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White Lies (2013)
Not the best NZ film, but an important one.
I was fortunate enough over the weekend to attend a screening of NZ feature White Lies followed by a revealing Q+A session with writer/director Dana Rotberg, star Antonia Prebble, composer John Psathas and novelist Witi Ihimaera. It might seem odd for a film about NZ colonial identity to be made by a Mexican filmmaker, but surprisingly the story benefits greatly by coming from an outside perspective.
Adapted from Witi Ihimaera's novella Medicine Woman, White Lies doesn't have a particularly well told story at its core, but is nonetheless an important film for NZ to have produced. Set during the early days of settlement, the film depicts a sinuous power struggle between colonial housewife Rebecca (Prebble), her housemaid Maraea (Rachel House), and Paraiti (Whirimako Black), the Maori medicine woman whose particular skills and discretion are sought.
The shifting dominance of each of these women, representing different aspects of female identity at the time, weaves a compelling and bleak narrative, but some of the story beats that should have had greater impact unfortunately fall a little flat. Elements that needed more room to breathe play out much too quickly, not allowing audiences time to digest, although the film's closing scenes are powerful. White Lies deals with uncomfortable subject matter, and Rotberg doesn't shy away from the story's most tragic aspects.
Thankfully, White Lies looks better than any NZ film for some time. The cinematography by NZ legend Alun Bollinger gives the rugged setting of the film a beautifully oppressive quality reminiscent of his work on Vincent Ward's Vigil, and has moments of rare, haunting beauty.
It's a shame that most viewers will be unable to hear Rotberg speak about her approach to the film. The director's keen understanding of the tragedy of colonialism in her homeland brings significance to White Lies that a Kiwi director may have been guarded about addressing, and hearing her thoughts on NZ colonialism and our nervous attitude about exposing our own violent past was incredibly refreshing. Her desire to treat the subject with integrity while never sugarcoating it comes across with wonderful passion, and while she remained respectful of the source material, she makes no excuses for altering Ihimaera's work to suit her own vision. Despite the film's faults, White Lies takes more risks and offers deeper perspective than most NZ films of late.
Lands with a thud.
Any movie concerning the manipulation of a character's mind is going to present an unreliable narrative. Inevitably the rug is going to be pulled from said character, usually upending the audience as well.
Danny Boyle's latest Trance is but one more film that tries to bait and switch us, but unfortunately the only effective twist in this tale is the rapid deterioration of an illogical but often gripping thriller into a sloppy and occasionally puerile mess, with a third act that lands with such a thud that any goodwill earned early on seems to be a hazy memory of a different film.
Trance tells the story of Simon (James McAvoy), an apparently naive auctioneer caught in the middle of a high stakes art heist who loses his memory after a crack on the head from the heel of a shotgun wielded by thief Franck (Vincent Cassel). Enter Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), the hypnotherapist hired by Franck to break through Simon's amnesia to reveal the location of a £25 million painting that vanished in the robbery.
The logic of the film is murky from the get go, but Boyle fires Trance out of the gate with such furious pace that allows little time to stop and pick apart the pseudo-scientific aspects of hypnotism as depicted here. Typically of the director, they style seems to take precedence over the substance, and a terrific soundtrack (all the better if you're fortunate enough to see the film in a Dolby Atmos theatre) contributes to the slickness of it all.
Truth be told, there's a lot in Trance that is pretty enjoyable. The cool neo-noir vibe works well despite the obvious cracks in the surface of the script.
Until, that is, the cracks become a gaping crevasse, torn open by the baffling decisions to hang a fairly significant story point on a frankly idiotic idea, and grind the relentless charge toward the climax to a halt with turgid exposition that makes little sense in the context of the story. It's simply bad writing, and the film has no time to recover, left instead with an ending that has zero real impact beyond the crushing confusion of it all.
Trance had the potential to see Danny Boyle to get back on track after a couple of minor works (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) that generated a lot of awards buzz but little enduring quality. It's disappointing to see a filmmaker with such a unique and varied catalogue of work hit a rough patch like this, but if you're waiting for a work that shakes Boyle from his slump, Trance just isn't it.
Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
I wish it was all a dream
A piece of advice for anyone thinking about seeing Oz: The Great and Powerful: the further you can get from the majestic 1939 masterpiece The Wizard of Oz, the more chance you stand of having a good time with the prequel.
For those of us that feel a strong connection to the original film, Disney's first big release of the year is a trite, overloaded bog of cloying CG, nauseating characters, and a needlessly dark tone that betrays of the innocence of a world so many of us grew up with.
It's nothing new to observe that many of the big summer pictures of the last decade or so have leaned towards a darker tone, and it's also not necessarily a bad thing. What I'm going to suggest is that the technique doesn't necessarily have to be employed in every case, and certainly not for something like this.
I simply want to ask why we are forced to endure the suggested genocide of a race of people (the porcelain villagers of China Town), or the corseted, sexed-up Wicked Witch of the West (Mila Kunis) threatening that the Yellow Brick Road, a symbol only associated with goodness and joy, will run red with the blood of Oz's fair citizens.
Because it's 2013, and people demand darkness in their beloved children's tales? Where is it written that simplicity and purity can't be part of a successful film anymore?
Why does the arrival of Oz (a leering and feckless James Franco) himself have to be tied up to some tacked on prophecy? It's a completely unnecessary plot point that adds nothing to the character or the film. Due to the cultural footprint of the original, even people who may not have seen it in a long time, or ever, are probably familiar enough with the story that we know how this film is going to play out.
There was no prophecy about Dorothy's trip to Oz to defeat the Witch, each of the supporting characters had their motivation set up in little more than a sentence or two, and it's hard to deny that story turned out pretty well. The simplicity of the story is what worked.
Why, why, does Oz: The Great and Powerful need not one, but two ridiculous sassy sidekick characters? A neurotic flying monkey played by Zach Braff doing his best Woody Allen impression is cute enough until certain shots reveal some ghastly, flat CG work on his face. And the sooner we can free ourselves of Tony Cox's wise-cracking dwarf schtick the better. It's a character that we've seen over and over again, and am I crazy or is having a character exist for no reason other than so people can laugh at someone different from themselves more than a little offensive?
The tornado that serves as the catalyst for this atrocious movie's plot just may have been whipped up by L. Frank Baum and Victor Fleming furiously rolling in their graves. Oz: The Great and Powerful is gaudy, tonally inconsistent, over-written nonsense that does its best to tarnish the legacy of one of the all-time classics, a film that will make you wish you could click your heels together and transport yourself out of the cinema, realising it was only a horrible dream.
Django Unchained (2012)
Familiar but surprising
I don't know how he keeps doing it, but Quentin Tarantino always surprises me with his restraint.
This might seem like an odd thing to say about the man who gave us the blood-soaked extremes of Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds and, well, any of his other films, but for whatever reason I always expect his films to completely slip the leash and run wild. Django Unchained maintains the madness of the director's earlier films, but more so than ever before, it feels like he has kept his most extreme instincts relatively in check.
Django Unchained begins with a fairly simple A-to-B narrative. Pre-Civil War era slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is acquired (in a classic Tarantino opening scene, rivaling Inglourious Basterds) by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter on the search for three wanted brothers. However, it soon becomes apparent that this hunt encompasses only the film's opening third, and a much more sprawling story unfolds over the course of the close to three hour running time. For assisting Schultz, Django earns his freedom and the pair enter into a vengeful partnership in pursuit of Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), a slave sold to the sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Perhaps more than any of Tarantino's previous films, it feels like he is really trying to say something with Django Unchained. As great as a film like Pulp Fiction is, it really works on cool factor alone, and couldn't exactly be praised for its depth. Here however, Tarantino seems to know precisely when to dial back the cool to comment on the nature of human violence. While full of outrageous gunfights packed to the brim with geysers of gore, the film features an alarming amount of up close, almost intimate brutality that is very upsetting.
