Now Showing, November 22 2012by David Larsen
New film reviews this week: Compliance, Skyfall and Monsieur Lazhar
Alex Cross The one good thing I can find to say about this text book study in basic film-making incompetence is that it shows its hand early. Five minutes in, and already you've seen a high energy chase scene so confusingly edited that it's impossible to say who's where or who's in whose line of fire. This is your cue to get up and leave: things are not going to get any better. I'm not a James Patterson reader, and I haven't seen either of the Morgan Freeman Alex Cross movies (Along Came A Spider and Kiss The Girls both adapt Patterson novels featuring the same forensic analysis genius). It looks like Patterson's shtick is to assign each male character we're meant to care about a strong-minded female love interest Aand then (spoiler alert, but trust me, you'd see this coming) kill her off as unpleasantly as possible, thus fueling a vengeance quest; it's what happens here, and the whole thing feels at once so formulaic and so automated than one assumes an actual formula is at work. But misogyny and the ugly emotional dynamics of vengeance stories are only the problems director Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious, xXx) aspires to have. The problem he in fact has is that he's made a thriller which will put you straight to sleep. Tyler Perry - a huge comic star in the States for his Madea films - is a bland placeholder in the title role, and Lost's Matthew Fox is risible as the inevitable psychopathic killer. 1/5 DL
The Angels Share Though it opens with what could be a scene from a court-room documentary, the new Ken Loach film isn’t, like most of his work, a social-realist drama—it’s a heist comedy. A group of wayward, small-time Glaswegian criminals on a community-service programme visit a distillery housing the world’s most desirable whiskey, which they plan to siphon and sell on the black market. (The title refers to the amount of spirit that evaporates during aging in oak barrels—some two per cent a year, on average.) The story centres on Robbie, a young man in his twenties who’s recently become a father. This current community-service sentence, meted out in the opening scene, is not the first time he’s been pulled up on assault charges; what’s worse, his most recent victim’s mates are out for revenge. Trying to reform himself, Robbie thinks that stealing some of the Scotch, and profiting from its sale, will give his new family enough money to live on for a while. Loach manages to steer clear, for the most part, of melodrama and sappiness, inserting a couple of great vérité scenes to keep the antagonists—and the danger Robbie’s in—at the fore. Even if its moderately predictable ending is a bit of a let-down, The Angels’ Share is frequently hilarious, and, at times, unexpectedly moving. 3/5 HL
Arbitrage Would someone please make a film about a heroic financier who risks everything to save something other than his off-shore bank account? Richard Gere is the philandering financier-patriarch in Arbitrage, a smart, hollow first feature from young writer-director Nicholas Jarecki. Susan Sarandon is the financier's grand lady wife. There are other interesting actors in the cast - Brit Marling (Another Earth, Sound of My Voice) plays the couple's financial whiz daughter, and Tim Roth is the hard-bitten New York cop who comes after our hero after he makes a couple of very bad choices - but Gere and Sarandon are the main reason to turn up. They're remarkably good in their roles. But the film is barely 15 minutes old before you know that Gere's character is morally contemptible, has bankrupted his company, and will do anything to keep people from finding out before he can sell it off; we have to wait rather longer to work out whether Sarandon's charities-and-lunches wife knows that she's married to a rat and doesn't care, or is merely an expert at overlooking the unpalatable. That's the whole range of her character's possibilities, and Gere's holds no surprises whatsoever. He's Gordon Gecko without the Oliver Stone romanticism, and that would be fine, if the film had something more interesting in mind for him than a drawn-out illustration of the idea that character determines destiny. Even without the punishing contrast provided by Margin Call - the vastly superior Wall Street drama and first-time-film-maker calling card that came out earlier this year - this would be a drab exercise in dramatising our financier-despising age's conventional wisdom. 3/5 DL
Argo Ben Affleck's new film, which dramatises part of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, aims to be a send-up of Hollywood as well as an action-packed tale of true espionage. Unfortunately, it takes liberties with the facts, and is bogged down by a commitment to period style. In November of 1979, 52 US diplomats, following a takeover and occupation of the American embassy, were held in Tehran for a total of 444 days. They were released the day after Ronald Reagan took office; Jimmy Carter’s handling of the affair had cost him re-election. In particular, Affleck’s film recounts an operation known as the “Canadian Caper”: the ‘exfiltration,’ in government lingo, of six of the diplomats who, having evaded capture, were holed up at the Canadian ambassador’s residence. The CIA’s plan to rescue the hostages involved Tony Mendez (Affleck) entering the country pretending to be a film producer, and leaving with the hostages as his fake crew. The fake movie for which they were ostensibly scouting locations was a piece of sci-fi fluff called Argo. John Goodman and Alan Arkin, as Hollywood big-wigs, lead a superb, extensive supporting cast. Affleck has cited All the President’s Men (1975) as inspiration, but Argo is much more overblown, schematically, and much more playful with the historical record than Pakula’s film was. Affleck’s over-reliance on costuming and the work of the hair-and-make-up department as stand-ins for other era-markers (dialogue, say, or carefully placed newspaper front-pages) diverts attention from the story’s human elements, and, ultimately, from the film’s action. There’s nothing flashy or artful about Affleck’s solid work here—none, even, of the occasional showiness of his prior films, especially his début—but there is one dazzling parallel-editing sequence: late in the piece, a dress-rehearsal table-read of the script is deftly cross-cut with a scene of the diplomats-as-film-crew surveying an underground bazaar as a possible shooting location. More detail on Argo here and here. 3.5/5 HL
Barrymore A highly cinematic film translation of a one-man stage play, which still manages to preserve the stage-bound experience at its heart. Christopher Plummer has tended to the delightfully restrained in his recent screen roles, but here, playing early Hollywood star John Barrymore, down on his luck and attempting a late-career comeback, he rages and charms and winks roguishly sideways, and he's magnificent. Screen adapter Erik Canuel overdoes things a little with the visual framing devices - he's determined we're going to know we're watching a film, not a play, and the trickery he uses to accomplish this gets a little old by the end - but he keeps Plummer at the center of the thing, where he belongs, and that's what matters most. The film has been packaged for New Zealand audiences as one half of a double feature, the second half being a making-of documentary, Backstage With Barrymore: nice idea in the abstract, but unfortunately the documentary is in a lethal American tradition, the vacuous over-praising of great art. If you really want to hear it affirmed, over and over, that the wonderful film you just watched really was a wonderful film, so wonderful, goodness me, so wonderful, then by all means stick around for the second feature. 4/5 (film), 2/5 (documentary) DL
