Saturday, January 29, 2011


It’s a very little known disease in the medical community, but it is a true fact that I am allergic to spoilers. When I come in contact with one, I break out into ALL CAPS RAGE. So please know that I will not ruin the ending of Catfish for you, because despite the fact it’s hardly Sixth-Sense-twist-worthy, the world at large has done such a marvellous job of shutting up about it I wouldn’t dare say anything in case my allergy is contagious via words. (Laugh all you like, I saw Pontypool and know that it can happen.)

Catfish is a little-known documentary that is referred to by news outlets who like zippy headlines as “the other facebook movie”. The Social Network was better, but with Fincher attached and a budget of $40 million, it had a lot more to support it than Catfish did. Made by New Yorkian directors Ariel (Rel) Schulman and Henry Joost and their hand-held cameras, they detect a potentially exciting story when Rel’s photographer brother Yaniv (Nev) strikes up an unusual friendship. When a picture of Nev’s makes it into a newspaper an eight-year-old art prodigy from rural Michigan named Abby paints it and mails her work to Nev, with the blessing of her family. Over time, Nev sends more pictures to Abby, who paints them; Nev, via facebook, becomes friends with her long-haired mother, Angela; Angela’s husband Vince; and their other children, including the unfairly attractive nineteen-year-old Megan Faccio. As the months roll by, Nev and Megan’s relationship turns into something much more intimate and steamy than expected (as revealed in a hilarious scene when Nev, fitted out with his retainer, reads out the text messages the two sent to each other; by the end, when heaving bosoms are involved, he is hiding under the doona in embarrassment.) After the three boys take a trip across the country for work, they decide to spring a visit on Abby and her family to see if they are who they say they are.

There has been debate over whether this documentary is real or not, citing the fact that there was too much perfect timing of the cameras picking up the dramatic scenes. With Joost and the Schulmans hotly declaring otherwise (I may be using “hotly” in this context to imply that they are actually all pretty hot, but you decide whether I’m that shallow) we will never know, but in my totally professional opinion, I think it is real. I loved the movie, so this next part is hard to explain, but I feel that if the movie was a fake they would have made it more interesting—a few more explosions, or what have you—as it is, the movie is wonderful, but also realistic in its lack of drama. I do feel that the boys themselves, prior to or after their visit, may have reshot some scenes of their own to perhaps summarise a month’s worth of excitement into one five-minute take, or to make themselves look sensitive, or to seem cool. Some scenes seemed a little forced, but then, maybe the awkwardness of being in front of camera at all caused that. I don’t have a camera following me around on a daily basis (shocking, I know) so I couldn’t really tell you.

It is an amazingly crafted, edgy film. The handheld camera work is grainy but not shoddy, and gives the movie an intimate and involved feel. A second, better camera is used for some scenes—often Henry and Rel have a camera each and film each other—but the movie’s zany excellence resides in the use of the magic that is the internets. Characters are introduced and named by hovering a mouse over a photograph, revealing a little box with their name, a gesture that those of you who have encountered facebook know well. House shots are stills from Google Street View; locations are pinpointed by a satellite zoom on Google Maps; one great driving scene is accompanied by frame after frame of Street View looking down the road. It seems like an awkward flip book but is an amazing little montage of footage, and a good reveal of how the internet can seemingly hide nothing.

In summary: Exceeds Expectations. Look, I’m not sure why the twist is such a big secret, but I did get a little thrill of nervousness as the three men roll up the driveway towards Megan’s farm, not knowing what was going to happen. Catfish touches on some sensitive issues, and there is a lot I haven’t been able to discuss because I don’t want to ruin anything. Shoot me a comment if you’ve seen it—we can chat about scandalous spoilers in the comments, right? That way no one will be surprised by the news that Abby and her family are all catfish. (I AM JOKING.)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

true grit

If you have ever been under the misapprehension that you are tough because you can scull a two-litre bottle of Solo without going into cardiac arrest, or because you once totally smacked down some strangers on the internet, then you should see True Grit. In it, fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfield, otherwise known as My New Hero) takes control of the situation after her father is murdered by outlaw Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin, much less sexy than I like in my Brolin). Needing to see him brought to justice in a town where daddy Ross’s death is the least of the law’s problems, Mattie hires the meanest, grittiest State Marshal in town—one-eyed drunkard Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, unintelligible). Accompanied by Texas Marshal La Boeuf (in this flick pronounced “la beef”, if you’re curious, and played with great moustache by Matt Damon), they endeavour to track Cheney down.

