Predestination Movie Review

Featuring: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor
Screenwriters/Directors: Peter Spierig, Michael Spierig (adapted from 1958 short story “All You Zombies” by Robert A. Heinlein)
Movie website: www.pinnaclefilms.com.au/Product/Details/5ba7f4e8-d08a-4c4c-871c-a11100ec8a63
Australian release date: Thursday, 28 August, 2014 (Grand Armadale, Grand Bunbury, Grand Currambine, Grand Joondalup, Grand Warwick, Grand Whitfords, Hoyts Carousel)

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Hip, intellectually challenging, hugely entertaining, brilliantly wrought and speaks to some of the most profound concerns of today’s world.

Story:
John (Ethan Hawke) is a law-enforcement and anti-terror agent working for a top secret government organisation. He travels back and forward in time countering attacks before they happen. His final assignment is to pursue and eliminate the notorious Fizzle Bomber, who has mounted a series of disastrous terrorist attacks and has thus far eluded him.


Review:
Numerous films have explored the concept of time travel. It’s passé to observe it’s become passé. Every so often, though, a fresh take makes it through the creative pipeline, occasionally an ingenious one. Predestination is both ingenious and brilliantly executed. That’s a rare treat.

Aussie writer/director brothers Peter and Michael Spierig started in front, basing their narrative on a short story, All You Zombies, by sci-fi great Robert E. Heinlein, in which it is predicated – logically, if you can get your head around it (which took some time for yours truly) – that the time traveller does not simply disappear from the present when jumping back and forward chronologically, but co-exists as different versions of themselves in different time frames. This notion is the key to the goings-on in Predestination, opening the door to all sorts of mind-boggling possibilities, identity issues and moral dilemmas.

What if, in travelling through time, a character was to encounter themselves at various stages of life? What if they knew they were about to make a terrible mistake? The time-travelling self has the power to alter the decisions and actions of versions of themselves at whatever points in time they encounter them, but should they?

And what about altering global history, even if it seems for the better? For example, if through time-travel intervention a terror attack is prevented that saves the life of a subsequent tyrant – another Hitler, say – responsible for a future catastrophic event with an enormous human toll, what then? Would it be preferable to stand aside and allow the attack to occur? That is, would collateral damage be morally permissible in order to prevent greater disaster in the future? As with the best sci-fi, the ethical reference point is the real world – this is the justification for virtually every war that has ever been waged, and every act of terrorism.

It is also the assumption on which the lead character, time-travelling agent John, and the secret government organisation he works for, operate. The assumption – and a whole lot more besides – is fascinatingly investigated as the drama unfolds.

Spoiler-consciousness imposes an unusually strict limit here on revealing much about the story or characters, which are intertwined so inextricably that to expand on one is to risk saying too much about the other. Suffice it to say that Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook do their characters full justice, which in a complex, spaced-out (but brilliantly managed) piece like this is no mean feat.

Set in New York and Cleveland, the movie was actually shot in Melbourne. From the opening scene in a New York bar, 1970 off The Stooges’ classic Funhouse album announcing the time setting and contributing a sonic undercurrent of chaos and edge, Predestination is hip, intellectually challenging, hugely entertaining, brilliantly wrought and speaks to some of the most profound concerns of today’s world. That’s a bloody rare combo! I’m not a sci-fi fan, but this is one out of the box. Unmissable – and in the mix as best Australian flick of the year.


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Magic in the Moonlight Movie Review

Featuring: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Eileen Atkins, Jacki Weaver, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Simon McBurney
Screenwriter/Director: Woody Allen
Movie website: www.sonyclassics.com/magicinthemoonlight/
Australian release date: Thursday, 28 August, 2014

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A bit short on magic and moonlight, but fun viewing, and well-performed.

