Friday, 15 August 2014

Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) 2014 Reviews Delayed

Since July 31st, The Melbourne International Film Festival has been in full swing. As one of Australia's most prestigious and oldest film events it has this year hosted films from around the world screening a total of 341 films.

Unfortunately despite my intention to get reviews up during the festival which ends this Sunday the 17th of August I have been unable to get them completed due to multiple screenings - however these reviews will be appearing online from Saturday the 16th.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Help (2011) | Review

Tate Taylor

Viola Davis as Abileen Clark
Emma Stone as Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan
Octavia Spencer as Minnie Jackson
Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly Holbrook
Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote
Allison Janney as Charlotte Phelan
Cecily Tyson as Constantine Jefferson
Sissy Spacek as Missus Walters

Running Time: 146 Minutes
Country of Production: USA
Language: English

Reviewed By: Benjamin D. Skevofilax
Edited By: Catherine Mohana

Rating: B
Overview: A well-intended and exceptionally acted and entertaining film that knows its audience but also wants to tell a significant and important story about a serious theme that is rampart racism and segregation in the not so distant past but with a winning combination of convinction and humour The Help ranks as one of the smartest films of 2011

Utilising a serious theme such as social injustice, in this case racial segregation in the not so distant past isn’t easy at the best of times let alone when you combine humour and laugh out loud moments into the mix. The Help it not only exceeds but ranks as one of the smartest films of 2011.

Based on Kathryn Stockett’s best selling novel the story follows literary graduate Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) who returns to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi during the civil rights movement of the early 60s and decides to write a book detailing the struggles for equality of African-American maids or 'The Help'  which include Abileen (Viola Davis) and Minnie (Octavia Spencer).

The Help is likely to open the eyes of many, particularly those outside the United States who may have some idea of the racism brought on African Americans by the white majority but it is unlikely that many of us in the ‘free’ world would be able to fully comprehend it particularly those of the younger generations. While it isn’t a history lesson it is an eye opener that takes itself seriously enough to have a message but still has interesting and diverse characters and a dash of humour that lightens (but never undermines) this dark stage in America’s history.

It’s the characters of The Help that makes this film entertaining and believable and it’s only through this that clichés are set up and ripped apart without becoming unconvincing, especially when you have a cast that ranges from newcomer Emma Stone to veterans like Viola Davis and serial scene stealers like Allison Janney you know you’re in good company. If this had not featured any male actors (which barely play a role as is) it could have been compared to George Cukor’s classic 1939 film The Women.

Viola Davis, in a rare leading Hollywood role (give this fine actress  more demanding roles!) is brilliant as Abileen, a long-serving maid from who's point the story is told and despite some hesitation begins to open up to plucky young journalism graduate Skeeter in telling of her experiences over the years raising the children of other white women and keeping their households in order and being treated as little more than a servant or a slave. It's impossible not to believe in Davis' portrayal and that she didn't win the Oscar for Best Actress is a glaring oversight (sorry, Meryl Streep while you are a legend The Iron Lady just didn't make it into the same caliber as Davis' performance here).

Stone with her husky voice, unusual looks and unique talent for quick-witted humour is ideal as Skeeter. She manages to combine wide-eyed optimism with  an unconventionality which makes her both stand out and blend in at the same time. It’s through her passion to tell this story that not only opens her eyes to the atrocities of forced servitude and inequality and that works as the eyes of the audience as well. In her Oscar-winning role Octavia Spencer (interestingly Stockett based the character on the actress herself as they had been friends for years) is brilliant as Minnie, also a maid and Abileen's best friend, a tough as nails woman, a legendary cook and pie-maker who masks her own home life struggling to raise kids of her own and an abusive husband - it's a role that Spencer makes owns making her both a force of nature and vulnerable at the same time and she practically outshines everyone when she's on screen.

The rest of the ensemble are equally at the top of their games, standouts include Bryce Dallas Howard as society woman Hilly Holbrook, a sociopath who is all smiles and niceties which conceal a a woman who is a hell-bent elitist and racist so intent on appearance and prestige that she doesn’t care who she walks over or what she has to do to achieve the status and has the fellow women of Jackson wrapped around her little finger. Jessica Chastain (in one of several breakthrough roles of 2011 along with Take Shelter and Tree of Life that marked her one of Hollywood’s most diverse talents) is wonderful as Celia Foote, a peroxide blonde southern belle who has become an outcast and finds friendship with Minnie.

