LFF 2011: The Artist *****

If you are looking for something utterly unique and totally charming this holiday, to be transported back to when cinema first captured the hearts and minds of audiences in its glory days, French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist is simply a joyous breath of fresh air. Its old-fashioned romance and drama – as depicted in the film’s poster – is acted out in complete silence, a testament to the power of great improvisation. It is also a complete change of direction for silly OSS spy-film spoof team Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin.

Dujardin is George Valentin in this, the slick, rhythmic star of the silent silver screen in 1927’s Hollywood who has the world of glamour and fame at his feet. But pride always comes before a fall, and Valentin stubbornly shuns the onslaught of ‘the talkie’, basking in his notoriety at Kinograph Studios. After a young, unknown wannabe dancer called Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) is snapped on the red carpet with Valentin, and is picked to star in his next picture, The German Affair, her career sky rockets as the talkies popularity does, leaving Valentin destined for the Tinseltown ‘has-been’ pile, loosing his home, his marriage and any remaining self respect. Unbeknown to Valentin, the girl who has taken his place in the spotlight is also his guardian angel who has not forgotten who helped her get a foot on the fame ladder.

Hazanavicius’s film smoothly immerses you into another magical era, through Guillaume Schiffman’s dramatically lit but stirring black-and-white cinematography and Ludovic Bource’s spirited score, while unequivocally drawing parallels to present-day personal and professional problems and paranoia. This is perhaps how Hazanavicius retains a contemporary audience’s attention throughout a viewing concept that may feel rather alien to some, but altogether inviting.

The other winning factor working in combination with the film’s technical splendour is the delightful cast of Dujardin opposite perky dancing dynamo Bejo, as well as dynamic screen personalities John Goodman as Kinograph’s big cheese Al Zimmer, James Cromwell as Valentin ever-faithful driver Clifton, Missi Pyle as Valentin’s disgruntled co-star Constance and Penelope Ann Miller as his long-suffering wife, Doris. The overly enthusiastic performances never tire but strength each character’s resolve.

Dujardin and Bejo are pure cinematic gold, batting reactions back and forth through the film’s glitzy highs and gloomy lows like a couple of facial-tennis pros while keeping the melodramatic momentum sharp and sassy, from one knowing arched eyebrow from Dujardin to one sultry smile from Bejo. Their union is cemented in the film’s pivotal finale, where Dujardin speaks for the first time and breaks the spell – jolting us back into ‘reality’, in effect, like being rudely woken from a dream and longing to return to it.

Hazanavicius is a true visionary artist himself, rejeuvinating a fond and near-forgotten skill and masterfully making it obtainable and oddly contemporary. His breakthrough film that is pure entertainment also acts as a poignant and ironic reminder to Hollywood’s moneymen that sometimes, “actions speak louder than words” – and wordy scripts – in grabbing the viewer’s imagination. Whether The Artist is a one-off treat remains to be seen, but it will surely whet the appetite and fascination of a bygone age of movies – and is executed in a far more noteworthy fashion than Scorsese’s recent indulgent cinematic homage, Hugo.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Lady **

Visionary French director Luc Besson is no stranger to developing utterly compelling stories centring on intriguing female protagonists, and delving into the make-up of their psyche during their individual struggle, from adults (Nikita) to children (Leon). Therefore, with the story of what made one of history’s most iconic female figures, Burmese pro-democracy fighter Aung San Suu Kyi tick at his fingertips, Besson has surely struck cinematic gold? Disappointingly not, even if charismatic actress Michelle Yeoh is present to help translate Daw Suu’s remarkable political and personal journey.

The story is one of a ‘fairy-tale’ love story staged across faraway lands between Daw Suu (Yeoh), the daughter of Aung San, the alleged ‘father of modern-day Burma’, and English Oxford University professor Dr. Michael Aris (serviceably played by David Thewlis). After returning to her homeland, military-junta-controlled Burma to tend to her sick mother, Daw Suu is appalled by the murderous atrocities she witnesses and decides to stay and lead the democratic movement, leaving her family life back in Britain. As her following grows, Daw Suu is deemed a significant threat to the establishment, and placed under house arrest, restricting access to the outside world – and her cancer-stricken husband.

