31 December 2010

Review: "Stone"

Stone advertises itself as a thriller, but it falls very short of being thrilling. Robert De Niro continues his streak of poor career choices and along, with Little Fockers, many have wondered if this downward trajectory will taint his legacy. This is the same actor that owned the screen in The Godfather, Part II (1974), Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980). The major problem with Stone is that the screenplay is so poorly conceived that the characters and their choices seem ludicrous. This is the same screenwriter, Angus MacLachlan, who wrote the criminally underrated Junebug (2005). Having said that, De Niro brings nothing to the film and even model-turned-action star Milla Jovovich outclasses him. Edward Norton, who has never quite matched the success of his earlier films (Primal Fear (1996) and American History X (1998)), brings the most energy to the film, but his character is still far too one-dimensional. The only character worthy of any empathy is played by Frances Conroy, and her name is not even on the poster. There is no unity or cohesion to the story. The film has a great opening sequence but is never able to match that energy. There are so many plot holes and a great lack of emotional structure in John Curran's film. Stone does have a somewhat interesting premise but the weak screenplay and uninspired acting make it one of the most forgettable films of 2010.

The film begins with a look at a young couple and their young daughter. The wife announces that she is leaving, fed up with her husband's behaviour. He rushes upstairs to their daughter's bedroom and threatens to throw the child out the window if his wife leaves. This man is Jack Mabry (De Niro) and he is still married to Madylyn (Conroy). Jack is a parole officer nearing retirement and his last assignment is to review the case of Gerald 'Stone' Creeson (Norton). Stone has been in prison for eight years for setting a fire to cover up his grandparents' murder. He is a tough and vulgar man who resents having to talk to Jack about his life. Stone speaks excessively about his wife Lucettta's (Jovovich) sexual appetite. At first Stone is reluctant to give Jack any reason to believe he has reformed and does not seem too interested in early release. Lucetta, with her husband's blessing, attempts to use her sexual prowess to seduce Jack. The two begin an affair and Lucetta starts calling him at home, speaking to Madylyn, and even showing up at his door. Meanwhile, Stone tells Jack that he has found faith, adopting a religion called Zukangor.

There is hardly anything redeeming about Stone. It is one of the least thrilling films I have ever seen. The religious undertones of the script are very forced. Jack is a very religious man and attends his Episcopalian church regularly. Angus MacLachlan's script tries to contrast right and wrong and sin and redemption, but along with John Curran's poor direction and the unimaginative performances, Stone is just a terrible mess. The film's website goes as far as to Milla Jovovich's performance startlingly raw. Unfortunately, she is required to do nothing except use her beauty to seduce an older man. I have never seen Robert De Niro give a weaker performance and it is hard to say whether Edward Norton is giving a great performance or if he just appears strong by comparison. The only element of Stone that I appreciated was the tension between Jack and Madylyn, which was mostly built at the beginning of the film (with performances from Enver Gjokaj and Pepper Binkley). Frances Conroy is such a terrific actress that I yearned for her character to be given more emotional depth. The entire screenplay would have to be reworked and the major roles recast for Stone to even have a chance at being a decent film.

My rating: 1 star out of 4.

29 December 2010

Review: "True Grit"

Joel and Ethan Coen have achieved great success with their unique blend of comedy and drama. While True Grit is as well made and impeccably acted as one would expect from a Coen brothers film, it is a far cry from their usual efforts. They have adapted Charles Portis' 1968 novel and have stated their intention was to stay truer to the source material than the 1969 adaptation that starred John Wayne. For that reason, True Grit does not have the wicked dark humour one might expect. The Coens won four Academy Awards for No Country For Old Men (2007), a unique adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel that was full of the Coen brother's brand of humour. It is refreshing to see them tackle another adaptation without forcing their style. The Coens are no stranger to the western genre, as No Country For Old Men is considered an urban western, but to remake a film that won Western legend John Wayne his only Oscar could be viewed as a risk. Jeff Bridges does a great job creating his own Rooster Cogburn, but the real star of the film is Hailee Steinfeld, who is a revelation as the brash fourteen year old Mattie Ross. This is a compelling story about a young girl's attempt to avenge her father's death, and though True Grit lacks the traditional wry wit of the Coen brothers previous films, it is nonetheless an expertly made film with terrific performances from Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and the undeniably brilliant Hailee Steinfeld.

Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) has traveled from her home in Yell County, Arkansas to Fort Smith to accompany the body of her dead father home. Her father had gone to Fort Smith to buy horses and was killed by one of his hired hands, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie takes it upon herself to hire a U.S. Marshall to track Chaney into the Indian Territory. She is given three recommendations but ultimately chooses to conduct business with Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), as he is the most merciless. He repeatedly rejects her offers to hire him and is less interested when she insists on joining him. While staying at a boarding house in Fort Smith, Mattie encounters LaBoeuf (Damon), a Texas Ranger who has been tracking Chaney for months. LaBoeuf believes it would be best for him to team up with Cogburn because Cogburn knows the territory and LaBoeuf knows Chaney's habits. The two men try to head off without Mattie, but the young girl is incorrigible and forces her way back into the mix. After a disagreement LaBoeuf heads off on his own, leaving Cogburn and Mattie to track Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), an outlaw gang with whom Chaney is believed to be riding. They end up at a shack and plan to ambush the gang when they return. LaBoeuf, arriving at the shack ahead of the gang, is injured in the ensuing shootout and he has another disagreement with Cogburn and they part ways again. The following morning Mattie encounters Chaney by the river and her gun misfires and Chaney drags her off to join his gang. Pepper forces Cogburn to retreat, leaving Mattie in the hands of her father's killer.

