Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Hole

Director: Joe Dante
Starring: Chris Massoglia, Haley Bennett & Nathan Gamble

A fun, family film that shows brings back scares into family films whilst also showing the horror films need not be targeted solely at adults or rely on gore to produce and effective shocker.

Joe Dante made his name throughout the late 70s, the 80s and the 90s for making both horror films like Piranha, The Howling and Gremlins and family friendly adventures like Inner Space and The Explorers all of which possessed a B-Movie sensibility, some even qualifying as B-Movies themselves. Having not made anything for cinemas since 2003’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Dante now returns to movies with The Hole, a horror film that is suitable for younger audiences but also possesses sufficient scares to appeal to adults without having to resort to the violence or gore that dominates most horror films. The result, released in cinemas in 3D, is an enjoyable and effective shocker that possesses many of the familiar and enjoyable Dante trademarks.

17 year old Dane (Massoglia) and his 10 year old brother Lucas (Gamble) have just moved to the quiet town of Bensonville with their mother, the latest in a string of moves. With little to do, the pair are introduced to Julie (Bennett) who lives next door who then discover a trapdoor in the basement of their new home. Opening it out of curiosity, they find the hole is seemingly bottomless and generates a feeling of unease and eeriness. When the three start finding themselves haunted by visions of a little girl, a sinister clown and more. The three realize the hole may lead to hell and whatever lies within is bringing their fears to life with their efforts to recover the hole fraught with failure. Can they reseal the whole and can they overcome their fears and stop the darkness that escaping it?

Joe Dante’s return to cinema with The Hole, shows he has not lost the skills for humour or scares that he demonstrated throughout the 1980s and 90s even if his last film, Looney Tunes: Back in Action was less well received in 2001. Toning down a horror film so that it is suitable for younger audiences as well as adults may seem a difficult task if not for Dante himself showing it quite possible in his earlier filmmaking career but doing so today seems fresh and daring when horror has mostly gone towards extreme violence and gore. The Hole is a very enjoyable film that derives it scares from spooky lighting and eerie looking figures placing the film into the horror sub-genre of chiller film. While the ghost of a little girl or a seemingly possessed clown doll may not be that original as sources of fear, they feel quite welcome and almost fresh here with both providing ample opportunity for scares with the latter even having moments of humour not unlike the type associated with the Gremlins that Dante introduced to audiences in the 1980s. The hole itself also oozes menace with the only real threat to the characters that struggles to generate as much scares being the shadowed figure that is the source of Dane’s fear even though Dane’s confrontation of this fear leads to an interesting finale with set design reminiscent of Tim Burton. The Hole is also released in cinemas in 3D, though the 3D adds little to the enjoyment of the film overall with the film standing up quite well without the need for it.

While The Hole features a few cameos from Dante regulars like Bruce Dern, as the house’s unstable former tenant, and Dick Miller in a brief but cute appearance, The Hole’s cast is mostly driven by it’s three young cast members. Nathan Gamble stands out the most as the youngest member of the trio, Lucas, getting most of the best lines and is the target of some of the film’s best scares and Gamble gives a likeable and nervous performance. Haley Bennett, probably better known in the US as a singer, is also likeable as Julie and gets to play a character that seems more capable of dealing with the fears confronting her than either of the boys. Chris Massoglia is fine as Dane though his character has the least interesting arc and least interesting lines but is fine nevertheless while actress Teri Polo is largely relegated to the role of concerned but absent mother to Dane and Lucas.

The Hole is an entertaining chiller that is certainly suitable for most ages and showing up many adult-focused horror films that have become over-reliant on violence to sell scares. The 3D might add little and the film isn’t as good as many of Dante’s most well known films but it’s certainly a worthy addition to Dante’s filmography.

Rating: 3/5

Monday, 27 September 2010

Enter the Void

Director: Gaspar Noe
Starring: Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta & Cyril Roy

Certainly memorable and confirming that Gaspar Noe is indeed a director with vision like few other directors, Enter the Void is however, overlong and over indulgent, lacking the punch or even the controversy of Noe’s previous film Irreversible.

After a controversial debut with I Stand Alone in 1998, Gaspar Noe became infamous in 2002 with his second film Irreversible with its extreme violence, particularly a prolonged rape scene, leaving audiences and critics both offended and enthralled by the events and the meaning behind them. Irreversible seemingly confirmed Noe as a director willing to push what is acceptable in cinema aiming to shock and provoke audiences. Now, eight years after Irreversible was released, Noe returns with a new film called Enter the Void. With a grander scale in mind in terms of themes and ideas being explored and it how they are presented, Enter the Void is certainly an ambitious and memorable film that will court controversy like Noe’s previous films but it is neither as controversial or as powerful as those earlier films with Enter the Void becoming too overindulgent, especially in its second half, leaving the film memorable, intriguing but also somewhat tedious.

