In a year where The Avengers assembled, Batman ended, Spider-man rebooted, and James Bond did a little of both, it wasn't the tent pole films that blew me away. More often than not, it was the small film with a big heart which won me over in 2012.
And yet, I'm sad to say, my Top 10 features no documentaries or Australian films, and only one foreign language film (two make an appearance via my Honourable Mentions).
So here then are my Top 10 Films of 2012*, in alphabetical order save for #1, and featuring a wallflower, an angel, a damsel and a knight; a boy scout, a Goth rocker, a time traveller, and a silent movie star.
Oh, and feel free to let me know what you loved at the movies in 2012.
*Note: Given Australian release dates, and my seeing some 2012 films in 2011, and a few 2013 releases now, this list is compiled of films released in Australian cinemas between January 15, 2012 and January 15, 2013.
The Angels' Share
A kitchen sink drama about down-and-out Glaswegians is nothing new for director Ken Loach, but about halfway through The Angels' Share the film becomes a Highlands heist comedy as a quartet of minor offenders attempt to pull-off a whiskey sting. By turns dramatic and comic, the third act of Loach's film, penned by regular collaborator Paul Laverty, is as tense as any thriller, and not for ages have I been so invested in the outcome of a film's protagonist. By no means a perfect drop, it's a damn near irresistible tipple.
Damsels In Distress
Not the best comedy of the year but possibly the most (and loudest) laughs I've ever heard in a theatrette media screening, Whit Stillman's first film in 14 years is a hoot. A delightful Greta Gerwig leads a clique of reverse-Mean Girls who operate a university campus suicide prevention centre armed with donuts and dance lessons, and who has very particular ideas about dating and posterity. It may not always make sense, but Damsels is never in danger of being dull.
The Dark Knight Rises
By no means a perfect film but perhaps a perfect end to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, TDKR touches base with its predecessors as it brings in new characters - Tom Hardy's Bane and Anne Hathaway's Catwoman the notable two - as, eight years after The Dark Knight, we find a city, and a superhero, under siege. Christian Bale gives his best performance yet as Bruce Wayne (perhaps as he spends less time in the suit), and Michael Caine's Alfred gets to carry the emotional load like the trooper that he is.
Named for the French port town, Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre is fablesque but heartfelt and political. When an elderly shoe shiner's wife is diagnosed with a tumour, he distracts himself by taking in an "illegal" immigrant boy from Africa in the hopes of getting him to family in London. Le Havre is a gentle rebuke to the 'stop the boats' rhetoric our politicians like to shout about come election time, too easily forgetting that refugees are people.
Oh, the joys of young love but oh, the tyranny of distance. When post-post grad lovers Anna and Jacob (Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin, both excellent) are separated by a Visa snafu - she in London, he in L.A. - they determine to stay together, giving long distance romance a try. But time, the Atlantic Ocean and reality seem determined to work against them. In the best tradition of lo-fi, bittersweet romance, Drake Doremus' film won my heart just as easily as it broke it.
A Boy Scout and a local girl runaway across the small isle of New Penzance in 1965, sending the adult population (including Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton and, of course, Bill Murray) into a frenzy in Wes Anderson's delightful coming of age tale. With the writer-director's distinct look and characters, Moonrise Kingdom breaks through its deliberate artifice to connect with the young hopeful in all of us.
The Perks of Being A Wallflower
The coming of age film is a tried and true genre yet Stephen Chbosky, adapting his own book in an impressive directorial debut, manages to bring a freshness to the tale of high school outsider Charlie (a terrific Logan Lerman), and his discovery of life's joys through his adventures with fellow 'wallflowers', Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson). Amusing, heartfelt and emotionally affecting 'Wallflower' is top of the class.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Kenneth (Mark Duplass) is a supermarket employee with no friends and a fake ear who may also possess the technology to time travel. Darius (Aubrey Plaza), fellow magazine intern Arnau (Karan Soni) and their "superior", Jeff (Jake johnson), head to his coastal home town to find out if the man who posted the advert requesting a travel companion ("bring your own weapons, safety not guaranteed") is a real whack job or the real deal. Colin Trevorrow invests this small film with such heart that the truth is beside the point. Still, it's the best time travel film of the year (and yes, I saw Looper).
This Must Be The Place
Two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn can do just about anything, and his turn as a former Goth rocker cum Nazi hunter pretty much confirms it. Italian Paolo Sorrentino's first English language feature is by turns comedy, drama, road movie and Holocaust film. It may even be a dream, but it's Penn's Cheyenne (think The Cure's Robert Smith with a touch of Ozzy Osbourne) that makes it a real gem.
#1 The Artist
Black and white. Silent. Oscar winner. But The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius' love letter to the silent era of Hollywood and filmmaking generally, wasn't made in the 1920s but 2011. And I think by the time the Oscars rolled around, and The Artist delivered on its tag as favourite, people forgot just what an achievement a black and white silent film in the 21st century was. Without sound the film manages to hold audiences spellbound, thanks in no small part to the charm-filled performances of Berenice Bejo and Best Actor Oscar winner, Jean Dujardin. I actually saw The Artist in late 2011; released in Australia in February 2012, nothing could surpass it for me.
