A Little Chaos movie review

Featuring: Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, Helen McCrory, Jennifer Ehle
Director: Alan Rickman
Screenwriters: Alison Deegan, Alan Rickman, Jeremy Brock
Movie website: www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfilms/film/a_little_chaos
Australian release date: Thu 26 Mar

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Fine of appearance and manner, and works as an immersive cinematic visitation to 17th century Versailles, but lacks heart and dramatic clout.

French characters speaking English, as in this Brit period piece set in France circa King Louis XIV, are faintly off-putting, but it could be worse – they could be feigning French accents. Either way, surely period pieces are best performed by actors from the countries of origin. And haven’t the Brits got a rich enough history of their own to plunder?

That little bugbear out of the way, period drama devotees will enjoy being immersed in 17th century Versailles as recreated in A Little Chaos. There is the usual sartorial finery, extravagantly wigged gentlemen, elegant ladies, sumptuous furnishings and lavish accoutrements of the royal court, gorgeous scenery etc. Of course, beneath the impeccably civilised surface of this aristocratic milieu a cauldron of errant human behaviour and conflict bubbles away – although it ends up as a thin gruel, rather than a witches’ brew.

Centre stage is a handsome (naturally) male lead and his love interest: master landscape architect André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), charged by a demanding King Louis (Alan Rickman) with designing gardens of unequalled splendour for the Palace of Versailles, and commoner Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet), remarkable for being a female in a male field, for her frankness of expression, and for her intuitive and free-flowing designs that seek to enhance and complement nature, rather than tame it. In this, she and André are conceptual opposites; his designs are all about imposing order and symmetry. He hires her as his landscaping assistant nevertheless, having appraised her delightful courtyard garden (and ample cleavage) during a visit to her home.

Add to the mix André’s bitchy, vengeful and sexually voracious wife Françoise (Helen McCrory), who is jealous of Sabine and intent on sabotaging her Versailles landscaping gig, King Louis taking a shine to Sabine that may just have a glint of desire about it, and Sabine’s tragic family past that threatens to unravel her, and there is dramatic/romantic potential aplenty.

Unfortunately, it is not realised. This is not the fault of the performers, who are mostly excellent, as is the dialogue, which is delivered with panache. The problem is the lack of chemistry between the two leads. Sure, they are a fine-looking pair, but their failure to set off sparks in each other is not down to the physical – the fault lies with the characterisation.

For all his Mills and Boon good looks (the only missing feature is a fetching facial scar), André is a dull, mopey specimen, well-spoken but measured and humourless, professionally accomplished but safe and unadventurous, dead at the centre. Sabine, by contrast, is gutsy and animated, unconventional in her thinking and art, and fearlessly opinionated, even to the King. It is difficult to accept that a feisty maverick like her should share a Grand Passion with a cheerless pretty boy like André.

The failure of the leads to ignite each other also partly accounts for the emotional flatness of the work. It is a challenge to care much about their budding relationship, but the apathy extends beyond that, as does its cause. When the details of Sabine’s family tragedy are finally revealed, for example, it should be lump-in-the-throat material, but it’s not. Her past family life is only hinted at until the big reveal, and the fate of its constituents matters little to an audience so unfamiliar with them. This is as much a function of the film’s narrative structure, then, as the incompatibility of personality and spirit of the leads.

The parting impression is that A Little Chaos – like the male lead – is fine of appearance and manner, but lacks heart and dramatic clout.

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The Mafia Kills Only In Summer movie review

Featuring: Cristiana Capotondi, Pif, Alex Bisconti, Ginevra Antona
Director: Pierfrancesco ‘Pif’ Diliberto
Screenwriters: Michele Astori, Pif, Marco Martani
Movie Website: www.palacefilms.com.au/themafiakillsonlyinsummer/

2014-15 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville: 23-29 March, 7.30pm
Joondalup Pines: 31 March-5 April, 7.30pm

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: An unremarkable coming-of-age/love story distracts from the true concern of the film – the reign of terror of the Sicilian mafia from the 1970s to 1990s, and its impact on the people of Palermo.

