Now Showing, November 1, 2012by David Larsen
New film reviews this week: Alex Cross, Arbitrage, How To Meet Girls From A Distance, The Met Live, Tatarakihi: the Children of Parihaka
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 and 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
The Bourne Legacy Don't bother. Unless you're liable to find it fascinating to watch a franchise which alchemised style into substance crumble into substance-free style in the hands of a director who clearly doesn't understand his own strengths. In which case do bother, but be aware you're attending a car crash. Tony Gilroy co-wrote all three of the previous Bourne films. He also wrote and directed Michael Clayton, for which he deserves, and got, praise, and Duplicity, for which he deserves, and got, a slap on the wrist. In co-writing and directing this attempt at freeing the Bourne action franchise from its dependence on Matt Damon, he completes a disastrous three film trajectory: from restrained competence to self-defeating albeit still mildly enjoyable cleverness, to the least thrilling thriller imaginable. You don't realise just how good the Damon Bourne films were until you see someone manage to reproduce their look and basic shape without capturing any of their excitement. The first scene shows us a man hanging suspended under water, an obvious enough move - "Look! We meet our Jason Bourne replacement doing exactly what Jason Bourne was doing in the first and last scenes of his trilogy!" - but not necessarily a bad one. Except Gilroy supplies us with no reason for the scene to exist: it's there purely to claim Bourne status. This sort of thing is going to happen all through the film. The figure stirs, kicks to the surface, emerges. It's Jeremy Renner. He personifies the curious should-work-but-doesn't quality of the film, because on paper he's just about the perfect guy to replace Damon, a rugged everyman actor with some substance to him and the physique to be a plausible action hero. But here he's simply bland. He makes you see how much charisma Damon brings to what appears to be a very understated performance. Similarly with the action sequences. The stories of the Damon films are so simple they're only just there; the films' power to entertain is a function of well conceived moment-by-moment forwards-driving action, built up out of good choreography, good acting, good camera work, good editing, an expertly composed score... the list of elements that work just right is a long one, and every item on it matters. The governing idea is that Bourne, frequently a lousy strategist, is a tactical genius: put him in danger and he'll think faster than the people trying to catch him, and also faster than the audience, and yet his decisions will be comprehensible, and when we see where they're leading, we'll go "Ah-ha! Of course!" This is hard to pull off. Watch Gilroy's film try, and you'll realise just how hard. Again and again, we can see where Renner is going long before he gets there, and we're given no particular reason to care whether or not he makes it. Jason Bourne was a man trying to assume moral responsibility for his past; the films didn't make a huge deal of this, but it was always clear that we were meant to compare him with his government official would-be nemeses, avatars of the out-of-control post-9/11 American security apparatus. Watch Green Zone, which does make a huge deal of America's dubious response to 9/11, and you'll see how badly Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass needs someone like Gilroy to temper his preacher tendencies. But The Bourne Legacy demonstrates how much more badly Gilroy needs someone like Greengrass. Here the conspiratorial security world is a vast, stultifying presence, full of secrets which will turn out to be trivial once we've laboured our way through reams of cryptic exposition, and one secret which has very non-trivial implications, none of which Gilroy seems alert to. Without giving the plot away - though it would save you so much time if I did - Gilroy decides to center his tale on the issue of just how men like Jason Bourne could function at such a seemingly superhuman level. Most action thrillers have the sense to leave this awkward question strictly alone; in foregrounding it, Gilroy does not reduce the absurdity of all those professionally aimed bullets that somehow never quite hit our hero, but he does manage to burden himself with a boring, no-stakes plotline. He also takes the series a long way down the road towards science fiction dystopia, and with no apparent awareness of having done so. There was no fundamental reason why this franchise rejig should not have resulted in another sleek, high octane pop culture classic - except for the most fundamental one of all, which is that good action movies are not easy to make. Someone please tell Tony Gilroy, before he botches another one. 2.5/5 DL