A Separation, The Avengers, The Grey, King of Devil's Island, Life of Pi, ParaNorman, The Raid, Take This Waltz, Weekend, Your Sister's Sister
AND THE WORST:
In lieu of a Transformers film (sadly, a fourth is on its way), Battleship was the next best thing. And by best I mean worst. And by worst I mean a steaming pile of IQ (and will to live) destroying shit. Peter Berg's 131-minute US Naval recruitment video was akin to being repeatedly hit in the face by a house brick, all the while having the director and cast yelling at you; "Can you feel yourself getting dumber? Can you?" To those who sought to somehow defend the "film" by saying "at least it was entertaining", I say, FUCK YOU!
Saturday, 15 December 2012
Opens Boxing Day
The King Speech director Tom Hooper's film version of the stage musical Les Miserables had been one of my most anticipated films of the Australian 2012-2013 summer ever since seeing the first teaser trailer which featured Anne Hathaway singing I Dreamed A Dream, the song non-musical people will know as the one made famous by Susan Boyle when she appeared on Britain's Got Talent.
I'm not a stage musical aficianado, don't see that many stage musicals (I haven't seen one in over 18 months), and I've never seen Les Miserables. But I was prepared for a film epic in scope and intimate in emotion. I was also prepared for a musical.
But Hooper's Les Miserables isn't just a film musical, it's a 'MUSICAL!'. Everything is big, loud and sung. Every word, every sentence, every dying gasp is sung. And every song is sung live. The marketing for this film adaptation of the popular stage musical has been at pains to inform and remind us of this fact: the actors did not lip synch, they sung live.
Hooper's intent with this conceit was to capture the raw emotion of each performance in the moment yet for me, that is exactly what Les Miserables lacks: any real emotion. The film never broke through the fourth wall for me; not even the highly praised, one-take rendition of I Dreamed A Dream by Hathaway, malnourished and crudely cropped as the tragic Fantine, could squeeze a single tear from my eye (honestly, I'm more moved watching Ms Boyle's YouTube clip).
Opening in the years following the French Revolution, and spanning the decades until the student uprising in the mid 1800s, Les Miserables follows the journey of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman). Imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, he's granted parole in the opening scene of the film but warned by his captor, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), that he be on his best behaviour for he'll be watching.
Valjean does indeed break parole but also has a religious epiphany when a priest shows him kindness. Cut to eight years later, and Valjean, with a name change as well as a change of heart, is now the respected and beloved Mayor of a northern French town. But the arrival of Javert unsettles Valjean, and with good reason. A cross between a bloodhound and the Terminator, Javert recognises Valjean and is not about to let him get away again.
Valjean's preoccupation with Javert sees one of his factory employees, Fantine, a single woman working to pay her daughter's keep with a local innkeeper, dismissed from her position. After selling her hair and teeth, Fantine is reduced to selling her body to get by (cue I Dreamed A Dream). When Valjean discovers her, it's too late for Fantine but not her daughter, Cosette, whom he promises to care for.
Jump forward another nine years and Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfried) is a beautiful young woman but one who lives a cloistered life with her parole-jumping guardian in Paris. Still she manages to catch the eye, and be still the heart of the young radical, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who, along with his fellow students, is planning a revolt against the government and the crown.
At the same time that young romance blossoms, helped by Marius's intermediary, Eponine (Samantha Barks), who secretly loves the bourgeois radical, Javert arrives in Paris; the student rebellion will bring he and Valjean face-to-face once more and decide the fates of each of the main characters. Not that I cared.
Having felt very much on the outside looking in for the most part of Les Miserables, by the time events reach their climax - and that takes 157 minutes - I was relieved more than moved. Not that it's all bad. Les Miserables is by no means a terrible film or anywhere near worth being considered one of the year's worst. Disappointing, yes. Diabolique? Non.
Unsurprisingly, Hooper has mounted a handsome production and his cast are uniformly good. Jackman, no stranger to a show tune, is solid as Jean Valjean but if I were an Academy voter, I'd not be ticking his box on my ballot. Ditto Hathaway. Fantine really only has that one big moment and like I said, it didn't move me. Hathaway's Oscar favouritism for Supporting Actress baffles me.
Crowe makes a good fist of Javert, and the one-time part-time rocker puts a bit of gravel into the vocals, while Seyfried lends Cosette a nightingale-like quiver. Barks, a film debutant who has performed the role of Eponine on stage, is effortless though under served, but the real revelation is Redmayne. Star of My Week With Marilyn, and several BBC television productions in the last few years, Redmayne sings with such emotion and gusto that his head shakes.
Ultimately, and unfortunately, Les Miserables is less than the sum of its parts; Hooper's attempt to revolutionise the movie musical falling short like the ambitions of so many student radicals. For all its ambition and effort, it left me with very little to sing about.
