Thursday, 16 December 2010

FILM REVIEW: TANGLED

Walt Disney Studio Films
Now Showing

With the release of Tangled, Disney have double cause for celebration: not only is it the House of Mouse's 50th animated feature, but it continues their impressive return to form which began this time last year with the wonderful The Princess and the Frog.

Some of the credit for this reinvigoration of Disney has a lot to do with Pixar founder, John Lasseter's promotion to head of Disney Animation. If anyone knows what works and what doesn't, and can perfectly blend character, story and action within the realms of animation, it's the team from Pixar. Still, it's somewhat ironic given the success of both The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, that Pixar, for all their considerable success and talent, have yet to produce a female-centric film.

A re-boot of the age old tale of Rapunzel (the film's original title which was changed lest it scare off the young male demographic), Tangled should, despite those marketing doubts, appeal to a wide audience; female and male, young and old.

Rapunzel's (voiced by former pop starlet, Many Moore) journey of self discovery begins when Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), a charming if somewhat overly self confident thief, happens upon Rapunzel's home, a tower hidden deep in the forest, whilst on the run from the royal guard. Rapunzel, not accustomed to visitors from the outside world (her mother, who is no such thing having abducted her from the royal nursery for the magical youth-defying properties of her locks, has kept her "secured" her entire life), seizes upon the opportunity and makes a deal with Flynn; in exchange for the return of his stolen loot, he will show her the wonders of the outside world.

So ensues an adventure that will charm all but the hardest hearted of cynics and misanthropes, with enough action for the boys and romance for the girls. Not that Rapunzel, despite her sheltered upbringing, is about to quietly acquiesce to the first good looking larcenist to cross her path.

There's also plenty of laughs, most of them provided by Maximus the royal guard horse who, seemingly under the misconception that he's a bloodhound, won't abandon his pursuit of Flynn. Much like Donkey, Dory and Puss-in-Boots before him, Maximus easily steals the film from his animated leads – and all without uttering a word.

Unlike the traditional 2D animated Princess, Tangled is a CG animated feature. It can also be seen in 3D, and as much as I like to dump on that format, Tangled's painterly scenery, which recalls the Disney films of old (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty), doesn't suffer from the murky visuals 3D often produces; it's as colourful and vibrant as intended, with or without the glasses.

For whatever reason, there seems to be a dearth of good kids and family films these summer holidays, of which Tangled is the best. But not by default; it's a genuine delight.

FILM REVIEW: MORNING GLORY

Paramount Pictures
Now Showing

Eleven years ago, Brit director Roger Michell gave us Notting Hill, one of the best romantic comedies of the '90s. Genre-wise, Michell has been all over the map since then but returns to similarly light territory with Morning Glory, albeit with less than successful results.

Morning Glory is not a rom-com. Our heroine, Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams) has little time for romance, as focussed as she is on succeeding in the highly-competitive breakfast television arena. As the newly-appointed producer of Daybreak, the perennially fourth-running show in a race of four, and having fired one of her anchors on day one, Becky needs a new co-host to sit opposite Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton in a thankless role), and a miracle to save the show and her ass.

That miracle comes in the unlikely form of Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford at his most grizzly), a serious television journalist from the old school of reporting who's basically coasting out his contract with the network. That contract features a loophole which enables Becky to force Mike into the vacant co-anchor's chair, and what begins as a foolhardy experiment starts to pay off when audience interest increases due to the barely contained hostilities displayed between Colleen and Mike.

And Morning Glory could have been a lot more fun had it run with this war of the roses. Keaton and, somewhat surprisingly, Ford have excellent comic chops which Ford gets to work-out to good effect as the cantankerous old newsman. Keaton's role, however, seems to have been severely reduced in the editing room.

McAdams, always a welcome screen presence, also has chemistry with Ford but thankfully Michell and his writer, Aline Brosh McKenna, avoid any May-December shenanigans between the two. She does, however, have a romantic interest in fellow network employee Adam Bennett (Patrick Wilson), but he's given only slightly more to work with than Keaton.

What the film does do is successfully skewer the vacuousness that is breakfast television. And anyone who has watched Channel 7's Sunrise knows this isn't endemic to American TV. But that is countered somewhat by Becky's success in her job, a success that comes from exploiting said vacuity at the expense of real news. It's something even the battle-hardened Mike will have to succumb to in order to save the show – dignity be damned!

There's no denying Morning Glory is enjoyable fare, but its this underlying ideology that leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, particularly for those of us who fear the continual dumbing down of our traditional media sources in response to a perceived attempt to compete with new media. That's no laughing matter and it shouldn't be championed.


DVD REVIEW: THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT/FOUR LIONS


Hopscotch Entertainment
Out on DVD and Blu-ray January 6


Two completely different comedies releasing this week where the only (tenuous) link (other than distributor, Hopscotch) is their political subjects i.e. gay parenting and suicide bombers. Lisa Cholodenko's THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (co-written by Stuart Blumberg) may not, on the surface of things, seem like a political film but by depicting a gay family as not unlike any other family (i.e. two parents, two kids), with all the inherent strengths and weaknesses, is still (sadly) a somewhat radical act, even in the 21st century, and especially in American filmmaking. Made for under $5 million, Kids is all the more impressive for boasting an impressive cast (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as the couple; Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson as the kids; and Mark Ruffalo as the sperm donor “dad”) who all bring their A games. Bening (and probably Ruffalo) will score an Oscar nomination but for me, it is Moore's performance that is the film's best (and the Lead!).

http://thelennoxfiles.blogspot.com/2010/08/film-review-kids-are-all-right.html

FOUR LIONS is an entirely different political beast, one that makes light of a very serious subject: suicide bombers. Too soon, some may say, but the best comedy pushes the boundaries of taste and Chris Morris's fly-on-the-wall look at four of England's dumbest potential martyrs will have you laughing, cringing and tsk-tsk-ing in equal measure. Yes, the would-be-bombers are Muslim but that's not the point. It's extremism – and a warped variety at that – which is under the microscope here: there is a marked difference between faith and blind devotion, and stupid is as stupid does. And while Morris, and writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, who have links to Armando Iannucci, responsbile for one of 2010 best comedies, In The Loop (Armstrong co-wrote that screenplay), may not be as precise in their aim as that film, the jokes hit their target as often than not.

http://thelennoxfiles.blogspot.com/2010/08/film-review-four-lions.html


Wednesday, 15 December 2010

2010: THE FILM YEAR IN REVIEW


























Eclipsing my record set in 2009 for films seen in a year (now 137), 2010 has proven to be a big year at the movies. That said, I am unable to name a definitive #1 film for the year so have listed (in alphabetical order) my Top 10. I also have an Honourable Mentions list for films that I really liked and recommend you seek out.

Note: this recap comprises only of films released in Australian cinemas between January 1 and December 31, 2010.

2010 has been a year of growth for The LennoX Files and I've appreciated your readership, especially that of my 13 followers. I'd also value your feedback, so let me know what films you enjoyed, even loved, in 2010. And here's hoping for an even bigger year at the movies in 2011.

A PROPHET

In a good year for French films – Welcome and Gainsbourg are also worthy of mention – Jacques Audiard's prison drama, centred around a terrific performance by Tahar Rahim, was mighty impressive. A barely literate young man, Malik (Rahim), survives his sentence by becoming the gopher for the prison's Corsican gang boss whilst keeping his own contacts with the Arab community, in and out of prison. Audiard doesn't exactly depict Malik's rise in the ranks as unappealing but he doesn't skimp on the brutality either; a scene involving a razor blade was perhaps the most tension-filled I saw all year. Even at two-and-a-half hours, A Prophet is not too long a stretch.

http://thelennoxfiles.blogspot.com/2010/02/film-review-prophet.html

ANIMATION

Okay, so it's kind of a cheat to cram three films into one slot but hey, it's my list! Every year animation just gets better and better with Pixar long rivalling their live action cousins. Now others are rising to the challenge. FANTASTIC MR FOX was a wonderful retro stop-motion delight, via the imagination of Roald Dahl, but with the unmistakable fingerprints of director Wes Anderson. THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG saw Disney get their mojo back with a traditional 2D animated film, and arguably their best since The Lion King. And with HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, DreamWorks showed they are within striking distance of Pixar, eschewing pop culture riffing for a story of unlikely friendship that was big on action, humour and heart.

