Thursday, 31 May 2012
OPENING NIGHT FILM
While it's admirable that an Australian film should be chosen to open the 59th Sydney Film Festival, one can't help but ask why it was this one? No doubt its perceived comic charm (and star, Ryan Kwanten) was intended to get the Festival off on the right note, but unfortunately Not Suitable For Children fails to hit any notes perfectly, comic or otherwise.
When Jonah (Kwanten) discovers a lump on his testicle, he is soon diagnosed with testicular cancer. Surgery and chemo will prevent the spread of the disease but it will also render him sterile, a notion which grips the charming yet irresponsible Angus with regret: he'll never be a father.
Unless of course he can find a woman – ex-girlfriend, friend of a friend, lesbian couple – willing to offer up her uterus for his sperm in the few weeks before he undergoes the surgeon's knife: putting his juice on ice already proving unsuccessful.
Jonah's flatmates, Gus (Ryan Corr) and Stevie (the Emma Stone-esque Sarah Snook, and the film's best-in-show), aren't too keen on the idea of the suspended adolescent as father. But Stevie soon begins to have a change of heart; not just about Jonah's plans but babies in general (having been staunchly anti-motherhood in the film and, presumably, her whole life).
The most frustrating -- and offensive -- aspect of Peter Templeman's film, written by Michael Lucas, is its muddled approach to its female characters. Both Stevie and Ava (Bojana Novakovic, in an underwritten role), Jonah's most recent ex, flip-flop so readily on their own ideals, and for a man not worthy of them or their ovaries.
What they, and Gus, should be doing instead, is sitting Jonah down with a DVD copy of Lynne Ramsey's We Need To Talk About Kevin: parenthood urges instantly aborted.
Ryan Kwanten, the Aussie actor best known for his role on HBO series, True Blood, proves again his comic skills, while fans of that TV show won't be disappointed by the infrequent displays of flesh. But one feels women would be more likely to mate with Kwanten's reality-challenged Griff The Invisible character than with Jonah.
Then again, Not Suitable For Children could prove to be a crowd pleaser, particularly for a local audience happy to play 'spot the Newtown landmark' (the film being shot around Sydney's inner west).
And even if, for me, the charm of the two leads couldn't overcome the holes in the films internal logic, it may prove less problematic for others. Just like parenthood, Not Suitable For Children will be perfect for some, and not so for others.
Not Suitable For Children (distributed by Icon Film Distribution) releases in Australian cinemas July 12.
Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) are two smart, funny, 30-something single (but not for lack of trying) New Yorkers. Best buds since college (he calls her 'doll' instead of 'mate'), they live in the same apartment building, hang out like buddies do, and discuss each others' love lives openly; sometimes over the phone while their latest partner sleeps beside them.
But after a disastrous birthday for Adam, hosted by their friends with kids, Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O'Dowd), and attended by fellow newly-parented marrieds, Missy (Kristen Wiig) and Ben (Jon Hamm), he and Julie head to a bar and take solace in alcohol and the fact that they aren't living their friends' lives.
Several drinks later, and Julie and Adam have theorized that child-rearing would be so less complicated if you had a child with a non-romantic partner: sharing custody of the child with that person but all the while free to pursue the actual love of your life. It sounds so simple that even when the alcohol wears off the pair decide to do it -- have a child together, that is (which if course means they have to do it).
Friends With Kids, written and directed by Westfeldt, is an above average romantic comedy which uses that same, well-oiled construct to present some rather radical ideas -- if not in the greater world then certainly in mainstream American filmmaking -- about the notions of family and parenting.
In comparison to their friends' "traditional" families, Jason's and Julie's set-up -- shared custody of a baby boy, separate apartments and active dating lives -- works like a dream.
Missy and Ben's marriage follows the expected trajectory of full-on passion followed by kids. But when the good times turn tough, rather than sustain them their marriage implodes. It is Ben who is most offended -- or perhaps jealous -- of Julie's and Jason's friction-free arrangement. (Note: Wiig and Hamm are only minor players in the film, there perhaps, as a favour to the director or to help bolster the budget.)
On the other hand, Leslie and Alex's relationship is chaotic, argumentative and mundane, and not the least bit desirable. But Leslie and Alex (Rudolph and O'Dowd steal a lot of the film) genuinely love each other, and theirs is perhaps the most recognisable form of family.
