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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

New Release Movie Reviews: Now Showing - 29th December 2011 - Fairfax Media

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This week's box office summary

Tintin takes top spot

The massively hyped Steven Spielberg film The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn slipped into the No.1 berth on Boxing Day, taking $1.488 million. (There will be a full Boxing Day box office report as soon as all figures are available.)

NEW RELEASES
ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: CHIPWRECKED
★★★1/2 (87 min) G
In what is probably their most enjoyable outing yet, the Alvin troupe get stuck on a remote island after a mishap on a cruise liner involving a hand glider. The central tension at the core of this typically joke-crammed adventure involves a neatly packaged coming-of-age theme; their father/manager Dave (Jason Lee) is way over-protective of the chipmunks, especially with Alvin who, despite his mischievousness, is eager to demonstrate some adult-like responsibility. Once again the slimy-but-likeable David Cross is aboard as the resident sort-of bad guy. There’s also a pleasantly crazy person (Jenny Slate, from TV’s Bored to Death) marooned on the island, along with a cache of hidden treasure and a boiling volcano, which we constantly cut to so as to keep the pace from flagging. As well as being difficult to fault as pure-grain kids entertainment, Alvin 3 is, by any fair measure, a far better animated film than Tintin. Yeah, you read that right. General.



HAPPY FEET TWO
(103 min; PG) ★★
HERE's the mildly anticipated sequel to the 2006 animated smash about penguins who sing and dance and worry about the damage being inflicted on their fragile habitat by evil man and his global-warming ways. This time around the hero penguin is Erik (voiced by Ava Acres), son of the first film’s hero Mumble (Elijah Wood). He returns from an opening-reel adventure to find that his entire colony literally stuck down a depression in the ice caused by global warming. With George Miller at the helm (he co-directed the first one with Warren Coleman and Judy Morris), one would have expected a lot more movement, tension and excitement given his Mad Max legacy. Yet the film feels tired and stagnant, with too little sense of threat and too many same-same song and dance numbers. Oddly, a ripper B-story involving two rogue krill — voiced by Matt Damon and Brad Pitt — plays like a fun Finding Nemo knock-off and proves more imaginative and lively than anything else going on. It’s easy to see why HF2 hasn’t clicked at the American box office.

General release

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN
(107 min; PG) ★★
Steven Spielberg’s monstrously over-hyped attempt to bring the mischievous, adventure-loving cartoon character created by Belgian artist Herge to life is a major misfire. The problem is that Tintin's not really much of a character. With no back-story, no humour, no real emotion, he’s basically an exposition-spouting cypher designed to push the plot forward. There’s no real engagement with Tintin, his accomplices or enemies. You don’t even care much for his dog. As for the motion-capture animation, it merely replicates the soulless look we saw in The Polar Express (2004).

General release

WAR HORSE
(146 min; M) ★★★
Never mind Tintin. Far more worthy of note is Steven Spielberg’s other post-Christmas offering, a stirring, elegant World War I tale following the journey of a horse from the farm where it was raised, to its service on both sides, to being lost on the corpse-soaked battlefields of the Somme. Despite expectations he would imbue the story with the hard-edged we saw in Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Munich (2005), Spielberg is very much in 1980s mode here; emotions are heightened; melodrama is dialled up; the images have a rich, pastel lustre; the tone is unfailingly humanist. And while he powerfully conveys the battlefield slaughter of men being mowed down, he refrains from the extremes we saw in Ryan’s opening reel. Some might find that a tad disappointing but it fits with the style of this most affecting film.
General release


THE IRON LADY
(105 min; M) ★★1/2
While everyone is buzzing about Meryl Streep’s admittedly impressive performance as bullish British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in this biopic, nobody seems overly concerned about what a rather average film it is. Streep looks, sounds, moves like the Thatcher we know from decades of news footage — and kudos to that Oscar-destined hair and make-up team — but she ultimately delivers an impersonation rather than a character. The film is too choppy, episodic and often incoherent, cramming too much life into too little space as the film skates through the highlights of her career like a hastily cobbled documentary. Director Phyllida Lloyd also directed Streep in the featherweight musical romp Mamma Mia! (2008); how that qualified her to do a political character study is one for the ages.
General release


