Monday, 30 December 2013

MY FAVOURITE FILMS OF 2013

For some film reviewers, 2013 was one of the best years for movies in quite some time, and there is merit in such an argument. As always, my film viewing year was topped and tailed by 2012's Oscar contenders and 2013's crop of awards hopefuls. But was it a great year? It was certainly a very strong one but as with last year, for me it was the smaller films which won me over while bigger and more anticipated titles failed to impress.

2013 was a year where Gosling went 0 for 3 (I still love you, Ryan!), animated features reached a nadir, and I somehow managed to see just one Australian film (unless you count The Great Gatsby?). A year when one of my all-time favourite books became a far from favourite film (Gatsby again), and Cate Blanchett gave an award-winning performance in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine. And yet, the best female performance of the year (Julie Delpy in Before Midnight) is unlikely to receive an Oscar nomination.

My Best of 2012 list actually cut-off at January 10, 2013, so after much to-ing and fro-ing, I have decided that my Favourite Films of 2013 would be limited to films viewed for the first time in 2013* (see list to the right of screen) regardless of Australian release date. (*Classics such as Badlands, The Godfather I and II, The Shining and Goodfellas, which were also viewed for the first time in 2013, are ineligible).

Much to the chagrin of some, I'm sure, I have made my list alphabetical rather than numerical. But to appease those sticklers for (arbitrary) rules, I have conceded to name a favourite film separate to my Top 10.

MY TOP 10

BEFORE MIDNIGHT: The near perfect conclusion to a perfect film trilogy. Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and especially Julie Delpy are in fine form here as Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy), nine years after the events in Paris, come to the end of a summer in the southern Peloponnese and a crossroads in their 20-year relationship. It's movie-making magic and in a perfect world, Before Midnight would be winning all of the awards (Delpy IS the Best Actress of 2013).



CLOUD ATLAS: By no means a masterpiece or even perfect -- not all of the connections between the six different narratives and timelines are seamless or even tenuous -- but for whatever reason, I fell in love with the Wachowskis' (Lana and Andy) and Tom Tykwer's adaptation of the David Mitchell novel which boasts an impressive cast (some switching genders and races) and a daring we see all to rarely in today's films.



ENOUGH SAID: At last, a rom-com for grown-ups. But it isn't all smooth sailing in Nicole Holofcener's look at love the second time around, where the laughs come with the pang of truth. Those laughs (and tears) come courtesy of two terrific performances by Julia Louis Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini.



THE HUNT: When a little girl tells a lie about her teacher (an excellent Mads Mikkelsen), his world is turned upside down as his friends and neighbours turn against and upon him. Hysteria and suspicion take hold in Thomas Vinterberg's gripping drama where the presumption of innocence is the first casualty and mateship soon follows.



MUD: A little bit Great Expectations, a little bit Huck Finn, Jeff Nichols' third film is a wonderfully original tale of a boy's gradual transition into adulthood over the course of a few summer days on the banks of the Mississippi. When Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his pal, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), discover escaped convict Mud (Matthew McConaughey), they decide to help him reunite with his love (Reese Witherspoon), learning all manner of life lessons in the process.



THE ROCKET: The best Australian film of 2013 (although truth be told, the only Oz film I saw this year) and one of the year's best. Period. This Laos-set tale of a boy out to prove that he is not the family curse, is undeniably feel good but in the best possible way. It will leave you with a huge smile and a heart full to bursting.



RUST AND BONE: Marion Cotillard is, of course, terrific but it's Matthias Schoenaerts who is a revelation in this Beauty and the Beast tale: he's a streetfighter struggling with fatherhood; she's a whale trainer who's suffered an horrific accident, yet these two broken people find an unlikely -- and beautiful -- kinship with each other.



STORIES WE TELL: Canadian actress-turned-director, Sarah Polley, follows up the wonderful Take This Waltz (2012) with a documentary examining the secrets and lies within her own family and the very question of her paternity. An intelligent, fascinating and moving blend of interviews and recreations, truth and memory made for my favourite documentary of the year.





UPSTREAM COLOR: I won't even begin to posit what I think writer-director-cinematographer-composer-star Shane Carruth's film is about, lest I say that it involves abduction, worms, mind control, romance, pigs, and soul transference (possibly?). Simultaneously elusive and beguiling, Upstream Color may just be the biggest -- and best -- film riddle of the year.



THE WAY, WAY BACK: A typical coming of age-one memorable summer film, and yet The Way, Way Back (written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) boasts so much heart and warmth -- and laughs. They're mostly provided by Sam Rockwell whose man-child Owen becomes the mentor to young Duncan (Liam James), who is out to prove his mum's boyfriend wrong: that he's so much more than a '3 out of 10'. And so is the film.


MY FAVOURITE FILM OF 2013: LINCOLN


What could have been a stuffy period drama about America's most beloved president, Abraham Lincoln, is, in fact, history brought to life. That's thanks in no small part to playwright Tony Kushner's impressive dialogue, a colouful cast of character actors, and, of course, the Oscar-winning performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as the man determined to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. Lincoln is easily one of Steven Spielberg's best films and my favourite of 2013.

Disagree with any of my choices? Fine, but I don't care to hear about it; this is a list of what I loved. But I'm happy to hear what you watched and loved at the movies in 2013. Comment away!

Sunday, 22 December 2013

FILM REVIEW: PHILOMENA





Hopscotch Films

Now Showing

In a year of highly successful onscreen couplings -- Delpy and Hawke (Before Midnight), Cotillard and Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone), Douglas and Damon (Behind The Candelabra) -- the pairing of Judi Dench, the grand dame of British stage and screen, and comedian Steve Coogan, is neither the oddest nor the most perfect. But in director Stephen Frears' Philomena, it's a winning combination all the same.

Dench plays Philomena Lee, a devout Irish Catholic who, having been forced by her Church to give up her "sinfully" conceived son for adoption 50 years ago, has forgiven the nuns' trespass against her but has never forgotten her little boy. When Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a journalist in search of a new project, hears of Philomena's plight to be reunited with her son, he begrudgingly takes up the human interest story -- sweet, elderly woman versus evil nuns -- before he soon realises that there is a far more serious and cruel narrative being unearthed.

Based on actual events, and adapted (by Coogan and Jeff Pope) from Sixsmith's own book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the film traverses familiar territory and yet manages to spring the occasional surprise. The first being its humour; perhaps not as surprising given Coogan's involvement but laughs are not what you expect in a film about maternal anguish and the sins of the Church.

Naturally, a lot of that humour stems from the odd couple pairing of the little old woman of faith and the cynical, world weary journalist, particularly when their search for Philomena's son leads them to the United States -- all the way to the White House, in fact -- and a road trip of-sorts. But just as Philomena proves to be more canny than her homely, romance novel-loving persona would suggest, Martin is revealed to be far more sensitive to and protective of his travelling companion.

But what you also don't expect in the film is Philomena's defense of the Church and more specifically, the former Mother Superior of the Irish-based Order who caused her so much grief. While Sixsmith rages at the injustices on her behalf (Coogan delivering a blisteringly funny line about what Jesus would do), Philomena accepts that the nuns were doing what they believed to be right, for both the child and in the eyes of God. Although her faith is tested, she barely wavers.

The real Philomena Lee recently wrote a letter to an American film critic who accused the film of anti-Catholicism, wherein she praised the film's depiction of her story whilst reaffirming her devotion to her faith. Frears and Coogan's film eviscerates the Church's treatment of unwed mothers -- who, after being forcefully separated from their children were expected to work off their sin -- whilst simultaneously acknowledging the strength of spirit of Philomena; so often the film's only true Christian, even when surrounded by a convent full of nuns.

Dench (even though her Irish accent falters) can do this kind of role in her sleep. Still, she imbues Philomena Lee with both a requisite softness and steely grit, one developed over 50 years spent agonising over the loss of her child but never once regretting his existence. Coogan is good, too, providing Sexsmith with a dry wit but never making him a caricature. The pair play off each other wonderfully in a dramedy which celebrates devotion: a mother's to her son and a journalist's to the truth.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

FILM REVIEW: THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG



Roadshow Films

Now Showing

To say the the second film in a trilogy is an improvement on its predecessor -- particularly when that first film was arguably one 2012's worst films -- is perhaps to damn it with faint praise. Yet that's exactly how one can best convey their response to The Desolation of Smaug, director Peter Jackson's second instalment in his unnecessary trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.

2012's An Unexpected Journey was a tedious and over-long return to Middle Earth for the New Zealand director almost a decade after the conclusion to his much-loved and much better realised trilogy of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. The first film in that series, The Fellowship of the Ring, is arguably the trilogy's best whereas An Unexpected Journey could prove to be the least of its; what with its drawn-out opening hour, padded as it was with drunken dwarf songs and prat falls.

The Desolation of Smaug, with all the set-up out of the way, is, surprisingly, rarely dull and pretty much picks up where the first film left off: 13 dwarves led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), the wizard Gandalf The Grey (Ian McKellen), and the titular Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), are making their way across Middle Earth to reclaim Erebor; the former dwarf kingdom which was razed and then claimed by the dragon, Smaug.

