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Sunday
Jun032012

KILLING ANNA 

Writer/Director: Paul Gallasch

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL Screenings - Thur 7 Jun 6.00pm

Rating: 2.5/5

 

That most grating aspect of the modern documentary - the ‘artist as the subject’ device - infuses much of Paul Gallasch’s film-school project, Killing Anna, with the feel of a one-man performance piece rather than a fact-based film. But that makes the accomplishment of this young Aussie abroad no less impressive; though it is ultimately a bit of a lark that plays better as a concept than a film, it does what I believe its sets out to do – position Gallasch for a career post-graduation.

Despite the grungy design template that the film employs, the idea for Killing Anna is kinda cute and one that will lend itself just nicely to a bitter-sweet Hollywood re-versioning. Deep in a funk after being dumped by the girl of his dreams, Gallasch documents his decision to officially bury her forever with a mock-funeral. He’ll stage it grandly, with friends, flowers and invitations, and hope that her memory will be forever erased. In doing so, he is also drawn into an exploration on the larger themes of what love is, what makes love work, how do you stay in love, etc.

There is a little too much contrivance in the methods Gallasch employs to create intimacy with his audience. Accompanied by the droning monotone of the detached, urban 20-something, we watch Gallasch roll a joint, veg-out on his unmade bed in his underpants and exude a sullen coolness. There’s some fun irony in his choice of ‘depressed-guy’ viewing – Ken Burn’s 680 minute recounting of The Civil War – but it also feels all glibly convenient; it’s the sort of mood-defining ploy a seasoned screenwriter might use.

Inconsistencies abound that undermine the film’s reality – Gallasch is forced into a dilapidated share-house with 5 women, but can afford flowers and a tux for the funeral. We conveniently meet Anna, who swears she will never sign a waiver to allow use of her image, yet...here we are. And Gallasch himself is a strange construct; he seeks openness from those around him, but catching himself in a moment of deep sadness, he dramatically smacks the camera (and, by extension, his audience) away.

Flourishes such as slow-motion running through city streets (a motif he introduces with an equally arty opening shot) and a rather pointless visit to the Coachella music festival to get laid (wouldn’t that have been easier at some NYC nite-club?) don’t add much in the way of profundity. Some of the more believable moments are Gallasch’s interactions with older, wiser souls, in particular his father’s ruminations on getting over love gone bad.

Saturday
Jun022012

PROMETHEUS

Stars: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Guy Pearce, Rafe Spall, Sean Harris, Benedict Wong, Emun Elliott and Kate Dickie.
Writers: Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof.
Director: Ridley Scott
Running time: 124 minutes

Rating: 2.5/5

For his return to the science-fiction genre, Ridley Scott has pinned his hopes upon a freshly-conceptualized retooling of the franchise he inadvertently began with a keen eye on launching another one. Prometheus, his prequel-of-sorts to the 1979 classic Alien, honours the mythology of the series and convincingly replicates key beats in the over-arching narrative of the four films.

As hinted at by the interminable series of trailers, the story follows two scientists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) on a journey to a distant planet, the co-ordinates of which have been deduced by symbols discovered amongst the ruins of ancient civilizations on Earth. Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) is overseeing the expedition on behalf of its benefactor, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce); the vessel is captained by Janek (Idris Elba) and administered by an android, David (Michael Fassbender).

Upon arrival, the crew (aided by state-of-the-art ‘mo-mapping’ technology) set about exploring the cavernous underground tunnels. A series of discoveries follow – holographic images that show the fate of the planet’s inhabitants (7-foot humanoids that resemble the beings in Rene Laloux’s seminal 1973 animation, La Planète Sauvage); a chamber of vase-like containers; a giant head. Dr Shaw discovers the preserved remains of one planet native; tests indicate a genetic miracle pertaining to the dawn of man. The findings bring the film to life (not a moment too soon); agendas emerge, lives are lost and the past, present and future of mankind comes into focus.  

