Searing home life: Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) struggle with new challenges in the Oscar-winning A Separation.
Reviews by Jim Schembri
An extraordinary, powerful, deeply felt human drama, the message of which is clear: differences of class and culture cannot blur the primal emotions that drive most of human behaviour. - A Separation
This week's box office summary
Marky action hits big
With no other big film to distract them, film lovers flocked to the Mark Wahlberg film Contraband, which debuted with a strong $2.16 million on 219 screens. Its only action rival, the overlong shot-in-Melbourne clunker Killer Elite, got a lukewarm response with a $385,234 take on 108 screens. Fewer people still has any interest in Amanda Seyfried’s thriller Gone, which, judging by its anaemic $387,032 take on 140 screens, soon will be. The 9/11 drama Extremely Loud and Incredibly close took a healthy $568,723 on 100 screens; the arthouse old-is-the-new-young dramedy Late Bloomers earned a strong $106,134 on 20; while the working-class mayhem of Tyrannosaur pulled $4419 on one screen.
A SEPARATION **** (118) PG
Fresh from its richly deserved Oscar for Best Foreign Film, writer/director Asghar Farhari's searing, slow-burn tale of domestic disharmony kicks off as an Iranian couple, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), decide to split. Burdened with an infirm elderly father, Nader brings Razieh (Sareh Bayat) in to help, but she is so bad at her job Nader loses his temper. What ensues is a compelling, morally complex tale of accusation and counter accusation. Farhari manages the cross-currents of dramatic tension tautly, drawing out a degree of realism from his performers we usually only see in films by Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. An extraordinary, powerful, deeply felt human drama, the message of which is clear: differences of class and culture cannot blur the primal emotions that drive most of human behaviour.
CARNAGE * (79 min) M
It looks so great on paper. Drama expert Roman Polanski directs four top-flight actors - John C Reilly, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet - in a film adaptation of the Yasmina Reza play God of Carnage. An incident of playground bullying between two boys leads to a paper-thin reconciliation between the two sets of parents who then spend the entire length of the film in an apartment playing the blame game. Given the powerhouse performers involved, this thing should have gone off like a powder keg, but Polanski apparently directed the film by text. There is not one interesting camera shot, and the amount of times Waltz and Winslet go to leave, only to be coaxed back in for yet another drink verges on parody. A terrible film.
LIKE CRAZY * (86 min) M
Two Californian college students, Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and sexy British exchange girl Anna (Felicity Jones), get on so well in bed that when time comes for Anna to do as her visa says and return home, she doesn't. Trouble ensues, both for the couple and for flailing director/co-writer Drake Doremus who spends the rest of the film straining and failing to make us give a toss about two characters who are so demonstrably stupid. The usually fabulous Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone) somehow got roped into this clunky, forgettable romantic mess. Yeah, love is messy, but that doesn't mean it has to be lame also.
PROJECT X ***1/2 (88 min) MA
This sensationally entertaining, video verite mock-documentary about an out-of-control teen house party is a near-perfect iGen expression of the old "don't wish too hard for what you want" maxim. Four adventurous high-school nerds - Thomas (Thomas Mann), Costa (Oliver Cooper), JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown ) and goth cameraman Dax (Dax Flame) - stage a party that they hope will catapult them to cool status among their peers. It's intended as a contained backyard deal but the power of the internet soon sees the invite list expand exponentially and the party turns into a defacto rave with helicopters, fireballs rampant sex and a curious father on the other end of the phone wanting to know what is going on. Strictly speaking the film has no story, no inciting incident, no recognisable plot. Under Nima Nourizadeh's expert direction - guided, no doubt, by producer Todd Phillip (The Hangover, Due Date, Old School) - it's a frenzy of superbly orchestrated chaos that climaxes with what has to be one of the most mixed messages in the history of teen party films. For a good time don't miss it.
SIONE'S 2: UNFINISHED BUSINESS *** (92 min) M
The likeable sequel to the 2006 Kiwi comedy Sione's Wedding sees the original quartet - Stanley (Iaheto Ah Hi), Albert (Oscar Kightley) Sefa (Shimpal Lelisi), and Michael (Robbie Magasiva) - go in search of their friend Paul (Dave Fane), who has gone missing somewhere in Auckland. It's not so much the story but the snappy banter between the main players that give this fun, tossaway comedy real zing. The fact that the main cast is Polynesian is only marginally referred to, again showing how far advanced New Zealand society is compared to Australia. The equivalent film couldn't be made here.
