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Saturday, 29 November 2008

Australia


Forget the hype – here's all you need to know about Australia: there's wobble board on the soundtrack. There's also John Butler playing guitar, which does kind of suggest that The Angels, Smokey Dawson, The Hilltop Hoods and Kylie might have got a look-in during the editing process, but it's the wobble board's appearance – brief though it may be – that sums up this film. How can you take seriously a film about Australia that has a wobble board on the soundtrack? How can a film that's meant to be a Gone With the Wind-style sweeping saga of passion set against the backdrop of both history and a timeless land possibly work if you can't take it seriously? You can't, and it doesn't.

At first it's not even clear that this film has ambitions beyond being the kind of broad knockabout comedy that died out with Welcome to Woop Woop. Uptight English noblewoman comes to Australia circa 1939 and is shocked by the crudity of the outback? Check. Rough-hewn Aussie roustabout gets in bar fight defending the natives then takes his shirt off? Check. Bill Hunter cameo? Check. A more charitable reviewer – and lord knows there's plenty of them about, as the rare combo of a local production and serious money has resulted in more than the usual amount of fawning from the usual entertainment reporters – would call this "playing to the American market". They'd be wrong. Even the most dim-witted American would spot this guff as cliches played for comedy, and it's only Aussie pride that could possibly prevent anyone from seeing what's going on here: writer / director Baz Lurhmann is taking the piss.

This isn't automatically a bad thing. A movie-length version of Kath & Kim set in the outback could be well worth checking out. But as the romance between Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) and The Drover (Hugh Jackman) - set against the backdrop of a vast untamed land, naturally - progresses we get a brand new load of cliches and the trouble really begins. In every film he's made since Strictly Ballroom Lurhmann has proven himself to be both a master of spectacle and close to useless when it comes to creating living, breathing characters. In his earlier films, that wasn't much of a problem; even the pointless mess that was Moulin Rouge had enough music blaring to keep you distracted from the sub-cartoon characters. But here, where despite his best efforts to create a tourist ad the romance between Sarah and The Drover is what we're interested in, the fact that both of them are nothing more than cardboard cut-outs is a lead weight around this film.

Lurhmann tries to give himself an out by telling us up front that what we're seeing is the past viewed through the eyes of Nullah (the charismatic Brandon Walters) the pre-teen Aboriginal "creamy", (his father was white, his mother black) who narrates the film. He's a kid: no wonder his view of what's going on is simplistic. And the parts of the film that directly concern Nullah as he struggles to find a place for himself as he's stuck between two worlds are easily the most interesting and affecting parts of the film. But if he's the one we're supposed to be paying attention to, why cast the two biggest Australian actors around? And if the big names are where our eyes are drawn, why not give them actual characters to play?

This kind of garbled approach runs throughout the film – well, the parts of the film that are actually important if you're supposed to be telling a story. The fact that Lady Ashley seemingly packs a funeral dress for a trip to meet her husband in a country where she doesn't know anyone else, or that she shacks up with The Drover for years but never learns his actual name are just symptoms of a film where the surface is everything and the film-makers just aren't that interested in large chunks of their own film. Take the air raid on Darwin: what should have been a dramatic high point is instead basically a minute's worth of out-takes from Pearl Harbor as Darwin is revealed to be full of dropkicks who just stare stupidly at a wave of attacking planes instead of running away or shooting back. Ok, that's what they did in Pearl Harbor (the movie), but that was a surprise attack. Australia's been at war for over two years at this stage of the movie: a bit less gawking and a bit more running would seem to be the order of the day.

So if the characters are wafer-thin and the story is cobbled together from pages torn from The Bumper Book of Historical Romance, is there anything actually worth watching here? Well, there is a pretty exciting cattle stampede that's halted by magic Aboriginal singing, plus a lot of references to The Wizard of Oz that link "Somewhere over the Rainbow" with the rainbow serpent. It'd be tempting to dismiss this kind of thing as patronizing, but this film has to get its magic from somewhere – there certainly isn't any happening between Kidman and Jackman. And who knows? Maybe the aborigines summoned up the Japanese airforce to punish the white man for their part in the Stolen Generations.

Still, you can't deny the title is spot-on. Not only does Australia feature pretty much every Australian actor alive (Jack Thompson! David Wenham! Bruce Spence! Ben Mendlesohn! Jeff Jarrett!), but it also seems to self-conciously reference large chunks of Australian film history. There's a beat-up car like something out of Mad Max 2, a running character's death that echoes Galipoli, and a hand trailing through grain straight from (honorary Aussie) Russell Crowe's Gladiator. Sadly, there didn't seem to be any obvious references to Alvin Purple – perhaps they'll be in the director's cut.

The strange thing is, all the hype seemed to be setting audiences up to expect a completely different kind of dud. Heavy hints were dropped that Lurhmann had created an overly populist film that would portray Australia as a true-blue land of bonza blokes and top shelias, not what he’s actually delivered: something that too often feels like a costume designer's half-arsed film adaptation of a bad mid-90s protest play. Still, approach this in the right frame of mind and there's plenty to keep you awake, like the scene where a bunch of American trucks – we know they're American because they're flying the American flag – are shown driving across the outback only to never be mentioned again. What's all that about?

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #442)

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Hunger


In the early 1980s a string of protests rocked Belfast’s Maze Prison as IRA prisoners demanded to be treated as political prisoners and receive special privileges. Their actions included "dirty" protests (refusing to wash, smearing the walls of their cells with their own excrement) and "blanket" protests (refusing to wear anything but a blanket), and eventually escalated to a string of hunger strikes by various members, including the one that led to the death of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). The first half of writer / director Steve McQueen’s film dramatising those events verges on being a silent film, as we see the back-and-forth of the situation: the prison guards living in fear out on the streets, the prisoners being abused inside the prison, with the cycle of abuses ramping itself up to brutal bashings and killings - and then we get what might as well be a twenty minute play filmed pretty much in one take of a conversation between Sands and his priest (Liam Cunningham) which lays out with compelling argument and at times chilling logic the case for Sands calmly starving himself to death. Which we then see him go on to do in the same clinical, almost emotionless detail that the earlier scenes have taken to examine earlier horrors. Hunger is a gripping, utterly absorbing, and at times appalling film that won't be easily forgotten.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #440)

Newcastle



There's a fine line between teen angst and being a dickhead and Jesse (Lachlan Buchanan) wanders across it a little too often for Newcastle’s good. Sure, he’s got a lot of problems on his plate. There's his older brother Victor (Reshad Strik) who's moved back home (and turned into a bully) after his pro surfing career ended; a younger brother (Xavier Samuel) everyone calls "Fag-us" (instead of Fergus) because, well, he's clearly gay; and dreams of surfing stardom that’re dashed when he fails to deliver the goods at a qualifying meet. But while everyone else (even the thuggish older brother) gradually develops int a slightly rounded character Jesse remains an angry dickhead, stomping around sulking and moaning and abusing everyone around him. Even when he and his buddies (plus Fergus) go on a camping trip to an isolated surf spot and he finally gets to score with his hot girlfriend he just ends up with even more to be angry about... though this time he has a pretty good reason. Newcastle is well shot (especially in the surf sequences), the cast are convincingly awkward and director Dan Castle’s script certainly has a decent movie buried in there... somewhere. It's probably one about the homosexual awakening of Fergus (easily the most likeable character in the film), as the countless butt shots, the tanned and shirtless cast (the lead doesn’t wear a shirt for the first half-hour of the film - sure, he’s a surfer, but can you name a non-porn film where a female lead wears a bikini for a solid half-hour of camera time?) and the all-male skinny dipping scenes this is one of the gayest “straight” films in recent memory. As it stands, unless you're a huge surfing fan you can keep driving past Newcastle.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #440)

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People


It makes no sense, but it’s true nonetheless: one of the many, many unwritten rules of Hollywood film-making that a romantic comedy is somehow superior to a regular, make-'em-laugh comedy. So we get films like How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, where what should have been a good - or even great - straight-up comedy takes a serious turn for the seriously mushy in the final act. What makes it even more depressing is that up until then the romance angle was extremely well-handled: Sydney Young (Simon Pegg doing a bang-up job) is a feisty, muckraking UK journalist - and, to be honest, a bit of a dick - who gets head-hunted to work for Sharpes magazine in the US. It's a new world for Young, one where publicists control access to the big stars the magazine needs to survive and they use that control to ensure they get favourable coverage. Young, on the other hand, prefers to sink the boots in, which doesn't impress anyone he works with, least of all Alison (Kirsten Dunst). And so for a while what we get is a bunch of very funny workplace pranks and blunders spiced up with some A-list glamour (having hot new actress Megan Fox playing a hot new actress helps a lot in this regard) and Pegg's quality face-pulling, until suddenly the simmering romance between Sydney and Alison is shoved into the foreground, things go sour (as they must in all romantic comedies so the lovers can get back together at the end) and this becomes the extremely thin motivation for Sydney to suddenly throw aside his UK ethics in favour of US-style suck-up journalism. Before long he's got everything but love, but as this is clearly one of those “I had it all, then threw it away for love” stories, the ending isn’t exactly hard to spot. It also makes zero sense when you think about it for even a second - good thing the rest of the film is funny enough to more than make up for it.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #439)

