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REVIEWS of film and stage

BEGINNERS      W/D: Mike Mills.


Plainly shot and naturalistically lit, this soft spoken essay on the difficulties and rewards of love starts slowly with Oliver (Ewan McGregor) unable to resolve his sadness following the death of his gay father, Hal, (Christopher Plummer). It blossoms in a world of feeling as Oliver’s problems with connection surface and must be dealt with through his complicated relationship with the strange and equally isolated actress, Anna (Mélanie Laurent).


The documentary style design, with flashback, voice over, montage, even a sub-titled Jack Russell terrier, Arthur, (ex-stray Cosmo) gives Oliver’s and his parent’s relationships context in the broader world over their lifetime. This imaginative and unusual documentary approach to a narrative film illustrates its autobiographical origins in the life of writer/director Mike Mills.


Performances are uniformly understated and wonderful all the way to the minor players. Even the dog brings a warmth and quirkiness to his character. Ewan McGregor’s leading man gives us the tumult beneath the taciturn surface of Oliver. Mélanie Laurent seethes with sex, hope and unhappiness, playing an international actress whose only home is an endless series of hotel rooms. Christopher Plummer, as an old man revelling in his true nature after a life of repression, and facing death with quiet disdain, fills the screen with dignified joy.


If you’re looking for an action packed adventure film with galloping narrative drive, this is not for you. But if you’ve loved and hoped and lost and found, I can recommend that you settle in to this movie for a deep quiet drink at the wellspring of human feeling.


* * * *

Martin Simpson 2011


NORWEGIAN WOOD            D: Tran Anh Hung.


Haruki Murakami’s novel begins in Proustian style with a forty year old man on a 747 who, on hearing the Beatles song of the title, is transported in memory back to his troubled youth of 1967. Less interestingly, the film starts straight into his youth with a voice-over narration, and so the person beside me in the cinema never realised the story was about youth filtered through the lens of experience. In the film the melancholic backward gaze at an unalterable past was confusable for a present narrative, so the passivity of the central character took on a duller meaning.


I was bored for the first part of this glacially paced film. An inscrutable young man flirts and dates at university with little obvious emotional connection to the women in his life. His rival in love suicides for unclear reasons. His handsome and amoral hostel room-mate lives a parallel existence while slowly destroying the only woman who truly cares for him.


But then, when the action moved outside Tokyo to a windswept landscape of damp grass and empty hills, and the woman he is falling in love with began her decline, an extraordinary thing happened to me. I fell into a trance. The long camera-takes in the wide landscape carried me deeper and deeper into the magic world of young love and fumbling passion at its most disturbing. The beauty of wind and snow and trees and grass began to weave a spell that took me too back to a yesterday when love changed from an easy game to play to something far more confusing and painful. Answers to tantalizing questions of eros and death became emotionally clearer and more moving, and at the abrupt end, after more than two hours in that world, as I sat in the theatre and came to my senses, I felt something deep and real had been experienced. 


This is cinema.




BIUTIFUL                                    D: A. G. INARRITU

Strong stuff indeed. At last, a mature film for adults. In this brilliant epic of the human heart, a father’s love for his children, his yearning relationship with his damaged wife, his struggle against the inevitable, all are carried with solid determination by an endlessly watchable Javier Bardem.  Love, death, and the paradoxes and ironies of the human condition were never more beautifully shown than in this gritty sprawling tale of uneasy moralities.

Set in Barcelona’s most ethnically diverse neighbourhood, the film carries the watcher into a multicultural world of human smells, skins, textures, and contradictions. Wonderful acting by characters close to their fictional roles brings incredible verisimilitude to the world of this film. Spain, Catalonia, China, and mother Africa fuse in the cauldron of these characters’ hopes and longings.

Diaryatou Daff, a Senegalese non–actor, brings her seemingly peripheral character to its proper place on centre stage with a performance of nuanced depth that anchors the film in positivity.

Maricel Alvarez, a popular Argentinian performer, never before seen on the screen, plays Bardem’s bipolar wife with a brittle and glittering intensity that intertwines her strange beauty and her impossibility to relate in a tour de force of  love and madness.

Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella play Bardem and Alvarez’s children with a combination of strength and wounded vulnerability that triggers all the viewer’s protective urges.

This film takes us into a Barcelona far from the tourist images we’ve seen before. The streets reflect the characters’ harsh lives, brutal and raw, but in their elemental drive to nourish and sustain, they are truly Biutiful.

