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Sunday, 26 November 2017


(MA15+) ★★★★★

Director: Asif Kapadia.

The sad irony of this powerful doco about ill-fated singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse is that one of the very things that contributed to her untimely death is one of the very things that makes the doco so incredible.

The meteoric rise of Winehouse - combined with her stunning vocal talent, working class forthrightness and addictive personality - made her a paparazzi wet dream. But those hounding snappers and the everpresent media gaze meant director Asif Kapadia had an astonishing amount of material to work with in compiling this uncompromising account of the singer's short life.

This cornucopia of photo and video is a boon for the filmmakers, but Kapadia makes sure we're aware of the price that was paid for it. Winehouse, who drank herself to death in 2011 aged 27, was relentlessly pursued by the British press and this plays a huge part in the film's second half. Kapadia isn't making much of a stretch when the doco occasionally points the finger at the fourth estate for contributing to Winehouse's tragic demise.

The "why?" of Winehouse's death is the driving mystery of Amy, and while the ridicule, torment, and in-her-face persistence of the press help explain it somewhat, the film is also good at highlighting other factors. Her own dad Mitch comes off looking like a gold-digging bastard (Mitch Winehouse was none-too-pleased with the final cut), as do ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil and late-career manager Raye Cosbert. The singer's own behaviour is questionable, but she's painted as a victim of circumstance surrounded by enablers who didn't want to see their cash cow dry up.

Through it all, Kapadia reminds us that Winehouse was yet another incredibly talented yet starry-eyed girl unprepared for the chew-up-and-spit-out mentality of the music industry. Through early home video and phone footage, as well as the recollections of her long-time friends and early manager Nick Shymanksy, we get a picture of a complex woman who was far more than the sum of various later-life problems. These fond remembrances and innocent beginnings only serve to make the inevitable end all the more powerful and gut-wrenching.

As Winehouse herself puts it throughout the doco, all she ever wanted to do was sing, but the media magnifying glass could never leave it at that. When she sings, and her own words come to life on the screen, it's both inspiring and heartbreaking. Seeing her record her vocals for her signature song Back To Black is chilling, and a highlight.

As a documentary, Amy is - sadly - complete. A short life is tragically but beautifully summarised, warts and all, and Kapadia has delivered the quintessential take on who Winehouse was, and why things went the way they did.

I watched Amy at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):

Metropolis (featuring a live score by Richard Tankard) - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24

Thursday, 23 November 2017

REWIND REVIEW: Bad Boys (1995)

(MA15+) ★★

Director: Michael Bay.

Cast: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Téa Leoni, Tchéky Karyo, Theresa Randle, Joe Pantoliano.

One of these guys is going to be star.
The other is going to remain incredibly annoying.
(Note: a censored version of this article first appeared on the Warrnambool Standard's webpage back in 2010.)

ONE thing I've noticed in my brief tenure as a movie reviewer is that people are often more blown away by the movies you haven't seen, as opposed to the movies you have seen.

This is best exemplified by the following conversation, which I seem to have had dozens of times with various acquaintances:

Aw man, I watched (insert movie here) again 
the other night. Damn that movie rocks the shit, 
don't you think?

Ah... I haven't seen it.

What? What the fuck? You haven't seen (insert movie here)? 
It's fucking awesome! Damn it, man - you call yourself a movie reviewer and you haven't seen (insert movie here)? You suck!

Firstly, I should really stop hanging out with these people.

Secondly, it doesn't matter that I could name maybe 50 great movies that they haven't seen. All that matters is that I suck because I haven't seen (insert movie here).

Anyway, the number one movie that fills that (insert movie here) gap is Bad Boys, Michael Bay's explosive-tastic buddy-cop-apalooza from 1995. Apparently this is the film that all movie reviewers have to have seen. Screw Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, bugger Fritz Lang's M, and fuck Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather - if you wanna be a film reviewer, Michael Bay's Bad Boys is compulsory viewing. Take note, prospective movie critics.

