Friday, November 17, 2006

Casino Royale (2006)

The 21st James Bond movie has been the focus of much media attention, primarily due to the fact that it’s the first outing for Daniel Craig as the hero, taking over the role from Pierce Brosnan. Though there have been very vocal protestations about this casting choice, he is surely the best thing about the film.

Casino Royale takes us back to Bond’s early days, when he has only just received his liscense to kill. Already he is causing trouble for M and getting to travel to exotic locations with beautiful women. It is his task to win a high-stakes poker game, to prevent a banker from using the winnings to fund terrorism.

Daniel Craig creates a Bond all for himself – still confident, still arrogant, but we see a glimmer of vulnerability beneath the 007 veneer. Quite why anyone doubted him in the first place, I cannot grasp, but he effortlessly looks the part, while having the massive acting talent to match. Eva Green makes a formidable and alluring Bond girl, helping add to what was a more emotional story than seems to be the usual with Bond. Mads Mikkelsen makes a suitably sneering villain.

Martin Campbell returns to the helm and doesn’t disappoint. The action is spectacular and truly push the boundaries of the film’s 12A rating. One sequence in particular genuinely shocked me, and made me wonder that had it been a woman in Bond’s place, the age restriction would have been far stricter. The action is engaging and moves at a break-neck pace, and is nicely interjected with moments of humour and emotion.

There is a segment toward the end of the film that made me completely lose interest, regain it, and then lose it again, only to be blown away by a magnificent, albeit expected, scene. The story contains many twists, as expected, although they become slightly more confusing than necessary by the end of the film.

This is a fresh, exciting approach to a long-running and much-loved franchise. I can only hope that Daniel Craig returns for many more adventures as 007.


Monday, July 17, 2006

Ladies in Lavender (2004)

Charles Dance’s gentle drama is a fine showcase for two of the world’s best actresses – Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. It is the dames that make this a film worth watching.

The film tells s the tale of two sisters living in 1930’s Cornwall, who discover a young man washed up on the beach. They nurse him back to health and discover he has a talent for playing the violin. The story is thin and so it takes until half-way through the film for it to become truly engaging. Despite this, the strong performances keep us interested during the film’s duller moments.

Judi Dench and Maggie Smith both shine in their roles. Dame Judi gets the meatier of the roles, as the sister who is most affected by the stranger’s arrival. Daniel Brühl is charming as the stranger and equally strong support is provided by Miriam Margoyles as the sisters’ maid.

The direction is at times a little jarring – some strange use of slow motion, for example, but overall it’s a strong first effort from Charles Dance. Dance makes the best of the lush scenery, which adds greatly to the film’s look and feel.

Naturally, music features heavily in the film and the violin pieces chosen are beautiful. They’re masterfully played by Joshua Bell on the soundtrack, while Daniel Brühl plays along perfectly on film.

This film is perfect viewing for a lazy Sunday afternoon - not too exciting and not too taxing on the grey matter, but enjoyable nonetheless.


Saturday, July 08, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)

The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was a massive success which has managed to spawn two sequels, no doubt in order to make as much money as possible from a very popular character.

Overall, the look of the film is fantastic. There are some darker moments, which better portray the harsh nature of life at sea compared to The Curse of the Black Pearl. Gore Verbrinski handles the direction particularly well during the film’s many action sequences.

The film’s main problem is that it is just too long. Dead Man’s Chest proves that Captain Jack Sparrow is indeed the soul of this franchise. It is Jack that drives the film, Jack that keeps the viewer engaged. Dead Man’s Chest suffers, because, at 2.5 hours long, too much time is spent on other characters. Some characters are brought back from the first to good effect, whilst others make you wonder why they bothered. The fact that the film feels far too drawn out and over-long is a shame, because it taints some of the better moments that are had at the end of the film.

Despite this, there’s no denying that the film is very funny. Johnny Depp yet again pulls off the comedy with ease, seemingly even more at home with his character. Keira Knightley plays a good straight man (or rather woman), even though I’m still not particularly fond of her character. Orlando Bloom was distractingly wooden at times, but what else is to be expected?

Some of the action sequences I felt tried too hard to be bigger and better than the ones in the previous film, only to their own detriment. Naturally, sequences of their nature need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but some required a handful.

The music to the film was this time in the hands of the master, Hans Zimmer, having been in the capable hands of his protégé, Klaus Bladelt, for The Curse of the Black Pearl. The highly memorable themes by Bladelt are used again to good effect. There are times when the score does feel like Zimmer-does-Shore, but nonetheless the music flows well with the film.

