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Friday
Oct262012

MARIJINE (MARIJA'S OWN)

Featuring: Nina Violic, Zeljka Sukova, Mila Culjak, Petr Marek, Prokop Holoubek, Marketa Lisa, Cvjetana Lovric and Loredana Presta.
Writer/director: Zeljka Sukova

Rating: 3/5

The latest volley from the new wave of deconstructionist documentarians who seem determined to redefine the factual film-making format is Zeljka Sukova’s Croatian oddity, Marija’s Own. The efforts of three young women to give their late grandmother the send-off she deserves mixes actors and real-life relatives, deep family emotions and electro-pop tunes to generally winning effect, though just when real becomes unreal (and, occasionally, surreal) will inspire debate over its worthiness.

Despite its truncated 62 minute running time, a great deal is learnt about the life and legacy of Marija Violić who, as revealed in a vivid opening collage of family photos and voiceover, was laid to rest in 2004 in an unremarkable grave in her hometown of Rijeka. Though she stated in her final years that no one would miss her when she was gone, the truth is that her influence touched all the women in her family and she is remembered with great fondness.

Her granddaughters - the filmmaker herself, famous local actress Nina Violic and Danira (who, signifying the Sukova's intent to mess with reality, is played by Mila Culjak) – decide to throw a long overdue wake for their nanna, during which they will ask each guest to design an honorary ornament to be placed on the freshly-restored burial site. Fuelled by the overall joie de vivre of the family gathering (and lots of red wine), the scenes in which the feisty female family elders present their ideas is a hoot. Marija’s Own is certainly not a dour trudge through memory and loss but, at its best, a buoyant celebration of family life.

The films shortcomings emerge from the idiosyncrasies imposed upon it via manufactured elements. There is a nagging suspicion that the event, though mostly played-out with warmth on-screen, was crafted with greater enthusiasm for the fictional components; at key moments that require a poignancy only real-life captured on film can provide, a few frames of falseness often prove to be Sukova’s undoing. The director’s decision to shoehorn Czech synth-pop trio Midi Lidi into the already-cramped confines of the dining room setting results in some quaintly endearing moments though more often seems just plain strange.

The film fumbles its ending, which comes to a moving peak involving all the guests gathered around the newly-decorated grave (Ales Suk’s editing in this sequence is top-notch) before descending into an misjudged end-credit passage during which the elderly ladies take part in a music-video clip for the band. Despite all the indulgent add-on elements that Sukova imposes upon her debut work, there is sufficient insight and honesty to transcend the conceit. Most importantly, the spirit of Nanna Violić that imbues the film with a touching resonance remains tangible throughout.

Thursday
Oct252012

THE MASTER

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek, Jesse Piemons, Kevin J. Connor, Christopher Evan Welch and Madisen Beaty.
Writer/director: Paul Thomas Anderson.

Rating: 4.5/5

 

More than any filmmaker working in American cinema today, Paul Thomas Anderson demands his audience’s intellectual involvement. It is a dangerous path to tread and Anderson has paid a commercial price for such lofty ambitions; as universally acclaimed as Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood were, none of them made much theatrical coin (his most critically-divisive film, Punch Drunk Love, made even less).

Such a fate will also most likely befall The Master, his expansive, picaresque slice of American ambition and the tortured individuals who both suffer at its feet and exploit its virtues. However artfully-rendered (and The Master is a work of refined artistry), the intertwined psyches and complex dynamics of a life shared between a half-crippled, spontaneously-violent drunk and a delusional cult-leader con-artist is not the kind of narrative mainstream audiences usually embrace.   

The film’s extended opening stanza is light on plot but rich in character. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) drinks to deal with the responsibility of a late-stage WWII naval life but soon finds his post-traumatic self struggling in a sane society. He stumbles across a cruiser that is hosting a members-only party for family and followers of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a boisterous, corpulent alpha-male whose disciples adhere to the self-awareness techniques outlined in their charismatic overseer’s book, ‘The Cause’.

