The Water Diviner

Whenever I see an actor assuming the role of director, I can’t help but wonder why it is that filmmaking, and the arts more generally, seems to be an area in which people seem to think that they can take on a completely new role regardless of whether they necessarily have the requisite skills or experience. Is there an inherent arrogance within actors that leads them to believe that the role of a film director is so simple that they can just appoint themselves to such a position? It is certainly a situation that seems unique to this industry and the latest actor to declare themselves suitably qualified to step behind the camera is Russell Crowe with The Water Diviner.

Water Diviner poster

At the core of this film is a really interesting story. Three young Australian men go to war and fail to return. A grief-stricken mother is unable to cope and the father vows to find out exactly what happened and bring them home, overcoming his own prejudices and finding new love along the way. The fact that it is based on real events should make the story ripe for a powerful, emotionally engaging cinematic experience, yet somehow Crowe, who also plays the lead role of Joshua Connor, has turned it into a turgid, laboured piece that relies on some pretty preposterous happenings to advance the narrative.

The nonsense starts early when we first meet Joshua, a farmer who engages in the scientifically unproven practice of water divining; using two wire rods to locate underground water supplies. This in itself isn’t a problem even if you question the validity of such a practice, but when Joshua arrives at Gallipoli, walks around in circles for a few seconds and then identifies the exact spot where his sons are buried, you can do nothing but shake your head and mutter ‘what the?’ Who needs the teams of soldiers on the site searching for the remains of Australian soldiers when good ol’ Joshua can feel it in his bones (no pun intended)? I found this whole sequence insulting to both those who lost their lives at Gallipoli and those undertaking the retrieval work. I don’t know whether constructing a more logical sequence of events through which the location of the bodies might be identified was beyond those involved or whether they genuinely believed that audiences would blindly accept something so contrived and somewhat comical, but an opportunity for great drama was most certainly missed.

Water Diviner 1

Whilst Crowe’s decision to include a roster of recognisable Australian actors in the various supporting roles (Dan Wyllie, Damon Herriman, Steve Bastoni, Ryan Corr, Jai Courtney and Megan Gale all feature to varying degrees) is admirable, the array of unconvincing accents is distracting. Furthermore, there are several characters that are completely unnecessary and offer nothing by way of advancing the narrative, such as Michael Dorman’s Greeves and Isabel Lucas’ Natalia. When we first meet both characters, it seems as though they might play a role of some significance in Joshua’s mission, but ultimately their presence serves no purpose whatsoever. It is the international performers who fare best here; Olga Kurylenko is endearing as Ayshe, the widow to whom Joshua is drawn, while Yilmaz Erdogan is very good indeed as Major Hasan, the Turkish soldier who helps Joshua in his quest. Young Aussie actor Dylan Georgiades is also fine as the rambunctious Orhan, but one of our great acting talents in Jacqueline McKenzie is criminally underused as Eliza.

Water Diviner 2

Whilst there are some good battle sequences set in the mud and blood of those famous trenches, their effectiveness is overshadowed by the lack of believability that surrounds so much of the film. Crowe is stilted as Joseph and his transition from grieving father to action man fleeing across the rooftops of Istanbul (or fending off a group of armed Greek soldiers with a cricket bat) makes it difficult to know exactly what kind of movie this is supposed to be. It certainly doesn’t take the opportunity to delve into the emotional aftermath of Gallipoli like it could and that is a shame. If only Crowe had been able to capture the essence of the story in a way that made us care about his journey, The Water Diviner would have been a much better film. If nothing else, perhaps this film demonstrates that there is more to being a good director than simply wanting to be one.

Light and Shadow

In this fantastic video, some of the world’s best cinematographers share their perspectives on the work they do and their artistic choices. It demonstrates the human element of movie making and the artistry that these people bring to each production. It also demonstrates the power of visual storytelling and provides rare access to the practitioners and practises of filmmaking that should serve as an inspiration for anybody with an interest in the motion picture arts.

It’s Top Ten Time Again

It is that time of year again when everybody becomes an instant expert and delivers their ‘Best Films of the Year’ list, whether we asked for it or not. In keeping with this long established, but ultimately meaningless, tradition, I too hereby proffer a list of what I believe are the best films of the year. Like just about everybody else who compiles such lists, I haven’t seen every film released this year (I’m certain that some of these people haven’t seen any more than the 10 films they have listed given some of their inclusions), so this list is drawn from the 78 movies that I have seen in cinemas in 2014 (regardless of when they were initially released).

