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Monday, 21 December 2009

Sherlock Holmes


It’s no news flash that in making the 19th century Sherlock Holmes work as a movie character in the 21st century, director Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Swept Away) has had to make a few subtle (and a few not-so-subtle) changes. Part of the fun that comes from watching this particular version – and thankfully, this version is a lot of fun – is seeing the ways that Holmes has been updated while still keeping his core essence intact. For example, Holmes (played to the hilt by Robert Downey Jr) isn’t above going the punch, but by using his much-famed powers of deduction he can deduce the best ways to incapacitate his opponents. So while Holmes now gets involved in the kind of big action set-pieces movie-goers like to see these days, his core – that of a man who uses deduction to outsmart his opponents – remains for the most part intact.

Downey’s the current Hollywood champ as far as being a charming smart-arse while still hinting at depths within goes, which means you couldn’t ask for a better Holmes. Jude Law as Watson has a slightly more thankless role but he brings real life to it, and while the buddy-banter between Holmes and Watson isn’t perfect, they have real chemistry together. For the most part the story gives the cast plenty of space to be charming while providing a number of moderately interesting mysteries for Holmes to tackle in between dodging explosions and getting into punch-ups. The plot itself is a little thin – black magician and serial killer Lord Blackwood (Mark Stone) conducts an evil scheme seemingly from beyond the grave – but it moves fast, has enough twists to keep things engaging, and never forgets that for all the talk of magic and secret societies, Holmes is about explaining things logically. Anyway, the real fun in a Sherlock Holmes story is Holmes himself and this particular Holmes is a lot more fun to watch than most.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #470)

Saturday, 21 November 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Fox


This really shouldn’t work. Director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Life Aquatic) is known for a lot of things, but stop-motion animation and kids films aren’t two of them. And yet, his adaptation of the much-loved Roald Dahl tale is funny, exciting, and a flat-out joy from start to finish. While filling the film with his typical quirky and deadpan touches, Anderson sticks close to Dahl’s story of Mr. Fox (the voice of George Clooney) and the time he took on a trio of nasty local farmers in a battle that soon takes on epic proportions. So fans of the book have little to fear here; likewise, fans of Anderson’ earlier films will soon discover that – despite being both a children’s story, and done entirely in stop-motion animation – this is as much part of his own unique world as any of his other films (and not just because Bill Murray does the voice of Mr. Fox’s badger lawyer – Mr. Fox’s wife paints landscape with thunderstorms, which is about as Anderson-esque a touch as you can get). But while Anderson’s last few films have increasingly left the comedy side of things behind, this packs in a steady stream of jokes, one-liners, and just plain funny pieces of animation. If you’re already a fan of Anderson’s work just seeing various wild animals using his style of deadpan, self-depreciating comedy in a claymation replica of his quasi-1960s world is hilarious; even if you’re not, this extremely funny film for all ages is something special.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus


Good or bad – and lately it's been mostly bad (The Brothers Grimm, anyone?) – there's always one thing you can say about a Terry Gilliam film: it won't look like anything else out there. Telling an interesting story, on the other hand, isn't always his strong point. So the good news here is that Gilliam's created a story that does an excellent job of allowing his visual imagination free reign while giving us a reason to care about the characters walking through the results of that imagination.

The immortal Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) travels London putting on a rickety carnival show that allows people to have their dreams reflected back to them. Unfortunately, Parnassus' various deals with the devil (Tom Waits) over the years means he now has to find five customers in three days or the Devil gets his daughter. Fortunately, he has the mysterious hanged amnesiac "George" (Heath Ledger, not on his best form here in what is really a supporting role) to help him. But what exactly is George's game?

Despite Ledger's death during filming the story holds together surprisingly well (Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Firth play George inside Parnassus' dream world). It makes emotional rather than logical sense, but that's enough to support Gilliam's astounding and mind-bending fantasy landscapes. They're more than worth the price of admission; you won't see anything else one screen like the things you'll see here.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #466)

All About Steve



When we're introduced to Mary Horowitz (Sandra Bullock) at the beginning of All About Steve, it'd be handy to know whether she's a hero we should cheer for or a total fruitloop we should laugh at. But instead of laying down those basic rules, we see her acting "quirky" - which basically means she wears red boots, talks all the time, lives with her parents (temporarily) and puts together crossword puzzles for a living. Annoying? yes. A complete freak? Hardly. Yet no sooner has the film begun than every single person she meets – including her boss and a bunch of kids at a careers day (why is a woman with no kids, no siblings and no friends at a school careers day?) – is telling her she's a loser because she doesn't have a man.

So when she goes on a blind date that very night and the guy turns out to be the hunky Steve (Brad Cooper), she tries to have sex with him in his car parked outside her parents house - before they go on the date. Steve isn't supposed to be gay, but still knocks back a sexually willing woman who looks like Sandra Bullock. So she decides to follow Steve across country as he works as the cameraman for roving news jerk Hughes (Thomas Haden Church), and suddenly it feels like we should be siding with Steve as the crazy stalker lady keeps turning up in his life.

Maybe if All About Steve was funny this wouldn't matter. However, this is a romantic comedy without either romance or comedy, and so scene after scene clunks along painfully until the whole story grinds to a halt with Mary at pretty much the exact same spot in her life she started at. Even Thomas Haden Church - always funny playing a self-obsessed jerk - can't make the dull dialogue work. Why would you go see this? Unless you hate yourself, you wouldn’t. And no-one hates themselves this much.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #466)

Whip It


Sports movies are usually more miss than hit. Whip It bucks that trend, thanks to an obvious yet often overlooked approach: take the time to create characters we can care about. It doesn't hurt that the sport itself is exciting, or that the film actually manages to explain what's happening in a way that makes the matches interesting to watch. But the real story here is the coming of age of seventeen year old Bliss (Ellen Page), a misfit in small town Texas who endures her mother's obsession with beauty pageants but yearns for something more in her heart. Who knew that "something more" would turn out to be a trashy sport where burly tattooed women with fake tough-guy names race around a track putting the hurt on each other?

Once Bliss sees roller derby she's in love, but while a childhood spent on skates means she's a natural fit for the last-placed team The Hurl Scouts, the age restrictions mean she has to keep her teenage status a secret - the kind of secret you know will come back to haunt her. Her growing fame as roller derby star Babe Ruthless is giving her the confidence to crash-tackle obstacles at work and school, but at home her mother (Marsha Gay harden) could be a tougher nut to crack.

As a tale of female empowerment this is pretty much by the numbers, but Page has real charm and the supporting cast (including director Drew Barrymore, Juliette Lewis and Zoe Bell) is strong across the board. The sports scenes are fun too, and while at close to two hours it's a little long, it is juggling a lot - what with sports troubles, family troubles, boyfriend troubles, and so on. Barrymore holds it all together well: this comes alive in the on-track scenes, but if we didn't care about the characters it wouldn't matter one bit.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #465)

The Final Destination 3-D


Ahh, gimmicks: is there nothing they can't improve? Even the Final Destination franchise, which had managed to turn out three surprisingly entertaining films (this is actually the fourth, despite 3-D being traditionally reserved for the third film in a series - this should really have been called Final Destination 4-d: The Fourth Dimension is Fear) out of perhaps the lamest horror-movie idea ever, turns out to look all shiny and new after a going over with the 3-D brush. As with every other Final Destination movie, the story remains exactly the same: a group of blandly good-looking young folk somehow manage to cheat Death, only to have Death - and that capital-D is there for a reason - decide he's got unfinished business with them.

