The Young Prodigious TS Spivet movie review

Featuring: Kyle Catlett, Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, Callum Keith Rennie, Jakob Davies, Niamh Wilson
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Screenwriters: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Guillaume Laurant
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thu 6 Nov (Cinema Paradiso)

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Off-kilter and intriguing, bittersweet, occasionally humorous, but somehow less engaging emotionally than it should have been.

Visually, the early stages of this French/Canadian collaboration are stylistically reminiscent of an idealised America of the past. On outward appearances, the Spivet family would not be out of place in an early 60s TV family sitcom, except for their geographical isolation. They live in a quintessentially American homestead (gorgeous, painted red) on a ranch in the middle of splendid farming country. There’s a classic barn, also painted red. But zoom in, and this vision loses its familiarity, warping into something other.

The characters are not run of the mill. Mom (Helena Bonham Carter) is an obsessive entomologist. Nerdy ten-year-old T.S. (Kyle Catlett) has inherited her genes, seeing and cataloguing the world through the eyes of a scientist gifted way beyond his years. In stark contrast, twin bro Layton (Jakob Davies) is an outdoorsy type who loves guns and hunting. He takes after his taciturn father (Callum Keith Rennie), a Wild West cowboy out of era who spends his leisure time watching westerns. Only teen daughter Gracie (Niamh Wilson) adheres to stereotype, rolling her eyes in disgust and derision at her kid brothers, and dreaming of a future urban life of stardom and sophistication.

Then comes a jolting realisation that the setting has been in the past, before tragedy struck the family. The film shifts gear at this point. T.S. receives news from the Smithsonian Institution that he has won the prestigious Baird Prize for a perpetual motion machine he has invented. He keeps his triumph to himself, and steals off in the early morning, stowing away on a passing freight train bound for Washington DC, determined to be there for his prize presentation.

The bum’s freight train journey, a mythical staple of American literature and film, is rendered strange in Jeunet’s hands. Camaraderie is an intrinsic element of boxcar hopping, but apart from an encounter with an old, eccentric European hobo (Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon – who else?), T.S.’s journey is a lonely, solitary one aboard a dark carriage done out like an opulent hotel room stage set and peopled with smiling cut-outs seated at a table by a window that serve to highlight his loneliness as he forges blindly ahead into the unknown, at every stop dodging guards who have been alerted to watch out for a runaway boy.

If the cross-country odyssey is unsettling and alienating, the destination is more so. Judy Davis has some wicked fun in the role of Ms Jibsen, a Smithsonian staff member who takes T.S. under her wing, intending to propel him – and herself – to fame and fortune. However, something far more valuable awaits T.S.

The film is shot in 3-D, which enhances its hyper-real, dream-like quality. It’s an off-kilter, bittersweet, occasionally humorous little number, intriguing throughout, but somehow less engaging emotionally than it should have been. Lead Kyle Catlett is not particularly endearing, although this might be attributed less to his performance than his character, who operates on a cerebral rather than emotional level. All in all, this is a curiosity piece, an American dream dreamt by an eccentric and imaginative French director that translates to an unusual, visually accomplished, but not entirely filling movie experience.

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Kill The Messenger movie review

Featuring: Jeremy Renner, Robert Patrick, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, Lucas Hedges
Director: Michael Cuesta
Screenwriter: Peter Landesman
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thu 30 Oct

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A tense, generally well-executed thriller based on a true story, but formulaic in feel and black-and-white in its narrative and character presentation.

Conspiracy theorists will have no trouble accepting this depiction of the “true story” of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journo Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner). More so, the rest of us. Webb, an investigative reporter with the San Jose Mercury News, came to spectacular national notice in the 90s when he wrote a series of articles implicating the CIA in flooding US Streets with crack cocaine via some favoured drug lords, purportedly using the profits to arm rebels fighting to overthrow the dictatorship in Nicaragua. Unfortunately, the filmmakers undercut the credibility of the tale by presenting it as a simplistic battle of truth vs lies, courage vs cowardice, and – dang it – Good vs Evil.