Story:
Famous magician Stanley (Colin Firth) travels incognito to the Côte d’Azur to unmask beautiful young medium Sophie (Emma Stone) as a fraud and con-artist. He is unsettled by Sophie’s demonstration of her apparent powers, unable to discern any trickery or sleight of hand on her part. Ever the arrogant rationalist, however, he maintains his cynicism until she divines intimate secret details about his life that are unerringly accurate and impossible for her to know. In subsequently opening his mind to the mysterious and wondrous – even magical – aspects to life outside the bounds of the scientifically rational, he also opens his heart. But has he been conned? And is he too late in any case, with Sophie having accepted a proposal of marriage from the foppy uke-serenading son of a rich family who promises her a life of indulgence and luxury? Besides, Stanley is engaged to a sophisticated woman back in England who by all logical reckoning is the perfect fit for him. And yet…


Review:
Woody’s creative tap has been running intermittently hot and cold for a long time now. Midnight In Paris hot. To Rome With Love cold. Blue Jasmine hot. Magic in the Moonlight? Warm.

Intriguing and entertaining throughout, the film works well narratively. There’s a sting in the tail that is predictable in its inevitability, but not in its manifestation. Well managed, in other words. Ditto the feel-good ending. Nothing wrong with that. It’s what you want from a rom-com, which this is, more or less.

Typical of recent Woody, the rom part is enhanced by the geographical, chronological and demographic setting: the French Riviera of the late 1920s habituated by the wealthy, the successful and the aspiring upwardly mobile. (On a less light-n-breezy note, the film opens in Berlin, where Stanley wows an enthralled crowd in his rather ridiculous stage persona as master magician Wei Ling Soo…not too much magic entertainment ahead in the 30s, although plenty of deceptive theatrics).

Typical also is the love match between a world-weary older guy reawakened to the joyous possibilities of life by a beautiful younger woman. Is Woody a masochist? Or perhaps he’s raising a middle finger to the critics queued up in advance to lambast and castigate him, yet again, for indulging and propagating, yet again, his old-goat-young-nymph love fantasy scenario. We live, after all, in the day of the cougar, not the old goat (hawk and spit).

The pairing works OK if you excise political correctness from the equation and accept the story on its own terms, due in no small part to the terrific performances of Emma Stone (especially) and Colin Firth, who delight in playing off against each other. There’s dramatic tension aplenty inherent in their characters and relationship: yin vs yang, the openness and optimism of youth vs the assumed wisdom and weary cynicism of age, romanticism vs rationalism.

The philosophical cat-and-mouse game that is the driving dynamic between the two leads is Woody’s bread and butter, and there are moments when his scripting sparkles. There is one irresistibly piquant scene near the end in which Stanley’s aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) strings him along, playing devil’s advocate as a love dilemma lands him in a head-heart battle with himself. However, there is a sense throughout much of the film that it is Woody who is waging this battle through his characters, who are sometimes relegated to philosophical mouthpieces, and thus hobbled. The actors come to the rescue, but it’s a challenging mission at times.

Magic in the Moonlight is a bit short on magic and moonlight, but it’s fun viewing and the takeaway message is familiar, digestible and comforting if you identify with Woody’s existentialist fretting – maybe even if you don’t.

Fans will chow down happily without waxing lyrical; detractors will scowl and pout and launch into their standard diatribes with gusto. No one loves to hate like a Woody-hater. It’s a win-win, when you think about it.


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20,000 Days on Earth Movie Review

Featuring: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Ray Winstone, Blixa Bargeld, Kylie Minogue
Directors: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard
Movie website: www.20000daysonearth.com/
Australian release date: Thursday 21 Aug 2014

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: An inspired, stylistically perfect portrait of one of rock’s most enigmatic and mercurial figures.


Review:
This highly original and inspired portrait of one of rock’s most enigmatic figures, Nick Cave, resists categorisation. ‘Fictionalised documentary’, perhaps? Which means…?

Start with the title and the concept underlying it: the film supposedly spans 24 hours in Cave’s life, on his 20000th day on earth. This measure of time is stunningly represented in the opening montage, close to strobe speed, of still and moving images of Cave in chronological order, starting with childhood and early teens, whirring through his early years on stage with The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party, to the Bad Seeds and beyond. Accompanying this visual summary of his life to date is a shrieking, grinding soundscape of feedback, static and general electronic mayhem that has Cave’s musical trademark all over it. Abruptly, as the images catch up with the present they stop and there is silence. Cave is in bed. The alarm goes off. He gets up, naked – no, wearing black jeans, ferchrissake! Moves to the window, hangs in its frame. Still teenage thin, a veritable whippet. And we’re underway at the dawn of his 20000th day (in the course of the film it emerges that Cave is acutely aware of the value of time, the driving force behind his obsessive work ethic).

