Strangerland – The Salty Popcorn Review

Please give a big welcome back to What Movie This Week’s Aussie pals Salty Popcorn, bringing you the best of Australian cinema.  Salty Popcorn’s editor, Jason King, takes a look at Strangerland, his hot tip for best Aussie movie of 2015. Fingers crossed it’ll wing its way over to Blighty before too long…

Strangerland_General_poster_A4poster-724x1024New to the remote Australian desert town of Nathgari, the Parker family is thrown into crisis when Catherine (Nicole Kidman) and Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) discover that their two teenage kids, Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) and Lily (Maddison Brown), have mysteriously disappeared just before a massive dust storm hits the town. With Nathgari now eerily smothered in red dust and darkness, the locals join the search led by local cop David Rae (Hugo Weaving). With temperatures rising, and the chances of survival plummeting with each passing day, Catherine and Matthew find themselves pushed to the brink as they struggle to survive the uncertainty of their children’s fate.

The film is spectacular, hands down I do believe this will be my favourite Australian movie of 2015 and comes across as this year’s THE ROVER. It is easily one of Kidman’s best performances from an incredible career and she eats the screen in this one. Also her and Weaving act together is a perfect fit, two actors who not only know each other so well but are so comfortable acting together it is almost natural.

Dealing with grief is a terrible thing to go through, dealing with that grief with the knowledge that your children may or may not be dead and you don’t know where they are, and you can’t do anything is enough to drive anyone insane. In a small town in the middle of the desert when you know there is a survival clock is beyond horrendous. I don’t want to imagine.

For the Parkers, it is incredibly difficult, they moved to Nathgari for the sole purpose of getting away from attention. Attention brought about by their daughter, a truly promiscuous teenager who is bored in this small town and longs for attention. Lily is her mother’s daughter. Catherine needs attention, she is lonely, her husband has withdrawn away from her and they were never right for each other. In Nathgari she is bored, and depressed, and she lacks little in the way of feelings. Lily is basically the same but going through her late teen years. Tommy is younger, the most grounded and least affected by their family situation and someone adapting better but slower, but he also has his own issue and night-wanders through the town.

The film presents as a murder/ disappearance mystery/ psychological thriller, in a small town there can only be a few suspects and the entire town is affected by this tragedy.

As I said earlier Kidman’s performance is just sublime, she appears more comfortable away from the Hollywood studios. Weaving is always amazing and his small town cop, thoroughly enjoyable. I did not like Fiennes or his character and am uncertain if this is due to his bad casting or because it was so good I just loathed the character, the chemistry between him and Kidman was hideous, but at this stage of their marriage it should be. Brown was fine as slutty Lily and Hamilton was superb as Tommy, I loved his character and his lack of connection later in the movie was strong, the compassion and empathy I had for this kid was more powerful than my thoughts for the rest of the family.

The film captures small town Australian desert/ country-life perfectly, the dust storm was a bonus and the isolation was uncomfortable. Farrant’s direction was a triumph and P.J. Dillon’s cinematography is a marvel that is matched by the fine wine of Keefus Ciancia’s music that smothers the movie in long drawn out tension oozing in melancholy and desperation.

My gripes are two; firstly, already mentioned is my indecision of Fiennes, but this is not his movie, it is Kidman’s, and she owns it. But lastly, the ending was not what I was expecting, it was mostly unnecessary and I felt the film was let down by this, it lacked the gravitas I believed it desired.

Regardless of the flaws the film has way more merits, it plays like a long strummed piano wire and the tension is wonderful.

Salty Popcorn score: 4/5

The Goob. Fear And Loathing In East Anglia.

GOOBVENICE2808AAh, the coming of age film. 90-odd minutes of torture, digging up painful memories of searing hormones, sprouting hairy bits and execrable fashion choices. Let’s sign up for another, shall we? And let’s make it a British Social Realist one while we’re at it. No point doing pain by halves.

The Goob (Liam Walpole) is a teenager. We have no idea why he is called Goob, presumably it’s just more enigmatic. He lives in East Anglia, which is not a good place for teenagers, so we’re already off to a painful start. We meet Goob on his last day of secondary school, dropped off in the middle of a field in the back of beyond, his mates mooning out the back window at him.

Goob lives with his mother Janet (Sienna Guillory), who runs a greasy spoon roadside cafe. Janet hangs out at the stock car racing, where she’s hooked herself up with car racer Gene (Sean Harris). Gene fancies himself as an Alpha male, eyeing up bits of skirt, throwing his weight around and viciously bullying the gawky, sensitive Goob.

