Film reviews Music

Sydney Film Festival review: Pulp, A Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets (d. Florian Harbicht, 2014)

It’s a bold gambit opening the film with live footage of Common People, voted the best song of the 90s by NME. But it’s also the logical starting point, being the ultimate distillation of the band’s ability to take real angst and venom and blow it up into something anthemic and communal. The very next scene sees bandleader Jarvis Cocker changing a tire on a car in a tired looking street. In a low-angle shot, Cocker’s gangly frame fills the screen. This clash of triumphant celebration and ordinariness is the heart of the film, and the heart of Pulp’s enduring appeal.

This isn’t just a film about Pulp, though, it’s about the city that spawned them and how they fit into it. Sheffield is seen as a place where it’s always overcast and the highest praise anyone doles out is “it’s alright”. Yet it has its charm. Bomar, a musician seen sitting on the side of a canal in a fur coat, tells of how he once left his hometown for London, only to be mugged twice in a day and find himself sitting in a puddle screaming about his squalid new surrounds. He got a bus back to Sheffield, where a friend nursed him back to health with booze and a Pulp CD on a pub’s PA. In Sheffield you still get mugged, he explains, but at least here you usually know the person mugging you.

Director Florian Harbicht and company must have talked to some people that didn’t come out with absolute gold, but none of them have made the final cut, a lean 90 minutes. There are brilliant vox pops with unfailingly eccentric Sheffield residents, footage of fans congregating on the steps of their farewell shindig, people sweeping up confetti at the end of the show, the tour manager corralling the band and Cocker organising medicines and ointments for the various ailments of his aging bandmates. Here, the mundane and the logistical are just as essential as the soul-stirring. Pulp… is a film that centres around a triumphant farewell show but isn’t dominated by it. Better than most music films, it acutely understands that the band themselves are only a small part of something greater than the sum of its parts.

Book reviews Film reviews

Book Review: The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Sietz (2013)

Unfairly maligned by some as a grown man playing with dolls houses, this makes the case for Anderson as a distinctive filmmaker of depth and genius, one whose vision of adult life as painful and chaotic is cloaked in meticulously curated detail. Featuring admiring though insightful interviews with Anderson and a wealth of storyboards, artwork and preparatory material for all his films (including last year’s brilliant Moonrise Kingdom, bittersweet gem The Royal Tennenbaums and the still bracingly strange Rushmore), this is one of the most visually sumptuous and satisfying books about film in years. Michael Chabon adds a typically stylish and smart foreword.

Film reviews

Favourite Films of 2013


Death Metal Angola

Frances Ha

The Spectacular Now

Before Midnight


For Those In Peril


The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Drinking Buddies

The Punk Singer

The Past

The Way, Way Back

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Silver Linings Playbook


Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

You Make Me Feel So Young

The Hunt

This is The End

The Place Beyond The Pines

Honourable mention: Mistaken for Strangers

Film reviews

Film Review – Patrick (2013)

Do you like horror films? Australian director Mark Hartley obviously does. His infectious, gleeful enthusiasm for his popular if sometimes critically reviled genre of horror makes this a blood-soaked treat for like-minded fans.  Having previously explored the rich if somewhat forgotten back catalogues of Australian exploitation cinema horror in his excellent doco Not Quite Hollywood, he takes the next logical step here, remaking Richard Franklin’s 1978 cult favourite B-movie.

The tagline of the original also serves as a neat plot summary: ‘He’s in a coma…yet, he can kill!’ He is Patrick, a patient who somehow maintains his excellent condition while those around him waste away in a vegetative state in a creepy, isolated hospital. When a young nurse makes a ghoulish discovery that leads to her grisly end, the bright young Kathy ‘Jac’ Jacquard (Sharni Vinson) is recruited to the facility, which is overseen by Dr. Roget (Charles Dance) and his dead-eyed daughter, Matron Cassidy (Rachel Griffiths).

Jac has just broken up with her boyfriend Ed (Damon Gameau) and is seeking a clean break. She soon finds an ally in the spirited Nurse Williams (Peta Sergeant), who fills her in on the shady happenings in the facility, a dimly lit Gothic hellhole. She takes a special interest in Patrick, who Dr Roget has adopted as his special project, administering electro-shock therapy and other techniques not prescribed in any medical journal.

Alarmed at the bizarre experiments and freaked out that the comatose Patrick seems to be able to communicate with her, Jac confides in Brian (Martin Crewes), a former doctor and writer who advises her to report Dr Roget to the authorities and get out of town. But this wouldn’t be a horror film if its hero took the safe option, and as Ed arrives in town to reconcile with Jac, he too gets drawn into the escalating terror wreaked by malevolent forces at the hospital.

