Reviewed by
Tricia Youlden

Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants ★★★★ G

I can happily report that the feature-length Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants held an audience of adults and children spellbound although one little boy, initially disconcerted by the 3-D experience, called out that he thought things were “going into [his] eyes”.

Written and directed by Helene Giraud and Thomas Szabo, the film tells the tale of how a little ladybug separated from his family by a gang of fly bullies is befriended by a platoon of black ants. In an abandoned picnic site is a tin of sugar cubes in which the ladybug has taken refuge, and this becomes a trophy coveted by an enemy platoon of red ants. After a nail-biting pursuit sequence in which the red ants commandeer a soft drink can to chase the black ants and the ladybug in their sugar tin, the prized sugar is safely delivered to the Black Queen. Alas! The Red Queen is so furious that full-scale war is declared and the red army marches upon the black ant-hill.

With their customary ingenious utilisation of various pieces of trash ‘n’ treasure the tiny soldiers wage war to the bitter end. Never have toothpicks and cotton buds proven so lethal. While making an heroic return to the abandoned picnic site for “ammunition”, the ladybug not only settles a score with the fly bully boys, but makes several new friends, including a black spider who lives in a miniature version of the Psycho house. Indeed, all the regular Minuscule characters make an appearance at some stage in this delightful little epic. Crowd scenes, such as the ransacking of the abandoned picnic site, are absolute gems of creativity.

Herve Lavandier’s score provides the perfect accompaniment, varying from “gentle bucolic” to “portentous epic”. The young French mother seated beside me, quietly responding to her two-and-a-half-year-old son’s comments and questions, added to the aural ambience of the whole experience.

Chef ★★★★ M

From writer/director Jon Favreau comes this realistic but ultimately feel-good film about the juggling act that is life in the 21st century. Carl Casper (Favreau ) has already sacrificed marriage to beautiful Inez (Sofia Vergara), mother of his son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), in pursuit of his career. After 10 years as chef at Gauloises restaurant he has gained weight in inverse proportion to the satisfaction he derives from dishing up what the restaurant owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), insists the public wants. A negative review by blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), savaging Casper professionally and personally proves to be the last straw.

Not only does the review go viral, so does Casper’s response and the subsequent altercation between the two, illustrating not only the pitfalls of social networking but the need for reviewers to exercise caution and humanity. Having quit his job and in need of an income, Casper grudgingly accepts Inez’s offer to accompany her and Percy on a business trip to Miami, where they first met and he started cooking. There, he equally grudgingly accepts the offer of a beat-up old food van from his “ex-wife’s ex-husband”, mega-rich Marvin (a stellar, totally off-the-wall cameo from Robert Downey Jr).

With his friend Martin (John Leguizamo) and young Percy, Casper transforms the old van into the El Jefe mobile kitchen and the three set off on a working trip from Miami to New Orleans, then back to Los Angeles. Incidental cooking tips and demonstrations abound for us to take home as Casper teaches his son how to cook. Doing what he loves in the company of his best friend and son proves to be the perfect tonic to lift the jaded chef’s spirits and restore his mojo.

All the kitchen scenes are mouth-watering experiences. Chef captures the camaraderie in the pressure cooker atmosphere of a professional kitchen. The banter in the Gauloises kitchen between Casper, Martin and sous-chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale) is entertaining and believable, as is Casper’s relationship with floor manager Molly (Scarlett Johansson sporting a black bob).

The fine ensemble cast imbue the film with a sense of fun and well-being. Amy Sedaris deserves a special mention for her hilarious cameo as Inez’s fast-talking publicist, Jen.

Chef is highly recommended, especially for hospitality students.

Belle ★★★★ 1/2 PG

Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays disturbing heiress Dido Belle

Intrigued by the 1779 portrait of two fashionably gowned, aristocratic beauties — one very fair and the other dark-skinned and clearly of mixed race — producer Damian Jones researched the fascinating story behind the painting. With screenwriter Misan Sagay and director Amma Asante, he developed it into an enthralling film.

