Thursday, March 31, 2011

Monster Inc. Prequel Title Announced

The confirmed sequel to beloved Pixar classic Monsters Inc. from 2001 will in fact be a prequel, titled Monsters University. With Billy Crystal and John Goodman reprising the voice-roles of Mike and Sulley, the events will chronicle the pair's studies at the University of Fear (before they begin working at the factory) where their friendship originates. While I am feeling indifferent about Cars 2 this year, Monsters University sounds like a pretty cool idea. Big thanks to Jack Ibbetson at So I Saw this Film... for making me aware of this announcement.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Releases 31/03

Getting in slightly early this week, here are the March 31st releases: 

Just Go With It: A comedy starring both Adam Sandler and Jennifer Anniston. This is reason enough to keep clear. This sounds ridiculous, predictable, juvenile and another dire addition to the rom-com genre.

Rotten Tomatoes: 18%

Never Let Me Go: The screen adaptation of the acclaimed Kazuo Ishiguro novel, Never Let Me Go stars the wonderful young talents of Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and to a lesser extent, Keira Knightley. It tells the tragic tale of a love triangle between three young people, who share their childhood together at what first appears to be an idyllic English boarding school. But the shocking truth of their existence is withheld from them. They re-unite as adults to face the dark secrets tied to their communal past. The Mark Romanek film has appeared on several critics Top 10 lists and should be a rewarding experience.

Rotten Tomatoes: 69%

The Lincoln Lawyer: The new film starring Matthew McConaughey (whose best work is arguably his role as a lawyer in the John Grisham adaptation, A Time to Kill). He stars in The Lincoln Lawyer as Mickey Haller, a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney who primarily operates out of the back of his Lincoln sedan. Haller has spent most of his career defending garden-variety criminals, until he lands the case of his career; defending Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a Beverly Hills playboy accused of rape and attempted murder. Based on the Michael Connelly novel, The Lincoln Lawyer likely won't offer any twists on the courtroom drama, but, much like Connelly's novel, should be fast-paced and engaging. McConaughey has to prove himself again, but the support cast is solid.

Rotten Tomatoes: 82%

In A Better World: Directed by Sussanne Bier and winner of Best Foreign Language Film for Denmark at both the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. Anton is a doctor who commutes between his home town in Denmark and his work at an African refugee camp. In these two very different worlds, he and his family are faced with conflicts that lead them to difficult choices between revenge and forgiveness. Sure to be a complex, thought-provoking, raw, emotional and above all important human drama.

Rotten Tomatoes: 79%

Heartbeats: 21-year-old filmmaker Xavier Dolan's second film, Heartbeats, was a hit at the Cannes Film Festival and voted the audience favorite at last years Sydney Film Festival. It centers on two close friends, Francis (Xavier Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri), who find themselves fighting for the affections of the same young man. The more intimate the trio becomes, the more unattainable the object of their infatuation seems. Sexy, stylish and farcical are words used to describe Heartbeats.

Rotten Tomatoes: 74%

Weekly Recommendation: Strong week this week. With the exception of Just Go With It, I think all of the films are worth a look. Heartbeats is playing at limited cinemas, but I will endeavor to see the other three. The Lincoln Lawyer should be safe entertainment, but I don't think Never Let Me Go or In a Better World will be disappointing either. Happy viewing!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Feature Article: A Conundrum for Cultural Critics

Cultural criticism is a key facet of media journalism and one that is regularly and readily consumed by the general public. Many people make it their business to be educated about the cultural world around them, whether they are seeking a recommendation for an ideal film to see on their Friday night date, whether the new Sue Grafton novel is as page-turning as her previous work, or how their new favorite restaurant has fared upon critical review. Critical reviews are just as consumable as the texts or experiences they document. Many consumers read these reviews and analyses to ensure they make an educated cultural decision. With swift inflation, not everybody can afford to outlay regular cultural expense. Others are interested in comparing their own opinions of the texts with those of the published writers. But what has emerged as the most widely accessed and publicly trafficked medium to write and report through? Many cultural critics are becoming less and less convinced about the predominant origins of their readers. Is the rising storm of online criticism and blogging placing more professional, and better-respected modes of mainstream communications at risk?

As an amateur film and entertainment critic and avid blogger, do I expect as many readers to pass through my blog (amidst thousands of competing critics and blogs) as say listen to the weekly reviews over the radio, or tune into the weekly television slot for At the Movies? Not a chance. I thought I’d ask some of the online community’s leading film bloggers their opinions on the growth of online cultural criticism and how much of their readership is outside of the blogging network. I also thought it would be interesting to investigate the success of promoting ones work over social networking giants like Facebook and Twitter. While certainly not attracting the coverage of mainstream media, many would argue they still possess beneficial means of promoting ones business and widely relaying your cultural opinions and personal agendas.

I spoke to Ryan Helms, an avid and successful film blogger, whose fantastic website, A Life in Equinox, is one of the most respected sources of insightful film knowledge on the Internet. He believes, “Blogging is arguably the most internationally accessible medium by which one can openly discuss varying aspects of their society” but he argues that “it is also the most turbulent and unpredictable.”  For a film blogger, to receive 1,000 hits for a single day might seem like a big deal. But compare that to a daily newspaper, which is bought and read by millions of people. The coverage is incomparable. A swift response to the article is only a short click away, which means that bloggers are often subject to angry and malicious rants into empty cyberspace. Alternatively, a dedicated critic may also benefit from a wealth of positive response, which will ultimately prove beneficial for someone working online to hone his or her writing skills.

Someone who reads a review in the paper really has limited means to communicate with the writer. Helms also declared, that “it requires a certain work ethic to establish and maintain a blog that maintains an air of respect among ‘professional’ media outlets.” With plenty of room for error and growth, many cultural bloggers are un-paid, semi-professional writers tackling the vast cyber expanse of the World Wide Web to develop their skills and have their work exposed for evaluation in a public forum. Comparatively, there is often immense pressure on a print or television journalist when faced with a one-shot article. Most film and entertainment critics working under contract with leading editorials also post a copy of their work under the related website, and their opinions are merged into a collaboration for entertainment sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. So even if their desired mode of reporting is through print, it is essential they cater for the inevitable growth of online readership.  Thomas Caldwell, radio film critic with Triple R and a contributor for The Big Issue agrees, “It is hard to find decent online work that’s not connected to an established source or by somebody who already has a presence in traditional media and sees online as an extension of their profile."

Tom Clift, an emerging film critic from Melbourne and a contributing writer for Row Three and Flickchart agrees, “There still tends to be a certain prestige associated with print media” and “from a writers point of view, there is certainly some amount of pride in seeing your name in print.” Predominantly a working online critic, Tom “turns to blogs and websites for almost all cultural criticism, for two key reasons: convenience and diversity.”  There is no debating the wealth of material available online, but the issue is, of course, discerning between the quality of the contributions. Anders Wotzke, a leading Australian film critic, editor-in-chief of Cut Print Review and member of the Online Film Critics Society, argues, “In traditional media, professional standards – a sense of quality control – still apply. For employed print critics, their work is their livelihood, rather than a hobby or a casual job.” Anders also believes that this will change. “As we begin to tame the Internet,” he states, “I’m certain online critics will be just as reputable as those in print, if not more so.” Caldwell also argues, “Traditional media seems to be increasingly disinterested in serious writing about cinema and it’s certainly viewed more as entertaining reporting than cultural criticism” which tends to suggest that the credibility of a high percentage of online criticism is not as low as many believe.

