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Tuesday, 15 October 2019

REWIND REVIEW: Isle Of Dogs

(PG) ★★★★

Director: Wes Anderson.

Cast: (voices of) Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Liev Schreiber, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Courtney B. Vance.

They hadn't seen a tennis ball like it since the last time someone had held up a tennis ball.
When Wes Anderson announced he was making an adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved children's book Fantastic Mr Fox using stop-motion animation, it seemed ridiculous in the extreme. Sure, there were some animated shots using the old-school technique in The Life Aquatic, but nothing in his back catalogue of offbeat comedies hinted at a full-blown animated family film.

In hindsight it still doesn't make sense. But it's one of his best and most complete movies. And without it, we wouldn't have Isle Of Dogs, his second film to be made using the jerky animation technique pioneered by the likes of Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen.

Isle Of Dogs is rife with Anderson's droll humour and cinematic symmetry, as well as his bizarre subject matter. It's easy to compare it to Fantastic Mr Fox because of its delivery, but its intricate plotting is more like the elaborate The Grand Budapest Hotel, though less successful. Still, it's unmissable for Anderson fans (who have probably already seen it by now, but, whatever).

It's the story of a boy named Atari (Rankin), who heads to the titular island is search of his dog Spots (Schreiber). Like all canines in a futuristic Japan, Spots has been exiled to the isle, ostensibly as a way to deal with several rampant doggy diseases.

But conspiracies are afoot, and while Atari and a band of brave dogs cross the isle in search of Spots, plucky exchange student Tracy (Gerwig) is back on the mainland unravelling bizarre webs of political intrigue that could spell the end of caninekind.


The bonkers plot, as enjoyably nuts as it is, is unnecessarily complicating. The film is better paced and has more heart and fun when it sticks with Atari and his posse of pooches (voiced by Cranston, Murray, Balaban, Goldblum and Norton) on the island. Their personalities and the deadpan deliveries are more than enough to carry the film. Plus with a voice cast like that, why would you want to spend screentime elsewhere?

The B-plot with the exchange student does ratchet up the climax of the film, but at the expense of dragging down other sections. Still, Anderson's unique voice and comedic touch carries it through the lesser moments.

Isle Of Dogs is admirable for being Anderson's most adventurous endeavour and it succeeds largely on his sheer force of will. It shouldn't be as humourous or engaging or as empathetic as it is, even though it's essentially a boy-and-dog movie. It's a very, very strange boy-and-dog movie, filled with Anderson's passion for weird shots, strange zooms, and odd story beats, as well as combining multiple animation styles. Yet it works, in a way only Wes Anderson can make such things work.

Alexandre Desplat's score is great if overbearing in places, the voice cast is excellent, and the production design is remarkable. The models themselves are incredible, but the worlds created here - in particular the various areas of the island - are detailed and visually stunning, begging for repeat viewings.

Isle Of Dogs is messy but extremely enjoyable. In anyone else's filmography it would be a standout, but Anderson has so many great films that push this toward the middle or even lower half of the pack. Still, it's sheer inventiveness and willingness to be different is admirable, and make it a vital entry into his increasingly weird oeuvre.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Hustlers

(MA15+) ★★★★

Director: Lorene Scafaria.

Cast: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Mercedes Ruehl, Trace Lysette, Wai Ching Ho, Madeline Brewer, Steven Boyer, Cardi B.

One of these women is seconds away from a cork-related injury.
Recent film The Kitchen promised us a high quality street-level crime drama with a strong female cast and a sprinkling of laughs. It did not deliver.

Thankfully, we have Hustlers to fill the void The Kitchen couldn't. It's a refreshing take on the crime drama due to its fascinating fact-based material, but it still follows the tried-and-true rise-and-fall beats of the genre. It's like Goodfellas, but with strippers. Goodstrippers?

The real secret to Hustlers' success is the female friendship at its heart. Yes, it's great fun watching skeezy Wall Street wankers get their comeuppance at the hands of women struggling to make ends meet, but it's the feeling of camaraderie and family among its key characters which wins the day.

Based on Jessica Pressler's 2015 article for The Cut, it follows an exotic dancer named Dorothy AKA Destiny (Wu). She befriends more experienced fellow dancer Ramona (Lopez), and when their club falls on hard times due to the Global Financial Crisis, they take a more direct route to getting money out of the white-collar sleazebags who used to frequent the club - drug 'em and rob 'em. What could possibly go wrong?


