Sunday, December 19, 2010

Film Review: The King’s Speech

King's Speech Trailer

David Seidler’s screenplay of The King’s Speech follows the conventional wisdom of the unlikely, unwilling king-in-waiting and stutterer who finds his voice during the crisis of war. The key speech and climax is Bertie’s (King George VI) first radio broadcast following the war declaration in 1939.

It’s the classic cliché of the reluctant hero saving the day. Apparently the king had conquered his public speaking disasters by the time he visited Australia in 1927 to open the new Parliament House in Canberra. But you wouldn’t want to ruin a good story…

His family’s story has been one of the best known, both then and now. The Battenberg-Windsors have continued their star/celebrity status. They are the ‘firm’, a family business that is part politics, part public relations, and increasingly a large measure of popular entertainment. Bertie remarks that the advent of radio has made them all actors.

The young Elizabeth of the movie has lived to see her sister and children divorced, her 'uncle' assassinated by the IRA, the death of her ex-daughter-in-law Diana with the royal controversy that followed, and her son and heir’s marriage to a divorcée . The constitutional crisis surrounding the abdication of Edward VIII seems small beer with hindsight. Marry a divorced woman. Never!

The clash of the State religion with the king’s desires is underscored by the political storm emerging in Europe. The new King George VI watches newsreel footage of an Adolf Hitler speech and answers a query as to what he is saying , “I don't know but... he seems to be saying it rather well. …”. One would have expected him to have studied German, especially with his connections and given name of Albert. In fact Churchill points out the unsuitability of a Germanic name for the monarch.

Politics aside, personal relationships are the core of this drama. The friendship between then Duke of York and his unorthodox Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue is masterfully handled by two real pros, Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. They relish the irony of an antipodean colonial teaching his monarch how to speak the King’s English. Firth never quite captures the look of a scared rabbit in a spotlight that the real Bertie always seems to have in old photos and film clips.

Helena Bonham Carter gives a skilful and controlled performance as the future Queen Elizabeth.

The royal brothers are both constrained by the House rules. Guy Pearce makes a credible Edward VIII (not his familiar name but then he could hardly have been called King David). However, his royal accent falls a little flat at times. The behind the scenes exchanges do not present a flattering portrait of this failed ‘ruler’.

The supporting cast is outstanding. You’d expect nothing less from Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Of course he has an illustrious acting history with characters that stutter. Timothy Spall as Churchill captures the icon without descending into caricature. During the film Churchill shares with his monarch his own struggle to overcome a speech impediment.

Director Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech is a very effective weaving of the personal and the political. Expect some Oscars from this period piece.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Social Network: Reality Hits the Wall

David Fincher’s Social Network is a dramatised account of the creation of Facebook and the lawsuits that followed. It’s primarily about Machiavellian intrigue: ‘You don’t get to make 500 million friends without making a few enemies’.

IMDb has thoughts on how accurate the story is. In the film FB’s creator Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) has no real friends or lasting romantic relationships. Apparently this doesn’t match the real-life person and since it is central to his character development, or lack of it, I’m treating it the story as fiction.

One aspect that has some legal ‘truth’ is the interweaving of legal depositions with connected flashbacks. They are cleverly scripted by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, but unfortunately there are just too many of the Q&A scenes.

It’s a highly competent cast. Eisenberg does silence extremely well with a great combination of brooding genius and arrogant back-stabber. Armie Hammer does a sterling, nay an Olympic, job as identical twin rowers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. I can now put a face to Justin Timberlake who plays villain Sean Parker, but was unmoved by the encounter.

This is a boys’ own film. Harvard of the 21st Century is not presented as the home of sensitive new age guys. Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), the catalyst for Mark’s initial anti-social website Facemash, is the only female character who would not feel at home in a fraternity movie.

There is a new twist – the advent of geek groupies. Money and power have always been sexy. It’s no coincidence that we’re led to believe that FB’s early success was based on the desire of young men to get laid.

Social Network is memorable for its final scene and last lines: “Mark, you’re not an arsehole, you’re just trying very hard to be one.”

We can only hope that the real Zuckerberg is a much more interesting character than the one portrayed. Otherwise those billions are going to waste.

(Thanks to Cinetology for the tickets.

