SIGNIS REVIEWS FEBRUARY 2009
BATTLE IN SEATTLE
HENRY POOLE IS HERE
MARLEY AND ME
MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D
MY MOM'S NEW BOYFRIEND
NICK AND NORA'S INFINITE PLAYLIST
PUNISHER:WAR ZONE, The
SECRET OF MOONACRE, The
UNDERWORLD: THE RISE OF THE LYCANS
WHO KILLED NANCY?
BATTLE IN SEATTLE
(US, 2008, d. Stuart Townsend)
World Trade Organisation meetings come and go, many of them do not make much lasting impact. The meeting in Seattle in 1999 was memorable in the extent of the protest against the G8, the sabotaging of the sessions and the violence in the streets of a city which had high prosperity hopes from hosting the meeting.
Stuart Townsend is best known as an actor (Simon Magus, Queen of the Damned). He does not appear in this film but was the writer and director. He has made a creditable job of evoking and maintaining interest in the dramatising of the protest as well as highlighting the reasons for it. He also shows how best-intentioned protests can be disrupted by extremists whose violent behaviour brings in the authorities who meet violence with violence (as was shown in such films as Paul Greengrass's re-creation of the clashes in Derry on Bloody Sunday).
Townsend has integrated footage from the time to give his film greater realism and urgency.
The screenplay is a day-by-day account beginning with the preparations for the meeting, the plans of the mayor (Ray Liotta) for security, the strategies of the protesters and their non-violent intentions. A fictional story is introduced to show ordinary, non-political people, in Seattle as well as the story of a security policeman. Charlize Theron is a pregnant woman who works in a city store and is unwittingly trapped in the mayhem in the streets. Woody Harrelson is her husband, a loving man, who is caught up in the police activity and, in a surprisingly shocking sequence, loses his cool and bashes the leader of the protest (Martin Henderson).
The media is ever-present, the focus being on an ambitious reporter (Jennifer Carpenter) who opts to stay with the riots rather than film the arrival of Bill Clinton and finishes up arrested and re-thinking her political position.
With the editing and pace, Townsend is able to stir up his audience just as the protesters and the police are being stirred up. Particularly telling is a small sub-plot where a doctor from Medicins Sans Frontieres (Rade Serbedzija) is prevented from getting to a conference and, later, when he has an opportunity, he is confronted by pharmaceutical company representatives.
The film takes the side of protest and argues the possibility of peaceful demonstration when it is controlled and participants co-operate. The film also shows the hotheads, their more fanatical approach, whether ideological or simply anti-authoritarian, and the disastrous results. The repercussions for the city and for innocent victims caught up in the violence are also shown.
A very interesting example of a film with social concern, emotionally involving its audience as well as asking them to think through their attitudes.
(US, 2008, d. Chris Williams and Byron Howard)
What a very entertaining surprise.
Because Bolt is a dog, a particularly cute little canine, the film will have its fans. And pitted against some cats, the dog is sure to win.
There is enough action during most of the film to keep children's audiences (a bit older than the very littlies) attentive and a spirit of adventure, comedy and heroic climax. That's the review for the children! What follows is the review for the adults who will probably enjoy themselves more than in many another animated film.
The film is very well written by Chris Williams and Dan Fogelman (who wrote Cars). There is plenty of plot and the dialogue is sharp and funny with lots of irony at the expense of Hollywood and the world of television (including the viewers!).
The premiss has been done before, for instance, Purple Rose of Cairo where the screen actors have to deal with real life or Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Last Action Hero where the comic book hero finds himself in the real world without
any experience of how to deal with reality like money.
While Bolt is picked from the pet shop by a little girl, it is only after a rip-roaring episode of a TV series where Bolt is the super-hero dog rescuing the girl, Penny, that we realise that poor Bolt is a victim of method acting. He has to be kept at the studio in his trailer so that he has no distractions from keeping in character. By the way, the episode plays on every cliché but seeing Bolt do the heroics gives them new life. And then we see how the series is being made, especially the special effects for the wonder dog – who believes that he really does have super-powers.
After this there are some funny send-ups of television directors who take themselves ultra-seriously, a hard-bitten executive from the networks head office and an agent with a patter that has to be heard to be believed.
When the networks decide that a cliffhanger episode is needed, Bolt thinks that Penny has really been kidnapped by the evil Dr Calico and escapes the studio to search for Penny. Much of the comedy is in Bolt's trying to do his superpower acts seriously and finding all kinds of explanations why he is failing. In New York he meets several pigeons who know his face but can't put a name to it (despite the huge hoardings in front of them). They trick a hungry cat, Mittens, who gets food from them in return for protection, into becoming Bolt's captive and companion on the road trip back to Hollywood. All kinds of funny adventures to keep us entertained. With more pigeons in LA making a pitch to improve the series by introducing aliens.
And, enter Rhino, a hamster in a bubble who is Bolt's number one fan and believes everything. His babble is also very funny.
The climax is tearful then slambang heroics, but Bolt has learned the truth and accepted it – and is the better actor for it.
Attractively drawn, edited with pace, it is voiced by an excellent group of actors. John Travolta has quite a range as the voice of Bolt, Miley Cyrus is Penny and Malcolm McDowell? the required English villain as Dr Calico. Special praise to Suzie Essman from Curb Your Enthusiasm for a very effective Mittens. Mark Walton is often hilarious as Rino and Greg Germann is particularly good as the agent.
