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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.


November 18th 2014 03:10

Over the course of numerous films, both as a writer (2001’s Training Day and 2002’s Dark Blue) and director (2008’s Street Kings and 2012’s End of Watch), David Ayer’s long obsession has been with law enforcement and the moral boundaries traversed by men on both sides of the dividing blue line. For his latest, Fury (2014), he slips into new shoes to explore a world in which utter chaos reigns, where the only law is that of the jungle, a place where death and atrocity outstrip breathing. In the vein of Samuel Maoz’s admittedly superior Lebanon (2009) Ayer ventures into the suffocating confines of a tank advancing through German terrain in the final throes of war in 1945. Led by 'Wardaddy' (Brad Pitt) they're a resolute but not especially sympathetic quartet after having lost a key component. There’s the religiously devout 'Bible' (Shia LaBeouf), an American marked by his ethnicity, 'Gordo' (Michael Pena), and the generally heedless redneck capable of one or two quiet, illuminating moments beyond his blathering gung-ho outrage, 'Coon-Ass' (Jon Bernthal). Collectively they bristle when presented with their newest crew member, the youthful, misplaced pencil pusher Norman (Logan Lerman).

Ayer’s use of the youngest man’s perspective is hardly ground-breaking. In fact it’s a long-established cliché’, utilising naivety and innocence as a means of gauging the scale of corruption as the horror of combat is filtered through youthful eyes. It’s the imagery rather than the dialogue that carries the greatest emotional heft. Ayer’s screenplay strives for profound reflection in throwaway lines and observations, mostly from Norman and Wardaddy’s perspective, but they mostly feel stagey and self-conscious. It’s the rawness and graphic totality that seeps into our consciousness, from a vague impression of a corpse being pressed deeper into the mud beneath the tank’s progress to limbs shot off and the glazed indifference of visages wallowing in an unforgiving stasis, hardened into thousand yard stares. Pitt’s Wardaddy is a man of conviction, a natural leader and we’re never in doubt of his ability to motivate his men. Lerman’s Norman is initially feeble and utterly unprepared for war games but his transformation plays out with equal conviction.

Ultimately, are there any fresh insights to be gleaned from Fury? Like the majority of war films, it’s undoubtedly an anti-war film with the futility of death juxtaposed - often artfully, poignantly and provocatively - against the shimmering refrains of man’s survival instinct. The film also offers another spit and polish of the precious notion of American heroism. It's gripping enough with a slew of action set-pieces impressively handled by Ayer, whilst Steven Price's score, sombre and elegaic, occasionally strays upon a less subtle register in its need to vindicate the emotional weight of Ayer's images.

A stopover in a small German town unfortunately provides an awful twenty minute respite however. Here, having conquered the Germans, Wardaddy with the ready-to-be-initiated Norman at his heels, ventures into the remnants of a building. They find two cowering, pretty young women who are forced to feed and sexually service their captors. Soon the men's silently mocking comrades stumble upon their spoils, adding even less veracity - if that's possible - to what is a cartoonish, poorly written scene of simulated domesticity. The entire sequence reeks of artificiality and provides the only real dud note in an otherwise accomplished if not quite outstanding war drama.


Two Days, One Night

November 11th 2014 06:48

The Dardenne brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, have made a remarkable contribution to world cinema. And a remarkably consistent one too, their modest tales of modern life incorporating an immersive naturalism that subtly and powerfully flushes out uncomfortable truths about the human condition. Their use of non- or little known actors has always grounded their work in an anonymous, steadfastly maintained depiction of reality. This modus operandi was skewered somewhat with their previous film, The Kid with a Bike (2011), in which, for the first time, they utilised an established actor in Cecile de France for a major role.

For their latest, they've gone searching even further up the pecking order in France for a lead, settling on Oscar winner Marion Cotillard. She plays Sandra, a factory worker who’s been made expendable and will lose her job unless her co-workers decide against accepting a bonus. Having recently returned to the workforce after a debilitating battle with depression, times are tough for her and husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione). They have two kids and will struggle to make ends meet without her income.

Thus begins a weekend of Sandra searching out each of her co-workers in turn and asking if they will forgo the extra pay boost to save her livelihood. Reluctantly she trudges around the city, hoping to convince a majority to side with her. Her plight is one we can easily empathise with; foremost is the pride she’ll have to sacrifice in effectively begging to her friends for compassion. In their typically sparse, pared back style, the Dardenne’s shine a light on the dignity and strength of the human spirit in overcoming universally relatable, everyday turmoil. But this time around a fundamentally flawed structure causes a malaise to settle over proceedings. We still care for what happens to Sandra but it’s a less than riveting path we must take to reach an outcome.

