Friday, January 28, 2011

Review: Black Swan

From its many striking and beautiful poster designs to its tantalising trailer, Darren Aronofsky’s retelling of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake has promised something cinematically special. With an audacious director and excellent cast, hype and anticipation has been very high. Thankfully Black Swan is one of those rare films where the build-up translates and all the potential pays off on screen.

Black Swan tells the story of Nina (Natalie Portman) a perfectionist ballerina at a prestigious New York ballet company. Nina’s hard work looks set to pay off when the director (Vincent Cassel, Eastern Promises) announces that he is casting a new lead in the production ofSwan Lake. While Nina is perfect for the white swan role, the lead is required to play both the white and black swan and a new dancer to the company, Lily (Mila Kunis, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) who is a more sensual and free-spirited performer, becomes her rival. Adding to Nina’s professional stress, she also has to cope with the stage-mum from hell (Barbara Hershey, Lantana) who infantilizes her.

Those expecting some sort of high art may be surprised by Black Swan’s melodrama. Dark and tense, this film is on one hand a psychological drama and on the other a pulse-racing thriller. The ballet world makes a great home for this genre, with its intensity, professional rivalries and the abundance of mirrored rooms. But Black Swan isn’t really about ballet at all. That isn’t to say that this aspect of the film is slapdash; Portman and Kunis spent months in preparation for their roles, finely tuning their bodies so they could resemble the real thing. British newspaper The Guardian recently ran an article where professional dancers gave their verdict on the film’s authenticity. Someone really missed the point here- if you want reality watch the beautiful documentary La Danse. Black Swan is exaggeration, fantasy and most of all make believe at its most exciting- it is not an exercise to see whether a Hollywood actress can be turned into a professional ballerina in nine months.

Much had been made of Portman’s exceptional performance, however there are three very strong female performances that guide this film. Kunis’ rebel ballerina and Hershey’s overbearing mother are just as vital to the film’s success. French actor Cassel is sadly allowed to completely overact his part as the game playing ballet director. While his villainous isn’t out of place in this film, an actor of his calibre could have probably taken the role to a more interesting and original place.

With more than touches of early Polanski and Cronenberg films, Black Swan explores the the darker recesses of ambition and narcissism, using the conventions of thriller and horror films. The film is beautiful and lyrical at times before switching to the full power of the melodrama, this duality is definitely something to be appreciated.

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First published on Trespass

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Review: Burlesque

Burlesque is a form of performance art that mixes parody with adult entertainment. Saucy and fun, burlesque traditionally involves singing, mime, dancing and comedy, as well as striptease. Bearing this in mind, Burlesque is perhaps the most inappropriately titled film of recent times. Lacking humour and titillation this musical bears more resemblance to a Pussy Cat Dolls music video than to a Dita von Teese performance.

Audiences expecting a cinema experience akin to Paul Verhoeven’s, so bad it’s good masterpiece, Showgirls are going to be disappointed. Where Verhoeven went overboard on the kitsch, Burlesque’s writer/director Steven Antin (who incidentally is the brother of Pussy Cat Dolls’ creator, and has directed several PCD music videos) has pulled back completely on the ‘adult’ themes. The film’s M rating is probably unnecessary, under-15s will have seen more risqué content watching Video Hits on Saturday mornings as they tuck into their cornflakes.

Burlesque’s storyline sees small-town waitress, Ali (Christina Aguilera), head to the big smoke (LA) to try and make her dreams of becoming a singer a reality. In LA Ali comes across The Burlesque Lounge, which is owned by Tess (Cher). Enchanted by this strange and glamorous club and its staff and entertainers, Ali talks her way into a job as a cocktail waitress. Befriended by the club’s bartender and struggling musician Jack (Cam Gigandet), Ali is determined to make it on the stage.

Big voiced songstress, Aguilera makes a perfectly adequate actress, but she lacks the natural charisma needed to drive a film. Cher as the ‘mentor’ figure has a certain amount of charm, but not enough to sell the awful dialogue she’s been lumped with. Alan Cummings and Stanley Tucci phone-in their performances as club host and stage manager, and still prove to be the highlights of the film.

The real problem with this movie- aside from its tone and avoidance of burlesque content- is the ‘musical’ aspect. You can excuse a weak storyline, it is almost expected in a film like this, but it is unforgiveable to have a completely forgettable soundtrack. The musical numbers, over-produced Bob Fosse knock-offs, are actually quite boring and leaving the cinema you’ll be hard-pressed to remember a single song.

