COVID-19 DIARY – THE FOURTH QUARTER: NEW YEAR – SAME PANDEMIC

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January 1

Well we all know the story now. Everybody posted on social media that 2020 could go to hell and that 2021 couldn’t happen soon enough.

That somehow dates on a calendar would change everything like magic.

I’ll admit, I thought what a bunch of idiots but honestly who could not begrudge people this hope.

It is human nature to take stock of passing time and to look to the future with hopefulness but I found it annoying because life gets better by making individual efforts to make it better.

In Australia we really did seem like the lucky country. Sure the Avalon cluster had spoiled some of our Christmas fun but looking abroad made us recognise how much we had to be grateful for. My sister was in the UK where there were daily increase of cases that were the sum total of all recorded Australian cases.

People were suffering worldwide and I’d sat in a hotel lobby on New Years Eve and had cocktails and seen friends.

After years of being on contracts, I had a job as many people’s financial situation fell out from underneath them, after years of watching others go overseas I finally took a holiday locally and drove out to nearby country towns.

I felt uneasy…when was the other shoe going to drop?

Having experienced hardship in my own past and been saved by others,  I now looked for ways to help not just worry.

But its true that I mostly felt grateful for what I was lucky enough to have in my life, my work, my friends and family and time to be with them.

I think most people felt a sense of hopefulness in the New Year. By the end of the first week we would have painful reminders that a lot can happen in a day dramatically.

January 04

Last year around about the time COVID-19 took off across the world there was a resurgence of interest in Steven Soderberg’s 2011 film Contagion. I even had friends talk about it and I watched an excellent video from the Youtube group The Take.

But alas in our age of disparate audience groups, I have Stan and Netflix but neither had Contagion so that was that. In the new year of 2021 with a year of the pandemic having played out in real life Contagion hit even harder.

In March 2020, the opening of the 2011 film spoke to the fear and anxiety as the virus hit the West and quickly spread. Watching people touch surfaces and their fellow human beings while sick and not knowing gets the blood pumping now like a horror film.

Watching it in January 2021 it hits even harder.

If you have not seen it, then I suggest you do but I would not judge you if watching it is just too hard at this time.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

In 2011 I suspect if I had seen the film, I would have thought it was pretty solid and low key. That is Soderberg for you. I recently started watching Logan Lucky and just never went back to it. But I am a fan of Traffic and Erin Brockovich. The guy runs the gamut.

He pulled together an all star cast, Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Ehle and Elliot Gould.

Matt Damon in particular shows a knack for playing an everyman in stark contrast to the capable Jason Bourne he made famous or the wise cracking Will from his break-out film Good Will Hunting. Kate Winslet plays the heroic capable figure we need in such a story but even that gets subverted.

Commentary around the film picks up on two running themes in the film, yes there is the pandemic of the virus but also a parrallel pandemic of misinformation. Government of the most part is capable and partisan but there are local figures early on that question if it is a just scare that will pass like SARS, the backlash from the public if they’re seen to overreact and budgetary haggling.

In our own world the misinformation from Fox News from March that this kills just as many as the flu, the anti-vaxxers, the protesters, the riots, the anti-malarial drug that Trump championed, all have eerie parrallels.

The virus in the film spreads faster and kills more than COVID-19. Martial law is declared at one point and there is a run on in food and isolated towns rife with looting. Garbage remains uncollected on the streets.

I guess we can be grateful COVID-19 was not as deadly as what is depicted here.

But panic buying in the shops, border closures and one shot that took my breath away of mass graves are all here.

Coronavirus makes 'Contagion' movie hot rental on Amazon Prime, iTunes

An image from the film Contagion used to show COVID-19 victims |  Fact-checked | COVID-19 Facts

The virus itself starts in Hong Kong with a bat.

A vaccinne takes a year and a while to roll out to everyone, creating anxiety. The film does not show a concern to get everybody vaccinated before too many mutant strains make it no longer effective. Maybe we’ll be that lucky too.

How did in 2011 did they release a film that got this all so eerily right?

Well for starters this had already happened with SARS and MERS and secondly the filmmakers went to the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation and asked them what is likely to happen.

What I observed in the early days of COVID-19 is how we all react differently in telling ways.

There are those of us who watched the news religiously, those who did not, those of us who took our kids out of school, those of who still went into work when we believed we should be in lockdown.

Those of who looked to our institutions for leadership, those of us who questioned every decision and every piece of information that was parceled out.

Those of us who grew fatalistic and decided we had to live our lives, those of us who constantly thought of our health care workers and elderly, those of us who lamented our freedoms, those of us who wondered how we could benefit from the stocks changing and those of us who looked for ways to donate more to charities and get involved in volunteer work.

Contagion may not go into such specifics but constantly throughout there is a theme of people making moral choices with good or selfish intentions and good or bad results that come from that. The film I believe is simply observing the human factor of why people make the decisions they make. With no

judgement just the randomness of that and how small decisions can have major consequences.

I believe ultimately the film is optimistic about the human race.

I like to think I am too.

Cars line up at a COVID-19 testing clinic

January 05

An 18 year old Sydneysider had contracted COVID from the Berala cluster and then travelled through regional New South Wales while infectious. This prompted contract tracing to occur in Orange (250kms away from Sydney), Nyngan (550kms away from Sydney) and Broken Hill (1,140kms away from Sydney) with people who had been in certain locations at certain times to get tested and self isolate for 14 days even if their result comes back negative.

[He] woke up, had a little bit of a runny nose just yesterday. And went out and got a test and did the right thing. Can I thank this individual,” New South Wales Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant praised the 18 year old for getting tested with the mildest of symptoms.

Good stuff!

On the fifth of January, World Health Organisation reported in Australia there had been 28,504 confirmed cases of COVID with a daily increase of 21. There had been 909 deaths.

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In the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland schools were being shut down…thank fuck!

I understand this was not great news for many families, that it would present a range of challenges for educators and their students, but if it saved one life I was all for it and there was no doubt in my mind that it would save thousands.

Following a return to school on the 4th of January, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new lockdown shutting down schools from Tuesday the 5th of January until at least the February half-term.

Similar to moves to remote learning here in Australia, schools remained open to take students of key workers and vulnerable youths.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were already ahead of BJ with those countries have been doing remote learning for students already and extending them in light of the predicament they found themselves in.

On the 5th of January, the World Health Organisation reported in the United Kingdom there had been 2,713,567 confirmed cases of COVID with a daily increase of 58,784. There had been 75,431 deaths with a daily increase of 407.

-Lloyd Marken

MY FAVOURITE FILMS OF 2019

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It is time once again to do my annual favourite films of the year list which allows for late 2019 American releases to reach Australian shores. What was a little interesting for me this year is I saw less films on the big screen or through their streaming services. From a total of 57 last year I went down to only 45 this year.

There were a lot of good films I saw, and it was no struggle to think of a top five but I did find it difficult to fill out a list of 10 films for the Honourable Mentions. Maybe the depth of quality wasn’t there this year or maybe as in every other year I missed a lot of good ones.

I hear good things about Waves and Honey Boy, I’m intrigued by The Peanut Butter Falcon and I have just seen on DVD Best Picture winner Parasite. I really want to see Apollo 11, Ad Astra, Booksmart, The Lighthouse, Richard Jewell, Pain and Glory, For Sama and The Farewell. Just a random observation, some of the best films I saw this year centred around men in crisis.

With the close of the fourth decade I have lived through I got thinking about an end of decade list which also got me thinking about how certain films are lauded in their year of release but you don’t often go back and think on them. If anyone is interested I couldn’t imagine Warrior and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy not featuring on that decade list. I think Black Swan, The Tree of Life, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Inside Llewyn Davis, Dunkirk would all stand a good chance of making it. 20th Century Women I think too and maybe Nocturnal Animals. Films like Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, Ladies in Black and In The Aisles have stayed with me. But high fliers like First Man, In This Corner of the World, Eye in the Sky, A Star Is Born, Blade Runner 2049 would not be a given but I sure like to think they’d be in that list.  It is interesting how time redefines classics.

Star ratings are on a four star scale as per the reviews I read from the late great film critic Roger Ebert.

 

Alita: Battle Angel Published at Scenestr 12FEB19 ***

Captain Marvel Published at Scenestr 06MAR19 ***

Lego Movie 2: The Second Part Published at Scenestr 20MAR19 ***

The Trouble With You Not Reviewed **

Shazam Not Reviewed ***

Hellboy Published at Scenestr 11APR19 **1/2

Red Joan Published at X-Press Magazine 06JUN19 ***

Godzilla II: King of the Monsters Published at Scenestr 31MAY19 **1/2

X-Men: Dark Phoenix Not Reviewed *1/2

Men in Black: International Not Reviewed **1/2

Toy Story 4 Not Reviewed **1/2

Always Be My Maybe Not Reviewed ***

Late Night Not Reviewed **1/2

Shaft Not Reviewed **1/2

IT: Chapter 2 Not Reviewed **1/2

Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark Published at Scenestr 29SEP19 ***

Little MonstersPublished at Weekend Notes 13OCT19 ***

Chained for Life Not Reviewed **1/2

Zombieland: Double Tap Not Reviewed **

Terminator: Dark Fate Published at Scenestr 01NOV19 **

El Camino Not Reviewed **1/2

Dolemite Is My Name Not Reviewed ***

Knives Out Not Reviewed ***

The Rise of Skywalker Not Reviewed *1/2

Jojo Rabbit Not Reviewed **1/2

 

 

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

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Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw Published at Scenestr 01AUG19 ***

Hobbs and Shaw is fine perfectly fine fun entertainment. There is no real sense of stakes even though apparently the world needs saving, there’s no real characters here but just the established personalities of Statham and The Rock that we enjoy hanging with and seeing playing off of each other.