I have 223 Facebook 'friends'. None of them are characters in the film.)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Boy: Realising Potential

Boy recreates a time when young boys and Michal Jackson were not a sniggering matter. This delightful, insightful Kiwi film proves what can still be done on a small budget. It is funny, moving and disturbing at times. Its Mature Audience classification in Australia belies the cast of children who seem to have little difficulty dealing with so-called adult themes that bedevil the oldies.

Set in 1984, Boy is thoroughly modern in its exploration of their world. Writer/director Taika Waititi has drawn on his schooldays in New Zealand and his Maori background. He also very entertaining as the tragi-comic adult lead Alamein, leader of his 3 man Crazy Horse gang.

Waititi's light touch makes for a mostly gentle and genuinely funny journey with Alamein’s two sons and their whimsical collection of cousins and schoolmates. Some of the lesser lights struggle with their lines but it doesn’t really matter. The really young ones basically do everything without dialogue and don’t miss a beat.

The three make a quixotic family. 11 year-old Boy, is the idealist. James Rollston is a natural in this part. His bumbling innocence reminds me of the boys in Stand By Me, as he knocks on the door of puberty. Younger brother Rocky is the dreamer and fantasist. It’s hard not to be captivated by Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu’s performance. Taika makes a flawed, roguish but likable knight as Alamein.

Do yourself a favour. Spend a little time in Waihau Bay. Like Boy, it realises lots of its potential.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

MIFF 2010: City of Life and Death


Japanese troops beseige and conquer the Chinese captial Nanking.

City of Life and Death is fiction but is based on the experiences of real people who were caught up in this shocking tale of war and inhumanity. It has the feel of a documentary and recreates in black and white, the horror captured on film at the time. Mass executions, brutality, rape, and forced prostitution are presented in the matter of fact way that they were carried out.

This isn't anti-Japanese propaganda though the shame of their actions should not be forgotten. Kakodawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a young soldier, represents the human side of the invaders. Just as Mr. Tang (Wei Fan) shows the desperate attempts that some locals tried to protect their families.

If there are heroes in this story, they are the women. Plus one child, Xiaodouzi (Bin Liu), who is still alive today. The dramatic focus is the International Safety Zone, where an illusory attempt to help refugees from the slaughter takes place.

This film should be compulsory viewing in a world that still seems obsessed with going to war.

MIFF 2010: The Killer Inside Me

Perhaps you have to be in the mood. Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me was disappointing. This portrait of evil will suit fans of gratuitous violence but as a character study it fell way short. It's part crime thriller, part horror, part psychological drama.

It may have been because Casey Affleck plays bad cop Lou Ford with his cowboy drawl that is impossible to understand at times. Is this great acting or poor elocution?

The plot was both unlikely and predictable. We are asked to accept that Ford has suddenly come out in his late twenties as a nasty after years as a nice guy. The trigger of a slap on the face hardly explains the sudden emergence of Mr. Hyde.

The law enforcement people, led by DA Howard Hendricks (Simon Baker), are not the brightest bunch. Even basic forensic science of the early 1950s like fingerprinting seem beyond them. Their extraordinary lack of any sense of smell at the final confrontation is amazing.

This film is pretty pedestrian pulp fiction. Perhaps the storyline of the original crime novel was fresh in 1952. It just seems to have been done to death on film and television.

Of the victims, Jessica Alba performance is much more memorable as Joyce Lakeland than Kate Hudson as girlfriend Amy Stanton. The rest of the male cast had the appeal of a telemovie.

As a longime Tarantino follower, the blood saturation point may have been reached for me.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

MIFF 2010: The Day Will Come

The Day Will Come (Es kommt der Tag) is a mystery of sorts. Director/screen writer Susanne Schneider has crafted a suspenseful and tense drama but the plot is rather transparent.

Katharina Schüttler gives a powerful performance as Alice, a young woman in search of her identity. Her self-destructive, sometimes violent nature seems wrapped in her genes. Iris Berben as Judith has to keep her passionate beliefs bottled up for self preservation. Anyway, enough spoilers.

Judith's family are very effectively portrayed by Jacques Frantz (husband) Sebastian Urzendowsky (son) and Sophie-Charlotte Kaissling-Dopff (daughter). They are all very convincing in the crisis that overwhelms them.

This is dual language (German and French) film. It's bilingualism is central to its heart of darkness. This exploration of evil, personal betrayal, and healing is well worth the effort.

