Saturday, 29 September 2012


Icon Film Distribution
Now Showing

One of the (many) holes in my literary education is Jack Kerouac's seminal 1957 novel, On The Road; an oversight which can only be explained by my being more of a Catcher In The Rye kind-of-guy in my formative teen years, and too busy (i.e. lazy) to rectify the oversight in the intervening (eep!) two decades.

But perhaps my not having read the modern classic, which inspired generations of youth as well as effectively launching the Beat generation, is one of the reasons I enjoyed Walter Salles' adaptation (penned by Jose Rivera) of the book long believed to be 'unfilmable'.

Francis Ford Coppola, a producer-director not short on ambition or shy of Herculean undertakings, has held the film rights to Kerouac's book for decades but was convinced that Salles was the man for the job after the Brazilian director's 2004 feature, The Motorcycle Diaries, which recounted the early life of future revolutionary, Che Guevara, as he travelled across South America on motorbike.

The protagonist in On The Road is Sal Paradise (Sam Riley). Actually, protagonist is too strong a word for Paradise (Kerouac's alter ego) is passive rather than active; the budding writer a mostly silent observer of events which seem to orbit around, or are instigated by Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund in a breakthrough performance).

Handsome, charismatic and burning with a passion for life, Moriarty is a restless soul ever-ready to indulge in sex, drugs and jazz, and to take to the open roads of a post-WWII America that is ever-so-slowly shaking off its conservative ways. And Paradise is Moriarty's willing travel companion, as is Marylou (Kristen Stewart, livelier than she's ever been), a barely legal teen whom Dean picks up on his journeys (conveniently forgetting that he has a wife (Kirsten Dunst) and child waiting for him at home).

Not surprisingly, there's a lot of driving in On the Road (the American countryside and the seedy interiors captured equally as evocatively by Eric Gautier, who also lensed The Motorcycle Diaries and Sean Penn's Into The Wild (2007)), punctuated by detours and pit stops involving colourful characters played by colourful actors (Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi, Elizabeth Moss).

The film (much like the book, I understand) also has a rambling nature, and this lack of plot (combined with its 137-minute run time) is part of the reason why some (understandably) have felt more annoyance than exhilaration with Salles' film. But I never once found myself asking 'are we there yet?'.

The romance of the open road, and the bromance between Sal and Dean (Salles and Rivera keep the homoerotic attraction between the two men simmering beneath the surface) in their pursuit of something else, something real kept me suitably entertained and a willing passenger on this journey. I also feel that, unlike other book-to-film adaptations, Salles' On The Road won't prevent me from discovering (and enjoying) Kerouac's novel on its own terms.

Thursday, 27 September 2012


Roadshow Films

Now Showing

Rian Johnson's Looper arrives with much fanfare -- hot off its opening night slot at this year's Toronto Film Festival where it played to fan boy and critical acclaim -- touted as the sci-fi film of the year.

That it is, for mine, is by default rather than actuality: as good as it is, and at its best it is quite audacious, Looper treads familiar time travel territory; owing a great debt to many a film, and none more so than James Cameron's Terminator.

Note: Looper is a difficult film to review or discuss lest anything you say be construed as a spoiler: it's one of those times you should go in cold, of course that's nigh on impossible in this day and age. What proceeds may or may not be spoiler-ish, so read on at your own discretion.

In 2072, time travel is a possibility. It is also illegal, and like any illegal activity it is co-opted by organised crime for nefarious purposes. Part of that purpose (I think?) is the laundering of gold and silver bullion which is trasported back through time to 2042 where the (unwilling) couriers who carry it -- hooded and cuffed -- are killed by awaiting gunmen, known as loopers.(Body disposal is also impossible in the future, so the crims are killing two birds with one stone.)

The loopers take out these future couriers almost the second upon arrival: they are swift, cold, efficient. And Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of the best. He knows the score and how to keep his nose clean; practising his French for a trip he has promised himself once he has saved enough money and completed his employment: loopers' contracts are terminated when they literally terminate themselves. Their future selves that is; sending the looper's older self back from the future to be executed "closes the loop".