Hailee Steinfield is a revelation, with Mattie being one of the toughest, smartest fourteen-year-olds you’ll ever meet, especially compared to the row full of fourteen-year-olds behind us who popped gum and talked throughout the whole movie. Had Mattie been in the theatre there with us, she would have intimidated them into silence, much like how she browbeats a trader in town into taking back the ponies her father just bought and paying her for her father’s horse, which Cheney had stolen but which had been on the trader’s property at the time. Mattie’s smarts and fearlessness see her sleeping at an undertaker’s amongst dead bodies and knocking out a sailor with an apple so she can storm her horse into a river and chase after Rooster—and that’s just the start. She’s fantastic, and has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, which is great and all except that she’s the bloody lead, what the hell Academy Awards. (When I am King, I will fix this, Hailee. It’ll be the second thing I do after making a new law involving five years in jail for those who disclose spoilers. Some of my decrees may even be unrelated to movies. But probably not.)

Rooster Cogburn, after too many cigarettes and too much whiskey and a large amount of missing teeth due to fighting, barely shuts up during the whole movie but is almost impossible to understand. This is probably due in part to unfamiliarity with old-timey westernspeak, but even when Mattie was at her most verbose (read: always) at least I could understand what she was saying. Despite this, he is tough, noble, and a crack shot even from 300 feet, or—in one memorable scene—while drunk off three bottles of booze and shooting cornbread in a field. While Rooster mumbles amicably, La Boeuf spends his time swaggering, his boots dripping with spurs and chains, his distrust of Mattie palpable until her display of true grit (I’ll attempt to say this as much as I can just to annoy you) wins him over. La Boeuf’s first few scenes with Mattie strike a very uncomfortable chord, but they come to nothing and are virtually forgotten by the end, much to my relief. Tom Cheney is an almost mythical figure for most of the movie, with the three doing their best to hunt for the man always slightly out of reach; Josh Brolin lends him quiet terror and some almost amusing trust issues, as he joins “Lucky” Ned Pepper (played by—no joke—Barry Pepper) and his band of merry/batshit men. It really is just a wonderful chase movie, with the folk they meet along the way an intriguing mix of crazy, or, well, dead.

Even as people are shot and cut up and blood flies all over the place, True Grit will make you bust out a couple of smiles too, with the rapport between Mattie, Cogburn and La Boeuf the source of constant amusement. Throughout, however, is the serious undercurrent of death and how cheap life was in the past (and still can be, for some), and it’s gripping from start to finish—though at an hour and forty minutes it’s fairly short for a Western—and completely enthralling. Quietly beautiful to look at, the scenery is as cold and unforgiving as it is untouched and gorgeous. The Coen brothers don’t even mind slotting in cliched Western shots, like when Rooster and Mattie ride on a horse across the horizon as the sun sets behind them, but make them feel well-placed and not cheesy; this is a Western done with a nod to the style but without falling into parody or imitation. The opening scene is pitch-perfect, as Mattie narrates the tale of her father’s death while we watch snow fall on her father’s deserted body and Cheney ride his horse away. Right from that moment, the film won me over; nothing could ruin it for me.

Though, seriously, for a bunch of smart and/or experienced trackers, you’d expect them to know that you can’t knock a bad guy out without him coming back at inopportune times. Seriously, old-timey people, have you never seen an action movie?

In summary: Exceeds Expectations. Apart from a downbeat final few minutes, I adored this film, and it’s reminding me why people love Westerns. Despite my growling against them, maybe I will too. And maybe I’ll even read the Charles Portis book, or see the John Wayne original—though I recently saw Rio Bravo (fantastic) and don’t want to imagine Wayne as anyone else, especially as he usually comes across as so goddamn grumpy. What, like life was so hard in the 1800s? Pshaw. One more thing: as was probably the way in the wild west, horses aren’t always treated very well, and they get shot and hurt. Fake or not, I covered my eyes—you might have to as well.

