Monday, 27 June 2011


Madman Entertainment
Now Showing

The success of any road trip is determined not so much by the time it takes to get to one's destination, but how well we survive the journey; a journey made all the quicker - or longer - by the company we choose to keep.

On paper, The Trip promised to be a long haul rather than a Sunday afternoon drive of a film for me. With two leads - Brit comedic talents Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon - whose work I am only familiar with in passing, and a 107-minute running time (thankfully whittled down from its original 172 minute television format), there seemed to be little of interest here for me. How wrong I was.

Coogan and Brydon play alternate version of themselves - Coogan, the TV comedian coveting success in America as a serious actor, and Brydon, the happily married new father with a very rewarding career in the UK as an impersonator - who take to the road on a newspaper-funded food tour of the north of England: six restaurants in six days.

Originally planning to take the trip with his American girlfriend, Mischa (Margo Stilley), who has returned to the US to pursue her writing career, Coogan invites Brydon along for what becomes a comedic and culinary caper; the two enjoying MasterChef-like creations amidst the hills and dales of the northern countryside whilst trying to best each other with their impersonations of Michael Caine, Hugh Grant, Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Billy Connelly.

Michael Winterbottom, the genre-hopping Brit director and one not known for his comedic output, probably felt a lighter mood was required after his intensely dark pulp noir adaptation, The Killer Inside Me (2010). And reuniting the stars of his Tristram Shandy (perhaps the only other Winterbottom comedy) no doubt seemed like a good means for achieving such a tone.

And it is indeed good fun: Brydon does a spot-on Hugh Grant, and Coogan's Billy Connelly is priceless. And they both do an excellent Michael Caine, although by about the fifth such sequence of "She was only 16 years old" and "You blew the bloody doors off!", I was over that one.

The Trip may not escape its television origins, and it may prove a far more fulfilling journey to catch all 172 minutes of it on DVD, but for the most part it's an enjoyable cross-country jaunt.

Saturday, 25 June 2011


Paramount Pictures
Now Showing

Finally a film that lives up to expectations. And by 'up', I, of course, mean 'down'. I have half-jokingly mentioned online that I had pencilled in Transformers 3 as my worst film of 2011, but thanks to ever-reliable director Michael 'more is more' Bay, I can now erase that scribble and ink it in.

Transformers 2 was my least favourite film of 2009 - and, indeed, the decade - and I'd be surprised (and disappointed on several levels) if there were a bigger, dumber film this year than its sequel, Dark of the Moon.

That's despite opening with a clever reinterpretation of the history of the American space race (which would have been even more clever had Doctor Who not performed a similar but far better conceit with its 2011 season opener). But Bay quickly lapses back into his old ways: the very next scene opens with a shot of a tiny heiny strutting up a staircase: from the Moon to a moon. Subtle, Mr. Bay, subtle.

Those buttocks belong to Rosie Huntington-Something O'Rather, a Victoria's Secret model and Megan Fox's replacement as, inexplicably, the girlfriend of Shia Labeouf's Sam Witwicky. How this everyboy attracts the babes I don't know, and he doesn't seem to care. Despite her scantily clad advances, Sam spends the first half of the movie pissing and moaning about no longer being involved in the US government's defence operations with the Autobots (the good guy Transformers in case you forgot, or simply forgot to care).

But it's not too long before Sam, hero of the first two films, is caught up in another battle royale between the Autobots, once again led by Optimus Prime, and the evil Decepticons. They plan to bring about the downfall of man by bringing their home planet, Cybertron, through a wormhole (or something) using technology which was cargo on a ship which crashed - you guessed it - on the moon in the early 1960s, hence the Americans' sudden eagerness to get a man in space.

All of this stupidity comes to a head in Chicago in a sequence which runs at least half an hour and bored me to tears. Then again, that may have been the large coffee I consumed at the beginning of the film and, from about the two hour mark onwards (Dark of the Moon clocks in at 154 minutes!), threatened to do to my bladder what the Decepticons had done to the windy city.

One of the (many) problems with the Transformers films is the indistinguishable nature of the alien robots. Call me an automotive racist but they all look alike to me, even more so when they're doing battle. Surprisingly, the 3D employed for this instalment doesn't muddy the visuals but, as always, is completely unnecessary.

Also unnecessary is the likes of John Malkovich, Frances McDormand and John Turturro (obviously not as ashamed as the rest of us of his appearance in Transformers 2) prostituting themselves for the hefty pay cheque a Hollywood blockbuster delivers. Come on, guys, you're better than that.

But Michael Bay isn't. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is Bay at his best/worst: bombastic, gung-ho and dumb as all fuck. And yet the film will make squillions at the international box office - there's no accounting for taste. Then again, anyone willingly forking over money for this is getting exactly what they deserve.


Icon Film Distribution
Now Showing

Terrence Malick's first film in six years, the highly anticipated, much speculated upon The Tree of Life, finally arrives in cinemas with some but not all of its mystique removed following its world premiere at Cannes in May. Booing aside (oh, those crazy French!), Malick's visual poem to creation, life and after life – and indeed no less than the meaning of life itself – may or may not meet the expectations of a six-year wait but it's certainly worth experiencing.

But your average cinemagoer shouldn't let the presence of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn fool them into thinking this is a Hollywood film. Much like he did with The Thin Red Line (1998), which returned Malick to the director's chair after a 20 year hiatus, the maverick director places his marquee actors in the service of his creation.

As such, Pitt, as 1950s husband and father Mr. O'Brien, plays second fiddle to child actor and on-screen son, Jack (Hunter McCracken), while Penn (who perhaps as a favour to his Red Line director) has a cursory role playing the adult version of Jack. Penn's sequences top and tail the film in its most ambitious and, to be honest, for me least successful sections.

A plethora of beautiful images and whispered dialogue/prayers opens The Tree of Life – which also covers the creation of the universe from the Big Bang through to those much talked about but briefly glimpsed dinosaurs, before settling down in small town USA, 1950s – while a suggestion of the after life, including a beach and a predominantly white dress code, closes the film.