But before they get there they'll have to pass through a forest filled with giant spiders, and then contend with some not-so welcoming elves (hello Orlando Bloom's Legolas, for no other reason than because), as well as the vicious Orcs who, under the command of some dark force (cue Firey Vagina), have been on the company's trail since early on in 'Journey'.

All of this, of course, is mere foreplay to the film's main event: the introduction of Smaug. Voiced by the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch, the dragon, who sleeps beneath the riches the dwarves were forced to abandon when they fled Erebor, has a sharp mind and an articulate tongue to compliment his fire-breathing abilities and his gargantuan size.

And yet, the face-off between Bilbo and Smaug doesn't boast the same level of thrill as the Hobbit's battle of wits with Gollum, which was the first film's one redeeming feature (Andy Serkis's magnificently vile creation is sadly absent from this instalment). Still, this showdown ends with a cliffhanger sure to have fans of these films and this universe highly anticipating the final chapter this time next year (as for me, I'll be watching for mere closure).

At 161-minutes (shorter than An Unexpected Journey by a mere eight minutes), The Desolation of Smaug is stretched if not padded but it's still too long. None of the Hobbit films need to be this long. Hell, they don't need to be more than one film. But I was less bored and irritable this time around, due in part to the film's emphasis on action and because (thankfully) the media screening was this time not shown in the god awful HFR format.

I'll readily admit that a lot of my dislike for An Unexpected Journey was due to having to endure the film in the distractingly ugly 48 frames per second, which rendered everything as though it were shot on the over-lit sound stage of a television soap opera. (You cannot immerse yourself in another world if you are made constantly aware of that very world's artificiality.)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug looks fine in regular 3D, though I suspect it would look just as fine in 2D. And fans of Jackson (and Tolkien) will no doubt be happy to undertake the adventure in any format available, ensuring this sequel rakes in just as much coin as its predecessor (which I imagine would somewhat resemble the treasure trove found in a giant dragon's den).

Friday, 20 December 2013

FILM REVIEW: FROZEN



Walt Disney Studios Films

Now Showing

Continuing the trend of their recent animation revival, Disney's latest feature is, like The Princess and The Frog (2009) and Tangled (2010), a princess story. Or a tale of two princesses, as it happens: Elsa and Anna, two royal sisters in the kingdom of Arendelle whose loving bond is severely tested in Frozen.

Not by a rivalry for the throne (elder sister Elsa will one day be queen) but because Elsa possesses powers (the ability to produce ice and snow at will) which, during some late night shenanigans, almost fatally wounds the younger Anna. From that day forth, their parents decide it best that Elsa remain separated from her sister -- and the outside world -- until her powers can be tamed.

Or until she ascends the throne, which she does as a young woman (voiced by Broadway star, Idina Menzel) when her parents' royal ship is lost at sea. Elsa's coronation comes is a double celebration for Anna (Kristen Bell), who not only gets to finally see her sister up close and in person, but because the gates to the palace are finally opened to the outside world (Anna becoming an involuntary shut-in of-sorts as a result of her sister's isolation).

That would explain her immediately falling head over heels for visiting Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), who, as the youngest of several brothers and sent to attend the coronation on behalf of his nation, also seems deliriously happy to be striking out on his own. The pair are instantly smitten and before they've even caught their breath from singing their first duet, Hans has proposed.

But just as quickly, Elsa's powers are revealed to a less than welcoming royal court and visiting dignitaries which sees the newly crowned Queen fleeing into the mountains, setting off a not-so wonderful winter land in her wake. It also sends Anna, believing in her sister's goodness, in hot pursuit; on the way meeting an ice salesman, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his loyal reindeer, Sven, and Olaf (Josh Gad), a talking snowman with a jovial disposition who was conjured in Elsa's escape (and a terrific musical number about breaking free and self-acceptance, Let It Go).

And if you were to go by Disney's marketing alone, you would think Frozen, loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, was an adventure mostly concerned with the comical prat falls of Sven and Olaf (and throw in some cute woodland trolls for good measure). For whatever reason (the boy dollar?), Disney seem to have gone out of their way to hide the fact that Frozen is indeed a "princess movie". And a musical!

Not that Frozen, directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, is your typical princess animation. Yes there's a 'happy ever after' but unlike The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, which also featured pro-active female protagonists, that happy ending isn't dependent on a romantic coupling. Sisters are doing it for themselves in Frozen, and that's quite refreshing.

It might not be quite the female empowerment film some have tried to make it out to be, but it's certainly a positive message young girls -- and boys -- can take away from this snowbound, fun-filled, and tuneful (with some impressive Broadway-ready songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez) animation.

Indeed, Frozen is arguably the year's best animated feature, if only for a lack of any real competition: it's been a lacklustre year for animated films, on the screen if not at the box office.

And without any real competition this summer, it should perform just as nicely at the Australian box office as it has State-side: Elsa and Anna joining the likes of Sandra (Gravity; The Heat), J-Law (Catching Fire) and Melissa McCarthy (The Heat; Identity Thief) as proof-positive that sisters did indeed do it for themselves in 2013.

Note: preceding Frozen is a short film titled Get A Horse!, a rather loud and obnoxious mix of black and white and colour animation, as well as 3D (not that you need to see Frozen in that format to enjoy it), which seems to exist solely because it uses Walt Disney's voice for that of Mickey Mouse.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

FILM REVIEW: THE SPECTACULAR NOW



Walt Disney Studios/Buena Vista

Now Showing

When we first meet Sutter Keely, he's in his suburban bedroom writing up his college admission application. In a smart, funny tone, he's telling his prospective university just what kind of a guy he is: carefree, no BS and living for the moment. It's a deceptively light beginning to a film, directed by James Ponsodlt, and adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber from a novel by Tim Tharp, which gradually goes deep and hits hard.

Sutter (an excellent Miles Teller) is charm itself. Always smiling, always on. And never a bad word to say about anyone, not even his recently ex-girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), or her new beau, the high school hero, Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi), whom Sutter even gives tips to on how to be more 'fun'.

Not that that's what Cassidy wants. She broke up with Sutter because she sees no future with someone who only lives for the now and the day-to-day; who is never serious and is always slightly buzzed if not intoxicated. Yes, Sutter has a drinking problem: he's rarely seen without a slushy cup which he laces with the contents of his ever-handy drinking flask.

But The Spectacular Now is not a TV movie-of-the-week about the perils of teen drinking. There's no melodrama or hand-wringing, just as there wasn't in Ponsoldt's previous film, Smashed (2012), which was about a school teacher struggling with her alcoholism. And while there is the inevitable 'drink-driving' accident, it occurs slightly differently to how you expect and with far greater impact.

That's partly because it involves Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a fellow classmate of Sutter's who he's never really spoken to before. That is until she finds him sleeping on a lawn during her early morning paper route; a meet-cute which begins an initially beautiful but ultimately one-sided relationship: Aimee becomes his Geometry tutor and prom date, while Sutter views her as the wallflower whom he's coaxing out of her shell whilst he waits for Cassidy to come to her senses and take him back.

Just as Logan Lerman did last year in The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Miles Teller steps up to the plate and hits it out of the park. While good in both Rabbit Hole (2010) and the 2011 Footloose remake, Teller brings a whole other level of performance and character to Sutter Keely. Effusive charm masking a pain which is anaesthetized by alcohol, his happy-go-lucky nature is the front he puts on for the world: if he doesn't laugh, or make others do so, he may just fall apart. Like an alcoholic in a 12 Step program, Sutter's taking it one day at a time.

Shailene Woodley is excellent, too. Her Aimee is a 180-degree shift from her angsty teen turn in The Descendants (2011). Wide-eyed and honest, she has the nervous smile of an oft overlooked girl who can't believe that someone like Sutter Keely would be interested in someone like her. Aimee's a smart girl with a bright future, and Woodley deftly balances her mix of intelligence and trepidation.

They're an impressive double act in an impressive film. The Spectacular Now may not work the tear ducts so easily as the aforementioned coming-of-age tale, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, but there is real emotion and plenty of heart in this small indie.

FILM REVIEW: KILL YOUR DARLINGS



Sony Pictures

Now Showing

Before the Beat poets -- Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs -- became a voice of a generation, they were a peculiar mix of idealists and dreamers, each with a rebellious streak and a vein of thinly-disguised homoeroticism. And in 1944, all of those elements fused in a heady cocktail of sex, drugs, and alcohol -- and murder.

That summation probably makes Kill Your Darlings, writer-director John Krokidas' feature debut, sound more exciting and salacious than it is, although on the hallowed grounds of Columbia University, 1944, it no doubt was. That's where a young Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) comes to study literature but is less enamoured with his professors' view of the world than he is with that of fellow student, Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan).

Magnetic yet enigmatic, Carr doesn't have time for rules -- of literature, the campus, or the law -- which is probably why he was expelled from his previous university and also why he and his mother (Kyra Sedgewick) fled Chicago. It would also explain his less than savoury association with David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), whose interest in Lucien seems to be a confused mix of mentor and predator. But it's when Kammerer is murdered (not a spoiler, it's the opening scene; the film then circling back), that the true nature of Lucien is revealed to Allen who until then is besotted with his fellow idealist in spite of the passive-aggressive nature of their friendship.