MIFF 2010: Apart Together

Apart Together (Tuan yuan) has an unusual twist on the love triangle. Newly weds separated by the Chinese Nationalist Army's retreat to Taiwan are reunited in late 1980s Shanghai after forty years apart.

It's a fairly light romantic drama as former soldier KMT soldier Liu Yangsheng (Ling Feng) gets reacquainted with Yu-e (Lisu Lu) and meets his son and her second family. It's a difficult emotional journey for the couple. this is not just because of opposition to her returning with him to Taiwan but also through the magnaminous acceptance of her second husband ex Communist soldier Lu Shanming (Xu Caigen).

As well as the exploration of these tangled relationships, there is also some forboding comment on the emerging modern China, with its threat to the extended family and neighbourhood communities.

The pace of this story was annoying at times. The lead character lacks both energy and depth. In contrast to his rival's overacting, it is a rather flat and uninspiring performance. In contrast Lisu Lu gives a subtle and moving portrayal as the second-time-around lover.

MIFF 2010 - Cane Toads: The Conquest

After more than 20 years, Mark Lewis has returned to his classic topic in Cane Toads: The Conquest. We catch up with the relentless march of this unpopular guest in Australia.

The ingenuity of the local defenders and their futile attempts to stop its spread across Northern Australia are documented in detail. It is an salutary lesson in the dangers of eco experimentation. Yet there seems no sense of irony from those who hope for a biological or genetic solution.

There are some of the old favourites. Golf clubs! A taxi swerves across the road with more deadly accuracy than the original combi van. Monica Krause, the young girl who owned "Dairy Queen", reminisces about her gigantic pet toad.

Surprisingly it's the dogs who steal the show. Their closeups almost make the 3D worthwhile. Lewis manages to find a range of people who are more than willing to share their cane toad stories. There is a character gallery that is well worth visiting.

Mark keeps himself out of the conversation, a style that many other documentary makers could well copy. The politician talking heads became a little monotonous but that is their specialty.

Can't say that no toads were harmed in the making of this film. The gas extermination of thousands may disturb some viewers.

Nevertheless, Cane Toads: The Conquest is very engaging experience.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Hedgehog: French Fate

Director/screenwriter Mona Achache has created an unusual ensemble of characters in the highly introspective film The Hedgehog (Le hérisson). It is tight, well acted work. The unifying element is the setting: a plush apartment building where they all reside.

We view this claustrophobic world through two lenses. Firstly, 11 year-old Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) produces a film-with-in-a-film as she videos her life in preparation for her 12th birthday suicide. The rest of the Josse family is just as dysfunctional, with mother Solange (Anne Brochet) leading the way.

Our second point of view is through the eyes of Renée Michel (Josiane Balasko), the 54 year-old concierge. Renée lives in a tiny space compared with the residents though it’s luxury compared to the local vagrant Jean-Pierre (Jean-Luc Porraz). The cluttered books and memorabilia in her flat expose the richness of her inner life to her are visitors.

This invisible widow becomes the central person, not just in Paloma’s life. New resident and widower Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa) brings unexpected romance to her dreary existence.

The somewhat bizarre climax has its own inevitability. Only the French would call it a happy ending. Nevertheless the dramatic conclusion is a strong affirmation of life as much as it is a comment on fate and death.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I Am Love: Classy Tearjerker


Director Luca Guadagnino has created an elegant, moving film. I Am Love (Io sono l'amore) is an Italian language movie with an English-speaking star. Ever the professional, Tilda Swinton learnt Italian and Russian for the part of Emma Recchi.

Somewhat surprisingly her character does not speak the modern lingua franca English. Tilda is an excellent clotheshorse for Italian fashion which she does with captivating style.

The direction and photography caress our senses. The slow pace is perfectly suited to this tender love affair. It is a story of ideas and emotions. However, the climax comes with sudden speed. The frenetic conclusion is stunning.

The scenes where lover and and housekeeper undress Madam mirror Emma's life. She has been the trophy wife brought back from Russia where her husband Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) "collected things". We follow the journey from dutiful wife and mother of adult children to her personal liberation.

The context is present day upper-class Milan. The wealthy Recchi family live a seemingly ideal existence in their 1930s rationalist-fascist mansion. Grandfather had a "past" with Mussolini's regime. The father seems oblivious to his children's desires and his wife's restlessness.

Eldest son Edo is horrified by the direction their business is taking when they are approached to go global. The hyper-villain Mr. Kubelkian (Waris Ahluwalia) is the consumate neo-con seducer, speaking of capital as democracy and war's potential to bring development to the third world. The attacks on the Upper Class and globalisation are none too subtle.