Wednesday, 12 December 2012
As a love letter to Woody Allen, writer-director Sophie Lellouche's feature debut is more enthusiastic than articulate as it tells the tale of Alice (Alice Taglioni), a Parisian woman who now in her 30s is both single and childless (sacre bleu!) because no real man can compete with her ideal: Mr. Allen.
Alice has imaginary conversations with the director, that is the larger than life poster of the bespectacled auteur which occupies a wall in her bedroom like she were still a teenager and he her pop idol. He talks back to her, too, albeit in neatly chosen sound bites from various Woody Allen films, and which only serve to reinforce what Alice is already thinking (not to mention what Lellouche legally had copyright access to).
But then Alice's romantic fortunes take an upward turn. She starts dating a handsome doctor (sensible given Alice is a pharmacist), and around about the same time Victor (Patrick Bruel), a locksmith and alarms expert, comes into her orbit.
Alice doesn't feel any attraction to the handsome older man but her parents, particularly her father, certainly do, and the pair end up spending a lot of time together, albeit platonically and mostly whilst tailing Alice's brother-in-law whom she is shocked to learn is cheating on her sister.
All of this plays out charmingly enough until its predictable although somewhat logic-free denouement but I found Paris-Manhattan to be increasingly frustrating and annoying. Like Romantics Anonymous, another Gallic rom-com from earlier in the year, I suspect we're supposed to be charmed by the whimsy while the French subtitles are to distract us from the gaps in both logic and reality.
Still, Paris-Manhattan didn't anger me in quite the same way that Romantic Anonymous did. But I maintain that like that film, if Lellouche's debut were to be made by Hollywood – scene-by-scene and word-for-word – reviewers and critics would savage it.
And in spite of the appealing leads and a "surprise" cameo, I think even those with a woody for Woody will find little to be enamoured by. Paris-Manhattan is no Midnight In Paris.
Sunday, 9 December 2012
Icon Film Distribution
If school was supposed to be the best years of your life, than for an A-grade education junky like myself, university could only be bigger and better, right? In my case, not so. With a mere 12 hours of class a week and no partaking in extracurricular activities – no sex, drugs and rock n roll for this off campus co-ed – my college experience was one of disappointment.
But not so for Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor), where college – which saw him indulge more so in literary classics than class A drugs – was indeed the time of his life. The 30-something New York admissions officer now longs for the days when he could sit around doing nothing but reading books and discussing ideas (nobody does that in the real world, he laments).
So when he's invited to return to his alma mater to attend the retirement dinner of one of his favourite professors, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), Jesse jumps at the chance, hire car-ing it to Ohio. And Jesse is instantly as happy as a kid in a candy store when he's once more walking (gambolling even) the green, leafy campus of Kenyon College.
He gets even more of a spring in his step when he's introduced to Zibby (a radiant Elizabeth Olson), the daughter of Peter's friends and a current student. Despite the 16-year age gap, there's chemistry between the two and after a couple of dates over the course of the weekend, Jesse and Zibby agree to write handwritten letters to each other.
It's at about this point – with Jesse and Zibby reading aloud each other's letters discussing their love of all things literary to the soundtrack of a mixed CD of classical music Zibby compiled for Jesse's enjoyment and enlightenment – that Liberal Arts, also penned and directed by Radnor, is in danger of disappearing up its own smugness.
I would hate to think that my resistance to Liberal Arts (I've now seen it twice, and I liked it a little more on second viewing) was due to the presence of characters who actually discussed things – books, music, ideas – rather than merely saying (inane) things which progressed the plot from Point A to Point B, for films about adults – for adults – are rare.
But Radnor's film, for all its intellectualizing, is more about a man-child stuck in the past; he's grown up but he hasn't moved on. The film's best moment comes when Jesse is given a post-coital dressing down by Professor Fairfield (Allison Janney), the Romantics professor whose class Jesse adored in his time at Kenyon, but who calls bullshit on his romantic notions about literature and life.
Kudos to Radnor for the writing but all power to Janney for making the words zing and sting. Like Jenkins (who can do pathos and gravitas as easily as breathe), Janney's mere presence can enliven any film, and here she (and credit to Radnor) successfully lets some air out of the smug mobile's tyres.
And were it not for Janney (and Olsen and Jenkins), Liberals Arts would not earn its passing grade.
Monday, 26 November 2012
A wallflower, by definition, is someone who watches life from the sidelines. And I guess you could have called me a wallflower when I was in high school but I'll also maintain that I was one by choice.
I went to school, I went home. I had friends but for whatever reason, I didn't hangout with them after school or on weekends (somewhat more surprising given I lived in a country town, and those who lived within the "city" limits were no more than a maximum 15 minute walk away). I think I would have went to less than five school dances in my entire high school life and I didn't date anyone. Ever. And the only grief I ever gave my single parent mother was by being a fussy eater.
