Saturday, 30 July 2011


20th Century Fox Films
Now Showing

One of the stand out films of this year's Sydney Film Festival was the documentary Project Nim*, which detailed the promising yet doomed research into the intelligence of chimpanzees via means of teaching them sign language. The project was doomed not so much for the lack of intelligence on the part of the subject - Nim Chimpsky was more than up for the task - but for the lack of emotional intelligence those humans involved displayed towards their subject: ignoring, indulging and exploiting Nim's animal status as it suited them.

The first hour of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, director Rupert Wyatt's prequel to the classic sci-fi film of 1968, parallels Project Nim perfectly. The adoption, education, ignorance of inherent nature and the eventual abandonment of the chimp, named Caesar by scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) and his father, Charles (John Lithgow), when that nature outs, plays out much like the life of Nim Chimpsky.

Unfortunately for Nim, he wasn't exposed to the drug which Will has developed to fight his father's Alzheimer's, a drug that not only repairs damaged brain cells but increases the intelligence of the exposed test primates. And it's when the 8-year-old Caesar, son of the original test subject and inheritor of the super-smarts, is detained in an animal shelter following an attack on a neighbour, that this higher intelligence comes into its own. Evolution becomes revolution, as the film's poster states.

That evolution (thanks in part to exposure to Will's drug in gas form), which sees Caesar's new found army of chimps, gorillas and orangutan taking to the streets of San Francisco, may happen a little too quickly but, hey, it's only a two hour movie. There is also the sub plot involving a disease in humans developed as a result of exposure to said gas, so as the apes rise, man's descent begins. Oh, science, when will you learn?

There are nods to the 1968 original Planet of the Apes (and the sequels, I'm guessing; I haven't seen any of those) including a mistaken recitation of Charlton Heston's classic line: "Get your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!" Mistaken as it suggests a self awareness the rest of the film doesn't possess nor need, and because that line requires a far better actor than ex-Draco Malfoy, Tom Felton, the cruel son of the animal shelter owner (Brian Cox) who gets his comeuppance, to make it work.

What does work, and amazingly so, are the CGI effects used to render Caesar and his fellow primates; I'm still not sure if the orangutan was digital or real? Andy Serkis plays the role of Caesar and much like the actor did with Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and as the titular King Kong in Peter Jackson's 2005 remake, he brings the chimp to life, investing him with humanity and heart. It may still be too soon to create an Oscars category specifically for this type of performance, but Serkis deserves all sorts of praise for what he achieves, in absentia as it were.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes may fall away in its second half when said revolution unfolds, but I'm prepared to forgive a Hollywood summer blockbuster that has more on its mind than adrenaline, and even more so when it's not in 3D (Thank you for that small mercy, 20th Century Fox).

I'm also prepared to believe screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver's decision to set this story of a monkey-related disease, passed on to humans and further transmitted through blood, in the gay capital of the world is merely coincidental and not a subtle commentary on AIDS (one which I can't decide is good or bad).

Instead I choose to believe that cruelty to animals and the hubris of science are the more pertinent political statements being made in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, another reason why the film, like its protagonist, can stand tall.

*Here is a link to my initial review of Project Nim which screened the 2010 Sydney Film Festival and opens in Australian cinemas September 29.

Saturday, 23 July 2011


Paramount Pictures
Now Showing

I'll admit the approaching Avengers film does not produce in me the same giddy excitement it does in some of my fellow reviewers and film goers. Honestly, people were clapping, cheering and, yes, squealing when the teaser trailer played at the end of the Captain America: The First Avenger screening earlier this week.

My lack of excitement is perhaps best explained by a childhood (and adulthood, for that matter) not spent with my head in a comic book, Marvel or otherwise. As a child, Captain America was just a generic moniker for American heroes; I hadn't heard of Iron Man until the Robert Downey Jnr film, though I was aware of The Incredible Hulk; and Thor was, as far as I knew, a Norse god. As for The Avengers, wasn't that a dud '90s film starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman?

But with the arrival of Captain America, directed by Joe Johnston, the final piece in the Avengers puzzle, which began with Iron Man in 2008, followed by The Incredible Hulk that same year and Thor earlier this year, has fallen into place. And in less than a year, all four superheroes will unite in the Joss Whedon helmed Avengers. But first, who is Captain America?

