Tuesday, 28 September 2010
With The Town, his second outing behind the camera, Ben Affleck reaffirms the promise he showed in his directorial debut, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone. Much like Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood before him, Affleck seems to have found his calling as a filmmaker rather than an actor. Not that his performance here, as Doug MacRay, leader of a Boston team of bank robbers, is bad; it’s one of his better ones in recent years.
Like Affleck’s debut, The Town is set on the working class streets of Boston, the suburb of Charlestown to be precise and apparent bank robbery capital of the US. The film opens with the crew’s latest heist, on a downtown bank, where they escape with the money and, against their usual MO, a hostage.
That’s bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), a non-native of Boston who volunteers at the local youth centre and whom Doug takes a shine to when, after letting her go, he begins following her to see if she is close to indentifying them to the FBI.
Led by Special Agent Adam Frawley (John Hamm, sporting a three-day growth and inconsistent hair so as to distance him, however slightly, from his perfectly manicured Mad Men persona), the Feds have nothing on Doug’s crew even though they suspect them. Claire’s withholding of one vital clue (a distinctive tattoo on one of their necks) doesn’t help.
That tattoo belongs to Jim (The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner), the crew’s muscle and hothead, and Doug’s de facto brother. Jim’s already done a stint in prison for murder and has no plans of returning to jail. Nor is he keen on the idea of Doug getting out of the robbery game and leaving Boston, and him, for Claire. There’s also another local king pin, The Florist (Pete Postlethwaite), who wants his cut of the action.
Having grown up in Boston (with fellow actor, Oscar winner and best bud, Matt Damon), Affleck knows the city well, and deliberately cast, I assume, local non-actors to fill the smaller, background roles. He also has an ear for the distinct, thick accent which aids in authenticity but doesn’t help with audibility; there were times I could have done with subtitles, usually whenever Blake Lively was on-screen.
She plays Krista, sister of Jim and sometime girlfriend of Doug, and you can imagine her as a younger version of the vile woman played by Oscar nominee Amy Ryan in Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone. But despite the chatter in the blogosphere, any talk of Lively being similarly acknowledged is absurd.
There’s also talk of The Town being nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, and in a 10-film year, that’s not unreasonable (positive reviews and good box office certainly don’t hurt its chances). But in a 5-film year, it just wouldn’t happen.
Not that The Town isn’t a fine film. It’s a compelling crime drama that’s solid all round, with as much attention paid to character as to the action sequences. Although, as a writer-director, I think Affleck may need to work harder on his female characters: Hall, a fine British actress, isn’t given a lot to do as the love interest; a similar fate befalling Michelle Monaghan in Gone Baby Gone.
But it’s early days for Ben Affleck the director, and there’s plenty of time to learn in a career that is very much on an upward trajectory.
Sony Pictures Releasing
By Guest Reviewer A.J. Smith
Milla Jovovich is back as Alice (and her army of clones) in the fourth entry in the popular video game-to-movie franchise, kicking zombie butt while bringing down the shady Umbrella Corporation.
Opening with a spectacular sequence set in and below Tokyo, Afterlife introduces Umbrella’s evil Chairman, Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts), a prominent character from the fifth game incarnation. Everything feels promising due to the clever use of filmed (not awful post-converted) 3D and imaginative camera angles, however what eventuates is a series of slickly delivered, light horror thrills accompanied by pumping industrial techno music.
The plot mainly consists of the survivors seeking sanctuary in ‘Arcadia’; a recorded radio broadcast telling them it is infection-free from the spreading T-virus which has ravaged the world, released by Wesker for his own mysterious agenda.
Being a fan for years of the video games, I was excited to finally see Wesker on the big screen, but the general lack of characterisation left me disappointed. Not being familiar with the video games will leave the audience confused as plot points and events from the video games go unexplained, although one knows that Wesker is evil because he wears his sunglasses *gasp* inside.
Also returning to the franchise, and to the director’s chair after producing two sequels, is Paul W. S. Anderson, Jovovich’s real-life partner. Jovovich is never really pushed for a great performance during the film’s 97-minute runtime, and an engaging performance is vital now that Alice has been chemically downgraded to a human again. Sure, she still looks amazing and gracefully energetic in action sequences but Anderson is so preoccupied with the new 3D technology that all we are left with is what I call ‘eyebrow acting’- expressionless faces delivering dialogue while only managing to move said facial features.
