Monday, 31 January 2011

FILM REVIEW: 127 HOURS

20th Century Fox
Now Showing


When I was younger and just discovering tennis, I thought that the worst tragedy that could befall me would be to lose a limb, especially a leg. I had devised a (morbid) hypothetical that, should I be diagnosed with some form of cancer which required the removal of my leg to ensure my survival, I would opt to keep the leg, bravely keep playing tennis through the pain and die a martyr to my new found passion. Oh, the folly of youth.

Aron Ralston, a carefree young man and extreme weekend adventurer probably never entertained such hypotheticals; it's doubtful he even contemplated death. But then one weekend in 2003, whilst out canyoning in Utah and alone as always, he slipped, fell and found his right arm pinned between a boulder, literally between a rock and a hard place.

That's the name of Ralston's book which details the five and a bit days – 127 hours – he spent trapped in that canyon; with little food or water (forced to drink his urine), hallucinating from dehydration, and eventually forced to make a tough decision: sever his arm or perish.

Director Danny Boyle, and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (who also penned Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire), have opened up Ralston's intense but brief story so it's not the claustrophobic exercise in style that was Rodrigo Cortes's Buried (2010), which (successfully) saw Ryan Reynolds spend 90-odd minutes trapped in a box with nothing but a mobile phone to play off.

Boyle brings all of his directorial flair – split screens, soaring vistas of the desert, handy-cam footage, flashbacks and hallucinations – to bear on the bare bones material, aided immensely by his two cinematographers, Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle. And, of course, the performance by James Franco.

As Ralston, Franco has little room to work with physically but the success of 127 Hours rests squarely on his shoulders given he is, for the most part, the only person on screen. Franco captures the adventurous spirit of Ralston as well as the inherent arrogance and selfishness, traits which Ralston is made all too aware of in light of his imminent demise.

That demise is, of course, avoided by that fateful decision and that one scene – the money shot, if you will – where Ralston, with nothing but a pocket knife, amputates his arm to gain his freedom. It's a tough scene to watch; I tried two times and failed. But it's the sound of the bones he has to break before he can cut that really did me in. Would I be able to do that? Could you make that choice?

To paraphrase another Boyle film (2006's Trainspotting), Aron Ralston chose life. As such, 127 Hours is a celebration of the human spirit; it's life affirming but not in the trite way that so many films can be. It's an intense but rewarding experience.

FILM REVIEW: NO STRINGS ATTACHED

Paramount Pictures
Now Showing


No Strings Attached bills itself as a sex comedy as opposed to a rom-com, and with good reason given the nadir that genre finds itself in of late. But for all its blue talk and extolling of the 'friends with benefits' scheme, the film falls back on rom-com conventions sooner rather than later, with love trumping sexual gratification and the man inexplicably getting his way.

That's despite the typical male role being assigned to Natalie Portman's Emma, a doctor who works 80 hours a week and has no time for the hassles that inherently come with relationships. Adam (Ashton Kutcher), an intermittent acquaintance of Emma's over the years following their first meeting at summer camp (where he politely asked if he could 'finger' her), is only to happy to fulfill the role of on-call booty call (the film's original title was F*ckbuddies).

That is until it becomes clear that Adam's feelings for Emma reside mostly in his chest cavity and not his nether regions. He wants more than sex; he wants a relationship. Yes, Adam has been assigned the typical female role in No Stings Attached, an inversion which allows women's (supposed) desire for commitment to be championed whilst simultaneously allowing the man to be in the right. Take that, feminism!

Okay, so No Strings Attached is not without its laughs. Veteran director Ivan Reitman (working from a screenplay by Elizabeth Meriwether) knows a thing or two about comedy, but even supporting roles by Kevin Kline (as Adam's cradle-robbing father) and an underused Greta Gerwig (a surprise find in last year's Greenberg) can only do so much. Portman and Kutcher make for an attractive though remarkably bland couple.

Still, Portman (who also executive produced the film) doesn't disgrace herself and is in no danger of derailing her Oscar chances with this trifle. No Strings is no Norbit, the film which supposedly brought Eddie Murphy's bid for an Oscar for Dreamgirls undone.

No doubt No Strings Attached will be the Valentine's Day date movie of choice for 2011, just as Garry Marshall's Valentine's Day was last year and He's Just Not That Into You the year before. Personally, I prefer chocolates.

FILM REVIEW: TAMARA DREWE

Roadshow Films
Now Showing


Never having read Posey Simmonds' graphic novel, Tamara Drewe, it may be a bit rash of me to suggest that the eponymous character, successful columnist with a new nose and a lousy love life, was some sort of response to Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones. But the similarities are there.

Where Fielding drew from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Simmonds' novel owes a debt of gratitude to the far more brooding works of Thomas Hardy. Not that the film version, directed by Stephen Frears (of The Queen fame), is anything less than a comic romp.