But enough is enough. A few weekends back, I decided to put an end to these shenanigans and actually watch Bad Boys.

And you know what? It sucks.

For those who haven't seen Bad Boys but would like to avoid being told they suck without having to actually watch it, here's the low-down.

Bad Boys is the movie that convinced the world, rightfully, that Will Smith had the stuff to be an A-lister. It's also the film that duped the world into thinking Martin Lawrence was anything other than really fucking annoying. I was led to believe he was going to be funny in this film. No - he's just really fucking annoying.

Much of the film hinges on the to-and-fro between Smith's suave cop and Lawrence's annoying cop, but I didn't buy the chemistry. A lot of the film also hinges on Michael Bay's ability to blow shit up (to use the technical term). This is all well and good, but if you're going to edit an action scene, how about you give us a bit of flow, a bit of a sense of what's actually happening, a bit of an idea as to where the "bad boys" and the "actual bad guys" are in relation to each other. I dunno - something, anything other than just blowing shit up and setting off lots of squibs.

Not only that, but the script is bad. How bad? Here's an example that comes from the end of the film, when Marcus (Lawrence) suddenly appears in Mike's (Smith) car to rescue him at the very last second from a gun fight and lots of explosions before there's one more really really big explosion (and I'm going from memory here because this isn't in the final scripts published on the web, which makes it worse because that means Bay actually added it in because he thought it would be better):

(to Marcus)
I can't believe you left me in the middle 
of a gun fight to go and get my car. 
What the hell were you thinking?

Shut up and let him drive.

Right. It makes no sense what-so-ever - so much so that it bears mentioning by a character - so we'll just scoot over it then, shall we? I was wondering exactly the same thing Mike was wondering. But no, the audience doesn't get an answer. That would be too much to ask.

The script also appears to have been written by someone who has no idea about basic police procedure. The scene where the "bad boys" stumble upon a dead body is a great example.

One of my friends admitted that although he still digs Bad Boys, it hasn't aged that well, which makes it a little mystifying as to why my acquaintances rave about this compared to other older buddy cop films which have actually held up well, particularly Lethal Weapon (except Mel Gibson's hair) and Beverly Hills Cop (except for the gay jokes).

One final point: Bad Boys is something of a landmark as it contains a scene that quite possibly sums up Bay's entire career. It takes place during the opening heist, which is admittedly pretty cool. The villains come across a padlock that stands between them and a large amount of heroin, and rather than just cut the padlock with a pair of boltcutters, they freeze it with liquid nitrogen... then smash it with a pair of boltcutters. Huh? But that's Bay right there - why do something simply and effectively that actually makes sense when you can do it expensively, nonsensically and in a way that's completely OTT?

Daddy's Home 2

(PG) ★★

Director: Sean Anders.

Cast: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini, John Lithgow, Mel Gibson, Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vaccaro, Alessandra Ambrosio, Didi Costine, John Cena.

Not everyone found the first Daddy's Home movie hilarious.
Back in 2010, Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg teamed-up for the largely forgotten odd-couple buddy-cop spoof The Other Guys. It wasn't very good (although apparently I'm one of the few critics who thought that), but one of the elements worked well was the chalk-and-cheese pairing of Ferrell and Wahlberg.

Someone - probably director/producer Adam McKay - realised the comedic chemistry was worth persevering with and five years later we got Daddy's Home, a re-teaming of Ferrell and Wahlberg that failed to impress critics but took US$242 million at the worldwide box office against a US$69 million budget.

So here we have Daddy's Home 2 just two years later - perhaps delivered in a rush to capitalise on whatever goodwill was floating around after the first one.

It finds the previously warring dads Brad (Ferrell) and Dusty (Wahlberg) making their whole "co-dad" scenario work; that is until Dusty's hard-as-nails Lothario father Kurt (Gibson) arrives on the scene. Kurt is unhappy with how the co-dad situation has softened his son, and whisks the blended families (that includes the wives, kids and Brad's dad Don (Lithgow)) away for a Christmas cabin holiday.

