Monday, 31 March 2014

Muppets Most Wanted

WRITTEN BY: James Bobin, Nicholas Stoller
DIRECTED BY: James Bobin
STARRING: Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Ty Burrell
RATING: 2.5 stars

I have never been a huge fan of the Muppets so perhaps die hard fans will disagree with me here, but Muppets Most Wanted is a bland film. Aside from some fantastic cameos – none of which I will spoil here – the film is not all that funny and most of the songs drag as painfully as the slow-paced plot. I took my two young nephews with me to see the film and not even they were impressed.

Picking up immediately after its predecessor, Muppets Most Wanted sees Kermit, Miss Piggy and the team go on a world tour, guided by agent Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). But he is not who he seems. It turns out he is working with Constantine – Kermit's doppelganger, who has escaped from a Russian prison run by Nadya (Tina Fey). Constantine and Kermit switch places and Kermit is sent to the prison, unbeknownst to his friends. Constantine and Dominic Badguy then work together on a heist, prompting an investigation by an Interpol agent (Ty Burrell) and the CIA.

Fey is simply amazing in this film. She was hilarious and was wonderfully supported by the likes of Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo who play inmates. Burrell is also a welcome addition and seems to channel his inner Pink Panther. Unfortunately, Gervais was not given much of an opportunity to be very funny. There was also too much Constantine when it would have been better to focus more attention on the other Muppets.

If you are a huge fan of the Muppets, you might enjoy this film. Otherwise, it is probably not worth your time. 


Saturday, 29 March 2014

Nymphomaniac Volume I and II

WRITTEN BY: Lars von Trier
DIRECTED BY: Lars von Trier
STARRING: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater
RATING: 4.5 stars

There is nothing gratuitous about the sex scenes in Nymphomaniac. It is a fascinating and complex story about a sex addict so all the sex scenes – as graphic and at times rather pornographic as they are – are necessary for effective storytelling. If you do not like seeing nudity or sex in films, then you would not bother with this film anyway. But if you can put aside any prudishness you might feel, Nymphomaniac is an intellectual, erotic, powerful and sad story.

Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac. When Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds her in an alley following a vicious beating, he provides her with shelter for the night, and she in turn, recounts her erotic and traumatic life.

Each volume is two hours long and they can certainly be watched as sequels. But I chose to watch them together and it left quite an impact. Joe's story is so enthralling that the film is well worth its length. Writer/director Lars von Trier has always pushed the boundaries with his film making and this is perhaps one of his most confronting films yet.

The protagonists each gave brave performances, especially Stacy Martin as the younger Joe in some very confronting and depraved scenes. Gainsbourg is also very strong and Skarsgard gives an equally intriguing performance. LaBeouf is quite good as one of Joe's lovers, although his accent slips were distracting at times. There is also a raft of other famed actors in smaller supporting roles including Christian Slater as Joe's kind-hearted father, Uma Thurman who is actually quite hilarious in a dramatic scene as a woman destroyed by Joe's affair with her husband, Willem Dafoe who is creepy and sinister, and Jamie Bell whose character takes the film in an uncomfortably violent direction.

Nymphomaniac is provocative and full of lust. Prepare yourself for lots of images of genitals. But more importantly, it is an amazing story. 



Thursday, 27 March 2014

Noah

WRITTEN BY: Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel
DIRECTED BY: Darren Aronofsky
STARRING:  Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins
RATING: 3.5 stars
 
It may not be "religiously accurate", and it may even be offensive to some, but Noah is not trying to be a "factual" film for fundamentalists - it is entirely fictitious and is just based on the Biblical story we all know. If Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics and everyone else can just accept that point, they may actually enjoy the film. It is a fascinating study on the darker side of humanity and faith - and not necessarily of the religious type. In turn, it encourages audiences to reflect on our world. At more than two hours in length, Noah is an epic disaster film with violent battle scenes, characters facing confronting personal dilemmas, and of course, an ark full of animals.
 
When the Creator - who is interestingly never referred to as God - is angered by humans, he decides to wipe out the world and start again. Noah (Russell Crowe) has visions of the apocalyptic future and decides to build an ark to protect his wife (Jennifer Connelly), his children and animals, which are innocent of sin.
 
Director/co-writer Darren Aronofsky has artfully used animation to show parts of the religious story and CGI to depict the unique world. His creation of fallen angels made of rock, called The Watchers, is also quite effective. At times, the film seems to move slowly considering most people would be familiar with the story, but the action sequences are impressive.
 
