A roundup/recap of the current best and rest in film. In this installment: Into the Wild, Juno, The Golden Compass, Control, Priceless, Venus.

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Into The Wild (Sean Penn/USA/2007)
Neither cautionary tale per se, nor a hopped-up endorsement of its subject’s fatal cravings, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild strikes a deep balance between sympathy and insight in its regard for Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) – the 22-year old Virginia-native, who, upon graduating from college in 1990, shed himself of all material attachments ($25k in life savings; a beat-up Datsun) and sank into a life drifting across America. Despite having copped a genuine following, viewed today, Chris’s odyssey is best thought of as a capsule for the obligatory defiance of youth – stretched out to tragic and impossible limits, and cut against the grain of slacker apathy. Nevertheless, for all his outward mobility, what Chris discovers as a final, tragic “truth” is no different to the principle that draws his contemporaries round a bong, like lazy-winged moth to a flame: Namely, that people are born broken – on the run from something – and it’s only in the grace note of company that happiness is able to thrive. Which may conceal about as much depth as a welcome-mat slogan, but scrawled across the pages of Doctor Zhivago, as Chris starves to death, alone in Alaska, the thought stings with a precipitous irony: Such was his desperation to escape the surrogate life mapped out for him, that in the end he was driven towards a sum rejection of humanity – the sanctimonious cry of which only mirrored his WASP beginnings. Thus, even as he indulges Chris’s flights of fancy – eliciting something closer to the shaggy rapture of the ‘70s than the begrunged ‘90s – Penn is attentive to the way the young luminary dangerously conflated the personal with the prescriptive, undercutting his rise to sainthood with a voiceover from his sister (Jena Malone) that breathlessly unearths the family plot that drove him away. More than that though, her persistent commentary has the uncanny effect of ensnaring her brother’s agency, like a net cast over water – giving rise to the troubling question of just who it is that writes the story of one’s own life. IN THEATRES NOW.—David Levinson

Juno (Jason Reitman/USA/2007)
Juno is sixteen and she is preggers. Juno decides to give the child up for adoption to a yuppie couple that has herbal drinks in the fridge. Through the nine months of her pregnancy Juno grows up from being a cool-dude chick with a wicked sense of humour and an attitude to understanding the complexities of relationships and realising what true love is. Indie films that claim to be ‘different’ can sometimes be a gamble. There are those that are just cool (Napolean Dynamite, Jarred Hess, 2004; You and Me and Everyone We Know, Miranda July, 2005) and then there are indie films that are an absolute, pretentious wank. (Can’t remember any names because then the movie would have been worth something... but have seen many and regretted.) Juno falls into the former category. A simple film with a great script, cracker dialogue and super acting. Oh yeah, and really good music. (Velvet Underground’s ‘I’m Sticking With You’ anyone?). Why does this film work? For me it is first and foremost the story and script. How does one do the 25-word/20-second pitch for such a simple idea to studio bosses in a lift? Hope one never has to. It would be tough to encompass the emotions that run through the film. I have a weakness for human ambiguity, idiosyncrasies, the constant negotiations one within relationships, great humour, and of course true love. Juno has it all. What it also has is the non-judgmental look at teenage pregnancy and the motherhood desires of successful, upper middle-class women. Sixteen year olds do fall pregnant and many la-di-dah women do get their wisdom from pop-psychology books. Somewhere in the middle of all that is the love that makes this world go around. This film also works because Ellen Page makes Juno come to life. Here is a tiny, pretty creature that can emote and bring amazing energy to the screen. I hope and pray that she never does the Hollywood way and bleach her hair and teeth. IN THEATRES JAN 31.—Sapna Samant

The Golden Compass (Chris Weitz/USA/2007)
Ah, Christmas. Those rellies stay longer than they should, the weather is always patchy and you never really get what you want from Santa. So, in theory a movie should be the perfect escape – but if you were to see The Golden Compass with a family full of kids, chances are you’d leave with two hours of crushing disappointment. Adapted from the first of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass is the tale of Lyra Bellacqua (played by Dakota Blue Richards) who sets out to smash a child kidnapping ring after her friend Roger is snatched from her. But on the journey to try and save them, Lyra encounters a much darker world than she anticipated as the world’s religious government (the Magisterium) moves to try and stop her only relative Lord Asriel from proving other parallel worlds exists. Let’s be honest here: director Chris Weitz doesn’t do a great job with this film. Some of the acting is wooden at best; while a sulky Daniel Craig, and devious Nicole Kidman and Sir Derek Jacobi stand head and shoulders above the rest of the cast, the child actors themselves commit crimes against the English accent, the likes of which have not been seen since Dick van Dyke days. The book has had the potential to be a real controversy catalyst and the pre-publicity has at times centred around the apparently thinly veiled attacks on views of the Catholic church. That appears to have been watered down with the start the trilogy, though rumour has it the later books delve deeper into this theme – an interesting proposition ahead. Kids will love it though – the realisation of the souls of humans as animals (called Demons) is beautifully done and at times, characters gracefully morph from one animal to another. While that’s enough for a family film, there should be something for the adults to appreciate – and it’ll be enough to ensure the sequels do go ahead. All the same, the experience is pedestrian and dull – an uninviting start to a trilogy which doesn’t really excite me to the inevitable sequels. IN THEATRES DEC 26.—Darren Bevan

