Month: August 2016

The Notebook

the-notebook-movie-posterThis movie is supposed to be a modern holy grail of chick flicks, so I watched it because I love me a good romance. I’m sorry to say that it left me cold – I didn’t hate it but nothing about it tugged on my heart-strings. Nope, not even the Alzheimer’s storyline.

Based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, it tells the story of two young lovers in the 1940s, as narrated by an elderly man in the present day to a fellow nursing home patient, who suffers from dementia. Noah (Ryan Gosling) is poor, Allie (Rachel McAdams) is a rich heiress, they fall in love to the disapproval of her snooty parents, part ways, then meet again years later when Allie is engaged to a Mr Right who ticks all of her parents’ boxes and seems a decent guy. He’s played by James Marsden, who at one point got seriously typecast playing the second-choice sweet guys, so no prizes for guessing where it’s all going. Also no prizes for guessing who the elderly couple in the present timeline really are.

I’m pretty sure that Gosling and McAdams are the main reason for the movie’s cult status; they’re beautiful and appealing as hell, have a genuinely great chemistry, and yeah that kissing-in-the-rain scene is iconic for a reason. Unfortunately while they made the movie watchable, they couldn’t save it from drowning in clichés and treacle. I feel that, with escapist romantic movies, it’s often pretty pointless to criticise their unrealistic nature, since they tend to exist in their own heightened universe where love is everything. So I can accept a scene where a guy asks a girl to lie down in the middle of the road and watch traffic lights change in order to show that she’s capable of trust as romantic (in real life, I’d tell the guy where to go in no uncertain terms). And if anything, there’s something admirable about the way the movie commits to its melodrama so whole-heartedly, without a shred of cynicism or self-consciousness. But while Allie and Noah are likeable they’re pretty bland characters, and I generally like my romantic movies to have more than a list of tired cliches, heavy-handed symbolism and developments you can see from miles away. I just couldn’t engage with it no matter how hard it worked to make me cry; it’s far from horrendous, but too basic for my liking.

Raging Bull

hero_EB19980510REVIEWS08401010354ARI went to the Martin Scorsese exhibition at ACMI last weekend, which inspired me to catch up on his filmography, starting with the movie often cited as his finest. I probably resisted watching it previously because of the perceived subject matter; boxing might be one of the most popular sports in the movies, for a good reason too (the world will probably hang on forever for a gripping drama about synchronised swimming), but it just really isn’t my cuppa. What became clear very soon though that this isn’t a “boxing” movie as such and it’s certainly no feelgood Rocky-style sports fairytale, which I guess I wouldn’t have expected from Scorsese anyway. It’s really a character study of a deeply unloveable, self-destructive, brutish man who can only truly express himself best when he’s beating the shit out of his opponents inside the boxing ring. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s visceral, kinetic, powerful, incredibly well-made and punches you right in the face, pardon the pun.

Robert De Niro disappears completely into the role of Jake La Motta, a real-life middle-weight boxer whose biography the film is based on. The movie follows just over two decades of his life and covers his two marriages, rise to the world championship and his decline to a balding overweight night club owner and a sleazy comedian in New York. In the course of the film, Jake’s temper and insane crippling jealousy alienate him from his younger brother Joey (Joe Pesci) and his second wife Vickie, a stunning blond beauty who is only fifteen when we meet her, but already with a cool, poised level-gazed demeanour of an older woman. Joey is the person Jake is probably closest to, and De Niro and Pesci’s verbal sparring is electric. As beastly as Jake is, De Niro makes him a magnetic character to watch, and sometimes it’s even possible to cheer for him. Most of the time though, the threat of violence that’s simmering just under the surface makes Jake’s domestic scenes unbearably tense and you just want to shout to his wife, “get the hell away from this guy”.

The boxing scenes, I was surprised to find out later, only take up ten minutes of the film, and as much as I don’t care about the boxing I can’t deny their power. They’re both heavily stylized and realistically brutal and they’re drenched in sweat and blood; I wouldn’t want to think what they’d look like in colour when they’re hard to watch even with the starkly beautiful black-and-white cinematography.

Most biopics/sports movies follow a tried-and-true rise-fall-rise formula, but Raging Bull is pretty much a bleak rise-fall-fall. There’s a brief sorta redemptive moment for Jake near the end, but I was left wondering how genuine or self-aware Jake really was, and whether the other person was ever going to be receptive. Overall, definitely a downer but a masterpiece without a doubt.

