INTO THE WILD * * * *
Cert 15, 148 mins
Less emotionally claustrophobic than either The Crossing Guard or The Pledge, Sean Penn's fourth film behind the camera is spiritual road movie of sorts, a hymn to the American wilderness and the frontier spirit.
Adapted by Penn, it's based on Jon Krakauer's book about West Virginian 23-year-old Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch). A latter day Dean Moriarty, shortly after his 1990 graduation, he abandoned thoughts of Harvard, donated his $24,000 college fund to Oxfam and, without a word to either sister Carine (Jena Malone) or dysfunctional parents Walt and Billie (William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden), adopted the name Alexander Supertramp and took off on a personal quest of self-discovery, determined to make for Alaska to live among nature.
Two years later, in the abandoned 'Magic Bus' he'd been living in for several weeks, already emaciated and weak, he died of starvation brought on by eating a poisonous root.
Between the diary notes he left behind and the input of his family and those he'd met along the way, emerges a story of an independent spirit, inspired by the writings of Tolstoy, Thoreau and Jack London, seeking to find a purer life away from the lies, hypocrisy and materialism of society as embodied by his parents.
Of necessity, somewhat sprawling and episodic in its flashback structure, the film follows Chris as he hitches across America, living off the land, taking casual jobs, and pushing the envelope of his experiences by doing things like kayaking down the Grand Canyon.
He also briefly shares time with a middle aged hippie couple (Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker), a grain farmer (Vince Vaughn), 16-year-old singer (Kristen Stewart) and, in the film's most poignant scenes, a retired widower (Hal Holbrook) who offers to adopt him as a grandson.
It impossible to know how rose tinted the lens may have become over time and informed by grief and guilt, but it's bitterly moving to see the ever personable Chris bringing out in others the maternal and paternal instincts so lacking in the upbringing by his own mother and father.
Hirsch (a sort of earthier DiCaprio) is magnificent, fully warranting award nominations for a fully committed, physically gruelling, deeply felt but never self-indulgent performance that constantly captures Chris' sense of curiosity and humour as well as his tendency to self-righteousness. Stunningly photographed and directed with dazzling assurance by Penn and featuring rumblingly warbled empathetic songs from Eddie Vedder, it may, ultimately, be a tad overlong but, for all its tragic ending, it's a journey well worth the taking.
LIONS FOR LAMBS * *
Cert 15 92 mins
Scenario One: Slick Senator Tom Cruise invites sceptical veteran reporter Meryl Streep to interview him so can give her the exclusive about his new military strategy in Afghanistan that will positively win the war.
Scenario Two: University prof Robert Redford gives a pep talk to a bright student who's lost his passion, telling him he can't just sit on the sidelines and talking about two former students who, to his admiration and regret, enlisted to make a stand for what they believed.
Scenario Three: Aforementioned students, Michael Pena and Derek Luke, find themselves alone on a mountain, wounded and pinned down by the Taliban after the first mission in Cruise's bright new strategy goes belly up.
You can pretty much guess the film's political corner, but director Redford and writer Matthew Michael Carnahan also like to play Devil's Advocate by giving Cruise the sort of arguments about winning the war on terror 'by whatever means' that would play well in Texas.
With characters essentially there to simply voice ideas, the performances are solid but without any spark. Indeed Cruise just seems to be rehashing the very similar scene from Magnolia, but with half the wattage.
Addressing activism, education, the role and complicity of the media and the tendency politics and wars have of repeating the same
mistakes, everything is intellectually well reasoned and well argued. But, not helped by the stagebound three part structure, a couple of half-hearted flashbacks, and the fact most scenes involve people just sitting around talking, it's also all rather didactic, dull and lacking any real drama. It's an after dinner debate by a bunch of socio-political intellectuals dressed up to look like a film.
GOOD LUCK CHUCK *
Cert 15 99 mins
Cursed by a pubescent goth when he wouldn't make out with her in a childhood game of spin the bottle, whenever dentist Charlie (Dane Cook) has sex with a woman, she marries the very next man she meets.
Initially appalled that women are lining up to sleep with him, he's persuaded by lecherous breast obsessed plastic surgeon chum Stu (Dan Fogler) to enjoy the benefits of his own urban legend.
Then he falls in love with accident prone penguin-keeper Cam (Jessica Alba) and worries that if the curse is actually true, then if they sleep together he'll lose her. So he puts it to the test by having sex with the grossest woman he can find. Bad news.
This is a puerile, misogynistic, gross out one joke sex comedy of the lowest order. A painfully calculated attempt to grab audiences that felt Superbad or The Brothers Solomon were too sophisticated.
Suffice to say the apotheosis of its wit is one of Charlie's scantily clad patients informing him she has a cavity that needs filling. So bad, Alba is actually the best thing in it.