But unlike the film versions of Bridget Jones, Frears' film, adapted by Moira Buffini, isn't focussed solely on the exploits of Tamara Drewe. He visits with a variety of characters who inhabit Hadditon, a small village outside of London from whence Tamara fled to the city, had a nose job and became a successful columnist, writing about her favourite subject – herself.

Tamara's return to Hadditon, to sell the family home, is the catalyst for upheaval, intentional or not, in the lives of those she comes into contact with. These include hunky farmhand and high school beau, Andy (Luke Evans), neighbouring crime author with a wandering eye, Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam), and his loyal wife, Beth (Tamsin Greig), and American author Glenn (Bill Camp), attending a writers retreat on the Hardiment's farm and struggling with his bio of Thomas Hardy.

There's also local school girls, Jody (Jessican Baren) and Casey (Charlotte Christie), bored teenagers who transform from quasi Greek chorus to agent provocateurs when their favourite rock musician, drummer/songwriter Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper), sweeps into Hadditon and into Tamara's bed.

All of this action, which takes place over the course of a year, is handled lightly enough by Frears even as the inevitable Hardy-esque tragedy looms. Like I said, it's a romp. And the ubiquitous Gemma Arterton makes for a fetching if somewhat thinly drawn heroine. She's a far pricklier creation than Renee Zellweger's Bridget Jones, but if you're more inclined to Hardy than Austen, prefer bitter to the sweet, than Tamara Drewe may be just the girl for you.

FILM REVIEW: THE NEXT THREE DAYS

Roadshow Films
Now Showing


Anything For Her was a French film released in Australia in late 2010; it was the story of a man who was prepared to go to great lengths to free his wife from prison following her sentencing for murder. I didn't see that film but I'm guessing the change of title in the American remake, The Next Three Days, suggests director Paul Haggis took a slightly different approach to the material.

The basics seem the same: John Brennan (Russell Crowe) is a teacher at a Pittsburgh community college who is called upon to go above and beyond the matrimonial vows of in sickness and in health when his wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), receives a life sentence for the murder of her employer.

With a failed appeal and finances strained, the mild mannered English teacher devises a plan to break his supposedly innocent wife out of maximum security prison and flee the country. Ah, the things we do for love.

This film's title, The Next Three Days, implies a thriller but Haggis's remake only really heats up in the third act when Brennan's escape plan is enacted. Before that we have to endure the ups and downs of Brennan's day-to-day torment as he juggles masterminding a prison escape – learning how to pick locks, open locked cars with tennis balls, and dealing with the local criminal element for necessaries such as fake passports – with the demands of single parenting.

Crowe is actually rather convincing as the everyday man prepared to go to any lengths for the woman he loves, even if he has to break several laws to do so. But the moment Brennan raids and torches a meth lab in search of much needed cash – not quite Harry Brown-style but still OTT – is about the moment the film demands far too great a suspension of disbelief.

Until that point, The Next Three Days is a serviceable enough drama. But at almost 30 minutes longer than the French original, Haggis, who also penned the screenplay, could have trimmed the fat and tightened the pacing. He could also have given an actor like Brian Dennehy, who plays Brennan's distant father, far more to do and say (I think he spoke no more than 20 words!).

The film could certainly do with a few more “real” moments, like when Brennan says a poignant, final goodbye to his dad, and less of the unreal action that follows.

FILM REVIEW: TRUE GRIT



Paramount Pictures
Now Showing


Never having seen the original True Grit (1969), nor being a fan of John Wayne – he pretty much just played himself in every film, right? – I had no qualms about a remake of the Western which won Wayne his only Oscar. In fact, with the Coens, brothers Ethan and Joel at the helm, I was looking forward to True Grit 2010.

And I couldn't have been more rewarded. The Coens, who have been enjoying a creative purple patch in recent years – beginning with their Best Picture Oscar winner No Country For Old Men (2007), followed by the fun Burn After Reading (2008), and the Oscar-nominated A Serious Man (2009) – have done it again.

Their True Grit, adhering more to Charles Portis's 1968 novel as a blueprint rather than the following year's film version, is rich with the vernacular of the times – Wild West America – which marries perfectly with the Coens' sense of humour.

When the father of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is gunned down and the law seems disinterested in pursuing the assailant, Tom Chaney, Mattie hires US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, in the John Wayne role) to track him down and bring him to justice. That may not necessarily mean bringing him in alive; Rooster has a history of opting for the dead half of the standard 'dead or alive' equation, and Mattie seems impressed by this show of 'true grit'.

Rooster is less impressed when Mattie decides she will accompany the lawman into the Indian territories to help apprehend her man. The pair are joined by Texas Ranger, LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), who also wants to bring in Chaney on pre-existing charges, ones which would see Mattie's thirst for vengeance usurped.