But it's the middle section which occupies most of the film's 135 minute running time, and it's this section which is the most involving and adopts a more typical, linear narrative structure (though with very little reliance on dialogue or action).

Observing the O'Brien family, which includes two other sons and an angelic mother (played by Jessica Chastain), we glimpse the beauty of the world from the point of view of young Jack; open to the wonders of his surrounds, as encouraged by his mother, but ever mindful of his disciplinarian father who practises a form of tough live on his sons, preparing them for the hardships of a world which crushed his own dreams early on.

Despite a passing resemblance to his Benjamin Button persona, what with O'Brien's glasses and jutted jaw, Pitt gives one of his better performances; suggesting a man with his gestures and facial expressions rather than with his (very few) words. There's already talk of an Oscar nomination but I'd suggest as Supporting Actor rather than Lead if it were to happen, for he's not only supporting McCracken but Malick, too. Let's be honest, in a Malick film, everyone is supporting.

I've seen The Tree of Life twice now and upon my second viewing, without expectation and preconception, found it to be far more emotionally engaging. Others may get it the first time round, or simply won't get it at all. And that's perfectly okay; it certainly won't be for everyone. But I'd urge you to see it and in the cinema, where you can immerse yourself in Malick's vision – a vision like nothing you've seen before.


20th Century Fox Films
Now Showing

In the wake of Yogi Bear 3D and Hop, two of 2011's earlier and unimpressive entrants in the mixed live action-animation genre, one could reasonably expect Mr. Popper's Penguins to be a similarly tedious viewing experience. But much to my surprise, Popper's proved to be perfectly passable entertainment, thanks in no small part to Jim Carrey who's not about to play second fiddle to a penguin - or six.

Granted the comedic actor is not in full-on manic mode here, but Carrey, as the eponymous Mr. Popper, corporate real estate barracuda, is just as much the star of this family film (adapted from the bestselling children's book by Richard and Florence Atwater) as the six penguins which move in to his expansive New York apartment, sent as a gift from his recently deceased father.

The penguins are designed to teach Popper the importance of love and holding close those whom we hold dear, something which Antarctic penguins are known for (see French doco March of the Penguins), and a lesson the career-oriented, alternate weekend father-of-two could well heed (though it's a bit rich coming from a man who abandoned the young Popper to pursue his own research career in far-off lands!).

Converting his apartment into a winter wonderland after deciding to keep the penguins which his kids have come to love (and, well, it'd be a much shorter film if he didn't!), Popper's career goes into free fall. His best chance of recovery is to convince a stubborn New York dowager (Angela Lansbury) to sell her landmark hotel, The Tavern on the Green, to his employers, an objective those pesky penguins don't make any easier.

One reason Mr. Popper's Penguins doesn't become as annoying or loud as Yogi Bear or Hop is that the penguins, apart from some squawking, remain voiceless (something the Russell Brand-voiced Easter Bunny should have been). Using an almost seamless blend of CG and real birds, the penguins behave, for the most part, like actual penguins; the only time their artificiality is betrayed is when they adopt more human characteristics. But they don't dominate proceedings; it's Carrey who remains the big bird throughout.

Mr. Popper's Penguins is amiable if innocuous family entertainment; surprisingly better than it promises to be and, consequently, far less disappointing than the the two animated sequels also vying for the family dollar this week. And refreshingly, the film is not in 3D, making the decision of which film to see these school holidays slightly less black and white.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011


Walt Disney Studio Films/Pixar
Now Showing

Let me begin this review by saying that I love Pixar. I LOVE them. Beginning with Toy Story in 1995 (and short films before that), they have managed to successfully create films for all ages under the guise of children's entertainment; a successful marriage of story, character, wit and heart with state of the art computer animation.

My favourite of Pixar's 13 features thus far is Finding Nemo (2003), for mine, a masterpiece. My least favourite? Cars (2006). Until now. For as much as I love Pixar's films I had not been anticipating the release of this sequel. The first Cars did absolutely nothing for me (it would have done nothing for the 8-year-old me), admittedly because of its central conceit: a world populated by cars.

I have no interest in cars - I can't even drive - but that bias aside, the first instalment, about an arrogant racing car named Lightning McQueen who discovers the simple things in life when accidentally waylaid in the off-highway town of Radiator Springs, didn't seem to warrant a sequel.

But here we are, five years and several billion dollars in Cars merchandise revenue (aha!) later, and the gang from Radiator Springs are back. Well, some of them, for this time round the action goes global - Japan and Europe - and not everycar can come along for the ride. Even Lightning McQueen (once again voiced by Owen Wilson; maybe another reason why I didn't like the original?) has been pushed to second on the grid, forced to play support to his best bud, Mater, who's somehow scored pole position.

Accompanying Lightning and some fellow 'Radiators' to Japan, on the first leg of an international three race series sponsored by an English billionaire (Eddie Izzard) who made his money in oil but has seen the light and converted to clean fuel, Mater is mistaken for an American secret agent by British intelligence officers, Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer).

Following a fallout between Lightning and Mater, the tow truck finds himself in Europe with the British agents though he hasn't cottoned on to their actual profession and his mistaken involvement in their mission: to prevent an anonymous villain from proving clean fuel* to be dangerous, killing innocent cars in the process.

Mater (voiced by Larry The Cable Guy!) is a hill billy tow truck with all the grace, charm and intellect which that description implies; he gets on your nerves faster than Francesco, the Italian sports car (John Turturro) and rival of Lightning McQueen, can complete a qualifying lap. Mater's elevation to lead vehicle in Cars 2 is akin to George Lucas making Jar Jar Binks the hero of the second Star Wars prequel (of course, Attack of the Clones sucked regardless).