What action there is in Goob’s world revolves around the few people who pass through – effervescent gay teen Elliot (Oliver Kennedy), who offers Goob a hand of genuine friendship. Temporary farm worker Roza (Rosa French) with whom he shares a burgeoning romance. But these glimpses of happiness are methodically crushed by the violent Gene.

The Goob comes with the misery prerequisite for any British social realist drama. Impoverished rural community – check. Browbeaten women with Croydon facelifts – check. Violent working class male – check. But it also has moments of sheer joy – Oliver’s marvellously camp dance routine to Donna Summer’s I Feel Love;  the flat farmland of East Anglia assuming a beauty like the Great Plains.

First time writer/director Guy Myhill has creating an emotionally complex and atmospheric drama that builds slowly and oppressively to an inevitable flashpoint conclusion. Coaxing great performances from his actors, not least the bug eyed, skinny, watchful Goob, the occasional cliché can be forgiven. We look forward to seeing what he does next. After we’ve blanked out those queasy age 16 flashbacks…

UK release 29 May

 

Kingsman: The Secret Service. We go behind the action scenes with Matthew Vaughn, Colin Firth and Taron Egerton

KSS_JB_D07_00960.tifForgive The Sloth for a touch of heresy but CGI-heavy action films can be more than a touch generic. We’re surely not the first person to yawn and wonder what to have for tea as the n’th building / helicopter / rampaging alien is blown to smithereens. Kingsman instead takes an old-skool, lo-fi, analogue approach to its action sequences and is all the better for it. The Sloth got the lowdown from director Matthew Vaughn and stars Colin Firth and Taron Egerton into what went on behind the scenes.

Matthew Vaughn on his approach to the action sequences:
I think action can be the dullest part of movies ironically nowadays. And I love action movies, but when you see generic quick cutting, I switch, I actually fast forward now. I just tried watching a movie, which made a billion dollars last year, and it didn’t do it for me, the bigger the sequence the more bored I was which is I think quite an achievement in a weird way. I try to do things differently and keep the audience on their toes.

Taron Egerton on the action sequences of the film:
It was the great unknown for me. I had done action of sorts but it’s the stylized nature of action in ‘Kingsman’ that makes it extraordinary and that makes it really demanding. The fighting for example requires a real discipline and very specific choreography. It wasn’t always easy, you know there were times when I really didn’t feel I was getting things, and there were times when I was just so exhausted that you think, “My word, I really don’t know how am I going to get through this, you know?” But I worked with the most extraordinary team of men. One of them built my body with me and the other taught me how to move. They kind of have as much responsibility for what Eggsy is in the film as I do really.

Colin Firth on Matthew Vaughn’s inspiration for creating the character:
Matthew’s preference was always David Niven, saying that he wanted to revert to a kind of original Ian Fleming notion of a rather traditional gentleman spy. One of the reasons he was interested in me was because I was precisely the last person you would ever imagine being able to do any of this, and that’s part of the fun he has, because he loves to subvert people’s expectations. You know because if he had said to me, I want to hire you for your innate butchness, it might have been a very short conversation.

Colin Firth on his training for the film:
It was pretty rough at the beginning. I didn’t know what I was in for because these guys all have incredibly advanced skills obviously, they are the best in their field. And I think they wondered whether, well, how much ability I would have. You know they knew what my age was, I have no real history of athleticism. I think they gave me points for effort and willingness, which helped us get going. So it started with let’s see if we can get his lower body animated. You know oil some of the hinges and do some squats and lunges and agonizing things, which I just don’t think anybody in the world wants to do, because we didn’t have the choreography for months. That was quite late. In the meantime it was months and months and months of doing the kinds of moves that I was going to have to do just to make sure I was capable of doing them And if you do that, and if you’ve got a team like that, and if you persist and are willing to take a bit of pain, inevitably some progress will be made. So I went from this place of feeling entirely out of my depth, to getting really quite exhilarated to the point where I thought, “This is what I want to do.” And actually I have to confess, going back to doing the routine acting scenes, were a bit of a comedown. You know I just thought, after everything I’ve done, you can just send my suit into work and have exactly the same effect.

Colin Firth on the process of filming the church scene:
Well that’s where the choreography had to be studied and learned… it’s a dance really. Most of the time, wherever I was, I had about five opponents, plus the camera operator who is one of the dancers. When someone’s on their left foot instead of their right, even when you’re dancing conventionally, that can be a problem, but we were also working with heavy objects, and you know all kinds of bizarre props that were being used in that sequence.. And one of the things that was educational about the rules of this, was that you have to act it as well. So if you just learn it very, very fast, it will look mechanical and it will actually loose energy because of that. You know we’ve all seen fast action sequences, which are boring as anything. What’s going on had to be built in as a part of it. And that’s actually what made it so alive.

