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The Meddler

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The title of the film says it all really, and that is not a good look by the way. In Lorene Scafaria’s (Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World) odd comedy, we have a cross between a family drama and a character study. Neither is that engaging.

The main attraction here is Susan Sarandon. She plays Marnie, the eponymous meddler. Marnie (no surname given) is failing to get over the death of her beloved husband, and now has to go and get interested in other lives as a way to distract herself. This is bad luck for her daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne). The pair have not been close, and when Marnie moves out to LA to be near her daughter, we know that things will be comic-edgy. Lori tries to get her mother to be less concerned with meddling in her life and more focused on meeting someone new. Enter a motorbike-riding ex-cop called Zipper (J.K. Simmons who was so intense as the teacher in Whiplash). Zipper takes it slow, both in terms of getting Marnie to consider re-opening her heart, and in terms of riding safely with her as pillion. Also, along the way, we see Marnie helping a black waiter to get more education, and also assisting a lesbian friend with an amazing waterside wedding.

All three leads are too strong for this slightly thin material, but they are pros, so they never give up on the script. Quite what the great Susan Sarandon saw in this is anyone’s guess. Marnie turns from being a hugely sign-posted pain in the rear to an everyday saint within the first twenty minutes, and there is nowhere else for her character to go after that. All that Byrne has to do is be long suffering and not too mean to her annoying mother. There are moments of winning sentimentality, but mostly The Meddler just goes along in its own inconsequential way.

 
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Review: Is This The Real World

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The independently made debut feature from Melbourne-based writer/director, Martin McKenna, Is This The Real World is a goddamn corker. In the vein of Animal Kingdom, Muriel’s Wedding, and Lantana, Is This The Real World is an upsettingly close and unfiltered look at Australian life: our family dynamics, our adolescent relationships, and our experience with education and authority.

The narrative follows small-town Victorian high school student, Mark Blazey (Sean Keenan from Puberty Blues and Glitch), an intelligent teen who has just tossed away a scholarship to a private school and now finds himself at the local public high school, much to the dismay of his single mum, Anna (Susie Porter), who is struggling with a young daughter, Marlie (Elise MacDougall), and an older son, Jimmy (Matt Colwell aka Australian rap-star, 360), who is on a path back to jail. When Mark falls for Kim (Charlotte Best from Home And Away and Puberty Blues), he tries to escape the various life forces pulling at him. It’s a typically impulsive move, made worse by the fact that Kim’s father (Greg Stone) is Mark’s new high school headmaster.

The performances are all-around exceptional, particularly that of star-on-the-rise, Sean Keenan, who takes you on the not all-together comfortable journey into the mind of a 17-year-old with his piercingly authentic portrayal. Props also have to be given to Susie Porter, who does a stellar job as Anna, a mother on the verge of a huge breakdown with a life full of regrets, and a family situation that she cannot control. Porter brings a delicate intensity to the role, the kind where you can’t be sure if she’s about to hug someone or fly into a rage. Her raw and unpredictable vulnerability is in large part credit to the strength of the script, as McKenna handles his characters with the finesse of an old screenwriting veteran.

While the performances and writing/direction are undeniably the bedrock of the film, the potency of Is This The Real World comes from its artfully nuanced layers. Ellery Ryan’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, where rather than adding filters or artificial elements, he draws out and emphasises what is real – and at times too real – in the film’s chilly coastal setting. The soundtrack is yet another glazing that gives the film a great deal of impact and flavour. Sound is arguably the forgotten hero of cinema (think what a Tarantino or Wes Anderson film would be without their scores), and sound designer, Paul Pirola (Wolf Creek 2, The Taking Of Pelham 123), does a truly killer job of adding depth to the film, particularly during its dialogue-free sequences – he knows when to use sound and when to use silence with great accuracy.

This is a big win for McKenna’s first effort, and will surely be a tough act to follow for the promising filmmaker. Is This The Real World comes at you with all kinds of beautiful detail; somehow equal parts simple and complicated, it will deeply affect anyone who grew up in Australia – and probably even those who didn’t.

 

 
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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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In the enjoyable but slightly underwhelming Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, you can feel Tina Fey’s desperation to shift her image, and her burning need to do something different. Like all of her comedic forebears – from John Belushi and Bill Murray to Jim Carrey and Jerry Lewis – getting laughs obviously just isn’t enough for the supremely talented Ms. Fey, who delivered TV comedy gold with 30 Rock, but has listed all over the place when it comes to the big screen. While scoring a win with the hilarious Sisters, Fey’s output has been largely low key, with the likes of Admission, This Is Where I Leave You, and Date Night failing to connect with audiences on a large scale. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is undeniably Fey’s most ambitious big screen project to date, but while dealing with in-your-face issues, the film’s patina of Hollywood gloss prevents it from getting down and dirty in the way that it really should.