The film’s ending makes for a wonderful cliffhanger and introduced a turn of events that I am most pleased with. Overall, the film is one worth seeing, but suffers in part because of its length. Hopefully, the third installment in the series will improve on this.


Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Village (2004)

M Night Shyamalan’s fourth film follows the successes of his first three films, the last of which, Signs, was met with less enthusiasm than his debut and follow-up. The Village, however, is a definite return to form for the writer-director.

The story is set in a secluded village, whose inhabitants live in fear of ‘those we do not speak of’, mysterious creatures who inhabit the nearby forest. The film is primarily a thriller, but within this is a tale of romance too. The two genres sit comfortably together, neither ever feeling out of place.

The film’s impressive cast is on absolutely top form here. Joaquin Phoenix is mesmerising as the quiet but courageous Lucius Hunt. William Hurt brings both authority and heart to the role of the village leader. Most impressive of all is Bryce Dallas Howard as the heroine of the film, Ivy. She brings both strength and vulnerability to a wonderful character. Adrien Brody also shines as the tragic Noah.

Shyamalan’s direction effectively creates an atmosphere of mystery. Most noticeable is the number of occasions when the face of a character cannot be seen while they speak, the camera focussing rather on the back of their head. This helps create the sense of secrecy that is dominant in the film. The film looks exquisite, colours and symbolism used prominently and to great effect. James Newton Howard’s score is haunting, helping add to the atmosphere.

The story itself is cleverly woven and includes a twist in the tale as is usual of a Shyamalan’s recent work. The twist works well, while probably guessed by some viewers, is still an effective turn of events.

Though doubted by many, The Village is a touching and thought-provoking film that is well worth taking the time to see.


Thursday, May 04, 2006

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

I thoroughly enjoyed both earlier installments of the Mission: Impossible franchise, even if M:I-2 was rather inferior to its predecessor. For the third installment, JJ Abrams steps into the shoes previously worn by Brian de Palma and John Woo.

Of Abrams’ other work, I’m only familiar with Lost. I’m a big fan of the show so was excited to hear his name attached to this project. He certainly doesn’t disappoint, proving himself to be a wonderful director for the big screen as well as the small screen. There are certain stamps that are similar to his work on Lost, such as the moments in which he chooses to use slow motion. The action is relentless throughout and never becomes dull.

It’s clear Abrams’ has decided to add a more emotional dimension to the film compared to its predecessors and he succeeds in this aspect because it never becomes out of place. The emotional story never over-powers the action, which is the point of the film. Had the more character-driven elements featured too heavily, it would’ve detracted from the over all product.

Tom Cruise is on fine form once again. I’m not sure how the Catholic Church will react to the world’s most famous Scientologist disguising himself as a priest, however. It’s good to see Ving Rhames still on board, as well as two new additions to Ethan’s team - the very able Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q. Philip Seymour Hoffman is wonderful as the villain of the film, where a lesser actor would’ve upped the ham-factor, Hoffman instead plays it straight and with a great deal of menace.

Michael Giacchino’s score is at times annoyingly similar to his music for Lost – the first appearance of his piano theme for this film is very similar to a theme used on the TV show. However, his explosive style and frequent use of scratchy strings lends itself well to the film’s fast pace.

This film is perfect popcorn cinema, both engaging and exciting. Hopefully it hails in a summer season of films that will be just as good.


Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Princess Bride (1987)

Even before seeing the film, most people are able to quote its most famous line: ‘Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!’ That line, out of context, is either going to conjure up images of action and adventure or of tongue-in-cheek comedy. Luckily, The Princess Bride provides a dizzying mix of both.

A grandfather tells the tale of The Princess Bride to his bed-ridden grandson, who is initially indignant at the prospect of being read a fairytale. The heroine of the tale is Buttercup, who loses her beloved, Westley.

The Princess Bride is a seamless mix of fairytale and comedy, thanks to a cast that performs brilliantly. Cary Elwes is wonderful as the dashing lead, but it is without a doubt Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya that steals the show. Not only does the character bring comedy to the film; he also brings much needed emotion to it, which is slightly lacking in the central love story. There are several cameos in the film, but Peter Cook’s Impressive Bishop is the most memorable.

The film features plenty of fun action sequences. The duel between Inigo and Westley is particularly exciting, and certainly impressive considering both actors did all the fencing. Part of the film’s charm, by now, lies with its slightly dodgy special effects. I couldn’t help but feel that the filmmakers were probably aware of this, making the Rodents of Unusual Size scene especially funny.

This film is a works brilliantly as a comedy and as a fantasy. Best of all, its humour is highly accessibly, making it a perfect family film for children and adults alike!