Doctor Faustus A Christopher Marlowe enthusiast can go a long time between drinks. I can't remember the last time one of his plays was staged in this country. So the chance to see a decent production of the most famous of them all - remember the audition scene in Shakespeare In Love, where a frustrated Will Shakespeare has to sit still while dozens of hopeful actors try to impress him with the "topless towers of Illium" speech? - should not be sniffed at. This is the third and last in the current season of Shakespeare's Globe live stagings, using (mostly) Elizabethan performance conventions; the groundlings pressing up against the stage are constantly in shot, and the actors play up to them nicely. Arthur Darvill - Rory on Doctor Who - stands out as a terse, angry Mephistopheles, the devil who bargains Faustus into damnation. The rest of the cast range from good to good enough, and the production doesn't entirely succeed at putting a modern spin on Marlowe's funny-in-their-day comic interludes, or at helping audiences deal with things like the masque of the seven deadly sins, a protracted vision of the splendours of hell which would have been a coup de theatre 500 years ago, but which now looks like a theologically twee Saturday Night Live sketch. The upshot is that the play ends up feeling a bit more remote from contemporary experience than your average Shakespeare production; students of the period should dive right in, but general audiences may struggle. 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
Hope Springs Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carrell - of course hope springs. How could it not? Sorry. This is one of those films that mistakes timidity for restraint. Granted, there are pleasures to be had in watching Streep and Jones play a married couple trying (very reluctantly, in his case) to regain the spark, under the tutelage of Carrell's relationship counselor. And granted, there are so few mainstream films about older people that even the mediocre ones could be said to serve a demographic need. But enough with the granting things: I almost fell asleep watching this. Vanessa Taylor's script takes the perfectly reasonable proposition that the smallest of communication problems can look huge from the inside, and uses it as an excuse for presenting us with two people who have very little to learn, and are going to spend a very long time learning it. (Taylor's not-exactly-preparing-herself-for-this-challenge credits include Alias and Game of Thrones, and it may be worth mentioning that she's decades younger than her characters here). Streep and Jones make their holding pattern marriage look real, but beyond a certain point they can't make it look interesting; wasting their talents like this should be a criminal offence. Carrell is given so little to do, and there's so little else to focus on, that I spent a lot of the film wondering whether his role represents a Robin Williams-style sideways step into a Disney-level nice guy persona. Director David Frankel worked with Streep on The Devil Wears Prada, so clearly he's not afraid of films with a little bite. But the more relevant detail here is that he also helmed Marley and Me. If you find that a recommendation, you and I do not have a shared understanding of the words "saccharine", "sentimental", or "boring", and you should probably ignore my view that this film merits all three. 3/5 DL
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
Hysteria In the Victorian era, “hysteria” was a medical condition with wide-ranging symptoms and causes. It affected only women, and one ‘cure’ for it was a device invented in the late 19th century by Dr. Mortimer Granville: the vibrator. (It was also known as “Granville’s hammer,” apparently.) The bulk of Tanya Wexler’s film is a predictable, dry romantic comedy steeped in period-piece design and lush costumes, but shot without much care for actually showcasing those sets or costumes. A sour-looking Rupert Everett plays the doctor, whose story takes up far too little of the film’s 90-odd minutes. The film is annoyingly prim, and far too bashful about its central subject—the female orgasm—to be interesting or insightful, despite attempts to enlighten us as to women’s liberation in Victorian England. Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, and Felicity Jones star alongside with Maggie Gyllenhaal—who, expertly putting on a British accent, outshines them all. (She is, in fact, the only thing that makes the film worth seeing.) 2/5 HL
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
Italian Film Festival The 17th annual Italian Film Festival opened in Auckland recently with a screening of Welcome to the South (Benvenuti al Sud), a remake of the 2008 French comedy Welcome to the Sticks. The festival, which consists of 20 films from 2010 and 2011, continues until October 14th. Robert De Niro is the only high-profile name in any of the films on offer; he has a headline role in the third entry in the Manual of Love franchise, Ages of Love. Toni Servillo, who will be familiar to arthouse-goers from his work with the director Paolo Sorrentino, appears in the political thriller The Jewel. I’ve seen only one of the titles on offer, a road movie called Basilicata Coast to Coast, but cannot even slightly recommend it; I was shocked to learn it wasn’t made for TV, given its low production values and episodic, hokey script. Usually when a regional-cultural festival like this rolls around—the French, German, Spanish, and Mexican ones of recent years come to mind—I’m able to pick out a few titles I’d been anticipating from the global festival circuit; that is sadly not the case with the line-up at hand. Aside from the sole repertory screening, Cinema Paradiso, none of this year’s selections were familiar to me.
