SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS November 2009
CHRISTMAS CAROL, A
CIRQUE DU FREAK, THE VAMPIRE'S ASSISTANT
DEAD MAN RUNNING
FANTASTIC MR FOX
MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS
MY YEAR WITHOUT SEX
ONG BAK: THE BEGINNING
THIS IS IT
(US, 2009, d. Shane Acker)
A futuristic film which has excitingly different animation style and has a challenging story that raises philosophical questions - which means that some audiences have been very enthusiastic and found 9 stimulating and challenging while others, finding the discussions and ideas a bit heavy-going have not been enthusiastic. This review is on the side of the enthusiastic.
Shane Acker is an architect and an animator who made an 11 minute award winning short, 9, in 2004. Producers, including Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (Daywatch, Wanted), encouraged Acker to develop the short into a feature film. Burton collaborator, Pamela Pettler, wrote a screenplay with Acker.
The animation is different from the usual, especially with the bleak post-apocalyptic landscapes, bombed building sites, destroyed factories. Ferocious machines (reminiscent of those in the recent Terminator films – which may have been influenced by 9 for plot lines and visuals) have vengeful lives of their own and have wiped out the humans who created them. And the characters. While some humans are briefly glimpsed, the characters (1 to 9) are like string dolls, small in stature. With some general human characteristics (and even some facial expressions and postures of the stars who voice them), we wonder who they are and how they were made – all explained by the end, an interesting speculation that they are aspects of the soul of the scientist who made them so that he could survive and fight the machines.
1 is a veteran leader who tends to rush to judgment and is voiced by Christopher Plummer. 2 is a mysterious old character who ventures out to confront the machines (Martin Landau). 3 and 4 are twins who have encyclopedic minds but who do not communicate by word but, rather, by intuition and action. 5 has lost an eye and is the solid support type (John C. Reilly). 6 (Crispin Glover) is a weird artist who keeps drawing the talisman that the scientist has given powers to, both to destroy (as the machines do) or to control the machines (which is the mission of these characters). 7, in Jungian terms in the scientist's anima, a feminine warrior (Jennifer Connelly). 8 is a bit slow, a large bodyguard for 1 (Fred Tatasciore).
Which leaves 9, the hero, who awakens in the laboratory and, discovering 2, begins to realise his mission but makes the huge mistake of bringing the machines to life. 9 becomes the leader, with mind and heart, as well as action, who rescues the trapped and liberates the world. He is voiced by Frodo himself, Elijah Wood.
The finale where the dead dolls appear and support the survivors before ascending (into their heaven?) is full of light and hope.
With flashbacks to the war between the machines and the humans, images of a dictator taking over the scientist's creations to make them weapons and the post-war ruins all evoke the look of Hitler and World War II and a scarred and destroyed Europe.
Plenty to enjoy and think about for those who want something to reflect on as they watch 9 lead his followers into action.
(Australia, 2009, d. Rachel Ward)
What begins like a typical enough story of a middle-aged man travelling home to see his dying father turns into a sad drama of family hatreds, burying of skeletons and gradual revelation of truth and tragedy.
Rachel Ward, better known as an actress, has adapted a novel by and directed Beautiful Kate. She also directs her husband, Bryan Brown, as the patriarch of a dysfunctional family.
The setting is an outback property. Bruce (Bryan Brown) had ambitions to be a politician but they were not fulfilled. His wife died leaving him four children to bring up. He goaded his two sons, Cliff and Ned, idolised one daughter, Kate, and took for granted his youngest, Sally, who finished up looking after him for years. Bryan Brown has always been good portraying a sympathetic, rugged Australian type. More recently, he has shown that he can do tough and harsh (Australia). With the flashbacks in this film, we can see him in his vigorous years as well as his dying.
The focus of the film, however, is Ben Mendelsohn, as Ned, turning forty, a writer,who comes with his aspiring actress girlfriend, after an absence of twenty five years. The absence is one of the mysteries that presents itself. The other mystery is the deeper issue of what happened, especially to Ned and Kate who are both long dead.
The film takes up some taboo issues of sexual relationships within families and presents the complexities of emotions and consequences.
There is strong support from Rachel Griffiths as Sally, a good woman who has given her life to caring for her father and working selflessly for the local aboriginal community.
A strong Australian story that probes problems not usually seen on screen.
(Australia, 2009, d. Ana Kokkinos)
Rhonda (Frances O' Connor), a wayward mother, tells the police that her children, whom she loves but neglects, are blessings. This comes towards the end of this fine but bleak film where we have shared a little of the lives of children and teenagers who seem to have little or limited experience of blessing. Nor do the mothers of these children seem to be blessed.
The film is directed powerfully by Ana Kokkinos (the tough Melbourne dramas, Only the Brave, Head On, The Book of Revelation). The collaborative screenwriters include playwright Andrew Bovell (Lantana) and novelist Christos Tsiolkas (author of Head On, who surely followed the themes of this film -teenage, Greek, homosexual – with a sequence here of a video interview of a confused young man by a predatory male).
The film's structure enables the audience to experience (after an introduction to the quietly sleeping children) the children's lives and antagonisms towards their mothers. Later, we re-visit these scenes but see what is actually happening with the parents (not always exactly what the children see).
The range of children: two fourteen year old schoolgirls, one dependent on the other who is of Greek background; a rather young brother and a sister (of limited intelligence) who are wandering the streets and who sleep in a dumpster; a fourteen year old boy who attempts to rob a bewildered old woman; the eighteen year old struggling with his sexual identity. Quite a complex cross-section of troubled children – and very well performed.
