Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Best Films I Saw in April

I watched a total of 22 films in April.

New Releases (Cinema): The Lincoln Lawyer (Brad Furman, 2011), In A Better World (Susanne Bier, 2010), Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010), Sucker Punch (Zach Snyder, 2011), How I Ended This Summer (Alexei Popogrebski, 2010), Paul (Greg Mottola, 2011), Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010), Arthur (Jason Winer, 2011), Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011)

Watched for the First Time (DVD): 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957), Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1969), The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972), All the Presidents Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976), Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979), The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986), Scream (Wes Craven, 1996), Maelstrom (Denis Villeneuve, 2000), Boy A (John Crowley, 2007), Un Prophete [A Prophet] (Jacques Audiard, 2009)

Rewatched (DVD): An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981), Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985), Date Night (Shawn Levy, 2010)

Must Watch from April

12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)

Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1969)

All the Presidents Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)

Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)

Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

Un Prophete [A Prophet] (Jacques Audiard, 2009)

In A Better World (Susanne Bier, 2010)

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010)

Tally for the year to date - April (22), March (26), February (19), January (35) = 102 Films

Friday, April 29, 2011

Alteration of the Time-Image in Contemporary Cinema: Fight Club, Memento and Mulholland Drive

*Warning: this article contains spoilers for Fight Club, Memento, Mulholland Drive and The Usual Suspects *

"Time in contemporary cinema is not a means to an end but has become an end in itself" is a quote taken from Temenuga Trifinova's 'Time and Point of View in Contemporary Cinema'. With predominant reference to David Fincher's Fight Club (1999), Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000) and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001) and with a critical analysis of the role of flashback in contemporary cinema, I will closely examine this trend. Trifanova, in his now influential article, has taken up the concept of the relationship between the action-image and the time-image, first developed by Deleuze, and has identified a dramatic shift in the history of the time-image. Contemporary filmmakers, and in particular those working in the late 1990’s and early 21st Century, have chosen to adopt a fascinating and now contagious new role for the flashback. As a result, we now have films where the action is subordinated to time and a marginalisation and complication of the action image present within the films.

From Deleuze: "It is characteristic of cinema to seize (the) past and (the) future that coexist with the present image. To film what is before and what is after...perhaps it is necessary to make what is before and after the film pass inside it in order to get out of the chain of presents." This idea, adopted and developed by Trifanova, is essential when examining contemporary films and their disjunction of time. Trifanova describes cinema of the 'time image' as a cinema of duration, whether psychological duration (emphasising the characters' inability to act) or of the duration of things (the characters' failure to act allows things and events to express themselves independently of the character's subjective interpretation of them). It is this second definition that applies to the films in this analysis. As such, the actions of the past are often recounted or recollected either through face-to-face testimony, or through the elements of voice over, flashback imagery or a dream.

When we are revealed to a subjective flashback, as usually the case, we assume as we view the recollection that the past is resolved, that the recollection is faithful (true) and that the past is not only simply available to the present narrative of the film, but also significantly linked. Each of the selected films complicates various assumptions about the relation of the past/present (time) and expresses a conscious anterior field that is often overtaken by a "waking dream", altered only through different concepts about subjectivity and time. Further, in Fight Club, Memento and Mulholland Drive each of the accounts are subject to speculation due to the obviously affected mental states of each of the protagonists. So, to examine the new trend of the flashback, we must compare these films to earlier examples that have used able-minded protagonists and utilised the flashback in a different way. Here I will talk about Rashomon (1950) and also mention the brilliant clouding of past/present judgement in Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects (1995). 

The flashback is most commonly used as a technique for imparting information to the audience about a character's motivation of his/her past; however in many contemporary films, this flashback runs for almost the entire running time of the film. Trifanova writes that "time is no longer that through which people reveal themselves (time as change) but rather as a source of confusion between the real and the imaginary." The presence of the imaginary may emerge from a malfunctioning memory, from a discrepancy of POV from which the story is told or an incongruity between the levels of knowledge and consciousness of the protagonist. Memento makes visible the powerful importance of memory in separating real from imaginary events, while Fight Club demonstrates a mistaken view of reality through hallucination. The actions of Jack/Cornelius throughout the film are embedded in a fantasy world, not far removed from the real world, not far removed from the real world, but misjudging his involvement. 

From Edward Branigan: "Narration can be described as the textual activity of telling and receiving through which a narrative is realised. Subjectivity then, may be conceived as a specific instance or level of narration where the telling is attributed to a character in the narrative and received by us as if we were the situation of the character." In a film like Fight Club, there exists two levels of narration integrated through the body of a single character, who may address the audience through a specific way (such as the voice-over) as well as participating in the story world where the character is oblivious to story (visuals). There can be the inclusion of superimpositions that make the total POV specify a separate reality. What else is a 'dream' or a 'memory' but a way of thinking about a reality? Often, misguided memory and presence of the "waking dream" challenge the reliability of a subjective reality. Films in which the memory plays a significant role, both as subject matter and as strategy for telling the story, such as Rashomon or The Usual Suspects, and in a much more complex sense, Memento, are problematic to the possibility of the narrative, particularly the relationship between events in time and the accurate account of these events. 

The use of flashback and the management of time in contemporary films are often open to discrepancy, and different to what I will refer to as "classical" flashback films. One such example is Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), where many different versions of the same event are considered. There is not a discrepancy in the characters mental states or memory; the truth is hidden through the act of a lie. The expression of the flashback is simple and straightforward, utilising voice-over by the character and a cross-cutting between the recounting and the visual representation of the account. The film has remained revolutionary in the creation of the multi-narrative and multi-POV film. In more contemporary film we now often experience the subjective POV of one character, through an interior monologue, rather than the accounts of numerous characters. While the differing accounts in Rashomon bring us no closer to the real truth, how can we accept what we are seeing if we are only subjected to one POV, such as in Fight Club? How are we to accept Leonard's story? Teddy, a man proven throughout the film to be a manipulative liar, challenges Leonard's claim that his wife died from the rape. The audience's realisation of the true events is delayed, just as Jack's and Leonard's are. 

In the debate about the action-image, we can distinguish that Rashomon does not resort to confusing the action-image, but a simple event is purposely retold differently in the character's testimony. The action does not occur outside the conscious level of the characters, and their realisation of the truth is not subject to a lapse in time. The mental state of a character is at issue when the viewer discovers that a flashback is false, and as an audience, we witness something that never occurred. Like in Rashomon, the character is motivated not by memory but by a desire to 'cover' the truth. A more contemporary example of this kind of film is Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects where the audience receives the testimony of 'one' character throughout the film. This is not a man who is mentally challenges, but an extremely clever man capable of weaving a believable cover story. Mulholland Drive is another example, as Diane Selwyn attempts to cover up her involvement in an assassination by creating an alternate reality through a 'dream', which we witness and believe to be a portrayal of true events. Plots of this type are constructed to hide a surprise or provide a twist to shock the audience and rely on misdirection, or in some cases, lying. 

