Thursday, 31 December 2009


Now Showing
Hopscotch Films

I apologise for the lateness of my review for this film, the reason for which I shall explain. Sometimes the hardest review to write is the one for a film that you had no strong feelings for one way or the other. A film you love is easy to wax lyrical about, so, too, is one you hate. I'll admit to relishing tearing strips off a film that has royally pissed me off.

But then there are those films that you neither love nor hate. They have their redeeming qualities but they just don't grab you in any particular way. For want of a better word, these are the 'meh' films. Bright Star, I'm sad to say, is, for me, one of those 'meh' films. Well acted, beautifully shot, wonderfully scored and based on a true story (the chaste love affair between poet John Keats and his neighbour Fanny Brawne), it had the ingredients for a promising film.

And I had been eagerly anticipating Jane Campion's new film, her first in six years, not only as a result of good buzz from this year's Cannes film festival but because, since her Cannes prizewinner of 1993, The Piano, I have had a soft spot for this director's work.

Campion's films deals almost exclusively with the female experience. The Piano, Portrait of a Lady, Holy Smoke and In The Cut, have all centred around strong, if flawed, female protagonists. So, too, does Bright Star. While John Keats (Ben Whishaw) is the more famous person, regarded as one of the great Romantic poets, Campion has chosen to tell her story from the point of view of his young muse, Fanny (Abbie Cornish). That is more than likely because she prefers the female POV, but I suspect Campion also wanted to avoid the cliches of the biopic, especially those of the “struggling artist”.

Whatever the reason, Campion has certainly found a worthy conduit in Cornish. The young Australian actress, who came to attention in the 2004 film Somersault, and has been racking up supporting roles in American and English films since, makes the most of the leading role, this young, inexperienced but no less formidable woman. Fanny is enamored with her own clothing creations and readily admits to not wholly understanding Keats' work. But she challenges Keats, winning his admiration and heart in the process.

Of course, their love is doomed with Keats already suffering the onset of tuberculosis early in their courtship. This inevitability may explain why Whishaw plays the poet with a sense of ethereal aloofness; he's certainly not as 'present' as Fanny. Not more than three years after their meeting, Keats dies in Italy and Cornish's reaction to Fanny's hearing this news injects the film with its first and only burst of real emotion. But for me it was too little too late.

But I reiterate: I did not hate Bright Star nor do I think it is a bad film. Romantics, poetry scholars, lovers of period films and admirers of Campion's work may find much more than I to admire in Bright Star and I would urge them to see it. I hope to view it again at a later juncture, and will hopefully glean much more from the experience; perhaps raising my initial 'meh' score to that of a passing grade if not an ode of affection.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009


Now Showing
Palace Films

This film has been billed as a Gallic version of American Pie, a ploy no doubt cooked up as the result of some marketing brainstorm: how do we attract teen audiences away from Sherlock Holmes or their second or third viewing of Avatar? With the promise of bawdy teen sex, that's how!

That's more of a tease than a promise as there is no bawdy sex in The French Kissers, French animator Riad Sattouf's directorial debut. But the “heroes” of Sattouf's film, Herve and Camel (and if you think his name is unfortunate, you should see his hair), are quite crude. They are also not from Hollywood central casting. Bad clothes, bad hair and pimply faces, they make their American counterparts look like virtual Hugh Heffners in comparison.

Crude, too, is Sattouf's direction. A simple point and shoot style to accompany his deceptively simple tale of teenagers and their number one preoccupation. But The French Kissers eventually wins you over with its charm. Will Herve (Vincent Lacoste) do the same with popular girl Aurore (Alice Tremolieres)? I'm not one to kiss and tell.


Now Showing
Paramount Pictures

The major challenge presented to director Peter Jackson in choosing to adapt Alice Sebold's bestselling novel, The Lovely Bones, was always going to be in effectively balancing the Heaven-like world of the In-Between with that of the real world circa 1973.

The In-Between is where Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), 14 years old and never been kissed, resides after she is murdered by a neighbour on her way home from school. Susie is kept in a state of flux as she has unfinished business on earth where her grieving family, including parents Abigail (Rachel Weisz) and Jack (Mark Wahlberg), struggle to come to terms with her absence.

Susie is our omnipotent narrator, not only watching over her family but her killer, Mr Harvey (Stanley Tucci), who continues living in the neighbourhood after the murder and soon sets his sights on Susie's younger sister, Lindsey (Rose McIver). Lyndsey, in turn, keeps a watchful eye on her odd neighbour whom she increasingly suspects of having something to do with her sister's death.

All of this sounds both heavy going and suspenseful, and it originally was in Sebold's book. But on screen, for whatever reason, there is no real sense of tragedy or grief (and only one real moment of suspense). Yes, the murder of a child is shocking, and too many movies of late have relied on this somewhat morbid device for easily accessing the audience's emotions. But I felt nothing watching Jackson's film which wasn't the case when I read the book. I particularly recall one scene where the father uses a board game to explain to Susie's little brother why she won't be coming home; it was truly heartbreaking.

That scene doesn't appear in the film and neither do some of the novel's other storylines. What does remain is the ending which, for me, was the book's great weakness. Jackson's weakness seems to be investing too much time in creating the In-Between – CGI-heavy, ever-changing backdrops reflective of Susie's consciousness – and not enough time investing his earthbound characters with beating hearts, however heavy with grief. So much so that when Susan Sarandon shows up, all false eyelashes and whisky breath as Grandma Lynn, her presence was no doubt intended to provide some light relief. But the lack of any real sadness to alleviate makes her performance just another of the film's incongruities.

Now, I'm not one of those people who scream bloody murder when a writer or director chooses to differ from the original source material when they adapt a book for the screen, cutting characters here and changing plot points there. But I think those who have not read Alice Sebold's novel may be able to engage The Lovely Bones much more easily than those of us who have. And for those who loved the original book, might I suggest you spend your Boxing Day reacquainting yourself with the original text.

Monday, 21 December 2009


Now Showing
Sony Pictures

You know you're in trouble when the premise for your comedy – a happily unmarried couple who witness a murder are forced into protective custody and sent to a locale foreign to their way of life – has been done before with Tim Allen and Kirstie Alley – and was funnier.

I'm not sure if the blame lies with the hackneyed premise, writer-director Marc Lawrence (Two Weeks' Notice, Music and Lyrics), or the two leads, Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker, but something is missing from Did You Hear About The Morgans? that makes any attempt at humour fall flat.

The Morgans (Grant and Parker), successful New Yorkers, have separated following lawyer Paul's infidelity. Meryl, a successful real estate broker, is less enthusiastic about a reunion than Paul but following an enjoyable dinner they take a walk only to witness said murder. In no time at all they are whisked away to Wyoming and under the protective custody of Sheriff Clay Foster (Sam Elliott) and his gun-toting wife Emma (Mary Steenburgen).

Cue fish-out-of-water jokes, including bears, firearms and – gulp – bargain barns. And there's the vast open plains of Wyoming that will either inspire a reconciliation or drive the couple mad. Or the viewer. After about 15 minutes of this, I'd wished I had the phone number of the hitman pursuing the Morgans so I could divulge their location and have him put us all out of our misery. Did I mention the film was painfully unfunny?

Speaking of pain, Grant spends the entire film looking as though he has taken one too many painkillers for a back complaint. Maybe that's why he also appears to be speaking an octave lower than usual? Sarah Jessica Parker looks equally unenthused to be there. SJP fans can only hope she'll perk up for Sex and the City 2 next year.


Now Showing
Roadshow Films

Following the successful re-boot of Star Trek earlier in the year, producers of the new Sherlock Holmes film must have been hopeful for a similar response to their re-working of a long dormant 'franchise'. Box office-wise I'd wager they'll be in pretty good shape (universally releasing over the Christmas holiday season can't hurt), while most critics shouldn't be too hard on the film with Robert Downey jnr's performance good enough to forgive any flaws.

Taking his lead from Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, Downey makes his Holmes a rather curious fellow – razor sharp in wit and observation but also a little flighty. But should the homoerotic banter between he and his assistant, Dr Watson (Jude Law is a perfect foil) become too much, there's always the Edwardian era Fight Club Holmes attends to regain his masculinity and the (hetero) male audience.

This is perhaps the most discernably Guy Ritchie element of the film. Working with the biggest budget of his career (somewhere in the vicinity of $80m), Ritchie has effectively used CGI to re-create London of the late 1800s; the building of London Bridge figures prominently in the film's climax. But he is most comfortable when his leads get down and dirty with the lowlifes of the city: there are fisticuffs, chase scenes and gun fire; Holmes and Watson as action heroes if you will.

