Only Lovers Left Alive Movie Review

Featuring: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, John Hurt
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Movie website: www.onlyloversleftalive.com.au/
Australian release date: April 17, 2014

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A fun ride but too cool for school, with more to chew on aesthetically than cerebrally.

Story:
Vampires Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), lovers for centuries, are currently living separate lives in Detroit and Tangiers respectively. Adam spends his nights writing and recording dark-toned rock music in his isolated, run-down, double-storey outer suburban house. He is mired in depression over the mess the “zombies” (humans) are making of the world, and a concerned Eve flies to Detroit to be with him. Their reunion is disrupted when Eve’s irresponsible, hedonistic and reckless younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) lobs on them unannounced. Forced to flee the consequences of the havoc she wreaks, Adam reluctantly relocates to Eve’s place in Tangiers, but there they face unexpected crises.


Review:
Things have moved on for vampires in Jim Jarmusch’s 21st century take on the genre. Feeding au naturale carries the risk of ingesting diseased or contaminated blood, so Adam and Eve score pure blood smuggled from hospitals. It’s all so much more civilised than in ol’ Dracula’s day. These modern vamps sip the precious red from expensive wine goblets, savouring every viscous drop, which is not just life sustaining but induces a state of intense euphoria. Addiction has never looked so stylish.

Vampires, either. Adam and Eve are the epitome of bohemian cool. The former is a slim black-garbed goth-grown-up rocknroll genius who creates his music surrounded by vintage 60s amps, recording consoles (analogue, of course), and a horde of rare and legendary electric guitars. The latter is an exotic, pale, flowing-haired sophisticate who sways along the winding nocturnal streets of Tangiers looking equally arresting in eastern robes or perfectly-fitting jeans when she is not splayed out devouring works of large L literature in her boudoir.

While rock is Adam’s current genre of choice, through the centuries he has worked in classical and other modes, some of his pieces having been appropriated, unacknowledged, by famous composers. Eve is not an artist, but her taste is vastly informed and impeccable, and she declares that she loves Adam’s current work. The implied case for rocknroll being ranked equally with the great musical forms of past eras (and why not?) is undermined somewhat by the quality of Adam’s music, an excerpt of which recurs as a refrain throughout the movie. Actually the work of Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL, it’s intense and brooding and works well as an atmospheric vampire movie adjunct, but is otherwise unremarkable. Sorry Jim.

The mood lightens considerably when party-vampire Ada (played with fun and sass by Mia Wasinowska), younger sis of Eve, arrives on the scene. She provides some much-needed relief from Adam’s preciousness and self-absorption, and is the agent of some of the best moments of humour in the movie. For example, the morning after recklessly draining the blood of a muso she’d seduced she complains of nausea, to which Adam snaps: “Well, what do you expect – he’s from the music industry.”

There are numerous little winks at the viewer from Jarmusch, including literary and cinematic allusions, wryly amusing putdowns of some of Western history’s most celebrated poets and writers, and preposterously iconoclastic digs at Shakespeare. However, there are some tonally jarring instances of the director’s irony deserting him when he uses the characters as directorial mouthpieces – a rant from Adam on the human damage inflicted on the natural environment is close to cringeworthy.

That said, the characterisation of humankind as “zombies” is a clever and effective defamiliarisation device, switching the vampires from outsider to insider, and us along with them; we identify with them, not “us”, and are therefore receptive to their observations. It’s just unfortunate that Adam is so transparently hijacked by the director at times.

There is no doubting the visual beauty of much of the film and the craftsmanship and imaginative vision behind it. However, there is a niggling sense – again, focused in the Adam character – of self-conscious cool. Jarmusch has always been big on style, but there are times here in which it comes across as a projection of self-important suss, of hipper-than-thouness.

These reservations notwithstanding, Tom Hiddleston looks the part as Adam and plays him as well as the material allows. John Hurt makes the most of his limited screen time as an ailing ancient vampire. And if you’re a Tilda Swinton fan, take note: she’s never looked so magnetically attractive and beguiling. But why the nude scene in which her head is ludicrously grafted on to a much younger body double via CGI? Just cos you can don’t mean you should…

Gripes aside, this is a fun ride, albeit a slow-paced one. There’s more to chew on aesthetically than cerebrally, but given the genre that’s OK – unless you’re a Jarmusch enthusiast with higher expectations.


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The Grand Budapest Hotel Movie Review

Featuring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori (Zero), Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, Edward Norton, Bill Murray.
Director: Wes Anderson
Writer: Wes Anderson
Movie website: www.grandbudapesthotel.com/
Australian release date: April 10, 2014

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Classic comedy like they useta make, channeled through Wes Anderson in his inimitable style, and featuring a wonderful lead character wonderfully performed.

