Thursday, October 28, 2010

50 Greatest Performances of the Decade (Male and Female)

Here are 50 performances I can remember from the last decade of cinema that have really stood out for me: 

Adrien Brody - The Pianist

Anne Hathaway - Rachel Getting Married

Ben Kingsley - Sexy Beast

Benicio Del Toro - Traffic

Bill Murray - Lost in Translation

Bruno Ganz - Downfall

Casey Affleck - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Cate Blanchett - The Aviator

Charlize Theron - Monster

Chris Cooper - Adaptation

Christian Bale - American Psycho

Christoph Waltz - Inglourious Basterds

Clive Owen - Closer

Colin Farrel - In Bruges

Daniel Day Lewis - There Will be Blood

Daniel Day Lewis - Gangs of New York

Don Cheadle - Hotel Rwanda

Ellen Burstyn - Requiem for a Dream

Emile Hirsch - Into the Wild

Forrest Whitaker - The Last King of Scotland

Heath Ledger - Brokeback Mountain

Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight

Helen Mirren - The Queen

Jake Gyllenhaal - Brokeback Mountain

Javier Bardem - No Country for Old Men

Jeremy Renner - The Hurt Locker

Jim Carrey - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Joaquin Phoenix - Gladiator

Julianne Moore - Far From Heaven

Kate Winslet - Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind

Kate Winslet - The Reader

Kevin Bacon - The Woodsman

Leonard DiCaprio - The Aviator

Leonardo DiCaprio - The Departed

Marion Cotillard - La Vie en Rose

Mathieu Amalric - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Meryl Streep - Doubt

Michael Caine - The Quiet American

Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler

Naomi Watts - Mulholland Drive

Nicholas Cage - Adaptation

Paul Giamatti - Sideways

Philip Seymour Hoffman - Capote

Philip Seymour Hoffman - Doubt

Rachel Weiss - The Constant Gardner

Russell Crowe - A Beautiful Mind

Ryan Gosling - Half Nelson

Sean Penn - Mystic River

Thomas Hayden Church - Sideways

Viggo Mortensen - Eastern Promises

Curb Your Enthusiasm Season 7

Can't wait for the DVD release of the 7th season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I miss Larry!! Here is a link to one of the seasons classic sequences...

Short Review: El laberinto del fauni [Pan's Labyrinth] (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)

When I first saw Pan’s Labyrinth in the cinema back at the beginning of 2007, I was confronted by a brutal, yet beautiful fairy tale, and found myself more emotionally moved by any film in a long time. Pan’s Labyrinth is written and directed by Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (best known at the time for Hellboy) who creates a haunting adult drama that impressively weaves a dual-plot set in a period that closely follows the events of the Spanish Civil War. As jungle guerillas continue to fight General Franco’s regime, Ofelia’s (Ivana Baquero) new stepfather, Captain Vidal, leads an assault to eliminate their presence in the region, while Ofelia, who has a loving connection to her ill and pregnant mother, finds an escape from the horrors of her reality through her vivid imagination. After discovering an ancient labyrinth in the surrounding gardens, she meets and converses with a Faun, who believes that she is the spirit of the princess of the Labyrinth, and assigns her three tasks to be completed by the next full moon to ensure that the ‘essence’ of the princess can remain and be returned to her family.

It is in the fantasy world that the film is most impressive as Ofelia encounters many wonderful creatures on her journey, including persuasive fairies, a giant toad beneath a dying tree and a horrific child-eating monster that Ofelia encounters in the second task. This creature, which sits in front of a giant feast, empowers Ofelia to be tempted by the food (against the advice given by the Faun) and places her in a kind of trance. Before closing in to kill her. It’s a terrifying sequence, and the creature features as a double for Vidal, as he hunts Ofelia in much the same way at the conclusion of the film. Throughout the film Del Toro alludes to the theme that monsters are not intrinsic of ourselves, but extensions of who we are. This is part of the seamless transition the film makes between the worlds and the tasks she undertakes weigh heavily on events in the real world, none more so than when the Faun gives Ofelia a mandrake root to help heal her ill mother.

Facing her fears in the challenges presented by the labyrinth gives Ofelia the courage to oppose her stepfather and help her save her younger brother from a life in his care. The film’s central meaning deals with choices, to think for ourselves or to follow orders, to become a decent human being, or become a monster. In both worlds we see the forces of ‘good’ fighting those of ‘evil’ and witness Ofelia’s childhood innocence challenged by all forces but ultimately returned by her completion of the three tasks. She chooses to sacrifice herself in order to save her younger brother. Ivana Baquero gives an excellent performance as Ofelia. She should become a major talent given the right roles, and the conflict of her innocence and her maturity is beautifully displayed. She is well supported by Sergei Lopez as Vidal and Maribel Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien) as Mercedes, the housekeeper. Del Toro provides astute direction and technically the film looks immaculate. The sweeping cinematography, the illuminating lighting, the art direction and set design, the costumes and make-up, and the haunting score are all superb. It is one of the great masterpieces of the 21st Century. Del Toro has created a breathtaking, original film that has raised the benchmark in the fairy-tale/gothic horror genre for a long time to come. Visually magnificent, brutally violent, and ultimately perfect.

My Rating: 5 Stars

Short Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominic, 2007)

Fueled by fine performances in the lead roles by Brad Pitt (as Jesse James) and a pitch-perfect Casey Affleck (as Bob Ford), this is a mesmerizing account of the legend of one of the West's most notorious outlaws and his cohorts. Having grown up idolizing Jesse, the insecure and unpopular Bob Ford tracks down his gang as they prepare for a train robbery, where he makes some petty attempts to join the gang. Despite Jesse's bullying of Bob, they form a friendship mostly through Bob's obsessive admiration for the man. Later, when the gang members have gone their separate ways, Jesse returns in search of his former colleagues, some of whom have fallen in cahoots with a conspirator set to capture Jesse for the offered bounty, causing unrest and mistrust within the gang.  He re-kindles a working relationship with Bob and his brother Charlie (Sam Rockwell), living together for a spell. But Bob discovers that he is not the same man as he had long worshiped. With Jesse thinking of suicide as his sanity becoming more troubled, and with the Ford brothers convinced that Jesse may soon kill them, Bob decides to kill him first. The murder of James at first turned the brothers into celebrities, and they are asked to re-enact the assassination in a theatrical production. Following Charlie's suicide, Bob becomes a publicly shunned coward, and ultimately a depressed alcoholic overwhelmed with guilt. Director Andrew Dominik really owes a lot to legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins for making his film look so beautiful. He renders the film to appear incredibly bleak by utilizing strong palettes of brown and black, while many of the stunning night sequences were endowed with a heavy sense of atmosphere. The score, which is a collaboration between Australian artists Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and also works well. While slightly overlong, this is a beautifully constructed film that conforms to the classic Western tropes, notably the meandering passage of time, the imposing landscape and the sudden bursts of brutal violence.

My Rating: 4 Stars

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Short Review: Crazy Heart (Scott Cooper, 2009)

In Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges portrays an alcoholic and down-and-out country music singer-songwriter, who decides to turn his life around after he meets a young journalist and her four-year-old son. Directed by Scott Cooper, his film is an adaptation of the 1987 novel by Thomas Cobb, who based his central character on Hank Thompson. Bridges performance was influenced by notable country music legends, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard, and earned him his first Best Actor Oscar at the most recent Academy Award ceremony. Otis 'Bad' Blake (Bridges) is a rundown former country music hero, now struggling to make a modest living by performing one night stands at rundown hotels and bars across Southwestern United States. Traveling alone in his prized vintage car, he spends his days on the road. He has no family, a history of failed marriages and a heavy drinking and chain smoking problem that have left him in very poor health. He meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a divorced journalist with a four-year old son, Buddy, when she requests an interview with him, and the two enter into a relationship. Feeling rejuvenated he mends a professional relationship with Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a successful and popular country music artist that Blake had previously mentored. He performs as a lead act to Tommy's show, but is shunned when he requests a duet album with Tommy, who only wishes Blake to start writing songs for him to play, noting that he is still one of the best in the business. With his drinking problem now threatening his life, Blake drives his car off the road and seriously injures his ankle, and then later, when he is trusted to take care of Buddy, he loses him at a shopping mall when he stops at a bar to have a drink. After losing Jean, his most heartbreaking setback yet, he begins to attend AA meetings to sober up, and ends up writing one of his greatest songs, 'The Weary Kind', which he sells to Tommy and becomes a commercial success.