Festivals like this are usually low-budget affairs, so it’s odd that the organisers would favour quantity—20 films in a two-and-a-half-week period is a lot, especially when they’re playing a single venue—over quality. One of the major supporters of the New Zealand festival is the distributor Palace Films; a glance at the schedule of the touring Australian cultural festival they organise, which even incorporates advance screenings of Woody Allen’s new Rome-set comedy, makes ours seem paltry in comparison. The local festival presents, I think, a prime opportunity to showcase a film such as Matteo Garrone’s Reality to those who missed its direct-from-Cannes NZFF screenings. I’m not suggesting that a limited-budget affair like this screens, for example, something on the order of Marco Bellochio’s Bella Adormentata—but surely there are only so many rom-coms and light farces audiences can handle? HL
Visit the festival’s website for more information on its 2012 programme, which tours Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Nelson, Hawke’s Bay, Tauranga, and Hamilton in October and November.
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
Love If you’re a fan of the space rock group Angels & Airwaves, you’ll know they did an album called Love, followed by Love: Part Two, so no doubt you’ll be hanging out to see the movie they produced of the same name, with their music on the soundtrack. Me, I knew nothing about them (wrong demographic) and on the strength of this film I won’t be rushing to download either album. There’s nothing awful about the soundtrack; it fits perfectly well, but I’m very happy with my vinyl Pink Floyds, thank you very much – Pink Floyd being one of the band’s acknowledged influences. And the film, while a curiosity of ambition, is undermined in the end by its own influences. A lone astronaut abandoned in space, unravelling physically and mentally then having an epiphany ... yep, there’s Major Tom in his tin can, there’s Moon, and most of all there’s Kubrick – except as sci-fi existential fantasy it falls short of delivering that scale of thematic heft. 2001: A Space Odyssey might raise more questions than it answers, but writer-director William Eubank heads off in the opposite direction and leaves no room for debate: he inserts random documentary-style interviews plus a voice-over at the end telling us what the film’s about, depriving us of the deliciousness of working it through ourselves. A failure of nerve, but also a failure to express it cinematically. As well, there’s a parallel story set during the American Civil War that seems intended to link time, space and characters, but that, too, stays opaque. Still, it’s a first feature, an indie project that feels like an earnest labour of love, and it was inevitably going to be a big ask to take on Kubrick. Happily, what it does do is demonstrate a visual and auditory sensibility that could yet evolve into serving story substance as well as directorial style. 2/5 HW
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
Moonrise Kingdom New Penzance Island, 1965: Wes Anderson’s summer of love. On the cusp of adolescence and enamoured of one another, our protagonists Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop, portrayed by first-time actor and actress Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, elope—but only to the far side of the island. After an exchange of letters in which he gives her detailed, orienteering-like instructions on how, when, and precisely where to meet, they walk toward each other in a field—he clutching a bunch of wildflowers, her carrying a kitten in a wicker picnic-basket. As a ferocious storm approaches, a search party is assembled; this comprises Sam’s scoutmaster (Ed Norton), searching with some of his troops, and Suzy’s parents, played by the ever-wonderful Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, as well as the island’s sole police officer, played by—who else?—Bruce Willis. The soundtrack is made up chiefly of music by Benjamin Britten (his didactic 1946 opus The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra features prominently) but also makes use of a couple of Hank Williams tunes and moreover, at their makeshift seaside retreat, the film’s lovebirds dance to a 45 of Françoise Hardy’s “Le temps de l’amour.” Anderson employs other Britten pieces on the soundtrack, but the pièce de résistance at its core is Alexandre Desplat’s score. It comprises a suite, “The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe,” that, in part, interpolates and reshapes, with Desplat’s idiosyncrasies, some of the motifs in Britten’s Guide—and it stands with Desplat’s compositions for The Tree of Life as some of his best work to date. The film is grounded by the heartfelt, simple love story at its centre, but this is still a wholly Andersonian world: every frame is meticulously composed, every part of the mise-en-scène painstakingly pored-over. This may just be the American master’s best film yet. Longer review here. 5/5 HL
