Friday, 31 August 2012

The Expendables II

WRITTEN BY: Richard Wenk, Sylvester Stallone
DIRECTED BY: Simon West
STARRING: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Liam Hemsworth
RATING: 3.5 stars

The Expendables II is more like a spoof film and Hollywood's favourite action stars are playing caricatures of themselves. It is unashamedly full of lame one-liners, mass shootings, buildings and cars getting blown up in fantastical style and the bad guys dying in gruesome ways with lots of blood spilled. Never mind the fact that the plot is ridiculous – you're not really going to watch this film for the story. Unlike the original film, which took itself a little more seriously, the sequel is just plain fun. Everything from the explosions to the muscles are bigger.

The film begins with Church (Bruce Willis) calling on Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his team to collect the contents of a safe from a plane crash. But, the team is ambushed by a crew led by Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) who kills one of the expendables team members during his escape. Ross wants revenge and Church off his back, so the team goes after Vilain to make sure a large amount of weapons-grade plutonium does not fall into the wrong hands. When Stallone says the plan is to “Track 'em, find 'em, kill 'em”, you know he means it.

What makes the film so much fun is that it is a continuous flow of winks, nudges, quips and cameos. I could see most of them coming from a mile away and yet, I still had a chuckle and applauded with the rest of the audience during some of the best moments, like the reference to the Chuck Norris meme craze. However, some film references were taken too far and did not even make sense. I won't spoil any of them for you, suffice to say, you'll probably roll your eyes at a few of the one-liners related to Terminator and Die Hard.


Of all the action heroes in this film, Van Damme is probably my least favourite historically, but he is the perfect villain in The Expendables II and shows he can still do his famous round-house kick. It's a shame he didn't get to go up against Jet Li or Jason Statham, but he does have a great climactic fight scene with Stallone, who also packs a mean punch. Statham is his usual sexy, charismatic self, which will please women who may get dragged to see the film by their boyfriends/husbands, while Liam Hemsworth provides the eye candy for younger girls.

Then there is Dolph Lundgren who continues playing the mad scientist brute (his character is a chemical engineer in a nod to his real life degree). Norris' introduction as Booker is also fantastic and there are more than a few “lone ranger” references. Willis and Schwarzenegger, who have always been my favourite action heroes, get bigger roles in this film and fight alongside each other with Stallone in a scene that makes you want to cheer at finally seeing them all kicking arse together.

Unfortunately, the film lacks character development so the only reason you care about the heroes is because you like the actors. That's not really the making of a good film, but even that can be overlooked when you get wrapped up in the excitement of the fight scenes that include decapitations, blood, guts and explosions. A third film has already been planned and I can't wait to see who else they bring into the franchise.


 

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Annie

DIRECTED BY: Karen Johnson Mortimer
PRODUCED BY: John Frost
CONDUCTED BY: Peter Casey
STARRING: Claudia Fitzgerald, Michael Cormick, Todd McKenney, Bert Newton, Nancye Hayes, Julie Goodwin
RATING: 4.5 stars

Take the whole family to see Annie - you won't be disappointed. I'm still singing Tomorrow in my head...

Based on the Harold Gray comic strip, Little Orphan Annie, the musical is set in New York during the Great Depression. Annie lives in an orphanage but refuses to give up hope that her parents will one day return for her. When she is chosen by billionaire Oliver Warbucks to spend Christmas at his mansion, Annie has the time of her life, and so does Warbucks. He wants to adopt Annie, but promises to try to find her parents, if he can, to reunite them. Warbucks offers a large reward, which prompts a trio of misfits to try to swindle the reward for themselves.

Todd McKenney may be more famous these days for being the "mean" judge on Dancing With The Stars, but let's not forget his decorated stage career. Playing evil Rooster Hannigan in Annie, he reminds us just how good he is at singing, acting and, of course, dancing. Meanwhile, Nancye Hayes provided so many laughs as the tyrannical Miss Hannigan at the orphanage and Chloe Dallimore was hilarious as the dim-witted Lily.

Julie Goodwin knocked everyone else out of the theatre with her vocal performance as Warbucks' secretary, Grace Farrell. She has previously played Christine in Phantom of the Opera so she certainly has more power in her voice than most. Bert Newton has a pivotal role as President Roosevelt and drew applause just for being his iconic self. Michael Cormick, who took over the role of Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks when Anthony Warlow left the production for Broadway to show those Americans how it's done, filled those big shoes quite nicely.

But it was Annie herself who was the most impressive. Claudia Fitzgerald is one of two girls who plays Annie. The girl from Bicton hit every note and encouraged sympathy from the audience with her performance. Saoirse Gerrish, who played orphan Molly, also had perfect comedic timing. Of course, Sandy the dog is also a stand out performer. There was lots of gushing from the audience every time he came on stage.

