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Sunday, 26 September 2010

Race War!


As Tomorrow When the War Began continues to rake in coin at the box office, one question remains firmly unasked by the mainstream media: isn’t having Australia invaded by a largely Asian force kind of, well, racist? Well, maybe not as racist as some of the alternatives: having the invaders come from the Middle East would be extremely inflammatory, thanks to both The War on Terror and the current hysteria around so-called “boat people”, while having the invaders come from Africa… yeah, that’s not a good idea. Though it’d be deserved after the Hey Hey it’s Saturday ‘blackface’ skit.

Having the bad guys be sinister white folk is the usual Western approach – evil Brits are usually the go-to, but Russians, South Africans, French and even Germans also work. But here that’d just raise more questions: if the invaders were Americans (or even British, to a lesser extent) you’d have a blatant Iraq war metaphor, and while that’d be interesting, it’d also make the film first and foremost about the Iraq war. As for other white nationalities… well, why wouldn’t they just migrate here? It’s not like the White Australia policy tried to keep them out (so long as they spoke English).

That’s what makes the choice of nationalities here so interesting: it actually says something about Australian society. Having the invaders be robots, or Nazis, or aliens, or some other fantasy group would certainly work as far as the central thrust of the film goes – what would you do, Mr or Ms Australian teenager, if your country was invaded? – but that’s all they’d bring to the table.

Having Asian invaders feels racist because is the light of Australia’s history it kinda is. But that’s a good thing: pulp fiction – which this most definitely is – gets its power from saying things “quality” entertainment is too classy to say out loud. Dealing with big issues in a clumsy, unfocused way is what trash does best; rather than condemning TWTWB’s racism, we should applaud it for making it an up-front point of discussion.

More importantly, the shock of realization you get when you discover that the invaders are Asian – that on one level this actually is the nightmare of a thousand Australian racists come true – is something to be applauded. What’s the alternative? Bland, generic story-telling that tells soothing fantasies about who we are. A film that refuses to make us think past “ooh, explosions”.

If nothing else, having the heroes of TWTWB fighting an Asian invading force makes this both easier to dismiss as a racist fantasy (at least the racism is obvious – it’s not like they’re the racial stereotype aliens in some science fiction films) and harder to accept as a jingoistic tale of national pride. Against robot aliens this’d be a simple tale of “we can’t be beaten” (with Angry Anderson singing same on the soundtrack); against a race traditionally demonized (to varying extents) in Australian culture over the years, it’s a little more complicated. And isn’t complicated story-telling a good thing?

Anthony Morris

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs The World


Every time someone complains that movies are just the same old crap, make them see this. Unfortunately, most people like going to see the same old crap – movies are both expensive and time-consuming, so why risk seeing something you might not like – so you might not have too much longer to see this on the big screen. But the big screen is where you should see it, preferably more than once, because there’s that much going on here one viewing simply isn’t enough.

The story is simple: Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a Canadian who plays bass in a shoddy three-piece band (The Sex Bob-ombs) and falls in love with the mysterious Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) after she roller-skates through his dreams. Unfortunately for Scott, if he wants to date her he’ll have to defeat her seven evil ex’s, and what started out as a quirky rom-com suddenly becomes something of an action flick.

The first thing to note is that this is funny from start to finish. Sure, a lot of the jokes and references are related to video games, but even non-gamers will get most of them and there’s plenty of every other kind of comedy going on here too. Director Edgar Wright (working from a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley) keeps the pace at breakneck speed, so you have to pay attention but if you can keep up you’ll notice that – for a video-game-influenced action film – this actually has a lot of heart to it.

“Metaphor” isn’t exactly something the movies do all that well these days, but this gets the idea of having to get over your partner’s past before you can move forward (and how frustrating that can be when they have a lot of past) down perfectly. Plus the fights are cool, the whole film looks brilliant, the casting is spot-on in every case and the whole thing is just plain more fun than anything else you’ll see in cinemas this year. So why are you still reading this?

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #483)

Thursday, 16 September 2010

I'm Still Here vs Time To Go


When it comes to film, “is it real” isn’t exactly the most illuminating question to ask. On the one hand, yes, it’s real: it’s a real film that’s been shot and edited in such a way as to highlight some aspects and downplay others as far as what took place in front of the cameras goes. On the other hand- and oh look, that hand has I’m Still Here written on it, which is, uh, handy – as far as a record of real-life events goes, it (like every single other form of recorded media) is going to leave some wriggle room as far as the whole “reality” question goes.

