Thursday, August 22, 2013

Melbourne film listings

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What Maisie Knew - trailer

In New York City, a young girl is caught in the middle of her parents' bitter custody battle.

New releases

WHAT MAISIE KNEW
(99 minutes) M
★★★☆

In What Maisie Knew, written by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, the child's vision is central: it is a version of Henry James' novel of the same name, transplanted to contemporary New York. Like James, co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel use the perceptions of the title character, and show us the world through and around her. Dialogue is heard in the background, images are glimpsed from below, and events and characters are depicted without their significance being spelt out, creating tensions Maisie can register but not interpret. Onata Aprile, as six-year-old Maisie, who patiently observes her parents' fractious and vindictive separation, gives a strong, seemingly effortless performance, stoic and self-contained, but also warm and spontaneous. Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan play her self-absorbed parents, who have flurries of enthusiasm for their child but see her as an object to be fought over and won. What Maisie Knew has distilled and simplified certain elements of James' story, and has shed some of its sharpness. There's a softness and dreaminess to some of its images and music, a saving sense that relief is at hand, no matter how destructive and indifferent the people responsible for Maisie are capable of being. PH

Selected

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THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES
(130 minutes) M
★★☆

The Mortal Instruments is a series of six young adult novels by Cassandra Clare, a one-time fan-fiction author who became a best-selling writer when she started creating her own material. This first cinematic instalment, directed by Harald Zwart, has a bit of a Twilight-plus-Harry Potter vibe. Its heroine is a seemingly normal New York teenager, Clary (Lily Collins), who discovers, almost out of the blue, she has a fairly major supernatural inheritance. From here, it's a fast-track initiation for Clary and the audience into the world of figures known as Shadowhunters and their adversaries. Demons, who can assume any shape, are the main game: vampires, warlocks and werewolves are bit players (and for the record, there is no such thing as a zombie). There is more plausible action than we see in Twilight, although there are some cheesy moments, most notably a romantic garden encounter with a Demi Lovato song in the background, which ends with the couple in question being drenched by a sprinkler. PH

Selected release

UPSTREAM COLOR
(96 minutes) M
★★★★☆

The highly original second feature from American independent Shane Carruth (Primer) is a trip we're invited to take along with characters as mystified as the rest of us. These characters are Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth), a couple with a shared mysterious past. Eventually they start to perceive the nature of the story they inhabit - though only the viewer is allowed to grasp the full scope of Carruth's grand design, where human beings function as parts of a Rube Goldberg machine that also involves blue orchids, pig corpses, paper chains and copies of Thoreau's Walden. Functioning as his own cinematographer, Carruth restricts depth of field and splinters each scene into disorienting fragments. Yet there's something simple at the film's core: ultimately, it's a therapeutic story, about recovery from trauma, and about the idea that our feelings and actions spring from sources unknown to our present-day selves. JW

Selected

KICK-ASS 2
(103 minutes) MA
★★★

Based on Mark Millar's comic-book series about a nondescript teenager-turned-superhero, Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass was an ultra-violent action-comedy most notable for the presence of Chloe Grace Moretz as Hit-Girl, a sugar-sweet tween trained to slaughter bad guys. The character is even more central to Kick-Ass 2, one reason this sequel, written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, improves on its predecessor. It's essentially a disreputable teen comedy with occasional rushed action sequences: while Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) tries to get back into the superhero game, Hit-Girl faces the challenge of high school, where she struggles to cope with a clique of mean girls. Kick-Ass 2 is not meant to be taken seriously, but the ''edgy'' jokes on themes such as rape, incest and underage sex at least have the merit of frankness - acknowledging some of the murkier impulses that have lurked in the subtext of the genre all along. JW

General release

LONDON: THE MODERN BABYLON
(125 minutes) M
★★★☆

Who remembers the Siege of Sidney Street, when police were held off for six hours by a gang of anarchists holed up in a Stepney tenement? Or the Battle of Cable Street, when anti-fascist protesters stopped Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts from marching through the East End? All this and more is in Julien Temple's fascinating people's history of London, which spans the century between the suffragettes and the Occupy movement, while the soundtrack ranges from My Old Man's a Dustman to the Sex Pistols and beyond. There's a special emphasis on how the city has been renewed by successive waves of immigration: one of the first interviewees is lively 106-year-old Hetty Bower, whose Jewish parents were able to escape persecution in central Europe after ''Queen Victoria opened the doors''. The message - only superficially a paradox - is that recognising how history repeats can be the key to moving on. JW