Although bespectacled, Radcliffe sheds his Potter alter ego (and his clothes on occasion) as the young Ginsberg; out to make his own way in the world away from a published poet father (David Cross) and a mentally unstable mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and navigating his sexuality in an America at war and still some 20 years away from the 'summer of love'. It's through Ginsberg's eyes we witness events, and even if it's a mostly passive role the former boy wizard Radcliffe acquits himself well.

But it's DeHaan's Lucien who pulls focus. Reminiscent of a young DiCaprio, DeHaan is all limbs, painful smile and sweaty complexion yet you can't take your eyes off of him. You can see why Ginsberg, Kammerer and even the college jock-cum-author Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) were drawn to him. Lucien was a rebel without a cause almost a decade before James Dean, and DeHaan makes him a live wire.

It's debatable if Krokidas' inability to infuse the rest of Kill Your Darlings with the frenzied fervour of its protagonists (including a barely recognisable Ben Foster as Burroughs) marks it as a failure; it certainly exceeds as a well mounted period drama if not as hot-blooded as such literary firebrands demand.

But never having read any of the Beat poets (for shame), perhaps I'm given to be more lenient; I'm one of the few who seemed to enjoy Walter Salles' sprawling 2012 adaptation of Kerouac's seminal On The Road. I certainly feel more inspired to seek them out, so that's some kind of achievement on Krokidas' and the film's part.

Friday, 29 November 2013

MINI FILM REVIEWS: HOORAY FOR Y.A.!














It's long been argued that Hollywood has been making movies for 14-year-old boys for some time now: big-budgeted blockbusters high on explosions and testosterone, and little in the way of character or plot. Movie-making is, after all, a business and you won't go broke appealing to the lowest common denominator.

But three new films, adapted from Young Adult novels, aim to arrest if not exactly reverse this 'blockbusters for boys' trend. And two of them do so with young, strong-willed female characters as their driving force.

HOW I LIVE NOW (Madman Entertainment, now showing), set in a not-too-distant yet recognizable future, sees 16-year-old Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) shipped from her New York home to stay with cousins in the English countryside. Not too long after, a war of-sorts breaks out and Daisy and her three cousins (two younger, one older) are left to fend for themselves.

Who the enemy is and what they are fighting for is never explained; they're never even glimpsed which prevents the film, directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, 2006), and adapted from the novel by Meg Rosoff, from venturing into Red Dawn/Tomorrow, When The War Began territory. Shot for realism, it's without gloss or machismo.

Thematically, How I Live Now is about finding family and your place in the world; the second half of the film becoming a survival tale which sees Daisy and her younger cousin, Piper (Harley Bird), trekking cross-country to reunite with the boys (George MacKay, and Tom Holland from 2011's The Impossible) and the pastoral idyll they enjoyed before the war.

Yes there's the seemingly compulsory YA staple of romance (between Daisy and her older cousin; what is it with YA fiction and incest?), but How I Live Now rests squarely on the shoulders of Ronan, a highly capable and intelligent actress beyond her years. Daisy doesn't begin as the most likeable of protagonists but her pluck and strength carry her, and the film through its rough patches.

ENDER'S GAME (Icon Film Distribution, opening December 5) boasts a male protagonist (Ender, played by Asa Butterfield of Hugo (2011) fame) and is set in a more distant future that is also at war. But the film, directed by South African Gavin Hood (he made the Oscar-winning Tsotsi in 2005), and adapted from the novel by Orson Scott Card, is, for all its military bravado and hi-tech explosions, an anti-war film.

After staving off an invasion by an alien insect-like race dubbed the Formecs, the Earth's military forces have been preparing for a return bout; enlisting the best of the world's youth to train, physically and mentally for battle: the powers-that-be believing that young minds have the malleability and out-of-the-box thinking needed to defeat their extraterrestrial enemy.

And Ender is soon deemed to be the best of them, burdened with the role of humanity's saviour while yet to start shaving. Lauded by his commander (Harrison Ford) while initially despised by his peers (the cadet-on-cadet bullying and abuse wouldn't be out of place within the Australian Defence Forces), the sensitive yet headstrong Ender is determined to be the hero, only realising too late that there are no winners in war.

Like The Hunger Games, Ender's Game touches on the subject of conscription and sending young people to fight a grown-ups war. And while it has the look of your typical blockbuster -- the visuals and CGI are impressive -- there's a lot more brain than brawn in this not-quite 'boy's own' (hello Oscar nominee, Hailee Steinfeld) space adventure.

Of course, the best of the book-to-film YA adaptations at present has to be The Hunger Games. They don't come much bigger or -- with the second instalment, CATCHING FIRE (Roadshow Films, now showing) -- much better. Directed this time round by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, 2007), Catching Fire successfully expands upon the universe, characters and themes of the first film, even as it repeats the structure (protracted set-up before the actual Games; it's a 146-minute film).

The stakes are upped this time as Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, even fiercer), having survived The Hunger Games, along with her fellow District 12 tribute and faux lover, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), must keep up appearances for the less than impressed President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

Angered by her manipulation of the last-man-standing game, and wary of the message of hope it sends the other 11 districts, Snow wants nothing more than to make an example of Katniss and crush any thought of rebellion against the Capitol. So it's once more into the arena for Katniss and Peeta.

Politics, propaganda, conscription, reality TV, the One Percenters and more are all smartly if not always subtly skewered in Catching Fire, but it never forgets that it is first and foremost an action-thriller aimed at (but not exclusive to) Young Adults, with a powerful female character at its centre.

I've not read Suzanne Collins' trilogy of books (inevitably to be four films) but I'd suggest she, nor her readers, could be too displeased with what they've been presented with on screen thus far. Intelligent, thrilling and, yes, emotional, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire gives us (boys and girls) a heroine -- and a YA franchise -- we can root for.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

FILM REVIEW: CARRIE



Sony Pictures

Now Showing

By Guest Reviewer Aaron J. Smith.

Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a lonely and shy teenage girl struggling to cope with an abusive, overbearing and deeply religious mother, Margaret (Julianne Moore). That would be bad enough if it weren’t for the fact that Carrie, like most girls her age, is also having to deal with a rapidly developing womanhood; how to relate to boys; and discovering that she possesses awesome telekinetic powers. Okay, so that last one is a fun rarity.

Carrie suffers an embarrassing incident in the school showers, and is ridiculed by her nasty classmates, led by the school alpha bitch, Chris Hargensen (played with unsettling ease by Portia Doubleday), and Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde). Chris films the incident and posts it on online, which results in a falling out with the more conscientious Sue.

Ms. Desjardin, the well-meaning gym teacher (the always good, Judy Greer), punishes Chris with school suspension meaning she cannot attend the all-important senior prom. With help from her deadbeat boyfriend, Billy Nolan (Aussie actor, Alex Russell), Chris devises a bloody and callous prank to get back at Carrie, blaming her victim for the punishment she’s been dealt and sewing the seeds of what is to come; for as Chris's rage grows so, too, does Carrie's powers.

If you’re unfamiliar with Carrie’s story, then perhaps you’ll benefit the most from this ‘re-imagining’ of the best-selling Stephen King novel, which has seen two other screen interpretations (and an off-Broadway musical). Brian De Palma’s 1976 version, starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, is in my Top 5 films of all time; I can’t comment on the 2002 made for TV movie, as I have never bothered to see it.

Director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry (1999); Stop-Loss 2008)) could have easily gotten carried away with a ‘bigger is better’ attitude to justify a Carrie update. Instead, Peirce focuses on believable characterisations and keeps the special effects and gore from going too over the top. Thankfully, Peirce also wisely chooses not to mimic the style of the 1976 original. I would have walked out if the director had copied the fantastic ‘twirling at the prom’ sequence. The great dialogue is still there though (and I still laughed when Margaret refers to breasts as ‘dirty pillows’).

Julianne Moore provides an enjoyably nutty Margaret White in a slightly restrained performance, but the film would have benefited greatly if Margaret was a little more threatening towards her naïve and curious daughter.

Chloe Grace Moretz does an admirable job in the title role (one made iconic by a young Sissy Spacek), but she can’t quite shake off the cuteness of her physical appearance to portray the vengeful rage the climax requires. Moretz is most effective, however, in her scenes with Ansel Elgort who plays Tommy Ross, the sweet and sympathetic boyfriend of Sue, who, in a gesture of good will, escorts Carrie to the prom.

The age-old issue of bullying (and the more timely cyber bullying) adds purpose to the story, helping to contemporise this classic horror tale. But while this Carrie is worth seeing, it won’t be the version I’ll be returning to time and again.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

FILM REVIEW: FILTH



Icon Film Distribution

Now Showing

As Christmas approaches, the only thing Edinburgh Detective Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) hopes Santa brings him is the highly coveted promotion to Inspector. But even if he didn't have to compete with an assortment of colleagues (including Imogen Poots, and Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) and his dad (Gary Lewis)) for the job, it's highly doubtful that Robertson would be on top of Santa's 'Nice' list. He's been a very, very naughty boy.

