Monday, December 5, 2011

attack the block

Attack the Block begins with a bunch of teenage miscreants mugging a young woman named Sam (Jodie Whittaker) at knifepoint in the a London street. During the altercations, an alien shoots from the sky, whereupon the kids beat the thing to death then parade it around on a stick. At this point, you’re pretty much thinking, great, I hope this alien’s friends fly down and kick the shit out of all these kids and claim the tall flats they live in as their base. I, for one, welcomed our new alien overlords.

But then you end up following these kids through their incompetent attempts to defeat the sudden influx of aliens and, dammit, after a while you don’t want them to die after all. Led by moodily attractive teenager Moses (John Boyega), the gang come across as quite threatening to begin with until you realise that actually they are all pretty incompetent because they are, well, yoof. It’s Guy Fawkes Night, and they were out to create havoc and striving to be part of the gang led by the block’s main criminal mastermind, Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter). Just as they finally strike it lucky enough to actually be on their path to, well, jail, more aliens rain down on them and everything changes, seeing the gang on the wrong side of everyone, from the police to Hi-Hatz to an irate Sam.

Having kids be the protagonists for a horror/sci-fi movie is pretty interesting, especially when director Joe Cornish chooses to be open about the facts that not all accidental alien-hunters are going to be as skilled as the team from Predators. These are kids who don’t have guns or fighting skills, but instead heed the call to arms with baseball bats, firecrackers, kitchen knives and false bravado. When shit gets real and they finally twig that they’re out of their depth, they can’t call for help because they’ve all run out of mobile phone credit; when they speed down staircases on their pushbikes they inevitably crash into the ground because they are not bicycle parkour enthusiasts. Despite the fact that the majority live quite standard home lives, getting told off by their mothers or told to keep out of trouble by their nannas, they’re all too desperately rough to turn to the grown-ups when being chased by deadly critters. And that’s the other thing, with them being kids: even though the movie is kind of funny, it’s not a balls-out comedy which makes it all the more surprising when you realise that not all of the teenagers are going to live out the film.

The film briefly touches on the state of British youth, when Moses speculates that the aliens have been sent by the Feds to kill the African-British because “we’re not killing each other fast enough”. It’s a nice try, but the fact that the kids, apart from Moses himself, seem to have fairly happy upbringings and some kind of self-awareness of what they’re getting into, means the movie doesn’t go far enough down that path, and you’re not even sure if any of the gang have learned a lesson by the end of it.

Nice touches are the aliens themselves: neon-fanged black holes of colour with no depth, like an orang-utan shagged a yeti in a dark cupboard using a glow-in-the-dark condom with a hole in it. The idea that colour shading would be different on a different hadn’t occurred to me and I thought it was really interesting, to be honest; it makes them shadowy and creepy even when they’re in a brightly-lit flat. It isn’t laugh-a-minute funny (which, as it’s from the writer of Hot Fuzz and stars Nick Frost, I was expecting), but it’s pretty amusing and the dialogue between the kids (who are also great actors) can be pretty hilarious at times. The two nine-year-old boys looking up to the gang are probably the comedy relief, flinging around tough phrases in high-pitched voices. It passes the Bechdel Test and the women in it—Sam, an elderly neighbour, and the girls the gang are all interested in—are pretty kick-ass, either physically or verbally.

Nick Frost’s high billing probably has to do with his star power more than his subdued role as a stoner in the only “safe house” in the building, though he and befringed try-hard Brewis (Luke Treadaway) smoke their way through some fairly funny moments. It was a fun movie that somehow missed a vital point with me, though I can’t think exactly what; I’d recommend it happily, even though it wasn’t quite cranked up all the way on either the funny, poignant, sci-fi or horror dials.

I give Attack the Block seven out of ten rows of glowing teeth. Because rows of teeth are SCARY.

Monday, November 28, 2011

the ides of march

Despite my general lack of knowledge about the intricacies of politics, I don’t mind watching movies with a political bent. After I wrote that sentence, I had a think about political movies and realised that they’re mostly satires (and I do love a good opportunity to say “Oooohhh, sick presidential burn”) or thrillers (“No, Mr President! There’s a bomb on Air Force One!”) and political dramas are not that common. Perhaps it’s because it’s a very limited point of view—to discuss politics in depth you often have to know how one particular country’s system works—or maybe because it gets played out on the news every damn day and you need something much more interesting to make people want to pay to see those in power tell lies and wear power suits. The Ides of March succeeded, I’ll hazard a guess, by populating the movie with actors that everyone admires: George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman. These are people who attach their names to things that are generally great, so even if the dramatic ad campaign for The Ides of March didn’t give much away—treachery! shouting! manipulation!—we all knew it would be worthwhile.

And that it is. Sometimes I feel with movies that are a bit out of my reach of knowledge that I will say they’re good just so I don’t appear to have missed the point (not in reviews, dear readers, you know I don’t lie to you—but in conversation); American politics are not my forte, but even so, I felt I had enough of a grasp of what was happening to follow it. And that it a very good thing indeed. George Clooney (who also directed) plays Governor Mike Morris, a Democrat who is not only handsome and charismatic but would clearly never be elected to any kind of office because he holds dear all those things that politicians should—tax the rich, be pro-choice—but never do because they would lose all funding and the conservative vote. It all adds up to someone it’s easy to get behind for the sake of the movie, anyway. It’s the primaries—which means his current battle is against another Democrat, Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell) to see who will win the right to go for the position of president. This whole enemy-within-your-own-party thing is a little strange and something not all countries do, but hey, for the purposes of the movie all you need to know is that Clooney wants to beat that other guy and rule the world, so even if you don’t know what primaries are, it doesn’t really matter. Assisting our beloved George on his campaign trail are his team of media-savvy folk, headed by Paul Zara (Hoffman) and Paul’s 2IC, the boy wonder Stephen Meyers (Oh-My-Gosling.) They do their best to get Morris saying the right things to the right people and round up the team of interns (including the lovely Molly Stearns, played by a very pale Evan Rachel Wood) to lead the way. Elsewhere, journalist Ida (Marisa Tomei, playing a normal person for once) is out for a scoop; Senator Pullman’s own campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Giamatti), has his eye on Steve; and Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright) holds all the cards for those who will pay. It all builds up to what seems like it will be a more overarching political drama until a particular scandal comes to light and changes everything, for everyone, for better or for worse.

The acting is unsurprisingly excellent, though Gosling (who is my favourite actor of the moment) can lapse into a pretty vacant stare sometimes which I find unnerving. The cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack make for very intimate drama—you feel unexpectedly involved in Steve’s life, despite knowing nothing about what he does outside of politics (probably nothing) or anything about his past (apart from that he’s possibly mad at his dad). The moment it is in danger of becoming, well, not slow but possibly mired in political heaviness, the tight script then takes the movie down a different path and reinvigorates everything. Sometimes you feel almost emotionally blank towards particular events, and then one seemingly throwaway comment will bring everything back to being quite personal and real. It really is an amazingly well-crafted movie, much like Clooney’s previous directorial effort Good Night and Good Luck.

Alas, it fails the Bechdel Test pretty solidly; there are women in it—Molly, Ida, Governor Morris’s wife Cindy (Jennifer Ehle)—but they are too busy being vampy, traitorous or motherly to have any time to talk to each other. After a quick check of the Bechdel Test website, someone even points out that there is a moment when Molly talks to a female doctor or nurse, but the scene is completely without sound. It seemed poignant at the time, but upon reflection, well, no. Women are not given enough to do in this movie, and it’s disappointing, to be honest.

I give it seven and a staircase out of ten levels of the top levels of the United Nations (and that, my friends, is a reference in the film that I did not understand at all.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

the first grader

Kenya, 2004: the government has just announced that school is now free for everyone, and kids everywhere launch themselves at high speed—I’m not even joking—at the nearest classroom. Woefully undersupplied and with only 50 desks for the 200 kids there, one particular school is doing it tough. And one more student is determined to attend: 84-year-old Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo), survivor of a brutal uprising fifty years earlier, desperate to get the education he never did, and learn to read so he can understand an important letter he has received in the mail.

The story of Maruge’s taken-from-real-life trials, from the past to the film’s present, are in turns uplifting and devastating, the whole film perfectly pitched for the M rating it has in Australia but far too heartbreaking and reality-based for me to really try and be funny about. The children, singing, getting up to shenanigans and being generally adorable, lighten the tone, as does Maruge himself, who is clearly a man of hope. This is further strengthened when the viewer is pulled into his past, an unfathomable place of violence and horror where your toes and your children will be taken without a thought. Witnessing these scenes is nothing short of horrible and I was openly weeping in the theatre during them. You probably will too, and you’ll know what I’m talking about when it happens. The movie tugs at heartstrings in small ways and large, from moments as dramatic as the spilling of blood or as poignant as watching Maruge’s desperate plight to get into the school in the first place—told he can’t be there without the proper uniform, he uses part of his meagre savings to buy pants and turns them into shorts himself, then turns up in black shoes, long striped socks, shorts, a shirt and a blue jumper. His spirit is what buoys the film; his, and his teacher’s. Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) is determined to see him get taught despite the risks both professional and physical she brings upon herself by doing so.