Although as anyone with a passing interest in sci-fi knows, time is anything but cyclical, and when Joe's future self (Bruce Willis) arrives, uncuffed and unmasked, he takes young Joe (some will find the alteration of Gordon-Levitt's face to more closely resemble Willis a tad distracting) by surprise; escaping into the city and sending time -- not too mention young Joe's employment and life in general -- into a state of flux.

For old Joe is on a mission: having just lost his wife (Quing Xu), he's come back to end the reign of the 2072 crime lord (known only as the Rainmaker) responsible for her death by ending the kingpin's life before it's barely begun. This is the darkest element of Johnson's film -- the killing of children -- and where it does more than merely tip its hat to Terminator.

But where Schwarzenegger's cyborg travelled back in time to kill the leader of the resistance movement who brought hope to the humans in their war against the machines, Willis's Joe has come to kill a little boy who will one day rule the criminal underworld with ruthless efficiency.

Looper raises one of those age-old time travel questions: if you could go back in time and kill someone to prevent a greater atrocity (e.g. kill Hitler as a child thus preventing the Holocaust), would you? And more importantly, could you? It's admittedly disconcerting to see Willis, so long a good guy action hero, hunting down four-year old boys and unwavering in his determination to terminate. He's no cyborg but his mission is clear cut.

Young Joe's mission is originally to track down and terminate his older self, and to try and appease his employers (headed by a scruffy but not inelegant Jeff Daniels) in the process. But stumbling upon a farmhouse during his escape, where the injured looper is tended to by Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), Joe inadvertently stumbles upon old Joe's mission and its inevitable end point.

While a much more tightly constructed sci-fi film than last year's Source Code, the latter film had more of an emotional impact for me. Looper raises moral and ethical questions but in spite of the performances (Gordon-Levitt gives good Willis, and this is one of Blunt's best), Johnson's film is more a cerebral exercise; lingering in the mind (if not the heart) after first punching you in the gut.

Sunday, 23 September 2012


Madman Films
Now Showing

On one of those all-too-rare occasions, I went in to Arbitrage knowing next to nothing about it. That is almost always a good thing, and even more so in this case given that Nicholas Jarecki's low-key thriller is set in the world of New York financial wheelers and dealers (finance not being a topic of interest for me).

I'll admit, I got bored just reading the definition of 'arbitrage' -- the simultaneous purchase and sale of an asset in order to profit from a difference in the price -- once it took on an economics tone. But that's no indictment of Jarecki's film (which he also penned) nor the lead performance by Richard Gere.

Gere is Robert Miller, said wheeler and dealer and a titan of the New York business community. Think his Edward Lewis character from Pretty Woman 20-odd years later; the gold-hearted hooker replaced with a cool yet no less ruthless win-at-all costs attitude.

That attitude is brought sharply into focus by two events: Robert's plan to sell the company he has spent decades building whilst trying to keep quiet the missing $400 million until the sale goes through; and the accidental death of his young French mistress, Julie (Laetitia Casta), whilst the two are driving out of the city late one night.

Robert's cooking of the company books could land his daughter, and company CEO, Brooke (Brit Marling), in hot water if it were to be uncovered by the Feds, and do exactly the same for his relationship with her should daddy's little girl uncover the truth for herself.

The death of his mistress (whose existence is presumably unknown to Robert's wife (Susan Sarandon)) is a scandal he can ill afford also. Enlisting the help of Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of a one-time employee, Robert flees the scene of the accident, inadvertently implicating the young man in the process.

And just as determined as Brooke is to get at the financial truth is Detective Bryer (Tim Roth), a NYPD bloodhound who smells a rat at the scene of the accident. He also has a massive chip on his shoulder when it comes to Wall Street, and is only too happy to bring Robert down when his investigation leads him in that direction.

The stroke of genius in Jarecki's feature film directorial debut was in casting Richard Gere. The now 63-year-old actor, with his distinct grey hair and crinkly eyes, exudes a warmth that is at odds with his character here but invites us to go along with this less than likeable anti-hero as the walls of his ivory tower existence close in.

