Beirut

Beirut 2018 Directed by Brad Anderson

*No spoilers in this review*

I went to an advanced screening of this over the weekend and it was a packed house. After the film as we were filing out, one of the staff asked a patron if they enjoyed it. The older woman replied “well, I don’t think enjoy is quite the right word. It was very interesting but a bit confusing” and I think that’s a fair assessment of this densely packed political thriller.

Directed by the always visually reliable Brad Anderson, the screenplay is by Tony Gilroy who wrote the Bourne trilogy, Michael Collins and my favourite Star Wars film, Rogue One. There are some fairly difficult issues embedded in this period thriller and at first glance, it would be easy to dismiss it as just another example of western filmmakers using a Middle Eastern location for ethnic flavour and racial stereotyping but I think it offers more on deeper examination.

First and foremost, this is clearly a star vehicle for Jon Hamm (who I last saw and loved in Baby Driver) and he is wonderful as Mason Skiles, the alcoholic and grief stricken former political negotiator. It can’t be denied there are echoes of Don Draper here but I think Hamm pushes beyond that by virtue of Anderson’s direction, a lovingly crafted script and a charismatic performance from Hamm. Rosamund Pike is the perfect choice as his foil and she gives a fine and nuanced performance among a lot of boys as a CIA operative and Skiles’ handler.

The film opens in 1972 and after much calamity and personal heartbreak for Mason Skiles, the action forwards to 1982. The clichés abound (especially when the three characters representing US government interests are introduced), and I noticed some quite heavy symbolism at times – particularly around children playing in and around weapons and rubble and blatant disparities between privilege and poverty. At times I was reminded of films like the Bourne trilogy and even Syriana but ultimately it was an examination of one man in extreme crisis, seeking personal redemption.

Some of it is pretty clunky and (without giving anything away) I wasn’t really on board with the ending but it really is worth it for Jon Hamm’s fine performance. If you want to get the most out of this, it probably pays to have at least a passing knowledge of Middle Eastern history of the period, but at its heart, Beirut is looking at the political tragedy of the time through the lens of personal loss and the notion that terrorists are not born but made.

Beirut opens at the State Cinema, Elizabeth Street, North Hobart Thursday 26th July.

Charade

Charade 1963 Directed by Stanley Donen.

This quite delightful spy thriller/romantic comedy came out in the midst of the Cold War, hot on the coattails of James Bond and could’ve been made by Alfred Hitchcock. Instead, Stanley Donen (who also directed Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Two for the Road and Bedazzled among many others) exercises a light touch on something that could’ve been entirely inconsequential but is made memorable by a particularly fine cast.

There are noir story elements here too, especially in the night time scenes and Paris fits the bill as a most elegant setting for the action. Cary Grant is busy being Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn is simply gorgeous in her Givenchy outfits and the chemistry between the two leads is everything you want from this kind of film. It’s well backed up by a Henry Mancini score and the great Charles Lang as director of photography.

What takes this up a notch for me is a truly fine supporting cast – George Kennedy, James Coburn, Ned Glass, Jacques Marin, Dominique Minot and the always watchable Walter Matthau. Donen even extends the Hitchcock comparisons by appearing briefly in a scene.

It’s not deep, it’s not the greatest movie ever made but if (like me) you like some escapist and nostalgic fun occasionally, this is extremely entertaining.

Angel-A

Angel-A (2005) Directed by Luc Besson

I’ve tried over the years to like Luc Besson’s films with varying degrees of success. Early efforts such as Subway (1985), The Big Blue (1988), La Femme Nikita (1990) and Leon: The Professional (1994) were solid efforts (helped along by the presence of the always interesting Jean Reno) but it was The Fifth Element (1997) that really grabbed me. By then, I could see that Besson was offering a particularly Gallic take on the male gaze, with strong female characters acting out (mostly) male fantasy roles.

My disappointment with The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999) was shared with most of the movie-going public globally and I admit I gave up on Besson as a director until Lucy (2014) which I enjoyed far more than I thought I would, only to be crushed again last year with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017).

So, when streaming service MUBI put the French language Angel-A (2005) up for view a few weeks ago, I hesitated.

This is essentially a two-hander with Jamel Debbouze and Rie Rasmussen in the title role. The story is quite sweet and at times even funny with Debbouze putting in a solid performance as the ridiculously inept scam artist Andre, and Rasmussen is passable as the angel who comes to earth to show Andre his value. I say passable but she is undoubtedly a stunningly beautiful woman (as are all Besson’s heroines) though her acting range is clearly limited and with such a small cast I think this holds things back.

