Saturday, 30 January 2010

Precious - Review


There is people in this world who tend to argue, we live in a society bereft of shock. The same arguably applies to watching films. For all the gore, the sex, the foul language, we have all became completely desensitized to such acts that it has now become second nature. For the most part I would even agree with this argument, however people who preach this conclusion should maybe watch Lee Daniels' (of Monster's Ball fame) latest offering: Precious.

The story, based on the 1996 novel by Sapphire entitled Push, is centred around obese, illiterate, black 16-year-old Claireece Precious Jones (referred to by her middle name) living in the New York City neighbourhood of Harlem. She has been impregnated twice by her father, Carl, and suffers long term physical, mental and sexual abuse from her unemployed mother. Heavy stuff you say? You have no idea...

Within the opening 10 minutes I was actually shocked and appalled at the level of abuse this poor girl faced, it was so visceral and intense you almost forgot you were watching a film which involved people acting. Totally captivating. The debut performance of Gabourey Sidibe was an utter joy to behold, she clearly poured her heart and soul into this performance and the same can also be said for Mo'Nique as Precious' horrible, bitter, twisted mother Mary. Her character was what drove the film's harsher moments into the realms of nightmares.

The film thankfully was not entirely set in a pit of despair, as the support characters in Precious' life gave her some uplifting moments of hope and teased at the idea there might even be some heavenly light at the end of the tunnel. It was a surreal experience sitting through a film with Mariah Carey in it with zero makeup trying to act, what was perhaps even more surreal was the fact I actually thought she was very good.

Despite the amazing performances, the film's production values were a rather unbalanced. Though I can see the purpose for the dream-like sequences in the backdrop of Precious' personal anguish, the sequences themselves looked cheap and too 'MTV' in comparison to the harsh gritty reality the poor girl actually faced. It wasn't quite as silly as Antichrist but compared to the horrifying scenes between Precious and her mother I was maybe expecting a bit more.

Final Thoughts
It will leave you numb. Precious is a film like no other you will see this month, it will slap you in the face and demand you take notice. It is a bit like watching a train crash, utterly horrifying and unrelenting in human pain and suffering, but you are completely compelled to watch on and see what happens next. Precious is a film everyone needs to watch and could even be hailed as one of the best dramas in years, however you would have to be a brave person to watch it more than once. I need a stiff drink...

8.5/10

See this if you liked...
Monster's Ball, The Wrestler, The Colour Purple

Precious is on release in limited cinemas across now. Or at least it should be...

This has possibly been one of the best months for films I've had since starting this blog. Hopefully the rest of 2010 can follow by the same example!

Thursday, 28 January 2010

The Princess and the Frog - Review


Oh Walt Disney, how I have missed you. For the people who know me, you probably know how this review is going to play out, for those who don't I just want to say that very few types of films in the world give me as much honest, heartfelt enjoyment as an animated movie from Walt Disney Pictures. My childhood was frankly spoilt with classics such as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King and Hercules - to name a few - being released in the cinema for the first time.

Then through perhaps a mixture of the CG revolution from Pixar, Dreamworks and the like as well as a lack of passion from the strayed board of directors running the company, Disney lost their magic, their heart, their soul. After releasing pieces of bland and uninspiring features like Dinosaur, Home on the Range, Meet the Robinsons, Chicken Little etc, the company looked dead and buried, until Pixar head honcho John Lasseter returned as the company's creative director and gave the Mouse his heart back.

The Princess and the Frog is a much more significant movie than simply being the first with a black princess, it marks the return of Disney doing what they are frankly, head and shoulders better than everyone else at, 2D hand drawn, fairy tales. Obviously taking loose cues from the classic Grimm fairy tale, the Frog Prince, this fresh adaptation is set in early 20th century New Orleans about a struggling waitress Tiana encountering the suave and charismatic Prince Naveen albeit in frog form which sets the two of them off on a magical journey through the colourful eclectic environments of that part of America, meeting some genuinely amazing characters along the way.

