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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The World's End marks the fourth time that Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and
Edgar Wright have delivered an endearing comedic story about a handful
of flawed but likable characters dealing with mundane problems who are
plunged into unexpected, otherworldly, life-threatening situations.
Unfortunately, this screwball comedy also marks the first time that
most of us are likely to really notice the narrative similarities
between the darkly witty Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007)
and the equally exciting but less popular Paul (2011) in which Greg
Mottola took on Wright's role as director.
That said, the realistic character complications of Pegg and Frost's script are still distinctive enough and manage a level of poignancy that lies somewhere in between Hot Fuzz and Shaun in terms of sincerity. We begin our story by following the pitiable folly of the irreverent Gary King (Pegg), an adolescent in the body of a middle-aged man who hopes to reunite his old gang of boyhood friends for a second chance at pub-crawl that they tried and failed to complete in their youth. Gary gradually manages to drag his old buddies out of their stable, mature private and occupational lives under a false pretence created to attract their sympathy and throws them into his cavalier lifestyle that remains unchanged from the nostalgic revelry of his youth. The stark realities of the swift passage of time, and the people and places that time can leave behind at the mercy of modern progress and cynicism, are displayed bluntly without cloying sentimentality and with pleasingly sharp wit. Pegg is clearly enjoying himself playing the plainly ridiculous Gary who is both easy to loathe and easy to love and pity. We know that the amoral buffoon simply doesn't know any better, and this is something that the other characters soon come to realise as well. Gary's closest friend, Andy (Frost) is continually giving him chances but slowly learns that Gary is unlikely to change in a world that has no qualms at all about changing. Frost, in his turn to play the straight man while Pegg plays the comic goof, is as convincing as Pegg was in Hot Fuzz and it is quite impressive to see how easily the two of them can swap roles within the archetypal clown duo. The other characters who are trying to make it to the last pub, the evocatively title The Word's End, range from the straight-talking, dryly witty Martin Freeman, who more or less plays himself, to shy, gentle, soft-faced Peter (an adorable Eddie Marsan).
After a fairly generous amount of time spent alone with our main characters, our fantastical subplot arrives and tries to wrap itself rather awkwardly around the human story. While, to the movie's credit, the entrance of our otherworldly antagonists is as much a genuine surprise as the introduction of time travel to Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, I didn't find myself getting quite as excited or amazed by these particular creations as Pegg and Frost seemed to be. It is with them that the creative team's wonderful recipe for success starts to feel like a formula, especially since they are a cross between the epidemical, gleefully gored zombies from Shaun and the morally superior, ethically corrupt town council from Hot Fuzz, with a sci-fi element slightly akin to the Paul thrown in as well. Unlike the hooded killers from Hot Fuzz, the ferocious zombies from Shaun or the merciless men (and woman) in black from Paul, these latest bad guys simply aren't scary enough to offset the screwball humour. Without a freshly thrilling sense of danger, the energetic jokes, which also feel somewhat tired this time round, are comic relief with nothing to relieve us from. Many audiences felt that the poignant personal story of middle age was disappointingly underdeveloped and prematurely diverted from. I know the routine by now and so I was never expecting the character's personal lives to be the sole focus of the movie. Personally, I felt that I was instead robbed of a satisfying climax, given the riveting third acts of the team's previous three films. Their latest creation makes its way towards a disorderly anticlimax and a decidedly clichéd conclusion, neither of which the underwritten comedy could justify.
Perhaps it was inevitable that one of these uses of the seemingly infallible recipe would fall slightly flat. Nevertheless, there are quite a few laughs to be had, Pegg and Frost's acting efforts are much more effective than their scripting, and I was somewhat enthused by the unearthly villains of the piece, just not nearly as much as I was expected to be. Other fans of the movie's creators might be similarly disappointed with their latest offering, but new audiences may be perfectly well entertained by it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Suzanne Collins' novel The Hunger Games was both a thrilling and moving
survival story and, more importantly, a profound and deeply disturbing
comment on the pervasive nature of political corruption and tyranny and
the tragic futility of overzealous public revolution. The point of the
both the novel and Gary Ross' impressive film adaptation was that mass
uprisings achieve very little, but small, subtle, individual pieces of
defiance can achieve a great deal. The political explorations were
neatly contained within a depiction of the 74th Hunger Games of the
film's title, and the open-ended conclusion was pleasingly thought
provoking and self-sufficient.
By extending the story into a series of novels, the other two of which I had no desire to read, Collins allowed the astute observations of the first instalment to be overtaken by a radical, impassioned, crowd- pleasing thrust into sudden revolutionary fervour. This is all very rousing and genuinely involving in Francis Lawrence's film adaptation of the sequel Catching Fire, and, from what I hear, the novel successfully taps into the same rebellious zeal, but passively participating in a war between demonic bureaucrats and spunky, underdog insurgents from the lower classes is much less sophisticated and distinctive entertainment than watching a young victim of a dystopian regime balance prudent obedience and caution with stealthy personal defiance. Still, the merciless despotism of the Capitol and the opposing bravery of the insurgents are very convincingly portrayed. Watching this familiar story play out, we fully believe that no one is safe from being beaten, tortured or killed by the oppressive government, with the exception of Katniss, who is the obligatory 'chosen one' in this particular tale of good versus evil. As in the first film, the dangers inside the Hunger Games arena, which here include monstrous, carnivorous monkeys and a terrifying poisonous fog, are palpably menacing. The stakes are convincingly high and the violence of this film is much less sanitised than most Hollywood blockbusters.