Thursday, April 20, 2006

Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006)

In the early flurry of CGI feature films, Ice Age was generally perceived as the inferior to the likes of Shrek and Monsters Inc. However, the film had a charm that guaranteed its success. The creators have succeeded in recreating that charm for the second installment.

Having happily settled together as a most unusual herd, Manny, Sid and Diego face new trouble when they discover that the ice is begin to melt and that they must move from their valley in order to survive. Manny is also concerned that he is the last remaining mammoth – that is until he meets Ellie, a mammoth convinced that she is in fact a possum.

The film boasts an impressive cast of voices – Ray Romano, John Leguizamo and Denis Leary return from the original, this time joined by Queen Latifah as Ellie. The unlikely star of the Ice Age franchise does not have a voice (or at least not a coherent one). He is of course Scrat the determined squirrel, who is constantly trying to collect acorns. His role has been increased considerably for this sequel; the filmmakers have evidently picked up on his popularity. This, however, does suffer from most of his segments having already been used as teaser trailers, so many of his moments don’t come as surprises.

The plot is thin, but little else is to be expected from a film aimed at children. However, it is always engaging and entertaining, though this film perhaps has fewer belly laughs than the first. What’s most impressive about the film is the CGI work. At times I found myself almost mesmerised by Scrat’s tail, so detailed and realistic is the rendering.

Ice Age 2 is a heart-warming and funny film worthy of its predecessor. However, let’s hope that they don’t make a third installment, or the filmmakers run the risk of spreading a good thing too thinly.


Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Pink Panther (2006)

Any film that remakes a classic is bound to face harsh judgement both critically and from the cinema-going public. I went to see this film expecting the worst but hoping for better. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised.

This film is no comedy masterpiece, but it succeeds in providing plenty of laughs throughout. Although the film does suffer from many of its jokes being in the over-played trailer, it still has enough jokes and funny set-pieces to overlook this.

Steve Martin does a fantastic job as Inspector Clouseau, the root of most of the film's humour. The 'hamburger' sequence is one of the funniest things I've seen in a long time; Martin's accent is consistently hilarious throughout. The supporting cast is on fine form considering their thin material - Emily Mortimer is particularly sweet as Nicole. There is one weak point in the acting chain and that is Beyonce Knowles. I had not expected much of her, but she failed to convince, despite the fact that she is, more or less, playing herself.

The film is well paced and effectively fills out its running time. The final scene feels a little unnecessary, but is just about amusing enough to merit its inclusion. Although for the most part the characters are quite 2D, Clouseau naturally being little more than a caricature, the film's obligatory sad moment and romantic moment are both still relatively effective.

Without the humour the film is very weak indeed, but thankfully not a single joke falls flat. All in all, this film is highly enjoyable light entertainment.


Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Date Movie (2006)

I’m not a fan of romantic comedies, generally speaking. Neither am I fan of ‘teen’ movies or gross-out comedies. From trailers and press coverage, Date Movie is probably the last film anyone would think me likely to sit through. However, two friends were going to see it and invited me along. My expectations were ridiculously low and sadly, not even they were met.

This film is meant to be a parody of romantic comedies. I’m surprised they’ve managed to get away with such blatant false advertising – aren’t parodies supposed to be funny? The set pieces range from disgusting, to stupid, to mildly amusing. I could count the number of times I laughed on one hand. Not only were the individual skits unfunny, as a whole they weren’t particularly coherent, scenes randomly thrown in for the sake of another film reference. So many of the scenes felt completely redundant.

Had the parody been successful, this no doubt could’ve been a funny film, as there is plenty of room to parody romantic comedies. Instead of being observant and witty, this film aims to use the simplest and most ridiculous ‘parody’ cliches. So many of the scenes were so similar to the originals that they barely merit being called parody – a large portion was simple, unfunny mimicry.

The funniest part of this film was a construction worker shooting himself in the head with a nail gun, not five minutes into the film. I only wish I’d done the same.


Monday, March 27, 2006

The Constant Gardener (2005)

The Constant Gardener is part romance, part thriller based on the novel of the same name by John Le Carré. Ralph Fiennes plays a British diplomat who is forced to become a man of action in order to discover the truth about the murder of his wife, played by Rachel Weisz, uncovering a deeper conspiracy the more involved he becomes.

This film wasn’t as I expected. I expected to watch a fast-paced thriller full of political intrigue and plot twists. While all this does feature in the film, it takes a good 45 minutes or so to shift gears. The beginning of the film is slow, exploring the character background and motivation. It is not until the later portion of the film that the story telling becomes linear, making it difficult to follow at times.

