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20/20 Filmsight - Film Criticism by David O'Connell

Film Criticism by David O'Connell

I'm a Sydney-based film reviewer that loves to review local screenings and film festivals. Want me to cover your event? Email me at cibbuano ~AT~ orble ~DOT~ com.

Maps to the Stars

December 17th 2014 03:33

Over the decades, there have been as many films depicting the rise of fall of Hollywood dreamers and schemers as there are stars in the night sky. David Cronenberg’s latest, written by Bruce Wagner, is an effective addition to the canon with its caustically satirical tale of intersecting lives, the professional and personal cost of aging, the morality forgone to progress another rung on the ladder of recognition, and the sacrifice of soul and dignity as some wilfully lower themselves into a morass of unwholesome compromises. It wouldn’t be an authentically spiced up Tinseltown satire without a slew of mentally unhinged individuals added to the mix either. Wagner’s themes, then, are simplified, generalised ones but potent too.

When we first encounter her, the star of Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is inexorably fading but – spurred on by the kind of motivation that could fill an opportunistic psychiatrist’s next text for the masses - she’d love nothing more than to portray her own dead mother in an upcoming biopic. As well as being haunted by a young version of her deceased mother, Havana has a pathological fear of her younger rivals, the ghosts of which are exorcised by spiritual guru Stafford Weiss (John Cusack). Stafford himself doesn’t exactly have a bed of roses to fall back on domestically, with an unhinged, fretful wife, Christina (Olivia Williams), and a vile, famous actor son Benjie (Evan Bird). Much of Christina’s stress stems from worry that their daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), recently let out of an institution, will return to their lives with some kind of twisted retribution in mind. Meanwhile Agatha – via new Twitter friend Carrie Fisher - has secured a job as Havana’s new assistant, whilst simultaneously finding time to win over limo driver, Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), an aspiring actor and filmmaker.

Wagner’s creations, naturally, are a ghastly, unsympathetic bunch - narcissistic, ego-bound, morally vacuous, mentally unstable monsters whose behaviour and motivations serve as satirical exemplifications of the kind of at-all-costs, survivalist mind-set historically wrought by a disturbing subservience to fame and excess. No one escapes the wrath - from the major participants, trying to stay ahead of the game – often clinging to or enraptured by new methodologies, trends, and plastic surgery – to the smallest bit players selling their bodies and spirits in the filthy margins as they await the faintest sliver of opportunity to come their way.

Wagner’s screenplay has consistency issues but the strength of some key performances goes a long way to eliciting those pleasurable shudders of incomprehension at the depths of depravity on show here. Moore, surely now one of the finest actresses of her generation, gives yet another remarkable turn as the heinous Havana: lost, haunted, deluded and vindictive, she’s a classic fading star, clutching at straws to hold her ground in an industry attempting to sweep her under the carpet.

Wasikowska as her unstable, physically and mentally wounded new assistant, carries with her a whiff of dangerous potential, whilst Bird as the repulsive young star somehow makes Benjie semi-sympathetic with a performance beyond his years. The rest of cast, including Pattinson and Cusack are solid. The only sub-par work comes from Williams as the jittery Christina; severe overacting means her character’s anxiety is never tempered and mostly feels ludicrously overwrought. Maps to the Stars (2014) takes aim at some very familiar dysfunctional characters and mostly hits its intended targets. Certainly, it’s far from top-line Cronenberg, though it perhaps feels like a return to form – what wouldn’t? - after the ill-conceived disaster of Cosmopolis (2012).



December 10th 2014 03:36

Venal opportunists and those with an insatiable desire to see news deliver without graphic detailing excised: are these possible fractured reflections of ourselves? Writer-director Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014) is certainly not heading onto untrammelled turf though what it lacks in originality it makes up for in terms of performance and execution. The film ventures deep into the psyche of the creepy, undernourished and vampiric Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young man attempting to get a foot in somebody – anybody’s – door to make a start. Then he inadvertently stumbles upon a car wreck during the graveyard hours. A lone cameraman (Bill Paxton) pounces on the scene, snapping shots in close and when the resultant images hit that night’s headlines, a new set of cogs in Lou’s head begins to turn. Could this be his true calling, culling images from horror crime scenes for the nightly news?