I have always found music biopics to be fueled by excellent central performances, but rarely transformed into great films. Crazy Heart continues this trend. It is certainly a moving and inspiring tale, and Bridges creates a character, often loathsome at times, who is welcoming and likable. Bridges puts his heart and soul into this role and has a blast, but also captures Blake's sensitive world-weary pain and frustration. Maggie Gyllenhaal (who received an Oscar nomination too) and the often underrated Colin Farrell are both very good support. His descent into alcoholism is a tragic road for someone endowed with so much talent, and it's really heartwarming to see him find himself in the end. The film never delves too deeply into his alcoholism, staying with his musical interests, which was a positive.

The film is rarely engaging, however. Lacking a evident story, it is more comprised of important episodes in his life that bring about the desire to make the changes, and then ultimately the results. Crazy Heart is languidly paced and the cinematography was unimaginative. But this is not a biopic of a glam-rock star, it's of a down-to-earth country music singer, so it's hard to expect something that makes you jump out of your seat. Even if you are not a fan of his music; I thought it had a gruff but catchy appeal, for what it is, Crazy Heart is a solid film fueled by a beautiful performance from Bridges.

My Rating: 3 Stars

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

New Release Review: The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

The first decade of the 21st Century saw the world of cyberspace develop to levels almost beyond belief, allowing regular people the opportunity to invade the privacy of others to often dangerous extremes. One major avenue of this encroachment was Facebook, which has becomes the most popular and certainly the most commercially successful of the social networking creations. David Fincher's film, The Social Network, is a drama about Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin, the founders of Facebook. Adapting his incredible screenplay from Ben Mezrick's 2009 non-fiction novel, The Accidental Billionaires, Aaron Sorkin has created a masterful canvas for director David Fincher to work with. With a superb ensemble cast featuring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Rooney Mara, who all deliver great performances, The Social Network is a hip, sexy, hilarious, exciting, thrilling and ultimately tragic tale of one young man's creation that forever changed the face of world social interaction, but ultimately consumed his life and destroyed those of his betrayed and bitter colleagues.

The opening sequence is an instant classic. It's 2003 and the story situates us in The Thirsty Scholar, a campus bar at Harvard. Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is having a drink with his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). She proceeds to break up with him after he insults her intelligence and seems completely self-involved and ignorant to anything she has to say. On exit she proclaims "he would always tell himself that girls didn't like him because he was a nerd. But girls will never like you because you are an asshole." For most of the entirety of the film, we struggle to find reasons to not call Zuckerberg an 'asshole'. The opening credits appear over a number of shots of Zuckerberg walking angrily back to his dorm at Kirkland House following his dumping. What seems to be a pretty standard montage was initially planned to be one long take utilizing multiple cameras that would later be stitched together. But it stands as it is, and it is one of the least imaginative sequences in the film. Back in his dorm, while intoxicated and at the same time blogging his emotions in an open forum, Zuckerberg hacks into the Harvard database and accesses the various resident archives and downloads pictures and names. He creates a website he calls FaceMash utilizing an algorithm supplied by his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), that asks students to rate the attractiveness of a pair of female Harvard undergraduates. His distasteful creation, which received a high abundance of traffic for a single night, results in his punishment of six months academic probation after the immense traffic causes parts of the Harvard network to crash. He is vilified by most of Harvard's female community but draws attention from the identical Winklevoss brothers, who approach him to work as a programmer for their idea of a website called Harvard Connection. Spawning from this, Zuckerberg approaches Saverin and proposes they become partners in the creation of a website exclusive to Harvard students, where they can upload photos and display personal information without the threat of privacy invasion, known as 'Thefacebook'.

Saverin funds the project with an initial thousand-dollar transfer. Once it is released, Thefacebook becomes immediately popular amongst the student body, prompting the Winklevoss brothers and their business associate, Divya Narendra, to discuss suing Zuckerberg for intellectual property theft. Later, as the website begins to expand into other states and then worldwide, Zuckerberg arranges a meeting with Shaun Parker (Justin Timberlake), the founder of Napster. When Saverin is skeptical of working with Parker, noting his troubling personal and professional history, and remains in New York when Zuckerberg and his team move to Los Angeles, he winds up completely pushed out of the operations. Zuckerberg takes on Parker's advice, drops the title of the site to simply 'Facebook', drives the company into Billionaire waters and awaits the celebration of 1 Million site members. Both Saverin, who is reduced to less than one-tenth percent share of the company, and the Winklevoss brothers file lawsuits against Zuckerberg and Facebook, and the film crosscuts these testimonies with the 2003-04 conception of the website, often starting some of the dialogue as spoken by Zuckerberg himself, and concluding it as part of a orated account by the prosecuting or defending legal representatives in the deposition. Fincher's film is effortlessly engaging and the dual time-lines are seamlessly combined, and after the initial confusion of differentiating the different periods, it is remarkably easy to follow.

At exactly 120 minutes, the films' ability to entertain never wavers. Brilliantly capturing the rebellious fun of college life, and the growth of multimedia obsession in the middle of the decade, it is all timed to perfection and tautly constructed. With never a dull moment, every minute is completely absorbing, and never fails to leave you in either guilty hysterics or shaking your head in distaste at Zuckerberg's antics. While Zuckerberg seems to be the most conniving, self-indulged person you never hope to cross paths with in your life, you still can't help but feel a bit sorry for him. It really seems like he is incapable of controlling his maniacal personality, but he is driven by his intellectual superiority, and seems to be borderline autistic. But ultimately we start to side with Saverin in the deciding legal battles, as he seems to be the only one that possesses any real humanity. We realize that while he worked hard trying to find advertisers to monetize the site, Zuckerberg was wasting away Saverin's donated money in Los Angels funding parties with Shaun Parker, who was riding the success of Facebook after his prized music-download site Napster was shut down. Much like Zuckerberg was, we are also seduced by the business flair and likable aura of Shaun Parker, but his out-of-control rambunctiousness finally makes him aware that he could once again lose everything. Opposing this, we never really see a change in Zuckerberg, whose glares of loathing at his former friends and colleagues sitting opposite him at the inquest, and obvious lack of enthusiasm, is only broken when he hungrily types away at his laptop, rendering his creation. For a man who should be filled with self-loathing, Zuckerberg either chooses to remain ignorant of the accusations against him or sarcastically and often heatedly reacts with near-malicious condescension. His obsessions are reiterated at the conclusion as he sullenly agrees to settle all of his lawsuits, before deciding to add his ex-girlfriend to his personal page before the camera lingers on him repeatedly refreshing to see if she accepts his request. He no doubt has millions of 'friends' linked to his page, but sadly no real friends left in the world. We watch, totally absorbed in the proceedings, as the most influential and definitive vehicle of multimedia social interaction comes to fruition. Facebook has brought people from across the globe together, reweaving the fabric of society, but completely unraveled the friendship of its creators.

I have always been a David Fincher fan and I have always credited Se7en (1995) as his greatest masterpiece, despite the greater cult success of Fight Club (1999) and the more recognized acclaim for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). With The Social Network, his eighth feature, he confirms his status as one of Hollywood's most accomplished directors. Fincher's recognized dark and brooding mise-en-scene and stylish camera techniques are obvious here, and it all works brilliantly. The score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is also incredible, with a most interesting use of 'In the Hall of the Mountain King.' But it is Aaron Sorkin's wordy screenplay, however, that is the most impressive. The dialogue is deliciously culture rich and witty. He effortlessly explains so much about Zuckerberg's demented demeanour via these dialogue-heavy sequences. As Mark Zuckerberg, Jessie Eisenberg (star of Adventureland and Zombieland) is outstanding, and he receives great support from the always brilliant Andrew Garfield (BAFTA winner for his breakout performance in Boy A), pop favorite Justin Timberlake and the lovely Rooney Mara (who's involvement in just two sequences were both memorable). Garfield is truly exceptional as Saverin; you really feel that he is pained to have to turn on his former best friend. He genuinely liked Mark, which was more than anyone else was willing to admit. At the very least I expect The Social Network to create a lot of buzz come Oscar season. Along with a Best Picture nomination, Fincher's direction should also be recognized, and Sorkin can already call the Adapted Screenplay Oscar his own. As for the performances, Eisenberg should get a nod for lead, and I'd also nominate Garfield for his support. Facebook has defined the last decade of online networking, proving to be one of the most addictive yet antisocial inventions of the 21st Century. Sorkin's screenplay, based loosely on Mezrich's account of these events, explores the origins of this invention and examines the narcissistic sociopath that drove it into the cyber world. The Social Network is without doubt one of the year's best films and a definitive encapsulation of the 21st Century to date. It's a new landmark in American cinema. Remaining as strikingly intelligent as it's central protagonist, it is just as rewarding upon repeat viewings, as we become even more acute to it's wealth of subtleties. There really is something for everyone here. It's brilliant!

