The Two Faces of January

Tuesday, 24 June, 2014

3 stars
The Two Faces of January scene

Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a young American who lives in Athens, and works as a tour guide, gets far more than he bargained for after Colette (Kirsten Dunst), the younger wife of US financial adviser Chester (Viggo Mortensen), catches his eye, in The Two Faces of January, trailer, the debut feature of Iranian filmmaker Hossein Amini.

As it happens, Chester, who is on the run from aggrieved investors in the US, has also accidentally killed a private detective (David Warshofsky) who was trailing him. Seeing what might be an opportunity to come closer to Colette, Rydal offers to help the couple, but soon finds he is in just as much danger as they are.

Based on the 1964 novel of the same name, written by Patricia Highsmith, “The Two Faces of January”, with its spectacular Mediterranean back drops, makes a promising start, as but as the story progresses the sense that the three leads are merely going through the motions, while lurching from one crisis to another, only grows.

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Inside Llewyn Davis

Thursday, 16 January, 2014

4 stars
Inside Llewyn Davis scene

Late US musician Dave Van Ronk may not exactly have been a household name, but he was at the forefront of the American acoustic folk revival of the 1960s, and his early life forms the basis of Inside Llewyn Davis, trailer, the latest feature by US filmmaking brothers, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (“No Country for Old Men”, “True Grit”).

Even though he has an album to his name, and regular gigs at New York City’s Gaslight Cafe, Davis (Oscar Isaac) struggles to eke out an existence. An itinerant lifestyle sees him sleeping on friends’ couches, and relying on hitchhiking as a means of transport, while the prospect of returning to his old job as a merchant marine constantly looms.

Playing out over a few weeks during the bleak 1961 winter, “Inside Llewyn Davis” makes for engaging viewing even though little really happens. Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, and Justin Timberlake, among others, round out an able cast, and fans of the Coen brother’s singular style of filmmaking will especially enjoy the way the story wraps up.

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Friday, 28 October, 2011

2 and a half stars

The premise

Drive (trailer), a drama thriller, is the latest feature of Danish film director Nicolas Winding Refn (“Bronson”, “Valhalla Rising”). While based on the novel of the same name, written by James Sallis in 2005, some comparisons have been made with a 1978 film called “The Driver”, in that both lead characters share similar traits.

“Drive” stars Ryan Gosling playing a character known only as “Driver”, a solitary man of few words, who mixes part time work as both a mechanic and stunt actor, with a sideline gig as a getaway driver, where he adeptly ports thieves from the scenes of their crimes to refuge, by way of some intricately planned escape routes.

The play

Driver begins to cast off his desire for isolation after befriending a new neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), a single mother living with young son Benicio (Kaden Leos) in a nearby apartment. Driver learns that her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is in prison, and in his absence draws closer to both Irene and Benicio.

Matters become somewhat more complicated after Standard’s release though. While generally appreciative of Driver’s help to the family during his incarceration, Standard finds himself being pursued by standover men looking for money he owes them. Driver, seeing Standard can’t possibly afford to repay the debt, offers to help Standard rob a pawn shop.

After the heist goes horribly wrong though, Driver, who ended up with the million dollar cash haul from the robbery, finds himself running from one of Los Angeles most feared criminals, Nino (Ron Perlman). With Nino demanding the return of the money in exchange for Irene’s well being, Driver realises no one will ever be truly safe while Nino is alive.

The wrap

“Drive” is a film that puzzles me. While it won the “Best Director Award” at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and has been collecting glowing reviews ever since, I found it to be erratically paced, incohesive, and excessively violent, not to mention being lumbered with a soundtrack more befitting of a rom-com than a thriller.

Scenes intended, perhaps, to be high on apprehension and contemplation often led nowhere, and instead came off as being brooding and pretentious. Parts of “Drive” were enjoyable however, particularly the getaway and chase sequences, which were often tense and dramatic, but otherwise this was an empty, unrewarding, experience.

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Friday, 19 November, 2010

3 and a half stars

The premise

Agora (trailer), directed by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar, is a historical drama based on the life of Greek scholar and astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, during the early part of the fifth century.