Of course this biographical detail would not make for a Hollywood high school film where angst, romance, and revolt are the compulsory touchstones and plot points. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower does indeed subscribe to these tropes, but it does so nimbly and freshly. And while the events of the film may take place in the early 1990s, apart from a noticeable lack of technology (no email, social media, smart phones or even - gasp - mobile phones of any description), the film is both timeless and relevant: we've all been teenagers at some point (however much of a wallflower we may have been).
Charlie (Logan Lerman) is very much a wallflower; various events and circumstances in the life of the first year high schooler having lead him to be a quiet observer, existing on the fringe of the student body. And while Charlie's observational nature may serve him well should he indeed become the writer he thinks he would like to be, like Garth Brooks sang in the early '90s (though not on the soundtrack of this film), life is not tried it is merely survived if you're standing outside the fire.
And Charlie's baptism of fire (if you will) comes not too long into his first year of high school when he falls in with Patrick (Ezra Miller), a fellow Wood Shop student who seems to be there solely to test the resilience of his teacher, and Patrick's stepsister, Sam (Emma Watson), with whom Charlie is instantly smitten. Despite being seniors, they welcome Charlie into their posse of artsy outsiders, including punk girl, Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), kleptomaniac rich girl, Alice (Erin Wilhelmi), and closeted footballer, Brad (Johnny Simmons).
They also introduce the introvert to sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But Patrick and Sam aren't so much a corrupting influence as they are a comforting one. For Charlie is still mourning the loss of his best friend a year earlier, who took his own life with a gun, whilst also being haunted by visions of his Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey), his one-time favourite person in the world, and whose death when he was just 4 or 5 years old he feels somehow responsible for.
It helps and encourages Charlie that Patrick -- unapologetically gay in a time and place where that's not cool, and in love with someone (Brad) who refuses to be as open about his sexuality as Patrick is -- and Sam -- an object of men's affections from a very young age, who may have done some unfortunate things as result, and is now trying hard to make something of herself, to be taken seriously -- are equally as wounded. But Perks is by no means a downer.
Stephen Chbosky does a fine job of not only adapting his novel for the screen but in directing his first feature film. I've not read the novel which, since being published in 1999, has become a Young Adult favourite and even added to 'required reading' lists in high schools, so I can't say if Chbosky's too close relationship to the material has hampered his efforts. But for me, everything in The Perks of Being A Wallflower seems just about right if not entirely perfect.
That goes for the performances, particularly of the three leads. Ezra Miller does a compete 180 from last year's turn as the titular psychopath in We Need To Talk About Kevin, making Patrick flamboyant yet embraceable company; comfortable in his skin even if his fellow students and teachers aren't.
And Emma Watson, free of her Hermione Granger persona and locks (sporting a pixie cut-of-sorts here), makes a more than valiant stab at both her American accent and the role of a girl on the cusp of womanhood.
But it's Logan Lerman who impresses most. Best known to a younger demographic as the heroic lead in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (2010), he first came to my attention opposite Renee Zelwegger in another coming of age film, My One And Only (2009).
Lerman makes Charlie unassuming to the point of innocent, yet his awakening (if you like) is both amusing and touching without ever being played for effect. It's not the type of performance that sets awards bodies abuzz but Lerman's is easily one of the best of the year.
The same could be said of the film. In its depiction of a recognisable universe of feeling, The Perks of Being A Wallflower should resonate with audiences on some level no matter your age or experiences. Sadly, the film is only receiving a limited release here in Australia, so I'd recommend you follow Charlie's lead (and Garth Brooks' advice) and get amongst it.
Wednesday, 21 November 2012
Hosting a family visit during Halloween should have been the first sign that events could potentially go to hell. And so they do in Julie Delpy's 2 Days In New York, a sequel-of-sorts to her similarly titled 2007 film set in Paris, where family relationships wreak havoc on romantic and domestic ones.
Marion (Delpy) and her partner, Mingus (Chris Rock), live a somewhat idyllic lifestyle in New York: she's an artist, he's an announcer on public radio, and they live in a Manhattan apartment with her son, Lulu, and his daughter, Willow, each from previous relationships. But into this domestic bliss comes Marion's father, Jeannot (Albert Delpy, Julie's actual father), sister Rose (Alexia Landau) and, unexpectedly, Rose's boyfriend, Manu (Alexandre Nahon), who just happens to be an ex of Marion's.
The visitors plan to stay only two days but if a week is a long time in politics, 48 hours can be an eternity when every waking moment is spent with relatives. Doubly so if they're not yours.
Mingus has a hard time adjusting to Marion's sister's lack of inhibition - she likes to wear as little as possible when she's not walking around the apartment naked - not to mention the sisters' sibling rivalry, which breaks out at the most inopportune times; Manu's calling up a pot dealer who makes house calls; and Jeannot's general all around French-ness. No wonder Mingus retreats to his study and conducts one-way conversations with his life-sized President Obama cut-out. Rock, a rare big screen presence save for the Madagascar films, is the film's MVP.
Meanwhile, Marion is about to open her latest exhibition: a collection of photographs of her and her ex boyfriends in various bed-based poses. She also plans to sell her soul at the launch of the exhibition, a prospect which doesn't bother her until it happens and, coupled with the events of the previous 48 hours, sends her into an existential downward spiral.