Musical composer Peter Casey is Australian musical theatre royalty. His orchestra was in fine form on opening night. The set design was also impressive, especially the use of replica artworks of some of the worlds most famous pieces, including the Mona Lisa, displayed in Warbucks' home. Well, Warbucks is one the richest fictional characters ever created, so why not?

My only criticism is that there were one or two scenes that could have been trimmed so that additional scenes could have been added to provide more context and insight into characters like Warbucks. Fans of the film may be disappointed in some song and dance omissions. Nonetheless, Annie is fun for the whole family, and unlike taking children to the cinema, they can actually stay awake and sit still until intermission for their toilet break. Perfect.

* Annie is now playing at Burswood Theatre.




Facts:
- The musical opened on Broadway in 1977 and has since played in more than 22 countries.
- A film version was made in 1982.
- Famous songs include It's A Hard Knock Life, Easy Street and A New Deal for Christmas.


Hit and Run

WRITTEN BY: Dax Shepard
DIRECTED BY: Dax Shepard, David Palmer
STARRING: Dax Shepard, Kristen Bell, Bradley Cooper, Tom Arnold
RATING: 3.5 stars

This is far and away the best thing Dax Shepard has ever done. Who knew he could write, direct and star in such a hilarious, entertaining film? It's full of racist, sexist, homophobic and stereotypical lines and yet it's not at all offensive - its just funny. He's also got all his mates on board to be in the film, including fiancé Kristen Bell. The pair have great on-screen chemistry, as does the entire cast, which makes this odd road trip film that extra special.

Charlie Bronson (Shepard) lives in a remote California town where he is in a witness protection program. (No spoilers here about why). But, when his girlfriend Annie (Bell), a commumity college teacher, is offered a job to head a program in Los Angeles, he decides that after four years of being away from the big city, it's time to return to give her the chance to fulfil her career dream. But Annie's ex-boyfriend Gil (Michael Rosenbaum) has never liked Charlie, so when he learns Charlie's true identity, Gil informs some not too friendly people from Charlie's past played by Bradley Cooper, Ryan Hansen, and Joy Bryant. The trio pursue the couple while bumbling federal Marshall Randy (Tom Arnold) tries to keep up.

My main criticism of the plot is that we don't really learn why or how Charlie changed and turned his life around. Is living in exile for four years and meeting a pretty, smart, blonde really enough to reform a person? There are a few dots not quite connecting there.

Despite this, there are enough consistent laughs to bring tears to your eyes during this film. I've heard some compare Hit and Run to True Romance. That's quite a compliment, but I think Shepard will happily take it.




Sunday, 26 August 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

WRITTEN BY: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
DIRECTED BY: Wes Anderson
STARRING: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton
RATING: 3 stars

Wes Anderson films are for dreamers and in Moonrise Kingdom he delivers a bitter-sweet story about first love. The film is told in such a clever way. It's quirky, witty and whimsical. It opened the Cannes Film Festival and has proven to be a popular international film. I'm not sure how Anderson does it, but he manages to make the film feel authentic and magical. It's heart-warming, funny and an adventure.

Set on a New England island in 1965, 12-year-olds Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) fall in love at first sight. They become pen pals and decide to run away together, if only for a week. Sam is an orphan who is an expert scout, while Suzy is a sometimes-violent bookworm. They are both troubled children but they share a connection. Sam brings his survival gear while Suzy brings her cat, some stolen library books and a record player. They have everything they need for their adventure as they settle at a secluded cove they name Moonrise Kingdom. Meanwhile, Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), organises a search party with the Khaki Scouts to find Sam, while Suzy's parents Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand) enlist the help of policeman Sharp (Bruce Willis) to find the children. But there is a storm coming and it threatens to complicate matters even more.

Gilman and Hayward are young actors, but they are remarkable in their roles. Their facial expressions are effective and their mannerisms are spot on. They manage to seem both wise and innocent, as well as clever and brave. They are supported by an excellent adult cast, especially Norton who almost steals the show as the scout who takes his job a little too seriously. Tilda Swinton also has a small role as Social Services (no actual name, just the title), while Harvey Keitel and Bob Balaban also provide some laughs in their small roles. There's a reason why Murray keeps making films with Anderson too – they work well together.

The film is also full of pop culture references and metaphors – most notably, the storm referencing the end of life as the children know it as a new day dawns. The children are on the precipice of adolescence but in many ways they are more mature than the adults in the film. Of course, they are still children and that is shown in some very sweet, awkward and funny moments.