We know Robert Miller is guilty of both crimes, and that he is willing to sacrifice anyone, including family, to avoid detection. It's hard to invest in a wolf of Wall Street at the best of times let alone in a post-GFC world, but Gere, who hasn't had this meaty a role since Chicago (2002), sells it.

Even as time tends to drag at certain points (Jarecki may be a young director but he's in no rush; using all 107 minutes deliberately if not judiciously), Gere makes Arbitrage a worthwhile investment. The film won't do anything to improve an already disillusioned opinion of Wall Street, but you may find yourself re-evaluating your thoughts on an actor who has been so solid for so long.

Thursday, 20 September 2012


Sony Pictures
Now Showing

Just like bears, turns out monsters are just as afraid of people as we are of them. That's the conceit of Hotel Transylvania, the Adam Sandler exec-produced animated film, where the eponymous holiday accommodation facility, owned and operated by Count Dracula (Sandler), opens its doors to the ghosts, ghouls, werewolves and zombies of the world.

Hotel Transylvania acts as a sanctuary but it also doubles as a prison for Dracula's daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez). On the eve of her 118th birthday, the adolescent is eager to experience the wider world but her over-protective dad wants to keep her close to home and hearse; going to great lengths to convince Mavis that humans are the real monsters.

Admittedly, the Count hasn't seen a real human since the birth of his daughter and the death of his beloved wife. That is until the gormless American backpacker, Jonathan (Andy Samberg) lobs into the lobby of Hotel Transylvania and decides he'd like to stick around, even upon realising there's no fancy dress party and that is indeed a skeleton woman, and, oh, that's Frankenstein (Kevin James) over there.

But Dracula can't wait to get rid of the interloper before his presence sets off mass panic amongst the creepy clientele, and more importantly before Mavis learns that humans aren't all bad and that her dad has been lying to her.

So Hotel Transylvania is essentially a tale of father-daughter relations; about growing up and letting go. It's also about not judging others by their appearance or the reputation that precedes them though it's more daffy than didactic.

Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, Hotel Transylvania is a sporadically fun affair which takes the scares out of the classic horror characters -- the Mummy (CeeLo Green), Wolfman (Steve Buscemi), the bride of Frankenstein (Fran Drescher), Quasimodo (Jon Lovitz) -- although doing very little with the voice talent assembled; Molly Shannon's wife to the Wolfman barely utters two lines.

Not surprisingly, it's Sandler who gets to sink his teeth into the majority of the action. With a not-too-thick East European accent and swinging wildly between doting dad and bat-sh*t crazy control freak, the comic actor who's not to my tastes, overcame any misgivings I initially had about his voicing of the iconic Count.

Sandler heir apparent, Samberg, is pretty funny, too, as the open-minded traveller who opens the eyes of Dracula, and wins the heart of his daughter.

I wouldn't have thought it possible but 2012 is proving to be an even less spectacular year for animated films than was 2011, which was highlighted by the truly wonderful Rango and very little else.

Sony Animations' latest isn't on par with DreamWorks or Pixar, both of which have only had solid outings in 2012 with Madagascar 3 and Brave, respectively, but Hotel Transylvania is harmless, albeit anaemic entertainment.

Thursday, 13 September 2012


Transmission Films
Now Showing

Should the sins of the father be visited upon the child? That's one of the questions you may struggle with while watching Australian director Cate Shortland's Lore, a German-language drama which invites us to both empathise and sympathise with a group of siblings -- children of Nazi parents -- as they make their way cross-country during the dying days of the Third Reich.

With the Allied forces dividing the German nation between them, and Hitler, his mistress and cronies having taken their own lives in the Fuhrer's bunker, Hannelore (impressive screen debutant, Saskia Rosendahl), eldest of the children, is left in charge of her younger siblings when her parents face (or flee) their fate at the hands of the Allies.

Forced to fend for themselves, Hannelore, her sister, twin brothers, and a baby, all blue-eyed and blonde-haired and the epitome of the Aryan race, make their way north from Bavaria, on foot, to grandma's house in some darkened twist on a fairy tale.

But who are the wolves? The Allies, whom the children are wary of and keep their distance from? Or are they the growing doubts that Hannelore begins to have about the ideologies of her beloved Fuhrer, and the atrocities which may have been committed in the name of the Motherland?