And while Adam and Julie's arrangement, which works almost perfectly, would seem to be an idyll, there are thousands of people in the real world making shared custody and alternative parenting (two mums, one dad and vice versa) situations work.
Westfeldt's screenplay may not be as nimble as Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right (2010), which managed to be comic and political in equal measure but without striving for effect, but its heart is in the right place. There is one scene where Jason, in rebuke to Ben's cynicism, defends both their arrangement and his love for Julie and we wish we could all be so lucky to have someone -- anyone -- care for us that much.
But as Westefeldt's film is written a rom-com, love must rear its ugly head. And my main quibble with Friends With Kids, like most rom-coms which attempt to invert the paradigm and reverse the gender roles, is that it is always the female character who capitulates; the first to decide she wants more from the man than what is being offered. But as always, it's not until the man reaches that same decision that a happy ever after is assured.
And that ending is never in doubt: the film ultimately yielding to the rom-com conventions. But Friends With Kids manages to have more on its mind, and provide more laughs than any Hollywood rom-com this year, or even well back into 2011. See it with someone you love but wouldn't marry.
20th Century Fox Films
When, in the late 21st century, pictographs are discovered in a cave in Scotland, dating back some 35,000 years and similar to other such drawings found in archaeological digs around the world, doctors Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe they have unearthed the greatest discovery in human history: evidence not only of alien visitation but the "engineers" of human life.
And Prometheus, Ridley Scott's return to sci-fi after a 30-year absence following Blade Runner (1982), is very much an origins story: of both humankind and the Alien franchise, which began with Scott's seminal 1979 sci-fi/horror film, Alien.
The key to your enjoyment of Prometheus, however, depends on whether or not you perceive the film as a prequel to Alien, or merely as a distant cousin; sharing some cinematic DNA and existing in the same fictional universe.
I'm a latecomer to this universe, having only seen all four Alien films in their entirety last year, so admittedly my knowledge of and love for this franchise and the world it inhabits is thin and unimpassioned. And while I greatly admire Scott's Alien (the proceeding films chronologically diminishing in quality), I'm not sure that it required a prequel, or if Prometheus is the best possible version of that.
Narratively it's all rather underwhelming: five years after their discovery, Shaw and Holloway are headed for the far reaches of the universe, on board a spaceship and as part of an expedition funded by ageing billionaire, Weyland (Guy Pearce), and overseen by the icy Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), to find the so-called engineers.
They're joined by a generically ragtag bunch of geologists and engineers (Sean Harris, Rafe Spall, Kate Dickie), the ship's captain, Janek (Idris Elba), and his flight crew (Benedict Wong, Emun Elliott). And then there's David (Michael Fassbender), the impressively human-looking android who models himself on Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.
Manning the flight while all else were in cryogenic stasis, David, as designed, is there to serve the humans and their mission. But the android would seem to have an agenda all his own, one which comes into sharper focus once the exploration team touch down on a distant planet, and discover the remnants of an ancient extraterrestrial culture. And something else.
Of course Scott and his screenwriters, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, attempt to imbue proceedings with much more weight, touching on philosophical and theological questions -- the existence of God; the creation of life -- without providing any real answers or conclusions. No doubt in a bid to appease 'middle America' audiences, Prometheus both dismisses God as Creator, while having its scientist heroine, Shaw, steadfastly clinging to her faith.
On the plus side, the film looks great. Production design by Arthur Max, and lensing by Dariusz Wolski, not to mention the army of visual effects artists, gives the film a beautiful yet sterile and foreboding palette. Yet it goes without saying that the 3D is completely unnecessary; see it in 2D and you'll lose none of the film's visual majesty.
But as easily as the performances could be lost in this landscape, both Rapace and Fassbender manage to register. Shaw may not entirely be the equal of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, but Rapace makes for a resilient and empathetic heroine.
The real (anti) hero of Prometheus, however, is Fassbender, who imbues the mechanical David with humour, menace and, yes, soul, if not a heart.
Perhaps the same could be said of Prometheus: a machine seemingly designed for one purpose but which completes an entirely different mission altogether. Hardcore fans of Alien will know better than I if it achieves what it -- or they thought it -- set out to do, but for me Ridley Scott's return to sci-fi, prequel or not, is more underwhelming than disappointing.