ALBERT NOBBS
(109 min; M) ★★★1/2
While Meryl Streep is receiving a heap of pre-Oscar love for her turn in The Iron Lady, Glenn Close provides an infinitely more textured and engaging performance in this unusual, deftly handled period drama. Set in 1800s Ireland, Close plays a timid woman who must masquerade as a man to maintain her low-paying job as a hotel butler. With terrific support from the under-appreciated Janet McTeer (Tumbleweeds; Songcatcher) and another impressive turn from Mia Wasikowska (The Kids Are All Right; Alice in Wonderland), Nobbs is a moving, well-etched, humour-peppered film about survival and one small person’s dream of liberation.
Selected release


THE SKIN I LIVE IN
(120 min; MA) ★★1/2
Identity issues of the deepest, darkest hue are examined with scant regard for taste as veteran Spanish weird-meister Pedro Almodovar takes us on a singularly perverse journey. His long-time collaborator Antonio Banderas (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) plays a doctor whose adventures in plastic surgery are first driven by science, then by something much more disturbing. While Almodovar has become more sedate and thoughtful with his latter work, the extremes here require the transgressive snap of his earlier, younger self.
Banderas puts in a beguiling central performance but the whole ends up as less than the sum of its parts.
Selected release


WE BOUGHT A ZOO
(124 min; PG) ★★★
Those with discerning children who love animals are in for an uplifting blast with this tender-hearted Disneyesque dramedy in which Matt Damon ups his family-movie cred as a widowed dad who quits journalism to run a run-down zoo. As pleasant as it is predictable, Damon is winning as the dad, Scarlett Johansson is winsome as the dedicated zookeeper and it’s refreshing to once again see movie animals that do not require any digital assist. As a crowd-pleaser, We Bought a Zoo hits all the right buttons.

General release

TOWER HEIST
(104 min; M) ★★
For action, excitement, laughter and a killer payoff, Brett Ratner’s new movie should have popped; Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy lead the staff at a plush hotel to get even with the high-rolling shyster (Alan Alda) who defrauded them of their life savings. But what starts out as a solid, character-driven caper movie downshifts into a disposable lark the second Murphy turns up as an ex-con doing a latter-day version of his 48 Hours shtick. A wasted opportunity. If one Summer film screams ‘‘Wait for DVD’’, it has to be this.

General release

NOW SHOWING
AGES OF LOVE
★★★ (121 min) MA
ENJOYABLE, rambling Italian romantic comedy in which a triptych of stories play with the theme of infidelity over the different stages of life. Robert De Niro puts in a funny turn as an aging scholar who is attracted to his best friend's deceitful, very sexy mature-aged daughter, played very ably by Monica Bellucci.
Selected release

ANOTHER EARTH
★★★ (97 min) M
THE soul-crushing emotional fallout from a horrendous car accident impels the conscience-stricken perpetrator (Brit Marling) to assess at close quarters the devastation she has inflicted on her victim (William Mapother). This quiet, contemplative psychological drama about guilt and identity is framed by a cleverly embroidered sci-fi conceit involving the discovery of a twin Earth. Marling co-wrote the screenplay with director Mike Cahill. A quality arthouse film.
Selected release

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS
★★★ (97 min) G
IN THIS winning, Pixar-style animated adventure Santa's nerdy son Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) goes rogue to deliver a gift to the one kid in the world who fell off the delivery list. Fabulous design work renders Santa's one-night operation as a high-tech answer to the age-old kiddie query about how every kid can be visited in one night. At times the pacing is so fast it's hard to keep track of all the sub-stories, but the central point about preserving the real meaning of Christmas in a distraction-clogged world is pleasantly and repeatedly punched.
General release

ATTACK THE BLOCK
★★ 1/2 (88 min) MA
VICIOUS aliens descend upon a housing block but find their plans thwarted by a gang of thugs who go from mugging women to defending their neighbours. Well-made on a low budget, writer-director Joe Cornish (who also co-wrote the upcoming Steven Spielberg confection The Adventures of Tintin) squeezes in a bit of sociology 101 amid the low-rent cartoon violence and gore. Nick Frost puts in good support as a weed dealer whose fortified apartment comes in handy.
Selected release

AUTOLUMINESCENT: ROWLAND S. HOWARD
★★★ (109 min) M
LOVING, longform documentary by Lynn-Maree Milburn and Richard Lowenstein about the rocky, inventive, drug-addled musical journey of the late Rowland S Howard, the Melbourne muso at the heart of the Birthday Party, the Boys Next Door, Crime and the City Solution and These Immortal Souls. The film blends contemporary interviews - including Nick Cave, Howard, various collaborators and girlfriends - with archival footage in what is essentially a barbed valentine to a near-genius talent whose potential was hobbled by the wrong sort of indulgences. Cave's revelation about how he felt singing Shivers, Howard's classic doomed-love ode, is but one of many highlights. Fans will love it; non-fans will get a strong taste of the hedonistic alt.universe these people inhabited.
Selected release

BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK
★★★1/2 (87 min) PG
WHILE many make spurious claims to being urban eccentrics, veteran New York photographer Bill Cunningham has a credential that defies question. Despite being one of the most sought after fashion and society people in the city, Cunningham has long refused to accept money for work that could have earned him millions. He lives in a small apartment at Carnegie Hall, pedals from job to job on an old bike, enjoys the love and respect of everyone he works with and credits his enviable level of happiness and contentment to a lifestyle free of the tyranny of money. Director Richard Press interviews many New York notables - Vogue editor Anna Wintour; author Tom Wolfe - and while his roving camera captures Cunningham's natural effervescence he does manage one remarkable moment that hints at one of the reasons for Cunningham's appreciation of life. It's as moving as it is unexpected.
Selected release

BREAKING DAWN - Part 1. THE TWILIGHT SAGA
★★★1/2 (117 min) MA
EASY as it would be to leap upon the Twilight-bashing bandwagon, this latest film in the phenomenally successful teen-pleasing vampires-vs-werewolves romantic saga is the most engaging, incident-packed, dramatically satisfying yarn yet. The mood is darker, the stakes are higher and - lo! - the acting from the young cast is actually convincing. There’s less action, admittedly, but that’s only because the gnarled love triangle between pasty-faced vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson), ab-ripped werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner) and sourpuss mortal Bella (Kristen Stewart) has become more twisted than ever. Having finally tied the knot, Edward and Bella honeymoon in Rio. After a bed-smashing session of sex - the film’s first half is thankfully peppered with humour - Bella discovers she's got a little vampire gestating inside her. It’s a first for the vampires, and very bad news; not only could the mini-Drac kill Bella, the werewolves decide to void their truce with the vamps and kill her. This puts Jacob in a sticky spot, having to choose between his tribe and the woman he loves. The film has been hit by some pretty nasty reviews from Variety (‘‘disappointing...an unconsummated opportunity’’), Screen International (‘‘dramatically leaden tale’’), The Guardian (‘‘boring’’) and The Hollywood Reporter (‘‘You can practically hear every second ticking by’’). These are unfair for what none mention, and what deserves high praise, is that the film is perfectly consistent in tone, style and emotional pitch as the first three. Director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters; Dreamgirls) clearly knew better than to mess with the formula. And the film certainly can’t be faulted for not catering to fan expectations. Within the opening 60 seconds Lautner rips off his shirt and bears that cobblestone torso. Now that’s respecting your audience.
General release

BURNING MAN
★★★★1/2 (109 min) MA
THE anger, depression, denial and surprising sense of renewal that are roused in the wake of personal tragedy are perfectly captured by director Jonathan Teplitzky (Better Than Sex; Gettin' Square) in this outstanding, touching, funny/sad, deeply human drama. British actor Matthew Goode is exceptional as Tom, a Sydney cook with more chips on his shoulder than in his deep fryer who believes grief entitles him to take advantage of other people's tolerances. The film's first reel is an intricately arranged jumble of images and conflicting emotions that slowly start to make sense as the story solidifies. As Tom's fiery, sexy partner Sarah, Melbourne actress Bojana Novakovic is a revelation in a demanding role that traverses a huge range of emotions. Up until now Snowtown had the running as the year's best Australian film. It now has serious competition.
General release

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS
★★★★1/2 (90 min) G
PROLIFIC, eccentric, intermittently brilliant German director Werner Herzog (Fitzcaraldo; Rescue Dawn; Lessons of Darkness) hits cinematic pay dirt here as he explores the recently discovered Chauvet cave complex of Southern France, bringing its extraordinary array of prehistoric paintings to vivid life through the splendid deployment of digital 3D photography. Herzog narrates in his usual dour, semi-poetic style, though the film’s tone is more upbeat and life-affirming than the nihilism we saw in the semi-doc fantasy The Wild Blue Yonder (‘‘We aliens suck!’’) and his brilliant Grizzly Man. As with the extraordinary Wim Wenders film Pina, Cave showcases just how effectively the 3D process can be used to enhance the artistry, themes and feeling of a beautifully crafted documentary. Both films actually make good on the oft-spouted rhetoric about the immersive quality 3D can give a film’s narrative. Seems these Germans are on to something.
Selected release