Just as The Hulk is essentially a guy with anger management issues, one could suggest that Captain America is less a superhero and more a guy juiced up on 'roids. Before his transformation at the hands of Dr Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a 90lb weakling (achieved through clever CGI) but with a heart the size of Phar Lap's. His spirit is willing to go to war and fight the Nazis but the flesh isn't able, certainly not in the eyes of the US Army medicos.

But Erskine sees something in Rogers that can't be measured in a cubicle whilst wearing only your boxer shorts, and much to the chagrin of Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), and the stiff-upper-lipped pleasure of Brit agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Rogers becomes the first and, as bad luck would have it, the last in the Americans' Super Soldier experiments; going from beef patty to beef cake faster than you can say "Holy anabolic, Batman!" (Yes, I'm aware Batman is DC!).

The less than impressed Phillips deploys Rogers to the sidelines where his newly developed muscles are poured into a red, white and blue costume and used, with the aid of dancing girls in star spangled suspenders (a great song-and-dance set piece composed by Alan Menkin), to sell war bonds. But whilst on tour in Europe, Rogers, encouraged by Peggy and Stark (yes, Iron Man's dad), puts his new found talents to the test, rescuing a platoon of US POW's and truly earning the mantle of Captain America.

The Captain then becomes the Allies' best weapon in defeating Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a rogue Nazi commander who has designs on ruling the world through the use of mythic (Nordic, even) power sources. A recipient of Dr Erskine's super soldier formula before the good doctor defected and his serum was perfected, Schmidt had his evil nature amplified. It also didn't do his facial features any favours; think Voldermort with a serious case of sunburn, hence his moniker Red Skull.

Ultimately Captain America: The First Avenger is a time old good versus evil tale with Johnston (who also directed The Rocketeer in 1991 and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles for TV) relishing in the matinee aesthetics of the 1940s setting. Much like Chris Hemsworth in Thor, Evans reveals a personality beneath the pectorals (man, I can't wait for those two to have a shirt-off in the Avengers) but it's the veteran supports - Jones, Tucci, and Weaving - who shine.

And more successfully than in Kenneth Branagh's Thor, where the Norse god found himself in modern day New Mexico, is the presence of a 1940s soldier in the present day explained (well, in comic book terms, anyway).

If you enjoyed Thor, then I'd suggest you'll have as equally as good a time with Captain America. It's no Iron Man, my favourite of the Marvel/Avengers films thus far, but on the plus side it's no Incredible Hulk either.


Rialto Film Distribution
Now Showing

Directed by Robert Redford and chronicling the military trial of those accused of involvement in the assassination of US President Abraham Lincoln, The Conspirator is the first feature by The American Film Company which has, as one of its guiding principles, accuracy in the depiction of events pertaining to American history.

Now I'm all for accuracy, but film should also be entertaining something, it would seem, the American Film Company, screenwriter James D. Solomon and even Redford, have forgotten in their efforts to be factual. For most of its running time, The Conspirator is a dry history lesson, handsomely mounted but only seizing upon the inherently dramatic potential of its story in the third act.

That's when it seems for certain that the case put forward by Civil War hero and attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) in defense of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the only woman accused of conspiring in the President's murder (meetings presided over by John Wilkes Booth were held in her boarding house), will fail and she will go to the gallows.

Having only taken on the case as a favour to his mentor, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), and not entirely convinced of his client's innocence (Surratt does little to help in her own defence, refusing to implicate her son, a known associate of Booth), Aiken soon comes to the realisation that the trial is merely a formality, a pretence of justice. The American public demands vengeance and the prosecution (Danny Huston), under orders from the Secretary of Defence, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), aims to see that they get it.

Known Democrat Robert Redford makes all too clear the connections between the Mary Surratt trial (conducted in a military court and not a public one where she would have been judged by a jury of her peers) and the post-9-11 hysteria under the Bush administration; even Surratt and her fellow accused are treated in a manner that intentionally recalls images from Guantanamo Bay. But whether The Conspirator is historically accurate or left-leaning revisionism I'll leave to the historians (and Americans) to debate.

My main issue with the film is its (for the most part) lack of drama, no matter how good McAvoy, as the crusading lawyer, and Wright, as the stoic Surratt, are. Their scenes together, in the jail and the courtroom, are the only real time the action sparks to life, while the other performances of the well known cast divide between solid (Wilkinson, and Evan Rachel Wood as Surratt's daughter) and distracting (Kline, Justin Long as one of Aiken's fellow soldiers, and Alexis Bledel who, as Aiken's love interest, seems more like an after thought than a nod to historical accuracy).