Edo is more interested in joining his friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) in his restaurant business. Emma is also drawn to Antonio, making for an unusual triangle.

It's an excellent cast. Maria Paiato is particularly strong as the housekeeper Ida. Alba Rohrwacher also shines as Betta.

I Am Love is a visual feast and a classy tearjerker.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Animal Kingdom: Jungle Genes

Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn is at his manic best as the 'Pope', Andrew Cody, in Animal Kingdom. Writer/director David Michôd has capitalised on the success of the recent Underbelly TV series to bring us a gripping underworld-family drama. The story is based on the murder of two policemen in Walsh Street, Melbourne in 1988 and the notorious Pettingill family.

The very strong Australian cast is led by newcomer James Frecheville, as Josh Cody, who steals the glory. He has the unenviable task of carrying off a degree of sanity in a swamp of psychopaths. Joel Edgerton as family guardian Barry Brown walks the fine line between these with aplomb.

This is a film where the focus is squarely on the eyes of its characters. The dialogue is secondary. Jackie Weaver as matriarch Janine Cody is an exception. Her obsessive need to talk through the dramas would seem false if the archetype gangster mum Kath Pettingill had not done so very publicly at the time of the real life murders and trial. Apparently there is even an Oz Un-reality TV series on infamous crime families. If I knew its name, I wouldn’t provide a link. Have to draw the line somewhere.

On obvious question that is partially explored by Animal Kingdom is the nature of these institutions. What makes them tick: family ethos, loyalty, fear, herd instinct, psychotic genes, the business ethic? We don’t hear the Sopranos excuse that they are soldiers fighting an unjust system in some kind of class war. It would have made a better film if this exploration had been deeper. We certainly get a very different take on our suburban neighbours.

The other disturbing side of this movie is the police corruption. Crooked cops involved in the drug industry are universal. However, the Armed Robbery Squad that is portrayed as totally out of control has its roots firmly in the actual events of the 1980s. Senior Sergeant Nathan Leckie is a standout white knight of law enforcement in a sea of black. It isn’t a role that enables Guy Pearce to shine but keeps it straight and to the point.

The judicial system also takes a hammering. The coke-sniffing criminal lawyer, in both sense of the word, is also based on a real person. The cynical and amoral female barrister comes straight from British crime television.

This is a quality movie. Animal Kingdom maintains its restrained intensity to the last shot. Pun intended.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Fish Tank's Winning Combination

Writer/director Andrea Arnold has created a winning combination in Fish Tank: an energetic, in-your-face fifteen year old struggling to come to terms with her bleak existence in an English housing estate in Essex.

Mia (Kate Jarvis) has more attitude than the girl with the dragon tattoo and less fear if it’s possible. Her attempt to rescue a horse that she believes is being mistreated is emblematic of this complex character.

Two new males enter her life: mum’s new boyfriend Connor (played with understatement by Michael Fassbender) and her new friend Billy (Harry Treadaway). Experience and innocence!

With her dysfunctional family and self-destructive risk taking, the plot unfolds with depressing inevitability. Fortunately there are enough twists to prevent the story falling into complete predictability.

Kate Jarvis is perfect for the role. She was 17 which helped to give her character a tougher edge. The fact that she is a Tilbury Town local, complete with accent, adds a priceless authentic element.

The film finishes on a note of hope, so don’t be put off by its dark themes.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Crazy Heart: Not Another One-night Stand

Writer/director Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart is the country music version of The Wrestler. A has-been loner struggles to regain career, love and self-respect. While alcohol runs his life, singing legend Bad Blake’s life consists of a downward spiral of one-night stands of both varieties. Bowling alleys, bars and baby-boomer groupies.

After four previous nominations, Jeff Bridges might pull off the Best Actor Oscar that eluded Mickey Rourke last year. He was robbed, of course. Bridges’ gravely voice and roadmap face are tailor-made for his role. He oozes authenticity from start to finish or perhaps it’s just sweat. If it’s not the Academy Award makeup, then Jeff should take the cure immediately.

The plot is pedestrian and predictable which suits the country/romantic-drama genre perfectly. It’s melody drama rather than melodrama.