At various refugee camps where they stop, Allied soldiers force the Germans to look at photographs of the emaciated bodies in concentration camps before they are allowed to eat or bathe. Penance for their sins? It's here that Hannelore's eyes are gradually opened to the 'glory' of the Third Reich.

Sensitive to their plight, and understandably attracted to the beautiful 16-year-old Hannelore, is Thomas (Kai Malina), a young man who may or may not be a former prisoner of said death camps, but who is willing to escort Hannelore and her siblings.

Struggling to cling to her indoctrinated hatred for the Jews, Hannelore must also struggle with her burgeoining sexuality; her curiosity inflamed by the presence of this man whose attentions she both craves and despises.

Lore, just Shortland's second feature, and her first since her much lauded 2004 debut, Somersault (which launched the international careers of both Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington), is an accomplished, troubling and puzzling sophomore outing.

Beautifully shot (kudos to Oz lenser Adam Arkapaw who also shot Animal Kingdom and Snowtown), and scored (Max Richter), and superbly acted by the young cast, Shortland intends for Lore, adapted by Shortland and Robin Mukherjee, from a story in Rachel Seiffert's 2001 novel, The Dark Room, to get under your skin. And it does.

But what Lore failed to do for me was provide an emotional connection. While I could empathise with Hannalore and her siblings' predicament (more so the youngsters and particularly when tragedy strikes), I found it nigh on impossible to sympathise.

But they're only children, I can hear you say. They know not what they (or their parents) do. And that's a perfectly valid argument. For me, however, I struggled to feel sorry for Hannelore. Call it a belief in karma or a minor case of schadenfreude, but the suffering of this (naive?) disciple of Nazism failed to move me: I didn't enjoy her misery but I didn't cry for her either.

Then again, I don't think Cate Shortland's intentions with Lore was to provide easy catharcisism. Eight years between feature films (seven of those spent developing Lore), and a husband whose Jewish family fled Germany ahead of the Holocaust, leads me to believe that the director had something to say and questions to ask.

That Shortland leaves the audience questioning their own beliefs -- morals and prejudices -- is a mark of success. Film is art, and art -- good art -- will always provoke discussion and debate. It can also be admired without necessarily being embraced.


20th Century Fox Films
Now Showing

As any writer will tell you, there is nothing scarier than a blank computer screen. Or, in the case of Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a blank piece of paper (a typewriter being this young author's writing tool of choice). But if there is one thing more terrifying to this one-time wunderkind now struggling to write his sophomore novel, it's the possibility of love.

And in Ruby Sparks, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' first film since the Oscar-nominated Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Calvin inadvertently kills two birds with one stone: his nocturnal dreams of the ideal young woman firing his creative juices whilst simultaneously willing her into existence.

The eponymous Ruby (Zoe Kazan) materializes one day in Calvin's apartment and he understandably freaks out, thinking he may have finally lost his mind (an occurrence which wouldn't come as a total surprise to his therapist, played by Elliott Gould).

But Ruby is indeed real, and exactly how Calvin imagined/wished/created her to be: red haired, soft featured, pixie-like and devoted. Calvin's brother Harry (an excellent Chris Messina) thinks his kid brother has hit the jackpot: a woman whom he has complete control over, mind, body and soul. You can make her speak French, why not give her bigger breasts, Harry asks.

But with great literary power comes certain responsibilities, and Calvin is happy to let Ruby be "herself" for as long as they're both happy. It's when Ruby starts to think she may want a life outside of Calvin's that cracks begin to appear in the idyllic relationship he has created.

Ruby Sparks, penned by its leading lady, Kazan, is a conceit that one could easily see working as a Woody Allen comedy. Indeed, there is a terrific scene between Dano and Messina, upon their realization of what exactly is going on, that is very Allen-esque. (Note to Woody: Dano, but especially Messina, deserve your attention.)

There are also shades of both the 1980s comedy Mannequin, where a department store clothes dummy comes to life at the touch of Andrew McCarthy's window dresser, and the recent Lars and the Real Girl (2007), where Ryan Gosling, struggling to relate to real women, sends away for and shacks-up with a sex doll.