Writer and director Tate Taylor (who’s just reteamed with Davis and Spencer for his follow-up the James Brown biopic Get On Up) has concocted a highly entertaining and thought provoking film that is filled with some fantastic scenes. From a discussion of separate bathrooms for ‘the help’, to the revelation of the secret ingredients of a pie, to a showdown between Hilly and Celia, at a benefit for African American children!  The overall production design of the film is brilliant capturing in America’s South the way you’d imagine it to be or at least the way we’ve come to expect it to look from similar films. 

The Help seems without flaws, occasionally the over indulgence in flashbacks and sentimentality and a romantic interest for Sketter that's becomes a bit sappy to fit in with its humour but this is a well-intended and exceptionally well acted and entertaining film that knows its audience but also wants to tell a significant and important story at the same time.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Grace Kelly Retrospective: Green Fire (1954) | Review

Andrew Marton

Stewart Granger as Rian X. Mitchell
Grace Kelly as Catherine Knowland
Paul Leonard as Vic Leonard
John Ericson as Donald Knowland
Muryvn Vye as El Moro

Running Time: 100 Minutes
Country of Production: USA
Language: English | Spanish

Reviewed By: Benjamin D. Skevofilax 

Rating: C
Overview: Green Fire is a good looking adventure film that has two very attractive stars but there's a lack of pacing and necessary romantic chemistry between the two leads. Even as derivative popcorn entertainment of the 1950s it feels anemic and uninspired compared to the far superior King Solomon's Mines or Mogambo which it aspires to be

 With the release of Grace of Monaco (starring Nicole Kidman) about Hollywood legend and Alfred Hitchcock muse Grace Kelly who's short acting career spanned only five years and eleven feature films including an Oscar win before she became Princess of Monaco, it's an appropriate time to take a look back at one of Kelly's largely forgotten film's.

Green Fire is an old school type of romantic adventure it stars two popular actors of the day Stewart Granger and Grace Kelly, exotic location shooting in Colombia and a story that involves treasure hunting and bandits, yet despite the possibility for this to become breezy Hollywood entertainment it's sluggish and lacks excitement.

Set in Colombia, roguish treasure hunter Rian Mitchell (Granger) discovers an emerald deposit but finds opposition from local bandits who lay claim to the mine, after getting beaten up and left for dead he's restored to health by beautiful plantation owner Catherine (Kelly). Tricking his partner Vic (Paul Douglas) to return to the mines and is soon torn between his his for the 'Green Fire', a mysterious emerald and his growing affection for Catherine.

Director Andrew Marton adapted H.R Haggard’s Colonial adventure novel King Solomon’s Mines (he would later go on to direct the chariot scene in Ben-Hur) which was an adventure packed and fun ride and something of the Indiana Jones of it's day but here he misses the mark in creating an equally rousing adventure and it’s awfully slow at times which wouldn't matter as much if there an interesting story but it's paper thin characterizations and a pacing that feels like it's following a blueprint and there's all the cliches that come with the genre (rugged hero, beautiful damsel in distress, violent bandits et al.) and even the few standout action scenes like a mine collapsing (which is clearly shot on a soundstage) and a climatic downpour feel cheap and shoehorned in because the template demanded it. 

Stewart Granger played Allan Quartermain in King Solomon's Mines and here tries to channel the same energy and charisma but falls short due to an underwritten character playing him somewhere between a lovable rogue and a womanizing playboy but in the end he's reduced to a by the book romantic sap torn between money and love. 

Grace Kelly (who only did the film as a contractual obligation) while lovely and given a ridiculous number of costume changes is at odds with Catherine, a plantation owner who along with her alcoholic brother (John Ericson) are struggling to make a profit of their crops but it doesn’t help that in one scene she’s strong willed and the next spurting out mushy romantic lines (that would seem more at home in a daytime soap) to a man she’s apparently fallen in love with in the space of a couple of scenes, but for the 
most part she seems bored and uninterested and this is one of the weakest film she made in her short-lived acting career. Kelly played a similar character to far greater success in Mogambo (1953) only a year earlier which was less an adventure story than a love triangle but worked because of the sheer chemistry of the three stars (Clark Gable and Ava Gardner being the other two) but here there's a lack of chemistry so desperately needed to make the story interesting.