On The Road There’s a famous video-clip of Jack Kerouac on The Steve Allen Show in 1959 in which the author reads from the final paragraph of his greatest and best-known novel. The footage has been used in countless documentaries and films, and when you hear him read this particular passage, backed by Allen’s improv-jazz pianism, it’s transcendent. When Sam Riley recites it at the close of Walter Salles’ new film adaptation, you can tell the actor has listened over and over to recordings and seen videos of Kerouac reading and speaking—he’s attempting to perfectly imitate Kerouac’s mélange of accents, trying to enumerate into just how many syllables Kerouac broke down Dean’s last name in that final puff of dynamism: “Dean Mo-r-i-ar-ty.” Riley’s over-reliance on imitation in this coda is the film’s most glaring miscalculation—but there are numerous pleasures elsewhere. Kerouac put the novel together in a three-week burst of writing, in April of 1951, on “a scroll of paper three inches thick made up of one single-spaced, unbroken 120-ft. long paragraph,” a friend later recalled. He apparently typed at 100 words per minute and didn’t sleep much. This narrative-via-stream-of-consciousness resulted in a haphazard assemblage, an off-the-cuff way of relating the story. Salles, who tracked a more politicised road journey in The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), hasn’t discarded this exuberant mood in his adaptation, but he has taken its characters and given them story-arcs: as in most movies, they transition and develop as the plot unfurls. Riley, a British actor who was perfectly cast as Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s Joy Division biopic Control, expertly puts on an accent as the novel’s narrator and ersatz Kerouac, Sal Paradise. Garrett Hedlund (TRON: Legacy) plays Dean Moriarty, On the Road’s “hero-saint”; like Riley, Hedlund’s performance suffers occasionally: the actor has the physicality but lacks the hip sensibility needed to fully embody the character. Mary-Lou, Dean’s pleasure-seeking sixteen-year-old girlfriend, is played by Kristen Stewart, who, as she did in Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, here evinces a wry understanding of her character’s impulses and needs. The rest of the cast includes Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen (wonderfully sneering in the character of William S. Burroughs stand-in ‘Old Bull Lee’), and amusing, if brief, cameos from Steve Buscemi and Elizabeth Moss. The cut that played in the film festival, and the cut that I saw at a press screening, was 137 minutes; Salles has apparently since edited 15 minutes out of the film for Toronto and for the US market—in the case of the latter, he probably eliminated some of the sex and nudity in order to gain a lower MPAA rating. I’m inclined to think that this editing has probably produced a more satisfying resolution to the film: the aforementioned coda, in which we see Riley tape together pieces of paper to form the now-mythical scroll, feels an unnecessary addition—the film could, without any great loss, done well to have ended a scene or two earlier. The film’s greatest asset, however, above even its frequently infectious, vital performances and sex-, drugs- and jazz-fuelled story, is its cinematography: the wide open roads and luminous vistas that unfurl before this collection of free spirits—we see picture-postcard images of snow-shrouded cars speeding across unworn highways; the rough-and-tumble NYC of the late nineteen-forties, and the sickly heat of Tijuana—are a sight to behold. Longer review here.. 3/5 HL
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
Ruby Sparks Welcome back to the myth of Pygmalion: the male creator, the dream woman who comes to life, the fantasy made flesh. Ovid built it into our cultural bones and it's been played with, in various combinations and permutations, ever since. I'm particularly fond of Geoff Ryman's novel Lust, in which a repressed gay scientist finds he has the power to bring his sexual fantasies to life, and embarks on a string of hilarious, disturbing and ultimately disastrous excursions into the hidden depths of his own unconscious, involving relationships with well realised versions of Alexander the Great, Pablo Picasso, the All Blacks (orgy scene!) and a long list of others. I'd love to believe that Zoe Kazan had read Lust, or had any awareness that fantasy fiction has produced dozens of excellent books exploring the intersection of desire, repression, and creativity; that is, I'd love it if her screenplay for this wan indie romance-drama-comedy-whatever reflected any sense that these are much fished waters. As well as writing the film, she plays the title character, the dream woman of a quote-unquote brilliant young writer named Calvin, who starts writing about her in a fit of anguished loneliness and is