Which feels to me like precisely the point. The savagery inflicted upon slaves by their white masters is shoved right in the audiences face, and is much more difficult to endure than the exaggerated violence of the guns, which draw more laughs than anything else. Tarantino has never shied away from violence in his work, but the very clear binary nature of the bloodshed in Django Unchained feels very carefully thought out, and really opens the film up for deeper analysis than anything he has done before.
That said, Django Unchained doesn't completely escape Tarantino's self-indulgent streak. The sheer length of the film will certainly cause some viewers to question the necessity of much of the final 30 minutes, particularly the baffling sequence in which the director makes his obligatory cameo appearance. Also, the most egregious use of a certain n-word since Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles is going to raise eyebrows with conservative audiences, opening the debate of whether Tarantino is simply courting controversy in the hopes of drawing a crowd.
Aside from perhaps the director himself, the acting is top-notch across the board, with Foxx and Waltz sharing great chemistry, and DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson (as house slave Stephen) both hilarious and frightening in equal measure. Django Unchained navigates a razor-thin space between raucously entertaining and unapologetically confronting, yet rarely veers too far either side to become either exploitative or preachy. It's a familiar but somehow surprising effort from Tarantino, and while it may not rank amongst his most well-crafted films, Django Unchained stands out as a bold and completely assured work from a modern auteur doing exactly what he wants to do.
The Master (2012)
Must be seen
After taking forever to reach us down here in New Zealand, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master finally has a limited release this week. I'm not quite sure how I felt about it, so this isn't a review so much as just a few thoughts I had about the film.
Despite the lack of a best picture Oscar nomination, The Master is possibly the most highly regarded film of 2012. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most gifted directors around; his previous film There Will Be Blood is right amongst the best films of the last 10 years, and features one of history's great lead performances from Daniel Day Lewis.
Expectations were obviously pretty high going into this movie.
In a lot of ways, The Master doesn't disappoint. It is impeccably crafted from the very first frame. In my view, Anderson's greatest strength is his skill at telling a story through character rather than traditional narrative, and the characters of The Master are just so richly written, and played to near perfection. If Joaquin Phoenix's work feels a little big for most of the movie, it comes together brilliantly in the closing scenes, a complete performance. Even better is Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman as the charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd, and as good as he always is, this is a role he will be remembered for. Holding her own against such imposing leading men is Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd, a fascinating character I would have liked to have seen much more of, and, in typical Anderson fashion, an array of excellent supporting players including Jesse Plemons and Laura Dern enrich the world of the film.
Anderson's films are always tough nuts to crack, aren't exactly the easiest things to enjoy, and with the exception of Punch Drunk Love perhaps, exist in some pretty murky territory. This might be the reason why, despite all of its strengths, truthfully The Master left me cold. It's like gazing upon a huge feat of engineering. You can admire the construction of a 100-level skyscraper, wonder at the level of skill in its creation, but you can't really connect emotionally with it. It may be impressive, but is absolutely unfeeling. That's The Master for me. It is a film that feels like it is defying you to enjoy it, as if Anderson is intentionally keeping you at arm's length, and I was never able to connect with it beyond an admiration of the craftsmanship.
That said, it is without question a film that demands to be seen, and seen, and seen again. I'm sure there are untold nooks and crannies to be explored upon closer analysis, and it's likely that I will grow to appreciate it even more. For now though, I'm mostly at a loss regarding The Master, and that might be the best thing about it. Few filmmakers have the talent to provoke such an unusual reaction in me, and it's a feeling I choose to savour and enjoy, rather than be frustrated by.
Les Misérables (2012)
For those of us who are huge fans of film musicals, there is a tragic lack of quality in modern cinema. Sure, occasionally a gem will come along, shaking up the rigid classical structure and offering something exciting, but for every Once there seems to be a handful of Chicagos, Nines and Sweeney Todds. It's tough out there for the song-and-dance enthusiasts.
With Les Misérables (an adaptation of the stage musical, itself an adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel), director Tom Hooper had a better shot at making something great than anyone has for some time. All the pieces were in place: solid source material, a director fresh from awards glory, and a well selected cast of performers. So, after chewing it over for several days, why is it that I'm beginning to think this might be a terrible film?
What works in Les Misérables works very well indeed. First of all, the story itself is top-notch; a bleak melodrama of the French Revolution with an emotional core that still resonates and feels relevant 150 years after its debut.
The cast are for the most part excellent, committing themselves admirably to the challenge of delivering essentially all dialogue through song. Hugh Jackman oozes the nobility required for Jean Valjean, displaying a stunning voice and holding together a performance that could quickly become camp in the wrong hands. Equally good is Eddie Redmayne, playing Marius' strength and bravery with a well-observed hint of naïveté.
The real acting drawcard however is Anne Hathaway's sadly brief role, for which she will surely get much attention at awards time. Her performance of 'I Dreamed a Dream,' one of Les Misérables' most iconic songs, is quite honestly one of the most powerful pieces of acting I can remember, and is so raw and heart-wrenching that you will be left gasping. Not quite as strong is Russell Crowe, deserving of some credit for putting himself out there, but whose voice just isn't strong enough to really convey the menace of the villainous Javert.
Unfortunately almost everything else about the film is really handled quite badly. Much like The King's Speech (Hooper's previous film), Les Misérables is a victim of over-stylisation and awkward cinematography that is at times inexplicably jarring and, for lack of a better word, ugly. With all of the elaborate set design Hooper is apparently so excited about, for the vast majority of the film he insists on using very tight close-ups, making the sets and backgrounds redundant. It doesn't help matters that, on the rare occasions when his camera does retreat enough to show a little more, the over-use of blue screen backdrops gives a ghastly, manufactured look, too flat to be anything close to believable.
Whatever Hooper's reasoning behind the choices he makes with Les Misérables is obviously not for us to know. Adapting a stage musical such as this, I can understand the temptation to capture close-ups, offering an intimacy not possible in a live theatre, and it's precisely for this reason that the inevitable hero moments each principal character has (like Hathaway's aforementioned solo) are far and away the best moments in the film.
But surely a huge reason to do this at all would be to free oneself from the restraints of live theatre and indulge the epic nature of Hugo's original vision? Hooper, far too beholden to the play, instead chooses to merely recreate what could be easily put on stage, not taking advantage of the scope cinema can offer. The result is a well-acted but visually turgid mess, which only seems more misguided the further I get from it.
Life of Pi (2012)
Ang Lee continues to surprise
I think it might be time to put to bed the idea of an 'unfilmable novel'. Particularly in recent cinema history, as Hollywood has increasingly relied on existing material for its output, so-called unfilmable books have yielded movies of varying quality. It's true that some (such as 2012's two-part adaptation of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, by all accounts a catastrophic failure) only bolster arguments favouring the concept, but let us not forget that Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was long considered unfilmable before Francis Ford Coppola gave us Apocalypse Now, not to mention the certainly difficult but successful job Peter Jackson did with JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Which brings us to Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel's introspective 2002 Man Booker Prize winning novel. A challenging story to bring to the screen to be sure, but under the expert hand of Ang Lee the film is yet one more example of how difficult material can be adapted given the right amount of time and care.
Life of Pi is at its core a tale of survival against insurmountable odds, following the titular teenager's (Suraj Sharma) months spent adrift on a lifeboat after the sinking of a cargo ship transporting his family from India to Canada. A dwindling menagerie of animals from the family zoo are also along for the ride, including the fearsome Bengal tiger Richard Parker, representing those who managed to escape the ship and cling to Pi's tiny craft.