Max Payne



Getting the tone right for an action movie is a tricky thing. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, who got it right more often than most, fell into a serious pit of too-serious seriousness with most of his 90s output. And Max Payne - based on a video game series far more serious than the fun name would suggest - gets it wrong from the get-go. The story itself holds promise: Max (Mark Wahlberg) is a New York cop who's spent three years trying to find his wife's killer, which kinda suggests that he’s not that great a cop. Then suddenly he meets a sexy dame who strips off in his apartment than gets hacked to death after he kicks her out (because the pain of his wife’s death is so strong, not because he’s gay or anything), then his old partner gets hacked to death, then a lot more conspiracy uncovering takes place, and by the end everyone's on drugs and seeing weird stuff. Or something like that - this is one of those films that has too much plot for its own good, especially when everyone's come to see a bunch of cool shoot-outs and instead there's only a handful and they're so packed with cheezy bullet-time you can step outside, get some more popcorn, visit the toilet and come back in before Payne has finished racking his shotgun. As for the grey-scale colour palette and super-sombre tone (does it ever stop snowing?) designed to make us realise this these are serious events - uh, hello? The lead is called MAX PAYNE, not GRIM-FACED DARK AVENGER RACKED WITH SERIOUS EMOTIONAL PAYNE. Good dumb in an action movie is calling your lead Max Payne; bad dumb is what the rest of this film delivers.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #438)

The Dutchess



The problem with historical films is that while it’s relatively easy to recreate how people looked back then, it’s a whole lot harder to recreate how they thought. The Duchess is a rare attempt to provide a bit of insight into what was running through the minds of those well-dressed and (by the standards of the time) insanely wealthy types so beloved of costume dramas, and it turns what would otherwise have been a lightweight piece of well-costumed fluff into something that puts a bit of meat onto history’s bones. Still in her teens when wed to the extremely rich and powerful Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), Georgina Spencer (Keira Knightley) soon discovers that her husband really only wants one thing from her: a son to carry on the family line. When she turns out to be very good at providing daughters, his attention eventually wanders to her best friend, the recent divorcee Lady Bess Spencer (Hayley Atwell). Unfortunately for Georgina, her attempts to take a lover of her own (Dominic Cooper) are far less socially acceptable...

On the surface this is yet another tale of true love denied by a society bound by unfeeling rules and so on. But while Knightley (who gives one of her better performances as a young woman trapped by her situation) does get to wear a lot of stunning costumes while wandering through some amazing examples of 18th century architecture while waiting to snog her lover, the real centre of interest in this film is The Duke himself. Rather than being a cartoon villain for our heroine to rail against, he’s shown as a man almost as trapped by his role as Georgina is in hers, forced into situations he has little interest in and compelled to act in a certain (usually cruel) way for appearances sake. Fiennes all but makes him a tragic figure, which isn't bad considering he's playing a man who moves his lover into the house he shares with his wife; his performance makes The Duchess far more thoughtful than the average be-wigged costume drama

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #438)

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Persepolis


It's a good time to be pretentious in the world of comic books. The literary crowd have (finally) embraced "graphic novels" as being the equal of ordinary prose - at least in theory - and the format is still new enough (at least as far as the literary crowd is concerned) to make even so-so projects seem cutting edge. And they have pictures, which is a big plus. So it's not all that surprising that Persepolis made a bit of a splash when it came out a few years ago. The story of a young Iranian woman growing up in the wake of the overthrow of The Shah, it also managed to tick various boxes marked "serious" and "worthy" and - perhaps most important of all post-9/11 when it comes to being marketed towards a western literary crowd looking to understand a people their right-wing leaders were demonising - "middle eastern". Unfortunately, as a biography (and author Marjane Satrapi has said from the start she tweaked some of the facts, though the central character bears her name) it was more down the "informative" than the "insightful" end of the scale. And apart from the fact that the pictures now move, not much has changed with this animated film: characters are thinly developed, the lead is passive and the tone throughout keeps events at a distance, making this a story that all too often feels obviously "told" rather than experienced. That wouldn't matter much if the story was told with flair, but the animation is basic and the pictures lifeless, resulting in a film that gets by because of the novelty of its setting rather than any real artistic achievement. Still, it's an animated film based on a graphic novel about growing up as a woman in a fundamentalist Muslim regime: you can't get more arthouse cred than that.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #435)

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Not Quite Hollywood



Once upon a time, not all that long ago, Australian films were entertaining as well as worthy. If you wanted to see well-off people moaning about their problems or poor people griping about their troubles, you could do that - but if you wanted to see people being hunted for sport in the terrifying future world of 2000, that was on offer as well. But in any war the winner gets to write history and when arthouse film took over the local cinemas in the late 80s / early 90s (thanks to a variety of factors, including the demise of the drive-in and changes in taxation), they wrote the entertaining side of Australian cinema out of the history books. Until now: Not Quite Hollywood is both an educational look back at the world of the so-called 'Ozploitation' films of the 70s and 80s and a rip-roaring collection of amazing scenes and sequences from those very same films. It's a double whammy: you not only get a solid history lesson in the dark side of Australian film, complete with countless classic wisecracks from the many, many colourful characters involved (and director Mark Hartley seems to have spoken to everyone who ever made a film in this country, from Barry Humphries to Sigrid Thornton to Dennis Hopper to numerous sleazy behind-the-scenes producers), you also get to see all the best bits from the films of the era. And there are a lot of best bits here. Whether you're a fan of swinging 70's nudity, people being set on fire, car crashes galore or just general trashiness there are far, far too many classic moments here to name. For once all the hype around an Australian film is totally justified: if you see only one Australian film this year... well, that's one more than most people do. But if you see this film, you'll not only learn why that wasn't always the case, you'll have a hell of a good time.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #435)

Friday, 15 August 2008

Taken


A good vigilante movie takes our primal thirst for revenge and plays on it for all it's worth. Judged on that basis – and that’s the only real basis for an honest judgment of this film - Taken is a very good vigilante movie indeed. Not that it sells itself to us as such: Liam Neeson’s role is simply that of a good father (with a vast array of CIA-honed skills for tracking and neutralising bad guys) who quit his job as an international tough-guy to try and win back the teenaged daughter he barely knows. The bad news is that she wants to go on holiday in Europe and he's the only one who knows (and goes on and on and on) about how dangerous Europe is for sexy teenagers; the worse news is that pretty much the second she steps off the plane all his dire predictions come true as she's kidnapped by sex slavers. The good news for audiences is that this means he promptly gets on a plane, flies to Paris, and starts bashing, torturing, and murdering everyone who he sees as standing between him and his daughter. Of course it's totally ridiculous and borderline offensive clichés abound, including a return of an old favourite in the form of the Sleazy Sheik. But Neeson is always good value whatever the role and as the smouldering symbol of barely suppressed rage he’s both completely watchable and relatively believable considering he's playing an unstoppable killing machine. The action scenes are well staged and gritty (Neeson isn't a young man, but again, he's a believable arse-kicker), and there's a fairly high level of ruthlessness in his actions that keeps things from getting too stale and predictable. There's even a few moments of genuine shock as we see Neeson taking things just a little too far to get the job done. If a line exists, he'll cross it to get his daughter back; in a film like this, that's exactly what we want to see.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #433)

