Wednesday, 28 December 2011

FILM REVIEW: TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY


Universal Pictures
Now Showing




Although billed as a Cold War thriller, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is anything but thrilling. That is to say, not in the action sense of the term. Tinker Tailor may not have you on the edge of your seat or your pulse racing, but it will have your cerebral cortex working over time in an attempt unravel the film's labyrinthine plot.

Adapted by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan from the classic bestseller by John le Carre, that plot centres around the uncovering of a Russian mole in the upper echelons of British Intelligence in the early 1970s.

And that task falls to George Smiley (Gary Oldman), called out of a retirement he was forced to take when his superior and mentor, Control (John Hurt), botched a mission in Hungary (events of which are detailed in the film's opening sequence).

As his mission involves investigating his former colleagues at Intelligence headquarters, colloquially referred to as The Circus, Smiley enlists relative newbie, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), to help root out the traitor. The prime suspects? Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy boasts arguably the best (British) ensemble - Oldman, Hurt, Firth, Cumberbatch, Jones, Hinds, as well as Tom Hardy and Mark Strong, and a brief but lively Kathy Burke - of any film made in 2011.

It also features across-the-board consummate filmmaking: the screenplay by O'Connor and Straughan; the sepia-like cinematography by Hoyt Van Hoytema; the score by Alberto Iglesias; and the period perfect production design and costumes by Maria Djurkovic and Jacqueline Durran, respectively. It's a film that's hard to find fault with. And yet.

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (helmer of 2008's superb vampire film, Let The Right One In) brings such a coolness to the proceedings in Tinker Tailor (aided greatly by said cinematography and production design), that while I wouldn't call it distancing or difficult to engage with, there is a sense of events happening within a hermetically-sealed world.

True enough, British Intelligence during the height of the Cold War was no doubt a cloistered, secretive world but I could have used a little more heat. No Bond or Bourne theatrics, mind, but a little more pulse to offset the British reserve. Watching Tinker Tailor, my brain was pumping; my heart, not so much.

Still, intelligence and reserve are traits not to be sneezed at in this day and age of filmmaking, where the tastes of 14-year-old boys seem to dictate the majority of Hollywood output. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is very much a film for grown ups, something to be thankful for and to be savoured, even as you puzzle through it.

FILM REVIEW: THE DESCENDANTS


20th Century Fox Films
Now Showing




To paraphrase Matt King's opening narration of The Descendants, "Just because I live in paradise, doesn't mean everything is perfect". Matt (George Clooney), well-to-do lawyer and family man, may indeed live in Hawaii, but he's about to have one of the worst weeks of his life.

Matt's wife is in a coma following a waterskiing accident, and his rebellious teenage daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), not only refuses to play nice when she's brought home from private school to help out with her younger sister, Scottie (Amara Miller), but drops a bombshell about her mother.

And then there's the land deal involving a vast tract of Hawaiian real estate, passed down from generation to generation following Matt's great-great grandfather's marriage to a native princess. Potentially worth hundreds of millions to his extended family, Matt can't decide if he wants to sell it off, to be torn up and redeveloped as another island resort with a golf course, or hold on to it out of some sense of familial honour and a little bit of pride.

Whether you consider The Descendants as a drama with comedic elements or a comedy with dramatic moments, it is unmistakably the work of director Alexander Payne. Making his first film since the critically acclaimed Sideways (2004), Payne, working from a screenplay co-written with Nat Faxon and Jim Rush, and adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, once again displays his knack for mining the laughs from pain and vice versa.

And Payne is assisted greatly in the casting of George Clooney. Even without the facial hair and extra pounds he sported for his Oscar-winning turn in Syriana (2005), Clooney's Matt King is the closest to a schlub he's ever played. Matt might be a lawyer and wealthy land owner but he's several degrees removed from Clooney's more polished roles in Up In The Air (2009) and the Ocean's trilogy.

The events of the week as they unfold in The Descendants prove how little this man knows about everything that constitutes his life, and Clooney walks the fine line between comedy and drama as Matt King slowly unravels, never playing either extreme for effect (although one final scene seems like a misjudged attempt at tear-wringing - or Oscar votes).

Good, too, are the support cast. Shailene Woodley perfectly captures the spitefulness of the rebellious teen, not about to give her parents a break even with one on their death bed, and young Amara Miller provides innocent and inappropriate laughs.

Nick Krause as Sid, Alexandra's borderline Neanderthal boyfriend, will either amuse or annoy, much as he does all those he meets in the film, but Robert Forster may break your heart as Matt's disapproving father-in-law, hitting out, figuratively and literally, in defense of, and grief for, his daughter.

The Descendants has been winning plenty of plaudits in the current Hollywood awards season, and is one of the favourites for the Oscars. It's a perfectly fine comic-drama which many people will find quite emotional. I didn't.

That failure to be moved - along with the seemingly unnecessary land sale sub plot - are perhaps the two major reasons why I liked but did not love The Descendants. It's no masterpiece, and it certainly doesn't surpass Sideways as Alexander Payne's best work.

FILM REVIEW: HUGO


Paramount Pictures
Now Showing




A family film directed by Martin Scorsese and shot in 3D seems as unlikely as, well, just that. But given that Hugo, based on the Brian Selznick book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and adapted by John Logan (Rango), is a love letter to early cinema and a rallying cry for its preservation - one of the passion projects of Scorsese - this latest venture by the veteran director makes perfect sense.

The character of Hugo (Asa Butterfield) wouldn't be out of place in a Dickens novel. Orphaned following the fiery death of his father, the young boy is left in the care of his alcoholic and absentee uncle, Claude (Ray Winstone), making his home within the walls of a Paris train station in 1931, and passing his time ensuring the station's clocks keep theirs.

From his hidden vantage point, Hugo observes the daily rituals of the station regulars - florist Lissette (Emily Mortimer), cafe owner Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour), and her shy suitor Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) - whilst avoiding capture by the station's inspector, Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), a Clouseau-esque cop (with shades of Chaplin and Keaton) with a Doberman, a pronounced limp and an even more pronounced mean streak.

Also working in the station is the mysterious toy shop owner, Monsieur Melies (Ben Kinglsey), or Papa Georges as he is known to his young ward, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). Hugo befriends Isabelle, a girl in love with books and longing for an adventure, and enlists her in his bid to uncover the secret he believes the automaton, bequeathed to him by his father, holds.

That secret involves the true identity of Papa Georges, and this revelation in the second half of Hugo sees the film's pace pick up (the set-up takes far too long), the magic kick in, and a patient, film literate audience rewarded. A family film it may be, but Hugo will delight film buffs and cineastes more than it will children.

There are a myriad of film references throughout Hugo, as well as clips from actual early silent films, the most exhilarating of which is Georges Melies' A Trip to the Moon (1902). The history lesson aspects of Hugo are elivened by these delightful snippets and Scorsese's obvious passion for the subject.

I'll readily admit I'm more a fan of Scorsese's less testosterone-fuelled films. The Age of Innocence (1993), Kundun (2007), and even The Aviator (2004) do much more for me than his most recent films, Shutter Island (2010), and, for mine the highly overrated, The Departed (2006).

And I much prefer Hugo to those latter films, too. While no masterpiece, it's lovingly crafted - Robert Richardson's cinematography and Dante Ferretti's production design are beautiful - and the 3D, while not necessarily essential, enhances far more than it detracts from the visual splendour.

But if for no other reason, Hugo succeeds for its celebration of film and the imaginative, immersive and redemptive power of cinema. A master like Scorsese knows better than to suggest that films were better 'back then', but with Hugo he reminds us of some of the simple pleasures we may have lost in this, the blockbuster age, where accountants not artists are in control, and magicians, such as Georges Melies, are few and far between.

FILM REVIEW: THE MUPPETS


Walt Disney Studios Films
Now Showing




Unless parents have been paying due diligence in their caretaker roles, then the underlying premise of The Muppets - that Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo et al have faded from public consciousness - is a perfectly solid one, no matter how much Frank Oz, long time Jim Henson collaborator and the original voice of Miss Piggy, doth protest.

Serving as a wonderfully nostalgic dance down memory lane for those of us who grew up with Henson's creations, and a clever reboot of a dormant franchise (it's been 12 years since the Muppets graced the big screen), The Muppets succeeds as both old fashioned and post modern entertainment, and should have no trouble introducing/indoctrinating a whole new generation of devotees.