Firstly I won't lie, the story is your typical text book Disney, anyone over the age of 12 is going to guess the ending and how it's mainly going to play out within the first 10 minutes. But does that make it any less enjoyable? Certainly not. From the moment the film begins, you can feel this is something truly special, and after being bombarded with a mountain of computer animated features in recent years, genuinely refreshing. The opening, with references to 'wishing upon a star' will clearly evoke memories of Pinocchio, while the feel of the movie will clearly place it next to some of the company's best from the 90s.

The characters themselves were delightful, Tiana was the typical Disney heroine archetype, headstrong, holding on to a dream, hoping for more than what she already has, never looking for love initially as well as having a cracking singing voice. While Prince Naveen was perhaps a more surprising package, I can't really recall a Disney prince as instantly likable nor with as much personality, providing some genuinely funny one liners as him. The support characters equally just as captivating, the standouts being Louis, the jazz playing alligator who reminded me slightly of Baloo from The Jungle Book and Ray the Cajun firefly who could have easily been irritating turned out to have the biggest heart of all the support characters.

It is always hard to find a brilliant villain in a modern Disney film, someone on par with the likes of the Queen from Snow White, Cruella DeVille from 101 Dalmatians, Malificent from Sleeping Beauty etc, and though The Shadow Man was, in my opinion, not the most memorable villain I will ever encounter he still provided some pretty unsettling imagery, delving into darkness you wouldn't often see in a Disney film of this nature.

As much as I love The Princess and the Frog, it would be silly for me to compare it to the Disney films I grew up with. If I'm being honest this isn't as good as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King or Aladdin. That cruel assessment doesn't change the fact that I believe it still wouldn't be out of place next to them however. The animation is genuinely beautiful in places, almost magical.

What the Princess and the Frog was maybe lacking was scope, it never dared to be epic, you never quite got that moment that will define it next to its peers. You know what I'm talking about right? That opening sequence of The Lion King, that ballroom dance in Beauty and the Beast, that Whole New World in Aladdin. If anything The Princess and the Frog, despite the ethnicity of its princess - which is a far bigger issue than it ever needed to be - biggest problem was that it played it too safe.

Final Thoughts
After years of wandering the wilderness, Disney finally bring the world the magical, heartfelt beauty of 2D animation at its very best. The Princess and the Frog is a lovable fairy tale with colourful captivating characters, and some darker moments that the young kids might feel slightly unsettled by. I'm personally surprised I enjoyed it so much, since I'm still hanging on to those childhood classics of mine. Hopefully this will mark the beginning of a beautiful new era for 2D animation bringing Walt Disney Classics to a whole new generation. Just shows all those nights wishing upon a star may finally be starting to pay off...

8/10

See this if you like...
Suppose it would be quicker to say Disney films, than attempt to list them all like my first draft of this review...

The Princess and the Frog is in cinemas everywhere from 29th January 2009.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Brothers - Review


There seems to be an underlying theme amongst the films regarded as 'front-runners' in the award season this year. Up in the Air aside, between films like The Road, The Hurt Locker and with The Lovely Bones and Precious still to come there is a level of domestic despair, death and the consequences of war. The latest entry into the blog Brothers - remake of the 2004 Danish film of the same name - is no different.

Starring three very capable leads in Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman; Brothers is the tale of eh...two brothers, one an ex-convict and all round misfit (Gyllenhaal) and the other a marine in the U.S Army and all round American hero. When oldest brother, Sam heads out to Afghanistan and falls victim to a terrible attack, it is up to his younger brother Tommy to be a man and look out for his brother's grieving wife Grace (Portman) and her two young daughters.

I thought the film started off quite poorly for the majority of the first half, where essentially nothing happened, completely void of any real emotional value. The film-makers seemingly could not decide which brother's story to follow and resulted in a largely unbalanced feature. However when the two narratives eventually collided and the true extent of Sam's mental injury became painfully evident the film started to hit pace resulting in a hard hitting climax between Maguire and Portman.

