Movie Review: The Babadook (2014)

December 25, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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So everyone was urging me to see this cool new Aussie horror flick called The Babadook. I didn’t think it would be particularly good, to be honest, but the 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes managed to persuade me in the end.

And wow, what a great horror movie. What a great Aussie movie.

The story, at least from the trailer, seemed kinda cliched. A mother (Essie Davis) starts to become terrified that the titular monster depicted in a pop-up children’s book she reads to her son (Noah Wiseman) might actually be real.

But fortunately, The Babadook is nothing like the typical boogeyman, monster-under-the-bed horror I had expected. While there is a handful of “boo” moments, the majority of the scares in this movie are psychological. It’s that eerie, uncomfortable feeling that creeps up on you and makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. There’s not much blood, and there’s very little use of computer-based special effects, and yet The Babadook is definitely up there as one of the scariest films I’ve seen for a very long time.

Another thing that sets The Babadook apart from most horror films in recent years is that the characters are actually well developed, meaning that you actually worry about them when something bad is happening to them. Essie Davis delivers a marvellous performance as Amelia, whose sanity appears to be hanging by a thread as her energy and patience is ground down to nothingness by her troubled son. Anyone who has had to deal with troubled children, or even normal children, will be able to appreciate what she’s going through and sympathise with her impossible predicament.

The way things begin to unravel for Amelia is executed with impressive skill, as one incident after another piles onto her despair, exhaustion and feeling of helplessness. She’s terrified not just of the Babadook, but of her own son, and even herself — or at least what she might do to him. That’s the brilliance of the film — for the most part, you don’t know whether the creature is a supernatural being, a real manifestation or her fears and anxieties, or just a figment of her imagination.

With this stunning debut, writer and director Jennifer Kent has set up what should be a career to look out for. It’s clear she knew exactly what she was going for from the very first scene, and the sombre color scheme she adopts really brings out the melancholy of the film’s tone.

What also stood out for me was the way Kent manages to un-Australianise the film. Not that there’s anything wrong with Aussie films per se, but the lack of strong accents and ambiguous settings do help open the story up to a wider audience and offer something that is more relatable to international viewers.

I don’t want to overstate the scariness of the film, because as we all know, bloated expectations can ruin even the best movies. My wife, for example, thought it was scary, but not that scary. Others have said they actually get more freaked out by cheap scares. That’s why I recommend checking it out so you can decide for yourself.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Rover (2014)

September 6, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The Rover is David Michod’s highly-anticipated follow-up to one of the best Australian movies of all-time, 2010’s Animal Kingdom. Set in a world 10 years after a global economic collapse, the film stars Guy Pearce as a quiet and relentless anti-hero who sets out to retrieve his car from a band of robbers on the run, and during his journey forms a strange and uneasy bond with the abandoned brother of one of the robbers, played by Robert Pattinson.

I had very high expectations for The Rover because Animal Kingdom (review here) is THE film that restored my faith in Aussie movies. And like Animal KingdomThe Rover is a confident piece of filmmaking that is bleak, tense and uncompromising. But at the end of the day, I still have to consider The Rover somewhat of a disappointment even though it was probably exactly the way Michod wanted it to be.

The film is set entirely in Australia and has been marketed as a modern Western of sorts, taking advantage of Australia’s hot, dry air and sandy, desolate landscapes. It’s a visually impressive film, but it’s also one that doesn’t explain anything to its audience. There’s no voice-over or extensive opening crawl that explains to us how or why the economic collapse happened or what the world has become. All we know is that we’re in Australia, and it’s been 10 years since the collapse. Consequently, much of the intrigue of the film comes from discovering what the world is like (I won’t spoil too much), though you have to keep your eyes and ears open because all of it comes in little bits and pieces.

