A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life (2019)

A Hidden Life (2019)

Written and directed by Terrence Malick.

Like a lot of cinephiles, I have something of a love/hate relationship with Terrence Malick. At his best, the trademarks of his filmmaking (voice over narration, sweeping landscapes shot at “golden hour”, extended tracking shots) work together to create something so much greater than the sum of its parts. I’m thinking here of movies like Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978) and parts of The Tree of Life (2011). But when Malick’s not on point, it can end up as a bloated mess, such as Knight of Cups (2015) or Song to Song (2017), which I found almost unwatchable. 

I went to a well-attended Members’ Preview Screening at the State Cinema last night and while my expectations weren’t terribly high, I was hoping for an improvement from Malick – and I got that at least! 

A Hidden Life is based on the story of Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian-born conscientious objector who went to prison in Germany rather than swear an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler. He left behind in Austria his equally devout wife Fani, his widowed mother and three daughters, who bore the brunt of discrimination from their village for his actions. In 2007 Jagerstatter was beatified by the Catholic church and the religious themes are writ very large across this movie

The film opens with black and white footage coupled with choral music that creates atmosphere as well as exposition for what’s to come. The cinematography by regular Malick collaborator Jorg Widmer is superb. Malick of course makes much of the glorious alpine scenery, the framing is utterly superb and many of those trademark tracking shots here are simply breathtaking in their beauty and as exemplary cinematic craft. It’s worth seeing for this alone. 

The two leads, August Diehl as Franz and Valerie Pachner as Fani are vibrant and engaging and there is a dream-like quality about the idyllic scenes of their simple life in the Austrian alps. However, as the ramifications of Franz’s decision not to fight begin to show, Malick employs increasing jump cuts to heighten their feelings of anxiety and it was more than a little too obvious, taking me right out of the movie. The music by James Newton Howard was alright but to my ear also became far too obvious, especially towards the end of the movie. 

This ends up as a film in two parts. The alpine idyll and the hell of prison, overlaid with narration from Franz and Fani’s letters to each other. This also features a beautifully understated cameo from the late and very great Bruno Gantz as Judge Leuben, who presides over Franz’s hearing in Germany. 

While I think this is a clearly better work than any of Malick’s more recent efforts, it still left me feeling like it didn’t quite work as well as it should. Once again, Malick is overly heavy-handed in key scenes, like he doesn’t trust his audience to be cine-literate enough to get the message, but (as in The Tree of Life) this only occurs in parts. Nevertheless, for me it undercut the overall emotional impact of the piece.

At just short of three hours, this is a long and at times, uneven examination of one man’s small act of defiance and its effect on his family but small acts of defiance are important and should be celebrated at every opportunity. Certainly worth seeing for the cinematography, but do go and see this on the big screen to get the full grandeur of the alps. 

A Hidden Life opens in Australia on the 30th January 2020.

Knives Out

Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Christopher Plummer, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Ana de Armas, LaKeith Stanfield, Jaeden Martell, and Katherine Langford in Knives Out (2019)

Knives Out (2019)

Written and directed by Rian Johnson.

A few years ago, when I first started getting serious about studying cinema, I began listening to the podcast You Must Remember Thiscreated, written and narrated by film historian and critic Karina Longworth. (By the way, her book Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes’ Hollywood is a really great read if you’re remotely interested in Hollywood history). One of my tutors told me Longworth was Rian Johnson’s partner and I must’ve seemed very dim. “You know, the guy who directed Looper”. This made me sit up and take notice, as I found Looper (2012) an interesting take on both sci fi and action genres. And I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed his handling of The Last Jedi (2017), so risky and refreshing after the very safe The Force Awakens (2015).

So, I feel I’ve come to this movie (and Rian Johnson generally) quite late and by a circuitous route. But as with all good things, it’s better late than never! And Knives Out is a delight in so many ways.

As someone who grew up reading crime fiction (everything from Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler), I felt right at home from the opening scene of the grand and incredibly Gothic Thrombey house. The overall production design was fabulous and the house interiors owed much to movies like Sleuth (1972). The soundtrack by Nathan Johnson (Rian Johnson’s cousin) is excellent and the cinematography by Johnson regular Steve Yedlin delivers all the right atmosphere required for a film like this.

In a nutshell (and without spoilers) wealthy author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is discovered dead the morning after a family gathering for his birthday. His nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas) seems to be the only one genuinely grieving – the rest of his family appear mostly concerned about money and inheritance.  While it’s presumed Thrombey committed suicide, famed detective Benoit Blanc has been called in because there are questions – and so the fun begins!