Monday, January 17, 2011

black swan

Ballet is generally known to those stupid in the ways of dance (see: your faithful reviewer) as something quite lovely and delicate. Black Swan turns ballet into something much more ominous and terrifying than I ever expected, a feat achieved by both Natalie Portman’s dancing (and her long-shot stunt double) and the film itself: the sound design and camera work when she is dancing as Swan Lake’s black swan is amazing, and everything people say dance can be. However, you’ll still never convince me to go to the ballet, classical music still makes me snore, and I found Black Swan a bit boring in parts. So, I have no culture. At least I have movies like Machete to keep me warm at night.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballet dancer with a narrow view of the world: unless she is forced outside by events out of her control, she only spends time with the prestigious dance company she works for, headed by the demanding and frankly creepy Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel); and in her little-girl room with her mother (Barbara Hershey), who gave up her ballet career to give birth to Nina and who now lives vicariously through her daughter. With the involuntary retirement of principal ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder), Nina is given the opportunity to dance the lead in the little-known production Swan Lake by some dude called Tchaikovsky. Threatening her newfound fortune is newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis), whose charm and talent unbalance Nina’s already delicate sense of self-worth. Much like the critically acclaimed and read, watch, listen-criticised Inception, Black Swan plays with what is real and what isn’t, and at the end you may still be unsure.

The acting is wonderful; Portman is heartbreaking as the unstable Nina, her anguish at the world clear on her face and her almost constantly distress-shaped eyebrows. Hershey is alarming as her mother, someone so dedicated to her daughter’s career she clings to her in a wholly unhealthy manner. Mila Kunis is lovely and affable as Lily, the uptight Nina’s antithesis, a woman game enough—and racy enough—to be the seductive black swan that Nina struggles to play properly, so dedicated is she to her confined and virginal white swan lifestyle. (You can tell Lily is the naughty to Nina’s nice because Lily has tattoos and wears black eyeliner, and Nina is surrounded by an excess of pink. And good girls don’t get tattoos, as movies have taught me and I, along with tens of millions of other good people, have studiously ignored.)

Shot in an interesting, intimate style, the smooth lines of the dancers compete with the disjointed, handheld camera movements. Many of Nina’s scenes as she moves from one place to another are shot from behind her head, like you are in some kind of Black Swan video game with the over-the-shoulder view switched on. (If it was a game, I would totally play it and kick Leroy square in the nuts with a flying ballet leap. It would be awesome.) Scenes are often shot through mirrors, playing with perspective and with Nina’s image of herself. It is a beautifully constructed movie, scored perfectly and delicately, and I can’t find any fault with the editing between Natalie Portman as Nina and her double, who only danced in the long shots. (Portman has danced in the past and has kept her dancer’s physique, as can be seen in all its bruised and ribbed glory in the short film before The Darjeeling Limited.)

Ostensibly a movie about the psychological pressures placed on those at the top of their game—and where it shares minor similarities with director Darren Aronofsky’s recentish The Wrestler—it could be a movie made about any competitive activity. Stick Portman in a tennis outfit instead, or maybe as a professional runner, and the movie could follow a similar track. Ballet’s obsession with beauty plays a not insignificant part, though it’s tricky to tell in movies because everyone in them is beautiful anyway and you almost forget how lovely people look when everyone who surrounds them is also beautiful. (Maybe this is an insight into the movie industry as well? Probably.) Visions of Nina throwing up, or smiling as the costume designer tells her “you’ve lost weight!” play into the beauty aspect, as does the predictably sleazy Leroy, happy to seduce and reduce Nina to her sexuality and creating some truly uncomfortable scenes. In that, Cassel is probably a fabulous actor, because I hated him.

The general dislike I had for everyone was part of why, despite all this, I didn’t enjoy the movie as much as I had hoped. Nina is absolutely a sympathetic character, made destructive by her environment: driven by her desperate mother to perfection and by her teacher into becoming someone she is not for the sake of a part. But she is so uptight and ill-humoured that I didn’t actually like her. By the end of the film I didn’t like a single person in it, and ballet came across as an exhausting, depressing, misogynistic vocation that can ruin your body and your brain just so some rich people can pay to see people give themselves lifelong physical ailments by jumping about on their toes. So yes, that wasn’t particularly unexpected, then.

As I’ve said in this blog before, unlikeable characters don’t necessarily make or break a film*, but my indifference towards her did not help when teamed with the other issues I had. Also like Inception, I sometimes found it boring, checking the time or shifting in my seat and looking pointedly around hoping to catch the eye of someone else bored. (I didn’t. And some people applauded at the end of the film. So you may love this.) I couldn’t tell you which scenes bored me; I just know that I was waiting for something and it was taking too long. I also found myself unsurprised by the events that unfolded. It wasn’t actually predictable in that I could tell which scenes were coming, but with every dramatic moment I never really felt shocked by what happened, bar one scene in Beth’s hospital room that almost produced a squeal. Aronofsky did create amazing tension, building up every character to the point where they could break, or break Nina, but some scenes that the sound design indicated were supposed to make me start in shock just had no effect at all, like a B-grade horror movie that has monsters jumping out of closets every time you need to get your coat.

