Far From Men movie review

Featuring: Viggo Mortensen, Reda Kateb
Director: David Oelhoffen
Writer: David Oelhoffen, Antoine Lacomblez (collaboration), adapted from Albert Camus’ short story L’Hôte (The Guest)
Movie website: www.palacefilms.com.au/farfrommen/
Australian release date: Thu 30 July

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Terrific high-stakes cinema with a classic feel, featuring rivetting lead performances from Viggo Mortensen and Reda Kateb.

This brooding slow-burner has the feel of classic cinema about it. Director David Oelhoffen plays straight stylistically – he’s aiming for bare bones realism and achieves it. Yet beneath the deceptively simple surface, Big Questions of morality swirl, answers lurking like the Minotaur behind twin doors. Life or death? The stakes don’t get any higher than that. And of course, this sets up the movie with the sort of dramatic tension and conflict that is a driving force of good cinema, but too often lacking in contemporary product steered by directors aiming for “originality” and sophistication of form.

By contrast, Oelhoffen works in the service of the piece, not himself. He prioritises the dramatic fundamentals: a flawlessly credible narrative; expert characterisation (fully exploited by the two leads, who are rivetting); seamless exposition through spare, drumskin-tight dialogue somewhat reminiscent of Hemingway; stunning cinematography that draws on the stark beauty and atmospheric spectacle of the inhospitable Algerian mountain backdrop. And he does so without overtly imposing his directorial mark through cleverdick flourishes. This makes for a simplicity of form entirely appropriate to the mid-50s setting in rural war-torn Algeria, and keeps the spotlight on the developing relationship between the two main characters, Daru (Viggo Mortensen), a misfit teacher in a remote village, and Mohamed (Reda Kateb), an Arab villager accused of murder he must escort to a police station in a regional town several days hard trek away across the Atlas Mountains.

The film moves slowly by necessity as Daru and Mohamed struggle on by foot across the stony God-forsaken mountains, battling harsh winter conditions and hostile human elements along the way (there are some explosive action sequences, most notably a heart-poundingly tense and highly realistic firefight between rag-tag revolutionaries and some brutal French soldiers).

The vast, ancient, unforgiving Algerian terrain lends an epic quality to the work while also paring back the characters, leaving them exposed with nowhere to hide. In the theatre of the elemental, truth must surface. And it does, layer by layer, as the two lead characters discover what lies at their cores, culminating in a moral crisis and a life-or-death decision at a set of crossroads – literally and metaphorically – at the moving and most dramatic climax of the film.

At the heart of moral dilemma is honour, which contemporary filmmakers typically dilute with a serve of irony – refreshingly absent here. This is gutsy, all-hands-on-the-table stuff.

Simplicity of form, beautifully realised, underwritten with complex thought, fully resolved. That’s what I mean by classic feel. And I say hurray.

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Mr Holmes movie review

Featuring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada
Director: Bill Condon
Writer: Jeffrey Hatcher, adapted from Mitch Cullin’s novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind.
Movie website: www.mrholmesfilm.com/
Australian release date: Thu 23 July

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A slow-moving but absorbing portrait of Sherlock Holmes as an old man who discovers his long-dormant humanity. Ian McKellen’s superb performance as Holmes is alone worth the price of admission.

In the opening sequence of the film, which takes place in a train carriage, the wreckage of a German fighter plane is seen in a passing field, establishing the time setting as post-war England. Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen), now in his 90s, is one of the passengers, along with his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her 10 year old son, Roger (Milo Parker). The relationship between the three, and especially the mentor/protege bond that develops between Holmes and the astute, keen-minded Roger, is one of two main narrative strands.

Interspersed is another story from Holmes’ past – his last, unsolved case, which he is writing up in his journal. It is a difficult labour, for his memory is failing by the day.

Holmes is long estranged from Watson, now deceased, whose literary accounts of his detective work have made him a legend. Holmes is somewhat irked by his former partner’s use of poetic license in fictionalising him, and grumpily disappoints fans by demythologising himself: he claims he never wore a deerstalker hat and never smoked a pipe, preferring cigars!