Is it unfair to expect so much of Pixar, especially a film directed by founder and leader, John Lasseter? After all, it is he who is responsible for setting the bar so high. Is it curmudgeonly to begrudge a film made almost entirely to cater to its (predominantly) under-8 audience? While not wit-free or absent of creative Pixar flourishes - the pigeons of Paris rendered as miniature bi-planes is a wonderful touch - I think most adults, and more importantly, the ones without kids, will find Cars 2 more La Mans 24-hour endurance than a mere 70 lap Grand Prix.

And am I just being a dog with a bone for lamenting Pixar's use of 3D? Granted it's not the first time, following Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010), and nor does the film's colour palette suffer for it in the same way it does in Kung Fu Panda 2. But seriously, dudes, you don't need the extra $$ for the glasses; you really don't!

Cars 2 is not an awful film, it's not even a bad one. But as sequels go, it's unnecessary, and as films go, it's only mildly engaging and entertaining. It's the closest Pixar have come to producing a lemon (and my apologies to any vehicles reading this for my use of such offensive language).

*Side note: While I applaud Pixar's environmental message, isn't it illogical for cars to be concerned about the environment? In a world populated by automobiles (Where are the humans? And who built everything? Cars have no thumbs!) why would they care about clean air?

Tuesday, 21 June 2011


Paramount Pictures
Now Showing

DreamWorks Animation's surprise hit of 2008, Kung Fu Panda, opened with a spirited 2D hand drawn animation sequence revealing its hero Po's fantasies of becoming a member of the Furious Five and a master of kung fu. By the end credits, Po (voiced by Jack Black) had achieved both feats in a film of pure awesomeness.

The inevitable sequel also opens with a 2D animation sequence: a tale revealing the rise of the evil peacock, Shen. It also hints at the sad history from which Po (again voiced by Jack Black) descended, for Kung Fu Panda 2 is a much darker film than its predecessor and not just because of the deployment of 3D.

Shen (Gary Oldman), having been informed by a Soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) that his rise to power would be halted by a panda, set in motion a Bible-like genocide of which Po was the only survivor; spirited away by his parents when just a baby and eventually adopted by noodle shop proprietor – and goose – Mr. Ping (the wonderful James Hong). That Po never questions his father's differing species is one of the running jokes of both films.

But in encountering Shen's coat of arms, worn by his wolf warriors, Po has flashes to his early childhood and parents, and his mission – to halt Shen's planned occupation of China by cannon fire; the peacock having discovered a use for gunpowder other than fireworks – is compromised by his desire to learn of his roots and why he was abandoned.

So where Kung Fu Panda was the story of Po's progress from zero to hero, the sequel is one of self discovery; far more concerned with the emotional journey of our portly panda than his kung fu prowess. There's nothing particularly wrong with that but the action sequences, which director Jennifer Yuh (graduating from head of story on the first Kung Fu Panda) must have envisioned as looking great in 3D, aren't the focus of the film nor are they helped by the murky palette the 3D produces.

Once again the Furious Five (voiced by Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan and David Cross) are mere support, although with Jolie's Tigress is given slightly more screen time. Sadly, it seems, at the expense of Dustin Hoffman's Master Shifu, an absence Danny McBride (Wolf Boss) Dennis Haysbert (Master Ox) and even Jean Claude Van Damme (Master Croc) can't compensate for.

Kung Fu Panda 2 isn't a bad film nor a bad, if unnecessary, sequel. That it lacks the spark of surprise, that element of awesomeness which made the first such an entertainment, is predictable if no less lamentable, given sequels tend to fade with each installment. Here's hoping DreamWorks don't inflict the same fate on the panda as they did with a certain green ogre; as any Dragon Master knows, there's no shame in quitting while you're ahead.

Sunday, 19 June 2011



One of my favourite films of the '00s is the American indie gem, The Station Agent, actor-cum-writer-director Tom McCarthy's 2003 directorial debut about a little person, trains and the odd bonds of friendship. McCarthy's second feature, 2008's The Visitor, for which Richard Jenkins received a Best Actor Oscar nom, was similarly small but invested with heart.

Those elements, combined with the presence of character actor-cum-leading man, Paul Giamatti, who it goes without saying is perfect as Mike Flaherty, the put upon lawyer and high school wrestling coach, had Win Win on my 'must-see' list even before the 2011 Sydney Film Festival line-up was announced.

If you hadn't guessed from the title, then you'll soon gather from the tone of McCarthy's dram-edy (though it's more comedy than drama until the third act), it's all's well that ends well. That's not to say that Win Win is formulaic or predictable, though it is the most mainstream of McCarthy's films to date.

Mike is a nice family guy but he's also financially desperate, so when an opportunity to stay afloat presents itself he seizes it. He becomes the court-appointed guardian of his elderly and senile client, Leo (Rocky's Burt Young), so he can collect the monthly fee of $1500; swiftly moving Leo from his home and into assisted care.

Whatever the fuck it takes, as Mike's new wrestling protege, and Leo's grandson, Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer), would say. Kyle shows up when his mother goes into rehab so Mike, and his tough veneered but soft hearted wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), take the teenager in.

With the bills being paid, Leo relatively happy in care, and the wrestling team finally enjoying success thanks to Kyle, Mike could be forgiven for thinking he is indeed on a winner. But then Kyle's mother (Melanie Lynskey) arrives in town, fresh from rehab and smelling a rat, and things quickly become (more) complicated. Like Charlie Sheen, Mike soon learns it's a fine line between winning and losing; not waving but drowning.

Win Win is pretty much everything I expected it to be, and a fun and entertaining way to end a festival which began in much the same way for me, 11 days earlier, with Troll Hunter. While sadly lacking in a 'wow' moment for me - I saw Terrence Malick's Tree of Life prior to the Festival, and I missed the ultimate SFF prize winner, Iranian film A Separation - I've thoroughly enjoyed my 2011 Sydney Film Festival experience.

