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Sunday
May062012

THE ARRIVAL OF WANG (L’ARRIVO DI WANG)

Stars: Ennio Fantastichini, Francesca Cuttica, Juliet Esey Joseph and Li Yong.
Writers/Directors: Antonio & Marco Manetti.
Running time: 80 mins. (Screening at Fantaspora 2012, May 4-20)

Rating: 3.5/5

The Manetti Brother’s sci-fi drama The Arrival of Wang walks a razor’s edge in it politicizing of an alien visitor’s intent. Our latest interstellar refugee has learnt to speak Mandarin by observing the most populated region of our planet; he is nicknamed ‘Wang’ by the racially-insensitive government official assigned his case; his goal just may (or may not) be global domination. The writing/directing team do just enough to keep the inherent xenophobic symbolism in check...but only just.

Reading the film’s publicity material, one could be forgiven for assuming that the ultimate effect of this deceptively nihilistic tale is one of tolerance, of the benefits of striving to understand and accept those who look, sound and act differently. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, haters may hold The Arrival of Wang up as some sort of banner for isolationist, nationalistic fervour.

Which I’m certain is not the intent of The Brothers Manetti, who favour crisp, smart dialogue and a joyous toying with B-movie tropes over in-your-face metaphoring. Their slow-burn story tells of everywoman Gaia (Francesca Cuttica), an expert Chinese-Italian interpreter, who is blind-folded and taken to a secret location to act as the vocal bridge in a word-off between G-man Curti (Ennio Fantastichini) and Earth’s newest arrival, the aforementioned Wang (the voice of Li Yong). Gaia, at first terrified of Wang’s appearance, is soon won over by his smooth-talking, ‘humanistic’ messages of peaceful co-existence, despite Curti’s increasingly desperate contrary opinion of the little guy.

The last time an Italian constructed an outer-space visitor, it was Carlo Rambaldi, whose E.T. proved a far less morally-ambiguous traveller. The Manetti’s Wang initially inspires giggles, so octopus-sy is his appearance, but come the chilling Act 3 reveal, his facade is entirely believable. The largely single-room setting would lend itself terrifically to a live theatre work, though pulling off a believable Wang onstage (?) may prove insurmountable.

Like a lot of smart, solidly-made sci-fi movies, the B-movie premise of The Arrival of Wang is merely a vessel via which a deeper, darker and, in this case, entirely debate-worthy message is delivered. I hope this finds audience acceptance outside of its genre followers; The Arrival of Wang is a low-key but compelling and unique work.

(Thanks to Dr Dean Bertram and the organising committee of the 2012 Fantastic Planet Film Festival for the preview disc; The Arrival of Wang had its Australian premiere at Fantastic Planet in March of this year)

Saturday
May052012

TRISHNA

Stars: Freida Pinto, Riz Ahmed, Anurag Kashyap, Roshan Seth, Kalki Koechlin and Aakash Dahiya.
Writer/Director: Michael Winterbottom, adapted from the novel ‘Tess of the d'Urbervilles’ by Thomas Hardy.
Running Time: 117 mins.

Rating: 3.5/5


The vibrant, buoyant colours of India and the strong personalities of its people hide a very dark heart in the always-idiosyncratic Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna. Reimagining the heroine of Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘Tess of the d'Urbervilles’ as a young woman journeying from a poor village upbringing to the bustling cityscapes of modern Indian life proves a (mostly) inspired idea from a director whose work has always exemplified a fearless intelligence.

The prolific Brit’s best of the last decade have been the films that suit his naturalistic style, notably The Trip, 9 Songs and Genova. That said, it is impossible to dismiss his more ‘cinematic’ works, such as The Killer Inside Me and Code 46, as style-over-substance diversions. Trishna is a film that combines both – a lush colour palette that captures the region’s flavours lovingly, as well as an intimate drama filled with strong character-driven moments. That Trishna does not quite amount to the sum of its parts is not as disappointing as it sounds, though one wishes the overall impact was as potent as key moments along its path.

As the titular protagonist, Freida Pinto connects as a foil for the film’s themes and structure. Though it may be politically incorrect to suggest, a great deal of the sympathy one feels for Trishna stems from the sheer luminosity of Pinto on-screen. Her character is so bound by traditional class and gender-based confinement, the journey happens to her, rather than of her doing. As such, her wide-eyed, unshakeable devotion to goodness almost plays like a character weakness; ultimately, we are rooting for Pinto, not Trishna, to emerge unscathed.    