Saturday, 9 August 2008

The Dark Knight


As superhero movie characters go, Batman has one big problem: he beats up muggers. He does more than that, of course, but at a time when blockbuster movies are expected to feature huge amounts of jaw-dropping CGI, there's only so much you can do with a man who dresses up in a bat costume and punches out criminals. What makes The Dark Knight so good – and it's easily the best blockbuster of 2008 to date, leaving everything else fighting for second place - is that director / co-writer Christopher Nolan (back after directing Batman Begins) knows that Batman can't compete on a spectacle level with guys who can fly or turn into big green monsters, and so doesn't even try. Where Batman can compete, and where The Dark Knight triumphs so spectacularly, is on a human level. So what we get is a 150-odd minute character-based crime drama where one of the main players dresses like a bat, another is an amoral clown who likes to blow things up, and the other two are just regular guys trying to do their jobs. Not that you don’t get loads of action here too: there's at least one really good car chase, Batman gets in plenty of fist-swinging fights, and explosions are pretty much Gotham City's big tourism drawcard. But the story keeps things for the most part at a human level where characters we like strive against evil and from there it simply cranks up the tension: other superhero movies might put the world at risk but here the Joker will simply kill you dead for no good reason. That's a whole lot creepier, especially as time and time again he's successful in carrying out his murderous threats until eventually this becomes a film where you honestly don't know what's going to happen next… but it's probably going to be something bad. If that wasn't enough to keep you watching (and the plotting here is a huge improvement over the occasionally shaky Batman Begins), there are four top-notch actors in the central roles. Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne / Batman might still need to work a little on the gruff Batman voice but otherwise he's rock solid as the playboy by day, crime fighter by night who this time around is starting to hope his day is done. Gary Oldman as Lieutenant Gordon is put to much better use second time around as a cop trying to hold things together and Heath Ledger is extremely good (in a very well-constructed role) as the chaos-loving Joker. Gotham's new DA Harvey Dent is in many ways the film's heart and soul, the one good man in a rotten city, and Aaron Eckhart is totally convincing in the role. The Dark Knight is a big, sprawling film, and occasionally a subplot clunks or a scene feels a little surplus to requirements. But that's part of its charm: it's a truly epic saga, and without such a grand scope the stakes wouldn't seem nearly so high.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #432)

Monday, 28 July 2008

The Band's Visit


‘Once, not long ago, a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many people remember it – it wasn’t that important.’ So goes the unassuming blurb for this utterly charming and absolutely memorable little Israeli film, the debut feature for director Eran Kolirin. The story opens as the musicians – in fetchingly outdated powder-blue uniforms – arrive at the Tel Aviv airport. They need to catch a bus to a nearby town to play music at the opening of an Arab Cultural Centre. Due to various language barriers and scheduling mistakes, the band ends up in a desolate Israeli town, where there’s no cultural centre – and seemingly no culture at all, as the sexy café owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) laughingly tells them.

The band must spend the night waiting for the next bus, and they’re billeted out to various townsfolk. It’s the small moments of humourous connection and subtle miscommunication that make this film a treasure. Band conductor Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai) conveys a universe of sorrow in his solemn face, but there’s also joy. It’s clear that for him, music, however humble, is the answer and the consolation for everything.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Standard Operating Procedure

Documentary maker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) is usually a name you can trust when it comes to getting to the heart of the matter. But Standard Operating Procedure, his look at the stories behind the torture photos taken inside Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, presents a surprisingly blurry picture.

There’s no doubting his rigor in approaching the subject: there are extensive interviews with almost everyone involved, plenty of atmospheric re-enactments and dozens of the often distressing photos. Gradually a picture builds up of a prison under constant attack from outside, and one where the guards had little idea of where to draw the line. Their superiors were happy to keep it that way.

It’s powerful material and Morris tells a gripping story with it, but he’s severely undermined by the soldiers involved in the torture. They’re basically a collection of – let’s say it – dim-bulb army recruits barely able to understand that bashing and sexually humiliating prisoners is wrong – after all they hadn’t been explicitly forbidden from doing so! Their moral blankness is so unlikable and their actions so unpleasant that it swamps any larger moral to be learnt from their actions.

Anthony Morris

Salute

Everyone knows the iconic photo of the two African-American athletes on the winner’s podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics raising their fists in a black power salute. The third (white) man on that podium was an Australian sprinter, Peter Norman, and this documentary, made by Peter’s nephew Matt Norman, tells his story.

Salute is an engaging and well-paced mix of history lesson (vital to explain the racially charged atmosphere surrounding the Men’s 200 metre sprint finals), sports drama, and personal history. Peter himself retells much of the story, and while the many interviews with the two other runners, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, are occasionally of rough quality (they were initially done as background material for a dramatization), the power and humour of what they say comes through clearly.

It’s soon obvious that a): Peter was very much part of the protest alongside Smith and Carlos; and b): everyone on that podium paid a heavy toll career-wise for speaking out. Peter (who died in 2006) never ran for Australia again, despite holding the 200 metre Commonwealth record to this day. This film is a fitting tribute to his life.

Anthony Morris

Wanted

Wanted is an easy movie to admire but a hard movie to actually like - unless you're an angry 19 year old stuck in a crap job, which is pretty much everyone who'll go see this - because while it does have more than its fair share of insanely exciting action sequences, pretty much everything here that isn't an insanely exciting action sequence is as dumb as dirt. Loosely based on a comic by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones (who should take no pride in the fact that everything apart from part of the opening assassination sequence and the schlub central character from their comic was considered not worth 'porting over to this extremely silly movie), the set-up is pure wish-fulfilment: Wesley (James McAvoy) is an a-grade loser with a fat pig boss and a best friend who's sleeping with his bitchy girlfriend. Then Fox (Angelina Jolie) turns up, tells him his father was the deadliest man in the world but now he's dead and Wes has to step up to the top slot before he too gets killed. Which is a worry because he's never even held a gun before, but under the guidance of Sloan (Morgan Freeman) and his gang of killers who get their orders from a loom - yes, a thing that weaves carpets is telling them who to kill - before long he's making bullets curve around corners with the best of them. The first half of this film is great. Wesley's crap life is laid on with a heavy hand but you can't really fail with a downtrodden guy who rises up, and Angelina Jolie (who really should stop trying to play actual human beings) has a lot of fun as a murderous fantasy brought to life. But clearly a film that's blatantly saying that learning to murder other people is the path to happiness can't actually take this idea anywhere coherent or logical. Saying murder is bad takes away all the fun, and saying it's good just might get some people believing you out in the real world. So once Wesley learns to be a man through murder the story fizzles out into a mass of double-crosses that don't really mean anything. Still, the action is often brilliant; seeing cars flip through the air in graceful arcs so the drivers can shoot other people never gets old.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #433)

Sunday, 27 July 2008

The X-Files: I Want To Believe

The X-Files seems like an odd franchise to revive: after nine seasons and a fairly muddled movie, audiences were (for the most part) glad to see the now diminished show vanish, especially as most of its key elements (the unresolved sexual tension between the leads, the intricate conspiracy plotting) had happily been taken up by other shows that could put them to better use. But it doesn't take long to realise that this movie isn't so much leading on from the series as taking it back to its roots. For the first few years the show was basically a low budget, small scale mix of The Silence of the Lambs and JFK (there's not so much of the JFK this time around) with a slice of Twin Peaks (the weird Northwestern atmosphere mostly) thrown in, and this movie - written and directed by series creator Chris Carter - follow the formula to a tee. For those expecting aliens and UFOs and vast government conspiracies, prepare for a let-down: Scully (Gillian Anderson) is now a doctor at a Catholic Hospital , Mulder (David Duchovny) is still a conspiracy nut but now with a beard, and out in the wilderness a psychic ex-priest (Billy Connelly) is leading the FBI to body parts buried in the snow. Trouble is, the FBI is after a missing agent they think is still alive, and so they contact Scully to get her to contact Fox about helping them focus the psychic on the task at hand. What follows is more low-key unsettling rather than scream-inducing, ticking all the boxes from the series heyday (Scully's religion plays a big part) and serving more as a reminder of what was so good about the series than an attempt to take it anywhere new. It's not afraid to get a bit unpleasant in parts (there's a lingering theme of child abuse and redemption that might irk some), but there's also a nice run of comedy from Fox early on that keeps things grounded. Clearly made for almost no money, this feels like an attempt to turn the franchise into a semi-regular series; based on this first outing, it deserves to succeed.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #433)

Monday, 21 July 2008

The Love Guru

Michael Myers knows what he likes, and what he likes is pulling cutsey faces, making bad puns, going for the obvious joke and then pulling it back with a joke about how obvious the last joke was. Which doesn't automatically make for a bad movie, but in The Love Guru's case, the brief attempts to give Myers some background to do his act against are overwhelmed by Myers desire to, well, do his act. Put another way, there's enough clues in The Love Guru to suggest that the other characters in the film find Myers character - The Guru Pitka, an intensely silly relationship councillor driven by the desire to take over Deepak Chopra's position as the number one guru - as annoying as the audience does. But despite that, Pitka just keeps on pulling faces and making bad puns while the story lurches on around him. Even the fairly basic story could have been okay if Myers had toned it down a bit: Pitka is called in by the new and insecure owner (Jessica Alba) of a Canadian hockey team to get her star player Darren Roanoke (Romany Malco) back with the love of his life, and get the love of Roanoke's life out of the clutches of his over-endowed rival (Justin Timberlake). So far so good, until Myers starts setting midgets on fire and flinging the mops soaked in piss around while a cross-eyed Ben Kingsley (as the guru's guru) watches on. To be fair, while this is largely a waste of time, at least it's a waste of time that's consistent with the trajectory that Myer's career's been taking for the last decade or so. So if you liked the last Austin Powers movie but thought it wasn't stupid and gross enough, this ones for you.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #432)

Mamma Mia!