It's been great catching up with fellow film and non-film tweeps alike, discussing films, sharing experiences and passing on tips of what to see and what to avoid (though there weren't so many of the latter).

I'd also like to thank both the SFF volunteer crew, and especially those who worked in the Media Office and were so accommodating of us media folk who flocked there every morning and midday-ish to get our hands on some free tix: your patience and efforts are very much appreciated.

And a big 'thank you' to whomever it was who approved The LennoX Files for media accreditation, for without media access I would not have been able to attend the 2011 Sydney Film Festival. This humble blogger, and his readers, thank you very much indeed.

Note: Win Win will be released in Australian cinemas August 18 by 20th Century Fox.

Saturday, 18 June 2011



I'm not sure if it was Festival fatigue or simply being miffed at having missed out on a media ticket for Sundance favourite Martha Marcy May Marlene (grrrr), but the expected entrancing effects of Werner Herzog's 3D documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, failed to take hold at the screening this morning. To be honest, it annoyed me as much as it informed.

Whilst an adamant opponent of the growing trend towards 3D films - it enhances box office not the viewing experience, people! - I had read repeatedly that Herzog's use of the technology was one of the best applications yet.

It probably seemed like the ideal medium in which to capture the rock art of the Chauvet-Pont-d'arc cave in France. Only discovered in the 1990s, and believed to be some 30,000 years old, the drawings can only be viewed by a select few from the scientific community and, for this one time, Herzog and a small film crew.

Drawn by Paleolithic man, the cave walls are adorned with images of horses, rhinocerous, bison, lions and bears (oh, my!), but only one image of a human: a half female-half bison figure. There are, however, hand prints which act as signatures of the various rock artists; one, with a uniquely-shaped pinky finger, has his work traced throughout the cave.

There's no denying the importance of the discovery and the beauty of this cave, but Cave of Forgotten Dreams is essentially a History Channel doco (they financed the film) enhanced for the big screen by use of 3D. That American funding may also explain why Herzog's narration is spoken in English, as are all those interviewed (or they are interpreted in voice-over).

Call it English language cultural cringe but I minded that the film wasn't subtitled. The German Herzog's English (he sounds a lot like Christoph Waltz, and yes, I know he's Austrian!), while fluent, is also precise, as though he is speaking to a classroom of 6-year-olds or fellow English-as-a-second-language peers. Yes, it annoyed me.

And the film's postscript, concerning a biosphere close to the cave (which uses steam pumped from a nearby nuclear power plant) and its albino crocodile inhabitants, made no sense to me at all, unless to perhaps disprove the belief (one apparently confirmed in a recent international survey) that the Germans have no sense of humour. Crocodiles looking into the abyss? Whatever, Werner.

OK, even I think this review makes me sound like a Grade-A grouch. So with no Martha Marcy May Marlene screening (grrrr), or any others on Day 11 of the Sydney Film Festival, I think I'll try for an early night and tackle the 12th and final day refreshed.

PS Please let there be a ticket for me to Win Win tomorrow, or it ain't going to end pretty!

Friday, 17 June 2011



When Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) starts having dreams of impending doom - a gathering storm, rain like petrol, and creepy people threatening his and his family's lives - it's not a copy of Understanding Your Dreams he checks-out from the local library but a copy of Understanding Mental Illness.

Curtis's mother (a brief but effective Kathy Baker) has been living in assisted care since being diagnosed with schizophrenia when Curtis was just 10, and he's always harboured the fear that the illness could be hereditary. But how to explain an arm, bitten by his dog in a dream, which aches for the rest of the day? Or awakening, barely able to breathe, and with blood-stained sheets?

Much to the consternation of his wife (Jessica Chastain from Tree of Life) and young daughter, and bemusement of friends and neighbours, Curtis decides to renovate the disused tornado shelter in the backyard; stockpiling cans of food and buying gas masks in preparation for the mother of all storms he believes is coming. But is it coming or is Curtis slowly coming undone?

Director Jeff Nichols' second feature after 2007's Shotgun Stories, which screened at SFF that year and which also starred Shannon, is an effective thriller albeit a little too much of a slow burn for my liking (granted I had had a long day before I caught the 6.30pm screening, so perhaps a second viewing when I'm fresh will clarify that).

Nichols establishes a growing sense of paranoia and dread, aided perfectly by Shannon's central performance. Relatively unknown to mainstream audiences until his Oscar nomination for 2008's Revolutionary Road, in which he upstaged both Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, Shannon has been building on his new found success by giving commanding turns in supporting roles (The Runaways and TV's Boardwalk Empire), and seizes the opportunity of a leading role here.

Chastain is good, too, making the role of the supportive but impotent wife completely different from the vaguely similar role she played in Malick's film.

Take Shelter impressed at Sundance earlier this year and then went on to Cannes, where it scored the Critics' Prize. Sony Pictures could well have a moderate hit on their hands should they take advantage of the film's critical acclaim as well as the passing similarities to the works of M. Night Shyamalan: a thinking person's The Happening if you will.

And I mean that with all due respect to Take Shelter and Nichols, for this up-and-coming director exhibits a command of mood and mystery which Shyamalan has tried and failed to recapture since The Sixth Sense (1999). I'll definitely be going back to check out Shotgun Stories, whilst waiting in anticipation for what Jeff Nichols does next.

Thursday, 16 June 2011



I've often said (high) expectations regarding films are never a good thing, especially the longer you have to wait to see that film. Expectations build over time and, whether fairly or not, a film will rarely meet those expectations and your response to it will suffer as a result.

So it was, sadly, with Life, Above All. Oliver Schmitz's drama about the effects of AIDS on a South African village family had been praised by Roger Ebert when it screened at Cannes in 2010, and I had been eagerly awaiting to see it since. But thirteen months is far too long to wait to see a film (ask a Malick fan, or his producers) and so, through no fault of its, Life, Above All failed to meet the expectations I had built up in that time.

