Thursday, 24 March 2011

FILM REVIEW: THE LINCOLN LAWYER

Roadshow Films
Now Showing


It has been some time since Matthew McConaughey stepped foot inside a courtroom; 15 years to be exact. That was in the John Grisham thriller, A Time To Kill (1996), where his laconic Southern charm and then Paul Newman-esque looks impressed audiences and launched his Hollywood career.

While the charm never dissipated, McConaughey's CV has been less than stellar; a mixed bag of sub par dramas and rom-coms almost eclipsed by his commercials for Dolce+Gabbana, where he appears sans shirt and barely speaks.

But The Lincoln Lawyer sees McConaughey deliver one of the better performances of his career, the courtroom setting seemingly rejuvenating his acting mojo. He's Mick Haller, the so-called Lincoln lawyer, who chooses to practice law from the back of his car rather than an office. It shouldn't inspire client confidence but Haller wins more often than not, and in the courtroom, as in sport, winning is everything.

That's probably why Louis Roulet (Ryan Philippe) comes to Haller when he's accused of beating a prostitute. The wealthy real estate agent swears his innocence and his even richer mother (an under used Frances Fisher) happily bankrolls his defense. Despite the doubts of his investigator Frank Levin (the always welcome William H. Macy), Haller takes on Roulet's case and the games begin.

Of course, none of this will come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the trailer for The Lincoln Lawyer, which spells out almost every major plot point and in doing so undermines any necessary suspense.

That David Furman's film, adapted by John Romano from the first of a series of novels by Michael Connelly, continues to maintain interest is a credit to the director, McConaughey (and his fellow cast mates, which also includes Marisa Tomei and John Leguizamo), and the inherent watchability of a good legal thriller, which The Lincoln Lawyer is.

It proves to be a smooth enough ride – and more than passable entertainment – and will provide more than a few unexpected turns for those fortunate enough not to have seen the spoilers. The jury's still out on the trailer makers.

FILM REVIEW: JUST GO WITH IT

Sony Pictures
Now Showing


Neither Adam Sandler or Jennifer Aniston are my favourite film folk. I don't find Sandler funny, and Aniston, for me, emits a sit-com vibe rather than a necessary big screen one; a legacy of her 10 years as Rachel Green on TV's Friends and not helped by her continual poor choice of rom-coms. So colour me surprised to find that I didn't hate Just Go With It (just between you and I, I even laughed).

That's not to say that Just Go With It is champagne comedy – it's not even passion pop – but it has its moments and, not surprisingly, they don't belong to either Sandler, who plays Danny, a plastic surgeon with a penchant for young hotties and an aversion to commitment, or Aniston, his plain Jane (she wears glasses) assistant, Katherine, who has two young kids and a deadbeat ex.

The two become a fakeshift couple when Palmer (Brooklyn Decker aka Mrs Andy Roddick), the young woman Danny has inexplicably attracted, believes him to be married and won't proceed further. Danny convinces Katherine to portray his soon-to-be ex-wife, handing over his credit card to turn her from drab to fab. And Aniston is pretty good playing the shallow “angry ex”, improvising various ailments and inadequacies for her husband at a meeting with Palmer to convince her the marriage is indeed dead.

But then circumstances see Katherine's kids – Maggie (Bailee Madison), who dreams of being an actress and thus speaks in a Cockney accent, and Michael (Griffin Gluck), who wants to swim with dolphins – roped into the charade and Danny blackmailed into flying everyone, including Danny's newly-endowed cousin Eddie (Nick Swardson), to Hawaii.

This sequence, a major piece of product placement no doubt bankrolled by the Hawaiian Tourism Board, goes on far too long before its inevitable conclusion but not before Swardson's Eddie, posing as Katherine's lover, named Dolph Lundgren, speaking with a suspect German accent and a sheep-shipper by trade, gets the most laughs.

Nicole Kidman even makes a cameo as Katherine's college frienenemy, Devlin, the name Katherine and her kids give their number twos and the moniker the soon-to-be ex-Doctor Danny has given herself throughout the charade.