My Rating: 5 Stars

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Review: Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

Rashomon was the film that introduced the films of Akira Kurosawa to Western audiences, and along with The Seven Samurai (1954), is considered to be his masterpiece. Winner of the Golden Lion at the 1950 Venice Film Festival, it is often amongst the most praised and influential films in cinema history. The film opens with a woodcutter and a priest sitting beneath a gate, revealed to be called Rashomon, waiting out a heavy downpour. The priest sits in silence contemplating, while the woodcutter, clearly troubled, repeats to himself "I just don't understand." Soon they are approached by a drenched commoner who joins them beneath the gate and queries the woodcutter as to what is wrong. Both men tell him that they have just been witness to the most disturbing story of their lives, which they begin to recount to the visitor. The story revolves around the rape of a young woman and the murder of her samurai husband. The woodcutter, who had found the body three days prior when he was walking through the forest, had fled to notify the authorities, and the priest, who had seen the couple the morning of the incident, are called in to give their testimony. It is at the trial that they discover Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), a notorious bandit who had been captured after falling weak due to a stomach ache, who claims responsibility for the rape and murder. Through the recount of the woodcutter to the commoner, we are revealed to three separate stories about the incident; first by the bandit, then the girl, and finally the deceased samurai through a medium. Each is a decisively different account of the events, troubling the woodcutter. The difference in the accounts throws doubt on what really happened and questions us as an audience to consider that there may be in fact no truth at all.

Tajomaru's story recalls that he desired the woman after glimpsing her briefly when she and her husband rode by. Deciding he wished to love her, even at the expense of her husbands life, he lures her husband away promising that he had some valuable weapons to offer him. He ties him up in a grove, and after some initial violent retaliation with her dagger, the woman is eventually seduced by the bandit. She begs Tajomaru to duel her husband to the death to save her the shame of having two men know her dishonor. Tajomaru recounts an epic duel between the two men, which results in him being victorious. When he is asked about the whereabouts of her dagger, he deems himself foolish for having forgotten about it. The woman's story reveals that Tajomaru had left immediately after raping her, and that she had received no forgiveness from her husband for her betrayal, firstly begging him to kill her, and then finally fainting out of shame. She awoke to find her husband killed with her dagger, and then subsequently failed in her own attempts to kill herself, leaving the dagger behind. In the samurai's story, he claims that Tajomaru, after raping his wife, asked her to accompany him in his future travels. Having agreed, she asks the bandit to kill her husband to free her guilt of belonging to two men. He is initially shocked and then gives the samurai the option of killing the woman or letting her go with him. The woman flees, Tajomaru releases the bonds on the samurai, who ultimately kills himself with his own dagger.

Following his recount of the three stories, the woodcutter has a surprising reveal of his own. He tells his friends that he had actually witnessed the incident, but was scared of revealing his knowledge at the trial. He reveals that the samurai's story was a lie, and that the men had indeed fought one another, but not to the heroic scale of Tajomaru's recount. Tajomaru had raped the woman and asked her to marry him. She had freed her husband and asked the men to duel for her love. With both men reluctant and fearful, they duel, with Tajomari clumsily winning and then limping from the scene. With the woodcutter having declared that all of the previous accounts were false, we feel we have finally discovered the truth through an eye-witness testimony. Following this discussion, the silence is interrupted by the sound of an abandoned and crying baby. The commoner steals a kimono and an amulet left with the baby, which prompts the woodcutter to chastise him. But the commoner, who had also deduced that the woodcutters story was false, claims that he had stolen the dagger from the scene. With the priest's faith in humanity rocked by all the lies, he is suspicious of allowing the woodcutter to take the baby into his care. But once the man reveals that he has six of his own children and that all of his actions (stealing the dagger and choosing to withhold his story at the trial) were to provide for and protect his family, the priest hands over the baby. The film concludes with the woodcutter leaving Rashomon with the child under a now sun-drenched sky.

The film questions the objectivity of truth and knowledge, and it raises an interesting philosophical debate about our faith in humanity. Throughout the woodcutter's recount of the stories, the commoner cynically comments about the nature of humanity. He declares that "it's human to lie" and that "most of the time we can't be honest with ourselves." Content to hear out the story because he wishes to remain dry, he assures the men that he "doesn't care if it is a lie, as long as it is entertaining." While the film is certainly dense and philosophical, it is also supremely entertaining. It is beautifully shot, with features of the environment and often direct sunlight masking all that we are revealed to. The sequence where the woodcutter first walks through the forest is mesmerizing. Utilizing multiple cameras, with the footage meticulously edited together, it is swiftly paced and consistently engaging, with each account captured in it's own unique way. The scenes at the trial are all similarly framed; from straight on, with the cast looking beyond the lens and speaking to a jury positioned slightly to the right of the camera. It's brilliantly dialogued, especially in the sequences beneath the Rashomon gate. The priest, woodcutter and commoner share some great chemistry and their conversing is often amusing. The performances are all outstanding. Toshiro Mifune, a regular in Kurosawa's films, is at his obnoxious best here. Endowed with a villainous chuckle, he is really convincing as a conniving bandit, smitten with the beauty of the woman. Machiko Kyo is outstanding, with a performance that ranges from a pleading and pathetic betrayer, to a frightfully irritating serial-sobber, to a conniving ice-queen.

Often, misguided memory and presence of the “waking dream” challenge the reliability of a subjective reality. Films in which the memory plays a significant role, both as subject matter and as a strategy for telling the story, such as in Kurosawa's Rashomon, are problematic to the possibility of the narrative, particularly the relationship between events in time and the accurate account of these events. Within the plot of Rashomon, four different versions of the same event are considered. With the exception of the use of the medium to narrate the words of the dead samurai, there isn't any discrepancy in the mental states of the characters or their memory; the truth is hidden through the act of a lie. The expression of the flashback is simple and straightforward, first capturing pieces of their account from the trial and then confirming this with a visual representation. In a debate about the action-image we can distinguish that Rashomon does not resort to confusing the action-image, but a simple event is purposely retold differently in the characters' testimony. The action does not occur outside of the conscious level of the characters, and their realization of the truth is not subject to any such lapse in time. The mental state of a character is at issue when the viewer discovers that a flashback is false, and as an audience we witness something that never occurred. This observed and confirmed by the commoner, who like the audience, is hearing these different accounts for the first time and concludes that all the accounts were false. The characters are motivated not by memory, but by a desire to 'cover' the truth. A more contemporary example of this kind of film in Bryan Singer's, The Usual Suspects (1995). Since it's conception, Rashomon has remained revolutionary in the development of multiple narrative, and multiple point-of-view cinema. While The Seven Samurai is still my favorite Kurosawa film, Rashomon is a brilliant piece of cinema that really tackles human nature in quite some depth for a story that is so concise and simple. It really is rewarding cinema.

My Rating: 5 Stars

Friday, October 22, 2010

Comments: The Book of Eli (The Hughes Brothers, 2010)

The Book of Eli is yet another film set in a post-apocalyptic nightmarish world. Despite some stunning visuals, a few stylish action sequences and a cast featuring Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis and Tom Waits, there isn't anything to like about this film at all. It was awful. 

My Rating: 1 1/2 Stars

Short Review: Youth in Revolt (Miguel Arteta, 2010)

Fans of Michael Cera and the hipster coming-to-maturity comedy will love this adaptation of C.D Payne's novel of the same name. Cera revels in playing a geeky social outcast, but this role allowed him to stretch out beyond his usual confines. Cera plays 16-year-old Nick Twisp, an outcast of his generation, who loves Frank Sinatra and the films of Fellini, and as he confesses through voice over, is a virgin. He lives with his mother and her dim-witted boyfriend. Convinced he has no life he accompanies them on vacation to a caravan park, where he meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), a pretty intellectual who shares many of Nick's odd qualities and really gets who he is. Naturally, he falls in love with her and vows to find a way to move closer to her. He enlists the help of his alter-ego, Francois Dillinger (also Cera), to assist him in his revolt against both himself and all those around him, and ultimately be with Sheeni forever. But a string of bad luck, and some chaotic circumstances hinder his plans and he ends up being a hunted arsonist on the run from the authorities, which ultimately threatens his future with Sheeni.
The sequences with Dillinger are certainly the film's best and this was Cera's chance to rebel against type, and he nails it. Portia Doubleday is also a revelation as the girl of his dreams. There are also some great supports, notably Steve Buscemi (as Nick's father) and Justin Long (as Sheeni's stoner brother). At just 89 minutes, the plot feels really episodic and lacks depth, falling victim to convenience a bit too often. I also felt it tried a bit too hard to be quirky at times, with the animation sequences and all, but it's consistently amusing. Filled with outrageous sequences, it's irreverent, heartfelt and somewhat unsatisfying, but as an adorable study of teen angst, it was enjoyable.