Thing is, Death (who never actually appears in the film, but seems to be fond of heavy-handed puns appearing in newspapers, dialogue, movie titles and business names) doesn't just kill people via a heart attack or slow cancer, oh no. Death's all about the amazingly complicated chain of co-incidences Mousetrap board game style that end up with a pool drain sucking out your organs, a busted escalator chewing off your legs, a hospital therapy pool crashing through a ceiling onto your head or your guts being mashed through a egg-slicer-style fence. In 3-D! These movies are all about the death-traps and there's plenty of fun to be had trying to figure out exactly which bit of rickety wiring is going to explode and kill the next loser on Death's list. At 80-odd minutes it doesn't overstay it's welcome either - but we're probably not going to need a Final Destination 5 any time soon.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #465)

Mao's Last Dancer



When Li Cunxin (Chi Cao) is sent to Texas as part of the Chinese ballet's cultural exchange program, he might as well be travelling to another planet. The year is 1979, disco rules the dance floor, and even poor English and a bad suit isn't enough to isolate a visitor from the temptations of the West when even the Chinese food is different. But for Li, who was taken from his isolated village as a child and has spent his entire life training to be both a dancer and a communist, it's not until he finds love that he finds what the West has to offer too much to resist. With the help of a few friends, he announced that he won't be returning to China - which is a nice idea in theory, but in practice the Chinese government doesn't just let it's prized dancers walk out the door.

Now living in Australia (and married to a former member of the Australia ballet), Cunxin's memoir has been a best-seller, and director Bruce Beresford has turned it into a solid, competent film that ticks all the boxes but only rarely leaps into life. Surprisingly, it's the largely dance-free scenes in China covering Cunxin's early life that are the most visually stunning and dramatically compelling moments in the film: in contrast Texas is ugly (it's hard to know whether the cheap look comes from budget costs or a totally accurate representation of the era's now-dated look), predictable, and populated by Australians putting on bad accents. It falls on Cao to hold the film together with a consistently convincing performance – a performance that's made all the more impressive when combined with a string of breath-taking dance numbers that make this sometimes blunt and occasionally clumsy effort rewarding viewing.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #464)

Stone Bros.


Stoner comedies are hardy new in the rest of the world, but for some reason Australia has lagged behind when it comes to setting two choof-happy buddies out on an adventure. So not only is Stone Bros. ground-breaking in that direction, but as an indigenous comedy it's pretty much got that field all to itself too. As you'd expect, the story's simple: citified Eddie (Luke Carrol) is driving back to home town to see his uncle. Along for the ride is his cousin Charlie (Leon Burchill), a man with big hair and an even bigger bag full of pre-rolled joints. Their actual adventures along the way are pretty ramshackle stuff, but the duo themselves are fairly likeable - and more importantly for this kind of low-end comedy, the whole thing moves along smoothly so that when a joke tanks it's not the end of the world. There's not really enough going on here for a feature-length film (a lot of the subplot activity fails to fire), and like a lot of stoner comedies it runs out of puff well before the finish line. It's likeable enough to work if you're a fan of the genre, or maybe if you're in the mood to check out something different from the usual local films, but it's hardly going to change the course of your evening - let alone Australian cinema.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #464)

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Charlie & Boots



Maybe it's time to face facts: Paul Hogan just doesn't want to be funny any more. Or at least, he doesn't want to be funny like he used to be. Not for him the laugh-out-loud days of his various TV series and the first Crocodile Dundee: now he happily sticks to bland but watchable family films - and frustratingly, there's usually just enough going on to suggest that he could still get big laughs... if he wanted to.

So how much you'll enjoy this gentle tale of a recently widowed farmer (Hogan) whose estranged son (Shane Jacobson) decides to take him on a road trip from Warnambool to Cape York depends on you. Hoges fans will enjoy his quality grumpy old man work (no-one says "dickhead" like Hoges), the chemistry between him and Jacobson, and the occasional glimpse of Hoges' ability as a straight actor. Everyone else will be left watching a moderately fun travelogue through rural Australia that goes out of its way to leave no impression whatsoever on the viewer.

It’s hard to really say anything bad about this film, because it clearly achieves everything it sets out to do – it’s just that it sets out to make the kind of cozy, inoffensive movie that even those who enjoy will have difficulty remembering the next day. "Gentle" isn't an insult when it comes to this kind of film, but unless you have an elderly relative to take along you might look a little out of place. If Hoges ever sets out to make another full-on comedy he’ll be dangerous; until then, this is merely a reminder that he’s still got it… and can’t be bothered using it.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #461)

(500) Days of Summer




There's a big difference between describing an event and actually having something to say about that event. 500 Days of Summer makes the mistake of thinking that a fancy structure - in this case, various days in a 500 day relationship are sometimes shown out of order so that we get a grumbly day 350 after a perky day 50 - adds depth to a fairly lightweight story. But like all relationships, it starts out strong as a greeting card writer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets and falls for office assistant Summer (Zooey Deschanel), who kinda doesn't fall for him but goes along with it for a while.

There's a light touch to events (a dance number is a highlight) and the occasional shifts in time serve to highlight the roller-coaster nature of a relationship's early days and how jokes can go stale over time. But as the film progresses it doesn't get any deeper: we can see that Summer isn't into him as much as he's into her and when things go sour he's put through hell, but there's really nothing more to this film than that. It's too even-handed to really get into the pain of being dumped: we're shown that it's as much his fault as hers, and the single line where any kind of hurt is addressed ("you pretty much just do what you want") feels like the only true thing this film has to say.

It's nice for the characters that they're all so adult about things, but when a lightweight relationship segues into a lightweight breakup it makes for a fairly, well, lightweight viewing experience no matter how charming it seems.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #462)

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Funny People


In the past Judd Apatow has been really, really good at finding ways to find the comedy in real people. Much of it's thanks to his much-vaunted commitment to improvisation - anyone who's watched the extras to The 40 Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up will know that he lets his actors run on and on looking for the funny. But it also comes from telling stories that have a nugget of truth buried deep in the wacky set-ups and endless dick jokes. The 40 Year-Old Virgin was at it's heart the story of a guy becoming someone who could have a relationship, Knocked Up was about how tricky is it to become a father, and now with Funny People we get to see Apatow talking about what it takes to settle down into a proper adult life.

But being an Apatow film, it doesn't start off as a lecture on adult responsibilities: it starts off with would-be stand up comic Ira (Seth Rogen) trying to get his career going. While his flatmates seem to be climbing the career ladder just fine - Mark (Jason Schwartzman) is the star of a crappy sitcom called Yo, Teach! while Lee (Jonah Hill) seems to be free of self-doubt, perhaps because everyone loves a funny fat man - the slimmed down Ira is racked with doubt. Meanwhile, George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a massive comedy star thanks to what seems to be a stream of fairly lame gimmick movies (he's a merman; he's a baby again) and yet lives alone in his huge mansion, perhaps because he doesn't exactly seem all that likeable. Then he gets a rare, fatal blood disease and through a chain of circumstances ends up hiring Ira as a joke writer because hey, he's not feeling all that funny at the moment.

What develops between them is the usual Apatow male bond, but Sandler - who's in amazing form here in a largely serious role - and Rogen bring a heavy core to their banter and gags that gives the film a heft Apatow's previous films didn't have. But just when you think you've got this film pegged as a serious tale made tolerable through humour, there's a twist: Simmons gets better. With a new lease on life, he decides to rectify the mistakes of the past. Namely letting true love Laura (Leslie Mann) get away. She's now married (to Eric Bana, who is hilarious here) but a new life is tempting, and suddenly we've gone from a film about struggling comics to a family drama.

The shift works even though most of the comedy falls away for a while, but it gives the film an odd rambling feel, like it would have worked better as a TV mini-series. But Apatow knows what he's doing, and he knows what he wants to say; if you're willing to go with it, you'll find there's a lot to like about Funny People.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #461)

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Balibo


Australian films are traditionally cool, calm and collected even when dealing with the most sensational subject matter (just check out the way Beautiful Kate deals with the biggest taboo around). Balibo runs against that trend: it's angry that five Australian journalists died at Balibo, it's angry that thousands of Timorese died in the invasion and its aftermath, and it's angry that the Australia government did nothing to prevent it from happening.

