A CAT IN PARIS: Not purring, but prowling

A Cat in Paris
Directed by Jean-Loupe Felicioli. Starring Dominique Blanc, Oriane Zan, Bruno Salomone, Jean Benguigui. 70 mins.
Rating: Four/Five
In cinemas April 6
They say curiosity killed the cat, but sometimes it can get the cat an Academy Award nomination. Directed by Frenchman Jean-Loupe Felicioli , this Oscar nominated mature cartoon noir blends interesting aesthetics, subtle humour and an atmosphere of psychologically-driven fear to elevate its simple crime caper plot into a Hitchcockian homage to old-fashioned American gangster films.
Traumatized by her father’s death at the hands of mob boss Victor Costa, young Parisian girl Zoe no longer speaks, placing a strain on her relationship with her police sergeant mother, who has problems of her own. While Zoe only manages to find joy in her mysterious cat Dino, her mother is tirelessly working to capture Costa in the hopes that it will quieten her inner demons and bring some peace to the family. Little do they know that Dino’s night-time excursions with a reclusive burglar will lead them on a rooftop chase of Paris, as Costa attempts to steal one of the world’s most prized sculptures.

As with fellow nominee Chico and Rita, the backgrounds of A Cat in Paris are more impressive than the characters. While the Expressionist-inspired geometrical scenery and the beautifully rendered nightscapes of Paris’ rooftops are a delight, the characters are rendered simply and often distractingly shaded, lying somewhere between Modigliani and a Doonesbury cartoon.

However the tone of the film manages to blend the cartoonish with the mature works beautifully. On the one hand, the crime-comedy caper plot is very simple, with its caricatured mob-boss, simple-minded side-kicks and of course, our furry friend Dino fulfilling all the requirements of a child’s film. But there’s also a dark emotional element to the brief film – scenes where mute Zoe desperately tries to communicate the dangerous situation to her mother are heart-breaking, while the widow’s nightmarish visions of Costa are extremely emotive.

Definitely more for adults than for the little ones, this fun but affecting flick is a lovely way to visit Paris for an hour.

THE KID WITH A BIKE: Emotionally bumpy ride

Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. Starring Thomas Doret, Cécile de France, Jérémie Renier. 87 mins.
Rating: Four/Five
In cinemas March 23

Everything about Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenn’s drama is wonderfully simple. From its no-frills title, to its fairytale undercurrent, to the Dardenne’s mastery of unvarnished, understated naturalism; The Kid With a Bike is a masterclass in real situation and organic emotions.

As the film begins, 10 year old Cyril (Thomas Duret) is in a home, begging to phone his father. From the counsellor’s exasperated face and the out-of-service number, it’s clear that Cyril is the only one who hasn’t realized that his Dad isn’t coming back. But he is still desperate for love, and stability, and when he randomly asks a young hairdresser Samantha (Cécile de France) to take him in, she agrees, like a fairy godmother taking in an orphan, desperate to become a real boy.

But despite the moral and spiritual underpinnings of this piece, the acting and aesthetics are heartbreakingly real. Newcomer Duret is extraordinary, bringing such a fidgety desperation to the moody character that he seems like an abused puppy, constantly whimpering and reaching out for love only to yelp and scamper away. The only time he demonstrates strength and surety is when trying to contact his father, and when rejection comes, his self-destructive disappointment is devastating to watch.

Likewise, de France, who recently starred in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, gives a beautiful performance as a somewhat enigmatic woman patiently trying to cope with her tentative maternal role, with all the worries, Freudian issues and violent rejections one would expect from such an emotionally troubled child. Though wondrously empathetic and patient, she’s not presented as an omniscient saint-like figure, and as she is left hurt and confused when Cyril rejects her, so is the audience.

Brilliantly using light and shadow and open space and darkened woods to show Cyril’s state of mind, and with lovely allusions to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, The Kid With a Bike is an emotionally bumpy, but worthwhile ride.