All OK as far as it goes: without conflicting opposing forces there ain’t no drama. The problem here is that no true story is this black and white, no real-life protagonist as clearly and unequivocally Good as Webb. Sure, he has his little personal flaws – a past affair, for example, to which he owns up to the great disillusionment of his teenage son, and which causes ongoing hurt for his otherwise stoic wife (a pale nothing of a character played as well as can be expected by Rosemarie DeWitt, who has little to do but stand by her man and be dutiful mom to the kids).

Webb has plenty of opportunity to redeem himself, and he duly does, fearlessly breaking the story of the CIA’s nefarious illicit drug trade involvement, refusing to heed the cautions of crims in the know and his newspaper colleagues that he is jeopardising his career, his personal safety and that of his family. As the pressure to back down from his claims builds, he emerges as a martyr willing to sacrifice everything on the altar of truth, justice and…well, you know. By contrast, his colleagues show up as lily-livered, self-interested Judases prepared to sell him out and compromise their own journalistic principles to protect themselves from the wrath of the dreaded CIA.

In fact, the real Gary Webb divided the journalist world. One camp assessed his research as flawed and his evidence weighted towards his own biases, while others saw him from the heroic angle adopted by the filmmakers. Exploration of the grey regions located between these extreme positions might have made for a less formulaic and more thought-provoking film.

That said, as thrillers go, and leaving aside notions of real event accuracy, Kill The Messenger works quite well. It’s a slow-burner rather than an edge-of-the-seat nailbiter, but tension is maintained throughout, and there are some well-handled moments of comic relief. Jeremy Renner sells his character convincingly in the context of the movie, which is just as well given the whack of screen time he is allotted (to the detriment of some other roles, and the actors who play them).

There’s a niggling sense, however, that the subject matter might have been better suited to a documentary treatment than a dramatization. The implications made about the CIA are clearly extremely serious, but perhaps the most meaningful comment in this film is at the very end, when we learn via text that Webb died of two gunshot wounds to the head in 2004, with the coroner’s verdict being suicide.

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Siddharth movie review

Featuring: Rajesh Tailang
Director: Richie Mehta
Screenwriter: Richie Mehta
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thursday, 9 October 2014

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A beautifully filmed and performed realist piece that lacks emotional clout, but rings true and has its heart in the right place.

Human trafficking is a global scourge of massive proportions, the ridiculously media-hyped and shamefully politically exploited boat refugee “problem” in Australia representing only a tiny proportion of its mostly poor, dispossessed and hidden victims, many of whom are mere children sold into slavery or the sex industry. This earnest and well-crafted film, set in India, personalises the suffering inflicted on the innocent by this grotesque criminal trade, not through the victim but via his family.

Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang) is a lowly Delhi “chain-wallah”, struggling to support his family repairing zippers. Funds are so tight that he has resorted to sending his 12 year old son Siddharth to work illegally in a factory in Punjab. When the much-missed boy phones with the news that he is coming home to celebrate Diwali, his little sister and mother cannot contain their excitement. However, he fails to arrive. As days pass without news and his family’s sense of grim foreboding mounts, Mahendra works himself to exhaustion and borrows money to finance his way to Punjab. His journey is fruitless, and on his return he sinks further in debt, determining to follow up the doubtful rumour that all lost children end up in “Dongri”, which is somewhere in Mumbai. This vague destination begins to assume mythic status, glowing with hope and promise where otherwise there is none.

The pacing of the film is slow, reflecting the family’s nightmare of flailing around uselessly as hope fades. Relatives make baselessly optimistic declarations that Siddhartha will turn up. Mahendra’s enquiries around the local streets are met with indifference, and as a poor man, he comes up against disdain and derision. He goes to the police, who point out wearily that kids go missing all over India every day, and perfunctorily take his details – but since he doesn’t even have a photo of his son, they have nothing to go on and can only issue him with glib half-assed assurances that they will do what they can.