I was surprised after seeing how crazy cool Idris Elba was as Luther that he did not make much of a compelling nor threatening bad guy. Even winning a fist fight in an early scene doesn’t make him a threat because our heroes always manage to get away from him. Early Terminator films managed this while still maintaining the villain was a threat.

For a series that has done a lot of things practically the Fast and Furious series is really embracing the CGI these days and it just makes the action scenes have less impact. Still Vanessa Kirby knows the value of a good stare down the lens, there is still wit in the dialogue, two great cameos and some fun with the action choreography.

Alita: Battle Angel almost made the grade instead, for all that film’s flaws I think I cared more about the characters in it but Hobbs & Shaw is a more streamlined product. The fact this film made the list reflects poorly on the list rather than well on Hobbs & Shaw but it was fun to watch.

The ‘Fast & Furious’ franchise is one of those Hollywood fairytales they tell little studio execs to help them drift off to sleep when they’re worried about the changing nature of the global box office.

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Spider-Man: Far From Home Not Reviewed ***

Another perfectly fine blockbuster, this one a sequel and a comic book film. What director Jon Watts and writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers still get right is the teenage stuff. The previous Spider-Man film worked as a high school comedy and this one suffers from a couple of issues, first a lot has happened in the MCU since the last film and Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is suffering a loss and needing guidance as he matures but the metaphor doesn’t land as well as it did in the last film.

Jake Gyllenhaal is kind of the older cool kid who betrays you? Whatever. Still there are some cool sequences, great laughs and at least here the filmmakers invest in giving their character a real arc and growth compared to most other 2019 blockbusters.

Sadly the MJ (Zendaya) love story had a lot of beats we’re become familiar with after two decades and three iterations of the couple on screen. I’m hoping the filmmakers can right the ship for the trilogy closer and get back to bringing something new to the screen that is still true to Peter Parker. But a perfectly enjoyable comic book movie.

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Memory: The Origins of Alien Published at Weekend Notes 13OCT19 ***

This documentary which I caught at the Brisbane International Film Festival 2019 worked best when telling the life of screenwriter Dan O’Bannon. It was interesting to look at such a celebrated film as Alien and analyse how its themes are still relevant and hear some of the stories behind the scenes.

We learn a lot about the importance of H.R. Giger’s design, the influence of H.P. Lovecraft and the steely determination and creative sensibilities of Scott just one feature into his career. We also reflect on how ground-breaking the ideas of Alien were and how much the film stands up decades on where others may have dated.

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John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Published at X-Press Magazine 16MAY19 ***

Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat, John Wick 3 isn’t even the best John Wick movie, I’m not particularly excited at the prospect of a John Wick 4. There are a million things I could complain about in this film. Yes it is an example of style of substance but God damnit could we please have some substance. Atomic Blonde is cut from the same cloth and is a better film.

And yet… and yet I think about the fight with the library or in the knife museum and my heart just swells to know there are still people prepared to put this much thought and wit and inventiveness and craft into their action scenes. If they could do the same to the rest of their filmmaking we’d really have something on our hands here but for now this film will nonetheless be talked about 10 years from now for the fight scenes. There is a lot to enjoy here.

The evergreen Keanu Reeves is back as the titular assassin John Wick and he’s all out of the bubblegum he was chewing in Speed, so now he’s just kicking butt. In the original film, there was the first act’s slow burn observation of Wick retired and grieving his wife. If the sequels have lacked this mystery and heart, Reeves has continued to give it his all.

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Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound Not Reviewed ***

As a fan of cinema this documentary was quite interesting, it give a brief summation of the history of sound effects in film and how much it adds to the cinematic experience.

There was a heavy focus on films from the 1970s and the genius of Walter Murch and Ben Burtt who added so much to classics from that era and revolutionised the industry.

However there were some great stories of trailblazing women in the industry like Barbara Streisand and Cecilia Hall and I wondered what other stories there are to tell form more recent times.

Ford vs. Ferrari Not Reviewed ***

My Uncle raced cars and bikes and God knows what else. A mechanic by trade he ended up becoming an Engineer. I hear my Grandfather when he got his first car as a middle aged father was a bit of a boy racer. My father was not a boy racer and yet when I mentioned this film to him he told me all about Le Mans in the 1960s and the showdown between two legendary car companies and families.

The trailers will have you believe this is a racing car movie and I suppose that is fair. There is racing in it quite a bit and it is done well. Yet in telling a real life story director James Mangold does not skirt some harsh realities that transpired here.

This is really about the passing of a time where great individuals could do great things but they had to navigate the corporate world to do it. Company boards and stocks were becoming a thing and visionaries couldn’t just build the fastest car in the world in their garage. If the film is to be believed they could still sure as hell rip apart the engine in the shop with a wrench and hammer and figure out how to make it go faster than a computer. But that time was coming to an end and this film is about how to navigate the new world with an old dreamer’s ambition.

It’s funny then to finding ourselves rooting for the designer/former racer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver/mechanic Ken Miles (Christian Bale) working for the car company Ford that made its name on the innovation of the factory production line going up against Enzo Ferrari who truly loved cars and racing and whose company today still makes their cars “by hand”.

In Shelby’s struggle to get the GT40 made and to have Ken Miles race it at Le Mans, James Mangold and his team have obviously seen similarities to their own struggles to realise visions in storytelling within the workings of a major film studio. Miles is the best racer for the job and that is not a good enough reason for Ford to have him behind the wheel though it should be the ONLY reason.

A wonderful tale about pursuing excellence in your life and the possible costs that come with it, this is a film that strives to solidify the legacy of Miles and Shelby and does no favours for Ford Junior.

At one point this was film to be shot by Michael Mann with Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. I sure would have loved to have seen that film. Yet it should be said that Damon and Bale are great in this as are the rest of the cast.

The film is shot naturalistic without the film colourisation of other recent period pieces. There are obvious CGI additions which is disappointing and stand out in the trailers but during the film the editing and sound come together well to get you caught up in the moment.

It’s easy to mock this as the Dad movie of 2019, a tale boomers will recall and can share with their GenX kids however there is a message here for all dreamers to take note of.

There’s a point at 7,000 RPM… where everything fades. The machine becomes weightless. Just disappears. And all that’s left is a body moving through space and time. 7,000 RPM. That’s where you meet it. You feel it coming. It creeps up on you, close in your ear. Asks you a question. The only question that matters. Who are you?.”

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Rocketman Reviewed at Scenestr 29MAY19 ***

There are moments in this Elton John biopic directed by Derek Fletcher starring Taron Egerton and Jaimie Bell, Richard Madden and Gemma Jones that are transcendent.

The moment when the song Rocketman arrives in the film’s narrative is sheer perfection in terms of visual storytelling and emotional resonance. If all the film was at that level it would easily make the top 10 but for me that is not what happened here. Whole scores of scenes and songs felt dreary, uninventive and unnecessary. Maybe that’s just me but there is too much to recommend here to not say you should see it.

As an exercise in capturing what we have loved about this extraordinarily talented, passionate, big hearted, temperamental and damaged man and his music this film hits its target and reminds even rock stars were just once little boys who want love and we all want love don’t we?

Stepfathers, soccer, the fans that fill those stadiums and even the Piano Man’s deep love of all music is glossed over, but a little household in 1950s Pinner looms large…But Pinner is the key. It explains the drugs, the straight marriage and why Taupin is a brother and not just a best friend.

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Long Shot Published at Scenestr 23APR19 ***

A romantic comedy for the 21st century with the star power of Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen.

There is a lot of delving into privacy, political campaigns and male/female dynamics in this film and not just surface references but actual thoughts about these subjects. Yet it retains a light touch (okay it gets a little gross but overall), gets big laughs and has a sweet heart and a smart brain.

It’s not the best film of the year but it shows the romantic comedy is far from played out and why we enjoy them.

Charlize, who has made a career out of playing strong women, gets to flex her comedic muscles again and shows once more she is at the height of her powers. There is a moment where she just stands wearing a pair of sunglasses and it may be the funniest bit in the whole movie. This is star-driven in the oldest sense, the stars coast through the film and, conversely, the film coasts off them, neither gives away just how hard it all is.

 

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Danger Close Not Reviewed ***

Kriv Stenders is one of the best directors working in Australia right now having made the excellent Australia Day and the even better The Go-Betweens: Right Here both in 2017. So it was good news to hear he was doing a film adaptation of the Battle of Long Tan. In a rubber plantation in Vietnam in 1966 an Australian infantry company held off an attack of a numerically superior force. It’s the kind of against the odd battles that make for great storytelling and there are many important stories about Long Tan. Sad stories, touching stories and inspiring stories like there are from all of the Vietnam war.

Danger Close can’t do them all justice and Stenders seems to have been stuck in the middle of waiting to be honest about the nature of soldiers, the futility of war, the politics of the military and telling an exciting rip roaring yarn. He is not without ambition and if he doesn’t quite pull it all together in a consistent and affecting masterpiece he certainly honours certain individuals who were there on the day and maintains some technical fidelity to history and military practice.

Where he fails is in finding a character to follow through the battle and display an affective arc. Even though the film is based on real life, it amazingly stays true to certain war film clichés of rebels who will make good, guys with gals at home who may not be long for this world and hard nosed leaders who will soften around their men and harden even more around the enemy.

Students of the battle will recognise the crucial points are conveyed more or less for what they were and heroic acts and the heroes who carried them out are remembered. Not a perfect film it is an admirable attempt at doing justice to the story of Delta Company, 6RAR on that that day.

The greatest feat Stenders can hang his hat on is how he gets the blood pumping in the lead up to significant actions, he knows how to stage a battle scene and Hollywood should take note, this was one of the most exciting action films of the year.