That may have purists of Arthur Conan Doyle's creation spluttering in their cups of Earl Grey but for audiences young and old, the game will be well and truly afoot. The case – Lord Blackwood's (Mark Strong) death, resurrection and subsequent plans to use black magic to rule England – is by the by; so too, sadly, is Rachel McAdams' Irene Adler, a career thief from Holmes's past who has her own agenda. A little more screen time, and character development, would have served her better.

But, of course, it is all about Holmes. As with Iron Man last year, Robert Downey jnr takes on a role you wouldn't readily associate with the actor and invests it with more than you could ever have hoped for. Even as the film strains at just over two hours, Downey never does. He makes the choice of which movie to catch this Boxing Day elementary.

Saturday, 19 December 2009


Now Showing
Icon Film Distribution

“And that boy grew up to be . . . John Lennon.” That could be the coda at the end of Nowhere Boy, visual artist Sam Taylor-Wood's directorial debut, for while the character at the film's centre is indeed the Beatles' singer-songwriter, the concerns are more familial than musical.

It's the 1950s and John (Aaron Johnson), in his late teens, failing high school and antagonistic towards authority, lives with his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and uncle George. But when his uncle dies and he spies his estranged mother Julia(Anne-Maire Duff) at the funeral, John begins a quest to connect with the woman who abandoned him. Her seeming joi de vivre and love of rock 'n' roll are a welcome antithesis to his aunt's strict parenting, but as much fun as time spent with his mother is, he can't hide the wound his mother's abandonment caused.

Nowhere Boy is more a domestic drama than any kind of biopic – John Lennon: The Teen Years if you will. It doesn't provide any real insight into what inspired him to become one of the musical greats of the 20th century. Here he simply wants to play rock 'n' roll to pick up chicks; forming a band is performed with all the passion of picking a school yard sports team. You have a guitar? You're in. Paul McCartney makes an appearance, played by Thomas Brodie Sangster, the young boy from Love, Actually now grown and all limbs.

But Aaron Johnson's performance certainly captures the swagger of youth, hinting at the idealistic and anti-authoritarian Lennon would become. Scott Thomas, in typical ice queen mode, and Duff, whose affection for her son borders on icky, are fine as the dueling sisters, managing for the most part to keep the drama from tipping into melodrama.

Nowhere Boy is an enjoyable film but likely to be found lacking by those Beatles and Lennon fans who hoped for a greater examination of the roots of a man who made some of last century's most enduring music.


Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Out now on DVD and Blu-ray

In their recently announced Annual Achievement Awards, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists awarded director Robert Luketic their Hall of Shame Award for The Ugly Truth, although you won't find that accolade listed on the DVD cover and not just because the cover art was likely ready to go weeks in advance.

Indeed, Australian Luketic's directorial debut Legally Blonde could be viewed as a feminist doctrine when placed alongside The Ugly Truth such is its “study” of male-female dynamics. Abby (Katherine Heigl), a morning talk show producer, is so focused on her career that she has little time for dating but, of course, in spite of her success her life doesn't feel complete without a man. In a bid to up the station's flagging ratings. Abby's boss brings in radio shock jock Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler), renowned for his 'tell it like it is' take on male-female relations – men are sex obsessed pigs and women really should just accept that - to spice things up.

That Abby and Mike take an instant dislike to each comes as no surprise; it's standard modus operandi for the rom-com. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey were verbal sparring partners long before Abby and Mike's parents ever met, though sadly, a shared first name between leading ladies is about as close as this new film gets to anything Hepburn and Tracey ever committed to celluloid.

That Abby, despite her disgust at this chauvinist, should take Mike's dating advice, like some modern take on Cyrano de Bergerac, when a hunky doctor moves in to her apartment complex is ridiculous; various misunderstandings amid growing attraction serve only to delay the inevitable. We know where the plot is headed from the get go.

Not that The Ugly Truth is the worst rom-com ever made or even the worst of 2009; He's Just Not That Into You, come on down. But just why Hollywood persists in making films for women which deliberately insults them I don't know. Just why women continue to go to these films is a much bigger mystery altogether.

Friday, 18 December 2009


Now Showing
20th Century Fox

It cost $200 million dollars (or $300 million, possibly four) and, yes, that's obscene, but to his credit, director James Cameron has thrown everything in his arsenal at the screen to create Avatar, a 3D, live action, animated, sci-fi, pro-environmental, anti-war blockbuster.

Cameron's first film since 1997's Titanic (has it really been 12 years?), Avatar has been a long time coming, mostly because there wasn't the technology available to bring the director's vision fully to the screen. That vision includes wondrous forests on the distant moon, Pandora, and its indigenous population, the Na'vi, 10 feet tall beings with tails and blue skin, who live primitive lives in tune with nature. Oh, and they speak their own language – sci-fi nerds rejoice.

We become immersed in the Na'vi culture when crippled ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), replacing his deceased twin brother as part of a science project, headed by Sigourney Weaver's Dr Augustine, has his thoughts transferred to an avatar – a being created from human and Na'vi DNA – which is sent to live amongst the natives, to learn their ways.

Sully's marine past, however, is seen by the military (Stephen Lang relishing his role as a 'shoot first' army colonel), and the business interests (oily entrepreneur Giovanni Ribisi) driving them, as an excellent means to gain valuable intel on the Na'vi, whose village just happens to rest on the largest deposit of a mineral that now provides Earth with its energy resources. Sully agrees to this with the promise of having his legs restored.

But after having his life saved by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who then becomes his guide, Sully goes native - and falls in love, Dances With Na'vi if you will. Still, the romance ensures there is something for everyone in Avatar and not just the geeks and fanboys.

Avatar is definitely worth seeing on the big screen but not necessarily in 3D. I find those glasses tend to dull the colour palette of a film, and Cameron's rendering of Pandora is worth experiencing in its best light; I found myself regularly dipping the shades to soak it up. Besides, 160 minutes in a pair of 3D glasses can be uncomfortable.

So too can Cameron's dialogue - he's no wordsmith - but Avatar isn't as cheesy as you'd expect and its screenplay certainly doesn't do as much damage as it did for Titanic; I caught that film on TV recently and the dialogue has not aged well. In 12 years I may say the same of Avatar, but like Titanic the visuals will hold up.

Sunday, 13 December 2009


Out December 17
Paramount Pictures

Love, lust, lies and the art of filmmaking. And Penelope Cruz. It must be Almodovar. Three years after his domestic melodrama, Volver, also starring Cruz, Pedro Almodovar is back to his convoluted ways with Broken Embraces, a film best described as noirish melodrama.

Set in two time frames – the mid '80s and the early '00s – Broken Embraces centres on Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar) who in the present is a blind author known as Harry Caine but in the earlier time was a filmmaker whose infatuation with his leading lady is at the heart of the film's competing stories.

That leading lady is Lena, played, of course, by Cruz. Lena marries a wealthy industrialist to secure her father's medical care. The millionaire then aids in her pursuit of an acting career by financing a film which is how she comes to meet Mateo in the earlier time frame; the two are immediately drawn to each other, setting in motion a chain of events that leads to all sorts of betrayals and tragedies, including Mateo's blindness.

If Broken Embraces has the best of Almodovar – melodrama, intrigue upon intrigue, strong female characters (women are never mere decoration in one of the Spaniard's films) – it also features what I would call his flaws: that same melodrama he does so well can also be distancing; and the focus on filmmakers I find somewhat ononistic, much as I did with Bad Education (2004). There is also a gay character in the film that if depicted similarly by a director other than Almodovar (himself gay) would rankle. If Scorcese or Eastwood depicted a gay man in this fashion I suggest there would be cries of homophobia, or at least reductive stereotyping.

What the film does have in its favour is another strong performance by Penelope Cruz. While Hollywood has never really known what to do with Cruz, Almodovar seems able to bring out the best in his leading lady. Perhaps the shared language helps. Cruz's other recent performance of note was her Oscar-winning turn in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, another director who has a gift with actresses and writing strong and fascinating female roles.

Ironically, like Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Broken Embraces is not Almodovar at his best but it will please fans well enough until he returns to form. Cruz fans, however, will have no complaints.

Friday, 11 December 2009


Always a competitive field, this year's Best Supporting Actor contenders could all be first time nominees and, more than likely, produce a debutant winner.

If he isn't nominated for Best Actor for The Informant!, this could be Damon's consolation, playing Springboks captain Francois Pienaar opposite Morgan Freeman's Mandela.

A year ago most people had never heard of this comic, now everyone knows him as the guy with the beard from The Hangover, the raucous comedy in which Galifianakis steals every scene.

After comic turns in 2012 and Zombieland, Harrelson gets serious in The Messenger as one of two soldiers who delivers the death notices of US soldiers to their widows.

A crowded Best Actor field may leave Downey jnr out in the cold again but Law, as Dr Watson in Guy Ritchie's take on Sherlock Holmes, could score his third Oscar nomination.