Curiously, Besson sets the story from the point of view of a dying man, already targeting the heartstrings of a ‘love that cannot be’. This is further emphasised by the little Suu Kyi being told a fairy-tale by her father at the start, that his little princess will one day find harmony in a peaceful, idyllic land with a prince of her own. There is nothing wrong with the love-story angle whatsoever – sweeping us up in the process, and this was never going to be a dense biopic about the political oppression Daw Suu actually suffered. However, in keeping things ‘romantic’ rather than more raw when necessary, Besson dilutes the harrowing and far intriguing side of why such a woman chose her country over her young family? This is never fully explored to highlight the full sacrifices both parties made, merely depicted with scenes showing Aris’s grumbles over his visa refusals and a couple of hugs in the Burmese evening air for the pair. The result is the opposite effect to what Besson is angling for: a near passionless affair.

It’s only the performance from the enigmatic Yeoh that gives any of the status quo any viewing power. The Kong Kong actress and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star brings that respectful composure and soothing karma to the role of Daw Suu that both her and her heroine exude. Frustrating as it is to not find out more about her character’s personal drive from Besson’s film, Yeoh is still very much Daw Suu in the flesh, both physically and in temperament. Besson does suggest Daw Suu’s rise was all too easy here, in that merely making a peaceful appearance and taking a defiant stance facing the barrel of a gun was enough. It demonstrates a reluctance to show the ugly side of politics and possibly sully any of Daw Suu’s deity-like standing, reemphasised in the film’s simplistic fairy-tale stance. There are never any realistic initial confrontations between man and wife, considering Daw Suu is choosing her countrymen over her husband and sons. In Besson’s defence, he does show how the situation and her rise to notoriety crept up on the Arises, before the point of no return. It just seems a trifle unbelievable that there would not be more family fallout, however courageous and inspiring the mother is.

The only real drama, amidst the cartoonish and superstitious capers of the deranged Burmese leader, General Than Shwe (Agga Poechit), is the moment captive Daw Suu tries to hear her family receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on her behalf in 1991 over the radio, and after the mains are switched off deliberately by the military, she and her housemaid use some batteries from their torch to power the device – all reminiscent of the British bulldog spirit in the war years. In hindsight, the lump-in-the-throat at this moment is more due to the real-life worthy recipient, rather than the film’s actual portrayal, although Besson builds this momentous and joyous/sad event nicely, in his ardent respect for his leading lady.

The Lady is Besson’s own love story, in fact, to his political heroine and more than well intentioned. It is virtually impossible not to rally behind Daw Suu and want retribution for the injustices that the film touches on, especially with such a solid performance from Yeoh, who ought to get her own awards recognition for her detailed and convincing portrayal of Nobel winner Daw Suu. Although hardly surprising on political persuasion, the film is never dogged and forthright in showing some of the true horrors to further condemn the country’s stagnant political situation – even though no one is expecting a recreation of the haunting real-life scenes captured in Anders Østergaard’s Burma VJ either. It’s just the lack of any real sense of danger lessens what could have been a far more impacting film by a filmmaker who is usually an expert at such.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol ****

Tom Cruise reviving his Ethan Hunt, special agent role for the fourth time was bound to raise a few eyebrows, considering the hit-and-miss reception of the other three films, the continuity clangers, the formulaic plots and daft set-pieces. The other films also take themselves a little bit too seriously – like their star. But thanks to the dynamic directing from action aficionado Brad Bird (The Incredibles) and his first live-action foray, Ghost Protocol may still retread old ground in terms of plot, but it does it with intentional tongue-in-cheek mockery at the franchise, and on an IMAX screen, jaw-dropping stunts.

