Wednesday, 23 November 2011


Paramount Pictures
Now Showing

A prequel of sorts to DreamWorks' Shrek franchise, where the the titular feline made his debut in that series' second film, Puss In Boots lands (on its feet) more toward the middle of the Shrek spectrum (Shrektrum?): behind one and two but ahead of the disappointing third and fourth instalments.

Certainly the animation in Puss In Boots (directed by Shrek 3's Chris Miller) is of a far more detailed nature than in those other films, and according to most, the 3D is some of the best yet deployed (though honestly, I couldn't tell). Story-wise, Puss In Boots relies less on pop culture references (although various fairy tales and nursery rhymes get a mention) in an attempt to tell the origins story of its hirsute hero.

Puss (Antonio Banderas, in fine vocal form) is already an outlaw when the film opens (post-coitus, I might add; try explaining that to the curious kiddies), the reason for which is explained in flashback when he happens upon an old friend, Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifiniakis).

Turns out the pair were BFF's back in the day, when the two were residents of an orphanage. But Humpty's darker nature finally drove a wedge between them when a crime masterminded by the hardboiled egg went awry and Puss was forced to go on the run.

But now Humpty's back, and with his female feline sidekick, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), he wants to make amends to his long lost friend by including him in a heist to end all heists: to literally steal the goose who lays the golden eggs. All that is required is to first steal the magic beans from Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris), two uncouth hillbillies from a Grimm Brothers' backwoods nightmare.

All of this unfolds amusingly enough, though without the wit that made the first two Shrek films so good. Banderas, whose Puss In Boots stole Shrek 2 away from the green ogre and, more impressively, Eddie Murphy's Donkey, makes the transition from sidekick to leading cat seem effortless. If you were a fan of his Shrek 2 antics (and a cat lover generally), you're bound to be engaged by the Spaniard here.

And Hayek is the perfect foil for the suave hero, swashing as well as he buckles. But Galifiniakis makes Humpty Dumpty neither evil or, surprisingly, funny enough. Not even the revelation of his true plan - man, is this egg scrambled - can provide much in the way of laughs, though youngsters may feel the urge to boo, or, rather, hiss cat-like.

Puss In Boots is engaging enough and will no doubt be enjoyed a lot more by said youngsters. In a lacklustre year for animated features, it's one of the better ones. Not the pick of the litter, mind, but adorable nonetheless.


Sony Pictures
Now Showing

In spite of its young lovers being haunted by the spectre of death (figuratively, not literally; this isn't a teen horror flick), Restless, the new film by director Gus Van Sant, is more affected than affecting. And I'd suggest that has more to do with the efforts of the first time screenwriter, Jason Lew, than the veteran director.

Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis) and Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska) are teens so laden with ticks and quirks they can only be the product of a young writer throwing everything he's got at his first big shot at the movies (the film is co-produced by Lew's former university classmate, Bryce Dallas Howard).

Mourning the death of his parents, Enoch attends the funerals of strangers. At first it seems disrespectful, but the boy with the scarecrow-like features is just seeking closure having missed his parents' funeral; he was in a coma following the car accident which claimed their lives. Enoch also has an imaginary friend and confidant, Hiroshi Takahashi (Ryo Kase), the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot and very much a first time writer's conceit (props to Kase for making Hiroshi amusingly believable).

Enoch meets Annabel at a funeral for a young boy, whom she knew, who died of cancer. It's the first hint that the slim girl with the baggy clothes and pixie-cut hair (Hiroshi doesn't understand why she dresses like a boy) may not be well. And she's not. Annabel has a type of brain cancer and her latest diagnosis has given her just three months to live.

Still, the bruised Enoch falls for the the girl who likes to sketch, read books about birds and lists Charles Darwin as one of her heroes (which is odd given his 'survival of the fittest' theories). And so ensues a romance which for some may recall Love Story - that 1970 weepie starring Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw as young college lovers also facing a death sentence (also hers) - and can presumably only end one way.

But I didn't even come close to shedding a tear. As sweet and low-key charming as Enoch and Annabel are, theirs is not a grand or great passion. Yes the death of youth and beauty is a tragedy but I didn't get any sense of that in Restless. And Hopper, an odd screen presence but then I guess his dad was too, and Wasikowska, who impresses with each new and varied role, just couldn't break through my defences.

Perhaps that also had something to so with Van Sant's restraint. Deliberately avoiding the cliche of a swelling orchestra, the soundtrack of Restless is full of wispy and raspy voices over guitar and thankfully void of emotionally manipulative music.

An old hand like Van Sant knows that tears should be earnt (see his brilliant 2008 film, Milk), a lesson a young writer like Jason Lew would do well to heed.