The directionless Quell is consumed by Dodd’s manipulative mastery; in an extended mid-section that cross-cuts between the stillness of Dodd’s questioning glare and the twisted facade of Quell as he becomes achingly aware of his life’s failings, Anderson’s abstract rhythms peppered with memory-filled mini-flashbacks begin to define the co-dependent nature of the two men. It is the first of two sequences that constitute the methodical psychological breaking down of Quell’s addictive, violent, repressed-memory self.

Viewers not already enthralled by Phoenix’s mannered, mumbling (Brando-esque, if you must) portrayal of Quell will struggle with these sequences; he’s a tough character to like, even when his cold-hearted manipulation by determinedly guarded mentor Dodd reduces him to a bawling wreck (every character’s self-centred devotion to ‘The Cause’ prevents the film from becoming as emotionally engaging as many will pine for over the 137 minute running time).

Anderson has acknowledged that There Will Be Blood was his John Ford/John Huston picture; The Master drifts into Terrence Malick territory (the opening tropical island sequence directly recalls the first moments of The Thin Red Line). Towering above his contemporaries, Anderson has matured incredibly as a craftsman in the relatively short period since the ‘razzle-dazzle’ days of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. His sparse words, too, are acutely attuned to the dark nuances of his characters (including Amy Adams’ steely-eyed wife and protector) and the speech patterns of the 1950s upper-crust Eastern US seaboard setting.

Detractors have called the film too vaguely ambiguous, ploddingly slow or point to characters that are all artifice and construct. For some, there is an icy, heartless chill to the carefully-captured frames that allows for no emotional payoff nor exhibits enough on its mind to warrant Anderson’s and DP Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s stunning images.

But The Master, while probably not Anderson’s ‘best’ film, may be remembered as his most important and unarguably most ambitious. An intimate yet vast story of a damaged man’s self-acceptance at a time when his country was struggling with its own dark, repressed demons and the hope of a brighter future, The Master snapshots that moment when America had a choice - lead or be led. In Phoenix’s classically fallen soul Freddie, Anderson still finds a glimmer of hope in his protagonist’s redemption. The profound sadness of The Master stems not from the horrors of one man’s past life but rather in its capturing of the beginning of his society’s end; a nation’s future, full of potential, forever compromised by a generation’s blind adherence to a false prophet’s lies.

Tuesday
Oct232012

LE PRENOM (WHAT'S IN A NAME?)

Stars: Patrick Bruel, Valerie Benguigui, Charles Berling, Guillaume de Tonquedec, Judith El Zein and Francois Fabian.
Writer: Matthieu Delaporte, based on his play.
Directors: Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de La Patelliere.

Rating: 3.5/5

The verbal dynamics of a dinner-party gone very bad are played-out with action-movie intensity in writer Matthieu Delaporte’s adaptation of his own hit 2010 play. Recalling the brio of such chamber-piece melodramas as Edward Albee’s Whos’ Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Yasmina Reza’s Carnage and Ira Levin’s Deathtrap but with a lightness of touch reflecting its origins in great Gallic farce, this compelling if occasionally too boisterous work never quite breaks free from its origins but is a vivid piece of cinema nonetheless.

Topped and tailed with some lucidly over-edited outdoor scenes and a witty voiceover constructed to remind audiences who saw the stage version that this is, in fact, a movie, Delaporte and his co-director Alexandre de La Patelliere spend the other 95% of the film in a single-setting - the lovely apartment of well-to-do middle-class Parisians Vincent (Charles Berling), a feisty intellectual, and Elisabeth (Valerie Benguigui), a public-school teacher. This evening, the married pair have invited their friend, renowned trombonist Claude (Guillaume de Tonquedec), to a dinner party during which Elisabeth’s brother Vincent (a terrific Patrick Bruel) and his girlfriend Anna (Judith El Zein) will announce the name of their soon-to-be-born son.

Established as jokester who walks a fine line in bad taste humour, Vincent announces that the child’s name is also that of a certain Teutonic mass-murderer; not particularly thoughtful, given the hostess’ Jewish heritage and the role her mother, Francoise (Francois Fabian) has played in their upbringing. This jocular miscalculation is the lit fuse that finally sees the evening erupt into a screaming match in which prejudices, family secrets and long-gestating ill-feelings are revealed.

