The Troubled Musical Tribute to ‘Amy’

This review was originally published by The Film Experience.

Given what director Asif Kapadia was able to accomplish with the otherwise (to me) uninteresting world of vroom vroom speed racing in Senna, logic would dictate that when handling a subject of great interest to me that the results would be even more outstanding. That doesn’t quite prove to be the case with Amy, another scrapbook collection of archival footage presenting the life of somebody who lived fast and died young, Amy Winehouse, but one which lacks quite the same verve of the director’s predecessor.

Kapadia is in the unique position of making a documentary about somebody whose life isn’t just rife for the Hollywood biopic treatment, but which actually feels like it already has been. Is her story not almost note-for-note for Mark Rydell’s The Rose with Bette Midler? It’s curious as a viewer of a documentary to feel as if I’d seen it all before in a fiction film (albeit one highly inspired by a real life person) and being disappointed because it comes off second best.

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Jurassic World Reboots in Plastic

This review was originally published by Weekly Gravy.

Somebody let the dinosaurs into the liquor cabinet. Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park turned 21 last year and, just like anybody allowed to drink for the first time, it’s gone a little bit awry. With Jurassic World, director Colin Trevorrow makes a defiant display of wannabe maturity, but his film is ultimately a bit of a mess as it so desperately attempts to replicate the popular original, but does so without any of the class that Spielberg brought to his ground-breaking special effects extravaganza of 1993. Perhaps in returning to the franchise, the powers that be shouldn’t have handed over the reins to somebody with such little experience – this is only Trevorrow’s second feature after the low-budget indie Safety Not Guaranteed, which is a bizarre leap. Maybe someone who had the honed skills equivalent to Spielberg when he was at the top of his blockbuster game should have been the one in charge.

Certainly somebody with more experience would have spotted the myriad of problems inherent in Jurassic World, most of which can be laid at the feet of the screenplay. A screenplay that took four people to write, which is an alarming statistic. When the script isn’t simply recreating famous scenes from the original with less engaging characters who speak a lot and yet say so very little, it’s blindly ignoring plot holes and conjuring up half-baked ideas like breeding raptors to take on terrorists, which is just as silly as the gymnastics routine from the first sequel The Lost World.

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Terminator Genisys trumps Jurassic World‘s Referential Reboot

This review originally appeared on Weekly Gravy.

There’s something about the Terminator franchise that I truly dig. I like that it doesn’t pretend its science is anything other than ridiculous coming out of the mouths of muscle-bound beefcakes, yet still takes its concepts of ethics and cause-and-effect seriously. I like that, apart from the dour-faced Salvation, these films are aesthetically exciting, filling the screen with eye-popping action set-pieces and visual effects that allow us to actually see and follow what’s happening, rather than throwing graphics at the screen and expecting audiences to nod in glazed-eye approval. Perhaps most of all, I just like films with some actual imagination behind them. I can forgive the lapses into bad acting and nonsensical dialogue if it feels like somebody behind the scenes spent longer than a nanosecond on devising ways to entertain an audience rather than simply doing the same as before (like The Avengers: Age of Ultron) and expecting it not to notice.

It’s true that not a whole lot of Terminator Genisys makes sense when held up to close inspection, but part of the beauty of time travel is that doesn’t really need to. It makes sense in their world so, really, I’m not going to waste my energy attempting to decipher it. Where I thought it succeeded was in crafting a story that actually builds upon the themes of earlier franchise entries while being allowed to become its own thing (at least The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment DayRise of the Machines, Salvation and the TV-series The Sarah Conner Chronicles have been more or less scrapped from the timeline).

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Strangerland Tackles the Australian Myth

This review originally appeared on The Film Experience.

Kim Farrant’s Strangerland is deeply, uncomfortably Australian. In many ways, it goes right to the heart of the country as a family infiltrate a place that is unfamiliar and even hostile to their arrival. A family, all of whom hold secrets and potentially criminal pasts. They could have been dressed up in Colonial costumes and set 150 years ago without much of a narrative alteration, which is probably much the point of Farrant’s debut feature. How our convict pasts have manifested as a society that turns on its own as much as the other.

Strangerland has a fairly simple premise, but one that allows for some fairly wide-ranging readings. After having left their last post due to an ambiguously alluded to crime, Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) and Catherine Parker (Nicole Kidman) find themselves in the remote outback town of Nathgari. He’s a pharmacist and she’s a housewife, neither of whom are able to handle their 15-year-old daughter, Lily (Maddison Brown). When Lily and young son Tommy vanish in the middle of the night, the town deals them with suspicion while Catherine becomes more and more emotionally unhinged at the thought their children may have deliberately abandoned her.

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54: The Director’s Cut Rises Like a Phoenix

This review was originally published on The Film Experience.

The history behind Mark Christopher’s wannabe decadent, sexually-charged disco epic 54 is almost as interesting as the real life nightclub it uses as its setting. Originally conceived as a disco-themed coming-of-age drama like Saturday Night Fever blended with the hedonistic dungeon-like underworld of Cruising, all signs pointed to the film being a crazed and sexy paean to a world that no longer exists. And then Miramax got involved. There’s a long history of director’s cuts of famous films or those from famous directors (Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now) or cult titles (Dark City). 54 was neither, so how did it get into this position?