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Kingsman: The Secret Service is out on Digital HD on May 24th and on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 8th from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment

Top Five. Stand Up And Be Counted.

top-five.33979What do you think when you hear ‘Chris Rock’? Shouty, fast talking, boggle-eyed, profane American comic and probably not much else? Top Five, written, directed by and starring the man himself, might start to change that.

Chris plays Andre Allen, a stand up comic who found widespread fame as Hammy the bear in a low-brow movie franchise. Fed up with people shouting ‘Hammy’ at him in public, he wants to be taken seriously so has written and starred in a suitably serious movie.  About, err, black people revolting and overthrowing white people. To add to his ‘credibility’, in Kimye stylee he’s engaged to blingy reality TV star Erica (Gabrielle Union) and their every move is documented by a film crew.

To drum up publicity for the impending release of his movie Andre has agreed to be interviewed by reporter and single mother Chelsea (Rosario Dawson). Through the course of a few days they wander the streets together, chewing the fat and slowly bonding. Interspersed, naturally, with a few bawdy comedy set pieces such as the eye-wateringly crude, if admittedly hilarious, scene involving Chris, two prostitutes and that bastion of tasteless US comedy, Cedric The Entertainer.

On paper, the premise of Top Five might sound somewhat dubious. It might also sound very US-centric. But don’t be fooled. It’s smart, thoughtful, funny and has a really rather British sense of satirical self-awareness. It’s also brilliantly acted with Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson playing marvellously off each other in a way that feels utterly naturally and more than a bit improvised. Ironically, the one thing that didn’t particularly zing was a scene when Andre takes to the stage for a bit of stand up.

Mr Rock previously demonstrated stellar straight-man acting skills of a remarkably subtle nature in Francophile Julie Delpy’s Two Days In New York, so The Sloth has a sneaking suspicion he’s actually a closet Europhile itching to broaden his horizons. Someone give the man a role at The Old Vic already. He’s gagging for it.

UK release 8 May 2015

Rosewater. Does Jon Stewart’s directorial debut come up smelling sweet?

rosewaterJon Stewart is a multi-award winning American comic legend, synonymous with satirical stalwart, The Daily Show.  He wouldn’t be The Sloth’s first thought to direct a hotly political, real life drama of a journalist’s imprisonment in Iran, but Rosewater sees him break new ground. Should he have stuck to the day (no pun intended) job?

Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) was born in Tehran to Canadian and Iranian parents.  As a child, successive brutal regimes imprisoned both his father and older sister.  Relocated to London in later life he married a Brit and took a job as an investigative journalist for Newsweek.  With Iran on the brink of elections in 2009 which looked set to topple incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in favour of reformist candidates, Maziar returned to Tehran to cover developments.

Arriving at the airport Maziar chanced upon affable, outspoken taxi driver Davood (Dimitri Leonidas) who introduced him to Tehran’s liberal, pro-reform community.  Interviewing and filming his way around the city, all is going well until the President was re-elected in an apparently rigged vote. The government turned violently on protesters, exposed internationally by Maziar’s camera, and he found himself thrown into solitary confinement in an Iranian jail for the next 118 days. Accused of being a Western spy, he was by turn cajoled, harangued and tortured by his dedicated interrogator, known as a ‘Specialist’.

Filmed realistic stylee, often seen through Maziar’s own camera, Rosewater paints a credible picture of life in day to day Iran, all erratic traffic, tactile male hugging and loud gesticulating. It’s also something of an eyebrow-raiser for a naive audience to see sectors of the Iranian community cheerfully swigging illicit vodka and discussing Grand Theft Auto.

It isn’t perfect. The scenes of Maziar’s solitary confinement and interrogation drag on far too long, but what it does do well, doubtless honed from Mr Stewart’s prior experience, is unexpectedly add black humour into the mix. Maziar’s rejection of a coffee brought by his Specialist receives the growling response “You don’t like my Nescafe?” as comic as it is threatening.  And, whilst we don’t wish to take credit away from Mr Stewart, in hiring the always fabulous Gael Garcia Bernal you can’t really go wrong. All in all, an interesting debut effort.

UK release 8 May 2015

Far From The Madding Crowd – Too Hot To Hardy

maddingYou may have read Far From The Madding Crowd at school. And you’re thinking, yawn, literary adaptation, some hills & Daaarset accents, wotevs.  Think again, for it feels really rather contemporary.