I'd never heard of this British actor before this film, but when almost every review mentions 'Oscar' and McKay, who plays a young Orson Welles, in the same sentence you pay attention.

A respected actor of many years, Molina's wonderfully comic turn in Lone Scherfig's film could be described as scene-stealing - and how! It could also earn him his first nomination.

Even though this film is about Leo Tolstoy, veteran actor Plummer is being campaigned for Support, not that category fraud is a new thing. Surprise: the star of The Sound of Music has never been nominated for an Oscar.

Competing with co-stars Molina and Carey Mulligan, it is easy to overlook just how good Sarsgaard is as the charming wolf in sheep's clothing. But if voters have to choose between the men, I think they'll go with Molina.

Some suggest that Tucci could be nominated for Julie & Julia, but I think his best bet is here as the neighbourhood killer in Peter Jackson's adaptation of the bestseller.

After winning Best Actor at Cannes this year, Austrian actor Waltz has been considered the favourite in this category. From the very first scene he owns the film, speaking English, German, French and Italian – beat that Meryl!

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


Now Showing
Universal Pictures

We usually have to wait some time between Sam Mendes films (three years between each of his first four), so the arrival of Away We Go less than a year after Revolutionary Road, for mine Mendes' best film, is a pleasant surprise. And after the trials of the suburban marital nightmare of the previous film, Away We Go comes as sweet relief.

Burt (John Krasinski of US TV's The Office) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are a happily unmarried couple (Verona believes marriage is pointless despite Burt's constant proposals) expecting their first child. The announcement by Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara) that they will be moving to Antwerp before the birth of their grandchild, is the impetus for Burt and Verona to travel across north America in search of a new home to raise their family.

Each location – Phoenix, Madison, Montreal, and Miami – is determined by friends or family – an ex-employer (Allison Janney), a pseudo cousin (Maggie Gyllenhaal), college friends (Melanie Lynskey and Chris Messina) with a brood to rival Brangelina, and Burt's recently separated brother (Paul Schneider) - and either yay'd or nay'd by the state of these peoples' lives.

Some critics, notably the New York Times, dismissed this film and its two protagonists as smug, particularly in comparison to the borderline grotesques served up by Janney and Gyllenhaal, and the somewhat martyr-like couple in Montreal. And a case could be made for that argument.

But I rather think that Mendes, whose Revolutionary Road and debut feature American Beauty were both scathing indictments of middle class domesticity, and writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, a real life couple, have chosen to exalt the pros of coupledom and what it is exactly that comprises family and home, namely that home is where you find it, and family is what you make it.

That Burt and Verona seem to be relatively sane and well-adjusted in comparison to those they encounter, as well as the 30-somethings we are so often served up in movies, doesn't make them smug; novel, perhaps. But give me smug over stupid any day.


Reel DVD
Available now on DVD

I’m not sure if it is a question of budget or filmmaking philosophy, but writer-director Matthew Newton’s feature film debut adheres to some of the tenants of Dogma: handheld camerawork, no score as far as I could ascertain with only incidental music, and natural performances driven by seemingly improvised dialogue – a lot of dialogue.

The three protagonists at the centre of this night-on-the-town drama do an awful lot of talking, especially Newton’s Harry, the charmer and self-appointed leader of the pack. In Sydney and on shore leave for one evening before they ship out for a six-month stint in the Gulf, the three sailors – Dean (Toby Schmitz) and Sam (Ewen Leslie) rounding out the trio – have differing ideas about how they should spend their time. Dean plans to meet his fiancĂ© (Pia Miranda) and her parents for dinner, while Harry wants to drink and be merry, which extends to hiring some prostitutes for he and Sam, but without Sam’s knowledge.

Sam, who has recently endured a bad experience at his shipmates’ hands, has other plans: he’s going AWOL. He is aided in this decision by Emma (Gracie Otto), a waitress at a pizza parlour whom he takes a shine to while his mates partake in a backroom poker game. Sam and Emma spend the rest of the film getting to know each other (and his family), while Harry and Dean have to work in a dinner with Dean’s future in-laws while trying to prevent Sam’s desertion.

That’s essentially it as far as plot is concerned. Newton is not so much interested in an overall story arc with Three Blind Mice but more a series of vignettes (set pieces sounds too large for what this film is) providing for some extended walk-ons by a veritable who’s who of Aussie actors: Marcus Graham, Alex Dimitriades, Barry Otto, Heather Mitchell, Jackie Weaver, Brendan Cowell and the late Bud Tingwell.

That said, Three Blind Mice is never less than engaging and even if it doesn’t really go anywhere and is seemingly without a point (and I’m usually a stickler for a point), the performances, particularly of the three men, carry it through. In a great year for Oz films, Three Blind Mice is no masterpiece but it’s not to be dismissed either. Nor is Newton’s emerging talents, both in front of and behind the camera.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009


Now Showing
Madman Films

Opening in a post apocalyptic world not unlike that glimpsed earlier this year in Terminator Salvation, but with all human life seemingly eradicated by the machines (it's always those damn machines: when will people learn?!), 9 marks itself as an animated feature not for the kiddies, certainly not those already weighed down with anxiety issues about the state of the world.

Given that the producers of Shane Acker's debut feature, expanded from his award-winning short, are Tim Burton, one never afraid to dabble in the darker edges, and Timur Bekmambetov, director of the stylish and violent Day Watch, Night Watch and last year's Wanted, one could hardly have been expecting a Pixar-like take on the future a la WALL-E.

What they could have hoped for was a more involving story, one that didn't feel long at 85 minutes. That's not to say that the film doesn't look great, it does: the visuals are impressive. But this tale of a group of living rag dolls surviving in the rubble until 9 (all of the dolls are assigned numbers in order of their creation) joins them and encourages them to rage against the machines, offers audiences very little in the way of humour or any kind of respite from the doom and gloom, until about the 80 minute mark.

The voice cast (Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly and Elijah Wood as the eponymous 9), impressive in terms of acting pedigree, add little vocally. But if it's animated style over substance you're looking for, or merely the antithesis of the optimism of Ponyo and Up, then 9 could be for you.

Monday, 7 December 2009


Madman Entertainment
Out Dec 9 on DVD and Blu-ray

In 1975, Five Australian television journalists were murdered by Indonesian troops during that nation's invasion of East Timor. No one has been brought to justice for this crime nor has the Australian government done anything to force the Indonesian government's hand on the issue.

If that sounds angry it is. Anger drives Robert Connolly's film about the Balibo Five, as it does the families of the men who were killed and who still want for answers almost 35 years later. The film depicts its version of events and while fictional, is based on the book Cover-Up by Jill Joliffe.

Balibo is constructed as a political thriller, not so much a 'whodunnit' but a 'what happened'. When a young man named Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) arrives in Darwin to persuade war correspondent Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia) to see for himself what the Indonesians are doing to East Timor, he lures him with the story of the Australian journalists missing in Balibo.

East heads to East Timor and we proceed to learn of their fate as he does, in flashbacks which are spot-on recreations of the footage shot by the journalists in 1975. We also witness the brutal murders of the journalists, of no less impact for being 'fictional'; I'll take Connolly's version of events over that of the Indonesian government which continues to insist the journalists died during crossfire.

My initial reaction to Balibo was one of anger; for the loss of young lives, for the Indonesian government's refusal to reveal the truth and the Australian government's implicit silence on the matter. But I also felt a pang for the loss of journalistic bravado these men represent. The days of journalists, particularly in television, going after the story and covering 'real' news at all costs have sadly passed. Why report on a distant war when we they can catch a Tiger by the tail?

But I digress. For whatever reason you see Balibo, or whatever you hope to get out of it, rest assured that you will be seeing not only the best Australian film of the year but one of the best films of the year period.


The Supporting categories are always the most competitive given that anyone can be campaigned for support, whether onscreen the whole film or just 8 minutes (Judi Dench in Shakespeare In Love). The Academy, however, is wise to category fraud: while Kate Winslet racked up wins last year as Supporting Actress for The Reader, Academy voters saw, rightly, to nominate her in Lead (*seen)

Early word on Rob Marshall's musical suggests Cotillard and Cruz get the best of it, and Cotillard's going Lead. Winning last year, however, may put Cruz at a disadvantage.

Farmiga glows opposite Clooney and holds her own. I'd compare hers to Virginia Madsen's performance in Sideways, only with less heft to it. But if the film racks up nominations as expected, Farmiga could enjoy the spoils.

Apart from being Jake's sister, Maggie is a fine actress better known for her roles in smaller films, with the occasional foray into blockbusters like The Dark Knight. Here she plays a journalist who invites her subject (Jeff Bridges' country singer) to live with her and her young son.

