Apollo 11

Apollo 11 (2019)

Directed by Todd Douglas Miller

Like so many kids of my generation I was obsessed with space and space travel, something that has persisted in my love of pure science as well as science fiction literature and film. One of my earliest preschool memories was running around our yard in rural Australia with an empty cereal box as a helmet, telling anyone who would listen I was going to be the first singing astronaut.

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission and my local, the State Cinema in Hobart has joined with a few other independent cinemas to run a Moon Festival. This short season of moon-related features opened tonight with the documentary Apollo 11.

As a child of the 60s (I was 10 when Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon) this film bought back many memories, such as having the day off school in the middle of winter, sitting with my friends on our couch, all with our legs raised trying to put our foot on the ground the same time as Neil Armstrong. And long conversations with my beloved father about physics, space travel, what we might find there and the hope the Apollo missions represented for humanity.

So, as soon as the pre-mission countdown began at Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral) and the luscious sound design started to work its magic, I knew I was being emotionally manipulated by a very cleverly made documentary – and I welcomed it with open arms! Rather than filling screen with facts and figures, this film explores more the feeling of the time and the profound nature of the mission. Even though I know how the story goes, I felt the tension build in me as the astronauts and their ground crews approached crisis points.

Everything about this film is big – the opening scenes of the Saturn 5 rocket sitting on the launch pad, the crowds who came to Florida to watch the launch, the sound of take-off and the beautiful, insistent score by Matt Morton that doesn’t intrude but blends beautifully with the overall sound design by Eric Milano and the superb film editing by Todd Douglas Miller.

Unsurprisingly, this movie won the editing award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize (documentary) at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and I have no doubt it will go on to earn further industry accolades. If you have an interest in the moon landing, space exploration, lived through the event or just an interest in modern history, this is a great film. See it on the largest screen you possibly can, (there is an IMAX version) preferably one with a very good sound system.

This superb film has taken archival footage and made it meaningful for new audiences half a century later, no mean feat! I found it stirring and incredibly uplifting but I left the cinema with a profound sense of sadness that my generation never followed through on the promise of truly going to the stars.

The Meg

The Meg (2018)

Directed by Jon Turteltaub

I first recall seeing Jason Statham all the back in 1998, in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and he’s proved to be an enduring and (mostly) perfectly serviceable screen presence. Like Dwayne Johnson, he seems to be aware of his limitations as an actor and plays to his strengths – he wears a suit very well and is certainly one of the best screen action men – but he is wasted in this dreadfully sad excuse of a film. It seems they were aiming to generate the tension of Jaws (1975) but lacked the ammunition to do so.

Sadly, this even missed multiple opportunities to be “so bad it’s good”, with awful dialogue, a pedestrian and predictable plot, standard ho-hum character tropes, at times very dodgy CG and not even a single helicopter getting eaten by a monster shark. I was very disappointed.

On the upside, I’ve seen the trailer for Hobbs and Shaw, which is due for release in August and that looks an infinitely better vehicle for Statham. I’m really glad I didn’t go and see The Meg in the cinema, waiting until it came out on Amazon Prime. Nevertheless, it’s almost two hours of my life I won’t get back.

 

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers (2018)

Directed by Jacques Audiard

As many of you know, I watch a lot of movies. Wherever possible, I go to a real, live, honest-to-goodness cinema but, living in Hobart, I’m often reduced to relying on streaming services, Vimeo and even YouTube for some classics. My average when studying is a film per day, though now I’m having a break and winter has arrived, that number will possibly rise. If you’re interested, I’ve recently joined Letterboxd the social media site for film nerds, and you can follow my profile to see what I’m currently watching.

Naturally, I don’t write a review for everything I see (many are re-watches) though I often take notes – even in the dark! Over the coming weeks, I hope to catch up with reviews of the movies I’ve seen in recent months. But there are some films that just stay with me and refuse to be shaken off. This is one of them.

I saw The Sisters Brothers back in March at a one-off screening for the French Film Festival at the State Cinema and I’ve only just found time to write a review. To say I enjoyed it is a gross oversimplification. This revisionist western is a complex, often humorous and sometimes ponderous examination of masculinity. Based on the novel by Canadian writer Patrick deWitt, this is French director Jacques Audiard’s first English language feature. I haven’t read the book, so I’m basing this solely on what I’ve seen on screen and the notes I made that night. Shot in Romania, Spain and France with a predominantly European crew, the film has a distinctly different feel to the greater majority of contemporary westerns, which I found very appealing.

The story is basically a four-handed tale and concerns brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters, (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) who are two assassins in pursuit of Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) a chemist who befriends the detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). The characters are all unique, human, flawed and about as far from standard western male stereotypes as one could get. Phoenix is on point with his self-destructive Charlie, Gyllenhaal and Ahmed are excellent as the precise detective and idealistic chemist – but the beating heart of the movie is John C. Reilly as the contemplative and essentially tender-hearted Eli, living in a world of brutality and casual violence.