There are moments of obvious exposition at the start, with Maruge remembering his wife and children as he moves about his home, and Jane on the porch with her husband as he tries to convince her to live in Nairobi with him and make babies while she tells him clearly that she wants to help the school. Despite radio announcements about Maruge’s schooling and journalists from the likes of the BBC shoving microphones in his face, you never really get a feel for the scope of Maruge’s influence locally or worldwide on a personal level. Rumours start about people being angry but it’s unconvincing; none of the parents ever come up to the school and give any valid reason why, and one permanently sour-looking father does a lot of glaring and is dangerously proactive about it, then fades into the background instantly afterwards. These aren’t huge gripes, however; you know me, I can’t like anything without pointing at some things and barking, “But if I was director, that would be different! Also there would be smell-o-vision and more Danny Trejo.”

Something as moving and hopeful as The First Grader needs to be seen to be believed, and you should see it. There are virtually no white people, and, thank the movie gods, none who come to save the day; it passes the Bechdel Test; Litondo’s acting is so expressive that he can make you want to cry just by staring into the distance; the enthusiasm of the kids for learning is infectious; the history lesson unforgettable; the message one we can all stand by: Learn. And don’t be an asshole. (I’m paraphrasing.)

I give it seven out of the ten tissues you’ll have to take with you.

Monday, November 7, 2011

don't be afraid of the dark

It may be a remake of a 1973 film, but it’s a good title, isn’t it? Of course we’re afraid of the dark; most scary movies would be nothing without shadows for bad guys to jump out of. And these bad guys are smaller than the ones you’re probably used to being scared of: tiny, withered monsters, freed from the grate of a basement. (These movies always make me glad that I’ve never been in a house with a basement, surely why Australia constantly tops “Liveable Country” Lists.) To be honest, this is pitched more at a younger market so most adults won’t be scared to go to the car in the dark after seeing the movie, but there’s a few scenes of genuine terror that might scare your kidlet out of losing the nightlight for, oh, fifteen years or so.

The central character of Don
’t Be Afraid of the Dark’s all-round excellent cast is headed up by Bailee Madison as Sally, a young girl shipped from her mother’s possibly-over-medicating arms to her architect father Alex (Guy Pearce, not quirky for once), who is working on restoring an enormous mansion in Rhode Island. She’s instantly miserable, especially when she realises that her mother got rid of her indefinitely rather than briefly and that Alex’s girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes, mostly dressed in sacks) is going to be sticking around. Just when living in a gigantic, beautiful mansion with two people who love you and a maid who makes apple pie seems like it couldn’t get any worse, the family uncover a basement hidden under the house, and unleash a tribe of stabby little gremlin-type monsters who love to feast on people. Well, specifically, people-bones. But will anyone believe a kid with a history of hardcore sulking? I mean, what would you believe if your clothes were found cut up: that it was your angry stepdaughter, or monsters that eat teeth?

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is getting some pretty bad press but it’s not really a terrible movie. Like virtually all recent horror flicks, it has a lot of flaws, but you could do worse than seeing this at the movies one night when you’re bored. The set design is amazing, the house’s landscape beautiful (with touches of Pan’s Labyrinth, thanks to the obvious touches from producer Guillermo del Toro) but unfortunately under-utilised. The actors, mostly Australian, are top-notch (and include, peripherally, Garry McDonald, apparently finally broken by his Mother & Son matriarch; Nicholas Bell as a greying therapist; Jack Thompson as the cranky but wise gardener), including Madison, who is an absolute treasure, delivering glares like a seasoned child-of-a-divorce but who ultimately just wants to be loved. (Aw.) A grotesque opening prologue delivers some serious cover-your-eyes squick straight away, and, as with all these types of films, it is endlessly frustrating yet understandable when people—especially adults—won’t believe you when you tell them there’s monsters out to get you. And these monsters are pretty damn icky, perfectly rendered special effects-wise with not a moment when they don’t seem physically there. They are revealed early and come out in dim enough light to be seen pretty clearly; they hold up in the light but as with many monster-flicks lose something in the reveal. The ending, as well, is a shock when you are hoping for the happy-la-la ending of many teen-aimed horror films. One thing absolutely worth mentioning is that it passes the Bechdel Test repeatedly, with women talking a lot about a variety of things, and that I was unexpectedly thrilled to see that when the family got around in a car, Kim did all the driving and Alex sat in the passenger seat.

On the downside, the tension isn’t directed all that well; you’ll be nervous, but not scared. The creatures can take on a grown, ragey man but when confronted with a sobbing nine-year-old swipe at her without making contact just long enough for her to be saved. When people fall, it’s always right on their head so they get knocked out. (Why is this? Do they not know that if they stay unconscious more than a few seconds it usually means some serious brain damage? Pretty much everyone gets tripped/falls and bonks their head instead of breaking their outstretched arm like a normal person.) Not enough is made of Sally’s mental state; she turns up to the house on Adderall and a comment is made on her past, but instead of making this an interesting discussion about child mental illness they brush it away, assume the medication isn
’t necessary and even after a violent incident, suspicion doesn’t fall on her (or anyone, even when the particular incident is clearly not self-inflicted. It’s actually really frustrating.) Kim comes across as pretty selfish at the start, which makes her hard to relate to; also, she and Alex have inappropriate conversations that Sally overhears at more than one different moment, the repetition of which which cheapens Sally’s initial hurt through the amazing power of cliché. Important moments become plot holes—why does Sally not point out the twitching critter arm to a crowd after she victoriously squashes one? Why do critters that like to eat children’s teeth NOT ONCE get referred to as Tooth Fairies? And to top it off, the survivors’ underwhelming reaction to the horrific ending left me full of a rage I dare not elaborate upon, because, well, spoilers.

It’s not excellent but not appalling, well produced and quite a pretty film. I wouldn’t take anyone younger than, say, twelve to see it, but it might really hit the mark for a youthful audience. Don’t avoid it, and don’t be afraid of it. I give it eleven out of twenty baby teeth.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

in time

In Time has a good idea behind it: everyone’s now genetically engineered to age only until 25, when they then have one more year of life they can add to only through hard work (or robbery or theft). The poor, like Will Salas (Justin Timberlake, shorn) live in a ghetto in one timezone, scrimping for every minute and trying not to be robbed by gangsters like Fortis (Alex Pettyfer, rough) and supporting his mother (Olivia Wilde, are you kidding? So hard to get behind this idea.) However, just over in another timezone, you have people with more time than they know what to do with, including businessman Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser, perfect) and his daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried, not blonde.) What happens if someone like young Will gets pissy enough—and lucky enough, thanks to an unexpectedly timely (haha oh god there are many time puns to be had here) donation, to try and level the playing field?

It’s an interesting concept ruined once you try to think about it longer than thirty seconds. It’s an allegory for the power money has over people: after all, if you can’t afford shelter, food, or medical care, what hope do you have? And in this current economic climate, it’s true that few people hold most of the money just because they’re horrible examples of humanity. And it’s a pretty fun movie on a very base level, with a man hell-bent on revenge, a beautiful young woman who can’t help but be attracted to a man from the wrong side of the tracks with superior morals, an oily bad guy, some horrible thieves with cultured accents and a (time)cop who just wants to uphold the law, no matter who’s breaking it. But ultimately, it fails, because:
1) They never explain why society evolved like it did. I’m happy to take leaps of faith, but you have to give me something.
2) There are so many corny time/money jokes, it’s like someone as cheesy as me wrote the damn thing.
3) Why does everyone stop aging at 25?
4) Who would agree to have their child implanted with an under-the-skin digital clock that has a timer?
5) Cillian Murphy, while awesome, cannot pass as twenty-five.
6) Why does a civilisation advanced enough to be able to pass time through skin contact not have any other technological advances apart from a CCTV system that conveniently follows no one but important characters?
7) Why does everyone drive 70s-noir muscle cars like they’re in Mad Max?
8) Honestly, it is just really, really impossible to ever believe that a society would turn out this way, even being as pessimistic as I can muster.
9) You only ever see one evil fat cat in Kartheiser’s Philippe—does no one actually rule this world, or the countries, or the timezones? Is no one actually in charge?
10) And seriously, why the hell is everyone in this world skinny? This just makes no sense at all.
11) The future doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test.
12) How does it all WORK??

On the upside, there’s some good casting (Alex Pettyfer and Vincent Kartheiser are stand-outs), it trundles along nicely, and the Robin Hood aspect of Will and Sylvia’s criminal spree is something you can really get behind. It really has to be said that having everyone’s timers on the verge of running out half every second scene makes for some seriously intense viewing: anyone can die, at any time.

In Time isn’t the worst thing you could spend your afternoon watching, but if you really want something juicy this week, go see Drive.

I give it twelve out of twenty-five years.