As the good-natured jibes give way to seething temper tantrums, each cast member is given ample opportunity to unleash Angry Acting 101; Bruel and Tonquedec present the most balanced characterisations, whereas Benguigui and, in particular, Berling occasionally take the histrionics to ear-shattering levels. That said, the naturalistic interactions and motivations of all Delaporte’s creations are entirely believable, if clearly bound to their live theatre beginnings; despite the prologue and coda and the best efforts of DP David Ungaro to bring cinematic scope to the apartment setting, What’s in a Name? is essentially a filmed version of the play.

Having long been a writing team (Renaissance, 2006; 22 Bullets, 2010), the debutant directing duo give their actors a lot of frame-space in which to gesticulate, adding to the sense that everyone was still very much of a ‘live-theatre’ mindset (4 of the 5 cast key cast members played their characters during the stage season). The lack of close-ups and meagre use of such stylistic ‘flourishes’ as dolly-shots suggests that Delaporte and Patelliere were both still similarly tied to their work’s beginnings. Which, in this case, may be entirely appropriate; What’s in a Name? exists, soars even, on the precise wordplay of its principles and, in playing to its strengths, ensures it is compulsively watchable.

Friday
Sep282012

SAVE YOUR LEGS

Stars: Stephen Curry, Brendan Cowell, Damon Gameau, David Lyons, Darren Gilshenan, Darshan V. Jariwala, Pallavi Sharda, Brenton Thwaites, Grant Piro, Ryan O'Kane, Eddie Baroo, Shibani Dandekar and Sid Makkar.
Writer: Brendan Cowell.
Director: Boyd Hicklin

Rating: 3.5/5

Though it occasionally aims lower than a well-placed yorker, there is no denying Boyd Hicklin’s cricket-themed charmer Save Your Legs is a crowd-pleaser batting near the top of the order. Creamy-flannelled fans should turn out in droves when this traditionally blokish heart-warmer hits Australian screens in late January, just as the long, hot cricketing summer Down Under enters its final days.

Steeped in a purely ‘Strine larrikinism that clearly stems from screenwriter/co-star’s Brendan Cowell’s well-established on- and off-screen persona, this dramatization of Hicklin’s own 2005 documentary offers nothing intrinsically new in the arena of feel-good sporting comedies, but nor did Cool Runnings, The Mighty Ducks or A League of Their Own. This little Aussie film offers every bit as much likability as those Hollywood heavy-hitters and deserves similar audience love.

In 2001, a team of amateur cricketers from the Melbourne suburb of Abbotsford rather fantastically secured sponsorship to tour India and play against some of the subcontinents most revered semi-professional regional sides. The tour was captured by Hicklin and structured into an hour-long factual-film that found favour for its insightful portrayal of mateship, culture-clashing and pure sporting joy.

This fictionalized reworking tells the story of the Abbotsford Anglers and, more particularly, their passionate captain Edward ‘Teddy’ Brown (an immensely likable Stephen Curry). A cricket tragic whose boyhood dreams are beginning to rub unavoidably against the adult responsibility he refuses to acknowledge, Teddy’s main function as leader is to rally enthusiasm every weekend amongst a team of increasingly disparate and aging friends whose connection to the magic of the game is waning. Chief amongst them are the upwardly-mobile ace batsman Stavros (Damon Gameau), hedonistic man-child Rick (Cowell) and Teddy’s oddly-defined, pedantic offsider Colin (Darren Gilshenan).

With their current season in tatters, Teddy aims high and sets in motion a plan that will see them touring cricket-obsessed India, entirely on the coin of local businessman Sanjeet (Darshan V. Jariwala). It is a tour that takes them deep within the culture and one that allows Cowell and Hicklin space to play with the life-defining qualities inherent to traditional Indian life and how it impacts a group of men who all seem to be at a crossroad in their adult lives.