Saturday, 19 November 2011


Icon Film Distribution
Now Showing

Working from the premise that a housing estate in London is as good as any place to stage an alien invasion of Earth, writer-director Joe Cornish takes great delight in indulging, and sometimes subverting the genre cliches in his highly entertaining and very cool feature debut, Attack The Block.

After mugging a nurse, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), on her way home from work, Moses (John Boyega) and his band of not-so-merry lads, are taken by surprise when an alien crashes into a nearby car. At first they think it's a firework gone astray, but the beast - baboon-like but with some major fangs - makes its presence known, slashing Moses' face in its escape.

The boys pursue and kill the creature but that's just the beginning of their troubles. Other aliens are on their way - and so are the police; Sam calling in the cops to apprehend her attackers.

But when the second wave of extraterrestrials arrive - bigger, blacker than black and with teeth that glow in the dark - the police prove less than useful and Sam is forced to form an uneasy alliance with Moses and his gang in an effort to make it through the night, and out of the Block - the housing estate where they all live - alive.

Cornish starts in on the action almost immediately and doesn't let up, with the humour and the horror coming in a steady flow. He might reference more than a few other films of this ilk in doing so but there's no denying the guy knows how to make a movie. Cornish can also throw in a little social commentary - after the failure of guns and drugs, of course the government would send in aliens to kill off the undesirables - without it landing like a sledgehammer.

Moses and his gangs' transition from villains to heroes is also smoothly; Sam soon discovering that Moses, despite being just 15 years of age, is a good guy to have around in a crisis. So, too, is a nurse, despite her propensity for profanity (amusingly, the boys reprimand Sam on her "potty mouth"; they may be louts but they're not uncouth.)

Sadly for them, not all of them will make it out of the Block; two of them falling victim to the invaders before they can reach the safe haven that is Ron's pot room (Ron played by comic, Nick Frost) where they stored the corpse of the first invader.

Attack The Block may not have the homage-induced nostalgia of J.J. Abrams' Super 8, 2011's other 'kids and aliens' pic (and indeed, only a fraction of that film's budget), but Joe Cornish manages to elicit a rousing response - cheers more than tears - nonetheless. Believe!


Sony Pictures
Now Showing

Although stamped with the imprimatur of Aardman Animation - those clever clogs behind Chicken Run (2000) and the Wallace and Gromit franchise - Arthur Christmas, a collaboration with Sony Animation, bears only the slightest of Aardman touches.

There is of course the unmistakeably British humour, provided by an impressive Brit voice cast - James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy - but the look of the film is rather less identifiably Aardman.

Perhaps that has something to do with the film, directed and co-written (with Peter Baynham) by Sarah Smith, being computer animated rather than the old school stop motion which one associates with Aardman. Then again, Flushed Away, Aardman Animation's 2006 foray into computer animation, managed to keep those distinctive characteristics of big eyes and buck teeth when exchanging old technology for new.

Arthur Christmas is a much slicker, shinier looking film but then again so are the modern day North Pole headquarters of Santa Claus. Manned by an army of elves, the all-white decor of mission control resembles those of NASA (well, if they hadn't received major budget cuts), and is overseen by Steven (Laurie), eldest son of Santa (Broadbent), and heir apparent to the red and white suit (which he plans to replace with his own Versace number).

With Santa completing his 70th mission, tradition dictates that the jolly fat man secede to the next in line. But Santa decides not to retire with the Mrs (Staunton). He also decides, very un-Santa-like, not to remedy a situation which sees one little girl in the English village of Cornwall left without a present.

This shocks and saddens Santa's youngest son, Arthur (McAvoy), who, as head of the Letters Department, knows just how much this oversight will mean to the child - and to himself. Santa may be his dad, but Arthur is more in awe of the myth than the man; his office is a shrine to the jolly fat man and the ideals he represents.

Arthur is convinced by his grandfather, Grandsanta (Nighy), to fix the situation himself - the old school way. Sporting a massive chip on his shoulder from being dumped as Santa by his son 70 years ago, Grandsanta also rails against Steven's heavy reliance on technology: a giant spacecraft now enables Santa to deliver presents worldwide in one evening; reindeer and sleigh have long been assigned to the scrap heap.

Retrieving both from the proverbial mothballs, Grandsanta, Arthur and Bryony (Ashley Jensen), an elf from giftwrapping with a gift for wrapping, set out to deliver the gift - and the gift of Christmas - to one little girl. Of course, nothing goes to plan with a series of misadventures (all in unnecessary 3D) ensuring there are plenty of laughs and tears before sunrise on December 25.

