Sunday, November 27, 2011

On vacation


Just a quick note to let everyone know that for the next ten or so weeks, I'll be on holiday overseas - first in Bangkok (where I spent a year living when I was a child), and then on to travel around Europe, with stops in England, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and The Netherlands. 

Unfortunately, this means you can expect fewer posts on the blog during December and January (although I'm hoping to remain at least semi consistent). That said, I am planning to attend the International Film Festival of Rotterdam in late January and early February, so look forward to coverage of that.

In the mean time, you can keep track of me on twitter at, where I'll be keeping people updated on both my travels and any movies I get around to watching.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review - The Ides of March

Director: George Clooney
Running Time: 101 minutes
Review by Tom Clift

A first-class tale of political intrigue, The Ides of March offers a glimmer of hope to those people fed-up with the state of American politics, only to dash those hopes upon the jagged rocks of ambition, secrecy and betrayal. The story, based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, concerns an idealistic junior campaign manager who gets a crash course in pragmatism when he discovers the man he is striving to get elected is less than the knight in shining armour he appears to be. Directed by George Clooney, who also co-stars alongside a stunning ensemble cast, The Ides of March is a terrific political drama that growls with low tension and the cynicism of the disillusioned.

The Ides of March follows the campaign of Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (Clooney; The American) against Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell; Ocean’s 13) for the Democratic nomination for the Presidential race. Morris is a rare breed of politician; determinedly forward thinking and unwilling to compromise on his ideals, he is the kind of man who inspires faith and loyalty, even from men like Steven Meyer (Ryan Gosling; Drive), a young but talented junior campaign manager who works under Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman; Moneyball) doing everything he can to get Morris that one step closer to the Whitehouse. But as Meyer soon discovers, temptation lies everywhere in the political battlefield, be it in the form of the opposition campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti; Win Win) who aspires to lure Meyer over to the other side, or embodied by the flirtatious young intern (Evan Rachel Wood; The Wrestler), the keeper of a secret that could derail Morris’ entire campaign.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Review - We Need To Talk About Kevin

Director: Lynne Ramsay
Running Time: 112 minutes
Review by Tom Clift

One of the year’s most difficult to watch films is also one of its finest. Adapted from the award winning novel by Lionel Shriver, We Need To Talk About Kevin is a stunning psychological drama and thriller that will set crawling the skin of anyone who watches it… and it will do so without a depicting a single moment of  violence. With mesmerizing control over her craft, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Cellar) has crafted a rare movie where the story and the direction are in near perfect harmony. Every shot, edit and moment of soundscaping in this film contributes to a single overwhelming sensation. And that sensation is nausea.

The Kevin of the film’s title is played by three young actors: Rocky Duer as an infant, Jasper Newell as a six year old, and Ezra Miller (City Island) as a teenager. All three boys wear the same cruel smirk of a sadistic child who delights in manipulation and cruelty, and whose fascinations grow increasingly violent as he grows older. The film picks up a few years after Kevin commits a mass killing at his high school, and follows Kevin’s mother Eva – played by the always fantastic Tilda Swinton (Burn After Reading) – as she tries to rebuild her life in spite of the persecution from the community her son tore apart. But a majority of the narrative takes place in flashbacks, as Ramsay offers us glimpses into Eva’s marriage and Kevin’s upbringing, urging us to try and pinpoint the moment when things first started to go wrong. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review - Burning Man

Director: Jonathan Teplitzky 
Running Time: 109 minutes
Review by Tom Clift

In both its non-linear structure and its astounding visual composition, Burning Man is a bit like Terrance Mallick’s The Tree of Life. Written and directed by Jonathan Teplitzky (Better Than Sex), the Australian drama presents a series of beautifully composed images and scenes that make up the memories from the life and marriage of it’s lead character, a cocky English chef living in Bondi, Sydney. However, where Teplitzky’s film differs from Mallick’s is in its resolute sense of directorial purpose, one that ensures that its artful images actually converge into a discernible and satisfying whole. Although the overt sense of construction does take some of the emotion out of what is eventually revealed to be a deeply tragic tale, Burning Man remains an elegant looking and uniquely assembled Australian film that doesn’t fail to tell a substantive story.