After the bombing of the Kremlin is blamed on the actions of special agent Hunt and team (Simon Pegg as Benji and Paula Patton as Jane), the powers-that-be decide to shut down his IMF unit for fear of damaging relations with Russia. However, they are still very much in action, incognito as Ghost Protocol, with access to all the high-tech weaponry they need, and employed to stop madman Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) from destroying the world by causing a nuclear war.

Ghost Protocol is what IMAX viewing is all about, thrilling you with one iconic scene that defines this particular film: Hunt’s/Cruise’s spider-man scaling of the world’s tallest building in Dubai, the Burj Khalifa. Pardon the pun, but Cruise like his alter-ego Hunt is always on a mission to prove something and challenge our perceptions, and his daring stunt – however well harnessed and overseen by the production team – is utter daredevil stuff and quite spectacular. Those suffering from vertigo will melt with fear into the cinema seat at this, from when you (the camera) dive out of the missing window to some 2,000ft plus below. To coin a cliché: this is worth the IMAX entrance fee alone.

There are other action highlights that include witnessing the Kremlin collapse with in cloud of smoky rubble, which is a striking symbol, and also quite an eerie one, considering any nation’s main city is under constant threat from terrorism, and the post-Soviet threat is still very much alive today with the dangerous remnants the former era on sale in the global market. This part of the film also has a nostalgic, retro Bond-style thrill to it, enhanced by Hunt and comedic, geek sidekick Benji penetrating the halls of Russian power in disguise as Russian military. These crazy and somewhat unbelievable happenings are overridden by the fascination at what will happen next in the tech department, and there is a wonderful hide-and-seek scenario involving the latest computer wizardry and an unsuspecting Russian guard. Even the finale is a Jenga-style set-piece of brilliant domino precision that takes place in a car park.

Although the acting and plot are rudimentary formulaic – a madman threatens world stability and Hunt and co are the only ones in the know to stop the carnage, what this film offers is a wonderfully refreshing self-mockery, highlighted by the series of technical mishaps and the characters’ “hey-ho”, eyes-to-the-proverbial-ceiling reactions to them. Jeremy Renner, ever a solid action hero/fixer figure in his films, makes an enjoyable appearance as retired field agent Brandt. The only disappointment is the underdevelopment of Nyqvist’s two-dimensional baddie who never gets to grab our imagination and accumulate a few panto hisses as he’s forever disappearing into the mist/sandstorm. In this sense, the good-and-evil balance feels lopsided in the former respect, even with a couple of evil henchmen in the frame that act as stumbling blocks to the main target, such as the beautiful but deadly Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux).

Film number four has found its optimum screen display, its best director for the job and its sense of humour while increasing the gadgets and death-defying stunts. It really offers some of the best live-action entertainment this year, and is by far the best of the M:I bunch. Cruise’s determination not to put Hunt into retirement yet has paid off, and the ending could suggest more in store…

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo ***

So striking and unique was Swedish actress Noomi Rapace’s portrayal of 21st century anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander in the original 2009 film that director David Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian already had their work cut out adapting author Stieg Larsson’s complex first book of his Millennium trilogy as an English-language film. The plot is so complex with its plethora of characters and emotions and deals with so many issues, including Nazism, serial murder, rape, torture and twisted family liaisons that it acts as both a cinematic dream and a hindrance if done incorrectly. Therefore, it’s a relief that Fincher and Zaillian not only appreciated that the central theme to refer everything to is the Salander journey and the breaking down of her defiant resolve, but also that the film could not be set anywhere else but in Sweden again, purely for the inherent cultural quality and mystique that the story desperately requires.

Disgraced magazine journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig taking on the Michael Nyqvist part) is hired by wealthy industrialist Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to discover what happened to his missing grandniece – presumed dead after forty years. Blomkvist learns that he has been investigated by a brilliant computer hacker – also hired by Vanger, the anti-social punk Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) who joins forces with Blomkvist on the search. The pair forms an unusual bond and uncovers dark and ugly family secrets and corporate corruption.