A FEW BEST MEN
(DOG) (96 min) MA
Unreleasable.Need more? After the classy triumph of Easy Virtue (2008), director Stephan Elliott (Priscilla) hits reverse to inflict upon the world a witless, brainless, gormless, senseless, tasteless and - worst of all - laughless comedy about a country wedding reception gone wrong. Nobody — but nobody — comes out of this appalling dreck looking good.
***1/2 (109 min) M
WHILE Meryl Streep is receiving a heap of pre-Oscar love for her turn in The Iron Lady, Glenn Close provides an infinitely more textured and engaging performance in this unusual, deftly handled period drama. Set in 1800s Ireland, Close plays a timid woman who must masquerade as a man to maintain her low-paying job as a hotel butler. With terrific support from the under-appreciated Janet McTeer (Tumbleweeds; Songcatcher) and another impressive turn from Mia Wasikowska (The Kids Are All Right; Alice in Wonderland), Nobbs is a moving, well-etched, humour-peppered film about survival and one small person’s dream of liberation.
Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked
★★★ (87 min) G
IN WHAT is probably their most enjoyable outing yet, the troupe get stuck on a remote island after a mishap on a cruise liner involving a hang-glider. The central tension at the core of this typically joke-crammed adventure involves a neatly packaged coming-of-age theme: their father-manager Dave (Jason Lee) is way overprotective of the chipmunks, especially with Alvin, who, despite his mischievousness, is eager to demonstrate some adult-like responsibility. Once again, slimy-but-likeable David Cross is aboard as the resident sort-of bad guy. Also, a pleasantly crazy person (Jenny Slate, from TV’s Bored to Death) is marooned on the island. There is also a cache of hidden treasure and a boiling volcano, which we constantly cut to so as to keep the pace from flagging. As well as being difficult to fault as pure-grain kids’ entertainment, this flick is, by any fair measure, a far better animated film than Tintin. Yeah, you read that right. (For more, visit CineTopia, Jim Schembri’s film blog).
ANY QUESTIONS FOR BEN?
*** (114 min) M
Very enjoyable, character-rich, thoughtful romantic comedy about Ben (Josh Lawson), a twenty-something strategic brand manager who begins questioning the state of his life after a presentation to his old high school shows that nobody knows, or is interested in, what a strategic brand manager actually does. The envy of some friends (Lachy Hulme and Daniel Henshall put in terrific support), but the bane of others (Felicity Ward, also terrific), Ben’s fleeting encounters with humanitarian worker and former school friend Alexis (Rachael Taylor) throw his inability to act into sharp relief as the ‘‘grass is always greener’’ theme gets a good going over. Director Rob Sitch, who co-wrote the thoroughly developed screenplay with Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner, uses way, way too much music to punch points that are capably conveyed by the cast. This is the first film in 12 years from Working Dog, who gave us The Castle (1997), The Dish (2000) and the TV shows Thank God You’re Here, and the brilliant Frontline.
*** (93 min) G
FROM Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio that regaled us with Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Porco Rosso, comes another charming exercise in surreal whimsy. Based on The Borrowers novels by Mary Norton and made in 2010, the film tells of Sho, a boy with heart trouble who moves to the country for peace and quiet, but discovers that the crawlspace of his new home is inhabited by a family of tiny people who ‘‘borrow’’ things to live. Arrietty is the tiny teenage girl who has to learn to trust Sho, though her staunch father insists they move now that they have been discovered. Traditionally animated — Ghibli appears largely uninterested in digital animation — the film has an attractive pastel allure and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi generates an appreciable sense of danger courtesy of an evil housemaid and a hungry cat. As well as being entertaining, Arrrietty will hopefully point punters to the 1997 film The Borrowers, a very good live-action rendition of the tiny people concept. (Note: The film can be seen in English and Japanese language versions.)
**1/2 (100 min) PG
IN THIS sweet, sincere, massively overrated valentine to silent movies - hot on the heels of Hugo - French writer/director Michel Hazanavicius (OSS 117) fashions a disposable, derivative, easy-to-like romantic comedy that charts the rise of fresh-faced new film star Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) and the fall of ageing leading man George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who finds his appeal waning with the arrival of talkies. Buoyed by an appropriately peppy performance by Bejo, the film is an enjoyable confection, though once its Star-Is-Born premise is established it essentially runs on the spot until its predictable ending. The near-universal accolades the film has received can’t quite paper over the fact that the film is formulaic and light on invention. A much more accomplished ode to silent films can be found in the brilliant 2007 Australian film Dr Plonk, written and directed by the ceaselessly creative Rolf de Heer (Ten Canoes; The Tracker; Bad Boy Bubby).