As for the exposure on Social Networking sites like Facebook, I am not yet convinced that there is any benefit to this strategy. It is a great way to keep your acquaintances and regular readers informed about new articles and developments in your work. But in terms of attracting new readers, I have found that many followers will be linked to Facebook, having already followed the site. Twitter makes it so easy to communicate with individuals of similar professional interests, and joining a large online community is an essential way of building recognition within your chosen industry. Most cultural critics will agree that trying a hand in different mediums is helpful to finding an appreciative audience. As Wotzke states: “Unlike in print, where your audience is only as big as the number of copies you print, there is a limitless supply of readers, watchers and listeners waiting online to be reached.” As a motivated hard-working online critic myself, this is great news. The skill-set of the 21st Century cultural critic now requires a diverse portfolio of talents to ensure professional recognition, but amidst the desire to be widely published, the choice of medium to target has presented a conundrum for agents of cultural criticism. 

What are your thoughts? 

New Release Review: Waiting for Superman (Davis Guggenheim, 2010)

Award-winning documentary Waiting for Superman is an engrossing and comprehensive insight into the failures of the public education system in the United States. Director David Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), through his tracking of five children through their school experiences, seeks to reveal and analyze the ways the system is failing, and interviews several education reformers about the inventive methods they believe can fix the problem.

For three of the children; Anthony, Daisy and Emily, their commitment to learning and desire to escape the public system and attend college is uplifting and inspiring. Anthony is in the fifth grade at a public school in Washington D.C, which is rated one of the worst in the country. Having lost his father to drug use, he wants to grow up and be successful and create a childhood for his own children superior to his own. Daisy, who resides in East L.A, has already written to the medical school she wishes to attend in the future. While driven to learn all that she can, the failures of her school will seriously jeopardize her chances of making it to college. Emily's poor math marks at her Silicon Valley school will likely relegate her to a lower academic stream, and little prospect of choosing the college of her choice. For first-graders Bianca and Francisco, Guggenheim speaks more to their mothers, who are desperately trying to find alternative education for their children. Bianca lives in Harlem, where her mother is struggling to pay the tuition fees at her local Catholic School because she doesn't feel comfortable sending her daughter to the public one. While Francisco's mother works hard with him at their Bronx home, only to discover that he has experienced early struggles at school. With nowhere else to turn, each of these families decide to apply for the admission of their children to the independently-run Charter Schools set up in disadvantaged areas by visionary educational reformers. But the competition is fierce, with only limited spots available, and whether these children are accepted or not is decided by a public lottery.

To think that whether or not these children will receive adequate education is decided by a bouncing ball, or a random assignment, is tremendously troubling. You would think, in a developed country like America, that every child would have the right to quality education. The film examines a variety of reasons to stipulate why this is the case. Poor funding, overcrowded classrooms, unfairly scaled grading, teacher incompetency in addition to the children's broken homes are all thrown around as reasons why the system is failing. Guggenheim quickly establishes that it would take someone with superhuman powers to fix this gargantuan problem, and because none like Superman exist, it appears to be solely up to the founders of these independent school networks, and headstrong revolutionary chancellors like Michelle Rhee. Rhee, during her term, outraged the Teachers Unions by closing schools, firing principles and attempting to overturn contracts of Tenure. One of the most passionate and inspiring characters is Geoffrey Canada, who runs a Charter school covering an impoverished area of Harlem. He lengthens the school day and year, has smaller class sizes and employs quality teachers for tuition. The greatest moments of the film stem from his confidence that he can transform a struggling and disadvantaged child into a college graduate. The academic results of the Charter schools, as expressed in the film, are better than even higher-funded and expensive private schools. The credibility of these statistics has been the front of controversy since the film's release, though.

To complement the footage of the children, and the accounts of Canada, Rhee and Bill Gates are a series of animated graphics to assist us to digest the often-horrifying statistics. Among these are the revelations about the plummeting reading and math levels of children across the country, and comparisons made between the money spent on catering for school dropouts who end up in prison versus the cost of a year of private school tuition. The film's climax is the most heartbreaking of all. As we see the five families attend their separate lotteries, hoping desperately to hear their number called. Perhaps their lives will be changed forever. The disappointment on the faces of the unlucky ones will resonate with viewers long after the final credits. Waiting for Superman is engrossing, maddening, uplifting and ultimately heartbreaking. A very well made documentary that tackles very troubling issues. Despite centering its view on American schools, the desperation of their families, especially Bianca's and Francisco's mothers, will be appreciated by anyone. Certainly worth a look.

My Rating: 4 Stars (B)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Short Review: Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, 2005)

This a bizarre film. Timed to near-perfection the seemingly meandering plot is full of surprises and a series of brilliant performances. Bill Murray (in a role rivaling his nominated performance in Lost in Translation), Jeffrey Wright (hilarious as his sleuth-obsessed neighbor Winston), and Sharon Stone, Francis Conroy and Jessica Lange as the ex-girlfriends he visits, are all fantastic. Broken Flowers is a film that demands your attention but subtly rewards you with a series of entertaining encounters between Bill Murray and a variety of unique individuals as he partakes his road-trip. His mission is to discover which of his ex-flames had communicated with him via a pink letter about a son he never knew existed. Murray's world-weary, disinterested expression throughout the film is also very amusing. The flashing drive-by cinematography is beautiful and the soundtrack very unique. Broken Flowers was a hit at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival and now after my third viewing - yes, I admit it takes a few to grasp, I can certainly recommend it.

My Rating: 4 Stars (B+)

Upcoming Releases

Really looking forward to Never Let Me Go, released in Australian cinemas this Thursday. Check out the trailer below: 

Sucker Punch, the new film by Zach Snyder (300 and Watchmen), is getting absolutely roasted by critics in the U.S. It is set for release in Australia on April 7. You can check out the trailer below. The visuals look incredible, but is there substance to match the style? I think not. 

Really want to check out Barney's Version, Biutiful, Waiting for Superman and Never Let Me Go this week. Lots to catch up on. Did you see anything exciting over the weekend?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

New Release Review: Griff The Invisible (Leon Ford, 2011)

Griff The Invisible is an offbeat Australian romantic comedy/drama written and directed by Leon Ford and starring Ryan Kwanten (True Blood, Red Hill) in the lead role. Premiering at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, Ford's quirky film was well received by audiences, with the consensus praising the charm and warmth of the tale. I found plenty of enjoyment in this 'undeniably Aussie' film. Barring some incredible plot elements, Griff the Invisible is fueled by fine performances from the leads, humorous idiosyncrasies and an outstanding score. An enjoyable experience, it succeeds in balancing the worlds of escapism and fantasy with the often-painful 'reality' with only a few minor stumbles.

The story follows Griff (Kwanten), a nervy and socially awkward office worker who struggles daily to fit in with the rest of the world. His office colleagues ridicule his strange, dreamy behavior, and he becomes the target of bullying, especially from the irritating office jerk, Tony (Toby Schmitz). His only friend is his protective older brother Tim (Patrick Brammall), who has recently moved from Adelaide to Sydney to keep an eye on Griff, who has been prone to erratic behavior in the past. Griff keeps to himself, lives in seclusion and meticulously orchestrates his daily schedule, which is often a direct preparation for his nightly responsibilities, where Griff assumes his crime-fighting secret identity. Under the cover of darkness he becomes Griff the Invisible, his self-appointed superhero who roams the dark streets of his local neighborhood, protecting the innocent residents from shady night stalkers.