Also, despite the radicalised political agenda, the story thankfully retains its focus on fully-fledged individual characters, rather than restricting the characters to a narrative toolbox of simplistic archetypes. Peeta, the sweet, selfless gentle giant, is as endearingly heroic and his portrayal by Josh Hutcherson as poignant as in the first film. Jennifer Lawrence also continues doing what she does best, and what won her an Oscar lost year: exuding engagingly vulnerable angst and cynicism as a calloused victim of circumstance who plays hard to get with the audience's sympathy. Her new struggles as a simple archer, big sister, surrogate mother and small-time rebel who has come to be seen as the figurehead and leader of a revolution are indeed very compelling. I certainly found myself sharing her every thought and feeling in her every scene, which is exactly what you want in a protagonist. Liam Hemsworth is once again effortlessly charming as Gale, who, on the other hand, hankers to be at the forefront of the imminent rebellion. The larger and much more active role that Gale is now starting to play gives us the chance to see a little more than mere charisma from Hemsworth as an actor. We also see much more of the coolly despicable and alarmingly observant President Snow as he begins to step out of the bureaucratic shadows and confront Katniss, and the political threat she poses, more openly and mercilessly and we get to see more of 78-year-old Donald Sutherland's effortlessly evil characterisation. It is also very satisfying to see that Effie Trinket, the aristocratic caricature that actor Elizabeth Banks and costume designer Judianna Makovsky entertainingly overplayed and overdressed in the first film, is given quite a few well-handled serious emotional moments this time around, and that Primrose (fine young actress Willow Shield) is showing signs of inheriting her sister's backbone and stealth.
This multitude of individual characters and interwoven subplots has now became the greatest asset and primary way of distinguishing between other epic tales of good and evil that ultimately converge at the same narrative and thematic point. When the destination is a given from the moment we have our sneering, sly old villain Snow and our feisty young chosen one although Katniss is at least more interesting than an everywoman the route taken to that irresistible beacon and the detours along the way is what sets these stories apart from one another and what gives us a reason to travel to the same place so many times.
The visual execution of this familiar story is also very commendable and entertaining. Once again, the flamboyant, loud colours and shapes with which the centre of the Capitol is painted brilliantly convey the suffocatingly immense wealth and power of our villains and streets and inhabitants of the impoverished District 12 appear convincingly grim and grisly, but not to the point where our heroes are no longer photogenic. The action scenes inside the arena are very well executed, being very impressively staged, designed and shot this time with omniscient clarity rather than in the chaotic, subjective style of the first film. However, from a narrative point of view, Catching Fire is far more subjective than its predecessor was. We are no longer invited to step back and holistically examine our own society and its history through objective futuristic allegory, but instead we are pulled in intimately close to these particular personal and political conflicts at a level of proximity that snuffs out objectivity as it preys on our emotional impulsivity.
Collins and Lawrence certainly succeed in making us emotionally invested and closely involved in the story, quickly and easily getting us to cheer and feel deeply for our heroes and to fear and despise the totalitarian antagonists. This kind of engagement with an audience might not be nearly as intellectual as the devices used earlier in the series, but the emotional subjectivity that has now taken over the series is undeniably just as entertaining and valid in its own way.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Rest assured that he intelligent crowd-pleasing writer/director Joss
Whedon's take on one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies certainly
isn't just another dispensable member of a long line of barely
distinguishable adaptations. There is no doubting that the works of the
immortal literary giant are always welcome back home on the stage, as
countless productions have unfailingly excited generations of
directors, actors and theatregoers, but on the screen, we now feel that
they need a reason to be there. The biggest challenge with adapting
classics that are so often adapted is finding this reason to look at
them again in order to see something new, whilst still "staying true"
to the material and presenting an interpretation that an audience will
not immediately see as far-fetched and inferior to the original.
Whedon's decision to bring the story into the context of contemporary America, making his own house in Santa Monica the film's location and filling his cast with many of his favourite American actors, is one that has alienated much of his audience, but for many of his fans, myself included, it has not overstretched suspension of disbelief. Initially for me the Early Modern colloquial English dialogue jarred uncomfortably against the clearly modern American accents, gestures and costume of the characters, but I very quickly accepted this stylised oddity for the sake of entertaining escapism, as I did with Baz Lhurmann's similarly anachronistic revisionist adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. The use of such a geographically and chronologically distant dialect of English is always unavoidable as Shakespeares' plays simply cannot be translated without diluting or restricting his authorial intentions. Shakespeare's original audiences had no trouble getting over the fact that his characters often spoke in perfectly rhythmic iambic pentameter and unnaturally fluent, lengthy soliloquies. Whedon's film version is no more heightened, abstracted or improbable than the original stage versions. The Shakespearean poetry of the dialogue and the slick, stylish black and white cinematography reinforce the fact that this is fictional entertainment that uses superficial lies to unveil or reflect a deeper truth.