While Jim Henson passed away in 1990, and Frank Oz refused to be involved, director James Bobin, and star and writer, Jason Segel, whose pet project this was, have ensured that The Muppets has kept their legacy intact. And long time and hardcore fans will not be disappointed.

The plot of The Muppets is that hoary old chestnut of putting on a show - a telethon to save the old Muppet theatre property from falling into the hands of an evil oil baron (Chris Cooper) - and couched within a journey of self discovery.

That journey is Walter's. A life long fan of the Muppets (who seems oblivious to the fact that he appears to be one of them) who, along with his brother, Gary (Segel), and Gary's fiance, Mary (Amy Adams), heads to Los Angeles to visit the Muppets studio only to discover the studio in disrepair and the Muppets long since disbanded and gone their separate ways.

It becomes Walter's mission to bring the gang back together and before Tex Richman (Cooper) can lay the studio to waste; first by tracking down Kermit and then the rest of the gang, and then convincing someone to let the "has-beens" back on television.

But even harder to convince will be Miss Piggy (now voiced by Eric Jacobson). The porcine princess, now the Paris-based editrix of plus-size Vogue, is still a diva and still harbours mixed feelings towards the commitment-phobic Kermit.

Of course, the ending of The Muppets is never in doubt; even first-time youngsters will know it'll be happy ever afters all round before the curtains close on the Muppet theatre and the credits roll. But as they say, it's the journey not the destination that matters. And, oh, what a fun-filled journey it is.

And a great deal of that fun comes from the film's musical numbers; the stroke of genius was having Bret McKenzie compose the songs. McKenzie, one half of The Flight of the Conchords musical-comedy duo (director Bobin also directed episodes of that HBO program), brings an irreverent sense of humour to proceedings.

From the opening number, Life's A Happy Song (odds-on to win the Oscar for Original Song), to a rap ditty by Chris Cooper, and the somewhat risque girl power anthem, Me Party, McKenzie ensures you'll be giddily toe-tapping along even as he's winking and nodding at the more grown-up members of the audience.

But young or old, only the tiniest, blackest of hearts will fail - or refuse - to be charmed by The Muppets. 2011 may have been a wasteland for family-friendly films, but The Muppets ensures that 2012 is off to a great start.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

FILM REVIEW: THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO


Sony Pictures
Now Showing




I'm not sure if the Swedes have an equivalent term for deja vu but there's an overwhelming sense of “been here, seen that” when watching David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Then again, that's to be expected with a too-soon remake of the 2009 Swedish film which will still be fresh in many peoples minds, particularly those not perturbed by subtitles (the US version no doubt partly made for those who are).

Admittedly Fincher brings a greater directorial flare to the material, based on the bestselling novel by late Swedish author Stieg Larsson, than did Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev. But despite some minor tweaking (including the film's final moments), Fincher's Dragon Tattoo (penned by Steven Zaillian) doesn't do a whole lot to set itself apart (although the opening credit sequence is pretty darn impressive).

Of course, those who haven't seen the Swedish film, or read the first book in Larsson's Millennium trilogy, will find this Dragon Tattoo to be a very impressive thriller; a serial killer procedural that moves swiftly (despite its 158 minute running time) and with enough twists, violence and perversion to sate various appetites.

The plot (for those who don't know) concerns an investigation by disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) into the 40-year disappearance of Harriet Vanger; niece of the elderly Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) who believes the then-16-year-old was murdered by one of the members of his wealthy family.

Blomqvist is later joined in his investigation by Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), an anti-social computer hacker who has been a ward of the State since she was 10. Plenty pierced and tattooed (with the eponymous dragon), Lisbeth, abused and misused by the system, has little time for authority and a love-hate relationship (mostly hate) with men.

When the pair uncover a serial killer whose crimes pre-date Harriet's disappearance, more than a shameful family affiliation with Nazism is found to be lurking in the Vanger family closet.

Wisely casting a relative unknown in Rooney Mara (best known for that brilliant opening scene in Fincher's The Social Network), is one of the smarter choices the producers of the remake have made.

So good was Swedish actress Noomi Rapace's interpretation of Larsson's anti-heroine, an A-list actress in goth-punk drag just wouldn't have cut it. Mara's Lisbeth is smaller and seemingly more vulnerable than Rapace's but she gives as good as she gets, verbally as well as physically.

And surprisingly, the casting of Daniel Craig also works. Initially I had thought the presence of the current James Bond would be a distraction but he is effective as the non-action half of the duo. One quibble though: while the rest of the cast (including Stellan Skarsgard, Joely Richardson, and an under used Robin Wright) speak English with soft Swedish accents, Craig doesn't even attempt one.

But, as I say, that's a minor quibble for a film that is coolly and crisply shot (by Jeff Cronenweth, and on location in Sweden), uniformally well acted and a slick entertainment overall.

While I don't feel there is any reason (other than commercial, of course) for US versions of the remaining two Millennium films, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets' Nest, apparently Sony will go ahead with them and, more surprisingly, they are rumoured to be directed, back-to-back, by Fincher.

The upside of that scenario is, given the deteriorating quality of the subsequent Swedish versions, Fincher's take on 'Fire' and 'Hornets' Nest' will more easily stand apart as his own creations.

DVD REVIEW: BEGINNERS


Hopscotch Entertainment
Available now to own or rent on DVD




One of my favourite scenes in Mike Mills' semi-autobiographical film sees an elderly man phoning his son in the early hours of the morning to ask the name of the music they play in the gay clubs he now frequents. "House music," the son suggests, and his dad writes it down.

After the death of his wife, Hal (Christopher Plummer), announced to his son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), he was gay and dove head first into that lifestyle; social groups, gay bars and political activism not to mention taking a younger lover, Andy (Goran Visnjic), roughly the same age as his son.

In contrast to his father's bold assault on love and life, Oliver has always been the cautious type. But with the passing of Hal (not a spoiler: the film opens with the news and proceeds to flash back and forth in Oliver's memory, even to childhood), Oliver thinks it may be time he took a chance on love. And that chance may be with Anna (Melanie Laurent).

Anna is an actress who divides her time between LA (where Oliver lives) and New York, and is experiencing a bout of laryngitus when they meet at a costume party, where, dressed as Freud, Oliver psychoanalyses her via her handwritten notes.

Whimsical touches like that (and the subtitled dog which Oliver inherits from Hal) may not appeal to the more cynical amongst us, but I found Mills' take on love and grief both amusing and heartfelt. Mills, incidentally, is married to fellow filmmaker and mixed media artist, Miranda July, another director whose films (2005's Me, You And Everyone We Know and last year's The Future, releasing on DVD in February) take a bollocking for being "twee".

But I say bollocks to that. Yes there's a lot of charm in Mills' film (his second), but it's not all sunshine: the new lovers' relationship struggles outside of the bubble they create for themselves in Anna's hotel room. And both are struggling with the ghosts of their fathers, one dead, one living.

McGregor and Laurent have a wonderful chemistry as the lovers, as do Plummer and McGregor as father and son. Plummer has the more animated role as the elderly man discovering a new lease on life, even as he is faced with his own mortality (diagnosed with cancer not long after coming out).

It's the type of role which earns a veteran actor awards attention (he's already scored Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations), so don't be surprised when the Canadian scores an Oscar nod (just his second) early in 2012. Plummer is currently the favourite to win the Oscar come February.

And Beginners is worthy of your attention, too. Check your cynicism at the door and follow Hal's lead, opening yourself up to the possibilities.

Monday, 26 December 2011

FILM REVIEW: SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS


Warner Bros. Pictures
Now Showing




Given the amount of gunfire and explosions in the trailer for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, one could be forgiven for thinking that director Guy Ritchie had succumbed to the “bigger is better” maxim which plagues many a sequel; in this instance, Ritchie's surprisingly enjoyable (if not entirely faithful to Sir Conan Arthur Doyle's literary creation) Sherlock Holmes (2009).

And that's partly the case. For what was fresh and fun the first time around, including the homoerotic banter between Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey jnr) and his loyal though exasperated sidekick, Dr John Watson (Jude Law), seems less so in A Game of Shadows.

