Saturday, 31 January 2009

Frozen River: Movie Review

Frozen River: Movie Review

Rating 8/10
Cast: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham
Director: Courtney Hunt
2009 is shaping up as a good year for smaller independent films.
After the highs of Let The Right One In I thought I'd have to wait a while for another good "arthouse" film.
However, I was wrong.
Frozen River (which has seen a Best Actress nomination for Melissa Leo) is the story of Ray Eddy, a New York trailer mum whose struggle to meet the bread line sees her lured into the world of illegal immigrant smuggling.
When her husband leaves her, taking the down payment for a new trailer home to live in, Eddy (a stunning Leo) finds herself with no choice but to trade in illegal immigrants by teaming up with a Mohawk girl (Misty Upham) who lives on a reservation on the US Canadian border.
The pair begin making runs across the frozen St Lawrence river in Ray's car - with each journey bringing them closer to their goals - but in more danger from being caught.
Frozen River is an extremely compelling, and ultimately horrifying piece of film from first timer Courtney Hunt (who also wrote the screenplay).
Leo's Eddy is struggling left right and centre - as Christmas approaches and after her son inadvertently sets light to their trailer by trying to defrost the water pipes, she's got little choice but to team up with Lila, the Mohawk girl, despite her distrust.
Both women bring a quiet desperation to the roles - Lila has a family she never sees and Eddy has a family she's struggling to keep; Eddy's son resorts to stealing credit card numbers to try and help her make ends meet.
However, they also exude an inner strength and a determination to do right via their respective families - which makes each journey a more pain staking emotional one than they initially realize.
There's tension all round - each journey brings the pair a new peril - and in one particular case, they dump a package from an illegal family out in the snow; only to find out later that the package contained an alive baby.
From there, it's a desperate scrabble to find the infant and see if it survives.
Despite the glum nature of the film, it never wallows in mawkishness; each is doing what they have to to survive - and as time goes on, the two form a bond and friendship after an initial distrust and resentment.
While Upham does well in her role as Lila, it's Leo who shines - her world weariness shows on her face and in her resignation; yet she's never a quitter, she continues to fight on - she may be familiar to some from her turn in the 90s as a hard bitten detective on the stunning TV cop series Homicide: Life on The Street, but here she easily demonstrates why the Academy has rewarded her in 2009.

Frozen River is a triumph - it's a compelling and engrossing film which will lure you in when you least expect it and will leave you emotionally devastated at its conclusion.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Revolutionary Road: Movie Review

Revolutionary Road: Movie Review

Rating 7/10
Cast: Kate Winslet, Leonardo di Caprio, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon
Director: Sam Mendes
1955 American suburbia.
Winslet and di Caprio are the April and Frank Wheeler; married and apparently happy within Revolutionary Road and middle America.
The pair have chosen a life away from the city and are living in the Conneticut suburbs raising two children and conforming to the norms of what's expected of the time.
April is a home maker, who aspires to be an actress despite what some of her peers think of her acting; Frank heads to the city everyday, joining the rest of the cattle commute, to work and provide for his family.
One day, April realizes enough is enough and she tells Frank they need to get away to Paris (the one place he says he's always loved) to feel like they're living again.
However, while Frank's initially in favour of the idea, he changes his mind after his workplace recognizes his talents and promotes him&..
Can the couple pull together and pursue their dream - or will the reality of escaping crush them for good?
We've all seen this façade of suburban happiness before - specifically it's de rigeur in TV2's Desperate Housewives (returning soon).
But Revolutionary Road, as well as seeing the first pairing of di Caprio and Winslet since Titanic, is a bit more than that.
Director Sam Mendes sets up a view of life which is too perfect by far - but right from the get go, there's always this hint that underneath the suburban façade, there lies a bubbling simmering tension which borders on resentment.
The first time we see April and Frank, it's cut between their initial meeting and an argument over whether April can act - for every moment of happiness, there's a psychotic outburst awaiting around the corner. Each of them is engaged in some kind of affair - and neither is happy all of the time - or indeed any of the time.
And that's one of the problems of adapting this 1961 novel by Richard Yates - most of the time it borders on kitchen sink melodrama, albeit of the darkest kind.
There are some nice touches - Michael Shannon's character John Givings, while having less than 15 minutes in total of the 2 hour running time, makes an immediate impact on the story.
His institutionalised character is brought under the Wheeler's wing by April's friend (and realtor) Helen (Kathy Bates) as she looks to them for guidance and because they appear the perfect happy couple.
However, John is the only one who can see exactly what is going on in the Wheeler's marriage and how they're falling apart - the scene when he comes round for dinner is electrifying as everyone tries to keep a grip on reality.
Ultimately, Revolutionary Road is a dark piece about the point at which the reality of a dream sets in and at what point does the panic of pursuing that dream - when the Wheelers announce to friends what their plans are, they're scorned and almost ostracised as they've expressed something different to what's expected.
Winslet gives a terrific and tragic performance as April; di Caprio at times simply appears to have tantrums like a spoilt teenager when handling angry outbursts.

