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Screened FRebruary 23 for Australian Media.

There's no reason for me to expect I was going to like Watchmen. I knew the cast was interesting - Patrick Wilson has made smart film choices that don't rely on or intentionally subvert his good looks (Hard Candy, Little Children); Jackie Earle Haley was icky in Little Children (and I'm old enough to remember him from Breaking Away); Malin Akerman is cute but 28 Dresses and The Heartbreak Kid do not a superhero make; Jeffery Dean Morgan, Matthew Goode - ??? And director Zack Snyder did cool things with zombies in Dawn Of The Dead and made a wild and wacky movie in 300, which totally indicated his third film was probably going to be worth a look, know, whatever...

So they all signed up for Watchmen - based on a comic bo...sorry, graphic novel...that I'd never read and that was coming to theatres less than a year after Ironman and The Dark Knight had redefined how good superhero movies could (and should, from here on in) aspire to be.

That Watchmen has turned out to be the most complex, exhilarating and deeply-moving fantasy film since Terry Gilliam's Brazil surprises nobody on Earth more than me - and, man, did it surprise.

In equal measure, it is a) an inspired vision of an alternate world that echoes but redefines our own existence; b) a subversive yet bracingly humanistic exploration of the role of the superhero in modern literature, c) a supremely adult take on the fetishistic pull of the heightened existence that life as a saviour of society creates, and d) a wildly exciting adventure story that turns normal people into exaggerated victims of their own creation and then back into mere humans.

An exploration of the plot would reveal more vast themes, but at this early stage of its release I don't want to risk lessening the experience for anyone.

I can reveal this - Billy Crudup as Dr Manhattan and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach create characters every bit as captivating (and deserving of Oscar recognition) as Heath Ledger's Joker; Malin Akerman makes an entrance to the world of superhero timelessness that will be the fantasy of every teenage boy, aged 15 to 50; and from the flawless art direction, set design and special effects to a mesmerising soundtrack, Watchmen is a film that revels in the perfection of minor details.

Be warned - those expecting Spiderman-like teen-angst or Fantastic Four-like silliness will be stunned, perhaps not quite sure of what they have found. Watchmen is an extraordinarily mature, risky project for Hollywood to role the dice on, especially given similarly-complex explorations of social collapse and vigilantism (V For Vendetta, most specifically) have failed to do blockbuster numbers.

But Watchmen is something special and deserving of analysis and discussion. As bold an attempt at commercial film-making as I can remember, Watchmen is an undeniably unique movie experience - rich, perverse, violent and resonant.

Le Concile de Pierre

Wicker Mon
The Stone Council (as it was titled here in Oz) adds further weight to the theory that, though French filmmakers love tearing American film culture a new one at the drop of a hat, they can't help stealing the Yanks penchant for a loopy, spooky premise should the urge take them.

This Monica Bellucci starrer bottles the winsome beauty and captivating on screen presence of the Italian glamour as well as any movie I've seen her in. And as the frantic mother trying to find and rescue her kidnapped son from the clutches of an increasingly menacing (and kinda silly) secret society, her performance commits to all the emotional tics and B-movie nuances this type of potboiler demands. All credit to her for keeping the emotional core of her character strong as the plot becomes wildly unwieldy.

Shot beautifully with an eye for detail rarely seen in this type of supernatural hooey, the composition of the frame - from its moody lighting to the shadowy, vast set design - provides the film a further grounding in reality and certainly allayed a mounting sense that the film, despite all its fine elements, was asking of its audience a little too much leeway plotwise.

With a central characters journey into a bizarre, ritualized society reminiscent of the cult favourite The Wicker Man, and a wildly fantastical but eerily engrossing story that would have served it well as an episode of Le x-Files, The Stone Council is an above-average white-knuckler thats well worth a look.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Forrest Button
Haven't we all been drooling for Old Man Brad for what seems like ages now? And who can blame us....

The allure of the combined writing talents of Eric Roth and Robin Swicord - the first-time-coupling of two power-broker talents with films like The Good Shepherd, Munich, Memoirs Of A Geisha and Little Women to their individual credits; the third collaboration between star Brad Pitt and director David Fincher (remember Se7en? How about Fight Club? Ask any male born after 1985 about those films influence...); Pitt and Cate Blanchett together again after Babel; Tilda Swinton's third in a row after Michael Clayton and Burn After Reading; the best trailer of the year.

Just how much did the Brad Pitt vehicle "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" intrigue me? I saw it three days ago at an Australian screening and it's just about to click over 2.00am the following Monday. There's lots to mull over....

That's the good news.

