• American Sniper

    War films come in all shapes and sizes. And most by definition recall ones that have been made before. It's impossible, for example, to do a war film involving an American training camp without getting major echoes of Full Metal Jacket. But the problem is that's what it's actually like, so either a film is going to be like a previous film, or not be genuine. With Clint Eastwood's latest film, American Sniper, there are a sea of other films that it recalls, and while that may not drown the film in and of itself it just bobs along with the tide waiting to hit land and be over.

    For American Sniper, essentially, is Enemy at the Gates meets The Hurt Locker, as we follow "the most lethal sniper in U.S. history" from wannabe-cowboy to prolific legend of the SEALs going up against a former Olympic champion. Bradley Cooper is charged with anchoring the film and he gives one of his least interesting performances in recent years in the process. Bulking up to play the role, his face here is devoid of expression and the laid back, uncharming character he has to portray doesn't play in to any of his strengths as an actor. Cooper is a compelling presence, but he primarily does manic and frenzied very well. It's easy to see why he would want the challenge of doing something different, but when he is asked to brood away and let the chinks of light through the facade his fleshed-out, bearded face doesn't deliver.

    Bradley Cooper

    The basic journey of enthusiastic, naive and patriotic newcomer to frazzled, disillusioned and damaged veteran is a very familiar one, and framing the dramatic narrative around a mutual hunt between two elite snipers doesn't detract from the generic feel this film has. Enemy at the Gates, at the very least, showed things from both characters' perspectives and that film benefitted from that very much. Here, it's all about Cooper and his story-less nemesis is more of a plot-device than anything to be remotely fascinated by.

    Ulltimately, American Sniper is decidedly undercooked and skated-over at every turn. Cooper's relationship with his wife (Sienna Miller, trying far too hard) is trite and full of gaps, as is his military history which this film is focusing on so much. For a man doing 4 tours you would think he killed people every time he left the base given what this film shows, and the very fact that if he killed 6 people in one go then on average he'd have 5 weeks after that not shooting anyone, that is never looked at. This is really the opposite of Jarhead, where Jake Gyllenhaal's sniper never pulled the trigger. The need to be constantly on your toes and 85% of the time nothing coming of it would add layers to this story that this film has no intention of exploring.

    The result is a film that is very familiar and fairly watchable as a result of that familiarity, but due to that it says nothing new, gives no real insight, overlooks many things, and doesn't really succeed fully in anything that it actually tries to do or achieve.

  • Foxcatcher

    Foxcatcher lives in the silence. The things it tries to say are unsaid. What is shown implies what it's really trying to tell you. The silences, therefore, are important. What two brothers won't say to each other. What a man won't tell his family. How relationships both form and break down. By the time Foxcatcher reaches its melancholic finale the motivations for the behaviour of everyone involved are fully fleshed out and detailed. It's just that along with the silences, the gaps make it as if director Bennett Miller were slowly dragging a tree trunk over snowy ground. The scenery looks nice, but it's a lurching effort.

    With Capote Miller managed to blend a sombre subject matter with lighthearted moments between the characters created, along with some wonderful acting, which made it such a shockingly accomplished debut. Here rather than dealing with the aftermath, in focusing on the buildup the sense of foreboding and unease doesn't resonate. The creepiness of the situation that millionaire philanthropist/benefactor John E. du Pont created in inviting world and Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz to train at a state-of-the-art facility on du Pont's Foxcatcher farm is certainly there, but a fascination with it is lacking.

    Channing Tatum & Steve Carell

    Steve Carell's du Pont is clearly suffering from a personality disorder and watching him repeating the patterns of his past (his only friend as a child was paid to be his friend by his mother, something he repeats here with Schultz) and trying to validate himself (a scene where he takes a pathetic training session in front of his Mom is truly tragic) is all very well and good. Problems arise though in the balance, the tone. Laughter comes in the form of schadenfreude. Due to the skating over of the details, suddenly it's as if this film becomes Behind the Candelabra halfway through with Schultz (as played by Channing Tatum) becoming du Pont's glorified house-boy. It's too big a jump, there's not enough detailing in how an athelete would fall so easily into a drug and drink-fuelled lifestyle, and feels undercooked as a result.

