Happy Happy (2010)

The hunt for happiness is miserable indeed, not least when it involves the seduction of your married neighbour.

Such is the predicament Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen) faces in Anne Sewitsky’s dramedy debut when, weary of her chilly marriage, she cosies up to hunky Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen).

The ensuing drama is typically Scandinavian in the best way possible – the setting’s beautiful, the tensions slow-burning. Meanwhile, musical interludes courtesy of a barbershop quartet lend a playful undertone.

Sweet but never saccharine, Happy Happy is as delicate as Kaja and just as endearing. 4/5

Via Total Film

Easy A (2010)

Easily one of the funniest films of 2010, Easy A follows the likes of Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You as an update of fusty literature that reinvigorates the kind of material that nowadays only gets dusted off for the A-Levels.

A lot of that funny comes courtesy of Emma Stone. Too clued-up to be a mean girl but too pretty to be a member of the breakfast club, she’s a clique-free everygirl who every girl dreams of being. As Olive Penderghast – whose life is turned topsy-turvy when a rumour about her losing her virginity takes on a life of its own – Stone is the kind of spunky, smart-mouthed teen that we usually only see in John Hughes movies.

Hughes is a clear inspiration. Aside from a sweet-but-unnecessary closing boombox moment – and a loving Hughes montage – Easy A strikes out as its own thing. Hilarious, soundtracked-to-the-hilt and super-glossy, it’s sour apple bubblegum with real crackle and pop. And thanks to Stone’s breakout performance, it’s also very, very cool.

Truthfully, at times, just a little too cool. Olive’s parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) are the kind of down-with-it ‘rents that could only ever exist inside a movie, for example. But in its winsomely kooky characters and caustic wit, none of that really matters. John Hughes would be proud. 4/5

Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil (2010)

Scary Movie, eat your bloody heart out – Tucker and Dale are here to show you how horror movie spoofs should really be done. Hacking apart slasher conventions with palpable (and palpitating) glee, Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil is a loving tribute made by slasher fans for slasher fans.

When a group of pretty college kids go on a trip to the woods (no, really, stay with it), they’re creeped out by a pair of sinister-looking hillbillies. Except Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are just regular Joes with their own everyday problems – which are only worsened when said college kids keep stumbling upon ingenious ways of accidentally offing themselves. Naturally, Tucker and Dale are the prime suspects.

As gory as a dinner party massacre and as sharp as Freddy’s fingerblades, it’s hard to believe that Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil is director Eli Craig’s first time behind the camera. It’s to his credit, then, that the film’s punchline plot retains much of its power to thrill throughout. Shot like a straight-faced horror, Tucker And Dale brings both the splatter and the giggles as wrong-place-wrong-time hilarity piles up in a big squelchy heap.

Much hinges on the pairing of Tudyk and Labine as the titular misunderstoods, and both knock it out of the park in roles that could have been little more than conduits for post-modern cleverness. Together, they give lived-in, endearing performances that stop the blood-splattered good times from ever tripping into lousy Scary Movie pastiche.

The only place that T&D stumbles is in its final stretch, when it attempts to bring things home by mixing in an out-there twist with a chivalrous endeavor on Dale’s part to save final girl Allison (Katrina Bowden, pitch perfect) from the clutches of a real-life serial killer. It’s here, during a Bondian confrontation that feels like part of another spoof, that T&D loses its initial innocent charm.

Still, a movie that features Tudyk doing a laugh-out-loud impression of Leatherface is easy to love, and T&D is just that – an instant horror favourite that has a brain in its skull and a tongue in its cheek. About as much fun as you can have watching college co-eds get variously impaled, diced and set on fire. 4/5

Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark (2010)

Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to grim fairytales. The Mexican director’s masterful Pan’s Labyrinth was a shrewd, unsettling exercise in measured chills and caustic creativity. So his decision to script and produce this creepy curio comes as a welcome return to horror for the influential moviemaker, and with Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark pirouetting on a similar premise – young girl encounters savage beasties that nobody else can see – it’s an enticing prospect. Sadly, del Toro isn’t able to bottle the fairy dust quite as easily this second time around, though he comes close at times.