Gilroy’s screenplay appeals to the voyeur in us all: who doesn’t crave a dose of misery to enhance our perception that there’s always somebody in the world worse off than us? In allowing these fears to manifest in the form of Bloom, Gilroy asks uncomfortable questions about our own culpability in shaping the tone and direction of the nightly news. There’s another dimension to Bloom’s growing reputation – one forged through sheer force of will as he extracts horror and rams it down the throat of the lowest rating network’s desperate honcho, Nina Romina (Rene Russo); in the flashing headlines he imagines all kinds of possibilities, including the chanced to bed Nina in a move that betrays his general ineptness, lack of fortune or both with the opposite sex. Gilroy skimps on background details for Bloom so we’re left to extrapolate from the fully-formed being seen at the start of the film.

What we do know is that he’s a slick talker in the face of danger, able to swap one condescending façade for another. But there’s a darkness that hems him in and it’s no surprise when he begins to slither across perceptible moral boundaries. In a role for which he lost significant weight to provide Bloom with his unhealthy pallor, Gyllenhaal shines, perhaps even topping his weighty contribution as the obsessed detective on the case in Denis Villeneauve’s Prisoners (2013).

The acerbic black streak of humour that informs the compelling Nightcrawler never sees it toppling into ludicrous terrain. This is chiefly down to its star who is ably counterbalanced by Russo, acting for her husband Gilroy in what is a rare recent screen appearance. With a deft touch for creating complexity, she has us believing in the subsistence of Nina’s quandary. A craving to keep her job compels her but need that necessarily entail upping the ante by whatever means necessary? Journalism, exploitative, informative, or both, is not the only victim here, with Bloom’s final manipulation of the pawns to contrive the 'truth' representing a mind-numbing, soul-destroying final roll of the dice and the declarative statement of Gilroy’s social commentary.


20,000 Days on Earth

December 5th 2014 03:40

A rock documentary of a unique persuasion, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s film delves into the psyche of Nick Cave, both the man and the artist. These duel intertwined identities are forever in search of moments of illuminating transformation through plumbing the creative gifts at his disposal. For aficionados of this enigmatic Australian - amongst whose number I count myself – 20,000 Days on Earth (2014) is a magical experience in its own right. Through it we’re allowed a glimpse into the working process of the man, and though we see him at work, what’s most compelling are the internal mechanisms that drive him to keep striving to add to his legacy through the self-knowledge that feeds a solidifying creative evolution.

Refreshingly, there’s little that's traditional about this hybrid film. Hovering over everything - from Cave plundering his archive for rich, varied and trite treasures that signpost his development through the phases of his artistic growth - is his own riveting, insightful narration. These often poetic ruminations take on many guises but all point to a deeper understanding of what makes Cave tick. His reflections run the gamut, from the paths taken and not taken, the countless sources of inspiration, his earliest formative memories of growing up in country Victoria, the sensory-rich allure of his home in Brighton, England, his father’s instructive first reading of Nabokov’s Lolita – collectively these form a complex but cohesive profile of the fluctuating versions of the artist hinted at in his narrative-driven song writing.

There’s visual beauty in the exacting, reformed perspectives of Cave’s past as measured through his own unrelenting hindsight; luxury in the openness of the artist at work and having his back catalogue of memories gently surveyed by a ‘therapist’. And above all, reward in the reveries too that laminate the surface of this beautifully conceived film with the promise of truth and lies commingling in the dark as a greater subservience to an abundant and indefatigable muse is obeyed.

20,000 Days on Earth is now out on DVD through Madman.


Force Majeure

December 1st 2014 04:58


November 18th 2014 03:10

Two Days, One Night

November 11th 2014 06:48


November 11th 2014 05:11


October 29th 2014 03:37


October 22nd 2014 05:11

Gone Girl

October 21st 2014 04:27

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