PLANET TERROR * * *
Cert 18, 105 mins
Directed by Robert Rodriguez, the second helping from the ill-fated Grindhouse double-feature is everything Death Proof wasn't. Starting with sick fun.
Having done vampires in From Dusk Till Dawn and aliens with The Faculty, he now turns his attention to zombies with a deliriously deliberately bad Z movie in which the residents of a Texan township get transformed into flesh hungry undead by an escaped virus.
Except, of course, for the obligatory handful of survivors who have to battle not only them but their own antagonisms to survive.
Then, headed by an unbilled Bruce Willis and featuring Quentin Tarantino whose melting appendage provides the grossest sight of the year, there's a bunch of infected soldiers after the antidote too.
Prime among the beleaguered citizenry are feisty hypodermic-packing doctor Dakota (Marley Shelton), and her young son (Rebel Rodriguez) whose husband (Josh Brolin) was trying to kill her even before he got turned; rib house owner JT (Jeff Fahey) who's more concerned with getting his barbecue sauce recipe right; and his estranged sheriff brother (Michael Biehn) and sharpshooting pick-up truck driver Wray (Freddie Rodriguez).
Plus, fresh back in town, there's also Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), Wray's go-go dancer ex who, as things go from bad to worse, loses a leg to have it replaced by, first, a wooden stump and then, in stroke of genius, a zombie-scything machine gun.
Adopting the same scratched print, bad sound, missing reel (a brilliant gag) look as its Tarantino companion piece and positively overflowing with gloriously arch dialogue, gallons of red syrup blood and bright yellow pus, Rodriguez even finds room to slip in an Iraq satire too.
The get in-get out effectiveness of the three minute spoof Machete trailer with Danny Trejo as a revenge seeking Mexican mercenary, underscores the feature's unnecessarily generous running time, but it's still the best Friday night trash party of the month.
THE SINGER * * *
Cert 12A 112 mins, subtitled
Given he announced his retirement from acting two years ago, Gerard Depardieu has no less than 10 projects either filming or in various stages of production. Not to mention three films made this year and awaiting release. Who knows how prolific he might be if he hadn't decided to put his feet up.
Giving one of his best performances, this May-December romance casts him as Alain Moreau, a divorced ageing crooner on the dance hall circuit increasingly disillusioned with a career that's becoming more about doing karaoke for senior citizens but no longer fired up with ambition for bigger things.
Then, at one his shows, he meets Marion (Cecile de France) who's working for his estate agent friend (Mathieu Amalric) and whisks her back to his place for the night.
The next day, emotionally bruised from a failed relationship and an estranged young son, it's clear that, while attracted, she has no wish to take things any further.
Undaunted, the smitten Alain engages her to find him a new house and sets about trying to charm with a concert opportunity that could put in right back in the spotlight.
With all these reawakened passions, you probably think you can predict exactly where this is going. Which is why it's such a bittersweet pleasure when it doesn't, and leaves you wanting to know where it goes next.
Understatedly written and acted with real characters, honest emotions and palpable chemistry, its pitched at the more mature audience who'll fully savour the humour, grace notes and quietly examined themes.
MY NIKIFOR * * *
Cert 12A, subtitled
Chances are you've never hear of Nikifor, a self-taught Polish artist who died in 1968 and regarded as one of the leading lights of the naive school.
You'll not be much wiser after seeing this, but then, with precious little known of his life and background. This covers his last few years, a TB ridden old grouch who imposes himself on Marian (Roman Gancarczyk), a Communist state employed artist who's never quite made the grade.
Initially resentful, Marian gradually comes to see that Nikifor has something he'll never achieve and sets aside his own ambitions to care for the old man and find exposure for his work.
Shot mostly in monochrome, it's a slow, simple often solemn work but also a haunting experience with a lead performance all the more remarkable when you realise the troll-like Nikifor's actually played by renowned octogenarian Polish stage actress Krystyna Feldman.
LEGACY * * *
Cert PG, 75 mins, subtitled
Pitched in a considerably lower key than his frightening black thriller debut 13 (Tzameti), director Gela Babluani's sophomore outing returns to his Georgian roots for a cautionary fable about Westerners meddling in other countries' traditions.
Heading for Tbilisi to see an old castle one of them's inherited, three young French tour-ists (Sylvie Testud, Stanislas Merhar, Olga Legrand) are intrigued to discover a fellow passenger on the bus, an old man travelling with his grandson and an empty coffin, is on his way to a remote village to give up his life to settle an ancient feud.
Shocked but curious, they decide to tag along with their interpreter (a deadpan Pascal Bongard) and capture events on video. Unfortunately, things don't go quite as planned and their presence precipitates a further tragedy.
Lean and economical in its telling, it shades subtly from early quirky humour to far darker territory, deliberately underplaying any sense of suspense to make the denouement all the more devastating.