Sunday, January 4, 2015

December 2014 Film Wrap-Up

An Honest Liar (Tyler Measom & Justin Weinstein, 2014) = 3.5/5

"Magicians are the most honest people in the world; they tell you they're gonna fool you, and then they do it."

These words are spoken by James Randi early on in An Honest Liar, and they form the conceit of this documentary about the magician-cum-scientific sceptic’s storied life. The 86-year-old Randi regaled Thinkers following a screening of the film at the Metro Theatre last month, and he was nothing but candid on the night. But the documentary sheds a more scrutinising light on Randi’s professional and personal life. Through the medium of film, we are reminded that the mise-en-scène of a particular movie (even a documentary) is merely a director’s subjective interpretation of a given subject. Cuts, dissolves, and wipes are all a form of trickery. Filmmaking is fundamentally an act of tomfoolery, and An Honest Liar is in itself one elaborate, honest lie.

You can read my full review here.

Wet Hot American Summer (David Wain, 2001) = 3.5/5

Unabashed madness from start to finish. Boosted by a likeable cast, many of whom would go on to bigger, greater things. Crude without being nasty.

Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994) = 1/5

It's not offensive, just sugar poured on Froot Loops, or pop-up ads on MySpace. An ugly mess. I couldn't wait for those end credits to roll.

Bad Words (Jaon Bateman, 2013) = 3.5/5

I just had to watch this because I'm a spelling geek and I'll watch anything where a spelling bee is the focal plot point. (Akeelah and the Bee, anyone?) It's crass and a bit predictable, but Bateman owns his role as the foul-mouthed protagonist. 

The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014) = 4/5

An unsettling film cloaked in a brooding atmosphere. The polished production undercuts some of the scares, but this is the calibre of cinema Australia needs to be churning out on a regular basis if the local industry is to be taken seriously.

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Dwight H. Little, 1988) = 3/5

If you can disregard the laughable mask worn by Myers (see above), you'll notice this movie tries harder than the third sequel in a horror franchise is expected to. I was often impressed by the cinematography, and the ending is unabashedly morbid.

Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011) = 4.5/5

Pulses with a raw, cathartic resonance. In turns a sexy and tragic meditation on power dynamics. Fassbender is phenomenal.

This was my second viewing and my rating has dropped by half a star. Nonetheless, this is still one of the best films of the post-2000 era.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (Chris Columbus, 1992) = 5/5

Look, I'm not even gonna list the reasons this film gets 5 stars from me, because I've mentioned them before on this blog. Just do a search for Home Alone 2

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky, 2012) = 4.5/5

There are certain movies you watch at pivotal moments in your life that shape your outlook on the future and perhaps even change you as a human being. I imagine The Perks of Being a Wallflowerwill be that type of film for many adolescents (and maybe some adults) around the world. Over the years, Hollywood has bombarded us with countless movies about teenage lives. Some have worked, but plenty have dismally failed due to lazy writing and threadbare characters. Perks is very well-written, and the characters are almost painfully authentic. Chbosky achieves the sincerity that John Hughes mastered in the 1980s. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that Chbosky adapted his own novel. He has had a relationship with these characters ever since he concocted them for the page. With full creative control and nurturing hands, he has successfully transitioned them to the screen. 

You can read my full review here.

Metropolitan (Whit Stillman, 1990) = 4/5

Its characters are pretentious, but writer/director Stillman knows this and makes us care for them. Underneath the biting witticisms and banal dissections of essays lie the same anxieties harboured by people not lucky enough to be born into their elite circle. A forgotten gem.

A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, 2006) = 3.5/5

An ethereal visual style and convoluted plot make it difficult to follow, but it's fiercely original with engaging characters. It's the type of film that is made to be seen more than once.

Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943) = 4.5/5

It's enshrouded in an unsettling atmosphere of foreboding, and it's absorbing from start to finish thanks to a sense of moral ambiguity and some well-crafted, enthralling characters. Hitchcock suggests that, even when the most threatening danger presents itself, the desire to maintain order may hold sway over the desire to rebel, and this can be extremely detrimental.

In Summary - The Must-See Films (4.5 or 5 Stars)
* Shame
* Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
* The Perks of Being a Wallflower 
* Shadow of a Doubt

Review: An Honest Liar (2014)

Directors: Tyler Measom & Justin Weinstein 
Writers: Tyler Measom, Justin Weinstein, Greg O'Toole
Stars: James Randi, Deyvi Peña, Banachek

“Magicians are the most honest people in the world; they tell you they're gonna fool you, and then they do it.” 

