Sunday, 30 October 2011


Sony Pictures
Now Showing

Moneyball could best be described as the baseball film for people who don't like baseball films. And an even better one for those who get off on numbers and statistics, for director Bennett Miller's film (from a screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin) is less concerned with what happens on the field than the machinations behind the scenes when a major league baseball team turns to an unorthodox theory to better its fortunes.

Having just lost their shot at the 2001 World Series, the Oakland A's are reeling; not just from the loss but the loss of three of their best players snapped up by bigger teams with even bigger cheque books (an opening title card tells us Oakland operates on a budget one-third the size of the New York Yankees).

Oakland's general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), tired of losing his star players to other teams and no longer willing to pursue players as if money were no issue, happens upon a system - and a man - offering an alternative. The system is 'moneyballing', whereby players are selected on their stats (ie their merits) rather than the perceived notions of baseball success - hardhitting, athletic prowess, and talent scouts' intuition - and signed-up at a fraction of the price of their more fancied peers.

It's an idea championed by Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an Economics graduate from Yale who looks as though he should be cutting the players' cheques rather than determining their positions on the team. But Beane, much to the chagrin of his Oakland colleagues, embraces both the theory and the man.

And Pitt and Hill make for the perfect odd couple pairing of 2011, with Hill's Brand playing straight man to Pitt's at times manic Beane. When he's not stuffing his face with food, Beane's upturning furniture and throwing any object within his grasp that isn't nailed down whenever in a fit of pique.

And that's a lot in the early days of implementing the moneyball strategy, when the team can't manage a win and the field manager, Art Howe (the underused Philip Seymour Hoffman), refuses to play his players as instructed. But then something clicks and the underdogs become serious contenders for the title.

But as stated, Moneyball isn't about what happens on the field. Indeed, fans of the sports film archetype will be dismayed with Bennett Miller's treatment of the conclusion of the Oakland A's journey. Never mind. Miller, making his first film since the Oscar-nominated Capote (2005), keeps us genuinely intrigued by the front-of-house workings of the Oakland A's, assisted greatly by the Zaillian-Sorkin screenplay (though 'The Baseball Network' it's not).

Moneyball is also helped immensely by having its star, Brad Pitt, in top form (though for mine, not Oscar worthy). It's Beane's journey that is the real story here, and Pitt, firing on all cylinders as a man whose own major league dream was dashed and decides to shake up a decades old system, gives Beane the right mix of arrogance and pathos.

The film may falter as it enters its third hour (it's 133 minutes) and rounds for home, but Pitt doesn't: he hits it out of the park.

Thursday, 27 October 2011


Madman Films
Now Showing

I'll readily admit I'm not a fan of fashion, and not just because, as a writer, I can barely afford to keep up with my rent let alone the latest sartorial trends. But I can respect the hard work that goes into the creation of fashion (and the even harder work put in by sweatshop slaves to produce it, and at a fraction of the price it sells for), as well as the industries surrounding it.

Even as a non-fan, I enjoyed the 2009 documentary, The September Issue, which followed Vogue editor, Anna Wintour, as she put together the biggest yearly issue of that magazine. In doing so, the filmmakers revealed that not only was Meryl Streep's version of Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) wide of the mark, but that Wintour herself is given far more credit for the look of the fashion bible than she deserves. She may be a great editor but all the style in Vogue belongs to Grace Coddington.

But if you liked The September Issue, then you're almost guaranteed to love Bill Cunningham New York.

Bill Cunningham is not a fashion designer. He is a photographer who has had a life-long love affair with fashion, and for the last 40 years has provided photographs for two weekly columns in The New York Times: Evening Hours, which captures New York's social elite at play, and On The Street, whereby Cunningham randomly shoots the people of New York whom he believes to be expressing a sense of style and individuality. He refuses to dis what anyone wears, choosing instead to celebrate style.

Richard Press's documentary follows the 80-year-old Cunningham as he rides his Schwinn bicycle (his 33rd; all previous 32 having been stolen) through the streets of the Big Apple, documenting fashion where he finds it. The blue dust coat-wearing photographer is recognised by one and all, and has nothing but a good word to say about anyone, nor they about him.

And if there is one thing this charming doco is lacking, it's a real insight into the life of this man of seemingly simple pleasures. Apparently it took Press eight years to convince Cunningham to agree to be a part of the film, which was shot over a two year period and only under Cunningham's stipulations. Not that he's a curmudgeon, he's simply a very private man.

Interviews with colleagues (including Wintour and other NY fashionistas) and friends - his wonderful geriatric neighbours in the Carnegie Hall apartments, which they were in the process of being evicted from during the filming, are a hoot - sheds very little light on Cunningham's life away from the camera.