The actors portraying the parent are better known and give impressive performances: Frances O' Connor, Mirando Otto as a self-absorbed mother with a gambling addiction, Victoria Haralabidou as the Greek mother, a seamstress, Deborra- Lee Furness and William Mc Innes as the parents of the boy who robs the widow. The widow is played by Monica Maughan.
There is an arresting sub-plot of an aboriginal man brought up by the robbed widow – inconclusive in its plotting but asking the audience to empathise and imagine (with the help of some brief flashbacks to the man as a child) what happened between the young boy and his foster mother.
The action takes place over one day, which limits the duration of the drama but intensifies the love-hate relationships.
The other prominent theme is that of death – temptation to suicide, suicide attempts, accidental and tragic deaths.
Many recent Australian films have taken audiences into our city's ordinary suburbia, both happiness and unhappiness. Maybe Blessed, which does offer some final hopes, indicates that simple listening, affirmation and love are the important first steps of hope.
(Australia, 2009, d. Serhat Caradee)
There is always enormous potential for Australian films in looking at the different migrant groups who have settled, how they have settled and how they relate to the previous generations of Australians. We have seen films about Italians, Greeks and Poles. We have seen films about the Chinese and the Vietnamese. Here is a film about the Lebanese.
Cedar Boys is a small budget film about a group of young Australian men of Lebanese background. The central character is Tarek (Les Chantery) whose parents don't speak much English. He is a panel beater and has dreams of bettering his life. When his friend Nabil (Buddy Danoon), a builder, finds some drugs and they team up with a spiv-like friend, Sam, the dreams begin to over-develop. At the same time, Tarek meets some girls at a club and forms a friendship with one, Amie (Rachael Taylor).
It all seems too good to be true, getting money, getting the girls, experimenting with the drugs, Tarek also offering to put money into an appeal for his brother Jamal who is in jail. Of course, it is too good/bad to be true for the young men and they are found out by the real drug dealers which sets everything in motion for a climax and potential tragedy.
The material has been seen any number of times but it is the ethnic background which is of interest here, the glimpses into another side of Sydney suburbia, and Tarek proves to be an interesting and sympathetic character. Rachael Taylor has appeared in American films like The Transformers and there is a guest appearance by Martin Henderson, but the rest of the cast is local. A small film but well made of its type.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
(US, 2009, d. Robert Zemeckis)
Quite an exhilarating experience of Charles Dickens' classic tale of miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, his meanness to his clerk, Bob Cratchit, his unwillingness to celebrate Christmas with his nephew, Fred, and his miserable and lonely life. We all remember that he encounters the ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley, who warns him that he will see three more ghosts, The Ghost of Christmas Past, who takes him back to see his childhood, his young days and his love for Belle but his choice of a life for money; the Ghost of Christmas Present, a jovial ghost who takes him to see the happy meal at Fred's and Bob Cratchit's toast to Scrooge, despite his family's dislike of him, and Tiny Tim's, 'God bless us, everyone'; and the sinister, shadowy Ghost of Christmases to Come who reveals Scrooge's death to him, buried unloved, housekeeper and friend gossiping about him as they look through his things - and the revelation that Tiny Tim has died.
Needless to say, Scrooge is mightily relieved when he lands back in his room and it is Christmas morning. He has a chance to save his life – which he does, to the full.
Though seen many times on screen, the story is always welcome.
What makes this version even more welcome is the amazing technology that has been used to bring Scrooge and Dickens' characters and fantasy to life. The 3D version is well worth seeing for its animation and production designed to display the depth photography all the way through.
While the film stars Jim Carrey as Scrooge (as well as the three Ghosts), the technique used is that of 'Performance Capture' on which animation is built, using the performances of the cast (who do not have to don period costumes but can concentrate solely on acting, effects will do the rest). This technique was used by Robert Zemeckis for The Polar Express and, sometimes disconcertingly, for his Beowulf. Once one gets used to the idea and accepts it, it makes for a different kind of experience, having the benefit, not just of the voices of the cast, but their performances with added enormous visual flair for characters and backgrounds.
Carrey is very good as Scrooge (affecting an accent not unlike that of Alistair Sim in the classic version from the 1950s) but has moments of his familiar body agility and movements. Colin Firth is Fred. Gary Oldman is Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim (his Bob being animated as much shorter and plumper than Oldman himself, though audiences who know him will recognise him). Cary Elwes, Robin Wright Penn and Bob Hoskins are amongst the other actors who take on multiple roles.
The version captures the mood of Dickensian London. We are immersed in the life of the city as well as isolated in Scrooge's home and accompany him on his flying journeys into the past and into the future. Small children may be alarmed at a number of the sequences which could be quite frightening (and make them fear Dickens for the future), especially a coffin and grave sequence which would be more than at home in a Tim Burton film.
Zemeckis' screenplay nicely reminds us of the Christian dimension of the feast of Christmas with images of churches and crosses and the singing of many carols. And, of course, Scrooge's meanness reminds us that the celebration is not about money or commercialism – if only that were true these days.
CIRQUE DU FREAK, THE VAMPIRE'S ASSISTANT
(US, 2009, d. Paul Weitz)
Perhaps adult audiences were wondering, while watching this contemporary vampire film (which does not rely very much on traditional vampire lore), why they were not feeling more involved. A suggested reason is that the story, the performances and the direction are aimed directly at a young teenage audience who would 'get it' and not want the subtleties associated with a film aimed at adults. There is nothing wrong with this. Speaking of vampires, this is also the case with the 2008 box-office phenomenon, Twilight. It was produced for a teenage sensibility.
That is probably the best way to describe Cirque du Freak. It is made for a teenage (younger teenage) sensibility – and, more probably, for boys.