They make for an odd but highly entertaining trio: Bridges all grizzly and gruff as the hard drinking Marshall; Damon once again displaying his comic chops as the more bluff than tough Ranger LeBoeuf (pronounced Le Beef); and Steinfeld as the stubborn, head strong young girl who, despite her drive and intellect – she quotes the Bible, Latin and the law in equal measure – really is just that, a girl. It's a terrific performance by Steinfeld, made all the more remarkable given that it is her feature film debut.

The original True Grit marked somewhat of a passing of the Hollywood Western with only few successful attempts in the genre in the intervening decades; Dances With Wolves (1990) and Unforgiven (1992) the most notable recent examples.

Ironically, the Coens' True Grit has not only scored 10 Oscar nominations (including Picture, Director, Actor for Bridges and Supporting Actress for Steinfled, although she is clearly the lead!) but has blitzed the US box office. Grossing $150 million since releasing Christmas week, the film has given the Coens their first $100m grosser domestically, and a much wider audience than they have ever had but have always deserved. Saddle up for one of the year's best.


Tuesday, 18 January 2011

FILM REVIEW: HOW DO YOU KNOW




Sony Pictures
Now Showing


The title, of course, refers to love: how do you know when you've found it? In most romantic comedies, the protagonists are either struck by a lightning bolt, love at first meet-cute kind of thing, or they spend the first 90 minutes of the film bickering only to fall into each others' arms in the denouement. Either way, the ending is never in doubt and love is the winner on the day.

James L. Brooks, directing his first film since Spanglish (2004), doesn't necessarily subvert the rom-com genre in any major ways but he does recognise that the dating scene – and therefore finding love – isn't as simple as Hollywood would have us believe, which is a somewhat radical notion in itself.

Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) hasn't had much time for a serious romance having devoted herself to the life a professional athlete. But when she's cut from the US softball team, the 31-year-old finds herself without focus or purpose. She also finds herself the centre of romantic attention for two men, neither of whom would be classed as a modern day Mr. Darcy.

Matty (Owen Wilson) is a pro baseball player and as an athlete can understand Lisa's sudden lack of purpose. Or he would if he wasn't so self obsessed. This is a man who equates monogamy with practising safe sex with his other, anonymous sexual partners. As a consequence, of this and other selfish behaviour on Matty's part, Lisa spends a great deal of time in the film moving in and out of his penthouse apartment. She seems to be under the impression that if she works hard enough at the relationship – like in training – she'll eventually see some results.

Lisa's other suitor is George (Paul Rudd), who's placed in Lisa's orbit by a teammate as a blind date at the precise moment that George's life and career goes into free fall following some shady business dealings by his company. Despite the launch of a federal investigation into him, and the possibility of jail time, George is smitten with Lisa and eager, though cautious, to pursue her; bouncing around like a lovesick puppy whenever he's in her company.

Is this what the modern woman's choices have been reduced to: the libidinous jock and the soft-cock embezzler? Get thee to a nunnery! Brooks, who has been responsible for some smart films – Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets – is too smart to suggest this is indeed a woman's lot. This is just where Lisa happens to find herself (between a rock and a dating hard place?) and as it's the first time she's ever had to deal with romantic complications, it's a pretty good place to start. A softballer knows, you have to play the minor leagues before you get called up for the Olympics.

At two hours the film could certainly use a trim, and I could have done without the self help-inspired dialogue, as well as Jack Nicholson's distracting supporting turn (he plays George's father, and the cause of most of his troubles), but overall How Do You Know is not as bad as US reviews (it has a Metacritic score of 46/100) would have us believe. It's not a perfect film by any means, but there are far worse flirtations to endure.

2010 OSCAR NOMINATIONS RECAP


There were very few surprises with the 2010 Oscar nominations (there rarely are this late in awards season) which were announced in the wee hours of this morning, Australia Day significantly enough. As expected, Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech) and Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole) were nominated in the Supporting Actor and Lead Actress categories respectively, while the pleasant surprise was Jacki Weaver's inclusion in the Supporting Actress field, for her role in Animal Kingdom.

She'll face tough competition though, most notably from The Fighter women, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams, as well as Hailee Steinfeld who, while the lead in True Grit, finds herself in Supporting and a likely winner.

Much the same can be said of her film, the Coens' True Grit which, with 10 nominations (including Best Picture and Director), is second only to The King's Speech (also up for Picture and Director) with 12. The critical favourite, The Social Network, scored 8 nominations but history shows that often the film with the most nods wins BP. We have a race on our hands, people!

Still, it's unlikely TSN's David Fincher will lose the Director Oscar whatever happens. Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), David O. Russell (The Fighter) round out that field with Hooper and the Coens; the notable omission: Christopher Nolan for Inception. That film also scored 8 noms, including Best Picture but once again (following The Dark Knight snub of 2008), the Academy has shown no love for Nolan.

The surprises in the acting categories were few but mostly pleasant. Weaver, as already stated; John Hawkes (Winter's Bone) and Jeremy Renner (The Town), both for Supporting Actor, the latter no doubt a result of residual good will for last year's The Hurt Locker. Sadly, Sam Rockwell (Conviction) and Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) missed out. But Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right) made it, as did the likely winner Christian Bale (The Fighter).

Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine) was the recipient of that highly sought after fifth spot in the Lead Actress race; SAG nominee Hilary Swank (Conviction) didn't make it, nor, sadly, did Lesley Manville who gave one of the best performances of 2010 in Mike Leigh's Another Year. Along with Williams and Kidman are Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone), and the two favourites, Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right) and Natalie Portman (Black Swan).

In the Best Actor field, veteran Robert Duvall (Get Low) missed out, as did Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine). But Jeff Bridges (True Grit) made it in for the second year running, while Javier Bardem was the big surprise, scoring a nod for the Spanish-language film, Biutiful. Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) and James Franco (127 Hours) were also nominated but the overwhelming favourite to take out the Best Actor Oscar remains Colin Firth (The King's Speech).

FILM REVIEW: ANOTHER YEAR

Icon Film Distribution

Now Showing




It's a simple enough premise: a year in the lives of a post-middle aged London couple, their adult son, and their small circle of friends, told in four vignettes correlating with the seasons. But a Mike Leigh film is never that simple.

The Brit director who has a reputation for workshopping his treatments with his cast, discovering his characters and story in the process, and more often than not focusing his gaze on England's working and lower middle classes, has an unflinching eye when it comes to the foibles of his fellow man.

Even when he's in a lighter mood, the gaze can be unforgiving. Leigh's previous film, Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), revolved around the eternally optimistic Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a school teacher who saw life as a glass always half full; a happy zeal bordering on scary. There is a brief moment in that film, where Poppy encounters a homeless man, and we see her permanent smile turned down and we glimpse the possibility that some underlying sadness is being held at bay.

In Another Year, that unhappiness is given full reign in Mary. A post-40, divorced secretary who enjoys one too many glasses of wine, Mary (a heartbreaking serio-comic performance by Lesley Manville) is the poster child for dateless and desperate, a condition brought into sharp focus by the company she keeps: Tom and Gerri.

Best described as ageing hippies, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are as fundamentally happy as Mary is unhappy. When they're not at work (Tom as an engineering geologist; Mary as a counsellor at a medical clinic), the couple tend a plot of vegetables and herbs at their local community garden, host friends for evenings of dinner and wine in their spacious London home, and have a healthy, uncomplicated relationship with their 30-year-old son, Joe (Oliver Maltman).

Over the course of the year, we witness the ebb and flow of Tom and Gerri's lives and the changing dynamic between them and Mary, as her life becomes increasingly unravelled. I'm not sure if Leigh intends us to merely pity Mary and her circumstances or heed it as a warning: singledom is its own kind of hell; partnership is heaven. That's perhaps a rather trite and acute reading of Leigh's intent but if indeed the case, one this reviewer (and confirmed bachelor) takes great exception to.

There's an air of smugness about Tom and Gerri; not only do they have a good life but they seem to surround themselves with damaged people (an old college buddy, Ken (Peter Wight), the male equivalent of Mary, comes to stay with the couple) in order underline their good fortune. They seem to tolerate Mary rather than accept her, and when Gerri has to choose between family and friendship, she callously ends the latter.

That punishment is revealed in the film's final vignette – winter, aptly enough – as is the desperate state of Mary's existence as a consequence. Welcomed back to Tom and Gerri's table, the final shot of Another Year is a silent observation of Mary. It's a terrific performance by Lesley Manville, sadly one that has gone largely unrecognised this awards season. No matter. Awards come and go but Manville's Mary will haunt you.

FILM REVIEW: CATFISH




Hopscotch Films
Now Showing

The first rule of Catfish is, don't talk about Catfish. A cautionary tale about the pitfalls of social networking, this documentary, co-directed by Ariel Shulman and Henry Joost, delivers a far greater punch if you go in knowing as little about it as possible.

In 2008, Nev Shulman, brother of the director, commenced an online friendship with a woman named Angela. The impetus? Her 8-year-old daughter, Abby, produced a painting of one of Nev's photographs which had appeared in a newspaper. Nev, both flattered and impressed by Abby's talent, soon found himself drawn into the lives of Angela and Abby, and falling for Megan, Angela's 19-year-old daughter.

Nev and Megan, began a virtual, long distance (he's a New Yorker; she was in Michigan) relationship, consisting of Facebook and text messages and the occasional phone call. And then . . . . I'll say no more, lest I spoil the surprises that lie in wait.

Even before the advent of Facebook, the internet was already a place where people could connect – befriend, chat – with anyone, anywhere in the world. It also provides the perfect opportunity to become anyone – someone – else. That misrepresentation (fraud? deceit?) isn't always meant with malicious intent, but everyone should be aware that what is said online, especially between people who have never met, needs to be taken with a healthy dose of salt.