Our guide through the emotional roller-coaster of late 1975 is Australian journalist Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia), who goes from barely interested outsider to a man so passionately angry about the events of the Indonesian invasion that he's willing to risk everything to get the truth out there. As East heads out into the strife-torn countryside to investigate the disappearance of the Balibo Five the film becomes a gripping look at the horrors of war, and as such it's one of the most powerful Australian films of recent times.

The flashbacks to the Balibo Five's final few weeks are skilfully done and often deeply moving, and the depiction of East Timor's final few weeks of independence is surprisingly layered and complex. But just because it's powerful doesn't mean it's perfect: director Robert Connolly (The Bank, Three Dollars) is so committed to stirring up the audiences outrage that occasionally he oversteps the mark and goes from agiprop to outright parody. The film doesn't exactly end with someone being gunned down against the backdrop of an Australian flag left splattered with their blood... but it comes close.

Balibo is to be applauded for having the courage to want to make an audience feel strongly about an issue, and for being both a compelling wartime drama and a chilling reminder of the brutalities that have taken place on our doorstep in the recent past. But if you're looking for nuance or subtlety, look elsewhere.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #459)

Beautiful Kate


How many more Australian films about families with dark secrets do we need? Usually the answer would be "none", but in Beautiful Kate's case there's a reasonable case for an exception. For one thing, first time feature writer / director Rachel Ward has put together a compelling collection of characters in her adaptation of the 1980's novel by Newton Thornberg. Shifting the location from a farm on the outskirts of Chicago to the fringes of the outback, she also takes full opportunity of the magnificent scenery (and the unsightly junk people have dumped there) to create a truly evocative backdrop for, well, a family with a dark secret in its past.

When Ned (Ben Mendelsohn) returns home to the family farm with a girlfriend (Maeve Dermody) half his age, the real surprise is that he's come back at all. His father (Bryan Brown, who also produces) might be dying but there's been no love lost between the pair since he left his family behind after the deaths of his brother and his twin sister Kate (Sophie Lowe). So while the surviving sister (Rachel Griffiths) looks after their still bitter father, the tensions between father and son rapidly return to their former intensity - even as returning home stirs up memories of the siblings coming-of-age, and how it all went tragically wrong.

With great performances all around (especially from newcomer Lowe) and a story that constantly moves forward this gets pretty much everything right... apart from the dark secret at the heart of the family. This particular secret is rapidly becoming a cliche in Australian film and, while plausible here, remains both jarring and a revelation that doesn't sit well with the rest of the film. There's no denying that Beautiful Kate is a class act all around, a well-crafted and visually stunning drama - but how many films about families with dark secrets does one country need?

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #458)

Drag Me to Hell



Back before the Spider-Man series, writer / director Sam Raimi was best known for the Evil Dead movies, in which monsters, gore and goop were flung about with thrilling abandon. Whether Raimi wanted a break from superhero antics or just felt it was time to show the current crop of dour torture-porn-obsessed horror directors how it's done, his latest film Drag Me to Hell is about as good a time as it's possible to have watching someone get their face chewed on my a slobbering, toothless old lady - which turns out to be a heck of a lot.

Bank loans officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is under the pump from all directions to get ahead in her career. Her boyfriend's family think she's a loser, and if she doesn't get an upcoming promotion she'll be working for the smarmiest guy ever. So when an old gypsy woman comes in looking for a third extension to her home loan, she grits her teeth and knocks her back - even when the gypsy is begging on her knees. But what's good in the work of banking isn't quite so good outside in her car: the gypsy attacks (in the first of many battles that are cartoony over-the-top yet jump-in-seat scary) and ends up laying a curse that means in three days Christine will be dragged to Hell. And, thanks to a pre-opening credit sequence where we see a Mexican boy foolish enough to steal a gypsy's silver chain suffer the same fate, we know the gypsy's not messing around.

Big on slime and goo and people vomiting maggots but not on gore or anything truly nasty, this is a thrill-ride in the best sense of the word, with plenty of touches of sly humour to let you know you're in safe hands once people start getting possessed and spraying co-workers with blood. But be warned: if you're the kind of person who wonders why someone would have an anvil dangling from the ceiling of their back shed (making it oh-so-handy for dropping onto a ghoul's head), you're in the wrong cinema.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #458)

Public Enemies


When director Michael Mann (Heat, Miami Vice) embraced digital video cameras with his Tom Cruise thriller Collateral, it was seen as a legitimate stylistic choice for that film's gritty late-night urban setting. But using the same cutting-edge video cameras to film Public Enemies might raise a few eyebrows, seeing as it's the story of the last few months in the life of notorious bank robber and US public enemy number one John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), and last time anyone checked they weren't big on video cameras back in 1933. Once you get past the jarring nature of traditional gangster hijinks (complete with men in fedoras firing tommy guns from the running boards of speeding sedans) shot in hi-def video, there's a whole lot to enjoy in Mann's latest crime epic.

Basically it's yet another one of Mann's character studies where a hard-boiled crime professional faces off against his law-enforcement doppelganger (Christian Bale), though here the balance is slanted heavily towards the criminal side of life. There's some loose attempts to give Dillinger's final days some deeper meaning here, mostly in the form of a passable love story grafted onto his life and a subplot about how the rise of the professional mafia turned flamboyant crims like Dillinger into a liability for everyone, but you're here for Depp (who's great) and the shoot-outs (which are also great).

This isn't Mann's best work: the character side of things feels a little lightweight as we never really get under the skin of anyone involved, and despite the two hour plus running time (which flies by) the whole thing feels oddly superficial. Then again, so did the gangster films of the 1930s and this - while clearly an update in technical terms, and a firmly modern film in many ways - is also very much in that run-and-gun tradition. Heat still remains Mann's masterpiece, but a B+ from him is still A+ viewing.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #458)

Cedar Boys


Take a group of young guys growing up in one of Australia's more macho ethnic communities, add some crime (often drug-related), throw in a blonde-haired, blue-eyed model-esque all-Aussie love interest, and you've got... well, at least three Australian films this year. Clearly it's a popular formula amongst film-makers at the moment and it's not hard to figure out why. Tight-knit communities like to see themselves up on the screen, so there's your core market, while on an artistic level crime films are a solid way of dramatising second-generation migrant's drive to make it in the wider community. Not to mention the guns, drugs, car chases, and numerous opportunities to film scenes in strip clubs. Cedar Boys works because, unlike the recent and somewhat similar Two Fists One Heart and The Combination, it's a crime film first. Mind you, director Serhat Caradee hasn't made a great crime film, but by keeping its stereotypical trio of young Sydney Lebs (one's nice, one's worried, one's reckless) focused on first stealing a drug dealer's stash and then selling the drugs, he ensures the story doesn't get bogged down in the kind of family dramas and issues of ethnic identity that are beyond its capabilities. It'd be easy to nit-pick at this films numerous flaws and (for one) the ending is far too cliched), but at it's heart it does what it sets out to do: tell a simple, straight-forward crime story based firmly in one of Australia's ethnic communities. There's a place for solid, undemanding entertainment in Australian film, and for a low-key pulp thriller this ticks all the right boxes.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #458)

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Last Ride











There are some things Australian films just don't do well, and they don't all involve big-budget alien invasions. For example, our films are usually lacking when it comes to generating suspense: you might want to know what happens next, but that's almost always because you've taken a liking to the characters, not because they're in a situation where you're actually anywhere near the edge of your seat. And while it might be fair to argue that Last Ride isn't really a suspense kind of film, focusing as it does on the relationship between Kev (Hugh Weaving) a fairly dodgy character who just happens to be taking his pre-teen son Chook (Tom Russell) on a low-budget cross-country journey to parts unknown, that's no reason for it to be as flat and half-hearted as it turns out to be. It gets all the things right that Australian film traditionally gets right: it's very well acted, extremely well shot, and takes full advantage of its setting (the outback of South Australia) to show off both the bush and the landscape itself in a visually interesting way. But fairly early on in the piece it becomes obvious that Kev is on the run from the cops, and as the story unfolds it's not unreasonable to assume that there's a pretty big manhunt going on for them. So for the story to then unfold in a manner that's almost completely lacking in suspense or drama is pretty much a calculated insult to the reasonable expectations of the audience. On the flip side, it's fair to argue that this is a film more about the relationship between father and son than a man on the run from the cops, but with plenty of long, drawn-out scenes that add little to either side of things there's no reason that this couldn't have done both. Last Ride remains a worthy film; unfortunately, we've already got more than enough of those.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #456)

