Director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi reteam (after THE MOTHER and VENUS) to deliver this baby boomer dramedy. British couple Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) are in Paris for the weekend to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary, but their plans are scuppered almost immediately. Amidst their attempts to recapture the spontaneity of their youth, and facing up to some hard truths about their relationship, the pair find themselves re-evaluating their own position in life and that of their generation (measured against their dreams from their youth in the '60s), and where they realistically go from here - the twilight of their lives. Somewhere in there they also run into an old friend of Nick’s (Jeff Goldblum at his wonderfully Goldblumiest).
Stylistically very similar to Richard Linklater’s BEFORE… series of films (you can even imagine Julie Delpy 20-odd years from now closely resembling Duncan), LE WEEK-END has the same sharpness to its writing, and an equally sure hand steering across comedy and drama. There is a very real, familiar quality to Nick and Meg: their hot-and-cold moods; their over-familiarity with each other; their realisation, frustration and acceptance that they have not achieved what they wanted to in their prime. Broadbent (ANOTHER YEAR) and Duncan (ABOUT TIME) never miss a beat, of course - they've been perfecting variations on these roles for most of their lives. Michell has a knack for choosing great, subtle cinematographers, and his record goes unspoiled in Nathalie Durand, who has no problem allowing Paris to look everything like every tourist wants it to be.
LE WEEK-END’s only real faltering step comes when Michell/Kureishi try to bring the story to a head; its crescendo moment doesn’t quite feel earned by the rest of the film to that point. Fortunately that minor fizzle isn’t enough to detract from an otherwise amiable journey a by turns delightful/maddening twosome - especially when it’s recovered by a coda scene so lovely, slight, and Francophile-touristy it feels like a chocolate on a hotel pillow.
LE WEEK-END is released February 20 in Australia, February 27 in New Zealand and March 14 in the US.
As a director, Peter Berg’s output ranges from the sublime
(FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS) to the ridiculous (BATTLESHIP), to the sublimely
ridiculous (THE RUNDOWN) – it’s difficult to know what to expect from him at
the best of times, let alone with a based-in-truth war story with such a high
potentiality for his key weakness as a storyteller: jingoism. Thankfully LONE
SURVIVOR is a long way from that disastrous board game ‘adaptation’ (much closer to 2007's THE KINGDOM), and
although it occasionally paints in heavy shades of gung-ho, Berg manages for
the most part to keep a lid on it.
Based on the book by ex-US Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, it’s the story of his unit’s part in Operation Red Wings. In 2005, Luttrell (here played by Mark Wahlberg) and three other SEALS set out on a mission to kill a Taliban’s high-up, but they soon ran into a problem when they lost communication in the mountains, and were then discovered by civilian farmers. The SEALs couldn’t be sure if they were Taliban sympathisers or not, putting them in a dilemma. Their honorable choice brought down a crushing firefight which dominates the second half of the film - which isn't a spoiler. As you’d discern from the title, we know where this is headed at all times – it’s not a tale of excitement, twists and turns; it’s a painful trudge, alongside Luttrell, to miraculous escape.
Don’t mistake ‘trudge’ for ‘slow’: the action is tense, visceral, and at times seemingly unrelenting – particularly memorable are two punishing sequences of the four falling down a mountain, hitting what feels like every tree and sharp rock on the way down - one can't help but recall the almost identical scene from HOT ROD, only here with the laughs replaced by wincing: it’s a monumental achievement in stunt work.
The performances are solid, despite Wahlberg and his supporting players Taylor Kitsch (yep, BATTLESHIP), Emile Hirsch (INTO THE WILD) and the always excellent Ben Foster (3:10 TO YUMA) being given relatively little to work with. One of Berg’s few stumblings (he also wrote the screenplay) is in his too rushed, broad-stroke characterisation of the four SEALs. The other - more significant – is his tendency not necessarily to depict their sacrifice, pain and death, but to go about it in somewhat clumsy, even tacky ways; the slow motion, the occasional religious painting-esque lighting set-ups, the naff cover of Heroes over the end credits.
For the most part though Berg’s film is, if not a revelation, then a pleasantly restrained surprise – regardless of its relativity to BATTLESHIP.
