Tuesday, January 31, 2012

IFFR Review - Room 514

Director: Sharon Bar-Ziv
Running Time: 90 minutes
Review by Tom Clift

In Room 514, a young, idealistic military investigator tries to get to the bottom of alleged abuses of Palestinian civilians by a decorated Israeli commander. A minimalist low-budget drama set largely in the eponymous interrogation room, the picture is earnest in its attempts to explore the difficult issues it raises, and is at times compelling in its storytelling. But the ugly camera-work and unpolished script are such a constant hindrance that it makes the movie impossible to recommend.

Room 514 is the first film from writer/director Sharon Bar-Ziv, and unfortunately, it shows. The central conflict of his script is really engaging, especially thanks to a determined performance from lead actress Asa Neifeld, and a terrific supporting turn from Udi Persi as the soldier she is interrogating. But the cinematography is unforgivably poor. Bar-Ziv jitters and wobbles his handheld camera – always uncomfortably close to the actor’s faces – in a typically misguided attempt to add realism and grit. He’d have been better off just sitting the thing on a tripod and letting the actors do the heavy lifting.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

IFFR Review - Kill List

Director: Ben Wheatley
Running Time: 95 minutes
Review by Tom Clift

The Wicker Man by way of Pulp Fiction, Kill List does not go where you expect it to. Shot on an indie-film budget by sophomore director Ben Wheatley’s (whose debut film Down Terrace garnered considerable acclaim), the film follows two contract killers driving around the English country-side with a list of people they’ve been hired to rub out. But mysterious things are afoot, and soon the mission takes a nightmarish left turn. Smartly written, acutely acted, with a surreal atmosphere and some deliciously grizzly visuals, this is a smart and sinister concoction that comes out of the oven as one of the most fascinating thrillers of the past few years.

Jay (Neil Maskell; The Football Factory) doesn’t want to go back to work. Eight months after a traumatizing “incident” in Kiev, he’d rather spend time at home with his seven year old son, or work on installing a Jacuzzi in his backyard. But his wife Shel – a beautiful, fiery Swede (MyAnna Buring; The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn) – says they need the money, and she’s right. Unlike most films of this ilk, Shel knows what Jay has to do to earn a living. This idealistic family, like this film, is not what it appears. A dinner party with Jay’s old colleague Gal (Michael Smiley; Burke & Hare) – a good humoured Irishman – turns hostile when the issue of work arises. But it’s enough to prompt Jay to go back on the road, taking a job that Gal nonchalantly refers to as “nothing too strenuous”.

Friday, January 27, 2012

IFFR Review - Clip

Director: Maja Miloš
Running Time: 100 minutes
Review by Tom Clift

Clip is a Serbian film that I found more disturbing than A Serbian Film. The latter picture gained notoriety last year for its graphic depictions of rape, incest, paedophilia and necrophilia, and was the result of additional controversy in Australia after it was refused classification – banned – by the Australian classification review board. Personally however, I found the content of director Srđan Spasojević's movie to be so ludicrous – and so explicitly designed to generate controversy – that it never really provoked much of a reaction. Not so with Clip. The directorial debut of twenty-eight year old filmmaker Maja Miloš, the sexual content in Clip is less extreme than in Spasojević’s film, although its depiction is no less graphic. But unlike A Serbian Film, there is gravity to Miloš’ picture; a severity – if not a realism – that is genuinely challenging, and provokes a far more visceral reaction.

Protagonist Jasna (Isidora Simijonovic) is a teenage girl who seeks to drown her misery in the desolate shallows of sex, drugs and alcohol. Alienated from her home life, she treats her family – younger sister, overworked mother and terminally ill father – with hostility and contempt. Her nights are spent in dingy clubs or wandering the desolate streets of her decaying Serbian town with her friends, camera phone permanently recording in her hand, trying desperately to gain the favour of Djordje (Vukasin Jasnic), a popular boy in her class. And she’s willing to commit the most humiliating sexual acts in order to do so.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review - War Horse

Director: Steven Spielberg
Running Time: 146 minutes
Review by Tom Clift

Boy meets horse. Boy looses horse. Boy gets horse. It’s the classic formula for a Hollywood love story – albeit with a slightly equestrian twist –and also the plot of War Horse, the latest film from director Steven Spielberg (Tintin), based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and the award-winning stage production by Nick Stafford. The story follows a horse, named Joey, in a war, named The Great War, and recounts all the ways in which peoples lives were changed through their encounters with the eponymous animal. Like most Spielberg productions, War Horse is populated with many great scenes – scenes of horror, heartbreak, triumph and joy. Unfortunately, they’re trapped in a film that is far too long, and helmed by a director who has failed to differentiate between genuine feeling and cheap emotional manipulation. A little bit of sentiment is one thing, Steven. But this is simply labourious.