It's not uncommon for two actors from the one film to be nominated in the same category (Amy Adams and Viola Davis for Doubt most recently) but there is a chance it can split their vote. Kendrick has the advantage of having the better written role and has won the first two critics' awards (NBR and Washington) of the season.

As the sole survivor of a massacred family who swears revenge on the Nazis responsible, Laurent's performance is impressive - steely determination and vulnerability combined - and no less so for being mostly in French.

Most pundits have Mo'Nique as the odds-on favourite in this category. The actress better known as a comedian certainly goes all out to transform herself into an abusive mother but her refusal to do publicity for the film won't help her cause.

One of those actors who really should have an Oscar by now, Moore is 0-4 in nominations, two of those coming in 2002 (Far From Heaven and The Hours). This is a showy performance with about only 20 minutes screen time but Oscars have been won with less.

A two-time nominee, Morton is a fearless actress. Here she plays an Iraq war widow who develops a relationship with the soldiers who deliver the terrible news.

Thursday, 3 December 2009


Roadshow Films
Now Showing

I have never read Maurice Sendak's classic children's book which is the source material for Spike Jonze's new film, his first in seven years. But I was excited to see it just the same, mostly because of the wonderful first trailer (and I'm not a fan of trailers) released some six months ago, which was perfect in that it piqued interest without revealing too much.

But expectations can be a detriment to enjoying a film, especially if they are too high. I've had a recent run of vieiwng films I had been eagerly anticipating only to not have my expectations met. Thankfully, Where The Wild Things Are didn't disappoint: I didn't love it as much as I had hoped but I liked it, a lot.

When 9-year-old Max (Max Records), lonely for attention from his teen sister and single working mum (Catherine Keener), decides to act out before dinner to which mum's new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) has been invited, mum snaps. So Max runs off, into the woods where he finds a boat and sails across stormy seas to an island where he finds the wild things of the title.

We discover the wild things, or one in particular, in the midst of smashing up their homes. Carol (beautifully voiced by James Gandolfini) is upset with the departure of K.W. (Lauren Ambrose) and expresses his emotions the best he can, by acting out. Perhaps recognising a kindred spirit in Carol, Max announces himself to the creatures - Ira (Forest Whitaker), Judith (Catherine O'Hara), Alex (Paul Dano) and Douglas (Chris Cooper)- and manages to negate their desire to eat him by regaling them with tales of his adventures, which include conquering vikings. Carol is impressed and declares Max king.

It is here where both the fun and the trouble starts. All forms of childish and adult insecurities and fears come to bear on Max and the wild things' relationships: favouritism, rivalries, jealousy, anger and a lot of neuroses.

I'm not sure what fans of Sendak's book will make of this. Obviously Jonze and writer David Eggars have taken liberties in expanding a story that originally consisted of something like 12 sentences. Others, like some US film critics, will think it too dark for children but I disagree. Fairy tales have always dabbled in the dark side and even Pixar's latest, UP, opened with the harsh realities of life: we grow old and the ones we love die.

Where The Wild Things Are isn't that harsh. It suggests that we all need to go wild sometimes but there are consequences to our actions, whether we're 9 years old or 39. And I for one can't see what's wrong with that message.


Roadshow Films
Now Showing

He has spectacles and he beefed up for the role, but there the similarities between Matt Damon and Russell Crowe's whistleblower characters, and their respective films, ends.

In Michael Mann's The Insider (1999), Crowe's character wanted to expose the evils of the tobacco industry. In Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!, Damon's Mark Whitaker, an executive with a corporation involved in agribusiness, wants to expose a pricefixing scam - or does he?

One of the delights of Soderbergh's film is that he never lets you entirely in on what's happening, preferring to reveal tidbits with every revelation that Whitaker makes to the FBI agents who have come to investigate his claims.

Another delight, and a revelation, is just how capable Matt Damon is with comedy. Granted most of his best lines occur in his stream-of-consciousness internal monologues, which generally have little to do with the onscreen action, but he renders a character who, however delusional, is completely believable.

After Che Parts 1 ans 2, and The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh must have felt like having some fun. And he does with The Informant! although at almost two hours, the continuous twists and turns become a little tiresome. That said, one has to appreciate his efforts to keep his films, and cinema generally, interesting.

Same goes for Damon, who could so easily coast on his all-American good looks and Jason Bourne heroics. The Informant! provides a means for challenging himself and could pay off big time with an Oscar nomination.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009


Icon Film Distribution
Now Showing

Ten years ago, some budding filmmakers and three unknown actors headed into the woods armed with a handycam and a goal: to make a cheap-as horror movie with a high scare factor. Thanks to some canny online marketing, The Blair Witch Project was a box office smash and, at the time, the highest grossing independent film ever.

In 2009, the filmmakers have changed (writer/director Oren Peli) and there are just the two actors (Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat) but while the setting has gone from the woods to the seemingly inane domesticity of an apartment in California, the basic goal and result is similar. Almost.

I remember being genuinely scared watching The Blair Witch Project (I'll admit it, I'm a scaredy cat anyway) but while I was anticipating the big reveal during Paranormal Activity, I can't say I was ever on the edge of my seat nor did my hands ever shield my eyes.

There are some creepy moments in this film, slowly leading to that big reveal, but for the most part we are treated to an ordinary young couple dealing with a slightly greater problem than your average suburban tenants. We are also treated to a lot of sleeping: they must be the only couple with a video camera in their bedroom every night and not making a sex tape!

Made for just $15,000 and grossing over $100 million in the US alone, Paranormal Activity is a hit and no doubt will be here. Is it a great horror film? Perhaps not, but for the most part it delivers what it promises - cheap thrills.


As is always the case, the Best Actress race has fewer contenders than Best Actor. That's more to do with good roles than good performances, but there have been some standouts this year with three (Mulligan, Streep, Sidibe) considered locks for nominations (*seen).

After some scene-stealing supports, notably in The Devil Wears Prada, Blunt finally gets a lead role. The story of the young Queen's courtship and marriage is very watchable but not particularly inspired, much like Keira Knightley's The Duchess last year.

Believe it or not the star best known for her rom-coms is considered a serious chance at a nom for The Blind Side, in which she plays a crusading mother of an adopted black child who excels at grid iron. Good box office for this feel good film doesn't hurt either.

As Fanny Brawne, the muse of poet John Keats, Cornish has the lion's share of screen time in Jane Campion's beautifully shot drama. While I wouldn't go as far as The New York Times, which compared her to Kate Winslet, this is certainly a career-defining role.

While there is a bevy of beauties in this musical, early buzz says the French actress makes the biggest impression. Having won Best Actress just two years ago is of course a double-edged sword: she is fresh in the voters' minds but two from two may be too much too soon.

Three years after winning for her portrayal of QEII, Mirren is back playing another historical figure of sorts, the wife of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer, who is somehow going Support?).

A very limited release in the US won't help Monaghan's chances but raves by the likes of Roger Ebert can't hurt. Monaghan plays a truck driver forced to reconnect with her estranged son. This year's Frozen River, perhaps?

I'll admit it, I am firmly in the Mulligan camp. I love An Education and that is mostly for this young Brit's wonderful performance. There's no histrionics or emoting, but Mulligan gets every nuance of her character's coming-of-age just right.

Freakishly good in Atonement (2007) for which she was a Supporting Actress nominee, here Ronan plays the main character, Susie Salmon, raped and murdered on the way home from school, who then proceeds to watch over her family from Heaven. Everybody loves a Saint, right?

While co-star Mo'Nique has the showier role as her abusive mother, the film wouldn't work without Sidibe's quiet, contained performance as Precious. Online clips also reveal that, despite the physicality, Sidibe is far removed from the role she plays.

What can you say about Meryl that hasn't been said a thousand times before? This is a fun role but not lightweight like Mamma Mia! Streep becomes Julia Child: not just mimicry, she makes her real. Nomination #16 could earn Streep her 3rd Oscar, her first in 27 years!


Sony Pictures
Now Showing Exclusive to Dendy Opera Quays

The best sports films are those that are about more than the sport in question. Soccer, sorry, football is the sport in question in The Damned United but it is not the main game. That would be Brian Clough and the wonderful performance by Michael Sheen.

It matters not if you know nothing of 1970s English football, of Clough, or of his doomed 44-day tenure as manager of Leeds Utd, then England's best club side. That's because The Damned United, written by Peter Morgan (who also penned The Queen and Frost/Nixon, both of which starred Sheen) and directed by first time feature director Tom Hooper (he directed the award-winning miniseries John Adams), is more concerned with Clough the man.