Ultimately The Conspirator succeeds more as a history lesson than as a film; it's informative but lacking in the necessary dramatic thrust needed to fully engage beyond those with an interest in the subject matter. Perhaps if Redford had attempted to emulate his 1994 film Quiz Show, which entertainingly detailed the television quiz show scandal of the 1950s, history would have come to life rather than merely being depicted.


Potential Films
Now Showing

In a film world where CG (and, alas, 3D) animation is king, something as eloquently simple as The Illusionist, the 2D hand-drawn animated feature by acclaimed French director Sylvain Chomet, is an oddity and a beauty. And much like the magician of its title, The Illusionist is a rare - if not dying - breed.

Finding it harder and harder to attract a local audience, the titular magician and his bite-happy rabbit cross the Channel from France to England in the hopes of securing regular engagements. One night stands in once beautiful music halls, as a follow-up act to foppy British pop groups, and the occasional garden party ensue. It's while at a latter such event that his services are engaged by a drunken Scotsman.

And it's while performing in a modest hotel in the Scottish countryside that the Illusionist attracts the attention of Alice, the hotel's young maid. Alice decides to follow the older man when he departs for Edinburgh, and the two (three if you include the rabbit) set up house in a room in the run down Hotel Joe, where she gets the bedroom and he takes the couch (there's no funny business in this May-December relationship).

The Hotel Joe is populated by performers who, like the Illusionist, have found themselves increasingly abandoned by the audience. A trio of acrobats, a ventriloquist, and a clown reduced to alcoholism and thoughts of suicide, all do their best to make due. And when his and Alice's financial situation becomes tight, the Illusionist has to seek part-time employment away from the stage.

But somehow this pecuniary pickle remains oblivious to Alice. The young lass seemingly unaware that a hotel room and her new wardrobe costs more than a struggling magician can make, on or off the stage. And it's at this point where Chomet's film takes on a rather melancholic tone.

Adapted by Chomet (best known for 2003's The Triplets of Belleville) from an un-produced screenplay by acclaimed French comic filmmaker, Jacques Tati, The Illusionist bears the unmistakeable fingerprints of its original author. Echoing Tati's most famous film, Mr Hulot's Holiday (1953), all of the dialogue in the film is spoken in a muffle so as to be almost silent (parents wishing to take children should not be deterred by the film's French origins: there are no subtitles to read).

And the Illusionist himself (at one time referred to by the Hotel clerk as Mr. Tati) has the comic physicality of his author, barely-above-bumbling through social situations; an attempt to hide behind a coat rack to avoid meeting Alice on the street sees him stumble into a cinema playing - what else? - a Tati film.

Screening at the 2010 Sydney Film Festival, The Illusionist has taken its time in securing a general cinema release in Australia. And that release is limited, so you'd be best advised to catch this small gem before it disappears.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011


Sony Pictures
Now Showing

If you've seen the trailer for Bad Teacher and liked what you saw, then odds are you'll probably enjoy the film overall. Those odds might roughly be 60-40 but then I'm no psychic. And Cameron Diaz's Ms Halsey is no Maths teacher; Algebra is not her strong suit. Nor is English Lit, Geography or manners, come to think of it.

Elizabeth Halsey is the kind of person who chose teaching as a career because it offered summers off; the kind of educator who'd rather pop on a DVD about an inspirational teacher rather than even think about attempting to be one herself to her junior high class.

Unfortunately for them, Elizabeth's rich fiance dumped her over the summer break and so she returns to the classroom, even less motivated than before. For teaching that is. She's very much on the look out for a rich suitor, one who will either marry her or just pony up the dough for a boob job. And she thinks she may have found him with the arrival of substitute teacher, Mr Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), whose not unattractive and hails from a wealthy family.

But there's a spanner in the works, or, to be more precise, a squirrel. Ms. Squirrel (Lucy Punch), is everything Ms Halsey is not: an attentive, dedicated teacher, and dating Mr Delacorte. She's also highly strung and is driven to distraction by her fellow teachers' inability to see how half-arsed Elizabeth's approach to education is, making it her mission to expose the bad teacher.

But Elizabeth's attitude changes when she learns of a $5700 bonus for the teacher whose class scores the highest in the State exams; even more so when she concocts a plan to get her hands on a copy of the exam paper.