Crowe is fantastic as Noah. The character's arc (sorry) is huge and you cannot help but feel a range of conflicting emotions towards Noah as he is forced to make such hard decisions. Connelly had little to do for most of the film and spent much of her screen time crying, but she did have some more meaningful scenes towards the end. Emma Watson plays Noah's adopted daughter while Douglas Booth and Logan Lerman play Noah's sons - and the trio are catalysts for much of the drama in the second half of the film. Ray Winstone was also solid and appropriately disgusting leading an army wanting to join the ark. Hopkins was good as the hermit grandfather, but his accent never worked. He just sounded like himself, while everyone else spoke with as little an accent as they could. An attempt at humour with Hopkins' character being obsessed with berries was also unnecessary. This is not the kind of film that should be garnering any laughs. Unfortunately, there were a few unintentional laughs throughout the film too.
 
Ultimately, Noah is an ambitious epic film, and for the most part, it works.
 
 
 

Thursday, 20 March 2014

A Streetcar Named Desire

WRITTEN BY: Tennessee Williams
DIRECTED BY: Kate Cherry
STARRING: Sigrid Thornton, Nathaniel Dean, Jo Morris, Luke Hewitt
RATING: 3.5 stars
 
The film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire is so revered thanks to the powerful performances of Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando - arguably two of the greatest actors of all time - that to compare their work to the Black Swan Theatre Company's production seems almost cruel. For the most part, the acting in this production was quite good, although there were several accent slips that jarred the enjoyment of some pivotal scenes. The best aspect of the play was Christina Smith's set and costume design, which was both creative and effective. Regardless of any flaws, the play is worth seeing just for the story and Tennessee Williams' genius writing.
 
Blanche DuBois (Sigrid Thornton) is an ageing and alcoholic Southern belle, struggling to face her own plight. So, she visits her sister, Stella (Jo Morris), and her husband, Stanley Kowalski (Nathaniel Dean), in New Orleans. The couple live in a tiny apartment in a poor quarter of town. Blanche's arrival causes a stir as her dreamer personality clashes with Stanley's harsh realism. The pair are in a constant battle with Stella caught between her love for both of them. Meanwhile, Blanche does her best to woo a new beau, Harrold "Mitch" Mitchell (Luke Hewitt). As tensions escalate all round, Blanche's already weak grasp of sanity is threatened as her world crumbles.
 
Thornton gives a very strong performance in the lead. The character looks like a lot of fun for actresses to play and she certainly seems to relish the highs and lows of Blanche. Hewitt was also very good as the kind and endearing man who tries to help Blanche. Mitch is probably the most likeable character in the play. Morris is also solid, playing the main character who tries to keep the peace but ultimately sides with her husband at every turn. Dean was good in parts and delivered the famous "Stella!" scream fairly convincingly, but he was also the main culprit of the accent slip.
 
Black Swan Theatre Company's production of A Streetcar Named Desire is now on at the Heath Ledger Theatre in the WA State Theatre Centre.
 
 
Photo by Gary Marsh

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

I, Frankenstein

WRITTEN BY: Stuart Beattie
DIRECTED BY: Stuart Beattie
STARRING: Aaron Eckhart, Bill Nighy, Yvonne Strahovski, Miranda Otto, Jai Courtney
RATING: 2 stars
 
I really wanted to like I, Frankenstein because it was filmed in Australia and has many Australians involved in the production. Unfortunately, it's a rather abysmal mess. Writer/director Stuart Beattie has basically tried to turn Frankenstein's monster into a superhero, but it does not work. While some of the CGI is good, there are far too many plot holes and cliches that you are likely to roll your eyes several times.
 
The film begins near the end of the Mary Shelley's famed novel, with Victor Frankenstein pursuing his monstrous creation (Aaron Eckhart) to the North Pole before dying from the cold. The monster buries his creator in the Frankenstein family cemetery. But he soon becomes unwillingly embroiled in a war between demons and the Gargoyle Order. The fact that a human, rather than God, was able to create a life interests the demon prince Naberius (Bill Nighy), who wants to do the same for his own evil end. Meanwhile, Gargoyle queen Leonore (Miranda Otto) wants the monster, who she names Adam, to fight the demons. Instead, he runs away but returns 200 years later to modern-day Europe to learn more about his creator and stop Naberius. Scientist Terra Wade (Yvonne Strahovski) could be the one to help him.
 