Oscar (Brown) and Linda (de la Huerta) are brother and sister living in Tokyo. After witnessing the deaths of their parents in car accident as children, the pair vowed never to leave each other only to be separated and placed into foster homes. Years later, Oscar having moved to Tokyo has been able to afford to bring his sister over and they now live the family life together they never had before with each providing almost surrogate parental roles for one other. Oscar is a regular drug user and has taken to dealing on the side whilst Linda makes a living as a go-go dancer and is in a relationship with the club’s owner. When a deal goes wrong and Oscar is shot by police, he finds himself lifted out of his body and his spirit moving between past, present and future as he tries to look over and after his sister after his death and see the events of his past that shaped who they both became.

Having already established himself with his previous films as a director willing to experiment with what cinema can achieve and push the boundaries of what is acceptable, not only in regards to themes and events but also in regards to narrative structure and cinematography, Noe’s latest film Enter the Void continues to push those boundaries with varying levels of success. Filmed entirely from the point of view of its lead protagonist Oscar, the cinematography takes off once the lead character dies and becomes a disembodied spirit as, at this point, Noe is then able to take the character, the point of view and the cinematography that goes with it to represent the point of view to places that have rarely been touched upon in film and certainly not to the extent that is shown here. Floating above in, around, through and above the action, there is a sense of freedom to the cinematography as Noe takes the camera and character zipping across the Tokyo landscape and into the homes, rooms and lives of the film’s characters. Initially very impressive and recalling somewhat the music video for The Prodigy’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, what begins as an interesting technique becomes somewhat tedious in the second half of the film where the movements backwards and forwards over the city and between characters seemingly accounts for more of the runtime than the lives of the characters whom Oscar is following. Noe also experiments with time too as Oscar, in his afterlife voyage which takes the form of the experiences described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a text referenced directly and frequently in the film, relives his past and the most formative events that shaped him, his sister and their relationship. This exploration accounts for much of the first half of film following Oscar’s death and is interesting and engaging, portraying the traumatic event that shaped the bond Oscar has with his sister explaining their commitment to each other and the near-incestuous relationship they hold in the present as though each is taking the role of one of their lost parents. When the film moves ahead to the aftermath of Oscar’s death and he witnesses the events in the lives of his sister and friends the film loses steam as Noe spend increasingly more time floating between scenes than exploring them though there are still interesting moment when events he witnesses recall moments from the past where such moments are intercut with flashbacks, often sudden ones. As Enter the Void approaches its climax, Noe’s indulgences become more prevalent including a finale in a sex hotel that features imagery that is less shocking or controversial than it is, presumably unintentionally, hilarious though is nevertheless memorable.

Featuring mostly newcomers, Enter the Void’s cast performances vary in quality. Nathaniel Brown is fine as Oscar though his appearance and involvement in the story is limited mostly as voiceover as he narrates the events he is witnessing, which we too are witnessing through his point of view, up until his death when his thoughts cease to be voiced and he is largely replaced in the film by the director’s camera. Paz de la Huerta has moments of interest in her performance as Linda though her performance, and her character, rarely manage to convey what makes her so appealing to those around her and to Oscar in particular. Cyril Roy is more interesting and memorable as a friend of Oscar’s named Alex who is the film’s most sympathetic character, a philosophical and poetic character and the child actors who play Oscar and Linda’s younger selves are interesting too, especially Emily Alyn Lind as the young Linda whose performance is powerful and chilling at times especially when portraying the traumatic reactions to deaths of her character’s parents and her separation from her brother. The performance is the most memorable in the film and impressive for a child actress.

Whilst still likely to court controversy, Enter the Void is less controversial and certainly less powerful than Noe’s previous film Irreversible, though Enter the Void certainly demonstrates more ambition on Noe’s behalf with an engaging first half and some impressive cinematography that confirms Noe as an auteur even if his overindulgences means the second half of his film is overlong and somewhat tedious with an ending more humorous than shocking or thought provoking.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Winter's Bone

Director: Debra Granik
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes & Garret Dillahunt

A cold, harsh but tense and gripping drama, featuring strong performances from Lawrence and Hawkes making Winter’s Bone an impressive film.

Adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone is only Debra Granik’s second film after 2004’s Down to the Bone but the film comes to cinemas already with some critical acclaim after winning the Grand Jury prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Winter’s Bone turns out to be worth the acclaim being a gripping drama with impressive performances from its cast, particularly Jennifer Lawrence in the leading role having been developing her name off the back of several dramatic supporting roles, and marks Granik as a highly promising director worth watching in the future.

Living in an impoverished part of the Ozarks, Missouri, Ree Dolly (Lawrence) is left to look after her younger brother and sister and her near comatose mother in lieu of her father’s absence. When the local Sheriff (Dillahunt) turns up at her house one day saying her father is due in court on charges of making meth in a week’s time and has put up the family home as payment for his bond should he not appear, Ree finds herself searching for her missing father hoping to get him to appear and save herself and her family from ending up homeless. Ree finds this more difficult than hoped when her uncle Teardrop (Hawkes) and some of her father’s past associates refuse to assist her in her search or provide her with answers for his absence and all warn her of dangers facing her should she continue her search. Ree continues out of desperation knowing the risk to her safety whilst also coming to terms with her suspicions that her father may never be found for reasons no one wishes to confirm.