But a one-on-one interview near film's end, where the subjects of family, religion and sexuality are broached, gives us a glimpse of the man behind the lens. Catholic guilt may have curtailed his pursuit of an openly gay lifestyle, but one also gets the feeling that so consumed is Cunningham with photography and fashion, the idea of love - or even sex - never really occurred to him.

And that adds a tinge of sadness (and humanity) to a film, and man, that is charming and, yes, inspirational. For what could be more inspirational than finding something you love to do, and being paid to do it well into your ninth decade? Like someone who finds a style that suits and adopts it permanently, Bill Cunningham found his passion and stuck with it. Now that's a trend I'd be happy to adopt.


Sony Pictures
Now Showing

Not content with destroying the world on a regular basis, director Roland Emmerich (2012, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) takes time out from his usual big budget filmmaking to go period and attempt to obliterate the reputation of one William Shakespeare.

Anonymous, penned by John Orloff, and a noticeable change of pace for the director, is a fanciful tale of literary and political intrigue in Elizabethan England, one which seeks to cast doubt on the authenticity of Shakespeare as the author of masterpieces such as Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Hamlet.

But this belief - that Shakespeare merely took credit for someone else's work - is nothing new; there is even a movement devoted to it. Anti-Stratfordians (or Oxfordians) have been espousing this belief for over a century, and even some great actors of the British stage and screen subscribe to the theory: Derek Jacobi for one.

Jacobi makes an appearance (as himself) at the beginning of the film, arriving for a one-man show where he posits this theory to the audience, and as he regales them, Emmerich (in a clever nod to Laurence Olivier's film version of Henry V) has the modern day theatre slip away, transporting us to the rainy streets of 1600's England.

Here we meet playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), on the run from the royal guard and in possession of some manuscripts. They're lost when the theatre Johnson hides out in is torched by the guards and he's hauled off to prison for interrogation.

And it's here Anonymous becomes convoluted as it flashes back, not once but twice, so that in the space of the film's opening 15 minutes we have four separate time frames (including Jacobi's). Thankfully, Emmerich reins this in and the film settles down, for the most part dividing its story between two narratives: that of the older and the younger Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere.

The older De Vere (played in a surprisingly dramatic turn by Rhys Ifans) engages Jonson to produce his plays and give credit to 'Anonymous', for the Earl is unable to use his own name given his position in the royal court and out of deference to his wife's family, namely his disapproving father-in-law, William Cecil (David Thewlis, unrecognisable save for his voice) and hunchbacked brother-in-law, Robert (Edward Hogg).

But that plan backfires when upon the first successful performance of De Vere's Henry V (proof-positive that the St. Crispin's Day speech is stirring in any context), the libidinous actor and drunkard William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) takes to the stage to claim authorship. Not content to simply deny Shakespeare his literary legacy, Anonymous sees fit to depict him as a lecherous tool.

The filmmakers also try their hand at an alternate history, suggesting that the younger Earl of Oxford (played by Jamie Campbell Bower) not only enjoyed a romance with the young Queen Elizabeth I (played by Joely Richardson, and by her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, in later life) but that dalliance produced an illegitimate son (and not the "virgin" Queen's first, according to Orloff).

I'm thinking Anonymous is rife with historical inaccuracies. Then again, my knowledge of Elizabethan history extends to two Cate Blanchett-Shekar Kupar films, and I'll be interested to see, in the proposed third film of that saga (Elizabeth: The Olden Age?), if Shakespeare makes an appearance and if the Queen sires one or more bastards. Still, Redgrave makes for a magnificent monarch and you can see how Blanchett (and not Richardson, despite the family resemblance) might eventually evolve into such a woman.

But whether folly or blasphemy, Emmerich has had no trouble assembling an impressive cast (which incudes two Aussies: Xavier Samuel (as the Earl of Southampton) and Sam Reid (the Earl of Essex)) for Anonymous.

Emmerich's also gone to great lengths to make a good looking film, aided a great deal by the digital cinematography of first time d.o.p. Anna Foerster. Not only are the costumes (by Lisy Christl) and sets authentic (more so than the facts, at least), but the director has used his considerable expertise in visual effects to perfectly, and seamlessly, render England of the 1600s.

And for admirers of a good costume drama, fine acting and beautiful sets may be more than enough to entice them along to Anonymous. Literary and historical pedants, not to mention ardent admirers of William Shakespeare (whomever he may be), are best advised to go elsewhere.