Filmed in 3D but it won't matter too much if you see it in a flat screen version.
(US, 2008, d. Randall Miller)
Very embarrassing in these years when so many people know all about wines for this reviewer to admit that he had no idea what bottle shock was. It seems it has something to do with turning the bottles of wine during their maturing.
And, if you didn't know this, Bottle Shock will give you some vineyard and wine information overload. For those who do, then they will revel in this Napa Valley wine story.
It seems that it is based on actual events and the characters both in the US and in France are real personalities who were consultants on the film.
In the early 1970s, Steven Spurrier was an Englishman living in Paris, a connoisseur of wines, who was advised to diversify in his shop's wine stock (by an American expatriate played by Denis Farina). He tours California (with plenty of dialogue illustrating Americans' bemusement with the British, attitudes and expressions) and comes to appreciate the little known wines that he discovers. He sets up a wine tasting competition in Paris as the United States is celebrating its Bicentenary. As played by Alan Rickman, he is a sardonic observer of the wine industry.
Meanwhile, in Napa, Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) has left a high profile job to create a vineyard with high ambitions to produce a distinctive wine. He is helped by his son Bo (Chris Pine) though his easy going style irritates his father. He is also very wary of Spurrier and his intentions, presuming that the competition is just a set-up to promote French wines.
If wine does not absorb your attention, you will have too much time to observe the odd performance of Bill Pullman, trying to work out his inconsistent motivations and the odd rivalry of Bo and co-worker Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez) for the attentions of apprentice Sam (Rachael Taylor). One of the climaxes is the seeming failure of the entire output for the year. But, of course, the real climax is the wine tasting – and its results.
Thirty years later, as Spurrier is given lines to say, the French now have rivals from wines from all around the world.
Steven Spurrier, Jim Barrett and Bo Barrett all advised on the film.
(US, 2009, d. Gary Winick)
In the last ten years, moviegoers fond of Hollywood films have seen wedding planners, wedding singers, wedding crashers and a perennial bridesmaid with 27 dresses. For audiences who liked 27 Dresses and looking at bridal magazines, then Bride Wars is as good as any other.
It is confetti-lite.
The plot is fairly simple. Two childhood friends have an ambition to be June brides at New York's Plaza Hotel. Liv (Kate Hudson with black eye make-up and blonde hair which make her look a little sinister) and Emma (Anne Hathaway, no complaints) confide in each other, rely on each other – and become engaged at the same time. And, if you have seen the trailers or ads, you know that their bookings go wrong and they are both set for the same day, same time. Who will give way? The bridal wars are on and there are no holds barred (mean tricks, sabotaging beauty treatments...).
It's all more or less as you would expect, not a comedy of big laughs but a cheery (if some of the tactics can fall into that category), smiling entertainment. Candice Bergen (who brought The Women to life) is welcome as the haughty, never-make-an-error wedding planner.
For those not completely enthralled by wondering who will win and who might be speculating on how it will all end, it was not quite what was expected. Expecting, however, is the key word for the final sequence – which could lead to a sequel, Christening Wars.
(UK, 2008, d. Sean Ellis)
When one reads that writer-director, Sean Ellis, has been a fashion photographer, it is clear where The Broken gets its stylish look from. And, visually stylish it is with its aerial views of London, its vivid photography of streets and homes and with its sinister moments.
This is a film about mirrors and those who live behind mirrors – and who emerges for not only seven years' bad luck but immediate taking over of the real life selves. There are malevolent doppelgangers behind the mirrors and when they get out, they are merciless. Not a new idea, of course. Kiefer Sutherland discovered this to his cost in the 2008 Mirrors which, in turn, was a remake of a Korean film while the Japanese made Into the Mirror.
There is a certain trickiness in The Broken while we try to work out who is who, especially with Gina, played by Lena Headey. Just when you think you are seeing the malevolent mirror Gina, it turns out to be the nice one and vice versa. (There is also some crypto-science in the background about the rare number of people who have their heart on the right side.) It is clearer with Gina's French boyfriend, Melvil Poupard. He is destroyed and the mirror boyfriend has invaded him. And there is a gory scene where Gina's sister-in-law is taken over.
The other central character is Gina's father, played by American Richard Jenkins (The Visitor).
After a brain-tormenting opening quotation from Edgar Alan Poe about murdering the other self within us, those who want to stay with the film have a demanding task in sorting out what has happened. The dog in the film is credited as Kubrick Ellis – now that's a homage to The Shining!
(Australia, 2007, d. Shane Abbess)
Some dark comic-strip, graphic novel films have been made in Australia, films like Dark City and The Matrix series, so why not a home grown version with nods to films like Constantine (in which the angel Gabriel, in the form of Tilda Swinton, had a leading role)? And, small-budget and shooting time extended over a long period to get the film made, here it is.
While Gabriel, Michael and Raphael are central characters (and are referred to as Arc Angels), there is not much further biblical reference and God is not a central player at all. Rather, this is a mixum gatherum of biblical names, myths and legends and some invention on the part of the writer and director. Oh, there is a purgatory which seems a variation on the dark city where souls go when not able to get to heaven and where angels go to help out and redeem people, assuming human appearances and sometimes becoming human.