Whether this truth is that marriage relies on a trust that is so tragically fragile, as seen with the young, romanticised love that so fleetingly flowers between the handsome Claudio (a very charming Fran Kranz) and the sweet, beautiful Hero (Jillian Morgese), or that marriage is a hard-fought struggle arising from questionable intentions and finishing with pure ones, displayed through the love/hate relationship between the boisterously proud Beatrice and Benedick (played the by the sensationally simmering pair of Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof) this quirkily shot, innovatively modern adaptation firstly entertains, and then intrigues. Whedon does not necessarily ask his audience to ponder serious, complex, political truths during the entertainment. The key figures of the narrative are so independently potent that we can enjoy them simply as characters without it being suggested that we should generalise them as social symbols. It is a joy to watch the naïve youthful optimism of Claudio clash with the charming arrogance of the proud bachelor Benedick in the softly masculine interactions between the two friends, who here come across as exceptionally eloquent rom-com characters. The bickering between Benedick and Beatrice is also directed and portrayed in the style of a witty modern comedy, albeit one with a third act doleful complication and cheery conclusion that's a little less schmaltzy. Beatrice is what many might call a "strong" female character, and indeed, she is written as a woman with a will of her own that initially opposes the idea of marrying the man that she is most attracted to, until she realises that being with him is the only road to happiness she could possibly take. However, Acker plays her less as a cantankerous monster who needs to be taught her place in society and more as a woman who has accepted her place but found ways to power and fulfilment that lie within her social limitations. Acker and Whedon have astutely given her the tenacity of Lady Macbeth and the wholesomeness of a tamed shrew.
Alongside these very convincingly and entertainingly portrayed realistic figures and the more than decent ingénue, Hero, Whedon has fun with playing up the ridiculous melodrama of the piece using our irredeemably embittered villain, Don John (an entertaining sour-faced Sean Maher) and the classically comical villain's goons (Spencer Treat Clark and Riki Lindome) and bumbling police adversaries (Nathan Fillion, Tom Lenk, Nick Colcher and Brian McElhaney) to good effect. Whedon has very impressively updated the humorous supporting characters and executes the comedy as finely as you'd expect. What's surprising is the amount of imposing camera angles, devilish compositions and sinister music (from a soundtrack that's impressively composed by the director) that are devoted to characterising a very cartoonish villain in what is otherwise treated as a largely subdued character comedy with a strikingly dark third act twist.
The enjoyably exaggerated treatment of Don John and the mixture of modern minimalism and quirky farce of the scenes in which Beatrice and Benedick's friends are sneakily setting up a romance between the two of them using word of mouth, are both pertinent examples of Whedon's ability to combine the poetic melodrama of an Elizabethan play with the satirical subtlety of an independently made character-driven American rom-com. Shakespeare's original work benefits from being brought to a more down-to-earth and relatable level of audience connection and the contemporary comedy gets to play with hard-hitting concepts such as murder, virginity and genuine loyalty or betrayal rather than the trivial territory of most low-stakes rom-coms. Also, the claustrophobic, black and white cinematography is a constant, confident reminder that what we are watching is not reality, nor does it ever want to be.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Pixar's track record of sequels is undeniably superior to that of
DreamWorks, Fox or any of its other competitors. Granted, this may be
because Pixar hasn't made nearly as many sequels as other studios have,
but that is arguably to its credit. Both of the Toy Story (1999 and
2010) sequels were more popular than their predecessors because they
successfully drove the story forward with new characters, new ideas and
new settings to justify its continuation. Cars 2 (2011) also presented
something new with a big switch of protagonist and genre. However much
this might have alienated fans of the original, at least it wasn't a
re-hash, and some who were not fans of the first movie (like myself)
relished the change. However, the emotional depth, conceptual maturity
and memorable characters were undeniably absent.
To some extent, these are present in Monsters University, an expansion of the beloved Monstropolis universe that is very wisely a prequel, showing how some of the key characters in Monsters, Inc. (2001) got to where they were at the beginning of the original, rather than a pointless, contrived continuation of a story that was very conclusively and gratifyingly resolved in the original film (which is the type of sequel that Finding Dory seems destined to be). The only downside to this decision is that it forces the writers to exclude the adorable Boo from the picture, but you can't have everything.
As everyone knows, University shows how Mike and Sulley (who are of course voiced again by Billy Crystal and John Goodman) met at college, where Sulley was a big, confident top-dog and Mike was a small, shy, unpopular punching bag, and how they eventually became friends. However, the setup is not actually as simplistic as it might sound. Sulley is not a jock there are indeed cookie-cutter, muscle-bound blockheads in this movie but Sulley is not one of them he is a naturally terrifying scare student who plans to cruise through the course on instinctive ability and the reputation of his father, who we learn was also a top scarer. Mike is picked on and neglected for his size. He is a little kid with big dreams, but he is not just a male, monster version of Madeline. He is an intelligent, diligent, hard-working student who studies tirelessly and knows all the theory behind scaring, but, as he is told by his head professor, the supposedly terrifying Dean Hardscrabble (voiced with variable believability by Helen Mirren), "what you lack simply cannot be taught. You're just not scary." As a senior high school student, hopefully soon to be a university student, I can certainly relate to Mike's frustrations about Sulley's cavalier attitude and with his own unfair physical limitations. This character conflict is as meaningful and memorably mature as the environmental theme in the original movie.
