STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS **** (132 minutes) M
The new Star Trek film by wunderkind director JJ Abrams is much, much better than his much-lauded 2009 Trek reboot. It had to be. Whereas that origin movie spent way too much time getting the Enterprise crew together, and then way too much time wrestling with a hackneyed, headache-inducing time travel plot, this one just dives straight into the adventure.
Boasting a bigger scale and a more considered shooting style - not so much frenetic editing or swish pans here, thank God - Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) are still young bucks fighting with their competing ideas of what is right and what is legal as they face down Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), a frightening new genetically suped-up foe who has been defrosted after spending 300 years in a cryogenic Esky.
Abrams, again working with Damon Lindelof (his creative soulmate from the Lost TV series), has packed together a ripping, morally complex, highly intelligent story that melds hot-button themes about terrorism, rogue military commanders and the legality of war with some truly awe-striking visual sequences.
Blessed with some strong female leads courtesy of Zoe Saldana as a kick-ass Uhura and Alice Eve as a secret-hoarding British science officer, the unusually weighty performances by Pine, Quinto and Cumberbatch give added gravitas to the proceedings. The latter is especially good at selling a villain who is very good at rationalising his atrocities.
And the scale of the film is remarkable. As well as recreating realistic daylight visions of what London and San Francisco will look like in a few hundred years, this is the first Trek movie to give a real sense of just how big the Enterprise is, both from outside - the shot of it rising from the ocean is a work of art - and the inside. The sets - aided by seamless digital enhancements, of course - give the impression that they really built the thing.
Fun fact: The villain Khan was first played by the late Ricardo Montalban in a 1967 episode of the TV series, and then again in the classic 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, the film is justly respected for reviving the prospects of a Star Trek movie series after the mind-numbing tedium of 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a film so dull even Trekkies refer to as "The Motionless Picture".
In a film culture brimming with franchises, we often see films that successfully relaunch a brand after an earlier effort failed to do so. But Wrath of Khan was the first.
THE HUNT ***1/2 (106 minutes; subtitled) MA
The life of well-liked small-town kindergarten teacher and single-father Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen from A Royal Affair) is turned inside-out when a little girl tells a tale about his inappropriate sexual behaviour towards her.
It's a lie, a stab at revenge for Lucas not giving her the attention she demands. But as is the way of the world in the 21st century, that doesn't matter.
Allegations, gossip, repetition and the impulse for people to believe what they want to believe rather than look for the truth turns the life of Lucas into a nightmare. He becomes such a pariah he can't even go shopping.
Tautly directed by Thomas Vinterberg (Festen), the story is as chilling as the snow-dusted Christmas-time setting; it is measured, non-sensational and takes a sobering, slow-burn look at the way people behave when their common sense is replaced by hysteria.
Perhaps the most eye-opening moment comes when the film deals with the phenomenon of invented memory, where people claim to have vivid recollections of events that could not have occurred.
Mikkelsen, one of Denmark's leading actors, took out the best actor award at last year's Cannes, and rightly so. The film is told chiefly from his increasingly distressed point of view; you really feel his pain as he sees his life spoiling before him.
Yet though the film's subject is unavoidably heavy, Vinterberg (who co-wrote this with Tobias Lindholm) avoids becoming morose or mordant. Indeed, the film's brave final reel faces up to the most important aspect of such a crisis; namely, that life goes on.
SPRING BREAKERS *** (94 minutes) R18+
In search of funds to go to Florida for the end-of-school ritual of spring break (the American version of Schoolies) four hot high school girls rob a restaurant and head on down.
The quartet is played with airheaded gusto by Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, Selena Gomez (Wizards of Waverly Place) and Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical). The latter two, as everybody knows, are former Disney starlets, and there is a vicarious thrill here as we watch them shed their wholesome images with such enthusiasm.
Dressed in little more than designer handkerchiefs, they've got booze, drugs and sex on their minds. It's all fun at first as they mix with their topless, legless cultural compatriots. Much of the party footage was taken during real spring break festivities.
Soon, however, their excesses quickly draw dire consequences. But with the appearance of local gun-loving gangsta Alien (James Franco, bearing a mouthful of metal teeth and a thick drawl that often requires subtitling), that notion essentially evaporates into a hedonistic crime splurge.
While two of the girls head back home, two remain with Alien and participate in violent crimes. Their outfit of choice: fluoro bikinis, pink balaclavas and high-powered automatic pistols. And while they never miss when they shoot, they also never get hit, however many machine guns are unloading their way.
Art movie bad boy Harmonie Korine (Gummo; Kids), who wrote and directed this, has nothing deep or particularly meaningful to say about teenagers or violence or spring break - and that's clearly deliberate.
With his highly stylised use of lighting, music, delirious camera angles and cucumber-cool acting from thinly drawn characters, the film is essentially a violent, candy-coloured vacation fantasy for adults about bad girls gone badder. And, on that level, it's quite entertaining.
That said, there is a darker aspect to Spring Breakers.
As a flash reflection of modern society, the film contains a disturbing (though entirely unintentional) message about just how short our collective cultural attention spans have become. The film serves as a measure of how quickly an issue becomes a non-issue.