The ensemble cast are rock solid throughout and I found Chris Evans and Daniel Craig particularly endearing as the spoiled brat Ransom Drysdale and private detective Benoit Blanc respectively. Much has been said about Craig’s ridiculous accent but I think it’s all perfectly appropriate to the setting and dialogue Johnson has created for him. Indeed, it’s probably my favourite performance from Craig to date. As much as I’ve enjoyed him in Marvel movies, it was also great to see Chris Evans do something other than Captain America and this is a perfect break away role for him. But the heart of the movie is Marta, so beautifully played by Ana de Armas.

As much as this is a love letter to whodunit/murder mysteries and has all the story beats and twists to match, I also read this film as a statement about greed and our obsession with wealth – a timely reminder that it’s better to be a good person than a nasty rich person.

Johnson’s directorial touch is subtle and lighthearted for the most part, and it’s clear that he and the cast had a tremendous amount of fun making this – there’s already talk for a follow up feature for Benoit Blanc! It’s also showed in box office receipts and Johnson’s Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and I hope he wins. Despite being close to the end of it’s cinema release, my Saturday session at the State Cinema was well attended and there were many genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Incredibly entertaining fare and highly recommended!

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Image result for portrait of a lady on fire movie poster

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Written and directed by Celine Sciamma.

I saw a trailer for this late last year and thought it would be worth my time. Since seeing it last night, I literally can’t stop thinking about this film. Like my last review Jojo Rabbit (2019), I find myself wondering if I’ve seen one of the best movies of my year at the start of January!

In a nutshell, this French period piece sees Marianne (Noemie Merlant) arrive on an island off the Brittany coast. Her brief is to act as companion to young noblewoman Heloise (Adele Haenel) by day and paint her portrait by night.  During this time, they discover in each other friendship and love.

Of course, it is far more complicated and nuanced than this, and I found it much more than the sum of its quite straightforward parts. Sciamma’s script won the screenplay award at Cannes last year (as well as the Queer Palm) and it’s easy to see why. It is economical, almost minimal but even in translation, full of subtext and rich in meaning. Apart from being very beautiful, the two leads are incredibly powerful and have great on screen presence. They are ably supported by Luana Bajrami as the young maid Sophie, and Valeria Golino as Heloise’ mother, the Countess, who pines for a better life for both her daughter and herself in Milan.

The cinematography by Claire Mathon is breathtaking – from beautifully framed exteriors on the cliffs and beach to luminous interiors, full of candle and firelight. The costumes designed by Dorothee Guiraud range from the sumptuous to the simple and add a great deal to a film that relies so heavily on themes of art and painting. Like the screenplay, the sound design is also minimal, with very little incidental music. Most of it is diegetic, from within the world of the film – fires crackling, footsteps on floorboards, the ocean breaking on the beach. There is a particularly arresting scene of women around a bonfire singing, which I found especially moving.

Ultimately, this is a love story, a film made by, about and featuring women – there are no major male characters on screen but it does nothing to exclude male audiences. At just over two hours I can see that some people would find it slow but I loved the gradual build and found myself happily immersed in this female world. Overall, Sciamma offers us a quietly elegant and ultimately satisfying movie that takes period drama to the next level.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (or Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) is currently playing at the State Cinema in Hobart but wherever you are in the world, seek it out! I wholeheartedly recommend it as a wonderful respite to the pace of modern life.

Little Women

Little Women (2019)

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig

I cannot overstate how much I love going to the movies. Even after six years of study and a double major in Creative Writing and Screen Studies, my fascination with visual storytelling and the moving image hasn’t waned. 

Narrative film still delights and moves me, and this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic text is a great example of why. Last night I went with a girlfriend to a member’s pre-screening of Little Women at the State Cinema in North Hobart and we were thoroughly entertained. 

If anyone was in any doubt of Gerwig’s credentials as a director or screenwriter, this should put them to rest. Using multiple elements of fabulous casting, a great script, believable costuming, subtle lighting, excellent framing and editing, Gerwig offers a reimagined version of the March sisters that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

From the outset, the most notable difference is that Gerwig skews time and tells the story in a series of flashbacks, usually triggered by something Jo has seen or heard. Once I got into the rhythm of this, it gave a far more satisfying experience than a standard linear narrative remake, and offered a lot more depth to the character’s development from adolescent girls to young women. This is particularly relevant to the often maligned Amy, the youngest sister, who Florence Pugh masterfully takes from a mischievous girl trying to keep up with her older sisters to an accomplished and determined young woman. 