In a year that's been rather underwhelming for animated films, and family films generally, Arthur Christmas manages to make it on to the 'Nice' list. I could be trite and cruel, and say it's ho-ho-hum (what's that? I just did!), and more of a stocking stuffer than a Christmas classic but the film isn't without its moments. And thankfully, despite the Yuletide theme, it's refreshingly light on saccharine.


Palace Films
Now Showing

Billed as an Italian Love, Actually, Ages of Love (or Manual of Love 3 as it is also known) even has its poster art recalling that 2003 Brit film of interconnecting stories of love won and lost. But despite its interlocking story structure, Giovanni Veronesi's film is a much more straight forward affair, making the Richard Curtis' rom-com seem positively labyrinthine by comparison.

The 'ages of love' depicted here are youth (20s), middle age and post-middle age, and are told from the male perspective as a young lawyer (Riccardio Scamarcio), a television news anchorman (Carlo Verdone), and a retired American scholar (Robert De Niro) learn first hand that love - or more appropriately, lust - makes fools of us all. And even more so when you think with your penis.

Roberto (Scamarcio) is seconded to a village to persuade the residents of a farm to sell their home. While he awaits their decision he becomes the source of much amusement for the locals, a rag tag group of harmless men, and one not-so-harmless woman who succeeds in seducing Roberto, despite his having a fiance back in Rome.

Fabio (Verdone) is a news anchorman who, despite 25 seemingly happy years of marriage, succumbs to the advances of an admirer only to discover the woman is a stalker but not so much in the Glenn Close-Fatal Attraction kind of way. No bunnies are hurt in Ages of Love but Fabio's ego, and his toupe, sure take a beating.

And then there's Adrian (De Niro), the retired and divorced American scholar who has come to Rome to live. And it's suddenly la dolce vita when the daughter of his best friend, Augusto (Michele Placido), comes to stay. That's Viola, played by Monica Bellucci, so you can almost forgive Adrian's sudden change in attire - lycra running shorts - or lack thereof (one scene has De Niro perform an awkward striptease for Bellucci).

All of these stories, tenuously linked by a taxi driving cupid, are mildly amusing and harmless enough, but none of them reveal anything insightful about the nature of love other than the man's inability to function properly when presented with the attentions of a new female.

Still, Ages of Love was a huge hit at the recent Lavazza Film Festival. I can't say if that was the audience's desire to see a rom-com done in a way other than the tried (i.e. tired) and true way of Hollywood or to simply see De Niro in his first Italian-speaking role since Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 (1976), and his least embarrassing performance (striptease aside) in quite some time.


Roadshow Films
Now Showing

While a perfectly fine political drama, The Ides of March suffers under the misconception that its premise – that politics is a dirty game and ideals are the first thing to die in the pursuit of power – is revelatory. Anyone who ran for student council in high school can tell you it's not. Yet when this truth is revealed to young campaigner Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), his world is thrown off its axis.

Working the campaign for Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), a Democrat hoping to secure that Party's nomination to run for President of the United States, Stephen is a hot shot going places. The rival Democrats want him to come work for them, but he rebuffs the advances of that campaign's manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti at his weasel-like best): Stephen is big on loyalty – to both the Governor and the man who hired him, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – and his own ideals.

But those ideals don't prevent him from fraternising with Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), a spunky young intern and 10 years his junior. Gosling and Wood have great chemistry together but I'm guessing it's not hard to feign desire for Gosling (some may say the same of Wood). It's during their midnight assignations that Steven unearths a grenade which threatens not only to rock the Governor's campaign but Stephen's whole belief system.

Clooney's Governor Morris would seem to be an amalgam of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, two of the US Democrats' most promising stars in recent years whose lustre, for reasons of their own doing (Clinton's sexual indiscretions; Obama's mishandling of the GFC, giving Wall Street a free pass), was lost.

A Democrat himself, Clooney, directing his fourth film, doesn't let the Party off easy: there are no Republicans in The Ides of March for the Democrats do a perfectly good job of destroying themselves. Yet none of this in-fighting, backstabbing or abandonment of ideals is as revelatory or earth-shattering as Clooney and his co-writers – Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, from whose play, Farragut North, Ides is adapted – would have us believe.

Even if ironically, or fittingly, like so many political candidates (and movies, for that matter), the film delivers less than what it promises, The Ides of March succeeds as an engaging political drama. Gosling, on a roll in 2011, Clooney, graciously playing a supporting role, and Giamatti and Hoffman (whom I could have used more of) are all in fine form and worthy of your vote.