Let's be honest: if you're not already an ABBA fan, there's pretty much zero chance you'll be interested in a musical comprised entirely of ABBA tracks. So for you, this review is brief: stay away from Mamma Mia! It's so stuffed full of ABBA tracks by the end your ears will be bleeding and the cheeseball story built around said tracks isn't going to compensate you for the trauma of Pierce Brosnan's not-that-good-at-all singing voice. If, on the other hand, you're an ABBA fan, or just a fan of cheesy musicals in general, then the good news is that Mamma Mia! does pretty much everything right - and when it does get something wrong it doesn't linger at the scene of the crime. The story, which by the way has nothing to do with ABBA the band, involves a young woman (Amanda Seyfried) who's about to get married at her mother's shabby holiday resort on a Greek island. Her mother (Meryl Streep) never told her who her father was, so when she discovers her mother's old diary - which suggests three possible candidates for the job (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard) - she invites them all to the wedding thinking she'll know her father on sight. She doesn't, and many, many, many ABBA songs ensue. Musically the singing isn't always great (Brosnan is no good at all) and a few of the songs seem shoe-horned in, but mostly the story manages to fit the right ABBA track in at roughly the right point. The performances are high energy and not at all subtle - which means they fit the tone perfectly - and in the end the whole thing is one big hunk of campy fun. Unless you don't like ABBA, in which case why would you even bother?

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #432)

Monday, 26 May 2008

Shutter

Shutter has a lot of problems, but let's start with just one: the idea of 'spirit photography' on its own just isn't that scary. So you can take photos of ghosts - you can take photos of teapots too, but that doesn't make them scary. And as for the idea that ghosts are all around us and we can only see them via 'spirit photography', this is supposed to be a horror movie. Just the idea of ghosts on its own isn't exactly breaking new ground in terror. Which brings us to the second problem this film has, namely the plot. On the surface it's not that bad: a newly married American couple (Joshua Jackson, AKA Pacey from Dawson's Creek - and Australia's own Rachel Taylor) move to Japan, whereupon the wife starts to freak out while the husbands work photographing models reveals both some ghostly photos and a somewhat sleazy side to his personality. And it's during those early scenes that this works at its best... which means there's the occasional tingle of mild unease. But as soon as it becomes clear that this haunting is happening for a reason all the tension drains out of the film. Ghosts haunting people for no reason is scary stuff; ghosts haunting people because they did bad things is basically a TAC commercial warning you not to do bad things. And that leads us to the third and biggest problem this film faces: it's just not scary. You'd think ghost photos could provide at least one decent scare - just show a happy couple all alone, they take a photo, then one of them walks off into the kitchen while the other looks at the photo and sees that it shows a ghost IN THE KITCHEN!!! But not here. Feel free to make up your own shutter-related pun to explain why this isn't worth your time.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #428)

The Counterfeiters

The phrase 'total war' means exactly that: war fought on every level with the aim of forcing the other side to surrender. And one of the more dangerous theatres of war is the economic one. After all, without money to buy equipment and pay troops it's extremely difficult to keep a war going. So while much of the (deservedly) positive press about The Counterfeiters has centered around its fresh take on the horrors of the Holocaust, it's also an absorbing look at a battlefront many viewers would never consider as a theatre of war. Based on a real account by a Holocaust survivor, this explores the secret currency counterfeiting unit established by the Nazis during World War II and the Jewish prisoners selected to work in this unit re-creating first the British Pound and then the US Dollar. Karl Markovics plays the role of the expert forger (and Jew) in pre-war Berlin who ends up in a concentration camp, only to be chosen for his special skills to work in the pampered unit where the horrors of the death camp are kept at bay - so long as they get results. The film's central issue - is it better to survive, even if it involves helping an evil regime, than die with your morals intact - is never far from the film's surface (when the prisoners arrive at the unit they're given civilian clothes clearly taken from inmates the Germans have killed), and it's re-enforced by a strong performance from August Diehl's performance as a Jewish printing expert who prefers death to supporting the Nazi regime even when his sabotage threatens all their lives. Moral questions aside, it's also a gripping thriller the equal of anything out of Hollywood and a well-constructed character study. With this year's blockbuster films looming on the horizon, it'd be a shame if a film as good as this one was left buried in their wake.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #428)

21

There's something always a little... off about big budget Hollywood movies telling us that greed is bad when they're written by, directed by and starring people who make more money than pretty much anyone reading this. Fortunately, 21 is too busy being flashy to spend much time hammering home its tired message that making money is evil because it causes you to lose touch with who you are (seriously: as if everyone making this movie didn't ditch their old friends as soon as they started making it big in the movies). Unfortunately, 21 is also too busy being flashy to do pretty much anything else, which is kind of a problem when a movie goes for almost two hours. Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a nerdy maths whiz at M.I.T. struggling to scrape up enough money to go to Harvard when his professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey) invites him to join a little card-counting club they've got going on. Card-counting is a way of tipping the odds in your favour when playing blackjack, AKA 21, and with Ben's brain on side this card counting crew can fly out to Vegas and make some serious money. Which they proceed to do, until the inevitable rift within the group causes Mickey's dark side to show itself. Of course, by then Ben is getting it on with a fellow card counter played by Kate Bosworth, so it's not like he really has much to complain about. With a by-the-number plot that's pretty silly the moment you think about it (if they have to be so careful about their identities in the casinos, why do all the casino greeters know who Ben is? Why, for that matter, doesn't he think of a better place to hide his profits?) but plenty of glitz and glamour as the crew live it up in Vegas 21 is as slick and enjoyably forgettable as movie-making gets.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #428)

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Smart People (2)


Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a bitter dried-up academic, still grieving for his long-dead wife. He hates his gum-chewing students, and finds his colleagues insufferable. His one sympathiser is brainy teenage daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page). She’s a friendless Young Republican who thinks stupid people have no right to exist. The problem of course, is that these Smart People are completely clueless when it comes to love and life.

Enter Uncle Chuck (Thomas Haden Church). He’s Lawrence’s adopted brother, a shambling middle-aged stoner who needs a place to stay. He’s determined to corrupt his young niece. Adding to the disruption is young doctor Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), an ex-student who still harbours a crush on the grouchy slouchy prof.

Directed by Noam Munro and nicely written by novelist Mark Poinier, Smart People is full of good dialogue and great performances – especially from the charismatic Haden Church. Unfortunately, the film is so good at setting up Quaid as an irretrievably damaged man, that it’s not believable when he finally submits to love. And the idea that an intelligent young woman would want to have his babies is frankly unconvincing.

Rochelle Siemienowicz (This review appeared in The Big Issue, #303)

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Iron Man

We're getting to that stage in superhero movies where all the big names have pretty much been taken and we're getting down to the guys who've never really made it past the pages of comic books. But just because you've never heard of Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man, doesn't mean he's not perfect action movie material: super-smart arms dealer Stark (Robert Downey Jr) undergoes a change of heart (literally) when he's ambushed and captured by the comic-book version of the Taliban in Afghanistan. With an electromagnet implanted in his chest to pull shrapnel away from his heart, he's set to work building weapons of mass destruction for his captors, only to turn the tables and build himself a cybernetic suit of Ned Kelly armour and bust out of his cave prison. Back in the US and looking a little shaky, both his assistant 'Pepper' Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his business partner (Jeff Bridges) are worried about what Stark's building in the basement - but as it turns out, they're worried for very different reasons... Fast paced, and with just the right mix of humour and cheesy seriousness, this is about as note-perfect a superhero film as you could hope for. That said, there's a big difference between a mid-level special effects film and one of those Hollywood blockbusters where money is no object, and there's no denying that Iron Man falls into the former camp. The action is well shot and exciting and the many effects as the Iron Man suit flies around dealing damage are all well handled, but this is a superhero film made on a budget and occasionally there's just the faintest wiff of financial limitations. Fortunately, there's also a big difference between the usual B-grade cast that populates superhero movies and Robert Downey Jr, who gives perhaps the best performance yet in a superhero film. Going from a decadent playboy to a slightly less decadent crusader with a glowing super-powered heart gives Downey plenty of opportunity to be funny while hinting at a darker side, and even if this was a movie about a playboy arms dealer without a robot suit his performance would make it riveting viewing. The suit might get all the action, but it's the man inside that makes Iron Man a great superhero film.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #427)