All of this is intermittently amusing, occasionally laugh-out loud funny, but at just 90 minutes it's also exhausting and wears thin. And that's a shame. I've been an admirer of Delpy's since first seeing her in Kryzstof Kieslowski's Three Colours: White, where she played the ice cold wife of a Polish man unable to, uh-hum, perform for his young bride. Her subsequent work with Ethan Hawke and director Richard Linklater on Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), proved her to be an actress, and writer, of formidable talent and wit. (I can't wait for the third installment in that series, set in Greece and due some time in 2013.)
Sadly, that talent and wit isn't married to any real discipline here. In an interview with an art critic, Marion says she is the subject of her exhibition because she knows the subject well. Artists, including filmmakers and like people generally, are naturally narcissistic and prone to self indulgence. 2 Days in New York is more the latter than the former, though I suspect it's only autobiographical in the vaguest sense.
And to be fair, 2 Days In New York is more than vaguely funny but like Jeannot, Rose and Manu, it overstays its welcome long before time is up.
Monday, 19 November 2012
"What were you expecting, an exploding pen? We don't go in for that sort of thing any more." So says MI6's new quartermaster, Q (franchise new recruit, Ben Whishaw) upon meeting 007 (Daniel Craig).
And although you're well aware that the Bond franchise -- now in its 50th year -- dispensed with the gadgetry (and a lot of the fun) when they rebooted with Craig and Casino Royale in 2006, you kind of wish they hadn't the longer Skyfall, the 23rd and latest Bond film, runs. For at 143 minutes Skyfall, helmed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty), could do with a lot more light to go with its shadow play: it's too long a film for not nearly enough reward.
The (admittedly spectacular) action sequences occur far too infrequently between long stretches of not very much at all, and as impressive as Istanbul, Shanghai and Macau look (lensed by Roger Deakins, Skyfall is easily the handsomest Bond film yet mounted), we mostly find ourselves in London, cloistered beneath the city and a makeshift MI6 Headquarters.
For British intelligence has come under fire: from bureaucrats who question the clandestine old ways, and the leadership of M (Judi Dench); and from someone from M's past whose identity isn't revealed until about the one hour mark. Silva, a former British operative abandoned by M during the British handover of Hong Kong to China in the late 1990s, is a figuratively and literally tortured soul, who conducts his evil operations online and wants revenge on 'Mother'.
Bond films are no stranger to camp villains but Silva (played by a blonde Javier Bardem) is possibly the campest of them all. His first scene, entering his lair where a handcuffed Bond awaits, is a mixture or menace and mirth as Silva simultaneously goads and flirts with 007; rubbing his prisoner's thighs and offering him new experiences. "What makes you think it's my first time?" Bond responds, in one of the rare moments the film - and Craig - loosens up.
But the laughs are few as there's much more soul searching to be done, which includes a third act where Bond and M decamp to Scotland and we uncover the roots of our favourite British agent. Yet this segment of Skyfall felt to me like another film entirely, by way of Christopher Nolan's Batman, and even latter Harry Potter.
There are touchstones with Bonds passed throughout Skyfall -- the car, the Bassey-like theme song by Adele which is a stand-out -- and a farewell to others, too. Skyfall is both the end of a trilogy and a reboot-of-sorts. There's certainly no mention of the secret organisation behind the nefarious goings on in Quantum of Solace as if - surprise, surprise - the producers would rather we forget about that film completely.
They needn't have worried. As you read this, Skyfall has already passed $600 million at the international box office and Daniel Craig (along with screenwriter, John Logan) has signed on for two more missions. Perhaps then we will get a James Bond we all love: tough and cynical for the brave new world that is the 21st century but one not immune to letting the character's humour shine through.
We may not need gadgets but we do need Bond girls (Naomie Harris and Berenice Marlohe performing the honours here), colourful villains and a world in danger from their nefarious schemes. Action and humour, and as much light as shade, leaving us shaken and stirred but above all entertained.
Thursday, 15 November 2012
We film reviewers see so many films, and so few of them ever truly surprise us. Endings, particularly in Hollywood films, are rarely in doubt. Ken Loach doesn't make Hollywood films, and with the Brit director's latest film, The Angels' Share, a kitchen sink drama cum heist comedy, that not knowing was part of the thrill: the third act of The Angels' Share was almost as nerve-racking for me as the third act of Argo.
It's also been a while since I've seen a film where I've been so heavily invested in the outcome of the hero's plight. Here that hero is Robbie (non-professional actor, Paul Brannigan). In his early 20's and built like a jockey, we meet Robbie as he's appearing before a magistrate (and not for the first time) on assault charges.
Managing to avoid jail time, Robbie is sentenced to perform community service which brings him into contact with Harry (John Henshaw), a man who believes in a fair go and second chances. And Robbie, on the verge of becoming a first time father with his partner, Leonie (Siobhan Reilly), wants so much to start anew and prove the doubters (like his disapproving father-in-law of sorts) wrong.