It is soon clear that the camera crew is not simply following him around recording his every moment. The day-in-the-life pretense is but a conceit, a narrative structure around which the film is built. Cave narrates his own story in intermittent voiceover that is lyrical and artful, thought out and honed, like a work of fiction, yet earnest and at times moving – an autobiographical excursion into the real by a guy digging deep, yet still in artistic guise and exercising poetic power.

The narration bridges and augments a series of scenes that are presented as grabs from Cave’s everyday life, including a fascinating and illuminating session with his psychiatrist that is funny and poignant in turn. He has lunch with ex-pat friend, musical colleague and laconic but thoroughly entertaining raconteur Warren Ellis (Bad Seeds, Grinderman, Dirty Three). Their reminiscences over a Nina Simone concert are one of the highlights of the film. Of course, we get a look at Cave in his book-strewn writing environment, and during a recording session (working on his 2013 album Push The Sky Away). His family life is out of bounds, except for a short scene in which he and his twin boys are shown watching a DVD on a lounge sofa and sharing pizza (Nick the family man!).

This day-in-the-life material is interspersed with archival and concert footage, and sequences in which Cave drives while conversing with passengers who have figured in his personal and musical life, including Bad Seeds collaborator Blixa Bargeld, friend and actor Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue. The combined effect is to give a sense of his daily routines, his creative modus operandi, and the people in his life, past and present, who have shaped him, or with whom he shares common ground.

Bit by bit, the fragments that make up the movie assemble themselves into a distinctive and well-constructed but still elusive portrait. It is as if the filmmakers have tuned into Cave’s mercurial nature and bought into his mystique, clearly exposing facets of his personality and creative processes yet coming at them from slightly oblique angles.

Indeed, the driving sequences might well be read metaphorically – is it Cave who is steering the film, or the filmmakers? Whatever the answer, the work is brilliantly controlled and perfectly stylistically reflective of its subject, his art, and the creative processes and influences that go into producing it.
While the focus is on Cave the artist and person rather than his music per se, fans will delight in some superb recent concert footage from the Sydney Opera House, the band being backed by a symphony orchestra and school choir. Cave is in fine form, and Warren Ellis shreds on violin, pulling off an electrifying solo as Jubilee Street from Push The Sky Away builds to a thrilling climax.

Regardless of your position on Nick Cave and his music, filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard have created something special here that deviates from – in fact, transcends – the documentary form. In so doing, they leave the viewer with the sense of getting about as close to the spirit of this intriguing and shape-shifting artist, and the man behind pulling the strings, as is possible through the lens of a camera.

Don’t miss!


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Palo Alto Movie Review

Featuring: Emma Roberts, James Franco, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin, Claudia Levy, Chris Messina, Val Kilmer
Screenwriter/Director: Gia Coppola
Movie website: tribecafilm.com/tribecafilm/filmguide/palo-alto
Australian release date: Thursday, 14 August 2014

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A ho hum coming-of-age teen drama featuring some excellent performances that breathe life into the stereotype characters.

Story:
This teen coming-of-age drama is structured around the often painful and confusing struggle for self-understanding and direction of four Californian high school peers: April (Emma Roberts), Teddy (Jack Kilmer), Fred (Nat Wolff) and Emily (Zoe Levin). April has a crush on her soccer coach, Mr B (James Franco). Her baby-sitting for him brings them into regular personal – and potentially intimate – contact. Teetering on the edge of a dangerous and forbidden adult relationship, April is unavailable to would-be suitor and fellow artistic soul Teddy. Besides, he is on a rocky road and hardly a prime catch. A reckless drunken decision has landed him a stint of community service for a serious driving offence, and his cause is not helped by wild, contrarian and fiercely individualistic best friend Fred (Nat Wolff). While often obnoxious, Fred has a bad boy charm about him, which he works with manipulative expertise on the lonely and needy Emily, who tries to buy affection with sex.


Review:
Flicks of this ever-popular genre are generally pretty samey, and Palo Alto is no exception. The interest lies not so much in what happens – the shape of the narrative is inevitably predictable – as in how. Characters and the way they’re developed are key.