Bruno


UK comedian Sasha Baron Cohen's third movie (hands up who'd forgotten the one with Ali G) once again proves that context is pretty much everything when it comes to his style of comedy. Coming in at a tight 75-odd minutes - he packs so many jokes in you won't mind the short running time - the story is as thin as some of the outfits Austrian fashion reporter Bruno wears: after being kicked off Austrian television for ruining a fashion show, Bruno travels to America to become famous. Of course, this is just an excuse for various comedy set-pieces, from having gay sex with the ghost of his dead boyfriend Milli (from Milli Vanilli) and learning how to defend himself against a gay attacker welding a dildo to trying to broker Middle East peace by getting both sides to agree on humus and going on a hunting trip with a group of increasingly gay-unfriendly redneck hunters. Cohen's not afraid to push things to get a reaction and there's a number of images and scenes here that push the boundaries of good taste for the sake of a laugh, but it never feels gratuitous or overly nasty. Which is kind of a surprise, as various elements in the media seemed all set to denounce this as some kind of homophobic nightmare. Despite the pre-release drama, it turns out Bruno is too much of a sweet but utterly clueless airhead to be a symbol of any kind of lifestyle outside of one driven entirely by a lust for fame. As with Cohen's earlier film Borat, much of the impact comes from seeing the extremely camp and suggestive Bruno interact with real (often homophobic) people, but this time around we all know what to expect so if you're the kind of person who isn't all that good with taking things at face value - that is to say, if you're a bit of a humourless cynic - you'll probably want to annoy the hell out of your friends during the post-viewing discussion by going on about how much of this was staged. If, on the other hand, you're someone who actually enjoys laughing, then you'll get plenty of opportunities to do so here.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #458)

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen



Hollywood blockbusters are pretty much reviewer-proof and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is no exception. That's because, like most blockbusters, it's amazingly good at lowering your expectations. Be honest: so long as you get to see a whole bunch of giant robots wrecking up the place, with a lot of explosions and the occasional shot of American fighter jets whooshing past thrown in, this will pretty much get the job done. And on that level this does everything you could ask for. There are more robot fights than in the first film, there are more robots than the first film, there are bigger robots than in the first film, and there's enough fighting and shouting and exploding going to make pretty much anyone not fully laden with energy drink feel like taking a nap once this all-action two and a half hours is over. But if you're interested in anything at all past the giant robot side of things - and there are a few brief scenes without giant robots here - then this is one big sloppy mess. The plot is one of those plots that's extremely complicated without ever actually getting interesting: the Decepticons (the bad robots) are constantly looking for stuff - their defeated leader Megatron, a bit of the All-Spark left over from the first movie, some giant machine that'll turn out the sun - while the Autobots (the good robots) are working with the humans to kill the Decepticons even though this is such a blatant commercial for US military might it's not exactly clear why the humans even need their robot friends 95% of the time. Then Shia LaBoeuf runs around doing something or other while shots of Megan Fox's arse flash up on the screen, and by the time we get an old man robot with a cane, two robots who talk in ebonics, and a close up shot of a transforming robots' testicles it's safe to conclude that everything that doesn't involve a robot fight is a waste of time. Sadly, because all the robots look basically the same and have this extremely complicated design that only looks cool when they're standing still, pretty much all the robot fights are just a blur of grey metal parts twisting and turning on screen until someone gets their head ripped off, which is nowhere near as exciting as it should be. As big budget spectacles go this is state-of-the-art: as a film for people to enjoy, it still has a lot of transforming to do.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #456)

Friday, 10 July 2009

The Hangover


A bunch of mates go to Las Vegas for a bucks night, only to wake up the next morning with no memory of the night before and one of their party missing. Yep, it's Dude, Where's My Car, only with a guy in place of the car. That's actually a little unfair: with this kind of comedy it doesn't really matter what the actual plot is so long as you have some funny performers and some decent scenes for them to go nuts in. Which this does, though maybe not as many as it thinks it has. Guy-centric comedy might be the cool thing right now, but this film - from Old School director Todd Phillips - is actually pretty old-fashioned, despite the occasional currently-cool crude line or bewildering Mike Tyson cameo. And it's this slightly retro feel that makes this occasionally less impressive than you might expect: one of the reasons why a lot of the current film comedies work is a feeling that the guys involved are pushing boundaries and trying something a little new. It may not be strictly true, but it gives an energy to the performances and the script that The Hangover lacks. Again, to stress: this is still a mostly pretty funny film. Zach Galifianakis especially is constantly hysterical as the space case, with Ed Helms (from the US version of The Office) as the angry nerd Stu and Bradley Cooper as the once-cool guy turned frustrated family man not far behind. Any scene with kids and a taser is always going to be a laugh, likewise physical comedy involving smacking a baby's head with a car door. But when an Asian gambler character turns up with an amazingly camp accent, you'd be forgiven for wondering if it was 2009 or 1979, and not in a good way either. Which is the one flaw that stops this from being as flat-out funny as it so often comes close to being: the occasional sense that, rather than being a film where everyone involved is having a lot of fun being silly, they're just ticking boxes on a sheet labelled "Formula for Comedy Success".

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #455)

Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Choir


A group of underprivileged people form a choir, their lives transformed by music under the guidance of a charismatic leader. Sound familiar? Well this isn’t the television series about the Choir of Hard Knocks. Instead, it’s a feature documentary following a group of prisoners in Johannesburg’s largest and harshest prison. Their choir leader is a fellow inmate, Coleman, jailed for 24 years for armed robbery. He’s a plump and balding middle-aged man, with teeth missing. He readily admits that his love of luxury is what got him to trouble. But here in the prison he’s a changed man, a mentor and disciplinarian to the group of singers, young damaged men, whom he grooms to compete in the National Prisoner Choir Competition.

Among the group is Jabulani, painfully thin and scarred by knives and bullets, and very very angry. He’s reluctant to submit to authority, and of course he hates being locked up in a place where there are 40 inmates to a cell, and two small meals a day. We hear of terrible violence, of an eye being gouged out by a broken lightbulb, and of men cooped up from 3pm every afternoon until the next morning, with very little supervision. When Jabulani tells of his poverty-stricken childhood, however, of being hungry and bored and hopeless, we see that life outside is not that much better.

Filmed over four years, with remarkable access, by Australian journalist and filmmaker Andrew Davie, The Choir begins as a simple though illuminating look at a prison choir working towards a singing competition. The format, if not the setting, is familiar, formulaic even: the backstories of the participants, the practising, the nerves and anticipation, the moment of performance and finally, the announcement of the winners. The film could have concluded at this point, and it would still be a fine documentary. But the beauty and power of it lie in the fact that it continues down the track, years after that climax. What happens to Coleman and Jabulani after they are released? Can they live in freedom without falling back into crime? What kind of place is South Africa these days, and what hope is there for children living in the shanty-towns of the major cities? Despite the harsh realities depicted, The Choir never loses hope, and reveals in a fresh way the human need to group together to create meaning and beauty in the midst of devastation.

The Choir had a limited (Aust) national release and will be on SBS TV and DVD later this year. A version of this review appeared in edition 331 of The Big Issue magazine.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

The Year My Voice Broke (21st Anniversary DVD release)


Set in 1960s country-town Australia, this is the coming-of-age film that made Noah Taylor a star in 1987, and it’s no wonder. As 15-year-old Danny, a boy in love with his best friend Freya (Loene Carmen), he’s a wonderful mix of sensitivity, awkwardness and sexual longing. He can strum his guitar, wear dark glasses and dangle a cigarette from the side of his mouth, but he’ll never be able to compete with the town’s bad boy, Trevor (Ben Mendelsohn in hyperactive mode) when it comes to getting the girl to fall in love with him.