What should have been a camp triumph of singing, dancing and suggestive humour has sadly been over-sanitized and completely dumbed down. It’s hard to see how Burlesque will please any of its intended audiences.


First published in The Brag 10/01/11

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Blue Valentine

It took twelve years for co-writer and director Derek Cianfrance to get his film from page to screen. Emotionally raw, heartbreakingly beautiful and superbly acted Blue Valentine was definitely worth the wait.

Switching between past and present the film tells the story of a couple’s relationship. In the present Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are married with one young daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka). But this is a relationship on a downward spiral, with individual expectations dividing the couple. In the past sequences we witness the beginning of the relationship, and the passionate love between dreamer Dean and university student Cindy.

Asking if love is enough, Blue Valentine certainly isn’t a feel-good film (perhaps reconsider this as a date night film, unless you want to face some rather tough ‘relationship’ conversations afterwards). Told with brutal honesty the story unfolds over 48 hours in Dean and Cindy’s marriage, which ultimately proves to be exquisitely sad.

The film’s emotional core is fuelled by the experiences of both Cami Delavigne (writer) and Cianfrance who have cited their parent’s divorce as their inspiration. This film is undoubtedly a project where all the right elements have come into place (eventually) to create something special. The performances, the look and the sound enhance one another creating more and more layers to the story.

Cinematographer Andrij Parekh (Half-Nelson, Cold Souls) works his magic with the film’s visuals. With the past sequences shot on handheld super 16mm film and the present shot on red cameras, the sections are as equally divided by look as tone. While the past sequences seem open, bright and free, the present sequences with their extreme close-ups and more rigid structure seem constricting and claustrophobic, reflecting perfectly the atmosphere in the couple’s relationship.

Williams and Gosling are both Oscar nominated actors (Brokeback Mountain and Half-Nelson) and the high calibre of acting is evident throughout the film as they run a gamut of emotions. Williams and Gosling give themselves over to the script and at no time does it feel like you are watching ‘acting’, they feel natural and at times very raw. And it is only fair that their brave performances have been rewarded with Golden Globe nominations.

Toping off the impressive performances and evocative visuals, the sublime soundtrack comes from Brooklyn-band Grizzly Bear, with songs taken from their albums, Yellow House (2008) and Veckatimest (2009). The folky undertones of the band beautifully charts the film’s moods adding sumptuous texture. However perhaps the film is best summed up by a musical performance by Gosling’s character, Dean in a scene where he serenades Cindy (Williams) with “You Always Hurt the One you Love”.

First Published on Trespass 20/12/2010

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Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Filmmaker Sofia Coppola is exceedingly accomplished in creating mood. Mixing a languid plot pace with very pretty visuals and chilled out soundtracks, her films, like the Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, are as much about generating an atmosphere as telling a story.

Coppola’s fourth film Somewhere is no different. Filmed on location at the legendary Hollywood hotel Chateau Marmont (situated on Sunset Boulevard) with a music score from frequent collaborators, French band Phoenix, Somewhere is set in the world of films and fame, but is very much focused on the reality of this seemingly glitzy existence. Stephen Dorff (Blade) stars as Johnny Marco, an actor numbed by drugs, booze and women. Marco is between projects, when his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning) turns up to stay, somewhat unexpectedly, causing him to re-examine his life.

Somewhere is nowhere near as moralistic as the synopsis sounds. Coppola who wrote the screenplay is familiar with this world, the daughter of a famous director (Francis Ford Coppola) the film’s scenes of press conferences and award ceremonies seem awkward enough to be realistic. Add to this Dorff’s backstory as an actor- slipping from a promising early career to B-grade fare- and this film has a fascinating meta-fiction quality.

Dorff, proving he deserves to be in more films like this, provides an excellent emotional centre to the film, allowing you to care about a character who should be highly unpleasant. The father/daughter dynamic in the film doesn’t feel forced, Fanning is a natural in front of the camera, providing a perfect counterweight to Dorff’s more introspective performance. Chris Pontius, who is best known for his role in Jackass, cheekily improvises his way through the role of Sammy, Marco’s friend, and is kind of great.