My Rating: 3 Stars

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Classic Throwback: Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971)

Sam Peckinpah's controversial feature, Straw Dogs (1971), starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, is an uncompromising examination of the male instinctual capacity for violence. To avoid the anti-Vietnam social chaos currently laboring his intellectual development, U.S Mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his wife Amy (Susan George) decide to move to an isolated town near Cornwall where Amy grew up and her father owns a house. Their presence, and notably his cowardice and bumbling ignorance of English traditions and her sensual beauty, provoke antagonism amongst the village men.

Their desire is to renovate the house, build a garage and settle down so that David can accomplish some work in peace. He hires a few of the local handymen to build the garage, including one of Amy's old flames from school. When David and Amy are returning from town with an antique bear trap to adorn the house, they run into Charlie Venner (Del Henney). Charlie remembers Amy and expresses in secret his still present desire for her, clearly resenting David. He volunteers to assist his mates with the garage and David agrees. Over the course of the next few days, the antagonism towards the couple, who are repeatedly at odds with one another themselves, grows worse.

What begins as a few slanderous phrases and uncomfortable perverted behavior culminates in the hanging of Amy's cat in the bedroom and then the brutal gang rape of Amy, while David has been lured by the foursome out into the woods for a day of shooting. The film was heavily censored and often banned because of this rape sequence. Receiving an X Rating upon release, Peckinpah's film garnered controversy, largely due to the part of the scene where Amy relinquishes her struggle and seems to enjoy the rape by Charlie. But when the second man, who controls Charlie at gunpoint, has his turn, it is evident she is by no means enjoying her experience. With the scene called a 'male-chauvinist fantasy' it is incredibly gratuitous for an early 70's release and wouldn't fail to shock even today. 

Following the rape, Amy doesn't tell her husband, but suffers from vivid mental flashbacks that plague her when she sees her attackers. In another parallel plot, the local tart and daughter of the town drunk, Tom (Peter Vaughn), runs off with the village simpleton, Henry Niles, prompting a man hunt. Treated like an outcast in the village, Niles accidentally kills the young girl and flees into the fog from his pursuers. Led by an inebriated Tom and including the other four prominent antagonists, they pursue Niles to Sumner's house. David, who has hit Niles with his car, makes a call for the doctor, prompting their knowledge of his whereabouts. They start an aggressive assault on the house, but David refuses to let the men into his home, which he quickly asserts as his personal 'castle', despite Amy’s requests.

The final twenty minutes of the film is a violent spectacle, as David unleashes his instinctual capacity for violence, resisting the attack – which includes the men shooting at the locks and breaking the windows in their attempts to find their way in. He is not fueled by violent revenge over the rape of his wife (as he was never told about it), but he is resisting their presence on his property and protecting his fellow alienated member of the town, who is too injured to fight back against the drunken lunatics. The final showdown is extremely violent, and having only heard about Peckinpah's other work, it seems like it a regular feature of his work. 

However, it is very difficult to believe that these men would go to such lengths as to completely destroy the Sumner's house in an attempt to question this man. It would have made more sense to search for the missing girl. But after they accidentally shoot the local Major, who tries to talk some sense into them, they feel they have gone too far to turn back. It all becomes a little too incredible and almost as peculiar as David's bizarre antics. He refuses to give over Niles, but is content to let his wife be the victim of objectification and ultimately place both of their lives in danger by the end.

Dustin Hoffman gives yet anther powerful performance as a man driven to unleashing the extreme violence that he abhors. Sumner is meekly trying to hide his primitive violent streak by not responding to the abuse of the townsfolk despite viewing himself superior to their hooliganism by purchasing American cigarettes, by deeming himself more intellectual and having ownership of one of their most desired women. Instead of confronting them aggressively about their murder of Amy's cat, he peacefully wants to let it go, while he simply tells the men to leave and pays them off for their objectification of his wife. He ultimately wants the respect of the local townsfolk without ever respecting them. He wants his wife to leave him in peace so he can work, essentially leaving her vulnerable to their taunts.

Straw Dogs has a bleak and uncompromising premise, and Peckinpah’s skillful orchestration is evident, but I wasn't wholly convinced overall. I found Hoffman's character to be just as despicable as his antagonists, and really didn't find anything to like in any of the characters. The violence is extreme and the moral questions it raises really failed to avoid hypocrisy. It will be continue to draw debate for years to come, and its classic status is certainly justified, despite the uncomfortable viewing.

My Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Short Review: Chloe (Atom Egoyan, 2010)

Chloe, a remake of the 2004 French film, Nathalie..., is the newest film from Atom Egoyan (director of The Sweet Hereafter and Ararat). It is an erotic drama starring Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried. The film revolves around a married couple, Catherine (Moore) and David (Neeson), who seem to have the perfect life. Both are successful; David is a college lecturer and professor, Catherine a gynecologist, and they are quite wealthy and live in a beautiful home. To celebrate David's birthday, Catherine is throwing him a surprise party and is waiting with his friends at the house for his arrival in from New York. After ensuring the guests that he is only minutes away, she receives a call from David saying that he will be home late after missing his flight. Puzzled as to why, Catherine checks his phone the next morning and becomes suspicious of an affair when she sees a picture of David hugging one of his female students. By chance she meets a beautiful young escort named Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), who she had spied from her surgery window leaving the nearby hotel with male clients. To ease her suspicions about her husband, she approaches Chloe and they reach a business agreement. Catherine asks her to stage a meeting with her husband and to tempt him to see if he is willing to be unfaithful. The marriage ultimately turns into a tumultuous mess as it becomes clouded with deception and mistrust. Chloe reports back to Catherine that she had met David in a cafe as instructed and had subsequent meetings and sexual engagements with him. Catherine is repulsed at the lengths Chloe has taken the agreement to, but also turned on by the details that Chloe divulges into, becoming jealous of her reported experiences with David. She becomes endowed with her own sexual desires for Chloe and the two startlingly share their bodies. With Catherine arriving home late after meetings and dealings with Chloe, David begins to suspect that Catherine is indulging in her own affair, while denying his own when he is reciprocally interrogated. The couple have a young sexually active and confused teenage son, Michael, who is musically talented but estranged from his workaholic, self-indulgent parents. Throughout the film, the three are at odds with one another about their sexual lives. This is especially notable when Catherine discovers that their son is engaging in intercourse with his girlfriend, opposing her frustration by David's disinterest in her. Chloe, who continues to torment Catherine by visiting her at her surgery unannounced and repeatedly calling, is rejected by Catherine who subsequently tries to pay her off. Chloe meets up with Michael and chooses to seduce him. With seemingly the entire family falling under the spell of Chloe, she now seems beset to destroy all of their lives. Revealing any more will subsequently destroy the film.

Solid as usual, Liam Neeson is well cast, and Julianne Moore is great, but the film belongs to Seyfried, whose luminous beauty and excellent performance really holds the film together. With her big eyes, flawless skin and cute smile, she is epitome of a sensual beauty. But her character manages to find a way to empower everyone around her with her effortlessly seductive nature. In the opening sequence which sees Chloe dressing in front of a mirror, there is a voice-over that explains her role as a call-girl, requiring the ability to please her clients with her words as well as her actions. When Catherine hires her, she insists that David is not the client, and Chloe takes this completely to heart. Visibly frustrated at first by Catherine's request, and then ultimately drawn to her beauty, Chloe becomes obsessed, choosing to pursue her own desires through Catherine's fragile and revealing state. She doubles as a psychiatrist, delving into the consciousness of Catherine and preying on her weaknesses, and as an actress; as she carefully constructs a situation that allows her to take full advantage over her life. There is an important plot twist near the conclusion that is really quite obvious to predict from sequences early on, but it still works because we find ourselves immersed in Catherine's blind consciousness, seeing what she clearly cannot. We find ourselves seduced by Seyfried's performance and don't realize just how manipulative she really is. The cinematography was stunning, really illuminating Seyfried's dazzling features. Egoyan's film has received mixed reviews and I thought it was a bit misdirected at times. The distressing script was a bit incredible too, and while I wasn't overly engaged for the entirety, I found it to be quite a clever thriller, with fine performances and some very sexy sequences.