Friday, October 21, 2011

the thing

Back in the best year of all, 1982 (three guesses when I was born, folks), a movie came out known as The Thing. With the release of 2011’s The Thing, 1982’s The Thing has been referred to frequently (well, by me at least) as The Original The Thing, though people have been saying there’s an Even More Original The Thing that came out in 1951. But that was called The Thing From Another World, so I’m going to continue by calling John Carpenter’s smack-down-great movie The Original The Thing and Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s new actually-pretty-good-prequel The New The Thing. Though it’s set before Carpenter’s. Ahem.

For those who have seen The Original The Thing, you’ll know it starts with two Norwegians in a helicopter chasing a dog at the South Pole, and the subsequent shitstorm that follows, because aliens. The New The Thing tells the story of how things got to that point, and luckily, it’s not really a spoiler to know the beginning of The Original The Thing.

The Norwegian base camp at the South Pole has made a discovery: there is an alien structure beneath the ice, one dated from a very, very long time ago. And alongside this structure, something else is found: the inhabitant. It’s the most important discovery in science, and the Norwegians need to assemble a team to make sure everything goes according to plan. [insert scoff here].

The worry of creating a subtitled Norwegian blockbuster is neatly sidestepped by hauling in a bunch of Americans to help solve the problem, and then making everyone speak English about 80% of the time. It’s corny, but better than hiring A-list actors to pretend to be a certain culture and then failing miserably (I’m looking at you, Scottish lead of 300.) Norwegian scientist Dr Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) brings his research assistant, Adam Goodman (Eric Christian Olsen, one of my favourite people: he played both Vaughn in Community and Austin “Jakey Jakey about to make a big...mistakey” in Not Another Teen Movie) who then suggests his friend, palaeontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who will forever be known to me as Ramona from Scott Pilgrim). Helicoptered over to the South Pole by able pilot Sam (Joel Edgerton), tensions arise early between sensible Kate and Sander, who is making rash decisions out of excitement. Her cautiousness is proved right when the alien, brought in a block of ice to their base, thaws out and instead of sitting down for a cup of tea and a chat about interplanetary politics, goes on a murderous, stabby, regenerative rampage—because it’s a creature who can take on the form and nature of those it imbibes.

It’s the are-they-aren’t-they tensions that make these movies so fun: who has become The Thing and is hiding it behind their poker face, and how can the others figure it out? Scenes in The Original The Thing involved an excellent tense moment when blood was tested, and because that scene is so grand I’m pleased they didn’t recreate it, and instead went for a punchier version, opined by Kate, whose know-how and level-headedness almost instantly sees her grab control of the situation. This upsets some—namely Sander, who clearly has issues—and mutiny is afoot, like they don’t already have enough damn problems.

The New The Thing is a good prequel to The Original The Thing because it could have easily been terrible—many, including myself, adore John Carpenter’s version and were hesitant to like anything new. But it’s got a cracking pace, good effects, hair-chewing tension, and a woman with a flamethrower. It also passes the Bechdel Test, admirable considering there wasn’t a single female in The Original The Thing. Kate is the Ripley of this piece, taking charge and rightly so and saving cowering menfolk from getting dead. It’s quite inspiring.

Alas, there really isn’t enough character development in this—to have enough characters to be able to (not really a spoiler) kill a bunch of them off, you’ve got to care somewhat for everyone, which you do, at the expense of caring particularly hard for anyone. There’s a hint of a romance between Kate and Sam, and some clear friendship lines that, when broken, make you sad, but that’s about all they give you. There aren’t any of the mindblowing set monster pieces from The Original The Thing—walking head, anyone?—but it more than adequately steps up to the monster plate with some pretty gross stuff. Otherwise, my only real issues were a pixelated spaceship drive that does not at all look like it’s there, and the 1980s costuming that is basically nonexistent—not a mullet or a teased fringe in sight, and Adam dresses about the same as a 1980s scientist as he does a 2011 hippy, though with, sadly, less nipples showing.

I give it five out of eight disgusting stumpy limbs.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


To the sound of retro-eighties musical styling and lashings of bubblegum-pink opening credits we are let into the world of The Kid: straight-faced Ryan Gosling, pulling on his driving gloves and preparing for a stint as a getaway car driver. The following driving scene, while breathtaking, isn’t quite the chase scene we’re used to—it’s more tactical driving than 6 Fast 6 Furious or whatever car movies the kids are watching nowadays—and it’s also one of only two real chase set pieces in the film. Don’t let that fact dissuade you, as Drive is a brilliant film, and Gosling just proves that he can do anything. But mostly he can out-smirk anyone.

The Kid is a getaway driver by night and a Hollywood stunt driver by day, spending his other waking hours as a mechanic working for ideas man Shannon (Bryan Cranston). He also appears to be indescribably lonely, never seeing anyone outside of those he drives around, Shannon himself, and his shyly smiling neighbour, Irene. It’s an eventual encounter with Irene in the car park that leads to the relationship that—while beautifully touching—changes the life of everyone in the film. As the friendship between The Kid, Irene, and Irene’s young son Benicio develops (and you’re never entirely sure what it develops into; it’s mostly told through five long silences, three big smiles and some hand-holding), their lives are disrupted when Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac, and, yes, a “deluxe” joke is
made) returns from prison. Nothing does noir better than a plotline that involves one last job before everyone lives happily ever after (and involves someone called Blanche—Christina Hendricks, who is dressed down and wonderful but not worthy of her top billing); nothing makes movie like a situation going wrong in spectacular, bloodthirsty fashion.

Drive keeps up a cracking pace despite the fact that you get no hint of the violence to come for quite some time, until the Kid is at a bar and encounters someone he’s driven previously. There are moments of such tension that I gripped the seat handles and closed my eyes; there are moments I wanted to last forever. It’s a world so ridiculous that you can’t tell if it’s realistic, or if it’s just that the Kid is so wrapped up in his own world that he believes he’s in a movie. The crimes he assists in seem victimless and he helps people to do good, then gets revenge when people are bad.

The choices of direction are interesting; the car chases are often told via the expressions on those inside rather than panning shots of the outside of the car; the Kid’s calm enthralling against the panic of others. Moments of violence you expect the camera to pan away from actually stick around for more splattering than you thought you could bear. Small touches—the cleaning of a pri
zed knife after it’s been used by a character to kill a friend; the sun-dappled family moment by the river; a shark-like murder by the sea—they’re all perfectly handled and indicative of an excellent movie.

Rounding out the flawless cast is Hellboy, aka Ron Perlman as a bad guy whose best moment is laughing uproariously in front of a bored blonde (and who has more lower face than any other actor but it makes him completely irresistible, to be honest) and Albert Brooks, Shannon’s benefactor and one of the few characters to show genuine emotion. The movie on the whole is an unexpected delight—I say unexpected because I included this smaller-than-usual movie poster to show that the Australian poster looks all WHOO DRIVING MOVIE VROOM VROOOOOOM when really, that leads you totally astray, and I recommend going off this next one.

I give it nine
out of ten stomps to the head. I might even give it ten out of ten but I haven’t done a perfect score yet and am not sure if I’ll ever be able to bring myself to do it. Also, even when they’re appropriate, long silences and people enigmatically not replying to questions just makes me want to tear my hair out.

Friday, October 7, 2011

real steel

When I first saw the preview for this Hugh Jackman robot fighting movie I was so underwhelmed that it was possible for a while I was covered in all the whelming in the world. But as good films are still thin on the ground at the moment, and the last thing I’d seen was massively depressing The Whistleblower (pro tip: do not see a movie about Bosnian sex trafficking as your anniversary date) so I was ready for something stupid. The big surprise was, however, that Real Steel isn’t actually that stupid, and when you readjust your preconceptions of the film, it’s actually quite smart and a hell of a good time.

It’s 2020 and robot fighting has superseded human boxing (hooray! I knew the future would be good for something), and Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman, unexpectedly jerky) is a total asshole who wrangles said robots for a living. He isn’t actually that good at it, and owes money to boxing promoters all over America, and is on the run from yet another one—the film’s cowboy-hatted villain Ricky (Kevin Durand, slimy)—when he gets a life-altering piece of news: his ex-girlfriend is dead, and their son Max (Dakota Goyo, awesome), who he abandoned years before, is now is his care. While trawling for robot parts, Max—after a heartstopping accident—finds an retro (read: 2014-era) sparring bot named Atom in the mud and digs it out with his bare hands, and is then determined to put him in the ring and show his dad that he has the nous to win. Will Charlie be able to stop being an asshole long enough to turn his life around? Will he stop ruining the lives of those who care for him, including old pal and robot mechanic/boxing gym owner Bailey (Evangeline Lilly, wise and hot)? It seems obvious, but actually Charlie is such a horrible person for the first half of the film that you really doubt it, and don’t even want him to get custody over Max’s rich aunt Debra (Hope Davis).