Revolutionary Road is a dark, sullen and moody piece and one which it's easy to see why Winslet got a Golden Globe for her thanks to her subtle characterization.

Gran Torino: Movie Review

Gran Torino: Movie Review

Rating 7/10
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Cory Hardricht, Brian Haley, Dreama Walker, Bee Vang, Ahney Her
Director: Clint Eastwood
Dirty Harry, The Enforcer, That chap from Unforgiven.
Clint Eastwood does angry and wronged well - and you still know despite his advancing years, you just wouldn't want to mess with him.
Gran Torino finds him plumbing these murky angry regions again - this time to a darkly comic and ultimately shocking effect.
Eastwood is Walt Kowalski, a Korean war veteran, whom we first meet at his wife's funeral in church.
He's not a happy man - aside from the obvious reason, Walt's disgusted at the lack of respect his grandchildren are paying their grandmother - from his grand-daughter's bare midriff to his grandson's spectacles, testicles, wallet and glasses sign of the cross; he's not impressed at all.
This resentment and simmering disgust towards mankind in general continues at his wife's wake when his new Hmong next door neighbours ask for help.
To be greeted with a torrent of racial abuse.
It's pretty unlikeable stuff to start off with - but gradually Kowalski comes to befriend the neighbouring family and starts to adopt them - despite the son trying to steal his beloved Gran Torino car as part of a gang initiation.
And it's when the gang life butts in, and the family's attacked that Walt has to put aside his prejudices and face the fact he has no option but to settle some scores....
Gran Torino is a fairly honest look at the American way of life - and how some have started to resent it.
Yet, despite an at times unflinching look in the mirror, this film will strike a chord with many.
Walt's unhappy his neighbourhood's been encroached by what he calls "gooks"; he's angry his own son tries to put him a home after his wife's death and he's downright pushed over the edge when the gang retaliates.
It would be easy to draw parallels with Michael Douglas' turn as an extremely peeved off worker in Falling Down; but Clint manages to pull Walt back from the brink of sheer nastiness with some well injected black humour and some much needed humanity.
If we're honest, we'll all see shades of ourselves in Walt's daily niggles - but some of the racist abuse and darkly comic moments seem to come from Kowalski's uneasiness at behaving at odds to what he was taught in the army - and what he saw in combat.
His dealings with his barber are a real highlight in the film - and show how interesting customer service can be.
But Eastwood brings an underlying tenderness and humanity to his burgeoning friendship with Thao and Sue Lor of the family. It's probably because of this that the film's hit such a chord with the American box office.
Unfortunately, Gran Torino loses some points for predictability - Kowalski has something to atone for from his war days - and the ending can be seen a mile off.

That said when it comes, it still packs a powerful emotional punch and Kowalski is another great character to add to Eastwood's repertoire.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Yes Man: Movie Review

Yes Man: Movie Review

Rating: 6/10
Cast: Jim Carrey, Rhys Darby, Zooey Deschanel
Director: Peyton Reed

Yes.
A simple word - but one which is fraught with so many issues so often.
Jim Carrey stars in this film, one which takes the idea of UK author Danny Wallace's much loved book  grabs its central premise and runs with it - albeit in a different direction.
Carrey is Carl Allen, a guy whose life is passing him by because he doesn't want to socialize with friends (he rejects every call which is coming in with an array of excuses); his marriage ended 6 months ago and since then Allen's spent his time working in the bank (where he's always been as a loan (dis)approver) and in Blockbuster renting films.
The flashpoint comes when Allen forgets his best friend Peter's engagement party and he starts to realize he has to do something after they walk away from him.
A chance meeting with a former schoolmate outside his bank, sees Carrey's character encouraged to take a seminar hosted by Terrence Bundley, (played by Terence Stamp) which pivots around the idea of saying Yes to everything which comes his way.
Practically bullied into saying Yes, Carl Allen starts to open himself up to more opportunities - and that's where the fun (and the problems) begins.
As a real fan of Danny Wallace's book, I had real misgivings about Carrey (and his manic tendencies) stepping into this role.
But director Peyton Reed (The Break Up, Bring It On) has managed to do a good job of reigning Carrey in and indulging him in only a few select scenes of idiocy.
Granted there are moments when saying Yes leads to Carl Allen finding himself in ludicrous situations (such as a sex scene with an elderly neighbour) but there's always the emphasis that staying positive in life will bring good things your way (such as when helping a homeless guy ends with Allen having a chance meeting with Zooey Deschanel's character Allison)
And Rhys Darby manages some good laughs as Carl's boss - even if he does appear to be channeling the same character as Murray the inept boss from Flight of The Conchords.
The end result is that the film is a likeable beast.
It may suffer at times by veering away from Danny Wallace's original intentions (Carrey's character is slow to adopt the Yes outlook); but with an occasionally sullen Jim Carrey showing a bit more depth, Yes Man succeeds in being good value entertainment.


