Wednesday, 25 May 2011
Having missed Bryan Singer's X-Men when it released in cinemas in 2000, I have tried (and failed) repeatedly to watch the first film in the Marvel Comics-inspired trilogy; never getting much further than about an hour in each time. Try as I might, I just can't engage with the mutants-versus-mutants-versus-humans struggle which is at the centre of these films. That's odd, because I'm convinced the adolescent me would have loved it. Damn you, adulthood!
X-Men:First Class is a prequel to that trilogy, an origin story of how some of the characters from the trilogy came to be, and an explanation for the animosity between the two factions of mutants, led in the future by Professor X and Magneto (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, respectively, in the trilogy).
I had hoped that First Class would provide the opportunity to re-engage with the films from a new angle. And the early signs were promising, beginning with the cast: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult and January Jones. Unfortunately, the problem I had with the original X-Men (a failure to engage – admittedly, not entirely the film's fault), hampered my enjoyment of First Class.
Which is not to say that it is a bad film. I'm sure fans and non-fans of the X-Men will enjoy director Matthew Vaughn's (of Kick-Ass fame) origins story, where most of the action unfolds in 1962-63 and a world more concerned with US-Soviet aggression (the Cuban missile crisis is adopted as a major plot point) than the emergence of mutants. Or rather, humans the next step up the evolutionary ladder, as Professor Charles Xavier (McAvoy) believes them, including himself, a powerful telepath, to be.
Xavier and his proxy sister, Raven (Lawrence, fresh from an Oscar nod but under used here), are enlisted by Agent Moira MacTaggert (Byrne) and the CIA when she stumbles upon the existence of mutants during a stakeout of suspected communist spies; Moira finding Xavier when she goes in search of a genetics expert to explain what she's just uncovered.
Those communist-sympathising mutants are led by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who is determined to bring about World War III and mutually assured destruction for the human race. Traversing the globe in his submarine, Shaw has the whiff of a bond villain, an impression not helped by January Jones as Shaw's brassieres-as-outer wear right hand girl, Emma Frost. A telepath with a diamond-encrusted defence mechanism, Jones' Frost comes off more like an Austin Powers parody of a Bond villainess (though to be fair, the costume and production design of First Class are wonderfully retro and shiny shiny).
Also in search of Shaw is Erik Lehnsherr (a terrific Fassbender), a survivor of the Nazi death camps and in possession of the power to bend metal to his will (hence his moniker Magneto). Erik teams up with Xavier and his group of young yet keen mutant recruits to bring down Shaw, but it's these two alpha males' differing opinions of human nature and the place of mutants in human society which will drive a wedge between them.
Given that X-Men: First Class ends some 30 years prior to the first X-Men film, we can assume there will be at least one more sequel (probably two, since all franchises inexplicably must be trilogies), and perhaps it will expand and advance upon this competent set-up in much the same way X-Men 2 (X2) is widely considered to have done for its predecessor.
I'll leave it up to the fans to decide where this film ranks in the X-Men's cinematic oeuvre, which I guess must include Wolverine (2009), a film I have had the misfortune of watching from beginning to end (and there's going to be a sequel - eek!). But in a year flooded with superhero films, First Class is, thus far, ahead of the bell curve.
Comparisons are odious. They are also inevitable when it comes to films. And Australian films. And Australian indigenous films. Within the space of a week I saw Mad Bastards, Brendan Fletcher's road movie musical (already in release), and writer-director Beck Cole's Here I Am, and while each is very much their own film – and as unfair as it may be – I find it difficult not to compare the two.
But first the differences. While Mad Bastards is very much a film about the male aboriginal experience, Here I Am is focused on the female, in particular Karen (Shai Pittman). We meet Karen as she is released from prison and makes her way to the city, stopping off at a hotel where she spends the night with a stranger. Karen awakens the next day only to be discovered, as bad luck would have it, by her mother, Lois (esteemed academic, Marcia Langton) who just happens to be one half of the hotel's cleaning crew.
Karen had a daughter before she went to prison and Lois has been raising her in the interim. Daughter and mother do not see eye to eye and Lois won't be giving up her granddaughter easily. But parenthood is put on hold for Karen; she must reside in a women's refuge as a condition of her parole. It's here we're introduced to a collection of indigenous women who, like Karen, have had unfavourable encounters with the law, the system and men.
