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The Hobbit

23 Jul

hobbit Peter Jackson welcomes us back to Middle Earth, this time bringing to life J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s fantasy novel, The Hobbit. Set against sweeping natural vistas, The Hobbit is a classic adventure tale that unfortunately suffers from being split into three parts.

However this lengthy first instalment still bristles with cracking fight scenes and death-defying escapes as Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) joins Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a band of rowdy dwarves on a quest to rescue a lost dwarf kingdom from a marauding dragon.

British actor Freeman (The Office) is an intriguing choice as the young Bilbo, but he imparts an endearing sense of bemusement to the fish-out-of-water role – such as when he embarks on the adventure with his heavily armed comrades and panics when he realises he has forgotten his pocket handkerchief.

hobbit_pic Considerable effort has gone into endowing the 13 dwarves with distinguishing features – a room full of squat, hairy, beer-quaffing men have a tendency to blend together. The more memorable characters are the rotund Bombur (Stephen Hunter), quirky Bofur (James Nesbitt) and the devastatingly handsome leader Thorin, (Richard Armitage), who exudes a smouldering sexuality (pictured) that I don’t recall from the book.

Some old favourites from LOTR make a reappearance; Cate Blanchett shimmers as statuesque elf queen Galadriel, Hugo Weaving maintains a haughty grandeur as elf lord Elrond, and veteran bad-guy Christopher Lee makes a sinister cameo as the wizard Saruman. Gollum (Andy Serkis) features in one of the film’s best scenes when Bilbo stumbles across a mysterious ring in a cave and is forced into a deadly game of riddles with the twisted creature to survive.

The jolly tone of Tolkien’s original work is evoked in scenes of the dwarves carousing and a close encounter with the grotesque Great Goblin, played by Barry Humphries. However, the terrifying Orcs astride hyena-like Wargs may frighten younger children, so the M rating is well warranted.

While the cracking pace is often weighed down by lengthy dialogue, the charm of the original story shines through, mostly due to the wonderful set design,  the obsessive attention to detail that characterised The Lord of the Rings, and the talented Freeman and McKellen in the lead roles.

2012, M, 169 mins, MGM

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Holy Motors

23 Jul

holymotors Defying genre, convention and sometimes belief, French experiment Holy Motors takes us on a wild and cheeky romp through film history.

Leos Carax’s first feature film since 1999’s Pola X, Holy Motors follows the mysterious Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), a chameleon character who flits from scene to scene in a series of roles, from a well-heeled banker to a filthy itinerant, a concerned father and a trained assassin. Travelling between “appointments” in a black limousine – driven by Edith Scob, star of 1960 French horror Eyes Without a Face – Oscar uses the limo as his change room to switch costumes and slap on elaborate cosmetics and wigs.

Oscar’s exploits take him from the bizarre to the comical – the scene in which he plays lunatic tramp Monsieur Merde, chomping on flowers and kidnapping a supermodel (Eva Mendes), is both hilarious and grotesque.

holymotors_pic

Pop princess Kylie Minogue makes a cameo as Oscar’s former lover, in a scene where she breaks into song with full orchestral backing. Slyly self-referential, her appearance is flagged in a previous scene when we hear her pop hit Can’t Get You Out of My Head.

Casting aside traditional narrative and exposition, Carax aligns the cinematic experience with the surreal landscape of dreams, exploring the death and rebirth of cinema while referencing avant-garde filmmakers such as Jean Cocteau, French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard and surrealist David Lynch, as well as his own films.

Startlingly original, yet steeped in film history, Holy Motors is a unique and bewildering experience that, like Minogue’s pop tunes, will be hard to get out of your head.

MA, 2012, Icon, 116 minutes

Friends with Kids

23 Jul

friendswithkids It’s hard to deny that friendships change when people get  married and have kids. Late-night carousing gives way to late-night nappy changes, tempers fray, relationships break down and there is little time for socialising. There is plenty of comedy gold to be mined from this premise, but writer-director Jennifer Westfeldt’s offering fails to sparkle.

Watching their friends Leslie and Alex (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd) and Missy and Ben (Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm) descend into marriage hell, fun-loving besties Jason and Julie (Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt, pictured) decide to avoid the angst and stay single. However Julie’s biological clock is calling for a kid of her own, but she’s worried she won’t find Mr Right in time.

friendswithkids_picJason offers to help and the two plan to enjoy the best of both worlds by having a baby together, while remaining friends and dating other people. The pregnancy and birth go to plan and as the two take turns with babysitting duties, Julie meets perfect husband material Kurt (Edward Burns) while Jason launches a steamy romance with sexy Mary Jane (Megan Fox). Everything seems to be rosy, but this is Hollywood, and a looming plot twist threatens their cosy arrangement.