    That feeling of everything not quite being smoothed out in terms of plot is the central paradox at the root of the finished product. The psychology is fully explored but the nuts and bolts of how it all comes about and unravels are not: the result is a film that both drags and feels rushed at the same time. The characters' situation is interesting enough but Miller labours over scenes, inserting silences and eking them out going for eeriness rather than economy, and he relies heavily on the performances to keep the relationships charged and arresting. Tatum is functional and does alright brooding away, but Carell lacks edge despite a committed, consistent turn.

    Ultimately, the star of the show is Mark Ruffalo as Schultz's older brother Dave. The relationship dynamics between him and Mark as presented in the film work well and are interesting. David here is a paternal figure, and one whose achievements help, haunt and drive his younger sibling. Ruffalo pitches his portrayal perfectly, with his balance between his family, brother and employment giving him a range of emotions to show. In doing so he's too on the note and highlights that the others aren't quite in tune with everybody else. The individual aspects are fine seperately, but together it doesn't gel or mesh together to create something genuinely compelling. It's a handsomely shot journey and it does get to where it wanted to go, but in going for the subtext Miller and co. make it a rather choppy ride in the process.

  • Syngué sabour, pierre de patience (The Patience Stone)

    The Patience Stone is set on the front line, in a family home. And that is very much where its central character (an unnamed woman) has found herself for the last decade of her marriage. For her absent husband has barely spent a third of their time together actually living with her, and has been an alienating presence even when he has.

    Yet his current situation - shot in the neck and alive but unresponsive - has created a new dynamic in their relationship. He's still there but not really, presumably as he ever was, but now our woman (played by Goldshifteh Farahani) in the face of guaranteed silence finds the courage to do the one thing she's never dared: talk. In relieving herself of her burdons she treats her husband as a "patience stone", a mythical object that delivers someone from their suffering after hearing their secrets.

    The Patience Stone

    Farahani's voice is a calm, beautiful and beguiling one, and there are worse ways of spending a hundred minutes than listening to her gently unravel. When the more demanding aspects of the part kick in she shows herself to be more than capable and does very well with an unusually demanding role.

    Screen presence is key here, and if nothing else she has that in abundance. She may be pushed a tad too frenzied on occasion, and some of the plotting does feel a touch obvious and forced, far removed from the delicate nature of her performance. The Patience Stone is a compelling, depressing gust of air to the face that is both refreshing and bitter, in equal amounts, but ultimately is worth it for her alone.

  • Hi

    I thought I would have killed this blog via inactivity over the last three months, but apparantly I get more views now than I ever did before. I'm going to try to do more written reviews - I do have some recently that I just never got around to typing up. Anyway I think my days of doing something on every new thing I see are done, it's too time-consuming for me, but I do want to review stuff that's worthy of talking about (which won't necessarily mean I'll only review the stuff I like). Do check out the podcast if you want to hear my thoughts on everything new, but for now I'll see what I can do in my lunchtimes at work.

  • Venezia 70 - Vi är bäst! (We Are the Best!)

    It's taken an entire decade, but with We Are the Best! it appears that Lukas Moodysson has finally come to terms with the fact that it's okay for people to like his films. While everything he's done post-Lilya-4-ever may have been a 10-year exercise in lowering (or obliterating) expectations, here he is very much back in the territory of his beloved debut, Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love).

    The themes (straight from his wife's comic book, which was the source of this film) are very much there; dissatisfied young girls, alienated at school, finding the courage to be - and comfort in being - different, rock music, crap parties, misplaced parents: in short, youth. He has also, predictably, got the very most out of his inexperienced cast. They are three girls who start a punk band in revenge for people being mean to them.

    We Are the Best

    This is not Show Me Love though, it's set-up in a far more comedic way, it's dripping with far greater period and political awareness, and despite the specific setting it feels strangely timeless. Maybe because a deal of the comments and behaviour (like being told punk's dead, or making ridicuous snacks) echo Fucking Åmål, which is set 15 years later. And it shows just how "successful" Moodysson has been at letting his audience know that he can make things awful, average or off-putting that when he returns to the world and feel of his debut it doesn't matter that, while fun, it's not in the same league because you're just so glad he's gone there again.

    There isn't much of an emotional centre here in terms of relationships, but Moodysson very much captures the spirit of his subject. The punk ending is quietly perfect (and very Joy Division) as it resonates with the ethos and purpose of the girls, and remains completely believable and satisfactory. It's entertaining, it's not a masterpiece, but at least he's at peace with this being the former as long as you are with it being the latter. And that's fair enough.