Winter’s Bone is an impressive drama even qualifying as a mystery and thriller with its lead character’s search and the dangers she faces raising a fair amount of tension throughout the film. There is also much tension to be derived from the fact that the lead character is a 17 year old girl as, when it becomes obvious that Ree’s father is more than just missing and the reasons for why that is, Ree’s slight build and the nature of the people who possess the answers to her questions makes her vulnerability and the very real threat to her life should she pursue her search all the more clear leading to several scenes where the level of intimidation being directed against Ree, including one scene of violence, leaves audiences guessing as to whether she will walk away at all. While the mystery of what has happened to Ree’s father is easily solved, the real mystery throughout the film is over whether Ree can prove it, whether she can survive it and who, if any, of her father’s past associates including family members can be trusted. Winter’s Bone is a gripping drama most of all for its character’s which are brought to life by some of the excellent performances of the cast but also impressive is the cinematography where this impoverished Ozark community is brought to cold, harsh life where a kind of untamed beauty can be seen but where the unforgiving nature of the environment takes precedent making the attitudes of it’s community almost understandable and the inner strength that some, like Ree, need to endure it clear.

Winter’s Bone is film that impresses most through its performances. Jennifer Lawrence is excellent in the lead role of Ree Dolly where her character’s conviction and strength is believable despite the youth of the character and the actress as is the desperation she feels which drives her also. Lawrence gives a performance that delivers upon the promise she had shown in earlier supporting roles setting her up here with the proof that she can lead a film and has a promising career as a dramatic actress ahead of her. The film also features good performances from its supporting cast. John Hawkes (TV’s Deadwood) is particularly impressive as Ree’s uncle Teardrop, an individual whose temperament and history keeps even some of the most intimidating of Ree’s father’s associates on edge. It is a performance where Hawkes plays against type having been best known for more sympathetic and caring characters and he delivers it convincingly being suitably intimidating whilst also keeping his loyalties unknown until later and motives believable when they are revealed. Other supporting roles are good including Dale Dickey as the partner of one of Ree’s father’s most dangerous associates and Garret Dillahunt as the town sheriff.

Winter’s Bone is a gripping drama. It is cold and hard but engaging with moments of real tension and featuring some impressive performances from Lawrence and Hawkes. An excellent film.

Rating: 4/5

Monday, 20 September 2010

The Town

Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner & Jon Hamm

An engaging crime drama with good performances all around and proving Ben Affleck to be a promising director after this and his debut Gone Baby Gone.

Originally establishing his fame, first through small supporting roles and then through his screenwriting credit for Good Will Hunting, Ben Affleck soon became a Hollywood star until a string of flops and his relationship with Jennifer Lopez seeing his withdraw from acting for a while. Building his career back up again with smaller roles, Affleck made a bigger name for himself in 2007 when he directed the film Gone Baby Gone which received much critical acclaim. Further establishing himself as a director, Affleck now brings the film The Town to cinemas whilst also casting himself in a lead role to further boost his acting career too. The result is a solidly entertaining crime drama that proves Gone Baby Gone was no fluke when it comes to Affleck’s directing talent whilst also reminding us that Affleck is a very capable actor.

After a successful bank robbery where he and his team also kidnapped the bank manager to secure their getaway, Doug MacRay (Affleck) takes it upon himself to monitor the movements of the bank manager, Claire Keesey (Hall), afterwards to ensure she hadn’t witnessed anything during the robbery that could betray them to the FBI much to the disagreement of his friend Coughlin (Renner) who’d rather get rid of her and be done with it. Reaching out to Claire when he witnesses her grief, MacRay finds himself attracted to her and the pair start a relationship even though Claire is unaware of MacRay’s role in the robbery that left her traumatized and unbeknownst to Coughlin. Problems arise when FBI agent Frawley (Hamm) suspects the guilt of MacRay and his gang and discovers his relationship with Claire meanwhile MacRay is under pressure to pull more heists when he wants to leave town with Claire and begin a new life.

While The Town includes many themes that are somewhat clichéd in the crime genre such as the crook who wants to put it all behind him, the relationship to an innocent unaware of their past or the reluctance to abandon those they grew up with as well as the staging of heists and robberies themselves, The Town is a film that proves that it’s the execution of such themes that matters more in film. Affleck proves again, after the excellent Gone Baby Gone, to be a confident director focusing on character and performances most of all but also able to film bank robbery sequences that approach the quality of those of Michael Mann’s Heat whilst not feeling derivative of them. Affleck also films again in his native Boston where he demonstrates a clear love and respect for the kinds of communities in which he grew up infusing the characters and their relationships with each other with local character and culture. Affleck also approaches the film’s central romance carefully to avoid the kinds of cliché of films such as those he starred in himself in the middle of his career being sure to take the relationship of Claire and MacRay slowly and quite different from the usual approach with the characters meeting because of Claire’s trauma and with them both sharing their worst tragedies that, when MacRay’s secret about his role in her trauma is about to be exposed, the feelings against MacRay are mixed. There is anger at against him for his deceit yet also sympathy in knowing his desire to change.

