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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)