Paul Weitz (both American Pie and About a Boy) made his previous film for a younger audience, the campaigned-against Golden Compass. (His brother Paul, with whom he directed Golden Compass went off to direct the other teenage vampire film, the Twilight sequel, New Moon.) He stays with fantasy elements (very well illustrated during the unusual opening credits sequence) while the story is set in a perfectly ordinary middle America home and school. It opens with the hero, Darren, playing computer games in a coffin while his funeral is going on. So, the question is, how did he get there?
Darren is a good student but is pressurised by his parents to be a good and exemplary boy (especially after some window breaking misbehaviour with his best friend, the irresponsible Steve). When they are given a flyer for the Cirque de Freaks, off they go without approval. Well, you will have to see the rest if this intrigues you (in a young teenage way) and see how Darren steals a spider, makes a bargain with a friendly vampire to become a half vampire, lives with the 'freaks' who include Salma Hayek as a bearded lady, is dragooned into confronting Stephen as a war between the good vampires and the bad vampires is engineered by an evil fat man called Mr Tiny.
Josh Hutcherson has been making films for some years and is more assured on screen as Steve than Chris Massoglia who is perfectly ordinary (where more oomph would have been helpful and credible) as Darren. John C. Reilly makes the friendly vampire almost believable. And (though not immediately recognisable) Willem Dafoe comes in and out as a mysterious and spooky figure.
It all comes together at the end but only to provide the basis for the next instalment from a series of novels by Darren Shan (the central character's name).
(Australia, 2009, d. Rupert Glasson)
A brief, rather modest Australian drama that turns towards the thriller genre, with a touch of horror, in the last twenty minutes.
The South Australian coastal setting is particularly well shown, the beaches, the isolation, the factories. A middle aged couple, Rob and Jessie (Robert Taylor and Lisa Chappell) want a child but Rob seems to be sterile. They are awaiting test results. However, this leads to some tensions between the two.
The main moral of the story is that a moment's stupidity and irresponsibility, especially a drunken experience, can have dire consequences for more than those immediately concerned.
This aspect of the plot is not an unfamiliar one. Jessie lapses momentarily with an itinerant worker, Evan (Sam Parsonson) and becomes pregnant. There are the usual fears, concealments, confiding. The difference is that Evan is mad, a stalker, wanting Jessie to go away with him. It is easy to see how the film moves into thriller at the end as Evan manifests more madness and violence.
No particular reason for seeing it, but, of its kind, it is quite well done.
(US, 2009, d. Peter Billingsley)
Its heart's in the right place and one wishes it were better than it is. It is amusing in its way and has something to say about marriage and commitment.
A rather uptight couple (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell), who use power point presentations to explain everything, prepare one about their felt need to break up. Their friends (who want to avoid these presentations) are dumbfounded – and then put on the spot to contribute to a special price for a 4 couples' discount at a Bora Bora resort where they can also learn some communication skills. After some toing and froing, they all go.
Joey and Lucy have been married for 18 years and his eye stray is straying despite his strict injunctions to their teenage daughter (Jon Favreau and Kristen Davis). Dave and Ronnie are happily, but busily, married with two young children (Vince Vaughn and Malik Akerman). Shane has been divorced and has taken up with 20 year old Trudi (Faison Love and Kali Hawk). What starts off as a holiday soon turns into therapy and group work under the eye of Marcel (Jean Reno).
It's all rather hit and miss humour, depending on what tickles your funny bone. On the serious side, under the mild spoofing of therapy (and men's aversion to it and baring their souls and feelings), a number of points are made that many couples would resonate with.
When the women and then the men go on a rescue mission for the 20year old to the singles' resort, the quality of the screenplay rather collapses and while there are happy endings and commitment all round, they come rather too fast to be quite as persuasive as intended. Jon Favreau takes on the kind of role we might expect from Vince Vaughn (who plays the husband and father) and is not very good at it. The rest of the cast do their thing well enough – and the script (which Vaughn and Favreau wrote) is more sympathetic to the women than the men.
Amusing rather than the telling comedy it might have been.
(US, 2009, d. Louie Psihoyos)
It seems as though this intriguing documentary will leave no one in the audience unmoved. Those with a passion for conservation, animal care against cruelty and exploitation will feel galvanised to go on the warpath. Those who dismiss this kind of commitment-to-a-cause film-making will be irritated if not angered and accuse the film of a partisan look at the issues and of skewing the evidence and the truth to make their points. In fact, these accusations have been made as well as the enthusiastic responses. The Cove has received many awards and generally favourable reviews.
It is about dolphins.
There is the issue. Are dolphins considered so cute and intelligent that they should be rounded up for performance in sea theme parks, the Flipper syndrome from the very popular TV show of the 1960s? Or should they be left free in the ocean? And are they creatures that can be eaten, especially by cultures who rely on food from the sea? Many westerners, despite a predilection for sushi, tend to be against this. But, the Japanese and others question the use of cattle and pork as fitting for food. How important are these cultural differences?
The film, which builds aspects of a feature film into its structure, especially a final undercover raid on the secret cove where dolphins are killed, makes a case against the exploitation of dolphins both for amusement and for food. Particular accusations are made against the Japanese government and its representative at international whaling conferences and the coverage (banned by local authorities) of the village of Taiji where each September the dolphins pass and are coralled and sold for large sums to parks or killed for their meat is highly accusatory. As part of the campaign by the mayor of Taiji, dolphin meat was included in compulsory school lunches in Japan – however, the film points out that the increase in mercury from dumped waste has meant unhealthy mercury levels in the dolphin meat.