These words are spoken by James Randi early on in An Honest Liar, and they form the conceit of this documentary about the magician-cum-scientific sceptic’s storied life. The 86-year-old Randi regaled Thinkers following a screening of the film at the Metro Theatre last month, and he was nothing but candid on the night. But the documentary sheds a more scrutinising light on Randi’s professional and personal life. Through the medium of film, we are reminded that the mise-en-scène of a particular movie (even a documentary) is merely a director’s subjective interpretation of a given subject. Cuts, dissolves, and wipes are all a form of trickery. Filmmaking is fundamentally an act of tomfoolery, and An Honest Liar is in itself one elaborate, honest lie.    

Any magician can pull a rabbit out of a hat, but James Randi is not just any magician. Inspired in great part by Harry Houdini, Randi dedicated his early years to feats of escapology. Reckless stunts such as dangling upside down in a straitjacket above Niagara Falls were all part and parcel of the gig. But the human body can only withstand so much, and so Randi would retire as an escape artist and see the industry of deception through a more critical lens. Randi accepts that many people in the world are mentally vulnerable and can easily be swindled by those with a grand public persona, and he considers this a breach of morality. Throughout the film, we are introduced to the cunning tricksters whom Randi has debunked over the years, and we learn how Randi sullied their reputations. The archival footage of Randi stripping Uri Geller’s spoon-bending antics of any “psychic” phenomena is riveting to watch. There are also intense scenes of self-proclaimed faith healer Peter Popoff “exorcising” illnesses from his afflicted followers, which call to mind another documentary in Jesus Camp. These scenes are genuinely disturbing and entrench Randi as a true altruist who doesn’t do what he does for the accolades, but rather to uphold the faculty of reason and the virtue of honesty.

Of course, the film is more than a highlight reel showcasing Randi’s impressive bag of tricks. We are invited to pry into Randi’s personal life, with a fair portion of the film devoted to the 25-year relationship between Randi and José Alvarez. While it’s essential this dimension of the great sceptic’s life is given screen-time, directors Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein fail to exercise any sleight-of-hand in their revelation of the climactic twist, and the irony of a renowned illusionist being the accomplice to a major ruse with legal implications comes off as heavy-handed. The very idea of including a twist in a documentary film is artistically dubious, as it hints at a desire to fictionalise reality. In a film that grapples with notions of truth, fantasy, and whether seeing is believing, it’s no surprise the filmmakers would be tempted to meddle with real-life narratives in such a manner.

Apart from this misstep, An Honest Liar is a mostly engaging celebration of James Randi which champions the pursuit of knowledge, scientific empiricism, and not bullshitting your fellow citizens. If you support any of these things, you should make an effort to see it. Honestly...would I lie to you?

3.5/5 stars.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

November 2014 Film Wrap-Up

Theorem (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968) = 4/5

In a film where characters seldom speak, the glorious images take precedence. Every frame seems to be bathed in rich golden hues. Mysterious, sensual, and rich in symbolism. Perhaps the epitome of arthouse cinema.

Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986) = 3.5/5

A boy is toughened into a man through the grisly sights of warfare. Well-acted but it just didn't move me like I expected it to. Maybe I just subconsciously compare every war film to Apocalypse Now and end up disappointed as a result.

Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998) = 3.5/5

It would've impacted me more if I'd seen it before the American remake and the countless parodies, but it's still creepy and well-paced. It cares less about cheap jump scares and more about earning our empathy through frightening situations where characters lose their human agency, and that's what the best supernatural horrors should do.

Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987) = 4/5

A life-affirming film suffused with transient images and words that effortlessly move you. It will remind you why you get out of bed in the morning. It's a subtle crowd-pleaser that doesn't announce itself with pomp and grandeur, but instead creeps up on you when you least expect it.

Young & Beautiful (François Ozon, 2013) = 3/5

This dissection of the politics of sex and love is rather stylish and competent as a piece of filmmaking. However, there's nothing here that advances Ozon's oeuvre. It's the same uneasy combination of playfulness and safety that's frustrated me in his previous films (although I did enjoy 'In the House' quite a bit). It's arthouse melodrama that spoonfeeds the audience every inciting incident they see coming, while presenting them with ambiguous scenes that feel like planted devices rather than organic changes of pace.