What Happens in Vegas

On the surface there's no real reason why a movie should look like a stinker simply because it stars Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher. They're both solid performers, and they've both been in decent films. But this one looked terrible from the poster alone and sitting through it doesn't just confirm that bad impression - it adds in hitherto unsuspected layers of awfulness (not to mention numerous close-ups on Diaz, who seems to have managed to somehow varnished her face). The set-up is both painful and dull: Jack (Kutcher) is a lazy slacker, Joy (Diaz) is a high-powered workaholic, and when they both go to Vegas to forget their problems (he's been fired by his dad, her boyfriend's dumped her) of course they get drunk and married to each other. It's a mistake and they both know it, but then they manage to win three million dollars on the pokies on the way to getting a quickie divorce and before you know it a judge (Dennis Miler) is ordering them to spend the next six months married to each other before he'll even consider splitting up the cash. The barrage of nasty tricks they play on each other to try and get the other to leave could have been mildly funny in a lighter, warmer film, but these two might as well be hacking at each other with rusty garden tools for all the fun on offer here. There are no twists, no likeable performances, no decent laughs, and no reason not to leave this loser in Vegas where it belongs.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #427)

Made of Honour

People go to see a movie like Made of Honour for one reason and one reason only: to get exactly the same thing they've had a dozen times before. A surprise twist in a film like this is a seriously bad thing, and so the news that this features nothing but tired cliches, week-old plot points, and an ending so rock solid obvious you don't have to even see the film to know how it wraps up should be taken as a good thing. Even the starting point is old news: super-rich New York layabout Tom (Patrick Dempsy) has been best friends forever with Hannah (Michelle Monaghan). She provides companionship and emotional support, while a stream of bimbos provide... whatever else he needs. But when she goes to Scotland for work for six weeks, he gradually realises that he wants to keep her in his life on a permanent basis. Which makes her return with a Scottish stud on her arm a bit of a problem. With a rush wedding on, Tom figures the only way to win her back is the break the happy day up from the inside - and as the maid of honour he'll be able to do just that. Yawn. There are a grand total of zero surprises here (even the moment when Dempsy juggles crockery is kinda blah), but you don't want surprises - you want a rocky road to love where things all work out in the end, and that's exactly what you get here. Fortunately both Dempsy and Monaghan have charm to spare, and turn what could have been a lifeless clockwork film that simply goes through the motions into...well, a watchable clockwork film that still just goes through the motions. The soundtrack's not bad though.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #427)

Smother

Diane Keaton used to be funny but these days she's just plain weird and if you have any doubts on that score just check out Smother - a film in which she plays an annoying, overbearing mother and somehow manages to be annoying in a variety of completely wrong ways. She's just slightly out of phase with everyone else in this admittedly thin story, but the result is a performance that isn't intentionally comedically exasperating but instead just downright painful. In a better film it might not have mattered so much and in a worse film no-one would have cared, but this tale of Noah Coooper (Dax Shepard), a youngish guy who gets fired, has his wife (Liv Tyler) let her dorky cousin (Mike White) come to stay and his insane mother Marilyn (Keaton) turn up looking for somewhere to live all in the same day is pretty much a surprise-free slice of mildly humorous comedy with hardly a memorable feature to praise or damn. Sure, in a great comedy Keaton's twitchy, skittish, nutty performance could be laughed off. But this is tepid at best, a stale collection of obvious gags and clumsy set-up wrapped in a sappy belated coming-of-age tale as Noah gradually discovers all the usual things about life and love. But if this still sounds like it's worth a look... well, you'd better bring a pillow.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #427)

Prom Night

There's no question that Prom Night is bad: the real question then becomes how bad is Prom Night. Is it the worst movie of the year, or can it's rock-bottom ratings across the board somehow be, if not justified, then at least excused? Because if part of what makes Prom Night so darn bad the way that it takes the most tired and stale cliches of the slasher genre and presents them to the viewer without the slightest hint of style or wit, could there in fact be some justification for such an approach - past the usual "we can make some money out of this"? Well, maybe. See, while this is an amazingly bad, not at all scary, and outright dull slasher movie - and it takes some kind of skill to make a film where human beings are in mortal danger this dull - it is also a slasher movie clearly aimed at people who havened seen too many slasher movies. Anyone over the age of 17 simply doesn't care about prom night, so to make a movie where a bunch of teens at their prom night are half-heartedly stalked by a creepy ex-teacher obsessed with a fairly dim and not that hot-looking blonde indicates that you're making a slasher movie for teens, and young teens at that. So perhaps the total lack of wit and style (not to mention zero gore) here could be a conscious decision to try and strip the slasher genre back to basics and introduce the genre to a new audience taking their first baby steps into a new an scary world. If so, it still fails utterly: this is dreck whether you're 14 or 44, and why anyone would pay to see this when John Carpenter's original Halloween is readily available on DVD is a far bigger mystery than which one of these bland yet annoying teens the knife-wielding teacher will bloodlessly gut next.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Frote #426)

Smart People

There's a certain kind of unease you get from watching a movie where the characters are meant to be really smart but everything they say or do is kind of dumb. Usually it's in bad murder mysteries involving so-called criminal geniuses (like every movie in the Saw series), where everyone stands around talking about how amazingly brilliant the masterminds' schemes are while any half-awake member of the audience figured out what was going on a good half hour ago. But Smart People has an even bigger problem, in that it doesn't have any gratuitous killings to distract viewers from the fact that English lit Professor Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is actually pretty dumb. Not because he's still moping around after his dead wife, or that when he does finally strike up a relationship of sorts with his doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker, who we're expected to believe is under 40 here) his pompous windbaggery is enough to drive her away, and she's clearly dim even for a doctor. Not even because he lets his supposedly dimmer but clearly more on the ball brother (the always fun Thomas Hadyen Church, who's increasingly the Bill Murray you get when you can't afford Bill Murray) move in with his obviously dysfunctional family, including his super-smart Republican robot in the making daughter (Ellen Page). But because in-between doing all that he never gets the chance to actually seem smart. The joke is clearly meant to be that all these "smart" people are really dumb when it comes to running their lives but, well, they're just all-round dumb no matter how many references they make to great literature or high brow culture. Which makes this would-be smart indy film (which, to be fair, does feature a lot of good performances) pretty dumb too.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #426)

Untraceable

t's time once again to act all horrified by the extremes to which people will go - in this case, on the internet – while watching said extremes just a little too closely. It's nothing new, especially if you've endured any of the recent run of horror movies where torture is lingered over a little too lovingly, but at least Untraceable has the (limited) dignity to limit the viewers exposure to each individual horror to a few brief glimpses. Jennifer Marsh ( Diane Lane ) is an FBI Agent investigating a killer with a twist: not only does the killer put their brutal crimes up on the internet for all to see, his murder devices are actually connected up to the net so the more hits his site gets, the faster his victims die. So if people would just stop watching, the killer would go away - and if people stopped watching movies like this, we'd get the same result. Don't hold your breath. Lane gives a performance that's better than this fairly trashy film deserves, and not surprisingly there's a certain grim fascination with the internet snuff sequences: if they didn't hold at least some interest, the whole movie would collapse. But the plotting is so painfully obvious and cliched there's just not a whole lot of suspense here even when the internet killer moves into Marsh's real world to bump off some very obvious targets. Still, if "slickly competent" sounds like a compliment to you then feel free to take it as one here.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #426)

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Gone Baby Gone (2)


When a four year-old girl goes missing from her low-rent Boston neighbourhood, there’s a media frenzy. Gun-toting policemen stand helplessly around the empty house, without any leads to follow. It’s no wonder the missing child’s aunt turns to local private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his lover Angie (Michelle Monaghan). They may look impossibly young, but they know these streets. They grew up here. And besides, when they meet the child’s cokehead mother (Amy Ryan) they know there’s more to the story. Reluctantly, the police chief (Morgan Freeman) and his experienced detective (Ed Harris) admit they can use the help.

