Reviews: The Thing | Happy Feet Two | Margaret | Las Acacias | We Have a Pope

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Our film critic takes a look at some of this week’s new releases...

The Thing (15)

Directed by: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr

Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen

Rating: **

HOW ironic that the makers of this prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing should have taken the replicating powers of the titular shape-shifting alien so thoroughly to heart: their efforts to stay true to its predecessor have resulted in a film that embodies the look, sound and feel of the 1982 version only to kill off any interest in the subsequent mythology. Set in the Antarctic a few weeks before the events of Carpenter’s film, it answers questions that didn’t need to be answered in a weak attempt to distract from the fact that the film is effectively a remake – one that’s absorbed lots of stuff from Alien too. Mary Elizabeth Winstead takes on the Kurt Russell role as a tough, capable paleontologist called Ripley Kate who is recruited by a shady scientist (Ulrich Thomsen) to investigate an alien life form that has been found frozen in the ice. The creature isn’t dead, of course, and before long Kate finds herself battling for survival in snowy isolation with a rag-tag group of scientists who may or may not be harbouring the beast. Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr lets rip with all manner of CGI trickery (and indulges his inner fanboy with a scene-setting coda that makes use of Carpenter’s spooky synth score), but there’s no shock value or tension.

Happy Feet Two (U)

Directed by: George Miller

Voices: Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon

Rating: ***

THE second of this week’s films to be set in the Antarctic makes much better use of the region’s desolate landscape than The Thing to create peril. Amusingly, it also happens to be an animated sequel to the Oscar-winning dancing penguin movie Happy Feet. That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, though, given returning director George Miller’s proven penchant for apocalyptic angst with the Mad Max films. Here he sneaks in some of the same environmental concerns that fuelled Mad Max 2 (oil shortages, scarred landscapes), but reconfigures them into a family friendly adventure in which Mumble (Elijah Wood) has to rescue his mate (voiced by Pink) who has been stranded along with a large colony of fellow emperor penguins by a drifting glacier that has cut them off from the sea. Eco-messages abound, though mercifully they aren’t so intrusive as to rip you out of the film. The film itself seems bigger in scope than the original, but also a little all over the place story-wise, thanks to the action focusing as much on the supporting characters as on Mumble. Still, that adds to the charm, particularly a subplot about a pair of existentialist krill (voiced by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon) determined to rise up the food chain.

Margaret (15)

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan

Starring: Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo

Rating: **

THOUGH it’s a sign of just how long You Can Count on Me director Kenneth Lonergan’s sophomore feature has been sitting on the shelf that it lists among its producers the late Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella (both died in 2008), a bigger giveaway that it was made in 2005 is its raw, pretentious, histrionic attempt to reflect the mood of post-9/11 New York with veiled references to the Bush administration, heated classroom debates about terrorism, absurd skyline shots of Manhattan, and an abundance of self-obsessed characters suddenly searching for meaning in their lives. Chief among the last of these is Lisa (Anna Paquin), a precocious, privileged schoolgirl who starts to view her entire world through the prism of a traumatic road accident she’s partly responsible for causing. Deriving its title from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about the heightened emotional state of a child, Margaret equates Lisa’s hysteria-fuelled unfurling with that of the city as a whole, which is a richly symbolic idea, but one that gets away from Lonergan over the course of 150 sprawling minutes. Indeed, it’s actually more interesting as a portrait of Lonergan’s protracted struggle to say something profound about a subject that’s too chaotic for his chosen medium, making it a sort of unintentional companion piece to Synecdoche, New York.

Las Acacias (12A)

Directed by: Pablo Giorgelli

Starring: Germán de Silva, Hebe Duarte, Nayra Calle Mamani

Rating: ***

THIS slight but engaging road movie adopts the kind of minimalist, neorealist approach to film-making that seems to be the norm in arthouse cinema at the moment. Nevertheless, co-writer/director Pablo Giorgelli uses it effectively enough to make an otherwise common story of disconnection and reconciliation feel a little bit vital. Employed to haul a load of timber from Paraguay to Argentina, withdrawn, middle-aged truck driver Rubén (Germán de Silva) is clearly irritated by the fact that his (unseen) boss has asked him give the sister of one of his other employees a lift to Buenos Aires so she can look for work. He’s even less thrilled when said woman, Jacinta (Hebe Duarte), turns up with her baby daughter in tow. Grudgingly fulfilling his promise to help, the more time he spends with Jacinta and the adorable, smiley Anahí, the more he finds his heart unexpectedly starting to melt, thanks to their presence stirring up a lifetime of regret regarding his relationship with his own estranged son. That’s about it in terms of plot, but it’s beautifully acted and Giorgelli does manage to steer the film past all the sentimental potholes that could so easily have made this a much bumpier, clunkier journey.

We Have a Pope (PG)

Directed by: Nanni Moretti

Starring: Michel Piccoli, Nanni Moretti, Jerzy Stuhr

Rating: ***

NANNI Moretti’s previous film, The Caiman, served up a satirical takedown of Silvio Berlusconi, so one might expect a movie about the pomp and pageantry surrounding the selection of a new pope to inspire some pointed commentary. Not so. The Italian maverick is on playful form here as he gently mocks some of the Vatican’s more superficial aspects. The end result, however, is still very amusing, particularly early on as Moretti presents the decision-making process involved in the appointment of the pope as a responsibility-shirking conspiracy on the part of the cardinals, the majority of whom see the job more as a personal headache than a higher calling. This certainly proves to be the case for the unlucky – and least qualified – pontiff (Michel Piccoli) ultimately forced into the position. Struck down with a crisis of confidence just as he’s about to address the faithful, he’s forced at first to see a therapist (played by Moretti), but when he uses the occasion to skip town and hook up with a troupe of actors, more elaborate measures have to be embraced to maintain the charade that everything is OK while trying to get him back in line. Frivolous and farcical fun follows – but not much more.