Saturday, 17 January 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Movie Review

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Movie Review

Rating: 8/10

Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemyng

Directed by: David Fincher


David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en, Zodiac) reunites with Brad Pitt in his latest release, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
As New Orleans celebrates the end of the Great War, a boy is born. Severely deformed and exhibiting the symptoms of a dying man, the baby is discovered on the steps of a nursing home by an African-American woman who immediately takes him in.

Benjamin Button (Pitt) is no ordinary child. As he grows up amongst the elderly, it becomes apparent he's getting younger as the years pass.

Told in fairy tale style, we watch as Benjamin finds his footing (literally), gets swept up into a life as a seaman during World War II. He falls in love with a rich British aristocrat (Tilda Swinton) before returning to the States for his true love, Daisy (Blanchett).

Loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was adapted for the screen by the famed Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Munich).

Like Forrest Gump, The Curious Case is a story of a Southern outsider on a journey, with the same quirky characters, historical events and wry moments of wisdom thrown in for good measure.

However Benjamin Button is a more nuanced character than the uncomplicated Forrest Gump: this is a man who has toiled with death, ageing and displacement throughout his life.

The Curious Case is a demanding script, requiring the leads to cover 80 years of their character's lives in the space of two and a half hours. Brad Pitt is brilliant in a role that requires subtlety, humility and loneliness. His make-up artist deserves top marks for transforming Pitt from a tiny frail man, through the middle-aged spread, into a teenager.

Cate Blanchett is stunning as Benjamin's love, Daisy. Blanchett successfully captures Daisy's young naivety, her ballet-dancing elegance and her tender final days as she reminisces on Benjamin's life.

The script carefully dodges potential potholes - the close friendship seven-year-old Daisy shares with 85-year-old Benjamin being perhaps the most difficult scenes to negotiate.

The film is whimsical and charming, with quirky scenes thrown in to reflect the eccentric plot. If only there were more - but this, after all, a big budget Hollywood production catered to mainstream audiences.

The film takes it's time as it explores the curious case of Benjamin Button - after all, life is a journey, not a destination.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

The Spirit: Movie Review

The Spirit: Movie Review

Rating 4/10
Cast: Samuel L Jackson, Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johannson, Kevin's Dad from the Wonder Years, Louis Lombardi
Director: Frank Miller
"Toilets are always funny"
Four words I would never have expected to start a review with - but as Samuel L Jackson utters them at one point early on, I feel obliged to mention them.
The Spirit is a different kettle of fish; based on the 1940s Will Eisner strip, it's another Frank Miller flick based on the graphic novel genre (after of course, the brilliant Sin City and the ab rippling 300)
In an homage to 40s and 50s film noir, The Spirit (Gabriel Macht resplendent in a dark suit and mask, but with a billowing red tie) patrols the streets of "his city", desperately trying to track the Empire of the evil crime kingpin, The Octopus (played with distinct OTT tendencies by Samuel L Jackson.)
As the film opens in a Saul Bass style with The Spirit powering over rooftops, he's tracking a heist after a tip off from a cop.
Once on the scene, he's thrown into conflict with the Octopus in a opening extended fight scene. The Octopus is trying to steal one of two boxes which in turn were being stolen by Eva Mendes' Sand Saref (The Spirit's childhood sweetheart).
All of their paths cross again when Sand Saref's quest for a mythical object clashes with the Octopus' hunt for an elixir of life which in turn will turn him immortal and give him world domination.
And that's it really except to say after 300 and Sin City, this is Miller's first major mis-step.
While the film excellently evokes the whole noir image of the 40s, some of the dialogue is clunky beyond belief; whether that's the script writer's fault or the original comic's tone, I'm not 100% sure.
The violence in the start of the film is certainly cartoonish beyond belief, recalling at times Looney Tunes at its ACME best both The Spirit and Octopus have a fairly brutal fight but neither show any cuts or bruises, or even the slightest sign of blood. While that hyper-reality is explained in the plot, it makes the scenes of violence irrelevant and an extreme distraction.
The Spirit is a womanizer and he certainly has his pick of the women in this film; from Eva Mendes' Sand Saref to Scarlett Johannson's Silken Floss via long suffering MD Eileen Dolan (Sarah Paulson) and Paz Vega's Plaster of Paris, it's easy to see why the Spirit doesn't really believe in the idea of monogamy.
I think the problem with The Spirit is one of tone while Macht plays it straight and acquits himself well despite some horrific dialogue, he's paired off with Samuel L Jackson who seems to chew every piece of scenery around him while plotting his evil machinations. That juxtaposition just doesn't work at all - and leaves the viewer unsure of the overall tone of the film.
The city itself looks stunning and Louis Lombardi (poor CTU schlub Edgar Stiles from TV's 24) does a great job playing the cloned sidekick character. Eva Mendes is slinky and sultry as Sand Saref, a tragic anti-heroine whose life has been shaped by a fateful moment with a criminal.
There's a hint of Pulp Fiction when the contents of the box are unveiled by Sand Saref (remember the Golden Glow from the suitcase?) but those deeper moments are countered with moments like Samuel L Jackson's Octopus' character vaporizing a cute kitten while wearing a Nazi uniform, which admittedly is supposed to be funny but just ends up feeling wrong.
Ultimately, given the promise demonstrated by the initial trailers for The Spirit, this full length film is a disappointment; too much of a mish mash in tone and too dis-Spiriting an experience for the viewer at times.

