Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!!

As I am about to head out and celebrate the end of 2010 with some friends I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy New Year. May 2011 be a prosperous and successful year for all of you. Thank you very much for reading, I hope I can continue to be entertaining and insightful for the entirety of 2011 and beyond. Enjoy your New Year's celebrations all over the world.


Andy Buckle

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Emporium Feature: My 2010 End-of-Year Awards

Best Film I saw in 2010 - Det Sjunde Inseglet [The Seventh Seal]

Best Film (2010 release) - The Social Network 

Best Album (2010 release) - My Dark Twisted Fantasy - Kanye West 

Most Played Album in 2010 - Come and Feel the Illinoise - Sufjan Stevens 

Song of the Year - They are Night Zombies!! They are Neighbors!! They have come back from the Dead!! Ahhhhhh! - Sufjan Stevens 

Best Song (2010 release) - Norway - Beach House 

Best Television Show of the Year (Drama) - The Sopranos 

Best Television Show of the Year (Comedy) - The Office (US)

New Release Review: Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)

Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine is a devastating tale of a marriage falling apart. The film is set predominantly within the period of a couple of days as the couple's marriage reaches an emotionally trying peak and begins to breakdown. The plot also features flashbacks to the origins of the relationship that now spans six years. It documents the couple meeting each other, finding happiness and falling in love, and how that all eventually dissolved into a nightmare. Blue Valentine premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival to universal acclaim. It features two astonishing Oscar-worthy performances from Ryan Gosling (a nominee in 2006 for Half Nelson) and Michelle Williams (nominated in 2005 for Brokeback Mountain) and is a painfully honest portrayal of the sad failure of true love.

Cindy (Williams) and Dean (Gosling) are an unhappily married young couple, who decided to marry after Cindy falls pregnant. Cindy has shift work as a nurse, finding herself consistently tired and frustrated by the role of taking care of her daughter, Frankie, and her childish, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking and domestically irresponsible husband Dean, who has been bumped around mid level jobs after failing to finish high school. Dean has become content to center his life around the care of his wife and child, choosing to reject pursuit of his more natural talents, like music and art. Cindy, who attended college for years with the ambition of finding a profession in medicine, wishes to rise in her career, but is being held back by the familial lifestyle.

The family dynamic and the tension within the walls of the house is apparent in the opening sequences. Dean, who obviously loves his daughter, is somewhat negligent as a parent, much to the frustration of Cindy. The family dog has also escaped and is missing, to make things worse. Cindy drops their daughter off at school, and continues to work. On the way to a concert recital later in the day, Cindy finds their dog hit by the side of the road. He dies of his injuries, to the devastation of both her and Dean. Dean recognizes that they haven't been as close recently and that there are problems plaguing their marriage, and proposes that the two of them book a hotel room for the night, have some drinks and make love to rekindle their passion. They drop their daughter at Cindy's parents' place, stop at the liquor store and set out. What should be a chance to find the love that is now absent from their marriage is plagued with incidents; painful memories from the past, confused and disrespectful communication between the two and a clear disinterest from Cindy, much to Dean's disappointment as he desperately tries to connect with her through sex. Heavily intoxicated within the smarmy, ridiculously themed hotel room, they argue aggressively and pass out.

Interlocked into these sequences are flashbacks to a time before they met; with Cindy at college, and Dean coming to town and finding work with a moving company. Dean is free-spirited, uninhibited, charming and looking for love, while Cindy is smart and committed, but naive and irresponsible. We see her engaging in unemotional, unprotected sex with her boyfriend at the time, and deduce that she has made some poor relationship choices in her life. By chance, the pair meet at an aged-care facility as Dean is helping an elderly man move into his room, and Cindy is visiting her grandmother in the room across the hall. The attraction seems immediate, as they make cute small talk, with Dean asking her to call and ask for him. Cindy chooses not to call Dean, but by chance they meet again on the bus and she is ultimately won over by his confident forwardness and humor.

The most beautiful sequence is on their first date where the pair play around in the street in front of a store. They discuss their hidden talents, and Dean begins strumming his little guitar and singing, encouraging Cindy to tap dance. The whole moment is sweet and silly, but a perfect encapsulation of the young couple falling in love. This is much unlike other romantic dramas, where this is often associated with a passionate, illuminated sex scene. The sex scenes in Blue Valentine are extremely explicit (they almost warranted an NC-17 rating in the U.S, but this was later rescinded) but are different depending on the stage of the relationship.

Cianfrance, who specializes in documentary filmmaking, takes an incredibly realistic and intimate approach to the relationship dynamic, examining it in all of its pure forms, and beautifully capturing the moments that defined Dean and Cindy. The quietly observing camera often frames the characters in a close up or medium shot allowing us access to their personal space, where we learn so much about them from their reactions, expressions and subtle gestures.

The performances from Gosling and Williams are brave, personal and full of gut-wrenching emotional exchanges. They are both truly astonishing and anything less than Oscar nominations will be a great shame. Gosling should receive a nomination solely for his drunken rage in the hospital during the devastating climax. As the final frame of the film leaves us, we think back on what we have witnessed, on how far they had come together, on how incredible their connection was, and how devastating this tale really is.

Human interaction is complex and inconsistent, and relationships can be gritty and volatile at times. In many cases they are not beautiful and glossy, despite the initial connection projecting otherwise. True love can overcome even the most disastrous hurdles in a relationship, but in Blue Valentine, the emotions and feelings generated have become irreversible, and their natural connection is all but abolished.

This is a bold script from Cianfrance, who co-wrote it with Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne. His direction is perfect and the crosscutting of the past with present provides us with subtle reveals, notably the effect of their song, which was a signifier of romance for Cindy's first listen, but had almost no effect whatsoever when Dean plays it years later at the hotel. The score is also beautifully composed by Brooklyn alternative band, Grizzly Bear. But it's the performances, as I have mentioned, that command your attention from the opening moments and make Blue Valentine one of the best films of the year.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

New Release Review: Love and Other Drugs (Edward Zwick, 2010)

Fueled by the fine performances of its attractive leading couple, Edward Zwick's Love and Other Drugs is an entertaining comedy/drama that unfortunately misses the mark with its comic intentions, but finds success and is surprisingly engaging and moving in its heartfelt dramatic moments. Zwick's previous works have included Glory (1989), The Last Samurai (2003) and Blood Diamond (2006), with this being only his second venture into comedy. While it isn't groundbreaking, it is one of the better holiday releases I have seen to date.

The film is set in the mid 1990's, where we are revealed to Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), a handsome, confident electronics salesman who uses his charm to flirt with and pick up women and engage in empty, uninhibited sex. When he is fired from the electronics store for engaging in sex with his bosses' girlfriend, he follows the advice of his got-lucky millionaire brother John and directs his attention to pharmaceuticals. It his here that he is introduced to the competitive position of sales representative for a large pharmaceutical manufacturing company called Pfizer. He makes product calls to esteemed and respected doctors sampling the drugs from his company, while being pressured by his partner Bruce (Oliver Platt) to meet the strict quotas. Jamie is directed by Bruce to the biggest account, Dr Knight (Hank Azaria), and tries to convince him to prescribe Zoloft to his patients instead of Prozac. After unsuccessful attempts at winning over Knight, he writes a check to Knight for one thousand dollars to let him shadow him while he makes his pitch. It is here that he first meets Maggie Murdoch (Anne Hathaway), a young woman who has been diagnosed in the first stage of early onset Parkinson's Disease. They start on a mutual sex-only casual relationship, with both disinterested in starting a serious relationship (Jamie by nature, and Maggie because of her future debilitating illness), but Jamie's feelings begin to blossom further, and he begins to pursue such a relationship with Maggie despite her strict objections and fears of the future. Maggie is one of the first people to see Jamie beyond his physical qualities, recognizing that he is talented, committed and capable, but also makes him see that too. Amidst the exciting release and cataclysmic demand for Pfizer's new erection drug, Viagra, Jamie quickly becomes one of the most sought after representatives, which could soon warrant him a promotion to what Bruce calls, the 'big leagues' of Chicago. But he must ultimately choose to leave the first true love of his life, who he has committed his life to care for, to pursue a huge career opportunity. Does true love prevail?

