Movies by Moonlight

The Moonlight Cinema season is well underway in Brisbane, with an array of new release and classic films scheduled for screening under the stars in New Farm Park. The season kicked off on December 12, but runs through until February 23 with sessions scheduled each week from Wednesday to Sunday (except Christmas Day) on the lawn adjacent to the Brisbane Powerhouse.

Moonlight Cinema

Tonight will feature a preview screening of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, while Boxing Night will feature Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The season will also include preview screenings of August: Osage County, Saving Mr Banks, The Book Thief, The Wolf of Wall Street, 12 Years a Slave and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit as well as special events such as a Grease sing-a-long, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Monty Python’s Life of Brian and a special Australia Day presentation of The Castle.

Tickets are $16.00, with $12.00 Thursday sessions and there are a limited number of bean bags available for hire. Patrons can BYO picnic or purchase meals, snacks, beer and wine from the Moonlight cafeteria.

For more information about Moonlight Cinema, click here to visit the website.

The Real Top Ten of 2013

So, what are the ten best movies of 2013? Well, everybody else has had their say, so now it’s my turn. Now, obviously I haven’t seen every film released in Australia this year, but my top ten list is drawn from the 80+ movies I watched on a cinema screen this year. DVD viewings don’t count as movies are made to be watched and appreciated on the big screen. Obviously, if I didn’t watch the film on a cinema screen, it can’t be included, regardless of how much critical love it may have received elsewhere and regardless of whether I have subsequently seen it on DVD. Having, said that, I don’t think there would be too many great films, if any, that I somehow missed at the cinema.

Of course, the delayed release schedule in Australia for many films means that many of the potential contenders for such a list won’t be released here until after Christmas or into the new year and can’t be considered for inclusion on this list. Therefore, the likes of Philomena, The Railway Man, 12 Years a Slave, Her, Saving Mr Banks, The Great Beauty, The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Book Thief, Drinking Buddies, Dallas Buyers Club, Labor Day, August: Osage County and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom can only be considered for inclusion in my 2014 top ten list due the fact that they will not be in Australian cinemas before Boxing Day, with many not opening until the new year.

However, there are films yet to be released into cinemas that I have been lucky enough to see in festival screenings that have been considered for inclusion on this list. For example, I caught several films at the Brisbane International Film Festival that won’t be released until next year, but they are eligible for inclusion on this list. Likewise any films I saw in preview screenings, such as Tracks, which isn’t scheduled for release until March.

My criterion for inclusion is not an exact science, but basically the list is drawn from any movie that I saw on a cinema screen between January 1 and December 20. Yes, some of the films mentioned above will open on Boxing Day and therefore are technically on screens this year, but it is unlikely I will see many of them before 2014 (I hate how Christmas commitments interrupt my film viewing), so I will leave them for inclusion in next year’s list. If you have some kind of problem with my logic, then so be it. It makes sense to me and I can certainly guarantee that my list is completely devoid of any influence by studios, distributors, editors or the hype and expectation that precede many films, which is more than can be said for many similar attempts at ranking the best film of the year.

This is a list drawn purely from my experience as a viewer, a movie lover and a media educator. Yes, like anybody critiquing films, I am evaluating a whole range of elements in reaching my overall assessment of each film but, unlike many who undertake such activities, I certainly don’t have to worry about what the consequences may be for me if I dare to share an opinion that isn’t in keeping with the view of those with a vested interest in a particular film or the perpetuation of a particular view.

And now, the moment you have all be waiting for. My top ten films of 2013 are:

1. Short Term 12
2. Mud
3. The Spectacular Now
4. Frances Ha
5. Blue is the Warmest Colour
6. The Way Way Back
7. Gravity
8. Stories We Tell
9. Rust and Bone
10. Django Unchained

For most of the films on the list, the order is interchangeable as they are of equal merit and there are several other films that could have just as easily been included. In fact, the more I reflect back on the films I have seen this year, the more I realise just how easy it would be to make another list of films that could quite legitimately justify a place amongst the top ten, so please keep your vitriol in check if your favourite film is not on the list. The full list of films I saw in cinemas this year can be seen at Letterboxd

So, what was my worst movie experience of the year? Well, I have consciously avoided anything that I was pretty sure would most likely be crap, so I have no doubt there were films released this year worse than anything I have seen. Having said that, I still managed to see some very ordinary flicks, the worst five of which are:

The Counselor
The Lone Ranger
Kick-Ass 2
Now You See Me
Enders Game

Of the Australian films I saw this year The Rocket was clearly the standout, although both Tracks and Mystery Road were also very good.

Agree? Disagree? By all means, let me know. Just don’t act like a pompous tool in doing so. Everybody expects and takes something different from the cinema film viewing experience and whilst I am quite certain that my opinions are right, you are certainly entitled to your own and I am interested in your point-of-view. It has actually been a pretty good year for films and it seems we also have a lot to look forward to in Australian cinemas in the year ahead.