Watching the blonde one-time starlet of Charlie's Angels and so many rom-coms, hung over and taking hits from the bong every chance she gets, may not sit well with those who have come to love ditzy Cameron Diaz, but give me mean, foul mouthed - and, sure, casually racist - Cameron over the ditz any day. Diaz has always had the comedic chops but it's been a while since she's had this juicy a role to sink them into.

But as good as she is, Diaz is upstaged at every turn by Brit actress Punch, who isn't afraid to look silly - or scabby - to get a laugh. And both women fare better than Timberlake, in an SNL sketch-like role stretched too thin, and Jason Segel, who turns in another of his affable sap performances as the gym teacher with the hots for Ms Halsey.

As a chicks-gone-wild comedy, Bad Teacher doesn't get anywhere near the riotous success of Bridesmaids, in terms of laughs, smut or heart; Ms Halsey is no more believable or sympathetic for all her character flaws and vices. But in a movie world where sisters are doing it for themselves and can do anything the boys can, however gross-out, Bad Teacher scores a pass mark.

Sunday, 17 July 2011


Hopscotch Films
Available now to rent or own on DVD

If you want silly, sexy and - sure - fun, then the latest by Gregg Araki, one-time enfant terrbile of American indie cinema, certainly fits the bill. With the sexual shenanigans of its main character, Smith (Thomas Dekker), and all the mysterious cult and supernatural goings-on on campus, Kaboom plays like Dante's Cove: The College Years.

When he's not secretly lusting after his blonde, straight surfer roommate, Thor (Chris Zylka), Smith is hooking up with guys at the local nude beach or hooking up with girls at frat parties. It's when on the way home from one such event that Smith encounters a distressed young woman who just happens to have been appearing in his recent weirdly vivid dreams.

Smith thinks he may have witnessed her murder (he's not sure since he was drunk and tripping at the time) but there's no evidence. Best friend Stella (Haley Bennett) doesn't offer much help but then she is preoccupied with her new girlfriend who's a bit of a witch - literally - and even more so when Stella decides to call it quits. Hell hath no fury like a wicken scorned.

More sympathetic to Smith's increasing paranoia is London (Juno Temple), whom he meets at a party and soon becomes her beck and call boy; London making Smith her personal de-stresser (no points for guessing how). They discover that Smith's impending 21st birthday and the life of his long-forgotten father have something to do with his weird dreams, the murdered woman and the appearance of animal-masked men on campus. And it may also involve the fate of the world.

Having made the mature Mysterious Skin (2004), arguably his best film, Araki seems to have reverted to his early filmmaking ways - queer, kinky and often amateurish - with Kaboom. Then again, he made Smiley Face in 2007, a stoner comedy starring Anna Faris, so it was a gradual step backwards for the 51-year-old director.

Kaboom is all very silly but fun enough if you go along with its 86-minute ride on the college-boy-goes-wild side. Forget doom and gloom, it's the end of the world and Araki's going out with a (gang) bang.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011


Warner Bros.
Now Showing

All good things must come to an end, and good things come to those who wait. And for most people who have waited the almost 10 years for the final film in the adaptations of author J.K. Rowling's saga of the boy wizard - the boy who lived, Harry Potter - The Deathly Hallows Part 2 will affirm those opening sentiments, however bitter sweet.

Yet we've always known this day was coming and, for those of us who read the seven books (7 not 8, Warner Bros!), we knew how it all would end, provided, of course, director David Yates (at the helm since HP#5, The Order of the Phoenix) and screenwriter Steve Kloves (who penned all but the Phoenix script) didn't practice some black magic of their own.

There's little here to raise the hackles of hardcore Potter fans, and some minor surprises for those who aren't; overall The Deathly Hallows Part 2 is a fitting farewell to a pop culture phenomenon, going out on a high if falling shy of greatness. But for all its deference to Potter lore, Rowling (also a producer) and her readers, there's more cinematic art on display - production design, score and special FX are as ace as ever - than actual heart.

Granted there's some important business/action to take care of first. Picking up almost exactly where the overlong and padded-out Part 1 ended, Part 2 sees our eponymous bespectacled hero (Daniel Radcliffe) and his BFF's, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), in search of the remaining Horcruxes, those enchanted objects housing remnants of Lord Voldermort's soul. It's a search that involves breaking in to Gringott's Bank (before escaping on the back of a dragon) and returning to Hogwarts for the final showdown between good and evil.