Story:
An English writer (Jude Law) spending some time on the Continent books in at the once elegant and celebrated but now rundown Grand Budapest Hotel, and gets talking to elderly owner Zero. Over dinner, Zero reminisces on the halcyon days of the hotel in the 30s, when as a young immigrant lobby boy (Tony Revolori) he was taken under the wing of eccentric concierge Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes). The sad old man relives his adventures, explaining via a long twisting chain of cause, effect and surprise revelations how he eventually came to own the hotel, and why he keeps it open despite its fall from glory to near-dereliction and few guests.


Review:
Wes Anderson’s unique and readily identifiable style is stamped all over this movie: the fictitious locale (the mountainous Republic of Zubrowka, somewhere in Europe); cameo appearances from a long list of notable actors (including Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law and Edward Norton); ornate set designs featuring a rich palette of colours that seem to be filtered through faintly sepia-toned lenses; and a mad-cap tragi-comic tale with off-beat characters, served with a spoonful or two of slapstick and silliness, and tempered with irony.

The central character, the larger-than-life Gustave, is irresistible, delectably blending old-world properness, etiquette and refinement with contemporary profanity and irreverence. He’s an actor’s gift, which Ralph Fiennes accepts with joyous appreciation, revelling in the role and stealing the movie. He has able accomplices – all the actors enjoy themselves, and the fun is contagious.

As concierge, Gustave runs the hotel with fastidious pride while romancing rich lady patrons on the side. One of these (a barely recognisable Tilda Swinton) dies in suspicious circumstances on returning home from a stay at the hotel, and leaves Gustave a valuable painting in her will, much to the outrage of her relatives. He is wrongly charged as her murderer and ends up in jail, but escapes with the help of Zero and his girlfriend Agatha. When a hidden second will is discovered, the price on Gustave’s head skyrockets…

These are but the bare bones of a convoluted tale, the coherence of which is assisted by unusually expansive voiceover narration passages that are superbly written and executed. In fact, these are a high point of the movie. Hard to believe of a device universally decried – mostly with sound justification – as a tired and lazy narrative stopgap or exposition fallback, but there you go.

The dominant tone is comedic, but a melancholy nostalgia runs through the work, enhanced by Anderson’s switching from wide-screen to a narrower early-cinema format for the main story, set decades earlier and told in flashback. Further, there is a wrenching contrast between the Grand Budapest Hotel of the past and present. While it is resplendent in its elaborately detailed circa 30s over-the-top opulence, its current-day state of decay points with tremulous determination to its glorious past – much like the elderly Zero as he relives his youthful prime through the telling of his tale.

There are chuckles aplenty and it’s a fun ride, but there is tragedy in the midst of the comedy, relegated to the incidental with a poignantly fatalistic air. And lurking in the background, as irrelevant as Gustave and co can make them, are dark forces gathering as Europe edges toward WW2.

If you are a Wes Anderson fan, you’ll adore The Grand Budapest Hotel. If not, give this one a go. He’s raised the bar way higher than ever before, and cleared the jump with some margin to spare. This is good ol’ comedy like they useta make, reworked in contemporary (Andersonesque) style, and featuring a wonderful lead character wonderfully performed.


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Like Father, Like Son Movie Review

Featuring: Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, Yôko Maki, Rirî Furankî, Keita Ninomiya, Shogen Hwang
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Writer: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Movie website: www.ifcfilms.com/films/like-father-like-son

2013-14 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville: 31 March–6 April, 7.30pm
Joondalup Pines: 8–13 April, 7.30pm

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A gentle, superbly written and extremely moving family drama from a master of the form.

Story:
Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) is an ambitious and driven Tokyo architect whose work demands leave him little quality time for his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) and 6-year-old son Keita (Keita Ninomiya). Out of the blue comes the shocking news that Keita is not theirs, having been switched at birth. They meet up with the Saikis, the family who received their true son, Ryusei (Shogen Hwang). The parents (Yoko Maki and Rirî Furankî) are an unaffected couple of modest means with several other children. The families agree to take back their genetic sons, and Ryota insists that there be no further interaction between them. However, the child swap does not go smoothly, and he is forced to re-assess his priorities and parenting approach.


Review:
Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s previous films include the heart-rending Nobody Knows and the thoroughly charming I Wish. Disappointment so often follows high expectations, but not here. In Like Father, Like Son Kore-eda has yet again delivered a gentle, masterfully written and extremely moving family drama.

His pacing is typically slow but impeccable, the narrative unfolding naturally, seamlessly, mostly through expertly managed dialogue-driven character interaction.

