The Assassin movie review

Featuring: Shu Qi, Chang Chen
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Writers: Cheng Ah, T’ien-wen Chu, Hsiao-Hsien Hou, Hai-Meng Hsieh, Xing Pei

Australian release date: Thu 26 Nov

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Visually exquisite, but the story is obscure and hard to follow and this will be a hurdle for some.

The Assassin was awarded Best Direction at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but if you’re expecting an arty Chinese martial arts flick along the lines of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon think again!

There are no mystical martial arts warriors defying gravity in extended elaborately choreographed fight scenes, the storyline is obscure and difficult to follow (unless you’re familiar with the 9th Century Tang Dynasty historical references from which it and the characters derive), and things progress exceedingly slowly via long takes.

Some will nod off (or walk out, as quite a few of the viewers did at the screening I attended), but allow yourself to be immersed in the truly exotic world of the film, and like me you may find yourself delighting in its sheer visual beauty and transported to a dream-like state.

Every frame is exquisitely composed, a cinematographic painting. There are weird and wonderful costumes, ancient otherworldly Eastern decor and architecture featuring hand-hewn wood and tiles, crimson curtains floating across the lens, at times casting a soft focus over the actors during the interior shots. The exterior settings take in the splendid natural beauty of the countryside, extraordinary lighting showing up its shapes and colours to often wondrous effect. Then there is the grace of movement of the striking titular character and her foes during the short but always dramatic and superbly rendered fight scenes…

With visuals as poetic, beautiful and brilliantly executed – as transfixing – as these, the story becomes secondary. That said, the lack of narrative exposition is a flaw that could have been addressed without compromising the artistic vision of the piece. I guess compromise is the operative word here. Director Hou Hsiao-hsien is clearly single-minded in his approach, and that is both the great strength and weakness of the film: he is telling a Chinese story and the way he has chosen to do it is – how can I put this? – culturally pure. That will put any non-Chinese viewer on the outer, in a sense. I found that vantage point fascinating. Whether you will, who knows? You’ll need to see this strange and gorgeous movie to find out.

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99 Homes movie review

Featuring:: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Writers: Ramin Bahrani , Amir Naderi , Bahareh Azimi
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thu 19 Nov

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A gripping and well-performed drama on the ruthless opportunism and personal tragedy behind the scenes of America’s sub-prime foreclosure racket.

The hypocrisy, injustice and inhumanity of capitalism was never so starkly revealed as during the GFC, when the State used taxpayers’ money to protect greedy overreaching financial institutions from bankruptcy, while ignoring the plight of hundreds of thousands of working class strugglers duped into taking out unaffordable housing loans, then tossed out on to the streets when the banks foreclosed on them.

The trauma, violation and despair of forcible eviction is rammed home in 99 Homes, when hard-working blue-collar single father Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) and his mother lose their home of many years, after misunderstanding a Court order. Answering a knock on the door from real estate vulture Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) accompanied by armed sheriff enforcers, the family is given minutes to grab personal effects and money. The locks are then changed and their house contents dumped on the front lawn as neighbours witness the humiliating repossession. It’s gutting stuff, hard to watch.

Nash has no choice but to seek shelter for his family at the nearest cheap motel, which is tenanted by other foreclosure victims and undesirables who can afford no better.

Desperate for money and a way to re-claim the family home, he accepts a proposal to work for Carver, and finds himself in a Faustian dilemma when he realises that he, too, can make big money from the misfortune of sub-prime victims like himself. However, there is a price to be paid that is not quantifiable in mere monetary terms, and he must decide whether he is prepared to pay it.