As played by Sheen, he is a self-confident, cocky son-of-a-bitch who knows how to hold a grudge. Believing he was snubbed by Leeds Utd manager, Don Revie (Colm Meaney), at a club game with Derby in 1968, Clough seems to make it his mission to make Revie pay. When the manager's position at Leeds becomes available in 1974, following Revie's becoming England's manager, Clough assumes the Leeds post and sets about removing all traces of Revie. He doesn't endear himself to his new team, when on the first day of training he denounces all their achievements of the past years as the spoils of cheating. He's immediately on borrowed time.

The film continually flashes back to 1968 and the fallout from that alleged snubbing, but it also reveals Clough's strong working relationship with assistant manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), as well as Clough's constant run-ins with Derby club chairman Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent); Clough repeatedly buys players the club does not have the funds for, all in his quest to beat Leeds and Revie.

Regardless of your knowledge of, or love for football, The Damned United is worth seeing for the performances alone. Spall, Broadbent and Meaney are all good but the film belongs to Sheen. After strong performances in The Queen and Frost/Nixon, he again proves more than adept at getting under the skin of historical figures. It's not a flattering portrait of the man, but as with a top footballer, arrogance can often be overlooked in the face of brilliance.

Sunday, 29 November 2009


Icon Home Entertainment
Available now on DVD and Blu-ray

In The First Wives Club (1996) Goldie Hawn's ageing actress tells her plastic surgeon there are only three roles for women in Hollywood: babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. It's a truism and a sexist double standard: while men may age gracefully women are expected to remain eternally youthful. The only character lines studios want to hear about in relation to their leading ladies better be in the script.

At 50, Michelle Pfeiffer looks great. I don't know if she's had work done but regardless, her beauty hasn't helped her secure a meaty leading role in the last few years. It can't help when your main rival for roles is Meryl Streep, although I'm not sure we would have bought Pfeiffer in a nun's habit (Doubt, 2008), but following on from Hairspray (2007), Mamma Mia! may have worked.

In Cheri Pfeiffer plays Lea de Lonval, a newly-retired courtesan who, because of said looks, we can readily believe has procured such an income to enjoy a comfortable retirement in the belle epoque of early 20th century Europe. It is when she agrees to take Cheri (Rupert Friend), son of longtime friend, and as a fellow former courtesan one suspects rival, Madame Peloux (a deliciously catty Kathy Bates) under her wings that her perfect life comes unstuck.

Having spent her life trading on her body but not her heart, Lea makes the mistake of falling in love; not just with a man but a much younger one. Of course, as the son of courtesan, Cheri is expected to marry money to ensure his own future.

While the film's costumes and European locations look wonderful, Stephen Frears, who first directed Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons in 1988, and his leading lady fail to invest the story with any real passion. Not that Cheri, who comes across as little more than a spoilt child, deserves devoted suffering but rather a good spanking.

Still, fans of costume dramas, doomed love and, yes, Michelle Pfeiffer will find much to enjoy here. Pfeiffer herself will have to continue looking for that meaty role, perhaps as a district attorney since her Miss Daisy days still seem to be much further down the road.

Friday, 27 November 2009


Madman Entertainment
Available now on DVD

Warwick Thornton's Samson and Delilah is sparse and brutal. Yes it's hard going but it rewards you by ending on a postive note, one of hope. I thought I should get that in early since most people will have only heard how tough it is and avoided it as a result.

One of the benefits of DVD is that you can come to a film in your own time. You can also take breathers when you need to, and you may need to. Samson and Delilah are two teenagers in an aboriginal community. Samson (Rowan McNamara) spends his days getting high on petrol; Delilah (Marissa Gibson) spends hers with her grandmother, whom she cares for, painting. When her grandmother dies and the town's women beat her as punishment, she and Samson, who has quietly courted her, flee.

It's when they take to the road that the pair's lives spiral downward and one horrible event is the impetus for Delilah to join Samson in his petrol addiction. There's more to follow but I won't go into detail here, suffice to say that it gets worse before it gets better.

Whether you like it or not, you have to appreciate Samson and Delilah as some kind of miracle. A first time director working with two non-professional actors, speaking an indigenous dialogue when they choose to speak at all. The film won the Camera D'or at this year's Cannes Film Festival and has been submitted as Australia's entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for this year's Oscars.

If that helps it achieve a wider audience, both here and abroad, then all the better. No one goes to films when they're told they must, that it's important; Australians seem reluctant to go to Australian films regardless, Mao's Last Dancer excepted.

Now that it's on DVD, people who had doubts initially will come to Samson and Delilah in their own time and not because they've been brow beaten into it. They won't be entertained, necessarily, but they will be rewarded.

Thursday, 26 November 2009


Universal Pictures
Now Showing

Wouldn't it be wonderful to love in a world without lies? Not if the parallel universe depicted in this comedy is anything to go by. No lies means people blurt out everything they're thinking, only date people they are guaranteed to produce genetically blessed offspring with and, worst of all, no fiction means no films: movies consist of people reading to camera events from history.

On the plus side, no lies means no religion and that is the most subversive element of Ricky Gervais's comedy, his first as director although duties are shared with writing partner Matthew Robinson.

Gervais plays Mark Bellison, a screenwriter saddled with writing about the Black Plague, who has no luck in the dating world and is about to be evicted due to a lack of funds. And then he comes up with the first ever lie (their world doesn't even have a word for it) and suddenly his money troubles are solved. But it's when he comforts his dying mother with tales of an afterlife that Bellison's ability to lie completely changes his world and the world in general.

Sadly, the film can't sustain its comic premise for the duration, and fine actors like Rob Lowe, Tina Fey and Jennifer Garner aren't given much to do. I can't explain why honesty would make Garner's character's so child-like, either. And Jonah Hill seems only to be here as a friend of Gervais or so people watching the trailer can say 'hey, it's the dude from Superbad!'

And having thrown religion down on the mat, the film refuses to sink the boot in too hard. But props to Gervais for getting the studio to back him and for willingly biting the hand (and US audience) that now feeds him. It certainly hasn't hurt him; Gervais has since been named as host of next year's Golden Globes - and it will be funny.

So is The Invention of Lying, but it's good not great and that's the sad truth.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009


Sony Pictures
Now Showing

Like it or not, it seems 3D is back in our cinemas to stay. I don't like it, mostly because I find wearing those glasses for at least 90 minutes annoying. There is also a suspicion that a filmmaker may be deploying the 3D effect as a gimmick to distract from the film's lack of story or character.

Animation has been at the forefront of re-embracing this technology with Monsters vs. Aliens, Ice Age 3, Coraline, Up and A Christmas Carol all employing the format in 2009. Coraline used its 3D judiciously and I enjoyed Ice Age 3 a lot; Up I chose to see in 2D because most US reviews I read suggested that the 3D element added nothing to it. I 'm sure I would have loved it either way.

Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs is also screening in the 3D format in selected cinemas and yes, I had to sit through it with the glasses on. The 3D is used to good effect in the film without, thankfully, being the film.

Meatballs is essentially the story of a young man trying to win his father's approval. Like in most fairy tales and animated films, mum is no longer alive, but when she was she encouraged son Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) to pursue his love of inventing. When Flint, now an adult and borderline crazy scientist, constructs a device to create food from water, which is accidentally launched into space and proceeds to rain food down on the town of Swallow Falls, he becomes the local hero with all bar dad impressed.

Of course, the device soon gets out of control, as does the town's mayor (Bruce Campbell) who wants to use it to make the town a tourist mecca. Throw in a love interest (Anna Faris, voicing the intern who dumbs herself down to get ahead in life as a weather girl!) and Steve, a talking monkey of sorts, to help Flint try and stop his creation and win his father's love.

Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs is fun enough, and the 3D certainly comes into its own when giant vegetables and other foodstuffs begin raining down. I also enjoyed Steve and his stream (or rather trickle) of consciousness. There will be lesser kid's fare this holiday season so Cloudy makes for an enjoyable filler, at least until Where The Wild Things Are (Dec. 3) and Fantastic Mr. Fox (Jan. 1) arrive none-too-soon.


Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Available now on Blu-ray and DVD

Demanding boss and under appreciated assistant with aspirations of becoming a writer. Yes, it sounds a little like The Devil Wears Prada though Sandra Bullock's Margaret Tate is no Miranda Priestly, nor is Bullock in Meryl Streep's league. But when it comes to romantic comedy, Bullock seems to prevail regardless of the material (All About Steve excepted).

When it is revealed that publishing whiz Margaret's visa is soon to expire and she will have to return to Canada, she forces her assistant Andrew (Ryan Reynolds) to pose as her fiance. This allows the put upon aspiring author to buck for a raise but also get to fly home to Alaska for the weekend and his grandmother's birthday.

So the rom-com becomes a fish out of water comedy, too, with Bullock's talent for the pratfall being employed to varying degrees of success among the Alaskan locals, including Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson as her future in-laws, and Golden Girl Betty White doing another take on the batty old lady she's been reduced to of late.

