Friday, 29 November 2013


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.