This is Italian journalist, TV satirist and director Pierfrancesco “Pif” Diliberto’s first feature film, and it shows, playing out like an early draft in which the writer is discovering his true purpose as he goes along. Symptomatic of this directional uncertainty is a shifting tone, which is unsettling and perturbing.

Especially awkward tonally are the early stages, in which lead character Arturo (subsequently played in adulthood by Pif himself) is introduced in voiceover describing his conception in Palermo. Just as his father climaxes, a fearsome flurry of gunshots rings out courtesy of warring mafia in a nearby hideout; in an animation sequence, the sperm are seen to scatter in terror, except for a lone brave swimmer that is undeterred and successfully completes his mission. Inevitably reminiscent of early Woody, but not funny. Retrospectively, it is apparent that the scene prefigures a major focus of the film (remaining steadfast against the tyranny of the mafia) – but it only works figuratively and in retrospect, and that’s a problem.

Toddler Arturo is late to talk. His first word, uttered as he points to the local priest who has dropped in for a visit, is “mafioso.” The delight his parents might have anticipated is displaced by astonishment. Sounds funny, perhaps, but the cinema audience sat in silence. Another comedy fail, but more uncomfortable this time because the joke is try-hard, and more obvious. At least we know what to expect. Adjust expectations, stay open: this is to be an absurdist comedy – about the mafia! How is that going to work?

Well, it doesn’t. Not as a comedy. And it turns out that the absurdist elements are soon lost in the sound and fury of a battle for supremacy between a light-hearted and rather humdrum coming-of-age/love story and a far darker concern, which is really the true focus of the film – that is, the reign of terror of the Sicilian mafia from the 1970s to 1990s, and its impact on the people of Palermo.

Arturo’s story as he progresses through school, hopelessly in love with his classmate Flora, is interspersed with bombings and murders, apparently commonplace occurrences in the Palermo of this era. He answers an early calling as an aspiring journo, developing a keen interest in the political responses to the atrocities of the Cosa Nostro. When a kindly gent who buys him a pastry at the local bakery is murdered, his interest becomes personal.

Arturo and Flora meet again as adults, both now working in journalism. Their love story is a thread that runs through the film as a coherence device, but it’s a dull tale overall with a hurried resolution, and not worth the protracted telling. Far more involving is the emergence of two judges determined to bring the mafia to justice, and the public outrage at their assassinations. Suddenly, it seems, the people of Palermo, bullied for decades into cowering tolerance of the criminal cancer gnawing at their society, have found the heart to stand as one against their oppressors. Finally, the film finds its feet, but alas too late.

The closing tribute to the local heroes who took a stand – shots of actual photographs of those who lost their lives fighting the mafia during the years covered by the film – is dramatic and moving, and underscores that there was a powerful film to be made out of this material. Unfortunately, this is not it.

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Infinitely Polar Bear movie review

Featuring: Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Imogene Wolodarsky, Ashley Aufderheide
Writer/Director: Maya Forbes
Movie website: www.facebook.com/pages/Infinitely-Polar-Bear/149426691890182
Australian release date: Thurs, 26 March

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: As entertainment the movie works OK, but it is less than substantial in its treatment of manic depression.

Hollywood doesn’t do mental illness very well generally. The vastly overrated Silver Linings Playbook, for example, concludes with the ludicrous thesis that the cure-all, even for severe conditions, is the lurve of a compatible soul (ie: one similarly afflicted) and a positive attitude.

The ridiculously titled Infinitely Polar Bear doesn’t raise the bar much higher, opting for a sanitised, audience-friendly version of manic depression – MD lite, if you like. At the beginning of the film, lead character Cam (Mark Ruffalo) suffers an acute episode of mania that teeters on the edge of comedy in its presentation. The closest the film gets to the confronting reality of this frightening and destructive illness is in a subsequent scene – the most sobering and affecting point of the film – in which his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and young daughters (Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide) visit him while he is drugged out and zombified during an extended period of institutionalisation.

