Friday, November 26, 2010

Releases 25/11

Four films were scheduled for release yesterday: the reportedly abhorrently unfunny Due Date starring Robert Downey Jr. and Zack Galifainakas, Fair Game or another film starring Sean Penn and a blonde Aussie, the Eli Roth produced The Last Exorcism and Red Hill, a western-themed Australian film starring Ryan Quanten, a film I have heard some positive things about. I'll likely give Due Date and Fair Game a miss, and check out the other two. I still haven't seen Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows so this will certainly be a busy week of viewing and reviewing. Check back for more posts following the weekend.

Thanks for reading!


Review: Das Weisse Bande [The White Ribbon] (Michael Haneke, 2009)

Michael Haneke, acclaimed master of Funny Games (1997) and Cache (2005), has never been one to withhold controversial themes from his films, and most of his films create a disturbing lasting impression on the viewer. Das Weisse Band [The White Ribbon] is arguably his finest film to date and after winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, looked the clear favorite to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It was beaten by Argentinean film The Secret in Their Eyes. The White Ribbon, driven by a fantastic screenplay and stunning black and white cinematography, paints a bleak metaphoric view of the birth of Fascism in Germany through an intentionally slow-building whodunit mystery tracing several heinous crimes in a small Protestant village in Northern Germany on the eve of the events leading to the start of World War I.

The plot is narrated by the young schoolteacher embroiled in the strange sequence of events that plague this small town during this time. It is recounted half a century after this period upon his reflection. The narrator suggests, “The strange events that occurred in our village…may clarify some things that happened in this country” and strongly suggests that the upbringing of the children and subsequent rebellious and potentially violent reactions in the film was the first wave of Fascism to swarm through the Nation, and a foresight to the atrocities that would later follow through the Nazis. The children would eventually grow up and support, if not found, the National Socialist Movement.

The film’s atrocities start immediately as we see the Doctor of the village seriously injured after his horse is brought down by a trip wire placed between two trees. Later, the young son of the Baron is hung upside down and beaten, a barn is burnt down and a mentally disabled boy is abducted and seriously brutalized. The central mystery of the film is to which person or party is responsible for these events. No one talks and the townsfolk dismiss the linked accidents as coincidence. But surely the culprits live amongst the small town and Haneke expertly introduces us to all the characters in the first third of the film, reminiscent of an Agatha Christie mystery. While we never see any of the children commit these deeds, we often see them punished and psychologically disciplined by their parents in private, and find them curiously on the doorstep of those wounded. As an audience we find ourselves aggravated by the growing pile of mysteries. Who is responsible? Will these heinous parents be held accountable for their brutality? What kind of a world will be shaped by the disciplines at work in this town? The teacher is the only one who suspects the children, and pursues a brief investigation but he, like us, is left without proof to interpret with any assurance. We are meant to feel like the moral crimes perpetrated by the adults are more substantial than the atrocities committed by the children throughout. 

Amongst the reactions of the elders to their children's perverse behaviors, the village pastor punishes his kids and makes his two eldest wear a white ribbon. It is a symbol of purity and innocence and though his film has devastating cultural and historical implications, Haneke's more fervent fascination is with how innocence and sin are both learned and assumed in existence. The children all possess the basic indicators of innocence but their demeanor as much as their faces range from cherubic naivety to splintered repression. But what they are taught -- a strict reading of God's laws -- and what they see are dissimilar and their allegiances become first-and-foremost to God. Their imposing of His wrath takes the form of punishing not only their elders but of a rich boy and a young handicapped child. One interesting feature is the use of the names of the children, whereas the adults are referred to only through their earthly professions, which signifies that this film is totally addressing the children of this narrative.

The performances, especially those of the children, are all excellent. The relationships between the characters and particularly between parent and child is wonderfully realized and some of the most moving, yet disturbing themes are addressed in these relationships. The tyrant-like Pastor, who whips his children for being late for supper, and the town Doctor, who sexually abuses his only daughter are the most memorable. The largely despicable adult characters lose control as the film progresses, and place their children under strict laws of government and discipline. It would not be a surprise to see these children grow older to revolt, and this is precisely why the narrator feels his experiences during this period have some significance when assessing the future atrocities present within Germany. 

Nothing is completely resolved but left open to the interpretation of the viewer. As it is the story of the narrator, he was never sure, and there was never any proof to his theories, so a clear conclusion is not possible. For this reason, the conclusion of the film is entirely satisfying. Fueled by growing tension, The White Ribbon is sometimes slow to digest, but is always absorbing and interesting in its method of storytelling. Some of the children are true revelations, and the beautiful cinematography, the tedious long-takes and the paused tracking shots create an atmosphere, and an anticipation that works very well with the construction of the plot. Each set piece is carefully constructed and Haneke’s attention to detail is perfect. We never see more than we need to see, but just enough to develop an opinion. It's a really fantastic film, that deserves multiple viewings.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

Review: The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009)

Australian director John Hillcoat received critical stardom after his previous film, The Proposition, released in 2005. This time he tackles Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, The Road, a post-apocalyptic narrative that follows a father and his son trying to survive in a world destroyed by a monumental event that has depleted all civilization, and left the world a charred and barren landscape. Viggo Mortensen (best known for his portrayal of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and for his recent Oscar Nominated performance in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises) plays the father and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee (recently starring in Let Me In) his son. The film received a nomination for the Golden Lion at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, and is a very satisfying adaptation of McCarthy’s novel. 

Most of the remaining human survivors have resorted to cannibalism to survive and constantly patrol the open roads. The man and his son must scavenge and compete with these men for canned food, weapons and shelter. We are never revealed as to what the event that left world in such a position was, but there are glimpses in flashback of the man’s former life with his wife (played by Charlize Theron) around the time when the apocalypse began. The novel’s bleakness is well transferred to the screen and there are several chilling sequences, notably the stand-off with a member of a cannibal gang that hunts them down, and the discovery of a basement in a house which is holding live, dismembered humans. As the duo travel towards the South Coast in the hope of finding a different life, their humanity is tested. All the good left in man can be seen shining through the boy, who wants to help fellow travelers in worse situations than them, while his father is suspicious of everyone and protective of his son. The man maintains the struggle but the boy holds onto the faith of humanity, the ethics. They distinguish themselves from their enemies by assuring themselves they are the ‘good guys’. The individuals they encounter include an elderly man, their most human companion, and an African American man that steals their belongings and is forced to strip naked, and left seemingly to die. As the man slowly creeps closer to death, he seeks to educate the boy on how to survive in this world, with the boy representative of the hope of the human race. This is a very strong theme in the novel, but isn’t overtly examined in the film, only referenced. There is a passage that describes the boy as ‘glowing’ as if God was shining through him. This scene was not in the film, but the theme is still somewhat developed. 