So maybe I’m Still Here is a big fat hoax, or maybe it’s a honest record of the year Joaquin Phoenix went nutty: unless you’re a massive fan of Mr Phoenix and really care deeply about his personal life, it’s not the most interesting thing about this only intermittently interesting film.

What is interesting about it to me is that it’s on some level a comedy of disintegration: the film gets laughs as Phoenix falls apart (basically, he gives up his acting career to be a hip-hop artist, a career for which he has no talent. He also gets fat, takes drugs, gropes hookers, makes a dick of himself constantly, and has pretty much the most realistic vomiting scene in the history of cinema. Seriously, if nothing else in this film is real, him throwing up was). It’s not really a genre the Americans have done a lot of, being a little dark for mainstream tastes, but in the UK it’s been fairly common over the last decade or so to see a moderately loved sitcom character – Alan Partridge, Dan Ashcroft on Nathan Barley – go off the rails to some extent.

The most relevant example that came to mind while watching I’m Still Here, mostly because it too involved a hoax, was the then media prankster (and now much-lauded director of suicide bomber comedy Four Lions) Chris Morris and his “Geefe” columns for The Observer in 1999.

Appearing as the work of “Richard Geefe” and under the heading Second Class Male, they started out as a relatively typical weekend paper personality column, only to fairly quickly take a bad turn as Geefe’s life rapidly fell apart. Seemingly on the brink of despair at the end of week 6 he didn’t return for week 7 – and when he did come back (under the new title Time To Go which clearly makes it a decade-too-soon sequel to I'm Still Here) it was with a confession: he’d tried to kill himself, it hadn’t worked, and the newspaper was paying him a huge sum to keep writing about the perils of suicide… just so long as he tried again (and succeeded) in six months time. Don’t look at me like that, they’re hilarious. See for yourself.

Phoenix doesn’t try to kill himself in I’m Still Here – just his career. But both the Geefe columns and I’m Still here get their energy in part from the question “is it real?” Seeing a wanker throw away everything isn’t really all that interesting – it needs the spark that comes from wondering if it’s really happening to keep our attention. In Morris’ case, it helps that the columns are funny and that he has some solid points to make: one of the running jokes is how Geefe’s personal problems are exploited by his editor and the media who refuse to offer him any useful help. In contrast, in I’m Still Here director (and Phoenix’s brother-in-law) Casey Affleck slowly withdraws from any real on-camera presence in the film, presumably to defuse the obvious question of why someone isn’t trying harder to stop Phoenix from acting like a tool.

On thing they do both have in common is a distain for the audience. Well, the section of the audience gullible enough or eager enough to believe what they’re seeing: in Geefe’s case, do we really believe a major UK newspaper would allow a journalist to commit slow-motion suicide in its pages? Thousands did believe: other columnists wrote about it in disgust.

In the case of I’m Still Here, why do we care about “Joaquin Phoenix”, who almost none of us know in any real sense, any more than we would any other character played by the same actor? The only reason to care – because his character is barely sketched out in the film, which is also the point (if the end product was slicker, it’d be less convincing as a “real” document) – is because we’re wondering “is it real?”. For all JP’s bad behaviour on screen, we’ve all seen actors do far worse in movies: it’s only shocking if we really believe it’s the “real” Phoenix up there.

What’s at stake here anyway? It’s not like this film’s going to trash his rep as a brooding, serious artist: either he really did go off the rails because he needed to fully express himself – he’s a serious artist, man! – or he spent a year acting like a nutcase for a movie – again, kind sorta the type of thing a serious artist would do. In contrast, Billy Crudup – to pick a name at random – didn’t seem to go mental for a year, and no-one’s talking anywhere near as much about whatever the hell he’s currently up to. Any publicity is meant to be good publicity.

The only place where going off the rails like this would seriously damage his rep is in the section of the media devoted to celebrity and their various sufferings. That’s where the contempt comes in: Phoenix clearly doesn’t care what fans of “him” (rather than of his work) think. If they’re sucked in by this, they deserve to be. If they think less of him because of this, who needs them anyway?

In the end, Geefe wins out in this all-in-my-head pitched battle simply because – to my eyes at least - it’s funnier. Though to be fair, Sean “Puffy” Combs is hilarious in I’m Still Here. After this and his work in Get Him to the Greek, he’s the breakout comedy star of 2010. When he's on screen, at least the laughs are real.

Anthony Morris

Monday, 13 September 2010

Splice


It’s been a long, long time since we had a decent mad scientist movie, and then along comes Splice with not one but two scientific types driven by hubris to play God. The way it splits the mad scientist role in two and then plays one half off against the other is just one of the many things to like about this very smart – and sometimes ghoulishly funny – film.

Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are married scientists who’ve just created an altered life form out of the DNA of a bunch of different species. It secretes proteins that have dozens of commercial opportunities – so many that the company they work for wants to put its efforts into exploiting what they’ve got rather than continuing to push the boundaries. This isn’t enough for Elsa, and she creates one last creature – this time, with human DNA. Clive is horrified, especially as what was supposed to be a small scale test results in a living being that looks not quite human. Its' rapid growth means it can’t be hidden in their lab for long, but when they relocate to it an abandoned barn they soon discover the child-like creature – who they’ve named Dren (Delphine Chaneac) – is both more and less human than they thought.

The mix of the totally impossible with the creepily plausible is usually the best thing about mad scientist movie and Splice is no exception, making a little girl with cloven hooves and a demonic face seems utterly plausible, totally chilling and all-too human all at once. The way the relationship between the passive Clive and the take-charge Elsa plays out provides a string of surprising twists, and in case you forgot this was supposed to be a horror film there’s a bunch of gore-splattered scenes worth of Cronenberg at his body-horror best. It’s silly, it’s utterly serious, and it’s always edge-of-your-seat: Splice is a slice of horror genius.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #482)

Four Lions


Lauded as a comedy genius in the UK for his television series Brass Eye but basically unknown here, Chris Morris specialises in making people laugh at things they think they shouldn’t. It’s hardly surprising then that his first feature is a full-on slapstick comedy centred on the misadventures of four completely serious – if only marginally competent – UK suicide bombers.

It’s a shocking conceit and writer / director Morris plays it to the hilt with bungled martyrdom videos, surreally stupid attempts at buying loads of explosive compounds and exploding crows. Plus there’s the “logic” that makes no logical sense: when angry white convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay) wants to bomb a mosque to radicalise UK Muslims, Omar (Riz Ahmed) points out that’s like trying to win a fight by punching yourself in the face. Their antics may be silly but the seriousness of what they intend is never ignored. Morris’ genius is in balancing the two, making a film that finds the humour in the reality of suicide bombers in the west. Turns out there’s an awful lot of humour there: this is easily one of the funniest films of the year.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #481)

Step Up 3D


For those of you worried that fully engaging with the third instalment of the Step Up series would require an extensive knowledge of the plots of Step Up and Step Up 2 The Streets – and yes, characters from both those films do return in this film – fear not: apart from having the exact same plot, this really has nothing to do with the earlier films.

It’s the exact same plot because all dance movies have the exact same plot: a bunch of young, vaguely “street” characters hang out either at a dance school or some well equipped dance studio talking about how much they love to dance. There’s a girl (Australia’s own Sharni Vinson) and a guy (Rick Malambri) for the romance angle, and they’re usually white while everyone else comes from all four corners of the globe – including, in the case of Moose (Adam Sevani), geeksville. Then the good guys run out of cash so they need to win the contest to pay their debts (and beat the always present evil dance posse), there’s a betrayal or two, and all this is spaced out with a bunch of big dance numbers that are the only real reason anyone’s come to the cinema.

Being in 3D does makes some of the numbers impressive, but there are a few minor technical wobbles that occasionally make things seem a little too artificial – and as the whole point of watching dance is seeing people actually dance, it’s a serious hiccup. Still, as dance movies go this does what it’s supposed to with enjoyable slickness, which – until a 21st Century Fred Astaire comes along and really makes the genre sing – as about as good as it currently gets.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #481)

The Expendables


Every now and again Hollywood tries to find out if one long-dead genre or another is ripe for a revival. They keep trying with westerns, the teen sex romp occasionally gets a push, and now we have The Expendables, in which director and star Sylvester Stallone assembles a cast mixing old 80s stars (Dolph Lungren, a cameo from Arnold Schwarzenegger that is easily the best moment in the film) with the current crop of action stars (Jason Statham, Jet Li) and a whole lot of wrestlers / UFC fighters (“Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Randy Couture) and then throws them into a story best described as “let’s remake Commando, only with five good guys instead of one”.

In case you don’t remember Commando – and if you don’t, why would you be watching this – basically the idea is that a shady CIA type (a cameo from Bruce Willis) hires Stallone’s band of mercenaries to take back a small island from Eric Roberts, who is using it to grow drugs. By all the rules of normal film-making this is a bit of a mess, with just about every character getting zero character development, the plot stops and starts a couple of times before getting to the final island beat-down, Mickey Rourke of all people supposedly provides the films “emotional heart” with a deathly-dull anecdote about how he lost his soul (doesn’t seem to stop him picking up trashy women though) and the whole thing is seemingly set on a version of Earth where steroids occur naturally in the water.