The performances individually were all excellent, with Maguire truly stepping up to the plate and delivering quite a chilling, intense portrayal of the sacrifices a man will go through just to see his family again. If the film centered entirely on him I would have probably given it a much better rating. However it was after all called Brothers which put you under the illusion that this was a joint performance, and frankly it was anything but. Though I could not fault Gyllenhaal, it would have been better to see him suffer a bit or display some real conflict for a man who is dealing with being on the outside after so long in prison, I wasn't expecting something on par with Freeman in Shawshank but I was expecting a bit better than this.

One of the main problems the film does suffer is that you barely see the 'brothers' on screen together for more than 2 minutes at a time, never getting a chance to explore a possibly strained relationship from two quite drastically different people. You almost got the impression they were just causal buds than two men who grew up together.

In production terms it did look pleasing on the eye and the score from Thomas Newman was surprisingly wonderful and emotive of the surroundings and themes carried in the film, which is a compliment in itself considering U2 also contributed a song to the soundtrack.

Perhaps I am looking for more holes than there is with Brothers, but I actually think it would have worked much better as a six part HBO drama as oppose to a film running under two hours, the characters were indeed captivating but their relationships were almost completely absent.

Final Thoughts
A film of two halves in more ways than one. Despite a slow, aimless and emotionless first half, the film delivered quite a immersive final act full of tension and drama fitting of horrible consequences war can leave on someone. Though the performances were very good, the director never quite seemed to get the balance right on which brother's woes to concentrate on. Also as already mentioned it would have been nice to see Maguire and Gyllenhaal have much more screen time together as their chemistry is remarkable. Not terrible, but not brilliant either. Probably doesn't help the film follows the plot to Pearl Harbour a bit too closely for my liking.

6.5/10

See this if you liked...
Pearl Harbour, Jarhead, Harsh Times

Brothers is at most cinemas now.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Up In The Air - Review


I often wonder and wondered once again when I first sat down to watch Up In The Air, does George Clooney actually act anymore? Brought to us by the director Jason Reitman (yes Ghostbusters fans, the son of Ivan), who boosts a solid record of the grossly under-rated Thank You For Smoking and the widely acclaimed Juno. Dear old Ivan better watch his back because his boy is gaining speed at matching or even surpassing his success.

Up in the Air, based on the 2001 book by Walter Kirn, tells the tale of a corporate downsizer (Clooney) and his travels. It follows his isolated life and philosophies along with the people that he meets along the way.

Having never read the book I'm not sure how accurate the adaptation is, but it was truly remarkable how relevent the role of Clooney was in the film, and his morally grey profession. Seriously, could you imagine being 'that guy' and doing what he does in these financially uncertain times? That said if I was going to be fired by a person I've never met, Clooney would probably be in my top 10 of men to do it. As always he manages to bring that suave, sophisticated, charisma to the character of Ryan.

His performance managed to sum up everything that is good about Clooney as an actor, the aforementioned charisma of someone every woman wants, and every man wants to be. That was 'the good', 'the amazing' was that he managed to add an extra level of depth to his natural attributes of a conflicted man - lonely, disconnected, obssesively career driven. A modern day equivalent of Mad Men's Don Draper.

The strong, confident supporting performances of the female leads were equally a pleasure to watch, the classy elegant Vera Farmiga was the perfect companion to Clooney, and their on screen chemistry in the more intimate moments brought a genuine smile to my face. Before watching UITA I did not know a big lot about young Anna Kendrick (besides being Kirsten Stewart's annoying chum in Twilight), but her performance was the true breakthrough of the entire feature as the smart, tightly wound, Natalie. Never shying away from the screen in the midst of the more experienced Clooney and Farmiga her character's journey was an extremely heart-warming whirlwind that made the entire viewing worth it.

