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.

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.

Visages Villages – Faces Places

Faces Places (originally released as Visages Villages) (2017) Directed by JR and Agnes Varda.

I saw this French language documentary a few weeks ago at the end of its run at the State Cinema in Hobart and I cannot get it out of my mind.

Agnes Varda is well known to me as the sole female director of the French New Wave but I confess I hadn’t heard of JR, Varda’s young co-director. Apparently JR is a French photographer and muralist and I must say, very engaging in front of the camera.

The documentary was shot over 18 months, with the two of them travelling around France in JR’s wonderful photo booth van, which also printed large format photographs. Their core idea was to create ephemeral black and white photographic art works that would eventually be worn away by the elements, depicting people of the area. These took the form of oversized images pasted on the exteriors of buildings, bridges, factories and even shipping containers.

I loved this film at many levels. A good deal of it was shot in rural France and there was a beauty beyond the idyllic pastoral scenery that Varda and JR managed to elicit from the people they spoke to. I confess I shed tears too when Jeanine, the last occupant of the condemned miners cottages, saw her two storey image on the outside of her home.

Perhaps the most poignant scenes for me were with Varda talking frankly with JR about growing old, losing her sight (the cornerstone of her art), and the friends and loved ones who have died. I felt these scenes are the spine of the film and despite the sombre feel, Varda has a sense of humour and clear zest for life that at times matches the much younger JR. There is also sadness, particularly when Varda talks about her husband who died some years ago and (without giving too much away) the manner in which she is treated by someone later in the film.

All in all, this is a quiet yet spectacular and very moving documentary, which addresses questions about ageing, being completely in the moment and engaging fully in a life well lived. It’s stayed with me for weeks and although it’s only early days, I think come December it’ll be in my best films of  2018. I recommend it to anyone who has a beating heart.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi 2017. Directed by Rian Johnson.

I can rarely be bothered to go to big releases in their opening week but I made an exception with this, the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise.

I should say from the outset that while I like the original movies, I’m film studies scholar – not in the simpering fan-girl brigade. In fact, I’ve always felt a degree of frustration because I could always see how good these films should be but never seemed to hit the mark.

Having said that, I thought The Force Awakens (2015) was infinitely better than any of the prequels and reignited my interest in the series. But this was completely eclipsed by the stand alone and beautifully self-contained Rogue One (2016), which (despite a baggy first act) is a fabulous sci-fi war movie.

But Thursday I saw something really good, much better than I anticipated, and I reacted accordingly.

The Last Jedi explored complex themes – in a far more nuanced way than I expected – about family, friendship, connection and the nature of difference and subversion. Given the global political climate this past 12 months, it was an excellent commentary, and a reminder that nothing is ever just black or white.

The young cast are really very good, with Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver outstanding, providing emotional depth to their characters. They are ably supported by John Boyega, Oscar Isaacs and Kelly Marie Tran. Despite being a wee bit sentimental about seeing Carrie Fisher in her final role (yes, I did well up!) the thing that reduced me to tears was seeing the wonderful Laura Dern showing all the kids how it should be done – and a scene that immediately reminded me of her father Bruce Dern and Silent Running (1972), one of my favourite films.

If this is what Star Wars is going to be from now on, I’ll have some more thanks!

* This is an expanded version of a review that was included in Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review on BBC 5 Live (15/12/17) – and yes, I was thrilled to hear Simon Mayo read it out! *

 

I Saw the Light – Day 14 NaBloPoMo 2017

I Saw the Light (2015) Directed by Marc Abraham.

This is a movie I’ve been meaning to watch for quite some time – yes, it’s been in my pile of shame for too long! – and I’m really sorry I left it so long to give it this a first viewing.

Hank Williams had a tragically brief life but meteoric career and penned songs that remain classics of the country and western genre. He also inspired artists such as Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan and can be seen as something of a stepping stone in popular music from the 40’s across to the post-war boom in record sales and interest in celebrity.

As much as I enjoy Tom Hiddleston’s diverse body of work, I seriously wondered if he could pull off portraying Williams but he really delivers the goods – who knew he could sing as well! He is matched by Elizabeth Olsen (also on leave from MCU duties) as his first wife Audrey, and the chemistry between them on screen is great. It is shot with great care and obvious love for the material, (kudos to DoP, Dante Spinotti) which gives the whole film an appropriately melancholic air. This was a passion project for director Marc Abraham, who started working on this as far back as 2009 and it is lovingly crafted in a very traditional bio-pic manner.

However, I can see why this was a box office flop. Almost the entire film is taken up with Williams’ relationships and his ongoing battles with alcoholism and painkiller addiction. While that’s undoubtedly the story behind his death at 29, I would have loved to have seen a closer, critical examination of his music and songwriting.

A beautiful looking film, with a stellar performance by Hiddleston – good but not great.

Thor: Ragnarok – Day 6 NaBloPoMo 2017

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) Directed by Taika Waititi

I went to see this last week, trying not to have too many preconceptions, but I’d seen the trailers and posters (anyone with an internet connection and a social media account couldn’t have missed them could they?) and I started reading Marvel Comics as a small child, the much lauded “Silver Age”, so I had some context to draw from and the poster I’ve included above particularly reminded me of the Jack Kirby comic books I read as a kid.

Despite their problems with gender representation, I’m a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and love the Thor franchise – not for the titular character, but for Tom Hiddleston’s version of Loki. Even in the comics way back in the day, Thor was something of a vanilla hero – but Loki was far more entertaining and often provided the comedy that’s been lacking on screen. I’m also a big fan of Taika Waititi’s work as an actor, writer and director, What We Do in the Shadows (2014) is one of my favourite indie comedies. So it was difficult to go into this without some expectations.

I really needn’t have worried. I thought the first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) was a fabulous and very well timed break in the seriousness of the MCU – but Thor: Ragnarok is a veritable breath of fresh air. I still have some issues but they are minor compared with many of the previous films in this franchise. (I’m happy to discuss in the comments if anyone’s interested).

This time the usual cast from Asgard are joined by Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk, Cate Blanchett as Hela, the Goddess of Death, Karl Urban as Skurge, Tessa Thompson as Val/Valkyrie, Taika Waititi as Korg and Jeff Goldblum as the wonderfully campy Grandmaster. I really loved Blanchett’s villainous Hela, and Tessa Thompson was great as the alcoholic Valkyrie who gets to redeem herself. The sets for the Grandmaster’s planet Sakaar are just wonderful, evoking Kirby’s artwork and the soundtrack (featuring Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song”) works really well.

A friend described this film as a romp, and I think that’s a great word. This movie is irreverent, loud, brash and very, very funny.

Go see it and let me know what you think 🙂

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