Several authorities are interviewed about the culling of the dolphins but the main speaker is Ric O' Barry who spent years training the dolphins on Flipper but who came to appreciate their sensitivity and worth and began to campaign to save the dolphins. He has been arrested many times for protest and trespass and has no hesitation in expressing strong views.
The Cove shows the power of a well-made film to challenge presuppositions which is always a valuable thing whether the conclusions from dialogue support the stance of the film or not. The producers are The Oceanic Preservations Society.
DEAD MAN RUNNING
(UK, 2009, d. Alex de Rakoff)
Nick (Tamar Hassan) is a dead man running. Why? Because, just out of jail, he borrowed money to help his paraplegic mother and keep his girlfriend, an S&M mistress, from having to work. The trouble is – and there is always trouble from the types the money is borrowed from – that he took a very large sum from a Mr Big from the US, a dapper Mr Thigo (played by rapper 50 Cents Jackson), who arrives in London to get his money back and make an example of Nick (hoping that Nick won't be able to pay so that he can have him killed) for any other wavering borrowers.
Nick decides that he will find £100,000 in 24 hours. Actually, he does and has a final word for Mr Thigo, but the plot of the film is how he and his sidekick, Bing (Danny Dyer, a kind of omnipresence in this kind of film), get money, lose it, have it stolen, bet on dogs, buy cocaine, are pulled up on the highway by the police, try to sell the drugs to a Rave party organiser in Manchester, take on a hit job, rob the safe of a client of Nick's girlfriend, think of robbing a bank – and a few more bits of plot, especially concerning Nick's mother who is being held at gunpoint by a hitman. Actually, this sub-plot is very well done, with Brenda Blethyn relishing the role and surprising everyone, including the audience and the hitman (Phil Davis) by a nice plot twist.
In the last decade, British directors have been obsessed with making small-budget gangster films. There has been a glut. This one is better than average despite the familiarity of the basic plot. It has some energy and verve if you like this kind of thing. It also poses a number of moral issues – not the least is asking for sympathy for a petty criminal who is hired to kill a target to get the bulk of his money. Bing draws the line at murder, but there are some surprises in how Nick handles the problem – which are not necessarily edifying.
(Australia, 2009, d. Steve Jacobs)
Based on the Booker Prize winning South African novel by J.M. Coetzee.
Made by husband and wife team, Steve Jacobs, director, and Anna Maria Monti, writer, (La Spagnuola), both veteran actors in several Australian films, Disgrace tackles very serious human issues as well as the problems in post-apartheid South Africa. Disgrace was filmed both in South Africa and Australia,
The role of the disgraced English Literature lecturer, David Lurie, who has an affair with a student and is denounced and removed from his job is well suited to John Malkovich. He portrays a rather smug fifty two year old who is tired to teaching uninterested students and who has a history of relationships with his students. This story forms the first act of the film.
The second act shows his decision to retire to the country and live with his daughter, Lucy (Jessica Haines), who manages a property with the help of her black African friend, Petrus (Eric ). Lucy has her own problems which are compounded when she is robbed and raped by three young men who assault her father. He is outraged. She is more restrained. There are tensions between the two as well as with David who is wary of Petrus and betrays, sometimes unwittingly, the racial attitudes of superiority of the past.
By now, it is very clear that Disgrace has a dramatic power in its portrait of the three central characters and sketches others quite forcefully. However, it is also very clear how much the novelist and the film-makers want to provide a commentary on South Africa's 20th century history, how it has affected the white community who cannot presume anymore (which, in some ways, they do), how it has affected the black community with the scarred memories of the past along with unemployment, rising crime and violence amongst the young even as the older generation try to live some peace and reconciliation.
(UK, 2009, d. Lone Schefig)
An older man involved with a younger woman has often been a focus of romantic dramas and melodramas. With an awareness these days of affairs and grooming girls, especially via the internet (and re-thinking the lyrics of such popular songs as 'Sweet Sixteen'), we are on less firm ground than before.
One of the advantages of An Education (and there are many) is looking at the man, in his 30s, and the girl, celebrating her 17th birthday, in the context of England in 1961 and with some psychological and moral insight. That is why cases need to be considered case by case, discovering, especially, how much the younger woman is complicit in the affair and, even though she is young, how much an innocent or a conscious participant in the relationship.
Based on a memoir by British columnist, Lynn Barber, with a screenplay written by novelist, Nick Hornby (Fever Pitch, High Fidelity, About a Boy), the film is witty and insightful. It has a light touch, many comic aspects, but takes the audience more deeply into the characters of David, a mid-30s Jewish Londoner, who is involved in some dubious financial scams but has a certain charm and vitality who is attracted towards schoolgirl, Jenny, who is preparing for final exams that will ensure her entry into Oxford. David is played smoothly, with a blend of the callous and the vulnerable, by American, Peter Sarsgaard. Jenny is played by Carey Mulligan who, on the strength of this persuasive performance, is headed for a successful career.
Jenny is bored with the limitations of post-war Britain and is ready to embrace the 60s even though she does not know what they will be like. She reads. She speaks French. She is daring. While inexperienced in the ways of the world (except through books and French films), she knows what she is doing in responding to David, his deceptions, weekends in Oxford to visit C.S. Lewis and trips to Paris. While he leads her on, she makes deliberate choices to follow him when she could have opted out. That it ends in disaster, and the exposure of David as a pathetic man is, for Jenny, an education in itself, more profound than all the study which is part of her education for life.