  • Venezia 70 - Tracks

    With the vast, expansive landscapes and a population outnumbered by mutton many times over, stories about walking are very Australian indeed. Tracks is the true story of Robyn Davidson, who embarked on a 1,700 mile journey in the 1970s from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. On foot. With camels. So essentially it's a road movie without too many roads, and plenty of Antipodean wilderness to explore.

    Robyn is played by Mia Wasikowska, and she is the film. And she isn't. Because given that Robyn is in every scene of the film, and for long periods is the only human around (alongside her camel-train and her canine companion) this really should be a performance piece and a showcase for Wasikowska's not inconsiderable talents. And it is. But it isn't.

    Mia Wasikowska

    That's because it's directed by John Curran (who made The Painted Veil midway through the last decade) and he is going to make sure that whatever happens performance-wise his films are going to look stunning and sound gorgeous. Garth Stevenson's score is a real film score: it suits the images and story beautifully rather than concerning itself with how it will sound on an ipod after the fact. And Mandy Walker's cinematography is breathtakingly arresting, capturing the phenomenal scenery with flair and artistry.

    Some of the characterisation is a little spotty, some of the pacing a touch too literal (halfway through the film she'll be halfway through her trip, etc.) and it never really fully immerses itself. It's like standing at the beach watching a woman on a jetty, feeling the waves intermittently lap at your feet. It's a nice sensation, it feels good, but you're always aware you're stood on the beech watching that woman and feeling the water wash over your toes. It never washes over you fully, but it is certainly a worthwhile experience. Wasikowska has been better before, but anchors the film with a quietly fierce dignity and determination. It's Curran's film though and it's such a treat for the senses, and has such a satisfying conclusion that its flaws are fairly forgivable.

  • Venezia 70 - Jigoku de naze warui

    About an hour and a bit in to Why Don't You Play in Hell? (Jigoku de naze warui) one character mentions that something has come out of nowhere. And there is nothing remotely surprising about the turn of events that have just taken place, so the natural thought is "nowhere? It's been on the cards for at least half an hour!" Up until that point the film has been a reference-fest with gentle nods to and reminiscences of everything from Cinema Paradiso to Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. When the multiple strands finally come together director Shion Sono launches into a completely unabashed Quentin Tarantino homage, which ushers in a truly riotous third act.

    Why Don't You Play In Hell?

    That there is half an hour or so of fantastic entertainment on show belies how frenetically disjointed, convoluted and inherently hit-and-miss everything else is up until that point. The basic plot set-up is that a group of wannabe filmmakers ("the fuckbombers") have been trying, without success, to make a masterpiece, despite the director of the team offering his life to the "movie gods" should such a feat be accomplished. Eventually their paths cross with a pair of rival clans in the midst of a mob war, and the former child-celeb daughter of one of the leaders, who he is trying to make into a star.

    It takes very much a magpie approach to the cinematic pilfering, and whilst very cine-literate it takes 2/3rds of the film to really find its feet in its own right. That last thirty minutes or so is where the farce finally takes and it's frequently laugh-out-loud funny. The very end may revert back to less interesting areas they were in before, but it eventually engenders more than enough good will to carry it through. It tries the patience, and through the trying it ultimately succeeds in delivering what should be hoped for: stupid, silly fun.

  • Okay...

    ...Wow. It's been a month. I can't believe that, that's only happened once before. Basically, I've been so busy I haven't even had time to upload the podcasts here. Anyway, I got a concussion playing football on Tuesday and am off work until Monday, so I'll be updating over the next few days. I've got all my reviews from Venice, a few others, plus I'll sticky the latest podcast too. Hope it was worth the wait.

  • Podcast - Sobriety is a Virtue

    This week we have part one of our Venice-trospective of the 2009 Festival, and review Red 2, The Heat, Only God Forgives, Paris-Manhattan and The Conjuring. Press play here :

    Written reviews will be up after the weekend, I'm off to Croatia and the down-time in airports/on the plane gives me plenty of opportunities to get the blog stuff done, so they should be coming any time after sunday.

  • Podcast - Car Crashes in Black and White

    This week Cal and I do a rundown of the upcoming Venice Film Festival lineup, before launching in to reviews of Frances Ha, The Internship, Renoir and Blancanieves. Press play here :

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