An Unstill Life

An Unstill Life
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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

T is for The Turning

Australia,  2013
Running Time: 178 minutes






("Small Mercies")

(segment "Boner McPharlin's Moll")


("Damaged Goods")

(segment "The Turning")


("On Her Knees")



("Big World")

("Ash Wednesday")

("Long, Clear View")

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, Rose Byrne, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto, Susie Porter
Cinematography: Denson Baker, John Brawley, Stefan Duscio, Robert Humphreys, Jeremy Rouse, Miles Rowland, Warwick Thornton

Tim Winton’s bestselling book of seventeen short stories is not something most people would see as being an obvious choice for adapting to the big screen.  Robert Connolly is not most people, and he has gathered together an enviable list of Australian cinema talent to put together this compilation film.

Each of the seventeen stories has been made into a short film by a different director, and the result is, as you might expect, mixed.  The book, set mainly on the Western Australian coast, is populated by damaged people.  Alcoholism runs through the stories, as does abuse of both women and children.  But there are also undercurrents of hope and salvation and spiritual awakening that will pull the desperate characters out of the world they currently wallow in.  The tone of the film follows that of the book – melancholy and yearning.

As with most compilations, not all offerings are equal.  Ones that stood out especially for me were Sand, in which two brothers engage in a dangerous game on the beach while the adults fish, oblivious to how easily they could have lost a son, and On Her Knees in which a cleaning woman deals with being wrongfully dismissed with uncanny dignity and passes a valuable lesson on to her son.  I also very much enjoyed the experimental dance piece, Immunity, and the title story, The Turning, in which an abused wife living in a trailer park has her life turned around by befriending a born-again Christian.

The collection is a veritable who’s who of Australian talent both established and up-and-coming.  While the three-hour running time is intimidating, for the most part, the stories are so engrossing, you barely notice the time ticking by.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

S is for Stories We Tell

Canada, 2012
Running Time: 108 minutes
Cast: Michael Polley, Harry Gulkin, Susy Buchan, John Buchan, Mark Polley, Joanna Polley, Sarah Polley
Director: Sarah Polley
Screenplay: Sarah Polley
Cinematography:  Iris Ng

I have been a huge fan of Sarah Polley’s ever since I first saw her luminous presence in Atom Egoyan’s films of the late 1990s.  Since then she has become a writer and director to be reckoned with, and this touching, personal documentary shows her growth and maturity as a filmmaker.

The subject of this documentary is Sarah’s mother, the sometimes-actress Diane Polley.  Diane died of cancer when Sarah, the youngest of a brood of siblings, was just eleven.  Through interviews with her father, siblings, family friends and actors who worked with her, Polley assembles a portrait of her mother.  Her father also reads from a poignant memoir he wrote about the marriage, and is a surprisingly good sport when it comes to taking direction from his daughter.

As she delves deeper into her subject, revelations come to light that would knock another filmmaker for a loop and possibly even discourage them from completing the project.  Polley doesn’t abandon her film, and the result is a fascinating portrait of a capricious woman, but more importantly, a treatise on the subjectivity of memory.

While this is a very personal film, the actress never takes center stage.  The film is firmly about Diane and the role she plays in the memories and narratives of other peoples’ lives.  And how different these stories are is startling.  Never before has the infallibility of memory been so ably evoked on screen.

Monday, April 21, 2014

R is for Rock of Ages

USA 2012
Running Time: 123 minutes
Cast: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Director: Adam Shankman
Screenplay: Justin Theroux, Allan Loeb & Chris D’Arenzo
Cinematography: Bojan Bazelli

Rock of Ages is a cinematic adaptation of a Broadway show, much like Shankman’s previous outing, Hairspray.  It’s set in the gaudy ‘80s and the whole film is just like the decade it’s set in: shiny, bombastic, utterly lacking in any real substance, but kind of fun anyway.

The story is simple: smalltown girl heads for the bright lights of LA, meets boy who shares her dream and falls in love.  There are inevitable complications, but everyone lives happily ever after.  The film is set around a rock club called the Bourbon.  It’s struggling and the mayor’s wife, an evangelical Christian (played with scenery chomping gusto by Catherine Zeta-Jones), is determined to shut it down.  It’s up to eccentric rocker Stacee Jaxx to save the club and keep rock music on the strip.

