Dr Seuss’ The Lorax **

Are we ready for yet another environmental lesson, boys and girls? As if the world of 3D animation had not fed enough morals to our little ones to drum the message home in a fun and colourful way, Illumination Entertainment brings out another based on the genius of Dr Seuss. Only this one comes with lots of polished, computer-generated, blustering buoyancy, minus all the illustrative charm and heart of the books, so fans will look hard to find traces of their hero.

12-year-old Ted (voiced by Zac Efron) lives in plastic, fantastic Thneedville, a wall-in universe with nothing of nature growing in it. He is smitten with Audrey (voiced by Taylor Swift) who wishes she could have a real tree in her back yard, rather than the balloon-shaped ones. To win her affections, Ted goes on the hunt for her, outside city limits, learning the story of the greedy capitalist The Once-ler (voiced by Ed Helms) and the grumpy creature the Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito) who tried with all his creature friends to protect the tree-laden world from impending destruction.

As charming and amusing as this kooky, light-hearted tale attempts to be, there is nothing of lasting substance about it, which kind of defeats its environmental purpose. It’s as consumable and throwaway as its commercial message, simultaneously criticised by the Lorax who recognises the danger of capitalism gone mad. The wise old thing with his distinguishable bushy moustache, faithfully brought to life by DeVito, certainly entertains, along with an army of loyal creatures, but his significance gets sidelined by the noisy, overenthusiastic and manic production values, where ultimately, the only things you remember are a few tempting candyfloss Truffala trees swaying in the breeze, Ted’s tween crush and gravity-defying biking skills, and a witty, sardonic dig at our bottled water obsession.

Big-screen adaptations of Dr. Seuss books have never had a wonderful track record (remember The Cat in the Hat and How The Grinch Stole Christmas), and The Lorax looks to be joining that list. Part of reason is the storytellers just don’t let the Lorax and his message take centre stage, revealing the true quirkiness and passion of a Dr Seuss tale. They feel the audience needs padding in the form of a lovesick brat who makes the whole thing about his hormonal needs, done in the predictably bland animated way of Illumination Entertainment’s The Despicables. Loyal fans of the 1972 book may see this animated adaptation as an over-inflated burst of vibrant commercial indulgence lacking any individual character like WALL-E that tackled the same global concerns, which is a shame as it’s charmingly told.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Dark Knight Rises ****

Gotham City is once more set as an unsettling place to live with its future in the balance, allowing visionary film-maker Christopher Nolan the opportunity to propel us into the depths of human despair and depravity in his latest dark saga, The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR). But with this film, which completes the story arc started with his Batman Begins (2005), Nolan paradoxically brings a renewed hope for a fresh start, and leaves the last few scenes open to new interpretation, which allows the film to end on a high note and full of intrigue that “it’s never over until it’s truly over”.

After crime-fighting crusader Harvey Dent is labelled a hero by Gotham’s authorities – much to Commissioner Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) private despair, cut down by the murderous Batman, crippled Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) becomes a virtual recluse from high society at his home. But he is forced out of retirement after stumbling across beautiful jewel thief Selina (Anne Hathaway) with her hands in his safe. Her invasion sparks something uglier rising in Gotham: “There’s a storm coming, Mr Wayne”. That storm is being engineered by insane missionary-for-hire Bane (Tom Hardy) who is bringing a new Robin Hood-style army to the city to right the injustices between the haves and have-nots. However, there is something far sinister at the core, and Gotham needs a leader – it needs Batman to rise again.

Nolan’s latest film is as ambitious as it is flawed in plot at times – take the prison scene escape by Wayne and his subsequent arrival in lock-downed, cut off Gotham for example. However, from its breathtaking opener, TDKR spells high entertainment value as big-screen blockbusters go, so it doesn’t disappoint in this respect. It also has a good balance of personal moments of reflection and character development as well as high-octane, old-school, real-time action than merely CG trickery. There is a true sense of Nolan directing a grand operatic event with a cast of thousands, accompanied by a pumping score like a rousing battle rally cry.