Equipped with a full-body invisibility suit and with his house adorned with advanced surveillance technology, he eagerly awaits any chance to answer the distress call of humanity. Tim is slowly growing more frustrated by Griff's eccentric behavior and wants nothing other than for him to wake up and live in the 'real world'. When he spots posters and mannequins around the neighborhood questioning the identity of a masked vigilante roaming the streets, he hopes Griff isn't involved. Through Tim, Griff is introduced to a beautiful young scientist named Melody (the gorgeous Maeve Dermody, Beautiful Kate), who shares Griff's fantasies about the supernatural and his disregard for the rules of reality. She questions the universe around her and tries to devise a way to pass through solid matter, like her bedroom wall. As Griff continues to develop even more elaborate costumes, and takes his nightly missions off the street and into his office (as he devises secret methods to humiliate Tony), the more trouble he finds himself in. He pushes his brother away; he is arrested on suspicion of stalking and is fired from his office job. Only Melody remains committed to him. When he seeks to abandon his fantasy world altogether and finally face the reality of his existence, he finds the superpower he never knew he possessed, the ability to love. Melody's uniqueness has made her a fellow social outcast, and with Griff she finally has found someone she is willing to let into her personal 'bubble', and pair develops a powerful and believable romance. 

Griff the Invisible is filmed primarily in the inner-city suburbs of Sydney, with the scenes in Griff's office shot in the high-rise buildings surrounding Darling Harbor. Central Station and Hyde Park also feature. Ford and his team make effective use of the city, and while it is not shot in a particularly interesting way, some of the special effects are quite impressive. The soundtrack, featuring predominantly songs from local Sydney band, Kids at Risk, accompanies the action perfectly in every scene. The songs were so enjoyable, that I often found them to overwhelm the visuals at times. All the sequences featuring Griff and Melody are excellent, and both Ryan Kwanten and Maeve Dermody give powerful performances, as the pair form an awkward romantic kinship. Griff's withdrawn, child-like personality is full of likable quirks and you really start to feel for him once the film establishes that his superpowers are all in his head. He is only ever comfortable when he pulls on his latex costume, and spends most of his daily existence trying to remain invisible. Following his hilarious role in True Blood and the recent Red Hill, Kwanten has proven his range and versatility. Melody is a curious girl who is genuinely interested in the world around her. While just as withdrawn as Griff, she appears to view the world from within another dimension. With her big glowing eyes, and concerned infatuation with Griff, she is stunningly captured.

The key flaws are in parts of the script, and there are moments that just feel a bit too unrealistic. The pace is also quite one-note, and it visually lacks the drive of its grander audio accompaniment. The office bullying, while not particularly savage in any way (although it does culminate in a beating), seem a bit too juvenile to really be of issue within adult society. Of course Griff is a socially inept and sensitive person, but Tony was acting like he was still in primary school. Tim's relationship with Melody is also endowed with some odd choices. After only one date, Tim is invited over to her place for dinner, where Melody's mother discusses their potential marriage. Whoa! Melody is clearly not interested in Tim, but he remains adamant that they are a couple and refers to her as his girlfriend. Much of the central confusion between Griff and Melody, who clearly are attracted to one another, is over her relationship with Tim. Realistically, there was very little to suggest they were seriously involved, and most of the sequences seemed a bit misguided. It's all a bit too low-key to really be excited about.

While I have heard Griff the Invisible compared to Michael Vaughn's Kick-Ass, presumably because of the theme of a civilian self-appointing himself a superhero, it functions more as a sweet romantic drama that chronicles the destiny of two oddballs. It's a simple, heartfelt story of love, the fragility of humanity and the desire to be accepted for who you are. It is a solid directorial debut from Ford, and a strong early contender for Australian Film of the Year.

My Rating: 3 Stars (C+)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Stylish Blogger Award

Okay, so this chain-letter type thing has been floating around the film blogging community. I got tagged by Stevee at Cinematic Paradox and thought I'd participate. The idea is to reveal seven interesting facts about yourself, and then tag seven other bloggers to participate. 

So, here we go:

1. My name is Andrew Buckle. I share my name with an Australian golfer. I am an Australian film blogger. I live in the Inner West suburb of Leichhardt, Sydney.

2. I work at my local cinema.

3. My favorite film of all time is Platoon. The second viewing I distinctly remember being the single greatest film experience of my life to date.

4. The only films I have sat through in their entirety twice in the span of 24 hours are The Usual Suspects, American History X and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (Yep!). Don't ask me about the latter. The former is also one of my favorite films.

5. I used to read so much as a kid, but now I have more untouched or unfinished novels in my possession than any number I have successfully completed.

6. If there is a person in film whose personality closely resembles me, it is probably Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from 500 Days of Summer.

7. I am a huge Philadelphia 76ers fan. Great to see them in the East's playoff hunt this season.

So, there you go. Seven tagged bloggers:

Univarn @ A Life in Equinox

Andrew @ Andrew at the Cinema

Aiden R @ Cut the Crap Movie Reviews

Dan @ Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

Sam @ Duke and the Movies 

Film Geek @ Final Cut

Tom Clift @ Movie Reviews by Tom Clift

Friday, March 25, 2011

Critical Analysis: Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

'In space no one can hear you scream' is the tag-line of Ridley Scott's (Blade Runner and Gladiator) 1979 classic, Alien. Widely respected amongst the film community as one of the most thrilling and visually unsettling monster films of all time, the commercial and critical success of Alien spawned three sequels; Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), Alien3 (David Fincher, 1992) and Alien Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997). The features of this critical analysis will highlight the conceptual and thematic concerns presented throughout the film; notably the features of the Alien organism, comparisons between the Nostromo and the Alien planet, Ripley's femininity, the mother and child dynamic and the array of techniques utilized throughout by Scott to express these themes.

One very successful feature of Alien is that it has found a niche amongst multiple genres. It is rare works such as Alien and John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) that can find a place in both the science fiction and horror genres, as they employ iconography and key conventions that can be found in both. The setting of the story in outer space, the elaborate advancement of technology and the investigation of mysterious planets is true to the science fiction genre, while Scott infuses fresh life into this storyline, paying homage to 'creature films' and the earliest examples of horror film. The fact that Alien gives rise to the non-pleasurable emotion of horror is ultimately enjoyable for the viewer because of the 'mastery' over and 'relief' from these anxieties, or the recognition that it isn't happening to us. As an audience throughout the film, we have distinguished terror towards the threat posed by the Alien's mode of being. It attacks the crew because they threaten its survival and because they provide the means for its continued survival.

Outside of the Alien vessel where it is discovered, Kane is exploited into giving it the opportunity to live a life. It does what any other organism would do, to utilize all possible resources to enhance and prolong this opportunity. The point in the film when the Alien first appears it is less a creature than a disruptive 'event' oriented toward a future of its own elaboration. There is a distinct destabilization of the film's boundaries and the character's identities that must be reasserted at the conclusion. The Alien disrupts these boundaries and all events that occur for the remainder of the film are centered on the impending threat of the Alien.