A narrative event perceived in the past, which must be placed in respect to other events by the viewer, is justified by character memory (the subjective flashback) and hence prone to different modes of interpretation and representation. Leonard, Tyler and Diane are all, on some level, destructive characters but presented in sympathetic terms. When we are revealed that the story we have witnessed is false or altered through the subjective POV, we see that their actions have been subordinated to a displacement in time and our perceptions are changed. American Beauty (1999), narrated by Kevin Spacey's character, Lester Burnham, features him as being already dead and therefore presenting the entire film as a flashback. Fight Club, released in the same year, utilises voice-over to recount the extended flashback sequence. In the years that have followed, voice-over has once again becomes an acceptable, even common device, with Charlie Kaufmann finally poking fun at the ironclad Hollywood 'rule' in his 2002 films Adaptation. His self-referref character, Charles Kaufman, sits in a seminar where his thoughts are heard through voice-over as Robert McKee (portrayed by Brian Cox) is shouting that only an idiot would use voice-over as a device in a movie to explain the thoughts of a character. In films such as Fight Club, Memento and American Psycho (2000), where the present calls to the past to display a single protagonist POV, this feature is a necessary step in relaying thematic concerns in relation to the present motives of the characters but also to highlight their pasts, in a way that the "new role of flashback" also does. 

To simply imply the meaning of 'time is an end in itself', The Usual Suspects, Fight Club and Memento all 'begin' at the conclusion with the time-image ended - and the entire film consists of sequences of flashback that provide meaning to this point of origin. The idea of the flashback is to take you into time as a means of explaining details of the present. What is confusing, but ultimately successful about Fight Club's use of flashback is that it is from two opposing subjective (and albeit flawed) point-of-views. We expect the narrative to be told from the POV of Jack/Cornelius. However, the voice-over belongs to Tyler, at the stage at the beginning of the films where Jack knows he is Tyler. Therefore the image and the corresponding voice-over represent two different, oppositional POV. How can we possibly take the visual component of the film as being representative of the true events? But as an audience, we do. We see the events as Jack is revealed to them and we do not pick up on the clues that he ignores, including the flashes on Tyler in Jack's visions. The final twist at the end, where it is revealed that Jack and Tyler are essentially the same person (Tyler Durden) we receive the same shock that the main protagonist receives. In this sense a real space is connected to an imaginary space (the imaginary alternative being produced by a psychologically inept insomniac). 

Lacan's conception of schizophrenia is "a breakdown of the signifying chain and an interlocking syntagmatic series of signifiers," which is identified in Fight Club through a state of insomnia, or the inability to feel or express one's true emotions. Jack 'meets' Tyler Durden, who draws him further and further into a violent resistance against the culture that has spawned his meaningless consumerist life. Fight Club explores a falsification of the past and the protagonist recalls characters and imagined events as distinctly lived events. Jack/Cornelius is in a state between wakefulness and sleep (link to Bergson's idea of the concept of the conscious dream) and we are recounted a false reading of the events through flashback. To provide a commentary on the temporal structuring of Fight Club, there exists anonymity in time; it is impossible to determine the time between events and how long Jack has been drifting in and out of his hallucinatory 'waking dream'. The action is not associated to any period of time, as time is ambiguously presented throughout the narrative account, making Fight Club a perfect illustration of the new wave of flashback cinema. 

To further complicate Fight Club, as Nolan does in Memento, time flows in two opposite directions; visually it flows forwards, but narratively (through the voice-over) time flows backwards. Throughout Memento the character of Leonard Shelby is lodged inextricably in the past, dominated by a single memory, in a state of consciousness where he interprets all things and acts in all situations according to this single image from his past. All memories since that time are almost immediately wiped from his brain, with traces of memory left in his tattoos and photographs. Cementing its hold on the main character, the event is retold and referred to endlessly through flashback. Does it disguise from the audience another story? Focusing on the idea of "time being an end in itself" Memento begins at the end and "when the story moves forwards, it is in fact recreating events in light of a predetermined end, and whenever the story moves backwards, it takes the form of a discovery or an exploration of the past. 

An examination of the time-image is extremely important because the narrative not only progresses backwards, but events from the past (forgotten by Leonard) solve the mysteries of what we have previously seen in the film. The black and white flashes of memory progress forward in an ambiguous and disassociated time period, but flow into the events that begin the colour scenes (at the end of the film). The complicated presence of the action exists as kind of a 'ghost' lost in the presence of time. Leonard is killing people throughout the film but has no recollection of these acts. Leonard traps himself in the present, which is the very contrary of living in the present. Leonard's problem may actually be that he cannot bear to remember, and therefore has to remember to forget. Leonard's past and his identity become entirely dependent upon a network of mediation, which at the conclusion, casts doubt upon the 'truth' of both Leonard's identity and his experience as he conceives of them. Trifanova observes, "his realisation at the end that he has been lying to himself takes only a few seconds, where he consciously decides to continue lying to himself" and restarts himself on a freshly destructive and denying path. 

It is impossible to know how much time has transpired since the incident causing Leonard's memory loss. Leonard's memory is "an image relentlessly exploring time where people and things occupy a place in time which is incommensurable with the one they have in space" (Diran Lyons). A coherence or intelligibility of the flashback depends on a reference to the condition of memory. To develop from the condition of memory (so pronounced in Memento) elements of a textual present, past or future may be defined only with respect to some other point in the text. They are the result of the text's power to sequence. This is what makes Memento such an intriguing film because events in the  past, which become increasingly important as the film progresses and tracks backwards, are not remembered by the protagonist. His subjective interpretation would be useless, so we are delivered these events from an alternate narrative source. Leonard still remains the film's main protagonist but the idea of the time-image and the narrative POV cannot function as normal, which is a key feature of Trifanova's argument. 

Martha Nohimson suggests that David Lynch in Mulholland Drive pursues dreams by "making the logical temporal, spatial and psychological mechanisms of ordinary narrative defer to dream non-logic, which reflects the malleability of time, space and identity." The recollection of events in Mulholland Drive is partial, unreliable and fragmented with Diane Selwyn's character attempting the active processes of 'forgetting' and 'reconstructing.' The dream sequence that runs for almost the entirety of the film is an alternative view of the past (a cover-up of a truth) that Diane is ashamed to be involved with, hence her imagining of an alternative sequence of events. She presents herself in a new light that convinces her, or seeks to convince her, that she would not be capable of such an act. Many of the events and characters that we see in the dream part, reappear in the reality. Diane, as we are revealed at the conclusion, is on the brink of a mental breakdown and overcome by guilt, so she builds a fantasy in which she returns as Betty (the subject of her narrative) and begins a relationship with Rita (who formerly was Diane's lover, Camilla Rhodes). David Lynch's signature style of colour symbolism and portal-like structuring between the worlds of dream and reality is most apparent in Mulholland Drive in creating this effect. 