In addition to strong direction, Affleck also puts in a good performance as MacRay making him sympathetic despite his crimes and despite his secrets from Claire providing a grounding presence for the film. Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) is engaging as Claire, vulnerable though not weak while Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) gives a tense performance as MacRay’s partner Coughlin. Renner’s performance is one of simmering rage ready to explode violently even making him a threatening presence to those who might call him friend. Jon Hamm (TV’s Mad Men) also gives a good performance as FBI agent Frawley in a role that could easily have been underwritten as just the guy out to bring MacRay down, but is instead, and with Hamm fulfilling the role, one that has more depth as Hamm gives the character a Machiavellian quality as he pieces together the puzzle of who is guilty and how whilst playing the women in MacRay’s life like Claire and an ex, Coughlin’s sister, played by Blake Lively against each other without them ever meeting. Supporting roles are filled well too with Pete Postlethwaite as an intimidating crime boss masquerading as a florist and Chris Cooper in a single scene as MacRay’s imprisoned father.

While not reinventing the crime genre, conforming to several well worn themes and character types, The Town is still very enjoyable for the execution of the story with confident direction by Affleck resulting in some tense and exciting sequences and some strong performances from the cast. The film and it’s ending won’t be as memorable as that of Gone Baby Gone but The Town proves Affleck once again capable of being an actor who can direct.

Rating: 4/5

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Other Guys

Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg & Steve Coogan

Whilst having a good cast and the potential for good laugh, The Other Guys is a surprisingly average comedy with the feeling that little effort was put into it.

After a string of comedies that were not critically and/or commercially well received including the adaptation of TV series Land of the Lost, Will Ferrell’s latest film reunites him with director Adam McKay who has been involved in Ferrell’s better received films Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers. The Other Guys, a buddy comedy pairing Ferrell with Mark Wahlberg that pokes fun at the buddy cop genre should entertain, especially given the quality of the star’s previous work with McKay, but the film instead disappoints with many gags falling flat in their execution as though few involved were making the effort to make the film more entertaining with only Wahlberg standing out positively.

Detectives Gamble (Ferrell) and Hoitz (Wahlberg) are partners who don’t get along. Gamble is more concerned with pushing paperwork and doing accounting within the department whilst Hoitz is frustrated by seeing very little action after accidentally shooting baseball star Derek Jeter a year before. Detectives Danson (Dwayne Johnson) and Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson), on the other hand, are supercops bringing in criminals and getting all the accolades and glory. When Danson and Highsmith go out in a blaze of glory, an opening appears for other detectives to fill their shoes. Hoitz is desperate too but Gamble wants to avoid too much action preferring instead to follow up licensing violations. However, when Gamble and Hoitz turn up to arrest a wealthy billionaire named Ershon (Coogan) for a scaffolding violation, they get caught up in a multi-billion dollar investment scam when those Ershon owes money to try to stop Gamble and Hoitz from arresting Ershon and upsetting the scam leading the unwitting pair into bigger action than they anticipated.

With Anchorman regarded highly and Talladega Nights and Step Brothers both being almost as entertaining, there was expectation that Ferrell and McKay’s latest effort would be a return to form for Ferrell after a series of films that were less well received. However, despite a strong cast, a few good moments and some lines that should work, The Other Guys is very disappointing. The film feels too long and many scenes and jokes feel stretched out or lack energy in either the performances of the cast or the direction of the scene. Where there was a distinct feeling of all involved having fun on and off set in previous films, here there is the odd sense that little effort was made. While some jokes and scenes feel predictable and uninspired, others feel like they should work but don’t. The liveliest scenes are reserved for the beginning where Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson appear as supercops, embodying clichés with glee. Most highlights afterwards lie with Wahlberg’s character and Gamble’s wife, played by Eva Mendes.

Will Ferrell puts in a restrained performance in The Other Guys as Allen Gamble and disappoints as a result. Even when it is revealed that his character has dark secrets he has repressed with them starting to surface in his actions, Ferrell’s performance feels too restrained and lacking conviction. Wahlberg however is much more entertaining, getting to demonstrate his comedic talents again after I Heart Huckabees, here playing Hoitz straight with conviction where he delivers lines like “I am a peacock” or displaying a talent for ballet without betraying his character’s own belief in their masculinity with often hilarious effect only occasionally undermined by the performances of those around Wahlberg. Michael Keaton offers dependable support as the detectives’ TLC-quoting Captain though he never gets to stand out and Steve Coogan is wasted on a one-dimensional role as a slimy investor though Eva Mendes is likeable as Gamble’s wife.

The Other Guys should have been a funny film, reuniting Ferrell with his Anchorman collaborator Adam McKay, however a seeming lack of effort from the star and director leaves many scenes and jokes falling flat when tighter editing and timing could have made them work and only Wahlberg giving a good effort reminding us that the he has a gift for comedy when he wants to use it. Overall though, the film is very disappointing.