Hopscotch Films
Now Showing
By Guest Reviewer: A.J. Smith

Have you ever wondered what the Tooth Fairy does with your teeth once it exchanges them for a coin under your pillow? Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) thinks he knows, and if you’ve seen any of his previous films, it will come as no surprise that his theory is dark, creepy, and anything but nice.

Young Sally Hurst (played by the talented Bailee Madison) has been sent by her mother to stay with her father, Alex (Guy Pearce), in Rhode Island at Blackwood, a Victorian mansion that Alex and his new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), are restoring. Alex is consumed with the restoration in order to establish himself as a world class architect, and has no time to bond with his troubled and Ritalin-popping daughter.

But we've seen in the film’s gruesome opening sequence - featuring a surprise piece of casting in Garry McDonald (best remembered for his Australian comedy character, Norman Gunston) as Emerson Blackwood, an artist and builder of the mansion - that the dark, yet beautiful mansion has a disturbing past which the caretaker, Mr. Harris (played by Jack Thompson with an almost passable American accent), would prefer to keep undiscovered.

Filmed on location just outside of Melbourne, the cinematographer and set designers offer a real treat, both indoors and out. I was envious as I watched the determined Sally explore the house and lush surrounding gardens (echoes of del Toro's own Pan's Labyrinth), and finding the mysterious hidden basement which has kept the evil imprisoned within for 100 years.

If you hear whispering voices echoing your name from deep within a subterranean ash pit, you'd remove the bolts securing the door to see what’s within, wouldn’t you? Sally does, and unwittingly unleashes the little grotesque creatures who proceed to wreak havoc upon the house. And of course, it’s only Sally who (at first) sees and hears them.

The creature design, visual effects and voice talent portraying the creatures are top notch, but the line regarding less is more is crossed too readily and they are simply not as effective as when they remained in the shadows, taunting Sally from behind teddy bears or hissing her name through the walls.

I have yet to see the 1970’s television movie which del Toro, as co-writer and producer, has based this at times scary remake on but celebrated comic book artist, Troy Nixey (Mike Mignola’s Batman, and Neil Gaiman’s Only the End of the World Again), shows great promise as a genre director in this, his feature film debut.

Bridging the gaps of logic in the script, however, proved to be a bit beyond him. Improbable actions from the adult characters left me not caring as much as the filmmakers intended us to, and Katie Holmes again shows her limited range in a role no doubt written to be a strong, sympathetic heroine but which she fails to bring off.

The real fun to be had with Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark comes from Bailee Madison’s great performance, and experiencing the terror through the eyes of the misunderstood Sally. Adults may no longer jump at things that go bump in the night, but kids know better than to close their eyes - or lose their teeth.

Sunday, 23 October 2011


Pinnacle Films
Now Showing

Ryan Gosling's Driver, so known for his skill behind the wheel - be it for a getaway car, a racing vehicle or a stunt in a movie - doesn't have an awful lot to say, subscribing to the 'actions speak louder than words' philosophy and keeping himself to himself as much as possible.

The closest person he has to a friend is Shannon (Bryan Cranston), owner of the garage where he works and a facilitator of both his gigs as stunt driver and getaway man. Shannon also has plans to go into racing with Driver as his, well, driver but he needs an investor. This brings the young man into the orbit of Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his partner-in-crime, Nino (Ron Perlman), the former the civil pyschopath yin to the latter brutish thug's yang.

As bad luck, or bad timing would have it, Driver has recently found a reason to break out of his self-imposed solitude: his pretty neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her cute young son, Benicio (Kaden Leos). He takes them both for spins in his car, and Irene out on a couple of dates, but not before too long, Irene's husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison and returns to his family.

Discovering that Standard is into some thugs for a great deal of money, and sensing the possible threat to mother and child, Driver agrees to help Standard out of his predicament with one last job. Of course, it all goes pear-shaped and the men and money Standard was connected to happens to be connected to Nino, setting in motion a chain reaction and the film's ultra-violent second half.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's new film (from a screenplay by Hossein Amini and adapted from a book by James Sallis) is as lean and muscular as his unnamed protagonist. A homage to the cars and heist films of the 1980s, including over-the-top violence and a great pop synth soundtrack (props to Cliff Martinez), Drive is a B-grade film executed at an A-grade level and arguably the coolest film of 2011.

And that's left some critics accusing it of being more style than substance, and too insular for regular cinemagoers to embrace. Drive is not Fast and Furious 5, and thank god for that. Refn, who won best Director at Cannes this year, may be making his first American film but he hasn't gone Hollywood. Anyone complaining that Drive doesn't deliver on what it promises (apparently the trailer is "misleading" to some), doesn't really have a complaint at all. Does one complain when they order Passion Pop and are served Bollinger instead?