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Avengers: Endgame Not Reviewed ***

What does it matter what I think about the highest grossing film of all time? I preferred Infinity War to be honest, that was a story told on the run, banking on a cinematic history to fill in the gaps of characterisation and earn emotional buy in.

It was fun though and Endgame to the Russo brothers credit actually wants this to be less fun. They want this to have resonance, to have impact and to matter and they accept that happy endings are not a given, some things can’t be magically reversed. There is a finality to this chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that I hope they stick with rather than go for the cheap cash grab.

I’m sure smarter minds could unpack about how this is not cinema. Sorry, but I had to because I get it, why he said it and I understand why some people disagree and that’s fine too. Yet compare this to say The Return of the King, that is better storytelling more organically unfolding and building towards a climax and yes also a blockbuster.

On the other hand Star Wars and Game of Thrones both ended in 2019 like this iteration of The Avengers and there was a lot more dissatisfaction with those wrap-ups. It’s hard to stick the landing for something that taps into the zeitgeist so much and in a world of increasing split fanbases, identity politics, disparate audiences and general disconnect, it’s kind of nice to have these blockbusters that most people enjoy and share together and are all relatively happy with.

Looking back over the film it feels like a string of moments rather than a story but when I think about where some of these characters ended up at the end of this and how it made us all feel I do smile. It’s almost one of relief but it is one of satisfaction.

We haven’t really talked about the effects, the story or the performances. But why bother, you saw it, I liked all the same things you did. Seeing Peggy through the window, getting a little girl all the cheeseburgers in the world, Rene Russo inspiring fat Thor, oh yeah-fat Thor!, the Avengers assembling and Tony Stark being Iron Man one last time. I love you 3,000 and finally seeing a girl about that dance.

 

 

THE TEN

 

 

10. Bombshell Not Reviewed ***1/2

I was surprised to find how emotionally affecting I found Bombshell which may come as a surprise given the harrowing subject matter. I thought maybe the film would get the cliff notes and be about the actors transforming into people we know from the media world. I had watched and had a lot to recommend from The Loudest Voice which told the story of Ailes and Greta Carlson.

Russell Crowe played him as a fascinating and terrifying figure in that mini-series. A man who changed the media and political landscape of the United States of America granting him power and wealth which would be terrifying to take on if you suffered abuse from it.

I had heard that story and I was not sure if I wanted to revisit it, but the focus here is different. Ailes was a giant in The Loudest Voice, here he is a boss in a workplace that is about to have a reckoning with its culture, excesses and injustices.

At the centre of it are three women and something that Bombshell does well is understand the nuances and complexity of us as individuals in a workplace with ambition, competitiveness and alliances. I knew Charlize Theron and Margot Robbie would be brilliant with it, I did not know the latter would move me to tears after knowing what Ailes was capable of but she did – she’s that good.

Director Jay Roach probably does not get enough credit given his stellar cast who double as producers taking reign about the kind of stories they want to work on but he should. He’s made some good HBO films about Presidential campaigns that feature stars looking exactly like the real life figures they play. His choices aren’t flashy but they are in support of the story and the point of the story being told. This is more than just the movie where Charlize Theron nailed her portrayal of Megyn Kelly, this is good movie and you should see it.

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9. Uncut Gems Not Reviewed ***1/2

I don’t know if I’m recommending this movie for you to see.

When we meet Howard Ratner, New York jeweller, we get the sense of unease almost from the get go. Not just from him but from the people that surround him. His store seems to be full of customers and staff who can’t quite be trusted, they push hard for their own needs, take up the space in the room, shuffle their feet and lean forward, they’ve got friends with them, their clothes are good but not well maintained and they’re sweating in the North Atlantic.

They’re sharks and Howard is right at home with them, because in his mind he is a shark too. There are people in his life who would not disagree. Then we see quite clearly that Howard is a gambler. Life is a hustle and he is a hustler, life has been pretty good to him so he probably has come to the conclusion to keep hustling. The film is an examination of how he might be right but maybe not quite.

Life is a gamble, we’re all gambling in that sense and that is fine but Howard IS a gambler and that is not living a life. That is ruining one and all the lives that circle it. The difference between us and a gambler is not about when they say no and when we do. Everybody makes bad calls and has to deal with bad luck. The difference is the gambler never says no – they can’t.

The fact that Sandler makes you care about the outcome of a man who is self-destructing at maximum warp is kind of a miracle. Maybe, we like Howard, like the thrill of seeing if a bad bet will pay off? Well researched, the film captures a certain New York energy I thought the city had lost with all the foreign capital put into it (albeit this is set a few years ago).

Watch out for clothing designer/model/photographer/director and actress Julia Fox who yes is sexy as hell in this film but brings a lot to the role of Howard’s mistress and fellow hustler Julia. Are they playing each other or is there real affection there? What is she hoping to achieve for herself? Eric Bogosian is in this too and he’s always good. Directors the Safdie Brothers have arrived.

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8. Joker Not Reviewed ***1/2

Joker is a good example of how sometimes when a film is released there wis a lot of conversation around it that may have nothing to do with what you think of the film. To be fair I think director Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix intended the film to be ambivalent of what it was saying to a degree that what audiences get out of it will depend on what they put in.

Men’s Right Activists, Feminists, the left, the right, mental health advocates, the rich, the poor, civic responsibility, crime, fake news, anarchy, the Fourth Estate, corruption. If these things are near and dear to your heart the film may well be a rallying cry for them, I think it’s more thoughtful than that.

Maybe, just maybe it’s a call to reflect on all of these things and how we’re all a little lost and need to help each other and see things from other perspectives. Or maybe that’s just my agenda.

In any event Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely mesmerising in this film, vulnerable and terrifying in equal measure. I often remark how Charlize Theron is currently at the height of her powers, well I think Joaquin belongs in that group too.

The film is well lit, not a single frame does not seem to have been meticulously planned out in location, set dressing and lighting. I think the period setting of the film is even deliberate criticising nostalgia and the rose coloured glasses that get applied to history which is full of injustices and calling on historical references.

There’s symbolism galore and neat touches throughout, notice how we see Arthur repeatedly banging his head against walls while he is also trying to free his thinking and socially break through barriers. The way Arthur metamorphoses before our eyes has become instantly iconic too.

I also think the filmmakers are very direct in what they think of murder and violence and how where the Joker ends up is not a happy ending but a cautionary tale. The Joker is not a fantasy for me, not a defiant rebel chant either but a sad reflection that we need to do better.

7. Good Boys Published at Scenestr 10SEP19 ***1/2

Good Boys is one of the funniest and best gross out mainstream comedies in years. In fact I’d say the good ones are in short supply and this is one of the great ones. There’s real depth and insight into it and a lot of thought and care has gone into it as a visual piece of entertainment as well as a story that strings together a series of jokes.

But at the end of the day what you need to know about it is it will make you laugh, often and hard.

The script from Lee Eisenberg and director Gene Stupnitsky is smart, filthy, and full of heart. It understands the roles that these three boys play in each other’s lives and how their loyalty can become frayed but never compromised. Note in particular how Max is the leader but often when they are discussing a course of action the camera frames him centre with Lucas and Thor on each of his shoulders coaxing him towards riskier or safer choices reflective of their personalities.

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6. Marriage Story Not Reviewed ****

Marriage Story is, yes, about a divorce but it is also about also about marriage and being a parent. I’m painfully aware there are a lot of men right now suffering because they have lost their families and try as they might they can’t find a way to get them back in the current system. Marriage Story might speak to them but it might also speak to a whole lot of women who feel unheard and unappreciated by their husbands who find their voice and independence when they leave them.

What I liked about this film maybe most of all is that I understood both Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole and Adam Driver’s Charlie. The film opens with a sequence that shows how each views the other in a good way. Everything that follows reflects this, they may not work as a couple but they understand the other person very well.

There are cutaways we as the audience see but the other spouse does not and we wish that maybe they had found a way of communicating better and if there is hope to be found in the ending it is that maybe they have.

Noah Baumbach makes impressive films with performances that comes across as natural in the moment but are more likely painfully rehearsed to get to this point. One absolute stand-out moment is when Nicole unpacks why she has left Charlie prompted on by lawyer played by Laura Dern. It feels so off the cuff and yet it is perfect. I would have been more than happy if Driver or Johansson had walked with Oscars for their respective performances. This is a grown-up film for grown-ups and I hope they continue to get made and find audiences.

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5. 1917 Review Published at Scenestr 10JAN20 ****

One of the great films of the year 1917 at one point appeared to be the frontrunner for Best Picture. Mythic in its technique and singular and everyday in its focus. Lots will be made about Roger Deakins cinematography in service to making the film appear as one long continuous take but the film is also a master class in acting. Exciting, moving and personal for director Sam Mendes it cracks the Top Five with a bullet. Simply a must-see.

More than a harrowing and kinetic tale, ‘1917’ repeatedly reminds of both how humanity is lost in war and how it touchingly endures. There was nothing natural, colourful or human in those trenches except the men left breathing. They cracked wise, held each other close and laid down their lives for their fellow man. ‘1917’ remembers this and asks us to never forget.

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4. Midnight Family Review Published at Weekend Notes 10OCT19 ****

In Mexico City there is a family of ambulance paramedics named the Ochoas. Director Luke Lorentzen has made a documentary about their lives in this work and in a city of nine million people that has 45 official ambulance vans and crews.

The Ochoas are effectively small business owners trying to survive in a market and corrupt system that makes them have to hustle. They’re also saving lives on a daily basis. As someone who worked in hospitals I was quite touched by this movie and the people in it. I also enjoy seeing a city at night in the way only an ambo sees it. A great documentary to check out.