But it's not all bad. Rachel McAdams' Irene Adler (an unnecessary inclusion in the first film; one suspects to counter said homo-eroticism) is killed off early in this sequel, at the hands of Holmes' arch nemesis, Professor James Moriarty (Mad Man's Jared Harris).

That's who the bullets and bombs belong to. A man of equal intellect to the Baker Street detective, Moriarty is also in possession of a dark side. But he's not so much a psychopath as a profiteer; buying up both weapons and bandage manufacturers ahead of utilising political unrest to spark a world war in Europe well ahead of time (it's only 1891).

It's up to Holmes and the newly-married Watson to prevent Moriarty's plans from coming to fruition, hopping across the continent to France, Germany and Switzerland (via Middle Earth, it often seems), aided by Holmes' politically-attached brother, Mycroft (a comic Stephen Fry), and Madam Simza Heron.

That's the original (and best) Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace, who's decidedly less kick-ass (and in an even more asexual role than McAdams) making her Hollywood debut as Simza, a gypsy woman whose brother may be Moriarty's secret weapon in undermining the European peace process.

If all of that sounds convoluted, A Game of Shadows often is. But it's also intermittently fun, even if more forced than organic. Downey jnr and Law once again make for the perfect odd couple pairing, even if we only get snippets of their bromantic repartee between the running and the explosions; Ritchie brings a lot more of his 'Lock, Stock' directorial flourishes to this second outing.

And Harris's composed Moriarty makes for a perfect foil to Sherlock's cocky sleuth, although he doesn't really come into his villainous own until the third act, where the pair's intellectual game of chess climaxes above a waterfall.

Readers of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories (I'm informed that two or three have been cobbled together here) will know this is a significant event in Holmesian lore, but Ritchie and his writers, Michele and Kieran Mulroney, seem to have hedged their bets with the outcome; no doubt dependent on the box office success of A Game of Shadows.

That success will very much depend on whether those fans of the 2009 film find the sequel to be of equal or greater entertainment value. Despite my disappointment with A Game of Shadows, I'm not yet prepared to declare case closed on Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes franchise, but here's hoping there's more time and care taken with any third mystery. Less explosions and more fireworks between Messrs Holmes and Watson would be an elementary place to start.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

2011: THE FILM YEAR IN REVIEW

In what was a solid if not spectacular year for films, I find myself unable to nominate – for the third year running – a #1 favourite film. Call it a cop-out (I'll pay that) but I've listed, in alphabetical order, 10 films I really enjoyed, connected with and, in some cases, truly loved in 2011.*

And with some of those, I've mentioned another film which shares similarities and I'd suggest checking out, as well as an Honourable Mentions list for films that I also enjoyed but just missed out on a place in the 10.

As always, feel free to question my choices but also to provide a list (not necessarily as many as 10) of your own favourite films of 2011.

*Note: lists are compiled from films released in Australian cinemas between January 15, 2011 and January 15, 2012.


BRIDESMAIDS
For mine, the funniest film of 2011. Yes it’s overlong but then what wedding isn’t? Writer-star Kristen Wiig’s female buddy comedy put the men to shame this year, disproving the ridiculous theory that women aren’t funny. Bridesmaids was also a terrific showcase of female talent, with Melissa McCarthy the standout.

Special Mention: The Help. Not a comedy but a wonderful female ensemble which I'm not ashamed to say, brought me to tears both times I saw it. Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis all deserve awards attention.



DRIVE
Arguably the coolest film of the year, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s homage to the cars and heist B-films of the ’80s was assisted greatly by Cliff Martinez’s score and Ryan Gosling’s intensely quiet performance.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Rejuvenated by a change of locale, Woody Allen’s delightful paean to nostalgia, as well as the titular City of Lights, was one of the year’s gems. An impressive cast – Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Corey Stoll, and a luminous Marion Cotillard – brought Paris, of 2011 and the 1920s, to wondrous life.



THE MUPPETS
Only the tiniest, blackest of hearts will fail to be charmed by the big screen return of The Muppets. Using that hoary old chestnut of “putting on a show”, Kermit, Miss Piggy and the rest of the gang sing, dance and joke their way through a film that will have adults regressing into childhood and leaving the cinema with a smile on their face and a song in their heart. Opens January 12.






PROJECT NIM
My favourite documentary of 2011 looked at the relationship between man and beast, and found man to be seriously lacking. A 1970s experiment to teach chimps sign language went from good to bad to nightmare for Nim Chimpsky, the chimp involved, when his humans ignored his inherent nature and then abandoned him when it outed and the funds expired. James Marsh's doco was an eye-opener and a heartbreaker.

Special Mention: Rise of the Planet of the Apes. One of the year's biggest surprises, this prequel/reboot was smarter than expected, helped greatly by one of the best performances of the year: Andy Serkis's Caesar.

RANGO
Easily the best animated film of 2011, Gore Verbinksi’s tale of a chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) suffering an identity crisis was a film buff’s delight. Owing a great debt to Polanski’s Chinatown, and a great many Westerns, Rango boasted a distinctive look and a structure as ornery as many of its characters.

SNOWTOWN
A serial killer film made all the more scary for being based on fact: the infamous 'bodies in the barrels' murders in South Australia. Debuting director Justin Kurzel created a sense of dread and foreboding, while Daniel Henshall's chilling portrayal of killer John Bunting was one of the year's best performances and the stuff of nightmares.



Special Mention: We Need To Talk About Kevin. A similar sense of dread pervades Lynne Ramsey's nightmare of a domestic nature, starring an as-always terrific Tilda Swinton. Kevin made one seriously rethink their views on parenthood.

SUPER 8
The best Steven Spielberg film of 2011 wasn’t by that director at all but by fan and one-time assistant, J.J. Abrams. A smartly crafted homage to the early works of Spielberg (particularly E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Super 8 was a kids-and-aliens film with a lot of heart – and a helluva lot of flare lensing!

Special Mention: Attack The Block. The other kids-and-aliens film of 2011, Joe Cornish's debut feature was made on the catering budget of Super 8 but was super impressive just the same.



THE TREE OF LIFE
Did any other film polarise audiences so much this year? Most critics loved Terrence Malick's first film in seven years (and just his fifth in 40 years) but the general public were less enthused. Some walked out, others wanted to. But those who stayed – and stayed openminded – were treated to something beautiful and rare. In relating the creation of the universe and the meaning of life with a 1950s Texas family, Malick's grasp may have exceeded his reach but I'd prefer that to the alternative.

TRUE GRIT
A remake of the John Wayne classic was made wholly original thanks to the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, and leading men Jeff Bridges (in the Rooster Cogburn role) and Matt Damon. But the real star was young Hailee Steinfeld, making her film debut as the determined Mattie Ross. One of the best LEAD performances of the year.



HONOURABLE MENTIONS:
Barney's Version, Beginners, Bill Cunningham New York, The Fighter, Hugo, Oranges and Sunshine, Source Code, Submarine, Take Shelter, Win Win.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

FILM REVIEW: WE BOUGHT A ZOO

20th Century Fox
Now Showing





Following the death of his wife, journalist Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) understandably found himself in a rut. Work was no longer fulfilling (not helped by his boss and co-workers' constant sympathy) and his relationship with his children, particularly his teen son, had become strained. What the Mee family needed was a change. What they did was buy a zoo.

The premise for We Bought A Zoo sounds an awful lot like a high concept, family-oriented television series with cute kids and even cuter animals. But what it is, under the solid direction of Cameron Crowe (best known for Jerry Maguire (1996) and 2000's Almost Famous), and a screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna, is a family-friendly, and highly engaging film - with cute kids and even cuter animals.

What Zoo has going for it, however, is the reliable star presence of Matt Damon, convincingly playing a work-a-day dad with every day problems and coping with grief, and a story based on fact: the real Benjamin Mee did indeed buy a small time zoo following the death of his wife.

That zoo, along with the Mee family, just happened to be English, but that geographical discrepancy has had little impact on We Bought A Zoo (adapted from Mee's own 2008 book), with the story losing none of its joy or heart in its transportation across the Atlantic to southern California.

Though it's doubtful that English zoo had a caretaker resembling Scarlett Johansson's Kelly Foster; no doubt an underlying reason why Benjamin persists with his mission of bringing the one-time operational zoo back up to code and in time for a summer re-opening.