The cast is superb, both Fiennes and Weisz proving themselves to be two of Britain’s best actors at the moment. The supporting cast is also strong, featuring some familiar faces such as Bill Nighy and Pete Postlethwaite.

Fernando Meirelles, who shot to fame with City of God, proves once again to be a fine director. The stark contrast between bleak, rain-soaked Britain and bright, colourful Africa is visually striking. The flashbacks are handled well, never becoming too confusing.

The film’s main weakness is its handling of its dual identity – on one hand there is a love story and on the other a thriller. There are times when the two stories seem unbalanced, as though there are two films within the living space of one. The film does feel long at certain points, but in the second half the action is engaging enough to keep the viewer in their seat.

The film’s ending succeeds in being both bleak, yet satisfying, as corruption is uncovered but that does not equal a happy ending. Despite being based on fiction, the film’s plot is based enough in the real world to make the viewer stop and think about its content, which in my mind is always a good thing.

The Constant Gardener is an interesting and engaging film, which suffers only slightly from a slow start. The strong lead performances, masterful direction and interesting plot elevate the film to something more than a generic thriller.


Hannibal (2001)

The Silence of the Lambs is generally considered to be a modern film classic, amongst critics and cinemagoers alike. There was much expectation then when a sequel was released ten years later. The reaction to this new film was far from positive. The general consensus was that Hannibal lacked the intelligence and subtlety of The Silence of the Lambs, opting instead for gratuitous violence and gore. Anthony Hopkins and Frankie Faison returned from the original cast, while Julianne Moore took on the daunting task of filling Jodie Foster’s shoes as Clarice.

As with The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal is based on Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name. Hannibal, the book, is a very different creature to Silence of the Lambs, the book, so it’s only natural the film is different too. As an adaptation of the novel, the film fails miserably, but this is a very good thing, as an adaptation that stuck more closely to the source material would’ve made a far less enjoyable film. The book’s ending in particular split the fans; personally, I prefer the ending of the film (bar the final scene, which I rather pretend never happened).

It seems to me that Hannibal has been unfairly criticised in the shadow of The Silence of the Lambs. There is no denying that Hannibal is an inferior film, but nonetheless it has its own merits. The cast is still strong. Julianne Moore does a fine job as a very different Clarice to the young woman of Silence of the Lambs. Anthony Hopkins is as wonderful as ever, even if the Dr. Lecter of this film is a hammier character than he was in The Silence of the Lambs. Gary Oldman is suitably insane as the film’s hideously disfigured antagonist, Mason Verger, as Ray Liotta is suitably vile as resident creep, Paul Krendler.

Ridley Scott’s direction is at times beautiful, helped greatly by the stunning scenery of Florence in early sequences. There is much more gore in this film and it does occasionally feel unnecessary – slow motion effects feel over-used in the film’s first major sequence; a gruesome shoot-out. Much of the violence is taken directly from the book, however.

Hans Zimmer’s haunting score is sublime, making use of classical pieces as well as original compositions. The soundtrack also includes an aria specially composed by Patrick Cassidy, Vide Cor Meum, which uses words taken from La Vita Nuova by Dante Aligheri, a figure mentioned often in the film.

All that’s needed to make this film good is to forget about the sheer brilliance of The Silence of the Lambs. Neither particularly demanding nor subtle, the film is a great piece of popcorn-cinema; something some might argue was done with the book. The increased presence of Dr. Lecter himself might be simply to please mass audiences, rather than present a new and original story. Whereas this film is not a prime example of cinema like its predecessor, it is, in its own right, highly enjoyable.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005)

The novel ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy’ by Lawrence Sterne is widely considered to be unfilmable. This film is a mockumentary about an attempt at adapting and making a film of the novel. Steve Coogan takes the lead role as himself and as Tristram Shandy. It also stars Rob Brydon as the ‘co-lead’ amongst a whole host of British comedy talent.

The film boasts a wide range of comedy styles, from the integral banter between Coogan and Brydon to the more surreal moments, reminisent in style of ‘Scrubs’, at times. Much of the film’s comedy lies with referencing British pop culture, which probably diminishes some of the funnier moments for foreign audiences. For example, a running joke in the film involves Steve Coogan’s most famous incarnation, Alan Partridge. I’m not sure that those not familiar with the character would get the most out of the joke.

The comedy is not entirely verbal, however. While it is mainly banter, quips and mannerisms that makes the film incredibly funny, the funniest scene had to be one involving a hot chestnut, providing some hilarious visual humour. Much of the supporting cast is firmly rooted in the comedy world, so there’s not a problem of unfunny people in a funny film.