The Trip to Italy (Michael Winterbottom, 2014) = 4/5

Coogan and Brydon are riotously funny raconteurs in this second outing of great conversation, food, and scenery. As with the first Trip, the laughs are deftly balanced with melancholic truisms. This dapper duo has struck a winning formula. I look forward to any other Trips they may have on their itinerary.

Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952) = 4/5

I finally decided to delve into the filmography of Akira Kurosawa. Until now, I hadn't seen a single one of his films. I won't lie. I was expecting more from Ikiru based on its stellar reputation. I guess I was surprised at how simple the story was. Nonetheless, there is plenty to admire here.

It's a meditation on how finality can summon vitality. Quietly moving, featuring a brilliant central performance by Takashi Shimura.

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2012) = 3/5

Transcendentally gorgeous images do not fully atone for wooden characters and a threadbare script. Malick's treatment of religious/divine themes is too heavy-handed.

Escape from Tomorrow (Randy Moore, 2013) = 3.5/5

The work of a filmmaker going for broke, unshackled by convention. Unclassifiable by nature, but think ERASERHEAD shot in Disneyland. This nihilistic satire also functions as a piece of catharsis, with Moore expunging his sullied childhood memories of days at Walt Disney World with his irresponsible father. While I mostly approve of the film's oddness, the third act was too abstract and farcical for my liking. File under "something different" in your watchlist.

Horrible Bosses 2 (Sean Anders, 2014) = 3/5

The laughs are sporadic, and depend more on comedic timing and chemistry than genuinely well-crafted gags. It's a sequel no-one asked for. Just don't take it too seriously and you should have at least some fun with it. 

Polyester (John Waters, 1981) = 2/5

The oddball characters and preposterous plot exude no charm, only serving to bore and confound. The movie is firmly rooted in the early 80s and a lot of the humour just doesn't resonate to a first-time viewer in 2014. I feel as though Waters conceived of the Odorama gimmick before he had any vague idea of the narrative. Odorama was not an appendage of the film; the film was an appendage of Odorama. I'm really disappointed by this film, seeing as I loved Pink Flamingos, the only other Waters film I've seen.

Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983) = 3.5/5

Gory and downright bizarre. A visceral work of body horror that suggests we are what we view. Subversive for its time. Cronenberg deserves praise for the originality of his premise.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

October 2014 Film Wrap-Up

Don't Drink the Water (Woody Allen, 1994) = 3.5/5

Surprisingly, it's one of Allen's funniest works. This made-for-TV movie was made in a hit-and-miss period of Allen's career, yet the humour is reminiscent of Allen's early, farcical films. It works because Allen does not awkwardly strive for earnestness. It's pure chaotic fun. It didn't take long for the characters to grow on me.

Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013) = 3.5/5

The heavy subject matter does not drag this film into morose territory. Its disposition is always as sunny as the scene depicted on its poster. Scenes of quiet domesticity are interspersed with moments of raw emotion. It's a solid, character-driven work that may not be as provocative as other films about youth in crisis, but it's this subtlety that wins us over. Brie Larson is great and I can't wait to see her in more things.

Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014) = 4.5/5

A haunting film about the intricacies of marriage, emotional entrapment, and infidelity. This is moody and ceaselessly absorbing filmmaking. I've always thought that, of all my favourite directors, Fincher is the one who least adheres to the auteur theory. However, with each new film, a distinctive style is beginning to come to the fore. It's best to go into this blind.

Melinda and Melinda (Woody Allen, 2004) = 3/5

The dialogue is sharp and flows effortlessly, but the direction is just too loose. A film without a backbone. I once again found myself thinking, "Why in the world does Will Ferrell NOT do more serious (or semi-serious) roles?"

Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh, 1996) = 3.5/5

Overlong and maybe even overacted, but there's no denying the honest script and the intimacy we feel with the characters as their lives unspool. I'm just waiting to see another Mike Leigh film that moves me the way Naked did. 

The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976) = 4/5

Its strangeness is emotionally jarring at times, but this gorgeously shot film is nightmarishly vivid. It may not be as frightening as Polanski's two other "Apartment Trilogy" films—REPULSION and ROSEMARY'S BABY. But what it lacks in scares, it makes up for with slow-burning suspense.

Stoker (Park Chan-wook, 2013) = 3.5/5

A mysterious psychosexual thriller that feels like a romp through the pages of a macabre storybook. The film falters slightly due to a discord between narrative exposition and aesthetic abstractness during the third act. I was lulled into a dreamy atmosphere, but abruptly shaken out of it when the great plot reveal was unveiled.

