CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER *** (92 minutes) MA
In this surprisingly mature, thoughtful relationship dramedy, Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) are two cooler-than-thou thirtysomethings who deeply believe in the attractive myth that two people who were once married can resume a friendship without any messy emotional fallout. With their divorce papers yet to be signed they invest a lot of comic energy selling the notion to their friends and to themselves, horsing around and bantering about sex the way they did during courtship. Once Jesse hooks up with another woman, however, things get rough for Celeste who has an issue pretending there's no issue. There are issues, of course, for both of them, but while Jesse tempers his obvious love for Celeste and plans for his future, Celeste can't get her mind out of the past and begins showing resentment. Co-written by Jones (best known for The Office and Parks & Recreation) and Will McCormack (who has a supporting role), and directed by first-timer Lee Toland Krieger, the film bears a kinship with the underrated 2006 Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Aniston film The Break-Up; both are, for lack of a better term, post-romantic comedies by exploring the largely virgin territory of what happens long after the meet-cute, when life takes hold and love goes sour.
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER *** (102 minutes) M
While most films about teenage life tend to trade on a nifty hook, and sometimes even a plot, The Perks of Being a Wallflower chimes in as an unusually incisive, character-driven ramble through the inevitable awkwardness of teen life. Set in the early 1990s - with mix tapes being the film's key pop-cultural touchstone - director Stephen Chbosky (adapting his own novel) keeps the cliches at bay when chewing over issues of sexuality, drugs, partying and the pressure to fit in. After a rough start to his year, high-school outsider Charlie (Logan Lerman: Percy Jackson; The Three Musketeers) soon finds himself on the inside with other outsiders. These include odd couple Sam (Emma Watson, Hermione from Harry Potter) and her step-brother Patrick (Ezra Miller, the kid psycho from We Need to Talk About Kevin). She wants to clean up her wild rep as she heads towards college; he's a proud gay who still struggles with a homophobic culture. There's bonding aplenty here along with some well-judged stepping on emotional toes, and while the diffused nature of the narrative saps it of much pace, the strength of the performances throughout - especially from the three leads - makes Perks of Being a Wallflower an above-average and refreshing entry in the teen movie genre.
THE ANGEL'S SHARE *** (97 minutes) MA
While veteran social realist Ken Loach has pioneered the portrayal of life's rougher edges, he has developed something of a soft touch in his latter career, with films such as Raining Stones (1992) and Looking for Eric (2009) blessed with streaks of humour and hints of happy endings. And it's on show again here. Not that Loach is going soft. He certainly pulls no punches in portraying the craptacular prospects of violent, short-tempered thug Robbie (Paul Brannigan). He breaks down during a court-mandated confrontation with his victims (a powerful scene); he can't bottle his rage as he finds himself and his young family surrounded by other thugs who refuse to let him escape his life of crime. But his nose for a good whiskey opens up an opportunity that might set him straight. It involves a daring caper at a distillery, with three friends along for the jaunt. Set largely in Glasgow and the Scottish highlands and with syrup-thick accents, this is as close to a feel-good film as Ken Loach gets, yet he never loses sight or touch with the reality he is so brilliant at capturing on camera. Loach remains one of the masters of naturalism and the performances from his unknown cast are so good that the appearance of a name actor (Roger Allam as a whiskey connoisseur) actually looks out of place.
SOUND OF MY VOICE *** (82 minutes) MA
Here's a cracker of a film about the seductive power of cults. Maggie (Brit Marling) is a beautiful blonde who claims to be from the year 2054. Residing in a secret basement somewhere in Los Angeles, she uses her soft voice and persuasion techniques to recruit an intimate rings of followers, two of whom (Nicole Vicius and Christopher Denham) are undercover filmmakers planning on making a hit documentary. Made on a puny budget, the film rides largely on the haunting, compelling presence of Marling, who co-wrote this as she did with her previous, award-winning sci-fi tinged indie, Another Earth. Marling also pops up in impressive support as Richard Gere's daughter in Arbitrage and is obviously a rising talent to watch.
FUN SIZE ** (86 minutes) PG
Here's yet another example of a DVD film inexplicably receiving a full-on cinema release. Teen starlet Victoria Justice - very big with the Nickelodeon set - stars as Wren, an unlikeable teenage ice-queen who is charged by her single mum (Chelsea Handler) to look after Albert (Jackson Nicoll), her mute, portly, trouble-loving eight-year old brother, on Halloween. Wren would rather attend the coolest party in town but must go in pursuit of Albert once he wanders off. Joining her and her air-headed BFF April (Jane Levy from Suburgatory and Shameless) on the search are two Grade-A nerdlingers (Thomas Mann; Osric Chau), thus giving the girls the chance to see what it's like spending time with boys who are not magazine cover-cute. (Insert deep message here.) Albert's adventures with a vengeful convenience store clerk (Thomas Middleditch) and a party animal (Johnny Knoxville from Jackass) turn out to be much funnier and more interesting than Wren's voyage of discovery. Notably the film was written by Max Werner (The Colbert Report) and directed by Josh Schwartz, the TV gun behind such shows as Chuck, The O.C. and Gossip Girl. It happens sometimes that combining obviously talented people mysteriously results in their instincts deserting them. This is one of those occasions. It doesn't help that Victoria Justice, pretty as she is, does not exactly ignite the screen with comic charisma.
RED DAWN ** (93 minutes) M
Unfortunately unexciting remake of the 1984 junk-culture cult classic about a bunch of American teens who fight back after America is invaded by Communists. Yes, Communists. The Cold War was a big, credible threat way back in the 1980s, but things have changed too much to sell the idea here, hard as director Dan Bradley tries. As an Iraq war veteran, Chris Hemsworth (the Aussie guy best known as Thor from The Avengers) leads Josh Hutcherson, Isabel Lucas and the other kids of the resistance, with inevitable references to how, having fought insurgents, he is now one. (Oh, the irony!) But it's not really the premise that's the problem, it's the action, almost all of which is shot in shaky-cam and in close-up. Bradley worked as second unit director on Quantum of Solace, MI:4, Spider-Man 2 & 3 and the Bourne films, so it's hard to understand why the frenzy of fireballs and muzzle flash looks so mediocre, with his talent for staging car crashes apparently having evaporated. This could have been fun.
STEP UP TO THE PLATE **1/2 (86 minutes; subtitled) G
More food porn as French master chef Michel Bras prepares to handball the family business to his loving son Sebastien. Though the celebrity status accorded chefs has gone way out of control, this is actually not a bad little documentary about passing on and honouring tradition. There is plenty of discussion about the finer points of taste and presentation, much of it conducted in whispers in large kitchens. One quibble: the incredible success of Michel Bras and his Michelin-adored restaurants should have warranted some insights into why people are so willing to pay through the nose for meals that look like they couldn't satisfy a sparrow.