Is it a condition of getting older that you become just too refined in your tastes, too difficult to impress? Three recently released DVDS, all of which received great reviews and which I was looking forward to seeing, have proved disappointing. Then again, one that had a mediocre reception was a pleasant surprise.I watched these DVDs on my small, 32-centimetre TV screen. I find this is a pretty good test of a worthwhile movie. I’ve no doubt that I would have enjoyed all four movies more on a larger screen, but the smaller screen is good enough if the movie is.
Warning: all these mini-reviews contain spoilers.Martha Marcy May Marlene
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) flees a sinister commune in the rural Catskills and reunites with her older sister in Connecticut, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). She moves into the plush, sparkling vacation home of Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) and immediately disrupts their ordered lives. She behaves erratically, ignores social conventions and is overwhelmed by traumatic flashbacks. Conflict ensues as she challenges the materialistic lifestyle of the couple and Ted struggles to deal with her increasingly strange behaviour.
This is a psychological thriller in which almost everything works. As Martha herself has been seduced, so the flashbacks draw the viewer into the life of the commune as it is slowly and remorselessly revealed to be a dangerous cult; meanwhile, tension ramps up in the present as the cult members start to hunt Martha down. The viewer experiences her disorientation in scenes where it’s not immediately clear whether the communal farmhouse of the cult or the gleaming vacation home is the setting. Early family breakdown has clearly left Martha needy and vulnerable to the superficial warmth of the cult and the attentions of its charismatic leader, Patrick (John Hawkes).
The actors are all strong, Elizabeth Olsen as Martha most of all, although none of the characters is particularly likeable. There’s an implicit, cleverly subtle critique here of a certain sterility in the prosperous lives of the couple and their minimalist expressions of wealth, but the inverted morals of the cult are far ghastlier.What marred this movie for me was a central weakness in the plot: it’s clear from the beginning that Martha is psychiatrically disturbed, that she urgently needs to see a professional, but despite their wealth and sophistication, Lucy and Ted do nothing about this until it’s almost too late. Martha’s untreated post-traumatic stress disorder enables the entire story of the movie to unfold. I found myself irritated by what I felt was a weak plot device, although some viewers may find it plausible.
There was another irritation that I’m finding with many mainstream US movies these days. It wasn’t clear to me whether I was supposed to sympathise with Ted’s domineering impatience with Martha: I think he’s a complete tosser, but what was the film’s attitude towards him?Burning Man
This film shares a welcome characteristic with the previous one: a non-linear structure that melds the future with the present in a way that imitates the constant intrusions of memory. In one way, life is linear; in another, the past constantly gatecrashes the present.Tom (Matthew Goode) is a successful British chef in an upmarket restaurant in Sydney’s Bondi. But he’s exploding: driving like a maniac, engaging in compulsive sex with a series of women, getting into fights, deciding on a whim to sell the house in which he lives with his vulnerable young son, Oscar. Tom’s friends and colleagues are sympathetic and worried about his self-destructive trajectory, but all the viewer knows is that he’s a total pain in the ass. Through a back-and-forth chronology, a picture of the events that have led to this crisis emerges and we see a different, gentler Tom as the reasons for his meltdown are slowly revealed. In order to maintain his life with his son he must now try to reconcile with his painful past.
Acting out is always easier to portray than internalised distress, and here is acting out at its most colourful. Was it my feminism that spoilt the film for me, or the film’s lack of it? It reminded me of The Boys Are Back in the central character’s autobiographical insistence on his own heroism for simply having to put up with life’s blows; in the case of The Boys of Back, a whole film was built around a successful male journo forced into (shock, horror) the role of single parent. I hated Burning Man’s endless round of soggy women (with the exception of Rachel Griffiths as Miriam) whose sole role in the film was to get Tom back in touch with his ‘feminine’ (read: human) side. The entire narrative arc of the film, including behaviour so foolhardy it is life threatening but that we are supposed to applaud, relies on a male character’s inability to let himself have a good cry.Still, the film has compensations signalling writer-director Jonathan Teplistky’s talent. Visually arresting, surrealist images and high-octane, chaotic chronology dramatise the contrasts of life and death, fecundity and decay, as well as the extremes of emotional experience. Flying fruit, crashing vehicles, live lobsters, and the threats and lure of naked flame provide sensory overload. This is a film that revels in being a visual medium.