That Cold Day in the Park (Robert Altman, 1969) = 3.5/5

Beyond its amateurish direction and implausible plot, this early Altman film impressed me with its calculated suspense and enigmatic characters. I really wish I had the privilege of viewing the Region A Blu-ray; alas, I had to endure a very average DVD release.

Grey Gardens (Albert & David Maysles, 1975) = 3.5/5

A fly (or is that flea?)-on-the-wall doco that finds the beauty in dysfunction and dilapidation. Some scenes languished to the point of tedium (far too many scenes devoted to Big Edie singing). But you've got to commend the Maysles brothers for not suffusing the film with their subjective opinions. It adds to the feeling that the Beales are welcoming you into their home, and not that two directors are giving you a tour of another family's home.

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010) = 3/5

A riddle within an enigma that is visually impeccable and atmospheric, but emotionally opaque. Relies too heavily on its twist.

River's Edge (Tim Hunter, 1986) = 4/5

A criminally underrated/underseen (I blame its generic poster) film that dissects the mythic quality of machismo, the polarising effect of tragedy, and the consequences of parental neglect. Frederick Elmes' homely cinematography immerses us in this bizarre town that's teeming with misfit characters. It fascinates in the same way as Picnic at Hanging Rock or The Virgin Suicides, where one shocking incident garners an air of melancholic ambiguity and serves to uproot a group of youths from their idle, carefree existences. Please endeavour to check this one out!

Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980) = 2.5/5

A repugnant piece of ethnographic exploitation cinema about the redundancy of the xenophobic mindset. You can look at other cultures and condemn them for their supposedly "primitive" practices, but you must realise they are only that way because such rituals are ingrained in their culture, and you would be behaving like them if you didn't have the privilege of being born into a convenient Western lifestyle. No humans were harmed in the making of the film; however, the animal killings are legitimate and these scenes make for the most uncomfortable parts of Cannibal Holocaust. I'll never look at a turtle in the same way again.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (Jonathan Levine, 2006) = 2/5

Its aesthetic sensibilities echo B-grade horrors of the 70s/80s, and that's where my praise for this film ends. The longer this film went on, the more I found myself consumed by apathy. Sloppy editing, an abundance of clichés, and bland characters drag this film into forgettable territory. I'm not sure how Jonathan Levine walked away from this project and churned out two brilliant films in The Wackness and 50/50, but I'm totally okay with the prospect of him never directing horror again. Warm, human stories are his specialty, not people getting hacked to bits.

Zazie dans le métro (Louis Malle, 1960) = 3.5/5

Imagine Amélie Poulain as a child, and you have Zazie dans le métro. Sheer pandemonium from start to finish. Dazzling colours saturate this playful film that was ahead of its time. Eventually, the action unfolds at a pace that is way too quick to keep up with, and we concede defeat to Malle's technical mastery and just enjoy the visual splendour of the sprawling urban playground he has created. 

Dark Horse (Todd Solondz, 2011) = 3.5/5

Genuinely touching tragicomedy that hits many raw nerves. It forced me to look my insecurities dead in the eye. I was a bit disappointed by the abrupt, ambiguous ending, but everything that comes before well and truly atones for it. Solondz's best film since HAPPINESS.

Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, 2013) = 3/5

Imagine you're watching a movie one night when something in the frame catches your eye. You notice one of the characters (essentially an extra) looks exactly like you. This is what happens to Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Enemy. When Adam endeavours to track down his doppelganger, he runs into all sorts of complications. The film's Hitchcockian premise fails to materialise as a taut thriller, but Enemy is a real head-scratcher of a mystery. The last film I saw with an ending that shocked me so intensely was Sleepaway Camp. 

In Summary - The Must-See Films (4.5 or 5 Stars)
* Gone Girl

Saturday, October 4, 2014

September 2014 Film Wrap-Up

Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013) = 3.5/5

I generally love when drama films are given the 180-minute treatment. Think Magnolia or Fanny and Alexander. It's a gutsy move, because there are seldom any flashy battle sequences, exhilarating car chases, or other miscellaneous CGI hijinks to pad the generous runtime. You're relying on the strength of your performers and the ingenuity of your screenplay. Characters' neuroses are laid bare for scrutiny as an audience is invited into their minds. I expected to be floored by Blue is the Warmest Color. While the film is by no means a failure, it wasn't imbued with the emotional gravitas I was expecting. Kechiche languishes over the minutiae of day-to-day life but his innumerable close-ups didn't serve to immerse me in the film's central relationship. On a positive note, the performances are fantastic and the cinematography is sumptuous. I also admired the film's rebuke of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.

