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.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009


Now Showing
Icon Film Distribution

My initial reaction upon viewing The Box, the third film by director Richard Kelly, was wtf? Given that this is the same man who gave us Donnie Darko - a film I confess I am yet to see but am aware of its trippy aspects and subsequent cult following - fans of that film may well say 'but of course' or 'bring it on'. But I'm guessing that not too long into this overlong film their tune might change.

For what starts out as an interesting moral dilemma – a family is presented with an odd but seemingly harmless box with a red button: if they push the button they will receive $1million dollars but someone they don't know will die as a result – quickly descends into silly hokum involving all kinds of forces, man and – spoiler alert! – alien.

Cameron Diaz and James Marsden play the married couple, presented with the box by a mysterious and freaky-looking Frank Langella, and one suspects that all three may have signed-on for the film without having read the screenplay: perhaps they, too, were fans of Donnie Darko? Whatever the reason, all should be commended for keeping a straight face as events go from bad to worse, or rather from silly to sillier.

I'm also not entirely sure why the film has been set in the 1970s, other than that Marsden and Diaz, with her Farrah Fawcett-do, seem at home in the fashions. Perhaps the story needed to be set in a more innocent time, after all, who'd kill someone for $1million these days if they weren't also on a reality TV show or guaranteed some kind of celebrity in return?

Now I'm not someone who needs to have every event explained or tied-up neatly in a bow before the credits roll, but I am a stickler for a film having a point, no matter how ridiculous. If The Box does have a point then I missed it completely and so ultimately for me it was just ridiculous.

We've all sat through bad films, and some so bad that they are almost good – The Box does not fall into that category – but worse than being bad is a film that is boring. And at two hours, The Box is a significant bore. Given the chance, I'd push the button on this one; I'd be happy to sacrifice a stranger to get those two hours of my life back.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009


Now Showing
Paramount Vantage

When the media was enthralled by the Global Financial Crisis (or GFC as it has affectionately been dubbed) and crying doom and gloom, I honestly could care less. Economics and finance have always been a mystery to me. I studied Economics for my HSC but couldn’t tell a Keynesian from a Kenyan; I pay no attention to the Stock Market; I don’t have a mortgage so have no interest in interest rates; I have a HECS debt from my university studies but couldn’t tell you how much it was originally or how much I still owe – and I really don’t care! I do not have a credit card – never have, hopefully never will – and live by the principle of trying to spend less than what I earn. So far, so good.

But I know there are people who are deeply concerned by the GFC and the workings of the economy generally; some of my friends even work in related fields. I’m not sure how they would feel about Michael Moore’s latest documentary which basically points the finger at the big end of town as being responsible for fucking up the United States (in the first instance) and the rest of the world as a by-product.

Moore’s basic treatise here is that capitalism is an intrinsically evil system, guaranteed only to benefit those who have money to begin with: the top 1% of the population who have the combined wealth of the lower 95%, and continue to grow wealthier. ‘The rich get rich and the poor get children’ to cite a song quoted in The Great Gatsby. Or, ‘let them eat cake’ as one French monarch once giggled before the commoners replied by chopping off her head. Touche!

And a revolution is what Moore is inciting in Capitalism: A Love Story. Much like in Bowling For Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11 or Sicko, Moore has taken issue with a facet of American culture (lax gun control in Columbine, the Bush administration in Fahrenheit, and the state of US health care in Sicko) that he sees as unseemly and, well, un-American. And while those who oppose Moore and his “left wing, bleeding heart views”, would have you believe that Moore himself is un-American, possibly even a communist, it is that he loves his country so much that Moore puts its foibles under the microscope and ‘the big boys’ to the blow torch. “I refuse to live in a country like this – and I’m not leaving” he says towards the end of Capitalism. He’s as mad as hell and he’s not going to take it any more – and neither should we.