Yes it's a farcical premise (adapted from the 1969 film, Cactus Flower) and stretched beyond breaking point (it clocks in at just under two hours), but it's arguably the best thing Sandler and Aniston have done in quite some time. It's $100 million at the US box office is almost de rigueur for Sandler (he is a genre unto himself with a built-in audience), but Aniston was in desperate need of a hit. She can count Just Go With It a success, which I have no doubt Oz audiences will ratify.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

FILM REVIEW: IN A BETTER WORLD

Rialto Distribution
Now Showing


In a better world, we might all have fathers like Anton. Yes he's estranged from his wife, partly due to his long absences – he's a missionary doctor in Africa – and also because he had a brief affair, but it's the unwavering, unguarded love he has and exhibits for his two young sons which makes him a rarity in films, if not the real world.

Anton also attempts to reach out to Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), the new friend of his eldest boy, Elias (Markus Rygaard), whom Christian comes to the aid of (somewhat OTT) against the school bully. Christian is mourning the recent death of his mother. Compounded by his removal from their London home to his grandmother's in Denmark, and his insufficiently grief-stricken father, Christian's grief is slowly but steadily morphing into a rage which threatens not only himself but the lives of Elias and others.

Danish director Susanne Bier's film, recent winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, isn't so na├»ve as to suggest that all we need is love to live in a perfect world. Sometimes love just ain't enough. In A Better World examines how unchecked emotions – anger, grief – can find expression in dangerous forms, and how love – understanding, compassion – if administered appropriately can go along way in negating the negative.

Bier, and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen, may not always succeed in their analogies between the local and the universal – Anton's situation in Africa with a gunrunner who cuts open the local pregnant women for sport, is an example of bullying in extremis; today's schoolyard bully is tomorrow's dictator? – but the emotional core of the film never feels less than real.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

FILM REVIEW: RED RIDING HOOD

Warner Bros. Films
Now Showing


Unlike the majority of my film reviewing brethren, on Twitter and elsewhere, I didn't hate on the dog's breakfast that was The Wolfman (2010). Granted it was no masterpiece, nor was it memorable as far as horror films or remakes go, but I did find it to be a guilty pleasure; unlike my usual self, I delighted in the gore and scares. And in terms of werewolf films, you could do a lot worse. Case in point: Red Riding Hood.

A revision of the famous fairy tale which saw the eponymously attired young lass encounter a wolf while on a visit to grandma's house, Red Riding Hood, with its love triangle and latent sexuality, is very much aimed at an older audience. And supersizing the wolf to a werewolf must have seemed like the perfect way for Warner Bros. to take a bite out of the teen girl demographic, hot and heavy as they are for the vampire and werewolf action of the (inexplicably) successful Twilight series.

That may explain why Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the first Twilight film, was brought in to helm the project. The studio (and Hardwicke) must have been hoping lightening would strike twice. But lightening (or any positive energy for that matter) is nowhere to be found here, though you may very will be struck dumb by the ludicrous goings on in this woodland village.

A werewolf has been kept at bay by the villagers for two generations by regular sacrifices of livestock. But with the Blood moon in orbit the beast has decided to up the ante, killing a young lass and threatening to savage the village until Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), sister of the slain and titular wearer of the red hood, agrees to come away with it.

Did I mention this is revealed when the werewolf 'speaks' to Valerie? Where others only here growls, she hears words; kind of like how Harry Potter speaks in Parsel tongue, only nowhere near as believable. Valerie also recognises that the creature possesses human eyes and, if the visiting Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), expert in the supernatural, is to be believed, lives amongst the villagers by day. But as who?

In an effort to bolster suspense, Hardwicke throws around red herrings as if caught in a food fight at a sushi bar. Is the werewolf Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), her longtime sweetheart? Her fiance, Henry (Max Irons, son of Jeremy), whom she does not love? The perpetually apologetic young priest (Lukas Haas)? Or is it her seemingly stoned grandma, played with a twinkle in her eye by Julie Christie (and if so, ick factor 100!)?

Or could it even be Father Solomon? After all, the werewolf bears a strong resemblance to Sirius Black in canine form. Indeed, the werewolf is more like a big black dog with anger management issues rather than some killer beast. Give me Benicio Del Toro's Wolfman any day; at least he had bite.

You may be surprised (or not) to discover just who is the lupine lech but you won't much care. For as much effort has gone into making the film look good – and it does, in a surreal, fairly tale kind of way – the screenplay by David Johnson undermines Hardwicke and her cast, which also includes Virginia Madsen and Billy Burke as Valerie's parents, from beginning to end.