Many patients remain off-screen as we observe the ambulance crew going to work while loved ones or bystanders look on. It’s haunting stuff as you still hear them cry out in pain, see mothers tear up or the paramedics stare off in the distance after a hard job. …The documentary film is not for the fainthearted but perhaps that is fitting given that neither is the job of a paramedic.

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3. The Irishman Not Reviewed ****

The Irishman is a film about what is coming for us all eventually. Some of us won’t have time to reflect in that moment but all of us reflect throughout our lives about how we are living them. Whole years can become a series of fleeting memories that fell away in short order while small moments loom large.

Frank Sheeran tells us the story of his life and it’s pretty sad to think that of his big moments are conversation in bars with middle aged men and the people he shot dead for them. Not even most of those murders register for him but one does. The narrative of the film opens up and closes like an accordion. The closer we get to a day in the 1970s the more the film slows down and before and after the narrative kicks into a faster gear. This is how Frank remembers his life.

Sheeran wanted to be a good father but what does he really remember about his time with his children? It is fascinating to have the man who made Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino and The Gangs of New York make this film at his current age with his fellow contemporaries including most of the people he made those films with.

The CGI used to make this cast appear younger is not always effective but there is a weight lent to the cast portraying a whole life of a character having lived much of one themselves. Joe Pesci who often has played motor mouths and physical guys here is deafeningly quiet as a different type of mobster and in a certain way the real partner of Sheeran’s life Russell Bufalino.

There is a scene in this film that is almost like a proposal even though Scorsese wisely plays it straight. In the end Sheeran is looking for absolution and love from his family but he gave up his soul and love to two giants in his life and one made him choose between them and its haunted him ever since.

I love a lot about this movie. I love the shots that frame putting a watch on like you would every morning and how that watch would mean a lot to you and yet these are things you can’t take with you. About how a certain way something was cooked at a certain place that you ate on a given day will be front and centre in your memory as much as the events of that day.

Some love has been given to Al Pacino and Joe Pesci but Robert De Niro is really good in this movie. I think we sadly take him for granted a little bit and this film reminds us he’s still got the chops. It’s kind of small miracle that his film got made and that it is this good. Scorsese has remained a great artist long into his eighth decade, others have given the game away or lost their edge but Scorsese is still one of the all time greats and this film can only grow in stature as time goes on. I saw this at New Farm Cinemas on my 39th birthday and it was a great present.

2. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood Not Reviewed

If The Irishman was about looking back over a whole life then Quentin Tarantino’s film is a love letter to a time and place. Or maybe more accurately how we remember a time and place in our mind. Tarantino is 56 years old, its fair to say the kid who made Reservoir Dogs has matured as a filmmaker and gone through different phrases over the years. He is now one of a handful of auteurs left in a Hollywood where a corporation like Disney owns a third of the market share.

I can’t say I’ve always been a fan but with nine films to his belt I’d care to wager most are outright classics. Up until now I’d liked his earlier films more so than each successive one that followed while finding a lot to recommend about them all. That has all changed now.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood may be my favourite Quentin Tarantino movie!

Sure it holds a nostalgia for a time and place that I have an interest in but the lesson of the film is it is all so beautiful and fleeting, as your time passes be open to the idea of moving with it and enjoying the next stage. Set in 1969 this is a Hollywood in upheaval with Easy Riders taking over from the old moguls, a society reckoning with old prejudices and new opportunities.

Actor Rick Dalton is not doing too well in this new world, he’s a square jawed face with a haircut with no interest in method acting and the type of realism that the new breed of filmmakers want. He’s also a man on the wrong side of 40 who might have missed his chance. Think Steve McQueen if he hadn’t done The Magnificent Seven and suddenly everybody wants to make Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson (of course McQueen, Kirk Douglas and Paul Newman all made the transition through this era but they were stars already and often classic trained actors too). Understandably Dalton wishes it was 1961 again and he was cool and they were no Goddamn hippies about and he was still on the rise.

His only friend in the world is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who was his stunt double but is now more his Batman. Like a lot of Batmen, he’s more capable and reliant than the one he serves. Both are loyal to each other though and have that kind of friendship you develop sometimes where you’re a buttress of support for the other one. The film for the most part follows a day in their life that will provide important lessons for Dalton and see Booth meet some unsavoury characters. Then months later we come to the night of the Manson murders.

I won’t spoil the plot but I like the way Tarantino paces this film. There is a scene where Booth feeds his dogs and it shows a lot about his life and circumstances. The period details are nicely done and there are some great set-ups and pay offs throughout. I like the things alluded to but never answered and the repetition of themes.

There is also meta commentary on Tarantino and his career and influences as well. It feels like the kind of film you make late in your career when you’re at the height of your powers. With this Tarantino proves he is.

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1. Blinded By The Light Review Published at Scenestr 22OCT19 ****

This was my favourite film of 2019, the little seen Blinded By The Light. Whenever I bring it up with people they ask about if it’s Yesterday? No it’s not Yesterday, it’s a lot better than that.

It’s about Javed Khan, a teenage son of Pakistani immigrants coming of age in Luton in 1987. He becomes inspired and finds direction in his life through the music of Bruce Springsteen. Yesterday is a love story with two lead characters in it who don’t know what they want and banks on the nostalgia we have for Beatles tunes. There is a big difference.

The film does delve into racism and economic downturns and is more authentic and affecting for it but this film made my heart soar. It’s about love and family and following your dreams. This was the most emotionally moving film I saw all year and I dare you not to be moved.

‘Blinded By The Light’ is the most feel-good and first real good film of 2019. Directed by Gurinder Chadha, who pulled off a similar feat in 2002 with ‘Bend It Like Beckham’.

Well that is it for another year, I hope you enjoyed reading this list. I would love to hear what your favourite films of the year are. Any that you would recommend, some you are surprised didn’t make the list and any that you think are overrated?

Until next time, take care, we are in the midst of interesting times but we will get through them together. Stay safe.

-Lloyd Marken

BRINGING BACK BIFF – The Beginning and BIFF 2004

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The Brisbane International Film Festival returns this year and I couldn’t be happier. There’s a wealth of thoughts and memories that I wanted to write about that I wouldn’t be surprised if these posts just become a jumbled mess. I met my wife at BIFF, I volunteered at BIFF, saw over 20 movies at one BIFF and my history with it is just a small part of a much larger tapestry. How can I do that justice? What should I include or omit? What is private and what is too interesting not to share? What you read here may or may not be the entire truth but I will try to evoke the wonder of having a hometown film festival.

The first Brisbane International Film Festival was in 1992 screening 43 films. I didn’t cross paths with the festival until 2003. Two of my oldest dearest friends and I went to see the movie Gerry at the festival that year at the Regent Cinemas. The Regent Theatre was built in the 1920s in the American style of the then popular picture palaces. A redevelopment in the 1970s broke the original theatre into 4 but much of the old grandeur remained when I passed through the lobby in the early part of this century. That lobby was heritage listed in 1992 and remains but the Regent as I knew it has been lost. Ahead of the lobby was Regent 1 and 1 and bar on the first floor. Alternatively up a grand staircase made of Queensland marble led to Regent 3 and 4 which had been built in the 1970s and looked it. In Melbourne a similar Regent cinema was remodelled into a live theatre complex and is doing very well as a grand venue. Sometimes we get things wrong. In 2009 I went to the Regent and purchased some post cards that were being sold and signed a petition for it not to be destroyed.

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I went to see Gerry in a morning session on the weekend and subsequently fell asleep during a few minutes in the third act. It mattered little, I got it. It set the stage for my film festival going where not every film you see is a great one but they sure are trying. Also falling asleep would remain a tradition too. I had been brought along by my friend Mike. Mike who brought a DVD of The Station Agent, Dr Strangelove, Cube and Contestant 7 to my house. Mike who championed American History X and High Fidelity to me. Mike who dragged us to the west side of town to see Inception, the first feature from Christopher Nolan. Mike with whom I would go with or have come along with to see foreign films, documentaries and independent cinema while gushing over the new auteurs of blockbusters. The Fog of War at the Schonell, Sideways and The Secretary at Palace Centro, Bowling for Columbine and Napoleon Dynamite at Dendy George Street, Murderball at Indooroopilly. Mike, another friend Tim and I met each other at Scouts long ago but as that came to a close along with high school our friendship deepened. There are two men outside of my family that I admire deeply for their moral courage and loyalty. They are Mike and Tim. In a very real way they were my 20s along with another friend called Rachel. A year went past and Mike suggested that I go and volunteer at the film festival. I was getting 23 going on 24 and in the last year of my university studies in arts. I knew I had to start getting out there if I wanted to land a job so I put my hand up. Mike was steering me towards good things again.

I think I had to fill out a form from their website and submit it to their office. Things are so long ago it is hard to recall details but I ended up being a Volunteer at the Brisbane International Film Festival. There was a information session for the ‘Vollys’ as we were called run by the Operations Manager Debbie one evening. I went in and Debbie was an amazing manager of people, we were all unpaid staff who would be dealing with the public and receive little training. She made it something fun and informative. She’s been a Store Manager somewhere and knew how to run a crowd and the subsequent times I volunteered at BIFF her presence was missed.

I was a hospital wardsman and still a full time student so I set something myself up to do a few weekend sessions and that was it. Opening night Queen St Mall got locked down with a red carpet as Paul McDermott premiered a short film he directed and Geoffrey Rush came home for the Australian premiere of The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and to pick up The Chauvel Award. I was not there on opening night 27 July 2004.