My Rating: 3 Stars

Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of OZploitation (2008)

Just checked out the documentary, Not Quite Hollywood. It's a really entertaining insight into Australia's trashiest genre films from the 70's and 80's, premiering at the Melbourne Film Festival in 2008. Tagged as Ozploitation films, these scandalous, gratuitous and outrageously B-grade projects defied censorship and brought world-wide notoriety and recognition to Australia's formerly non-existent film industry, proving to influence Australian filmmakers for decades to come. Featuring hilarious commentary from notable filmmakers, actors and critics that fueled and documented this movement, and also including enthusiastic comments from Quentin Tarantino, who dedicated Kill Bill Vol. 1 to the work of one of the movements' most recognized directors, Not Quite Hollywood is interesting and really great fun.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Short Review: Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010)

Green Zone tackles some interesting theories and overall is a conventional and relatively effective anti-war thriller from director Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum). Utilizing his typical frenetic hand held camera, the chaos in the streets of Baghdad, and the tense action sequences, are well captured and quite engaging, albeit confusing to the eye. It's a pity the narrative itself, which is riddled with disappointing cliches and one-note characters, isn't so memorable. Damon is solid as usual, and Brendan Gleeson provides the best support. Morphing both fact and fiction, controversy has ensued over the films anti-war propaganda, it's portrayal of the American Government and the claims about America's misguided agenda to track down Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD's) in Iraq. I found it to be bravely honest but really lacking in journalistic integrity, more resembling a level of Call of Duty. However, Green Zone, which I managed to miss at the cinema, but watched recently on DVD, is above average and worth a look.

My Rating: 3 Stars

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Immense Praise for The Social Network

The Social Network is still holding down 97% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes at an incredible 9.1 average rating. Critics are calling it the 'film of 2010' and 'one of the decades defining films'. Wow! Can't wait for the Australian release next month!

Friday, October 15, 2010

New Release Review: Let Me In (Matt Reeves, 2010)

With Let Me In, Matt Reeves, the director of the under appreciated Cloverfield (2007), has created a superb re-adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqist's novel, and respectfully acknowledges and certainly does justice to Thomas Alfredson's outstanding Swedish language original adaptation, Let the Right One In (2008). With the exception of the change of location, now set in New Mexico, the elimination of a few minor plots points, and a few other effective stylistic twists, Let Me In serves as an almost shot-for-shot re-imagining of Alfredson's film. Like its predecessor, it stands as one of the definitive genre films of the last decade and it's one of this years best releases to date. As unnerving and emotionally gripping as the original and certainly as powerful, Let Me In is sure to impress both lovers of the original and those new to the story.


The central character of Let Me In is Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Road), an unhappy and lonely 12-year-old misfit who finds himself the victim of some serious bullying from his classmates at school, and comes home to a broken home with his parents divorced and his father living away. He fantasizes about fighting back against his tormentors, but lacks the courage. He even buys a knife and pretends that a tree in the courtyard is a bully and he aggressively stabs at it. He is kept under strict supervision from his workaholic mother, and finds solace each evening out in the courtyard at the centre of his apartment block. The film introduces a Rear Window-like surveillance sequence as he spends one night swiveling his telescope around the surrounding apartments spying on his neighbours. It is this night that he spots the new arrival of a young girl and her father/guardian, who move in next door. We soon discover that this girl is named Abby (Chloe Moretz, Kick Ass), a pretty but peculiar girl who wanders through the snow covered courtyard barefoot, and possesses incredible puzzle solving skills when she completes Owen's Rubik's Cube. The pair, who are both social misfits, seem to immediately bond and find comfort confiding in one another. But Abby has a sinister secret; she requires blood to survive. Her guardian (played by Richard Jenkins) begins targeting some of the young people in the town, and draining them of their blood to feed to Abby. In one of the film's many chilling sequences, he hides in the back seat of the car of one of the school's young graduates, and breaks his neck. He ties him upside down and then drains blood from his carotid artery into a bottle. The next day, the young boy is discovered murdered, and the local Police Chief (Elias Koteas) takes up the case.

After the body of another man is found frozen in the ice and following an attack by Abby on one of Owen's neighbors, Abby finds herself the subject of the investigation. The eternal bond between the two becomes so apparent in the films' gripping final sequences. Owen is exposed to such violence, both as a witness and as a victim, and his vulnerability is exposed to a terrifying extreme. All of his childhood innocence is lost, while Abby's love for Owen is clearly proven. Like Alfredson's film, the bloodiest sequence is left until the end, and it's a formidable opponent to the original, but I thought Alfredson accomplished it with more poetic beauty. Whether you interpret Let Me In as a horror film, as a serial killer thriller, or as a coming-of-age romance, it is a memorable experience. While I loved Alfredson's film and still consider it superior, and while I am genuinely disappointed at Western audiences' aversion to subtitles that resulted in the idea of this remake, this was a very accomplished horror film and I walked out of the cinema thinking I hadn't seen many that resonated so strongly with me in a long time.

Both of the leads are fantastic, and they incredibly mimic the mannerisms of their previous performers from Let the Right One In, but also add their own personal touches to their characters. They are both warmly adorable and have great chemistry and their bond is completely convincing. But Smit-McPhee is a revelation here, having already garnered recognition and praise alongside Eric Bana in Romulus, My Father and Viggo Mortensen in The Road. While Moretz, who shocked audiences with her role as Hit Girl in the earlier 2010 release, Kick Ass, proves her maturity with this excellent performance. Let Me In is marvelously shot, brilliantly capturing the atmosphere of the original but actually furthering the film's intensity. The changes made by Reeves also work well, most notably the decision to have Richard Jenkins follow his targeted victims by hiding in the back of their cars, and moving the hospital scene to the very beginning, allowing Reeves to introduce Elias Koteas' detective character and to use him throughout the entire film. There are some genuinely scary moments, and the car crash sequence is particularly outstanding. It is also quite bloody and grotesquely brutal and we see more of Abby's transformed state in Reeves' film. The visual effects used to intensify Abby's attacks on her victims are somewhat unnecessary though. Michael Giacchino's pulsing score, which I found to be a bit irritating to begin with, was excellent in the latter half. Reeves has tried to replicate the original and has well and truly succeeded. While it would have been great to see Reeves adapt the novel from an even fresher angle, his film is a great film because Alfredson's is. 

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

Thursday, October 14, 2010

New Release Review: The Town (Ben Affleck, 2010)

Ben Affleck's second feature film about the crime in South Boston is an absorbing and genuinely exciting journey. Affleck blew audiences away with his excellent debut, Gone Baby Gone (2007), which featured his brother Casey playing a private detective on the search for a missing girl. Having first exposed the corruption within the Boston Police Force and the seedy underbelly of the city's socially underprivileged, Affleck this time turns his attention to Charlestown, the armed robberies capital of America. Boston-based crime dramas are becoming their own sub-genre with other notable titles including Clint Eastwood's Mystic River (2002) and Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2006). The Town is an adaptation of Chuck Hogan's accalimed novel, Prince of Thieves. While it doesn't break really any new ground, conforming to the typical conventions of the heist film and resembling Michael Mann's classic cops-and-robbers film, Heat (1995), The Town offers up the years most intense action sequences.
Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) is the leader of his crew who specialize in knocking off banks and armoured vehicles. The film opens with some quotes that set the context of the film in Charlestown, South Boston, which is notorious for it's high prevalence of violent armed robberies. We then see an organized and methodical quartet of heavily armed, masked men hold up a Cambridge Bank branch at 8.15am, collecting all of the employees cell phones, and forcing the manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), to open the safe as soon as the automatic safety is disabled. They decide to take her hostage, blindfolding her in the back of their vehicle, before letting her go unharmed close to the ocean. Traumatized by the ordeal, she is questioned by FBI Agent and specialist in armed holdups, Adam Frawley (John Hamm), who vows to find those responsible. Frawley's relentless passion and obsession is apparent throughout the entire film, and while we never see into his personal life, his air of self-importance grows a bit tiresome. Hamm doesn't really bring anything fresh to the obsessive-law enforcer role either, and gets stuck with the cheesiest lines. Frawley identifies his suspects and then begins to survey and photograph the crew, tying them to local florist and drug runner, 'Fergie' Colm (Pete Postlethwaite).

