Wednesday, 31 December 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE IMITATION GAME



Roadshow Films

Set during World War II, Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game could just have easily have been made in 1940s Britain. With its humour in the face of adversity, good old chaps and stiff upper lip-ness, it's not so much a period drama as an anachronism.

Of course, the word homosexual would not have even been uttered in a 1940s film let alone repeated as often as it is here. For Alan Turing was a homosexual, but that's rather by-the-by in The Imitation Game which is more concerned with how Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), an odd duck mathematical genius, along with some fellow eggheads, cracked the German's Enigma code and helped end the war.

Most of the drama in The Imitation Game takes place at Bletchley Park, the top secret military base where Britain's brightest have been gathered to intercept and decode German intel, but it is framed by the story of Turing's life before and after the war: firstly at middle school where his peculiar ways already had him targeted by bullies but befriended by a sympathetic peer, Christopher; and after, in 1954, where a police investigation into a robbery at Turing's home -- the bobby suspects him as a Soviet spy -- uncovers his sexual leanings (homosexuality being a criminal offence in 1950s England).

But The Imitation Game has no time for sex, homo or otherwise: there's a war to be won; focussing its attentions on the team in Turing's so-called Hut 8 -- his fellow code-crackers played by Matthew Goode, Allen Leech and Matthew Beard -- and his efforts to build a machine that will crack the German's code, one which is re-set each day at midnight.

It's in these moments the film builds some tension but overall, The Imitation Game is a perfectly average film. And that's somewhat of a surprise, not just because of the hype and awards love preceding its release (which, granted, is no testament to a film's quality) but also because director Tyldum's previous film, Headhunters (2011), was a bat shit crazy heist-gone-wrong thriller which was anything but average.

But whether playing it safe with an English language film, a bigger budget, or merely hemmed in by Graham Moore's screenplay (adapted from Andrew Hodges's book), Tyldum keeps everything moving along smoothly without any directorial distinction at all.

Not surprisingly performances are uniformly good, including those of Mark Strong and Charles Dance as impressed and infuriated Bletchley authority figures, respectively. Fine, too, is Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, who, for a brief time, was engaged to Turing but more importantly, was one of the women who played a key role in those events at Bletchley Park (though the film would have us believe Clarke was little more than a fag hag with a knack for crossword puzzles).

The film's coda reveals what happened to Turing after his arrest but does so over a celebratory scene of he and his fellow code-crackers rejoicing in their success. Sure a gay man who helped end the war two years earlier than anticipated, saving countless thousands of lives in the process, was harshly treated by his own government because of his sexuality and killed himself as a result, but hey, we won the war.

Besides, the Queen eventually pardoned the guy (in December 2013, thank you very much), and we now get to enjoy computers thanks to Turing's brilliance. Good one, Alan!

Thursday, 11 December 2014

FILM REVIEW: PADDINGTON



Studio Canal

The last time big money was spent updating an iconic bear for the big screen and a younger generation we got Yogi Bear (2010). That loud and unfunny film's saving grace was its pro-environment message (and its Kevin Rudd-esque villain), but just what longtime fans of the mischievous bear with a penchant for pic-a-nic baskets made of it -- not to mention the Hanna-Barbera estate -- who's to say?

So it's completely understandable that fans of author Michael Bond's creation, Paddington Bear -- debuting in print in 1958, and appearing in a mixed animation TV series in 1975 -- would be wary of a big screen adaptation of the Peruvian-born Anglophile with an alarming marmalade habit. The good news is that Paddington is a fun, sweet family film which is at once modern yet faithful to its source materials.

With a swift and witty prologue explaining how Peruvian bears could come to speak the Queen's English and long to travel to London, it's not long before a young bear, spurred on by tragedy, finds himself stowed away on a freighter ship headed for the United Kingdom.

Under the illusion that the Brits are a welcoming people and finding a home will be a simple as being offered to come live with a local family, the bear (voiced wonderfully by Ben Whishaw) soon realises that the knowledge that he, his aunt (Imelda Staunton) and late uncle (Michael Gambon) had of ol' Blighty (passed on by an intrepid explorer) may be somewhat out-of-date (well, except for the weather: that's a constant).

But the bear is taken in by the Brown family -- a whimsical children's author mother (Sally Hawkins), po-faced insurance analyst dad (Hugh Bonneville), pre-teen son, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), adolescent daughter, Lucy (Madeleine Harris), and housekeeper, Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters) -- and christened Paddington (his name as spoken in native bear being not-so easy to pronounce). Cue calamity after calamity -- for Paddington is an accident-prone bear -- and danger.

That danger comes in the form of Millicent Clyde (Nicole Kidman), a taxidermist with the British Museum who sets her sights on the Peruvian immigrant with the aim of adding him to her no-longer-living collection. Nowhere near as camp as Glenn Close's Cruella De Vil (from 1996's 101 Dalmations), Kidman makes for a rather chilling villain; her blonde bob and ice-water veins lightened somewhat by her interaction with Peter Capaldi's Mr. Curry; a curmudgeonly neighbour to the Browns who becomes smitten with the psychopathic stuffer.

It is the film's sense of humour, British but no less universal, which is one of the delights of Paddington. Amusing sight gags and enthralling action set pieces also help. And with the producers of Harry Potter behind it, and directed by Paul King (responsible for TV comedy The Mighty Boosh, and Bunny and the Bull (2009)), Bond's creation arrives on the big screen in safe yet irreverent hands; Paddington emerging in 2014, alive and free of mothballs.

And although rendered in CGI (the mix of live-action and animation a nod to the 1975 TV series, perhaps?), Paddington is a completely believable character. That's thanks in no small part to the voice work of Whishaw who makes the bear both a wide-eyed innocent yet someone who learns rather quickly just how the (Western) world works, and suggesting in his own quiet way how it should: Paddington's ethos of 'be adventurous but be polite' should endear him to a whole new audience.

Kids of all ages will eat this film up like so many marmalade sandwiches.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

FILM REVIEW: EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS



20th Century Fox Films

You don't have to be a devout Christian to know the story of Moses, it's as old as, well, the Bible. Anyone who attended Sunday school or has had a passing glance at 'the good book' knows the basics of how it all went down in ancient Egypt, 1300 BCE or thereabouts.

Born a Hebrew but abandoned in a weave basket to the River Nile following a pharaoh's decree that all first born Hebrew boys be slaughtered, Moses was adopted by the pharaoh's court and raised as the future ruler's cousin. But when his ancestry was revealed, he was cast out and so began his odyssey which, with a little help from a higher power, saw him return to the city of Memphis to free the Israelites after 400 years of slavery.

Of course, there's the more visceral elements of the Old Testament story -- the Nile awash with blood, plagues of toads and locusts, and the parting of the Red Sea -- which enthrall young Sunday schoolers and no doubt piqued director Ridley Scott's interest (along with his team of CGI artists), and justified his decision to present the film in 3D.

The recreation of ancient Egypt, like those of Rome in Gladiator (2000), were perhaps also enticing; familiar historical ground for Scott to find his footing after the less-than-stellar modern and future-set outings, The Counselor (2013) and Prometheus (2012).

And there's no denying that the broad strokes and majesty of Exodus: Gods and Kings is impressive (kudos to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski). But where the film falters is in its smaller, human moments; whether that be the racially insensitive casting (yes, it matters), or the subsequent under-utilization of said cast (Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul have thankless roles; and the less said about Ben Mendelsohn's 'Carry On' viceroy the better).

There's also the failure to muster much empathy for either main protagonist. Both Christian Bale, as Moses, and Joel Edgerton, as Rhamses, give solid performances but we don't much care about the man who may or may not be speaking to God (who appears to the non-believer in the guise of petulant 10-year-old boy), nor the somewhat conflicted pharaoh who builds his empire on a foundation of brutal slavery.

That said, Bale's hero is far more agreeable than was Russell Crowe's maniacal titular Noah in the other Biblical epic of 2014, directed by Darren Aronofsky. And Scott's film, for all its modern wizardry is far more traditional and classic; hewing more closely to the Biblical epic template of old Hollywood and to its source material (there are no rock Transformers to be found in ancient Egypt).

But at 150-minutes, Scott and his (four-man) writing team take far too long to tell this familiar tale; intermittently impressing but perhaps ultimately converting very few.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

FILM REVIEWS: MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN / NIGHTCRAWLER



Two very different films about the evils of two forms of media, new and old, Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children, and Dan Gilroy's Nigthcrawler, examine the relationships between the medium and the audience and discover a similar root cause: people.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN (Paramount Pictures), adapted by Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson from the book by Chad Kultgen, is a multi-narrative, multi-character study of the internet and its impact on human relationships among a group of white, middle class Texans.

There's the decline of sexual interest between a married couple (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) leading to adultery; meanwhile their 15-year-old son (Travis Tope) has become addicted to online porn. Then there's the father and son (Dean Norris and Ansel Elgort) coping with the hole left by the departure of wife and mother; the son quitting the football team and finding solace in the online gaming community). That same boy has also begun a fledgling romance with a girl (Kaitlyn Dever) whose mother (Jennifer Garner) tracks her every online movement, privacy be damned.

There's also another mother (Judy Greer) who is pimping her teen daughter (Olivia Crocicchia) through a private website in pursuit of her daughter's stardom. It's not pornographic, but one man's swimsuit catalogue is another's j.o. material, and, as mother and daughter soon find, once it's online there's no controlling it or how it is received.

