Directed by Liv Ullman

miss julie

Jessica Chastain mopes about her acreage torturing her rank-and-file with gaunt superiority in this Strindberg adaptation by Liv Ullman. Thank god it’s her, too. With any other actress this ornate soap opera, its players lit like a Vermeer (in deep rooms next to windows), would’ve crumbled under the hulking weight of its drama, but Chastain’s anaemic beauty and refined skills elevate it into moments of ethereal tragedy. She’s better than Colin Farrell, as her winsome but virile valet, but they’re both outdone by the long-suffering Samantha Morton, who shuffles about in the background, quietly stealing the show.

It shouldn’t take Ullman so long to unravel the tumultuous affair at Miss Julie’s core, which revolves around Chastain’s titular heiress seducing the valet to the dismay of another servant (Morton), but she prefers to air out the drama with long, whimsical shots of halls and vestibules. We’re given too much time to realize the heavy-handedness of the ideas, which are already dated beyond recognition. Yet whilst inadequate as a microcosmic enactment of class warfare, Miss Julie is spiced up by spasms of syphilic madness and impulsive carnality that jolt the viewer out from under the spell of Mikhail Krichman’s gorgeous cinematography.

A strained baroque, Miss Julie is better in its most pie-eyed, bitchy moments than it has any right to be.

★★★

Miss Julie screens nationwide as part of the Emirates British Film Festival. Session times and ticketing details here.

interstellar

Interstellar gathers Chris Nolan’s least appealing qualities as a director into an irritatingly dissatisfying whole. His competence in action sequences is lost in the vagaries of his convoluted plot, unsympathetic characters and trite dialogue, which is drawled in an incomprehensible Southern slur by man-of-the-moment Matthew McConaughey. Initial comparisons to 2001 are undeserving, but not completely surprising, as Nolan steals iconic shots from Kubrick’s masterpiece almost verbatim. Both directors aren’t at all concerned with narrative perspicuity either, but the similarities end there. Where Kubrick is visually suggestive, and where his ambiguities become provoking mysteries, Nolan’s become nauseating errors.

Interstellar’s plot has more holes than a colander, and the science doesn’t check out either, but that’s all part of this celebrated director’s bothersome game of catch-me-if-you-can. He’d rather force his audience into inferiority and false stupefaction with twists, turns and temporal gymnastics than provide the satisfaction of a wholesome narrative, and his failings as a storyteller become all the more obvious when, his cosmic visuals having failed him, he resorts to having his characters spell out it’s science in explicit blocs of exposition throughout the last half hour, by which time his audience are lost beyond recall.

The cold science of Interstellar could be worked out in an afternoon by consulting Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s twitter feed, 2001’s true mysteries have left generations bereft of breath and full of wonder pondering its meanings since its premiere in 1968. Nolan’s allusions seem arbitrary anyway. Kubrick offers a terrifying allegory and a severe warning: evolve or die at the hands of technology. Interstellar is brimming with positivity and humanism, sometimes repellently so. It would seem that Nolan has either misread 2001, or he’s mining it for profundity that his milieu lacks.

None of this would’ve matter if Nolan had a sense of humour. He could have made a bombastic blockbuster—the kind of film that lends itself to sophomoric insights, scheming mind games, and deep space adventure (see Predestination)—but he’s chosen the route of a prophet yet again, a role he’s not ready to fulfil. Twists aren’t fun when they’re gratuitous. Wonder isn’t real when it’s didactic. Science doesn’t become art just because characters explain it.

Anne Hathaway overcompensates, as usual, whilst a conspicuously orange McConaughey leaves her behind with his trademark schtick, which is getting lazy. How long before we all realize that he’s only good at playing one character type, which isn’t too dissimilar from himself, and relies too often on the intensity of the role and the writing to round off his technical shortcomings. Southern platitudes need conviction, not slack-jawed self-assurance.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by Interstellar, not least thanks to the unrelenting drone of Hans Zimmer’s overbearing score. Nolan makes it his end game to intimidate his audience into a corner. Resist and you’ll find that his ‘bigger than thou’ approach to narrative is all superfluous overcompensation for his inability to turn quantum physics into philosophy.

★★

With Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley and Ellen Burstyn.