The course of events that dictate her life are largely decided by her wealthy but immature and frustrated boyfriend, Jay (a strutting Riz Ahmed). Struggling to break free from the life of a resort manager for his ailing father’s hotel empire, he is drawn to the innocence and integrity of the shy Trishna. Ahmed plays Jay as a hopeless romantic who believes his well-to-do lifestyle can offer Trishna the same (false) happiness that he enjoys, but his idolization of her turns sour after a secret from their past is revealed.

Jay’s descent into self-loathing, substance reliance and subsequent sexual abuse of Trishna seems incongruous to the first and second-act plotting. Winterbottom’s intent is clear – Jay’s dreams are crumbling and he will take Trishna with him at any cost. But the retribution she takes upon him is the zenith of the film’s shift in tone; it’s an undeniably potent scene, staged with an intensity that reminds one of Winterbottom’s much-debated violence in The Killer Inside Me, but it doesn’t ring true (nor, for that matter, does Jay’s hasty about-face in his desires for her).  

Despite such discussion-starting reservations, Trishna does emerge as a compelling study of a young woman of traditional faith and her place in the contemporary Indian world. Winterbottom has been open about the parallels between the rampant industrial growth and established social structure of India today and the old English setting of Hardy’s novel; the director plays those cards with the smarts we have come to expect. There is also the vivid authenticity he captures via the stunning widescreen cinematography of longtime collaborator, Marcel Zyskind.

Monday
Apr302012

THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS

Stars: (Voices of) Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Lenny Henry and Brian Blessed.
Writer: Gideon Defoe
Directors: Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt.

Rating: 2/5


With its star-heavy voice-cast and superlative production standard working far too hard to enliven its barely-serviceable plotting, the awkwardly-titled The Pirates! Band of Misfits is Aardman Animation’s walk on Dreamwork’s side of the animation street. In this overly-corporatized world of modern animation, marquee value and marketable properties (think early SKG efforts like Road to El Dorado and A Shark’s Tale) seem far more important than charm, wit and sentiment. Though aspiring to be a cinematic treasure, Pirates is a patchy endeavour that falls several dubloons short of greatness.

Co-directors Peter Lord’s and Jeff Newitt’s soggy adventure proudly boasts such claims as “Hugh Grant’s first animated film” (he plays the ego-centric, not-very-interesting Pirate Captain). But what it doesn’t boast of is the sort of zingy comedic timing and resonant emotion that highlighted the best of Aardman’s catalogue, such as Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit shorts. The shortest leap to make as to why this would be so is the absence of Nick Park, the 4-time Oscar winner who put Aardman on the map with those classic works.

Grant’s Pirate Captain wants to win the annual Pirate of the Year award, breaking a losing streak that has made him the laughing stock of the high seas. His crew (amongst them first-mate and moral compass Martin Freeman, lady-in-disguise Ashley Jensen, albino Russell Toovey and non-parrot, Polly) are loyal to the last cutlass, but The Captain’s selfish ambition gets the better of his judgement when he meets a whiny Charles Darwin (David Tennant). The desperate scientist promises untold fame if he is allowed to present Polly (in actuality, the last of the near-extinct dodo breed) to London’s scientific elite. The trip to London puts The Captain and his crew in direct conflict with a pirate-hating, ninja-kicking Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) and all but brings about the end of the tight-knit rag-tag group.

There is no denying the ambitious vision that has led to some gorgeously-realized stop-motion animation work; the technical skill on display is not in question nor will ever be with an Aardman work.

The pertinent issue is that, other than the plumiest of public school toffs who might wander into this film on a weekend home from boarding school, what kid will be enthralled by the antics of a joyless Pirate (compared to Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, our protagonist is positively inert); some whinger called Charles Darwin (the non-stop ‘evolution’ gags are certainly lost on the target audience); and, a needlessly nasty monarch (given the Kate & Will-led resurgence in popularity for the House of Windsor, a villainous queen seems an odd choice).

Lord and Newitt go the ‘bigger is funnier’ route with the climax, but their adventure comedy tale – drearily laughless for long passages – peters out listlessly. Some end-credit shenanigans raise a smirk, but it is likely you will feel plundered by Pirates. At best a picturesque pantomime, it is ultimately a plodding pastiche that represents a whole lot of effort for very little return.

Thursday
Apr262012

CAFE DE FLORE

Stars: Vanessa Paradis, Kevin Parent, Hélène Florent, Evelyne Brochu, Marin Gerrier and Alice Dubois.
Writer/Director: Jean-Marc Vallée.