The downside is that after 165 minutes of film and 72 hours of contemplation, I've time-travel led. Its not the much-anticipated peek at "...Benjaman Button", December 2008 that I'm reliving; it's 1994 and I'm at the Greater Union Parramatta cinema for an 11.00am session in mid-1994, and I've just watched "Forrest Gump".

As much as I want to (and I desperately want to, though my respect for the 'spoiler warning' dictates), I am not going to repeat the 90 minute conversation that consumed the drive home from the screening. Over that 90 minutes, my partner and I indulged in "Forrest Button" - a sometimes hilarious, sometimes sarcastic yet, ultimately, blindingly-obvious game that involved matching the plot/characters/themes/minutiae of the Tom Hanks Oscar-winner from 18 years ago with one of the five the most-anticipated films of this year.

And it's long. Throat-tighteningly; bum-numbingly; shoulder-stiffeningly long.

At this point, I can't stress enough that the "Forrest / Button" comparisons are not all negative. Like the film that bumped Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption and Quiz Show at the '95 Oscars (not to mention the un-nominated Ed Wood, The Madness Of King George and Three Colours:Blue - jeez, who was in charge there...?), The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button has much to recommend and admire. It's a shoo-in for major nominations at most award ceremonies for technical achievements like cinematography, special effects, set and costume design. No complaints in any of those departments - it is an exquisite, beautifully, even lovingly-rendered visual journey.

But the tragi-whimsical story that the lead character must endure - that is, aging from a newborn old man to a mentally-dwindling, decrepit baby - offers a premise of far more promise than it ever fully delivers.

And its long. Drink-replenishlingly; babysitter-communicatingly; parking fee-multiplyingly long.

Variety's editor-in-chief Peter Bart wrote a recent piece commending that, in a time of fiscal barrenness in an industry financed by corporate stakeholders, its admirable to see idiosyncratic yet wildly expensive films like Baz Luhrmann's Australia and Fincher's ...Benjamin Button get the support of assorted CEO's, CFO's and COO's.

But despite at first appearing edgy and fresh, both films are knock-offs. At least I respect Luhrmann for acknowledging his influences on screen - Wizard Of Oz, Gone With The Wind, The African Queen and God knows what else.

But ...Benjamin Button is a con. Seen it all before....

I'll return to this post in more detail, after more have seen the film and the discussion want spoil anyones potential enjoyment.

But be warned. The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is like a box of chocolates - beautifully packaged, but a mixture of flavours that wont please everyone, nearly impossible to finish in one sitting and full of fat.


Beneath the surface of this film lies a better one...
Despite featuring an all-stops out performance from Angelina Jolie and the sure hand of director Clint Eastwood, the handsomely-produced Changeling is a frustratingly-uninvolving melodrama, burdened by criss-crossing story strands that keeps the audiences heart at arms length.

At different junctures, director Eastwood wants to a) engage us with the plight of his central character, a mother distraught at the disappearance of her only child and determined to find the truth behind his abduction; b) infuriate us with the intricacies and devious motivations of a corrupt L.A. police force; c) shock and indulge us with a graphic, disturbing trip inside the mind and world of a psychopath, and; d) intrigue us with the machinations of an open-ended kidnapping investigation.

Kudos for your bold intentions, Mr. Eastwood, but there is just to much going on for even you to get to the core of any of the issues involved.

What results is a long, Law & Order-style procedural that doesn't know when to quit.

The most frustrating aspect of watching this film is trying to reconcile the relationship between a lead actress who finds within herself the heartache and tragedy the arc her character requires and a director who knew how to get that performance out of her but who didn't have the discipline to pull it all together in the edit suite.

Eastwood the director lets down Jolie terribly; his refusal to precisely and compassionately tell her characters story at the expense of a more sweeping view of the consequences of the child's abduction robs the story of its most compelling element.

Eastwood also lets the film down in his heavy-handed approach to the support casting. Police officers are oh-so-bad; the vile kidnapper is a hammy caricature. And the extended sequences that portray the fate of not just one, but a group of abducted children are horrible. Given he covered similar terrain in Mystic River (another film wildly overrated), can Mr Eastwood please move on from his obsession with murdered children. Get back to exploring the ethology of the Wild West, Clint - your two best films as a director are Unforgiven and Pale Rider.

Expect recognition come awards time for Jolie, but the film fails to engage its audience and will not be remembered as one of Clint Eastwoods finer moments.

My Winnipeg

A loopy, mesmerising love-letter.
Screened with live director-narration at the Sydney Film Festival, My Winnepeg was not always easy to engage with but was, ultimately, one of the most satisfying filmic experiences of the Festival fortnight to-date.