Wednesday, 23 May 2012
Icon Film Distribution
I'm not sure if Australia has a prisoner exchange program with Mexico, but given the conditions of incarceration depicted in Get The Gringo, one would certainly hope so should they happen to find themselves on the wrong side of the law in the South American country.
Driver (Mel Gibson) is already on the wrong side of the law -- the U.S. law -- having just robbed a bank. But when he crashes his getaway car through a fence, Driver also finds himself on the wrong side of the U.S-Mexican border.
At first the Mexican police are happy to let their American counterparts handle the arrest and the paperwork, until they spy the spoils of Driver's endeavours and decide possession is nine-tenths of the law; carting Driver off to a local prison and keeping the money for themselves.
This prison is nothing like Driver -- or the audience -- has encountered before: men and women -- and kids! -- mixing freely, along with alcohol and guns, and all overseen by a bathrobe-wearing gangster with a drinking problem and a dodgy liver.
The kingpin also has a rare blood type, which is why the young Kid (Kevin Hernandez) who befriends Driver (firstly for his cigarettes, then his protection), resides in the prison with his mother (Dolores Heredia) and doesn't attend school. As the saying goes, keep your friends close, your enemies closer, and your potential lifesaving donors incarcerated.
Whilst preoccupied with escape, and getting his stolen cash back, Driver also develops a conscience and decides he's not about to let any harm befall his little buddy. And it's this relationship between Gibson's Driver and Hernandez's Kid that becomes the driving force of the film: the pair have a winning chemistry, certainly more so than Jason Statham and his young charge in the recent Safe.
Get The Gringo is also a lot more fun than that film, and surprisingly so. Amid the bullets, bashings and bloodshed, there's a good dose of black humour. And while Driver's voice-over narration tends to grate, Gibson's laconic swagger (granted a little more grizzled than we're used to), reminds us of the Gibson of old, which is to say the younger Mel, circa Lethal Weapon.
Co-written by Gibson with director Adrian Grunberg, Get The Gringo shows the one-time action man doing what he once did best, before he retreated behind the camera to direct (Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto), and before his on-screen persona became tarnished by his off-screen behaviour.
That may be one of the reasons Get The Gringo fails to capture a larger audience (and why it's bypassing cinemas in the U.S., going direct to Video On Demand), and I can completely understand people boycotting Gibson's films as an act of protest.
But like The Beaver last year, the odd but not unlikeable film directed by Jodie Foster which boasts one of Gibson's best performances, Get The Gringo is not without interest or entertainment value.
Who'd be a parent? Seriously, it's just one thing after another: the birth, raising, feeding and educating the kids, and hoping to get them to adulthood relatively intact and unscarred. And it doesn't even stop once they turn 18, leave home and begin lives of their own.
Parenthood wasn't the first thing on the minds of young lovers, Romeo (Jeremie Elkaim) and Juliette (Valerie Donzelli), when they locked eyes across a crowded room. But after a whirlwind romance, the pair are living together in Paris apartment and not before long, they are welcoming their first child into the world.
Baby Adam seems like a perfectly normal, happy infant at first. Sure he cries a lot, and he throws up after feeding, but don't all babies? But it's when the young parents notice their baby boy has a slight swelling of the face that a darker reason for his moods and vomiting is uncovered: a brain tumour.
Based on the actual experiences of one-time couple, Donzelli and Elkaim (both wrote the screenplay; she directs), Declaration of War avoids the pitfalls of the 'sick child' movie, which are almost always maudlin and manipulative, by speaking with a uniquely personal voice.
That voice may result in some odd stylistic choices -- one musical number between the pair surprises with its randomness -- but I'd much prefer this to the usual hair-pulling, chest-beating, over-emoting we have to endure in these sorts of films (although there is a little of that when the news is first delivered).
Thankfully, there's also a lot of humour in Declaration Of War, be it the couples' parents (Juliette's are a bourgeois couple who constantly bicker like long-time marrieds do; Romeo's mother has a female partner, and the pair are simultaneously arty and pragmatic), the people they encounter in the medical fraternity, or the couple themselves. A wonderful scene has the two joking about how they'll continue to love their son whilst bestowing upon him a litany of afflictions.