Robbie is at the bottom of the rung, and circumstances won't let him climb any higher to become the man, and father, he wants to be. And The Angels' Share starts out very much like a typical Ken Loach film (written with regular collaborator, Paul Laverty) about the working and under classes -- their less than glamorous day-to-day existence, unemployment, and run-ins with both sides of the law -- and then surprises -- and delights -- by becoming another film entirely.
Harry is a connoisseur of whisky, and his affection for the drop infects Robbie, who attends various tastings with his new mentor. And it turns out Robbie quite literally has a nose for whisky. He also has an eye for a good mark, and when it is announced that a cask of whisky from a once famous brewery thought to be long lost is about to go on auction, and believed to fetch at least 1 million pounds, Robbie's interest is piqued.
Enlisting the help of his fellow community service workers, Rhino (William Ruane), Mo (Jasmin Riggins) and Albert (Gary Maitland), Robbie sets in motion a plan to liberate a few litres of the sought after brew in the hopes of selling to a willing buyer, and funding his family's new start. Of course, as in all heist films, nothing goes according to plan with both amusing and nerve-racking results.
The angels' share is a brewer's term for describing the 2 per cent or so of the casked alcohol which is lost to evaporation. It's also an adequate description for Robbie and his cohorts. They are the small percentage of people who slip through the cracks, who disappear, who aren't really missed.
But Loach, a chronicler and champion of the working class and the underdog, knows better than that. Given the chance, anyone can contribute and even make a difference. It's not about handouts so much as a hand up, which is what Harry (John Henshaw) gives Robbie, and Robbie aims to repay (if less legitimately) in kind.
The Angels' Share has been compared to The Full Monty (1997) which I think is unfair. The latter Best Picture Oscar nominee, also about underdogs making good, was an insistently feel good film, hammering your funny bone until it hurt. I wasn't a fan.
Loach, on the other hand, prefers to merely tickle you, saving the hammering for the tougher elements in the film's first half. And while those disparate halves may not make for the perfect drop, The Angels' Share is a tipple you'll find near impossible to resist.
Wednesday, 14 November 2012
The old man and the automaton sounds like an odd couple movie, and so it is. But Robot & Frank is much more than its sometimes cutesy, somewhat high concept premise would suggest. At its heart, Jake Schreier's film (written by Christopher D. Ford) is about loss: of memory, books, the past. But it's by no means a downer.
Frank (Frank Langella) is a one-time cat burglar now retired to leafy upstate New York where he lives alone in a big house. He occupies his days by venturing into the local town where, when he's not trying to find his favourite diner (long since closed) or stealing kitty cat soaps from a knick-knacks store, he's visiting the local library and flirting with head librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon).
But Frank is actually suffering from Alzheimer's, and his son Hunter (James Marsden), exasperated for having to drive from the city each time Frank dismisses another carer (or shoplifts a bar of soap), decides it's time his dad was taken into hand. Robotic hands.
Robot & Frank is actually set in 'the near future', and Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, and sounding a lot like Kevin Spacey in creepy mode) is a carer model designed to regiment its charge's day-to-day activities, including meals, medication and hobbies; routine keeps the mind active and in order.
Naturally, things get off to a rocky start. Frank doesn't want a 'butler' but by the time his crusading daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) comes to stay, spouting anti-slavery, 'robots are people too' nonsense, Frank has become rather fond of Robot. He's also decided Robot (as much as he likes him, Frank never names him) would be the perfect accomplice for a little light larceny; the cat burglar spurred out of retirement by his new partner's ideal application for lock picking and safe cracking.
Their mark? The douchey hipster Jake (Jeremy Strong), who lives across the way from Frank and has come to town to oversee a project whereby the local library will be completely digitized.
Robot & Frank uses the near future-sci-fi elements to dress-up (but never distractingly) what is essentially a film about Alzheimer's. Without it it may have been a mere TV movie-of-the-week, or worse, the robot would have been replaced by a young female nurse with the personality and technical nous of Lisbeth Salander.
Ironically, Robot humanises both the film and Frank, certainly early on when he's little more than a grumpy old man. But Langella ultimately makes for a likeable curmudgeon, and his and Robot's relationship is sweet and charming without ever being cloying or saccharine. Thankfully, Robot & Frank isn't programmed that way.
Monday, 12 November 2012
A New Zealand black comedy which is heavily weighted in favour of the former rather than the latter, Two Little Boys will no doubt attract fans of its leading men, Bret McKenzine (one half of Flight of the Conchords) and Hamish Blake (the funny half of Oz radio duo, Hamish and Andy), and bitterly disappoint them all.
Nige (McKenzie) and Deano (Blake) have been best buds since primary school, where Deano always had the back of his smaller friend. Now grown men in Invercargill in 1993, the pair have had a falling out. Nige, a teller in the local bank, has become friends with Gav (Maaka Pohatu), a security guard, and Deano is not happy. Considering Nige's new friendship as an act of betrayal (unfaithfulness even), Deano has kicked him out of the one bedroom flat they've no doubt shared since leaving high school.