Love and Other Drugs was quite entertaining, to an extent. The abundance of gross-out comedy cliches really didn't work here, and while it was an exciting period of expansion for pharmaceuticals and social interaction (with the invention of Viagra), and because of the possibilities of Gyllenhaal's character, the comedic approach is strictly to make it lighter for the audience and more marketable as a film. Jamie's womanizing and display of pick-up lines is impressive and amusing for the guys in the audience, but the cast of supports are the typical oddball characters you find in just about every romantic comedy. Zwick's film doesn't do a lot differently, but it is above average because of the likability of the two leads. In support, you first you have the overweight, socially awkward and extremely annoying brother/sister or housemate (in this case both), who are involved in a number of irrelevant but disgusting gags at the expense of themselves and at the embarrassment of the central character. Then you have the outrageous, sex-crazed business partner/best friend who provides the crucial advice for the central character when they are tormented by troubles in their relationship and have nowhere else to turn. There is also the business rival who may or may not have had a previous relationship with the love interest of the central character. All of these stock characters, while essential to Jamie's character, serve only to provide comedy relief. They don't define who he is at any point, they are just tools to reveal his character throughout the film. The end of the film is strong, which focuses solely on the relationship, which is a relief because all of the other characters have grown tiresome by that point.

Jamie and Bruce celebrate the arrival of the  'Blue Pill'.

The film belongs to Gyllenhaal and he gives a very solid performance, but it is Anne Hathway's sensitive and complex performance that really drives the film. The two share some great chemistry and some saucy sex scenes. The dialogue exchanges between Jamie and Maggie are well scripted and their connection feels genuine. Maggie is a woman plagued with an illness that is currently incurable. She is unable to be optimistic because she really doesn't know anything beyond the gradual debilitation of her condition, and must take her daily doses to control her symptoms and hope for the best. She is reluctant to pursue her interest in Jamie because she knows that she will someday need him more than he needs her. Hathaway's performance presents this woman as sexy, smart, down-to-earth and artistic, but emotionally crippled by the daily struggle that defines her life, and her frustration is beautifully revealed in one notable sequence. Both Gyllenhaal and Hathaway have both received Golden Globe nominations for their performances, which I think is well deserved. I am puzzled as to why the film itself received no nomination in the comedy/musical category. It seems to be more worthy than say, The Tourist?

Gorgeous! Anne Hathaway is the standout in Love and Other Drugs.

The film also questions somewhat the morality of pharmaceuticals. In his position, Jamie uses his charm and powers of manipulation on people for products that ultimately aren't proven to work. His verbatim is all stats and notes (which are recounted at record speeds) but he can't personally guarantee the effects. There are hundreds of products and cures for people with anxiety or depression; and now there is even a cure for bad sex, with the groundbreaking invention of Viagra. But ultimately, Jamie himself has one of the 'rare' reactions to the drug, which I think caused him to question his future. The success of his products have fulfilled Jamie's dreams but amidst the gross glorification of his successes he also faces a moral struggle endorsing such products, when there are existing illnesses like Parkinson's that unfortunately have no known treatments and are of personal interest to him. Overall, Love and Other Drugs is a thoughtful, well-cast romantic comedy/drama that is genuinely pleasurable, but also surprisingly heartfelt and moving.

My Rating: 3 Stars

How did you find the supporting characters? Were they as irritable to you? Where does LAOD stand amongst romantic comedies? 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Emporium Feature: My 100 Greatest Films of the Decade (2000-2009)

Here is my updated list of the greatest films of the last decade. If there are any glaring omissions, it's a good chance that I haven't seen them yet. So, behold my personal selection of 100 films that I find to define the years spanning 2000-2009:

100. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson, 2004)

99. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)

98. The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)

97. Dogville (Lars Von Trier, 2003)

96. Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007)

95. Battle Royale (Kinji Fukusaku, 2000)

94. Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007)

93. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

92. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay, 2004)

91. This is England (Shane Meadows, 2006)

90. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)

89. The Quiet American (Phillip Noyce, 2002)

88. The Last King of Scotland (Kevin McDonald, 2006)

87. Dancer in the Dark (Lars Von Trier, 2000)

86. High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000)

85. Match Point (Woody Allen, 2005)

84. Antichrist (Lars Von Trier, 2009)

83. Hero (Yimou Zhang, 2002)

82. Once (John Carney, 2007)

81. Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004)

80. Borat (Larry Charles, 2006)

79. Control (Anton Corbijn, 2007)

78. The Constant Gardner (Fernando Meirelles, 2005)

77. The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry, 2006)

76. Monsters Inc. (Pete Docter, 2001)

75. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)

74. Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)

73. Synechdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)

72. American Splendor (Robert Pulsini, 2003)

71. The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004)

70. Jarhead (Sam Mendes, 2005)

69. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003)

68. The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007)

67. The Bourne Trilogy (Doug Liman, Paul Greengrass, 2002-2007)

66. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir, 2003)

65. The Red Riding Trilogy [1974, 1980, 1983] (2009)

64. Kill Bill Part I (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)

63. Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003)

62. United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)

61. Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)

60. Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000)

59. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)

58. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

57. Fantastic Mr Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)

56. Amores Perros (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2000)

55. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000)

54. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)

53. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

52. Up (Pete Docter, 2009)

51. Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007) 

50. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)

49. O Brother Where Art Thou (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2000)

48. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)

47. Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004)

46. A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001)

45. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)

44. Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009)

43. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)

42. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)

41. Der Untergang  [Downfall] (Olivier Hirschbiegel, 2005)

40. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)

39. Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008)

38. American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)

37. Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard, 2008)

36. Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)

35. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)

34. Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007)
33. Cache [Hidden] (Michael Haneke, 2005) 

32. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

31. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)

30. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)

29. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2003)

28. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet, 2007)

27. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)

26. Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001)

Top 25

25. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

24. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigalow, 2009)

23. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)

22. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002)

21. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)

20. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)

19. In the Mood for Love (Kar Wai Wong, 2000)

18. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)

17. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)

16. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)

15. Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005)

14. Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000)

13. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

12. Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

11. Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)

10. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

9. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)

8. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)

7. The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)

6. Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)

5. Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004)

4. City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002)

3. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)

2. Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

1. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

In Dreams Emotions Are Overwhelming: The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry, 2006)

In dreams emotions are overwhelming.

Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep is charming and surreal, and features the most innate awkwardness of first love you are likely to witness. Following the success of 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry has proven with his first solo writing project that he is one of the most dynamic and innovative young directors in the world. In this film, Gondry endows upon Stephane the personal obsession he had at a young age with art and invention. Gondry, shortly after joining the band Oui Oui as a drummer, realized his passion was for directing short films and experimenting with live and stop-motion animation. He became one of the most innovative directors of video clips and worked with Bjork and The White Stripes to name just two prominent artists. In many ways, The Science of Sleep is a self-reflexive experiment of Gondry's personal creative buzz, and a truly bizarre collaboration of all his artistic obsessions with alternate versions of reality, and the purest example of his now distinctive cinema style.

Stephane Miroux (Gael Garcia Bernal) is a shy and withdrawn young man, whose vivid imagination and dreams are often inverted with his own reality, impairing his ability to react to individuals and the world around him. He returns to his childhood home in France, an apartment in a building owned by his mother, with promises of a creative job with a calendar printing company. Convinced that his creative skills would be required, he had prepared a series of drawings of worldwide disasters to be used in a collaboration for a calendar, called 'Disasterology'. But he soon finds that the job solely requires mundane typesetting work, and his passion for art and talent as an artist is unappreciated. One day, as he leaves his apartment for work, he tries to assist his new neighbor to move her piano inside, and injures his hand. He meets Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her friend Zoe. Stephane reveals that he is an inventor, and shows the girls some of his creations. He builds a friendship with Stephanie, who shares his passion for creativity, and they discuss ideas for a short animated film. Stephane also suspects that she might care for him. He, personally has an attraction to Zoe and debates whether to ask Stephanie for her number.