Scott is no longer the director he was when he shredded audience nerves 33 years ago. The British ex-ad-man has conquered the film world and now stands above the industry, or at least above the kind of bloody monster B-movie that made him who he is; he was never going to return to his Alien world just to recreate purely visceral thrills and chills. At the core of Prometheus is a creator-vs-creation duality, a vexing study of The God Complex, and these elements appear to be what has drawn Ridley Scott into the project (just as they did, one might assume, with Blade Runner).

But it is the handling of those themes that makes Prometheus such an irrevocably flawed work. Scott is working from a script by self-confessed fanboys John Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, two relative newcomers with worrying track records (duds The Darkest Hour and Cowboys and Aliens, respectively). Scott utilises the framework of the script to tell his origins story; Spaight and Lindelof’s words suggest they are telling another. Their dialogue is often banal (“If we don’t stop it, there won’t be any home to go back to!”); the type of interaction that perfectly defined characters in the original film and James Cameron’s sequel are poorly-judged and badly-staged here (one awful exchange between Elba and Theron seems to be from another movie entirely). The collaboration of a grand old master with philosophic pretensions and two young guys who want to make an outer-space monster movie is a failed one.  

There are also technical drawbacks that undermine the potency of Prometheus. The hardware and interiors, as captured on the 3D digital format by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, have a tinny sheen that more closely resembles the pristine confines of Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey than the grimy, real-world surfaces of the Nostromo, the Sulaco or Fiorina 'Fury' 161. The deep, dark shadows that played such a crucial role in the shot-on-film Alien and its sequels are gone in Prometheus. Those films were triumphs of set design, creating vivid geographies in which to stage the action; the deck and corridors of the Prometheus look like an exercise is science-fiction artwork writ large, unreal and unconvincing.

The symbolism and mythology of the series that scholars like to riff on is intact; the horrors of birthing and reproduction, oral fixations (including some overstated vagina dentate imagery) and the terror of the monster within have been ongoing motifs in the Alien universe. No bloody stone is left unturned in Prometheus, but nothing particularly new is explored. The tonal shift from the film’s sense of discovery to outright horror is immediate and jarring but undeniably impactful. Visual effects are, as expected, of the highest order; though one of Scott’s inner-circle since 2006’s A Good Year, the orchestrations of Marc Streitenfeld are grandiose, intrusive and too often not in sync with his director’s vision.

Although the character’s appearance is largely left until late in the film, it is in his portrayal of Guy Pearce’s Peter Weyland that Ridley Scott finds the most affinity. Weyland is an old man, seemingly on a mission to define his beginnings, but equally determined to use his wealth and influence to inject new life into his current existence. Scott and Weyland have undertaken immense journeys, simply because they can, to define and further exploit that which had made them powerful as young men. As the rise of the Xenomorphs in the subsequent films attests, it may have been an ill-advised venture for both.

Friday
Jun012012

WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU'RE EXPECTING

Stars: Cameron Diaz, Elizabeth Banks, Anna Kendrick, Jennifer Lopez, Brooklyn Decker, Dennis Quaid, Matthew Morrison, Rodrigo Santoro, Chris Rock, Ben Falcone, Chase Crawford, Rob Huebel, Rebel Wilson and Thomas Lennon.
Writers: Shauna Cross and Heather Hach (based upon the book by Heidi Murkoff).
Director: Kirk Jones
Running time: 109 minutes

Rating: 2.5/5

As a parent of two, I am familiar with Heidi Murkoff’s handbook-for-the-recently-fertilised, having (mostly) read and re-read it as my world around me changed. I don’t recall thinking “This would make a great film!” In fact, I took comfort knowing that some of the more graphic passages would remain on the page. I also missed the bit about golf-cart races and old Nascar drivers that director Kirk Jones integrates into his very, very loose adaptation.