Compliance The most terrifying thing about this film is that after it releases its iron grip on your throat and sends you stumbling back out into the world, and you attempt to console yourself with the reflection that it's only a story, no doubt based on real events, yes, but heightened, exaggerated, dramatised... you will be wrong. Look up the Wikipedia entry on the strip search prank call scam, and among many other appalling details you will find what reads like a synopsis of the film, right down to key lines of dialogue. A man claiming to be a police officer phones an American fast food place and informs the manager that a customer has accused one of her staff of stealing. The police are overworked right now, and the manager can help her young employee avoid a lengthy wait in the cells if she takes her into a back room and holds her there for a while. The manager complies. The officer suggests that she could help out a little more. If the stolen money could be recovered, this whole thing could be sorted out very quickly. Perhaps a strip search...? The scam goes on, and on, and escalates from the mischievous to the criminal to the truly appalling, with the manager's slow-witted, slightly drunk boyfriend brought in and asked to "help": and what makes this such a remarkable film, and so difficult to watch, is that it does not merely show you a series of things that actually happened. It shows you very clearly how they could happen. Writer-director Craig Zobel makes every single step in the progression credible. The manager is not particularly clever, but she has a few reasonable objections: the caller answers them reasonably. The manager does not much like the employee in question, who is younger than she is, far more attractive, and not very respectful towards her: the caller figures this out quickly, and plays on it, but not so much as to be obvious. Ann Dowd plays the manager, and she's extraordinary, delivering a performance so naturalistic its artifice is completely invisible. Zobel cuts away from the increasingly troubling events playing out in the back office often enough to let us breathe; but the things he cuts to - the caller, smirking to himself as he updates his notes on exactly what he's said so far, the fast food cooking area, all confined spaces and bubbling fat - work to increase the tension more than relieve it. "This is my investigation, and I take full responsibility", says the caller, again and again. Magic words, it turns out. One of the most troubling truths we've seen demonstrated in the last century is that ordinary people will lend themselves to criminal acts if they're eased into it by people in authority. Authority, Zobel shows us, exists only in the mind: it's as real as it can successfully pretend to be. You absolutely want to watch this film. Trust me. I take full responsibility. 4.5/5 DL
Delicacy A sweet French twist on princesses and frog princes. Natalie (Audrey Tautou) is the beautiful princess with an ideal life – successful career and perfect husband – which one day comes crashing down. Grieving, and sick of being hit on by guys who assume they’re entitled, on impulse she kisses Markus (François Damiens), a shy, balding work colleague. It takes him, and her, the rest of the film to realise he’s her frog prince, and for him to work out what to do about it. It’s a “courtship” that stutters and meanders, as do the characters, but faced with his humour, decency and lack of guile, she doesn’t stand a chance. A small, unassuming film that cheers for the homely nice guy and exploits our fascination with Beauty and the Beast, it’s a reassuring antidote to the ideal couple stereotypes. At times it lacks subtlety, and feels a little long, but Tautou and Damiens have the charisma (though not necessarily the chemistry) to keep it all afloat. 2.5/5 HW
Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel More than 40 years before The Devil Wears Prada, there was Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? with a central character based on Harper’s Bazaar fashion editor Diana Vreeland. Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor who inspired Devil, seems positively dull beside her. Vreeland’s free-spirited, flamboyant personality is imprinted on just about every frame of this thoroughly engaging documentary. Made by her granddaughter Lisa, it’s an affectionate, celebratory tour through a career conducted with gusto and vision. If it’s a little thinner on the private life, that’s probably a reflection of the subject’s own guardedness, but there’s enough in interviews with family members to help connect the dots. With the career, however, and her turning of fashion into an art form, there was no such restraint. A cosmopolitan childhood (“Arrange to be born in Paris. After that, everything follows naturally”) laid the foundation for a lifelong embrace of the new and different, so it was hardly surprising her instinct for style and female glamour would be ahead of the curve. Deemed “outlandish”, and “an original” by the many famous-in-their-own-right interviewees (photographers, designers, models, writers), she’s left behind a lively variety of visual and audio material that serves to confirm the description. Director Vreeland uses it with intelligence and deftness to not only keep the eye travelling but also to move the narrative forward with breezy editing and silken segues. It’s a treatment that her grandmother would have approved of as having, to use the word she’s said to have coined, “pizzazz”. 4/5 HW
Electrick Children A much less oddball film than it initially seems, and vastly less unlikely than it sounds in synopsis, Rebecca Thomas's first feature - she writes and directs - is a gentle coming of age story, very lightly dusted with magic realism. Julia Garner (who? ...she was in Mary Martha May Marlene, she's in the may-or-may-not-be-released-in-NZ The Perks Of Being A Wallflower and six other films slated to be released over the next two years, and she does sweet ingenue innocence extremely well) plays Rachel, a fundamentalist Mormon teenager living a life of Amish-style isolationist low-tech purity with her family. She glimpses a piece of forbidden technology in her father's office - a cassette recorder, and no, the film is not set in the 70s - and becomes fascinated by it. A few covert sessions of listening to music later, Rachel proudly announces to her parents that the music has made her pregnant. Her parents receive this about as well as you'd guess. Rachel runs away, and the film very quickly settles into a quirky, undemanding series of stranger-in-a-strange-land encounters between Innocence and Modern America, shot through with moments of interesting but not particularly specific or profound religious reflection. I suspect Thomas, who has a background in the LDS church, of not having fully worked out what she thinks of the faith she grew up in; this is not a criticism per se, because the film's refusal to take a stance frees it to play with ambiguities in ways that are both likable and useful. But it does also try to pass vagueness off as wisdom, now and then 3.5/5 DL