CONTAGION
★ (106 min) M
A MAJOR-league bore. A virus takes hold, spreads, slowly kills people. There’s a race for a vaccine, an unkempt blogger claiming to tell the truth, low-level civil unrest as panic takes hold. Despite an all-star cast - Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Elliott Gould - the film is a two-act drudge directed with a plodding sense of self-importance by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic; The Girlfriend Experience). Think of Wolfgang Petersen’s magnificently entertaining 1995 virus-on-the-rampage adventure Outbreak, take out the drama, excitement and involving characters, and that’s Contagion in a nutshell.
General release

THE DEBT
★★★1/2 (114 min) MA
IN THIS absolute ripper political thriller by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love; Killshot), three Mossad agents - Rachel (Jessica Chastain) Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) - attempt to kidnap Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) from behind the Iron Curtain in 1966. Fuelled by righteous fervour and the lust for revenge they are faced with a morally crippling dilemma when their meticulous, ingenious plan goes askew. Thirty years later, the consequences of a mission they thought long buried revisit them. (The older characters are played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds respectively) After showing promise as an action man in the under-seen Killshot, Madden proves himself a terrific director of tension, while Christensen (Mr White from the last two Bond films) delivers one of the most unapologetic Nazi creeps in film history. Strong themes about truth, justice and political expediency underpin a double-jointed, deeply satisfying film.
General release

DECADENCE: DECLINE OF THE WESTERN WORLD
★★★ (102 min) M
LOOK, if we really have to pull our heads out of the comforting sand and take stock of just how self-indulgent, soul-crushing and morally corrupt modern Western society has become then we might as well have Pria Viswalingam as our guide. An SBS veteran, Viswalingam applies the droll commentary and dry wit that have long been his signature to a sobering walk-through of those things that account for the present state of things. Underscoring his interviews and pop analysis is the sense that the degeneration is part of a historical cycle wherein the success and ingenuity that accounts for the rise of a civilisation inevitably ferments into laziness and cultural self-obsession.
Cinema Nova

DOLPHIN TALE 3D
★★★1/2 (113 min) PG
WHEN failing school kid Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) happens upon an injured dolphin trapped by evil fishing nets, we know his time at summer school is not going to go as planned. He forms a bond with the creature as it is cared for at the nearby, soon-to-be-shut aquarium. When its tail is amputated, he rallies the support of his single mother (Ashley Judd), who teams up with the facility’s single manager (Harry Connick jnr) to help save the place. Extremely well-directed by Charles Martin Smith(star of the acclaimed 1983 Disney film Never Cry Wolf), Dolphin Tale is an upbeat, factually inspired tweenage film with an eco-friendly message involving community action and the value of life-changing prosthetics. It’s also smart enough to incorporate a comic-relief pelican, some enjoyably cheesy 3D sequences and a Methuselah-like Kris Kristofferson, who chimes in nicely to punch some points about family togetherness.
General release

DRIVE
★ (100 min) MA

ULTRA-violent, ultra-tedious, bargain-basement rip-off of the classic 1978 Walter Hill film The Driver. Ryan Gosling plays a robotic, monosyllabic stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver. He's something of a control freak. People get shot, blood spurts everywhere, he slowly loses control. Yawn. Comedian Albert Brooks (Lost in America; Broadcast News; the lead voice in Finding Nemo) puts in a cringeworthy, unintentionally funny turn as one of moviedom's least scariest villains. Directed without much of a clue by Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher 1,2,3; Bronson).
General release

THE FIRST GRADER
★★★1/2 (103 min) M
AFTER the Kenyan government announces free primary education for all, 84 year old Maruge (Oliver Litondo) presents himself at the local school gate demanding that teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) teaches him how to read. While the far-from-pleasant consequences of his admission play out in the public arena - he becomes an instant celebrity whose appeal quickly sours - Maruge's horrific personal story begins to surface, detailing the tyrannical colonial rule of the British during the 1950s. Director Justin Chadwick (Spooks; The Other Boleyn Girl) does a proficient job at overcoming the dark themes of this true-life story by infusing the tale with a life-affirming, positive energy about the power of education.
Selected release

THE FUTURE
★★★ (91 min) M
Fans of New York artist Miranda July who enjoyed her wistful, wit-laden 2005 art film You, Me and Everyone We Know will eat up her latest, left-field offering. She plays Sophie, a dance teacher whose life with laconic, long-term boyfriend Jason (Hamish Linklater) begins bending out of shape thanks to such gloriously random elements as job dissatisfaction, global warming, YouTube envy, infidelity, time-freezing and a talking cat named Paw Paw (voiced by July). There's no conventional narrative here, just plenty of mind food for the open-minded.
Selected release