A minor quibble (and I say this as a huge admirer of the actress) is Carey Mulligan. She seems out of place in this milieu - an English rose in the concrete jungle of Los Angeles - but my problem isn't with her performance (she's perfectly fine), simply that she isn't given a lot to do. Still, one can fully understand and appreciate Driver's desire to protect her and kill for her.

And this is, after all, Ryan Gosling's film. The young actor is so hot right now (we've just seen him in Crazy, Stupid, Love and we're soon to see him again in the political thriller, The Ides of March) and his performance here is cool personified. Driver may not say that much but Gosling's silence says a whole lot; those dreamy eyes can be equally as menacing when pushed and not for nothing does Driver sport a scorpion on his favourite jacket.

But whether for the cool factor, the homage, the violence or Gosling, do make a point of seeing Drive. If there is such a genre as art house action, then Refn's film is the perfect example of it, or perhaps the birth of it. And I say, bring it on.

Saturday, 22 October 2011


Roadshow Films
Now Showing

In a tale almost as old as time (and certainly the Bible), Gavin O'Connor's Warrior takes the Cain and Abel story of rival brothers, updates it for modern times and places it smack bang in the arena of Ultimate Fighting. The biggest surprise is just how effective - and affecting - O'Connor's film is.

That's despite a trailer which reveals almost every plot point of the film bar the actual winner of the showdown - between Conlon brothers, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy) - that constitutes the climax of Warrior, and a running time of 140 minutes (though to be fair, it's not a slog).

The brothers have been estranged since their adolescence, when Tommy and their mother left the violent, drunken household of their father, Paddy (Nick Nolte); Brendan chose to remain behind, not out of love for or loyalty to his father but for his high school sweetheart, and now wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison).

In the intervening years, Tommy witnessed the death of his mother and joined the US marines for deployment to Iraq, while Brendan became a husband and father of two as well as a high school Physics teacher, a job which puts food on the table but not nearly enough to keep up the mortgage payments.

And such is the state of the US economy, the brothers, who wrestled and boxed in their youth, are drawn back to the ring (or cage as the case may be) and an Ultimate Fighting tournament in Atlantic City boasting a winner's purse of $5 million. That kind of money will do a lot to alleviate Brendan's financial burdens as well as help Tommy fulfil a promise to a fallen marine buddy. It's the only reason Tommy has returned to his father's home: Paddy might be a drunk (although he's 100 days sober when we meet him) but the guy's a damn good trainer.

Ultimate Fighting, by the way, is a mixed martial arts sport which, to an outsider such as myself, would appear to be no-holds barred. Although in a sport that makes boxing look positively genteel, you're not allowed to attack the groin of your opponent (seemingly the most obvious and effective manoeuvre to this novice).

While the tournament takes up most of the film's second half, Warrior succeeds because of the human drama at its centre. And all three men give impressive performances. Hardy, no doubt already bulking up for his role as the villainous Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, is a beast of man but we're still able to glimpse the bruised heart behind the mighty big chip on his shoulder (and in spite of his often mumbled speech).

Nolte, after some bad performances of late (see his grizzled father in this year's Arthur, or rather, don't), gets his best role in years as a father who knows he's done wrong by his boys and is trying hard - and seemingly on a hiding to nothing - to make it right. Still, I don't think there is enough of a performance here to warrant the Oscar buzz the veteran actor has been generating for this role.

But the real revelation is Joel Edgerton. Given the meatiest role of his career to date, the Aussie actor rises to the challenge, making Brendan Conlon a believable family man who sees the only way to secure his family's future is to put his body on the line. Edgerton's working class Philly accent may waver but he never does, effortlessly balancing the tough with the tender: Hollywood take note.

If you're averse to fight films, or sporting films generally, then I can understand that Warrior will be a tough sell. But much like The Fighter earlier this year (which it will draw comparisons with not only for the fighting but for the brotherly relationship at its core), O'Connor's film is more about the people than the punching.

While Warrior doesn't have that vein of humour which The Fighter had running through it, nor does the drama weigh it down. And when that final blow comes - emotional and not physical - it'll take a harder person than most not to be won over.

Saturday, 8 October 2011


Warner Bros. Films
Now Showing

Steven Soderbergh directing a disaster film? That's ostensibly the template for medical thriller Contagion but fans of The Towering Inferno (1974) shouldn't get too excited: the director's take on the disaster film genre is far more clinical and histrionic-free than those films of the '70s and '80s.

