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Sunday, 30 January 2011

Hereafter: Review

For me, the release of a new film by Clint Eastwood is always an event. I have been a lifelong fan of the great man, not only as a movie star but I now regard him as one of the great American film directors, as do many others. So the news that he was tackling a supernatural drama written by Peter Morgan, the man responsible for scripts like The Queen and Frost/Nixon, my anticipation was almost on overload. Unfortunately, I now feel a little let down. This isn't the marriage made in heaven I had hoped for.

The story deals with three people, each touched by death in some way or another. George is a lonely, factory worker living in San Francisco with, as his brother says, a gift that he regards more of a curse. He can contact the dead only by touching someone. Having already dabbled in turning his talent into a business, he shunned the limelight and doesn't want to have anything to do with it, although it is still there to haunt him. In London, twin brothers Marcus and Jason live with their drug-dependant mother and are constantly protecting her from social services. When sent out to collect drugs from a chemist, Jason encounters a group of muggers and while trying to escape, is knocked down and killed. His younger brother finds it hard to deal with and so wants to try and find a way of contacting him in the afterlife. Meanwhile, French TV  journalist Marie, has a near-death experience that changes her life forever. All three need answers and their lives, while very different, are all heading in the same direction.

As with all of Eastwood's directed pieces, this looks terrific and is carefully put together. The acting, apart from one, is impeccable and you are ready to be taken along on an journey. The trouble is, Eastwood's leisurely pacing, which works so well in his other movies, somehow doesn't work here. The film starts with a very impressive bang, a tsunami in which we are taken directly into the heart of the action. That level of speed from the giant wave isn't kept going and so we amble along from one scene to the next, going at a snail's pace than a jog or even a sprint. Eastwood likes to take his time, to develop his characters and situations and this is fine for Million Dollar Baby, where we get to really emote with the characters that the shocking finale hits home even more. Here just as we start to appreciate the character from one segment, we are bounced to one of the others and so to emote with them is difficult.

Matt Damon, as the psychic George, is excellent. Nicely underplaying his role of a man who knows that he could do good but refuses to be pressured. His is one of the more interesting parts of the film, and maybe if we had stayed with one story, this would have been a far better movie. Cecile De France, as Marie, also gives a very strong performance. A woman confused by events in her life, she is very engaging. The weak link in the performances comes from twin brothers Frankie and George McLean. These two, taking the dual roles of the twin brothers, are, to be honest with you, terrible and you feel nothing for Marcus. They come across very amateurish and you wonder how they got through the casting. Surely there are better twin brothers who can act out there.

This is not a terrible movie. It has plenty of heart and compassion and doesn't treat the subject matter of the afterlife and death with any contempt. Those who are looking for a ghost story will be disappointed. It won't suit anyone wanting to be scared. If you like your movies wordy then this is for you. Unfortunately, I know that with some script editing this could have been brilliant. Instead, it's OK, which is hard for a fan of Clint Eastwood to take.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Biutiful: Review

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu is a man who likes to push the boundaries of filmmaking and storytelling, and like his previous films, including Babel and 21 Grams, Biutiful deals with issues that are far more complex than most regular movies.

Uxbal is a man who works in the underworld of Barcelona. His position in life is to keep the police quiet as illegal immigrants work the streets with counterfeit purses and DVDs, made by the Chinese workers living in a damp, cold basement run by a Chinese syndicate. Uxbal soon finds that his life is more important now that he has been told he is dying of cancer and decides to make a better life for his two children by reconciling his position as a father and as a human being. However, no matter how hard he tries to make their life and everyone else life better, it often ends in tragedy and the sacrifices he makes seem to come to nothing.

As you can imagine, this is not a light-hearted tale but an examination of a man who might have made bad decisions all his life now having to make things right. Sometimes bleak, often harrowing the film is beautifully shot, even making the slums and darker underbelly of Spain look like a painting.

The problem is the film has so many issues running through it, it almost gets bogged down with its heaviness. Iñárritu is a master at making human dramas and changing time lines but he throws so much at the screen it sometimes loses its way. The one thing, however, that keeps it consistent, is Javier Bardem.