That's in spite of the stress it places on both his finances (Thomas Haden Church providing an excellent comic foil as Benjamin's concerned older brother, Duncan), and his family. Eldest child, Dylan (Colin Field), hasn't been coping at all with the death of his mother. Expelled from school and constantly at loggerheads with his dad, it will take more than a backyard full of exotic wildlife, including Kelly's niece, Lily (Elle Fanning, playing daffy), to win him over.

Of course he eventually is, and you will be too. For it will take a hard heart to resist the charms of this inoffensive, almost too-sweet but never cloying family film.

Cameron Crowe, aided by a light score composed by Jonsi (of Sigur Ros fame), as well as some classic pop-rock tunes (as is the director's want), keeps the mood just right and the saccharine (for the most part) at bay. (The youngest Mee, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), will certainly test your cuteness tolerance: her latter appearance in a Bindi Irwin-esque uniform had me wishing I could dish out some corporal punishment.)

Matt Damon is also key to the film's success; very few Hollywood leading men could successfully pull-off the single dad-common man bit so convincingly. Even when the kids and the animals threaten to become too much, Damon remains our focus and ensures we buy into We Bought A Zoo.

FILM REVIEW: WAR HORSE

Walt Disney/DreamWorks
Now Showing





With an acclaimed and popular stageplay as its source material (adapted here by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis), and a great director in Steven Spielberg at the helm (with regular collaborators - composer John Williams and cinematographer Januzs Kaminski - on hand), War Horse promised to be one of the films of the year.

That it's not, I'd suggest, has more to do with the talent involved rather than with audience expectations. For as much cinematic craft has been applied to the material - about the special bond between a boy and his horse, set against the backdrop of World War I - it is done in such a calculated manner so as to be more distancing than emotionally affecting.

The first segment of the episodic War Horse takes place on the Naracott's English farm, the kind of pastoral idyll that plays home to a goose which thinks it's a guard dog and has you half expecting Babe to trot into frame at any moment.

It's here that young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) bonds with the horse (which he names Joey) his father, Ted (Peter Mullan, in drunken asshole mode), unwisely, and much to the chagrin of his wife, Rose (a stoic Emily Watson), bought at auction.

But Ted soon puts the pony to work plowing the top paddock, a task Joey doesn't take to at first - he wasn't built to pull a plough - but which he succeeds at because Joey, as we're told repeatedly throughout the film, is a 'miraculous' horse.

Then World War I breaks out and Albert's miserable father sells Joey to the British army (a much better outcome for the horse if you've seen Mullan's animal-unfriendly turn in Tyrannosaur). Joey becomes the property of Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) who promises Albert he'll take care of Joey - or as much as one can when charging into the breach of German machine gun fire.

This is where Spielberg, who until this point has allowed John Williams' overbearing score to do all the work, comes into his own. Spielberg knows his way around a battle scene and this one, which begins in a wheat field and sees the British soldiers launching a futile ambush on an unsuspecting German platoon, is mighty impressive (although sans bloodshed; we're going for PG here).

Joey survives the bullets (he's miraculous!) and comes under the care of German soldier, Gunther (The Reader's David Kross), whose main concern is preventing his battle-eager younger brother from marching to the frontline and certain death.

Enlisting the horse in his failed escape bid, sees Joey and another horse (an equine pal he made while with the Brits) left in the care of a plucky young French girl, Emilie (Celine Buckens), and her doting grandfather (A Prophet's Niels Arestrup).

This sweet respite from the war doesn't last long, and Joey and his friend are soon sent to the trenches with the German forces, where the one horse will survive (miraculous!) but only to find himself entangled in barb wire in the middle of no man's land.

Simultaneously, young Albert has enlisted in the British Army and made his way to the Front only to come face to face with his own mortality. Will Albert and Joey survive their battlefield ordeals? Will boy and horse be reunited? Will Messrs Spielberg and Williams kindly stop poking me in the back in an attempt to elicit an emotional response?

The thing I minded most about War Horse was Spielberg's lack of confidence in the emotional power of the material, and the audiences ability to feel without being prompted (or pummelled, as the case may be). As a successful stageplay (based on the children's book by Michael Morpurgo), War Horse hasn't failed to reduce audiences to tears, but here, Spielberg requires every emotional moment be underlined by Williams' insistent (though, admittedly at times, beautiful) score.

On the plus side, War Horse is one of the most beautifully shot films of this, or any year; Januzs Kaminski adopting a painterly colour palette which, according to other reviewers with more film knowledge than myself, recalls the classic Westerns of John Ford.

I'll take their word for that (Mr. Ford's film oeuvre another I'm shamefully ignorant of), but what I did notice was the deliberate nod to Gone With The Wind in the film's final moments, a choice by Kaminski and Spielberg that comes across as laughable more than anything else.

Still, I'm under no illusion that what Spielberg has created in War Horse - a family film with lofty ambitions - will find an appreciative audience (among critics and the general public), one which will prove far more emotional ie tear-inducing, for them than it was for me.

Whether that is a natural, organic response or one akin to having your nose hairs pulled, will be up to the individual (I came closer to tears watching the film's trailer). For mine, War Horse proved to be less a noble beast than a failed campaign.

FILM REVIEW: ALBERT NOBBS

Hopscotch Films
Now Showing






Given its title, and the film's premise - a woman masquerading as a man in late 19th century Ireland - you could be forgiven for thinking that Albert Nobbs is a sex farce. It is not. But then, Rodrigo Garcia's film, from a screenplay co-penned by leading lady Glenn Close, can't decide if it's a genteel comedy of manners or a tragic drama; swaying between the two and never succeeding as either.

Albert (Close) has been masquerading as man since being abandoned as an adolescent. Donning male drag was the best way for a young, unmarried woman to survive and she has successfully done so for thirty years; finding steady employment as a butler in a Dublin hotel operated by Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins).

But then one day, into the hotel and Albert's life comes another crossdresser, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer). Tall, talkative and confident, Hubert is everything the quiet, buttoned down Albert is not. And the butler is intrigued by Hubert's ability to not only pass as a man but to conduct a full and normal life, with his own painting business and a wife and home.

This inspires Albert to believe that she may achieve the same. Having saved enough money to put a deposit on a shop, Albert decides she must also have a wife and sets her sights on the hotel's young maid, Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska). Unaware of her savings or her secret, Helen and her boyfriend, Joe Macken (Aaron Johnson), set about exploiting Albert's interest in the lass, setting in motion an inevitable tragedy.

There is no denying there is an interesting subject at the heart of Albert Nobbs - that of women passing as men in order to survive in a man's world, one which didn't look too kindly on unattached women - but what little examination the film does is diluted by competing and unnecessary sub plots.

Albert Nobbs has been a passion project of Glenn Close's since she performed a stage version of George Moore's original short story in the early 1980s. But in writing the screenplay (with John Bannville), Close seems to have forgotten that the audience hasn't spent as long with, or inside the head of, Albert Nobbs as she has.

And as fine as Close's performance is (she makes for a suitably odd looking man, with a more than eerie resemblance to Robin Williams's robot in Bicentennial Man), there is too little revealed of Albert's inner life, her thoughts and feelings. Does Albert want to marry Helen as a means to an end or does she really love her? And if so, what does this reveal of Albert's sexuality? Presumably Albert hasn't had sexual relations since first deciding to "become" a man.

Addressing these questions, which Garcia touches upon when we visit the home of Hubert and his wife, would have made Albert Nobbs a far more intriguing and satisfying film. As it is, it remains a curiosity and little more than a "woman in male drag" novelty which I'm sure wasn't the 30-year intention of Ms. Close.

FILM REVIEW: TOWER HEIST

Universal Pictures
Now Showing






Given its release coinciding with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the similar sentiments at its core, one can probably overlook the irony of Brett Ratner's little-guy-strikes-back comedy, Tower Heist, starring $20 million men Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy. They may not be the 1% but these comedians aren't exactly scraping by.

Then again, Stiller and Murphy are far more believable as a work-a-day hotel manager and a two-bit crim, respectively, than the likes of George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Those two, who can make anyone seem blue collar by comparison, populate Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's trilogy which Tower Heist may draw comparisons with if only because it revolves around a group of guys pulling off a robbery.