Much has been made of Lopez's performance here, and for good reason. Ramona is by far the most interesting character and Lopez rolls through her highs and lows, through the dirt and the glitter, effortlessly and convincingly. It's her best performance since Out Of Sight, and a reminder of her talent as an actor.

She's the standout in a strong cast. Relative newcomer Reinhart gives a breakthrough performance, while Wu, in the lead role, is the right mix of strong and naive, handling the drama and comedy with equal ease.

Best of all is the way Wu and Lopez work together. Their big sister-little sister (or is that mother/daughter?) dynamic is the river that flows through the film. Yes, it's a crime drama with a hint of GFC-sprung angst and a lashing of patriarchy blowback, but really it's a story about the sororal relationship between two strong women trying to find their way.

(And if you're one of those fuckheads on Twitter/Reddit/YouTube comments whining the movie "glorifies" abusing men, go and see the actual film, you dipshit. The women are targeting sleazy Wall Street wankers - you're rooting for shit men. It's like whining about the ethics of Robin Hood - I don't hear you bitching about the one hundred seventy million films that show the Sheriff of Nottingham getting ripped off. In fact, when the hustlers in Hustlers target someone who isn't a shitty stock exchange arsehole, there are serious repercussions. That's one of the points of the film. So, back in your basement, incel.)

Hustlers is surprisingly fun for a long amount of time, prolonging the tension of the inevitable fall. An occasionally awkward framing device involving Stiles' reporter quizzing Dorothy/Destiny about her involvement with the hustlers helps to keep the story moving forward, as much as it also stops the flow from time to time. There's a sense that this time-jumping plot device could have been handled better, but it's also obvious the film might have dragged without it.

Scafaria's direction is on point. The stripping scenes aren't gratuitous, the drug-'em-and-rob-'em scenes are suitably woozy, and there are a couple of really nice shots in the mix. The way it all fits with the music and the production design is nice.

It feels like we're on the cusp of a truly great era of lady-led storytelling. Hustlers fits in with this vibe, but it's also a fun crime caper with an interesting and fresh twist. Regardless of gender politics, Hustlers is an enjoyable film featuring heart and humour.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

GIG REVIEW: The Flaming Lips - Hamer Hall, Melbourne, October 3, 2019

The Flaming Lips play The Soft Bulletin
Hamer Hall, Melbourne
October 3, 2019


The Soft Bulletin saved The Flaming Lips.

Six years on from the "only in the '90s" success of She Don't Use Jelly, the band was at risk of following their heroes The Butthole Surfers into cult-worship-only oblivion. Their follow-ups to the Jelly-producing album Transmissions From The Satellite Heart (the Due To High Expectations... EP and the under-rated Clouds Taste Metallic) failed to do anything other than confirm them as a weird one-hit wonder band.

When they approached their long-time label Warner about doing their four-CDs-play-at-once experiment Zaireeka, Warner agreed, but with a condition - the US$200,000 advance had to produce both Zaireeka AND a serious/proper/not-weird album.

The serious/proper/not-weird album is The Soft Bulletin, which is generally regarded as their greatest work alongside its follow-up Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. Bulletin gave them hitherto-absent critical acclaim, and boosted their popularity in a more manageable and less fly-by-night way than Jelly. Here was, finally, the high regard, recognition and understanding The Flaming Lips had craved.


The success of The Soft Bulletin was on full display at Hamer Hall, right from the get-go. While their trademark stage antics were dialled down a little (Wayne Coyne didn't crowd-surf in a plastic bubble), Race For The Prize kicked off amid a flurry of confetti cannons and giant balloons.

From there, the seven-piece line-up (including two drummers) reproduced their 1999 album with pleasantly loose accuracy. The "heavy" portion of A Spoonful Weighs A Ton hit harder than ever, Buggin' was delivered in its original "minimal percussion" iteration as opposed to the Mokran Mix single version, and Waitin' For A Superman became a beautiful duet between Steve Drozd on piano and Coyne on vocals.

The Flaming Lips Setlist Hamer Hall, The Arts Centre, Melbourne, Australia 2019, Perform Their Masterpiece Album The Soft Bulletin

However if you went to this show (or the others on the tour) expecting to glean some new information or insight into the album, you'll be sadly disappointed. Coyne spent every spare second between songs working as a hype man; revving up the crowd and imploring us to cheer the band harder, especially through the lighter, more haunting tunes.