AIDS is rarely ever mentioned in the film and not until the third act, but the spectre of the disease hangs over the family of young Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) like a cloud. Chanda's young sister has just died from the disease, passed on to her through her mother, Lilian; her mother having contracted the disease from her second husband, Jonah.

But no-one dares mentions the disease by name lest the neighbours, through fear and ignorance, take up arms, or in this case stones, against them. Lilian's best friend and neighbour, Mrs. Tafa, who lost a son in an "accident", encourages Lilian in her secrecy (better the neighbours think the house has been cursed) but Chanda, a bright student who knows her best friend Esther's parents died from the disease, grows increasingly worried that her mother's refusal to accept the truth could cost her her life.

Life, Above all is a brave film to be made in a country which does not have a glowing track record in its recognition, education about and treatment of the AIDS virus. And I'm sure Schmitz's film would go a long way to lifting the stigma, superstition and misinformation surrounding the disease in South Africa.

Sadly, for all its good intentions and solid performances, I was not as moved by the plight of Chanda and her family as I should have been or had hoped to be. And I'll readily admit, my own high expectations had a lot to do with that, though I would say (implore) to local distributors: don't make us wait so long to see these films!


Actor Paddy Considine first came to my attention with his breakout performance in Jim Sheridan's 2003 film, In America, playing the father of an Irish immigrant family in 198os New York. Samantha Morton and Djimon Hounsou deservedly scored Oscar nominations for their performances, but it's Considine's which remains, for me, the heart of that film.

So when eight years later Considine makes his feature directorial debut, my interest is piqued. Tyrannosaur is an expansion of his own short film, Dog Altogether, which won prizes in Venice and from BAFTA, and though I haven't seen it, I'm guessing it focused on the bleak, working class milieu which provides the back drop here.

Joseph (Peter Mullan) is a loner plagued by demons; anger brought on by psychosis or vice versa. When we first meet Joseph he kills his dog (it's not been a good Festival for the animals!) with a swift couple of kicks, throws a brick through the post office window and starts a pub brawl with a couple of lads who are talking too loud whilst playing pool.

It's after this last episode that he meets Hannah (Olivia Colman), when he comes to hide out in her Christian charity shop. Through her kindness and patience, Hannah seems to make a connection with Joseph but she already has demons of her own to deal with.

That would be her husband, who we know is evil because he's played by Eddie Marsan, the Brit actor who excels at despicable. Any violence Joseph perpetrates pales in comparison to the brutality and humiliation inflicted upon Hanna by her husband.

Yes, Tyrannosaur (the name derives from a cruel in-joke related to Joseph's dead wife) is a tough-at-times watch and rather bleak, though it does end on a somewhat hopeful note. Mullan and Colman deliver terrific central performances, no doubt aided by actor-cum-director Considine whose sophomore effort should be worth catching based on the evidence presented here.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011



Romper Stomper, Showgirls, Dancer in the Dark, Death Proof and The Notebook. What do these five films have in common? They are the films which have caused the most division between At The Movies co-hosts, and stalwarts of film review in Australia for the past 25 years, David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz.

And it was at Sydney Town Hall this evening where David and Margaret explained just what it was they liked/disliked about these films in the Sydney Film Festival event, Films That Divide Us: 25 Years of David and Margaret.

For the record, David loved Showgirls and Death Proof; Margaret was the defender of Romper Stomper, Dancer in the Dark and The Notebook. Embarrassingly, I've only seen Romper Stomper and The Notebook (and I tend to side with David's opinion of those two).

David's dislike of Von Trier's Dancer In The Dark (well, anything Von Trier, really: hello, shaky-cam!) came as no surprise but you may be surprised to learn that he refused to give the controversial 1992 Australian film, Romper Stomper, a rating. Not zero stars, just no rating. Of course, that clarification didn't stop the film's director, Geoffrey Wright, throwing red (or was it white?) wine in David's face a couple of years later at the Venice Film Festival. BTW If you haven't read David's biography, I Peed On Fellini, do yourself a favour.

It was also a surprise to hear Margaret say she thought that Quentin Tarantino (director of Death Proof) either didn't know how to write good women (Uma Thurman and Pam Grier might disagree) or that he simply found them boring. Equally surprising (disturbing?) is her love for Nick Casavettes' The Notebook (2004). Oh, Margaret!

David and Margaret are just as wonderful a double act live as they are on our televisions; actually David is much looser and funnier than viewers might think. Even though the evening had been loosely scripted, it didn't prevent the pair from correcting, reprimanding and talking over each other. They also answered audience members' questions (however few there were) generously and thoughtfully. Censorship, bias for Australian films, Tarkovski, and Terrence Malick's Tree of Life were all discussed.

Actually, Tree of Life could very well be the next love/hate topic of discussion between the two if the snippets of opinion they gave are any indicator. FYI Margaret loved it; David not so much. I look forward to catching that review in the next week or two - and many, many more in the years to come!

A special thanks to the Sydney Film Festival volunteers in the Media Office and the ABC for my ticket to the show. Very much appreciated.


Universal Pictures
Now Showing

Whomever it was who is quoted as saying women can't be funny obviously wasn't paying attention. Or was probably only watching Hollywood comedies of the last decade where the boys get to have all the fun, be it in Vegas or with mother's freshly baked pastries.

But if he'd been watching TV's Saturday Night Live instead, he would have known that women can be and are funny on a regular basis. Tina Fey has proven her mettle both on - as one-time vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin - and off SNL with her own sit-com, 30 Rock, in which she not only stars but also writes and produces.

Now fellow SNL'er, Kristen Wiig, following several supporting film roles, gets her chance to shine in Bridesmaids, a film which she, like Fey, also wrote and co-produced. Bridesmaids comes billed as the female equivalent of The Hangover but don't be fooled: not only is it twice as funny as that film's recent sequel, but it's no chick flick either. That is to say, guys need not feel the need skip it out of fear of over-exposure to oestrogen. This is no frilly, girl-centric rom-com, though the girls are front and centre. And they're funny.