In one of the films' best sequences, Stephane, while having a bath, falls asleep and dreams that he writes a letter to Stephanie revealing his regret at having lied up until that point about being her neighbor and unremittingly asks for Zoe's number. It is written in French with such poor grammar that it is almost unreadable to Stephanie, who wakes up to see him deliver the letter. He walks into the hall wet and naked, and pushes the letter under her door. He wakes up in the bath moments later and sighs with relief that it was all just a dream...that is until he finds his notepad next to the bath and wet footprints leading out into the hall. Despite the revelations and Stephane's ignorance of Stephanie's knowledge of the letter, their friendship blossoms into a romance. Stephane becomes influenced and ultimately frustrated by the advice from his arrogant, sex-obsessed work colleague, Guy (Alain Chabat), and the bizarre circumstances that result from the intermixing of his vivid dreams and his reality. Stephane has always sought the answer to his emotions within his dream world, as he evaluates the bizarre complexities of human interaction and the peculiarities of the brain, but becomes increasingly frustrated when he fails to find any satisfying solutions to his dilemmas. Stephane believed that people empathized with what he did because it always came from the heart, and he decides to risk everything to win the heart of Stephanie. 

Elegant, creative and quirky, The Science of Sleep is an adult fantasy exploring the complexities of the human emotion; how we pursue and perceive love and companionship, both in our imagination and in reality. It tackles the idea, and quite well i think, that we are forever defined solely by who we are. There are also possibilities and unexplained phenomena in relation to the interrelation between the randomness of our daily experiences and the power of dreams when they are subject to interpretation. Interestingly, it also examines how our daily experience impacts on our dreams. In a sequence where Stephane and Stephanie have a confrontation following a party where the former drinks heavily and becomes upset when Stephanie dances flirtatiously with another man, Stephane assumes that the two are connected through 'Parallel Synchronized Randomness', a phenomenon he has examined in his dreams. When a continued relationship seems unlikely, Stephanie offers Zoe's number to Stephane, tearfully claiming that this was all he had wanted from her. Stephane still does not know that she had read the letter he pushed under her door, and assumes that the pair are connected by a cycle via their brains.

It's all meticulously crafted by Gondry, who appears to have a lot of fun combining all these dynamic techniques and styles. It's a collaboration of all his childhood passions and hobbies. Gael Garcia Bernal seems to have almost as much fun, especially in the dream sequences staged inside his own head where he is uncharacteristically (for the character of Stephane at least) confident and charismatic. Playing host to his own investigation/lesson into dream science, Stephane is commenting on the odd phenomena associated with brain activity, which often correlates with stimuli from his reality. Bernal's performance is excellent. The hand-held cinematography is also effective in transforming even the most mundane activity into something interesting and engaging. The dream-sequences, where the dialogue is sometimes inaudible and the framing quickened, are consistently outrageous. There are none more notable than when Stephane dreams his hands become absurdly giant. The animated sequences involving stop-motion are cleverly constructed using material scraps like cardboard, cellophane, felt and fabric. Full of hallucinatory magic and visual flair, The Science of Sleep is genuinely romantic and effortlessly comic.

My Rating: 4 Stars

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Review: Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010)

Following the studio's last two brilliant releases, the visually groundbreaking Wall-E (2008) and the charming Up (2009), who could have imagined that Pixar could have maintained such a level of perfection. With the third, and likely final, film in the beloved Toy Story franchise, Pixar have once again outdone themselves, immediately making the animated trilogy one of the greatest of all time. When Toy Story (dir. John Lasseter) was released back in 1995, it was a monumental animated achievement and one of the most popular family films ever released. It was the first film in the Disney/Pixar partnership and the first animated feature made entirely with CGI. Toy Story spawned a mass of supporting merchandise and Woody and Buzz became instantly recognizable and beloved icons. Following the release of A Bugs Life in 1997, John Lasseter returned to direct the Toy Story 2 sequel in 1999, which was an even greater hit at the box office, and was equally well received by fans and critics. Like the first film, the complex visuals endowed to the characters and the environments, and the well-crafted screenplay made it fantastic entertainment value for both children and adults alike. I have never favored it over the first film, but it was still one of the greatest animated films ever released at the time. It actually improves on the original in many ways and the script is still as gloriously witty, with endless pokes at popular culture.

With the announcement of the release of the second sequel in 2010, I was very excited. Having grown up with the first two films, and knowing that Pixar have never yet made a bad film, I was sure that it would be a success. Toy Story 3 still remains one of the top releases of 2010, and a second Best Picture Nomination for Pixar (following Up last year) looks likely. The images, like in Wall E, are absolutely stunning and the 3D technology works perfectly. I am still not convinced with the obsession with 3D from many producers, but Pixar have absolutely nailed it with both Up and now Toy Story 3. Fused by engaging action, subtle comedy and a unique and transcendental commentary on love, friendship and familial solidarity, TS3 floods the viewer with heartbreaking emotion. Endowed with incredible 'human' qualities the reality of the toys seems uncannily possible, and after witnessing the events of this film, it takes a very strong person to avoid tears by the conclusion. I was both overwhelmed by the moving finale but also the thought that this may be the last time I will ever see these characters in a cinema environment. Despite a few minor flaws in the script that sideline Buzz with the silly Spanish mode, and a prominent deus ex machina nearing the conclusion, the meticulously crafted intricacies of the sequences and the incredible 3D visuals allow all to be forgiven. Just imagine the reception if Pixar ended the film a few minutes earlier. It would have been one of the most controversial conclusions to a children film ever.

The opening of the film reveals that Andy has grown up to college age and will be moving out of home. Having outgrown his toys, but still feeling a connection to Woody, he decides to take Woody with him to college and store the rest of his toys in the attic. But an unfortunate mistake by Andy's mother results in the troupe ending up in the garbage where they barely escape. Despite Woody's claims that Andy wanted to keep all his old toys, the gang decide to be donated willingly to the Sunnyside childcare center. The initial illusion of paradise is quickly overthrown by the domineering ruler, Lotso the Bear. Lotso and his minions imprison the gang in the Caterpillar room, which is the playpen for destructive toddlers, and keeps them trapped in cells once they try and escape. Woody, wishing to return to Andy before he leaves for college, manages to escape shortly after arrival, but is discovered by Bonnie, a sweet girl who takes Woody home with her and introduces him to her other toys. Woody soon learns of the hidden evils at Sunnyside and the tragic story of Lotso, and plots a rescue attempt before Andy leaves for college and all is too late.

Woody is one of the greatest characters written for cinema. Beaten only by his love for his friends, his love for, and lifelong commitment to Andy is beautifully told. The opening montage of Andy as he reminisces moments of his childhood and his admiration for his toys quickly re-establishes our memory of the previous films after such a long absence. Woody has always been the heart and soul of these films and it comes to the fore here. The voice-cast, as usual, is outstanding. Especially Tom Hanks as Woody. Once Woody returns to Sunnyside and the gang is reunited, the prison escape sequence is ingeniously conceived and their ensuing perilous escape from the rubbish dump is tense and unpredictable. Without doubt one of the best film experiences of the year, now recently released on DVD, and worthy of many repeated viewings. While I still love the original the best, this is as perfect a finale as one could have hoped for to the most successful legacy in animated cinema.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

Friday, December 24, 2010

Short Review: Todo Sobre Mi Madre [All About My Mother] (Pedro Almodovar, 2000)

Complex and enthralling in narrative, engrossing and eccentric in character and vibrant in color, All About My Mother is a stunning cinematic achievement from one of the world's most respected filmmakers, Predo Almodovar (Talk to Her and Bad Education). As winner of the Best Foreign Film at the 2000 Academy Awards, it is widely hailed as one of the best releases of the year.

All About My Mother centers on Manuela (Celia Roth in a fine performance), a registered nurse and supervisor of organ transplants at a hospital in Madrid. She is a single mother to her beloved son Esteban, an ambitious young writer. After attending a stage performance of A Streetcar Named Desire for Esteban's birthday, he is hit by a car after pursuing the lead actress, Huma Rojo, down the street for an autograph. Weeks later, a still distraught Manuela journeys to Barcelona to seek out the boys father, formerly Esteban also, but now a transsexual junkie named Lola who is dying of AIDS. She firstly reunites with an old friend of Lola's, an enthusiastic transsexual prostitute, finds work with Huma Rojo as her personal assistant and reveals the tragic story of her son, and befriends a pregnant nun (Rosa, played by Penelope Crus) who works in a shelter for battered prostitutes. Rosa is bearing the child of Lola also. Manuela's life entwines with all of theirs as she takes care of Rosa in her home during her pregnancy, and even acts in Streetcar when Huma's drug-riddled understudy is indisposed.