That said, profound existentialism is not high on the film’s agenda, especially when a good ol’ ‘Delhi-belly’ joke is on offer or the opportunity arises to have an easy shot at such targets as the side-to-side head-wobble (“When they move their heads like that, is that a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’?”) or Bollywood cliches (a subplot involving Sid Makkar’s local celebrity status is a bit strained). But when it counts, Save Your Legs is also deeply respectful of its host location (captured beautifully by DP Mark Wareham); a sequence in which Teddy becomes caught up in a vibrant street parade and important moments between the leads filmed on the River Ganges (one involving a running gag centred around the protective ‘cup’ worn by master batsman Sachin Tendulkar) are lovingly staged.

It all comes down to an all-or-nothing game against a snooty private club and its owner that invokes every dramatic neurosis afflicting the team and all the sporting clichés under the sun (or stadium lights, in this case). But that is entirely as it should be. The raison d’etre of films like Save Your Legs is to leave its audience with fond memories and a lumpy throat. In that regard, Hicklin and Cowell prove thoroughly reliable, with occasional dashing flair; they are the Hayden and Langer of Aussie summer cinema.

Thursday
Sep272012

LOOPER

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Jeff Daniels, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Pierce Gagnon and Summer Qing.
Writer/Director: Rian Johnson.

Rating: 4.5/5


Looper mashes up tropes from disparate genres that have no right being in the same vision: the hit-man noir, the demon-seed kid-horror, time-travel malarkey. Yet writer/director Rian Johnson, in only his third film and first to afford the 39 year-old some budgetary freedom, has conjured a supremely well-crafted science-fiction thriller that fully delivers on the promise of its out-there premise.

Johnson, whose stylish framing and character-driven self-penned plots have enlivened small scale cult items Brick and The Brothers Bloom, works his huge canvas expertly. Delivering one of the most accomplished visual treats of the year, however, pales next to his achievements as a storyteller; Looper is both a cracking piece of high-brow genre entertainment and, most surprisingly, a satisfyingly emotional journey for both Johnson’s characters and audience.

Though disinclined to give away any of the intricate plotting (and certain that any effort would only serve to confuse rather than enlighten), it is no spoiler to reveal that the film revolves around the back-and-forth realities of Joe (a superb Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his life as a ‘looper’. A brash young breed of hired killers, the loopers carry out the dirty work of gangsters who rule the criminal underworld 30 years hence. Time-travel has been invented and the bad guys send troublemakers back to a pre-determined point in the present, to be eliminated and disposed of by the loopers.

Despite being cold-blooded and calculated in every respect, Joe is not prepared for his old-self (Bruce Willis, perfectly exploiting his ‘damaged action-hero’ persona) to materialise one day. The split-second crack in young Joe’s confidence gives old Joe the room to move, and soon young Joe is being targeted by his murderous boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) for failing to ‘close the loop’. Meanwhile, old Joe is off on his own vendetta – to kill the young boy, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), who will grow into the man who alters Joe’s life irreparably. Of course, Cid’s resilient single-mom Sara (Emily Blunt) has her own pov on the imminent death of her paranormally-gifted child.

Johnson balances all the time-travel/parallel lives intricacies with a remarkably assured hand. Like Christoper Nolan’s Inception and The Wachowski’s The Matrix (and, in the panthenon of great time travel films, Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys), Looper takes some big risks with its narrative but, ultimately, makes its audience feel very smart by never leaving them behind. Johnson then builds upon that audience faith with a slowed-down mid-section that further fleshes out his lead characters and a final half-hour which rocked the house (in itself, the closing of a loop, as it brings the film back to the technical giddiness of its razzle-dazzle opening sequence).

Bound to inspire heated geek-debate by those inclined to question the logic of time travel principles, Johnson needn’t worry about any post-viewing backlash; his film offers just enough ambiguity to inspire conversation but more than enough smarts to cover its cinematic backside. Tough, tense, tender and trippy, Looper rewards buffs for sticking by genre efforts despite a lot of derivative works. It is the kind of film we hope to find every time we make that trip to the movies.