And let’s not forget about the Colombians who are either treated as ruthless bandits or who are employed to work at the mine or the coffee plantation who drink or fight too much and ultimately seen as lesser in both casting and stature than their white counterparts on screen in a typical case of blatant racism of the Hollywood of the day.

The highlights of the film are the lavish Technicolor on-location cinematography which has some gorgeous landscapes of mountains and rivers which is beautifully lensed by Paul Vogel and Miklos Rozsa's score is sweeping and romantic.

Green Fire is a good looking adventure film that has two very attractive stars but there's a lack of pacing and necessary romantic chemistry between the two leads. Even as derivative popcorn entertainment of the 1950s it feels anemic and uninspired compared to the far superior King Solomon's Mines or Mogambo which it aspires to be.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) | Review

Rupert Wyatt

James Franco as Will Rodham
Andy Serkis as Caesar
Freida Pinto as Caroline Aranha
John Lithgow as Charles Rodham
Brian Cox as John Landon
Tom Felton as Dodge Landon

Running Time: 105 Minutes
Country of Production: USA
Language: English

Reviewed By: Benjamin D. Skevofilax

Rating: B+
Overview: An entertaining and worthwhile prequel and origin story that gives you exactly what your expect from a Hollywood blockbuster and it lays the groundwork for a series that can go from strength to strength

It’s been 46 years since Planet of the Apes became a staple of the science fiction genre; it’s rip-roaring combination of action, mystery, satire and adventure made it an instant hit and one of the top grossing films of 1968. It spawned 4 sequels, a short-lived television series and even an animated series; Tim Burton attempted a reworking in 2001 which was sadly under-praised by most.

Rather than continuing on from Burton's Planet of the Apes, the story goes back to the origins of the apes in modern day San Francisco where Will Rodman (James Franco) a San Francisco scientist who is trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s by testing on apes. Beginning tests of an infant primate named Caesar (played by Andy Serkis), Will finds that the cure not only repairs brain cells but also genetically modifies the way of thinking and behaving of Caesar, who becomes the first primate with near human-like intelligence. 
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is fortunate to have such a talented cast; not of humans however rather its primate ensemble led by the even brilliant Andy Serkis. This man is so good at performing motion capture techniques that he has brought to life some of the most iconic and memorable non-human characters in history, from Gollum in The Lord of the Rings an The Hobbit to King Kong. Serkis makes everything that Caesar does seem so plausible, from his understanding of sign language to leading a revolt that it’s impossible not to believe in his revolution.

The human cast don’t fair as well in fairly disposable roles, James Franco has the thankless role of a man caught between ethics and science; but his role is here as the human contact between man and primate. Frieda Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire, Immortals) is given even less as a primatologist, other that being Will’s love interest she has the unenviable task of spouting off mortal conjecture; but at least she does look more gorgeous in each successive scene. John Lithgow does a fine job as Will’s slowly deteriorating Alzheimer’s inflicted father. Tom Felton (Harry Potter series) shines here as the cruel primate habitat keeper; watching his scenes makes it either to fathom why our closest cousins enslave us all in the fut

In early scenes we see over the process of 8 years, Caesar’s development from an ape of average intelligence to being able to almost compare with humanity in the care of the loving father-like Will. At times these scenes seem a bit overplayed bordering on being melodramatic, but its Caesar’s gripping protective nature of his adopted family that brings the film back to life; and one can only say this ape is certainly one damn fine fighter. From these scenes onwards the film doesn’t take a breathe as Caesar’s intelligence grows and his lust for something beyond being held capture in a facility becomes evident and it’s the recruiting of fellow primates that is the highlight of the film. 

Director Rupert Wyatt (who's last film was the British independent crime-thriller The Escapist (2008) does an adequate job of capturing these scenes using CGI sparingly so that they never dominant the entire film; but when they are used thanks to Weta Digital (the company responsible for the likes of Avatar, The Avengers and more recently Godzilla) they make you believe that a 300 pound gorilla could take down a helicopter in midair and that an ape can lead a revolt against mankind.

