Thursday, 11 December 2014

FILM REVIEW: PADDINGTON



Studio Canal

The last time big money was spent updating an iconic bear for the big screen and a younger generation we got Yogi Bear (2010). That loud and unfunny film's saving grace was its pro-environment message (and its Kevin Rudd-esque villain), but just what longtime fans of the mischievous bear with a penchant for pic-a-nic baskets made of it -- not to mention the Hanna-Barbera estate -- who's to say?

So it's completely understandable that fans of author Michael Bond's creation, Paddington Bear -- debuting in print in 1958, and appearing in a mixed animation TV series in 1975 -- would be wary of a big screen adaptation of the Peruvian-born Anglophile with an alarming marmalade habit. The good news is that Paddington is a fun, sweet family film which is at once modern yet faithful to its source materials.

With a swift and witty prologue explaining how Peruvian bears could come to speak the Queen's English and long to travel to London, it's not long before a young bear, spurred on by tragedy, finds himself stowed away on a freighter ship headed for the United Kingdom.

Under the illusion that the Brits are a welcoming people and finding a home will be a simple as being offered to come live with a local family, the bear (voiced wonderfully by Ben Whishaw) soon realises that the knowledge that he, his aunt (Imelda Staunton) and late uncle (Michael Gambon) had of ol' Blighty (passed on by an intrepid explorer) may be somewhat out-of-date (well, except for the weather: that's a constant).

But the bear is taken in by the Brown family -- a whimsical children's author mother (Sally Hawkins), po-faced insurance analyst dad (Hugh Bonneville), pre-teen son, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), adolescent daughter, Lucy (Madeleine Harris), and housekeeper, Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters) -- and christened Paddington (his name as spoken in native bear being not-so easy to pronounce). Cue calamity after calamity -- for Paddington is an accident-prone bear -- and danger.

That danger comes in the form of Millicent Clyde (Nicole Kidman), a taxidermist with the British Museum who sets her sights on the Peruvian immigrant with the aim of adding him to her no-longer-living collection. Nowhere near as camp as Glenn Close's Cruella De Vil (from 1996's 101 Dalmations), Kidman makes for a rather chilling villain; her blonde bob and ice-water veins lightened somewhat by her interaction with Peter Capaldi's Mr. Curry; a curmudgeonly neighbour to the Browns who becomes smitten with the psychopathic stuffer.

It is the film's sense of humour, British but no less universal, which is one of the delights of Paddington. Amusing sight gags and enthralling action set pieces also help. And with the producers of Harry Potter behind it, and directed by Paul King (responsible for TV comedy The Mighty Boosh, and Bunny and the Bull (2009)), Bond's creation arrives on the big screen in safe yet irreverent hands; Paddington emerging in 2014, alive and free of mothballs.

And although rendered in CGI (the mix of live-action and animation a nod to the 1975 TV series, perhaps?), Paddington is a completely believable character. That's thanks in no small part to the voice work of Whishaw who makes the bear both a wide-eyed innocent yet someone who learns rather quickly just how the (Western) world works, and suggesting in his own quiet way how it should: Paddington's ethos of 'be adventurous but be polite' should endear him to a whole new audience.

Kids of all ages will eat this film up like so many marmalade sandwiches.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

MOVIE TIX GIVEAWAY: MR. TURNER



MR. TURNER explores the last quarter century of the great, if eccentric, British painter J.M.W. Turner. Profoundly affected by the death of his father, loved by a housekeeper he takes for granted and occasionally exploits sexually, he forms a close relationship with a seaside landlady with whom he lives incognito until his death in 1851.

Throughout this time, he travels paints, stays with the country aristocracy, visits brothels, is a popular if anarchic member of the Royal Academy of Arts, and is both celebrated and reviled by the public and royalty.

Thanks to Transmission Films, we have double passes to MR. TURNER to give away. Keep an eye on our Twitter feed (@TheLennoXFiles) for a shout-out for your chance to win. Note: for Australian citizens only.

MR. TURNER opens December 26.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

FILM REVIEW: EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS



20th Century Fox Films

You don't have to be a devout Christian to know the story of Moses, it's as old as, well, the Bible. Anyone who attended Sunday school or has had a passing glance at 'the good book' knows the basics of how it all went down in ancient Egypt, 1300 BCE or thereabouts.

Born a Hebrew but abandoned in a weave basket to the River Nile following a pharaoh's decree that all first born Hebrew boys be slaughtered, Moses was adopted by the pharaoh's court and raised as the future ruler's cousin. But when his ancestry was revealed, he was cast out and so began his odyssey which, with a little help from a higher power, saw him return to the city of Memphis to free the Israelites after 400 years of slavery.

Of course, there's the more visceral elements of the Old Testament story -- the Nile awash with blood, plagues of toads and locusts, and the parting of the Red Sea -- which enthrall young Sunday schoolers and no doubt piqued director Ridley Scott's interest (along with his team of CGI artists), and justified his decision to present the film in 3D.