The screenplay presents several moral perspectives by which to assess the characters so that this is not just a variation on a Lolita theme. Alfred Molina excels as Jenny's father, Jack, an embodiment of suburban public servant, formed by the austerities of the war years, a martinet in his family, forcing Jenny to education but relieved when the possibility of a comfortable marriage arises. Cara Seymour is her subservient mother, Marjorie, who does have a mind of her own but using it and expressing it was not the done thing in Twickenham in those days. Their home regime, their being seduced into permissive permissions for Jenny by David's smooth talk and bonhomie, are well observed.
There are the gossiping schoolgirls, the gauche potential boyfriend. But, there is also the headmistress (a fine cameo from Emma Thompson) who states the decorums of the day with some firmness (and anti-Semitic feelings). Even more strongly from the school point of view, there is Olivia Williams (hair pulled back, thick spectacle rims) as the encouraging teacher who has a prim life of her own but tries to offer sound advice to a non-hearing and mocking Jenny.
And then there are David's friends who live the comfortable, fashionable and affluent life which actually does seduce Jenny into thinking that this is living and worth sacrificing her education for. Dominic Cooper is the wealthy spiv, accomplice of David but who does try to warn David about how he could hurt Jenny. And Rosamund Pike is marvellous in her scenes as the vacuous blonde girlfriend, relishing the satirical lines that Hornby has written for her character – especially about books, reading and magazines and Latin not being used in 50 years time, even by the Latins!
The director is Lone Scherfig who comes from the Dogme tradition and made the delightful and wise Italian for Beginners.
An Education enters a difficult area of behaviour (of which we are made more conscious these days by liaisons made on line between girls and older men and some of the violent consequences) but it handles characters and situations with some delicate realism.
FANTASTIC MR FOX
(US, 2009, d. Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson and Roald Dahl? Rushmore, Steve Zissou and Willy Wonka? Yes, Anderson has directed this version of Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox.
The animation is rather old-style and direct. The plot has been added to and amplified. The context is now the US and the cast, except, as usual for the villains, is American and American-accented. A bit off-putting despite the talent.
Mr Fox is a rather self-regarding chicken hunter (just ask Mrs Fox who is dominated by him). When they are caught by a trap which he dogmatically misunderstood, he reforms and becomes a journalist. Yes, it is that kind of world where the animals keep their identity but act in a human way. But, smart Mr Fox wants to be upwardly mobile and badgers a badger lawyer (Bill Murray) to buy a new tree house. Can a fox change its equivalent to leopard's spots? No. Mr Fox and his friend Kyle go on chicken raids against the tyrannical local human industrialists (the principal one voiced by Michael Gambon).
Oh, Mr Fox is voiced by George Clooney enjoying his self-regarding style. Mrs Fox is Meryl Streep.
The Fox son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), tends to act like a spoilt brat and is jealous when the talented (martial arts, yoga and being articulate) cousin Kristofferson comes to stay.
Well, when Mr Fox is outsmarted by the humans, battle lines are drawn and Mr Fox gathers the local animals to resist. It doesn't all go according to Mr Fox's plans. He may be fantastic but he is definitely fallible. The crisis, however, does bring out the best in Ash which means that everyone can live happily ever after – as long as there is no more human intervention.
With Wes Anderson's rather wry style, the film is probably aimed at adults rather than at children.
(US, 2009, d. Rob Zombie)
From John Carpenter's original in 1978, through four sequels and many imitations to Halloween 20 years later in 1998, there has been a great deal of attention (too much?) to Michael Myers as an iconic villain. In 2007, Rob Zombie decided to start the franchise anew. Here is the second offering which, he declares, has almost nothing in common with Halloween 2. Be that as it may, here is Michael Myers stalking unwary victims on October 29th, 30th and 31st, seeking out his sister, Laurie, who doesn't realise who she is until she finds her photo in a book by the doctor who treated Myers, Dr Loomis, and realises that this is the source of nightmares she has been experiencing.
The potential is there but Rob Zombie has a style that for many is off-putting. He is not averse to blood on screen, more than some audiences would want to see. He has a penchant for depicting grim and gruesome killings – many in this film being prolonged and startlingly vicious. And his dialogue is often tossed off with expletive haste.
His fans have all condemned the film as not being suspenseful or scary. That, of course, is a matter of degree. However, he has opted, interestingly, for psychological dimensions to Michael's and Laurie's traumas. This is the domination of their mother Deborah (played, as in the previous film by Mrs Zombie, Sheri- Moon – they were married in 2002, of course, on October 31st). She appears in ghostly form to her son, the motivation for his killing – and there is a symbol of a white horse, explained at the beginning of the film, which is a symbol of purity but which erupts in rage. The rage is visualised in many innocent deaths and pointless killings as well as in Laurie's horror nightmares.
Michael Myers now looms as something of a giant figure. Scout Taylor- Compton is a rather uninteresting Laurie even in her hysterics. Brad Dourif offers a little depth as the sheriff. And Dr Loomis (once Donald Pleasence) is Malcolm McDowell? again, this time as a prima donna author full of celebrity ego who suddenly feels the need to redeem himself.
Some interesting bits but there are more shocking bits. The not entirely unanticipated final twist suggest a possibly interesting third episode.
(Australia, 2009, d. Steve Katrissios)
Not a horse in sight. This particular horseman drives around in a van full of pest control tools.
The thing is that he is a modern horseman of the apocalypse, bringing death to the evil, an avenger. And the name on his overalls is Christian. The other thing is that he does not act like a Christian (except for those who believe that apocalyptic vengeance in the name of God is the only way to deal with those whose principles and practice they judge to be against divine law). Christian drives from Brisbane up the Queensland coast on a mission to confront all those responsible for the 'adult' film in which his daughter appeared.
We don't know Christian's full motivation or whether is anger is fully against the exploiters of an anger at himself for not being able to care for his daughter and save her from her fate: leaving home, drugs, pornography and abandoned, drug-fuelled, to die in the streets.