Barbara Creed in her article 'Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine' develops some interesting theories from the film that link to the representation of the 'primal scene' where she provides three important representations. The 'birth scene' (as described by Creed) at the beginning of the film begins with the camera exploring the inner body of the 'Mother Ship' and culminates with a long tracking shot down one of the corridors, ending in a womb-like chamber. We see the characters slowly awaken from their sleep almost as children of the spaceship controlled by the computer system called 'Mother'. By exploring this space, we are revealed the environment that will enclose the lives of these characters for the rest of the film, while also possibly providing a metaphoric indication of the insignificant space that humans have occupied since the conception of the earth an incalculable number of years ago. We are also quickly asserted the fact that advanced technology will play a role in the film as we are filled with incredible imagery of strange looking devices and buzzing computer machinery. We are first introduced to the recognizable face of John Hurt, whose star title at the time was the biggest name to appear among the film's acting credits. In what is an almost uncanny parallel to Janet Leigh's character in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, the audience is made to believe that he will be the human centre of the film. But after the 'event' featuring the arrival of the Alien, this easy presumption is shockingly proven incorrect.

Creed contrasts the first 're-birthing scene' with a second representation. The horseshoe shaped Alien craft on the planet is first seen from the left hand side in a series of long shots. Later there is a cut to another long shot facing the centre of the horseshoe as if between the legs of the craft. This suggests a body; its outstretched legs positioned either side of a 'vaginal' entrance, through which we see the small figures of Dallas, Kane and Lambert enter. Compared to the atmosphere of the Nostromo, however, the ship is dark, dank and mysterious and full of mutilated organisms, notably H. R Giger's design of the disfigured human discovered by the investigating trio. In this incredible set piece, a ghostly light creates ominous shadow; there is a compete absence of an accompanying score and the sound of their movements echo through the caverns. After curiously examining an egg discovered within the ruin, the face-hugger attaches to Kane's face. This can be interpreted as a punishment for his violation of the Alien space as he penetrates what appears to be a force-field barrier that surrounds and covers the eggs.

The birth of the Alien from Kane's stomach plays on what Freud has described as a common misunderstanding that many children have about birth, being that the baby grows in their mother's stomach from which it is also born. The dinner sequence is one of the most jolting moments in motion picture history. To the sound of shredding flesh and a cracking rib cage, Kane's torso ripples with blood, heaves violently upwards and the creature bursts from his chest, spraying blood and bodily substances all over the rest of he crew. An incredible feature about this scene is the fact that none of the other actors were made aware of what was going to happen to Kane and their reactions to the emerging Alien were completely natural reactions of horror. The initial presentation of cleanliness and sterility dominates the interior of the Nostromo, while the threat posed by the Alien is explicitly presented as one of contamination. The dinner sequence is brightly lit, the table is white and the characters are wearing white uniforms. This purity is violently disrupted by Kane's convulsing and the splatter of blood by way of the emerging Alien. This scene is an attempt to appropriate the procreative function of the mother, to represent a man giving birth. The Alien is referred to later in the film by Ash (Ian Holm) as 'Kane's Son'. It is also interesting to recognize that often in horror films when man creates life, he gives birth to monsters and almost always results in an unleashing of evil. Another notable film in this genre is David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986).

Each of the members of the crew come face-to-face with the Alien in sequences where the mise-en-scene is coded to suggest an intense feeling of isolation. Apart from the scene of Kane's death, all of the other sequences occur in tightly enclosed, dimly-lit threatening spaces reminiscent of the giant hatchery where Kane first encounters the eggs. The technique of parallel editing underscores the rupture between the futurism of the ship's operational quarters and the swamp-like catacombs of the cavernous cargo areas and claustrophobic air shafts and makes the attacks of the Alien in these parts more dramatic. In these sequences the terror of being abandoned in the depths of the Nostromo is matched only by the fear of reincorporation. One notable feature is the fact that each of the characters dies because of a care for each other. The Alien would not have been brought on board had they not wanted Kane to live and Parker chose not to shoot the Alien with Lambert still in his line of fire.

The Alien is conceived as a predatory, threatening monster in appearing to penetrate the female in all three of its incarnations (face hugger, chest burster and full grown 'dragon jaw'), which suggests the outline of the masculine member. Alien is actually a disturbingly sexual film and Giger's creature can be described as the first 'interstellar rapist' captured on film. The Alien dispatches each male crew member with gruesome speed, but leaves Lambert and Ripley to the end. It is also possible to see the creature playing with Lambert in her final scene. The tail rears up underneath her in an act of penetration/rape and her anguished cries are audible over the intercom. This observation can be linked to the final sequence where the creature rears up on a scantily clad Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), after having spent a few minutes in the pod watching her undress. Unlike the heroine in most horror films she hasn't shed her clothes for a male antagonist, but the for the Alien tormentor. Like any woman who feels threatened under the male gaze, the first thing Ripley does is climb into a protective suit and cover herself up. Ripley's vulnerability is also raised by Cosima Urbano, in which she says that Ripley submits to the monster and returns its gaze in order to eliminate its horror. The pain and discomfort experienced during the watching of the film is considered necessary and inevitable in order to achieve what she calls the 'final victory'. Creed solidifies this idea in saying that "scenes of gore satisfy a morbid desire to see as much as possible before we are forced to look away."

Stephen Mulhall argues that it is the Alien's monstrous representation of human sexual difference that most fundamentally drives the plot of Scott's film and he raises a sense that Ripley's final, isolated confrontation with the Alien is something to which she is fated from the beginning. Only at the very conclusion of the film when she strokes the cat and begins to get undressed is Ripley solely allowed to express her femininity, an identity she is unable to express amongst the masculine environment of the Nostromo. Alien connects the orality with Ripley's experience of the human world she inhabits, by underlying the degree to which her voice fails to register in that world. When she forbids Ash from opening the hatch to allow Kane to be brought back on board, he acts as if she had not spoken and allows the 'contaminated' party to enter. When he attempts to kill her later, he does so by forcing a tightly rolled magazine (pornographic?) down her throat. Ash's action in this scene are an imitation of the Alien and its penetrative actions on Kane.

The true outstanding feature of this film is H.R Giger's extraordinary design for the Alien monster, which remains one of the most disturbing creations in the history of cinema. It is a terrifying creature that changes shape as it transforms into a mature life form. While highly intelligent and sadistic, it is both biological and mechanical state and appears to be indestructible. In the later installments of the Alien franchise, there are multiple Alien attackers, but the humans are blessed with higher-powered weaponry to better counter the threats. The Alien has 'no remorse' for its actions and is sexual, instinctive and malicious.

In Alien, the dominant gaze is the object and appearance of the Alien itself, which is distinctly uncanny as we only see the creature fully in its entirety on few occasions. The gaze creates space for the the spectators to position themselves within the film and we feel the fear of the characters as we are also blinded to what we are witnessing. The director manipulates the audiences' vision through the altering of the gaze, which takes the form of Jonesy, Parker and Lambert as they witness the attacks off screen. Scott eliminates the use of extreme gore, but instead creates the sense of paranoia in that we know the characters are dead, but we are spared the true horrific extent of their deaths.

Overall, Alien is one of the most visually rewarding science fiction/horror films ever conceived. Thematically, the film is a very dense project and the film and especially its key character, Ripley, will continue to be an important topic of debate for film analysts into the coming decades.