Interstellar is in cinemas now.

lilting

Directed by: Hong Khaou

Written by: Hong Khaou

Starring: Ben Whishaw, Cheng Pei-Pei, Andrew Leung, Naomi Christie

Country: UK

Language: English and Mandarin (with subtitles, or translated)

Duration: 91 minutes

Festivals and Awards: Sundance 2014—Cinematography Award: World Cinema Dramatic

As borders and boundaries become indistinct and differences commingle at an untenable rate, of what use is language in the (post-)modern world? Godard seems to be giving a red hot go at expounding on this question in his upcoming Goodbye to Language, reviews of which are pointing to a complete abandonment of linguistic forms. Hong Khaou’s film isn’t that cynical, nor does it have the intellectual depth or formal clarity of Godard’s most radical works, but it has in spades what Godard frequently sacrifices: tenderness and pathos, in the rare and welcome way that it evokes the reparation of cross-cultural impediments through contact and memory. Lilting offers a fresh variation on this now-common theme, exploring communication between two people who are close in proximity, but have unresolvable cultural differences and are too stubborn to change.

Ben Whishaw, sad puppy incarnate and perennial up-and-comer, plays Richard, the grieving lover of a first-generation Brit killed suddenly by a wayward car on the eve of his coming-out to his Chinese-Cambodian mother, Junn. Played with stoicism by venerated wuxia star Cheng Pei-Pei (Crouching Toger, Hidden Dragon, Come Drink With Me), Junn is a rigid and difficult woman whose obstinate allegiance to her culture sees her alienated from the real world. Richard has to navigate her callous temperament with care, whilst tiptoeing around the secret of his relationship with her son. He, the son, played by Andrew Leung, is evoked in fits of memory that are so ornate that they become embellishments of imagination.

There are unexpected flourishes within these memories that have resonances of Resnais. Sometimes the dialogue continues even when the character’s lips have stopped moving. Sometimes the frame freezes unexpectedly. Moreover, there’s grace in the way Khaou pulls us in and out of the recollections. Richard employs a translator to be able to communicate with Junn, and so much of their dialogue remains unsubtitled, and we come to rely on the reactions of this interloper, played by the likeable Naomi Christie, to gauge the content of Junn’s words before they are relayed to us in English. Her generous presence opens little windows of concession that allow the two leads to connect in some way that surpasses verbal language. It’s the accumulation of these abstractions and irregularities, never overpowering but potent enough to manifestly deliver thematic content, that makes Lilting a fresh and fulfilling experience. Khaou’s debut film does on a shoestring what many cannot do with millions, and with optimism and stainless clarity.

★★★★

Lilting screens at the Emirates British Film Festival. Session times and ticketing details can be found here.

the love punch

Directed by: Joel Hopkins

Written by: Joel Hopkins

Starring: Emma Thompson, Pierce Brosnan, Timothy Spall, Celia Imrie

Country: UK

Language: English

Duration: 95 minutes

Festivals and Awards: Toronto 2013 (no awards)

“We’re from the older generation. We’re enlightened!”, says Pierce Brosnan in The Love Punch. His character may be, although I highly doubt that, but this film is not. Did a ninety-year-old write and direct it? Was it his sole intent to send his audience into a deep, hazy slumber? If so, it’s an admirable stab in the dark. Alas, writer-director Joel Hopkins is forty-four and has directed two previous films, and so this very much alive and awake filmmaker can hardly be excused for the sleepy, innocuous disaster he has made. The plot centres around a pair of British divorcees whose fortune is dashed by a greedy French billionaire, and who subsequently take a trip to the Riviera to steal the valuable diamond that the billionaire gave his fiancé. They’re obviously well-to-do, and despite whinging at length about their diminished estate, there’s plenty left to buy the tickets to Cannes, rent the car, book fancy promenade accommodation and wear rich-guy cream pants. They’re played by the radiant Emma Thompson, who usually brings vitality to everything she touches, in spite of its quality, and the inflexible and tolerated Brosnan, who has been clutching at straws since his stint as Bond expired. It’s very clear that Thompson’s accepted this gig as a favour to the director, who she worked with previously on Last Chance Harvey (alongside Dustin Hoffman), and perhaps for the opportunity to take a much-deserved vacation to the French south. She scrapes at the curds of her talents, and for a time her mind seems to be elsewhere; perhaps on the two Oscars she won for writing and acting, perhaps thinking ‘I should be doing better roles than this’. She’d be right. It’s sad to see Brosnan really pour his energy into this role alongside her, but she’s loyal and encouraging (the way an adult plays along with a child’s playtime fantasies). They’re joined by fellow stalwarts Timothy Spall and Celia Imrie as a friendly couple who assist them for the final heist, which is staged as unrealistically as you’d expect. When Brosnan pulls a fake diamond from his pocket to replace the real one, a move not mentioned earlier and seemingly completely unmediated, I settle in for the worst—detail-oriented spectators might need gaffer tape to stop them from screaming expletives at the screen. There’s not even a subtle hint of knowing irony, as Hopkins’s script loops references to Casablanca and Psycho around his earnest and regurgitated story of learning to love again. A recurring joke has Thompson and Brosnan Skyping their young son for ‘technology advice’—this film really is the Nanna of all films—when his roommate comes into their view and starts almost-defecting or almost-performing acts of self-pleasure. It’s this vaguely subversive, virtually harmless humour that might have octogenarians chuckling, but will leave the rest of us puzzled as to why a film with this many talented performers can turn out so insipidly nondescript, if not completely embarrassing for the talent’s themselves. Emma Thompson is not old or irrelevant enough to be sloshing her vitality on crud this redolent and bland.