Perhaps the difficulty of adapting the novel lay in keeping audience interest during long sequences involving little more than a boy and a tiger, and it's likely the film would have dragged were it not for the astonishing visual spectacle Lee brings to the screen. He takes full advantage of all technical wizardry available, balancing the ocean's serene beauty and unapologetic violence in just the right measure. Even the 3-D, something I personally am usually resistant to, never intrudes or calls attention to itself, but rather complements the oppressively flat horizon so much of the film plays out in front of. Life of Pi will undoubtedly be in the best visual effects conversation come awards season, with Richard Parker in particular standing out as one of the most impressive digital characters yet created.
Exploring Life of Pi a little deeper, Lee develops strong thematic currents relating to storytelling and faith, and how the two are entwined. As a story about storytelling, the film works very well from the beginning, as the older Pi (played wonderfully by Irrfan Khan) relates his tale to a visiting writer (Rafe Spall). Yet it is also a story about faith, and here the waters get a little murkier. What Lee is trying to say about faith and religion is open to interpretation (and that's likely the point), but the film's one major shortcoming is a lack of satisfying answers regarding what is the most clearly defined aspect of Pi himself.
The narrative seems to promote the importance of faith as a general concept, not tied to any specific religion, but more akin to a sharing of humanistic beliefs. It's not the specifics of faith's origins or even ultimate goals that matter, but rather how the beliefs are shared, adapted and passed on. Not the most conclusive analysis I know, but the links between faith and storytelling are there, and perhaps repeat viewings will offer up more answers.
Despite the elusive nature of some of Life of Pi's subtext, it really is a film that deserves praise and attention. Never one to pigeonhole himself, Lee has crafted a thoughtful and moving fantasy that is beautiful to behold yet also offers much intellectual nourishment.
An unexpected disappointment
"All great stories deserve a little embellishment." So says Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) in the most telling line in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson's return to the world of JRR Tolkien. It's a line that clearly outlines Jackson and his co-writers' intentions, yet it comes off as a veiled apology, as if the film-making team knew that what they have created is going to be problematic for die-hard Middle Earth fans. Sadly, Jackson's new film doesn't come close to silencing the skeptics like his Lord of the Rings films did, and is actually more ill-conceived than expected.
Things that do work well for the most part in The Hobbit are sequences that come directly from the source novel. Iconic scenes, such as the arrival of the dwarfs at Bag End or the encounter with the trolls are handled pretty well, despite being padded out to unnecessary lengths with lame gags and pointless alteration of the original events in the book. Juggling such a massive primary cast is obviously a challenge, and as such the film's best moments involve only one or two characters, with Bilbo's (Martin Freeman) meeting of Gollum (Andy Serkis) and the finding of the ring being a particular stand-out sequence, the only one that seemed like it could have used more time.
However, all of the good work that Jackson & Co do with the direct source material is swamped by the content they felt they had to develop themselves. The great achievement of the LOTR films is how they managed to distill the huge source novels to their most important story beats, only hinting at most of the wider story in a way that brought incredible richness to the world in which they take place. With The Hobbit though, Jackson only has a 300 page novel to start with, and the decision to make three lengthy films, I assume to parallel the first trilogy, is precisely why this first film doesn't work.
The Hobbit should be allowed to stand alone as its own film, but it is structured in such a way, almost identically to the first LOTR entry The Fellowship of the Ring, that it's all but impossible not to compare them. As a side-effect, the much lighter tone will be jarring for a lot of established franchise fans, the very people the film seems to be primarily aimed at. The chase sequence in the goblin tunnels for example is little more than an updated version of the Moria scenes from LOTR. It's exciting enough, but much of the action feels in service of the film- making technology on display rather than the story, and as such none of the stakes of the earlier films are built here.
Where the LOTR films had to keep moving at such a pace to fit everything in, The Hobbit dwells on unnecessary moments which had only the briefest of mentions in the novel to reach its 2 hour 49 minute runtime. Most damaging are the call backs linking the previous trilogy, setting up what is likely to be an almost completely new story bridge between the two trilogies in the third film due in 2014. There is absolutely no reason for Frodo (Elijah Wood), Saruman (Christopher Lee), and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) to appear in this story, yet here they are, taking us away from a perfectly good narrative about a quest to fight a dragon. It reeks of cynical franchise care, and arguably disrespectful to the carefully crafted world that Tolkien created.
There's a good movie somewhere in The Hobbit, and had Jackson shown more restraint we might have seen it. The film could easily lose at least 45 minutes, but it feels as if director feels so beholden to his previous work that he needs to deliver an epic on the scale of LOTR. But that's not what this book is, and we're left with an uneasy balance - the lighter tone to distinguish this as a separate story but a strict adherence to the LOTR structure - but ultimately doesn't fulfill either side.
It's with a hint of sadness that the Twilight franchise has come to an end. Sure, they're terrible, terrible films (and books I assume), the popularity of which paints a sorry picture of the tastes of today's youth, but now that all is said and done, on reflection it was worth enduring the first three insufferable disasters (Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse) to get to the unbridled mayhem of Breaking Dawn (my thoughts on part one can be found here).
After seeing part one, it was difficult to see where the story had left to go. We had seen the unending wedding of Edward and Bella, the banal South American honeymoon, the shocking and genuinely upsetting pregnancy/birth, and the werewolf falling in love with the baby. It seemed like an appropriate place to end it, but Summit and Stephenie Meyer obviously had other ideas, hence we have Breaking Dawn, part 2.
While perhaps not as off-the-leash nutty, Breaking Dawn, part 2 maintains a lot of the weirdness of the preceding chapter. Picking up exactly at the point where part one ended, Bella (Kristen Stewart) finds herself having to adjust to her 'newborn' vampire status, learning to control her superhuman strength and fighting the urge to hunt humans. Edward (Robert Pattinson) begins to assume a mentor role, but for whatever reason Bella learns so quickly that the learning plot is pretty much dropped.
Here's the first and biggest of the many problems of Breaking Dawn, part 2. For at least the first two thirds of the film, plot threads and characters are introduced with enough fanfare to make one think they're going to be important cogs in the larger machinery of the story, only to be forgotten or abandoned with zero explanation. Perhaps it's fan service, and people familiar with the novels will be able to link things up, but for newcomers it becomes increasingly hard to keep track of who everyone is, why they're involved, and what on earth is happening from one scene to the next.
The character of Alistair (Joe Anderson) is a good example. Following the development that the Volturi, the ruling council of vampires last seen in New Moon, are coming after Edward and Bella's daughter Renesmee, the Cullen clan assemble a team of vampires from across the globe to defend the child, the last of which is the enigmatic Alistair. Yet after an introduction to suggest he will be a character of some importance he merely ends up lurking in the background, and popping into one random and pointless scene with Bella. He's always there, but doesn't actually do anything significant.
It's this scattered and overloaded approach that really damages an already abysmal film. On top of the lack of charisma in the stars, the questionable storytelling is a real hindrance for anyone set on enjoying Breaking Dawn, part 2 at all, not to mention how simply ugly the thing is. There's an over-reliance on terrible green-screen work, shoddy visual effects, and whatever lunatic decided that an almost completely CG Renesmee was a good idea needs to be removed from the business of movie making.
However, much like the last film, a part of me loved Breaking Dawn, part 2. As I said, it may not seem as insane as part one, but in some ways that's a good thing. I loved part one because I was caught completely off guard by the madness, but was appalled by it because much of the content really shouldn't be part of a film made for pre-teen girls. Part two dials back the more troubling aspects of the previous film and just revels in the stupidity of Meyer's writing. It's weird as hell, but really pretty harmless, aside from all the decapitation. Oh boy, there's a lot of decapitation.
