17 January 2010

Au revoir 2009!

It is already the middle of January and I thought that it was about time that I look back at my favourite films of 2009. Crazy Heart is the only film from 2009 that I have not seen that will be nominated for an Academy Award, as most experts are predicting Jeff Bridges to win Best Actor. My list of the top ten films is extremely personal, of course, and does not include Avatar, Star Trek, or District 9 (which I have not seen). I am disappointed that Woody Allen's Whatever Works was one of his more mediocre efforts, but I have hope for his upcoming effort, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, which stars Naomi Watts, Anthony Hopkins and Josh Brolin. I feel that it was a very good year for films in general, and I was lucky to see many great films.

These may not be the ten best films of 2009, but they are my favourite:

10. L'Heure d'été (Summer Hours)
Starring Juliette Binoche and produced by the Musée d'Orsay, l'Heure d'été tells the story of three siblings brought back together by the death of their mother. The film is quietly beautiful, and like many of my favourite films the most breathtaking scenes exist in silence. I love French cinema and wish that more films were screened in Toronto. I agree with Roger Ebert, who said that the film "[refuses] to be a tearjerker, always realistic." Juliette Binoche is a talented actress and it is wonderful to watch her in French.

9. The Hurt Locker
The Hurt Locker has won more critics awards this season than any other film, and while it is a brilliant film I cannot say that it is the absolute best. Is its success due to its unique take on the war in Iraq? It is a film that gained a lot of film festival attention but failed to connect with audiences, as it only earned $16 million in theatres. I was originally put off by the shaky cam in the film, and it made me quite nauseous. Seeing it a second time at home made it much easier to watch. The acting is terrific, as is Kathryn Bigelow's direction. One of the more interesting Oscar races this season may be former spouses Bigelow and James Cameron facing off against one another.

8. In the Loop
In the Loop is the funniest film that I saw this past year (even if that was only a few days ago). This political satire features a brilliant cast, but the true star of the film is its screenplay. It is easy to want to compare the film to Jason Reitman's satire Thank You For Smoking, but the two films are quite different. In the Loop is a must-see film this year and to catch all the brilliant jokes it will probably have to be seen multiple times!

7. A Single Man
Tom Ford's directorial debut is an incredibly fascinating film that left me astounded and amazed. A Single Man is a beautiful work of art, with mesmerizing performances by Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. Tom Ford has a true gift for filmmaking and his use of colour on screen is absolutely remarkable. It is an art film and it will not please everyone, but I was captivated from beginning to end by Colin Firth and I can only hope that Tom Ford makes a second film.

6. Where the Wild Things Are
Other than maybe Wes Anderson there is probably not another director who could have made Where the Wild Things Are into a more fascinating film. Spike Jonze, whose film Being John Malkovich is disturbingly brilliant, took one of my favourite books from my childhood and made it into a visually amazing film. It was bound to alienate some viewers who would not want to see the book made into a film and its use of life size puppets rather than CGI made the film a lot darker. This is a film for adults who were children when they read the book, and not for children who have no bond with Maurice Sendak's story.

5. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Spreaking of Wes Anderson, who is one of my top three film directors, Fantastic Mr. Fox is an absolute treasure. While I did not grow up reading Roald Dahl's story, I have read and loved James and the Giant Peach since I was young. I have never been a true fan of animated films and have grown tired of Pixar's monopoly (which may be why I hated Up), but Fantastic Mr. Fox is a real accomplishment. The characters are so brilliantly created and voiced. This may be more of a kids film than Where the Wild Things Are, but it is still a Wes Anderson film at heart. Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is crazy and neurotic, and there is tons of family drama, but the film is so beautifully conceived and a joy to watch.

4. A Serious Man

It seems unfair that the Coen brothers' newest film has been absent from late-season awards discussion. A Single Man is a great film, much different from the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men and the exceptional Fargo. It is wonderfully funny and expertly crafted, but the Coens success at the Academy Awards two years ago is probably the film's downfall. The main reason to see the film is Michael Stuhlbarg's performance, the real winner of the film.

3. Inglourious Basterds
Admittedly, I am a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino. Two of his films are in my personal top ten. The dialogue he writes is perfect, and one of the greatest experiences of his films is listening to the dialogue. Inglourious Basterds is not his best film (I would rank it fourth), but it is still an exceptional one. I have seen the film multiple times, and each time it gets better. Christoph Waltz is incredible as Colonel Landa, and should deservedly win an Oscar. But the real star of the film, for me at least, is Mélanie Laurent, who is the heart and soul of Inglourious Basterds.