The cast are uniformly excellent and the magic between Timothee Chalomet’s Laurie and Saoirse Ronan’s Jo is delightful as ever, but the scenes between Jo and her mother, played by Laura Dern are truly powerful. Emma Watson is delightful as good-natured Meg (though I felt she wasn’t as well served in the script as Jo, Beth and especially Amy), and Australian actor Eliza Scanlen takes the difficult role of Beth and makes it believable rather than melodramatic and maudlin. Throw in Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Bob Odenkirk and it’s a killer line up! My only real casting criticism is James Norton and Louis Garrel are too young and far too good looking for John Brooke and Friedrich Bhaer respectively – but it’s minor! 

Overlaid with a beautifully balanced score from Alexandre Desplat, and period-appropriate costumes from Jacqueline Durran I think Gerwig’s adaptation is a triumph. Overall, this is a fine reworking of a much loved classic that captures much of the free spiritedness of Alcott’s book, bringing the March family squarely into the 21st century. Although the ending isn’t strictly true to the original text, it fits well in Gerwig’s reimagined world, bringing new life and empowerment to the sisters. 

Little Women opens 1 January 2020 at the State Cinema and would make a perfect mother/daughter or sister’s date.

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 Favourite

The Favourite 2018

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

I went to the State Cinema on Friday night, this time with a girlfriend who is very knowledgeable (and incredibly interesting to chat with) about history, style and particularly costume – the perfect partner for a film like this! It was a hot night in Hobart and after grabbing some drinks at the bar, we made our way into the cool air conditioned cinema and lost ourselves in Baroque England for the next two hours.

One of the first things I noticed was the lighting and the wonderful cinematography by Robbie Ryan. Lanthimos wanted to shoot only with available light and candles, which gives a fabulous softness to the finished movie. They also used 35mm film, rather than go for the crisp, digital look that is the industry standard now. The use of extreme wide-angle perspectives is introduced early but isn’t overdone and similarly with slow motion. For me, this elegantly underlined the surreal nature of the overall work. Shot framing (particularly some of the exteriors) and the use of space in general is breathtakingly beautiful The costumes are equally as fabulous and hats off again to Oscar-winning designer Sandy Powell for another wonderfully inventive film.

This film is many things – at once sumptuous, irreverent, surreal, elegant, outrageous, heartbreaking, laugh-out-loud funny and at times, downright bawdy – and I loved every minute of it! Plus, there’s bunnies!!!  The sound design is rises and falls as needed but never gets in the way of the excellent script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and the cast deliver it wonderfully. The three female leads Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are engaged in a complex power struggle and all are at the top of their game here. Mark Gatiss, James Smith and Joe Alwyn are great supporting players and Nicholas Hoult is delicious as the bitchy and be-wigged Harley.

But at its heart is a stellar performance by Olivia Colman. I loved her in Broadchurch (2013), The Night Manager (2016) and especially Tyrannosaur (2011). She brings her best to this film, expressing all the complexities and inner turmoil of the ailing Queen Anne on the screen with a power and deftness that deserves ALL the awards.

Overall, I think Lanthimos has made his most accessible work to date. This was my first trip to the cinema for 2019 and I suspect I saw one of the year’s best films – it’s going to be hard to top!

Go see it on the biggest screen possible.

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.

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.

mother! – Day 2 NaBloPoMo 2017

mother! (2017). Directed by Darren Aronofsky.

I have been a fan of Aronofsky’s films since his low-budget first feature Pi (1998) and I’m one of the few people I know who actually liked Noah (2014), despite Russell Crowe and Ray Winstone’s macho posturing. (The key with Noah in my opinion, is to look at it as a reimagining of a mythological text, rather than a straight retelling of the biblical story).

It should come as no surprise then that I really enjoyed mother! though it took me quite a while to process it. I saw this at my local, the State Cinema in North Hobart about a month ago and I think it must be the most divisive film of 2017.

This is an intense experience despite the very simple set up. It becomes a fast-paced drama very quickly and I found it hard at times to keep up, which I suspect is Aronofsky’s aim. Right from the outset, I felt a sense of claustrophobia, exacerbated by the camera which sits on or very close to Jennifer Lawrence for the entire film. Lawrence is sensational by the way, and Javier Bardem as her writer husband matches her. Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are wonderful and the brief scene with real-life brothers, Brian and Domhnall Gleeson as their sons, is explosive and excellent.