Given that it is impossible to remember enough about every movie I have seen over the last 12 months to accurately evaluate and compare all of them, I am relying primarily on the reviews and ratings that I posted on Letterboxd in the days following each screening. Given that there will be many movies with the same or similar ratings, I am also, of course, taking into account the way in which a film has continued to resonate with me long after I saw it, which always suggests that there is something particularly prescient or powerful about a particular production.

Ultimately, my list cannot be any more or less ‘correct’ than anybody else’s (other than those who clearly have no idea what constitutes a good movie) because all such lists are, unfortunately to some extent, subjective (even though we should always strive for objectivity when evaluating anything). However, the reality is that there are some movies that are just so good that they simply cannot be overlooked or ignored by anybody who expects to be taken seriously in constructing such rankings.

The list should not necessarily be seen is being presented in any particular order as all of the films listed in this group of ten is outstanding and attempting to narrow the order into some kind of sequential evaluation of merit seems a little pointless. They are all excellent and they all deserve to be celebrated and admired. Of course, they are not the only great movies released this year and there are plenty more for which justification for inclusion could easily be mounted.

So, with the preamble out of the way, my Top Ten movies of 2014 (in no particular order) are:

Two Days, One Night
Gone Girl
Skeleton Twins
Broken Circle Breakdown
Dallas Buyer’s Club
Grand Budapest Hotel

Because compiling such a list is so difficult, perhaps more so for me because I tend to seek out the better movies and avoid the rubbish that floods the multiplexes, here is another ten fabulous films that could quite legitimately have made anybody’s ‘best of’ list for the year:

Charlie’s Country
Under the Skin
Inside Llewyn Davis
Still Life
We are the Best
The Lego Movie

On the local front, there were some great Australian films released this year, including Charlie’s Country, 52 Tuesdays and Predestination, all of which are as good as, if not significantly better, that so many other films that somehow secured much bigger audiences.

And the worst?

Fortunately, I didn’t see too many stinkers this year but the worst, by far, was the god awful Zac Efron-starring Are We Officially Dating? (released as That Awkward Moment elsewhere). The only saving grace for this utterly insipid film is the fact that I didn’t pay to see it. Other major disappointments were Transcendence, the nonsensical Noah, Bad Neighbours and a couple of Aussie flicks in Wolf Creek 2 and These Final Hours.

Overall though it was a very good year for quality films, particularly for those prepared to seek them out. Whilst it is frustrating that so many great films are hard to access due to very short theatrical runs or being restricted to only one screen, it is always a joy when you watch something truly special that reinforces all the reasons you love movies and, perhaps more importantly, reminds us why movies are so important.

Nightcrawler: The Taxi Driver Homage

by Branden Wittchen

Firstly I would like to apologise for this article being so late to the game. The movie press have been talking about Nightcrawler since October. Or even earlier for the ones who caught it at TIFF. Due to my current living situation (there’s only 1 cinema in town, which of course didn’t get the movie and the next cinema is over 1,000 km away) I have only, in the last few days, been able to catch Dan Gilroy’s fantastic feature film debut.

So what exactly does a 2014 dark, media satire film starring Jake Gyllenhaal have to do with Scorsese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver? Well if you’ve seen them both, or read the many reviews that have compared them, you would know that the answer is; actually a hell of a lot. While many reviewers have also likened Nightcrawler to another 1976 picture Network, and an alternative Scorsese-De Niro partnership in 1983’s The King of Comedy, it’s Taxi Driver with which Nightcrawler shares most of its DNA. Many have compared Nightcrawler’s main character Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) to Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), however I believe there is much more in common between the two movies. Even to the point to suggest that Nightcrawler may very well be an homage to Taxi Driver.

So let’s have a look at how much they have in common.

1. Infamous mirror scenes
In Taxi Driver we have the classic “Are you talking to me? Well I’m the only one here” dialogue in front of a mirror. The scene represents Bickle’s aloneness, and lack of mental stability. In Nightcrawler we are given Gyllenhaal’s breakdown in front his bathroom mirror. In frustration he screams at his reflection and breaks the mirror. The scene works to show us Lou’s temper hiding below the surface and the thin mental line that he walks. Both scenes work as a warning to bad things to come.

2. Deranged main characters
It goes without saying that Travis Bickle and Lou Bloom would both be interesting cases for psychology students to test their DSM knowledge on. Now it’s not uncommon for movies to contain mentally disturbed characters. But what isn’t common is to have them as the main character. Have the director put us in their frame of mind as much as they can, and not feature any scenes relating to them seeking help or getting better.