LONE SURVIVOR is released February 20 in Australia, and February 27 in New Zealand.
You can't help by now but to have noticed Matthew McConaughey’s hot streak – which stretches back to 2011’s BERNIE, through KILLER JOE, THE PAPERBOY, MUD, MAGIC MIKE, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and into HBO’s True Detective - doesn’t looking like stopping any time soon (there are those who feel this is a new-found talent, but they're forgetting outstanding early work in the likes of DAZED & CONFUSED and LONE STAR).
In fact, before we see him next year in Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR, I’ll go so far as to put my money on him picking him up a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, and even in 2014’s uncannily tough field, he deserves it. Forget the clichés of actors winning on the simple basis of physical transformation (McConaughey lost a lot of weight for the role), it’s his subtle, complex work here that makes him such a strong contender, and elevates Jean-Marc Vallée’s film from good to great.
Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s screenplay is layered with smart metaphors and nice flourishes, but at its heart it’s playing by all of rules – this is the old Hollywood ‘unlikely hero’ story we all know (and some of us love), and they’ve presented it very well.
Their representation of Ron Woodroof is that, until 1985 he was a Texan oil field electrician who loved rodeo, booze, drugs, sleeping with women two at a time, and was none too fond of gay folk. Then he was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, and in his desperation to get his hands on medicine still being trialed by the FDA, found himself down in Mexico learning a lot more about his disease. It didn’t take long for the self-preserving Woodroof to figure out he could smuggle alternative, non-FDA approved/Big Pharma-produced medicines into the US and distribute them, become something an unlikely hero to Texas’ gay and transgender communities in the process. But that was just the beginning of Woodroof’s struggle…
The historical accuracy of Borten’s and Wallack’s script has been questioned by some (Woodroof was apparently not homophobic, nor a participant in rodeo), but they’ve made a very good piece of drama regardless. Likewise, Valée’s touch as a director is often subtle and restrained, with occasional beats of poetry (a moment with some exotic moths is a particular standout).
There’s also an excellent supporting cast at work, sometimes working with very little – as Woodroof’s doctor and later impossible object of affection, Jennifer Garner doesn’t have a lot to do (though she’s fine) and Steve Zahn is only around for a couple of scenes, but Kevin O’Neill (FDA guy), an almost unrecognizable Griffin Dunne (alternative medicine man) are solid, and of course Jared Leto doesn’t waste a moment of the film’s showiest role as Woodroof’s transgender business partner – and later close friend – Rayon.
But make no mistake, this is McConaughey’s show, and his work is utterly outstanding. Almost immediately you’ll forget about the actor’s shockingly gaunt frame, and remain focused on the character’s eyes, and observe what could be a series of gauche, grandstanding scenes reduced to elegance and finesse. This is a journeyman actor’s masterpiece, and long may he be remembered for it.
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is released February 7 in the UK, February 13 in Australia and February 20 in New Zealand.
There’s a scene that crystalises the problems of BLUE IS THE
WARMEST COLOUR, the controversial Palm d’Or winner at 2013’s Cannes Film
Festival - yes, it’s the much-talked about (and, by its cast and director, publicly
argued-over) sex scene.
17 year old Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) has come to terms with her own homosexuality, and has fallen in love with the older, blue-haired, free spirited artist Emma (Léa Seydoux). They make love, and it’s everything either of them hoped it would be. Just to make sure we get the message, director Abdellatif Kechiche spends eleven minutes to showing it to us.
Irrespective of the rather creepy, leery gaze he applies to this scene - cold cuts of the couple enjoying a series of sexual positions – it just goes on and on… and on, without adding anything new to what’s already been achieved by its first few minutes. It’s indicative of the movie as a whole, which with a bloated three-hour duration, could easily be cut down by a good 30 – 40 minutes.
A clue to BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR’s almost interminable running time may lie in its original French title – THE LIFE OF ADÈLE, CHAPTERS ONE AND TWO [my translation]. Was this adaptation of Julie Maroh's comic intended to be two shorter films made as the start of a series for television? I don’t know, but for my money its current form is a drawn-out mistake.
