A roundup/recap of the current best and rest in film and DVD. In this installment: Taken, Body of Lies, Young at Heart, Caramel, In Bruges (Film); The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, War/Dance, Tintin and I, I’m Not There, Sex and the City: The Movie (DVD).

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Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008)
Anyone convinced that what was really lacking in the Bourne series was a 56-year old leading-man may fare better with Taken, Pierre Morel’s careless, assembly-line knock-off, starring Liam Neeson as the most rickety action hero since Indy decided to ressurect his fedora. Neeson plays Bryan, a former superspy who splits his golden years between freelance security, and gnashing wills with his ex (a post-40 Famke Janssen, who, between this and The Wackness, is now doomed to playing bitchy, curdled divorcees). Failing to see eye-to-eye on the matter of their 17-year old daughter Kim, Bryan’s career-path seems to have bred a more wanton sense of caution in him – which is why, when the teen reveals her plans for an upcoming trip to France, he flatly denies her, only finally coming round after she vows to call him each day.
At first glance, Bryan’s dread proves unfounded: Landing in Paris, Kim and her partner are greeted by a genteel local who seems to have wandered in off the set of a Disney cross-cultural romp. Agreeing to split a cab, the Frenchman drops them off at their apartment, inspiring Kim’s friend to declare, with matter-of-fact assurance, that she’s “gonna fuck him later”. But before you can say “I told you so”, that unchecked licentiousness finds itself the site of a cruel twist-of-fate, as the two Californian natives, punished for their naivete, are kidnapped and sold off to an Albanian prostitution-ring. Crudely manipulative, Morel’s scenario profits according to a xenophobia that it aims to legitimize via the presence of Neeson. Unlike Ford, whose physical state was the butt of its own joke (“what are you, like 80?), Neeson’s gravitas ensures him immunity as an agent of white parental angst, filtering through Paris’s seedy body-trade with autonomic purpose and a set of fighting skills to match. Unconcerned with the subtleties of plotting, Morel erects a one-dimensional conspiracy plot on which to hang the film’s flimsy action scenes and barrage of violence. Still, if any doubt remains that this is a deeply conversative thriller masking itself as a real-world exposé, then one need only consider the regressive, horror-movie logic which dictates that good-girl Kim lives, while her more promiscuous friend is found dead, en route, at the hands of a self-administered overdose. In Theatres Now.—David Levinson

Body of Lies (Ridley Scott, 2008)
Body of Lies is a top-notch political thriller which rises above the recent spate of films to focus on America’s War on Terror. Adapted from former Washington Post correspondent David Ignatius’s novel of the same name, the film centres on Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), a CIA field agent who holds an important position in the Middle East division, unfortunately he has to answer to the leader of the division Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe). As Ferris’s meddling advisor Hoffman does more harm than good, managing to get in the way and complicate Ferris’s missions for his own selfish interests, all via cell phone and laptop from the comfort of his home in America. After Ferris uncovers an important lead on a major terrorist leader potentially operating out of Jordon, he is sent there by Hoffman and must infiltrate the terrorist network. This involves forming an alliance with Jordanian intelligence leader Hani Salam, (Mark Strong) who requires just one thing from Ferris; that he never lies to him. Slick and well-executed through genre, Ridley Scott does excellent work at drawing the audience into the story, creating an experience which feels authentic. The film is visually engaging, full of the compulsory car and foot chases, torture scenes and explosions which Scott executes with sophistication and intensity. There are some beautiful sequences involving long, crane shots which soak up the sparse desert landscape, this is contrasted effectively with the crowded, bustling city scenes in the Middle East and a variety of well utilised locations around the world. DiCaprio and Crowe give convincing performances as the CIA agents who butt heads at every turn. Crowe seems to be having fun as the ruthless leader who demands results over patience, trust and the lives of his men. A bearded DiCaprio does a good job of leading us through the story as he struggles to do the right thing whilst caught in a manipulative game of backstabbing and half-truths. Body of Lies achieves the difficult feat of being both a thought-provoking political film and a highly entertaining genre flick. In Theatres Now.—Maddie Grady