http://thelennoxfiles.blogspot.com/2010/01/film-review-fantastic-mr-fox.html

http://thelennoxfiles.blogspot.com/2010/01/film-review-princess-and-frog.html

http://thelennoxfiles.blogspot.com/2010/03/film-review-how-to-train-your-dragon.html

THE GHOST WRITER

Based on the Robert Harris novel, The Ghost Writer could easily be dismissed as an airport novel adaptation if it weren't so damn good. Roman Polanski is at the height of his powers in weaving this tale of suspense about a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) hired to polish the memoirs of an ex Brit PM being accused of war crimes. A never-better Pierce Brosnan plays the Tony Blair-inspired PM (but nothing like Michael Sheen), and Olivia Williams is excellent as the PM's chilly wife. With a nod to Hitchcock, Polanski uses suspense rather than action to ratchet up the tension in this first class thriller.

http://thelennoxfiles.blogspot.com/2010/08/film-review-ghost-writer.html

INCEPTION

Easily the most talked about film of 2010, Christopher Nolan's journey down the rabbit hole and into the dreamscape was as deep as you wanted it to be. Essentially a heist film where the loot is an idea, and one planted rather than stolen, you either went with Cobb (Leo DiCaprio) and his team (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy) on their mission or you didn't. Most audiences – and critics – went along for the ride, and even if it was more cerebral than emotional (although Marion Cotillard went some way to evening that score), you can't under estimate the boldness of both Nolan's vision, and Warner Bros for backing an original, non-sequel, non-franchise film.

http://thelennoxfiles.blogspot.com/2010/07/film-review-inception.html

KICK-ASS

The manufactured controversy surrounding the dropping of the 'f' bomb 'c' word by an 11-year-old girl missed the point, and those who skipped Kick-Ass as a result missed out on one of the funnest, coolest films of the year. That 11-year-old, Hit Girl (the impressive Chloe Moretz, also of Let Me In), was one half of a crime fighting duo with her father, Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage). They're eventually joined by Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson), a superhero wannabe who obtains his moniker for receiving said ass kicking. But he bounces back – and rendered pain free – to take on the bad guys led by D'Amico (Mark Strong). Yes it's violent but it's also funny, and just a little pointed.

http://thelennoxfiles.blogspot.com/2010/04/film-review-kick-ass.html

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT

Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko's film may be a comedy – and a smart one at that – but it's also political given that it depicts a gay family as normal as any other. Which is to say loving but flawed, with its strengths and weaknesses. Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), a couple for 20 years, have two children (Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska) via an anonymous sperm donor. It's when the kids go looking for “dad” (Mark Ruffalo) that the cracks in the family unit become exposed, magnified and potentially damaging. The film is full of heart and none more bigger than that of Jules. Bening may be getting all the awards attention but it's Moore's performance you'll remember.

http://thelennoxfiles.blogspot.com/2010/08/film-review-kids-are-all-right.html

THE KING'S SPEECH

A period drama, an odd couple friendship and the most likely film to prevent The Social Network from walking away with the Best Picture Oscar, Tom Hooper's The King's Speech is the rousing, emotional and true story of King George VI, who suffered from a debilitating stammer, and his Australian speech therapist. Colin Firth, as the king, and Geoffrey Rush, as therapist Lionel Logue, are an acting dynamic duo, with Firth likely to win an Oscar and Rush, at the very least, to be nominated.

http://thelennoxfiles.blogspot.com/2010/12/film-review-kings-speech.html

THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES

Almost every year the Foreign Language Oscar throws up a surprise winner. And yes, A Prophet may have been more deserving this year, but I for one was seduced by Juan Jose Campanella's police procedural. Set in two time periods – 1999 and the political upheavals of 1970s Argentina – we follow Benjamin (Ricardo Darin), retired court investigator cum author, as he tries to reconcile past and present: an unsolved murder in the '70s, and his unspoken love for his then colleague, Irene (Soledad Villamil). There's a football stadium sequence which is mighty impressive but it's the love story that will seduce you. See it before the already planned US remake.

http://thelennoxfiles.blogspot.com/2010/05/film-review-secret-in-their-eyes.html

THE SOCIAL NETWORK

In terms of critical response, David Fincher's film is the best of the year – and the most likely Best Picture Oscar winner – and it's an assessment hard to argue with. Starting with the brilliant screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, which the young and impressive cast – Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Rooney Mara – deliver at breakneck speed, Fincher captures a world – the rarefied air of Harvard – and a moment – the birth of facebook – which he frames in a quasi-courtroom drama. Facebook user or not (I am not!), film lovers should make friends with Sorkin, Fincher et al.

http://thelennoxfiles.blogspot.com/2010/10/film-review-social-network.html

TOY STORY 3

For pure emotion, hands down the best film of the year! I saw the final installment in the much-loved Toy Story franchise twice – and cried both times. But why not lump it in with the other animated films at the top of this list? Because Pixar's film deserves special recognition, and not just as a great film. As acknowledgment that a franchise film need not be unoriginal or uninspired; that going out on top is far more admirable and brave than pumping out endless sequels purely for the money; and that despite being a “kids” film, Toy Story 3 dared to ask some serious questions about growing up and letting go. Thanks for the memories, Woody and Buzz, we'll miss you.

http://thelennoxfiles.blogspot.com/2010/06/film-review-toy-story-3.html

HONOURABLE MENTIONS:

Animal Kingdom, Blue Valentine, Cairo Time, City Island, Crazy Heart, Easy A, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Hurt Locker, In The Loop, The Last Station, Me and Orson Welles, Precious, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Up In The Air, Welcome, Winter's Bone.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

FILM REVIEW: THE TOURIST

Sony Pictures
Now Showing


Much like a travel brochure which promises the most amazing holiday, The Tourist looked as though it could be the perfect cinema escape this summer. Sadly, Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck's film, set for the most part in a sumptuously shot Venice, proves to be all pretty pictures with no lasting memories.

And surprisingly, the fault lies mostly with the film's leads, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. She, looking as beautiful as ever, and he, refreshingly playing his straightest role in quite some time, have next to no chemistry at all: Mr and Mrs Smith they are not. The pair meet on a train when Elise (Jolie), attempting to elude the British (not so) secret service, sits down next to Frank Tupelo (Depp), holidaying American math teacher.

He's to be the decoy, as instructed in a note to Elise by her lover and wanted fugitive, Alexander Pearce, to throw others off her tail. Pearce stole several millions from a gangster and has been in hiding for two years, believed to have had reconstructive surgery on his face. Elise is the only link to Pearce, whom the gangster, Reginald Shaw (Steven Berkoff), wants for obvious reasons but whom the Brits, led by a dogged inspector (Paul Bettany), seem to want only for unpaid taxes on said stolen loot. So far, so bored.

This past week, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association nominated The Tourist for a Golden Globe for Best Picture Comedy/Musical which means the members of the HFPA had a lot more fun with it than I did. And I'm not sure that Donnersmarck intended The Tourist as a comedy, despite its light tone; more a thriller in keeping with Hitchcock's lighter moments, perhaps?

But there's certainly no sense of urgency or danger in The Tourist, even with rooftop chases, gunfire and Russian mobsters. And a boat chase along the canals of Venice couldn't be less dramatic if filmed using a couple of row boats on a duck pond.

The teaming of Jolie and Pitt was probably considered a marketing slam dunk. Throw in Venice as a backdrop and audiences were most likely expected to be too hypnotised by all that beauty to care much for plot or character. Wrong. While I've no doubt The Tourist will do well at the Christmas Oz box office (How could it not? It has little in the way of high-powered competition), I also suspect it will come to be remembered more as a trip endured rather than a journey enjoyed.

FILM REVIEW: BLUE VALENTINE

Palace Films
Now Showing

Expectations can often be a bad thing, especially in the film reviewing game. Of course, it's not always the film's fault if it doesn't live up to one's expectations. What we expect a film to be, or are told it is – through other reviews, trailers etc – and what it actually is (or find it to be) can sometimes prove incompatible and thus disappointing. Case in point: Blue Valentine.

While a perfectly fine film, my expectations were high for Derek Cianfrance's feature, not helped by having to wait some 10 months to see it following its premiere at Sundance in January. Playing, and being raved about, at almost every major film festival throughout the year only added to my eagerness to see it.