Sunday, 6 November 2011


Hopscotch Films
Now Showing

There has been some discussion in the media of late as to whether or not women who choose not to have children (for whatever reason) are selfish. While a silly debate to begin with, a strong argument for the negative is Lynne Ramsay's new feature We Need To Talk About Kevin: anyone, not just women, will abandon the idea of parenthood after seeing this film.

Based on the award-winning bestselling book by Lionel Shriver, Ramsay's film unfolds as a prism of memories belonging to Eva (Tilda Swinton), who is struggling to come to terms with the horrific crime her adolescent son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), has committed. But was it Eva's lack of maternal instinct that lead to Kevin's actions, or, as Eva's memories suggest, was Kevin born the bad seed? Nurture versus nature?

The young Kevin wilfully ignores, taunts and defies his mother which leaves her exasperated and exhausted. Husband and father Franklin (John C. Reilly, underused and arguably miscast), who escapes to the office every day, doesn't see Kevin as Eva does; when daddy walks in the door, it's all smiles.

The behaviour of Kevin in his various stages, may be one of the film's less convincing elements, bordering on caricature, but as I said, these are the memories of a grieving mother and wife, they are not objective flashbacks. Memory is not a reliable tool, and Eva is possibly looking for a way to explain what happened or punishing herself for missing signs that were there all along.

Tilda Swinton is, of course, amazing in the film which she also executive produced. She doesn't do vanity - Swinton appears gaunt and haggard throughout - nor does she make Eva the hero of the piece. We get the sense that Eva never really envisioned herself as a mother and nurturing doesn't come naturally to her; Kevin is a riddle she simply can't decipher. And with the arrival of a daughter, it would seem Eva's easy relationship with her confirms her suspicions about Kevin: it's not me, it's him.

Of course nothing in We Need To Talk About Kevin is meant to be that simplistic. Never having read Shriver's book, I can only go by what Ramsay - making just her third feature, and her first in nine years - has presented. As a film it's an impressionistic piece about memory and guilt, the fractured narrative of which serves to heighten your discomfort as you wait for the truth of what Kevin did to be fully revealed.

And when it's revealed to be something other than a gun which is involved, it's all the more chilling. Kevin, played as an adolescent by Ezra Miller with insouciant menace, may have been born an arsehole but for mine, he chose to be a monster. And make no mistake: if you choose to see We Need To Talk About Kevin, like Eva, you'll be haunted.

Thursday, 3 November 2011


Hopscotch Films
Now Showing

Palm Island, off the east coast of Queensland, is a beautiful location and a tropical idyll. But looks can be deceiving, and when one of the indigenous locals died in police custody in 2004, all kinds of ugly were revealed, extending across to the mainland and the heart of the Queensland Police Force, and back to the island's aboriginal penal colony past.

Cameron Doomadgee was arrested for swearing at police officer, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, and a mere 45 minutes later died in a cell at the Palm Island Police Station. Despite suffering injuries consistent with those sustained in a car crash - including four broken ribs and a liver almost cleaved in half - Hurley maintained that Doomadgee was never beaten and that his injuries were sustained in a fall whilst being taken from the paddy wagon to the cell where he died.

But from the moment Doomadgee was found dead, the police investigation was compromised, and standard procedure ignored. A miscarriage of justice which began with the arrest of Cameron Doomadgee (for swearing at a police officer; offensive but not really an arrest-worthy offense), reverberated long after his death: Doomadgee's son, and the man who shared that fatal cell with the deceased, both committed suicide not long after.

A Coronial Inquiry into Doomadgee's death ruled Hurley responsible but the Queensland Department of Police Prosecutions not only reversed that decision but ruled the death an accident. When, at the behest of the Queensland government in 2007, that decision by the DPP was to be reinvestigated, the Queensland Police Department came out in force in support of Hurley with strike action a constant threat.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, no one from QLD Police would agree to appear in The Tall Man, Tony Krawitz's doco based on Chloe Hooper's non-fiction book, which recounts all of these events with clarity. Hurley's defense is left to video footage of the investigation, court recordings of Hurley's testimony, and character references from (white) locals from his previous postings.

Interviews with family, friends and the partner of Doomagdee paint a portrait of an imperfect but no less loved man while also capturing the anger and, as much as film can, their grief. And make no mistake, The Tall Man will anger and sadden you in equal measure. Whether Doomadagee's death was racially motivated or not, you can't help but feel ashamed of the ongoing tensions between black and white Australia, as well as those between Aboriginals and police.

Naively, I believed that aboriginal deaths in custody had come to a head in Australia in the early 1990s. The Tall Man acts as a sobering reminder that even in the 2000s, Australia still has a long way to go.