Homemad(e)

Homemad(e) 2001

Directed by Ruth Beckermann

Thanks to Mubi streaming service I’ve been watching a lot of Ruth Beckermann’s documentaries the last few months. She has a very interesting way of telling extraordinarily big historical stories through the lens of the intensely personal.

Homemad(e) is a great example of this, where again Beckermann turns her lens on Vienna. This time, Marc Aurel-Strasse, where her parents ran a business and where Beckermann lives. The street is the heart of the former textile district, dotted now with cafes and a thriving nightlife but the whole is pervaded by the sadness of a dying culture. The title of the film alludes to the homemade quality of the piece as well as its themes.

She interviews particularly Adolf Dolf, the self-proclaimed last Jewish textile merchant who talks about how he survived the camps during WWII. Even at this late stage of his life, the man is clearly suffering survivor guilt but Beckermann is always respectful and gentle with him. Similarly, she talks with Rikki Goschl, the owner of Café Salzgries and her regular customers. Always the ghost of her husband Ernst, who was the heart and soul of the coffeehouse is present. His photograph is on the wall, while customers/friends reminisce about him and his importance in their lives. The majority of the interview subjects are older, mainly Jewish and WWII survivors but I found the Persian hotelier and the poet who owns five hundred pieces of jewelry but only wears about ten especially interesting.

One of the standout points to me about this film is it never wallows in melancholia or uses outside cues to trigger an emotional response from the audience. There is no soundtrack, just the sounds of the street. It made me want to rush off to Vienna immediately for coffee!

Highly recommended.

Berberian Sound Studio

US release poster

Berberian Sound Studio 2012

Directed & written by Peter Strickland

Another film I’ve finally caught up with after too many years – once again, thanks to streaming service Mubi.

This sophomore directorial effort from British filmmaker Peter Strickland, is more a psychological thriller than straight up horror movie or drama and I unreservedly loved it. (So much so that I’ve included two posters).

With clear homage to Italian giallo cinema, this is the story of Gilderoy (brilliantly played by Toby Jones), a very passive and retiring British sound engineer, who comes to the sound studio in Rome to work on what he thinks is a film about horses, The Equestrian Vortex. Despite the director’s denials, he discovers very quickly the film is a classic Italian giallo, and is forced to work on some surprisingly gory soundscapes. Throughout, Gilderoy seems like a man out of place and very much out of his depth, and as the tension grows between him and the Italian filmmakers, his mind seems to unravel and the film appropriately left me asking more questions than it answered.

The soundscapes are wonderful, but the cinematography by Nicholas D. Knowland and excellent editing by Chris Dickens add extra dimensions to this tense and very thought provoking film.

Above all though, is an outstanding lead performance by Toby Jones, and it is worth watching just for him. He is the glue that holds the film together and conveys volumes of meaning with his face and body language, hammering home yet again the importance of ‘show, don’t tell’ in visual storytelling.

It isn’t for everyone, but if you have even a passing interest in the genre, I wholeheartedly recommend this gem.

UK release poster

Passengers

Passengers 2016

Directed by Morten Tyldum.

I missed this when it was first released in Australia in 2017, but Netflix has come to the rescue again. At face value, the premise is quite interesting, though nothing new – a man wakes unexpectedly from stasis, stranded on a spaceship with only an android barman (the always wonderful Michael Sheen) for company. In his all-consuming loneliness, he starts to look over files of a female passenger who’s taken his fancy. When he decides to wake her from stasis, shenanigans ensue and – narratively as well as ethically – the movie lost me. I simply couldn’t get past his decision. I really expected better from writer Jon Spaihts, whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past.

Stylistically, this film is an utter delight – hats off to Guy Hendrix Dyas for superlative production design and Gene Serdena for the set decoration. The CG is definitely on point and the music by Thomas Newman is unobtrusive (until the end credits song, which seemed jarringly out of place).

In some ways, I also think this film suffers from having Jennifer Lawrence and especially Chris Pratt as the leads, Aurora Lane and Jim Preston because they’re just too likeable, wholesome and (for want of a better word) nice. Pratt in particular, I found difficult to reconcile as the borderline suicidal Jim.

Above all, in this day and age, I really want better scripts than this.

Beautiful to look at but pretty on the nose narratively.

Ant-Man and The Wasp + Adieu 2018

Well, watching this film was a nice way to finish up the year for a lot of different reasons.