A pill-popping, coke-snorting, beer-swilling Scotsman with a libidinous nature may not be the Force's finest but given that Filth is based on an Irvine Welsh novel (he of Trainspotting fame), adapted by director Jon S. Baird, you'd perhaps be foolish for thinking this despicable yet mesmeric protagonist would be otherwise.

And Baird, making just his second feature, dives head first and full-on into the darkly comic Welsh milieu of drugs, violence, misogyny and despair, aided every step of the way by his leading man; McAvoy playing one of the most unlikeable protagonists in cinema this year yet giving one of its (and his) best, most dynamic performances.

Being assigned to investigate the bashing murder of a Japanese student seems to trigger -- or exacerbate -- Robertson's freefall. When he's not working to undermine his colleagues' chances at securing said promotion (or sleeping with one of their wives), he's buddying-up to mild mannered accountant, Bladesey (Eddie Marsan), abusing his friendship at every turn whilst sexually harassing the man's wife (Shirley Henderson) via dirty phone calls, all the while fuelled by a diet of alcohol and drugs and a barely disguised rage.

McAvoy manages to keep Robertson, and his performance, from tipping over the edge even as he goes to some dark and unpleasant places. You may not sympathise or empathise with the detective but you're seeing the world through his eyes, so turning away is rarely an option. Kudos to McAvoy (embracing his native Scottish brogue) for managing to find the humanity amid the chaos of this broken man.

Unfortunately, Baird feels the need to replicate the noise in Roberston's head for the audience: there is barely a moment in the film that is not accompanied -- or smothered -- by a pop or rock track. Even as the hectic pace of the film's first half slows somewhat, there's never a moment's silence or time for contemplation, for the audience or Bruce: he's guaranteed not to be the only one with a headache.

Filth won't be to everyone's liking, particularly those who are not fans of Welsh's writing or twisted sense of humour (the film, not surprisingly, is rated R-18+). McAvoy's performance makes it worthwhile, but not everyone will be willing to wade through the self-created cesspool his character inhabits.

Monday, 18 November 2013

FILM REVIEW: BLACKFISH



Madman Films

Now Showing

The title for this documentary comes from the name once given to orcas by the Native Americans. We, of course, know them by their less poetic misnomer killer whales, which is ironic given that there is no report of an orca having ever killed a human. Not in the wild anyway.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish, a powerful mix of video footage and talking head interviews, examines the life of one orca, Tilikum, who over 20 years in captivity lashed out at and, yes, killed his human trainers.

Fished from the ocean when just a calf, the male orca, Tilikum, was first taken to a rundown marine park in Canada where the ocean was replaced with what equated to little more than slightly larger backyard swimming pool, and his pod -- which marine biologists describe as very social structures with their own language, and creatures with great emotional intelligence -- were replaced with human trainers.

Following a fatal attack on one trainer, Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld in Florida, where his past violent behaviour was not disclosed to his new trainers, and he was both made to perform for the paying public whilst also producing sperm for the park's very lucrative breeding program.

Interviews with former SeaWorld trainers reveal that Tilikum's violent outbursts didn't end with his relocation to a larger enclosure nor did they stop at what the park's legal team would deny were acts of aggression: more trainers would feel the brunt of Tilikum's displeasure -- described by some marine experts as a form of psychosis -- and, yes, two more people (one trainer, one civilian) would die.

Not that SeaWorld management seemed to care. Trainer error was always cited as the reason for any mishap and the park continued to supply marine parks around the world with both the sperm of the aggressive whale, and whales produced by said seed. Naturally, SeaWorld took no responsibility when a marine park in the Canary Islands also suffered a trainer death.

With Blackfish, Cowperthwaite isn't pulling her punches; very much placing the blame, and rightly so, at the feet of SeaWorld (management were repeatedly asked to appear in the documentary and repeatedly refused) and not Tilikum. "If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don't you think you'd get a little psychotic?" asks one of the talking heads by way of explaining the whale's behaviour.

Much like 2009's Oscar winning doco, The Cove -- about Japanese fishermen's annual slaughter of the local dolphin population -- Blackfish seeks to inform, alarm, anger and, hopefully, radicalise the viewer. And it should. If the ethics of keeping animals in captivity doesn't move you, the video footage of Tilikum's attacks on his trainers will.

I've never been to a marine park; I now have no intention of ever doing so. If you're thinking about taking the family to Sea World this weekend, I'd suggest you take them to see Blackfish instead. They won't be entertained -- they may not even speak to you afterwards they'll be so shaken -- but in time they'll thank you. Here's hoping one day Tilikum and the rest of his species can too.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

FILM REVIEW: THE FIFTH ESTATE



Walt Disney Studios Films

Now Showing

The second WikiLeaks film to land in cinemas this year (the other being Alex Gibney's doco We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks) is a dramatic re-telling of the early days of the whistleblower organisation: when two idealistic men found each other and founded a website to expose the dirty truths of governments and corporations.

Australian computer whiz, Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), already had a criminal past of hacking into unauthorized and sensitive databases before he teamed up with German I.T. specialist, Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl). While both had a passion for exposing the secrets of the powers-that-be, Berg was the more cautious of the two, or at least that's how he is depicted here; The Fifth Estate based on a book co-written by Berg, and adapted by Josh Singer.

Assange is depicted as the 'publish at all costs' firebrand -- no redactions, no edits -- to Berg's more level-headed idealism: anonymity for the pawns -- US soldiers in Middle Eastern operations, for example -- whilst exposing the power players and those issuing the orders.

It's this latter philosophy which is shared by the editors of both The New York Times and the UK's The Guardian (Peter Capaldi and David Thewlis) who WikiLeaks decided to share the Afghanistan war logs with, which when they were released took Assange and co. (which includes portrayals by Carice van Houten and Moritz Bleibtreu) from anarchist website to major thorn in the side of the US government (curiously represented here by Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as bemused and world-weary government agents).

Directed by Bill Condon, The Fifth Estate is a somewhat political thriller although one that does not move at a cracking pace or with any real tension. What it does do is allow two talented thespians -- the seemingly ubiquitous Cumberbatch, seen everywhere of late from TV's Sherlock to the recent Star Trek sequel, Into Darkness; and Bruhl, currently tearing it up as Niki Lauda in Ron Howard's Formula 1 flick, Rush -- the opportunity to flex their character actor muscles.

Even if Cumberbatch's Australian accent isn't perfect, it's by no means distracting. He nails the particular cadence of Assange's speech and the fierceness of a man with a singularity of purpose, one which, according to Berg, became more and more susceptible to ego and paranoia as the website's power grew. But Cumberbatch's Assange remains an enigma, allowing the audience to project hero or villain status onto him as their political leanings see fit.

And in a 180 degree shift from his performance in Rush, Bruhl delivers a convincing if not entirely sympathetic portrayal (though that's what the filmmakers are going for) of an idealist whose crusade for truth and justice is hamstrung by his refusal to accept collateral damage as its by-product. Given the source material, you have to take the depiction of Berg with a handful of salt but that doesn't detract from Bruhl's fierce yet understated turn.

Most people will come to The Fifth Estate (if they come at all; American audiences certainly didn't) with their opinion of Assange and WikiLeaks already decided; Condon's film serving to confirm that opinion rather than offering anything particularly revelatory or insightful. But watched in tandem with Gibney's We Steal Secrets, you get some sense of the man and, more importantly, what he's fighting for. The message is important even if it becomes lost in this medium.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

FILM REVIEW: ENOUGH SAID



20th Century Fox Films

Now Showing

Contrary to the popular maxim, some things don't get easier with age. Like dating, specially if you've been out of the game for 20 years, married and raising a child. Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), divorced and about to send her only child off to college, is a little rusty in the art of romance but in writer-director Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said, she receives a bitter-sweet reintroduction to the wonderful yet fraught world of falling love second time around.

Eva, a massage therapist with a small but loyal clientele, hasn't really put herself out there following her divorce, preferring to focus her attentions on her daughter, Ellen (Tracey Fairaway). But with Ellen's departure for college imminent, it's time this mummy got a life; if not a man at least some new friends.

And while at a party with her married friends, Sarah (Toni Collette) and Will (Ben Falcone), Eva achieves both: making conversation with Marianne (Holofcener regular, Catherine Keener), a poet ("oh, you're serious?") who's also in need of a masseuse, and meeting-cute with Albert (James Gandolfini). Actually, the meet isn't all that cute with both having declared they find no-one at the party attractive. Still, a dinner date is arranged (what the hell?) and so begins one of 2013's warmest movie romances.

Not exactly Beauty and the Beast, Eva is dwarfed by the plus-size Albert. But for all his height and girth, beard and growl-like voice (he's incapable of whispering), Gandolfini (in one of his very last screen performances) makes for a gentle giant; a gentleman who wears his heart on his sleeve, whether asking permission for a second date kiss or confessing, however corny, to a broken heart.

And Louis-Dreyfus is equally as wonderful. With a smile that borders on a grimace and a laugh that's not afraid to be loud, Eva is every bit a real middle-aged woman, someone you see all too rarely in film. As much as she wants to be loved, she's no school girl; not prepared to jump in without testing the waters first and always on the look out, if not for the exit sign than for the lifeguard.