While Kore-eda’s remarkable talent in bringing the best out of his child actors is again evident here, with wonderfully natural and emotionally mature performances from the boys who play the 6-year-old sons, most characterisation effort is directed at the development of Ryota. This is both the main strength and weakness of the film. While Ryota’s development as a character is beautifully managed by both director and actor, the glaring focus on the lead character takes its toll on the others, notably the wives, who aren’t much more than sketches despite the best efforts of the actors who play them.

The other husband/father, Yukari, fares better. He is an appealing character played with relish by Rirî Furankî, a colourful eccentric, shabbily dressed, perpetually ravenous and none too refined in his eating habits, handy enough to fix any broken toy, and spontaneously playful with his kids, with whom he likes to share a bath, delighting in evoking squeals of delight as he squirts mouthfuls of bathwater at them.

Perhaps a little too perfect a father, he and his loud, happy, shambolic, materially modest household veer close to idealised working class stereotype, and function primarily to provide the starkest of contrasts with Ryota and the ordered family environment he has created in his own image. One of the old breed of Japanese careerists, he works long hours and puts his company first, believing that in providing a luxurious apartment and the best money can buy, including a private school education for his son, he is fulfilling his role as father and husband.

Dismissive of the timid protests of his neglected wife, he imposes his workplace goal-orientation on Keita; play is not an option. He sees Keita’s regimented piano practice, for example, as a means to performance excellence. The little boy enjoys his repetitive tinkling, but when it becomes evident that he has no special musical talent, with some scorn Ryota tells him to quit.

Ryota is not uncaring or insensitive. He believes he is doing his best for his child, programming him for “success”. His interaction with the Saikis and their family, and the eventual swapping back of the boys to their genetic parents, force him to question his views and the values on which they are based, and set him on a painful path of self-reflection and personal change. His slow-dawning but ultimately profound realisation that in letting go of his expectations of his son(s) he is also liberating himself – and vice versa – is astutely and sensitively handled, and makes for fascinating and emotional viewing.

Like Father, Like Son has some truly exquisite moments, even if in focusing so intensely on one character Kore-eda has made some dramatic compromises. One of the best of this year’s generally excellent Perth Film Festival. Don’t miss.

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My Sweet Pepper Land Movie Review

Featuring: Korkmaz Arslan, Golshifteh Farahani, Suat Usta
Director: Hiner Saleem
Writer: Hiner Saleem, Antoine Lacomblez
Movie website: www.filmsdistribution.com/Film.aspx?ID=2048

2013-14 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Joondalup Pines: 1–6 April, 7.30pm

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A gripping off-axis contemporary Iraqi western (eastern?), intriguing for its enigmatic tone, and exotic cultural and geographical setting in remote Kurdistan.

Story:
Post-Saddam, Kurdish ex-resistance fighter Baran (Korkmaz Arslan) is in search of a meaningful peacetime challenge. A transfer request lands him a position as sheriff in a remote village in Kurdistan near the Turkish border, bringing him into conflict with the local warlord, Aziz Aga (Tarik Akreyi), and his badass gun-totin’ crew. Aziz and co resent any encroachment on their territory by agents of change, and there are a few of them other than Baran. There is educated and independent-minded schoolteacher Govand (Golshifteh Farahani), who shares Baran’s lodgings (and, it is suspected, his bed) and defiantly persists in her mission to provide local children with an education. Then there is a female band of anti-Turk resistance fighters holed up in the surrounding hill country. With power, control and illegal business interests in jeopardy, a showdown between Aziz’ crew and opposing forces is inevitable.


Review:
This is a classic western narrative setup: a tough new sheriff arrives in a far-flung town to clean up the lawless elements and impose law and order. There are pictures of his predecessors on the wall, all of whom have left defeated or been killed by the bad guys. There’s a beautiful feisty single woman, like the lawman a tough-minded idealist from the big smoke, except that her civilising mission is to educate the local kids despite the ‘discouragement’ of the bad guys. Needless to say, the town ain’t near big enough for the lot of them.

While the shape of the narrative is obviously borrowed from the American western, this is a twisted, exotic version of that familiar form, off-beat and off-key – and all the more intriguing for that.

For instance, there is an all-female band of resistance fighters based in a hideaway in the hills. It is not initially apparent why the warlord and his men have it in for them. They are not rivals in crime, since da boys are smugglers and prescription drug racketeers, and the female renegades have a politically driven anti-Turk agenda. Then again, they’re women with power (and guns!), and that spells ‘threat’ in this neck o the backwoods.