2. Los Abraz
os Rotos (Broken Embraces)
Pedro Almodóvar's Los Abrazos Rotos has been described as his version of Hollywood noir. It is a wonderful film that is beautifully drenched in vibrant colours. It features a superb performance by Lluís Homar, and a very strong performance from one of my favourite actresses, Penélope Cruz. Though she is not as dynamic as in Volver or Vicky Cristina Barcelona, she is beautiful and mesmerizing. As a noir it is very different from one of the most successful noirs in recent years, L.A. Confidential, but its story is compelling and the acting is incredible.

Up In The Air
Are you really that surprised? This is above and beyond my favourite film of 2009. The acting, directing, screenplay are superb.

Other films worth seeing from the past year:
(500) Days of Summer - a surprisingly enjoyable anti-romantic-comedy, with a lovely Zooey Deschanel.
An Education - Carey Mulligan owns the screen in this film about a young girl's sexual enlightenment.
The Brothers Bloom - a fun and enjoyable con film starring Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel Weisz.
Crazy Heart - Jeff Bridges in a career-best performance that showcases his immense talent.
Julia - Tilda Swinton takes the role of a pathetic alcoholic and helps make
Julia a thrilling film.
The Messenger - Woody Harrelson in one of his best performances.
Moon - Sam Rockwell stars in this sci-fi film that is engrossing from beginning to end.
Precious - While Mo'Nique's performance may seem less impressive to me because of her attitude about promoting the film, it is nonetheless a provoking film and worthy of being seen.

Biggest disappointments of the year:
1. Nine - the star-stuffed film is poorly directed and edited, unworthy of the talents of the actors that fill the screen.
2. It's Complicated - it is unfortunate that a film with three great actors can be so incomplete, but Nancy Meyers' film is lacking in so many areas.
3. Julie & Julia - Meryl Streep is perfect as Julia Child and I hope she wins an Oscar, but the film is ruined by the uninspiring story of modern day Julie (Amy Adams).

Let's hope that 2010 has just as many exciting moments to experience on screen!

16 January 2010

Review: "Crazy Heart"

As a film, Crazy Heart is eerily reminiscent of 2008's The Wrestler. Both films are about aging men struggling to resurrect their careers, both men are substance abusers, both men have a child they have not seen in a number of years, and both men find themselves involved with a much younger woman. Another link between the two films is that Jeff Bridges has been getting awards recognition (and a potential Oscar nomination) for his role as Bad Blake. The Wrestler was a great film, and what makes Crazy Heart a great film is it feels like a unique experience. Crazy Heart is the first film directed by Scott Cooper, using his own screenplay (based off a 1987 novel by Thomas Cobb). It is produced by Robert Duvall (who has a supporting role) and has music by acclaimed songwriter and producer T Bone Burnett. The film may feature a familiar story, but Jeff Bridges performance is so tremendous that the film's weaknesses go mostly unnoticed.

Bad Blake was once a country music star, but now he is a has-been playing in dirty bars and bowling alleys in the southwest. He is a heavy drinker and can barely afford to buy a bottle of whiskey. He has a lot of fans who come to hear his old songs, and lots of women offering to keep him company at night. While in Santa Fe he agrees to do an interview for a young reporter for a local paper. She, Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is a divorced mother with a four year-old son. Jean knows that Bad Blake is wrong for her, yet she is drawn to him. Bad Blake is offered a considerable amount of money to open for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) in Driving back to Santa Fe Bad Blake drives off the road and breaks his ankle, and stays with Jean for a few weeks. Bad Blake becomes an important male influence in her son's life, but Jean does not want him drinking around her son. The film deals with Bad Blake and his relationship with Jean, and whether or not he can become the dependable man that Jean needs him to be. Robert Duvall stars as Bad Blake's bartender and only friend.