Written and directed by Westfeldt, who penned 2001’s Kissing Jessica Stein, the biggest problem with this movie is that the fabulous cast is weighed down by the miserable script. The hilarious Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), is unable to elicit laughs in her role as a depressed wife who hates her husband, played by Mad Men‘s gorgeous Jon Hamm, who himself is thoroughly unlikeable as a cranky alcoholic. Comedian Chris O’Dowd (The Sapphires), who revealed a romantic side in Bridesmaids, fails to charm as the lazy, slobbish husband of Leslie (Maya Rudolph), a stressed mum who is pertually screaming at her other half.

While the film’s assumption that kids will ruin your life is offensively simplistic, the hardest part to swallow (aside from the romance between Megan Fox and dorky Adam Scott) is that any grown-up person could believe that having a kid with your best friend while dating other people is a good idea.

2011, 107 mins, MA15+

Brave

23 Jul

brave“Brave” is an excellent word to describe the decision by Pixar studios to set this gripping fantasy adventure in Scotland, complete with broad Scottish accents. Kelly Macdonald (Boardwalk Empire) voices impetuous young princess Merida, who scorns the kingdom’s tradition of marrying a lord’s son and yearns to choose her own freedom. However her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), demands she comply with the time-honoured rituals to maintain the balance of the kingdom.

Desperate to escape marriage to one of the three very undesirable kilt-clad young lordlings on offer, Merida seeks help from a witch (Julie Walters), who lands Merida in hot water by granting her wish. Meanwhile, Merida’s brawny father King Fergus (Billy Connolly) busy keeping the peace between the kingdom’s brawling lords, while keeping a paranoid eye out for the terrifying bear who roams the country and once bit off his leg. With its trademark Pixar sense of humour, this blends old-fashioned storytelling and fresh twists, and is one of the more original animations to emerge in recent years.

brave_pic1A further brave choice is placing a girl in the lead role and imbuing her with the feisty courage and deadly archery skills more reminiscent of The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen than any simpering Disney princess. Brave’s male characters are hugely entertaining but very flawed, and the movie’s chief strength is derived from Merida and her mother Elinor, and their complex relationship.

The animation is spectacular – the Brave kingdom skilfully straddles realism and fantasy, from the sumptuous landscapes to the glowing blue will-o’-the-wisps that lead Merida to adventure. Merida’s gorgeous flame-red locks are almost a character in their own right – Pixar created a new simulator to create the marvellous depth and movement of the 1500 tumbling fiery strands that shine against the rugged countryside.

A cast of skilful voice actors including The Late Late Show‘s Craig Ferguson and Robbie Coltrane keep the tone lively, and while some of the scary scenes may alarm smaller children, this is a clever reimagining of old-fashioned storytelling that will delight both boys and girls.

PG, 100 mins, Disney/Pixar

The Sapphires

23 Jul

sapphires

The year is 1968, the dresses are sparkly and the hair bouffant. Inspired by a true story, this film follows four indigenous women: sisters Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Gail (Deborah Mailman) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), who with half-Irish cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) are plucked from the outback by talent scout (Chris O’Dowd) and sent to entertain the troops in Vietnam. It’s the trip of a lifetime, but along the way they are confronted with issues such as racism, the legacy of the Stolen Generation and the horrors of war. Director Wayne Blair, however, ensures that the grittier themes are touched on only lightly as we kick on to the next upbeat tune or romantic plot point.

Mauboy dazzles as passionate frontwoman Julie, belting out soul hits with feeling as the girls perform on stage for raucous army audiences. Newcomers Sebbens and Tapsell enliven the screen with their humour and sass, while Irish funnyman O’Dowd (The IT Crowd) meets his match in a bristling Mailman as protective older sister Gail.

sapphires_pic2While the sentimental writing occasionally hits a bum note, the sheer exuberance of the cast keeps things humming, while the spine-tingling soundtrack, including hits such as What a Man and I Heard it on the Grapevine, suits the girls’ voices perfectly.