Along with writers Shauna Cross and Heather Hach and the visionary people who market Lionsgate movies, Jones had no such trouble seeing where the potential lay in adapting the self-help bestseller. The template they would use – starry ensemble casts acting out self-contained vignettes in the cutest way possible - had proved popular with audiences, if not critics, in recent years (He’s Just Not That Into You; Valentine’s Day; New Year’s Eve).

So we get a barren J.Lo heading to Africa to adopt; accidently-impregnated fitness guru Cameron Diaz losing control of her most prized possession – her body; prim suburbanite Elizabeth Banks (the film’s biggest asset) suffering through all the worst aspects of being knocked up; and Brooklyn Decker as the ridiculously perfect mum-to-be (in the most ridiculously silly sub-plot). Anna Kendrick adds weight (no pun intended) as the accidental-mum who must cope with a terrible loss and a floundering romantic entanglement; Jones seems to enjoy the gravitas of Kendrick’s scenes, as they are the film’s best. Interspersed is a Greek chorus of pram-pushing young fathers, lead by Chris Rock (making the best of a pay-check role), offering the emasculated-and-loving-it perspective of the new-age dad.

What To Expect When You’re Expecting is by no means a poorly-crafted hack-job like those genre sisters mentioned above. But it is very much of the style that makes the rom-com of today look like TV shows. Everything is garishly bright; old people are full o’ beans and have sex a lot (here it is Dennis Quaid who, mirroring reality, father’s twins); everybody lives life at an accelerated pace and react to their environment with broad grins, smart quips and by buying things. The young Hollywood executives of today were weaned on television’s last golden era – the heady days of ‘Friends’ and ‘Ally McBeal’ and ‘Seinfeld’ – and the films now being greenlit seem to come with a mandate for a small-screen mindset and aesthetic.  

Fortunately, Jones and seasoned producer Mike Medavoy know their audience to a fault. An opening montage-like set-up paints a picture of the modern thirty-something woman that might enrage some (nights in, on the couch, watching dance contests; food indulgences; yearnings for middle-class bliss), but will prove endearing to those settling into new-motherhood; scene-stealers Rebel Wilson and Wendi McLendon-Covey are strategically cast to woo the patrons who enjoyed their last film together, Brides Maids.

In that regard, What To Expect When You’re Expecting achieves its meagre goals – to provide a pretty, crisply-told fantasy for those eating for two that centres on nine life-changing months. Perhaps best watched at home, where it can be paused during those endless trips to the toilet, it is a dippy, disposable but likably enjoyable diversion.    

Tuesday
May292012

WOODY ALLEN: A DOCUMENTARY

Features: Woody Allen, Letty Aronson, Robert Greenhut, Diane Keaton, Louise Lasser, Tony Roberts, Dick Cavett, John Cusack, Sean Penn, Dianne Wiest, Leonard Maltin, Owen Wilson, Scarlett Johanssen, FX Feeney, Richard Schickel and Mariel Hemingway.
Writer/Director: Robert B. Weide
Running time: 113 minutes

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL Screenings - Wed 6 Jun 6.00pm; Mon 11 Jun 9.30am.

Rating: 4/5

Originally screened on US television as part of PBS’s American Masters series, Robert Weide’s portrait of the artist and the man, Woody Allen, is a comprehensive document made no less captivating by its conventional approach. Fresh from its Cannes premiere where the French went understandably crazy for this love letter to one of their favourite sons, this theatrical version runs a scant 113 minutes, having been reduced from the mammoth 192 minute cut that aired in late 2011.

Weide’s camera masterfully captures the great comic’s working methods and the correlation between the Brooklyn boy that Allen was, the ground-breaking stand-up star he became and the auteur that now stands as one of American cinema’s treasures.  The warmth felt for Allen across the entertainment sector is evident in the willingness of past collaborators to dress up for the doco and reminisce about being on an Allen set. By all accounts, it is an actor’s dream job, in which Allen gives them free-range to shape their characters – as long as they do it quickly (as John Cusack notes, Allen’s driven work ethic seems to be oddly aligned with the game schedule of his beloved New York Knicks).