Somewhere’s slow pace isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste or attention spans, but if you allow this film to cast its spell over you, you’ll still be basking in the afterglow as you leave the cinema. Thoughtful, poetic and evocative, it isn’t hard to see why Somewhere won the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice International Film Festival.


First Published in The Brag 20/12/2010

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Love and Other Drugs

Reuniting Brokeback Mountain actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway on screen should be a cause for celebration; unfortunately, this woefully trite and boring film has sullied the occasion. Ostensibly based on Jamie Reidy’s nonfiction book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, this film is an adaptation in the very loosest sense of the word, with the screenwriters (director Edward Zwick, Charles Randolph and Marshall Herskovitz) turning the rise of big pharma companies into a romantic comedy.

Jamie Randall (Gyllenhaal) is a loveable rogue; good with ladies but bad at keeping a job. The underachiever in his family, he is convinced by his brother (Josh Gad) to take a position at Pfizer as a sales rep. Jamie is sent to Ohio where he must convince doctors to prescribe the depression drug Zoloft over Prozac. Jamie’s life takes a turn when he meets free spirit and Parkinson’s sufferer Maggie (Hathaway).

Set in the 90s around the time that Viagra was released on the market by Pfizer, Love and Other Drugs misses the mark on many counts. The filmmakers apparently deemed the real story of an overpaid, slacker drug rep in over-prescribed America as either too boring or too hard a sell. Instead, they (rather cynically) inject the Maggie character into the plot, hijacking a story worth telling and turning it into an unoriginal romance.
Gyllenhaal and Hathaway will leave this film unscathed because the likeable stars do a good job with what they have been given. The film basically asks them to be an attractive couple, which is what they do.Oliver Platt as Jamie’s mentor and Hank Azaria as a womanising doctor are shamefully underutilised in the film. In contrast Gad (who seems to have been hired as a Jonah Hill impersonator) is painfully overused as Jamie’s grotesque younger brother.

Lacking the sardonic wit or necessary bite to pull off a rom-com based in the world of pharmaceuticals, Love and Other Drugs is a very disappointing pill to swallow.


First Published in The Brag 13/12/2010

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Talking Genre Politics with Patrick Hughes

Red Hill marks Australian filmmaker Patrick Hughes feature film directorial and writing debut. Red Hill, a modern Australian Western, had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year. The film’s action unfolds over one day and night in a small town in Victoria. Ryan Kwanten stars as Shane Cooper, a city cop who has just relocated to the country town of Red Hill. Cooper’s first day turns into a nightmare when convicted murderer Jimmy Conway (Tom E. Lewis) escapes from prison and returns to town seeking revenge against the lawmen who imprisoned him, including Old Bill (Steve Bisley).

Beth Wilson caught up with Hughes on the publicity trail to find out more about his transition from short films and commercials to feature films, the inspiration for the film and to talk about the dirty word ‘genre’…

Red Hill has been called a Western and a return to the heyday of Australia’s 70s and 80s genre films, how would you describe your film and its film genre?

I like to call it a neo-Western. It’s a modern take on old themes. Certainly I was inspired by the landscapes and the town we shot the film in, I found something that was really tragic about the story of a town, a boomtown that has gone bust. It is an old town that has lost its way in a modern world and it’s fighting for its survival, and it is fighting for a position and a sense of identity. You look at a town like Omeo (where Red Hill was filmed) it used to have 40,000 people, in 1890 it was Australia’s biggest gold rush town, Now there are 120 and all those industries have shut down. What happens to all those people left? How far will they go to save their town? I found that was a really interesting starting point in terms of creating a modern-day Western.

So the story started with that town?

I was fortunate enough to do some Brumby chasing when I was younger with a character that lived up in that town named Ken Connelly, and I remember riding back through the main street of Omeo, and I literally felt I was in a living breathing Western. I remember riding on horseback and you’d pass the town hall, barbershop and rickety old shopfronts and then a Toyota Landcrusier drives past and no one flinches because it is the kind of town where there still is that mix of horses and cars. It felt like you were in a lost world, felt like you were walking through a museum.

I am a huge fan of what every western is, which is a moral code. Red Hill is an exploration of revenge, redemption and sacrifice, and then you look at the history of our country. I grew up watching all these Westerns and if you look at the colonialisation of America, and the white man moving in pushing the American Indians out and the terrible atrocities that happened, the parallels to our country are striking. Exactly the same thing happened here when the white man moved in and pushed the Indigenous people off their own land. I felt like if anyone is due for a story of revenge it would be the Indigenous people of Australia.