Once everything starts exploding none of that really matters. The action is suitably over-the-top and ridiculous CGI-blood flies everywhere, bad guys occasionally explode, and all the main villains die twice (you know the kind of thing – one’s shot then stabbed, another is shot then dropped from a great height, a third is set on fire then set on even more fire, and so on), so there’s that to enjoy too. In the end this is no-one’s idea of a classic, and by today’s action standards it’s a flabby mess. But with everything else 80s’wise coming back in style, maybe it’s time for 80s-era over-muscled action to make a comeback too.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #481)

Matching Jack


For her first feature film in over a decade, director Nadia Tass (Malcolm, The Big Steal) sets herself a hard task: a lightweight comedy about children with leukaemia. Fortunately, pre-teen Jack (Tom Russell) has a pretty good chance of finding a bone marrow donor, thanks to the otherwise dubious blessing of having a father (Richard Roxburgh) who’s spent the last fifteen years cheating on his mother with half of Melbourne.

The numerous scenes where Jack’s mother Marissa (Jacinda Barrett) practically goes door-to-door looking for a bone marrow match from her partner’s endless liaisons are the source of much of this finely balanced film’s humour. They contrast nicely with those involving Irish sailor Connor (James Nesbitt), whose energetic efforts to raise the spirits of his ill son Finn (Kodi Smit-McPhee) may prove more successful in attracting Marissa’ attention. This is a gentle film rather than a hilarious one, but its warm tone goes some way towards smoothing over the occasional clunky moment. A film this character-driven needs truly stand-out performances to hold it together. Fortunately, both Barrett and Smit-McPhee shine. They guide this film’s sometimes wobbly script safely home.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #481)

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Boy


The year is 1984, the place is New Zealand’s Waihau Bay, and for Boy (James Rolleston) life is good. School is out for the holidays, his little brother thinks he has magic powers, and his Grandmother is taking a break for a week, leaving him in charge of a small army of siblings. Then suddenly his long absent father Alamein (writer / director Taika Waititi) drives up with the other two members of his unimpressive bikie “gang”, and Boy’s life is turned on its head.

Waititi’s second film (after the indie comedy Eagle vs Shark) isn’t exactly a coming of age film – it’s smarter and more subtle than that. For audiences trained to think in Hollywood rhythms, the arrival of Alamein – who clearly at least likes his kids, but is also just as clearly mostly there because he buried some money in a nearby paddock and can’t seem to find it – is a cause for dread. The first ten minutes of this film are as funny as anything you’ll see this year, and the return of an absent dad (fresh out of prison to boot) usually signals darker times ahead.

Instead, Alamein proves to be both a better and a worse father than expected, the comedy keeps on coming even when events eventually take on a slightly darker tinge, and the overall impression is one of a film that’s wholly original and totally charming. That’s thanks in large part to the utterly natural performances from the kids and Waititi’s own dorky charisma, and together with a sharp yet daggily funny script they make this a front-runner for comedy of the year.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #483)

The Kids Are All Right


Nic (Annette Benning) and Jules (Julianne Moore) may not have a perfect relationship, but it works for them – and for their two kids, Joni (Australia’s own Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). But with Joni turning 18 (and about to leave home for university) there’s a worm in the apple: she’s now old enough to find out about (and get in contact with) the man who donated the sperm used to create her and her brother. She’s not that interested but Laser needs to know, so they’re introduced to Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the quasi-hippie owner of a wholefoods restaurant. But as Paul – who is a perfectly decent guy – comes further into their lives, fault lines start to appear in the family’s relationships, especially between the controlling Nic and the self-doubting Jules.

Writer / director Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon, High Art) does an excellent job of constructing her characters and then just letting them crash into each other. It’s rare to see a film that is able to stand as far back from its characters as this one: it’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the touchy-feely personal growth dialogue the adults spout, but there’s still a strong connection with the characters simply as people, no matter what bad or foolish choices they make. Good performances help too (Moore is especially impressive) and its re-creation of upper-middle-class Californian life rings true (and is often very funny). But for the most part this film impresses in the way a well-written novel does: by showing us people we might not like, but who we can understand.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #482)

Father of my Children


It doesn’t take long to figure out that Gregoire (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) is a busy man. Juggling phone calls as he walks and drives the streets of Paris running his film production company Moon films, he’s clearly a man with a lot on his plate. But he also seems to be a warm and caring father and a loving husband – when he’s not on the phone trying to put out one work-related fire or another. Clearly he’s a man passionate about his work and film in general, but as the film progresses it starts to become clear that his juggling act has an increasing sense of desperation to it: money is tight, the business is running on credit that’s running out, and his options are narrowing.