One notable no-show is ex-partner Mia Farrow (their creative partnership and her muse-like effect on his mid-career output is well documented, however). Weide tackles the still-divisive incident of Allen’s affair with his adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn with depth and sensitivity. Allen speaks more of the public perception and coverage of the event instead of its impact upon him. It is left to producer Robert Greenhut to recall a time on the set of Husbands and Wives (and later again, on Bullets over Broadway) when reality and film-fantasy clashed with heart-breaking intensity.

Fans will be fascinated by his childhood recollections; Allen meanders through the old neighbourhood, recounting moments that infused works such as Annie Hall, Radio Days and Broadway Danny Rose. A sequence in which we watch the man work at his 50 year-old typewriter is instantly iconic.  Having profiled American comedy giants Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce in past works, and served as producer to the eccentric Larry David on over 60 episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Weide has a proven affinity for what drives the comedic mind.

In Allen, he has a willing participant who openly discusses his past works, though he tends to self-deprecate at the expense of truly personal introspection. The overall impression is that Allen, lively as an interview subject even at 77, does not take his art as seriously as those that adore his culturally-significant oeuvre. Weide’s even-handed film, however, treats the man and his work with the love and respect they fully deserve.

Wednesday
May232012

SAFE

Stars: Jason Statham, Catherine Chan, Robert John Burke, James Hong, Anson Mount, Chris Sarandon and Sándor Técsy.
Writer / Director: Boaz Yakin

Rating: 2.5/5

The motif that runs through Boaz Yakin’s Safe is ‘old school’. A NYC actioner about a rebel/survivor who takes on all that is rotten about The Big Apple and emerges morally triumphant, it is a hoary old concept that would have starred Robert Mitchum in the ‘50s, James Coburn in the 60s, James Caan in the 70s and Bruce Willis in the 80s. The villains are broad stereotypes, the likes of which we don’t usually see today; the crime lords are fat Russians or inscrutable Asians and the crooked cops are greasy thugs. The MacGuffin is positively ancient – a safe combination!

Leading man Jason Statham knows it is a film cut from a mouldy old cloth. In one exposition-heavy scene, his hero-figure Luke Wright twice mutters ‘old-school’, as if reminding the audience that Safe is how things used to be before action movies went all Ryan Reynolds on us. Statham, an actor comfortable letting his scowl, stubble and bald noggin take over thsping duties, is the only film star at present committing his entire oeuvre to the memory of action’s last golden era; he is like Willis’ angrier, meaner younger sibling, always trying to outdo what his big brother did best.

So much so, in fact, that he has taken to remaking Willis’ movies. Safe is essentially a reworking of Mercury Rising, the one in which Bruce protects the brilliant autistic boy. Here, Statham warms to and chooses to play protector for a mathematically gifted Chinese girl, Mei (Catherine Chan), who has been abducted to help the Triads run their extortion racket. Triads don’t use computers; the profit margins of every downtown business paying protection money are kept in the little girls head. Of course, the Russians want her; the top tier of New York’s finest, all taking bribes, know her value as a bargaining tool. Only Wright stands alone to defy them….

Given the peril that everyone finds themselves in, it is ironic that Safe remains exactly that. An energetic but entirely perfunctory grinding of genre gears, it is a film that gives a fresh coat of paint to such staple as the nightclub shootout, the ruthlessly ambitious, dirty Police Chief (Robert John Burke, so angular he looks like Skeletor) and the hardboiled hero with a heart of gold. It adheres to its ‘old-school’ agenda with some splattery gun violence and (wait for it…) a car chase that goes the wrong way up a one way street.

Safe and its leading man are clearly not trying win any new fans, contentedly playing to the expectations of patrons who come to see a film whose poster points a gun in their face (pictured, right). Had the product (and Safe is, above all else, Hollywood product) reached a little higher, its title might have seemed coolly ironic. Instead, it inadvertently represents truth in advertising.