The cinematography is absolutely stunning and the depiction of the world is unlike any other I have witnessed. The most beautiful sequences are those where the man and the boy are just walking in silence through streets full of overturned cars and dislodged telephone poles. Smoldering ruins line the streets, there is smoke billowing on the horizon, and ash fills the air. It presents such a great atmosphere. Viggo’s performance is fantastic as usual. He obviously put a lot of work into his appearance; with the facial hair and the weight loss. Kodi Smit-McPhee is also very impressive. Nick Cave’s score is haunting, and of course Hillcoat must be praised for his vision of the film.

Visually, it is perfect, but the key weakness of the film is the adapted script. A few unsettling moments in the novel were removed from the film, which was disappointing, and while the novel reads as being quite episodic, it was very apparent in the film, which did not make for strong narrative flow. It was relying too much on the visuals to tell the tale and the limited dialogue between the characters seemed somewhat direct and awkward. Many of the key themes; notably maintaining humanity in a world where straying from this is essential to survival, are left underdeveloped. The conclusion was also quite rushed, and while we see hope for the future, the horrors of this world seemed to be beaten and forgotten, which didn’t seem realistic. While the novel is fairly concise, I saw this as a sprawling epic of a film, a short period of existence, but drawn out as though their journey represented an enormous struggle. Overall I was very satisfied, being a fan of the novel. It’s a shame it wasn’t considered for more awards, but I guess, overall it is lacking the plot depth resonating through the novel. Though visually, it is outstanding, and it creates some genuine suspense. 

My Rating: 4 Stars

Monday, November 22, 2010

Short Review: The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, 2008)

I was initially attracted to The Brothers Bloom purely because of the cast, featuring three of my favorite performers in Mark Ruffalo (The Kids are All Right), Adrien Brody (The Darjeeling Limited) and Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardner). While this American caper film is uneven at times and often requires us to suspend our disbelief at the quirky events, it is charming and joyously entertaining even though it doesn't quite live up to its ambitious intentions. As the con-artist brothers, Stephen (an always excellent Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) are likable and well-cast. Deciding to attempt one last job together after some time apart, they target a wealthy socially-isolated heiress named Penelope (Rachel Weisz), inviting her aboard their boat leaving the next day to Greece. Posing as antique smugglers, Penelope becomes enchanted by their free spirit, wishing to participate in their adventures unaware that the schemes are staged. Rinko Kikuchi's performance as Stephen's assistant Bang Bang is the most amusing. The shooting locations are beautiful (especially in Prague and Greece), and it features a fine soundtrack and score. The plot is engaging and fueled by the fine performances. There are a lot of twists throughout to keep viewers guessing, and there are several red herrings and dummy conclusions. Despite being somewhat incomprehensible, the final reveal really hits the mark. Guaranteed fun, it's definitely not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

My Rating: 4 Stars

Short Review: Pontypool (Bruce McDonald, 2009)

Pontypool is a cool, and refreshingly original psychological thriller from director Bruce McDonald. Adapted by Tony Burgess from his novel Pontypool Changes Everything, this is essentially a Zombie commentary. The activity takes place almost entirely within the confines a small-time radio station, which is set in the basement of an abandoned and now unused church, as the small Ontario town of Pontypool becomes infected by a spreading virus. The morning team consists of Grant Mazzy (an awesome performance from Stephen McHattie), a burnt-out former radio personality turned presenter, his producer Sydney Briar and supporting technician Laurel-Ann Drummond. As Mazzy jovially broadcasts to early-morning Pontypool, his delivery is frequently interrupted by reports flooding in about a riot nearby. The primary source is their field reported Ken Loney, who establishes that many of the citizens have formed an angry mob and begun to attack one another. It is later discovered that many of the local residents have turned into flesh-eating 'conversationalists', after a savage viral infection has been spread through the understanding of specific words in the English language. The first signs of infection are the repeating of a word, ultimately transforming into an inability to express oneself properly, finally culminating in a distraught need to chew through the mouth of another person. As details of the situation becomes revealed to Mazzy and his crew, who are still on air, they must find a way to spread the word to the surviving population, fend off a studio invasion and remain communicative amongst themselves without also falling victims. As a really intelligent premise, it's tautly constructed, and well edited. While talky, there is consistent suspense, and it is relentless and genuine. McHattie is certainly the highlight of the film, however. His ultra-cool monologues are witty and obnoxious, yet often heartfelt. He doubles at being both excited and frightened by the strange events. I loved Pontypool, it's a real surprise hit.

My Rating: 4 Stars

Saturday, November 20, 2010

New Release Review: The Loved Ones (Sean Byrne, 2010)

Driving along a country road with his father, high school senior Brent (Xavier Samuel) wraps his car around a tree after violently swerving to avoid hitting a bloodied half-naked man standing in the middle of the road. His father is ultimately killed, and he struggles to cope with the loss of his father and guilt over his responsibility in the accident. Constantly confronted by his comatose mother's emotional collapse following the accident, Brent has become a dejected social outcast, who hides beneath a marijuana addiction and heavy metal music, to mask his pain. Clearly out-of-sorts, not even his pretty girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine) can bring him happiness. He is asked to the end of school dance by the quiet, often-rejected Lola (Robin McLeavy), but he chooses to go with Holly instead. Later that day, before the dance, Brent is followed and abducted by Lola's demonic father (John Brumpton) and taken to their home. The living room of their house has been transformed into a ballroom illuminated by a mirrored disco ball, and adorned with balloons. Lola is having the perfect graduation celebration whether Brent was willing to participate or not.

With the assistance of her father, the demented Lola firstly injects Brent with a sedative that deems in inaudible when he attempts to communicate, and with his feet nailed to the ground, he is viciously humiliated and inevitably becomes the victim of some of the vilest forms of torture you will ever see in an Australian film this side of Wolf Creek (2004). Dressed for the part in a dress of pink satin, and wearing a pink paper crown, Robin McLeavy gives a ghastly, but hysterical performance and nothing is deemed sensitive in this tale of a lonely teenage girl who exerts vengeance on her ignorant peers. The Loved Ones delivers enough gory shocks to please genre fans, but has a demented sense of humor which differentiates it from other notable 'Torture Porn' films such as the Hostel series.

The perverted Electra relationship between Lola and her father was certainly the most disturbing feature of the film, but there is an air of fun to their nastiness that somehow makes this less of an ordeal than expected. It is still grotesque and makes you squirm unpleasantly, but the cruelty is broken up with a number of sub-plots, notably the unraveling of Brent's best mate's dance date with the school goth, and the emotional responses and subsequent inquest into Brent's disappearance by his girlfriend and mother. While the latter is quite draining, the former is a hilarious sequence of events that ultimately culminates in...nothing. At an energetic pace, the camerawork is inventive throughout, the performances are all excellent, but the score was an uneven collaboration. Writer/director Sean Byrne's debut feature has been widely well received at various festivals and while it is a difficult film to relate to or gain any enjoyment from, it's frequent horrific moments left me both gasping, yet amused. I wasn't overly impressed with the conclusion and I thought, despite the films' brevity (at only 80 minutes), it struggled to find material to fill in time. Overall though, it's a pretty cool Aussie horror flick. 