From the moment that Albert Narracott (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) lays eyes Joey, he feels a connection that is destined to last a lifetime. A gift to Albert from his father (Peter Mullan; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1), Joey is a strong, wilful but loyal young horse, one who Albert must train to plough the fields lest their home be repossessed by their heartless, money-grubbing landlord (Peter Thewlis; Deathly Hallows Part 2). These first thirty minutes of War Horse are the most insufferable of the lot, as the script drags us through and across every syrupy valley and peak – Joey’s initial failings as a plough horse to his eventual, plot-assured success – with laughable indulgence. Spielberg shoots scene after scene against the orange sky of dusk – the so called golden hour – as if too lend his story additional dramatic weight. Similarly, John Williams’ tirelessly mawkish score feels explicitly designed to turn every wistful gaze between boy and horse into a tumultuous rollercoaster ride of cloud-parting, earth-shattering emotion. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My 10 Most Anticipated Films of the 2012 International Film Festival of Rotterdam

I don’t know much about Rotterdam. Wikipedia tells me – now that it’s back in action following that rather terrifying twenty-four hour blackout – that it’s the second largest city in The Netherlands, as well as one of the busiest ports in the world. The Rotterdam tourism board website tells me that it’s “a trendy, dynamic city” that you really need “to experience for yourself”. And a Google search tells me – and this might be the most important information of all – that the average temperature in Rotterdam during the month of January is a chilly 4°C, meaning visitors – especially those used to spending January on the beach – would do well to rug up tight.

But what I do know about Rotterdam is that between January 25th and February 5th, it becomes a hotbed of cinematic activity. Celebrating its 41st birthday this year, the International Film Festival of Rotterdam is one of Europe’s largest and most illustrious film festivals, alongside Cannes, Venice and Berlin. In 2012, the IFFR will screen a whopping 268 feature films and 469 shorts, receive esteemed directors including Michel Gondry (The Green Hornet), Takashi Miike (13 Assassins) and Aki Kaurismäki (Le Havre), and welcome members of the press from all around Europe and the world. Somewhere in that crowd of critics, wrapped in woollen scarf, Richmond F.C. beanie and heavily insulated parker, will be me, ready to cover all the action for Cut Print Review.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Review - The Artist

Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Running Time: 100 minutes
Review by Tom Clift

From Abrams (Super 8) aping Spielberg, Allen (Midnight in Paris) namedropping Bunuel and Scorsese (Hugo) paying homage to one of cinema’s earliest icons, lately we’ve seen filmmakers increasingly looking back. It’s a trend born, one suspects, of a desire to return to what many perceive as a simpler, more innocent time; a time when artists, not accountants, decided when and how a movie was to be made. Call it narcissistic if you will, but it’s a persistent pattern, and one that reaches a whole new extreme in Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist. A bona fide silent movie set amongst the glitz and glamour of Hollywood in its Golden Age, the film is a crafty exercise, one that is explicitly designed to exploit feelings of nostalgia to a degree that they’ve rarely been exploited before. Well guess what? It worked. The Artist, as calculated as you know it is, is simply impossible to resist. It’s a spirited slice of old time movie-making that is sure to leave film fans a-beaming.

Hollywood, 1927. It’s a prosperous time to be a movie star, and no star shines brighter than that of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin; The Little White Lies). As handsome and charismatic as he is vain and self-centred, Valentin – with his pencil thin moustache reminiscent of real life silent movie sensation Douglas Fairbanks – along with his long time co-star, a talented Jack Russell terrier, is the biggest thing in movies since, well, ever, and has audiences, reporters and money hungry executives all eating out of the palm of his hand. But all good things must come to an end. For Hollywood, it’s the end of the silent movie, booted abruptly from the screen to make way for the next big thing: the talkies. For Valentin, it’s the end of his career, as he too is cast unceremoniously aside, usurped by fresh young talents like Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo; A Knight’s Tale), whose path soon crosses with Valentin’s own. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Review - The Darkest Hour

Director: Chris Gorak
Running Time: 89 minutes
Review by Tom Clift

A group of American youths are besieged by invisible attackers in the Russian capital of Moscow in The Darkest Hour, an alien invasion movie so woefully written, directed and acted that it makes Cowboys & Aliens, Battle: Los Angeles and Skyline all look positively award worthy by comparison. That this movie exists makes me sad. That I’m writing about it makes me sadder. But is does. And I am. So why don’t we get things over with?

