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New release movie reviews - September 14
MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE'S MOST WANTED ***1/2 (93 minutes) PG
Third time around the animal gang head back to their home zoo in New York via a jaunt through Europe, an escapade that involves joining a circus and being pursued by a lovably evil French animal catcher Chantel DuBois (voiced marvellously by Frances McDormand). In what could have been an extreme reaction to a paranoid fear of going stale, the film's directing triad - Tom McGrath, Eric Darnell and Conrad Vernon - have dialled up the crazy big-time; the pace of Mad3 is relentless, the characters more over-the-top than ever and the film's centrepiece chase sequence is a dizzying celebration of visual gags delivered with such rapid-fire fury it's a surprise the screen doesn't burst its sides. Voice performances by regulars Ben Stiller (Alex, the lion), Chris Rock (zebra Marty), David Schwimmer (Melman the giraffe) and Jada Pinkett Smith (Gloria, the sexy hippo) tend towards the hysterical and, of course, take a distant back seat to the breezy, exaggerated animation, which gets an added boost in 3D. And while DuBois offers us a garish stereotype that will please Francophobes, the French actually end up looking good by the closing credits, as do the Italians. It's a testament to the enduring charm power of kid-friendly animation franchises that Madagascar 3 has already taken more than $600 million worldwide. That this comes in the immediate wake of Ice Age 4 and it's staggering $800+ million take - watch out, Pixar! - shows how the hunger for these films defies their frequency or their rapid post-theatrical move into the home. And while live-action still struggles with the 3D format, animation appears to be the one mainstream berth where that extra dimension is thriving.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD ****1/2 (93 minutes) M
In a rarefied realm below the bottom rung of the American poverty ladder live the inhabitants of "The Bathtub", an area on the wrong side of a Louisiana levee where a little girl called Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives with her ailing, swamp-loving father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a ragged, desperately poor, defiantly happy community. Directed by first timer Benh Zeitlin, this is an extraordinary film of raw, subtle power that blends jagged reality with elements of myth and moments of magic. Hushpuppy's adventure involves briefly touching the modern world she usually sees in the far distance and the realisation of the depth of love her forlorn father has for her. So atmospheric it is almost palpable, Beasts of the Southern Wild easily qualifies as one of the most remarkable and unexpected films of the year.
RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION ***1/2 (95 minutes) MA
Giving their growing fanbase exactly what it expects, director W.S Anderson and Milla Jovovich deliver another thick slice of slick, glossy, futuristic action pulp. With her guns a'blazin' and wearing the latest in a formidable series of unforgiving catsuits, Jovovich returns for her fifth turn as Alice, the humanity-defending, zombie-killing heroine who leaps through a hi-tech, post-apocalyptic world rapidly being overrun by the Undead. To add a touch of emotion to all the digitally enhanced explosions and gunplay, Alice bonds with a little girl as she and a supporting team of macho commandos jump, Starsky-roll and blast their way out of an elaborate undersea facility. It's an obvious nod Aliens (1986) and Ripley's maternal adventure therein, but that doesn't diminish the shiny signature style this hugely successful franchise has developed. Alongside the Underworld series with Kate Beckinsale, its swelling popularity - the previous film, Resident Evil: Afterlife, took a cool $300 million - puts paid to the idiotic myth that women can't headline action movies. Visually, the film looks like a steroid-fed video game, especially when thrown up onto a huge screen in 3D - just beware of that $25 ticket price if you see it on an Xtreme screen! - with the sheer scale of some VFX sequences a timely reminder of just how casually we now accept images that would have been impossible a mere 20 years ago. And, no, you don't have to have seen any of the previous four films to follow this one; the makers wisely start this lark off with a very comprehensive recap. And, yes, there will be at least one more film.
THE WATCH *1/2 (102 minutes) MA
In what appears to be a concerted effort to redefine lame, a dour Ben Stiller teams up with an excitable Vince Vaughn, a taciturn Jonah Hill and a pointless Richard Ayoade (the Brit from The It Crowd) for an ensemble comedy that mistakes volume for funny. It's one of those sad occasions where bringing together of funny people mysteriously negates their ability to be funny. Stiller plays a nervy suburbanite who organises a neighbourhood watch group after he discovers a murdered person at his Costco store. (As with the Guitar Hero plugs in Couples Retreat, the film represents a new realm of product placement where brands form a major part of the story.) Of course, the film can't deal with anything as mundane as an earthbound murder-mystery, so aliens are dragged in at the first opportunity to give the film high-concept cred, and the whole thing quickly degenerates into a derivative mess where unremarkable special effects are mixed in with endless jokes about genitals. (Note to Hollywood comedy: please give these gags a rest.) Apart from the predictable conflicts and leaden direction from Saturday Night Live writer/director Akiva Schaffer (who made 2007's Hot Rod), the movie's aliens look way too much like aliens from loads of other films (Predator; Alien; War of the Worlds; Attack the Block, etc). You'd think that, on this score at least, the makers would have invested some imagination. No such luck.
NEIL YOUNG: JOURNEYS *** (87 minutes) PG
Fans of folk rock legend Neil Young who are willing to accept that, at 67, the guy is well past his prime will respond to the downbeat tone of Jonathan Demme's concert film as he plays a solo show to a small crowd in a modest Toronto community hall. Interspersed with snippets of Young driving his car around his Canadian home town of Omemee, Ontario, this is a far more sanguine, soulful affair than Demme's 2006 film Neil Young: Heart of Gold. Here there are no guests, bells or whistles, just the withered Young alone on stage going through songs such as My My Hey Hey, Helpless and Love & War, arguably his saddest song. The best Young doco remains Jim Jarmusch's fantastic 1997 film Year of the Horse, in which the filmmaker went on tour with Young's band Crazy Horse, despite resentment from some in the band. Still, Demme's diversion should satisfy fans, though Young does now seem depleted of his infamous anti-commercial fire and political stridency. It seems that age has caught up with him.
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS *** (99 minutes) M
A quartet of wistful college girls try making life at their campus better for all before getting emotionally entangled with a diverse assortment of male students. It's been a long time since writer/director Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco (1998), and while the highly mannered banter on show here doesn't quite have the cutting ring of his epocal, yuppie-era conversation piece Metropolitan (1990), it brims with dry wit and wry observations about college life and awkward emotions. Although set present day, one of the enjoyable aspects of the film is its soft-edged retro look. The four central performances from Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke are winsome, while Ryan Metcalf steals many scenes as the film's resident lunkhead. Screening at the Nova.