Each of these stories asks -- without necessarily accusing -- if the internet is responsible for these issues or merely exacerbates them. Perhaps it's Reitman's refusal to make a declarative statement one way or the other, the film's much too earnest and not nearly light enough approach (save for Emma Thompson's anthropological voice-over narration), or simply the fact that a film about people on computers, tablets, and smartphones hardly makes for gripping viewing which renders Men, Women & Children only fitfully engaging.

Some stories and characters are more intriguing than others (to wit, more DeWitt!), while the lack of diversity -- apparently only white heterosexuals go online -- is also strikingly odd for a film set very much in the now.

After this film, and the somewhat unfairly maligned Labor Day (2013), Reitman may need to consider re-teaming with writer Diablo Cody, responsible for two of his better films, Juno (2007) and Young Adult (2011), and simply lighten up.




Pitch black but no less enjoyable for that, Dan Gilroy's NIGHTCRAWLER (Madman Films), his feature debut after a successful screenwriting career, looks at the declining standards in television news through the eyes of Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), novice cameraman and veteran sociopath who uncovers the world of freelance crime reporting on the night-time streets of Los Angeles and thinks, why not me?

An opportunist in need of work and hungry to succeed (Gyllanhaal thin and looking in need of a decent meal), Louis takes to his new career with relish, encouraged by the attentions of news producer, Nina Romina (Rene Russo), who senses Louis may not be playing with a full deck of cards but hey, he shoots good shit. And eager to impress -- and make more money selling his footage -- Louis, accompanied by his intern, Rick (Riz Ahmed), goes to greater, riskier and, yes, illegal lengths to get the money shot.

Nightcrawler is entertaining, gripping and not the least bit believable but Gyllenhaal is on fire: at once repellent and magnetic, and creepy as all hell. Louis Bloom has a dark heart and possibly no soul which, in the film's biggest, saddest joke makes him perfect for TV journalism.

Of course, the media has been skewered on film before, and much better than it is here. But then TV has never had a rival such as the internet before; competing for immediacy, authority and, above all, the audience. And as Nina knows and Louis soon learns, no one ever went broke appealing to the lowest common denominator.

Both films, each in their own and less-than-successful ways, seem to suggest that it's not the medium but the messenger and the audience who are at fault for the corrupted signal. Much like politicians and superheroes, we get the media we deserve.

If that's the case, we might want to take the opposite advice of Tim Leary, 1960s counterculture icon, and turn off and tune out. Or at the very least, log-off for an hour or two a day and be a little more judicious with our viewing habits. (Oh, and delete your browser history.)

Thursday, 20 November 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE DARK HORSE



Transmission Films

The opening scene of The Dark Horse is reminiscent of Scott Hicks' 1996 Oscar-winner, Shine: a mentally fragile man wandering the streets mumbling and rambling walks out of the rain and into a store, impressing patrons with his skills. Not on the piano, as was the case in Shine -- where Geoffrey Rush as David Helfgott tickled the ivories and went on to win a statuette -- but on the chessboard.

The man is Genesis (Cliff Curtis) who was once a chess prodigy but whom life has inflicted many a defeat upon; the former champion now man-child is a patient at a mental health facility. But a return to chess will be his redemption, and will also serve to inspire a younger generation in The Dark Horse, which could be dubbed a feel-good film albeit the kind that leaves bruises.

For while writer-director James Napier Robertson's film has plenty of light moments -- provided mostly by the wide-eyed yet troubled kids whom Genesis comes to inspire; coaching them to a national chess tournament -- there's plenty of dark too. Not just Genesis's mental health issues but the fraught relationship with his elder brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapi).

Ariki is the head of a gang which he hopes to see his son, Mana (James Rolleston), initiated into before his ailing health leaves the young boy fatherless. But the same Maori mythology which Genesis uses to inspire his young chess charges has been corrupted into a toxic ethos of machismo by the gang, which provided a family for Ariki when he was himself a boy and left to his own devices after his younger brother's removal into mental care.

But Genesis can see it is not the right path for his bright and inquisitive nephew; Mana already struggling in the early stages of his initiation at the hands of the gang's second-in-command, Mutt (Barry Te Hira). Relations inevitably turn ugly between the brothers in the tug-o-war for Mana's welfare.

You'll no doubt know Curtis from countless Hollywood roles where he usually plays the police officer or bad guy of indeterminate ethnicity but you'll barely recognise the New Zealand actor here. With his shaved scalp and pot belly, the handsome actor has eschewed vanity to portray the troubled hero. And he succeeds, by keeping the physical tics to a minimum but keeping Genesis's bruised yet hopeful heart on permanent display.

And the film's heart is on display too, even as the story becomes as muddled as Genesis in the third act, where the various dramas -- the chess tournament, Mana's future, Genesis's health -- compete for your attention and emotions. Robertson's moves may not always be judicious but the result, while no check mate, is a sweet victory all the same.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

FILM REVIEW: MAPS TO THE STARS



eOne Films

Although billed as a satire of Hollywood, David Cronenberg's latest film mostly uses that setting -- with its superficial, self-involved people and self-made heroes and charlatans -- to examine the empty and dysfunctional lives of some of those who call L.A. home: picking at the scars of their familial bonds and inherent psychosis for comic and dramatic effect with mixed results.

Agatha's scars are on show for the world to see. Newly-arrived from Florida, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) was disfigured by burns suffered in a house fire in her youth. She wears long, black gloves in the L.A. sun to hide most of the wounds but they are visible on her neck. And only less visible, just beneath her wide-eyed facade -- she's Twitter friend's with Carrie Fisher! -- are the mental and emotional wounds which she's come to Hollywood to heal.

Agatha's famous connection lands her a job as the chore-whore for Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an actress whose phone rings less and less now that she's reached middle age. Havana has her sights set on playing the role made famous by her infamous mother, who died young and beautiful (and in a fire no less), and who has begun haunting Havana as a result of some deep therapy sessions.

Those sessions are with Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a successful self-help guru with a high-powered clientele, and a wife, Christina (Olivia Williams), who plays stage mum to their teenage son, Benjie (Evan Bird). Benjie is also seeing ghosts, partly because his success as a child star has lost some of its gloss following the onset of puberty and a stint in rehab for substance abuse.

And there's also Jerome (Robert Pattinson), a struggling actor-writer who pays the bills driving a limo. But one suspcets Pattinson's role in Maps To The Stars has been included merely as a none-too-subtle reference to his previous collaboration with Cronenberg, where he played a Wall Street hot shot who spent the majority of that film (Cosmopolis) being driven round in a luxurious town car.

These lives become more and more messily entwined as history rears its ugly head and truth will have its day. Blood will out -- figuratively and literally -- in Cronenberg's film, working from a screenplay by Bruce Wagner, but it's only sporadically fun; the Hollywood name-dropping and pot-shots not nearly enough to counter the story's increasing darkness as almost every character's pysche begins to give way under the burden of the past.

Not surprisingly, Julianne Moore is 'best in show' in Maps To The Stars. You could almost feel sorry for her tragic screen heroine as she descends into old age (as defined by Hollywood), obscurity and madness if it weren't for the fact that Havana Segrand is as venal and selfish as they come; her delight in winning a coveted role as a result of tragic circumstances revealing her stunted emotional maturity and the depths of her self-absorption.

Not for nothing Moore won the Best Actress prize at Cannes earlier this year, and Havana Segrand receives her gong too in the film's most inspired, funny, unsubtle and shocking moment. And Cronenberg's film boasts all those elements but rarely in unison and not nearly consistently enough. Maps To The Stars, while never dull, also never leads to a satisfactory destination.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

FILM REVIEW: MOCKINGJAY PART 1



Roadshow Films

Knowing that the third and final book in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy would be split into two films (just like those popular book-to-film franchises Harry Potter and Twilight before it), it should come as no surprise that Mockingjay Part 1 is all filler, no killer.

Not that hardcore fans of the books and films will be overly disappointed: they're ostensibly getting more bang for their buck, even if we all know it's a case of getting more bucks for the studio behind the franchise rather than doing justice to Collins' story.

Yet one feels churlish for complaining if the off-shoot of such economics means we get more of the heroics of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). The arrow-shooting backwoods beauty whose refusal to die -- twice now -- has made her a people's champion, both in Panem and the real world, where strong female representation in film -- and female heroines, super or otherwise -- remains sorely lacking.

Extracted by rebel forces during her second tour of duty in the kill-or-be-killed Hunger Games, Katniss now finds herself deep in the bowels of the subterranean facilities of what was once District 13. Bombed off the map by the Capitol, its people, led by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), have been stock piling weapons and preparing themselves for a war against the ruling class of Panem.

And with Katniss, they may finally have the weapon they need to unite all 12 other districts in an armed uprising against President Snow (Donald Sutherland). But Katniss, despite her skills with a bow and her knack for not dieing is no soldier. Her strength lies in what she represents: a symbol of hope, and it's this symbol which Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) hopes to exploit in a series of propaganda films, aimed at inspiring the downtrodden district-dwellers to take up arms and join the revolution.

So it is, Mockingjay Part 1 is a study of the machinations of war rather than the battles themselves. Both sides use media manipulation to state and sell their cause: the Capitol for stability and the status quo (and by means of Katniss's fellow District 12 competitor, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)); the rebels for freedom and democracy through the unadorned, open-hearted visage of Katniss.

And neither side is above fudging the facts nor aiming for the soft spot, whether that be the heartstrings or the throat. While Coin prefers hope, Snow knows fear is an even greater motivator. Democrat and Republican, perhaps?