Crazy Heart first opened in December, but it took until the middle of January for it to open in Toronto. It is a small budget film that did not anticipate its own success, and the awards success of its star, Jeff Bridges. Roger Ebert says, of Jeff Bridges performance, that "we've seen this story before. The difference is that Bad Blake makes us believe it happened to him." Jeff Bridges is an incredible actor, with an impressive body of work. His most well-known role is The Dude in the Coen brothers The Big Lebowski, but he has had amazing performances in The Contender, The Fantastic Baker Boys and The Last Picture Show. Crazy Heart is a great film with great music, but it is Jeff Bridges' amazing performance that makes it worth seeing. He has some competition for the Best Actor trophy at the Academy Awards, but if he wins it will be because he deserved it.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

Review: "The Princess and the Frog"

Disney's newest film, The Princess and the Frog, is a blast from the past. It is a reminder of how animated films used to be made: hand-drawn (traditional) instead of computer-animated, like Up and Finding Nemo. The success of computer-animated films has been helped by both HD and 3D screens. Up was definitely not one of my favourite films this year, and Fantastic Mr. Fox made me yearn for more traditional animation. It is Disney's first 2D film since Home on the Range (2004), and the studio's promotion of the film rivals that of 2002's Lilo and Stitch. I have not enjoyed one of Disney's 2D films since The Lion King (1994), when I was 10. This may have a lot to do with my maturing taste in films, or just because Disney has run out of good ideas. Pixar has become the leader in modern animation, and most animated films produced lately are created with adult interests in mind (such as Shrek). The Princess and the Frog is based on the young adult novel The Frog Princess, and stars Dreamgirls' Anika Noni Rose as the voice of Tiana.

Set in New Orleans in 1912, Tiana is a young waitress struggling to earn enough money to open her own restaurant, fulfilling her father's dream. Her friend Charlotte's father, the king of Mardi Gras, is hosting a masquerade party and Tiana attends dressed as a princess. She is alarmed to find a talking frog, who claims to be Prince Naveen from Maldonia. He has been turned into a frog by the Shadow Man. Prince Naveen made a deal with the Shadow Man because he has lost his inheritance and he must find a wealthy woman to support him. The Shadow Man, with the help of Prince Naveen's valet, has used his powers to turn the prince into a frog so he may gain Charlotte's wealth. Tiana kisses the frog and is turned into a frog herself, leading to the main events of the film. It takes a long twenty minutes for the backstory to develop. The rest of the film has Tiana and Naveen in the bayou looking for Mama Odie, a voodoo priestess, with the help of Louis the alligator and a Cajun firefly named Ray. Other notable voice actors in the film include Terrence Howard and Oprah Winfrey as Tiana's parents, and John Goodman as Charlotte's father.

I did not enjoy The Princess and the Frog. I felt that the film took too long (20 of its 95 minutes) to set up the story. The Shadow Man was so obviously evil (similar to The Little Mermaid's Ursula) that it was too easy to empathize with Tiana. Did it feel realistic for Tiana and Prince Naveen to fall in love? Not at all. The film seemed very inconsistent and did not flow very easily. Comparing The Princess and the Frog to two of Disney's more successful films, The Little Mermaid and The Lion King, it felt very flat and poorly constructed. The songs used throughout the film were not memorable, and I had forgotten them by the next scene. Like the poorly-made Nine, this is a film that would have done better without the forced musical numbers. There are a lot of other areas of the film that could be discussed, but on the surface it is not that enjoyable of a film.

My rating: 1.5 stars out of 4.

13 January 2010

Review: "In the Loop"

In the Loop is the rare British film that has garnered a significant amount of press in North America. It is a spinoff of a television show on BBC called The Thick of It, which satirizes modern day politics. It is the first full-length feature by Armando Iannucci, a well-known radio and television figure in Britain. In the Loop has its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009, and opened in North America this past summer. The film satirized the governments of both the United Kingdom and the United States, which may be the reason why the film received a lot of attention here. The film stars Peter Capaldi (in the same role as on The Thick of It), Tom Hollander, Chris Addison, Mimi Kennedy, James Gandolfini and Anna Chlumsky. The first is deliciously funny, and its script is one of the most well written in recent memory.

The film begins when Simon Foster (Hollander), the Minister for International Development, states on a radio broadcast that the war in the Middle East is unforeseeable. He is told off by one of the Prime Minister's spin doctors, Malcolm Tucker (Capaldi). This scandal happens amidst a visit by United States government officials. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State (Diplomacy), Karen Clarke (Kennedy), believes that her colleague Linton (David Rasche) has organized an under the radar war committee. Karen wants to use Simon and his assistant Toby (Addison), as well as her own aide Liza (Chlumsky) to uncover this secret committee. Karen also tries to encourage Lieutenant General Miller (Gandolfini) to join her team. While the British government tries to cover up its scandal, the American government is trying to hide an anti-war report written by Liza. In the Loop is a wonderfully written political satire that is laugh out loud funny while being thought provoking.