Rating: 4.5/5

 

Freeing himself from the corseted constraints of his last film, Young Victoria, French-Canadian auteur Jean-Marc Vallée positively soars with his ambitious study of the love eternal, Cafe de Flore. Drawing soulful, naturalistic performances from a superb cast, none more so than adolescent Down Syndrome sufferers Marin Gerrier and Alice Dubois, Vallée has crafted a complex tableau of glimpsed memories, life-defining moments and spiritual connections that will bring the attentive viewer to tears.

Spanning decades in its dual-narrative, we are first privy to the seemingly contented existence of forty-something Antoine (Kevin Parent), a successful DJ rebuilding his relationship with his teenage children after leaving his wife Carol (Hélène Florent) for younger blonde beauty, Rose (Evelyne Brochu). Though his life is superficially satisfying (he travels for his work; he has sex with Rose a lot), he is also too often alone and struggles with the guilt associated with the overwhelming desire that led him into Rose’s arms and away from his children.

Concurrently, we meet Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis), a struggling single-mother in Paris, circa 1969. She is raising Laurent, a spirited Down Syndrome boy (Gerrier) entering his teenage years and becoming obsessed with a new love, his equally-smitten classmate Véronique (Dubois). The children’s love is innocent, pure and unrestrained – a development that neither Jacqueline nor the girl’s upper-class parents (Caroline Bal, Nicolas Marié) are prepared for.

Vallée's work is a grand vision, his intent being to meld two seemingly unrelated story threads involving a half-dozen familiar character types into a universal definition of love in all its forms. The assuredness he exhibits in his exploration of these themes, and the confidence he displays in his audience to go with him on the different journeys, is remarkable. Rarely has a contemporary film-maker afforded each frame of their film such rich value; split-second edits that offer glimpses into the bond that the two storylines share help create a cinematic puzzle that ultimately explodes with emotion. For those in tune with his storytelling, Vallée’s final 10 minutes will leave you stunned.   

In a cast that offers profoundly good work, it is Florent as the broadminded and forgiving abandoned wife that steadies the film when it needs it most. As Antoine, Parent (by the director’s own admission, a thinly-veiled representation of himself) ably conveys the confusion often faced by men at the midway point in their lives; Brochu, entirely captivating, is fire and ice as Rose. A dance sequence in which she leads partygoers in a spontaneous group-grind to Elisapie Isaac’s haunting song, Navvaatara, has the required effect on both Antoine and male viewers.

The scene also highlights Vallee’s sublime use of music and, more precisely, the rhythmic beats of these people’s lives as conveyed by his editing and scene-structure. Inspired by the titular song, Cafe de Flore envelopes its audience with an almost hallucinatory collection of audio tracks, indicating that all of Valle’s years as a nightclub disc-spinner has done nothing to lessen his aural acuity.     

Cynics who begin to roll their eyes at the ‘past-lives/soulmates’ angle may not last the distance, which would be a shame, as Cafe de Flore is not a supernatural tear-jerker ala Ghost or Field of Dreams. Rather, it is an epic film of small moments, filled with simple intimacies that resonate to the core of what makes us human. It is a beautiful, accessible work of romantic film artistry.

Tuesday
Apr242012

BATTLESHIP

Stars: Taylor Kitsch, Liam Neeson, Brooklyn Decker, Alexander Skarsgård, Tadanobu Asano and Rihanna.
Writers: Erich Hoeder and Jon Hoeder
Director: Peter Berg
Running Time: 131 mins.

Rating: 3/5


Ever since the trailer hit theatres/the net, we’ve all expected Peter Berg’s Battleship to be a watery version of Michael Bay’s Transformers films. And it is exactly that.

Sadly, in 2012, that’s a negative. The memory of Transformers 3 is still raw – it was one of the worst films in recent memory, the sort of dim-witted blockbuster that gives blockbusters a bad name. But in 2007, when Bay’s first toy-inspired movie landed upon us, we all said “Hey, for a movie about machines that turn into talking robots...well, that’s about as good a movie as we are ever going to get!”

And that’s the Transformers movie that Battleship most resembles. Berg has crafted an undeniably big, loud, dumb alien-invasion action flick based on a hoary old toy that absolutely deserves to be ridiculed - but it is also impossible not to enjoy the no-holds-barred spirit that everyone brings to the film.

