The Year in Film: 2011’s Underrated Gems

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 13th December 2011.

Last week I ran through my cinematic disappointments of the year. Of course, I hadn’t seen New Year’s Eve at the time. Starring every actor working in Hollywood today and Jon Bon Jovi, this ensemble piece comes from those responsible for the similarly structured Valentine’s Day. A stomach ache inducing mix of cheese and saccharine, the multiple strand storyline eventually collapses under its own weight and like me, you’ll be counting down from ten with the stars, only because it means that the film is almost over.

It wasn’t all bad out there in the multiplexes this year. Here are my underrated or undiscovered gems for 2011.

Rango came and went without much fanfare in March. Directed by Gore Verbinski, the man at the helm of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, this clever and witty animated feature starred the voice talents of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty and Bill Nighy, amongst others. Following a wise cracking pet chameleon who is separated from his owners and accidentally becomes the sheriff of a town inhabited by desert dwelling creatures, Rango is much more sophisticated than your average animated film  and will play strongly to kiddie and adult audiences alike. Admirably, it was released in 2D only.

A little while ago, I wrote a piece about the horror comedy Tucker and Dale vs Evil. A film festival darling, a thoughtless decision by a US theatre chain representative denied the movie a mainstream cinema release. Now available in Australia for rental or retail, this low budget affair tips the rules of horror films on its head as two well meaning hillbillies get mistaken for serial killers by a bunch of stupid teens. As the college students become more and more convinced that they are being “hunted”, they accidentally off themselves in hilarious and bloody ways. Starring the versatile Alan Tudyck of Serenity and Firefly fame, Tucker and Dale vs Evil is great fun and will hopefully find its audience on DVD.

Super, a very black comedy from James Gunn, the writer and director of splatter horror laugh-fest Slither, has just had its Australian premiere in November at the Gold Coast Film Festival. Reminiscent of Kick Ass, it stars Rainn Wilson from TV’s The Office as an everyday man whose life spins out of control after his ex-junkie wife, played by Liv Tyler, relapses and falls into the arms of Kevin Bacon’s crime kingpin. Becoming The Crimson Bolt, a super hero armed only with a monkey wrench, Wilson is joined by Ellen Page as his deranged sidekick Boltie.

Dark and violent at times, but laugh out loud funny throughout, Super really resonated for me. With the current glut of super hero movies on the market, it is refreshing to see a different take on your traditional storyline. In this case, the super heroes are much more disturbed and mentally unhinged than the villains. Super will hits Australian shelves in early January and comes highly recommended.

Published in: on December 20, 2011 at 09:27  Leave a Comment  
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The Year in Film: 2011’s Worst Movies

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 6th December 2011.

With 2011 almost done and dusted, it’s time once again to review the cinematic good, the bad and the ugly of the past eleven months and 6 days. Admittedly, I didn’t frequent the cinema or video shop as much as in previous years but that didn’t help me to avoid these clunkers. Over the next few weeks, let’s start from the bottom and work our way to the top. Here are my worst films of 2011.

There were two fighting robots movies released this year and the one you should have missed was Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Directed with the subtlety of a Jeremy Clarkson rant by Michael Bay, this sequel was more than a two hour toy commercial, it was also a sales pitch for paracetamol. Robots clashed, people ran, things exploded, people ran some more and all in eye smashing, headache inducing 3D.

Shea LaBeef and Fergie’s husband returned for a payday, alongside franchise newcomers McDreamy, the guy from Being John Malkovich and Oscar winner Frances McDormand. Megan “so hot in 2004” Fox was canned from the production for apparently saying negative things about the director. I guess I’m out of contention for Transformers 4 now too.

After several stalled attempts, The Green Hornet finally arrived in January. Written by funny man Seth Rogan and directed by the imaginative Michael Gondry, The Green Hornet was strangely neither funny nor imaginative. Also starring as the titular super hero, aka Britt Reid, Rogan was obviously overstretched as he forgot to make his character likeable. Oscar winner Christoph Waltz lazily reprised his villainous character from Inglorious Basterds and I have no idea what Cameron Diaz was doing in this film.

The Green Hornet was also presented in pointless 3D. You know your 3D is terrible when the end credit sequence looks better than the rest of the movie.

