10 Cloverfield Lane

For most of its running time, 10 Cloverfield Lane is everything you want from a psychological thriller; taught, tense and awash with ambiguity. It is unfortunate then that the last portion of the film is such a nonsensical descent into the monster malarkey that made Cloverfield ­so nauseating. In fact, this script from Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken – which was originally titled The Cellar – had absolutely no connection to anything remotely Cloverfield-related until producer J.J Abrams seized upon an opportunity to develop it as a pseudo-sequel to the 2008 stinker what was, quite inexplicably – a box office success. The final moments are the only real link (and a tenuous one at that) between this effort from first-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg and the Matt Reeves-helmed Cloverfield and it really does present as a tacked-on addition to a story that functioned perfectly well without it.

10 Cloverfield Lane poster

The cast of three are all excellent with John Goodman – too often confined to supporting roles – seizing upon the opportunity as a co-lead to deliver a performance of blustering intensity as Howard, a survivalist who has constructed an elaborate underground bunker within which he plans to see out a toxic infestation of the external atmosphere. Sharing what is a highly functional space – resplendent with living room, kitchen, toilet and enough food to last 10 years – are Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Emmet (John Gallagher Jnr), although their presence in the subterranean bunker have come about by altogether different sets of circumstances. We first meet Michelle above ground, having packed her belongings and hit the road to flee her boyfriend when she is involved in an accident, waking to find herself in a concrete cell, chained to a pipe.  Soon enough, Howard saunters in and explains to Michelle that he ‘rescued’ her, both from the accident scene and the greater peril that was now unfolding in the outside world. Emmet, on the other hand, is confined by choice, having helped Howard build the bunker and seemingly accepting his doomsday theories.

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Howard’s personality fluctuates from one of stone cold menace to moments of conviviality as the three settle into a routine of somewhat stilted domesticity. It is impossible for the audience to know how much of what Howard has claimed about the state of the world is true because the only events to which we are privy are those taking place in the bunker. Revelations for the characters and the audience occur simultaneously and whilst it is obvious that Howard’s intentions are not entirely honourable, there are moments along the way that suggest his claims about the state of the world might hold some weight. Of course, there are just as many that indicate he is nothing more than a raving loon. Either way, Michelle is determined to find out the truth and there are several contrivances thrown in to serve primarily as devices through which she becomes increasingly suspicious of Howard’s claims about the state of play in the world outside.

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Whilst comparisons with Room are inevitable, this is a different beast altogether and needs to be evaluated as such, particularly given the fact that both the captor and the captive are given equal weight here. Trachtenberg steers clear of the salacious and, if anything, Howard sees Michelle as a daughter-figure, a surrogate for the family whose absence is shrouded in mystery. Like Room, the effectiveness of a narrative in such a confined setting relies very much on the quality of the performances and they are all exemplary. With an imposing physical presence that perfectly complements the psychological equivocality of his character, Goodman is eerily effective in transitioning Howard from abominable to affable in the blink of an eye. Winstead (Scott Plilgrim vs The WorldKill the Messenger) is all elegant restraint, imbuing Michelle with a growing sense of slyness and subversion as she sets forth on a plan of escape, while Gallagher (Margaret, Short Term 12) is understated but highly effective as the slow-talking, naïve, but eminently likeable, Emmet.

Although we are kept guessing about what’s happening above ground, the interpersonal dynamics of these increasingly frazzled characters are so engaging that, after a while, you don’t really care what fate may have befallen the rest of the population, which makes the final 15 minutes or so such a huge disappointment. Intriguing and intimate, 10 Cloverfield Lane stands tall as a tense thriller, despoiled only by a dunderheaded final act that is a cynical attempt to cash in on whatever cultural cache the original Cloverfield may possess in the consciousness of multiplex audiences.

Bleach by the Beach

A selection of images from the Bleach Festival event at Burleigh Heads have been posted in the Gallery.

This free event was blessed with great weather, an enthusiastic crowd and a fabulous line-up of live music performances from the likes of Black Rabbit George, We All Want To, Sahara Beck and Ben Lee.