Wednesday
Sep192012

MENTAL

Stars: Toni Collette, Rebecca Gibney, Anthony La Paglia, Liev Shrieber, Caroline Goodall, Deborah Mailman, Kerry Fox, Lilly Sullivan, Betheny Whitmore, Sam Clark and Nicole Freeman.
Writer/Director: P. J. Hogan

Rating: 3/5


It is impossible not to feel some love for Mental, a coarse, colourful comedy that marks director PJ Hogan’s return to the raucous suburban milieu he captured so memorably in Muriel’s Wedding. That said, it sure is hard too sometimes.

Leading lady Toni Collette and a gaudy seaside enclave peopled by eccentric denizens are just two of the instantly familiar elements in a film that reworks ever so slightly just about every memorable aspect of the 1994 hit. Mental is guaranteed to satiate anyone still pining for the sequel to Muriel’s Wedding that oddly failed to eventuate in the wake of its success (full disclosure – liked but never loved it).

The freedom afforded Hogan upon agreeing to seek a second cinematic lightning-strike has proved a double-edged sword. This is clearly an aesthetic that he adores, but the unbridled joie de vivre he specialises in has also resulted in a deeply indulgent, wildly unwieldy film that ultimately feels as schizophrenic as several of his characters.

The haphazard plot begins with the inevitable breakdown of Shirley Moochmore (Rebecca Gibney), the deluded soon-to-be ex-wife of the town’s sleazy mayor, Barry (Anthony LaPaglia). Their four daughters are largely raising themselves, led by Coral (a fine Lily Sullivan), although each have their own borderline psychosis. With Shirley hospitalized (and largely sidelined from the film’s mid-section, despite most of the first 30 minutes being entirely her tale), Barry picks up hippy/hobo Shaz (Collette) and puts her in charge of the household. Strong bonds are formed and these scenes represent the best moments in the film; Shaz’s cafe showdown with two teen tormentors is a highlight.

However, Hogan loses control of his imagined world in the third act. An awkwardly weighty amount of new exposition is introduced, spinning the film off into its own bi-polar existence. Meagre subplots involving Kerry Fox’s snotty neighbour, Liev Shrieber’s bitter ex-shark hunter, Deborah Mailman’s lesbian mental-patient, Sam Clark’s surfie heart-throb and Caroline Goodall’s doll-obsessed auntie are all loopy artifice but are afforded hefty screen-time. The engaging rapport between Shaz and the girls is jettisoned in favour of a darker, far less credible plot involving Shaz’s sad history. Way over-stretched at 116 minutes, Mental seems to end on at least four different occasions before Hogan grinds the whimsy into gear again…and again…and again.  

As with Muriel’s Wedding, the ace in Hogan’s sleeve is Toni Collette. Though her very broad ‘Strine may be a turn-off for some, she gives her all in a performance that asks her to go beyond the call of duty in some particularly distasteful scenes; Hogan’s penchant for icky physical humour extends to elaborately silly gags about menstruating and lighting farts. Others who register strongly are Gibney, whose startling physical commitment to the role will shock some; Shrieber’s salty curmudgeon, Trevor Blundell; and, the bit players who populate the mental healthcare institution, many of which provide the film’s biggest laughs.

The autobiographical nature of both Muriel’s Wedding and Mental ensures Hogan connects with the character’s idiosyncrasies; the gaudy flair that he splashes about pales next to the affection he has for his characters. The plot may be cumbersome and the humour over-played, but Mental still manages to feel like the vision of a director working from the heart, albeit via an appropriately twisted mind.

Tuesday
Sep112012

KATH & KIMDERELLA

Stars: Jane Turner, Gina Riley, Glenn Robbins, Rob Sitch, Peter Rowsthorn, Richard E Grant, Jessica De Gouw, Erin Mullally and Magda Szubanski.
Writers: Jane Turner and Gina Riley.
Director: Ted Emery.

Rating: 1/5


Bewilderingly backed by the increasingly hard-to-fathom board at Screen Australia, this shoddy embarrassment is best summed up by Jane Turner’s suburban matriarch Kath Day-Knight when, early on in the film’s interminable 85 minutes, she utters the line, “My worms are gonna love this compost!”