Young at Heart (Stephen Walker, 2008)
Poignant, uplifting, and remarkably cloying, Young at Heart’s geriatric content is documentary gold, although you almost wouldn’t know it – hampered by narration that quickly overstays its welcome, not even the quivering baritones of Fred Knittle, whose rendition of ‘Fix You’ (a formerly mawkish, nauseating power ballad transformed by the depth of the 81-year-old’s oxygen-assisted voice), can elevate this above mere 20/20 segment. Expanded from footage shot for British television, the documentary’s unsophisticated insight leaves a lot to be desired; its eccentric subjects, however, shine through the procession by exuding wisdom, humour, and self-deprecating spirit. By turns moving and manipulative, Young at Heart’s tear-jerking tactics come gift-wrapped in the form of three strategically placed numbers, all involving the death of a fellow chorus member. Knittle’s Coldplay cover, originally a duet until his ailing partner bit the dust, carries the film to its highest point, but it’s silver-haired Patsy Linderme, and her heartbreaking solo of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, that transcends all of the easy sentiment, if only for the briefest of moments. In Theatres Now.—Tim Wong

Caramel (Nadine Labaki, 2007)
Director Nadine Labaki’s debut feature is candid and charming. The plot is standard romantic comedy; the film as a whole a dusty, beautiful sweep of the lives of women in Beirut. Labaki herself plays salon-owner Layale, torn between her role as a dutiful Christian daughter and her troubled love for a married man. Beautician Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri) faces a Muslim wedding night sans hymen. Jamale struggles to come to terms with her age; spinster Rose (Sihame Haddad) gets a last chance at romance. The supporting cast is familiar: cute cop, crazy old woman and handsome American. Where Caramel gets interesting is the intersection of these rom-com cliches with the reality of everyday life in Lebanon. Easy to identify with relationship and work troubles, less easy to relate to an armed soldier tapping on the window of your car.
This film is a pleasure to watch. We peer through windows and doors, the mirrors of the salon. Surfaces are grainy and luxurious. Dry light glints on bracelets, lamps, the caramel used to pluck hair from thigh. I find the workings of a New Zealand beauty salon exotic enough, the more experienced will still find plenty here to fascinate.
The production background is equally fascinating. Labaki studied media in Beirut then made her name making music videos and commercials. A chance meeting with a French producer inspired a winning application to attend the 2004 Residence du Festival de Cannes. Caramel was written during Labaki’s six months in Paris, as tension between Lebanon and Syria escalated. Production and shooting took place in the heady months after the Syrian withdrawal, and wrapped one week before Israel invaded in July 2006.
I can’t help but think of the scene in Waltz With Bashir where protagonist/director Ari Folman asks about the success of his falafel king friend. The matter-of-fact reply? “The Middle East is trendy. Health is trendy. Falafel is Middle Eastern and it’s healthy.” A comparison can be drawn to the success of Caramel. Female sisterhood is enjoyable. Exotic locations are enjoyable. Viewers will find this a fresh and competent blend of the two. In Theatres 20/11.—Nina Fowler [Read More]

In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)
The Belgian city of Bruges is not the first place that springs to mind when one thinks of hitmen comedies, so it comes as some surprise that this gorgeous medieval city plays such an integral role in the success of this film. Seasoned playwright Martin McDonagh’s debut feature is a slyly humorous quasi-fable with several layers of moral subtext and a canny eye for the latent tragedy and sadness lurking beneath many comic situations.
Sent to Bruges to await orders from their boss (a pathologically pedantic Ralph Fiennes), inveterate hitman Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and new-to-the-game upstart Ray (a glove-fitting role for Colin Farrell) have little more to do than to kill time... in Bruges. The popular perception of the city as little more than a slumbering Dullsville is highlighted by Ray’s insistence on it being an utter shithole. Not one to be confined inside a hotel room – or marvel at historical minutiae with Ken, for that matter –, he insists on familiarising himself with areas of the city not on the regular tourist trail. It’s not very long, however, before the lightly excursionary narrative gives way to the discovery that Ray is being tormented by the enormity of a past event. In Theatres Now.—Basil Lawrence [Read Full Review]