Frankenweenie In 1984, as a fledgling storyboard artist at Disney, Tim Burton made a live-action black-and-white short film called Frankenweenie, about a boy who brings his dead dog, Sparky, back to life. It paid homage most obviously to “Frankenstein”—the boy is named Victor—but also to a number of Universal’s monster movies of the 1930s, and a whole lot more besides. The studio fired Burton, deeming the film too scary for kids. At Warner Brothers, he made Batman and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure; at 20th Century Fox, Edward Sciccorhands. He returned to Disney to collaborate with the genius animator Henry Selick, on their 1993 masterpiece The Nightmare Before Christmas. This year, Burton has re-done Frankenweenie as a feature; the key difference is that the new, longer version uses stop-motion animation, not actors. (It’s also in 3D, a gimmick which doesn’t quite pay off: the fun is in some great performances of a very good script.) Apparently stop-motion was Burton’s intent on the short film, but budgetary constraints didn’t allow for use of the time-consuming animation process: work on the new film progressed at the not uncommon rate of just a few seconds’ footage per week. (Vincent, a …shorter short that Burton made in 1982, showed his prowess at the form.) Frankenweenie, which opened the London Film Festival earlier this month, is Burton’s best film in many, many years. It’s hilarious and entertaining for kids—judging by the response from the kids at the press screening I attended—and adults alike. The voice cast—Martin Landau, Martin Short, Wynona Ryder (with whom Burton hadn’t worked since 1989), and the great Catherine O’Hara—is spectacular. The expansion of the story, from what was essentially a twenty-five-minute vignette into an 87-minute feature, is handled skilfully—although there are a few moments at which the narrative drags just a little. (Not to give too much away, but Victor helps reanimate more than just his own dead pet.) There are more homages, too, including a turtle buried in the pet cemetery called Shelley. Especially funny is the character of the Eastern European science teacher at Victor’s school—his early dialogue will clue you in to the era in which the film is set. So is the new film any scarier than the original? I don’t think so. I would’ve loved the original if I’d seen it as a kid, and watching the update inspired the same awe in me as when I watched Home Alone and The Nightmare Before Christmas for the first time as a child. “I find that people at the company forget the history of Walt Disney movies,” Burton said recently in an interview with the news agency Reuters, referring to Bambi—to which the new film makes reference—and The Lion King, two of the studio’s biggest-grossing products which just so happen to deal quite bluntly with death—if not the macabre, per se. The original Frankenweenie wasn’t “too scary,” and neither is this wonderful, hugely enjoyable remake. 4/5 HL
Hotel Transylvania We live in a golden age for animated children's film. This year alone I've seen From Up On Poppy Hill, A Monster In Paris, and Le Tableau, as well as lesser but still gorgeous offerings like Brave, Wolf Children, and Pirates. (Plus there was Hugo, which is hard to classify as either animated or non-animated, but which is still, all these months later, on my top ten list for the year). Alas, we also live in the age of Adam Sandler. I can't really blame him for everything that's tedious, mediocre, or actively unpleasant about this wretched it's-going-to-make-money school holiday honey trap... but what the hell, I think I will. As well as playing Count Dracula - a vegan vampire who never touches human blood - Sandler produced this film, and like everything he's touched in the last few years, it's built on toilet humour and smug middle-American moralism. And it resolutely refuses to take any of the more interesting opportunities its story offers it. In brief: Dracula runs hidden hotel for the undead, all of whom are kindly souls, terrified of human anti-monster prejudice. Dracula has teenage daughter. (She's 118 years old, but whatever). Daughter chafes at Dracula's over-protectiveness; clueless human backpacker finds his way to hotel; Dracula fears ruin if his guests find out... fill in the blanks. Remember to include fart jokes. Kids under ten will see the slapstick fun and the well animated monsters and miss most of the things that will drive parents crazy. "Young kids are too innocent to see how awful this film is, so if you're desperate..." is a recommendation of sorts, I guess... but can I direct your school holiday attention to the full Hayao Miyazaki backlist, available on DVD and an essential part of every childhood? 3/5 DL
How Far Is Heaven Sober, restrained New Zealand documentary which follows the inhabitants of a tiny Whanganui valley township over the course of one year, paying particular attention to the interactions of the local kids with three resident nuns of the Sisters of Compassion. Directors Miriam Smith and Christopher Pryor make very few overt moves to shape our response to this community, for the most part simply presenting their footage without comment. But they have sure instincts for the telling detail, and the film leaves an indelible sense of a brutally impoverished social reality - and of the nuns' humble desire to be of use to people they know very well they don't fully understand. Full review here. 4/5 DL
How To Meet Girls From A Distance Not just the latest in the seemingly endless string of quote-unquote comic films about men who've failed to grow up: not just a microbudget movie shot in 17 days: this is a romantic comedy about a lovable Kiwi bloke who spends his spare time stalking women. That's pretty much all I knew about it going in, except for the intriguing detail that several friends had seen it at the film festival, and they all swore it was much, much better than it sounded. Still, my expectations were not high. What next, I wondered, a date rape comedy? Then the film started, and it won me over in about 60 seconds. Director and co-writer Dean Hewison made this film for only about a hundred thousand dollars, but he has the thing so many comedy directors don't: a really good, tight script. The cast is great - especially Richard Falkner, who plays the lead and also co-wrote - and the humour is edgy to just the right degree. The way the film uses Wellington locations is an education in how to get the most out of a small budget; cinematographer Matty Warmington captures the city is at its most vibrant, and without seeming to try to do so. Every shot serves the story. Sensitive viewers should be advised that a couple of scenes go the gross-out humour route, in ways both unexpected and hilarious; but there's nothing offensive or off-putting in the handling of the central stalker romcom conceit. On the contrary. The film is maybe a little rough around the edges, but it has charm to burn and it's thoroughly entertaining. 4/5 DL