Needless to say, the pornographers are scum in their attitudes and behaviour but are shocked at Christian's confrontation and his killing them.
While the plot is repetitious, one confrontation and fight and killing after another, there is a sub-plot where Christian eventually gives a lift to a pregnant young woman (Caroline Marohasy) who wants to talk things over with the father. Christian's support of her is clearly his way of making up for any neglect of his daughter.
This is a first feature film by a young director, Steve Katrissios, who knows how to create atmosphere on screen. And Peter Marshall is believable as the avenging Christian.
(US, 2009, d. Karyn Kasuma)
Well, Megan Fox's anyway.
What may have been a tantalising idea for writer, Diablo Cody, who won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for her Juno, does not seem to have been translated effectively to the screen. When the opening line is 'Hell is a teenage girl', you expect the screenplay to carry on in this black-humoured, ironic vein. Sometimes it does, but Jennifer's Body is not directed or performed with this kind of irony (although Amanda Seyfried, the daughter from Mamma Mia, at times seems to be trying).
This is really 'High School Horrorshow'. Jennifer is the fille fatale of the school, self-consciously aware of her looks and her allure. But she is best friend with Needy (Seyfried), her almost exact opposite. So far, OK, although the film opened with the revelation that Needy was in a mental institution and prone to some nasty violence and tries to explain (and justify) it by explaining what happened to Jennifer and to her (which might make us wonder how much of the plot happened in reality and how much in Needy's mind).
When Jennifer and Needy go to a concert by a group called Low Shoulder and, in a Satanic sacrifice, they offer Jennifer as victim (somehow or other implausibly thinking she was a virgin – even Needy is not), Jennifer becomes imbued with superpowers and a literal taste for her victims' flesh. Some examples of this are provided but rather more po-facedly than may have been originally intended.
Needy clashes with Jennifer, wants to be protective of her gawky and not too credible hero, Chip (Johnny Simmons) and there is a gory climax. And Needy in the institution.
Of course, many of us could be missing something as it is film made from a female perspective. But, thinking about Juno again and Karyn Kusama's blunt Girlfight, this could have been a very clever film with some bite. (The literal bites are still there without the irony.)
THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS
(US, 2009, d. Grant Heslov)
Now this has to be one of the most curious titles for a film. But, in fact, that is what it is about – military men who believe that they can stare at goats, getting them to fall down by sheer will and mental telepathy! And, instead of being a fiction based on a fiction, the film is a fiction based on actual characters and events.
There is a lot of talk about Paranormal Activity in 2009 because of the box-office success of a small-budget, Blair Witch type project, of this name. The United States seems to be a breeding ground for devotees of paranormal activity.
Apparently, some decades ago, a military officer put forward proposals to investigate how paranormal activities and control could be developed as weapons. He is said to have believed that he could pass through a solid wall (though he didn't) and this is how the films starts (failure) and ends (success!).
Who are these men? First of all, young journalist facing hard times in a local paper, interviews a veteran who tells him about these matters. Journalist gets transferred to Iraq and, while waiting in Kuwait, meets the alleged honcho of the researches. The journalist is played by Ewan Mc Gregor with just the right mixture of curiosity and hero-worship – which could set him on the path of becoming a true believer. The paranormal guru is played by George Clooney, using a blend of deadpan and charm to make the implausible and impossible seem, at least momentarily, plausible and possible. And he has some deadpan and charm dialogue to match. An intriguing comic performance.
While travelling through the Iraq deserts, the journalist gets to hear about the inspiration for this secret military movement, a character who behaved like the Big Lebowski before the Big Lebowski was thought of. And, since, he is played by Jeff Bridges, he even looks and sounds like the Big Lebowski. Bridges obviously enjoys playing this type of American weird – and has the chance to be fired on by his troops in Vietnam, go through all kinds of New Age therapies, and can be seen, earnest in his beliefs, training the men to be paranormal. The other principal character is a rigid-minded, narrow-minded, petty and jealous officer who dobs in bad behaviour to superiors and smugly gets promoted. Kevin Spacey does this role very well.
It's all more than a bit idiotic, especially since some of these things really happened and allegedly sensible warriors believed in them. Direction is by Clooney's production partner, Grant Heslov. Together they made the much more serious, Good Night and Good Luck. This tale is one of bad luck and good night. But, it is always bemusingly amusing.
MY YEAR WITHOUT SEX
(Australia, 2009, d. Sarah Watt)
The title. A touch of light irony.
Anyone expecting a sex romp will be very disappointed because this is a suburban drama, that of a very ordinary, middle-class family, presented with a humorous style for some serious themes. It was written and directed by Australian Film Institute winner, Sarah Watt (Look Both Ways, 2005).
The year begins in August and continues with monthly episodes, each signalled by a caption evocative of sexual relationships with familiar jargon. We glimpse Natalie and Ross (Sacha Horler and Matt Day) and their children. A crisis occurs when Natalie collapses and undergoes brain surgery.
So, the film is really a sketchy tracing of what happens to a young mother coping with illness, recuperation, mood swings, physical discomfort in appearance and with pain, tension with her devoted husband, the sometimes awkward attentions of friends, questions of God and religious belief. Sacha Horler is completely persuasive as Natalie.
Matt Day shows an earnestness and concern as Ross, standing by his wife and her bedside, upset at her erratic behaviour, worrying whether his job is on the line, tempted to have a roving eye, but loving and faithful.
There is a scene-stealing turn by Maude Davey as Margaret, a former rock singer who has been ordained a priest – which means that the religious issues are raised, the priest relying on rather literal understandings of biblical texts and rather generic, well-meaning advice – but interesting to watch them like this in an Australian film.