Before I entered the cinema I learned it was two and a half hours long.  I took my seat apprehensive.  I worried I was in for an overlong trial by numb bum. But within a minute, a whispered history of love and death between father and daughter had me absorbed. A snow bound tale of owls and men had me intrigued. A dead boy’s confession in the mouth of our  protagonist had me sitting to attention. The world around me disappeared, and by story’s end I emerged from the cinema stunned, moved and uplifted. Best film I’ve seen in a long time.



INCEPTION                                               D: Chris Nolan


A dream within a dream within a dream… Hang on. What was that? Slow down! But you can’t. Your mind’s been hijacked and you’re on a plane to redemption as Inception carries you on its relentless roller coaster of the mind.

In Memento, Christopher Nolan took us backwards through time, now he drags us on a journey down, across, and through the subconscious of it’s dream weaving protagonist, Dom Cobb, spinning and swirling and exploding cities, as he attempts to find release from guilt and a murder charge over his wife’s death, by taking one last job to plant an idea in the mind of the heir to a financial empire.

Before we reach the ‘Rosebud’ moment of our young business mogul we must traverse an action packed dream-scape, pursued by armies of machine gun toting security forces, from sunny Paris to a snow encrusted bunker in some frozen waste.

I loved the mind-bending story, the grumpy performance from De Caprio and the ensemble perfection of the rest of a very able cast, and was satisfied with the cool denouement.

At well over two hours, though, I felt there was room to shorten the repetitive single shooter video game that went on and on and on in the second act. I mean I’ve had dreams and never had one shootout. I know I’m not American in a gun-raddled culture, and I’m over fifteen years old, but wasn’t there room for a few different dream defenses? Maybe a monster worm or a giant chicken – yeah okay I’m weird – but anything would have done other than the endless gun-battles which dulled for me what was an otherwise brilliantly conceived movie.

Like reading Playboy for the articles, seeing Inception for the intellectual challenge is self delusion. In this thinking person’s action thriller, the excitement is visceral and the suspense palpable. No thought required for full enjoyment. Well worth a look.


ALICE IN WONDERLAND                   2010 D: Tim Burton


Start with a dash of runaway bride from 1991’s ‘Robin Hood’, mash up the ‘Wonderland’ and ‘Looking Glass’ stories extracting all whimsy and charm, stir in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and a bit of Joan of Arc, and boil until bland. Garnish with the end of  ‘My Brilliant Career’, and allow to go completely cold.

I so wanted to love this movie. I certainly don’t mind a good mash-up of an old tale and looked forward to an older, more nuanced Alice. I enjoyed the beginning, marvelled at the design and effects and chased along after the galumphing story for quite some time until slowly my seat hardened under me and my 3D glasses began pressing on my nose and questions like, ‘If she’s older, and we’re in Hollywood mode, why is there no romance with Johnny Depp?’ and ‘shouldn’t she have fencing lessons?’ became more interesting than the reluctant warrior in drag storyline. It was a bit like Avatar on mushrooms, except Avatar had passion and romance.

And if this was indeed a girl-power story where Alice fights against the patriarchal narrative thrust and throws over Nigel No-chin for a seat on the board of the family company, a la Elizabeth Murdoch, where were these issues addressed in the fight the jabberwocky Boy’s Own adventure in the middle?  I mean, she saves the kingdom of the White Queen with her swordsmanship, then abandons her new friends to go and become Daddy’s helper in the colonial oppression of China? Feminist writing truly has become surreal.

So fill up the glasses with treacle and ink,

And turn off completely your ability to think,

Mix sand with the cider and pull the wool over your eye,

And farewell Burton’s Alice with a moan and a sigh.

 (apologies to Lewis Carroll)



written by Martin McDonagh

Sydney Theatre Company production 2010

Starring Judi Farr, Mandy McElhinney, Darren Gilshenan, Eeamon Farren.

Darkly funny, heart rendingly tragic, this play had me on the edge of my seat throughout.

Trapped by rain and hopelessness in the kitchen of her demanding old mother, Maureen's sense of family duty is turning her into an old maid. When hope arises in the person of Ray Dooley, Maureen goes for it and has it within her grasp. Her mother Mag, desperate to hang on to her daughter, burns Ray's letter asking Maureen to join him in America, triggering a destructive climax to both their lives.

With elements of Hitchcock, the Coen Brothers, and Irish poetry, this is a moving exploration of dependence and resentment. The language is eloquent and darkly humerous, the theme close to the heart of every family, the tension tight as piano wire.

Wonderful acting from the principals drew the audience deep into the experience of the protagonists. As well as laughter at the wry humour, there were gasps and stifled cries from the auditorium at the high drama.

Congratulations to everyone involved in this production. From sound design to sets, from lighting to the brilliant actors, all conspired to make this a theatre-going event of the first quality.