Friday
May182012

MEN IN BLACK 3

Stars: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Emma Thompson, Jermaine Clement, Alice Eve, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bill Hader and Keone Young.
Writers: Etan Cohen, David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson and Michael Soccio.
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld.

Rating: 3.5/5

 

Less outrageously funny than the original but a vastly more enjoyable experience than #2, bringing the old gang back together after such a long break could have proved disastrous (especially with the production starting without a full working script, as has been well-documented). Alas, Smith and Jones reprising their chemistry-rich roles, and Josh Brolin bringing some fresh, new laughs to the formula, ensures that MIB3 is a whole lot better than it threatened to be.

Agents J (Will Smith, confidently re-establishing his A-list comedy charisma) and K (a visibly aged but lovably gruff Tommy Lee Jones) continue to do what they do best – keep extra-terrestrial trouble-makers in line. We rejoin their exploits as they farewell Z (played by Rip Torn in the past two instalments), his executive role now taken by O (a game Emma Thompson).

A pre-credit sequence has introduced us to Boris The Animal (an unrecognizable Jermaine Clement), a spike-flinging inter-galactic marauder who has daringly escaped his moon-prison with the sole aim of wreaking vengeance upon K, who took his freedom and his arm 40 years ago; J uncovers the facts of the 1969 event that left K the damaged man he has become. With the aid of some vaguely-explained time travel technology, J transports himself back to the Age of Aquarius, where he teams with a 29 year-old K (a terrifically funny Brolin, nailing Jones’ mannerisms perfectly) to save the future version of his partner and, of course, mankind too.

Series director and creative engine Barry Sonnenfeld and his team of 5 writers (amongst them specialist script doctors David Koepp and Jeff Nathanson) have chosen to expand upon the backstory of our favourite dark-suited G-men, weaving a meaningful origins tale into the general silliness of their day-to-day partnership. There is genuine warmth to how the agent’s personalities develop in Men in Black 3, particularly in the character details of strait-laced junior K’s life in the swingin’ 60s. The final 15 minutes are particularly moving, showing faith in the aging fanbase’s on-going affection for the MIB universe.

The series bread-and-butter elements – the menagerie of alien types and how they live amongst us – is laid on thick in the first act and culminates in a very cool Chinese Restaurant shoot-out between the MIB and a posse of Boris’ henchmen. But it is largely jettisoned in favour of the fun time-travel plotting of acts 2 and 3. The film benefits tremendously from Clement’s effectively nasty villain (a throwback to Vincent D’Onofio’s bug-monster from episode 1) and some scene-stealing cameos, notably Bill Hader’s bewigged undercover MIB agent and Michael Stuhlbarg’s multi-dimensional seer Griffin.

The film re-energises the giggles and thrills that the best moments from the series delivers (the pro use of the 3D effects proves beneficial), but it’s the gentle sentimentality that lingers longest in the mind. It goes a long way to dispel the concerns usually associated with #3 in any film series, namely that it exists for purely commercial reasons. There is genuine heart in the reteaming of J and K, certainly sufficient to warrant MIB3’s existence; enough, perhaps, to even trumpet it.

Thursday
May172012

THE WOMAN IN BLACK

Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer, Liz White and Sophie Stuckey.
Writer: Jane Goldman
Director: James Watkins
Running time: 95 minutes.

Rating: 4/5


James Watkins’ richly-realised, thematically-compelling ghost story, The Woman in Black, examines the notion that the haunted man’s true home is a haunted house. The tortured, grief-ridden soul of widower Daniel Radcliffe manifests as an isolated, dilapidated mansion that was once home to the joyful yelps of children. But darkness now lives there, and Radcliffe’s Arthur Kipps is enveloped in her shroud.

If that seems like a terribly melodramatic way to introduce the review for a 2012 chiller that chronicles spectral malevolence, just wait until you see the film. Watkins, who impressed mightily with the nihilistic slasher romp Eden Lake, embraces the ethos and legacy of the films’ legendary production outfit, Hammer Films, to deliver a creaky-door/squeaky-floorboard haunted house picture that builds to a suitably scary climax (with a melancholy twist, to boot).