It’s a particular shame because aside from all the tedious padding (and that one instance of ‘pervy-cam’), there is so much to like. The two central performances are devastatingly honest, particularly Exarchopoulos’ journey from mucky, awkward teenager to wiser twenty-something, and Adèle’s journey is an interesting one, if only it could have been more judiciously edited – particularly to exclude the relentless, snotty sobbing.
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR is released February 13 in Australia and New Zealand.
The ever-likeable Nick Frost (SHAUN OF THE DEAD) gets his first leading role in this British comedy as Bruce Garrett, a man whose dreams of being a Salsa dancing champion were literally kicked out of him during a particularly brutal childhood bullying incident. He retreated into his shell, and now leads a humdrum life, primarily plodding between trips to the driving range with equally unambitious mates, and the bar where his plucky sister (Olivia Colman) works. At work, he fails to challenge his revolting alpha male work colleague Drew (Chris O’Dowd) at any of his shenanigans. Did I say ‘shenanigans’? I meant ‘sexual harassment suits in waiting’.
Bruce’s outlook changes when new boss Julia (Rashida Jones) arrives, and re-ignites the last skerrick of kindling in Bruce’s heart – and under his heels – because wouldn’t you know it: she’s into Salsa. All Bruce has to do is overcome his fears, find his mojo and take his big chance.
For a story about passion and taking chances though, CUBAN FURY doesn’t exactly put its money where its mouth is - it’s a film more determined to stay within the lines than a six year old with a brand new colouring book. The question is: does it need to push against its template? The answer: not really – not when you’ve got genuine charm, lots of laughs and a brilliant cast (Ian McShane, Kayvan Novak, Rory Kinnear, Alexandra Roach) riffing on this simplest of formulas.
In an age when so much is expected of first time filmmakers (ie – if you want another shot, first turn a profit), you can hardly blame director James Griffiths and screenwriter Jon Brown for treading so timidly, and they at least get the details right: it’s unusual to see Frost, such a talented natural comedian, changing gears into the straight role, but he’s the right man for the job. Jones (from TV’s Parks & Recreation) is wonderfully warm, while O’Dowd is often hilariously sleazy (their inevitable dance-off is worth it).
You might not find a less daring film all year, but that’s certainly not to say it isn’t worthwhile. Like an old pair of dancing shoes, CUBAN FURY feels incredibly light and very familiar, but it's reliably made.
CUBAN FURY is released February 14 in the UK, March 20 in Australia and New Zealand, and May in the USA.
A biopic – essentially condensing down to under three hours the life and times of any person worthy of having their life story told on the big screen - is a tough proposition at the best of times. To do it for Nelson Mandela – not only the most (justly) lionized political figure of the 20th century, but a man who barely had an uneventful day in his 95 years of life – seems like the tallest of orders.
Kudos then to little known British director Justin Chadwick for taking up the mammoth – and frankly daunting – undertaking, and for doing his subject no disgrace in crafting (along with his crew) as honest a representation as you could hope for from a Hollywood feature film.
The responsibility of portraying (tribal name) Madeba on screen landed with Idris Elba (TV’s The Wire and Luther, and most recently PACIFIC RIM), who does an admirable job reflecting the changing man through three main phases of his life – activist/terrorist, prisoner, and statesman. Equally powerful is Naomie Harris (SKYFALL, 28 DAYS LATER) as his second wife Winnie, who had at least as hard a time in prison as her husband and eventually followed a different path.
There will always be the feeling that Mandela’s life was bigger than a feature film could ever do justice, and a key shortcoming of LONG WALK TO FREEDOM is that it feels like speed-reading (if ever a life story was suited to high-end, long form television series format, Mandela’s is it), but considering its constraints – and thanks in no small part to its two wonderful central performances – Chadwick’s film often treads an honest path, rarely straying into melodrama or deifying the subject.
MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM is released January 30 in New Zealand, and February 6th in Australia.
After 2012’s boring, CG-heavy, cinematic nap that was TOTAL RECALL, Sony Pictures delivers us another remake of a Paul Verhoeven satire: the long-gestating ‘upgrade’ of ROBOCOP. Brazilian director Jose Padila has fared better than Len Wiseman’s Mars-less mess, but sadly not by any great distance.