This is a poignant, absorbing and richly textured feminine drama that tackles some pretty serious themes, notably AIDS, transsexualism, celebrity and womanhood. It is beautifully performed by the entire cast, Almodovar's direction is assured and the score is an eclectic mix. It is also exuberantly aware of it's own artistic merits, featuring homage (parody?) throughout to All About Eve and Streetcar. Memorable and not to be missed.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

Awesome Black Swan Poster

Just discovered a really awesome poster for Darren Aronofsky's much anticipated January 20 release, Black Swan. Natalie Portman's lead performance has her favorite for March's Academy Awards, while Aronofsky is battling David Fincher's The Social Network for the Best Director/Picture gongs.

Critics Top 10 Films of 2010 Lists

There seems to be a general consensus between top critics associations this year over their ten best films. Here are the supplied top 10's from Roger Ebert, The American Film Institute, The Oklahoma Film Critics Assocation, The Austin Film Critics Association and the films nominated for Best Picture at The Critics Choice Awards.

Roger Ebert's Top 10

1. The Social Network
2. The King's Speech
3. Black Swan
4. I Am Love
5. Winter's Bone
6. Inception
7. The Secret in Their Eyes
8. The American
9. The Kids Are All Right
10. The Ghost Writer
AFI Top 10 Feature Films

The Social Network, Toy Story 3, Inception, Winter's Bone, Black Swan, The Fighter, True Grit, The Kids Are All Right, The Town, 127 Hours

Oklahoma Film Critics

The Social Network, Inception, Black Swan, The King's Speech, Winter's Bone, The Kids Are All Right, The Fighter, True Grit, 127 Hours and Toy Story 3

Austin Film Critics Association

The Social Network, Inception, Black Swan, The King's Speech, Winter's Bone, Toy Story 3, True Grit, The Fighter, A Prophet, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Best Picture Nominees at the Critics Choice Awards

Black Swan, 127 Hours, The Fighter, Inception, The King's Speech, The Social Network, The Town, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter's Bone 

Quite a few regulars here: I guess the 10 Best Picture Nominees are somewhere on this post. I just hope that The Town isn't selected, because I don't find it deserving. There are a few of these I need to see too.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou, 1991)

Long banned in China, Raise the Red Lantern is an intricately conceived, and beautifully captured melodrama from Chinese multiple award winning director Zhang Yimou (The Story of Qiu Ju, Hero and House of Flying Daggers). It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 64th Academy Awards, and is an adaptation of Su Tong's novel, Wives and Concubines.
The film is set in Communist ruled China in the mid 1920's. 19-year-old Songlian (Gong Li), who has suffered the death of her father and now resides solely with her step mother, is instructed to leave her studies at University and become the mistress/concubine of a wealthy gentleman to maintain the family's struggling financial status. This is a period of Chinese history where wealthy men can live in feudal glory and keep a number of wives enslaved within his Palace. Songlian reluctantly agrees to become involved with this life and becomes the fourth and newest wife to a man who already supports three. She becomes embroiled in a power struggle with the other wives to win favor from the master, who lights the red lanterns in the individual courtyard and quarters of the wife he chooses to spend the night with. They are also treated to a foot massage, and have the choice of lunch the following day. At the end of every day the four women assemble in the main courtyard, where the master reveals whose lanterns will be lit for the evening. The wives visit one another during the day, and you get the sense that the overbearing jealousy that develops is sure to end sourly, making this an insightful and shocking picture of the extremes of this Communist period.

Songlian is a headstrong and rebellious young woman, who was forced to abandon her dreams of attending college, and thrown into a world she doesn't understand. She seeks to ruffle the feathers of her servant Yang (who despises Songlian, because she had dreams of becoming one of the Master's wives), and the other women, often placing her at dangerous odds with the master. Songlian (by accident or on purpose) cuts the second mistress' ear when attempting to cut her hair. She then fakes her own pregnancy to gain favor over the other women, only to be discovered and revealed in the lie by her servant when she takes her period-stained trousers to be washed. Later, she becomes uncontrollably drunk and reveals that the third mistress (the opera singer) was having an affair with the palace doctor, resulting in the woman's execution.

The beauty of the architecture and the richly adorned living quarters of the four wives are all stunning. The intricately crafted kimonos of the women, the striking color contrasts (especially the illuminated red throughout their quarters from the lanterns) and the detailed faces of the women are notable features that contribute to the films visual purity and voluptuous quality. The performances, especially from the lovely Gong Li (a Zhang Yimou regular), are all top notch. The film is so strict in it's examination of the women that the Master, who is present in a number of scenes throughout the film, is often trapped in the periphery of the shot, and is never given a close-up. Raise the Red Lantern is a commentary on the treatment and humiliation of these women, at one level the mistresses and below them the servants, who are rewarded by playing in favor of the rules of the governing household, but then are ultimately destroyed upon violation. Songlian reveals to the third mistress at one point in the film that "we (referring to the women) are like cats, dogs and rats, but are certainly not people." There are few melodramas that resonate as powerfully as this, and arouse such beauty in relaying it's tender emotions.

The film concludes with a pair of powerful sequences that should be recognized. The first is when Songlian embarrasses Yang by removing all the lanterns she had smuggled into her own quarters. Yang had dreams of marrying the master and was living out her own red lantern fantasy. The lanterns are burned, she is ridiculed by Songlian and appropriately punished, but out of shame she remains sitting before the charred remains of the lanterns until the bitter cold hours of one wintry morning, where she faints. She is taken to the doctor for treatment but ultimately dies from her sickness. The second scene is following the revelation of the affair, and the third mistress is being roughly carried by the Master's servants across the snow-covered rooftops to a locked tower. The pain on Songlian's face is heartbreaking as she stealthily follows the troupe. The cinematography here is chillingly observant, as Songlian crouches beneath raises buttresses on the roof and peeks over to witness the woman's execution she herself innocently caused, as snow flakes settle in her hair and on her shoulders. She sets herself free from guilt and torment by later lighting all of the lanterns in the deceased mistress' quarters, and playing her opera as a tribute. I really can't fault Raise the Red Lantern, widely praised as one of the masterpieces of Chinese cinema. I was moved throughout, and the story is often enraging and shattering for the viewer.

My Rating: 5 Stars

20 Favourite Tracks of 2010

Here are my 20 favorite tracks from 2010:

20. Butt House Blondes - Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti

19. Walking this Dumb (Live) - How to Dress Well

18. Angela Surf City - The Walkmen

17. Bloodbuzz Ohio - The National

16. Written in Reverse - Spoon

15. Leave House - Caribou

14. Alter Ego - Tame Impala

13. Walk in the Park - Beach House

12. I Want to be Well - Sufjan Stevens

11. Shutterbug (Ft. Cutty) - Big Boi

10. Ready to Start - Arcade Fire

9. Monster - Kanye West

8. Odessa - Caribou

7. Take Care - Beach House

6. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) - Arcade Fire

5. Round and Round  - Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti

4. Runaway, Houses, City, Clouds - Tame Impala

3. Norway - Beach House

2. So Appalled - Kanye West

1. Desire Lines - Deerhunter

Review: How to Train Your Dragon (Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois, 2010)