The film relies on dark and often sinister visual style, a bit like the Matrix underworld. And the style is quite stylish with special attention to the limited locations and costume design. Much has been achieved with comparatively little.
The plot, like most of these graphic stories, is complicated and convoluted. Michael has already gone to the dark city but has failed in his mission. Now Gabriel is the last hope. He has to deal with a sinister character, S, who has had a Lucifer experience and has descended if not into hell at least into this purgatorial nether world.
There are various former angels (which provides some romantic interludes for Gabriel) as well as some humans. Eventually, there are some action sequences of the martial arts and brawl variety – and a twist that shows that evil is more powerful than good and Gabriel is challenged to self-sacrifice with the hope of some light in the darkness.
Andy Whitfield makes a decent Gabriel and Dwaine Stevenson is a sinister S.
A spirited (to coin a phrase) attempt to do something visually creative with popular pop storytelling from an Australian and quite ambitious group of young film-makers.
HENRY POOLE IS HERE
(US, 2008, d. Mark Pelington)
This is a film for those who prefer nice films with a touch of the spiritual. It is a film that would give ulcers to devout members of the Sceptics Society. It would be dangerous to the health of those who are members of the Association for the Prevention of Sentiment in the Movies.
Why is this?
Henry Poole is a morose man who wants to buy the house he grew up in but has to settle for one up the street. He wants to be alone and says he will not be there long – which makes us suspect already that he is not long for this world. This does not make for a cheery plot. There are attempts to be cheery on the part of the neighbours and the check-out girl at the supermarket who, despite her thick lenses, quickly sees that Henry is a miserable human being and she offers herself as a good listener. No deal. Henry just wants to be left alone.
What changes the plot and what disturbs Henry is his Latino neighbour detecting the face of Jesus on an outside wall that has been newly plastered. Is it or isn't it? The audience never gets a really good look. And, that is one of the points. Does it matter? If it doesn't, why bother? And if it does, what does it mean in terms of faith and, of course, miracles?
Henry is of the sceptic school of thought. However, people start to come in pilgrimage. The little girl next door (who records voices, which becomes an important plot device at the end) has not spoken since her father abandoned her and her mother a year earlier. Henry becomes friendly with her and she speaks, miracle or not. Her mother is a charming and cheerful person and makes friends with Henry.
Most audiences will see where this is going. Henry is faced with a belief crisis. The solution will satisfy those who want a feeling answer to issues. By that time, the sceptics may have fled the cinema.
Luke Wilson, sad and lonely, is on screen most of the time as Henry. Radha Mitchell is very nice as the sympathetic friend. Adriana Barazza is convincing as the face-of-Christ-prone neighbour.
And, faith and miracles are still possible.
(Belgium, 2008, d. Mabrouk El Mechri)
Who or what does JCVD stand for? A Japanese company? A slogan for Justice?
If you belong to the movie martial arts community, you would never ask that kind of question. Everybody knows that this is the acronym for the muscles from Brussels, Jean Claude Van Damme.
Van Damme is one of those surprising stars who has gathered an enormous following over more than twenty years. He is short. He has very limited range in his acting abilities. Nevertheless, he has his fans. Just look at comments on the IMDb about each of his films, even the weakest of them (which has been the case in his choice of movies in more recent years).
He and his writer and director had a brainwave about a different kind of film, one that could capitalise on his reputation, his on-screen talent – and his personal difficulties concerning custody of his daughter and the LA courts. What they have done is set up an emergency visit by Van Damme to a suburban Brussels post office to get a money order. Fair enough, and the fans he meets on the way are delighted. However, when he insists that the office open, he finds a hold-up in progress and he becomes one of the hostages. The ringleader is not impressed with him but one of the robbers wants to indulge in hero worship.
The twist is that the robbers decide to make it look as if Van Damme is doing the robbery to get his money for his lawyers who threaten to quit. We see the robbery from the police point of view, from the outside and with a doctor and an officer who go into the building. Then we see it from the inside, how Van Damme is being forced, the same actions with a much different reality than the previous appearances. And a fight showdown.
Van Damme is more interesting than usual, with some flashbacks to the court proceedings and, above all, a monologue straight to camera about himself, his hopes, ambitions, mistakes and regrets, his plans for better films (despite the scenes with his agent and the usual agent palaver). One presumes that, like Marlon Brando, he had cue cards to read this long speech from. But, it works quite well.
Not a bad interlude for our hero before he goes back (as he did) to his straight-to-DVD B-grade actioners.
(Australia, 2007, d. Michael James Rowland)
At the end of the film we see that 'Lucky Miles' is the name of a bus company that operates in the north west of Western Australia. This is the bus line that the characters in this film hope to use to get to Perth. They have no idea of how far away it is. The thing is, they are illegal immigrants, refugees stranded by Indonesian fisherman who have taken their money. One group is from Cambodia. Another group is from Iraq. They have made their way towards Australia via Indonesia and now they are lost. Some of them are found by the authorities. Two of them elude capture and are joined by one of the fishermen in a trek through the desert – the unlucky miles.
Since 1788, any newcomer to Australia has had to migrate, easily by plane or, with so many, with great difficulty by boat. The three men are different and strong characters. The Iraqui (Rodney Afif) is an educated man, an engineer. The Cambodian man (Kenneth Moraleda) is young and is looking for his Australian father who left his mother in Phnom Penh long since. The Indonesian fisherman is a bit of a rascal.