Well, this is getting long, and there
’s more I’d love to whine about, but I should shut up and summarise: Below Expectations. I love Aronofsky, I think Natalie Portman is great if you pretend she never smooched Anakin Skywalker, and I wanted to like a movie about ballet so I could seem like totally smart and stuff. But I didn’t like it, not really. It didn’t amaze or astound, and while Aronofsky was honest about the lack of glamour in ballet—as the bleak grey bricks in the studio can attest—I just don’t like it. The fact that Ms Portman is now engaged and pregnant to co-star and choreographer Benjamin Millepied made me feel a little better though—I love a good romance (even in a movie that’s not about one), and I love that his name sounds like millipede. Because I’m not cultured. But I’m okay with that.

*Neither does my dislike of the sport involved; I also hate wrestling, but I thought The Wrestler was a great movie.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


After the last Disney animated film, The Princess and the Frog, did such a good job of putting me off Disney Princesses forever, I had low expectations for Tangled—the studio’s update of the Rapunzel story and its 50th animated feature. Would it be as horrible as what they did to Tiana, giving her hopes and dreams, making her a hard worker, and then surrounding her with a cast of characters who spend the film shouting at her to throw it all away for love? Uh, well, maybe a little, but Tangled surpassed this, along with my expectations, and was roundly excellent.

Hanging out in the top five of Quentin Tarantino’s twenty best movies of 2010, Tangled tells the story of a lovely blonde-haired green-eyed princess named Rapunzel who has about a fifty metres of glowing magical hair that can heal if you sing the right words to it. Kidnapped as a baby by an old woman determined to use Rapunzel’s hair to keep herself young and pretty, the girl grows up stuck in a tall tower, frightened out of escaping by the woman’s mixed affections—touting herself as a mild caring mother protecting her magical sprog from the horrors of the world, but full of rage when the subject of leaving the tower comes up. Seemingly trapped forever with only charming chameleon Pascal for a friend, it takes handsome young thief—Flynn Rider—climbing into her tower to hide from the authorities to change her life.

In that respect, it does take a man to save the princess—but only after she coshes him on the head repeatedly with a frying pan and strikes a deal for him to help her go outside, and you could just as easily see her do this with a woman. The journey of the rogue, helping Rapunzel only for monetary gain, and the young woman, conflicted between escaping her prison and going against the word of her mother, is utterly entertaining, and a love story that felt very fairytale and Disney but had enough quirks and gorgeous characters to elevate to a worthy movie for the infamous Disney Vault.

Assisting Rapunzel and Flynn are Pascal and palace horse Max, both so ridiculously wonderful that I wanted immediately to own toy versions of them (in life size if possible, thanks Disney if you want to send me some for this glowing review). Max seems to be part human, part dog, and part dragon— pulling levers, wagging his tail when Rapunzel scratches him under the chin, flaring his nostrils in rage. Every time they are on screen it is a delight, as they support our heroine, trip up bad guys and punch arrogant thieves—like our hero Flynn—in the chest. Along with these are the utterly entertaining and gruff tavern-goers, terrifying Rapunzel and cinema-goers at first before breaking into song and listing their most dearly held dreams—from being a concert pianist to collecting ceramic unicorns.

To segue smoothly, the songs do let Tangled down just a touch. While the tavern song is righteous fun, all of the other sappy songs involving Rapunzel wailing about love and dreams sound half-Disney, half-eeuugghh. With Mandy Moore voicing Rapunzel, she has the pipes to carry it off, but the songs are dull, top-forty pop, and sometimes completely destroyed the movie’s ambience. In one beautiful scene where Rapunzel and Flynn are in a rowboat in the water, watching the evening sky as lanterns fall around them, a Miley Cyrus-type ballad just detracted from the moment and I was left disappointed.