This is an exquisite performance that is so subtle and underplayed. It is almost like watching a masterclass of how to play the downtrodden anti-hero. This is a man we should really despise and yet we emote with him. He is a loving, doting father only looking out for the best interests of his children and he knows that life will soon be taken away, he is willing to try anything to right his wrongs and trust anyone with his belongings. Bardem never once drops his performance. On screen almost the whole way through, we follow his journey and are captivated by him. If this wasn't Colin Firth's year for the Oscar, then this could have been the one to win the golden statue.

Sometimes almost poetic, this is a weighty, somewhat depressing film that is still worth searching out for, especially if you want to see a masterful performance from an actor who seems to get better and better.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Black Swan: Review

People who have been led to believe that Black Swan is a film about ballet will be sorely disappointed. Black Swan uses ballet as a background for a much darker and psychological affair and gives Natalie Portman the performance of a lifetime.

Nina is a featured ballerina who is given the opportunity of a lifetime, that of taking the lead in a new production of Swan Lake, where she has to become to very different characters, the sweet, innocent White Swan and the more seductive, sexually charged black swan. Nina can dance the white swan no problem but her lack of passion leads director Thomas to struggle. Onto the scene comes Lily, a dancer who carries every attribute that is needed for the Black Swan and she dances it with effortlessness. Nina starts become paranoid she will lose the part and she slowly starts falling into madness.

Darren Aronofsky has made some head-scratching movies in the past: Pi, Requiem For A Dream and The Fountain. He made mainstream a few years back with the straight-forward examination of a loser wanting to make better of his life in the excellent The Wrestler but he is definitely back to messing with your mind here. This follows a woman going through an almost hallucination called her life. She is trapped in the world of a young girl, not helped by her over-bearing mother who makes live in a pink bedroom with fluffy toys and a music box, this just being one reason for her lack of passion. Aronofsky keeps the focus on Nina throughout and we watch her go from proud leading lady to one of utter madness.

The performances are all good here. Vincent Cassel is given the chance to play something other than the thug and he commands the part of the director with ease. Mila Kunis, as rival Lily, is both incredibly sexy and sinister at the same time. You are never sure about her through which is all credit to her performance. Nice to see Winona Ryder back on screen, even if her role is nothing more than a cameo. I was bothered, however, by Barbara Hershey, as Nina's mother. Her teeth seem to be more hypnotic than her and they drew away from her domineering matriarch.

The film, however, belongs to Natalie Portman. She is incredible and she is never given a moment to drop the facade, as the camera is in her face throughout. Very rarely do we see a full shot of Portman. Aronofsky wants us to experience every second of her pain as she goes through jealousy, anger, confusion, paranoia, frustration, suspicion to out and out evil. We watch her every move as she transforms into the Black Swan. Portman was superb in Leon and she is finally given the chance to shine and she does an amazing job.

If you think this is going to be a nice journey in the world of ballet then I'd advise you to see The Red Shoes or Turning Point or Robert Altman's The Company. The dance is there but it's not centre stage. This is a dark, disturbing film and some scenes are bound to shock, plus you will never pull at the loose skin by the side of your fingernails again.

A twisted, hypnotic movie and one that you need to see, just for Natalie Portman proving she is more than just a pretty face and a Princess from Star Wars.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

The Fighter: Review

There are so many boxing movies out there that you tend to think 'do we need another one?' David O. Russell thinks that we do and I'm glad that he thought that, because this is a powerhouse of incredible performances in a tale that's more about family than about fighting.

Based on a true story, it tells of Mickey Ward, a low-rent boxer managed by his overbearing mother and trained by his crack-smoking brother, Dickie, who clings onto the fact that he was the pride of his town because he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. When Mickey starts dating barmaid Charlene, a tough, no-nonsense woman who isn't intimated by Mickey's mother or his seven big-haired, grotesque sisters, things begin to change and there is a future for the fighter, until, that is, the night Dickie is arrested and Mickey gets his hand broken by a cop. From this moment on, Mickey disowns his family and decides to do things his way which could lead him to the top of his game.

O. Russell's film is a gritty, taut drama that ticks all the boxes as far as boxing movies cliches go, and yet it has so much more to offer. This is about a very unpleasant family who cannot see beyond the old hopes and dreams they had, which is stopping new ones from happening and the only way to achieve the goals you want is sometimes to breakaway.