These women are played by a mix of professional and non-professional actors, and it shows. Unlike Mad Bastards, where the similarly pro/non-pro cast were uniformly good, the performances in Here I Am are inconsistent, ranging from solid to stilted. But props to Pauline Whyman who as Skinny, Karen's best friend in the refuge, proves to be a breath of fresh air and provides a comic antidote to the somewhat leaden proceedings.
For me, Here I Am was too heavy handed, and with much too much talking. That's ironic given the film is produced by the same team behind Samson and Delilah (2009) (that film's director Warwick Thornton assumes DOP duties here), the closest example of a silent film Australia has produced in a long time.
I'm not denying the themes and issues which Beck Cole wishes to address are important, but perhaps the talkative nature of the material would have been better suited to the stage rather than the screen. Unlike Mad Bastards, which tackled its subject matters nimbly but with no less potency, Here I Am makes its points too heavily; preaching has its place but the cinema isn't it.
Wednesday, 18 May 2011
In Hollywood, success breeds success. That usually means if a film is a box office hit, a sequel will inevitably follow. According to the suits, if the audience paid to see it once, and enjoyed it, why wouldn't they pay to see it again? For better or worse, that's no doubt the thinking which has resulted in The Hangover Part II.
The surprise comedy hit of 2009, The Hangover saw three guys awaken in a trashed Vegas hotel suite following a bachelor party night on the town. With their fourth friend and groom-to-be missing and Mike Tyson's tiger in their bathroom, the film saw the trio uncovering the forgotten events of the night before by retracing their booze-fuelled steps, in the hopes of finding their friend and getting him to the church on time.
The Hangover Part II, once again directed by Todd Phillips, and co-written with Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong, takes this very same premise and simply transplants it to Thailand. Bangkok, to be precise, where our alcohol-soaked amnesiacs – Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) – awaken more than a little worse for wear.
Having acquired a buzz cut (Alan), a face tattoo (Stu), and a monkey somewhere during the night, they've also managed to lose Stu's future brother-in-law, 16-year-old Teddy (Mason Lee); Stu's impending nuptials the reason the boys are in Thailand to begin with.
But they've also managed to pick up Mr Chow (Ken Jeong) during their previous night's adventures. Chow was the somewhat villain from the first film and Ken Jeong's expanded role is, for me, the funniest and most welcome presence in this sequel (although Galifianakis reminds us why we fell in love-hate with his Alan in #1).
The Hangover Part II has its share of comic moments but never reaches the hilarious heights of its predecessor, mostly because it doesn't have the element of surprise which was key to the original's success. I'll admit I had little desire to see The Hangover back in 2009; the only bit in the trailer that made me chuckle was a baby being hit with a car door. But Todd Phillips' comedy won me over with its inventive take on the 'boys gone wild in Vegas' genre.
That inventiveness is missing this time out and that may have something to do with the quick turnaround between films; Phillips and co. no doubt encouraged (by said studio suits) to strike while the iron was hot. But then, studios don't order sequels under the proviso they differentiate from the original: "Give us the same but bigger". So I guess we should be thankful it's not in 3D, although The Hangover II beer goggles sounds like a marketing opportunity missed.
The same could be said of the film itself. Not that The Hangover Part II is terrible - it's not - or even unfunny. It is, just not enough. But hey, we'll always have Vegas.
When Aron Ralston fell down a crevice whilst out hiking and literally found himself between a rock and a hard place, he had two options: cut off his arm and live or wait to die. As Danny Boyle's 127 Hours graphically depicted, Ralston chose life.
Hawaiian teenager Bethany Hamilton had very little choice when it came to her amputation. While out surfing one morning, her left arm was severed completely in a shark attack. Bethany’s choice: to pursue her passion for surfing, no matter how difficult her new circumstances made it, or turn her hand (so to speak) to something else and away from the water she loved.
Soul Surfer is the not-so inspiring film of the inspiring story of Bethany Hamilton, who, following her shark attack that fateful (and, ironically, Halloween) morning, couldn’t wait to get back in the water and surf the waves she had known and loved since early childhood.