★½

The Love Punch is screening as part of the Emirates British Film Festival. Session times and ticketing details can be found here.

a hard day's night

The Emirates British Film Festival is migrating to Perth for the first time in its two-year history, bringing with it one of the most impressive programs on the year’s festival calendar. Along with a slew of acclaimed new films straight from Cannes, London, Toronto, Sundance and Berlin, the festival is also elegantly staging a series of retrospective screenings, collectively titled ‘Six from the Sixties’, which showcases the emergence of bombastic, promiscuous, experimental and vivid cinema that came out of Britain in the era now known as the swinging sixties.

Opening night film Testament of Youth, based on Vera Brittain’s pacifist memoir of the same name, features Alicia Vikander as Brittan and Kit Harrington as her fiancé Roland Leighton. Closing night gala features universally adored Oscar frontrunner Benedict Cumberbatch as British analyst and spy Alan Turing, who cracked German Enigma code and helped the Allies win the Second World War, in The Imitation Game. The film premiered at this year’s Toronto Film Festival where it won the Audience Award, joining the ranks of eventual Best Picture Oscar winners 12 Years a SlaveThe King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire, and made its European premiere at the recent London Film Festival.

Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, a biopic of British Romantic landscape artist J.M.W. Turner, premiered to rapturous acclaim in Cannes for its sweeping portrait of the artist, and catapulted Timothy Spall, who won the Best Actor award at the festival, to the top of the Oscar hopeful list. It goes without saying that any new film from Mike Leigh is of some significance, even if only to see what his idiosyncratic approach to filmmaking—devised from the ground up with actors through a series of character-building exercises and improvisations—culminates to. It’ll be interesting to see how his procedure conflates with factual biography.

Stuart Murdoch’s Sundance sensation God Help the Girl, a dramatisation of the formation of band Belle and Sebastian starring Australian Emily Browning, Ben Whishaw starrer Lilting, which won a cinematography prize at Sundance, and Bergman muse Liv Ullman’s Strindberg adaptation Miss Julie, starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton, round out the premiere highlights.

With their welcome revival series ‘Six from the Sixties’, the British Film Festival bring a comprehensive retrospective of rare gems from the British cultural revolution, spurred on by sexual liberation, anti-war protest and political dissidence and culminating in the ditching of 1950s ‘kitchen-sink realism’ for more mischievous fare. Amongst the six classics are two films by John Schlesinger, who went on to win Oscars for his American debut Midnight CowboyBilly Liar (1963) and Darling (1965) both feature the incredible Julie Christie, alongside Tom Courtenay and Dirk Bogarde respectively. For the latter Christie won an Academy Award for Best Actress, as a salacious model who sleeps her way to the top of the London fashion industry.