Kipps is a second-tier lawyer at a big London firm in turn-of-the-20th-century England. He is struggling to raise his 4 year-old son Joseph (Misha Handley), having lost his wife Stella (Sophie Stuckey, in ethereal form) during childbirth. With his job on the line, he accepts an assignment to travel to the gloomy coastal village of Crythin Gifford to bring order to the estate of the late Alice Drabow. Her home, known as Eel Marsh House, was a shuttered gothic two-storey dwelling which Kipps inhabits whilst on assignment.

But all is not right. The villagers are wary of him; the house echoes with the disembodied laughter of long-absent children. Tragedy continues to befall the little ones of Crythin Gifford, and Kipps is soon convinced a darkly-cloaked vision he keeps witnessing on the grounds and in the corridors of Eel Marsh may hold the secret to the township’s ongoing dread. With new friend Daily (an authorative Ciarán Hinds), himself coping with the loss of a young son and the subsequent mental deterioration of his wife, Elizabeth (a loopy Janet McTeer), Kipps applies his analytical powers to deduce the secret of Drablow House and end the terrifying reign of the Woman in Black.

Of course, the real mystery is – can Daniel Radcliffe, sans the dorky glasses and lightning-bolt scar permanently creasing his forehead, carry a film playing an adult? Admittedly, this isn’t Hamlet; he spends the vast amount of his on-screen time holding candles and peering into dark corners before being startled. But, yes, he makes for a compelling, sympathetic presence in a film that asks him to project sadness, maturity, desperation and longing. In that regard, he captures the essence of Watkins’ film splendidly, which maximises both the genre tropes and deeper emotions of Jane Goldman’s sparse but assured script (a fine adaptation of Sarah Hill’s 1983 novel).

But the true star, and rightly so, is the hooded rotting facade of Jennet Humfrye, aka The Woman in Black (played by the barely-glimpsed Liz White). Representing soulful regret and vengeful disdain for the living in equal measure, she and the disconnected Kipps are two sides of the same coin. His initial reaction to her presence is unbridled horror, but he is soon working to free her of her torment (which provides insight as to why he doesn’t just run screaming from the house, as most normal people might).

It is this deeply humanistic element that both resonates emotionally and is the pulsating current that fuels the frights in The Woman in Black. Fans of Hill’s book and those that fondly recall the 1989 TV movie and audiences that have driven Watkins’ film to a worldwide box-office take of close to US$130million understand this. It is a work that transcends the genre whilst not skimping on any of the skin-crawling thrills that the premise promises to deliver.

Wednesday
May162012

THE DICTATOR

Stars: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, Jason Mantzoukas and John C Reilly.
Writers: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer.
Director: Larry Charles

Rating 0.5/5


It is not enough to lambast this dire effort from Brit shock-comic Sacha Baron Cohen for merely being puerile, amateurish, vulgar and, not for a single frame of its wretched, mercifully-short 83 minutes, the least bit amusing. What is most shocking about this early summer-season entry from Paramount (shaming their history by attaching their centenary logo) is that The Dictator may be what passes for broad-appeal political satire in 2012.

Crafting a comedy that mocks the savage dictatorships of America’s traditional adversaries (in this case, the wealthy fictional North African country of Wadiya) must have seemed like an easy sell to the studio’s brass, who would have envisioned a nation of patriotic movie-goers queuing to see a comedy about just such a despot (Cohen’s idiotic Aladeen) getting taken down a peg by good ol’ USA values. Given the project would also re-unite the team behind 2006 mega-hit Borat and 2009’s not-such-a-hit Brüno – director Larry Charles and writer/star Cohen – handing over creative control was an easy decision to make, that much is certain.