3. The cars
In Taxi Driver we have the black and yellow cab in which Travis spends his nights. In Nightcrawler we have the Dodge Challenger in which Lou Bloom spends his evenings. In Taxi Driver, this helped in establishing the New York setting, while Lou’s vehicle signifies his increasing wealth due to his success in his vile career. Regardless of the meaning behind the vehicles, a great deal of time in both movies is spent inside them with the main character behind the wheel.

4. Posters
Okay, now this one may be a bit of a stretch as filmmakers don’t necessarily have control over the marketing and the posters. The Nightcrawler poster also may have very well been produced after all the Taxi Driver comparisons arose. Either way there is no doubt that these two posters share a lot in common. In fact I doubt that the maker of the second poster could deny the influence of the Taxi Driver poster.

Taxi Driver-Nightcrawler

5. Night time
The majority of both films are set at night. Their jobs necessitate it and both main characters are insomniacs. The cinematographers of both films use night to their advantage in creating a dark, dirty, and exciting atmosphere.

6. Age of lead actors
This one may very well be coincidental. After all I’m sure age was not the biggest factor when it came to casting Gyllenhaal in the lead role. However when stacked up with all the other evidence it can’t be ignored that both Gyllenhaal and De Niro were 33 at the time of filming their respective roles.

7. Iconic…umm, fashion, for lack of a better word
Taxi Driver has the Vietnam jacket and the Mohawk. Nightcrawler has Lou Blooms slicked-back hair, Ray-ban style sunglasses and, of course, the watch he forcefully steals at the beginning of the film.

8. A “love” interest of an inappropriate age
Travis Bickle falls “in love” with teenage prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) and attempts to rescue her from her seedy career. Lou Bloom falls “in love” with a much older Nina (Rene Russo) and attempts to revive her career with his seedy camera work.

9. Bizarre date scene
Both films feature a bizarre date scene. In Nightcrawler Lou takes Nina to a Mexican restaurant where he black-mails her in to having a sexual relationship with him. In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle takes a campaign volunteer to a porn theatre as a date. It’s quite obvious in both movies that neither of the two women enjoyed their date.

10. Aloneness
Aloneness seems to be a central theme in the two movies. Both main characters are filmed several times in their apartments passing the time. This is either by watering the plants, talking to themselves in the mirror, watching TV, fabricating gun concealment devices or downloading and editing footage.

11. Diner Scene
Both movies feature awkward diner scenes. Lou interviews Rick (Riz Ahmed) for an internship position in a diner. The scene is quite an awkward exchange as Lou conducts the interview the only way he knows how – in strange cubicle business talk, as if he were looking for an employee for some sort of accounting or software firm, while in reality he will hire anyone (with a GPS enabled phone) willing to work for nearly nothing. Taxi Driver features an awkward exchange between Travis Bickle and Iris, also in a diner.

12. Nightcrawling Vs. moonlighting
At the beginning of Taxi Driver Travis Bickle is asked by his future employer if he is moonlighting, meaning to work a secondary job at night. Lou Bloom is informed that his night job, listening to police scanners, racing to scenes of violent crimes and accidents to film them and sell to news stations is called Nightcrawling. The two words are practically interchangeable as well as their connotations.

13. Vanquishing their foes
Travis Bickle makes enemies with Iris’ pimp played by Harvey Keitel. Lou Bloom makes enemies with another nightcrawler played by Bill Paxton. In one way or another they both kill their respective enemies.

14. Run-ins with the law
Travis Bickle becomes a person of interest to some secret service men. While Lou becomes a person of interest to detectives after some rather suspicious footage is shown on the news.

15. Awkward job interviews
Taxi Driver begins with an awkward job interview for a position as a cab driver while Nightcrawler features an awkward (sort of) job interview near the beginning of the film where Lou tries to sell himself to a construction manager to gain some full time work. The difference between the two though is that Lou is unsuccessful as the manager tells him he won’t hire a thief.

16. Both end with climactic shootouts
The climax of both films is shootouts near the very end. There is a distinction between the two. In Taxi Driver Bickle is one of the shooters, while Louis Bloom’s only form of shooting is with his camcorder. Either way, both shootouts serve as the most thrilling part and both are initiated by the main characters.

17. All ends well for the deranged main characters
In the end both main characters are hailed as heroes by the media. Let’s not get into the debate about whether the ending of Taxi Driver is Travis’ dying dream or not. The point is we are shown a thankyou letter from Iris’ parents and a newspaper clipping proclaiming Travis as a hero. Similarly Lou is rewarded by the media for his footage of the shootout, with financial rewards that he uses to expand his business. Essentially both movies end with the characters as heroes in their own eyes.

