AICN-Downunder: ALICE IN WONDERLAND, SHUTTER ISLAND, SEPARATION CITY, THE BLIND SIDE and MIC-MACS!
Off with their heads!
Okay, so I wrote then deleted all of my Oscar picks. Despite 2009 being one of my favourite years ever in film -- even after splitting documentary off into its own category, I still felt compelled to expand my usual top ten into a top fifty -- the Oscars there to celebrate that year have left me completely uninspired. Also, my guesses at who will win were ill-informed, and my insistence at who should win were wishy-washy at best. So I hit the delete key to save you all the bother.
One bit I will hang on to: the Best Foreign Language Film category is one of the few I pay close attention to, because it's always a handy guide to which international films I should track down. This year, it included films that left me cold (I did not enjoy A PROPHET, and really did not enjoy THE WHITE RIBBON), so I felt I should do my own category. In Latauro's ideal world, the Best Foreign Language Film category would contain some combination of the following:
Australia's SAMSON AND DELILAH. South Korea's MOTHER. South Korea's THIRST. Romania's SILENT WEDDING. Iran's ABOUT ELLY. Iran and France's THE MAN WHO CAME WITH THE COLD. Chile's THE MAID. Turkey's MOMMO.
I know I've mentioned them before, but given the amount of press that gets devoted to mediocrity, I don't mind repeating my love of those eight films, most of which were eligible for the Oscars but were culled at some stage of the process. Some will be hard to track down, but all are worth your time.
But what of current releases? ALICE IN WONDERLAND, THE BLIND SIDE, SHUTTER ISLAND, SEPARATION CITY, MIC-MACS and THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS are all about to come out in Australia/New Zealand (or, in SHUTTER ISLAND's case, came out last week). Which film is a contender for my 2010 favourites list? Which one is a shoo-in for my worst of the year? Read on...
You may (or may not) have heard about the apology given by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to the child migrants sent over to Australia during the years of colonisation. Many of the children ended up abused and neglected, and many wound up in child labour camps. A new Australian film I hadn't heard of, ORANGE AND SUNSHINE, has jumped on this piece of news, as it ties in perfectly with its subject matter... which is, essentially, exactly what Brown just apologised for! The film stars Emily Watson, David Wenham and Hugo Weaving, is written by Rona Munro, and is the feature debut of director Jim Loach. The movie has just completed filming, and is yet to set a release date.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw the new Sundance-winning Australian film ANIMAL KINGDOM. I'm holding off on my review for a little bit, but it's safe to say that I'm dying for the rest of you to see it so we can all start talking about it! Sadly, it's going to be a while before it hits cinemas. After jumping back a week from a May 6 release to April 29, it now looks like it'll be out on June 3. Part of me is glad that it won't be competing with IRON MAN 2, and with nothing else set to release on that day, it does make sense. Even if the wait will be excruciating. Meanwhile, Sony Pictures Classic has picked up the film for US distribution, though there is no release date yet.
AWARDS, FESTIVALS AND SCREENINGS
Actor/writer/director Abe Forsythe took out this year's Tropfest with his radio shock jock-inspired film SHOCK. Second prize went to the intriguing-sounding MY NEIGHBOURHOOD HAS BEEN OVERRUN BY BABOONS by Cameron Edser and Michael Richards, and third prize to LAST ROLL OF THE DICE by Matthew Chuang. Once again, those eponymous Other Commitments prevented me from attending, so I'm looking forward to seeing these shorts soon!
60th Berlin International Film Festival
New Zealand had a great showing in Berlin this past week. BOY picked up the Best Feature Award in the Generation K-Plus category. Meanwhile, THE SIX DOLLAR FIFTY MAN won a special mention in the shorts category, and documentary THIS WAY OF LIFE also received a special mention.
I sometimes confused Jessica Biel, Jessica Alba and Jennifer Garner. Having them all in the same film isn't helping with this. Having VALENTINE'S DAY hit number one in both Australia and New Zealand doesn't help my opinion of humanity, either.