Director Zack Snyder of 300 fame is another hack who doesn’t like to let story get in the way of the action. His effort for this year, Sucker Punch, is virtually unwatchable. Featuring Aussie actresses Emily Browning and Abbie Cornish, alongside High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens, the film follows an institutionalised girl who escapes into an imaginary alternate world where she joins her fellow inmates as a team of kick ass fighters.

This misogynistic and violent tale is hard to watch and will make you want to escape into an imaginary alternate world where, well, you know the rest.

Finally, from the director of the original Twilight came Red Riding Hood. Would you like your movie with extra cheese? Starring doe eyed Amanda Seyfried as the doe eyed Valerie, this very silly film is set in a village menaced by werewolves. Torn between two suitors, Valerie seeks to unravel the source of the lycan menace alongside werewolf hunter Solomon, overplayed by Gary Oldman.

Did I mention that this film is sensual and romantic? That’s how I prefer my fairy tales. Director Catherine Hardwicke proves that lightning can’t strike twice with this retread of her previous sensual and romantic adaption of Twilight.

Published in: on December 20, 2011 at 09:20  Leave a Comment  
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WWE Films: now with extra cheese

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This column was originaly published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 15th March 2011.

I have a confession to make. I don’t mind watching a little bit of wrestling. Don’t tell my mum.

It has always irritated me when people say that it isn’t real. Of course it’s real. When you see a wrestler fly across the ring, he’s actually doing that. When he jumps off the top rope, that’s what is really happening. The notion that you are watching a legitimate fight is what is not real.

The outcome of the matches may be pre-determined and the storylines may be put together by a team of writers but why should that diminish my enjoyment? I know that Home and Away, Neighbours, House, Doctor Who and A Current Affair are completely fictional and I’m sure that it doesn’t stop anyone from watching them.

What I will concede, though, is that the ability to act is not necessarily a prerequisite to be a WWE Superstar. I would suggest big muscles and the ability to look good in lycra trunks is far more important. Subtlety is not really essential in the larger than life soap opera for (mostly) men that is professional wrestling.

So I find it extremely interesting that World Wrestling Entertainment has set up its own film studio to produce motion pictures vehicles for its biggest stars.

WWE was formally the World Wrestling Federation or WWF until a court case brought by the World Wildlife Fund in 2000 determined that the general public might get confused between bodyslams and pandas. I know I often do.

To date, WWE Studios has produced or co-produced ten feature films to variable box office takings and mixed reviews. There are another five on the way.

The Rock, or as he would prefer to be known now, Dwayne Johnson, starred in the first three, and most successful, WWE Studios productions. The Scorpion King (2002), Welcome to the Jungle (2003) and Walking Tall (2004) were all box office hits and cemented Johnson’s place as a legitimate breakout star. His charisma in the ring carried over to the big screen and although he did not become the Schwarzenegger of the noughties as was expected, he is certainly now a big name Hollywood actor.

The depth of the talent pool became somewhat shallower with the departure of The Rock as he retired his trunks and pursued acting fulltime. Next in line in terms of wrestling stardom was “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Arguably the biggest star since Hulk Hogan and responsible for reversing the fortunes of an ailing WWE throughout the nineties, Austin’s vehicle The Condemned (2007), a knockoff of The Running Man (2007) and co-starring Vinnie Jones, was a flop at the box office. Austin has gone on to several direct-to-DVD films as well as appearing as a henchman in Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables (2010)  although he is yet to expand his acting range beyond looking menacing and punching things.

With the relative failure of current Superstar John Cena’s two movies, The Marine (2006) and 12 Rounds (2009), WWE Studios changed tactics and chose to focus their productions on the direct-to-DVD market, with most films having a very short cinema engagement before hitting the shelves soon after. There also appears to be a trend of not stretching the limited acting abilities of the wrestlers by ensuring that the roles they play are not far from the grappling world. John Cena plays a former high school wrestling champion in Legendary (2010) and “The Big Show” Paul Wight portrays a dim witted cage fighter in last year’s Knucklehead.

With over six hours of WWE programming a week on pay TV, it could be argued that fans are unlikely to spend money seeing wrestlers in films when they can watch them for next to nothing on the box. However, there may still be some money to be made with low budget movies starring contracted wrestlers and B grade actors.

I suppose the lack of acting ability has never really stopped anyone from making it to the big screen. Just ask Britney Spears, Mariah Carey and Jessica Simpson.