While True Grit does not have the trademark quirky style of the Coen brothers, it is a great Western with great performances from its main cast. Jeff Bridges, who crafted his most iconic character in the Coens' The Big Lebowski (1997), has great subtly in his characterization of Rooster Cogburn. He is a great actor who manages to make every character multidimensional. I was pleasantly surprised by Matt Damon who uses his natural arrogance to great as LaBoeuf. The Coen brothers gave Hailee Steinfeld, who only just turned fourteen, a lot of trust and confidence. She has such a natural charm and charisma that her insolent character is still sympathetic.
Westerns have become considerably less popular in the past decade and though the Coens have done nothing to reinvent the style, they have demonstrated an ability to work outside of their comfort zone. True Grit may not be the Coens best film or the greatest embodiment of their style, but Joel and Ethan Coen have used their great skills at writing, directing and editing to craft one of the best modern attempts at the Western genre.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

24 December 2010

Review: "Somewhere"

Sofia Coppola's Somewhere may be the film that surprised me most this year. The trailer reveals nothing except a man and his relationship with his daughter and I assumed that the film would delve much deeper into the characters and their relationship. I was wrong, the film is decidedly simple in its delivery. Yet while Somewhere features limited dialogue and long shots of an introspective Stephen Dorff, the film has an extraordinary emotional profundity. Some had made comparisons between Somewhere and Coppola's most successful film, Lost in Translation (2003), but I felt a stronger connection to her first film, The Virgin Suicides (1999), because of the emotional complexities. Sofia Coppola has tried with great success to find her own distinct cinematic voice without drawing comparisons to her father, whose Godfather trilogy is amongst the most revered films in American cinema. She has demonstrated a great gift for exploring characters and their emotional dilemmas. Somewhere is a film about a famous actor who has grown tired of his vacuous life. A transformation begins when his daughter arrives for an extended visit. So much of the film hinges on Stephen Dorff's facial expressions and the way Sofia Coppola's camera lingers on him. Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning thrive in roles that allow them to act from the inside out. Somewhere is a richly complex and beautifully shot film that flows with a melodic rhythm that left me spellbound.

Johnny Marco (Dorff) is a successful actor who lives at the Chateau Marmont, a hotel in West Hollywood known for its privacy and celebrities. He has few responsibilities. He spends his time driving around in his Ferrari and hiring two blond women to perform pole dances in his room. The film focuses a great deal on Stephen Dorff's eyes and his inner turmoil. He is unhappy, yet there is little evidence of drug or alcohol addiction. He uses women to numb the monotony. He has an eleven year old daughter Cleo (Fanning) from a failed marriage. Johnny has been a presence in Cleo's life but the two have never had a relationship. He takes her to a figure skating practice and has no idea she has been doing it for three years. Johnny is then informed that Cleo's mother is going on an extended trip. She wants him to make sure Cleo gets to summer camp. The problem is that Johnny has a commitment in Milan before Cleo is due at camp. The trip to Italy is a turning point for Johnny and his relationship with his daughter. This is when he must decide whether he wants to continue to drift along in life or if he is ready to make some major changes.

Somewhere premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September and won the prestigious Golden Lion amid much controversy. The head of the jury, Quentin Tarantino, once had a relationship with Sofia Coppola and many viewed the surprising award as favoritism. Unfortunately for all the naysayers, Somewhere is an incredible film that is drenched in sunlight. The lush and bright colours, like the official poster, drench the film in such warmth that are stunningly beautiful. Sofia Coppola demonstrates great control as a director and the film flows with such great ease. Stephen Dorff spends much of his time in the film without speaking. It shows a great maturity from actor and director to have such confidence in each other. I have never seen Stephen Dorff give such a richly complex performance and I was mesmerized by his talent on screen. So much of the role depends on an unspoken connection between actor and audience and I did not expect to be so emotionally invested in character who spends the majority of the film looking directly into the camera silently. Sofia Coppola's Somewhere is as beautifully photographed as it is acted. The beauty and emotional depth of the film exist in the quiet moments when Stephen Dorff is given the freedom to act and connect with the viewer.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

20 December 2010

Review: "The Grifters"

The Grifters, Stephen Frears' 1990 thriller, combines two of my favourite actresses and one of my favourite film genres. Annette Bening and Anjelica Huston are sublime in this terrific noir that was produced by Martin Scorsese. The Grifters is the kind of film that leaves you guessing and challenges you to pay attention. The three main characters, played by Bening, Huston and John Cusack, are three con artists (grifters) that spend the whole film trying to screw over each other. Stephen Frears is an accomplished and talented director who may be most widely known for his 1988 adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons and 2006's The Queen. Film noir is a difficult genre with its dark themes and imagery, but Frears helms The Grifters with a competent and steady vision. While a noir is often remembered for its style, its success is often rooted in acting. Anjelica Huston was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards (losing to Kathy Bates in Misery), but it is Annette Bening who completely awed me in one of her first major film roles (she too was nominated for an Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress, losing to Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost). The Grifters is a dark and seductive noir with finely-tuned performances from its main cast. It is a film that still leaves me guessing and conjecturing after seeing it again.