Australian films of late seem to have rejected the ocker comedies such as Crocodile Dundee and Muriel’s Wedding, plumbing darker territory such as Snowtown’s grim bodies-in-the-barrels murders, Beautiful Kate’s incest theme, and Samson and Delilah, which while hauntingly beautiful, starkly drove home the plight of petrol sniffers. While these films have a lot to recommend them, it’s occasionally a relief to watch an Australian film that celebrates life. Filled with laugh-out-loud moments, standout scenes include the high-energy concert performances and the humorous montage as O’Dowd tries to transform the girls from awkward country singers into sultry soul stars. This feelgood film is sure to endure as a classic with wide appeal.

2012, 103 mins, PG, Hopscotch Films

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

23 Jul

sherlock Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous literary detective is yanked out of his armchair in Baker Street for a second action-packed adventure by director Guy Ritchie. This time around, sidekick Dr Watson (Jude Law) is about to wed fiancee Mary (Kelly Reilly), and Holmes is despondent over the impending break-up of their sleuthing partnership.

However there is no time to dwell on this, as Holmes suspects that his evil nemesis, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), has masterminded a spate of crimes around Europe. When Moriarty targets Watson as his next victim, Holmes hijacks the newlyweds’ honeymoon and drags Watson away to help him solve an international intrigue.

sherlock_picThe duo’s escapades take them to exotic locations in Paris, Germany and Switzerland, as they enlist the help of mysterious gypsy Simza (Noomi Rapace, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Simza’s missing brother Rene is embroiled in Moriarty’s scheme, and the detectives discover that their foe is plotting to spark a war.

Sherlock traditionalists may complain that the thoughtful deduction of the books has given way to dramatic action sequences and plenty of banter, but there is plenty of joy to be had in Guy Ritchie’s super slo-mo fight scenes. The repartee between Holmes and Watson is the other enjoyable part of Ritchie’s film, and the demure, moustachioed Law is the perfect match for Downey’s eccentric Holmes.

The gorgeous Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler departs the proceedings early on, but Stephen Fry adds a welcome touch of British humour as Holmes’ pompous brother Mycroft, especially in one scene when he walks around completely nude, to the discomfort of Watson’s wife, Mary. Meanwhile, Mary, who dared to disrupt Holmes’ happiness by marrying his sidekick, is literally knocked out of the film by Holmes in a particularly hilarious cross-dressing scene on a steam train.

With plenty of slapstick humour, a rip-roaring pace and lush Victorian atmosphere, it may not be the deerstalker-and-pipe Holmes of yore, but it makes for a delicious romp.

M, 2012, 129 mins, Warner Bros

Pirates of the Caribbean – On Stranger Tides

22 Jul

pirates_stranger The fourth chapter of this swashbuckling franchise opens with cannon blazing as the protagonists set sail for the Fountain of Youth.  

While the story is loosely based on a 1987 historical fantasy novel by Tim Powers, like its predecessors, the plot takes a back seat to Johnny Depp’s strutting eccentricity, tropical backdrops and comically choreographed swordfighting scenes. Jack Sparrow (Depp) is ordered by King George (Richard Griffiths) to guide a ship helmed by Jack’s old enemy, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to seize the Fountain of Youth before their archrivals, the Spanish. Jack dexterously escapes his duties, but winds up kidnapped by jilted ex-lover Angelica (Penelope Cruz), daughter of Captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane) who forces Jack on board Blackbeard’s supernaturally evil vessel, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, to help them find the fountain.

The competing parties discover that their quest is not that simple – first they have to find two silver chalices on a dead Spanish explorer’s ship, get hold of a mermaid and extract a tear from her, so that when both chalices are filled with magic fountain water, the person who drinks the chalice containing a mermaid’s tear will obtain the life of the other drinker. Complicated, yes, but it does give us an excuse to go mermaid hunting, in a frankly hilarious scene in which the siren-like temptresses (led by Australian Gemma Ward) lure the sailors into a lovesick trance, before erupting in a frenzied cross between sharks and supermodels. When a beautiful, less homicidal mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) is netted, it is a race to the finish line amid a whole lot of swordplay, double-crossing and pauses for pirate puns.

As always, Johnny Depp oozes charisma, and the feisty Penelope Cruz is a welcome replacement for the aloof former Pirates heroine Keira Knightley, and the chemistry and badinage with Jack is far more convincing and fun to watch. Pirates regular Orlando Bloom is also absent, but the presence of superbly sardonic McShane (Deadwood) more than fills the void. Directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago), this adventure romp is as thrilling and frothy as the theme park ride that inspired the series.

M, 2011, Disney, 136 mins