This of course, intentional or not, has parallels with current world events and the ongoing 'war on terror'. Perhaps unintentional, for to apply that framework to Collins' narrative and Francis Lawrence's film (backing up as director after taking the reins on Catching Fire), Katniss and her fellow rebels -- including Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Finnick (Sam Claflin), Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), newcomer Boggs (Mahershala Ali), and Effie (Elizabeth Banks, bringing some much needed mirth to proceedings) -- are the insurgents, the radicals; the ISIS or al-Qaeda to the Capitol's decadent, hedonistic, and soulless West. (And try selling that to middle America.)

Unsurprisingly, not a whole lot happens, action-wise, in Mockingjay Part 1 but to its credit, the film is never dull (though most of what transpires could have conceivably been condensed so that the final installment was one 3-hour film). As it is, it's all build-up with no pay-off; foreplay with only the promise of a future satisfying climax.

That final installment is still 12 months away and will presumably (hopefully) succeed in wholly winning over hearts and minds. For now, Mockingjay Part 1 should appease The Hunger Games fans without necessarily converting anyone to the cause.

Monday, 10 November 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE DROP



20th Century Fox Films

Adapted by acclaimed crime writer, Dennis Lehane, from his own short story, Animal Rescue, The Drop is a low-key crime drama with an emphasis on mood over tension, and character over action. That's not necessarily a problem when you have actors like Tom Hardy, Matthias Schoenaerts, and James Gandolfini (in one of his final screen roles) doing their thing.

These guys are a pleasure to behold even as their characters test our loyalty or merely confirm our suspicions as we work our way through the murky milieu of director Michael R. Roskam's film. Set on the cold wintry streets and in the dingy bars of New York, The Drop unfolds at a deliberate pace, punctuated by bursts of action and violence; the first of which is a robbery on the bar once owned by Marv (Gandolfini), and where his cousin, Bobby (Hardy), serves the drinks.

The bar is also one of the many pick-up points for laundered money belonging to Russian (or East European?) mobsters, and when the joint is robbed late one night (yes, that's young Australian actor, James Frecheville, from Animal Kingdom as one of the gunmen), Marv and Bobby are under pressure to get the five grand back; without giving mob boss Chovka (Michael Aronov) cause to think they were involved, or rousing the suspicions of Detective Torres (John Ortiz) who is handling the case.

It's a man's world depicted in The Drop, one with an unspoken code and serious consequences for those who break it. Still, Hardy manages to give one of his softer characterizations yet. His Bobby is somewhat of a simpleton but when push comes to shove -- and when his girl and his dog are threatened -- a switch is flicked, and Bobby reveals his true colours and ultimately bares his soul.

That aforementioned girl is Nadia (Noomi Rapace, also with her edges softened), whom Bobby meets when late one night he finds a cute but injured puppy dumped in her trash bin. The dog and the girl both serve to leaven the sea of testosterone in The Drop but this fledgling romance -- between Bobby and Nadia, and a man and his dog (2014 seems to be the year for that sort of thing) -- further complicates Bobby's life.

Both Nadia and Rocco (as the dog is christened) once belonged to a mentally questionable low-level crim, Eric Deeds (Schoenaerts, unrecognizable from 2012's Rust and Bone, hovers between comical and menacing), a man who doesn't give up on those that he believes are his, even after he's thrown them away.

This triangle will come to a head, as will Marv's clandestine manoeuvrings, in the bar late in the evening of that annual American man-fest, the Super Bowl. It's here where The Drop ratchets up the tension and finally stirs from the almost-slumber it's been unfolding within.

While by no means boring, Lehane's screenplay proves, if anything, that a page-turner doesn't always make for a potboiler. Or that stretching a short story to a 100-page screenplay is necessarily a good idea, even if the characters are there. And it's the characters -- and fine character actors -- who reward your patience in The Drop.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

FILM REVIEW: FINDING VIVIAN MAIER



Vendetta Films

Nanny. Photographer. Artist. American. French. Spy? The enigma who was Vivian Maier is mostly unraveled in John Maloof and Charlie Siskel's documentary, which follows the filmmakers' mission to discover the person behind the treasure trove of black and white photographs Maloof fortuitously stumbled upon at auction.

Maier's photographs (the negatives number in the tens of thousands) showed the woman to be an astute social documentarian of 20th century New York and Chicago; their streetscapes and the people who inhabited them captured in unadorned yet beautiful monochrome.

But how did such a prodigious and talented photographer go undiscovered? And even more curious, why did Maier work as a nanny for upper middle class families when she could have been so much more?

Maloof -- who inserts himself a little too much into the doco -- talks to the people who hired Vivian Maier as an au pair and the children she raised; each with similar recollections of the stern yet exciting woman with a French accent, an ever-present camera, and a dark side.

Like many a great artist, Maier had a troubled past and her own demons to battle but without family or close relations to help fill-in the blanks, Maloof and Siskel provide a fascinating yet incomplete portrait of the woman.

The photographs, however, speak eloquently and in volume to her artistry.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T.S. SPIVET



Potential Films/Madman Films

It's not easy being the smartest person in the room, and even less so when you're only 10 years old. But T.S. Spivet isn't just weighed down by the size of his considerable brain; he's also burdened by grief at the loss of his twin brother, and the guilt that comes with feeling responsible for his sibling's death.

Heavy subject matter for what is essentially a children's film, French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's adaptation of Reif Larsen's novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, is as brightly coloured and whimsical as his more recent films (Amelie (2001), A Very Long Engagement (2004), Micmacs (2009)) without ever talking down to its intended young audience.

T.S. (Kyle Catlett) lives in Montana with his rancher father (Callum Keith Rennie), entomologist mother (Helena Bonham Carter, refreshingly quirk-free), and big sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson), as well as the ghost -- metaphorical rather than literal -- of brother Layton (Jakob Davies), who died in a shooting accident in the barn which nobody talks about but which T.S., who was also in the barn that fateful day, can not forget. Nor forgive.

His mother has since retreated into her work (the study of bugs), while his father, already the silent, stoic archetype of a Montana rancher, is even more withdrawn: Layton was the apple of his father's eye and the hands-on round-the-farm yin to T.S.'s intellectual head-in-the-clouds yang.

It's when T.S. is selected to receive a prestigious prize from the Smithsonian Institute -- for his invention, sorry, his plans for the invention of a perpetual motion machine -- that he decides to abandon his family: perhaps his absence will allow his family to heal much faster? T.S. sneaks out in the early morn, hopping the rails cross-country to the nation's capital.

The American scenery is stunningly captured by Thomas Hardmeier's cinematography as T.S. journeys east, lending the landscapes a storybook palette which is further enhanced by the use of 3D, a first for a Jeunet film. And while the Frenchman's outsider view looks romantically at America's bountiful plains, he's a little less kind to that nation's obsession with fame, the dumbing down of science and dismissal of dreamers, and lax gun control.

This, and themes of grief and guilt, may concern some parents but it's the delivery of some f-bombs (thank you, Judy Davis, as the Smithsonian's duplicitous press secretary) in the film's third act which has no doubt seen the family-friendly The Young and Prodigious T.S Spivet slapped with an M-rating instead of a more appropriate PG.

Unlike T.S. himself, the parentals are best not to let their kids undergo this journey on their own, but they could do a lot worse than have them enjoy the company of a smart, sensitive young hero whose brain is his superpower and who discovers, like so many adventurers before him, that home is where the heart is.

Monday, 27 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: PRIDE



eOne Films

Ten years before a bus christened Priscilla carried two drag queens and a transexual from the safety of inner Sydney into the Australian outback, another bus full of queers undertook a similarly potentially fraught journey: from London into the Welsh mining community of Onllwyn.

The year was 1984 and Britain's coal miners were on strike against the conservative Thatcher government's plans to close coal pits across the country. Recognising a similarly oppressed community, a band of gay and lesbian activists, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, decided to throw their small but passionate support behind the striking miners, raising funds and organising food drives. Strange bedfellows to be sure but then again, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, no?

That is the basis for Pride, directed by Matthew Warchus and penned by first-time screenwriter, Stephen Beresford; a none-too-subtle but wholly sincere retelling of those events which had almost been lost to the public consciousness. Indeed, many of the cast, and Beresford himself, have admitted in interviews that they'd never heard of LGSM and their involvement in those tumultuous events of 1984-85.

Led by young radical, Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer, unrecognizable from last year's The Book Thief), and viewed through the eyes of the closeted Joe (George MacKay), who lives at home with his parents and, and aged 20, is still considered a minor in the eyes of the law when it comes to the homosexual act, we watch this band of idealistic misfits – including Jonathan (Dominic West), a middle-aged actor and one of the first people in Britain to be diagnosed with AIDS; and Steph (Faye Marsay), initially the only woman contributing the 'L' in LGSM) – rally in support of the strikers.

It's when they decide to take their fundraising directly to the source (the Unions refusing to accept the donations once they hear who it's from), that events take an unlikely turn. After first meeting in London with Dai ((Paddy Considine), a representative of the pit from the Welsh village of Onllwyn, the troop pack in to a small bus and head to Wales to accept the invitation of thanks extended by the Dulais Valley community centre.

