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2007

Savages, The

dir: Tamara Jenkins
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Oh, parents. They are either the bane or the boon of our existence (or both), as children and even more so as adults, in their prime or their decline.

The Savages has Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney in the lead roles of this quirk-free, fairly downbeat story as siblings looking after a demented elder parent who never really liked them and who rendered them fuck-ups as adults. At least that’s the premise as it seems to me.

The film starts in a surreal fashion with shots of a mystical place called Sun City in Arizona, presumably where old people who aren’t Jewish go to live out their remaining years. The sight of a chorus line of old girls appearing as if from nowhere and starting a dance routine is a strange one that will stay with me for a while.

And not in a pleasant way. We are introduced to an irritable old arsehole called Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) who lives in this Arizonan elder community, just before he becomes single again for the last time. And after a spot of finger painting prior to hospitalisation.

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Orphanage, The (El Orfanato)

dir: Juan Antonio Bayona
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Orphanages. Orphanages, psych hospitals, prisons; places of suffering. Places where we can imagine people’s suffering has an almost physical manifestation, that it can impregnate the very walls of a building, rendering it supernatural in and of itself.

There’s a reason why such buildings keep cropping up in horror flicks and computer games. It could just be that people have limited imaginations, and are intellectually lazy when they’re pumping out their formula hackwork. But there’s also a very believable sense that such places can take on some kind of frightful energy from human torment, infecting them long after they have been abandoned.

By the living.

Why anyone would want to return to the orphanage that they grew up in is a mystery to me, but the protagonist of this here ghostly flick, which keeps being sold as a film made by Guillermo Del Toro despite only having him involved in an exec producer capacity, does so. Laura (Belen Rueda) left the place when she was seven, and has lived a long and fulfilling life up until the moment where she and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) decide they want to open up a special school in the grounds of the orphanarium where she grew up for at least the first part of her childhood.

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

dir: Tim Burton
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I’ve had a fight recently with someone over the use of the term ‘gay’. Not in the obvious context, but in the one very familiar in a pop cultural sense, especially amongst teenagers. Dear friends who are teachers report that the children in their charge use the term in the pejorative manner ie. “That is so gay” so often that it drives their teachers nuts. Thus they spend a certain amount of time trying to convince The Kids that using it in such a manner is homophobic and inappropriate.

It’s a phrase with the least of bad intentions that is so easy to use and so easy to overuse. In the worst manner, it does, essentially, equate something with something else in a manner that does discredit both the comparison and the comparer. Okay, so describing something as, “ohmygod that’s so gay” doesn’t necessarily mean that you hate gay people, but you are using it in the pejorative sense, and by default saying that being gay is a negative.

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American Gangster

dir: Ridley Scott
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There was a time when Ridley Scott’s name commanded respect. People took him seriously. No matter the film or the subject matter, people would say “Well, this is the guy who made Blade Runner and Alien, so let’s all gather round and listen to what he has to say.” Film wankers and aesthetes (such as myself) would reach even further back and say “Well, this is the guy who made The Duellists, so he’s capable of greatness, so let’s eagerly anticipate his next movie with, um, eager anticipation.”

Then he made Hannibal.

After that, Scott’s feet of clay kept growing to swallow up the rest of his body and brain, to the extent where he just seemed like every other British-born Hollywood hack, as capable of an okay film or a terrible shitfest as any other director.

With American Gangster, he’s gone all out to craft an American Prestige Epic worthy of Oscar nomination, critical column inches and applause from the sweatpants-wearing masses. Note the cast, the topic, and the length of the flick. No-one makes a flick this long (nearly three hours in the ‘unrated’ version) with this many A-listers with this subject matter unless they’re expecting, nay, demanding recognition in February / March.

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Golden Compass, The

dir: Chris Weitz
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The hardest obstacle faced by any new fantasy film that comes out now is that it has to distinguish itself from the Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings movies to be taken seriously. That is, if the actual intention is to distinguish itself, instead of aping them and going out of the way to remind you of the similarities to cut down on the marketing budget.

Why craft a campaign around celebrating the best aspects of your brand new potential film trilogy when all you have to say is “It’s just like Harry Potter hanging out with Frodo in Narnia! We’ll even use some of the same actors just to remind you, you stupid muggles!”

If no distinction is entertained or sought, then you can dismiss these flicks to straight-to-DVD hell and brand them little more than a cheap Rings/Potter knock-offs, and go back to sleeping comfortably. Night-night baby.