And who are we to suggest how someone should react to bad news? Grief is as individual and personal an emotional response as happiness or love. Not that Declaration Of War is a downer. While I'm loathe to use terms such as "life affirming" and "uplifting" (descriptors which immediately turn me off), the film is a positive viewing experience.
It is emotional, sure, but that emotion is neither forced nor the overriding point of the film. If anything, Declaration Of War is a survival tale and a celebration of life; a film to be embraced not avoided.
A film based on a pregnancy guide is hardly the eyebrow raiser that it should be, certainly not in this cinematic age where we've had films based on a dating guide (He's Just Not That Into You, itself spun out from one line in an episode of TV's Sex and the City), and one lame-ass blockbuster about invading aliens based on a static boardgame with nary an alien in sight (here's looking at you, Battleship).
What To Expect When You're Expecting was originally a guide for expectant first time parents written by Heidi Murkoff, and I certainly hope it was more informative and comforting than the film version is.
Directed by Kirk Jones (who made the first Nanny McPhee), and adapted by Shauna Cross and Heather Hach, What To Expect bears little if any resemblance to the actual pregnancy journey. In fact, it's almost as potent a contraceptive as We Need To Talk About Kevin; certainly the characters here -- paper thin and borderline grotesques -- leave you with the sinking feeling that the human race should perhaps be spayed.
Jules (Cameron Diaz) and Evan (Matthew Morrisson) meet on a reality dance show, and love blossoms between the celeb (Jules is the trainer/host of a weight loss program) and the male dancer with an unplanned pregnancy the result; Holly (Jennifer Lopez) and Alex (Rodrigo Santoro) want a child but, unable to conceive, look to adopting from overseas; while Wendy (Elizabeth Banks) and Gary (Ben Falcone) have tried for years to have a child, conceiving when least expected but only to have their good news gazumped by Gary's father, Ramsey (Dennis Quaid), and his young bride, Skyler (Brooklyn Decker), who announce they're having twins.
Banks' Wendy is the closest the film comes to any sense of reality, with the baby shop proprietor experiencing a pregnancy like most mothers do: sore breasts, constipation, and a lack of control of one's bladder, bowel and emotions.
Less convincing is the group of fathers who meet every Saturday to swap war stories about parenting; revealing their stuff ups and failings without fear or judgement. Led by Chris Rock's Vic, the dads act as a Greek chorus of sorts who are vaguely amusing, and more so than they are authentic. They're there only to appease the men dragged along to see What To Expect.
Adding even less value to proceedings is a miscarriage storyline involving rival food van operators, Rosie (Anna Kendrick) and Marco (Chace Crawford). They have a one night stand and obviously don't practise safe sex, as Rosie falls pregnant and the pair become a makeshift couple.
But when Rosie suffers a miscarriage, the film, after raising the idea that not all pregnancies go smoothly, moves on a quickly as possible. No time for grief -- or reality -- here, folks.
While not as painful as actual childbirth -- or even as painful as expected -- What To Expect When You're Expecting may still require the film going equivalent of an epidural to get you through it.
Monday, 14 May 2012
For seemingly no other reason than that all film franchises nowadays must be trilogies, we have Men In Black 3; 10 years after the second instalment, and 15 years after we were first introduced to Agents K (Tommy Lee Jones) and J (Will Smith), members of a secret organisation keeping the world's alien population in-check and the citizens of Earth safe from the ones who haven't come in peace.
That first film, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, was a fun, breezy sci-fi caper with impressive (late 90s) special effects, and a sense of humour, most of which derived from the odd couple pairing of the craggy faced veteran, Jones, and the streetwise, wisecracking Smith.
Fifteen years later, the odd couple now resemble a long-term married couple; bickering at the slightest provocation but communicating actual thoughts and feelings less and less. Jones' Agent K looks particularly tired (more so than usual), and I'd suggest the actor only signed on to do MIB3 on the condition that he didn't have to do all that much.
That would certainly explain why Agent K, or rather Jones, is sidelined for the majority of the film, as Agent J travels back to 1969 to prevent K (now played uncannily by Josh Brolin) from being killed during a mission which, if not successfully completed, will result in a future full-scale alien invasion of Earth.