While I'm not sure Moonrise Kingdom will have the lasting effect of other childhood adventure stories like Stand By Me and The Goonies, I am glad someone is still making adventure films that adults and children can enjoy.



Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Hope Springs


WRITTEN BY: Vanessa Taylor
DIRECTED BY: David Frankel
STARRING: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carrell
RATING: 4 stars

Watching Meryl Streep perform oral sex on Tommy Lee Jones is possibly the most funny, awkward and embarrassing thing you will watch at the cinema this year - and it's comedy gold. I think I enjoyed this film more than someone my age probably should. I'm in my 20's, while Hope Springs' target audience is the over 50 age bracket. Yet, maybe that's proof that this film is not just for "the oldies" but that it's themes are relevant to everyone. It's about marriage and middle age, but it's also about life in general and how we find fulfilment and happiness in our lives.
After being married for 31 years and raising two children, Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) find themselves in a rut, except that only Kay is concerned about it. The couple have not even touched each other in four years, except for a quick kiss on the cheek every morning. So, Kay insists they attend a week-long expensive counselling program with Dr Bernard Feld (Steve Carrell) to work on their relationship and their sex life.

My main criticism of the story is that we don't ever really learn what has caused Kay and Arnold's relationship to fall apart. It can't just be about sex. Relationships are far more complicated than that. Yet, Hope Springs would have us believe that as long as you're having sex, everything will be fine. Nonetheless, Vanessa Taylor's script is heart-warming at times, often funny and appropriately embarrassing too. It's a shame the story wasn't more complete.

It is the performances that really make the film convincing. I want Jones to be nominated for an Oscar for his performance. He is that good. Unfortunately, it probably won't happen. He stole every scene from Streep though, which is hard to do since she is arguably one of the greatest actors of all time. Streep's performance is still fantastic, especially when her character tries to seduce her husband. The leads are well supported by Carrell, who plays it straight, but his supposedly sympathetic lines and "sexercise" suggestions are hilarious. His character is not making obvious jokes, but many things he says are funny just because of how awkward it is to talk to a couple who have been married more than 30 years about their sex life and fantasies. The trio's facial expressions alone are entertaining.

After watching Hope Springs, I turned to my friend and we both said: "That was so cute" – and it really was.


 

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Total Recall


WRITTEN BY: Kurt Wimmer, Mark Bomback
DIRECTED BY: Len Wiseman
STARRING: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston
RATING: 2.5 stars

Diehard fans of Paul Verhoeven's 1990 Total Recall film will probably be disappointed to learn there is no Mars, no Arnold Schwarzenegger and no comedic elements in the Len Wiseman remake. This adaptation of Philip K. Dick's famous short story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, takes itself more seriously. While it is mildly entertaining at times, the film takes too long to get going and by the time the climax arrives, all sense of logic is thrown out the window. Sure, it's a science fiction film, but it still has to make some sense.

Due to nuclear warfare, the only liveable places on Earth by the end of the 21st century are "The United Federation of Britain" and "The Colony", which is actually Australia. (Insert your own convict joke here). Factory worker Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is haunted by nightmares in which he and a woman are being chased. When he visits Rekall, a company that implants fake memories of a life a person wishes they had, the process goes wrong and authorities storm into the building to arrest him. A confused Quaid kills the invaders and rushes home to his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) only to discover she is not really his wife and actually wants to kill him. Quaid runs away with the help of Melina (Jessica Biel) as he tries to figure out who he really is. Is his name Quaid or Hauser? Is he a spy? Is he a double agent? Or is he a rebel leader?

Farrell's Quaid/Hauser is played more like Jason Bourne than Schwarzenegger's Quaid/Hauser, while Beckinsale stomps around angrily like she's playing a cyborg in a Terminator film. But both performances are still fairly good. Farrell bulked up for the role and Beckinsale kicks arse as Lori. No matter how much she runs in the rain, is beaten and shot at, she still has the world's loveliest hair throughout the entire film. What a woman. Cranston is also a good villain, but he had some awful lines to deliver. Unfortunately, Bill Nighy's talents are wasted in an underwritten role as rebel leader Matthias, while Biel's character is quite wimpy for a supposed "tough chick".

Total Recall is certainly full of action and there are some exciting fight scenes, including one between a series of lifts. But it's a bit too far fetched that these characters are jumping between buildings and falling through glass without more than a couple of scratches. Even film heroes like Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone have more injuries in their films than these characters. Perhaps Wiseman just didn't want to make his wife (Beckinsale) and Biel look in any way unattractive. But even Farrell's fight scene with Cranston was unconvincing. For an action film, Total Recall does the job. But, it's not really a very good film and I doubt I'll ever watch it again.