The Immortalists (David Alvarado & Jason Sussberg, 2014) = 3.5/5

An oddly touching doco about two men who believe they can "cure" mortality. On the surface, it is easy to dismiss this as pseudo-scientific fluff, but this is actually a balanced film that gave me some hope that my death phobia may one day be redundant. While all the theory about the science of ageing is fascinating, this documentary's accessibility is largely helped by the two eccentric men at the helm of this anti-death crusade—Bill Andrews and Aubrey de Grey.  

Puberty Blues (Bruce Beresford, 1981) = 2.5/5

While it serves its function as a time capsule for 1970s Sydney, the film treads water and plays things too safe. I'm so glad this was adapted into a TV series (which is quite good), because these characters and scenarios REALLY needed some fleshing out. The measly 87-minute runtime just isn't enough for something memorable to transpire.

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013) = 4/5

The film is a tactile experience. Moments of immersion and intimacy contrast with scenes of detachment and isolation. I watched this at home in a 3D Blu-ray format, and while I did consider it a spectacular visual experience, I think I made a mistake by not seeing this on an IMAX screen.

Shoeshine (Vittorio De Sica, 1946) = 4.5/5

A heartbreaking film about the corruption of youth who so desperately wish to do the right thing. Ahead of its time. 

Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) = 4.5/5

The film ushered in the New Hollywood movement. It is an exhilarating ride, propelled by a memorable screen duo. Dunaway is smoulderingly sexy, while Beatty exudes classic everyman charm, even if we're supposed to root against him. Also, wow...what an ending!

Alice (Woody Allen, 1990) = 3.5/5

Not as funny as some of Allen's other comedies, but it's a competent blend of whimsical romantic drama and fantasy. Carlo Di Palma's gorgeous cinematography really stands out here.

Au Revoir Les Enfants (Louis Malle, 1987) = 4.5/5

Wisely, the film does not shock us with brutality. Its horror is subtle; its tragedy quiet yet devastating. An icy colour palette is not the only thing that chills us to the bone.

Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999) = 4/5

A macabre revenge story with an atmosphere so grim and seedy it feels like you've fallen into a bottomless ashtray.

The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013) = 3.5/5

We spend more time ruminating than basking in the film's aura, and I feel that detracts from the overall viewing experience. Nonetheless, this is a visually engaging existential nightmare that entrenches Richard Ayoade as one of the most refreshing voices in cinema today. I had a lot of fun noticing all the nods to Submarine.

Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1991) = 4.5/5

Through Linklater's lens, the mundane becomes endlessly watchable. This is an example of perfect casting. The actors nail their roles with nuance. I could've stayed in this bizarre microcosm for at least another hour. "Style over substance" is a phrase often used to belittle a director's work. I think Richard Linklater serves as the antithesis to that. He is substance over style, and I mean that as a major compliment.

Down By Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986) = 3/5

It's original, and Jarmusch makes great use of locations. Alas, nothing compelled me to emotionally invest in the story. Personality-wise, I have nothing in common with the three focal characters, nor can I relate to their situation. I daresay the characters even felt archetypal—my "original" compliment was in relation to the film's subversion of traditional prison flick formula.

September (Woody Allen, 1987) = 2/5

You've got problems when an 82-minute film drags. One of Allen's most uninspired efforts. Allen has said he intended for this to be "a play on film." Why didn't he just write a goddamn play? For completists only.

The Backyard (Paul Hough, 2002) = 3/5

This doco may be illuminating and shocking to the uninitiated, but for past and current wrestling fans, there's little here that you haven't already seen on a late-night YouTube binge. Would have been a much more interesting movie if the subjects had more enlightening views about their "sport" than the generic "It hurts but we love it" spiel, but I guess backyard wrestling doesn't attract a lot of educated people.

Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977) = 3.5/5

A masterclass in editing. A brutal, mud-washed journey of epic proportions where a sense of impending doom clings to the air like dirt to a sweat-soaked shirt. I just wish it had gripped me more, emotionally. The characters felt too identical to one another, and the early vignettes felt a bit unnecessary and displaced.

In Summary - The Must-See Films (4.5 or 5 Stars)
* Shoeshine
* Bonnie and Clyde
* Au Revoir Les Enfants
* Slacker