Patrick rattles through genre tropes (creaky elevator shafts, dirty-looking syringes, zombie-like patients wandering blackened corridors, moments of silence shattered by a pounding at the door) with an expert’s assurance and a fan’s relish. This is a film that knows exactly what it is, and that recognises that some things are cliches for a reason.

Vinson, last seen in You’re Next (a more nasty and realist film than Patrick) makes for a plucky heroine, while it’s a shame Sergeant’s character fades into the background somewhat as Jac delves further into Patrick’s story. Their performances form part of an impressive film seemingly destined for cultish devotion. While Patrick may not convince the unconverted, horror fans will lap up every minute of its lean, gore-splattered running time.

Film reviews

Film Review – Thanks For Sharing (2013)

Genuine medical condition or convenient excuse for bad behaviour? Sex addiction has become a controversial affliction, but Thanks for Sharing comes firmly down on the former side of the argument. The directorial debut of Stuart Blumberg, who also co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Kids Are All Right, explores the travails of a number of sufferers linked by their attendance at a sex addicts support group.

The youngest member of the group is Neil (Josh Gad), who ruins his promising career as an emergency room doctor when he is caught filming up the skirt of his supervisor. After he appears in court on sexual harassment charges, he is directed to attend the support group for his addiction, where he meets the slick, charismatic Adam (Mark Ruffalo) and the group’s de facto leader, the somewhat smug Mike (Tim Robbins), a middle-aged man who has battled multiple addictions and come out the other side with a beatific demeanour and a gentle cynicism.

Low on self-esteem and fond of lying and defensive wise-cracking, Neil initially struggles to complete the work prescribed by the group, but is forced to confront the truth of his situation when he is adopted as something of a mentor to a new recruit to the group, the self-destructive Dede (Pink, credited as Alecia Moore). Meanwhile, Adam starts seeing the driven Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow), but is reluctant to reveal his past after she tells him her last relationship disintegrated because her ex was an alcoholic. Adam seeks guidance on this new development from Mike, whose estranged son Danny (Patrick Fugit), is suddenly back in town. Danny has battled a drug addiction but views the group therapy with suspicion and even hostility, leading to an uneasy truce with Mike, who suspects his son may not be as rehabilitated as he claims.

Not everything in Thanks for Sharing works — a subplot involving Adam’s ex-girlfriend Becky (Emily Meade) is a melodramatic misfire. It also has a curiously dated look and an often daggy sense of humour at odds with the potentially edgy material. Yet there’s much to admire here, including the strong central storyline and the committed performances. Josh Gad, recently the only good thing in the disastrous Jobs, is again terrific, while pop star Moore is an absolute revelation, bringing both a convincing toughness and a poignant vulnerability to the role of Dede.

While Thanks for Sharing doesn’t shy away from the potentially life-wrecking consequences of its characters compulsions (a scene where Mark Ruffalo fights his urges in a hotel room is particularly effective), ultimately this is a much softer film than the similarly themed Shame. That’s not a failing however; more a reflection that Blumberg’s film is just as interested in the makeshift community that forms amongst the addicts as the often harrowing details of their addictions.


Film reviews

Film Review – Blue Jasmine (2013)

We’re first introduced to Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), an unpleasant socialite who’s fallen on hard times, as she talks the ear off a poor woman on a plane to San Francisco, her fellow passenger having made the mistake of interrupting a monologue she was having with herself. It’s a fitting introduction to Woody Allen’s claustrophobic new drama, which follows Jasmine to San Francisco, where she hopes to start afresh after her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), is exposed as a fraudster and adulterer.

An unrepentant snob with a haughty bearing and a wardrobe full of designer clothes, Jasmine finds herself at odds with her adopted sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), whom she plans to stay with until she is back on her feet. Jasmine had little time for Ginger when she was living high on the hog in Manhattan and finds herself appalled at Ginger’s working-class lifestyle and new boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a mechanic.

Still clinging to her old luxurious lifestyle and increasingly embracing delusion, Jasmine finds she is so cut off from the modern world that she needs basic computer classes before she can even think about her lofty ambitions to train as a designer.

The story flashes back and forth between Jasmine’s glamorous New York life of polo matches and Hamptons holidays and her later comeuppance in California. Along the way, Ginger and ex-boyfriend Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) make a rare visit to New York, where Jasmine suggests Hal can invest money for Ginger and Augie. The flashbacks find Jasmine in wilfully ignorant bliss, raising the question of whether she should have taken more of an interest in his staggering accumulation of wealth.