Closed Circuit

A somewhat sedate conspiracy thriller, Closed Circuit is the latest on-screen outing for Australia’s Eric Bana, who has also taken a hands-on role in distributing the film in his home territory. The film starts, literally, with a bang when a series of split-screen CCTV images – each one a separate drama within a crowded London market – become fused in smoke and mayhem when a bomb blast rips through the complex. Turkish man Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto) is quickly deemed the culprit and his speedy arrest is the first indicator that all is not as it seems. It is these opening moments of the film that promise so much, only some of which is ultimately delivered.

Closed Circuit poster

Bana plays arrogant defence barrister Martin Rose, who is in the midst of a divorce when the case is thrust into his lap following the suicide of the lawyer initially appointed to the case. Somewhat problematic for Rose is the fact that the classified nature of much of the evidence means that he is not allowed to see it in his efforts to defend his client. Only a court in closed session can determine if the evidence should be used in the trial and Special Advocate Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), with appropriate security clearances and operating under strict conditions of secrecy, is appointed to argue for full disclosure. Although on the same team, Martin and Claudia are prohibited from discussing the case. With an affair between the two of them having seemingly been the catalyst for Martin’s divorce, there is initial tension that quickly dissipates as the real reasons for the withholding of evidence become clear and the situation becomes much more perilous than either of them anticipated.

Closed

The machinations of the case and the culpability of the various intelligence agencies are extremely relevant in a contemporary context and the film certainly does offer some food for thought with regard to the ultimate price to be paid when things don’t go according to plan. Whilst Martin seems to stumble upon the truth very easily, the audience only learns of the facts when he reveals them to others – usually Claudia or his duplicitous colleague Devlin (Ciarin Hinds). There are no Bourne-like chases or action sequences to be found, the closest we get is when the key witness escapes custody or when Claudia is attacked in her home. The film does demonstrate the all-pervasive nature of CCTV surveillance in modern London (and elsewhere no doubt) – on more than one occasion, we track the movements of the various protagonists from such a perspective – yet has very little to say on the broader implications of such technology.

Film Review Closed Circuit

The performances from Bana, who refuses to be pigeon-holed in the roles he takes on, and Hall, who is looking more like a young Molly Ringwald every day, are fine given the material, while Julia Stiles makes an all too fleeting appearance as an American journalist. Now, this is an English movie after all, so obviously Jim Broadbent will be in there somewhere, this time as a heinous Attorney-General determined to ensure that the truth never sees the light of day. Riz Ahmed, meanwhile, is Agent Sharma, a somewhat strange character who ultimately proves quite inept despite oozing confidence and charm – almost to the point of parody – in his role as Claudia’s minder.

The expected courtroom fireworks fizzle rather than sizzle and the action elsewhere fails to generate the tension that is needed to maintain interest. There are moments of excitement that offer glimpses of what might have been, but the momentum is never maintained by director John Crowley (Intermission, Boy A). The premise is solid, but the execution lacks punch, in large part due to the contrived screenplay from Steven Knight, who also penned the far superior Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises. I mean, at one point, three key figures in the story the end up at a dinner party that just happens for no apparent reason. Certainly, Bana has shown considerable faith in the film and hopefully his willingness to take a financial risk as distributor will be rewarded, it’s just a shame that Closed Circuit fails to deliver on its potential as an adult thriller drawn from contemporary concerns around the dichotomies of secrecy and surveillance.

American Hustle

Sometimes movies arrive in Australian cinemas on the back of intense critical acclaim and it can be difficult to reconcile the hyperbole with the reality of what you see. Often it seems that the involvement of a flavour-of-the-month director or the procurement of several A-list stars automatically renders the film something special regardless of whether the actuality of what transpires on screen justifies such exaltation. The most recent case in point is American Hustle, the latest offering from director David O. Russell (Three Kings, The Fighter) that brings Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence together for a convoluted crime comedy set in 1970’s New Jersey based, albeit somewhat loosely it would seem, on the Abscam scandal in which several politicians were netted in a FBI corruption sting.

American Hustle poster

Bale plays fraudster Irving Rosenfeld, the owner of several legitimate businesses who also sidelines in various cons, including the sale of stolen and forged artworks. When Irving meets Sydney Prosser (Adams), the two set up an elaborate scam by posing as an international finance and investment firm targeting those unable to secure loans through more conventional means. However, soon enough, the feds stumble upon their ruse and, faced with jail time, the pair agree to assist hapless FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) in his efforts to snare much bigger targets, including a New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Renner), an ostensibly decent guy with a genuine passion for his constituency whose downfall is an unfortunate by-product of DiMaso’s ambition. Even Rosenfeld feels bad at having lured Polito into the scam with the promise of great prosperity for the community he represents. As Prosser, Adams uses her feminine wiles to manipulate both Rosenfeld and DiMaso and it is these currents of love and jealousy that trigger the endless attempts at one-upmanship by the two men from which most of the humour is borne.