Wiig is down-on-her-luck Annie, whose cupcake business folded during the GFC and is sharing an apartment with an odd brother-sister combo (Little Britain's Matt Lucas and Australian Rebel Wilson) from the UK. Annie isn't romantically involved either but she's hopeful that her regular booty call (deliciously played by Mad Men's Jon Hamm in cad mode) might develop into something more.

Then Annie's BFF, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), announces her engagement, and while the role of maid of honour should lift her spirits, it sends Annie into a downward spiral, one very much exacerbated by Lillian's new best friend, Helen (Rose Byrne). Pretty, poised and rich, Helen is everything Annie isn't, instantly making Helen public enemy #1.

But Bridesmaids isn't about the evils of female rivalry or how the prospect of a wedding brings out the worst in their natures (see Bride Wars or the recent Something Borrowed). To their credit, Wiig and fellow writer, Annie Mumolo (it's directed by Paul Feig), celebrate female friendship in all its complexity, and as anyone can attest - male and female - the best of friendships don't always run smoothly.

Or cleanly. Wiig and her castmates (Ellie Kemper, Wendi McLendon-Covey, and a scene-stealing Melissa McCarthy) aren't afraid to get dirty in the name of comedy. Bridesmaids is raunchy and raucous, with a healthy serving of sex, language and bodily fluids which were once the sole province of male-centric comedies such as The Hangover and American Pie. Anything the boys can do . . .

What you should do is accept the invitation to Bridesmaids. While not without its flaws - two particular scenes (one involving duelling microphones, the other a highway patrol car) are stretched too thin, and its two hour running time is unnecessary - its more bouquets than brickbats.

Monday, 13 June 2011



"Why are people so unkind?" It's a question that iconic Australian singer Kamahl once asked, and one which has yet to be satisfactorily answered other then with the old fall back of "human nature". Why we are even more unkind, which is to say downright cruel, to animals is usually (un)answered by an even less convincing mindset: we're top of the food chain.

The recent Four Corners expose of the brutal treatment of Australian cattle in Indonesia was horrifying proof-positive that humans have an unhealthy disregard for the lives and welfare of our beastly brethren, whether for food, service or domestic companionship.

Project Nim, directed by James Marsh who made the award-winning Man On Wire, doesn't highlight human nature quite as evil as that in Indonesia, but does reveal how horrible, careless and oblivious we can be towards the welfare and emotions of those animals we interact with.

Nim Chimpsky was a young chimpanzee, plucked from his mother soon after birth in 1972 and used in research by Professor Herbert Terrace to reveal if the primate could learn to communicate via sign language. First raised in a New York family home, then a sprawling estate outside of that city, Nim does indeed learn a vocabulary of words through hand signals. He also bonds with his carers (who, in present day talking heads interviews, give their account of events), and they with him, but Nim doesn't lose his instinctive chimp nature.

His carers, however, only seem to remember Nim is an animal when it suits them. And when Terrance doesn't get the results he'd hoped for, five years into the project, he callously returns Nim to the compound from whence he was removed as an infant; expected to simply return to life as a chimpanzee as though he hadn't been raised to be anything but.

What follows is harrowing though ultimately heartening story spanning a quarter century. Not surprisingly, Terrace's research (and Marsh's film) reveals far more about human nature than his subject's ability to mimic it. But those with a low tolerance for cruelty to animals, or those who inflict it, may find Project Nim a tough watch.

The State Theatre screening of Project Nim received the loudest applause I've heard at the Festival so far this year. I don't know what that means in terms of quality or prizes (Audience Award?), but good word of mouth will certainly help the documentary when Icon Film Distribution releases it later this year.

Saturday, 11 June 2011



Miranda July is a writer-director-actor, short story writer and visual artist with a very odd sensibility and view of the world. And it's a sensibility and view which I happen to enjoy. July's film debut, Me And You And Everyone We Know (2005) was a small gem of a film and one which I loved, so I was very much looking forward to The Future.

LA couple Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) have their four year relationship sorely tested when they decide to adopt a cat which they found injured. With 30 days until Paw-Paw (as she is dubbed by the couple, and who acts as an omnipotent narrator throughout) is to be released from the animal shelter and into their care, Sophie and Jason reassess everything of importance to them and just what activities they should be devoting their time to.

They both quite their jobs (she as a children's dance teacher; he as telephone IT support) and even cancel their internet - oh, the humanity! While Jason becomes a volunteer for an environmental group, going door-to-door selling trees, Sophie has set herself the goal of posting 30 YouTube clips of herself dancing over those remaining 30 days of freedom. And it is Sophie who can't handle this new direction in their lives, commencing an odd relationship with a man whose drawing they purchased at the animal shelter.

Some may find all of this twee, precious or just plain annoying (and they could be right), but not me. I thoroughly enjoyed The Future, even if I didn't understand the need for every tangent it goes off on. And I loved Paw-Paw's narration (voiced by July), and the irony that while Sophie and Jason sweat the small stuff (and isn't it all small stuff?), the somewhat wisened Paw-Paw is literally living with a death sentence.

Here's hoping Madman Distribution release the film into Australian cinemas, so a far greater audience can enjoy The Future.


I hadn't planned to see Hanna as part of the Sydney Film Festival - the Universal title will receive a general release in Oz July 28 - but the opportunity arose to catch it this rainy Sunday afternoon and so I did, in lieu of my original film of choice Life, Above All. And I wish I hadn't.

Not that Hanna, directed by Joe (Atonement) Wright and starring Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett, is a bad film but it simply didn't work for me. Those elements that did - Ronan's lead performance as a teen assassin, and The Chemical Brothers' pumping score - weren't enough to overcome those that didn't, namely the heavy-handed allusions to fairy tales, the campy henchmen, and Cate Blanchett's god awful Southern accent; proof-positive that Queen Cate's not only human but as capable of suffering a bad day as the rest of us.

