Project 180 Film Brief: #34 Thor 2; #35 Stories we tell; #36 Frozen; #37 Lars and the Real Girl

Ok well this project has taken a bit of a backseat over the past eight weeks with moving house; moving states; sorting out property etc. So this is just a brief overview of the films making it across my radar in recent weeks.

Thor 2 - some incomprehensible powerful matter gets lost by the villain. He escapes. Matter infects Natalie Portman. She faints a lot. She sits around doing nothing waiting for Thor to save the day. Evil guy tries to get powerful matter. Thor fights. Lots of CG. Lots of exposition. Lots of tedium. A few bright moments and a couple decent performances lift it slightly. Weak follow up to the first entry. 2/5

Stories we tell - Sarah Polley’s cleverly conceived and executed documentary on her family and mysterious past. What lifts this documentary to impressive levels is her use of technique, structure, narration and the interesting interviews. I questioned certain aspects going through the film and by the conclusion it resolves them nicely. I’ve always admired her as an actress and I’d imagine her to be quite a tenacious and driven filmmaker. I do wonder whether ultimately it is the ‘story I tell’. 4/5

Frozen - a stronger entry to the recent Disney fare. It has a stronger first two thirds and whilst it doesn’t quite soar to the levels I feel it’s aspiring to; it does pass the Bechdel test and is visually stunning. Music is somewhat catchy and entertaining. I was able to switch my brain off and just enjoy it. It’s not quite on the same level as the best of 1990s Disney or have the emotional pay off that the best Pixars have but I can see why kids have become captivated and now understand how ‘Let it go’ fits in. 3.5/5

Lars - finally doing a catch up on a last decade notable entry. Ryan Gosling again shows why he’s the man of the hour. This is a sweet, touching and watchable look at mental illness and the best aspects of the film are watching the town embrace his girlfriend and the Gosling’s performance. It’s a low key indie film which could’ve been a one joke film but it works on many levels thanks to those involved. It doesn’t quite deliver on it’s emotional or clever aspirations - it kept me at a bit of a distance. Ultimately It is sweet, light and a little strange. 3.5/5

#33 - Nebraska (2014)

This is the second of Alexander Payne’s films to make this project list after recently catching ‘About Schmidt’ - probably my favourite of his along with ‘Sideways’. He knows how to cast and deliver performances in films that focus on the human condition and relationships: fathers & sons, best friends, teacher and pupil etc. *

* exception to come. 

'Nebraska' is in similar territory. This feels like one of his smallest films to date. Like Sideways, this is a road movie. The focus in on small town America post-recession. The parallels between the slow death of this small town and the characters it follows. It is a cute premise revolving around a father who is convinced that he has won 1 million dollars in a sweepstake (that is obviously a scam) and plans to walk to collect it. His relationships are weak as he is painted as someone who wasn't a great father or husband - and of course his old town wants in on this apparent fortune as you can see an element of desperation seeping from this small town.

There is much to like and admire here. Shooting in glorious black and white helps bring much character to the landscapes. This feels very much an Alexander Payne film. It is focussed on themes of family and relationships. Dern gives a wonderful performance and it is understandable why he is garnering attention from it. In fact most of the performances in the film again are solid. However, for me this film demonstrated a rare misstep in Payne’s repertoire where a few of the characters lacked an authenticity and unfortunately none more so than *Will Forte. I found myself repelling from his performance. His delivery felt scripted and lacking authenticity. It reminded me of actors who tonally over-emote throughout each line to give it purpose. It felt even more exaggerated being amongst the other actors, especially Dern. When the wonderful Bob Odenkirk appears as his brother it solidified it for me. Bob is such a subtle and eloquent performer and here, whilst having little to say or do, just widened the chasm for me. So unfortunately that grated on me much of the time. I wondered if I was being unfair but recent conversations shows I am not alone in reacting against that character. 

There is much to admire here in this small-scaled film which fits comfortably in Payne’s repertoire - and had me thinking back to another wonderful Director’s road film take on small-town America: David Lynch’s ‘The Straight Story’ - but his earlier work has struck more of a chord with me.  3 / 5

#30 - #32: Three Colours Blue, White & Red (1993 - 1994)

Finally have managed to catch this trilogy from Krzysztof Kieslowski. Whilst not initially falling in love with this renowned series, I came away thinking that these will be films that will get better and better with each subsequent viewing. There is so much in them that it will take time to pick up on all the little details. 