Despite the open ending lending itself to a sequel, it's hard to gauge whether there'll be enough interest at the box office to merit it.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Let The Right One In: Movie Review

Let The Right One In: Movie Review

Rating 8/10
Starring: Kare Hederbrant, Lina Leandersson
Director: Tomas Alfredson
A Swedish subtitled vampire film may not be to everyone's taste.
But if you're hankering for an alternative to the tween vampire phenomenon that is Twilight, I can't recommend this highly enough.
This (at times highly bleak) film is the tale of 12-year-old Oskar, a bullied school kid who plots revenge against his tormentors. He suffers in silence and becomes more introverted and angry as he tries to decide how best to dispatch those who make his life a daily misery.
Oskar's life is changed when he meets Eli, the young girl who moves into the apartment block next to his.
As he gradually opens up to her, he starts to realize there's something not quite right about her. Despite that, the pair grow closer.
And as their tale unfolds, there is a serial killer murdering children and taking their blood for reasons which should be fairly obvious to any fans of the vampire genre.
Let The Right One In is a great start to the arthouse circuit for 2009 its themes of adolescence, revenge and love are universal and are predominantly the driving force for this slow burning drama.
Alfredson has captured the gloom (and beauty) of a Swedish village in the depths of winter and shots of blood staining the white snow are infinitely more effective here than they were in the abysmally disappointing 30 Days of Night .

Equally his take on the vampire oeuvre is one which doesn't skip the gory details - Eli's life is no worse than a rat's as she struggles to survive and finds her nature and vampiric desires often overcoming her wish to be normal.
But the success of this film lies solely with the two young leads as the bullied Oskar, Hederbrant is a simmering mixture of fear and anger waiting to explode in violence; whereas Leandersson is subtly beguiling as the young vampire Eli, whose life is more about trying to exist and cope with what tragedy life's dealt her.

Let the Right One In (based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist) is perhaps one of the freshest additions to the vampire genre. It won't be to everyone's taste but if you fancy a non-Hollywood take and film directing masterclass, you can't find a better way to spend time in the cinema.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Bolt: Movie Review

Bolt: Movie Review

Voices: John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Mark Walton, Malcolm McDowell.
Director:Bryon Howard, Chris Williams
Rating:6/10 (8/10 if you watch it in 3D)
Disney's latest offering to the world of animation is the solid, if unspectacular, Bolt.
John Travolta lends his voice as the eponymous hero Bolt who is the star in an all-action children's TV programme, regularly saving his owner Penny (Cyrus) from the evil clutches of Dr Calico (McDowell).
He uses super-dog powers to protect Penny; the only problem is he believes that he actually IS a super-dog and not just an actor in a show. The producers and other actors, including Penny, conspire to make Bolt believe he can perform all the heroics.
The problems start when Bolt escapes from his studio and winds up thousands of miles from Hollywood.
There he takes a cat for hostage (as cats are in league with Dr Calico and, of course, are mortal enemies of dogs) and attempts to find Penny and his home.
This is a fairly standard Disney fare featuring a hero who isn't really one, who realises after a while he is just like everyone else, has doubts about himself and his place in the world but ends up saving the day and becoming the hero in a true sense of the word...original this isn't.
The film opens with a brilliant piece of action animation as we are transported into the "fake" world of Bolt but sadly the brakes are applied too quickly to the story line after that as Bolt goes on his voyage of self discovery. This is very much a movie for the kids and some adults may be stifling yawns in parts.
Things pick up significantly by the introduction of Rhino the hamster (Walton) who is Bolt's number one fan. He believes that Bolt is the real thing and as such is in awe of him. Rhino also gets the best lines in the movie.

Overall it's a good movie but I would highly recommend watching it on 3D if possible. The technology used is very impressive and should keep even the most impatient child happy.