Dune

duneI first watched David Lynch’s Dune almost 20 years ago, and could remember very little of it except the image of Sting with ridiculous punk orange hair wearing nothing but a loincloth, which is not the sort of memory you’d cherish. Since then I actually got around to reading Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel and its sequels, and decided to revisit this much-maligned movie adaptation. Its bad reputation is deserved in many respects, but as much of a mess it is, it’s also way too bizarre and singular to be dismissed outright.

Dune the novel, with its incredible world-building and uniquely imagined science, cultures, philosophies, societies and geography has the density of a supermassive black hole, and trying to pack all of that into a two hour-long movie is a doomed exercise to start with. It’s even hard to summarise the story without having to veer into all sorts of explanations, but in a nutshell, it’s about a bitter struggle between two future aristocratic families, Atreides (heroes) and Harkonnens (villains) over the control of Arrakis, a desert planet and the only source of melange, a spice which is the most valuable substance in the universe. Our hero, Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan), also may or may not be a powerful messianic figure who is bound to change the world, with the help of Fremen, the mysterious native race of Arrakis.

In terms of storytelling, the film is total and utter shambles. I can’t remember now if it made much sense to me on the initial viewing, but the sheer assault of information and weird terminology is pretty much guaranteed to leave someone unfamiliar with the books in a bewildered haze. The pacing is erratic: the first half of the film is quite leisurely, lingering on the individual scenes, then in the second half it gallops frantically through the rest of the story. To be honest, I never thought that characters were Herbert’s strongest point, but I actually liked most of the casting (except for Patrick Stewart who acts so much like Picard in this movie it’s distracting – I kept waiting for him to order some Earl Grey tea). Unfortunately most of the characters suffer from the rushed execution; some get dropped unceremoniously soon after their introduction, many crucial relationships are woefully underdeveloped and some characters who were of importance in the book could have been cut for all the non-impact they have in the film. For instance, Princess Irulan’s narration opens the film and keeps reoccurring throughout, but she has no presence in the movie whatsoever, while Paul’s romance with Chani plays like a definition of an obligatory love story you roll your eyes at. The fascinating culture of Fremen is barely touched upon and there is a major change to the ending which is frankly stupid and makes zero sense when you consider its impact. The movie also has a persistent habit of playing characters’ inner thoughts as a voiceover, which gets annoying very quickly.

Where the movie excels is in the visuals and vibe and the pure trippy Lynchian weirdness of it all. In a sense he was an excellent pick for bringing this cold, cruel, utterly alien world to the screen. The costume and set design merit nothing but the highest praise – the futuristic yet baroque look of the royal palace, the striking black robes and shaved heads of the Reverend Mothers, the interiors of the Harkonnen stronghold which seem to have depravity dripping off the screen. Some of the special effects look pretty hilarious by today’s standards, but I’m willing to cut some slack, the film was made in the early 80s after all. While most of the score is nothing to write home about, the main theme is pretty damn epic and stirring. And while the story overall is not handled well, many of the individual scenes are powerfully executed, and it’s just exciting to see the memorable scenes from the book, such as Paul’s box test at the start, brought to life. Dune is a very very very flawed movie for sure, but its good points are enough for me not to throw it into a total dud basket. And Sting is actually not as awful here as I remembered him to be.

Jupiter Ascending

jupiterI thought that the DVD rental places have all gone the way of dodos and unicorns, but apparently there are still a few that survived the onslaught of the internet and Netflix, including one not too far away from my Mum’s house. I don’t download so I thought it would be a good opportunity to support a local business and catch up on some movies I missed out on for various reasons. It sure did bring on a sense of nostalgia to walk along the stacked shelves.

I wanted to watch Jupiter Ascending chiefly because many of my favourite YouTube reviewers bagged the crap out of it in a very entertaining fashion, so it sounded like one of those “bad but nutty and fun” cinematic disasters. It’s directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, who were inexplicably given $175 million dollars to play with despite the fact that The Matrix afterglow had faded away ages ago, and at the heart it’s a fairly straightforward sci-fi fairytale. Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a young Russian immigrant who lives with her extended family in Chicago and spends her days scrubbing rich people’s toilets, while also wearing immaculate make-up (naturally). Until one day, our Cinderella gets thrust into the middle of a galactic conspiracy and encounters Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), an extraterrestrial human/wolf crossbreed, who saves her from a bunch of murderous aliens. Jupiter learns that she is in fact interstellar royalty by the virtue of being an exact genetic duplicate (basically reincarnation) of the head of the powerful Abrasax family, a fact that the three remaining Abrasax siblings aren’t too happy about. It seems that, through a weird loophole in the inheritance law, Jupiter is entitled to some prime space real estate, including Earth.