Fey is Kim Baker, a going-nowhere TV journalist shipped off to report on America’s continuing military efforts in Afghanistan, a conflict that audiences have cooled on in favour of the more topical political situation in Iraq. On arrival, the decidedly green-around-the-gills Kim finds a nation scarred by war and a cadre of US Marines suffering more from boredom than bullet wounds. Kim also finds an international press corps seemingly intent on drinking, drugging, and fucking themselves into oblivion. Spurred on by Margot Robbie’s glamorous, maybe British (her accent is so bad that it’s hard to tell) veteran reporter, the mild mannered Kim is soon slamming shots and enjoying a fling with Martin Freeman’s cocky Scottish journo. Soon hooked on the thrill of war correspondence, Kim starts to put her life on the line with disturbing regularity.

On paper, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has all the elements for a gritty, blackly comic look at the futility of war and the madness seemingly inherent in those who report it – a contemporary companion piece to the likes of Salvador and Under Fire, if you will. But with Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Focus, Crazy Stupid Love) directing, most of the rough edges have been smoother over, replaced with a slick series of unlikely narrative moves that feel way too contrived. Though booze and bombs are everywhere, the air of danger is never truly heightened in this very Hollywood depiction of Afghanistan. And despite the litany of ridiculous comments about how “plain” she is (puh-lease!), Fey’s Kim Baker always looks a little too composed, beautifully made up, and remarkably well-lit to be wholly believable as a hard partying journo. That said, there is certainly a lot to like about Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Billy Bob Thornton is wonderful as a wily US Marine general, while Baker’s complex relationship with her local “fixer” and guide, Fahim (played with remarkable sensitivity and magnetism by Christopher Abbott), could well have been the film’s central focus. There are plenty of zinging one-liners, and you feel for the characters, but the stakes are just never high enough in this too-safe look at one of the world’s most dangerous places.

 
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The Angry Birds Movie

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Video game adaptations have a horribly chequered history, thanks to mammoth flops like Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon, and Mortal Kombat, and nearly the entire output of Uwe Boll. Things might be looking up, however, with the impending release of solid-looking titles like Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed. So where, we hear you ask, does The Angry Birds Movie fit in here? Is it the first rallying salvo in a new attack on the pop cultural consciousness by video game movies, or is it a misfiring false start? The answer is that it’s somewhere in between, with the film standing happily as a modest entertainer while never coming close to hitting the dizzy heights of the animated work of Pixar or DreamWorks. Though bringing more than a few giggles, the emotional resonance is low wattage at best, and any form of subtext is near non-existent.

Based on the hugely popular and amusingly simple Angry Birds game series (which involves, among other things, birds being hurled at pigs, and a large range of pop culture crossovers), The Angry Birds Movie follows Red (Jason Sudeikis), a bird in a perennial bad mood who is wholly at odds with the buzzy, happy avian island community that surrounds him. Forced into anger management classes (where he faces off against the near-silent-but-for-the-growling Terence, voiced by, wait for it, Sean Penn!), Red eventually becomes his community’s protector when their island home comes under threat from a horde of pigs who want to, well, eat all their eggs.

With a plot that could generously be described as slim, The Angry Birds Movie is an odd enterprise that will likely light up at the box office due to its instant recognition factor, but will also likely fail to really get its hooks into audiences either. It’s fun and gorgeously animated, but it feels a little haphazard and undercooked too when compared to recent animated flicks, and will appeal much more to the undiscerning kids in the audience than their chaperones.

 
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Bastille Day

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According to debut screenwriter, Andrew Baldwin, the original idea for Bastille Day was to “create a movie that combined the taut action of the Bourne franchise with the character-rich experiences of watching movies like Frantic (1988) and even The French Connection (1971).” The production team believed that a movie which honoured those iconic films would be commercially viable and creatively exciting. While sure, in theory the idea was promising, the execution fails to hit the mark.

Bastille Day is – on paper at least – a blistering action thriller set in Paris, following the story of an unlikely pair – a reckless CIA agent and a brilliant pickpocket – who must work together to uncover and take down a conspiracy. Michael Mason (Richard Madden, Game Of Thrones) is an American pickpocket living in Paris who finds himself in the hands of the CIA when he steals a bag that contains more than just a wallet. Sean Briar (Idris Elba, Luther, Thor, The Jungle Book), the field agent on the case, soon realises that Michael is just a pawn in a much bigger game, and is also his best asset to uncover a large-scale criminal conspiracy. As a 24-hr thrill ride ensues, the unlikely duo discovers that they are both targets and must rely upon each other in order to take down a common enemy.

Baldwin’s underlying curiosity was to understand what these characters might be doing in Paris, and to examine their motives and choices under intense pressure, but still take us on a thrill ride through a much-loved city. Sadly, under the direction of James Watkins (The Woman In Black, Eden Lake) none of these nuances are represented or even hinted at, but rather glossed over superficially in place of fight scenes devoid of any discernible relevance.