A movie in this genre needs to not take itself too seriously and Afterlife does. Three attempts at intentional humour fall flat with only one hitting the mark but most laughs are derived from Wentworth Miller’s clumsy attempt at bringing the video game’s coolest character, Chris Redfield, to life. Obvious continuity errors throughout don’t help matters, either. Thankfully, thrills from mutating undead and a giant axe-wielding zombie (the video game’s difficult end-of-stage boss) occur often enough to keep us chomping on our popcorn.
There is something amiss when the video game has more excitement and story during the in-between stage footage than a big budget movie, but most audiences will forgive Anderson and cast as it basically delivers on its promise of fast-paced horror-action in impressive 3D. Maybe fifth time’s a charm?
Icon Film Distribution
Let me preface this review by stating from the outset that a remake of Let The Right One In, the Swedish vampire film that stole (and broke) audiences hearts in 2008, is unnecessary: there is no real need for one. But an American/English language version has been made, so I shall proceed to review it.
Moved from Sweden to a no less frozen New Mexico, in 1983 and the height of Reagan-era Cold War politics, Matt Reeves' Let Me In, an adaptation of both the 2008 film and the Swedish novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist upon which it was based, plays out not as a shot-for-shot remake but rather a very faithful re-imagining.
Those who have seen the original film (a small but passionate few comparing box office returns with blogosphere commentary) will experience (and not necessarily in a bad way) a very strong sense of deja vu. First timers will encounter an unsettling tale of friendship that will simultaneously disturb, captivate and, ultimately, break your heart. Neither audience should feel shortchanged.
Reeves adopts a darker tone (one of the few though noticeable changes) in telling the story of Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a lonely 12-year-old with an absent father and ineffectual mother (we never see her face), ignored at home and bullied at school, and Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz), the mysterious girl who moves in next door. She doesn't wear shoes or seem to feel the cold – and she smells funny. But despite this, and her insistence that she and Owen cannot be friends, a friendship ensues.
Those who have seen Let The Right One In know there is much more to that synopsis but I won't go into details; for those who haven't seen it, discovering Abby's secrets as Owen does is one of the film's (dark) pleasures. The performances of the child actors is another, and if there is any argument for Reeves not waiting a few more years to make the film then it is that Moretz (so good in Kick-Ass) and Smit-McPhee (Romulus, My Father and The Road) would have been too old for the roles.
Each brings a soulfulness to their characters, both lonely and damaged in very different ways. Good, also, is the ever-reliable Richard Jenkins who brings a certain grace to a seemingly unsympathetic role as Abby's 'father'.
If you're an ardent fan of the original film and predisposed to hating the remake purely on principle, or simply boycotting it altogether, I can understand (I'm no fan of remakes myself). But those who put aside their doubts and concerns may be pleasantly surprised by just how much care and attention Reeves has applied to Let Me In.
Those coming to the story for the first time will witness a strangley beautiful tale of friendship which is as affecting as it is dark (or because of it), and not just because of Abby's true nature. As anyone knows, growing up is hard and kids can be cruel, and Let Me In doesn't skimp on the horrors of the everyday. As with the original, I found the film's depiction of childhood bullying far more disturbing than the traditional horror elements. Not for the weak, Let Me In rewards both the brave and the openminded.
Sony Pictures Releasing
It's not easy being a woman – it's a man's world after all – and, it seems, no more fun being a chick flick. When Sex and the City 2 released earlier this year, it was met with howls of derision (not all of it unwarranted) by mostly male critics. The majority of female critics seemed to be more lenient towards Carrie and the girls; sure they were being culturally insensitive whilst holidaying in the Middle East but they were still the independent gal pals they loved – and they looked fab!
Not as savagely but with no less venom, male critics in the US took to Eat Pray Love, the film version of the bestselling quasi-self help, self discovery journal written by Elizabeth Gilbert. Played here by Julia Roberts, in her first full-on movie star role for some time, Liz travels to Italy, India and Indonesia in search of herself following a divorce; eating pasta and pizza in Roma before heading to an ashram in India for some spiritual enlightenment, and finishing the year in picturesque Bali with the prospect of a new relationship (and all bankrolled by her publisher: where do I get a writing job like that?).
The complaint by critics seemed to be that white, Western women who could afford to travel the world for a year were in no position to whine about their lot in life, as if material and financial well being denied one's right to be unhappy. Admittedly it can be seen as indulgent to cry 'poor me' while in the midst of the poverty of India (although director Ryan Murphy, creator of TV's Glee, is at pains to avoid the dark sides of any of the film's locales), but, hey, it's Liz's party and she'll cry if she wants to.