If the themes of the film are sometimes too subtle, that's because O. Russell doesn't hammer home the point, he lets things move at a pace that pulls you in and so by the finale, you feel like you are part of this family and that they aren't as bad as you thought. This is also helped by some amazing performances.

Mark Wahlberg, the lead, has, in fact the dullest role. He is nice, sympathetic and you can understand his predicament and yet it is an adequate performance but nothing much to write home about. The true heart of the film lies in the hands of Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo.

Adams, who I have always rated, gives another superb performance that is as far removed from her princess role in Enchanted as you could possibly get. A foul-mouthed drop-out who doesn't take any abuse and is more likely dishing it out. She is strong, intense and incredibly believable. Even her talents, however, are swamped by Mr Bale and Ms Leo. Mellisa Leo, who is not a name you would immediately go, 'I know her!' will definitely be remembered for this. She is a tornado. She is vile, mouthy, disgusting and yet she manages to be likable in the same breath. you can see that all she wants is the best for her boys, it's just she goes about it completely the wrong way. Walking off with the Golden Globe for best supporting actress, don't rule her out for the Oscar, she is that good.

The real peach of the film is Christian Bale. While I have never been a huge fan, finding him sometimes a little too intense, here is shines. Losing weight and looking like a gaunt shadow of his Batman days, he is the one character that you sympathize with the most. A man who wants to be remembered for one thing but turning to a life of crack, he is simply magnificent. Funny and pathetic in turns, you follow his journey into hell and then back again, the turning point being his pride getting crushed when a documentary about crack is shown in prison and he sees a shot of his son. It is almost heartbreaking. I dop my cap to Christian Bale and say that if he doesn't win the Oscar this year, then the Oscar isn't worth winning.

Strange that the boxing scenes come third place to the performances but they are just merely an subplot to a film that has so much more to offer. Not an easy film to like but you will be totally satisfied by the end and you will be glad you had seen it.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Morning Glory: Review

With all the worthy dramas around at the moment (well it is awards time), it's nice and refreshing to see a comedy that is funny,sweet-natured, fluffy (oh we are not allowed to use that word!) and worth a look among the other, slightly heavier fare around.

Becky Fuller works for a small TV station producing its breakfast show until she is forced to leave due to cutbacks. Desperate for a job, she bothers every TV station in New York until she gets an offer from IBS, a news channel with a failing morning show called Daybreak (not to be confused with the UK's failing breakfast show of the same name). Filled with uninspired stories, a bitchy anchor woman and a male anchor with a liking for feet, Becky shakes things up by firing the male and bringing in respected newsman Mike Pomeroy, described as the third worse person in the world. When the rating fall even lower with Mike's terrible attitude, she has six weeks to get things back on track otherwise the show is cut and jobs will be lost.

There have been hundreds of newsroom films (the big daddy being Broadcast News) so this might not be the most original of ideas, and yet for some strange reason, it works. It's perky, moves along nicely and if the ending is a little predictable, it's a fun old journey.

Rachel McAdams finally gets a lead role and she takes it with both hands and really goes to down. Brimming with energy, she is a delight and I hope that she will be given more opportunities (but not given duff rom-com scripts like Sandra Bullock got dealt). She is very easy on the eye and you find yourself secretly rooting for her. Plus she creates a strong, rounded characters with all the flaws.

The other surprise is Harrison Ford. He doesn't do comedy that much and so its a chance to see another side of the actor and he delivers in droves. His deadpan looks and dry delivery works wonders, and with some nice banter between him and MacAdams as well as Diane Keaton, the co-anchor, this is definitely a side to Ford that should be on show more often.

Brit director Roger Mitchell allows his actors room to develop the roles and even the supporting cast shine through, particularly Matt Malloy, who plays a hammy weather man given some very challenging missions that prove some of the bigger laughs. Aline Brosh McKenna's script is full of nice touches as well as some genuinely funny lines and it's a pleasant surprise to find Star Trek director J.J. Abrams as a producer.