It's a little hard to buy into this set-up because it's so mean-spirited. Gibson isn't bad in the role of Kurt - the problem is the role is bad. He's a wilful homewrecker who's basically trying to destroy two family units and most likely warp his own grandchildren in the process for his own mischievous satisfaction. While this plot point creates a necessary drama and tension for the film to hang its story on, it's so nasty and spiteful that it obliterates a lot of the movie's laughs with its creeping darkness.

The script does have its strengths. In typical sequel fashion, it ups the ante by quadrupling its biggest asset - the conflict between its characters. So instead of just getting Brad and Dusty going head-to-head, we also get Brad-vs-Don, Dusty-vs-Kurt, and Dusty-vs-John Cena as Dusty's step-daughter's biological dad. These confrontations work as often as they don't, but the script juggles them pretty well.

The screenplay is also surprisingly good at giving half-decent subplots to its side characters. Cardellini's Sara (Brad's wife) has an interesting-enough relationship with Ambrosio's Karen (Dusty's wife), even if the film does seem to be going to great lengths to hide the fact Ambrosio can't act. Meanwhile the kids get okay storylines, even if the son's quest for a first kiss ends in a strange place.

But while the script does manage its plot threads pretty well, it fails to deliver the laughs. Even the pairing of Wahlberg and Ferrell can't save it. Gibson and Lithgow try hard too, but there just aren't enough gags, and the tone wobbles in its balance between mean and mirth. A couple of set-pieces, such as a Christmas light destruction and a half-hearted snowball fight, are good for a giggle, but the one-liners and gags are in short supply. Even Ferrell's usual improv insanity seems dialled way down.

Given that a comedy is only as good as its laughs, it's hard to recommend Daddy's Home 2. It is fun in places and the cast are obviously trying hard, but it's destined for an after-life as an annual Christmas movie re-run you'll tune in to by accident one December, only to end up changing the channel eventually or just giving up and going to bed.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Justice League

(M) ★★½

Director: Zack Snyder.

Cast: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Ciarán Hinds, Connie Nielsen, J. K. Simmons.

"We've come for the head of Stan Lee."
Is there still pressure on DC? Has the goodwill of Wonder Woman brought them a reprieve after three duds? Or are their superhero films simply too big to fail?

Even when the critics (rightly) slaughtered Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice, it still took upwards of $800 million at the worldwide box office (although that was seen as somewhat of a disappointment when compared to the takings of The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Iron Man 3 etc...).

It took four films before a DCEU (DC Extended Universe) films scored better than 55% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (that was Wonder Woman, for those of you playing along at home), which basically said to the cinema-going public that DC didn't care if the films were bad - they were making the damned things regardless. None of the films had truly bombed at the box office, so DC (rightly) said "we're making money so critics can go eat a bag of dicks" (or something along those lines). It explains why the DCEU has about 20 films in development despite the underwhelming critical reaction to past releases (except the excellent Wonder Woman). They're in for the long haul.

All of this means it's going to take a real catastrophe at the box office to stop DC from rolling on, because critical slatings and bad word of mouth obviously aren't doing the trick.

Which brings us to Justice League. Five films into the DCEU, the DC brains trust should have their shit together by now. They should have an understanding of why their films are or aren't working as well as they could, ie. they should have some idea as to why Wonder Woman worked but Man Of Steel, BvS:DoJ and Suicide Squad didn't.

The short version of this review is this: Justice League is nowhere near as good as Wonder Woman, but at least it's better than BvS:DoJ.

The slighter longer version is this: this should have been the DCEU's Avengers moment, where it triumphantly brought together its biggest stars and connected some of its disparate plot threads, but it's not a triumph. It's a fun-but-awkward mess of a movie that smacks of a missed opportunity and that is somewhat weighed down by the baggage of what has gone before.