Director Sean McNamara’s film is as well intentioned as the Christian youth group leader (played by American Idol Carrie Underwood in her screen debut) who attempts to comfort Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) post-attack with platitudes about ‘God’s plan’. But just like Underwood’s performance (she’s no Idol alumni cum Oscar winner, Jennifer Hudson; sadly, she’s not even Christina Aguilera in Burlesque), Soul Surfer often comes off as cringe-inducing rather inspirational.
For despite the above average cast (Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt play Bethany’s parents; Hercules’ Kevin Sorbo is a family friend), McNamara has produced something more akin to a television movie of the week. The director, and his three fellow writers (adapting the similarly titled book penned by Hamilton, with Sheryl Berk and Rick Bundschuh), only skim the surface of the ocean of emotions our female protagonist must have gone through in those days, weeks and months following the attack.
That surface treatment may work for TV, and be apt given it’s what the sport of surfing entails – rising above the tumult of the sea – but that does little to deepen or even capture the human element at the heart of this powerful true life story.
The true inspiration is Bethany Hamilton herself, shown in home movie footage during the film’s closing credits. Like Aron Rolston, the teenager chose life, dusting herself off and getting back out on the waves, literally and metaphorically.
Only hours before I was to attend the media screening for Of Gods And Men, which details the events leading up to the murder of French monks by Muslim extremists in Algeria, news broke that US forces had located and killed Al Quaeda terrorist leader, Osama bin Laden. You could say that was ironic – Christian forces trumping Muslim terrorists and countering said film's subject matter – but that would be a simplistic and unfair reading of the film.
For French director Xavier Beauvois's Of Gods And Men is not a “Christian = good, Muslim = bad” treatise. His retelling of those fateful events in Algeria 1993-96 is mostly a study of unwavering devotion to one's faith in the face of great personal danger.
Yes, the collective of Trappist monks – eight men all originally from France – are Christians but the extent of any proselytizing, within the film and the monastery, remains within that monastery's four walls; most of Beauvois's film focusses on the monks' day-to-day rituals (it's deliberately paced (i.e. slow) but never dull or boring) of prayer, gardening and the operation of a medical clinic in the local village.
The monks (played by French actors including Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach) have been welcomed as a part of the community – tending the sick, providing clothing and shoes where needed, attending local Muslim celebrations – long before political and religious events took hold. Warned by authorities that it is unwise and unsafe to remain, the monks choose not abandon the community which has supported them.
Of course, in the wake of September 11 one's religion, which should always be a private matter between one's self and the deity of their choosing, has become political. Even here in Australia, a so-called secular society, shock jocks, lazy media and lowest common denominator politicians use a distorted reading of Islam to instill fear: Muslim extremists equal all Muslims.
Never mind that Christianity has its own extremists: the Ku Klux Klan, those who bomb abortion clinics, and even the cult which recently predicted – incorrectly – the Rapture on May 21. But they're always labelled as “rogue” or “fringe” elements, not indicative of the Christian faith as a whole. Go figure.
Of Gods And Men doesn't preach the greatness of Christianity, but nor does it the “evils” of Islam: it celebrates the beauty and heroism of devout faith. As a professed atheist, I can admire, and at times envy, the ability to believe in something greater than one's self and the courage to commit to those beliefs wholeheartedly.
That appreciation doesn't include or endorse suicide bombings or the bombing of abortion clinics. Or the murders of eight innocent men, whatever their religion. And if there is a “god”, I doubt they'd endorse such acts of “devotion” either.
Odd couple couplings are nothing new in cinema (then again, what is nowadays?). And whilst the central relationship of Angele and Tony will not go down as one of the great movie romances, writer-director Alix Delaporte's debut feature is a surprisingly affecting film none the less.
Angele (Clotilde Hesme), young, svelt and a bundle of nervous energy, has recently been released from prison. Her crime isn't specified but may have involved the death of her lover and father of her young estranged son, now in the care of his fraternal grandparents.