Roy Dillon (Cusack) is a small-time grifter living in Los Angeles. He spends most of his time cheating people out of small amount of money. After suffering a near-fatal injury after a con gone wrong, he finds himself in the hospital. He is less than thrilled to see his mother Lilly (Huston) by his side. Lilly works for a bookmaker named Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle) and her job is to bet large amounts of money to lower odds at the racetrack. She is unimpressed by Roy's older girlfriend Myra (Bening). Myra uses her beauty and her body to get men to get what she wants. Lilly was supposed to be in La Jolla for work and as a result of her stop in Los Angeles she finds herself in major trouble with Bobo. Although Lilly and Roy have not seen each other in a number of years, she tries to convince him to quit grifting. After being released from the hospital, Roy and Myra take a weekend trip to La Jolla. Myra catches him conning a group of young sailors and reveals that she is also a grifter and is looking for a new partner in a long-con operation. Roy chooses not to join Myra and Myra believes it is due to his mother's influence. Myra, dubious of Lilly's real intentions, discovers that Lilly has been stealing money from Bobo and concocts her own plan of revenge.

Part of the brilliance of The Grifters is the awkward and inappropriate relationship between Roy and Lilly. The two live their lives conning other people and go long periods without seeing each other. Lilly was fourteen when Roy was born, which is roughly the age difference between John Cusack and Anjelica Huston. Their borderline incestuous relationship adds to dark complexity of the film. The star of the film, for me, is Annette Bening. She brings such incredible energy to Myra, the oversexed and underestimated vamp. On the surface Myra seems uneducated and dimwitted, but Bening has made Myra a woman who understands her greatest assets and uses them accordingly. The Grifters unfolds in a calculated and often surprising way. The tricks of the film are unexpected and the viewer is being conned as the characters trick each other. John Cusack is our sympathetic hero caught in a web between two very powerful women. Stephen Frears has crafted a beautifully styled noir, based on a 1963 pulp fiction novel by Jim Thompson, and as an assured and confident director he allows his actors to thrive. Stephen Frears exploits the film noir genre to expertly weave an unpredictable story which makes
The Grifters a great crime drama with superb performances from its three lead actors.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

My Wait List (December 2010)

With only eleven days left of 2010, there are only a handful of films that I am still waiting to see. This time last year Avatar had only just been released into theatres and we had to endure three months of speculation that the James Cameron film, with its fantastic effects and horrible screenplay, would win Best Picture. This year The Social Network has won many of the critics awards and its only competition seems to be The King's Speech. Both are great films, but neither will be number one on my top ten list. Speaking of my top ten list, here are three films that I want to see before making my final decisions:

3. Blue Valentine
Blue Valentine has received quite a lot of publicity in recent months. The drama, starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, was awarded an NC-17 rating. The Weinstein Company appealed the rating, which is reportedly based on an intense sex scene, and the film has now been given an R rating. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are both fantastic actors, though Ryan Gosling has appeared in one film since 2007's under-appreciated Lars and the Real Girl.

2. True Grit
I am a true Coen brothers fan, with Fargo (1996) being among my top ten favourite films. I am most excited to see Jeff Bridges reunite with the men that made him The Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998). I have really been fond of westerns, but I am expecting the Coen brothers to bring their trademark style in their remake of the 1969 iconic film that won John Wayne an Oscar.

1. Another Year
With the Coen brothers, Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino, Mike Leigh is one of my favourite directors. He brings a refreshingly unique voice to British cinema and his film Secrets & Lies (1996) is one of the most well-crafted and brilliant films I have ever seen. I have been waiting to see Another Year since I first heard about its production and I wish I had been it at the Toronto International Film Festival since it will not be released here until January 14, 2011.

17 December 2010

Review: "The Fighter"

If Mark Wahlberg receives an Academy Award nomination for The Fighter it will be thanks to his incredibly talented costars and his commitment to the project, which he joined as early as 2005. I applaud his transformation from Marky Mark, the rapper and underwear model, to Mark Wahlberg, the serious actor, but other than an undeserved Oscar nomination for The Departed (2005), he has done little to earn my admiration. The Fighter is a good film because of three outstanding performances from Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo. Both Bale and Leo give frightening and riveting performances. My problem with The Fighter is that I had no sympathy for Micky Ward, the real-life boxer portrayed by Mark Wahlberg. I found it very hard to cheer for a character who, while being a victim of his upbringing, is ultimately a a victim of his own poor choices. Wahlberg's performance left me feeling less than inspired. Like Ben Affleck, Mark Wahlberg seems to thrive when he is playing a character from Boston, or its environs. It becomes much harder to appreciate a performance when it feels familiar even when the character is unique. The Fighter is not unlike many other films based on real life events. We have seen characters from poor backgrounds fighting the odds and succeeding. I take issue with Micky Ward because he is content to be emotionally repressed by his mother and brother and turns down a fresh start. Despite three electrifying and powerful performances from its trio of supporting actors, The Fighter is an underwhelming and predictable film with a disappointing lead performance from Mark Wahlberg.

Micky Ward (Wahlberg) has always lived in the shadow of his older brother Dicky Eklund (Bale). In 1978 Dicky became the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts when he beat Sugar Ray Leonard in a fight. Their mother, Alice (Leo), who has nine children, has spent most of her life putting Dicky's needs first. She is abusive and controlling. Micky had always looked up to Dicky and wanted to follow in his footsteps and become a boxer. Now, Dicky is a crack addict and still a major influence in Micky's life. Micky has told everyone, including his daughter, that he is going to win a fight in Atlantic City. When his team arrives they are told that his opponent is unable to fight and that they have found a replacement. Unfortunately, the stand-in is twenty pounds heavier and beats Micky convincingly. Micky is then given an opportunity to get paid to train in Las Vegas, but he is too attached to his abusive mother and his brother. The one highlight in Micky's life is his girlfriend Charlene (Adams), a woman who has had her share of pain and believes Micky should put some distance between him and his family. When Dicky is arrested and put in prison Micky, with the help of his father George (Jack McGee), begins training again without interference from his mother and brother. Micky starts to win fights and eventually earns a chance to fight for the Welterweight Championship.