My Rating: 3 Stars

Friday, November 19, 2010

Trailer: The Way Back (Peter Weir)

Here is a link to the trailer for the new Peter Weir film, starring Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess and Saoirse Ronan:

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Release 18/11: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part I

Today is the official release of Part I of the final installment of the beloved Harry Potter franchise, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. With box office numbers likely to exceed all of the preceding films, expect mayhem at your local cinemas. While the final of J.K Rowling's novels was truly outstanding, my expectations are moderate at best, considering the mediocre fifth and sixth installments. If David Yates can recapture the magic of Alfonso Cuaron's visionary third installment, The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), then this may be the grand finale that this absorbing, but somewhat tiresome, franchise deserves.

Short Review: Se7en (David Fincher, 1995)

David Fincher's masterpiece, Se7en (1995), follows Detectives William Sommerset (Morgan Freeman) and David Mills (Brad Pitt) as they become embroiled in a case involving a serial killer who commits several sadistic murders in correspondence with the seven deadly sins. Set in an unnamed city of frequent rain and urban decay (not dissimilar to the one in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner), Sommerset is a world-weary homicide veteran considering retirement. He becomes partnered with the young, short tempered and brash Mills, who has recently been transferred to the unit, and is still acclimatizing to the relocation. Starting out at odds with one another, their gifted partnership develops throughout the film. They first investigate the death of an obese man who was forced at gunpoint to eat himself to death. This represents 'Gluttony', which is later discovered written on the wall of the man's apartment behind his fridge. Sommerset establishes that they are tracking a serial killer, who chooses his victims based on his disgust of their social choices. They find clues at each of the crime scenes that lead to the next murder, in the first case a rich attorney (Greed). Behind an upside-down painting in his office they find the word 'HELP' spelled out with fingerprints, which lead them to an apartment where they find a badly decayed man strapped to his bed. He has been kept alive for exactly a year by the killer, but was now completely immobile and unable to communicate. He represents 'Sloth'. Using the library records and establishing a list of all the people who have borrowed books related to the seven deadly sins, they track down a man named Jonathan Doe. Arriving at his apartment they discover he isn't in, but the pair are fired upon by a man in the hallway. Mills pursues him through the apartment block, as he flees through occupied rooms, and ultimately out onto the street. He has an opportunity to kill Mills, but chooses not to. On the subsequent search of Doe's apartment they discover journals, photographs and the plans for his series of murders. They also discover his likely next target, a prostitute, but arrive too late to the horrific outcome of her demise. In a spectacular final third, Doe (portrayed by Kevin Spacey) turns himself in, and requests that he be escorted by Mills and Sommerset to a remote desert area miles outside the city, where he will reveal the whereabouts of his final two victims (representing Envy and Wrath). The conclusion is nothing short of amazing. 
Se7en is one of my favorite and most admired films, and one of the cinemas finest examples of the thriller genre. While it was a commercial and critical success, it was sadly overlooked at the awards season in 1995. Fueled by exceptional performances from Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow and especially Brad Pitt (who has never been better), and featuring stunning editing, and beautiful cinematography, this portrayal of the modern crime-riddled city has rarely been bettered. Working with yet another fantastic screenplay (in reference to Aaron Sorkin's recent work in The Social Network), Fincher's brooding, perfectionist style is impressively executed here. There are so many classic sequences that have become embedded in the psyche of audiences and culture alike, notably the discovery of Sloth (widely considered to be one of the scariest sequences ever filmed), Mills' pursuit of John Doe through the apartment block that sprawls onto the street (one of the most intense and impeccably choreographed chase sequences ever), the subsequent searching of John Doe's apartment, the disturbing discovery of Lust and the thrilling 'head-in-the-box' conclusion. Se7en is completely engaging, disturbing, shocking and often darkly amusing. If you wish to watch one film this weekend, I urge you to consider this one.

My Rating: 5 Stars

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

50 Greatest Seinfeld Episodes

In my opinion, here are the 50 greatest Seinfeld episodes: 

Key: Episode (Season)

1. The Outing (4)

2. The Boyfriend (3)

3. The Switch (6)

4. The Race (6)

5. The Contest (4)

6. The Opposite (5)

7. The Bizarro Jerry (8)

8. The Chicken Roaster (8)

9. The Marine Biologist (5)

10. The Puffy Shirt (5)

11. The Soup Nazi (7)
12. The Pilot (4)
13. The Limo (3)
14. The Little Jerry (8)
15. The Pez Dispenser (3)
16. The Serenity Now (9)
17. The Butter Shave (9)
18. The Yada Yada (8)
19. The Couch (6)
20. The Rye (7)
21. The Voice (9)
22. The Frogger (9)
23. The Friars Club (7)
24. The Junior Mint (4)
25. The Merv Griffin Show (9)
26. The Parking Garage (3)
27. The Muffin Tops (8)
28. The Phone Message (2)
29. The Cheever Letters (4)
30. The Chinese Woman (6)
31. The Sniffing Accountant (5)
32. The Library (3)
33. The Opera (4)
34. The Airport (4)
35. The Subway (3)
36. The Fatigues (8)
37. The Hamptons (5)
38. The Dealership (9)
39. The Dinner Party (5)
40. The Mom and Pop Store (6)
41. The Bottle Deposit (7)
42. The Abstinence (8)
43. The Sponge (7)
44. The Strike (9)
45. The Statue (2)
46. The Pothole (8)
47. The Smelly Car (4)
48. The Face Painter (6)
49. The Non-fat Yoghurt (5)
50. The Letter (3)

New Release Review: Winter's Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)

Few films this year are as bleak, unflinching and gritty in character and theme, yet so subtly executed as Debra Granik's excellent thriller, Winter's Bone. Also written by Granik as an adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's 2006 novel, the film garnered the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic Film at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The performances are exceptional, especially the 20-year-old Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly, and John Hawkes as her 'Uncle' Teardrop.
The film really asks you to imagine just how poor these communities are, and how the folk are seemingly ashamed of their close relations to one another. Driven to any means necessary to survive, most have been transformed into drug manufacturers and criminals as a result of their hardship. Ree's father Jessup, whose arrest for Crystal Meth manufacturing and distribution all but destroyed the sanity of her mother, who is now an invalid, and has resulted in likely significant jail time. The films early shots establish the beautiful family dynamic between the siblings, as 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is the sole responsible guardian of her younger brother and sister, who attempt to find enjoyment in small pleasures around the property like jumping on their trampoline, and skateboarding over the rocky earth. It also establishes the cold, bleak setting where this tale will be set. As an impoverished Ozark family, the Dolly's rely on small rations and friendly donations from their neighbors when they are in dire need. Ree must also look after her mother, who is ill, as well as cook for her siblings and tend to and maintain the property. One morning Ree is visited by the local sheriff (Garrett Dillahunt) and informed that the ownership of the house would be turned over to the State unless their fugitive father Jessup made an appearance at his upcoming scheduled court hearing. Having been released from custody due to his placement of the family's house and land as the bond, Ree and her family will lose possession of the property unless he can be found. Estranged from him for years and uncertain of his whereabouts, she starts out on a dangerous quest to find her father. The courageous Ree is forced to stand up to Jessup's former partners and the most unsavory members of the local criminal network, who refuse to reveal any knowledge of his whereabouts and threaten her life if she continues to delve any deeper.

