Sunday, 28 February 2010


Available on DVD and Blu-ray March 4
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

2009 was a very good year for sci-fi films – Star Trek, District 9, Moon and, of course, Avatar – so it's of little surprise that amongst these box office champs and critical faves, Surrogates may have been overlooked or forgotten.

And while it doesn't reach the heights of the aforementioned titles, Surrogates is by no means a bad film. Indeed, like the best sci-fi, it raises questions about the human condition, in this instance our ever increasing submergence into a virtual world.

Set in the not-too-distant future where technology has become so advanced robots have been developed that are remote controlled via human thought from the safety of the operator's home. In computer gaming these robots would be called avatars but I'm guessing another filmmaker had that name copyrighted before Jonathan Mostow's film got greenlit.

So here they are called surrogates, and they're not blue skinned but look however their operators want them too, which usually means younger, prettier and thinner than themselves. And in some cases, the opposite sex or a different race.

But when a weapon, able to destroy the surrogates and kill their human operators simultaneously, is deployed, it is revealed that all is not well in this utopia. FBI agents Greer (Bruce Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell) are assigned the case and when Greer's surrogate (smooth skinned and a bad hairpiece) is destroyed, Greer himself, looking worse for wear, ventures out into the real world to locate the weapon and avert a major metldown.

Willis's tough guy persona is understandably toned down a little here, as Greer has been physically inactive for some time. But Greer is also in mourning for the loss of his young son in a road accident, and the loss of his wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike), to the addictive surrogacy technology. He pines for the days of human touch.

At just 85 minutes, Surrogates is perhaps too brief to fully explore at any great length all the ideas its premise presents but is does pose the question: are we too reliant on virtual living? Perhaps you should ponder this once you turn your computer off and go for a walk in the real world (after you finish reading this blog, of course).


Available on Blu-ray March 4
Roadshow Entertainment

When an opening title reads Houston, 1981 but we are witnessing what is clearly present day Sydney, I feared that Bruce Beresford's film, an adaptation of the bestselling autobiography by Li Cunxin, had blown any chance of authenticity from the beginning. But then the film flashes back to the Chinese countryside (actually shot on location) in 1972 and the childhood of Cunxin, and my worries were somewhat allayed.

Cunxin is chosen by communist party officials to study ballet at Madam Mao's Beijing Dance Academy. The youngster struggles at first, without his family and the army-like demands of his instructors, but he eventually becomes the schools principal male dancer.

Rare for the times, 1980 and the height of the Cold War, Cunxin (played as an adult by Chi Cao) is allowed to travel to the US for a stint with the Houston Ballet Company. This is where the film opens and Cunxin is met by Houston Ballet's artistic director, Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), who lavishes gifts on the talented dancer and bedazzles him with the ways of the West. Cunxin is soon seduced, by America but even more so by fellow dancer, Elizabeth (Amanda Schull), whom he marries and causes a diplomatic row by defecting to the US.

Cunxin's story makes for great reading and telling; the book has been a bestseller, particularly in Australia where the now-retired dancer resides with his second wife and their children. And no doubt Beresford saw the dramatic potential for the story as a film. But for everything Beresford gets right – Cunxin's childhood, the dance sequences – there are those he doesn't. The Australian settings and actors (Jack Thompson, Penne Hackforth-Jones, Aiden Young) may not be distracting for a foreign audience but they were for me. And despite his best efforts, leading man Cao was cast more for his dance prowess than his acting ability.

These quibbles aside, Mao's Last Dancer is ultimately an emotional viewing experience, one which close to a million Australians enjoyed given that it grossed $15 million domestically. It should have similar success on DVD and, when it finally releases, should play just as well to overseas audiences.

Thursday, 25 February 2010


Icon Film Distribution
Now Showing

Confession: I had no idea who Tom Ford was before A Single Man. My interest was piqued when the film won Best Actor for its leading man, Colin Firth, at last year's Venice Film Festival. I have since been informed, by friends and acquaintances (some in tones of disgust at my ignorance), that Mr Ford is a fashion and marketing guru best known for turning around the fortunes of fashion house Gucci in the mid '90s. That would explain my ignorance: fashion? Whatever!

But now Tom Ford is a film director and his debut feature, based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Isherwood, has been winning acclaim and prizes, mostly for Mr Firth, who is nominated for Best Actor at the upcoming Academy Awards for arguably a career-best performance.