I’ll admit, I’m a Michael Moore fan. I’m pretty much inclined to agree with his take on the world; his support of the common man and his disgust if not hatred for the powerful and elite, be they government or corporate, if indeed you can tell the two apart. And sure he’s not above a cheap stunt to get his point across, although it must be noted that Moore appears on camera less in Capitalism than in any of his previous films, preferring his wry narration to confirm what we already believed and to use real peoples’ experiences to shock us even more.

One such case is what is repulsively known in the corporate world as the ‘dead peasant’ policy. Basically, banks and blue chip corporations take out life insurance policies on their employees and cash in when they die. Of course, the employees and their families aren’t made aware of this. Moore introduces us to a woman whose husband was insured – twice – by citigroup which collected some $5million when he died of cancer. His widow and children did not receive a cent.

A more positive story is that of a group of employees who held a sit-in when their factory was shut down and the Bank of America refused to pay them their entitlements. Coming so soon after the US Senate’s Wall Street bail-out, of which Bank of America was a beneficiary, the public mood was very much against the banks. After almost a week of small protests outside Bank of America offices across the country and, even more persuasive, unfavourable media coverage, the Bank agreed to all of the factory workers’ demands. Yes, people power does work, although it was politely ignored when the Senate voted (the second time) to pass the Wall Street bail-out despite millions of calls by the public not to.

Yes, there’s a lot to think about and be angered by in Capitalism: A Love Story, just as there is in any Michael Moore film. The unfortunate thing is that he is mostly preaching to the converted; those who oppose Moore’s views are unlikely to go and see the film. Perhaps one day they will make this film a part of the Economics curriculum for the HSC, providing a generation with a better understanding of capitalism as a system and not a religion, teaching that while there’s nothing wrong with making money, screwing over your fellow man to do so isn’t really worth it. We’re better than that.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009


Now Showing
Hoyts Distribution

For those of a ghoulsih persuasion who were anticipating Heath Ledger's final performance, you won't be disappointed with his entrance: suspended from a London bridge via a rope, his lifeless body hanging in the night breeze.

That comes about 20 minutes in to Terry Gilliam's latest flight of fancy, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a puzzle of a film title to go with his story, such as it is. Dr Parnassus (played by Christopher Plummer and resembling some kind of Dumbledore fallen on hard times) has been blessed/cursed with eternal life following a Faustian deal. A subsequent deal with the Devil (musician Tom Waits) has also given him a daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), whom the Devil has come to claim on her fast approaching 16th birthday, as per their agreement.

But joining this travelling troupe, which includes Anton (Andrew Garfield), a young man in love with Valentina, and Percy (Austin Powers' Verne Troyer), the Jiminy Cricket of these performing rogues, is Ledger's Tony. Saved from his suspected suicide and seeming to suffer amnesia, he joins this motley crew as they perform for small audiences; the centrepiece of their show is Dr Parnassus' Imaginarium, a mirror which sees people enter a parallel universe of their imagination's making. The trick: to choose good or evil. At stake: their souls.

As we all know, Ledger died during the filming of Doctor Parnassus. Luckily (for lack of a better word) for Gilliam and co., Ledger had completed all his scenes that occur in the "real world". When his character passes through the mirror, he is played by three different actors - Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell - revealing Tony's different character traits. And to be honest, it is in these scenes that the film picks up; not just because of the trio of actors but the visuals as well, giving flight to Gilliam's own imagination.

Given Ledger's untimely passing and the subsequent interest in this film, I had feared this would be an over-praised final tribute to the actor, mourning blinding many to any deficits of the film. But The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is not a bad film. It's no masterpiece by any means but it follows its own internal logic - even if I struggled to - and is never dull.

And Ledger's performance is fine for what it is. But if you want a lasting legacy of the man as an artist I'd stick with his role as The Joker in The Dark Knight.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009


Now Showing
Paramount Pictures

Coming-of-age films from the female perspective are seemingly not as common as their male counterparts, but rarely is either gender afforded a vehicle committed with the grace and humour of An Education.