You have had a career making commercials and highly successful shorts, how did you find the transition to your first feature film, where you had a budget that was less than you’ve had previously for commercials?

Every time I’m on set I’m learning. I think commercials are a really great training ground to learn the physicalities of how a set operates. Knowing how fast you can move, and I like to shot fast and move fast, obviously with Red Hill we had four weeks to shoot the movie; some people would go “you’re nuts, you’re crazy” but I knew in the back of my mind that we had a real chance of pulling this off. What commercials have allowed me to do is bring in an incredibly gifted crew. These guys are some of the best people in the industry, they’ve worked on some of the biggest films, you know all the Hollywood blockbusters they shoot out here.

We ended up with a situation where if we could just get a really great cast and a really great team of crew and just get them into the high country, in this one town for four weeks, we could pull off a movie, and that was kind of how I did it.

How did you go about casting?

It is tricky as an independent filmmaker because you don’t have a studio behind you or any major resources, so I’d written the script, but I had to raise the money before I could approach the actors, because you don’t want to waste their time. You want to give them a cemented date. Once I’d written the script I then raised the money privately and once we had, that first port of call was casting the three leads.

Steve Bisley was my first choice and I got the script in front of him and we immediately hit it off. Then Tom E. Lewis, I was really terrified about sending him the material, because you know the assumptions people make about who the bad guy is. You know you’ve got a disfigured Indigenous person wielding a sawn-off shotgun and sweeping through a small country town, it is pretty confronting material. So before I gave Tom E. the script I said please don’t throw this in the bin at page 50 because you won’t know the full story, don’t make any assumptions. God bless him he didn’t and he called me the next morning. And Ryan [Kwanten] of course, I was looking for an actor who had a strong physical presence but also had a vulnerability, because essentially the film is the story of a city boy who needs to become a cowboy. Once I’d cast those three leads I knew I had a real movie. I’ve got two iconic legends of Australian cinema, Steve Bisley and Tom E. Lewis, obviously Ryan Kwanten is just a raw talent, he literally walked off the second series of True Blood and onto our set.

Because it was independently funded did that mean it felt like you had more creative control?

I mean the only reason you make your first movie is so someone lets you make another one. I know that I’ll look back in 20 years and say the most fun I probably ever had making a movie was shootingRed Hill, because we literally made it outside of the system. No one even knew we were up there shooting it, it felt like we were in this little bubble. It was a really surreal experience when you are standing on set at 3 am setting fire to a house, or doing all the crazy stuff we did with the car chases and shoot outs and we felt we had the whole town behind us and there was a real kind of team spirit up there.

There has been a lot of talk in Australian film circles that Australia needs more genre films, which you have provided. But are you worried at all that Australian audiences are notoriously bad at watching Australian films?

Yeah, but I think if we consistently keep on making better films then we’ll probably win them back. I don’t know if one film is going to turn it all around, I don’t think it is that simple. It does feel like maybe we lost our way for a while, we lost our audience for a while we certainly did that. How do we win them back? I think if we start making films of all different types of genres. That is really important too, not to just keep making the same kind of films.

Everyone walks around saying genre is a dirty word. I think it is ridiculous, because I think if you look at every kitchen sink drama, they are a genre to themselves, they all hit the same marks every time. If it is the fish out of water, the story of someone who has come back to bury their father in a small country town- I’ve seen that a million times. Name me one film that isn’t a genre movie.

But it is a term that holds connotations…

I think what people apply it to is making commercial films. I made this film because it is really something I’d like to see, I hope it transpires to box office figures. I think if filmmakers keep questioning who’s the audience for this film, then slowly piece by piece we might just win that audience back. I think there is a lot of distrust out there. The marketing can push it so far but to get that real pop you need to get the word of mouth and the buzz from people on the street. More than anything I’ll respect what my friend says “hey man you’ve got to go check out this movie”, at the end of the day that is what it comes down to.

That’s what we want more Aussies watching Aussie films

And if they don’t go and see it I’ll cut loose with a sawn-off shotgun. I’m serious I’ve got my gun licence. (he’s NOT serious)

Images provided courtesy of Sony Pictures Au

First Published on Trespass 18/11/2010