Characters come and go at will; there are more than a few “Basil Exposition” type figures for example, and it’s a real pity, because the original vision sounded far more focused on the characters and their relationships than car chases and explosions. That said, the plot suffers from much more than bad narrative – the “America will save everyone” vibe that permeates throughout is just cringe worthy. Taking the lead is Idris Elba as Sean Briar, the CIA operative who has been confined to a desk job in Paris after a mission in the Middle East went wrong. Richard Madden gets the job done as Idris’ plucky yet submissive sidekick, but you can always see him “acting”, which might be a hangover from his time on the overly soaped-up Game Of Thrones.

But it’s not all bad. Sure, Watkins makes questionable choices with the script, but his ambition to marry big budget commercial thrills with a kinetic, in-your-face shooting style is pretty spot on. Bastille Day doesn’t hit the French Connection or Frantic heights that it was aiming for, but at least it aimed for something. It’s a real shame because individually, the components of the film are strong, but when all jammed together, the pieces just don’t quite fit.

 
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Green Room

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About 20 minutes into Green Room – the third film from director, Jeremy Saulnier (Murder Party, Blue Ruin) – a mosh pit is shot in slow motion, and the vicious spitting and kicking to punk tunes is morphed into something calming and poetic. This is the calm of the storm, and after this point, all bets are off.

Saulnier’s last film, Blue Ruin, was a taut revenge thriller as beautiful as it was violent. He applies that same aesthetic here, when a young punk band agree to play at a right-wing club for some extra cash. Their idealistic roots are clearly in stark contrast to the patrons’ Nazi sympathies, but money is money. Unfortunately, when the band’s bassist, Pat (Anton Yelchin), witnesses a murder, hospitality quickly sours and the group are put under house arrest in the club’s green room, along with another witness, Amber (Imogen Poots).

For all its ferocity and intensity, Green Room is a controlled affair, as Saulnier uses the titular enclosure to stoke up the tension in preparation for the lynchpin that takes the film towards its brutal closing act. That lynchpin is Patrick Stewart as Darcy, the softly spoken owner of the club with the mind of a military strategist. Stewart is a stoic monster who plots to dispose of the band with the same casualness of someone remembering to put the recycling out. It’s a grand performance that contrasts sharply with the organised carnage that he unleashes. Special mention must also go to Macon Blair, a regular in the director’s films, this time playing Darcy’s right-hand man and managing to make a murdering racist almost sympathetic. Saulnier has created a worthy follow up to Blue Ruin that walks a fine line between mainstream cinema and exploitation. The moments of calm that he chooses to give us are merely breaks to recuperate before he throws us to the dogs again.

 

 
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Review: Be Here Now (The Andy Whitfield Story)

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Andy Whitfield was best known for his role as the titular character in the TV series, Spartacus: Blood And Sand. As Spartacus, Whitfield established a character of indomitable spirit and courage, a man who would stop at nothing to conquer the gladiatorial arena. Here, as himself, we see that Whitfield was just as fierce, and just as determined, to fight and stand victorious. Directed by Oscar winner, Lilibet Foster, Be Here Now (The Andy Whitfield Story) chronicles the harrowing journey of the young actor after being diagnosed with cancer. It is powerful, heartbreaking, and deeply inspiring.

Granted virtually unfettered access, Foster situates us as a fly on the wall for much of the film, while video logs and interviews fill in the details. We are privy to intensely personal and private moments. From the calls that inform Andy and his loving wife, Vashti, of the continued spreading of the disease, and the seemingly endless rounds of chemotherapy, to an impromptu trip to India to experiment with alternative forms of treatment, the struggle that we witness is staggeringly intimate.

It’s this struggle, however, that prompts Andy to truly embrace the phrase tattooed on his forearm, and the source of the film’s title: “Be Here Now.” It may seem like just another clichéd sentiment about living for the moment, but Andy and Vashti embody it. It is something that, perhaps, can help us comprehend the couple’s extraordinary ability to roll with the punches and continue fighting. And so, after following their incredible journey, when the inevitable comes, we’re left not merely lamenting the loss of an exceptionally talented and affectionate man, but also inspired; inspired to live life to its fullest and take the challenges that come our way in our stride. Be Here Now is incredibly moving and a piece of work that deserves to be seen by all because this is a disease that affects all.