The movie is basically a kids’ fantasy: robots, fighting, a dad who takes you on the road to grungy underground fights, lots of money, hamburgers for dinner. So when I went in thinking it was a typical blockbuster, it did seem a little cheesy in parts, until Chris whispered, “This is basically a kids’ movie.” And it’s true. Like the equally fun Super 8, it’s the story of the kid’s troubles almost more than the adult’s—it’s devastating as Max tries desperately to forge an emotional bond with the robot that he is lacking in his own life—and follows a plotline where the kid is pretty much smarter and more savvy than all the adults at just about anything, including building a championship-quality robot out of dumpster parts. Real Steel, however, succeeds because of these childlike touches rather than in spite of them, and means you’re much more willing to dismiss plot holes and strange moments (why are more people not using these old robots if they are so damn excellent? Why does literally no one else ever turn up at Bailey’s gym? Also, isn’t it totally creepy when Charlie sneaks into Bailey’s bedroom at night? etc etc), because kids don’t always care about such stuff, and maybe adults shouldn’t either. At the risk of sounding like a prude, it’s actually nice to see a film where someone drives 1200 miles just for a kiss, women can be smart instead of nude and where blood is actually a very rare sight. It means you could take your twelve-year-old nephew as well as your eighty-year-old grandpa and everyone would have fun, though the word “shit” is said maybe three times if that’s something you’re concerned about.

The acting is top-notch—Jackman is a truly horrible person but still appealing because he’s basically the world’s favourite person; Dakota Goyo is someone you may literally cheer for (I sure as hell did) and Evangeline Lilly is a bit weepy, as women typically are in movies (but as a habitual weeper I can totally relate—I mean, I cried in a hospital ad showing before the movie today), but is also tough and smart. The special effects are great, the robots utterly convincing in the presence of the humans; the sets are huge and fun—glitzy arenas, jungle-based underground fights populated by future-punks (still wearing Ramones t-shirts), rodeo-style Texas fights with a bull. The last of those was the only thing I can really say I didn’t enjoy—of course the bull was CGI in most parts (assuming bulls aren’t good at dealing with green-screen acting) but pitting an animal against a hunk of metal still made me uncomfortable and it was horrible when it got thrown around. (Vague spoiler: the bull wins that fight, but still.) The dance scene where Atom shadows Max’s moves should suck but is actually quite hilarious. The robotic rival/final boss Zeus is huge, terrifying and smashes lesser robots instantly, all while being commanded by enigmatic maker Tak Mashido (Karl Yune, moody) and icy owner Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda, tight ponytailed). It doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, but the movie’s full of women who are perfectly capable of doing their own thing, even including a bunch of little girls at the start who give Charlie attitude when he richly deserves it.

Top effort to director Shawn Levy for making me care about robots without actually giving them any personality. It probably has to do with Atom representing all of the Kanters’ hopes and dreams, and all behind a sad little stitched-together mesh face and in a future that looks pretty much exactly the same as right now. I don’t want them to make a sequel, but if they do, I’d see it. I give Real Steel four out of five punches in the nuts.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

crazy, stupid, love

I’m going to rename this Crazy, Stupid, Advertising because pitching a preview screening as a “Girls Night In” event—offering free drinks upon arrival and giving you a goodie bag at the end filled with such gender-neutral awesomeness as Libra pads—was a huge mistake. Even the title is pretty ridiculous, because make no mistake: this flick is about the guys, namely middle-aged schlub Cal (Steve Carrell), who’s just been asked for a divorce by his bored wife Emily (Julianne Moore), and serial smoocher Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who picks up more women than he picks up peanuts at the bar both men now frequent. When Jacob sees Cal muttering to himself in (gasp, apparently) New Balance trainers, he takes it upon himself to give Cal a makeover and turn his life around. But does Cal want to shag attractive women like Kate (Marisa Tomei, slightly batshit as per usual), or does he want his old life back? Is Jacob really happy in his life as a man bedding attractive women on a regular basis? Will it take the movie’s other sassy redhead, Hannah (Emma Stone), to make him see the horror that is his life as a rich man who is also charming and accompanied by a sensual bass track and a camera that wants to have sex with him every time he’s on screen?

Crazy, Stupid, Advertising is actually a pretty fun movie; there are a lot of laughs, and some really touching moments too. The set pieces make this film what it is: the gentle, sexy humour of Jacob and Hannah’s first “date”; the flat-out hilarious slapstick scene when all our characters finally meet; a quietly poignant moment when Cal, secretly weeding his family’s backyard at night, sees Emily fake a phone call to him just to talk. Add to that the glorious cast, all who ping off each other wonderfully, and who include Hannah’s equally-sassy best friend Liz (Liza Lapera); Cal’s rival for Emily’s affections, David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon) Cal and Emily’s lovelorn teenage son Robbie (Jonah Bobo), who can’t hide his adoration for his gangly babysitter Jess (Analeigh Tipton), while she is nurturing love for Cal himself. It’s basically an ingredient list for a recipe that can’t go wrong, like toasted cheese sandwiches. Comforting, funny, and a good night spent at the flicks, it doesn’t have the perfect Hollywood cookie-cutter ending but definitely won’t leave you wanting to impale yourself with a Coke straw.

’s debatable due to forgetfulness whether it passes the Bechdel Test (Chris claims there was a tickle fight between Jess and Robbie’s younger sister Molly where they didn’t talk about boys, and also an initial scene between Hannah and Liz which possibly began discussing jobs before it derailed into boy-talk, but I don’t remember for sure—and even so, that’s pitiful if I have to dredge memories to clarify) and there is a scene that tries to be cute in the movie’s graudation finale that would be actually a bit halp-call-the-police if the genders were reversed; also, women just seem like objects waiting for Ryan Gosling to hit on them (which, let’s face it, is mostly true) and then vanish from the movie, never to get emotionally involved again. Also, what does Jacob do for a living? Why did Cal and Emily even break up if they’re going to spend the rest of the movie staring wistfully after each other? (It’s the movies, haven’t these people heard of therapy?) But hey, dramedies are rarely perfect and if you feel like love is possible at the end they’ve pretty much done their job, and I’m still happy to give Crazy, Stupid, Advertising the following rating: three and a half out of five pairs of jeans not bought at The Gap. (Chris, surprising everyone, gave it five out of five putts at a mini golf course.)

Monday, September 5, 2011

final destination 5

What better film to return to blogging after an unplanned (and mostly inexcusable apart from my distractingly entertaining pregnancy) hiatus than something less needing of a review than Final Destination 5? If there’s any film franchise that is as steadily predictable and passable as the FD series, I don’t know it. But with everything else out this week—The Help, One Day—being a bit too schmaltzy for my tastes, it was really all I could do. And it’s in 3D. How was I supposed to resist?

As per the other movies in the series, Final Destination 5 starts with a set piece in which all the major characters are killed off swiftly and bloodily—in this, our main characters are on a bus on the way to a work retreat, when the suspension bridge they are crossing collapses. As they escape the bus, they meet their ends in a variety of ways you wouldn’t even know were possible. Then it turns out the collapse isn’t real at all, just a vision of our main character Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto), who then manages to flee the bus before the bridge actually collapses and saves a bunch of his co-workers in the process. As is to be expected, the invisible hand of Death isn’t happy that this pack of one-note characters didn’t die as planned, and picks them off one by one thereafter in tense and theatrical ways.

3D is used to such effect in this movie I feel like it should only be used in schlocky horror films from now on. Intestines fly at the screen; blood coats the camera; bones stick out through skin right in your face. It’s glorious. The very first death in the film, as the camera follows a body as it falls towards the water but then encounters an unexpected obstruction, was so violent and bloodthirsty and surprising that the entire cinema audience fell apart with shock and glee, thereby setting the tone for the movie. The outlandish premise is enough to have you enjoy the film without ever thinking it’s real enough to get upset about. And the way all the deaths are set up—with the camera panning over every dangerous device in the room, which it turns out, is basically everything—makes for such exquisite tension as to what is actually going to cause the upcoming carnage that I occasionally had to close my eyes and pretend I was somewhere else so my heart didn’t burst out of my chest or I didn’t go into spontaneous early labour.

It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but luckily, the cast themselves do. Played by a bunch of up-and-comers who frequently look a lot like someone more famous, they are given all of their development time at the start of the film as they meet up to get on the bus for their trip. Sam (D’Agosto, looking like a sibling of Andrew Garfield) is a friendly office worker who really wants to be a chef; his girlfriend Molly (Emma Bell, from the excellent creepy movie Frozen) has reconsidered their relationship; Peter (Miles Fisher and quite possibly the love child of Christian Bale and Tom Cruise) is the high-flying crisply-suited hard-worker; his girlfriend Candice (Ellen Wroe, with a cutesy Ginnifer Goodwin vibe) is the peaches-and-cream gymnast with a slightly nasty personality; Olivia (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood, a blend of Megan Fox raunch and Jennifer Keyte primness) is the punk-rocker quick with a curse word and struggling with her eyesight; Nathan (Arlen Escarpeta, familiar from bit-parts on countless television shows) is the recently-promoted man trying to prove his worth to the factory workers who don’t like change; Isaac (PJ Byrne, similarly snivelly in Horrible Bosses) is the self-absorbed stalker-type creepy enough to be the one guy you actively hope dies; and their boss, Dennis (perfectly-balding David Koechner, from just about everything, most recently Paul) is satisfyingly passive-aggressive and full of his own self-importance. Rounding out the cast is the deep talking wise man coroner Bludworth (Tony Todd, who played the man-of-my-teenage-nightmares Candyman) and the policeman on the case Jim Block (Law and Order stalwart Courtney B Vance).