In the wake of one character's death in BvS:DoJ (I'm trying to keep this as spoiler-free as possible), Batman (Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gadot) fear the earth is vulnerable to attack. Their concerns become reality when the god-like Steppenwolf arrives with plans to remake the world in the image of his own.

Realising they can't defeat such a powerful force by themselves, Batman and Wonder Woman recruit The Flash (Miller), the half-machine-half-man Cyborg (Fisher), and the Atlantean meta-human Aquaman (Momoa) to help save the world.

What works best in Justice League is the characterisations. These are popular superheroes for a reason, and they are well realised on the screen. Casting has never been a problem in the DCEU and again they nail it. Affleck remains a great Bats and Gadot was born to be Wonder Woman, but the newcomers are also stellar, instantly comfortable in their superhero skins, with Miller excellent as the twitchy shut-in who can run faster than, well, a speeding bullet.

Perhaps as a result of criticism about the oh-so serious tone of BvS:DoJ, there is far more humour on show here. Miller gets the bulk of the best lines although Momoa and Affleck trade a few zingers. While I don't agree that a lighter tone was necessary (tone wasn't the reason BvS:DoJ sucked), it works well.

Similarly, criticism also may be responsible for a mini sub-plot involving a family holed up in the vicinity of Steppenwolf's base. While most likely a direct response to the impersonal carnage of Man Of Steel, it doesn't work and feels completely tacked on. It doesn't give the audience a real sense of the danger the world is confronting.

Likewise, dialogue in the early stages of the film tell us the world has fallen into disarray since the death of a certain someone in BvS:DoJ. But we barely see this disarray. In fact, all we see is one angry man who knocks over a fruit cart (if I remember correctly), and one bizarre terrorist plot. It's hardly WWIII or one minute to midnight on the Doomsday Clock.

This underselling of the film's central idea sets the film up to fail. It also proves to be ultimately irrelevant because the film's threat is not from earth. These is no shortage of these kind of plotting mis-steps.

But where things really fall down is in the storytelling and structuring. The efforts of introducing new characters, existing characters' motivations, and the intricacies of plot (with its triple MacGuffin) is almost too much for the first half of the film. The film struggles to get any real momentum going as Batman and Wonder Woman try to put their team together, while slotting in some action set pieces, and detailing who and what the Big Bad is.

Justice League gets better as it goes on. The characters work together well, the re-emergence of a past character is interesting (for a little while), and the final battle has the giddy thrill of letting us see all these famed superheroes sharing the big screen for the first time and showing off their powers.

The fans will lap this up, but the reality is it's only the fans who will love it. Unlike the all-ages (and critical) love-in that surrounded The Avengers, DC's attempt at a mega-superhero rumble fails to meet the lofty expectations that come with sticking these much-loved characters together for the first time. Justice League struggles under the weight of its own story (and the previous DCEU films) early on and while it's slightly fun, it takes far too long to get any real momentum going. So much of it feels pieced together sloppily, in between the peppering of CG-heavy fight sequences that only sometimes look good.

It's another missed opportunity from DC.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

REWIND REVIEW: The Bicycle Thief (1948)

(PG) ★★★★★

Director: Vittorio De Sica.

Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Gino Saltamerenda, Vittorio Antonucci.

"I know it's got training wheels on it, but I swear it's my bike."
Titles are everything. They get attention and can become a calling card or a catch-cry. But most importantly they sum up the central theme or ideas of a movie.

The title of this film is somewhat disputed. According to Wikipedia, the Italian title Ladri di biciclette "literally translates into English as Bicycle Thieves" but somewhere along the line in the US (and Australia as far as I'm aware) it became known as The Bicycle Thief - singular, not plural.

Below be spoilers! And a trailer that heaps praise upon praise for this hugely acclaimed film!