Mixing surreal, dreamlike images with heartfelt reminiscents, Guy Maddin created extraordinary cinema that will linger long in the memory of all that witnessed it.

The first 20 minutes are the toughest slog - it takes a little while to comprehend exactly the direction this loving-yet-satirical homage to Maddin's home town is trying to accomplish. And I also have reservations as to how this is going to play to audiences without the immediate, personal engagement the live-narration provides - the connection the on-stage presence provided made for an intimacy that may not be otherwise available.

But, with no reservation, the dreamlike images, coupled with the heartfelt words of the creator, made for a unique, beautiful, hilarious, moving experience. This is a major work from an extraordinary talent; a must-see for those that crave films that engage the head and the heart.

The Happening

Those scary trees, that creepy wind.....
No doubt hoping to tap into the enviro-panic that is gripping the world, M. Night Shyamalan has created a still-born, lifeless dud with The Happening, that would have served the environmental debate a whole lot better by not imposing its footprint on the world at all.

The opening scenes - all of which we've seen in the trailer - set up a jarringly compulsive premise that had the heart pounding (it earned the film all three of its stars from me). At some point the distributor Warner Bros should have realised the guy cutting the trailer should have been put in charge of the film - he gets more tension from three minutes than M. gets from 90 mins.

As the character-driven narrative starts to take over, it quickly becomes clear that nobody in this film is in any way relatable - from Mark Wahlberg's gaspy, drippy school teacher to the blank-eyed gaze of Zooey Deschanel to John Leguizamo's know-it-all blatherer, all the way down through the vaguely-comical support players (a loopy, cross-eyed plant merchant; a Gomer-Pyle-esquire army private). M.'s best work - The Sixth Sense, Signs - found the balance between genre suspense and characters that engaged and enthralled. The Happening is guilty of the exact opposite - creating a menace that actually dilutes the tension as more details are revealed, threatening a group of heroes who become increasingly less interesting and believable as the film progresses.

Most disappointing is the apparent dissapation of M.'s skill as a craftsman. Even those who thought his past films underwhelming bits of storytelling would concede that they were good-looking, well-composed examples of a director who knows how to frame the action and find the essence of his scene. Not so here - the colour palette is bland, the staging unimaginative and static, the sense of tension arbitrary and sporadic. It feels like he doesn't want to push himself or perhaps lacks faith in the material. Had it not been the work of a writer-director, I would've blamed the mismatching of filmmaker and material.

Having been a fan, I hope Night hasn't had his day, but The Happening represents something that will trouble his supporters. This is the sort of premise that should be a walk-up start for the director of The Sixth Sense, should provide ample opportunity for thrills and chills for the director of Signs. That it fails so completely begs the question - where to from here...? Oh, and given its enviro-message, its fair to ask - was this film's production fully carbon-neutral? I'm not cynical enough to think M. would latch onto a hot-button issue like global warming just to sell a few tickets, without practicing what he preached...would he...?


"Do you want cheese with your monster...?"
When Lars Von Trier was preaching his Dogma manifesto all those years ago, I'll bet my left nut he didn't think it would be embraced to create Hollywoods latest pile of steaming, stinking celluloid, Cloverfield.

Take out the 12 minute credit crawl (arguably the most exciting thing in the film), and you get 73 minutes of headache-inducing hand-held camera-work, a monster that would've been best left unseen and a whiny group of objectionable Manhattanites, everyone of them perfectly suited - nay, deserving - of a fate between the backteeth of any monstrous beasty.

I was hoping the brave creative decision to shoot the whole film from a first-person perspective would have the desired affect - put the audience into the action; redefine the disaster/monster movie for the post 9/11 generation; take genre pics to that next level that many promise to do but none ever really have.

But in trying to provide realism to B-movie myths of years gone by, the film-makers only manage to emphasise the cornball situations and horrible clichés that have driven these films for decades. You can make the camera-work as dandy as you like, but it don't mean squat if the script and acting is every bit as turgid and wooden as it was 50 years ago - when the giant octopus (an obvious inspiration for Cloverfields critter) crawled over the bridge and headed Downtown.

I know we have to give a movie about a marauding jellyfish a little slack, but its not the monster scenes that stink. It's the oh-so-lame set-up of the characters lives that is insufferably eye-rolling from the very first frame of the film. The intimacy your personal video camera captures isn't like a movie, so a movie about the intimacy a video camera captures was never going to ring true. The achingly slow story suffers from awkwardly staged moments meant to look spontaneous, weepy declarations of love and McGuyver-style heroics. The producer's could've saved big bucks on all the military hardware on display in the film - with the cheese in Cloverfield laid on so thick, the monster would've eventually died of cholesterol poisoning anyway.....