The film is an uplifting one, with Steve Coogan learning some valuable lessons during the shoot of the film. Best of all, these deeper ‘messages’ aren’t in the slightest bit didactic or out of place, rather they are simply the experiences of one man, showcased for us to see. These moments are never overpowering, the very successful comedic aspects being absolutely paramount.


Monday, March 13, 2006

Walk the Line (2005)

I hadn’t originally intended to see Walk the Line at the cinema, thinking that it wouldn’t really interest me. However, a few friends had nothing but good things to say about it, so I decided to give it a go and I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed.

Walk the Line chronicles the life of musician Johnny Cash from his childhood through to his marriage to singer June Carter. Carrying much emotional baggage from his childhood, Johnny makes his own success but also nearly brings about his own downfall by turning to drugs and alcohol.

Joaquin Phoenix shines in the lead role. Much speculation was made about Phoenix’s mental state during filming, due to parallels drawn between Cash’s life and Phoenix’s life, both men losing a brother at a young age. I’m not going to pass comment on speculation, but it’s possible that a similar experience helped Phoenix become Johnny Cash, as the performance he puts in is truly compelling and believable. Reese Witherspoon does a fine job as June Carter, although I didn’t find her performance to be particularly outstanding. I haven’t seen any of the other female performances nominated at this year’s Academy Awards, so I can’t comment on whether or not she deserved to win. The supporting cast is mostly spot-on, Robert Patrick proving particularly impressive, but there are a few weak moments from some of the less prominent characters.

Naturally, music plays a large role in this film. Both Phoenix and Witherspoon perform their songs and play their instruments in the film. This is impressive in itself, without beginning to realise that they succeed in sounding like those that they are portraying. The use of performance scenes is highly effective and never becomes tedious. I can imagine it becoming difficult to sit through if the music is not to a viewer’s taste, however.

The script is strong, both in terms of dialogue and in the way in which the film plays out. The dialogue never becomes overly sentimental, even though it quite easily could have done so. Overall the scenes play out well, but there are times when the action tends to drag, making the film feel longer than its 130-minute run-time. The direction is at times stunning, the opening sequence standing out in particular.

The film easily handles the more difficult aspects of Johnny Cash’s life and often succeeded in making me grin at its happier moments. All in all, Walk the Line tells the story of a passionate, albeit troubled, man in a manner that is both entertaining and evocative.


Saturday, March 11, 2006

The 78th Academy Awards, 2006

Just to break off from reviews for a moment - here's an article I wrote for The Courier, the student magazine of Aberystwyth university, as a summary and reaction to this year's Oscars.


Every year the glamour of the film award season culminates with the Oscars, the epitome of Hollywood glitz. This year, Brokeback Mountain lead the competition with 8 nominations, though was closely followed by films such as Crash and Memoirs of a Geisha. This made the contest one of the most open for years, despite some of the categories being easy to predict.

Lately the ratings for the Oscars ceremony have fallen in America (and assumedly in the UK – why else was it shown on Sky Movies and not the BBC?). One wonders why, but perhaps it’s because viewers will tune in to see the pretty dresses and then switch off once the boring stuff starts. Well, this year a new host was roped in, Jon Stewart, of ‘The Daily Show’ fame. Stewart is a political satirist above all else and no doubt his some of his comments during the Oscars will have ruffled some middle-American feathers, even though he was far less scathing than most had expected.

But who cares, because we’re only watching for the pretty dresses, right? Reese Witherspoon dazzled in a vintage gown while Rachel Weisz looked fantastic in black, while 7 months pregnant. There did seem to be an distinct lack of good fashion from the ladies this year, most opting for middle-of-the-road attire. There were a fair few misses though – Charlize Theron’s monstrosity of a gown in particular, considering she normally gets it so right. There was a strange trend amongst the paler women – Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts and Uma Thurman – all wore very pale dresses, making them look particularly washed out. Many of the men turned out in fine form – Ludacris and Terence Howard looking particularly dapper!

However, some of us do stay up all night because we care about the awards themselves. This year was particularly exciting, even if many people had assumed that Brokeback Mountain would sweep the board – it didn’t. Four films shared the highest number of awards: Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Memoirs of a Geisha and King Kong. No doubt it will be the first two which will be most talked about, having won the bigger awards. Brokeback Mountain won Best Director (Ang Lee), Best Adapted Screenplay (Diana Ossana and Larry McMurty) and Best Score (Gustavo Santaolallo). Crash became the shock winner of the night as it won Best Picture, the award most assumed would be won by Brokeback Mountain. Along with the top honour, Crash won Best Original Screenplay (Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco) and Best Editing (Hughes Winborne). Memoirs of a Geisha and King Kong both won three awards each, all in the technical categories. It should be noted that in terms of a nominations-to-wins success rate, King Kong came out best – winning three of its four nominations.