Firth plays George Falconer, a professor at a Los Angeles university who is mourning the recent loss of his gay lover, Jim (Matthew Goode, who appears in flashback). It's 1962 so George's grief is confined to the beautifully designed home he shared with Jim in the suburbs, where his neighbours are domestic clusters of dad, mum and 2.3 kids.

But on the day we are introduced to George he has woken up with a mission, not so much to end his grief but to obliterate it: he plans on committing suicide with a gun. That device is no doubt to lend some dramatic urgency to the film which more or less follows George through the events of his planned final day, events which include a lecture, where he is openly flirted with by a student (Nichols Hoult, best known as the kid from About A Boy), and a drunken dinner party with longtime friend and one time lover, Charlie (Julianne Moore, making the most of her too little screen time).

Given Ford's background, it is no surprise that A Single Man looks good. He relishes in the early '60s setting - where men wear suits and housewives look immaculate - which would not be unfamiliar to fans of television's Mad Men; there is even a sly wink to that show with a voice cameo. That said, the first time director comes close to being all style and no substance. He also appears to have a penchant for eyes, which he focuses on, in close up, throughout.

Keeping the audience focused is Colin Firth's performance. Too long assigned the roles of the cuckold or, understandably, the Mr Darcy type, he's given a chance to embody a character with real emotional complexity. This is made even more impressive by Firth's ability to convey everything the reserved George is feeling with his eyes.

If you'd asked me a year ago to list high profile actors whom I felt would never score an Oscar nomination, Firth would have appeared on that list somewhere (Sandra Bullock too; so much for my psychic abilities). A Single Man sees me stand corrected, and if it weren't for the presence of fellow nominee Jeff Bridges, Firth would most likely have an Oscar to go with his Venice trophy and his recent BAFTA gong. He's the single reason to see A Single Man.


Roadshow Films
Now Showing

While not the worst film ever made, nor even the worst you'll see in 2010, The Blind Side is easy to hate on. That's thanks largely to its Oscar nominations for Best Picture, and Best Actress for leading lady Sandra Bullock. Perfectly adequate as both a family and sports drama, The Blind Side honestly has no place among the 10 contenders for Best Picture, this or any other year.

And as for Bullock, let's just say that should she win Best Actress (and over Meryl Streep no less), it will be one of the biggest travesties in Oscars history. Not that Bullock gives a Razzie Award performance (though she is up for one of those, too, thanks to All About Steve). As Leigh Anne Tuohy, Memphis middle class, Christian mother of two, Bullock is fine; bleached hair and a southern drawl helping her stretch her seldom used dramatic chops. But fine shouldn't score you an Oscar nomination and it certainly shouldn't see you win.

Leigh Anne and her husband Sean (Tim McGraw) take in homeless adolescent Michael Oher (Quniton Aaron), a student at her children's school who stands out as much for his size – he's a giant of a boy – as for the colour of his skin. Michael is one of the few black students at the Christian private school, “a fly in milk” as Leigh Anne so eloquently puts it. Michael flourishes when taken under the Touhys' wings and roof. His school work improves and he begins to excel on the grid iron field (the film's title refers to the position Michael plays), so much so that he comes to the attention of several college football coaches.

That The Blind Side is based on a true story and Oher now plays professionally in the NFL, makes for an impressive story and no doubt screamed "inspiring" for the filmmakers. But it's an uninspired film by director John Lee Hancock, and for mine (as well as others) it also smacks of racism.

Such quibbles haven't prevented the film grossing $250 million in the US, the first female lead film to do so. And I'm sure audiences here will lap it up too, probably a large percentage of those who thought Gran Torino was a great film (that's right, I didn't!). That success perhaps goes some way to explaining The Blind Side's inclusion in the 10 Best Picture nominees. Sadly, money talks.

Bullock's nomination, similarly, could be seen as a recognition of her career success, especially 2009 where her romantic comedy The Proposal also grossed $300 million plus worldwide. And I'm not totally averse to career Oscars; Jeff Bridges' win this year will partly be in recognition of his stellar career, littered with terrific performances, of which Crazy Heart is simply the latest. Conversely, Bullock's career is not littered nor even sprinkled with great performances. She is by no means overdue and her likely Oscar win will be thoroughly undeserved.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010


Available on DVD and Blu-ray March 18
Roadshow Entertainment

I posted my review for this film when it released in cinemas November 5 last year and my opinion hasn't changed since then: a poor adaptation of a difficult book that will prove disappointing for fans of the original source material.

