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Friday, 30 October 2015

The Dressmaker

(M) ★★★½

Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse.

Cast: Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Shane Bourne, Alison Whyte, Rebecca Gibney, Shane Jacobson, Gyton Grantley.

After the Titanic, Rose vowed to stay as far from water as possible.

YES, the film looks amazing and the costumes are stunning and there are some great performances here, but the biggest acclaim must go to the casting director.

Christine King, a Primetime Emmy winner, and director Jocelyn Moorhouse have pulled together the best ensemble cast an Aussie film has seen in decades.

It’s not just about the big names though – the talent here helps overcome the shortcomings of this adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s novel, keeping the story’s eccentricities predominantly in check.

Winslet is the big coup obviously and with a flawless Aussie accent on show, she dominates and elevates this quirky drama at all the right moments. She plays Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, who was sent away from her home town of Dungatar in rural Australia as a 10-year-old following the death of a classmate.

Having spent many years as a top fashion designer in London, Paris and Milan, Tilly returns to care for her mother “Mad” Molly Dunnage (Davis).

Tilly is also keen to unravel what really happened on the day her classmate died – is she really the murderer that everyone says she is?

There is much to like about The Dressmaker, but the biggest reason is the cast. Dungatar looks like an Aussie version of a spaghetti western bordertown, and Winslet rolls into it like a chiffon tornado – Moorhouse likened Tilly to "Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven with a sewing machine”.

Winslet makes Tilly feel like a real person rather than the inconsistent mess of contradictions she could have become. Tilly is haunted and weakened by her past but is headstrong and determined. She’s desperate to gain forgiveness from the people of Dungatar but usually doesn’t care what people think, and she has a classy European coating around a can-do country attitude.

Winslet anchors the film and is the wonderful dynamic centre the rest of the movie’s quirks and melodramas can revolve around. And even though it’s been said already, it bears repeating –her Australian accent, a notoriously hard accent to nail, is spot on.

Davis is also great in a tricky role. Mad Molly could have tipped over into “crazy person caricature” but Davis keeps it under control. Hemsworth is also good at making a poorly defined love interest likeable, while the rest of the cast boasts increasing levels of Aussie wackiness ranging from Snook’s ugly duckling to Weaving’s cross-dressing copper.

As a result The Dressmaker walks a knife edge between the sensible turns of Winslet, Davis and Hemsworth, who provide the film’s emotional heart, and the wacky Dungatar townsfolk and the odder plot points.

Occasionally it tips too far into absurdity – Barry Otto as the town doctor is a stand-out oddity that doesn’t work, while an eisteddfod-style showdown with a rival town falls flat – but the cast helps keep the ship steady. Weaving’s cross-dressing copper provides an interesting subplot (despite a haphazard denouement) while seeing haute couture come to the country is pretty funny.

Unfortunately the resolution of the story’s central mystery is a misfire. What might have worked on the pages of Ham’s novel is flat-out strange on film, and it’s only the connections between Winslet, Davis and Hemsworth’s characters and the themes springing from that triangle which keep the final act on the rails.

In spite of its flaws, The Dressmaker is enjoyable and masterfully crafted. The costumes are wonderful, the town of Dungatar is a minor marvel of set construction, and the whole thing is lensed beautifully by Donald McAlpine and scored magnificently by David Hirschfelder.

Although often saved by its cast, The Dressmaker is still a quality Australian production that deserves a big audience and every AACTA Award it might win in December.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Bridge Of Spies

(M) ★★★★

Director: Steven Spielberg.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Scott Sheppard, Austin Stowell, Alan Alda.

Google Maps had deceived Hanks yet again.

IT seems unlikely, given the natural progression of things, that Steven Spielberg will ever make a truly incredible masterpiece ever again.

He still makes great films, such as Lincoln, The Adventures Of Tin Tin and Catch Me If You Can, but none of these later-era pieces will ever be regarded as highly as Jaws, E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan.

With that in mind, Bridge Of Spies is another great later-era Spielberg film that will never be mentioned in the same breath as the six films just mentioned, but is great nonetheless.

Based on a true story, it stars Tom Hanks as Brooklyn lawyer James B Donovan, who was chosen to represent Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Rylance) at his espionage trial in 1957 before being involved in Abel’s prisoner exchange in East Berlin in 1962.

It’s a classic Cold War story, filled with the paranoias (both imagined and real) of the time, as the US and the USSR played a mirrored game of spies and charades.

Such a tale is well suited to Hanks and Spielberg, in their fourth pairing and first since The Terminal in 2004, with Hanks’ wholesome nature ably selling the leftist leanings of Donovan, and Spielberg nailing the vibe of the Cold War.