It almost pains me to say this as a diehard devotee of the Dardenne’s work, but Two Days One Night (2014) is mundane to the point of tediousness. This essentially repetitive tale is grindingly dull, with nary a spark of variety to distinguish one visit from another. Characterisations are thin to non-existent, whilst to break the monotony the Dardenne’s have fabricated a few encounters which trade in a form of commodity – the cheap contrivance - that is virtually absent from all their past work. Here a few moments stand out like beacons in striking some very misjudged notes: a suicide attempt, a co-worker who breaks out into spontaneous tears upon hearing Sandra’s request voiced, and a father and son’s disagreement about which side of the fence they sit on which sparks a moment of absurd violence that’s almost comical in its desperate need to spice the narrative up. None of these moments are believable – a statement hardly applicable to anything in the Dardenne’s back catalogue. Two Days, One Night is still worth a look but this is easily the weakest film of the brothers' storied careers.



November 11th 2014 05:11

With the world slowly decaying, a secluded scientific community must look to the stars for a Hail Mary solution. When a former pilot, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) stumbles upon their location, they have the man to lead their tiny, speculative expedition into the oblivion of space to locate a wormhole through which another crew passed and disappeared years earlier. Tortured by his need to decide - does humanity or his family take precedence? – Coop is clearly swayed by one too many viewings of Michael’s Bay Armageddon (1998). Hoping to top Bruce Willis but somehow survive, he reluctantly parts with his futile earthly devotions. Especially hurt is his young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) with whom he shares a special bond.

The strengths of Christopher Nolan’s new film, conceived with his brother Jonathan, are its ability to regularly provide scenes of epic scale. A range of set-pieces ensure that as a spectacle, Interstellar (2014) at least initially lives up to the lofty expectations placed on Nolan as one of the few big budget filmmakers capable of transcending the usual limited reaches of the cineplexes. With its echoes of Kubrick and Cuaron, the film regularly attains spectacular heights. But sadly the further it progresses, the more it becomes riddled with nonsensical elements. That they’re interwoven in a way suggesting a tapestry of ideas straining to form a cohesive narrative thread makes it all the more disappointing that none of it actually makes much sense.

Thankfully, even as it all goes haywire, Hans Zimmer does his utmost to retain the sense of scale in musical terms. His score features a remarkable diversity and so little of it sounds like him – a feat not to be understated from an artist who, even in his most memorably creative moments, struggles to forge a musical identity not easily discernible or unrelated to chunks of his now formidable body of work. As with Inception (2011), Nolan has inspired the composer to new heights with his music for the suspenseful set-pieces two thirds of the way into the film surely close to the best scored scenes of his career.

It’s hard to avoid some level of criticism of Nolan as a director of actors. Though the resurgent McConaughey and always classy Jessica Chastain as the adult Murph are the anchors, there are some decidedly mediocre turns in the supporting cast. Anne Hathaway, as fine an actress as she can be, feels strangely out of place and miscast here as a key crewmember, whilst another voyager David Gyasi as Romilly feels plucked from another, lesser film altogether. Then there’s Michael Caine who, after his first couple of scenes, is simply awful as Hathaway’s increasingly frail father. The older his character becomes, the worse Caine’s performance gets – his attempt at playing a fragile old manipulator finally edges over into acute embarrassment in the final scenes. Matt Damon pops up midway in a limited role that also sadly deteriorates into a ham-fisted cliché.

Interstellar, despite its outlandish length, is never boring, however it's a tragedy that the randomly assembled, raggedy final act ends up sabotaging the film’s credibility. The lengthy, soppy coda also taints our final impression - it feels utterly extraneous and full of sad implications in allowing a door to remain ajar for an obligatory sequel. For a standard Hollywood ‘epic’ these days, I suppose we can’t expect anything less.



October 29th 2014 03:37


October 22nd 2014 05:11

Gone Girl

October 21st 2014 04:27

Advanced Style

October 1st 2014 04:26

The Equaliser

September 24th 2014 01:38


September 17th 2014 05:00

The Grandmaster

September 3rd 2014 04:36

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