I found the humour at times a little wearing and that didn’t do the narrative pacing any favours, dragging it down in my opinion. It has occurred to me that this is such a male-centric film, that the jokes aren’t aimed at me but I need to re-watch it to see if my initial reactions hold up.

Nevertheless, this a sumptuously shot film that is gritty, dark and at times, quite disturbing. For me, a middle aged woman, I found it a fascinating essay on masculinity and what it means to be a man, beyond all the standard cinematic tropes. I have mixed feelings about so many aspects of this film, but I appreciate the incredibly high quality film making at its core and will always champion an attempt to do something different and subvert expectations. It really looks like a big blockbuster Hollywood western – but has a script that is more suited to an indie, film festival audience. I understand it got a very limited release in Australia (one night only in Hobart) but it’s scheduled for a DVD release in Australia in mid-June 2019. I will certainly be getting a copy for my home library.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

Directed by Chad Stahelski

I love a good action film, and have been a fan of this franchise since the beginning. John Wick (2014) was a wonderful first entry into the dark underworld of assassins, crime and shady deals. It also cemented once and for all that Keanu Reeves is a great action hero, with his tremendous talent for pulling off some beautifully choreographed set pieces. John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) capitalised on that, expanding on the world Wick exists in and taking us deeper into the story of a man grieving for his wife and, in the end, for a life he cannot go back to.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019) begins within minutes of the conclusion of Chapter 2. Wick is on the run, with less than an hour before a $14M contract comes into force. It is open season on John Wick and every assassin in the world wants a shot (literally) at the prize. I wondered how this film could possibly better the first two and I have to say my expectations were most definitely met in every way.

In my opinion, there’s a lot of things to consider as to why this film is so very satisfying. Firstly, the story and the world it exists in has expanded slowly over three films, each bringing a little more to the audience. There is never a major exposition dump, so prevalent in too many lesser films when the action slows, and even between set pieces there’s tension that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. This is deftly spliced with some wry humour that really worked for me.

The framing and shooting of action is superb and solid through all three films. This is highlighted by long takes of set pieces, often cutting to different cameras but never resorting to hand held shaky-cam. I noticed the shooting angles for hand-to-hand fighting in Chapter 3 were often from waist height or just below, making the actors look bigger and giving the action a weight that many films neglect. The stunts themselves are beautifully choreographed and executed. From the start of this franchise, I’ve felt the series owes a lot to films like Gareth Evan’s The Raid: Redemption (2011) but especially here in Chapter 3.

And this brings me to Reeves. Having a leading man who is so dedicated to doing as much of his own stunt work as he possibly can must be a huge attraction for stunt coordinator/choreographer Jonathan Eusebio and director Chad Stahelski (who worked as a stunt coordinator and Reeves’ double on The Matrix films). This means they can do those wonderful long scenes, jam-packed with action and pull in to see faces and expressions. The rest of the cast are excellent, particularly Halle Berry and her beautiful dogs, Asia Kate Dillon, Laurence Fishburne, Anjelica Huston and Ian McShane. Mark Dacascos is excellent as the assassin Zero and it was great to see Jerome Flynn on the big screen.

Tonally, this is the darkest of the series so far – John Wick: Chapter 4 has been announced for 2021 – despite the beautiful desert scenes shot in Morocco. As we learn more about Wick’s backstory and the world he inhabits, the darker everything becomes – including the characters. This is punctuated beautifully by another great soundtrack from Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard, who have scored the two previous films as well.

All in all, this is an incredibly satisfying thrill ride. If you like good quality action films go and see it on the biggest screen possible, though this is definitely on my DVD/BluRay wish list later in the year for home viewing.

The Story of the Cat Who Came to Stay

 

Look deep into my eyes…

Back in the start of the year, when I was almost tearing my hair out trying to deal with extremely dry and hot weather, failed crops and the ever increasing work load with university, I noticed a skinny little cat had started hanging around the yard. I live near the university, so there’s a lot of unit blocks all around me and I wondered if this little thing belonged to one of the mostly student tenants.

I’m not a cat person. I’ve got large breed rabbits and a retirement home for elderly chickens in my patch as well as multiple vegetable beds, fruit trees (many on dwarfing rootstock in wicking barrels) and a greenhouse that I purposely didn’t plant out last year in order to concentrate on study. Because of the high number of rented units, this area gets a lot of stray cats that wander into the yard. So the old chooks have a fully enclosed rat, raptor and cat proof run, with grape and passionfruit vines to provide summer shade as well as a covered back section with roosting and nesting areas. (We call it ‘Frankenhutch’). The two remaining bunnies are in their own very secure enclosures and Boudica (the biggest, most sweet natured rabbit on the planet) has been seen taking pieces out of cats when she was still a breeding doe. In fact, we’ve worked out since that she is more than twice as big as Neko, who weighs in at under 5kg (11lb).