But when Nige accidentally runs down and kills a Norwegian backpacker, he has no one to turn to but Deano. And Deano seizes this opportunity to reclaim his place in the life, and heart, of Nige.
First things first, they have to get rid of the body, a task which Deano takes to with ever growing zeal. And when a weekend trip to the New Zealand countryside to do just that sees the affable - and oblivious - man mountain, Gav, tagging along, Deano decides it may just be the perfect opportunity to kill a second bird with one stone.
Robert Sarkies' film, co-written with brother Duncan, may have been intended as a black comedy on good friendship turned sour but other than some flashbacks and fantasy sequences, and the initial shock of seeing our protagonists sporting bad mullets and equally as bad denim, the laughs are few and far between.
Not that McKenzie and Blake aren't good. They are, as is Pohatu, but there's so much that falls flat or isn't properly developed (Deano's unhealthy obsession with Nige, for instance) that you wouldn't be at all surprised to see the wind, which blows hard and often across the New Zealand coastline, toss up a tumbleweed or two.
Thursday, 8 November 2012
In post-World War II America, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a shell-shocked serviceman full of anger but with little aptitude for anything but the concoction of some powerful moonshine (the secret ingredient is paint thinner), is in need of direction.
Stowing away one night on a steamboat, he finds possible salvation in Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic man and founder and leader of The Cause, a fledgling religion-of-sorts which believes in past lives and other fanciful notions.
It's no secret that Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth film, and his first since 2007's Oscar-nominated There Will Be Blood, is loosely based on the early years of Scientology. But The Master isn't really about Scientology at all. One suspects that while the beginnings of L. Ron Hubbard's religion may have been the original kernel of Anderson's story, that connection has only been maintained (by the film's publicity department?) as means of creating faux-controversy (non-troversy); to grab the interest of a lazy media that wouldn't necessarily be concerned with the latest complex work by an uncompromising auteur.
There may be more than a few parallels with Scientology and the life of Hubbard, but if you know nothing of that history, you won't spot them in The Master. What the film is mostly concerned with is the relationship between these two men: father and son, teacher and pupil, master and slave, and, more subtly, homoerotic attraction.
That may be one of the reason's Dodd's wife, Peggy (a solid though underused Amy Adams) is wary of this newcomer who has been welcomed so warmly into the fold by her husband, not to mention clandestinely into the bed of her newly-married daughter. Not quite Lady Macbeth, Peggy is The Cause's guard dog, ever-ready to defend her husband and attack any threat to his teachings. And Freddie, wild and unpredictable, and liberal with his supply of moonshine, is a recognisable threat.
But it's not about Peggy, and with all due respect to Adams, a wonderful actress, The Master is not about her. This is Phoenix and Hoffman's show, and the two are a powerhouse duo.
Phoenix is as awkward as a captive bird: hands in-turned on hips, his head cocked to the side and a grimace almost permanently on his face. He also seems to grow thinner as the film progresses (his pants wearing higher and belt drawn tighter) as if Quell's relationship with Dodd were drawing the life out of him even as he believes it to be enriching his soul.
Alternatively, Hoffman is the picture of good health. Robust and ruddy-cheeked, Dodd emanates warmth; the Sun at the centre of a self-made universe. Charismatic, commanding, and domineering when need be, Dodd possesses the necessary characteristics to be a cult leader, and Hoffman has the nous to make him neither a monster or caricature.
But two great performances a great film does not make. As much as one can admire the craft and the vision of Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master is not a film one readily embraces or even, dare I say it, loves. Unless of course you worship at the altar of PTA -- and many do. The Master, I suspect, will be one of those films which critics praise and the general public comes away from going 'huh?'.
Disciples of Paul Thomas Anderson won't need persuading, nor are they likely to be swayed in their belief of the film's brilliance. Non-believers, on the other hand, will find much that they admire about, and can take away from The Master but they won't necessarily be converted to the cause.
20th Century Fox Films
Who knew the phrase "wouldn't work in an iron lung" sometimes came with an addendum. *Penis not included. Certainly for Mark O'Brien, afflicted with polio as a boy and reliant on an iron lung for his breathing ever since, spending hours in the chamber every day, the only part of the journalist and poet's body more active and alert than his mind and mouth (which he uses to wield a pencil to type and dial the phone) is his penis.
The appendage involuntarily responds to his carers' attentions during sponge baths, and the 38-year-old virgin, understandably embarrassed, begins to think it may be time to do something about it. But Mark is also a practising Catholic and seeks guidance from his local, and newly-arrived priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Is it okay to have sex outside of marriage? Father Brendan, thrown for a loop at first, seems to think God might just be okay with it this time, you know, given the circumstances.