There are definite echoes of Blanchett’s tour de force performance in A Streetcar Named Desire here, with Chili a kind of hot-blooded Stanley to Jasmine’s pretentious Blanche Dubois figure. As in the Tennessee Williams classic, the arrival of a down-on-her-luck heroine strains the relationship of her reluctant hosts, and Hawkins is terrific as the long-suffering Ginger.

The performances make up for the shortcomings in a script which is surprisingly slight at times, lacking for something new to say about the Bernie Madoff-like figure of Hal and his downfall. Still, the prickly figure of Jasmine, a character who is by turns contemptible and pitiful, washing Xanax down with vodka as she endlessly recounts stories from better times, is perfectly realised, and Blanchett’s compelling work lights up one of Woody Allen’s darkest films.

Film reviews

Film Review – Alan Partridge (Alpha Papa) (2013)

Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) is a man with such a proficient ability to inject even the most banal of situations with toe-curling awkwardness that it borders on being a talent. A much-loved character that fans have followed over a range of TV series, specials, radio plays and his I, Partridge autobiography, this latest instalment (and the first big-screen outing for the character) is an unusually high-concept affair which makes the most of its delicious conceit.

Having schemed desperately (but unsuccessfully) for his old TV hosting job, Partridge is still clinging onto his local celebrity status, revelling in the  soul-crushingly inane show where he tackle questions such as “What’s the worst kind of monger? Fish, Rumour, Iron or War?”.

When the station is taken over by a corporation intent on rebranding the backwater North Norfolk Digital as a vibrant youth station, he barely survives the cull. The upheaval sees the ageing Pat (Colm Meaney) axed, a decision he responds to by returning to a station party with a gun and taking the staff hostage. By dumb luck, Alan finds himself outside the station as the siege begins, and as the only one Pat trusts, he finds himself pushed into being the go-between between Pat and the police tasked with ending the siege. Simultaneously fearful and puffed up with importance, he soon starts to think that being the face of the siege (or “siege face” in his words) could be just the tonic his forever ailing career needs.

Among those trapped at the station are the hapless Sidekick Simon (the hilarious Tim Key) and Angela (Monica Dolan), a co-worker so socially inept and desperate that she seems a plausible love interest for Alan. It also wouldn’t be a Partridge show without Alan’s long-suffering assistant Lynn (Felicity Montagu), who is on hand to massage Alan’s fragile ego and generally be bossed around and underappreciated.

It’s interesting to see how the character of Partridge has softened over the years. Initially a misanthropic buffoon with the soul of a parking station, Partridge now seems completely eccentric and devoid of self-awareness but an essentially sympathetic figure who you actually cheer for as he finds himself in way over his head.

The lighter tone hasn’t led to a lack of laughs though — whether singing along to Roachford, back-announcing his soft rock favourites with baffling non-sequiturs, losing his trousers while managing to lock himself out of the under-siege building or completely misjudging every single conversation he enters, the painfully funny Partridge remains exhibit A in the argument for Coogan’s status as a comic genius.

While the pitch-perfect slice-of-life series Mid-Morning Matters with Alan Partridge remains the high water mark of the now sprawling Partridge oeuvre, Alpha Papa is a beautifully written and performed work, likely to delight both long-term fans and introduce a broader audience to one of British comedy’s most inspired creations.

Originally appeared in: Concrete Playground

Film reviews

Film Review – What Maisie Knew (2013)

Pint-sized Maisie (Onata Aprile) has a skewed view of adult life, with slammed doors and whispered rows as much a part of her world as playmates and puzzles. Her parents are Beale (Steve Coogan), a globe-trotting, supercilious art dealer and Susanna (Julianne Moore), a rock star who fails to notice how heavily she is flirting with cliche as a rock star with panda eyes, messy hair and ever-present cigarettes. Their marriage has dissolved into open hostility as Susanna locks Beale out of their luxurious Manhattan apartment. They next meet at divorce court, where both seek full custody of Maisie.

The court instead orders joint custody in allotments of ten days for each parent, starting a heart-sinking cycle where both parents fail to keep up with their responsibility to pass the child onto the other, meaning the wide-eyed Maisie is left at school, in a bar, in the lobby of the apartments. Beale quickly ups the stakes, marrying Maisie’s somewhat timid but well-meaning nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) and setting up house with her.

Fuelled by spite, Susanna retaliates with a marriage of convenience of her own, quickly wedding Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a naive bartender who soon develops a bond with Maisie. Both parents continue to throw emotional barbs at each other through their daughter, but as they both start spending more time out of the city for work, Maisie ends up increasingly left in the care of either Margo or Lincoln, or sometimes both.