I recently found out I’ve been given in principal support by my course convenor to do a critical analysis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for my final year project – a lot of reasons for rejoicing! Essentially, I plan to concentrate on villains in the MCU (yes, I’m sure I’ll be devoting some time to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki!) and at this stage, I plan to approach it as a possible chapter to a much broader work.

2018 has been harder than I’d hoped, often in ways I didn’t see coming! But it’s also bought me greater rewards, opportunities, self-awareness and confidence that are beyond what I’d hoped for. Swings and roundabouts as usual!

And I’ve watched a LOT of films (about 80 on MUBI alone), making notes on nearly all but only reviewing a fraction of them. I could blithely promise to rectify that as a new year’s resolution but it would be disingenuous to do that. As my final year of undergraduate study, 2019 is going to be much too busy for that!

Nevertheless, here’s my last review of this year. Many thanks for reading, your kind comments and all the best to you and yours in 2019. ❤

Ant-Man and The Wasp 2018

Directed by Peyton Reed

I only bought the Blu-ray this morning, bringing me up to date with MCU releases but this review will all be first thoughts rather than considered opinions.

There’s something really endearing about Paul Rudd. I know he has a lengthy performance CV stretching back to the early 90s, but I never really took that much notice of him until Ant-Man (2015). In that film he showed off his talent for comic timing but proved himself able to lead a film – no mean feat, alongside the likes of screen heavyweight, Michael Douglas and Lost (2004-2010) star, Evangeline Lilly.

Here, Rudd reprises his leading role as Scott Lang, now in home detention after the events in Captain America: Civil War (2016). His daughter (once again played by Abby Ryder Forston) still thinks he’s the best dad in the world, plus Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly are back as Dr Hank Pym and Hope Van Dyne. Michele Pfeiffer comes in as Janet Van Dyne, lost in the quantum realm and Michael Pena is wonderful as Luis, stealing every scene he’s in.

I’m really pleased that Lilly has much more to do this time around as she dons the Wasp costume and Hannah John-Kamen from Killjoys (2015-2019) is convincing as Ava/Ghost. As good as the acting talent is though, my standout performers throughout are the incredible stunt team and the coordinator George Cottle. (Follow the link to IMDB, his CV is amazing!) Similarly, the visual effects are absolutely top notch, and testimony to how far we’ve come with CG and motion capture in recent years.

Coming so quickly after Avengers: Infinity War (2018), this could easily have fallen between the cracks, but director Peyton Reed has delivered a very entertaining film, much lighter in tone than Infinity War but more serious than either Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) GotG Vol. 2 (2017).

In conclusion, despite all its connections to the broader MCU, this film stands up well on its own merits (always my benchmark) and I thoroughly enjoyed it. A superior popcorn/superhero movie that with a PG-13 rating, is suitable for most of the family.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs 2018

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

I’ll start with a disclaimer – I love Westerns. There are particular old titles that bring back memories of Saturday matinees in my home town and late night television viewing with my father and older brother. One of my favourite (and most successful) papers written for my university degree was a comparative analysis of The Searchers (1956) and Serenity (2005). So, I came to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs with quite high expectations.

This latest production from the Coen brothers is an anthology of different stories of the American West, loosely linked to the theme of death. I’ve been a fan of their films all the way back to Blood Simple (1984), and in recent years have studied and analysed their movies and even written academic papers about them. Like all bodies of work that extensive, some of their movies speak to me more than others.  Similarly, anthologies always have stronger and weaker segments and I have to confess that some of these vignettes left me wanting more and a couple didn’t really speak to me at all.

Let’s start with the strengths. The cast is uniformly solid, which is vital with such a wide-ranging film but there are standouts. Tim Blake Nelson is excellent in the titular role and looks like he’s having a lot of fun. Similarly, Tom Waits as the Prospector in “All Gold Canyon” and Liam Neeson as the Impressario in “Meal Ticket” are great but Harry Melling in “Meal Ticket” and Zoe Kazan in “The Gal Who Got Rattled” are outstanding.