At this point something happens upon which the entire film pivots: without giving too much away, everything changes and yet doesn’t change, as the films story (which, despite the title, turns out to be the story of Moon films rather than Gregoire's family) continues on its way. It’s certainly an interesting angle to take, but it does mean that a lot of the more personal plot threads are left dangling. It’s a look at a man’s life almost entirely through the lens of his work That makes it a somewhat restricted look, and though those restrictions are interesting in themselves, it does make this one of those films where the end is “a new beginning” – a beginning that seems more interesting than the film we just saw.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #482)

Me and Orson Welles


You wouldn’t say that director Richard Linklater’s career has gone off the boil over the last few years, but the low-key run this film – starring Zac Efron, no less – is getting in this country hints at a step down from the days when he was mixing up comedies like School of Rock with lauded arthouse romances like Before Sunset. It’s an impression that Me and Orson Welles never quite manages to dispel: it’s fun, it’s pleasant, it’s engaging, it boasts one powerhouse performance, but it never quite manages to lodge in the memory the way many of his earlier films did.

The year is 1937 and actor Richard Samuels (Efron) scores a bit part in Orson Welles stage production of Julius Caesar. The usual backstage antics ensue thanks to various nutty actors, and before long love blooms between Samuels and Welles’ assistant Sonja Jones (Claire Danes). Problem there is, Welles (Christian McKay) doesn’t like anything going on that he’s not in complete control of. The pace is fast, the tone is light, the whole thing feels well-researched (in part it’s a salute to the hard work that goes into putting on a big performance) and McKay gives an amazing performance as Welles. It just never really adds up to a great deal, and unless you’re a): an Efron fan (he doesn’t exactly move out of his comfort zone, but he’s got charm to spare), b): a theatre buff, or c): interested in Orson Welles, it’s hard to see why you couldn’t wait for DVD here.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #480)

Greenberg


Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is not a happy man. Problem is, he doesn’t really have a lot to be unhappy about either: a New Yorker who’s in L.A. to housesit for his well-off brother, despite his blunt nature it doesn’t take him long to start up (and then ruin) a relationship with his brother’s personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig).

The more time we spend with Greenberg, the more it seems like he’s driven to ruin whatever good things come his way. He was in a band that almost hit the big time before he knocked back a big record deal, and his friendship with his former bandmate (Rhys Ifans) is uneven at best. Greenberg holds the world to standards that seem fair enough as a teenager but are just annoying as a 40 year old, and his refusal to make a life for himself – rather than the nervous breakdown he seems to have had in New York – seems to be why he’s stuck in the dissatisfying limbo this film displays.

Director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) is walking a fine line here, but while Greenberg is largely frustrating as a character the film (based on a script by Baumbach, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Stiller) gives us just enough space to avoid feeling trapped with this strident sourpuss. Stiller is good but not great here – it’s easy to imagine the role being played just as well by a number of actors – but his comedic charm goes a long way towards taking off the edges from a fairly unlikeable character: a better actor would have made this a worse film.

The supporting cast are all excellent, with Gerwig’s finely balanced mix of assertiveness and confusion coming as something of a revelation here as she balances out Greenberg’s studied rejection of pretty much everything with her awkward yet heartfelt refusal to shut herself off. Greenberg might not be that likable, but this often insightful film turns out to have more warmth and humanity than most upbeat “feel-good” comedies can muster.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #480)

Centurion


Neil Marshall has a rock-solid track record when it comes to bloody good fun. From his first film Dog Soldiers (their soldiers… and they’re werewolves!) through The Descent and Doomsday, he rarely puts a foot wrong when it comes to serving up quality cheap thrills.

So Centurion might seem at first glance to be something of a chance of pace: based around the story of the Roman Ninth Legion, who marched into the wilds of Scotland in the first century AD and never came back, it sounds like it has at least bone foot based in reality – not an area Marshall’s previous films have had much time for. But here he manages to combine his love of all-action film-making with a thin (occasionally very thin) layer of historical accuracy to create perhaps his most satisfying film to date.