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To check out more photos from the event, click here.

 

 

Eye in the Sky

Humans have forever been finding new ways to kill each other and movies have forever documented the myriad ways in which humans kill each other. This latest effort from South African director Gavin Hood follows in such traditions, exploring the very latest in military tactics and technology that has been developed to make the taking of human lives as efficient and cost-effective as possible. Starring Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell, a British military officer overseeing a top secret drone operation in Kenya, Eye in the Sky examines the moral, political and personal implications of modern warfare.

Eye in the Sky poster

Much more a thriller than a typical war film, Eye in the Sky tracks the course of one day in the lives of those tasked with making decisions that often have devastating consequences. The various characters are located in different parts of the world and, with none of those making the decisions in any way at risk, this lends itself to an altogether different dynamic to the kill-or-be-killed combat model on which so many war films have drawn their narrative inspiration. As such, it might be argued that there is much moral ambiguity at play here and Hood does delve into the impact such missions have on those involved at the various levels of authority. What begins as a surveillance operation to capture members of the al-Shabaab terrorist group soon becomes a mission of extermination when it becomes apparent that the group is about to engage in a suicide bombing. Powell has no qualms at all about the possible loss of life beyond those being targeted in the attack, while others are not so steadfast in their resolve.

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Amongst those in the chain of command are Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman in his final on-screen role), the officer charged with securing the requisite approvals from the British Government; Steve Watts (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul), the drone pilot operating from an air force base in Las Vegas; and Jama (Barkhad Abdi from Captain Phillips) an operative on the ground in Kenya. Powell is desperate to push ahead with the bombing of the house in which the targets are ensconced, even when 9-year-old girl Alia (Aisha Takow) wanders into the immediate vicinity and will almost certainly be killed should the attack proceed. This is a movie which privileges dialogue over action, but there is still plenty of tension in the air as the bureaucracy kicks into gear, potentially putting the mission at risk. You see, nobody in the Government wants to approve the mission – largely because of the potential political implications rather than any particular moral objection. Furthermore, much to Powell’s chagrin, Watts is reluctant to unleash a missile while the girl remains at risk, although ultimately any emotional or ethical objections he may have must be cast aside if he is to complete the mission.

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Hood has been very economical in his telling of this story and there is no back story or personal anecdotes to clutter the narrative. It is all about what is happening now and we find out very little about the various characters beyond their role in the operation, which makes an early scene in which Benson sets out to purchase a doll for his granddaughter so out of step with the rest of the film. This is a blatant attempt to deride him as callous given his lack of concern for another girl of similar age whose mere existence causes all manner of inconvenience. As such, Hood’s perspective is clear, which isn’t really a problem given it is hard to imagine that anybody sees the death of innocent civilians (or collateral damage as it is dispassionately regarded in military circles) as something to celebrate. What the film does illustrate is just how people might be turned towards radicalism. After all, Alia’s parents are moderate Muslims who distance themselves from the radical elements and encourage their daughter to be educated and enjoy her childhood, yet they still find themselves in the firing line. A thought provoking, intelligent indictment of the sense of superiority – both militarily and morally – that the western alliance possesses, Eye in the Sky is perhaps Hood’s best film since 2005’s Tsotsi. With a terse and efficient screenplay by Guy Hibbert, editing that effortlessly switches the action between continents without any loss of narrative momentum or authenticity and with solid performances from the ensemble cast, which includes Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen and impressive English actress Phoebe Fox as Watts’ newbie co-pilot, Eye in the Sky is a remarkably suspenseful experience.

A Bigger Splash

There is certainly nothing subtle in this latest offering from Italian director Luca Guadgnino. Set on a picturesque Mediterranean island, A Bigger Splash is a steamy, sun-scorched thriller populated by a collection of narcissistic, insecure characters who are seemingly oblivious to just how good they’ve got it. The action takes place in a villa tucked away in the hills of Pantelleria, a secluded retreat for globally famous rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) and her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a documentary filmmaker. Marianne is recovering from throat surgery that renders her speechless and Paul is also a wounded soul – the details of which slowly emerge – but they seem blissfully happy in each other’s company, lolling naked on the rocks and fucking in the pool. However, their idyll is soon disrupted with the arrival of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a flamboyant, boorish, hyperactive record producer who also happens to be Marianne’s former flame. With is daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) in tow, Harry unleashes himself on the loved-up couple in more ways than one.