Like that latter film (and unlike Woody), Dayton, Faris and Kazan aren't afraid to explore the darker themes at play in the ostensibly magic realist-high concept screenplay: men's often unrealistic expectations of women; the toxic nature of co-dependent relationships; and what happens when the honeymoon period cools and fantasy finally gives way to reality?

Kazan knows that love, like art, doesn't come easy and there are plenty of dark clouds amid the sunshine of Ruby Sparks. You could dismiss it as a fabulist's rom-com for hipsters but then you'd be missing the point. You'd also be missing out.

Sunday, 9 September 2012


Sony Pictures
Now Showing
(Melbourne and Sydney Only)

I don't know what Whit Stillman was doing during his 14-year hiatus from filmmaking, but I'd hazard a guess that the writer-director may have picked up a copy of Jane Austen's Emma. Either that, or viewed Clueless, Amy Heckerling's 1995 modernisation of the Austen text, for there's more than a little Emma Dashwood/Cher Horowitz in his chief damsel, Violet Wister.

Violet (a wondrous Greta Gerwig) is the leader of the pack of a civic-minded group of college girls, and the heroine of Damsels In Distress, a campus-set comedy so light and loopy you'll find hard to resist even if you're not entirely sure of what's happening.

Just like Emma and Cher, Violet aims to bring happiness to the lives of those around her, in this instance, the populace of Seven Oaks College. But unlike either Austen's or Heckerling's heroines, Violet is no matchmaker: she comes to the rescue once girls' hearts are broken.

Along with plum-voiced Rose (Megalyn Echikinwoke) and ditzy Heather (Carrie MacLemore), Violet operates the campus Suicide Prevention Centre, where depressed undergrads are served coffee and donuts, and encouraged to channel their emotions into dance.

Of all Violet's theories and philosophies (that the members of the campus's Roman Houses can't be called elitist because they're morons and thus pitiable; to her preference for less attractive, less intelligent men making for more ideal romantic partners in the long run), her strongest held belief is that someone who invents a dance craze achieves a greater posterity than most.

Amused, bemused and enthralled by these bon mots as much as we, the audience, is Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a transfer student to Seven Oaks whom Violet and co. take under their wings. Not that she's depressed, far from it. Lily not-so-secretly adores Xavier (Hugo Becker), a Frenchman who belongs to an odd religious order, but has also caught the eye of Charlie (Adam Brody) (dubbed a "playboy operator" by Rose (Echikinwoke gets some comic mileage out of that term),who may not be all (or who) he seems.

The opening credits of Damsels (which sees the traditionally blue Sony Pictures Classics logo go pink) list the men in the film as The Distress, and rightly so. When Violet's not-so intelligent, average-looking beau from the Roman House, Frank (Ryan Metcalfe), breaks her heart, she's sent into a tailspin; going AWOL from campus for a few days before returning to Seven Oaks and her former self, more or less.

The rest of the plot (which description could hardly do justice) involves sweet-scented soap, conundrums with colours, further romantic complications and an inevitable (yet no less delightful) dance number.

Having never seen any of Stillman's previous three films (Metropolitan (1989), Barcelona (1994), The Last Days of Disco (1998)), I can't say if Damsels In Distress is consistent with the writer-director's style. But if it is, I'll certainly be seeking them out.

But I have a feeling Damsels In Distress, which adheres to its own internal logic, exists very much in its own world; one of bright colours, amusing yet articulate speech, and highly likeable characters, though pretentious or doufi they may be. And it's a world I was happy to spend 100 minutes in, and would happily do so again.


Paramount Pictures
Now Showing

Moving at a crack-a-lackin' pace, and in defiance of the rules of logic and physics – and all the better for it – Europe's Most Wanted is the most madcap adventure thus far in DreamWorks' Madagascar franchise, and the perfect swan song for Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) should this indeed be the final film for the Central Park Zoo four.

Within the opening five minutes we've witnessed a nightmare and a flashback (both by Stiller's Alex), before our heroes, desperate to return to their native New York, surface off the coast of Monte Carlo, presumably having swum there from Africa.