It is a phrase that embodies exactly what is wrong with veteran comedy director Ted Emery’s artless, grotesque big-screen adaptation of Australian television’s least likely comedy icons. Kath and Kimderella is a film made for the fans but which entirely jettisons all that gave the premise a fan base in the first place. There is no consideration given for the satirical skewering of the suburban lifestyle that the faithful followers will like, instead just an urgent thrusting of their favourite characters onto a larger canvas and into a stupid story, as if that will be enough to put bums on seats.

Granted, those bums have materialised, with opening weekend figures solid on the back of a blanket pre-release promotional schedule by stars Turner and co-hort Gina Riley, aka crass horn-bag Kim. But concerns that the adage ‘empty vessels make the most noise’ have come true. Their exploitative, gormless comedy vehicle is a cinema junk, the likes of which the Australian industry occasionally churns out in the time-honoured tradition of making a quick buck (Wog Boy 2; The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course; Les Patterson Saves the World).

It irks to waste time summarizing a plot that Riley and Turner afforded minimal attention in the first place, but here goes. With their respective marriages to the couch-bound Kel (Glenn Robbins) and snivelling Brett (Peter Rowsthorn) in the doldrums, Kath and Kim take their contest winnings and, with long-suffering friend Sharon Strzelecki (Magda Szubanski) along for the ride for no believable reason, jet off to Papilloma, a territory on the heel of Italy governed by orange-skinned, mulletted monarch, King Javier (Rob Sitch). Kath falls for Javier’s smooth charms and Kim agrees to marry the King’s son Juleo (a game Erin Mullally), but there is the sinister page, Alain (Richard E Grant, obviously sticking by the agent who got him gigs in Hudson Hawk and The Spice Girls Movie) and a shadowy but pretty chambermaid, Isabella (Jessica De Gouw), who seem to be conniving in some way. As it plays out, it grows increasingly tiresome, altogether disposable and not at all funny.

The film is littered with best-friend cameos (fellow comedians Mick Molloy, Marg Downey and Mark Trevorrow; iconic suburban treasure Dame Edna Everage), but none bring anything other than “Oh look, it’s...” moments. Riley and Turner over-extend their snotty society dames Prue and Trude for a meaningless subplot that is painfully unfunny; their scenes together are littered with passages of words that rhyme (as is Grant’s dialogue) as if that is inherently hilarious...which it isn’t. The production overplays the LGBT card, with a meagre subplot involving gay discrimination merely an excuse to throw a colourful bash that ties proceedings up on a false high.  

At the 11th hour, the splendid talents of Frank Woodley, playing the sign-language interpreter of royal speeches, are used to maximum effect; his brief scene is a hoot. But by the time patrons enjoy their hard-earned smiles, Kath and Kimderella is already in its death throes.

It is a poorly-made film, too; rear-projection and FX work is sub-par, Steven Robinson and Jane Moran’s editing has no comedic rhythm and Penelope Southgate’s sets look cheap. There is a tangible sense that Kath and Kimderella is the last roll of the dice for a property that is well and truly played-out.

Thursday
Aug302012

THE EXPENDABLES 2

Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Liam Hemsworth, Chuck Norris, Scott Adkins and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Writer: Richard Wenk and Sylvester Stallone.
Director: Simon West

Rating: 3/5

Defying their creaky bones and real time logic in equal measure, The Expendables 2 meanders through a reined-in, talky first half before giving the modern action fans (or, more likely, their fathers) the nostalgic bloodbath they have unknowingly longed for.

A pre-credit setpiece reintroduces the ‘old gang’ as they break a Chinese billionaire out of a Nepalese guerrilla compound. About 7 minutes in, the wise-crackin’, guns-blazin’ mercenaries bring down a helicopter with a motorbike, leaving no doubt as to which side of the reality-vs-fantasy divide director Simon West’s noisy film is going to fall (oh, hell, anyone buying a ticket to this knew going in!)