Ben Affleck’s directorial debut is grimy, intriguing and soulful. Based on the novel by Denis Lehane (Mystic River), it’s a superior police procedural that’s constantly surprising, right up until the final haunting scene. Primarily concerned with the moral dilemmas of its central characters, the film creates a troublingly authentic world where children are constantly at risk – not just from random perverts or kidnappers, but from poverty, neglect and the sheer hopelessness of their rusted-out Boston suburb. And finally, here’s a detective who’s young, confused and not quite cool.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Gone Baby Gone

The idea of Ben Affleck, director, might be a slightly worrying one - after all, even great actors usually make for bad directors - but with Gone Baby Gone Affleck signals that he might be able to pull off a career change. It doesn't hurt that he's working from a novel by Dennis Lehane, author of (amongst other things) Mystic River, who provides a twisty and morally ambiguous plot and a slew of complex characters for Affleck to work with. Set in Affleck's home town of Boston, the story begins with the disappearance of a four year-old girl. Local P.I. Patrick (played by Affleck's brother Casey) is asked to take on the case by the missing girl's aunt (Amy Madigan), and while it's a little out of his league he steps up to bat, receiving grudging help from local law enforcement (including Morgan Freeman as the local chief and Ed Harris as one of the detectives). But it doesn't take long for the case to take some dark turns, and considering that the missing girl's mum (Amy Ryan) is probably the last person you'd want to be in charge of a kid it's hardly surprising that this film's morality is hardly black and white. Affleck clearly knows the physical territory and his storytelling skills are in pretty good shape, but it's the many excellent performances that make this such a compelling (if bleak) film to watch. Casey Affleck, who was excellent in last year's The Assassination of Jesse James is just as good here, never letting us get fully comfortable with a character lesser films would leave as a simple audience stand-in. Great crime films are also explorations of human nature (even if only on the level of "why do people steal?"); thoughtful and thought-provoking while still managing to deliver plenty of crime thrills and chills, Affleck has made a great crime film here.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #423)

Friday, 11 April 2008

Lars and the Real Girl (2)


When 27 year-old Lars (Ryan Gosling) announces that he has a girlfriend, his brother (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) are overjoyed and relieved. Finally this lonely misfit – a man who flinches from all physical touch – has found someone to love. They’re less happy when they actually meet ‘Bianca’, who turns out to be a life-size anatomically correct silicone sex doll bought off the internet. They consult the wise family doctor (Patricia Clarkson) who advises them to go along with the delusion.

Director Craig Gillespie and writer Nancy Oliver (Six Feet Under) have created a gentle and compassionate film that transcends its tacky premise. Perhaps it’s a bit cowardly of them to keep the romance ‘chaste’, but then this film is really about tolerance and tolerance, as we see the whole town working hard to make Lars happy inside his fantasy. Gosling gives a brilliant tightrope-walking performance. His journey towards wholeness is never overstated and always mysterious. It’s a measure of the film’s success that by its conclusion we’ve come to accept Bianca as a real girl who might just get up and walk away.

Rochelle Siemienowicz,

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Lars and the Real Girl

First, a disclaimer: a few years back I was researching an article (that was never written) about the topic of 'real girls' - expensive sex dolls that look a lot closer to reality than the inflatable kind, usually purchased by lonely men who form a disturbingly strong attachment to them. And in researching this article, I dug up a lot of facts about the kind of guys who own these dolls - facts that made it all but impossible to believe a second of the supposedly heart-warming tale of decent midwestern guy Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) and his relationship with one of these 'real girls'. Admittedly he's shown as a fairly introverted type who can't handle even the slightest amount of actual human contact, but when he turns up at the home of his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) with Bianca, a 'real doll' he claims is a missionary he met on the internet that's when I started getting the willies. And despite the film's wholesome tone of near fantasy as those around Lars go along with what is either a delusion or an act on his part - he even insists that Bianca 'sleep' in another room until they get to know each other better - it became increasingly difficult to see this film as the light and sweet quasi-comedy it was trying to be. Clearly those involved felt that a movie where a shy, introverted guy uses a sex doll to teach himself how to deal with other people - it's hardly a spoiler to reveal that Lars does eventually fall for an actual living person - should be a sweet and quirky story, and they do pretty much everything right to get that result. But the reality of these 'real girls' is just so creepy and disturbing (lets just say that their owners often break them doing whatever it is they're doing with them) that - for me at least - it just kept getting in the way.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #423)

Semi Pro

Will Ferrell has made a career out of sports comedies, and it's high time he made a dud. Semi Pro is not a dud. But it is a little wobbly in parts, which is probably a good sign that perhaps this genre needs a bit of a break for now. It's the 1970's, and Jackie Moon (Ferrell) has taken his profits from his number one single 'Love You Sexy' and purchased American Basketball Association team the Flint Tropics. he's not just the owner, and he's not just the coach: he's also their star player - not their best player, that would be 'Downtown' Malone (Andre 3000). But when the ABA announces that it';s merging with the NBA, and the Tropics aren't making the cut, Moon throws a hissy fit until the rules are changed so that it's the top four finishing teams that'll survive. But the tropics still stink, so Moon hires championship player Ed (Woody Harrelson), who really seems to have come in from another, straighter movie as he has his own subplot about coming back to town to win back his old girl (who's current man loves Ed the player so much he doesn't care what they get up to) while Moon's off wrestling a killer bear. But being all over the place is what gets this film over the line, as the weird tone swings somehow keep things fresh even as some of the funnier characters (notably Wil Arnett's surly sports commentator) are sidelined towards the end. And the comedy is pretty good too, most notable a gun-toting card game scene early on that's a sure-fire classic. Fans of foul-mouthed comedy swearing will be especially happy with a lot of the dialogue here; the family that hurried their little kids out of the screening I saw can attest to that.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #423)

How She Move

It's easy to spot a decent dance movie: it's the movie that's full of dancing. It might sound obvious - and that's because it is - but time and time and time again movie-makers forget that audiences have come to see dancing and not endless scenes where a bunch of grimly urban types sulk around letting us know that it's tough out there on the streets and the only way to survive is to do a bunch of choreographed dance movies with your homies. Which is a long way of saying that How She Move doesn't contain anywhere near enough scenes in which our heroine does, in fact, move.

Kicked out of private school because her parents spent all the tuition money on trying to keep her junkie sister alive - guess what, they failed - Raya (Rutina Wesley) returns home to the projects, where everyone hates her because that's how they roll. Eventually she makes some friends, only then they start hating her again, then they don't, then there's a big dance competition called Step Monster, and the movie Step Monster was a dozen times better than this movie and it didn't have any dancing in it at all. The problem is simple: nowhere near enough dancing, and way too many scenes dragging things down as characters hate on each other for reasons that seem more than a little blurry. Even the traditional "my parents don't understand that I need to dance!" subplot doesn't work here, mostly because the mum is so angry and negative that she'd hate anything her daughter wanted to do up to and including taking a bath. And if all that isn't reason enough to steer clear, the title's bad english. Avoid.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #423)

The Secret of the Grain


60-year old Slimane (Habib Boufares) is an Arab immigrant living in a small port town in the south of France. Having worked at the local shipyard for 30 years he’s devastated to be laid off. He devises a plan to open up a small business – a couscous restaurant on a renovated barge. The chef will be his cranky ex-wife Souad, while his gaggle of grown-up kids will help. But the real assistant is Slimane’s step-daughter Rym (a luminous Hafsia Herzi) whose brash confidence and tenderhearted intelligence cut through all the red tape of French bureaucracy.

Tunisian writer-director Abedellatif Kechiche (Games of Love and Chance) takes his time (148 mins) to paint a rich ethnographic portrait of this large and conflicted immigrant family. There are long meandering scenes encompassing food, arguments and seemingly trivial chat. (One entire scene is devoted to the cost of disposable nappies.) Yet it’s this detail that gives the film its almost documentary power, and subverts any tendencies towards the ‘opening up a restaurant’ movie clichés. Quietly building to a sudden desperate crescendo, the film’s conclusion makes new sense of everything that has gone before.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Step Up 2 The Streets

We all know what to expect from dance movies: silly plots in which good looking dancers battle lame 'urban' problems about 'keeping it real' and 'staying true to the street' while also rebelling against stuffy teachers - said battles and rebellions taking the form of insanely complicated dance routines. And so what? Every genre has it's cliches, and the important thing is whether they're handled well - which surprisingly, Step Up 2 for the most part does. There's no denying that the story - in which our sexy sweat pants wearing heroine is given one last chance to go straight by enrolling in the Baltimore Institute for the Arts, only to find that her ghetto dance crew doesn't fit in with her new life and her new life doesn't like the way she moves - is pretty silly. But the typical multi-racial 'crew' she puts together to battle at 'the streets' (an underground dance contest) is even sillier, including a hunky jock, an Asian stereotype bordering on the offensive, an amazingly nerdy guy (who ends up scoring the hottest chick in school) and a bunch of back-up dancers. Which is a welcome sign that this isn't taking itself too seriously. The dancing is pretty good, the tone is light and fun, and if you're a fan of amazingly brilliant US crime series set in Baltimore The Wire, then this film's Baltimore setting is gold on it's own. If only gay stick-up artist Omar and his shotgun had made a cameo...