It's hard to totally hate a film that tries to make something new out of an idea so old but, minus all the new technology that has gone into creating this screeching, lurching mess, Cloverfield is no better than the monster flicks that your mom and dad watched in double-bills at their local drive-in.

When the only positive you can take from a film is the viral, pre-release marketing strategy innovatively employed, somethings up. Cloverfield is an admirable attempt but ultimately proves an immense failure.

27 Dresses

Take one star on the rise; add every tired cliché in the romcom genre...
Its a testament to the beguiling, natural charms of Katherine Heigl that I still like her and wish her well on the road to inevitable superstardom. This is in spite of having to sit thru her new movie '27 Dresses'.

If the industry predictions are right and Heigl is destined for Julia Roberts-style zeitgeist popularity, the mantle '27 Dresses' will occupy is easy to predict. 'Knocked Up' will be remembered as Heigl's 'Pretty Woman' - a surprise smash that introduced her as an instantly likable, utterly lovely bigscreen presence; '27 Dresses' will be Heigl's 'Sleeping With The Enemy' - a tired, uninspired, button-pushing mess, overseen by the actresses agents and managers to ensure their property becomes a big star sooner rather than later.

As the eternal bridesmaid having to endure her younger sisters nuptials to the man she's longed for, Heigl glows on screen but is reduced for much of the film to a simpering sourpuss. The director, Step Up's Anne Fletcher, shoots her stars (including a lifeless Edward Burns, Malin Akerman, a criminally-wasted Judy Greer and a frankly insufferable James Marsden) in static midshots, as well reducing the romantic allure of New York to subdued hues and bland framing.

Most frustrating is the complete lack of chemistry between the leads, compounded by long-winded, talky scenes that should bounce and end with a laugh, in true romcom tradition, but instead drag on and peter out into nothingness.

I'm going to assume that the message of the film is lost on me - all I took from the film was, no matter how beautiful and intelligent you are, you are only really complete as a woman when you find a man that makes you happy. I know its not the first romcom to espouse such traditional values, but its the first in a long-time to labour the point so heavy-handedly.

Points go to the costume designer Catherine Marie Thomas for the 27 dresses of the title - they display the sense of fun, absurdity and spark of originality that the film as a whole sorely needed.

I expect '27 Dresses' will open huge and turn Heigl from the small-screen IT-girl into the star she promises to be. But the star wont really shine until she finds a project that defines and enhances her on screen appeal, not just exploits it in the name of a bland, lifeless, calling-card film, shamelessly structured by suits to launch the 'Katherine Heigl' brand.

Lions for Lambs

Cruise, Streep, Redford - Gotta be an important film....right?
Though the ultra -liberal politics of Robert Redford's LIONS FOR LAMBS will probably be the talking point for most audiences, it's not always the most interesting thing about this film.

Despite it being a politically-charged drama about THE hotbed issue of our time, and commendably structured so that left-wing ranting, social responsibility of the press and political agendas are all questioned and given fair coverage, what really impacts is the risk movie mogul Tom Cruise was willing to take with his first film for his re-energised United Artists.

My thinking goes like this... Studio head Cruise needs to make a BIG splash with his first film. It has to be both a commercial success and seen to be a critical hit and a declaration of the type of movies he is going to be favouring when he and Paula Wagner choose scripts.

He bravely picks an all-angles drama about the most contentious issue on the domestic socio-political landscape - US military and political incursion and manipulation of the Middle East.

Problem is such an issue already divides the nation. Coastal liberal enclaves will probably rah-rah at the films call-to-arms against the war in Iraq; the Bible-belt will see it as typical of LA/NY smart-alecky Bush-bashing.

So Tom The Mogul finds himself with a problem - how to ensure a film, whose subject matter splits the populations opinion, will play to all corners of the nation and be the big hit his newly-acquired studio needs to affirm its Phoenix-like resurgence.

Big stars help, so he casts himself, and reteams Meryl and Bob for the first time since Out Of Africa. Clever casting, too - Cruise is very good, arguably a career best, as Jasper Irving, the ambitious young senator with a military vision and the manipulative marketing savvy to sell it. It's not impossible to imagine that this is what has become of Maverick, 20 years after flight school, on the fast-track to the White House.

Meryl and Bob aren't so well-cast. As a journalist of 40 years experience, Meryl is just a little to wide-eyed and easily-swayed by the cocky senator, betraying the scripts positioning of her role as the most obvious message-driven construct in the film. Redford still commands the screen, but his rants and convoluted back-story become a little too clichéd and 'movie-ish'.