Without spoiling the film, to me this is a psychological drama and a magical realism allegory. There is little here that is straightforward or easy watching, it isn’t a film where I could leave my brain at the door and just sit back and be entertained, something I love to do sometimes too. Of course, there are multiple ways to read a film, and I’m very keen to see this again when it comes out on DVD.

It’s no surprise to me that many people really disliked mother! Brave, innovative storytelling in cinema isn’t safe – it takes risks. And while this film doesn’t work all of the time in ways I enjoyed, I love it for having that bravery to take chances.

I found mother! triggered some things in me that required careful processing. Though it was uncomfortable, I feel ultimately a little wiser about my own foibles, a little richer for the experience. And ultimately, the film has stayed with me in a very enjoyable way. In my opinion, these are some of the many things art is supposed to do.

Rules of Conduct – A Rant

It was a damp Sunday afternoon, so I decided to go and see Baby Driver today at the lovely State Cinema in North Hobart. I’ll write a review about it in the next few days when I’ve had a chance to think about the film a little more but suffice it to say, I loved the music, the performances and the incredible editing. I’m just not certain about the ending – but I’ll talk about that soon.

What I want to discuss today are that unspoken guidelines that I’ve lived by all my life, the core rules of conduct in movie-going – that is to say, one is always silent while the movie is playing! The only exception is laughter. I’ve been heartened to see that people like Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo actively encourage this through their podcast but sometimes I wonder if it’s just because they’re a similar vintage to me and we’re just showing our age.

For those of you who are interested, here’s The Moviegoers’ Code of Conduct  from the Wittertainment wiki. Alternatively, Kermode and Mayo made this short video version a few years ago, which is recommended and very entertaining.

I grew up in a movie-loving, very cine-literate household, where both my father and older brother had their projectionist’s licence so trips to the cinema were our regular special event, and even when watching movies at home, the rules of conduct would be enforced. Even whispered conversations with my sister were discouraged during movies and I remember us being given oranges and a hand towel to take to the Saturday matinee because it made less noise. I do recall seeing my mother and father snogging once on a trip to the pictures, something they used to do when they were “courting” but never to the disruption of anyone else’s viewing.

Well, this afternoon, my friend and I got a coffee (in a china mug – not a disposable cup ❤ ) along with our tickets, wandered downstairs 10 minutes before the session started and selected a seat in the half full cinema and drank our coffee in relative peace before the feature started. Just as the trailers started, an older couple (maybe 60s) came in and noisily eased past the couple behind me. For the purposes of this blog, I’m calling him Mr Ignorant.

First, what I can only imagine was a biscuit packet came out, and a loud crunching and crackling. Then he started. Mr Ignorant talked all the way through the trailers, oohing and ahing at Charlize Theron and James McAvoy in Atomic Blonde, as well as Dunkirk and I found myself gripping the seat, hoping he was just getting it out of his system before the main feature started.

Alas, this was not to be.

Unfortunately, he kept up a near constant stream of chatter through the opening scene and drove me almost to distraction before the movie had even really begun. In an effort to stem the tide before the film really got going, I turned, and in the darkness asked in a loud voice “will you please stop talking?” Now, any of you who know me in the real world will know I have no trouble making myself heard, something to do with all that vocal training I’m sure! He stopped mid-sentence, almost affronted there was anyone else in the cinema and seemed to contain himself for the next scene.

Then the biscuit packet came out again. And the chatter started again. And I leaned in closer to my movie companion, who fortunately knows me well enough to not be freaked out by such behaviour!

So, with my head as far away from Mr and Mrs Ignorant as possible, I tried to lose myself in Baby’s shenanigans, only to be brought back again and again by the sheer ignorance of particularly the man behind me and that damned biscuit packet. I feel I need to go back and see the film again, without interruptions.

As soon as the film finished, they got up very noisily and left, making no illusion about their disdain towards me. Then, as the lights went up, two other patrons came over and thanked me for speaking up. They said they wanted to but felt they couldn’t.

But they should – we all should.

In fact, I should’ve gone out and found an usher and complained about Mr Ignorant. The only reason I didn’t is I’ve been waiting to see this film for a few weeks and didn’t want to miss a frame – or cause any more disruption to my fellow cinema patrons.

What do you think?

In the meantime, here’s a lovely, calming photo of some lovely, calming clouds. Take care friends and remember the Rules of Conduct next time you go to the cinema ❤