That said, this prequel has no shame in using hackneyed plot points and stereotypes. When both of our main characters are in danger of being cut from the scaring program, Mike for his lack of natural ability and Sulley for his lack of effort, the film devolves into a painfully familiar underdog story in which the two must rally together a team of nerdy, hardly scary social outcasts to somehow win the annual Scare Games and prove to the Dean that they belong in the program. These supporting characters do give us some good laughs, mostly through the loveably stereotypical mother of the youngest nerd, and sometimes even by subverting a few clichés, but even though they are at least more interesting than the jocks, we've come to expect better from a company that is always praised for its ingenious creativity and originality. Fortunately, some of the in-between teams are more inventive, namely a group of light-voiced cheerleaders that can pull out red-hot, sinister, serpentine stares on cue. There are a couple of good challenges, even though they are infused with the well-meaning but ultimately cloying moral messages of individuality and teamwork saving the day. The highlight is probably a game of capture the flag in the library with a truly terrifying and well-designed monstrous, slug-like librarian. Being a mostly physical character who is used sparingly, and voiced without the rather condescending regal refinement that Mirren's voice work brings, and which ultimately makes the character, who is fairly well-written as a discerning figure of authority, much less scary than the dramatic dialogue, camera angles and soundtrack insist that she is.
The librarian scene, and the engaging earlier classroom scenes, are second only to a genuinely thrilling climax, one that actually manages to be the highpoint of the movie, that again sees Mike and Sulley trapped on the other side of a door to the deadly and dangerous human world. The movie's academic theme might not be relatable to the younger audience, but they will certainly enjoy these thrilling action sequences as much as the adults, and, if they've done the right thing and seen the first movie before going into this one, they will appreciate the generous serves of sly references to the original film. There are many of these in the end credits montage and surrounding the returning character of Randall (again voiced by Steve Buscemi, though not quite as enthusiastically as the first time round) the innocent freshman who we see slowly being developed into a vengeful villain.
It goes without saying that the animation is top-notch Pixar films have received all manner of theme-, character- and narrative-related criticisms, but never visual ones and there is a low-key chase scene elongated purely for the purpose of showing off the animators' technical and creative skill, but while the rest of the film's strengths are enough to make it reasonably memorable as a prequel, they hardly warrant repeat viewings, and sometimes the references and reused musical themes from the original encourage a comparison to an engrossing animated masterwork that this affable nostalgic trip just can't withstand. Still, I'd recommend it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Everyone acquainted with great, classic American literature knows that
F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby is an artfully subtle,
quietly philosophical character-driven piece that charms readers mostly
with its elegance and with its air of mystery and tragedy. Everyone
acquainted with popular Australian cinema knows that Baz Lhurmann's
films entertain mostly with their novel excesses and their frenetic
alternations between comedy and tragedy. However, the results of
Lhurmann setting out to adapt this treasured novel along with co-
screenwriter Craig Pearce, who penned each film of the Red Curtain
trilogy, are surprisingly more successful than one might expect.
On several points, the director's showmanship actually seems very appropriate, mostly as he depicts the colourful, decadent, indulgent world of the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby (played very sensitively by Leonardo DiCaprio) whose penchant for the extravagant is as great as Lhurmann's. The scenes inside his colossal, noisy, lavishly decorated mansion bursting with uninvited partygoers from all walks of life give Lhurmann a plausible excuse to use his characteristic frenetic editing, dress hundreds of extras in bright, sparkly costumes, blast out techno- beat dance music and bedazzle us with explosions of loud colours. In its way, these scenes are equally if not more effective at pulling us into the outrageously vibrant world of the excited, optimistic, childlike title character when compared with the original novel. The anachronistic music might be jarring, but I doubt that a party scene using vintage 1920s jazz certainly would have made me feel as wild and electric and as though I were a part of the late night celebrations myself.
The soundtrack works even better in the first scene of drunken indulgence, where we see Gatsby's normally well-behaved next-door neighbour Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire) being literally dragged into a smaller-scale but still riotous celebration by his brutish acquaintance Tom Buchanan (a strikingly conceited Joel Edgerton). A very psychedelic shot of Nick, our narrator and technically our protagonist, observing his own ridiculous behaviour high up in an apartment building from the street below is a rare moment where Lhurmann's stylised visuals manage to communicate some of the complexities of Fitzgerald's celebrated prose. When they're not clearly satirising modern society, they might be adding to key narrative points melodrama that is either engaging or sickeningly alienating, or the camera-work might just be taking us on a bit of a roller-coaster. I did get a little tired of the camera's hyperactivity after a while, but fortunately the cinematographic sugar high is done with after half an hour.
The melodrama that comes through afterwards mostly works because the story is, at least on some level, about extremes. If Gatsby and Tom's sweet mistress, Myrtle Wilson (a surprisingly good Isla Fisher) are the lovable fools with an absurd amount of faith in their far-fetched plans Myrtle desperately hopes that she will be whisked away from her dim, primitive husband (a very poignant Jason Clarke) by a richer dim, primitive husband, Tom then most of the other characters are either shallow fools or shallow villains. There is no question that the beefy, cocky, controlling, white supremacist Tom is our villain, who in the end becomes truly diabolical. Elizabeth Debicki exudes confident stealth and superficiality as Jordan Baker, seemingly the most streetwise female character but who is ultimately as much of a blunderer as the two hapless romantics, Myrtle and Gatsby. Curiously, though as the beautiful but shallow damsel Daisy Buchanan, the plot-driving object of desire, Lhurmann has cast the captivating Carey Mulligan, who of course endows Daisy with the remarkable emotional depth that she does so well. This fooled me into thinking that Daisy was actually a person of substance, despite her actions, or lack thereof.