The rest of the cast make the best of their roles. Maggie Gyllenhaal, of Dark Knight fame, gives a suitably sweet and mercifully understated performance as his love interest Jean Craddock. Predictably Jack Nation, as her young son Buddy, steals most of his scenes. Robert Duvall does a solid but less than memorable job as Bad’s mate.

Apart from the battle with the booze and the romantic tension, the real drama centres on his rivalry with former protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) who basks in the top-billing that was once Blake’s preserve.

Hard to judge if the songs are as good as the script trumpets, but that's for country fans to decide. Singer/songwriter Ryan Bingham brings a genuine note to his brief appearance with Weary Kind. Bridges and Farrell sing their numbers. a creditable job for Colin whose IMDb bio claims he is tone deaf. Perhaps that helps.

Clichés, platitudes and aphorisms are the grits of the lyrics. The movie’s tag ‘The harder the life, the sweeter the song’ sums it up. Fortunately, though he’s a slow learner, Bad knows when to fold ‘em and doesn’t dwell too much on his mistakes. He’d have to do nothing else.

Crazy Heart is an enjoyable, sentimental journey. We know from the start that good will triumph over Bad. They only die in the songs.

The Hurt Locker: No Place for Heroes

Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is a well crafted film, with a tight, engrossing script by Mark Boal. It is visually appealing if that term can be used to describe Baghdad’s urban battleground. It tells the story of a US army bomb disposal team in Iraq in 2004.

The direction is virtually flawless with hardly a wasted shot during its 131 minutes. She maintains suspense during several long sequences, in part by using the leader’s rogue behaviour that puts himself and his team in regular jeopardy. The actors are deftly handled with authority and precision. Jeremy Renner gives a disturbing portrayal of Sergeant First Class William James, leader of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit. His strong performance more than earns his 2010 Oscar nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role.

Despite having a wife and child back home, the protagonist/antagonist is a loner who only opens up through hard liquor and macho camaraderie. Keeping faith with the military cliché/pun, he is a loose cannon who takes clearly unacceptable risks with his own life and his comrades. His team members Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) do not share his fatalism, bravado and apparent death wish. James’ personal struggle is not with the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) but with the human side - the innocent victims, the collateral damage of the insurgents’ bombing campaign.

It’s hard not to have problems with subject matter that is not only very confronting but whose multiple layers will appeal to diverse audiences. The horror and inhumanity of war may well be lost on those looking for an action adventure. You have to wonder whether this is an intentional marketing tool. The official website talks about “the military’s unrecognised heroes”.

Nevertheless, it tells an important story of our times, without too much moralising or in-your-face propaganda. It shares this with Ridley Scott’s 2001Black Hawk Down that is a poorer but very popular cousin in this war/action/drama genre. It may be the result of James’ space age protective body suit and Sanborn’s race, but the individuals are easier to identify than in Scott’s thriller.

They are also easier to identify with, as there is much greater character development. The strong cast includes memorable cameos: Guy Pearce, yet another Australian actor playing a US soldier; David Morse as a gung-ho Colonel who would fit comfortably into Apocalypse Now; Ralph Fiennes as a British bounty hunter; and Christopher Sayegh as the Iraqi boy Beckham.

There is probably too much predictability in the plot but then it is catering for a mass audience.

The Hurt Locker is one of the best American war movies since Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It deserves its 9 Oscar nominations.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

It's Complicated: Screwball Seniors Sitcom

It's Complicated is seniors sitcom, baby-boomer screwball, cuisine cinema. Writer/director Nancy Meyers has crafted a feelgood movie that's funny as well.

It continues her involvement in this genre established in Something's Gotta Give and far outshines that effort.

The stellar cast don’t let her down. Meryl Streep as Jane Adler proves again that she does comedy as easily as the heavy drama that won her youthful Oscars. I’m beginning to think her quaint giggle is a personal trait not just part of her acting repertoire.

Alec Baldwin, as ex- hubby Jake, is made for this part of retread romeo. It's no coincidence that the filmmakers see him as their Spencer Tracy. He's good but not that good. Alec has the decadent girth we associate with successful American attorneys and the innocent eyes of the amoral egoist. When he looks Jane straight in the eye, it’s hard not to believe his spin. At times we almost symapthise with him as he tries to escape the second-marriage trap he has set for himself. Almost!

Steve Martin has less to play with in his role as Adam, the third corner of the triangle. It’s a fairly flat performance but zany isn’t what we expect from an architect. To Meyers’ credit, his contributions to the more comic scenes, such as the party, are mercifully restrained. It’s not the slapstick, loud Martin that many try to avoid.