Films like Mulholland Drive and Fight Club suggest that the difference between "what happened" and "what must have happened" can no longer be reduced to the neat opposition between 'subjective' and 'objective'. We believe we see the events from Rita's POV but we later find out what we saw was a mixture of Diane's memories, nightmares and dreams. In Fight Club we believe we see the scenes as Jack has perceived them but we find out that it is Tyler's version of "what must have happened". Temporal boundaries of a flashback, ie when it starts and when it concludes, can be obscurely marked. Some of the greatest films of the last decade or so cinema have boldly stepped outside the boundaries constructed by earlier films and have altered the tradition of the action image. Particularly through the use of flashback, films do not contain the linear structure that was once so dominant, but have embedded different sequences of time within the narrative. It is the films included in this analysis that have been most successful at altering the time-image and essentially made "time an end in itself." 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Releases 28/04

Today in Australia there are no official new releases. With most studios deciding to release their films over the now completed school holidays, and for the Easter weekend, it results in a very quiet week. At my cinema, we actually get an Australian documentary called Mrs Carey's Concert. With such a busy week ahead of me, this will give me some time to catch up before Source Code hits cinemas on May 5. The only film currently released that I haven't seen and desire seeing, is Brighton Rock. I am currently reading the novel by Graham Greene, but I have heard so many negative responses to the adaptation that my desire to see it has waned also. For those looking to catch up on their cinema this weekend, the perfect place to start is with the extremely powerful Canadian film, Incendies. In A Better World, which looks as though it is playing for its final week, is also worth a look. Of the wide releases, Paul is your best bet.

Thanks for reading and happy viewing!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Short Review: Antichrist (Lars Von Trier, 2009)

Caution: this film may offend! Lars Von Trier's Antichrist is one of the most unsettling cinematic experiences you will ever put yourself through. Sure to remain with you for days after, the renowned Danish director demolishes all boundaries and has created a most haunting portrayal of the irrational nature of humanity. Recognisably, Antichrist is dedicated to the late Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, with the film's artistic execution heavily praised. The key thematic qualities of the film, on the other hand, have been met with hostile criticism.

Following the tragic death of their son, a grieving unnamed couple attempt to return to their normal lives. The wife (an astonishing performance from Charlotte Gainsbourg) is struggling to cope with the loss and the subsequent failure of medical treatments force her psychiatrist husband (Willem Dafoe, also outstanding) to try and cure her anxiety with his own radical methods. The man delves into her deepest fears in an attempt to make her realise that these can be confronted and beaten, in the hope that they can move on with their lives. The woman reveals that her darkest fears lie dormant in the woods of Eden, where the couple own a secluded cabin. At limits with her volatile behaviour, they seek refuge there, and he begins to conduct a series of activities designed to confront her with her fears.

The audience is first lead to believe that the physical nature of the woods will pose as the primary threat (as Satan's Church), and it's her exposure to this environment that provokes her fears. You might think that this will be a typical 'alone-in-the-woods' horror film, and the film is certainly endowed with the horror conventions to become such a film. Antichrist reveals that the internal soul of human nature can prove to be far more horrifying and dangerous than any exterior threat. During the period in the woods the man has three encounters with animals (a deer, a fox and a crow), which are represented as 'The Three Beggars" and symbolic of the different stages of the Satanic process of grieving where 'chaos reigns' once the individual passes through them all.

He discovers that she had previously mistreated their son, on their last visit to the cabin, and that she likely fears what she is capable of herself, above all else. The research she conducted for her thesis on the violence towards women in the 16th Century forces her into a state of disillusionment, where she views all women subjected to the violence of men as evil and seeks to punish herself for her past mistreatment and subsequent failure to save her son from his death. The woman begins to manifest increasingly violent sexual urges, which she turns first on her husband, and then even more brutally, on herself. As you can expect, the film twists wildly and unexpectedly out of control, leaving most viewers deeply affected.

The cinematography, which deftly blends the grimy hand-held typical of the Dogma Movement, with these gorgeous, highly-stylized moments, is wonderful, and the score will give you shivers. Even more so than the scene of self-mutilation, Willem Dafoe's confrontation with the self-devouring fox, is branded into the back of my mind. While I would be nuts to recommend this film to anyone, it really is a very impressive artistic accomplishment, and you have to admire the guts of Lars Von Trier to tackle such a project. You will never look at Charlotte Gainsbourg in the same way again, as she rightly won the Best Actress award at Cannes in 2009. Few films have impacted me more than Antichrist, and it was one of my top rated films from 2009. Despite owning the film on DVD, I doubt my viewing total will ever surpass its current number of two.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars (A-)

New Release Review: Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011)

The 2011 blockbuster season opens with Kenneth Branagh's visually impressive, though somewhat dramatically disengaging, Thor, starring Australian actor Chris Hemsworth in the lead role. As the first in a number of comic book superhero adaptations to hit theatres over the next few months, Thor is one of the preceding films to The Avengers (scheduled for cinema release in 2012). Thor will eventually join forces with Marvel superheroes Nick Fury, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and Captain America (amongst others) as part of The Avengers team. Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) pops up a number of times throughout the film to remind viewers that there is a bigger project in the works. After witnessing the fairly abominable trailer, I had low expectations, but I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Having said that, on post-discussion more negatives than positives become newly apparent.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are the brave warrior sons of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the ruler of Asgard, one of the Nine Realms connected by the Cosmic Tree of Life. Odin had once led his powerful army to battle against the Frost Giants of Jotunheim (another of the Nine Realms), who intended to use an artefact known as the Casket of Ancient Winters to take over each of the other realms, starting with Earth. The army from Asgard defeated the Giants and have since kept the Casket protected inside Odin's vault, and formed a fragile truce between the two realms. As a result of this triumph, the mythical beings from Asgard were worshipped on Earth as Gods.

On the day of Thor's coronation as King, Odin's vault is broken into by the Frost Giants with the intent of stealing the Casket back. Though they fail, an enraged Thor, whose coronation was interrupted by the breach, goes against his father's wishes and travels to Jotunheim with Loki and four of his companions to confront the Giants' leader, Laufey (Colm Feore). Thor and his colleagues find themselves in a fierce battle, but are saved at the last minute by Odin. Angered by his son's impatience and arrogant disobedience, Odin strips Thor of his powers and banishes him to Earth. Amidst a wormhole of lightning and cloud, Thor lands in the desert of New Mexico. His famous hammer, Mjolnir, is cursed and also sent to Earth.

The bitter, primitive-like Thor is discovered by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a scientist working on a meteorological theory with her assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and her mentor Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). After witnessing the wormhole formulate from the sky, and accidentally running into Thor with her car, Jane is both concerned and intrigued by his delusional state and comically chiselled physique and convinces her colleagues to help him. Thor transforms (and rather quickly) from a state of bitterness, to one of bewilderment at Earth's social standards, to one of heroic assurance. When Thor discovers that his hammer has also landed in the desert and is being guarded and tested by a branch of the FBI called S.H.I.E.L.D, he seeks to remove it from within the compound and find a means back to Asgard. Back in Asgard, conflicts with Loki over his true genetic origins have sent Odin into an untimely comatose sleep. With the leadership of the Realm consequently turned over to Loki, his personal vendettas dissuade him from aiding Thor's return.