More surprising is Reynolds' comic chops. Even though he started out on TV sitcom Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place, Reynold's hasn't done that much to impress me on screen. As he and Bullock flip between the traditional male and female rom-com archetypes, Reynold's gets to flex muscles both macho and vulnerable.

The Proposal doesn't go anywhere we aren't expecting it to and no doubt that's why it was so successful at the box office, here and in the US: some people just can't say no to a wedding.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009


Despite the Academy's changes, extending the acting categories to 10 nominees is unfortunately not one them. And as always there have been more than 5 standout male lead performances in 2009. Here are the ones getting the most buzz (*seen).

Until just two weeks ago, this film was slated for a 2010 release but with a bump to late 2009 Jeff Bridges is suddenly a favourite, playing a hard living country music singer in search of salvation.

Clooney is considered a hot favourite for his role as the man without any emotional attachments and happy to stay that way. He launches a full-on charm offensive even if his character is a bit of a prick.

This film was one of the surprises of the year, as was Sharlto Copley's performance. He goes from nerdy government worker to renegade alien sympathiser with some action man heroics thrown in – and all of it believable.

Hard to believe it is 12 years since Damon scored his first and only Oscar nom for Good Will Hunting. Here he displays his comic chops although his best moments occur in his stream-of-consciousness voice over.

Winning two years ago for There Will Be Blood may put him at a disadvantage but performing song and dance numbers in Rob Marshall's Nine may win him points for versatility.

After it screened at Toronto, Get Low and Duvall had some heat. That has since quietened down but don't discount the appeal of the veteran. It's 11 years since Duvall was nominated and 26 since he won for Tender Mercies.

Having already won the Best Actor prize at Venice, Colin Firth is one up on all his competitors. Rarely given the lead, his performance in Tom Ford's directorial debut is said to be a career best.

Playing Nelson Mandela in a Clint Eastwood directed film sounds like an Oscar slam dunk. But the poster which has Freeman looking very Mandela-esque is offset by the trailer having him look, well, like Morgan Freeman!

Challenging Duvall for the veteran vote is Holbrook, who was nominated just two years ago for Into The Wild. The film has a wiff of Gran Torino and that didn't work so well for Eastwood.

Surprising to some that Mortensen has just the one nomination (Eastern Promises, 2007). The Academy will certainly be impressed by the lengths he goes to here, but me, I wasn't moved and that's a shame.

With Best Picture and Director nods a real possibility for this film, Renner could also be in the running. You've probably seen him in small roles (S.W.A.T was one of them) but he's never had one like this: a bomb disposal expert with a death wish – and he owns it.

Perhaps wishful thinking but in a year of Oscar changes a vote for this fine actor would signal a revolution (of sorts). And not to spoil it for those who haven't seen Moon, but Nicholas Cage was nominated similarly for Adaptation.

Best known for his theatre work, Stuhlbarg, who looks a little like Joaquin Phoenix, makes the most of this gift from the Coen brothers. If the Academy embraces the film, they could bring Stuhlbarg along for the ride.

Thursday, 19 November 2009


Now Showing
Universal Pictures

With the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men and the fun Burn After Reading, the Coen brothers seem to have hit a creative purple patch. That streak continues with their latest, A Serious Man.

Set in 1967, A Serious Man is informed by if not exactly about the Coen brothers' childhood and being Jewish in mid-west America. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, who bares a passing resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix) is a physics professor hoping to make tenure. With a wife, two teenage kids and a house in the suburbs life is pretty good. Sure his recently widowed brother is sleeping on the couch and he doesn't necessarily like his goy neighbour, but hey.

And then his wife announces she wants a divorce, the first in a series of trials to befall Larry and testing his mettle if not his sanity. It doesn't help that the rabbis he consults don't give him much in the way of guidance or that Sy Abelman, the man his wife wants to leave him for, seems intent on killing him with kindness of a passive-aggressive variety. Complications with his brother as well as a desperate housewife neighbour only add to Larry's burdens.

Some reviews have compared Larry's plight to that of Job, but as it's 20 years since I attended Sunday school I have no idea what Job endured so can't make that call. But the Coens are definitely testing Larry, and as the problems mount, so does the humour; not in the silly way they did in Burn After Reading but in the absurd way life has a tendency to pile things on us. God never gives us more than we can handle, right?

The Coens are certainly giving us more than enough of late but a word of caution: don't go in expecting a film like either of their previous two. Yes, A Serious Man is a comedy but it's not of the Burn After Reading kind. Oh, and a tip: like No Country For Old Men, the film has a sudden ending so be prepared.


Available now on Blu-ray and DVD
Roadshow Entertainment

For his debut feature, Superbad, director Greg Mottola told the funny as tale of one night in the lives of some loveable losers. Superbad was from a screenplay by Seth Rogen and inspired by the actor’s youth. Adventureland, Mottola’s follow-up, is about his own youthful experiences, this time unfolding over the course of a summer in the 1980s.

It’s an amusing but not laugh out loud film, perhaps because the characters here are not losers of the Superbad ilk, at least not those at the heart of the story. James (Jesse Eisenberg) has his summer plans shelved when his father’s demotion means he will have to work to pay for his move to New York to study. After several rejections, he finds himself working at Adventureland, an amusement park that is anything but for the employees.
It is here he meets and becomes smitten with Em (Kristen Stewart), a girl who has more problems than her Twilight alter ego, one of them being the park’s married electrician Mike (Ryan Reynolds) with whom she is having an affair. Of course, James doesn’t find out about this until he has well and truly fallen for her.
That’s about it as far as plot is concerned. Mottola’s aim seems to have been to capture a moment in time, if not as honestly as possible then certainly without too much embellishment. The comedy comes from the reality of the situation rather than any hi-jinx you would find in, say, Superbad. There are harsh realities of coming to terms with adulthood but they are dealt with lightly.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009


Available now on DVD and Blu-ray
Roadshow Entertainment

Confession: I did not see the original Star Wars films in their entirety until they were digitally remastered and re-released in cinemas in 1997. But such was their pervasiveness in the pop culture consciousness, I was well aware of the characters, the storylines and, of course, the esteem in which they were held by Star Wars fans. And by esteem I mean unquestioning, undying love for all things existing in the space opera world of George Lucas’s creation.

Another confession: I have not watched the Star Wars prequels in their entirety and have no real desire to do so. I have seen bits of each when they have screened on TV but only bits as it is not too long before boredom sets in. For let’s be honest, these are pretty dull films. Whatever excitement and wonder Lucas managed to create with his earlier films, he set about obliterating with these CGI-heavy works of tedium. It must have been heartbreaking for many Star Wars fans to find that the creator of their universe had peaked after the first three (well, after The Empire Strikes Back if we’re being really honest).

Fanboys exists in the world prior to the release of prequel #1 The Phantom Menace, with the protagonists (the titular fanboys and, yes, geeks if not nerds) yet to have their faith in George Lucas crushed. It is 1998 and the four are already excited about the film’s future release although not enough to heal the rift between Eric (Sam Huntington) and Linus (Christopher Marquette), the former leaving his friends behind to pursue a sales career in his father’s car yard. But when it is revealed that Linus has cancer and may not live to see The Phantom Menace, the friends unite on a mission: to travel to Skywalker Ranch in California, break in to Lucas’s home and steal the unfinished print of Phantom. What could possibly go wrong?

Yes it’s a road movie and a boy’s own one at that, although Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars fame appears to alleviate the geeky-scented testosterone. But it’s not a gross out comedy nor a geeks-own take on The Hangover, this year’s earlier, much bawdier road movie comedy. The laughs here are mild although those with more than a passing knowledge of Star Wars will get many more of the in-jokes than I did. That said, any novice will spot the various Star Wars cameos.

Fanboys is a fun film, made by Star Wars fans, mostly for Star Wars fans. The 2-disc Special Edition comes with deleted scenes and Disturbances in the Force: A Series of Webisodes which will no doubt tickle their light sabres. I could say ‘may the force be with you’ but I won’t.

Sunday, 15 November 2009


With the expansion of the Best Picture category to 10 nominees, the race for Best Picture is more open than ever, especially given the rather lean year for truly standout films (well, those that have actually been seen and reviewed) so far.

Many believe this expansion comes from the Academy's belief that falling television ratings in recent years is a direct result of their failure to acknowledge more "popular" films. Case in point: While most critics and pundits predicted The Dark Knight, the highest grossing film of 2008, would score a Best Picture nod, the Academy just couldn't bring itself to nominate a “superhero movie” for the Big One.

Ironically, the most recent highest rating Oscar years were when Titanic (1997) and Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King (2003) won Best Picture; two films that brought a little art to the blockbuster.