The Intouchables Not as sentimental as its plot suggests, and not just a re-hash of Driving Miss Daisy, to which it keeps on being compared. Yes, there’s a wealthy white employer reliant on a black employee, testy exchanges and an evolving bond, but perhaps because it’s based on a real relationship it doesn’t feel completely wrapped in a tidy bow. Rather than cute or manipulative or earnestly meaningful, there’s a no-nonsense tone that fits with the characters themselves. Philippe (François Cluzet) is a well-heeled Parisian whose love for physical risk-taking has rendered him quadriplegic after a paragliding accident; Driss (Omar Sy) is the immigrant from the suburbs who applies for the job of caregiver simply to satisfy the requirements for collecting his unemployment cheque. It’s a pragmatism that appeals to Philippe. Accustomed to living on the edge, he wants not a carey-sharey wuss, but someone who doesn’t do pity. “Pragmatism” and “pity” do tend to be delivered in quote marks by the script, but it does mean that the bond that develops is as much about their mutual enjoyment of courting danger (thus delivering visual interest) as about compassion. And the title implies the empathy through being outsiders. The lack of a strong dramatic arc slows things down at times, but there are enough laughs, private moments and action sequences (yes, action sequences) to keep us engaged. Cluzet (who’s such a dead ringer for Dustin Hoffman someone should immediately write a script for them both) meets the physical and emotional demands of his confined role, and Sy (last seen here in Micmacs), has charm, talent and presence. Fans of The Wire may well spot his resemblance to Jamie Hector, the actor who played – with his own brand of charm, talent and presence – drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield. Maybe there’s a script in there too. 3.5/5 HW
Killing Them Softly From its eye-watering first shot to its in-your-face final soliloquy, Andrew Dominik's third film could not feel less like a novel adaptation. It is, in fact, based on a novel, but the best and the worst thing about it - assuming you have neither a difficulty with nor a fetish for extreme violence - is the extent to which it feels like an exercise in aggressively pure cinematic style. There's a story (dumb crims steal from the mob, mob sends an enforcer after them), there are great characters (Brad Pitt is sufficiently entertaining as the world-weary enforcer that it's hard to hold his status as Only Name On Poster against him, but it's an ensemble picture without a single weak performance), and, oh god yes, there's a Theme. In the early parts of the film, Dominik slowly lets you see that he's holding up the economics of crime as a metaphor for American society. Then he makes it a bit more obvious. Then he rubs your nose in it, and just keeps on rubbing. The drop-dead cool of the visual style, the splendid music and the humour - which does, yes, feature several people dropping dead - makes it clear that Dominik knows exactly what he's doing, and just happens to feel that subtlety is overrated. Whether or not you agree, I guarantee you won't be bored. 4/5 DL
The Last Dogs of Winter Every so often a film comes along which causes me to turn to my children and say, "You know how lucky you are to be alive now? You know how rare it is, over the lifetime of our species, for ordinary people to get to see things like this?" That big screen that brings us Batman and James Bond and Jane Austen adaptations (all good things, don't get me wrong) can also be a window in the air, opening on realities that used to be available only to people who physically went out and looked for them. Documentary film is an astonishing privilege, and we mostly take it for granted. Now as it happens, the latest film from Kiwi director Costa Botes is about another thing my children are lucky to be alive to see, in this case not because it was unavailable to past generations, but because it's quite likely it won't be there for future ones. Botes travels to a little town in the Canadian far north, where a man of a type Kiwis will recognise readily (think Barry Crump) is single-handedly trying to keep a species alive. The species is the Qimmiq, the Inuit dog. Bred to survive above the Arctic circle, these dogs were subjected to a massive cull by the Canadian government, on the basis that if Inuits had nothing to pull their sleds, they would have to give up their nomadic lifestyle and become civilised. There are now only a few hundred of them left. An individualist loner versus a legacy of "destroy the village in order to save it" officialdom: it's very easy to pick sides in this film, but Botes is not out to bang the drums and sell you a message. This is an intimate engagement with an unusual way of life, exploratory, investigative, opening up a mental landscape and also making the most of a glorious physical one: the cinematography is of a very high order. If you're interested in the question of how good films can be made on a low budget - and it's a key question for the New Zealand industry - here's one answer. If you're just interested in seeing dogs play with polar bears and getting to know a capital-C Character, this will enlarge your world and leave you smiling. It opens in Auckland today, and will be moving round the rest of the country by stages. Watch out for it. 4.5/5 DL
Looper The writer-director Rian Johnson made his feature film-making début in 2005 with Brick, a murder-mystery set in a high school. The film, an homage to the hardboiled-detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett, provided Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who starred as its gumshoe protagonist, the opportunity to break free from the typecast roles he was being offered after the sitcom that made him a star, 3rd Rock From the Sun, had ended. Brick put director and actor on the map; Levitt has gone on to become a bone fide Hollywood star, with roles in (500) Days of Summer, Inception, 50/50, and The Dark Knight Rises, to name a few of his most prominent appearances. (This summer, he pops up in the bike-messenger actioner Premium Rush, and in Steven Spielberg’s much-hyped Lincoln.)
Johnson followed Brick three years later with what might be best described as its tonal opposite: an attempt at a colourful, quirky Wes Anderson-style adventure-fantasy called The Brothers Bloom. That highly anticipated film, though intermittently enjoyable and certainly immaculately shot, was something of a failure; its major issues stemmed from miscasting and an overreaching scope. It’s safe to say, given the precise control over material and craft on display in his new movie, that the uneven madcap comedy of Bloom was a misstep in Johnson’s career that we can easily overlook.
Looper begins in the year 2044. Time-travel has not yet been invented, but in thirty years’ time, it will have been. It will also have been immediately outlawed. Being illegal, it’s used, of course, only by organised-crime syndicates. Johnson reunites with Gordon-Levitt, whom he casts as one half of the dual-role protagonist, Joe. He’s a “looper,” a specialised assassin charged with executing whomever the mob sends back in time, without letting him get away. The catch is that, eventually, every looper is sent his future self as a target—this is called “closing a loop.” (This is why I called Joe a “dual-role protagonist”: his escaped older half is played by Bruce Willis.) In 2074, an underworld kingpin, ‘the Rainmaker,’ is hell-bent on closing all the loops—so Joe goes back to the future to try and stop him.
The film is one part near-future action movie (with a fun cameo from Paul Dano, as a nervy colleague of Joe’s); one part globe-trotting crime-thriller (with a really fun cameo from Jeff Daniels), and one part wide-eyed, Kansas-set Spielbergian drama (with a stand-out supporting performance from Emily Blunt). Visual and story elements from a number of sci-fi movies are winked-at and flat-out incorporated into the story—part of the fun is in noticing them all. The film’s superb cinematography comes courtesy of Steve Yedlin; he’s been Johnson’s behind-the-camera collaborator since his film-school days. After Inception, very little in the way of visual-effects and cinematography can justifiably be labelled “ground-breaking,” but suffice it to say that a number of sequences in Looper—particularly a few early fight scenes—feature jaw-dropping camerawork.