The recreation of ancient Egypt, like those of Rome in Gladiator (2000), were perhaps also enticing; familiar historical ground for Scott to find his footing after the less-than-stellar modern and future-set outings, The Counselor (2013) and Prometheus (2012).

And there's no denying that the broad strokes and majesty of Exodus: Gods and Kings is impressive (kudos to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski). But where the film falters is in its smaller, human moments; whether that be the racially insensitive casting (yes, it matters), or the subsequent under-utilization of said cast (Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul have thankless roles; and the less said about Ben Mendelsohn's 'Carry On' viceroy the better).

There's also the failure to muster much empathy for either main protagonist. Both Christian Bale, as Moses, and Joel Edgerton, as Rhamses, give solid performances but we don't much care about the man who may or may not be speaking to God (who appears to the non-believer in the guise of petulant 10-year-old boy), nor the somewhat conflicted pharaoh who builds his empire on a foundation of brutal slavery.

That said, Bale's hero is far more agreeable than was Russell Crowe's maniacal titular Noah in the other Biblical epic of 2014, directed by Darren Aronofsky. And Scott's film, for all its modern wizardry is far more traditional and classic; hewing more closely to the Biblical epic template of old Hollywood and to its source material (there are no rock Transformers to be found in ancient Egypt).

But at 150-minutes, Scott and his (four-man) writing team take far too long to tell this familiar tale; intermittently impressing but perhaps ultimately converting very few.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

FILM REVIEWS: MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN / NIGHTCRAWLER



Two very different films about the evils of two forms of media, new and old, Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children, and Dan Gilroy's Nigthcrawler, examine the relationships between the medium and the audience and discover a similar root cause: people.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN (Paramount Pictures), adapted by Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson from the book by Chad Kultgen, is a multi-narrative, multi-character study of the internet and its impact on human relationships among a group of white, middle class Texans.

There's the decline of sexual interest between a married couple (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) leading to adultery; meanwhile their 15-year-old son (Travis Tope) has become addicted to online porn. Then there's the father and son (Dean Norris and Ansel Elgort) coping with the hole left by the departure of wife and mother; the son quitting the football team and finding solace in the online gaming community). That same boy has also begun a fledgling romance with a girl (Kaitlyn Dever) whose mother (Jennifer Garner) tracks her every online movement, privacy be damned.

There's also another mother (Judy Greer) who is pimping her teen daughter (Olivia Crocicchia) through a private website in pursuit of her daughter's stardom. It's not pornographic, but one man's swimsuit catalogue is another's j.o. material, and, as mother and daughter soon find, once it's online there's no controlling it or how it is received.

Each of these stories asks -- without necessarily accusing -- if the internet is responsible for these issues or merely exacerbates them. Perhaps it's Reitman's refusal to make a declarative statement one way or the other, the film's much too earnest and not nearly light enough approach (save for Emma Thompson's anthropological voice-over narration), or simply the fact that a film about people on computers, tablets, and smartphones hardly makes for gripping viewing which renders Men, Women & Children only fitfully engaging.

Some stories and characters are more intriguing than others (to wit, more DeWitt!), while the lack of diversity -- apparently only white heterosexuals go online -- is also strikingly odd for a film set very much in the now.

After this film, and the somewhat unfairly maligned Labor Day (2013), Reitman may need to consider re-teaming with writer Diablo Cody, responsible for two of his better films, Juno (2007) and Young Adult (2011), and simply lighten up.




Pitch black but no less enjoyable for that, Dan Gilroy's NIGHTCRAWLER (Madman Films), his feature debut after a successful screenwriting career, looks at the declining standards in television news through the eyes of Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), novice cameraman and veteran sociopath who uncovers the world of freelance crime reporting on the night-time streets of Los Angeles and thinks, why not me?

An opportunist in need of work and hungry to succeed (Gyllanhaal thin and looking in need of a decent meal), Louis takes to his new career with relish, encouraged by the attentions of news producer, Nina Romina (Rene Russo), who senses Louis may not be playing with a full deck of cards but hey, he shoots good shit. And eager to impress -- and make more money selling his footage -- Louis, accompanied by his intern, Rick (Riz Ahmed), goes to greater, riskier and, yes, illegal lengths to get the money shot.

Nightcrawler is entertaining, gripping and not the least bit believable but Gyllenhaal is on fire: at once repellent and magnetic, and creepy as all hell. Louis Bloom has a dark heart and possibly no soul which, in the film's biggest, saddest joke makes him perfect for TV journalism.

Of course, the media has been skewered on film before, and much better than it is here. But then TV has never had a rival such as the internet before; competing for immediacy, authority and, above all, the audience. And as Nina knows and Louis soon learns, no one ever went broke appealing to the lowest common denominator.

Both films, each in their own and less-than-successful ways, seem to suggest that it's not the medium but the messenger and the audience who are at fault for the corrupted signal. Much like politicians and superheroes, we get the media we deserve.

If that's the case, we might want to take the opposite advice of Tim Leary, 1960s counterculture icon, and turn off and tune out. Or at the very least, log-off for an hour or two a day and be a little more judicious with our viewing habits. (Oh, and delete your browser history.)