Home for centuries to the Library of Alexandria, the city remained the known world’s centre of knowledge and learning, despite being under the yoke of the Roman Empire. Rome however was beginning to loose its grip over its sprawling territories, and was coming under increasing pressure to adopt Christianity – over Paganism – as the Empire’s official religion.

The play

Despite the rising influence of Christianity, Hypatia remained stoically indifferent to faith of any sort – whether Pagan or Christian – she was simply more interested in her work, and trying to solve ages old mysteries of the universe.

While it was widely believed that the Earth was flat, and also the centre of creation, Hypatia, troubled by the observed motion of the Earth, the Sun, and “wandering” planets, devoted much of her life to understanding the workings of the solar system. In awe of her, and her work, were Orestes (Oscar Isaac), one of her students, and Davus (Max Minghella), her slave.

Following the entrenchment of Christianity in the city – after much violent unrest – Cyril (Sami Samir), a leading Christian insurgent, became Alexandria’s Patriarch. As time went on however he grew increasingly resentful of Hypatia, who seemed to wield all together too much influence over Orestes, now the Roman Prefect of the region.

Taking advantage of the sway he had over the populace, Cyril denounced Hypatia as a heretic and a witch, effectively condemning her to death. Meantime Davus, who had converted to Christianity, and became a monk after being released from slavery, has to decide where his loyalties lie after his order decides to stone Hypatia…

The wrap

“Agora” is a well made, relativity factual account of Hypatia’s life, and events in Alexandria during the rise of Christianity in the region, and despite being set some 1600 years ago, says a lot about today’s world, where science and religion remain in conflict, religious intolerance is rife, and the sometimes scant regard for personal choice in matters of faith.

The story is intercut with ethereal like images of the silent Earth, isolated and adrift in the quiet cosmos, scenes that are in sharp contrast to the riotous chaos on parts of the planet’s surface and, which to me, had the most to say about the subject matter of the film.

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“Agora” movie passes giveaway

Thursday, 11 November, 2010

Agora movie poster

Directed by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar (“The Sea Inside”, “The Others”), Agora (see the trailer here) is set in Egypt, in the late fourth century, as the influence of Christianity spreads through the Roman Empire.

As violent religious upheaval grips the streets of Alexandria, the brilliant astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and her disciples fight to save the wisdom of the ancient world housed within the Library of Alexandria.

Among her followers, two men compete for her heart: the witty, privileged Orestes (Oscar Isaac), and Davus (Max Minghella), Hypatia’s young slave, who is torn between his secret love for her and the freedom that can be his if he joins the unstoppable surge of the Christians.

Agora movie still

Update: this giveaway has now closed, thanks for your interest. To be notified of future giveaways sign up to’s email announcement list.

“Agora” opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday, 18 November, 2010, and thanks to the people at Pop Culture I have ten double passes to giveaway to readers.

To go the draw for a double pass, valid from Thursday, 18 November, 2010 until the end of the film’s Australian theatrical season, simply send me an email with “Agora” in the subject line.

I will post the passes to winners shortly. One entry per person please (sorry, you must be residing in Australia to take part).

PS: if you wish to be notified of future such promotions, you might like to sign up to’s email announcement list.

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Monday, 26 July, 2010

4 stars

The premise

Based on actual events, Balibo is Robert Connolly’s film adaptation of former Reuters reporter Jill Jolliffe’s book, “Cover Up”, about events surrounding Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor, immediately to the north of Australia, and the death of five Australian journalists who were working there.

“Balibo” is narrated, in part, by a Timorese woman, Juliana (Bea Viegas), who recalls happenings she witnessed as an eight year old girl (played by Anamaria Barreto) in the lead up to the invasion, an event that was largely overlooked by governments worldwide, including Australia’s.

The play

Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia) is a middle-aged Australian journalist – whose best days as a reporter seem to be behind him – working in the northern city of Darwin. A young Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) – who is today East Timor’s president – travels to Australia to meet East and offer him a job as head of their news agency.