The over-the-top stuff is left to John Krasinski as Harley, the future son-in-law. But the audience enjoyed his comic moments. The three grownup offspring are ably played by Zoe Kazan, Caitlin Fitzgerald and Hunter Parrish, as is to be expected from seasoned Hollywood professionals.

One thing that annoys is the trite setting in Santa Barbara's semi-rural Upper-Class America. Jane’s home is reminiscent of Rachel Getting Married. She is having additions made to the house where she lives alone. The kitchen isn’t big enough. Not! Anyway,who wouldn't want to wake to a view of the Pacific. Her bakery business is to die for, naturally. How else could she afford the lifestyle.

You have to wonder if the inclusion of Jane’s psychiatrist and Jake's fertility clinic are simply soft satire or just giving the audience something to identify with. It seems that having a shrink is just part of the conspicuous consumption of this section of U.S. society.

Lake Bell and Emjay Anthony make a suitably menacing, if stereotypical, mother/son duo as Jake's second family. Just part of the everyday world of post-divorce.

It’s Complicated has the feel of a French food farce. Most of the action revolves around eating but it just isn’t biting enough.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cheers for Bran Nue Dae at Sundance

A quick review of Bran Nue Dae by Anne Thompson from the Sundance Film Festival:
Friday morning in the Spotlight section (for films that Sundance programmers love that have screened elsewhere), Aboriginal musical Bran Nu Dae scored lots of laughs at the Racquet Club. Here’s how one attendee described it in a text message: “Grease meets Gods Must Be Crazy meets 10 Canoes! Geoffrey Rush makes surprise leading role. Fun, fun, fun! The audience screamed and cheered at the end! Very audience friendly and appealing with big heart and theme. Very Aussie cheekie."
Sundance Watch: Redford vs. Gilmore, Howl, Restrepo, Bran Nu Dae
If you haven't seen it yet, it's still screening in Oz cinemas.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Up in the Air: Departure Lounge Lizard

Jason and Ivan Reitman’s film Up in the Air has had a fair bit of hype. It is supposed to be quality comedy/drama/romance. Unfortunately it does not live up to expectations. It doesn’t hit the mark on any of these.

George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, is a specialist in “departures” – telling people they are being let go, fired, retrenched, down-sized, made redundant. He does this face to face, across the United States. It’s a lifestyle he guards closely: priority check-ins for first class flights, hotels and car hire. He has platinum card memberships galore. His life goal is to add a record frequent flier mileage milestone to his coveted American Airline Concierge Key. There is some irony in the fact that he lives in and for the loyalty program stream. Employers who are too cowardly to fire their loyal workers pay for his lifestyle.

Up in the Air has too few witty lines or amusing situations to be a comedy. There is plenty of dramatic potential but few really explosive scenes. The main exceptions are the emotional responses of unwanted workers. There is no bite, no sting, no edge – not even in the sex scenes. Mercifully we are spared the suggested phone sex of the kind that attacted Meg Ryan some controversy for In the Cut.

The people we meet are impossible to empathise with. Bingham could have reached interesting places as he wrestles with his empty existence. He doesn’t.

The film is just like Bingham: good to look at and shallow. The social satire is lack-lustre. It just isn’t a recession version of Wall Street. “We are not swans. We are sharks” has nothing on “Greed is good!” The debunking of our protagonist’s philosophy of life as an emptied backpack is an assualt on a straw castle. Most people want the baggage of other people and belongings in their lives. Ryan’s world is the essence of conspicuous consumption, just without ownership or commitment.

The failure of his dabble with other possibilities is pre-ordained. In fact most of the plot is disappointingly predicable. His fling with another high flier, Alex Goran played by Vera Farmiga, is a prime example of waiting for the obvious. She and Ryan are members of the Mile High Club, though with other people. She even warns him that she is very flexible, as if we hadn't guessed.

The fate of whiz kid Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is similarly trite. Her plan to replace in-the-flesh interviews with cyber-sacking precipiates a fairly dull trip of self discovery with Bingham. Her relationship and her position at Bingham’s firm have only one possible direction. She learns the very unoriginal lesson that you should follow your dream not your boyfriend. Unfortunately she’s a bit too young for George Clooney for any romance to bubble - not really his type anyway.