1. VALENTINE'S DAY
2. SHUTTER ISLAND
4. PERCY JACKSON AND THE LIGHTNING THIEF
5. THE WOLFMAN
1. VALENTINE'S DAY
3. SHUTTER ISLAND
4. PERCY JACKSON AND THE LIGHTNING THIEF
5. IT'S COMPLICATED
RELEASED THIS PAST FORTNIGHT
Another Hitler parody gets a cinema release, Skeet Ulrich comes back with a bang, Denzel Washington walks THE ROAD, Sandra Bullock appears in a brilliant parody of bad Oscar-baiting films, Bridges rules, John Travolta sends Quentin Tarantino another cry for help, Bigelow's best film to date finally gets a cinema release, this is the best title for a romantic comedy ever, why are we not getting this intriguing-looking Norse film in Australia?, New York sees the sequel to PARIS JE T'AIME and the prequel to BRISBANE REACHAROUND, Nazis scale a mountain, Marty still got it, Mr D'Arcy falls for Ozymandias, and Pixar retcons into the third dimension.
THE BOOK OF ELI (NZ)
THE BLIND SIDE
FROM PARIS WITH LOVE (AUS/NZ)
THE HURT LOCKER
LOVE HAPPENS (AUS)
MAX MANUS: MAN OF WAR (NZ)
NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU (NZ)
NORTH FACE (AUS)
A SINGLE MAN
TOY STORY 1 & 2 (3D) (NZ)
Australian/New Zealand release: February 18
Is Martin Scorsese the most consistently great filmmaker of all time? Perusing a few other filmographies of great directors, I see slumps that don't appear on Marty's record. Every decade has seen him produce some of his best films, and when your minor works include films like BRINGING OUT THE DEAD and GANGS OF NEW YORK, then you're clearly several steps ahead of everyone else.
That Scorsese is one of the greats is hardly a new revelation, but it's one that's worth underlining. Greatness is too often considered a bygone quality, and so it's wonderfully sobering to discover you're watching it as it happens.
SHUTTER ISLAND is directed with every ounce of energy that you would come to expect from the man who had just given us the visceral gut-punches of THE DEPARTED and SHINE A LIGHT. This film actually feels like Scorsese's SHOCK CORRIDOR, although in theme rather than tone. As a fan of CAPE FEAR, I'm glad to see him return to genre filmmaking, because the shocks and revelations inherent in films that suggest an element of supernatural (whether they contain it or not) are handled so damn well. There seems to be a shorthand for "scary moments", but filtered through Scorsese's eye, what might have felt repetitive now feels fresh.
DiCaprio is spot-on as the US Marshall Teddy Daniels, and Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas and Max von Sidow all deliver the way you expect them to. However, the stars of the show, as usual, are cinematographer Robert Richardson, production designer Dante Ferretti, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. It will never cease to amaze me how Schoonmaker, at age seventy, has more vivacity and verve than editors half her age. It's rare that you notice the editing (tradition suggests that if you notice it, it's bad editing -- Schoonmaker is the exception to this rule), and even rarer that noticing the editing does not, in fact, pull you out of the film. She is as much a wizard as Scorsese, and is arguably his most invaluable collaborator.
But there's something that keeps this film from greatness, and it's the script. It's no secret that SHUTTER ISLAND is a mystery; having not read a single review or synopsis of the film, that fact was the only thing I knew about the film going in. And I worked out the ending within fifteen minutes. Not just one element of the ending, but the whole thing, the whos and whys. I'm not saying this to show off, but rather to illustrate how overtly the script telegraphs. Not everyone will pick it so early, of course, but if I can figure it out before the first act is over, then not enough obfuscating has taken place. Admittedly, this is a very subjective criticism, but then all criticism is inherently subjective (otherwise, there'd be near-critical consensus on every single movie). I spent two hours waiting for the film to unravel itself the way I knew it would, and somehow managed to find the film simultaneously brilliant and tedious. To its credit, the script immediately tops its revelation scene with an understated coda that bring the film back up.
It's a difficult thing to lower expectations, particularly when you're seeing a Martin Scorsese film. I went in hoping for a DEPARTED, and got an AVIATOR instead. Which is the same as hoping for greatness and, instead, getting pretty-damn-close-to-greatness. And I'd be a fool if I wasn't happy with that.
Australian release: March 4 // New Zealand release: August 6 (2009)
When SEPARATION CITY starts with a bang, it's hard not to love it. We see Simon (Joel Edgerton) on his wedding day, as his narration tells us who he is and how he feels. Then we jump to Berlin where Katrien (Rhona Mitra) is eloping with Klaus (Thomas Kretschmann), an artist her mother does not in any way approve of. They're about to move to New Zealand, and suddenly it's ten years later and Simon is sitting in a concert hall watching Katrien play the cello as the orchestra performs Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on a Theme". He can't take his eyes off her, and the camera sweeps around the concert hall as the music swells...