That's in spite of a cast of Hollywood's who's who - Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Bryan Cranston, and Elliott Gould to name but a few - who may or may not survive to see the final credits.

One of those who does not survive is Gwyneth Paltrow who, as Patient X, dies in the opening minutes of the film. That's no spoiler (the trailer tells you so), and watching surgeons cut into Paltrow's skull will deliver a perverse thrill for some audience members. After travelling home to Minnesota from Hong Kong, and spreading the disease State-side following a layover (emphasis on the lay) in Chicago, Paltrow infects her young son, who also dies, but not her husband (Damon) who is immune to the virus.

American Centre for Disease Control, headed by Dr Ellis Cheever (Fishburne), sends Dr Erin Mears (Winslet) out into the field to gather intel and stem the tide, while the World Health Organization sends one of their operatives (Cotillard) to Hong Kong where they believe the virus to have originated.

Meanwhile, as scientists search for an antidote, with the most promising results achieved by the US Disease Centre's own Dr Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), thousands upon millions of people worldwide begin to die. The state of alarm isn't helped any by San Francisco-based Aussie blogger, Alan Krumwiede (Law), who sees (and creates) conspiracies at every turn.

The events in Contagion play out much like they would in real life. Soderbergh, working from a screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, depicts the action in a matter-of-fact manner which doesn't detract from the intrigue but won't necessarily affect you emotionally nor satisfy those looking for heightened drama and action.

Contagion is a detached but not disengaged exercise with Soderbergh's digital camerawork, cool and crisp, and the constant yet understated throbbing score by Cliff Martinez (who also did the excellent soundtrack for Refn's upcoming Drive) adding to the mood.

If you weren't already a germ-o-phobe, Contagion will leave you second guessing every minor daily action and interaction, from shaking hands to touching door handles. And every cough and sneeze you hear while watching Contagion is likely to induce some nervous laughter. One thing's for sure, you're likely to remove pork from your diet for a week or two if not permanently.


Hoyts Distribution
Now Showing

The huge box office success of The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is perhaps the only way to explain why we have a new movie about the Three Musketeers. Sensing an audience appreciation for swashbuckling and pantaloons, Hollywood no doubt went in search of an already established brand and, et viola!, rediscovered Alexandre Dumas' classic tales of derring-do in 17th century France.

I'm not sure which, if any, of Dumas' Musketeers novels Paul W.S. Anderson's film (penned by Alex Litvak and Andrew Davies) is based on but it involves airships (100 years or so too early for such an invention but never mind), the director's wife (Milla Jovovich), an Oscar winner (Christoph Waltz) and a plot to bring about war between France and England predicated on the whereabouts of a necklace.

That piece of jewellery is stolen from the Queen of France (Juno Temple) and intended to implicate her in an affair with the dastardly Englishman, the Duke of Buckingham (Orlando Bloom), whose eyes and ears in the French palace belong to Milady (Jovovich). But she just happens to be a double agent, working with Cardinal Richiliue (Waltz) who wants to bring about war as a means of usurping the young, foppish King Louis VIII (Freddie Fox), a monarch more preoccupied with the colour of his pantaloons than politics.

But what of the Musketeers, I hear you ask. Surprisingly, and sadly for fans of Dumas, the trio are the least interesting and underdeveloped characters in the film. Following a failed mission in the film's opening sequence, which sees them one-upped by Milady and Buckingham in obtaining Leonardo Da Vinci's plans for said airship, Athos (Matthew McFadyen), Aramis (Chris Evans), Porthos (Ray Stevenson) are left broken men and shadows of their former heroic selves.

But their spark (if not the actors' interest; MacFadyen delivers his lines with undisguised boredom) is reignited when young D'Artagnan (Logan Lerman), fresh from his father's farm, rides into Paris and manages to pick a fight with all three men, not to mention the Cardinal's guard, led by an unrecognisable-to-me Mads Mikkelsen.

D'Artagnan's pluck and swordsmanship impresses the Musketeers and he will eventually rally them to take on the Cardinal, Milady and Buckingham in defense of the French throne, as well as to impress the Queen's lovely (and possibly chronically fatigued) lady-in-waiting.

The Three Musketeers could certainly be enjoyed by a younger audience (despite all the swordplay there is very little blood), and certainly a less demanding one, but for the very little it does well - Fox and Temple make for quirky royals; Paul D. Austerberry's production design is impressive, as is the art direction, and the costumes by Pierre-Yves Gayraud - Anderson's film is offset by all it does badly.

