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


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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.