Tom Cruise really steals the show as the debauched Jaxx.  Part Axl Rose, part his own portrayal of the Vampire Lestat, Jaxx is creepily sexy and his chemistry with the tightly laced Rolling Stone reporter trying to interview him is incredible.

It’s a shame then, that there is so little chemistry between the two young leads.  Both have good singing voices, but their performances are shallow and unconvincing.  Even Russell Brand (who I despise) manages to shine in comparison to these two.  In fact, the pair are so forgettable, when looking back at the film, I barely remember any scene they were in.

Shame, because despite its over the top nature, this is a fun film.  There are no surprises (well, maybe one involving Alec Baldwin’s character, but I won’t spoil it), nothing challenging and it finishes exactly the way you knew it would from the first scene.  Yet it is enjoyable, and if, like me, you grew up in the eighties, you’ll know every song and be able to sing along.

I can’t recommend it as a great piece of cinema, but as a guilty pleasure, you probably couldn’t do better than this one.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Q is for The Quiet Earth


New Zealand, 1985
Running Length: 91 minutes
Cast: Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge, Pete Smith, Anzac Wallace, Norman Fletcher
Director:  Geoff Murphy
Screenplay: Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence & Sam Pillsbury from the novel by Craig Harrison
Cinematography: James Bartle

Here’s one from the way, way back... A New Zealand film I remember seeing when I was probably no more than 12.  Yet I remember it.  Probably because it’s an absolute knock-out performance by Bruno Lawrence.

The film opens with Bruno, as Zac Hobson, waking up with one hell of a hangover.  It comes to light that he’d actually been trying to commit suicide, and what he’s waking up from is an overdose of pills, not a hard night on the town.  He’s not entirely with it, so it takes a while for him to realize that he is all alone in the world.  There are no people or even animals around.

It’s not until he arrives at the laboratory where he works and finds the dead body of his project director that the truth begins to sink in. He uses a dictaphone to announce his discovery: a malfunction in the project he was working on has resulted in a massive electrical wave that has either killed the entire population of earth or thrown them into another dimension. 

Zac realizes he is alone.

The first half of the film explores Zac’s solitude and the way it drives him slowly mad - he winds up in a pink petticoat running around a football field.  Once other people show up (it turns out that if you were dying at the moment the pulse hit, you survived), they try to overcome their myriad differences to work together.  Zac’s scientific mind figures out that the pulse that destroyed the world may happen again soon, and if they manage to destroy the equipment in the lab, they may be able to save what’s left of the earth.

There are many flaws to this film.  Firstly, the most interesting parts of the film are the ones where Lawrence thinks he’s alone in the world.  His portrayal of a man alone, with no one watching, is unique and fascinating to watch.  Once the other people show up (and why, given so many people die every minute, are there only two?) the story becomes much more predictable.

Until the ending.  I won’t give it away, but I think the ending is why this story has stuck with me for almost 30 years.  It may be hard to find, but if you can, I urge you to seek out a copy of The Quiet Earth and give it whirl.  The effects will look terrible by today’s standards, but good acting is just good acting.

Friday, April 18, 2014

P is for Philomena


UK,  2013
Running Length: 98 minutes
Cast:  Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenplay:  Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan

The subject matter of Philomena may lead some to believe they’re heading for a gruelling couple of hours.  This could not be further from the truth.

Dench plays the titular Philomena, a woman who survived years of servitude in a Magdalene convent after giving birth out of wedlock. Fifty years later, a chance meeting between Philomena’s daughter and newly disgraced political aide, Martin Sixsmith leads the pair on a journey to find the son Philomena lost so long ago.

Sixsmith is initially unexcited by the idea of investigating what he considers a fluff piece, but after meeting Philomena, something about her honesty and wit intrigues him.  And once he starts researching her story, he becomes more and more excited about what he finds out about the child.  The paper-chase leads them to the US where they are faced with some shocking revelations.

The joy of this film is in the way the viewer takes the journey alongside Sixsmith and Philomena.  They are a mismatched pair, he a lapsed Catholic who embraces his atheism with as much fervour as Philomena still embraces her Catholicsm.  He’s cynical and world-weary while Philomena finds such things as a breakfast buffet novel and exciting.