The movie is also incredibly derivative, with nods to Wings of Desire (1987), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and even Forrest Gump (1994), but it remains a very male fantasy, heavily imbued by the male gaze. The soundtrack by Anja Garbarek is lovely and unobtrusive, Debbouze and Ramussen are okay, but in the end, the film is saved by the third major character – the city of Paris. Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast (also a regular on Besson’s projects) clearly has a great eye for a good shot and filming in black and white was a very good call, giving a more noir feel to the film.

While it all looks good on paper, for me this was another forgettable film from a director who I keep wanting more from.

Night Tide

Night Tide (1961) Directed by Curtis Harrington

I was lucky enough to see a 2017 HD restoration of this black and white movie recently on MUBI, the movie streaming service for those of us who like to look beyond mainstream cinema.

Written and directed by the late, great Curtis Harrington (Queen of Blood, What’s the Matter with Helen? and Killer Bees among others), I consider this more a quirky melodrama than a horror film, with a story of love and yearning at its heart. On shore leave, a young and lonely sailor (Dennis Hopper) becomes enamored of a beautiful young woman (Linda Lawson) he meets at a jazz club in Venice Beach. She plays a mermaid in the local carnival, but she is shrouded in sadness and mystery.

I can certainly see the cult appeal to film lovers like me – this is the kind of thing that played late on Friday night TV when I was kid and there’s a big nostalgia element for me. The score is by the celebrated David Raskin and the beautiful black and white cinematography by Vilis Lapenieks.

And even here, in one of his first starring roles, Dennis Hopper is a standout. This is a stunning restoration of a really sweet, moody and melancholic B-movie. If you get a chance to see it, do it!

The Martian

The Martian (2015) Directed by Ridley Scott

I re-watched this tonight and was reminded what an excellent film it is and that I hadn’t written a review! In recent years, I’ve been very disappointed with Ridley Scott’s work but here, in a fairly straight science fiction drama, he’s in fine form.

Matt Damon’s Mark Watney is a scientist who gets stranded on Mars, but despite incredible odds, he manages to use his knowledge, training and problem solving ability to stay alive.  Damon brings a ton of heart to this role, there’s a lot of subtlety to Watney’s character arc and I think in lesser hands, this character could’ve become incredibly insufferable very quickly. Despite the set-up and resulting drama, the result is a surprisingly uplifting film, with some nice music choices.

The action switches between the earth-bound NASA personnel, who (when they realise he’s still alive) are desperately trying to work out how to help bring him home and Watney, who’s dealing with the vagaries of trying to survive on a planet which is hostile to him in every way. I particularly liked how Watney’s crew are reintegrated into the story after the tumultuous opening scene, led by the always excellent Jessica Chastain.

But the thing that really makes this work is the script, adapted from Andy Weir’s excellent novel by Drew Goddard (former staff writer for Buffy the Vampire Slayer andx Angel as well as writer/director of the slasher homage Cabin in the Woods). Goddard makes the dialogue sing and brings both levity and pathos to the drama.

While the science is sometimes questionable (there’s one explosion that makes sense in the book but fails miserably in the film), the Mars sets (which I believe were shot in Jordan) bring a fabulous otherness and vibrancy to the movie and the supporting cast are uniformly great. But ultimately, this is Matt Damon doing the heavy lifting with the aid of a great script and Ridley Scott in all too rare form.

Very entertaining science fiction fare.

The Party

The Party (2017) Directed by Sally Potter.

Earlier this week, (before the madness of Avengers: Infinity War hit Australia) I was feeling decidedly tired and run down. Recovering from a head cold, too much work and generally worn out, I decided on an evening of solo self-care.

What would cheer me up? A hearty dinner for one followed by an acerbic, biting black comedy? Yes please! This film, written and directed by the wonderful Sally Potter (Ginger & Rosa, Yes, The Tango Lesson and the sublime Orlando) was just what I needed.

The Party is a short (71 minutes) and fast-paced ensemble piece that revolves around Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), who’s just been made Minister of Health and is having a few friends around to celebrate her promotion. It was filmed just before the Brexit madness in the UK, proving again that truth is stranger than fiction.

Shot in digital black and white and beautifully lit, the focus is often on the faces of the ensemble, accentuating their flaws as much as their beauty. This is particularly true of Cillian Murphy’s often manic Tom and Timothy Spall as Bill (Janet’s taciturn husband). I also think this method showed the underlying dinginess of Bill and Janet’s house (particularly the bathroom), which could also be viewed as a metaphor for their lives.

