Whilst protagonists and omnipresent observers are often placed in the role of the narrator in cinema, few features cast an injured feline as the guiding voice of the story. This niche is populated solely by Miranda July’s sophomore effort The Future, with unseen kitty Paw Paw (except for the appendages referenced) relating the experience of waiting for new owners Sophie (July, best known for debut effort Me And You And Everyone We Know) and Jason (Hamish Linklater, Fantastic Four) to take him home from the veterinary hospital. As the contemplative cat communicates her thoughts about love and belonging, Sophie and Jason are unable to externalise their mid-30s angst. Suddenly aware of the commitment a pet requires, the couple spend a last month throwing caution to the wind, trading their dance instructor and telemarketing jobs for the ability to live in the moment. The interruption to their routine awakens latent feelings about life, love and leaving a legacy, as well as mortality and the meaning of it all. As such, July’s whimsical and sometimes witty work is imbued with possibilities and probabilities to exist in the space between fate and control, yet squanders any greater sense of meaning courtesy of mixed motivations and a few too many imaginative interludes.
Adapted from Canadian author Allan Stratton’s 2004 novel “Chanda’s Secrets”, the South African-set, German-produced Life, Above All first came to prominence with its inclusion in the Un Certain Regard program at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Oliver Schmitz’s finessed feature also made the best foreign language film shortlist for the 2011 Academy Awards, with the work of the Mapantsula making the nine-strong shortlist but failing to endure through to the final five. Such significant acclaim heralds the resonance of the respectful and riveting effort, which unravels life in Johannesburg for a girl forced to bear troubles beyond her years. Following the plight of adolescent Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka, in an extraordinary first performance) as she remains a pillar of strength whilst surrounded by her sickly mother (Lerato Mvelase, Umkhungo) and step-father (Aubrey Poolo), scorned best friend (Keaobaka Makanyane) and judgemental neighbour (Lerato Mvelase, Hotel Rwanda), the film tells a tale of the strength of one determined teen that has an impact upon the outlook of an entire community. Both harrowing and honourable, as well as haunting and heartfelt, the involving offering probes the harsh realities of life in the shadow of Africa’s AIDS epidemic. Yet underneath it all is a grim yet gentle spirit of hope and redemption, that – like the title suggests – champions life, above all.
Following in the footsteps of Luc Besson’s seminal The Professional and Matthew Vaughn’s comic book caper Kick-Ass, Joe Wright’s Hanna is a teen assassin flick with a difference. Indeed, The Way Back star Saoirse Ronan stands in fine company with the former’s Natalie Portman (now an Oscar-winner for Black Swan) and the latter’s Chloë Grace Moretz (seen in a similarly bloodthirsty role in Let Me In), infusing the energetic effort with an enigmatic and emotive air. As the daughter of former intelligence operative Erik (Eric Bana, The Time Traveller’s Wife) raised under the mantra of “adapt or die”, Hanna is far removed from her peers, both figuratively and literally. Caught in a deadly game of cat and mouse with corrupt CIA agent Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett, Robin Hood), the sixteen year old flees from country to country in the ultimate battle of wits. With a simple concept and straightforward execution with science fiction leanings, Wright adapts Seth Lochhead and David Farr’s screenplay into a tight, tense action thriller. Enthralling from start to finish, with stellar performances, striking visuals that traverse the Finnish snowscapes and Moroccan deserts, and a superbly atmospheric yet inventive score from The Chemical Brothers, Hanna offers a fulfilling and fantastic take on a tried and tested subgenre.
Over the past decade, high school features have strayed off the beaten path, in both content and context. Focusing on students likely to be considered outsiders, or simply ignored by those around them, the genre has taken a leap outside of the mainstream in the wake of the unexpectedly successful Napoleon Dynamite. Indie filmmaker Azazel Jacobs wades into this territory in his fourth feature (after Nobody Needs To Know, The GoodTimesKid and Momma’s Man), the quiet yet charming Terri. With the oversized, unenthused protagonist (TV’s Huge surrounded by an ailing uncle (Creed Bratton, the American remake of The Office), over-eager principal (John C. Reilly, The Extra Man), school troublemaker (Bridger Zadina, in his first feature role) and sexually curious wallflower (Olivia Crocicchia, Rescue Me), the director and co-writer Patrick Dewitt ponder the stigma of being an outcast at any age. Although it takes its time to establish a direction, the amiable feature has a certain charm. A film certain to resonate with anyone that has ever been overlooked, misunderstood or simply cast aside, Terri is an unassuming but effective, meandering but meaningful contemplation of overcoming isolation and loneliness with friendship.
After living it up in Las Vegas and Bangkok in The Hangover and recent sequel, The Office star Ed Helms again lets his wild side run loose in Iowa in Miguel Arteta’s conventional comedy Cedar Rapids. Telling the tale of a mild-mannered insurance salesman thrust upon the biggest city he’s seen upon the death of a colleague, the funny but forgettable fish-out-of-water film follows his attempts to take home a prestigious industry award to satisfy his small town boss (Stephen Root, Rango). Leaving his high school teacher turned lover (Sigourney Weaver, Paul) at home, Tim Lippe expands his limited horizons with the assistance of three professional colleagues – the considerate Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr., Brooklyn’s Finest), cavalier Dean (John C. Reilly, in his second appearance in the festival program) and discontent Joan (Anne Heche, The Other Guys). As the amiable and amusing underdog story follows their initial unease and eventual camaraderie in the face of an hypocritical head honcho (Kurtwood Smith, TV’s That 70’s Show), it perceptively ponders the problems of the protagonists and the dearth of double standards whilst crafting a constrained yet credible character-driven piece certain to please, particularly – and surprisingly – for afficionados of HBO’s The Wire.
The Sydney Film Festival continues until June 19, 2011.