The School of Wizardry and Witchcraft has much changed since we first entered its hallowed halls in 2001's The Philosopher's Stone. With the death of beloved headmaster, Albus Dumbeldore (Michael Gambon, finally growing into the role originated by the late Richard Harris), at the climax of HP#6, The Half Blood Prince, Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) has assumed control of the school; no doubt the reason the mood in the Great Hall is as dank as his hair.

Rickman has been one of the shining lights of the many veteran British thesps (Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Jim Broadbent to name just three) who have graced the Potter world, and in a brief but explanatory flashback sequence, we learn the true nature of the snarling, one-time Potions teacher which will come as a great surprise to those who haven't cracked a copy of Rowling's final tome.

But it's Voldermort whom Harry has returned to school for, rallying his professors and fellow students to take up wands against the approaching dark forces and buying he, Ron and Hermione time in their search for the Horcruxes.

Of course, finding them won't prevent duelling wands at midnight, and we wouldn't have it any other way: the ultimate face-off between the Boy Who Lived and He Who Can't Be Named is what we've been anticipating these past 10 years. And Ralph Fiennes, having arrived with Voldermort's resurrection in HP#4, The Goblet of Fire, finally gets to cut loose as the Dark Lord.

As someone who has spent countless hours in the Harry Potter universe, on paper and celluloid, all of these events are rendered faithfully, and excitingly, enough. But ultimately I wanted to feel something; if not catharsis then a genuine loss at akin to a good friend's leave taking. But I didn't experience any great emotions during The Deathly Hallows Part 2 (though I was heartened by the heroic completion of Neville Longbottom's story arc) and I minded that, I really did.

Perhaps this is partly due to my growing disconnect with the films. For me, the Potter series peaked with The Goblet of Fire (also my favourite of the books), when Voldemort is successfully restored to life and people start to die. Unlike some, I enjoyed the dark turn J.K. Rowling's saga took from there, but strangely I've felt somewhat detached from Yates' corresponding films.

That's not to take anything away from the overall consistency of quality across all eight films which has seen Harry Potter become the most successful franchise in film history. $6.3 billion internationally after 7.1 and as I write this, 7.2 has broken the Australian box office record for an opening day, grossing some $7 million; no doubt boosted by being screened in 3D (the only real blight on the series), which will add to the coffers but does nothing for the viewing experience (see it in 2D if you can).

The film's epilogue doesn't help either, ending the film, as it does the book, on a bum note. I won't spoil it for those who haven't read the last of J.K. Rowling's books by revealing what happens, suffice it to say what barely worked in print doesn't work at all on film. It's just another reason why The Deathly Hallows Part 2 misses out on greatness, but it's a goodbye that's good enough.


Madman Entertainment
Available on DVD and Blu-ray July 20

A remake of the 1960 original, which New York Times critic A.O. Scott describes as kinkier than this outing, makes me think that 60's Korean cinema was no less bold and outrageous than it is today.

Not that director Im Sang-soo has skimped on the sex; there's plenty of that early on between Eun-yi (Do-yeon Jeon), newly hired housemaid and child minder, and her wealthy employer, Hoon (Jung-jae Lee), a well groomed businessman with a penchant for red wine and piano.

It's hardly the first time Hoon has cheated on his wife, Hae-ra (Seo Woo), who's heavily pregnant with twins, nor does Eun-yi rebuff his advances, but when Hoon terminates their midnight assignations (though not her employment) with a cheque, Eun-yi takes it with good grace.

But when Hoon's mother-in-law learns from the Machivellian housekeeper, Mrs Cho (Youn Yuh-jung), that Eun-yi has fallen pregnant to her son-in-law (before Eun-yi herself knows she's with child), it sets in motion a chain of events which sees the mousy housemaid transform to avenging angel.

Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid is, for the most part, a melodrama of the highest order with the action very much centred on the women; you could imagine a slightly younger Pedro Almodovar having fun with similar material. But I think the Spanish auteur would have held back, or even refrained from the bat-shit-crazy ending(s) which Sang-soo has gone for.

Never having seen the 1960 original, I can't say whether Sang-soo is being faithful to his predecessor or making his own mark with this ending but until that point, he had me intrigued as to how this handsomely shot, pitch perfect women's picture would play out.