The dialogue of In the Loop is so perfectly written that it often does not matter if the actors can act or not. Malcolm Tucker's every line is laced with so much profanity that by the end of the film it is no longer shocking. There is a beautiful line near the end of the film that is so perfect that I had to stop the film and rewind it. The plot of the film may seem very complicated, but the film moves so quickly that while you may not be in the loop you will be shocked and amazed by the events on screen. In the Loop is a great political satire, some elements more obvious than others, but it is smartly written and directed. It is a film worth seeing, not just because of its topical humour, but because it is a real gem in a world with such poorly conceived comedies.

One thought after seeing the film: What would Avatar have been if its screenplay was half as good as this one?

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

Review: "Amelia"

Has there been a film this season whose hopes for Oscar were erased as quickly as Amelia's, the Amelia Earhart biopic starring Hilary Swank? It currently has a 14% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and has completely disappeared from all awards talk. Its (Hilary Swank, mostly) hope for Oscar fizzled even more quickly than the star-filled Nine that only managed 30% on Rotten Tomatoes, but it is still amassing a few nominations. Amelia was directed by Mira Nair, whose prior films Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding were nominated for Academy and Golden Globe awards. It stars two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart, and Swank acted as the film's executive producer. Telling the story of a real person can be very difficult, and it is a challenge to choose which elements to focus on. The film fails to connect Amelia with the audience and the film struggles to decide whether or not to depict Amelia as a strong-willed woman or just the woman behind G.P. Putnam (Richard Gere). I had such difficulty making it through the entire film and almost turned it off after ten minutes. costars Ewan McGregor as Gene Vidal (father of Gore, who supposedly had an affair with Amelia) and Mia Wasikowska (In Treatment) as an underused Elinor Smith, a fellow pilot.

The film begins on July 2, 1937, which is the day Amelia Earhart disappeared during her around-the-world flight. The film then reverts back to a young Amelia, as we watch her become enamored by a plane flying above her as a young child. She meets published G.P. Putnam who has just published Lindbergh's book We, and he is eager to have Amelia become the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Amelia is pleased until she finds that he only wants her to be passenger, while the world thinks she is the pilot. This particular flight does not garner the fame that she wanted, and she sets out to create her own aviation records. The side story of the film is her relationship with Putnam, and their marriage, which tries to make the film a love story that just ruins the film. Amelia eventually crosses the Atlantic solo, and during her affair with Gene Vidal she decides to head out on a round the world trip.

Amelia is full of cliches and Hilary Swank is never able to make Amelia Earhart a likable character. Hilary Swank was mesmerizing in Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby, and knowing that she has real acting talent it is incredibly disappointing that she comes across so flat in this film. The film was dull and boring, there was nothing in the film worth watching. The talents of all the actors were wasted and the story was uninspired. Amelia's marriage to Putnam in the film seems forced, even though it happened in real life. Hilary Swank and Richard Gere have so little chemistry that it is not surprising she has an affair with Gene Vidal, but nothing in the film makes you want to care. Amelia is an incredible bore and a poorly made film, and it makes me wonder if Amelia Earhart's life was truly this uninspiring.

My rating: 0.5 stars out of 4.

09 January 2010

Review: "Julia"

Julia is the kind of film that is difficult to see in theatres. It stars Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton, whose performance in Michael Clayton has endeared me to her so much that I made a point to see this film. It is directed by Erick Zonca, and it is his first film in a decade and his first English-language film. It premiered at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival and was released in various European countries. Julia was not released in North American until April 2009 with little to no press. I would have never heard of the film if it were not for the Internet and the many film-related blogs that I read. In its review of the film, Variety reports that the film was inspired by John Cassavetes 1980 film Gloria, which starred Gena Rowlands in an Oscar-nominated performance. The film is entirely dependent on Tilda Swinton, and she anchors the film brilliantly. While the film may begin a certain way, depicting Julia as a degenerate alcoholic, it transforms into a thrilling and provoking film that leaves you breathless.

Julia has just been fired from her job because she is not dependable. Every night is spent drinking and every morning she wakes up in a different bed. She does go to AA, but she seems to enjoy drinking and has no reason to change her lifestyle. Unemployed, she begins to run out of money. She meets a young woman, Elena (Katie de Castillo), at an AA meeting. Elena knows that Julia is a drunk and has seen her passed out in her car. Elena has lost custody of her young son, and he is living with his wealthy grandfather. Elena wants Julia to kidnap her son, and offers her $50 000 for it. While not immediately agreeing to the kidnapping, Julia begins to plan an even greater scheme to get more money. Julia is a dark and complex film that highlights Julia's instability and brings the audience on a wild ride that leads to an unexpected conclusion. The film co-stars Aiden Gould as Tom, Elena's young son, and Saul Rubinek as as friend of Julia's, the conscience of the film.