Still dealing with her parents’ recent divorce, troubled young Sally (Bailee Madison) is sent to stay with her father (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes) in a Rhode Island mansion. The grown-ups are renovating the residence, but soon Sally discovers there are sinister things afoot as voices speak to her in the dark, and she catches glimpses of small, beady-eyed menaces.

Loosely based on a made-for-TV movie from 1973 (of which del Toro was a fan), Don’t Be Afraid… is best when it mucks in for old-school chills. Book-ending his film with bursts of dirty violence, first-time director Troy Nixey plays it smart by keeping his rat-sized nasties in the shadows and immersing proceedings in a suggestive gloom. Best of all is the teeth-gnashing opener, sure to have many squirming in their seats. It’s disappointing, then, that everything that follows merely struggles to match the opening stinger for bed-wetting terror. As inconsistencies begin to pile up (Sally manages to squish one foul creature, but fails to show her father the evidence), and the drawn-out climax takes too long to deliver, Don’t Be Afraid… becomes sluggish and repetitive. Sadly, that title proves prophetic – there’s nothing really here to be afraid of. 3/5

Salt (2010)

Beaten, bruised and bleeding, Angelina Jolie proves she’s made of tough stuff in Salt’s rib-bashing opening scene. As the eponymous CIA agent Evelyn Salt, she’s been kidnapped by North Korean forces, who torture her in ways that only members of a country led by Kim Jong-Il possibly can. Freed from that sticky situation, she’s quickly hurled into a cat-and-mouse game of international espionage when a mysterious Russian apparently outs her as a Russian spy.

Salt really wants to be a female Bourne Identity. With its never-ending running scenes (does Salt ever sleep?), inscrutable lead, and DIY heroics (love the sanitary towel bit), there’s a reason it’s been dubbed ‘Bourne with boobs’.

Sadly, Salt isn’t as good as that, falling more into the Mission: Impossible camp – camp being the operative word, with polished action set-pieces failing to push the peril, meaning we never really fear for our anti-heroine’s safety. Silliness case in point: a moment in which Jolie does a gender bender and dons a silly rubber mask echoes that daft bit in Mission: Impossible II when Tom Cruise makes himself look like Dougray Scott.

To her credit, Jolie’s as gung-ho as you’d expect her to be. If you’re going to bet on any woman being able to beat a grown man twice her body weight to a pulp, your cash is safe with her. And yes, somewhere amid the (non-stop) double crosses, shoot-outs and face-offs, Salt is a decent movie.

It’s just a shame it never manages to follow through on that ‘female Bourne’ mission statement. Though the focus rarely splits away from our lippy lovely, Salt’s afforded little genuine depth, meaning we’re as in the dark about her as the Americans she’s evading. Yes, that’s partly the point, but a more skilful script would have found ways to weave the enigmatic with the obvious in better ways.

Thanks to decent box office returns, a Salt 2 is on the way. With this first sporadically entertaining actioner having laid the groundwork, here’s hoping a sequel can finally fulfil that promise of Bourne-like thrills. 3/5

Incendies (2010)

When the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on, it’s tragedy. Never were the Bee Gees more insightful, and you can bet your life that if Incendies had been a musical, that shrewd ‘70s classic would have been its powerhouse theme tune.

Instead, Incendies (meaning ‘Fire’ in French) is a grim, involving drama that plays it straight. Canadian twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) have just lost their mother. In her will, Nawal (Lubna Azabal) leaves her children two letters – one for the father they believe is dead, the other for a brother they didn’t even know they had.

It’s Nawal’s dying wish that these letters be delivered by Jeanne and Simon. As they set out on a seemingly impossible mission to the Middle East in search of their roots, the twins’ travels are mirrored with the story of their mother’s origins – the devastating events that shaped her into the distant, troubled woman her children grew up with.