The writer director has based his screenplay on a number of actual stories of such migrants.
In pursuit is a genial group of army reservers, two of whom are aboriginal and who are able to track the men (but delayed when the non-aboriginal is careless with their van and it gets bogged). They are controlled from headquarters by a friendly voice (Deborah Mailman).
One of the striking features of Lucky Miles is its photography. Many of the vistas of desert or of coast are stunning.
The drama is not just the trek and its hardships and their almost dying in the inhospitable desert but also the interactions, short-temperedness and angers of the men. And, in the background, is a chorus of hard-drinking and tough workers who populate the outback.
The film is topical in its picture of people dreaming that Australia is their refuge and discovering harsher realities. It is topical in its presentation of the multi-ethnic variety that makes up Australia as well as an acknowledgement of aborigines in the 20th and 21st centuries.
MARLEY AND ME
(US, 2008, d. David Frankel)
Wedding, dogs, jobs, dogs, family, dogs – and dogs.
Marley is a very big labrador who has a voracious appetite, which is not limited to food. Any object around the house is worthy of a bite and a chew. While cuddly, Marley could also knock over the unsuspecting bystander.
Dog lovers have taken this film to heart. It made over $100,000,000 in the US alone during the 2008 Christmas period. (Although one dog lover confided that Marley's life was too untrained and undisciplined and she found the film rather trying.)
For those who have been almost bowled over at the front door of friends' homes by seemingly marauding and leaping dogs, Marley and Me might recall canine traumas.
That said, Marley and Me is a pleasant, agreeable film. In fact, it is very, very traditional in its presentation of marriage, love, children and family – and pets. Perhaps this is why it has appealed, a wholesome look at nice values.
Owen Wilson brings his genial laid-back comic approach to the role of John Grogan, a would-be reporter who has a talent for writing newspaper columns, observations of life in the suburbs – and about Marley. Jennifer Aniston has an opportunity to take on something more substantial as Jen Grogan, reporter, then mother.
There are some added bonuses, a glimpse of Kathleen Turner as a curmudgeonly dog trainer (who can't get the better of Marley) and Alan Arkin as Grogan's world-weary editor.
After spending almost two hours with John and Jen and then with their children, and moving from sunny Florida to snow Pennsylvania, we have to face the fact that Marley is getting old and, considering what has gone into Marley's stomach over the years, death is a possibility. 'Oh, you who have tears, prepare to shed them now.'
Yes, there can be feel-sad, feel-good films.
(Australia, 2008, d. Mark Forstman)
Those who know their trees will not think that this is a mystery about chimps. The monkey puzzle of the title is a tree in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney that means a lot to the central character, Carl (Ben Geurens). It may not mean so much to the audience.
This is one of those films that seems to have been written by a very young man, about very young men and women (20 or so), whose horizons are fairly limited and whose life experience so far has not been particularly profound or even interesting. Their incidental chat tends to be of the crasser kind.
We are invited to join them in a bush walk in the Blue Mountains. They leave on Good Friday and there are some hints of meaning about Easter but, by and large, it gets limited to Easter eggs.
The men are two friends. Carl's brother has died tragically some years earlier and Dylan was his friend. However, as the trip goes on, Dylan, as they say, continues to 'mess up', losing the map and leaving the food out overnight so that it is devoured by scavenging animals. There are two young women along and an older man who needs to pick up a car after the trek.
The group explores, squabbles, worries about food. Dylan disappears. Zach is injured in a fight. Will they find the tree? Will they get out safely? Will they give more thought to the meaning of their lives? A qualified 'yes' to some of the above.
MY MOM'S NEW BOYFRIEND
(US, 2007, d. George Gallo)
Did anyone years ago, while watching When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle or You've Got Mail, ever fantasise about seeing Meg Ryan in a fat-suit? For those who didn't, here she is, larger than any anti-obesity ad. It's only in the first few minutes of this comedy (and a photo or two later) that she appears as a gross-out, but here she is.
Meg Ryan has made only a few films in recent years and is not up there amongst the top-drawer stars. Whether she should have said 'yes' to this film is a reasonable question. In the past she got by on a kind of giggly, girlish charm. Now, in her mid-40s, she obviously wants a change of image and has gone for rough and raucous (but still giggly – with the touch of the screech).
This is a romantic comedy which has some entertaining ideas but doesn't quite bring them to life. Antonio Banderas does his usual thing as a charming Mediterranean who happens to be an art thief and falls in love with the rejuvenated Meg. Colin Hanks (in a role that his father might have played twenty five years ago) is Meg's rather proper son who is an FBI agent. Selma Blair, in letting-her-hair-down mode, is his fiancee, also an agent.
When the son has to use surveillance on the thief, he listens in to his mother's escapades, unsettling for him – though he brings the case to a satisfying conclusion and promotion along with a romantic twist that we should have seen coming.
Mild – and we need a better Meg Ryan comeback film.
MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D
(US, 2008, d. Patrick Lussier)
Bloody, all right – or bloody all wrong.
The original My Bloody Valentine was released in 1981, one of the many slasher films that followed the box-office success of Halloween and Friday the 13th (incidentally re-made in 3D, early 2009). This version keeps a number of the elements of the original. The more interesting aspects are those of the decline of a mining town. However, that is not what the fans will be wanting to see.