The two-dimensional aspect of the characters is a flaw in the film, but barely a concern in the scheme of such fun, especially when you consider the extra dimension they are otherwise seen in. The only real problem I had was that when characters started to die, the first people on the scene, called by police or our heroes themselves, seemed to be our friends the co-workers—what, no parents, no siblings, just call the office and get everyone to come over? The lack of the other people was unrealistic, but adding them would probably have detracted from the lightness of the film and made you feel emotional towards the families when really you didn’t have the time or inclination to actually care.

Happily, Final Destination 5 ends with not quite a twist, but a surprise for sure—especially when you consider the others don’t finish with anything like that at all. It’s an ultimately thrilling finale that makes you reflect on the whole film differently, but probably not enough to have to suffer through the death of Candice again (by far the one that scarred me the most) to see if it’s actually obvious and we just completely missed it.

I give Final Destination 5 four out of five poles through the head.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

cowboys and aliens

Much like Snakes on a Plane, it is physically impossible to stay away from a movie with a title so tempting. Cowboys? And aliens? In the one movie? Grab the smelling salts, I’m feeling woozy. How could a movie called Cowboys and Aliens not be ridiculous fun?

Well, apparently the equation to make it not ridiculously fun is this: Jon Favreau + Daniel Craig + Harrison Ford = No. Which is surprising, as Favreau directed the stellar Iron Man (though is tarnished by Iron Man 2), Daniel Craig made an excellent Bond, and Harrison Ford is [insert your favourite character of his here]. And clearly the people in the cinema who applauded at the end of the film thought it was great. I did not. Actually, by the end, I was so busy crossing my arms and sighing theatrically that I can’t believe I wasn’t punched in the face by an audience member.

The movie begins in dusty silence as Jake Lonergan (Craig) wakes up in some dirt and has no idea who he is, or why he has a mysterious metallic wristband on. After an altercation with some no-good-criminals he winds up in a single-road town with the vital elements (saloon, jail, porches to lean against) and gets into an altercation with a bratty kid called Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), who holds the town in fear as his father Woodrow (Ford) is the only reason the town still survives. After another altercation with wide-eyed Ella (Olivia Wilde), Lonergan is about to get smacked down by protective father Woodrow when aliens come and ruin what could have been an interesting Western and steal half the townsfolk. Banding together despite their differences, Lonergan and Dolarhyde Snr. go to rescue everyone, followed by town doctor Doc (Sam Rockwell), preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown), Dolarhyde’s Native American sidekick Nat (Adam Beach), Ella, a kid, a dog, and some other people who are totally irrelevant. Fighting with aliens ensues, as does fighting with some bad cowboys and a band of Native Americans. Somehow, it’s still not interesting.

I have a lot of problems with this movie; so many, I can’t even really think of good parts. Wait, I know: I jumped twice at surprise alien appearances. It did a good job of feeling very 1873. (I assume.) That’s about all I can say on the positive side though. The score was nonexistent; sure, great movies don’t need false soundtracks to move them along, but this isn’t a great movie. It needed a crescendo for victorious moments to bring some emotion to the piece. The lighting, while accurate, meant that scenes shot at night (ie when the aliens most love to attack) were almost impossible to see and gave me a headache within about fifteen minutes. (Said headache may have contributed to my eventual grumpiness.)

As far as gender politics go, the movie doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, and the three women actually in the movie are either a) a whore b) naked or c) kidnapped. As far as political correctness goes, our major interaction with a Native American community has them initially appearing as terrifying savages happy to throw a now-deceased main character into a fire; shortly afterwards, they become mystical and wise healers. It dehumanises the culture and makes you think they must be bored when they don’t have white people to attack; it just made me want to cringe.

The cast, while serviceable, were not stretched in the least—Harrison Ford is old and cranky, along with being a racist, violent asshole who lets a whole town suffer for his financial gain; Daniel Craig is as reserved, quietly violent and shirtless as he is as Bond; Paul Dano is another annoying Western caricature (though his turn in There Will Be Blood is, of course, brilliant); Olivia Wilde is as wide-eyed and other-ish as she was in Tron. Actually, Olivia Wilde’s character Ella annoyed me most in this film, I think: she stood around being frustratingly cryptic when it was clear she knew something. Instead of saying, “Right, guys, here’s what I know,” she just hung around being obtuse until the moment came—post many loved characters dying—when she felt like sharing her story.

The script was dull and predictable; no one was fun or funny, bar Rockwell’s Doc who made one flimsy joke that fell flat even on my accompanying Saturday night drunk crowd; the directing wasn’t even that great, noted by both the ridiculous pacing of the ending (with accompanying pretend danger) and one scene full of every character’s inital reaction shot to the aliens showed. Which is another point—there wasn’t nearly enough discussion about what the hell was happening, from a world where aliens were so far removed that not even ET had screened on television yet. The lack of discussion about aliens was about as surprising as the lack of horror of everyone who had just had a loved one snatched by demons. Were there no emotions in the past? Was sadness not mined until the 1890s?

The trouble is that a movie called Cowboys and Aliens calls to mind something much more fun than what was ultimately made. It takes itself far too seriously without having any stand-out parts to make it work as a serious film. It’s bleak, dark, completely boring and full of characters so horrible you honestly couldn’t care if aliens killed everyone but the kid and the dog.

I give it one out of four gross alien arms.

Monday, August 15, 2011

tucker & dale vs evil

It’s not often you see a schlocky horror movie and think to yourself, “Those poor murderers, they’re so gentle and misunderstood.” But after seeing Shaun-of-the-Dead-esque Tucker & Dale vs Evil—a movie with a lot of gore that is still a comedy—you may see all horror movies from now on and think “but is the devil really possessing this person to torture them? Is the backwards head and biting just an attempt to say ‘hello’ and reach out to humanity?”

Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are two men—mostly referred to in the film as hillbillies, which makes me feel bad but does give you an idea of the truck-drivin’ overall-wearin’ folk they are—are going to Tucker’s newly purchased vacation home to do it up into the holiday house he’s always wanted. At the same time, a group of attractive college kids have taken a parents’ van to the same destination, where they plan to camp, eat, skinny-dip, and do whatever else kids of today do when they camp. (Play Cut the Rope on their iPhones?)

From the moment they pass each other on the road to their first contact at a gas station, the college kids have Dale and Tucker pegged as backwoods creeps. But Tucker’s a charmer and Dale is a man with low self-esteem who instantly sees one of the college girls, Ally (Christine Taylor lookalike Katrina Bowden), and wants to go say hi. Tucker convinces him that he’s not as horrible as he thinks, and Dale approaches the kids—with six-foot scythe in tow—and terrifies them immediately. It’s a bad start to the holiday, but they head to Tucker’s run-down, dangerous, possibly-previously-owned-by-a-murderer cabin in the woods by a lake.

When Dale and Tucker save Ally from drowning in the lake and take her to their cabin to heal, they start a chain of hilarious and gruesome accidents that lead the kids to believe Dale and Tucker are serial killers, and D&T themselves to think that the college kids are embarking on a suicide pact. While our heroes do their best to protect Ally and save themselves, the kids, at the behest of crazed jock Chad (Jesse Moss) take it on themselves to rescue Ally, refusing to listen to the voice of reason that is Mitch (I think—the kids all looked equally floppy-haired and I got confused.)

T&DvE is actually super entertaining, with your cynicism towards annoying fucking twenty-somethings who get murdered relentlessly on film being finally justified. Not all the kids are evil—they’re mostly sheep following Chad—but they are flat-out stupid and the accidents that befall them are really just kind of funny no matter how gross they get (and don’t worry, if you’re looking for some flat-out horror, they seriously do get gross.) Dale is ridiculously endearing, a font of useless (though occasionally handy) information, and trying only to make friends and be nice to everyone—a great example is the scene where Ally wakes from her accident and screams when Dale comes in with pancakes, where he automatically assumes she’s yelling because she hates pancakes and goes to make her bacon and eggs instead. Tucker is the alpha male in their relationship, jealous of Dale and Ally’s growing friendship and aware of how the continuing accidents would look to police. Katrina Bowden does an excellent job of making Ally convincingly amicable, a girl who makes the best of her situation and tries to reason with a whole bunch of people with preconceived notions. It’s pretty much flat-out hilarious; the music is great, adding violin-string-tension to moments that aren’t actually scary to remind you that in other films, the moment could be alarming; Chad uses his asthma inhaler like a cigarette and blows the smoke out of his nostrils to be cool; the phrase “you’re half hillbilly!” may be laughed over forever.