Not long ago, with the horrific shootings in Connecticut and Colorado front of mind, the topic of violence in films became hyper-sensitised. Release dates were changed; films were reshot; directors got defensive; calls for more restrictive changes to gun laws were everywhere. Robert Redford was concerned. So was the US president. The portrayal of gun culture in film became a very hot topic.
For about five minutes.
That there has been no kerfuffle over Spring Breakers and its violence proves that there is a very definite cut-off point beyond which such issues simply lose currency and cultural traction.
This film doesn't just glamorise guns, it sexualises them. One particular scene is plainly pornographic.
There's no question that had the film come out just a few months closer to the shootings, it would have been the subject of much debate and, presumably, criticism about its use of guns and violence as fashion accessories for sexy teenage girls as they embark on shooting sprees.
But these issues seem to lose all bite after just a few short months. The recent rejection of any proposed changes to America's gun laws demonstrated just how completely the steam can go out of a topic.
While films such as Spring Breakers should never be blamed for gun violence, they can be used to gauge just how much people truly care about such issues. And how quickly they are willing to forget.
The cultural potency of a film can often depend entirely on the timing of its release.
Had Spring Breakers come out mid-2012, it would have served as a lightning rod for debate about guns. As it is, the issue has cooled so much the film is merely being seen for the high-gloss trash it was clearly intended to be.
Fun Fact: Spring Breakers is like a fever dream. Or has somebody already said that? Actually, a stack of reviewers have. A very amusing piece in The Huffington Post (22 March) tracked the pervasive use of the term "fever dream" in reviews of Spring Breakers. They found at least 17 of them.
A PLACE FOR ME *** (97 minutes) MA
A tough, well-etched portrait of the damage a broken marriage can wreak, this barbed drama pits a famous-but-blocked writer Bill (Greg Kinnear) against his happily remarried ex-wife Erica (Jennifer Connelly) and his teenage kids.
When not prowling around her house, he pushes his teens to be writers, but that produces mixed results. He insists his son Rusty (Natt Wolff) dive deeper into life to get the experience he needs.
His beautiful, talented daughter Samantha (Lily Collins) presents a more troublesome case. Bill's initially delirious that her first book has been accepted by a publisher - then crushed when she tells him it's not the one he helped her write.
Bill's frustrations find release through casual sex with his beachside neighbour (Kristen Bell), but the film's main draw is Samantha. Head-strong and articulate, she channels her fathomless anger against her mother into a round of promiscuity before coupling with a boy whose relationship with his mother serves as an eye-opening contrast.
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES *** (140 minutes) MA
Biting off a tad more than he can chew, director Derek Cianfrance - who gave us the beautiful, realistic working-class romance Blue Valentine in 2010 - returns with an overlong, overwrought tale of fathers and sons, fate and revenge.
Ryan Gosling, so good in Blue Valentine, plays a glum circus stunt driver who turns to crime to support the son he didn't know he had with Eva Mendes.
He's such an unlikeable sod, it's only when the story veers away from him and Bradley Cooper's cop take up the baton that things get far more involving and interesting. With a son of his own, he uses his on-the-beat heroics to segue into a political career.
The film is unfortunately front-loaded with more art movie cliches than you can count, but once they get out the way the trans-generational story does close its grip on you. Just beware - the film is not designed as a crowd-pleaser.
PAA *** (130 minutes) M
Screens Monday 7.30pm @ Hoyts Melbourne Central as part of the 2nd Melbourne Indian Film Festival
In this 2009 melodramatic charmer, Indian acting legend Amitabh Bachchan packs on pounds of prosthetic face make-up to play a 12-year old school boy with progeria - a rare genetic disorder that ages people at an accelerated rate. He bonds with an ambitious local politician (Abhishek Bachchan, Amitabh's son) while his Bollywood-beautiful mother (Vidya Balan) watches on, keeping the secrets that bond them all. As well as giving levity to such a potentially heavy topic, writer/director R Balki takes his time delivering a few well-aimed backhanders to the Indian media.
LOVE FREE OR DIE *** (82 minutes) Unclassified 18+
Screens Monday 6.30pm @ ACMI as part of the 6th Human Rights Arts and Film Festival
This stirring, timely documentary follows openly gay bishop Gene Robinson and his fight for equality in the Anglican church. The contrasting attitudes between the UK and the US is stark, and while the use of emotive music is a tad overdone - the arguments should have been left to stand on their own - the film strives for balance in demonstrating how faith, equality and tolerance are all part of the same value set.
WORDS OF WITNESS ***1/2 (68 minutes) Unclassified 18+
Screens Wednesday 15 May 6.30pm ACMI as part of the 6th Human Rights Arts and Film Festival
In the midst of the so-called Egyptian revolution we follow a young, social media-savvy journalist Heba Aﬁfy as she tries reporting on a rapidly changing situation. Flipping between Afify's home life and work, documentary director Mai Iskander filters Egypt's bumpy move to democracy through her struggle to be seen as more than just a girl. Most amusing are the clashing attitudes of her relatives over how she should behave.