Eckhart is a good actor but he was a little too attractive to look like Frankenstein's monster. The surgery looked too clean so he basically just had a few lines on his face and body. He was also not given enough emotional dialogue or actions to endear himself to audiences to the extent that he should. Nighy looked like he was having fun but his villain was such a stereotype. Otto was solid and Stahovski was good despite playing a ridiculous "damsel in distress" type of character. It is amazing how a character so smart could be so stupid. Jai Courtney also has a role as the leader of the gargoyle army and is a welcome addition.
 
I, Frankenstein will probably soon be forgotten. I just hope students studying the novel do not think they can watch it as a short cut.
 
 

Monday, 17 March 2014

Wadjda

WRITTEN BY: Haifaa Al-Mansour
DIRECTED BY: Haifaa Al-Mansour
STARRING: Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Reem Abdullah, Ahd
RATING: 4 stars

Learning to ride a bicycle is part of most people's childhood, but in Saudi Arabia, it is frowned upon for girls. Wadjda presents a basic, and yet interesting, story about a girl who wants to buy a bicycle. Spoiler alert: she is successful. It is a minor victory for the protagonist and echoes the wider changes that are slowly but surely happening in Saudi Arabia. Wadjda is believed to be the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first to be made in the country by a woman. It was the country's first submission for Oscar consideration and has been dubbed a pioneering film. For that reason, you might expect a massively ground breaking film, but that is not what Wadjda is. Writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour presents an innocent depiction about the simple daily struggles that women face in a strict Muslim society and leaves the audience to reflect on how fortunate we are in our Western society and some hope for how other parts of the world are developing to give women equal rights. It does all of this without feeling overly political or critical of Islam.

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a young girl living in Riyadh, stifled by her country's religious traditions. She is a spirited and rebellious girl who listens to Western music on her radio, wears sneakers instead of plain black shoes, and her hijab is always falling off. To everyone's dismay, she also announces that she wants to buy a bicycle so she can beat her young neighbour, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), in a race. After her mother (Reem Abdullah) refuses to pay for a bike, Wadjda enters a competition where her knowledge of the Koran is put to the test for a cash prize. Meanwhile, her mother struggles to deal with her father (Sultan Al Assaf) who is so desperate to have a son that he considers the possibility of taking a second wife.

The film has a lot of strong women despite their oppression. But at the same time, the film does not demonise men. There are very few males depicted in the film, but Abdullah is a lovable young boy and even Wadjda's father is, to some extent, a victim of his culture. Mohammed is an absolute delight to watch. It is her first film and she is in almost very scene. She is funny, brave and a great heroine. Al Gohani is equally impressive and adorable. Most of the best scenes are between the two youngsters. Abdullah also gives a beautiful performance whether she is singing while she cooks or crying over her desperate situation at home. Ahd is also very good as the school principal, Ms Hussa. While she enforces the rules for the schoolgirls so strictly, she is dealing with her own personal dramas after being aught alone with a man.

The more I ponder Wadjda, the more I like it. If nothing else, it gives Westerners an insight into a part of the world many do not understand. 


Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Missing Picture

WRITTEN BY: Rithy Panh, Christophe Bataille
DIRECTED BY: Rithy Panh
STARRING: Randal Douc as the narrator
RATING: 3.5 stars

It is amazing how so much emotion can be drawn from a film that tells its harrowing true story through clay figurines. Assisted by narration and some archival footage – which is basically just propaganda clips – Rithy Panh recreates the devastating cruelty that Cambodia's Khmer Rouge committed between 1975 and 1979. This is a survival story, but unlike most documentaries, it does not use a raft of primary sources to depict its story. Instead, it relies on Panh's recreations to show what those propaganda films do not.

The Missing Picture begins with the Khmer Rouge taking power in 1975. The rural communists were the descendants of the “Old People" while the “New People” were intellectuals, professionals and anyone who lived in cities. As a child, Rithy Panh and his family were removed from Phnom Penh and placed in a labour camp where they were forced to dig ditches and farm all day. Many died from the tough conditions, including hunger and sickness.