Director Bill Condon and his cast seem to be having a lot more fun here. The most ridiculous thing about the first three films in the series is how unwaveringly serious they are, but with both parts of Breaking Dawn, it feels like Condon and Pattinson in particular are winking at that portion of the audience who, like myself, are simply there to see how off the reservation this daft franchise can go. It manages to achieve a delicate and kind of wonderful balance of satisfying the true fans (the Twi-hards) with its creepy romantic melodrama, while clearly acknowledging the bizarre and quite frankly awful story Meyer has crafted. The awareness of this final chapter is perhaps its greatest asset, and if you're willing to abandon all logic and actual critical appreciation, then Breaking Dawn, part 2 delivers a great time at the cinema.
Robot & Frank (2012)
Funny and sad in equal measure
It seems like once a year or so an Alzheimer's movie comes along and knocks me for a loop. I don't know what it is; I've never had any personal, real-life experience with the condition or its unfortunate sufferers, but there's ripe material for crafting warm and moving stories which invariably end with me in tears. In the last few years I have been devastated by films such as Away From Her and Barney's Version, and while Robot and Frank is certainly comparable, it's a lighter, less harrowing take on a tragic side of aging, and ultimately results in a much more enjoyable experience.
Frank Langella plays Frank, a divorced senior living a life of solitude in rural New York. Between visits and video calls from his children (James Marsden and Liv Tyler) concerned about his seemingly deteriorating mental state, Frank fills his time with visits to the local library to flirt with librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), and by shoplifting decorative soaps from the store occupying the former site of his favourite restaurant. He is a man of the past, and his little moments of defiance in the face of change establish his character early, so when Hunter (Marsden) arrives with a new robot caregiver, Frank is understandably offended.
As much as Frank's memory regarding the day to day seems to be fading, his former 'profession' as a cat burglar remains at the front of his mind, and the robot's insistence on finding a project to keep him mentally engaged opens a window of opportunity for Frank to focus his mind and retreat back to the glory days of his youth. The planning and execution of heists sees a charming relationship forming between Frank and his robot companion, complemented by a sweet potential romance and stark moments of sadness.
There's a clever subtext running through Robot and Frank as well, commenting on the loss of personality in the digital age, and the disposable nature of modern life. The more we come to rely on technology for everything, from our reading material to our aged care, the less we ourselves are practically capable of, giving rise to a generation of privileged, ironic, but purposeless people ('yuppies' as Frank calls them). What Robot and Frank highlights is not just the fragility, but also the value of a mind filled with life experience and skills. There's no substitute for the complex intelligence of our brains, and even the most sophisticated technology has more to learn from us.
Robot and Frank feels like a film aimed at an older generation, but there is so much to enjoy for anyone who might be occasionally frustrated by our cynical modern world. There's a great balance of laughs, romance and sadness with a fun sci-fi twist, right down to the subtle Star Wars reference.
One of the year's best
Could anyone have predicted ten years ago the path that Ben Affleck has taken? To go from being the butt of countless 'Bennifer' jokes, prancing around Hollywood in terrycloth jumpsuits, to being one of the most interesting, well-composed film-makers working today? Audiences love a comeback story, and that's precisely what Affleck has given us, with three excellent films under his belt, the best of which, Argo, is a genuine front-runner for best film of 2012.
It's possible that Ben Affleck's skill as a director and (as his fantastic work in Argo can attest) actor, owes a great deal to his time right in the centre of the public eye. Rebuilding his credibility as an artist to be taken seriously must have been no mean feat, given the ridiculous level of tabloid exposure he had, but by turning his attention to slow-burn thoughtful fare such as Argo he has all but removed himself from public life and simply lets the quality of the work speak for itself.
Argo is a fascinating story, so absurd that it can only be true. Concerning a covert mission to rescue six American citizens in hiding during the Iranian hostage crisis of the early 1980s, it's deeply serious material, but with an almost farcical edge. And while Affleck certainly takes many opportunities to inject humour into the film, the stakes are so high that when the extraction actually begins, the level of suspense stretches the limits of endurance.
Bizarrely, the film makes an interesting counterpoint to last year's suspense highlight Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Where that film relied on outlandish stunts and huge suspension of disbelief to perch us on the edge of our seats however,Affleck's languid pacing works perfectly for Argo. Creative license is assumed, but the realism permeates every frame. M:I's Ethan Hunt is for all intents and purposes a superhero, whereas Tony Mendez (Affleck) is simply a man, albeit an expert as his specific vocation. He appears to take everything in stride, right down to his troubled home life, and Affleck's enigmatic performance is easy to overlook, but absolutely grounds the film.
It's character work that gives nothing away yet says so much, and if he appears to take everything in stride, it's simply because he must. This is a man who prepares for the worst so he won't be caught unawares when it happens, and as such he seems a little distant, aloof as to whether the mission succeeds. Yet small moments give him away, betraying his intense investment in what he does. It's not flashy, but it's a very well pitched performance.
As good as Affleck is in his dual role as star and director, this is by no means a one man show. Alongside a mightily impressive cast including Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin and John Goodman, the film is beautifully shot with wonderful period detail, and Alexandre Desplat's clever, lively score adds the exciting spy film atmosphere that is absent from the script.
Argo is a triumph, an old-fashioned example of how to make tense, exciting adult drama, and it's not unreasonable to assume that Affleck's film will be a key player on the coming award circuit, and deservedly so.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Enjoyment not guaranteed
I can generally tell within the first five or ten minutes if I'm going to dislike a movie. Sure, sometimes things get off to a shaky start and salvage themselves as a story is allowed to develop, but unfortunately it's often the opposite, and something that starts well falters later on. Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed, a film with a more unpleasant opening than anything I've seen recently, tried valiantly to win me back but was sadly only around halfway successful.
The film stars Aubrey Plaza as Darius an interning magazine journalist sent with two colleagues to research a story about a bizarre and mysterious classified ad seeking a partner in a time travel mission. What follows is a fairly generic love story which is sweet enough, and the quirky time travel element provides a freshness lacking in many indie romances. Plaza is her usual moody self, yet is allowed to strip away some of her trademark cynicism as her character warms to Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the potentially damaged loner responsible for the classified ad, showing a tender side not seen from her before.
Their relationship is a cute coming together of two social misfits, and works pretty well despite some questionable plot holes and an ending that doesn't quite add up. However, this is only half of Safety Not Guaranteed, and Darius and Kenneth's story is hampered by a brief runtime (86 minutes), too much of which is spent on the secondary story concerning Darius' fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) and boss Jeff (Jake Johnson).
Any warmth Trevorrow generates in scenes of Darius and Kenneth is obliterated every time the film switches to the mean-spirited, creepy antics of Jeff, who is using the trip to rekindle a past romance with Liz (Jenica Bergere), dragging troubling ethnic stereotype Arnau along for the ride. Jeff is such a leering, off-putting character, uncomfortably dragging what could be a decent film down an irredeemable degree, and after the ham-fisted attempt at redemption following his encounter with Liz blows up in his face, he simply slips back into his obnoxious persona, giving gross macho advice to the meek Arnau.
The jarring juxtaposition of the two narrative threads results in a film that is tonally all over the place, sending contradictory messages and wrapping up with little satisfaction. There is a charming if slight romance in Safety Not Guaranteed, it's just a pity it is surrounded with such a distasteful garnish.
Killing Them Softly (2012)
Solid, but maybe forgettable
In the tradition of underworld crime dramas such as The Godfather, Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly is a tense and gripping tale of gangland politics, yet reaches for more with sharp allegory and moments of biting satirical jabs at the bureaucratic mishandling of the recent financial crisis.
Featuring an impressive ensemble of solid performances, Killing Them Softly weaves a complex narrative across various levels of an urban crime syndicate, from Richard Jenkins' shady middle- man, something of a liaison with the 'legitimate' world, to the bottom-feeding duo of Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, whose heist of an illegal poker room launches the plot.