And that exit sign may very well be Marianne. It turns out she is Albert's ex-wife, and Eva's new beau is the man she's been hearing nothing but bad reports of every time she visits Marianne for a massage or catch-up. Eva soon puts two-and-two together but she's not so quick to terminate her new client-friendship, even as the litany of Albert's faults, according to Marianne, slowly and not-so subtly begins to poison Eva's relationship with him.

But although constructed on a rom-com conceit, Holofcener is too smart to subscribe to cliche with Enough Said. The laughs aren't forced and they come with the pang of truth. We genuinely care about these two people, thanks in no small part to the wonderfully charming but rough-edged performances of Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini.

And the emotional stakes are high, for them and the audience. We want them to be happy and to be together but unlike your typical rom-com, the ending is not a foregone conclusion.

It may be considered a disservice to label Enough Said a rom-com but that's what it is albeit one for grown-ups, those who know Prince Charming doesn't always come in the perfect package and that happily ever afters are never guaranteed in the real world.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

FILM REVIEW: FRUITVALE STATION



Roadshow Films

Now Showing

Anyone who thought the election of a black president would be a cure-all for America's racial issues had high hopes and a small grasp of reality; 200 years of racial inequality was never going to be healed in one term (or two) let alone overnight. Less than two months after the 2008 election of Barack Obama, and just weeks before his 2009 inauguration, Oscar Grant III was shot and killed by Bay Area transit police.

The death of the 22-year-old -- a father, son, and partner -- could easily be dismissed as 'wrong place, wrong time' but it was quite clearly the direct result of racial profiling: an incident on a train; a black man (Grant) described as a suspect; and white officers with itchy trigger fingers.

But writer-director Ryan Coogler's debut feature isn't about this miscarriage of justice or the subsequent outrage (though it will enrage you); Fruitvale Station is a 'life in the day of' film where that life, tragically cut short, is made even more meaningful by the hope and promise exhibited.

A young man with an ex-con past, Oscar Grant has decided it's high time he straightened up and flew right; if not for himself than for his partner, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and their four-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). And also for his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), the woman who raised him and whose tough love you suspect got him as far as 22.

New Year's Eve also happens to be Wanda's birthday, and before heading into the city that night to ring the New Year in, Oscar spends his day running errands for his mother in preparation for her celebratory dinner whilst also trying to convince his ex-employer to give him back his supermarket job (which Sophina and Wanda don't know he has lost).

Over the course of the day, Oscar crosses paths with friends and acquaintances, his old life and his new, as he contemplates his past and the direction his future should take. The film's strongest scenes are those depicting Oscar with his loved ones: playing with his daughter; bedroom confessionals with Sophina; the birthday dinner for Wanda where an unforced warmth exudes from the screen.

Some reviews have suggested that the portrayal of Oscar Grant is rather too beatific; that he's depicted as too much of a saint while his criminal past is glossed over. But the film flashes back to Oscar's incarceration and his angry young man phase. And in the present, what Coogler and Jordan (in a warm yet guarded performance) have given us is a man struggling to do what's right and best for his family when the temptation to do what is easy -- to fall back in to his drug-peddling ways -- is so strong.

Interestingly, Fruitvale Station is the second film in the space of a week that deals with the issue of race in America. Lee Daniels' The Butler (released here last week) looks at the American Civil Rights movement, from the 1950s through to 2008, coincidentally ending with the election of Barack Obama.

Fruitvale Station (and other real life cases, like that of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager shot and killed by a white man, and which was ludicrously resolved in court earlier this year in the assailant's favour) proves that, as far as America may have come with regards to race, there's still a ways to go.

On a purely artistic level, it's encouraging to see two American films about black people by black filmmakers. That can only be a good thing (the same goes for their release in Australia). And with Steve McQueen's slavery drama, 12 Years A Slave, to come in the next few months, the conversation about race in America -- its past, present and future -- is only going to become louder.

For now though, marvel at Ryan Coogler's impressive debut whilst being saddened and angered by the story it tells and the life lost.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

FILM REVIEW: THE BUTLER



Hopscotch Films

Now Showing

Inspired by the career of a White House attendant, Lee Daniels' The Butler (its full American title following a copyright kerfuffle) charts the history of the American Civil Rights movement, from the 1950's through to the election of President Obama in 2008, in tandem with the life and career of the titular manservant, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker).

From Cecil's childhood on a Southern cotton plantation in the 1920s -- where a sympathetic but no less bigoted Mistress (Vanessa Redgrave) instructs the young Cecil on being the perfect houseboy -- through his 40-odd years as a butler at the White House -- serving eight presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton -- The Butler, penned by Danny Strong, examines the political and the personal struggles for racial equality in the United States.

Privy to the movement's, and America's big moments -- segregation in Little Rock, Arkansas; the Freedom Rides; the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King -- from within the halls of the American seat of power, Cecil is at somewhat of a remove from the bigger picture unfolding across America; his viewpoint filtered through whomever is the current President, who is either mindful of Cecil (James Marsden's John F. Kennedy), or, if not oblivious to his race, than certainly his emotions (Liev Schreiber's Lyndon B. Johnson).

The cameos of noted actors portraying the Presidents -- which also includes Robin Williams (Eisenhower), John Cusack (Nixon) and Alan Rickman (Reagan) -- isn't as distracting as you'd fear. Although little more than extended walk-ons, they aren't amusing for their appearance so much as the often present hypocrisy; their respect for Cecil but their failure to grasp the importance of the Civil Rights movement: Reagan champions Cecil's long-waged campaign of equal pay for the White House's coloured staff even as he steadfastly refuses to oppose the South African government's policy of apartheid.

What Cecil may think about his employers he does not say, perfecting the art of the butler who should make the room appear as though he is not in it. And Whitaker, an actor with distinct facial features and a whispery voice, is perfect at portraying a man so accustomed to not being observed or questioned.

But when Cecil is at home, he's forced to engage. Not just by his colourful wife, Gloria (a fine Oprah Winfrey), but by his impassioned eldest son, Louis (David Oleyowo). Louis, unlike his father, knows what's happening in the real world; he senses the winds of change. When he leaves for university (in the South, no less), he pursues his political leanings (and fellow activist, Carol (Yaya Alafia)), much to the chagrin of his parents.

Louis's arc -- the Freedom rides, a disciple of Dr. King, a flirtation with the Black Panthers -- charts the Civil Rights movement from within, exposing the overt racism at America's heart, and the bravery of those involved in confronting and overcoming it.

It's in these moments -- in the Gaines household with Cecil and Gloria; in the instances where father and son clash over ideology -- the quiet and personal ones, where Daniels' film excels. While the larger construct of of the film, the broad strokes of history, may not always be convincing, the emotional beat of The Butler comes through.

FILM REVIEW: THOR: THE DARK WORLD



Walt Disney Studios Films

Now Showing

A Norse god from an alien world, fighting side by side with humans and super humans? It really shouldn't work and yet the character of Thor -- a Marvel Comics creation and a member of said super human team, The Avengers -- isn't as incongruous as you'd think. And in the guise of Chris Hemsworth, he's an even easier anomaly to swallow.

The Dark World is Hemsworth's third outing as the hammer-wielding God of Thunder (after 2011's Thor and 2012's The Avengers), and the finely chiselled, blonde-mane man mountain seems to be the most at ease he's been with this character yet. It helps that he has Tom Hiddleston, also back for the third time as Thor's adopted evil brother, Loki, as his sparring partner; the latter playing the salty yin to Hemworth's (rock) solid yang.

The two are forced to bury the hatchet and work together this time to defeat Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), a Dark Elf whose previous attempt to submerge the universe in darkness by use of an energy force known as the Aether, was thwarted by Thor's grandfather. And while Malekith escaped, the Aether was hidden somewhere within the Nine Realms (of which Earth, and Thor's home world, Asgard, belong).

But when astrophysicist, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, reduced to a mere damsel in distress this time round), who also happens to be Thor's long distance love interest, discovers the Aether in London, unwittingly becoming a vessel for the energy force, Malekith is awakened from his suspended animation and sets about resuming his evil plan where he left off, forcing Thor to spirit Jane away to Asgard and to ultimately turn to his brother for help.

Alan Taylor, best known as a director on hit television series Game of Thrones -- and no doubt chosen to helm this sequel (when original choice, Patty Jenkins, departed due to creative differences) because of the tenuous connection between the two properties' sword and sandal fantasy elements -- keeps everything moving (after a slow start) without ever distinguishing himself; The Dark World doesn't have the Shakespearean overtones which Kenneth Branagh brought to the first film, even when most of the action occurs on Asgard and in the House of Odin.

But it does have that same sense of fun which prevents The Dark World from becoming a good versus evil, the world-on-the-edge-of-total-annihilation CGI-driven bore. For all the Asgardian world building in this second outing, it's the human touch which keeps the audience engaged in Thor's second solo outing; Kat Dennings as Darcy Lewis, Jane's spunky intern, and Stellan Skarsgard as fellow astrophysicist, Eric Selvig, whose had his marbles scrambled following a previous encounter with Loki, providing much of the film's humour, as does Hiddleston.