Mostly, this is due to the fabulous Cary Mulligan as Hardy’s strong willed and impetuous heroine Bathsheba Everdene. We’re not a Sloth prone to gushing, but the girl is simply splendid in everything she does.  And we’re also a big fan of her habitual feminist rants against the omnipresent sexism of the film industry, which still rarely creates proper (i.e. non-totty) roles for female actors. One day soon we will do a post about the Bechdel test, but we digress.

For those of you unfamiliar with the novel, Bathsheba is a surprisingly feminist character. An orphan who inherits a sizeable farm from an uncle, she finds herself in the position to – gasp – not be reliant on a man for income. Not only that but she runs said farm with an iron fist, battling sexism and misogyny till finally winning the locals over.

Being young, rich and attractive, she attracts her share of admirers. Rugged shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), whose steadfast support and loyalty is compromised by his lack of social stature. Local landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), whose social stature is compromised by being a bit of a dork. And caddish, womanising soldier Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) who she only goes and marries, the fool.

Whilst this might sound like a standard romantic drama, the plot twists and turns through moments bordering on melodrama, like a glossier, prettier and particularly thrilling episode of Eastenders. In fact, the only slight problem is arguably one of sexism. As we have discussed, women are generally cast as totty. However the casting of Cheesecake Hunkmeister du Jour, Matthias Schoenearts, as Gabriel, whom a (straight) male colleague was recently moved to confess he’d had an almighty man-crush on since he starred in Rust and Bone, frankly makes the concept of Bathsheba even considering another suitor completely laughable. But if you can get over that (or hey, just indulge that man-crush and ogle Matthias looking moody and rugged on windswept hilltops whilst, err, deflating gas out of bloated sheep’s bellies), this is a beautifully acted and engaging adaptation.

UK release 1 May

A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence

A-Pigeon-Sat-On-A-Branch-PosterGotta love the Scandis. They are collectively mad as a bucket of barking frogs. Having taken over most of the known universe with their particularly chilling brand of Nordic noir, they’re stepping up a notch. The Sloth can only assume A Pigeon Sat On A Branch  was conceived during the longest night of the coldest, darkest Nordic Winter, such is the inky, deadpan depth of its comic and philosophical blackness.

Frankly we’re at a loss to explain any kind of plot. Rather, it’s a surreal mix of sketches, vignettes and snippets of life happening around town in 1940’s Gothenburg. We visit Limping Lotta’s Bar, where her loyal customers join in a rousing, impromptu song to the tune of Glory Glory Hallelujah, agreeing to pay for their drinks by a kiss. We follow two morose salesman peddling their comedy vampire fangs and Uncle One-Tooth masks to penniless shopkeepers. And hang out in a cafe where a King’s horseman, complete with prancing steed, enters to shoo all the women out before His Majesty himself descends for a drink.

So what exactly is it about? Well, basically the contemplation of death. Shot in a palette of khaki and beige, its wan and melancholic characters stand immobile, stare into space and wander slowly and ponderously in and out of characterless interiors, mostly in complete silence but occasionally underscored by an incongruously cheery waltz or the occasional song, all searching for meaning in their drab, colourless existences. Gothenburg essentially needs one socking great shot of Prozac.

If this all sounds unspeakably grim, it isn’t (apart from a scene with a monkey which we’ll spare you. Oh, and a scene where us Brits don’t come off too well. But apart from that…). We laughed out loud at several points and quickly succumbed to the hypnotic lull of its stately, measured pace. Granted, it’s not for everyone but if you like your humour of the very blackest persuasion and balanced with a measure of sad melancholy, it might just tickle your fancy.

UK release 8 May

A Little Chaos. Digging Deeper.

a_little_chaos_posterThe Sloth recently read a review referring to Matthias Schoenaerts as the ‘hunk du jour’ and we laughed a lot. For indeed, whilst The Gosling has been off having a baby break, the brooding Belgian has cunningly cornered his market, staring moodily out from the screen of every cinema we’ve wandered into. A Little Chaos sees his reign continue.

Set in the grand echelons of the Palace of Versailles, A Little Chaos follows the gardening exploits of King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman). Not quite content with the magnificence of the Palace alone, Louis decides he wants the gardens to be equally splendid so issues a commission for some new landscape designs. Alongside the great and good garden designers of the day one relative unknown, Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet), takes up the challenge, proposing a radical design based – gasp – on letting a bit of natural disorder creep into the rigidly regimented style of the time. Louis is not convinced but fortunately head gardener André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), buys into Sabine’s vision and convinces Louis to give her a go.