Then there is the enigmatic tone of the film. In the opening scenes, the new Kurdish government conducts their first hanging. It’s a botched execution debut, which the doomed criminal initially survives due to the rope being too short. The inclination is to laugh, but when the authorities have a second go, this time successfully, it’s decidedly unfunny. Dodgy black humour, or something other?

A bit of both, as it turns out. There is a directorial wryness throughout, some humorous touches, and some enjoyable quirkiness (eg: Baran is an Elvis fan, rockin’ out to Baby, I Don’t Care as he motors to his new post in the Kurdistan sticks). However, the drama is played straight overall, and appropriately so. Tribal division and the sort of regional warlord carveups Boran is fighting to eradicate are, after all, a serious and divisive issue, too close to home for piss-taking.

The Kurdistan geography is spectacular, otherworldly and desolate yet strikingly beautiful, and musically branded with a strange, haunting and quite lovely percussion instrument that Govand plays in solitude, away from the dreary town, as if seeking comfort in the landscape stretching out before her.

Expectations of the usual climactic extended shootout showdown are confounded somewhat in the service of realism. Not a bad thing in my view, but some might feel cheated.

The love scenes are approached with predictable delicacy, but there is unmistakable chemistry between the gorgeous Govand and Boran. A Catherine and Heathcliffe moment towards the end would be laughably corny, were it not for the exotic geographical and cultural setting, which somehow takes the giggle out of it.

Western fans, don’t miss, but leave your expectations at home and prepare for a ride unlike any other. If westerns are not your thing, don’t be put off. This is eccentric, different, well acted and shot, and thoroughly entertaining.

For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives

Wadjda Movie Review

Featuring: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Sultan Al Assaf, Ahd Kamel
Director: Haifaa Al Mansour
Writer: Haifaa Al Mansour
Movie website: www.sonyclassics.com/wadjda/
Australian release date: March 20, 2014

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A charmer with teeth that gives a fascinating keyhole glimpse of everyday life in Saudi Arabia.

Story:
Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a spirited, rebellious 10-year-old Saudi Arabian girl who yearns to have her own bicycle like her male friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). She is undaunted by the discouragement of her mother (Reem Abdullah), or the fact that girls riding bicycles are frowned upon in their conservative Islamic society. When she sees a shiny new green bike displayed in front of a local shop, she determines to buy it. A Koran recital competition at her school with prize money covering the cost of the bike provides her with the opportunity to realise her dream. She has never taken much interest in formal religious study, but fired up with her new and decidedly secular motive she sets out to win the competition.


Review:
This is the first Saudi Arabian feature film to be shot entirely within the national borders. Remarkably, it is directed by a woman, Sydney-trained Haifaa Al Mansour. Wadjda is her feature debut, and a fine one it is – charming and entertaining on one level, intrinsically subversive in its underlying agenda. In simply (although necessarily selectively) depicting everyday life in Saudi Arabia from the perspective of the delightful protagonist and her mother, Haifee Al Mansour exposes some of the difficulties and injustices Saudi females face purely on the basis of their gender, while shrewdly avoiding overtly confrontational gender politics or open criticism of the religion-based patriarchy.

Wadjda’s mother is distracted much of the time, fearful that her in-laws will convince her husband to divorce her and take a new wife because she has not borne him a son. Her husband (Sultan Al Assaf) still loves her and is clearly besotted with his daughter Wadjda, who adores him, yet the family pressure to have a male heir is formidable, placing the family unit in jeopardy. Thus, males as well as females are shown to be victims of the extreme attitudes that are embedded in Saudi society.

That said, Saudis are shown to be essentially the same as people anywhere – as, of course, they surely are. Joy and humour survives in the culture of oppression, women gossip on the phone, wear fashionable high heels beneath their black head-to-toe garb, chide their husbands, complain about rude drivers, and so on.

Waad Mohammed is wonderful as Wadjda, an endearing, buoyant personality. She is a mischievous tomboy who wants nothing more than to be able to race her bike-riding best friend Abdullah on her own wheels. Cheekily entrepreneurial, she strives to accumulate savings to realise her dream. She is a bit of a handful in class, and uninterested in the fundamentalist religious instruction that is part and parcel of her school life. That is, until she learns of the prize money on offer to the winner of the school Koran recital competition, whereupon she has a dramatic change of attitude that is a source of bemusement, then admiration, for her teachers. Little do they know…

There are a few clunky lines of dialogue, but really, that is small bickies. Overall, this is a marvellous debut from a courageous and canny director who gives us a fascinating glimpse into ordinary life in Saudi Arabia, while applying a deftly light touch in tackling some big issues without ever losing sight of the warming, very human story at the heart of her film. Do not miss.


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