That invasion will be lead by Boris The Animal (Jemaine Clement, channelling Tim Curry; seriously, it was halfway into the film before I recognised the Flight of the Conchords actor), a Bogladite who, in 1969, was arrested by Agent K.
Escaping from a moon-based prison in 2012, Boris travels back to 1969 to help his younger self succeed where he originally failed, and to prevent the loss of a much-missed arm which he suffered the first time round.
There are minor laughs to be had in Men In Black 3 -- Agent J having to come to terms with an America not comfortable seeing a black man in a nice suit let alone driving a car, and the revelation that Andy Warhol (Bill Hader) was actually an MIB agent who hated art and free love ("I can't tell the women from the men!") -- but thankfully, it doesn't rely on fish-out-of-water comedy like the recent Dark Shadows (tellingly, 1969 Americans are more perturbed by a well dressed black man than they are by a 200-year-old vampire in 1972).
Surprisingly, the most welcome addition to this universe (other than Brolin) is not Emma Thompson -- whose Agent O (played in 1969 by Alice Eve) may or may not have been more romantically involved with the young Agent K -- but Michael Stuhlbarg, best known for the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man (2009) and television's Boardwalk Empire.
Stuhlbarg plays Griffin, an alien being who is able to simultaneously glimpse multiple futures, with a wide-eyed yet all-knowing innocence. Griffin holds the key to the success of Agent K's original 1969 mission, along with an admiration for the persistence of the human race and its potential for miracles.
And that may be the optimism fans of the Men In Black franchise will have to adopt going in to MIB3. The film is by no means a disaster (it's more underwhelming than awful; the VFX are good but as always, the 3D is completely unnecessary), but the third time is certainly not the charm.
You won't require a dose of Agents J and K's neurolizer to make you forget the film, but you'll find the lasting effects of this third (and final?) Men In Black outing just as easily forgotten.
There is a scene early on in Bel Ami, Rachel Bennette's adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's classic novel (directed by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod), where anti-hero, Georges Duroy, sits opposite three attentive, wealthy women and returns their smiles with a grin resembling that of a fox who has just been invited to dine in a hen house.
Georges (Robert Pattinson) is, in fact, a wolf who hungers after money and influence in 1890s Paris. An ex-soldier of poor means, he's devised the best way to achieve his goals is through the wives of the powerful men. To paraphrase Edward Albee's Who Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the best way to a man's heart is through his wife's stomach.
Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci) is the first chickadee to succumb to Georges' charms. Setting up a love nest for the two and lavishing the handsome young man with gifts, it is Clotilde's young daughter who dubs Georges 'Bel Ami' (fine friend), a name which soon catches on, teasingly among the women of Parisian high society, and disdainfully amongst the menfolk.
But when opportunity presents itself, Georges carelessly abandons Clotilde and marries the second of those women, the newly-widowed Madeleine Forestier (Uma Thurman). A woman with a fierce intellect and an independent spirit, Madeleine's not about to relinquish control -- of her ideals, or her finances -- to her younger husband.
And when all else fails in his efforts to remain in the inner circle of the politically-minded newspaper, La Vie Francaise, he works for (in the loosest sense of the word), Georges sets about seducing Virginie Rousset (Kristen Scott Thomas), the wife of the newspaper's editor (Colm Meaney).
It was at Madame Rousset's suggestion that Georges kept his position with the newspaper when it was revealed he wasn't much chop as a writer, and the long-neglected wife reacts to the cad's affections like a lovesick schoolgirl. Of course, her attitude changes dramatically when Georges attentions turn elsewhere (yet closer to home).
All three women are wonderful in their roles. Ricci and Thurman, who seem rarely to appear on screen these days, represent two types of women operating completely differently within their social sphere, while Scott Thomas, always a welcome presence in any film, manages to be both comic and pitiable (she could also have performed the role in French; everyone speaks with English accents despite their being Parisians).
Bel Ami is a perfectly solid period drama which is perhaps less scandalous and political than when de Maupassant's novel was first published but is no less enjoyable for that. Indeed there are parallels with modern times -- Western interference in the Middle East; adoration and success for the talentless -- which will amuse but also, sadly, prove de Maupassant's concerns no less relevant today.