While the story's confinement is unsettling, we find ourselves trapped in this unfortunate existence. At first it seems very episodic, as Ree visits a series of locals one after another in search of her father, but we conclude that these are frightening emotional obstacles to cross. Firstly she visits her friend who later takes care of her, asking to borrow her husbands car. She then visits Jessup's gruff and fearful brother Teardrop (John Hawkes), who strongly encourages her to refrain from asking the wrong questions. But, determined and courageous, she treks by foot through the treacherous surroundings and continues to question some of the other locals, notably a disillusioned drug fiend and former business partner of Jessup and the property of an aging Godfather-like figure who refuses to talk with Ree. She is forced off his property by an aggressive and threatening woman. As Ree refuses to back down and delves deeper, these figures emerge again and again, ultimately beating her and debating whether to silence her. Teardrop, who shows his loyalty to his family (Ree being his closest relative), intervenes and rescues Ree from the custody of the other locals, who have her surrounded in a barn.

She is seriously injured and emotionally drained after her ordeals with these unsavory individuals. The women in this film are all strong-willed and aggressive characters, and it is interesting that one of the classes in Ree's school was child-care where the girls were learning how to nurse children. In this impoverished region, most of the women would be required to fend for themselves; be able to wield an axe or hunt game, and also care for a child. In a desperate attempt to gather some income when hope of finding her father is all but lost, Ree volunteers for the army so that she will be entitled to the $40,000 for enlisting. It is sad that the only alternative to the young woman's desperate existence is military service. In one of many great sequences throughout, the officer conducting the enlistment interview encourages her to go home and look after her siblings, declaring that it would take more courage and be more rewarding than serving her country just for the money.

There is often an overwhelming tension to almost every sequence, especially in Ree's visit to the rodeo stables, the confrontation between Teardrop and the sheriff, and Ree's moonlit experience out on the water. Even the camerawork is gritty; consistently curious and patient and often featuring unstable hand held. The icy, wintry, soulless location became a character in itself, and was just as much of an obstacle to Ree as her sadistic relatives. The chemistry between all of the actors was beautiful, especially between Ree and her siblings, which really seemed to be more than acting. Actually most of the film seems too real to be fiction. The conclusion is subtle but unforgettable, delivered without fuss or the overwhelming drama common to Hollywood films. Featuring exceptional performances, that will likely reward Jennifer Lawrence with a lead actress nomination, and John Hawkes with a supporting one, Winter's Bone is a powerful, moving and inspirational tale very well told.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

Sunday, November 14, 2010

New Release Review: The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010)

With a recognizable and renowned lead star in George Clooney, and an acclaimed director in Anton Corbijn (Control, 2010), there was a lot of promise for The American and the very early reports promised it to be one of the top Oscar contenders of 2010. Since it's release, however, the praise has cooled off somewhat. With mixed reception, Corbijn's film has divided critics and audiences decisively. The plot's idleness, lack of driven action and obvious conclusion have been the centre of criticism, while many critics have praised Clooney's reserved and subdued performance. Despite these criticisms I went in with high expectations and was suitably impressed.
The American opens with an introduction to Jack (George Clooney), an assassin living with his lover in a remote cabin in Sweden. When the pair are out walking, there is a sniper attempt on his life. The pair find shelter, and Jack kills the sniper, before also killing his lover and an armed backup. Returning to Rome, he is sent by his associate to lay low in Castelvecchio, a small town in the Abruzzo Mountains in Italy. Upon arrival he becomes nervous, tossing the cell phone given to him, and instead decides to stay in Castel del Monte. Assuming the alias of a photographer named Edward, he befriends an elderly local priest, Father Benedetto, and is set up with another job. He meets with a woman named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) who asks him to build her a custom-made sniper rifle for a future assassination. He agrees to the assignment and begins acquiring the parts required to build one suitable to her requests, including the construction of a sound suppressor with parts he picked up from an auto-repair shop of one of Father Benedetto's bastard sons. Jack meets Mathilde in secluded spot by a river to test the weapon, and while impressed, she asks him to make a few modifications. At the same time, he frequently patronizes a prostitute named Clara (the beautiful Violante Placido), and the two build a relationship. Clara, obviously attracted to Jack, invites him out on a date with her when they bump into each other in a coffee shop. One night Jack spies Clara talking to some suspicious men and finds that he is being followed by the same people who had earlier tried to kill him in Sweden. An assassin starts after him through the night streets, but Jack first ambushes him and then pursues him on a motorcycle, eventually killing him. Now fearing for his life, his aroused suspicions are first aimed at Clara (who carries with her an unexplained pistol) and then ultimately on the motives of Mathilde. Realizing that he loves Clara, he decides that this mission will be his last and vows to leave his past behind and start a new life with her.  

The American is intricately constructed, is quietly observant of its characters and is beautifully timed. There is an undercurrent of tension to almost every sequence, as Jack is never really sure who to trust. We at first believe that Jack may be paranoid about his safety as he is methodically careful with everything. But we soon discover that after years of experience, his fears are genuine. The films' minimalism is one of its most appealing traits. It could be described as frustrating, and has been by many, but Corbijn's attention to the mundane details of Jack's methodical routine and his idle activity is firstly interesting but also one of the hypnotic charms of the film. The town is quintessentially Italian. Quaint, but often macabre by nightfall, thudding footsteps on the cobblestone streets and consistent tolling of Church bells frequent throughout. Fueled by some stunning cinematography and diverse, inventive camera work, the town of Castel del Monte becomes a character in itself.

It shares a similarity in plot with In Bruges (2008), and while it lacks the witty humor of that impeccably captured classic, it features a minimalist originality and a beauty rarely realized in the genre. While I doubt it will challenge for any of the Oscars, it may be considered for one the ten picture slots, and also for cinematography. Clooney's performance is reserved and thoughtful. The camera is reluctant to leave him as he controls and dominates the screen with his presence. His famous gravelly tone is wasted somewhat through the lack of dialogue, and the limited emotional requirement of the role doesn't work in his favor. But neither detract from an otherwise solid performance. The two women are simply gorgeous and their electrifying beauty provide the spark to the scenes that is absent from Clooney's character. Clooney shares a great chemistry with both of his counterparts, and its quite a sensual film.