My Rating: 5 Stars

Quick Thoughts on "The Mechanic" (Simon West, 2011)

The Mechanic is an action film starring Jason Statham. Actually it is a re-make of an old Charles Bronson film. That pretty much sums it up. Statham once again plays the methodical, steely and graceful assassin who can do things that no human should be capable of. He plays Arthur Bishop, a 'mechanic' - an elite assassin with a strict code and a unique talent for cleanly eliminating targets to make it appear to be an accident or suicide. When he must kill his long-time mentor and friend Harry (Donald Sutherland) his emotionless demeanor is tested. He completes the job, but not without questioning the suspicious motives behind his ordered elimination. Steve (an always excellent Ben Foster), the alcoholic and troubled son of Harry, soon gets involved, wishing to take down those responsible. He is accepted by Bishop to be his protege. He is originally not aware that Bishop had killed his father, however he soon develops his own suspicions. He is instructed to complete a series of training, before he is given his own assignment. The plot is quite well developed and there was definitely room for the emotional struggles of regret and revenge to work their way into the story, but the latter half abandons the characters and is full of sporadic brutal violence, awful dialogue (at times) and an array of action genre cliches. The interrelation between Statham and Foster is quite enjoyable and their solid performances certainly drive the film, but they become just vehicles of methodical violence and incredible escapism. Foster is actually much better than his character is written to be. The Mechanic will please action fans, but there is no reason why this film needed to be made.

My Rating: 2 Stars (D+)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Releases 24/03

Continuing the weekly updates, here are today's cinema releases:

Red Riding Hood: Pros: Amanda Seyfried, Cons: directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight).
What could have been a chilling take on the Little Red Riding Hood fable seems to be another predictable teen-directed romance/horror that is set to feature every horror cliche under the moon. Seyfried is gorgeous and a frequently magnetic performer and Gary Oldman is usually good (although his choices recently have been puzzling), but I imagine this is one to steer clear of.

Rotten Tomatoes: 11% (ouch!)

The Mechanic: Yet another action film starring Jason Statham. These get so old. In this one he plays Arthur Bishop, a 'mechanic' - an elite assassin with a strict code and a unique talent for cleanly eliminating targets. When his mentor and close friend Harry (Donald Sutherland) is murdered, he self-imposes his next assignment. He wants those responsible dead. He finds himself a partner when Harry's son (a usually outstanding Ben Foster) approaches him with the same agenda and reveals he is determined to learn Bishops trade. It is a re-make of an old Charles Bronson film. I'm sure the performances will be solid, and there will be more than enough high-octane action and explosions, but this looks fairly dumb. If you have seen one Statham action flick, you have seen them all.

Rotten Tomatoes: 53%

Biutiful: Generating very mixed reviews, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's (Amores Perros, Babel) latest film received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Feature, as did Javier Bardem for Lead Actor. The film documents the journey of Uxbal (Bardem) who struggles to reconcile fatherhood, love, spirituality, crime, guilt and morality amidst the dangerous underworld of modern Barcelona. It sounds fairly contrived, grim and overlong (147 minutes), but it could be redeemed by Bardem's performance.

Rotten Tomatoes: 65%

Barney's Version: Paul Giamatti won the Golden Globe for his performance here. The film takes the viewer on a ride through the life and memories of Barney Panofsky, a hard drinking, cigar-smoking, foul mouthed hockey fanatic and television producer, as he reflects his life's success and failures. Dustin Hoffman and Rosamund Pike co-star. Could be worth a look. Giamatti is always excellent.

Rotten Tomatoes: 80%

Waiting for Superman: From director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) comes this impassioned indictment of the growing problems connected with the school system in the United States. Reports are that it is "gripping, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful." Will only have a limited release though.

Rotten Tomatoes: 89%

Weekly Recommendation: Waiting for Superman.

Short Review: Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 19209)

I recently watched Man With A Movie Camera, the 1929 Soviet silent masterpiece from director Dziga Vertov. Utilizing a distinct avant-garde style, the film is comprised of an incredible encapsulation of individual shots that document humanity's interaction with the machinery of modern life in Odessa and other Soviet cities. At various intervals throughout the film there are shots of a cameraman setting up his camera at different locations, and the footage we are viewing I took to be the captures of this man. The random collection of footage, which feels strangely narrative-like in it's construction, is spellbinding. The often startling intensity of the captures and the brilliant editing (by Vertov's wife Elizaveta Svilova) sends you into a trance-like state. Utilizing a series of cinematic techniques that could very well have been invented by Vertov, the film is a stark, experimental journey. The version I saw was accompanied by the soundtrack by The Cinematic Orchestra, and I thought it worked perfectly. While the images are a marvel in their own right, I think the experience was certainly enhanced by the audio accompaniment. Man With A Movie Camera is a must-see. Much like Eisenstein's brilliant work in Strike and The Battleship Potemkin, early Soviet cinema and the use of montage editing by their filmmakers has proven to be one of the most groundbreaking achievements in cinematic history.

My Rating: 5 Stars

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Classic 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' Moment

In my opinion this is not just one of the best sequences from the brilliant 7th season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but one of the best moments in the history of the show. Leaves me in hysterics every time.

Classic Throwback: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

I had never seen the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I had seen scenes from the dire 2003 re-make starring Jessica Biel. I can now happily cross it off my list of films I intended to see by the end of the year. I was actually quite surprised by the evidently low budget. This is a very effective independent B-Grade slasher flick, whose relevance to and influence within the horror genre is unmistakable.

The film follows five young people on a road trip through Texas. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her invalid brother, Franklin (Paul A. Partain) travel with three of Sally's friends; Jerry, Kirk and Pam. They are seeking out the graveyard where the body of Sally and Franklin's grandfather is buried, and to investigate some recent reports of corpse removal and defilement in the area. Their intention is to continue to an old Hardesty homestead where the siblings had grown up. On the way they pick up a mentally-challenged hitchhiker, who acts bizarrely and laughs hysterically. He slices both his hand and Frankin's arm with a razor before being bustled out of the van. Shaken up by the confrontation with the man, the group stops at a gas station, only to be informed by the attendant that the station is out of gas. Despite the warnings deterring them from driving up to the old homestead, they decide to make for the shelter, and return for gas when they leave. Once they arrive and split up to explore the surrounding property, you can guess what happens.

The moment we are first revealed to the hulk-like Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) is a truly terrifying sequence. Kirk, after knocking repeatedly, enters a nearby house in search of gas for their van. He is grabbed suddenly by the huge masked figure and beaten. Pam's attempt to find Kirk reveals that the house is littered with human and animal bones, and that the furniture has been constructed out of human remains. Clearly the work of cannibals. Pam is impaled on a meat hook and forced to watch as  Leatherface takes his chainsaw to Kirk. The remaining group is terrorized by the chainsaw-wielding lunatic, but also the return of the Hitchhiker (who happens to be Leatherface's brother) and the gas station proprietor. They are a family of cannibals responsible for the nearby corpse removal.

The character of Leatherface and minor plot details are based on the murders committed by the 1950's Wisconsin murderer, Ed Gein, also the inspiration for other horror films such as Psycho (1960) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a created a huge cultural impact, most notably in the work of Rob Zombie and his film House of 1000 Corpses (2003). Am I one of the few people to have liked this and its sequel The Devil's Rejects (2005)? Often considered amongst the scariest horror films ever made, it is described as being distinctly better than the genre requires it to be. Also labeled as a paradigmatic exploitation film (the women are subjected to sadistic violence) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has drawn controversy, been edited down to a 77-minute version on multiple occasions and even banned in Australia for its high intensity gratuitous violence. The 84 minute directors cut is now available, and certainly the copy to watch. While I doubt I will sit through it again too soon, the horrific elements of this film have certainly become etched in the conscious of cinemagoers. 