While most everybody is speaking with English accents, despite mostly being French (not uncommon in these types of films), Logan Lerman doesn't even attempt to disguise his American accent. Jovovich poses rather than acts, while Bloom is only ever one dastardly chuckle away from twirling his moustache. And Christoph Waltz, while not disgraced here, really should fire whomever it is who keeps insisting he read screenplays where he is earmarked for the role of villain. Hollywood typecasting much?

As for the 3D in The Three Musketeers, it's neither here nor there but much like the film itself, is completely unnecessary. And while the film ends with the suggestion of a sequel, I think that's more wishful thinking on Anderson et al's part as all evidence is to the contrary. To bastardise the Musketeers' motto, all for one and one is all there should be.


Hopscotch Films
Now Showing

Someone once famously said that you can never go home again but you can, according to Woody Allen, return to Paris of the 1920s. Such is the conceit of the writer-director's new film, Midnight In Paris, and what a wonderful conceit - and film - it is.

Much like what happened with the New York auteur's 2005 film, Match Point (England), and 2008's Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Spain), Allen has once again been rejuvenated by a change of locale. This time it is the French capital, acting as both the background for, and a character in the story, which has given the 75-year-old a new lease on life.

Similarly, the City of Lights has the same effect on Gil Pender (Owen Wilson). The Hollywood screenwriter, who is struggling to complete his first novel, has come to Paris with his shrewish fiance, Inez (Rachel McAdams), to take in the culture whilst his future in-laws (nouveau riche Republicans played by Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) do some business with the French.

But when Inez decides she'd rather spend time with her one-time college professor, Paul (Michael Sheen), a pseudo intellectual and "expert" in everything who prefaces every statement with "If I'm not mistaken", Gil is left to his own devices. One night, after a little too much wine and wandering the streets alone, Gil is invited into a vintage car which whisks him away to a party - in the 1920s.

There he meets F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife, Zelda (Alison Pill), Cole Porter (Yves Heck) and, later that evening, Ernest Hemingway (a pitch-perfect Corey Stoll). On subsequent midnight visits to the past he encounters the likes of Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Luis Bunuel, Pablo Picasso and Man Ray, while the likes of Djuna Barnes, Josephine Baker and T.S. Elliot are glimpsed in passing.

But the most impactful person he meets is artist's muse, Adriana, and given that she's played by the ever-lovely Marion Cotillard you can hardly blame him. Adriana, like Gil, has a hankering for the past, but for her it's France's Belle Epoque era. When Gil confides in her that he's from the future and that Paris in the 1920s is his Belle Epoque, she is surprised: but the '20s are so boring!

Allen's Midnight In Paris is as much a nostalgia piece as it is a reminder to live in and enjoy the now, for those who live in the past are often doomed to miss the present. That would certainly explain why Gil would want to marry Inez (other than her looking like Rachel McAdams). So preoccupied is he with his book (about a man who runs a nostalgia shop), Gil doesn't seem to mind that their only connection is a love of Indian food. Well, pita bread at least.

I'm not a fan of Owen Wilson (his drawl, his broken nose or his style of humour) but he's effective as Allen's avatar, as are the big and not-so-big name actors playing the roles of Gil's literary and artistic idols; Corey Stoll's bursting with testosterone Hemingway being the highlight.

But it's Marion Cotillard, as much as Woody Allen's overall conceit, which won me over; I fall a little more in love with Cotillard with every new film I see her in. After winning the Best Actress Oscar in 2007 (for playing Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose), she has gone from strength to strength; the 'best in show' in Rob Marshall's 9 (2009) and the emotional core of Inception (2010).

You can also see her this week in Steven Soderbergh's all-star disease thriller, Contagion. But I'd suggest you head first to Midnight In Paris, a gem of a film in this, or any year.


Universal Pictures
Now Showing

If, like me, you've never seen John Carpenter's 1982 original The Thing, or the Howard Hawkes produced 1951 film, The Thing From Another World, nor read John W. Campbell Jr.'s original short story, Who Goes There?, which spawned every "thing", then chances are you'll have a good time with this prequel to the 1982 film.

This The Thing, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr, is a suitably suspenseful if not entirely scary horror film, set in Antarctica where a group of Norwegian scientists stumble upon possibly the greatest discovery of all time: an alien spacecraft which appears to have crashed thousands of years ago.

American biologist, Kate Loyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), is recruited by Dr Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to help extract the alien biological entity which piloted the craft, but once it's brought back to base and thaws out, starts picking off the inhabitants (which includes a couple of American chopper pilots, played Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) one by one.

But not just by ripping out their spleens, oh no. The Thing prefers to absorb its prey, hiding within their skin and masquerading as the deceased; it's greatest weapon is the fear and suspicion it creates. That and its giant vagina-like jaws.

