25 November 2010

Review: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1)"

The decision to split of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows into two films is both positive and negative. The final chapter of the Harry Potter saga is complex and viewers deserve a longer film, but at the same time there is a sense that the studio and producers will reap far greater rewards from increased ticket sales. It has been considered to split Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) into two films, but obviously that idea was abandoned. I may be slightly older than the intended demographic for the Harry Potter series when it was first published in 1997 (1998 in Canada), but I have read every book at least twice and I have seen every film in theatres. Besides making international stars of the three lead actors, the Harry Potter film series has showcased the talents of many under appreciated British actors. In particular it has been the flawless Imelda Staunton, Oscar-nominated for Mike Leigh's Vera Drake (2004), who has delivered my favourite performance from the entire series. I was quite disappointed by the last film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, as I felt too much had been sacrificed in the adaptation. I would have been very disappointed if the 759 page Deathly Hallows had been condensed into a 150 minute film. Harry Potter has been a part of our lives for thirteen years and while it will not be as hard to say goodbye to the characters on film as it was reading the final installment, I await part two with some hesitation. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 only sets the groundwork for the final film. It is a thrilling, and decidedly more adult, journey that focuses heavily on our three principle characters, Harry, Ron and Hermione.

The Deathly Hallows begins prior to Harry's (Daniel Radcliffe) seventeenth birthday, when he will legally be an adult wizard. As Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) grows stronger with the support of the Death Eaters, the Order of the Phoenix arrive at Privet Dr. to escort Harry to safety. He is taken to the Burrow (home of the Weasleys) where he is able to reunite with Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). They meet with the Minister of Magic (Bill Nighy) who presents each of them with items from Dumbledore's will. Dumbledore had bequeathed the Sword of Gryffindor to Harry, but the Minister asserts that the sword is a historical artifact and was not Dumbledore's property, and that it was missing. At the Burrow the wedding of Fleur and Bill is disrupted by Death Eaters, forcing Harry, Ron and Hermione to disaparate to London. They are eventually forced to break into the Ministry of Magic to steal one of the Hocruxes, a locket, that is currently in possession of Dolores Umbridge (Staunton). They succeed in their mission but find it impossible to break the locket. Harry and Hermione become closer through their efforts to discover more information about the location of the Hocruxes, causing Ron to become suspicious and eventually abandon them. Unsure of their next move, Harry and Hermione go to Godric's Hollow where they are attacked by Voldemort's snake Nagini. After barely surviving they realize that the key to destroying the Horcruxes rests with the Sword of Gryffindor. While out wandering one evening Harry notices a Patronus in the form of a doe that leads him to a frozen pond, and beneath the ice rests the missing sword. Harry soon finds himself stuck under the ice and is only saved by Ron, who has finally returned. Reunited, the trio visit Xenophilius Lovegood (Rhys Ifans), where they are told the story of the Deathly Hallows. Unfortunately Xenophilius has tricked them and the Death Eaters eventually surround the cottage forcing them to run into the forest where they are captured by Snatchers and taken to Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) the Malfoys. As the trio struggle to escape Voldemort becomes stronger as he discovers the Elder Wand, one of the Deathly Hallows.

I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in IMAX (luckily not in 3D!) and some of the film's action sequences were thrilling on the huge screen. The only scene I disliked was the chase scene through the forest, which I felt was poorly shot and messy. I am heavily invested emotionally in the Harry Potter series and I was not upset by the film as much as I was disappointed to have to wait eight months for Part 2.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is not a complete film and it ends just as the excitement begins to boil. When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was released in 2001 the three main actors were between 11 and 13 years old, roughly the same ages as their characters. Nine year later they are no longer child actors and it becomes harder to forgive their weaknesses. Rupert Grint is the weakest of the three and he often struggled in the more emotional sequences. Even Daniel Radcliffe seemed less involved in his character. Luckily Emma Watson has grown into a tremendously talented actress and her portrayal of Hermione Granger overshadows her co-stars' deficiencies. I am left excited for Part 2 and I can only hope it gives us a thrilling and emotionally satisfying conclusion to J.K. Rowling's series. As the Harry Potter books became more mature and darker it requires the films to do the same. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is more mature than the previous six films, and while I wish I could be more excited about it I know that it is not complete without the second installment.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

21 November 2010

Review: "Conviction"