As part of her parole, Angele needs employment and answers a personals ad posted by Tony (Gregory Gadebois). The ad is either for a fisherman's wife or simply a housekeeper, I'm not entirely sure, but Angele assumes there is a sexual component required of the arrangement and makes a move. In his 30s, overweight, ruddy-cheeked and silent, Tony is Angele's polar opposite. He also rebuffs her advances but still finds a room in his house for her and a job (preparing and selling the fish he catches) working alongside his mother with whom he lives.
Angele's and Tony's relationship plays out as some awkward courting ritual, with the stoic Tony playing hard to get and Angele working hard to impress. It's not that Tony doesn't want Angele but he doesn't want it to be easy. Intimacy should be earned not given freely, and when it is it's a rewarding experience, both for Angele and Tony and the audience.
Some may take issue with the film's younger woman-older man dynamic (which isn't all that pronounced; Hesme and Gadebois are former theatre cohorts) but I don't think that's the point of Delaporte's film. I prefer to think of it as a modern day Gallic take on the tale of Beauty and the Beast, complete with an emotionally satisfying happy ending.
Call it the Hannibal Lecter effect but serial killers became a popular staple of cinema towards the end of last century. Granted not all of these films were as good as Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs (1991) - or David Fincher's Seven (1995) and Zodiac (2007) - but there is something undeniably irresistible about a film detailing the hunt for a killer with a method to their madness.
The new Australian feature Snowtown is a serial killer movie but is not a police procedural. Director Justin Kurzel and co-writer Shaun Grant place us very much in the belly of the beast; detailing the events of the infamous bodies-in-the-barrels murders which took place in late 1990's South Australia.
And the film is not so much irresistible as unforgettable, nightmare-inducingly so. John Bunting (chillingly played by Daniel Henshall) seduced three others into helping him kill 11 people, disposing of their bodies in said barrels which were eventually discovered by police in an abandoned bank in the South Australian town which gives the film its name.
We witness these events – though thankfully, save for one instance, all the gruesomeness occurs off-camera – through the eyes of Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), the youngest of Bunting's recruits. A victim of sexual abuse from both family and neighbours, Jamie finds a champion-of-sorts in the charismatic Bunting, who holds court at kitchen table neighbourhood pow-wows with the frequent rallying cry to punish paedophiles and homosexuals (he makes no distinction between the two).
Not to justify his actions or absolve Jamie of his involvement, but much like the young protagonist in last year's Animal Kingdom, one can see how easily he was seduced by Bunting; not realising how far gone he was until it was too late.
The effectiveness of Snowtown, for me the scariest (Australian) film since Wolf Creek (2005) – and not since have I wanted so badly for a film to end – is its evocation of an atmosphere of dread and foreboding. As stated, there is only the one, overly-long torture scene; for the most part it's the menacing presence of Bunting combined with the bleak suburban milieu that has you on the edge of your seat, and barely resisting the urge to cower beneath it.
And that feeling stays with you. It's difficult once you leave the cinema to comfort yourself with the mantra “it's only a movie” when you know these events actually happened; that people as evil, yet equally benign, as this exist. It's that realisation which makes other 'serial killer as hero' pop culture, such as Hannibal Lecter and television's Dexter (of which I am a fan), seem trivial and even offensive.
Many audience members will, in one way or another, find Snowtown offensive; almost every media screening has witnessed walkouts. It's certainly not a pleasant evening's viewing but it's not the almost-snuff film one high profile Australian reviewer has compared it to.
Kurzel doesn't glorify or sensationalise in his account of events, and its this everyday-ness which is the most shocking aspect of all. That he and Grant don't provide any great insight into what drove Bunting to do what he did may be the film's major flaw, but not one worthy of dismissing Snowtown. You certainly won't forget it.
On Stranger Tides is the fourth voyage in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but only the second time I happen to have climbed aboard. I've seen the first film, 2003's The Curse of the Black Pearl, and that was solely because it earned Johnny Depp his first Oscar nomination. For me, Depp's performance as Captain Jack Sparrow was the only reason to see a film based on a fun park ride.
It's my understanding that the two sequels – Dead Man's Chest (2006) and At World's End (2007) – became longer and more confused. On Stranger Tides clocks in at an unnecessary 136 minutes but it's plot – a race between Sparrow, the Brits and the Spanish to discover the Fountain of Youth – is followed easily enough.