Julia does not feel as long as its two and a half hour length, it is a tremendously exciting film that left me feeling exhilarated and out of breath. The film completely belongs to Tilda Swinton, and she owns every scene. Her character is complicated and often unsure of herself, and she is able to demonstrate that in her character. Julia may not be easy to like and she has a minimal view of ethics, but while we may not agree with her actions we are willing to help her fight to the end. What starts as a depressing and bleak character study, Julia becomes an intense and smartly directed thriller that twists and turns until the very end.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

07 January 2010

Review: "The Road"

The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, has arrived in theatres without much fanfare. I can only speculate, but could it have something to do with the Coen brothers Oscar-winning adaptation of McCarthy's novel No Country For Old Men? Most likely it is due to the limited recognition of director John Hillcoat. The film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival where Robert Duvall received a considerable amount of attention, including allusions to his out-of-left-field Oscar nomination for 1997's The Apostle. The film stars Viggo Mortensen in one of his most powerful performances. The film is completely dependent on his talent as an actor and the audience's ability to connect and sympathize with his story. The film is a post-apocalyptic journey of a father (Mortensen) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), unfolding in long, drawn out scenes, often with little dialogue. The film also employs the use of narration and flashbacks to reinforce the central themes of love and loss.

In what can only be described as the near future, Viggo Mortensen stars as an unnamed man who is traveling by foot to reach the southern coast of the United States. It is many years after the apocalypse and his wife (Charlize Theron) has died. Through flashbacks we see that their once strong relationship began to crumble when she became pregnant post-apocalypse. The man, wanting to protect his child, journeys south with the belief that his son will not survive the brutal cold of the north. In this new world ammunition is scarce, and the man only has two bullets for his pistol: one for him, one for his son. There is a significant lack of food, and many survivors have turned to cannibalism. On this journey the man and the boy encounter a group of the bad guys (cannibals), an old man struggling to survive (a barely recognizable Robert Duvall), and a thief (Michael K. Williams, The Wire's Omar Little!). While you may believe that the film's final scene is predictable, it is a beautiful film about a father's love for his son and I often found myself overcome with emotion.

Some may find The Road to be as cold and cruel as the brutal conditions, but I found the film to be a beautiful story of survival and love between a father and son. The New York Times, in a review of McCarthy's novel, called it "entirely unsentimental." Watching the film, and dissecting it afterward, I believe that the novel would be very difficult to read. John Hillcoat and Joe Penhall, as director and screenwriter, found the silent moments and subtleties and put them on film. Viggo Mortensen's performance is spellbinding, and while the Man is not as powerful a character as Nikolai Luzkhin in Eastern Promises, and it deserves to be acknowledged. Entertainment Weekly ranked Cormac McCarthy's novel number one in a list of the one hundred best books from 1983-2008, and while The Road will not get that kind of distinction as a film, it is extremely provoking and beautiful to watch.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

05 January 2010

Review: "(500) Days of Summer"

I hesitated seeing (500) Days of Summer for a long time because I have never been a fan of romantic comedies. I was also hesitant because I thought I would only be able to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt like the teenager from 3rd Rock From the Sun. I will admit that the only reason I ended up watching the film is because of Zooey Deschanel -- and I only really love her because of her guest starring role on Weeds. (500) Days of Summer is the feature film debut of Marc Webb, who has directed a great number of music videos from the likes of Backstreet Boys to My Chemical Romance. The film debuted at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, where it was overshadowed by the films Precious and An Education. The film is presented in nonlinear narrative, and although it is not as successful as Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction or David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, its unique take on the romantic comedy is refreshing and enjoyable.

The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tom Hansen, a greeting card writer with an architecture degree. The film jumps back and forth as we are presented with various days through the 500 day relationship of Tom and Summer (Zooey Deschanel). He meets Summer at the office during her first day as his boss' new assistant. Through the use of an omnipotent narrator we learn that Tom believes in fate and true love, whereas Summer does not and is not keen on being in a relationship. Unlike most romantic comedies we know from the outset that Tom and Summer's relationship has an expiration date, and the film flows with a considerable amount of ease through the highs and lows of their relationship. The film's highlight is definitely the scene when, after waking up from his first night with Summer, Tom sings and dances on his way to work. What makes (500) Days of Summer so clever is that while in the elevator the day changes and we see Tom exit under a cloud, disheveled and depressed. We are able to witness their relationship through the eyes of Tom, and although we may be upset that their relationship is not mean tot be we are delighted to be along for the journey.