Part of his motivation in committing his final case to writing is to correct Watson’s fanciful version. However, it soon becomes apparent that he is driven by a far greater need to make meaning of his personal connection with a mysterious woman at the heart of the case, and indeed, of his life. Always an advocate of reason and logic, and of fact over fiction, he finds himself grappling with the uncomfortable dawning realisation that his belief system may not be up to dealing with the most profound existential questions.

The drama peaks with an incident that threatens Milo’s life, strips away Holmes’ reserve and awakens his dormant humanity, ultimately delivering a sense of purpose that completes him. This is articulated metaphorically in a stunning closing scene that I will not spoil through elaboration, except to say that it references in a most extraordinarily moving and beautiful way an earlier flashback of Holmes walking in the blackened ruins of Hiroshima as survivors mourn and remember the dead by arranging smooth rocks in circular formations.

This is a slow-moving but absorbing and wonderfully managed film that gets all the dramatic fundamentals right. McKellen is superb as Holmes, and Milo Parker astoundingly good as his young sidekick. There’s lots of ironic meta-play for those who still get a bang out of ‘postmodernist’ goings-on (e.g. a figure of fiction denouncing the poetic license that has made him a legend, yet subsequently coming to terms with the limitations of fact and logic). But in the end, the movie works best as a portrait of a lonely old man who discovers in the nick of time that the key to the meaning of his life is the humanity he has so long denied. There is hope for everyone in that, and do we ever need it.

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Amy movie review

Featuring: Amy Winehouse, Mitch Winehouse, Mark Ronson, Blake Fielder
Director: Asif Kapadia
Movie website: au.eonefilms.com/films/amy
Australian release date: Thu 16 July

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Gut-wrenching stuff that reveals the person beneath the persona and lays bare her prodigious vocal talent. A tragic story that will tie you in an emotional knot and haunt you for days.

As with their acclaimed 2011 doco Senna, director Asif Kapadia and his filmmaking team tell this story of another live-fast-die-young superstar, British diva Amy Winehouse, without the use of conventional voiceover/interviewer narration, creating a composite picture through Winehouse’s music, recent and archival footage and the often heart-rending testimonies of friends, family, lovers and music industry insiders.

The chronology jumps back and forth throughout, and while the slightly shambolic effect is in keeping with the chaotic life of the subject, this non-sequential structure occasionally interferes with the flow and makes the film hard to follow. On the flipside, there is great pathos in contrasting the younger, vibrant, zany Winehouse with the terminally self-destructive drug and alcohol-dependant bulimic that emerged as she began to flail in the quicksand of her unwanted fame and celebrity.

Images of innocence and promise (eg: a grainy mobile phone video of teenaged Amy messing around like any kid of her age as she celebrates a birthday with friends, and early auditions in which recording company execs pick up on her astounding vocal and writing talent) are rendered poignant indeed interspersed with footage that tracks her rapid descent into addiction, degradation and desolation.

Her tragedy is largely of her own making, but the film leaves no doubt that there were villains in the mix. It is difficult to avoid concluding that her unrequited yearning to be loved, which was perhaps her fatal flaw, leading her time and again into doomed relationships and the compensatory comfort of alcohol and drugs, was largely attributable to her selfish, neglectful, exploitative father, Mitch.

Absent for much of her childhood, he re-entered her life to capitalise on her fame and fortune. A measure of his values may be gleaned from the backstory of Winehouse’s biggest hit, Rehab, and her famous hook line “they tried to make me go to rehab but I said, ‘No, no, no.” This is not, as might have been widely intepreted, an ironic send-up of her image as a hopeless drunk and stoner, or a finger in the air to the media who turned her alcohol and drug abuse into headlines. There was no such art to it; turns out the source of the lyrics was her father’s appalling advice that she not go to rehab when all those who cared for her were urging her to do so. His concern was that in taking time out, she would be missing lucrative gigs and that the momentum of her career might falter.