You'll laugh – and you're not supposed to – more times than you jump in fright, and that's no good thing. Irregardless of whom the werewolf is, one thing's never in doubt: Red Riding Hood is a dog of a film.

FILM REVIEW: BARNEY'S VERSION

Hopscotch Films
Now Showing


Starting out somewhat deceptively as a mystery – just how did Barney Panofsky's best friend Boogie die? – Barney's Version, an adaptation of the Mordecai Richler novel directed by Richard J. Lewis, soon morphs into a smart and poignant story about a man recalling his past as he simultaneously loses his memory.

Barney's trip down memory lane is triggered by the publication of a book by a disgruntled police detective (Mark Addy) who believes Barney (Paul Giamatti) murdered his pal Boogie (Scott Speedman) and disposed of the never-found body.

Despite the subjective point-of-view, Barney's recollections – from his youth in Rome, where we first meet Boogie, living la dolce vita with Barney and fellow youthful idealists, to the present day – are warts and all. We witness his self absorption and his quick temper; his fondness for a drink, usually at the most inopportune times; and his even greater fondness for women.

Barney loves women but seems incapable of loving them. A failed first marriage in Italy followed by a second marriage to a motormouth Jewish Princess (Minnie Driver in fine comic form), which sours not too long after the nuptials, leaving him 0-2. That is until his third marriage, to Miriam (Rosamund Pike), a beautiful and smart woman whom he actually meets at his second wedding, and continues to pursue from a distance.

All of this may make Barney sound like a jerk, and he probably is. But he's an incorrigible one (a trait no doubt inherited from his father, wonderfully played by Dustin Hoffman) rather than malicious, and as played by Paul Giamatti, he's hard not to like. Fast becoming one of my favourite actors, Giamatti's turn in Barney's Version adds to his recent run of success which includes Cold Souls (2009), The Last Station (2009), and the TV miniseries John Adams.

Then there are his unforgettable performances in American Splendor (2003) and Sideways (2004), the latter criminally overlooked for an Oscar nomination though somewhat remedied the next year with a Supporting Actor nod for Cinderella Man. I'm eagerly anticipating the release of Win Win later this year; Giamatti in a dramedy directed by Tom McCarthy (of The Station Agent and The Visitor fame) promises all sorts of delights.

Deservingly, Giamatti won the 2010 Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical for Barney's Version, a rare show of good taste by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association considering they had nominated Johnny Depp twice (Alice In Wonderland, The Tourist) in that category. You should show similar good taste and check it out.

FILM REVIEW: THE MECHANIC

Roadshow Films
Now Showing




Opening with what resembles a poor man's James Bond opening sequence, The Mechanic soon loses any suggestion of grade-A entertainment the moment Donald Sutherland appears. With all due to respect to Sutherland, who may have been a fine actor earlier in his career, his presence in a film nowadays can't help but signal to the viewer that they're in for a dud. Then again, a remake of a Charles Bronson film with Jason Statham in the lead can't have been aiming all that high to begin with.

Statham is Arthur, a first class hitman dubbed 'The Mechanic' for his uncanny ability to read people and situations; mentally taking them apart and knowing how they work. Sutherland is his one-time mentor, McKenna, now wheelchair-bound and apparently double-crossing the clandestine organisation for which they both work.

That's why Arthur is assigned to kill McKenna, which he does but not without a sense of regret. And that's probably why he takes on McKenna's screw up son Steve (Ben Foster) as his protege, beginning a beautiful friendship in the high stakes world of assassination.

Intentionally or not (and I say not given the targeted macho, hetero demographic), director Simon West and writers, Lewis John Carlino and Richard Wenk (no, seriously!), have given us the most homoerotic male duo in a studio film since Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law bickered their way through Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes (2009).

Sadly, The Mechanic is not nearly half as much fun as that film, unless of course you enjoy excessive violence and inventive new ways to maim and kill. Or are a fan of Jason Statham. Me, not so much as the pint-sized Brit actor is pretty much the same in every film. But then that's somewhat appropriate given he's stepping into the shoes of Charles Bronson, an actor not remembered for his range. [Statham and Bronson fans are welcome to vent their spleens in the Comments section]

Foster, on the other hand, while slumming here (hey, we all have to pay the rent), is an impressive actor and interesting screen presence, worth keeping an eye out for.