Episodic and sketchy but down-to-earth humane.
ONG BAK: THE BEGINNING
(Thailand, 2008, d. Tony Jaa)
The 2003 feature, Ong Bak, a showcase for new martial arts star, Tony Jaa, gained quite a following around the world. Jaa is athletic, has developed a style of martial arts action which is a combination of Thai action traditions along with dance movements. In Ong Bak, he astounded at times because of his dance and acrobatic skills.
So, here is a sequel, except that it is a prequel, an attempt to create a back story for the original film. It actually takes us back to kingdom wars in the 15th century. That is the familiar plot of ambitious rulers despotically taking over territories and ruthlessly eliminating opponents. Tien (Jaa) sees his family massacred but escapes and is encouraged by a guerilla leader, Charng, who admires his fighting skills and treats him as his son, ensuring that he is thoroughly trained and announces him as his successor. However, revenge is what is on Tien's mind and he goes for it, finding some unexpected revelations before he finishes his mission.
Actually, the film is really a succession of elaborate fights interrupted occasionally by some plot.
It is all very macho and quite brutal at times, designed for the devotees of martial arts stories (but not others). One can admire the beautiful locations, the expert and exceedingly elaborate choreography, the exciting editing, the booming sound effects... There is an indication that scenes set in Cambodia had to be eliminated because of some temple disputes. They may finish up as cut scenes on the DVD to the delight of fans. But, for those not committed to this kind of thing, it becomes repetitive, even tedious.
Tony Jaa is not the best as an actor, rather inexpressive, except when fighting (which is most of the time). He wrote the story for Ong Bak, directed and starred. There will have to be a sequel, but it will leap to the present (after all, someone's spirit can survive and re-appear). (This led some to puns that the sequel could be called Bak to the Future or Dead Karma!)
(Canada, 2008, d. Bruce Mc Donald)
Just a very cold wintry day, Valentine's Day, in Pontypool, Ontario. At least, it is ordinary at the start, but...
This is a very interesting and arresting thriller with touches of horror, better than most other conventional scary shows that abound these days. What makes it different?
Adapted from his novel by Tony Burgess, the film is about radio, talk and news radio. And, apart from the opening in a car when Grant Mazzey, the radio host, is driving to work early in the morning and is suddenly stopped by a mysterious woman who immediately disappears, the whole film is set in a church basement which serves as the studio and offices for a small radio station. Much of the action is confined to the broadcasting studio and many of the shots are or talking heads or reaction shots. This might not sound too inviting on paper (and the film could work quite well as a radio play) but the performances, the editing and pace as well as the unanticipated action keep us hooked.
The morning progresses normally, although Mazzey (a strikingly convincing performance from Stephen Mc Hattie) is on something of an ego trip, supported by the technician, Laurel Ann, just back from service in Afghanistan (Georgina Reilly), clashing with the producer, Sidney Briar (Lisa Houle). Odd bits of news, questions whether the school bus will run, reports from the weather man who is said to be in a helicopter above the clouds, all very ordinary, until... When a report comes in about riots at a doctor's office, then deaths and injuries and residents behaving suicidally, the station does not know whether it is a hoax or not. (Long memories will remember Orson Welles in 1938 and his dramatisation of The War of the Worlds.) They try to deal with the situation, even having a comic interlude when a local group, The Lawrence of Arabias, one dressed as Osama bin Laden, come in to sing, coping with emergencies as they arise (and they do) and attempting to find out what is happening from witnesses who call in.
All of the outside action takes place off screen – which keeps our imaginations going. Then comes trouble within the station and the arrival of the doctor who seems to be more than a little off and has weird explanations of what the mysterious destructive virus could be. Since this is a film about radio, explanations concern words, broadcasting, repetition, listening. (An IMDb blogger accurately referred to it as a 'semiotic zombie thriller' – now, that is different!)
Congratulations are in order for director, Bruce Mc Donald, and the Canadians for making an inventive, non-exploitive, suspenseful, psychological thriller.
(US, 2009, d. Kevin Greutert)
October and the annual ritual, since, 2004, to review a Saw film.
Who would have thought? The Saw franchise has proven very popular with horror fans. The series has also been tagged as 'torture porn'. It is and it isn't. It certainly gets close to the line at times but does not quite cross it. But, it does mean that for any audience sensitive to portrayals of violence, especially with gore, should beware.
Some series simply re-make the plot of the first film. With Saw, there have been plot developments that may never have been dreamed of by the young Australian originators of the first film, James Wan and Leigh Whannell. The sadistic killer who sets up over-the-top death traps for victims he intends to punish has gradually had a back story built up which gives him a little more humanity and motivation than for his initial exploits. Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) is now John Kramer and, though he died several films ago, flashbacks have given more a more extended screen life.
Also in the picture for several films is Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) who has inherited the Jigsaw legacy.
Saw VI has been directed by Kevin Greutert who edited the other five films, so he knows what he is doing. But, there is a stronger plot line which President Obama might like (were he to look at a Saw film) which links in with his 2009 health policy and the critique of greedy and heartless health insurance companies who use policy to refuse to grant requests for covering claims. It means that the main victims here certainly don't elicit much sympathy from the audience, especially in a dramatic Russian roulette sequence for the demise of the six experts on unpicking claims in order to deny them.
It's all rather small-budget, with many dingy sets in the warehouse of death, with some killings which are too gruesome for most audiences and, at the last moment, the possibility for Saw VII. Back again, this time next year.