My main complaint with Eat Pray Love is the length: 140 minutes is far too long to spend watching someone else's holiday home movies. But Julia Roberts makes for agreeable company, and Richard Jenkins is fun as an ostensibly cantankerous Texan, in India attempting to find inner peace.
I haven't read Elizabeth Gilbert's book (but then I have an aversion to anything of a self help/discovery nature) but I shouldn't think the (mostly female) audience, most of whom will have read Eat Pray Love, will have too much of a problem with the film version.
I didn't find it particularly deep or meaningful but conversely, it wasn't the slap in the face to feminism or celebration of white, middle class largess that some have suggested it is. Sometimes, fellas, a chick flick is just a chick flick.
Icon Film Distribution
A man in a box doesn't sound like a premise for gripping cinema, but from the Hitchcockian opening credits and score, Rodrigo Cortes's Buried will have you hooked (pinned, even) for its 90-minute running time.
Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) awakens to find himself in a wooden box with nothing but a mobile phone and flashlight for company. He remembers his convoy (Paul's in Iraq helping rebuild that country) was attacked by insurgents and now (a voice on said phone informs him) he's being held for ransom.
Buried plays out in real time, as Paul grapples with his predicament, frantically calling family, friends, the company that sent him to Iraq and even a UN hostage negotiator (sounding a lot like American Idol's Simon Cowell – not a reassuring voice at the best of times), all of whom either alleviate or compound his mounting dread; the mobile phone simultaneously becoming his best friend and his worst enemy.
Cortes takes this high concept (apparently the script had been kicking around for a while) and makes it work, not just as an exercise in logistics but as gripping cinema, although admittedly not one for sufferers of ADHD or claustrophobia. There are moments which stretch credibility (A snake? Really?), an understandable attempt to up the ante, but for the most part I was there with Reynolds in that box.
Tuesday, 21 September 2010
What started out as a slow year looks to be finishing with a flurry of high end releases. Some of those remain to be seen (no reviews, only trailers), but based on buzz and pedigree, these are the films looking most likely to be one of the final 10 Best Picture contenders. I've divided them into Definites (almost certain to be nominated), Critics' Faves (but the Academy could go either way) and Blind Siders (in honour of last year's least deserving nominee ie well made crowd pleasers but not great).
(* denotes I've seen it)
THE KING'S SPEECH* Raves at the Toronto Film Festival immediately shot this period drama to favourite status. Tom Hooper, who directed TV's brilliant John Adams, apparently injects life into a story about the English royals on the eve of WWII aided by two great performances by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK* Opening this past week in the US, David Fincher's take on the creation, and subsequent battle for ownership of Facebook has critics in a lather, praising it not only as the film of the year but of our times.
INCEPTION* Three months ago, Christopher Nolan's film was the BP favourite and there's no doubt it will make the final 10, after all, it was the failure of The Dark Knight to be nominated for BP that is believed to have instigated the Academy's expansion of 5 to 10 and embrace of more “popular” films.
TOY STORY 3* If there is to be an animated film in the final 10, Pixar's latest has to be it. Not just because it is the third and final film in a brilliantly executed franchise or because it's the highest grossing film of 2010, but because it is one of the most emotionally rewarding films of the year.
127 HOURS Danny Boyle's previous film, Slumdog Millionaire, scored the Picture/Director double in 2008 and the positive Toronto response to his latest, the true story of an adventurer who, after being pinned under a rock for four days amputated his arm, should see him in the mix once again.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT* Every Oscars race has a little film that could and Lisa Cholodenko's intelligent and heartfelt comedy fits that bill in 2010. Excellent performances (Bening, Moore and Ruffalo are all contenders), critical love and good box office ($20m on a budget of $4m) should see it in all right.
TRUE GRIT Okay, so no-one has seen it yet and hence there have been no early reviews but based on the brief trailer released online last week (a longer one goes online this week), I say if it's a half-decent Coen brothers film it's in.
ANOTHER YEAR Mike Leigh is no stranger to the Oscars (Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake) and his latest, buzzed at Cannes and subsequent festivals, is considered one of his best.
BLACK SWAN Doing for ballet what The Wrestler did for that sport, Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller revolving around Swan Lake and a never better Natalie Portman, would be an out-of-left-field pick for the Academy.