***1/2 (88 min) PG
SOFTLY spoken horse trainer Buck Brannaman is the quietly compelling subject of this lyrical, visually beautiful documentary by Cindy Meehl. She spent more than two years following Buck and capturing what goes on his "clinics", which are as much about training people as they are about horses. Buck is big on seeing animals as reflections of the people who own them, so his attention is often on issues of earning respect and authority through firmness rather than demanding obedience through harshness. His background as an abused child provides a powerful insight into his strength of character and the love he has for the foster mother who helped save him. The extraordinary sequence with the crazy horse illustrates Buck’s belief that animal behaviour tends to reflect the humans who own them.
**** (84min) M
IN THIS totally unexpected sci-fi thriller gem, a trio of angsty American high-school students stumble upon an alien device that imbues them with the power of telekinesis. At first it’s all fun and games as they play with toys, balls and shoot leafblowers up the skirts of cheerleaders, but as their powers grow exponentially conflict erupts over how best to harness their superhero-like abilities. Briskly directed by 26-year old Josh Trank from a story co-conceived with Max Landis (also 26), Chronicle is a prime example of ultra-savvy next-gen genre filmmaking, an fabulously entertaining, inventive synthesis of Carrie, steroid-fed Jedi mind tricks and Blair Witch video verite, where everything is filmed by the characters and CCTV cameras. Featuring great visual effects and a very committed cast of relative unknowns - headed by Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan - the dramatic stakes escalate to an absolute knockout final-reel payoff. Please don’t wait for this cracker to hit DVD; you’ll want to see it on the biggest screen you can find, especially when the lads get the hang of levitation.
***1/2 (110 min) MA
HAVING strived to establish himself as a loving father and legitimate small businessman, ex-smuggler John Bryce (Mark Wahlberg) is forced to do one more big job after his stupid brother in law messes up a deal for blustery, wimpy local crime czar (an almost unrecognisable Giovanni Ribisi). Of course, the shipping trip to Panama aboard a freighter run by a corrupt captain (character actor J.K. Simmons, in great form) goes haywire, with loads of very well-staged chases, exchanges of gunfire (people actually shoot straight in this thing!) and tough talk. Beware the over-use of shaky-cam, but it doesn’t get in the way of a really strong, twist-laden storyline. An extremely satisfying, full-on slice of action entertainment.
**** (115 min) M
IN MUCH the same humanist vein as his brilliant dramedy About Schmidt, director Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, Citizen Ruth) again flexes his deep love of flawed characters who try to maintain dignity in the midst of an irreversible emotional crisis. After his wife is rendered comatose by a freak skiing accident, family life for lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) is pulled inside out as a long-held secret surfaces. With doctors telling him she has no hope of survival, King is forced to decide whether to inflame the situation or take the higher, infinitely more difficult moral road. Complicating matters are his distant daughters, teenager Alex (Shailene Woodley) and tweenager Scottie (Amara Miller), and a major land deal he is negotiating for his wider family. As was the case with Up in the Air, Clooney shows here that he is at his best without the bells and whistles of high-key theatrics; he sells Matt as an everyman who must confront some harsh latter-life lessons involving self-respect, the compromises necessary for family cohesion and that secrets are sometimes best left kept.
EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE
*1/2 (129 min) PG
THIS painfully earnest, self-important post-9/11 drama should have been called Extremely Long and Incredibly Strained. After losing his dad (Tom Hanks, tanking again after Larry Crowne) in the Twin Towers, an adventurous, emotionally distraught Oskar (Thomas Horn) goes hunting for the thing that will be unlocked by the mysterious key he finds after the attack. Cue: life lessons. Of all the uncool things a film reviewer must do, picking on a child actor ranks as the hardest, but there’s no other way to put it: the central performance by Horn is almost unwatchable. It’s that all-too-American syndrome of over-acting where kids are directed to behave like miniature adults instead of, well, kids. Laboriously directed by Stephen Daldry (The Reader, The Hours, Billy Elliot) the film is briefly spiced by an under-used Sandra Bullock as Oskar’s mum.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
**1/2 (158 min) MA
AFTER more ballyhoo than it deserved, the much-anticipated American big-screen version of the Swedish thriller by David Fincher (The Social Network; Se7en; Fight Club) unspools as a surprisingly standard, way over-long dollop of mystery pulp spiced by a magnetic performance by Rooney Mara as the moody Lisbeth Salander, one of the most questionable female ‘‘heroes’’ in recent times. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is hired by a retired industrialist (Christopher Plummer) to suss out the 40-year old murder of his niece. His leisurely investigation, which uncovers a sprawling, often clumsily cobbled plot, eventually brings him together with Salander, an ultra-Goth researcher/hacker. Fincher delivers a far more technically proficient film than the original, but the gaping plot holes have been preserved, as has Salander’s laughable final-reel change in character. Look, it’s passable viewing, with Stellan Skarsgård particularly good in support, but Salander’s rape scenes are covered in disturbing fetishistic detail and the story’s payoff is as weak as it was the first time around. Whatever you do, however, don’t miss the opening title sequence: it’s a bona fide stunner.