I would not say that I have any interest or knowledge when it comes to boxing, yet it seems to be a very popular sport to film. Rocky (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and
Million Dollar Baby (2004) all won Academy Awards. These three films have one thing in common: a thoroughly fascinating lead character. The Fighter, and Micky Ward, are hardly fascinating. Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, has a similar viewpoint. He calls the character unfocused. While Roger Ebert may have a greater respect for Mark Wahlberg, I agree that the character is one-dimensional. It is hard to believe, as an audience, that Micky Ward would be so devoted to a mother that shows such little interest in his well-being. Dicky, Alice and Charlene are such passionately envisioned characters that is hard to forgive the film, and screenplay, for making Micky feel so flat. Christian Bale, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams are more talented and have a greater range than Mark Wahlberg, but it is no excuse when he has been working on and training for this film for so many years. Personally, the film started on a sour note when the words "Based on a true story" appeared on the screen. It felt unnecessary and pretentious. There may have been a lot of heart surrounding the production of The Fighter, but the film fails to connect emotionally because of its unsympathetic lead character.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

16 December 2010

Review: "Casino Jack"

Kevin Spacey was one of Hollywood's greatest leading men during the 1990s. He won Academy Awards for The Usual Suspects (1995) and American Beauty (1999) and played a leading role in one of my favourite films of the decade, L.A. Confidential (1997). It all seemed to go downhill for him after 2000's Pay It Forward and he has really faded from the public consciousness. This year he returns with Casino Jack, a film based on the real life corruption scandal involving Washington D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Spacey was recently awarded a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy, though the category is one of the weakest in recent memory. Kevin Spacey has made a career playing shady and unlikeable characters and, while Jack Abramoff is no exception, he brings a natural charisma to the role. It is this charm that made Lester Burnham such a memorable character and won Spacey the Oscar. Unfortunately for Spacey, and for Casino Jack, the film has little else to offer. The other characters are very one-dimensional and director George Hickenlooper does not give his characters very much to do. Kelly Preston, Rachelle Lefevre and Barry Pepper are underused in pivotal roles. Casino Jack turns a fascinating political scandal into a pedestrian and unprovocative film which cannot be saved by a better-than-average performance from Kevin Spacey.

In 2006 Jack Abramoff (Spacey) was convicted of defrauding American Indian tribes and involved with the corruption of public officials, which included Speaker of the House Tom Delay (Spencer Garrett). Abramoff and his partner Michael Scanlon (Pepper) conspired to extort tens of millions of dollars out of an American Indian tribe by telling the tribal leader (Graham Greene) that their money would guarantee that the right people in Washington D.C. would support their interests. Abramoff was using the millions he was stealing to invest in a boat cruise casino outfit in Florida. He felt that it was in his best interests to have a proxy act in his stead at the casino and hired an acquaintance to act in his stead. This man, Adam Kidan (Lovitz), became a major liability. In Washington, the Wall Street Journal was investigating many of Abramoff's corrupt dealing, lead by reporter Susan Schmidt (Ruth Marshall). Abramoff kept his wife Pam (Preston) out of the loop, but it was the womanizing Scanlon, whose girlfriend Emily (Lefevre) eventually put their whole plan in jeopardy.

Considering that American history is rife with political scandal, it is unfortunate that such a modern and complex story like Casino Jack was handled so clumsily. Casino Jack at various times, and often at once, wants to be a drama, a comedy and a political satire. The story is far too comical to be played straight, but the scenes involving Abramoff with his family are very stale. Kelly Preston, whose work as an actress has become infrequent at best, is given little to do in a horribly one-dimensional role. Even Barry Pepper, whose character is fundamental to the story, comes across as incompetent. Casino Jack, in terms of performance and character, rests entirely on Kevin Spacey. So much has gone into the screenplay and the film to make Jack Abramoff a likable character that all other characters have been reduced to stereotypes. Ultimately, Casino Jack struggles because it wants to be a true story while also being a parody. Sometimes it is perfectly acceptable for a film to be enjoyable, but Casino Jack is also unavoidably forgettable.

My rating: 1.5 stars out of 4.

15 December 2010

Review: "I Love You Phillip Morris"

I Love You Phillip Morris first premiered in January 2009 at the Sundance Film Festival and was unable to find a distributor in the United States because of explicit gay sexual content. As a fan of more satirical dark humour, I have never been a fan of Jim Carrey's comedies like Liar Liar (1997) or Yes Man (2008), though he was good in The Truman Show (1998) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Needless to say, Jim Carrey has been very hit and miss for me and I find a lot of his work too egotistical. I was intrigued at the prospect of him playing a gay con artist in love with a fellow inmate in prison. Jim Carrey may be the star of the film, but I saw it because of Ewan McGregor. He has not always made the best choices either but he was quite good in Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer earlier this year. I Love You Phillip Morris is based on the real-life story of Steven Jay Russell, played by Jim Carrey, who was a con artist and escaped from prison multiple times. It is the directorial debut of Glenn Ficarra and his writing partner John Requa, who wrote the screenplays for Cats & Dogs (2001) and Bad News Bears (2004). There is a lot of humour in the film and I feel that Jim Carrey delivers one of his best performances in the film. Steven Jay Russell is an over-the-top character and Carrey acts with a real comedic flair without overacting. I Love You Phillip Morris is clever and quirky and Jim Carrey deserves a lot of recognition for his best and most memorable performance since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Steven Jay Russell (Carrey) is a happily married police officer living in Texas. He reveals that the only reason he joined the police forced was to find his biological mother who gave him up for adoption. She immediately rejects him when he goes to meet her and he decides to leave his wife (Leslie Mann) and move to Miami to be his true self, an out and proud gay man. He finds a boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro) and discovers that the life of a gay man is expensive. Steven resorts to committing insurance fraud and eventually finds himself in prison. While in prison he meets Phillip Morris (McGregor), a kind and sensitive man, and the two fall in love. Steven has a great devotion to Phillip and goes to great lengths to stay together. Eventually both men are released from prison and Steven goes back to his old tricks, posing as a lawyer and gets a job at a large firm and begins stealing money. Steven finds himself back in jail and stops at nothing to reunite with Phillip, which even results in Phillip finding himself back in prison.