Fincher’s pedigree in gritty film noir thrillers (Zodiac, Se7en, Panic Room etc) is not necessarily apparent at first from the opening title sequence, an nod to Bond (and his 007 star, Craig, perhaps), but an eye-catching, fetish-like monochrome affair of writhing bodies trapped in oily gook, accompanied by the nerve-shredding and pumping cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The opener means business and suggests the story to be Salander’s and her fight against tyranny.

What accompanies this chic and mesmerising title sequence is a near-identical palette and chilling tone, as to the original film, without any Hollywood gloss, particularly as people will not necessarily come to this version afresh. As in Fincher’s Se7en and Fight Club, Jeff Cronenweth’s fluid interior cinematography sets the mood with its low-key lighting and shadowy depth, accentuating the whole Gothic flair and unease of the story’s environment, while bringing a heightened iciness and desolation to certain scenes with daylight blue temperature. Fincher certainly manages to still stamp his mark on the subject matter while retaining the alien and hostile environment of the original.

But where the film’s slick look matches and even surpasses expectations, Zaillian – who claimed he’d never seen the original – still had to decipher Larsson’s lengthy written word, and naturally because of the involved nature of the book and necessary elements to relay, the result for Fincher fans is a less succinct style of film than should be expected.

That said the lead performance does not disappoint and is surprising; if you wondered whether Mara is a fitting English-speaking substitute, she is. Her physical transformation, complete with dyed blonde eyebrows and chopped hair is spectacular. Her mental state as Salander is equally focused and wildly effective. Mara’s recent Oscar buzz is more than justified, as she ploughs through the injustice and transcends the story’s knottier moments like a biking avenging angel. Somewhat out of context with the darker, lurid secrets that the whole story represents, Mara confronts Salander’s notorious rape scene and subsequent revenge with full and startling aplomb, giving Salander more of a ‘damaged’ soul and worthy cause than Rapace’s emo-styled thug.

Embracing that gritty determination he and his screen characters are renowned for, Craig’s Blomkvist is equally compelling and dogged in his quest, perhaps almost too methodical in fact – like a Bond figure: Nyqvist’s 2009 portrayal of the embattled hack is more debilitated and at times, something of a closed emotional book, shown in the Swedish actor’s pitted, rugged and haunted features. In turn, the sexual attraction between Salander and Blomkvist feels less of an enigma in this film, and more overly simplified, as merely two social ‘outcasts’ finding solace from their work. Still, the nature of the story is such that the narrative naturally gives way to Salander’s domination, and Craig is generous in giving the Mara performance as much breathing power as possible.

As a standalone, dark and twisted thriller, the Fincher-Zaillian partnership does not fail to capture the viewer’s attention, and the story’s unsavoury familiar mystery is heightened by the strong performances of its dynamic leads – Mara, unquestionably. Like recent English adaptations of Scandinavian tales, such as Matt Reeves’s of Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 Let The Right One In, Let Me In (2010), fans can expect the translation to clarify elements of the characters’ psyches, even if the action needs no further explanation. For Fincher purists, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is lumpier in plot fluidity than his other, sleeker work, but his call sign is still very much present and he uses the Swedish environment to interpret foreboding events to full effect.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows ***

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might be turning in his grave at the use of his work, but if he had a sense of humour, he might appreciate Guy Ritchie’s more contemporary, humorous interpretation of his British sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, and certainly admire Robert Downey Jr’s eccentric turn as the infamous detective again. What is certain is Ritchie gets to play out his love of Cockney bromance once more, while taking a European action-packed tour, Orient Express style this time around.