Quintus Dais (Michael Fassbender) is the commander of a small fort on the border between Roman-controlled Britain and the free lands to the north ruled by the Picts, savage tribespeople who don’t fight according to the Roman rules of warfare (and if you think that’s the last parallel this film has to make with the War on Terror, think again). For example, they overrun his fort during a night-time sneak attack, capturing Dais and taking him hostage. Meanwhile, General Virilus (Dominic West, AKA McNulty from The Wire) has been given the job of leading the Ninth Legion north and solving the Pict problem once and for all. The bad news is, the Picts are one step ahead of them all the way; the worst news is, soon Dais is leading a handful of survivors across the barren Scottish highlands as they desperately try to escape a pack of Picts lead by the silent but deadly Etain (Olga Kurylenko) who have sworn to track them down and kill them or die trying.

After the Iraq War analogies (and plenty of severed heads and spurting blood) of the first half, this segues into a tense and single-minded chase film that’s solidly effective despite the occasional cliché (such as jumping off a cliff into a river to avoid capture). The performances pump up the underwritten characters to good effect too, making this one of the best B-grade action thrillers this year.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #480)

Inception


It doesn’t take long to realise the marketing for the latest film from writer / director Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight) wasn’t being vague and mysterious simply to build anticipation: Inception defies easy summation in a way that’s increasingly – and refreshingly – rare.

It’s not exactly a plot you can spoil (in some ways it’s surprisingly straightforward), but learning as you go is one of the many pleasures this has to offer. Suffice then to say its set in a world where others can enter your dreams and (try to) steal your deepest secrets, but if you’re Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) your own secrets have a very real chance of getting in the way.

Despite the heavy psychological baggage and film noir / cyberpunk trappings, this turns out to be Nolan’s take on the light-hearted heist genre. Think Ocean’s 11 inside The Matrix and you’re halfway there. Some might argue that every character besides Cobb is barely two-dimensional and that much of the dialogue is raw exposition, but with a set-up this enjoyably mind-stretching it’s best to err on the side of clarity. Having a first class cast as Cobb’s back-up team (Including Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy and Ken Watanabe) goes a long way towards fleshing out the thin characters, and the visuals are just mind-bending enough to impress without distracting from the story-telling (unlike, say, a Terry Gilliam movie, the story moves forward too quickly to allow much time to soak in surreal imagery).

The plot is a rigourously planned-out puzzle-box that’s extremely compelling – so much so that in many ways’s the film’s greatest success is the high level of post-viewing discussion it sparks. Blockbuster film-making is rarely this smart and skillful, let alone actually about anything. Utterly unmissable.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #480)

The Kings of Mykonos: Wog Boy 2


Writer / producer / star of Wog Boy 2 Nick Giannopoulos says in the press notes that originally this was going to be a stand-alone story, but then he decided this particular plot was a good way to bring back the original Wog Boy characters. Smart move: if this was a stand-alone movie then it'd be fair to say it's a massive and unwelcome return to the bad old days of Australian movie comedy, a film that you laugh at more than with, a film that plays its jokes so broad it's a wonder they fit on the screen - a film where, when one of the leads finally get the girl (though all he does is save her from drowning but that's as good a reason to pash as any) the donkey he was riding looks at the camera and winks. But as a sequel to the original Wog Boy, it's pretty much just more of the same.

The plot takes the two hold-overs from the first film - car-crazy Steve "Wog Boy" Karamitsis (Giannopoulos, who's performance consists largely of pulling a squinty face) and girl-crazy Frank (Vince Colosimo, who's performance is actually ok) - out of Melbourne's western suburbs and off to the Greek party island of Mykonos, where Steve may or may not have inherited a beach. While Frank starts out trying to break the Mykonos record of sleeping with 43 chicks in a month but ends up focusing on just one, Steve has to decide whether to sell to the sleazy property developer Mihali (Alex Dimitriades) or try to make a go of things himself against all the odds. Oh, and there's a subplot about goat shit.

There's the occasional funny moment but when the biggest laughs come from a pair of Germans basically saying they don't find the rest of the film funny you know you're in trouble. For all its many, many flaws the first Wog Boy at least was about the migrant experience and a clash of cultures (well, kinda): this doesn't really seem to be about anything past showing off Mykonos' impressive views.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #478)

Toy Story 3


Pixar haven’t put a foot wrong in any serious fashion since the first Toy Story well over a decade ago, so for once the “3” in the title is not a massive flashing warning sign. We all know the score with Pixar (The Incredibles, Up, Finding Nemo) by now: of course it’s going to be well animated, of course it’s going to have plenty of thrilling action sequences (the opening sequence here is pretty much their best yet), of course it’s going to have a Randy Newman song or two in there - but are the characters still going to be interesting enough in their third feature-length outing to make this feel like a proper movie?