Each of the films are quite different from one another. The first, Blue is the darkest and heaviest of the trilogy. It is also the most visually stunning. The cinematography is beautiful - the composition, the shift/tilt focus techniques, the use of colour (blue, of course). It is also the film where music plays the greatest role - and is a character within it. It’s dealing with a woman coping with grief. The performance by Binoche is astounding - the film is hard going emotionally. It was also the most stylistic of the three - in particular it is big on symbolism with its use of fading to black and music to punctuate character emotional points. It’s kind of operatic. Whilst I admire the technique and the performances on display I was ready for a little levity by the film’s conclusion. We weren’t to get it until White.

Definitely the lightest of the three, i would hesitate to call White a comedy. The performances are strong here too - and the main character reminded me of Charlie Chaplin in many ways - the tone, the physical comedy and the journey all felt like it had touches of it. Many regard White as the weak link. I think that’s harsh. There is much to admire here. Having another emotionally heavy instalment following on from Blue would’ve been trying. There is an absurdist element to it and narratively it could be a little far-fetched at points. The narratives of the trilogy’s bookends on first viewing feel stronger and less contrived but White also has the greater emphasis on narrative to its others. Delpi is very different to what I’ve seen her do previously, including the recently blogged Before series. She was very unlikable and it’s her story where possibly critics nitpicked over. It had echoes of a ‘Taming of the Shrew’ - and possibly borrowing from Shakespearian, Hollywood and French comedies. When I finished White, I was coming away admiring and enjoying the journey (not quite as much as the less ambitious Before series) and Blue being the stronger and more admirable of the pair but with White being the most conventional in its storytelling. I wondered what Red was going to deliver to compliment it. 

What I discovered was the Red was the most satisfying of the three. It was also beautifully shot and scored. It felt like it sat somewhere in the middle of Blue and Red in tone, technique, structure etc.  It wasn’t as heavy as Blue and its use of colour whilst prolific not as heavily imposed. The performances again were magnificent. There is more symbolism and juxtaposition going on in this story but not breaking the fourth wall. On one level its a bit of a Romantic drama; an intelligent ‘Sliding Doors’ if you will, a prophetic telling with its own Tempest - a will they or won’t they?   I’m still a little uncertain about the device to bring all three films together and felt a touch contrived - but I went with it anyway!  At the end of the day these are three beautiful, expertly performed and directed character pieces that touch on themes and ideas that on first viewing probably only had me scratching the surface.

Exeter station

#29 - About Time (2013).

Richard Curtis’ ‘About Time’ is another of his romantic comedies but this time feels like a more personal low key affair which is playing on two levels. You have the boy meets girl story as well as the father and son storyline - both held together by the construct that all the men in the family can travel back in time within their lifetime. The premise whilst silly initially is actually executed rather wonderfully.. This comes down to the performances of Domhnall Gleeson and Bill Nighy in the initial scenes in order to sell it. 

There is an air of familiarity and a lack of novelty about the plot line but I must say I went along for the ride. I found the film highly enjoyable by the end. This was mainly due to these two wonderful actors. Special mention needs to go to Gleeson who I’ve rarely seen previously but being the son of one of my favourite contemporary actors will definitely seek out in the future. He provides a wonderfully complex, nuanced performance filled with humour, emotion and grounded in reality. I could relate to much of what he went through.  McAdams is in an arena that she knows all too well and she performs her role well - and I do like seeing her on film; she brings a comfortable down to earth vibe to her roles.  The first half of the film has more for her to do and by the last act she is in the background. To be honest, that aspect of the story whilst having nice and humorous moments, is the least interesting part of the story.  The Father & Son aspect feels the most personal to Curtis and is the more assured. 

Some of the plot points seems a bit contrived and convoluted and I tried not to think too hard about the time travel aspects for fear of it all unravelling in front of me and losing the enjoyment of the ride. I do feel I missed something during the handling of the child plot point (without giving anything away) it resolved quite neatly and briskly.  The ending was also a little heavy handed and over-sentimental as Curtis is want to do from time to time (I had the same issues with the end of ‘Love Actually’ too which had similarities here but to be fair is better handled here as it at least it didn’t take me outside the world of the film). I like the message it was trying to deliver throughout and I can be the sucker of a good romantic film if told intelligently, with minimal cliches and wonderful performances. It doesn’t quite get there here on that storyline but for the most part its an enjoyable ride and one that is elevated because of the young Gleeson - and taking it into territory I wasn’t entirely expecting.  3.5 / 5 

A special surprise gift from a special person! I can’t believe I went to the Bond Exhibition in Melbourne and bought nothing from the gift shop. I must be getting old!

So shocked and saddened waking up to the news of the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Another gone too soon. So many amazing performances. My favourites would have to probably be Magnolia and Doubt. But too many to name and a couple I’ve still yet to see. I still remember first seeing him in Scent of a Woman and left an impression at a young age. RIP.

