8 stars

Casino Royale

dir: Martin Campbell
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Around the time of the last Bond film Die Another Day, some horrified viewers were calling for the death of this tired, smelly franchise. The name had become so devalued by a long string of mediocre movies that it seemed kinder to just let it die. Or to put it out of its misery.

Of course there isn’t a studio on the planet that would rather go with a new idea over an old faithful cliche, so a new Bond film was an inevitability in the same way that night follows day, or when any celebrity videotapes themselves in a compromising position or two, the footage invariably ends up on the internet.

At the very least, if they’re going to make more of these Bond films, let them be as good as this.

Casino Royale is a rip-roaring old school adventure and a pleasure to watch from start to finish, even if it does drag a bit. That hasn’t been said honestly about a Bond film for decades. Daniel Craig plays the famous agent with the right mixture of cool professionalism and brutality. This Bond is less of a gentleman and more of a bastard than we’ve seen for a while, and the movie is the better for it.

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Exiled (Fong Juk)

dir: Johnny To
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Exiled is the latest flick from one of Hong Kong’s most prolific and stylish directors. Although it has a similar dynamic to To’s earlier action classic The Mission, it is in no way a sequel. Even with many of the same actors, playing similar roles, it’s still not a sequel. But it does have a lot of similarities, and that’s not a bad thing.

What you can expect in a Johnny To film is men, usually professional criminals or triads, doing manly things. The overarching and underlying theme is always friendship, brotherhood and the bonds of loyalty between men.

And, as with his more action-based films, as you would expect, there are guns. Lots of guns.

About the only thing that sticks out as being significantly different is the location. Instead of unfolding in Hong Kong, Exiled takes place in Macau, just prior to the handover of political control from the Portuguese to China in 1998.

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Brick

dir: Rian Johnson
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Brick has a central conceit who presence balances the movie on a knife’s edge of being tolerable or intolerable: if you can stomach teenagers (or actors pretending to be teenagers) chewing over the hard-boiled dialogue of 40s noir in a contemporary setting, then you might enjoy Brick. If not, Brick will be one of the more pointless experiences you will endure this or any other year.

Brick has dialogue sometimes so hard to say and so hard to understand that you wonder if you’re watching a National Geographic documentary about some hitherto unknown American tribe discovered in the ruins of an ancient mall. But therein, for me at least, lies the fun. The director had been trying to get this project off the ground for nearly a decade, and has succeeded where so many others would have given up or caved in to soulless studio reps.

Take the thickened plot and chewy dialogue out, and you’re left with nothing of interest to anyone. Leave it in, and you get something that works most of the time, falters at others, but still remains interesting throughout. This first time director’s mistakes are sometimes as interesting as the times when he gets it right.

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Kenny

dir: Clayton Jacobson
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A lot has been written about Kenny, both its success and the film itself. At least in Australia, since I can’t imagine the rest of the world giving a tinker’s dam about it. And its success at the AFI awards also points to Kenny’s acceptance and approval from a country notoriously averse to watching its own films.

Kenny has struck a chord with Australian audiences, and there are a good number of reasons why. As played by Shane Jacobson (whose brother wrote the screenplay and directs), Kenny Smythe is the kind of salt-of-the-earth character that you feel obligated to get behind or risk feeling like the most humourless and elitist of curmudgeons. It is that very calculation that goes to how the character is written and portrayed, which sounds cynical, because it is cynical. But it gets the job done.

This comedy has the format of a documentary, or a mockumentary, to use the latest nomenclature. It all focuses on Kenny’s daily grind as he waxes lyrical and philosophical constantly to camera. As such, you could say the movie is a character study of one working-class quiet achiever just trying to get by in this turvy topsy world.

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Banquet, The (Ye yan)

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(also released as The Legend of the Black Scorpion, for no good reason)

dir: Xiaogang Feng

A wuxia version of Hamlet sounds like a crazy way to try to sell tickets. It comes as a major surprise that it actually works. The universal themes of treachery, loyalty, love and revenge are easily transferred from the court of the Danish monarchy to the throne room of the Tang Dynasty.

The writers retain the elements from Hamlet that work, discard the rest and make fundamental changes where it suits them, turning the tale into one of court intrigue and romantic deceptions rather than emphasising an indecisive son's desire to avenge his father's murder. Wu Luan (Daniel Wu) is the crown prince in this version, without the madness or the indecisiveness, but his desire for vengeance against his usurper uncle remains the same.

The new Emperor Li (Gou Le) tries to wear his brother's armour, but it is uncomfortable. The armour bleeds from an eye socket just to make sure we understand that something is wrong.

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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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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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Children of Men

dir: Alphonso Cuaron
[img_assist|nid=875|title=It's pretty grim in this brave infertile world|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=210]
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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A Scanner Darkly

dir: Richard Linklater
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It’s hard to make the case for why I enjoyed this flick so much, but I did. It wasn’t because of the quality of the animation, I can tell you that much. It wasn’t necessarily that I’m a fan of the source material, which I am, being a big fan of Philip K. Dick and all his Dickian works.

I think Linklater and the actors, and the animators managed to get the tone right. It even has Keanu Reeves in it, for Jeebus’s sake, and it still manages to work.

Not only Neo-Dude-Kanooie, but also former drug addict and occasional actor Robert Downey Jnr, occasional drug addict and occasional actor Woody Harrelson and rare addict and even rarer actress these days Winona Ryder.

From such humble materials comes a modest yet successfully shambolic story about a group of paranoid drug addicts and an undercover operative whose job is to monitor them, who becomes a drug addict himself.

Even thought the original novel was set in a somewhat futuristic time, the book mostly comprised an elaboration on PKD’s own experiences in the drug scene in the early 70s, and his subsequent mental illness. The story also elaborates on his ideas on the War on Drugs in its earlier form.

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Descent, The

dir: Neil Marshall
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Decent horror flicks are few and far between. The Descent is a decent descent into both the earth and the murky depths of the human soul, descending as it does from done-to-death horror staples, but remade in such a way as to make it more than an exercise in repetition.

When you hear a premise like ‘Six women go on a cave expedition that goes horribly wrong”, the first thing you expect, when you’ve seen as many trashy flicks as I have, is that it’ll mostly be about scantily clad women getting their tops wet and/or off, writhing around with each other in between pillow fights, pedicures and giving each other massages and drunken fistings.

Or, it’d be about women banding together to fight off predatory men, strengthen the bonds of sisterhood and to affirm that the Thelmas and Louises are doing it for themselves, or to themselves, or each other, in between teary arguments and lots of chocolate eating.

Neither, fortunately or unfortunately, apply here. This is played as a straight horror flick, with no knowing nods to the audience, and a grim and claustrophobic aesthetic that permeates throughout. It also doesn’t stint on the gore, for those that like their horror gruesome and bloody.

Rating: 

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