(500 Days of Summer tries very hard to stray from the romantic comedy formula, and while it is ultimately successful there are a few things that really bothered me. Tom has a pre-teen sister (Chloë Moretz) who serves as his therapist, too worldly for her young age. Their relationship did not bother me but I found its only purpose was to advance the plot. I also found it too predictable that Tom would be in a dead end job that he hated and that his happiness would only come when he chose to follow his dreams. The ending was also a little too predictable, and though it did put a slight smile on my face, it almost took away from everything else that had transpired because it tied everything in a neat bow at the end. I really enjoyed the narration, although I am a real fan of the positive effects of narration, though it does not really come close to the perfect narration of Little Children. (500) Days of Summer was much better than I had originally expected and I did enjoy every minute. It is a unique and enjoyable romantic comedy that should be praised for its originality.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

04 January 2010

Review: "The Young Victoria"

The first time I saw the trailer for The Young Victoria I was not too thrilled. Emily Blunt seems too modern to play Queen Victoria. This may be based on the few films I have seen her in, The Devil Wears Prada, Dan in Real Life and Sunshine Cleaning. I enjoyed all three films and I believe she is a talented actress. Taking on the role of a British monarch has rewarded some of today's most talented actresses, Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown as Victoria, Helen Mirren in The Queen as Elizabeth II and Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth as Elizabeth I. All three were nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards, and it obviously Emily Blunt has some tough shoes to fill. The film is directed by Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée and produced by Martin Scorsese and Sarah Ferguson (Duchess of York). The Young Victoria takes us back to 1836, and depicts the struggles of the young queen shortly before and after her coronation.

In 1836 William IV is the King of England and together with his two brothers there is only one heir to the throne, Victoria. For all her life she has been protected. She was not allowed to read books or to attend school with other children, and she is not allowed to walk down the staircase without assistance. Her mother, the Princess Victoria (Miranda Richardson), and her comptroller, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), want Victoria to relinquish her title to the throne in favour of a regent because she is too young. The film depicts Victoria as a strong and intelligent young woman, aware that she is engaged in a game. Victoria is courted by her cousin Albert (Rupert Friend), through the ambitious insistence of her uncle Leopold, King of Belgium. Victoria is not eager to marry and wishes to remain free, and through her romantic entanglements we see how she grows into her role as queen.

I was quite pleasantly surprised by The Young Victoria. The film did not flow as effortlessly as I would have liked, but the performances were excellent. I was a bit unsure of Emily Blunt for the first few minutes, but as the film got into its groove I fell in love with her as Queen Victoria. The costumes and cinematography are not as impressive and some period pieces, but the film depends more on character than anything else. I would have liked to have learned more about Victoria in the latter stages of her reign, but I was engrossed in the film and enjoyed watching Victoria play the game against her mother and Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany). The Young Victoria is not an exceptionally unique film, but it is anchored by Emily Blunt in her most challenging role. She is beautiful to watch and I expect even greater things for her in the future.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

Review: "Los Abrazos Rotos" (Broken Embraces)

My affection for Penélope Cruz has almost become an obsession in the past few years. I had such a strong dislike for her after seeing Vanilla Sky, and even her role in Blow did not help. It was an afternoon in 2006 when I first saw Volver, and I was instantly mesmerized. She was pure perfection on screen and since that moment I have adored her. It was a match made in heaven when she worked with Woody Allen in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and deservedly won an Oscar. She has once again teamed with Pedro Almodóvar for Los Abrazos Rotos (Broken Embraces), a film about love and passion filmed as a noir (though done with the vivid colours of Almodóvar films). Pedro Almodóvar is easily Spain's most internationally renowned film director, having won Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay (2002's Hable con Ella) and Best Foreign Language Film (1999's Todo sobre mi madre). His films can be controversial, but it is very clear in watching his work that he has considered every step along the way. Los Abrazos Rotos stars Lluís Homar and Penélope Cruz, with Blanca Portillo and Lola Dueñas (both of whom starred with Penélope Cruz in Volver).