How to Train Your Dragon, the computer-animated fantasy adventure from Dreamworks Animation stands as one of the most memorable family film experiences of the year, and is the greatest film I have seen released by Dreamworks, whose resume notably includes ANTZ (1998), Shrek (2001) and Kung-Fu Panda (2008). Released in theaters in Digital 3D a week before Clash of the Titans, it suffered at the box office in its early weeks, but fueled by critical acclaim became a success, making more money than every Dreamwork's release that isn't a Shrek film. I missed it at the cinema, so I haven't seen it in 3D, so I can only imagine how incredible the visuals would have been.
How to Train Your Dragon is a rousing emotional comedy/drama set upon a mythical Viking island called Berk where a young and bumbling viking teenager, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) wishes to follow in his tribes tradition of being a vicious dragon slayer. Their island is plagued by devastating dragon attacks who raid their livestock and destroy their homes, and despite attempts by the chief viking Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler) to locate their elusive lair and end the problem, they remain at risk. Hiccup wishes to impress his father and prove himself so he sets about building contraptions used to kill or capture dragons, and during the opening sequence, a mesmerizing attack on the island, Hiccup manages to capture the elusive Night Fury. Instead of killing the dragon, however, he frees it from its bonds, fixes it's damaged tail and befriends it. He builds a makeshift wing and riding assembly, allowing him to guide the dragon (he names it Toothless) in free flight. At the same time he is signed up to participate in the Dragon killing academy, where he proves to be the most successful in controlling the dragons, having learned a great deal from his time with Toothless. He becomes both the source of popularity and envy within the group, and subsequently must kill a dragon to complete his training. Having discovered that the dragons are misunderstood creatures and steal the Viking livestock out of necessity to feed an even larger creature residing beneath their lair, Hiccup refuses to kill the dragon and wishes to make the tribe aware that their opinions are completely wrong. This angers his father, who captures Toothless and begins an all-out assault on the lair. Hiccup and his academy friends, with the help of some trusting dragons held captive at the ring, pursue the boats to halt his father's mistake.

The personal story, while the central theme is the typical coming-of-age element, has some surprising emotional depth. Striving for recognition and praise, Hiccup seeks to impress his domineering father and ultimately get the girl (Astrid, voiced by America Ferrera). He bonds with the Night Fury like it is a pet, and it is both charming and heartwarming to see how much they care for one another by the end. The war between the dragons and the vikings is also somewhat savage and violent, with genocide of the dragon race contemplated throughout. I was surprised by how violent it was actually, some of the attacks are brutal, and most of the dragons are far too scary for very young children. While it is humorous at times, and I really thought Jay Baruchel's sarcastic voice performance as Hiccup was often hilarious, it's mostly quite a sad tale. But the script is intelligent and touching. The conclusion has an emotional kick in the guts that leaves you overwhelmed for a few moments, much like the film's major competitor for Best Animated Feature, Toy Story 3. The voice cast was exceptional, as was the rousing score composition by John Powell. The sweeping cinematography and the animated visuals were stimulating and complex. The spatial depth captured throughout is astonishing, made even more incredible in 3D I would assume. I really thought that Avatar (which is a technical marvel itself) could have even learned a thing or two from the flight sequences here, and the Kraken in Clash of the Titans was really disappointing in comparison to the enormous dragon unleashed at the stunning climax. Much like 2009, this is a strong year for animated films, well with the exception of the hugely overrated Despicable Me, and along with Toy Story 3 and the soon-to-be-released Tangled, How to Train Your Dragon is amongst the very best recent examples of the genre.

My Rating: 4 Stars

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

New Release Review: TRON: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010)

Adopting the mid-December Avatar release slot of 2009, the Walt Disney produced TRON: Legacy is groomed to be the huge blockbuster hit of the 2010/11 Summer season. With first-time director Joseph Kosinski in control, and with Jeff Bridges reprising his role as Kevin Flynn/Clu from the 1982 original film, Legacy promised audiences state of the art Digital 3D visuals and an exciting science-fiction adventure set entirely in a stunning digital dimension. The end result is an impressive visceral assault on the senses with some truly exceptional technical innovations and brilliantly realized visuals, not to mention a killer score from Daft Punk. What is not so amazing is the films' substance, the thin and bizarrely convoluted plot that demands our attention to follow, but then barely manages to hold our interest and also the shallow character interrelations. I had never seen the 1982 Tron, but I'm sure it proves beneficial to understanding what goes on here in the poorly conceived sequel. But for those of us who weren't born for the release of the original, everything is explained here in Legacy. Well, sort of. The seemingly overlong running time can be attributed to a lengthy final act which sets about filling us in on all that is skimmed over during the course of its duration until that point. While it is a fascinating creation, The Grid, Tron: Legacy remains largely inaccessible to almost everyone. 3D/special effects junkies will love it, but for everyone else, there are few exciting moments to justify the admission price. 

Back in 1989, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) was an innovative software designer and the CEO of the successful ENCOM International. He mysteriously disappears without a trace one night leaving his legacy in the possession of his then eight-year-old son, Sam. In the opening sequence of Legacy Flynn is seen sharing with his son bedtime stories of a digital frontier he has named The Grid, a virtual reality set inside his groundbreaking arcade creation, Tron. He tells Sam of two programs he created to help him, one named Clu, a copy of Flynn himself assigned to create the perfect world inside the game whenever Flynn returned to reality, and Tron, who protects The Grid. He promises to one day show Sam the world he speaks of. Twenty years later, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), now an expert hacker and the largest shareholder of ENCOM International, remains troubled by his father's disappearance, but has finally accepted his father's death amidst the rumors that claimed otherwise.

An old associate of Flynn approaches Sam and informs him that he received a mysterious page from a long disconnected number at his father's abandoned arcade. Sam investigates the page, despite his initial reluctance. He discovers a concealed door behind the Tron arcade console that leads to a hidden laboratory in the basement, where he finds some still operating computer equipment. In an attempt to discover what his father was working on last, he activates a mechanism that transports him straight into The Grid. He is captured immediately by militia with glowing orange streaks in their armor and promptly transported to the game arena where he is fitted with combat armor (with blue streaks) and an identity disk (which doubles as a weapon). Sam is thrown into competition having to survive relentless attacks from a number of experienced and dangerous opponents. He manages to survive and eliminate a few opponents before it is discovered that he is in fact a User, and not a 'Program' of the game. He is brought before Clu (a digitally rendered young Jeff Bridges), who subsequently recognizes that he is kin to Flynn and wishes to eliminate him, forcing him to participate in a Light Cycle match opposite himself and several other opponents. This is easily the most spectacular sequence in the film, and it is nothing short of pulse-raising. As Sam and his program allies speed around the multiple level Grid, they must resist their opponents' attacks and take them out with thoughtful tactics. Sam is almost killed by Clu, but is rescued by Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who drives him to an off-the-grid compound occupied by the now elderly Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges at his actual age).

Flynn reveals that the portal to escape The Grid is only opened for a short period, and that Clu had rejected Flynn's introduction of 'Isomorphic Algorithms' in 1989, and had taken complete control of The Grid and had forced Flynn into exile. Legacy really fails to deliver anything original in it's latter half, and typically becomes an escape film, as Flynn, Sam and Quorra try and evade Clu's relentless attempts to gain possession of Flynn's disk (which will surrender complete control over The Grid) and reach the portal in time.

As I mentioned before the visuals are astounding, and Kosinski's team have done a great job in creating this world with effects that rival those found in James Cameron's spectacular Avatar (2009). The fight sequences are complex and jaw-dropping and the neon-soaked costumes are dazzling. While the fluorescent saturated settings are undeniably bleak and the city itself industry-plagued, all is nonetheless beautifully overwhelming to the eye through the 3D. The Light Cycle sequence is the standout for me. When the plot begins to waver, which is pretty often, the film is given a kick by Daft Punk's driving electronic soundtrack that accompanies the action perfectly. The pair make an appearance in the film, and credited as 'the masked DJ's'.

The plot, which remains confusing for much of the film, is thin and convoluted, with minimal character development or chemistry. After a brief introduction to Flynn's creation of The Grid and his adventures within, we are thrown into the life of his son now set twenty years later, as he tries to remain uninvolved in his late father's legacy. Within minutes Sam is thrown into the game after he embarrasses the company CEO with a silly prank, which conveniently coincides with the page from the abandoned arcade. We never really find out anything about the company, or why pushing what he did in the basement, sent him into The Grid. The plot rushes along during the Games sequences, but severely drags in the middle, as we are first introduced to Clu, and then an aged Flynn himself, who has some catching up to do with his son. We also hope that he can tell us what the hell is going on here. A blossoming romance also develops between Sam and Quorra (played well by the lovely Olivia Wilde), which is unnecessary. A tad overlong, much of this is attributed to the final journey to the portal, which I raised earlier.