My Rating: 4 Stars

A film I was reminded of after watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was Sean Byrne's impressive 2010 Australian horror debut feature, The Loved Ones. I reviewed the film back in November, but few critics saw it. 
"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." (3/5)

Desert Island CD - 12 Tracks From Movie Soundtracks I Love

Castor and the loyal community over at Anomalous Material have been creating their personal Desert Island CD's.  

"The concept is simple: You are stranded on a desert island with just one CD to listen to (and miraculously a neolithic CD player). What are 12 tracks you most desperately want to have on that CD? The only requirement is that each track comes from a movie soundtrack." 

I was interested in what I could personally come up with, so I decided to make my own.

 1. "Adagio for Strings" by Samuel Barber from Platoon

2. "Fargo, North Dakota" by Carter Burwell from Fargo 

 3. "In the House, In a Heartbeat" by John Murphy from 28 Days Later 

 4. "Pusherman" by Curtis Mayfield from Superfly

5. "El Tango De Roxanne" from Moulin Rouge

 6. "La Valse de Amelie" from Amelie 

 7. "If You Want Me" by Marketa Iglova from Once

8. "California Dreaming" by The Mamas and the Papas from Chungking Express

9. "I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow" by The Soggy Bottom Boys from O Brother Where Art Thou

10. "In the Hall of the Mountain King" remixed by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor from The Social Network

 11. "First we Take Manhattan" by Leonard Cohen from Watchmen

12. "The End" by The Doors from Apocalypse Now

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

New Release Review: Limitless (Neil Burger, 2011)

Limitless, the new film starring Bradley Cooper is an absorbing technological thriller about a struggling writer who becomes an overnight genius due to the effects of an unproven but extremely powerful brain enhancing pill. The film is directed by Neil Burger and adapted by Leslie Dixon from Alan Glynn's 2001 novel, The Dark Fields. Limitless also stars Abbie Cornish and Robert De Niro.

The central plot follows Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), an uninspired writer living in New York City. Having grown disheveled and frustrated by his chronic writers block, he misses the deadline to turn in his new novel and his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) breaks up with him. The very same day he runs into his ex-wife's brother, Vernon Grant (Johnny Whitworth), on the street. Still a drug dealer, Vernon has come into possession of an unproven pharmaceutical drug (NZT-48) that drastically increases the brain's ability to focus, and allows the user to recall anything they have ever read, seen or heard. Eddie finds that he can finally reach his full potential and is able to accomplish anything. Surprised by the results of the pill, which endowed Eddie with a motivation previously lacking, he completes part of the novel, with quality results. Driven by the limitless potential for success he seeks out Vernon for more of the pills.

It becomes very clear that the trade of these drugs is illegal, a fact made shockingly evident to Eddie when he finds Vernon murdered, and his house turned upside down. Stumbling across his hidden stash, Eddie, quite stupidly, takes a large supply of pills and money from Vernon's apartment. He doesn't take into account the likelihood that the searching party will wonder what happened to the pills, and what he personally will do when his stash runs out. It wouldn't take a genius to find Eddie, whose rise to fame is made very public. Eddie turns to heavily using and transforms himself into a brilliant financial consultant for powerful Wall Street businessman Carl Von Loon (Robert De Niro). He finishes his novel in just four days, makes a quick fortune off the stock market and becomes a womanizing genius with the world at his feet. That is, until he starts experiencing the side effects of his addiction (mental restlessness and memory lapses) and becomes the target of powerful Wall Street moguls and ruthless Russian mobsters.

The film is certainly absorbing and fast-paced, not taking long to throw the protagonist into his often thrilling conundrum. We never really discover anything about his writing background, or why he is struggling to write. He is just a New Yorker struggling to live the American Dream. A little clear pill changed all that for him. Within minutes he is feeling the effects of the drug, and you wonder where the film will go, and just how far-fetched it will become. This high-concept idea is intriguing and interesting, but pretty poorly handled. He must choose between continuing to take the drug and risk permanent damage to the mental faculties upon withdrawal, or throw away the success he has built for himself whilst under it's life-altering influence. To demonstrate his various mind altering states, Neil Burger uses an assortment of Fish Eye zoom shots to document Eddie's memory lapses and time jolts. There is never a dull moment and the hyper-kinetic camerawork gives the overall atmosphere a surreality. In one particular sequence, Eddie has an eighteen hour blackout period, which is captured through a montage of him being blindly transported to different locations around town, without his awareness of how he got there. He ends up in a violent brawl, dancing in a seedy nightclub, and possibly linked to the murder of a socialite. His head starts throbbing, he regularly vomits, and his credibility as a consultant is questioned by Von Loon. While he is able to draw together ingenious concepts and successfully navigate complex data, his abilities also stretch to being able to recall and replicate Kung-fu fighting techniques, and the ability to learn a language with just seconds of exposure. It all seems a bit too much. Lots of wild ideas to fuel the concept, but nothing to explain some of the more glaring plot holes.

Bradley Cooper is a good looking and charismatic man, and well cast as the suave, ambitious, young broker. But can he be a convincing leading man? Many would not agree, and I don't think the film has enough substance to be able to draw any real range from his character. He starts out as a socially inept writer, who has an incredibly hot girlfriend he doesn't seem to deserve. There's a good looking man there somewhere, but his pale, pasty skin and long matted hair is used to distinguish him as a failing loser. As soon as he becomes successful, he has his hair cut, his eyes sparkle and the whole hue of the image is given a golden glow. The transformation is accentuated in the visuals, and this is where the film is the most impressive. The color contrast is altered to match his drug-infused existence. He not only manages to sleep with lots of women, who are impressed by his charming qualities, but he also begins seeing Lindy again.

While Cooper is solid in the leading role, proving to be a perfectly capable lead, none of the supports are given much to do. The talented Australian actress Abbie Cornish is quite good in the few scenes where she is involved, while Robert De Niro certainly gives one of his better recent performances. Thomas Arana is commonly cast in the role of a shady villain, and his work as The Man in the Tan Coat is fairly ridiculous. I wasn't sold on the narration either, which recounts the entire story from his climactic decision to jump from his penthouse. It does endow the film with moments of humor, and provides insight into his character that the actions of the film fail to reveal. While the film is centered on some very smart people, they do some pretty outrageous things, and the overall IQ of the film is pretty low. Solid performances, inventive camerawork and an intriguing premise make this watchable and absorbing, but it certainly has its own 'limitations'.

My Rating: 2 1/2 Stars (C-)

Turning 23

Jim Halpert: What is that? [Points to Dwight's banner] "It is your birthday" period.
Dwight Schrute: It's a statement of fact.
Jim Halpert: Not even an exclamation point?
Dwight Schrute: This is more professional! It's not like she discovered a cure for cancer!

Today is my birthday. I'm 23. A nothing age. 21 is growing distant, but I haven't hit the late twenties. Still, I wonder if I am where I want to be at this age. Who ever makes it to be where they want to be, really? I have no real plans today, but I was thinking I should treat myself to agreat film I have never seen. A few years ago I remember seeing Before the Devil Knows You're Dead at the cinema. I was quite hungover after a big party the night before. Great film. Last year I watched 500 Days of Summer for the first time. Great film.