The end credits* promise us Thor will be back, and why wouldn't he? Marvel and Disney have made a motza from the Avengers franchise, with the last two films alone (The Avengers, and this year's Iron Man 3), each grossing north of $1 billion at the box office. I doubt The Dark World will do the same kind of business (The Avengers was an "event" film, and Hemsworth is no Robert Downey Jr.) but it's an entertaining enough adventure that should sate the fan boys until Captain America returns in April 2014.

*Note: Do stay through the end credits for not one but two clips. Don't see the film in 3D; the format adds nothing to the viewing experience.

Monday, 21 October 2013

FILM REVIEW: CAPTAIN PHILLIPS



Sony Pictures

Now Showing

Greengrass' United 93 was my favourite film of 2006. The docudrama-like retelling of doomed United Airways Flight 93 on that fateful day in September, 2001 bristled with drama and emotion without ever being sensationalist or cloying. It was a thriller that never lost sight of the human bravery and tragedy it was portraying.

And although we knew the outcome, such was the skill of the direction, coupled with the no-name cast (and one's own subconscious Hollywood indoctrination: all endings are happy, yes?) that we thought the passengers might make it after all -- even when viewing it a second or third time.

Captain Phillips is also based on actual events: the hijacking by Somali pirates of an American cargo ship; the first US ship to be taken by pirates in some 200 years. And like United 93, while less infamous and far less tragic, the outcome is also known (although if you know nothing of the events aboard the Maersk Alabama, you're sure to find Captain Phillips far more nail-biting).

And like United 93, Greengrass brings his docudrama aesthetic -- not to mention his Bourne-style flourishes -- to this high seas drama; first putting the audience on board the Alabama when it is seized by just four gun-wielding Somalis, and then at sea when said pirates and the titular Captain (Tom Hanks) head for the Somali coast in the claustrophobic confines of a life pod, pursued by American naval ships.

Adapted by Billy Ray from Richard Phillips' book, A Captain's Duty: Somalis Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea, detailing the events, Greengrass' film works as both a thriller and a commentary on the explosive meeting of the First and Third Worlds; Phillips and the pirates functioning as symbols as much as anything else (there's little in the way of back story for either Phillips -- a clunky opening scene let's us know he has a wife (a pointlessly cast Catherine Keener) and kids -- or the hijackers).

Still, Hanks is ideal for the role of Phillips. His 'every man' qualities making the captain empathetic and believable. And it's a solid turn by the actor (even with his inconsistent Boston accent) as Phillips keeps his wits about him in the face of danger and sacrificing himself for his crew.

Feature film debutant, Barkhad Abdi, also manages to register as Muse, the leader of the four pirates who is determined to make the Alabama his big ticket. There is hunger in this man's eyes, both figurative and literal, and either a captain's ransom or a one-way ticket to America will sate that desire.

Captain Phillips doesn't come close to United 93 in eliciting emotion or for producing suspense, nor is it equal to that film generally. But Greengrass continues to excel as a director who effectively marries Hollywood sensibilities with political narratives: producing thrillers for adults and exercising the mind as he quickens the pulse.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

FILM REVIEW: PRISONERS



Roadshow Films

Now Showing

If evil triumphs when good people do nothing, how minor - or large - is the victory when good people choose do evil things in an attempt to achieve good? That's the troubling question at the heart of Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's first English-language film, Prisoners, a thriller and police procedural which may have you questioning your own ethics as it implicates you in its lead character's extreme decisions.

That's Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a building contractor and a man's man; the kind of guy who teaches his adolescent son to shoot deer and instructs him to be prepared for anything (Keller's basement filled with enough food, water and fuel supplies to last several months should the need arise).

And when Keller's young daughter goes missing, along with her best friend and daughter of the Kellers' (wife Grace, played by Maria Bello) friends and neighbours, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), he's prepared to do what it takes to find his little girl. If that means taking the law -- and the police's number one suspect -- into his own hands, than so be it.

Alex Jones (an excellent Paul Dano) is a bespectacled young man with the IQ of a 10-year-old and creepily, whispery voice that recalls a Michael Jackson parody. Jones, who lives with is widowed aunt (Melissa Leo), also drives an RV like the one the girls were earlier seen playing on (and which the audience witnessed circling the neighbourhood like a shark looking for prey), and this, his mental state and a scene involving animal cruelty leaves Keller (and us) in no doubt that Jones abducted the girls. And if the police, headed up by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), can't get him to talk, Keller will.

Jones becomes the prisoner (or one of them) of the title; held in an abandoned apartment belonging to Keller where he, and, reluctantly, Franklin, beat and torture the suspect in the hopes that he'll eventually cave in. And Villeneuve makes us both witness and party to this torture, asking us whether we, even if we believe Jones to be guilty, would go to such lengths and such brutality to ensure the safe return of a loved one. Is Keller doing what any one of us would do? Or has he gone too far?

I'm on the record as not being a fan of Hugh Jackman so it should probably be taken with a grain of salt when I suggest that his performance in Prisoners is arguably his best to date (even the role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, which earned Jackman his first Oscar nomination, failed to impress). The closest he's come to playing a hard man is as Wolverine, but the tough guy antics Jackman's called on to perform here are not of the comic book variety; they're more real and human, and it's only when his emotions become OTT that he is less convincing.

Gyllenhaal is excellent, too. The role of Detective Loki doesn't provide much in the way of back story or psychology but then again, a detective who has 100 per cent success rate when it comes to solving cases probably doesn't have much time for a personal life: the case unfolds over a matter of days and we only ever see Loki on the job; the only time he gets to emote or unload emotionally is on his Chief or his work desk.

There's the suggestion of a harsh childhood (perhaps that accounts for the constant blinking?) and perhaps his steely determination in the pursuit of the law is a constant battle to right the wrongs once committed against him? Either way, Gyllenhaal makes him dogged in his pursuit of the perpetrator yet quietly noble in his adherence to the letter of the law. Paul Dano and Melissa Leo also give terrific performances but it's a shame how little Bello, Howard and Davis, all fine actors capable and worthy of more, are utilised.

The world in Prisoners is a grim one, even more so than in Villeneuve's previous film, the Oscar-nominated Incendies. Roger Deakins' cinematography amplifies that grimness, barely letting any light in. A lot of the action occurs during the night while during the day, if it's not snowing it's raining, and sometimes both; rendering the landscape -- both physical and moral -- grey, muted and cold.

This combined with the constant knot in your stomach, which expands and shrinks as the film effectively increases and releases the tension (diminished only slightly in the third act where there is twist upon twist and the pennies begin to drop), does not make for a pleasant viewing experience. But it does make Prisoners an experience worth enduring.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

FILM REVIEW: DIANA



Becker Film Group

Now Showing

Depending on your point of view, sixteen years is either too soon or just long enough for a film to be made about the late Princess of Wales. It's hard to believe that it was August 31, 1997 when Diana, along with then beau, Dodi Fayed, died in a car crash in Paris whilst being pursued by paparazzi.

That event book-ends Oliver Hirschbiegel's biopic-of-sorts (adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from a book by Kate Snell) covering the final two years in the Princess's life. Or to be more exact, her love life. And not with the millionaire playboy, Dodi, son to the Egyptian millionaire and owner of Harrods, Mohamed Al-Fayed, but Diana's on-again, off-again romance with Pakistani-born heart surgeon, Doctor Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews).

In the wake of her separation from Prince Charles and all but ex-communication from the Palace, Diana (Naomi Watts) is a lonely woman; hounded by the media and only seeing her two boys every few weeks. But then she meets the Doctor. The pair's meet-cute taking place in the hospital where Hasnat works: Diana, visiting a friend, is immediately taken with the man and, if we believe what we're shown here, actively pursues him.

Indeed, if this wasn't a film about "the most famous woman in the world" (a line oft repeated in Diana you could use it as the basis for a drinking game) you could be forgiven for thinking that this segment of the film -- where Hasnat sneaks into Diana's palace in the back of her car, and she ventures out in a brunette wig for nights on the town with the Doctor and clandestine visits to his apartment -- was a boy-meets-famous girl rom-com of the Notting Hill ilk (sans intentional laughs, though there are a few unintentional ones).

But a romance between a jazz and hamburger loving heart surgeon and a real life princess cannot be. Hasnat craves his privacy and Diana, whether by design or by choice, cannot be anything other than famous. The arguments between the pair over their two separate, vastly different worlds go round and round, padding out to almost two hours what is already a thinly stretched drama.

It's in the wake of her last break-up with Hasnat that Diana flees the country, accepting in invitation to holiday with Dodi Fayed. And it's in these sequences, where Diana is shown to manipulate the media, and Hirschbiegel recreates the now infamous photos of Diana and Dodi frolicking in their swimwear aboard the millionaire's boat off the Italian coast, that the film suddenly, albeit briefly, develops a pulse (perhaps because we know the end is nigh?).

There are arguably several things wrong with Diana but one has to lay most of the blame at the feet of screenwriter Jeffreys. The dialogue is unforgettable at best, and laughably bad at worst. Understandably all conversations between Diana and Hasnat are speculative but one wonders what may have been had a writer of the calibre of Peter Morgan, who famously penned The Queen (2006), been entrusted to breathe life into both the story and the characters.