*** (95 min) M
NIFTY, tight, sprightly paced psycho thriller in which an unadorned Amanda Seyfried plays a mentally unstable young woman obsessed by a stalker who might not exist. Troubled over the sudden disappearance of her student sister and frustrated by an indolent police, she heads off, gun in purse, in hot pursuit across a cold, blue-tinted cityscape. Well-mounted, with a very cool payoff.
***1/2 (117 min) MA
A GRUFF, frost-bitten Liam Neeson is in no-nonsense action mode again as John Ottway, a professional wolf hunter who leads a small gaggle of plane crash survivors across the bitter Alaskan landscape. As luck would have it, not only do they have their own inter-personal bickering to deal with, there’s a pack of large, salivating wolves sizing them up for brunch. It’s a straight-up, extremely well-mounted, tense survival drama with plenty of growling, bleeding and moments of deceptive quiet as the team wonder how close they are to the next attack. Director Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces, The A-Team, the vastly underrated Narc) keeps the inevitable dashes of humour to a minimum and draws another terrific alpha-male performance from Neeson, who is clearly making the most of his new-found multiplex appeal after Taken and Unknown.
HAPPY FEET TWO
** (103 min) PG
HERE's the mildly anticipated sequel to the 2006 animated smash about penguins who sing and dance and worry about the damage being inflicted on their fragile habitat by evil man and his global-warming ways. This time around the hero penguin is Erik (voiced by Ava Acres), son of the first film’s hero Mumble (Elijah Wood). He returns from an opening-reel adventure to find that his entire colony literally stuck down a depression in the ice caused by global warming. With George Miller at the helm (he co-directed the first one with Warren Coleman and Judy Morris), one would have expected a lot more movement, tension and excitement given his Mad Max legacy. Yet the film feels tired and stagnant, with too little sense of threat and too many same-same song and dance numbers. Oddly, a ripper B-story involving two rogue krill — voiced by Matt Damon and Brad Pitt — plays like a fun Finding Nemo knock-off and proves more imaginative and lively than anything else going on. It’s easy to see why HF2 hasn’t clicked at the American box office.
****1/2 (126 min) PG
SETTING the giant clocks in a 1930s Paris train station is orphaned boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who strikes up a bumpy relationship with Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). He’s a curmudgeon of a toymaker who is mysteriously connected with the life-sized automaton Hugo’s father (Jude Law) discovered in a museum storeroom. With the help of the inquisitive Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), Hugo learns about the birth of cinema and the part Méliès played in it. In a brilliant career studded with unarguable classics — Mean Streets; GoodFellas; Taxi Driver; Casino; The King of Comedy; Cape Fear; Raging Bull etc, etc — Hugo is both Martin Scorsese’s most beautiful film as well as a master class in how best to deploy 3D in the service of story. Using state-of-the-art technology, Scorsese uses the process to take us into the image, as his stunning opening shot attests. Visually the film is, by any fair measure, a standard-setting masterpiece while its story, based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, is a passionate ode to cinema designed — perhaps too specifically — for film lovers. The film might have tanked at the box office (see story), but so did Raging Bull and The King of Comedy, two Scorsese films that have earned classic status, as Hugo surely will.
THE IRON LADY
**1/2 (105 min) M
WHILE everyone is buzzing about Meryl Streep’s admittedly impressive performance as bullish British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in this biopic, nobody seems overly concerned about what a rather average film it is. Streep looks, sounds, moves like the Thatcher we know from decades of news footage — and kudos to that Oscar-destined hair and make-up team — but she ultimately delivers an impersonation rather than a character. The film is too choppy, episodic and often incoherent, cramming too much life into too little space as the film skates through the highlights of her career like a hastily cobbled documentary. Director Phyllida Lloyd also directed Streep in the featherweight musical romp Mamma Mia! (2008); how that qualified her to do a political character study is one for the ages.