GEORGE HARRISON: LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD
★★★★ (209 min) M
OUTSTANDING, comprehensive, compelling longform bio-doc by Martin Scorsese of George Harrison who, despite his tag as "the quiet Beatle", had quite a temper. Archival material blends seamlessly with contemporary interviews; as great as Harrison's Beatles days were, the film - actually a two-part TV special - comes into its own when detailing Harrison's remarkable post-break up life as a musician, sage and film producer.
Cinema Nova

THE IDES OF MARCH
★★★★ (101 min) M
THERE have been a lot of great films about politics and the ugly art of compromise. This is one of them. Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, a morally driven campaign worker determined to get his man, Democrat Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), one step closer to the White House. Dedication is no compensation for naivety in a world of industrial-grade throat cutters, however; high-level manipulation swirls around him while his personal and professional plight is complicated by his involvement with intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood). Clooney, who co-wrote with Grant Heslov, directs with cool-eyed focus on performance. Gosling is terrific, but the killer moments are delivered by vets Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman. A strong Oscar frontrunner, and solid proof that Clooney's superlative work on Good Night, and Good Luck (2005, which Heslov also co-wrote) was no fluke.
General release

IMMORTALS 3D
★★ (111 min) MA
LARGELY boring, hyper-stylised sword-and-sandals digital epic in which the only saving grace are the glorious bursts of 300-style violence; blood splashes and spurts from severed limbs and decapitated heads with an almost balletic beauty. Fans of Mickey Rourke will delight in how his acting style has now evolved to the point where he is almost impossible to understand. Directed by Tarsem Singh (The Cell).
General release

THE INBETWEENERS
★★1/2 (97 min) MA
BOUNCING off the popular TV series, this raucous, coarse, mildly amusing American Pie-wannabe comedy follows a quartet of randy high school chums as they go on holiday looking to score. Passable fun for undemanding fans who can't wait for the DVD.
General release

IN TIME
★ (109 min) M
EMINENTLY silly sci-fi clunker about a near-future dystopia where nobody physically ages over 25 but have to earn, win or steal the privilege to live longer. Poor people, like working schlub Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), literally live day-by-day in constant fear of dropping dead should the green day-glo counters on their forearms hits zero; rich, powerful people, such as Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried) have the luxury of accruing hundreds, even thousands, of years. Naturally the two hook up and are chased by bad guys hoping to catch them before the horrible truth about how the world works is exposed. Writer/director Andrew Niccol, best known for Gattaca (1997) and for writing the execrable The Truman Show (1998), takes a great premise and totally trashes it with limp storytelling and astonishingly bad filmmaking; the narrative is ridden with fatal holes, the continuity totally reeks - either that or Sylvia has a cache of high heels stashed in her purse - and the film easily beats Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (2002) for having the most half-assed futuristic concepts in film history.
General release

JACK AND JILL
★★★ (91 min) PG
IN THIS comedy from Adam Sandler, a commercial director (Sandler) grits his teeth for the arrival of his annoying twin sister (Sandler). Nobody other than Sandler fans will have any interest in seeing him do drag in his over-the-top style but they shall not be disappointed. The killer sell here is the comic contribution by Al Pacino who appears more than happy to mock his formidable film legacy — The Godfather, Scarface, etc — for the sake of rousing some very funny off-colour gags.
General release

MELANCHOLIA
★ (136min) M
AFTER an awkward wedding between a daffy bride (a perfectly cast Kirsten Dunst) and a tolerant groom (Alexander Skarsgard), it transpires that the Earth is about to be swallowed whole by another planet. It’ll mean the end of everything. And do we care? Let’s just say that never in the history of films about an impending apocalypse has such a motley collection of mind-grindingly dull characters made you wish for the destruction of all life on the planet to come as quickly as possible. Lars von Trier has proven himself a provocative, intermittently brilliant director with films such as Dogville, AntiChrist and Zentropa, but with this slice of tripe one suspects his playful attitude to audience expectations has prompted him to produce a deliberately bad, visually ugly work designed to test our tolerance for his indulgences. No sale, Lars. If only the film had a shred of the lyricism we witness in the film’s haunting introductory montage.
Selected release