Jim Carrey has proven himself to be a gifted comedian in I Love You Phillip Morris despite his less than stellar track record in recent years. There is a reason audiences found him so endearing in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994). With a less talented pair of actors the film would have fallen flat and the love story between Steven and Phillip would have been unbelievable. Jim Carrey commits himself to the role of Steven Jay Russell and he becomes a gay man. He has instant chemistry with Ewan McGregor, who is no stranger to provocative roles, notably Velvet Goldmine (1998) and Young Adam (2003). It is a shame that the film failed to get distribution until now. I am not a fan of censorship whatsoever and I think that films should be allowed to be challenging and provocative. It is ludicrous that films with extreme violence can be screened across North America but films with any semblance of sexuality are deemed too explicit. When will we as a culture be able to stop labeling characters as gay or straight? I Love You Phillip Morris may be about two gay men finding love, but it is still a love story full of humour and emotion.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

13 December 2010

Review: "Rabbit Hole"

Nicole Kidman, like Tilda Swinton, has often undertaken riskier roles, such as her performances in Dogville (2003), Birth (2004) and Margot at the Wedding (2007). Her biggest problem, and my reason for being a less devoted fan, is her string of major disasters, like Bewitched (2005), The Golden Compass (2007) and Nine (2009). Kidman forfeited her role in Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger in order to produce and star in Rabbit Hole. This may have been a wise choice as she and the amazing Dianne Wiest have both garnered critical praise since the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Rabbit Hole is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire which won Cynthia Nixon a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play in 2007. This is one of Nicole Kidman's best performances since Dogville. I am hoping that this is a stepping stone to a rebound in her career, though her next film, Just Go With It, may not have bee the best choice. John Michael Cameron, director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) and Shortbus (2006), may not have been my first choice of director because the material is richly dramatic and emotional, but he allows the David Lindsay-Abaire's screenplay and the performances to speak for themselves. Rabbit Hole, despite its heavy themes, is an emotionally resonant film that is anchored by Nicole Kidman's flawless performance.

Becca and Howie Corbett (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) find their lives forever altered when their young son Danny is killed by a car. Becca, a former executive at Sotheby's auction house, was a stay at home mother who is struggling to cope with the constant reminders of Danny at home. Without consulting Howie she starts removing all concrete reminds of Danny from the house, which upsets her husband. They tried to go to group therapy but Becca becomes increasingly agitated by the religious fanatics that she refuses to keep going. Howie keeps going to therapy and becomes friendly with Gabby (Sandra Oh) and the two end up getting high in her car before sessions as a means to cope with their grief. Becca, meanwhile, has decided to become better acquainted with Jason (Miles Teller), the teenage boy that killed Danny. Through all this Becca must deal with her mother Nat (Dianne Wiest), who has her own views about losing a son, and her pregnant sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard).

I wish that I had been able to see Rabbit Hole as a theatrical play. It strikes me that the emotion of the story may be even more poignant on state. Becca and Howie are dealing with their grief in such a private and individual manner that it is a wonder that their marriage survived the death of their only child. Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart offer such wonderfully understated performances that I sat on edge for most of the film waiting for an eruption of emotion. I would have preferred if the film would have given a richer emotional context to Becca's friendship with Jason and Howie's with Gabby, and perhaps this is the fault of adapting a stage play. Dianne Wiest as we all know is one of my favourite actresses and I quite loved her chemistry with Nicole Kidman. The light and tender moments the two women shared were just as important as the deep emotional bond they have as mother and daughter but also as mothers who have lost their sons. Rabbit Hole allows its characters to be human so that the contrast of heartbreak and comfort experienced by Becca and Howie seems natural. While Aaron Eckhart and Dianne Wiest are both exceptional, it is Nicole Kidman's multidimensional performance of a grief-stricken mother that drives this film.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

12 December 2010

Review: "Made in Dagenham"

Sally Hawkins has quickly become one of my favourite actresses. I admittedly have a weakness for British women who appear in Mike Leigh films (see Brenda Blethyn and Imelda Staunton). Sally Hawkins blew me away in Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) and I have rediscovered her performances in Vera Drake (2004), Cassandra's Dream (2007) and her emotional scene in An Education (2009). Her newest film, Made in Dagenham, is based on real events surrounding the 1968 Ford Dagenham plant strike when women wanted equal pay. Usually I am a little turned off when a film is inspired by true events, but luckily Made in Dagenham has effervescent Sally Hawkins at its helm. She creates an empathetic and multidimensional character and gives a performance that stands above the trite and overly cliched screenplay. Nigel Cole is a competent director who does not offer any surprises, much like his previous films Saving Grace (2000) and Calendar Girls (2003). His third feature, A Lot Like Love (2005), is amongst Roger Ebert's most hated films. Like The King's Speech, Made in Dagenham succeeds because of one outstanding lead and two great supporting performances. Miranda Richardson and Bob Hoskins give great flair to their smaller roles. Made in Dagenham is a simple film about a group of women fighting for equality and, while it often gets lost in its own sense of morality, Sally Hawkins continues to prove she is an absolute treasure.