But not everyone in this small, working class community is happy to welcome these outsiders, despised as much for being from London as they are for being 'homosexualists'. And while the local men, excepting Dai and club secretary Cliff (Bill Nighy, affecting in a rare subdued performance), keep their distance, it's the town's womenfolk – led by the headstrong Hefina (Imelda Staunton), the inquisitive Gwen (Menna Trussler), and young firebrand, Sian (Jessica Gunning) – who embrace their out-of-town supporters.

Of course, Rome wasn't built in a day and the relationship between the Onllwyn community and LGSM experiences many ups and downs (some factual, some as part of necessary dramatic license) over the course of their almost 12-month-long struggle. The London media gets wind of the oddball coupling, dubbing them 'Perverts for Pits', with LGSM embracing the term like so many derogatory names the gay movement has reclaimed before them (the miners not so much). There's also personal issues to be dealt with within each community.

The film itself tackles many issues – gay rights, worker's right, coming out, AIDS, female empowerment – some of it cliche and not all of it with a light touch. But there is an honesty and a sincerity to both the comedy and the drama in Pride, which tonally sits somewhere between the sledgehammer feel-good of The Full Monty (1997) and the emotional authenticity of Billy Elliot (2000).

But it would take the hardest of hearts not to be won over by the film's charm. Make no mistake, Pride is a feel good film but in the best possible sense. It celebrates two communities coming together and moving forward; not through tolerance but acceptance and co-operation. A remembrance of victories passed, Pride may also serve as a rallying cry for battles still to be won.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: FURY



Sony Pictures

War is hell. It's a sentiment that's been at the heart of almost every war film ever made so there's little to distinguish David Ayer's Fury in that regard from the battalion of movies which have preceded it.

Not even its focus on the one Sherman tank and the five-man squad which inhabit it is an entirely novel concept: the 2009 Israeli film, Lebanon, took place within the claustrophobic confines of an army tank during the Lebanon War of 1972.

Fury is the name given to the Sherman tank captained by Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), a take-no-prisoners leader who stands strong for the men under his command and does all his doubting in the rare moments he's alone. Boyd (Shia LaBeouf), the Bible-basher, Trini (Michael Pena), the Mexican-American, and Grady (Jon Bernthal), the redneck, have seen all of their action in North Africa and Europe in Wardaddy's company and now, in the final months of World War II as the Allies push further and further into Germany, they're joined by newbie, Norman (Logan Lerman).

A military clerk, Norman has not seen any action but he's about to undergo a baptism of fire; Wardaddy keen to impress upon the young man that it's 'kill or be killed', with no room for sympathy no matter the age or sex of your enemy, nor even if they appear to be dead or not. An extra round of fire into a lifeless body can't hurt either way.

Episodic in structure, Fury excels in its action sequences -- the film's third act comprised nearly of one entire 'last stand' scenario -- but splutters somewhat when it stops to focus on the men inside the war machine.

And things aren't helped any by the at-times indecipherable dialogue. While the highly effective sound design has you rattled by shell fire and jumping at exploding land mines, it's often a struggle to understand Grady's thick Southern accent or Boyd's recitation of Bible verses when the men are at rest. We get subtitles whenever Wardaddy spricht Deutsch, but we could use them for some of the English too.

Never as overwhelmingly claustrophobic as Lebanon but intermittently tension-filled, Fury succeeds when in the midst of battle but fails to win hearts and minds when a ceasefire is called to focus on the less than convincing human drama.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: WHIPLASH



Sony Pictures

The two most harmful words in the English language, according to Terence Fletcher, the God-like teacher at the New York Conservatory of Music, are 'good job'. For Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), mediocrity breeds contempt and Hell hath no fury like this music instructor underwhelmed; his temperament is more Zeus than Jesus, and he's more likely to throw thunderbolts -- or a drum cymbal -- your way than a compliment.

Understandably, Fletcher's students live in fear and awe of the man; desperate to be selected for his jazz band, desperate to please him and equally desperate not to incur his wrath. Andrew (Miles Teller) is one such student. A first-year pupil on scholarship, Andrew has a way with the drums and a desire to be recognised as one of the greats. Being chosen as a member of Fletcher's jazz band -- which competes in State competitions -- is a sure sign he's on his way.

It's also the beginning of a nightmare in Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, a film that makes drumming seem like a vocation as fraught as bomb disposal, and an experience which will leave Andrew's -- and the audience's -- nerves completely frazzled.

Chazelle, making just his second feature with Whiplash, and expanding upon his own similarly titled short film, explores themes about the pursuit of perfection in art, and the giving over of one's self completely in that pursuit. It's similar territory to Black Swan (2010), but unlike Natalie Portman's ballerina, it's all but Andrew's mind that is left unscathed.

For Andrew, the pursuit of greatness involves the abandonment of a life outside of music; dumping his sweet girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) in a brutally honest break-up scene, because he doesn't want her to come to resent his focus on drumming nor he to resent her for holding him back. He also puts his body on the line on more than one occasion.

Miles Teller is a young actor who continues to impress. After Rabbit Hole (2010) and The Spectacular Now (2013), he again proves that he is the real deal. Teller is no pretty boy headed for matinee idol status but the guy can act. As charming as the best of them, he also possesses a steeliness which allows him to be tough and unforgiving when required.

J.K. Simmons' Fletcher is equally unforgiving. There's perhaps one too many homophobic missives fired off by Fletcher -- lest you forget he truly is an awful person -- but there's no denying the fun to be had in hearing the maestro tearing his pupils a new one, nor the fun Simmons must have had in playing him. Perhaps best known as the kind-of-cool dad in Juno (2007), here he plays the drill sergeant teacher from Hell, sinking his teeth into the role and the scenery.

But as sadistic as Fletcher is, Andrew is equally masochistic: drumming until his fingers bleed and coming back time and again for more of his teacher's abuse. Even after they part ways, Andrew can't help but be drawn back to Fletcher to seek, and hopefully win, his approval.

If the love of Andrew's father (Paul Reiser) is unconditional and undemanding, Fletcher's is hard-won and all the more rewarding for it. It's tough love in extremis but Fletcher, it seems, completes Andrew in what might just be the most dysfunctional movie romance of 2014.

Whiplash is definitely one of the better films of the year, even as, like Andrew's drum solo in the film's tension-filled climax, it goes on a little too long and slightly wayward. Perfect it may not be but when it's on a roll and in full flight, Whiplash is much, much more than a job well done.

Monday, 20 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU



Roadshow Films/Warners Bros.

Dysfunctional family comedies -- or 'dramadies', depending on the level of drama involved -- have become a dime a dozen since first appearing as a resolutely American indie filmmaking genre in the 1990s in the wake of the Sundance Film Festival, so it requires something special to standout from the pack.

An all-star cast -- Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, and the ubiquitous Adam Driver -- was no doubt intended to be the draw card for Shawn Levy's This Is Where I Leave You, but it proves to be its downfall. Or rather, it is the screenplay -- adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his own book -- which is most at fault for it gives this impressive ensemble very little to do -- thus dashing audience expectations of them -- and even less that is remotely believable.

Upon the news of the death of their patriarch, the Altman siblings return to the family nest to sit Shiva -- seven days of traditional Jewish mourning -- as much to fulfill their lapsed Jewish father's final request as to appease their grief-stricken mother, Hillary (Fonda).

The kidults aren't too pleased to be observing a tradition which they had little time for growing up (the Shiva seats are set-up where the Altman Christmas tree usually resides), nor to be taking time out from their own lives to serve house arrest with their therapist mother who used her children's lives for fodder for her books.

Judd (Bateman) especially has little time for other people's problems given his recent separation from his wife (Abigail Spencer) following the discovery of her year-long affair with the radio shock jock (Dax Shephard) for whom he acts as producer.

But then most of the Altman brood seem to be less than happy with their lot in life: only-daughter Wendy (Fey) has a workaholic husband and a ton of guilt over the former high school boyfriend (Timothy Olyphant) permanently injured in a car accident and who conveniently still lives across the street; Paul (Corey Stoll) who now runs the family sporting goods store and is trying desperately to have children with wife, Annie (Kathryn Hahn), who just happens to be a former ex of Judd's.

And then there's the family baby, Phillip (Driver). The carefree, career-swapping n'er-do well who drives a sports car bought for him by his former therapist turned girlfriend, Tracy (Connie Britton); a woman smart enough to know she can do better in the relationship stakes, and who should also have known better than to attend the pity party of her young lover's family.

Throw in Judd's high school sweetheart (Rose Byrne), a shock pregnancy, familial misunderstandings and the smoking of some joints and you have the recipe for a top-notch comedy. Or so you'd think. But the laughs are few and far between in This Is Where I leave You, and not particularly laugh-out-loud. Nor is the drama particularly engaging or affecting.

There are revelations, sibling rivalries reignited and familial bonds reaffirmed, and tears before almost every bed time during the week-long stay under the Altman roof. But there's very little to warrant spending 103-minutes with this family and their first world problems, and even less of it memorable.

Unlike the recent sibling dramedy, The Skeleton Twins, This Is Where I Leave You fails to bring the funny or the pathos so you may not want to rush to RSVP for this family gathering.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: FORCE MAJEURE



Sharmill Films

The snow cannons which fire periodically at the French Alps ski resort -- the pristine yet chilly setting for writer-director Ruben Ostlund's Force Majeure -- act as both a warning shot and as symbolic thunder for an impending emotional storm for the holidaying Swedish couple at the film's centre.

When a man-made avalanche barrels down the slopes and towards the outdoor restaurant where Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two children are sitting down to lunch on day two of their week-long vacation, curiosity soon turns to fear as it looks as though the controlled snow dump may actually wipe the restaurant out.