(Australia, 2009, d. Richard Frankland)
Stone Bros. Might have been just as apt a title for this oddball Australian comedy with serious undertones.
Stone refers to particular stones from the land which two aboriginal men who work in Perth (well, one does (Eddie), and conscientiously, and the other (Charlie) certainly doesn't, except for working at some gleeful mayhem). Charley gives away Eddie's coat, containing the stone and his health care card and Eddie, who values the stone given to him by his uncle, is really upset because he wants to return home to the land of the stone.
Stoned refers to the number of joints that we see Charley making during the credits and which are smoked with increasing rapidity throughout the film by Charlie, who tempts Eddie, and Reg, an aboriginal transvestite to whom they give a lift and Vincent, a white musician, who hitchhikes with them.
This is a road movie, picaresque adventures along the quest trip home: running down a kangaroo and eating it as bush tucker, experiencing racist shopkeepers, encountering a tough female truck driver, a policeman who wants to be free as well as rescuing Reggie. They go on a detour to a wedding, finding a berserk uncle upsetting the wedding (he does calm down, but the groom becomes too calm as he passes out after a joint). Another detour has them donning paint and stealing another stone from a museum round the Kalgoorlie area. They do get home but Charlie is still mischievous and Eddie still upset with him. However...
Richard Frankland has made some serious and award-wining short films about aborigines and issues. What he was up to in making this comic, sometimes farcical, look at the urbanisation of aboriginal men in the 21st century, their quests and the return to the land, would be interesting to hear. While Eddie and Charlie will live another day, what about the final images of the film? Policeman Peter Phelps going into the desert, stripping off his uniform and merging with the horizon!
THIS IS IT
(US, 2009, d. Kenny Ortega)
This Is It is an event before it is a film.
Michael Jackson was a world personality as well as the 'King of Pop'. His death at 50 and the puzzlement and investigations about his health condition and his medication seized the headlines. It must have come as an enormous shock to those who were working with him on the concerts that were planned for London, 50 of them and sold out. Was Michael Jackson's death the end of his fame and popularity? Interesting to remember that John Lennon was killed at age 40; Elvis died at 42, Judy Garland at 47, Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin also at 47. To varying degrees they and their music live on.
Columbia Pictures quickly bought the footage taken during the rehearsals for the concerts for $60,000,000. Director of the concerts, Kenny Ortega (who had directed the High School Musical movies) was commissioned to develop a movie out of the footage which would be released worldwide on October 28th, just over four months after his death on June 26th 2009. They achieved it and here it is, This is It.
Here is a perspective on the film from someone who is too old to be a Jackson fan – and remembers him first as singing Ben in the horror film of that name, the sequel to Willard, released when he was only 13 (and singing tenderly to Ben who was a rat!). It is a perspective from someone who is aware of Thriller and Jackson's huge success and popularity with both his singing and dancing, from the Jackson Five days to 2009, as well as the myriad stories of his eccentricities, his Neverland Park, his friendship with children, his marriages and his own children and the charges and court cases.
The first comment about the film is about how Jackson himself comes across in This is It – quite impressively. We are presented with a man (turning 50 but not seeming like that at all) who gives no indication that he would soon be dead (much of which, of course, can be attributed to judicious editing to give a favourable impression). Rather, he is very much alive. The rehearsals show how demanding his singing and choreography were. It seems they did drain his energy and he needed painkillers and aids to sleeping. But, on stage, he is seen as fully alive, full of verve.
It's the professionalism of the man that is also very impressive. Any potential candidate for the TV reality shows like The X Factor, Pop Idol..., should be made to sit down and study this film, to see that Jackson has learnt and perfected his craft, knows music and how it works, understands audience responses and does not tolerate in himself anything haphazard. As we watch the succession of songs in rehearsal (interestingly pieced together from several occasions as we can see by the different clothes he wears), we realise that he knows the songs perfectly, has created his choreography with meticulous detail and timing (with the assistance of Travis Paine), and remembers it accurately. He is no slouch, no taking lazy short-cuts. And he expects this of his singers and dancers. You can see from each song how he takes it all for granted and is at ease while the others are striving very hard to do their best.
Jackson is also more articulate than might have been expected. He can be twee, often talking about love and repeating 'God bless you'. But, as he comments to his rather deferential director, Ortega, we hear a vocabulary that is extensive and expresses, sometimes imaginatively, what he wants of himself and others.
The concerts would certainly have been spectacular, many of the stagings of the songs extravaganzas in themselves. Huge city skyline sets. Sets remembering the Jackson Five. Computergraphics multiplying ten dancers into millions on a screen. We see Jackson and Ortega supervising the up-to-date filming of cemetery sequences for Thriller. And, amusingly, taking a number of old black and white classic movies and filming, in black and white, Jackson's involvement in some sequences: Rita Hayworth's Gilda singing Put the Blame on Mame, Humphrey Bogart and a gun chase...
The concert was to highlight ecological issues with images of nature and 'Heal the World'.
For those who wondered what the concert would be like, the film offers plenty of song, dance and production glitz.
For the performers and the huge technical staff, they can be happy that their work has been caught on camera (maybe all the filming was for an intended film of the concert after the tour since so much of the detail of rehearsals was filmed and available for This is It).
And that is where the film is particularly interesting. We are on stage or backstage all the time. We hear the experts in lighting, staging, costume and so on commenting. We see auditions, support dancers learning their steps and, as the director says, being extensions of Michael himself: the robotic movements, the moonwalking style, the crotch-clutch-thrust gyrations... We see how Jackson himself handled rehearsals, giving all his energy and wanting perfection.
This is It is far more interesting and enjoyable than anticipated and is certainly an excellent tribute to Michael Jackson's talents.