To me, the latter title is infinitely better and is a contributing factor as to why I think this film is so incredible (and why I'm going to continue calling it The Bicycle Thief). To quote San Francisco film critic Bob Graham, the singular American title is "one of those wonderful titles whose power does not sink in until the film is over". He's right. It's only as the credits roll that you realise the film's name is one of cinema's great misdirections. The audience spends the entire movie curious as to the nature and identity of the titular thief, only to finally understand that he's been in front of us the whole time, and that the film is in fact about one man's downfall from working man to petty criminal. In other words, the film isn't about the initial bicycle theft, but instead how that act creates another bicycle thief. Antonio (Maggiorani) is not the victim of the eponymous character - he is the eponymous character, and we only find this out at the end.

This is what makes The Bicycle Thief such a cunning dissection of life in post-war Italy, where chances are few and life is hard. When we first meet Antonio, he is so doubtful and pessimistic about getting a job that he doesn't even bother lining up with the daily throng of fellow unemployed men. But at the offer of meagre pay for posting advertising bills around town, he comes alive. He and his wife Maria (Carell) pawn their bedsheets in order to get their bicycle back so Antonio can take the job, and things seem to be looking up for the Ricci family.

This is the heartbreak of the film. The bike, which is subsequently stolen, comes to represent opportunity. It is the thin line between success and failure, and between a good man and a bad one. In the end, it is the factor that decides whether Antonio pulls his family up by their bootstraps or pushes him to breaking point and to commit the very crime that leads to his own downfall.

What really sells the devastation and bleakness of The Bicycle Thief's final act is the presence of Antonio's son Bruno (Staiola) throughout the narrative. It's one of the great child performances of all time (Staiola was just seven - watch the video below for the slightly creepy story of how he was cast) as Bruno's innocence and unwavering devotion to his father takes the film to higher levels of pathos. The final scene is even more of a gut-punch thanks to the shots of young Bruno's tearful face as he looks up at his father.

The film is hailed as a great example - if not the pinnacle - of Italian neo-realism, a movement that sprang up in the wake of WWII. This movement, now hailed as the Golden Age of Italian Cinema, comprised films shot on location with non-professional actors and dealt with the real life issues facing a country and a populace ravaged by war. You could even argue that these films reflected a nation struggling to find its moral compass again after its leaders initially sided with the Nazis.

The Bicycle Thief certainly ticks all those Italian neo-realist boxes. Its locations were very real places around Rome. You can still visit them today as many of them remain unchanged, more than 70 years on from filming - if you're so inclined, here is a very thorough and well compiled guide to the locations.

As for the cast, its two key leads - Maggiorani and Staiola - were non-professional actors. Lamberto Maggiorani, who gives a wonderfully well-rounded performance in the lead role, was a factory worker when cast. He tried to continue a career as an actor afterwards, but never again reached the great heights of The Bicycle Thief, occasionally working as a bricklayer to make ends meet between movies. However it's a little bit of a myth that the entire cast were non-actors - a quick perusal of the film's IMDb page finds a few key players had previous film experience. It's heartening to see some went on to solid film careers.

The much-lauded realism of The Bicycle Thief wasn't easy to achieve. Director Vittorio De Sica carefully staged and rehearsed the large crowd scenes, and used up to six cameras to film the action to ensure he captured the non-actors' reactions with a minimal amount of takes so as to keep things fresh. The impressive downpour sequence came courtesy of the Roman fire department. The market sequence featured 40 hired vendors, brought in by De Sica. De Sica may have given us the apex of neo-realism, but he realised that it took great artifice and meticulous planning to make it look like no artifice or planning was involved, and for all its documentary-style qualities, The Bicycle Thief ended up being expensive, running well over budget.

This review by A.O. Scott highlights some of the other factors of neo-realism (although he mistakenly says Staiola was Maggiorani's real-life son):

While Wikipedia claims the film was "viewed with hostility and as portraying Italians in a negative way" upon release, The Bicycle Thief has been racking up the acclaim since day one. It won seven awards at the Italian Silver Ribbon Awards in 1949 (Italy's top film prize) and it was recognised at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland, the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs and the Oscars. The inaugural Sight & Sound critics poll in 1952 called it the best film of all time.