Faced with a 'fight or flight' decision in the oncoming avalanche, Tomas makes the wrong choice: grabbing his iPhone and running; leaving Ebba and the kids to fend for themselves. It's a decision which results in a series of emotional aftershocks that will have Tomas and Ebba questioning what kind of people they are and what kind of marriage they have.

At first the couple don't discuss what happened but it's eating away at Ebba (every emotion playing across Kongsli's face). In the company of fellow vacationers at dinner, she recounts the events and Tomas's actions. Tomas, in his defense, says that's not what happened but each is entitled to their own perception.

But it's when hosting a dinner party for visiting friends Mats (Kristover Hivju) and Fanny (Fanni Metelius), where Ebba again raises the issue -- and forces Tomas to confront his actions -- that a seismic shift in the relationship occurs.

Ostlund's black-ish comedy takes an unblinking look (Fredrik Wenzel's camera is always still, observant) at the emotional fall-out of this event; raising questions about masculinity as both a genetic predisposition and a social construct. Does man's desire to survive outweigh his desire to protect his offspring? Is it the role of the man or simply a parent to protect those offspring? Is a man defined by his words or his deeds? And by whom is he more harshly judged -- society or himself -- when he fails to live up to these responsibilities?

Amusingly, after trying valiantly to defend his friend's honour, Mats (who resembles a Viking but believes himself to be a 'sensitive new age guy') begins to question his own masculinity, and what he would have done in the exact same situation.

Indeed, Force Majeure -- Sweden's submission for this year's Oscars (Best Foreign Language Film), and already a prize winner at Cannes (Un Certain Regard) -- may not be a wise choice as a 'date' film but it makes for a great debate film: whose side are you on? What would you have done in Tomas's situation? Or what do you think you would have done? Careful now, it's tricky out on the slopes.

Monday, 13 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: SON OF A GUN



Entertainment One Films

Jailed for an unspecified but presumably low-level crime (incurring just a six-month sentence), JR (Brenton Thwaites) still finds himself in a maximum security facility among armed robbers, rapists and murderers. His cellmate is the prison bitch for one of the gangs and it looks like JR is headed for a similar fate before he's taken under the wing of notorious bank robber, Brendan Lynch (Ewan McGregor).

Lynch's interest in the kid isn't sexual but by no means altruistic, taking the form of a mentor and pupil relationship in Julius Avery's directorial debut Son Of A Gun. JR's imminent release makes him the perfect vehicle by which to make contact with Sam (Jacek Koman), a Russian mobster whom Lynch had dealings with before his incarceration, and who will facilitate, with JR's help, a daring escape for the heist-meister.

Once free, Lynch, JR and fellow escapee, Sterlo (Matt Noble), sign-on to carry out a heist on a gold mining operation for Sam, each receiving equal shares from the multi-million dollar haul. Of course, in the best tradition of movie heists, nothing goes to plan and double-cross upon double-cross ensues.

Son Of A Gun may be a heist film but it's no Ocean's 11 with a band of witty misfits bantering back and forth. In fact the early prison scenes are quite grim. There is humour in Avery and John Collee's screenplay but that's neither the emphasis nor strength of the film. The manouverings and machinations of the characters and the plot -- some clever, some clumsy -- is where the focus rightly lies.

JR is a chess player and is always thinking two or three moves ahead. But he's also young, naive and scared, so he becomes a pawn in Lynch's game long before he realizes that he's a mere piece that can be sacrificed should the need arise. JR is also young and horny, so his judgement is clouded and his thinking done from below the waist when he falls for Tasha (Alicia Vikander). A gangster's moll with a Russian accent and who may or may not have a heart of gold, it's JR's unwise attraction to Tasha which keeps him from making a clean break from the increasingly volatile situation in which he finds himself.

Thwaites (already having had a taste of Hollywood in this year's YA adaptation, The Giver) is a likable if not magnetic protag, but the film's draw card is McGregor. It's an impressive casting coup for any first-time feature film maker, and McGregor delivers; infusing Lynch -- in spite of his bad hair and ugly jeans -- with his well-worn charm without ever once convincing you that his anti-hero is in any way benign. Vikander (the Swedish actress unrecognizable from 2012's Anna Karenina) makes the most of her by-the-numbers role.

Son Of A Gun is by no means original but then, the heist-gone-bad genre is almost as old as cinema itself; an Australian setting and a recognizable vernacular can't abolish decades of genre cliches and tropes. But as a calling card for Avery, who cut his teeth on short films, there's more positives than negatives to be taken away from the experience.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE CASE AGAINST 8



Leapfrog Films

In the same historic 2008 presidential election which saw the United States elect its first black president, Californians voted in favour of Proposition 8: that marriage be defined as the union between one man and one woman, thus overturning the state's previous legalization of same-sex marriage. One step forward, two steps back.

Ben Cotner and Ryan White's documentary, The Case Against 8 charts the proceeding legal battle to overturn Prop 8, a fight which will take five years to reach an outcome. That battle is led by Ted Olsen and David Boies, two attorneys who were opposing counsel in the Bush v. Gore court case (re: a recount of presidential election votes in Florida) of 2000.

Olsen is a noted conservative, and his decision to support the case to overturn Prop 8 surprised his fellow Republicans as much as it does the American Federation for Equal Rights (AFER) which is behind the case.

But The Case Against 8 is not a dry documentary about legal wheelings and dealings; Cotner and White wisely choosing to keep the emphasis on the two couples at the heart of the battle -- Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, and Jeffrey Zarrillo and Paul Katami -- and representative of same sex couples everywhere.

When California legalised same-sex marriage in May 2008, some 18,000 couples married in the ensuing months. But much to everyone's surprise, the conservative-backed Proposition 8 passed in the presidential election, and those marriages -- including those of Kris and Sandy, Jeffrey and Paul -- were rendered null and void. They, and all other gay people, were effectively told that they were less than; that they were not equal to their fellow (heterosexual) Americans in the eyes of the law. And that hurt.

The film humanises and personalises the battle for marriage equality by focusing on the two couples at the heart of the case: Kris and Sandy, two women who married and brought two sons each from their previous relationships to form a loving family (we get to see Kris's twins grow up over the course of the film); and Jeffrey and Paul, who want to start a family of their own but who want to do so in the "traditional" way -- within the bonds of marriage. You can't not be moved by either couples' plight.

Not surprisingly, no members of the opposing counsel in defense of Prop 8 appear in The Case Against 8. But that doesn't mean the film lacks perspective. Yes it has an agenda but when that agenda is equality, any opposition seems seems ignorant at best, cruel at worst.

Love is love, and you'll be hard pressed not to get a little misty-eyed throughout The Case Against 8 which proves that what is the right thing and what is the law can sometimes be one and the same, even if the latter takes a little convincing to say 'I do'.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: TUSK



Sony Pictures

A serial killer who transforms his victims from man to walrus? It's as crazy a high concept as there ever has been, one that came about as writer-director Kevin Smith was spit-balling on his podacst. But what sounds funny on the air -- and in one's head -- doesn't necessarily translate to the screen, and so it is with Tusk: an oddball, not uninteresting creature which ultimately doesn't stay afloat.

Wallace (Justin Long) is one half of the Not-See Party along with Teddy (Haley Joel Osment), comic podcasters who riff on pop culture and perhaps entertain themselves more than they do their audience. But they've managed to build up a following and an income, even if Wallace's girlfriend, Ally (Genesis Rodriguez), prefers the 'old' Wallace, the guy who was broke but nice.

It's when Wallace heads to north Manitoba, Canada to interview a hapless teen, whose video of an accidental amputation has gone viral and which Wallace and Teddy mocked mercilessly on their show, that things go south. Upon arrival Wallace discovers that the teen has finished the job his wayward samurai sword began, ending his own life.

With his interview gone and time to kill, Wallace stumbles onto another subject via a 'room for rent' notice in a men's room, introducing him to Howard Howe (Michael Parks). Howe is a loquacious host and former seafarer, with tales of Hemingway, D-Day and a shipwreck in the Russian arctic, and Wallace seems to have struck gold.

That arctic tale reveals Howe to be a soul survivor who, once he made it to land, found comfort and companionship in the arms (flippers?) of a walrus he named Mr. Tusk. Unfortunately for Wallace, he's about to become the latest victim in Howe's mad ambition to recapture the past by creating his own man-walrus. Cue gruesome limb removals, a body suit fashioned from human skin and other indignities and horrors (karmic retribution perhaps?) which aren't entirely without humour.

Intentionally or incidentally, Tusk references all manner of film and literature, from Shelley's Frankenstein and Melville's Moby Dick, to Rob Reiner's Misery (1990), Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Pedro Almodovar's own Frankenstein tale, The Skin I Live In (2011). There's even a hint of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby; Howe's desire to recapture that golden moment on the island between man and beast recalling Gatsby's longing for Daisy and a past long gone and a future that could never be.

Sadly, nothing in Smith's film is as eloquent or poignant as Fitzgerald's prose. And while there is some great dialogue -- mostly delivered by Parks -- Tusk loses the momentum built up in the first half when Teddy and Ally arrive in Manitoba in search of Wallace, teaming up with Quebecois detective, Guy Lapointe, to track down both men.

It's this star cameo (no spoilers here) which hampers the film's genuine sense of dread: an extended flashback involving Lapointe is excruciating, thanks in no small part to his absurd accent and not helped by his Depardieu-like proboscis. What could have been a truly disturbing denouement is lessened by unfunny theatrics (not to mention a too obvious music cue).