They've come to the European principality to locate the penguins and the chimps who left them behind in Africa when they headed off in a makeshift aeroplane with the promise of returning with rescue. The penguins and chimps have been living large in one of the city's casinos (raising funds for their return to Africa), but once the gang discovers them mayhem ensues.

This brings Alex and the gang (including lemur King Julian (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his cohorts) to the attention of Animal Control Captain, Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand), a woman who once she has the scent is like a dog with a bone. Or more accurately, like Robert Patrick's T-1000 cyborg in Terminator 2: unstoppable, unflappable (and as defiant of physics as the animals) and with one goal in mind – to mount Alex the lion's head on her trophy wall.

The gang manage to elude capture by DuBois, if not her pursuit, jumping a circus train headed for Rome. They buy out the human owners and plan to win the attention of a visiting American promoter who will whisk them all back to New York, but first Alex has to convince the circus – a one-time success but now a down-on-its-luck operation – that they can recapture their former glory.

Gia (Jessica Chastain), the acrobatic jaguar, and Stefano, the sea lion cannonball (a wonderful Martin Short channelling Roberto Benigni), are ready to embrace the ways of Circus Americano but Vitaly, the Russian tiger (a surly Bryan Cranston), haunted by his own failures involving a flaming ring and olive oil, isn't so easily convinced.

In a time where animated films have become serious business, both at the box office and with critics and awards bodies (no longer assigned to the kids' table and allowed to compete for Best Picture at the Oscars), Madagascar 3 is a reminder that they can also be pure, unadulterated fun.

Directors Tom McGrath, Conrad Vernon, and Eric Darnell, who penned the screenplay with Noah Baumbach (writer-director of such indie fare as The Squid and the Whale (2005), and Margot at the Wedding (2007), but who also co-penned 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox), seem to have not only remembered that animation is merely a grown-up term for cartoon, but have embraced the freedom and lunacy that comes with that realisation.

Thematically, Madagascar 3, like its predecessors, is about family being what you make of it and home being where the heart is but not in a sickly sentimental way. Besides there's no time for saccharine, what with car chases, fireworks, jet packs and "balloons for the children of the world", there's barely time to catch one's breath let alone to shed a tear.

And if this is to be the last Madagascar film (there has been no official word on that), then it's a solid, highly entertaining third act for the franchise. Roll up, roll up, come one and all. Leave logic at the big top entrance and enjoy Europe's Most Wanted, Americano-style.

Sunday, 2 September 2012


Icon Films
Now Showing

In a region of Louisiana known as The Bathtub, lives six-year-old Hushpuppy and her father, Wink. But don't let the cutesy-pie names fool you, for Behn Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild, however fablesque, doesn't deal in sunshine, lollipops and happy ever afters.

Wink (Dwight Henry) practises a form of tough love on his little charge. With her mother leaving not long after her birth, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) has only Wink to provide for her, and Wink, who has a serious medical condition, knows that when he's no longer around to take care of her, the world won't go easy on his daughter just because she's a little girl.

But the pint-sized Hushpuppy is as defiant of her father as her hair is of gravity, and when her world starts falling down around her -- with Wink's ailing health, and quite literally when The Bathtub floods and the government moves in to relocate the residents -- the little girl heads off in search of her long-gone mother.

Adapting Lucy Alibar's Juicy and Delicious stageplay with the playwright, Zeitlin has opened up the universe of Hushpuppy (originally written as a boy) by grounding the story in reality, albeit one as unfamiliar to mainstream American audiences as the rest of the world; Hushpuppy, Wink and their rabble of friends and neighbours, black and white, are the people that the Bush administration "forgot" in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina.

And it would be easy to view Beasts of the Southern Wild as a post-Katrina parable, or even as a warning on climate change. When Hushpuppy realises her father is not well, there are rumblings in the ice caps and mythological beasts known as aurochs are unleashed. (Are they real, or manifestations of a little girl's fears and anxieties of a world in which she has no control?)

But Zeitlin is never heavy-handed nor the film overly heavy: Hushpuppy's observation that the universe depends on everything fitting together just right (respect the food chain; honour they father; love thy neighbour) is about as didactic as the film gets.