The early signs for a ROBOCOP upgrade weren’t great: when director Darren Aronofsky (BLACK SWAN, PI) - the man whose involvement piqued everybody’s interest in the remake – left, that interest waned, and Padila (who made a splash some years back with his ELITE SQUAD movies) was confronted with a tougher-than-usual task for his first big Hollywood project. What certainly remained promising was his cast – the man in the cyborg suit, Joel Kinnaman (from the original Swedish version of THE KILLING) might be unfamiliar, but the producers have cannily filled out the supporting roles with solid, often scenery-chewing actors: Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Abbie Cornish, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Samuel L. Jackson. Maybe this was going to be funny and subversive after all?
The answer is, frustratingly, yes and no. Jackson opens the show strongly as a right wing TV talk show host, bemoaning the lack of fully robotic and drone law enforcement in the USA when it’s being used so ‘successfully’ for foreign policy. We’re then treated to some ethically questionable robot-on-terrorist carnage that would have Bill O’Reilly/Andrew Bolt/The Daily Mail rubbing themselves with excitement, and for a moment we get something reasonably approximating the tone of Verhoeven’s original.
Sadly though, it’s short lived. The humour pretty much dries up thereafter, save for a couple more scenes from Jackson dotted throughout. We’re left with a rather straight, numb re-tread - sure, there's familiar lines peppered into the dialogue, and occasionally Basil Poledouris' main theme gets a blaring from the speakers every now and then, but it seems all the more like lip service when several of the more interesting themes and twists from the original are ironed over or excised completely.
In this 2028, American voters still want people policing them, so ruthless Omnicorp (who build the robots and drones) decide upon a compromise. Their prayers seem answered when Detroit detective Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) is blown apart by a car bomb. Mrs Murphy (Cornish) is talked into signing the release forms, et voila: Murphy is reborn as crime fighting cyborg. Trouble is, he’s Omnicorp’s crime-fighting cyborg.
Predictably, Verhoeven’s gleefully OTT ultraviolence is gone, much to the detriment of what was classic villain Clarence Boddicker, now dull baddie Antoine Vallon. Inexplicably though, someone chose to diminish the film’s most crucial theme: that of Murphy’s free will, and his struggle to become more man than machine. It’s a bizarre omission for a film that at one point brazenly plays the WIZARD OF OZ tune “If I Only Had A Heart”. Oh the irony, indeed.
It's not all bad news: the jackhammer-subtle message about privately owned corporations controlling government services is still an enjoyable one, and in the moment (short as they may be) the action sequences are nicely handled, and the 'videogame look' criticism isn't valid in this instance, seeing as the 1987 original inspired the look of first person shooter games in the first place. The CG effects are generally solid, and of all things the sound design is actually one of ROBOCOP’s main strengths. The supporting cast do bring everything they can – Oldman as the scientist questioning his ethics, Keaton as the shifty CEO, Haley as the malevolent militant, Ehle as the cold lawyer, Baruchel as the slimy marketing weasel (although Williams is strangely uncomfortable as Murphy’s partner), but ultimately this is the safe, sterile, franchise set-up we had hoped to avoid; the difference in poster taglines says it all - how does "Crime has a new enemy" even begin to compare to "Part Man. Part Machine. All Cop."?
When it comes to Paul Verhoeven, they
really don’t make ‘em like they used to. God help us when they get to SHOWGIRLS.
ROBOCOP (2014) is released February 6th in Australia and New Zealand, February 7yh in the UK and February 12th in the USA.
This review is edited
and expanded from a first reaction festival blog post on empireonline.com
One would hope that by now, Asghar Farhadi’s screenplay for A SEPARATION is being taught in film schools the world over, what with being the best and most tightly structured in the last decade and whatnot. With that in mind, the writer/director’s next effort was always going to have a hard time topping it; THE PAST doesn’t manage that herculean feat, but it’s a bloody well crafted movie all the same.