This is not quite a slasher film in the sense that the serial killer takes his pick – his tool of impalement is the mining pick. You know where you stand early in the piece when the lone survivor of a mine accident wakes from coma and massacres everyone in sight, clad in his mining suit and mask which enables victims and audience to hear his ominous breathing. Since this is 3D, we have in depth close-ups of pick blows, blood gushes and flying gory body parts. When ten years later, the killings start again, we know we are in for more of the same as victims are picked off (so to speak).
The sex component is introduced and is rather sleazy with one character having to be chased and defend her life for several minutes, naked. Acting is not a major requirement here. The director is Patrick Lussier, long-time editor, and director of the very interesting Dracula 2000.
Sitting in the cinema, glasses perched on ordinary glasses, making judgement on the morality of the film, and thinking the motivation for the killings was quite trite, I found that I had completely missed reading the cues and clues concerning the murderer and picked (so to speak again) the wrong killer!
NICK AND NORA'S INFINITE PLAYLIST
(US, 2008, d. Peter Sollett)
Even the title, with its references to downloading, laying down record tracks and the I-Pod? culture, means some reviewers will be feeling a touch antique or out-of-date. This is a film about teens at the end of high school. Some of them have grown up (comparatively speaking) too fast and are on a track to alcoholism, promiscuity and burn-out before 20. So, this is a sometimes indulgent look at clubbing and its effect on the young.
However... Nick and Nora are not quite that type of teenager. Nora is a somewhat reserved daughter of a record company boss but does not make much of it. Rather, she keeps an eye on her disaster-prone school friend (depressingly, it is revealed they go to Sacred Heart school). Nick is a reserved nerdish type, who lays down tracks, especially for his fickle girlfriend, and is socially awkward while being able to be articulately straightforward opinions. He belongs to a band made up of three gay friends (of the partying variety).
This is one of those overnight stories where teens are looking for clues to find where their favourite band is playing. Along the way, misfortune, misunderstanding – and some reconciliation. The drinking girl goes immediately to binge, then goes to pieces, getting lost. Nora wants to find her. The band want to set up Nick with Nora. They lose the drunken girl. And so on.
Some of the dialogue is amusing, especially Nick and his observations on life. He is played by Michael Cera in the engaging dorkish manner he used in Superbad and Juno. Kat Jennings is good as Nora – but a bit hard to believe, given her appearance and obviously strong character, that she is so reserved and diffident.
The vagaries of a night on the town by teens who are not supervised or accountable – with some final touches, briefly, of hope.
THE PUNISHER:WAR ZONE
(US, 2008, d. Lexi Alexander)
Sadistic, to say the least.
Butchery of enemies is the main cause of complaint. There is a savagery in the way that the Punisher wreaks vengeance on his targets (most of them quite worthless human specimens) and in the way that the villains relish their brutality.
In reading the press notes and the statements of the film-makers about the graphic novels and their fidelity to them as well as their owing it to Punisher fans to remain faithful, one is impressed by the high-minded expressions. While the Punisher is not a super-human hero with extraordinary powers, he is not a role model. He is a vigilante, overwrought by the brutal deaths of his wife and children (suggested in flashbacks and in his visit to the cemetery) who wants to eliminate corruption. He becomes a law unto himself, a morose avenger. When he kills an undercover agent along with a Mafia coven, he is consumed by remorse and a desire to help the widow and her daughter.
On paper, that sounds a potential exploration of contemporary justice themes. However, the stolid performance by Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle, the Punisher, tends to conceal rather than reveal what might be going on in his heart and conscience. If the brutality were to be modified and not so self-indulgently ugly, then it might have been an interesting exploration of themes.
The technical craft and effects are top-class and Dominic West as the facially deformed Jigsaw is obviously relishing the opportunity to ham up the psychopathic aspects of his mania. But, the visual sadism is too much.
(US, 2008, d. David Wain)
American comedies are getting harder and harder to review. One of the reasons is that, in recent decades, Americans have exercised a concerted push to get over their traditional Puritanism about humour, especially about sex, and are continually overcoming their inhibitions. This sometimes means, as with the comedies from Jud Apatow, there is a great deal of funny stuff, peppered with expletives and, for those who get it, plenty of innuendo. And the reason, they are hard to review is that often they are very funny, sometimes in an 'off-colour' way and are not embarrassed (as some of the audience may be) by the treatment of sex and humour.
This applies to Role Models which has its heart in the right place but its jokes are in the, at least, above-PG area. It is often very funny.
Paul Rudd (who is one of the writers) is Danny and Seann William Scott (whom audiences tend to identify with his uninhibited Stifler character from American Pie – and he is not entirely different here) is Wheeler. They work long at a silly routine for schools. They foster an anti-drug campaign and promote a soda called Minotaur. Rudd gives the spiel and Scott is dressed as a dancing minotaur. After ten years, this gets too much for Danny and he breaks, and is ditched by his long-time girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks).
After several legal mishaps they are sentenced to 150 hours community work at Sturdy Wings, a centre for difficult or unwanted children, run by a very comically eccentric Jane Lynch.
You know, of course, where this is going: the resistance from the kids, the ineptitude of Danny and Wheeler, the bonding, the mistakes and crises, the happy ending. But, you wonder how it will get there.