The characters all seemed to be recycled from other films, with Star Wars providing the most prominent influence. Flynn was a robed combination of Obi-Wan Kenobi (a now useless old man who's wisdom and knowledge is the key to everything) and Bridges own character, The Dude, from The Big Lebowski ("you're really messing with my Zen thing, man"). Also, Tron's decision to turn against Clu at the conclusion reminded me of the Darth Vader/Emperor relationship in Return of the Jedi. Quorra's status within the realm was similar to Sean Young's Replicant character in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Michael Sheen's camp Zuse character really WAS David Bowie. As for the performances, Garrett Hedlund was wooden, and Jeff Bridges uninteresting. I thought Olivia Wilde was solid, however.
Overall, Tron: Legacy is popcorn fare for the summer and will likely prove to be the biggest blockbuster of the season. Visually you can't fault it, and the soundtrack is excellent. But this is not a fun film at all. It is bleak, odd and confusing, and the plot is diabolical. Still, for CGI enthusiasts, you can't miss it in I-Max or V-Max.

My Rating: 2 1/2 Stars

Monday, December 20, 2010

Roger Ebert's 10 Best Feature Films of 2010

As 2010 draws to a close, veteran film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert, has unveiled his list of the years best feature films. It's an excellent list, headlined by Black Swan, The King's Speech and The Social Network. In addition to his top 10 he references other quality releases. Sadly I haven't seen all of these films yet, due to the delayed release dates we have here in Australia. The list can be found here in an article from Roger Ebert's Journal.

10 Christmas Movies for People Who Usually Hate Christmas Movies

Nearing the Christmas Season, I was recently referred to an interesting article listing the 10 Greatest Christmas Movies for People Who Usually Hate Christmas Movies from a website called College Crunch. They outline some of the best seasonal flicks that will leave even the most stubborn scrooge entertained. You should all check it out!

On the topic, here are my 5 Favorite Christmas Films:

5. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

4. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

3. Bad Santa (2003)

2. It's A Wonderful Life (1946)

1. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

New Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman Collaboration

Reports are from Screenrant that acclaimed auteurs Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman are collaborating again for an upcoming project - their first since the wonderful Adaptation back in 2002. As two of the more original, unconventional and self indulgent filmmakers in the industry, this is sure to be exciting news for film buffs. The pair have previously worked together on Being John Malkovich (1999), where Jonze received an Oscar nomination for Best Director, and Kaufman for Best Original Screenplay, and Adaptation (2002), where Kaufman received another nomination for his work, this time for Adapted Screenplay (odd?). Since then, two of Kaufman's screenplays have been transformed into outstanding films; firstly Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), directed by Michel Gondry, and secondly Synechdoche, New York (2008), which Kaufman directed himself. Jonze has since directed the well acclaimed adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved child novel, Where the Wild Things Are (which was one of the best films of 2009). The details of the project aren't known yet, but news is that the pair are shopping their pitch to independent financiers. I'll have to keep an eye and ear out for more info.

Short Review: Piranha 3D (Alexandre Aja, 2010)

Full of blood and extreme gore, boobs, killer fish, horror cliches, and more blood, Piranha 3D is everything you expect from such an outrageous B-grade concept, but not much more. Directed by Alexandre Aja, it is the second re-make of the 1978 original. I initially thought, as I left the cinema, that this may be the worst film I had ever seen. But I was endowed with a such a buzz that I realized I had actually enjoyed every minute of it and it is destined to be forever remembered as a cult classic. From a cinematic point-of-view, it is complete and utter garbage, with an outrageous plot full of ridiculous conveniences and predictable gags, but visually, the death and destruction captured during the piranha's massacre of the unsuspecting spring-breakers, is nothing short of astonishing, and made with the intention of creating abhorrent bad-taste fun. 

Piranha 3D opens with an ode to Steven Spielberg's Jaws (of which there are an abundance of throughout the film), which sees a man (Richard Dreyfuss) fishing on Lake Victoria. A violent earthquake hits, splitting the lake floor and causes a whirlpool in close proximity to his boat. He is sucked into the vortex, and massacred by a school of flesh-eating piranhas that emerge from the chasm. We then meet Jake (Steven R. McQueen), an unpopular kid who is admiring the attractive locals on Spring Break. He re-unites with an old crush (Kelly), who typically has a new jock boyfriend who mocks him, and by chance meets an eccentric pornographer, Derrick (Jerry O'Connell) and one of his actresses (the lovely Kelly Brook). They convince Jake to show them the local hot-spots the following day so Derrick can shoot his new film. Jake's mother (played by Elizabeth Shue) is the local Sheriff, who along with her partner Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames) find the mutilated body of the missing fisherman, and decide to close the beach. Having bribed his younger brother and sister to stay at home unsupervised, Jake meets with Derrick and boards his vessel. Of course, Jake runs into Kelly, who accompanies him. Julie (Shue) seeks to investigate the source of tremor, taking a team of seismologists, led by Novak (Adam Scott) to the fissure. Two of the divers investigate the buried lake and find a cavern full of egg stalks. They are soon attacked by an enormous school of piranha, and Julie and Novak manage to pull the mutilated body of one of the divers into the boat, and capture a lone piranha. They take the specimen to Carl Goodman (Christopher Lloyd in his usual eccentric performance), a former marine biologist who now works as the local pet store owner. He reveals that this particular species of piranha has long been believed extinct, and that the tremor had released them from their underground entrapment, where they had since bred and evolved.

The final third of the film is outrageously entertaining. Before Julie, Fallon and Novak can notify and evacuate everybody from the water, the Piranha strike hits in brutal and bloody fashion. Panic and carnage ensues in incredible 3D. Flesh is devoured, limbs are torn off, a woman's hair is caught in the propellers of a speedboat, while one is sliced in half by a metal cord. Meanwhile, the porn shoot is going well, but tempers flair when the boat becomes trapped in dense submerged weeds, and then crashes into a rock and begins to sink. Soon enough the piranhas begin to strike the boat. Julie then must save as many of the locals as she can, but also rescue her son. It's all very predictable, and ridiculous. Most of the events you can see minutes before they occur, and if any of the leads find themselves in danger, you can rest assured they make it out safely. If you have minimal screen time, you are doomed. Piranha 3D is a visual feast, and while the 3D is really not necessary, there are some hilarious gimmicks. But ultimately, because so much is shot from the dark depths of the ocean, you feel like you have sunglasses on in the cinema, which is an unfortunate distraction. The plot is full of cliches, but also seemingly unlimited B-grade genre references. The nudity is for the pleasure of the eye only, and really, in how many films would you see Ving Rhames grab a functioning outboard motor and use it to take out attacking piranhas? Stock characters, awful acting and appalling dialogue can all be forgotten here, because it really is so much fun.

My Rating: 2 1/2 Stars

Friday, December 17, 2010

2010 Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Nominations

Best Female Actor (Supporting Role)

Amy Adams (The Fighter), Helena Bonham-Carter (The King's Speech), Mila Kunis (Black Swan), Melissa Leo (The Fighter), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)

This is essentially the same as the Globe nominees with Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) included at the expense of Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom). The winner of this and/or the Globe will be the likely Oscar successor. I'm sticking with Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech), but Melissa Leo (The Fighter) is gaining support.

Best Male Actor (Supporting Role)

Christian Bale (The Fighter), John Hawkes (Winter's Bone), Jeremy Renner (The Town), Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right), Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech)

I love the inclusion of John Hawkes for his excellent work in Winter's Bone, and finally Mark Ruffalo for The Kids are All Right. Sadly Andrew Garfield was excluded this time for The Social Network. This is a really strong category. I'm still not set on the inclusion of Jeremy Renner (who was certainly the highlight performance from The Town), and I think Garfield will warrant his exclusion come Oscar day. My pick so far is Ruffalo, but Bale is making headlines for his performance in The Fighter, and Rush remains the favorite.

Best Female Actor (Leading Role)

Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right), Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone), Natalie Portman (Black Swan), Hillary Swank (Conviction) 

I would love to see Michelle Williams back in this category come Oscar day, and Tilda Swinton for I Am Love too. Bening, Lawrence and Portman all have their spots locked in. I know nothing about Rabbit Hole and Nicole Kidman, but her and Hilary Swank have had their go. Jennifer Lawrence is outstanding in Winter's Bone and Annette Bening is sensational in The Kids Are All Right. But this is Natalie Portman's year. Would Sandra Bullock even have been nominated this year if The Blind Side was released? She wouldn't have beaten Bening or Lawrence at the least.