The big-named cast of Bale, Oldman and Michael Caine as the ever faithful and tormented Alfred return with self-assured performances, picking up where they left off without a hitch. However, it’s probably Hardy as beefcake Bane and naughty kitty Hathaway who steal a lot of the scenes. Hardy, physically reminiscent of his Bronson character here as Bane keeps him a growling enigma, and like so many of Nolan’s characters, intriguingly suggests shades of grey to his persona and not pure evil as first impressions go, leaving us wondering where his character ends up. Any initial worries about not being able to understand the mask-clad villain evaporated at our screening.

Hathaway takes the playful elements of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman from Burton’s 1992 fantasy film but gives her a compelling darker edge. This Catwoman stands as a leading force to be reckoned with, rather than an attractive, scatty sidekick. Without her pivotal role, the stage for the changes is not set as she ignites the fire. Nolan again makes sure he challenges our initial perceptions of good and bad characters, ever breeding a sense of foreboding to the story that is TDKR’s horror/thriller element.

TDKR also has the ‘normal guy’ hero to champion, like some Bruce Willis Die Hard throwback in aspiring detective Blake, evenly played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Blake and Gordon are the brains behind the rescue operation, where Nolan’s fantasy adventure meets good old-fashioned cop show work, keeping a grounded and purposeful element to the ‘superhero’ antics and man’s return to civil society.

However, among the wordy dialogue necessary to keep us up to speed with whose relationship and background to whom that feels stretched out at times, there are some fascinating social ills laid bare and parallels to today’s uneven wealth that also provide an empathy for Gotham’s underworld. Nolan again places his mythical world scenarios firmly in our own, allowing us to question right from wrong while being merely spectators to the possible downfall of society, as we know it. There are so many layers that nicely blend into making the whole context a richer viewing experience while not forgetting the expected thrills.

As uneven as the plot is at times, Nolan commendably retains the Batman’s beating black heart in TDKR, with lead characters ever challenging our perceptions in their decision-making and moving the goal posts to keep things fresh. There is also a nice twist at the end too, that most won’t see coming. This is maybe a chapter to end all chapters, as Nolan’s sense of responsibility is very evident and faithful in his execution. If you have the opportunity to watch in IMAX, even better, to truly get a sense of scale of the Nolan operation and be immersed into his exciting and fractured world. The terror is in the parallels with reality, which is TDKR’s core power.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World ***

Setting the end of the world as a romcom backdrop may seem like an original bittersweet idea, and in the hands of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist writer Lorene Scafaria who directs for the first time here, it has so much dark, quirky potential. Indeed, Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World shows glimmers of the satirical in its first act then blends into predictability as its two leads go on a road trip to find ‘the one that got away’ while coming across the inevitable oddballs on route.

An asteroid is fast approaching Earth giving us a few days to do and say whatever we like. For middle-aged, conservative Dodge (Steve Carell), his world has already ended when he discovers his wife has left him. In the midst of his despair, he comes across his young British neighbour, bohemian Penny (Keira Knightley), for the first time. They strike up an unlikely bond as they lean on each other for support in apocalyptic times. When a riot rages outside their apartment building, the pair decides to take a road trip to find Dodge’s childhood sweetheart – the one that got away first time around, after he discovers an undelivered letter that Penny has been holding onto. Their journey leads them down an unexpected path.

Carell easily falls into his Dan in Real Life persona, a likeable chap with rotten luck in love that immediately sparks our empathy as he casts the understated Carell charm. The seasoned comedy actor effortlessly blends in irony too, feeding the indie stance of the whole affair. The casting of Knightley opposite him is a curious and intriguing choice as comedy is not her usual bag, but it strangely pays off. Scafaria gives them the space to allow their characters to grow on us – and each other, with the help of a few retro tunes playing off vinyl and cultural differences. The icebreaker from Knightley is actually: “I won’t steal anything, if you promise not to rape me.” Her direct comments and kooky ideals compliment those of Carell’s as worrier Dodge as they riff off each other to tease out the humour in the absurdity of the impending situation. Scafaria also invests a lot of sensitivity in her characters’ dialogue, a vulnerability that resonates in the looming catastrophe.