The two boys are very good. Christopher Mintz- Plasse is the very embodiment of the bespectacled nerd who is most at home living and doing battle in a make-believe world a la Lord of the Rings and caught up in the re-enactments in the local park. Bobb'e J. Thompson is a ten year old with a mouth, vocabulary and attitude that would give Stifler a run for his money (and does do that to Wheeler).
Obviously, if you are feeling in a proper and prim mood, this is not for you. Otherwise, a guilty entertainment – justified, of course, by the correct ending.
THE SECRET OF MOONACRE
(UK, 2008, d. Gabor Csupo)
It is a reasonable complaint to make that most of the movie action leads are male, from James Bond to Harry Potter. Hermione does make her claim but ultimately follows Harry. There have been Lara Croft and Elektra and the girls in The Golden Compass and Inkheart, but compared with the Supermen, the Iron Men, the Spidermen... the women have been outnumbered.
So, on that count alone, The Secret of Moonacre, stands out from the other action adventures and mythical and imaginary stories. As you watch it, you realise that this is the aim of the film-makers and that the boys are going to give this one a miss.
The film is based on a 1946 novel, The Little White Horse, by Elizabeth Goudge. I presume we can believe the publicists when they tell us that it has been published in 16 languages and was the favourite childhood book of J.K.Rowling. It won the Carnegie Medal for children's literature in 1947 – and the publicist adds, 'The book appeals to consecutive generations of girls'. In a poll by The Independent is was voted top book for 8-12 year olds and still sells over 30,000 copies each year.
That certainly establishes the niche market and the girls (maybe 7 to 14) will quite enjoy it. It does not have the scope of the wilder imagination stories. There are some wonderful special effects but the storytelling tends to be quite plain.
The setting is the 1870s, Victorian London and then the remote English coast. This means a lot of attention to décor and, especially, to dresses.
Our heroine is a strong-minded girl, Maria Merrywether, whose father's death means that she has to live with her stern uncle. However, her father, having lost all his money and house through gambling, has bequeathed her a fantasy book about Moonacre. This comes alive for Maria: a wedding several hundred years earlier which was to be happy for a magical Moon Princess but was thwarted by a clash between her family, the De Noirs (who do dress in black), and her fiance's family, the Merrywethers. The Moonacre Valley is cursed. The moon is growing larger and threatens to overwhelm the valley in darkness. A descendant of the De Noirs fled to marry a Merrywether (Maria's uncle) but they quarrelled and she lives in the woods while he lives in his mansion, a grumpy man. Her family roam the forest, the father bent on vengeance.
So, that is the scenario for Maria to confront, overcome the curse, bring the lovers together and restore peace and light to the valley.
Dakota Blue Richards proved herself in The Golden Compass. Her difficulties are not so great this time but she faces them with determination. Natascha Mc Elhone is the Moon Princess and the abandoned bride. Ioan Gruffudd is the crusty uncle while Tim Curry is De Noir. Juliet Stevenson is along as Maria's protective guardian with a trapped wind problem – and takes over many a scene with her kind of pantomime dame comedy.
Gabor Csupo animated the early seasons of The Simpsons and The Rugrats and directed the fine children's fable,The Bridge to Terabithia.
(US, 2008, d. Frank Miller)
Poor reviews and weak box-office in the US seemed to indicate that there was something wrong with this version of a comic book hero and villain. Maybe there is. However, this review is very favourable.
Not being a fan of Sin City, written by Frank Miller who co-directed with Robert Rodriguez - it was ugly and brutal in themes and treatment, and thinking that Zac Snyder's version of Miller's 300 was absurdly camp, I expected this to be as bizarre as the other films. Not so. While it has big guns blazing in exaggerated cartoonish style, it has no rough language to speak of (only the 'kick ass' variety). To that extent, it is more general audience friendly.
But, where it may not be general audience friendly is precisely where it is so interesting. If you want to see a cinematic experience of pop art, then The Spirit could be it.
Firstly the style - because that is what makes the immediate impact. It looks like a comic strip come to life (as did Sin City and 300). However, The Spirit has a more consistent and consistently interesting style. It is generally filmed in black and white and red. There are some blues now and again and some tints of green and grey, but the black and red is visually striking. The cityscapes and locations are stylised. So are the characters and their costumes with inventive lighting. They look and sound as if they are in a comic strip. You can imagine the bubble in the frame with the dialogue. Stunt work and effects are designed to create an urban unreality into which we are invited. Art students will be fascinated by The Spirit.
Secondly, the content.
One of the difficulties for those not in the know or fans of Will Eisner's creation is that we are plunged right into the action as this strange masked man, The Spirit, goes into action to protect the city (often rhapsodising about the city as his mother and his love and life commitment) which, in its turn, provides opportunities (manhole lids to deflect bullets) to protect him. The commissioner calls on him to help (he is a bit like Spiderman at times in helping people) but is always exasperated with him. He has a way with women which frustrates the commissioner's doctor daughter who is in love with him. His nemesis is an arch criminal called The Octopus. Neither seems to be affected by weapons and fighting which makes the proceedings more mysterious.
It is at about an hour into the film that we get a complete explanation of who The Spirit is, how he died and was resuscitated and how he has committed himself to serve the city. We also get an explanation of the megalomania of The Octopus and his plan to blend his DNA with that of Heracles(!) so that he can become both human and divine. Well! But intriguingly interesting.