The character of Nick Carroway is equally thin. In the novel, he is the everyman who, with the exception of the poignant ending in which he becomes an active presence, only exists to witness or catch wind of all the exciting events and give us a cohesive story,
In translating Nick to the medium of film, Pearce and Lhurmann add very little, if any, depth of character to him. Lhurmann's direction to Maguire seems to have been little more than to act like a wide-eyed grinning puppy dog cheerily excited by all the serious emotional conflicts around him. At this, Maguire does excel, but if they also wanted him to be an engaging narrator, they should have hired someone with a bit more of a range. The film relies heavily on a voice-over from a weary, crazed Nick who recounts the story in flashback, sitting at his typewriter in the office of a psychiatrist. Unfortunately, our little link is not lovable enough to enliven one of the most overused of all cinematic storytelling methods. His deadpan voice-over sucks the life out of Fitzgerald's beautiful prose.
Fortunately, though, the butchered narration is occasionally improved with the very striking visual motif of displaying wispy clumps of ashes that shape the words that Maguire is sleepily reciting. Another of the many visual treats is the design of the dismal coal district which is directly in front of the glitzy, colourful wealthy district that is sustained by the hard, manual labour of the lowlier urban dwellers. A large optometrist's billboard containing a giant eye is situated right in the centre of this district, and is frequently cut to as a symbol of the sense of truth and morality that the largely immoral characters turn to at their convenience.
The 1974 Gatsby film adaptation is widely considered to be a very accurate, but ultimately soulless cinematic retelling of what is superficially a very dull story, so I suppose that going spectacularly against the tone of the novel was a more likely way to get to its heart. I'm not quite sure that all of the experimental theatrics really give us a new appreciation of the original work, but they are certainly offset by the many solid performances from the key players.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Trance establishes the first half of its psycho-thriller premise by
giving us an amusing education on the history of art robbery. A
captivating James McAvoy tells us in voice-over that there was a time
when a small group of burly thieves could simply storm intimidatingly
into an art auction, grab the painting that had just been sold and walk
out without encountering any real obstacles. "All it took was a bit of
muscle" and some nerve, our as yet undefined protagonist tells us, as
the sepia tone footage of these early robberies is played. Now, of
course, jobs such as these require much more planning and ingenuity
with such exhaustive high-tech security measures being taken to protect
these precious paintings, but it still takes muscle and a lot of nerve
to see it through.
It's easy to presume, even after having read a plot summary, that this is a complex heist film in which the intricacies of the scheme are meant to dazzle the audience into watching more, but in terms of exposition this opening scene only sets up a rationale for the rest of the story. Thematically, however, it can be argued that this sequence has a great deal of underlying relevance, particularly in the most important instruction that art specialists must follow in a robbery: "Don't be a hero. No piece of art is worth a man's life." This last, lingering, repeated line leads us to expect the painting that Simon (McAvoy) is looking after will be an exception to this rule. Again, it can be argued that this becomes true, but not for its artistic merits, its history or even its monetary worth. To find the reasons for its importance one need look no further than the relationships between the main characters.
Simon mysteriously thwarts the attempts of the coolly merciless gangster Franck (Vincent Cassel, sporting his usual dangerous charms) the leader of the heist, to run off with the painting. His methods and motivations are not revealed until a crucial late point in the film, as is, of course, the place where he hid the artwork before a convincingly traumatic knock to the head wipes his memory of the incident. Franck brutally tortures Simon in the most disturbingly graphic scenes of the film before he is able to believe that his amnesia is genuine, and discreetly enlists the help of a trained hypnotherapist named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson). Initially she is not privy to any of the details of Simon's case he tells him that he has lost his car keys but soon she demonstrates a lot more muscle, nerve and smarts than the gangsters gave her credit for having.
Many films have attempted to create edgy, enigmatic, complex femme fatales that challenge submissive female stereotypes and constantly keep the boys on screen and everyone in the audience guessing. This ironically stems from equally pejorative ancient cultural tendency to demonise and be suspicious of women who might corrupt the men they get close to as Eve corrupted Adam. It also fails to be interesting if the actions of the villainess are obviously not part of her hidden agenda, but of the very obvious agenda of the screenwriters who are in need of a plot twist or complication to get them to make it to the end of the running time.
At first Dawson seemed to be moving arbitrarily between various emotional states cold and aloof, vulnerable and fearful, soft and sympathetic, calculating and remorseless but I was very pleased that writers Joe Ahearne and John Hodge (Trainspotting) were clever enough to justify all of these changes in such an exciting and even a fairly convincing way, and allowed us to see how rounded and complex Dawson's performance really was. Even the seemingly cheap plot development of having Simon fall desperately in love with his slick and slender caretaker, and the even more unoriginal sex scene with Elizabeth and Franck, become as surprisingly relevant as the philandering in The Ides of March (2011).
The numerous journeys through Simon's subconsciously are attractively designed with colourful special effects, interesting cinematography and engaging sound editing. It's certainly an exciting and glossy cinematic experience, even if certain later seen melodramatic images really stretch believability.
This was certainly never meant to be a well-researched, painstakingly realistic psychological drama. For one thing, I used to see a hypnotherapist on regular basis, and one of the first points she made clear was the distinction between the mystical hypnotists of show business who entertain crowds by removing a person's willpower, and the friendly hypnotherapists whose job it is to empower their patients by giving them helpful relaxation techniques for whenever they're feeling stressed.