MacRay, who could have become a professional hockey player after being drafted, wasted a pair of chances with the NHL, and ultimately followed his family's legacy, getting involved with his father's old acquaintances and found his own partners-in-crime. It is revealed that MacRay's mother had deserted his family when he was a child, and his father is serving time in Federal Prison for his career as a criminal. Doug always blamed his father for his mother's disappearance, and questioned why he never searched for her. His estrangement from his father and his feelings about his mother are conveniently the topic of Doug's brief sole visit with his father (Chris Cooper). It was common for occupation to be passed down from father to son in Charlestown, and MacRay, who had never left Boston, begins to seek a way out. His father declares that Doug will always have 'heat' and that he wasn't made for anything else. The other members of his gang are his three lifelong friends including loose-cannon, James 'Jem' Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), who had served a nine year sentence in prison on behalf of MacRay, and won't go down without a fight. Refusing to abandon his lifestyle or go back to prison, his trigger happy antics in the latter half of the film border on suicidal. Following the Cambridge Bank holdup they discover that Claire is a local, and lives close by.

Volunteering to keep her under wraps, MacRay stages a meeting with her to find out what she knows and if she can identify them, but they unexpectedly form a relationship. MacRay begin seeing Claire in secret and tries to protect her from his colleagues who become suspicious of MacRay's interest. Jem is insistent that they start their next assignment as soon as possible, but MacRay is hesitant about a few of the details. His fears are realized, as gunfire ensues and they are pursued through the city by the police department. There is a sequence reminiscent of the epic street shootout in Michael Mann's Heat, and the car chase rivals the best offered by the Bourne Series. It really is heart pounding entertainment, and these are the best sequences of the film. Having successfully masked their identities and torched all the evidence in their escape van, Frawley can't link them to the robbery, but is now hot on their trail. Jem comes to Doug with another job, and Doug flat out refuses until he is threatened by Fergie, who tells him that he will kill Claire if he doesn't do the job. The last sequences of the film aren't the strongest and it wallows into cliche a little bit, even further resembling Heat. With the team adorned with a number of disguises, both as police and ambulance officers, they enter Fenway Park in an attempt to rob the millions of dollars in transit there. But Frawley has the FBI and Swat surround their position and they are compromised, embroiled in an epic shootout in their attempt to escape.

I felt that the relationship between MacRay and Claire was all a bit too convenient and their attraction a bit puzzling. I also found it a bit strange that she would reveal all of her intimate secrets, including her recent ordeal at the bank, to a relatively unknown stranger who she had only met a couple of times. A lot of the dialogue only served the purpose of being referenced again later, and it just didn't hold the film together. The latter half of the film bears no surprises as Doug becomes torn between leaving with Claire, and completing the final job and risking everything. Even the potentially exciting rivalry between Frawley and MacRay was ineffective. They are on opposing sides of the law but never does it engage us enough to really feel or side with either one of them, but after being revealed to his troubled childhood and his inability to escape Charlestown, you find yourself siding with MacRay.

Ben Affleck, who is often unreliable as an actor, was quite solid here. I felt he tried a little bit too hard at times, but his reserved and sensitive performance made him a likable protagonist at odds with his lifestyle. Jeremy Renner (who received an Oscar nod for his performance in The Hurt Locker last year), was excellent again. Rebecca Hall was also very good. Chris Cooper was unfortunately underused, as were the other two members of MacRay's team. John Hamm (the brilliant Don Draper in Mad Men) really didn't add anything extraordinary to his obsessive FBI agent. It was unfortunate that the heart of the film; notably MacRay's relationship with Claire and his father, doesn't make more of an impact. But the scenes with Affleck and Renner are great.

Affleck's direction was assured and again quite impressive. But he certainly owes a lot to his cinematographer, Robert Elswitt (who won an Oscar for his work on There Will be Blood, and is a frequent collaborator with Paul Thomas Anderson) and his editor, Dylan Tichenor (who has worked numerous times alongside Elswitt), for making the action scenes so visually stimulating. While Heat is one of my favorite films, the similarities can't be ignored here. In 1995, Heat's street shootout was one of the greatest ever filmed. While Affleck's film is technically superior, offering up some superb action sequences, it just lacks the emotional depth to it's characters that made a film like Heat an instant genre classic. The Town is still one of the years better films, it was just disappointing to see it fail to be really outstanding.

My Rating: 4 Stars

Releases 14/10

Today marks the release of both Let Me In (dir. Matt Reeves) and The Town (dir. Ben Affleck), potentially two of the more exciting films of the year. I plan to see The Town today, and Let Me In tomorrow. Reviews to be posted soon.

Thanks for reading!!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Review: Buried (Rodrigo Cortes, 2010)

As Spanish Director Rodrigo Cortes' taut, claustrophobic debut feature, Buried really draws the most out of it's man-trapped-in-a-box premise. It's a brave narrative stunt that draws from two of Hitchcock's more experimental films, Rope and Lifeboat, but unsuccessfully provides enough plot or substance to match the exciting tension created by Cortes' clever camera work and the impressive minimalist confines of the set.
Following the title credits, the film opens with a few minutes of pitch black as we hear coughing and groaning which signify that Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) has awoken to find himself trapped within a wooden box, buried beneath the ground. He screams in confusion and anguish and scratches at the walls for a loose panel but concludes that the box is sealed shut and he has limited time before the oxygen available to him is exhausted. Equipped with only a zippo lighter and an Arabic cell phone, which he discovers when it vibrates, he must try and find a means to escape his prison. Paul first makes a series of calls, trying his wife Linda, the emergency authorities and finally his employers to notify someone of his dire situation. He doesn't have much luck, leaving a message with his wife to call him back, and receiving no cooperation from the FBI, who cut him off. It is revealed through these phone calls that he was a driver of a truck that was transporting supplies for the re-building of Baghdad, and his convoy was ambushed by armed insurgents. With his colleagues killed, he assumes he was the sole one left alive. He scribbles down key numbers on the top of the box with a pencil.

He finally manages to contact his employers, a private service company, who assure him they are aware of his situation from the message he had earlier left and transfer him to a special group stationed in Iraq, set up a few years earlier (in 2004) for such hostage situations. Paul is told that they had successfully rescued a man a few weeks prior who was in a similar life-or-death situation, and that they would do everything they could to try and locate his position by tracking his cell phone, which is quickly losing battery, and suffering from unreliable reception. Meanwhile Paul has been contacted by the leader of the insurgents responsible for his kidnapping and asked to make a ransom video with the phone and ensure that the demanded 1 million dollars (traded for his whereabouts) is transferred. Paul is advised not to make the video to avoid a media scandal, and to save his energy and his battery. Paul is made aware of a bag buried in the base of the box, and inside he finds a torch and some flares, which he utilizes. But there are also a number of incidents within the box that threaten his life. Firstly, a snake enters through a hole in the side, crawls into his clothes and sits at the base of the box ready to strike him. Also, the surrounding area, believed to be occupied by the threatening insurgents, is bombed, causing the ground to shake and the wooden structure to crack and sand to begin seeping through the holes. Paul's oxygen continues to deplete, and he begins to suffer from paranoia and anxiety at the hopelessness of his rescuers and the growing likelihood that he won't survive. When he has all but given up, he is given one last opportunity to save himself. He must cut off his finger on video and send it to the insurgents and they will reveal his whereabouts. The final moments are quite intense, and while the ending is by no means a surprise, it does feature quite a horrific final twist that will leave you glued to your seat during the credits, which feature a strangely out of place musical accompaniment.

The elaborate camera angling is the most impressive technical feature of the film, and Cortes really captures Paul's despair and growing disheartenment with vivid close-ups, but also effectively relays the terrifying claustrophobia of the box. We see Ryan Reynolds from all angles, and it's all energetically edited together. There is also a few point-of-view shots from above the coffin looking down, from a darkness above the space, which really exposes his isolation and helplessness. The lighting is also superbly done, using the natural light from the flame of the zipper lighter and the blue light of his phone. If the phone turns off for whatever reason, Paul, and the audience is plunged into darkness. The phone light balances the tension of the sequence and works well to illuminate Paul's face as most of the dialogue is via exchanges over the phone. The plot, however, has some huge holes and I felt there really wasn't enough to sustain an audience's interest for 90 minutes. Buried, however, does successfully delve into some of humanity's darkest fears; intense claustrophobia and the thought of being buried alive.