There were no surprises amongst the acting categories. Philip Seymour Hoffman won Best Actor, for his portrayal of Truman Capote, the favourite in a very strong group of nominees. Reese Witherspoon won Best Actress in a weaker category, for her role in Walk the Line. George Clooney won Best Supporting Actor, for his role in Syriana. Was this to make up for Good Night and Good Luck winning nothing, I wonder? Rachel Weisz won Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Constant Gardener, bringing home at least one award for the Brits.

Other notable winners were Wallace and Gromit – I defy anyone not to be pleased about this - winning Best Animated Feature, Tsotsi winning Best Foreign Language Feature and March of the Penguins winning Best Documentary Feature. The only decision that didn’t seem quite right to me, personally, was The Chronicles of Narnia winning Best Make-Up. I loved the Narnia film and all, but I honestly thought that Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith was far more deserving, especially as it wasn’t even nominated in the Visual Effects category.

This year the main contenders were very political, very issue-driven films. Of the five nominated for Best Picture, two deal with homosexuality, one about racism, one about McCarthyism and the remaining one deals with the Isreal-Palestine situation. None of these films were huge box-office successes – King Kong made more at the box-office than all five nominees combined. Hopefully, the high level of coverage, not only during the Oscar season, but during the entire awards season will bring these films’ to people’s attentions.

As much as I loved Brokeback Mountain, I was glad to see Crash awarded with the top honours, as it is a truly wonderful film. I was sad, however, to see Munich leave empty handed as the film blew me away. There had been problems with the copies of the film sent to Academy members for consideration – it’d be a shame if this was the reason it garnered so few nominations. I was surprised not to see Eric Bana up for an acting nod. It’s possible that in its attempt at being more liberal Hollywood has only shown hypocrisy, however. Brokeback Mountain was highly praised and yet gay actors have been playing straight roles for years – where are their nominations? Many cynics think that Crash only won because it is based in LA and therefore it proves that the industry is a very insular one.

Personally, I think so long as the films that are awarded are deserving, it shouldn’t matter why it won. It’s nice to see films that are commercially smaller being awarded and gaining attention this way. The same furor will come around next year, with the speculation starting months in advance. Here’s hoping the competition for the 79th Academy Awards will be as good as it was this year.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

The vast majority of people have come to know Brokeback Mountain as ‘that gay cowboy film’, while filmmakers have insisted it is far more than that. Its content and subsequent controversy has helped create a significant amount of hype surrounding the project and its release. For a lot of people, I think this hype will in fact have been detrimental to their enjoyment of the film. We are not given some over-blown, purposefully controversial film; rather we are given what is, simply, a love story.

Our protagonists are Ennis and Jack, who meet while working as sheepherders in Wyoming. A relationship develops between the two men, until they must leave and go their separate ways. The film follows their lives over some 20 years or so, as they both marry and start families, only to still meet up for ‘fishing trips’.

The film is a very quiet one. For the first 10 minutes one starts to wonder if there is going to be much dialogue at all and it is almost half an hour before anything other than chit-chat and sheep watching takes place. Very little happens throughout the film, we simply follow two intertwining lives. Despite this, we care enough for the characters for it to remain engaging and interesting.

The film’s greatest strength is its leads, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Both actors bring their characters to life – Ledger as the brooding Ennis and Gyllenhaal as the idealistic Jack. On the surface it seems that Ennis is the realist and Jack is the dreamer and yet we see that Ennis is the more emotionally volatile of the pair. The subtleties of the characters add greatly to our appreciation of their story. Ledger particularly impresses as a man of few words and yet he succeeds in conveying the complexities of the often-confused Ennis. The supporting cast is also strong, Michelle Williams standing out as Ennis’ wife.

Both the direction and cinematography is strong. Ang Lee beautifully presents us the wonderful environment that these two men find themselves in. There is a real sense of isolation in amongst the stunning scenery of Brokeback Mountain and yet a sense of peace too. The sparse musical accompaniment ensures the film is filled with a quietness that, for the characters, is, at times, awkward and at others, comfortable.

The direction, along with a strong script, ensures that this film is more than a run-of-the-mill romance. This is certainly helped by its strong performances. The story is touching and at times particularly poignant. However, I feel the hype surrounding it is not entirely deserved (is such hype ever deserved?). This film may be groundbreaking insofar that its romantic leads are both men, but beneath that it is simply a very well told love story and nothing else. This is not to say that the film does not deserve the immense praise it has received, it might just be that films equally as good, if not better, are being side-lined by the press, in favour of hype.