The 3D was used to full effect and the film itself is beautiful; the scenery is immersive, the characters themselves animated in an agreeably flat style that worked because the characterisation shone through. I cried, surprising no one, and became totally desperate for Rapunzel’s well-being. She did a lot of saving, bopping people with pans and swinging around the place with her hair—really, she was quite tough and admirable, especially for someone who had been hidden away from everyone else for nearly twenty years. My only real gripe, apart from the sound, and this is ridiculous in a movie where I am fine with someone having magical hair, were the distances people were able to fall yet recover from immediately. I also worry about Flynn’s change of heart, from thief to hero, and whether it was purely because the amount of head injuries sustained at Rapunzel’s hands had given him some cerebral damage.

In summary: Above Expectations—this is a great kids movie, fun enough for the grown-ups, a toymaker’s delight and I kind of want to see it again.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

blue valentine

If you take anything away from the following review, please take these two things: 1) Go see Blue Valentine, seriously, and b) take at least one full box of tissues, so you aren’t left snivelling into the sleeve of your cardigan like some people who cannot be named due to legal embarrassment. My one comforting thought was that I wasn’t the only one in the cinema crying and sniffing; it came from all directions, like they’d put pollen in the air vents. I asked Chris afterwards if he cried and he said no, but that he did get emotional. That’s okay, I do more than enough weeping for the both of us, so much so that I should really start bringing Gatorade to relationship movies to replenish my tears so I have enough spare for watching ads for said movie later on.

Like the hit-and-miss (500) Days of Summer, Blue Valentine charts the love of two people, bouncing back and forth from the giddy early days to the later dissolution of the relationship. Unlike (500) Days of Summer, which still had Hollywood shine and was too finely-tuned and glitzy to be honest, Blue Valentine feels so unmistakably real that by the end of the film you are so emotionally invested in now-humourless Cindy (Michelle Williams) and now-drunk Dean (Ryan Gosling) that it feels as raw as watching the breakup of your two best friends.

Set over two days in the present and sparked by the family labrador going missing, Cindy, Dean and five-year-old daughter Frankie bicker and hug and work and live in a world that seems immediately fractious. In an attempt to bring them together while Frankie is having a sleepover at her grandfather’s, Dean books the pair into a love hotel’s future-themed room and there, despite the humour in the room—no windows, rotating bed—the damage to their bond becomes clear. Smoothly revisiting key moments in the early months of their relationship that tie in visually or topically with the present, the trajectory of their life together may be doomed, but as youth they are filled with such hope and excitement it is nothing but heartbreaking.

The cinematic technique of a scattered version of events can often be a pain in the ass to watch, a cheap trick used to make the film seem more Totally Deep and Stuff than it actually is. Blue Valentine shoots down detractors of the technique (possibly just me, however), and will reveal over time how awkward arguments make complete sense, or how a justified reaction becomes too harsh. By the end, the viewer has a whole new perspective on everyone’s actions. Every scene is important, but never feels forced or contrived. At the end of it all, while both Cindy and Dean both act in ways that you may not agree with, neither are horrible people, but rather, just people.

The script hit so close to home in so many scenes that it was impossible not to feel like my life and fears had been catalogued and filmed. The arguments they have spring from the kind of petty comments that I’m liable to make when I’m tired or cranky; their reactions to each other so true to how I get when I’m pissy. (Not a lot, but I’ve just been through Christmas in a Retail Management Capacity so I have possibly been a bit tetchy in high-stakes situations like Oh God the Peanut Butter Has Run Out, or Why Did You Wash Those Jeans I Wanted to Wear Them, You Are the Worst Boyfriend in the History of Forever.) It didn’t make me second-guess my own relationship, as we’ve been together for more than a decade and we don’t suffer from the same ailments—actually none, really, apart from fighting about movies—but the moments of tired resignation or rejected affection in Blue Valentine are maginified versions of moments that every relationship suffers through. Moments of tenderness and love made me cry just as hard as the painful scenes of their fights and one particularly devastating and convincing scene in a hospital that will probably lead to me giving Michelle Williams a sympathetic hug in the street should I ever see her.

In Summary: Exceeds expectations completely. An almost perfect movie, but I’d advise against it if you’re feeling down. It’s not all depression and sadness, and I didn’t leave the movie cursing our fickle emotions, but it’s a fairly melancholy tale of how love can just end. If worried, remember that Williams and Gosling co-produced, so they must be pals in reality, right? Right.

(And in case anyone is wondering, the Tom Waits song Blue Valentine is not in the soundtrack, which is written by the incredible Grizzly Bear.)