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #422)

Horton Hears a Who

Dr Suess has had a nightmare run at the cinema of late, and it's a sign of just how well-loved he is that ever after such cinematic stinkers as The Cat in the Hat and The Grinch Hollywood still thought they could lure audiences back into another film based on his work. But while both those films were live-action disasters, Horton is all-CGI, and whether it's the freedom that comes with not having to build a film around an actor in a costume or the desire to actually make a film that's more than a mish-mash of references and jokes, the result is a Suess film that - for once - is more Suess than suss. Horton (the voice of Jim Carrey, who played the Grinch in The Grinch) is a mildly erratic but kind-hearted elephant content to mess around in the jungle - until one day he hears a tiny voice coming from a even tinier speck as it drifts past. Anyone else would ignore it, but he tracks the speck down (cue plenty of surprisingly decent sight gags as an elephant rumbles through the jungle after a teeny-tiny speck) and discovers that the speck is in fact home to an entire world called Whoville, where the Mayor (the voice of Steve Carell) has things tough enough without learning that his entire world is just a tiny speck that could be destroyed at any moment. Horton's problem is getting the speck somewhere safe while the rest of the jungle's residents think his crazy talk about a tiny world is upsetting the balance of things; the Mayor has to persuade a city where nothing has ever gone wrong that there could be some very big trouble ahead. This is a great kids movie that won't bore grown-ups: both Horton and the Mayor's stories are equally interesting, the jokes are almost always funny, the serious moments aren't belaboured, and while the tone is a little uneven (in padding out Suess's short book liberties have been taken and they don't always fit) there's a lot more good than bad. It's not perfect - there's a final musical number that's just wrong - but for once a bit of Dr Suess' magic has made it onto the screen.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #422)

Drillbit Taylor

When three high school freshmen become the target of some particularly vicious bullies, they're forced to hire a bodyguard to help them make it through the day. Unfortunately, the bodyguard they hire is a homeless army deserter more interested in milking them for all their cash then bailing to Canada than taking on the bullies. It's not exactly the comedy set-up of the year - unless that year is 1983 - but Drillbit Taylor manages to not only avoid the stench of a lame 80's teen comedy but stand up as a funny film in it's own right thanks to a couple of winning factors. Firstly, the trio of victims - fat would-be white rapper Ryan (Troy Gentile), super-skinny glasses guy Wade (Nate Hartley) and creepy midget Emmit (David Dorfman) - are really nerdy. As in, actually real-life nerdy, not Hollywood 's idea of nerdy (which is still amazingly cool) nerdy. So it's easy to see why they're getting picked on, and as they're nice (and funny) guys, we feel their pain. We also feel their pain because the bullies are really, really nasty. As in, they'd kill you with their bare hands and laugh while doing it nasty. So hiring a bodyguard seems like a logical response. And then there's Owen Wilson as Drillbit, as charming and as funny as ever, making a fairly scuzzy character seem like a great guy you'd want to hang out with even when he's doing things wrong. He's even able to make Drillbit's inevitable change of heart seem like more than just the usual lame plot twist. In short, the many funny jokes are grounded in what feels like reality: if you've ever been bullied (and who hasn't), then you'll get a lot of laughs out of this one.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #422)

Be Kind Rewind

Most Hollywood movies based around a gimmick don't have anything else to recommend them: the problem with Be Kind Rewind is that it has so much going on around it's central idea that it gets swamped. So what really should be nothing more than a movie in which Jack Black and Mos Def make shoddy home-made versions of Hollywood blockbusters like Robocop and Ghostbusters - and seriously, that idea alone is more than enough to get people into a cinema - instead becomes in the hands of director Michel Gondry (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) a bloated salute to the power of imagination to bring a community together... through making dodgy versions of old Hollywood blockbusters. The set-up feels both rushed and drawn out, as if Gondry knew he had to explain what was going to happen but wasn't really interested in getting it right: Def works at the tatty video-only store owned by Danny Glover, while Black lives next door to a power station he thinks is warping his mind. And maybe he's right: he's crazy enough to get magnetised during a botched sabotage effort, and it's his magnetism that erases the store's tapes. So when Mia Farrow wants to rent Ghostbusters and threatens to report Def to Glover when he says he doesn't have it, they decide to make their own version. The idea takes off, and soon the whole neighbourhood is clamouring to see their versions of the old classics... because not only does no-one have a DVD player, they also don't have access to YouTube. We only get to see snippets of the fake movies, which is a massive shame as they're the best things in the film. Instead, we get plenty of crowd shots of the local community, because community's important and... well, exactly what this has to do with remaking old movies is never really made clear. And that's this films problem: so much of it is just thrown away (including the great main idea) that what's supposedly important might as well be thrown away too.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #422)

Monday, 10 March 2008

Bella


Jose and Nina work in a New York restaurant. He’s the chef and she’s a waitress. Together they walk out on their tyrannical boss. Over the course of the day they become friends, and catch the train out to a beachside suburb to have a big old Mexican feast with Jose’s parents. Along the way life-changing decisions are made.

Nina (Tammy Blanchard) is pregnant, you see. She’s got no money and she’s all alone in the big city. Jose (played by Mexican pop and TV star Eduardo Verastegui) can’t quite hide his good looks behind a shaggy beard, but there’s something tragic in his eyes. What is his terrible secret?

Winner of the People’s Choice Award at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, Bella is a sweet, good-looking film with a gorgeous tinkly musical score and a pair of likeable leads. The script is undeveloped, tending towards soapy cliché. Still, the film paints a very pretty picture of melting-pot New York, complete with the colorful ‘ethnic’ family who cook spicy food together, say grace in Spanish, then drink and dance the night away. Overly familiar, yes, but still charming.

Rochelle Siemienowicz
(This review first appeared in The Big Issue, #298)

In the Valley of Elah


When Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker) goes AWOL on his first weekend back from a tour of duty in Iraq, his father Hank (Tommy Lee Jones) doesn’t hesitate to join in the search. A former military policeman who served in Vietnam, Hank knows the kind of trouble a soldier can get in fresh back from a war. But as he investigates the disappearance alongside local detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), he soon realises that his son and the soldiers he was with are in more trouble than just another drunken weekend.

This might present itself as a searing indictment of how America throws away its fighting men, but only because writer/director Paul Haggis (Crash) does a solid job of hiding this film’s many cliches under a thick layer of topicality. The performances are strong, the characters are skillfully-written, the mystery ticks along nicely and the film’s atmosphere is suitably bleak. Basically, it’s a well-made crime film. But despite all of Haggis’ shrill and painfully obvious moralising, this is still little more than another clue-laden mystery being solved by a grizzled veteran and a sexy newcomer to the force.

Anthony Morris
(This review first appeared in The Big Issue, #298)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly


Like a deep-sea diver trapped underwater, Jean-Dominique Bauby lived the last year of his life unable to move or speak. Only his left eyelid remained mobile, and using a system of blinks he dictated the memoir upon which this film is based. Directed by Julian Schnabel (When Night Falls), it’s a strange, beautiful and claustrophobic film, shot largely from the point of view of Bauby (Mathieu Amalric). The initial scenes are blurry and incomplete as Bauby struggles to bring into focus the sea-green walls of his hospital room, the roses in a vase, and the team of gawping medical specialists. As the film progresses, and Bauby’s imagination and memories roam free like a butterfly, the camera pulls back almost euphorically.

This isn’t an easy triumph-of the-will story. The scenes between Bauby and his father (Max von Sydow) are almost unbearably poignant. So too with his ex-wife (Emmanuelle Seigner) and their three children. Yet the film’s achievement is that it’s not pity we feel for this ‘locked-in’ man, but empathy – and a recognition that for most of us, there will come a time when consciousness outlasts mobility.

Rochelle Siemienowicz
(This review first appeared in The Big Issue, #297)

Night


When the sun sets the world becomes an entirely different place: exciting, romantic, dangerous, and mysterious. How do different people experience the hours between dusk and dawn? What does the darkness mean and how does it structure our lives? This documentary essay by Lawrence Johnston (director of Life and Eternity) attempts to tease out these ideas, combining interviews, spectacular cinematography and a lush symphonic musical score by composer Cezary Skubiszewski. Think Koyaanisqatsi or Baraka with a nocturnal theme. But where those films seemed coldly anthropological, this one feels warm and personal; pleasantly humane, and very home-grown.

Sometimes it’s a bit too ordinary. The musings and ramblings of unidentified interviewees on the voice-track seem banal, while interviews to-camera (you may recognize Bill Henson, Christos Tsolkias and Adam Elliot) work at odds with the ethereal visuals from director of photography Laurie McInnes. What lingers in the memory are the superb stop-motion sequences of stars, moons, fireworks and urban lightscapes – mainly of Sydney. Ultimately the film reinforces the fact that for all our fascination with the night, like cave-men of old, huddling round the campfire, we humans are really creatures of the light.

Rochelle Siemienowicz
(This review first appeared in The Big Issue, #297)

There Will be Blood

An epic character study worthy of comparison to Citizen Kane, this sparse, bleak, and enthralling film has seemingly come out of nowhere. At least, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights) has never made anything like it. Much of the credit though belongs to a riveting performance from Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, this film’s central – and in many ways, only – character.