BLUE VALENTINE Premiered at Sundance way back in February, this small but powerful film about the breakdown of a marriage could prove too hard to resist or too hard to take. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are said to be brilliant.
THE WAY BACK Just announced today that it would be getting an Oscar 2010 qualifying run, Peter Weir's first film in seven years received warm reviews at Telluride a few weeks ago. Weir himself has been nominated several times and this tale of an epic journey via foot, from Siberia to India, could again land him a double nod. (added 0ct 7)
THE TOWN* Critics like Ben Affleck's second outing as director and box office has been good to this Boston-set crime drama. The Departed-lite?
MADE IN DAGENHAM* A stirring drama about the fight for equal rights for women factory workers in the UK in the 1960s. Norma Rae, anyone?
SECRETARIAT True story of the racehorse that won everything. Seabiscuit (2003) made it in when there were just 5 contenders so...
THE FIGHTER Another sports film and the Academy loves a pugilist (Rocky, Million Dollar Baby) and a true story. Directed by David O. Russell.
CONVICTION A woman puts herself through law school to defend her brother who is accused of murder. A true story, courtroom drama and Hilary Swank!
HEREAFTER A Clint Eastwood film can't be ignored, nor a screenplay by Peter 'The Queen' Morgan, but a supernatural drama? Sorry, a meditation on mortality.
I know I'll be in the minority (and perhaps accused of being un-Australian) when I say I'm not a fan of Happy Feet, the 2006 locally created animated flick. While the film was entertaining enough, and the animation excellent, it didn't really do a whole lot for me. The local love for the film, including a healthy box office, and its Oscar win for Best Animated Feature (although it was up against Pixar's worst film, Cars) resulted in a wave of adulation and, for mine, one of the most overrated films of this decade.
But as I said, the animation was excellent and Animal Logic, the Australian animation house behind Happy Feet, have done it again. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole is an impressive looking film, even in 3D. The visuals are neither distracting nor murky and every feather of every owl is perfectly rendered.
The story on the other hand, adapted from the book by Kathryn Lasky, is all a bit heavy and convoluted, especially for a younger audience. No dancing bird life here; these owls are fighters not lovers and while the makers of the film may have gone all Disney and skimped on the blood, the feathers certainly fly - a lot of them in slow motion.
That probably has a lot to do with director Zack Snyder, the man responsible for much bloodier, adult fare such as 300 and Watchmen and who has a noted penchant for the use of slow-mo. I'm not exactly sure what drew him to the story of Ga'Hoole, or why the American was brought in to direct such a major Australian project (not that there's anything wrong with that!), but his imprimatur is all over the final product.
But it's also identifiably Australian with an impressive local voice cast – Hugo Weaving, Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia, David Wenham, and Joel Edgerton who seems to be channeling Nick Nolte at his grouchiest – not to mention imports such as Jim Sturgess, Miriam Margolyes and Helen Mirren.
To counter my earlier "unpatriotic" statement, and at the risk of sounding jingoistic, I'd recommend seeing Legend of the Guardians on the big screen, if only to savour (and support) the excellent artistry of our local animators. Besides, judging by the box office, almost everyone has seen Despicable Me by now.
Monday, 13 September 2010
Hollywood remakes of foreign films are nothing new. In the next two weeks we'll be seeing Atom Egoyan's Chloe (based on the French film, Nathalie), and Matt Reeves' Let Me In (the remake of the Swedish vampire film, Let The Right One In), while David Fincher is already in Sweden prepping for his take on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
Dinner For Schmucks is a remake of French farce, The Dinner Game, which was a hit in France and other countries back in 1998. Exactly why it has taken 12 years for Hollywood to produce its version I'm not sure: a fear the humour could be lost in translation?
Judging by the audience I saw it with, Dinner For Schmucks gets a pretty high laugh quotient (some people even snorted!) for its almost two-hour running time. Those laughs are in spite of the film's rather cruel premise – to get ahead in his company, an employee has to bring an idiot along to dinner; the biggest idiot wins – which I'm assuming, not having seen the original, this remake has softened.
Tim (Paul Rudd) is the guy who wants to get ahead but he's not so much cruel as eager. His superiors, including Bruce Greenwood, are the real bastards and, hey, it's not hard to hate money men in suits. Tim's girlfriend Julie (French actress Stephanie Szostak, a nod to the original perhaps?) thinks the idea is abhorrent and so he vows not to go through with it. That is until he runs down Barry (Steve Carrell), an IRS employee who makes mouse dioramas, and is quickly convinced he's hit the doofus jackpot.
