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Sunday, 18 January 2009

Role Models

Being a comedian in America sometimes looks like the hardest job in the world - yes, even harder than working in one of those African diamond mines where they kill you for asking for oxygen. That's because Americans seem to want their entertainment to have sappy, moralising, false-emotion-packed "heart", which is pretty much the exact opposite of funny. And even though American comedy often seems to have shaken off this burden of having "heart", you don't have to wait too long before it starts sneaking back. So, after a few years of generally heart-free - and therefore, very funny - comedies, it's a little worrying to check out something like Role Models and discover that there's just a little bit more "heart" here than one might have expected. Put another way: the premise of this movie is that a couple of energy drink salesmen - the downbeat Danny (Paul Rudd) and the party guy Wheeler (Seann William Scott) - get hopped up on their own product, commit one too many crimes, and only escape jail because Danny's lawyer ex-girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks) cuts them a deal to help out at a big brother-style charity for kids. This set-up, which sounds like the kind of thing a current movie comedy would make fun of, is played pretty much straight: no wacky mix-ups, no crazy slip-ups, they break the law and this is their for-real sentence. Then when the guys pair off with their kids - Danny gets a live-action role-playing nerd played by Superbad's McLovin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), while Wheeler gets a foul-mouthed, breast-obsessed pre-teen - the hijinks are interspersed with the occasional straight-faced "you gotta take care of kids" and "kids should be free to be who they want to be" scene. Make no mistake, there is plenty of funny stuff going on here, with the kids especially bringing the laughs in serious doses. The live-action role-playing finale is a classic, the running jokes about Kiss and Wings are hilarious, and there is no doubt whatsoever that comedy fans will find this well worth the money. But it's got to be said: this movie contains scenes of gratuitous, occasionally jarring and not really that much fun "heart".

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #444)


The year is 1964 and New York's St Nicolas Catholic school operates under the chilly gaze of iron-fisted tyrant (and principal) Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). Her superior and parish priest Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a far more likeable and easy-going man - so naturally Aloysius is far from his biggest fan, and advises the other nuns to keep a close eye on him. But when Sister James (Amy Adams) comes to Aloysius with vague suspicions about Flynn's dealings with a 12 year-old black student, are Aloysius' actions based on genuine concern or her own darker desires? Based on his own play, writer / director John Patrick Shanley has created an at times stagy but none the less compelling exploration of conflicting attitudes and the stresses placed on "truth" when it's one person's word against another's. Reminiscent at times of David Mamet's famous "who's side are you on?" play Oleanna but with the occasional forced parallel with the self-serving methods of the War on Terror (says Aloysius: "In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God") shoehorned in, it's the kind of stagy, verbose film you can't help feeling would be a lot more effective left as a play. But outstanding performances from Streep and Hoffman make even the rare flat moments watchable, and the many gripping scenes soar.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in The Big Issue #321)

Seven Pounds

There's something not quite right about Ben Thomas (Will Smith). And not just because this film opens with him calling 911 to report his own suicide. He's using his power as a tax inspector to check up on the personal lives of a bunch of people, all of whom seem to be suffering from one kind of serious illness or another. Then there are the flashbacks of happier times with a wife who doesn't seem to be on the scene any more, and memories of a job that seemed to have something to do with building spacecraft don't quite fit in with his current work with the IRS. On the one hand he's helping old ladies in a nursing home, on the other he's abusing a blind meat salesman (Woody Harrelson) over the phone, and when he starts to develop a relationship with a woman with a heart condition (Eva Mendes) who he's supposedly auditing it's kind of difficult to work out where things are going to go. Well, it is unless you figure out the mystery at the heart of this film, which is pretty easy to work out despite the story constantly jumping backwards and forwards in time for no real other than to obscure events. There's enough going on in this film to keep things reasonably watchable even if you do work the mystery out early, but like a lot of Hollywood films of late this takes a fairly interesting central idea and - rather than actually explore the ramifications of that actually pretty creepy idea - turns it into a fairly stock-standard love story (this time of the doomed variety). Thankfully, good performances from Mendes and (especially) Smith make the love story engaging enough right up until a overblown, sappy finale that fails to hit any of the emotional highs it's so desperately straining towards. This is one of those worthy films that does a really good job of being just bland enough to offend no-one while looking classy enough to make you feel better for having sat through it, and those who liked Smith better when he was funny might as well keep on walking.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #444)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