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However, complicating matters further are Rosenfeld’s wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) and young son Danny. A needy, vulnerable force of nature, Rosalyn is seemingly oblivious to much of what is going on around her but ultimately plays a significant role in how the sordid mess unfolds. She appears unhinged and unpredictable, yet you can’t help but feel that beneath the fake tan, piled hair, glossed nails and rat-a-tat-tat verbal outbursts is a more calculating character just biding her time and waiting for a better opportunity to come her way, which may just be in the form of gangster associate Pete Musane (Jack Huston). Rosalyn is a scene-stealer and Lawrence further cements her reputation as the actress of the moment with her second great performance for Russell following her Academy Award-winning turn in Silver Linings Playbook.

Everything about this film is over the top; from the costumes to the hairstyles to the brazen nature of the various schemes, which ultimately involve a fake Arabian investor (Michael Pena) and Robert De Niro’s Miami mafia boss Victor Tellegio, whose sinister tone has both Rosenfeld and DiMaso panicking at the thought of what they have got themselves into. Although a very small role, it is great to see De Niro doing something that doesn’t require him to make a fool of himself and besmirch his reputation as, quite possibly, the best actor of his generation. Also making an appearance is comedian Louis C.K as DiMaso’s boss Stoddard Thorsen, a man who sees DiMaso as both arrogant and delusional in equal measure, while Alessandro Nivola is almost unrecognisable as ambitious Chief Prosecutor Anthony Amado.

American Hustle 2

With facial hair and cleavage aplenty, Russell has certainly captured the essence of the era and, overall, the film works as an entertaining examination of America in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration. Make no mistake, American Hustle is a film with hidden depths but lacks the emotional punch needed to elevate it beyond mere entertainment to something altogether more powerful. It draws very much on the movies of Scorsese without reaching the same heights as his best work. As impressive as much of this is – perhaps more so some of the performances than anything else – it is certainly hard to believe that it sits atop so many ‘Best of’ lists for the year, let alone being a major contender through awards season. Yes, it is good, but it’s not that good.

Night Train to Lisbon

Whilst a controversial figure at times away from the screen, there is no doubt that Academy Award-winning Brit Jeremy Irons is possessed with considerable talent as an actor, whose willingness to take on provocative roles (Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune or Humbert Humbert in the remake of Lolita, for example) has also seen him emerge as a polarising on-screen presence as well. However, his latest outing as Raimond Gregorius in Night Train to Lisbon is unlikely to cause any offence, mainly because he doesn’t have much to do other than ask a lot of people a lot of questions in his quest to track down the various characters from a book that comes into his possession. The latest work from Danish director Bille August (The House of the Spirits, Pelle the Conqueror), Night Train to Lisbon is a sedate piece of filmmaking that relies very much on coincidence to propel the narrative.

Night Train to Lisbon poster

Gregorius, a divorced middle-aged teacher at a school in Bern, Switzerland, is on his way to work when he prevents a woman from jumping off a bridge. She accompanies him to his class, but quickly slips away, leaving only her red coat, in the pocket of which Gregorius discovers a book filled with philosophical ramblings from a Portuguese doctor named Amadeu de Prado. When Gregorius discovers a train ticket to Lisbon inside the book – for a service leaving in 15 minutes conveniently enough – he makes the impulsive decision to head to Portugal and seek out de Prado. Despite the obstructions of de Prado’s prickly sister Adriana (Charlotte Rampling), Gregorius soon discovers that the author is long dead. When a collision with a cyclist results in his glasses being smashed, Gregorius visits Mariana, an optometrist whose uncle Joao just happens to have been one of de Prado’s comrades in the Resistance Movement in the lead-up to the democratic revolution in 1974. Gregorius meets with Joao (Tom Courtenay) and other key figures from de Prado’s past, including his former teacher and priest (Christopher Lee) and boyhood friend Jorge (Bruno Ganz).

Night Train to Lisbon 1

It is the flashback sequences – which come via the recollections of the various people that Gregorios talks to – that work the best as they track de Prado (Jack Huston) and his friends in their efforts to subvert the government of the day amidst a backdrop of violence and repression. Having been friends since childhood, de Prado and Jorge (played as a young man by August Diehl) are inseparable until, of course, a woman enters the picture. Played by the bewitching Melanie Laurent, Stefania has her eyes firmly on the prize and is prepared to use whatever means necessary to achieve her objective of a political uprising. The period recreations are quite effective, although we don’t learn a great deal about the political landscape of the time and what, exactly, the resistance were rebelling against. There are moments of violence and surges of suspense, but momentum is lost every time we return to Gregorius in the present day, his budding romance with Mariana and the realisation that his life, and personality, are in need of an overhaul, admitting that his wife left him because he was boring.