Brad Pitt is pitched as the film's lead, and he delivers typically solid if unremarkable work as contract hit-man Jackie Cogan, yet truthfully he is just one piece of Dominik's larger puzzle. Killing Them Softly's scope is ambitious, and for the most part successful, particularly in the darkly hilarious interactions between Pitt and Jenkins scattered across the film. The frustrations of committee decision making are a big theme of the film, and surprisingly the infuriating situations Cogan is faced with seem almost like they've dropped out of a Mike Judge film.
However, as an unfortunate consequence of the multiple story threads, not everything works. James Gandolfini appears as a colleague of Cogan, and while his story is interesting, it has little impact on the wider plot and as such could have been trimmed or jettisoned altogether. On the opposite end of the spectrum, not enough time is devoted to Mendelsohn's stunning work as the grimy, burned-out junkie Russell. His arc is wrapped up a little too neatly, and without much explanation, yet Mendelsohn gives one of the stand-out performances of the year, and announces himself as an early Oscar season contender.
Killing Them Softly is certainly a good film, but I have an odd suspicion that in a months time I'm not really going to remember much about it, aside from Mendelsohn perhaps. There are some terrific moments, and Dominik has a good eye but seems a little hesitant to push himself too much. The infusion of political critique is smart if occasionally too obvious, and, much like last year's Drive, the unexpected flashes of violence are effective in their brutality. It may not have the legs to go down as a classic, but Killing Them Softly does have enough going for it to merit a recommendation.
Sitting here the day after viewing Rian Johnson's Looper, parts of it are still falling in to place. Standing out amongst this years crop of mostly underwhelming sequels and comic book adaptations, Looper thunders onto the screen, showing, much like Inception did two years ago, that there is a place in 2012 for fresh material and just how good it can be when it's done right.
The film tells the story of Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a hit-man for an organised crime syndicate tasked with assassinating targets sent from the future. After being confronted with his future self (Bruce Willis) and failing to perform, Young Joe is forced to track down Old Joe and finish the job before being tracked down himself by the nefarious mob led by Abe (Jeff Daniels). However there is much more to the story than the basic premise, and Johnson isn't afraid to keep details close to his chest until later in the film than most movies of this type, so I won't spoil them here.
While certainly paying subtle homage to its predecessors, Looper is a stunningly original sci-fi masterpiece, vastly superior to any of the higher profile action releases this year. While certainly made on a much larger playing field than Johnson's previous work (Brick, The Brothers Bloom), there is still a small-scale, independent feel to the film, and it benefits from clearly staying completely under the control of the young director. Delivering excitement sprinkled with thoughtful themes of personal sacrifice, he offers us much to chew on.
Johnson understands that a successful action film doesn't need an explosion every ten minutes, and allows ample time for developing character and story, something which will likely divide audiences. Looper is very deliberately constructed, and after the highly charged opening establishing the intricate time-travel premise and direction of the plot, Johnson scales back the action almost too much as he ambitiously juggles the many and varied story elements he has created. Thankfully, any weakness in the middle of the film is largely overshadowed as Johnson launches the third act with such ferocity that the stark change of pace leaves you breathless.
Despite the problems in the middle of the film, Looper overcomes its flaws purely by being that rare beast in Hollywood nowadays, the totally original script. Not an adaptation, not a sequel or remake, but a fresh idea from the mind of an immensely talented young film-maker. In a perfect world, Looper would be the game changer it deserves to be, slapping Hollywood studios across the face and announcing that not everything has to be a PG-13 franchise based on a comic book. It's unlikely that this will the case, and it remains to be seen whether or not the film will even be a success, but it's encouraging to see that there are young auteurs at work who are fighting to craft new and exciting stories, even if we only get to see the results every year or two.
Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)
Not for newcomers
Until this point, for all intents and purposes I hadn't seen any of Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil films (I think I saw the first, but don't remember it at all. Were there scary dogs in it?). Entering into a franchise at the fifth installment is probably not the best strategy, but so it was that I found myself sitting down for Resident Evil: Retribution, not entirely sure what to expect. I played a few of the games as a teenager, but again, nothing has really stuck with me. So, how does the movie fare with (essentially) a newcomer such as myself?
Not well. Not well at all.
Thankfully (or so I thought), Anderson opens the film with a lengthy sequence bringing viewers up to speed with the story so far, and surprisingly it seems that the Resident Evil film series has all but evolved past being about zombies. There are a few sequences involving the undead in Retribution, but the real antagonist here is a malevolent artificial intelligence, the Red Queen, who controls the central computer system of the nefarious Umbrella Corporation.
Early on the film is actually pretty fun, and shows potential. Our heroine Alice (Milla Jovovich) finds herself in an Umbrella testing facility, where the Red Queen runs simulations to see how the company's biological weapons affect various cities around the globe. Jovovich, perhaps the only thing holding this series together, fights her way through the Tokyo simulation, culminating in a highly entertaining hallway battle with a dozen zombies.
Unfortunately, it's at this point that Anderson drops Alice into the real story, which I can only assume is continuing from the previous films, as I really didn't understand or care what was happening. As a stand-alone film, Retribution simply doesn't do enough for first-time viewers. What little structure the narrative has never really builds to anything, and it's more or less one long gunfight with an inexplicable rescue mission mixed in. Aside from Jovovich, the acting is atrocious across the board, with particularly shoddy work from Sienna Guillory and Bingbing Li. The performances, and Anderson's direction, are appropriately on par with that of a bad video game cut-scene, and get so bad at times that it almost seems intentional.
Resident Evil: Retribution is not a film for new audiences but for die-hard followers of the franchise, although it's difficult to imagine even the most ardent fans finding much to enjoy here. Jovovich looks terrific and delivers the necessary butt-kicking, but that's really all there is to enjoy. Judging by the conclusion, the inevitable sixth film is probably going to be the last, although so little happens in Retribution that Anderson perhaps should have skipped this story all together and moved on the finish Alice's story sooner.
Side note: I'm no fan of 3-D, but surprisingly Anderson seems to be unafraid to have fun with the format. Although the film suffers from some of the worst light-loss (one of the biggest arguments against 3-D) I can remember, Anderson grabs the gimmick with both hands and is clearly having a blast throwing bullets, axes, and gallons of blood at the audience. The native 3- D (not post-converted) actually makes a difference, and if you must see this movie, then shelling out the extra couple of bucks might be worth it.
Total Recall (2012)
The next unnecessary remake
have a very large soft spot for the original 1990 Total Recall. Somehow, director Paul Verhoeven managed to infuse a typical goofy 1980s-style action film with some legitimately clever ideas and themes. The movie had its tongue planted firmly in cheek, but achieved its iconic cult status for going beyond being just another Schwarzenegger vehicle.
Fast forward to 2012, where director Len Wiseman has stripped away that great combo of intelligence and goofiness, leaving an uninspired, overly serious, and, quite frankly, boring sci-fi action romp, barely held together by solid performances and a largely unaltered core story.
Wiseman's update of Total Recall remains true to the original plot (and, I assume, Philip K. Dick's novel) for the most part, with any changes an attempt to ground the film in reality as much as possible. Taking place wholly on Earth rather than travelling to Mars, Total Recall 2012 again follows Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), a production-line worker frustrated by his unremarkable life, who visits the somewhat shady company Rekall in pursuit of memory implants which will offer a more exciting history than his own. All doesn't go to plan however, when a malfunction at Rekall reveals that Quaid is in fact a secret agent whose memory has previously been replaced, kicking off a chase sequence that more or less covers the remainder of the film.
The always dependable Farrell commits himself admirably to a role that really doesn't offer much development, and Wiseman surrounds him with a great supporting cast who unfortunately are given very little to do (Bryan Cranston and Bill Nighy among others). Jessica Biel falls flat as love interest Melina, but Kate Beckinsale is something of a surprise, relishing her villainous role and chewing every scene she appears in.