Working a silver mine in America’s south west during the 19th century, Plainview strikes oil and makes his fortune. A co-worker’s accidental death leaves him with an adoptive son, and word of a farm where oil bubbles from the ground leads him to New Boston. His operation brings prosperity to the town – a prosperity that local evangelical preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) believes he’s owed.

Battling Eli, fate, and his own bitter nature, Plainview is an all-too-human monster given ferocious life by Day-Lewis. An amazing, almost horror-movie soundtrack (from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood) only adds to the ominous, driving tone. Blood has flaws: the focus on Plainview shuts out the supporting cast, and the final scene is perhaps a step too far. But what truly memorable film is perfect?

Anthony Morris
(This review appeared in The Big Issue, #297)

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

We Own the Night

The year is 1988, and Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) is managing a big-deal nightclub in New Jersey. Everything is going great - until his straight-arrow police captain brother (Mark Wahlberg) starts raiding the club trying to flush out the drug dealers that are hanging out there. Bobby isn't exactly close to the law and order side of the family even before his police chief father (Robert Duvall) starts warning him that he's going to have to choose a side. But when the drug dealers start to strike back he realises that neither side is messing around, and being out in the middle is the most dangerous place to be. With a decent story that's always moving forward and a range of quality performances, this should be at the very least an enjoyable crime saga. Unfortunately, it's the character side of things that lets it down. Populated almost entirely by two-dimensional cliches who aren't the brightest sparks to begin with, they end up being dragged along by the plot, changing from free-wheeling hedonists to driven machines of vengeance at the scriptwriter's whim. If this had been slightly more plot-driven (like the upcoming and far superior Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) the weakness in the characters wouldn't matter so much. But this story is driven by pitting brother against brother, and when they're both hollow caricatures there's not much else to say.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #421)

The Bucket List

It's a sad fact that some people go to the movies with the firm and steady desire not to be surprised. They don't care that the essence of good story-telling is the twist that's both surprising and inevitable: they want to know what they're getting, and that's all they want to get. For those people, we have The Bucket List. Jack Nicholson plays a feisty, randy old bugger (once again) while Morgan Freeman plays a wise and worldly gentlemen of advanced age (as usual) who find themselves sharing a hospital room as the pair of them face death from terminal illness. Fortunately, Jack's character is amazingly rich, while Morgan's character is worldy wise, so together they decide to make a list of all the things they want to do before they die and then spend a fortune doing them across the globe. And so they do, bickering all the while even as they gradually become firm friends, and for anyone who though this film might decide to lay off the cliches the news just gets worse as they each decide to heal the others emotional problems. Those of a sour disposition might wonder how a terminally ill man of 60-something could go skydiving and not bust a hip, or bed a stewardess a third his age (not a highlight of the film), or do pretty much anything else this film has Morgan and Jack doing. Those of a cynical nature might query how open to letting a near-stranger tell them how to live their lives someone of their age would really be. But they'd both be missing the point: this is a silly, feel-good fairy tale designed to do nothing more than hit buttons worn dull by familiarity for ninety minutes. If that sounds okay to you, go for it.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #421)

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Juno


16-year old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) has a jaunty walk. She looks like a tough Little Red Riding Hood – jeans, sneakers, red lips, black hair. Swigging orange juice from a huge bottle, she saunters to the local store. Actually, she’s filling her bladder to take yet another pregnancy test. The results are a major bummer. One bout of sex with her dorky best friend Bleeker (Michael Cera) and now this. Forgoing a ‘smashbortion’, the unconventional Juno decides to go through with the pregnancy and give the baby up for adoption to a ‘perfect’ couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman). Of course things don’t go exactly to plan.

This smart, sweet comedy from director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking) and stripper-turned-scriptwriter Diablo Cody has already proven itself a critical and commercial success. The reasons are clear. The dialogue is whip-smart, packed with pop culture references and hilariously vulgar at times. Yet these small-town American characters are people you’d actually like to hang out with. Especially Juno. The hugely talented Page (Hard Candy) gives us a clever, wise-cracking teen who’s still soft and innocent enough to be confused by first love.

Rochelle Siemienowicz
(This review first appeared in The Big Issue, 28 Jan)

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Charlie Wilson's War


God forbid that every film should follow the Hollywood three-act plot structure, but in this case a decent third act probably wouldn’t have hurt. The film starts out interestingly enough in 1980, with Texas Democrat Senator Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) learning about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan while sitting in a Vegas hot-tub surrounded by showgirls. The all-true tale that follows is slickly told, with playboy Wilson teaming up with a rich right-wing socialite (Julia Roberts) and a gruff CIA agent (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to get anti-helicopter missiles to the Afghani resistance.

Director Mike Nichols (Closer) clearly relishes the more farcical aspects of his tale (the war scenes are less impressive), while the trio of leads all have fun with their larger-than-life roles. But the story never goes anywhere: Wilson wants to help the Afghans, he helps the Afghans, then it’s all over, bar one brief scene pointing out that once the war was over no-one wanted to help Wilson save the gun-toting and radicalised Afghans from themselves. That moment is the entire point of making this film today. Skimming over it does this otherwise interesting story no favours.

Anthony Morris
(This review first appeared in The Big Issue, 28 Jan)

Friday, 1 February 2008

The Kite Runner


In 1978 Kabul, before the Russians, and before the Taliban, two young boys fly their kites in the clear blue skies of Afghanistan. Amir is the son of a wealthy intellectual, while his best friend Hassan is the son of the family’s long-time servant. The boys are like brothers until a single act of violence and cowardice shatters their bond. Fast forward to modern-day Los Angeles, where Amir, now a budding author, receives a phone-call summoning him back to strife-ridden Afghanistan to make amends for his childhood sin.

Based on Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel, this film covers epic emotional and physical territory. Director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball) vividly brings to life the complexities of a history and culture we only know from sketchy news coverage. The backbone of the story, and its greatest strength, is the patrician father (Homayoun Ershadi) courageously adapting to life’s reversals, maintaining his dignity even as he serves as an LA garage attendant. Not so strong is the adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla), whose performance feels stilted and unnatural – though perhaps this is just the burden of shame he’s supposed to carry. Nevertheless, a beautiful and enlightening film.

Rochelle Siemienowicz
(This review first appeared in The Big Issue 14 Jan)

3.10 to Yuma


After years of revisionist westerns and post-modern westerns, seeing a western done straight seems almost shocking. And director James Mangold’s remake of the 1957 film about a dirt-poor farmer and family man (Christian Bale) who joins a rag-tag posse to escort a captured outlaw (a never-more charismatic Russell Crowe) on the long journey to the train to Yuma prison is about as straight as they come.

Yet as the odds against the farmer mount – the captured outlaw’s gang is hot on their trail, and the posse numbers are constantly shrinking – his stubborn refusal to simply surrender ceases to be a straight-forward plot device (if he gives in, the movie ends) and becomes something much deeper and more powerful.

While Mangold does a fine job of staging the numerous action sequences, and Bale’s performance as a battered man with a core of iron is quietly compelling, it’s Crowe’s electrifying turn as the gang leader that powers this film. Honourable, murderous, and as slyly tempting as any devil, his performance would earn a more media-friendly actor a sack of awards. This gripping adventure isn’t just a great western; it’s a great film.

Anthony Morris
(This review appeared in The Big Issue 14 Jan)

Monday, 28 January 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street


Trailers are often as interesting for what they don't say as what they do: the big secret behind the Sweeney Todd trailer is that this is a musical - as in everyone sings pretty much all the time musical based on the Stephen Sondheim musical type musical. As for why they're keeping this fact under their hat when musicals have been doing pretty well of late... well, presumably a musical with a lot of bright colours and young people dancing around is a lot easier to sell than one that's pretty much all shades of 19th century London grey except when someone's getting their throat cut. As for why Sweeney's slashing necks with toe-tapping abandon, he's not exactly happy about having spent fifteen years overseas in a penal colony after a bent Judge (Alan Rickman) framed him to clear the way for a move on Sweeney's wife. Worse, he returns to London to be told by local pie-shop owner Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter) that his wife's dead and his daughter's been adopted by the Judge. Sweeney's scheme for revenge starts out simple, as he returns to his old trade of barber with the hope that once he gets the Judge in his chair his razors can give him a very close shave. But Sweeney just can't help killing, and once Mrs Lovett gets the idea of disposing of the bodies via her pies, pretty soon both of them are doing a roaring trade. It's a dour story told in melodramatic style, and director Tim Burton doesn't hold back on the spurting blood whenever a throat gets cut. As a musical it's impressive rather than toe-tapping, not to mention that it's fairly heavily edited down from the Sondheim original and the cast are good rather than great at singing. But if you're in the mood for some gothic grandeur, there's no denying that this vast, creaking edifice has a grim power to it that makes it, if not exactly enjoyable, at least a experience that's hard to forget.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #420)