The filmmakers have done a good job of melding personal drama with a wider politically driven agenda of lifting the bonnet on a system that advantages the wealthy and disadvantages the poor. Carver is the ugly face of capitalist opportunism – perhaps a little too ugly to avoid caricature. Insidiously, though, as he makes clear in some cynically toned expositionary dialogue, his spectacularly successful bottom-feeding depends on a corrupt network of successful business types and others of respectable appearance and status, the feeding line extending to the Court, the banks, and ultimately the centre of political power itself. The hope that justice will prevail in the end is down to ordinary, decent folk like Nash having the courage to stick by their values, and where possible to blow the whistle rather than yield to the temptation to join the devil at his party table.

All a bit simplistic and black and white, then, but this is a movie driven by moral outrage, not a work of political philosophy. As such, it entertains through a gripping drama featuring some excellent performances, while rousing anger and outrage in the viewer at the workings of the insidious foreclosure racket and the suffering of its victims.

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Man Up movie review

Featuring:: Lake Bell, Simon Pegg, Rory Kinnear, Olivia Williams, Sharon Horgan, Harriet Walter, Ken Stott, Stephen Campbell Moore
Director: Ben Palmer
Writer: Tess Morris
Movie website:

Australian release date: Thu 5 Nov

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: An enjoyable and witty Brit romcom brought home by a scintillating lead double act

Combine a witty, well-written screenplay with a couple of high-energy lead performers who clearly thrive in their roles and spark off each other like live wires and you have a winner. A very English one, as it happens. The characters’ inflections and delivery are oh-so-contemporary Brit, as is the style of the humour. A Ricky Gervais (Office era) influence is detectable at times, although the film is formulaically romcom in shape – indeed, this adherence to traditional narrative form imposes some control over the chaotic elements of the characters and the alcohol-fuelled rollercoaster afternoon and evening they embark upon, and keeps the piece grounded.

Somewhat ironically, the show-stealer is an American, Lake Bell (her English accent is flawless), who plays Nancy, a jaded and cynical 34-year-old single who decides, uncharacteristically, to go with the flow when she is mistaken for the 24-year-old blind date of newly and painfully divorced 39-year-old Jack (Simon Pegg).

From amusingly awkward beginnings, they relax over some quiet afternoon drinks, gravitate to noisier tequila slammers as day turns to night, and move on to a bowling alley. They’re having a riotously good time together until the inevitable complication arrives in the person of Sean (played with sleazy relish by Rory Kinnear), a classmate of Nancy’s who has been carrying a torch for her since high school. With her fraudulent identity as Jack’s blind date in danger of exposure, things start to unravel.

They beat a retreat back to the tequila bar, where Jack runs into his ex-wife (Olivia Williams) and the bloke who cuckolded him (Stephen Campbell Moore). When they perversely decide to grab a table as a foursome, the comedy ratchets up a few notches as things get seriously out of whack.

There’s no getting off the slippery slope to dating disaster, and poor Nancy exits, cutting a lonesome figure as she makes her way into the night to attend the last stages of her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. It seems their happy fate is never to be hers…

Except that this is a romcom, and we all know that a happy ending is in store. The narrative gets a bit silly in the process of arriving at this final destination, but it’s all good fun and despite its predictability and sentiment quotient the resolution is moving (well, the two lead characters are endearing – come on!).

This is a thoroughly enjoyable flick with decent helpings of both rom and com, but it’s more than that. Lake Bell’s effervescent performance is one out of the box, and with Simon Pegg a worthy foil, they are a scintillating double act to catch. There are also some astute comments on the challenges, pitfalls and humour that is part and parcel of the contemporary dating game, key to which is discovering who you are and who you want to be with. And some wry nods to the irony of living in a time when we are more connected than ever before through electronic and social media, yet still isolated in the real world, where making a meaningful personal connection and finding a mate can seem like mission impossible.

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A Plague of Icons

Pretty well everybody from the past is an Icon nowadays. It’s real easy: all you need is to be old and boring enough. Being Dead used to be a big help; in the early years of Iconhood, Deadness was virtually a sine qua non to Iconic sanctification but nowadays it’s a luxury. Being a member of the Living Dead, as so many past musicians have mutated into, is quite enough, thank you very much. The appetite for Icons has expanded to the point that anybody who has survived the years in some vaguely recognizable shape or form and who hasn’t made a complete arse of themselves is verging on Iconhood.