Cy Enfield’s Zulu (1964) is a more curious choice, but valuable for a debut performance from the inimitable (and concurrently very imitable) Michael Caine, whilst heist classic The Italian Job (1969), recently remade into a flimsy Mark Wahlberg vehicle, showcases one of his more iconic performances. Lindsay Anderson’s if…. (1968), starring Malcolm McDowell as a dissident schoolboy who leads a revolution against the establishment, might have been the highlight of the festival were it not for the restoration of A Hard Day’s Night. Anderson’s anarchic and experimental countercultural masterpiece is a must-see for cineastes.

The the cherry on top of the icing on this already-substantial cake is of course the fiftieth anniversary restoration and screening of Beatles classic musical film A Hard Day’s Night (1964), directed by Richard Lester and starring the Fab Four, as they were known before their psychedelic studio phase, running around London trying to escape rabid fans and the overbearing press. Both influential for its aesthetic originality (it shaped the modern music video) and culturally significant for its embalmment of phenomenon and a world in change, the film is finally getting its long-awaited revival, scoring a Criterion release earlier this year and a full cinema revival in Britain and the US. Now, Australian audiences have the chance to join in the reverie of a timeless masterpiece.

The festival hits Northbridge’s Cinema Paradiso between 5-16 November. Session times and tickets are available here, with five film passes a cheap option for the ardent cinephiles and festival obsessives amongst us.

Note: Historians might be interested in Australian produced doc When the Queen Came to Town, about Her Majesty’s* maiden visit to Australia in 1954. It’s narrated by Bert Newton and looks set to feature substantial lengths of sun-drenched home video and news footage of Liz and conservative tyrant post-war saviour Robert Menzies shaking hands.
*sarcasm 

British Film Festival Top Five Picks:

1. A Hard Day’s Night (1964) (50th Anniversary Screening)

2. if…. (1968)

3. Mr. Turner (2014)

4. The Imitation Game (2014)

5. Darling (1965)

Honourable mentions: Lilting (2014), God Help the Girl (2013), everything else.

living is easy with eyes closed

Directed by: David Trueba

Screenplay by: David Trueba

Starring: Jávier Camara, Natalia de Molina, Jorge Sanz

Country: Spain

Language: Spanish (subtitled)

Duration: 105 minutes

Festivals and Awards: 2014 Spanish Film Festival (Aust.), Goya Awards: Best Film, Best Director, Best Original Writing and Best Leading Actor

The picturesque coast of Spain gives the politically inept Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed, a generic road movie about three unlikely friends on the run from their overbearing homes, a sunny exposition that can’t quite illuminate the shadowy aspects of its bad script. It’s 1966 and Franco is still in power in Spain, but the Beatles rule the world. Antonio (Jávier Camara, Talk to Her, I’m So Excited) is a middle-aged schoolteacher who disseminates English through their lyrics, the film opening on him guiding his class through the lyrics to ‘Help!’ He finds out that John Lennon is in Spain shooting How I Won the War, and takes off an a road trip to Almeria in the hopes of meeting his idol. Along the way he picks up Belén (Natalia de Molina), a pregnant escapee from a women’s sanctuary, who’s aimlessly running from nasty, oppressive nuns. Then there’s Juanjo (Jorge Sanz), the teenage Stones fan who refuses to get a haircut and decides the best course of action to emancipate and escape from his father. It should come as no surprise that through learning about each other, the trio end up learning more about themselves. Yawn.

Most of the film take place in Antonio’s car, as he babbles on and on about his obsession with Lennon and his overbearing boss. He’s supposed to be affable, charming even, but he comes off too desperate and ultimately pathetic. Writer-director David Trueba does the same, struggling to find links between Spain and Lennon, and ends up weaving together a story so fragile that at the single tug of a thread it unravels completely. In the third act there’s an uncomfortable and inappropriate sexual encounter between the teenage boy and the older, pregnant Belén. It exposes the film’s major fault; it has no direction, and the lengthy and vagrant diversions from the plot only occur because the film is fumbled together in an attempt to write a hagiography to Lennon. There are radical politics simmering in the background but they never ripen into valuable insights, Belén’s particularly dire circumstances are forgotten as she’s lazily resolved as an object of desire for the two men. The redemptive finale comes too late and after too long, its sweet charm lost on some of the more puzzling and quickly-forgotten earlier scenes of sexual sparring.