Tusk is not a terrible film but it is bad. And not in a "so bad it's good" kind of way. Cult status may beckon for this latest effort by a director who indeed has a strong following, but just as a man in a walrus suit is still just a man, you can't help thinking that Smith the filmmaker has become an emperor without clothes.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: GONE GIRL



20th Century Fox Films

"Blondes make the best victims." Alfred Hitchcock is quoted as saying. "They're like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints." And Amy Dunne -- a New York princess-cum-Missouri housewife who goes missing on the day of her fifth wedding anniversary -- is primed for victimhood: blonde, beautiful, sympathetic and media-friendly, her story and visage appeals to the big hearts and small minds of middle America and a lazy media. But is she a victim?

The conceit of David Fincher's latest thriller, Gone Girl, is to have you guessing -- or not, if you've read Gillian Flynn's bestseller, skimmed a review of the film, or merely glimpsed a Twitter conversation -- as to whether or not Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) killed his wife (Rosamund Pike), only to flip the switch half way through and have you thinking "why hasn't someone killed her sooner?"

For Gone Girl is as much a black comedy on the trials of marriage as it is a whodunnit. Nothing and no-one is as they seem and neither narrator -- Amy, who reads from her diary, nor Fincher, working from Flynn's screenplay -- can be trusted. No-one knows what goes on between couples behind closed doors, and Fincher's not about to make the Dunnes' relationship black and white (though it's decidedly more dark than light).

And marriage isn't the only institution being skewered here; the media and gullible public come in for none-too-subtle ribbing. Nick's seeming indifference to his wife's disappearance -- he doesn't seem to be reacting the way everyone, including police officers Boney (Kim Dickens) and Gilpin (Patrick Fugit), thinks he should -- and Amy's mere female-ness, positing the couple on opposing sides of a popularity contest.

Of course, Amy's case wouldn't receive half the media attention it does had she been black. That's not just an inherently American problem but one which pervades almost all Western media: white victim good, female better, blonde = gold. And that's certainly the case for media mavens Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) and Sharon Schieber (Sela Ward), who smell blood in the water and ratings in (and on) the air. As a result, Nick, guilty or not, is fighting an uphill battle from the get-go.

Affleck does a fine job of playing the all-American boy; your typical high school quarterback or prom king who quite possibly peaked in high school even if he did manage to marry the prom queen. But Nick is also a writer and teacher, so he's no dummy -- despite his occasional goofy slip-ups -- and it's that intelligence and reserve which works against him in the court of public appeal.

Rosmaund Pike, a fine British actress landing the role of a lifetime, has the harder task of making Amy more than the victim, the hard-done-by-wife. Her performance comes into its own in the film's second act when we learn so much more about the trust fund beauty. And even if the material Pike has to work with veers toward the extreme end of the satire spectrum, abandoning reality for something more hysterical, she makes Amy highly-watchable.

The film itself is an oddly paced affair: a slow first act (focussing on Nick), a cracking second act (where Amy takes centre stage), and a third act that feels stretched out with false endings and a resolution that feels more like a pulled punch than a TKO.

But there's much to reward and delight the patient viewer (the film clocks in at 149-minutes), particularly those who have not read the source material (and are better able than some to avoid the spoiler territory of social media). And Fincher, arguably incapable of making a bad film, is on-song if not necessarily in top form.

But one wonders what The Master of Suspense himself would've done with Gone Girl? Hitchcock would certainly have had some bloody good fun with Amy Dunne.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE SKELETON TWINS



Sony Pictures

While the bond between siblings is a strong yet complicated one -- often as competitive and antagonistic as loving and supportive -- the connection between twins is believed to be even stronger and more keenly felt. That may explain why Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig) decide to take their own lives on the same day.

Estranged for ten years and living on opposite sides of the country -- Milo in L.A. where he headed with dreams of becoming a famous actor; Maggie in the outer suburbs of New York and close the home where they grew up -- Maggie gets the call that her brother Milo slipped into the bath and then slit his wrists just as she's contemplating swallowing a handful of pills.

It's a less than hilarious opening to writer-director Craig Johnson's The Skeleton Twins (co-written with Mark Heyman) which is a comedy. Make that a dramedy, for there are a closet full of secrets, revelations and pent-up emotions which prevent the laughs from coming thick and fast. It also allows the former Saturday Night Live alums to exercise their dramatic chops while not necessarily moving too far out of their comfort zones.

Milo returns to New York with Maggie, where she works as a dental hygienist and lives with her husband, Lance (Luke Wilson), a good guy with a positive attitude which grates as much as it endears. That endearing quality hasn't yet convinced Maggie that she and Lance should have children, even though they are trying (well, Lance is; Maggie's popping birth controls pills on the sly).

This fear of a deeper commitment sees Maggie taking up a new challenge every few months -- currently scuba diving -- and hooking-up with fellow classmates; this time round the hunky Aussie scuba instructor (Boyd Holbrook) fits the bill. Milo, on the other hand, sees his return to his home town as a means of reconnecting with his former high school English teacher (Ty Burrell), whose interest in his pupil are revealed to have been less than scholarly.

Predictably all of these secrets and lies will be brought out into the light, calling for more than one emotion-charged showdown between the siblings. But it's not all gloom: the twins sharing the occasional light-hearted moment, whether induced by nitrous oxide or the power ballad strains of Starship.

And Hader and Wiig work well together. They may not possess a familial appearance but their chemistry is one of a shared history; of intimacies earned, long held and deeply felt. The reason for their estrangement is eventually revealed, proving once again that we often hurt those we love the most even when we think we're acting in their best interests, or not thinking at all.

There's also a not-too-subtle suggestion in the screenplay that children are the collateral damage of their parents; left shell-shocked or completely obliterated by their upbringing and the examples set. Of course, at a certain point you have to stop blaming others and take responsibility for your own life. Sometimes that means sucking it up, rolling with the punches and moving forward; other times that may mean checking out early.

The Skeleton Twins doesn't judge Maggie or Milo for their choices but in choosing life, it ends on a hopeful note.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE BOXTROLLS



Universal Pictures

There is nothing to fear but fear itself. And nothing quite maintains the status quo or allows those in power -- or trying to achieve it -- from maintaining their rule then by exploiting that fear.

Fear is the weapon used by Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) as a means to achieving his aim of rising through the social ranks to gain a white hat and seat at Lord Portly-Rind's table of town elders. How? By demonizing the subterranean-dwelling Boxtrolls; positing the peaceful creatures as baby-eating monsters and himself as the only man capable of ridding the town of every single one of them.

The Boxtrolls of course have no interest in human flesh, infant or adult: they climb from the sewers at night only to collect the junk the humans have cast away. But many years ago they did indeed steal away a human boy. They didn't eat the lad -- dubbed Eggs for the label on the box he wears (all Boxtrolls wear a box for even non-God-fearing creatures like trolls must hide their shame) -- but raised him as one of their own.

Snatcher has been pedaling this misinformation about the abduction of the 'Trumpshore Baby' for years, keeping the townsfolk living in fear. But it's when Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright, a.k.a Bran from TV's Game of Thrones), while on a junk-collecting night run, meets Portly-Rind's daughter, Winnie (Elle Fanning), a young girl boasting a macabre fascination with the cannibalistic ways of the Boxtrolls, that the truth will finally out and the evil plan of Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley does great villain voice work) will be unveiled.

Laika, the animation studio responsible for Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012), have again created a wonderfully inventive and comic work of stop-motion (and CGI? Surely it can't all be done by hand?) magic. Each of their films is ostensibly dark and macabre but with moral lessons delivered without a hammer.

In The Boxtrolls it is the demonizing and scapegoating of minorities for personal and political gain; a message that couldn't be any more pertinent than today, and sadly, even more so in Australia. The film also touches on class envy (it's what drives Archibald Snatcher), and the hubris of the 1 per centers. But there's comedy and grotesquery aplenty to avoid being bogged down in politics and to keep everyone entertained.

And if The Boxtrolls is not quite on the same level as ParaNorman, in terms of a cohesive whole between story, humour and execution, there's still much to be admired and to delight in.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

FILM REVIEW: JODOROWSKY'S DUNE



Walt Disney Studios Films/Buena Vista

Who knew a documentary about a film that never was could be so entertaining? Even more so, the visionary director with such ambition and passion? That director is Chilean Alejandro Jodorowsky and his passion project that would never be was a big screen adaptation of the Frank Herbert sci-fi tome, Dune.

A surrealist who began his career in the theatre, Jodorowsky enjoyed critical and commercial success as a filmmaker with two films, El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973). This brought him to the attention of French producer Michel Seydoux, who offered to make a movie -- any movie - with the director. Jodorowsky's choice? Dune, the infamous 'almost-making of' which is detailed in Frank Pavich's doco.

Jodorowsky's not exactly sure why he chose Dune since he, and most everyone who became involved in the project, had not read Herbert's seminal novel. But after Stanley Kubrick's 2001, and before George Lucas's Star Wars, Jodorowsky planned (or rather dreamt) of making a film that would expand the audience's mind; producing the effect of an LSD trip sans acid.

Scouring the world for his creative team of "spiritual warriors", Jodorowsky convinced artists and designers like Moebius, Dan O'Bannon, Chris Foss and H.R. Giger to pack up and move to Paris to work on his dream project. He also courted some impressive and diverse names for his cast: David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, and Orson Welles; the director going to great lengths to secure the latter two.

