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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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