In the case of Josh Kovacs (Stiller), manager of The Tower, a luxury New York apartment building (and New York's Trump Tower in real life), it's a case of stealing back what's theirs. They being the employees of the hotel who've had their pensions embezzled by Wall Street king pin, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda, uncannily resembling a vulture), resident of the hotel and now under house arrest by the FBI for his fraudulent financial dealings.

Enlisting his brother-in-law, Charlie (Casey Affleck), newly-employed elevator operator, Enrique (Michael Pena) (who along with Kovacs lose their jobs when he angrily confronts Shaw), and long time Tower resident cum bankrupted squatter, Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), Josh plans to break in to Shaw's penthouse apartment and steal $20 million he believes - thanks to a tip-off from FBI Special Agent, Claire Denham (Tea Leoni) - to be hidden somewhere within.

Murphy's Slide (think Shrek's Donkey fallen on hard times), a hustler living in Kovacs' neighbourhood, is the only criminal element the manager knows and is brought in as the team's theft expert, instructing them in the use of bobby pins to pick locks, and safecracking.

And that's where hotel housekeeper, Odessa (an amusing Gabourey Sidibe), comes in. The daughter of a locksmith back in her native Barbados, Odessa knows how to crack a safe (not to mention a skull if need be).

Murphy and Sidibe are the highlights of Tower Heist. Murphy delivers his best comic performance (outside of Shrek) since 1996's The Nutty Professor but with more in common with his wisecracking characters of the 1980s. While Sidibe, in a 180-degree shift from her Oscar-nominated turn in Precious (2009), gets to exercise her comedic chops (which viewers of TV's The Big C will already be aware of).

Tower Heist proceeds in a jovial tone which picks up pace (the film's set-up takes far too long) once the heist is in motion. Of course, nothing goes to plan and complications arise involving a car, an elevator shaft and a 100-storey drop when the situation dictates the gang think outside the square - literally.

It may not be the Khalifi Tower sequence from the recent Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, but those with an aversion to heights (or, like me, falling from them) may be more than a little nervous when Kovacs and Slide have to exit Shaw's penthouse via the window.

Tower Heist may not be a laugh riot, but fans of this kind of caper, and funny men Stiller and Murphy, shouldn't feel robbed if they plunk down their hard-earned for a ticket these holidays.

FILM REVIEW: THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN: THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN

Paramount Pictures
Now Showing





Who better than Steven Spielberg to direct an old school, globe trotting matinee adventure not unlike his own Indiana Jones series of films? Indeed, Herge's animated creation, the boy reporter Tintin, partly inspired Spielberg's own films and the Belgium animator himself has said that the American director was the only person capable of bringing his hero to the big screen.

Hardcore Tintin fans may disagree, both with that sentiment and the resulting film, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, but to this non-fan (I didn't grow up with the more Euro-centric Tintin), Spielberg and producing partner, Peter Jackson, have done an admirable job.

With perhaps the best use of motion capture technology to date, the duo - along with writers Steven Moffat (TV's Doctor Who), Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim) and Joe Cornish (Attack The Block) - have created a wholly believable universe and, for the most part, a rollicking adventure.

The plot sees Tintin (Jamie Bell) and his canine sidekick, Snowy, taking to the high seas in pursuit of sunken treasure. Admittedly their seafaring is initially a result of kidnapping by the shadowy Sakharine (Daniel Craig) following Tintin's purchase of a model ship, the Unicorn. But the young reporter senses a story and once piqued, his curiosity must be sated.

Tintin soon join forces with the drunkard Captain Haddock (an excellent Andy Serkis), also a prisoner of Sakharine's, who holds the key to the mystery of the sunken Unicorn. Haddock's great-great-great uncle captained the ship when it was lost at sea with a bounty of gold and jewels on board. Their escape from Sakharine's ship sees them literally take flight to Morocco.

On second viewing, Tintin moves at a much quicker pace but I still think the 105 minute adventure could stand to lose a few minutes. The first time around, when Tintin and Captain Haddock's plane crashes in the desert, I leant across to my friend and asked, "are we there yet?".

Conversely, the action sequence in Morocco soon after is the highlight of the film; an exciting set piece that's unmistakably old school Spielberg and which couldn't have been achieved any other way than with animation. Or should I say, motion capture?

Debate wages whether or not Tintin and its ilk are animated films (it has been shortlisted for the Oscars' Animated Feature category), or if motion capture is indeed an actual performance art. Andy Serkis certainly seems to be of the opinion that his Captain Haddock, and more impressively, his work as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, are performances (20th Century Fox are even running a Supporting Actor Oscar campaign for Serkis' latter role).

Call it what you will, the youngsters (I'd suggest 6 years and up) won't mind so long as they're having a good time. And they're bound to. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn provides ample enough entertainment for young and old, Tintin fan or novice.

Spielberg fans should be well pleased, too. A 100% improvement on the fourth Indiana Jones instalment, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), it's also the better of the director's two films opening this Boxing Day.

FILM REVIEW: THE SKIN I LIVE IN

Transmission Films
Now Showing



There's melodrama and there's camp, and then there's Pedro Almodovar. The Spanish auteur is one of modern cinema's best proponents of both melodrama and camp, often effortlessly melding the two as he also celebrates the beauty of women – very few male directors are so generous with their female characters and actors – and of cinema itself.

But even a master such as Almodovar doesn't always succeed in pulling it off, and his latest is a case in point. The Skin I Live In is a tale of revenge and obsession and as you'd expect, is rife with passion, murder, sex and more than a little kink. There's also one hell of a twist (which I won't reveal here) that will leave you flawed by its audacity but not necessarily moved by its implications.

Doctor Robert Legard (Antonio Banderas) is one of Spain's leading plastic surgeons. He lives in a villa on the outskirts of Toledo where a small staff are overseen by Marilia (Marisa Parides), while his attentions are focussed on his live-in patient, Vera (Elena Anaya): a young woman who is assisting in the surgeon's pursuit of creating the perfect artificial skin, impervious to insect bite, pain and burns.

One of the driving forces behind Robert's research, which is not sanctioned by the medical community, is the loss of his wife years earlier when she perished in a burning car. But another is the fate, six years earlier, of his teenage daughter, Norma (Blanca Suarez), which is revealed in extended flashback sequences.

Antonio Banderas, who came to Hollywood's attention through his early work with Almodovar, hasn't worked with the director since 1990's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! And much like Penelope Cruz who, once scooped up by Hollywood has struggled to be utilized effectively (Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona the obvious exception), Banderas shines once more under his fellow Spaniard's direction, giving a quietly intense performance which trumps most anything he's done in Hollywood.

Elena Anaya impresses, too. Not only does she bare a passing resemblance to Almodovar muse, Peneleope Cruz (Vera amusingly gives herself that surname at one point), but she is also reminiscent of French actress Irene Jacob, best known for her work in the films of Polish director, Krystof Kieslowski. One of those films was The Double Life of Veronique, which is somewhat fitting (and perhaps deliberate?) given The Skin I Live In's themes of doubles.

The film makes a more obvious and intentional nod to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo – the transforming of one woman into the image of another – and owes more than a little debt to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but the intent and execution of The Skin I Live In (based on the novel, Mygale, by Thierry Jonquet) is very much Almodovar's.

And sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. But one has to admire the gusto with which the director goes about his art, and no doubt admirers of his work will be more enamored than not. One thing's for sure, you won't see anything like The Skin I Live In this Christmas.

FILM REVIEW: THE IRON LADY

Icon Film Distribution
Now Showing







Whatever your opinion of Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister of Great Britain whose legacy could be diplomatically described as polarizing or, more bluntly, as reviled, there's no doubt about Meryl Streep's interpretation of the so-called Iron Lady of British politics.

Playing both Thatcher in her prime, governing Britain from 1979 to 1991, and the present day Baroness, grieving her husband and suffering from dementia, Streep is at the top of her game.

As the older Thatcher particularly, Streep is sublime. Aided by flawless "old age" make-up, the actress disappears inside the role of a once vital woman who has, for the most part thanks to the onset of dementia, disappeared inside her own mind; rattling around her large London apartment just as the ghosts of her past rattle inside her head.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia! (2008)), and penned by Abi Morgan (who also co-wrote the forthcoming Shame), The Iron Lady moves between the past and the present as the older Thatcher is haunted by both her career - from her youth as a shopkeeper's daughter to her dogged determination to be taken seriously in politics, and subsequent success - and the "ghost" of her late husband, Denis (a solid Jim Broadbent), dead some eight years when the film begins.