Rating: 2/5

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Tamara Drewe

Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Luke Evans & Roger Allam

An enjoyably light and frothy adaptation of the comic strip series from The Guardian newspaper, Tamara Drewe is a fun British comedy.

Adapting the popular comic strip written and drawn by Posy Simmonds and published in The Guardian newspaper, itself a loose adaptation and modernization of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, Tamara Drewe is an unexpected comic book adaptation not being based on action ad/or super heroics. Adapted by Stephen Frears whose films have frequently delved into sects of British society, his adaptation of Tamara Drewe is a more light hearted film that that which he most often known for. The film itself is quite enjoyable if more light in tone than the actual material it is adapting.

Ewedown is a small village with little to do. Ewedown has no bus service and no Post Office but is the location of a writer’s retreat run by author Nicholas Hardiment (Allam) and his suffering wife Beth (Tamsin Greig) with the help of local handyman Andy Cobb (Evans). When an attractive young journalist named Tamara Drewe (Arterton) returns to Ewedown, having left there many years before, she creates a stir within the community with her new looks, particularly with Andy, who once had a relationship with her, and Nicholas who wishes to start despite promises to his wife to cease his infidelity. Further complications arise when Tamara begins a relationship with a famous drummer named Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper) who she interviewed at a nearby concert which also draws in the attention of two neighborhood school girls whose pursuit of Sergeant and knowledge of the locals makes them privy to the secret goings on of the village, particularly in regards to Tamara, her suitors and her love life resulting in a teenage prank that threatens to not only wreck Tamara’s love life but also have implications for Andy, Nicholas, Beth and more.

Whilst an adaptation of a comic strip, the story and basis for such of Tamara Drewe is one that knowing this detail bears little relevance to the audience though doing so may at least expand their expectations of comics and comic strips beyond those that include super-heroes. Tamara Drewe, partly inspired by the book Far from the Madding Crowd, has more appeal to those familiar with that tale than those who are not. References are littered throughout and aspects of the story and certain characters are directly inspired by Hardy’s novel but then there are elements to Tamara Drewe that might also appeal to literary crowds such as the inclusion of a writer’s retreat which pokes fun at aspiring writers working in different fields whilst offering different perspectives on the events occurring around them in Ewedown in their roles of overly imaginative witnesses. Perception is a key theme throughout the film too with characters getting momentary glimpses of situations that allow them to be misinterpreted with the roles of two school girls following a famous drummer to the home of Tamara Drewe resulting in gossip and pranks that threaten to destroy several relationships. Despite the humour, Tamara Drewe does have a few flaws. The role of Tamara herself, whilst seemingly intended to be a cipher shaped by others perceptions of her, is still frustratingly undeveloped leaving her motives largely unexplained as though she is fickle and indecisive whilst the ending, faithful to the comic strip, strikes a very different, and somewhat uneven, tone compared to the events that preceded it.

While the character of Tamara Drewe is somewhat undeveloped leaving Gemma Arterton with little drama or depth with which to give the character, she is nevertheless perky and engaging when affecting the men in her presence. It is the most memorable film role for Arterton to date. Luke Evans brings a satisfying level of brooding to the role of Andy, the man who is perhaps more deserving of happiness than those with whom he is competing with for Tamara’s affections while Roger Allam is suitably smug and slimy as the adulterous Nicholas. Dominic Cooper gives a memorable turn as drummer Ben Sergeant, no doubt inspired somewhat by Peter Doherty while Tamsin Greig and Bill Camp get the most sympathetic roles as Nicholas’ suffering wife and aspiring writer who admires her from afar respectively. The younger cast entertain too with Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie as the school girls Jody and Casey with Barden being particularly memorable.

Lighter in tone than the material it is adapting, Tamara Drewe is still a fun and charming comedy while still keeping much of the drama. The lead character may be too undeveloped to really engage with but the supporting cast and characters provide plenty of entertainment.

Rating: 3/5

Saturday, 11 September 2010


Director: Jay & Mark Duplass
Starring: John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill & Marisa Tomei

An engaging comedy drama that avoids many clichés and feels surprisingly honest for a film that could easily have fallen into formula.

From Indie filmmakers the Duplass brothers whose low budget films The Puffy Chair and Baghead achieved positive critical response if not commercial success, have returned with Cyrus which would appear to be their most mainstream effort to date. This perception is partly due to two known comedic actors Jonah Hill (Superbad) and John C. Reilly (Walk Hard, Step Brothers) in the leading roles and a marketing campaign that seems to emphasis the film as being much more of straight forward comedy than it actually is. Cyrus however is far more original and in keeping with the brothers’ previous efforts than first appearances would seem resulting in a comedy drama that does include emphasis on the drama as much as the comedy with story, characters and performances that often avoid predictability and feel surprisingly honest.