But for those who haven't read Audrey Niffenegger's literary romance, concerning time-crossed lovers Henry and Clare, then Robert Schwentke's film could prove satisfying enough. Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams certainly do their best to maintain the romantic heart despite the silliness around them.

Henry (Bana) is a time traveller, the result of a genetic condition, and is continually disappearing and reappearing at points throughout his life while his wife, Clare (McAdams), is left alone - sometimes for hours, days, and even weeks at a time - to worry on his whereabouts.

But as is often the case, what works on the page doesn't translate to the screen. A bit more fun and inventiveness with the time travelling concept may have helped. I stated in my original review that I felt a film from Niffenegger's book would make for a great reunion piece for the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless team. Certainly the directorial whimsy of Michel Gondry and a Charlie Kaufman screenplay could have worked wonders for the material.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010


Available on DVD and Blu-ray March 18
Roadshow Entertainment

The brothers of the title, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody), have been conning people since early childhood when they discovered that they could get what they want by tricking people into thinking they got what they wanted. The best con? When everyone involved is happy.

Twenty or so years later, the brothers are still in the conning business and they've gone global. But Bloom has grown tired of their exploits; he wants to experience an 'unscripted life', one not mapped out in detail by older brother Stephen as part of some scam. But Stephen has happened upon another mark, one that would see them – including literally silent partner, Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) – retire comfortably.

The mark is Penelope, an orphaned, lonely heiress or, as Bloom observes, an eccentric, shut-in rich bitch. But Penelope, as played by Rachel Weisz, is anything but a bitch. She's a breath of fresh air who lights up both the film and Bloom. Penelope accompanies the trio to Greece, believing them to be antique dealers and that's where the troubles begin, for them and for us.

Director Rian Johnson's script plays one too many cons so that it finally cons itself into believing it's having fun, certainly more fun than the viewer is having. It's a sin Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's trilogy was guilty of. I was with the Brothers Bloom (BTW is Bloom their surname? Bloom Bloom? Is the title itself a con?) up to a point, but it's when they start faking cons (or are they?) within real cons that I became frustrated and, I'll admit it, a tad lost. Perhaps that's where the commentary by Johnson comes into its own.

Saturday, 20 February 2010


Paramount Pictures
Now Showing

As I've stated before, the list of films I should have seen but haven't is a very long one indeed. I am ashamed to admit the list features every film by director Martin Scorsese pre-1990, including Goodfellas. Conversely, I have seen most every Scorsese film since, beginning with 1991's remake of the 1950s thriller Cape Fear, through to his Oscar-winning The Departed (2006).

It goes without saying that I am not a connoisseur of the great American director's work, but nor would I consider my self a fan. An admirer, yes, but not a fan. Age of Innocence (1993), Kundun (1997) and The Aviator (2004) are some of my favourite films of their respective years. On the other hand, I am still trying to figure out exactly why The Departed scored the Best Picture Oscar for that year, other than Scorsese being well and truly overdue.

Perhaps it is this detachment to Scorsese that allows me to approach his latest film, Shutter Island, without any undue expectations but also without the reverence which most critics and film buffs have for the director. For me, Shutter Island, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (of Mystic River fame) was just another movie, one that, like any other, had to impress me on its own merits – and it didn't. And if Margaret Pomeranz (of ABC's At The Movies) and A.O. Scott (New York Times) can be underwhelmed by Scorsese, than so can I.

In 1954, Federal Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are called to Shutter Island, off the coast of Massachusetts, to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando. Solando isn't a islander but a patient of Ashecliffe Hospital, a mental institution for the criminally insane which is the only facility housed on the island. Solando, a woman who drowned her children, has escaped from her locked cell and is hiding somewhere on the remote isle.

Under the watchful eye of the politely menacing Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), Marshall must try and solve Solando's disappearance while suspecting something much more sinister is at work. He also has to contend with flashbacks to his wartime experiences, where he was one of the first soldiers involved in the liberation of the concentration camp Dachau, as well as contending with his wife (Michelle Williams), who perished in an apartment fire but continues to haunt his waking thoughts.

Shutter Island is described as a genre film, in this instance a horror but not in the slasher sense we have come to associate with the term. The film is very much in the vein of 1950s film noir – an emphasis on creating a forboding mood and more psychological as opposed to graphically violent - with Scorsese's influences here ranging from Hitchcock's Vertigo, to a host of classic films I've either never seen or never even heard of.