Morgan's screenplay veers more toward hagiography than hatchet job, preferring to highlight Thatcher's glass ceiling breaking feats rather than the political and social fallout of her time in office. Those with little or know knowledge of Thatcher's prime ministership won't learn much more here, with real and faux news footage revealing mere snippets of her time in power and even less about the effects it had on the British people.

Perhaps Morgan could have taken a leaf out fellow scribe and chronicler of British politics, Peter Morgan (no relation), and added some much needed shade to the film's "heroine", as he did so successfully with The Queen (2006), where he humanised without sentimentalising Elizabeth II. Or as he did with Frost/Nixon (2008), a film which also posits a former, and much despised conservative political leader, US president Richard Nixon, at its centre.

Political flaws aside, The Iron Lady has always been about Meryl Streep portraying an iconic historical figure. We all suggested, perhaps cynically, that Oscar nomination #17 was a fait accompli but I'd now suggest, sans cynicism, that a nod for Best Actress is almost a done deal - and deservedly so.

But will she win her third Oscar, her first since Sophie's Choice in 1982?! That remains to be seen, but regardless of the film's failings and my own political leanings, I'd happily Vote 1 Meryl Streep.

FILM REVIEW: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL

Paramount Pictures
Now Showing






If you can believe Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist could go toe-to-toe with Tom Cruise, mono-e-mono, then chances are you'll have no problems with the preposterous, yet highly entertaining action sequences which precede that showdown in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.

With all due to respect to Nyqvist, best known as the male lead in the Millennium trilogy of films, he doesn't seem to possess the physical prowess of Mr. Cruise. And as the villain of Ghost Protocol, Kurt Hendricks - a European crackpot with the belief that out of the ashes of a nuclear apocalypse, a greater society will evolve - hand-to-hand combat would seem to be beneath him.

Hendricks has stolen Russia's nuclear launch codes and it is the mission of Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his IMF team - agents Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton), and analyst Brandt (Jeremy Renner) - to retrieve them and prevent Hendricks from putting his theory to the test.

That sees the IMF quartet, declared rogue after being accused of bombing the Kremlin, globetrotting from Russia, to the United Arab Emirates, and to India on the scantest of plots but a helluva lot of adrenaline. Ghost Protocol is essentially a series of action set pieces, the highlight of which takes place in Dubai and involves the world's tallest building, the Khalifa Tower.

This is truly heart-in-your-mouth stuff, made all the more exciting given that we know Cruise did his own stunt work, jumping out of and running alongside the actual tower. It's made even more tense if you see it in IMAX, which Ghost Protocol was specifically shot for. I'm not a fan of watching feature films in the IMAX format - it's just too big - but this sequence almost makes it worth it (those who suffer from vertigo, however, may want to skip it.).

And Brad Bird, making his live-action directorial debut after much success in animation - The Iron Giant (1999), and Pixar's The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007) - certainly knows his way around an action scene; Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec's screenplay, however, doesn't provide much in the way of character. But I'm guessing that's not why people go to see a Mission: Impossible film, and those same people shouldn't be disappointed with this outing.

Still, I could have done with a bit more insight into Nyqvist's bad guy, or even just some more screen time to flesh him out. One of the best things about Mission: Impossible 3 (2006) (the only other entry in this franchise I've seen) was Philip Seymour Hoffman's playful villain. Sadly, Nyqvist seems to have been cast for his recognizable European-ness and little else.

Tom Cruise, on the other hand, still makes for a credible action man, despite his turning 50 next year. And [Spoiler Alert] the film's conclusion gives every reason to believe that he, and Ethan Hunt, will be back for a fifth Mission: Impossible.

That's contrary to speculation that Jeremy Renner's appearance in Ghost Protocol was to be a passing of the torch, from one IMF agent - and one generation of actors - to another. I'm guessing retirement is a mission Tom Cruise is not yet willing to accept.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

FILM REVIEW: MELANCHOLIA

Madman Films
Now Showing






In recognition of his own battle with depression, Danish auteur terrible Lars von Trier decided to make Melancholia, a film whose heroine, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), also suffers bouts of depression, and which climaxes with the end of the world.

That's not a spoiler: the opening sequence of von Trier's film is a beautifully composed, super slo-mo tableau (set to the score of Tristan and Isolde) of Earth's - and the film's characters' - final moments, one which may very well have non-fans of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life looking for the cinema exit.

Both films debuted at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and both deal with the human condition, albeit in each director's unique and idiosyncratic way. And while Malick may have walked away with the Palme D'Or (for Best Picture), that had just as much to do with von Trier's much publicised press conference snafu as the perceived merits of each film as judged by the Cannes jury.

I'm not as well versed with von Trier's oeuvre as I should be (shamefully, I've only seen his 1996 effort, Breaking The Waves) but it's my understanding that, despite the end of the world as we know it, Melancholia is the director's least contentious and most accessible film to date. I mean, who doesn't love a wedding?

After said opening sequence, we're introduced to Justine who's just wed Michael (Alexander Skarsgard, in amnesiac Eric Northman mode); the pair's stretch limousine struggling to navigate the winding road to reach the reception where family and friends await.

It's a sign of things to come for their marriage which, if it didn't end in the early hours of the next morning following a disastrous reception - organised by Justine's sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), held on the sprawling estate of her brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland), and stomped all over by her mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) - would have come to an untimely end anyway.

Melancholia, the symbolic though unsubtle name given to a newly discovered blue planet, is travelling on a trajectory which will, according to the scientific community, bring it close into Earth's orbit. Of course, we know that orbit is a collision course and the end of the world.

Divided into two sections, Melancholia's first half (named after Justine) focusses for the most part on the wedding celebrations, where all in attendance are unaware of the approaching planet but which sees the bride quietly implode, gradually succumbing to her melancholic nature. The second half (titled Claire) focusses on the elder sister and how she copes with the impending arrival of the interloping planet, and hers and her families' mortality.

Dunst won the Best Actress prize at Cannes this year and it's undoubtedly the most mature performance she's delivered in her almost 20-year career. And Gainsbourg is equally as good as the sister who, despite her controlled demeanour, is no less emotional. Say what you will about von Trier, he does wonders for his female actors.

Whether that emotion translates into an emotional viewing experience will very much depend on the individual. As involved as I was in this world, I was not moved by its coming to an end. That's not to say Melancholia isn't a fine film or not worth seeing. It is and on the big screen, where Manuel Alberto Claro's beautiful cinematography (when it's not whirling, hand-held, all over the place and inducing motion sickness) can be fully appreciated.

Perhaps as I did with Malick's Tree of Life, I will find greater rewards with a second bout of Melancholia.

FILM REVIEW: THE WOMEN ON THE 6TH FLOOR

Palace Films
Now Showing





While it is the story of female domestics in the 1960s, any comparisons between Philippe Le Guay's new film and 2011's earlier release, The Help, end there. Le Guay's look at the Spanish maids keeping house for the bourgeoisie of Paris is so rosy-coloured and sweet natured, it makes The Help seem positively hard hitting.

Although not without their hardships, the Spanish women who left the tyranny of Franco's Spain to earn money for their families who remained certainly didn't have it as tough as The Help's Aibeleen and Minnie; cramped quarters and faulty plumbing hardly compares to entrenched racism and fighting for one's civil rights.

But these women, who live in close quarters on the sixth floor of the apartment building where they keep house, share a camaraderie, and a strength in sisterhood which is both a pleasure to behold and an all too rare occurrence in today's cinema (The Help excepted).

Newly-arrived to Paris, Maria (Natalia Verbeke) finds employment in the home of stockbroker Jean-Louis (FabriceLuchini) when his long-time maid quits after one too many run-ins with Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlaine), Jean-Louis's wife and the new lady of the house following the death of his mother. And while Suzanne has many more demands of the incoming domestic, it seems Jean-Louis's only requirement is the ability to perfectly boil an egg.

But the stockbroker's eyes are soon opened to Maria's many other skills (not to mention her beauty) as well as the other women who live above his apartment but whom he's never previously felt a desire to learn anything about.

And so The Women on the 6th Floor becomes a story of discovery, of the way the other half lives, and one of self discovery for Jean-Louis, whose soul is awakened to the joie de vivre of everyday life.