My expectation of Blue Valentine, the depiction of the crumbling six year marriage of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), was that it would be a raw emotional experience that would either break my heart or deliver a gut-punch. Sadly, I got neither but again, that's not entirely the fault of the film.

Blue Valentine unfolds in in two time frames: the present where events take place over a 24-hour period and everything – past and present tensions and resentments – comes to a head for the couple; and flashing back to six years earlier, revealing how Cindy and Dean met, dated and came to be married. The beginning of love and the end.

One could compare Blue Valentine to 2008's Revolutionary Road, at least in its depiction of a marriage in free fall. Mendes's film, with its literary pedigree, period setting and heavy emoting, is a tragedy of operatic proportions compared to the minimalism employed in Cianfrance's film: a handheld camera for the flashbacks, red digital for the present; a modern, modest wardrobe. And the present day occurs during the Fourth of July weekend, which is ironic given that the emotional fireworks occur, for the most part, below the surface.

But whatever my disappointments with the film, I cannot fault the performances. Michelle Williams and, especially, Ryan Gosling lay their characters (and themselves) bare. Williams' is, for the most part, a contained performance, more gestural with her body language revealing everything she isn't saying; Cindy's planned medical career put on hold to raise a daughter just one source of resentment.

Gosling, who undergoes a marked physical transformation between past and present, has the more demonstrative role as a man who is content to be no more than a good husband and father. But he, too, has issues (anger, jealousy) stemming from the early stages of the relationship.

I would have liked to have seen Blue Valentine a second time before writing my review but time (and limited previews) were against me. I plan to revisit it in the future where I hope for a more positive re-evaluation. But my disappointment aside, I'd recommend seeing Cianfrance's film (it's the second best offering of the Boxing Day releases), if only for those performances.

FILM REVIEW: HEARTBREAKER


Hopscotch Films
Now Showing

It's been a piss-poor year for the romantic comedy, once a staple and reliable genre for Hollywood. 2009's (500) Days of Summer looked set to reinvigorate the genre but 2010 proved that that wonderful film was, sadly, an anomaly.

Thank god for the French. Heartbreaker may not be a great film by any means but it is fun, charming and, yes, romantic. It was a box office success in France and, predictably, Hollywood is already planning a remake. But I'd suggest you see Pascal Chaumeil's film, and not just because the original is always better but because the remake won't star Romain Duris.

Duris is Alex, a man who has managed to channel his considerable Gallic charms into a career as a professional relationship terminator, hired by the friends or family of a loved one whom they believe to be involved with the wrong person. Aided by his sister (Julie Ferrier) and brother-in-law (Francois Damiens), Alex researches each job to learn the best way to up-end the target's relationship. But should the couple prove to be genuinely happy, Alex won't take the job.

All of that changes with the threat of a debt collector, and Alex takes the assignment to break-up Juliette (Vanessa Paradis) and her millionaire, children's-hospital building English fiance (Andrew Lincoln) who seem to be the perfect couple. Alex and his team follow Juliette to Monte Carlo where, posing as a bodyguard hired by her father (who suspects his daughter is not as happy as she seems), he sets in motion operation seduction.

But Juliette, a fan of George Michael and Dirty Dancing, proves a considerable nut to crack, seemingly irresistable to Alex's charm offensive. Not so me; Duris had me at bon jour. Paradis on the other hand, who is perhaps better known outside of France as Mrs Johnny Depp, I found to be lacking in spark or charm. Still, I'll take this film over her hubby's The Tourist (also out this week; review to come) any day.

Like any rom-com, the ending is never in doubt, so at 105 minutes, Heartbreaker is perhaps a tad too long, and at times too farcical for its own good. But there are enough moments to sustain it. I defy anyone not to smile when they hear Wham's Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go or positively beam when the inevitable Dirty Dancing set piece finally arrives. Or fall for Romain Duris, for that matter.

FILM REVIEW: THE KING'S SPEECH


Paramount/Transmission
Now Showing

There are at least two reasons why we haven't before heard the story that forms the basis of The King's Speech, the seemingly unlikely tale of an odd couple friendship between a king and a commoner: Enlgand's King George VI and his Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue. One reason is a promise made to the Queen Mother by the film's screenwriter David Seidler; the other the abdication scandal involving American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, which overlapped with the events told here.

When King Edward (Guy Pearce, almost bordering on caricature) abdicates the English throne in 1936, so he can marry Simpson (Eve Best), his younger brother Albert (Bertie to his family) ascends to the throne as King George VI. George (Colin Firth) isn't uncomfortable wearing the crown so much as the increased demand on him to speak publicly. Suffering as he does from an almost crippling stammer, it terrifies him.

We're well aware of this by the time the abdication occurs; the film opens with a painfully awkward public address by George. George's supportive wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), has sought out various specialists in speech therapy over the years to little or no success, until she happens upon Lionel Logue (Geofrrey Rush), a one-time Australian stage actor now practising speech therapist in London with unorthodox methods.

Logue also has little time for ceremony and a healthy dislike of authority. He agrees to take George on as his patient provided he attend sessions at his office, that they address each other as equals and his methods are not questioned. There's one or two false starts and it's not all smooth sailing, but it's the beginning of a beautiful, if unlikely, friendship which would last until King George's death in 1952.

The reason it took Seidler so long to bring his screenplay to the screen was a promise made to the Queen Mother that he would not do so until she had passed (in 2002, aged 101). Apparently the memories and emotions were still too fresh for the elderly widow.

Directed by Tom Hooper (who made last year's The Damned United, and the brilliant TV miniseries, John Adams), The King's Speech is a period drama that is neither stuffy nor all pomp and ceremony despite its regal setting. Hooper's very much concerned with the people, particularly George and Lionel, and he couldn't have asked for two better accomplices than Firth and Rush.

As a man born into privilege (and ultimately power) but stymied by his impediment, Firth never overplays the stammering (which could get old fast), and allows us to see the anger and anguish beneath the surface. Rush, who hasnt had this juicy a role in quite some time, goes toe-to-toe with Firth. He may be somewhat of a comic foil but he's also a man of convictions. He sees how good a king George can be and he'll push him as hard as he can until he does too.

"Why should I listen to you?" Rush's Logue asks the King during a heated exchange on the eve of his coronation. "Because I have a voice!" Firth replies. He may also have an Oscar come late February 2011; Rush, too, if the Academy is paying attention.

FILM REVIEW: SOMEWHERE

Universal Pictures
Now Showing


Despite the frustrating opening sequences, which could best be described as episodic inertia, Sofia Coppola's Somewhere gradually draws you in. Not that the episodic nature abates – this is a virtually plot-free film – but because its protagonist, Hollywood actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), livens up.

That's around the time his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota) arrives to stay with him at his "home", L.A.'s Chateau Marmont Hotel. Elle's mother (presumably Johnny's ex) needs to get away and she posits the muppet-sized but surprisingly capable 11-year-old with her dad. Plot-wise that's about it. Father and daughter hanging by the hotel pool, a brief trip to Milan to promote his latest film and ordering midnight snacks of gelato via room service, computer games, shopping, and eventually a road trip, to deliver Cleo to summer camp.

But Coppola's film is also a study in the emptiness of fame and celebrity. Johnny lives in a hotel, hosting parties in his room most nights with guests he doesn't appear to know, and having sexual encounters with random women, presumably attracted to his celebrity rather than his scruffy looks and non-existent charm.

I don't know that we're supposed to feel sorry for Johnny Marco – boo hoo, it's tough being a star! – but perhaps to empathise. One assumes that Coppola, daughter of director Francis Ford, knows a thing or two about growing up in the rarified air of Hollywood as the child of a feted man. Personal experience informs Somewhere just as it did Coppola's most successful film, Lost In Translation, which also took place in the confines of a (Japanese) hotel and had as its central character a lonely actor (played brilliantly by Bill Murray).

But the similarities between the two films mostly end there. Lost In Translation is almost hyperactive compared to Somewhere's languid pacing, and the male-female dynamic (Scarlett Johansson playing a Coppola substitute in the earlier film) is of a completely different nature.

Dorff and Fanning work well together as father-daughter, relaxed and casual like the film itself. Marco curbs his vices when he's with Cleo and not begrudgingly; she represents the best of him and he knows it. The film is at its most engaging and best when the two are together. And much like Johnny Marco, it's almost intolerable without Cleo.