Now I will admit that some of these comparisons, if looked at in isolation, may be clutching at straws by a fan of both movies who’s seen Taxi Driver one too many times. However when looked at collectively, it seems doubtful that they are mere coincidences. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dan Gilroy is a fan of Scorcese’s work and very carefully studied Taxi Driver before writing his script. Nonetheless, I’m sure he would admit to it being an influence; and I’m sure that after re-watching Nightcrawler I will spot even more similarities.

I remember reading an article once featuring a guitar hero of mine, Zakk Wylde, famous for being Ozzy Osbournes guitarist and front man of Black Label Society. He stated in the interview that when writing songs or solos he always goes to what he calls the “guitar god Refidex”. Meaning he starts with a little Hendrix here, puts some Jimmy Page in there, adds some soulful bends a-la David Gilmour, and ends with some Van Halen shred. He believes that guitar playing is all about using what you’ve learned from your heroes and referencing them in your own work to then create something new. I believe that filmmakers do the same thing. I find that filmmakers and musicians are always fans of what has come before them. And if you pay close attention, you can spot these influences in their work.

St. Vincent

There are very few actors whose mere presence can make a bad film bearable and take something that is clichéd and predictable and elevate it into something eminently watchable or, dare I say, enjoyable. I mean even the considerable talents of Javier Bardem and Michael Fassbender couldn’t save The Counselor from being anything more than the cinematic equivalent of a steaming turd. Thankfully though, Bill Murray exists in this world and for that we should be eternally grateful. Murray has a remarkable ability to somehow meld absurdist humour with pathos and poignancy that, for reasons perhaps we will never understand, works without becoming trite or overly manipulative. Think Lost in Translation or Broken Flowers and you will have some understanding of what I am talking about. Whilst St. Vincent – the sophomore directorial effort from Theodore Melfi – is hardly laden with originality (then again, how many films these days can lay claim to being truly original), Murray’s performance as the stubborn, hedonistic Vincent strikes the perfect balance between angel and asshole.

St Vincent poster

Vincent is a bitter, belligerent, crass Vietnam Veteran who smokes, drinks, gambles and lives in a ramshackle house in suburban New York with only his cat Felix and weekly visits from pregnant Russian stripper-cum-prostitute Daka (Naomi Watts) for company. Much like Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino, but without the racist attitude, Vincent is a curmudgeonly loner who, at face value, is difficult to like. He drives while under the influence and then scams his new neighbour Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) into paying for the repairs to a fence that he damaged whilst doing so. Of course, as is the case any time a character such as this appears in a mainstream entertainment, there is always much more than meets the eye and this is very much the case here. To Melfi’s credit though, he doesn’t succumb to the temptation of transforming Vincent into somebody more affable. Too many times we see characters start out as something altogether unlikeable, only to have them undergo a 90-minute metamorphosis into somebody completely different. In this instance, Melfi – who also wrote the screenplay – has created a character who presents as complicated and cantankerous and, whilst we learn there is much more to him than meets the eye, he never morphs into a vision of peace and love.

St Vincent 3

It is Maggie’s young son Oliver (Jaiden Lieberher) who gives us access to Vincent and it is the relationship between the two that drive the narrative. When Oliver, having been bullied and beaten at school, arrives home sans phone and keys, he turns to Vincent for assistance. Seeing an opportunity to make some money (the need for which is revealed later), Vincent agrees to look after Oliver after school each day, provided he is paid accordingly. As is to be expected, the two develop a friendship of sorts as Vincent introduces the youngster to the less ‘respectable’ side of life with visits to the racetrack and his favourite bar. Needless to say, Maggie is not impressed but has little other option as she works extended hours in a bid to ward off a custody claim from her husband. There are hijinks and heartbreak in equal measure as we begin to understand exactly what drives Vincent’s disdain for the world around him; and it isn’t hard to sympathise with this plight.

St Vincent 2

Some will argue that St. Vincent is really just Bill Murray being, well, Bill Murray. Of course, the same could be said about the entire career of Charlie Chaplin, so it is hardly cause for complaint. Murray is good and it really is his performance, along with solid support from McCarthy and Lieberher that lift the film above others of its type. Chris O’Dowd also has a supporting role as that very rare of beasts; namely a Catholic school teacher who is open-minded and doesn’t take himself or his religion too seriously, with Terrence Howard also popping up as a bookie to whom Vincent is in debt. Usually so effective in everything she does, Watts grates as Daka, her Russian accent unconvincing and irritating to the point of distraction. That aside, St. Vincent is a bittersweet dramedy (yes, I know that’s not a real word) that bypasses that well-worn path to redemption, which is a welcome relief.