The character’s back story is preposterously flimsy, yet Berg takes his sweet time telling it. Taylor Kitsch is Alex Hopper, a cocky jerk who has somehow gone from drunk, horny, petty criminal (exactly how the film introduces him) to 2IC on a state-of-the-art US naval vessel. His brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgård) is already serious officer material; his super-hot girlfriend, Samantha (Brooklyn Decker, a good foot taller than her leading man) is the daughter of the fleet commander, Admiral Shane (a completely disinterested Liam Neeson), who has hated Hopper from day 1.

Flung together with international crews for some Pacific Rim war games, their pretend combat drills are disrupted by the first wave of an inter-stellar armada determined to overrun Earth. It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt, which is exactly what happens. Not that you’d know it – Berg blows up entire warships and levels most of Hong Kong with barely a glance towards the body-count clock.

Such flagrant mass destruction indicates exactly where Battleship is headed, as if it wasn’t plainly obvious from the first appearance of the lizard-like, off-planet visitors. The aliens are gettin’ their just desserts, and Hopper is gonna serve it up navy-style. It is not wholly the American way - Tadanobu Asano’s Japanese sailors provide the smarts, figuring out a grid pattern offensive that is the only real nod to Hasbro’s original toy – but the unrelenting kick-ass agro of Kitsch and his men is this film’s macho raison d’etre.

The aliens travel in monstrous warships that shape-shift effortlessly, which is where the Transformer comparison kicks in. But Battleship is also a lot of Top Gun, and a lot of Independence Day, and a little bit of An Officer and A Gentleman. There really isn’t an original thought in Berg’s film, but there is a whole lot of energetic action and more than just a little excitement. The actor-turned-director proved with Welcome to the Jungle, the terrific The Kingdom and the under-rated Hancock that he can frame and cut together thrilling set-pieces.

The actors react to green screens convincingly; scenes that involve dialogue or push character depth are disposed with perfunctorily. No one in this film is under any false impression that Berg is crafting some alternate version of Hamlet; Kitsch, Asano and Rihanna (perfectly likable in her sidekick role) scream and sweat and jump a lot, as the script asks of them. Special mention should be made of real-life veteran and multiple amputee Gregory D Gadson, who brings a sardonic earthiness to the pivotal role Lieutenant Colonel Mick Canales.

Sunday
Apr222012

REYKJAVIK WHALE WATCHING MASSACRE

Stars: Pihla Viitala, Nae, Terence Anderson, Miranda Hennessy, Helgi Björnsson, Guðrún Gísladóttir, Stefán Jónsson, Aymen Hamdouchi and Gunnar Hansen.
Writer: Sjón Sigurdsson
Director: Júlíus Kemp
Running time: 83 minutes

Rating: 2.5/5

 

Preceeded by a reputation that combines Oscar-nominated heft with unbridled homeland critical derision, Júlíus Kemp’s Icelandic-made splatter-flick Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre is the sort of loopy, energetic slasher film that is destined to keep floating to the surface at midnight-screenings. Deliberately OTT in its gory dispatches and crassly xenophobic enough to rile the intelligentsia, Kemp’s riff of ‘Texas Chainsaw’-style claustrophobic terror is neither as bad as some would have you believe nor as shocking as it makes itself out to be.

With the whaling industry all but decimated by enviro do-gooders (“Green piss,” as one character calls them), ex-harpooners Tryggvi (a hulking Helgi Björnsson), psychotic younger brother Siggi (Stefán Jónsson) and complete fruitcake matriarch, Mamma (Guðrún Gísladóttir) drift aimlessly aboard their decrepit rust-bucket, feeding their dormant blood-lust by picking off lone seafarers. All their Christmases come at once when a whale-watching expedition, comprising a smorgasbord of international caricatures, looses their Captain (the original Leatherface himself, Gunnar Hansen) and must seek refuge on board the murder-boat.

Screenwriter Sjón Sigurdsson crafted the AMPAS-recognised score for Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, making an international star of country-woman Björk (who returns the favour by granting permission for this production to use her hit, ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’). But the brazen originality he exhibited as a lyricist abandons him in his second screenplay (after sharing credit on 2001’s Regína). Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre contains some rich howlers, delivered by actors who either weren’t in on the joke or weren’t talented enough to convey the irony.

Kudos goes to leading lady Pihla Viitala, whose initial vulnerability morphs into momentarily strong clarity; she is by far the most realistically etched character in film full of inscrutable Asians, shrill middle-aged Pommie women, panicky American hotties, drunken French men of Moroccan ancestry and a well-spoken African gent who, I kid you not, is referred to by the killers as ‘Black Jesus’. No film in recent memory has so openly toyed with such broad racial stereotypes.