Despite the passage of seven decades, The Bicycle Thief still holds its power. Empire named it #4 in its 2010 list of the 100 best films of world cinema, and as of writing it sits at #99 in the IMDb top 250. But its influence on cinema is its biggest legacy. Martin Scorsese is a fan, Satyajit Ray said the film confirmed his desire to be a director, and it is said to have had an impact on Brian De Palma, Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, the Iranian New Wave, and Sergio Leone, with the latter having a small cameo as one of the many priests seeking shelter from the rainstorm.

But more importantly, the film remains powerful, moving and gripping. It pulls you in and holds you close until its heartbreaking ending, proving that in the right hands, something as simple as a bicycle can be a powerful storytelling tool.

Further reading:

Turner Classic Movies' collection of increasingly great articles on The Bicycle Thief.

Mental Floss' 11 Heart-stealing facts about The Bicycle Thief.

I watched The Bicycle Thief at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):

Marina Abramovic - November 22

Metropolis (featuring a live score by Richard Tankard) - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Murder On The Orient Express (2017)

(M) ★★★½

Director: Kenneth Branagh.

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin.

The moustache's powers included the ability to stop any train within a three kilometre radius.
Movember has its new patron saint - Kenneth Branagh's Hercule Poirot.

(Seriously, you should support Movember.)

But aside from boasting one of the greatest soupstrainers of all time, Branagh has notched up a couple of other achievements with his take on Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express. Firstly, he's pulled together a truly astounding cast that is not only supremely talented but also sure to be invaluable in any game of Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon. And secondly, he's done a great job of boosting the Christie estate's annual earnings.

Oh, and he's done a damned fine job of directing this adaptation of the much-loved 1934 murder-mystery novel, sparking new life into a character long relegated to BBC/ABC telemovies.

Branagh also does an excellent job portraying Belgian super-sleuth Poirot, the famed detective whose powers of deduction border on the magical. Here Poirot applies his extraordinary talents on board the titular train after one of the passengers is killed, leaving about a dozen suspects and more secrets than a teenager's diary.

Murder On The Orient Express is a true ensemble piece. Aside from Branagh, no one stands out above anyone else. Everyone gives a fine performance, from Pfeiffer as a sultry "husband hunter" to Gad as a shifty assistant, from Ridley as a no-nonsense governess to Depp as a "legitimate businessman". The cast is quality through and through.

But it is Branagh, as the star of the show, who truly shines. With his mellifluous Belgian accent, he makes Poirot not only a joy to watch, but he also makes the detective a fallible and interesting man. Meticulous but not perfect, serious but not joyless, precise but not heartless, Branagh's Poirot is a fascinating and entertaining creation.

If there are any flaws to be found here, they are rarely the fault of Branagh or screenwriter Michael Green. The majority of annoyances lie in Christie's original story, which is frustratingly old-school in its delivery. Many of Poirot's deductions are made with information the audience doesn't have, which can be OK once or twice, as one might expect in a modern crime tale, but when it happens again and again it can leave the audience feeling short-changed if they are trying to solve the crime too. Holistically Christie's clues and solution hold together well, but just don't try to play along. Instead, sit back and let Poirot do all the work.

As a director, Branagh has obviously grown comfortable with CGI, having handled FX-heavy projects Thor and Cinderella with aplomb. Here his application of computer wizardry is more subtle but no less necessary, augmenting and creating some beautiful scenery and camera moves for the Express' journey across Europe. If anything, Branagh's camera moves are a little too adventurous - while there are some bravura long takes and some intriguing birds-eye-view shots, there are occasions when you wish Branagh would just relax and keep the camera in one place for longer.

Having said that, the film looks spectacular. The use of 65mm film, mixed with some CG enhancements, makes it sumptuous on the screen. Add in some wonderful production design, and the Orient Express itself becomes as much a character as those played by Depp and co.