Having dropped the freed prisoner off (literally) and farewelling for the remainder of the film Yin Yang (Jet Li), they pilot their rust-bucket all the way back to the US. That’s right - Nepal to China to North America in three edits inside a heavily-armed aircraft that no government would ever allow to land to refuel. It is one of the many instances when my adult mind kicked in to gear and realised that the 80’s action films I grew up on and which The Expendables films faithfully mimic really were nonsense of the highest order.

No sooner are they enjoying a brewski when Mr Crunch (Bruce Willis) sidles up to Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) with a new assignment - secure a computer hard-drive that holds the secret to the location of five tonnes of forgotten plutonium buried somewhere behind the old iron curtain (or something like that….) With Mr Crunch’s stooge Maggie (Nan Yu) on board (for what emerges as no apparent reason), they secure the device only to have it taken from them by baddie Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme, his character name the most subtle pun in the film). Vilain offs a member of the Expendable family just to rub in what a douche he is, sending all plotting and logic out the window in favour of a good ol’, “now it’s personal” revenge fantasy.

The resuscitated heroes of the VHS glory years acquit themselves with mixed results. Willis seems to float above it all, his screen persona one of the few to have developed beyond his Die Hard days; Dolph Lundgren, riffing on the true-life fact that he has a high IQ, has a couple of oddball moments that are fun; Jason Statham…meh. Popping up specifically for laughs is the rather too sculptured visage of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the humourless mug of Chuck Norris. Liam Hemsworth as Billy makes the most of his screen time; relative newcomers Terry Crews and Randy Couture are ok.

Of course, it is Stallone whose fingerprints are all over this franchise. He centres the silliness with a strong, darkly shaded performance that affords the actor some poignant reflection upon the nature of his deeds; the degree to which audiences buy into his angst will vary. The never-ending splatter of bad guy blood looks very much like the grisly aesthetic Sly brought to the last Rambo film (there is a little to much CGI in E2 for a film that homages the great era of practical film effects).

The film delivers in the most expected of ways. It’s big, loud, violent action fun. It is too slick to be totally at one with the era of action films from which it emerged and to which it nods, yet a quick glance over sites like Rotten Tomatoes suggests a strange degree of critical goodwill is being afforded The Expendables 2. We wouldn’t let our modern action heroes get away with this sort of malarkey. I mean, if we could name any….

Wednesday
Aug292012

HOPE SPRINGS

Stars: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell, Jean Smart, Elisabeth Shue, Mimi Rogers, Ben Rappaport, Marin Ireland, Patch Darragh and Brett Rice.
Writer: Vanessa Taylor
Director: David Frankel.

Rating: 4/5


All hail Columbia Pictures and the creative pairing of director David Frankel and writer Vanessa Taylor for delivering unto us Hope Springs. This exploration of waning intimacy and its consequences in a decades-old marriage carries with it, quite unintentionally, the giddy thrill of an Inception or a Being John Malkovich, so invigoratingly unique is the experience of watching a well-crafted, contemporary mature-age drama on-screen.

In a perfect film-going world, it would not be such cause for celebration when an American film arrives that explores with grace, humour and insight the emotional and physical state of a 31 year-old marriage gone stagnant. But this wonderful drama (and a drama it most definitely is, despite the ‘old-people-acting-cute’ comedy pitch of the trailer) is definitely an anomaly in a marketplace littered with films pitched to the under 20 demographic.

As Kay, Meryl Streep offers her least mannered, most engagingly human performance in a long while as the 60-something middle-class housewife who has become consumed by a yearning to reinvigorate her marriage. Her husband is career accountant Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), a man well settled into his autumn years, experiencing life via his favourite chair and golf coaching programs (a passion although, tellingly, we never see him playing).

Out of a growing desperation, Kay books a week in Maine for them both, where they will undergo couples therapy with author and counsellor Dr Feld (a wonderfully understated Steve Carell, exhibiting a heretofore unseen maturity – there’s that word again!). Over several days, they explore memories of better times, stronger longings and hard-to-face facts about who they have become and what they now mean to each other.