Based on a very slim memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber, and adapted, surprisingly, by very male novelist Nick Hornby, author of Fever Pitch and About A Boy, Danish director Lone Scherfig has captured a very specific time and place – early 1960s London before it swang and just before The Beatles launched – and a star-making performance by Carey Mulligan.

Mulligan is Jenny, 16 years old and living in the London suburbs with her parents, an acquiescent mum (Cara Seymour) and a penny-pinching, infuriatingly misguided dad (a wonderful comic turn by Alfred Molina), whose insistence that Jenny achieve high grades so as to attend Oxford is the only thing they agree on; for him it is to improve their social standing, for Jenny it is a means to escape.

Like most teens, Jenny, who smokes with her friends, speaks French and dreams big dreams, believes she is smarter than the adults in her life and is going to go places and do things. And then she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard) - in a wonderful scene involving a car, a cello and some rain - an older man who has been places and done things and offers these opportunities to her. David takes her to concerts, supper clubs and auctions. He even manages to take her away for a weekend in Oxford for Jenny is not the only one seduced by this man.

Of course nothing is as it seems and anything too good to be true usually proves to be so and as Jenny’s grades slip, her eyes are opened all too late. Her education will come at a price but at film’s end we know she’ll be all the better for it.

I’ve seen An Education twice now, and loved it just as much the second time. I’m surprised how my first reaction to David changed with the second viewing. I’m also impressed with how Olivia Williams, as Jenny’s English teacher, and Emma Thompson, as the headmistress, make full-blooded people out of two small supporting roles.

But want didn’t change for me, but was merely reinforced, was the wonderful performance by Carey Mulligan. This little known (but not for much longer) British actress, 24 yet effortlessly passing for 16, seizes the opportunity afforded her and runs with it – all the way to next year’s Oscars I, and most pundits, predict. The film rests on her shoulders and she bears the burden gracefully. Jenny’s judgement may falter but Mulligan’s never does.

With an expanded list of 10 Best Picture nominees, An Education has a good chance of securing a BP nomination, and deservedly so. And in what is proving to be a good year for women directors, Lone Scherfig could also secure a nod. But don’t wait for those announcements in February 2010: An Education opens this week and you’d be the class clown not to seek it out now.


Now Showing
Madman Films

Earlier this year I sent an email to friends quoting an A.O. Scott review from the New York Times, facetiously saying how I wished I could be so wittily cutting with my reviews. That review (pub. May 29, 2009) was for the Japanese film Departures, winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.

The surprise winner it must be said, and perhaps one of the reasons for Scott’s invective which included calling the film, “Overlong, predictable in its plotting and utterly banal in its blending of comic whimsy and melodramatic pathos”. Most pundits and critics had expected the Israeli animated docu-drama Waltz With Bashir to claim the prize or, at second guess, the French film The Class.

That Departures won is not its fault (nor should its makers apologise), but it perhaps places it under greater scrutiny and expectation than had it arrived in our cinemas as a mere nominee. Yojiro Takita’s film is certainly no masterpiece but it’s no dud either; there’s much to be enjoyed if you approach it on its own terms.

Daigo is a cellist with an orchestra but economic pressures (no one is coming to their performances) sees it disbanded by its backers. Daigo decides to uproot he and his surprisingly compliant young wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) to his childhood home in a seaside village. In the course of looking for new employment, he mistakenly applies for a job which involves preparing deceased bodies for cremation. That he is immediately employed for the position and paid a day’s wages upfront is amusing; that Daigo goes back on the second day, despite an horrific introduction to the job, even more so.

Surprising, however, is his inability to tell his wife what it is he now does. Handling the deceased is not considered an honourable job in Japan, but one which Daigo slowly begins to admire and excel at. There is the encoffinating ceremony which involves cleaning and dressing the deceased in front of their loved ones and the artist in Daigo treats it with the respect and attention it deserves.

Of course Daigo’s wife will discover his secret and not be so understanding. Daigo will also have to come to terms with the emotional baggage he carries concerning his father, who abandoned him and his now-deceased mother when he was just a boy. Yes there will be tears, and not just on screen (I admit, I did get a little misty eyed), before an inevitably uplifting ending.