I did volunteer for a few shifts on each weekend wearing my BIFF 2004 T-Shirt which I still have and treasure. I was nervous of course but it quickly became obvious that especially on a Saturday morning things were relatively peaceful. You handed out survey forms (people could tear at the edge in line with a rating) which would be collected by us as they left to count up the scores and send up to the main staff. We also collected tickets from patrons as they entered. I got to meet the famous film critic David Stratton asking him tongue in cheek if he wanted a survey form to which he declined with a smile. I had conversation with my fellow Vollys once audiences were tucked inside. I quickly came to know some of the Front of House and Box Office staff, there were the twins Stephen and Daniel, Luis, Andre and Michelle. These guys seemed to go a way back, Michelle and Andre might have been volunteers back in the first BIFF. They were effectively our supervisors, if you didn’t know what was going on you got one of them to help you. They were paid staff and they knew their stuff but they always made it fun for us. I soon learnt we were allowed to sneak into the back row of a movie and watch it if we weren’t needed as long as we were the first to leave. A massive perk! I can’t remember if I bought any tickets or just got to see these films for free but I caught The Land Has Eyes, Repatriation, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine and Samaritan Girl.

BIFF 2004 ran from opening Tuesday night 27th July to Closing Night 8th of August. Looking back I know I was interested in other films, I really wanted to see Crimson Gold from Iran, I think I got to sit in on American Dreams by James Benning but I just mostly napped with that one.

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S21: THE KHMER ROUGE KILLING MACHINE: Screened at 10am on Saturday 31st July in Regent Cinema 2 downstairs. It was probably a film I was allowed in to during my shift. It remains one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. I can’t get over the Khmer Rouge and what they did. Most of the killing occurred due to starvation but there was direct murder and plenty of it. S21 is at the heart of a nation that wiped out a million of its people in 4 years. In Tuol Sleng, a former school was converted into a prison and there over 17,000 inmates were killed. Only six lived and two told their story in this powerful film. The film opens in a hut with a middle aged man clearly broken with a thousand yard stare and sunken shoulders. His mother talks to camera about how he is not the same. We see a victim and then it is revealed that he was a guard. The humanity of director Rithy Panh just blows me away with this choice. Panh himself and his family had suffered greatly at the hands of the Khmer Rouge but he chose to open the film like this. Filmed at S21, the two survivors Chum Mey and Vann Nath bring two different personalities to the equation. Mey more openly discusses his emotions drawing out expression from the quietly dignified Nath. It is Nath who asks a confrontational questions to his former captors late in the film. Nath was kept alive because the warden liked his paintings and Nath recounts how in his mind many greater painters were murdered because of this warden’s preference. That random choice and its consequences are at the heart of the injustice of the prison and the trauma of the incredibly scarce number of survivors. I’ve never forgotten this film or what it told me. I saw some people leave throughout, why I do not know but perhaps because they found it just too upsetting and that is fair enough. Vann Nath has since passed on but his story that he shares with others should not be forgotten and thankfully this film will endure for a long time to come. One of the great experiences I’ve had at all the BIFFs I’ve attended.

 

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THE LAND HAS EYES: screened at 4:20pm in Regent 2 on Sunday the 1st of August, 2004. The director was there and there was a Q&A afterwards. I went in with some interest but believe I was simply making use of the Volly privilege to view films if not needed. I’m really glad I got to see it. Set in the 1970s it was directed by Vilsoni Hereniko, the first feature film set and shot in the Fiji islands directed by an indigenous filmmaker. In one scene in a classroom the teacher turns to the class of all ages (probably all of Rotuma’s school going children) and tells them that only one of them will get to go to the capital of Fiji on a scholarship. I never forgot that scene, it put into perspective the privileges of my time and place and upbringing. There is something tranquil and beautiful in life on Rotuma that we envy but at least we have opportunities that those children did not. This is in the final years of British colonial rule of the island and has something to say about the joys and sorrows of small communal island life where religion holds sway. How lies and politics can turn the majority against the innocent and how brave and hard it is to stand up to such wrongs and bring forth the truth.

Image result for the land has eyesThe story was based on Hereniko’s childhood but to overcome writer’s block he changed the gender of the character based on him and found it gave him a great deal of freedom and creativity. Above is his wife and producer of the film Jeannette Paulson Hereniko. Shot on Betacam with many performers who’d never seen a film let alone be in one, the natural beauty of the island added to the production values but it also had the feel of you being there walking along the tracks with this young girl. A beautiful film of a son who has travelled far and done well but wanted to come back and tell a story about his homeland with his people warts and all but with a native son’s love and reflection.

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REPATRIATION: Saturday the 7th of August was a big day for me from the looks of it. I saw from South Korea Repatriation and Samaritan Girl. The former a documentary I enjoyed quite a bit more.  Directed by Kim Dong-won, it was about North Korean soldiers who had been released from prison after decades in the South. Having not converted from communism and now elderly they are left out in the world to make their way with no pension or support. There is kindness shown to them from South Koreans including the filmmaker himself but little of their experiences convince them that democracy is a better way of life. The film goes deeper into the history of the conflict and the ongoing cold war between the two sides. There’s bright spots too with soccer. Another great thing about film festivals was present when I attended a Q&A with Repatriation director Kim Dong-won and director Solrun Hoaas.

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Kim Dong-Won at the Q&A being nervously photographed by author in 2004 on his Nokia mobile phone. Copyright Lloyd Marken.

Kim Dong-won was a thoughtful and eloquent speaker which came as no surprise having watched his work. With a strong social vision he had also made a documentary about the clearing out of old housing for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Can you believe this Q & A was free?

 

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SAMARITAN GIRL: There were two sessions for Samaritan Girl, one on a Thursday 29JUL2004 at midday in Regent 1. The other on the final Saturday at 6pm in Regent 1 07AUG2017. This is more likely session I caught probably sneaking in as a Volly. I was captured by the striking photo featured in the BIFF booklet and I’ve long had an interest in visiting South Korea. I remember a medititive film with long quiet takes and characters slowly imploding. Directed by Kim Ki-duk it tells the story of two school girls who decide to prostitute one of themselves out while the friend is effectively the pimp. The latter has a father who is a detective. Things don’t go well and there’s strong themes about sexuality, parenthood, possessiveness, etc. Apparently themes of Buddhism is also at the heart of the film but I can’t remember much. It was probably not a good film and certainly not one that got its hooks into me but it was an opportunity to see another culture through their own eyes telling their stories and so for me there were positives to be drawn out of the experience.

That was it for the film I saw at BIFF in 2004. In terms of other interesting stories I’m not sure what to tell you. That night there was a scheduled late night screening of Phil The Alien, a fun weird movie from Canada but a legal battle had broken out about the music of the film. I was there the night a large midnight crowd was told Phil The Alien would not be screening. Nothing hair raising happened, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 was stepping into the breach but it certainly put into my mind how disappointing such a moment could be for a film festival crowd. I was young at the time and I can tell you such films are usually the must sees at a festival. I was disappointed too.

Being a Volly was a unique experience that I enjoyed, you got to meet lots of different people, hang out and discuss film. I enjoyed handing tickets over to people and sharing in the joy of being able to attend a film festival. There were some odd moments, one night I was trying to look after an elderly man descending stairs and may have grabbed a younger guy who didn’t see him. I was still a wardsman at the time. I’m not sure I could be a Volly now but I have fond memories. That Saturday night I didn’t eat, I ran around up and down stairs excited like a kid at the fairground proudly wearing my BIFF T-shirt. Tim and Mike came to meet me in the middle of the night at the end of my shift so we could head on over to a regular haunt of our’s the Pancake Parlour. I felt headachey and vomited in the bathroom seeing some blood. Afterwards I felt relatively fine and went back to my friends. I guess this was the beginning of getting older and having to realise one needs to take better care of one’s self. I don’t know but I was electric. It was one of the best days of my life. I loved BIFF, I really did but such days are moments in time. You have to move on to the next one and the next one. I’m glad I still have Mike and Tim in my life but we’re not catching up like we did back then now and that’s a good thing as much as I long for yesterday.

The next night I went in for the Closing Night party for staff which was thrown in thanks to the unpaid volunteers. It would start after the last patron left. We would get fed at the bar outside Regent 1 & 2 and get some free drinks. I’m shy by nature but I was rather emboldened by how welcoming the staff had been at BIFF. I was going to miss going into the offices upstairs in the old building, miss Andre and Michelle, Danny and Steve and Luis. There was a volunteer I would miss too who had blonde hair and was studying foreign film over at the University of Queensland. I asked Executive Manager Gary how he felt the festival had gone. I asked everybody about films and life. We headed out to Jimmy’s on the Mall which one of the twins had worked at and knew the owner. This was the old one before the new one opened years later that was situated right outside the Regent. I didn’t want the night to end but it did. There was more drinking, some people  got “real happy” and I couldn’t help but get a bit emotional myself. I was wondering how to say more to the girl from UQ with blonde hair. I wanted to stay with these people, I wanted to work a paying job for BIFF, I wanted the film festival to run all year round. Barely a year earlier I had not even known there was a film festival. A few weeks earlier I didn’t care much but now a whole world had opened up to me and it was ending. There was some comfort in knowing it would be back next year.

-Lloyd Marken

TOM HANKS TOP 5 FILMS COUNTDOWN AVAILABLE AT HEAVY

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Just a quick post to let you know I wrote a short retrospective on Tom Hanks career talking about his Five Best Films in my humble opinion over at Heavy Magazine. You can find that here https://heavymag.com.au/retrospective-tom-hanks-five-best-films/ With such an illustrious career there are many gems to champion so feel free to sound off in the comments about what your Top 5 would be.

Heavy is an independent magazine and website that is all about the music and specifically heavy music and supporting the Australian music scene in general. Fortunately for me they do cover film as well and I have been fortunate to have a few things published there.

Have a great weekend guys and gals.