Taylor’s text allows for a few awkward giggles at the character’s expense, but there is not a cheap laugh to be found in Hope Springs. Frankel displays a pathos and empathy with profound themes the likes of which his hit The Devil Wears Prada only hinted at and his miss The Big Year handled all too awkwardly. Taylor, writing her feature debut, doggedly commits to a truth in her storytelling that, frankly, is remarkable in a studio picture in 2012; the scenes in Dr Feld’s office are pitch-perfect in their revealing of Kay and Arnold’s deeply layered existence. A motel-room shot at rekindling their passion is heartbreakingly staged (both actors reveal much, both emotionally and physically).

Jones should be in line for an Oscar nomination; so should Taylor’s script. So to Streep, though her sublime skill at underplaying Kay is not as grandly showy as the Academy seems to like in her work. The blink-and-miss presence of quality actors (Elisabeth Shue, Mimi Rogers, Jean Smart) in bit parts is entirely understandable, given the pedigree of the leads and the rich words that every character is imbued with.

Frankel and Taylor don’t entirely forego some sappiness in the film’s final moments. There is a particularly poignant scene that would have been a wonderfully ambiguous endpoint, but the film pushes through it to provide some tacked-on, final-reel sweetness. It reminds the audience that Hope Springs is a Hollywood film after all, which is a bit of a shame, as everyone seemed to work so hard to differentiate this lovely story from the usual meaningless guff. Ultimately, it’s a minor quibble, due entirely to the immense good will the film engenders and emotional involvement that it delivers.

Tuesday
Aug282012

THE AWAKENING

Stars: Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Shaun Dooley and Joseph Mawle.
Writers: Nick Murphy and Stephen Volk.
Director: Nick Murphy

Rating: 3/5


Ghosts have had a tough time staying relevant lately. Vampires who glisten in the sunlight, werewolves with perfectly fur-less pectorals and wave after wave of zombie apocalypses have relegated the spectral apparitions of yore to bystander status in the supernatural world of movie frights. They raise their willowy visage to good effect on the odd occasion, most recently to frighten Harry Potter in The Woman in Black, but it’s been a long time since anybody really cared whether or not Haley Joel Osmant, or anybody else for that matter, could see dead people.

The Awakening, writer/director Nick Murphy’s debut film, does what most worthy cinematic ghost stories have done over the last 15 years and acknowledges the antiquated notion of spirits that glide amongst us. Rebecca Hall plays professional skeptic Florence Cathcart, a ‘ghostbuster’ for the population of post-WW1 London; the film opens with a title card that states that due to the war and illness, the year of 1921 was a veritable breeding ground for both ghosts and those wishing to exploit the grieving mood of the population. She is paid a visit by Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a teacher at the exclusive Rookford School where a child has died. Many believe the culprit is a ghost, who wanders the halls appearing to students and staff in the most unpleasant of ways (his face is later revealed, in one of the film’s more effective jolts).

Fully expecting to expose the Rookford Ghost as a schoolboy prank, Cathcart accepts the assignment and is soon holed up in the vast building (its myriad of staircases, chambers and passageways a work of great skill by production designer Jon Henson). She makes friends with the slightly too-charming matron, Maud (Imelda Staunton) until things going ‘bump’ during her first night leads Cathcart on an investigation that, at different junctures, becomes both frightening and dangerous.

Murphy and co-writer, genre veteran Stephen Volk (he penned the macabre 1986 Ken Russell film, Gothic), turn a good ol’ fashioned creaky-floorboard chiller into a mish-mash of buried memories and family secrets that sucks a lot of the fun out of the film’s third act. Films that have taken established haunted-house tropes and worked them into resonant psychological dramas in recent times include The Others, The Orphanage and the above-mentioned The Woman in Black, all of which are better films than The Awakening.

That said, Murphy exhibits a deft touch for a first-timer and can feel satisfied that his film honours the tradition of such spooky Brit works as The Haunting and The Innocents. He nails some stylishly creepy moments (the dollhouse whose tiny inhabitants react to the world around them in real time is particularly tingle-inducing), though he and Volk could have shown a little more narrative ambition and clarity. The Awakening may not bring those who dwell on the ethereal plain newfound pop-culture eminence, but it will keep them alive, at least on screen, for that little bit longer.