Sadly both of the female leads are very forgettable. The boss at Career Transition Counseling Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) has a lot of scenes for little impact.

A lot of talent and resources have gone into the making of this movie. It's entertaining fluff at best. To labour the filmmaker's own pun, it just doesn't connect.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Monty Python's Almost Final Cut

And now for something completely different.

There is usually a new Python present available each Christmas. I've been given most of them. The latest is the DVD set of Monty Python: Almost the Truth - The Lawyers Cut

Apart from the TV series, the pythons made two (of their four movies) cinema classics. Number One is Life of Brian, closely followed by the earlier Monty Python and the Holy Grail

The set includes recent interviews with the five remaining members: John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, plus Graham Chapman before his death in 1989. Regular python female Carol Cleveland, plus a host of off-screen crew and python friends also share their experiences.

The rest of the Circus delight in reminding us, ever so gently, how difficult the truly brilliant Cleese could be. John shares many of their foibles as well. His eulogy for his writing partner Graham is priceless.

The talking is interspersed with segments from the shows and films. There is a collection of several of the most famous sketches including the Dead Parrot, the Lumberjack and Fish Dancing.

Python fans and those looking for a look at the bright side: Don't miss it!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Avatar: One, Two, Three Dimensional

The last thing I expected from the latest blockbuster, Avatar in 3D, was to come away satiated. And not just because it’s so long. My fairly low expectations were easily exceeded, with the possible exception of the plot. James Cameron’s old fashioned, escapist entertainment is pitched at pubescents and above. That’s despite the M classification in Oz.

This is a cross genre movie. It’s part sci-fi with clear ancestors in Stars Wars, Dune and Jurassic Park, part fantasy with dragons aplenty borrowed from Excalibur and Lord of the Rings, plus cowboys and indians thrown in for good measure. There are echoes of the Age of Chivalry as the White and Black Knights joust futuristically, more Monty Python than Camelot. This time they are following the U.S. Marine’s creed, which seems to have two distinct versions.

The story is easy to follow if a bit laboured. It doesn’t really require most of the protagonist’s narration and video log voice-over. It is suitably predictable but then it’s action, not suspense or mystery. It also helps when the aliens know a little English.

The cast earn their pay but our hero is essentially two-dimensional. There isn’t much depth to any of the characters but who was expecting it. Sam Worthington as Jake Sully makes a better human-Navi hybrid than a disabled marine but that’s a no-brainer. His potentially witty lines don’t have the impact of Harrison Ford quips but Sam’s not quite in his league. Nevertheless he’s another in the long line of graduates of Australia’s NIDA who play many of the big roles in Hollywood.

Worthington is well complemented by Sigourney Weaver as the head scientist and Zoe Saldana who plays Neytiri. I’m still pondering why Weaver’s character smokes. Product placement perhaps or a way of giving her more depth. Stephen Lang is the archetypal villain as the Colonel.

Those looking for a message will probably find it, but be warned it’s not much of an allegory. It may have upset some conservative commentators, but not all tree-huggers, gaia greenies or animal libbers will embrace it either. The indigenous people are full-on meat eaters.

Ultimately god/gaia is an anti-colonial, anti-globalisation, save-the-planet, peace warrior. She’s called Eyra on Pandora. The 'mother" doesn’t take sides, she just gets even.

Speaking of trees, who said size doesn’t count! Avatar is a visual extravaganza. 3D has come a long way in the decades since I last peeked through the red and blue. Still a way to go but the smudgy glitches are outweighed by the overall sensual impact. The music score adds to the mood despite being over the top at times. I couldn’t work out if it was tongue-in-cheek when slipping into ‘here come the cavalry’ or Indiana Jones orchestration.

The Na’vi aliens grow on you although they’re not nearly as interesting as the prawns in District 9. The Banshee flying dragons are impressive, as are the other ferocious forest creatures. Like 3D, computer graphics can be taken for granted now.

So one for the story, two for the acting and three for the technology.

There has to be an Avatar II. We all know that the white man always came back with more troops to finish the job.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Bran Nue Dae January Cinema Release

Advance screenings of Rachel Perkins' glorious Bran Nue Dae start next week with the national release to follow during January.

This is one of the best 2009 Australian productions. This indigenous Shakespearean-style comedy/romance/road movie is all fun. Don't miss it.

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It's also screening at the Sundance Film Festival later this month.