FILM REVIEW: TRON: LEGACY

Walt Disney Studio Films
Now Showing

Confession: I have not seen the original Tron, the 1982 film which has subsequently become a cult classic, chiefly amongst (I'm guessing) those of a computer persuasion. Unlike those *cough* geeks *cough*, and many who have a nostalgic, childhood fondness for the film, I approached the sequel with no expectations one way or the other. So I can't say that Tron: Legacy disappointed me. How could it? But bore me? That it did.

Visually the film is impressive but I expected that going in. And there are better people than I who can expound on the technical marvels of this film – the creation of an alternate reality, the soundscape, and the CGI-youthified Jeff Bridges, returning from the original – which are all rendered in 3D (for mine, to little or no effect: I hate 3D!).

And to be honest, I probably knew that it would not be so creative narratively; that first time director Joseph Kosinski, who hails from a career in making commercials, would be more focussed on the look of his film rather than that of the dialogue. It's not necessarily clunky but there's lots of exposition, quasi philosophical talk about creating new worlds and saving mankind through technology. There's also a lot of quasi-religious stuff, too: references to The Father, and the Son of the Creator come to save this world.

That father/creator is Kevin Flynn (Bridges), who has been trapped in the world of Tron for almost 20 years. That would probably go some way to explaining why he talks like a hippie and dresses like a cyber monk. His son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), a rebel without a cause, a chip on his shoulder and a pile of millions to cry into thanks to inheriting his missing father's computer company, inadvertently discovers a way into Tron, is reunited with daddy and aims to get them both home safely.

In their way is Clu, a program created in the young Kevin's image (like God created man?) and resembling Jeff Bridges circa 1982. But Clu has gone rogue, taking over the world of Tron, forcing Kevin into the role of outcast (hence his inability to return home), and has plans to enter the human world, some way or another (how exactly may have been explained during one of my micro-sleeps).

For Clu, I had suspected Kosinski to have used similar technology employed by David Fincher to create the Winklevi in The Social Network; grafting the young Bridges' face onto a body double. But apparently they've used a reverse-aging effect similar to that used (also by Fincher) on Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). Either way, the result is at once impressive and eerie.

But performance wise (and, generally, overall) the highlight of the film was Michael Sheen, camping it up as the David Bowie-esque Castor; owner of a night club where French duo Daft Punk (who provide the film's soundtrack) just happen to be the house DJs. Sheen proves that once he finally exhausts his Tony Blair impersonation, he'd make a great Ziggy Stardust in a biopic of the flamboyant rocker.

Sadly, Sheen wasn't around long enough to sustain my interest. Immediately upon seeing Tron: Legacy, I tweeted (hastily, perhaps?) that it was my 'worst film of the year'. There are definitely more poorly written and constructed films, and plenty more that were just intellectually insulting, to have been released in 2010. But Tron: Legacy bored me, and to be boring is one of the worst crimes a film – costing $200 million and starring two Jeff Bridges – can commit.

For those who want to visit alternate realities and have their minds bent this summer, I'd suggest revisiting Inception, out now on DVD and Blu-ray.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

DVD REVIEWS: SOUL KITCHEN/THE HEDGEHOG



Madman Entertainment
Available now on DVD and Blu-ray

Fatih Akin is better known for his heavier, more political films Head On and The Edge of Heaven, so SOUL KICTHEN, a lightweight concoction, is perhaps a misleading introduction to the director's work. Set in the German city of Hamburg, the story is concerned with Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos), owner-manager of the eponymous restaurant which serves reliable if uninspired food (chicken schnitzel, anyone?) to the regular clientele. But when his girlfriend leaves for work in China, his life begins to unravel.

First he he hires a temperamental and recently-fired 5-star chef (Birol Unel) who proceeds to change the menu and alienate said regulars. Then he vouches for his incarcerated brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu) who comes to perform day release work at the restaurant and brings his old habits with him. And he reunites with an old school friend who works in real estate and sees an excellent development opportunity that he must have – one way or another.

Soul Kitchen unfolds like a comedy of errors as the hardships of Zinos's lot seem to pile up (no wonder he throws his back out) while all he wants to do is be with his girlfriend. That all these narrative strands are tied up rather too neatly at film's end seems to be a rather superfluous complaint given the lightness of the proceedings. It may not be deep, or political, but Soul Kitchen is fun; no three course meal but a pleasing enough appetizer just the same.

2010's been a good year for French releases in Australia; Welcome, Gainsbourg and the bravura Un Prophet specifically. I missed THE HEDGEHOG on its cinema release but am surprised how much I enjoyed it on DVD. I certainly don't recall Australian critics being overly enthusiastic about it.

11-year-old Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) plans to commit suicide on her 12th birthday. It's not that she's unhappy, she'd just rather not end up like her parents or any of the other adults she encounters in her Parisian apartment building. But then a new tenant moves in, the refined Mr. Ozu (Togo Igawa), and his interest in both Paloma and Renee (Josiane Balasko), the building's concierge, and the hedgehog of the title, has the youngster reevaluating her position.

Guillermic's Paloma makes for a refreshing screen child. She's not sweet or particularly endearing but you engage with her intelligence and her openmindedness. But the real pleasure in Mona Achache's film, based on a novel by Muriel Barbery, is the tentative relationship between Ozu and Renee, the latter virtually invisible to her employees but whom Ozu rightly suspects is far more literate and intriguing than any of his neighbours. I'd recommend you find out for yourself.


FILM REVIEW: MEGAMIND

Paramount Pictures
Now Showing

Super heroes have long been the centrepieces of action movies and comic book adaptations. But as anyone will tell you, it's the bad guys, the villains and the super villains who more often than not steal the show. Truth and justice are all well and good, but bad is better. Heath Ledger's now iconic turn as Batman's nemisis, The Joker, in The Dark Knight the ultimate example.

Two studios - Universal and Dreamworks - have seized on this idea, both using the super villain as the anti-hero of their major animation releases of 2010. Universal's Despicable Me had Gru, who tried to prove his evil genius with one wicked invention and scheme after another, culminating with the theft of the moon.

Paramount's Megamind, borrowing from Superman, sees its villain crash land on Earth the same time as another alien baby: one growing up to be Metro City's golden child super hero, Metro Man (voiced by Brad Pitt, no less), the other, with his blue skin and giant bulbous head (and voiced by Will Ferrell), inevitably cast in the role of arch nemesis.

Both Despicable Me and Megamind films follow a similar character trajectory: evil, to not-so-evil, to good and finally downright heroic, with the realisation that it's better to be loved than loathed. And both are rather chaotically structured, as schizophrenic as their protagonists. But they're fun in spite of their flaws, rather like the anti-heroes themselves.

Megamind has established a pattern over the years of escaping from prison, kidnapping TV news journalist, Roxanne Ritchie (Tina Fey), and waiting to have his plans foiled by Metro Man. But on this occasion things don't go according to plan, or rather, they do: Metro Man is killed and Megamind assumes control of the city.

But he soon discovers that life without a rival – no noble ying to his evil yang – makes for a dull old time. He also realises that he's in love with Roxanne and the only way to win her over, and get him out of his funk (his melonk-olly, if you will), is to create a new super hero to rival him.

The film goes off on some tangents here, involving Roxanne's cameraman (Jonah Hill) who, also secretly in love with her, becomes the focus of Megamind's plan and Titan is created. It's also where we witness one of the film's comic highlights, an hilarious take-off of Marlon Brando's role as Superman's father from the first Superman film. Titan, however, is not familiar with the superhero refrain, with great power comes great responsibility, and, well, chaos ensues before the inevitable showdown finale.

Creatively speaking, Megamind perhaps falls closer to DreamWorks' Madagascar and latter Shrek films, but with the very impressive early 2010 release, How To Train Your Dragon, they have shown they are making ground on their own arch nemesis, Pixar; the Metro Man (or Buzz Lightyear) to their own Megamind, if you will. Like the best rivalries, it can only encourage them to aim higher.

OSCARS 2010 REPORT #5: SUPPORTING ACTRESS





SUPPORTING ACTRESS

With the awards season kicking off this past week with the US National Board of Review announcing their 2010 winners, some things have changed. It looks as though Lesley Manville (Another Year) will go Lead even though she could have won Support. And Jacki Weaver is well and truly in the race.