Brokeback Mountain is a touching story strengthened by its execution on screen, particularly by the superb performances from Ledger and Gyllenhaal. Where it could’ve been made in a way that deserved its surrounding controversy, thankfully it was not. Instead of playing up its more controversial elements, it presents them as they are – not controversial at all – and so we are left with a story both sad and beautiful, regardless of the sexuality of the protagonists.


Friday, March 03, 2006

Munich (2005)

Never before has a film affected me as much as this. This film is proof of how powerful cinema can be and how important it is that films such as this are made. I did not go into the cinema expecting this to be an easy ride, but I did not expect it to be as difficult as it turned out to be.

The film deals with the aftermath of the massacre of 9 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. That massacre is a well-known event, whereas the covert and bloody aftermath is not. The film is presented as being ‘inspired by real events’ and is based on the book ‘Vengeance’ by George Jonas. While certain creative liberties may or may not have been taken in the film and in the material it is based on, the film is still a harrowing portrayal of the nature of terrorism.

The film follows Avner (Eric Bana) as he is chosen to lead a select group of men to kill 11 men believed to have been responsible for the planning of the massacre at Munich. What begins as a taut thriller soon becomes something far surpassing the boundaries of genre. It soon unfurls its true colours as things spiral out of control and Avner begins to question his own motives and the motives of those who gave him this mission.

The group consists of ordinary men – a toymaker, an antiques dealer – and each has his own motives for joining as well as his own doubts. The acting is superb all round, but Eric Bana truly shines as Avner. We see him descend from eager soldier to the mere shell of a man, haunted by what he has done. I am truly surprised that he has not received any nominations in the recent flurry of awards, as his performance is astounding.

Along with a fine cast, the script is beautifully written, making us believe that these are people we are watching on the screen, not characters. The dialogue is engaging and even during some of the longer speeches it never becomes laboured or false. In portraying the story there are no ‘good guys’ and no ‘bad guys’. Although we are mainly given the Israeli perspective, they are not portrayed as heroes, and neither are their opponents portrayed as villains. Whereas we begin with Avner as a typical leading man, by the end we glimpse the opposite end of the gun, when he himself becomes a target.

The violence of the film is graphic, but not gratuitously so. The more action-orientated scenes are handled with great adroitness, adding to the emotional impact of the story. We see the team’s targets eliminated, one by one, and we see the toll it slowly takes on Avner. Even when he leaves the mission and returns to his wife and baby daughter he cannot escape the horror of his actions and the actions of others. For every man he kills, there is a replacement.

This is one of the strongest messages of the film – the pointlessness of it all. The killing leads to more killing, which leads to more still. One scene which has stayed in my mind the most is that of Avner telling one of the men at his command not kill a young boy who has just seen his parents killed by the raiding soldiers. Avner may have saved the boy’s life, but that boy is just as likely to grow up hating men like Avner and perhaps even becoming a terrorist himself. Violence begets violence, an eye for an eye – and yet the world never seems to learn.

Steven Spielberg’s direction is flawless in this film. From askew camera angles to clever cross-cutting of scenes, all is executed with precision. One of the most harrowing sequences is the encounter with another assassin, possibly one of the coldest moments of the film as Avner’s mission goes from professional to personal. Speilberg would be fully deserving of the Oscar, should he win the award. Spielberg has once again teamed up with John Williams to provide the music, who as usual delivers a haunting and beautiful score.

The final scene of the film is between Avner and his previous ‘employer’, in New York. In the background we see the skyline, with the Twin Towers standing proudly in the middle. The film ends with this skyline, reminding us of how starkly topical this film is, though it is set in the 1970’s. This film is an eye-opener, a kick in the gut. I would urge everyone to see this film, because although it is deeply difficult, it is also tremendously important.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Crash (2004)

My sister, who lives in LA, highly praised this film about the race relations in the city. According to her, not only is it a fine piece of cinema, but also very true to life there.

Now, I can't comment on the accuracy of its portrayal of the city, but I agree that this is a superb film. The story is a tightly woven tale of interconnecting characters that never once becomes confusing. This is different from some other ensemble pieces - rather than all the characters knowing each other, this is a case of paths randomly crossing in the one thing that does connect each and every one of them - the city.

There isn't a single weak link in the large and impressive cast. Thandie Newton and Terence Howard are amongst those who stand out. I was impressed by Chris Bridges, a man I only know as 'Ludacris'. I'm always ready to scoff when rappers take to the screen, but he held his own well.