What it creates is an unsettling experience where you don’t really know what is happening and what will happen next. You are forced to put the pieces together to understand how this new world works and what the characters’ motivations are and why they’ve become the people they are. That’s what makes the film, despite it’s deliberately slow and considered pace, so compelling and compulsive to watch. It’s a fairly typical hook, but Michod’s direction and the screenplay by Michod and Joel Edgerton are so confident and understated that you never feel manipulated.

Having said that, The Rover can also be considered somewhat dull and nonsensical. Some of the slower scenes drag and don’t work as well as they should, and when you break the film down, it’s really quite a stupid story masquerading as something more profound. You can call much of the seemingly random stuff in it “realistic” and “unexpected”,  or you can call it “contradictory” and “pointless.”

The film offers more of an experience than a story in that you are just thrown into it and made to observe for about 100 minutes, and you come out of it knowing only what is shown to you on the screen. It intentionally under-utilizes its innovative setting, so much so that you might think it’s a waste, and anyone expecting to get a complete picture of a post-economic-collapse world will feel as though they’ve been cheated.

Despite what can be perceived as flaws, I found The Rover to be highly watchable thanks to the performances of two leads. We already know what we’re going to get from Guy Pearce, who honestly has to be one of the most under-appreciated A-listers ever (seriously, does anyone even remember that he was in Best Picture winners such as The King’s Speech and The Hurt Locker, and played the lead role in films like The Count of Monte Cristo, The Road, Memento, LA Confidential, The Time Machine  and Lockout, as well as the villain in Iron Man 3 and Prometheus?). But my goodness, did anyone think Robert Pattinson would be exceptional as well?  People said he was good outside the Twilight films (eg, Remember Me, Cosmopolis, Water for Elephants), but I thought he was just OK in those movies. Here, he is genuinely believable as a weak, slow-witted American redneck with stained teeth, and I’d be totally OK if he received some awards recognition for this performance (especially since he’s evidently trying so hard to break out of Edward Cullen mode).

Still, The Rover is nowhere near as exhilarating as Animal Kingdom, which may have set the bar too high. I applaud Michod for trying something different and a little daring for his sophomore feature rather than going down the commercial route (that’s probably coming next in his adaptation of the Afghan war book, The Operations, by the late Michael Hastings, and will reportedly start Brad Pitt), but I do wish The Rover could have been a more complete, satisfying story, rather than what ultimately feels like a short story stretched into a semi-experimental full-length feature.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: I, Frankenstein (2014)

March 16, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I, Frankenstein, or as I liked to call it, I, Frankly-can’t-believe-Aaron-Eckhart-trained-6-months-for-this-shit, is already looking like a lock on my “worst films” list for 2014.

I knew it was not going to be a graphic-novel-to-film masterpiece, but I also had hopes that it would at least provide some solid popcorn entertainment. After all, Aaron Eckhart’s career trajectory has been on quite the upswing the last few years, and even though he’s made some questionable choices (such as Battle: Los Angeles, The Rum Diary and Olympus Has Fallen) over this period, none of his films have flat out sucked saggy scrotums — until now.

This should hardly come as a surprise. It’s hard enough to make a film about Mary Shelley’s classic novel (and we’ve seen some bad adaptations over the years). A film based on a comic that “re-imagines” that classic novel doesn’t really stand a chance. I, Frankenstein makes Van Helsing look clever.

The premise is this. Imagine if Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was not a novel but based on real events. Then imagine that Frankenstein’s monster, who is immortal, lives on after the events in the book for a couple of hundred years until the present day, and in the meantime learns to be a super awesome demon-fighting warrior. That’s basically it. Well, there’s actually also this long and convoluted back story about a secret war between gargoyles and demons, who want Frankenstein’s monster to unleash the secret to reanimating an army of corpses. I won’t lie; I was confused.

Anyhoo, the first problem with I, Frankenstein, apart from the silly plot, is that it’s kinda boring. Aaron Eckhart certainly tries, though the characters and the dialogue are so trite that it feels like watching bad cut scenes from a late 90s video game. They could have made light of the whole thing and turned it into a semi-comedy fuelled by sharp, witty comments, but everyone in it, including Eckhart, takes themselves so dead seriously that it saps all the fun out of the movie.