But all three look terrific on the poster and the trailer screams 'important, event film'. And it largely comes across as such. Yeah, its wordy and preachy (it could make a great three act play), but its also pretty entertaining. It will divide audiences - my partner hated its heavy-hand and imbalanced presentation of its left-wing agenda ('Rambo for the Latte sippers' was one post-screening comment) but at least it inspired debate and conversation.

Will it be the hit Cruise's UA needs? If it connects as a 'water-cooler' film, probably. It wont travel at all - international audiences wont tolerate such homeland navel-gazing. It'll be admired more than liked, spoken of more than watched. But points to the Cruiser for getting serious after a few too many sci-fi spectacles and impossible missions.

Ocean's Thirteen

A lot going on, but nothing much happening....
Ocean Thirteen's slick credit sequence, highlighting Brad Pitt in all his movie star glory and letting us all know that Soderbergh and his camera are up for some glossy fun, gets the heart racing in anticipation of a slick, sly heist caper on par with #1 and superior to #2.

But then, as detail upon detail is heaped upon the audience and increasingly silly machinations are put in place to ensure the casino-robbery plan works, it all starts to unravel until, burdened by its own only-in-the-movies logic, the film grinds to a halt just when it should be at its most exciting.

At the 80 minute mark, the film, in desperate need of a compelling story to kick-in, is still setting up the details of the heist. No tension has been created, no forward momentum is in place, no characters are established sufficiently to root for. Soderbergh is no doubt hoping the good will audiences have for his characters from the first film is still in place here (sorely tested in Oceans Twelve). And despite taking all this time to create a detailed if rather ludicrous heist plan, it then boils down to relying on coincidence rather than cunning for it all to work.

Clooney and Pitt still have the charisma and chemistry to make some moments enjoyable, but there isn't the zing in their banter that was a highlight of the first film. Other returning cast members - Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Elliott Gould, Andy Garcia - are all reduced to plot devices rather than given any substance (I know this isn't meant to be a in-depth character piece, but gimme somebody to care about and not just ogle!). Best moments come from Scott Cann and Casey Affleck; most embarrassing from Don Cheadle. And though Al Pacino is suitably villainous as the bad guy, he's also the most interesting and compelling character in the film, making his ultimate downfall (which, lets face it, is no spoiler) a little bittersweet (I would've liked to have seen him slap Danny Ocean up the side of the head, if only to create a little spark in the film).

What is sorely missing is a strong female character. Julia Roberts provided it in #1; Julia and Catherine Zeta-Jones were the best things about #2. In O13, Ellen Barkin is reduced to playing Pacino's 2IC as a blindly-ambitious slut, and its awful. Other female characters are either casino-pit screechers or hookers, underlying the boys-own macho-ness of these films.

It does look great in parts - the set design and CGI work is impeccable - and Soderbergh, holding his own camera under the name 'Peter Andrews', shoots his cast and the locales sumptuously in deep, rich reds and golden tones. But at 122 minutes its a long slog.

With a triumvirate of blah threequels this American summer already clogging multiplexes, Ocean Thirteens only adds weight to the argument that if anything interesting or inspired is going to be done with the characters or plot in a franchise film, its already been done by the time a #3 is churned out.


A great American musical....
Screened overnite in Australia for critics and industry.

Ten minutes into director Bill Condon's adaptation of the hit musical, I whispered to my friend "There's no way the film can go at this pace for two hours!" Because up to that point, we had been utterly dazzled by breathtaking staging, impassioned performances and a display of film-making craftsmanship in all its forms (direction, editing, design) that had the packed audience stunned.

Well, two hours later, I'd been proved wrong. Condon has created a vivid, emotional spectacle that will dominate the 06/07 Oscar nominations. Dreamgirls is one of the five best movie musicals ever made.

There is really nothing new about the storyline - smalltown singers make it big and ride the roller-coaster of fame. But thats what works so well for the film - the great cinematic clichés are embraced and played to the hilt by a creative team, both behind and in front of the camera, that knows what makes a great Hollywood musical.

There's not one weak link in the cast. Condon's camera is in love with Beyonce Knowles and she handles the journey from the innocence of the groups early years to the staggering success and fortune of the group at its peak with surprising range. While most singer/actress attempts are failures (Madonna, Whitney, Britney, k.d. lang), Beyonce proves to have genuine talent.

Jamie Foxx centres and grounds the film in a less-flashy role but one that is crucial to the films credibility.