Best Male Actor (Leading Role) 

Jeff Bridges (True Grit), Robert Duvall (Get Low), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Colin Firth (The King's Speech), James Franco (127 Hours) 

Duvall and Bridges take the places of Ryan Gosling and the surprise pick Mark Wahlberg from the Globes. I don't know much about Get Low but Duvall's performance is being widely praised. I doubt the Academy will honor Bridges twice in two years, especially seeing he is up against Colin Firth again. Firth is the likely winner here for The King's Speech, having missed out for his performance in A Single Man last year.  Eisenberg is superb in The Social Network, and Franco has been in the race all along for 127 Hours. An intriguing category.

Best Ensemble (Cast)

Black Swan, The Fighter, The Kids are All Right, The King's Speech, The Social Network

There is an argument for each of these films to take out this award. The two leading ladies of Black Swan received nominations. The Fighter received three acting nominations (four at the Globes), The Kids Are All Right has a perfect ensemble, with the nominated Bening and Ruffalo joined by the excellent performances of Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson. The King's Speech is likely to clean up three of the acting awards, so my money is on it to win here. That leaves The Socail Network which is full of brilliant performances. Eisenberg and Garfield headline, but Justin Timberlake, Rooney Mara (outstanding), Armie Hammer and Brenda Song are great support.

Pitchfork's 50 Best Albums of 2010

Pitchfork have released the majority of their 50 Greatest Albums of 2010 list (with the top 20 added tomorrow):

Here is how it currently stands, with my notable inclusions in BOLD

50. King of the Beach - Wavves

49. Gemini - Wild Nothing

48. Dagger Paths - Forest Swords

47. Public Strain - Women

46. Black City - Matthew Dear

45. I'm New Here - Gil Scott-Heron

44. Spiral Shadow - Kylesa

43. Innerspeaker - Tame Impala (#8 - One of my most played albums of the year. An awesome chill-out album inspired by 60's rock)

42. Thank Me Later - Drake

41. Subiza - Delorean

40. Crush - Abe Vigoda

39. Crazy For You - Best Coast

38. Teflon Don - Rick Ross

37. Stridulum - Zola Jesus

36. Does It Look Like I'm Here - Emeralds

35. Plastic Beach - Gorillaz

34. Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles

33. The Wild Hunt - The Tallest Man on Earth

32. Bastard - Tyler, The Creator

31. At Echo Lake - Woods

30. Love King - The-Dream

29. Play it Strange - The Fresh & Onlys

28. High Violet - The National (#9 - A tight, consistent alternative album that is immediately likable, and feels like a dream. No skipping is required)

27. There is Love in You - Four Tet

26. Forget - Twin Shadow

25. The Age of Adz - Sufjan Stevens (#4 - While not as memorable or addictive as Illinois, this is a new direction for Sufjan, and it's a beast)

24. One Life Stand - Hot Chip

23. Sit Down, Man - Das Racist

22. Broken Dreams Club EP - Girls

21. Lisbon - The Walkmen (A calculated and thoughtful recording with a few standouts, notably "Angela Surf City")

20-1 are to be released tomorrow and I expect to find How to Dress Well (Love Remains), Halcyon Digest (Deerhunter), Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (Big Boi), Before Today (Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti), The Suburbs (The Arcade Fire), Teen Dream (Beach House) and My Dark Twisted Fantasy (Kanye West) included.

*UPDATED* (20/12)

20. Returnal - Oneohtrix Point Never

19. Love Remains - How to Dress Well (#10 - an emotional ride of ambient tunes, with near unintelligible lyrics, but you always find yourself completing the entire album in its entirety)

18. New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh - Erykah Badu

17. Swim - Caribou (A pretty decent dance album)

16. Treats - Sleigh Bells

15. Body Talk - Robyn

14. Cosmogramma - Flying Lotus

13. Everything in Between - No Age

12. The ArchAndroid - Janelle Monae

11. The Suburbs - The Arcade Fire (#3 - Easily as incredible as the bands preceding two works. I struggled to find a standout track on my first few listens, but you will discover this lengthy release is littered with them. Outstanding!)

10. The Monitor - Titus Andronicus (Yet to get into The Monitor, but it seems to be a rewarding experience)

9. Before Today - Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti (#5 - Was immediately my favorite album of the year on first listen, but I couldn't go past some other awesome releases in 2010. Still, this is a brilliant collaboration of moving but often creepy tunes in an experiment of mock-sophistication. 'Round and Round' and 'Butt House Blondes' are the standouts.

8. The Bells Sketch EP - James Blake

7. Have One on Me - Joanna Newsom

6. Contra - Vampire Weekend

5. Teen Dream - Beach House (#2 - A beautiful masterpiece highlighted by Victoria Legrand's melancholic vocals. 'Norway' is my favorite song of the year)

4. Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty - Big Boi (#6 - You can't avoid this one. It's a hip-hop masterpiece from Outkast's 'Other Guy' (NOT!) that sucks you in every time)

3. Halcyon Digest - Deerhunter (#7 - A gorgeous collaboration of alternative indie-rock gems that improves with every listen. The albums center-point, 'Desire Lines' is a monster)

2. This is Happening - LCD Soundsystem

1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - Kanye West (#1 - A gigantic achievement from one of the years most discussed artists. While he has never made a poor album, this stands above all others)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Releases 16/12

Filling the Avatar slot of 2010 is Disney's Tron Legacy, shot in Digital 3D. It is a sequel to Tron (1982), starring Jeff Bridges. With sure to be groundbreaking 3D visuals, Tron is a must-see in V-Max theaters. As one critic on Rotten Tomatoes suggested: "TRON: Legacy may be the best movie I've ever seen that possesses a truly awful script." Sounds like it has a bit too much style over substance. The other release is Love and Other Drugs, directed by Edward Zwick. It is receiving mixed responses, but Anne Hathway and Jake Gyllenhaal are being praised for their performances and both received Golden Globe nominations in the Musical/Comedy category. I'll endeavor to check out both before the end of the year.

2010 Golden Globe Nominations Announced

Here is a run down of the key 2010 Golden Globe nominations (for film), and my thoughts:

Best Motion Picture, Drama

Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The King's Speech and The Social Network

Notable exclusions here are Winter's Bone, 127 Hours and True Grit.
As I am yet to see Black Swan, The Fighter and The King's Speech I can't accurately gauge this category, but based on reports the inclusion of Black Swan and The King's Speech were expected. But The Fighter, which is based on the professional career of boxer "Irish" Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), is a surprise inclusion for me. I love Inception and I think it is one of the best films of the last decade, but I expect either Black Swan or The Social Network to win this.

Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy

Alice in Wonderland, Burlesque, The Kids Are All Right, Red, The Tourist

Notable exclusions here are...well, I don't know. But hell, Exit Through the Gift Shop and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World are better than four of these films.
This is a disgraceful category. Alice and Red were awful, and all reports are that The Tourist is disappointing. Is it any wonder when you cast Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie as the leads. The Kids Are All Right, which is an excellent film and a likely Best Picture (Oscars) nominee, will win this.

Best Director -  Motion Picture

Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), David Fincher (The Social Network), Tom Hooper (The King's Speech), Christopher Nolan (Inception), David O. Russell

No Danny Boyle or The Coens here, much like their films' exclusions in the Best Picture, Drama category. Inception is Nolan's greatest film, and I have heard lots of positives about Tom Hooper for The King's Speech. But I expect Darren Aronofsky, who was sadly overlooked for his work in The Wrestler (2008), to win this category for Black Swan. 

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama

Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Colin Firth (The King's Speech), James Franco (127 Hours), Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine), Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter)

No real surprises here, but I expect Marky Mark to be the outsider. Gosling is great, so I'm happy he has been nominated for the much anticipated Blue Valentine, also starring Michelle Williams. Franco is usually very solid also, and due for recognition. Eisenberg was outstanding in The Social Network, and would win any other year. But all the reports are that Colin Firth, who was shamefully overlooked last year for A Single Man, will win for The King's Speech.