There's really two ways to look at The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: if you're after the quirky tale of a man born old who grows younger with every passing day, then you can probably wander out for a coffee during the middle hour and a half (well, leave after the first hour and come back to catch the final half hour) of this three hour film. If you want to watch a fairly bog-standard love story about a couple who take their time about getting together, then that middle hour and a half is the film for you. Which is a bit of a shame, as while bland love stories between people who aren't all that interesting is pretty much a staple of blockbusters these days, a movie about someone growing younger isn't something you see every day and so seeing a bit more of it could only have been a good thing. The problem really is that once you get past puberty the next thirty years are pretty much the same no matter what direction you approach them from, and even after that there's not a whole lot of difference until you get towards the very end of life. So the decision to fill the space with a love story between Benjamin (Brad Pitt) and Daisy (Cate Blanchett) probably seemed like a good idea, especially as they get to meet in the early 1930s when he looks about 80 and she's barely in her teens. But as they grow up he turns into a fairly bland "everyman" character while she's an arty dancer who's a touch annoying, and who really cares about their doomed love when he's a guy growing old in reverse? The special effects used to create this reverse aging are outstanding and basically seamless and the whole project reeks of class, but for anyone hoping that a life lives backwards who reveal more insight than "being a kid and being an old man are really a lot alike" this has to count as a disappointment.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #444)

Frost / Nixon

After resigning in disgrace in 1974, former US President Nixon moved to California and did a whole lot of not much. While America cried out for an apology or even an explanation, Nixon kept silent, hoping the Watergate scandal would blow over and he could eventually start to rebuild his political career. Then lightweight UK chat show host David Frost stepped up with an unique offer: a series of one-on-one television interviews covering a wide range of topics, put together independently by Frost and on-sold to the networks. Nixon and his advisers jumped at the chance, believing Frost to be a lightweight they could easily control and the resulting interviews the perfect way to rehabilitate his reputation. It's prime material for a drama and Frost / Nixon doesn't miss a beat. Based on Peter Morgan's play, Ron Howard's film opens up the material slightly and turns the first half into a globe-trotting experience but retains the core of the original: the clash between Frost (Michael Sheen) and Nixon (Frank Langella) in a house in a California suburb in front of a bunch of television cameras. And there's a lot at stake here: if Nixon has his way, he'll be able to recast himself as a statesman betrayed by others, a man who deserves yet another chance. For Frost, the interviews are his big chance to make it in America, which is why he's put himself in debt way over his head. But as the film progresses it's clear that for all the stakes at play in the background, this is a clash of wills between two men - one perhaps the sharpest political operation alive, the other a pretty boy interviewer who's not exactly sure he's got the depth required to pull this lion-taming act off. The result is totally compelling.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #443)

Vicky Christina Barcelona

These days it's hard to know for sure what you'll be getting with a Woody Allen movie. For one thing, you may not be getting a trip to the cinema: more than one of his recent films didn't even score a release in Australia. For another, you're probably not getting a chance to see Woody himself, as he's narrowed his appearances down to maybe one film in two. And the film's he's not in seem to be the ones that work of late - for example, he's nowhere to be seen in front of the cameras in Vicky Christina Barcelona, and it's his best film since Match Point. His New York days behind him, Allen set his latest story in Spain, where Christina (Rebecca Hall), a solid, respectable, engaged young woman and her flighty, sensuous best friend Vicky (Scarlett Johansson) are on holiday. It doesn't take long for the pair to fall into the orbit of a scandal-plagued local sculptor (Javier Barden), who promptly invites the pair to spend the weekend with him in his home town. They agree, Vicky seems happy to sleep with him, Christina seems just as happy to steer well clear, and from there things both do and do not proceed as you might expect. Despite all the talk of passion this has a faintly mechanical feel to the plotting (the uneven performances don't help - Barden is excellent, the girls not so much), as characters move together then apart while Allen tests the various permutations of their emotions as they play off against each other. Which, if you believe in love as some kind of external magical force that binds people together forever, might not be your cup of tea. But if you believe that love is simply something that happens between two (or more) people and is an extension of their personalities and natures, then there's a lot you'll find interesting in Allen's well thought-out games.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #443)