For most of the film it is never made clear whether Jack new he was constructing the means of his own assassination, or whether he was oblivious to the motives of Mathilde, until the shocking moment when we realize. Privileged to the knowledge that he was a target, it is revealed that he tampered with the weapon, causing it to malfunction and backfire on Mathilde. But, removing Clara from the equation, it could easily be read that he had made peace and by handing over the weapon, he was willing Matilde to complete her task. Following this, the conclusion is not surprising or original, but heartbreaking all the same. Clearly regretful of his actions at the behest of his profession, but not optimistic about his spiritual acceptance ("I don't think God is very interested in me father"), he seeks a way out having found a meaningful relationship and a life distinct from his profession. This may be a second chance, as he seemed to have established this life already in Sweden.

While the pace is laborious and slow, my interest was held by the diversity of intriguing shots, Clooney's serious performance, and our suspicions of tension at every corner. Few films this year have better utilized temporality and space than The American. If you are after an action-packed hit-man film than this isn't for you, but its a rewarding experience for a patient viewer. For nothing else, it also features two beautiful women.

My Rating: 4 Stars

Quality 2010 Album Releases

Here are my top albums released so far in 2010.

1. Teen Dream - Beach House

2. The Suburbs - The Arcade Fire

3. The Age of Adz - Sufjan Stevens

4. Before Today - Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti

5. Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty - Big Boi

6. Halcyon Digest - Deerhunter

7. Innerspeaker - Tame Impala

8. High Violet - The National

9. Swim - Caribou

10. Love Remains - How to Dress Well

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Awesome Movie Poster of the Day: Blue Valentine

I'm more than a little intrigued by Blue Valentine, starring two of my favorite actors, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, after the release of this fantastic poster. It has been warmly received so far and the early talk is both are in consideration for Oscars. This will be worth a look.

Here is the poster:

Blue Valentine (Weinstein Company, 2010)

Recent Viewing (Short Reviews)

Il Conformista [The Conformist] (1970)

The Conformist is a superb film about 1930's Fascist Italy. Director Bernardo Bertolucci creates a stunningly beautiful film, cleverly utilizing flashback to weave a complicated plot. After a traumatic childhood event, Marcello Clerici wants to appear normal, so he marries an ordinary middle-class woman and joins the Fascist party. He is given an assignment to kill an old mentor, living in Paris, who has since become a vocal anti-fascist. The films' cinematography is absolutely fantastic, meticulously piecing together some brilliant camera angles; the colour contrast, the film noir atmosphere, and the score are all outstanding and the acting is spot-on. Stands as the best political thriller I have ever seen.

My Rating: 5 Stars 
 187 (1997)

I watched this years ago, but it still resonates quite strongly with me. 187 is a thought-provoking drama about the issue of the horrendous education system in Los Angeles, and what a disastrous upbringing can ultimately culminate in. Similar in theme to American History X (1998), but dealing more with gangs, than with racial prejudice. The extremity of the problem is portrayed in Cesar, a violent gang youth (played brilliantly by Clifton Collins Jr.), and seen through the world-weary eyes of substitute teacher, Trevor Garfield (Samuel L. Jackson). Garfield becomes increasingly maddened as violent bullies control his classroom and frustrated with his colleagues as they do nothing, fearing the potential lawsuits that arise as a result of disciplinary action. The film grows gradually more intense, culminating in quite a shocking conclusion. 

My Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

In the Valley of Elah (2007)

An engaging, yet relatively slow adult drama from the Academy Award Winning director of Crash, Paul Haggis. Upon hearing news of his son Mike’s status as AWOL after arriving back to an American base after serving in Iraq, career officer Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) seeks to investigate his son’s disappearance. After a mutilated body is found, and identified as Mike, Hank with the help of Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) seek to discover the truth behind his murder. The film is centered on the character of Hank, played wonderfully by a perfectly cast Tommy Lee Jones. No one in Hollywood can capture the sadness, lonesomeness and internal anger that he uses throughout his performance. It’s marvelous. He is both destructive (beating a suspect) and sensitive (telling the story of David and Goliath to Sander’s son) while at the same time at the brunt of the blame for his son’s death from his wife (Susan Sarandon). A competently written and directed film although it isn’t as good as Haggis' work in Crash, and I can’t help but think that the red herrings and the thrilling revelations dampen what ultimately was a likely outcome for the mystery. 

My Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Friday, November 12, 2010

Top 10's of the 90's (Updated)


1. American Beauty
2. Fight Club
3. Being John Malkovich
4. Magnolia
5. The Sixth Sense
6. Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai
7. The Insider
8. Audition
9. Toy Story 2
10. The Matrix


1. The Thin Red Line
2. Saving Private Ryan
3. The Truman Show
4. The Big Lebowski
5. Lock Stock and Two Smokin' Barrells
6. Rushmore
7. Happiness
8. Pi
9. American History X
10. Waking Ned Devine


1. L.A Confidential
2. Funny Games
3. Good Will Hunting
4. Boogie Nights
5. Princess Mononoke
6. Jackie Brown
7. Gattaca
8. The Game
9. The Full Monty
10. The Rainmaker


1. Fargo
2. Trainspotting
3. Jerry Maguire
4. The Crucible
5. Primal Fear
6. Sleepers
7. Romeo + Juliet
8. Mission: Impossible
9. The Birdcage
10. A Time to Kill


1. Se7en
2. The Usual Suspects
3. Heat
4. Dead Man
5. Toy Story
6. La Haine
7. 12 Monkeys
8. Braveheart
9. Babe
10. Dead Man Walking


1. Pulp Fiction
2. The Shawshank Redemption
3. Hoop Dreams
4. The Lion King
5. Chungking Express
6. Trois Couleurs: Rouge
7. Leon [The Professional]
8. Forrest Gump
9. Speed
10. The Crow


1. Schindler's List
2. Groundhog Day
3. Jurassic Park
4. The Fugitive
5. The Nightmare Before Christmas
6. Cool Runnings
7. True Romance
8. Falling Down
9. In the Line of Fire
10. In the Name of the Father


1. Reservoir Dogs
2. Malcolm X
3. Last of the Mohicans
4. Glengarry Glen Ross
5. Aladdin
6. Unforgiven
7. Basic Instinct
8. Romper Stomper
9. Scent of a Woman
10. The Player


1. The Silence of the Lambs
2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
3. JFK
4. The Doors
5. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse
6. Beauty and the Best
7. Delicatessen
8. Point Break
9. The Fisher King
10. Thelma and Louise


1. Goodfellas
2. Miller's Crossing
3. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
4. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
5. Dances with Wolves
6. Edward Scissorhands
7. The Hunt for Red October
8. The Godfather Part III
9. Total Recall
10. Presumed Innocent

Releases 11/11

Today marks the Australian release of two of the more anticipated films of the year, the somewhat dividing thriller The American (dir. Anton Corbijn) starring George Clooney, and the hotly received Winter's Bone (dir. Debra Granik).