There are clear villains in the nuns who foil the pair at every turn.  They initially tell them that all the convent’s records were destroyed in a fire, but it soon becomes clear that what they’re hiding is far more sinister.  Babies were sold to families in the USA for large sums of money, including one sold to film star Jane Russell.  I won’t go into detail about what happened to Philomena’s son here because it would ruin the story for you, but it is both poignant and startling.

Dench gives a thoroughly natural and nuance performance as Philomena.  She’s damaged, witty, tragic and upbeat all at the same time as being an utterly radiant presence on screen.  Steve Coogan is a worthy foil too.  I’ve never liked him as an actor, but in this film I could almost warm to him.

While often desperately sad, you will not leave the theatre feeling depressed.  Philomena has enough wit and charm to undercut the heavier moments, not depriving them of their depth and meaning, but offering levity and hope for the future.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

O is for Outsourced


USA 2006
Running Length: 110 minutes
Cast: Josh Hamilton, Ayesha Dharker, Larry Pine, Matt Smith, Asif Barasa
Director:  John Jeffcoat
Screenplay: George Wing & John Jeffcoat
Cinematography: Teodoro Maniaci

Outsourced is a sweet, light comedy about cultural differences. Todd is the Seattle based manger of a call centre selling novelty goods.  One day he is told that the entire department is being outsourced.  The good news is that Todd can keep his job.  The bad news is that he must travel to India to train his replacement and get the new call centre up to scratch.  Todd is not thrilled to be going to India, but the prospect of unemployment is even less thrilling, so he goes.

Initially Todd finds it difficult to adjust to Indian society, but with the help Puro, the man he is training, and Asha, with whom he forms an intimate relationship, he begins to acclimatise.  Asha is engaged to be married to a man she was promised to at the age of four, so there is no future in Todd’s relationship with her despite their mutual attraction.

Lighthearted, yet with enough truth below the surface to keep it from being trite, Outsourced is a feel good comedy with a conscience.  It does not ignore the impact of outsourcing and downsizing, but finds new ways and angles from which to address the issue.  

Jessa Russo's book is out today!  Make sure you check out Divide soon.  I just started it on my Kindle, and so far, it's awesome!

Isn't that gorgeous?

And the book doesn't sound bad either!

From senior class president to dejected social outcast, with just the flick of a match.
After accusations of torching her ex-boyfriend’s home are followed by the mysterious poisoning of her ex-best friend, seventeen-year-old Holland Briggs assumes her life is over. And it is. But not in the way she thinks.
As Holland learns the truth about her cursed fate—that she is descended from the Beast most have only ever heard of in fairytales—she unites with an unlikely ally, good-looking newcomer Mick Stevenson. 
Mick knows more about Holland’s twisted history than she does, and enlightening as it is to learn about, his suggestion for a cure is unsettling at best. Holland must fall in love with Mick in order to break the spell, and save their future generations from repeating her cursed fate. Having sworn off love after the betrayals of her ex-boyfriend and ex-best friend, this may be difficult to accomplish. 
Complicating things further for Holland and Mick, time runs out, and Holland’s change begins way before schedule. With Holland quickly morphing into a dangerous mythical creature, Mick struggles to save her. 
Should they fail, Holland will be lost to the beast inside her forever.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

N is for No Country for Old Men

USA, 2007
Running Length: 129 minutes
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly McDonald
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel & Ethan Coen
Cinematography: Roger Deakins

Based on the relentlessly bleak novel by Cormac McCarthy, the latest from the Coen brothers is a definite return to form after their lackluster re-imagining of The Ladykillers.  It is a faithful adaptation yet the Coens manage to find black humour even in this harshly downbeat crime saga.

While out hunting Llewellyn Moss stumbles upon a gruesome scene.  Dead bodies, heroin and cash are strewn across the desert floor.  Foolishly Llewellyn decides to take the cash.  He knows it is foolish and that very bad men will come after him, yet does it anyway. Sure enough it is not long before he is pursued by the psychopathic Anton Chigurth.  Also watching him is local Sheriff Ed Tom who has spotted him on his return to the crime scene.

Given that this is essentially a three man game of cat and mouse, an amazing amount of carnage builds up. Those who have not read the book will be shocked and thrilled by what comes on screen, while those who have will be delighted to see the novel done such cinematic justice.  Regular Coen collaborator Roger Deakins shoots the unforgiving landscape with precise framing, making great use of the wide expanses and natural light.  Visually and aurally this film is a masterpiece and for the Coens a very welcome return to their roots.