Each stars in their own usual way. While Hanks is out front-and-centre combining his usual all-American dignity and gosh-darn good values with his trademark warmth, Spielberg makes the story sing by telling it cleanly, crisply and intelligently.

The script, which was polished by the Coen Brothers, is delivered in as straightforward a fashion as possible. It tells its story efficiently, despite clocking in at 141 minutes. It never shortchanges on detail, it delivers its large amounts of exposition unobtrusively through solid dialogue and well mounted scenes, and it slowly ramps up its tension across two hours until it reaches near breaking point in the final showdown at the titular bridge.

It all works to remind you of why Spielberg is one of the greats. He handles the script, the actors and the camera with style. Bridge Of Spies is never flashy – it’s just always good, and with regular Spielberg cohorts Janusz Kamiński (cinematography) and Michael Kahn (editing) along for the ride, it’s always quality.

Hanks is ever-reliable and well cast, ably supported by a talented but low-wattage bunch of co-stars, with Rylance the standout as the no-nonsense Abel.

If Spielberg and Hanks’ filmographies were social structures, Bridge Of Spies would be satisfyingly upper-middle class.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

The Walk

(PG) ★★★

Director: Robert Zemeckis.

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, Clément Sibomy, James Badge Dale, César Domboy, Ben Schwartz, Benedict Samuel, Steve Valentine.

"What a view! I sure hope no one wrecks it by flying a plane into it."

(Too soon?)

IF you’re scared of heights, don’t watch this film. Especially in 3D.

Zemeckis’ camera takes you to the top of the World Trade Centre and looks down in this dizzying retelling of the story of Philippe Petit, the man who walked on a high wire between the two towers in 1974.

You should also not watch this film if you’ve already seen the superior Oscar-winning documentary Man On Wire – if given a choice between The Walk and Man On Wire, watch Man On Wire.

The Walk is not a bad film – in fact, it’s reasonably enjoyable with a fantastic final act. But it pales next to Man On Wire which, like a high-wire, was taut and tense, leaving The Walk feeling loose and saggy by comparison.

Gordon-Levitt stars as Petit, the strangely driven Frenchman who had an epiphany one day and would not let go of it.

Along with his “accomplices” (which include his girlfriend, a photographer and a man who’s scared of heights), Petit proceeds to plot out his grand “coup” and will let nothing get in the way of his walk, which took place 411.5m in the air on August 7, 1974.

Gordon-Levitt is great and makes the most of a role most actors would die for – he speaks French, talks with an accent, juggles, and walks the tightrope (with the occasional help of a body double). He nails the French and the accent and certainly captures the peculiarities of Petit while ensuring the character is predominantly unknowable.

Unfortunately, the main character also comes off as slightly annoying. In Man On Wire, Petit seems oddly charming, with an infectious personality and you understand why people are so keen to help him. In The Walk, he’s a frustrating oddball. There is also an odd framing device in which Petit narrates the film from atop the Statue of Liberty, which does nothing to dial down his ego or help the film. In fact, the narration is utterly pointless. We literally listen to Petit tell us what’s happening on the screen while adding little to no new information.

Erase the narration and The Walk would be better, although that wouldn’t get rid of some of the shonky special effects. While the final high-wire act looks mostly amazing, other sequences in the film scream of green screen and pull you out of the reality of the film.

The story itself is told well enough, but where Man On Wire felt like a heist film, this feels like a caper but without the jokes. As such, it plods along okay, but never ratchets up the tension or enthusiasm until we finally get onto the wire.

That’s when the movie comes into its own and redeems the slight flatness of the first two acts. Zemeckis does a great job with the finale, putting you up there on the wire alongside Petit and giving moviegoers a requisite bout of vertigo.

The Walk is worth seeing for the final act, for Gordon-Levitt, and if you’re unfamiliar with Petit’s story. But when compared with Man On Wire it is lacking by not being either suspenseful enough or funny enough. Either way, The Walk falls flat… unlike Petit.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Black Mass

(MA15+) ★★★

Director: Scott Cooper.

Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, David Harbour, Julianne Nicholson, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll.

So many '80s music videos all look the same.

THIS is the Johnny Depp performance a lot of people have been waiting for – no crazy outfits, no silly hats, no OTT accents, and no scenery chewing.

Instead we get a surprisingly understated turn as real-life criminal James “Whitey” Bulger, the man who ran Boston’s underworld for over a decade with the tacit approval of the FBI.

Yes, there’s a Boston drawl and a balding head, but this a toned-down Depp, a long way from the diminishing returns of Jack Sparrow, Mortdecai and whatever Tim Burton’s up to.