The music and all round style of the film reminded me of the 2009 film Away We Go, from the folky soundtrack featuring a host of singer song writers to the city hopping dashes in the narrative, with the name of the city brought up in huge bold lettering. It almost harks of a film from a director at the height of the 1960s, making style and beauty look and feel completely effortless.

Final Thoughts
It requires zero effort to enjoy this film, sit back and enjoy a wonderful, hilarious, uplifting comedy with enough drama, plot twists and heart wrenching moments that may even cause a few members of the audience to shed a tear. George Clooney has made a lot of brilliant films during his time, but it is only now that he has managed to pull of his career defining performance, that sums up everything that makes him one of the biggest film stars in the world. Brilliant cast, writing and directing. I wait with much anticipation for what young Jason Reitman does next...

9/10

See This If You Like...
Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Mad Men, Away We Go.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

A Serious Man - Review


The Coen Brothers seem to have this bizarre talent. For every masterpiece they make, and in all fairness they have made a few in their time, they usually always tend to follow it up with something equally as forgettable, verging on plain dire.

On the logic that their previous film Burn After Reading was nonsensical tripe, following on from the Oscar winning No Country For Old Men, then hopefully their latest entry into their catalogue, A Serious Man will surely be another classic in the same breath as the latter, as well as The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou and Fargo? Well it certainly makes a decent case...

A Serious Man is the tale of an ordinary man, Larry Gopnik, who is trying to find balance and understanding in the world. Through seemingly no fault of his own his entire life is crumbling around him, his wife leaving him for another man, his kids are taking advantage of him and his money, and one of his students is seemingly bribing him to get a better grade, amongst other onus of life.

One of the most wonderful aspects of this film was Larry himself (played by relative new-comer to cinema screens, Michael Stuhlbarg), who was quite possibly one of the most likeable losers this side of the Atlantic, a kind and generous man, yearning for a normal, stable life. Life unfortunately deals him a raw deal and forces him to demand answers from the heavens above, leading him on a journey of self-discovery.

Ethan and Joel Coen's screenplay is remarkable. A beautiful mixture of Woody Allen's highest moments with the modern idiosyncratic humour of Curb Your Enthusiasm. This is comedy at its most sophisticated. I know it's such a cliche but Jewish comedy is always better than regular comedy.

Visually the film was as much a joy to experience as it was to listen. With bright vibrant colours capturing the spirit of the decade the story was set in, verging into the realms of the psychedelic which brings back memories of their glorious Big Lewbowski. This was only mutiplied by the wonderful soundtrack featuring Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and yet another emotive piano score from the ever talented Carter Burwell. It evoked memories of the 1999 comedy-drama, American Beauty in places.

Final Thoughts
Sophisticated, witty, uplifting and actually pretty hilarious. Once again the Coens have recovered from their previous failings of Burn After Reading and created a jaw dropping modern classic. If you didn't know of Michael Stuhlbarg before this, you will now. This unfortunately leaves the film-makers in a difficult position for breaking their much frustrating rule because regardless of how good their next movie may be, it would need to be something incredible to touch this. I know we're only ... 10 days into 2010 but this already is a serious contender for film of the year.

9/10

See This If You Like...
Woody Allen films, Curb Your Enthusiasm, American Beauty etc.

A Serious Man is at most cinemas now. See it. Seriously (no pun meant...)

Saturday, 9 January 2010

The Road - Review


How would you imagine the world will end?

Asteroid? Alien invasion? Robotic uprising? Mad scientist? Nuclear War? No, what if the world ended with a small whimper, a cold devastating cancer, choking it until there is nothing left. Some slightly drastic minded people may even think that it is happening right now. Am I one of them? Nah I'm just here to review a film.

Brought to us by Austrailian director John Hillcoat is the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel, The Road. For those who have not had the great pleasure of reading the book, it tells the tale of a man (Viggo Mortensen) as he and his son wander the barren, bleak, hopeless landscape of north-eastern America in search of food, shelter and the 'good guys'.