"Why do you need muscles...on your that."

Thor quite successfully balances the dual Realms of Asgard and Earth, though the events on Earth are far less engaging. The three main characters are Thor, Loki and Odin and most of the central conflict arises through their relationship to one another and their struggle for power. The multi-racial Loki had the most potential for development, but he's disappointingly overlooked. There are some similarities in the plot to King Lear, and with Kenneth Branagh at the helm, this is not surprising, and likely intentional. Chris Hemsworth does a good job, endowing Thor with enough arrogance to force audiences to dislike him early on. His bond on Earth with Jane and quest to return to Asgard is riddled with light humour and enough charisma to win audiences back. Natalie Portman's character is a redundant love interest; and you wonder at what point in his brief banishment that Thor ever fell in love with her. Kat Dennings was only there for the occasional comedic one-liner. Who were most disappointing were Thor's friends, who come to Earth to help him. Sif (Jaimie Aleander) and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) could have easily been his two accomplices, and apart from the odd line here and there, the other two had very little to do. I'm trying to forget how lame the action sequence in the near-abandoned desert town is. More time should have been given to Heimdall (Idris Elba), the Gatekeeper of Asgard. I thought he was the most interesting character in the film. 

As expected, the stunning visuals were the film's most impressive feature, though the early action sequences may challenge the jitters of your stomach. The lengthy battle scene on Jotunheim was truly amazing, and the entire construction of Asgard was a visual marvel. There are some quite intense light flares during the characters transportation between realms, which I felt was a bit too much. The film opens and concludes with several mythical fight sequences, which reveal the full extent of Thor's powers. Though stripped of these powers on Earth, he still manages to take out a regiment of well-trained soldiers with ease. These fight sequences are downright boring in comparison though. Kenneth Branagh can be commended for establishing quite a strong bond between the brothers so that the sibling rivalry is a dramatic arc that feels genuine throughout. While a film like Iron Man 2 tried to include too many villains, Thor presents its villains in a most interesting way. Loki becomes the central villain, but he sends his wrath on Earth in the form of a vehicle (a giant metallic Golem) and seeks only to aid the Frost Giants, the most recognisable antagonists. 

While the story is pretty ridiculous and there are moments that stand out as pointless and mediocre, Thor is still pretty entertaining. It is exactly what you expect from a superhero blockbuster, though it is far better than Hancock or X Men Origins: Wolverine for example. There is, to an extent, dramatic tension in the sequences in Asgard and some light-hearted humour to accompany his quest on Earth. Thankfully, enough weight is given to its hefty protagonist to lift this a head and half a shoulder above the disaster it could have been.

My Rating: 3 Stars (C+)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Right Now I Feel Like This...

Like I am totally incapable of doing anything...
A very busy 48 hours at work has left me completely exhausted. Now, to formulate my thoughts on Thor into something readable, and read the script for the weekend shoot I am assisting with. Oh yeah, there is an assignment due somewhere too! *Sigh*

Monday Links (25/04)

I'm a day late this week due to being quite busy. I went and visited my family for Easter but still managed to see Incendies and Arthur over the weekend. The former is one of the best films I have seen this year. Absolutely shattering. I was also quite surprised by Thor last night. It was entertaining enough, and was dramatically engaging enough to complement the impressive visuals. Review to come soon.

I also watched 12 Angry Men and All the Presidents Men for the first time, and caught my fourth Andrei Tarkovsky film, his final one, The Sacrifice. As any member of the LAMB will know, this week marked the beginning of the 2011 LAMMY nominations. Everyone has been forwarding their FYC posters to the LAMB, including myself (here). Best of luck to all of the LAMBS in the upcoming weeks.

Without further ado, here is the top film chatter for the week:

- The Mad Hatter shares his thoughts on the ending of Up in the Air and his growing favouritism for bummer endings at The Dark of the Matinee.

- Stephen Flores at Surrender to the Void gives an extremely insightful and detailed account of the films of Terrence Malick at The Beginners Guide to Terrence Malick.

- Tom Clift's coverage of the Jim Schembri/Scream 4 spoiler debacle at his blog Movie Reviews by Tom Clift is a must-read for reviewers of film.

- Aiden at Cut the Crap Movie Reviews has reviewed Scream 4 and Hanna this week.

- Stevee continues her Classic Movie Marathon. See what she thought of Ninotchka.

- Castor reveals his Top 10 Russell Crowe Performances  and Sam reviews Win Win on Anomalous Material. 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

New Release Review: Arthur (Jason Winer, 2011)

I never knew that Arthur was a re-make until I recently read a review which outlined this fact. Having never heard of the 1981 version starring Dudley Moore caused me to think about two scenarios; the first being that Jason Winer's Arthur was an unnecessary re-invention of a comedy classic, or that it was a re-attempt at an ill-received stinker. It could have been either, to be honest. No matter the reasoning behind the decision to produce this film, it is an infrequently amusing comedy, that possesses a surprisingly big heart. Fans of Russell Brand will find plenty of enjoyment here, though comedy fans looking for a fresh idea, will not be so pleased.

Loveable comedian and performer Russell Brand plays the boozy, irresponsible rascal and playboy billionaire, Arthur Bach. As a man too involved in partying and uninhibited spending to have worked a day in his life, Arthur has always relied on two things to get by; his limitless fortune ($950 Million) and the good sense of his lifelong nanny and closest friend, Hobson (Helen Mirren). Living in his rooftop Penthouse apartment amongst his unlimited selection of expensive toys and bedding any women he likes, Arthur has never really grown up. When his unpredictable public image threatens the reputation of the family foundation once too often, he is called in and given an ultimatum by his mother. The terms are to marry the unlovable but ambitious corporate executive, Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), who in turn will become the face of the company and keep him in line, or say goodbye to his huge inheritance for good.

A disgruntled Arthur, incapable of surviving without his grand wealth, begrudgingly agrees to the wedding. Things begin to get complicated because Arthur has just fallen for a beautiful New York City tour guide and promising children's writer, Naomi Quinn (Greta Gerwig), who shares his spirit for life, adventure and spontaneity. At what cost will Arthur choose to fight for what he wants? Though frequently wild, crass and immature, it is clear that Arthur's troublesome drinking problems mask a charming, thoughtful and kind-hearted attitude to life. The often beautiful moments he spends with Naomi reveal these traits, and she manages to not only accept him for who he is, but is the inspiration he needs to forever change his life and become the man his father would have wanted.