***1/2 (137 min) M
CLINT Eastwood’s sombre, sprawling, ultimately respectful profile of FBI chief J Edgar Hoover is an engrossing, warmly directed amble through a culture-shifting career that pioneered the use of forensic evidence and centralised information. In an Oscar-worthy performance (both for him and the special make-up team), Leonardo Di Caprio inhabits Hoover as a passionate, fiery servant of the people. As well as portraying Hoover as an intelligent, far-seeing law man responsible for the crime scene protocols so familiar to us on TV, Eastwood intends the film as something of a corrective to the caricature of Hoover as the bull-headed, cross-dressing homosexual who created the Federal Bureau of Investigation, then ran it from 1935 to 1972. Judi Dench puts in terrific support as his very loving mother as does Naomi Watts as Hoover’s sort-of girlfriend.
JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND
*** (94 min) PG
IN THIS surprisingly brisk 3D sequel to 2008’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, director Brad Peyton (Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore) dumps mischievous, science-loving Sean (Josh Hutcherson, reprising his role as per his contract), his striving step-dad (Dwayne Johnson) and girl adventurer Kailani (a non-singing Vanessa Hudgens) on a remote, unstable island populated by outsized creatures, an unstable geology and a prehistoric creature, which turns out to be Sean’s long-lost grand father (a scenery chewing Michael Caine). Fine holiday fun, with Johnson buffing out his family appeal with an attractive self-deprecating performance. The 3D looks terrific and the romp is underpinned by a neatly etched arc about Sean accepting his new dad.
*1/2 (116 min) MA
Increasingly bland action man Jason Statham desperately needs to broaden his range. As the lead in this sprawling, messily directed, who’s-shooting-who international actioner Statham is all gun-pointing, tough-talking gristle whose actual acting chops pale when placed in the same frame as Robert De Niro and Clive Owen. First-time feature director Gary McKendry does a passable job staging the many gunfights, chases and fireball sequences, but has enormous trouble keeping focus on the gnarled, over-long narrative. Though set all over the world, much of the movie was shot in and around Melbourne. Wait for the DVD to play the "where was this shot?" freeze frame game.
*** (89 min) PG
THANKS to the sureness of touch deployed by director Julie Gavras (daughter of cinema titan Costa-Gavras), Late Bloomers unspools as a mildly barbed, richly nuanced, semi-satirical character comedy about the onset of old age, the courage it takes to admit it, and the realisation that turning 60 does not mean virtual death. A typically subdued William Hurt - clearly happy to have his once-handsome visage show the ravages of the years - plays a successful architect whose latter-life crisis grinds against the efforts of his wife, played deftly by Isabella Rossellini, to adjust to hand rails and phones with large buttons on them. Young people come in for a mild ribbing but its the unforced, uplifting tone of the piece that makes this thoughtful dramedy click.
MAN ON A LEDGE
*** (102 min) M
HAVING been stabbed with the wrong end of the justice stick, former cop Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington) hatches an elaborate scheme to clear his name, all of which hinges on him threatening to leap off the ledge of a New York apartment building while his collaborators get busy lining a number of ducks in a row. With Worthington looking appropriately scared and Elizabeth Banks doing a great job roughing it as the police negotiator with the murky past, first-time feature director Asger Leth (he did the doco Ghosts of Cité Soleil), working from a screenplay by fellow newbie Pablo F. Fenjves (a noted telemovie writer), efficiently ratchets up the stakes and delivers a knockaout finale. A well-made, tightly wound thriller.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
**** (102 min) MA
THIS quiet, pitch-perfect psychological drama is an early contender for the most unsettling film of 2012. Having physically escaped from a free-sex cult in the mountains, a twitchy young woman Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) seeks refuge with her very forgiving older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and slightly more suspicious husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) in their sprawling country home. With flashbacks to her mind-bending life in the cult seamlessly blended in by first-time writer/director Sean Durkin, Martha’s intention to mentally decompress and get back to normal doesn’t quite go as anyone hoped. As with Winter’s Bone, an encroaching sense of psychological oppression bleeds into the increasinglhy ironic light and space of Lucy’s home as tensions between Martha and Ted rise. The depiction of the cult, run by the soft-spoken Patrick (John Hawkes, in an outstanding, subtle, disturbing performance), provides a far more disturbing insight into the dynamics of mind-manipulation than we saw in Kevin Smith’s hysterical Red State, with the film ending on a discordant note designed to remain with you long after its final image has faded.