And as testament to de Maupassant's writing, the film doesn't allow the production design to do all the work: it's the characters and not the costumes which keep us engaged. On the other hand, Rachel Portman's score, composed with Laksham Joseph de Saram, effectively sets the moods of the piece and, in particular, the character of Georges, who's given a suitably predatory theme.
Surprisingly, and to his credit, Robert Pattinson is rather convincing as a cad. Like Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe, Pattinson might take a little time to shake his Twilight persona, but with films like Bel Ami, and the soon-to-be released David Cronenberg feature, Cosmopolis, he's headed in the right direction. And unlike Georges Duroy, he seems prepared to put in the hard work.
Saturday, 5 May 2012
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a list of so-called funny men who I simply do not find funny: Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Adam Sandler and Vince Vaughan to name but a few. Also on that list is British comic actor, Sacha Baron Cohen, whose alter egos, Ali G, Borat and Bruno, I simply don't get.
I had half expected to feel similarly out of the loop with Baron Cohen's latest creation, Admiral General Aladeen, the ruling despot of fictitious Middle Eastern nation, Wadiya. But much to my surprise, I found myself more amused than annoyed by this politically incorrect political pariah.
Admiral General Aladeen (Baron Cohen) is the eponymous dictator, who has ruled Wadiya since age 7, and is one of the world's last remaining tyrants (the film is dedicated to the loving memory of the late North Korean despot, Kim Jong-il); hording his nation's wealth and ordering the execution of anyone who dares question his intellect, or who simply beats him to the prize in the cereal box.
But when Aladeen travels to New York to address the United Nations' concerns over Wadiya's nuclear aspirations, his uncle, Tamir (Ben Kinglsey), the rightful heir to the Wadiyan throne, sets in motion his plan to rule; replacing Aladeen with a body double (also Baron Cohen, playing a slow-witted goat herder), and bringing democracy to Wadiya.
This last move will enable Tamir to sell-off the country's vast oil reserves to foreign interests, including a Chinese capitalist (Bobby Lee) with a penchant for Hollywood cock (one of the film's most brazen jokes is to call-out Hollywood's A-listers as whores; Megan Fox appears early on, as herself, collecting a pay cheque for bedding Aladeen; the latest in a line of many).
When Aladeen's assassin (John C. Reilly) fails in his assignment, the now beardless Aladeen finds himself down and out in downtown NYC. He "befriends" Zoey (Anna Faris), a boyish-looking lady protesting the dictator's visit to the UN, who operates the Free Earth Collective, a bleeding heart, left wing cliche-riddled co-operative.
It's Zoey, along with Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), Wadiya's one-time head of nuclear operations -- who escaped to America after Aladeen ordered him executed (he wanted the missiles to have rounded rather than the leader's preferred pointy heads) -- who will help Aladeen regain his title and perhaps bring about a change of mind, and tiny black heart, in the process.
The plot of The Dictator parallels somewhat with the 2008 Adam Sandler "comedy", Don't Mess With The Zohan, where Sandler's Mossad agent, Zohan, moves to New York city, begins a new life as hairdresser, and brings peace to the Jewish and Middle Eastern communities of New York (Baron Cohen even blatantly borrows a sight gag from 'Zohan' involving a hirsute pubic region).
But where Zohan was typical Sandler nonsense (juvenilia topped with schmaltz), The Dictator is far more barbed, with something to offend every race, colour, gender, and sexual and political persuasion. It's also, thankfully, much shorter; The Dictator clocking in at a mere 83 minutes.
That's long enough for Baron Cohen's tyrant to undergo a transformation of sorts (Aladeen's still not completely sold on the idea of democracy or equality of the sexes by film's end), but not too long for the premise to run completely out of steam.
Granted, not all of those jokes hit their target perfectly, nor is Baron Cohen above the scatological, but there is a sting in the tail of The Dictator, directed by regular collaborator, Larry Charles (Borat (2006); Bruno (2009)), which makes for an ultimately satisfying satire.
I'm a self confessed wuss when it comes to horror films: I can't stomach too much blood, and I have developed an appreciation for the floorings of several screening rooms thanks to my habit of averting my eyes downward when things start to get all slicey and dicey.