T&DvE does not pass the Bechdel Test, though Ally is at least a fairly empowered character. In a satire like this, it’s hard to tell whether some tropes—blonde girl gets her cans out, black male makes declarations like “damn” “shit” and “that is whack!” (okay, so I’m paraphrasing here)—are actually deliberately there to make a point. I’ll presume yes because it’s a spoof, but it’s worth mentioning just in case it’s not. The dubbing was out in the second half when I saw the film; not the movie’s fault, but it annoyed me a little. I would also have liked a touch more of Dale and Tucker’s background—are they work friends? Do they work? Where do they live?—but I can’t bring myself to care that much, because it’s just funny and entertaining and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who can stomach someone going head-first into a woodchipper.

Four out of five amputated fingers.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

rise of the planet of the apes

While I was stoked to get invited to an advance screening of the new Apes movie, and was jumping around like a kid at the zoo waiting to see it this afternoon, we really have to get past the most pointed flaw in this movie, don’t we? I mean, seriously, repetition doesn’t have a place in the titles of well-crafted big-budget movies. Using “of the” twice in one title is overkill. I understand it gets to the point—everyone knows exactly where this movie is going—but really, they couldn’t spare a few thousand dollars of the budget to get a bunch of eight-year-olds to think up a cooler simian title? It could have been called something like MONKEYS ARE EXCELLENT or AN ACTION MOVIE WITH AN AWESOME LACK OF KISSING SCENES or APES R BETTER THAN BEN 10 ARE NOT ARE TOO or something equally lengthy that doesn’t become boring halfway through saying it.

Beyond the title, which I should probably shut up about, is a well-crafted movie that—like all prequels—has an ending you know is coming as long as you know there’s a movie out there called Planet of the Apes. Still despite you knowing the Titanic is going to sink it remains a relentlessly tense and thrilling action movie. Young neurologist Will (James Franco) is desperate to find a cure for the Alzheimer’s that his father Charles (John Lithgow) suffers from, and has a breakthrough with the drugs he is working on at the lab. One mistake leads to all the chimps that have been experimented on to be put down, bar one tiny baby chimp Will takes home and names Caesar (Andy Serkis with some help from the SFX team). Caesar, after inheriting his mother’s altered genes from the powerful drug, grows big and smart, until he becomes too damn big and smart for his own good and is banished to an animal sanctuary, where he finally has a meet and greet with some other simians.

This movie is a four-star ape movie and a two-and-a-half-star human movie, making it meet somewhere in the middle and be average-to-good. The ape scenes, especially when Caesar winds up in the animal sanctuary to be tormented by Dodge (an aptly-named and stereotyped Tom Felton, aka Harry Potter’s Malfoy), are fantastic in scope: with the limits of no dialogue, director Rupert Wyatt still makes you understand the dynamics of the relationships. While the humans also have their emotions—Will’s care and distress for his father is honest but necessarily short—his blossoming relationship with zoo doctor Caroline (Freida Pinto) has very little drama and his arguments with boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) over the development of the drug are fairly superficial.

Apes is Serkis’s—or Caesar’s—movie, and he glows every time he is on-screen. I did feel that he was often accompanied by dramatic music that wasn’t always necessary but left me in a state of heightened anxiety. Not knowing his own strength, or that he is different from the humans he is desperate to play with, he is frequently in danger or putting others in danger and I was so tense that I often let out little shrieks and spend half the movie with my hand over my mouth like a perfect little emotive audience member. This strain did mean that the payoff—namely a certain scene with a recognisable phrase and the perfect response—was downright exhilarating, to the point where the audience let out cheers and applause and even I joined in, though I usually think that’s a bit corny. It was sweet release, and changed the tone of the movie to the point of no return.

From an animal rights perspective, it’s a painful and depressing movie to watch. The reactions of virtually all the humans to the conditions of the apes is disappointing and there is never a moment where they fall to their knees moaning “Why did we treat such beautiful animals like this?” While Will is painted as the humanoid hero, he still keeps Caesar in his own home for his own selfish reasons, and never bats an eye at the other apes who are locked in sterile glass cages at his workplace. It makes for a strange juxtaposition when the animal sanctuary, where Dodge actively harms the animals, still seem much more fun, because at least Caesar is able to make some new pals and jump around on a tree, and none are experimented on.

Altogether, it makes for a frustrating though understandable viewpoint where you’re not sure who to root for. The humans mostly seem like a pack of selfish brats, except for the sadly declining Charles, and Caroline, who does not have much to say until she says of Charles’s illness, “Some things aren’t meant to be changed”, though I doubt many people in the audience feel that the cure for Alzheimer’s is worthless. But it’s also tricky to be on the side of the apes and their monkey associates, who are strong, kind of scary and a touch violent even despite Caesar’s best efforts to reign them in, and, well, become fascist slave-drivers. By the end, all you can definitively hope for is that the car park won’t be too full on the way out.

The effects are fantastic but not perfect—a few scenes are flawed, but I could count them on one hand, and that’s not bad for a movie where humans and special effects are interacting so frequently. It of course helped that the apes were played by people (it also made me feel better as a super-vegetarian to know no animals were harmed in the making of this movie), which meant they were physically present—the flaws were mostly in fully-digitised scenes, but aren’t noticeable unless you’re horribly critical like I am and trying to disassociate from such an ultimately depressing movie.

It is hard to remove my own strong emotions about animal care from the movie itself, and the fact that no human wanted to campaign for general increased ape care left me feeling a bit cold towards them. It means that my opinion of the film is clouded by this, and if I was a better reviewer I would cast them aside and be a erased blackboard of emotions. But it’s a grim movie. Apes’ very infrequent moments of humour are so vastly spaced that it almost seemed redundant to have them; more generally humorous but actually quite devastating is the idea of Will’s poor neighbour being the unluckiest man in the world.

I do sound critical of what is really a very good blockbuster movie with all the right elements—cracking pace, heart-attack-worthy action, some mindless city destruction, a hilarious orang-utan. The material ultimately made it hard for me to enjoy because I spent so much time being sad. There are some cheesy plot-points, like death scenes at the most coincidentally poignant of times (and one character surviving a fiery blast long enough to sigh, unsinged, and die in someone’s arms); there are red herring moments never explored; the above mindless destruction is a tad unwarranted and the human damage goes unmentioned. But with the scenes at the animal sanctuary so amazing, it almost doesn’t matter.

Go see The Rise of The Etc and let me know what you think. I am especially interested to hear if anyone else agrees it’s the prequel not only to Planet of the Apes but also to 12 Monkeys, depending on what mood you’re in for a movie marathon that day. Also, while there’s no curse words and limited blood, I spent so much of the movie clutching at Chris’s hand that I still wouldn’t recommend it for kids, unless you want them to have monkey-based nightmares for eternity. And hey, if you’re that type of parent, more power to you.

’s arbitrary score: two out of three bananas.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Thanks to the lovely folk at MIFF, I scored a few free tickets to the films of my choice, the first of which was always going to be Submarine. (I’m also seeing Norwegian film Troll Hunter, and forked out myself to go see Miranda July’s The Future, and am still tempted by others—Hobo with a Shotgun, who could resist?) Submarine was high on my list for many reasons: it’s directed by Richard Ayoade, otherwise known as Moss from the almost-perfect television show The IT Crowd; it’s getting great reviews; and, most importantly, I’d read the book as a brightly-illustrated reading copy when it first came out and just about fell to pieces reading it. It was ridiculously, unfairly funny and brilliant, and—better yet—when I wrote some fanmail to author Joe Dunthorne about it via facebook (thanks, social media), he even replied. I won’t tell you what I wrote to him, because looking back three years later it is actually incredibly cringeworthy, but just know it involved the story that I read the book with my hand over my mouth on the tram so no one could see my permanent smirky grin. His reply was short, sweet, and very kind, and thus I am a diehard Submarine fan 4eva, and you should all go read it immediately.

Onto the movie itself: relentlessly funny from the first scene, Submarine is pitch-perfect from cast to script, a joyous few hours punctuated by serious moments but always teetering on the edge of comedy. Fifteen-year-old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts, also in the current Fassbender-filled Jane Eyre) is a high-school kid smarter than your average adolescent, who searches the dictionary for new words to learn, tries not to get involved in his gangly friend Chips’ (Darren Evans) schoolboy shenanigans, but who is willing to do anything to impress the girl of his dreams, the realistically crushable Jordana (Yasmin Paige). Back at home, the relationship between his parents (Happy-Go-Lucky’s Sally Hawkins and our very own Noah Taylor) is stagnating, as they mope around the house in neutral colours having awkward conversations. Oliver’s perfect world would be made up of Jordana as his girlfriend and lover—so he can lose his virginity before he turns sixteen—and his parents also back to the saucy days of yore when the dimmer switch in their bedroom would be set to half instead of full. Damaging his chances are his own personality—the scene where he tries to seduce a cynical Jordana is fall-on-the-floor hilarious—and the arrival of an old love interest of his mother’s, the mulleted and spiritually alight Graham (Paddy Considine).