-Lloyd Marken

 

 

 

 

 

HOW THEY DID THE OSCARS 2017

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About half an hour out from the end of the 89th Academy Awards I reflected to myself that this had may be one of the better broadcasts of the past decade. Jimmy Kimmel joins Ellen DeGeneres and Chris Tucker from last year as some of the better hosts in recent times the credit for such an achievement should go towards the producers to some extent who have a big role to play in how the show is structured. Jon Stewart for example had good monologues but his second attempt was poorly paced. Hugh Jackman excelled in an opening musical number a few years back but the rest of his show was in search of such an entertaining moment. Kimmel’s show ran like clockwork (wait for it, I’ll get to that later)and made good choices throughout. Food falling from the ceilings owes its sensibility to Ellen DeGeneres ingeniously getting pizza in for starved actresses in glamourous gowns but it worked, it was funny, showed off the scope of the theatre and gave the show a boisterous atmosphere. Having a tour bus of “regular” people stop by and engage with the stars before being shuffled to the exits took courage and despite some taking it all in their stride and shamelessly requesting selfies worked well. Perhaps because. I would like to note that a week ago I urged the Academy to recall moments from the past and reinvigorate a sense of community and coincidentally that is exactly what they did. Montages of previous speeches for acting awards came up before those awards were presented, there call backs to The Apartment, Bonnie and Clyde. The Bridges of Madison County and Back to the Future were fun. The pay off with a parody of it with Kimmel assessing We Bought a Zoo was worth it too. Jackie Chan also showed up but not to present a long overdue stunt category but to revel in his Honourary Oscar given at the previously held Governor’s Ball. Was all of this a coincidence coming after my blog post in a little corner of the internet? You be the judge.

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Whatever your politics the zingers Kimmel came up with were neat “Remember last year when people complained the Oscars were too racist” and he took aim enough at Hollywood itself that it seemed fair. The running gag of a feud with Matt Damon served him well even if the Mean Tweets Oscar Edition lacked teeth due to a primetime audience and maybe even a fear to not piss off those seated in the theatre too much. It should be worth noting that the first Oscar recipient at the first Academy Awards of President Trump was a Muslim with Mahershali Ali justly rewarded for his great work as Best Supporting Actor in Moonlight. I’m just sayin. Justin Timberlake’s opening outside the auditorium before entering it singing Can’t Stop The Feeling followed by a steadicam and some very talented back up dancers was a great way to take something that has been done many times before but never at the Oscars and make the event seem eventful. Seeing all the A-list actresses get down and boogie, Jessica Biel shimmy proudly with her man having his moment helped me forget that I am not really a fan of the song or Timberlake. I’ll give credit where it’s due, Timberlake did a good job and immediately there was a sense of fun in the air. All of the song performances were on key including a nifty idea for John Legend to perform both Audition and City of Stars in one go. Stone and Gosling presenting the songs lacked their usual chemistry but it feels less like a missed opportunity as just two talented actors leaving the singing and dancing to the professionals. Speaking of professionals, Sting’s appropriately pared back performance of Empty Chair was on key and Auli’I Cravalho didn’t miss a beat as she was knocked by one of the blue parasails while singing How Far I’ll Go. The singer is 17 years old and an incredible talent. On a night of great musical performances the highlight was Sara Bareilles singing Both Sides Now during the In Memoriam section, truly breathtaking.

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The video was well timed to have key quotes spoken during musical interludes allowing Gene Wilder, Mary Tyler Moore and Carrie Fisher the last word. Bill Paxton was mentioned by a visibly moved Jennifer Aniston and no doubt will feature in the montage next year. As a child of the 80s and a genre fan Paxton was always going to have a special place in my heart having been killed by a xenomorph, the Terminator and a Predator. Like Carrie Fisher though he was more than a genre actor, he was an artist with wonderful insight into the nature of storytelling and filmmaking. In a perverse way the Memoriam section is always the most moving piece of the ceremony and the one I look forward to the most. This year was exceptionally well done although sadly the photo of very much alive The Piano producer Jan Chapman was part of the montage when The Piano‘s costume designer the late great Janet Patterson’s name came onscreen.Image result for costume designer janet patterson An excellent piece over at the wonderful film website Dark Horizons suggests that a google search was done to select the photo rather than making contact with her agency or loved ones for one to be put forward. Perhaps a reflection of cutting down on costs or cutting corners in this economy but a mistake that hopefully will remind all involved that if something is worth doing (and honouring your community’s lost artists would be one wouldn’t it?!) then it should be done well. Dwayne Johnson rocked up to represent incredibly popular movie stars of blockbusters that weren’t Oscar nominated (as well as being in Moana) with an abundance of charisma, muscles and good humour. The Hollywood crowd really got into the spirit of things standing up for the White Helmets, NASA hero Katherine Johnson, Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, Michael J. Fox, and cheering loudly when 5 time nominee Amy Adams walked on to the stage. Ironically Kimmel the host got “a sitting ovation” as the audience found their seats after boogieing to Timberlake.

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Of all the winners I’m happy enough with the results, I didn’t have a favourite out of them and clichéd as it is I still believe being an Oscar nominee means something. That being said I was very pleased to see Kevin O’Connell win for Best Sound Mixing. I long suspected Hacksaw Ridge may grab a few tech awards and Arrival winning Best Sound Editing immediately before Best Sound Mixing threw me out of sorts. Suddenly I realised what a worthy nominee Arrival was and that it could win the next award. That is when Kevin O’Connell on the occasion of his 21st Oscar nomination snagged his first Oscar. The icing on the cake was his moving speech acknowledging his mother.

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The night before the Oscars I called my best friend. I predicted like last year there maybe a split between Best Picture and Director, Jenkins would get Best Director and La La Land would get Best Picture. He told me he believed Damien Chazelle would get Best Director and Moonlight would win Best Picture. My friend’s prediction turned out to be wrong for about two minutes and then it became right for all eternity. It all feels silly to react so strongly to this mistake at the Oscars. As such an well oiled machine it seemed impossible that such a thing would occur but in the grand scheme of things you don’t even have to look further than the ceremony itself to see real issues to care about like the work of the White Helmets in the Middle East going into damaged buildings from war to rescue people out of the rubble. A bunch of wealthy movie producers thought they won the greatest award in the film industry and then had to realise that for now they are just Academy Award nominated professionals. Fuck try hiking a mile out of your village just to get clean water. Yet I was caught up in the watercooler moment as much as anyone. Again Dark Horizons has a great piece about most likely what happened. Older presenters sometimes get flustered and lose their spots at award ceremonies, young presenters do too. In hindsight we can all say that Warren Beatty could have easily taken the mike and said something is wrong here we need to check this but in the history of the Oscars how often has the wrong envelope been handed to anybody. In the moment when something goes wrong it is very difficult to react, to see all the angles and know what to do. Once things started happening Warren and Jimmy Kimmel recognised they had a responsibility to react and to speak. They did well. oscars-2017-front.jpgThere’s no doubt that in the confusion of the situation La La Land‘s producer Jordan Horowitz at a moment of great professional disappointment spoke clearly and pointedly about what was going on. Holding up the card to got across to everyone what was happening. If you look though back at the footage he is disrespectful a little to Beatty who was clearly going back to the mike to explain. I’ve heard a couple of good under the bus jokes about Warren handing the envelope to Faye and that’s fine but I would remind people that Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty have done some of the best movies of the past century and respect should be shown at all times to them. Image result for oscars 2017Also the people in the control room of the telecast and working the cameras did magnificent work reacting in real time. Alas Sammy Davis Jr is no longer on hand to run with such moments. The million dollar question for me is who raised the alarm? Did Warren pull somebody over, did the accountants realise the wrong envelope had been given or do the producers of the show actually know the results ahead of time even it has been long reported that nobody knows until the envelopes are opened on the night? This was an unfortunate event, I understand heads will roll at PriceWaterhouseCoopers and AMPAS are unlikely to use them next year if they do use them in the future. There’s a part of me that just recognises that statistically shit happens and another part that recognises that when mistakes are made you have to learn from them. I feel bad for everybody involved even as I recognise there are more important things in the world to feel bad about.

I suspect the Academy will seek out a returning host next year, when something goes wrong you want to rebrand with something familiar (comforting) and respected (who drew good ratings for their telecast) and so therefore I believe Ellen DeGeneres better keep her dance card free this time of year in 2018. That being said I really enjoyed Jimmy Kimmel and I hope that we see him again soon as well as producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd. For me this might have been the best overall Oscar telecast since 2005 and the legacy of it should be more than this one mistake.

-Lloyd Marken

JASON BOURNE – YOU KNOW THIS FILM

Image result for jason bourneJason Bourne. You know his name. David Webb actually. You know his skills. I’ve never seen a magazine used like that. You know the man. sports matt damon boston red sox world series team america Jason Bourne a new fragrance for men from Paul Greengrass that smells very familiar. A good litmus test for how one will react to Jason Bourne will be in how much they enjoyed The Bourne Ultimatum.

Stop me if you ‘ve heard this one before. Jason Bourne is free, roaming the world having defeated his enemies at the end of the last film. Yet things nag at his conscience, he worries that they’ll come for him and new flashbacks never before experienced suggest other players played by the latest older white guy to appear in this film that point to an even larger conspiracy theory and an older black ops program that predates the one from the previous film. Somebody inexplicably decides to unearth Bourne even though it has never ended well for the CIA. The old white guy turns out to be responsible for everybody’s misery although the may try to be ambivalent about this at first. No matter how many operatives Bourne faces, there will be a particular assassin he duels with for the bulk of the film. There will be at least one spectacular car chase for the ages and one extremely well choreographed fight scene where the music stops and there is only the sound of grunting, impacts of blows and the snapping of bones.