Most of this is recounted by Jodorowsky himself who, at age 85, is as energetic and enthusiastic as a man more than half his age. There are also talking head interviews with those involved, including Seydoux, Foss and Giger, and glimpses of the storyboards and animation -- beautiful, brilliant, bizarre -- which were the blueprint for the filmmaker's vision.

After a couple of years and with everything ready to go, Jodorowsky and Seydoux took their project to Hollywood; shopping the project -- in a bound book of sketches and panels, from first frame to last -- to every studio. And although met with positive responses, each studio baulked at greenlighting Dune. There is some contention as to whether this was because the budget for such an ambitious film would be too high (by 1970s standards), or that studio heads felt Jodorowsky was too much of a risk. But that's where that film, if not the dream, died.

Dune was eventually made in 1984. Directed by David Lynch and featuring a cast that didn't boast any of Jodorowsky's eclectic choices, it was made on a budget of $40 million and grossed $30m in the States. The film wasn't a huge success -- but has gained cult status in the intervening decades -- and Jodorowsky expresses his delight in witnessing just how terrible the film is.

Of course, there is no admission from anyone interviewed in the doco that the film as envisioned by Jodorowsky would have fared much better. (All signs point to Jodorowsky's Dune being a big fat turkey.) On a positive, some of the creative team would go on to be heavily involved in another seminal sci-fi film, Ridley Scott's Alien.

The greatest film never made? Probably not. But we could do with a few more visionaries like Alejandro Jodorowsky in cinema: filmmakers with passion and "spirit" who dare to dream big. Of course, like an author needs a good editor, a producer with a supportive yet firm hand is required to ensure the dream eventually becomes a reality.

Monday, 15 September 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE INFINITE MAN



Infinite Releasing

Love isn't perfect. And it never will be, no matter how much you plan or how hard you try. And try. And try. And try. It's a lesson that's learnt too late by the protagonist of The Infinite Man, writer-director Hugh Sullivan's trippy, time travel debut feature.

Having planned the perfect anniversary away with his girlfriend right down to the last detail, Dean (John McConville) finds his well laid plans immediately thrown out the window: the motel he and Lana (Hannah Marshall) stayed at the previous year -- close to the beach but seemingly in the middle of nowhere -- is no longer in business.

And not before long, Hannah's ex, Terry (Alex Dimitriades), an ex-Olympic javelin thrower with questionable Greek heritage and an even more questionable grasp on reality, gatecrashes their getaway determined to win Hannah back. And somehow he succeeds? Worst. Anniversary. Ever.

But rather than grieve and move on, Dean refuses to leave the past behind: he's determined to revisit it - and fix it. Somehow Dean fashions a sort of time machine (Sullivan isn't big on explanations) and on the anniversary of that previous anniversary, he invites Hannah back to the rundown motel so they can travel back one year and right the wrongs. What could possibly go wrong?

As multiple Deans and Lanas -- and a Terry or two -- begin to arrive in the middle of nowhere, things become further complicated. Previous events and conversations are viewed from entirely different angles yet even with the advantage of hindsight (or is it foresight?), Dean still can't manage to have events go in his favour. Time is either linear or circular depending on your school of thought, but the human heart is unpredictable and human error almost always inevitable.

The second Australian film this year to play with time travel (after the recent mind-bender, Predestination), The Infinite Man does so more inventively and far more comically. But while the film will invite comparisons to both Groundhog Day and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it has neither the laughs of the former nor the emotional resonance of the latter.

Still all three performances in The Infinite Man are good, particularly McConville's, even if one finds it hard to root for a hero who is such a loser (and a tad creepy). Nor does Marshall's Lana give any real indication as to why two men would be so obsessed with her. But the heart wants what it wants, even if Hugh Sullivan's film is very much an intellectual rather than emotional exercise.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

FILM REVIEW: BOYHOOD



Universal Pictures

Richard Linklater would appear to be a filmmaker preoccupied with time. In his Before trilogy, he followed a couple -- Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) -- over the course of 20 years; revisiting them every nine years to see where they've been, where they are, and where they're headed.

That series culminated in 2013's Before Midnight -- and a tour de force performance by Delpy -- and was an extremely satisfying filmic journey and arguably one of the best trilogies in cinema.

And now in an even bolder cinema experiment, writer-director Linklater has set out to capture a life on film: following young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to 18, from boyhood to his first day of college. The ambitious conceit being that Mason isn't played by three different actors, as would happen in a typical coming of age film, but the one kid; captured on film every year for 12 years: Linklater and his cast gathering for a few days (39 in total) a year, every year over the time period.

Mason (and Coltrane, who has just turned 20) literally grows up before our eyes. There are no title cards to tell us what year it is (the film begins in 2000) or how old Mason is, but the ebb and flow of time is evident in the changing haircuts, his increasing height and his thinning out as Mason sheds his puppy fat and grows into a slim, long-limbed adolescent.

But it's not just Mason's journey we follow. His mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who raises him and his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter), is integral to the story, not just as the primary caregiver (she's separated from their dad, Mason Snr., Ethan Hawke) but as a woman trying to better herself (returning to college) and in turn provide a better life for her kids.

That involves some less than perfect marriages, for even someone studying, and eventually teaching psychology can repeat the same mistakes, over and over. But to err is human, and Boyhood is as much a coming of age story as it is a testament to single motherhood.

Essentially about nothing and everything, the magic of Linklater's experiment is just how much we are invested in these peoples' lives. Not just Mason's but his mum's (Arquette is the film's MVP), his dad's (Hawke, effortlessly impressive), sister and friends. People come and go as Mason and his family move homes, towns, and eventually away from each other.

That's life, and its milestones, big and small, are captured in all their banality without any fanfare or concocted melodrama. It may not require its 165-minute run time but your patience will be rewarded: you won't begrudge a second spent in the company of this family and in this boy's life.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

FILM REVIEW: MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT



eOne Films

Woody Allen makes a film every year. Every year. And without meaning to sound patronising, that's impressive for a 78-year-old. But there's a difference between keeping busy and producing good (or great) work, and the results are often evident in the New York auteur's post-2000 oeuvre.

For for every good film (Match Point (2005), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Midnight In Paris (2011), Blue Jasmine (2013)), Allen seems to follow-up with a less than stellar effort: Scoop (2006), and To Rome With Love (2012), for example. And so it is with Magic In The Moonlight, which, even if it didn't come so soon after the award-winning Blue Jasmine (and Cate Blanchett's towering tragi-comic performance) would suffer from unmet audience expectations.

For on paper, Magic in the Moonlight has the right ingredients to succeed, or at the very least entertain: two fine actors in the leads (Colin Firth and Emma Stone), a playful battle of wits between cynicism and open-mindedness, and period detail and picturesque locales in the south of France.

It's 1928, and professional magician Stanley Crawford (Firth), who works under the stage name (and yellow face) of Wei Ling Soo, is called upon by an old colleague, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), to travel to the Cote d'Azur where he believes a young American spiritualist is trying to swindle a visiting wealthy family. Stanley agrees, for if there is nothing he enjoys more than wowing an audience with his teleportation tricks -- elephants and himself -- it's debunking those who profess to claim actual powers of the occult.

Firth (the least Allen-esque avatar for some time) seems to be channeling his infamous Mr Darcy role, sans brooding silence. Stanley is never short of a word or two, and he's full of pride and extremely prejudiced. But his claws retract somewhat when he meets Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), the big-eyed, red-haired American who claims to be in contact with the spirit world. And like Elizabeth Bennett, Sophie takes great delight in confounding her scowling opposite.

The age difference aside, there's not much chemistry to speak of between Firth and Stone: Stanley's dialogue seems to consist of Allen bits on the meaningless of life, and when he's not sharing them with everyone he's letting everyone know how intellectually superior he is to them. As for Stone, ostensibly an ideal actress for a Woody Allen film, she looks great in period dress but her comic ability is under-utilized. Maybe it's the summer sun in the south of France, but there's a lack of energy to their interplay and the film in general.

Marcia Gay Harden, as Sophie's mother, and Jacki Weaver, as the wealthy widow in Sophie's sites (she plans to fund the young clairvoyant's research facility), aren't given a whole lot to do either, which is odd given that you can almost always rely on Woody to write great roles for women. But thankfully there's Eileen Atkins as Stanley's Aunt Vanessa, the only person whose opinion he values and who is not afraid to challenge his 'logical' ways.

Perhaps this late 1920s tale comes too soon in the wake of Midnight In Paris, where Allen's protag and avatar (played by Owen Wilson) found a way to travel back through time to Paris in the 1920s and hob-knob with his literary and artistic heroes. Indeed, at one Gatsby-esque party scene in Magic in the Moonlight, one can't help but hope for Marion Cotillard's muse from 'Midnight' to wander in off the lawn and lead us off to another more fascinating soiree.

Alas, that's not to be and ultimately Magic in the Moonlight fades not too long after the end credits roll. This is not a summer -- nor a Woody Allen film -- to remember. But we'll always we have Midnight in Paris.

Monday, 25 August 2014

FILM REVIEW: PREDESTINATION



Pinnacle Films

Predestination may begin simply enough -- a man walks into a bar -- but by the end of this taut little tale of time travel, you'll feel as though you've spent the evening in said bar, knocking back one too many stiff drinks. For to paraphrase the most famous of time travelers, the titular Doctor of long-running sci-fi TV series Doctor Who, Predestination is "wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey"; a mind-bending, head-scratcher of a film.

