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 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 ❤

Captain Marvel *NO SPOILERS*

Captain Marvel 2019 *NO SPOILERS*

Directed by Anne Boden & Ryan Fleck

I went to see this on opening day, the eve of International Women’s Day and seriously, I couldn’t have been happier or more excited. Back in the long-lost past of my childhood, I used to read a lot more comic books and I was always wanting more female characters. In particular the kind that didn’t need saving, didn’t always lust after male heroes, the kind that wore sensible clothes and had agency. I remember Wonder Woman (2017) and how I enjoyed it despite the narrative flaws until the final act, which was simply awful and I confess, I haven’t watched it again since.

So, I came to this with more emotional baggage than normal and I’ll get it out of the way first.

This movie was everything I ever hoped for or wanted – a very cool origin story (with echoes back to Captain America), a strong, feisty central character that was warm, emotional and feminine without being sexualised. YAY!

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s look at the movie.

Brie Larson puts in a great performance as Vers/Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel and achieves the balance of quirky, not-quite-sure-of-herself young girl and noble warrior hero with a lot of style. Unsurprisingly, she is very ably supported by Samuel L Jackson, who proves again why he is the glue that keeps so much of the MCU together. After one viewing, my big takeaway are the scenes Larson and Jackson share. There’s real chemistry there and we learn so much about Nick Fury’s backstory. Lashana Lynch is really good as Maria Rambeau, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law and Clark Gregg are all excellent in support but Annette Bening lights up the screen every time she appears.

I think the pacing is at times patchy. The first act seemed jerky and didn’t flow particularly well for me and I wonder if it’s an editing issue. The second act is very, very well done and really delivers some great scenes. As this is a Marvel movie, the final act is everything you’d expect – all the bells and whistles – but surprisingly well-paced and not as unwieldy as it could easily have been.

With twenty prior entries in the series – yes, I count The Incredible Hulk (2008) – the CG is just what I’d expect from Marvel – very high standard that only rarely made me think it wasn’t real. In the first act especially, I noticed hardware and props that had strong design similarities with Guardians of the Galaxy (2014 & 2017) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018). This offered further textual continuity and gave this film some excellent narrative grounding.

For me, the script was good, (particularly the Larson/Jackson scenes) and I really enjoyed the second act. But some of the one-liners (something Marvel is renowned for) seemed forced and dropped very flat. Again, I’m not certain if that’s an issue with editing, comic timing or just too many unnecessary cheap jokes. Having said that, I liked the little comedic touches that are delivered almost as background detail in some otherwise serious scenes. This harks back to the talent onscreen and the depth of characterisation they brought to the roles.

I think it was a bold move to invest so much in character development, so hats off to the directing team, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. But the results are very deeply satisfying, bringing a fully-fledged female superhero to the screen with heart and soul. As always with the MCU, stay for the very end – there are two postscripts.

Take your mothers, sisters, daughters, girlfriends and enjoy the fun of this film. As a childhood fan of Marvel Comics and more recently, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’m thrilled to finally have a fully realised female superhero that I can see on the big screen.

Celebrate it!

PS: This is no spoiler – but the opening credits celebrate Stan Lee and gave me ALL the feels ❤

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