ACMI

Now showing

BEFORE MIDNIGHT 
(108 minutes) MA

★★★☆

It's been almost two decades since Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise introduced us to Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a young American travelling in Europe, and Celine (Julie Delpy), the French girl destined to become the love of his life. This latest sequel shows the pair in their 40s and on holiday in rural Greece; despite the romance of the setting, the thrill of their first encounter seems far away. Like long-term couples everywhere, they've mastered the trick of shifting from teasing affection to open warfare and back again, while Hawke and Delpy manage to enchant and infuriate the audience as well. As a stand-alone artwork, this is the least successful entry in an ongoing series; the staging is relatively flat, with the countryside often reduced to a pleasant, out-of-focus backdrop. But like its predecessors it's trickier than it appears, particularly when the chatter focuses on topics such as the relativity of perception and the mystery of time. JW

Selected

BEHIND THE CANDELABRA 
(119 minutes) M

★★★

The pianist known as Liberace is remembered for a handful of things: his spangled suits, his public denial of his obvious homosexuality, and his famous response to critics: ''I cried all the way to the bank.'' Directed by Steven Soderbergh, this account of his later years fills out the picture. Michael Douglas gives a fearless performance that ultimately wins our sympathy, even as he flaunts the cloying camp manner of a woodland creature in a Disney cartoon. The material speaks to Soderbergh's continuing interest in how money dictates terms in both love and art, while the glittering sets and costumes accord with his penchant for images dotted with points of light. But given the subject matter, Behind the Candelabra suffers a little from its own good taste; it would have been fascinating (if potentially horrifying) to see this script tackled by Joel Schumacher or Baz Luhrmann. JW

Selected

BEYOND THE HILLS
(152 minutes) M
★★★★

Beyond the Hills, from Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu, culminates in an exorcism, and its narrative is tied up with matters of faith and belief, but it's a film carefully grounded in the everyday, in physical detail. There is a documentary authenticity to its narrative style: it's a film of grit and anguish, of destructive good intentions and constraints, and of failures of compassion and judgment. Mungiu lets scenes play out slowly, yet the film is shot through with flurries of desperate energy. It's a scrupulous work, without easy judgments or obvious villains. The film is set in an Orthodox convent; a young woman visits to reclaim her friend from the place, triggering a series of events that end in devastating fashion. Mungiu is remarkably non-judgmental, in the circumstances, about the damage that is done, in a range of ways within the film, by failures of imagination, and by people acting in ways they think are for the best. PH

Selected release

THE CONJURING 
(112 minutes) MA

★★★☆

James Wan's The Conjuring is a haunted-house horror movie that's an intriguing blend of elegantly evoked domestic unrest and straight-up, almost standard fright elements. It is a female-centred horror tale: women and mothers are the main figures, the focus of vulnerability and the source of danger. And it's a film with strong performances across the board. Vera Farmiga brings a strong sense of fragility and conviction to the character of a paranormal investigator, and Lili Taylor, as a woman living in a house seemingly haunted by the past, establishes a warmth and resilience that makes later developments all the more unnerving. Wan (SawInsidious) is good with simple, time-honoured staples, such as games of hide-and-seek and the conviction that there's someone else in the room. These, in fact, are often more unsettling than the more explicit scenes that come into play later in the film. PH

Selected

COSMIC PSYCHOS: BLOKES YOU CAN TRUST
(91 minutes) MA
★★★

Matt Weston's disarming documentary makes it clear that Melbourne's Cosmic Psychos - 30-year veterans of punk, grunge and beyond - have plenty of well-known admirers of their style: fans of what Buzz Osborne of the Melvins describes as the sound of ''late-'70s punk rock played through a stereo inside the muffler of a car dragging down the freeway''. But the band members tell their own story even more eloquently, with a breezy combination of honesty and myth-making. Among them, Ross Knight, the only member from the original line-up, stands out. He is the charismatic heart of the film: a master of low-key absurdity with a self-deprecating throwaway line. There's some exploration of Knight's life outside the band. This includes outside interests - he's an award-winning powerlifter - and his family (his weight training enables him to help his son, now 16, who has quadriplegic cerebral palsy). This is a blokey world, although there are a couple of well-chosen female voices in the mix, and it is, in essence, an upbeat account, although it takes on issues of loss, notably the death of guitarist Robbie Watts. The film ends, as it should, with a show at a legendary Melbourne venue. ''Who'd have thought that at 50, I'd still be at the f---in' Tote with my shirt off,'' Knight says. And he seems very much at ease with the fact. PH