THIS MUST BE THE PLACE: Feet on the ground, head in the sky

Directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Starring Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Eve Hewson, Judd Hirsch, Sam Keeley. 118 mins.
Rating: Four/Five
In cinemas March 23
In This Must Be the Place, Sean Penn plays an aging Robert Smith-modelled rock star who travels to America to hunt down his father’s Nazi tormenter.

Even with that pitch, there’s so much wrong with Paolo Sorrentino’s latest effort, both tonally and thematically, and so it comes as no surprise that many things about the picture do not work. What is a huge surprise however, is that even more things do, and beautifully.
As one-time 80s glam rocker Cheyenne, Penn is an odd, depressive delight. With mannerisms more often like a downer Ozzie Osbourne than Smith, everything from his halting speech, childish wide-eyed gaze, unbearably slow movements and the most delayed yet infectious high-pitched giggle ever uttered is charmingly odd but never forced. And as Cheyenne attempts to set up his teenage confidante (a wonderfully sensitive Eve Hewson) and laughs with his wife (Frances McDormand) Penn oozes a warmth and innocence that’s impossible not to surrender to.

But there’s something devastatingly lonely about the depressive Cheyenne too, who spends his time pottering around a landmark-pocked Dublin. So when his father dies after years of unsuccessfully trying to seek revenge one of the Nazi officers he encountered in the camps, Cheyenne’s decision to travel America to continue the search is both absurd and understandable; an extreme and unlikely undertaking by a man in desperate search for meaning.

There is a discord between the Dublin and American storylines, while a scene towards the end of the picture very unsuccessfully straddles a line between catharsis and utter cruelty, showing that Sorrentino’s Nazi hunt may be one heavy-footed step too far for this often surreal and consistently witty character study.

But with a gorgeous score from David Byrne (whose performance of the title track proves a wonderful highlight), a script littered with delicious oddities and a strikingly sentimental turn from Penn; this is the place for anyone ready to go on a one-of-a kind, hilarious, heart-breaking and utterly unique road-trip.

WE BOUGHT A ZOO: Look, but don’t feel

Directed by Cameron Crowe. Starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johannsson, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, John Michael Higgins, Thomas Haden Church. 123 mins.
Rating: Three/Five
In cinemas now

Does everyone remember when Cameron Crowe was great? Say Anything, Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire; films so filled with heart, hope, humour and humanity that they left not only his characters more inspired, but his audiences and actors too – hell, he even got an Oscar nominated performance from Kate ‘Rom Com’ Hudson.

But somewhere between the unfairly lampooned Vanilla Sky and the very fairly lambasted Elizabethtown, Crowe’s heart lost its mind. Though as heartfelt as ever, featuring likeable characters, impossible dreams and awww look, baby peacocks; We Bought a Zoo lacks the biting intelligence and insight of his earlier work. It’s a sugar packet below schmaltz, a tears-by-numbers puzzle. It’s Cameron Crowe Yoghurt: low fat and vanilla-flavoured to go down easy.

Based on the true story of The Guardian’s former DIY columnist Benjamin Mee who relocated to a private zoo, Matt Damon plays the widowed journalist who trades in normal life for the a world where Johannsson plays a zookeeper; Patrick Fugit is Man With Monkey and there’s lots of lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

In fairness, Damon puts in an endearing performance as always, and Crowe’s light-saturated shots of the lush Californian wildlife park are stunning, while the kids couldn’t be cuter. As a zoo aid, Elle Fanning is a big blonde mess of toothy-grinned heartwarm, while Benjamin’s daughter Maggie Elizabeth Jones is like the twin sister of Jerry Maguire’s Jonathan Lipnicki – wide-eyed and wise beyond her years, she’s always one heart-melting smile away from telling you that a tiger cub weighs three pounds.

But apart from Jónsi’s stunning and emotive score, there’s no energy to proceedings, no spark. Like Johannsson’s depressed tiger, We Bought a Zoo never roars into real action or emotion, merely chuffs along, content to distract all and affect few. Damon’s personal tragedy, his budding romance Johannsson, son Dylan’s internal struggles, and even the animals are all examined from a safe distance. Though a nice, inoffensive and sweet film, it’s ultimately a cinematic zoo; all looking, no feeling.