Unfortunately, Total Recall's story and action can't match the quality of the performances. Unlike the original film, there's never really any doubt about the reality of what Quaid is experiencing. Verhoeven managed an ambiguity which created tension early on, leaving audiences to speculate whether everything was taking place in Schwarzenegger's mind, but Wiseman simply spells everything out plainly. There are numerous references to the original here too, most of which are unnecessary, while some are either needlessly distracting or simply blow by so fast that you wonder why they even bothered.
The most egregious flaws however are in the action sequences. Wiseman crafts the film like a platform video game, with characters running and jumping endlessly, stopping occasionally to deliver the next story beat. Perhaps it speaks to my general disinterest with modern video games, but the action sequences feel over-long and repetitive, and at the moments when the film should be at its most fast-paced, it begins to drag.
So Len Wiseman's Total Recall isn't the worst remake to come along in recent years, but it's just another gritty reboot that no-one asked for. It suffers in comparison to the original, can't really stand on its own, and feels like an unsuccessful blend of Super Mario Bros. and Blade Runner. What could have been a slice of fun nostalgia is taken far too seriously by a director of questionable talent, leaving Total Recall, despite Farrell and Beckinsale's best efforts, simply the next in an ever-growing lineup of failed retreads.
Holy Motors (2012)
It's going to be difficult to keep this short.
One of the darlings of the 2012 festival circuit, Leos Carax's Holy Motors delivers a pure cinematic experience designed to confront and challenge our understanding of the art form at every level. At the risk of over-simplifying a film that is anything but simple, Holy Motors is a film about the cinema as it stands today, and the deft ways in which Carax explores various aspects of his subject, whether addressing film- makers themselves, we the audience, or even the debate over physical versus digital media, are so rich and dense that it is impossible to absorb it all after a single viewing. As such it is sure to alienate and infuriate perhaps the majority of viewers, yet those who find themselves swept up in the abstract beauty of it all are in for an inspiring, enlightening, and at times overwhelming two hours.
Holy Motors follows a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar (a mind-boggling Denis Lavant), an actor whose roles seem to take place out in the real world rather than on the stage or screen. As Oscar is ferried from one assignment to the next by his faithful limousine driver Céline (Edith Scob), so too does writer-director Carax transport us to his next discussion point. Each surreal vignette is presented without much in the way of explanation, and Carax refuses to hold the hand of the audience, instead offering viewers the chance to piece the film together themselves. Similarly, Lavant's remarkable performance can turn without warning, shifting the entire film's tone from tragic to comical at a moment's notice, further disorienting the audience. While some of Oscar's 'roles' have illuminating punchlines to ease our understanding, the majority are much more conceptual, and will demand repeat viewings to unpack before Carax's intentions for the piece as a whole will become clear, if they ever will.
In a year where chatter surrounding huge tent-pole releases is choking social media and online communities, Holy Motors is the film that most deserves to be discussed, and debates about the film amongst cinéastes are likely already in full swing. While the audience who will really connect with the film is going to be comparatively small, nothing has offered this much to chew on for some time, and its value to those who appreciate it will only increase over time. Holy Motors cannot really be approached effectively in a brief review such as this, as it's not exactly an easy film to recommend or not given that each individual could potentially take something different from seeing it. But for those seeking a respite from the mindlessness of blockbuster season, seeing Holy Motors is a no-brainer. Carax almost forces the audience into an intellectual tug-of-war without ever feeling like he is talking down to us, rather that he wants us to reconsider the world of cinema, and not least of all our own place in it.
This Must Be the Place (2011)
One of the best of the year
Every so often a film comes along which offers a truly unique opportunity for actors to cast aside their commonly perceived persona and really show something new. While Sean Penn's career has been more varied than most, This Must Be The Place shows a side of him we rarely see as the troubled, faded pop star Cheyenne. It's a beautifully absurd character, and while the initial compulsion may be to laugh at him, very quickly Penn's commitment to Cheyenne wraps its hands around your heart and draws you in like no other performance this year.
Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's This Must Be The Place follows Cheyenne, an apparently briefly influential glam/goth musician (think Penn as Robert Smith from The Cure) trudging along in an existence of somewhat self-imposed obscurity. Following the death of his estranged father, Cheyenne picks up the reins of an unfinished odyssey begun by his father decades earlier. To say anything more would give away many of the wonderful surprises the film has to offer, as each quirky little vignette along the way is as unexpected and delightful as the last. Penn mumbles his way into the lives of a handful of idiosyncratic small town folk, picking up pieces of information to help him complete his father's mission, with each segment functioning like a chapter in a book. There's a very Jim Jarmusch vibe to the film (right down to the excellent one scene cameo by Harry Dean Stanton), and fans of Paris, Texas and Broken Flowers should place this film right at the top of their must-see list.
While there are a couple of plot threads left dangling with no apparent purpose (another Jarmusch-ian touch), each bizarre moment adds so much to the meandering tone of This Must Be The Place. Sorrentino shows a singular gift with the camera, crafting some majestically fluid shots highlighting the varied landscape of the film, and the great original music from David Byrne (who also cameos) fits perfectly, another piece in this truly odd puzzle of a film. But the keystone is Cheyenne, an emblem of everything that makes this one of the best films of the year. There's no explicit narrative reason for the character to be as specific as he is, but he is written and performed in such a unique way that the film transcends what could have been a perfectly entertaining piece and becomes something genuinely special. There's a very fine line between quirky charm and annoying pretension, but Sorretino and Penn, not to mention the top-tier supporting cast and soundtrack, have managed to create the most heart-warming and moving film of 2012 thus far with This Must Be The Place, and there's unlikely to be anything else quite like it for years to come.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
A satisfying conclusion
The moment has come at last. The speculation and rumour is finally redundant. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES has arrived, and it is indeed the epic final act to Christopher Nolan's Batman saga that many were clamouring for. It's a titanic film, dwarfing even the sizable scope of the series' previous chapter THE DARK KNIGHT, and while it does come dangerously close to capsizing under the weight of its own ambition, Nolan manages to right the ship in the second half and deliver a moving, exciting, and satisfying conclusion to his story.
It's a rare occurrence that a film is this anticipated and discussed, even months before its release. Rewind one year ago, to the time when the first details of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES began to emerge, through Nolan's carefully calculated drip-feed of information. After Bane (Tom Hardy) was announced as the film's villain, many familiar with the comic book origins of the character began to ask a key question about Nolan's plans for Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). Would the filmmaker, blessed with complete creative control, physically break Batman, as happened in the "Knightfall" comic book arc where Bane was introduced? After seeing trailers with brief shots of Bruce Wayne walking with the assistance of a cane, the evidence seemed to mount.
However, Nolan is a master of playing with audience expectations. Nobody seemed to consider that perhaps he would begin the film with Wayne already a broken man, both physically and spiritually. A near total recluse, crippled by his crime fighting days eight years earlier and emotionally eviscerated by the death of Rachel Dawes at the hands of the Joker. Wayne's life is fuelled by rage, yet the Gotham of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is a relatively peaceful place, with no real need for a vigilante. It's smart storytelling, allowing Nolan to raise Wayne from his fall, a theme of the entire saga, but unfortunately, this is where the story takes a few mis-steps. The first half of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES under-utilises Wayne/Batman in favour of building the massive story and developing each supporting character and plot thread, understandable given the complexity of the narrative, but the closing chapter perhaps needed to be more Wayne's story. There's an overabundance of characters, and as good as Anne Hathaway and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are as Selina Kyle/Catwoman and John Blake, they do take valuable screen time away from Wayne, and his self-destructive determination is never quite established fully.