That the end result is one of the worst American comedies of recent memory must have come as a shock, but they have only themselves to blame. The comedy doesn’t work, but that is a notoriously subjective area for movie-goers; some may get a giggle at jokes about child-rape, forced-fisting, gender-specific foeticide (“You’re pregnant? Is it a boy or an abortion?”), amputees, 9-11 and public masturbation, as well as lame jabs at 5 year-old ‘hot-button’ topics like WMD proliferation and, ahem, inner-city vegan co-ops.

What misfires so spectacularly is the overt sentimentality that should bind the gags within some kind of real-world framework, giving the audience the merest of human touches and ensuring we pay attention even when the comedy is sinking. Bless her heart for trying, but Anna Faris is crucified at the altar of Cohen’s crass star-vehicle; her dippy but decent doe-eyed do-gooder, even by silly movie-romance standards, would never fall for such a pig as Aladeen, and her efforts to ‘play along’ with Cohen’s ruse are embarrassing.

Only Jason Mantzoukas as Aladeen’s right-hand man Nadal brings any comic chops to a role; extended cameos by John C Reilly, Megan Fox, Fred Armisen and Chris Parnell are cringe-worthy. Blink-and-miss them walk-ons by the likes of Chris Elliott, Horatio Sanz and Garry Shandling suggest much planned mirth was found wanting and discarded in the edit suite; several grandly-staged scenes were shot but have ended up interspersed amongst the closing credits (suggesting the excision of failed material may account for the scant running time).

Ben Kingsley as bad guy Tamir fronts up for another horrible comedy, apparently having learnt nothing after appearing in that atrocious Mike Myers vehicle, The Love Guru – a film that has much in common with The Dictator. Both are glaringly tacky works purporting to comment on topical issues from comics of limited range and retarded intellectual development who draw their inspiration from toilet-wall humour.

There is a supremely-smart satire to be made from this material, but the only achievement of Cohen’s ‘watch-me-shock-you!’ third-rate buffoonery and Charles’ sitcom-standard lensing is to do what Dubya Bush couldn’t – bring down a murderous ruler ingloriously.

Thursday
May102012

DARK SHADOWS

Stars: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Chloë Grace Moretz, Bella Heathcote, Jackie Earle Haley, Johnny Lee Miller, Gulliver McGrath and Helena Bonham Carter.
Writers: Seth Grahame-Smith
Director: Tim Burton
Running time: 113 mins.

Rating: 4/5

 

No one is suggesting that the Warner Bros marketing team would have had an easy time clearly defining the essence of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows for mass-market appeal, but they should have put more effort into selling this delightfully dippy horror-comedy-romance than settling for the kitschy ‘retro-cool’ easy-out that the trailers have us all expecting.

Those queuing for the sort of giggly nonsense that the ad campaign promises – ‘Captain Jack Sparrow’ as a pasty bloodsucker, circa 1972 – will be bummed, but those familiar with Dan Curtis’ original TV series may be perfectly satiated. Burton and super-hot scripter Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; the proposed Beetlejuice sequel) have nailed the gothic excesses and soap-opera plotting of the concept’s origins with delirious precision.

Though frustratingly uneven at times (the mid-section plods), this occasionally wondrous work - the eighth collaboration between Johnny Depp and Burton - doesn’t reach the glorious heights of Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, but it is every bit as good as Sleepy Hollow and Corpse Bride and a whole lot better (and bloodier) than Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. Most of all, Dark Shadows is very much Burton in Beetlejuice-mode - there are at least two dinner table scenes that delight, a giant banister-snake, a structurally-discordant family, a charmingly-oddball isolated mansion of acute angles and a surly teen-queen rebel (Chloë Grace Moretz in the Winona Ryder role).

Burton promises much with a dazzling pre-credit sequence that establishes the murderous passion of his anti-heroine, the witch Angelique (a terrifically OTT Eva Green). She pines for the aristocratic settler Barnabas Collins (Depp) but looses him to his true-love, Josette DuPres (luminous Australian Bella Heathcote). Angelique curses Barnabas to eternal life as a vampire and has him buried; a beautiful photographic wipe then transports the story to 1972 Collinsport, a town so named for the fishing industry established by Barnabas’ generational clan.