It began to grate, especially when you consider how many of these songs of a more ethereal nature exist on The Soft Bulletin. Few tunes in the Lips catalogue (or anyone's for that matter) can rival Waitin' For A Superman, What Is The Light? and Feeling Yourself Disintegrate for transcendental beauty. But surely I'm not the only one who'd like to bask in the magical weightlessness of these melodies without being told to woo-hoo louder.

It's a minor gripe really - it's the only thing to criticise in an otherwise splendid evening. Throw in the likes of Yoshimi and Do You Realize?? in the encore, and you realise how cosmically positive and pretty the Lips were during their glorious double shot of Bulletin and Yoshimi. Their ability to deliver on that line from Do You Realize?? - "do you realize that happiness makes you cry?" - is second to none. This particularly came to a head when they paid tribute to the late Daniel Johnston by playing True Love Will Find You In The End. It was beautiful, sad, poignant, uplifting and sincere.

And that's what The Flaming Lips are all about. 

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Joker

(MA15+) ★★★★★

Director: Todd Phillips.

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Marc Maron.

Rocky's new look left something to be desired.
Here it is: the Taxi Driver of comic book movies.

The cinematic superhero era shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, the material it is yielding is mutating in new and exciting ways - from the cutting edge animation of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse to the meta-as-fuck Deadpool, from the grrrl power of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel to the grown-up grit of Logan.

But we haven't seen anything like this. Aside from the obvious villain-as-anti-hero focus, Joker is something new and fresh for the genre (the less said about Venomthe better). It's political, provocative, extremely violent, defiantly adult, and dares to make us empathise with a one of comic book's greatest psychopaths. Its antecedents are not the latest slick blockbusters from DC or Marvel, but rather the work of Martin Scorsese, who was rumoured to be an executive producer at one point. Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy are the two touchstones here, and even Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange for the way it examines violence in society and gets us sympathising with a killer (the backlash against Joker is also eerily reminiscent of what followed A Clockwork Orange).

In short, this is a million miles away from the franchise-building box-office smashers pumped out by the two big comic book houses.

It's also the best film of the year to date.

This Joker is Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a wannabe stand-up comedian with mental health issues who is struggling to care for his mother (Conroy) and make ends meet in an increasingly hostile world. His attempts to get help for his condition fall on deaf ears, and his hometown of Gotham is a powder keg of unrest. Something is about to snap.


How do you make a villain? That's the question at the heart of Joker and it is a compelling one because the answer it suggests is so unnervingly real and contemporary. Although set in the early '80s, its problems are modern. Support for people with mental health issues is often underfunded, the rich get richer and the poor are powerless, and kindness and civility seem to be in short supply. And, perhaps worst of all, violence is always just a breath away.

All these elements shine through in a script that is not about grown men dressing as bats and fighting crime. Shorn of its heritage, this is about a downtrodden member of society's fringes trying to get by, but who is knocked down, ridiculed and beaten up by the world at large. So when he fights back, lashing out violently, you can't help but be in his corner.

This is the great trick Joker pulls - it gets you to barrack for DC's Crown Prince of Crime. Phoenix brings humanity and frailty to the role, but the way the script sucks you into sympathising with him is seductive, and similar to the journey we undertake with Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. There are also elements of The King Of Comedy's sadly unfunny Rupert Pupkin in Arthur Fleck, and with De Niro starring as a talk-show host, it's hard to ignore the comparisons. The grit of Taxi Driver and other bleak films of the late '60s and '70s (Midnight Cowboy, Mean Streets) shines through in the production design of Gotham and cinematography of Lawrence Sher.

The Joker is beginning to feel like a modern-day equivalent of Macbeth - it's a coveted role that actors dream of playing; of making their own. Phoenix's green-haired monster will inspire debate through the ages: who was better - Phoenix or Ledger? I'll still take Ledger's exciting anarchist, but Phoenix's Joker is more human and less cartoonish.

What is certain is that it is another truly remarkable turn from one of the best actors of this era. In a filmography that already contains Walk The Line, Her, The Master, Gladiator, and Inherent Vice, this is possibly Phoenix's best performance, definitely top three.

Not everyone is going to like Joker. But you can guarantee that people will be talking about this film for a long time to come. It has fascinating things to say, and it says them in a fascinating way. It's shocking and provocative in a way that begs discussion. And when the comic book film "fad" finishes, Joker will be seen as a high-water mark.