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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Roundup of films released on 11 and 18 November.

Most of South Africa's media today has been turned towards the passing of the Secrecy Bill - and rightly so - it's a crushing blow against our constitution and the freedom of the press. I'm tempted to write more about it but, really, what's the point. This isn't some great ethical dilemma, where both sides clearly have some sort of legitimacy. Here it's pretty simple: if you oppose the bill, you're clearly a right thinking individual with your head screwed on and your heart in the right place; if you don't then please feel free to sod off back to Stalinist Russia where you so clearly belong.

With all that out of the way, I'm going to use my constitutional right to beat the living shit out of some films that truly deserve it. Sadly, Adam Sandler and the Wayans Brothers didn't bother to release anything over the last fortnight so there goes that plan. Still, I'll try and make do. 

Everything Must Go is the only film I haven't reviewed yet from last week and I sort of feel I needn't really bother. It's not a bad film by any means but it is the textbook definition of a forgettable indie-drama. Will Ferrell is back in a more dramatic role as a recovering alcoholic whose wife has left him and, on the day that he loses his job, changes all the locks on the doors of their house and throws out all his stuff, leaving him broke and alone on their front lawn. It's not quite as dark as it seems but it's hard to say whether that's because of the relationships he strikes up with his attractive and very pregnant neighbour (Rebecca Hall) and a kid from the neighbourhood who he employs to help him sell off some of his junk (a very impressive Christopher Jordan Wallace) or because the film is directed by newcomer Dan Rush with such deadpan understatement that it never truly delivers anything of any real emotional clout. As for Ferrell, he's pretty good here and, by leaving his funnyman schtick at home, he ensures that no one will be truly offended or annoyed by the film. They may well be bored, though.


Far, far better in the quirky indie-drama stakes is last week's Beginners, which sees an always likeable Ewan McGregor as a not massively successful album-cover-artist trying to come to terms with his empty, unfulfilling life, while trying to build up relationships with a girl he met a party (Melanie Laurent) and his father (Christopher Plummer), who has just come out as a gay man. On that ploy synopsis alone, it should be clear that Beginners won't be for everybody but is far better handled than its plot would ever suggest. It certainly doesn't hurt that it has at its centre three superb performances by McGregor, Plummer and incredible up-and-comer Laurent (she has already wowed audiences with her recent turns in The Concert and Inglorious Basterds) but this isn't just an actor's piece. Writer/ director, Mike Mills injects loads of warm humour into what could otherwise been an incredibly mawkish slice of melodrama, while keeping the film's emotions honest enough that it never descends into unrestrained, cloying quirkiness. That he managed the unenviable task of making a (sort of) talking dog funny, really says it all.

 I missed the screening of Paranormal Activity 3 and considering how life-draining an experience the second one was, I'm in no rush to catch up with it. Have no fear, though, we still have another "found footage" footage film to deal with! Apollo 18 is nowhere near as boring as Paranormal Activity 2 but it's still a pretty effective cure for insomnia. The amateur-looking, horror shenanigans take place on the moon this time but the results are still very much the same. The story is actually pretty good and it's perfectly summarized by the tagline on the poster: "There's a reason we've never gone back to the moon". Basically, despite what NASA would have you believe the 18th Apollo mission did actually occur but because of what they found on the moon on that trip, its very existence was denied and the whole space program was scrapped. Good plot, then, but bad execution. What they find on the moon is very underwhelming so the film is somewhat undone by that, but by far the biggest problem is the "found footage" aspect of the film. What could have been an interesting and fun science fiction film is instead reduced to the typical formula of scenes of sudden paranormal violence punctuating what seems like hours of shaky footage of characters you don't care about, doing nothing at all.

On paper, Shanghai is terrific. What we have here is a stylish murder mystery set during a the Second World War in Japan-occupied Shanghai, starring the always dependable John Cusack heading up a very impressive cast of mostly Asian actors. Sadly, the film's many tasty ingredients add up to a less than satisfying whole. Cusack is good but the film never makes full use of his charming presence and though his character is supposed to be the film's central character, he is too subdued and underdeveloped to ever really hold our attention. The rest of the cast, though, are at least somewhat better served but it is only Ken Watanabe who truly impresses as the film's most fully fleshed out character - an stern authority figure who may be more than he seems. The biggest problem with the film, though, is that however much they may get right, director Mikael Hafstrom and screenwriter Hossein Amini never allow the film room to breathe. What should have been a lively, affecting mystery/drama comes across as far too mannered to ever be anything more than an admirable but ultimately cold genre exercise.

Lastly, we have another historical - though this time much more recent history - drama that is no where as good as it thinks it is. The Devil's Double's greatest selling point is clearly Dominic Cooper, the young British actor who needs to convince as Sadam Hussein's psychopathic son, Uday Hussein, and as a soldier who finds himself drafted to be the younger Hussein's double. Cooper is simply incredible here. He portrays two vastly different characters, both of which are based on real people (the soldier, Latif Yahia, is the author of the memoir on which the film is based) and at least one of whom has a very powerful personality and not only does he deliver two awards-worthy performances in one film, he keeps the two characters perfectly distinct from one another. It's a pity that the rest of the film doesn't come close to matching Cooper's virtuoso acting. It is told with a certain amount of panache, to be sure, but more than the questionable factuality of certain parts of the film, The Devil's Double's greatest crime is that it never makes full use of the richness of its subject matter. Here we have a film that could tackle a veritable plethora of themes - from the nature of identity to the causality of evil - but, more often that not, the film is more interested in Hussein's shocking brutality and turning his story into a Middle Eastern Reservoir Dogs than being anything truly insightful or affecting. There was simply no reason to make the film as vacuous as it is.    

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