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Warner/Icon, $39.95)
Submerging Jean-Dominique Bauby’s life affirming memoirs into a series of first person visuals, Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is at once a virtuoso and disingenuous feat, restraining the viewer so as they’re left with no other choice but to be moved. The high-flying editor of French Elle until struck down by a sudden, paralysing stroke, Bauby’s subsequent book of his locked-in experience – dictated entirely and painstakingly through the use of his left eye – is foolproof material, guaranteed to thaw even the coldest of hearts. Which makes Schnabel’s heavy-handed artistry all the more perplexing: gauged with an emotional dubiousness, and not such much filmed as force-fed, his direction leaves little room for imagination, despite conceding to the ‘fiction’ that all biographical films must come to terms with. Most conspicuous in this invention are the gorgeous and devoted women cast around Bauby in his hour of need, angelic projections to break through ‘Jean-Do’s’ otherwise suffocating point of view: a metaphorical diving bell trapped beneath the surface, soothed by instances of dancing, refracted light. As Bauby, the always-intriguing Mathieu Amalric renders the plight of an alert, but incarcerated mind with unlikely vigour, although full praise must be reserved for Max Von Sydon, tremendous as Jean-Do’s father, and custodian of the film’s few genuinely heartfelt moments. Sadly, pathos turns to bathos elsewhere, with Schnabel’s assaulting beauty an oppressive, immobilizing force. New to DVD. (French language w/ English subtitles; audio commentary w/ Julian Schnabel; making of featurettes).—Tim Wong

War Dance (Madman, $29.95)
Mad Hot Ballroom relocated to a Ugandan refugee camp, War Dance represents two documentaries at conflict with each other. The first is a compelling human drama of children battling to regain normalcy in their lives amidst the tragedy of war; the second is an attempt to make suffering palatable to foreign audiences, in this case a crowd-pleasing tale of underdogs taking on Uganda’s best in a nation-wide music competition. In this respect the film is well intentioned, but at times unsettling.
Gorgeously filmed by Sean and Andrea Nix Fine, War Dance often feels like a high-end Reality TV show. Children are posed in close-ups to deliver possibly scripted dialogue to camera. Certain events appear reenacted, even staged – the affect of which is to draw the viewer out of the film. Yet War Dance makes no pretenses to be straight journalism, and is notable for its ability to make tangible a distant conflict. The film focuses on three children from Patongo Primary – Dominic, a 14-year-old xylophone player; Nancy, a 14-year-old dancer; and Rose, a 13-year-old choir singer – as they prepare to represent their school in the annual National Music Competition.
The children, all members of the Acholi tribe, live in a remote north Ugandan refugee camp under constant military protection from the Lord’s Resistance Army. Although the film fails to provide any background on the conflict, it explains two million Acholi have been forced into government protected camps, and 30,000 of its children kidnapped to become soldiers. As Dominic, Nancy and Rose prepare for their musical showdown, they take time to share personal tales of horrific suffering. They also relate the importance music plays in their lives. “In our daily lives there must be music in everything we do. If there’s music, life becomes good,” says Nancy. It is this incredible resolve and the children’s moments of unguarded joyfulness that are film’s greatest accomplishment.
Early in War Dance – during lavishly composed footage of a refugee camp – Nancy explains: “Most people in the world think this is how people in Africa live, but I want to tell them this is not the way people in Africa live.” Whether War Dance represents an authentic vision of Africa is debatable. What is the authentic view of Africa? However, in challenging our preconceptions of the continent – and providing a human face to an ongoing conflict – War Dance is a success and recommended viewing. New to DVD. (optional English subtitles; deleted and extended scenes; trailers)—Caleb Starrenburg [Read More]

Tintin and I (Madman, $34.95): Belguim’s best export since Hoegarden recieves satisfying tribute in Anders Ostergaard’s documentary. The exploits of the plucky young journalist are a veritable chocolate box. I’m Not There (Warner/Icon, $39.95): Strong performances (especially gender-bending Cate Blanchett and poignant Heath Ledger), intuitive direction from Todd Haynes and Dylan’s glorious music make this biopic exceptional. Like Dylan’s autobiography Chronicles, it sensuously suggests the eponymous chamelon’s enigma. Sex and the City: The Movie (Roadshow, $29.95) is beyond the palin: an unrelenting, crass orgy of life as consumerism. I’ll outsource the criticism. Rick Groen: “Bad summer films are hardly exceptional these days, nor is the sound they typically make: the dull scrape of a culture hitting rock bottom. Yet this one seems uniquely bad; this one is a threshold-breaker with a different sound, the crack of rock-bottom giving way to a whole deeper layer of magma.” Tony Lane: “The most revealing line in the film is Miranda’s outburst as she hunts for an apartment in a mainly Chinese district: ‘White guy with a baby! Wherever he’s going, that’s where we need to be.’ So that’s what drives these people: Aryan real estate... I walked into the theatre hoping for a nice evening and came out as a hard-line Marxist, my head a whirl of closets, delusions, and blunt-clawed cattiness. All the film lacks is a subtitle: The Lying, the Bitch, and the Wardrobe.” New to DVD.—Alexander Bisley