Thursday, 26 January 2017

La La Land

(M) ★★★★★

Director: Damien Chazelle.

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend.


Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling light up the screen in the wonderful La La Land.

IF there’s one thing that Hollywood loves, it’s Hollywood.

Should La La Land win the best film Oscar come February 26 – as it probably will and should – it will be the fourth winner in six years centred around acting and/or Hollywood.

But dismissing such a victory as an example of mere industry self-congratulation would ignore the fact this is a great film by almost any measure.

Gosling and Stone star as two dreamers in search of their respective goals in Los Angeles – the former is a down-and-out jazz pianist who longs to run his own jazz club and the latter is a struggling actress battered by a string of failed auditions.

After a number of unsuccessful meet cutes, they finally succumb to their obvious chemistry, falling in love and spurring each other toward their respective dreams. But can their romance survive the ups and downs of living in La La Land?


Pick a box and this film ticks it. As a musical, a comedy, a romance, all of the above, it thrives and takes flight. Justin Hurwitz’s songs are memorable and fun, with most of them bouncing upwards on rising chords and jazzy rhythms, but never becoming tiresome, despite the key musical themes regularly re-emerging, plus Mandy Moore's choreography (no, not that Mandy Moore) is outstanding. As a comedy, it’s occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, but never in your face or straining for a gag, content to just bubble along with a good sense of humour. And as a romance, it’s charming and surprising, while somehow managing to be both realistic and fantastical.

The cinematography is gorgeous – whether it’s capturing a sunset rendezvous or a simple street scene, there are numerous moments that look and feel instantly iconic. The script is sharp, particularly the ending. The editing is great, whether it be the hidden cuts in the opening single-take number on a gridlocked off ramp, or in the to-and-fro of an escalating dinner table argument.

But all these strengths would amount to nothing if its stars failed to align. Thankfully Gosling and Stone have a galaxy worth of chemistry. Their third film together (after Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad), La La Land sizzles courtesy of their pairing. Individually they are also great – they can sing, they can dance, and they can act, with the added bonus that Gosling plays/fakes a mean jazz piano – but together they are something remarkable. It’s hard to imagine this film in the hands of two different actors, such is the quality of their performances.

Of course the real kudos must go to Chazelle, who put this project on the backburner rather than compromise anything for it, instead going off to make the acclaimed Whiplash. His script and his direction burn with a passion for the subject matter. La La Land feels like an old-school Hollywood musical, referencing the likes of Singin’ In The Rain and An American In Paris, but is more than just an homage. It’s fresh and exciting, bursting on to the screen in a mix of technicolour, sassy performances and resounding symphonic chords.

If there is a criticism, it’s that the subject matter is a tad shallow – thematically, it’s about little more than the Facebook-ish motto of “follow your dreams”. However the film succeeds in giving that adage as much depth as possible by exploring what you have to give up in order to reach that goal. It’s also hard to ignore the Hollywood-talking-about-Hollywood nature of the movie, which is bound to resonate with Oscar voters, but might not speak to the non-artistic, non-aspirational types who have never wandered down Dreamer’s Lane.

But this is finding fault where there doesn’t need to be any. Not every film has to be as deep and tough as Spotlight or 12 Years A Slave. La La Land is frothy and fun and fabulous, but it’s also a great example of a film where every single piece clicks perfectly into place.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Lion

(PG) ★★★★

Director: Garth Davis.

Cast: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa.


Five-year-old Sunny Pawar stars as Saroo, pictured here 
with Abhishek Bharate as his brother Guddu.

When the story of Saroo Brierley broke in 2012, most people (myself included) probably didn’t realise the full extent of his ordeal.

Saroo’s tale was explained as “the boy who found his family using Google Earth, 25 years on”. It was a punchy and not inaccurate descriptor for what happened to this Indian-born, Tasmanian-raised young man.

But unless you’d read his book A Long Way Home (which is the basis for Lion) or some of the more in-depth articles of the time, you most likely didn’t realise the wider ramifications of that clickbaity summary, such as “how does a five-year-old boy get so lost and then survive on the streets of Kolkata?”, and “what impact does the whole experience have on him later in life?”.

Lion digs deep into these questions, with heart-stirring results, creating one of the most emotionally fulfilling Aussie films of recent times.


Young Saroo is played by newcomer Sunny Pawar, who is a revelation. Naturalistic and unaffected, his performance is stunning. It’s not actorly in any way, like such great child performances as Dakota Fanning in I Am Sam or Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, but more like the unpretentiousness and naively beautiful turn by Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts Of The Southern Wild. It’s one of those unmannered appearances that sucks you in so deeply you think you’re watching a documentary.

