Wednesday, February 23, 2011


After Clint Eastwood’s recent successes with Gran Torino and Million Dollar Baby, it might be easy to assume that the grizzled Hollywood veteran has hit some kind of late-career winning streak. However, if new film Hereafter proves anything, it’s that the photographer who never takes his finger off the shutter is bound to get at least a couple of great photos on the roll. Eastwood is prolific, having directed 34 films since 1971.

Hereafter is a film with a bleeding heart. Three human-interest stories of loss and disaster are told in parallel: three broken hearts in three different countries. In Paris, beautiful cosmopolitan TV reporter Marie LeLay (Cecile De France) is having trouble re-adjusting to her glamorous work-routine after having survived the full brunt of 2004’s Boxing Day tsunami. Shopping in an open-air market when the wave hit, she was nearly drowned when struck by debris, and her near-death experience took her briefly over to the ‘other side’. Similarly, London boy Marcus (Frankie McLaren) is desperately trying to seek out information on the supernatural, in order to re-connect with his twin brother Jason (George McLaren), who is killed in a car accident. Lastly there is American George Lonegan (Matt Damon), one of the few real psychics amongst the fakers and deluded, whose personal and work life has been decimated by his “curse” of always knowing too much about others and being constantly pestered by the bereaved.

When putting together any film that is made of seemingly unrelated parts, there are a few basic structural hurdles to get over. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, the characters’ paths must eventually intersect. The meeting of Marie (newly convinced of the existence of the afterlife), the lonely Marcus and retired psychic George promises to be a monumental fortuitous revelation in the lives of each. It is therefore highly confusing when at around the two-thirds mark, all of the characters are still in their respective countries, continuing to be miserable. It seems clear that writer Peter Morgan first conceived this chance meeting between three characters who help to fulfil and redeem each other’s lives. Then he seemed to struggle with the problem of how to introduce the backgrounds of three different characters, of explaining why it is so important they had met. Morgan’s approach is arguably the most boring solution for audiences. Half the movie is backstory. What we get is a film that is largely exposition – much of which could be argued redundant in order to grasp the gravity of the meeting, which frankly isn’t all that satisfying. Then the film ends before we can really know the lasting consequences of this meeting.

Structure is not the only troubling aspect of Hereafter. Frankie MacLaren gives a laughably wooden performance as Marcus, delivering lines as though he is reading them off a cereal packet. Whilst it’s true he is only a young boy, he has little excuse when youth has proven no obstacle for actors such as Freddie Highmore, Abigail Breslin and Kodi Smit-McPhee. There are also problems with the special effects, which might have been passable in an action-thriller where they are a dime-a-dozen, but here they are conspicuous and overpowering. The one exception to this is the animation of the tsunami, which is exceptional; a scene where cars and rubble are washed down a market street is perhaps the most captivating in the film. Matt Damon’s troubled psychic character is by a shade the most intriguing, but his hang-ups are left unresolved due to minimal screen time and his finale is simply unsatisfying. Having felt I’d been promised a psychic Matt Damon being haunted by ghosts while in blue contact lenses and a black skivvy, I was a little miffed.  Worst of all, this two-and-a-bit hour film is guilty of horrendous dragging. I certainly made contact with eternity during Hereafter!

Perhaps in order to counterbalance, or even remedy its deep committal to the esoteric, Hereafter takes in two of the most affecting disasters of recent history: the Boxing Day tsunami and the London Underground bombings. It does this in a very limited, but important context: to point out the number of families who lost loved ones, for whom the notion of the afterlife will be at the forefront of the mind. It is also careful to pick both natural and human-generated disasters, to show that ill will, accident and ‘the hand of God’ may all take lives, but that the costs are always the same. This will make the film a little more relevant for Australian viewers, who are contemplating the tragic implications of recent fires, floods and cyclones, and the horrific earthquake in Christchurch.

That of our level of comfort dealing with the possibility of an afterlife can fluctuate in response to events in our life is an interesting topic. Hereafter seems to point out that those who’ve lost someone close are the most receptive to supernatural forces, yet are also the most vulnerable to vultures posing as clairvoyants. The character of Marie Lelay is motivated by a desire to open scientific discussion on a topic that has previously been occupied principally by mumbo jumbo, smoke and mirrors. Yet her character has some kind of professional breakdown, behaving in a manner that makes her indistinguishable from all the other rambling nutters claiming to have had contact with ghosts or aliens or gods. Her problem is also the film’s problem. Hereafter first sets up discussions regarding truth and fallacy in the new-age industries, and near-death experiences and testimonies. It then discredits these very earnest discussions by declaring that ‘the afterlife is really real!’, depicting ghostly interventions and showing the viewer a very ‘TV’ depiction of the afterlife – wobbly silhouettes of the deceased flickering past and whispering inaudibly near a big bright light. This very disappointing special effect seems symptomatic of a film that never really states its position. The afterlife is present in this film, so is this a case attesting to its presence in the real world? Unfortunately, this question seems little like it will be answered – an unengaging film can’t hope to stimulate engaging discussion.