The Women on the 6th Floor is perfectly enjoyable and sweet, and that's not to damn Le Guay's film with faint praise. It may not be a Mike Leigh study of the working class or Ken Loach essay on the class divide, and it may be lacking in political agenda or any kind of edge (even adultery and divorce are handled amicably), but as a period comedy of gentle humour, The Women on the 6th Floor succeeds.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

FILM REVIEW: PUSS IN BOOTS

Paramount Pictures
Now Showing



A prequel of sorts to DreamWorks' Shrek franchise, where the the titular feline made his debut in that series' second film, Puss In Boots lands (on its feet) more toward the middle of the Shrek spectrum (Shrektrum?): behind one and two but ahead of the disappointing third and fourth instalments.

Certainly the animation in Puss In Boots (directed by Shrek 3's Chris Miller) is of a far more detailed nature than in those other films, and according to most, the 3D is some of the best yet deployed (though honestly, I couldn't tell). Story-wise, Puss In Boots relies less on pop culture references (although various fairy tales and nursery rhymes get a mention) in an attempt to tell the origins story of its hirsute hero.

Puss (Antonio Banderas, in fine vocal form) is already an outlaw when the film opens (post-coitus, I might add; try explaining that to the curious kiddies), the reason for which is explained in flashback when he happens upon an old friend, Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifiniakis).

Turns out the pair were BFF's back in the day, when the two were residents of an orphanage. But Humpty's darker nature finally drove a wedge between them when a crime masterminded by the hardboiled egg went awry and Puss was forced to go on the run.

But now Humpty's back, and with his female feline sidekick, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), he wants to make amends to his long lost friend by including him in a heist to end all heists: to literally steal the goose who lays the golden eggs. All that is required is to first steal the magic beans from Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris), two uncouth hillbillies from a Grimm Brothers' backwoods nightmare.

All of this unfolds amusingly enough, though without the wit that made the first two Shrek films so good. Banderas, whose Puss In Boots stole Shrek 2 away from the green ogre and, more impressively, Eddie Murphy's Donkey, makes the transition from sidekick to leading cat seem effortless. If you were a fan of his Shrek 2 antics (and a cat lover generally), you're bound to be engaged by the Spaniard here.

And Hayek is the perfect foil for the suave hero, swashing as well as he buckles. But Galifiniakis makes Humpty Dumpty neither evil or, surprisingly, funny enough. Not even the revelation of his true plan - man, is this egg scrambled - can provide much in the way of laughs, though youngsters may feel the urge to boo, or, rather, hiss cat-like.

Puss In Boots is engaging enough and will no doubt be enjoyed a lot more by said youngsters. In a lacklustre year for animated features, it's one of the better ones. Not the pick of the litter, mind, but adorable nonetheless.

FILM REVIEW: RESTLESS

Sony Pictures
Now Showing






In spite of its young lovers being haunted by the spectre of death (figuratively, not literally; this isn't a teen horror flick), Restless, the new film by director Gus Van Sant, is more affected than affecting. And I'd suggest that has more to do with the efforts of the first time screenwriter, Jason Lew, than the veteran director.

Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis) and Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska) are teens so laden with ticks and quirks they can only be the product of a young writer throwing everything he's got at his first big shot at the movies (the film is co-produced by Lew's former university classmate, Bryce Dallas Howard).

Mourning the death of his parents, Enoch attends the funerals of strangers. At first it seems disrespectful, but the boy with the scarecrow-like features is just seeking closure having missed his parents' funeral; he was in a coma following the car accident which claimed their lives. Enoch also has an imaginary friend and confidant, Hiroshi Takahashi (Ryo Kase), the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot and very much a first time writer's conceit (props to Kase for making Hiroshi amusingly believable).

Enoch meets Annabel at a funeral for a young boy, whom she knew, who died of cancer. It's the first hint that the slim girl with the baggy clothes and pixie-cut hair (Hiroshi doesn't understand why she dresses like a boy) may not be well. And she's not. Annabel has a type of brain cancer and her latest diagnosis has given her just three months to live.

Still, the bruised Enoch falls for the the girl who likes to sketch, read books about birds and lists Charles Darwin as one of her heroes (which is odd given his 'survival of the fittest' theories). And so ensues a romance which for some may recall Love Story - that 1970 weepie starring Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw as young college lovers also facing a death sentence (also hers) - and can presumably only end one way.

But I didn't even come close to shedding a tear. As sweet and low-key charming as Enoch and Annabel are, theirs is not a grand or great passion. Yes the death of youth and beauty is a tragedy but I didn't get any sense of that in Restless. And Hopper, an odd screen presence but then I guess his dad was too, and Wasikowska, who impresses with each new and varied role, just couldn't break through my defences.

Perhaps that also had something to so with Van Sant's restraint. Deliberately avoiding the cliche of a swelling orchestra, the soundtrack of Restless is full of wispy and raspy voices over guitar and thankfully void of emotionally manipulative music.

An old hand like Van Sant knows that tears should be earnt (see his brilliant 2008 film, Milk), a lesson a young writer like Jason Lew would do well to heed.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

FILM REVIEW: ATTACK THE BLOCK

Icon Film Distribution
Now Showing





Working from the premise that a housing estate in London is as good as any place to stage an alien invasion of Earth, writer-director Joe Cornish takes great delight in indulging, and sometimes subverting the genre cliches in his highly entertaining and very cool feature debut, Attack The Block.

After mugging a nurse, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), on her way home from work, Moses (John Boyega) and his band of not-so-merry lads, are taken by surprise when an alien crashes into a nearby car. At first they think it's a firework gone astray, but the beast - baboon-like but with some major fangs - makes its presence known, slashing Moses' face in its escape.

The boys pursue and kill the creature but that's just the beginning of their troubles. Other aliens are on their way - and so are the police; Sam calling in the cops to apprehend her attackers.

But when the second wave of extraterrestrials arrive - bigger, blacker than black and with teeth that glow in the dark - the police prove less than useful and Sam is forced to form an uneasy alliance with Moses and his gang in an effort to make it through the night, and out of the Block - the housing estate where they all live - alive.

Cornish starts in on the action almost immediately and doesn't let up, with the humour and the horror coming in a steady flow. He might reference more than a few other films of this ilk in doing so but there's no denying the guy knows how to make a movie. Cornish can also throw in a little social commentary - after the failure of guns and drugs, of course the government would send in aliens to kill off the undesirables - without it landing like a sledgehammer.

Moses and his gangs' transition from villains to heroes is also smoothly; Sam soon discovering that Moses, despite being just 15 years of age, is a good guy to have around in a crisis. So, too, is a nurse, despite her propensity for profanity (amusingly, the boys reprimand Sam on her "potty mouth"; they may be louts but they're not uncouth.)

Sadly for them, not all of them will make it out of the Block; two of them falling victim to the invaders before they can reach the safe haven that is Ron's pot room (Ron played by comic, Nick Frost) where they stored the corpse of the first invader.

Attack The Block may not have the homage-induced nostalgia of J.J. Abrams' Super 8, 2011's other 'kids and aliens' pic (and indeed, only a fraction of that film's budget), but Joe Cornish manages to elicit a rousing response - cheers more than tears - nonetheless. Believe!

FILM REVIEW: ARTHUR CHRISTMAS

Sony Pictures
Now Showing




Although stamped with the imprimatur of Aardman Animation - those clever clogs behind Chicken Run (2000) and the Wallace and Gromit franchise - Arthur Christmas, a collaboration with Sony Animation, bears only the slightest of Aardman touches.

There is of course the unmistakeably British humour, provided by an impressive Brit voice cast - James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy - but the look of the film is rather less identifiably Aardman.

Perhaps that has something to do with the film, directed and co-written (with Peter Baynham) by Sarah Smith, being computer animated rather than the old school stop motion which one associates with Aardman. Then again, Flushed Away, Aardman Animation's 2006 foray into computer animation, managed to keep those distinctive characteristics of big eyes and buck teeth when exchanging old technology for new.

Arthur Christmas is a much slicker, shinier looking film but then again so are the modern day North Pole headquarters of Santa Claus. Manned by an army of elves, the all-white decor of mission control resembles those of NASA (well, if they hadn't received major budget cuts), and is overseen by Steven (Laurie), eldest son of Santa (Broadbent), and heir apparent to the red and white suit (which he plans to replace with his own Versace number).