What follows is part cerebral meditation on the meaning and purpose of art and part romantic drama as, needless to say, André isn’t simply enamoured with Sabine’s nifty way with a bit of privet hedging. Similarly, Louis is caught by Sabine’s naive simplicity and earnestness in contrast to the conniving vixens and villains at play within his court.

Kate Winslet, natch, does her pouty corset / messy hair thing with a bit of mud on her skirt for added characterisation. And Alan Rickman was born to be The Sun King – The Sloth can’t think of anyone else so inherently grand and both strangely sexless yet highly camp at the same time. Kind of like a regal newt.

A Little Chaos at times takes itself A Little Seriously but, flippancy aside, it does raise some genuinely interesting questions on how our perceptions of nature, beauty and art have changed over the ages. Ideas and aesthetics we take for granted now were radical, once upon a time. And if that doesn’t do it for you, maybe Matthias Cheesecake will.

UK release 14 April

Good Kill. Pushing Buttons.

good-kill-posterDrones are wrong and should be banned. They are mind-blowingly creepy – Facebook drones? Google drones? Amazon drones? Soon plagues of drones will be sweeping through cities, chewing up postmen, leaving crumpled Argos receipts and disembodied ‘Like’ buttons swirling in their wake. But most disturbing of all are military drones, quietly (and not entirely morally) changing the face of conflict as we know it. Good Kill takes these drones to task.

Tom (Ethan Hawke) is a US military drone pilot. He operates out of a military base in the desert near Las Vegas. Specifically, he operates out of what looks like an innocuous storage container, the inside of which contains enough blinking computer screens to satisfy the most hardened techie. From his position of complete safety, Tom flies weapon-laden drones that cruise miles high in the sky then, at the push of a button, obliterate completely oblivious enemy targets.

Tom has a beautiful wife, Molly (January Jones) and two kids. He lives in a nice house and has friends over for BBQs at the weekend. But Tom is not happy. He used to be a ‘real’ pilot and misses ‘real’ combat. He struggles with the ethics of sneaking up on an enemy unseen. And he struggles with his gung-ho, bloodthirsty colleagues, who see war as black and white.

Good Kill is a cerebral, talky film. It has a strong, anti-war agenda and makes no bones about it. Drone warfare is little more than a videogame, combatants literally thousands of miles removed from each other and so removed from any form of empathy. Budget is the key decision maker, hidden behind proclamations about saving American military lives.

For a war film where the ‘action’ is purely viewed onscreen, it’s unsettling and gripping. At times it pushes its point too hard, characters unnaturally trotting out convoluted speeches about policy, but there’s no doubt about its sincerity. And having watched it, there is equally little doubt the points it makes are relevant and important. Amazon, The Sloth will stick to our Postie.

UK release date 10 April 2015

 

While We’re Young. Hip To Be Square.

OnlineQuad_WhileWereYoungAhh, The Hipster.  Native resident of grittily urban areas undergoing economic regeneration, mostly found congregating in great numbers around vinyl disc emporiums. Skinny of leg with exuberant plumage on chin.  May be omnivorous or vegetarian but will only consume produce labelled ‘organic’ and/or ‘artisan’, preferably grown in lay-by off M25. Now marvellously satirised in Noah Baumbach’s tremendous While We’re Young.

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a childless 40-something couple with increasingly little in common with their friends who all have kids. Josh, a documentary filmmaker, finds himself waylaid after a class one day by effortlessly cool young couple Jamie (Adam Driver), a wannabe filmmaker, and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who are keen to chat.

Flattered by the attention and energised by their enthusiasm, Josh is soon arranging subsequent meet ups with Adam. Then buys a pork pie hat, like Adam. Then ditches public transport to wobble unsteadily down the road on a bike, after Adam. Initially sceptical, Cornelia too soon becomes sucked in, persuaded to join Darby in a Hip Hop dance class (note to aging self: few things are less dignified than a 40-something ‘busting a move’).

Inevitably, their new found BFFs start attracting scepticism from peers of their own age. And after a while, Josh and Cornelia themselves start to question whether there may be ulterior motives behind Jamie and Darby’s attentions. But not before a marvellous succession of events that gently and hilariously mock the narcissistic, self-conscious world of The Hipster and raise questions about what people really want out of life.

The Sloth was lucky enough to attend a preview screening introduced by director Noah Baumbach, in which he described his own awareness of getting older, of recalling something that had ‘just happened’ only to realise it was years before, and wanting to make a film that captured both this and thoughts about relationships he had gathered over time. While We’re Young achieves all this brilliantly. Both timely and timeless, every laugh is spiked with the prick of truth. It feels like an instant classic – don’t miss it.

UK release 3 April 2015