Written and directed by John Duigan, the film is beautifully shot by Geoff Burton, who captures the spirit of a hot golden summer where childhood dies and adult realities must be faced. A soundtrack heavy with squeaky violin is the only real drawback. This 21st Anniversary DVD contains a number of extras, the best of which is a conversation between Duigan and his three stars, now all grown up but still deeply affected by their experiences of making this film about the ‘summer when everything changed.’

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Terminator: Salvation


A lot of elements went into making the first (and to a slightly lesser extent, the second) Terminator movies classics of the SF / action genre... and pretty much all of those elements are nowhere to be found in Terminator: Salvation. Which doesn't automatically make it a bad film: equalling the first Terminator is a pretty tough act, and within the tight confines of the 21st century action movie franchise there's plenty of things even a movie with 'Terminator' in the title just can't get away with.

What ends up making Terminator: Salvation a bad film - and it's one of those films that has you leaving the cinema thinking you've just had a pretty good time, only to discover that as the hours pass it melts away like a T-1000 dunked in molten steel - is the fact that despite being the first film set entirely in the machine-dominated future only hinted at in the earlier films, there's just no point to it. Again, not a new development: even the second film didn't really have much reason for existing apart from reminding us that director James Cameron was the most kick-ass action dirctor on the face of the planet. But at least the other films (even the much maligned third one) managed to come up up endings that had a bit of weight to them. This ends with our heroes going off into the sunset (seriously), with the War Against the Machines at pretty much the same stage it was when the opening credits rolled and the whole thing feeling like you just watched someone running on a treadmil for two hours. Of course, a few things do happen to space out the various action scenes between man and killer machine: it's the future, killer robots roam a post-nuclear world, and while resistance hero (but not yet leader) John Connor (Christian Bale) grits his teeth between killing robots, former death-row inmate Marcus (Sam Worthington) wakes up after fifteen years dead and wonders why everything's gone to hell. So actually, not a lot happens between the various action scenes. Luckily, those actions scenes are usually pretty good, with director McG showing some decent action chops without ever creating a truly memorable stand-out chase scene (the one thing all three previous films managed). The acting is actually pretty good too, though bad writing leaves just about everyone hamstrung to some extent. And some of the many, many, many callbacks to the previous films (seriously, if you liked a moment or line in the first two films, it's been tweaked and re-inserted here) are kinda fun. But without the time travel, memorable characters, sly humour, creepy horror, warm humanity and leather jackets that made the first film (and to a slightly lesser extent, the second one) so memorable, this is just another fourth installment in a franchise that should have wrapped up at least one film earlier.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #455)

Sunshine Cleaning



Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) used to be a high school cheerleader dating the head of the football team. Now she's a maid and a single mum in the same small town she grew up in having an affair with the former head of the football team (Steve Zahn), who's now a cop and married to someone else. So it's not all that surprising that she's not exactly content with her lot in life... unlike her younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt), who seems more than happy sleeping in, living with their father Joe (Alan Arkin), and going from dead-end job to dead-end job. Then Rose finds out that there's real money to be made in crime scene clean-ups, and while it's not an ideal way to make money, with her somewhat odd eight year-old son being kicked out of public school money for private school is what she needs. And so Sunshine Cleaning is born, as Rose drags the initially reluctant Norah to various scenes of violent and natural death to clean up what's left behind. For a while this film does a solid job of working the quirky indy groove, with the grim nature of Rose's job and her life in general providing a much-needed counterpoint to the occasionally too-cute or too-obvious moments that the story brought forward. Adams especially is a great performer, able to embody her characters perky charm while never fully concealing the flickering despair in her eyes. But as things trundle towards a conclusion two things become obvious: this really wants to jam in as many "heartfelt" moments as possible - even if putting them back-to-back is way too much for the viewer to take - and nobody really sat down to work out a proper ending (though to be fair, reportedly a lot of plot-mangling editing took places after this film's Sundance debut). It's not like the film just stops (though one character basically just... leaves), but for something that started out so strong, the way it winds down is a bit of a disappointment no matter how happy an ending for all involved it might be.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #455)

I Love You Man


Like every single trend since the dawn of time, Hollywood is going to run the current fad for crude yet emotionally heartfelt comedies into the ground. Foul-mouthed dudes and the women who love them have been getting a real good run at the cinemas since Judd Apatow hit it big with The 40 year-Old Virgin, and it's up to the individual to work out at which film the whole thing just stops being funny. But there's a pretty good chance that for a few people, I Love You Man just might be that film. Not because it's all that bad: it does everything this kind of comedy is supposed to, and with Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in the leads you have two of the current funniest guys in movies doing their best to keep things rolling along. There's even a decent concept behind all the comedy: Rudd is a fairly uptight guy who's about to get married, only he's been a "girlfriend guy" since his teens so he has to go out there and find a male best friend. Enter Segel, as a perfectly nice but kinda quirky guy who might only seem to be the solution to all of Rudd's problems. There are plenty of funny scenes here and the performances are top-notch, but after a while the story starts to wobble a bit - mostly because the central joke is that these two guys are having a platonic romance, and so the plot follows the usual plot of a romantic comedy. You know, they meet, they fall for each other, they split up over a misunderstanding / trivial matter, and get back together right at the end. But with two men it doesn't really work: either they'd ignore the problem, or if it was too big to ignore they'd just punch each other out or never speak to each other again. Which they can't do with this formula, so the final act feels a little weak as they just sorta drift apart a bit. This film’s minor wobbles aren’t anywhere near enough to say this genre is dead, but it's starting to look a little unsteady.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #455)

Two Lovers



It's love triangle time, as Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) returns to New York and his Jewish parents after a relationship break-up that - together with his bipolar disorder - has left him occasionally suicidal, only to find two women vying for his heart. Well, maybe "vying" isn't the right word: Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) is the nice Jewish girl his parents set him up with, only it doesn't take much reading between the lines to notice that she was the one with her eye firmly on him even before his parents played matchmaker. Problem is, his new neighbour Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) has caught his eye, and he finds himself increasingly drawn to her despite the fact she's currently having an affair with a married man and might just be a little too fond of the drugs.

Director James Gray manages to keep a fairly straightforward love triangle tale interesting with a story that's frayed at the edges - not everything here actually means something, so there's plenty of elements you might expect to turn into something more that just end up being part of the texture of their lives. Phoenix gives yet another compelling performance, while both female leads make an impact. Unfortunately towards the end the rails the plot is running on start to become obvious, and the conclusion becomes obvious three or four scenes beforehand. But this is a film that's as much about mood and tone as it is how the romance ends up, and on that level this will stay with you long after the final scene.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #455)

Adventureland


The year is 1987, and James (Jesse Eisenberg) is fresh out of high school with a pocketful of dreams. Unfortunately, dreams are all that are left in his pocket after work trouble means his parents pull the plug on the money that would have enabled him to travel across Europe and he's forced to get a job at local - and very cruddy - amusement park Adventureland. There he gets to oversee various extremely rigged games, risk death at the hands of patrons who don't mind cheating - and going for a knife - when a "big-ass panda" is at stake, and generally feel like he's wasting his life. Things start to turn around once he gets a handle on his fellow workmates, including the musician / handyman who supposedly once jammed with Lou Reed, Mike (Ryan Renyolds), the pipe-smoking brainy dork Joel (Martin Starr from Freaks & Geeks), and most importantly, Em (Kristen Stewart from Twilight), an indy music chick with just the right attitude to pull the smart boys. So why she's secretly having an affair with the married Mike is a bit of a mystery. Not that James knows that as the bond between them grows and it slowly starts to look like he might finally get a chance to lose his virginity... if he doesn't screw it up, that is. Smart, funny, with a great (if seedy) atmosphere and a real feel for what it feels like to be waiting for your life to start, this does a first rate job of breaking out of the confines of the "summer that everything changed" genre. If you've ever felt like someone somewhere else was having a whole lot more fun than you then this will really resonate, and a string of great performances from a universally convincing cast help make this one of the most likeable entrants in the coming-of-age field in a long while.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #455)

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Samson and Delilah


There are movies we go to see because they look like a good time, and there are movies... no, actually people only go to the movies if they look like a good time. Mind you, that good time can be educational, or the good time that comes from putting yourself through an ordeal that you hope will broaden your view on the world. But usually people go to movies hoping to enjoy themselves, which is where the excellently made Australian film Samson and Delilah might find itself in a bit of trouble. To state the obvious up front: this is a first-rate piece of story-telling, and a clear front-runner for Australian film of the year. Basically a silent film for large stretches, it tells the story of two teenage Aborigines living in a small isolated community near Alice Springs . Samson (Rowan McNamara) lives in a concrete shack, sniffs petrol, and spends his days mucking around. Delilah (Marissa Gibson) is a more serious soul who passes her days helping her elderly grandmother with her dot paintings. Samson clearly likes Delilah, she tolerates him, and when a series of events sees them travel together to Alice Springs the pair are forced to get by in a world that has nothing for them.