After the film’s riot that is a catalyst for the subsequent road movie part, Scafaria’s darkly humorous satire with heroine-shooting parents and boozy kids changes tune and becomes a little mainstream ‘samey’ – like many other road movies on the path of self discovery. While necessary to move events forward and out of the four apartment walls, Scarfaria feels the need to fill the pair’s journey with unhinged characters that neither raise much individual interest – apart from William Petersen’s brief turn as a dying trucker with a death wish – or help the inevitable union. There is also an orgy scene for the sake of having one in diner that again adds little value to the characters’ arc and feels forced and part of another film.

As soppily sentimental as the last part of the film becomes, which will touch you – however ludicrous events preceding are when Dodge relies on family transport to help Penny live out her final dream, the added insurance of playing yet another vinyl and the subsequent apocalyptic dawn drawn us back into the characters’ intimate new relationship and charm us yet again to end on a tragic high. Scafaria makes sure that the apocalypse may be in full impact but the importance of having each other at the last moment is the lasting, comforting thought.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Ice Age 4: Continental Drift (3D) **

The loveable Ice Age animals are back for a fourth instalment of gigantic geological proportions, and they’re in 3D. Those into Scrat and his odd nut obsession will be thrilled to know his actions affect proceedings once more from the start, and in so doing, the lives of  Manny, Diego and Sid. It’s been three years since the last adventure that saw Sid trying to adopt and raise some baby dinosaurs (for those of you who’ve forgotten), and each character hasn’t changed much, personality-wise, for avid fans. That’s both a blessing in disguise and a curse if you are seeking something different this time around.

As with all the Ice Age films, there are always new characters to support the old but who play an equally valuable part in the storyline, including Sid’s cantankerous Granny who is abandoned for softie Sid to care for by his cruel family. And the Ice Age saga also falls for the pirate theme – like so many other kids films today – with a bunch of scallywags led by Captain Gutt (voiced by Peter Dinkage). Although a character in his own right, Gutt is less interesting as proceedings go on than his clever iceberg ship that is quite imaginative to watch gliding through the waters in 3D like an ice Titanic.

In fact, it’s more the detail than the adventure that really sticks with you in this episode, and there are some nice animated and colourful moments, such as when Sid and co experience the sirens on route. Also, the fascination for the older viewer – who might will find the adventure a little on the bland side – is the detail of the humanistic features of some of the characters, such as big cat Shira (voiced by Jennifer Lopez) who scuffles with Diego.

The obvious box office draw is seeing the same old gang up against the odds to be reunited once more – cue another excuse for Queen Latifah who voices Manny’s long-suffering wife Ellie to burst into song again in another film after Joyful Noise. Still, these family-orientated films are always an excuse for a sing-song, and there’s no holding back tapping your feet to the end rendition of “We Are Family”, which is a lovely concept, considering in reality and in such dire hardship the chances of a saber-toothed tiger like Diego not following his natural instinct to have a nibble is quite quaint.

Fans will lap up the latest icy-glowing adventure, and the 3D is not bad either as 3D goes, fitting perfectly with the lively, colourful and sometimes hectic goings-on that will wow the small kids out there. The problems lie perhaps with a tired formula that as simplistic as the plot is for all the family to follow just gets a little repetitious after a while, however goofy, accident-prone but genuinely good natured the characters are.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Amazing Spider-Man (3D) ****

General consensus is Marc Webb (of 500 Days of Summer fame) has delivered a reboot of the original Spider-Man (2002). That much is true. However, he has taken a lot of the wit and sensitivity of his hit rom-com and added it to the superhero genre, effectively making a superhero reboot should appeal to a wider audience. Indeed, Webb’s Spider-Man – played by The Social Network star Andrew Garfield – is a more angst-ridden and sensitive soul who needs a love interest of equal intellect and insatiable curiosity. Two nerds make a right this time around, and two nerds trying to negotiate the pitfalls of adolescence too – without all the bizarre silliness in Sam Raimi’s previous trilogy.