The relationship between parishioner and priest is one of the small delights of The Sessions, Australian director Ben Lewin's feature which, despite the subject matter (sex and the disabled), is never awkward. There's a light, naturalistic sense of humour which pervades the film, no doubt as a result of Lewin's own experiences with polio (suffering with it most of his life) as much as the character of O'Brien, who was in fact a real man (O'Brien's own article, On Seeing A Sex Surrogate, the basis of Lewin's screenplay).
So where does a disabled man go to have sex? Obviously not a prostitute when you're a devout Catholic. Enter sex surrogate Cheryl Green (Helen Hunt), who makes it quite clear on their first meeting, when Mark makes a financial faux pas, that she is no hooker. The wife and mother of a teenage son provides a service which, in six sessions (hence the title; originally the film was called The Surrogate) will cover body awareness and determine what makes Mark feel good sexually, before they finally go all the way.
Helen Hunt has been little seen on the big screen since winning the 1997 Best Actress Oscar for As Good As It Gets, but she makes a triumphant return in The Sessions. Hunt's Cheryl, with those happy-sad eyes of hers, is a warm but no-nonsense woman whose matter-of-factness is a good match for Mark's wit and naivete. Both she and Hawkes give terrific performances.
Hawkes contorts and twists his body, changes his breathing and his voice, all to convey the effort that goes into Mark's day-to-day existence. But Hawkes doesn't play O'Brien as a victim; he's a poet and an optimist and that shines through. That Hawkes conveys all of this while spending the entire film on his back, makes the performance all the more impressive.
On the other hand, I found the hypocrisy as it related to nudity a tad troubling. While Hunt frequently gets naked, including full frontal, the camera never moves below Hawkes' chest. I find it odd that a film about a man's sexual journey should be so reticent to even glimpse the appendage which more or less sets O'Brien's quest in motion.
Still, that's a minor complaint about a film that deals so sensitively, maturely and intelligently with the topic of sex. As naff as the terms 'life-affirming' and 'inspirational' are, The Sessions, and more specifically, Mark O' Brien, who died in 1999, certainly is.
And as a film about unlikely connections between able-bodied and differently-abled people, I found The Sessions to be far more subtle and rewarding than the insistent The Intouchables, France's Oscar entry (and possible, though unworthy, winner?) in the 2012 Foreign Language Film category.
Monday, 5 November 2012
One thing a writer enjoys more than a complex character or an original storyline is a welcome distraction, particularly when the words simply refuse to flow. So it is for Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell), an ex-pat Irishman screenwriter living in L.A. and struggling to come up with a screenplay.
He's got the title – Seven Psychopaths – and that's pretty much it. That's why Marty's always grateful (if not exactly happy) when his friend, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), a struggling actor with a sideline in dognapping, stops by. Billy's amusing company for the most part, you know, when he's not calling Marty out on his fondness for alcohol or is insisting to co-write with him (although he gives the Irishman one or two psychopathic anecdotes to springboard from).
But Billy's input and friendship are about to bring Marty a whole world of trouble. Worlds – and fact and fiction – collide when Billy steals the dog of a pooch-loving mobster, and real life psycho, Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson). This places Marty, Billy, and the latter's business partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), who may or may not be the source of one of Billy's psychopath anecdotes, in the crosshairs of Costello and his henchmen.
After the success of his feature film debut, In Bruges (one of my Top 10 Films of 2008), McDonagh was no doubt feted by Hollywood producers who wanted him to come to LA. and produce another film about wisecracking hit men only, you know, with Americans and more bullets and blood.
And there's certainly plenty of the latter. But what Seven Psychopaths also has is smarts. Like 2002's Adaptation, the Spike Jonze-Charlie Kaufman riff on the plight of a writer suffering a creative block whilst employed to adapt a bestselling novel, and becoming a character in his own screenplay as a result, McDonagh's film is as knowing and Meta as anything Kaufman – or current Meta-meister, Joss Whedon – could conjure.
But while Farrell's Marty is a barely disguised avatar for McDonagh, it's Rockwell's Billy Bickle who gets the lion's share of the best lines and the resultant laughs. Whether dissing Marty's girlfriend (an underused Abbie Cornish), or reciting by the camp fire, following the trio's decamping to the desert, how he thinks the third act of Marty's screenplay should climax, the always wonderful character actor is on fire.
Walken is terrific, too, with Hans the closest McDonagh comes to investing Seven Psychopaths with an actual heart. The elderly but no less debonair Pole (and maybe one-time Quaker) with a penchant for peyote, has a good heart but nothing to lose once he loses his wife (Linda Bright Clay).
McDonagh may seem like he, too, has nothing to lose – except maybe some fans disappointed that Psychopaths is not In Bruges 2.0 – going for broke with the violence, and dialogue to offend most everyone: there's a couple of n-words, more than the occasional c-bomb, and fag is liberally deployed.
But McDonagh, a playwright first and foremost, is more wordsmith than provocateur. He and his actors (including wonderful cameos by Gabourey Sidibe and Tom Waits) have fun with each other and the audience, at the expense of Hollywood, masculinity and yes, the none-too-easy but sometimes too precious act of writing. And this writer welcomed the distractions which Seven Psychopaths offered.