Men, Women and Children

This latest effort from Jason Reitman has certainly polarised critics and whilst Men, Women and Children isn’t a patch on Reitman’s best work, it certainly doesn’t warrant the scathing tirades that some have launched against it. Yes, the film is flawed, but there are some elements here that are both effective and insightful and there are some strong performances amongst the ensemble cast. Essentially, Men, Women and Children is an attempt to explore the nature of relationships – both new and old – and the impact that technology has on the way people connect and/or disconnect with each other. Through a series of interwoven narratives, the film is particularly focussed on the internet and the way in which it influences the way people behave and interact, and the potential ramifications from such interactions. Men Women and Children poster Yes, there are clichéd characters – Olivia Crocicchia as the not-as-slutty-as-she-would-like-everyone-to-believe Hannah for example – and others that are just ridiculous, such as Jennifer Garner’s overly over-protective mother Patricia Beltmeyer, a nonsensical construct that only serves to alienate and render that segment of the narrative as utterly infuriating. That is not to say there aren’t parents out there utilising tracking technology to monitor their children’s movements and online activities, but there is no context offered for Patricia’s extreme behaviour in this regard and Garner’s performance is devoid of any subtlety whatsoever. Conversely, as the other evil mother of the piece in Donna Clint, Judy Greer delivers a really balanced performance as a woman whose mistakes are driven by a desire to help her daughter procure the fame she so desperately craves; the realisation that things have gone too far almost coming too late. Whilst we may not agree with her actions, at least we are offered some insight into what has motivated her behaviour and Donna is therefore a much more rounded and sympathetic character. Meanwhile, J.K. Simmons is sadly underutilised in a small role as the father of Allison Doss (Elene Kampouris), a girl battling self-esteem issues and an eating disorder. Men Women and Children 2 So good in Short Term 12, Kaitlyn Dever is fabulous again here as Brandy, the teenage daughter who is a prisoner to her mother’s irrational fears and confined to a life of 24 hour surveillance. Her burgeoning relationship with Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort), the school football star who walks away from the game in search of something more meaningful, ultimately brings things to a head. Having been abandoned by his mother several months earlier, Tim has found solace in video games and Elgort is much less annoying than he was as cigarette-fondling cancer sufferer in The Spectacular Now. The other key narrative stream revolves around Don and Helen Truby (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt), a married couple whose marriage has stagnated. Don and his son Chris (Travis Tope) are both, unbeknownst to each other, hooked on porn, while Helen is simply looking for a sexual re-awakening. Whilst it is always good to see Sandler prepared to step outside his comfort zone, he doesn’t have much to do here other than masturbate a lot and contemplate the size of his cock. It is Dewitt who very much drives this narrative thread and she is fabulous as a woman desperate for some excitement in her life. It is the merest of facial expressions and the moments unspoken that offer insight into the gamut of emotions swirling within her conflicted state of mind. MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN Unfortunately, Reitman has abandoned the “show, don’t tell” ethos and relies too heavily on a pretentious voiceover by Emma Thompson to explain what is going on. There is very little exposition in this narration that couldn’t have been delivered in a more interesting way via the characters themselves. The point of the voiceover is hardly anything new; a reminder that Earth, the people on it and the myriad problems with which they are dealing every day, are utterly insignificant within the realm of the universe. This comes across as very condescending given the serious issues being faced by several of the characters; as if to say that any pain they may be suffering is ultimately irrelevant. In fact, given the nature of the subject matter, Reitman really needed to push the envelope a bit, instead of opting for an almost PG-like approach to the material. A long way adrift of Reitman’s best work (Juno and Up in the Air) this is certainly better than his turgid Labor Day and, whilst the likes of Crocicchia and Kampouris struggle to convince in their roles, there are some really good performances from Dever, Greer and DeWitt that bring substance to their characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves. When it works, Men, Women and Children is affecting and thought provoking; the problem is that these good moments are too few.

Galleries Galore

Over the last few weeks, Mr C Media has uploaded image galleries from various music events around Brisbane. To see all of the latest images, simply head to the Galleries page.

Galleries uploaded recently include:

Sahara Beck & Amy Shark at Black Bear Lodge

The Longplayer Sessions

Triffid Roots

City Sounds

For more images form these events, head to Mr C Media on Flickr.