So ensues a rather long series of embarrassing sequences as Tim attempts to get Barry to the dinner without him discovering its real purpose and without Julie finding out. But in some what of a karmic twist, Barry's presence wreaks havoc on Tim's life. Rudd is no stranger to playing the straight guy as he does here, sitting back while Carrell's Barry unleashes wave upon wave of stupidity that will have you laughing and cringing in equal measure.
I could have done with a much shorter waiting time for the actual dinner to arrive, but there are enough appetizers throughout – Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement, as a self important artist, and The Hangover's Zach Galifianakis, as Barry's sadistic boss, the tastiest two – to keep your hunger for humour sated.
In Charlie St Cloud, the eponymous hero (Zac Efron) sees dead people. But the film is no Sixth Sense and despite writing off a car early on in the film, Efron is no Haley Joel Osment. That car accident kills Charlie's younger brother and briefly claims his life, too, before he is successfully defibrillated by a crazy-eyed paramedic (Ray Liotta).
Jump to five years later and his brush with death has enabled Charlie to see and commune with the dead, most notably said younger brother whom he meets every afternoon in the woods to practise his baseball. It's a promise he has vowed to keep but one which has virtually sealed him off from the rest of the world. Most of the seaside townsfolk suspect the accident has rendered the young man crazy; talking to himself an obvious symptom and working (and living) at the local cemetery simply dotting the i in 'insane'.
But then Tess (Amanda Crew), about to embark on a round-the-world solo sailing expedition, and curiously drawn to her former classmate and sailing rival, begins a romance with Charlie – or does she?
Adapted from the novel The Death and Life of Charlie St Cloud, by Ben Sherwood, this is a drama with supernatural overtones but which chooses to dwell in the sentimental end of the genre's pool, more closely resembling an extended episode of TV's The Ghost Whisperer rather than M. Night Shyamalan's breakthrough (and still, for mine, best) film, The Sixth Sense.
Zac Efron continues to attempt a move away from his teen heartthrob status for which he should be given credit although Charlie St. Cloud is very much a “chick flick” targeted at his young female fan base. Still, that demographic, not to mention the film's producers, may feel a little shortchanged with the lack of flesh on show, no doubt feeling a film set largely on and near the ocean would have called for a lot more bare chested acting by Efron.
But make no mistake, Charlie St. Cloud's leading man will have the ladies reaching for their tissues if only to dab their eyes.
The book or the film? Often it's a question that is easily answered: the book is always better. But when so many books are adapted for the big screen, it's often a case of film over book; I mean, you can only read so much and, hey, films are my job.
Unlike a lot of Australians, I didn't read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the first in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy of books, so came to film version fresh and found it to be an exciting thriller. So impressed was I, I read the sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire. Big mistake. If there is one thing a thriller requires to succeed it is suspense, and having read the book I knew what was going to happen, and to whom and why. I also knew what had been altered or excised from the source material which is a lot given that 600 pages into 130 minutes simply doesn't go.
Having said that, I feel that even if I hadn't read Larsson's sequel beforehand, I would still have found The Girl Who Played With Fire wanting; it's just not as good as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
The action takes place a year after the events of Tattoo, with Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) returning to Sweden after a year abroad and it's not too long before she is caught up in a murder investigation. A journalist and his girlfriend have been murdered, presumably because of the expose they were writing on Sweden's sex trafficking industry which named names in high places.
As luck would have it, they happened to be writing for Millennium, the independent newspaper operated by Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyquvist), who is always ready to right a wrong and even more so here when Salander, who helped Blomkvist solve the case in Tattoo, becomes the police's number one suspect.
I won't go any further into the plot only to say that we learn a lot more about the secretive, insular Lisbeth Salander. Whether you regard Larsson's creation as a feminist heroine or the literary equivalent of male wet dream, Salander is one of the more fascinating female characters in book and film for quite some time, and Rapace is just as excellent as she was first time round.
I think it was wise of the producers of the forthcoming American remake to cast a virtual unknown (Rooney Mara) in the role. While a great number of the audience for that version won't have seen Rapace's performance, the fewer distractions (hey, it's [insert A-list actress here] in goth drag!) the better. Daniel Craig's casting, on the other hand, will be distraction enough: Hey, what's James Bond doing here?
