Friday 13 December 2019

Oldies shine despite plot wrinkles

Cert 12A

With memories of 2008's pensioner rebellion (prompted by government attempts to change the elderly's entitlement to a medical card) still fresh and the prospect of further cuts guaranteed, it's easy to imagine the title of Bruce Willis's latest action adventure gaining some serious cultural traction around these parts over the coming months.

It goes by the name of Red and stands for the status of the ex-CIA operative Frank Moses (Willis) -- namely Retired: Extremely Dangerous.

Boasting a stellar cast, which includes Helen Mirren, John Malkovich and Richard Dreyfuss, this spy spectacular borrows from the theme established in recent offerings such as The Expendables and Gran Torino in setting forth the notion that you're never too old to lock 'n' load.

Retirement in a salubrious Cleveland suburb seems to be agreeing with Frank, but everything changes when fall-out from a previous mission in Guatemala results in him becoming embroiled in a covert CIA operation aimed at eliminating Frank and others who were on that mission.

Characters mobilised include a delightfully deranged Malkovich, and Mirren in robo-granny mode. Cue plenty of bang-bang, big explosions and, unfortunately, diminishing returns.

Willis and Mary-Louise Parker, who plays a Bridget Jones-style lonely heart, exhibit the type of chemistry evocative of the former's Moonlighting days with Cybill Shepherd, and Malkovich has his moments, but the overall sense is of a terrific cast under-utilised. Fun but not exactly fab.


Red is now showing

Africa United

Cert 12A

THERE are probably worse ways for kids to learn about the modern Africa than an Incredible Journey-style romp centred around the 2010 Fifa World Cup. Africa United is a fun and conscientious piece of family film that harnesses residual interest in that event and puts it to good use.

The plot -- Rwandan scallywags on an exciting and dangerous 3,000-mile adventure to Johannesburg and the World Cup -- seems incidental at times. Children will enjoy the whirlwind nature of their jaunt, which takes in the beautiful sub-Saharan landscapes of Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. However, the threats that step out across their path are bemusingly varied -- everything from snarling leopards to child soldiers to Aids.

The end result plays out a bit like an Africa crash course and will shed light on the Dark Continent for viewers young and old. Even the opening scene sees feisty lead character Dudu give a chirpy and light-hearted lecture on condoms and their importance. When AK47s and child prostitution are brought up for discussion, the tone may be too dark for young ones.

Tempering this slightly are puppetry and collage-based intervals, offering pop-up book explanations of these big issues.

Eriya Ndayambaje stands out as Dudu, an Aids orphan and self-appointed manager of best pal and football prodigy Fabrice (Roger Nsengiyumva). On their travels, they hook up with an escaped sex worker and mysterious teen soldier, and soon they become an eight-legged message of unity and hope for the continent as a whole.


Africa United is now showing

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole

Cert PG

ADAPTING books to the screen is never a simple task -- and adapting three books from a series of 15 into one 90-minute film was bound to be even less simple. Occasionally, an author can be too close to a story for successful adaptation purposes -- and this may have been the case in Legend of the Guardians: the Owls of Ga'hoole and author Kathryn Lasky.

The story revolves around two owlets Soren and Kludd (Jim Sturgess and Ryan Kwanten), brothers whose father's tales about the Guardians' battle against an evil king are still ringing in their ears when they are kidnapped. Their captors are the "pure ones", owls who convert their prisoners into soldiers or slaves. Soren opts to find the goodies and some battles ensue.

The two selling points are that the CGI animation is by the people who made Happy Feet and that it is directed by Zack Snyder, who made 300. It's the 300 reference that is most apposite, for while the animation is great and the 3D lusciously employed -- almost too lifelike given that owls don't have the most expressive faces -- the tone is dark and a bit turgid. Likely to scare small children in places, it will confound in others. The story isn't complex, but there are too many details, which make it hard to follow.

Despite the well-known names in some roles -- Sam Neill, Helen Mirren and Geoffrey Rush add their talents -- the mediocre script, confusion and dark tone make this one for older children, who really like owls.


Legend of the Guardians is now showing

Mary & Max

At the IFI

FIVE years in the making and bursting with charm for its entire 92 minutes, Mary & Max bears the clay-animated facade of a children's product, while underneath it all beats the worried heart of adulthood.

Writer/director Adam Elliot and his Australian production team get much out of an uncomplicated plot, using humour and aching sincerity. Mary is the eight-year-old child of an alcoholic mother and quiet father in Seventies suburban Melbourne.

She finds comfort in animals, confectionery and TV shows. When curiosity about the outside world becomes too much, she decides to write to a randomer in a US phonebook, Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a neurotic and overweight Jew living in a grey and dystopian New York.

During the course of their quirky but touchingly honest correspondence, the pair connect over a love of chocolate and shared feelings of loneliness, body image and isolation from society. Mary (voiced in her adult guise by Toni Collette) and Max come to rely on one other.

But when Max is diagnosed with autism and Mary writes a book about him, Max is furious. Mary, who is now married, spirals quickly into depression before a gently redemptive finale.

The animating team has crafted a tangible universe which is hard to shake from the mind afterwards. Elliot heaps the cute and the slovenly on top of each other and does so within two geographical colour palettes -- brown for Australia, grey for New York. While grotesque in parts -- toilet humour abounds -- this allows the beauty to emanate largely from Max and Mary's bond.

When filmmakers are this inventive, even the most unlikely screen friendship brings a lump to the throat.


Mary & Max is now showing

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