ACT OF VALOUR: Act of Folly

Directed by Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh. Starring Roselyn Sanchez, Nestor Serrano, Emilio Rivera. 101 mins.
Rating: Two /Five
In cinemas March 23

Do many Americans realize that Team America: World Police was satire? Act of Valour, directed by Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, may as well have been called America: Fuck Yeah! for its simplistic, jingoistic attitude to combat. Casting real SEALS for the acting parts, Act of Valour boasts some impressive action sequences as the SEALS embark on numerous garden variety missions, but the caricatured villains, excruciatingly stilted dialogue and lack of any insight, irony or intelligence reduce this film to an extended army recruitment video and a gamer’s wet dream.

Everything, from the frequent point-of-view sequences to the large, blocked subtitles that couldn’t look more like video-game dialogue if it appeared on screen letter by letter, appear like a desperate attempt to evoke a living game of Call of Duty. And while it was an interesting idea to make the film more authentic by casting real-life Navy SEALS, this could have been achieved by allowing the SEALS to perform the stunts while hiring actual actors for the limited dialogue parts. As is, the SEALS’ wooden performances remain as natural and emotive as the instruction-laden video game characters at the start of Time Crisis – a fact not helped by the constant use of graphics to provide information on not only the locations but the characters, possibly because neither the scriptwriters or “actors” were up for subtler development.

While war-movie lovers and gamers may appreciate the visceral close-quarters shots and incredible sound design (made even more impressive by the relatively tiny $12 million budget), the desire to pay tribute to the SEALS through reality is misled. Action movies – and importantly, action stars – are too good at involving audiences in the action and emotion of their characters for amateurs to compete. McCoy and Waugh’s intentions may have been noble and their methods uncompromising, but valour doesn’t always result in admirable actions or justifiable results.

STELLA DAYS: Ireland as a 1950s matinee movie

Directed by Starring Michael Sheen, Stephen Rea, Marcella Plunkett, Amy Huberman, Trysten Gravelle. 100 mins.
Rating: Three/Five
In cinemas March 9

Take a fluffy base of a 1950s Irish town resisting modernity, gently fold in a conflicted but charming priest, smother with a generous layer of Cinema Paradiso and sprinkle on some charming kids, and you there you have it: an old-fashioned community spirit yarn like Grandma used to watch.

Unabashedly quaint and crowd-pleasing, Stella Days was adapted from Michael Doorley’s account of how his small Tipperary community was shaken from its recession and repression-caused stupor by the opening of the Stella cinema in the 1950s.

Martin Sheen’s plays parish priest Fr David, who though loyal and outwardly committed to caring for his flock, harbours resentment that he was passed over for a prestigious academic in Rome. So when the bishop decides to start fundraising for a new church , Fr.Daniel is initially disinterested – until he comes up with the idea of opening a cinema. As is required by law for these types of films, there is a powerful and sanctimonious townsperson determined to keep the corrupting force of modernity at bay, and here Stephen Rea plays the combative conservative with delicious spite.

But the cinema isn’t the only new development in the Tipperaray town, which is already more modern and liberal than their religious fervour would suggest. Amy Huberman is wonderful as an enthusiastic saleswoman pushing the latest electric lights and cookers on the local housewives, while Marcella Plucket’s love affair with Fr.David’s sensitive confidante Tim (Trysten Gravelle) is forgiven by all but her alcoholic, violent husband. The era is beautifully realized in both attitude and set, as the new gadgets become a more and more prominent part of these transitioning town’s lives – only after they’ve been blessed by Fr. David, of course.

Sheen is as charmingly conflicted as ever, as is the film. But it is 1950s Ireland by numbers, offering absolutely nothing new. A nice Sunday matinee movie – if you like your Sundays forgettable.