Pawar’s performance, coupled with some subtle yet intelligent directing and editing, weaves a spell over the first half of the film that is so good it can’t be matched when we speed forward in time by 20 years to meet a grown-up Saroo (Patel) living with his adoptive parents (Wenham and Kidman) in Hobart.

In comparison to the first half, the second feels slightly lacking, but really it is only by comparison. The misadventures of young Saroo are so strong that everything else suffers in contrast. When the film reaches its tearful conclusion – there will be barely a dry eye in the house – it all pays off and you realise how glued you were to it all, even when Saroo got older and the tone and setting of the film altered.

The second half is less effective but it has a more difficult job to do, and it’s to the credit of all involved that Lion maintains most of its power and drive. A romantic subplot, used to further demonstrate the past’s impact on Saroo’s state of mind, could have been a thorn in the film’s side, but the script stays smart and is delivered nicely by Patel and Lion’s token American (every Aussie film has to have one, right?) Rooney Mara.

Equally fraught with danger is Saroo’s search – characters staring at computer screens rarely makes for riveting viewing – but the filmmakers keep the laptop-gazing it to a minimum, at least until it’s desperately required.

Much of the credit must go to Patel, who is particularly outstanding in a career-best performance (which is saying something given his role in Slumdog Millionaire). His Australian accent – regarded as one of the toughest inflections there is – is flawless, but he never gets distracted by it. It’s a great piece of work and worthy of an Oscar nomination.

Mara is good too, but Kidman and Wenham who are the shining co-stars. Kidman gets the flashier moments and is her usual brilliant self, while Wenham, in a less conspicuous role, reminds everyone he’s not getting the big lead parts he has long deserved.

Lion starts strong and finishes on a teary high, with its comparatively lesser moments buoyed by the presence of Patel.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Allied

(M) ★★★

Director: Robert Zemeckis.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Matthew Goode, Lizzy Caplan, Simon McBurney.

Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard look the goods as secret agents 
in Robert Zemeckis' Allied.

TWO people fall in love in Nazi-occupied Casablanca during WWII as the wheels of the underground resistance spin around them … stop me if you’ve seen this one before.

No, this isn't Michael Curtiz’s 1942 classic. Nor is iconic director Zemeckis silly enough to attempt a remake (pity the fool who tries that one). But if we’re going to talk about, well, what I was just writing about in the intro, then it’s hard not to think of Bogart and Bergman locking eyes in Rick's Café Américain.

It would be an unfair comparison if Zemeckis’ Allied wasn’t trying to recall the war films and noir thrillers of the Casablanca era (it’s an unfair comparison for any film, really – Casablanca is damned near perfect). Naturally, Allied ain’t no Casablanca. It’s a steadily improving who-can-you-trust drama, weighed down by being strangely dreary and chemistry-free for too much of its runtime.

Pitt and Cotillard play Max and Marianne – two Allied operatives masquerading as husband and wife in Casablanca as they prepare to assassinate a German dignitary. During their short time together, romance blossoms and on the completion of their mission they flee to England and marry.

But Max’s superiors in British Intelligence suspect Marianne is a double agent, secretly passing messages to the Nazis.


This key plot twist (which is part of all the promotion material for the film, so it’s not a spoiler) takes an hour to arrive and it’s only at this point things kick into gear. Prior to this the film struggles to take off thanks to Pitt and Cotillard’s inability to spark off each other. When they finally get it on in a sandstorm sex scene, it’s unconvincing at best and unintentionally amusing at worst.

Pitt is cool and aloof through the first half of the film and Cotillard is vivacious and charming, but as a pair they don’t work. They’re not aided by a distinct lack of thrills in the first half, despite them staging a daring assassination in enemy territory. The few close calls they have are dodged too quickly, creating a dearth of tension.

On the other side of the plot twist, things improve dramatically. The tension increases as there is more at stake, the married Max and Marianne have far more chemistry, Pitt and Cotillard’s performance get even better, and the first half of the film goes up a notch in hindsight. Allied finally gets a sense of purpose and its set-up starts to pay off.

It’s not all plain sailing in the second half though. The script by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, The Hundred-Foot Journey) tends to the overwrought and melodramatic on occasion, yet oddly some of the big moments feel a little underdone.

The film’s big climax is well handled though and includes one beautiful rain-soaked panning shot that effectively closes the final chapter (before the obligatory epilogue). That shot is also emblematic of the film itself – there are moments of brilliance dotted throughout that help Allied overcome enough of its shortcomings to make it predominantly watchable.