Selected

ELYSIUM
(109 minutes) M
★★★

The new science-fiction thriller from Neill Blomkamp (District 9) begins in a future Los Angeles where shanty towns have sprung up on the roofs of decaying skyscrapers, and masses of workers toil in factories building the robots that keep them in line. Up beyond the polluted atmosphere is the space station known as Elysium, where the upper class have taken refuge in mansions. When everyman Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) is exposed to a dose of lethal radiation, he's willing to do anything to obtain the ticket off the planet that might save his skin. It's not every day Hollywood produces a blockbuster satire on First World privilege - but despite the audacity of the premise, for the most part Elysium sticks to genre convention. Still, as a diagnosis of the state of the planet, this is infinitely preferable to World War Z. JW

General release

THE FLAT
(97 minutes) Unrated 15+
★★☆

This modest but intriguing Israeli documentary offers few early clues to where it might be headed. We follow the filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger as he clears out the contents of a flat in Tel Aviv that belonged to his grandmother Gerda Tuchler, a German Jew who emigrated to Palestine just before World War II. Goldfinger is bewildered by evidence he unearths that his grandparents were close to Leopold von Mildenstein, an SS officer and one-time boss of Adolf Eichmann. What could it mean, in the 1930s, for a Jewish couple to be ''friends'' with a Nazi? Given the fragmentary evidence available, Goldfinger can't pretend to offer a definitive answer, much less put forward a broader historical thesis about the period. Ultimately, the film circles back to his relationships with his own living family members, particularly his mother - and on this personal level, the painful journey seems worth taking. JW

Classic Cinema

FRANCES HA
(86 minutes) MA
★★★★

Frances Ha, the movie and its heroine, are graceful, awkward, luminous and hilarious. It's a film that gives us a female central character living on her own terms, and it's remarkable how refreshing this feels. Frances, played by Greta Gerwig, is a dancer and choreographer doing her best to get by in New York with scraps of work. The movie, shot in rich and evocative black and white, is co-written and directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding). Gerwig, who was in his 2010 film Greenberg, is the co-writer. Frances is a lovely, stubborn and sometimes confused heroine, who painstakingly fashions her own course. There are blackly comic moments and sharp comic observations, and Gerwig is adept at physical comedy. But most of all, Frances Ha is a work about disappointment and doggedness that has a buoyant, utterly engaging quality. PH

Selected release

THE HEAT 
(117 minutes) MA

★★☆

The Heat is a buddy movie comedy about a pair of mismatched officers of the law that would seem wildly familiar, apart from one thing - its odd-couple cops are women. Sandra Bullock is Ashburn, a driven, uptight, know-it-all FBI agent; Melissa McCarthy plays Mullins, an obnoxious, unorthodox Boston cop who has all her male colleagues thoroughly intimated, none more so than her boss. She has the best and worst of it, in that her character is the most clearly delineated. Mullins is a foul-mouthed force of nature who's never seen a taboo she couldn't violate, or a politically incorrect epithet she couldn't utter at least 17 times, with themes and variations. Bullock is left a little stranded by comparison. Her single-minded character becomes a self-deprecating straight woman - and there's a skimpy detail about her background that is meant to add a bit of emotional depth, but just seems gratuitous. PH

General release

MAN OF STEEL 
(143 minutes) M

★★★☆

Zack Snyder's bombastic but often exhilarating Superman reboot gives the ultimate do-gooder an edgy makeover. The ''perfect'' good looks of star Henry Cavill are slightly more angular than expected; his permanently knit brows hint at unspoken torment. This is the first Superman movie to propose that being the strongest force on the planet might be both lonely and terrifying - but however grim things get, Snyder's great advantage is that he never seems embarrassed by silliness. That's a blessing for Michael Shannon, who as mad baddie General Zod gets to march around in a pepper-and-salt goatee giving orders such as ''Release the World Engine!'' The political issues here are strategically muddled, just as they tend to be in Christopher Nolan's work: though this Superman shows libertarian tendencies, he qualifies as progressive, at least by comparison with the ultra-reactionary Zod, who views his most ruthless acts as the price for saving Krypton civilisation. JW