That may tickle the fancy of the aforementioned critics and film buffs, but for your average Joe just out for a scary movie, with a high end cast and director as bait, such details are irrelevant. Which isn't to say the film doesn't look great nor that DiCaprio, Ruffalo, and Kinglsey, not to mention Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Max von Sydow, don't deliver strong performances. But while Shutter Island held my interest for its running time it didn't grab me, it certainly didn't thrill me.

And the big twist finale, which I won't reveal and you should try and avoid reading or hearing about, wasn't so much a 'wow' moment but, for me, more of a 'oh, come on!' There are clues along the way that allude to this revelation – and a second viewing will most likely reveal those – but I felt somewhat cheated. And cheating me is no way to make me a fan, Mr. Scorsese.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010


Roadshow Films
Now Showing

War films are always a hard sell so it's understandable that the Australian distributors of Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker have waited until now, in the wake of its nine Oscar nominations including for Best Picture, to release it. The strategy, however, is a double-edged sword: interest will be piqued but expectations will be heightened.

American audiences stayed away from The Hurt Locker when it was released there mid 2009, with the film grossing less than $20 million. But if Australian audiences go in to The Hurt Locker prepared to embrace it on its own terms, and not as the potential dragon slayer of James Cameron's Avatar, they will be rewarded – and shaken, no 3D glasses required.

Bigelow's film, from an economic screenplay by Mark Boal (also one of the film's producers), follows an American bomb disposal unit in Iraq. It is essentially a series of set pieces with an escalating tension factor as we follow the team from one mission to the next.

The team, consisting of just three soldiers, is under the new command of Sgt James (Best Actor contender Jeremy Renner) – no points for guessing what happened to his predecessor. A cowboy of a soldier, James has little time for protocol and seems to have somewhat of a death wish. “If I'm going to die, I'm going to die comfortable,” he tells his teammates when he abandons his protective helmet to disarm a car bomb.

War may be a drug, as a prologue quotes, but Sgt James's preferred substance would appear to be adrenaline. It's not that he wants to die but the daily possibility of being eviscerated keeps him feeling alive. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), the team's voice of reason who has no time for James's recklessness, and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), the youngest of the trio and the most afraid of dieing, would rather complete their rotation with as little risk as possible.

While that's essentially it as far as character and plot are concerned, Bigelow certainly capitalises on the 'less is more' approach. A skilled director in action films – she made the Keanu Reeves surf movie Point Break (1991) and the mid-90s sci-fi Strange Days (1995) with Ralph Fiennes, who makes a cameo here – Bigelow knows how to get pulses racing. You'll find yourself holding your breath during some sequences and by film's end your nerves will be jangled and frayed.

Having won the majority of US critics' prizes, The Hurt Locker is the favourite to win the Best Picture-Director double at the upcoming Oscars. This presents the delicious irony of the least commercially successful film of the 10 Best Picture contenders trumping the highest grossing film of all time, Avatar. And Bigelow, an ex-Mrs James Cameron, becoming the first female winner of the Best Director Oscar for directing what has traditionally been a male director's genre. I say, bring it on.


Roadshow Entertainment
Available now on DVD and Blu-ray

Sisters are doing it for themselves in Drew Barrymore's enjoyable directorial debut, Whip It!, a coming-of-age tale of sorts centred around the sport of women's roller derby. Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is an adolescent less than enthused with her life in Bodeen, Texas, which consists of after school employment at the local burger joint and appearing in pageants at the behest of her mother (Marcia Gay Harden).

But while on a shopping trip to nearby Austin she discovers roller derby and a new possibility is glimpsed. Bliss gets her childhood skates out of mothballs and tries out for a spot with the team, the Hurl Scouts. Her speed more than makes up for her size (Ms Page is no gazelle) and she is recruited and given the moniker Babe Ruthless (all roller derby competitors have pseudonyms eg Smashley Simpson, Iron Maven).

Of course, Bliss's parents are kept blissfully unaware of their daughter's new found passion but you know it won't be long before that is rectified and things comes to a head. There is also Bliss's first romance and falling out with her best friend – these types of films have a blueprint after all. But Barrymore manages to keep it fresh without doing anything particularly new. It helps that her cast - predominantly female, naturally – including Juliette Lewis, Kristen Wiig and Eve, seem to be having so much fun.