And if, like me, you happened to skip #2 and #3, you won't be too perturbed by the changes the producers have made, starting from the top down. Director Rob Marshall (of Chicago (2002) and Nine (2009) fame) replaces Gore Verbinski at the helm, while original crew members Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom have also been cast adrift. But for those who like consistency, Geoffrey Rush returns as Sparrow's nefarious nemesis, Captain Barbossa, effortlessly stealing scenes and chewing scenery.
New shipmates include Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane. Cruz's Angelica, a one-time convent girl whom Jack converted to a less than pious life, provides some sassy sparring for Sparrow and evidence (and relief for Disney?) that Jack Sparrow plays for both teams and not just the one we've always suspected.
McShane, however, is less successful. On paper, the Brit actor's casting as the much feared Captain Blackbeard sounded perfect. But apart from some deployment of the dark arts, McShane's villainous pirate is far less intimidating than his foulmouthed saloon and whorehouse proprietor, Al Swearingen (from TV's Deadwood).
There's also an attractive young priest (Sam Claflin) along for the ride, presumably because Orlando “eye candy” Bloom isn't? The priest happens to fall for a mermaid, Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), pronounced 'Serena' (like the tuna); a mermaid's tear is required in a ritual once they reach the Fountain.
Syrena's capture provides the film's scariest (for youngsters) sequence; first resembling scenes from a Piranha film, before morphing into the dolphin slaughter from Oscar-winning doco The Cove. But like many a Disney live action film, there's death in On Strangers Tides though very little actual blood.
But I don't mean to be churlish. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is an enjoyable enough high seas adventure, steadying if not advancing a popular franchise, and I've no doubt fans who enjoyed the first three films will be on board with this fourth installment.
Saturday, 14 May 2011
Every Oscars race for Best Picture features one 'little film that could' and 2010 was no exception. But Debra Granik's Winter's Bone was smaller than most. Made for $2 million and grossing less than $10 million in the US, it was the the least seen (if not least praised) of the 10 contenders for the big prize.
But that's one (perhaps the only?) benefit of the expansion of the BP race from 5 to 10: focussing attention on smaller but worthy films. And now with the DVD and Blu-ray release of Winter's Bone in Australia, audiences who missed it in cinemas (it came and went before receiving its four Oscar nominations), have the opportunity to discover for themselves what all the critical fuss was about.
Adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, Granik's film is a heroine's journey set in the Ozark mountains. That heroine is 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Oscar nominated Jennifer Lawrence), the daughter of a meth-cooking dad who has gone AWOL whilst on bail. Having put the family home up as surety, if Ree can't find him before his court date, she, her two younger siblings and her mentally absent mother will be rendered homeless.
Ree encounters hostility and obstruction in her search for her father, from neighbours and kin, most notably her uncle Teardrop (Supporting Actor nominee, John Hawkes), who repeatedly warns his determined niece to leave well enough alone. But she won't which leads to a climactic scene on a river, at night, with a chainsaw.
Winter's Bone starts out grim and becomes even more so, but it's also beautiful in its way and quite affecting. Granik effectively captures the country noir of Woodrell's novel, both in look – the landscape is reminiscent of the post-apocalyptic The Road (2009) – and the characters, whom you can never be sure if they mean to do Ree good or harm.
Do yourself some good and (re)watch Winter's Bone.
Tuesday, 10 May 2011
If you’ve seen the trailer for Insidious, then you no doubt remember Lin Shaye deliver the line, “It’s not the house that’s haunted, it’s your son”. It still gives me chills. And the first half of Insidious successfully had my pulse racing with well-executed jolting frights, and a dour sense of dread.
Dalton Lambert (Ty Simpkins) is the son, of couple Josh and Renai (played convincingly by Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne), who along with their two other children move into a big old house, and soon experience strange occurrences. The adventurous Dalton falls from a ladder in the attic and slips into a coma, and strange becomes downright spooky. Renai, with the help of mother-in-law, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), convinces Josh to move again to escape the nasty encounters. They move house and so do their troubles.