But given Depp’s performance and the high-calibre cast around him, it’s disappointing Black Mass isn’t better.

The material is certainly there. Bulger, who was eventually found guilty for his involvement in 11 murders, is an interesting character, as is FBI agent John Connolly (Edgerton), who looked the other way while Bulger ran rampant in exchange for tidbits of information to bring down other criminals.

Black Mass would like to be the next Goodfellas, or The Departed, but it’s not. It’s too unfocused and lacks zing – for a movie with so many killings and nefarious activities, it is oddly sedate and unthrilling.

While not quite in the ballpark of Gangster Squad – the movie that has set a new benchmark for wasting the talents of an awesome cast – Black Mass does fritter away its talent. Depp is great, Edgerton is great, and all the supporting players are solid, particularly Johnson and Sarsgaard, but ultimately everyone is too good for the weak script.

An awkward and misused framing device involving police interviews with Bulger’s henchmen adds little to the story except laziness, with the technique eventually becoming distracting and then utterly redundant. It also leaves the script with no focal point, as it jumps half-heartedly between its main characters and never fully committing to telling anyone’s tale.

The tone is a little off too. The above trailer is a doozy, dripping with menace and a little black humour. The movie is unable to maintain that except in short bursts.

There is a great story to be told here, and as the net closes in on Bulger and Connolly in the third act, the film finally gets a bit of spark. Black Mass is not boring – its subject matter won’t let it be – but its story is not arranged or told in the most entertaining manner possible.

It’s worth seeing for Depp, who has a couple of terrifying moments that are amplified by his pinprick pupils, and for Edgerton, but tales of Boston cops and robbers have been told better in the likes of The Departed and The Town.

Ultimately, this is a missed opportunity, and thus, a disappointment.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The Martian

(M) ★★★★

Director: Ridley Scott.

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong.

"Nice day for it."
"Shut up, Harvey."

IN 1979, Ridley Scott’s Alien famously proclaimed that in space, no one can hear you scream.

Thirty-six years later, Scott has flipped that tagline into a question: if someone did cry out from space, how would you help them?

The answer lies in The Martian, in which Matt Damon finds himself accidentally Robinson Crusoed on Mars.

Unlike in Interstellar where ***SPOILER ALERT*** Damon also happened to be stranded on a distant world ***END SPOILER ALERT***, this film doesn’t disappear up its own black hole. Instead The Martian is a straight-shooting survival story that sets up its situation quickly and then goes about solving its problems methodically, which is entirely fitting for a movie that’s predominantly about science. There are no grander themes beyond the will to live and the sacrifices made in the name of discovery, and there are certainly ***SPOILER ALERT*** no meta-physical journeys into the bizarre bookshelves that supposedly lie on the other side of black holes ***END SPOILER ALERT***.

As a result, The Martian is direct, gripping, smart and surprisingly funny. A lot of that comes down to Andy Weir’s intelligent source novel, Drew Goddard’s sympathetic script, and Damon’s immensely likeable performance as the stranded botanist/astronaut Mark Watney.

While the almost clinical nature of its story structure leaves little room for excessive character development, Damon’s turn ensures Watney feels like a real person worth caring about. The action cuts away to the returning crew that was forced to leave Watney behind and the Earth-based NASA boffins trying to figure out how to get him home, but this is very much Damon’s show and he holds the film magnificently. There are emotional highs and lows, but he makes Watney’s can-do attitude infectious.

In a way, this is the anti-Alien. While Scott’s 1979 horror story took a sinister look at everything that could go (horribly, horribly) wrong in space, The Martian is the optimistic response to everything that could go wrong in space.

That’s not to say the film isn’t intense or without its dark moments, but it’s tone is closer to Ron Howard’s similarly themed Apollo 13. It’s gripping and thrilling, but the sunshiney climes of Mars and largely positive outlook of Watney mean the darkness never overwhelms.

The weakest parts are the Earth-based segments, where Daniels, Wiig, Bean, Ejiofor, Wong and Donald Glover nut out the science behind a rescue mission. These parts are certainly not bad, and the cast is top-notch, but they pale against what’s going on back on Mars and occasionally break the flow of the film.

For anyone who loves science – which should be everyone except anti-vaxxers and climate change denialists – this is fascinating and enjoyable. The film keeps its nuts and bolts at an understandable level and ensures the audience is wondering and marvelling – Weir’s much-praised research in the novel is dealt with intelligently on the big screen.

Scott has made some decent films in the past decade and a half since GladiatorAmerican Gangster, Matchstick Men, Body Of Lies – but this might just be his best since Rusty stomped out into the Colosseum and asked us if we were entertained. Which you will be with The Martian.