I have only to predict that like spiritually-suggestive snooze-fests Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The Christmas Box, Hereafter is likely to make a splash in the touchy-feely off-season daytime television circuit.

Monday, February 7, 2011


In early 2003 outdoorsmen, the media and average Joes alike were abuzz with a mind-boggling story of desperation and willpower from the Horseshoe canyons in Utah, America. A young, skilled rock climber named Aron Ralston had travelled out to the remote Bluejohn canyon but became trapped in a narrow crevice when a huge chalkstone boulder fell from above onto his right hand and wrist. Aron was powerless to budge the boulder and too far from the busiest part of the canyon to encounter any assistance. Nobody knew where he was. He was stuck this way for five days. On the fifth day Ralston performed the unfathomable task of cutting off his trapped forearm with a blunt pocket-knife. By the end of the day he had escaped back into the arms of civilisation, and was receiving nourishment and medical assistance.

Then a sensation in the presses, Ralston’s choice to live has remained a fascination. Whilst a true story, it eerily resembles a philosophical “hypothetical”. You’re trapped under a rock but are otherwise unharmed: would you auto-amputate to save your own life? Many of us respond to such questions with the attitude that life is never that simple, that there are always variables, complications and grey areas. Aron Ralston, however, was living a riddle – he had no variables. Just a choice between losing his arm or his life. This might be the reason the cinematic adaptation, directed by the decorated Danny Boyle, makes for such a captivating film. It is not only a story of singular humanity, but it allows us to experience what it is like to stand at the proverbial forked road. What it is like to be (as Ralston’s autobiography is titled) between a rock and a hard place. 127 Hours begs the question: if the situation arose, could you do the same?

In entertainment terms it is easy to suspect that regardless of a striking synopsis, this simple story, one-man cast and fixed location might not satisfactorily fill out a 90minute feature: that Ralston’s story is one best told over a campfire or around the water cooler than played out on the silver screen. This has turned out to be far from the truth. Boyle is a director for whom a film should always be about the possibilities of cinema, as well as about its subject. His presence as a director is like that of a puppet master. He allows his actors to perform beautifully, but his hand is always visible, in inventive camera angles, visual trickery, clever editing, on-screen text and strong music selections. Every little detail of Ralston’s experience (his water bottle, an ant, re-winding his video camera, thinking about his family) is enhanced, injected with Boyle’s signature steroid, a mountain made of every molehill. A simple tale has been made utterly dynamic, and it is Boyle, not Franco, who is telling us the story of 127 Hours. Perhaps in synchronisation with Ralston, Boyle has made an extreme sport of cinema.

This tactic has an equalising effect that makes such a feature of the film’s components (be they performance, special effect, file footage e.t.c.) that there is only really room for one trick at a time. The audience is always absorbed in the present. Each moment is so big that it is nearly impossible to consider the whole narrative or where it’s going. As a result, the film is structured into chapter-like sequences. As might be guessed, some of these are flashbacks, but thankfully these are kept to a minimum. In fact, there are no flashbacks depicting further into Ralston’s past than the morning of his departure. Those included represent daydreams, instead of  asides for the audience’s information. We are also party to his hallucinations. They range from the possible to the fantastic, and give us a sense of how easily the most trivial or banal thoughts can intrude upon our darkest moments, perhaps a diet coke jingle interrupting dying ruminations. This evokes the plight of climber Joe Simpson, who famously had a Boney M song stuck in his head during his escape from death’s clutches in the Siula Grande mountains, and about whom the documentary Touching the Void was made. 

The darkest and most desperate moment in the film, indeed the moment upon which the story hinges, is of course the amputation. This unblinking scene isn’t kind to the feint hearted, and is accordingly awarded a length of several (very long) minutes of film time. Determined though I was to witness the whole thing, I was eventually overwhelmed. Despite this, I feel there was nothing gratuitous to this bloody depiction. It was horrific, which was appropriate. Whilst this is a film with a ‘main event’, or perhaps because of it, all other powerful moments come as engaging surprises. If you take the ride, Boyle will take a kaleidoscope to Aron Ralston’s slow, tragic predicament before your eyes, turning it to show you a rich, visceral, fragmented rendition of one of the best true stories of recent times.