At times, the film is quite confronting to watch, such as a scene in which a brainwashed child aids in having his mother killed for hiding mangoes. The entire scene is depicted with the clay figurines and yet it is filled with heartbreaking emotion. The storytelling throughout the film is assisted by some powerful and insightful narration. It is no wonder the Cambodian/French film was nominated for an Oscar.

Panh's message is simple: no one should ever have to witness such atrocities, but if they do, they must share their story, and that is exactly what he has done.





Monday, 10 March 2014

The Monuments Men

WRITTEN BY: George Clooney, Grant Heslov
DIRECTED BY: George Clooney
STARRING: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett
RATING: 3 stars

When George Clooney gathered a bunch of his mates together to make the Ocean's 11 trilogy, we got a good mix of comedy, drama and thrills. With The Monuments Men, Clooney has again gathered some talented friends to tell an intriguing World War Two true story, but the film is like a watered down version of Ocean's 11. It is not as funny, and even though it deals with a serious issue, it does not even feel like as much is at stake. The Monuments Men is good, but it is not an exceptional film.

Adapted from the book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, The Monuments Men introduces audiences to Frank Stokes (Clooney), an art historian who is begging the US president to send a team to Europe to salvage famous and historic artwork before the Nazis can destroy a large part of Western culture. Stokes is tasked with putting together a team of fellow art experts to steal what has already been stolen. Among his team are museum curator James Granger (Matt Damon), historian Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), art dealer Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and English friend Hugh Bonneville (Donald Jeffries). Granger also finds Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) in France, who helps the team track down the missing art.

This is a great story and it is surprising that it is not more widely known as a part of World War Two history. As Clooney says in the film – and I’m paraphrasing here – you can take away a lot from people and they will eventually regroup, but it is a true devastation to wipe away their history and culture so that it is like they never existed. It is this message that makes the film so poignant. Unfortunately, Clooney, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Grant Heslov, emphasises the moral of the story a little too much so that what was an initially very moving speech soon becomes a repetitive point.

The performances are all solid. Clooney leads the pack and is his charming self. Damon is very funny but a little too much like his Ocean's character. It is great to see Dujardin on screen again. Murray has a particularly memorable shower scene (I never thought I would write that). It is a shame Goodman does not have as much to do in this film but he does impress when he is on screen. Blanchett can do no wrong and she again gives a stand-out performance in this film with a perfect accent and appropriately stiff body language.

The Monuments Men is a little too long and self-indulgent at times, but it looks like everyone had fun making it and it has some great moments. 




Thursday, 6 March 2014

300: Rise of an Empire

WRITTEN BY: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad
DIRECTED BY: Noam Murro
STARRING: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Callan Mulvey, Rodrigo Santoro, Lena Headey
RATING: 2.5 stars

With its gory 3D battle scenes, one thing is for certain - 15-year-old boys are going to love 300: Rise of an Empire. The film is less of a sequel and more of a "meanwhile" tale about what the Greeks were doing while the Spartans were fighting elsewhere. I am not sure it is entirely worth seeing this side story, but the film does do a good job of fitting the events into the timeline. Unfortunately, the dialogue is terrible and the film feels longer than its 100 minutes.

Greek general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) makes an enemy of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) - the god-king who Gerard Butler and the Spartans fought in the original 300 film - when he kills Xerxes' father in a battle. Years later, Xerxes’ navy commander, Artemisia (Eva Green), leads the Persian forces to battle against Themistocles and his men. Themistocles also tries to persuade Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) to involve the Spartans in a united front against the invading Persians.

Stapleton is a talented actor, but he has little to work with in this film, which is a shame. Fellow Aussie, Callan Mulvey, who plays Themistocles' best friend, is also forced to deliver terrible dialogue. He is capable of so much more. Santoro has less to do this time, but learning more about his history is interesting.

The film has been promoted as portraying women as heroines and powerful villains who do not need men to take care of them. Unfortunately, while both Headey and Green's characters are certainly tough women who can hold their own in a fight against men three times their size, they both start as damsels in distress. It is only when Queen Gorgo is mourning the loss of the original 300 that she plucks up the courage to try to seek revenge with her troops. Meanwhile, Artemisia (slight spoiler here) had to be brutally raped for years before being rescued and trained to be a superior soldier and strategist. Then she has sex with one of her male enemies. This is not the inspiring "girl power" I was hoping to see.

But, to all the teenage boys who might be reading this, there are a few boobs on show and coupled with the bloody battles, the film is probably worth you paying to see in 3D.