The apes might only get as far as the Golden Gate Bridge which makes for a climatic showdown of man against ape resulting in an entertaining and worthwhile prequel and origin story that gives you exactly what your expect from a Hollywood blockbuster and it lays the groundwork for a series that can go from strength to strength and will be continued in next month's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Walk of Shame (2014) | Review

Steve Brill 

Elizabeth Banks as Meghan Miles
James Marsden as Gordon
Gillian Jacobs as Rose
Sarah Wright as Denise
Ethan Suplee as Officer Dave
Ken Davitian as Cab Driver
Bill Burr as Officer Walter

Running Time: 97 Minutes
Country of Production: USA
Language: English


Reviewed By: Benjamin D. Skevofilax

Rating: F
Overview: The film manages to be degrading, sexist and racist and wastes the talents of it's usually very funny cast and makes for one of the worst films of the year
Elizabeth Banks is a great on-screen personality but in this aberrant comedy you wouldn’t know it as she’s reduced to equal parts racist and sexist writing and a character that never for a second feels authentic or believable and to make it worse there’s a lack of laughs in what was meant to be a raunchy riot.

Meghan Miles (Banks) is a hardworking and ambitious Los Angeles News Anchor who has the opportunity of a lifetime when she is considered for a job at a renowned network; when her dreams are crushed she hits the bars with her two besties (Gillian Jacobs and Sarah Wright-Olsen) which leads her into the drunken arms of a charming bartender / romantic fiction writer (James Marsden) upon waking up from her alcohol infused one night stand she discovers she is being reconsidered for the job but she has only eight hours to make it across town with no car, money or phone and wearing only a mini-skirt and stiletto heels.

Walk of Shame heavily implies in no uncertain terms that because of the way Meghan dresses she is first a stripper then a prostitute, repeated and unfunny examples beginning when an immigrant taxi driver (played by Borat’s Ken Davaitian) mistakes her for a stripper when she says her car got towed away and wants a lap-dance when she can’t pay the fare then she somehow manages to wind up in the red light district where she is verbally assaulted by two buffoonish cops (Ethan Suplee and Bill Burr) then there’s the elderly lady (Eve Brenner) on a bus who reprimands her asking why her pimp doesn’t drive her around.

This version of Los Angeles is shown as being filled with clichéd racial stereotypes whether it be the trio of African-American drug dealers (Lawrence Gillard Jr., Alphonso Mcauley and Da’vone McDonald) who are shown as either thugs or coked out who are initially hesitant to help Meghan only to risk their lives to assist her in getting back to her news desk all in the space of couple of minutes. Or the Jewish Rabbi (P.J Byrne) who is shown as being sexually repressed when Meghan comes along to ask for bus fare he asks her to sing for him at which point he appears to ejaculate when interrupted by other members of the Synagogue scorn her for being a witch. Then there’s the ‘happy ending massage parlour' run and staffed by Asian women with broken English accents at which point Meghan on the run blends in.

Meghan tells a panel of interviewers at the beginning of the film that she’s a good girl and that there’s no skeletons in her closet but it seems that a normally reserved and career driven woman can be degraded by one crazy night out. Let’s compare this with The Hangover trilogy where the three protagonists aren’t given a Scarlet Letter for their actions, is that because they’re men and it’s more acceptable than a woman in a similar situation? 

All these negative stereotypes aside the film just isn’t funny and seems to be joined together by pieces of (only) slightly better films from recent adult comedies like The Hangover to We’re the Millers and Identity Theft amongst others and the cast seems to be embarrassed. Banks has proved her mettle  as a comic actor with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Zach and Miri Make a Porno and more recently chewed up the scenery in The Hunger Games. But as Meghan it’s impossible to find any humanity or believability in a character we aren’t given the time care about. Interestingly Banks has played a news reporter before to great effect on 30 Rock, but that had the advantage of Tina Fey’s writing.

There’s the obligatory roles: Gillian Jacobs (TV’s Community) and Sarah Wright-Olsen (21 & Over) as the best friends, the former level headed and wisecracking and the other a ditz while James Marsden who’s character seems to be a rejected draft of his Enchanted character appears in only a few scenes despite star-billing as the one-night stand with (apparently) a heart of gold who will go out on a limb for someone who he knows nothing about.