This is a much more philosophical and humanistic look at crime and the workings of the mind, in which the supposed unfeeling femme fatale with countless secrets tucked behind her foundation and mascara introduces the intriguing idea of a person keeping a secret from themselves. This is one of those enjoyably mind-boggling movies in which that person just so happens to be our main character and narrator. How fun for us, eh? Although this is a much easier one to figure out than Inception or Shutter Island.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Lately, there has been a curious trend developing in American studio
comedies as producers have been trying increasingly to achieve a kind
of everyman realism, albeit with photogenic celebrity lead actors and
only the most marketable of central social themes. I Don't Know How She
Does It ironically made audiences question the plausibility of a forty-
something-year-old overworked mother could be as attractive as Sarah
Jessica Parker, and manage to find a fifty-something businessman as
attractive as Pierce Brosnan to be her love interest, more than it made
us marvel at the way she copes with a hectic home and work life. This
is 40 hardly has anything on display about the realities of middle age
that is not already well known.
A film titled I Give it a Year would seemingly be another flick from this same production line about the third world problems experienced by a mostly happily married couple, but its trailer showed it to be a brilliant British ensemble comedy with a hilarious host of supporting characters who are prime participants and comical spectators of the disintegrating marriage between languid husband Josh (Rafe Spall) and plucky but uptight wife Nat (Rose Byrne). It was a premise that also carried a promising cynical appeal with its anti-rom-com focus on a gradual breakup rather than a hook-up.
So does it deliver, or are all the best lines and novel ideas used up by the trailer? Well, it doesn't exactly break the mould of the tired genre. It's true that our two non-compatible romantic leads are bitterly falling out of love with each another, but this is largely because they are falling in love with their respective American-born acquaintances: suave, handsome travelling businessman Guy (Simon Baker) and Josh's sweet ex-girlfriend Chloe (Anna Faris). To this double-date romantic crossover comedy, the two Americans seem to have brought a packed suitcase full of sappy, coy, fairy-tale clichés, but thankfully most of these are offset or spiced up by the inspired, zany, zappy British humour of writer/director Dan Mazer (Borat, Brüno) who conversely has his vulgar extremities healthily moderated by the sterile Hollywood influences.
However, the trademark humour of Sacha Baron Cohen and his other collaborators does come through on several deliciously memorable occasions in pleasingly small doses. Mazer particularly enjoys writing cringe-inducing dialogue for Stephen Merchant, a comedian naturally inclined to unwittingly say wildly inappropriate things at the most unfortunate of times. Merchant delivers every one of his golden, ingeniously awkward lines with terrific repulsive charm. It's true that a lot of these are in the trailer, which gives the misleading impression that Merchant's character of Josh's most insufferable friend, features much more than he actually does, but given more time on screen he may well have become as tiresome as Cohen's obnoxiously repugnant character creations.
Still, every character has at least one gorgeously revolting comedic moment or two to shine, even our contractually generic romantic interests, and while some may complain about the portion sizes of the Merchant magic, we certainly get our fill the other good supporting characters. Minnie Driver and Jason Flemyng are very entertaining as a couple who are bizarrely content with their discontentment with each other. Driver infuses the familiar snide unromantic witticisms she's given with a great, fresh energy, and Flemyng bring his usual charm to the role of the apathetic, good-for-nothing husband. Olivia Colman relishes her role as a cantankerous marriage counsellor who doesn't exactly lead a good example in her own marriage.
However, veteran actors Jane Asher and Nigel Planer are barely given much to relish as Nat's parents, who spend most of the time giving fairly standard and uninteresting reactions to the much more exciting and inventive comedic happenings on the opposite end of the frame. Some audience members will likely be disappointed by this, we can't always watch our favourite actors in the juiciest roles.
We should be grateful that Mazer has mixed together the crude humour of unwatchable shock-fest comedies with the nauseating sentimentality of unwatchable factory-made chick flicks to make something that is very watchable, and enjoyable, even if it has a strange love/hate relationship with the latter type of film. While not quite anti-rom-com, I applaud it for keeping both the jokes and the romance running alongside each other, rather suddenly abandoning all humour at the halfway mark and forcing an indigestible dramatic tone on its farcical narrative. This is actually a true romantic comedy, a fact that smacks of the same irony that much of the dialogue does. It's definitely one of the better pieces of light entertainment out there, even if it's no comedic masterpiece.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Emilie (Sophie Cattani) is a lonely, bored young single woman
struggling to meet an interesting guy, so she joins the popular dating
website MeetMe! but the only men she manages to make contact with are a
bunch of bizarre, unstable, unsavoury comic caricatures. Presumably
after this quick, exaggerated, laugh-a-minute montage she then "meets
someone in real life" who she wouldn't ever consider boyfriend
material, but keeps encountering, and from there writer/director
Dorothée Sebbagh goes into rom-com autopilot until the big kiss at the
end that everyone desperately wants to see. Quite surprisingly, and in
typically unconventional European style, Emilie's grotesque gallery of
suitors aren't flashed by as comic relief; they become the subject of
Meet Me in Real Life, or Chercher Le Garçon (Looking For a Boy) as it is been more generically titled in France, very literally looks at Emilie's search for a boyfriend on the internet, and how each real-life first- date meeting turns out. We briefly get to know the internet personas of some of the men she meets. A couple of posts are shown on the screen for us in big, colourful letters, but that's hardly enough characterisation. When she meets their real-life counterparts, we have no idea what her expectations were, and never get to share her disappointment.