The film’s title comes from the lyrics of Lennon’s ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, which was penned on the set of How I Won the War in Almeria. The film suffers because, for all the chatter about him, it occurs almost completely outside of Lennon’s sphere and is so excised from the historical events that they become lost in the histrionics. There’s some beautiful cinematography of Spain’s sunny south, and a few charming moments, but on the whole it’s clueless about the political importance of The Beatles to the oppressed peoples of Spain. It certainly doesn’t help that the production doesn’t have the rights to any Beatles songs, especially when they’re talked about so much. There are surely more vital and interesting ways of showing how The Beatles blew Franco’s conservatism wide open and allowed for cultural respite in Spain. This film seems to have missed the point.

★★½

Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed opens in select cinemas November 6.

fury

Directed by: David Ayer

Screenplay by: David Ayer

Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LeBeouf, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal

Country: USA

Language: English and German (subtitled)

Duration: 137 minutes

Festivals: -

David Ayer’s Fury is a war film that resists the genre’s usual narrative trappings, proffering an unrelentingly immediate vision of war instead of a historical story of war. We come to know Ayer’s aggressively masculine cast over two hours, but only ever as soldiers. Whatever came before and whatever comes after is precluded by a pungent and visceral recreation of World War Two’s penultimate stand, as the Allied soldiers advance into Germany and approach the capital in April of 1945, purposefully omitting any backstory or post-war trauma. The dirty, bloody imagery, of flattened bodies, carved-out horses and terrified enemy assailants, sticks in the mind long after the credits, but the characters do not, and they aren’t helped by the misshapen, structureless script. Aboard the war-tank ‘Fury’ are the stoic Sergeant ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt) and his team, which includes bible-bashing technician Boyd Swan (Shia LeBeouf), Corporal Trini Garcia (Michael Peña) and the gruff, aggressive Private ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis (Jon Bernthal), as well as new recruit Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a milquetoast typist from Chicago completely inept at dealing with the newfound horrors of the front.

Through Norman, Ayer is able to convey the process that a man goes through when he fights in a war—the way his moral plenitude is flattened into a nationalistic servitude. On his first mission he freezes up and fails to shoot a German hiding in the surrounding trees. The German blows up the tank in front, and Norman sees an allied soldier emerge from the wreckage, in flames, only to end his own torturous pain with a shot in the head. As punishment, Wardaddy forces Norman shoot a captured German soldier in the back. It’s a way of obtaining unseen courage, but it’s also another step in a process that equates ‘saving’ with ‘killing’. It’s this narrowing down of moral scope into the simple objective of ‘kill Germans’ that Ayer nails, but the proceeding hokum, laboured and patriotic, seems to abandon the idea that, on a human level, war is less about politics than it is about objectifying men into weaponry. When the soldiers say to themselves ‘Best job I ever had’, there’s an eerie feeling that they might actually enjoy the war, and that the statement isn’t some kind of deranged coping mechanism. I still appreciated that it extended a moral question, even if it wobbles and eventually refuses to answer it.

And if Fury does ultimately fail as a statement film—which it undeniably tries to be—it still succeeds as a solid action film that knows the significance of its images. The way the violence is represented would even have adroit action fans observing with aguish; it’s a tough slog that’s a welcome change of scenery compared to the conscienceless reprobates of most other ego-charged multiplex fare. The camaraderie between the cast is palpable, if a little overstated, and the legitimate army training that Ayer had them undertake in preparation for the film pays off in authenticity, which is helped along by the use of genuine WWII tanks. Whilst the wide-eyed Lerman carries the human core of the film, and almost all of its sensitivity, it’s surprisingly Pitt who lets the team down, playing essentially the same character he did in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, a senseless and stoic war-machine with a faded moral compass and a smutty grin. LeBeouf, Peña and Bernthal are left with incomprehensible scraps of dialogue that they tear through with animosity, but it’s a shame Ayer couldn’t get a firm clutch on the film’s structure with a cast this formidable and with such a lengthy duration. In the film’s final moments Pitt’s scene-mates outshine him, but Ayer manages to gloss over his shortcomings with a wrought and terrifying climax, capped off with a beautiful and evocative final shot. Fury doesn’t reinvent the genre, even if it too often posits its capabilities, but it’s an exhilaratingly strong reminder of war’s dehumanising effects, and the way that the remaining scraps and embers of human spirit, no matter how entrenched, can still restore a man.

★★★½

Fury is in cinemas now.

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