Every scene is injected with humour, even the most serious. Somehow this doesn’t make the movie’s darker moments superficial, but just realistic: the ridiculousness of life doesn’t stop just because things are going horribly wrong. Oliver’s narration of the story makes the whole film very self-aware but his naivety is more endearing than painful. When, at the beginning, he imagines his death and the mourning of everyone he knows—up to and including the entire country of Wales—a television announcer declares “We are witnessing unprecedented scenes of quiet devastation”, and we know we are in the mind of a typically atypical teenager, worried about his place in the world and the lack of control he has within it.

The music and sound is wonderful, indie-quirky while still convincing you that you’re in the eighties setting of the film. Music is cut off abruptly for dramatic effect and the crescendo of sound at important moments, like Oliver and Jordana’s first blackmail-induced smooch underneath a railway bridge, packs just as much punch as your first kiss probably did. I am going to investigate the soundtrack further. The muted colours of Oliver’s home life contrast perfectly with the splash of red that is Jordana and her favourite coat, and the mystical colour explosion that is Graham. It is a well put-together film, nothing detracting from what is essentially a character piece where all the characters are agreeably quirky and slightly horrible.

The high level of quirkiness, the independent vibe, and the lovestruck teen are things you may have encountered before in film; Chris compared it to Rushmore, but I couldn’t help but compare it to the book. Anything it does differently from the book makes perfect sense cinematically, but still, changes in the original intellectual property can’t help but grate when you loved the original as much as I did. It is probably better to see this without having read the book, so everyone’s zany little moments are shining new. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t love it—Submarine is one of the best comedies of the year, and when it (hopefully) makes general release, please go see it. And tell Joe Dunthorne I sent you. (No, don’t.)

Really, how I have written such a serious review for such a funny movie is beyond me. Maybe I have given up in the face of clearly superior talent. Ayoade and Dunthorne, I salute and love you and if need be am available for marriage and/or a short affair in the back of your van.

Monday, July 18, 2011

mr popper's penguins

Just as I was old enough to go to the movies without my folks, Jim Carrey and his rubbery face were in the most quotable movies around: Mask, Ace Ventura. “Smokin’.” “Somebody stop me.” “All righty then”. (And don’t pretend you haven’t said those out loud, readership.) Shortly after those films came Liar Liar, starring Carrey as Fletcher Reede, a man who, as a lawyer, lies for a living, and as a man, has disappointed his estranged wife and fluffy-haired by numerous lies. The disappointed son, angry at his father, one day wishes that his dad could never tell a lie. And it comes true, Fletcher can’t lie, an hour and a half later we’ve all learned a lesson about being a good person and father and how even in the workplace honesty is the best policy and so on.

In Mr Popper’s Penguins, Carrey plays Tom Popper, a man who manipulates people into selling real estate, and who has disappointed his estranged wife and two children by being a PG-level schmuck. After the death of his father, he finds himself in ownership of six penguins, and lies to his son about being able to keep them. Thus, he has to deal with six wacky penguins, and an hour and a half later we’ve all learned a lesson about being a good person and father and how even in the workplace honesty is the best policy and so on.

But hey, I liked Liar Liar, and I enjoyed Mr Popper’s Penguins. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the poster. Popper’s life is turned upside-down by taking care of these penguins, little special-effects stars he starts off hating but inevitably becomes attached to. His precise and perfect home becomes an icy palace. His kids, who previously found him boring, want to hang out. His wife sees a new side to him. But his work life suffers, especially when he’s inches from a promotion and all he needs to do is get a certain piece of property owned by the shrewd Mrs Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury). Helping his career is his assistant, Pippi (Ophelia Lovibond), who speaks alliteratively in Ps throughout the entire movie, which is somehow positively precious instead of painful.

It’s a pretty ridiculous movie, not helped by the fact that the villain is a man who works at the zoo and has the entirely reasonable view that penguins would be safer and better cared for by professionals in a penguin enclosure than a businessman in a high-rise apartment. While it makes sense in a kids movie—someone wants to take away the hero
s illegal pets that he loves!—as an adult it’s ridiculous that he even gets himself in this situation in the first place by keeping them more than one day, and that his spouse Amanda (Carla Gugino) encourages it, unless she does it to be vindictive.

Despite all that, and all the poop/fart jokes, it was an entertaining hour and a half and I didn’t regret my time in the cinema at all. The stacks of kids in the theatre were very well behaved and took their cues well (“uh oh” said the girl behind me at one pertinent moment) and, you know what, Carrey is still very funny, even when he is being more Carrey than the character (doing a slow-motion run into the final scene, for example.) There were some good lines, I laughed, I had fun, I would take kids there—especially when there is never any violent danger, just the wholesome kidnapping kind. There’s lots of slipping and falling and Carrey gets hit in the nuts with a soccer ball. It’s not mature. But it’s not supposed to be. And it’s perfectly serviceable fare for all involved.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

the tree of life

I’m going to do my best not to spoil any part of this movie for you but I feel that more people should be prepared for what happens in Tree of Life. Because I wasn’t prepared, and I spent far too much of this movie sputtering in confusion when I probably should have been sighing melodramatically, or continuously weeping like the lady in the row front of us.

So. First of all you get some kind of very beautiful wafting thing, which I thought might be a womb, but was probably God, or something. Whatever it is, it puts you in the state you should adhere to for the rest of the film, i.e. meaningful silence and awkwardness when it comes to crunching on food/sucking on your Coke straw. Then you get a sad scene where a mother (the very beautiful Jessica Chastain) finds out some bad news and tells her spouse (a terrifying bespectacled and Brylcreemed Brad Pitt), and then suddenly you are in the middle of a thirty-minute documentary about the Big Bang and Earth’s most amazing visual moments. I mean, I started laughing a bit because it came out of left field, but without the element of surprise, it really is just worth sitting back and appreciating the hands-down beautiful scenes in front of you, occasionally accompanied by some overly emotive opera. Then, eventually, just as you get to the part in Earth’s formation where the dinosaurs are wiped out (yes, you will see dinosaurs, may as well brace yourself for that too), you are catapulted back into the present, where a man named Jack (Sean Penn, basically pointless) sulks around the place thinking about a family tragedy and is accompanied by a slew of visually dramatic moments that are like being hit in the face with a poignancy bat (like a cricket bat, but harder). Finally, you are taken back through Jack’s memories and hang out with him in the 50s (though with Sean Penn only 40something himself it really should have been set in the 70s to make any chronological sense) as adolescent Jack deals with the loss of childhood innocence with his family, including his folks, the aforementioned Chastain/Pitt pairing. Then you end on what is either the crew wrap party or some emotional and spiritual finale. It was boring, anyway.

The trouble is, Tree of Life isn’t an altogether terrible movie. It’s just that it’s too many types of movies. I will say in all honesty it’s one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen in a long time: the cinematography is magical, the scenes all heavy with pathos, and atmosphere—both in emotion and temperature—is almost perfectly conveyed. The problem is that director Terrence Malick is so proud of his undeniable talent that I imagine he must have wandered around the set in a suit made of solid gold yelling, “More! MORE METAPHORS! THE AUDIENCE IS NOT SAD ENOUGH!” because god damn if I wasn’t just sick of being emotionally manipulated by the end of it. The camera lingers on pools of water. It lingers on dinosaurs showing empathy. It lingers on everyone’s faces and clothes and grass. This is why the movie goes for two and a half hours. It malingers.

Not to mention the movie takes forever to even become a movie: the first half-hour or so is spent in jerking, poignant moments in time, edited like a trailer and never quite focussing on anyone in particular: just their shadow, or the backs of their heads, or an inch of their skin. It’s an interesting cinematic technique, no doubt, but it goes on longer than such an approach should and becomes tedious.

What is even more frustrating—and probably doesn’t come through at all in this sulky review—is that it could have been edited and adjusted into a four-star movie. The scenes in Jack’s memory as he interacts with his family are wonderful. Anyone who has had a parent, spouse, sibling or child would be able to relate to some of the moments, cliché though they are: running under a sprinkler, chasing your mother around the house with a lizard, doing shadow puppets with your hands using a torch and a sheet. Even if those moments were never yours, they still shimmer with childhood beauty and ruin, and feel universal.

In case Tree of Life is not layered enough already, it’s also lesson in Freudian psychology. The boys’ mother, Mrs O’Brien, is a perfect angel, there for her children in touch and care, but subservient to her husband. Mr O’Brien is an aggressor who teaches the boys that fighting is A-OK but smiling at the dinner table is certainly not. He is rough with them every time he touches them, while she is gentle. There’s even a disturbing Oedipal moment or two and a part where Jack yells at his father “You want to kill me!” To be honest, the family moments are not particularly original—you’ll have seen kids shoot cap guns and a loved-up couple smile at each other on a picnic blanket in about ten thousand other movies—but despite that, I really enjoyed the scenes, even though there is a certain amount of tension lost in the fact you know in advance how their story ends.

Really, there is a lot to ridicule in Tree of Life. Sean Penn, as the grown Jack, is completely redundant—if someone can tell me the point of him then I’d love to hear it. The religious aspect is tiring by the end. But there’s a lot to love, too: the 50s are rendered perfectly and Jessica Chastain’s wardrobe would cause me to roll her if I ran into her down at Ringwood Station. It is measured and understated at times. And then at others it’s so exhaustingly overbearing I just wanted to groan, if I was game to make a sound.