The entire cast of seven are terrific (I’m a sucker for anything with Bruno Ganz in it) but for me Patricia Clarkson as the no filter, cynical and bitter April steals the film and has many of the best lines. There is a twist that I did see coming but I still laughed out loud when it finally arrived.

This has opened to mixed reviews and I can see that it does sound and look more like a theatrical production at times, playing with caricatures rather than characters in its short running time. Also note it has a MA15+ rating for some graphic drug use. But nevertheless, I really enjoyed it and would recommend it if you’re a fan of black comedy and farce. It’s currently playing at the State Cinema in North Hobart and selected cinemas across Australia.

Avengers: Infinity War (No Spoilers!) + Update

Update: In the last 24 hours quite a few people have asked me if I wrote this spoiler-free review because of Disney/Marvel’s Thanos Demands Your Silence campaign. I would like to be very clear that my allegiance is NOT to any corporate behemoth, but to the many fans and friends who want to see this for themselves and make up their own minds. I plan to revisit the film at some point (before Avengers 4 comes out) and discuss it in full – spoilers and all 🙂

I hope you enjoy the movie as much as I did ❤

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo.

Today I went to the opening screening at (oddly) my local art house cinema, The State in Hobart. I say oddly, because this isn’t high art, it couldn’t be considered quirky and it certainly isn’t an independent production.

This is the 19th movie in the MCU – a decade of blockbuster comic book cinema, which has changed how we think of big, loud action films and helped bring strong threads of fantasy and science fiction narrative into mainstream movie-making.

Essentially, Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of all those films, where incredibly well-paid (arguably overpaid) actors get to dance around in front of green screens, dangle off wires and sometimes wear motion capture (or mocap) suits, all the while acting their hearts out. In many ways, the MCU can be seen as everything that’s wrong with homogenised, formula-driven mainstream cinema – but I cannot begin to express how much I enjoyed this film.

Yes, there are faults. I think stylistically, the Russo brothers played it very safe, employing design and style elements from previous films which stand out against original scenes such as those on Thanos’ home planet Titan, which become almost too generic and to my eyes, bland. There was a moment early in the film where the CG really stood out – and not in a good way! – but fortunately, this was the only point where I felt the strain of all those pixels trying to be “real”. Also, unlike nearly all previous films in the MCU, this is not a stand-alone product and requires at least some background knowledge. The other is Captain America: Civil War (2016), which acts in many ways as a set up for this film.

Looking at it as a classic three act structure, we leave this story about halfway through the second act, and things are looking very bleak. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t miffed that I have to wait another year for the conclusion, reminiscent of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010). But unlike the Potter experience, where nearly everyone I know had read the books and we knew what was going to happen, in the MCU not everything plays out like the comic book versions.

Thanos is a particularly complicated and multilayered villain, far more I think than in the comics. The rationale behind Thanos’ desire to reduce populations is psychopathic and extreme to say the least but he truly believes it – and despite the character being a CG/mocap mash-up, Josh Brolin makes us believe his sincerity too. And Brolin’s scenes with Zoe Saldana’s Gamora had me immediately thinking there’s going to be a lot to talk about in feminist film circles regarding Thanos’ “love” for his adopted daughter.

Perhaps the biggest plus is the slick pacing, which the Russo’s and their editing team did incredibly well. At almost two and a half hours, there’s barely time to breathe, let alone gasp, wince or laugh – and there are quite a few laugh out loud moments – but I was left wanting more. It’s like being on a roller-coaster joyride with heroic deeds, death and destruction all around. (So my pro tip is prepare with a toilet stop BEFORE the film starts!)

So why did I love this so much? Because at its heart, this is the culmination of really good long-form storytelling. While some characters don’t speak to me as much or as well as others, I’ve found myself over the last ten years completely invested in some stories and now, caring about their outcomes and departures. I’m really glad that Marvel have gone down the route of killing my darlings, raising the stakes makes their actions and how they say goodbye all the more important to us as fans. (Oh, that DC could understand this!)

I must also note there’s no mid-credit sequence after the film to set up part two (currently listed simply as Avengers 4), due for release in May next year. Having had a few hours to think about it, I think it’s because the whole film is the set up for the next movie. But I do encourage everyone to stay to the very end for a particularly pertinent sequence that leads down yet another narrative rabbit hole.

Roll on 2019!

 

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