Prior to 1999 Hillary Swank was an unknown actress who worked predominantly in television. Then she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Boys Don't Cry, beating Annette Bening (American Beauty). She furthered cemented her status as a risk-taker and won a second Academy Award in 2004 for Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby (coincidentally also winning against Bening). Unfortunately, Swank's more recent resume has been less impressive, with roles in The Black Dahlia (2006), P.S. I Love You (2007) and Amelia (2009), one of the worst films I have seen in recent years. Swank had long been considered a contender during awards season but last year's effort has tainted her credibility. She returns to the derby this year with Conviction, based on the "incredible true story of Betty Anne Waters." The film's initial trailer screamed Oscar-bait while trying to highlight the emotional performances of Swank and her co-stars, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver and Melissa Leo. I had very few expectations before seeing the film and I was neither impressed nor disappointed. Hillary Swank is a better actress than this film requires. She did a good job but the film and the role are unworthy of Oscar consideration, much like The Blind Side. Sandra Bullock won an Oscar because The Blind Side was a better performance than she had ever offered before, but Conviction is just another film with a talented actress trying to win an award.

Kenneth Waters (Rockwell) was convicted of first-degree murder in 1983 and sentenced to life in prison.
Kenny and his sister Betty Anne were very close their entire lives, getting into trouble together as young kids. Betty Anne (Swank), convinced of his innocence, spent more than two decades proving his innocence. She obtained a bachelor's degree and then attended law school at Roger Williams University. Betty Anne was convinced that there was wrongdoing on the part of Nancy Taylor (Leo), a police officer who seemed intent on pinning the murder on Kenny. Her quest to prove Kenny's innocence had a tremendous effect on her personal life. She divorced her husband (Loren Dean) and at times alienated her two sons (Connor Donovan and Owen Campbell). Her greatest supporter was Abra (Driver), the only other "old lady" in her class at law school. Betty Anne worked tirelessly to prove her brother's innocence and eventually turned to DNA testing. She enlisted the help of Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) of the Innocence Project to get the DNA evidence tested against Kenny and to have his conviction vacated.

One of my biggest problems with Conviction is that it spends too much time focusing on the Waters' childhood. It seems as if the film's director, Tony Goldwyn, wanted to reaffirm their bond but I often found myself wondering if their relationship was ever inappropriate. Swank and Rockwell gave convincing performances which helped the film hit a few highly emotional notes, but Juliette Lewis, Melissa Leo and Peter Gallagher gave performances that were decidedly one-dimensional. I was very disappointed that the film failed to mention that Kenneth Waters died in 2001, shortly after he was released from prison. This fact may have dampened the film's message of hope but it is also the truth. While Conviction does present an emotional story of love and conviction, it often too preachy and at times feels like a film more intent on showing how a woman can overcome her troubled childhood.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

19 November 2010

Review: "127 Hours"

I remember being in university in 2003 and reading about mountain climber Aron Ralston's incredible story about being trapped by a rock for more than five days. 127 Hours is directed by Danny Boyle, who won an Academy Award for Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and adapted by Simon Beaufroy from Ralston's own memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. 127 Hours is an incredible film that left me completely mesmerized and often out of breath. Those familiar with Ralston's story will be prepared for the film's climax, but it is extremely hard to watch and there were even numerous reports of viewers fainting during its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Many films depend on one singular performance but it is rare to have one actor perform on screen alone for extended periods of time. James Franco has never been better as Aron Ralston and his emotionally raw performance allows the audience to become thoroughly invested in the film. I was unsure how to approach a film about a man being trapped beneath a rock and was very surprised to see so many actors listed during the opening credits, but Danny Boyle does a great job contrasting Ralston's entrapment with hallucinations and flashbacks. The film, shot on location in Utah (Ralston was trapped at Robbers Roost in Utah), is beautifully photographed. The film's story, James Franco's performance and the beautiful imagery constantly left me awed. 127 Hours is an electrifying and thrilling film about one man's will to live that lives up to its reputation as one of 2010's must see films.

On a Saturday in April 2003 Aron Ralston decided to spend the weekend biking and mountain climbing in Blue John Canyon in the Utah desert. His family is aware that he spends his weekends hiking, but he did not return a phone call from his mother and ignored a call from his sister prior to leaving. Out in the wilderness he happens to meet two young hikers, Megan (Amber Tamblyn) and Kristi (Kate Mara), and spends the afternoon guiding them to their destination and making plans to meet at a party the next night. Aron mentions to the girls that he considers the area his second home. After parting ways with the girls 127 Hours becomes a frightening thriller as we await the inevitable. As he attempts to hike deeper into the canyon he becomes trapped after a falling boulder crushes his right arm. Aron is calmer than expected at first. He tries to pry his arm free and as time progresses he begins his cheap and very dull pocket knife to chip away at the rock. As Saturday turns into Sunday he begins going through his other equipment, eventually using his rock climbing equipment to allow him to get some rest. Aron eventually begins recording messages on his camcorder to his mother and father (Treat Williams and Kate Burton) and his sister (Lizzy Caplan). He even carves his name, birthday and expected death into the stone. The film opens with a shot of Aron reaching for his Swiss Army knife on the top shelf of his cupboard. He is unable to reach it and leaves without it, foreshadowing the film's incredible conclusion.