When Cam is released, Maggie makes the decision to leave him in charge of the girls in Boston while she goes to New York to pursue an MBA, which she believes is essential to financing a decent life and education for their daughters. Cam doubts his ability to cope, but she is insistent, and his doctor gives him the all-clear. Not a bad premise dramatically, if a little less than credible.

Unfortunately, the film descends into safe and familiar Hollywood territory thereafter, with Cam relegated to zany, harmless funny man, now in the sanctity of domesticity and seemingly no longer prone to the risks and dangers of his illness. He veers off-track from time to time, but never so far as to throw into doubt that he and the girls will be fine.

Ruffalo plays his role with relish and his usual charm, while the girls come across as endearing comedic foils, rather than innocent casualties of their father’s often reckless, irresponsible and embarrassing behaviour.

It’s all entertaining enough, and some viewers at the preview screening found plenty to chuckle at. Indeed, there have been numerous bipolar comedians, and there is nothing wrong with adopting a light touch rather than wallowing in the dark side of the condition. That said, there is a lack of balance and edge here, and a niggling sense that a serious illness and the family suffering that is its inevitable fallout is being trivialised and glossed over.

As entertainment the movie works OK, but it is less than substantial in its treatment of manic depression.

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Kumiko The Treasure Hunter movie review

Featuring: Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard, David Zellner
Director: David Zellner
Screenwriters: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Movie Website: www.palacefilms.com.au/kumikothetreasurehunter/

2014-15 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville: 16-22 March, 8pm
Joondalup Pines: 24-29 March, 8pm

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Compellingly weird after a slow start, but seriously undermined by a bum premise that is just not credible.

There’s a fundamental problem here and it’s serious, mum: the premise. Twenty-something Tokyo based Kumiko is obsessed with the Coen brothers’ movie Fargo, or rather, the suitcase of loot one of the characters is seen to stash deep in the snow. She spends her time after work cooped up in her flat, which she shares with cute pet rabbit Bunzo, re-watching the stashing scene over and over on an old video player (why would she persist with such a relic?). When the worn out tape finally gives up the ghost, she buys a DVD player to continue her investigation until she is certain she has pinpointed the location of the suitcase, whereupon she ups and leaves for America without notice, determined to recover her “treasure”.

Kumiko is a strange woman, a solitary misfit, socially awkward and maladjusted. She is hounded by her mother, who is disappointed she is still single. She is embittered and miserable with her lot as an “Office Lady” (and fair enough – her boss is a patronising jerk who treats her as his personal maid). To be brutally frank, though, she is pretty dull and unlikeable (it doesn’t help her cause that before setting off for America she gets rid of Bunzo by setting him down in a train carriage, although she makes up some credit points in farewelling him from the station with a torrent of tears as the train moves off). She is not a romantic, not hostage to an over-active imagination or a hopeless dreamer lost in the world of cinema, and although depressed and suffering from some sort of personality disorder, is neither deranged nor intellectually deficient. How then, is it credible that she has such a feeble grasp on reality that she is unable to differentiate between documentary and cinematic fiction?

Quite simply, it is not.

This major flaw aside, from the point at which Kumiko departs for America, financed by a company card she has stolen from her boss, the film turns compellingly weird. She makes straight for Minnesota with the town of Fargo in her sights, certain that she is destined to recover the snow-covered “treasure” as her own, and permanently escape her dreary existence in Tokyo.

As she moves geographically closer to her goal, the desolate winterscape shots of Minnesota rendered indelible by the Coens become ever more dominant, and characters emerge that could have walked straight off the set of Fargo. One, a police officer, is kind to Kumiko, going way above and beyond the call of duty to help her, yet he ends up unwittingly hurting her, propelling her on her apparently doomed journey rather than saving her from her folly. Very Coens, this sort of paradox. Indeed, it is as if the Zellners, like their protagonist Kumiko, are submitting to a Fargo obsession, allowing their film to be subsumed, overtaken by the sense of foreboding and terrible, barren beauty of its inspirational source. One movie possessed by another? This is beyond cinematic referentiality (yawn). It’s downright whacked out and spooky. Like.