It also helps that Barrymore secured Ellen Page as her lead. Page, so wonderful in Juno, again plays the somewhat alternate teen but makes Bliss different to the mouthy Juno, as well as to those girls she played in Smart People (a young Republican) and Hard Candy (an avenging angel of sorts). And I confess, I have a soft spot for Page and could watch her in most anything.

Whip It! doesn't go anywhere coming-of-age or sports films haven't been before, nor does it do it any better. But it's fun and involving. Girls of all ages will be emboldened and there's enough action so the guys won't be bored. But it's not about the boys – Girl Power!

Tuesday, 16 February 2010


20th Century Fox/Fox Searchlight Films
Now Showing

Bad Blake is a has-been country singer reduced to playing bars in the middle of nowhere. When we first meet him, he's about to play a one night stand in a bowling alley. That he's an alcoholic goes without saying, and if Bad hasn't yet hit rock bottom, he doesn't require Google Earth to locate it.

But on a stopover in Santa Fe, Bad agrees to an interview with local journalist Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and he is smitten. A single mother of a 4-year-old with a track record of dating the wrong guy, Jean should know better but there's something about the world-weary yet charming Bad that draws her in. Against her better judgement a relationship ensues, although she is not wearing a blindfold or even rose-coloured glasses; Jean keeps one foot very much on the ground.

Some critics have dubbed Crazy Heart this year's The Wrestler and that's fair enough, although it's nowhere near as tortuous, physically or emotionally, as that film. And much like Mickey Rourke, Jeff Bridges, though by no means on the comeback, finally has a role worthy of his talent. There is no showboating in the performance, no 'look at me' moments. Bridges inhabits Bad Blake so wholly we believe everything he does. We also care what happens to him.

Bridges can also carry a tune but then, if I'd seen The Fabulous Bakers Boys (1989) I wouldn't be so surprised. All things being equal, the list of great actors never to have won an Oscar will be reduced by one in a couple weeks' time.

Writer-director Scott Cooper's directorial debut (adapted from the novel by Thomas Cobb) doesn't take us anywhere we've never been before – cinema is littered with films about the down and out given one last shot at redemption – but he does so skillfully and quietly, with performances to match his approach. Gyllenhaal and Colin Farrell, as Bad's one-time protege, Tommy Sweet, who is now bigger than Bad ever was, take what would ordinarily be cliched roles and invest them with a humanness.

Also integral to the film's success is the music. Producer T Bone Burnett, who provided the music for Walk The Line (2005) and the Coen brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) once again works his magic, this time with the help of the late Stephen Bruton. But ultimately it's Bridges who makes Crazy Heart a song worth singing.


Hoyts Distribution
Now Showing

Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a well groomed and highly efficient aide to an American diplomat in the city of lights. But he also moonlights as a gopher for Special Ops, performing clandestine errands at the behest of a voice received anonymously over the phone. Reese wants desperately to be a Special Ops agent: he's never fired a gun but, hey, he's got the James Bond suit. And then he gets his chance.

Reese is sent to the airport to collect Wax (John Travolta), a Special Ops agent who sticks out like a sore thumb, a goatee-sporting sore thumb. He's also a few steps closer to whack job than the villain Travolta played in the recent Pelham 123; his Wax is a psychopath with a badge. Their first port of call in Paris is a Chinese restaurant where Wax proceeds to reduce the wait staff to cannon fodder: he's from the shoot first ask questions later school of thought.

Apparently the restaurant is a front for drug runners, the proceeds of which are being funnelled into terrorist activities, or so I understand. Pierre Morel's film doesn't really make a lick of sense, nor does it stop long enough to draw breath and explain. It's on to one shoot 'em and/or blow 'em up sequence after another, its 90 minute running time perhaps its one redeeming feature.

Morel's previous film, Taken, also had a man running all over Paris killing as if he had a quota to meet. In that film, Liam Neeson was the killing machine on a mission to recover his daughter who had been abducted by sex slave traders. Sure it was violent and silly, but Neeson made his character believable and the film a guilty pleasure.

From Paris With Love, however, is just violent and silly with no point for its existence other than to be violent and silly. The latest in a long line of action film odd couples, Travolta hams it up big time with Meyers floundering like a wet fish in his wake. And if you're not a teenage boy or a fan of mindless gun play, you'll be left with little more than a headache.