Does anybody have any suggestions or recommendations for a film I should watch on my birthday? I'll also take this opportunity to thank everyone who continues to read and support my blog. You're all awesome.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The World's Greatest Extra

I was made aware of this Youtube clip by a friend of mine. It's a hilarious montage of an extra who has made appearances in just about everything. I personally remember him from and episode of Entourage (Comic Con) but I had no idea he was in so many films and television shows. It's a riot. Check it out!

Friday, March 18, 2011

My Need-To-See-Before-The-End-Of-2011 List

I need to see more films made before the 1980's and I have made it my goal to see each of these films some time during the course of the rest of the year: 

Sherlock, Jr. ("Fatty Arbuckle" and Buster Keaton, 1924)

The Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)

The Public Enemy (William A. Wellman, 1931)

Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932)

King Kong (Merian C. Cooper, 1933)

It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)

The Thin Man (W.S Van Dyke, 1934)

The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935)

Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938)

Mr Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939)

The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)

The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)

The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940)

Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)

Ivan the Terrible Parts I and II (Sergei Eisenstein, 1944)

The Red Shoes (Michael Powell, 1948)

The Treasure of Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948)

All About Eve (Joseph L. Makiewicz, 1950)

Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952)

Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953)

The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)

12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)

Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959)

Breakfast at Tiffany's (Blake Edwards, 1961)

Jules and Jim (Francois Truffaut, 1962)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962)

Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)

Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)

IF... (Lindsay Anderson, 1968)

The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)

Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1969)

Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971)

The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971)

Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)

Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)

Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1974)

Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)

1900 (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1976)

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)

Short Review: The Invention of Lying (Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson, 2009)

The Invention of Lying marks the directorial debut of Ricky Gervais (Co-creator of BBC's The Office and Extras), sharing the writing and direction duties with Matthew Robinson. It is a largely unsuccessful romantic comedy fueled by the high concept idea that all of the characters live in an alternate reality where nobody has the ability to lie and everything spoken or thought is the absolute truth. In this world people continually make blunt and hurtful statements that would normally be kept to themselves. There exists no concepts of fiction, imagination or speculation, the film and television industry is restricted to lecture-style readings, and there is a complete absence of organized religion.

Mark Bellison (Gervais) is an unsuccessful lecture-film writer whose life is falling apart. He is ridiculed by his colleagues, fired from his job and is evicted from his apartment. Depressed and requiring $800 dollars to cover rent he goes to the bank to close his account and use his remaining money to move. When the teller informs him that the systems are down, he suddenly has an epiphany (an ability to lie) and tells her that he has $800 dollars in his account. Believing him to be telling the truth, she gives him the money. Amazed by his discovery, he begins to test his new ability in various ways, and his life begins to change forever. He manages to prevent his friend Greg (Louis C.K) from being arrested for DUI, he wins a large sum of money at the casino, stops his neighbor (Jonah Hill) from committing suicide and convinces his beautiful last date (Jennifer Garner) to go out with him once again. Life seems to be perfect for Mark, that is until he decides to inform the world about the idea of Heaven.

Overall The Invention of Lying is pretty disappointing. While I didn't know what to expect from Gervais' first attempt at direction, overall it wasn't too bad. Where the film struggled was the maintain the extremity of the idea. It is a clever and inventive idea for a narrative; it draws some early laughs and builds the world quite well. But as the film progresses, the inconsistencies in the concept begin to emerge regularly and the plot quickly unravels, taking a wild detour into an ill-conceived religious satire. Ricky Gervais, whose work on The Office is incredible, is a fantastic comedic performer when reacting to awkward situations and surrounded by other proficient comedic actors. He can turn it into a one-man show, but in the case of The Invention of Lying, the supports are essential to his character. While I enjoyed his improvisation, there was very little chemistry between Gervais and Jennifer Garner, and the romantic angle felt schematic and synthetic. I also enjoyed the small cameos from Phillip Seymour-Hoffman and Edward Norton but Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development) and Tina Fey (30 Rock) failed to live up to their immense talents. The jokes become too one-dimensional and the film is transformed into a romantic drama by the conclusion, somewhat unexpected, but far from satisfying. While the clever pokes at religion and the afterlife have their moments I never found myself absorbed in the story or felt any real emotion towards any of the characters. While I guess we were supposed to root for the loser claiming the spoils and winning the girl, the means are so ridiculous that we find ourselves loathing him for his selfish abuse of his 'ability'. Not the quality of comedy we have come to expect from Gervais, I'd recommend checking out Ghost Town instead.

My Rating: 2 Stars 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Releases 17/03

There are four notable releases today:

Battle: Los Angeles - This month's alien invasion film. When Earth's major cities all around the world are attacked by unknown alien forces. Los Angeles becomes the last stand for mankind, and it's up to Marine Staff Sergeant (Aaron Eckhart) and his new platoon to defend the city. Likely to lack any semblance of a plot or character, it still sounds like it could be an epic visual spectacle. Except I expect we will have seen it many times before. The film's direction, screenplay, editing and overall sense are all being severely criticized. I doubt it's worth it.

Rotten Tomatoes: 33%

Limitless - Aspiring author Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is suffering from chronic writer's block, but his life changes instantly when an old friend introduces him to NZT, a revolutionary new pharmaceutical drug that allows him to tap into his full potential. With every single synapse crackling, Eddie can recall everything he has ever read, seen or heard, learn any language in a day, comprehend complex equations and beguile anyone he long as he continues to take the untested drug. Many are still debating whether Bradley Cooper can successfully be a leading man, but this could be the film that ends the skepticism. Abbie Cornish and Robert De Niro co-star. A seemingly well-directed film with an intriguing central idea, this could be worth checking out.

Rotten Tomatoes: 63%

Griff the Invisible - By day Griff (Ryan Kwanten) is an everyday office worker, in an everyday town. He lives a secluded life, bullied by his co-workers, with his protective brother his only friend. By night Griff assumes his other identity, roaming the dark streets protecting the innocent and the vulnerable from the dangers that lurk in the shadows - he is the hero, 'Griff the Invisible'. Increasingly concerned by Griff's eccentric behavior, his brother attempts to draw him back to the 'real world'. In doing so he introduces Griff to Melody (Maeve Dermody), an equally eccentric and charming girl. Griff the Invisible is a fresh, highly original Australian romantic comedy from the wildly fertile imagination of debut film writer/director Leon Ford. The film had it's world premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, and is filmed on location close to my Sydney home. Definitely worth a look.

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

The Reef - The Reef is an Australian horror film which tells the tale of the crew of a capsized sailboat on the Great Barrier Reef who are repeatedly hunted by a Great White Shark. The Reef is distributed by Gold Coast Film Fantastic Ltd. and written and directed by Andrew Traucki (Black Water). Featuring a quality cast including Adrienne Pickering, Zoe Taylor and Gyton Grantley, the reviews have been largely positive, and this promises to be a taut, suspenseful and chilling Aussie creature flick.