As always, Naomi Watts is solid in the titular role but you need more than a passing resemblance to the historical figure you're portraying to make that person 'real'. It doesn't help that Princess Diana is so fixed in most people's minds that, even if she had donned prosthetics, Watts would be still be pushing a large rock up a very steep hill.

In that respect, Naveen Andrews has the easier task; playing an actual person but one whom few people could actually identify. Andrews manages to make Hasnat Khan both charming and stubborn but he stumbles whenever called upon to quote poetry or the Quran, and comparing life and love to jazz.

For some, particularly the British, it was always going to be 'too soon' for a film about the Princess of Wales and never time at all for a warts-and-all one. Diana isn't hagiography as such but nor does it challenge the memory of woman who still lingers in the public consciousness.

That's probably why a non-British filmmaker was chosen to helm the project. And if German director Hirschbiegel dared to make a film centred on the final days of Adolf Hitler (Downfall, 2004), he probably had even fewer qualms in taking on this challenge.

Still, Hirschbiegel brings little in the way of directorial flare to the telemovie proceedings of Diana, a film that's not as bad as you'd expect it to be but not particularly good either. And whether you're a Brit, a Diana fan or just a curious movie-goer, you -- and, for that matter, the Princess -- deserve better.

Friday, 4 October 2013

FILM REVIEW: GRAVITY



Roadshow/Warner Bros. Films

Now Showing

Alfonso Cuaron's return to filmmaking after a seven-year absence (2006's Children of Men was his last, a film I shamefully admit to not having seen) is proof-positive that the Mexican director wasn't kicking back: Gravity, a disaster thriller set in space, is a feat of technical wonders so precise and exquisite you just know it required maximum thought and planning; achieving the desired result of having you simultaneously asking 'how'd they do that?' as you gasp in awe (and possibly for air).

Opening with an-almost 13-minute take -- a ballet of rotating camera and floating actors, with the Earth as a stunning backdrop -- Cuaron introduces us to the three member team of the Explorer: veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), 2-I-C Shariff (Paul Sharma), and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), medical engineer and space flight first-timer.

Stone is understandably nervous, a condition both helped and hindered by Kowalski's jocular repartee with mission control in Houston (the voice of Ed Harris, a clever if obvious touch). But her fears are soon realised and superseded when Houston announces Russia has just destroyed one of their obsolete satellites and the subsequent debris is headed their way.

What ensues is a series of action set pieces as Stone and Kowalski (and soon - SPOILER - just Stone) battle both debris and rapidly depleting oxygen reserves in a bid for survival. What becomes a relentless fight for life by Stone is an equally relentless ordeal for the audience as Cuaron throws everything at his heroine and the screen (one of the rare times that 3D has been perfectly deployed in a film).

My major quibble ahead of seeing Gravity was the casting of Bullock. A fine comedic actress, her dramatic roles are few and far between and not entirely convincing (you will not persuade me that she deserved to be nominated for an Oscar for The Blind Side, let alone win the Best Actress award in 2009). But she is perfectly fine here, as a woman out of her depth and fighting for survival whilst also haunted by a family tragedy. Bullock does what the screenplay asks of her, but this is not a performance film (nor is the screenplay, co-penned with Cuaron's son, Jonas, the film's strong point).

Gravity is, however, a technical marvel. Cuaron perfectly combining all the filmmaking elements -- cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki), editing (Mark Sanger, along with Cuaron), sound editing, production design (Andy Nicholson), and visual effects -- to produce an almost perfect whole. Even if he doesn't manage to provide quite the emotional connection, or the maximum level of suspense (this reviewer was never on the edge of his seat), the beauty of the imagery Cuaron provides in Gravity is enough to warrant seeing it in a cinema and, yes, in 3D.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

FILM REVIEW: RUSH



Hopscotch Films

Now Showing

Tennis is my sport of choice and it is littered with great rivalries: McEnroe and Borg; Navratilova and Evert; Sampras and Agassi; Federer and Nadal. In most of those instances, the rivalry rarely extended off the court. Whilst happy to beat down on the other during a contest, they were just as likely to be the best of friends afterwards.

Not so James Hunt and Niki Lauda. In Formula 1 racing in the 1970s, there was no greater rivalry than that of Hunt and Lauda: the popular pretty boy Englishman and the super-serious Austrian coming up together through the ranks of the sport, and cultivating a genuine dislike for each other; fuelling their on-track performances and exciting the media and race-going public.

That rivalry came to a head in 1976 when tragedy would befall the defending F1 world champion, Lauda, and Hunt would have to prove that he was more than just a contender. It's this season that is the primary focus of Ron Howard's Rush, a terrifically enjoyable look at the world of F1 even for those who haven't the slightest regard for the sport (or, like me, don't really think it is a sport. Driving cars round and round real fast? Whatever!).

Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) was a man of charm and good looks; a ladies man with a penchant for fun. He also happened to be a very talented driver, albeit one with more ambition than drive. Lauda, on the other hand, was never the life of the party. Taking up the sport despite his wealthy family's protests, he bought his way onto the Ferrari team and immediately set about telling his new employers all that was wrong with their cars.

He was too honest to be popular and too focussed on winning to be interested in chasing women (though he does marry Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), following a proposal as romantic as an oil change). Lauda was dubbed 'The Rat' because of his prominent front teeth but even being compared to a rodent couldn't faze the Austrian; rats, after all, are intelligent and it requires more brain than brawn to win a car race.

Peter Morgan's screenplay divides its time equally between these two men of contrast, managing to make us care for both when the action turns to the track. And Howard literally puts you in the driver's seat: hurtling around race tracks in Monte Carlo and Tokyo, in dry heat and misty rains; where danger or possibly death awaits you at every sharp turn.

I'm not sure how much of these racing scenes involved CGI but they are convincing and thrilling, rev head or not (props to cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, and editors, Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill). And whether or not you question their athleticism, you can't deny these men their courage (or foolhardiness).

As in the 2010 documentary Senna, about the brilliant but brief Formula 1 career of Argentinian driver, Ayrton Senna, who was killed mid-race doing what he loved, Rush never shies away from the reality that death is a F1 driver's constant companion (Hunt believing his proximity to death is part of his appeal to women).

And like that doco, Howard manages to make his film as accessible and thrilling to novice and fan alike. He's helped immensely by his two leads, perfectly cast as evidenced by actual footage of the two racers during the film's closing credits. Hemsworth proving he's more than just beefcake, and Bruhl making what should be a very unlikeable character truly admirable (and pipping his more famous co-star for the chequered flag in the process).

Perhaps there's something about the 1970s which brings out the best in Ron Howard? Apollo 13 (set in 1970) and Frost/Nixon (set in 1977) are arguably the director's best films, and Rush certainly deserves a place on the grid and in the director's Top 5.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

FILM REVIEW: STORIES WE TELL



Palace Films

Now Showing

Family. Everyone's got one and every one of them has skeletons. Just how deeply they're buried, and just how shocking they are when unearthed may vary on the personal reaction Richter scale from 'meh' to 'OH. MY. GOD'.

A paternity scandal may not rank all that highly from an outsider's perspective (certainly not one given to watching daytime television soap operas) but there's no denying that the secret at the heart of the Polley family -- earth shattering on one level -- makes for a fascinating tale and a documentary without a hint of soap.

Sarah Polley, a Canadian actress whom you're more likely to recognise by face than by name -- The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Go (1999), Dawn of the Dead (2004) -- has recently turned her attentions behind the camera as a director (2007's Away From Her which earned two Oscar nominations (Best Actress; Adapted Screenplay), and 2012's Take This Waltz), and, on her third outing, seems to have found the perfect subject.

Taking the adage 'write what you know' to heart, Polley has turned her directorial gaze on herself and her family: a seemingly typical middle class Canadian tribe. The mother, Diane, and father, Michael, hailing from a theatrical background and the siblings -- the eldest two from the mother's first marriage, the younger three from her second -- following less artistic pursuits (bar Sarah).

It's during a brief return to the stage in the late 1970s, out of town and away from her husband and then four children, that Diane is believed to not have only had an affair but conceived a child (Sarah). None of this is revealed to the family, including Michael, until later in life, when Diane has died from cancer and Sarah is an adult and working in Hollywood.

Through interviews with Michael, her siblings, and friends of her mother, and an almost seamless blend of recreations and actual home footage, Polley sifts through the haze of memory, real and fictional, to get to some kind of truth. For Stories We Tell is as much about memory and myth-making as it is secrets and lies, and Polley's softly-softly approach is never less than fascinating, always engaging and surprisingly affecting.

And although turning the camera on herself, Stories We Tell is by no means a Sarah Polley vanity piece; it's not about her 'celebrity', it's not even really about her reaction to the discoveries she makes even though that would have been completely understandable. It's about the family, and the Polley family could be anyone's, making Stories We Tell universal but no less intimate.

Friday, 13 September 2013

FILM REVIEW: MOOD INDIGO



Vendetta Films

Now Showing

French filmmaker Michel Gondry's latest film, Mood Indigo, screened earlier this year at the Sydney Film Festival in an incarnation clocking in at 130 minutes. Somewhere between those June screenings and its Australian release this week, it was decided the film's running time should be reduced*.