Sunday, 14 February 2010


Sony Pictures Classic
Now Showing

I have an aversion to films that proceed beyond the 120 minute mark, so I'm equally as surprised as you to admit that Jacques Audiard's A Prophet managed to keep me enthralled despite its 150 minute running time. Not that it couldn't have done with some editing but this prison drama, charting the simultaneous education and rise of a young man during a six year prison term, does so much right that one can forgive the longueurs.

Imprisoned for beating a policeman, Malik (Tahar Rahim), 19 years old and barely literate, is stuck in a no man's land. Not willing to align himself with his fellow Arab inmates, he is also considered an enemy of the Corsican (mafioso) gang who, with the guards on their payroll, virtually run the prison. But the Corsican leader Cesar (Niels Arestrup) needs an inmate 'taken care of' and if Malik agrees to do it, he will be afforded protection for the rest of his stay.

The moments leading up to Malik's mission - to kill an Arab who is a key witness in a trial against a Corsican - are some of the most suspenseful I've experienced in a cinema since No Country For Old Men. The aftermath of his deed literally haunts Malik; the ghost of his victim making regular appearances and acting somewhat as his conscience.

As Malik firms in Cesar's confidence, he begins working both ends to the middle and setting himself up for life on the outside. He learns to read and also makes valuable contacts with both Corsican and Arab gangs when he receives day release, running errands for Cesar but also solidifying his own interests. One of these day trips involves a hit which must rank as one of the best shoot 'em ups in recent years.

And here you could accuse Audiard of falling into the trap that so many makers of gangster films often do, that of glorifying their subject matter. But while there is some element of romanticising his protagonist – the film's finale certainly doesn't subscribe to the adage that crime doesn't pay – it's the prison sequences making up the majority of the film where A Prophet's real power lies. Life's no picnic behind bars and everyone has their place. The film doesn't skimp on the hardships, violence and boredom of prison life, nor the sacrifices one makes in order to survive.

A Prophet also exalts the virtues of education without being preachy or trite about it. Malik's education is both literal and figurative; his talent is not one of prophecy but of reading the play and planning three moves ahead. Going to prison is the making of Malik: it's a tough way to learn but a hell of a journey to watch.

Thursday, 11 February 2010


20th Century Fox
Now Showing

If it were an episode of Ricki Lake this film might well be called 'My Dad was a No Good Greek God', and true enough, our teen protagonist here has reason for his daddy issues. Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) has always had an affinity for water (he can hold his breath below its surface for seven minutes) but it still comes as a surprise to learn that the father who abandoned him is Poseidon, Greek God of the Seas. His mum (Catherine Keener, ever relaible but here all at sea), never told him in order to protect him.

But now Zeus (Sean Bean), Poseidon's brother, believes Percy has stolen his thunderbolt and he wants it returned - by the summer solstice and at midnight no less - or war will be unleashed. Percy, sent to hide out in a camp for fellow demigods, teams up with his protector, Grover (Brandon T Jackson), a satyr, and Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, to find out who really stole the thunderbolt and to save his mum from Hades (comic Steve Coogan), another brother of Zeus, who resides in the underworld. Got all that?

Don't worry, it plays out much less confusingly than it sounds so that tween and teen audiences will be able to keep up. And Uma Thurman and Rosario Dawson are on hand to keep chaperoning fathers' interests piqued.

Based on a series of books, Percy Jackson was likely envisioned as a fantasy franchise to succeed Harry Potter when that series eventually comes to an end mid 2011. Director Chris Columbus, who helmed the first two Potter films, does doesn't do as deft a job this time around but thankfully keeps the pace moving for most of its two hour running time; no Chamber of Secrets longueurs here.

With some nine months still to wait for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief may go some way to sating the undemanding sector of that fan group. Simultaneously, it may serve as an appetizer (and introduction) for the soon-to-be released Clash of the Titans. But will there be a sequel? That, as always, is in the hands of the gods aka studio heads.


Now Showing
Universal Pictures

Looking to sink your teeth into something a little less saccharine this Valentine's Day weekend (and the antithesis of the film which shares that day's title)? Try The Wolfman, Joe Johnston's remake of the classic 1940s werewolf film where the only hearts on display are those being ripped from the chests of local villagers.

It's 1891 and something is killing people on the moors. When the son of the Talbot estate falls victim, his brother Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro) returns home to try and discover what killed his sibling. Lawrence, now an acclaimed stage actor, has been living in America since an early childhood tragedy; a convenient plot device which enables Del Toro to avoid affecting a poor English accent.