Of course, no-one believes that a soulless blockbuster like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen will or should be nominated for BP just to get the kids to watch. On the other hand, this new direction could see films such as Star Trek or Harry Potter 6 in the mix. Certainly Pixar's Up has a better than expected chance of making the BP nominations list, remembering Wall-E was also championed as a worthy BP contender last year.

The change also means foreign language films may feature more prominently in the race for Best Picture.

Whether having 10 contenders instead of 5 cheapens the Oscars, reducing it even more so to a popularity contest with a much more deliberate focus on commerce as opposed to art, remains to be seen. But based on what movies I've seen (*), reviews I've read and my powers of Oscar prognostication, here are just some of the films that could make the final 10:

A SERIOUS MAN* – Perhaps the Coen brothers' most personal film, this 1960s set comedy with its no-name cast is bolstered by its critical praise. Winning BP two years ago also has the Coens fresh in the Academy's mind.

A SINGLE MAN* – The directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford looks likely to give Colin Firth his first Oscar nomination. But will the Academy be sympathetic to this story of a professor mourning the loss of his gay lover?

AN EDUCATION* – This coming of age tale in pre-Beatles '60s London is a deceptively small film with a breakout performance by Carey Mulligan. And Lone Sherfig could become just the fourth woman nominated for Best Director.

AVATAR* – James Cameron's first film since Titanic has fanboys and other geeks in a frenzy due to its cutting edge use of animation and 3D technology. The second trailer was more impressive than the first but I'm still to be sold.

BRIGHT STAR* – Jane Campion's best reviewed film since the Oscar-winning The Piano is one that is helped by the expanded field. Abbie Cornish's likely Best Actress nod also helps. And what chance three women being nominated for Best Director? (see 2 above and 3 below)

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER* – An Original Screenplay nod wouldn't be a surprise but with 10 films, this charming, clever non-rom-com could get in on the feel good factor a la Little Miss Sunshine.

DISTRICT 9* – In a '5 nominees' year this film wouldn't stand a chance but with rave reviews, excellent box office and for point of difference alone, this South African sci-fi actioner has much in its favour.

THE HURT LOCKER* – One of the best reviewed films of the year, it leaves you shell-shocked. Kathryn Bigelow (once married to James Cameron) has perhaps the best chance of the three mentioned women to be nominated for (and win) Best Director.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS* – Tarantino's alternate history WWII pic has had mostly positive reviews and surpassed $100m at the US box office. Hey, it helps! It's certainly one of the most memorable films of the year, thanks in no small part to Christoph Waltz.

INVICTUS – Directed by Clint Eastwood, which automatically puts it on the Academy's radar, the story focuses on Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and the Rugby World Cup held in South Africa in 1995.

JULIE & JULIA* – Not a great film but a crowd pleaser with impressive box office and a sure-to-be-nominated performance by Meryl Streep. And another film directed by a woman, Nora Ephron.

THE LOVELY BONES* – Peter Jackson's adaptation of the bestselling novel is the “straightest” film he's done since 1994's Heavenly Creatures. There are elements of the spiritual and supernatural but essentially it is the story of a grieving family.

NINE* – An all-star cast (Day-Lewis, Kidman, Cruz, Cotillard, Dench) has been assembled for the latest musical from Rob Marshall, director of the 2002 BP winner, Chicago.

PRECIOUS* – A tough but ultimately hopeful story of a pregnant teenager, Juno it ain't! But with Oprah behind it and universal critical acclaim this is a diamond in the rough, with Gabourey Sidibe an Mo'Nique almost certain acting nominees.

THE ROAD* – Set in a post-apocalyptic America, John Hillcoat's adaptation of the prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy (of No Country For Old Men fame) will either prove too bleak for the Academy or be embraced as a story of hope against the odds.

STAR TREK* – The first and best blockbuster of 2009, this re-boot of the tired franchise pleased fans and converted non-believers by being smart as well as entertaining. Will it boldly go where The Dark Knight couldn't?

UP* – The latest Pixar “masterpiece” is the only film here with more universal praise than The Hurt Locker. Can it be the first animated film since Beauty and the Beast in 1991 to make the grade?

UP IN THE AIR* – Directed by Juno's Jason Reitman and starring the impossible-not-to-like George Clooney, this film has taken on frontrunner status following its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, the same place Juno's Oscars run began in '07.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE* – Based on the much loved children's book, this is Spike Jonze's first film since 2002's Adaptation. Perhaps an 'alternative to animation' choice for the Academy?

THE WHITE RIBBON – Austrian director Michael Haneke's Cannes-prizewinner could be the first foreign language contender since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), if you don't count Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima (2006). But methinks Haneke has a better shot at a Directing nod.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009


Now Showing
20th Century Fox

For a film about an inspirational woman – Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and attempt (unsuccessfully and tragically) to circumnavigate the globe – Amelia is rather uninspired. While beautifully mounted and shot, director Mira Nair and writers Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, have more or less followed the conventions of the old style Hollywood biopic, hitting the historical plot points but failing to get at the heart of the woman at the heart of their story.

That’s no fault of Hilary Swank, who plays Earhart with tomboyish hair and an authentic (I’m assuming) Kansas accent. She also has a ‘can do’ spirit but nowhere near a peppy as the Amelia Earhart rendered by Amy Adams earlier this year in Night at the Museum 2; now that would have made for a much more fun film!

Told in flashback as Earhart attempts her failed circumnavigation of the globe, which ended with her and her navigator disappearing in the final stretch somewhere over the Pacific, we witness how she came to meet and then marry public relations maestro George Puttnam (Richard Gere). Puttnam helped her pursue her flying goals whilst cashing in in the process. Swank and Gere certainly have chemistry which is more than can be said for her teaming with Ewan McGregor . He plays engineer Gene Vidal (father of future writer Gore Vidal) with whom Earhart had an affair although not clandestine as Puttnam, and other acquaintances, were well aware. Sadly, McGregor is given very little screen time (and none in the bedroom, sorry ladies) and not much to do when he does show up.

By all accounts, Earhart was a woman well ahead of her time, not just in her pursuit of flying but also her attitudes to sex and what women could and could not do. But despite using two biographies as its source material, Amelia manages only to scratch the surface of its heroine. Swank, who also acts as executive producer, must have found much to admire in the character of Earhart, as well as to submerge herself in. And not to be (too) cynical, I’m sure she saw this as an opportunity to score herself another Oscar nod (she’s two for two so far). While it’s a good performance, I’d wager she won’t be booking a flight to the Kodak theatre for late Feb 2010.

In its favour, Amelia does have some wonderful aerial cinematography with some of the flight sequences so well done I was hard pressed to decipher between real blue sky and CGI blue screen. But a film needs to be more than pretty pictures and try as it might, Amelia just can’t get airborne. That’s a shame, for the filmmakers and for Earhart herself, whose legacy is deserving of a much richer, more complex telling.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


Now Showing
Madman Films

For as long as he has philosophised, man has wondered at the nature of the soul: what is it? what does it do? does it even exist? According to writer-director Sophie Bathes, the soul does indeed exist and what’s more you can have yours extracted, stored or even swapped. At least, that is the jumping off point of Barthes’ Cold Souls, a wry take on the nature of one’s soul specifically as it relates to an artist.

The artist in question is actor Paul Giamatti, who is played by the actor Paul Giamatti, one of the film’s many Kaufman-esque elements. That’s Charlie Kaufman, writer of being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, two films which Cold Souls may draw easy comparison with. Giamatti is in rehearsals for a theatre production of Uncle Vanya and is finding his character elusive. His agent suggests he read an article in The New Yorker which leads Paul to a medical facility where they have developed the technology to extract souls, keeping them in storage until the owners wish to have them returned.

One of the comic highlights of the film is Giamatti’s incredulity on finding that his soul is only the size of a chickpea. Apparently they can come in all sizes and colours though most, reveals soul extractor Dr Flintstein (a droll David Strathairn), are grey. Free of his soul, Paul is unburdened for a few days before he starts to suffer separation anxiety. But upon his return to the clinic, he finds that his soul has been stolen.

This links to another plotline involving “mules”, people, mostly women, who courier souls between Russia and the US. Giamatti’s soul has been taken by mule Nina (Dina Korzun) whose Russian employer’s girlfriend, a struggling soapie actress, wants the soul of an American actor – Pacino or Depp will do. That she gets Giamatti’s is one joke; that she doesn’t know he is is another.

Of course, audiences will know Paul Giamatti as a fine character actor who has built up a strong body of work playing mostly twitchy, sometimes disagreeable but never dull misanthropes. He scored an Oscar nomination in 2005 for perhaps his straightest role, in Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, but was criminally ignored the previous year for his performance in Sideways which I’d say was better than any of that year’s other nominees, including Jamie Foxx’s winning portrayal of Ray Charles.