The music industry and media have something to answer for, also. One of Winehouse’s refrains throughout the film is that she is only a singer, that “making music is all I’m good for”, but the profit-driven industry that her muse had led her into was programmed to make her a star, the property of the public. It is painfully evident that she detested the spotlight and the intrusion of the media into her private life. She remarks at one point that she would give it all away (ie: her success and its trappings) just to be free to walk down the street unnoticed.

There is no scene more shocking or heart-rending than that of a forlorn Winehouse on stage at one of her final concerts, out of her head and staring blankly into a huge and increasingly hostile audience, refusing or unable to perform. If there was a moment when the artist in Winehouse drew a final breath, this is it. It’s achingly sad and hard to watch.

One of the great aspects of the film is the centrality of her music, which for her was a type of chronicle of her life, and the purest expression of who she was as a person. She mainlined her lyrics direct from her experience of life, and this authenticity was a feature of all her songs.

If only Winehouse had listened to those who understood and respected her for the artist and person she was. One of her idols, Tony Bennett, remarks that she was above all a jazz singer with an extraordinary vocal talent, and that jazz singers should perform only to small venues. In being packaged as a wild rock chick by the entertainment industry, she was sold short artistically and projected on to a mass audience probably more drawn to her notoriety than her music. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that had she been channelled in directions more appropriate to her style of music, she may not have been chewed up and spat out the way she was.

Regardless of your taste in music, this is a gripping doco that reveals the person beneath the persona and lays bare her prodigious vocal talent. It’s gut-wrenching stuff that will tie you in an emotional knot and haunt you for days.

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Love and Mercy movie review

Featuring: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Director: Bill Pohlad
Writers: Oren Moverman, Michael A. Lerner
Movie website: www.loveandmercyfilm.com/
Australian release date: Thu 25 Jun

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A beautifully managed, wonderfully performed and moving biopic. A must-see for Beach Boys/Brian Wilson fans.

I’m generally luke-warm about biopics, especially those on revered pop and rock musicians (trace that back to the buffoonish depiction of Jim Morrison by Val Kilmer at the direction of a clueless Oliver Stone in his unintended parody, The Doors). Thus, I approached this portraiture of Brian Wilson, who for me is one of the truly great songwriter/arrangers of the 60s, with trepidation.

No need, as it turns out. This is a terrific flick that pays due but not sycophantic homage to Wilson’s artistic achievements and provides marvellous insight into the fascinating and whacko creative processes that yielded his best work circa the landmark Pet Sounds masterpiece (and, of course, the legendary Smile album follow-up, still one of rock’s fabled lost treasures, despite Wilson’s unfortunate latter-day release of a recreated and inevitably disappointing version).

That comes across as a description of a doco rather than a biopic, but the best part of this always riveting movie really is the marvellously authentic-feeling depiction of Wilson’s Pet Sounds studio sessions working with crack hired session musos (later known collectively as The Wrecking Crew, and acknowledged as the hitmakers behind the scenes on so many classic 60s records). While the other members of the Beach Boys watch on, some with growing frustration and impatience at being denied an opportunity to participate musically, Brian directs and pushes the expert hired help to coax into reality the sounds and musical ideas in his head. As those gorgeous and oh-so-familiar songs come together, sounds, layers and textures are revealed in stunning clarity absent from the soft-focus mix of the commercially available vinyl product and the later digital remasters. No Beach Boys fan will want to miss this. It’s nothing short of revelatory.

That music-centred rave aside, the film also works extremely well dramatically, partly due to the wise decision to cover only two periods of Wilson’s life – his creative peak around 1967, when in his twenties he shunned the stage limelight to focus on songwriting, and his painful journey out of darkness, mental collapse and exploitation two decades later. The intervening years, during which he was in a sorry state, are only alluded to – a narratively economical and canny strategy.