...and it's a hell of an opening. That "Fantasia on a Theme" is one of my favourite pieces of music certainly didn't hurt, and the first five made me sit up in my seat the way no other film in 2010 had yet managed to do. (It's worth pointing out that I saw this before SHUTTER ISLAND.)
Sadly, the momentum does not continue. Although the film is filled with some pretty terrific performances and good direction, some strange narrative choices make it a didactic, uneven story that never quite knows what it wants to be. The first big problem is the narration. I can certainly see the appeal of dueling voice overs, and when it works, it really works. The problem is it only really works in three instances. The rest of the time, the narration simply repeats what it is we're seen on screen, as if someone in the row behind you is explaining the scene to their partner just back from the candy bar. I have no Robert McKee-style hangup with narration in general, but it only works when it's a counterpoint to the action on screen. Simply repeating what we've just seen can be really irritating, especially after 105 minutes.
Beyond the narration, the film is laden with far too many romcom cliches. The idea of the exceedingly hot girl wanting a shy guy is pure romcom fantasy porn, and it's a cliche that's not helped when Rhona Mitra's Katrien actually says she wants a shy guy at least once. Out loud. We're also given the Wacky Best Friend character; as great as Les Hill is in this role, he's got an uphill battle pushing against the weight of the stereotype. He even gets a "See, there's two types of sex..." theory speech, which is supposed to be subversive and shocking, as it's accompanied by the exclamation "You're a sick fuck!". Given the theory itself is actually quite tame and the "sick fuck" line comes from an enormous firefighter who openly admits to beating his wife, you can't help but feel that the speech and the response it incurs are included because This Sort Of Scene Happens In This Sort Of Film.
Half the jokes in the film work really well. The other half feel like they were cribbed from old Catskills routines, and are jarringly out-of-place in the mouths of New Zealanders. As is, for that matter, Rhona Mitra. (She is quite good, by the way. She should be in more things.)
The first half of the film is a romantic comedy. It then jumps into farce before ending on flat-out drama. I totally support the idea of jumping from tone to tone, from genre to genre, if you can make it work. If you can't, it ends up being jarring and does the film more harm than good. SEPARATION CITY is not a bad film. Most of the time, it's quite good, but the elements that aren't are so toweringly obvious that they seem to overwhelm the good stuff.
THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS
Australian release: March 4 // New Zealand release: March 11
It's hard not to love the dream team of George Clooney, Ewan MacGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. Four serious actors who do silly? All in a film together? Sold.
The first half of THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS suggests that this film will live up to its expectations. Based on the US Army's experiments in developing psychic powers (which I'd heard of long before this film went into production), TMWSAG goes the only place you can go with a concept like that: all-out comedy.
For a while, it works. MacGregor's self-pitying reporter and Clooney's insane super-soldier make for a great pairing, and I would not be sorry to see the actors pair up again in the future. It all falls apart, however, when the film suddenly realises it doesn't know where it's going. For the first forty-five minutes, lots of backstory flashbacks and a mysterious roadtrip in the Middle East are fine, but the screenplay becomes aware that it has no forward momentum at the exact same time MacGregor questions Clooney's mission, or lack of mission. I love writer/director Grant Heslov's work on GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK and "Unscripted", and he has some great moments here, but you can actually see the moment on screen when the whole exercise just deflates. Having your lead character point it out was probably not a great idea, either.
You get the feeling that the film was written in one long stream-of-consciousness. At the moment the film falls apart, it's as if Heslov kept typing, hoping to overtake the film and introduce a compelling story before he ran out of pages. The resolution is notable in its limpness, and although no bad will is fostered, there is a sense of disappointment.
Still, there are enough laughs in the film and enough great performances that it's worth recommending. Just not in the cinemas. Definitely wait for video or cable.
THE BLIND SIDE
Australian release: February 25 // New Zealand release: TBA
Sandra Bullock is often considered, perhaps unfairly, the backup Julia Roberts. I qualify with "perhaps" because I liked her in SPEED and MURDER BY NUMBERS and... er, FORCES OF NATURE. Glancing at her filmography, she seems to favour appearing in films I really don't like, but I have no actual problem with her performances. Mostly.