An up and coming actress will have a pivotal role in the CIA and assist Bourne when she uncovers clues about the conspiracy theory. Joan Allen counts as up and coming – I expect big things from her in the future.

It’s no wonder if that all sounds familiar because, if not exactly the plot of the first film The Bourne Identity (a more upbeat film with Bourne actually amnesiac with the delightful Franka Potente as a love interest), it has certainly been the plot of every sequel. The Bourne Supremacy worked as a mirror to the first film with a darker, grittier style that benefitted emotionally from the feelings we had for characters from the first film. It seemed unlikely that the last we’d see of Jason was walking down that street in NYC since our imaginations ran riot with ideas of possibilities for the character. It’s fair to say none would have been as dispiriting as where we find him here. Having been on the run and in hiding for years, he makes a living as an underground fighter living off the grid. Former CIA agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), the only other character returning from all previous entries hacks the CIA and retrieves information about Jason’s comic book origins – cough – sorry past. This puts both Parsons and Bourne on the radar of the CIA again who meet in Greece as a taskforce is headed up by new CIA IT guru Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and over seen by CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones).

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The hook of The Bourne Ultimatum was Bourne came home to America to finally learn who he really was. This was supposed to make it unique and a continued development from Supremacy. It wasn’t. It was a cold repeat of moments that were better done in Doug Liman’s Identity and Greengrass’s own Supremacy. With star and director having recently rejuvenated their careers with the quality films Captain Phillips and The Martian you can’t be faulted for hoping this sequel might reverse this summer’s trend of undernourishing blockbusters. After all it’s been 9 years and during interviews there was a lot of talk by the creative team of how the world has changed with social media data collection, Snowden, Greece’s debt crisis, civil unrest and terrorist attacks in European metropolitan cities. Indeed there are many references to how the world has changed in this new film but it’s all lip service and nothing deeper is done with them.

If there is something new brought to proceedings it is that Bourne is now aged and dour, the ravages of this life lived are showing and with no character he trusts to play off his dialogue is minimal perhaps due to the fact that screenwriter Tony Gilroy is not on hand to write it. Narratively this makes sense but means Damon has less opportunity to portray a character and not a bas-ass automaton. Jason Bourne matt damon motorcyleThe superhuman Bourne here is a far cry from the highly skilled assassin of the first film who was one of many well trained spies. In this film, people say his name like a punchline or whisper it reflecting his legendary status in the CIA but also our popular culture. For some that will be enough, Matt Damon is back playing Jason Bourne and he remains a likeable if worn down hero. There is something compelling about the character and the way that Damon plays him that places the audience on his side and even here makes one consider even another sequel being made where the character can be further developed.

Greengrass and his team have not lost the knack for staging ambitious action sequences involving hundred of extras in global cities across the world, for example the riots in Athens (shot in Tenerife, Canary Islands) puts real scale and scope on the big screen as opposed to very pretty animation. Rather than quick cutting to death to hide a million sins, the people behind the scenes have done these stunts and captured the action on film in a clear but exciting fashion. The chases and fights are so retro they’re fresh, the destruction of 170 motor vehicles in the making of the car chase on the Las Vegas strip is the kind of vehicular mayhem you rarely see these days and is most welcome. Alicia Vikander has a few layers to her character too but ultimately nobody really engages interest with the audience. Bourne here is a bit too broken, at least Nicky is doing something with her life. In the books David Webb becomes an academic with a family, constantly drawn back into his former life but at least one can argue this way Bourne isn’t saddled with a revenge tale audiences know by rote. Because as it is already, this is a film you’ve seen twice already and when it was done better.

-Lloyd Marken

JAMES CORDEN WINS THE LATE NIGHT SUPERBOWL SPECIAL

Post Super Bowl programming deserves sports parlance as much as anything and in the case of CBS this year you could describe it as Stephen Colbert fumbled a great opportunity and James Corden showed up to play.

Late Night Talk Show Hosts are cults of personalities. Always have been. Johnny Carson the story goes turned to a young producer once about a show he was about to start. The producer had been explaining the skits, the formula, the guests, the production values. When the producer was done Carson leaned in and told him “These shows are all about the guy behind the desk.” They are and I can tell you this because without my guys Craig Ferguson and David Letterman the genre has held less appeal this past year. All that remain are talented entertainers but they’re not Craig Ferguson and David Letterman and so I have not felt compelled to write about them. Where I live and with the technology I have I semi-regularly catch whole shows of Stephen Colbert, James Corden and Jimmy Fallon. I chase down viral bits from Conan, Kimmel and Meyers on YouTube. Alas I’m not catching anything from Comedy Central because “I’m an overseas viewer.” Their loss or mine? Who knows in this social media driven culture. What I see I like and champion.

Jimmy Kimmel

I love Mean Tweets, Halloween pranks not so much. Kimmel general does well with his celebrity interviews and can engage politicians well enough. For example his opening up of Harrison Ford with a Chewbacca recurring bit is gold, Jimmy’s search for Austin’s Best BBQ which parodied The Bachelor was neat too. The stuff with Matt Damon is brilliant too even if the peak was that clip with Sarah Silverman all those years ago now.

Conan O’Brien

Coco’s ratings scores have been as low as 300,000 viewers during the low season and he has never crested a million on a regular night in years. Yet a little Cuban special snagged two million viewers taking in DVR recordings after the telecast last year. Relegated to TBS O’Brien has a social media presence and a youthful demographic that belies his years. He is the epitome of punching above his weight. Kids watching him now may not even know about the Leno fiasco of ’09 but they know about Uber, Tinder and Grinder, Ride Along with Kevin Hart and Ice Cube, Call of Duty, Archer, Magic Mike XXL and crucially they know funny and Conan O’Brien remains as funny as he has ever been. At 53 he is out doing remotes when Letterman was sending Biff Henderson and Rupert Jee into the fray. His cultural reach far exceeds his real numbers. Sure some of the interviews are boring, sure sometimes the monologue is lame. Who cares? This man shows up to work again and again and rather than coasting on old NBC bits he’s been reinventing himself for a new generation. GO COCO!

Jimmy Fallon

Fallon is King and moment to moment I doubt there’s anybody funnier that’s why he regularly rates higher than his competitors. You tune in for Trump on Colbert. You watch Fallon no matter who’s appearing because Fallon is appearing. His monologues actually make me laugh; he has an easy rapport with his house band The Roots which amongst being bonafide musicians all have unique personalities which are comfortable to get involved in sketches and on the spot riffing. It’s true they’ve had six years to get this down pat but they’re running like a well-oiled machine at this point. The question remains when will we get tired of this routine. Will Fallon ever mature into the statesman Carson and Letterman became? Does it really matter? Jimmy Fallon has no edge, so what? Late last year he asked a question of Trump who replied “These were not the question we agreed to.” In this simple gesture he made Jimmy Fallon more badass than any question he was going to ask would have made him. He once turned to Hilary Clinton and asked “Why don’t you release the e-mails? I’m sick of hearing about it, aren’t you?” and she agreed. He asked the question and he put it in terms that were on most American’s minds. Frustratingly they just moved on but that is not to say Fallon is a push over. He has actually been very steadfast that he wants to make a fun show and he wants his guests to have fun on his show like everybody else. You can tell Fallon’s politics as clearly as Colbert but like Conan O’Brien his show is not about politics but about having fun. As long as that is happening I don’t think he’s going anywhere. Can he be the fun guy for multiple generations? Can he do dance offs with the next pop sensation when he’s 55 or will it lose something when it isn’t a peer like Justin Timberlake? Time will tell but the man is incredibly talented, hardworking and he has the most entertaining show on late night television consistently. However short the reign he has not been a flash in the pan. He is the current King of Late Night Television. Fact.

 

Stephen Colbert

Colbert is booking CEOs, civil rights leaders and journalists in a way nobody else on network late night television is. This is classic counter programming which won’t place him in No.1 but will hopefully snag enough of a high income audience to justify his existence. The thinking person’s alternative though lost to Kimmel and Meyers throughout the month of December and those guys provide some of what he is selling to audiences as well. That makes it tricky. Plus nobody really bitches about Meyers lack of viralness because his lead in from Fallon makes him the highest rated in his timeslot by a country mile. The Colbert Report was so good for so long that we took for granted what an upheaval a new show would be. Colbert a former improve actor could sing and dance, his quick wit and intelligence was undeniable, his interviews in his old persona were actually really insightful and on top of it all he had a youthful openness, a yearning to ask questions and find answers rather than accuse and demean. Yet The Late Show with Stephen Colbert has been rife with teething problems of any first year out program. Jon Batiste is a talented musician and Colbert and he appear to genuinely like the other but chemistry comes from a variety of factors and right now… they don’t have it. Joe Biden’s interview on Colbert was a gift that reminds us what a great television moment of authenticity can be. A man clearly laying bare his emotions in a public forum without anything to gain from it as it turned out since he didn’t end up running.

I like a lot of the sketches Colbert has established written by his clever writers like “A Big Furry Hat” and even more so “Big Thoughts with even Bigger Stars.” Yet Colbert’s celebrity interviews are often as awkward as Fallon’s ass-kissing routine where everyone is so great and so funny. An easy rapport with Chris Pine and Josh Brolin recently had me questioning why can’t all Colbert interviews be like that?  This may not be entirely fair for someone who just renovated a theatre on Broadway and has big numbers in it but Colbert doesn’t seem to do remotes. Neither does Fallon to an extent but you feel it with Colbert. The guy is busting his ass, dabbling in live shows and doing five nights a week but when you take a break six weeks after your debut it feels lazy.

Which brings us to the Superbowl.