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
★★1/2 (94 min) PG
IN THIS souffle-light Woody Allen confection, a frustrated screenwriter (Owen Wilson) yearns to be taken seriously as a novelist. While in Paris with his wife-to-be (Rachel McAdams) he finds he can time travel back to the 1920s and mix with artistic greats such as Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Picasso and Salvador Dali. He, of course, falls for his guide (Marion Cotillard) and starts to doubt his happiness with his present-day betrothed. It’s passable Woody waffle designed strictly for fans; the great cast, which also includes Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates and Adrien Brody, shine in their too-small roles, with Wilson working his amiable persona for all it’s worth. A nice time-killer, but far from Woody Allen’s A-list films, such as Match Point (2005), Bullets Over Broadway (1994) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).
Selected release

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — GHOST PROTOCOL
★★★★ (133 min) M
AFTER the mediocrity of M:I3, it was not going to be hard for the Tom Cruise high-concept action franchise to cook up something that, frankly, didn’t suck. The great news is the new adventure is a thrilling, stunt-packed ride that delivers on every level; the stakes are higher as Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his rag-tag crew (Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton) are forced to go rogue after being accused of a bombing. As tech expert, Pegg (Shaun of the Dead; Hot Fuzz) graces the film with a distinctly British lacing of humour while director Brad Bird (The Incredibles; Ratatouille) proves he is more than capable of handling big-scale action numbers, such as when Hunt scales the pointy end of the world’s tallest skyscraper. Patton (so good as the teacher from Precious) acquits herself admirably as she cracks wise and kicks ass, while Renner (The Hurt Locker; The Town) is terrific as a desk jockey who suddenly finds himself in the middle of all the shooting. An unmissable Mission, a top-notch serving of popcorn entertainment.
General release

MONEYBALL
★★★★ (133 min) M
THE key reason American cinema rules when it comes to sport movies is because they often have less to do with sport and more to do with rich metaphors about life, society, religion and all-consuming passion. The superb, sedate, Oscar-bound Moneyball is merely the latest example, offering a prime cut of fact-based sports drama about a struggling baseball team that creates a hot new line up by using bold statistical analysis. In one of his best performances to date, Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team who up-ends the organisation's modus operandi by poaching Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, in a career highlight) a pudgy number cruncher. He explains the formula that will allow Beane to buy under-valued players at bargain prices. This, of course, means letting go of existing members, a task Brand is forced to learn as part of his initiation into the brutal baseball world where trades and wins count more than loyalty. What makes this downbeat, beautifully shot drama so immersive is how the movie's universe is defined almost totally in baseball terms, where the game means everything. Based on the best-seller Michael Lewis and directed by Bennett Miller (Capote), the screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network; The West Wing) and Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List; American Gangster). The painterly cinematography by Wally Pfister (Inception; The Dark Knight) uses the natural lighting techniques pioneered by Gordon Willis (The Godfather), making each frame glow.
General release

NEW YEAR'S EVE
★★ (118 min) M
THERE'S simply way too much going on in Garry Marshall's omnibus rom-com, a follow-up of sorts to his similarly styled Valentine's Day. A dozen or so stories are thrown at you in a blizzard of cross-cutting, producing an episodic, over-long jumble of half-baked ideas, semi-formed characters and scenes of forced emotion. Zac Efron and Michelle Pfeiffer chime in with the best story about a courier who tries to make a middle-aged officer worker's New Year's Eve special, and Sarah Jessica Parker does a good mother-daughter act with a rapidly growing Abigail Breslin, and Halle Berry provides a sizable surprise. But the rest of the try-hard cast -- including Hilary Swank, Jessica Biel, Katherine Heigl and Jon Bon Jovi -- draw blanks in what is essentially the cinematic equivalent of worn carbon paper. For undemanding romantics only.
General release

PUSS IN BOOTS
★★★1/2 (90 min) PG
WE ALL had very good reason to be suspicious but, thankfully, this sub-franchise of the Shrek series feels fresh, brandishing a distinctive comic snap as well as a beautifully rendered, high-key fairy-tale world that looks very different from its parent. Riffing on the myth-mash premise of Shrek, Latino adventurer Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas again providing the voice) hooks up with sexy female foil Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) to climb the beanstalk of legend and retrieve the goose that lays the golden eggs. Amidst all the colour and movement, director Chris Miller (co-director on Shrek the Third) somehow shoehorns in a strong sub-story about betrayal and the resilient nature of friendship. Wisely, he has also spared us the cascade of pop references that define the Shrek films, something for which we will be forever grateful.
General release