The biggest compliment I can pay the movie is that it at least tries to tell an original story in the world of safe sequels, remakes and adaptations. It could have worked as a fun wacky adventure in the vein of The Fifth Element and in fact some of its sequences really seem to aim for that vibe. Unfortunately, Wachowskis lack the lighter touch necessary to pull it off, and can’t resist weighing the movie down with their trademark portentous dialogue and side characters who look cool/bored and speak in disinterested monotone. There are some interesting visuals and cool designs for ships, fashions, technologies and cities, but the action for the most part is so video-gamish my brain would just switch off for the lack of interest. The story is non-existent and consists mostly of Jupiter getting kidnapped then saved over and over and over again – she’s honestly the worst damsel-in-distress I’ve seen onscreen in a long time, which probably explains why Kunis remains such a blank throughout. Tatum is pretty decent as an action hero, but Caine and Jupiter’s love story can’t survive howlers like this:

Caine: “You are royalty. I’m a splice … I have more in common with a dog than I have with you.”
Jupiter: “I’ve always loved dogs.”

Ummm… yeah.

Sean Bean also pops up as Caine’s former colleague and his always-likeable presence does a lot to brighten up the film. He just has a magical ability to ground any scene despite the ridiculous dialogue he’s saddled with, like “Bees are genetically designed to respond to royalty.” The biggest standout of the film – if you can call it so – is Eddie Redmayne as the villainous Balem Abrasax. His performance as a spoiled cosmic brat with severe mommy issues and penchant for flashing his abs has to be one of the most WTF performances ever given by an Oscar-winning actor, and consists of wheezy over-dramatic whispering punctuated by the bursts of manic screaming. It’s so utterly bizarre and campy it transcends bad acting into some kind of warped genius territory. I loved every minute he was onscreen.

As an aside, I’m used to hearing my native language mangled in English-speaking movies by the supposedly Russian characters, but the “Russian” conversations between Jupiter and her family were so incomprehensible I needed the subtitles, too.

The Neon Demon

neondemonI watched this movie on the weekend as a part of the Melbourne International Film Festival, and I’m still not sure how I felt about it. I don’t know if I liked it but I’m glad I saw it; I don’t know if I’d call it a good film but it sure was memorable. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon is a thriller/horror set in the glossy, empty fashion world of LA and stars Elle Fanning as Jesse, a fresh-faced teenager barely in her sixteenth year who moves to the city hoping to start a modelling career. She stays in a dodgy hotel overseen by the bearded, seedy and surprisingly menacing Keanu Reeves and makes friends with Ruby (Jena Malone), a seemingly sympathetic make-up artist. Soon, Jesse’s vulnerable milk-and-roses beauty and that intangible “It” quality that all the surgery in the world can’t buy makes a splash on the scene and invites the envy of the two very bitchy, very plastic-looking models (Bella Heathcoate and Abbey Lee).

This may sound like there’s a story going on, but none of this adds up to much plot-wise, and almost no one in the movie acts like a real human being either. I also have no clue if the director intended to say anything with this movie other than the obvious stuff like, “fashion industry is bad and exploitative”, “beauty is powerful”, “LA corrupts the innocents” etc. etc. The film is best seen as a macabre, surreal, quite silly and utterly fabulous-looking exercise in pure style, with a chilly aesthetic that brings to mind Stanley Kubrick, full of beautiful, hypnotic imagery, complemented by a pulsating soundtrack. Its moments of violence and horror are often so over-the-top that the entire theatre frequently burst into laughter (I wonder if the fact that it screened at the Comedy Theatre might have contributed to the reaction). Apart from Kubrick, I was also reminded of David Lynch, Aronofsky’s Black Swan and weirdly enough Patrick Süskind’s Perfume.

Other than being utterly stunning, Elle Fanning makes for a sympathetic protagonist before Jesse predictably embraces her narcissism in the second half of the film and ditches her innocent flowy dresses for a flimsy sparkly top with a neckline that stops at her midriff. I never noticed before how asymmetrical her face is, a quirk that only adds to the appeal (beauty in imperfection and all). Abbey Lee, who played one of the escaped wives in Mad Max: Fury Road, is also memorable; there’s not much to her character but she has a spooky intensity here that’s rather mesmerising. Which could be said about the movie as a whole I guess.

Quote of the Day

“I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life. I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have loneliness, to work much and write good books, to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish… You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger.”