Shorty after, the film introduces a ghostbusting team, led by professional medium Elise Reiner (Shaye) and her two nerdy assistants, and things fall flat and apart. And that's a pity because Shaye is in her element and the character of Elise has great potential. But Leigh Whannel (also the film's writer) and fellow Aussie Angus Sampson ruin the spooky tone with intentional light relief as Elise’s assistants.
Renai and Josh struggle to cope with the knowledge that their son’s physical form has potential squatters from another realm called ‘the further’, and I have to admit I struggled as well. Not with the premise – I loved that – but because rules are established and then broken. A little more research into the unexpected concept used, in conjunction with the poltergeist theme, might have helped the script to gel and possibly have elevated Insidious to classic status.
Whannel and director James Wan collaborate once more after the surprisingly successful Saw (2004), the first in that franchise of so-called torture porn films, and the underrated Dead Silence (2007). Oren Peli, director of Paranormal Activity, and John R. Leonetti, one of this film’s cinematographers, co-produced Insidious and the film is technically sound, impressing on a reported budget of just US $1.5M (grossing $50.5M in return thus far in the States).
I left the cinema satisfied that Insidious had delivered on the scares that were promised. I also remain hopeful that one day we’ll get to see Lin Shaye reprise the role of Elise, in either a prequel or sequel, or better yet-her own spin off feature.
Saturday, 7 May 2011
HANNA - OPENING NIGHT FILM
Joe Wright's (Atonement) teen assassin thriller, Hanna will be the opening night film for this year's Sydney Film Festival. Starring Saoirse Ronan as the titular hit girl, Hanna also stars Eric Bana, as her father, and Cate Blanchett as the government operative charged with tracking her down and bringing her in. Ebert described it as "an odd cross between a fairy tale and a high-tech action movie." Here's hoping Cate and Eric attend opening night!
Two words: Paul Giamatti. That's enough to pique my interest in any film. Throw in director Tom McCarthy, whose The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2008) are indie gems, and you have an irresistable combination. Giamatti plays an attorney whose blundering scheme to keep his business afloat lands his family with an elderly client's runaway teenage grandson. "This movie wins you over, head and heart, without cheating. It's just about perfect." said Rolling Stone's Peter Travers. Sold!
I loved Miranda July's 2003 directorial debut Me and You and Everyone We Know, and am looking forward to her follow-up. Los Angeles couple Sophie and Jason (July and Hamish Linklater) decide they must fulfil all their life desires in the 30 days before their freedom is curtailed by the arrival of newly adopted cat Paw Paw - the film's feline narrator! It promises to be as enjoyably left of centre as July's debut.
Who doesn't enjoy a good cinematic menage a trois? And Tom Tykwer's (of Run Lola Run) delicious romantic drama promises to be such. Simon and Hanna's relationship has reached a plateau, then Hanna meets Adam and Adam meets Simon - and all three fall for each other while remaining oblivious to the others' affairs. Sounds delicious.
TREE OF LIFE
The film which cinephiles the world over have been waiting for, seemingly for forever, finally arrives! After its world premiere in Cannes, Terrence Malick's Tree of Life will screen in competition with a little less mystique but no less interest. Some Oz reviewers (myself included) saw it a couple of weeks ago but are still under embargo but let me say, definitely worth seeing.
LIFE, ABOVE ALL
A film championed by Roger Ebert since its premiere at Cannes 2010, this South African AIDS drama focusses on a 12 year old girl who struggles to overcome fear and suspicion in her village. With wonderful music and a big heart, it's bound to be a crowd pleaser.
BEGINNERS - CLOSING NIGHT FILM
Writer-director Mike Mills (who happens to be the partner of fellow writer-director and SFF entrant Miranda July) directs a semi-autobiographical story of a writer (Ewan McGregor) coming to terms with his father's (Christopher Plummer) late-in-life coming out and dating a younger man. The film also stars the lovely Melanie Laurent and a scene-stealing dog.
Other films of note include: Jane Eyre, The Beaver, 13 Assassins, Norwegian Wood, and Australian Cannes 2011 entrant, Sleeping Beauty. For all films, screenings, bookings etc go to:
The 2011 Sydney Film Festival runs from the 8th to the 19th June.