* (136min) M
AFTER an awkward wedding between a daffy bride (a perfectly cast Kirsten Dunst) and a tolerant groom (Alexander Skarsgard), it transpires that the Earth is about to be swallowed whole by another planet. It’ll mean the end of everything. And do we care? Let’s just say that never in the history of films about an impending apocalypse has such a motley collection of mind-grindingly dull characters made you wish for the destruction of all life on the planet to come as quickly as possible. Lars von Trier has proven himself a provocative, intermittently brilliant director with films such as Dogville, AntiChrist and Zentropa, but with this slice of tripe one suspects his playful attitude to audience expectations has prompted him to produce a deliberately bad, visually ugly work designed to test our tolerance for his indulgences. No sale, Lars. If only the film had a shred of the lyricism we witness in the film’s haunting introductory montage.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
**1/2 (94 min) PG
IN THIS souffle-light Woody Allen confection, a frustrated screenwriter (Owen Wilson) yearns to be taken seriously as a novelist. While in Paris with his wife-to-be (Rachel McAdams) he finds he can time travel back to the 1920s and mix with artistic greats such as Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Picasso and Salvador Dali. He, of course, falls for his guide (Marion Cotillard) and starts to doubt his happiness with his present-day betrothed. It’s passable Woody waffle designed strictly for fans; the great cast, which also includes Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates and Adrien Brody, shine in their too-small roles, with Wilson working his amiable persona for all it’s worth. A nice time-killer, but far from Woody Allen’s A-list films, such as Match Point (2005), Bullets Over Broadway (1994) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — GHOST PROTOCOL
**** (133 min) M
AFTER the mediocrity of M:I3, it was not going to be hard for the Tom Cruise high-concept action franchise to cook up something that, frankly, didn’t suck. The great news is the new adventure is a thrilling, stunt-packed ride that delivers on every level; the stakes are higher as Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his rag-tag crew (Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton) are forced to go rogue after being accused of a bombing. As tech expert, Pegg (Shaun of the Dead; Hot Fuzz) graces the film with a distinctly British lacing of humour while director Brad Bird (The Incredibles; Ratatouille) proves he is more than capable of handling big-scale action numbers, such as when Hunt scales the pointy end of the world’s tallest skyscraper. Patton (so good as the teacher from Precious) acquits herself admirably as she cracks wise and kicks ass, while Renner (The Hurt Locker; The Town) is terrific as a desk jockey who suddenly finds himself in the middle of all the shooting. An unmissable Mission, a top-notch serving of popcorn entertainment.
**** (110 min) G
DID we really need another Muppets movie? Up until now, and for the past dozen years, the answer has been a resounding ‘‘No!’’, especially for those fans whose love of Jim Henson’s wise-cracking felt creations somehow survived Muppets From Space (1999), which was the last time the team took to the screen. But all doubts are washed away within the first few minutes of this gloriously upbeat, unapologetically corny, extremely funny and deeply heartfelt revival. To fulfil their dream of bringing back the Muppet Show, Gary (Jason Segel, who initiated this film with Nicholas Stoller, his director on Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and his Muppet brother Walter go in search of the Muppet team. Determined to spoil their dream is oily oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) who wants to raze the Muppet theatre so he can drill. If they gave out Oscars for Best Franchise Reboot, The Muppets would be a shoo-in. And if the musical number Man or Muppet, written by Bret McKenzie (Flight of the Conchords) doesn’t get a nod there’s something seriously wrong with the world. The Muppets pioneered the now-standard practice of pitching comedy to kids and adults simultaneously, and this film celebrates that trans-generational appeal in a non-stop cascade of the type of cheap jokes and visual gags that have become their trademark.
*** (92 min) MA
NOT a happy picture this, but a good one. Actor Paddy Considine (Dead Man’s Shoes, The Bourne Ultimatum) proves himself an empathetic writer/director of social-realist grime with his unflinching story of abuse, anger and redemption. Joseph (the ever-angry Peter Mullan from My Name is Joe) is a lowly, lonely, pent-up suburbanite constantly looking for a fight until he meets Hannah (Olivia Colman), a quiet, selfless Christian woman who runs an opp shop and whose life with husband James (Eddie Marsan) is a living nightmare. This is like a Ken Loach film turned up to 11, with Considine creating a palpable pall of domestic bleakness.
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN
**1/2 (99 min) M
THERE’s no doubting how good an impersonation of screen siren Marilyn Monroe Michelle Williams delivers in this feather-weight, fact-based melodrama about the bumpy production of the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl; she nails the moves, the batting eyelids, the pouting lips, the well-documented scowls of vulnerability. But as is the case with Meryl Streep doing Maggie Thatcher in The Iron Lady, the performance is essentially a 90-minute party trick that doesn’t sufficiently get under the skin of the character. Beyond the rather obvious observation that Monroe was feeling the pressure of her swelling fame and the perils of celebrity, there’s not enough dramatic heft to offset the lashings of tweeness. The real standout performance here Kenneth Branagh’s touching turn as a middle-aged Laurence Olivier, desperate to use Monroe’s star wattage to jump-start his stalled career. It’s a performance etched with anxiety and that oh-so British veneer of politeness, which erodes as Monroe becomes increasingly troublesome.