The ending that lies in store is at once fairy tale happy-ever-after and tragic, and although it might induce eye-rolling in some, it works as a resolution to the narrative. However, the conclusion is devoid of emotional power, partly because it is difficult to identify with Kumiko or her quest. Which goes back to that bloody premise.

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Selma movie review

Featuring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenwriters: Paul Webb, Ava DuVernay
Movie website: www.selmamovie.com/
Australian release date: Feb 12

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A stirring reconstruction of a pivotal event of the 60s black civil rights movement, with an inspirational performance by David Oyelowo as Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 granted voting rights to black Americans, in effect formalising equal rights nation-wide, but in Alabama in 1965 little had changed. Segregation was still in force, whites jealously – and often violently – guarded their positions of privilege with the assistance of the all-white cops, terrorists bombed black churches, and in official capacities authorities resorted to dirty tricks to subvert the legislation.

In an early scene of Selma, a clerk at a voting registration office subjects a determined and formidably informed middle-aged black woman (Oprah Winfrey) to the indignity of having to complete a quiz on obscure details of government, refusing her registration papers when she cannot answer.

The film focuses on a 3 month period that proved crucial in countering the forces condemning blacks in Alabama to continued oppression. Dr Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists led the fight, which culminated in a dangerous and epic march from Selma to Montgomery. Saturation press coverage of the march and some horrendous police brutality in events preceding it set off a tidal change in popular opinion that forced President Johnson to enact legislation to force Alabama and its renegade redneck leaders like Governor George Wallace into step with the rest of the country on black voting rights.

Naturally, the march is the dramatic climax to the film, but the primary focus is the behind-the-scene machinations leading up to it, and the tensions dividing sectors of the black activist leadership.

King is presented as the great, inspirational leader and orator he was, but not mythologised as a saintly visionary with loyal disciples in tow. He is presented in very human terms, as a man unflinching in his faith, yet prone to dark nights of the soul, torn between his mission and family, struggling and in some cases failing to convince his detractors to persevere with non-violent protest rather than adopting the more forceful tactics advocated by radicals like Malcolm X.

The political maneuvering between King and Lyndon B Johnson during their meetings in the White House is riveting, the glimpse into the political mind of the President deeply unsettling and disturbing. However, it is the nature of the poisonous game of politics that is under fire here, not so much Johnson himself. He is shown as a political animal whose main game is juggling priorities (although he doesn’t hesitate to play foul where necessary, conniving with J. Edgar Hoover to keep tabs on King and mess with his domestic life).

King’s cause is one of many on the President’s plate, and assisting it beset with political dangers. Humanity is barely in the picture for Johnson, despite the indignities and injustice King confronts him with.

This is not a Martin Luther King biopic as such. The background to the pivotal Selma-Montgomery march and its outcome is director Ava DuVernay’s main concern. However, the King character is so magnetic, so compelling, he steals the show regardless. David Oyelowo not only looks like King – his renditions of some of his lesser-known speeches are uncanny, capturing the cadences and tones perfectly, and damn near as inspirational in effect as the originals! It’s hair-raising stuff.

Indeed, all the performances are superb, the likes of Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Wallace (Tim Roth) ringing brilliantly true in their portrayals.

As reconstructions of pivotal historical events go, Selma is about as good as it gets. That is not to say it works perfectly as a drama – this is an inevitability of the genre. You would like more on King’s family life, for example, but there just isn’t room. Most importantly, you leave wiser for the experience and emotionally stirred, mostly by the movie, partly by the tragedy that was to cut King short, and partly by the awareness that half a century on the promise of the 60s seems more illusory than ever.

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