As avowed non-Facebook user, part of me responds to the events detailed in Catfish with a 'reap what you sew' sense of schadenfreude, and an emphatic, 'well, der!' But that isn't to say I'm without empathy for Angela and her ilk; people whose lives may be dreary, unrewarding or merely in need of infrequent respites from every day reality.

On the other hand, might I suggest people take some time out from Facebook, and other online preoccupations (and, yes, I'm aware of the irony of a blogger suggesting as such), and make some real friends?


Tuesday, 11 January 2011

OSCARS 2010 REPORT #6: FINAL PREDICTIONS

Ahead of the announcement of Oscar nominations early morning Wednesday, here are my final predictions. Some are personal favourites, others simply can't be denied. Here's hoping the announcement coinciding with Australia Day is a good omen for Geoffrey Rush (a definite), Nicole Kidman (almost certain) and Jacki Weaver (fingers crossed).


BEST PICTURE

The Social Network
The King's Speech
Toy Story 3

Black Swan
The Fighter
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
True Grit

Winter's Bone
127 Hours

Alt: The Town (I personally don't think it's BP material, but pundits seem to think it is)


BEST DIRECTOR

David Fincher - The Social Network
Tom Hooper - The King's Speech
Darren Aronofsky - Black Swan
The Coen Bros - True Grit
Christopher Nolan - Inception

Alt: David O. Russell - The Fighter (He was a DGA nominee and the Coens were not)


BEST ACTOR

Colin Firth - The King's Speech
James Franco - 127 Hours
Jesse Eisenberg - The Social Network
Robert Duvall - Get Low
Ryan Gosling - Blue Valentine

Alt: Jeff Bridges - True Grit/Mark Wahlberg - The Fighter (either one could replace Gosling, as both their films have momentum)


BEST ACTRESS:

Natalie Portman - Black Swan
Annette Bening - The Kids Are All Right
Jennifer Lawrence - Winter's Bone
Nicole Kidman - Rabbit Hole
Hailee Steinfeld - True Grit (Steinfeld may land in Supporting but really should be here)

Alt: Hilary Swank - Conviction (SAG nominee)/Julianne Moore - The Kids Are All Right (BAFTA nominee)


SUPPORTING ACTOR

Christian Bale - The Fighter
Geoffrey Rush - The King's Speech
Mark Ruffalo - The Kids Are All Right
Andrew Gilbert - The Social Network
Sam Rockwell - Conviction

Alt: John Hawkes - Winter's Bone (SAG nominee)

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Amy Adams - The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter - The King's Speech
Melissa Leo - The Fighter
Lesley Manville - Another Year
Jacki Weaver - Animal Kingdom

Alt: Steinfeld if she's not in Lead, otherwise Mila Kunis -Black Swan (but I don't think she deserves it)

FILM REVIEW: THE GREEN HORNET




Sony Pictures
Now Showing


The Green Hornet began life as a radio serial in the 1930s and has had various incarnations since, most notably the 1960s TV series which ran just one season but launched the American career of Bruce Lee, who played the Green Hornet's sidekick, Kato.

Not to be confused with Green Lantern (the comic book superhero with the power ring, which will see Ryan Reynolds donning black and emerald lycra in a film version later this year), The Green Hornet is a somewhat old school crime fighter. Like Batman, he has no superpowers but an array of gadgets and weaponry created by Kato, his Robin if you will.

And like Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne, the Green Hornet, aka Britt Reid, is a millionaire playboy who doesn't have much focus until his father, a crusading newspaper publisher, dies. He then teams with his dad's mechanic, Kato (Taiwanese pop star and actor, Jay Chou; like Lee, making his American debut), an inventive whiz and a martial arts expert, to clean up the streets of L.A.

Comic actor-writer Seth Rogen, who plays Reid, may be passable as a playboy (attitude and millions will take you a long way with the ladies) but he's not the first person to come to mind as a superhero. Then again, Rogen, with writing partner Evan Goldberg (they penned Superbad (2007) together when they were just teens), developed the screenplay for The Green Hornet as a vehicle for himself.

That may also explain the left of centre director choice. Frenchman Michel Gondry, best known for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), is a visually inventive and whimsical director making his Hollywood blockbuster debut. And he gets to deploy some of that trademark visual wit, most notably with Kato's fight sequences, including an amusing one in the Reid mansion when Britt and Kato have a falling out.

That is, of course, over a woman, criminologist-cum-secretary Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz), who as the trailer for the film suggested, is a mere token female presence. Short-changed, too, is Austrian actor, Christoph Waltz. The Oscar-winner for Inglourious Basterds (2009) was suddenly hot property following his superbly villainous turn in Tarantino's film, and no doubt felt the need to strike while he still was; signing on as the villain (Chudnofsky) in a Hollywood blockbuster a fairly tempting offer (and pay cheque).

But little is made of Waltz's knack for combining malice with humour. His hard-to-pronounce-named bad guy's only distinguishing feature being his double-barrel pistol. And with an even far less perfect aim is Gondry. With a huge budget and resources at his disposal, he's gone for more of a scatter gun approach with The Green Hornet; some bits work, most don't. It's fun in parts but not nearly enough, and the 3D only comes into its own with the closing credits.