The story stays the same: Peter Parker gets bitten by a spider and starts getting all sticky and too strong for his bedside alarm clock. While trying to find out why this bodily change is happening to him, he is also trying to discover what happened to his dad’s work legacy. In the meantime, as a buffed and suited vigilante, he rounds up the bad guys, annoying the local law enforcement teams, and makes an enemy of a super villain in the shape of a giant, flaky reptile (played by Rhys Ifans). Naturally, while trying to impress the girl (Gwen Stacy played by Emma Stone), Parker/Spider-Man has the stressful job of trying to save New Yorkers from impending chemical warfare.

Webb’s account may seem like déjà vu but it does have more of a darker edge to the origins of what made Parker the way he is. In fact, it’s very much reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins in that like Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker loses his philanthropic father and doting mother to a senseless crime, leaving him an orphan with a chip. Webb has picked a great choice in Garfield who has a natural awkwardness and inner struggle to him, both physically and verbally, so better suits the role than Tobey Maguire’s chubby-cheekiness.

Garfield as Parker is seriously toned with an endearing vulnerability that Webb cultivates to re-emphasise the character’s social faux pas but also get the female viewers to sit up and pay attention. Plus to further fuel a new femme interest in the character, he places a smart and tentative lead at the helm in Stone to try and figure out how Parker ticks – something all us ladies spend energy investing in do when a male mystery presents itself. Just think Twilight for a second, and this is the route that Webb is venturing down.

However, as compatible as the leads are with their bouts of sharp humour and flippery, this film still has all the death-defying swinging action around the skyscrapers of Manhattan to satisfy any fan. There is also a lovely moment of Big Apple working-man camaraderie when some construction workers decide to help out their hero, in return for a good deed done. In this sense, as realistically emotionally challenged and beaten-up looking as Garfield’s Parker gets, there is still that underlying comic book trope of good triumphing over evil with superhuman effortlessness.

The only flaky point is that of the super villain who makes a fairly unimpressive bridge debut – like a cross between the Hulk and a reptilian dinosaur – and does little else than manically talk to himself in the bowels of the city sewer. The concept of a man without place or purpose descending underground is a fantasy re-run from ions ago. Webb is very aware of the self-capturing video generation in this, but after building up a solid relationship insight into Ifans’ character and Parker, where they’re very much kindred spirits or life’s ‘misfits’, the end result is fairly uneventful and a monumental King Kong rip-off at the finale. Sadly for this film, none of this is very memorable as yet another set of mirrored high-rise buildings meets their doom in CGI land. This has lost the wow factor after the recent Transformers films competently trashed the US city skylines. Still, the Webb emphasis firmly on film’s relationships ultimately shines through, so that our sympathy simmers along for anyone deemed ‘different’ in the story.

As popcorn action flicks for couples go, The Amazing Spider-Man will satisfy your superficial needs and make Garfield hot property. You may get some 3D thrills from the web spinning and shooting episodes but it’s not vital to pay to see it in anything other than 2D. Webb manages to add an indie touch to a blockbuster franchise too – much like Nolan does for Batman. This is mostly because unlike other superhero blockbusters, he never loses sight of his characters’ development. In fact it’s not about the action as such, rather how the characters come to be as we travel down the path of their self-awareness. The action merely enhances this intriguing process.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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God Bless America ****

Writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait – he of whiny, high-pitched and inane Zed of Police Academy fame – does not hold back on trampling taboos in his aim to despair of the contemporary demise of social interaction and insatiable appetite for gossipy tripe. As in World’s Greatest Dad (2009), he makes you sit up and pay attention to societal ills and consumerism gone mad in his latest ugly social satire, God Bless America. Goldthwait takes a snapshot of one grim existence and turns up the focus on it to make you question your own standpoint on ensuing events. All this is done with a huge dollop of devilish fun, using of two fairly unknown leads to not draw attention from the values.

Frank (Mad Men’s Joel Murray) is driven to despair by noisy neighbours, ungrateful offspring and puerile workplace gossip. After his world comes crashing in and watching one reality TV show too many, he decides to rid society of its most repellent citizens with an unlikely accomplice in 16-year-old Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr).