The good news is yes, and then even better news is that this one actually manages to make the three films feel like, if not a trilogy, then at least a proper series rather than just the same film three times over. The story here is simple: Andy, the owner of cowboy Woody (the voice of Tom Hanks), spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the rest of the toys (though not all of them: the cast has been thinned for this film) is old enough to go to college. Thanks to a packing mix-up, his toys end up donated to a day care center that only seems like the perfect place for them, while Woody - who knows there’s been a mistake, as he’s the only toy Andy’s chosen to take to college - tries to get everyone to return to Andy.

There are a few mildly scary moments that might be a bit much for very small kids (this feels like a film made with one eye on kids who grew up with the series) and one heart-in-mouth moment that will probably hit older viewers harder than kids, but this is pure Pixar entertainment all the way and the mix of comedy and drama and excitement is as pitch-perfect as you could ask for. But be warned: the ending, while perfectly in keeping with the rest of the film and in many ways the best possible result for all concerned, is also pretty much the most savage and brutal tear-jerker seen since the opening of Pixar's last film Up. It’s not a spoiler because the film lays it out from the very start, but still: if you have separation issues, bring tissues.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #479)

Grown Ups


Adam Sandler likes to spread himself around. These days most stars only make one kind of film (A Russell Crowe film is pretty much the same thing every time), but Sandler – much like Will Smith, who’s his only rival when it comes to box office draw at the moment - has two or three fanbases on the go at once. Which makes reviewing his films a bit trickier than most: there’s no point slagging off a Sandler film for being a touchy-feely family comedy when that’s what he set out to make, even if you happen to think his edgier comedies are what he does best.

So to set things out clearly, this is not a Sandler movie where he plays an idiot manchild (Little Nicky, The Waterboy), nor is it a Sandler movie where he goes flat-out for laughs (Happy Gilmore, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan), nor is it a Sandler movie where he takes things a little seriously and reveals himself to be a pretty good actor (Punchdrunk Love, Funny People). This is one of those Sandler movies where he plays a nice guy, the story is usually about family and the importance thereof, there’s a couple of moments that are supposed to be kind of touching, and the whole thing can be wrapped up in a nice bow with “heart-warming” written on it. If you don’t like those kind of Sandler movies, get out now: there’s nothing for you here.

You might think having a cast made of up Sandler’s comedy buddies – David Spade, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, and Kevin James, all firmly in their comedy comfort zones (only Rock is trying something different as a henpecked husband) – would push things down the funny end of the scale, and there is a fair amount of seemingly improvised riffing / ragging on each other here. There’s just nothing else: after the death of their high school basketball coach, the five grown-up (geddit?) members of the team are reunited for his funeral. As they’re seemingly the only people in their dead coach’s life, they stick around at a lakehouse to scatter his ashes and just… hang out.

Occasionally a glimmer of a storyline will pop-up, but they never go anywhere: the only real development is that Sandler’s snooty kids (he’s a ultra-wealthy Hollywood agent) learn to play outside. Sandler’s too canny a player to make a film but forget to make it about anything: presumably there’s a market for movies where you just get to spend a weekend with Sandler and his buddies doing not much for close to two hours.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #478)

The Runaways


The problem with telling a true story is, whose side do you take? In fiction you can just have all the cool stuff happen to your lead: in real life things get a bit tricky. Unfortunately in The Runaways, director Floria Sigismondi’s adaptation of Cherie Curry’s book about her life as the lead singer of, you guessed it, The Runaways (of “Cherry Bomb” fame), pretty much all the cool stuff involves people other than Cherie.

Sure, the teenage Cherie (Dakota Fanning) has some vague dreams of becoming some kind of rock star, but next to the driven passion of Joan Jett (Twilight’s Kristen Stewart) you either go hard or go home. Meanwhile their flamboyant, kinda creepy, quasi-abusive svengali manager Kim Fowley (an excellent performance from Michael Shannon) deserves at least two movies all by himself as he puts the girls together, put through through hell (or as he calls it, “training”), and then unleashes them on the world as “jail-f**king-bait”.