Of course, we're viewing this world through the eyes of Hushpuppy, a world where politics has no place amongst the beauty and danger of the natural and man-made environs. Often only dressed in a singlet and underpants, Hushpuppy is at home among the long grass, and the handful of animals she keeps; animals she knows she'd have to eat if circumstances dictate.

Used to spending long periods of time on her own, Hushpuppy even lives in separate quarters to Wink. Accustomed to the tough love of her father, but not above daydreaming of her mother, Hushpuppy converses with the clothes which once belonged to her; strewn about the house we suspect Wink never enters.

And if there is one truly great marvel in this small marvel of a film -- by a first-time director, made on a shoe-string budget, with an original vision -- it is the performance of Quvenzhane Wallis. A first-time actor and just six years old when cast, Wallis imbues Beasts' little heroine with mix of bravado and innocence that simply can't be faked. "I'm the man!" she screams at one point, and you'd better believe it.

Even if, ultimately, the film didn't affect me emotionally in the way I had hoped (too high expectations and my own fault entirely), Wallis's Hushpuppy leaves an indelible mark. In the pantheon of young female heroines traversing worlds real and imagined - Alice, Dorothy, even Coraline - Hushpuppy rings true: a 'beast' who captures your heart completely.


Madman Films
Now Showing

Lynn Shelton's previous film, Humpday, was a funny and smart take on the bromance genre: a look at male machismo, the inherent homoeroticism and the lengths men will go to to save face. In Your Sister's Sister, Shelton focusses her gaze on the female of the species, more specifically, the relationship between sisters Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Iris (Emily Blunt), and the man who comes between them.

That would be Jack (Mark Duplass), who is still mourning the death of his brother, Tom, 12 months ago. Iris, Tom's former girlfriend, thinks his getting away from it all – precipitated by an outburst at a memorial for Tom by the dead brother's friends – will be the best thing for Jack. And he agrees, taking up her invitation to spend a week at her family's island cottage off the coast of Washington State.

Jack isn't expecting company during his retreat, but is happy for it when he discovers Hannah (in her underwear) also occupying the cottage. The pair have never met but know of each other through Iris, and any wariness is soon dissipated as the pair indulge in a lot of whiskey and some midnight confessionals: he's grieving; she's just ended a seven-year relationship with a woman.

It also leads to some awkward bedroom antics, made even more awkward when Iris arrives unannounced early the next day. Iris is ecstatic to see her big sister, and happy that the two most important people in her life have finally met; Jack, however, is not-so happy for Iris to find out what happened last night, given that he is secretly in love with her.

This places Hannah uncomfortably in the middle, a position made even more uncomfortable when her own secret is revealed.

Rosemarie DeWitt has seemingly made a career out of playing the sister – from the titular bride in Rachel Getting Married, opposite Anne Hathaway, to the arguably sane sibling of Toni Collette's Tara in TV's The United States Of – and by making an impression in supporting roles; second-in-command but never second best.

And in Your Sister's Sister, DeWitt is again the sister but finally lands a lead role: equal billing (and footing) with her co-stars, Blunt and Duplass. Her Hannah is the most complex of the three characters, and DeWitt makes her nuanced, by turns prickly and empathetic.

Blunt, always a welcome presence, is good, too, as is Mark Duplass who has, by some strange turn of events become the most unlikely romantic lead of cinema 2012. With Sister, and the soon-to-be-released Safety Not Guaranteed, the affably charming but by no means “Hollywood handsome” actor (who also directs his own films with his brother, Jay), gives a wonderfully comic turn.

Depending on your take, Your Sister's Sister is either a drama with laughs or vice versa. Shelton isn't heavy handed with either – there's no hand wringing when things come to a head, and the closest thing to a comic set piece involves vegan pancakes – but what she and her actors achieve (no doubt partly as a result of their improvising) is an authenticity in the relationships.

Not only do we like Hannah, Iris and Jack (in spite of their obvious faults), but we care about them and what happens to them. And even if their ultimate fate is left up in the air thanks to a cliffhanger ending of sorts, one gets the feeling that the kids will be alright.