It’s common to see an occasional mouse trying to get at the chickens’ kibble but they usually don’t last long, gobbled up as extra protein by the chickens and even the odd rat in the yard looking for feed. Imagine my surprise when I came down one morning and found a freshly dead rat on the pathway!

And up on the fence was perched this very scrawny grey cat, watching me very intently. It had no collar and I asked a few people over the next few weeks if they knew who owned the little charcoal tabby – but no one could help. Over the next couple of months, I surprised it a few times in the greenhouse or saw it watching me from behind a tree and there were further gifts of what I can only describe as pieces of dead rodents. The cat, whether I liked it or not, had moved in. The chickens were still laying, the rabbits were showing no signs of distress and none of the native birds that always hang around in late summer seemed fussed at all by the grey terror in the greenhouse. So who was I to complain about a mouser in the yard? I started leaving a bowl of water out near the greenhouse door but I kept thinking that there must be someone, somewhere missing this little creature.

Then one day, when I was inside the chicken’s run feeding them some of the choicest weeds, the cat, sitting outside the enclosure, started to meow at me. Henrietta, the maddest and feistiest chicken ever, lunged at it, ready to peck its green eyes out if it got any closer. The cat didn’t turn a whisker, it plainly wasn’t interested in chickens – it was looking and talking only to me. I started to meow and sing back to it and so, we gradually came to an understanding. I never tried to approach it or touch it, and bided my time.

Henrietta, Queen of the Chicken Coop

In the end, it was Mister Him Indoors (who is not a natural gardener but incredibly good with animals) who made first physical contact. He came down to help me get the autumn vegetable beds ready and called the cat, who sensibly came straight to him and then it was on. There was a quite alarming rumble of purring and rubbing its face on our legs, boots and hands, nibbling fingers. It made us realise just how terribly thin this cat was, how dull its coat but how bright its eyes – and how much it enjoyed the affection! This was obviously no rank stray, it’d spent at least part of its life as someone’s pet. It was beautifully marked and fine boned, we thought maybe a female and a tail that was extraordinary in length and movement. We gave it some dry cat food I keep on hand for the chickens. (Don’t laugh – the extra protein is the best conditioner when chickens are moulting and fabulous in mid-winter when they need a little extra bulk). I was astonished – I’d never heard a cat purr while it was eating before. We included it in the regular twice a day feeding schedule – chickens first, then the rabbits’ mixed greens from around the garden and a little kibble and finally, the cat. It started sunning itself on the top of the back stairs outside the laundry in the afternoon, waiting for us to come down to do the evening feed. With the weather starting to cool, we had to do something. It would be too cold in the unheated, drafty greenhouse in the middle of winter.

So I took a photo, plastered it over my social media network and posted it to the local lost pets register. No response. We had to make a decision.

As I said we’re not a cat-loving household, having spent time in the bush and knowing the damage feral and unconfined cats can do to wildlife and the environment generally. The last thing on our minds was getting one, let alone adopting someone’s dumped pet. There were options. We could call the local cat centre. They would come and collect it, scan to see if it has a microchip identification and if not it would be put up for adoption.

But what if no one adopted it?

We talked it over, we discussed making a bed for it in the laundry, discussed the pros and cons of having a young cat come into our lives for potentially the next 15 years. Big decisions!

Through the lost pets register, I met Suzi, who works at a dedicated cat-only veterinary practice in Hobart and we made an appointment, discussed what to do if it didn’t have a microchip, wasn’t neutered, the cost, the commitment.

The day came and we were so uneducated in feline ways, we had no idea the best way to get a cat into a pet carrier is to put it in backwards. There were deep scratches and much plaintive meowing from the backseat of the car – but we got there.

At the vet’s we discovered little cat was a boy! Skinny, but not undernourished thanks to our ministrations. There was no desexing tattoo but a microchip, and a registered owner in Launceston, about 200km (125 miles) away. Suzi rang the owner who was surprised. She’d bought him as a kitten in 2012, had him desexed and wanted an indoor pet but he was not happy confined in an apartment alone all day. Very responsibly, she rehomed Harley (as she named him) a couple of years ago to a rural family in Richmond.

She gave the number of the new owners and we held our breath while Suzi called them.

Yes, they had a cat they called Smokey but it went missing in December last year. No, they hadn’t transferred the microchip information. Did they want him back?

No, they had another cat now.

Mister Him Indoors (always the scholar of mythology) named him Nekomata for the devious monster cats of ancient Japanese tales. How he got from Richmond to Hobart will always be a mystery. It’s some 27km (over 16 miles) from Hobart and we can only presume that he got caught in a truck or fell asleep without anyone noticing.