The female employees at Ford in Dagenham sew seat covers by hand. They often strip down to their underwear because it is so hot. The women are encouraged by Albert (Hoskins), the union steward, that they must substantiate their claim against the company by having a one-day strike. The women are in need of a new leader because Connie's (Geraldine James) husband is ill. Albert encourages Rita (Hawkins) to take her place and tells her that the real issue is pay equity. After the strike the women are given letters from management and Rita becomes so upset by the lack of respect that she proposes a full strike. One of Rita's first ideas is to include the women at Ford in Halewood to join the demonstration. While the man in administration try to downplay the issue and belittle Rita and the other women, her greatest challenge comes at home. Her husband Eddie (Daniel Mays) is also a Ford employee and he is laid off when the plant runs out of seats and is unable to build any new vehicles. Rita has to battle against her own family, Connie, who needs money to support her sick husband, and the Ford manager Peter Hopkins (Rupert Graves). The women gain so much publicity that Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), the Secretary of State, must intervene.

Part of what makes Made in Dagenham so enjoyable is how Rita's relationships are treated. There is a real honesty to her relationship with her husband even though it plays out in a very predictable manner. Rita has a huge burden. She wants to be a good wife, a loving mother and a supportive colleague all while trying to stand firm in her beliefs. My only complaint is that I was not satisfied by her friendship with Lisa Hopkins (Rosamund Pike). The two women meet while confronting an abusive teacher but Lisa is Peter Hopkin's wife and their social background prevent them from becoming friends. I understand how Lisa sees Rita's fight as a symbol for her own equality, but I found it emotionally dissatisfying in the film. Sally Hawkins is reason enough to see Made in Dagenham. It is a decent film with a great lead performance, but if you really want to be blown away by her I will once again suggest Happy-Go-Lucky, one can never go wrong with Mike Leigh.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

Review: "The King's Speech"

The King's Speech won the prestigious Audience Award at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. While standing in line waiting to see Black Swan in September it was the only film anyone was talking about. Colin Firth, who should have won the Oscar last year for A Single Man, has been cited by many as a clear favourite to win Best Actor this year. I obviously had a lot of expectations for this film. I was not disappointed by The King's Speech as much as I was surprised by how generic and formulaic it is. Even The Queen (2006), which won Helen Mirren an Oscar, was almost too respectful in its portrayal of British royalty. Stephen Frears is a much more accomplished director than Tom Hooper, whose only other directorial credits are 2004's Red Dust and 2009's The Damned United. The King's Speech absolutely hinges on Colin Firth's brilliant performance, but the film also offers two incredible supporting performances. Both Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter offer their finest performances in over a decade. While The King's Speech may be entirely too predictable, it is nonetheless an inspirational film with a powerful performance from Colin Firth.

King George VI (Colin Firth) ascended to the throne after his brother, King Edward VIII (Guy Pierce), abdicated the throne in 1936, following the death of their father father, King George V (Michael Gambon), earlier that year. The king, known to his family as Bertie, suffered from a terrible speech impediment. His wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), arranges for her husband to visit an eccentric speech therapist with an unorthodox practice, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Bertie is uncomfortable speaking in public and produces a terrible stutter. With the advances in technology it has become customary for the king to speak to his people by radio address. Lionel works very closely with Bertie and the two develop a very strong bond and friendship. The two have a very tense confrontation when it becomes apparent that Edward VIII will surrender the throne in order to marry a divorced woman. While Lionel has complete faith that Bertie will become a great king, Bertie doubts his own abilities because of his stammer. Soon after King George VI takes the throne
England declares war on Germany, sparking World War II, and the bond between the two men becomes even more important.

The King's Speech is very dramatic, but I think the film thrives in the more lighthearted moments. I quite loved the dynamic between Bertie and his wife Elizabeth as Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter have great chemistry. Colin Firth delivers one of the year's best performances and is absolutely deserving of an Oscar nomination. While the Best Actress this year seems to be the most competitive category in recent years, I would not be surprised to see the Best Actor race come down to Colin Firth and James Franco, for 127 Hours. I saw The King's Speech at 1:00 on a Friday afternoon. The theatre was completely full and I felt terribly out of place, being about 40 years younger than everyone else. The King's Speech will win favour from older viewers who have a stronger connection to the British monarchy but I do not think it is deserving of a Best Picture award. The film has three award-worthy performances but the film itself is a familiar period piece.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

09 December 2010

Review: "Animal Kingdom"

Many Australian actors have found success in Hollywood. Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett have each won an Oscar and continue to thrive internationally. Toni Collette has parlayed a string of great supporting film roles into Emmy success on United States of Tara. It is unfortunate that so few Australian films reach North American audiences. It seems to be only when a huge name makes a small Australian film does anyone ever take notice. Animal Kingdom features only one notable name, Guy Pierce, and has garnered rave international reviews because of Jacki Weaver. The actress, who has appeared in very few films, delivers an outstanding and provocative performance as the matriarch of a Melbourne crime family. She has already won the Best Supporting Actress prize from the US-based National Board of Review. Though the winner of this particular award rarely goes on to Oscar glory, it is fantastic for a small Australian film to receive such acclaim in North America. David Michod demonstrates a great gift in his directorial debut and has assembled a first-rate cast. Every performance works and I sat at the edge of my seat for the entire film, unsure and eager to discover what would happen next. Animal Kingdom, which has been likened to a smaller-in-stature Goodfellas, is a briskly paced and often shocking film that left me completely out of breath.