Saturday, 18 August 2012

Bully

WRITTEN BY: Lee Hirsch, Cynthia Lowen
DIRECTED BY: Lee Hirsch
STARRING: Alex, Ja'Maya, Kelby
RATING: 4 stars

I shed more than a few tears watching Bully. It broke my heart and made my blood boil. According to the film-makers, more than 13 million American children will be bullied at school, online, at home and on the streets, making it the most common form of violence among young people. I imagine, based on media reports and talking to teenagers, the statistics are probably equally as devastating in Australia and elsewhere in the world. This film is hard to watch. It's confronting and frustrating, but it's also important for everyone to see and learn a valuable lesson. Let's face it, we've all had a connection with bullying, whether we have been victims, perpetrators or those on the sidelines ignoring what we see.

Filmed in “middle America” during the 2009-10 school year, Bully presents audiences with three children. Alex is friendless and is called “Fish Face” by his classmates, Kelby is harassed by her school and the wider community for being a lesbian, while Ja'Meya was so horribly bullied on the school bus that she threatened others with a loaded gun and ended up in juvenile detention. We also meet the families of two children who committed suicide as a direct result from bullying.

The most startling and devastating aspect of the film is how clueless the adults are. Whether it's parents not realising how difficult their children’s school life is, police not getting involved, or teachers and school boards completely ignoring the issue because they feel like there's nothing they can do about it. There were several infuriating scenes, including an emotional town meeting and a deputy principal who needed a serious wake-up call.

Unfortunately, the film is one-sided in its presentation. We don't really see any bullies or learn anything about them or why they bully other children. We also don't meet their parents to gain any context about them. Obviously, it's a film documentary, not a news story, so it doesn't have to be balanced. However, I think it would have helped send a stronger message if it explored the issue deeper. There is no solution provided. All we feel is sympathy and sadness. How do we make a change?

The target audience for the film is children and teenagers, but I wonder if they will learn anything from this film. A bully is not likely to identify with anyone and realise the error of their ways. I don't want to get on my soapbox about this issue, but since this is a documentary, I think it's fair for me to make this point. Parents need to take responsibility for teaching their children about prejudices against class, race, religion, ethnicity, gender and anything else. If bullying comes from a place of hate because a child is reacting to someone being different to them, then we need to teach that child to not only accept all differences, but to also embrace and learn from them. I hope this film makes a difference to at least one child's life. That will be enough.





Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Bourne Legacy


WRITTEN BY: Tony Gilroy, Dan Gilroy
DIRECTED BY: Tony Gilroy
STARRING: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton
RATING: 3.5 stars

Can you make another Bourne film without Jason Bourne? Yes, you can - and it will be good. In an expansion of the Bourne world created by Robert Ludlum's novels, this reboot centres on a new protagonist and sets up what will likely be a new trilogy of action and adventure.

The Bourne Legacy takes place at the same time as the Bourne Ultimatum so it's a good idea to refresh your memory on the third film before seeing this one. A secret scientific program involving a team that includes Dr Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) is developing a genetics program to improve field agents physically and mentally. One of them is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) who barely survives when his intelligence agency tries to shut down the program by taking out all its agents, led by ex-Air Force Colonel Eric Bayer (Edward Norton). Cross and Shearing must then work together on a journey to Manila to survive.

Writer/director Tony Gilroy also wrote the screenplays for the previous trilogy so he knows the Bourne world better than anyone else, besides Ludlum. Unfortunately, the film is slow in parts, especially in the beginning. We see Cross in Alaska for reasons not properly explained, as well as the intelligence agency planning the program shut down. It takes too long for audiences to understand the story, which means we care less. But it gets stronger once the plot is established and there are some great action sequences, including a climactic chase scene on motorbikes. The shaky, dizzy camera shots from the previous films are also out in this film. Phew!

I have one minor issue with Aaron. With all the medication he's on, he's supposed to be a superior human being physically and mentally. While Renner was certainly looking fit in the film, I felt like he should have been a little more muscular. He looked more like "the hot guy at the gym" than a field agent hero. Renner is not Matt Damon, but he doesn't try to be either. He lacks some of the charisma needed for the role but he had massive shoes to fill. I have no doubt he'll be more comfortable in the sequel. His performance is really boosted thanks to Weisz who oozes charisma and they have great chemistry together. I'm so glad there was no lame love scene too. Norton was also impressive and reminds us what a good actor he is. Keep an eye out for Shane Jacobson, of Kenny fame, who pops up as the boss in the Manila high security lab.

