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2006

Catch a Fire

dir: Phillip Noyce
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There were a number of reasons to be dubious about this flick. It’s a film set in South Africa in the 80s, but the title of the film is a Bob Marley album title, the music in the trailer is all Marley and the Wailers, the two most prominent roles in the film are played by Americans (Derek Luke and Tim Robbins) and the theme seemed to be how torture by the nasty state compels otherwise docile serfs into becoming terrorists.

In other words, it looked like a crapfest drowning in commercial clichés. Like Hotel Rwanda from a few years ago, I had to wonder how it was possible to make films about places in Africa where you don’t actually want Africans or Afrikaans playing any of the lead roles.

But then again, this is directed by Phillip Noyce, who has made a remarkable career for himself as both a hack of extraordinary hackiness (The Saint, Sliver, Clear and Present Danger) and a socially conscious director of extraordinary deftness (Newsfront, Rabbit Proof Fence, The Quiet American). It’s hard to understand how he balances the two aspects out, but I’m sure it’s probably to do with juggling his practical need for securing funding and his higher need to tell a meaningful story every now and then.

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Prestige, The

dir: Christopher Nolan
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Based on a novel by Christopher Priest, The Prestige is one of the most intriguing and entertaining films of the year. If you told me that a film about two rival magicians at the end of the 19th Century would be a winner, I'd have told you to pull something else apart from a rabbit out of a hat.

The first image of the film is a winter scene on a hill, with dozens of top hats reclining upon in it in various states of disarray: one of the magician's most cliché of tools and part of their uniform. A voice asks us "Are you watching closely?"

Of course we're watching, but the magician's skill and the filmmaker's desire is to trick us whilst we're watching ever so carefully.

A different voice-over soon also starts up, explaining the film's title to us. The magic trick, as performed on stage in that era, is comprised of three parts. The Pledge involves showing the audience the elements of the trick, to convince them of the normality of the stage and the lack of dodgy machines. Of course, the machinery and parts that make the trick work are in plain view, but they look normal.

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Flags of Our Fathers

dir: Clint Eastwood
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The curious thing about Flags of our Fathers is that it isn't really a war film. I think a lot of people were expecting Clint Eastwood to give us his version of (at least) the first forty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, only this time at Iwo Jima against the Japanese in World War II. Instead, Eastwood focuses the flick on three men who played a part in the raising of a flag on Mt Suribachi, which has become one of the defining images of the war.

These three men are brought back from the Pacific theatre and sent around the United States to raise money for the war effort. The government is nearly bankrupt and needs to get money from the public in the form of war bonds to keep war production going. They don't know, like we do, that the war will end soon. So, to the men there is the real fear that not playing their part will lead to the US losing the war.

The part they are expected to play is that of war heroes in the public limelight, but, as they keep pointing out, all they did was raise a flag. Each of the men thinks long and hard about some other guy who was with them on the island more deserving of the title 'hero', who is now dead.

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Borat

dir: Larry Charles
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The full title of the movie is Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Perhaps the title should more clearly represent what the film is: an affront to human dignity. So, had I the power to change the title, it would be something more like: Borat: People are Pigs.

I know why Sacha Baron Cohen puts himself in these horrific situations: because it has lead to fame and fortune, whether as Borat or Ali G or in the other roles he is starting to get in Hollywood. But that doesn’t make watching him put himself into increasingly dangerous situations to provoke laughs down the track any easier to handle.

If this is a comedy, and mind you, I said ‘if’, it is generally the comedy of discomfort, where watching people do or say awful things makes us cringe and hopefully laugh uncontrollably. But in many ways this movie is little different from the MTV Jackass series and movies where Johnnie Knoxville and his crew of mental defectives cause themselves and each other extreme amounts of pain for our amusement. The difference is that in the Jackass films, the participants are volunteering to drink horse semen or jump head first into sewerage.

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Candy

dir: Neil Armfield
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Based on the novel by Luke Davies, Candy is the story of two junkies in love. And that’s about it. As movies about drug addiction go, Candy is a decent enough offering, although it really doesn’t say much that we haven’t heard many times before.

It hits all the right and predictable notes these stories always cover, because many elements of addiction are universal. Movies like this tend to follow the same path: the good times, the bad times, and then hopefully beating the addiction.

It completely lacks the stylistic excess and overwhelming viciousness of a filthy masterpiece like Trainspotting, and gains the greater credibility for it.

So the characters start off crazy in love, with the drugs being the cherry on top. The drugs inevitably take over their lives and relationship, and destroy everything in their path. The third stage, if the characters are lucky, is their chance at redemption.