FILM REVIEW: BLACK SWAN



20th Century Fox
Now Showing

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is about committing to, and struggling for your art; striving for not mere excellence but perfection. 25 year-old Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) has dedicated her life to the ballet and nothing less than than being named lead in the company's new production of Swan Lake will satisfy her drive, which borders on the extreme.

And once Nina is cast as the White Swan, it's only a small pirouette to her downward spiral; she's already highly strung to begin with. Living and breathing ballet 24-7, and living in a cramped two-bedroom apartment with your mother (a precise Barbara Hershey), whose own thwarted career (which is made clear was abandoned due to Nina's conception) is a motivator – and warning – to do better, will do that to you.

And the arrival of a possible replacement, San Franciscan import, Lily (Mila Kunis), doesn't improve matters. Lily represents everything Nina is not and wishes she could could be; free-spirited, fearless, sexual. As company director, Thomas (a narcissistic and just plain nasty, Vincent Cassel), points out, Nina has technique but no soul, no passion. She can easily play the White Swan, the ballet's innocent but doomed heroine, but can she go deep and dark enough for the evil twin that is the Black Swan?

Aronofsky, working from a screenplay by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz, is both clever and obvious with the parallels between Nina's trials and those of the heroine in Tchaikovsky's ballet. Which isn't to say he is anything less than original, daring and inspired. There is so much going on in Black Swan, you may need degrees in psychoanalysis and dream analysis, not to mention a copy of Ballet for Dummies just to keep up.

Aronofsky, and his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, use mirrors – in Nina's home, the rehearsal studio, the dressing room – as a constant motif to represent the divisive state of Nina's mind; the struggle between good and evil; and as a tool of projection, which also takes human form in Lily.

Much like he did with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008), the director's previous film about putting one's body on the line for your art, Aronofsky pushes Natalie Portman harder and further than any director or role has before. It's not just that she studied dance for 10 months to prepare for the role of Nina, but that she gets so fully inside her head – and it is not a pleasant place to be.

All the Oscars buzz, which began with the film's premiere at Venice in September 2010 and was confirmed with this week's Golden Globe win for Best Actress, is not unwarranted. Portman, Aronofsky and the film will all be in line gold statuettes come late February.

FILM REVIEW: THE FIGHTER


Roadshow Films
Now Showing



Boxing films have become a genre unto themselves, almost always following the same trajectory Рrise, fall and victorious rise of the fighter Рand riddled with clich̩. The Fighter may not always rise to (or overcome) the challenge of all these rivals, but it does eventually come out on top, thanks in no small part to David O. Russell.

Russell doesn't seem like the obvious choice to direct this material – the true story of boxer 'Irish' Micky Ward and his journey to a world title from very humble beginnings – and granted, it's the most mainstream film the director (whose last film was 2004's idiosyncratic, I Heart Huckabees) has made. But he brings his unique spin to the story, enlivening it with a (very surprising and refreshing) sense of humour which never detracts from the drama.

Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is what is known in the boxing fraternity as a stepping stone; he's a good opponent to help up and coming boxers progress. The younger brother of Dick 'Dicky' Eklund (Christian Bale), a one-time contender whose claim to fame is having put Sugar Ray Leonard on his ass in a 1979 bout, Micky has lived in the shadow of his brother.

That didn't bother him until he was pummelled in an Atlantic City fight by an opponent with 20 pounds on him. He decides then that if he wants to make a run at a title before it's too late, he's going to have to move out from under his brother's shadow and the management of his mother, Alice (an almost unrecognisable Melissa Leo). This move is also encouraged by his new girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams, convincingly playing working class), who believes his family is holding him back.

And what a family it is. Alice, with her bleach blonde hair and mutton-dressed-as-lamb wardrobe, presides over a house full of daughters (from three different fathers) who possess more hairspray than moisturiser, and didn't exactly top the class at charm school. A lot of the film's humour arises from this familial dynamic but I don't think Russell or the writers (Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson) are necessarily laughing at the Eklund-Ward clan, even as their depiction borders on white trash caricature.

Alice's pride and joy is Dicky. She, like him, dreams of a comeback which is why she turns a blind eye to his erratic behaviour, brought on by a drug addiction that has left him a skeletal, shell of a man. Christian Bale is so good as Dicky and not just because of the physical transformation or the precision of his speech (we glimpse the real Dicky and Micky in the film's closing credits).

Bale inhabits the skin of this man who continues to live on the one brief, shiny moment in his life (the Leonard bout) which may not have even happened as he chooses to recall. It's a bravura performance, deserving of all the awards attention it has received and the Supporting Actor Oscar Bale seems inevitably headed for.

Amidst all of these colourful characters and scene-stealing performances one could easily forget about Mark Wahlberg. Ironically, the fighter is the most passive person in the film; Wahlberg's Micky is the calm centre of this familial storm which is constantly whirling around him.