The story is very, very predictable. There are few surprises, and the structure could not be more conventional. There is some requirement to suspend-your-disbelief too. The laughs are often big, but too infrequent. Actually, I don't remember laughing during the early stages, and many jokes fall flat at times. The middle third, when Arthur is pursuing Naomi, is certainly the strongest. The conclusion drifts into cliche, highlighted by uninventive montages. Of course, torn between the two women Arthur seeks the guidance of Hobson, the woman he knows best. Sounds pretty familiar, right?

Nearly all of the supporting characters are shallow, stock figures with little purpose. Luis Guzman, as Arthur's chauffeur and friend, Bitterman, should feel horribly embarrassed by his role here. Nick Nolte gives an awful performance and looked more drunk than Brand in most of their scenes. Jennifer Garner is one of the most irritating actresses around. I can't think of a film I have liked her in, and again, she plays a plain-looking and controlling annoyance. The gorgeous and very promising Greta Gerwig (Greenberg) is the polar opposite of Garner's character, which is a bit incredible. But Gerwig is sweet, funny and effortlessly quirky here. The woman is a talent. Her performance and the chemistry she shares with Brand was pretty impressive, and the scenes featuring them together are by far the most memorable. I thought the first time they go back to Naomi's house and chat at the dinner table is the best scene in the film. Helen Mirren is an old faithful, and while she looked bored at times, her presence is warming and her latter scenes resonated with me emotionally.

The show belongs to Russell Brand, and his charismatic performance provides the rambunctiousness that his character requires. Many will argue that he is playing himself again, only instead of being exposed to him in small doses (like we were in Forgetting Sarah Marshall), he is front and centre in every scene. Sure, his acting range is pretty slim, but he is a funny man, and his freedom to improvise allows room to display his extensive comedic skills. I also thought that within his silliness there were glimpses of a man who is misunderstood and wrongly dismissed as an immature fool. We discover that Arthur has a big heart, and his love for Hobson and Naomi is genuine, but I thought that Brand threw in flashes of this man when you least expected it. I thought he carried the film and kept it afloat. I wish some laughs came from someone else. Though unnecessary, generic and predictable, this is a moderately amusing comedy that will please Brand fans. Though it could have been much better, I enjoyed it overall. While I can't recommend a trip to the cinema to see it, keep it in mind following its DVD release. There are worse ways to spend a few hours.

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

Classic Throwback: The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986)

Having been blown away by my three previous experiences with the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, I am disappointed to say that I didn't like The Sacrifice so much. Critically, it is one that has tended to divide viewers, but I have still seen the term 'masterpiece' thrown around a few times. Sadly, this is Tarkovsky's final film; the great man died shortly after completing it, succumbing to cancer he had contracted during his shooting of Stalker. A film he dedicated to his son, The Sacrifice is very obviously a film made under his visionary guidance.

Endowed with a cinematic style that functions through the effects of laborious pacing, shots of extreme length (many clocking in at close to ten minutes) and the slow and near-unrecognisable movement of the camera, The Sacrifice is an impressive artistic accomplishment. Visually, Tarkovsky's films are always incredible, and the images he conjures up here are no exception. The problem for me was that there wasn't the same mysterious force keeping me captivated to the screen. Often in Tarkovsky's films, very little is happening, but you still feel compelled to keep watching. This feeling was not so apparent here. It took me a number of sittings to complete it, and for the most part I never felt engaged in the story. The second-to-last scene, made up entirely of a single tracking shot, is as grand an achievement as you are likely to see in cinema, though you may recognise that the burning derrick sequence in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, shares some striking similarities.

The opening shot reveals the film's central character, Alexander (Erland Josephson), an ageing atheist actor and journalist. He is with his very young son by the lake near his home. His son, referred to as "Little Man" throughout the film, is a mute. Alexander likes expressing his feelings in monologue form, and he feels comfortable telling "Little Man" stories from his life. They are soon approached on bike by the local postman, Otto (Allan Edwall). He delivers a letter that has been sent to Alexander to celebrate the occasion of his birthday. Later that day, Alexander's family and friends will join him for a luncheon at his home. Amongst the guests, we meet Alexander's younger actress wife, his teenage daughter and Maria, the servant. Otto joins the party too, bringing Alexander a framed map of Europe from the 16th Century.

After a series of sequences documenting small chatter within the guests, the party experiences the opening throes of the end of the world via nuclear holocaust. All of a sudden the entire house begins to shake, and ornaments fall off their shelves. The news of the event are later broadcast over the television. Alexander's wife is distraught, but the men have no answers on how to react. That night, in a state of despair, Alexander vows to God to sacrifice everything he loves (he would destroy his home and even give up "Little Man") if only the fate of the world would be reversed. To top it all off, he is instructed by Otto to sleep with Maria, who he reveals is a neighbour of his and whom he believes is a Witch. Otto believes that this course of action is their only hope to stop the war. When he wakes the next morning, the world seems to have returned to normal, though the reality of Alexander's actions is never revealed to the audience. 

Aware of his own illness, Tarkovsky imbues the film with a message to future generations; to live in greater harmony with nature and one another. The opening and closing sequences demonstrate this; Alexander and his son are planting a tree by the rocky shore. He asks his son to surround the tree with stones to protect and preserve it. Throughout the film, we are revealed to the fragility of humanity on the brink of their destruction. Faced with the dilemma of considering just how strongly he values his ideals, Alexander undergoes an existential crisis in an act of protestation to faith and hope. Tarkovsky has ended his career with a film that honours his greatest mentor and inspiration, Ingmar Bergman. Erland Josephson was a Bergman regular and one of Sweden's most successful actors, while Sven Nykvist, Bergman's favourite cinematographer, is the man behind the camera here. It is essential viewing for any admirers of Tarkovsky, but this challenging, often-boring film, will appeal to few.

My Rating: 3 1/2 Stars (B-) 

Off Topic: Classic 76ers Moment - 2001 NBA Finals

For anyone who doesn't know I am a big basketball and Philadelphia 76ers fan. Yesterday the 76ers lost Game 3 of their first round match-up against the Miami Heat. Though they led and controlled the game for the first three quarters, the Heat stars were too much for them in the 4th once again. They now trail the series 3-0. While a comeback would be amazing (games 1 and 3 could have gone either way), I hold very little hope for such a feat.

I decided to watch a classic 76ers moment yesterday afternoon, revisiting the 2001 NBA Finals series against the Los Angeles Lakers. The heavily favoured Lakers had breezed through the first three rounds, while the gallant 76ers had been taken to 7 Games on a couple of occasions, and were battling injuries to almost their entire roster. Led by the courageous Allen Iverson, and gutsy role players Dikembe Mutombo, Aaron Mckie and Eric Snow, the 76ers came to the Staples Centre in L.A and beat the Lakers in Game 1. Unfortunately, they would go on to lose the series, but Game 1 is one of the greatest games I have ever witnessed, and a memorable moment in 76ers history.

Here are the closing minutes of this game:

Friday, April 22, 2011

Official Line-up of the 64th Cannes Film Festival

Following is the complete line-up for the 64th Cannes Film Festival, running from May 11-22.