In 1769, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) take in the six-year-old daughter of their nephew, Sir Admiral John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). The child’s West Indian mother has died and the Mansfields already have their great-niece, Elizabeth Murray, living with them. The two girls grow up together at Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath under the tutelage of Aunt Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton). By the time they are old enough to “come out” into society the differences in their colour and financial circumstances have become significant.

Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is an heiress, having been left a considerable annual income by her late father, whereas Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) is penniless, having been disinherited by her father William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield. Yet, when Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) and her sons James (Tom Felton) and Oliver (James Norton) dine at Kenwood House, Dido is not included at the table. “How may I be too high in rank to dine with the servants but too low to dine with the family?” she asks. The condescension, bordering on contempt, with which the Ashfords treat her provides a clear answer.

Bright, talented and beautiful, Dido becomes friends with the local vicar’s son, John Davinier (Sam Reid), who is Lord Mansfield’s legal apprentice. She develops a keen interest in the case that her “Papa” must shortly rule on, as Lord Chief Justice of England. The owners of the Zong, a cargo ship, are suing their insurance company for compensation for 130 diseased slaves thrown overboard on the captain’s orders. Should he find against the owners of the Zong, Lord Mansfield could bring down the lucrative slave trade, the bulwark of the British economy. He is under extreme pressure from the slavery lobby to find that the owners are indeed entitled to compensation for their “spoiled merchandise”. Both “as a woman and as a negro”, Dido cannot stay silent.

As well as the powerful socio-political-ethical issues it presents, Belle is visually stunning. The gorgeous costumes, jewellery and sumptuous sets depict the lavish lifestyle of the aristocracy. Although they regard the subject of slavery as “vulgar”, it is they who are truly vulgar.

Zero Theorem ★★★★ M

He’s a creep. He’s a weirdo. What the hell is he doing here? Angst-ridden computer genius Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) spends his life trying to discover the purpose of existence in Zero Theorem, the latest film from director Terry Gilliam. Employed by IT company Mancom, Qohen wants management (a particularly dapper Matt Damon) to allow him to work from home so that he does not miss the long-awaited phone call that he believes will provide the answer.

Home is a fire-damaged church formerly owned by monks of “Church of the Ineffable Order”, who dared not break their vows of silence to shout “fire”. Such is the absurd humour that underpins the film. Based on a script by Pat Rushin, Zero Theorem presents a curiously reassuring appraisal of existential meaninglessness. Filmed in Bucharest, the film is set in London of the not-too-distant future. The design effectively juxtaposes the gothic grunge of dilapidated old buildings with brightly rainbow-hued clothes, computerised billboards and graffiti. Visual gags abound throughout: a concrete park has a wall of signs forbidding just about everything.

As Qohen learns (or does he?) people and relationships can at least distract one from the angst. Joby (David Thewlis), his immediate boss, tells him, “I’m a few raisins short of a scoop. That’s why they made me a supervisor.” Qohen falls for the charms of Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), with whom he has a virtual romance on a virtual tropical beach. Also online is his relationship with psychologist Dr Shrink-Rom (a hilarious performance by a barely recognisable Tilda Swinton), who counsels Qohen in a thick Scottish accent that “we fear a lot of things but we fear nothing most of all”.

Although the numbers refuse to stay crunched and zero will not equal 100 per cent this film does not leave Qohen or the audience depressed, as the screen fades to the strains of Radiohead’s “Creep”.

Tricia Youlden teaches Drama at Willoughby Girls High School.

Free passes dished out

The lucky winners of a double pass each for the Jon Favreau film Chef offered by
distributor StudioCanal have been sent their tickets by post. They are: John Kay (Retired), Anne Costello (Relief Teacher, Gosford TA), Lyndall Whiley (Summer Hill PS), Irene Waring (Retired), Tracy Knights (DEC), Marie-Ann Krajewski (Asquith PS), Amanda Austin (Beverly Hills North PS), Ken Cunningham (Strathfield South PS), Ben Tyacke (Bronte PS) and Laura Woodbury (Oakville PS).