Joshua 'J' Cody (James Frecheville) is seventeen and knows very little about his extended family. His mother shielded him from her family and has not seen her mother, Janine 'Smurf' Cody (Jacki Weaver), in a very long time. Things all change when J's mother dies of a heroin overdose and he has no other choice but to seek out his grandmother, who willingly invites him into her home. Smurf is the matriarch of a family of criminals and has a seemingly incestuous love for her three sons: Andrew
(Ben Mendelsohn), also known as Pope, an armed robber, Darren (Luke Ford), Pope's apprentice, and Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), a drug dealer. The Armed Robbery Squad is after Pope and one detective, Nathan Leckie (Guy Pierce), believes that J is the link that will help the police arrest him. J is grounded by his relationship with Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), though his uncles and grandmother doubt her allegiance. The war between the Codys and the police eventually becomes more violent and J is unsure whether his loyalties lie with Leckie or with his estranged family.

Jacki Weaver's standout performance in Animal Kingdom is only made stronger by her fellow actors. James Frecheville gives J an honest sense of confusion and naivete while Ben Mendelsohn gives Pope a frightening volatility. The pacing of the film rarely gives you an opportunity to catch your breath of figure out what is going on and it is a successful tactic. Goodfellas is more of an saga featuring a large group of characters and it is hard to compare the two films, though I have read many articles that have tried. One called it Goodfellas-lite. Animal Kingdom succeeds on its own merits and David Michod, who also wrote the screenplay, has crafted a great film. The film is apparently based on a real-life Melbourne crime family, the Pettingills, who became infamous in Australia in 1988. Animal Kingdom shocked me and fascinated me. It is a chilling and compelling film that is well worth your time and will not disappoint you.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

Review: "Love and Other Drugs"

We all know when Anne Hathaway supposedly became an artist and not just an actress. She was phenomenal in Rachel Getting Married (2008) and deserved her Oscar nomination. But she followed that with Bride Wars (2009) and her credibility has been misplaced ever since. She was great alongside Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) but that was in the bubble of a romantic comedy. Love and Other Drugs reunites Hathaway with her Brokeback Mountain co-star Jake Gyllenhaal, who also has had some clunkers (Prince of Persia, anyone?). Love and Other Drugs wants to be a serious drama and a romantic comedy all at once and fails at both. The relationship between their two characters is unable to achieve emotional cohesiveness because it is overshadowed by his shallow and gimmicky attempts to win favour with women as a drug representative. It is directed by Edward Zwick who has directed some very dramatic films, such as Glory (1989), Courage Under Fire (1996) and Blood Diamond (2006), which may explain why the romantic comedy element of the film does not mesh very well with its dramatic overtones. He also co-wrote the screenplay, which is based on the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman. Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal offer convincing performances, but Love and Other Drugs struggles to manage its comedic and dramatic elements.

Set during the 1990s, Jamie Randall (Gyllenhaal) is the unfocused son of doctors whose older brother made millions online. He is a terrific salesman but his penchant for women is often his undoing. Jamie becomes a pharmaceutical representative for Pfizer and travels the Ohio valley trying to convince doctors to prescribe Zoloft instead Prozac, its chief competitor. He turns to shameless flirting with receptionists to gain access to the doctors. The most sought after doctor is Dr. Knight (Hank Azaria) and his receptionist Cindy (Judy Greer) is easily seduced by Jamie. During one of his visits he is allowed to observe a patient, Maggie Murdock (Hathaway). It turns out she suffers from early onset Parkinson's disease. She wants a one night stand but he begins to fall in love with her. Their relationship begins to grow as he starts selling a brand new drug, Viagra. He becomes very successful selling Viagra but Maggie is still unwilling to let herself fall in love with Jamie.

I am not trying to say that it is impossible, or even all that difficult, for a film to blur the line between comedy and drama. Some of Woody Allen's most successful films were so brilliant because his films felt so natural. The problem with Love and Other Drugs is that there is a real dichotomy between the two genres. The film wants to be rooted in a romantic comedy when Jamie is playing the role of salesman, but it then wants to change gears and become a heavy drama when he is falling in love with Maggie. It is hard to become emotionally involved in the film because the comedic elements are at odds with the drama. Sure, it was funny when Maggie stripped naked in front of Jamie's brother, but it did nothing to further their relationship. The performances from Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal are good and it is a shame that the film fails them. Unlike Rachel McAdams, Anne Hathaway has already been granted leading actress status, but much like the Canadian, she had done very little to merit it. For a film released during the fall when studios are lobbying for Oscar nominations we as an audience should expect more from a film that received so much hype.

My rating: 1.5 stars out of 4.

08 December 2010

Review: "Morning Glory"

During the 1990s Diane Keaton and Harrison Ford would have been the perfect pairing to sell a romantic comedy. It would be fair to say that neither have been in a great film in nearly a decade. Both veteran actors play supporting roles behind Rachel McAdams who has enough charisma to light up the entire screen. The film is directed by English director Roger Michell whose previous films include Changing Lanes (2002) and Notting Hill (1999), which may be Hugh Grant's only decent film since the brilliant Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). Morning Glory is a formulaic romantic comedy with very few surprises but it is McAdams who makes the film feel fresh. Rachel McAdams gained widespread recognition for her role in Mean Girls (2004) and showed great promise in Red Eye (2005) and The Family Stone (2005), which also starred Diane Keaton. Unfortunately she has been unable to make the leap to become a veritable leading actress, either with poor choices or a lack of great offers. I am not convinced that Morning Glory is the film that will catapult her into adult stardom, different from the teenage stardom she achieved with Mean Girls and The Notebook (2004), but it should prove to studios and audiences that she can carry an entire film. While Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton offer gimmicky performances, it is Rachel McAdams that keeps Morning Glory afloat and ensures that it is a film about personal perseverance and not simply a career woman being rescued by a man.