So this look at early 70’s proto-punk gets a bit frustrating after a while as the focus keeps drifting back to the purposefully trashy but fairly vapid Cherie when both Jett and Fowley are the ones with drive and passion. It’s their story (as shown by their post-Runaway’s successes) Cherie just lives in it, and while there’s a few fun moments and enjoyably sleazy scenes here, the film’s hollow core gets the better of it well before the end credits.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #477)

Nightmare on Elm Street


There's no reason why horror remakes have to be bad - they just seem to turn out that way. Unlike a lot of the recent remakes where the original's success was such a fluke that changing anything would (and does) ruin the film, Nightmare on Elm Street has a central idea strong enough to handle another swing at it.

That central idea is, of course, a monster (here burnt-up possible child-molestor Freddy Kruger, played by Jackie Earl Haley) who can kill you in your sleep: as one character puts it, "if you die in your dreams, you die in real life". The scariness comes from two directions: you have to fall alseep eventually so you can't escape, and inside your dreams anything (unpleasant) can happen. So with all that going for it, why is this remake little more than a lifeless, by-the-numbers chore to watch?

Apart from the usual fatal flaw of boring characters played by poor actors - not only are all these "teenagers" easily pushing thirty, not one of them is in the slightest bit memorable even when they're spurting blood - this film fails because it's actually too faithful to the original. The original is a classic make no mistake, but this treats the first film's set-up so reverentially that it feels like any possible originality has been strangled out of the film.

It doesn't help that most of the dream sequences are really just of the "you didn't realise you'd fallen asleep... and now you're dead" variety, with only a few moments of surreal horror to show what might have been. And with the invention of "micro-naps" (basically, you can fall asleep at any time and not know it), the film becomes yet another quick shock-packed affair rather than anything remotely disturbing. It's hardly the worst remake of recent times, but if you're going to re-do a classic you need to do better than this.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #477)

Harry Brown


A good vigilante movie knows there's a formula involved and sticks to it like glue. So ignore the claims that this Michael Caine vehicle is the UK's answer to Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino: while they might both involve old folks taking on the young punks that have ruined their neighbourhoods, Harry Brown is a Death Wish remake in everything but name.

Harry (Caine) is a pensioner living in a high-rise estate where a gang of youthful drug dealers has staked a claim to a nearby underpass. After his wife dies (of old age) and his best mate dies (from messing with the gang), there's not a lot keeping Harry in check. Did he forget to mention he was a Royal Marine who was decorated for his work in Ulster back during The Troubles in Northern Ireland? Guess the local thugs picked on the wrong old age pensioner to mess with.

All your favourite vigilante cliches are here: Harry's first kill is in self-defence (but after that first one all bets are off), there's only one local cop who suspects him and she doesn't know whether to support him or bring him in, and the criminals are across-the-board scum lacked all redeeming features (especially the leader, played by UK rapper Plan B as A Current Affair's worst nightmare). The real draw here is Caine, who manages to be both a convincing badass and an old guy who's not really up to racking up a double-figure body count anymore. He's what you're coming to see, and he doesn't disappoint.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #477)

Robin Hood


When you start to get up the expensive end of the blockbuster scale, a film's story becomes less about telling a story and more about juggling various demands. And when that blockbuster is called Robin Hood, the demands just keep on coming. It doesn't take long to realise that director Ridley Scott and star Russell Crowe really aren't that interested in making a film about the Robin Hood we know and love - presumably because we know and love him a little too well to be bothered going to see yet another film about him. So large chunks of this "prequel" to the Robin Hood story are the kind of movie they - or the people who hired them - wanted to make: a medieval version of Gladiator.

Crowe's Robin is the same character he plays in all these films: a low-voiced tough-guy who everyone looks to as a born leader even though he's basically a short mumbling brawler. Cate Blanchett's Marion is a scowling tough guy - uh, gal - herself, which actually makes her less interesting because revisionist or not, we've seen this kind of character before. But because the film is called Robin Hood no matter how badly they want to Scott and Crowe can't just have the French up and invade England so they can do a bows-and-arrows version of the beach landing from Saving Private Ryan.

They have to throw in a whole lot of bonus plot involving the chief villain (played by the current Mr Everywhere, Mark Strong) pretending to be working for new king John (Oscar Issac) as he rides around "collecting taxes" by murdering and pillaging and getting everyone pissed off at the foppish king. Meanwhile Robin (a working class bowman) is pretending to be Robin (a noble knight) to give back a sword and if all this stuff occasionally brushes up against the traditional Robin Hood story don't read too much into it because before long the film'll be back talking about how Robin's dad invented the Magna Carta.

Despite all that, this hangs together well enough to function as a solid, unspectacular, undemanding blockbuster you could happily take a less demanding family member along to see.Like Robin himself, it gets the job done without flair, glamour, or anything even remotely memorable.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #477)