I'll publish a full review of Hanna closer to its Australian release. Fingers crossed I will be able to catch Life, Above All at another screening this week. I nominated the South African film as my most eagerly-anticipated of this year's Festival, so I'll beat myself up, Hanna-style, if I've missed my chance.

Friday, 10 June 2011



They say it isn't the destination but the journey getting there that matters. I say phewy to that, especially when it comes to films and to one I had been so looking forward to.

Meek's Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt's minimalist western about a wagon train traversing across Oregon in 1845, features a hell of a lot of the journey in its 104 minutes, but fails to arrive at a satisfactory destination, literally or metaphorically.

Three couples - Solomon and Emily (Will Paton and Michelle Williams), Thomas and Millie (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan), William and Glory (Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson) and their young son, Jimmy (Tommy Nelson) - have hired Stephen Meek (an unrecognisable Bruce Greenwood) to guide them West and safely across the territories. Meek, they soon discover, is an "expert" at everything but a master at evading a direct answer to any question asked, particularly where they are; the wagon train has failed to reach its destination in the promised two weeks (it's been five when we meet them).

But onward they trek, with dialogue as sparse as the landscape they traverse. (When I said minimalist, I meant it.) I'm not sure what I found more annoying, that bloody wagon axle which squeaked continually throughout the movie, or the rumbling emanating from the stomach of the woman seated behind me? Perhaps in sympathy with our intrepid travellers whose food and water supplies dwindle as they continue, cluelessly, further west.

Their fortunes don't improve any when they capture a native Indian (Rod Rondeaux), believing he'll lead them to water. Emily tries, in a pioneering woman kind of way, to connect with him but Meek and some of the others suspect he's secretly sending messages to his people and that they'll soon meet their end at the end of an arrow.

All of the performances in Meek's Cutoff are solid and can't be faulted, and one can commend Reichardt for her attention to period detail. Not just the bonnets but the drudgery and hardship of those pioneers who did just what our protagonists did, though rather more successfully otherwise the United States wouldn't have become the (supposed) leaders of the free world.

I also caught Douglas Sirk's 1954 classic MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION today and have to say time has not been kind to this melodrama, although Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson (who would re-team the following year in Sirk's ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, also showing as part of the Festival) are perfectly fine as the newly widowed Mrs Phillips and the playboy Bob Merrick, inadvertently responsible for her widow status who then makes her happiness his obsession.

What was no doubt grade-A entertainment in the 1950s is somewhat laughable today. And laugh my fellow audience did, but not maliciously; I doubt anyone forked over money to come and deride the film. I'm glad I got to see it, and I'm also glad I saw it in the Art Gallery of New South Wales; it's been far too long since I've been there. Film history, art and a bit of culture all in one hit: who could ask for more on a Saturday morning?


HAPPY, HAPPY,-happy/

I'm not sure what the buzz was for Happy, Happy, my second Norwegian film of the Festival, but the audience which turned out for the Friday morning screening noticeably skewed to the post-55 demographic. Indeed, the entire middle floor section of Event Cinemas Cinema 4 was reserved, seemingly, for residents of Sydney's retirement homes, bussed in for a nice day out.

And I'm sure they would have enjoyed the frisky goings-on in Anne Sewitzky's directorial debut. "Filthy, but genuinely arousing" as the old lady on The Simpsons might say, although Happy, Happy isn't all that sexual: it's Norwegian, not Swedish, after all.

Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen) and Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen) haven't had sex for over a year, a marital factoid which comes to light during a post-dinner game party with new neighbours, Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens) and Sigve (Rafaelsen), whose relationship isn't as perfect as it seems; the pair having moved to the country following Elisabeth's brief affair with another man.

And it's not too long before Kaja and Sigve are conducting an affair of their own, while Eirik grows ever distant from his perennially happy wife. It comes as no surprise when we learn that Eirik's fondness for watching the wrestling on TV isn't just a yearning for his high school glory days. And Elisabeth, well Elisabeth goes AWOL for a good part of the film but certainly makes her presence felt when Sigve's affair becomes apparent.

All of these complications are handled rather lightly by Lewitsky despite the serious emotions at play. And all four actors - Kittelsen's too-happy Kaja, Rafaelsen's dour Eirik, Saeren's cool Elisabeth, and Rafaelsen's can't-believe-his-luck Sigve - are impressive. That's probably one of the reasons why it won the World Cinema Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. That and the Americans were no doubt impressed by a mature but fun approach to sex, something Hollywood often struggles with.

But not all of Happy, Happy worked for me. The sub plot involving the couples' children, whereby Kaja and Eirik's son treats Elisabeth and Sigve's adopted African son like a slave - a commentary on the unnecessary cruelty we inflict on others? - I didn't find necessary. Same goes for the male vocal quartet who appeared sporadically as some kind of Greek Chorus, which felt like a first time filmmaker's conceit that should have been cut during the second draft of writing.

But overall, Happy, Happy succeeds. And so do the Norwegians, who are now two-for-two at this year's Festival.



In Bruges was one of my favourite films of 2008, so when I heard that John McDonagh, the brother of playwright cum writer-director Martin McDonagh who was responsible for that film, had also ventured into features with his directorial debut, The Guard, my interest was piqued.

Of course, it would be unfair to judge a film based solely on a sibling connection (just ask Tony Scott), certainly when The Guard, for all its intrinsically Irish, dark-streaked humour, love of dialogue and odd couple dynamics, pales in comparison to In Bruges. Not that it's a bad film, it's just not as good; In Bruges has all of those mentioned elements but deploys them far more effectively.

Brendan Gleeson (who also starred in In Bruges) plays Sgt Gerry Boyle, the law enforcer in his small coastal Irish town. He's not corrupt or even a bad guy, but he has his own interpretation of the law, one which him allows him to turn a blind eye to IRA gunrunning and indulge in both hookers and drugs (hey, guards are people too!).