John (Reilly) is a divorced freelance editor. Seven years after his split up with his ex he is still struggling and has given up on finding someone new. Pressured into coming to his ex’s engagement party to another man he encounters Molly (Tomei) who finds herself touched by some of the honesty John expresses throughout the evening regarding his loneliness. The pair hit it off but John is worried about Molly’s tendency to frequently leave late in the evenings. Spying on her home one day, trying to find out why, he encounters Cyrus (Hill), Molly’s 20 year old son who is still living at home and soon proves to be highly dependant on Molly with the pair having only had each other for company since Cyrus’ father left them both when he was a baby. Trying to get accustomed to Cyrus and win him over whilst continuing his relationship with Molly, John soon finds Cyrus does not like him and wants him out of Molly’s life with Cyrus proving to be smarter and more manipulative than John expected leading John and Cyrus into a careful game with each other over who gets to have Molly’s attention.

Whilst trailers, posters and even the casting in Cyrus suggesting a far more mainstream and comedy-focused film, the actual film is a surprisingly mature affair. There are certainly plenty of laughs but few come from moments of exaggeration with many feeling natural. While audiences expecting/preferring a more straight forward comedy of errors may not be happy with the more dramatic film with which they are given Cyrus is a much better film for its avoidance of the usual clichés of such films and certainly demonstrates the Duplass brothers are not betraying their own sensibilities and will, in fact, reach a greater audience with Cyrus than they have with past films. The film often feels quite honest, not just with its characters but also with the direction its story takes. None of the characters are perfect, even Molly, the object of John and Cyrus’ affections is flawed with her affection towards her son following her partner leaving her 20 years before resulting in a relationship with her son that, while loving and supportive, has not allowed her son to fully flourish and an independent individual leading her to have a very honest discussion over her failures with him when Cyrus’ own problems and manipulations come to light. John, while more noble than his first appearances might seem is a sympathetic character but also demonstrates some of the same neediness as Cyrus whilst Cyrus, despite his manipulations, has motives that come from a very understandable place making his actions not altogether unsympathetic. Audiences are left guessing as to how the story will play out and how each of the characters will be changed.

Cyrus features strong performances throughout. Whilst Catherine Keener is her usually dependable self in a supporting role as John’s ex, bringing some Indie credibility to the film, it is the trio of Reilly, Hill and Tomei that must, and do carry the film. Reilly balances his dramatic abilities seen in films like Magnolia with some of the more comedic talents he has portrayed in films like Step Brothers in the character of John, coming off fully rounded and able to generate laughs and sympathy as needed. Jonah Hill shows some impressive dramatic abilities making his character more than the stereotypical kid-from-hell and Marisa Tomei is also likeable as Molly demonstrating the warmth that would so engage John and Cyrus whilst not being perfect with her too easily able to overlook the flaws in those she cares for.

Better than advertised, Cyrus is not the straight-forward comedy it may first seem but is in fact a much more engaging balance of comedy and drama with its character’s having much depth and them and the story playing out in a more mature, realistic and therefore less predictable manner making the film feel much more refreshing than others that might resort to cliché in the ‘son-from-hell’ stakes.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Director: Daniel Alfredson
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist & Georgi Staykov

Less cinematic that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first of the Millennium adaptations, The Girl Who Played With Fire not only struggles with middle-film-in-a-trilogy syndrome but also fails to adequately adapt the source material with too many characters and sub-plots left undeveloped.

Based on the successful Millennium Trilogy of novels by Stieg Larsson, the first film in the trilogy named The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for international audiences was a successful adaptation both commercially and critically. All three films in the series had already been filmed and released in their native Sweden prior to their international release and all three were filmed with the intent of releasing shortened versions for cinemas with longer versions for television where the series would run as a mini-series. Where the first film adapted the first novel and felt like a film while remaining very faithful to the books, the second film The Girl Who Played With Fire now comes to cinemas and feels very different. Adapted by a different director than the first adaptation, the second film feels more like a TV movie in its production values but is also less faithful to the novels than the first film resulting in a disappointing second instalment in the series.

A year after the events of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, no one has seen young hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rapace) for some time. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Nyqvist) has moved onto other stories as young journalist brings him a story of a high profile prostitution and drugs racket running in Sweden which includes high ranking government officials amongst their clients. When the young journalist and his partner turn up murdered and the murder weapon at the scene bears Lisbeth’s fingerprints, Lisbeth becomes the police’s prime suspect especially when the weapon turns out to have belonged to Lisbeth’s care worker who once raped her and has also turned up murdered. With Lisbeth staying in hiding whilst trying to find evidence to prove her innocence, Blomkvist also investigates as he is also convinced that she is innocent and that the guilty party is a mysterious man named Zalachenko (Staykov) who is named in the murdered journalist’s notes who is a man that also has connections to Lisbeth, unbeknownst to Blomkvist.

