly delightful films you’ll ever see. But that Amélie’s a creep, man. Watch out for her.

Short Reviews: Maleficent (2014)

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The movie is really really pretty, and Angelina Jolie is fucking fantastic in the title role. Everything else is up for debate.

If you cherish Eleanor Audley’s undeniably badass rendition of the character from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (she is after all the only Disney villain to go all the way and invoke the powers of Hell) then there’s plenty to enjoy in Jolie’s performance, but it’s likely to be an unsatisfactory whole – simply put, for a villain as impressive and commanding as the original Maleficent, Maleficent’s origins as presented here are somewhat lacklustre.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy perspective flip stories, then you may be in luck with this alternate take on her history – there’s reason and weight behind her cursing Aurora here, more so than simply being snubbed from a christening.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that it is, after all, a movie made for families and younger audiences, and that perhaps a descent into the twisted mind of one of the Disney canon’s most formidable villains is a little darker than their intended viewers are capable of, so those expecting a cynical world of despair that adequately fits our star character should maybe readjust their expectations.

Jolie is divine as Maleficent, embodying the role and clearly having a ball hamming it up as much as she can. Elle Fanning is serviceable as Aurora, but isn’t really tasked with much more than smiling in insipid wonderment at the magical realm Maleficent inhabits. Sharlto Copley makes a slimy villain out of Stefan (though what’s with the accent?) and Sam Riley makes a good snarky foil as Maleficent’s raven-cum-manservant.

It’s fun as a different take on the Maleficent character, and I really appreciated that they didn’t put the origins of her villainy down to “heartbroken by a man” – that it was an act of actual betrayal that deserved revenge was much appreciated, even if the scene itself did seem just a little date-rapey.

The greatest misgiving I have about the film is that here, Maleficent is a purely reactionary character, acting on impulse to the world around her and its slings and arrows, whereas the original character was cold, calculating and gloriously evil. Maleficent’s Maleficent is a presence to behold, but in the same way that a tornado causes a lot of damage and then blows itself out, so to does this modern incarnation; not so much a force of Hell as she is a magical tantrum.

I recognise I’m in no target demographic of the movie, and I admit I saw it in obligation to my Angelina Jolie fanboy duties. It could have been much worse, and for what it’s worth, it’s a good fun film, it’s just that it feels it could have been more.

As a showcase of Jolie’s ability to embody any role, it’s fantastic, and even if you’re still questioning whether you should see it or not, you should definitely see it if only for her alone.