Overall I found the film quite frustrating to watch, obviously because I had already read the book I could probably bitch and moan for what they may or may have left out. However my problem with the film wasn't the adaptation itself because it managed to stay amazingly close to the source material. The main problem with the film was that disconnection it had with the audience. Oh sure it is horrifying to watch anyone, never mind an innocent man and child suffer through this godless landscape but never once did I truly feel for the characters, like I did when I read the book. One of the most cringing aspects of the story, and this goes for the book as well as the film was that stupidly convenient 'Hollywood' ending, I shall not spoil it here but lord it really felt as though it was shoved in there to put the audiences' minds at ease.

That said however the production of the film was hard to fault, it was beautiful and one wonders why Godspeed You! Black Emperor didn't reform to personally take on the soundtrack. Despite the characters themselves feeling hollow, the cast performed admirably in the circumstances, Viggo Mortenson is one of the finest leading men in western cinema at this current time and The Road is thankful for the talent and effort he put into it. Similarly Kodi Smit-McPhee was equally impressive as The Boy displaying that genuinely pure innocence in a world bereft of it.

Where the film does truly shine is in the smaller moments that it tends to neglect in favour of tense chases from cannibal rednecks and one flashback too many with Charlize Theron's character. The stand out scene being my favourite moment in the book itself where a wandering blind man (played by the legendary Robert Duvall no less...) encounters the father/son duo and offers his words of wisdom regarding the whole ordeal.

Final Thoughts
John Hillcoat's bleak, barren, horrid vision of the future does not make for easy or causal viewing. Unfortunately neither does the film itself. Though cast put their hearts and souls into their performances it makes for little reward to the audience having to sit through its two hour running time. Oscar quality film making, but not, I regret to say, Oscar quality in its delivery.

6/10

See This If You Like...
Children Of Men, No Country For Old Men

The Road is in all cinemas now.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

A Prophet - Review


January always marks a rather busy time for a critic, as oppose to the summer which marks a busy time for an angry comic book fan boy. It has been four years since the gloriously talented Jaques Audiard had seriously announced himself on to the world cinema scene with his intimate crime tale The Beat My Heart Skipped, after a slightly anxious wait, we are finally treated to this long awaited follow up, A Prophet.

Sentenced to six years in prison, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is alone in the world and can neither read nor write. On his arrival at the prison, he seems younger and more brittle than the others detained there. At once he falls under the sway of a group of Corsicans who enforce their rule in the prison. As the 'missions' go by, he toughens himself and wins the confidence of the Corsican group. Very quickly, Malik uses all his intelligence to discreetly develop his own network.

Jaques Audiard uses the setting and general plot as a social examination of the racism present within France and attitudes towards the Muslim community. One could argue it possess' similarities to Steve McQueen's 2008 film Hunger for its unique narrative and political commentary.

One of the wonderful aspects of this film compared to your usual prison/mafia dramas was its slightly outworldly interludes that linked the whole story together, made up of dream sequences and hallucinations from Malik. Visually, Audiard manages to create a rather serene backdrop in the prison that could, so easily, have been unbelievably uncomfortable to experience.

The performance of Tahar Rahim was a joy to witness, his own personal journey and character development brought a sense of genuine realism to the movie's ethereal moments. More curiously though he was one of the first central characters in a crime drama of this nature to even have a slightly endearing quality to him unlike, for example, Al Pacino in the first two Godfather films, or Robert De Niro in Goodfellas. However, like the previously mentioned cinematic gods, Rahim echoes the star quality and presence needed to carry a film such as this. Previous Audiard collaborator and veteran French actor Niels Arestrup showed his hardened experienced in the role of the cold hearted and ruthless mob boss C├ęsar Luciani.

Worth mentioning is also the choice of music throughout the film, including Sigur Ros' wonderfully folky and playful single, Goobldigook, as well as the beautiful score from two time Oscar nominee, Alexandre Desplat - who had a busy 2009 working on films such as Fantastic Mr Fox, Curious Case of Benjamin Button, New Moon and Coco Before Chanel.