FILM REVIEW: WAITING FOR "SUPERMAN"

Paramount Pictures
Now Showing


Those who can, do. And those who can't, teach. And those who can't teach, well, their jobs are pretty much secure if they happen to have tenure. That's one of the revelations in Davis Guggenheim's examination of the failings of the American education system, Waiting For "Superman", where rescue doesn't seem to be coming anytime soon.

The system of tenure, adopted from the similar university system instigated to prevent professors losing their positions due to their political beliefs, has been bastardised to suit the all-powerful Teachers' Union, major contributors to both the Democrat and Republican parties.

Tenure sees teachers who have taught for a minimum 10 years, more or less granted immunity against being fired. No matter how bad their teaching results, they cannot be removed from school, and in the cases where they cannot remain in the classroom, they spend their days being 'rehabilitated'; basically sitting around reading magazines whilst still on full pay.

Another issue covered in Waiting For "Superman" is the lack of spaces available for students in independent schools. Those who can afford it send their kids to private school (as Guggenheim confesses to), while those who are restricted to attending those schools within their allotted region (based on postcode), either have to put up with the underfunded public schools (and aforementioned disengaged teachers) or vie for a much sought after spot at an independent school, spots which are literally determined via a lottery.

While Guggenheim's film is very much a campaign, it's not against teachers or unions per se. Teaching remains one of those underrated professions where the efforts of the good are easily undone by those who rock up to class to simply to collect a pay cheque. These people are with our kids for a quarter of the day, five days a week, and are responsible for molding their young minds. They, not footballers and celebrities, are role models and second best (at best) shouldn't be good enough. Reward the good teachers; fire the crap ones.

Workers' unions, despite the inherent problems, also perform a vital role and I'd rather have protection for workers than not. But the US Teachers' Union seems to have lost sight of who they're supposed to be fighting for, and the children – the future – have become collateral damage.

I grew up in country NSW where our small town had just two schools; the Catholic school, which you could only attend from Kindergarten to Year 6; and the Central School, which I attended for 13 years, from day one of Kindy until I completed my HSC. We had small class sizes and, for the most part, teachers who enjoyed their work and were fully engaged with their subject and their students. US (and Australian metro-based) kids today should be so lucky.

FILM REVIEW: BIUTIFUL

Madman Entertainment
Now Showing


Javier Bardem's inclusion in the Best Actor category was one of the few surprises among this year's Oscar nominations. Not a surprise because it was unwarranted, but I'd suggest the acting branch of the Academy felt it was just rewards for the Spanish actor's Herculean efforts. He makes Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Biutiful, a two-and-a-half hour festival of miserablism, bearable.

Uxbal (Bardem) is a father trying to do the best he can as he raises his two young children in Barcelona, even if those things aren't necessarily legal or right. Sure he deals with a Chinese businessman who smuggles illegal Chinese immigrants into Spain to perform cheap labour, but Uxbal tries to ensure they are as comfortable as possible in their cramped, slave-like conditions. But when he buys gas heaters to keep them warm during the night, you just know it won't end well.

Uxbal is also involved with African emigres whose small time drug selling operation, despite repeated warnings to stay away from downtown, draws a harsh backlash from the police who are already being paid off to turn a blind eye. This results in Uxbal becoming responsible for one of the dealers' wives and baby when the dealer is deported to Senegal.

These troubles, coupled with his bipolar estranged wife,who can't decide if she wants custody of their children or not, or if she wants to be with Uxbal or his brother, pale into insignificance in light of Uxbal's diagnosis early on in the film with cancer; he's pissing blood and has only months to live. Of greatest concern to the man is the welfare of his children but also how they will remember him, if at all; Uxbal's own dreams are haunted by the father he never met.

Bardem, who won Best Actor at Cannes 2010 for the role, is stoic against the constant waves of woe director Inarritu is intent to have crash down upon his leading man. But try as he might, and like Uxbal himself, the actor can only do so much. Inarritu is best known for 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006), films not exactly endowed with sunny dispositions but not without glimmers of hope; the director has left no room for hope in Biutiful.

Also noticeably absent from Inarritu's film is screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who penned the Mexican director's Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. Co-written by Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone with Inarritu, Biutiful may be refreshingly without the inter-locking three narrative structure of those last two films but it would seem that Arriaga was the force keeping Inarritu's miserablism in check. Misery loves company, and while Bardem deserves it, Biutiful does not.

