Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs 2018 Directed by Wes Anderson.

I finally got to see this at the end of its cinema run in Hobart and (like so many movies) I’m really pleased I got to see it on a big screen.

This stop-motion extravaganza from Wes Anderson is an absolute triumph in terms of visual styling but with respect to a coherent narrative, I’m not so sure. But I’m tempted to ask if it really matters in this film, which I found incredibly satisfying at many levels.

Like all of Wes Anderson’s work, the degree of visual detail is quite dizzying, to the point of overwhelming. I need to watch this quite a few more times to get the most out of it and for me, that’s part of the joy of Anderson’s film making – it stands up so well to repeat viewing. The cast are superb, with many Anderson regulars including Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban and Jeff Goldblum but the standout is Bryan Cranston’s Chief. Having said that, I think it’s really a shame that Scarlett Johansson has so little to do as Nutmeg (Chief’s love interest) and at times, I found Greta Gerwig’s Tracy everything I find annoying about American culture.

This brings me to the many discussions Isle of Dogs has prompted among both critics and audiences about Anderson’s treatment of Japanese people and culture and a perceived coldness in his film making. As a white middle-aged Australian woman, with only a smattering of Japanese, I don’t have a problem with the portrayal of what is obviously a fantasy rendering of Japan. I read the lack of subtitles over much of the Japanese dialogue as a conscious storytelling device, designed to place the audience squarely in the point of view of the dogs, who don’t understand language, just as the teenage hero Atari doesn’t understand the dogs. When required, Frances McDormand’s Interpreter Nelson gives us what we need to know. On the other hand, I really found the character Tracy incredibly annoying and I wondered if she was a parody of the “white saviour” figure that is so prevalent historically in mainstream US cinema (and yes, I’d include Anderson’s 2007 The Darjeeling Limited in that sorry bunch). Personally, I think the character of Tracy could’ve been dropped and the whole film would’ve become more streamlined from a narrative perspective, but there’s always the thought that perhaps her presence is itself an act of protest about current US global attitudes.

With respect to accusations of coldness generally in Anderson’s film making, I frankly don’t buy it. His framing, colour palettes, lens use and even the actors he regularly employs all feed into a very clear cinematic vision that is heavy on detail and offers so much nuance to audiences who care to look a little more deeply.

In conclusion, I don’t think Isle of Dogs is perfect (that title still rests with The Grand Budapest Hotel in my opinion) but it’s really very, very good. If you like Wes Anderson’s oeuvre, I think you’ll really enjoy this incredibly shaggy dog story. Highly recommended.

Extinction (No Spoilers)

Extinction 2018 Directed by Ben Young.

It’s been driven home to me recently that I’m getting old. My local cinema, the State Cinema in North Hobart is putting on a couple of screenings of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its release. But this also gives me cause to celebrate, as 2001 was one of the films that really hooked me into science fiction film, going to the movies in general and remains a film I still love to watch.

This release from Netflix reminded me again what in influence Kubrick still has over the genre, with some early shots from Extinction clearly paying homage. I also spotted a cinematic nod to Ridley Scott’s Alien (which is rarely a bad thing) and in hindsight, these little crumbs set the tone for this flawed but interesting piece of near-future sci-fi.

Essentially, this feature directed by Australian Ben Young is a film about family – what it means to be a family and how those bonds can be stretched, twisted and (in this case) strengthened – but it is quite a dour tale.

Michael Pena plays Peter, a building engineer cum maintenance worker who lives in an architecturally beautiful unnamed city with his engineer/town planner wife (Lizzy Caplan) and his two young daughters. Peter is troubled by dreams of an alien invasion that destroys his family but as his dreams become more intense and frequent, he finds himself increasingly alienated from those he’s trying to protect. I’m not going to spoil anything for those of you who haven’t seen this yet but suffice it to say that Peter’s nightmares turn into reality and the ensuing shenanigans provide the bulk of the film. The first act/set up tells us all we need to know and above all, doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Once the action starts, it wisely relies more on practical than computer generated effects, which at times look very cheap. The tension mounts in a good but fairly predictable way but despite this, overall I found the second act pretty lacklustre. There’s a flatness about the action that took me out of the film on several occasions and I suspect this is one of the issues of trying to be a big blockbuster on a budget. Also, I felt Michael Pena and Lizzy Caplan were sadly wasted in their roles, and the inclusion of Mike Coulter (Luke Cage) as Peter’s boss confused me. One of the things I really liked were the young daughters not being the standard stereotypical “plucky kids” so often seen in this kind of film. They’re not brave or particularly resourceful, they’re just terrified kids, which was refreshing.

The twist in the third act was very good and although I knew something was coming, I didn’t spot it specifically. (Again, no spoilers here – go and see it for yourself!)

Apart from uneven pacing and lacklustre CG, my main gripe with the film is the ending. Apart from clearly leading with a case for a sequel (please don’t do it!) I feel the movie lingered way too long after the denouement. I wanted it to wind up and wave goodbye at least 10 minutes before it did.

Despite this, I am increasingly impressed by Netflix’ foray into original sci-fi film distribution. While Extinction isn’t brilliant, along with Mute, Anon and the wonderful Annihilation (all of which I’ve written about elsewhere but neglected to review here!), Netflix is bringing a welcome breath of new(ish) science fiction to my screens. The ongoing issue I see here is the platform – these films were all made to be at their best on a big screen, with so much of their cinematic value being lost on my home television or laptop.

Or perhaps, I’m just getting old and feeling nostalgic for the magic of seeing something for the first time in a cinema? Nevertheless, I’m still watching with interest!

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.

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