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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.

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.