New movie release reviews - 6 June

FRIENDS WITH KIDS ***1/2 (107 minutes) MA

Of the recent swathe of comedy films that have punched the traditional values of family, this winning, heartfelt, surprisingly mature tale chimes in as one of the best and most thoughtful. Directed, written by and starring Jennifer Westfeldt, it tells of two happily single New York friends, played by Westfeldt and Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) who make an unconventional arrangement. They want children but are put off by the exhausting strain and grief it causes their married friends (Jon Hamm & Kristen Wiig; Maya Rudolph & Chris O'Dowd). So they decide to become parents without becoming a couple, sharing the responsibilities of raising a child while remaining free to pursue relationships with attractive people such as Edward Burns and Megan Fox (a pleasant surprise in her first grounded performance). There is certain amount of rom-com rote as the pair work through the inevitable ups and downs on their progressive parenting model, but the film really fires when the dramatic side of the story arcs up and the the unavoidable emotional consequences take centre stage. Starring much of the Bridesmaids troupe, this film shares with that movie a coarse sense of humour skilfully blended with the underlying theme that stability trumps flakiness and that, for all their maddening qualities, family values really do rule. Makes a fine companion piece to What to Expect When You're Expecting. Opens Thursday.

PROMETHEUS * (124 minutes) MA

It hurts like heck to say it, but one of the most anticipated films of the year is a dud. As unlikely as it seemed, director Ridley Scott's long-awaited prequel-of-sorts to his game-changing 1979 classic sci-fi terror ride Alien is not only conceptually lame and badly made, it's actually worse than Alien Resurrection, the 1997 French-flavoured travesty that attempted to revive the franchise. Echoing an embarrassing influence from Erich von Daniken's loopy Chariots of the Gods faux-documentary fantasy from the mid-1970s, Earth scientists discover ancient inscriptions that translate as an interplanetary invitation to visit one of the moons of Saturn. So a team of astronauts dutifully head off to make first contact. Sounds intriguing, and it is - for about 20 minutes. Once they land, however, Prometheus begins going off the rails for reasons so screamingly obvious not even die-hard fans of the first two Alien films (the only good ones) can ignore: namely, the direction is terrible and the story, well, sucks. Apart from Prometheus not being at all scary, there are just too many gaping, often gasp-worthy plot holes in an "origin" tale that is too diffuse, confusing and muddled. There are also many scenes that are straight-out stupid, such as the laughable do-it-yourself surgery sequence. The central problem with Prometheus is that audiences have been primed by the powerful trailer to expect a genuine prequel to the first Alien film, which this clearly isn't. Too many things just don't connect, leading to the hint by the film's curious ending that Prometheus 2 is coming soon to fill in all the blanks and make sense of what is, by any fair measure, a bad film. Given how the film trades on the Alien brand that has been cherished and enshrined in pop-cultural folklore over the past three decades, Prometheus might be one of the most egregious examples of short-changing a loyal audience since 1999's The Phantom Menace. It doesn't help that the performances are so soulless. Nobody acquits themselves well: Noomi Rapace (from the Dragon Tattoo trilogy) is a shrieking mess; Charlize Theron is a boring corporate ice queen; even the much-lauded Michael Fassbender proves that he, too, can bland out. In all, Prometheus is a cynically made slice of franchise fodder that will no doubt make an opening weekend killing at the box office, then quickly taper off as word gets out. (See our list of Prometheus plotholes.)

THE DUEL *** (118 minutes) PG

Very solid, handsome, respectful English-language film version (made in 2010) of Anton Chekhov's morality tale about two men in a small Russian coastal town who choose to resolve their long-standing enmity by ritualistically shooting guns at each other. Leading a cast of relativce unknowns, Irish actor Andrew Scott is excellent as the deceitful, snivelling  scoundrel whose habit of taking advantage of the good graces of others hits its limit. 

SWERVE * (83 minutes) M

While speeding his way to an urgent business meeting, Colin (David Lyons) happens across a fatal car prang involving a sexy woman Jina (Emma Booth, so good in Cloudstreet) and a brief case stacked with cash, which he hands in to the cop at the local, dust-blown town. Trouble ensues in a clumsily mounted, implausibly plotted, often wincingly bad attempt at an Aussie genre piece. Written and directed by Craig Lahiff, the film makes the same fundamental mistake as last year's Blame: small-scale thrillers need stories that are duck-bum tight. No amount of pretty photography or quick cutting can paper over plot holes that are as glaring as the sun often is in this misfire. Opens Thursday.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA ***1/2 (150 minutes) M

Deep in the night far from city lights, a small gaggle of police officials drag a doctor and a murder suspect through the cold countryside trying to locate the shallow grave of the victim. Unhurried, unforced and very leisurely measured - please note the running time! - Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan fills his snail-paced road movie with atmosphere and character nuance;l he's far more intent on capturing the natural rhythm of the long night (and the following day) than unpacking a crime plot. You need to be patient to really appreciate this very fine film, and those prepared to put their temperament into low-gear (like the cars in the film) will respond to the film's long takes and love of detail. The film took out the Grand Prize at last year's 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Nova.

THE INNKEEPERS *** (102 minutes) M

Fabulously atmospheric, semi-comic spookfest about two amateur ghostbusters intent on locating the spirits they believe inhabit their ramshackle small-town hotel, which is about to close. Blessed with a terrific, disarming, funny lead performance by Sara Paxton, writer/director Ti West (Cabin Fever 2; The House of the Devil) maintains a nice humourous vibe while building a decent degree of suspense in dark-lit rooms and cavernous corridors. A must for genre fans. Nova.


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