While there is no end-credit saying "Hercule Poirot will return in Death On The Nile", it is certainly hinted at in the final scene, and given the franchise-friendly nature of Hollywood these days, should Murder On The Orient Express be a hit, a sequel is likely. If it's as good a journey as this one, then book me a ticket.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Three Summers

(M) ★★★

Director: Ben Elton.

Cast: Rebecca Breeds, Robert Sheehan, Magda Szubanski, Michael Caton, John Waters, Nichola Balestri, Amay Jain, Kelton Pell, Deborah Mailman, Jacqueline McKenzie, Peter Rowsthorn.

"Ok, Reign In Blood in D, one, two, three, four..."
Whether you love or loathe this movie (or are somewhere in between like me), you have to give director Ben Elton credit for nailing at least one thing - folk festivals are a great microcosm for exploring middle-class Australia.

It's the application of this idea that is both the best and worst thing about Three Summers, Elton's first film as director in 17 years. There are just too many subjects that Elton wants to dive into, and too many opportunities for him to go diving. Asylum seekers, social media, the music industry, various Indigenous-related issues, alcoholism, family matters, sexual relationships, and right-wing and left-wing viewpoints all get thrust under Elton's microscope. It's a lot to tackle, a lot to take in, and a lot of it works. But a lot of it doesn't.

Three Summers spreads its story across three years and three runnings of Westifal (should that be Westival?), a fictionalised folk festival set in WA. The two key characters are talented fiddle player Keavy (Breeds) and snooty Irish theremin prodigy Roland (Sheehan), but around them bubble an eclectic mix of musos, punters and assorted festival regulars.

Elton's film is very much like a music festival. Some acts you'll want to see and they'll be great, but there are also bound to be a lot of acts you don't care about or that aren't very good.

What works is the subplot centring on Caton's grumpy Morris dancer, who is used to explore conservative right-wing ideas about Aboriginals and refugees. It's all done very broadly and simply, but it's effective, and Caton is excellent in a role that ends up being the heart of the film. The cast that bubble around his story (Nichola Balestri, Amay Jain, Kelton Pell) are also good, but more importantly their characters and stories are also interesting. Relationships between mothers and daughters, Indigenous elders and wayward teens, and refugee children and adopted parents are all examined, as are white and black interactions, and it's this part of the story that is the strongest.

The main thread involving Keavy and Roland is by turns fascinating and frustrating. Breeds and Sheehan do well, but the plotting gets progressively ludicrous and unrealistic as the film progresses. Summer #1 is great, but by summer #3 it's pushing the bounds of believability. Similarly, the relationship between Keavy and her dad (Waters) stretches credulity by the third Westifal.

Elton manages to blend his stories well (although it would have been nice for more characters to interact and more plot streams to cross) and keeps things moving at a nice pace. A potentially frustrating thread involving two couples who never bother to see any music is at least funny and breaks up the film nicely, even if it adds nothing to the greater themes.

Elton is also pretty good at blending the realistic and heartfelt with the slightly absurd, but it's when the story wanders off into patently unbelievable that the film suffers. For example, an overzealous security guard is played for absurd laughs and it's no problem when sat alongside the important issues of how white Australia interacts with black Australia. But a declaration of love between two warring characters who see each other for three days once a year comes off as ridiculous. Ditto for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that seems to take place at the festival for reasons that can't be explained beyond plot convenience.

The cast is certainly not an issue in Three Summers. Along with the aforementioned Caton, Breeds and Sheehan, Waters is a stand-out in probably the film's most interesting and well written character. Szubanski is great as the bubbly community radio presenter, although her role feels underused.

When Three Summers works, it's funny, heartfelt, intelligent and incisive. When it doesn't, it's frustrating, silly, overly simplistic and underwritten. Thankfully it works more often than it doesn't, but Three Summers' ambition is failed by its delivery.

PS. One thing that really bothers me in movies is when actors pretend to play instruments and it's quite obvious they're not really playing their instrument. Be prepared for a lot of that in Three Summers.