Gabriel Macht is The Spirit, an ambiguous blend of the good, the heroic and the womanising charm. Samuel L. Jackson lets himself go as The Octopus while a rather straight-laced and bespectacled Scarlet Johansson is his assistant. Eva Mendes is on the side of good, generally. Sarah Paulson is the doctor. Paz Vega comes in to do an exotic Latin dance. Jaime King hovers as the spirit of death.
No, not essential viewing – unless you want to see a state of the art pop art movie.
(Australia, 2008, d. Nash Edgerton)
The Square of the title is the courtyard for a building on a construction site which is about to concreted over during the Christmas- New Year week with some urgency on the part of the owner of the site (Bill Hunter) and the fact of injuries, foreman pressure, worker protests – and the fact that a body has been deposited there.
This film was one of those which received many nominations at the Australian Film Institute awards for 2008, including Best Film.
Most audiences like a solid thriller. They should be satisfied with this one. It is a story of murder, robbery and arson – but in a very local Sydney suburban situation. As the film opens, we realise that the manager of the building site (David Roberts) is having an affair with a young woman (Claire van der Boom) and that they are at pains to conceal it. Not a particularly new development. We watch him and his estranged wife, his dealing with the workers and his illicit rendezvous.
Matters become a bit more complicated when the woman discovers that her brother has a large stash of money and she puts pressure on the lover to steal it. The best plans certainly can go alarmingly astray and that is what The Square is about. It involves an arson plan that is more destructive than intended, the couple trapped in the power of a thug that they employ, double dealing and ambiguous messages from sub-contractors, especially since the site manager misinterprets messages and people are killed.
How can a seemingly ordinary middle aged man get himself into such a moral mess?
The film was co-written by Joel Edgerton who appears as the thug. It was directed by his brother, Nash Edgerton, who has worked as a stuntman. In piling up the mishaps, the film gains momentum with several twists.
(Spain, 2007, d. Nacho Vigalondo)
Time travel. What if there were the technology to go back in time only an hour or two? How would it affect the past? What if one encountered one's former self? Who would be the real person, the one from the future, the one in the present? And, what if the pattern were repeated?
Instead of Groundhog Day, over and over again, what if it were continued repetitions of the same person over and over again? Cronoscrimines does not exactly answer these questions but it exercises the minds and emotion as we look at a middle-aged man, Hector, who began a quiet Saturday afternoon at home and relived it over again (and over again) but decided to intervene to bring the process to a stop, only to so complicate matters that he was changing his history. There are also consequences for his wife and the girl he sees in the woods. There are more conscience questions and consequences for the young scientist who manages the time machine.
At only 90 minutes, this is quite an effective time travel thriller.
It begins tranquilly enough at the supermarket, then home with the wife working in the garden, the husband having a rest and then relaxing with his binoculars until he spies an unknown woman in the woods. Later, when we realise that he is seeing a situation set up by his second self, the film becomes very interesting as the writer-director cleverly shows us what the first Hector saw from the perspective of the second Hector. Plenty of deja vu all over again.
However, with the two Hectors, the one trying to destroy the other and then prevent him from entering the machine, the plot becomes more eerie with car crashes, stabbings in the woods, sieges of the home...
How can it all end? Can it all end?
This intriguing film not only asks, 'What the Hec?' but also, 'Which the Hec'!
(Japan, 2008, d. Kyoshi Kurosawa)
When this film premiered in early 2008, it was topical. When it received commercial release in early 2009, it was alarmingly more topical. The theme: unemployment and the consequences for damaging a family.
No, it is not a musical. Perhaps the use of 'sonata' in the title is a bit misleading – although there is a pleasing performance of Debussy's Clair de Lune at the end. But, it is the unemployment which is the key to the film.
In Japan, company loyalty is a major virtue, so it is a strong shock when the protagonist of the film is unceremoniously 'let go' because of outsourcing management to China. As with the men familiar from The Full Monty, the humiliation is profound and they cannot bring themselves to tell the truth to their wives and children. Off they go every day as if to work, lining up at employment offices, lining up for free charity meals, sitting in parks... It takes its toll in many ways, especially depression which could be suicidal, and anger in projecting their problems on to their children.
In this case, the portraits of the wife and children are important. The older son wants to enlist in the American forces even if it means fighting in Iraq. The younger son discovers a desire and talent for playing the piano (memories of Billy Elliot's situation). Their father is vehemently opposed to both boys. The mother has to acquiesce in her husband's authority but finally has to take a mediating and supportive role for her children.
This might seem familiar material but director, Kurosawa, who excelled in recent years in symbolic horror stories (The Cure, Pulse), takes his audience right into the heart of the family and its problems with seriousness, humour and some sympathy. Forty five minutes before the end, the film changes tone, becomes more surreal. The mother has dreams of her son returning from Iraq overwhelmed by the killings. The young son wants to run away from home. The mother endures a violent episode which has both traumatic and healing effects on her. The husband is literally bowled over and has to face his humiliation and the reality of his situation.
Since the style of photography and editing changes from the realism we had become used to, we share the disturbances, physical and emotional, for the family.
There will be more films about unemployment and family disintegration given the world financial crisis. This film has a role in alerting audiences to the human cost of economic downturns and uncertainties.