AMY ADAMS – THE FIGHTER
If Adams, as the plucky girlfriend of Mark Wahlberg's boxer, gets a nod it will be her third in six years (all in this category). Not necessarily overdue but hard to ignore.

HELENA BONHAM CARTER – THE KING'S SPEECH*
A good if not great performance, but if The King's Speech gets a swag of nods (and it will), Bonham Carter, last nominated in 1997, could be swept along for the ride.

BARBARA HERSHEY – BLACK SWAN
Last nominated in 1996 (Jane Campion's Portrait of a Lady), Hershey here plays the overbearing stage mother to Portman's ballerina. With voters watching for Portman, Hershey could get noticed.

MELISSA LEO – THE FIGHTER
Received her first nomination two years ago for Frozen River so is fresh in voters' minds. However, she will be splitting votes with co-star Adams, who is said to give the better performance.

MIRANDA RICHARDSON – MADE IN DAGENHAM*
It's 16 years since this respected Brit actress was last nominated. Trying hard not to chew the scenery in this rousing 1960s-set women's fight for equal pay drama, could definitely get her noticed.

SISSY SPACEK – GET LOW
The veteran actress has the advantage of starring opposite Robert Duvall, whom voters will be watching for Best Actor (much like Maggie Gyllenhaal last year in Crazy Heart). That and her long, dignified career could see her in.

HAILEE STEINFELD – TRUE GRIT
Now that True Grit has been seen and reviewed, we know that Steinfeld impresses and hold her own against Bridges and Damon. And the Academy has a soft spot for young actors in quasi-lead roles.

JACKI WEAVER – ANIMAL KINGDOM*
Wouldn't we all love to hear Weaver's name read out on nominations day? With the NBR win and a Washington Critics nomination, that could happen. The screener for Animal Kingdom was one of the first sent out to Academy members this year so they have no excuse.

DIANNE WIEST – RABBIT HOLE
Two wins from three nominations is a double-edged sword for Wiest, who apparently provides some light relief in this child loss drama. While she's no stranger to voters, they may also feel she's been well enough rewarded.

OLIVIA WILLIAMS – THE GHOST WRITER*
Sadly, Roman Polanski's thriller looks set to be overlooked come awards time, but the studio behind it has mounted a campaign for Williams, who is excellent as the icy cool wife of a former Brit PM.

FILM REVIEW: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER

20th Century Fox Films
Now Showing


A lot has changed since we were last in Narnia, least of all the stewardship of C.S. Lewis's series of fantasy novels to the big screen passing from Disney to 20th Century Fox. Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) is now King and seems to have lost his Spanish accent in the ascension; Reepicheep, the talking mouse, has also had a vocal makeover with Simon Pegg replacing Eddie Izzard; and the magical kingdom is now in 3D.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite Michael Apted replacing Andrew Adamson in the director's chair, Walden Media are still a producing partner which means Lewis's Christian symbolism is still employed as obviously as the flowing mane on Jesus, I mean, Aslan the lion.

Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes), the youngest of the Pevensie siblings, return to Narnia whilst staying in the country home of their cousin, Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter), a snivelling, pompous git and annoying as all hell (he could well prove to be this series' Jar Jar Binks). He's swept along, too, more's the pity, when a painting of the ocean comes to life, flooding the room and positing them in Narnia's East Ocean.

The trio are rescued by King Caspain who has set sail on the Dawn Treader in search of the seven lords who were banished from Narnia following his father's murder prior to (or early on in, I can't remember which) Prince Caspian (2008), the previous Narnia installment. It's when Caspian, Lucy and Edmund are called on to locate the seven swords of Narnia (in possession of the lords) and place them at the table of Aslan in order to prevent a mysterious force of evil rising up, that the plot resembles less the work of C.S. Lewis and more a computer game.

Despite a shorter running time than the previous films, Dawn Treader is the most tedious of the three Narnia installments, all of which have been workmanlike rather than inspired flights of fantasy. Unlike the Harry Potter films, where the world of magic is believable, wondrous and seemingly possible, the world of Narnia – talking animals, centaurs, minotaurs, and in this film, dragons – is effectively rendered but lifeless. And the 3D in this outing does nothing to help matters.

With the Harry Potter series set to end in July 2011, there will be a void for large-scale fantasy-action films for the family. With only two Narnia books left to film (chronologically speaking; there are 7 in total), time is running out for Walden Media and 20th Century Fox to rise to the challenge and successfully fill that void.

FILM REVIEW: LEBANON

Rialto Distribution
Now Showing


If Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker put us in the thick of the theatre of war, seriously fraying our nerves in the process, than Samuel Maoz's Lebanon further concentrates the hellish experience of battle: his film is set entirely within the confines of an Israeli military tank; recollections of his own experiences having fought in the very war he depicts.

It is day one of the 1982 war between Israel and Lebanon and four men, all conscripts, have been assigned to a tank called on to search an enemy town. They are under the orders of a paratrooper commander who has no time for their fears, hesitations or inexperience.

Lebanon is not for the claustrophobic but unlike the recent Buried, where Ryan Reynolds spent 90 minutes buried in a box, Maoz is not conducting an exercise in logistics or style. Or lack thereof, though the production designer's gone all out for authenticity: you can smell the oil that runs down the walls of the tank and the urine, which the soldiers have to 'empty' into a container.

The film, like the best war films, is an anti-war statement, highlighting the madness and futility of the exercise and the collateral damage, physical and mental, it amasses. Much like Bigelow's Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, Maoz's Lebanon wowed critics, taking out the Golden Lion for Best Film at the 2009 Venice Film Festival (yes, it's taken over a year to get here). But will that be enough to attract an audience given the notoriously hard sell of war films?

FILM REVIEW: RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE

Icon Film Distribution
Now Showing


I'll admit I find the idea of a Christmas themed film about as inviting as having surgery to remove reindeer antlers from my butt, sans morphine: I'm very much of the 'bah humbug' school of thought. Despite the second half of its title, Rare Exports is anything but a saccharine-laden yuletide treat.

Finnish director Jalmari Helander made a series of short films (which can be found on YouTube), exploring the not-so-nice origins of Santa Claus. He has expanded on those ideas in Rare Exports, a film with a wicked sense of humour; a kid's film with more than a few grown up scares and refreshingly schmaltz free.

When drilling in a nearby mountain coincides with strange events in the nearby village – the theft of heating appliances, potato sacks but not their contents, and soon enough the local kids – and on Christmas eve no less, Pietari, a mere boy himself, begins to suspect that the real (i.e. evil) Santa Claus has been released from his centuries old icy prison.

I'll say no more of the plot; Rare Exports is best enjoyed as that surprise gift you find under the tree, not quite sure what you'll discover as it unfolds. What I will say – and it's something I rarely, if ever, say – is that the film could have been longer, if only to flesh out some of the elements of the story, Santa's helpers for one. But that's a minor complaint for this Christmas film for people who don't like Christmas films.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

FILM REVIEW: DEVIL

Universal Pictures
Now Showing

When Universal stamps the imprimatur of M. Night Shyamalan on their pre-Christmas release, you have to assume that their (American) publicity department is either very naïve or supremely confident. The director hasn't had a good run of late (well, since The Sixth Sense to be honest), and his most recent film, The Last Airbender, is easily one of the worst films of 2010.

But Devil, the first in the proposed The Night Chronicles series of films, is not directed by Shyamalan. He is a producer here and originated and developed each of the stories that will comprise the films, but The Night Chronicles are envisioned as projects for up-and-coming filmmakers to cut their teeth on.

John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine) is in the director's chair on Devil and he displays a confidant hand from the outset; his camera sweeps in to Philadelphia across the harbour (or river? My Philly geography is a little lax), the city introduced upside down.

Following a suicide, the Devil has come to town ready to claim the souls of five sinners who, as luck would have it are all passengers on an elevator in a downtown skyscraper. Luck also has Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) nearby to take the call when the five become trapped on the 21st floor and weird shit ensues i.e. the passengers are picked off one-by-one.

Casting relatively unknown actors as the victims (including Australian actress Bojana Novacovic) circumvents audience expectations about who will die and when, who will survive, and also who, if any, may be the killer.