Told entirely from the point of view of the neglected Maisie, this is a fragmented story made up of overheard snippets of conversation, claim and counterclaim. Completely convincing and beautifully nuanced, it becomes an involving affair, all the more effective for taking an unconventional route to your heartstrings and generally eschewing the kind of histrionics or easy sentimentality that could have come with this territory.

Based on Henry James’ 1897 novel of the same name, the story has been seamlessly moved from the 19th century to the present and from London to New York, suggesting there is something essentially timeless at the heart of this story.

Despite the presence of a quartet of first rate actors who nail all the details of their respective roles, the narrative’s exclusive focus on the child’s perspective of events means What Maisie Knew has to live or die on the performance of Aprile, who was aged just six at the time of filming. Thankfully her performance never hits a false note. Acting as the tale’s unlikely moral centre, she is remarkable as a child who maintains her essential goodness in the face of deplorable neglect and selfishness.


Film reviews

Film Review – The Way Way Back (2013)

Some movies have a moment where they just click and you instinctively know the filmmakers know what they’re doing. In The Way, Way Back that moment comes when the painfully awkward Duncan (Liam James) is being driven to the beach house where he will spend the summer and he locks eyes with Owen (Sam Rockwell). The low-key but undeniable chemistry in that scene is a hallmark of a film which gets all the small details right.

Having been told he’s a “three out of ten” by Trent (Steve Carell), a passive-aggressive jerk who is dating his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), Duncan plans to keep a low profile during his holiday. But any chance of a quiet summer is soon scuppered by nosy neighbour Betty (Allison Janney), who plots to have Duncan become friends with her long-suffering son Peter (River Alexander), who she torments because of his lazy eye. It’s Betty’s daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) who can sympathise with Duncan though, and they form a faltering friendship as the adults leave them to their own devices.

As Susanna observes, the beachside community is “like spring break for adults” and while Trent and Pam make merry with Trent’s friends, the introverted Duncan goes exploring on a a bike and ends up seeking refuge at Water Wizz, the slightly rundown but much-loved local water park managed by perpetual adolescent Owen. Seeing something in the earnest teen that nobody else sees, Owen decides to give Duncan a job as a dogsbody at the park, bringing him into a group of misfits that includes Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), who is growing irked at Owen’s irresponsible ways and Lewis (Jim Rash), a sad sack who continually threatens to quit the park to pursue his dreams of being a storm chaser but never quite manages to leave.

The Way Way Back‘s story of a shy teen finding his place in the world over the course of a long, hot summer is by now a well-worn coming-of-age narrative, but this always feels more comfortable than cliched. The seaside small town with its endless beach parties and beer-soaked barbecues is lovingly evoked. The performances from an ensemble cast are uniformly topnotch, though it is Sam Rockwell who steals every scene as the sweet, funny and unexpectedly wise Owen.

Writer-directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon previously collaborated on the Oscar-winning The Descendants and have again struck gold, fashioning a wryly funny and nicely understated script which leaves the actors plenty to do. A big-hearted, bittersweet look at the pleasures and pains of growing up, and the compromises of adulthood, this is perfectly realised and way, way charming.

Originally appeared in: Concrete Playground

Film reviews

Film Review – Step Up To The Plate (2012)

As the sun sets on his acclaimed career as a chef, Michel Bras reflects on how important the role has been to him. Much more than just a job, it has been an all-consuming passion, a never-ending quest for culinary perfection. This gentle French documentary charts his slow withdrawal from his fabled restaurant set in a beautiful rural location and the lessons he passes on to his capable son Sebastian.

Favouring long, lingering shots capturing the meticulous preparation of their dishes, this is a reflective, slow-burning affair, focusing its attention on the pair’s almost painterly compositions, with tiny splashes of flavour, edible flowers and miniature cuts of herbs and vegetables all part of their palette. Their food draws on countless hours of perfectionist obsession to detail, but also the warmth of childhood memories and a deep love for preparing food with care and artistry.

Gorgeously shot, Step Up To The Plate achieves a similarly calm, almost meditative mood that this year’s other great foodie portrait Jiro Dreams of Sushi pulled off. On one level, this works as an up close and personal look at life in the rarefied surrounds of an elite French fine diner, but there is something more universal and poignant at play here. It’s the story of a man finding his niche and devoting himself to something completely and, ultimately, about the bittersweet experience of having to let it all go.

Originally appeared in: Broadsheet