Dan (Heath Ledger) and Candy (Abbie Cornish) are young Sydney artistic types who dabble with heroin in the beginning, because they don’t have much else in their lives. They don’t seem to have much else to do apart from have sex, use heroin, write poetry and paint pretty paintings. As their supply of money dwindles, and their addiction grows, they face harder and harder choices.

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Departed, The

dir: Martin Scorsese
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The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s remake of the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs (Wu jian dao) manages something few remakes ever do: it improves on the original and contributes something more than just proving that there are no new ideas left in Hollywood.

People will argue endlessly over which is the better film, but it’s an irrelevant argument. Both films stand independently of each other, and do what they do best in their own ways. It’s not a competition, after all.

Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan take as much as they need from the original script, and add enough distinctive original material to make the film their own. They go to a lot of trouble to add substantial detail to make the story look like a product of its place and time, which makes many of the more central characters seem more believable.

The story is transplanted from Hong Kong to Boston, and the villains are transformed from triad gangsters to an Irish mob led by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). With the location change, the premise remains the same: two men pretend to be something they are not.

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Saw III

dir: Darren Lynn Bousman
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Saw III, which is currently dominating the US box office, might actually be an okay movie. It might even be better a better movie than Saw II, which goes against the Law of Sequels that states as more sequels get made, the quality declines exponentially.

Even if that is the case, it still does not make this a good horror movie.

If horror movies are meant to scare audiences, to instil fear in them, by that standard Saw III is a failure. Because as uncomfortable as it is to watch people being torn apart or tormented by complicated machines, and as disgusting as some of the scenes in this movie are, they are not actually scary. We are not afraid about what is going to happen to most of the people who are introduced into the story only to die a few minutes later. Because they’re not characters, on the most part, they’re just props whose usefulness is soon to end.

In that sense, identifying with any of the characters in these flicks is virtually impossible, which means their ultimate fates are only of mild interest to the audience.

Saw III also goes to extraordinary lengths to tie up loose ends from the earlier movies, even to the extent that a major plot hole identified by many audience members after enduring the first instalment is not only referenced but dealt with.

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Little Miss Sunshine

dir: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
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Even though it looks like just another American film about just another dysfunctional American family, Little Miss Sunshine has more going for it than that. At the very least, it manages to provoke a few more chuckles than the average film of this type usually does.

True, there’s no shortage of movies, both mainstream and art-house, that try to outdo and out-quirk each other with crazy families and their crazy adventures on the road to getting to their version of a happy ending. The lazy message always is, no matter how wacky and insane members of your family are, they’re still your family. So, you know, appreciate them for who they are.

Well, this film boasts a quirky collection of characters, and has the same predictable message regarding the thickness of blood versus water. But it ends up being a lot more fun that usual, even if it doesn’t have anything new to say about anything.

Olive (Abigail Breslin) is a cute little awkward girl who somehow makes it to the finals of a beauty pageant for cute little girls. For various unimportant reasons, her entire family has to accompany her on a cross-country trip in an old Volkswagen Kombi van as they try to get to Los Angeles for the competition.

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Fast Food Nation

dir: Richard Linklater
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It hurts to say it, but Fast Food Nation is not a good movie. At its best, it is depressing, and at its worst it is glib and superficial. Which is a real shame, because it is about a very important subject.

Eric Schlosser wrote an article for Rolling Stone magazine back in the 90s. It was an expose on the American fast food industry, covering everything from the unhealthy quality of the food, to America’s obsession with the stuff, to the exploitation of migrant and teenage labour and the marketing of products to the most vulnerable consumers: children. It was expanded into a book, which exists as a scathing indictment of a system that allows consumers to be exposed to such crap, literally, because it’s economical, it’s everywhere and people are lazy.

You would wonder how or why someone would decide to make a movie out of the book, as opposed to a documentary, but the advantages are pretty obvious. More people are likely to see a movie at the cinema than they are going to be inspired to pay money to watch a documentary. It’s simple economics. Plus, using characters to represent the various issues tackled by the book personalises its themes, and makes it more identifiable for audiences. Watching something bad happening to a character is more confronting than having someone talk about something bad happening.

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Children of Men

dir: Alphonso Cuaron
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Imagine a world where a baby hasn’t been born in 18 years. Imagine a world where the entire human race is infertile. Imagine how people would act towards each other with humanity’s extinction being just around the corner.

Based on the novel by PD James, Children of Men is really a thriller. It sounds like a science fiction film with a weighty premise, and it is, but it is still essentially a film where the hero, played well by Clive Owen, spends a lot of time running away from all the dangers that exist in the world around him.

The film is masterfully put together. Even if there are a few elements I thought were wretched (especially in an idiotic scene where two characters play around with a CGI ping pong ball, or a wasted scene at the Ministry of Art), the film consistently sticks to its vision and does it in a remarkable fashion.

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