CBS took the unprecedented step of following their Super Bowl 50 coverage with a live telecast of their late night programs The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and The Late Late Show with James Corden. The Late Show started strong with a monologue that involved him throwing the football to first soldiers overseas, an astronaut and then the President. It’s the kind of extra expense stuff you save for such shows which also tugs at the heart strings of Americana. Support the troops, we can reach outer space and our Commander in Chief enjoys a throw of the ole pigskin as much as we all do. It got even better when Colbert involved in some meta humour. The President pointed out he was in a pre-taped bit to which the host insisted he was doing the show live. President Obama proved his point by bringing Colbert onscreen in the bit to talk to his live studio self. It was a neat sketch and was true to Stephen’s comic sensibilities.

Unfortunately the rest of the show was not as strong at all. Colbert followed with an interview with Tina Fey and Margot Robbie that was average despite Fey usually being funny. It was awkwardly interrupted by a cross to the Super Bowl stadium to have a satellite interview with MVP winner Von Miller. When it concluded Fey joked “Now about this movie.” Will Ferrell followed with a neat joke about being a new animal expert for the show and refusing to talk about Zoolander 2 which he was there to spruik. Yet I couldn’t help but flashback to his lip sync battle with Kevin Hart last year on Fallon and just feel these were half measures. A popular sketch from Key and Poole related to football also made an appearance before finally Megyn Kelly showed up to engage Colbert in the type of interview that he’s good at but at that point the hour had drawn near. 22,000,000 viewers watched this fucking show. Two decades ago at the height of his powers with a four network landscape and a Winter Olympics lead in David Letterman mustered 14 million on a weeknight. Last year when he retired he pulled 13.7 million. You’ll never get 22 million again, this was a golden opportunity to draw a wide net and grab some extra casual viewers over the long haul to hopefully remain a viable competitor. To be fair it wasn’t for lack of tyring, Key and Poole, Fey and Ferrell are all comedy superstars and were well chosen. They referenced football, they got the President and the First Lady to show up and Megyn Kelly is a high profile reporter and brings an audience that doesn’t tune into Colbert. It was the kind of aisle crossing inclusivity the late show host has practiced since he booked Jeb Bush on his first night on CBS. Yet it didn’t flow seamlessly, it was a mess of ideas and priorities. Look here’s celebrities but we’ve got to cross to an actual footballer. Here’s a sketch from another show because it involves football which means it will be fifty minutes before I talk to Megyn Kelly which arguably is going to be the best bit but will not be funny and we need to be funny right?

James Corden On The Other Hand

The Late Late Show followed and scored a franchise high of 5 million which is impressive when you consider some affiliates were going with local news at that point after cutting Colbert’s last few minutes. So let’s talk about James Corden. James Corden a portly British television and theatre star has spent twelve months on his show embracing American culture including kicking a half time field goal at a local game and hanging out at a tailgate party.

As a result when he got engaged with elements of the Super Bowl for his show it seemed more authentic and he more comfortable. Unlike Fallon and like Colbert he stayed in his home town and his home theatre but he did send his parents down to the Super Bowl to report from the field which was surprisingly funny and a little moving. Their son has been successful in the arts for a while now but in their bits there is a touch of grounded people marvelling at the opportunities afforded them and a wicked unfiltered sense of humour about life in general. James Corden had a great gag putting all Denver Bronco supporters in his studio and leaving Carolina Panther supporters in the car park where they set up rain machines to pour water on them before making it snow in L.A. Crossing back later in the show to show them huddled in ponchos he offered snacks for them punching through corn chips and dip through the rain machines. It is humour with a bit of bite but then the Bud Light crew showed up for the Panther fans and all was well. Corden was due to interview Peyton Manning but instead his bandleader Reggie Watts played a big musical number throughout before they lost the satellite feed. It’s a re-occurring gag they’ve done before and shows that Corden is prepared to be the butt of jokes as much as Panther fans. Referencing nostalgia like a boss James also starred in a parody of a classic Super Bowl advertisement with original star Cindy Crawford. Finally two strong bits that Corden does were brought into the show. He roped in young and hip performers Anna Kendrick, Adam Devine and Zac Effron to go through every sports movie in 7 minutes. It was a bigger scale version of the silly, low tech and funny sketch that has met with some success for him before. You know?! Kind of what you’re supposed to do with a post Super Bowl audience.

Following this formula he did a similar thing with his signature sketch- he did Carpool Karaoke with Elton John. This part of the show referenced nothing about the Super Bowl but it was Corden’s superstar sketch with a major superstar in it for his biggest audience ever. That’s how you do it. By organically filling the rest of the show with football the Elton John bit did not need it and since Carpool Karaoke is such a signature Corden bit its inclusion did not feel awkward or out of place either in the Super Bowl special. Speaking of Carpool Karaoke, a recent one with Adele has hit 67,000,000 views on YouTube. That’s more than anything on YouTube from any late night TV show. The Late Late Show with James Corden is not perfect but I marvel sometimes at it. It has a spirit of fun, has established its own identity within weeks of airing for the first time, Corden’s chemistry with Reggie Watts is easy and Watts is not a sidekick but his own thing. One night I tuned in and James Corden and Tori Kelly went out to restaurants in a remote and sang for their supper. Working outside the studio with a shaky premise and uncertain of how crowds are going to react makes for exciting if awkward television. As it advanced Reggie’s house band came out and Tori Kelly got people up and dancing to her song Nobody Love. The punch line made me smile.

Zoologist Jack Hanna of Letterman fame showed up with Betty White a great animal lover along with Amar’e Soudemire. Rachel Platten closed with a powerful rendition of her pop hit Stand By You. My God it was fun!

 

-Lloyd Marken

THE MARTIAN BRINGS MATT DAMON HOME TO BLOCKBUSTER STARDOM

 

A man wakes up marooned on a desert planet with his chest punctured. He gets up and staggers back to his lab, slow in his pace in pain and fatigued. Wounded and alone in the lab he must administer first aid to himself. There is no one to talk to and no time to think. He must either treat himself or he will die. There is no question in that moment about the futility of his survival and the challenges he will face if he is successful. There is only an immediate and inevitable task to complete to survive. No life flashing before his eyes. No admonishments of a crew that have abandoned him or questioning of his own decisions that put him in such a dire situation.

The whole scene is a microcosm of the film at large which is always first and foremost focussed on the survival of Mark Watney, the astronaut stranded on Mars after an emergency take off, played by Matt Damon. In earlier decades the role may have gone to Harrison Ford or Jimmy Stewart, movie stars that audiences easily relate to as one of them and actors whose greatest strength are underplaying the scene the more extraordinary the circumstances. If one is not a fan of Damon you can move on, I highly recommend for example checking out Mad Max on DVD this week but for the majority of the population this may be the best sci-fi film in years. Speaking of, Matt Damon and Ridley Scott need to buy screen writer Drew Goddard a drink and make it a double because he has made their best film each respectively in over a decade. Matchstick Men was the last time Sir Ridley scored this high and not counting the numerous Matt Damon supporting roles in films and indie hits this is his best blockbuster since The Bourne Supremacy, sorry people The Bourne Ultimatum is just a remake of Supremacy with diminishing returns.

Where Goddard has gone right adapting from an original novel is where so much other recent output has gone wrong. In short the film’s greatest strength is its lack of ambition. No navel gazing here. Mark does not have a family waiting for him at home that he desperately misses, he just wants to live. There are no political allegories about rich and poor, ideologies, immigration, etc. No great questions about what Mars exploration could mean for our society and our place in the universe. At times Watney lies under his Rover in the Red Dirt and we may ponder how extraordinary it would be to live on another planet but while the camera takes in the locations it does not dwell on them. The film looks great but there is a businesslike approach to the shots of orientation not infatuation which coming from such a great visual stylist as Sir Ridley is a surprise but not a disappointment.

Beneath the surface are a few points being made? The reaction of some at NASA to find him alive is to begin a dialogue about how this should be handled in the media but these seem like inevitable conversations that would take place between people who’s priorities are complex.

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At first the scenes on Mars are far more interesting. Watney’s plight is dire and daunting and yet the film has a cheeky sense of humour about it. See Damon deadpan about a failed experiment to camera after he blows himself up. As Watney finds a way to communicate with NASA his rescue and the film grow momentum. The people at NASA become warmer and their story more humorous by interacting with Watney. As Watney comes up with an ingenious way to grow potatoes so too do engineers back home have to problem solve a way to rescue him and their numbers grow with more offbeat characters. A sole human stranded and isolated on Mars humanises a group of bureaucrats sitting comfortably back home on Earth via increased contact with him. I don’t think this is unplanned by the filmmakers.

Sound also plays an important part in the film, I can’t guarantee it 100% but I don’t recall any military drums building in the background as people declare they will bring ‘our’ boy home. It is not only Damon underplaying here. Silence is used a lot to reflect the vacuum of space and moments of tension. We are as focussed for example on air escaping through broken visors and alarms sounding as Watney is, sometimes more. The score is non-demonstrative and the music that makes itself far more known is the 70s hits that Watney is forced to listen to for comfort as it is the only music on the planet. That cheeky humour comes through in the song choices here too. As Watney prepares for his rescue ABBA’s Waterloo comes on reflecting both Watney’s attitude towards the plan but also playing against audience expectations

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A film about a stranded astronaut rife with 70s tracks demands a track from Bowie to be used and The Martian answers the call better than I could have hoped. The choice of Major Tom would have been welcome if too on the nose. Instead Starman begins right where it needs to in arguably the best moments of the film. The crew who left Watney behind circle around Earth to pick up supplies and sling shot back towards him. This enables the crew to communicate with families hundreds of miles away from them but as close as they have been in months before returning to rescue their stranded crew member. It is a heroic gesture full of sacrifice but the film plays the scene as one of unbridled joy. “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.

This is one of the year’s best.