Paul Dano plays the young Wilson and John Cusack takes on the middle-aged role. Both are convincing. Dano is a dead ringer for 60s era Wilson, but Cusack looks nothing like the older version in real life. While this is initially jarring, Cusack’s depiction seamlessly melds with Dano’s and the appearance discrepancy soon fades into insignificance. That is a tribute to both performers, who combine to bring the Wilson character to life, not as a 60s icon, but as a man whose life has turned tragic, and who struggles with the damage inflicted on him by a physically and mentally abusive father.

This sad family history makes Wilson ripe pickings for tyrannically controlling and self-serving Machiavellian shrink, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who overmedicates his “patient” and watches his every move, pulling his strings like an evil puppeteer. Wilson’s chance meeting with empathic car salesperson Melinda (played with poise and suss by Elizabeth Banks), who was to become his second wife, leads to an unlikely friendship, then love, and paves the way for his breaking out of his cage of oppression. Melinda’s facing down of Landy towards the end of the film is the dramatic high point. Who doesn’t love to see a bully get his comeuppance?

This is a beautifully managed, wonderfully performed and moving flick about a damaged and gifted person who finds a way back from the hell of mental disintegration to liberation and redemption through the support and love of a good woman (don’t smirk – that’s how it is, and you’ll buy it as I did!). Highly recommended, and for Beach Boys/Brian Wilson fans an absolute must-see.

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Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago movie review

Featuring: Annie, Jack and Wayne, Misa, Sam, Tomás, Tatiana and other “pilgrims”
Director: Lydia B. Smith
Movie website: caminodocumentary.org/
Australian release date: Thu 11 Jun

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: An absorbing, well shot and often moving doco tracking the progress of 6 “pilgrims” walking Spain’s 500km Camino de Santiago.

This absorbing documentary tracks the progress of 6 trekkers of disparate backgrounds, ages and nationalities as they walk in the footsteps of centuries of pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago, an ancient route stretching 500km westward across Spain and terminating at the city of Santiago de Compostela.

Not all the walkers are on a “pilgrimage”. Tomás, for example, sees the Camino as a bit of a lark. A fit-looking, affable Portuguese bloke in his thirties, he is out for fun, companionship and adventure, having whimsically chosen the trek over learning kite-surfing. Middle-aged LA resident Anne, by contrast, is serious-minded, values her solitude and declares that she is on a spiritual quest, but finds her body jeopardising her mission. An elderly Canadian gentleman doing the walk with his mate hopes to reconcile himself to the death of his wife and enter a new stage of life. Then there is a warring French brother and sister, she deeply religious, he an atheist and iconoclast who takes nothing seriously (except, perhaps, Che Guevara). She is resentful that her young son, whom she pushes along in a stroller, appears to be idolising her bro and prone to his subversive influence.

The walkers start as individuals but become a community, united by the Camino experience. Whatever their initial attitudes and motivations, they find themselves on an unpredictably life-changing inner journey as well as being physically challenged by the rigours and discomforts of the walk. There is the changeable weather, aches and pains from joints unused to long days of negotiating rough paths through mountainous terrain, blisters on the feet, dorm accommodation and the inevitable disharmonious nocturnal chorus of snorers…

The film flits between the subjects, giving the impression that they are all tackling the epic walk at the same time, although few have any direct interaction with each other. While their stories are interesting and their moments of self-revelation often moving, the filmmaker doesn’t push through into deeply personal or uncomfortable territory. The piece would have benefited from a bit of edge.

That said, it works well as a travelogue, and the trek throws up some nice insights (eg: “What’s bad for the ego is good for the soul”). There are some magnificent, sweeping panoramas of the often stunning countryside, and some scenes inside the pubs and sleeping quarters that service the walkers along the way. Anyone interested in walking the Camino will get a good idea of what to expect – far better than afforded by Emilio Estevez’s insubstantial and rather contrived fictional feature film of 2012, The Way, which put the Camino on the public radar.

Prospective pilgrims should note that promo campaigns and the Hollywood spotlight have diminished the exclusivity and bragging rights of “doing the Camino”. It’s now very much a Thing. In 1986, 2500 walkers completed the trek – around 238,000 did it in 2014. Better make sure you book your dorms well in advance.

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