Where to begin? For starters, The Darkest Hour is one of the most poorly directed movies I have ever seen receive a theatrical release. To be fair, some of it is beyond filmmaker Chris Gorak’s control – it’s clear the production budget was woefully inadequate, and a result most of the special effects and green-screened backgrounds look like they were put together in Photoshop (which is probably not far from the truth). But it’s not just the CGI. From the continual fade-to-black scene transitions to the hideously disconcerting manner with which he frames even the simplest scenes of dialogue, Gorak demonstrates a level of amateurism here that I can only describe as Wiseauian.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review - The Iron Lady

Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Running Time: 105 minutes
Review by Tom Clift

A politician whose tyrannical conservatism earned her the nick-name “The Iron Lady”, the life and career of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first and only female Prime Minister, was destined to be made into a movie. Mired by controversy from the moment she stepped into office, over her eleven year tenure Thatcher started a war, survived an assassination attempt, and made sweeping changes to Britain’s political and economic landscape that made her a legend to her supporters, and a monster to her oppositions. Now that the inevitable biopic has finally arrived, it shouldn’t come as much of a shock that much of the focus has been put on Thatcher the icon: the adversity she faced, her sacrifices, and the way her personality affected her time in office. But if the drama is occasionally soapy and the politics slightly simplified, The Iron Lady still works thanks to its disarming narrative structure and a brilliant lead performance by the wondrous Meryl Streep.

When we get our first glimpse a doddering old woman out to buy a pint of milk, it’s hard to believe that she was once one of the most divisive political figures of the late twentieth century. Well into her eighties, she spends her days bickering with her doctors and state appointed carers, and attempting to resist the slowly creeping fingers of senility. It’s a disconcerting, unexpected portrayal, but effective in cultivating the audiences sympathies. It’s only after we’ve gotten to know this elderly Maggie Thatcher – who her husband (Jim Broadbent; A Good Year) affectionately calls “M.T.” – that director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) introduce, via flashbacks, the woman that history remembers; a woman whose political beliefs were handed down to her by her father, and whose unwavering determination and refusal to compromise saw her climb the greasy pole to become the most powerful person in the country.

Keep Reading at Cut Print Review »

Monday, January 16, 2012

Review - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Director: David Fincher
Running Time: 158 minutes
Review by Tom Clift

A chilling murder mystery set against the haunted nights and frozen days of the Scandinavian tundra, the American adaptation of Swede Stieg Larsson’s bestselling novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems, at first glance, like the perfect material for renegade filmmaker David Fincher. One of Hollywood’s most celebrated and sought-after directors, Fincher’s resume already boasts two of the best serial killer films of the past twenty years in Seven and Zodiac, as well as two veritable modern masterpieces in Fight Club and last years The Social Network. All of Fincher’s films – even the slightly maudlin The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the critically under-appreciated Panic Room – are recognizable for their icy aesthetic, sinister subject matter, and examination of themes including fear, rage and social disillusionment; themes that, if its supporters are to be believed, Larsson’s novel deals with in considerable detail.

Personally, I have not read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and therefore cannot speak to its quality. But after watching both the laborious 2009 Swedish version, and now Fincher’s English language remake, I am beginning to suspect that Larsson’s book just isn’t very good. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it outright bad, as the core murder mystery is gripping in a Agatha Christie meets Hannibal Lecter kind of way. Furthermore, at the hands of Fincher, the screenplay’s disjointed first act, bloated runtime and pandering sexualisation of its protagonist all seem like far smaller problems than they might otherwise have. Still, I’d be lying if I called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo anything other than a serviceable thriller, or a glossy waste of a talented filmmaker’s time.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Review - Albert Nobbs

Director: Rodrigo Garcia
Running Time: 113 minutes
Review by Tom Clift

In Rodrigo Garcia’s Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close (The Stepford Wives) stars as a buttoned down manservant working in a posh Dublin hotel who lives in constant fear of losing his livelihood due to the secret fact that he is actually a woman. A fascinating premise for a period film one might think, but alas what could have been an off-kilter examination of the social and sexual hang-ups of 19th century Ireland is hamstrung by all the expectedly dreary formality of a middling BBC costume drama. Despite the clear enthusiasm of Close – who first played the part on stage in 1982, and is listed not only as the film’s star, but also as its co-writer and producer – this thirty-years-in-the-making passion project is tepid and totally lacking in feeling, remarkable only for its technically impressive lead performance and how criminally it squanders its fascinating conceit.

Based on a little known short story by Irish novelist George Moore, Albert Nobbs concerns itself with the comings and goings of guests and employees of the luxurious Morrison’s hotel, and particularly those of the eponymous Albert Nobbs. Albert’s well-mannered professionalism makes him a favourite of the establishments matron (a simpering Pauline Colins; Bleak House) but his false persona, one he has been wearing for over thirty years, has left him sad, lonely and incapable of connecting. But Albert’s world is sent into a tail-spin after a chance encounter with Hubert (Janet McTeer; Tideland), another male impersonator, whose happy married life inspires Albert to pursue a similar situation with a spritely young housemaid named Helen (Mia Wasikowska; Alice in Wonderland). Unfortunately for Albert, there’s competition for Helen’s affections, in the forms of the handsome but unscrupulous Joe Macken (Aaron Johnson; Kick Ass) who promises to whisk her away to America.