Opening with a framing device which instantly invokes Titanic – an old man (Hal Holbrook) recalls a great but forbidden love and a tragedy from decades ago – Water For Elephants flags its intentions for melodrama, nostalgia and romance from the outset. And even without having read Sara Gruen's bestseller (adapted by Richard LaGravenese), I've no doubt that's what fans of the book were hoping for.
Holbrook is Jacob, played for the most part in the younger guise of Robert Pattinson, for the film soon flashes back to 1931 to reveal how a veterinary school drop out became the animal physician for the Benzini Brothers, a second-tier and nigh on broke circus travelling across the US, and how he bore witness to their infamous demise that same year.
As always, there is a lady involved: Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the circus's star attraction and the wife of ringmaster and circus owner, August (Christoph Waltz), a man prepared to throw workers from a moving train to avoid paying them and who treats everyone, including his wife, as though they were his property.
It seems Waltz has become a victim of his own success. Following his Oscar win for Inglourious Basterds (2009), where he played the charismatically evil Col. Hans Landa, the Austrian actor has been typecast by Hollywood as the villain, though he does get more to work with here than he did previously in The Green Hornet.
Jacob and Marlena are first thrown together then drawn to each other when the circus acquires Rosie, an elephant with a penchant for alcohol, whom August believes will be the Benzini Bros. saviour, and which Jacob must train and Marlena ride. What follows is a series of longing glances and a lot of U.S.T as the pair bond over Rosie, the real star of the film.
But to be fair, both Pattinson and Witherspoon are perfectly fine in Water For Elephants, fulfilling their roles – as star crossed lovers – and the requirements of the film – directed by Francis Lawrence in a change of pace from 2007's I Am Legend – admirably.
It's designed to make audiences swoon rather than scream, which is why Pattinson's younger Twi-hard fans are likely to give Water For Elephants a miss. Their mothers, on the other hand, will be sighing and weeping into their popcorn.
And there's nothing wrong with that. Water For Elephants delivers exactly what it promises: romance and melodrama, though admittedly without reaching the Titanic heights (or should that be depths?) it hints at. Still, in an era where so many rom-coms and chick flicks shortchange and insult their audience, Water For For Elephants is an old fashioned breath of fresh air.
Wednesday, 4 May 2011
When Love And Other Drugs released in Oz cinemas late last year, there was a discernible divide between older (let's say over 40) and younger reviewers. The former group seemed to find Edward Zwick's romantic-comedy-drama an engaging confection, thanks mostly to its attractive and oft semi-naked leads, Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal.
But the latter group were nonplussed by its inability to settle on a genre or tone, and found offense with the film on several levels, its unashamed product placement for a certain drug company just one example.
Jamie Randall (Gyllenhaal) is his family's under achiever until he begins a career in pharmaceutical sales with said drug company, putting his good looks and natural charm to work. Jamie struggles at first but then his company launches a certain blue pill onto the market – it's 1996 – and, viola!, Jamie's on the way up (so to speak).
At the same time he begins a relationship-of-sorts with Maggie (Hathaway), a free spirited artist/waitress, who won't commit to anything more with Jamie than casual sex – and lots of it; the film's frank depiction of sexual activity one of its selling points as well as its point of difference. When was the last time you saw the two leads in a rom-com actually getting it on?
But Maggie's lust for life and all it has to offer stems from a darker place. She's been diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's Disease; not a spoiler as we learn this before we meet her. Currently in Stage 1, Maggie only suffers from tremors but her condition will worsen. But will Jamie stick around when that happens, and if he does, will it be for love or out of pity?
The major failing of Love And Other Drugs is that it doesn't know what it wants to be. Is it a satire of the billion dollar pharmaceutical sales industry? Is it a raunchy rom-com? Or is it a modern day Love Story, albeit with screenwriter Charles Randolph and director Zwick backing out before the inevitable and unglamourous decline of their leading lady?
Gyllenhaal and Hathaway's natural charm and easy chemistry goes a long way to making Love And Other Drugs a not-so jagged little pill – these two could sell almost anything. But they have to work hard to overcome the screenplay's schizophrenic nature, providing a placebo effect and fooling you into thinking it's better for you than it really is.