The second problem is that for a movie that depends on action to be watchable, the action sequences in I, Frankenstein are over-the-top (in a bad way) and lacking in creativity. Worst of all it’s all destroyed by extremely fake computer graphics that also remind me of late 90s video games. The gargoyles and demons looked like they were cut straight from an animated film and looked unrealistic even amid all the darkness and chaos.

Thirdly, turning Frankenstein’s monster into a superhero just doesn’t feel right. He’s supposed to be hideous — stitched up crudely from an assortment of corpses — but instead we get the chiselled features of Aaron Eckhart and his incredibly ripped body with a few lame scars across his face and body. It’s almost blasphemous.

Speaking of Aaron Eckhart, I was appalled to learn that he trained 6 months for the role. He worked out daily, trained in Parkour and Kali stick fighting and followed a strict diet, all so he could have a about 2 minutes of extremely average-looking fight sequences plus 3 seconds of a topless shot. You can’t fault the dude for his dedication, but boy, it’s hard to envisage a bigger waste of time than that.

All the other performances from a cast dominated by Aussies were fairly uninspired. Bill Nighy plays the villain, and you can tell he’s happy with the cheque but not having much fun. Yvonne Strahovski from Dexter plays a scientist and love interest, while Jai Courtney, Miranda Otto and Caitlin Stasey (from Tomorrow, When the War Began) play gargoyles. Everyone looks embarrassed to be there.

The only positive I can point out is that the film was made in Melbourne, which I suppose demonstrates that Australia is capable of making a relatively major Hollywood blockbuster. It’s just unfortunate that the film they ended up making was I, Frankenstein.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Great Gatsby (2013) (2D)

September 3, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I was kinda afraid of watching Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (it’s not just The Great Gatsby, it’s “Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby“!) because of all the hype surrounding it, especially in Australia. Described as a lavish production with A-list actors such as Leo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan, the film is said to be an ambitious adaptation of one of the greatest novels ever written.

I am ashamed to say I have never read Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece, but I thought it would provide a fresher experience of the film version. It probably did, because the film was much better than I expected, though it did leave me wondering why it was such a great story, suggesting perhaps Luhrmann spent too much time on all the eye candy and razzle dazzle and not enough on the heart of the tale.

Set in Long Island in 1922, The Great Gatsby is told in retrospect from a sanitarium by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who befriends the titular Jay Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio), a mysterious millionaire who loves to throw lavish parties. The story, however, is really about the relationship between Gatsby and his long lost love, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), Nick’s cousin. The problem is, Daisy is married to wealthy heir Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).

This is a Baz Luhrmann film, so I got what I expected in terms of flashiness — vibrant colours, stunning costumes, spectacular sets and beautiful cinematography. So if you’re after a visual spectacle, The Great Gatsby certainly delivers. I saw the film in 2D, though I doubt you’d get a more immersive experience if you shelled out the extra bucks for 3D.

On the other hand, The Great Gatsby is a melodrama — and a fairly interesting one with a lot of layers — but I don’t feel as though Luhrmann really captured the complexity or its heart of the source material. I mean, there must be a good reason why the story has resonated for nearly 9 decades, but I didn’t sense anything special while watching the film.

The performances were great across the board. Leo is Leo and he captures the enigmatic Gatsby wonderfully with the right amount of charm, and later, pain and vulnerability, though the standout for me was probably Edgerton’s Buchanan. At first I didn’t think he would be right for the role, but he surprised me — again. Is there any doubt now that he is Australia’s most underrated export?