But by 1972, the Collins dynasty is in ruins. The mansion is decrepit; matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) barely maintains the estate for her daughter Carolyn (Moretz), despicable brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), his troubled son David (Gulliver McGrath) and the boy’s shrink, a constantly smashed Dr Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter). When Barnabas’ coffin is disturbed by a construction crew (much to their regret, in an icky but expertly-staged sequence), the 200 year-old grave-dweller re-establishes himself at the head of the clan and sets about destroying the rival fishing company (still run by Green’s ageless succubus) and wooing the new nanny, Victoria (also Heathcote), the spitting image of Josette and who carries her own dark secrets.

The cool soundtrack and now-vs-then vibe that dominates the marketing spin is all there in Burton’s work, but it’s not the film that punters are being sold. With ghosts carrying their own vengeful secrets and the undead living out there endless existence in Burton’s small coastal village, Dark Shadows mostly resembles the frantically-staged supernatural existentialism of Peter Jackson’s 1996 film The Frighteners in its ambitious scope, giggly dark humour and love-conquers-all message. And much like that film, it may not find its truest following and proper critical appreciation until many years after its release.

Monday
May072012

THE CORRIDOR

Stars: Matthew Amyotte, Nigel Bennett, Stephen Chambers, David Fleming and Mary-Colin Chisholm.
Writer: Josh McDonald
Director: Evan Kelly
Running time: 98 mins. (Screening at Fantaspoa 2012, May 4-20)

Rating: 3/5


Some effectively chilly atmospherics and a bracing blast of third act gore will leave genre fans buzzing over Canuck mind-bender, The Corridor. Debutant director Evan Kelly perhaps shows a little too much confidence in Josh McDonald’s wordy script and the young cast’s ability to pull off a dialogue-heavy set-up, but his handling of cabin-in-the-woods paranoia and its icky outcome is top notch.

A strong pre-credit sequence sets an edgy tone that carries the film for its first half hour. Tyler (Stephen Chambers) has flipped out (we don’t learn why), leaving his mother dead and his friends Chris (David Patrick Flemming) and Everett (James Gilbert) bearing the physical cost of subduing him. Upon Tyler’s release from hospital, the group of five buds (now including Matthew Amyotte’s big-lug Bobcat and Glen Matthews’ book-nerd Jim) head to a log-home deep in the Canadian wilderness to reconnect. These early scenes ultimately build character-based drama and pay off as tension unfolds, but the lads shenanigans and occasional confusion as to how to behave around Tyler gets a bit one-note.

There’s a group-dynamic trope that too often presents itself in ensemble films such as The Corridor – how did all these intrinsically different young men become friends in the first place? But Kelly takes as a basis the unlikelihood that any of these guys would really hang out with each other and turns it to his film’s advantage. Late one night, Tyler finds an energy field pulsating in the forest; once inside, strong instincts bubble to the surface, culminating in a vision of his slain mom. When he tells the other four, they all want to experience it, only to find themselves gripped by a violently escalating fury that each member directs towards another. The shut-in stand-off and subsequent gruesomeness represents the film’s best moments; Kelly’s staging of the dramatic downward spiral of each character, and the acting troupe’s pitch-perfect interpretations, makes for white-knuckle cinema.

Essentially an alpha-male pissing contest but with knives and guns, Kelly makes the most out of the psychological-horror element; some commentators have favourably compared it to Stephen King frighteners, in particular the boys-own mental adventure of Dreamcatcher and the isolated setting of The Shining (the snowbound psychosis that drives John Carpenter’s The Thing is a good comparision, too). Conceptually, The Corridor is no more ambitious than a solid Twilight Zone episode, but it convinces for most of its running time. The FX-heavy ending is too high-falutin’ for a low-budget work, but the overall impact suggests Kelly is a genre director worth watching.