Opening Film

Midnight in Paris - Woody Allen

In Competition

Drive - Nicholas Winding Refn
Footnote - Joseph Cedar
Hanezu no Tsuki - Naomi Kawasi
Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai - Takashi Miike
The Kid With a Bike - Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
L'apollonide [Souvenirs de la maison close] - Bertrand Bonello
Le Havre - Aki Kaurismaki
Once Upon A Time in Anatolia - Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Melancholia - Lars Von Trier
Michael - Markus Schleinzer
Pater - Alain Cavalier
Polisse - Maiwenn
The Skin That I Inhabit - Pedro Almodovar
Sleeping Beauty - Julia Leigh
La Source des femmes - Radu Mihaileanu
This Must Be the Place - Paolo Sorrentino
The Tree of Life - Terrence Malick
We Have A Pope - Nanni Moretti
We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lynne Ramsay

Un Certain Regard

Arirang - Kim Ki-duk
Bonsai - Christian Jimenez
The Day He Arrives - Hong Sang-soo
Et maintenant on va ou - Nadine Labaki
Halt auf freier Strecke - Andread Dresen
Hors Satan - Bruno Dumont
The Hunter - Bakur Bakuradze
Les Neiges du Kilimandjaro - Robert Guediguian
L'exercisce de l'etat - Pierre Schoeller
Loverboy - Catalin Mitulescu
Martha Marcy May Marlene - Sean Durkin
Miss Bala - Gerardo Naranjo
Restless - Gus Van Sant
Oslo, August 31st - Joachim Trier
Skoonheid - Oliver Hermanus
Tatsumi - Eric Khoo
Trabalhar Cansa - Juliana Rojas, Marco Dutra
Toomelah - Ivan Sen
The Yellow Sea - Na Hong-jin

Out of Competition

Kung Fu Panda 2 - Jennifer Yuh
The Beaver - Jodie Foster
The Artist - Michel Hazanavicius
The Conquest - Xavier Durringer
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - Rob Marshall

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life and Lars Von Trier's Melancholia appear to headline the nominees, while Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty has received some recent attention also. Personally, I'm quite interested in Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks. Here is a trailer for Gus Van Sant's Restless: 

Quick Movie Ratings: All the Presidents Men and Maelstrom

All the Presidents Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976) - This is one of the finest, and most engrossing political thrillers I have ever seen, with some of the best examples of investigative journalism ever captured on film. Surrounding the infamous Watergate scandal, the unimportant story of the burglars arrested in the National Committee Headquarters is handed to Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) of The Washington Post. When he discovers that the men had bugging equipment, and have ties that stretch to Richard Nixon's special counsel Charles Colson, Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) stumble across a story that links campaign funding for Nixon's Presidency to the account of one of the burglars. Their findings, which came from anonymous sources, and struggle to be legitimately proven, eventually resulted in Nixon's resignation. This is one of the most insightful and detailed accounts of newspaper journalism you will see, and based on the true account of the men. Hoffman, Redford, Jason Robards and Hal Holbrook and all give great performances, the pace is energetic and frequently engaging.

My Rating: 5 Stars (A)

Maelstrom (Denis Villeneuve, 2000) - You know you are set for a strange experience when a fish narrates the story. A bloody, chopped up fish, whose amusing narration a hulking cleaver-wielding fishmonger often interrupts. Funny, frequently insightful and ultimately touching, this story of a young woman coming to terms with her life is highlighted by several stunning sequences. Daunted and overwhelmed by the task of running a trio of fashion boutiques and being the daughter of a celebrity, twenty five year old Bibi (Marie-Josee Cruz) is struggling to cope with life's building pressures. Bibi has her strength stripped; the film opens with an abortion, and later in the film she loses her business. She turns to alcoholism and drugs to escape. One night she hits an elderly fishmonger, who later passes away, with her car. Haunted by the incident, she decides to destroy the evidence, and drives her car into the lake. When she survives and given another chance, she ends up bonding with his grieving son, and turning her life around. Denis Villeneuve’s assured handling transformed him into a director to watch (and his latest feature, Incendies, was an Oscar-nominated masterpiece). The cinematography and soundtrack are also exceptional and the versatile central performance from the gorgeous Marie-Josee Cruz is superb.

My Rating: 4 Stars (B+)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

New Release Review: Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010)

Every now and then a powerful, emotive and chilling political tragedy endowed with harrowing realism will come along that forces viewers to cower in horror at the state of the world they live in. Few films in recent memory have so deftly dealt with such an intriguing and compelling mystery as the one that drives Incendies. Few can match the film's tension and lasting impact neither. 

From writer and director Denis Villeneuve (Maelstrom, 2000), Incendies is a Quebecois production and an adaptation of Scorched, Wajdi Mouawad's acclaimed play. Premiering at the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals in September 2010, Incendies was selected as the Canadian representative amongst the nominees for Best Foreign Language Feature at the 83rd Academy Awards. Though predicted to take out the award, Susan Bier's fantastic Danish drama, In A Better World, was the eventual winner.

The film's central characters are Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette) and their recently deceased mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal). The sudden and inexplicable death of their mother, who rescinded into a state of silence and shock during her final days, has noticeably affected the twins in different ways. To be read the terms of their mother's will, the notary and the last employer of Nawal, Jean Lebel (Remy Girard), invites the twins to his office. The entirety of her estate will be equally divided between the twins, but in addition she has left them an unusual assignment each. Jeanne must deliver an enclosed letter to a father she believed was long dead; while Simon must deliver a similar one to a brother neither of them were aware ever existed. The contents of the letters are not revealed, but her instructions stipulate that a third letter will be issued to the twins once the others have been successfully delivered, and their mother's life understood.

Jeanne is in favour of completing her mother's wishes, but she doesn't receive the same cooperation from Simon. Claiming to be at peace with his mother's death, Simon desires nothing more than to keep a lid on her dark secrets and honour her with a 'normal' burial. Jeanne is reluctant to tackle this mystery without the support of her brother, but realises her mind will never be at rest unless she knows for sure. Instructed by her mathematics mentor to investigate, she is given one of his university contact as a starting point. The plight for the Marwan twins is that they really know very little about their mother's life. When trying to unravel their tangled roots, they find that it is impossible to discover the identity of the men they are searching for, without first discovering where their family came from.

Villeneuve presents us with a multi-layered narrative, seamlessly correlating between Jeanne's visit to a recently war-torn Middle Eastern country, retreading the life of her mother and searching for answers from people who once knew her, with Nawal's tragic personal story from decades before. The story is meticulously constructed through a series of episodes, with each headlined by a title caption. Jeanne is soon enough made aware that her mother's history is more shocking than she could have expected, while Narwal's courageous struggle amidst the war-torn nation is unsettling to say the least. Having first to cope with the murder of her boyfriend and then the forced adoption of her baby (conceived out of wedlock), she finds herself caught in a violent and divisive political struggle. As the stakes becomes more dangerous for the twins, sinister and unfathomable secrets await them. To reveal any more would prove to be a great disservice to anyone with the desire to see this wonderful film....and this should be all of you.