# 28 - The Wolverine (2013).

After the atrocious stand alone origins Wolverine film, scepticism was high when shown this film the other night. Thankfully, albeit not a difficult feat, it rises far above its predecessor. It also brings itself into the Marvel storytelling tying it in with X-Men 3 and the upcoming X-Men Days of Future Past.

It’s essentially a gangster, noir, samurai story. This gives the film its interest and character. It would’ve been nice to see this pushed further and the overall film given a more stylish visual treatment.  There was much to enjoy here with a good support cast and Jackman being very comfortable in a role he has played many times previously. The direction is assured but not groundbreaking. The action sequence on the train is very well executed. The film’s final act falls into samey territory with a fairly bland resolution. However, for much of it’s length there was enough novelty despite some cheesy moments that are obviously playing for laughs and some clunky script moments. A good film, not a great film - it would’ve been interesting how Darren Aronofsky would’ve treated it should he have stayed with the project.  3 / 5

# 27 - Say Anything (1989).

Cameron Crowe’s debut feature film ‘Say Anything’ came at the end of the John Hughes era of teen films and looking back at the era I can see how it fractured away from the types of films that were being told at the time such as ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’, ‘The Breakfast Club’, ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ etc. Hughes was King of that Era with TBC, Ferris, 16 Candles etc. but they were somewhat unrealistic in certain attributes. This film feels rawer, less flashy, more honest. It is as much about the Father in the story as it is about the two teenagers falling in love. The relationship builds slowly and there is an honesty in their portrayals and its not riddled with cliches - this is particularly the case with the Father’s portrayal - thanks to a wonderful warm and affecting performance by John Mahoney. He really was a stand out for me here. 

It’s hard watching this for the first time with fresh eyes, having seen many a film with the wonderful John Cusack and John Mahoney (as well as knowing him so well as Martin Crane). I have to remember that this was early Cusack and a role that helped bring him to the attention of audiences and filmmakers. He personifies the underachiever so well - the person people underestimate or write off because he doesn’t know what he wants to do or who he wants to be. The film raises ideas of masculinity at that time (“don’t just be a guy.. there are plenty of guys .. be a man”).  So many films personified teenage males in a particular light - here is a guy sensitive, emotional but is actually more in tune with ideas and intellect than people credit him for whilst learning to be a kick boxer. He stands from the pack as he views women in a way that his male friends don’t and he talks of having female friends (and trying to convince himself he needs more guy friends when he is trying to convince himself to be someone he’s not - or someone he should).

My favourite parts were the truly human moments of emotion - captured in the image I’ve chosen to associate with this entry, Cusack on the ground after being punched in the nose during a training exercise, sex in the car, Mahoney in the bathtub. These moments are what elevate it from other films of its time and which bring the film its honesty. 

Crowe’s use of music is done equally well her which is unsurprising given his background or his signature in his other films.  I can see why it spoke to many Gen X’s at the time and has a place in their heart. I wouldn’t call it a stand out classic in the history of film (maybe I would’ve done if I’d seen it at the time of release) but it is certainly a sweet and understated film with so many great moments; certainly one of the better ones of its genre and deservedly so thanks to strong scripting, direction and performance. 3.8 / 5

#26 - Song for Marion (2012). (Alt US Title: Unfinished Song)

Unashamedly sentimental and aiming to be a real tear jerker. I must say for parts of it, it really sucked me in and pulled the emotional heart strings. I could tell that I was obviously being emotionally manipulated but much of the time I went for the ride. The sole credit for this are the central performances of Vanessa Redgrave and Terrence Stamp. Both bring much to the film and the characters - far beyond the slim and kind of trite screenplay. 

Watching the film I was thinking and reflecting on real life and the paths people go down later in life when their life partner dies or is faced with death. There was criticism I read at the time of how Stamp’s character is such a curmudgeon that why would people like him - I didn’t find that at all. Of course thats part of his character but for me its a personal coping with grief. Dealing with it (or not) knowing that the love of his life hasnt long to live. Everything he does and says, it’s well intentioned for her even if it doesn’t always come across that way. These are two seasoned actors who are so watchable. Their support by Gemma Arterton and Christopher Eccleston are equally fine. 