The process of becoming an Icon is easy, too. First of all, somebody sez that a particular “artist” is a Genius or “The Future Of Rock’n’Roll” or some other piece of lunacy, somebody else repeats this purely on the basis that they heard someone else say it, somebody else likewise passes it on and before you know it yet another Icon is well on the way to being born. Such is the way of public opinion: Iconhood by way of repetition. And so, musicians who were laughed at in their prime have become the object of reverence thirty years past their ostensible “best”.

Take Queen, for example: in 1974 The New Musical Express had Freddie Mercury on the cover alongside the statement, “Is this man a prat?” And you know what? They were RIGHT, but that was before the musty reverence for anything that came out of some putative Golden Era had congealed into stuff like “Classic Rock” stations that accord piffling old bores like the Allman Brothers Beethoven-like musical adulation, endless Rolling Stone lists of the Greatest Old Farts Of All Time, and TV series that devote entire programs to analyzing “classic” albums like Black Sabbath’s Paranoid without the slightest hint that they’re Taking the Piss. I mean, they must be taking the piss! It’s Paranoid, for Christ’s sake!

And so Iconhood has been devalued…and devalued…and devalued… to that point of utter meaninglessness that has become a staple of our contemporary culture. But that doesn’t stop all the reverent looks whenever a lukewarm bowl of piss like Cold Chisel make a comeback tour (with all their original members, gasp!). Jesus, the Old Farts still know how to rock! And Jimmy can still shriek and emote, just like in the Old Days! What a great singer! I think Cold Chisel…Are…GOD!!!

The Last Witch Hunter movie review

Featuring:: Vin Diesel, Elijah Wood, Rose Leslie, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Julie Engelbrecht, Michael Caine
Director: Breck Eisner
Writers: Cory Goodman, Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless
Movie website:

Australian release date: Thu 29 Oct

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Mildly enjoyable trash, providing you leave your brain at home and keep expectations low

On the face of it, this isn’t a bad storyline. Kaulder (Vin Diesel) is the last remaining witch hunter. Cursed in medieval times to immortality and eternal separation from his beloved wife and children by the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) responsible for the Black Plague, he spends his limitless time ridding the world of witches and the evil threat they pose to mortals. Tackling an uprising of witches in contemporary New York, he discovers that the Witch Queen has been resurrected. A final showdown looms, with the future of the human race at stake.

Except the big rematch doesn’t eventuate (saved for the sequel). Fear not, though. Kaulder has his hands full fighting off witchy heavyweights – this is one action-packed CGI fest. Re-born Witch Queen not required. Problem is, the fight scenes are all very samey and become tedious. The creative thinking, such as there is of it, has gone into on a proliferation of ludicrously over-the-top CGI graphics that might have worked a treat in a computer game. Here, without possibility of audience interactivity, it’s all a bit of a yawn.

In between the fight scenes, things are pretty drab and passé. You don’t expect great writing in a piece like this – and you sure don’t get it! Some of the exposition at the beginning is laughably ham-fisted and obvious. And the performances? Well, Vin Diesel is a caricature of an action hero: ridiculously deep voice that makes him sound sorta dumb, muscles a steroid junkie would kill for, good with children but merciless with bad guys from the Dark Side blah blah. He has a shot at some nudge-nudge wink-wink self-parody, and there’s an attempt from the writers to provide some humorous signifiers that the product is not to be taken seriously, but most of the comic moments fall flat so that’s not much of a saving grace.

Leave your brain at home and keep your expectations low and it is possible to eke a modicum of guilty enjoyment out of this trash, but there’s no getting away from the fact that trash it is – and not the sort likely to attract D-grade cult status in years to come.

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