Still, he fares better than Anthony Hopkins, as Sir Talbot, who has a crazy gleam in his eye (the one not focussed on the cheque he cashed for this role), and Emily Blunt, who plays the grieving fiance. Blunt isn't bad she's just not given a lot to do until the third act requires her to play the damsel in distress.

If I'm sounding as though I didn't like The Wolfman that's not the case. In actuality I quite enjoyed it. It's a popcorn movie for sure, despite the period costumes and heavy brooding. There is genuine suspense early on when the werewolf makes his attacks, which are fun to watch in a bloody kind of way. But when Lawrence is bitten by the beast he inevitably becomes one too, reducing the level of suspense since we know where he is at all times.

Still, when the American werewolf goes on a rampage in the streets of London (wait a minute . . .), pursued by a Scotland Yard detective (Hugo Weaving), it's bloody good fun, not that the filmmakers appear to deliberately be going for that effect.

Horror, or rather, gore fans may not find The Wolfman bloody enough and fair point: if I can hack it you're grandmother probably can too. But believe me, it's a much more rewarding way to spend two hours (and a much more guaranteed way to get your date in your lap) this weekend than sitting through that all-star pap screening in the other theatre.

Monday, 8 February 2010


Roadshow Films
Out February 11

When I saw the trailer for Valentine's Day whilst at another Roadshow screening, I made a mental note: a poor man's Love, Actually. After seeing the film, that assessment would only hold true if writer-director Richard Curtis had made the latter film without wit, humour or charm – and both eyes on the bottom line.

That would explain why Valentine's Day director Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman) has assembled a cast of stars – Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Ashton Kutcher, Jamie Foxx, Jessica Alba – and put them at the mercy of a screenplay that hasn't an ounce of truth, let alone romance or laughs. The aim here is to appeal to as many demographics as possible, getting bums on seats and an impressive opening weekend take as a result.

As with Love, Actually there are multiple and intersecting storylines depicting people in various states of “love”. In Love, Actually the overriding theme was that love was wonderful but not so easy; in Valentine's Day the message seems to be that if you have no one on Valentine's Day you're a loser. One character who finds herself alone at the end of the eponymous day (all the action occurs over a 24 hour period) does so because she speaks honestly and makes a decision with her head and not her heart. The filmmakers see fit to punish her by sending her to a hotel with only her dog for company.

I'm not saying Love, Actually is a perfect film or even one without calculation, but for all its sunshine and lollipops there were also some unhappy truths; Emma Thompson and Laura Linney's storylines for instance. There's nothing the slightest bit believable in Valentine's Day, from the too-cute lovesick little boy (blatantly stolen from Love, Actually) to the gay couple (Do they kiss? Hell no!), and certainly nothing to give you pause for thought.

Am I being too harsh on a film that is supposed to be mere light entertainment? Perhaps but I don't think audiences will appreciate having to pay to see some of their favourite actors do next to nothing for two hours, especially when the film's best moments occur during the end credits.

Indeed, the film's best joke, concerning Julia Roberts and a certain film she made with Garry Marshall, comes at the very end. Much like suffering through a bad first date only to get a pleasant good night kiss, you may walk away with smile but you won't be inclined to think any more favourably of it or make a second date.

Thursday, 4 February 2010


Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire
Icon Film Distribution
Now Showing

Lee Daniels is a casting agent making just his second feature film as a director. Known for casting Halle Berry in her against type, Oscar winning role in Monster's Ball (2001), Daniels obviously has an eye for an actor's potential. In Precious, he gets uniformly strong performances from his eclectic cast, which includes singers Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey, but none better than from his leading lady, first time actress Gabourey Sidibe, and comedienne turned dramatic actress, Mo'Nique.

Sidibe is Claireece 'Precious' Jones, an overweight teenager who has already had one child to her father and is expecting another, both as the result of rape. Did I mention this is heavy going stuff? Precious lives with her mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), a woman for whom the word grotesque seems both specifically designed yet somehow inadequate. Mary abuses her daughter both verbally and physically, resents her for "stealing her man's love”, and uses Precious's her first born, who lives with Mary's mother, merely as a means for receiving welfare cheques.