At the end of the day though it is a slim film and whilst it has poignant things around grief, life, old age, death and family; it doesn’t go particularly deep and much of what goes on in the film remains unexplained. It’s a very superficial film in many ways and with lesser actors wouldn’t have succeeded as well as it does.  The choral scenes seem designed for cheap laughs - from the way it is pitched to the songs that are chosen. I found those scenes (unlike in a film like ‘As it is in Heaven’) the least convincing, interesting and not particularly engaging. The exception would be the two solos in the piece - again, our leads.. but even the film’s resolution lacked punch and watching cutaways to extras reactions to songs designed to tell the audience how they should be feeling and that what must be on display is that powerful. Sadly, not so much here.  Ultimately an enjoyable, slight experience worth seeing for the acting but with some reservations and a slight feeling that the actors involved deserve better material to work with.  3 / 5

Jaguar 2014 Big Game Commercial | British Villains 'Rendezvous' | Jaguar USA →

#25 - Rush (2013).

A thoroughly enjoyable surprise! This and ‘Frost / Nixon’ are Ron Howard’s best films. Both biopics and both written solely by one of my favourite screenwriters Peter Morgan. Expertly crafted with a fantastic screenplay. 

The two leads are excellent. Both command the screen and provide complex and interesting characters - the Ying to the others Yang.. The female characters do little and are not really explored or developed; in fact most of the characters just hang in the background. It is all about these two characters and their rivalry was compelling. I knew little about their history other than knowing of Niki Lauda and that he was in a crash .. Im not much into this subject matter but here it is presented well and is more about the men and what made them tick.

Ron Howard I find can often be hit and miss - Ransom was enjoyable but the technique and approach was heavy handed and imposing.  ’Apollo 13’ is probably his most effective film after these - yet another biopic. It seems like he is at his strongest with excellent screenplays and telling true stories. The technique he used here was fitting and assured.  Definitely worth a watch - I can’t wait to see what Morgan writes for us next and a little disappointed we never got to see his take on ‘Skyfall’ but perhaps he is at his best when telling true stories.  4 / 5.

#23 & # 24 - Before Sunrise (1995) & Before Sunset (2004).

Finally after all these years I’ve sat down to watch a cult modern classic series - or at least two of the trilogy (the third will appear soon). A major reason why I am doing this project!

Such brilliant filmmaking - the leads have amazing chemistry and a major reason why these films work. The films are just conversations and its like looking into a window of moments in these characters lives. I got involved and entranced with them and was saddened each time their story ended. That is the mark of good storytelling and characterisation.  It’s hard to know where the improvisation begins and the scripting ends. 

This will be short as I don’t want to give anything away other than to say that it felt a lot like a fictional version of what the 7 Up documentary series does. It’s wonderful to see characters at their youthful optimistic selves and then revisiting them ten years later (and ultimately will be seeing them another decade down the path soon).  

I am always interested to hear which one is one’s favourite - as they are very different and often means you are gravitating to an overarching theme to the films whether it be romantic, cynical, optimistic, naivety, darker, rougher elements. For me, Sunset is the hands down winner at this stage. Whilst I really enjoyed Sunrise, I just found Sunset all that more richer, complex, more polished, wonderfully paced and had such a wonderful last scene with beautifully written and performed dialogue. 

I forgot how good Ethan Hawke is (want to rewatch Dead Poets Society now); and good to see Julie Delpy in stand out roles (Three Colours Trilogy will feature in this project somewhere).

Can’t wait to see where they are at when I next visit them and will undoubtedly be sad to see their story end.  4 / 5  ;   4.5 / 5

#22 - The Grandmaster (2013).

Wong Kar Wai made one of my favourite films ‘In the Mood for Love’ and although I’ve yet to see all his repertoire I’ve seen most of his later career work as well as his commercial work and his style is incredibly distinctive and stunningly visual.  Mood, tone, emotion, nuance and subtlety are major parts of his work. I was keen to see this film - it seemed like he was trying a path that Ang Lee treaded years earlier with ‘Crouching Tiger’. The trailer showed some stunning visuals so it definitely showed promise.

The visuals are some of the best he’s done. There is stunning imagery throughout - every frame is like a picture (a statement I made when seeing ITMFL). A different cinematographer here but nonetheless Wai’s style prevails. He’s managed to make the story his own. Tony Leung - his regular collaborator - is always captivating on screen. 

Despite its visual style, I came away disappointed and underwhelmed. I found the film quite inaccessible - the narrative felt disjointed and confusing and I found it all rather convoluted. Perhaps it was a film lost in translation. I felt it was trying to be a highly emotional and provoking work but I found it distant and disengaged. By the end I think I started to fill in the missing links but by then it was all a bit late.

Shame really, but from a purely visual experience, some really impressive choreography and seeing a master filmmaker, albeit taking a slight misstep, take on a martial arts film - but what is really a biopic with some heightened treatment, its worth a look.  2.5 / 5