The film’s score, perplexingly unobtrusive and almost entirely unmelodic, is, I think, its one big let-down. Written by Nathan Johnson, the director’s brother, it largely comprises percussive, mechanical field-recordings assembled in a computerised ‘virtual orchestra.’ When real instruments are used, they sound out simple, streaky orchestral bursts; the score features no motifs and no repeated themes—not even a central one. The score doesn’t flesh out the film’s soundscape, it merely sits there in the background. In short, it’s boring. Electronica scores can provide, especially to sci-fi and hi-tech stories, much-needed atmosphere; see, as recent examples, Daft Punk’s music for TRON: Legacy, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ brilliantly sinewy soundtrack for The Social Network. Nathan’s previous work as composer, most prominently on his brother’s first two films, was fantastically idiosyncratic, akin to Michael Andrews’ sparse, analogue pieces for Donnie Darko. On this project, Nathan was reportedly inspired by Ben Burtt, the sound designer on Star Wars—but while Burtt’s innovative work won him awards, the sometimes barely noticeable rhythm-cycles that populate the aural world of Looper are anything but noteworthy: they’re un-engaging and, in the end, wholly unmemorable.
As regards music choices, Rian seems to have a fondness for ’60s and ’70s folk-rock. Brick had a Velvet Underground song in it; Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” and Cat Stevens’ “Miles from Nowhere” were featured in The Brothers Bloom, and Looper has Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita” and Richard and Linda Thompson’s “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” make appearances in the background. (You can read about Johnson’s use of the last of those tracks in this Badass Digest piece, but beware minor plot spoilers.)
Looper is that rare thing in contemporary science-fiction cinema: Dickian but not dumbed-down. Johnson’s pet visual motifs—most notably arrows and timepieces—are, cleverly, given more of a workout than they were in his previous work; his use of cinematic space is also more adventurous—perhaps achieving here scope-wise what he aimed for on his second film. This is an intelligent, humanistic time-travel movie that, despite cribbing from a vast swathe of pre-existing material, is innovative and fresh. Among recent sci-fi fare, only Shane Carruth’s Primer and Duncan Jones’ Moon have so energetically told such smart, inventive stories. Johnson ups the ante on both technical and script levels, and deftly mixes action, inquisitive dialogue-heavy scenes, and even a bit of body-horror into a thrilling puzzle film. 4.5/5 HL
Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted Not seen. Because look, neither Helene, David nor Hugh has children under ten, and David, who does have kids who still enjoy a well made animated children's film, is increasingly unable to get them out the door for cookie-cutter Hollywood formula fare. Maybe this isn't cookie-cutter Hollywood formula fare. We can't say. All we can offer you is David's children's response to the trailer. Which was, "Please may we mow the lawn instead?"
Mental PJ Hogan is back! Thunderclap, drum roll, loud hosannas... or do I mean "Yawn, drumming fingernails, look of indifference"? This is the first time Hogan has directed his own screenplay since his breakthrough with Muriel's Wedding, and I have to say I'd much, much have preferred another Confessions of a Shopaholic. A sweetly naive Australian wife and mother can't figure out why her husband is so rarely round the house (it's because he's a womanising bastard) or why her daughters are so skittish around her (it's because she projects a smothering aura of desperate neediness). In her fantasy version of family life, everyone spends as much time together as possible, singing choice numbers from The Sound of Music. We get to hear a few of these, flipping from her point of view (glorious music swells, throats open, harmonies rise to the heavens) to her daughters' ("Oh god, Mum's outside in the yard singing again!"). These sequences have the true PJ Hogan feel - they're crazy, somewhat random, and there's a spark of genius to them. But the spark never kindles. There are a lot of randomly crazy things going on in this film, and none of them catch fire. Toni Collette is fun as the mad nanny who drifts into town and sets out to save the family from themselves, Sound of Music style, but the role is incoherently written, and the film doesn't hang together nearly well enough for this not to matter. In the right mood - by which I mean if you were feeling really happy and you'd had quite a lot to drink - you could enjoy this, because it's oddball, it has a bit of energy, and it means well. But it's pretty forgettable. 2/5 DL
The Met: Live in HD Launching the 2012-2013 season is Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, a comedy of lovelorn romance, blossoming female independence and outrageous quackery. Opening here just over a fortnight after the filmed performance, it delivers, as ever, production values and singing that are reliably excellent, and an interpretation of surprising substance – principally because it doesn’t over-egg the comedy. There are still the insertions of backstage peeks, interviews and nods to sponsors, to be enjoyed or endured depending on your taste, but this one is fronted by Deborah Voigt and seems crisper and more on point; and it is, after all, a small price to pay for access to such great talent. There are eleven more productions from now through to July, including Otello, Aida, Parsifal and Rigoletto. It seems the Met has recovered enough from Robert Lepage’s Ring Cycle to have him back for The Tempest, and Voigt herself will perform Cassandra in Berlioz’s Les Troyens. If you haven’t discovered this wonderful series yet, then go on – spoil yourself. Cinemas, dates and sessions on www.nzmetopera.com 4/5 HW
Monsieur Lazhar Despite its title and classroom setting, this is not just a film about teaching or teacher-pupil relationships, but a film about grieving: its different manifestations, and the ways we get through it. Lazhar, an Algerian refugee taken on as a replacement teacher at a Montreal school, is faced with a class struggling to come to grips with the death of their former teacher. Restoring structure to their lives gently but firmly, he encourages them to express their feelings. On the one hand his ways of doing this seem almost inadvertent, but on the other, as we learn about his past, they might perhaps be just as much a source of healing for him. None of this is spelt out; the film is understated and often oblique, relying on the appeal and naturalness of its actors to carry us through the story and deliver its portrait of quiet human compassion. 3.5/5 HW