A Bigger Splash poster

Fiennes is magnificent in this role, his willingness to embrace the snide, self-absorbed Harry in all his obnoxious glory is a site to behold. Harry is an outlandish, portentous piece of work, a very unlikeable character with an ego that knows no bounds, but Fiennes somehow makes him a horribly magnetic creature. He is the kind of person you would hate to spend time with, but there is dark delight in watching others endure him. Harry is a man living in the past, churning out the same anecdotes that he’s been dining out on for years. A moment at the beginning of the film only becomes apparent as a metaphor when we see Harry trying to slither his way back into Marianne’s affections. There is potential for Marianne – and her condition – to come across as gimmicky but casting an actor as skilled as Swinton ensures that the character feels real (as much as possible in the rarefied world she inhabits). Johnson, on the other hand, is insipid as Penelope with no life in her character or her performance. She takes dull to extremes and her efforts at allure and seduction are so laughable that her presence only serves to undermine the efforts of her co-stars.

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Whilst the film is nostalgic at times (vinyl records, flashbacks to Marianne at the peak of her success), on more than one occasion Guadagnino uses the setting to touch on contemporary issues, such as the European migrant crisis. At one point, Penelope and Paul stumble across some new arrivals whilst hiking and we also glimpse the detention facility that sits adjacent to the police station in the local township. These touches ground the film very much in the present and also serve to emphasise the privilege that our protagonists enjoy. The biggest fault with the film lies in the fact that it continues beyond the most logical end point. When tragedy strikes, Guadagnino takes far too long to wrap things up and, as a result, the story lags, energy dissipates and new characters are introduced who are merely caricatures. In fact, there are several minor characters – such as two women Harry brings back to the house – whose presence is of little consequence and add nothing by way of narrative exposition.

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For most of its running time, A Bigger Splash is an engaging, entertaining study of a dysfunctional personality and those swept up in the full force of his self-absorbed bombast. When the growing tension finally reaches its climax, it is a little bit underwhelming and leads to a final half hour or so that plays out like an episode of any television police procedural, except that we already know who did what to whom. With good performances from Swinton, Fiennes and Schoenaerts, A Bigger Splash suffers primarily from a lack of ruthlessness in the editing room. Some scenes run too long and others could have been excised in their entirety without any significant impact on our understanding of the characters, their relationships with each other and/or the events that unfold in the course of the narrative.

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Hail, Caesar!

The principal narrative arc of this latest effort from Joel and Ethan Coen is a very slight story, buttressed by a series of incidental scenes that shoehorn myriad recognisable faces (and some less so) into various supporting roles, only some of whom have any connection to the kidnapping and ransom of Hollywood star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). The story itself is of little consequence really because this is the Coen Brothers delivering a satirical skewering of the so-called Golden Years of Hollywood; that time when the studios churned out screen content as though on a production line and controlled every aspect of the lives of the actors who featured in them. Set in post-war, pre-McCarthy Hollywood, the events of Hail, Caesar take place over the course of 24 hours as studio boss Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) struggles to meet the demands of his directors and stars, all the while trying to secure Whitlock’s return.

Hail Caesar poster

Whitlock’s kidnapping is plenty of fun in itself, but this story takes no longer than 30 minutes or so in its entirety, so the Coen’s pad things out with a series of on-set moments from the various films currently under production on the Capitol Pictures lot, most of which do nothing to advance the plot. They are a fun tribute to the types of films that defined this period of production; a western, a musical, a biblical epic. Whilst Hail, Caesar is a piss-take, the Coen’s are very reverent in their rendering of these movies-within-the-movie and these scenes – which include a homoerotic song and dance number from a group of sailors led by Channing Tatum and a Esther Williams-style swimming sequence featuring Scarlett Johansson – are captured in all their expertly choreographed glory by acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, Sicario and many more).