The aforementioned man is a newspaper advice columnist, whose pen name is The Unmarried Mother, and he believes he has a story worthy of winning a free bottle of whisky from the bartender (Ethan Hawke). As the night unfolds, the writer tells his incredulous story which begins in an orphanage, proceeds to a cadetship with the space program, and eventually leads to his current employment.

His story also begins with him as a female. And as played by Sarah Snook (looking a little like Leo DiCaprio; a little like Dane DeHaan), that tale is never less than riveting and empathetic. It is also linked to that of the Fizzle Bomber, a domestic terrorist who has been terrorizing the city.

The bomber is also the number one target of the bartender who happens to be a Temporal Agent i.e. time travelling cop, who has been in pursuit of the Fizzle Bomber for years. That the writer walked into this bar on this night is no accident either. That's about as much plot detail for Predestination as one can give before moving into spoiler territory. It's a riddle, wrapped in an enigma and paradoxical would be putting it mildly.

Adapted from a short story (All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein) by the Spierig Brothers, Michael and Peter (2009's Daybreakers), it's not unlike something the Wachowskis would enjoy sinking their teeth into; Predestination playing with theories of time and gender, and defying audience expectations to dizzying if not entirely logical effect. For be warned: your head will hurt by the time the end credits roll.

That's by no means a bad thing. Too few films today require a mental workout from its audience, and even if you guess at how the writer, the bartender and the bomber are linked, you're still likely to develop a migraine doing the 'chicken or the egg' calculations.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY



Walt Disney Studios Films

Food, glorious food. Cinema is no stranger to the culinary arts and long before MasterChef -- and social media -- made food porn a phenom, food has been lovingly, and lustily captured on film. Tampopo, Babette's Feast, Like Water For Chocolate, Eat Drink Man Woman, and even this year's Chef have all boasted menus as enticing and memorable as the characters and stories themselves.

Lasse Hallstrom, no stranger to food films (see 2000's Chocolat), directs The Hundred-Foot Journey, an adaptation by Steven Knight of the Robert C. Morais bestseller. Best described as a fairy tale, it tells the story of the Kadam family, restaurateurs in Mumbai who, following a personal tragedy, uproot to Europe and quite by accident -- literally -- decide to open an Indian restaurant in the south of France.

As fate or luck (or mere story contrivance) would have it, the Kadams' new kitchen is directly opposite the one-hat Michelin restaurant operated by Madame Mallory. As played by Helen Mirren, she's an imperious woman who objects as much to another restaurant opening on her doorstep (the two venues are a hundred feet apart, separated by a road) as she is to these loud, colourful foreigners bringing down the tone of the neighbourhood.

Madame Mallory and Papa Kadam (veteran Indian actor, Om Puri) immediately lock horns but Hassan (Manish Dayal), the natural chef of the family (there are four other siblings), is determined to make a go of the new restaurant as well as win the Madame over with his culinary skills, not to mention the heart of her sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon).

The French locales are idyllic and the food is appetite-inducing. And while Mirren is a solid presence, it is the charming and wily Puri who steals their scenes together. American Dayal also makes for a handsome if a little wet protagonist but there's nothing remotely challenging or, indeed, original about The Hundred-Foot Journey. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's the movie equivalent of comfort food, more a French pastry than a spicy Indian dish and there's nothing wrong with that if that's what you're in the mood for.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

FILM REVIEW: BEGIN AGAIN



Roadshow Films

Can a song save your life? Perhaps, at the right time and place. It certainly provides a lifebuoy for flailing record producer and A&R man, Dan (Mark Ruffalo), who is having a very bad day when he stumbles into a New York bar and into the audience of an impromptu performance by Gretta (Keira Knightley). Her sugary/folksy vocals on a self-penned song about suicide-by-subway has Dan seeing a star -- not to mention player-less instruments springing to life -- in the making.

But Gretta's not looking to be discovered. She's actually booked a return flight to London the next day, heartbroken after the collapse of her relationship with boyfriend and songwriting partner, Dave (Maroon 5's Adam Levine), whose career has skyrocketed following the inclusion of one of his compositions on a hit film's soundtrack.

That may be a sly nod to writer-director John Carney's most famous film Once, the glorious little Irish indie which won hearts and an Oscar for Best Original Song in 2007. Begin Again (originally titled Can A Song Save Your Life?) is no Once (my favourite film of 2007), but like his more famous film, Carney has produced a charming, sweet and unaffected tale of two souls brought together by, and healed and redeemed through the power of music.

Replacing actual musicians (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) with Hollywood A-listers may lose some of the authenticity of the Dublin-set musical, but Begin Again is no less winning as Gretta and Dan, and a bunch of fellow musicians, including Gretta's fellow ex-pat, Steve (James Corden), record an album of original tracks (Knightley performs all her own singing with the songs penned by Gregg Alexander) on the streets of New York over the course of a week or so during the summer; Yaron Orbach's camera capturing a picture-perfect if not-so touristy Big Apple.

Ruffalo, looking homeless but exuding charm, and Knightley, refreshingly corset-free and as lovely as she's ever been, have an easy chemistry and there's a constant 'will they, won't they' tension between the two throughout the film; their attraction kept at bay by the work at hand and their emotional realities: Dan wants to make amends with his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and his adolescent daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), while Gretta debates herself about reconciliatory gestures from Dave.

The ending may not be as bitter-sweet and note-perfect as Once but John Carney ensures Begin Again ends on the right note. Like the most effective pop music, it works its way in and leaves you with a smile on your face and a skip in your step.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

FILM REVIEW: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

Walt Disney Studios Films/Marvel Films

Adapting Marvel Comics' Guardians of the Galaxy for the big screen was seen as the riskiest venture yet for Marvel Studios/Disney who, with The Avengers -- assembled, and individually -- had a better known property and thus a more solid ($6.3 billion and counting, though not all Disney; Paramount launched the first five) financial investment with Iron-man, Thor, Captain America and The Hulk.

That trepidation may also have had something to do with the Guardians, who are not superheroes, boasting a trigger-happy raccoon and a vocab-challenged tree among its group of rag tag misfits who, like The Avengers, come together to defeat world-destroying evil. (The risk certainly isn't in the plotting, which, penned by Nicole Perlman and director James Gunn, follows a proven Marvel template.)

Or maybe it was that these adventures took place in space, in galaxies far, far away? For while Disney may have every confidence in the success of the next Star Wars film, there's always the spectre of John Carter in the back of their minds (and accounts department). That somewhat unfairly maligned 2011 martian adventure -- and subsequent flop -- couldn't garner much audience interest even after dropping the 'Of Mars' from its title: "Hey, look guys, no more space!"

Guardians begins on Earth, and in 1988, where a young Peter Quill bids a teary farewell to his sickly mother in her hospital bed before being whisked away by a spaceship before he's even had the chance for a good cry. Cut to 26 years later and Quill (played by Chris Pratt; slimmed down, buffed up and relishing his new found leading man status) is a scavenger-for-hire, travelling across the galaxy to retrieve artifacts for a price.

That's how Quill comes into possession of the orb, an energy source which is also able to level entire planets. As such, it is a highly desired object by all but especially Ronan (Lee Pace), a survivor of a once proud now subjugated race who, with the backing of Thanos (yes, the villain glimpsed at the end of The Avengers), is out to wreak revenge.

It's in his bid to evade capture by all and sundry that Quill comes into contact with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a kick ass lieutenant of Ronan's who has her own agenda, and Rocket and Groot, the aforementioned raccoon and tree who are an odd couple, bounty hunting duo who recall Han Solo and Chewbacca but operate on a whole other level of dysfunction.

Imprisoned together they meet the final member of their eventual quintet, Drax the Destroyer (former WWE wrestler, Dave Bautista), a mountain of a man who takes everything literally and who wants in with the others for the chance to avenge the death of his family at the hands of Ronan.

And as good as Pratt and Saldana (seemingly the sci-fi blockbuster go-to girl after Avatar and Star Trek) are, it is the CGI duo and Bautista who steal the show. Who knew a former pro-wrestler, let alone a tree and psycho rodent, could provide most of the film's thrills, laughs and, yes, some heart.

It's not a motion-capture performance like that of Andy Serkis' Caesar in the Apes films, but Cooper brings a depth to the life-like CGI of the bitter critter, Rocket. By turns comic and cynical, with a barely contained rage, it's a voice performance to rival the best -- Eddie Murphy (Shrek), Ellen DeGeneres (Finding Nemo) -- of the best. Groot, too, is an impressive achievement given the tree-like being's limited vocabulary. Having said that, Vin Diesel's voice work is a little less integral to the success of the character's achieving its unlikely humanity.

Of course, they owe a great debt to the screenplay which boasts a lively sense of humour, tossing off quips and one-liners, pop culture references and a little blue work at a steady pace. Perlamn and Gunn (and no doubt with Avengers maestro Joss Whedon's once-over) ensuring that zero gravity need not mean zero laughs. Guardians of the Galaxy is a lot of fun.

At the time of writing, Guardians had debuted to an impressive $166 million worldwide opening weekend, including an August record of $94m in the U.S., so that risk (perhaps in letting Gunn, a writer-director with minor successes and not-so mainstream appeal?) seems to have paid off. Maybe Marvel honcho Kevin Feige will rethink his recent statement that Marvel Studios will not be doing a female superhero film in the foreseeable future?