The film has curiously little emotional clout given its lead character’s circumstances. Writer/director Richie Mehta is clearly powered by a social conscience and is striving, admirably, to highlight the plight of India’s poor, relegated by the caste system and the seemingly all-pervasive indifference of the more fortunate to a demeaning life of abject poverty and powerlessness from which there is little chance of escape. However, while sympathy for Mahandra is inevitable, it is morally obligatory in nature, rather than the kick-in-the-guts it should be. This is partly due to the faintly niggling sense of didacticism that imbues the work, and partly, perhaps, because Mahandra is partly culpable for the fate that has befallen his son.

Nevertheless, Siddharth is a beautifully filmed and performed realist piece that rings true, and has its heart in the right place. What it lacks in emotional oomph, it makes up for in its power to haunt. Chances are, days later viewers will still be reflecting on the injustice, indignity and suffering that is the lot of the impoverished as depicted in the film. That may just have been Mehta’s primary intention.

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Gone Girl movie review

Featuring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Carrie Coon, David Clennon
Director: David Fincher
Screenwriter: Gillian Flynn, adapted from her novel
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thursday, 2 Oct 2014

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: An expertly managed psychological thriller masquerading as a whodunit until a twist triggers an intriguing tonal switch, pushing the film into some edgy and darkly humorous territory.

So often, literary artifacts sneak through and detract from filmed versions of novels. Not so with Gone Girl. This is a seamless film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel, which is no mean feat, since the narrative is complicated, deftly setting up a game-changer of a twist that triggers an intriguing switch in tone.

It would be spoiling to summarise the story in any detail, but here are the basics. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) arrives home to find wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing on their fifth wedding anniversary. There are signs of a struggle and he calls the cops, but soon finds himself as the main suspect. The local media gets on to the story and casts Nick as a wife-killer. When carefully pre-laid clues to Amy’s disappearance begin turning up, including her diary in which she expresses fears that her husband is capable of killing her, things look grim for Nick. Even his loyal sister Margo (Carrie Coon) begins to doubt him when she catches him lying about an affair he has been having with a young student.

Initially masquerading as a whodunit, the film’s realist skin is shed suddenly and quite unnervingly at around the half-way point, when things take a turn for the bizarre and darkly humorous. One scene verges on splatter!

The tonal shift is initially jarring and could have run the work off the rails in less expert hands, but like a rollercoaster, the ride feels wild yet is superbly controlled all the way to the ingeniously resolved ending.

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike (the unsung standout in Carey Mulligan’s breakout film, An Education) are as good as it gets as the leads, thriving off a screenplay that demands intelligent, intense and wily performances and makes the actors complicit in the sly manipulations and sleight-of-hand of writer and director. Indeed, all the performances are similarly savvy.

Close scrutiny might uncover some logic flaws, but that’s hardly the point with a work like this that leaves the safe harbour of realism for more intriguing territory. On one level, this is a riveting tale of unreliable characters who betray each other (and the viewer), making for a highly entertaining and suspenseful cinema experience. However, there is also some serious and savage commentary going on here on the irresponsible shaping of public perception by a sensationalist media little concerned with fact, and the nature of intimate relationships/marriage, where lies, truths and the great unspoken swirl beneath the surface in an edgy drama of shifting form and often surprising direction – just like this movie! All round fabbo.

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The Little Death movie review

Featuring: Josh Lawson, Bojana Novakovic, Damon Herriman, Kate Mulvany, Kate Box, Patrick Brammall, Alan Dukes, Lisa McCune, Erin James, TJ Power, Kim Gygnell, Lachy Hulme
Screenwriter/Director: Josh Lawson
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thu 25 Sep

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A smartly performed, written and directed comedy that reclaims ground fenced off by political correctness with humour, compassion and finesse.