Most of those murders occur off-screen when the lights in the elevator go out: we witness the results rather than the act. Dowdle, and by extension Shyamalan, isn't necessarily interested in the horror. Devil is a morality tale: no bad deed goes unpunished and karma's a bitch. That said, the dialogue is hokey rather than preachy. But it's entertaining, too, something a Shyamalan film hasn't been for quite some time.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

FILM REVIEW: DUE DATE

Roadshow/Warner Bros.
Now Showing

The Hangover was one of the surprise breakout hits of 2009: boffo box office, critical acclaim and, with an expanded Best Picture field, there was even talk of Oscar nominations. That scenario didn't eventuate but the film, and writer-director Todd Phillips, earned a certain cache to go along with its shit load of cash.

Not surprisingly, Warner Bros are billing their new comedy, Due Date, as 'from the creators of The Hangover'. And even if the films share some similarities – unlikely buddies, escalating mayhem, Phillips and Zack Galifiniakis – the new film is nowhere near the comic goldmine of its predecessor. But it has its moments, all of them involving Robert Downey Jr and Galifianakis.

They're the odd couple thrown together when Ethan Tremblay (Galifinaikis) has himself and Peter Highman (Downey) thrown off their plane to LA and onto the 'no fly' list. Without money or ID (his wallet was left on the plane), Peter begrudgingly accepts a ride with Ethan in his rental car. Cue cross country road trip and hilarity.

Although for fans of The Hangover, and comedy generally, there's not as many laughs as you'd hope for. There's a lot of cringe-inducing comedy, most of it a result of Galifiniakis' portrayal of one of the most annoying and stupidest travel companions ever. Ethan, who hopes to go to Hollywood and become an actor, inspired by his favourite TV show, Two and a Half Men (so you get a sense of his IQ right there), is seemingly oblivious to his infuriating nature.

Downey's character is given a history of anger issues to help explain his 'over-the-top' response to Ethan, but I felt Peter was perfectly justified in his behaviour. Okay, not so much when he's spitting on Ethan's self-pleasuring dog or gut-punching the brattish kid of a dope dealing Juliette Lewis (is it wrong that I found the former more upsetting than the latter?), but for the most part Downey's Peter deserves some kind of medal for not killing his companion right there in the airport parking lot.

Like any road trip, the film has its up and downs; some memorable moments and those you'd rather forget or never speak of again (see self-pleasuring dog above). At the very least, it should whet one's appetite for next year's The Hangover 2, which also goes on the road – or more accurately, abroad – to Thailand.

FILM REVIEW: MONSTERS

Madman Entertainment
Now Showing

The title is, of course, a misnomer; the monsters are in fact aliens. But that film title was taken a while back and [Spoiler Alert!] Attack of the Giant Alien Octopus just sounds too much like something from the oeuvre of Ed Wood. And Gareth Edwards is no Ed Wood*.

He makes his directorial debut with Monsters (which he also penned) and displays a confident command of the medium, a command made more impressive given the on-location shooting in South America, two unknown if not amateur actors carrying the film (all other cast are locals), and a budget reportedly no higher than $500k.

That budget is perhaps part of the reason Edwards prefers to provide only teasing glimpses of the aliens throughout the film. Edwards comes from a special effects background so knows what he's doing, but half a million and the best computer software will only get you so much. So he improvises, and like the best horror (although I'm not sure I'd label Monsters 'horror', or even sci-fi, for that matter), he discovers that the idea of something can be just as effective, if not more so, than showing it.

Photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy, my new favourite name!) is asked to escort Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), the daughter of his publisher, out of Central America where she was holidaying, and back to the United States. Samantha has just survived an attack on her hotel by the aliens but when they miss the last connecting ferry to the States, the pair decide to trek through the 'infected zone' to the US border.

We are told in an opening prologue the monsters arrived on Earth six years ago following a NASA discovery probe was sent to Jupiter. That probe crash landed in Central America where the aliens have since roamed. The creatures are nocturnal and are only really active during their mating season. They are destructive but not intentionally so; kind of like elephants that trample Indian villages. But that hasn't stopped the US responding to the threat by building a giant wall along the Mexican border and providing 24-7 military patrols.

Of course, there's a political allegory there but I don't think that was Edwards' main intention. It's certainly not as obvious as the apartheid themes in last year's surprise hit, District 9, which Monsters could draw easy comparison with. But Neill Blomkamp had a budget of $30 million and the backing of Peter Jackson; Edwards' is more guerilla filmmaking. But a comparatively miniscule budget can go a long way when you combine it with a really strong idea and undeniable talent.

*Ed Wood was a film director in the 1960s who is hailed as making some of the worst films of all time, including Plan 9 From Outer Space. You should check out the wonderful 1994 Tim Burton film, Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp (of course!) as the filmmaker.

FILM REVIEW: FAIR GAME

Hoyts Distribution
Now Showing

Of all the crimes and atrocities committed by the Bush administration during its eight year tenure of the White House, the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent was not the worst. But by making the political personal, and by turning on its own, Bush, or more specifically Vice President Dick Cheney, proved that nothing was above, or beneath them.

In the wake of 9-11 and its failure to capture Osama Bin Laden, the White House turned its attentions to Iraq. Falsifying a report written ex-diplomat Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), the US government claimed Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction and, well, you know how that played out.

But when Wilson, outraged that his information had been falsified, outlines the truth of his report in The New York Times, the Bush Administration retaliates by naming Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts), as a CIA agent, effectively ending her career as an undercover operative (not to mention endangering the lives of her contacts around the world), and throwing the Plame-Wilson home into crisis.

Thus Fair Game is a political thriller cum domestic drama, as director Liman focuses very much on the private lives of Plame and Wilson, whose relationship will either solidify or implode under the political and media pressure brought to bear on their marriage.

The Valerie Plame story has already been covered in Nothing But The Truth, the 2008 film starring Kate Beckinsale and Vera Farmiga, which didn't receive an Australian theatrical release. The names in that film were changed but not so here. Liman, writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, and the producers pull no punches, very much putting their money (and political colours) where their mouths are by naming names: none are changed to 'protect' or prevent litigation.

Watts and Penn, so good together in 21 Grams (2003), once again prove to be a perfect fit. While Penn gets the showier role as the media savvy Wilson who'd rather fight fire with fire, Watts has the harder task. She plays Plame like the CIA agent she must have been: controlled, reserved, a thinker. It may give the impression that her performance is low key but like the best actors, Watts excels in seemingly doing little.

There's a sense that Fair Game is somewhat 'too little, too late', and not just as a second film on the subject or fourth Iraq-themed film this year. But while it may almost be two years since Bush and Cheney left office, the aftershocks of the invasion of Iraq continue to reverberate, providing legitimacy enough for its existence.

FILM REVIEW: THE LAST EXORCISM


Hopscotch Films
Now Showing
By Guest Reviewer A.J. Smith

The Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) has made a modest living, and a name for himself, performing placebo exorcisms on religious fanatics who believe they have been possessed by demons. Hoping to clear his conscience, Cotton agrees to perform one last holy grift, to be filmed by a documentary crew, in Louisiana, where Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), wants to rid his sweet, innocent daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), of the evil inhabiting her.

Some clever satire during the first act of The Last Exorcism amuses, especially as we know what the arrogant Cotton will soon be facing, and the spooky Louisiana locales assist in setting an uneasy tone. There are some genuine scares amongst the suspense, but the plot suffers from too many competing ideas, none of which we haven’t seen before. And the less said about the climax, the better.

Sometimes it’s best not to know anything about a film before you see it. In this case, I avoided everything but the trailer, which would have one believe that it adds something new to the ‘found footage’ horror movie genre. (It also contains a seemingly important scene that has been exorcised from the final cut; what's up with that?)

But this type of storytelling is starting to grow thin (it's been 11 years since The Blair Witch Project), so it’s necessary each new foray will need some novel idea or satisfying pay-off to keep audiences interested. Unfortunately, obvious intentional shaky camera work, and a jolting, intrusive score detract from the 'reality' the filmmakers were aiming for.

But to the credit of all the actors involved, performances rise above the material, in particular Caleb Landry Jones as Nell’s fiery brother. Ashley Bell, though fine, would have impressed more had Jennifer Carpenter not outdone her (or more accurately, out-screamed and out-flexed her) in The Exorcism Of Emily Rose a few years earlier.