Thankfully, The Woman In Black is an old school horror flick, suggestive rather than gratuitous. But as grateful as I was for the absence of gore, even I failed to be startled by its bump-in-the-night theatrics.
Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a single father in Edwardian England, haunted by the death of his wife who died giving birth to their only child some four years earlier. He's also a lawyer but his employers aren't too impressed with his work to date. They assign him to settle an out of town deceased estate which will either secure or end his career with the firm -- and quite possibly his life.
The Humfrey estate is located on the remote outskirts of the village of Crythin Gifford, where the locals don't take too kindly to strangers. They also keep their children as close to home as possible, the reason for which soon becomes apparent to Arthur once he enters the Humfrey household. Cue super freaky weird shit.
Almost immediately upon entering the dusty halls of the Humfrey manor, Arthur spies the eponymous Woman in Black, the spectral spinster who haunts both the estate and the nearby village -- and for very good reason.
Hell hath no fury like a woman wronged, and the Woman in Black has a darn good reason to be pissed. That may not be the townsfolks' fault, but their children bear the brunt of her fury. (The film's pre-credit sequence gives you a taste of her wicked ways, and immediately sets the tone.)
But as creepy as the atmospherics of James Watkins' sophomore effort are, The Woman In Black failed to sufficiently raise my pulse or heartbeat. There are moments which had me edging closer to the edge of my seat -- one almost dialogue-free, 10-minute sequence where Radcliffe's Arthur chases sounds and shadows, upstairs and down again -- but none which had me documenting carpet patterns.
As far as haunted house films go, The Woman In Black, adapted from the Susan Hill novel by Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass (2010), X-Men: First Class (2011)) is reminiscent of the recent Spanish supernatural thriller, El Orfanato (The Orphanage, 2006), but lacks that film's fright factor. Watkins chooses not to ratchet up the tension as events unfold, but rather he keeps things on a suspenseful simmer: it's more chills than thrills.
On the plus side, the film is handsomely mounted; the cinematography by Tim Maurice-Jones, and production design by Kave Quinn, lending the film an eerie elegance. And Janet McTeer's hammy turn as a grieving and eccentric mother provides some much needed levity. (Ciaran Hinds as her husband, Mr Daily, the only local to befriend Arthur, gives his usual solid, though constipated, performance.)
Radcliffe also acquits himself well in his first post-Potter production, breaking away from, if not entirely free of, his boy wizard persona (having him travel via train through the English countryside, however, doesn't help banish thoughts of Hogwarts). Minus his glasses, and sporting a five o'clock shadow, he's suitably mournful if not particularly animated.
And that's how I'd describe The Woman In Black. Not that the lack of blood has produced anaemic box office results. The first film produced by the recently revived Hammer Films is already the highest grossing, locally-made horror film in the U.K. And with an international gross topping $120 million, there would seem to be a healthy audience for old school scares.
Icon Film Distribution
Whilst appearing on the surface to be an arthouse road movie, Aleksei Fedorchenko's Silent Souls is an anthropological study of, and eulogy for the Merjan culture; the Merjans being a Finnish tribe which merged with the Western Russian people some four hundred years ago, and which (barely) survives today.
The film's elegiac tone is set from the beginning by the narration of Aist (Igor Sergeev, Kelsey Grammar's Russian cousin), a man who lives alone, works at the local paper mill and melancholically recalls the past of both his family and his people.
Aist is our guide into the Merjan culture at the same time that he accompanies his employer and friend, Miron (Yuri Tsurilo), on his drive cross-country. Miron's younger wife, Tanya (Yuliya Aug), has died (how is never explained), and Miron is determined to return her body to the small town where they honeymooned, and commit her body to the water as is the custom of the Merjan people (for the Merjans there is no god, just love and water).
As the duo drive, we are treated to flashbacks of both Miron's and Tanya's marriage -- the town liked to gossip about their eccentric passionate ways, such as Tanya bathing in vodka before making love -- and Aist's childhood, marred by the death of his mother, and coloured by his father, a poet-of-sorts whose writings celebrated the Merjan way of life.
Simultaneously we're informed of Merjan traditions, such as decorating the genitalia of brides on their wedding day, and talking fondly, and explicitly, of loved ones in the hours and days between their death and cremation (a tradition ironically termed "smoking").