NT Live: The Last of the Haussmans Imagine having your first play accepted for production by the National Theatre. Actor-turned-playwright Stephen Beresford hit the jackpot and it’s not hard to see why. His family dramedy suggests at least shrewd observation if not first-hand experience (you have to wonder what his own family’s like), which he’s turned into a situation and characters that are sometimes painfully recognizable. It’s a not unfamiliar set-up: family (the incomparable Julie Walters as an aging child of the 60s mother, with Helen McCrory – The Queen’s Cherie Blair – and Rory Kinnear as her children) are brought together when mother takes ill, and out crawl all the issues they’ve had with each other. But not in a cruel or lacerating fashion; this is at heart a comedy, and while not downplaying the conflicts, any “messages” are kept light, even a bit banal. The strength of the play and Howard Davies’s direction is the crackling dialogue, in which bickering is elevated almost to art, especially when delivered with such timing and nuance by this cast. They’re a joy to watch and listen to. They can even get away with milking a second laugh from the play’s funniest line. And the production supports them with its own well-oiled timing and sprawling version of a crumbling family pile. Another brilliantly executed piece in the current series of NT Live – with Timon of Athens and The Count of Monte Cristo to come – and some will be pleased to know that host Emma Freud’s wittering is kept to a minimum this time. 4.5/5 HW
Paranormal Activity 4 I saw the first one, jumped in all the right places and thought it a fun way to deliver chills and thrills (strategically-placed handicams capturing things going bump in the night). Missed the next two, so probably missed links between backstories and characters, but nothing crucial to being able to get into PA4. The trouble is, story and motive are thin and don’t make much sense; they’re there just to set up situations for the frights to happen. I know, frights are what the franchise is about, but this time round there were too many cheap ones, and, frankly, they were neither clever nor fresh. 1.5/5 HW
Robot & Frank One of two highly entertaining films opening today centered on a charismatic aging rogue, attempting a come-back against the odds. But where Barrymore is so thoroughly focused on Christopher Plummer's character that no one else even gets onto the screen, this odd confection creates and peoples a whole near-future world for Frank Langella's retired cat burglar to rage against. A+ for effort. But actually - Langella is so very much the best thing in the film that everyone else, even the reliable Susan Sarandon, seems a little beside the point. Frank is cranky, belligerent, and far from thrilled when his son decides to buy him an elder-care robot. Then he discovers the robot can be taught to pick locks. The film has no very clear idea what it is - sentimental odd-couple comedy? poignant late-life drama? - but Langella knows exactly what Frank is, and makes him vivid, likable, and exasperating. This is not quite the next big Older Audiences Movie, but it's well worth checking out. 3.5/5 DL
Safety Not Guaranteed Very hard film to anatomise without crushing its gentle charm: ideally you'd go to it knowing nothing except that it's an indie comedy, starring Mark Duplass (also on screen at the moment in Your Sister's Sister) and Aubrey Plaza (whose character here is like a rounded out version of her hilariously deadpan office assistant in Parks and Recreation). If none of that turns you against the film (there are people who'd swim oceans to avoid Duplass; their loss) then seriously, just front up. I'm taking the less-is-more road with this review partly, I admit, because I find the film a very hard one to write about; it has a lovely, very simple idea at its core, and most of its success in developing it lies in what it doesn't do. It's like an exercise in negative conceptual space - the process of watching it has a very large element of seeing all the places it could go, and discovering the small, perfectly formed story it opts for. So rather than describe it in even the usual amount of somewhat sketchy detail, I'm opting for a reaction shot: me, walking out of the theatre, smiling a smile that lasted for days. 4.5/5 DL
The Sapphires Almost a musical - the four superb actresses who make up the eponymous 1960s Koori girl group have a way of dropping into song when life gets too intense for ordinary speech - but, crucially, not quite. Somehow Wayne Blair's adaptation of Tony Briggs' play stays just the right side of the film-about-musicians/musical line, meaning that instead of reaching for the suspend-your-disbelief-here hooks whenever these moments loom, you can treat them as genuinely illustrative of character. These are women for whom music is a refuge, as well as a joy. They have a lot to take refuge from; the film is set only one year after Australia finally got round to granting Aborigines the vote, and though white Australia's hard-boiled racism doesn't dominate the story, it's always there, a highly toxic background radiation. So the fact that the film is mostly joyful could seem contemptibly unrealistic, a denial of what this generation of indigenous Australians lived through. It doesn't play that way. Despite some moments of slightly forced melodrama and a number of plot threads that don't really go anywhere, this is one of those life-celebrating films you can feel good about taking your kids and your elderly relatives to. 4/5 DL
Searching For Sugar Man The artist known as Rodriguez came out of nowhere, and disappeared just as quickly. In the early ’70s, the Detroit-born singer-songwriter released two albums of politically conscious folk-rock. He then promptly dropped off the radar, leading to greatly exaggerated rumours about his death. Self-immolation, one said; a gunshot wound to the head, went another—he had apparently committed suicide on stage after ending a set with a song from his début record, Cold Fact, titled “Forget It.” (Its chorus—“thanks for your time / then you can thank me for mine / and after that's said /forget it”—is repeated in the run-out groove on side B as a spoken-word addendum, a pre-emptive goodbye to his then-miniscule fan-base.) His work was well received by critics, but both albums failed to chart. Sales were dismal, and Rodriguez was quickly forgotten in the US. He was, however, world-famous in Apartheid-era South Africa, as an emotionally affecting new documentary by the Swedish television producer Malik Bendjelloul shows. Searching for Sugar Man examines the myth-making that surrounded Rodriguez, and the curious, unsought fame he garnered in a country besieged by racial tensions. The film hinges on extensive interviews with two of Rodriguez’s biggest fans, and comes to document the act of fandom (and the often attendant insatiable quest for knowledge) as much as it does Rodriguez’s underappreciated musicianship and the unusual, all-too-short-lived intersection of Motown and folk music. (Side-note: Cold Fact producer Dennis Coffey was a session musician in the Funk Brothers, whose story is lovingly detailed in Paul Justman’s wonderful 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown.) The horn and string arrangements on the song which gives the film its title are undeniably straight from ‘motor city,’ but they’re also sometimes eerie, accompanied by psychedelic effects that sneak around the corners of the singer’s voice before returning him to Earth—then pushing him away again into a sea of echoes and reverb. Rodriguez’s second album, Coming from Reality, was recorded in London with Steve Rowland, the man who discovered Peter Frampton. On some of its tracks, the psychedelic-funk aspect is pushed to the fore: the opener, “Climb Up on My Music,” sounds remarkably like a Jimi Hendrix scorcher. Rodriguez’s story, as Bendjelloul tells it, is similarly electrifying and unpredictable. Disappointingly, Searching for Sugar Man is formally uninspired (save a few brief animated sequences), and it fails to adequately engage with the political aspect of Rodriguez’s unexpected fandom—ground covered far better in Joe Berliger’s documentary of earlier this year, Under African Skies, about the enduring impact of Paul Simon’s Graceland. On the whole, though, Bendjelloul takes delight in introducing viewers to a remarkable, largely unknown pop-cultural figure. 4/5 HL