I've not been a fan of Wahlberg in the past (I still don't know why he received an Oscar nomination for The Departed) but he anchors The Fighter perfectly. Perhaps his personal involvement in bringing Micky Ward's story to the screen, as well as working once again with Russell (as he did on Huckabees, and Three Kings (1999)), helped keep him focussed, much like the boxer he portrays.

The Fighter doesn't cover any new terrain in the boxing genre (though is mercifully free of training montages), but what it does do, it does very well. And Russell's focus on the people rather than the bouts makes for a far more winning encounter than anticipated.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

FILM REVIEW: THE DILEMMA


Universal Pictures
Now Showing

Confession: I am not a fan of Vince Vaughn; I simply do not find him funny or engaging. His motormouth ramblings irritate rather than amuse me, so going in, The Dilemma was always going to be a hard sell. Still, with Ron Howard (of Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon fame) at the helm, one could reasonably expect an entertaining film, right?

Howard hasn't made a comedy for quite some time (2000's The Grinch), but a director of his skill should know what's funny and what's not; he should certainly know what tone he wants his film to take. But The Dilemma, marketed as a comedy, is more a comedy-drama (co-ma for short, and more apt); wavering uncomfortably between humour and more serious intent, and never succeeding on either level.

Ronny Valentine (Vaughn) is placed between a rock and a hard place when he happens upon a clandestine meeting between the wife of his best friend and business partner, Nick (Kevin James), and her younger lover. Ronny isn't sure if the guy code requires him to inform his best friend or keep his mouth shut, ergo the dilemma.

Mistakenly he confronts Nick's wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder), whose reaction swings wildly between contrition and defiance; promising to end the affair before threatening to expose her pre-marriage, college fling with Ronny as the reason for his making up such a lie: who's her husband going to believe? It doesn't help that screenwriter, Allen Loeb, can't seem to decide if Ryder's Geneva is a villain or a victim of marital circumstance.

I found the film to be almost painfully unfunny (granted, most of my pain emanating from my aversion to Vaughn), while its serious moments can't be taken seriously at all. And a melding of the two, such as the intervention scene, is extremely awkward.

Jennifer Connolly plays Ronny's girlfriend, Beth, but I suspect her participation was more of a favour to Howard who directed her to an Oscar in A Beautiful Mind. The role is a thankless one, as is Queen Latifah's as a Chrysler employee overseeing Ronny and Nick's electric car project.

You may recall the minor controversy last year over the “electric cars are gay” joke? Ronny and Nick's line of work is to convert major brand diesel guzzlers into eco-friendly runarounds without losing any of the prestige or power. Howard et al seem to have followed their lead, only instead of injecting some audience-friendly grunt, they've lost any kind of potential the material may have had by trying to have the best of both worlds - comedy and drama - and misfiring on all cylindars.

FILM REVIEW: YOGI BEAR 3D



Roadshow Films
Now Showing

Opening with a mock Morgan Freeman voice over, the kind that's come to signify any Hollywood drama grasping for gravitas, there's a glimmer of hope that Yogi Bear 3D could be smarter than the average kids film, even if it is based on a decades old cartoon series with no real cultural cache in this country.

But it's not too long before all your doubts (raised during an inadvertent trailer viewing, if not previously by the mere idea of it) are confirmed; it's underwhelming family friendly fare best enjoyed by kids, aged 8 and under, and their parents (or grandparents, given the age of Yogi) on a nostalgia trip.

I'm not even sure if today's younger (Australian) generations are even aware of Yogi Bear, the pic-a-nic basket stealing, hat and tie wearing brown bear and resident of Jellystone National Park; the five and seven year olds who accompanied me to my screening hadn't heard of him before the ads for the film.

Yogi made his debut on American TV in 1958, as a supporting character on The Huckleberry Hound Show, before earning his own show in 1961. A creation of the Hanna-Barbera animation stable, I'm not aware of Yogi appearing on Australian TV in at least the last decade.

Yogi Bear 3D is not animated but a mix of live action and CG animation; Yogi and his somewhat wet blanket sidekick, Boo Boo, a rather young bear who's not Yogi's son but the two do co-habitate (not that there's anything wrong with that!), are rendered in CG and voiced by Dan Ackroyd and Justin Timberlake, respectively.

Their human counterparts are Ranger Smith (Tom Cavanaugh), head ranger at Jellystone, Ranger Jones (T.J. Smith), who can't wait to be head ranger, mostly so he can drive the jeep, and Rachel (Anna Faris), an animal documentarian who has come to Jellystone to make a film about Yogi.

But Jellystone's residents and pristine beauty come under threat from Mayor Brown (Andrew Daley), who wants to declare the national park as agricultural land and sell it off, reversing his city's debt and launching his campaign for Governor. He may look like a young Kevin Rudd, but Mayor Brown's policies are very much of a John Howard nature.