But there are two standouts. Eddie Murphy as fading star Early has never done better work. And Jennifer Hudson delivers an absolute tour-de-force performance in a role that sees her dominate every scene she is in. Her belting solo number was applauded by the audience (a rare enough occurrence during an industry screening but a moment that was repeated a few times thru the film). Hudson is a lock for the supporting actress Oscar, even this far from the ceremony.

Dreamgirls is a better movie in every way than recent award winning musicals Chicago and Moulin Rouge (both of which I am a huge fan). It is a film that tells a classic rags-to-riches story utilising great cinematic technique and bravado. 2006 has offered up some great movie-going experiences for me (Thank You For Smoking, Children Of Men, V For Vendetta, Little Miss Sunshine); for the sheer cinematic thrill it provides, however, Dreamgirls proves to be the best two hours I've spent in a cinema this year.

The Da Vinci Code

A major disappointment......
Screened overnight for Australian media.

Four words - wrong star, wrong director.

Hanks and Howards best work, both together or separately, have been when they embrace intrinsically American values in their films. All their most memorable movies have involved individuals overcoming hardship through an unshakable belief in love and courage, usually set against an outwardly US-centric interpretation of events. Think Apollo 13, Forrest Gump, Cinderella Man, Saving Private Ryan - all fine films, all centred on an American hero rising above their circumstance.

What is conspicuously absent from either man's resume is a European-set, religious-themed mystery thriller. Having sat through their arduous, laborious adaptation of Dan Brown's novel, I can now see why.

The plot is total bunkum - a hodgepodge of "what ifs" and "oh my god" moments spun on the ludicrous premise that Leonardo Da Vinci had some sort of insight into the life of Christ - but loopy story lines have not stopped many films from being enjoyable.

What makes The Da Vinci Code so deathly dull is the heavy-handed, oh-so-serious approach Howard applies to the material. Combining with his cinematographer to give the film a sleepy nocturnal feel (not so clever given the 150min running time), Howard's film is just a constant flow of expository clues that fail to create any tension or engender his leads with any human qualities. Even for those that haven't read the book, a couple of obligatory 'big twists' in the story are very obvious from early-on.

Hanks (looking more like Jim Belushi than ever) and McKellen blather on and on and on about knights and saints and symbols and God as if they were giving a lecture at some Ivy-league school for the supernatural; Audrey Tautou is lovely but has little to do in a role that is plot- not character-driven. Jean Reno ambles thru another of his token French cop parts (he was better in the Pink Panther); Paul Bettany's evil albino Silas at least got some audience reaction, though giggles and guffaws were probably not what he was hoping for.

Whatever sense of fun and excitement the book provided is fully-drained from this adaptation. Come credit time, I had the realisation that all this hokey, airport-novel religious hooey and B-movie plotting would've made for a great X-files episode in that series heyday. As the end-product of a publishing phenomenon and carrying the tag "Years Most-Anticipated", its a boring dud.

Mission: Impossible III

Just screened in Oz....
Just screened for critics and exhibs in Australia ahead of local release Thursday.....

Tom Cruise is the biggest movie star of our generation for one very simple reason - he knows how to deliver the goods.

Sometimes he chooses smart material that resonates (Collateral, Jerry Maguire, Few Good Men, Rainman, Risky Business); sometimes he promises and, most importantly, delivers great popcorn entertainment (Top Gun, The Firm, War Of The Worlds); sometimes he makes crap that coasts on his charisma alone (Vanilla Sky, Mission Impossible 2, Days Of Thunder, Cocktail). Regardless, he's the biggest movie star of the last 20 years - and if he keeps making them like Mission Impossible 3, he'll be at the top of the tree for 20 more.

With a smart, plausible storyline that instantly engages and a finely-attuned emotional undercurrent that provides heart and humour, MI3 is the standout of the three MI movies in every aspect. By quite a long way, in fact.

The film's key action scenes are breathtaking, esp an extended sequence set within Vatican City. Director JJ Abrams shows no sign that life as a TV director has narrowed his vision - he utilises every inch of the widescreen canvas to bring vibrancy of colour and fluidity of movement to his action. Though at times frantic, the action is never indecipherable nor implausible (well, occasionally implausible, but I was along for the ride by that stage).

Best amongst a superb support cast is Billy Crudup, though all contributors - a returning Ving Rhames, newcomers Michelle Monaghan, Jonathan Rhys Meyers (his Italian DHL guy is a hoot!), Laurence Fishburne, Keri Russell - make the most of roles that are surprisingly fleshed-out and solid for an action film. Special mention must be made of Maggie Q - Abrams shoots this stunning actress with obvious affection and she comes across every inch a movie star. THAT red dress will go down in cinema history! Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers as the bad guy in a subdued performance that doesn't stretch him as an actor but which supplies all the menace required of the role.