Holmes (Downey Jr) turns sulky schoolboy when his right-hand man, Dr Watson (Jude Law), decides to give up bachelorhood and get hitched, leaving his detective days behind. After taking over his stag do, ‘Best Man’ Holmes sabotages the happy couple’s honeymoon to Brighton, after discovering his arch nemesis, the brilliant mathematician Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), has hatched a bombing plan to set off a war in Europe, in order to peddle his arms wares. With ample action set-pieces and Matrix-style manoeuvres, plus the help of tag-a-long gypsy beauty Simza (Noomi Rapace), who is searching for her long-lost brother, the ‘brothers-in-clues’ set off on one finale adventure.

Downey Jr and Law have perfected their quick-fire, dry exchange and camp rebuffs in the second film with the finesse and the ease of a comedy duo with years of live performance experience. Downey Jr’s portrayal of Holmes’s borderline insanity is heightened in this film by a touch of transsexual tomfoolery that is inoffensive and relevant to the plot. With the delightful addition of the witty gentleman’s gentleman, Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s equally absurd, ‘naturist’ brother in the mix, there has never been such a display of English idiocrasy on screen in a long time to revel in, and although Downey Jr is always a tonic, Fry steals the scenes they share with aplomb.

Ritchie ramps up the action tenfold, with full slow-mo, sharp-angled purpose to extract every Holmes clue and acute observation while turning parts into an impressive cat-and-mouse, war chase scenes that fuel your enthusiasm and adrenaline. The waterfall finale that encompasses a meeting of brilliant minds over a deadly chess match is breathtakingly honed for full effect, leaving us – and even Conan Doyle – wondering on the actual fate of the UK’s most notorious fictional detective; this might leave some Sherlock Holmes fans perplexed, even perturbed.

However, the film has its flaws. First and foremost is its padded length that although punctuated by the impressive action sequences has a lot of lag to it. All the sharp dialogue and subsequent action suffers when it could have been a more succinct viewing experience. For example, the brief appearance of Holmes’s love, Irene Adle (Rachel McAdams), at the start is merely present for the benefit of giving Holmes’s mission a deep-felt purpose and to pour salt on the wound that his best pal, Watson, has found happiness in true love.

In addition, although Rapace as Simza is a mysterious beauty to have along on the ride, apart from being there to offload Watson’s trademark knitted scarf and to detect her brother’s presence – which she fails to, is sorely underused and underdeveloped and merely part of a gypsy resistance group that those with historical knowledge on the World Wars might find interesting as a persecuted people still in the news today. Even the snatched sideways glances between Simza and Watson are left lingering in the ether. Thankfully, the climax does make up for any tedious areas, with Downey Jr opposite Harris’s devilish and equally insane villainy in a wonderful sporting standoff of sheer intellectual prowess that befits Conan Doyle’s exceptional literature.

A Game of Shadows is pure period action drama with a delicious camp twist (cross-dressing aside) that demonstrates Downey Jr has made Holmes as much a part of his nature, as Captain Jack Sparrow is to Depp’s. This alone will keep fans more than occupied throughout Ritchie’s second sleuthing romp – inflated run-time aside.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Alvin And The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked ***

The sound of those rapid-fire, squeaky voices are enough to send some grown-ups running for the hills. Others will take a deep breath and prepare for the super-cute onslaught at the cinema – there has been a two-year respite after all. But once you’ve tuned into the inane Chipmunk banter, Film Three in the series, Chipwrecked, still manages to charm while thrilling the kids, what with its intrepid little adventurers and energetic musical numbers.