The Sessions When Berkeley poet and journalist Mark O’Brien set out to lose his virginity at age 38, he hired a sex surrogate. This is not, we are firmly told, a prostitute, but a professional therapist. He chose to do it this way because since childhood he had been confined by polio to an iron lung. He published a story about the experience, and that’s been turned into a film that impresses with its cool, respectful approach as well as its warm humanity. John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) and Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets) are ideal casting for Mark and therapist Cheryl, overcoming the episodic nature of the story with the emotional arc of their characters and the courage and authenticity of their performances. Ably supported by a cast that includes some appealing unknowns as well as William H. Macy and Adam Arkin. Not doused in sentiment, but touching; not frivolous, but gently funny. 4/5 HW
Skyfall Out with the old, in with the new – after 50 years you’d expect some refreshing of the franchise, and this 23rd Bond has grasped the nettle pretty well. Diehard fans may mourn the passing of the sillier, jokier days, and find the moodier, broodier Bond less exciting, but times have changed and saving the world is a serious, anxious business calling for serious, conflicted saviours. Look at all those cop shows on telly with their flawed protagonists. Daniel Craig’s Bond doesn’t quite go there, yet – he’s still got the girls, gadgets and glamorous locations – but you definitely get the feeling there’s a more complicated character being set up here. Also spudding in are some new cast members, drawn from the best of British, and as the Villain, Javier Bardem once again has fun with hair and makeup. As for the action: toned down, easier to follow than that Bourne busyness. 3.5/5 HW
Taken 2 Directed by the appropriately named Olivier Megaton, this gratuitous, bombastic sequel to the 2008 Liam Neeson vehicle is markedly less coherent, both visually and narratively, than its predecessor. It also contains about 85% more blatant xenophobia. In the first film, which was a passable if bog-standard action movie, Neeson played an ex-CIA agent who, through applying a “particular set of skills,” rescues his kidnapped daughter from the Albanian mafia in Paris. (Tagline: “They took his daughter. He’ll take their lives.” Truth in advertising: he did take some of their lives!) In Taken 2, the gang of Albanians—headed by the father of the main (read: slowly, painfully executed) bad guy from the first movie—tracks down and kidnaps Neeson’s character to exact revenge. (Tagline: “First they took his daughter. Now they’re coming for him.” This undersells the movie a bit—this time they take his wife too, and it’s the daughter’s turn, with her father’s Bond-esque guidance, to play rogue agent.) The first film stood on its own as a passable if by-the-numbers action-thriller—it even had one of those great cloying, faux-heartwarming endings that Hollywood adores. Taken was competently—even elegantly—shot, narratively sound, and, at times, genuinely exciting. Perhaps most astoundingly for an action movie with Eastern-European bad guys, it wasn’t noticeably racist. (The dialogue was pretty clichéd, but you can’t win ’em all.) The sequel throws all that good work out the window: when you’re not slack-jawed at the extreme Islamophobia on display in the characterisation of the bad-guy Albanians and Turks, you’ll be disoriented by the shakier-than-a-Paul-Greengrass-movie camerawork, and puzzled by the numerous nonsensical plot turns. With references to the first film crowbarred-in, the sequel is clearly an attempt at creating the most insipid action-movie franchise of all time; the screenwriter, Robert Mark Kamen, admitted in a recent interview that a third film is already in the works. (Suggested tagline: “They took his daughter. Then they took him. Now we’re going to take your money and give you 3D-induced headaches!”) Kamen and writer-producer Luc Besson, who have worked together since The Fifth Element, are clearly just in it for the pay-check at this point in their careers—coherent storytelling and innovative, interesting filmmaking be damned. Would that Besson, who gave us thrills aplenty in the characters of Nikita and Léon, gave up producing kids’ flicks and writing junk like this and returned to making sturdy, creative action movies for grown-ups! 0.5/5 HL
Tatarikihi: the Children of Parihaka Following its warm reception at the NZ International Film Festival, a documentary by Paora Joseph about a very special journey embarks on a road trip of its own around the country. Tatarakihi means “cicadas”, an apt and affectionate name for children at Parihaka in Taranaki, and it’s also apt that it should be the children, the mokopuna of the passive resistors of the 1880s, who are at the centre of the film. Famously, it was children bearing white feathers of peace who greeted the Pakeha invaders in 1881. And in 2009, some thirty 5 to 12 year-olds boarded a bus and retraced the journey of those tupuna captured and transported to the South Island for 19 years of forced labour. They see firsthand their living conditions and where they were put to work, and meet the local iwi who gave them support. On their return, their poetry, songs and drawings form the basis of the soundtrack, narration and visual telling of the history, woven through archival photographs. For them, it’s a story of learning, reunion and remembering. For the viewer, it illuminates and extends our knowledge beyond the sometimes glib references to “Parihaka”, and if because of its somewhat repetitive structure it flags a little in the last third, it’s still a moving work, told simply and most definitely from the heart. Playing through November in a variety of venues (check www.parihakafilm.com for towns, dates and sessions as well as useful background). 3/5 HW