Incendies is not just a compelling mystery that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout and challenges you to process everything you witness, it is also a dark, powerful and tragic human drama. Amidst a divided, war-ravaged nation consumed by intense hatred and brutal violence, the story of this courageous woman, whose past is decidedly kept hidden from her children, is shocking and moving. Directed by Denis Villeneuve with great assurance and confidence (this is his most established achievement to date), the build up is dense and involving and rounded with consistent and often suffocating tension. The final reveal hits you like a strong punch to the stomach. Considering what you have witnessed through the course of the film, you still find yourself unprepared for the shock. While an attentive viewer will remain committed to every scene, it makes for a nervous watch. The means by which the plot lines converge and the how the secrets culminate, is a masterstroke of dramatic filmmaking. 

The sporadic violence is pretty brutal, and the war-ravaged setting makes for a frightening backdrop. While Jeanne's search for her family initially seems impossible, her wandering through the labyrinth of streets extenuates her isolation amidst this strange land. Narwal's struggle to locate her son, having to pose both as a Christian and as a Muslim refugee, ends countless times in vain, as she stumbles across the still smouldering ruins of deserted Southern villages and evade the wrath of the sadistic Nationalists. 

The camerawork is exceptional and endowed with a documentary-style sense of realism. There are several sequences where the film critiques the horrors of enforced childhood military service, and in the opening scene, we see a number of youths having their heads shaved as part of their recruitment, to the accompaniment of Radiohead's 'You and Whose Army'. Amidst the haunting score, the song recurs on a couple of occasions. 

The performances are all very strong, especially from the two women, who actually look very much alike. The sequence where Jeanne visits the village her mother grew up in and drinks tea with the women of the village, is a tribute to Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin's powerful performance. Her range of facial emotions here is amazing. Incendies is likely to be one of the best films you will see this year, and certainly one to walk into knowing as little as possible. As a political thriller and human drama it is compelling and extremely powerful. Tautly constructed, beautifully photographed, impeccably is a masterpiece. 

My Rating: 5 Stars (A)

Vote in the 2011 LAMMY Awards

If you're a LAMB member, now is the time to vote for your favourite LAMB blogs and bloggers in the 2011 LAMMY Awards. You can find more information on the event and voting process here. This is my first year as a member of the LAMB, and amidst the excitement, I thought I would start my own campaign. I am only relatively new to the blogging world and can't compete with some of the veteran bloggers out there, but I thought if I wound up with a nomination or two, that would be quite an achievement in itself. I would be honoured if you'd throw a nomination my way, specifically in the categories of "Best Blog", "Most Prolific", "Best New LAMB" and "Best Movie Reviewer". Thanks in advance for your support!

Andy Buckle

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Releases 21/04

Opening tomorrow are six new releases Australia wide. Following the Red Carpet World Premiere at Event Cinemas on George Street last Sunday night, I'm sure many will be eager to flock to their closest multiplex this weekend to see the new Marvel blockbuster, Thor. I doubt the Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Incendies, will draw the same attention. I know what I will be seeing first, however. Also released this week are Fast Five, Arthur, The Tempest and Potiche.
Thor - Without doubt the biggest film of the week, and the beginning of the 2011 blockbuster season. In the coming months, comic book adaptations of The Green Lantern and Captain America are to follow, as well new installments of the Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers franchise. Early reviews have been positive, Kenneth Branagh is an established director, and the cast including Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins, is solid. There's no question that the visuals will be stunning, but the addition of 3D means ticket prices will be ludicrous. Thor tells the story of partially disabled medical student Dr. Donald Blake who discovers his previously unknown alter-ego, the Norse warrior, Thor.

Arthur - I wasn't aware Arthur was a re-make, but this seems like a fairly generic story. Russell Brand plays lovable billionaire, Arthur Bach, an irresponsible charmer who has always relied on two things to get by: his limitless fortune and the good sense of his lifelong nanny and closest friend Hobson (Helen Mirren). But when his unpredictable public image threatens the reputation of the family foundation, he is given an ultimatum; marry an ambitious corporate exec (Jennifer Garner) who can keep him in line, or say goodbye to his inheritance. Conveniently, Arthur has just fallen for a beautiful New York City tour guide (Greta Gerwig). At what cost will Arthur stand up for what he wants? The casting immediately sides us with the promising Gerwig (Greenberg), because Jennifer Garner is one of the most irritating actresses around. Sitting on 26% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Incendies - From director Denis Villeneuve (Maelstrom), Incendies represented Canada as a nominee for Best Foreign Language Feature at the 83rd Academy Awards, losing out to the wonderful In A Better World. I was informed by an emotional couple leaving an advanced screening of the film over the weekend that "the intensity is relentless throughout and the conclusion leaves you floored". Twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan, upon being read their mother's will, are stunned to received a pair of envelopes - one for their father they thought was dead and another for a brother they didn't know existed. The twins retrace the steps of the woman who brought them into the world, discovering a tragic fate forever marked by war and hatred. I'm sure this will be worth watching.

Fast Five - The new installment in the Fast and the Furious franchise. Why anyone thought this was a good idea is beyond me. The key cast return for more ridiculous, high speed mayhem.

The Tempest - A big-screen adaptation of William Shakespeare's mystical thriller. It received an Oscar nomination for costumes I think, and is the third release starring Helen Mirren in the last two weeks.  

Potiche - This comedy starring Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu was one of the more popular films at the French Film Festival last month. Deneuve plays a submissive, housebound 'trophy housewife', who steps in to manage the umbrella factory run by her wealthy and tyrannical husband after the workers go on strike and take him hostage. Quite well received, it looks like it could be fun, but it personally presents no appeal to me.

Weekly Recommendation: Incendies

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

12 Angry Men - In Honour of Sidney Lumet

Having never before seen Sidney Lumet's wonderful court room classic, 12 Angry Men, I thought I would watch it today in honour of the late director. What a powerful, provocative and inspiring film it is.

Confined for almost the entirety in one single room (there is a short sequence in an adjoining bathroom), with the period of deliberation equally sharing the running time, it remains captivating from start to finish. It tells the story of a jury of twelve men who are instructed to retire to the jury room and deliberate the guilt or innocence of the defendant, a young boy who allegedly stabbed his father.

The case at first seems clear-cut, with the evidence strongly suggesting that the boy was guilty, but one man (Henry Fonda) opposes the other eleven jurors and declares that he believes it was not so simple. Angering some, but earning the respect of others, he then attempts to convince them that the boy could not be convicted on the basis that there was reasonable doubt to his guilt.

Tempers flair amidst the sweltering environment as these impatient and headstrong men verbally throw around their opinions, as the case is meticulously re-examined, and the evidence re-considered by Fonda's determined and unfazed protagonist. Sure enough, the votes begin to sway.