After a few fated audience test screenings, Miramax decided to change tact with 54. Cutting out 40 minutes of footage that showed an openly queer antihero and replacing it with 25 minutes of newly filmed material aimed to exploit the exploding popularity of stars Ryan Phillippe and Neve Campbell. Released to scathing reviews, the film ultimately limped at the box office, Mike Myers had a supporting actor nomination rescinded by the New York Film Critics Circle (at least according to the director) and was likely never thought much of since. Mark Christopher’s career was essentially ruined in the process.

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Photocopy Frights in Poltergeist

Remakes can be many different things. Despite all the energy spent complaining about them, we wouldn’t probably have what we know as horror if it weren’t for remakes, and we certainly wouldn’t have many of the films that we now consider classics. I’m not as opposed to the idea of horror remakes are many others for this very reason, and just like every other film that has ever existed, there’s so much more that goes into whether a film is good or bad than just being based on a pre-existing property.

Still, if you’re going to remake a film – especially a famous one – you should probably go about having something different to say. Whether that be simply looking at an old text through new eyes that shine something new upon it, revamping it through new technology and advanced filmmaking skills, or contextualising it with the modern world. One of my favourite remakes is Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of 2003 for those very reasons. Whatever you make of the Tobe Hooper undeniably classic original being given the remake treatment, it was ultimately a new take on the material. It exists as its own creature – for better or worse. Likewise Dawn of the Dead (for better) and Halloween (for worse).

poltergeist01Many far less inspired remakes have been made in the years since. Films by makers that seemingly had far less on their mind both thematically or visually than simply rehashing their original products. Films like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Carrie, The Fog and The Stepfather that were as uninspiring as recreations can get. Given the riches inherent in a property such as Tobe Hooper’s (or Steven Spielberg’s, let’s be honest) Poltergeist, one would have hoped that something slightly more invigorating than the final product would have wound up in cinemas. Instead of a reboot that takes advances in technology, the ever-expanding suburban sprawl or a clear audience desire for haunted houses, we’re left with little more than a faded photocopy.

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Partisan a Striking Debut for Ariel Kleiman

In an unnamed country, Gregori (Vincent Cassel) rules over a clan of women and children with what could probably be best described as a gloved iron fist. He’s not a cruel person, rather he is attentive and caring, but as seen in one of Partisan’s best sequences, he is also not afraid to teach dissenters a brutal lesson while in another we’re shown what is perhaps the side effects of his tyrannical behaviour seen offscreen. The charismatic leader’s family as well as what appear to be a mass of runaway single mothers and their children are ensconced in a series of connected houses, built around and into a mountain as if they’re squatters in cliff-side dugouts from a distant war. They carry on their business away from the public eye while Gregori makes money by employing his own child, 11-year-old Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel), as a hired assassin for local businessmen.

The talented first-time feature director Ariel Kleiman made a name for himself on the festival circuit with short films such as Young Love and the multi-award-winning Deeper Than Yesterday. Those films were set and spoken in Hungary and Russia respectively, but for Partisan he has given his actors English-language dialogue despite obviously being set (and vocally accented) in Eastern Europe and externals being filmed in Georgia. Maybe he made this decision to bolster its box office potential, although perhaps ironically, this film’s only noteworthy festival appearance has been Sundance. Staggering, really, consider it is a work of immense quality. I have no doubt that if it had been made in Georgian (or any other European dialect) that it would be spoken of in higher esteem with a healthier festival life. But, then again, what else is new for Australian cinema?

partisan01Many will compare Partisan to Luc Besson’s Leon – and at a stretch, the cult dramas of The East and Martha Marcy May Marlene – and while the two do share a similar narrative hook, Kleiman’s film is far from that stylishly violent French film. This is a film of great restraint, one that chooses to take its time observing through the eyes of its young protagonist as his world expends not only to beyond the confines of the compound – a sequence in a delicatessen wherein the boy encounters ordinary people is rife with tension, although a sequence with a local boy is frustratingly cut short – but also to the questions of morality around the actions of his father and himself. The cinematography of Germain McMicking, a winner at Sundance, is vital to this as the camera navigates their world of dark colours, but most importantly it’s up to Chabriel. One of the finest child actor performances to come along in some time, he perfectly matches the charming intensity of Cassel who is almost too well cast as Gregori. One can sense the bond between the two, which helps make their relationship, and thus the foundation of the entire film’s narrative set-up, all the more tangible.

I am sure many will be frustrated by the 30-year-old director’s perceived preference for mood over actual substance, but I found that feeling of deeply foreboding dread that the style of the film permits was entirely part of the substance. It’s a film of somber grey emotions, sure, but one that has keen insights into motivations of its characters. It’s a striking feature debut and one that, especially when coupled with his early short work, announces a major global talent in the making.

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