Still, the Julia Roberts comparison is pertinent. Roberts won her Oscar for ERIN BROCKOVICH, a film frequently referred to as a Movie of the Week by people who don't really know what they're talking about. BROCKOVICH may have told a story often favoured by TV producers, but the writing, score, direction and performances elevated it well above what would normally relegate it to a midday weekday. Similarly, THE BLIND SIDE appears to be one of those Movies of the Week, featuring a fairly simplistic, straightforward story about how nice white rich Christians can be. Unlike BROCKOVICH, however, THE BLIND SIDE is very poorly made and does indeed deserve the derisive TV movie putdown.
Where to begin? With the obvious, plodding script that doesn't quite understand narrative momentum or dramatic tension? With the flat, uninspired direction? With the acting? Well, the acting isn't all that bad. The characters are pretty uninteresting, and the actors don't have a whole lot to do with them.
How about with the line "Is this some white guilt thing?" When Sandra Bullock's white rich Christian friend challenges her on why she's opening up her house to a large black teenager, it is presumably there to deflect the audience's same criticism of the film. It doesn't work. It's a deeply patronising film, only one step removed from giving its black "protagonist" magic powers. ("Protagonist" was in talking marks because the film would like you to believe it's about him, but we learn practically nothing about him over the course of it.)
What's most surprising is what a pro-Christian, pro-gun, pro-Republican film this is. Whilst I don't have any problem with the characters being thus-way inclined, the film itself takes a surprising and clumsy subjective stance, undermining itself as an artistic work and veering closer to propaganda. It feels so delicate in its treatment of any characters who are meant to be "good", that all flaws are endearing and easily-dismissed. I nearly expected Kirk Cameron and Stephen Baldwin to turn up with Evolution-busting bananas.
Attempts to tug at the heartstring are overt, signposted, and as subtle as Sandra Bullock's weepy Oscar speech will inevitably be. It's seriously B-grade stuff, and the attention the film is getting from people who should really know better suggests that white guilt is more powerful than the ability to critically evaluate a piece of work. Shoddy, lazy, and laughably poor stuff. It'll make millions.
Australian release: April 1 // New Zealand release: TBA
I'm going into this review fully aware that most people will not love MIC-MACS nearly as much as I. From what I've gathered, there are problems and flaws that will bother many Jeunet fans, let alone those who remain un-enamoured by AMELIA and A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT (it is tonally closer to those films than his work with Marc Caro), but I still loved it. Without reservation.
Jeunet has launched himself head-first into a style that's so specific, his recent filmography looks like a sub-genre unto itself. In the same way you can tell a Woody Allen film a mile off, or a Hitchcock film, Jeunet has firmly locked in a style with MICMACS. As with AMELIE and AVLE, back stories are told with quirk and style; whether that quirk will be grating or not will depend largely on what you think of his last two films. Elaborate plans are put in place, impossibly elaborate in most cases, and the joy comes from watching them unravel. I'd love to see Jeunet make an OCEAN'S 11-style heist film, but he's sort-of already done it here.
The plot? Does it matter? It's about a guy trying to get justice, and deputising a whole lot of interesting characters to help him do so. The film has a pretty interesting take on the classic revenge story, too. Imagine if in, say, GET CARTER, Michael Caine had not gone after his brother's killers, but had instead tracked down the manufacturers of the car they'd stuck him in. That's pretty much the idea behind MICMACS, and even if the film hadn't been laugh-out-loud funny and unwaveringly compelling, I'd have still given it lots of points for this fact alone.
There's also a lot to dig into, if you're academically inclined. I have a theory about what it is we're actually watching, but to say it here before many of you have the chance to watch the film would be to spoil it. But it is the sort of film that inspires discussion and thought, which is surprising given how much damn fun it is. The person I sat with at the screening was not a fan of AMELIE, and (as I suspected), MICMACS did not win her over. If you are, however, a fan of Jeunet's current style, MICMACS is a must-see.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND
Australian/New Zealand release: March 4
I can almost assure you that at least some point during this review, maybe at the end, maybe in the middle, you're going to think to yourself "Well, it can't be that bad." I know, because had I travelled back in time and told myself how bad ALICE IN WONDERLAND actually is, I would have looked at the trailers and publicity material and cast and said, "Look, I'm no Tim Burton fan, but I'm not sure it can possibly be as bad as you're making out." Then I will shoot my earlier self, because time/space paradoxes with the potential to destroy the universe are actually more enjoyable and cohesive than this, the worst ever adaptation of ALICE IN WONDERLAND.
Okay, playful hyperbole aside now. I've established ALICE IN WONDERLAND is bad. Let's look at why.