General 

NOW YOU SEE ME
(116 minutes) M
★★★☆

A caper movie about world-class magicians who use their stage shows to pull off daring bank heists, Now You See Me is pure pop frivolity - perhaps the airiest Hollywood entertainment since Wreck-It Ralph. French director Louis Leterrier has assembled an unusually charming collection of actors: Jesse Eisenberg does his cocky control-freak number as the unofficial leader of the so-called Four Horsemen, alongside Woody Harrelson as a laid-back hypnotist, Isla Fisher as an escape artist and Dave Franco as the rookie of the group. Scripted by a talented team including Boaz Yakin (Fresh) and Ed Solomon (Men in Black), the film has a reflexive aspect, implying that cinema, like magic, is all about playing tricks on the audience. Each time a new, outrageous plot element is introduced, we have to ponder whether this holds the key to the mystery surrounding the heroes, or whether it's simply another piece of misdirection. JW

General

ONLY GOD FORGIVES 
(89 minutes) MA

★★★

Set in a reddish, womblike Bangkok that resembles an upmarket suburb of hell, the latest revenge thriller from cult Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn is a film for all those who felt the problem with his ultra-mannerist Drive was an oversupply of human interest. The twinkling lights, symmetrically placed figures, luxuriously slow camera movements and broad swaths of colour have a trashy pomp that suggests an Italian horror movie or (at worst) the later work of Zhang Yimou. Ryan Gosling plays the nominal main character, a stone-faced American drug pedlar, but most of the redeeming humour and energy comes from Kristin Scott Thomas as his mother, a bottle-blonde, bile-spewing monster. The film is wildly pretentious and unpleasant, but as a bizarre fever dream it holds attention to the end, even if half the scenes seem devoted to Gosling silently brooding in between the bursts of gore. JW

Selected release

PACIFIC RIM 
(131 minutes) M

★★★☆

A few years into the future, giant monsters - known as ''kaiju,'' the Japanese term for creatures in the Godzilla mould - start emerging from an extra-dimensional cleft in the ocean's floor. Earth's last line of defence consists of vast battle robots, operated from within by pairs of telepathically linked pilots. In his first film as director since the 2006 arthouse hit Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro has taken on the challenge of building a better Independence Day and, largely, the director succeeds. Even in this multiplex setting, he remains some kind of aesthete: he's in love with textures, staging one battle in the rain on the neon-lit streets of Hong Kong, another underwater with bubbles drifting by in 3D. Aimed at the 12-year-old inside us all, the film tells an essentially optimistic story: for once, we humans manage to set aside our differences, pool our resources, and work towards a common goal. JW

General release

PAIN & GAIN
(129 minutes) MA
★★★☆

Michael Bay brings a lot of gusto to this outlandish satirical thriller, set in 1990s Miami and based, as we're repeatedly reminded, on actual events. Mark Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a strutting blowhard of a personal trainer who believes in fitness in the Darwinian sense, and sets out to make his fortune by carrying out an ill-conceived kidnapping, with help from a couple of equally dim-witted mates (Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson). Bay hasn't lost his love of burnished cinematography, show-off camera moves and cheesy soundtrack selections, but his over-the-top style seems perfectly apt, suggesting that much of the film takes place inside Lugo's head. Stupid and venal as almost all the characters are, the film depicts them with a fellow feeling that might almost pass for sympathy: Johnson gives a carefully shaded performance as a born-again Christian uneasy about his gift for beating people up. JW

General release

RED OBSESSION
(79 minutes) PG
★★★

This Australian documentary is a story about culture, taste and money, but at its centre is something both tangible and mythical, artificial and natural. It's about the wines of Bordeaux and, above all, the market and mythology that surround them. Writer-directors David Roach and Warwick Ross pick up their narrative at an interesting, volatile time - even for a business that is subject to the vagaries of weather and the imponderables of personal taste. For 30 years, the chief market for Bordeaux has been the United States. At a time when prices seem to be spiralling out of control, the voracious new demand comes from China. Red Obsession explores the implications of this shift, focusing firmly on the high end. The intriguing final section of the film shows us that French winemakers and tastemakers aren't necessarily going to have it all their own way. Roach and Ross leave us with a tantalising range of possibilities. PH