Melling is unrecognisable from the obnoxious Dudley Dursley of the Harry Potter films and delivers everything with his expressive face and eyes. Kazan brings something quite special to the girl who finds herself abandoned and trying to take control of her life on a wagon train. I was reminded of a previous Coen film True Grit (2010) with references here to the Midnight Caller story. Framing in this vignette especially is pure homage to John Ford and at times it also reminded me of one of my favourite revisionist westerns, Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

As much as I enjoyed these performances though, it’s the ensemble in the final story, “The Mortal Remains” that had the biggest impact on me. Jonjo O’Neill, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross, the ever reliable Brendan Gleeson and the wonderful Tyne Daly worked perfectly in a dark dreamscape that seemed to me like John Ford’s Stagecoach meets Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

On the downside, I found the CG in some of the earlier pieces annoying and at times, downright clunky – to the point that it took me out of the stories. And I have to say, the first two stories, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and “Near Algodones” really didn’t work for me despite solid performances.

While I believe this did get a limited theatrical release in the UK, the rest of the world is only able to watch it on Netflix. We are living in a fascinating and exciting time for new platforms and methods of film distribution. I sincerely hope it will enable more people to view different movies (particularly independent and foreign language cinema). But once again, as much as I love being able to stream films at home (I’m truly grateful for Netflix and MUBI) I’d have liked the option to be able to see this in a cinema and I have to wonder if some of my issues with the computer graphics would have been assuaged.

Nevertheless, if you like westerns (traditional or revisionist) this is well worth watching!

They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old 2018

Directed by Peter Jackson

One of the things about getting old is remembering when I was small.

I can recall old men who served in WWI, marching in ever dwindling numbers on Anzac Day and at services on Remembrance Day. Not one of them ever talked about the Great War and as I’ve grown older, and particularly after experiencing this film, I can certainly see why.

Directed and produced by Peter Jackson, this documentary opens with the usual WWI film footage – black and white, jerkily shot, uneven frame rates. About 10 minutes in, it changes to a smooth, full colour film, complete with audio and the effect is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

Jackson had access to the British War Museum’s archives, which included footage from various sources and audio interviews after the war with surviving servicemen. Rather than make the usual war documentary, Jackson and his brilliant team took the footage, shot with hand-cranked cameras and therefore of varying speeds, and smoothed it out with a precision that is simply staggering. The adjusted footage was colourised and then, perhaps most astonishing of all, a team of lip-readers translated what the men were saying to each other and the camera. Voice actors with appropriate regional accents to the regiments depicted gave their images life again. Interspersed with archive audio interviews with survivors, it lends even more gravitas to the camaraderie between the men and the sheer horror of what they experienced. The sound design too is magnificent and relentless, with nearly constant gunfire and shelling but probably only a taste of what these men must have experienced.

The results are an incredibly moving film that really should be mandatory viewing for all adults and a technical triumph for Peter Jackson and his team. It’s caused me to think that Jackson should perhaps make more documentaries than narrative films!

While I cannot recommend this work enough, it isn’t for the faint-hearted. Although I was well prepared, I still found some of the scenes difficult and was moved to tears more than once. However, this film in no way ever glorifies war. Rather, it humanises this brutal conflict in ways that I would not have thought possible. I saw this astonishing documentary on Remembrance Day (Armistice Day in other countries), the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI and I’m very grateful to have seen it in a decent sized cinema with a good sound system – kudos to my local, the State Cinema. To say I was moved is a complete understatement, it was a far more profound experience.

Undoubtedly one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

 

Widows

 

Widows 2018

Directed by Steve McQueen

Based on Lynda La Plante’s 6-part Thames Television series from the 1980s, Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn (author of Gone Girl) have transplanted the story of four women who lose their husbands in a botched robbery into contemporary Chicago. The women have little in common, save a substantial debt left behind by their husbands and these circumstances lead to their joining together to erase the debt and move on with their lives.

This core story is overlaid with a local political tug of war, in the form of the dynastic Irish-American Mulligan family (Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell) and challenger Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), with his brutal henchman Jatemme Manning (brilliantly portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya).

The ensemble cast is wonderful and (as an Australian) I loved seeing Jackie Weaver and increasingly impressive Elizabeth Debicki as the Russian mother and daughter, but Viola Davis is an absolute standout. Her beautiful, expressive portrayal of a wife at once mourning and angry at the situation she’s left in lights up the screen and is the emotional centre that holds all the threads together.

The balance between the personal and political stories are wonderfully handled, carefully exposed and interwoven, making this so much more than another heist movie. It leads to a climax that I saw coming but still thoroughly enjoyed.

Easily one of my movies of the year.

Previous Older Entries Next Newer Entries