Originally adapted as longer versions to be screened on Swedish television as a 6 part mini series, the film versions of the Millennium Trilogy had been shortened down for cinema audiences. Where the first film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, adapted the first, and shortest, novel in the series while remaining largely faithful to the novels, The Girl Who Played With Fire suffers in comparison. Filmed by a different director than that of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the second film in the trilogy feels much more like a television production than the first film which managed to feel cinematic. Adapted from a longer novel and having to follow on from the first film whilst setting things up for the third and final film, The Girl Who Played With Fire was expected to suffer from some effects of middle-film syndrome since its story’s beginning and ending occur in other films but the adaptation also suffers on many other levels. The film is less close to the original source material than the first film which suggest a lot from the longer TV edit has been left out, notably a major plot thread involving a detective and his team introduced in this chapter that means many characters are left very undeveloped and the film seems to rush along to its conclusion with little of the time devoted to allowing us to get to know new characters or get to grips with developments in the story. Action set pieces in the film also fall flat lacking the scale or tension of their literary equivalent and tension as a whole during the story is barely felt which suggests that Alfredson, the director of this instalment of the trilogy, lacks the experience and/or confidence of his predecessor.

Fortunately performances as a whole remain good. Rapace and Nyqvist reprise their roles as Lisbeth and Blomkvist with ease with Rapace getting more screen time and development this time around as her character become the centre of attention for the series from this film onwards with her performance demonstrating strength and vulnerability well through her expressions given her character’s reluctance to speak most of the time. Georgi Staykov and Micke Spreitz appear as the menacing Zalachenko and his near mute, blond giant of a henchman with Staykov disappointing slightly with his performance bearing a whiff of bad Bond villain while Spreitz, also in a Bond-style henchman role, intimidates with his size. Johan Kylen barely registers as Detective Bublanski in a role that is severely cut down from that of the books and one hopes is better served in the TV edit of the adaptation whilst real life boxer Paolo Roberto also gets little time to impress playing himself as his role, also cut down, is poorly served by a poor edit of a fight sequence between himself and Spreitz that should have served as the film’s crowning action set piece.

After the engaging and faithful adaptation that was The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire is a disappointing follow up and a disappointing adaptation of its source material too.

Rating: 2/5

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Mother (Madeo)

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin & Jin Goo

Bong Joon-ho’s latest film is a gripping mystery thriller which, in places, conjures up memories of his film Memories of Murder but with the addition of a novel choice in protagonist driven to commit desperate, even dangerous, acts to find the truth.

After achieving huge success in his native Korea as well as success abroad with his excellent monster movie The Host, director Bong Joon-ho follows that film with Mother, a nourish, almost Hitchcockian thriller which has more in common with his directorial debut, the police procedural Memories of Murder than the film that better established his name. Casting heart-throb Won Bin as a mentally handicapped boy arrested for murder and Kim Hye-ja, a popular actress in television in Korea as her grief stricken and protective mother shows Joon-ho willing to takes risks again as before by making another film the subverts expectations of their genre. Mother is a gripping mystery thriller that has an interesting twist in its leading protagonist being an older mother looking to prove her son’s innocence. Mother has elements of Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder in its treatment of the investigations against the accused son but also bears elements of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy in its lead character’s determination and willingness to go to dark places to uncover the truth.

When Do-joon (Bin), a boy with a mental handicap, is arrested for the murder of a school girl with whom he was last person seen in her presence, he is easily persuaded by police officers to sign a confession without fully understanding what it is he has admitted to and what punishment he will receive. His mother, Hye-ja (Hye-ja), has long been overprotective of her son for reasons that are unknown to many and is distraught at what has happened to her son. Hye-ja sees her son’s only chance is her discovering who really killed the schoolgirl and progresses on a search for answers which, when frustrated by the lack of help the legal system provides, sends her looking into dark corners and maybe having to accept dark truths about her son and herself and the over what actions she is willing to take to prove her son’s innocence if evidence should point to his guilt.

Working against type with his police procedural Memories of Murder about an inept attempt at police investigation and his monster movie The Host focusing as much on family relationships as on its creature, Joon-ho’s latest film takes a murder mystery and makes his leading protagonist not a police officer, lawyer or journalist or even the accused but rather an aging mother and one without many resources. This twist is likely the film’s most engaging aspect as it makes for a plot that is somewhat unpredictable. The mother is clearly over-protective of her son though doesn’t display and obvious signs of affection for her son. Her relationship with her son and her reasons for being so protective prove to be for reasons beyond her son’s handicap. The mother too, is also unsure of where to look and how to prove her son’s innocence and even seems unsure as to whether she believes in his innocence herself but her frustrations at being unable to get police or lawyers to look into his case provokes her to search for answers herself. What is engaging and sometimes surprising is the threat the mother can present. Her frailty leads others to underestimate her as she too underestimates herself not because she is particularly skilled or confident but because she is desperate and prone to commit acts in panic that are morally ambiguous and, perhaps, worse. Mother takes the audience and its lead character through several twists and turns that serve to darken the tone and take its characters into grey areas of right and wrong.