Another tightly-knotted family drama, THE PAST is set in and around the outer suburbs of Paris, where estranged husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has returned from Tehran to grant his wife Marie (Berenice Bejo) a divorce. Ahmad has been gone for four years, and Marie is now on the verge of remarrying to Samir (Tahar Rahim). The divorce proceeds smoothly enough, until Ahmad accidentally stirs up a secret concerning Samir’s wife – who lies in a coma after attempting suicide some months ago – and sets off a chain reaction of revelations.
Iranian actor Mosaffa will be unfamiliar to most, but will doubtless be appearing on more Western screens after this subtle portrayal of the quiet, thoughtful Ahmad, who often finds himself in the position of mediator - particularly between Marie and their teen stepdaughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet). Most will know Bejo from her light, deft turn in THE ARTIST, but here she shows another side in the uncertain, quick-tempered Marie. Rahim (A PROPHET), is once again strong as an everyman, gradually revealing complexities as the story progresses.
It’s one of the most subtle, down-played melodramas you’ll ever see, and it’s at once astonishing and delightful to again watch Farhadi’s mastery at giving all of his characters – even the young kids (young Elyes Agouis deserves special mention as a very confused little boy in Samir’s son Fouad) – honest perspectives and motivations; no character is ever anything less than three dimensional, every one of them crucial to his tale. Likewise, every scene in the film links perfectly into the next, without the need for coincidence and without waste. Only towards the very end of Farhadi’s story does the train begin to wobble. It can’t be revealed without spoiling the journey, and it by no means derails the film, but the ending will leave some feeling slightly, shall we say, off kilter.
It feels unfair to criticise THE PAST for lacking the impressive layer of sociopolitical subtext that A SEPARATION has in spades, like comparing apples to oranges (or perhaps more aptly, David Simon's excellent Treme to his off-the-chart, format-redefining-brilliant The Wire), but it is the major difference between the two, and the feeling is all but unshakable. The shadow cast by Farhadi’s previous film may well be positively Everestian, but THE PAST nonetheless will remain one of the finest dramas we will see this year.
THE PAST is released February 6th in Australia, March 13 in New Zealand, and March 28 in the UK.
This review is edited and expanded from a first reaction festival blog post on empireonline.com
If THE ARMSTRONG LIE reveals anything about documentary
filmmaking, it’s about the need for surprise.
Alex Gibney’s film about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong has everything you could possibly ask for, bar that one crucial ingredient: a compelling subject who isn’t all they seem, writing themself a hero’s journey of which Joseph Campbell would have been proud, only to have it up-ended as Gibney's cameras are rolling, to their eventual public disgrace and potential ruin. THE ARMSTRONG LIE’s only real unfortunate flaw – through no-one’s fault - is timing: it arrives when Armstrong's saga is no longer hot news, but nor is it yet a forgotten story with a new revelation.
Most people will know that Armstrong beat his advanced cancer and went on to win (with sensational illegality, as it turned out) the Tour de France seven times, before retiring from the sport in 2005. Doping allegations were already circling Armstrong in 2009, when Gibney began filming what both thought would be the story of Armstrong’s big comeback. In 2010 – just as the filmmaker thought he was finishing up - one of Armstrong’s former teammates made a formal allegation against him. The avalanche of evidence that followed finally engulfed Armstrong in June 2012. By January 2013 it was all over, and before America/Oprah, he publicly admitted his guilt (Gibney's camera were just out of shot as that famous interview took place). The filmmaker was virtually back to square one, but perhaps in rare moment of empathy, or perhaps sensing an opportunity to spin the story one more time, Armstrong granted Gibney one more interview; with nothing more to lose, the master liar promised to tell the whole truth.
You might expect the limit of THE ARMSTRONG LIE’s interest to end with that rather short interview, but Gibney’s remarkable skills as a filmmaker deliver more – maybe not a cannot-look-away masterpiece, but a interesting hero-becomes-villain switcheroo nonetheless. Don’t expect too much of the why (although those few minutes of final confession are impressive), but watching the way he did it - that web of lies growing strand by strand, being held together by a personally enforced omerta, and executed by sheer will of (to all outward appearances) his sociopathic personality, is still pretty fascinating.