You could say The Bourne Legacy is a bridging film. The next film should remove itself further from Jason Bourne and become its own entity. I can't wait to see what Gilroy does next with the franchise. Maybe we'll eventually see a film where Bourne and Cross work together? Now that would be entertaining.

 

Friday, 3 August 2012

Nutcracker On Ice


RATING: 3 stars

I'm always impressed by the skills of ballet performers but I'm always especially astounded at the skill level of ice skaters who manage to dance, act and perform acrobatic gymnastics with such grace. In what was an almost flawless performance by the Imperial Ice Stars, the audience was gasping and applauding throughout the show and everyone left with a smile on their face.

For those unfamiliar with the classic Russian tale, it tells the story of Maria, a little girl whose love brings to life her nutcracker doll, which was a Christmas gift from her godfather. Maria and the Nutcracker then embark on an adventure with the Mouse King, the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy. The story was written in 1816 by German author E. T. A. Hoffman, and was later adapted by French writer Alexandre Dumas in 1847. Famous Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreographer Lev Ivanov then created their ballet, which was first performed in St Petersburg in 1892.

Artistic director Tony Mercer teamed up with four-time figure skating World Champion and dual Olympic gold medallist Evgeny Platov, and dual World Champion Maxim Staviski to create the choreography. The cast of performers includes 26 World, European and National Championship skaters, and the production features unique and clever set designs by Australian designer, Eamon D’Arcy.

Although His Majesty's Theatre is a smaller venue than the Imperial Ice Stars are used to, having previously performed their shows like Cinderella On Ice at the larger Burswood Theatre, they made great use of the stage and the intimate setting. The acrobatic performances were perhaps the most well received. The audience seemed in awe of the Arabian dance aerial display as real-life couple Fiona Kirk and Volodymyr Khodakivskyy flew together in beautiful unison around the stage. Their sharp skates came so close to each other's faces at times, it would have been almost terrifying if they weren't so in-sync. Khodakivskky was also impressive in his role as Maria's father. I can't even spin around in a circle barefoot without getting dizzy, let alone do it in skates on ice. I'm still amazed at how fit and energetic the entire cast must be to do some of the tricks, leaps, jumps and twirls that they do every night.

The show is about two hours long, including an intermission, so children won't lose interest. The Nutcracker On Ice is certainly fun for the whole family and may even entice you to put on the skates yourself. Just don't forget to bring a jacket.

Facts from the show:
  • The performers rehearsed nine hours a day, six days a week, for seven weeks to prepare for the production, and they rehearse for three hours each day before the show.
  • 14 tonnes of ice is created in the production – the same weight as nearly three elephants.
  • 2,500 litres of anti-freeze is used to make the ice stage.

Photograph courtesy of the production team.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

WRITTEN BY: Seth Grahame-Smith
DIRETED BY: Timur Bekmambetov
STARRING: Bejamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Rufus Sewell, Anthony Mackie, Jimmi Simpson
RATING 1.5 stars


If you're going to see Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter you have to forget everything you know about the famous American president and his country's civil war. So, to the history buffs and students, consider yourselves warned. You'll have to accept that in seeing this film you're stepping into a parallel universe where the civil war was about vampires using slaves as food. It sounds like a ridiculous concept, and it is.

Adapted from Seth Grahame-Smith's novel by the writer himself, the film tells the story of Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) from his childhood to his time as president. Lincoln hates vampires for killing his mother when he was a child. He tries to destroy the vampire that killed her but fails miserably and is rescued from death by Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), a veteran vampire hunter. Henry takes him under his wing and teaches him how to destroy vampires. Lincoln then enters politics and falls in love with Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Lincoln's greatest challenge as a hunter and a president is how to wipe out vampires in the south who are led by Adam (Rufus Sewell) and are feeding off slaves.

Some of the fight sequences in this film are good but others drag on unnecessarily. The 3D was also hit and miss. Rather than provide the depth that 3D is suppose to do, it was actually quite distracting at times, particularly in vital fight scenes. Also, for a horror film, it wasn't all that horrifying.

The best aspect of the film is actually the acting, which is quite extraordinary considering the odd storyline. Sewell was a great villain and deserved more screen time, while Cooper was surprisingly sympathetic. Anthony Mackie and Jimmi Simpson provided good supporting roles as Lincoln's friends but really it's Walker's performance that holds the film together. Moments that should have been more cringeworthy were almost plausible thanks to him. He's a relative newcomer to film, but he's one to keep an eye on.

If you like vampire tales and can accept that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is pointless and ridiculous, then you might be able to enjoy the film. But the majority of people will probably want to walk out after the first 30 minutes.