God Bless America is a combination of blatant shock tactics and poignant, pin-sharp verbal tirades from its lead that are rendered darkly amusing, or you would cry with despair at the apparent truth. Goldthwait is a social commentator of the times, not condoning the killing spree his characters venture down, but fuelling that deepest, darkest fantasy of doing away for good with frivolity and the vacuous elements of the population out there: Anyone who hasn’t courted that idea and let their imagination run wild at some point is fibbing, especially regular users of public transport. What Frank does is act it out the subconscious on camera for us. However, the predicted aftermath in most cases is it all feels rather sad and an anti-climax, especially heightened by our ‘supporting’ two damaged characters at the fore – one mentally ill and the other socially ostracised. In this sense, Goldthwait keeps a subliminal grip on reality.

Without establishing empathy for the Bonnie and Clyde characters at the start of each introduction, the film would fall flat at the first hurdle. Murray paints an emotional rollercoaster picture of a man in spiralling trouble who is also simultaneously, ironically respected for some of his albeit warped stance. Opposite him come the biting retorts from Barr as rebel outcast Roxy who makes an intriguing mark in this film. Goldthwait never lets either character fall into the ridiculous, trying to keep the antics of both grounded in reason. Their moments of light reflection before and after a kill strike you as ‘normal’ behaviour from studies into psychopaths who can’t see anything wrong with their actions. These wordy moments also serve to set up a lot of the humour in the film.

That said too many monologues of raw reasoning mean that by the time we should be rallying behind our executioners for the tense American Idol stand off, we don’t really care enough for either party’s longevity. It seems Frank’s mission fizzles by this stage, rather than becomes a morally questionable crescendo for a nation (and us) to witness. Still, it’s a clever indictment of our own selected viewing of such a film, which feels ironically uncomfortable at the same time.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Hunter ***

The title of Julia Leigh’s novel is a very appropriate double entendre for the main character of this haunting film adaptation, representing more one man’s fascinating and harrowing journey of self discovery that forever challenges expectations than the literal sense and job title of the protagonist. Director Daniel Nettheim only had one actor in mind and it’s clear why veteran actor Willem Dafoe was the only choice to encompass a mature soul needing self preservation by revisiting nature’s power over mankind.

Dafoe is Martin David, a loner and mercenary who is sent by a large corporation to the Tasmanian wilderness to hunt down the last Tasmanian Tiger. While on his travels Down Under, David lodges with a young family, deeply affected by their missing father who was said to know the whereabouts of the animal. As David gets to know them further and learns of the local grievances that affect them and their simple lifestyle, he begins to question his true purpose on the trip and in life, plus the real intentions and ethics behind the task he has been set.

Nettheim’s thriller has a fluid and deliberately paced realism to it, strongly emphasised by the patient nature of its protagonist and his deadly task. The beautifully gritty cinematography both accentuates the ever-present and hidden dangers of a manmade threat, as well as Mother Nature’s unpredictability, so there is always a queasy sense of menace – even when the film warms to the cozy innocence surrounding the children in their home. In fact, there is an overriding feeling of insecurity for all players on screen, as every living thing is rendered potentially vulnerable – not just the mythical, last-remaining Tasmanian Tiger. For this reason, there is an instant empathy and subliminal investment you make in all the characters as you watch them adapt on their way to their individual fate.

Dafoe takes on the part of David with the full intensity, sensitivity and defiance that you would expect, playing to the darker nature of his character – that suitably remains an enigma – with a full range of subtle shades of personality, while experiencing an epiphany when he is forceably re-introduced into familiar company. There are some wonderfully underplayed moments as he as David struggles with new senses and sentimentality where the kids are involved as the mercenary inside him merely tries to solve the problem as best as he’s trained to.

Sam Neill as local go-to Jack Mindy represents the fragile nature of the townsfolk, confused by his loyalties and terrified for the future. It’s an arresting sight to witness a man losing control, and his dynamic with Dafoe as David is an intriguing one to watch that triggers a whole number of unexpected emotions from both. This is very much a character-led study that shows Dafoe’s supreme talent, even though Neill feels a little underused.

Apart from being stunning to watch, in terms of the haunting scenery, Dafoe always manages to portray a thought with apparent ease, making him gripping to watch for his next reaction to the situation. This is indeed a slow-burner about survival in general that may seem predictable in parts and meander in others, but the intensity with which the psychological developments suddenly manifest is its ultimate power.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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