Daniel Hamm, directing on a US$1.8 million budget, has recently scored the job of remaking Martyrs, one of my favourite recent French horror/shockers. I'm assuming he impressed the suits with the strong opening The Last Exorcism received at the US box office and not for the content.

I'd recommend The Last Exorcism for the less demanding horror movie buff and not those for whom the devil is in the detail.

FILM REVIEW: RED HILL

Sony Pictures
Now Showing

2010 may yet prove to be the year that Australian filmmakers embraced genre; Bran Nue Dae (musical) and the recently released The Loved Ones (teen horror) to name but two examples. No doubt it's an (understandable) attempt to not only entertain an audience but to attract them to Australian films in the first place. Dae certainly succeeded with $7m+ at the local box office; The Loved Ones, though only in cinemas a month, is floundering.

Red Hill, the debut feature for Patrick Hughes, is also a genre film – a Western – one even more identifiably American than teen horror. But what it possesses which The Loved Ones does not – and could ultimately prove the difference between finding an audience and box office oblivion – is a star.

That would be Ryan Kwanten, one-time Home and Away alumni now international hearthrob thanks to his serio-comic role in HBO's vampire series, True Blood, where he makes a habit of appearing in various states of undress. Much to the chagrin of the ladies (and a fair few men, I'd suspect), Kwanten keep his clothes on throughout Red Hill, though he does don a uniform (if you like that kind of thing).

He's Constable Shane Cooper, newly stationed in the country town of Red Hill where he and his wife (Claire van der Boom) have moved for a quieter life and smoother pregnancy. But Cooper isn't exactly greeted with country hospitality by his superior, Old Bill (Steve Bisley), on his first day.

And then the shit hits the fan when William Conway (Tom E. Lewis), former Red Hill resident jailed for the murder of his wife, breaks out of prison and makes his way back to his home town to inflict revenge on those who sent him down. Or perhaps there is more to it than that, given the rather over-the-top call-to-arms of every local male response this news elicits.

That said, I think I would have enjoyed Red Hill more – and I did enjoy it – if Hughes, who also wrote, produced and edited the film, had exercised a little more consistency in tone, committing to a straight-up Western thriller. But as a first time filmmaker, I suspect Hughes is eager to include as much of his ideas as possible: “Here's what I can do!”

One such inclusion, a subplot involving a panther, a local Red Hill legend, and its cameo appearance, is superfluous to Red Hill's storyline. Unless of course it is intended as an analogy – that man is a beast and will kill to survive? – in which case it's a little clumsy and, if related to Conway, just a tad racist.

That quibble aside, Red Hill marks a competent debut for a new Australian film talent. The film has already been well-received at international festivals, and received positive reviews from the likes of The New York Times. Australian audiences are likely to enjoy it too, if they make that initial Kwanten leap and buy a ticket.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

DVD REVIEW: TOY STORY 3


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

A recent column in the Sydney Morning Herald suggested that those who didn't like Glee, Channel 10's musical-comedy hit, were dead inside. I'd suggest the same for those who watch Toy Story 3 and don't shed a tear. I've already stated that Toy Story 3 is the most emotional experience I've had at the movies in 2010. Both times I watched it (in 2D, and the unnecessary 3D) I cried like a baby.

In saying goodbye to one the most successful film franchises, in terms of both art and commerce, those of us who have been with Woody, Buzz and the rest of Andy's toy collection from the beginning (was it really 1995?), are letting go of much more than a trilogy of enjoyable films.

Much like the toys themselves, we are coming to terms with the impermanence of things; that even being made of non-biodegradable plastic doesn't prevent you from having a shelf life, a use-by-date, an end. The Toy Story films have always flirted with these ideas of time, of what happens when childhood ends and those who showered us with so much love for so many years finally grow up, move on, leave us.

Of course, we'll always have these films to return to, to delight in and remind us of the children we once were and the friends we once had. And Toy Story 3 is a wonderful last hurrah, reuniting the gang in one last adventure precipitated by the impending big adventure for Andy (voiced by John Morris, the same child actor now grown as in the first two films): he's off to college.

Whether Woody (voiced, as always, by Tom Hanks), Andy's long time favourite, will make that journey with him becomes one of the urgent questions in the film, penned by Little Miss Sunshine's Michael Arndt who brings an edge to the always brilliant if untroubling Pixar material.

That question is answered, beautifully and heartwrenchingly, in the film's final scene and if you aren't already sobbing by this time, prepare for the waterworks. Those who don't cry, prepare for burial; you're already dead.

FILM REVIEW: HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1


Roadshow Films/Warner Bros.
Now Showing

When it was announced that The Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter saga, would be made into two films there was always the fear that Part 1 would not succeed as a film in its own right but merely as the warm-up act for the finale (Part 2 arrives in July 2011). Sadly, that has proven to be the case.

Whether David Yates (director since Harry Potter film #5, Order of the Phoenix) and screenwriter Steve Kloves felt the need to reward die hard Potter fans by including as much of the source material as possible, or simply needed to justify splitting the book into two films, the resultant 146 minutes that constitutes The Deathly Hallows Part 1 is all set-up for the second film.

J.K. Rowling's final installment in the Potter saga was a hefty tome but not in need of two films. Rowling's books have always had fat to trim and the best adaptations – #3 Prisoner of Azkaban and #4 Goblet of Fire – succeeded by knowing what to cut.

For the first time since film #2, The Chamber of Secrets, a Harry Potter film is almost a chore to sit through (Chamber and #1, Philosopher's Stone, sagged under the weight of their literary fidelity). That's not because of the film's dark themes and tone or the lack of magic, cinematic rather than wizarding, but because for almost two and a half hours, nothing much happens.

Sporadic action sequences enliven proceedings but most of the film centres on Harry, Ron and Hermoine, on the run and camped out in the woods. School's out (forever) in HP7, with Hogwart's only mentioned in passing. That means school chums and, more disappointingly, a host of British character actors are sidelined.

So, too, is Voldemort. Since his resurrection in Goblet of Fire (still my favourite Potter book and film), The Dark Lord (and Ralph Fiennes who embodies him, sans nose) has been criminally underused.

You can understand Warner Bros eagerness to wring every last drop out of their cash cow (the most successful movie franchise ever), but filming The Deadly Hallows as two features is all about commerce and not art – or intelligent blockbuster entertainment, which the Potter films have proven to be.

But hats-off to the studio for dumping its planned conversion of the film to 3D – this time. Sadly, Part 2 will require eyewear. Here's hoping it will also require a box of tissues, for this fan is hoping for an emotional farewell to the Potter universe, in the form a truly great film and not a ploddingly faithful rendering of the book.

Note to filmmakers: Please DO NOT use the book's epilogue!

OSCARS 2010 REPORT #4: SUPPORTING ACTOR




















A hard category to call, not because of the competition but for the first time in three years there's no psychopathic killer (Javier Bardem, Heath Ledger, Christoph Waltz) with one hand already on the statuette.

GEOFFREY RUSH – THE KING'S SPEECH*
The only real odds-on nominee at this early stage. Rush goes toe-to-toe with Firth, indeed, both could go Lead. Hard to believe it's 10 years since his last nom. Welcome back, Geoffrey.

CHRISTIAN BALE – THE FIGHTER
A fine actor who has yet to be invited to the ball, Bale, as the meth-addicted brother of Wahlberg's comeback boxer, may finally get the chance to suit up.

SAM ROCKWELL – CONVICTION
Said to be the best thing about this real life courtroom drama, Rockwell is a character actor who has been doing good work for years, most recently in last year's Moon. It's time to acknowledge him.

MARK RUFFALO – THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT*
Similarly, Ruffalo has been turning in good support, and the occasional lead, since coming to attention in You Can Count On Me (2000). Like Rockwell, he's well overdue for some Academy love.

ANDREW GARFIELD – THE SOCIAL NETWORK*
In a film full of egomanical geeks, Garfield plays the closest thing to a likeable character, Eduardo Saverin, the best friend royally shafted when Facebook hit the big time.

ED HARRIS – THE WAY BACK
With the announcement of a late entry into the Oscars 2010 race, Peter Weir's new film opened up many possibilities including a fourth nomination for Harris, whom many feel is well overdue for a win. If he's in, he could be the dark horse.