East at first rejects the role, but changes his mind after Ramos-Horta hands him a file with information about five Australian journalists – later dubbed the “Balibo Five” – who have gone missing near the East Timorese town of Balibo. His curiosity piqued, East travels with Ramos-Horta to the country’s capital, Dili.

While checking into a Dili hotel East meets the young Juliana, whose father works there. She is an observant girl, who among other things, asks why the English queen is on the back of an Australian coin that East gives her to practice her coin-flipping technique with.

Before taking up his role with the local news agency, East insists Ramos-Horta help him find out what happened to the missing Australian journalists, by travelling to Balibo, where they were last seen. This is something Ramos-Horta is extremely reluctant to do, given the imminent threat of invasion.

The wrap

In terms of what happened on the ground in East Timor during the Indonesian invasion “Balibo” is a gritty yet accurate portrayal of events, and also conveys – all too starkly – the terror that must be experienced as an invading army marches through the streets of your hometown, shooting at will.

As a commentary on significant events in Australian history though I felt “Balibo” could have been a little more informative. For instance there was virtually no explanation as to why Indonesia was invading East Timor, and very little was made of the Australian government’s response (or lack thereof) to the situation.

The multiple narratives were also a little confusing, and I wasn’t sure exactly whose perspective this story was being told from, was it meant to be Juliana, or Roger East? Despite its flaws though, “Balibo” is a well made insight into the dangers of war journalism and the very real risks news crews take in battle zones.

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Robin Hood

Friday, 14 May, 2010

4 stars

The premise

After a reputed 111 tellings of the old English legend of Robin Hood in film and television, the question naturally arises, what can be done to give version 112 a new and engaging twist, while still holding true – sort of – to the original tale?

Robin Hood director Ridley Scott, and screenwriter Brian Helgeland, pondered the question long and hard and decided a complete rewrite was in order. The archetypal tights wearing saviour of the poor is no more, with the void being filled by what’s best described as the fore-runner of the contemporary action hero.

Robin Hood exists only in myth after all, so what’s the harm in changing the story around a little, and creating a tale about Robin Hood before he was Robin Hood, or, to quote Scott and Helgeland themselves, a prequel.

The play

Scott’s rendition opens as English King, Richard the Lion Heart (Danny Huston), is returning to England after the third crusade. At this point Robin Hood, still known as Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe), is a soldier in Richard’s army. After the King’s (mythical) death in France, Robin and a small group of friends decide to make their own way home.

On the way they encounter Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), who, fatally wounded in an ambush, pleads with Robin to return his sword to his father, Sir Walter (Max von Sydow), in Nottingham. Upon arrival at the Loxley estate Robin makes the acquaintance of Sir Robert’s now widowed wife, Marion (Cate Blanchett), and the love light soon begins to shine.

Meanwhile Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), who the now King John (Oscar Isaac) believed to be a life long friend and trusted ally, is in fact a French double agent, and is colluding with King Philip of France (Jonathan Zaccai). If the all powerful English barons could be turned against John, a French invasion of England would be a much easier task.

Sir Godfrey, having been appointed chancellor by John, promptly sets about making the new King as unpopular as possible by forcibly attempting to collect taxes. Having been taxed harshly to fund King Richard’s crusades, few people can afford to pay, which usually results in their villages being razed, or their families put to the sword.

The seeds of civil war have indeed been sowed…

The wrap

For a prequel, and a back-story as to how he became an outlaw, “Robin Hood” isn’t too bad, and a lot of ground is covered in the near two and a half hour run time.

Despite the generous screen time though, a number of story elements are glossed over, some more irritating than others. Robin Hood’s merry men, Little John (Kevin Durand), Friar Tuck (Mark Addy), etc, definitely play second fiddle to the hooded outlaw, but we do get the idea as to how the group comes together.

The feared (at least in legend) Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen), has little more than a cameo role, but seems more the bumbling bureaucrat than anything. Maybe we’ll see more of these central characters in the next installment.

What really didn’t make sense to me though were the circumstances in which Robin Hood was declared an outlaw. Rather than earning the label through any criminal activity, it seems he was deemed persona non grata simply because he ended up with more kudos than King John.

I don’t know, I guess that’s politics for you…

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