UNDERWORLD: THE RISE OF THE LYCANS
(US, 2009, d. Patrick Tatopoulos)
To what can we lycan this Underworld adventure? The previous two Underworlds, of course. However, for this reviewer, unskilled in keeping track of the history of the age-old conflict between vampires and werewolves, this was easily the best and the most intriguing. The first two films had very complicated plots which required quite some ingenuity (or Underworld loyalty) to work out, especially as they showed the past intervening in the present and the battles taking place both in history and the now.
The screenplay for this episode is quite straightforward. It is set in what looks like a medieval era. The Vampires rule – in a dark world, of course. The werewolves are outlawed, brute beasts who prey on stray vampires and besiege the castle. From the earlier films we know that there are Lycans, a mixed breed of humans and werewolves. These are the vampire's slaves, even Lucian (from the earlier films) who has been allowed to live and grow up in the palace of the ruler, Viktor.
As the film opens, we become aware that there is something of a Romeo and Juliet situation here – Lucian is in love with Viktor's daughter, Sonja, a haughty warrior if ever there was one. Viktor is jealous of authority and power and is not pleased at all. This gives rise to a Spartacus situation, where Lucian leads the slaves to revolt, is freely trapped into returning to rescue Sonja but who calls on the werewolves to come to the aid of the Lycans. He is helped by the ambitious lord, Tanis.
This means that one can sit back and follow the plot, marvel at the monsters and special effects (the specialty in all the films of the now director, Patrick Tatopoulos). The film is brief and tends to move at quite a pace.
However, one of the great advantages of the film is the cast, a literate group of British actors who give some gravitas to the proceedings and who speak articulately and with power. Michael Sheen was in the previous films but that was before his Tony Blair and David Frost performances. He is now the star of the show, Lucian, something of a beefed up comic-book hero (except when he transmogrifies into a raging werewolf) who makes dignified speeches. And Viktor is played, once again, by Bill Nighy, relishing every moment and every word. Steven Mackintosh is Tanis and Rhona Mitra, after her warrior prowess in Doomsday, is Sonja.
Never fear. The sequel looks probable as you can't keep a bad vampire down (despite appearances to the contrary).
(US, 2008, d. Bryan Singer)
At the end of Valkyrie we are told that there were at least fifteen attempts on Hitler's life. However, the best known is that of 1944, led by Claus von Stauffenberg. This film has two parts: the first is the planning and execution of the plot; the second is the aftermath in Berlin. The second part treats matters not so well known and is more interesting than the attempt itself.
During production, Valkyrie was criticised, even by the German government, for the casting of Tom Cruise as the hero, Stauffenberg. Scientology had a lot to do with the criticism as well. In promoting the film, Tom Cruise has told the press that he will not be talking about his religious beliefs but concentrating on the film.
In many ways, it is hard to accept Cruise as the German military official. However, the film begins with him writing in German and then makes a transition into English (American accented). This makes the performance more credible and Cruise gives his best to the role.
However, he is surrounded by a prestigious group of British actors in the central roles of those disillusioned with Hitler and wanting to be rid of him. The most convincing of these is Bill Nighy who puts all mannerisms and tics aside and focuses audience attention on the dilemmas of the plot and the hesitations after the attempt because the death of Hitler was not confirmed. Others include Terence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh (who is involved in an initial attempt and then disappears from the film until his suicide at the end) and Tom Wilkinson as a man who wants to cover his reputation and his life.
The screenplay, by Christopher Mc Quarrie, who collaborated with director Bryan Singer (Apt Pupil, X Men, Superman Returns) in their great success, The Usual Suspects, introduces a disillusioned Stauffenberg in the North African desert where he is wounded in action, losing an eye. On his return to Germany, he makes contacts with dissidents who cede the leadership of the plot to him. His big mistake was to assume that, while the bomb went off, Hitler was dead. He wasn't.
This means a great deal of suspense as post-assassination plans go into action, using an emergency plan for military, police and reserves, Operation Valkyrie. Within hours, after standby drills, desperate phone calls and cut lines, decisions made by Stauffenberg, the reality of Hitler's survival means disaster for the conspirators.
Interesting, especially in the second half and the collapse of the plot.
WHO KILLED NANCY?
(UK, 2009, d. Alan G.Parker)
The Nancy of the title is Nancy Spungen, the murdered girlfriend of Punk musician, Sid Vicious, already the subject of the 1987 drama by Alex Cox, Sid and Nancy, where the leads were played by Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb.
Nancy was killed in 1978 and, despite this well-made documentary, one might wonder who cares. She was a self-made celebrity, a pushy woman from Philadelphia,who returned from England with some notoriety as Sid Vicious' companion in life and in drugs. The talking heads of this film are as one in not liking Nancy or having anything good to say about her.
They are much kinder to Sid Vicious (actual name, John Ritchie) though regretting his early death from an enormous indulgence in drugs, a number suggesting that, though he confessed to killing Nancy, the uninvestigated details of the case might indicate that she was robbed and killed by an unknown assailant while Sid was quite out of it.
There are some clips of Vicious in interview and in performance and some glimpses of Nancy.
If that sounds interesting, then the film will be for you with its wide range of commentators, memories of punk rock in the 1970s and its contribution to contemporary music, including comments from the director, Alan G. Parker, Sid Vicious' biographer. If it doesn't sound interesting, it will seem just another glorification of the cult of celebrity.