This terrific feature film debut from writer/director Josh Lawson is a comedy built around sex (its title is a translation of a French colloquialism for orgasm), but to label it a “sex comedy” is to mislead. That label suggests triviality, an adult romp inviting descriptors like “naughty”. The Little Death is far more sophisticated than that and anything but trivial – which is not to say it’s short on laughs. Indeed, as a comedy it works a treat. But it’s also edgy and subversive in pushing into areas of taboo and mostly mildly deviant sexual behaviour not to shock or outrage, but because sex is fascinating in its paradoxes and diversity of expression, lends itself to comedic dramatic treatment, and is legitimate territory for artistic investigation.

The word edgy should not be interpreted as referring to graphic portrayal of sex – there’s a proliferation of that today to the point of tedium, and it rarely amounts to much more than titillation or dull literal translation of stuff that needs no translating. The Little Death delves into much more intricate and intimate aspects of sexuality, opening the lid on the private fantasies and desires of its characters, “ordinary” folk (ie: like thee and moi) whose only link is that they live in the same suburban street.

There’s foot fetishist Paul (Lawson) and his partner Maeve (Bojana Novakovic), who seeks his assurance that he will not judge her, then confesses that she wants him to rape her – without necessarily being sure that he is her violator. The problem here, apart from Paul’s understandable and funny struggle with his sexual ego, is that this is a fantasy that cannot be transformed to reality; if rape is desired, it is no longer rape. Paul’s attempt to find a way nevertheless, although motivated by love for Maeve, can only end badly, and it does. There is an overarching morality structuring the screenplay that effectively draws a line between fantasy and reality. Clever. This is a point of distinction that has been blurred by some of the sillier aspects of the political correctness that has settled like a torpor over the 21st century. A wakeup call is long overdue. So bravo.

Then there is Dan (Damon Herriman) and his wife Evie (Kate Mulvaney), who see a therapist about spicing up their sex life. The therapist’s role-playing suggestion works well initially, but Dan takes it too far.

Rowena (Kate Box) realises she gets off on the sight of her partner Richard (Patrick Brammall) in tears. This is a dilemma, since she loves him and doesn’t want him to be unhappy, but what’s a gal to do? His father’s sudden death and the dog he dotes upon provide her with opportunities to serve her unspoken desire.

Phil (Alan Dukes) is turned on by his wife Maureen (Lisa McCune) being asleep. Not such a problem with modern medication at his disposal – and unwittingly, at hers.

The stories of the couples writhe around each other and sometimes intersect, although the only real reminder that they live in the same street comes via Steve (Kim Gyngell), a mild-mannered bespectacled little man who knocks on the neighbours’ doors to introduce himself as a new arrival, offering his home-made golliwog biscuits as a diversion before announcing that he is required to inform them that he is a registered sex offender. His strategy works spectacularly well. There are some obvious and not-so-obvious sub-agendas operating here, and multiple interpretative possibilities for after-film conjecture if that’s your bag.

Another couple – the only one not to come from the same street – is introduced unexpectedly and unconventionally towards the end of the film. Monica (Erin James) is a partially deaf switchboard operator who mediates between deaf-mute Sam (TJ Power) and a rough-as-guts phone-sex worker. Monica’s embarrassed attempts to facilitate the sexually explicit exchange through a combination of signing and speaking is laugh-out-loud funny. In the process, she and Sam realise they are attracted to each other. It’s a warming vignette that ends a long way from where it begins.

Ditto the film itself, which goes out with a morally fitting bang. It’s a tonally perfect ending, and ingenuously, the loose ends of the narrative are tied up at the same time.

The Little Death is not only a must-see, but a should-see. The business of art, in all its guises, is to explore and investigate ALL areas of human experience, especially those fenced off by the tyrannical forces of political correctness. Josh Lawson has reclaimed a little of this lost ground here, and with the very able assistance of some smart performers, has done it with humour, compassion and finesse.

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