She tells her first catch, Julien (Laurent Lacotte) a ridiculous romantic who constantly quotes his favourite love poems as he courts her, that she liked him as a user, but doesn't like him as a man. We wonder why, since of all her disappointing dates he seemed to misrepresent himself the least on the internet. Her expectations for Julien are a nonsensical mystery, and unfortunately, these are the only expectations of hers that Sebbagh ever informs us of, and contrasting Julien's two barely different personas is hardly an interesting exercise.
We come to the rest of these wacky, disturbing, disjointed encounters with only our own expectations: that the guy will be either an insufferable moron or a volatile creep that Emilie will never want to see again. Nothing is learnt from one meeting to the next. No interesting connections are drawn or comparisons made. Apart from a few unexpected developments with the first couple of guys, nothing much changes except the scenery and the unusual fetish (monkeys, lego, Hugh Grant, dancing or whatever else it happens to be) with each scene. If another cut of this film was released with the middle 50% of scenes in a different order, it's unlikely anyone would notice.
Towards the end of the film, two characters start to show their importance by appearing in more than one scene: a flabby, lonely middle- aged jogger who confides in Emilie quite literally running himself to death in order to get in shape and win back his wife, and another middle-aged man, Amir (Moussa Maaskri) a charming Afghan fisherman who wants to take her on his boat one day. No prizes for guessing who becomes her loyal friend, and who becomes her true blue boyfriend through some not-so-subtle symbolism some the recycled elements of Hollywood rom-coms.
However, the 70 minute running time shows Sebbagh is at least conscious of the banality of her message that Emilie should stop trying to hook up with boys that she's only fleetingly met on the internet and instead hook up with Amir, who she's fleetingly met in real life and the cinematically unimaginative way in which she's chosen to tell it. Films are rarely so short these days, but this one would truly have been painful if it was much longer. In a way I'm grateful for that sensible decision, but it also shows that she's admitted defeat, and confirms her low ambitions. If this were a Disney sequel, it would be a despised direct-to-video release, but since it's a fluffy French comedy, albeit with very drab cinematography, it gets a theatrical release and a sizeable adult audience.
For some, though, the line-up of amusing but rather similar grotesque caricatures and the charms of Cattani might be enough to sustain interest without any creative direction, narrative cohesion or thematic insight, but even with the strikingly short running time, I was sadly checking my watch pretty frequently during this mine through a mound of drab clichés for a few good laughs.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"I thought they were going to visit lots of different countries and
there would be some interesting stories and stuff, but it was just
depressing as hell!"
I heard this irritating comment come from behind me as soon as the end credits started to roll, and now realise that, ironically, the girl who was speaking expressed the same sentiment that the two lovable main characters of Mobile Home felt at the beginning of the film. Exotic locations, colourful cameos and a heart-warming coming-of-age message is what one expects from the sort of comedic road movie that this film was described as being in the brochure of the Melbourne French Film Festival. As our two twenty-something male heroes Simon (Arthur Dupont) and Julien (Guillaume Gouix) buy a caravan and set off for a trip of self-discovery around Europe, they are expecting a fun gap year, and as the girl sitting behind first down in the theatre, she was expecting Around the World in 80 Days or Red Dog. The realities of such a grand, optimistic, complicated escapade hit them both very hard indeed, and while the on screen youths learn their lesson within the tight 95-minute running time, that precocious real-life audience member might take a little longer to wrap her head around such the challenging truth of the difficulties of an independent, fast-moving holiday.
However, this is certainly one of the more enjoyable ways of depicting this reality. Julien and Simon are a wonderfully enigmatic, lively, sympathetic pair of buddies played so brilliantly by the two very fine young actors. Simon is tired of being babied by his typically fawning mother (Claudine Pelletier) and has no interest in being the 1950s family man that his father (Jackie Berroyer) wants him to be, and so sneakily spends the money he gave him to buy a house on a roomy caravan that he urgently wants to share with his friend. Julien, however, seems very content living near his loving father (a very endearing Jean-Paul Bonnaire) who he has had to look after over the past few years as he's suffered a very taxing illness. Julien assures himself that his dear old Pa has indeed recovered and no longer needs such close attention, but the doctor's constant habit of qualifying all of his positive prognoses with diplomatic phrases "most likely" and "if all goes well" makes it difficult for him to let rest his concerns. On top of this, he has grown too attached to his father as his beloved charge to suddenly leave him, much like Simon's mother can barely keep from hemming her son's pants every time she sees him, let alone watch him drive off to another country.
When a hilarious setback leaves them stranded just a few kilometres from their parents' houses and forces them to take a hard, labour-intensive job in the countryside to fund what they pathetically insist on calling "the rest" of their trip, Julien, and even Simon, are quietly relieved to still be so close to their loving protection of the people who raised them.
Cinematic newcomer François Pirot's intelligently entertaining exploration of the relationships these two men share with each other is an exceptional example of austere yet quirky French minimalist realism. The scenes between Julien and his father are beautifully done as well, as is his relationship with the lovely receptionist, Valérie (Catherine Salée) at his new workplace, which sharply veers away from the potential lusty affair to being something of more substance as soon as she reveals that she has a little son. However, the two other young women who pass through these men's lives are much less interesting. Simon shares a painfully banal scene breakup scene with his girlfriend early on that threatens to form the focus of the rest of the film, but fortunately only results in one other exchange of recycled soap opera dialogue, and even leads to another moment that gives us a new insight into the character. The boys also get stuck with an overplayed insufferable teenage girl who is too much of an emotional wreck to be rejected quickly and painlessly, but thankfully, when she's gone, she's gone for good.