The film is set in present day with many flashbacks to the 1990s. Mateo Blanco (Homar) was once a famous film director, and after losing his eyesight he becomes Harry Caine, a screenwriter. The only person who knows his true identity is his agent Judit (Portillo), who remains a vital part his life. After learning that a man named Ernesto Matel (José Luis Gómez) has died, he is visited by a young man named Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano) who wants to Harry to help write a semi-autobiographical screenplay. He refuses once he finds out Ray X's true identity. While Judit is abroad her son Diego (Tomar Novas) suffers from an accidental overdose and Harry spends time telling Diego story involving Ernesto Martel, Martel's young wife Lena (Penélope Cruz) and his attempt to direct a film. The events that unfold involve everyone in the film, a story about love, jealousy and betrayal.

Los Abrazos Rotos is impeccably shot, its vivid colours filling the screen. The film is carried by its actors, and while Penélope Cruz is as radiant as she has ever been, the film belongs to
Lluís Homar. He must play two different characters who are the same man. I was completely engrossed by the film and mesmerized by the colours, the dialogue and the performances. In terms of colours, the film is drenched with red (hence my choice of font colour). Red is the colour of love, lust and passion. There is a central mystery which links the events of the present to those of the past, and though we may figure it out before Almodóvar unveils it, we realize it that the journey was more important. Los Abrazos Rotos, while not quite as profound as Volver or Hable con Ella, is a beautiful film worthy of second and third viewings and I can only hope that foreign films become just as accessible as Hollywood blockbusters.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

Review: "The Lovely Bones"

Peter Jackson is mostly known for directing the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy (including Best Picture and Best Director wins for Return of the King), but few people have seen Heavenly Creatures (featuring Kate Winslet in her first film role). Like that film, The Lovely Bones is a haunting dramatic film about life and death centred around a young teenage girl. I was very excited for this film because it stars two wonderful actresses, Rachel Weisz and Susan Sarandon. The Lovely Bones was supposed to be released on December 11 and after a flurry of poor to mixed reviews it was pushed back to January 15, 2010. The film, adapted from a best-selling novel by Alice Sebold, tells the story of a fourteen year-old girl in 1973 who is murdered by a neighbour. The Lovely Bones stars Saoirse Ronan (whose role in Atonement has made me dislike her ever since), Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz as her grieving parents, Susan Sarandon as her grandmother, and Stanley Tucci as her killer.

Susie Salmon (Ronan) is a fourteen year-old girl who is murdered by her creepy neighbour, George Harvey. Her body is never found and there is no proof that she has been killed. The audience knows she is dead, as we see her living in the in between, where she waits before going to heaven. Her parents are devastated, and while Jack (Wahlberg) is obsessed with finding the truth, Abigail (Weisz) becomes so numb from the pain that she can barely function. Jack invites his mother-in-law (Sarandon) to live with them in an attempt to keep a home for Susie's two younger siblings. Jack begins to look at people differently, and eventually wonders if George was responsible. Susie's sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) notices George one day and feels a sense of dread that leads to the film's climax. Throughout the film we see Susie in the afterlife, trying to communicate and connect with friends and family. She is trapped knowing her family is in so much pain without knowing the truth.

The Lovely Bones is a disturbing story and though I have not read the novel I feel that the film shied away from many of the most crucial elements. Susie was apparently raped and murdered by George, and yet this whole scene is represented by Susie running away from George, though in reality she is only running towards the light. There is a secondary story about Susie and a boy, and it does not work in the film because it is too underdeveloped. Susie's own version of heaven, the in between, is not as visually spectacular as I wanted. The only difference between her world and reality is the bright colours. The film also shows Mark Wahlberg's limitations as an actor, and the film lacked the necessary heartache from Susie's family members. Ryan Gosling was originally cast and left the film because he thought he was too young, but I think that he would have given the film a better balance. The highlight of the film is Stanley Tucci, who is exceptional in his role. He is brilliant in his silence. Overall The Lovely Bones is not sure of itself, is it a thriller or is it an family drama? The trailer depicts the film as an intense thriller while the film unveils itself as drama about death and loss. The film needed to go further and push the boundaries, and I am not sure why Peter Jackson elected to be conventional.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

01 January 2010

Review: "Brothers"

Brothers is a remake of a 2004 Danish film, which was written and directed by Susanne Bier. While it has become very common to remake foreign films for American audiences, it is a shame that studios do not promote foreign films. I have not seen Susanne Bier's film, but I do believe that it would be a lot more interesting than this remake. The film stars three of Hollywood's young actors: Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal. I was very surprised to notice that Jim Sheridan, the Irish director responsible for the Academy Award-nominated films My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, would direct an American remake. I had some real reservations about the film after seeing the trailer. This was mostly because the trailer presented the film like a thriller, with Tobey Maguire becoming the jealous husband. I do not really like him as an actor, and the only film of his that I have ever truly enjoyed was 1997's The Ice Storm. Natalie Portman has always had great promise, from her very first film Léon (The Professional) at age 13, but she has not been in any films that have showcased her talents. The same can be said for Jake Gyllenhaal, whose only acclaimed performance was in Brokeback Mountain. I would never pay to see Brothers and I will admit the only reason I saw it was because I watched it online.