With the film's premise to remain with Paul's character for the entire film, the entire story is unraveled through the phone calls, and while there are plot twists that keep the film progressing and evolving, it does run out of ideas. It also makes you wonder for what purpose this film was made, besides it's loose anti-war agenda. I thought it was somewhat episodic also, with minutes of intensity broken apart by idle periods where Paul sleeps or rests. In every conversation with the insurgent leader, I found it difficult to understand what was being said, requiring the repeat back by Ryan Reynold's character to confirm what was asked, which I thought was quite a flaw. It was clever of the filmmakers never to expose who it was that was talking on the end of the line, or a flashback sequence to the original kidnapping, leaving it up to the audience to imagine everything themselves. Just as Paul doesn't know who he is talking to, we are never revealed either. Finally, Ryan Reynolds, who has done some good work, but mostly known for romantic comedies, delivers a pretty convincing emotional performance here. But overall, Buried didn't live up to the immense hype circulating around it, and the flourish of very positive reviews is somewhat puzzling, but it was an interesting experiment that certainly didn't fail to excite.

My Rating: 3 Stars

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Critical Analysis: There Will be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Paul Thomas Anderson's unforgettable masterpiece, There Will be Blood, is not just the best film of 2007, but also the best film currently released in the 21st Century, and has been widely regarded as one of the greatest film making achievements of all time. Loosely based on Upton Sinclair's novel, Oil (1927), and set in the booming oil fields of the West Coast at the turn of the 20th Century, we follow Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), a rugged independent oil prospector who hits it rich with the strike of a lifetime in a town called Little Boston. But his fortunes come at a price, as he finds himself wallowing into madness in self-exile, sickened at, but never regretful of what he has become.

From the opening seconds it is evident we are in for something very special. The first fifteen minutes feature no dialogue at all, but a number of beautifully captured sequences that follow the rise of Plainview from endeavouring silver miner, utilising basic primitive tools and risking his life seeking samples in self-constructed chasms into the earth, to ambitious oil prospector and eventually into a greedy and ruthless business tyrant. We begin in 1898 with a shot of the mountains, and accompanied by Johnny Greenwood's haunting electronic score, we enter a mine where we discover Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is void of oxygen and is vigorously chiseling away.

When he discovers a large piece of silver, he climbs out of the hole rigging the site with dynamite. When attempting to pull the piece and his tools up the shaft, the dynamite explodes forcing him to lose it all within the rubble. When climbing down to retrieve his prize, he falls badly. With luck on his side he finds his first small fortune, exclaiming through the pain of his shattered leg, "there it is." He then pushes himself down the mountain over endless rocky terrain, favoring a severely shattered leg, to make his claim. We see the gritty determination of this man and the extreme lengths he is willing to go to become a success. With his interests turned to oil in the next sequence, set now in the year 1902, we see Plainview develop a more revolutionary method of removing oil from the derrick, but it ultimately comes at a price, as Plainview adopts the young son (who becomes his business partner, H.W) of one of his colleagues killed through a construction fault.

The first lines of dialogue, and ultimately the last ones in the film, are appropriately spoken by Plainview. He reveals to a group of indecisive landowners hoping to make money from the oil they possess beneath their land; "I am an oil man" and then proceeds to try and convince them that few speculators out there better at this job than he is. With many speculators often attempting to position themselves between the drillers and the landowners, he possesses the power to speculate the worth of a site and draw up the contract, but also work alongside his drilling connections to ensure the job is completed efficiently under his personal watch. Hiring him would disable the requirement of expensive independent contractors. He is a steely businessman, who we know withholds critical information about the true value of the oil, seeking to take advantage of naive and docile land owners, who are simply grateful for even a small share. His hatred of people is obvious and no one in the film is endowed with such greed as him. He builds a reputation following successful drilling at various sites throughout the state of California.

One evening he is approached by Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who sells information directing him to the town of Little Boston, where the oil-rich land can be bought cheaply. Daniel and H.W (Dillon Freasier) inspect the property and set up camp, posing as quail hunters. Establishing that oil is very plentiful, Daniel extends an offer to Able Sunday and his devout Christian family to purchase their land, and the surrounding properties as well. Walking all over the landowner, Daniel meets his match through headstrong local priest, Eli Sunday (Dano again), who isn't happy with the contract declaring that the land possesses immense value through it's oil and demands that Daniel present $5,000 to fund his church and congregation. Daniel is clearly aggravated, but he reluctantly agrees, and construction begins.

His discovery is tainted by a pair of serious accidents; the first is an on-site mistake that results in the death of one of the workers, and the second a large gas explosion within the derrick that deafens H.W. Visually, this is the most spectacular sequence. As the pressure of the gas breaks apart the construction, oil gushes through the opening and begins to rain down on the workers as they struggle to release the supports and rescue H.W. Catching alight, it turns into an enormous fiery red furnace, with smoke billowing into the air, completely blackening the sky surrounding Little Boston. Daniel's discovery has reached a new level.

One day a visitor (Kevin J. O Connor) appears at Daniel's house, claiming to be Daniel's half brother, Henry. He has the appropriate identification so Daniel takes him in, and includes him in his business. Representatives of standard oil try to buy out Daniel's interests in Little Boston, but Daniel rejects their deal, wishing to strike a deal with Union Oil and build a pipeline to California coast. During their mission to plot the path of the pipeline, Daniel grows suspicious of Henry's story, who finally reveals that he had done time with the real Henry in prison, but he had died of tuberculosis. He murders and buries the impostor.

The film concludes years later (now in 1927) and we find an extremely wealthy Daniel, now living in self-exile. He is visited by H.W, who expresses his wishes for his father to dismantle their partnership so he can pursue his own interests in Mexico. Daniel is disgusted, and mocks his son's deafness and reveals his adopted origins. Now a recluse and an alcoholic, he has a second visitor an unspecified time later, Eli Sunday. Eli is now a radio host, but soon reveals that he is desperate for money. He comes to Daniel with an offer to broker the Bandy tract, the only land in Little Boston that Daniel never owned. Daniel agrees, but only if Eli will reveal himself to be a 'false prophet'. After much vigorous berating, Eli confesses. Daniel explains that the has already drained that land through his surrounding wells, sending Eli into a state of shock. Daniel, in a fit of rage, chases Eli around his bowling alley and beats him to death with one of the pins. We see blood seep from Eli's battered skull, as an exhausted Daniel sits down and comically says to his butler, "I'm finished." This final sequence is truly outstanding.

With a resume that includes the incredible trio of Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999) and Punch-drunk Love (2002), it was a long five years before Paul Thomas Anderson released There will be Blood. He has now established himself as one of, if not the best, working director in Hollywood. With a style comparable to an obscure collaboration of techniques utilized by Kubrick, Welles and Griffith, Anderson has proven to be a chameleon. His films really defy genre, but are all wildly different from one another. With his most original film to date, Anderson has attempted to create an epic masterpiece and has gloriously succeeded. While the central narrative is quite contained to Plainview's individual downward spiral, the film itself is epic in it's scope.

The derrick constructed in Little Boston is Plainview's ivory tower, sitting isolated above his worker's tents, it is a monstrosity that completely empowers the rest of the town. Dominating the former spectacle of the church, it quickly becomes the town's icon, the bearer of wealth, the promised bringer of agriculture, employment and education, and prompts Eli to start renovations on his church to compete with Plainview's powerful position. Able Sunday, when commenting on the arrival of Plainview, believes he was sent by the good lord to save them. Plainview initially promised to turn Little Boston into a thriving empire and all the luxuries the townsfolk have long prayed for.

For Little Boston, Plainview must have, at first, seemed like a God. Plainview is certainly not otherworldly, he is merely a mortal, but an incredibly evil one. Having only used his adopted son H.W as a cute pawn to draw in contracts, as soon as his son is severely deafened by a gas explosion at the derrick and deemed useless, Daniel sends him to the care of somebody else. As Eli clearly made everyone aware during his taunting of Daniel during his baptism, he heartlessly abandoned his child on the train. But, on repeated viewings, it is evident that he abandons him long before then. Following the gas leak, with Daniel covered in oil and silhouetted against the raging fire, he presides over his burning and billowing creation, and unmistakeably resembles the Devil. Greed is spread across his face, and not even the feared well-being of his son is enough to challenge his dream. With his life's fortune within his grasp ("there's a whole ocean of oil beneath our feet"), Daniel abandons his humanity in front of the furnace, and descends as a result into a tormented life of alcoholism, madness and wrath.