But when his new deputy is murdered by big time drug importers (two of whom are played by Liam Cunningham and perennial bad guy, Mark Strong), Boyle decides it's time to take a stand: one good guy against the world, or at least the constabulary since all the other law enforcers in the region are on the take from said drug runners.

But not FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), who has been tracking the half a billion dollar drug shipment, and has come to Ireland to seek the local law's assistance. Everett finds an unlikely ally and (eventual) friend in Boyle, whom he can't decide is either really smart or really stupid; forming an odd couple, buddy cop duo the prototype of which we've seen countless times before although not quite like this. Gleeson and Cheadle are the thinking person's Mel Gibson and Danny Glover from the Lethal Weapon series, if you will.

But John McDonagh's The Guard is, for all intents and purposes, a Western, reinforced by the insistent score by Calexico. There's even a showdown at the O.K. Corral (aka the local dock) where our heroes make their final stand.

Don't go in expecting In Bruges 2.0 (or even Lethal Weapon for that matter), and you're bound to have a good time with The Guard.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011



While many of my media colleagues lined-up elbow-to-elbow to catch a glimpse of Cate Blanchett, star of Hanna, the opening night film of the 2011 Sydney Film Festival, I was quite content to be queueing front-to-back inside Event Cinemas. As much as I adore Cate, and look forward to seeing Hanna (it opens in Australian cinemas July 28), I was happy to be indoors (eventually) and not braving the Arctic conditions which greeted us on Day 1 of SFF 2011. Brrrrr.

Coincidentally, my first film of this year's Festival was one from a similarly cold climate: Norway. Andre Ovredal's The Troll Hunter is one of those 'found footage' fake documentaries in the vein of The Blair Witch Project. You know, the kind with no-name actors and the shaky-cam cinematography which induces minor strokes in David Stratton?

But our three intrepid film students - Thomas, Johanna and Kalle - from Volda College aren't hunting ghosts but trolls. Well, initially, they set-out A Current Affair-style to grab an interview with a notorious bear poacher. But the no-nonsense Hans (Otto Jespersen) has bigger fish-eaters to fry: he's Norway's one and only troll hunter, secretly commissioned to decommission rogue trolls who happen to break free from their designated territories, uprooting trees and chomping on livestock (and the occasional German backpacker) in the process; bear attacks are just a ruse the government uses to keep the public in the dark.

But Hans has had enough of bureaucracy and wants the secret lives of trolls exposed, agreeing to let the youthful trio tag along on his nightly patrols. So ensues a lot of jump cut editing (we're told in the opening credits the found footage has been undoctored), shaky sound and even shakier camera work (are you okay, Stratts?) due to all the running the foursome do.

That's a result of their encounters with trolls which Ovredal bravely, but smartly, dares to feature early and often in The Troll Hunter. The CGI (or are they people in costume?) trolls are effectively rendered, resembling larger versions of the monsters from the world of Jim Henson's Muppets or Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are, albeit it with a serious case bad breeding. They're not necessarily the creatures of your nightmares (closely resembling trolls from fairy tales, the laws of which the film simultaneously cheekily adheres to and subverts) but the film has its moments of tension nonetheless.

It's also pretty funny, in a dry, Nordic kind of way. And it's political and environmental (global warming is referenced on radio news, perhaps a cause of troll unrest?), though those elements of the film are as pertinent as you want them to be.

The Troll Hunter wasn't on my list of 'must-sees' for the 2011 Sydney Film Festival but I'm glad I caught it. Ovredal has produced a clever, comic and convincing film (just his second, and first in a decade) and provided an excellent kick-start to 12 days of cinemania. Troll, I mean, roll on.

Sunday, 5 June 2011


Paramount Pictures
Now Showing

With a film calendar full of sequels, prequels and remakes, Super 8 arrives as a pleasant surprise. Granted it's not wholly original – writer-director J.J. Abrams' sci-fi period piece is an unabashed homage to the early works of mentor, Steven Spielberg – but I found it wholly satisfying. I'll take nostalgia over studio colour-by-numbers bean counter filmmaking any day.

Set in 1979, a couple of years after Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a few years before E.T., Super 8 deliberately but not clumsily evokes both those and other Spielberg films (including Jurassic Park and Jaws), from the blue tinged lighting and the elongated pull-focus shots (I'm sure there are technical terms for these but I confess my ignorance) to the elements of his story.

In small town America, a group of school students – writer-director, Charles (Riley Griffiths), best friend and make-up artist, Joe (Joel Courtney), leading man, Martin (Gabriel Basso), and fireworks expert, Cary (Ryan Lee) – plan to spend their summer vacation shooting a zombie movie.

Much to Joe's delight, they're joined by Alice (the increasingly impressive Elle Fanning), but on their first night shoot on the outskirts of town, the crew are witness to a spectacular train crash, which is no accident, setting in motion a series of peculiar events and a summer these kids won't soon forget.

The marketing campaign for Super 8 has been at pains to reveal as little as possible about what follows that crash (a lesson other studios should heed), and while some reviews have revealed the contents of the train's cargo I won't, suffice it to say that it's here where the film's sci-fi elements kick in. But thankfully, it doesn't overwhelm the human element.

Abrams elicits excellent performances from his young cast, with Courtney's Joe making for a relatable hero (having lost his mum at film's beginning and struggling to connect with policeman dad, played by Kyle Chandler), and Fanning's Alice more than worthy of his admiration. The other three boys – the boisterous Charles, vomitous Martin, and pyromaniac Cary – are wonderful comic foils. And make sure you stay through the end credits to witness The Case, the zombie film they eventually put together.

And you can easily imagine the young Abrams putting together his own super 8 movie, enthused with the thrill and joy of filmmaking. That same boyhood zeal comes through Super 8 and you'll be hard pressed not to fall under its spell. I suggest you just go with it, it's mint.