Written and directed by Steve Brill whose credit include the Adam Sandler duds Little Nicky (2000) and Mr. Deeds (2002)  it’s easy to see why Walk of Shame turned out the way it did and in its final moments it adds injury to insult by trying to redeem itself by having a commentary on how wrong it is to stereotype how women dress and act (all on the air of course).

Perhaps hypothetically Walk of Shame could have worked as a black comedy where a woman wakes up after a crazy night only to find the city transformed into a Kafka-esque nightmare, sure that might be a similar plot to Martin Scorsese’s After Hours but no one said they couldn’t remake it or rework it and it would be better than sitting through this tripe. 

The screwball formula is here but after the opening credits which also happen to be the funniest thing of the entire film which has the news team behind KZLA shown as incompetent buffoons swearing and being sexually explicit on air but there's another 92 painful  minutes to endure where the film manages to slut shame, insult prostitutes, minorities, wastes the talent of its very funny cast and makes for one of the worst films of the year.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Tokyo Family (2013) | Review

Yôji Yamada

Isao Hashizume as Shukichi Hirayama 
Kazuko Yoshiyuki as Tomiko Hirayama 
Masahiko Nishimura as Koichi 
Tomoko Nakajima as Shoji 
Yui Natsukawa as Fumiko
Yu Aoi as Noriko Mamiya  

Running Time: 146 Minutes
Country of Production: Japan
Language: Japanese

Reviewed By: Benjamin D. Skevofilax
Edited By: Heidi Willis

Rating: B+
Overview: Tokyo Family is a gorgeously realised film that manages to take a universal theme and updates it without losing any of its nostalgic appeal and will please fans of Ozu and art-house Japanese cinema

To many the idea of remaking or reimagining a classic film is seen as sacrilegious but what if it has a universal story that could fit in anywhere at anytime such is the case with Tokyo Family; Yôji Yamada’s reworking of Yasujiro Ozu’s much loved Tokyo Story a film that has frequently appeared on critics greatest films of all time list naturally there’s going to be some backlash by purists of the original to attest a remake but ultimately it’s a reworking that while not as iconic as its source material is a commendable and stylishly commendable throwback for Japanese cinema.

The plot is essentially the same as the original except updated to present day (the original dealt with themes relating to Japan post-WWII) and explores the dynamics of a family when an elderly couple leave their rural island to visit their three grown children in Tokyo – all dealing with different elements of their life and none having enough time for their parents inside palming them off whenever they can.

With a 146-minute running time ten minutes longer than the original Tokyo Family is about half an hour to long but works regardless thanks to the conviction of its story its fine ensemble of actors all of whom are fantastic in their respective roles but true standouts are Satoshi Tsumabuki as layabout youngest child Shoji who is initially revealed as being irresponsible and lacking of a successful career by his father and older siblings working instead as a theatre set designer but eventually his character is one that has the most humanity and warmth of all three of the children while Yu Aoi is a sheer delight as Shoji’s girlfriend Noriko, a role made unforgettable by lovely Yasujiro muse Setsuko Hara in the original - Aoi plays her as bubbly and warm-hearted at her character’s story arch is where the true soul of the film lies as she shows more kindness to the parents than their own children

Transposing the story from post-World War II to present day Tokyo including the hustle bustle of a mega-city obsessed with anime and people who have become inhumane towards each other eschewing human relationships for careers and success but despite this the film feels old-fashioned and with it’s Ozu-esque feel with a deliberate pace, low angle shots and steeped in Japanese culture past new and old may make this a hard sell for foreign audiences wanting something more westernized or box-office friendly this is clearly a homage to the “most Japanese of all directors” rather than update or remake of the original.

Yamada who is best known outside of Japan for the Oscar-nominated Twilight Samurai (2004) had worked as Ozu’s assistant director in the mid 50s and the director’s style well and doesn’t shy away from this and the film is intentionally melodramatic and a tearjerker du jour complete with a searing score by Joe Hisaishi.

The film deals with the modern family and how easy it is for a generation to drift away from their parents and become parents like their parents but also manages to amply handle themes of parental neglect of their children, how the older generation perceives the current world and the kindness of strangers even if some of it’s characters are thinly drawn – the two older siblings in particular are shown only as ungrateful and unwilling to understand.

Tokyo Family is a loving homage and a gorgeously realised film that manages to take a universal theme and updates it without losing any of its nostalgic appeal and will please fans of Ozu and art-house Japanese cinema.