BILL MURRAY – GET LOW
If the Academy really takes to this homespun film (and they'll be watching it for Duvall), Murray may also get noticed. A make-up nom for not winning for Lost In Translation, maybe?

VINCENT CASSEL – BLACK SWAN
Some solid performances in recent years, including Eastern Promises, has this French actor on the radar and if the Academy falls for Aranofsky's dark thriller (they'll all be watching for Portman), Cassel could get noticed.

No one has seen the Coens' True Grit but both Matt Damon and Josh Brolin appear there, and both are known to Academy voters.

FILM REVIEW: GASLAND

Palace Films
Now Showing

When a natural gas company offered to pay Josh Fox $100,000 to explore for natural gas on his land, he didn't, like most of us, immediately start planning an overseas vacation. What he did do was pick up his camcorder and start asking questions. And while Josh Fox is no aesthete – his camera work is enough to give some cinema purists a stroke – what he does possess is curiosity, passion, and a little bit of anger.

And you'll be angry, too, when you see what Fox uncovers. The mining procedure of hydraulic fracturing (known as fracking) involves the use of water to drill into the earth. A large percentage of that water is contaminated during the process but is merely left by the mining companies to be absorbed into the ground or run-off directly into the river systems of the region.

Fox travels all across America, encountering people and communities who, once relatively happy and carefree, or at least with nothing to fear from their water supply, now have to buy their water from Wal-Mart. The water supplies being contaminated by the fracking water, running out of the taps brown in colour, toxic and literally flammable.

That governments and corporations give no concern for the little people when there is a buck or two million to be made should come as no surprise to anyone. The Bush administration circumvented the Clean Air and Water Acts to allow companies such as Halliburton to drill in these regions, consequence free. They're also exempt from the Right To Know Act (so you don't know just what chemicals you are drinking) for good measure.

And, such is the US legal system, the onus is on those affected communities to prove that their water system was not contaminated before drilling commenced. Why should a mining magnate care if his company's drilling is poisoning the water of a community hundreds of miles and several states away? His kids aren't going to be drinking the water, so, what the hell!

The scary coda to the film is that hyrdraulic fracturing is already occurring in some Australian regions. And when governments increasingly seek to put profits before people, what's a little dirty or flammable water in an outback community when the overall goal is a sustainable Australia?

Like the recent trend of American documentaries – Food Inc., the Michael Moore oeuvre – Josh Fox aims to shock and alarm. Not to instill fear and dread, like his namesake Fox News, but to inform. Knowledge is power.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

FILM REVIEW: MACHETE


Sony Pictures
Now Showing

Danny Trejo is a 66 year old actor with a face for which the adjective 'lived-in' is a gross understatement. Then again, that's what the role of Machete - a former Federale crossed by his superiors, his wife and daughter murdered by a drug baron, and reduced to working as a day labourer on the Texas-Mexico border - calls for. An action hero with a leather face not a leather manbag.

Robert Rodriguez's Machete, originally conceived as a fake trailer for his Grindhouse collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, harks back to the exploitation films which peaked in the 1970s. I'm not overly familiar with the genre, and not just because I was a mere toddler for most of that decade. Gratuitous and graphic violence is not my thing, hence I've never studied up. I can accept it as an aesthetic necessity of the genre, just don't ask me to enjoy it.

Having said that, many in the audience I watched Machete with did enjoy it; there was constant laughter and applause throughout. And to be honest, I didn't hate the film, co-directed by Ethan Maniquis. But it is hard to engage with a film you spend most of the time watching through your fingers.

Still, I appreciated the none-too-subtle politcial edge to the film, that of immigration and border patrol, and the depiction (borrowed from actual advertising) of the racist rhetoric adopted by those in power.

That would be Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), whose campaign for re-election, backed by Mexican drug lord money (the same drug lord, Steven Segal, who ruined Machete's life), is founded on building an electrical fence along the border between the Lone Star state and its southern neighbour. Opposed to this scheme is The Network, headed by a mythical revolutionary lass named She, but who is in fact, taco-seller Luz (a sexy-as-all-hell Michelle Rodriguez).

Machete becomes entwined in all this power play when he is "hired" to assassinate the Senator, which is really only a plot to further enflame hatred towards Mexican immigrants, boosting the Senator's re-election hopes in the process. But Machete's no patsy and goes on the run - with the help of The Network and and a US immigration officer, Jessica Alba - to expose the conspiracy.

If that sounds convoluted, it's really not; Machete is easily followed throughout its two hour run time. And in its favour, it's never dull thanks in no small part to appearances by the likes of Cheech Marin, as Machete's brother, a priest no less, Don Johnson as an overly-eager border patrol officer, and Lindsay Lohan as a drug-addled young lady who has somewhat of a spiritual epiphany (here's hoping life imitates art on that second point).

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

FILM REVIEW: WILD TARGET


Icon Film Distribution
Now Showing

Although a remake of a French film (and aren’t they all, nowadays?), Wild Target is a very British film. An all-English cast, London setting and a sense of humour peculiar to the Brits, which will either delight you or give you the (sounds like Brits).

Victor Maynard (Bill Nighy) is a professional hitman, so devoted to his career – one with a long tradition in his family – that he hasn’t even had time to decide whether he’s gay or straight. That question is raised when he takes on two sidekicks: Rose (Emily Blunt), a beautiful but frustrating thief, and Tony (Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint), an innocent bystander who gets dragged along for the ride.

That ride begins when Victor, hired to kill Rose, decides he’d rather not. Tony happens to be nearby when a set of goons, hired by Ferguson (Rupert Everett), whom Rose double crossed in an art fraud, arrive to take out both Victor and Rose.

So ensues a dash across London in a too small car and an escape to Victor’s country estate where the odd trio regroup and Victor is faced with a choice between Rose and Tony. And no offense but he makes the right, albeit obvious, choice. (I’ve never known what it is Hermoine sees in Ron.)

I’m not a fan of Bill Nighy’s stiff-upper-lip from the lip down style of acting (admittedly a major hurdle to enjoying Jonathan Lynn's film) but I do love me some Emily Blunt. And while Rupert Grint is yet to prove himself post-Potter, he doesn't disgrace himself here.

Martin Freeman, on the other hand, as a rival hitman who seems to have an American dental plan, should be grateful he's already scored the lead role in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit. Eileen Atkins, as Victor's disapproving mother, should also have words with her agent.

FILM REVIEW: WINTER'S BONE


Curious Films
Now Showing

I'm not sure how familiar Australian audiences are with the Ozarks, the mountainous region in the southern United States, other than as 'hillbilly country'. But in Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, adapted from the Daniel Woodrell novel of the same name, those mountains are a character unto themselves.

Shot in a greyish-blue palette, the snow-free but no less cold winter environment is only a couple degrees hospitable than the landscape depicted in the post-apocolyptic The Road. Many of the characters in Granik's noirish film are right at home in these surrounds, simialrly harsh and unforgiving to outsiders or anyone who threatens the status quo.

That's exactly what Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) does when she goes looking for her meth-cooking father. He's skipped bail after being arrested for said illicit activity, and having used the family home as bond, he has only days to front up before the law collects on the debt, forcing Ree, her younger siblings and somewhat catatonic mother onto the streets, or, more appropriately, the woods.

Bravely, or foolishly as the case proves to be, Ree approaches family and neighbours to help in her search. But Ree might as well be pleading to the gnarled, leafless trees that surround her small home for all the response she gets. Her uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes) is borderline violent in his rebuke of his niece, while the women folk of the undeclared patriarch of the area have no problem getting physical with the girl. They don't want trouble and they'll silence anyone who brings it.

Barely 17, Ree has had to grow up fast and she's not about to be deterred by a wall of silence, however menacing. Jennifer Lawrence, hitherto unknown to me, brings this young heroine vividly to life, vivid being an ironic descriptor for Ree is anything but demonstrative or emotive.

Ree has a dogged determination, a strong sense of what's right, and an unwavering love of family and home, however seemingly little they offer her in return. It's a quietly powerful performance that is not unworthy of the awards talk it has been garnering since the film debuted at Sundance in January.

Indeed, all performances in the film are effective due in large part to Granik's bid for authenticity, both in writing her characters and in her collaboration with the locals (the film was shot on location in the Ozarks), many of whom fill minor roles. It all adds to an evocative sense of place and a surprisingly affecting experience.