The gore is plentiful but so comically portrayed as to be of little consequence (compared to Australia’s similarly-structured Wolf Creek, its impact is meagre). A neatly-staged kill involving a harpoon (the film’s alternate title in some territories) is a highlight, as is a closed-quarters fire stunt that looked to have been particularly perilous to film. The film goes joyfully off-the-rails when an Orca targets some third-act survivors.

Other key assets include a richly authentic sea-faring flavour and the film’s thematic examination of the sad deterioration of traditional hunting dynasties. Their importance to the proceedings, however, mostly fades into the background, bathed in the gooey redness of kinda silly slasher film tropes. But the pretensions of  Sigurdsson and Kemp afford the film a modicum of credibility in a genre that is too often easily dispensed with.

Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre will screen on Saturday May 19 as part of the Sydney Writer’s Festival. In attendance will be screenwriter Sjón Sigurdsson, winner of the Nordic Council Literature Prize for The Blue Fox, president of the Icelandic PEN Centre and director on the board of Reykjavík, UNESCO City of Literature.

Sunday
Apr222012

THE AVENGERS

Stars: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L Jackson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgård and Clark Gregg.
Writer/Director: Joss Whedon
Running time: 143 mins

Rating: 3.5/5

The one thing that the average moviegoer will be most grateful for in Joss Whedon’s geek-tacular epic is that it employs a shimmering, pristine (one might say...stark) colour palette. All but one of the vast action sequences are shot in the cold light of day with no atmospheric fog-FX or lingering explosion-smoke to muddy the 3D lens. It may sound old-fashioned to cherish such an asset, but that is itself perfectly fitting. With a red-white-&-blue hero out front, leading his moral chargers against a yappy Brit-influenced villain, The Avengers is, conceptually, about as gosh-darn old-fashioned as the modern blockbuster gets.  

In fact, if you take the shiny hardware of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Helicarrier headquarters and Downey Jr’s hipster wise-assery out of the mix for a moment, Whedon’s world conjures images of a 1960’s Hanna-Barbera TV-cartoon version – had there ever been one (a small-screen friendly 1.85:1 screen ratio bolsters the notion). His camera feels static, even when it is not; there is a simplicity to his shot composition and editing that subverts even the panels-per-page literary origins of Marvel’s super-group. Whedon has utilised a visual style that honours key team members antiquated beginnings lovingly yet captures the action with a contemporary precision.

It is a simplicity that echoes the heart of The Avengers team, as well. These are heroes for whom there are no grey shadings in the fight against evil – Captain America (cast standout Chris Evans) is a mountain of 1940s stoicism; the bond that sleek operative Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) shares with assassin Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is unshakably honourable; Thor (Chris Hemsworth)...well, he’s Mr Perfect. Even Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who gets dragged from India against his substantial will, is clear as to his purpose in life – stay in control.

Which means that their nemesis has to be black-as-night and powerful enough to pose a threat to all six of our protectors and the world in which we live. As Loki, wayward brother of Thor and commander of a legion bent on Earth’s domination, Tom Hiddleston emerges as arguably the film’s greatest asset. The scene in which he convinces Black Widow just how evil he can be is a cracking bit of screen villainy; he has many of Whedon’s best lines (in a film full of expertly-written, well-timed humour) and the actor, lean but entirely commanding on screen, chews them with maniacal glee.

Not everything about The Avengers completely satisfies. The first act works over a lot of origin exposition that will play well to the fanbase but was a plod to non-comic types (like me); the first big-bang action sequence delivers though it felt like a while coming. Samuel L Jackson’s posturing remains all-wrong as S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury (watching Clark Gregg, as the much-loved Agent Coulson, cower to Fury feels wrong). Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark/Iron Man continues his slide into douche-baggery; his smugness has gotten less charming with each screen outing. And, unless I missed some co-ordinates-relevant plotpoint, I can’t figure why Loki would choose the skies over Manhattan to land his army rather than, say, a paddock in Russia.

But The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble or Marvel’s The Avengers – I’ve seen them all used) gets it wonderfully right where it needed to the most. Each hero has ample time in their own spotlight (Ruffalo’s Hulk shining brightest) yet Whedon constructs the enveloping sense of camaraderie seamlessly, all set against top-tier FX and a compelling narrative.

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