It's when Precious is moved to an alternative school and the classroom of Ms Rain (Paula Patton) that the possibility of another way of life is gleamed. The barely literate Precious blossoms under her kindly teacher, developing her written skills and slowly coming out of her shell. But this is no Dead Poets Society.

There's much more darkness to be endured before we reach what hope there is at the end of this tunnel. Not that it's all doom and gloom. Precious's classmates provide much needed humour and Patton's Ms Rain is a beacon of positivity in world – 1980s Harlem – seriously lacking in healthy role models, female or male; other than Kravitz's male nurse, and the spectre of Precious's father, men are conspicuous by their absence in the film.

The film has been praised as much for its toughness as it has been criticized for its depiction of African Americans. Granted, a white director could not have made this film without being labelled 'racist', but Daniels, black (and gay, if it matters), and screenwriter Damien Paul, working from the original text by poet and author Sapphire (hence the mouthful title), are depicting a specific set of circumstances: time, place and people.

Daniels has also drawn from personal experience, admitting to his own physical abuse as a child. It are these memories which inspire the film's fantasy sequences: whenever the horrors of her world become too much, Precious retreats to a 'happy place', where she is a feted celebrity and loved by a light skinned young man. Some of these sequences work, others don't and admittedly, for all his achievements here, Daniels' talent for casting and working with actors is far stronger than his direction.

It is the performances that make the film. Sidibe and Mo'Nique have both been nominated for Oscars and it will be a surprise if the latter doesn't walk away with the Supporting Actress statuette. But Sidibe is equally as good, her stillness belying the emotions inside Precious; emotions that will get to you by film's end.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010


Icon Home Entertainment
Out on DVD and Blu-ray February 3

Director Ken Loach is known for his films about blue collar protagonists and the politics of class. And in his most recent film, the Cannes-winning The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006), he examined the early years of the IRA. His films are not known for their sense of humour.

Perhaps that is why some found his latest, Looking For Eric, which also competed at Cannes, a little hard to fathom. While not exactly a comedy, Looking For Eric finds Loach at the lighter end of the spectrum with regards to story. Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) is a postman in Manchester for whom everything has suddenly come to a head. Twice divorced and with two unruly adolescent boys, Eric has suddenly begun pining for his first wife who he abandoned when panic at the life ahead set in, the same panic that is now hampering his day-to-day life.

Eric's daily joint may also be one of the causes of this anxiety but it also provides the conduit for him to communicate with his hero, French football player Eric Cantona (played by Cantona himself). In their regular chats, Cantona performs the role of life coach, guiding Eric with riddle-like quotes of the kind he used to confound sports journalists during his playing days.

In the film's second half, a subplot involving one of Eric's son's and a local gangster, for whom he has been hiding a gun as a test of loyalty, comes to the fore. It is here I thought the film was about to take the same route as Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino (2008) with its martyr-like climax.

It doesn't, thankfully, but its own denouement left me similarly underwhelmed. Not funny enough to be a comedy, Looking For Eric is somewhat of an oddity, even more so for being a Ken Loach film without a political agenda. Still, football fans, specifically those enamoured with Eric Cantona, may find some amusement here.

Monday, 1 February 2010


With 10 spots up for grabs, the Best Picture race is wide open. That is to say, the race for one of those spots is; the actual BP race is really down to just two, possibly three films.

Golden Globe winner Avatar, now the highest grossing film of all time; Inglourious Basterds, winner of the Screen Actors Guild's Best Picture equivalent, Best Ensemble; and The Hurt Locker, winner of the majority of US critics' prizes, and most importantly the influential Producers and Directors Guilds awards, are the most likely to be the BP winner.

Here then are the films I think will definitely be nominated, some that will more than likely be nominated and those that have a shot at sneaking in.

The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Up in the Air

A Serious Man
An Education

District 9
Star Trek
(500) Days of Summer
The Road


With the Director's Guild of America yesterday announcing Kathryn Bigelow as their choice for Director of the Year, she must now be odds-on to take the Oscar - the first woman to do so. Her fellow DGA nominees will be the likely competition (ex hubby James Cameron her stiffest) although the Academy often replaces one BP contender's director with a dark horse. But the most likely nominees are:

Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker
James Cameron – Avatar
Quentin Tarantino – Inglourious Basterds
Jason Reitman – Up In The Air
Lee Daniels – Precious

Alternate: I think Daniels is most susceptible, and a real dark horse replacement would be Austrian Michael Haneke for The White Ribbon.