And The Cruiser? After the dumbing down of Ethan Hunt in MI2, Cruise has gone all out give depth and scope to the emotional core of his franchise hero, and in doing so has added immeasurably to the film as a whole. MI3 isn't the sort of stuff that will win him that elusive Oscar, but it is a performance that greys the usual black-&-white action hero role to maximum affect.

It is film that is enlivened by a young director with a natural understanding of what makes movies enjoyable, and giving his first shot at big screen glory every effort. Abrams obvious enthusiasm rubs off on all contributors to the film - not only the cast, but the crisp cinematography (the virgin print screened in Oz was gorgeous), the production design work and the stunt choreography. Also, though I know it was there, the CGI work was undetectable.

MI3 kick-starts the American summer season with a real bang. If the other studios come to the party with their own super-charged, smartly-penned product in the weeks ahead, 2006 could be the blockbuster season we've all hoped for for so long.

Basic Instinct 2

Worse than any of us could have imagined.....
It's not like I have overwhelmingly fond memories of Verhoeven's original pants-down shocker - it always struck me as a glossy, well-made airport-novel-of-a-movie. Thrilling, sexy trash, but trash nonetheless. It was also a film that tapped into a certain sexual zeitgeist. After a decade of anti-sex AIDS-induced hysteria, a film about a wildly-sexual hotbod who thrill-kills to heighten her sexual pleasure was pretty enticing stuff. Basic Instinct 2 was always going to struggle to provide the same social relevance and immediacy, so the fact that it's desperate attempts at raunchiness are so lame can sort-of be overlooked. All it really had to provide was that thin veneer of titillation and a mildly engaging story and all would have been watchable. That it resoundingly fails on so many levels, and in such a way to be a career nadir for everyone involved, is really quite extraordinary to watch. Let's state the obvious for starters - Sharon Stone is too old for the part of sexual magnet Catherine Trammell. What was so photogenic thru Verhoeven's lens looks like mutton dressed as lamb in the hands of gun-for-hire Michael Caton-Jones, who's flat, drab colours and static camera render her undeniable beauty totally moot. I like Sharon Stone a lot, but if the first film launched her career, BI2 could kill it. She has no chemistry with stuffed-shirt David Morrissey - their only sex scene is embarrassing too watch. His dough-faced mamma's boy of a character made me yearn for the swaggering, orange-skin machismo of Michael Douglas. Supporting turns by David Thewlis and Charlotte Rampling waste these fine actors on talky exposition scenes and cliché-heavy posturing. And what of the much-touted sexual shenanigans? Poorly-lit, fleetingly-glimpsed, as utterly mainstream as an episode of Desperate Housewives - the European sensibilities that Verhoeven brought to the sexual content of the first film are sorely missed. Don't watch this film for carnal thrills - there are none and what there is is tragic. The film is, as a whole, convoluted to the point of utter confusion, boring and laughable. The last 40 minutes in particular, where you come to the realisation that the film is, in fact, not going to go anywhere of interest at all, are particularly gruelling and hilarious in equal measure. As a failed sequel, Basic Instinct 2 will come to occupy similar cinematic ground as Exorcist 2 The Heretic, Beyond The Poseidon Adventure and XXX2. As a vanity project, it rivals Battlefield Earth in its misconception. As a multi-million dollar piece of Hollywood film-making, it's a travesty that will be hard to top as the years worst.

San ging chaat goo si

For a 'new' Police Story, it all seems pretty old...
Jackie Chan's efforts to rejuvenate his career amongst his core Asian fanbase are dealt a stinging blow with "New Police Story", his latest action opus and his first back in Hong Kong for a long time. The film, offering a strange mix of soap-opera-style drama, awkward comedy and a frankly-ludicrous storyline, was hyped in the local media to the point of saturation - every bus, tram, poster-box, television screen, etc hammered home the release date for the film and the pretty faces that make up the cast. The first signs things were awry was the necessary plot point upon which Jackie's fall-from-grace begins. When a carload of teens with high-powered weapons plays target-practice with dozens of police, you would think every man on the Hong Kong force would be put on the case. Not so - when a "how'd-that-get-there?" clue leads them to the gangs hideout, Jackie turns up in three vans with a few cops straight out of the Academy. Puh-leeze!! The next 40 minutes are spent watching Jackie cope with his grief by getting and staying drunk, until a young cop (ALL cops are young in Hong Kong, apparently) drags him back to work. Why they would put a drunk hasbeen, one that caused dozens of his fellow officers to die through negligent procedural and judgemental errors, in charge of the biggest manhunt in HK police history is anyones guess, but they do. The action is only OK by Chan standards (as much as Asian audiences hate his US films, and they are not alone there, they have all provided more and better thrills than this film). A little off-putting is the lingering shots of police being mowed down by gunfire and the cartoonish glee with which the teenage gang equate it to playing XBox games. To my western ears (an Aussie, I saw the film on a recent trip to HK), much of the dialogue seemed hammy and very b-grade. Admittedly, the 3/4-full audience I saw it with oohed-and-ahhed at parts I thought were ridiculous, so maybe it's a cultural thing. This was especially apparent with regard to the degeneration of the respect teenagers should have for authority figures (fathers, police, the government, etc) - lines that I rolled my eyes at were greeted with cheers by the audience. Don't know where Jackie goes from here, frankly. Maybe a whole new angle, ala Schwarzennegger and "Twins". He's not getting any younger and his movies aren't getting any better, so who knows.