JOHN CARTER: Boring by name, boring by nature

Directed by Andrew Stanton. Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Willem Dafoe, Dominic West. 132 mins
In cinemas March 9

John Carter – or, as it may as well be called, I Am Number Five (In Disney’s Attempts to Launch A Teen Boy-Friendly Franchise) has quite literally been a century in the making. Based on Edgar Rice Burrough’s early 20th century novels, Rice’s tale of an American Civil War hero who finds himself on Mars influenced Star Wars, Avatar and countless other contemporary sci-fi flicks.

But in the saddest full circle since Kim Kardashian’s wedding ring, Andrew Stanton’s film visually impressive but ultimately charmless adaptation ironically feels like a poor imitation of those films. Though star Taylor Kitsch has the pretty boy looks and beefcake physique that fangirl-seeking franchises dream of, his impassive and humourless John Carter remains as dull, unimaginative and charisma-free as his name. Arriving on Mars, he discovers that the gravity change has granted him super jumping powers (that sound you’re hearing is Stephen Hawkings’ brain exploding.) This power attracts the attention of a multi-limbed alien Tars Tarkas (a motion capture Willem Dafoe), and Carter becomes embroiled in a incomprehensible war between Martian Gladiator Dominic West, Martian Princess Jasmine Lynn Collins and Martian Voldemort Mark Strong, who wants to achieve supremacy over the planet.

Or something. Though the arid landscapes are sumptuous and the innumerable battle sequences are impressive, these spaceship swordfights come at the cost of a fully-rounded universe, memorable characters, clear motivations or – shockingly, from the Oscar-winning director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E – any sense of heart. While Lynn Collins’ smart and sassy Princess Dejah is a welcome relief from the usual swooning, spineless cipher usually assigned to women in sci-fi, there’s no passion in her romance with Kitsch, and there’s barely any humour to break up the painfully overlong run-time.

If audiences embrace John Carter, Disney is set to turn the film into a three-film franchise. With this underwhelming and unengaging first offering, that possibility seems about as likely as shooting the sequel on location on the Red Planet.

21 JUMP STREET: An academic anaylsis

Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Starring Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ice Cube, Brie Larson. 109 mins.
Rating: Two/Five
In cinemas March 16

(Cont’d) … and though masquerading as an interpretation of the 1980s American television series, the plot of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum (a.k.a ‘The Charming Potato’) as policemen working undercover in a highschool is actually a metaphor the Western male’s prolonged adolescence in not only behaviour but insecurity, as the castration anxiety [see Appendix: Freud] of infancy is re-experienced. This need to assert their masculinity manifests itself in a series of infantile “dick” and “fag” jokes.

In a typical scene, Tatum asserts to a drug dealer that he will “beat [his] dick off.” This phrasing leads the drug dealer to disgustedly believe that Tatum wants to masturbate him – an even more feared threat. At this point, translator Hill explains the irony; when Tatum threatened to “beat [the Drug Dealer’s ] dick off”, he meant he would punch Drug Dealer’s genitalia in such a strong, manly fashion that they would fall off, thus emasculating him as he wouldn’t be able to have forceful sex with women whose bodies he objectifies and minds he hates. When Tatum finally arrests Drug Dealer, he proves his dominance by simulating anal rape upon him while shouting “You have the right to…SUCK MY DICK!” This is presented as a comedic highpoint and a jubilant victory, as threats of sexual violence against men are of course funny, but only as long as there is no actual homosexual desire behind them.

To offset any confusion between the ‘heterosexual bromance comedy’ genre and the narrower ‘homosexual drama’ genre (see Appendix: Brokeback Mountain), clichéd heterosexual relationships assert that Hill and Tatum’s friendship is based on ‘guy love’ (see Appendix: Scrubs) , not ‘gay love.’ Thus Tatum attracts the obsessive attention of a teacher (Bridesmaid’s Ellie Kemper) and Hill flirts with student Brie Larson, as desperate, one-dimensional “cougars” and jailbait are the most desirable conquests for heterosexual male; the unequal relationship dynamics assert the male’s irresistible, youthful virility and their dominance over naïve females, respectively. (Continued: Pages 124 – 2,736)


WANDERLUST: Let your brain cells wander off for a few hours…

Directed by David Wain. Starring Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston, Justin Theroux, Joe Lo Truglip, Malin Akerman, Alan Alda. 98 mins
Rating: Two/Five
In cinemas now

Wanderlust by name, wanderlust by nature. During this forgettable, clichéd and disjointed comedy, I did indeed experience a strong desire to travel – if only to the other screens in the cinema, to see what better films were playing.