Thankfully, the second half brings the goods in terms of epic scale and excitement. Once Bane's plan is fully in motion, the film becomes a tense and brutal thrill-ride which pays off on the majority of the first act's seemingly unconnected plot meandering. There are several moments which could have come across as cheesy and ham-fisted (and indeed, on repeat viewings will probably begin to grate before long), but the dark and serious tone of the film keeps some of the sillier beats in check. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is definitely the most comic book-like of the trilogy, and as such some of Nolan's insistence on realism suffers. It's also not as consistent as the previous two films, particularly THE DARK KNIGHT, and is unlikely to have the same rewatchability factor. But, even if it is the weakest of Nolan's saga, it's still a cut above the vast majority of comic book films that Hollywood produces. Hollywood history is littered with disappointing conclusions to trilogies, yet THE DARK KNIGHT RISES breaks the mould by bringing intelligent blockbuster filmmaking (which is becoming a Nolan speciality), and an unflinching, if not especially unpredictable, final chapter in one of the better film series' ever created.
Ambitious, but unsatisfying
After months of anticipation, PROMETHEUS, Sir Ridley Scott's quasi- prequel to his classic ALIEN has been unleashed. While perhaps not quite as high profile as a couple of other heavy-hitters this year, PROMETHEUS is for many the most anticipated film of the year, with Scott returning to a genre (if not specifically a story) he helped redefine in 1979, and again in 1982 with BLADE RUNNER, so can the film possibly live up to the mammoth level of hype?
Sadly, no, it can not.
PROMETHEUS is certainly not a bad film, far from it, but the faster people can get ALIEN out of their mind while watching, the better the experience is going to be. The core cast, despite some woefully forced dialogue and shoddy character development, deliver solid work, with Michael Fassbender in particular a stand-out as the android David. There are moments of the visual beauty that is Scott's bread and butter, and his beautiful eye for framing and composition adapts well to 3D for the most part. The difficulties with the film really boil down to poor writing, and one would assume that co-writer Damon Lindelof is likely the one to blame. It's impossible, knowing that Lindelof is involved, not to think of LOST while considering the problems with PROMETHEUS, as both suffer from overly ambitious ideas, none of which which are effectively explored or resolved, getting in the way of the central story. It's perfectly acceptable to reach for deeper meaning in science fiction, yet asking the kind of questions that this film does still needs a solid narrative framework on which to hang its broader thematic scope. The story in PROMETHEUS just isn't cohesive, with questionable plot-holes, unnecessary characters, and distracting fan-service all cluttering up the film.
Surprisingly, perhaps the most damaging element to the film is the bait which 20th Century Fox are clearly dangling to draw the crowds: the link to ALIEN. Some of the bigger connections work, the 'space jockeys' are handled reasonably well up to a point, and some sequences mirror the original film nicely, but the film would have been better served if the ALIEN connection had been downplayed. What separates the two films is 30 years of blockbuster filmmaking watering down personal vision, and where ALIEN is striking even today for it's distinct and unique style, there's little to distinguish PROMETHEUS from any number of other sci-fi films from the past few years. Perhaps the scale is too big, and the elements of the original that make the jump to 2012 just don't click. The half- baked attempt to return to the 'truckers in space' dynamic seems like obvious, gimmicky fan fiction, and the ridiculous final scene is symptomatic of greedy Hollywood sequel-itis. It has been a while since we've seen Scott at his best, but the lack of authorship on display in PROMETHEUS is truly concerning, leaving one to question whether the legendary filmmaker has lost his touch. Some of the visual beauty of the film suggests he still has things to offer, so hopefully the potential future BLADE RUNNER sequel delivers, should it ever happen.
Doesn't live up to its cult status
Scouring the video store shelves in search of something interesting I feel like I should see often yields surprising results, but I wasn't quite prepared for the surprise I got from BARBARELLA: QUEEN OF THE GALAXY. I had a vague idea of what it was (kitschy sci-fi cult classic was my understanding), but, to my initial delight (but eventual disappointment), I had more in store, but perhaps also much, much less.
BARBARELLA is a bizarre, psychedelic tale of the sexual awakening of the titular (no pun intended) character, played by an startlingly young and alluring Jane Fonda, a woman sent by the Government of the Republic of Earth to search for scientist Durand Durand. Durand, whose spacecraft disappeared somewhere near mysterious planet Tau Ceti, is the creator of the Positronic Ray, a weapon of unspeakable power which the Earth government wish to retrieve before it falls into unfriendly hands. After crash landing on the planet, Barbarella encounters various odd people and creatures, all of whom seem to exist in a primitive world of sexual liberation. 41st century society has moved on from archaic penetrative intercourse it seems, opting instead for a meditative melding of 'psychocardiograms' (think the virtual sex from DEMOLITION MAN, but less exciting), and Barbarella is initially appalled at the idea, yet after around 20 seconds of coercion from a creep in a bear suit, experiences the pleasures of the flesh for the first time. And so begins the erotic adventures of Barbarella, which include making love to a blind angel, being propositioned by a one-eyed dominatrix who may not be what she seems, and having her body literally played like an organ by the nefarious Durand Durand.
Unfortunately, it all sounds a little racier than it is. There's plenty of innuendo and double entendre (one of the characters is named Dildano!), but really it's not pushed far enough, and the film is a little tame. There are laughs to be had, and Fonda is fully committed to the campy lunacy of the script but BARBARELLA doesn't really live up to its cult status. The spectacularly low-budget sets and effects, Fonda's ever-changing and increasingly revealing outfits, and the fun and funky psychedelic lounge music throughout stand out as highlight, but it's far from a good movie. Amazingly Fonda turned down both BONNIE AND CLYDE and ROSEMARY'S BABY to make this, so I guess you have to give her credit for the effort, and perhaps some chemical accompaniment would work in BARBARELLA's favour (as I'm certain there was plenty on set). It's the sort of film which you know you're going to like or hate before even starting it, and I'm not surprised that it has its fans. Unfortunately, I'm not one of them.
Jodaeiye Nader az Simin (2011)
2012 Academy award winner for best foreign language picture, Iranian social drama A SEPARATION follows the legal struggle between apparently wealthy, middle class Nader (Peyman Moadi) and housekeeper Razieh (Sareh Bayat), after a dispute leads to tragic consequences. Recently separated from wife Simin (Leila Hatami), juggling a career and responsibility to his 11 year old daughter, and caring for his alzheimer's stricken father, Nader is a man with a very full plate. Razieh is equally burdened by her pregnancy and the need to earn money following her husband's redundancy, while her incredibly devout religious beliefs only seem to make things more difficult. Ultimately when their two lives clash, such a frustrating situation is born that the film is at times exhausting to watch, yet always completely compelling.
A SEPARATION is a glimpse into a world not often seen by foreign audiences, the day to day minutiae of life in relatively affluent Iranian society, where class and religious beliefs come into conflict in unexpected ways. There's something so absurd and darkly humorous about so many of the realities these people must endure, particularly in regards to religion, yet never does the film feel phony or forced. As each character gets drawn into the dilemma more and more and the blame game spirals out of control, so too does the narrative style constantly circle back on itself while never nearing any kind of resolution. A SEPARATION is maddening by design, representative of what seems to be an incredibly intricate and baffling bureaucratic system, compounded by archaic religious doctrine and difficult social politics. It's by no means an easy film, but for anyone willing to step outside their comfort zone, it's a rewarding experience, with much to take in and no doubt discuss afterwards.