A team of oil drillers are left stranded in a freezing Alaskan snow blizzard when their plane crashes on the way home from an assignment. The survivors find themselves in the territory of a pack of ravenous grey wolves that almost immediately begin to pick them off. Wolf shooter John Ottway (Liam Neeson) demonstrates his survival skills and becomes the group's de facto leader, attempting to lead it to safety. The men work through their differences and bond with each other in the face of the ever-present danger of death as the ferocious wolves continue to circle; on this treacherous journey through squall, canyon and raging river, each man faces a personal battle for survival.This is the kind of film that is best viewed on a large screen. It’s a classic ‘man against nature’ story that purports to have a modern twist: a group of men testing their limits and redefining their manhood in a mercilessly freezing setting that mimics the final circle of hell. Filmed on location in British Columbia, it’s a model of chilly authenticity: if the actors look as if they’re about to freeze to death, that’s because they were.
The film’s lead actor provides a clue to its quality. Neeson has an authoritative naturalism, an unforced down-to-earth solidity that is totally believable on screen; yet like the equally talented Emily Blunt and Jude Law, he constantly trashes his own brand due to his spectacular unfussiness about the often rubbishy stuff he appears in. So my feelings were mixed from the start about this supposedly sophisticated take on modern masculinity. In the end it’s all a matter of expectations.There are no real surprises in terms of the conversation about masculinity. Neeson’s character is a real man because he respects the ruthless bloodthirstiness of nature and owns his fear of it. Owning your fear allows preparedness, which increases your chances of survival; nothing too revolutionary here, although most of the film is refreshingly free of overt misogyny. More interesting is The Grey’s endorsement of atheism, unusual for a mainstream US film: Ottway would like to believe in God, but can’t.
As the group flees the wolves, a classic plot pattern gradually emerges and this is where the film starts to get predictable and therefore disappointing: it becomes less involving as it builds towards its climax, instead of more so. The characters can't make up for this: Ottway is too elemental to be all that interesting, and is a male archetype rather than a flesh-and-blood person. The film tries hard to make us care about the other characters but doesn’t succeed. Nor can the wolves carry the film: they just aren’t frightening enough as a horror or thriller device.However, I’m not dismissing the film completely; it’s perfectly adequate as an old-fashioned adventure story. The Grey is superior to many action movies, and has an authenticity and narrative arc that most of them lack. It also lives up to its title: the backdrop is not only jaw-droppingly awe-inspiring, it imposes itself on the film as plot, a picturesque hell to be fought against to the death of man, wolf or both. Fans of action movies rather than thrillers will be much less disappointed than I was.
As soon as you label a film quirky these days, you condemn it to death. But quirky is good if it means unexpected, character-based and involving. The films of writer–director Shirley Barrett always have original elements and this one is no exception.South Solitary is a film that refuses to stick to the rules of genre. Its heroine is unconventional, but unconventionally so if you get my drift, so that her behaviour always surprises. The film is a kind of love story, but without the familiar tropes and baggage you’d expect from the genre.
It is 1928. Meredith Appleton (Miranda Otto) accompanies her bombastic uncle George Wadsworth (Barry Otto) to his posting as head lighthouse keeper on South Solitary, an isolated, craggy island in the Southern Ocean. There she plays what appears to be a familiar, subservient role as his housekeeper. Wadsworth immediately finds fault with the lighthouse watchman, Harry Stanley (Rohan Nichol), and his offsider, Jake Fleet (Marton Csokas), for their occasional failure to keep the lighthouse beam burning for the benefit of passing ships.
Meredith is at once dutiful and compassionate and needy and impulsive. She soon begins a flirtation with Harry, who has a family, but is also intrigued by Jake, a shell shocked ex-soldier beset by crippling spells in which he hallucinates traumatic wartime scenes.
It’s hard to separate the strengths of this film from its weaknesses. It has a wonderful period authenticity that fights against the clean, fancy-dress-costume feel of so many period dramas these days: drab colours and homespun woollens suggest an austerity that is at odds with the stereotypes of the Roaring Twenties. Filming was done on location at Cape Otway light station and Cape Nelson, and the fierce, unspoilt scenery of the island, its carrier pigeons, feral children and unrelenting winds, gives the film a raw appeal and distinctive beauty. Barrett researched the subject thoroughly, and the details of life on South Solitary, like the precarious supplies trolley that must be pushed up the steep mountainside, provide freshness and immediacy. The scenes shot within the lens of the narrow lighthouse are at once visually dramatic and claustrophobic.The two Ottos, father and daughter, are simply wonderful together, so perfectly in character that they’re faultless (Miranda Otto portrays a depth here that she doesn’t always have the chance to display).
But the film’s refusal to obey the rules of the genre also leads to some issues. There’s a sudden tragedy in the middle that leads to a dramatic plot reversal; it means that in the end the slow-burning love story doesn’t have quite the build-up it requires to earn the emotional power it strives towards. Nor is Jake’s character revealed sufficiently to make him desirable as a romantic object.Still, the film is so fresh and original, its details so lovingly sketched and its characters so – there’s that word again, quirky – that it surmounts these shortcomings. Definitely worth a watch.