I only found out a few weeks ago that Burton's ALICE is not the original ALICE story, but a sequel. And it seems to be a sequel to THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS as well. Believe it or not, I actually thought this sequel idea was a brilliant one. We've had countless ALICE IN WONDERLAND films, from the brilliant Disney version (my favourite of the Classic Disney period) to Jan Svankmajer's beautifully bizarre Czech stop motion version. I even enjoy the not-great versions, including the Tina Majorino version in 1999. But having seen the same story so many times over, I was more than ready to see something new.
The promise of something new countered the feeling that Tim Burton has entered the Tim Burton Homage period of his career. Why do all of his films these days look like he's ticking off films that he thinks would please his fanbase? How much money do you want to place on him helming a new "dark" version of WIZARD OF OZ, with Johnny Depp as the Scarecrow and Helena Bonham-Carter as the Wicked Witch? Is he going to follow that up with an attempt at a HOOK remake? Add to this his increasing reliance on CGI (a reliance that has reached terminal velocity in ALICE) and you see a filmmaker slowly turning into a parody of himself. And, bare in mind, I quite liked his version of SWEENY TODD, so I'm not completely turned off the guy. But the self-defeating self-awareness that began with SLEEPY HOLLOW has only become more of an albatross with every passing film.
The film's problem lies with its script. I don't know whether to blame screenwriter Linda Woolverton or faceless studio execs or Tim Burton's well-intentioned desire to tell a different story, but the fact is the script does not work. At all. It feels like fan-fic from a student who has just started a writing course but nothing has properly sunk in. If you imagine a teenaged girl or boy jumping up and down in their bedroom yelling "OMG! What if, like, the Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat were friends and hung out?!? And, like, the White Rabbit could hang out with Tweedledum and Tweedledee. And they ask the Blue Caterpillar for advice. And then everybody hangs out!", then the film actually make a whole lot more sense. And then imagine them watching the NARNIA films and writing the rest of the film with one eye idling on the TV screen.
The lack of narrative throughline lies in the fact that Alice is a complete non-event as a character. She has various characteristics in given scenes, but none of them really carry through. Apparently, she's the only one who can possibly defeat the Jabberwocky (for reasons that are not given), and then suddenly she's grappling with this responsibility as if it's key to her character arc.
What is her arc, exactly? When the film starts, she's a free spirit challenging the ideals of a stuffy, oppressive aristocracy. Then she runs around a lot claiming she's really just dream. Then she runs around again trying to rescue her friends. Her encounters with the Blue Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, and the Mad Hatter do nothing to alter her ideals or view of the world the way they did in the book. They're just kooky excuses for an enlarged special effects budget. Then, there's the grappling with some big responsibility that doesn't represent anything. Then, in the closing moments, she's suddenly doing something that's meant to signify she's come full circle, even though the final real world scenes seem to have been written by someone who has not read the first hundred pages of the screenplay.
If Burton wanted to get away from the original's sense of disconnectedness, he failed completely. And totally missed the point of the book. He is a designer more than a storyteller, and this is more clear here than it was in his previous All-Time Disaster, PLANET OF THE APES. Yes, I am saying ALICE is arguably worse (although it's close enough for me to recant upon later reflection). The award for Most Misguided Fourth Wall-Shattering Dance Scene may well be wrestled from SPIDER-MAN 3's sweaty hands. The award for Pointless Mo-Capping is a lock. Seriously, can someone explain why Crispin Glover is a CGI character? Did they find themselves with a couple of million dollars in the budget and didn't know what to do with it? Glover's Knave of Hearts is the perfect example of the film's excess and thoughtlessness.
I've written quite a lot so far, but I feel I've only begun to scratch the surface on what went wrong. Look, it's filled with actors I adore, and despite my problems with Burton's last ten years of work, I'm still always rooting for him. I wanted this film to be good. I'm all for reinventing the wheel, and I have little problem with messing with the classics, but you should only do so if you have a better idea! ALICE IN WONDERLAND is such a disaster, I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry at the end. And not in the way the filmmakers might have wanted.
- Morgan Freeman and Morgan Fairchild to star in DID YOU HEAR ABOUT SARAH JESSICA PARKER AND HUGH GRANT?
- James Cameron suggests DiCaprio may play a time-travelling Howard Hughes who finds himself on Pandora in sequel THE AVIATAR
- The new CONAN movie is cancelled to make way for a bland script entitled LENO