Night Train to Lisbon 2

Of course, the problem is that such a boring character is not particularly compatible with an engaging cinema experience. To be fair though, Irons is burdened with a lifeless screenplay that gives him very little scope to make the character sympathetic in any way. The de Prado story is an interesting one and if the film focussed entirely on this, it certainly would have enabled greater exposition of the political machinations of the day, the various historical figures of import and the relationships between the fictional subversives. The locations are fabulous with the narrow winding streets, stone facades, cobblestones and cable cars of Lisbon particularly fetching.

It is a shame that the quality cast, which also features Lena Olin as the present-day incarnation of Stefania, did not have better material to work with. Huston, Diehl and Laurent are fine as the young idealists, while Courtenay is also strong as the grizzled older version of Jaoa. Overall though, Night Train to Lisbon derails on more than one occasion and a potentially engaging drama is ultimately reduced to snippets of excitement amidst an otherwise lacklustre adaptation of a novel by Swiss author Pascal Mercier.

The Spectacular Now

It is perhaps, partly at least, the failure of so many filmmakers to capture the teenage experience with any sense of accuracy or compassion that makes The Spectacular Now such a treat. This is a terrific film that presents a refreshingly realistic portrayal of adolescence that will no doubt strike a chord with many viewers. Directed by James Ponsoldt (Smashed) from a screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber that was adapted from a novel by Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now is incredibly realistic in its depiction of those final months of high school that bring both the weight of expectation and the trepidation about what the future holds.

Spectacular Now poster

Miles Teller plays Sutter Keely, a high school senior who initially presents as a character more likely to appear in one of Teller’s previous films, such as Project X or 21 and Over. However, we soon learn that his outwardly confident and laid-back attitude towards pretty much everything is driven largely by an insecurity that is masked by his constant reliance on alcohol; he drinks at school, at work and everywhere in between. The film opens with Sutter being dumped by his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) and the way in which this is handled by all concerned is particularly impressive. Cassidy tells Sutter that, whilst she still loves him, it is his lack of ambition that has forced her hand. Their subsequent attempt to remain as friends smacks of the awkwardness that such an undertaking would entail. In fact, Cassidy’s concerns about Stutter’s lack of direction are echoed by his teacher (Andre Royo) and his employer Dan (Bob Obenkirk), both of whom take on a somewhat paternal, but never preachy, role in Teller’s life in the absence of a father who abandoned him many years earlier.

The morning after a particularly heavy night of drinking, Sutter meets the delightful Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) and a friendship develops that eventually morphs into something more. Following her fine performance in The Descendants, Woodley is superb once again as a girl who deals with the ups and downs of her first ever romance with a pragmatism and maturity that we rarely see in teen film narratives. Aimee is attractive and intelligent and ultimately proves to be exactly what Sutter needs, even if it takes him a while to realise it. Our initial impressions of Sutter change somewhat as he introduces Aimee to his friends without any of the macho posturing or faux embarrassment that would typically accompany such a scenario. As their friendship develops into a romance, Sutter is forced to reconsider his post-school trajectory when Aimee is accepted into university.

Spectacular Now 1

This relationship eschews the clichés of teenage behaviours that dominate so many films. In fact, their relationship is not one borne of lust, but a love that develops because they simply enjoy each other’s company and feel comfortable together. Even the inevitable moment when they have sex – Aimee for the first time – sees our characters handle it very matter-of-factly, while Ponsoldt never resorts to salaciousness in his coverage of the scene. Woodley is just so good as Aimee, the type of teenager that I think most parents would like their own daughters to become. Even the supporting roles are strong with Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Sutter’s sister, Holly, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as their hard working mother, Sara. Meanwhile, Kyle Chandler plays against type as their deadbeat dad Tommy, the reality of whom is nothing like the image that Sutter has envisaged for so long.

Spectacular Now 2

This is a rare film about high school students in which the characters look, sound and behave like real teenagers. They are not perfect, nor are they the raucous sex-obsessed, out-of-control ne’er-do-wells that we are too often bombarded with in screen depictions of youth culture. The Spectacular Now delves beyond the surface of the characters to examine – in a subtle and unobtrusive manner – how circumstances, events and the actions of others can shape the lives of teenagers and influence the decisions they make. Ponsoldt has taken full advantage of the talent around him – both on and off the screen – to craft a highly affecting coming-of-age story with recognisable and believable characters that is one of the best teen dramas produced for quite some time. I can’t help but think that John Hughes would approve.