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 When I told people I was off to watch this, I got several replies along the lines of, "Can't wait for the autopsy". Um... but I like Stephanie Meyer's sparkly vampires, I failed to reply, this being as déclassé an admission for a sentient adult as owning up to liking Justin Bieber. ( ...I don't like Justin Bieber. Just to be clear). So: the saga endeth. When last we saw her, Bella the Abjectly Devoted Girl had just woken up from her enchanted sleep, having finally been rather-more-than-kissed by her pale and gloomy prince. Her eyes flashed bright red, and the credits rolled, and that was the end of Breaking Dawn Part 1. Part 2 opens at that exact moment. (Well, not quite - it actually opens with a soaring montage of mountainous winter landscape shots. Stephanie Meyer has - I insist on this - her strengths, but descriptive writing isn't one of them; a vivid sense of place is one of the film series's better gifts to her stories). Bella in this moment has achieved everything she wants from life: she's immortal, she's nearly indestructible, her senses are inhumanly keen, and these are only fringe benefits. She has the man she wants, she has a daughter, the man she rejected has made his peace with it, and everyone gets to live happily ever after, for a more than usually literal value of "ever after". True, she has that pesky longing to drink human blood, but even that turns out to be manageable. She has every reason to be happy, and this is a bit of a problem for director Bill Condon, because if there's one thing Kristin Stewart isn't great at, it's doing happy. Things are (of course) going to fall to pieces in the second half, and in far more cinematic ways than they do in most of the earlier films; Condon is going to get to stage a big vampire battlefield showdown. But first he has to make lemonade in the absence of any lemons. What he does have is Bella's new superpowers. She's spent the last four films in desperate need of male protectors, and all of a sudden she's blindingly fast and stronger than anyone else in the film. Worth exploring a little? Meyer does in the book, and Condon has a go at adapting these scenes, but he makes a surprisingly bad fist of it. We get one very brief sequence viewed through her newly sharp eyes - sudden zooms in onto tiny details of things, useful as an illustration of how disorienting these powers are in the first few seconds after she acquires them. But then, nothing. We get a few moments of her zapping across the screen in a blur - there's no logic to this, since the only people present to observe her in these moments can move just as fast as she can, and would have no trouble visually tracking her movements - and hardly any scenes where the rest of the world seems to slow to a crawl. This isn't trivial: of the various chances the book offers Condon to show us how Bella has gained agency within her world, seeing how much more time she has to think before she has to react to things is the most obvious one a director could have fun with, and he barely bothers to try. (For a sense of how easy it is to convey this sense of power and control, look at this scene from Smallville). The film leans instead on we're-so-happy emotional beats centering on Stewart and Robert Pattinson, which is to say that the first half feels sadly lifeless. All the more welcome (and, by this point, surprising) that the second half kicks in with so much energy. Not to give away exactly how Condon handles the book's climactic face-off between the Good Vampires and the Bad Vampires - but the fact that there's something to give away is revealing enough. Condon manages to be faithful to the book while simultaneously staging a superbly well realised extended action sequence - fast-moving yet coherent, a combination which far too few directors even seem to try for - and in a way which offers fans the chance to be seriously surprised. There's a great deal of skill on display here, though I was too busy enjoying myself to think much about it at the time. Suffice to say the film ends on a sufficiently rousing note to make up for its earlier sluggishness. 3.5/5 DL
Where Do We Go Now? In 2007, the Lebanese actress-turned-filmmaker Nadine Labaki made her directorial début with Caramel, a romantic comedy set in Beirut. Her new film is both more resolute in its aims and more assuredly composed than was its comparatively frivolous predecessor. She again focusses on a group of women, but illuminates politics. The women plot schemes to stop the Muslim and Christian men of their isolated village—who hear of religious tensions nearby breaking into unrest—from killing one another. This is no war film, though: writing again with Jihad Hojeily, Labaki skilfully inserts light-hearted musical sequences to counterbalance the film’s thought-provoking moral and religious drama. (The inspiration for the song-and-dance routines, she says, comes from having watched Grease and animated Disney movies as a child.) An air of fable pervades: the precise country and time period are never named, and the deliberately fanciful title reinforces this spirit. 4/5 HL
Your Sister's Sister Lynn Shelton is an actress-turned-filmmaker who first appeared in Nights and Weekends in 2009, and also appears in the up-coming (and excellent) Safety Not Guaranteed. Her new film as director, Your Sister’s Sister—which, like her début of a few years ago, Humpday, stars Mark Duplass—is loosely speaking a mumblecore film. Loosely speaking? It eschews some central tropes of the movement and retains others. It has dialogue improvised around a loosely scripted outline; handheld and often intimate camerawork, and, at its core, a naturalistic, confessional mood. Where it differs from the bulk of previous mumblecore is in its casting and setting. The narrative, which begins with a humorous outburst at a memorial service, is driven by a depressed thirtysomething man’s quest for a little peace and quiet. The film is set in Seattle, and the Pacific Northwest provides, as it did for Kelly Reichardt in Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, for the observation of some wonderfully calming scenery. Emily Blunt—speaking here in her native British accent—plays Iris. She sends her strung-out BFF, Jack (Duplass), to her family’s ‘getaway’ cabin for some “alone time,” but, when he gets there, he finds her sister Hannah (the wonderful Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married) is already there, to get some rest and relaxation of her own. Jack and Hannah’s conversation, and in fact the film as a whole, comes to settle on the relationship between Iris and Jack (hence the circuitous title)—although Hannah’s position as an unexpected third wheel certainly figures prominently. Shelton, whose technical proficiency behind the camera has progressed markedly since Humpday, brings some nice touches to proceedings: handsome establishing shots which last a beat longer or shorter than we expect; a deft comprehension, in editing and coverage, of the rhythms of her actors’ line deliveries and the nuances of their interactions; and continuing shooting some scenes longer than another director might have thought was necessary. In diverging from mumblecore traditions, and discarding some of the movement’s less mature customs, Shelton has produced a thoroughly enjoyable indie comedy that is refreshingly distinct from the overly colourised forced quirk of the Fox Searchlight school of ‘Hollywood-indies.’ (They began, essentially, with Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine, and have come to seem rote in their design; the latest among them, Ruby Sparks, is borderline unwatchable.) Your Sister’s Sister is witty and, at times, even touching. Its major downside is a third-act montage deployed with a heavy hand—but the fleeting ending, which requires something of an alertness to Shelton’s inventive framing, is sublime. A longer version of this review, going into the history and evolution of the mumblecore movement, here. 4.5/5 HL
Click here for more stories and reviews by David Larsen, here for more stories and reviews by Helene Wong.
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