This none-too-subtle, though not unappreciated, pro-environment message – that national parks are an invaluable natural resource worth preserving – won't sit well with those who found Pixar's WALL-E an unwelcome, pro-green political diatribe, but to quote Cee Lo Green, forget you! It may be the film's one redeeming feature; nostalgia and 3D certainly aren't enough to save it.

FILM REVIEW: BURLESQUE



Sony Pictures
Now Showing

Burlesque is the art of the tease – suggesting more than you reveal. The film Burlesque, by first time director Steve Antin, is also a bit of a tease, but not in the good sense. It hints at being a musical, a drama of backstage rivalry, and one woman's rise from unknown to star, but never fully succeeds as any; ultimately as half-hearted as the Burlesque performers are dressed.

Pop singer Christina Aguilera makes her big screen debut as Ali, a small town girl from Iowa who escapes to Los Angeles with dreams of making it big. But she's very quickly down on her luck before happening upon the Burlesque night club, the exterior of which opens almost every second scene, lest we forget what movie we're watching.

Ali can't talk club owner Tess (Cher) into giving he a role on or back stage, but she manages to score a job as a waitress, thanks to hunky bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet), who seems to take his styling cues from A Clockwork Orange.

But it's not too long before Ali gets her chance to strut her stuff on the club's stage as a dancer, and when an attempted sabotage by Burlesque's star performer Nikki (Kristen Bell) backfires, revealing the small town girl to have a big voice (the Burlesque performers don't actually sing; that's not what the customers come for), Tess, whose club is in dire financial straits, decides she can build an entirely new show around Ali. And, viola, a star is born.

Christina Aguliera doesn't make the auspicious singer-cum-actress debut which Jennifer Hudson did in Dreamgirls (2006), which took her all the way to the Oscars. Aguilera reminds us that she can indeed sing (“the slut with the mutant lungs”, as Nikki dubs her), belting out number after rather forgettable number in varying degrees of undress, although showing far less skin than she did in her 2002 video for Dirrty. Aguilera doesn't embarrass herself but she's no actress.

Cher, on the otherhand, who made a similar, albeit it far more successful transition many moons ago, really should know – and provide – better. With her bored delivery and surgically altered face, Cher virtually sleep walks through the film, rousing briefly to belt out the Diane Warren-penned You Haven't Seen The Last of Me. And no doubt we haven't, with the song likely to be nominated for an Oscar with Cher on-hand to belt it out once more.

The real star of Burlesque is Stanley Tucci, who, as Tess's right hand man and costumier, Sean, gets all the best lines. Much as he did in The Devil Wear Prada and, less so, in Julie & Julia (both opposite Meryl Streep, no less), Tucci effortlessly steals the spotlight.

Time will tell if Burlesque becomes the camp classic it promised to be – Coyote Ugly meets Showgirls – but for now it may have to settle for mere guilty pleasure, one with just enough razzle dazzle to earn a cheap Tuesday perve.

FILM REVIEW: UNSTOPPABLE


20th Century Fox
Now Showing



Tony Scott, Denzel Washington and a train: de ja vu, anyone? You could be forgiven for thinking that you've been here before, given that director Scott's last outing with Washington was The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009), a remake of the 1970s hijacked train film which proved to be somewhat less-than-thrilling.

Unstoppable is a much more exciting outing than that film but strangely not as thrilling as a movie about an unmanned runaway train, as big as the Chrysler Building, packed with explosive materials and hurtling towards imminent disaster should be. Not that Scott, a director whose filmmaking vocabulary does not feature the word subtle, doesn't try to amp up the action with all manner of close calls, explosions and some pretty darn impressive helicopter work.

The only hope of preventing the removal of Stanton, Pennsylvania from Google Maps are two city rail workers (guffaw!): veteran driver Frank Barnes (Washington), and rookie engineer Will Coulson (Chris Pine), who just happen to be spending their first day together and aren't exactly hitting it off before they're made aware of the rogue train and their potential collision.

Rail HQ doesn't provide much help for our heroes but Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), a rail commander, proves a good person to have around in tight spot. Why Rosario Dawson, always a welcome screen presence, doesn't get more and better films roles, I don't know.

According to the opening credits, Unstoppable is based on actual events which I take to mean that once upon a time a driverless train went for an unscheduled run. I'm not sure if there were explosive materials involved or if any rail workers rose to the challenge in quite the way that Frank and Will do, but it hardly seems fair to red card Unstoppable for acts of embellishment; it's not a documentary after all.

And despite the incredulities which mount as steadily as the freewheelin' locomotive's speed, the screenplay by Mark Bomback isn't nearly as dumb or insulting as it could have been. I may not have been on the edge of my seat, nor even have had sweaty palms, but I didn't feel the need to groan out loud or punch myself in the face either. It's a Tony Scott film about a runaway train; that should be enough information to help you decide whether you want to catch Unstoppable or not.