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Whitlock is a numbskull who doesn’t take anything seriously, including his own abduction at the hands of a group of disgruntled writers with communist leanings who call themselves The Future. With whispers circulating about Whitlock’s absence from the set, Mannix has to fend off the persistent pestering of Thora and Thessely Thacker, twin sisters who write gossip columns for rival publications and are both played by Tilda Swinton. Meanwhile, in another sub-plot with no bearing whatsoever on Whitlock’s fate, young cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is plucked to fill the lead in a drawing-room comedy directed by the prissy Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), whose frustrations with his clueless young star are hilariously played out. Frances McDormand is terrific in a brief scene as film editor C.C Calhoun, with the likes of Jonah Hill, Fisher Stevens, Christopher Lambert and Wayne Knight (Newman from Seinfeld) also featuring.

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Whilst Hail, Caesar works as a comedy, it is the insight it brings to the way movies were made at this period in history that makes it even more enjoyable for anybody with an interest in cinema. Sure, it’s a piece of fiction, but the trials and tribulations endured by Mannix – keeping the various egos in check, managing the budgets and logistics of multiple productions being filmed simultaneously on the studio sound stages, massaging the egos of the directors, controlling the public images of his contracted stars – don’t seem too far removed from the truth. It certainly isn’t a cohesive piece of filmmaking and it isn’t the best the Cohen Brothers have produced, but it is a harmless, haughty romp that draws good performances from a star-studded cast. It is a subtly effective performance from Brolin, who imbues Mannix with a perfect balance of no-nonsense gruffness and a deep affection for his job. The last few films from the Cohen’s have been much more serious affairs – A Serious Man, True Grit, Inside Llewyn Davis and it is good to see the duo return to comedy. Energetic and undeniably daft, Hail, Caesar is a beautifully crafted ode to old Hollywood.

Festival Season

Film fanatics in Brisbane and throughout regional Queensland have plenty of reasons to be excited with several festivals and special events scheduled across the state. Upcoming film festivals include:

Flickerfest

Celebrating 25 years in 2016 Australia’s leading Academy Awards-accredited short film festival is currently screening a program of selected Australian and international shorts throughout regional Queensland as part of their annual touring schedule. Having already exhibited in Brisbane and numerous other locations, Flickerfest visits Cairns this weekend (March 11 and 12), followed by stopovers in Maryborough (March 23) and Airlie Beach (April 8 and 9).

Flickerfest

For event information and ticket bookings, click here.

French Film Festival

The 2016 Alliance Francaise French Film Festival launches in Brisbane this Friday (March 11) with a program of 42 contemporary films featuring many of France’s most accomplished performers.  The festival, now in its 27th year, will also feature a newly restored version of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 classic Contempt and, for the first time, will showcase the very best of France’s premier television series.

AFFF

For more information, including screening schedules and ticketing, visit the festival website.

Gold Coast Film Festival

Celebrating all aspects of film culture, the 2016 Gold Coast Film Festival will feature 38 films from 15 countries as the 14th staging of the annual festival.  Running from March 31 to April 10, the GCFF will include six Australian premiere screenings, with another seven films showing for the first time in Queensland.

GCFF

There will also panel sessions, Q&A’s and special guests such as David Stratton, Claudia Karvan, Gracie Otto and Stephen Page. For tickets and festival information, click here.

Bunderground

A group of local legends have teamed up to create Bunderground, a celebration of films and filmmakers in the Bundaberg region. Whilst lacking the size and scope of the other festivals listed here, events such as the Bunderground Short Film Festival  provide local filmmakers with an opportunity to have their work seen by a wider audience. The inaugural Bunderground Short Film Festival will take place at the Moncrieff Theatre from 6.00pm on Thursday, March 24.

Bundergound

For more details, head to the festival Facebook page.