And while I don't know what plotting and characters my have been cut from the film along with those 36 minutes, my first thought upon leaving the cinema (actually, during the film) was "thank god it's only 94 minutes!"

Based on a 1947 cult novel (L'Écume des Jours, then given the English title, Froth On A Daydream) by Boris Vian (and adapted here by Gondry), Mood Indigo is essentially the tale of ill-fated love between Colin (Romain Duris), an independently wealthy man, and Chloe (Audrey Tautou).

The two enjoy a whirlwind courtship before marrying, and it's whilst on their countryside honeymoon that Chloe is infected: a water lily takes root in her lung (although I thought it was a snowflake and that Chloe would turn cold toward her doting husband as a result). There is no cure -- Chloe will die -- but her death can be delayed by the medicinal use of other flowers.

Chloe's mounting medical (and florist) bills force the now melancholic Colin to do something he's never done before: seek employment, which he does in a factory where, if my understanding is correct, laser guns are forged from mounds of dirt through the heat generated by naked men laid atop them (?).

You can understand how Michel Gondry must have been drawn to the quirk and whimsy of the original story, and the opportunity it affords him to deploy his playful visual style. Colin lives in what looks like a disused cable car and his home boasts several inventions (a pianocktail; arachnid doorbells), as well as a pet mouse and a laconic ladies man and lawyer-turned-chef, Nicolas (The Intouchables' Omar Sy).

But there seems to be too much quirk, whimsy and style in Mood Indigo and not nearly enough heart. Doomed love is only affecting if we're invested in the lovers, but as pretty a couple as Duris and Tautou make, I couldn't care less about the fates of Colin and Chloe.

If I wanted to be literal -- and unkind -- I could suggest that the take away from Mood Indigo is that love will bleed you dry, emotionally and financially. I'm sure that's not the point of Gondry's film, nor of the two previous film adaptations (one French, one Japanese) -- or the opera -- all inspired by Vian's novel.

But for a more rewarding Gondry film about love's labours won and lost, I'd recommend revisiting Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004); a bitter sweet love story whose protagonists we care deeply about.

*This shorter version of the film will be releasing in all international territories outside of France, where the film has already opened.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

FILM REVIEW: BLUE JASMINE



Hopscotch Films

Now Showing

Jasmine is feeling blue. Actually, she's a wreck. The New York high society wife (brought fully, and at times painfully to life by Cate Blanchett) has had her ivory tower and social status repossessed following her husband's imprisonment for illegal Wall Street wheelings and dealings, forcing her to flee west to San Francisco and the far more "homey" home of her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins).

Woody Allen's latest comedy (perhaps "dramedy" is more exact; it's not all laughs and even those there are skew dark) sees the veteran auteur return Stateside from another brief European sojourn (which produced the wonderful Midnight In Paris (2010) and the hit-and-miss To Rome With Love (2011)) to tell this tale of one woman's social and psychological undoing.

Blue Jasmine is as much about the global financial crisis as it is a reworking of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, and Blanchett's Jasmine (re: Blanche) is very much the centre of attention. A pill-popping, vodka-swilling ball of nerves, Jasmine clings desperately to the veneer of her New York sophistication even as she talks to herself, often in public, and lashes out at anyone who attempts to help or confront her.

It's a terrific character (whatever his faults, Woody gives good woman) and an equally terrific performance by Blanchett. The actress gets under Jasmine's Stoli-soaked skin, fully inhabiting this tragic yet abrasive heroine so much so that's is as painful to watch as it is enjoyable to behold. Even Brando's Stanley Kowalski would have been powerless in her presence (although Bobby Cannavale and Andrew Dice Clay, as Ginger's boyfriend and ex-husband, respectively, dare to brave the storm head-on.).

Indeed, if there's a complaint to be made against the film -- and, sacrilege, Blanchett -- it's that no other character registers as strongly. Hawkins' put upon sister (both were adopted from different families, hence the lack of familial resemblance) makes the most of her screen time but Alec Baldwin, as the wrongdoing husband, and Michael Stuhlbarg and Peter Sarsgaard, the strangers whose kindness Jasmine may or may not rely upon, are given little to work with.

Blue Jasmine is all about Cate Blanchett; playing a 1 per cent-er fallen on hard times, she gives it 110 per cent.

Monday, 9 September 2013

MOVIE TICKET GIVEAWAY: I'M SO EXCITED!



Legendary Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar (All About My Mother, Volver, Talk To Her) is back with a kitsch and outrageously funny comedy set mostly on a plane.

The comedy follows a mixed group of travellers who find themselves in a life-threatening situation on board a plane flying to Mexico City. Their defencelessness in the face of danger provokes colourful confessionals that become the best way to escape from the idea of death.

Thanks to Transmission Films, we have 5 double passes to I'm So Excited! to give away. Keep an eye on our Twitter feed (@TheLennoXFiles) for your chance to win. Note: tix valid in Australia only.

I'm So Excited! is in cinemas September 19.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

MOVIE TICKET GIVEAWAY: PARANOIA



This high stakes thriller goes deep behind the scenes of global success to a deadly world of greed and deception. The two most powerful media billionaires in the world, played by HARRISON FORD and GARY OLDMAN, are bitter rivals who will stop at nothing to destroy each other. A young intern, Adam Cassidy, LIAM HEMSWORTH, is seduced by unlimited wealth and power, and becomes trapped in their twisting life-and-death game of corporate espionage.

Thanks to Icon Films, we have 5 double passes to Paranoia to be won. Keep an eye on our Twitter feed (@TheLennoXFiles) for your chance to wim. Note: Tickets valid in Australian only.

Only at the movies September 5.

Monday, 19 August 2013

YOU'RE NEXT: MOVIE TICKET GIVEAWAY



One of the smartest and most terrifying films in years, YOU’RE NEXT puts a fresh twist on the home-invasion horror. The Davison family who, while gathered at their secluded vacation home for a family reunion, find themselves the target of some creative and chillingly cruel killers.

Trapped and isolated, they must fight off a barrage of arrows, axes and machetes from both inside and outside the house as the masked killers work their way through the family members one by one. The hapless victims seem trapped... until an unlikely guest of the family proves to be the most talented killer of all.

Thanks to Icon Film Distribution, we have 5 double passes to YOU'RE NEXT to be won. Keep any eye out on our Twitter feed (@TheLennoXFiles) for your chance to go in the draw. Note: Only open to Australian residents.

Only at the movies August 29.

Monday, 5 August 2013

FILM REVIEW: NOW YOU SEE ME



Hopscotch Films

Now Showing

The trick to enjoying a good piece of magic is not to get too concerned with the hows and whys. Step right up, suspend your disbelief and enjoy the show. The same principle applies to Now You See Me, a caper film of sorts about a band of magicians and modern day Robin Hoods, which is far more entertaining the less you think about it.

That isn't to say the film, directed by Louis Leterrier, and penned by a group of writers (most notably writer-director, Boaz Yakin), is stupid. There's some smarts among the razzle dazzle as our heroes, The Four Horsemen -- Jesse Eisneberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco -- lead the Feds (headed by Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol (Melanie Laurent) on a merry chase from Vegas to New Orleans and then New York.

But if you start to mull things over whilst catching your breath between set pieces, you might just begin to pick at the not-too-tiny holes in the film's own internal logic.

The four magicians -- J. Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), Henley Reeves (Fisher), Merritt McKinney (Harrelson) and Jack Wilder (Franco) -- are brought together by an anonymous mentor-benefactor, and 12 months later they are the biggest magic act in the country and under the management of millionaire, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine). It's when they appear to rob $3 million from a bank vault in Paris during a Vegas performance that the interest of both the FBI and Interpol is piqued.

Intrigued, too, is Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a famed magic debunker who's happy to lend his behind-the-curtain expertise to the no-time-for-magic Agent Rhodes (Ruffalo), and the more open-minded Agent Dray (Laurent), even if he is equally as perplexed as to how The Four Horsemen are doing that voodoo that they do so well.

Wisely, Leterrier, no stranger to action (having directed The Incredible Hulk (2008) and Transporter 2 (2005)), keeps things moving at a cracking pace; the highpoint being an impressive car chase on a New York bridge. Throw in some hokum about a secret magician's order known as The Eye, the legacy of a dead magician drowned in the East River during an escape gone wrong, and some red herrings as suspicion falls on almost everyone as the person pulling the strings, and the Frenchman himself becomes a master of what Thaddeus would call misdirection.

And when the film isn't busy in pursuit of the elusive illusionists, it chooses to focus on the relationship between Rhodes and Dray. Ruffalo and Laurent have warm chemistry and even if they, like the rest of the high calibre cast, aren't stretched, they're always engaged and engaging.

That's even as the third act becomes bogged down in exposition and one too many reveals. But so long as all the juggler's balls remain in the air, and the camera keeps zigging and zagging, the entertaining Now You See Me pulls off the illusion of having you think it is better than it probably is.

Still, I'd prefer to have fun in a two-hour movie than actively knowing that I'm not (i.e. Pacific Rim), even if the thrills dissolve like so much smoke from dry ice once the house lights go up and logic comes rushing back in.