Playing a New York couple experiencing financial difficulties, Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston play George and Linda, who, through a nonsensical series of events, find themselves shacking up in a hippie commune headed by the charismatic guru Seth (a very funny Justin Theroux.)

While Aniston is inoffensive and attractive as ever, the film really depends on Rudd and Theroux’s improvisational skills, ability, and the highlights indeed come from the ad-libbed, absurdly long, hilariously awkward and self-conscious riffs that have become Rudd’s trademark. But no matter how charming Rudd is, the highlight of a film should never be his five minute self-motivational sex talk that involved a Jamaican-ghetto accent and repeated refrains of “Imma put my deeek in your vayge.” Especially when director David Wain – despite his history in sketch comedy – seems surprisingly ill-equipped to deal with this improvisation, as obvious cuts during Rudd’s ranting betray several takes.

Which is a travesty, as there’s little else to fall back on. Every predictable hippie caricature is rolled out, including violent vegans, free-love advocated and an obsessive nudist (Joe Lo Truglio, complete with a very bad prosthetic penis.) The cast give it their all, but with such unrealistic and irritating characters, their work is largely thankless. And as Wain prefers to focus on individual moments of hit-and-miss comedy instead of seeking any kind of narrative flow, cohesion or, you know, plot, the story becomes completely unengaging and instantly forgettable.

Which doesn’t really matter if you go to the cinema in order to let your brain wander off for a couple of hours; in which case, pack a bag and book yourself a ticket.


THE OTHER SIDE OF SLEEP: A study in dreams & reality

Directed by Rebecca Daly. Starring Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Sam Keeley, Vicky Joyce. 91 mins
Rating: Three/Five
In cinemas March 16

Rebecca Daly’s directorial feature debut echoes the theme of Derren Brown’s thought experiment The Guilt Trip, which saw Brown manipulating a young man into believing that he had committed a murder while asleep. But in this flawed but disquieting drama, it’s not only the characters who are left unsure of the possible guilt of the protagonists, but the audience.

Opening mid-dream, Daly immediately creates a sense of uncertainty; a hazy detachment that blurs the line between dreams and reality and evokes the mindset of the sleep-walking protagonist Arlene (Antonia Campbell-Hughes.) Quiet and inexpressive, there’s something disconcerting about the young Offaly labourer, whose blank stare and lack of real engagement with the locals make her seem capable of anything. And when a young woman is found murdered in the town and Arleen develops an obsessive fascination with the victim’s family, her motivations are unclear. Does Arlene believe that she could have committed the murder during one of her frequent sleepwalks? Or is it that Arlene’s mother was also murdered at a young age, and she’s just clinging to that elusive connection born of shared experience and emotion?

From the offset, Daly’s often stunning composition and languid pacing creates an eerie atmosphere, and despite the film’s modest budget, some skipping and blurring visual effects brilliantly evoke Arlene’s ghost-like presence. As she moves like a glacier through the claustrophobically small town, it’s clear that not only has the murder shaken the community to its core, but Arlene’s sense of self. As her behaviour becomes more erratic, Campbell-Hughes proves stunning, bringing a still and subtle performance that oozes mystery.

However, as the minimally scripted film continues, the pacing and ambiguity eventually proves a problem, as the lack of plot development or character arc gives the film a sluggish quality. Daly’s determination to keep the tone balefully opaque feels laboured, and repeated, symmetry-loving landscape shots – though beautiful – feel too studied and stereotypical to achieve the affecting air of melancholia Daly was aiming for.

However despite its flaws, The Other Side of Sleep proves a promising debut that possesses a memorably dream-like quality, and marks Daly as a director to watch.