Unfortunately for Zemeckis, it’s another imperfect addition to his CV. After the disappointing The Walk, the lopsided Flight, and his creepy dead-eyed motion capture trilogy (Beowulf, The Polar Express, and A Christmas Carol), it seems the talented director is getting further and further from his halcyon days. Nor will this pop up on Pitt or Cotillard’s ‘best of’ lists.

All in all, it’s an okay film from a raft of talented people renowned for films much better than this.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Assassin's Creed

(M) 1.5 out of 5

Director: Justin Kurzel.

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Ariane Labed, Denis Ménochet, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams.


Michael Fassbender can't save Assassin's Creed from continuing 
the curse of the video game adaptation.

A YEAR ago there was a feeling we would finally see the release of a genuinely good movie based on a video game.

The two great hopes driving this thought bubble were Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed – two of gaming’s biggest franchises.

When Warcraft flopped with critics and the box office alike (only its takings in China stopped it from being a total disaster), attention turned to Ubisoft’s era-spanning adaptation, which had attracted a quality cast. Surely this would be the film to break the video game movie curse, right?

Nope. It’s not. It’s worse than Warcraft, which to be fair wasn’t a total pile of crap but that’s still not saying a hell of a lot.

Fassbender stars as Callum Lynch, a death row inmate whose execution is faked so he can be taken by the Abstergo Foundation, which is run by the father-daughter team of Alan and Sophia Rikkin (Irons and Cotillard). The Rikkins want to tap into Callum’s ancestry via a machine called the animus, which allows Callum to relive past lives, in particular the existence of 15th century assassin Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender).

Aguilar was believed to be the last person to have possession of the Apple of Eden, an ancient device said to “contain the genetic code for free will” and which the Abstergo Foundation hopes to use to end all violence.


There are many confounding things about Assassin’s Creed, the biggest one being the presence of such a talented cast who, despite their best efforts, can’t elevate proceedings. Fassbender’s Callum spends the first hour in a perplexed daze, trying to figure out how he ended up where he is and what the hell is going on – I suspect Fassbender didn’t have to do much acting for that. Elsewhere, he is determined and hard-working, but he’s fighting a losing battle.

Cotillard does her best to deliver some truly dire lines, as does Irons, with the latter no stranger to starring in such duds, despite being an absolute talent. Gleeson pops up in a pointless cameo, but at least we get to know who his character is. No such luck for many of their co-stars. The flow-on from this is that when a few side characters are killed off late in the piece, no one will care. The music and the direction tries to tell us to care, but it’s too late.

Speaking of the music, the score by Jed Kurzel (brother of the director) is annoying, continually drawing attention to itself and distracting the viewer from what’s going on (which probably isn’t a bad thing).

His brother's direction is also annoying. Assassin’s Creed, as a gaming franchise, is renowned for its parkour, its fluid fighting style, and the incredible feats pulled off by its heroes. On the big screen, that opens up the opportunity for stunt people to do remarkable things, and they do just that in this film. The real shame is we rarely get to see such amazing stunts clearly due to over-editing, unnecessary camera tricks, and hazy cinematography. Everything looks like it’s been shot in a dusty sun room, late in the afternoon. Yes, it’s pretty, but aren’t we here to see the cool fights and the athletic free-running?

The great irony about this adaptation is that the best part of the film is the worst part of the games. A common complaint about the Assassin’s Creed franchise is that the whole animus subplot rips you out of the good part of the game, ie. the running-around-and-killing-people bit. In the movie, the animus is worked in well, pulling us back and forth between the past and the modern day in an interesting way.

But this high point, and the few fights and stunts we get to see clearly, can’t save us from the ever-increasing piles of dumb. The filmmakers are more concerned with cramming cool weapons and other such Easter eggs from the games into scenes and are less worried about good dialogue (everyone speaking in riddles is not good dialogue), interesting characters or fixing any plotholes.

There are so many questions left by this film, and not in a “I can’t wait for the sequel” kind of way. Why are all these people in this facility if all they need is Callum? Why do some guards have crossbows? What does the Apple of Eden do and how the hell will it erase free will? Is it magic or something? Do they have to put in everyone’s DNA? How is that even possible? How does Sophia Rikkin not realise the ramifications of what she’s doing? Why does Alan Rikkin spend all his time glowering through windows and watching videos of himself giving speeches?

Maybe hardcore Assassin’s Creed fans will love it, but I suspect even they will be disappointed. This leaves the question of who would want to watch this film.

That's one more question left hanging by yet another bad video game adaptation.