Rotten Tomatoes: 88%

Weekly Recommendation: Griff the Invisible.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Matt Damon's 10 Greatest Performances

Back in 1996, at just 23 years of age, Mr Damon is thin and nearly unrecognizable in Courage Under Fire. This was the role that spurred his big first big break into Hollywood. At the same time he was co-writing the screenplay for the 1997 release Good Will Hunting with Ben Affleck. He starred in the lead role and has never looked back since, swiftly rising into one of the industry's most reliable, likable and sought after stars. In the same year as Good Will Hunting he was the lead in Francis Ford Coppola's excellent adaptation of the John Grisham novel, The Rainmaker, and starred as James Francis Ryan in Spielberg's incredible WWII film Saving Private Ryan in 1998. At just 25 of year of age he had worked with some of the world's greatest directors, and was already an Oscar winner (original screenplay for Good Will Hunting). He has built working relationships with Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting and Gerry), Steven Soderbergh (The Oceans Trilogy, The Informant) Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum, Greenzone) and most recently Clint Eastwood (Invictus and Hereafter). Throw in some fine performances in The Talented Mr Ripley, Syriana, The Departed, True Grit and most recently The Adjustment Bureau and Mr Damon has one of the most impressive resumes in the business right now.

Here are Matt Damon's 10 Greatest Performances, in my opinion:

10. The Adjustment Bureau

9. Saving Private Ryan 

8. Syriana

7. Invictus

6. The Rainmaker

5. The Departed

4. The Informant

3. The Bourne Trilogy

2. The Talented Mr Ripley

1. Good Will Hunting

What do you think are Matt Damon's finest performances?

New Release Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest (Daniel Alfredson, 2010)

Swedish thriller The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest is the final screen adaptation of Stieg Larsson's highly popular Millenium Series, following The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire. More novels were believed to follow, but the Swedish journalist and author prematurely passed away. The lengthy final film, like the disappointing second installment, is directed by Daniel Alfredson, and directly follows the events of the preceding film. For those who haven't seen the first two films of the series, this review and the film experience itself will make very little sense. They were written to be read as a series, and the films work the same way.

Following her violent meeting with her father, Zalachenko, Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) is found barely alive by Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist) and hospitalized in Gothenburg. Zalachenko, who had suffered an axe wound to the head, also survives and is taken to the same hospital where he recovers in a room down the hall. Lisbeth will sit trial for the attempted murder of her father. Blomqvist begins investigating Lisbeth's unwarranted commitment to the mental hospital at age twelve and begins to question the continued unfair treatment of her character by the Swedish authorities. Lisbeth had once before attempted to kill her father, after finally succumbing to years of his abuse towards her and her mother. Zalachenko remained unpunished for his sins, protected because of his notoriety as a Soviet defector and spy. He is the man responsible for The Section, a group within the Secret Police formed to cover up Zalachenko's misdeeds, including Lisbeth's wrongful commitment to the asylum and subsequent declaration of legal incompetence upon release. Everything tragic that has happened to this woman, including her societal alienation and vicious rape depicted in the first film, is because of this. Blomqvist begins building her trial defense and asks his sister Annika to be Lisbeth's lawyer.

Former corrupt colleagues of Zalachenko meet and discuss how to proceed with the situation. To avoid risking the revelation of their involvement they decide to silence both Zalachenko and Lisbeth, sending a crippled elderly member suffering from liver cancer to the hospital to assassinate them. He kills Zalachenko and after unsuccessfully getting to Lisbeth, he shoots himself. The blond-haired hit man, Niedermann, becomes a fugitive wanted by the authorities at first for the murder of a police officer, starts on a violent rampage across Sweden, seeking a way to reach Lisbeth. Blomqvist find himself working alongside a team of police investigators, and frequently collaborating with his editor, Erika Berger (Lena Endre), to have the story ready for publishing by the time of her trial. They begin following several members of The Section and as they delve deeper Erika starts receiving threatening emails deterring her from publishing the article. Under the instructions of the police, the publication, which is a pieced together account of Lisbeth's life able to prove her innocence, must be delayed long enough to ensure the successful arrest of key members of The Section, placing the Millennium Magazine team at risk. Lisbeth, via a mobile phone smuggled in by her doctor, documents her account of personal mistreatment to Blomqvist, and is transferred to a prison to await her trial. Despite the threats against Millennium, Mikael decides to publish the edition anyway. The film culminates in a series of lengthy trial sequences, cut in parallel to the police arrests of members of The Section, as the evidence of Lisbeth's mistreatment is revealed to the eagerly awaiting world.

What I enjoyed about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and what was clearly missing from Hornets Nest, was the genuine mystery at the heart of the story. The individual plot elements of the mismatched pair were quite interesting and relatively engaging. Here there is nothing remotely surprising and the series concludes in the only logical way possible. We know Lisbeth is a victim of mistreatment and innocent of the crimes, and we know those responsible. All of the suspense arises through a race to complete a publication and resist the powerful forces trying to quash it. It is hardly enough. The moments when Lisbeth and Mikael collaborate their talents on screen together are certainly the best. Since the end of the first film though, rarely have they shared the screen. Blomqvist always seemed to be a step behind Lisbeth in The Girl Who Played With Fire, and now he finds himself fighting to prove her innocence and uncover a vast government conspiracy that stretches to dangerous sectors of the Secret Police. Most of The Section members are grizzly old men, who meet and panic about their impending rexposure in dimly lit offices and boardrooms. We never find them intimidating or remember any of their names, nor do we really care who they are. All we know is that these are the men responsible for keeping Zalachenko arrest-free all these years, and the men trying desperately to have Lisbeth prosecuted. In addition to Lisbeth's passive arc, the woman is trapped for almost the entire film in a confine (a hospital ward followed by a prison cell), and Mikael's active ongoing investigation, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest is riddled with puzzling subplots that add little to this cluttered and convoluted plot.

Despite introducing lots of characters, and cutting actively between the arcs, nothing really happens. Running at nearly two and a half hours, it sure takes its time becoming an engaging thriller. While Lisbeth should be the center of the story, she is so removed from the action that it feels like she is barely involved. She doesn't even adorn her traditional piercings until late in the film. I found the Blomqvist plot to be the most interesting, as he scours through documents to unravel the conspiracy, and begins developing his article. There are several tense tracking sequences in the middle act that show some promise. Writers Jonas Frykberg and Ulf Ryberg have a pretty tough job just streamlining Larsson's dense narrative, but they manage to include the novel's most exciting moments. What isn't so impressive is the way these potentially exciting moments are conveyed. Lacking the activity of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the plot here is much too dialogue-heavy (and often woefully so) and completely void of any emotional weight that I would assume the novel successfully builds between the two protagonists. The early assassination sequence was so disengaging that I barely felt even a single burst of interest.

The most exciting scene is perhaps the final climactic fight between Lisbeth and the indestructible and troll-like Neidermann (a ridiculous character), in an abandoned brick factory of all places. It has some genuine tension, and Neidermann who is absent for the better part of the second half, makes his return. For the entire film his story seems unnecessary, and the final pay-off is less than satisfactory. You never know why he is still driven to kill Lisbeth, because he was formerly under the orders of Zalachenko, who is now dead. What manages to maintain our interest is the intriguing story of Lisbeth, and the series of court sequences that slowly reveal her tragic childhood, and point fingers at those responsible, notably naming and shaming The Sections choice psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Teleborian. Again, the performances of Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist are both solid, but the plodding narrative, and lack of directorial imagination (a fault you can assign to each of the films) fail to transform this page-turning novel into a memorable screen adaptation. I really hope new life is given to the soon-to-be-released American re-makes. With Fincher's involvement, I am confident a 'great' series is possible.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - 3 1/2 Stars
The Girl Who Played With Fire - 2 Stars

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest - 2 Stars (C-)