Friday, December 20, 2013

2013 Christmas/Boxing Day Movie Guide

Lets have a look at the films hitting screens on Australia's biggest theatrical release day - Boxing Day. Having seen five of the seven films (Drinking Buddies comes exclusively to Nova, Melbourne) I can declare it a much better group than last year's, surprisingly topped by the still-unremarkable Samsara. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Les Miserables and Wreck-It Ralph were all disappointing.

Disney are back with Frozen and Peter Jackson returns with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug with Steven Frears' Philomena, Jonathan Teplitzky's The Railway Man and Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty joining the wonderful indie duo Short Term 12 (Destin Cretton) and Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg).

NOTE: The Railway Man (reviewed here by Blake Howard) and Philomena remain unseen.

Short Term 12 (★★★★1/2) - Wonderfully written and directed by Destin Cretton, Short Term 12 is actually based on Cretton’s 2008 short film of the same name, which also stars Brie Larson and several other cast members.  It is a sincere film that is full of life, with fantastic performances and arresting drama that provokes almost every emotion imaginable from an audience. Infusing well-suited humour, and without overdone sentiment, Cretton beautifully balances the uplifting and the heartbreaking in an authentic telling of tremendously moving human stories.

Grace (Larson) is a twenty-something supervisor of a Southern California foster-care facility called Short Term 12. She works long, tough hours as a nurturing and counseling presence for damaged and at-risk teenagers and provided leadership for her colleagues (some of whom are experienced, others we join on their first day). She loves her long-term boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr), who also works at Short Term 12, and their mutual understanding of the line between their professional and romantic relationship is one of the many charms in the film. These two are perfect for one another, and it is obvious. Over the course of the film Grace will be forced to deal with a mounting series of personal anxieties that have been bubbling beneath the surface as a result of some unexpected recent news and the arrival of a new girl Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), whom she closely relates to. This begins to affect both her relationship and her profession until she is forced to take on her own advice. 

We learn plenty about each of these layered, endearing characters – Mason’s childhood situation and what inspired him to take on this profession, the severity of the gifted Marcus’ (Keith Stanfield) frustrations and the crippling fear he has of the outside world – through surprising ways. They are all so richly explored that come the end of the film they feel like new friends. There is something graceful about how this cleverly structured film unravels. There is a natural sense of energy to every scene – from the jubilant birthday celebrations, to the devastatingly personal one-on-one shares – an effortless chemistry between the cast and an expertly photographed fly-on-the-wall style that has clearly been helmed by a very intelligent filmmaker.

Quite simply, Short Term 12 is a wonderful film. Larson is terrific and gives her challenging role her all. Tackling serious issues with optimism, it possesses an authenticity that comes about so rarely and embraces the essential role of the foster-carer and the daily strain they put themselves through to ensure others have a better life. I didn’t want to leave these characters. It is one of the year’s best films, make it a Boxing Day priority.

Drinking Buddies (★★★★1/2) - Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson (outstanding and perfectly cast) star as Kate and Luke, inseparable friends and co-workers who could be more. Their respective personal lives – Luke is discussing marriage with his long-time girlfriend, while Kate is in the midst of another relationship that looks set to fail – and their many a shared beer, complicate matters, however. Joe Swanberg’s observant, funny, relatable and quite brilliant comedy/drama intricately examines male-female friendships, the everyday behaviour of likeable white middle class individuals and the emotional strain that stems from their various relationships.

Kate and Luke work at a Chicago craft brewery. He’s part of the brewery team, she’s in the office and on the phone, coordinating functions. They have lunch together on a daily basis, hang out after work at the local pub and sometimes end up snuggling together passed out on the couch. Luke and his girlfriend of six years, Jill (Anna Kendrick), are contemplating marriage, a topic she continually suggests they agree to talk about in the future, sensing that Luke is reluctant and having second thoughts. Though Luke’s relationship with Kate has never crossed any boundaries, it is an unorthodox one. He loves Jill, that is clear, but is she right for him? Kate has been going steady with Chris (Ron Livingston), a music producer, but their relationship seems to lack spark. Chris extends an invite to Luke and Jill to join he and Kate at his family’s holiday house. There they find themselves naturally paired up – Chris with Jill, Luke with Kate – with the ensuing entanglements appearing to change the course of both relationships.