I intend to check both out within the next week.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Office (US)

I am currently absorbed in the brilliant U.S version of the postmodern Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant creation, The Office. It's brilliantly cast (headlined by Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson) and it really is incredible what they manage to fit in to each episode, adequately involving each of the characters and consistently coming up with fresh arcs. To be honest, I wasn't impressed with the first season, but it has really hit stride here in the second. I'm obsessed! Don't expect to see too many film reviews posted in the next week or so, however.

Thanks for reading,


New Release Review: RED (Robert Schwentke, 2010)

Red is a typical popcorn flick, no more no less. This action/comedy, directed by Robert Schwentke, is loosely based on a series of comic books published by DC Comics. The stellar cast, including Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Brian Cox and Richard Dreyfuss all have a lot of fun here. It's a real pity the awful script gives them nothing interesting to do and fails to involve the audience in this fun. After a reporter investigating a 1981 top-secret extraction mission in Guatemala is found murdered, the C.I.A target a list of names involved in the mission to silence them. One of these targets is Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), a former black-ops C.I.A agent now living in quiet retirement. The highlights of his day are the conversations he has with Federal pension customer service operator, Sarah (Mary Louise Parker). When he survivals a brutal assault on his residence, he travels to Kansas City to rescue Sarah, who he believes is in danger as a result of C.I.A surveillance on his phone line. Keeping Sarah as a captive, he seeks out his old mentor Joe (Morgan Freeman) who is living in a retirement home, and another ex-agent Marvin (John Malkovich), a paranoid conspiracy theorist who provides some information about the rest of the hit list. Having bonded, Frank and Sarah manage to evade the obsessive young C.I.A agent assigned to their extinction (Karl Urban) and break into the C.I.A and steal the Guatemala file, retiring to the house of former Wetwork Agent, Victoria (Helen Mirren). With the old team now assembled, and discovering that the American Vice President, Robert Stanton (Julian McMahon) is behind the threat, they design a sting to reveal the dirty secrets he is trying so desperately to eradicate. The final act at the political campaign party is pretty cool, but unfortunately my interest was long gone before then. Taking seemingly forever to develop the plot, this heavily-cliched action spoof really fails to engage. The characters are fairly ridiculous and even John Malkovich, who i was convinced would be reason alone to see the film, was quite unfunny. With the exception of a couple of amusing action sequences, it ultimately becomes a bit too pedestrian and neat. Having said that, the script and the direction are a real mess. Overall, Red was a forgettable experience, and despite the tongue-in-cheek fun, it was never particularly entertaining. 

My Rating: 2 Stars

Monday, November 8, 2010

Short Reviews: Saw/Saw II (2004-05)

Saw (James Wan, 2004)

The original film in this now ridiculous franchise is unquestionably the best. Created by the Australian pairing of James Wan (director) and Leigh Wannell (screenplay), it became an immediate horror classic that introduced audiences to the Jigsaw killer and spawned a series of ever-worsening sequels. Jigsaw, while technically not a murderer, selected socially-ungrateful individuals to participate in his deadly survival games where they would be required to follow his established rules and find a way to escape their imprisonment. He tested his subjects to see if they were grateful to be alive, and if they were willing to push themselves to an extreme, often causing themselves serious harm to remain alive. Throughout the first film we are revealed to cases where his subjects have been killed in their attempts to escape. But the central subjects for the film are surgeon, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), and a photographer named Adam (Leigh Wannell), who awake to find themselves in a disgusting bathroom chained at the ankle to pipes at either end. In the middle of the room is a dead man lying in a pool of blood, holding a gun and a tape player. Both men discover in their pockets a tape with both revealing a recording from Jigsaw explaining that Lawrence must kill Adam by 6 o'clock or his wife and daughter will be killed.

Hidden within the room are clues linking the men to one another and the means for Lawrence to kill Adam. Lawrence knows about Jigsaw as he had once been a suspect in the case, when his personal pen light had been found at the scene of one of Jigsaw's other successful traps. Detectives Tapp (Danny Glover) and Sing (Ken Leung) are investigating the case and begin piecing together clues from the other Jigsaw puzzles. They hold and question Gordon, with Tapp convinced that he was the one responsible. After his partner is killed by a trap set in Jigsaw's lair when they discover and search it, Tapp becomes obsessed with finding the killer, even hiring Adam to follow and photograph Gordon as a means of surveillance. With both men choosing to withhold their personal lives and then lie about it, they never begin to trust one another. But to survive their ordeal they would need to work together.

The film frequently provides new discoveries and effective twists to keep the viewer guessing, and gradually reveals all of the answers to the growing number of questions. But as timer begins to run out, they become even more desperate to escape, with the threat of the murder of Gordon's family still applicable. There is a really great red herring near the end of the film as we believe we have been revealed to Jigsaw; the man holding Gordon's wife and daughter, but it is discovered that he is merely another man used in the deadly game, discovered by Adam when he finds a personal recording on his person. The final twist is one of the greatest ever, and leaves you glued to your seat for minutes after the final credits have rolled. A strikingly original idea, built on a very small budget (less than 1 million dollars) this is a horror gem. The performances, which i believe were limited to only a few takes, are not great, but forgivable in the whole scheme of things. The story is adequately given background through the reflective accounts of Gordon, and it efficiently provides us enough about Jigsaw to appropriately establish him. Worthy to be a stand-alone film, which may have been the original intention, this is one of the more underrated horror films of the last decade. Its a pity the bigger-budgeted sequels have all but ruined many viewers' memory of this one.

My Rating: 4 Stars

Saw II (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2005)

Saw II centres on a pair of games involving detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg). Thinly plotted, stylistically it never encapsulates into anything worthwhile. After finding the whereabouts of Jigsaw's lair (the one previously discovered by Detectives Tapp and Sing), they enter to find Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) surrendering to them. We discover that his real name is John Kramer and he is a former successful civil engineer who was diagnosed with cancer by Dr. Lawrence Gordon. The origins of his transition into a sadistic 'deliverer of punishment' is explained in the later films of the franchise. He challenges Matthews to a game, one in which he has to sit and talk with John, while it is revealed that a group of captives must find a means of escape from a house rigged with traps. To survive they must also inject themselves with antidotes hidden throughout the labyrinth and accessible via the successful completion of the assigned tests that can cure them of the effects of the poisonous gas they are inhaling. One of these captives is Matthews' son, while the rest are past-perpetrators that he had sent to prison via his corrupt manufacturing of crime scenes with planted evidence. As Matthews and his SWAT team, who are watching CCTV footage of the events in the house from the warehouse, scramble to find the source of the transmission before it is too late, Kramer is content to just sit and chat with Matthews, who becomes increasingly frustrated and anxious. Another of the captives is Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith), one of Jigsaw's past victims who managed to escape. There is immediate tension within the captured group. Obviously confused, and all possessing self-centred agendas and short fuses, a collaborative operation is never likely. Amanda, who recognizes who they have been succumbed to, remains the most rational, while there are the stock characters around her. There is the hotheaded tough guy who will do anything to escape, even choosing to expire all those around him, the stubborn bitch who refuses to be told what to do, and the meek girl who blubbers and is mostly useless. The characters are so shallow and so poorly developed that we don't even remember any of their names.