No matter. Giamatti is a good sport here, mocking his own screen persona and the temperamental nature of actors, generally. Emily Watson as his wife, Claire, is sadly underused although her bemused expression, when her husband reveals exactly what it is that has been troubling him, is priceless.

Sophie Barthes may not have the confidence to cut loose with the crazy like Charlie Kaufman, with the film’s second half less amusing and more sombre (as one might expect when contemplating the loss of one's soul) as the action moves from New York to Russia. But as with Kaufman, Cold Souls is comedy with smarts, not afraid to massage the audience’s mind whist tickling its funny bone. Besides, laughter is good for the soul.

Friday, 6 November 2009


Now Showing
Sony Pictures

I'm not sure why it is – perhaps he was bullied at school? – but Roland Emmerich appears to have it in for planet Earth. In Independence Day (1996) he had aliens come and raze the cities of the world, while in The Day After Tomorrow (2004) Mother Nature finally got her own back and went all enviro-mental on our asses.

Now in his latest blockbuster, 2012, Emmerich has used the myth of the Mayan calendar's predicted cataclysmic solar event in the year 2012 as his starting point for wiping out almost the entire population of Earth. Well, all those not fortunate enough to be part of their nation's government at the time or able to cough up the 1 billion euro required to purchase a seat on one of the arks built to house these “survivors”.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The arks don't come into play until around the 90-minute mark with almost an hour still to go (groan!). Emmerich may have it in for Earth, but at two-and-a-half-hours, he's not letting her go quickly. That said, while 2012 may be butt-numbing it isn't, surprisingly, mind-numbing.

That's thanks in no small part to the casting. Instead of your typical action heroes we get the likes of fine actors such as John Cusack, as a failed author and father trying to do good, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a scientist who seems to have studied at the Sidney Poitier School of Humanity. Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton, Woody Harrelson and Tom McCarthy (better known as the director of The Visitor and The Station Agent) are also along for the ride.

And it is a ride. Sure you'll guffaw at some set pieces – a stretch limo outrunning an earthquake – but you'll be gripped by others, for after years of practise, no one does apocalypse quite like Emmerich. 2012 may be big but it's not dumb. Silly, yes, but not dumb. Michael Bay take note.


Now Showing
Hopscotch Films

Reports from this year's Toronto Film Festival suggested that The Boys Are Back was director Scott Hicks's best film since his Oscar-nominated debut, Shine (1996). And a harsh commentator might say that that wouldn't be difficult given that in the 13 years since, Hicks has become somewhat of a director-for-hire in Hollywood: Snow Falling on Cedars, Hearts In Atlantis and No Reservations all stylish but rather soulless filmmaking exercises.

In fact, Hicks took on No Reservations, a remake of a German film starring Aaron Eckhart and Catherine Zeta-Jones, when Clive Owen's unavailability for The Boys Are Back delayed its production. But Hicks obviously wanted to do this film, and so, too, Owen since they both came back to the project. One thinks the lure of not only returning to film in Australia but in his native South Australia must have been a strong motivator for Hicks. For Owen, I'm guessing it was the chance to break out of his recent run of reluctant anti-hero roles, unleash some of that Brit charm, which he used to good effect earlier this year in Duplicity, and maybe even emote a little.

Owen plays Joe Warr, a sportswriter constantly on assignment who is forced into the role of sole parent when his wife (his second whom he 'made pregnant' while still married to his first) dies of cancer. Still grieving, Joe decides the best way to parent his young son, Artie (Nicholas McAnulty), is with as little discipline or rules as possible. Their home soon becomes dubbed 'hog heaven' as dishes and washing pile up and a “if it feels good, do it” philosophy prevails, much to the chagrin of friends and relatives.

In to this environment drops Joe's older son Harry (George MacKay, looking for all the world like the understudy to a young Ron Weasley) from his first marriage, who takes to hog heaven and his little brother but is still smarting from the belief that his father abandoned him in England, emotions which Joe seems disinterested or incapable of acknowledging. For Joe himself is just a big kid, doing only what he wants and what he feels is right for him. His laissez faire attitude may make him a fun dad but Joe is a lousy parent, not that the film is too eager to call a spade a spade.

Inspired by rather than based on a true story, The Boys Are Back really doesn't go anywhere or have all that much to say. It's not a bad film (the preview audience I saw it with certainly enjoyed it) but one can imagine that the main reason for it getting the greenlight was based principally on the involvement of Clive Owen. It will certainly ensure more box office here, and overseas, than had an Australian actor taken the lead role.

That may sound like cultural cringe but it's not. In a great year for Oz films, The Boys Are Back, much like its protagonist Joe, is well intentioned but ill-equipped to get the job done.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009


Now Showing
Palace Films

Much like Ang Lee, Michael Winterbottom is a director who enjoys to genre hop, going from one style of film to another and rarely making the same film twice. The Brit director's previous film was the powerful A Mighty Heart which, among other things, reminded us that Angelina Jolie is actually an actress.

Genova again finds Winterbottom in not-so-happy territory: a family has lost their mother in a driving accident and with their grief still fresh the father, Joe (Colin Firth), takes his two daughters, who were also in the accident, to Italy where he has a summer teaching post in the city of Genova.

Joe's friend and former flame from his university days, Barbara (the ever-reliable Catherine Keener), is on-hand to help them with their culture shock and their grief, which each is dealing with in their own way. The younger daughter, who wakes in the nights screaming, sees and has conversations with her late mother (Hope Davis, another fine actress but underused here); father and teenage daughter prefer not to talk at all, one throwing himself into work, the other exploring her sexuality with the local boys.

All of this sounds ripe for emotional manipulation but Winterbottom, again like Lee, doesn't do easy emotion; the music never swells and he never prompts you to respond: if you feel anything you'll know you've worked for it. That approach can create a distance between you and the characters, an emotional disconnect. Audiences who want catharsis or an emotional release, like Jolie's primal scream in A Mighty Heart when her character finally learned the fate of her kidnapped husband, won't get that with the denouement of Genova.

On the upside, you will get to see Colin Firth in an atypical role. Too often cast as the Mr Darcy type (for obvious reasons) or the cuckolded husband/lover, it is good to see Firth avoid typecasting here. Fans should also keep an eye out for the forthcoming A Single Man, the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford, which won Firth the Best Actor prize at this year's Venice Film Festival and is generating Oscar buzz.

Saturday, 31 October 2009


Now Showing
Roadshow Films

I read Audrey Niffenegger's bestseller at the tail end of 2004, and having seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind earlier in the year, thought it would make for an excellent reunion piece: Michel Gondry's directorial whimsy coupled with Charlie Kauffman's playful way with the story's time jumping narrative, and Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as the time-crossed lovers.

Alas, the studio behind this film version didn't get my memo, so instead we have at the helm German director Robert Schwentke, best known for the Jodie Foster thriller Flightplan, and Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams as our lovers. Fine actors on any given day, the pair do the best they can with what they've been given but as often proves the case, a great book rarely makes for a great movie.

Unlike Dr Who, travelling through time and space in his police box, Henry (Bana) has a rare genetic disorder which sees him disappear from the “present”, and mostly at inopportune times, to other times of significance in his life. Another unfortunate side effect of this travel is that he arrives sans clothes. When reading the book, I thought nothing of a 30-year-old Henry walking naked from the woods to greet a 6-six-year old Clare (the future McAdams); on-screen however, and even in the buff guise of Bana, it's more than a little creepy.

We first meet the adult Clare in the Chicago library where Henry works. Due to the marvels of time travel, Clare knows exactly who he is (she's known him since she was 6) but Henry has not met her before. But a romance ensues and despite Henry's constant disappearances (a metaphor for male commitment phobia, perhaps?), sometimes for weeks on end, the pair marry. This sequence is the film's lightest; the writer and director relinquishing the earnest tone of the rest of the film to have some fun with the time travel concept, not to mention the characters as well as the expectations of the audience (mostly female) who love a good wedding.

But the earnestness soon returns and somewhat ironically for a film about time travel, a great deal of inertia comes with it. The trials and tribulations of domestic life – Henry's continued disappearances, Clare's career as an artist, the pair's tentative attempts at starting a family – are rendered no more fascinating despite Henry's condition, nor the appearances of another visitor from the future.

Niffenegger's novel is essentially a romance with the time travel element giving the story an “epic” feel, something which the film lacks and admirers of the novel may feel less than satisfied with as a result. That said, for fans of romance, or indeed Bana and McAdams, The Time Traveller's Wife may prove a pleasant time filler. For me, I'll content myself by playing scenes from my own version, with Jim, Kate et al, in the cinema in my mind.