The term ‘heart-warming’ is one of the more frequently used publicity tags for promoting films, simply because it guarantees a good time. It suggests happy endings, laughter and above all, a non-taxing experience: nothing gory, nothing intellectual, nothing sad. (It seems a shame that many viewers apparently resent having to pay attention.) Where so often the heart-warming and the complex are mutually exclusive, The King’s Speech is an unusual exercise in both. Tom Hooper has directed a film in which a charming script and exemplary performances from Rush and Firth produce a highly rewarding viewing experience. This is a fascinating story that tickles the brain as well as the heart. 

It is a little-circulated fact that King George VI of England suffered from a debilitating speech impediment, causing him to stutter and pause. Like many sufferers of non-mental disabilities, his sharp intellect lacked a voice, causing the undeserved disappointment and scorn of those around him. The King’s Speech begins with the meeting of George VI (Colin Firth) with unconventional Antipodean speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Their consultations are overshadowed by tumultuous family upheavals: George’s brother’s (Guy Pearce as the classically caddish Edward VIII) is carrying on a liaison with twice-divorced Pennsylvanian socialite Wallis Simpson and his father is killed by pneumonia, leaving a host of grudges unresolved. A royal family is by no means a perfect family. The King’s Speech, if anything, shows that what sets royalty apart is that their closest confidantes are more often than not professionals and colleagues, like Lionel, rather than friends.

The relationship between Albert and Lionel is formed of a bizarre conjunction of circumstances. Lionel insists upon subverting many of the relationships the reluctant Albert is used to: client and businessman, king and commoner, colonial Australian and well-bred Englishman. This begets a charming dance between roles, each man trying to gain authority, whilst also finding solace in their friendship. It is a film generous with spiky banter and little jokes, interspersed with physical humour; watch for Lionel’s hilarious summary of the Perth theatre scene. What is perhaps the most gratifying aspect of this humour extends beyond the joke however – every silly thing that happens in Lionel’s office equates to some real-world skill for Albert. As we know, learning to “paint the fence” has other benefits.

To portray a character afflicted with a condition you simply do not have is of great difficulty, yet Firth’s performance is captivating. Instant amnesia occurs – Firth is Albert (George’s at-home name), and light years away from Darcy territory (either one, girls). One tunes in to Firth’s delivery, getting accustomed to his halting speech. Yet it is hard to ignore the gaps. Culture little values reticence and now that communications are so instant, any period of waiting seems excruciating. We have forgotten how to pause, and associate slowness with stupidity. Perhaps Firth’s most amazing feat is his very careful timing of Albert’s progress. The improvements are evident yet glacial, making every minor advance an uplifting victory until soon Albert must broadcast a speech over radio to rally patriotism and conviction for the nascent war effort among his subjects.

Rush expertly treads a fine line between twee professor a-la My Fair Lady’s Higgins and a no-nonsense, unrelenting life coach. Guy Pearce and Helena Bonham-Carter are well cast and construct detailed characters, but Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill sticks out unpleasantly, verging on caricature.

The soundtrack for The King’s Speech is exceptional. Whilst comprised only of classical music or early jazzy singles (that is, music that existed during the late 1930s), it still functions in the style of a modern orchestral film score. The choices are elegant, particularly the inclusion of the second movement from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony during the final scenes.

In the business of being royal nothing matters so much as public relations. Looking respectable, marrying well and making a rousing speech every now and then are essential requirements that come with the privilege of being born into monarchy. The Royal Family are the original celebrity superstars, as any of the buzz around William and Kate’s imminent wedding, or Sarah Ferguson’s blunderous profiteering ventures will tell you. What makes The King’s Speech truly intriguing is that the core of the film is a human story – a truly moving narrative about the development of self-esteem and the formation of trust. These are relatable themes, and you certainly don’t have to be heir to the throne to be affected by them, or by a stutter or disability. Yet The King’s Speech is not just a small film about two men in a room having faith in each other and doing voice exercises. Theirs is also a story with political and historical ramifications. Every improvement made in their private and intimate consultations had an effect on the King’s image and his ability to communicate and inspire the confidence of his nation. In wartime, no less. There are two narratives here, which are deeply interwoven and which allow a period drama featuring significant historical figures who are impeded by complex social and political protocols, to be a very heart-warming film indeed.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Before The Fighter, the last boxing film I saw was Tyson. The documentary showed boxing to be a sport for which success hinges upon each boxer’s feelings of security, popularity, success and importance in their whole life, not just in the ring. The Fighter claims no differently. Boxing is a battle of confidence as much as a battle of fitness. Many factors must line up in order to hit that winning streak: family relationships, money issues, home and lifestyle, control of substance abuse, a healthy relationship, age, fitness, and perhaps most importantly, finding the right trainer to build them up emotionally and physically. This is little surprise when we take a moment to consider that boxing can be ferocious and injurious, a sport in which players wilfully inflict violence. What an incredibly difficult occupation, given that day-to-day violence is natural to our bodies but not to civilisation.