Written and directed by Warwick Thornton, his first feature-length film draws you into a world many of us know nothing about, and in the early scenes there are moments of comedy and warmth that bring the leads (who both give compelling and completely believable performances) to well-rounded life. But this isn't just a character study, and once the duo relocate to Alice Springs it all comes crushing down in a series of extremely bleak scenes that turn this into the kind of blunt message film that most of us saw enough of at school. There's no denying that Thornton 's point is an important one, or that the events he shows are all-too-real. But when a film hammers away at the same note for as long as this one does, it's hard not to imagine some viewers choosing to disengage. Samson and Delilah contains some excellent film-making and an extremely powerful point. Unfortunately, the two don't always combine as well as they should.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #453)

Ghost of Girlfriends Past


It sounds like the most painful idea for a movie ever: a slick womaniser (Matthew McConaughey) is visited Christmas Carol-style by the titular Ghosts (Past, Present, and Future) and ends up seeing the error of his sleazy ways. But in our very own Christmas Miracle - in May, no less - the end result turns out to be a lot more fun than anyone had any right to expect. And why? Through the simple application of one of the most basic rules of story-telling: if your story is about a bad guy who turns good, first off he has to actually be a bad guy. So for roughly the first half of the film we get to enjoy seeing the always charming (but rarely put to good use) McConaughey as the most sleazy man alive, riffing out pick-up lines that make no sense but thanks to his charm get the job done on-screen and seem all-too believable in real life. Meanwhile, the movie's plot moves forward briskly as he heads off to the mansion of his now-dead but still ghostly Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas, having a lot of fun as a old-style womaniser) for his brother's wedding, only to find his former true love (Jennifer Garner) there as the Maid of Honour. The ghostly goings on are Uncle Wayne's way to turning his nephew from his womanising course and into his true love's arms, which again sounds sappy but actually works thanks to just-enough self-awareness to prevent this from taking itself too seriously right up until the end, when full-on declarations of love are exactly what the story (and the audience) demand. Sure, it's a chick flick - and worse, one where the guy actually changes for a girl - but it's fun and funny, and a lot more entertaining than a concept this lame has any right to be.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #453)

Star Trek


Writer / director J.J. Abrams (Mission Impossible 3, TV series Lost and Alias) is very good at what he does. But it's only now with Star Trek that's he's been given a project where what he does has matched what's required. He's brilliant with characters - so long as things are kept light, funny, and (sometimes) sexy. He can put together thrilling action - so long as we're not meant to think anyone's in real danger. And he can pace a film so you barely have time to catch your breath - which is only a good thing when the story and the characters don't require any kind of in-depth analysis. In his previous projects, these strengths have often verged on weakness: here's they're exactly what this reboot of the Star Trek franchise needed, and the result is one of the most fun and exciting Hollywood blockbusters of the decade. The story is surprisingly easy to follow, especially considering it involves time travel and two versions of one character walking around at the same time: when the evil Nero (Eric Bana) appears from the future in a giant spaceship and starts trashing the galaxy, it's up to cocky space cadet James T Kirk (Chris Pine) and the emotionless half-Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto) to figure out how to get along for long enough to save the galaxy from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. All your favourite characters from the original Star Trek are here, and they all get just enough on-screen time to be both funny (Karl Urban as Dr 'Bones' McCoy is a kak) and competent, while the interplay between Kirk and Spock is the heart of the film and both actors play it to perfection. With a very large cast of characters (Spock's parents also get a look-in) and a lot of action to cram it something had to give and sadly it's Bana's role, which ends up being more of a plot device than a classic Trek villain. But that's the only flaw here and it's a very minor one: if there's a better blockbuster of any kind of this year then 2009 will be an amazingly good year for movies.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #452)

Synecdoche, New York




Writer (and now director) Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) likes creating worlds within worlds – which is part of his film's appeal for those who like to think their way through a movie, as every time we sit down to watch any movie at all we're already entering another world. But with his first directorial project, he takes this conceit more literally than ever: Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theatre director in the non-New York City town of Schenectady who scores a "genius grant" that provides him with a large chunk of change he can do whatever he likes with. It turns out that what he likes to do with it is recreate New York City in miniature inside a New York City warehouse, while his cast also replicate the goings on of the wider world – and of Caden himself. Which all sounds interesting enough, apart from an awful lot of fairly grim scenes about Caden's bad marriage (Catherine Keener, once again cast as a sour grump, plays his first, real-world wife; Michelle Williams plays his wife in the play) and failing health, but after a while it becomes clear that this massive, ever expanding replication of the world outside is nothing more than a massive symbol of the world outside. The reason why symbols work is because they reduce something down to an essence; when a symbol grows to be the thing itself, there's not a lot of point to it anymore. Luckily there's a different point buried in there somewhere about the fragility of life itself, and for some viewers that'll be enough. For others, who might prefer a film that actually gets around to being about something after two hours, there's still a few funny lines and some decent performances to cast a flicker of light in the gloomy cavern in which Caden (and Kaufman) work.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #452)

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Prey


It wouldn’t be fair to call Prey the worst Australian film of the year. Not because the year isn’t even half over – honestly, there is zero chance of a worse film coming along – but because despite its’ many, many, many, many flaws, it gets one thing right: it’s not boring. Sure, part of the reason why it’s not boring is because when you lose interest in the rubbish dialogue, appalling acting, and nonsensical plot you can always keep an eye out for some of the amazingly obvious bloopers scattered throughout this cheaply made car crash, but that takes nothing away from the fact that this roughly 75 minute long film (not counting the classic 80s horror movie trailers that were shown at the screening I attended) has just enough going on to keep you watching until the laughable final twist. So what’s it about? Buggered if I know, and I just watched it: various behind-the-scenes dramas – including the removal of the director – mean that this film most likely would have made very little sense even before the producers were forced to remove all culturally insensitive references to an Aboriginal curse. So we’re left with roughly half a story: a bunch of mildly attractive non-actors decide to drive out into the bush, only to get lost after buying a road map from Nicolas Bell (Bad Eggs, Newstopia, The Games – none of which were as funny on purpose as this is by accident) and ending up near some mystical sandpit on a soundstage where giant snakes turn people into flaming zombies or something. People promptly die, but not in an overly gory way despite someone being crushed under a car, someone else’s head exploding after being bitten by a zillion snakes and someone wandering off in a sandstorm and later being found with his back missing. Then someone gets their pointy new age crystal shoved through their chest and the survivors start chainsawing up the corpses to stop them coming back as zombies. Oh, and they drive around for a while but can’t seem to escape the soundstage, which only becomes a problem when they decide to leave one of their three cars behind – not having enough living bodies to fill three cars anymore – only for us to then be shown footage of the same three cars driving around trying to get out. Whoops. Fortunately there’s the dodgiest lesbian hand massage / seduction scene ever put on bad digital video to keep the laughs coming, not to mention a pointless (read: clothes-on) shower scene that takes place after four people have died in the exact same location as the shower - which, if nothing else, shows an admirable commitment to good hygiene. The ending makes no sense at all and presumably was filmed without a script, as it involves a previously evil-seeming ghost turning up to provide useful advice and save the day… or maybe it was bad advice and everyone goes to Hell, it’s honestly impossible to tell at this stage as clearly even the supernatural forces just want this film to end. It seems to have become a rule that if you want to make money in Australian film you make a horror movie, because no matter how rubbish it is you can always find some chumps who’ll pay to go see it. Prey puts that theory to a test more rigorous and extensive than anyone could have previously suspected possible. But hey, so long as there’s badly re-dubbed swear-free dialogue to look out for, you’ll never be bored.