It's ultimately our two main characters and Pirot's insightful study of early adulthood that one remembers from this little French gem.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's always a pleasure to see foreign films that show countries
adapting their own classic stories with all the drama and spectacle
that you could get from a Hollywood adaptation, but with much more
style and finesse. L'homme qui rit might not be as lovingly celebrated
and widely known as some of Victor Hugo's other works but its influence
on fantastical, expressionistic fiction is certainly credible. The
stark image of the titular man with thick scars on his cheeks that
extend his lips into a permanent devilish smile will be very familiar
to all fans of popular culture as the inspiration for the Joker, the
most cinematically inspiring villain of the DC Batman comics. The Man
Who Laughs also undeniably ranks up there with The Elephant Man and The
Phantom of the Opera as one of the most poignant depictions of a shy,
displaced circus freak who attracts the morbid curiosity of many, the
scorn of even more, and the love of a select few.
Although, there seem to be many more who love the quirky novelty of sweet young Gwynplaine (charming Canadian actor Marc-André Grondin), the star of a small travelling theatre who instantly wins over audiences with his unchanging clownish grin, than those who shun him as a monstrous disgrace. At least in this adaptation, our hero sharply polarises the population and highlights the class distinction between grubby, hearty paupers and pampered, grotesque aristocrats.
Gwynplaine has spent most of his life in humbly cheerful poverty with the kindly Ursus (who else but Gérard Depardieu, who predictably receives top billing) who found and fathered Gwynplaine and his other loving companion, the gentle Déa (a beautiful Christa Theret) when they both came to him as orphans left to freeze to death in the snow. He is introduced to the shallow, cutthroat world of aristocracy when the glamorously selfish Duchess Josiane (a deliciously cruel and heavily made-up Emmanuelle Seigner) pays a visit to the Parisian slums to see the famous Laughing Man. Of course he finds her cold and superficial, but also irresistibly opulent, and starts an unsavoury fraternisation with her that he believes is invisible to the sightless Déa, his beloved surrogate sister but also his adoring romantic soul mate, but she can instantly tell. His encounters with Josiane lead to the deliberately delayed revelation that he is the rightful heir to a high royal position of great power and fortune. He hopes to use his seat in parliament to the benefit of his poorer friends, but Déa and Ursus soon make him see what a sadistic snake pit the monarchy is, and coax him away from his sycophantic retainers and conniving royalist butler Barkilphedro (Serge Merlin, the glass man from Amelie) which he leaves with a poetic, theatrical, flourishing revolutionary speech that's no subtler than the sentimental moralising that comes from Déa and Ursus.
The films messages may not be terribly original in their conception or verbal delivery, but they are conveyed exceptionally through the sumptuous visual design from supervising art director Vincent Dizien, and the pleasingly heightened editing by Philippe Bourgueil and cinematography by Gérard Simon, who also worked with director Jean- Pierre Améris on last year's rousing crowd pleaser Romantics Anonymous. This film is also sure to be a delight, not least with its gorgeous fairy-tale palette in the travelling circus scenes and the dazzlingly colourful, ghostly, expressionistic world of the palace fattened, wrinkly monarchists who each want to get a piece of Gwynplaine's inheritance, but not of his eye-offending face although they are ironically much more cartoonish and laughable in appearance than the laughing man himself.
The film's thematic simplicity is certainly never an issue, as its visual complexity more than makes up for it, and the characters are all perfectly cast and solidly built for driving this intensely moving and inspiring story. Merlin, Seigner and Theret are particularly good matches for their archetypal characters, with Seigner pleasingly demonstrating the value of casting an actress with a strong, commanding presence as a femme fatale instead of having a pretty, delicate naïf do an awkward reading of some very hefty lines. As much as some of us might be sick of seeing Depardieu turn up in every third or fourth French film we see, it's hard to imagine many more French actors capable of exuding such cynical but loving wisdom in such a well-grounded performance.
Our first sight of Grondin as our endearing young hero conjures little more than disappointment that he is not Conrad Veidt. The thin red lines drawn across his face initially pale in comparison to the bright, broad grin given to the character in Paul Leni's 1928 silent adaptation. However, the more restrained makeup job applied here is an effective break from the film's otherwise wildly non-naturalistic design, and Grondin, while much less shy and innocent, brings his own likable adolescent charm to the role that makes the character no less sympathetic.
On the other hand, Hardquanonne (Arben Bajraktaraj), the sinister architect of Gwynplaine's cruel disfigurement, is characterised entirely by the gloomy art direction, some generic villainous dialogue, and some recycled shots of him as a hooded figure brooding menacingly in the background as he did in Taken (2008) and the fifth and seventh Harry Potter films. His big final meeting with Gwynplaine as the young man he has become since he was abandoned at the docks as Hardquanonne was fleeing from prosecution is a mere rushed anti-climax done away with in the first half of the film, perhaps as Améris, in penning the adaptation, suddenly realised what a small role the character is given in the overall conflict.
The absurdly accelerated depiction of Hardquanonne's departure, and Gwynplaine's fateful encounter with Déa and Ursus in the snow, is one of the few real faults of this gloriously dramatic and stylised adaptation of a piece of literature that France should really be more proud to call their own.
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