Monday, 7 March 2011

FILM REVIEW: BATTLE: LOS ANGELES

Sony Pictures
Now Showing


The night before my screening of Battle: Los Angeles, I happened to catch Aliens, James Cameron's sequel to Ridley Scott's original, on television. And as much as I enjoyed it, I found myself lamenting the difference in the directorial approaches; Scott's atmospherics making way for Cameron's gung-ho, all-guns-blazing attitude. But compared to Battle: Los Angeles, Cameron's take on marines versus aliens seems positively sedate.

Of course, in apocalyptic, humans versus aliens in a battle to the death films, subtlety is usually the first casualty. Some credit then to director Jonathan Liebesman, and writer Christopher Bertolini, for keeping the “America, fuck yeah!” jingoism in check; the boo-yah exuberance by the US marines, called upon to save the day and the human race when Earth finds itself under attack by extraterrestrials, is akin to footy players partaking in a paint ball team bonding exercise.

They're led (but not at first) by newly-retired Staff Sergeant Nantz (an unfortunate name for a soldier), played by Aaron Eckhart, the only recognisable actor among the troops. That is until Michelle Rodriguez shows up, packing far more personality – and testosterone – than her fellow grunts. For despite the multicultural make-up of this band of brothers, they're indistinguishable from one another (apparently R & B singer Ne-Yo was one of the marines. Who knew?). In this genre, character development gets a toe tag not too long after subtlety.

The platoon picks up a group of civilians along the way, mostly to provide some moments that will tug at the heart strings, but one of them, played by Bridget Moynahan, hits the funny bone with arguably the best line of dialogue heard at the movies in 2011 thus far.

The aesthetic of Battle: Los Angeles is very much that of a computer game in keeping with the target audience (teenage boys and those of similar IQs). In fact, I was surprised to learn that it's not based on game but a wholly "original" idea, but that aesthetic doesn't allow for any engagement other than on a purely sensory, visceral level, or story and character development beyond cardboard.

Somewhat impressively, the film was produced on a budget of just $70 million but then we're not treated to much scenery; it's mostly handheld, p.o.v camera work, with the occasional vistas of LA burning. Most of that budget must have been spent on the sets (the film was actually shot in Louisiana) and the visual effects, including the creation of the aliens and their spacecraft, the larger of which resembles the one stalled over the Johannesburg skyline in District 9.

That may be a deliberate nod to that far superior 'aliens on Earth' film (also produced by Sony), but does nothing for the cause of Battle: Los Angeles; reminding us just how good these kinds of films can be with a bit more intelligence and originality.

FILM REVIEW: LIMITLESS

Roadshow Films
Now Showing


It's no surprise that a man with a new sense of ambition and purpose, helped along by a drug problem, would turn to a career in finance. Not Wall Street, for Limitless is set in Philadelphia*, but that's still the (unintentionally) funniest thing to take away from a film that, if it isn't a pro-drug statement, certainly doesn't do much to dissuade one from the notion that a full, and fully functioning life can be achieved whilst popping pills.

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a struggling writer who looks homeless but has somehow managed to win and maintain the affections of aspiring editor Lindy (Abbie Cornish). Or at least he had. She dumps him not too long into the film and it's not too long after that Eddie bumps into his ex-brother-in-law who gives him a free sample of a mind-expanding drug.

Despite not knowing the side effects or its chemical composition, Eddie pops the pill and, viola!, a new man is born. Not only does he commence his manuscript (and tidy his unkempt apartment) but he realizes how much potential he has been wasting.

He goes back to the brother-in-law for some pills, which he steals after the guy is murdered, and so begins Eddie's meteoric rise in the corporate and social worlds, mastering the piano, languages and the stock market in a matter of weeks. Never mind the the time lapses, the vomiting and the fact that bad guys seem to be tailing his every move: such is the life of a junkie.

Cooper is perfectly fine as a writer who discovers his inner genius and narcissist via a 'magic' pill; Cornish makes the most of what little she's been given, while Robert De Niro, as a corporate giant named Van Loon and keen to enlist this market predicting wunderkind, has even less to work with.

Of course, Limitless is not meant to be enjoyed as anything other than a 'what if', wish fulfillment, and slightly sci-fi thriller. But for a film about expanding one's mind and potential, it doesn't go anywhere or doing anything remotely original. On the plus side, you won't need to take anything to forget all about it.