– Simone de Beauvoir

Star Trek Beyond

star-trek-beyond-c1The newly rebooted Star Trek franchise has been a bumpy ride. I absolutely adored the bright and fresh J.J. Abrams-directed 2009 Star Trek, which had a somewhat weak plot and an underwhelming villain, but more than made up for it with the origin story of its dual protagonists, Kirk and Spock. I didn’t think that Star Trek Into Darkness was an abomination from the bowels of hell like many fans did, but it sure was a sloppy convoluted mess of a movie that was a pointless retread of the original series’ most-loved film and brought absolutely nothing new to the table character-wise. When I heard that the third film would be headed by The Fast and the Furious director, I cringed, and when I saw the first loud, dumb trailer I cringed even harder. After seeing the movie, I’m happy to say that it’s far, far from the disaster I was anticipating, and in many ways an improvement on Into Darkness. Which is not to say it’s perfect as it comes with a set of problems of its own.

Beyond feels like the “Trekkiest” movie of these new series – until the big set pieces kick in, the start of the film feels like it could have been lifted from the TV series. It opens three years into the USS Enterprise’s five-year exploration mission, and the weight of monotony is starting to get to Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), who contemplates whether there’s much point in exploring something that’s infinite, and looks for a way out. His best friend and First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), meanwhile, ponders his responsibilities to the decimated Vulcan race, and whether his duty is making Vulcan babies rather than staying with his human girlfriend Uhura. All this existential angst has to be put on hold when Enterprise is sent on a rescue mission inside an uncharted nebula near Yorktown, a massive space station that’s also one of the film’s truly eye-popping spectacles. The rescue turns into an ambush and the crew ends up separated and stranded on the alien planet, lorded over by the mysterious Krall, who is after an ancient relic that Kirk had obtained for an earlier diplomatic mission. Teamwork and survival anyone?

As in the earlier films, the chief pleasure of Beyond is its likeable cast, who at this point already feel like old friends, and the characters’ interactions. The first two movies revolved around the chalk-and-cheese dynamic of Kirk and Spock, which, as emotional and effective as it was in the 2009 film, started to feel worn in Into Darkness. Here, the writers wisely decide to change up the dynamics and concentrate on the highly amusing bickering between Spock and Bones, who are forced to rely on each other. Karl Urban was woefully underutilised in the previous film but truly shines here as the prickly doctor, and owns most of the film’s big laughs. Of the new characters, the most welcome one is Jaylah, a survivor of an earlier crash that Scotty (Simon Pegg) bumps into. With her mane of white hair and white-etched-with-black face, Jaylah is a striking alien beauty, and miraculously she feels like a real person without being either one-dimensional Hot Alien Babe or Generic Strong Female Character.

Where the film falters somewhat is the story and the villain. This is the third time in the series where the story centres around a bad guy with a grudge against the Federation who is bent on revenge, and it already felt repetitive in Into Darkness. For the majority of the running time, Krall is a fairly dull generic baddie and you wouldn’t even know that there’s Idris Elba buried beneath all that latex. There’s a very neat twist to Krall, but then the writers make a gross miscalculation holding off the reveal until the very end, when there’s no time for anything except the final action scene, and the interesting themes the movie touches on don’t have time to breathe. It’s a shame because the final reel, when Elba finally gets something to do, breathes a new energy into the movie that it didn’t have before and takes it up a level. The weak story and villain still could have been a lesser issue had the movie served up some compelling character drama, but while the character interactions are always delightful there’s not much character development, as such, and little sense of personal stakes. Kirk’s crisis is resolved just as you’d think it would be, and Spock’s Vulcan dilemma feels like bookends that have little to do with the main story. There are a few times when the movie underdelivers on potentially emotional setups. We find out for instance that Sulu (John Cho) is in a happy relationship with a bloke and they’re raising a daughter together. While it’s nice to see a mainstream blockbuster acknowledge that gay people exist, it’s weird that the movie conveys no sense of personal stakes for Sulu when his loved ones are under attack at the end of the film. Likewise, there’s no real sense of arc or resolution to Jaylah’s story, even though the film alludes to the parallels between her father and Kirk’s that you kinda expect to come into play somehow.

Justin Lin’s directorial efforts are a bit of a mixed bag. He really gets the crew-is-family theme and the final climatic sequence is tons of fun, but there are also way too many chaotic, underlit action scenes that go on for too damn long (I couldn’t wait for Enterprise to crash already). I confess I really missed J.J. Abrams’ touch; he might have major issues with telling a coherent story but man can he inject his movies with fun and verve. Beyond is competent, but most of the action is not as exciting as it should have been, and most of the humour doesn’t land as well as it should have done. Overall, I enjoyed the movie, but there’s no escaping the nagging sense that this franchise is coasting on charm.

The tributes to Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin were lovely and got claps from the audience who stuck around for the credits. Also, the use of Beastie Boys was kinda genius.