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Sunday, 22 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.

Monday, 2 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)