Anthony Morris

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Mary & Max



When Adam Elliot won the Academy Award for his animated short film Harvie Krumpet in 2004 it was a little hard to see where his career would go next. A quirky mix of comedy and pathos made Krumpet hard to categorise, and Elliot's use of labour- and time-intensive stop-motion animation a la Wallace & Grommit didn't lend itself to either quick cash-in follow-ups or second-guesses once the production ball was rolling. And yet, watching his first feature-length film Mary & Max, it all seems so obvious where Elliot would go. Mary (the voice of Toni Collette) is a quiet, shy girl growing up in a dysfunctional household in an unimpressive Melbourne suburb in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, a lack of real human contact of any kind leads her to write to a person picked out at random from a New York phone book in the hope that they'll write back. That person turns out to be Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a fairly strange and obsessive individual who isn't without his own form of charm. And so begins a back and forth communication that spans the globe and twenty years, following Mary as she grows up, falls in love and becomes an adult, and Max as he wins the lottery and visits a mental institution or two. This tale of two very different but equally quirky individuals finding each other without ever actually meeting is extremely funny, heart-crushingly sad and - where possible - both at the same time. Elliot's quirky character designs turn out to be perfect for the story he's telling, while the story's wild shifts in tone (rarely has "you'll laugh, you'll cry" been more appropriate) work thanks to the constant focus on those characters. It's not a big story or a classic story, but it is a story where the people come first and that (plus an extremely big heart) makes this a film to warm to.

Anthony Morris (this review first appeared in Forte #451)

Duplicity


Ray Koval (Clive Owen) works in corporate espionage. His job: handling agents working undercover. But when he gets assigned to handle Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts), the sparks fly from the get-go. It seems they have a shared past, back when he (and she) was spies working for the more traditional spymasters in the halls of government. But she's too far undercover to let it get in the way now, and he's too much of a professional to let it get out of hand. Or so it might seem. For as the pair continue to work on their obvious covert mission - to extract a secret from a beauty products' firm when the secret is so secret all their bosses at the rival beauty products firm know is that there is a secret - through a series of flashbacks we discover that Claire and Ray have an agenda of their own. Though whether that agenda is romantic, business, or yet another layer of double-cross even they don't seem to be sure. Which is most of the fun. Owen now seems to be able to play two types of role (which is one more than most actors): he can play the grim-faced and earnest type, as recently seen in The International, and he can play the funny, slightly rough-edged and dangerous charmer, which he does with plenty of the aforementioned charm here. Roberts sticks with being self-assured and strident but it works for the character, and interestingly she has the more "male" of the two roles: Owen gets to be vulnerable, questioning and uncertain (he also gets to have sex with a travel agent on her desk), while Roberts is the one who keeps it bottled up inside. The story has enough twists to keep you guessing, though why you would want to keep guessing is never really explained, and in the end this is really just a very, very intense piece of romantic fluff.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #449)

12 Rounds


The big, big problem with 12 Rounds isn't that it's one of those action films with a plot so crazy-dumb even those of us who love action films won't be able to stop ourselves from thinking "this is pretty crazy-dumb". Usually that's a good thing, though this film's plot is lamer than most: a year after arresting an international arms dealer (an arrest that led to the arms dealer's girlfriend being accidentally killed), a New Orleans cop (wrestler John Cena) gets a call telling him the arms dealer has broken out of jail, kidnapped his girlfriend, and is about to blow up his house with him in it. If he ever wants to see his girlfriend again, he'll have to follow the arms dealer's instructions through a series of tests (or "rounds") that involve things like jumping out of a building, escaping a plummeting lift, driving a fire truck like a maniac, trying to save people on an out-of-control tram, and so on. There's a plot twist slightly reminiscent of the first Die Hard so at least they're ripping off quality, but otherwise this series of tests is a whole lot of smoke but not much fire. But again, that's not this film's real problem, as director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) manages to keep things ticking along at a reasonable rate. The problem is Cena himself: while no-one expects a wrestler to be much of an actor, and for the most part Cena is no better or worse than required, he does prove to be surprisingly convincing in the handful of scenes where he's required to express remorse. Huh? Who wants to see an action hero who only seems human when he's saying sorry? Why is he even saying sorry in the first place? Maybe in his next film he'll be saying sorry the action hero way - with a bullet - but based on this lame effort he may not get that chance.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #449)

Knowing


The real star of Knowing isn't a (fortunately) subdued Nicolas Cage, or an overacting Rose Byrne, or even the steady hand of Aussie director Alex Proyas (I, Robot, The Crow); it's the Geelong bypass, on which a major scene (involving a plane crash) of this shot-in-Melbourne thriller was filmed. As we all know, it doesn't matter how good or bad an overseas film shot in Melbourne is. All that counts is getting to have a laugh at the various Melbourne landmarks we're now expected to believe exist in some unnamed US metropolis. Thanks to CGI and a story that mostly takes place in the suburbs, there's not a lot of Melbourne to recognise here: one outdoor shot shows the Melbourne skyline with a whole lot of CGI skyscrapers added, a scene set in New York looks more than plausible until you spot the tram tracks and a final sequence involving a city in disarray does feature the steps of Parliament House in need of a good clean. That means all there is to enjoy about this film is the story: when a strange piece of paper covered with numbers is removed from a 50 year old time capsule at his son's school, Cage - a scientist who believes in nothing after the tragic death of his wife - figures out that it contains details of every major accident that's taken place in the last 50 years... plus a couple that are yet to happen. There are plenty of twists and turns here, and much like Ben Mendleshon's accent not all of them work. But there is a solid sense of dread running throughout this film, and coupled with some gripping disaster sequences (that make the flat patches between them almost worthwhile), it's enough to make Knowing a creepy evening out.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte # 449)

Blindness


It all starts with one man in an un-named city going blind. Whether from a virus, an infection, or some psychological disorder no-one knows: all the citizens know is that the blindness strikes without warning, and it's spreading. The government swiftly begins measures to contain its spread, rounding up the infected and locking them away in a disused hospital. Among those imprisoned is an eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) and his wife (Julianne Moore). But as conditions deteriorate inside the hospital under the growing numbers of the blind, the doctor's wife has a secret: for some unexplained reason, she can still see. Director Fernando Mierelle's has lost none of the skill he showed in the astounding Children of Men, and this film displays numerous flashes of brilliance. The horrors of this situation are fully explored, in at times grueling and horrifying detail, while the moments of compassion and (most surprisingly of all) comedy are heartfelt and real. Unfortunately, it also displays a confused and at times clumsy plot with a wildly uneven tone and characters that are thinly sketched when depth is needed and lingered over when the film should be moving forward. Ironically, it's the lack of a clear vision that brings this film undone. It stumbles between being a metaphor for a crumbling society, a relationship drama and a survival horror, never setting out in a clear direction.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #449)

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Watchmen




Early on in Watchman's over two and a half-hour running time we see a teenaged Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) – shown before the particle physics accident that transformed him into disinterested superhuman Dr Manhattan – learning to repair a watch by taking it apart and reconstructing it. The scene foreshadows how he will put himself back together in superhuman form after the accident, it's a metaphor for the complexity of the world, it's the watch that (inadvertently) causes the accident itself – and this is one minor element in a brief flashback involving one of six major characters in the film. The whole film is that dense; there are times where it's almost too much to take. Watchmen is based on the graphic novel by writer Alan Moore (who's fallen out with publisher DC and had his name removed from the film's credits) and artist Dave Gibbons.