But I digress. The Girl Who Played With Fire should be greeted just as eagerly as its prequel, which raked in $6 million at the Oz box office; those same fans of the book (not to mention a good portion who wanted to get in on the craze but baulked at actually reading Larsson's 600-page doorstop), eager to see their heroine's exploits once again brought to life. And even if the film is less than, they won't be disappointed by the Girl.
20th Century Fox
Confession: I have not seen Oliver Stone's original 1987 film Wall Street, which spawned the catchphrase 'Greed is Good' and won Michael Douglas, as oily financier Gordon Gekko who coined said line, the Best Actor Oscar. But I'm sure that's not why I didn't enjoy Stone's sequel-of-sorts, Money Never Sleeps, which revisits this money milieu in response to the recent global financial crisis.
I'm aware that part of my disinterest stems from my general disinterest in finance. Not money (I love money, who doesn't?) but the business of money. The stock exchange, Dow Jones, Nikkei et al hold no interest for me and so it was, whenever anyone in this film spoke about matters financial, I reverted to a state similar to Bart's dog in The Simpsons episode where he takes Santa's Little Helper to obedience school: “Blah, blah, blah blah blah blah, blah money”.
But it's not all about the green back and when it is, Stone gives us all manner of visual aids to help the audience out. What is lacking is any sense of real drama which is costly given that the film clocks in at over two hours. The plight of Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a financial whiz kid with an environmental bent – he strongly believes in fusion technology as a future energy source – failed to grab me and that's not because LaBeouf looks all of about 15 years old or that I hold a grudge against him because of his involvement in the Transformer films (honest, I don't).
The company Jake works for goes under and he finds himself working for Bretton James (Josh Brolin), the man who very may very well have caused the company's collapse and, as a consequence, the suicide of Jake's mentor, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella). He wants revenge and his anger is flamed by Gordon Gekko (Douglas reprising his iconic role), newly released from prison and as chance would have it, the estranged father of Jake's girlfriend, Winnie (Carey Mulligan, the recent Oscar nominee sadly given little to do here but cry prettily).
Jake yo-yo's between Gekko and Winnie, who's constantly warning him about how evil her father is. Evil or not, the film perks up whenever Gekko is on screen, gradually morphing into the 1987 version of the man every time he reappears. Greed is apparently still good and Gekko's out for all he can get, no matter who gets hurt.
The film may have had more of an impact had Stone stuck with this line of thinking but he seems intent on providing redemption for Gekko if not the Wall Street community as a whole. That's certainly the nagging suspicion I came away with following the film's 'all's well that ends well' denouement. Perhaps Stone is getting soft in his later years; with age comes a certain level of conservatism. Money Never Sleeps could certainly do with a little more of the younger Stone's fire in the belly and rage against the machine.
Documentary or mockumentary? Real or fake? That's the question many will be asking about Casey Affleck's directorial debut, which turns the camera on actor (and brother-in-law) Joaquin Phoenix in the year proceeding his announcement that he was retiring from acting to pursue a new career as a hip hop artist.
I fall very much on the fake side of the argument. For for all it's fly-on-the-wall, actor-in-meltdown cinema verite, there's a sly sense of fun that keeps breaking through the very convincing facade constructed by Affleck and Phoenix. The most painful moments in the film are not watching Phoenix snort coke, order hookers off the internet or vomit in toilets (though that scene is still hard to watch); it's whenever he takes to the stage to bust a rhyme that really kills you. Didn't Phoenix do all his own singing as Johnny Cash in Walk The Line (2005)? I could also have done without the constant exposure to his expansive naked paunch.
We've all seen Phoenix's funny-cringey appearance on David Letterman where, resembling a hobo in a suit, he proceeded to mumble (if speak at all) in response to Dave's questions and ribbing. We've also seen the subsequent send-up by Ben Stiller (who appears briefly in the film, pitching the script for Greenberg to Phoenix) at the 2009 Oscars. Both of those instances appear in I'm Still Here but Affleck is more concerned with what the public hasn't seen.
That may be one of the driving forces behind this exercise, not so much the message that 'it's tough being a celebrity' (boo freakin' hoo) but to show up the silliness of the entertainment industry and the media's fascination with it; the inordinate amount of time and energy invested in pursuing the minutae of celebrity lives, sometimes at the expense of the dignity of those lives.