What is a stroke of genius is Swanberg’s decision to allow his actors to improvise their dialogue and have control over their character’s personalities – even to the point of choosing their own clothes – which made their interactions unpredictable and believable. These people talk like everyday people – broken, idle chitchat and sometimes speaking but not actually saying anything – with the actors beautifully conveying their emotions through the organic progression of the conversations.

While there are dramatic elements Drinking Buddies is a very funny film. The genuine performances ensure that we care for these characters – so much so that we feel like they are our own friends come the end of the fim. Kendrick and Livingston are excellent too, and in an even smaller role so is Jason Sudeikis as Kate and Luke’s boss. In one of many memorable sequences Kate and Jake's boss (Jason Sudeikis) joins his employees for a night out. Having drunk too much, he tries to make small talk, only to learn that he just doesn’t fit in. It is the little moments such as these, the bold reliance on cast chemistry, improvised dialogue and spontaneous emotion, as well as the fantastic setting offered by the brewery, that gives Drinking Buddies immense charm and those rare qualities that prompt one to return to this chapter of these character’s lives again.

Frozen (★★★★) - Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, from a screenplay by Lee, Frozen is loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale The Snow Queen and sees Disney make a glorious return to the classical musical-animation, but in stereoscopic 3D rather than hand drawn. Returning us to a magical realm of kingdoms and princesses, with an entertaining adventure tale of fraying sisterhood, cursed sorcery and hapless snowmen, this stunning animated feature is perfect family viewing this holiday season.

Elsa (Broadway star Idina Menzel), the princess of Arendelle possesses the rare ability to conjure ice and snow. When she accidentally freezes her younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell) as a child, the King and Queen seek help from Trolls who manage to heal Anna, but are forced to remove any memory of her sister’s powers. In order to protect Elsa the family locks themselves away in the castle, with Elsa, out of fear of hurting her sister again, remaining in isolation. A rift develops between the sisters as they grow up, which continues until the day of Elsa’s royal coronation, and the anticipated re-opening of the castle, several years later. When Elsa rejects Anna’s acceptance of the whim marriage proposal by the visiting Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), her secret powers are exposed to all, including the visiting dignitaries. When the entire Kingdom is sent into an eternal winter, Anna, with the help of some companions she meets on her journey – a rouge ice trader named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his royal reindeer Sven, and her childhood snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), re-created as part of the magic – set out on a journey through the frozen, snow-capped realm to find and protect Elsa, and help her to save Arendelle.

The narrative takes a path into some dark territory without painting clear-cut heroes and villains. The emotional centre is the bond between the two sisters, whose new found freedom is then defined by very different things. While the sisters are never enemies, it is Elsa’s inability to control her sorcery and the repair of their relationship that fuels the film’s tension, and not the necessary elimination of a monstrous threat. Frozen utilises a popular Disney trope of love conquering fear and darkness, but it actually does it in a way that a viewer doesn’t expect. Lee has a bit of fun hinting at the lip locking of a Princess and her handsome suitor, but it ultimately offers up a much more satisfying twist.

The voice acting is excellent. Josh Gad successfully delivers dozens of terrific one-liners. These clever jokes are complemented by equally amusing visual gags. Despite the dark content there are pretty consistent laughs throughout, which work just as well for the adults (there are even some Arrested Development references thrown in there for good measure) as for the little ones. With likable, empowering characters, and a fresh element of conflict, Frozen is the year’s most impressive animated feature and a 21st Century Disney classic. For me, it is one of my favourites from the studio since, well, Aladdin.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (★★★1/2) - The second chapter of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy is a vast improvement on the pretty disappointing opening one. I saw this in 24fps 3D and was much better for it. The story kicks off with Bilbo and his dwarf company still evading the pack of Orcs on their tale. They take a trip into Mirkwood where they seek refuge with Beorn, a skin-changer who can take the form of a bear, find themselves imprisoned by giant spiders, rescued and imprisoned again by the Wood Elves, and after escaping are eventually smuggled into Lake-Town, which lies at the foot of The Lonely Mountain, by Bard (Luke Evans). From there, they journey to the secret doorstep so that Bilbo can play his role in re-uniting the dwarfs with their lost homeland.