The life of “Irish” Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg in comfortable territory) was not one conducive to boxing success. Living in the shadow of older half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a former mild success in the ring, Mickey’s family sees him as their next stepping stone toward family glory, and as their breadwinner. His success warms the seat for Dicky’s comeback, and their training together is filmed for a documentary of his intended re-emergence. This arrangement is held in place by the firm and manipulative presence of Alice, Mickey’s mother and manager. Mickey’s remote chance of success  is set back by Dicky’s unreliability, a symptom of his crack addiction and self-involvement.

The status quo is disrupted by the arrival of Amy Adams’ drawling Charlene, an unsuccessful but intelligent woman who immediately points out Mickey’s poor chances of winning any match organised by his deeply selfish family. This conflict ensemble has produced some incredible performances, in particular Melissa Leo as Alice and Christian Bale’s much-talked-about junkie persona. A friend recently declared ‘I haven’t seen it yet, but Christian Bale you better be good – more than just looking like a junkie.’ Bale’s makeup was certainly impressive, and the actor has yet again dramatically adjusted his physique to fit the role, but he has indeed transfigured his mannerisms, speech and gait to craft a believable and tantalising performance. Bale co-ordinates Dicky’s changeability well, especially the suddenness of his moods and gestures, a trait reminiscent of Ben Kingsley's terrifying Logan from Sexy Beast. Melissa Leo is just as scintillating as the mid-80s glamazon mom who batters all naysayers down with her simplistic emotional blackmail and foul mouth. An attractive, vital-looking woman in real life, Leo transforms herself wonderfully into a shoulder-padded witch, fag dangling ungracefully from gold-overloaded fingers.

Mickey’s hometown of Lowe is painted masterfully as a faded and lacklustre district, impoverished and unsophisticated. To say Lowe has a robust community life isn’t quite truthful, gossip and grudge being the key features of local bar and diner scenes. What might be a spate of ‘Poverty Tourism’ (Winter’s Bone, Precious) is certainly an opportunity for creating cinematic character, and adding weight to a protagonist’s plight. It needn’t be ugly, necessarily, but what you might call ‘beautifully realised’. For instance, the only exception to the dusty, bleached-out look of the film is the startling red of blood in the ring and the shimmer of customised boxing robes. Perfect period costuming adds to the feeling of tiredness, awakening nostalgia. 

Perhaps the most triumphant set furnishing of The Fighter is the leering presence of Mickey’s seven “ugly sisters” who all live at home with their mother and seem to share a collective brain and personality, formed like putty by Alice’s hand. These girls are at once the most comic and repulsive aspect of the film, a deeply sad demarcation of Alice’s dominion over her children, and yet a hilarious example of group fashion mentality: these are girls who could pass as slowly malfunctioning, partly electrocuted eighties robots.

Somewhat regrettably, The Fighter is structured as an up-and-down sports film, despite the fleshiest and strongest aspects being its dramatic sequences. It therefore contains excessive montage – including the ubiquitous training montage, and the familiar technique of splicing sports footage with other scenes to compare two characters' progress. Least enjoyable are emotional workout scenes set to rousing stadium/classic rock. A final match to galvanise the futures and relationships of the cast is unsurprisingly scheduled for the third act, and built up to on a distinctly 45 degree beeline. Despite this, The Fighter is one of the better examples of sports-themed cinema. It’s well written, clearly realised and certainly doesn’t pander, the complexity of relationships left intact for the audience to unravel. For fighting enthusiasts, the ring scenes are very well choreographed and director David O. Russell made the unusual, but wise decision not to splice historical footage with staged footage. The difficulty of reproducing a real, recorded event was very much worth the trouble.

The fighter is perhaps not a film with an unexpected twist, but being based on the true story of the Ward brothers and Mickey’s rise to light welterweight greatness, it has that extra level of heart-warming, “we’ll show you” kind of redemptive pleasure to it.  A definite underdog story, and a study of character worthy of rapt attention.