Thursday, 31 December 2009

FILM REVIEW: BRIGHT STAR


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

FILM REVIEW: THE FRENCH KISSERS


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.

FILM REVIEW: THE LOVELY BONES


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

FILM REVIEW: DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS?


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.

FILM REVIEW: SHERLOCK HOLMES


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

FILM REVIEW: NOWHERE BOY


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.

DVD REVIEW: THE UGLY TRUTH


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

FILM REVIEW: AVATAR


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

FILM REVIEW: BROKEN EMBRACES


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

OSCARS 09 REPORT #5: BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

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.

MATT DAMON – INVICTUS
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.

ZACH GALIFIANAKIS – THE HANGOVER*
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.

WOODY HARRELSON – THE MESSENGER
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.

JUDE LAW – SHERLOCK HOLMES*
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.

CHRISTIAN MCKAY – ME AND ORSON WELLES
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.

ALFRED MOLINA – AN EDUCATION*
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.

CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER – THE LAST STATION
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.

PETER SARSGAARD – AN EDUCATION*
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.

STANLEY TUCCI – THE LOVELY BONES*
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.

CHRISTOPH WALTZ – INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS*
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

FILM REVIEW: AWAY WE GO


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.

DVD REVIEW : THREE BLIND MICE


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

FILM REVIEW: 9


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

DVD REVIEW: BALIBO


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.

OSCARS 09 REPORT #4: SUPPORTING ACTRESS

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)

PENELOPE CRUZ – NINE*
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.

VERA FARMIGA – UP IN THE AIR*
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.

MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL – CRAZY HEART
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.

ANNA KENDRICK – UP IN THE AIR*
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.

MELANIE LAURENT – INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS*
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.

MO'NIQUE – PRECIOUS*
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.

JULIANNE MOORE – A SINGLE MAN*
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.

SAMANTHA MORTON – THE MESSENGER
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

FILM REVIEW: WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE


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.

FILM REVIEW: THE INFORMANT!


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

FILM REVIEW: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY


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.

OSCARS 09 REPORT #3: BEST ACTRESS

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).

EMILY BLUNT – THE YOUNG VICTORIA*
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.

SANDRA BULLOCK – THE BLIND SIDE
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.

ABBIE CORNISH – BRIGHT STAR*
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.

MARION COTILLARD – NINE*
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.

HELEN MIRREN – THE LAST STATION
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?).

MICHELLE MONAGHAN – TRUCKER
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?

CAREY MULLIGAN – AN EDUCATION*
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.

SAOIRSE RONAN – THE LOVELY BONES*
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?

GABOUREY SIDIBE – PRECIOUS*
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.

MERYL STREEP – JULIE AND JULIA*
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!

FILM REVIEW: THE DAMNED UNITED


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.