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.