RESTLESS
★1/2 (91 min) M
IN THAT weird arthouse movie netherworld where teenagers have all the time in the world to indulge their whims and work through their issues, a death-obsessed Enoch (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis) visits funerals of people he doesn’t know. While trying to understand his own loss he befriends the similarly eccentric Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) whose own situation casts a fresh light on Enoch’s closed world. While it clearly sounds good on paper, it’s just more stylistic posturing from director Gus Van Sant (Paranoid Park), whose minimalist musings are here garnished by the unnecessary presence of the spirit of a Japanese kamikaze pilot. Largely dull, emotionally inert, imminently forgettable.
Selected release

THE ROOM
★★ (112 min) M
STEVE Wiseau's unfairly trashed romantic drama might have terrible acting, dialogue and direction, but pay attention - the story actually holds together. Not as bad a film as legend makes out. Cries to be remade.
Cinema Nova

ROUTE IRISH
★★★1/2 (104 min) MA
BOILING with rage over the death of his mate, Iraq war veteran Fergus (Mark Womack) mounts an ad-hoc investigation into how he died, a morally bumpy journey triggered by the contents of a borrowed mobile phone. Social realist maestro Ken Loach, again working from a screenplay by long-time collaborator Paul Laverty (Looking for Eric, It's a Free World, Ae Fond Kiss) delves into the murky world of the highly paid war-zone security contractor with this absorbing, superbly acted drama. Typically jagged in its emotions, the film mounts a head-on collision between moral righteousness and what is right. And be warned: the film contains a genuinely startling torture sequence that speaks volumes about the true value of "enhanced coercive interrogation techniques". Loach is now 75 and, as with most directors of his vintage, just gets better with age.
Cinema Nova

SANTA'S APPRENTICE
★★★ (77 min) G
IN THIS fun, ultra-light French-Australian movie a Sydney orphan named Nicholas is tapped to replace the current Santa as he approaches mandatory retirement age. Given that Santa's job involves flying and walking about on rooftops, Nicholas, of course, suffers from a fear of heights that he must overcome. The sprightly traditional animation offers some ocular relief from all that highly detailed CGI we've become a tad too used to. Voice talents include Shane Jacobson and Delta Goodrem; directed by Luc Vinciguerra, who made SantApprentice, the 2006 French TV series upon which this is based.
General release

THE TALL MAN
★★★ (79 min) M
A VERY good, though far from even-handed argument-starter about the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee who died in a police station 45 minutes after being taken in for swearing at long-serving Queensland police office Christopher Hurley. The police side of things is covered comprehensively and a fair account is given of Hurley's commitment to helping indigenous people, but the film treads too lightly through the issue of Queensland's police culture and too obviously takes sides. But whether that's permissible in a well-made, inflammatory documentary such as this is another rich debating topic.
Selected release

TOOMELAH
★★★1/2 (106 min)
AFTER Mad Bastards, here's another confronting, insightful film about male aboriginal culture that is likely to find almost no audience. Set in a remote Aboriginal community, this disturbing, documentary-style drama by writer/director Ivan Sen (Beneath Clouds) tracks the influence of poor male role models on a neglected young boy. Not an "up" film by any means, but very worthwhile. Likely to disappear very quickly, so catch it while you can.
Selected release

TORNADO ALLEY 3D
★★★ (43 min)
TERRIFIC, occasionally chilling IMAX documentary about crazy/brave scientists who collect valauble, life-saving data from the heart of the tornado-producing storms that annually torment an axis of states in America's farmbelt. It's when the chase music and the fruity narration by Bill Paxton (star of the 1996 tornado thriller Twister) goes quiet that things really take off as director Sean Casey and his crew venture into the heart of tornadoes. The home-made armoured vehicle Casey uses looks like a joke at the film's beginning but by the end you respect it as clearly being the only thing that could survive the ferocity this film so vividly captures.
IMAX

WARRIOR
★★ (140 min) M
HERE'S a theory about how this bland, fight-themed cardboard drama came about: a couple of studio suits paid a visit to Hollywood's fabled Autowrite computer, which specialises in spitting out screenplays according to a supplied formula. They showed it Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler and David O Russell's The Fighter, then said to Autowrite: "Do us one of these, but about mixed martial arts". Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton play warring brothers from a broken family who are forced together when their bedraggled ex-alcoholic dad (Nick Nolte - who else?) tries getting back into their lives. Grainy, hand-held cinematography can't lend authenticity to the forced emotion. The film is being plugged as being from "The director of Miracle". Miracle was a fine film, but Gavin O'Connor also directed the terrible cop drama Pride and Glory (2008), which provides a much more accurate measure of the mediocrity of Warrior. Even the brutal fight scenes are a mess. If you have no idea what mixed martial arts is going into this film, you'll emerge none the wiser.
General release