Sam (Tobey Maguire) is a Marine captain who is set to depart for Afghanistan, leaving his young wife Grace (Natalie Portman) at home with their two young daughters. Prior to his depart, Sam's brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is released from prison. Their father (Sam Shephard) thinks Sam is a hero and has always made Tommy feel like a disappointment. Grace does not like Tommy, and does not like to be around him. Shortly after Sam leaves for Afghanistan there is news that his plane crashed down and he is assumed dead. There is a scene that is reminiscent of The Messenger, yet this film never quite finds the right emotional tone. Grace and Tommy begin to bond through their grief, with Tommy becoming a new father figure for his nieces. The audience learns that Sam is not dead, and that he has been taken prisoner in a small village. Grace and Tommy share one kiss, but nothing escalates further. Sam is rescued after a few months and returns home traumatized. He can no longer relate to his wife and kids, and suspects that his brother and wife have become lovers.

Brothers presents itself like a melodrama, the characters never seem to fully develop their emotions. Tobey Maguire's Sam seems to be distant from the very beginning, and even during his angry outburst during the film's climax he seems to hold back. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Tommy like a quiet introverted man, and throughout the film he seems to never change. Only the two young girls, Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare, seem to be the most affected by the film's events. Personally I had a lot of issues watching the film and did not believe the emotions of the characters. Brothers is a decent film, but I would rather have seen the original, because I think that even through the language barrier I would have been more empathetic.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

Review: "It's Complicated"

As much as I was eagerly awaiting the release of It's Complicated, I was quite disappointed by it. Meryl Streep, as always, is enjoyable to watch, but the film suffers from a weak plot, awkward pacing and a very poor performance from Steve Martin (which is probably due to his lame character). It is a pleasure to watch Meryl Streep do comedy, and while Alec Baldwin makes you laugh, he is not as funny as his role on 30 Rock (but I would never even try to say Nancy Meyers is funnier than Tina Fey). Nancy Meyers has now directed five films. The first was an unnecessary remake of The Parent Trap (starring Lindsay Lohan). What Women Want was funny and clever, though not an exceptional film. I was pleasantly surprised by Something's Gotta Give and I think it is a great film. The Holiday is pure trash and I wish I had never seen it! So here we have It's Complicated, featuring one of my favourite actresses matched with two very funny actors in a love triangle. Unfortunately, the film is a complicated mess more often than it is an enjoyable comedy.

Jane (Meryl Streep) has been divorced from Jake (Alec Baldwin) for 10 years. She runs her own bakery and is very well off. Jake had an affair with a younger woman, Agness (Lake Bell), and is now unhappily married to her. Jane and Jake have three children, the youngest is about to leave for college. She is having trouble with the thought of living alone in her house. She has hired an architect, Adam (Steve Martin), to build an addition for her home. It is obvious from the outset that Adam is attracted to Jane, though she is oblivious. While in New York for their son's graduation, Jane and Jake find themselves alone in the hotel bar and ultimately have sex. It is the beginning of an affair. Jane must deal with both Jake's desires to get back together and Adam's growing romantic interests.

It's Complicated does not have the most unique plot, but there are a few elements I just do not understand. Jane's eldest daughter, Lauren (Caitlin Fitzgerald) and her fiance Harley (John Krasinski, easily my favourite part of the film) are treated by the family as if they have been married for a couple of years. Yet, there is a scene where they meet with a wedding planner that just seems to be included just so Harley can see Jane and Jake together at a hotel, all while Lauren is too preoccupied. There is a scene with Jane and her therapist which seems thrown in and, while it advanced the plot, it could have been done in a different situation. I really disliked the scenes with Jane and her group of girlfriends. This might have a lot to do with Rita Wilson, who I feel incredibly overacted and seemed to be screaming in attempts to have the audience focus on her. It's Complicated is a decent film that should have been better. It leads me to believe that Nancy Meyers was in a rush to finish the screenplay, because I really hope that this end result was not was she originally envisioned.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.