Socially inept, awkward and isolated protagonists have proliferated in cinema of late, with several such characters making their presence felt throughout the Sydney Film Festival program thus far (Attenberg, The Future and Terri, for example). Spanish feature Amador continues the trend by tracing the plight of a young florist turned carer trapped in an untenable personal situation, yet finding solace in a burgeoning bond with her elderly charge. In the fifth solo film from Goya-winning writer / director Fernando León de Aranoa, and the same milestone screen appearance of actress Magaly Solier, the amiable yet uneven offering follows the attempts of Solier’s Marcela to cope with a combination of coincidental conflicts, with her new housekeeping role for the titular ailing old man (The Sea Inside’s Celso Bugallo) her only escape. Alas, that too withers, just as her relationship with the oblivious Nelson (The Trial’s Pietro Sibille) stalls, leaving the stilted lost soul to rely on her wits in dealing with a delicate situation. Whilst Aranoa makes an effort to invest humour into the otherwise dramatic premise, the resonance required given the gravity of the topic is sadly lacking. Instead, he crafts a forgettable tale about the intersection of life and death invested with an air of sweetness, sensitivity and subtlety, yet resplendent with infuriating obviousness and emotional contrivances.
The fifth feature in a filmmaking career that has spanned four decades, the Palme d’Or winning The Tree Of Life may be the most anticipated movie of 2011. Six years after the reclusive auteur’s underrated last effort The New World, Terrence Malick returns with an epic offering about the meaning of existence, juxtaposing the origins of the planet with a personal period portrait of a Texan family in the 1950s. Starting with a quote from the Book of Job (“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation… while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”), the poetic and picturesque film dissects the premise indicated by its biblical prologue, examining the evolution of the Earth from the big bang onwards, as well as the abundance of opposing human emotions illustrated by the O’Brien clan. Whilst the former segments provide a surreal and sensational glimpse of the very first sparks of energy and resulting aftermath, the latter pits Brad Pitt’s fearsome father at odds with his eldest son (played by newcomer Hunter McCracken as a child and dual Oscar recipient Sean Penn as an adult), in a meticulous musing on mortality. Whilst on the surface neither the contemplative nor narrative elements seem synergistic, Malick’s masterful and moving montage of the enormous and intimate aspects of our world is both transporting and transforming. An audacious, ambitious and operatic existential ode that philosophises with powerful profundity, this is one feature that lives up to – and exceeds – its ample promise.
Actor turned filmmaker Tom McCarthy has enjoyed a fruitful career on the big and small screens, following turns in front of the camera in Good Night, And Good Luck and The Wire with The Station Agent and The Visitor behind the lens. After earning an Oscar nomination for co-writing Pixar’s Up and plying his thespian talents in The Lovely Bones and Fair Game, he returns to directing with the amusing yet unimaginative Sundance hit Win Win. Starring Paul Giamatti (Barney’s Version) as a beleaguered New Jersey solicitor struggling to support his wife (Amy Ryan, Green Zone), the film charts the consequences of an unethical decision that brings a despondent teen (first-timer Alex Shaffer) into his life. With the lawyer trying to manipulate the situation to the benefit of all parties – predicated on a white lie and a fortuitous coincidence, with money and a wrestling title at stake – the agreeable effort dwells upon first attempts and second chances. Although McCarthy continues his trademark naturalism and yet again draws delightful portrayals from his cast, his third feature lacks the insight and emotion of his excellent debut and sophomore offerings. Instead, Win Win is a sympathetic and sentimental rather than substantial or surprising film, pleasing but never probing, and entertaining but not quite engaging on a significant level.