PUSS IN BOOTS
★★★1/2 (90 min) PG
WE ALL had very good reason to be suspicious but, thankfully, this sub-franchise of the Shrek series feels fresh, brandishing a distinctive comic snap as well as a beautifully rendered, high-key fairy-tale world that looks very different from its parent. Riffing on the myth-mash premise of Shrek, Latino adventurer Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas again providing the voice) hooks up with sexy female foil Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) to climb the beanstalk of legend and retrieve the goose that lays the golden eggs. Amidst all the colour and movement, director Chris Miller (co-director on Shrek the Third) somehow shoehorns in a strong sub-story about betrayal and the resilient nature of friendship. Wisely, he has also spared us the cascade of pop references that define the Shrek films, something for which we will be forever grateful.
★★ (112 min) M
STEVE Wiseau's unfairly trashed romantic drama might have terrible acting, dialogue and direction, but pay attention - the story actually holds together. Not as bad a film as legend makes out. Cries to be remade.
***1/2 (115 min) M
Once again Denzel Washington (Unstoppable; American Gangster; Training Day) brings the bad-ass, this time as Tobin Frost, a rogue CIA agent whose former employers have identified as an A-list traitor. After mysteriously turning himself in and being taken to a safe house run by the lowly Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a messy attempt to kill him launches the unlikely pair on a ripping Bourne-like chase across South Africa. Reynolds does naivety and desperation well, Washington is all sweaty chase-movie gristle, while Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard and the ever-versatile Brendan Gleeson lend solid support back in the office as they try to make sense of the twisty-turny plot. Great fun.
***1/2 (101 min) R
Successful, stern-faced single man Brandon (Michael Fassbender) possesses a type of sexual magnetism so potent that women who catch his loaded glare while on the train can’t wait to get home before getting off. Literally. Brandon is consumed by sex in all its forms - his hard drive brims with porn - yet there’s no joy in all his swordplay, just a piercing reminder that glumness is the natural by-product of being alone. Problems are compounded when his troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) troubles him for a room in his spacious apartment. It doesn’t go well. Following a trend that has popped up since Up in the Air (2009), director Steve McQueen (Hunger) probes the perils of promiscuity and the need people such as Brandon have to find meaningful connection in their emotionally constipated, spit-and-polish life styles. Fassbender is spellbinding.
SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS
★ 1/2 (129min) M
IN WHAT might turn out to be 2012’s most searingly mediocre example of movie franchise mulch, director Guy Ritchie returns with Robert Downey jnr as detective Sherlock Holmes — reformatted here as a fast-talking action hero — and Jude Law as Watson — a sexy rethink of the original pudgy plod — to deliver an eminently forgettable high-key adventure involving mastermind villain Moriarty, played with something resembling an actual performance by Jared Harris. With the almost freakish exception of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Ritchie has demonstrated an insulting disdain for narrative clarity in his films along with a penchant for flash over substance. And there’s certainly plenty of that here: Holmes and co dodge bullets in slo-mo; elaborate fight sequences are deconstructed by Holmes before they happen; the elaborate costumes and decor reek of big-budget excess. The trouble with all this is it dashes by with scant regard for plot or character. And as understandably eager as Noomi Rapace is to kick-start her Hollywood career after the Girl trilogy, it’s a pity to see her swallowed up in this muddily photographed blizzard of empty effects and emptier people.
THIS MEANS WAR
**** (98 min) M - Opens Valentine’s Day (next Tuesday) .
When two CIA agents and bromantic buddies Tuck (Tom Hardy) and Foster (Chris Pine from Star Trek, and one of the handsomest dudes on the big screen right now) find they’re dating the same girl (Reese Witherspoon) they use every taxpayer-funded trick at their disposal to get the edge on the other. Sound like formula-driven fodder for the multiplexes? Well, it is - and as far as light, high-concept romantic comedies go, director McG (Terminator Salvation; We Are Marshall; Charlie’s Angels) does a near-perfect job balancing all the high jinks with well-engineered comic set pieces, terrifically staged action and just the right amount of smarts and heart to make the whole shebang click beautifully. It’s a prime example of a film doing exactly what it promises, and doing so with relish.