Unfortunately, there are too many clichés about this lot: the vulnerable virgin trying to be all grown up, laying herself open to sexploitation and heartbreak at the hands of an older chick-whisperer, the good kid being led astray by the charismatic bad boy rebel-without-a-cause, and the school bike who cain’t say no, cos – well, you can finish joining the dots. Doesn’t take a psych degree…

Chuck in a liberal measure of Dazed and Confused updated to the 21st century, which means more swear words (albeit deflated of charge through mainstream normalisation), and in place of the faintly naïvely celebratory rite-of-passage party-craziness a kinda joyless well-to-do American suburban teen hedonism, where parties have become one big heavy-lidded boozin’ druggin’ hook-up numb-fest devoid of humour or novelty, and you’ve got the picture. Yawn.

On the plus side, the four main roles are well-performed. April is the best developed and most complex of the characters, and Emma Roberts more than does her justice, sensitively and intelligently managing the transition from schoolgirl romantic fantasist to hurt but wiser young woman who finds power and dignity in valuing herself. Nat Wolff gives the off-the-rails Fred an unnerving combustibility, a sense that he’s balancing precariously on the edge of a dark, violent and destructive chaos. The others have less room to move in their mostly stock standard roles, but do a good job with the rather insubstantial material they have to work with. James Franco is irritating as the smarmy, self-consciously charming toolie/teacher. Perhaps he simply plays his character too well for comfort.

The film is beautifully shot. However, some of the symbolic use of imagery is ham-fisted and gratuitous. For example, a soft-focus but explicit lovemaking montage is followed by a shot of some pines soaring into the sky, then a cut to a vase of fresh-cut roses (pink, naturally). For Freud’s sake! Really? This is director Gia Coppola’s first feature, so missteps like this are forgivable, I suppose. Just.

While this is hardly an auspicious debut, there is promise in Palo Alto of better things to come. For now, though, hopefully this one will score well enough with the target demographic at the box office to give Gia a shot at a second feature. Until then, judgement reserved.


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The Lunchbox Movie Review

Featuring: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Screenwriter/Director: Ritesh Batra
Movie website: sonyclassics.com/thelunchbox/home/
Australian release date: Thursday, 10 July 2014

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A slight but endearing little flick that plays out with restraint and delicacy.

Story:
Mr Fernandez (Irrfan Khan) is a curmudgeonly Mumbai widower on the brink of retirement as a bookkeeper. When he is mistakenly delivered a lunchbox from a neglected housewife, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), he responds with a note. They continue to correspond via the lunchbox delivery system, and a relationship develops that confronts them with their realities and fantasies, and the necessity to determine which is which.


Review:
Every working day in Mumbai, India, dabbawala (lunchbox couriers) pick up, deliver and return many thousands of multi-dish hot lunches dutifully prepared at home by housewives for their menfolk working in city offices. The famed lunch delivery system is remarkable for its efficiency. Mistakes are hardly ever made.

On-going delivery error, however, is the conceit around which the narrative is built in The Lunchbox. Easy enough to accept in terms of logic – no system is infallible. And on one hand, the device works well as a signifier of romantic stars in alignment, of fate intervening to brighten the lives of two unhappy people. On the other, however, the conceit itself wears a bit thin. Written communication modes are better suited to characters in literature than film.

That said, Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur do a fine job with their roles, negotiating the gradual blossoming of their chance encounter into a plausible relationship-by-correspondence in which they open up to each other, initially tentatively. As trust and intimacy builds, they begin sharing their hopes and dreams, which seem to be entwined.

There’s a lightness of touch here, some poignant moments and serious undercurrents notwithstanding, that promises a feel-good ending. However, happy endings do not have to turn out as predictably as we’ve been conditioned to expect by Hollywood, and three cheers for that. As Mr Fernandez’ workmate Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) prophetically observes, “the wrong train can take you to the right station.” Enough said.

This is a slight but endearing little flick that plays out with restraint and delicacy. It runs out of puff before the end – there’s a sense that screenwriter/director writer Ritesh Batra didn’t know how to finish his otherwise quite well conceived and constructed tale. It’s an irresistibly charming piece, nevertheless, saved by the lead characters and the actors who play them, and affording a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people in the ever-fascinating phenomenon that is India.


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