This time, Alvin (Justin Long on helium) and his band, The Chipmunks, including smart Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler) and gullible Theodore (Jesse McCartney), are on their way to some music awards with the Chipettes – Eleanor (Amy Poehler), Jeanette (Anna Faris) and Brittany (Christina Applegate). They travel overseas via cruise ship with their weary guardian Dave (Jason Lee), and although have been warned numerous times to behave, end up accidentally going overboard and getting marooned in a tropical paradise. But the island isn’t as deserted as it seems…

Squarely aimed at the U market, watching the on-deck antics of The Chipmunks, the Chipettes and mentor Dave is very much like watching an extended children’s TV about the trials and tribulations of family vacationing, with very tame goofs and pranks – usually involving the haphazard Dave – from a seasonal pantomime. The narrative is straightforward, as are the set-piece setups for kids to see the punch line coming a mile off coast. Once ‘chipwrecked’, there’s precious little that goes on, on the desert island that you wouldn’t want to leave behind, to be honest, but mischievous Alvin – however irritatingly over enthusiastic – still manages to coax a giggle out of you. There is also a nice role reversal between Alvin and Simon that keeps things interesting.

In fact, it’s Simon’s adventure this time that gets the biggest laughs from the kids when he turns all Franglais on us (with the help of Alan Tudyk’s brilliant vocal skills), allowing Alvin to learn a few life lessons in his coming-of-age experience, and for comedy director Mike Mitchell and team to open up the naughty squirrels’ shenanigans and feature other members of the cast in the limelight.

Mitchell’s writing team’s rather odd ode to Tom Hanks’s film Cast Away feels somewhat mismatched and remotely dark for a kiddies’ film, but does create the film’s anti-villain who isn’t at all scary, actually – just plain bonkers, allowing the Chipmunks to go on an Indiana Jones-style rescue through the jungle undergrowth. For adults, there is the added secret glee of watching the whole cast – and ex-manager Ian (David Cross) – marooned (finally), far away from civilisation and doing harm to reassess their actions on all of us.

The infectious and lively musical numbers will have you toe-tapping your way throughout, too, which are basically high-pitched, often a capella versions of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Pink and Willow Smith’s hits. Indeed, the phrase, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” certainly rings true as your senses are flooded with the Chipmunk drug. The ending is naturally an excuse for another grand musical Glee-style finale so there are no great surprises, and you are well and truly under the spell by then anyway to really care.

Some might argue about how ‘harmless’ a Chipmunk film is on the impressionable young mind, but this adventure takes the cast away from their natural habitat of previous films and shakes things up for anything to happen and some important rules to be learnt. Plus with its catchy musical interpretations, Chipwrecked has to be the best Chipmunk film so far for the uninitiated to be exposed to, offering wholesome family entertainment and a welcome glimpse of the sun, sea and sand on these chilling winter days.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Puss In Boots ****

Shrek’s journey has been one of highs and lows, and was running out of interesting places to go that even Shrek the Third director Chris Miller would agree with. Concentrating on another of Shrek’s travelling companions was always going to be a tall order; making a supporting character stand alone in a film can go either way. Miller and co have definitely succeeded with Puss in Boots in the new 3D film of the same name, tapping into the older audience’s nursery-rhyme nostalgia while putting the ‘cool’ back into the time-old stories for the newer generation.

Long before he even met Shrek, the notorious fighter, lover and outlaw Puss in Boots (voiced by Antonio Banderas) was an orphan then a criminal then a local hero after an adventure to track down some magic beans and the Golden Goose with tough, street-smart Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and criminal mastermind Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis).

Puss in Boots is a hearty hoot with a fairy-tale twist created by feline experts who should count themselves as having got the cream and wiped the floor afterwards with other family animations out there at the moment. Puss is certainly one hell of a fun kitty to watch who revels in his lead role, stepping out of the shadows of Shrek. He gets a chance to reveal his full personality in this, all within a neat 90-minute run-time with some well choreographed action that makes full use of the 3D technology in the sword fights.

Banderas and Hayek conjure up as much sexy Latin charm in their hilarious sparring that a U-rated film can allow, enough to get things sizzling for those old enough to understand, while, thankfully, coming across as playful, squabbling kitties to those too young to know. Banderas’s Puss shows a more vulnerable side in this to his dashing, arrogant self, aided by a purposeful but brief back-story with Humpty Dumpty that balances misfortune and humour in equal, satisfying measure, as not to be over-sentimental. This also serves as Puss’s raison d’être for his spectrum of feelings for his egg-headed friend who betrays him and his subsequent redemption.