The second installment really lacks the confines of the first film, which really allowed us to engage with the two central characters. The larger location, now an abandoned house with a labyrinth of levels and hallways, and more contestants, really fails to create any emotional impact and we feel nothing for their plight. Matthews' incessant griping is also tiring. Saw II relies on cheap thrills to maintain the impact, throwing in ridiculous jump-out-of-your-skin moments wherever there is a prolonged lapse in the suspense or if the film divulges into plot for too long. But this is what the Saw films are all about. There are some really elaborate traps one again, most notably the pit of needles, but it really fails when trying to replicate the shocking foot sawing sequence of the first film. The score is pretty lame and the performances mostly awful, with the exception of Tobin Bell, who creates one of the more memorable recent villains. This bleak and distastefully gratuitous sequel fails on so many levels, but it is still a guilty pleasure with a final sequence that will no doubt bring you crawling back for the next installment, and the next, and the next...

My Rating: 2 Stars

Friday, November 5, 2010

Short Review: Battle Royale (Kinji Fukusaku, 2000)

An uncompromising portrayal of violence, the Japanese film Battle Royale (2000) became an immediate cult hit and genre classic. It is directed by Kinji Fukusaku, and based on the novel of the same name written by Kenta Fukusaku. The film depicts children as capable of unflinching levels of violent behavior against one another when forced to protect and fight for their lives. Upon its release, however, the film aroused much controversy as it was deemed to be harmful viewing for teenagers. Labelled as 'crude and tasteless' by members if the Japanese Parliament, Battle Royale has created a debate over Government action on media violence.

Battle Royale opens with a prologue title card, which reads that at the dawn of the millennium ten million people in Japan were forced out of work, and that 800,000 students boycotted school. Fearing a youth uprising, Government officials passed the Millennium Educational Reform Act, or the BR Act. The films' central characters are Shuya Nanahara, a charismatic but disillusioned young man, whose mother has abandoned him and whose father has committed suicide, and Noriko Nakagawa, Shuya's friend and love interest. After his class fails to show up for the day, Shuya's teacher Kitano is stabbed by Shuya's friend Nobu. It is clear that the youth are all similarly disillusioned and have little respect for their elders and the frustrated Kitano retires.

During the class' field trip the following year, the entire group is gassed on their coach, taken to an isolated island and fitted with electronic collars. They are all assembled in an abandoned school and find out that they are the class selected that year for the game created by the Millennium Educational Reform Act. Behind the operation is Kitano, working with the Government and the military. The students must kill each other until only one is left alive, and if after three days a winner is not declared, the explosive collars attached to each student will be detonated. These collars also function to prevent students from entering certain areas of the grid, termed 'danger zones', with the intention of forcing the students to encounter one another. One by one the students are allowed to leave the school into the grid equipped with survival packs containing food, water, a flashlight, a compass, a map of the island and one random weapon to utilize. Throughout the game Kitano provides often amusing updates to the survivors via broadcast about their fallen comrades and the new danger zones.

Shuya and Noriko, after realizing that their classmates are taking the game seriously and fleeing attack, shelter together in a cave by the water. Throughout the film we have flashbacks to moments at school and find out more about their blossoming friendship. Some of the students embrace the game willingly and begin to kill their fellow students to ensure their survival, while others refuse to play, even choosing to kill themselves in opposition to competing. The game includes two exchange students who aren't in the class; Kawada (who befriends and assists Shuya and Noriko) and Kiriyama (who kills a large group of students at the start and goes on a solo rampage around the island). A large group of the female students shelter together in a lighthouse, while others try and hack into the main system and blow up the school. It is an outrageous premise and is often ridiculously violent, but it's a guilty pleasure and actually great fun. Following the death of each of the students a numerical countdown appears at the bottom of the screen informing us to the names of the students who had been eliminated and how many are left in the game. Shuya and Noriko stumble across Kawada's hideout, who lets them in and reveals that he volunteered for the game to avenge the death of his girlfriend in a previous game. As the game progresses and only a few students remain, there are some quite moving plot elements. One of the students vows to make the most of his final hours and seeks out both his best friend, and the girl that he loves. When he eventually finds the latter, she shoots him believing he is a threat. She is then ultimately killed by Mitsuko, an unpopular girl who has taken it upon herself to win the game. She utilizes her sexuality and lures some of her male victims by making herself the object of their desires and offering her body to them.

Battle Royale's scenery and cinematography is gorgeous and the films' exceptional score is a collaboration of several pieces of classical music with some original composition. The overture theme is 'Dies Irae' from Guissepe Verdis 'Requiem'. There are some really moving performances from the young cast, and there are enough shocking twists to require your full attention throughout. Battle Royale asks us to question what we would do if forced into the inescapable position of having to kill a class of our own peers to ensure our own survival? Could we do it? Could we kill our best friend or girlfriend without remorse for our own survival? It's a real test of the strength of a young generation, whose grasp on humanity has become disillusioned. In this way I feel the film is also a brave philosophical study of the different reactions and responses to exposure to this disturbing stimulus. The students are scared back into feeling grateful of the lives they have been given but only long enough to find themselves a victim of the game.

While it does stretch its budget pretty far, the film also suffers from its budget confines. There really isn't a lot of singular battles as many of the students are killed as a group in their entirety and this sometimes feels unsatisfying and a quick way to eliminate a number of the minor characters. The final competitors are fairly obvious to predict early on, so the screenplay, while it's certainly an interesting premise, falls disappointingly into cliche at times. But the personal examination of its key characters enhances the film beyond its violent roots and it really becomes something quite philosophical. Certainly one of my favorite films, I never tire of Battle Royale and it's certainly worth a look.

My Rating: 4 Stars

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Short Review: Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)

Cloverfield, directed by Matt Reeves (Let Me In) and produced by J.J Abrams (Lost), is a vicious attack on the senses. The use of the shaky, hand held camera, while it gives us seemingly minutes of footage of the characters shoes, creates unparalleled realism that even caused some audience members to experience motion sickness. We witness the startling invasion of an enormous unidentified creature on New York City and Manhattan from the point-of-view of a group of friends, who are having a party at the time of the attack. As they try and flee the destructive creature, battle the surging crowds and leave the city, the shocking footage and relentless carnage at the hands of the creature is captured through Hud's hand-held video camera. The most impressive feature of this film, despite the slim running time of 85 minutes, is the massive scope of the adventure. We follow the small band of characters as they journey through the underground subway tunnels, attempt to cross the Brooklyn Bridge, and ultimately scale the 57th floor of an apartment complex to reach safety. A much better film than i expected, Cloverfield is an intense thrill ride with some truly outstanding visual effects. 

My Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Off Topic: 2010 Melbourne Cup

The 2010 Melbourne Cup features one of the deepest fields in recent years. Should be a fantastic race!

The rain effected track should make it very interesting. My predictions are as follows:

1. So You Think
2. Shocking
3. Monaco Consul

Other great chances: Zipping, Americain, Descarado, Harris Tweed and Manighar. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Short Review: Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948)

Red River is a 1948 Western from director Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep). Fueled by John Wayne's stubborn portrayal of Thomas Dunson, Red River is widely considered to be one of the finest achievements of the Western genre, and it's a remarkable accomplishment and an unforgettable experience that brilliantly captures the grandeur and hardship of the wild American West. Red River tells the fictional tale of the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail and it's an adaptation by Borden Chase (in collaboration with Charles Schnee) from his own story, 'The Chisholm Trail'. Drama ensues throughout the lengthy drive to Missouri. There is mutiny within the brigade and disagreements between the tyrannical initiator, Texan rancher Dunson (John Wayne, in an excellent performance) and his ranch partner and adopted son, Matthew Garth (played by Montgomery Clift), over the management of the mission.
Working with his long-time trail-hand Groot (Walter Brennan), and having declared ownership of a stretch of Texan land equipped with only a couple of head of cattle, Dunson had transformed his ranch into a thriving success during the proceeding fourteen years. When his adopted adult son returns from war, he finds Dunson to be broke as a result of the American Civil War. With his herd now numbering at tens of thousand, and with the price of cattle not to his liking in Texas, he decides to drive his herd north to Missouri where he believes he will gather a much better price. He hires a team of men to help with the drive and they all set out. Along the way they experience many problems, including the hazardous climate, a stampede that results in the death of the one of the men and the loss of many of the herd, and a full-scale mutiny at Dunson's tyrannical methods and unsound decision-making. When he threatens to lynch two of the men for their desertion, Matt steps in and defends the men, deciding to lead the drive himself through the railroad at Abilene, a method long opposed by Dunson. With Dunson left behind and alone, he seeks out company and ammunition and begins a chase to kill Matt.

Red River features stunning cinematography and many epic adventure sequences; notably the exciting stampede that occurs early in the drive, the beautifully captured crossing of the Red River, the skirmish against the looting Indians and Dunson and Garth's final scuffle. The score is grand and uplifting, which is a fitting accompaniment to the maiden scouring of the great Western frontier and the eventual accomplishment of the drive. But this often seems out of place at times as the story, in the middle, takes a dark turn into a tale of obsessive tyranny, rivalry and lunacy. John Wayne's tortured, conflicted character draws from him an excellent performance, and Montgomery Clift and Walter Brennan are also great. Despite a tragic let-down in the film's final moments and a swift resolution, I found Red River to be a very enjoyable film, and an absolute must see, even for non-fans of the Western genre.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

Short Review: Night Watch (Timur Bekmambetov, 2004)

While it is a struggle to begin with, once one becomes accustomed to Night Watch's hyperactive visual style and gradually becomes involved with the story, this intricately plotted supernatural fantasy is stylishly produced, visually astounding and quite engaging. Commandeering one of the biggest budgets in the history of Russian cinema, Kazakhstan-born director Timur Bekmambetov, creates one of the first major blockbusters after the collapse of the Soviet Film Industry. Night Watch first appeared at the Moscow Film Festival in 2004, later becoming the highest-grossing Russian release ever and finally reaching screen in the United States in February 2006. It has later spawned a sequel, titled Day Watch.

The film opens in the Middle Ages, and a narrator explains in voice-over that Others are humans with extraordinary powers and soldiers in an eternal war; the struggle between light and dark. Following an epic battle, it is decided by the generals of both sides that no mortal shall be given a side unless they themselves choose it and members of the Dark Army are assigned to the Day Watch and the Light Army the Night Watch. This ensures a balance of power until the prophecy comes to fruition and the Great One chooses either the side of Light or Dark, thereby bringing one to prominence. The film then jumps forth to modern day Moscow and we are introduced to Anton Gorodetsky, an Other who was discovered 12 years prior following an innocent visit to a witch. Explaining that his wife had left him and was bearing the child of another man, she prepares a toxin using his blood that wills a miscarriage. She is arrested by members of the Night Watch for using dark powers before she can finish, and the team introduces Anton to the Night Watch after he reveals that he can see them. Anton is assigned to track a young boy (later revealed to be an Other himself), who is receiving 'The Call' (a psychic signal) from vampires who wish to feed. He is lured into a warehouse and in Anton's attempts to rescue the young boy, he murders one of the vampires, breaking the arranged truce and alerting the Day Watch. Earlier, when he was tracking the boy on the subway, he discovers a pretty young woman who has been cursed with the vortex of damnation. Following Anton's near-death battle with the Vampire, he is healed by Gesar (the general of the Light) and revealed the legend of a cursed virgin who brings about the sickness and death of everyone she is in contact with. A whirlwind begins to emerge above her apartment block that ultimately grows to engulf the entire city. Anton discovers that the boy is in fact his own son, born 12 years prior. With the prophecy coming to fruition through the gifted young boy, Anton, while trying to protect him from choosing the side of Dark, must also try and save the young woman from her curse and the fate of the city.

The first thing you notice about Night Watch is that it looks awesome. Immediately building a great mood, it utilizes clever special effects to really present this fantasy world, pitting supernatural warriors like shape shifters and vampires against one another. Wallowing in a post-Soviet decay, the city is essentially battling itself; in a struggle to eliminate a dread overwhelming humanity. The fight sequences are outstanding, especially when Anton battles the vampire, utilizing the reflection of the vampire in a mirror fragment, to his advantage. The soundtrack is an fantastic collaboration of metal and rock artists, and really complements the energetic visuals. While at first it seemed very silly, when it found it's niche Night Watch is a bold and ambitious project, sure to make an interesting trilogy of films for fans of this one. I thought it suffered from being a bit too busy, and took the transforming anatomy visuals a bit too far, while bordered on being confusing at times. Unless you are attuned to the fantasy genre, this often abhorrent concoction, and filmmaking style will likely not appeal to you. Awfully dubbed in English, it also has some truly cheesy dialogue. I thought Konstantin Khabensky (as Anton) gave an engaging central performance and was a likable heroic figure. After a messy opening, the middle features some visually spectacular sequences, and I found the final act to be surprisingly heartfelt. But i don't think I'm likely to revisit it again, and I can't say I'm interested in seeing the next installment either.

My Rating: 2 1/2 Stars

The Five Best Films I Saw in October

I saw a total of 22 films in October. Here are the five best (first viewing only):

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

The Red Riding Trilogy - 1974, 1980, 1983 (2009)

The Town (2010)

Let Me In (2010)

The Social Network (2010)