Our first glimpse of Tom (Matthew Goode; Watchmen) comes as he is stands masturbating over a naked woman. It’s an audacious way to introduce ones hero, and just the first of many instances of misdirection that Teplitzky employs to keep audiences on their toes. A rapidly edited montage takes us from moment to seemingly unconnected moment; the only constant is Tom, an irritable, arrogant, womanizing Englishman whose life is a blur of cooking, drinking, arguing and shallow sex. The structure of the film is intentionally designed to challenge, as Teplitzky deliberately points you in one direction and then merrily leads you in another. But the speed and energy that dominates these early sections of the film – like the frantic kitchen of Tom’s exclusive restaurant – is such that it is impossible not to be engaged.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Review - The Yellow Sea

Director: Na Hong-jin
Running Time: 140 minutes
Review by Tom Clift

The Yellow Sea recently played at the Fantastic Asia Film Festival in Melbourne. It opens in select Australian cinemas on December 1.

You can officially add Na Hong-jin to the growing list of South Korean directors outdoing ninety-five percent of their Hollywood counterparts. After debuting with the critically acclaimed The Chaser in 2009, Na’s follow-up is an artful, absorbing and exceedingly violent crime thriller called The Yellow Sea, a film that bears all the style and splatter that characterizes the work of Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), Bong Joon-ho (The Host) and Kim Ji-Woon (I Saw The Devil), filmmakers who have made South Korean cinema one of the most exciting national cinemas out of Asia, if not the entire world. Beginning as a suspenseful film noir before exploding with violent, frenetic mayhem, The Yellow Sea is an awesome genre exercise with a bitter undercurrent of social commentary to go along with it.

Ku-Nam (Ha Jung-woo) is a down-on-his-luck cab driver living in Yanbian, a Korean prefecture in North-Eastern China. Chronically in debt, his wife left for South Korea a year ago, but her promise of sending money back has gone unfulfilled. Plagued by nightmares that his wayward spouse is having an affair, Ku-Nam spends most of his time drinking or loosing at Mah-jong in dingy gambling halls, while his elderly mother is left to look after her son’s infant child. An opportunity to finally make some money is presented by a local gangster Myun-Ga (Kim Yun-seok), who offers Ku-Nam $60 000 and the chance to travel to South Korea to track down his wife. All he has to do is kill somebody. Both Kim and Ha previously starred in The Chaser, and both are excellent here; the bearded Kim is especially watchable as the jovial Myun, a gangster whose easy going manner masks his grisly ability with an axe.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Review - This Is Not A Film

Director: Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
Running Time: 75 minutes
Review by Tom Clift

It is surely no coincidence that most prominently displayed amongst Iranian filmmaker Jafar Pahani’s DVD collection is a copy of Rodrigo Cort├ęs’ Buried starring Ryan Reynolds. The story of a man trapped against his will and being slowly suffocated by his surroundings, the similarities between the plot of Buried and the real life predicament of Pahani are all too readily apparent. Director of critically acclaimed films such as The Circle and Offside –  both of which are banned in Iran — Pahani was found guilty by an Iranian court of creating “propaganda against the regime”, forcing him to spend most of 2011 languishing in his Tehran apartment under house arrest as he awaits the results of a court appeal against a six year jail term and twenty year media ban. Not only does the ban prohibit him from giving interviews or leaving the country, but also from engaging in the writing or directing of a film.

In brave defiance of the ban – an act that may very well have contributed to the rejection of his appeal just a few weeks ago – Panahi collaborated with another Iranian filmmaker named Mojbata Mirtahmasb (also now imprisoned) on a documentary project that is sardonically, or perhaps cautiously, entitled This Is Not A Film. Documenting a day in Panahi’s life, we watch as he attempts to strike some small, perhaps foolhardy blow against a dictatorial system that seeks to silence his voice — and the voice of countless others — in an admirable work of life affirming, art affirming, freedom affirming creative expression.