So if Daniel is a metaphor for the Devil, Eli must be representative of God right? Eli's thriving congregation is also at the mercy of false ideals, and Daniel quickly establishes that Eli is as much of a conman as he is. Convincing his congregation that he possesses healing powers bestowed upon him by God, Eli is a revelation to the townsfolk. But Daniel, a man of no faith, is obviously not convinced and challenges Eli a number of times, culminating in Eli's failure to cure his son's deafness. Daniel assaults Eli and drags him into the mud, childishly slapping him around. But Eli's deceit of his friends at the hands of his self-appointed religious power masks another evil; his attempt to cash in on Daniel's oil successes. The promises of capitalism spreads to even the most devout and honest. But it is certainly debatable whether Plainview is in fact worse than his hypocritical moral reflection. Plainview remains honest, despite being a conman and a murderer. Eli is revealed as a fraud by the conclusion, and he pays for his pretensions with his own blood.

The film challenges the viewer to establish the greater evil of America's corporate identity, the stench of greed and Capitalism, or the sinister veil of Evangelicalism. When Plainview agrees to help the community by donating $5,000 dollars to Eli's Church of the Third Revelation, this deal forever stands between them, with Plainview flat out refusing to fund a congregation he so strongly rejects. There Will be Blood chronicles the rivalry between these two men for the “faith” of the community and demonstrates how each is willing to play dirty to get what they want. A much smarter man, Daniel's ruthlessness ultimately comes out victorious.

This can be analyzed on a much larger scale also. If you think of all the destructive world conflicts during the 20th Century, the loss of blood through battle, almost all of them were the result of religious difference or a thirst for wealth and power. We see here that Anderson's film, set at the dawn of the 20th Century, establishes that this rivalry will influence America's corporate identity for years to come. Set during the period of the oil boom, confused and naive landowners could really be told anything about the wealth this boom bestowed upon them. Plainview, who personifies the ruthlessness and delirium at the heart of the American Dream, was at the forefront to take advantage of it all.

In the slick montage tracing Daniel and Henry's initial plotting of the pipeline to the sea, they travel across some stunning landscape, which will all too soon to be partly destroyed by Plainview's construction, with it's blood drained (in the form of oil) and it's soul massacred. Throughout the film we often see oil 'gushing' uncontrollably from the derrick, as blood would from a cut artery. Plainview is raping the land, draining it of it's life. While these large themes are touched on, at times effortlessly through the cinematography, the film is more interested in the honest examination of the darkest reaches of human nature; namely the self-made man who likes and answers to no one, has a vision for the future and will let no one stand in the way of him reaching his goal. Daniel reveals to Henry, in one of the few revelatory moments of his character, that he has a competition in him and a sadistic desire for no-one else to succeed. In a commentary statement that captures contemporary America in it's rawest most tragic state, Daniel claims to "hate most people." Clearly not eliminating himself from fault, he "sees the worst in people."

Daniel Day-Lewis' Academy Award winning performance is the greatest one I have witnessed in my cinema experience. He lives and breathes this menacing character and his portrayal, even down to the most intricate details, is completely mesmerizing. Daniel Plainview immediately becomes one of cinemas most memorable villains. Paul Dano squeezes all all he can from Eli Sunday and his performance is also astonishing. Every feature of this film is perfect; Anderson's script is so dense and his direction adorned with such unbridled experiment-ism that it feels like an immediate classic from the beginning.

Robert Elswit's beautiful cinematography was also honored by the Academy, while Johny Greenwood's score stretched the boundaries of what was capable for a film score. It is impeccable. Critics have drawn comparisons to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, and this is not unjustified. Like Charles Foster Kane, we are exposed to the journey of an ambitious man transformed from his humble beginnings into a greedy, self-centred tyrant, before retiring a self-exiled wreck. But Anderson's film is also one of the most important American frontier films ever released. A true auteur, Paul Thomas Anderson's unforgettable masterpiece is a flawless collaboration of perfectly constructed mise en scene and near-unfathomable madness.

My Rating: 5 STARS (A+)

Ridley Scott to re-make Red Riding Trilogy

I can't say I was impressed to hear the news that Columbia have bought the rights to remake the outstanding Red Riding Trilogy into a single film set in the United States, left in the hands of Sir Ridley Scott. The reasoning behind this is beyond me. Scott, a formerly great director, has been very disappointing in the last decade, and lets be honest, Robin Hood was dreadful. Part of what made these three films so amazing was the atmosphere created by the location. I just don't see where they would set this to recreate such an atmosphere, and the mission of condensing down four novels, which culminated in five hours of footage in the British series, into a single feature really spells trouble in my opinion.

Here is a link to one of the articles documenting this:

Friday, October 8, 2010

Review: Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)

Paul Thomas Anderson is the one of the best directors of his generation and one of the most talented working in the world today. With a resume that boasts Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch Drunk Love (2002) and in my opinion the greatest film of the 21st Century to date, There will be Blood (2007), Anderson has proven to be a chameleon, capable of achieving perfection in whichever genre he chooses to pursue. He is the master of collaborating all of the parts that make up a film and squeezing all that he can from them. The performances are no exception. Adam Sandler, in the best performance I have seen him give, is absolutely incredible here.

Seemingly stuck playing immature grown men with relationship issues in all of his films, we do see more of the same here. But we also don't. He captures this nervous, irritable, yet heartfelt individual with such precision and passion that I have all but changed my opinion of the man. It takes a good script and a great director to make it happen, but the man has talent. His performance was good enough to warrant a Golden Globe nomination in fact. I also loved Emily Watson here. She is a pitch-perfect romantic interest and opposite for Sandler's character and the pair share some beautiful moments. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his most memorable roles as the 'Mattress Man', and Luis Guzman provide great support.

This is one of the sharpest, most unique romantic comedies you will ever see, albeit it's not for everyone's tastes. As a bleak comedy, I found myself in complete hysterics numerous times, but also groaning in discomfort. It is often painfully awkward to watch Sandler at work here, but somewhat of a relief to differentiate ourselves from his unfortunate social skills. True to all of Anderson's films, he loves the long continuous take. They frequent here again and really demand skill from the performances. Special mention must also go to the score - an odd little beast, but it works perfectly.

The opening few sequences are disorienting, but only because they are so different, and you aren't sure how to react. They allude to a dream I think, but you soon find out that this is in fact normal in the world we have just entered. In the first few minutes Barry Egan (Sandler), a bumbling small-business owner, witnesses a horrific car accident, is delivered (by mistake) a harmonium, and meets the future girl-of-his dreams, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), when she drops in her car to the mechanic stationed next to his warehouse. We discover that he has seven overbearing sisters who all ridicule him publicly to friends and that he is a loner with poor social skills, low self-esteem and has a desire to take advantage of a promotional discrepancy by purchasing large quantities of pudding, and ultimately accumulating one million frequent flier miles.

When he calls a phone sex operator to discuss his personal problems anonymously, he is conned into giving over his credit card details and social security number, which results in a scam from the company demanding he pay $750 dollars to fund the operators rent debt. He is frequently hunted by a foursome of henchman, sent by the operator through Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a mattress store owner residing in Utah. Through his sister, Elizabeth, Barry is introduced again to Lena, a woman who had expressed interest in Barry and who Elizabeth was trying to set Barry up with. The pair meet for dinner and connect, and Barry, fueled by the power of love, pursues Lena to Hawaii, and despite a few setbacks (his pursuers), ultimately wins the heart of Lena.

Anderson won Best Director at Cannes for his work here, and it is a small overlooked gem. It is an expression of great skill and ambition. Not easily accessible for the common audience, it certainly has it's own unique charms and unsettling techniques of expression. I am a fan of all of Anderson's work and I find his use of the camera to be mesmerizing. There are memorable moments littered throughout. The scene when Barry first phones the sex line and is pacing around his room quoting his details is impeccable, as is his fit of rage leading to the destruction of the restaurant's toilets, as is the silhouette of Barry and Lena as they embrace in the hotel in Hawaii. His awkward explanations about the harmonium and his pudding collection are also amusing. The moment I don't think I will ever forget is the moment when Luiz Guzman falls off his chair. It is so fleeting, and unexpected. Hilarious. Everyone should make the effort to see all of Anderson's films and if you are a Sandler fan, this is the best you will ever see him. Now I need to find out who was responsible for that score.

My Rating: 5 Stars