Hayek is the confident one to Puss’s self-deprecating side that marries very well in the confrontations – the old ‘opposites attract’ rule. Watching these characters interact is an absolute thrill and creates the film’s high-spirited, often frenetic energy. These ‘meeting of the minds’ moments are wonderfully interrupted by acutely observed feline antics, including the paw-grabbing light trick that is absolutely hilarious after some intense, suave patter.

In contrast, Galifianakis’s vocal performance as Humpty Dumpty adds a child-like innocence to proceedings then changes and becomes self-centred and greedy in nature. Humpty for the kids is like the school bully, hurtful but actually hurting and with more to lose. Galifianakis is a chameleon of charm and menace and an odd, welcoming distraction from the Latin amore at times. It’s this compelling trio of variable characters that make the film so strong in character concept. With Neanderthal-like criminal heavies Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris) on their case to shake up events, and a Godzilla-like Golden Goose rampaging through the town at the end, Puss in Boots is a well-crafted, well-intentioned romp through fairy-tale land – even if there are a couple of continuity gaffs some might spot, for example, the weighty golden eggs becoming as light as the chick’s feather back at camp.

Chaotic yet beautifully arranged, sensuous yet innocent, Puss in Boots is a fun-packed treat full of delightful, detailed contradictions and touching tales with a manageable-sized cast that you get well acquainted with and fully enjoy. Cat lovers will be in kitty heaven.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Another Earth ****

Sundance winner Another Earth is as ambiguous as its trailer, but at its indie heart is a tale of tragic redemption, rather than apocalyptic sci-fi curiosity. Listen carefully to the trailer voiceover, as this is one girl’s journey laced with an otherworldly presence.

On the night of the discovery of a duplicate planet to Earth in the solar system, an ambitious young student called Rhoda (Brit Marling) and an accomplished composer and university professor John Burroughs (William Mapother) cross paths in a tragic accident. What happens next is down to Rhoda’s actions and Burroughs’s reactions.

Documentary filmmaker and writer-director of this tale Mike Cahill presents an alluring sci-fi moral full of humane fragility that draws a touchingly mesmerizing and soulful performance from its lead, Marling. In its pseudo-documentary style, it seeks a grounded realism, considering its parallel sci-fi furore and ethereal quality, which can only be as a result of Cahill’s filmmaking background.

Indeed, Another Earth could be described as ‘another Melancholia’ in concept, where Rhoda, a young girl in a depressed trance seeks solitude from society’s harsh judgement of her by tackling her grave human error by embarking on a kind of ‘restorative justice’. The Earth 2 is both her reality and her metaphor for the second chance that she realises she craves. It’s also the cause and the cure of her situation, resulting in an open-ended finale that’s up for intelligent debate.

Cahill’s casting of Marling opposite Mapother (of Lost fame) is utterly magnetic and the sole power behind the tale. These two distressed characters’ immediate worlds collide and provide a temporary lifeline for each other, away from the obsessions of the rest of civilisation. It’s here that Cahill allows the tentative steps towards their union to develop, creating an almost inert atmosphere to do so, resulting in both coming alive in this artificial environment then shutting down outside of it. It’s a fascinating transformation.

The inevitable truth cannot be kept at bay, which acts as a catalyst on the road to healing for both characters, to assimilate them back into society. The start of their journey may well be seen in the trailer, but it provides an incredibly blunt and dramatic shock tactic very early on in a film of two worlds colliding, both physically and metaphorically. It’s also refreshing to have a seemingly well-adjusted and fortunate youngster and a female as the delinquent for a change, which may be why Cahill’s film could feel unique – like a tabloid reporting on the more ‘attractive victim/culprit’ to grab and sustain attention.