If you are looking for a perfect date movie, then look no further. This is a film that will appeal to both men and women and while it does have its weaknesses, the love story between MacAdams and feature producer Patrick Wilson seems tacked on, it can be forgiven as it is such a joyful film that will bring a smile to your face. Also, it's the best thing that Ford has done in a very long time.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Chalet Girl: Review

A few weeks ago I was talking about how when the Brits make movies, the great ones are really great and the bad ones are really bad. There never seems to be a middle ground. Well i am glad to say that Chalet Girl hasn't reached the heights of The King's Speech or 127 Hours, more like St Trinian's 2 (actually, it's not as bad as that, but close).

Kim was a rising star on the skateboarding circuit when her mother was killed in a car accident and Kim lost her nerve. Desperately trying to support her debt-ridden father, Kim is offered a job as a chalet girl for a rich banker in the Austrian mountains. Working alongside snobby Georgie, Kim becomes interested in snowboarding and prepares herself for a huge championship worth $25,000, enough to pay off everything back home. She also becomes the object of desire for the banker's son Jonny, who is already engaged.

This is predominantly a 95 minute series of montages with a rock/pop soundtrack interrupted by the occasional scene. We see a montage of Kim cleaning the chalet, Kim practicing her snowboarding on the slopes and in her room, in fact, we see a montage of almost everything apart from her going to the toilet (although in one we do see her cleaning it). Take out the montages and you are probably left with 30 minutes of actual acting and script.

The other thing that seemed to leave a bad taste in the mouth: the current opinions of bankers and their bonus should not (and without any sense of irony) be used as a setting for a British comedy. We are invited into their world, watch them drink £500 bottles of wine, eat caviar, fly around in helicopters, bring their other banker friends to dribble over and make sexist remarks about the chalet girls while having meeting and skiing.

The purports to be a comedy, but there are very few, if any laughs, and the performances from some of the cast (Tamsin Egerton as Georgie, in particular) are close to amateurish. The only saving grace to this film is the likability of Felicity Jones as Kim, who is easily the best thing on offer, and when Bill Nighy (as the banker) and Bill Bailey (as Kim's father) appear. You kind of feel safe in their hands among the montages.

This is a very poor show aimed at teenage girls who can sit with their mobiles out and chat among themselves without missing a thing. It's predictable (you know exactly how it's going to end up) lacking in any comedic value whatsoever and a waste of money that could have gone into making another King's Speech. Dire to the extreme.

Friday, 14 January 2011

The King's Speech: Review

When British cinema gets it wrong, we get it spectacularly wrong but when we get it right, we can produce some of the finest movies around. I'm glad to say that The King's Speech definitely falls into the latter. This is a triumph.

The second son of King George V has a problem; he stammers, especially when forced to make public speeches. Having seen doctors who claim they can cure him, his wife, Elizabeth, is desperate to find someway of getting him over it and so heads to a small street in London where she meets speech therapist Lionel Logue, an Australian failed actor who doesn't bow down to ceremony. Reluctantly Bertie, the nickname for the royal, meets Mr Logue and so begins an awkward working friendship while Bertie has to deal with the death of his father, his brother's relationship with Wallis Simpson and his eventual crowning just before war breaks out.

A lot has already been written about Colin Firth's extraordinary performance but it is incredible. Tipped to win this year's Oscar, here is a man who cannot control his speech problems and so is equally frustrated, angry and slowly losing any will to correct it until he is forced to. You genuinely feel his pain and it is, without a doubt, Firth's performance of a lifetime.

Geoffrey Rush is perfectly cheeky as Logue, a man who is unfazed by his student's status and he delivers another pitch perfect performance. As does Helena Bonham Carter as the future Queen Mother. With a sparkle in her eye, she brings a human touch to her persona.

That's one of the things that works so well. You get a feeling that these are more than Royal, they are human, they are just like everyone who views them. They are all played with affection and never with any malice.

Tom Hooper's direction is also interesting. He could have quite easily pointed the camera at his actors and let them do the work, but his framing makes it even more fascinating to watch.

One word of warning, however, is the language. This is a 12A in the UK, and yet there are a few scenes in which the F word is uttered, nah, shouted more often that Hugh Grant's opening gambit in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Amazing how times have changed.