Both script and direction by Paul Haggis are superb. I've not seen any of his other work, but seeing this film makes me take a bit more of an interest in seeing Million Dollar Baby. The direction is involving, scenes of different plot threads often flowing into each other via the opening of a door or someone slamming their fist on a table. This was at times disorientating, but this only adds to what is, at times, uncomfortable viewing.

The subject at hand in this film is understandably a sensitive one, but it is handled with care. The film highlights various discriminations between the ethnic groups of LA - Caucasian, African-American, Mexican, Iranian, Hispanic, Chinese - as well as various cases of positive discrimination. None of the characters are free from discrimination or ignorance - many of the characters one first believes to be 'good' are in fact highly hypocritical. I felt that the Iranian shop-keeper was shown a particularly harsh light, whereas many of the other characters have more obvious moments of partial 'redemption'.

All in all this drama is engaging, even in it's most uncomfortable moments, with a sense of reality that is, at times, frightening. I only hope that this film provides an eye-opener for its audience, as none of us is truly free from the discriminations it portrays.


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

King Kong (2005)

I'm a big fan of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy (despite my many complaints about it). I've seen both The Frighteners and Heavenly Creatures (the former being great fun and the latter being quite sublime), so there was no doubt in my mind that Peter Jackson is, indeed, a superb film maker. I knew Kong was going to be a fine film. I was blown away.

The film, quite simply, broke my heart. I've only seen parts of the original, 1933 version (terrible of me, I know), but eververyone knows the story of Kong - it was beauty killed the beast, and all that. Any prior knowledge I had of the story did nothing to prepare me for the ride that Peter Jackson provides with this film.

The opening of the story in New York City is an interesting and poignant story in itself - that of poverty-stricken, out-of-work actress Ann Darrow and of wannabe auteur Carl Denham. Peter Jackson gives us lots of time to get to know the characters before he even mentions the star of the show, let alone shows him. Some might find all these sequences boring - I, for one, didn't. Knowing these characters inside out made the non-stop action that followed all the better, for truly feeling for the people involved. Even the minor crew members - Lumpy the cook, played by Andy Serkis, was a particular stand out for me - evoke great emotion during their journey.

Things really get going once they get aboard the ship, the SS Venture. Here we watch as Ann and Jack tenderly (and inevitably) fall in love. It's not over-done, which I was concerned it might be, and was all the better for it. The mystery surrounding Skull Island is expertly built, with the crew at loggerheads with Denham, who has tricked them into believeing they were headed for Singapore.

So far, so story-laden. Once they reach the island, things take a sudden turn. Jackson provides us with non-stop action at break-neck speed - without it ever getting boring. This of course brings us to Kong himself. A wise choice was made by Jackson in keeping Kong as a silver-backed gorilla, not humanised in any way. The same goes for Kong's expressions and emotions. Though all the emotions we see Kong go through are familiar to us, they are all in that more primal and wild state. Andy Serkis deserves the highest possible praise (shame on you, Academy) for his performance as Kong. He captures the humanity in Kong without ever anthropomorphising him.

A highlight of the film's many action sequences is a sequence between Kong and three T-Rexes. It's long and at times it's quite ridiculous, but that never makes it bad or boring - it's pulled off with such a talent and imagination that you don't care that Kong would've died in the fight, leave alone poor Ann.

Once off the island things take an emotional turn. There are few scenes I've seen in film that are sadder than Kong, chained and defeated, thrust in front of an audience. When the action reaches the Empire State building everything reaches it's emotional climax - the audience feels just like Ann who watches, helpless, as Kong is shot down. Despite the people he's killed and injured, you don't want this creature to die, because he doesn't deserve to. Thankfully, the unlikely couple get a sweet moment of happiness before this - playing on the ice.

There's no denying that a lot of people will find Kong a boring film, but frankly anyone going to see Kong for 'the big monkey' deserve to be bored. This is an intelligent and intensely emotional film, yet full of action and eye candy. The performances are great all round - Naomi Watts shines as Ann, Adrien Brody is suitably heroic and Jack Black is impressive as the complex Carl. It's also nice to see Jamie Bell again, even if his accent was a bit dodgy at times!

The music was wonderful, but on a personal note I would very much like to hear what Howard Shore had intended as the score for the film. In all honesty the score by James Newton Howard was very much similar to Shore's work on the LotR - the quiet choir-and-strings for the more emotional moments and the fully-blown orchestral pieces for the action. It makes me wonder what exactly it was the Peter Jackson decided was wrong with Shore's ideas.

This is the kind of film people say aren't made any more - epic, emotional and romantic. It's a shame not more films are made like this.