In 2008 Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire was the unexpected winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director (along with five other awards). It was his first taste of widespread success and brought with it a lot of expectations for 127 Hours. The two films are very different but there is a cohesiveness to his style. While Boyle was definitely the biggest name attached to Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours features a career-best performance from James Franco. It was not until Milk (2008) that I really took notice of his talents as an actor. He is a tremendous talent and he takes full command of the screen in this film. Personally, I see a comparison between his performance in 127 Hours to Natalie Portman in Black Swan. They are both talented young actors who have flourished under two very talented directors. Danny Boyle has once again proven his is a tremendous director with an electrifying film that left me speechless, but it is James Franco who delivers such an incredible performance that has left such an impact on me three days after seeing the film.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

17 November 2010

Review: "Mother and Child"

Annette Bening and Naomi Watts give two of their best recent performances in Rodrigo Garcia's Mother and Child. The film was released in May 2010 after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009. It is a shame that this fantastic film was released amid the summer blockbusters without much promotion because these two actresses, along with Kerry Washington, deliver exceptional performances in a deeply moving film. It did not help that the hype surrounding Annette Bening's performance in The Kids Are All Right overshadowed this overlooked gem. The film centres around three women and the effect that adoption has had on their individual lives. Karen has never recovered after giving up her baby when she was a teenager, Elizabeth flourishes in her professional life but struggles personally, and while Lucy is unable to conceive she yearns to adopt a baby of her own. Rodrigo Garcia has been heavily involved with the television show In Treatment and the tone of Mother and Child is reminiscent of the HBO series. He keeps a steady control over his film and the film is emotionally cohesive while juggling three separate yet interconnected stories. As always, I enjoy substance over style and Mother and Child succeeds with three incredible performances from its lead actresses who expertly navigate the emotional landscape of the film.

Karen (Bening) had a baby daughter when she was fourteen years old. Thirty-seven years later she is still emotionally distraught. She works as a health care professional and takes care of her aging mother alone at home. Karen, extremely bitter and suffering from anxiety, overreacts when Paco (Jimmy Smits) pursues her. Elizabeth (Watts) is a successful thirty-seven lawyer. She takes a job at a firm run by Paul (Samuel L. Jackson). Elizabeth thrives at her new job but begins having an affair with Paul. She has a habit of running away from her problems and does so once again when she discovers she is pregnant. Lucy (Washington) is eager to start a family with her husband Joseph (David Ramsey) but is unable to conceive. They are introduced to a young woman named Ray (Shareeka Epps) who really does not like Joseph. All three women struggle to maintain control of their lives and the effects of adoption are seen through three very different pairs of eyes. The three stories are united by Sister Joanie (Cherry Jones) who works at an adoption agency.

I could never begin to understand the effect of adoption. Mother and Child is a film about three women whose lives are each affected by adoption in vastly different ways. Karen has never recovered, Elizabeth has never cared to find her birth mother, and Lucy wants so much to be a good mother. Although these three women start as strangers there is a shared emptiness inside of each of them. It is both painful and beautiful to watch Karen, Elizabeth and Lucy as their lives change as their stories become intertwined. As with In Treatment, which requires an intense emotional commitment, Rodrigo Garcia has crafted a film about character. Mother and Child is an emotionally gripping film with great performances from all actors, the most surprising and refreshing is Samuel L. Jackson. There is a great elegance and subtlety to his performance. It is a great contrast to the powerful performance of Naomi Watts. She and Annette Bening are such terrific actresses and I hope that there will be a film that will give them more time on screen together.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

14 November 2010

Review: "Fair Game"

I will admit to knowing nothing about Valerie Plame before seeing Fair Game, based on Valerie Plame's own memoir, Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House. . I am Canadian and not interested in politics. The only reason I wanted to see Fair Game is Naomi Watts. While Naomi Watts garnered international attention for in David Lynch's 2001 film Mulholland Drive, it was her performance in 21 Grams (2003) that made me a true fan. Fair Game is directed by Doug Liman, best known for The Bourne Identity (2001) and Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005). I was really unimpressed by the camerawork in Fair Game. I am not a fan of films that feature shaky cams. There is a scene early in the film in a conference room and the camera keeps moving around like it is out of control. It makes both the film and the director look sloppy. This was a problem during the second and third Bourne films and I was surprised to realize that Doug Liman had only directed the first, which did not feature this style of camerawork. I am not convinced that Doug Liman was the right choice to direct Fair Game, which depends more on performance than style. Naomi Watts and Sean Penn do a great job but their performances are overshadowed by the messy camerawork.

