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 ❤

Velvet Buzzsaw

I’ve been physically and emotionally preoccupied with bushfires the last few weeks, with friends, their properties, native wildlife and some of the most beautiful places on the planet destroyed or under threat. The air quality’s been pretty horrendous even here in the city – what must it be for firefighters and local residents? – and I’ve had messages from friends in northern climes, who are telling me of snow in Cornwall UK and the horrific Polar Vortex that’s caused so much chaos in Canada and the US. So please forgive me for not keeping up here. In truth, I’ve been neglectful of writing anything.

Velvet Buzzsaw 2019

Written & directed by Dan Gilroy.

This very stylish thriller is another Netflix production and I’ve read very mixed reviews since it dropped here at the start of February. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, this reunites him with Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo (Gilroy’s wife), who all previously worked on Nightcrawler (2014). Where that film was a dark, noirish beast that centered on some very dubious characters, Velvet Buzzsaw is drenched in the sunlit and very elite world of the LA art market. Russo and Gyllenhaal lead a very impressive ensemble cast in this bitchy satire on the fine art world but there are definitely problems. Jake Gyllenhaal always impresses but I found his portrayal of the art critic at times almost a caricature of a young Andy Warhol.

Russo is entirely convincing as a former punk who’s made a fortune out of other people’s talent, Toni Collette is delightful as the bitchy Gretchen and John Malkovitch is hilarious as the artist battling to create while sober. But at the core of the film is the mesmerising and often downright creepy artwork of Vetril Dease, which is stolen after his death by Josephina (Zawe Ashton), an art agent working for Rhodora Haze (Russo). As people start to make a lot of money out of this work, strange things start happening – I think you get the picture.

While I mostly enjoyed the movie (it was a welcome relief from the real world) I found it quite clunky at times and think it could’ve done with a very different edit to lift some sections. Also, I felt this was a film caught between two genres, not quite being a full-blown satire and never being close to a true horror movie.

Some of the death scenes are quite inventive and there are moments of definite creepiness, but I know this won’t satisfy horror fans.

Fun while it lasted – but quite forgettable.

Colette

Colette 2018

Directed by Wash Westmoreland

Straightforward biopics are not generally my favourite genre. Even with cradle to the grave movies, we only ever see little snippets of someone’s life – usually the dramatic, life-changing moments. I think it’s akin to peeking through a keyhole with a telescope, where you can only see a very limited view through the lens of the filmmaker’s vision. With an extraordinary character such as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who actively wrote and rewrote her own history throughout her long life, there are bound to be contradictions and conflicts. So, I went with a girlfriend to see Colette (a writer I haven’t read since my 20s) with a certain amount of healthy trepidation. I’m pleased to say my fears were allayed very quickly and I’ve determined I must reread at least The Vagabond again this year.

Director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice 2014) wisely concentrated only on Colette’s early life, through the Belle Epoque until she leaves her first husband, delivering a sumptuous film that is full of tiny visual details that delight and enhance this ultimately uplifting story of female empowerment and independence. Apparently, this project became something of a labour of love that Westmoreland began with his late husband, Richard Glatzer some years ago. Fittingly, the film is dedicated to Glatzer and he is credited as co-writer with Westmoreland and Rachel Lenkiewicz (Disobedience 2018). It is of course, heavily condensed but through the lens of the 21st century, is a triumphant story of one woman’s battle to live her life on her terms.

Small things abound that capture the eye. The set decoration by Lisa Chugg and Nora Talmaier provides fine period detail of furniture, everyday items and art nouveau decoration and the glorious costumes by Andrea Flesch and their handmade finishing touches are fabulous. I also appreciated the cinematography of Giles Nuttgens with the subtle lighting and colour differences between the countryside and Paris.

A superb star turn by Keira Knightley is a fine reminder of how much she can do with a good script and direction, taking Colette from a schoolgirl in Burgundy to a style-maker in Paris. But she is surrounded by a uniformly excellent supporting cast, including Fiona Shaw and Robert Pugh as her parents, Denise Gough as the wonderful Missy and Dominic West as the dashing and domineering libertine, Willy. West is utterly delightful as the pompous and caddish literary entrepreneur and plays it to the hilt.