Control (Anton Corbijn/UK/2007)
Billed as the tale of a soul in torment, this take on the abruptly short life of the lead singer of Joy Division, Ian Curtis, is at times difficult to watch, and on other occasions a joyful celebration of the music inspired by such an enigmatic figure. Sam Riley gives a stunning performance as Curtis (and even looks remarkably alike in all the iconic shots made famous by the English music press). The biopic is based on the writings of Curtis’ wife, Deborah, whose autobiography Touching from a Distance revealed just some of the depths of despair felt by Curtis. Essentially, Control is a tale of a man torn between a wife and family he desperately wants to have – and a band icon who suffers from the responsibility of creating a new wave of music which defined an era and still inspires many would be artists today. Torn by family, emotional issues and music pressure, Curtis was clearly never able to cope with all the responsibility he feels was thrust upon him. Beginning with his early years working for a benefits agency in Manchester, Curtis’ life is thrown into turmoil when one of the candidates he’s interviewing suffers an epileptic fit, and subsequently dies. Shortly after this and a first gig in London, he suffers his own fateful seizure. It’s at this point he appears to disconnect from the real world and sleepwalk through his responsibilities from all corners of life. A chance meeting with would-be journalist Annik Honore (played by Alexandra Maria Lara) reignites the spark within him and he begins an affair with her on the road; however, at the end of every tour, he still heads home to a wife who clearly loves him yet is losing him. Ultimately – as has been well documented through rock history – Curtis’ demons get the better of him and his life ends in the very place he appears to want to have escaped from. IN THEATRES NOW.—Darren Bevan

Priceless (Pierre Salvadori/France/2006)
Is Gad Elmaleh (The Valet) trying to typecast himself as the bozo with a heart of gold? In Pierre Salvadori’s Priceless, he plays Jean, the very lucky bartender at a swanky hotel in Biarritz, whom gold-digger Irčne (Audrey Tatou) mistakes for a handsome young tycoon. In way over his head, Jean is soon busted and bankrupted, but as Irčne moves to Nice and onto her next sugar daddy, he reluctantly falls into the role of toyboy for an older, jealous woman who can cover his debts. The rest of the film is essentially the hijinks that ensue from his rapid indoctrination in prostituting himself, all the while pining for his teacher, who flits easily between lady and tramp. The effortless, cool jazz themes from Camille Bazbaz are a real highlight and help avoid scrutinising the film for too long, because with its luxury-product placement, dodgy morals and plot contrivances, Priceless is best enjoyed as a Riviera beach: let those evanescent pleasures wash over you and try not to notice that you’re enjoying diversions built around the empires of the Paris Hiltons of this world. IN THEATRES NOW.—Joe Sheppard [Read More]

Venus (Roger Michell/UK/2006)
A majestic Peter O’Toole transcends the genial late-life appearance of Venus through plenty of f-words, c-words, and a youthful taste for pussy. In what is something of a twilight sequel to My Favourite Year, the veteran plays another revered actor on the outer who finds a foil – and much-needed companionship – in the barely legal houseguest of old chum Ian (Leslie Phillips). It’s Harold and Maude with a sexual understanding, and Maurice isn’t ashamed to tickle his 70-year-old libido – if Jessie (Jodie Whittaker, delightfully incorrigible) will let him. Embracing the wrinkles, niggles, and irritable syndromes of senior citizenry, O’Toole exudes candour. His performance, which delivers credibility to an otherwise improbable geriatric fantasy, will surely earn the approval of those elderly and male in attendance: particularly, one imagines, through acknowledging the latent sexual urges of old men. Venus’ prefabricated charms aside, O’Toole, who refuses to retire (and who stars, incidentally, in New Zealand playwright/filmmaker Toa Fraser’s upcoming Dean Spanley), can rest in peace knowing he got to live a little before signing off for good. IN THEATRES NOW.—Tim Wong [Read More]