Be Here Now (The Andy Whitfield Story) is now playing nationally in cinemas thanks to the cinema on demand platform, TUGG. Everyday Australians with a passion for a movie topic are able to hold their own screening of the movie, and then sell tickets via their social media networks and reap 5% of the box office. People simply need to request a screening at TUGG

 
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The First Monday In May

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New York’s Metropolitan Museum Of Art (known to all as The Met) has a phenomenal collection of masterpieces. Its Costume Institute also has, in the basement, the world’s biggest fashion collection, and every year, it stages a themed exhibition. Last year’s was the rather clumsily-named “China: Through The Looking Glass”, which focused on the Chinese influence on Western fashion. This documentary is about the preparation (over eight months) of that exhibition, and of the celebrity-studded fundraising gala party – on guess-what date –which marks its opening. The supposed “queen of the night” on that occasion is Rihanna, who arrives in a dress that she claims took two years to make, and gets a bewilderingly rapturous response when she sings.

A lot of people are seen and heard here, but the central “players” are young Englishman, Andrew Bolton (the curator of the C.I. and overseer of the exhibition’s creation) and Vogue’s formidable editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, who organises the gala. (Fairly or not, she was of course the real-life inspiration for The Devil Wears Prada.) Neither is especially eloquent, but various other individuals debate the thorny question of whether fashion is art or mere commercial frippery. And then there are those who are given to gushing excitedly for no apparent reason and calling each other geniuses. But there’s also a more interesting diversion on the vexed question of orientalism and “colonialist” perspectives.

There are brief side trips here to Paris – where the creators go to view the Yves St. Laurent collection – and to China, to promote the exhibition. But the meat of the matter is of course back in New York. The First Monday In May is watchable enough, but it has a quorum of excess and narcissism, and some of it is as vacuous and pointless as fashion itself can be.

 
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Remember

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The measurement of time is extremely relative, by varying sets of standards fleeting and excruciatingly long. The breathless progress of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is such that WW2 is something that we view mostly through an abstract removal of grainy archive footage, horrific but intangible. Yet the seventy years since the end of the war are but a miniscule iota in human history. Witnesses, war veterans, holocaust survivors, and war criminals amble on into old age with the acute burden of memory and first-person knowledge.

Atom Egoyan’s Remember contends with the spectral nature of time and memory through an 86-year-old Auschwitz survivor named Zev (Christopher Plummer). Suffering from dementia, Zev embarks, with instructions from his friend, Max (Martin Landau), on a manhunt across North America for the German who he believes killed his family during the war, brandishing a glock as he progressively crosses off a list of potential targets. Zev’s dementia, however, means that his memory is unreliable. Things are not what they seem, and his perceived past proves to be composed of subjective, selective memory, the truth of which proves devastating.

Remember is that rare film that is both a thriller and a deeply serious character drama. Christopher Plummer gives an extraordinary performance, with the deeply fraught passage of Zev’s near ninety-years written in his soulful eyes. There is a sense, understandably, of his deep entrenchment in the character, not because Plummer was at Auschwitz – he wasn’t – but because he cannot help but be simpatico with having lived the same length of time. Egoyan has fashioned a marvellous film, replete with the typical compassion with which he usually attributes his characters. Remember is a fascinating examination of time, memory, and the human condition which is both meaningful and outwardly entertaining.

 
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Florence Foster Jenkins

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This is a story of self-delusion on a very grand scale. The eponymous Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) was an American society lady from the mid-20th Century who loved classical music and opera. All would have been fine if she had stopped at being a patron, but her flip into absurdity came when she tried to actually be an opera singer. In this film, we soon find out that there is no more chance of that than a tone deaf parrot winning The Voice. In fact, the real Jenkins, as history recalls, made it all the way to a (brief) appearance at Carnegie Hall. However, she was – though she did not really know this – a kind of novelty act.

There are touches of both cruelty and comedy here but Brit director, Stephen Frears (Philomena), also depicts the characters with sympathy. The film also looks very fine. It does a lavish job with the costumes and cars of the time. This is a Gatsby-esque world where the rich lead opulent and insulated lives caring only about each other and visible status and wealth. Underneath, of course, there is also bitchiness and cynicism. What were all those people doing when listening to Florence, one wonders? Should not their sycophancy be also called to account? Frears keeps the story in focus via the triangular relationship between Florence’s worried husband, St Clair (Hugh Grant), and her timid, not-high-born pianist, Cosme McMoon (nicely played by Simon Helberg). In relation to Hugh Grant, it is easy to forget that, beneath the easily-parodied foppish Englishness typecasting, he is a good actor. Undaunted by La Streep, his scenes illustrating the private side of their marriage are affecting, and anchor the film. Streep can get that larger than life quality which suits the role, but she also brings a convincing childlike element here which adds grace notes to her interpretation. Only at one point (no spoilers) do we get a scene where her fragile grasp on how she is perceived is punctured by a direct exchange and a reality check. It is an unnecessary closing of the narrative as we could draw our own conclusions.

By a strange coincidence, this film comes hot on the heels of the French version of the very same story (Marguerite). They are both good films. That is perhaps because at the heart of the story is a sense of human foibles which deserves our tender feelings.