But that's another reason to accept I'm Still Here as a fake. Phoenix isn't going to win sympathy by presenting himself, as he does, as an egotistical head case, especially when he eventually returns from his “retirement”, clean shaven, in shape and delivering the high caliber performances we know he is capable of. There's no point in giving good performances if no one's buying tickets to see them.
Of course, if it's not a hoax then it's a sad loss and I'd recommend watching the little seen Two Lovers, the 2009 film which Phoenix was supposed to be spruiking during his Letterman appearance. It's one of the actor's best performances and a wonderful (as the case may be) swan song.
Tuesday, 7 September 2010
Sony Pictures Releasing
With nods to both Clueless and Mean Girls, and an open acknowledgement to the oeuvre of John Hughes, Will Gluck's Easy A is that rare thing: a teen comedy with the smarts to entertain a wider audience. That's a pleasant surprise given Gluck's previous film, his first, was also a teen comedy. Fired Up!, about faux male cheerleaders, was an attempt to cross American Pie with Bring It On which failed miserably to be as good as either of those films.
Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) is a smart and not unattractive high schooler who has somehow made it to 16 without being kissed; she doesn't seem to attract the attention of the opposite sex. All of that changes faster than you can send an SMS when she relates a fabricated weekend tryst to her BFF which is overheard by the school's self-declared moral compass Marianne (the recently retired then unretired Amanda Bynes), who declares all out war on this whore of Babylon.
Make that Hester Prynne, the heroine of The Scarlett Letter, for much like Amy Heckerling used Jane Austen's Emma as the blueprint for Clueless, Gluck and screenwriter Bert V. Royal use Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel as a jumping off point for their satire of school politics and the often confused take on sexuality. The laws of the jungle that is high school are also brought into focus, though never as harshly as they are in Mean Girls.
Suddenly Olive is no longer anonymous (the guys' interest is piqued; the girls are pissed off) and she seizes on a way to use her newfound “reputation” for good; helping the geeks and the gays become “men” by pretending to have slept with them. Sure she's perceived as the school bicycle, but she knows nothing has happened so what's the harm?
This kind of thinking perhaps owes a lot to her parents, wonderfully played by Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as two liberal minded post-modern hippies. So chillaxed are the pair, they'll comment on their daughter's sudden wardrobe change as resembling a stripper's (a high class one, of course) but assume that Olive has a perfectly logical reason for doing so. Clarkson and Tucci steal every scene they're in, and one suspects most of their dialogue was improvised; I, for one, can't wait to see the outtakes on the DVD.
But Easy A belongs to Emma Stone. In much the way that Alicia Silverstone owned Clueless, Stone appears in almost every scene and carries the film effortlessly. She gives Olive smarts and sass, qualities that are sorely lacking in most modern Hollywood comedies for women of any age. Not only does Stone score a perfect A in her first leading role but this is likely to be the one that sees her graduate to bona fide star.
Despite being based on a popular animated series, I suspect The Last Airbender must have come into possession of director M. Night Shyamalan (of The Sixth Sense fame) not as a personal project but as a studio ultimatum: “If you want to keep making your one-trick movies-with-a-twist, you'd better make us a blockbuster first.”
And despite the almost universal panning the film has received, Shyamalan has delivered; the film to date grossing $130 million in the US alone, and the director already has a new film (Devil) releasing in October.
Of course, box office receipts very rarely match up with film quality and as it is, many will come away from The Last Airbender hoping that the title is also a promise. For in spite of the visual effects and the 3D (applied retroactively so the film takes on that distinctly murky look), there's very little in this fantasy film that will have anyone coming back for seconds.
The basics of the story involve warring tribes but since almost all of the dialogue in The Last Airbender is exposition, informing us of the history if this world, its various tribes and the prophecy of the Avatar, a Dalai Lama-like being continually reborn throughout the centuries and the one who will bring peace to this world, there's very little chance you'll be lost. Bored, on the other hand. All dialogue is delivered with varying degrees of stiffness which only adds to the growing sense of unrest.
The Avatar, a bald kid, is a master of 'bending', an elaborate from of tai chi requiring high levels of concentration and an even higher embarrassment threshold. There's a lot of gesticulating involved with bending, whether it be of fire, water, earth or air (the Avatar being feted for his ability to master all four elements). It makes you think someone in this parallel world could get a hell of a lot done if they simply invented the gun. I know I certainly could have done with one at my screening.