Becky Fuller (McAdams) is a television news producer who gets fired from her job at Good Morning New Jersey. She refuses to wallow in self pity and sends resume after resume out to different networks. In her desperation she takes an interview with Jerry Barnes (Jeff Goldblum) who is looking to hire a new producer for his struggling morning show, DayBreak. Daybreak is the fourth (last) place morning show in New York City. Her first act as producer is to fire Colleen Peck's (Keaton) pretentious co-host Paul McVee (Ty Burrell). Becky is excited to learn that her childhood hero, Mike Pomeroy (Ford), is under contract to the network and he begrudgingly joins the show. As an established journalist he refuses to participate in any segment that he considers demeaning, which results in low ratings and Becky learns the network is considering canceling DayBreak. In an effort to gain more viewers she starts having Ernie (Matt Malloy) do his weather reports while performing wild stunts. Becky struggles to improve ratings with the icy relationship between Mike and Colleen and her dedication to her job threatens her blossoming relationship with Adam Bennett (Patrick Wilson), who she met at work.

It is hard to believe that Diane Keaton and Harrison Ford had never met prior to filming Morning Glory. They could have made a film together instead of the dreadful Town & Country (2001) or Hollywood Homicide (2003). I will always love Diane Keaton because of her work with Woody Allen and Harrison Ford has a dedicated following from Star Wars and Indiana Jones, but neither actor has managed much of a career in years and I wish that two other actors had been given the roles alongside Rachel McAdams. McAdams is too talented to need their aging names to sell a film. Keaton was vastly underused in this film and was little more than a cantankerous morning news anchor while Harrison Ford offered a husky voice. Luckily, there is Rachel McAdams whose charisma saves Morning Glory from monotony. She makes the film enjoyable and gives you a reason to cheer for Becky to succeed. Morning Glory also offers a good soundtrack, though at times the music seemed to overpower the events on screen.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

Review: "Hereafter"

I went to see Hereafter with some hesitation. Clint Eastwood has made some outstanding films in his career with Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) being the highlights of his later career. I was not particularly fond of Changeling (2008) or Invictus (2009) and with Matt Damon headlining the film I had some major reservations. Eastwood has often dealt with darker themes in his films and Hereafter is his most obvious portrayal of death as a major character. The film tells three parallel stories about people who are affected by death in different ways. One is able to communicate with the dead, another has just a sibling, and the third has survived a terrible natural disaster. I like the idea of the parallel stories but personally I believe that the film would have worked better had the film focused on one story or had the stories overlapped sooner. The use of parallel stories was superbly executed in Robert Altman's brilliant Short Cuts (1993) and less successfully, but more enjoyably, in 2 Days in the Valley (1996). I found Hereafter to be overreaching and slightly pretentious. I was also not convinced by Matt Damon's performance and his credibility as an actor is diminishing for me. The saving grace for the film is Belgian actress Cécile de France, whose performance and emotional restraint complement the film. Hereafter does offer an interesting take on death through the eyes of three characters, but the film finds it hard to balance the three stories and the emotional cohesiveness necessary to the film is often lost.

Marie Lelay (Cécile de France), a French television journalist, is on location in Thailand for an assignment. She is in the market when a tsunami comes crashing through and she is swept underwater. Unconscious underwater she has a near-death experience and has a vision of a bright light. Marie is ultimately resuscitated by rescuers and reunited with her lover Didier (Thierry Neuvic). Upon their return to Paris Marie finds it hard to focus on work and takes a leave of absence to focus on writing. Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) are twelve year old twins living in London. Their mother is a heroin addict and they are desperate to remain in her custody and not social services. While running an errand to the pharmacy Jason is attacked by a group of older boys and as he tries to escape into the street he is hit by a van and killed. Marcus has a terrible time coping with his brother's death and is eventually put in a foster home. Finally, there is George (Matt Damon) who lives in San Francisco and once made a career using his ability to communicate with the dead. He had to quit because he found it too difficult to cope with the emotional responsibilities. George enrolls in a cooking class and is paired with a beautiful young woman (Bryce Dallas Howard). They soon become very close and eventually she learns of George's gift and persuades him to do a reading. He reluctantly agrees but the experience is so traumatizing that she leaves and never sees him again. George decides to take a much deserved vacation and goes to London. Marie is also in London on a book tour for her book Hereafter. Hereafter builds to a climax when all three lives intersect at a book fair in London.

Hereafter is uneven in terms of story and emotion. The bleak colours on screen, which have worked for Eastwood in the past, unfortunately make it more difficult for the viewer to empathize with the characters. It is as if we are watching through a filter and all the relevant emotions have been drained, much like the colour. Part of my problem with the film may be due to the overlapping stories. I was never able to fully connect with Marie, Marcus or George because the focus was always changing. Hereafter has some interesting ideas about death and the afterlife but the film lacks conviction, which may be due to Peter Morgan's mediocre screenplay. Ultimately, Hereafter does not succeed because it fails to ignite any debate about the hereafter. Eastwood has proven in the past that he can handle delicate themes and characters, but Hereafter does not have enough thematic or character development.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.