Silent Souls, adapted by Denis Osokin from the novel by Aist Sergeyev titled Ovsankyi (which translates as The Buntings, canary-like birds which feature in the film) is a sombre affair though not without humour and heart. And as a study of a culture I had hitherto never heard of, it fascinates.
But as fiction, it tends to drag, even at a mere 75 minutes. As informative and poetic as Fedorchenko's film is, it is lacking in any narrative or dramatic urgency. Then again, Silent Souls is a eulogy, "smoking" a culture which has all but disappeared, and thus its tendency for slow-moving reflection and introspection can be forgiven.
Thursday, 3 May 2012
Warner Bros. Pictures
Dark Shadows was a late 1960s, supernaturally-themed daytime soap opera centred on the cursed Collins family. The show received an uptick in popularity -- and cult status -- when it introduced Barnabas Collins, a 200-year-old vampire with a penchant for hypnotism and snacking on young girls.
Tim Burton's film version, starring regular collaborator, Johnny Depp (both are professed fans of the original TV series) as the bloodsucker, isn't so much a soap opera as a fish out of water -- and time -- comedy (of sorts), whereby the 1770s vampire finds himself awakened in 1972, having been buried alive by angry villagers two centuries earlier.
But unlike the recent 21 Jump Street, which successfully took the late 1980s drama about youthful looking cops going undercover in high schools and turned it into a raucous comedy, Burton's experiment is less successful; the director unable to decide on a tone with Dark Shadows by turns comic, camp and even scary, but never convincingly or cohesively so.
The once great Collins family has been reduced to a mere handful -- matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), teenage daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), Elizabeth's ne'er-do-well brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and his grief-stricken young son, David (Gulliver McGrath) -- and their standing in the seaside Maine community of Collinsport, is in name only.
Their downfall has a great deal to do with the Angel Bay fishing company, which has usurped the Collins cannery fishing contracts. It also happens to be owned and operated by Angelique (Eva Green), the same witch who cursed Barnabas to vampirism when he refused to return her love many moons ago.
That love-hate relationship is revived -- and spectacularly so in one scene -- when Barnabas returns, coincidentally at the same time new governess, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), arrives at Collins Manor to tutor young David. Victoria bears an uncanny resemblance to Josette, the woman Barnabas did love back in 1772, and whom Angelique sent to a watery grave.
Barnabas's resurrection is a truly frightening scene (well, for this wuss, anyway), with the thirsty vampire going to town on the necks of the work crew who are unfortunate enough to unearth his coffin. But any horror and tension is immediately upended by a blatant piece of product placement.
Sadly, Burton and Depp only intermittently remember to utilise Barnabas's true, bloodthirsty nature -- another highlight has Barnabas munching on a bunch of munchie-suffering hippies -- mostly relying on Barnabas's kooky appearance, ye olde worlde speech, and bemused reactions to the wonders and mysteries of the 1970s.
The same goes for the rest of the cast -- which includes Jackie Earle Haley as Collins Manor groundskeeper, Willie Loomis, and Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Julia Hoffman, the psychiatrist treating David -- who have storylines which are introduced, completely forgotten, and then returned to if only for some form of closure. Bonham Carter's story arc ends with the suggestion of a sequel which will surely -- hopefully -- never come.
Credit, or blame, where it's due: the screenplay was penned by Seth Graham Green, the novelist responsible for the book, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Here's hoping his adaptation of his own book (due in Oz cinemas in August) is a far more confident, less schizophrenic affair.
At the very least you could say the film looks great. Burton's regular collaborator, Colleen Atwood, revels in the costume design of the period, and the production design by Rick Heinrichs is retro gothic, or vice versa.
And the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, and The Half Blood Prince) is suitably dark but no where near as muddied as Alice In Wonderland (thankfully, Burton did not shoot Dark Shadows in 3D or post-convert it). But then, saying a film is better than Alice In Wonderland (one of 2010's worst films) is low (or no) praise, indeed.
Perhaps it's time Messrs Burton and Depp had a mutual parting of their creative ways? The vibrant collaborative process which spawned Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Ed Wood (1994) has progressively soured over the past decade and a half, slightly revived by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) but irredeemably poisoned, cursed if you will, by Alice.
It's time you saw other people, guys. Don't make us bury you alive for 200 years!