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
* (128 min) MA
QUOTE all you like from the accolades and acclaim this film has received, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a tangled, sombre, impenetrable mess of a film. And it’s as dull as five-day old dishwater. Based on the classic, complicated Cold War novel by John le Carre, director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) does a terrible job trying to revive the anxiety of Cold War tensions as he fails to pump life into the hunt for a spy inside the British secret service. A crusty, laconic Gary Oldman is George Smiley, the super-spy at the core of a gaggle of bumbling stiff upper-lippers. It wasn’t out of the question that a compacted movie version of the sprawling story could improve upon the superb 1979 mini-series (starring Alec Guinness), but that certainly hasn’t happened here.
*** (88min) MA
KATE Beckinsale is back, resplendent in her signature fetish gear and guns to run, jump, blast and bite her way through another near-incomprehensible edition of the sumptuous, dizzily edited Goth Porn that is the Underworld saga. Waking up from cryogenic freeze after a dozen years, vampire vixen Selene (Kate) finds that not only does she have the giant werewolves — aka lycans — to deal with, she’s now got the human race off side. In the mix is the super-powerful child vampette Eve (India Eisley) and a gaggle of elder vampires, lead by Charles Dance, who are not as willing to fight as the younger vamps. With a straight-faced Kate looking better than ever in her corset and unforgiving latex cat suit — that’s an automatic two-star rating right there! — it’s wall-to-wall fireballs, muzzle flash and dismemberment, made all the more enjoyable by the fact that everybody on screen is taking everything so seriously.
*** (104 min) PG
The Big Question posed in this soft-centred, misty-eyed, easily digestible romantic drama is whether love can survive the sudden, full-frontal impact of industrial strength cliches. Leo (Channing Tatum, clearly trying hard to be a better actor) and Paige (Rachel McAdams, no contest) are happily married when a car accident robs Paige of her memory of him. Can Leo make her fall in love with him again? Can she resist the pull of her parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange) who want her to move back home? Director David Sucsy (the Emmy-winning telemovie Grey Gardens) delivers a lovingly prepared serving of Nicholas Sparks-like mush without over doing the cornball or the obvious. Cynics, please avoid.
*** (146 min) M
Never mind Tintin. Far more worthy of note is Steven Spielberg’s other post-Christmas offering, a stirring, elegant World War I tale following the journey of a horse from the farm where it was raised, to its service on both sides, to being lost on the corpse-soaked battlefields of the Somme. Despite expectations he would imbue the story with the hard-edged we saw in Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Munich (2005), Spielberg is very much in 1980s mode here; emotions are heightened; melodrama is dialled up; the images have a rich, pastel lustre; the tone is unfailingly humanist. And while he powerfully conveys the battlefield slaughter of men being mowed down, he refrains from the extremes we saw in Ryan’s opening reel. Some might find that a tad disappointing but it fits with the style of this most affecting film.
WE BOUGHT A ZOO
*** (124 min) PG
THOSEwith discerning children who love animals are in for an uplifting blast with this tender-hearted Disneyesque dramedy in which Matt Damon ups his family-movie cred as a widowed dad who quits journalism to run a run-down zoo. As pleasant as it is predictable, Damon is winning as the dad, Scarlett Johansson is winsome as the dedicated zookeeper and it’s refreshing to once again see movie animals that do not require any digital assist. As a crowd-pleaser, We Bought a Zoo hits all the right buttons.
*** (97 min) MA
VERY good, eye and ear-opening two-hander about two gay men who spark what could be a meaningful relationship after what is supposed to be a sex-only one-night stand. Russell (Tom Cullen) is the sedate, reasonably contented single guy while Glen (Chris New) is the provocative artist unhappy with the outcast stigma gays still endure. Very well directed by up-and-comer Andrew Haigh, the well-acted, word-heavy film’s dialogue effectively conveys a great deal of anger as well as a real sense of connection between the two men.
****(90 min) MA
THOUGH it’s unlikely to be the zeitgeist-tapper Juno was, director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody have teamed up again for a character adventure that is every bit as accomplished and insightful, if considerably darker. The dramatic touchstones here are middle-age, suburbia, infidelity and the undervalued power of decency, all of which are given voice in a carefully sculpted dramedy that is as subtle as it is sharp. Cursed with writer’s block, highly successful author Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron in another affecting performance) returns to her home town with the sole intent of stealing former beau Buddy (Patrick Wilson) away from his family, uncaring about the hurt she will cause. She’s rich, smart, devious and still beautiful, but her hard-to-like hubris meets its match as the people she holds in such contempt turn out to actually have lives. An outstanding film, and another triumph for Reitman (Up in the Air, Thank You For Smoking) whose move from satire to sincerity continues to pay off big-time.
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