*Note: Since posting this review, I have learnt that Limitless was shot in Philadelphia but is set in New York. So my original opening quip about drug abusers and Wall St would have been perfectly fine. D'oh!

FILM REVIEW: GRIFF THE INVISIBLE

Transmission Films
Now Showing




Superhero films are a dime a dozen these days but even before Hollywood's new found love of the comic book crimefighters, people – or rather, children – have wanted to be superheroes. Griff (Ryan Kwanten), a man blessed (or cursed) with a child's sense of wonder, certainly sees no reason why he can't be one, too.

Mild mannered accountant by day, Griff patrols the backstreets of his Sydney neighbourhood by night decked out in a rubber suit that wouldn't look out of place amongst the wannabe heroes in last year's Kick-Ass. But no matter what some local reviews may suggest, writer-director Leon Ford's Griff The Invisible is not in that film's league; any comparisons begin and end with said suit.

For me, Griff The Invisible has much more in common with Lars and the Real Girl, the 2007 film where Ryan Gosling's title character, unable to relate to real women, begins a relationship with a life-like sex doll named Bianca. But what starts out as a comedy soon becomes a sad story about a deluded man who is eventually coaxed back to reality with the promise of love.

And Griff The Invisible follows a similar trajectory. We're not told why Griff has a thing for fighting crime (did his parents die at the hands of criminals?) though we are told he was bullied as a child. And like Lars, Griff has a disapproving older brother, Tim (Patrick Brammall), who, not for the first time, has had to come take care of the younger Griff.

But like the townsfolk in Lars, Griff finds an ally in Melody (Maeve Dermody), a young woman dating his brother but who finds the reclusive Griff far more fascinating. That's no surprise given that Melody believes in parallel worlds and spends her free time trying to walk through walls. She encourages Griff in his superhero delusions, for better or worse.

All of this is sweet and charming to a point, helped mostly by Kwanten and Dermody's off kilter couple. Kwanten continues to prove his knack for comedy, which he has honed on HBO's vampire series True Blood, and which he deploys here but to much more understated effect.

But the film wavers between whether or not it is better to allow Griff to live in his fantasy world or if he should embrace (however unappealingly it is depicted in the film) normalcy, settling on a somewhat unconvincing compromise (more so than in Lars) where love conquers all.

FILM REVIEW: THE REEF

Pinnacle Films
Now Showing in limited release



Every summer I vow to go swimming and every summer, Channel 10 screens Steven Spielberg's seminal 1975 film, Jaws. I can't help but watch: summer swimming plans cancelled. New Australian film The Reef is no Jaws, but it successfully trades on our primal fear of the deep blue sea and its dorsal finned, meat-eating inhabitants.

The Reef sees a group of four friends – Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling), buddy Matt (Gyton Grantley) and his girlfriend Suzie (Adrienne Pickering), and Matt's sister, and Luke's ex-girlfriend, Kate (Zoe Naylor) – and a fifth, deckhand Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith), set sail north to deliver the sail boat they're piloting.

But once out at sea, the boat is up-ended and the five have to make the decision: stay on the upturned boat and hope it doesn't sink or swim some 12 miles to where Luke believes there is land. Warren knows what lies beneath and steadfastly decides to stay on the boat; the others reluctantly agree to try their luck in the water. So begins a horror films of sorts, where one by one the swimmers are picked off by a white pointer shark.

Andrew Traucki's blue water thriller is effectively suspenseful and all the more impressive given the undoubted financial and logistical restraints imposed. I can't be sure but I believe that it is an actual shark which appears in the film, perhaps shot separately from the actors but almost seamlessly edited into the shot; Traucki wouldn't have had the luxury of a mechanical shark as Spielberg did.

Traucki also doesn't devote as much time to developing character as in the 1975 film. But despite the clunky opening, which could have scuttled the film before it even set sail, The Reef manages to draw you in once it becomes a question of sink or swim.

And you may just find yourself screaming (in your head) “Swim. Swim faster. It's right behind you!” Lucky for me summer's over, so I now have another six months to work up the courage to go swimming again.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

FILM REVIEW: THE COMPANY MEN

Madman Films
Now Showing



Coming so soon after Inside Job, the Oscar-winning documentary about the avarice and arrogance of Wall Street, it's a little too much to expect us to feel sorry for the corporate suits losing their jobs as a result of the economic downturn in The Company Men.