Currently, he’s still sleeping in the greenhouse. There seems to be some trauma surrounding being confined but he’s starting to come upstairs into the laundry, where he will have shelter, a warm bed and appropriate facilities (a litter tray) for the long winter nights.

No one’s really sure how it happened, but now we have a cat.

In truth, I think it was Neko’s plan all along.

You will love me and obey…

The Woman in the Fifth

The Woman in the Fifth (2011)

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

This came up recently on streaming site Mubi but I missed it (and a lot of other interesting movies) due to the demands of study, which is thankfully now in hiatus for the next couple of months. I found it on Tubi, a free streaming site that’s just come into the Australian market. Because it’s so late to the licensing table, most of the content is straight to video/dvd b-grade fare, but there are some true gems in there – especially in the horror/sci-fi/thriller areas. Also, there’s a fairly extensive foreign language section that I need to trawl through this winter.

I’m almost ashamed to admit this is my first Pawlikowski film – no, I haven’t seen Cold War (2018) or even Ida (2013) – terrible, I know. But something I’m now determined to rectify in the coming months.

The story centres on an American writer who comes to Paris to try and reconnect with his six year old daughter, who lives with his ex-wife. The always watchable Ethan Hawke plays this damaged fellow with remarkable depth and makes for a very sympathetic character. Kristen Scott Thomas is elegant, understated and incredibly sexy as the mysterious translator but it is Joanna Kulig who really made me sit up and take notice. She owns every scene she’s in and brings a vibrancy to the film that sits well against the grimy underbelly of Paris that she lives in. (Yes, everyone’s told me she’s incredible in Cold War and I’ll get to see it eventually).

With respect to The Woman in the Fifth, I think it was great to see some of the seedier side of Paris, which becomes a tacit character in this. Pawlikowski obviously has a great eye for framing and shot selection but ultimately, the mystery turned to vague frustration for me, with too many obvious plot holes and loose ends that were never acknowledged, let alone tied up. To be fair, I’m not familiar with the text it’s based on, Douglas Kennedy’s 2007 novel but I enjoyed this enough that I intend to seek it out.

For music lovers, there’s bonus points for the best use of Handel’s ‘Per le Porte del Tormento’ I’ve ever heard. Incredibly watchable but not as satisfying as it could’ve been.

Avengers: Endgame *NO SPOILERS*

Avengers: Endgame (2019) *NO SPOILERS*

Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo.

I just want to start by saying that this is more a reaction piece than a full-blown review and will contain nothing that will reveal any main story points. My personal opinion is there’s a special hell for people who spoil movies – and a particularly nasty corner reserved for those who spoil Marvel films.

I’m renowned for having a short attention span but over more than a decade now and 22 films I’ve found myself fully invested in these characters and their stories, adapted from comics that I first read as little kid back in rural South Australia so many years ago. It’s carried me through most of my degree course in Film Studies, and in a few months I’ll be embarking on a final project paper examining the performative nature of villainy in the MCU. So, I’m coming at this as a film scholar and an unashamed fan-girl.

This movie was a total trip.

Yes, it is three hours long, but as someone who has difficulty with sitting still for long periods, it sailed by and I was never bored or uncomfortable – despite being on the edge of my seat for a good deal of it. (Pro tip: don’t drink too much a few hours prior to your screening!)

The overall design, costuming and CG are exactly what I expect from Marvel this far into the franchise and on first viewing, better than Infinity War. Fight choreography and stunt work too are typically top level and consistent throughout the movie.

Tonally, it’s as I’d expected – all over the place and dependent on who’s dominating the action. The interesting thing is that I found the editing and transitions far easier and smoother than in Infinity War. For me, it was reminiscent of different movements in a piece of music, always coming back to the core theme. Hats off to the Russo brothers for pulling that off!

The central performances are all on point with standouts from the original six, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr.

The first act is a beautifully executed recap from Thanos’ finger snap at the end of Infinity War and a surprisingly slow build up to the surviving team coming together again. The remainder of the film (without giving anything away) is a superbly constructed roller coaster with ALL the feels. (Another pro tip: take tissues or handkerchiefs – I welled up at multiple points through this movie and unashamedly cried at a couple of scenes).

In conclusion, this is a colossal achievement in very long form storytelling that will certainly bear up to repeat viewing. Yes, I know it’s a superhero movie and trivial compared to more traditionally serious cinematic undertakings but I am reminded of Logan (2017) and how profoundly it changed the comic book movie for me. Tonally and narratively, I think Endgame is in the same league but with a bigger budget. I’m sure it will become the basis for many, many memes in weeks and months to come, but it surprised me in ways I didn’t quite expect and always entertained.

Above all, it made me think about things important to me – it moved me! Surely that is the ultimate purpose of any film.

Go see it for yourself and do let me know what you think ❤

Previous Older Entries