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New release movie reviews - 26 October
ARGO **** (120 minutes) M
Having honed his directing chops with Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), Ben Affleck proves with the exciting, tense, crazy-but-true rescue drama Argo that his transition from blockbuster poster boy to serious dramatic director is now complete. Set during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis and based on freshly declassified documents, the singularly bizarre story tells of a gaggle of American embassy workers who managed to flee the building before it was overrun by angry Iranians who then kept the staff hostage for 444 days. While the anxious Americans are holed up in the home of the Canadian ambassador, wily CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) cooks up a plan - to rescue the group by pretending they are part of a film crew shooting a sci-fi exploitation film. Pulling this off involves recruiting two Hollywood salts (John Goodman and Alan Arkin, both making a meal out of their roles), a lot of fast talking and a rapid succession of nail-biting close calls. Affleck directs with assurance and balance, wisely muting the obvious far-out elements to fashion a taut, believable hostage drama from real-life material that sounds like it was made up. Argo is generating a lot of Oscar buzz, and for good reasons. The quality of the performances from the ensemble cast grittily captures the raw-nerve tension of people caught up in a life-threatening scenario; Affleck's use of fly-in-the-room camera techniques is superb (a rare skill these days!); but most of all, the film's portrayal of America as a superpower under siege serves as a timely comment on the nation's place in the world today. Argo thankfully leans lightly on politics to focus on the compelling drama of a most unlikely rescue, yet the film packs a topical punch.
DREDD 3D ***1/2 (95 minutes) MA
In a grimy dystopian near-future made up of giant residential tower blocks and highway overpasses, law enforcement is dispensed by gruff, helmeted, non-smiling motorbike-straddling officers who administer executions to the guilty on the spot. Chief among them is Dredd (Karl Urban, aka Bones from Star Trek) who is partnered with a psychic (Olivia Thirlby) as they try dealing with a vicious, dentally challenged drug duchess (Lena Headey from 300) who likes solving her problems with the use of rotary cannons. Far from the mess of the 1995 Sylvester Stallone version - in which they made the mistake of taking the character's helmet off - this all-new take on the no-nonsense comic book anti-hero is a tightly packed, trapped-in-a-building action blamfest where the killings are often shown in ultra-slow motion, just so you get the full effect of high-velocity bullets tearing through flesh. Meaty fun for grown-ups who like their vigilantes and cops rolled into the one almost bullet-proof package.
FRANKENWEENIE ***1/2 (87 minutes) PG
In Tim Burton's strangely beautiful stop-motion ode to childhood ghoulishness, a kid with a love of making movies starring his dog, Sparky, follows the Frankenstein path when the pooch is run over. Stitching him back together and hoisting him through the roof of his home, the dog is reanimated with lightning. Then, of course, things get out of hand. As well as containing more visual gags - and story coherence - than usual, this effort from Burton also works as a deft ode to a boy's love for his pet. And, in the very best sense, the film is wall-to-wall eye candy. As massively over-rated as Burton is as a "cutting edge" producer/director, his live-action works can't match the stark, often poetic visual quality of his animations, such as Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. It's almost enough to forgive him for those terrible Batman films. It's also a fun footnote that this movie, produced by Disney, is a remake of the 30-minute film Burton made for the studio back in 1984. They hated it so much they fired him. Oh, sweet irony!
THE INTOUCHABLES *** (112 minutes; subtitled) M
Though the French don't do mush as well as the Americans - hell, nobody does - this pleasant, predictable, fact-based tale of an unlikely friendship between a quadriplegic and his carer hits all the sweet spots a feel-good movie must. When Driss (Omar Sy), a sly, self-confident, lazy welfare cheque collector, is hired by the wealthy Philippe (Francois Cluzet) and moves into his sprawling mansion, all the right boxes are dutifully ticked: clashing personalities learn to respect each other; Driss, the live-wire, teaches the uptight Philippe to loosen up; light comic moments (Driss is always on the make) blend with serious ones (don't park in handicapped spaces, you yuppie!). It's cozy, easily digested cinematic comfort food, with some decent dashes of high-key humour. And it's been a huge hit: the film picked up a Cesar award for Sy last year; it's the biggest non-English film ever released in France; it's been a sensation all across Europe; and presently has a worldwide box office take of - gulp - $400 million. It should surprise nobody, then, that the remake rights for The Intouchables have been picked up by the Weinstein company, which championed the movie in America.
HAIL * (104 minutes) R
A freshly released ex-con Daniel (Daniel P. Jones) hooks up with his partner Leanne (Leanne Letch) and makes noises about getting his shambles of a life back on track. This involves going straight, getting a job and understanding that fitting in with society requires some effort on his part. The self-improvement enterprise doesn't last, however, and what starts out as a promising drama - shot in a jagged documentary style - quickly dissolves into an ugly, unpleasant character portrait about an unrepentant brute who prefers to scream at the world rather than confront it. Written and loosely directed by Amiel Courtin-Wilson (Bastardy), the film's flailing pretense at social-realism can't paper over the fact that its central character is a one-note bore who can't face reality. With non-professional actors in the leads - Jones and Letch drew on their real-life experiences for the film - Hail too often feels like a filmed rehearsal for something that sorely needed a lot more story development.