Not that all of those men in John Wells' film are as bad or as at fault as those corporate cowboys who brought about the Global Financial Crisis and, as Inside Job director Charles Ferguson reminded us during his Oscars acceptance speech, got off scott-free.

GTX, a shipping manufacturer, is in trouble but rather than forgo building their new headquarters or dip into shareholder profits, the board decides to shed thousands of jobs. One of those jobs is held by Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a top salesman with a six-figure salary. When he's unceremoniously retrenched, he wades through his anger before deciding not to cut back on the lifestyle he, and his family, have become accustomed to; a new, high paying corporate job is surely just around the corner.

Another GTX employee, Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), who has been with the company since its inception, is cut during a second round of dismissals. He doesn't know anything but work, and with two daughters attending college, and fast approaching retirement age, his options are severely limited and his choices more severe.

Long time friend and GTX board member, Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), would be in the same boat if he didn't have the luxury of cashing in his GTX stock when his superior, and oldest friend, GTX owner James Salinger (Craig T Nelson), lets him go too. Gene is the closest thing the GTX board has to a conscience, one of the first things to go when the financial going gets tough.

It's hard to sympathise with someone's whose idea of sacrifice is to sell their Porshce and cancel their golf club membership. Bobby believes that looking successful is key to his being successful once more and is reluctant to recognise their situation. That's one of the reasons he turns down a job offer from builder brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner).

As a study of men forced to re-evaluate their lives, The Company Men is a solid drama. But Wells' decision to use the GFC as the catalyst for this drama, and have the suits nearer the centre of that financial shit storm as his protagonists, lessened the impact for me. I'm not saying that those money men further down the corporate ladder are unworthy of sympathy or empathy, but I find their 'plights' harder to engage with . Try walking in the shoes of Ree Dolly, the heroine of Winter's Bone, and then get back to me.

FILM REVIEW: RANGO

Paramount Pictures
Now Showing


It's not easy being green, a famous amphibian once sang. Well try being a chameleon with an identity crisis, Kermit. Rango, the eponymous hero of director Gore Verbinski's first foray into animation, has his lack of self brought into sharp focus when he falls from his fishbowl existence and into the unforgiving desert outside of Las Vegas.

This search for self – as well as for water – drives the narrative of this animated feature which is both thankfully not in 3D and also skews towards a slightly older audience. Indeed, the under-5 set may find Rango's constant battle with death too much to take; the first being his ejection from his owner's car, the next at the talons of an eagle, before arriving in the town of Dirt where death shadows his every move.

It's here in Dirt where Rango (the name the chameleon adopts in the spur of the moment) re-invents himself as a gunslinging hero and the man best suited to restore law and order to the dust bowl town, and discover what has happened to the town's water supply. It's also here where the film makes the largest of its nods to other films: Roman Polanski's Chinatown.

And there are numerous references to Westerns – classic and spaghetti – which Rango basically is. Most of these references are aimed at the parents who will accompany the kids to see Rango, as well as the more film literate teenager. So, too, is the film's darker tone and Rango's existential quest for self. “Who am I”, the reptile is constantly asking himself, usually in whispered voiceover.

Johnny Depp was an excellent choice to voice Rango, no doubt Verbinski, who directed Depp in the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, was aware of the actor's inner lizard. But Depp's voice work never takes you out of the film. Nor does his fellow actors, most of whom – Isla Fisher, Bill Nighy, Alfred Molina, Abigail Breslin – I failed to recognise, although Ned Beatty, as the town's Mayor, is unmistakable; perhaps because it comes so soon after his voicing of the villainous bear, Lotso, in Toy Story 3.

But the most impressive element of Rango is the animation. It's high praise indeed to say that the scenery and images - the desert, the saloon, the water when it comes - are as life-like as animation gets. And the characters? You've never seen an animated cast like them. Beginning with Rango himself, they're a motley crew of the aesthetically challenged rarely seen in family films.

In a year slated for animated sequels (Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Happy Feet 2), and franchise spin-offs (Shrek's Puss-in-Boots is stepping out on his own), Rango could prove to be an original in more ways than one, and not just the saviour of Dirt.