The Life of David Gale

Airport-novel plot weighed down by star-heavy package
Though a fan of all involved (Spacey, Winslet, Laura Linney, dir Alan Parker), I found "...David Gale" to be a fatally-flawed and misconcieved project that will do nothing to enhance anyones career.


The volatility that rages over the issue of death-sentencing is screaming out for a serious examination of the issues involved. "...David Gale" merely uses it as a backdrop to a convoluted and increasingly silly storyline that twists and turns itself into nothingness. Without wanting to give anything away, the film is a pro-euthanasia fantasy disguised as a right-to-life drama. I can see some commentators may respond to Alan Parker's final reel message, calling it a sly and ironic, even daring, move by the acclaimed director. For me, it came across as a slap-in-the-face con trick that abandoned the last already-strained vestiges of reality and subtlety the film had going for it. Kate Winslet comes off particularly poorly in this film. For much of the plot, she is reduced to reaction shots, until late in the film when, finally called upon to emote and provide character depth, she pulls out all the stops in a gasping, wheezing display of over-the-top haminess. Pains me to write it, 'cos I've loved everything she's done, but she suffers at the hands of a weak, bloated script and a director in career decline. Alan Parker's direction is, in equal measure, pedestrian and desperate. He uses a very annoying camera / editing technique to depict a flashback - the device reeks of a last-minute decision by the producer to win back audience attention. Parker expertly handled the issue of racism within a narrative context in "Mississippi Burning", a classic which is light years away from "...David Gale". I guess surprisingly, you can't place too much blame at the feet of Kevin Spacey, who plays Gale as an idealistic but flawed family man. His problem is the shifting, uncertain tones that screenwriter Charles Randolph gives his character - we meet Gale as a hardened crim, yet the film then portrays him, in quick succession, as proffessor, drunk, philanderer and pained father, none of which are explored enough to create audience empathy. "Dead Man Walking" and "Monsters Ball" both handled a similar storyline with far more class and resonance. "The Life Of David Gale" betrays its characters and alienates its audience in the process.


Patience best rewards viewers of this Shining-style thriller
As a character-driven chiller, Wendigo is a thoroughly satisfying film, though not one that successfully plays out its early promise. From the establishing shot of a young family driving a winding road into the darkened wilderness I was immediately reminded of The Shining. And if Wendigo doesn't quite display that films polished visuals, it certainly borrows the themes of isolation and familial tension, especially patriarchal, that Kubrick examined so well. Cult director Larry Fessenden has gone back to horror movie basics to achieve a palpable tension in his film: black shadows in every corner of a very-underlit rural house, creaky floorboards, shrieking nighttime winds. His film starts to unravel when he pushes to far - the appearance of the Wendigo, an Indian spirit that travels on the wind, is at first frightening but ultimately overplayed; Fessenden feels compelled to reveal the monster in an extended attack sequence on the films hillbilly badguy, and in doing so belies the slyness with which we had so successfully frightened us up to that point. The ending is particularly murky, both visually and narratively, feeling rushed and a little self-consciously obscure. The cast is uniformly solid: Jake Weber and Patricia Clarkson as the yuppies-in-peril are very real, and 'Malcolm In The Middle' youngster Erik Per Sullivan provides the perfect conduit for audience fear and apprehension. The print I viewed at the recent AFM conference was particularly grainy and I am unsure as to whether this was due to the transfer from HDV-to-film or whether Fessenden shot it like that. Regardless, it proved very effective in creating a sense of dread and foreboding, especially in the early twilight scenes. Also nice to see a film that revels in its ability to scare, not always winking at the audience in a self-mocking "Scream" sort-of way. More often than not lately irony and revisionism have gotten in the way of a good fright, which Wendigo certainly provides.

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