Selected release

TALES FROM THE DARK
(200 minutes) R
★★★

The Hong Kong ghost story anthology Tales from the Dark consists of six stand-alone short films running half an hour apiece, each handled by a different director. The funniest is Lee Chi-Ngai's A Word in the Palm, with Tony Leung Ka-fai as a henpecked fortune-teller cursed with the ability to see ghosts. Fruit Chan's Jing Zhe shows his distinctive feeling for Hong Kong street life after dark, while Gordon Chan's Pillow is mainly an excuse for soft-core sex scenes. The stand-out of the collection is Lawrence Lau's Hide and Seek, in which a group of teenagers runs into trouble while exploring an abandoned school. Unfolding mostly in darkness, this has the single creepiest moment of any of the segments and ends with an unforgettable moral: ''Whenever you play hide and seek, you are playing with ghosts.'' JW

Selected release

THIS IS THE END 
(107 minutes) MA

★★★

At the movies, the end of the world is big this year. And it's big in a very particular kind of shambling yet stylised way in this celebrity-apocalypse buddy comedy. A bunch of Hollywood actors playing versions of themselves are blindsided at James Franco's house-warming party by what appears to be the end of days. The movie is written and directed by Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg. Rogen plays himself, the amiable guy whose friendship everyone is fixated on. The cast includes Franco, Jonah Hill and Jay Baruchel, but despite some over-the-top special effects, this Los Angeles apocalypse takes an almost petty turn. It's a story of vindictive squabbles, rampant egos, competitive anxiety, compulsive dick jokes and fretting over who gets to eat the Milky Way bar. There are also sentimental moments of male bonding, and tiffs over who is closer to whom, and some rare moments of rueful self-deprecation. PH

General release

THE WAY WAY BACK
(103 minutes) M

★★☆

US independent cinema is going through an artistic renewal but you wouldn't know it from Jim Rash and Nat Faxon's coming-of-age quirkfest, which announces its intentions by reuniting two of the leads from Little Miss Sunshine. Toni Collette plays Pam, an ineffectual divorcee who sets off for a holiday at a Massachusetts beach house with Trent (Steve Carell), her oafish new partner. Tagging along is Pam's son Duncan (Liam James) an awkward 14-year-old who would rather be with his dad. The star attraction is Sam Rockwell as Owen - the man-child boss of a waterslide park who takes Duncan under his wing. It's a role tailored for Rockwell, who excels at playing a wise guy with a vulnerable streak. While he's on screen, the film succeeds as a nostalgic ode to immaturity - although it's probably never lively enough to hold the attention of children. JW

Selected

WE'RE THE MILLERS
(110 minutes) MA
★★☆

We're the Millers is a comedy that aspires to a touch of edginess, a family vacation story mashed up with Hangover elements that never really manages to transcend its formula. Jason Sudeikis plays David, a small-time drug dealer who is pressured into smuggling a ''smidge'' of marijuana over the Mexican border. He's convinced he won't be able to do it on his own and devises a cover, recruiting a faux family that includes his stripper neighbour, Rose (Jennifer Aniston). They are reborn as the Millers, and it's into the giant motor home and off to pick up the contraband. There are, of course, obstacles, off-colour situations, and a growing sense of family solidarity, as well as Mexican gags straight from the Hispanic Stereotypes 101 handbook. Along the way, the Millers run into the Fitzgeralds, the daggy husband and wife, played by Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn, who in their straight-arrow way are far more unpredictable and strange than David and Rose dream of being. In the end, I'd rather have seen We're the Fitzgeralds; in that film, you get the feeling anything could have happened. PH

General release

THE WOLVERINE 
(126 minutes) M

★★★

It would be too much to call The Wolverine a ''classical'' superhero movie, but it's less over-the-top than most recent entries in the genre. Few buildings are visibly toppled, nor is the planet threatened with destruction. Instead, the main stakes are emotional. The film finds the surly mutant Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) still mourning his lover, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), but it isn't long before a crimson-haired telepath (Rila Fukushima) brings him to Tokyo for new adventures. Jack-of-all-trades director James Mangold (Walk the Line) may not be an obvious fit for the material, but there's something authentically comic-book about his style, which combines clear, linear storytelling with a discreetly expressionist bent, manifested via an interest in troubled protagonists and distorted perceptions. Logan frequently loses consciousness, allowing the film to explore his psyche through dream sequences (mostly featuring Janssen). JW

General release


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