With Santa completing his 70th mission, tradition dictates that the jolly fat man secede to the next in line. But Santa decides not to retire with the Mrs (Staunton). He also decides, very un-Santa-like, not to remedy a situation which sees one little girl in the English village of Cornwall left without a present.

This shocks and saddens Santa's youngest son, Arthur (McAvoy), who, as head of the Letters Department, knows just how much this oversight will mean to the child - and to himself. Santa may be his dad, but Arthur is more in awe of the myth than the man; his office is a shrine to the jolly fat man and the ideals he represents.

Arthur is convinced by his grandfather, Grandsanta (Nighy), to fix the situation himself - the old school way. Sporting a massive chip on his shoulder from being dumped as Santa by his son 70 years ago, Grandsanta also rails against Steven's heavy reliance on technology: a giant spacecraft now enables Santa to deliver presents worldwide in one evening; reindeer and sleigh have long been assigned to the scrap heap.

Retrieving both from the proverbial mothballs, Grandsanta, Arthur and Bryony (Ashley Jensen), an elf from giftwrapping with a gift for wrapping, set out to deliver the gift - and the gift of Christmas - to one little girl. Of course, nothing goes to plan with a series of misadventures (all in unnecessary 3D) ensuring there are plenty of laughs and tears before sunrise on December 25.

In a year that's been rather underwhelming for animated films, and family films generally, Arthur Christmas manages to make it on to the 'Nice' list. I could be trite and cruel, and say it's ho-ho-hum (what's that? I just did!), and more of a stocking stuffer than a Christmas classic but the film isn't without its moments. And thankfully, despite the Yuletide theme, it's refreshingly light on saccharine.

FILM REVIEW: AGES OF LOVE

Palace Films
Now Showing






Billed as an Italian Love, Actually, Ages of Love (or Manual of Love 3 as it is also known) even has its poster art recalling that 2003 Brit film of interconnecting stories of love won and lost. But despite its interlocking story structure, Giovanni Veronesi's film is a much more straight forward affair, making the Richard Curtis' rom-com seem positively labyrinthine by comparison.

The 'ages of love' depicted here are youth (20s), middle age and post-middle age, and are told from the male perspective as a young lawyer (Riccardio Scamarcio), a television news anchorman (Carlo Verdone), and a retired American scholar (Robert De Niro) learn first hand that love - or more appropriately, lust - makes fools of us all. And even more so when you think with your penis.

Roberto (Scamarcio) is seconded to a village to persuade the residents of a farm to sell their home. While he awaits their decision he becomes the source of much amusement for the locals, a rag tag group of harmless men, and one not-so-harmless woman who succeeds in seducing Roberto, despite his having a fiance back in Rome.

Fabio (Verdone) is a news anchorman who, despite 25 seemingly happy years of marriage, succumbs to the advances of an admirer only to discover the woman is a stalker but not so much in the Glenn Close-Fatal Attraction kind of way. No bunnies are hurt in Ages of Love but Fabio's ego, and his toupe, sure take a beating.

And then there's Adrian (De Niro), the retired and divorced American scholar who has come to Rome to live. And it's suddenly la dolce vita when the daughter of his best friend, Augusto (Michele Placido), comes to stay. That's Viola, played by Monica Bellucci, so you can almost forgive Adrian's sudden change in attire - lycra running shorts - or lack thereof (one scene has De Niro perform an awkward striptease for Bellucci).

All of these stories, tenuously linked by a taxi driving cupid, are mildly amusing and harmless enough, but none of them reveal anything insightful about the nature of love other than the man's inability to function properly when presented with the attentions of a new female.

Still, Ages of Love was a huge hit at the recent Lavazza Film Festival. I can't say if that was the audience's desire to see a rom-com done in a way other than the tried (i.e. tired) and true way of Hollywood or to simply see De Niro in his first Italian-speaking role since Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 (1976), and his least embarrassing performance (striptease aside) in quite some time.

FILM REVIEW: THE IDES OF MARCH

Roadshow Films
Now Showing






While a perfectly fine political drama, The Ides of March suffers under the misconception that its premise – that politics is a dirty game and ideals are the first thing to die in the pursuit of power – is revelatory. Anyone who ran for student council in high school can tell you it's not. Yet when this truth is revealed to young campaigner Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), his world is thrown off its axis.

Working the campaign for Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), a Democrat hoping to secure that Party's nomination to run for President of the United States, Stephen is a hot shot going places. The rival Democrats want him to come work for them, but he rebuffs the advances of that campaign's manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti at his weasel-like best): Stephen is big on loyalty – to both the Governor and the man who hired him, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – and his own ideals.

But those ideals don't prevent him from fraternising with Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), a spunky young intern and 10 years his junior. Gosling and Wood have great chemistry together but I'm guessing it's not hard to feign desire for Gosling (some may say the same of Wood). It's during their midnight assignations that Steven unearths a grenade which threatens not only to rock the Governor's campaign but Stephen's whole belief system.

Clooney's Governor Morris would seem to be an amalgam of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, two of the US Democrats' most promising stars in recent years whose lustre, for reasons of their own doing (Clinton's sexual indiscretions; Obama's mishandling of the GFC, giving Wall Street a free pass), was lost.

A Democrat himself, Clooney, directing his fourth film, doesn't let the Party off easy: there are no Republicans in The Ides of March for the Democrats do a perfectly good job of destroying themselves. Yet none of this in-fighting, backstabbing or abandonment of ideals is as revelatory or earth-shattering as Clooney and his co-writers – Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, from whose play, Farragut North, Ides is adapted – would have us believe.

Even if ironically, or fittingly, like so many political candidates (and movies, for that matter), the film delivers less than what it promises, The Ides of March succeeds as an engaging political drama. Gosling, on a roll in 2011, Clooney, graciously playing a supporting role, and Giamatti and Hoffman (whom I could have used more of) are all in fine form and worthy of your vote.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

FILM REVIEW: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN

Hopscotch Films
Now Showing





There has been some discussion in the media of late as to whether or not women who choose not to have children (for whatever reason) are selfish. While a silly debate to begin with, a strong argument for the negative is Lynne Ramsay's new feature We Need To Talk About Kevin: anyone, not just women, will abandon the idea of parenthood after seeing this film.

Based on the award-winning bestselling book by Lionel Shriver, Ramsay's film unfolds as a prism of memories belonging to Eva (Tilda Swinton), who is struggling to come to terms with the horrific crime her adolescent son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), has committed. But was it Eva's lack of maternal instinct that lead to Kevin's actions, or, as Eva's memories suggest, was Kevin born the bad seed? Nurture versus nature?

The young Kevin wilfully ignores, taunts and defies his mother which leaves her exasperated and exhausted. Husband and father Franklin (John C. Reilly, underused and arguably miscast), who escapes to the office every day, doesn't see Kevin as Eva does; when daddy walks in the door, it's all smiles.

The behaviour of Kevin in his various stages, may be one of the film's less convincing elements, bordering on caricature, but as I said, these are the memories of a grieving mother and wife, they are not objective flashbacks. Memory is not a reliable tool, and Eva is possibly looking for a way to explain what happened or punishing herself for missing signs that were there all along.

Tilda Swinton is, of course, amazing in the film which she also executive produced. She doesn't do vanity - Swinton appears gaunt and haggard throughout - nor does she make Eva the hero of the piece. We get the sense that Eva never really envisioned herself as a mother and nurturing doesn't come naturally to her; Kevin is a riddle she simply can't decipher. And with the arrival of a daughter, it would seem Eva's easy relationship with her confirms her suspicions about Kevin: it's not me, it's him.

Of course nothing in We Need To Talk About Kevin is meant to be that simplistic. Never having read Shriver's book, I can only go by what Ramsay - making just her third feature, and her first in nine years - has presented. As a film it's an impressionistic piece about memory and guilt, the fractured narrative of which serves to heighten your discomfort as you wait for the truth of what Kevin did to be fully revealed.

And when it's revealed to be something other than a gun which is involved, it's all the more chilling. Kevin, played as an adolescent by Ezra Miller with insouciant menace, may have been born an arsehole but for mine, he chose to be a monster. And make no mistake: if you choose to see We Need To Talk About Kevin, like Eva, you'll be haunted.