Set against the backdrop of a fictional – but devastatingly familiar – civil war in an unnamed region, Incendies plays with massive themes on a heart-wrenchingly intimate scale. While evocative images of broken buildings and bombed-out buses stoke the anti-war flames, it’s Lubna Azabal who burns the brightest. As a mother who’s suffered through unimaginable trauma – and been unable to explain it to those closest to her – Azabal is a revelation. She plays both the younger and older versions of her character, and drives the narrative with a fiery passion; we feel every trembling lip, every pang of uncertainty as Nawal pitches from one disaster to another.

True, the film’s second half loses energy without her; as the story shifts to focus on her children’s increasingly bizarre expedition, the pacing begins to slow. But in the place of Nawal’s dramatic backstory stirs a far more disturbing exploration of her children’s origins, as the twins learn truth after devastating truth about Nawal’s tragic upbringing.

It’s a downer, to be sure. Credit must also be attributed to director Denis Villeneuve, then, who ensures that his slowly unfolding mystery is carefully measured out, and lifted by across-the-board terrific performances. The result is utterly absorbing, revelling in dusty visuals and intimate framing. Crucially, Incendies never falls into the trap of becoming just another movie about the futility of war, refusing to overtly comment on the heartbreak of conflict, while letting its upsetting content speak for itself.

Only the film’s final sucker punch revelation threatens the melodrama barometer, relying as it does on really unfortunately coincidences for its power. By then, though, you’ll be too wrapped up in Nawal’s story to really mind. As tragedy goes, it’s hard to bear – but it’s definitely worth it.

Oscar-nominated drama that had Roger Ebert’s backing. Must be good. 4

Harrowing, beautiful and disturbing, though the second hour drags. 4

In Retrospect
Elemental and expertly directed, Nawal’s story haunts long after the credits have rolled. 4

Via Little White Lies

Kaboom (2010)

If you’re a fan of whiplash-inducing dialogue, healthy doses of rampant nudity, pretty young things being pretty and films with an ardent sense of the absurd, Kaboom could just be your new favourite movie. Written and directed by Greg Araki of The Doom Generation, it’s a bright, head-spinning ode to youthful frivolity that barely pauses for breath as it screeches from one zany set-up to the next.

Acting as our anchor in an orgy of ideas is the pleasingly bestubbled Smith (Thomas Dekker). A sexually “undeclared” college student, he’s got a crush on his frequently naked surfer roomie Thor (Chris Zylka) and is doing the nasty with nutty British bird London (Juno Temple). Things take a turn for the strange, though, when Smith encounters a group of animal-mask-wearing weirdos one night who may or may not have just killed a fellow student.

A blizzard of post-modern activity keeps Kaboom dashing along at a heck of a lick. Championing whipsmart dialogue and a pleasingly glossy sheen, it’s clear that Araki’s having fun toying with us, chucking in OTT supernatural happenings and sexy daydreams to keep us on our toes. Even the film’s central mystery appears to be one big joke.

Which is sort of where Kaboom comes unstuck. Okay, so nobody stays clothed for more than five minutes. But Kaboom exists in a limbo where few actions have discernable consequences, meaning there’s little to grab a hold of. Even the film’s mystery becomes a farce, with the histrionic climax submitting to knowingly cheesy direlogue and a wilfully silly twist.

Still, to those who’ve been raised on a diet of talky, wise-cracking Diablo Cody movies (Juno, Jennifer’s Body), this will be a welcome distraction. For everybody else, Kaboom could merely lead to a good deal of head scratching and the feeling that maybe you’re a bit too old for all this. 3/5

Pearls Of Wisdom…

Courtesy of… Easy A (2010)

Olive Penderghast: Whatever happened to chivalry? Does it only exist in ’80s movies? I want John Cusack holding a boombox outside my window. I wanna ride off on a lawnmower with Patrick Dempsey. I want Jake from Sixteen Candles waiting outside the church for me. I want Judd Nelson thrusting his fist into the air because he knows he got me. Just once I want my life to be like an ’80s movie, preferably one with a really awesome musical number for no apparent reason. But no, no, John Hughes did not direct my life…