Valerie Plame (Watts) was a covert officer working for the CIA in the Counter-Proliferation Division. She was tasked to lead an investigation into the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The CIA learns that Iraq has entered into an agreement with Niger to purchase what President Bush called significant quantities of uranium. Plame's husband Joseph Wilson was a former ambassador and has connections in Niger. She was asked by her superiors to have her husband assist the CIA and travel to Niger to verify the sale. Wilson returns and asserts that there is no proof whatsoever of the sale of uranium. The White House ignores his findings and uses the report of the alleged sale to support the war in Iraq. Angered by the government's actions, Joe writes an editorial in the New York Times and details his conclusions. His actions cause so much controversy that his wife's status as a covert officer is made public.

Fair Game is a political thriller and not an action film. I only wish Doug Liman and the film's producers had understood this. Fair Game is a good film with an interesting story and two great performances, but the camerawork is a constant distraction. Other views may not find the camera angles and movement bothersome but I found that it took away from the performances. When Naomi Watts is on screen in an emotional scene I do not want to have the camera zoom in and out awkwardly. It is a shame that Fair Game felt like little more than an espionage action film. Roger Ebert, in his review, mentions that the film's matter-of-fact approach is effective. I do appreciate that Fair Game presents the facts without taking a side. It has so many elements of a great political thriller but the way it is filmed makes Fair Game look like an action film. Usually in an action film the camera moves around so much to distract you from mediocre performances, but this time I wanted to be able to concentrate on Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. Their relationship is key to Fair Game and their performances are the reason to see it.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

Review: "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest"

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest takes place immediately after The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second film in Steig Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. All three novels are very complex and include a great number of details. The first film in the trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, remains the most well-crafted of the three. There was a change in director between the first and second films and Daniel Alfredson has been unable to match Niels Arden Oplev's intensity. It should be said that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is the densest of the three novels and the screenwriter, Ulf Rydberg, was given a tremendous chore in deciding which elements to exclude. There is so much historical and political background in the third installment and it does not necessarily have cinematic appeal, and while trying to cut out a lot of the background information the film also forget character development. The most unfortunate element of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is that Noomi Rapace's Lisbeth Salander seems much more subdued and she is not given room to shine. Rapace is the undeniable star of the trilogy and it is a shame that this tough heroine is treated as little more than a supporting actor. Fans of Steig Larsson's Millennium Trilogy will find themselves frustrated by The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest film adaptation. The success of the second film is dependent on the success of the third because it is one continuing story, unlike The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which stands alone in terms of plot. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest has a decent first half but the second part of the film is too rushed and too forced and it left me disappointed.

The film begins with Lisbeth Salander being airlifted to a hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden. Lisbeth has been shot in the head, shoulder and hip after the violent confrontation with Alexander Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), her father. Lisbeth has been arrested for the attempted murder of Zalachenko, though her physician, Dr. Jonasson (Askel Morisse) attempts to prevent the police from speaking to her. Meanwhile her half-brother, Ronald Niedermann (Micke Spreitz), has gone into hiding. While Lisbeth recuperates in the hospital, Mikael Blomkvist (Mikael Nyqvist) has hired his sister Annika (Annika Hallin) as her lawyer. Annika must try to acquit Lisbeth of attempted murder while also proving she is fully competent. It becomes more difficult when Peter Teleborian (Anders Abholm), Lisbeth's former psychiatrist, joins the prosecution to recommit her to a mental hospital. As Annika works to prove Lisbeth's innocence, Blomkvist begins working with the police to prove that a secret government called The Section was involved in a conspiracy against Lisbeth.

The novel The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is loaded with government history and politics, but so much of it is necessary to fully understand Lisbeth Salander. She is an unlikely heroine, a character who is both antisocial and extremely volatile. The first novel and film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, only introduces Lisbeth Salander and treats Mikael Blomkvist as the main character. It is not until The Girl Who Played with Fire that we begin to understand her complexities. She is such an incredible and outrageous character that it is disappointing that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest does not give her a fitting farewell. Both Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist are treated as stock characters. The character development of Mikael Blomkvist is nonexistent in this third film. There is very little interaction between Lisbeth and Blomkvist in this third film and the sexual tension has disappeared. The only consolation is the hope that David Fincher's American remake of the Millennium Trilogy will include a much more compelling finale.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.