Monday, November 7, 2011

New Melbourne film festival highlights the extreme side of Asian genre cinema

With advertisements proudly emblazoned with the words “exotic, erotic and just plain psychotic” and a programme headlined by films with titles like Karate-Robo Zaborgar and Invasion of Alien Bikini, the first annual Fantastic Asia Film Festival promises to bring a very different breed of Asian filmmaking to Melbourne’s Cinema Nova.

Screening a combined twenty films from Japan, South Korea, China, Hong Kong and the Philippines, FAFF aims to shine special attention on the more obscure, absurd and extreme edges of Asian genre cinema which so often goes ignored by the programmers of Australia’s more high-minded film festivals.

Kicking off on Thursday November 10th, the opening night film – Yoshihiro Nishimura’s zombie movie Helldriver – will surely set the gold standard for four days worth of bad special effects, copious fake blood and plenty of scantily clad women brandishing really big swords. An acclaimed effects artist, Nishimura’s previous films Tokyo Gore Police and Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl have seen him labelled “the Tom Savini of Japan”. His latest effort is described as a “hard rock psychotic, psychotropic future epic.” Nishimura will be in attendance for a post film Q&A along with New York Asian Film Festival director Marc Walkow.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Review - Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Director: Troy Nixey
Running Time: 99 minutes
Review by Tom Clift

Directed by Canadian graphic novel artist Troy Nixey, and written and produced by acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), the new version of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is from its prologue to its conclusion a miscalculated exercise in generic genre film making. Based on a 1973 TV movie and minor cult classic of the same name, the film is a creaky, cobwebby haunted house affair about a little girl who runs afoul of some ancient magical creatures of the not-too-pleasant variety. Unfortunately, the film relies much too heavily on an overly present score and poorly conceived creature design, and as a result achieves neither the visceral scares nor the unsettling atmosphere needed to make the dark seem even the least bit worth being afraid of.

The niceties of the plot follows eight-year-old Sally (Bailee Madison; Brothers) who has been sent to live with her father (Guy Pearce; The Hurt Locker) and his new girlfriend (Katie Holmes; Batman Begins) in a Rhode Island manor that the two are restoring. Little do they know, however, that in the basement lurks ancient imp-likes creatures that call out for Sally in the night and hunger for the teeth of children. The script is filled with familiar two-dimensional characters; the curious little girl, the disbelieving parents, the grizzled groundkeeper and even the librarian with an absurdly coincidental knowledge of obscure arcane texts. Bailee Madison does a decent job in the lead role, but Holmes and Pearce — the latter of whom I am usually an enormous fan — never once seem like they’re doing anything other than reading from a script.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review - Drive

Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Running Time: 100 minutes
Review by Tom Clift

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive it is a perfectly measured work of cinematic style and artistry. The story of a Hollywood stuntman (Ryan Gosling; Crazy, Stupid, Love) who moonlights as a getaway driver, it glides with perfect pace and rhythm like a shark through midnight waters, masquerading as a mainstream action movie when it is in fact a slow-burning art-house drama – albeit one with an ultra-violent edge. Engrossing from the opening frame, the film is a fascinating character study, thrilling genre piece and bona fide auteurist masterpiece, one where every shot, edit, beat and smouldering gaze is physically and psychologically entrancing.

While Drive is a lot of things, one thing it isn’t is a testosterone fuelled thrill ride in the vein of The Fast and the Furious. The opening sequence sets the tone of the film far more accurately than its trailers, as we are made to understand that in Refns’ movie, action has been substituted by razor-wire atmosphere and magnetic visual panache. Gazing from a window over the lights of Los Angeles, clad in leather gloves and a white jacket emblazoned with a golden scorpion, our nameless antihero speaks into a phone words he has clearly spoken many times before. Parked in an empty street soon afterwards, he waits while two masked bandits burglarize a warehouse; what they are stealing is of little importance. The rhythm of Cliff Martinez’s electronic score creeps quietly along in the background, sending low reverberations pulsing through your chest; between Drive and Contagion, Martinez has been responsible for the two best sounding films of the year.