Nevertheless, the power of the human mind to overcome adversity in its own way, whether that’s away from society rule is what gives Cahill’s film such inquisitive appeal. The sci-fi is merely a contributing factor to what is in effect a robust character study of salvation.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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New Year’s Eve *

You have to worry when a film’s musical medley finale is far more entertaining than what you’ve just sat through. Another snag for the filmmakers of the equally disappointing Valentine’s Day last year is their biggest star, Robert De Niro, is woefully miscast in the sombre role, when his true comedic talent is apparent in the end sing-song.
You’ve guessed it: it’s nearly ball-dropping time in Times Square, New York City, and a bunch of characters have all sorts of New Year’s resolutions to make and keep, all to do with some form of love: forgiveness, compassion, opening their hearts to a different point of view etc. We follow the 24 hours before the ‘greatest reset button in life’, New Year’s Eve and the big countdown.
Director Garry Marshall and writer Katherine Fugate haven’t learnt their lesson from last time, it seems – or they’re under contract to see this limp franchise through to the bitter end. The problem isn’t attracting an impressive cast – as that’s what the film’s main draw is, what with De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Hilary Swank, Zac Efron, Sarah Jessica Parker, Halle Berry, Jessica Biel, Katherine Heigl and even Jon Bon Jovi on board: One could cynically argue that it’s the easiest money they’ve earned all year, so of course, they’ve signed up. Perhaps it’s their collective love for the Big Apple at this time of year, too?
What is highlighted is too much of a good cast, without proper mini plot development in each scenario just produces a damp squib, with characters we don’t much care for, even if we enjoy seeing the famous faces together in one film. Their characters’ trials and tribulations amount to padding until the countdown, with some great musical numbers from Bon Jovi intermixed for fans. Hence, when the big moment finally comes we should be right there with them all, feeling that renewed hope of a great new year ahead, rather than wishing to reset our own time button to two hours earlier.
We see De Niro wasting away – both in body and mind with such a character; Heigl as the usual ‘bridesmaid and never the bride’ – again; Berry like a worn out extra off ER; Swank running around and mounting her own personal crusade – complete with the ever perfect curl in her hair; and Pfeiffer trying to convince us she’s really plain Jane and uninteresting – well, the latter part is true in this film, even with Efron and his cheeky charms trying to inject some life into her and their scenario of completing her wish list, as though she’s going to snuff it at midnight.
And no film set in New York would be complete without Jessica Parker running around in killer heels, like she’s doing a small SATC Carrie cameo, and forgotten she’s actually playing a concerned mum to teen Hailey (Abigail Breslin) who just wants to be kissed. Valentine’s Day star Ashton Kutcher plays disinterested New Year’s loather Randy in this, rather than over-enthusiastic flower man Reed in the 2010 film. He’s really only there to set up a singing scene for Glee’s Lea Michele in a knockout red number, and gets to slob it out in PJs, like he’s just got out of bed to make a lacklustre appearance in this.
As a result of too many characters and not enough investment in each, New Year’s Eve also suffers from a frustrating lack of explanation, such as what’s Claire Morgan’s (Swank) deep bond with cop friend Brendan (Chris ‘Ludacris‘ Bridges), and why is she estranged from her father, Stan (De Niro) – among others. To be honest, should we really care?
Apart from Bon Jovi rocking the house and a great vocal performance from Michele, Sofía Vergara – who’s like an annoying Cheeky Girl at the start – makes things hot and steamy in chef Laura’s (Heigl) kitchen, as well as steals the only comedic moments as man-crazy sous chef Ava from Heigl, rendering the latter’s usual comedy presence void.
There are a number of other actors and situations going on, one or more of which ought to strike a chord with whoever is watching. Although the filmmakers’ intentions are all good, the execution results in contrived, groan-inducing morality and over simplicity in parts that just undermines the candour of the lessons learnt. Let’s hope there’s not another date in the Western calendar that Marshall and Fugate can get/have got their hands on – even if it means they keep a few big names in easy work.
1/5 stars
By @FilmGazer