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama

Halle Berry (Frankie and Alice), Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone), Natalie Portman (Black Swan), Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine).

Nicole Kidman bores me and I don't know very much about Rabbit Hole. Or Frankie and Alice. I loved Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone. I thought she was excellent. I'm a Michelle Williams fan also, but I expect Natalie Portman to win this for Black Swan.

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Comedy

Johnny Depp (Alice in Wonderland), Johnny Depp (The Tourist), Paul Giamatti (Barney's Version), Jake Gyllenhaal (Love and Other Drugs), Kevin Spacey (Casino Jack). 

I really have no idea! Johnny Depp (especially for Alice) has no chance here. Reports are that Jake and Anne deliver quality performances in Love and Other Drugs, so Jake may be the pick here. Having said that, he is opposed to the always-excellent veterans Paul Giamatti and Kevin Spacey.

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Comedy

Anne Hathway (Love and Other Drugs), Julianne Moore (The Kids are All Right), Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right), Emma Stone (Easy A), Angelina Jolie (The Tourist) 

The Kids Are All Right is one of the best acted films of the year, and while Julianne Moore was exceptional also, Annette Bening's performance was the stand-out, and she is likely to win here. I have heard positive responses to Anne Hathaway's performance in Love and Other Drugs, playing a woman suffering from Parkinson's disease. But I think Bening deserves this.

Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture 

Christian Bale (The Fighter), Michael Douglas (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), Andrew Garfield (The Social Network), Jeremy Renner (The Town), Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech) 

No Mark Ruffalo for The Kids Are All Right. Disgraceful. He was my favorite to win for most of the year. Michael Douglas was the best thing about Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps but he shouldn't be here. Andrew Garfield was exceptional in The Social Network, but I can't see him beating out Christian Bale (who reportedly delivers his best performance since American Psycho) and Geoffrey Rush for The King's Speech. The latter is likely to clean up all the acting awards so I'm going with Rush here.

Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture

Amy Adams (The Fighter), Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech), Mila Kunis (Black Swan), Melissa Leo (The Fighter), Jackie Weaver (Animal Kingdom) 

For the same reason as above I am going to go with Helana Bonham Carter for The King's Speech. Jackie Weaver was fantastic in Animal Kingdom and is a definite chance. I love the nomination for Amy Adams (overlooked for Junebug and Doubt in recent years), but as I am yet to see The Fighter I can't be sure about her or Melissa Leo.

Best Screenplay - Motion Picture 

127 Hours, The Kids Are All Right, The King's Speech, The Social Network, Inception

The Kids Are All Right features a fantastic screenplay, and Christopher Nolan's managed to make the brilliant complexities of Inception effortlessly concise for the audience. But Aaron Sorkin's screenplay for The Social Network will win here, no doubt about it. He had it after the first scene, really.

Best Animated Feature Film

Despicable Me, How to Train Your Dragon, The Illusionist, Toy Story 3, Tangled

I didn't like Despicable Me, and I never saw How to Train Your Dragon but I believe it is very good. It's got to go to Toy Story 3 though, doesn't it? One of the years best films and likely Best Picture nom.

Best Original Score - Motion Picture

Alexandre Desplat (The King's Speech), Danny Elfman (Alice in Wonderland), A. R Rahmin (127 Hours), Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross (The Social Nework), Hans Zimmer (Inception) 

A really interesting category this year. I loved Trent Reznor's work in The Social Network, but this has to go for Hans Zimmer for Inception, which I think is one of the greatest scores I have ever experienced in a film.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

New Release Review: Monsters (Gareth Edwards, 2010)

Made with a shoestring budget of only $500,000, Monsters writer/director/cinematographer Gareth Edwards should be commended on his excellent work here in constructing a genuinely intriguing and visually impressive sci-fi adventure drama. When a NASA probe sent to investigate the possibility of extraterrestrial life in our Solar System crashes on re-entry in Central America, alien lifeforms in the form of giant octopi begin to spread throughout the United States/Mexico border region leading to a complete quarantine of the upper half of Mexico. Military convoys have been ordered in an attempt to contain and control the creatures, with the Governments also resorting to air strikes and defoliation. An enormous wall stretching along the border crossing keeps the United States protected from infiltration.

The film opens with a sequence shot with night vision, as a U.S patrol vehicle drives through a town and approaches one of the giant tentacled creatures that has ambushed another unit. One of the vehicles in the convoy is flipped over and the soldiers fire upon the creature, as a civilian man screams for help and tries to drag an injured woman away from danger. An air strike is called on the area, and the screen fades to black as an air-to-ground missile hones in their position. The main plot is centered on Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a young photojournalist who is stationed in Mexico documenting the horrific aftermath. Andrew is hired to escort his wealthy boss' daughter, Sam (Whitney Able) back across the border into the United States as the creatures begin to spread further South.

This is not your typical alien invasion film, and it is a much more thoughtful approach than most of the end-of-the-world blockbusters that hit the screen these days. It can be marketed as a science-fiction adventure film, but it shares elements of other genres. As a result of this approach, it is a difficult film to market and it unfortunately suffered from a small release. I think that most genre fans will be disappointed with the premise, and the lack of 'action' present. Monsters ultimately becomes a romance, set in a war-torn dystopia, which also addresses themes of biology and immigration. At one point, the pair are at the Mexican coast seeking a ferry around the infected zone into America. Despite Sam's passport and evidence of American citizenship, the ferry official charges $5000 dollars (a small fortune) for a ticket. The only other option is to travel through the infected zone, which also requires fees to cover the series of escorts. What was ridiculously convenient was the robbery of Andrew's bag the morning Sam is due to leave on the ferry. Andrew had slept with a local girl, who had consequently robbed him of his valuable few possessions, and forced the pair to seek an alternative arrangement.

The plot is simple and straightforward but there are some unfortunate moments of convenience. The true marvelous feature is just how visually surreal the world feels; and the way it is captured. Shot on location with hand-held cinematography, there are some incredible images of destruction and ruin, and some pretty impressive special effects considering the budget. It successfully documents the siege by an extraterrestrial force that has immediately shuffled humans down the food chain. Even outside the 'infected zone' the countryside is littered with the remains of crashed fighter jets and helicopters, while squashed cars are frequently found nestled in the upper branches of trees. The pace seems languid at times, but i found it calculated and mesmerizing. It often seems so tranquil and quiet, like the calm following the storm, but with this threatening presence lurking beneath the surface. This is none more evident than in the sequence on the water at night. Having stalled because of motor trouble, they spot something moving on the water. As it nears the boat it is discovered to be a fighter jet half submerged. There is movement beneath the surface and tentacles wrap around the jet and pull it beneath the water. Despite seeing little to none of the creature it remains effective and creepy because you think that this easily could have happened to their boat, stranded only metres away.

Some of the sequences on the river remind me of Apocalypse Now (1979) as they are seemingly removed from the war front, but are journeying through the aftermath witnessing the devastation and death that now plagues this part of the world. The premise also reminded me of District 9 (2009), with the Government funded quarantine of the creatures in an attempt to control them. Later in the film it is revealed that the Government had dropped chemical weapons on the inhabited areas and had provoked and angered the creatures. While they live predominantly in the rivers, they lay their eggs on the land (in the trees) and then return to the rivers. In just six years they have adapted to the land and have found a way to survive and reproduce, which certainly looks grim for the future of humanity. There is a wall defending the creatures from America, with the Government spending a lot of money to protect the border. Andrew claims that "you can't fight nature", while Sam recognizes that many have been imprisoned in Mexico. With such an active defense around the infected zone, movement into the United States or from the United States into Mexico is extremely dangerous and near impossible.

With the exception of the two leads, Edwards called on non-actors from the villages to play many of the roles. Both lead characters feel real and grounded, and each deliver quality performances and share a great chemistry. Scoot McNairy is charming and likable, but obnoxious while Whitney Able is shy and sweet but strong and determined. They bond almost immediately and their conversations throughout the film are revelatory and really enlightening of their personalities. My advice is to forget all you think you know about alien invasion films, Monsters is not at all like you imagine. It is well paced, engaging and has a heart and sense of humanity so often absent in the genre.

My Rating: 4 Stars