Sitting in the theatre last night, a line from an old Tool song was rattling around in my brain. "One great big, festering, neon distraction" was used by the band to describe the state of California, but the description couldn't be more apt for Peter Berg's BATTLESHIP. A deafening, blue and orange military recruitment tool, the film can't even sustain its laughably simple premise, and attempts to promote a message so unappealing to its target audience I was left questioning why it even exists. Story is the least important element here, so lets just say that in between all the sweeping helicopter shots and blinding lens flare, an international Naval war games exercise is interrupted by alien invaders, and it's up to reckless officer Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) to save the day. Kitsch delivers solid character work early on, but soon gets lost in the cacophony of bangs and seizure-inducing editing which leaves little room for the human story. Inexplicably added to the mix are pop star Rihanna, seemingly here for no other reason than, well, she's Rihanna, and Liam Neeson collecting his paycheck for around 10 minutes of screen time. But, as I said, we're not here for the story, rather the spectacular action and special effects right? The bad news is that when the aliens finally show up, BATTLESHIP's pace strangely slows to a crawl (no doubt due to the limited options offered by the source material), and all potential excitement and interest evaporates. Director Berg forces the idea of teamwork down the audience's throats (Japan and the US fighting together in Hawaii? Wonders never cease), and doesn't even try to disguise his recruitment agenda. Indeed, the film is little more than a hyperkinetic music video (oh, that's why Rihanna is here) designed to lure impressionable youth into signing up so they too can fight the 'alien invaders'. Herein lies the problem however: young people today almost definitely don't play Battleship. Basing a tentpole film on a board game seemed like a daft idea from the outset, but recent cinema history has seen a theme park ride turned into a critically and financially successful franchise, so precedent is there in a way. Unfortunately for Universal, even those of us who grew up in a pre-internet/Xbox Live world remember Battleship as a desperately boring endeavour, so how can it be expected to compete in today's short attention-span culture? The strange metaphor that Berg attempts to craft in the film's third act, suggesting that we need to remember and re-appraise the past, just won't fly with 21st century teens bred in our disposable, constantly updating world of technological wonder. BATTLESHIP's strange juxtaposition of bombastic special effects framing ancient board game mechanics simply doesn't sit right, and it's hard to imagine the teen audience, so crucial for success at the summer box-office, tearing themselves away from the latest CALL OF DUTY to embrace the turn-based 'excitement' of this ridiculous film. No amount of explosions can salvage a limp and underwritten movie, and BATTLESHIP, not entirely unexpectedly, is torpedoed by its own outdated inspiration.
The Hunger Games (2012)
When a massive movie franchise comes to a close, often a hole can develop in the highly competitive market of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. Perhaps never before has that hole been as large as the abyss left by the HARRY POTTER series, given the rapid release schedule of those films. It's 2012, and there's no new POTTER. Some might argue that the TWILIGHT series fills the void, yet not only is that franchise little more than a punchline to all but the hardcore fans, it too is set to (hopefully) wrap up this year. Enter THE HUNGER GAMES, seemingly a sure thing based on the POTTER formula: hugely successful series of young adult novels? Check. Talented cast of young leads and respected character actors as support? Naturally. Large scale production and, crucially, marketing budget? You bet. So is THE HUNGER GAMES worthy of taking up the POTTER mantle?
Amazingly, it might be even better.
While no-one would suggest that THE HUNGER GAMES is the most original new property coming from the Hollywood machine, Lionsgate and director Gary Ross adapt Suzanne Collins' source material in just the right ways, jettisoning un-cinematic elements and focusing on the meat of the story right from the opening frame. Rather than build the world of Panem through tedious exposition and backstory, Ross instead drops us directly into the grim life of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her journey to the Hunger Games, a perverse spectacle inflicted annually on 24 unfortunate teens. While the POTTER series certainly headed in a darker direction as it went on, THE HUNGER GAMES is horrifically bleak right from the get go, and Ross' decision to show instead of tell, through the use of wonderfully expressive, fluid camera-work, paints an ugly picture indeed. There are so many refreshing elements at work here, with an active, independent, and strong female protagonist and a startling absence of overblown CGI, but it's the nastiness that makes this film unique. Delivering a family appropriate experience while retaining the majority of the violence and unpleasantness of the novel is a delicate proposition which Ross mostly pulls off, but one can't help wondering about the potential for a much harder, R-rated cut of the film. It's an understandable issue to be sure, but an issue nonetheless.
Where THE HUNGER GAMES perhaps doesn't fare so well is in the internal strife faced by Katniss, particularly in regards to potential love interests Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Collins' novel has much more freedom to explore, and even dwell on, Katniss' emotional state through inner monologue, but given the nature of film, particularly a mainstream blockbuster such as this, much less room is left for introspection, and some of the character dynamics and relationships suffer in comparison. Katniss' independence is unfortunately undercut by the franchise building mentality of the film, setting up an inevitable love triangle to be explored in two potential sequels. That said, she's still a much more positive, appropriate female role model than TWILIGHT's limp and passive Bella Swan, or indeed any young female character in recent memory. THE HUNGER GAMES is an important film at many levels, one which heralds the birth of the next big Hollywood franchise, and if the quality of the first installment is maintained then the sequels can't come soon enough.
John Carter (2012)
It's hard to believe, but it's that time again. Blockbuster season. The increasingly lengthy part of the year when Hollywood studios throw the vast majority of their budgets at a handful of tent-pole releases, competing for audience dollars in a barrage of explosive effects, unimportant and underdeveloped plots, and the ever present corporate sponsorship deals. It's a risky time for Hollywood; a successful blockbuster can develop into a cash-cow franchise for years to come, whereas a failure can dangerously cripple even the most powerful studios. In 2012, Disney gets us underway with JOHN CARTER, a project stuck in production limbo for decades, finally realised by Pixar director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, FINDING NEMO) making his live-action debut. Getting out of the gate early to avoid any potential competition is a clever move by Disney, yet it's hard to imagine that JOHN CARTER will come close to the kind of box-office revenues needed to consider it a financial success. It's not a bad film; in fact there is much to be admired about Stanton's work on a difficult property, but it exists in an uncomfortable middle-ground of being perhaps too dense and metaphorical for mainstream audiences whilst probably too generic and clichéd to impress hardcore sci-fi/fantasy fans.
What impresses most about JOHN CARTER is how, for the most part, Stanton is allowed to run free with the strangeness of the world in which the film is set. There are moments of pure brilliance, both visually and thematically, where the movie that Stanton so obviously wants to make are allowed to shine through, recalling the majesty of the opening act of his previous film WALL-E. The film doesn't hold your hand and get bogged down with excessive exposition, but rather trusts that audiences are familiar enough with the sci-fi genre that not everything needs to be spelled out. Disney have to be commended for taking an unexpected gamble and refusing to simplify much of the more complicated areas of the story, but unfortunately it's probably a gamble that will not pay dividends. There are moments where the plot is perhaps a little too obtuse, and the hard sci-fi conventions don't blend well with a dull, immaterial romantic sub-plot that sees the emotional core of the film come off as a little hollow. Another brave move was in the casting of an unproven, if not entirely unknown lead actor in Taylor Kitsch, who growls his way through the dialogue in a satisfactory but unfortunately uncharismatic manner.
Sadly, where JOHN CARTER is going to suffer most is in its familiar and unoriginal storyline. Edgar Rice Burroughs' BARSOOM series of novels are something of a Rosetta Stone to the sci-fi/fantasy genre, stretching back a century to A PRINCESS OF MARS, the novel on which Stanton's film takes the majority of its plot. Being such a beloved and influential series works against Disney however, as Burroughs' novels have been imitated, borrowed from, and essentially plucked clean by almost every other film in the genre. Now, when JOHN CARTER arguably should be respected for being a true original, instead what results is a stylistically and thematically dusty work. Had JOHN CARTER been made 40 years ago, before STAR WARS, AVATAR, and any number of similar films, it would have undoubtedly been a smash, but as it is today, it's difficult to view it as much more than the same hackneyed story we've seen before. It's a shame that Burroughs importance to the genre will be completely over the head of most audiences, but a little more outside-the-box thinking from Stanton and Disney may have been able to salvage the film and introduce a new generation to his work. JOHN CARTER is not going to break Disney, yet the almost inevitably disappointing box-office is certainly going to hurt. It's a fascinating start to the season, and for better or worse JOHN CARTER will almost certainly go down as the riskiest prospect on the blockbuster calendar.