WASTE LAND
★★★ (99 min) M
WITH noble intentions, artist Vik Muniz descends into the garbage dump of Rio de Janeiro — the world’s largest — with a project designed to humanise the ‘‘pickers’’ who sort through the trash for recyclable material. Contrary to what he expected, Muniz discovers a collective of co-workers who are proud and ambitious. As he involves a few in his portraits, he wonders whether exposing them to a new life is ethical. A very good film about the power art has to change the people it graces.
Selected release

WE HAVE A POPE
★★ (102 min) M
AS THE faithful jostle with the world’s media at the Vatican, a cluster of cardinals elect a new pope. Trouble begins when the winner, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), has second thoughts about the gig and escapes, while officials try to hide the truth. It’s a high-energy comic idea hobbled by low-energy treatment from director Nanni Moretti (The Son’s Room). Still, it’s ornate and looks great, which will be a plus for those into papal pomposity.
Selected release

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
★★★★ (112min) MA
AS SUBURBAN middle-American mum Eva, Tilda Swinton is a piercing study of parental frustration as her devious, manipulative teenage son Kevin (Ezra Miller) confounds her every attempt to connect with him. Whether he is inherently bad or picked it up from her is just one of the tornado of questions swirling through her increasingly confused mind; when Kevin buddies up with his dad (John C Reilly), he seems to be doing it only to annoy her. Directed with unsettling quiet by Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar; she also co-wrote the screenplay with Rory Kinnear, from the book by Lionel Shriver), We Need to Talk About Kevin joins Ben Coccio's jaw-dropping video verite Zero Day and Gus Van Sant's artful Elephant (both 2003) to complete an informal, disturbing trilogy of post-Columbine American films about the tortured psychology behind high school killing sprees.
Selected release

THE WOMEN ON THE 6TH FLOOR
★★★ (102 min) PG
THE well-off rarely score an even break in French cinema, and in this pleasant, slight social satire, director Philippe Le Guay adheres to tradition by using the rich to reflect the dignity of the working class. Set in a lushly appointed apartment building in 1962 Paris, Jean-Louise Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) is a typical stuffed shirt who becomes infatuated with the Spanish maids who reside on the sixth floor. At first his affections are for Maria (Natalia Verbeke), but he soon takes on the staff’s cause to be treated decently. There are dabs of social commentary, but Le Guay strenuously keeps the story from straying into more prickly territory. With this film, The Help and the upcoming comedy Tower Heist, it seems 2011 is the unofficial year of servants who push back on their masters.
Selected release

X
★★★ (86 min) MA
TWO Kings Cross hookers hook up for a night of running, screaming and ultra-violence. Veteran call girl Holly (Viva Bianca) recruits fresh-off-the-bus Shay (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) for a lucrative threesome. It's Holly's last night on the job, Shay's first and when they witness a client's murder the chasing doesn't stop. Sydney filmmaker and low-budget specialist Jon Hewitt (Redball; Acolytes) captures the seedy allure of the Cross well and keeps the pace brisk, though the convenient cliche of the corrupt cop is getting tired. Fans of his work won't be disappointed.
Selected release

THE YELLOW SEA
★★★1/2 (157 min) R
GAMBLING addicted Korean cab driver (Jung-woo Ha) can't get a break; he's hopeless at the gaming table, there's no sign of the wife who deserted him and the gentlemen to whom he is in debt are now making very personal house calls to see how those payments are coming along. An offer to clear his ledger in exchange for one small crime takes him to the titular region between Russia, North Korea and China where a chance to find his wife is bundled in with a fabulously gritty, pacy, often gory adventure. Written and directed by Na Hong-jin (2008's The Chaser), the film is an extremely well-mounted, tense, ultra violent slice of Asian action cinema, graced with little dialogue, some great fights and a sensational Bourne-style car chase.
Cinema Nova

YES MADAM, SIR
★★★ (95 min) PG
PUNCHY 2008 documentary about punchy Kiran Bedi, the Indian Police Service's first female recruit whose loud-mouthed, head-strong, barrier-shattering personality proved the pea in the bed of the institution's change-averse bureaucracy. Director Megan Doneman neatly frames Bedi's ball-busting style with open acknowledgment from family and officials about the Jovian size of her publicity-addicted ego. But it's all purpose-driven. She courageously rails against the corruption she discovers in the please-quit postings foisted upon her and her can-do attitude is often stirring. Sadly, she recognises how she is more an anomaly than a trail blazer in a system dedicated to suppressing reform.
Cinema Nova

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