The lead performances in Mother are strong with two of its stars playing against type. Kim Hye-ja is a familiar face to Korean television as a motherly figure but here she takes a motherly role driven into desperation and her character’s desperation is clear and also sympathetic even in spite of some of the actions her character takes. It is an engaging performance and one which allows audience’s interest to grow as the character’s initial eccentricities originally serve to distance audiences from the character but the character’s desperation draws you back in, investing you in the outcome of her search for the truth. Won Bin subverts his heart-throb image very well as Do-joon, playing on his looks in part whilst delivering a believable performance as someone with a mental handicap that makes him prone to forgetfulness, anger and being unable to fully grasp the reality of what he experiences. Jin Goo is also good as a friend of Do-joon’s whose illicit activities mark him as a possible suspect but also as a possible ally in proving Do-joon’s innocence.

Mother is a gripping mystery thriller with an unusual choice of leading character that allows the story and character to proceed towards some unexpected acts. The mother’s quest for the truth is often touching, tense and disturbing in equal measure making for another memorable film in Bong Joon-ho’s filmography.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Switch

Directors: Josh Gordon & Will Speck
Starring: Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston & Thomas Robinson

A likeable comedy drama with an enjoyable performance by Bateman, The Switch does play things quite safe so isn’t particularly memorable but wisely avoids going the way of gross out gags in favor of a little more maturity.

Originally to be titled ‘The Baster’, the filmmakers made the wise choice of renaming the film The Switch to play down expectations that the film would have more emphasis on comedy than drama and/or be a more gross out style of comedy. Having its release pushed back to avoid conflicting with the release of a film with a similar premise starring Jennifer Lopez called The Back Up Plan, The Switch may be coming to cinemas too late to feel original in it’s premise of a woman looking to be artificially inseminated and needed her best, male friend to assist but The Switch is certainly a likeable film with some nice performances from Jason Bateman and Thomas Robinson even if the film itself does tell it’s story in a safe and predictable manner.

Wally (Bateman) has been Kassie’s (Aniston) best friend for 6 years. Wally has also been in love with her the entire time without ever admitting it to Kassie or anyone and feels he missed out on his chance due to his neuroticism. When Kassie decides she is through with trying to find Mr. Right she decides she wants a child and begins looking for potential suitors for artificial insemination, asking Wally to help. When Kassie finds a suitor in Roland (Patrick Wilson), she throws a celebration where Wally, in a drunken state, accidentally spills Roland’s sample for Kassie and finds himself replacing it with his own. Remembering none of this once sober, Kassie moves away to raise her child out of the city but returns 7 years later with her son Sebastian (Robinson) in tow. Reconnecting with Wally, Wally soon realizes through Sebastian’s neurotic behavior that Sebastian is in fact his son and not Roland whom Kassie is looking to reconnect with. Wally is then left in the situation of having to tell Kassie the truth about who Sebastian’s father is and confess his feelings for her before she makes the mistake of spending her life with Roland.

While the title originally conceived for this film and some of its marketing including Bateman looking at a semen sample might provoke assumptions that The Switch is more of a comedy than a drama, the resulting film is one that favors drama while still providing humor. This works to the film’s benefit as while there is a romantic element involved between Bateman and Aniston’s character, this film is more about Bateman’s Wally and his reactions to becoming a father and overcoming his fears, his neuroticisms, to do the right thing and maybe be happy at last. Wally is a sympathetic and likeable character throughout and his story is one that you hope turns out well for him. Some of this likeability is down to Bateman’s performance but the script deals with his character and his relationship to others in a mostly mature fashion which aids the story. However, despite the film’s likeability, it is also quite predictable and there seems little doubt over who Aniston’s Kassie will ultimately choose to be with by the end or that Wally will bond with Sebastian and learn life lessons that make him stronger. While some time is used to convey and confront the character of Roland’s belief that life throws you curveballs, The Switch does not really throw any at the audience and unless you’re particularly fond of happy endings, the ending itself is nice but somewhat unsatisfactory feeling a little forced.

Jason Bateman puts in a good performance as Wally. While the role itself bears too much in common with that of Michael Bluth on TV’s Arrested Development, Bateman is nevertheless enjoyable to watch, particularly in scenes he shares with Thomas Robinson playing Wally’s son. Bateman and Robinson have some good on screen chemistry and Robinson too puts in a nice performance, initially playing to miserable kid type but becoming warmer later. Jennifer Aniston is decent as Kassie though he story is less present than Wally’s and Aniston doesn’t add anything to her performance to separate it from much of what she’s done before. Amongst the supporting cast we have a highly likeable turn from Jeff Goldblum as Wally’s friend with Goldblum’s natural charisma stealing scenes, Juliette Lewis is somewhat annoying as Kassie’s friend but plays the character’s type well while Patrick Wilson’s performance as Roland is just the right level of likeable but with enough vulnerabilities shown that you can root against his character without hating him but rather seeing it as the best thing for him too.

Overall, The Switch is a little more mature than might be expected. The story is somewhat predictable and many of the actors aren’t providing performances that you haven’t seen them give before but Bateman makes for a likeable lead and he has good chemistry with child actor Thomas Robinson. Throw in an excellent Jeff Goldblum in a supporting role and The Switch is an enjoyable if average comedy drama.

Rating: 3/5