Peculiarly, Bilbo doesn't feel like the central character here. He has individual moments to shine - releasing the imprisoned Dwarfs and coming up with the barrel idea, and entering The Lonely Mountain alone to procure the Arkenstone - but he is largely relegated to the background for Thorin. I find that strange, because Richard Armitage doesn't have much of a presence despite his distracting similarities to Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn. On a positive note, some of the individual dwarfs are further developed in this film, which was a feature certainly lacking in the predecessor.

With some shoddy acting and dialogue, distracting camera movements, ridiculous Elvish acrobatics, and the Orcs' terrible fighting skills, it is an easy film to mock. But, having said that, it is pretty impressive. Jackson's obsession with playing out a parallel story featuring Gandalf and Radagast, which ties into The Lord of the Rings (Sauron's rise etc.), remains an unnecessary divergent from the central plot, but the time in Desolation is used more economically than in An Unexpected Journey. The pace is often stalled when we leave the action to visit their enemies in assembly and pursuit. These uninteresting sequences are too frequent, look almost-entirely animated, and lack tension. A long-winded visit to the Wood Elves, where Jackson managed to introduce an awkward love triangle between Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Kili (Aidan Turner) was another source of the film's prolonged length. While you wonder sometimes why the whole film isn't animated, the effects are infinitely better in the second installment. Smaug is an incredible achievement. The final hour is a jaw-dropping spectacle. 

I am going to end with my initial tweet about this film because it sums it all up in punny glory: "Much better. Barrels of fun at times. Still has glacial stretches, but after Smaug's introduction (how bout that!) it's gold." It is worth sitting through the patchy first two acts to get to Smaug. Overall, this is a much more action-packed and exciting film. I am eager to see how it will all end.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (★★1/2) - Walter (Ben Stiller) is a daydreaming, socially awkward working stiff who has been scarred by events in his life and escapes his anonymity by disappearing into a world of fantasies filled with heroism, romance and action. Having worked in the negative assets department at LIFE Magazine for sixteen years, Walter suddenly faces the imminent closure of the magazine, supervised by his bullying new boss (a magnificently bearded Adam Scott). When Walter is entrusted with the final cover photograph - courtesy of friend and photojournalist Sean 'O Connell (Sean Penn) - and discovers it missing, he embarks on a extraordinary global journey (from Greenland to Iceland to the Himalayas) to find O' Connell, using the other negatives as a set of clues. 

While this pleasant, inoffensive film has an unbridled sense of optimism and ultimately a charming finale, it is very very difficult to suspend one's disbelief and accept that Walter - a guy so lost in his own head, he can barely communicate with those around him - can suddenly become this wild adventurer. The whimsical is off the chain. His encounters stem from one contrived plot development to the next, inexplicably linked by a series of banal negatives. I get that Walter wants to finally live out the life he has been fantasizing about and see the world he has participated in bringing to the pages of LIFE all these years, but I just couldn't go with it.

Stiller's ambition is admirable, and his film features some impressively photographed set pieces and effects, likable performances (Wiig, Scott and briefly Patton Oswalt), and a thoughtful message about how a magazine's groundwork and physicality is being eliminated for digital and multimedia alternatives. But, I left feeling a little aggravated. Now, I don't like being cynical but this film brought it out of me. Equipped with more obnoxious music-cues and montages than I recall seeing in a film, this commercial-esque endeavour is neither funny enough, nor has enough character substance, to leave any real impression. There are just too many sins committed here to give a recommendation.

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