The great difficulty faced by this film specifically is that the story stands in stark contrast to material like that of the Harry Potter franchise or, more aptly, the Narnia tales, but has been rendered into a form most calculated to remind people of, say, the Narnia and Potter franchises. Ah, familiarity and the contentment / contempt that it brings.

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Lars and the Real Girl

dir: Craig Gillespie
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Part of me knows I should hate this film, hate it with a passion. Hate it with an unholy passion usually reserved for reality television, politicians and those times when you jump out of bed in the middle of the night and stub your toe whilst desperately trying to get to the crack pipe.

But for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, I didn’t hate it. Come with me as I try to unravel through the writing of this review what highly improbable series of unfortunate events has led us to this sorry conclusion.

The Lars of the title is played by Ryan Gosling, who is a fairly young guy getting a lot of press and attention despite the fact that he acts pretty much the same way in everything that he’s in. He’s been giving these identical, artificial, affected performances in flicks like Half Nelson, United States of Leland, Stay and Fracture, but people are still screaming and wetting themselves over him like they’re teenage girls and the Beatles are playing The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time.

Wow, how old did I just make myself sound? I swear, Ed Sullivan and his show were long gone way before I came along, with a suitcase and a song.

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Paranoid Park

dir: Gus Van Sant
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Gus Van Sant really likes them teenaged boys. No, I’m not going for the obvious gag here, I mean that there really is something he seems to love in terms of capturing, trying to preserve this brief moment in their lives between the adolescent and adult worlds.

Paranoid Park has a really simple story fractured into pieces and told in a manner whose purpose seems to be less the telling of a story and more capturing how Alex, our main character, feels about stuff. That sounds like some deep shit, doesn’t it.

There is something enjoyable about watching a flick about a teenage kid that isn’t about popularity, that isn’t about getting laid, it’s not about the prom and it’s not about some stupid bet usually involving sleeping with one particular girl until the protagonist realises that the girl who truly loves him was the slightly tomboyish but still totally feminine best friend who was alongside all etc etc.

In terms of other flicks Van Sant has made, it’s also refreshing to watch him make a film about teenagers that isn’t about a Columbine-style massacre, about two morons wandering lost in the desert or the last days of a drug-addled rock star.

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Atonement

dir: Joe Wright
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Atonement is an exquisite rendering of an exquisite book, brought to life in a way that is surprising in the sense that good literary adaptations for the silver screen are rare.

Whilst I do find Keira Knightley’s anorexic and perpetually hungry features disturbing, she makes a decent Cecilia, in fact everyone seems perfect in terms of casting and what they bring to their roles. So full praise to the casting director.

Kudos to you, sir or madam, kudos.

What’s doubly surprising is that the book could be transformed so readily into so decent a film, sacrificing little that made the book so compelling. The three-part structure is intact, the key moments and situations as seen from crucial view points are well presented, and there’s even room for some directorial virtuosity in the form of an incredible long take on the beaches of Dunkirk.

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Rendition

dir: Gavin Hood
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Rendition is, yes, another one of those recent films tagged “political” by those reluctant to be drawn into the culture wars (which is, usually, most people) but eager to dismiss something with the least amount of effort required.

Just in case you thought movies don’t mean squat unless they’re based on something true, Rendition is based on the ordeal of Khaled el-Masri, a German national of Kuwaiti descent, who was taken from the Serbian-Macedonian border and held and beaten in prison in Afghanistan for five months in 2004.

And then released when they figured out that it was Khaled AL-Masri that they were looking for in the first place. Because if they’d beaten that guy for five months, it would have been all right.

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Southland Tales

dir: Richard Kelly
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Sure, Richard Kelly made Donnie Darko, but what has he done for us lately?

Well, pull up a pew and prepare to be dazzled: he made a really shit follow-up film called Southland Tales.

Southland Tales is, at the same time, an incoherent and over-explained mess that has almost no redeeming value except that the viewer shifts between boredom and incredulity on a second-to-second basis.

The issue that plagues me the most is that I can’t figure out why the actors and crew making this load of crap didn’t rebel and overthrow Kelly in a bloody coup. He should have, based on how painfully embarrassing scene after scene is, been strung up like Mussolini at the end of his reign of terror.

It’s pretty clear that whatever happened to make Donnie Darko a fan favourite was almost purely by accident. Not only does Kelly fail to achieve anything worthwhile in this flick, he proves consistently that he has no idea how to tell a story or how to make a film.

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