There's an Alien like vibe to these proceedings but van Heijningen Jr's film never reaches the cinematic heights of Ridley Scott's 1979 classic. Similarly, the film also boasts a strong female lead in Winstead. Kate Lloyd may not be as kick ass as Sigourney Weaver's Ripley but she seems like a good person to have around in a crisis. A scientist who's more practical than most people are in situations like this, Kate's able to keep her head when those around her are, quite literally, losing theirs. She's also pretty handy with a flame thrower.

Of course, I'm now tempted to go back and watch Carpenter's The Thing which, I understand, begins at the very point this prequel ends. But even without seeing that film, I got a buzz from the closing credits of The Thing 2011, which recreates the opening moments of the 1982 film involving a helicopter, a gun and a dog.

Fans may not be overly impressed, and I can understand and appreciate that position, but for the uninitiated and the less hardcore, this The Thing may prove to be your thing.


Sony Pictures
Now Showing

Note: this is an edited version of my original review which I wrote after seeing Take Shelter at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival. I have since seen the film a second time.

When Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) starts having dreams of impending doom - a gathering storm, rain like petrol, and mysterious 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 also starred Shannon, is an effective thriller albeit a little too much of a slow burn for my liking. Take Shelter is a two hour film and it feels like it, even on a second viewing. That isn't to say that it's dull or boring, but Nichols takes his sweet time in letting his story unfold and his protagonist unravel. Then again, that deliberate pacing helps Nichols establish a growing sense of paranoia and dread, mirrored perfectly in Michael 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. In a just world, Shannon would be a serious contender for a Best Actor Oscar nomination this year.

Chastain is good, too, making the role of the supportive but impotent wife, Samantha, completely different from the vaguely similar role she played in Malick's film. You get the very strong sense that Chastain's character took her wedding vows of 'in sickness and in health' seriously.

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.


2oth Century Fox Films
Now Showing

Despite being predicated on a flimsy high concept - a woman goes in search of her ex-lovers to find the one that got away just so she doesn't exceed the number of lovers - 20 - which would render her doomed never to marry - What's Your Number? is not the worst film of the year.

Don't get me wrong, Mark Mylod's film is by no means a great one and it's only ever a good film fleetingly but then, it's been a while since Hollywood has produced a truly good romantic comedy. 2009's (500) Days of Summer was arguably the last one and that was because it turned the rom-com conventions on their head, or rather, spliced them into non-chronological order and in the end, the boy didn't get the girl (or, not the one we thought he would).

There's no such doubts in What's Your Number? with recently retrenched Ally Darling (Anna Faris) destined to fall for her hunky cad of a neighbour, Colin (Chris Evans), even as they spend three-quarters of the film as uneasy allies in pursuit of her ex-lovers. As newly unemployed and a musician, the pair have time on their hands; Colin offering his people finding skills gleaned from his police officer dad, and in return Ally provides her apartment as sanctuary for him to hide in from the previous night's one night stands.

Faris and Evans are both likeable enough, he even more so as he spends the majority of the film in various states of undress, but neither can succeed in rising above the material, which like a lot of rom-coms and chick flicks of late, isn't afraid to go blue for its laughs. I don't have a problem with that, but smut and wit need not be strange bedfellows (see Bridesmaids).

One gets the feeling that Ally's reconnection with her exes - played by the likes of comic Andy Samberg, future Hobbit Martin Freeman, and The Hurt Locker's Anthony Mackie - were meant to be funnier and more absurd segments, and I'd suggest some scenes were shortened in the editing process. One set-up, where Ally visits an ex who is now a Florida-based gynaecologist is, thankfully, short on vagina jokes but makes absolutely no mention of her suddenly developing the complexion of an Oompa Loompa.

But many of my fellow reviewers would argue there's a lot more wrong with What's Your Number? than matters of spray tan continuity, and they'd be right. But worst film of the year? I don't think so. I've seen worse and, with three months left in 2011, am also certain I'll see more. What's Your Number? may rank high on the list of 2011's worst, but I'm saving my #1 for something "special".

Saturday, 1 October 2011


DreamWorks/Walt Disney Studio Films
Now Showing

Rocky with robots; The Champ with microchips. Real Steel is an amalgam of every boxing film you've ever seen with the only difference being the pugilists are not flesh and blood but, well, real steel.

But in spite of the film being cobbled together from bits and pieces - much like Atom, the fighting robot at the centre of the action - Real Steel manages to overcome any deficiencies or doubts one may have (and I had a couple going in) to succeed as popcorn entertainment.