But ultimately, this is Knightley’s film and – like The Favourite – another timely reminder that audiences are keen to see women’s stories.

Highly recommended.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse 2018

Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman.

I’m usually a little suspicious of films with multiple directors that aren’t siblings. Though it can be argued the Spierig brothers and the Wachowski’s have made some suspect pictures – think Winchester (2018) or Jupiter Ascending (2015) – usually multiple directors in something other than anthology films speak of behind the scenes production issues and on set problems.

On the other hand, there’s a movie like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

I finally got round to it yesterday, at the end of its run in Hobart, and I’m so glad I saw it initially on a big screen. This movie is very special at a number of levels, not least of which is its massive vision, courtesy of producers, Phil Lord and Chris Miller.

The script by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman is excellent, making sense of what could’ve been very messy in lesser hands. But the big thumbs up from me goes to production designer Justin Thompson, who gave this ambitious project its amazing look. At times it’s like being in an animated comic book and it took me a few minutes to get used to it. Also, this is very action-heavy but most scenes have a central point to frame around, making it easy to follow.

The animation is top class with multiple Spider-people and villains innovatively appearing in appropriate styles, and the level of detail here wasn’t lost on me. This mostly echoes the work of Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, and it is a fabulous homage to them both.

Narratively, the set-up was excellent. Miles Morales is a teenager struggling to fit in to his new school, maintain a good relationship with his loving parents but still hang out with his shady Uncle Aaron. Once he gets bitten by the radioactive spider, the action goes into overdrive and it’s a pure delight.

As a PG rated film in Australia, this is suitable fare for family viewing and I was impressed at how many kids were at the session. Essentially, the story is about belonging, family, friendship and expectations – mostly those we impose on ourselves – and it hit all the right beats with me. It also has to be noted there are moments that are genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. The voice cast are uniformly outstanding and the soundtrack is excellent. Do wait for the post-credit scene – it’s worth it!

All in all, it’s a movie that’s about superheroes of all ages, ethnicities, genders and even species. While there’s plenty for adults, it’s perfectly suitable for younger viewers and it’s a total joy to watch.

Destined to become a classic for its technical innovations and feel-good story.

Apostle

Apostle 2018

Directed by Gareth Evans

As many of you here are probably aware, I watch a lot of movies of all different genres and have very eclectic tastes. I particularly love a good psychological thriller, so was pleased I finally got around to watching this on Netflix over the weekend. After fairly successfully avoiding most reviews and spoilers, I went into this knowing only that Dan Stevens and Michael Sheen (two of my favourite actors) were leads, it was a folk horror/thriller set in 1905 and it was written and directed by Gareth Evans, the man who gave us the astonishing The Raid: Redemption (2011).

This should have been brilliant.

Instead, I enjoyed a solid first act that had promise – but the remainder rapidly spun out of control, devolving into a very incoherent and badly edited mess. I was left feeling that an opportunity had been somehow missed.

It made me wonder if I watch too many films. Was I expecting too much, being too picky? But everyone I’ve spoken to about this in the last few days had similar issues with it. I’m also wondering about the uneven nature of Netflix’ original films, though it’s early days still and I hope they keep pursuing their line of quirky, not quite mainstream productions.

The sound design starts well, it’s interesting, unobtrusive and adds a lot to the excellent cinematography by Matt Flannery, who’s worked with Evans on all his films. Sadly, the soundscape became increasingly insistent, ending up as tags to tell the audience what they’re supposed to be feeling. This really took me out of the action scenes, which were well done, but when I started wondering how that woman managed to get so much makeup (and be allowed to wear it) in an isolated religious community, I knew I’d been dragged out of the film.

Some of the shot selections were very reminiscent of Ben Wheatley (never a bad thing in my opinion) but the script and editing really let Apostle down.

Dan Stevens and Michael Sheen are both top class performers and are fine with what they’re given to work with but I really wanted more of them on screen together, being protagonist and antagonist respectively.

Instead, I was left feeling like I’d just seen something that could’ve been really good that ended up just mediocre.

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