In the end, I was probably more appreciative of The Great Gatsby than I thought I would be. I’ve never been a huge fan of Luhrmann’s style, which regularly struck me as more style over substance — and while The Great Gatsby probably falls into that category as well, there was more substance than I had anticipated, powered by some excellent performances. It’s a big, extravagant production that I enjoyed, but when you strip away all the glitz and glamour it felt like just another story. And surely the story of The Great Gatsby, widely regarded as one of the greatest American novels ever written, is more than that.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: I did love the soundtrack.

Book Review: “Adventures in Correspondentland” by Nick Bryant

January 7, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews

Here’s another book I read for a trade publication review.

Adventures in Correspondentland is written by BBC foreign correspondent Nick Bryant, who has been all around the world over the last 10-15 years, from London to Washington DC, Pakistan to India, Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay, and finally, Sydney, his adopted home of the past five years (he married Aussie designer Fleur Wood).  He has also witnessed some of the defining moments of our time, including the death of Princess Diana, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, 9/11 and the Boxing Day Tsunami.

Naturally, I was very excited about this book.  While not wanting to be a foreign correspondent (you really have to have a passion for on-call travel and frontline news), I was fascinated by the stories Bryant has to tell, the things he has seen and heard, the experiences he has had.  I had expected it to be a light-hearted, quirky, humorous kind of book (I mean, just take a look at the title and the cover), which has been described as “part memoir, part travelogue and part polemic”.

However, I was surprised by how relatively serious this book was for most of its 431 pages.  Of course, there were a lot of serious issues, from human rights abuses to mass deaths and child prostitution, but I expected a lighter, more fly-on-the-wall narrative strewn with funny vignettes.  There were a couple of good ones, such as when Clinton had to present a journalism award to the reporter who discovered the existence of Monic Lewinsky’s infamous “soiled” blue dress, or John Howard’s bewildered reaction when Bryant tried to speak to him after Howard’s crushing defeat to K-Rudd.

Bryant also came across as a little cynical, which is hard not to be when you’re a seasoned veteran of the news circuit.  But he does display an uncanny self-awareness of the emotional conflicts journalists often face, where a horrible human tragedy might simultaneously present the biggest break of their careers.  How does one feel or react?  Is it wrong to even feel a tiny sliver of exhilaration?  Those were the things I was most fascinated with.

Perhaps because it was part memoir, part travelogue and part polemic, there was a rather uneven tone for the first half of the book.  At times Bryant was an objective journalist reporting on events with little emotion, which made him bizarrely distant from the narrative, but at other times Bryant would suddenly become extremely personal and the story would become all about him.  It created a strange effect because Bryant is obviously a very articulate and skilled writer at the sentence level.

It wasn’t until Bryant settled in Australia that he seemed to settle down and became more comfortable with himself and his writing.  Or maybe it’s just because chronologically speaking, Australia is closest to the forefront of his memory.  Either way, Bryant’s single chapter on Australia was my highlight of the book.  From the death of Steven Irwin (which happened only days after he touched down) to the plight of Indigenous Australians to the day Kevin Rudd said “Sorry”, Bryant offers some absolutely fascinating insights into the Australian psyche.

As a Pom and a relative outsider, Bryant discusses the strange position Australia holds in the world, explores Australia’s undercurrent of racism and is not shy about serving up his unflattering opinion of K-Rudd, whom he describes as the “most singularly charmless of men: unpleasant, intellectually superior and seemingly devoid of lightness or humour.” (And this was before he became Prime Minister…remember the Kevin ’07 T-shirts?).  From Shane Warne to Kylie Minogue, from Pauline Hanson to Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, everyone gets a little page time.

After the Australian chapter, Bryant brings all his experiences together and looks forward to the future, touching on the impact of technology on the news industry.  There is also a very personal postscript about the birth of Bryant’s first child and the latest world developments, including the death of Osama Bin Laden and the Japanese Tsunamis.  Interestingly, I found these three chapters to be the strongest of the book.

On the whole, an insightful and sporadically interesting read.  Not quite what I expected but I did learn a lot from it.

3 out of 5

 
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