Irrational Man movie review

Featuring: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey
Writer/Director: Woody Allen
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thu 20 August

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Well written, conceived and performed, but not quite top shelf Woody – it is cerebral rather than from the guts, and lacks emotional oomph.

Another year, another Woody. And I’m pleased to report that this is a good one.

Of course, the Woody haters will get off on hating it – that’s what they do. And indeed, the initial set-up will have them gleefully salivating bile: yep, it’s that older guy + younger woman equation again (cue howls of derision). And of course, one of them’s in existential crisis – no prizes for guessing which.

Joaquin Phoenix gets the older bloke gig this time, playing Abe Lucas, an alcoholic philosophy professor whose reputation as a womaniser and purveyor of controversial ideas sends waves of excitement around an East coast uni to which he has just been appointed. It’s not long before he has two women pursuing him. Rita (Parker Posey) is a fellow academic bored with her husband who throws herself at him from the outset (she’s around his age, so good luck with that, honey). Then there’s one of his students, Jill (Emma Stone), intelligent, yummy and drawn to his mind and vulnerability (that’s the girl).

If you think you see the way this is going, think again. There’s murder in the air here, not romance.

Abe has lost his verve for life, can’t get it up when Rita manoeuvres him into bed, and gently but firmly spurns Jill’s advances, despite her assuring him that she is not committed to her boyfriend. Indeed, he’s not even tempted. Yes, he’s in a bad way!

He takes some pleasure in declaring philosophy “verbal masturbation” before his startled class, adding that real life and philosophy are far removed from each other. This is all very familiar Woody territory, but the direction of the story changes abruptly when Abe and Jill eavesdrop on a woman in a café complaining that she is the victim of a corrupt judge. This prompts a philosophical discussion on the morality of murdering someone like the judge for the greater good, and sets off a vigilante fire in Abe that restores his sense of meaning in life – along with his libido. Before long, he is plotting the perfect murder, with the judge as his target. Jill is stimulated by his apparent hypothesising, never imagining that he is not merely theorising.

Woody lays bare the obvious Dostoyevskyan allusion (Crime and Punishment) – as well he might, for Abe is worlds apart from Doesteyevsky’s killer-with-a-conscience, Raskolnikov, who is ultimately honourable. Abe is drawn to kill for monstrously selfish reasons: in taking a life he rescues his own. While he claims to act out of altruism, in fact he gets off on power, on the stalking of his unwitting victim, on playing God, and most of all on getting away with murder. His motivations are egotistical, not morally or philosophically based. He is a heartless narcissist, enjoying playing cat and mouse games with his mentee Jill when she learns that the judge has actually been murdered and begins to piece together clues that point towards him as a credible suspect. It eventually becomes clear that he cares not at all for her – or anyone, but himself.

Woody’s in fine form as a writer here, bringing off a well-conceived and intriguing crime yarn in similar vein to his excellent Match Point (2005), while working with some shrewd ironies. For example, the titular Irrational Man, Abe, thinks of himself as supremely rational, but is deluded; his fond self-image is completely at odds with the reality and is ultimately his undoing. And his mentee, the infatuated innocent Jill, seeks inspiration and guidance from him, yet she is far more grounded morally, and more authentically a lover of philosophy and ideas. This contrasting of characters is well managed, as is their development.

Consummately well written and crafted, and competently performed, this is nevertheless not quite top shelf Woody – it is cerebral rather than from the guts, and lacks emotional oomph. However, the intrigue is sustained throughout, the narrative jigsaw pieces come together satisfyingly, the characterisation is generally excellent, and there are some nice moments of trademark Woody humour and irony. Like. Quite a lot.

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Iris movie review

Featuring: Iris Apfel, Carl Apfel
Director: Albert Maysles
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thu 13 August

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: You won’t have seen anything quite like this delight of a doco – or anyone quite like its subject, 93yo Iris Apfel. Run don’t walk to the cinema, and get a bit o colour into your life!

Much along the lines of the wonderful 2011 doco Bill Cunningham New York, Iris is a delightful unfolding portrait of one of the Big Apple’s beloved elder characters, the inspiring and gloriously unique fashion and design veteran Iris Apfel. Fittingly, the filmmaker is another celebrated New Yorker of advanced years, octogenarian documentary maker Albert Maysles, now deceased. This is Maysles’ feature length swansong, and a lovely, joyous one it is.

He takes a fly-on-the-wall approach, tracking Iris through her daily activities, capturing apparently spontaneous conversations and interactions as they happen. There is no sense of a camera crew being present, except for a couple of occasions when Mayles appears in shot as Iris responds to him directly. There is obvious simpatico between them, which is clearly key to the success of the work. Iris is not the type to abide manipulation or tolerate discomfort with the filmmaker or process, although she must have exercised great patience in changing outfits – there are so many, they can’t all have been the result of brilliant editing from months of footage (especially in sequences when continuity of conversation is maintained, while her clothes change with every cut!).

Her sartorial creations are a type of perfomance art, endlessly fascinating, all pushing flamboyance and eclecticism to the limit but somehow stopping millimetres short of caricature or catastrophe. She’s a fashion magpie, plundering clothing and material from op-shops, high-end designers, weekend kitsch markets, and ethnically diverse religious and traditional sources the world over. Applying her off-beat but pitch-perfect sense of style, combinations that should not match work brilliantly: garish colours, armfuls of bangles and multiple necklaces that might clash under less expert orchestration are impossibly harmonious and intrinsic to her look, along with a kaleidoscopic parade of whacko accessories, and her trademark oversized thick-rimmed round specs and swept-back grey hair.

For all her eccentricity of appearance and focus on ‘style’, Iris is anything but skin-deep, and there is nothing remotely pretentious or precious about her. Astute in her observations on life, sharp-witted, mildly irreverent and given to wry, self-effacing humour, her catchcry is “that sounds like fun.” Indeed, this was the attitude that led her to start a career-making business in 1948 with her husband Carl (who celebrates his 100th birthday during the film) manufacturing fine fabrics recreating in finest detail classic designs and patterns no longer available.

Her 90+ years have forced her to slow down (“Oh — when I get up in the morning, everything I have two of, one hurts”). She sometimes rests in a wheelchair when her legs fail her, but is in such demand that she can but complain in a desultory sort of way before abandoning herself to her ongoing whirlwind of social and fashion engagements, which include giving advice to adoring young design students. Then, of course, there are her frequent shopping excursions to add to her dizzy collection of outlandish outfits and accessories.

Put aside any distaste or cynicism you might have for the fashion industry and its denizens. You won’t have seen anything quite like this film – or anyone quite like Iris. As the great old girl observes, life is mostly pretty dull, but “colour raises the dead.” So grab this delight of a movie experience while ya can and get a bit o colour into your life. Be warned: you may find yourself tempted to pop into your nearest op shop on the way home to impulsively buy something way too loud and outrageous. Then again, if it sounds like fun…

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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:
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:
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:
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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