Keep Reading at Cut Print Review »

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Review - Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Director: Guy Ritchie
Running Time: 129 minutes
Review by Tom Clift

While it might not have been what Arthur Conan Doyle had in mind when he first put pen to page, 2009s Sherlock Holmes was a rip-snorting action picture that was hugely popular with audiences and critics alike. Two years later and to the surprise of no one, Hollywood has decided it’s time for a sequel, reuniting director Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) with stars Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man 2) and Jude Law (Contagion) and setting Holmes and Dr. Watson – as well as ticket paying audiences – off on another globetrotting nineteenth century adventure. What does come as a surprise is that, unlike most Hollywood sequels, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows does not disappoint, but rather delivers on all the humour and excitement (and vaguely homoerotic banter between its leading men) that made its predecessor such a delight.

This new Holmes adventure sees the obsessive detective (Downey) face off against his greatest foe: Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris; TVs Mad Men), a cunning criminal genius with an intellect that matches Holmes’ own. With the reluctant assistance of the recently married Dr. Watson (Law) and a fortune-telling gypsy (Noomi Rapace; The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) that he saves from an assassins blade, Holmes’ pursuit of Moriarty takes him from Baker Street London to the opera houses of Paris and the snow covered mountains of Switzerland, as he races to unravel an international conspiracy that could throw all of Europe into a cataclysmic world war.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Review - The Adventures of Tintin

Director: Steven Spielberg
Running Time: 107 minutes
Review by Tom Clift

Based on the timeless Belgian comics by Hergé, directed by Steven Spielberg, produced by Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) and brought to life using the same motion capture technology popularized by Robert Zemeckis (The Polar Express) and perfected by James Cameron (Avatar), The Adventures of Tintin bears, in theory, all the promise of a cinematic event. Not so in execution. Part gumshoe mystery, part animated Indiana Jones, for all the abundance of talent involved, the initial chapter in what many might have hoped would be the Tintin movie franchise is astoundingly middle of the road. Inoffensive and mildly entertaining at best, and thoroughly underwhelming at worst, Spielberg’s first animated film is hampered by a fan-pandering script, and is dragged down by a boring hero who would have been better served remaining on the page.

In our first glimpse of Monsieur Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot fame), he appears as we’ve always known him: rendered in the simple but endearing 2D strokes of Herge’s original artwork. It’s a cheeky little moment, and is sure to bring smiles to the faces of Tintin aficionados. More to the point, it demonstrates both the affection and the obligation Spielberg, Jackson and the rest of their collaborators feel towards Herge’s beloved material. The script for Tintin’s big screen 3D adventure is based on three of Herge’s graphic novels (The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure), and sees its hero – a baby faced investigative journalist with unwavering determination – contend with pickpockets and pirates in a race to locate a mysterious sunken treasure.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

My Top 10 Films of 2011

It's that time of year; where the cinematically inclined cave in to that biggest of list-making urges and arbitrarily rank their favourite movies of the past twelve months. 2011, like all years, has been an enormous blend of films ranging from the good to the bad, the excellent to the atrocious, and of course, the atrociously overrated. For my money, no film has received more absurdly hyperbolic attention than the one sure to top many top ten lists: Terrance Mallick's phenomenally boring The Tree of Life (review here). That said, my own personal number one has already seen quite a backlash, and for every number one spot it takes, it's just as likely to be cast aside.

Aside from that pick, my list contains a little bit of everything: comedies, action movies, genre flicks, mainstream blockbusters and obscure foreign films, as well as at least one film that no one else seems to have liked. In total I made a total of one hundred and twenty nine trips to the theatre this year, including thirty four at the Melbourne International Film Festival. In spite of these personal record breaking numbers, I can't help but feel that 2011 has been a pretty weak year for cinema. Of my top ten films, only the top four might have challenged any of the ten from last year’s list. And unlike last year, where a good five movies might have snuck in in place of my number ten, this year I don't have a single honourable mention. 

 The only other thing I have to add is my usual caveat about how, living as I do on the far side of the world, I have yet to see many of the year’s most hyped about films. Some notable movies yet to make it to Australia include The Artist, The Descendants, J. Edgar, War Horse, 50/50, Shame, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tyrannosaur, The Muppets, Young Adult, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Hugo. Look for my revised list in July 2012, once I've caught up with all these stragglers.

So, without further adieu...