I don’t know if this review makes any sense. It’s hard when the movie itself is so confused about what it’s trying to say. I’ll probably read this tomorrow and wish I had just shut up, or done something Twitter-length like: “#treeoflife is a slice of life of human existence that is devoid entirely of humour, an almost impressive feat. Buy the dvd and FF through the crap bits to make a great short film.” But oh well. I’m not known for my ability to shut up.

Monday, June 27, 2011

cars 2

Pixar, let’s face it, are wonderful. I dare you to find a better superhero movie than The Incredibles, or a more moving ten minutes of film than the intro to Up, or a better and braver hero than Wall-E. Then I double dare you to think of the first Cars movie as the best of anything. Maybe the best at making Pixar’s board a huge merchandising fortune so they can fill their Lightning McQueen-shaped swimming pool with Cristal or whatever it is rich people drink. Probably imported Dr Pepper.

I went to see Cars 2 when the Rotten Tomatoes rating had been going downhill faster than a relevant racing pun. I’ll see anything, though, and as I’ve seen everything Pixar has done (including Ratatouille, which is the first movie I’ve fallen asleep during) there was no way I could stop myself. Armed with 3D glasses and enough popcorn to float a shipwreck, I bravely went to see the first Pixar movie the masses appeared to be dreading.

And they shouldn’t be. Actually, Cars 2 is pretty good.

Perhaps it was my low expectations. I’m not interested in racing or in arrogant race cars voiced by Owen Wilson. (Though I am interested in Owen Wilson when he plays humans.) I own a bunch of movie paraphernalia but cars aren’t my thing. For me, Cars 2 was lifted from horror by ditching the races—there are only three, and the last one you only see for about five seconds—and instead following an adventurous spy thriller storyline when Lightning McQueen’s best pal, country bumpkin tow-truck Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), accidentally happens upon some highly secretive information in a Japanese bathroom. (Yes, there is a scene in one of those convoluted Japanese toilets. Yes, it’s funny. Yes, I wish I also had buttons on my otherwise dull toilet at home.) Mater then becomes the target of the bad guys—headed by a monocle-side-mirror-wearing car who answers to a faceless villain I picked from miles away—but is thankfully found first by British Intelligence officers Holley (Emily Mortimer) and the moustachioed Bond car Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, totally and utterly excellent.) A misinterpretation of events leads Holley and Finn to believe Mater is a spy under deep, stupid cover, and together they must save the day.

Interestingly, the plotline McQueen follows is about a competition started by Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) to best show off the new alternative fuel source he has come up with. While it’s a topic that is currently quite relevant, it’s not elaborated upon too much (fair enough too, the target market really couldn’t give a toss about petrol prices no matter how much we moan about them) but was a pretty interesting angle to take. It’s discovered during the first races that the cars running on the new fuel are prone to go boom, and Axelrod’s new fuel and race appear to be the end of his career.

Along with that drama, McQueen and Mater have a falling out, basically because Mater is stupid and annoying and ruins everything. Which is what stops Cars 2 from attaining the heights of Pixar’s excellence. While Lightning McQueen is smarmy and arrogant, Tow Mater is not street-smart, doesn’t listen, and makes terrible puns. (Okay. And some good ones which should be terrible, like when someone says, “tout suite!” and he says, “I’ll have two sweets too!”) You can forgive him a lot, because he’s never really left his quiet hometown of Radiator Springs before, but the incident that gets him out of favour with Lightning during the first race is actually appalling behaviour on his part as both a friend and a team member. So while I appreciated getting away from McQueen, Mater is still a very imperfect character. You get so little of everyone else that I don’t know who I’d prefer it to be about. Maybe Finn McMissile.

Cars 2 is a beautiful looking movie, which is hardly a surprise. The action is thrilling, Finn McMissile is an amazing addition—he’s a car! He’s on skis! He’s a submarine! He’s got guns! Etc!—and there are a lot of little jokes you could miss if you weren’t paying attention, like that there’s a Popemobile that has its own Popemobile, and the ads on the side of the racetrack that say “Lassetire”. For Australian audiences, V8 Supercar driver Mark Winterbottom voices a car in one scene; in other countries, the paint job and voice is changed. Some jokes are flat-out hilarious. Some will induce a smile. It’s a movie you shouldn’t mind taking your niece to go see.

One flaw that bothered me was the excessive use of stereotypes. It starts with the cringeworthy hillbilly that is the bucktoothed Tow Mater, goes off to Japan where all the female cars appear to be geishas (in my three week experience of Japan, I did not see a single geisha anywhere), then heads over to Italy where everyone is making out and McQueen is told he needs to be fattened up. The only “non-white” characters in Radiator Springs are Flo (Jenifer Lewis), who speaks fluent sass, and her panelbeater husband Ramone (Cheech Marin). My problem is that these kind of stereotypes should be avoided, and pushing them on kids when they’re young and impressionable—“it’s okay to think that other countries are made of a homogenous people!”—is something I’d wish my kids would avoid seeing.

Also, while I’m totally okay with the fact that cars talk in these films, it absolutely pushes my credibility when you see what they have built. HOW DO THEY DO THIS? THEY DO NOT HAVE HANDS. A scene with an army of miniature robots would fix this. Or, you know, I could get over it. After all, there’s one scene in this where the a bunch of cars play guitar in an Italian plaza. HOW DO THEY STRING THE GUITARS THOUGH? I cannot buy it. Also, while I can be okay with teeth (I can buy that they’re actually grills, or whatever), why do cars have tongues? WHYYYYY

So it exceeded my expectations, made me laugh, and I had a good time. And, thrillingly, there’s a Toy Story short before it called Hawaiian Vacation that rocked my socks. There are worse movies out there to see this holiday season, like Kung Fu Panda 2 (which I may review later). And if anyone asks you if it’s better than Cars 1, you can even quote it: “Is the Popemobile Catholic?”

Friday, June 17, 2011

h j harper, star league #1 lights, camera, action

There’s something about initials in kids books. When I was a kidlet, all the best books were by people hiding behind initials – along with Point Horror writers Caroline B Cooney and D E Athkins, R L Stine is of course a good example, and I was so in love with him and his initialled compatriots that for a while all of my (numerous and terrible) stories were mostly me thinking up dramatic titles, writing the name F E Hardy in bold, then running immediately out of ideas. The trend continues with the Zac Power books, written by H I Larry, a pen name for a variety of excellent authors who have contributed to the series. H J Harper is no pseudonym, but an actual (and quite lovely) person named Holly, and her new Star League series starts as much fun.

Book one opens with movie star Jay Casey heroically stopping some bank robbers in a commercial for the drink Fizz Force. As the filming wraps up, we learn more about Jay: he does his own stunts, swinging down from the ceiling and kicking a burglar’s legs out from underneath him; he’s kind, showing concern for the actors he’s just beaten up; and he’s a lonely kid, orphaned and with only his uncle/agent Jefferson as a friend. Then Jay finds out he’s up for an audition with the famous director Ben Beaumont—but it’s not an audition for a movie, but to join a new bunch of kids with the ability to save the world. There’s robot S.A.M., animancer Leigh, zombie Roger (full name Roger Romero, which is why I love Holly right there), werewolf Connor and ninja Asuka, and the first book shows the team meeting for the first time, and thrown right in the deep end with a dramatic kidnapping as the evil and awesomely named Professor Pestilence tries to use Jay
s fame to his advantage.

I like early reader chapter books because I can knock them out in a short period of time and feel like a Successful Bookseller. It’s also great when I like them and then have some proper advice to offer those who want to buy a book for the eightish-plusish market. (Younger kids will probably like having it read to them and older kids, like for example twenty-nine-year-old ones, might also like to snare themselves a copy.)

Having male, female and androgynous-robot characters means that all types of kids can see that anyone can be powerful and courageous, and makes the series good for kids who think reading about the opposite sex is gross/smelly/weird/boring or the parents that assume their kids think that way. Though to be honest, in many ways the children’s book industry mops the floor with adult books, sexism-wise, because there are female spies and agents and adventurers all over the place in the kids section but not as much in the adult fiction section. Hopefully kids who grow up reading books like Star League: Lights, Camera, Action Hero will end up writing books like Star League: Equal Pay, Equal Badassness. Or perhaps they’ll think of better titles. Probably.

Lights, Camera, Action Hero is fun, adventurous, a bit different, and manages to tackle the serious issues of being ostracised and feeling lonely while throwing in terrifying evil professors, killbots (my favourite kind of bot!) and jokes. Basically, it’s all you could want in a kid
s adventure book, with the added bonus of originality and warmth. Nahum Ziersch’s manga-ish illustrations are excellent, energetic, edgy and other e-words too: it makes for a good-looking read to go with the clear but not patronising language. And if you/your kid/your grandma likes it, there’s five more books in the series. You know what, you should probably just go buy them all at once.