Along side a historical story that very few would actually know about, this is an incredibly uplifting tale of an underdog fighting against the odds. It is witty, touching, and very moving but it will leave you with a real spring in your step. Come Oscar night, expect this to carry off a handful of awards, none more so than for Mr Firth.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Tangled: Review

Disney's Tangled is the company's 50th full length animated feature, and while not all of the studio's output have been masterpieces, the disappointing early 80s period and, most recently the past few movies, including the last one, The Princess and the Frog, I am pleased to announce that they are definitely back to form with this delight.

An old woman finds a magic flower that keeps her young, until it is taken by the King's guards to help the King's ailing wife while she is in childbirth. The magical powers pass over to the young princess that has been born, in her blonde hair that can never be cut. The old woman steals the princess and hides her in a tower in the forest. 18 years later, the princess Rapunzel, dreams of leaving the tower to see the floating lights that appear on her birthday. Meanwhile, rogue Flynn has just stolen the princess's crown and, escaping from the guards, he climbs the tower and is knocked out by the long haired girl. She gives him an ultimatum: she will return the crown if he will escort her to see the lights. So heading off and being pursued by the old woman, guards, two brothers who were double-crossed by Flynn, and the horse of the head of the King's guards, the couple start to fall in love.

This is an animated treat from start to finish. Using CGI, the company have taken a classic tale and given it a modern spin while still keeping the spirit of what made Disney great in the beginning. Plenty of colour, terrific characters and some hummable tunes.

The voices are suitably apt: Mandy Moore makes for a cute Rapunzel, while Chuck's Zachary Levi is delightfully smooth as Flynn. The pair are upstaged by a brilliant creation in the form of Maximus, a white horse with dog-like traits.

There are plenty of laughs to be had for the adults escorting the younger viewers, who will find the cuteness and slapstick hilarious. The songs are not as memorable as other Disney songs, but still are easy on the ear and a big musical numbers involving local thieves and crooks is both inventive and very funny.

If there is a quibble, it's the pointlessness of releasing it in 3D, once again proving that the technique is only here to milk the money cow. Aside from that, this is Disney finest hour since The Lion King and you will have plenty of fun and maybe shed a little tear. If I was to compare this to anything, then Enchanted comes to mind, and I was definitely enchanted by this.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

127 Hours: Review

There are some movies you can watch and they pass over you like lying in a stream. Others will test your mental state and push the boundaries. Then there are those, like 127 Hours, that is not only a emotional roller coaster but a pure piece of cinematic art.

Aron Ralston is a reckless young man who escapes the rat race by going off on his bike to the beautiful canyons of Utah. He meets two girls and shows them a secret hidden lake deep in the heart of the canyon. He knows this place like a guide. He leaves them to continue his own personal adventure, not realising that his life is going to change when, while heading down another cavern, he knock a large boulder, falls and gets his right hand trapped between the walls of the cavern and the rock. With no one around and having not told anyone where he was going, Aron is alone and so begins six days in which he starts to re-evaluates his life while fighting to survive, even to the point of taking drastic matters.

Very few movies have you completely captivated by the plight of a single character but for most of the 95 running time, we are alone with Ralston, watching this man full of life, who laughed while falling head first off his mountain bike, slowly going insane while fighting for his life, and it is the brilliance of both director Danny Boyle and an extraordinary performance from James Franco.

Franco is amazing, showing the full depth and range of a man who, if anyone else were in his situation, would probably just give up. He doesn't and we get to see every agonising moment, watching him realise that family is important as well as his own importance on this earth. It is an incredible performance and one that will not be forgotten in a long time.

Danny Boyle's film is a visual treat. He doesn't just stay with Aron's plight, he takes us on a journey through a man's consciousness, using every trick in the book. It works magnificently. From split screen to quick zooming to seeing things from the video camera that Ralston uses to leave messages to his family, Boyle keeps the film moving.

The editing is crisp and sharp, the colours and use of the scenery is stunning. If you thought that Boyle couldn't manage to better Slumdog Millionaire, he has.

This is a film that will stay with you for a long time after you view it. And as for that 'infamous' scene you might have heard about. Yes, it is very grisy but don't let it put you off. This is an triumph in the art of cinema, and a triumph of the human condition. Run to see it.