first alarmed, then delighted, when she comes to life. I've written at length in the magazine about why I find Paul Dano so very wrong for the role of Calvin, and why this on its own is fatal for the film. As you'll gather from the above, the other target of my extreme frustration in the wake of watching this was Kazan's screenplay. There's an interesting parallel, actually, between Dano's Calvin and the screenplay: Calvin is a bland, boring young instance of one of Hollywood's worst tropes, the genius who's a genius because the film damn well tells you he's a genius, all evidence to the contrary. He has no idea he has a dark side. The film wants to be a sweet love story with just the slightest tinge of darkness, allowing Calvin to behave badly only so he can learn better and earn - perhaps - a happy ending. It seems blissfully ignorant of the degree to which its central conceit commits it to exploring the territory of serial date rape and terminal narcissism, and it never really addresses the question of whether Ruby is a person, or just an aspect of Calvin's own mind. The implications are as unlovely on one side of this equation as they are on the other, but in either case they're interesting. Kazan doesn't want to know. That's interesting in itself, I suppose, but anyone rolling up to this in hopes of either the light-hearted date movie it thinks it is or the serious-minded psychological fantasy it flirts with being is in for a nasty surprise. 2/5 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
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
Two Little Boys The power went down for a few minutes halfway through our screening of the new Sarkies brothers film. "Thank god", said someone in the row behind me. "I'm out of here". Those of us who toughed it out to the end agreed he'd cut and run too soon. The film's second half is actually borderline watchable, and several scenes - notably the one where Gav (Maaka Pohatu) surfs on the back of a dolphin - are even rather good. Having made it through the first half's vigorously banal unpleasantness, it would have been a shame to miss that dolphin... like letting someone slap you in the face for 45 minutes on the promise of a small, perfectly ripe strawberry and then not getting the strawberry. Look, I wanted this to be good. I would have settled for so-so. It's awful. Nige (Bret Mckenzie) and Deano (Hamish Blake) have been best friends since school. Nige is thick as a plank. Deano is only as thick as half a plank, but he's also insanely possessive and defines his life purely in terms of his friendship with Nige. So you've got a manipulative halfwit trying to keep a gormless quarterwit from establishing any other friendships, and Nige, unfortunately for his chances of breaking free of Deano's influence, opens the film by running over a tourist and killing him, and runs to Deano for help. The film invests itself heavily in making you feel Nige's panic, with lots of closeups on Mckenzie's sweaty, twitching features. He feels the world closing in on him like a coffin, and lucky us, we get to feel it with him. Deano is a massively unpleasant character, and the many and lengthy body disposal scenes achieve only a few moments of black comedy, focusing instead on gross-out comedy, and getting stuck for the most part at gross-out. (Great sound design; the meaty thunk of an axe-blade burying itself in a corpse's stomach has never been so clear or so resonant). In the second half, the lads take Nige's friend Gav on a road tour, to keep him away from radio and TV broadcasts about the missing tourist. (Gav has found the tourist's passport in Nige's car, and is not quite as dumb as Nige or Deano: putting two and two together may well be within his powers). Gav, a cheerful, innocent chap, provides the film with a much-needed ray of sunshine, and the scenes in which Deano sets out to give him the best day of his life - a preemptive apology for murdering him, which he has decided is the only way to keep Nige safe - are as close as the Sarkies come to a well judged mix of the comic and the dark. Male infantilism has been one of the standard tropes of Hollywood comedy for a weary long time now. (You have to wonder what's going on with that: some desperate attempt to lower women's expectations so they'll count it as a win if they can find a guy who doesn't need a mother-substitute?) Its intrinsic interest was tapped out ages ago, and this film pretty much puts all its eggs in the basket labeled "watching grown men behave like children is delightfully amusing!" The Southland setting is nicely shot, and in the second half it occasionally provides a welcome distraction from the story. But Nige and Deano are just two more little boys who won't grow up, and their protracted failure to grapple with adult life does not make for pleasant viewing. 2.5/5 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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