Set in the not-too-distant future where not much has noticeably changed except for a great leap forward in robot technology, Real Steel sees fighting robots as commonplace as smartphones (and just as regularly updated), and replacing humans as the combatants in the ring.

One of those former fighter's is Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) who, without a belt to fight for, has taken to travelling the backroads of the States, attempting to make a buck off the amateur boxing 'bot circuit. Down on his luck and in debt, Charlie's fortunes take a turn when a former lover passes away and his estranged 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), is left motherless.

Charlie is happy to pass the boy off to his aunt (Hope Davis) and her rich husband (James Rebhorn), but sensing an opportunity, manages to have the rich man pay him to take the boy for the summer while the couple vacation in Italy. As far as deadbeat dads go, Charlie is as seemingly dead inside as they come.

It will come as no surprise that father and son will eventually bond, an inevitability facilitated by the discovery of an old, abandoned sparring bot named Atom who Max cleans up and decides will become a champ. The kid is nothing but persistent, almost to a fault; your tolerance for Goyo will very much depend on your tolerance for opinionated pre-teens.

More troubling for me, initially, were the fighting robots and Hugh Jackman. If the Transformers films and the climaxes of both Iron Man films taught us nothing else, it is that the sight of CGI metal men going medieval on each other does not make for great cinema.

But the 'bots here look impressive (and apparently not all of it CGI), and even more so is Shawn Levy's ability to have us care about the outcome of Atom's bouts. The film doesn't expand on the idea that Atom is more intelligent than his owners suspect, but you'll be cheering him on just the same.

As for Jackman, I'm not a fan. Yes he's charming and good looking but I've yet to find him convincing on screen. His Charlie is a grade-A jerk and hard to like, and given that the hurt at the loss of his boxing career isn't played up, his moment when it comes isn't as affecting or redemptive as the film, and the tears of Charlie's on-again-off-again girlfriend, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), would have us believe.

Still, I defy you not to be absorbed in that final bout which constitutes Real Steal's climax, as Atom takes on the undefeated champ of the pro boxing 'bot world; a Goliath of a machine named Zeus owned by a Russian millionairess, Farra Lemkova (played by the fun to say, Olga Fonda, and no doubt intended as a nod to Rocky IV's Brigitte Nielsen).

Ordinarily I'd say a film which makes you care more for a CGI robot than the human father-son relationship at its centre is a failure, but Real Steel manages to come out a winner if only on a points decision.


Paramount Pictures
Now Showing

It is a universally acknowledged truth that it is humanly impossible to hear the Kenny Loggins song, Footloose, and not want to dance. Now 27 years later, that song, from the film of the same name, is about to get toes tapping once more with the release of the remake.

Craig Brewer's film is actually more of a cover version, one which remains true to the melody and without the Idol contestant vocal gymnastics; he knows what works and what the people want. Brewer (who made the excellent Hustle and Flow, in 2005) also understands that even when remaking a film, there are some things you don't mess with, and Kenny Loggins' song is just one of them.

The new Footloose (Footloose 2011? Footloose 2.0?) opens with the adolescents of Bomont living it up to the Loggins hit (they obviously live in a parallel world where the song exists but the film that inspired it doesn't?) on the outskirts of town, before a group of them, intoxicated and carefree, drive off and headlong into a semi trailer.

That tragedy inspires the town Council, lead by Reverend Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid) who lost his only son in the accident, to enact a curfew for the Bomont youth and the outlawing of dancing.

The rest of the film plays out virtually scene-for-scene like the original, with the arrival in town of a young man with an aversion to authority and a desire to dance. Ren McCormick (Kenny Wormald), a Boston boy mourning the death of his mother, comes to stay with his uncle (Ray McKinnon) and aunt (Kim Dickens), and not only falls for the Reverend's daughter, Ariel (Julianne Hough), but sets about challenging the town's oppressive anti-dance laws, assisted by the cowboy-hatted boy who can't dance, Willard (Miles Teller, last seen in Rabbit Hole and best in show here).

If you wanted to, you could read the new Footloose as a post-9-11 parable - in the wake of an extreme disaster, laws are enacted which, whilst intended to protect, stifle and oppress - but that would be giving its creators (the new screenplay is by Brewer and original scribe, Dean Pitchford) far too much credit, and the film a heavier burden than it already has: that of living up to the original.

As it is, the new Footloose is pretty good on its feet, barely putting a foot wrong and hitting all the right notes. It doesn't necessarily distinguish itself from the original in any meaningful way - and granted, die hard fans of the Kevin Bacon classic will not so readily see let alone embrace this admittedly unnecessary remake - but nor does it tarnish the memory of the 1984 film.