There was no requirement to even view the scenes from the courtroom. The way they are described and considered amongst the dialogued exchanges proves to be just as compelling. The screenplay is wonderful, the characters beautifully written and the performances from the fine cast are impeccable.

The lengthy and complex conversations are also beautifully captured by Lumet's sweeping camera, as it circles the room often capturing multiple individual conversations one after another. A culturally significant achievement, 12 Angry Men is an established classic and an incredible debut feature from one of America's most talented and respected filmmakers.

My Rating: 5 Stars (A+)

Short Review: In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)

The debut feature of Irish theater writer and director Martin McDonagh, In Bruges, was filmed and takes place entirely in the Belgian medieval town that the title claims. A clever blend of black comedy and suspense thriller, In Bruges opened the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, claimed star Colin Farrell a Golden Globe for Best Actor Musical or Comedy and Martin McDonagh a BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay. It is one of the funniest, cleverest, best acted and most entertaining films of 2008.

Set almost entirely in Bruges, the action takes place over the period of a few days. Two hit men, Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeseon) are sent by their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), to hide out and lay low in the Medieval Belgian city of Bruges and await further instructions. The reason for these precautions have stemmed from Ray's rookie hit man job, which resulted in his accidental killing of a young boy. Wracked with guilt over the boy's death, Ray is morose, disinterested and withdrawn, while his senior colleague embraces the beauty of the town and takes the opportunity to sight-see and explore the medieval buildings. Ken maintains that they should remain in their hotel room and await Harry's instructions, while Ray craves nothing more than a drink or two at the pub.

During his nightly excursions he sparks up a romance with Chloe (Clemence Poesy), a local drug dealer and thief, who moonlights as a production assistant, and befriends dwarf actor Jimmy (Jordan Prentice). A date with Chloe results in a confrontation with a Canadian couple, and later her jealous partner-in-crime, while a cocaine party reveals Jimmy's racial prejudices. Ken finally receives a call from Harry, with the dreaded instructions to kill Ray. His killing of a child, even accidentally, is unforgivable, and Harry insists that Ray must face the penalty. Ken meets with one of Harry's Belgian associates, picks up a handgun and follows Ray to the park with the intention to kill him. He discovers on arrival that Ray, wracked to the edge with guilt, has decided to end his own life. Concerned for his young colleague he stops Ray's suicide, instead of obeying his boss' instructions. Convincing Ray to leave the city and keep moving, Ken calls Harry to personally reveal the situation. An enraged Harry consequently makes his way to Bruges to take care of business himself, culminating in an exciting and intense showdown amidst the lively town centre by night.

In Bruges effortlessly balances border-line silly dark comedy with tragic themes of death and mortality, as Ray and Ken come to terms with guilt, morality and redemption amidst the beautifully captured storybook tranquility of Bruges. Colin Farrell, who is genuinely funny here, but also impeccably crippled with guilt, gives his greatest performance yet. He was the worthy winner of the Golden Globe. Brendan Gleeson is always fantastic, but Ralph Fiennes' turn as the hot-headed, foul-mouthed mob boss is also noteworthy. The dialogue is so rich and the performances so genuine and honest, that the characters are effortlessly developed throughout. Sometimes it only takes a facial expression or a reaction, or a nervous twitch, to reveal so much. With a few minor exceptions, most of the sequences feature only a few performers (Farrell and Gleeson, Farrell and Poesy etc.) and McDonagh's theatre experience is on display here. Full of quotable lines, the engaging exchanges between its characters, amidst the gloriously captured setting, really works. I felt it was one of the best films of the year and should have been considered for a number of Oscars, including Best Picture.

In Bruges is certainly an adult drama; the profanity is frequent but used to great comedic effect, and the violence is quite intense. It is also a very emotionally literate film. Ray has committed a very grave sin. Assigned to kill a priest, he decides to pull the trigger during confession of all places. In the ensuing shots, one of the bullets exist the body and strikes an alter boy in the head. This is a horrible situation, but you can't help but feel terribly for Ray, because he is so obviously remorseful. While you are against Harry taking down Ray, you also feel that he has every right too. It is a film that tears your emotions apart, but remains consistently engaging and entertaining, a rare gem to be successful at both.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars (A-)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Short Review: An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)

An established cult classic, An American Werewolf in London is an entertaining blend of gruesome horror and hilarious comedy from writer and director John Landis. The visual effects and make-up used in the film were so impressive that a new awards category at the 1981 Academy Awards was created specifically for the film - Outstanding Achievement in Makeup, a category that has been a regular ever since.

An American Werewolf in London opens with two American college students, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) who decide, on their way to Italy, to begin their trip by backpacking through the moors of Northern England. As it begins to get dark, they make a stop at The Slaughtered Lamb, where they meet the mysterious locals. Making a hasty exit after inquiring about a five-pointed star on the wall, they are warned to 'beware the moon' and 'stick to the road'. After wandering off course and finding themselves lost and disoriented they become distressed when they hear a sinister howling. Soon enough they are stalked and attacked by a large and powerful animal. Jack is mauled to death, while David survives and is taken to a hospital in London.

The police report claims that David was attacked by an escaped lunatic, but through vivid dream sequences, and visits by a bloodied apparition of Jack, David soon realizes that he will transform into a werewolf at the next full moon. Jack strongly urges David to kill himself, not only because he is trapped in a state of limbo (a living death) because the bloodline of his attacker still survives (through David) but also spare others of a similar fate. David is cared for in the hospital by Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) and after he is discharged, he moves into her apartment with her. David's insistence that he was attacked by a werewolf is investigated and confirmed by his physician, Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine), who visits the witnesses to the incident at the Slaughtered Lamb. His subsequent attempts to help David back in London are too late, however.

There is never a dull moment in An American Werewolf in London and its enjoyable fun from start to finish. Every conversation is full with sharp, amusing dialogue, especially the exchanges between David and Jack. The vivid dream sequences are haunting and odd and the visual effects and make-up used to create David Naughton's extended painful metamorphosis into a werewolf are certainly groundbreaking. There are countless allusions to earlier werewolf films (The Wolf Man for example) and the entire soundtrack ironically consists of songs that refer in some way to the 'moon'. The most notable being Van Morrison's 'Moondance' and Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Bad Moon Rising'.

The sequence at the Tottenham Court Road tube station consisting of a number of shots from the point-of-view of David as he pursues his commuter victim is fantastic, while the dream-within-a-dream sequence at the hospital featuring werewolf Nazis is one of my favorites of all time. There are some forgivable plot conveniences, but I liked that the inevitable transformation is left until the final third of the film. Delaying his threat as a monster heightens the tension surrounding the event and gives the few short scenes where he endangers the rest of the city even more impact. The concluding sequences at Piccadilly Circus are genuinely shocking. An American Werewolf in London is an entertaining cult classic perfect for a movie and pizza night with friends.

My Rating: 4 Stars (B+)