Whatever superlative you'd like to use to describe the book, it deserves and then some. It's amazingly dense, extremely complex, emotionally moving, terrifying and uplifting and funny all at once. It's also about superheroes. Watchmen takes place in 1985, on a version of Earth where there was a brief real-life fad for costumed crime-fighters in the 1940s, and Osterman's accident created a superman the US government used to back the Soviet Union into a corner. Crime-fighter turned government assassin The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has just been killed, and with the world teetering on the bring of nuclear war masked vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) believes someone wants the few remaining costumed heroes out of the way. Director Zac Snyder slavishly followed another comic book frame-by-frame to create 300 and he sticks extremely close to the source material again here, making the book's virtues the film's virtues. All the best lines (and some of the clunky ones) are taken verbatim from the book, and scene after scene is a page from the comic brought to life.

But in following the original so closely, the film also highlights a few of the books flaws. As murder mysteries go this one's not hard to solve, and the attempts to streamline the story to fit a reasonable running time cause a few problems of their own, especially in the second half where more and more of the book is lost (until the three and a half-hour DVD verion, no doubt). There are a few scenes where Snyder doesn't seem to trust the book's tone, ramping up emotional moments with cheap shocks or characters shouting "Nooo!", while the jettisoning of the books "street-level" cast of average New Yorkers reduces the impact of the climax (which has been altered from the book) by a sizeable amount. Still, the original is an amazing book; turning it into a merely great film is a win for movie-goers.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #448)

Zac and Miri Make a Porno



Kevin Smith's got it all worked out. Thanks to the success of his early films like Clerks and Chasing Amy, he's got enough rusted-on fans who'll see anything he puts out to ensure that, so long as he brings his films in for cheap, he can keep on making films the way he wants to for a good few years yet. Unfortunately, that also means he has to keep making the kind of films that his rusted-on fans like. And that means that while there's no denying that there are many funny moments in this film, plus the occasional scene where it looks like Smith might be trying to move outside his comfort zone, in the end this is really just a huge slice of more of the same. The title tells you the story: Zac (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are platonic flatmates who find themselves stone cold (literally - it's the middle of winter) broke and decide that making a porn film together just might solve all their financial worries. Cue the foul talk and smutty jokes that have kept Smith's movie's watchable lo these many years, rapidly followed by the sappy romantic gush that is Smith's idea of giving his films "heart". Rogen and Banks do make a great couple and work off each other well, and to be fair to Smith he knows what he's doing when it comes to dick jokes and plenty of them. There's just nothing here that you haven't seen before in a Smith film. If you're okay with that then you'll be okay with this.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #448)

The Combination


Fresh out of prison, John Morkos (George Basha, who also wrote the script) returns to his western Sydney home looking to start over. Unfortunately his younger brother Charlie (Firass Dirani) looks set to make all the same mistakes. He's hanging out with a gang, getting into fights, and when the local drug lord makes him a (job) offer he can't refuse he's all too happy to take the cash. While John's working as a cleaner at a tough-as-nails gym and trying to make it work with his all-Aussie girlfriend Sydney (Clare Bowden), Charlie's getting in deeper and deeper. His life seems to be going down a too-familiar path, and not even his brother can save him from the consequences. An Australian film set in the gritty inner-city usually means getting hammered about the head with the same old cliches, but The Combination (mostly) avoids the typical traps. The characters are well-drawn, the story is well-paced, we see the consequences of a life of crime rather than just the glamour and the racial divide between John and Sydney is simply a (painful) fact to be dealt with rather than a massive injustice (though Sydney's racist parents do like a lecture). David Field is best known for his acting but in his first turn as director he keeps the tone matter-of-fact even when the script gets wobbly. As a result this small film - while hardly earth-shattering - gets the job done in a way that a slew of more ambitious local films could only dream of.

Anthony Morris (this review was published in Forte #448)

W



When it was released in the US a lot of critics took a swing at Oliver Stone's latest film for not sinking the boots into George W. Bush. And it's true that with this biopic Stone takes a much more restrained and even-handed approach to the man responsible for the War on Terror that followers of his previous (and almost always, far more strident) films might have expected. But with Bush dispatched to history's dustbin and his henchmen rapidly becoming a bad dream, this film feels like a much more reasonable take on the man that so recently inspired so much hate and anger. That's not to say this is a glowing portrait by any means, and Josh Brolin as George W Bush gives an amazing performance throughout the three stages of W's life this film focuses on: his hard-drinking days as a Texas layabout and disappointment to his father (James Cromwell), his newly sober, newly religious days in the late 80s where he's slight less of a disappointment to his father, and the days post 9/11 where Bush and his team of henchmen plan out the invasion of Iraq simply because it's what they want to do. The pre-presidential days are informative and mostly straight-forward, with the only real insight being that W really wanted his dad's love. It's the post 9/11 scenes that really bring this film to life, as an all-star cast (Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney; Scott Glenn as Rumsfeld; Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell; Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice) turns this into a mix of a Dr Strangelove black comedy and one of those re-enactments looking inside Hitler's inner circle that SBS are always showing. It's not enough to make this a great film, or even an memorable one, but it does send the occasional chill down the spine.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #448)

The Reader


Films about the Holocaust are nobody's idea of a good time for a whole variety of reasons, but The Reader is a rare example of a Holocaust film that makes you wonder why they bothered mentioning the Holocaust at all. Michael Berg (David Kross) is a schoolboy in 1950s Germany who stumbles into a relationship with a cold-hearted tram conductor (Kate Winslet) - though how cold-hearted can she be when a bath at her place comes complete with her getting her gear off? Anyway, she's emotionally distant, then she suddenly leaves town (making her physically distant as well), then he grows up to be a law student (and Ralph Feinnes) who goes on a class trip to a war crimes trial only to discover his ex is a SS guard defendant accused of killing hundreds. The film's steadfast refusal to treat her as anything more monstrous than your typically flawed human being is to be applauded, but it does also end up rendering large chunks of the film pointless. If this is a film about a man who's ability to emotionally connect with others is stunted by a first love who is borderline emotionally abusive - and in parts it sure seems like it - then having her turn out to be an SS guard seems heavy-handed in the extreme. If, on the other hand, it's about the impossibility of assigning the label "evil" to an individual - Ms SS guard being both obviously guilty yet understandably human - then what's with all the sex? Or the clumsy plot twist that means he's the only person who knows she's not completely guilty (just mass murder-adjacent)? Winslet gives a solid performance and the film itself is never dull, but for a story so obviously designed to tackle big issues seriously this feels a little too exploitative whichever way you read it.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #447)

Changeling


Dateline Los Angeles, the 1920s. Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a hard-working, tram-taking single mother who comes home one afternoon to find her pre-teen son gone without a trace. The LAPD promise to leave no stone unturned in their search for her boy, and after six months of heartbreak they deliver the miracle Christine prayed for. Only maybe it isn't a miracle at all, as she rapidly becomes convinced the boy returned to her is a stranger. But the 1920s is no time for a single mother to speak out against the law and soon she's being dragged off to the nuthouse, while in a farm outside LA another possible - and far more grisly explanation - for her son's disappearance is being uncovered. Director Clint Eastwood's usual sure-footed approach to crime drama stumbles a little as this film (based on a true story) dances between the lofty but plodding tale of one woman against the system and an energetic but tangential police investigation into a farmer turned serial child-killer. Much of the problem lies with the central character: Christine is a dull but worthy saint who is frustratingly passive in this male-dominated tale, and Jolie never gets under her skin. Eastwood's skill in combining human characters with pulp storytelling has served him well in the past, but Changeling is mostly a strident, flat-footed effort seemingly aimed more at grabbing awards than entertaining viewers.

Anthony Morris (this review was published in Forte #447)