Final Thoughts
Intimate in its intentions, epic in its delivery. If it wasn't going to go toe to toe with The White Ribbon at this year's Oscars in the Best Foreign category, I would say it would be a safe bet. Regardless of that, A Prophet is an elegant prison drama attempting to get to the heart of the some of the underlying problems present within France at this moment in time. The performance of Rahim demands the attention of Hollywood as well as the rest of the world cinema industry. A moving, thought-provoking work of genre entertainment.

8/10

See This If You Liked...
The Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather, Romanzo Criminale, Goodfellas, The Departed

A Prophet is likely to be in your nearest arthouse/indie cinema throughout January. For Belfast readers, it will be shown in the QFT from the 22nd January.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Sherlock Holmes - Review


Happy New Year film bloggers! With taking myself off for a week to indulge in turkey, ham and buckets of red wine I fear tonight's Friday review is a late one, which by all means, you have all probably seen by now, yes it's the latest in a very very...very long line of Sherlock Holmes adaptations.

Unlike many previous films based on the legendary character, this movie takes on an original story by Lionel Wigram, which sees this century's dynamic duo, Holmes and Watson (Downey Jr and Law), clash with the mysterious Lord Blackwood - played by frequent Guy Ritchie collaborator, Mark Strong.

Since his stellar debut and follow up films, Lock Stock... and Snatch, Guy Ritchie's career has been somewhat blighted with a curious mish mash of complete sh**e in the form of Swept Away and the unspeakably bad and needlessly complex Revolver. When he returned to more respectable form in 2008 with RocknRolla, though it was highly enjoyable, it made me think if cockney gangster films were all he was actually capable of?

Though Sherlock Holmes is not, by any means, the best film of 2009, it was hardly another blemish on Ritchie's already patchy career.

Robert Downey Jr was excellent as the title character, and managed to give a slightly more unique and fresh spin than his acting counterparts yet still retaining on the traditional traits that was associated with him in the past. Ritchie even took time to delve into his fondness for boxing, yet unfortunately, merely skimmed on his well documented morphine addiction. He was charming, eccentric, witty and larger than life itself. Jude Law was also in similarly fine form as the intrepid assistant Doctor Watson, gone are the days of Watson being merely a fat, bumbling sidekick, this incarnation of Watson was able to stand toe to toe as Holmes significant other - in a professional context of course. Both of the performances combined made for some genuinely hilarious chemistry and moments of dialogue.

It did suffer the occasional pitfall in terms of the production values. Some of the CGI was actually pretty poor by modern standards, especially in the scene involving Holmes and a giant angry Frenchman with a hammer, destroying a dry dock. Some of the actions sequences were far too stylised at times. Perhaps the greatest annoyance of the feature was narrative skipping back and forth from real time to Holmes' inner monolouge of his ever so slightly exaggerated methods of deduction. After all, Sherlock Holmes he may be, but when it comes to a scrap, he's hardly Batman - I know Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight composer) did the soundtrack, but it did take the piss a bit at times.

Final Thoughts
The jury is perhaps still out on Guy Ritche's Sherlock Holmes as the definitive adaptation, however no one can argue that it is not the most accessible to all audiences. Die hard followers of the original works may throw their nose up at the modernised reworking of the character. However very few can deny that the film was explosive, smartly written, featured two outstanding performances in Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law and most importantly, it was a hell of a lot of honest fun that most of the family could enjoy. With smoothing a few of the film's annoyingly rough edges, the inevitable sequel hinted on the film's closing moments could surely surpass this highly competent first cinematic outing for Holmes in the 21st Century. It's all rather elementary, one would think....

7.5/10

See this if you liked...
The Hounds of the Baskervilles (1963 version starring Peter Cushing), League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Lock Stock, Snatch.

Sherlock Holmes is in all theatres now.