At just over two hours, Departures does outstay its welcome and one too many classical music interludes, where Daigo recalls his childhood but not the face of the man who left him, feels as though Takita is pushing for effect when he doesn’t really need to; the emotions come through unassisted. But there is much to enjoy in this film before rigor mortis sets in.

In his review, Scott called Departures “perfectly mediocre” and as much as I admire his command of the put-down, I think he is perhaps being unfairly harsh. For what it is - a quasi-profound human drama and comedy of manners - Departures is perfectly fine.

Monday, 19 October 2009


Now Showing
Sony Pictures

It is difficult to review a film, especially a good film, when it requires that you not reveal any of the major plot points. And Moon, the directorial debut of Duncan Jones, turns on one major plot point.

It also rests on the shoulders of Sam Rockwell, essentially the only actor in the film. He plays Sam Bell, the sole occupant of a lunar mining station where Earth in the not-too-distant future now obtains its energy resources. Bell is about to reach the end of his contract after three years where his only company has been delayed messages from his wife and young daughter back on Earth, and Gerty, the station's artificial intelligence system, voiced by Kevin Spacey.

That gives the film a 2001: A Space Odyssey feel, as does the sterile white production design of the station interiors, but Jones is concerned with more than homage. Like the best sci-fi, he is concerned with questions of humanity: what does it mean to be human? And that's where the major plot point comes in to play.

When Bell goes outside the station to check on a malfunctioning machine an accident occurs and – and to say anymore would spoil the surprise. Less of a surprise is Sam Rockwell's performance. Considered more of a character actor, and mostly playing manic characters at that, Rockwell got his best leading man role in the George Clooney-directed Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Here, Jones gives him another and he runs with it and in a perfect world, an Oscar nomination would be his.

Made on a budget of $5million, which is noticeable at times but never distracting, Moon is a small film but no less worthy for that. It has ambition which is far more than a lot of films, with bigger budgets and much less to say, have in their favour.


Now Showing
Sony Pictures

If like me you had never heard of Julia Child before the arrival of this film, then you will likely associate her forever more with Meryl Streep. Child, the woman hailed for bringing French cooking into the kitchens of America with her book and TV show, is so specifically rendered in the extremely talented actor's portrayal - is there nothing Ms Streep cannot do? - that if Julia Child is nothing like her on-screen version (and you could probably find out for yourself on YouTube) then I don't want to know about it.

Writer-director Nora Ephron's film unfortunately is not devoted entirely to Streep's Julia Child but rather attempts to tell parallel stories: the writing of Child's infamous Mastering The Art of French Cooking in post-World War II Paris, and that of Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a civil servant in post-911 New York who set herself the challenge of cooking all 500-plus recipes in Child's tome in one year and recording her successes and failures in a blog.

Bored with her domestic life after serving for US intelligence during the war, Julia Child looks for projects to fill her days. With the encouragement of her husband (Stanley Tucci, who gave Streep solid support in The Devil Wears Prada and does so once again), she decides on learning to cook French cuisine, after all she loves to eat, and she takes to it like a duck to a l'orange. It is these scenes of the film which are full of life and vigour; when Streep is on screen the film soars.

That Adams' scenes are less engaging is no fault of her own. This talented young actress, star of such wonderful fare as Enchanted and Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, and Oscar-nominated for Junebug and Doubt, where she first played opposite Streep, brings her comic sensibility and her natural likability to the role of Powell. But whenever we cut back to her, in her huddled apartment with her more-than-accommodating husband (Chris Messina), having spent time with Meryl in Paris, you can't help but feel like a guest at a dinner party who knows there's another, more vibrant dinner party with a richer menu happening across town.

Meryl Streep is the guest of honour and main course in the dinner party that is Julie & Julia. When she's not on screen you can't wait for her to come back, with her hors d'oeuvre and her sparkle.