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Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Daybreakers

     

If there is one thing movie-going audiences have been saturated with of late it is vampire films. I’m not sure if it was the dreadful Twilight film that got the ball rolling, but it seems we cannot go a month without another vamp film forced into our eye sockets. At this year’s Fantastic Fest alone there were two big release vampire films screened: Cirque Du Freak & Daybreakers. Don’t misunderstand me, I love vampire cinema as much as the next overgrown child. But you can only be told the same old story so often before it gets repetitive and tedious. We invariably get an über violent blood orgy or a sappy forced romantic angle, but typically the result is a forgettable or laughably bad film. I was excited by the trailer for Daybreakers, and even more so when I heard it was to be the closing night film. But I harbored some trepidation as to whether it would fall into one of those two slots. What I wasn’t expecting, and what I most assuredly got, was an incredibly smart vampire film that delivered all the gore without skimping on subtext.

Daybreakers takes place in an alternate future wherein a plague has changed nearly the entirety of Earth’s population into vampires. The remaining humans are gathered and farmed for their blood which is now the sole food source for an entire planet. The problem is that the human race is now nearly extinct and a crippling blood shortage is causing world-wide starvation. When vampires starve, they degenerate into nasty, winged demons that lose all capacity for rational thought. These creatures, fueled by a primal, predatory instinct, begin feeding on other vampires causing massive panic. The only hope is to find a synthetic blood substitute that can reduce or completely eliminate the need for human farming. Enter hematologist Edward, Ethan Hawke, whose experiments with blood substitutes have thus far been explosive failures. Edward, God I wish they had picked a different name for their vampire protagonist, is motivated by an overwhelming sympathy for the human race and a desire to see them revived. When he is contacted by one of the last human tribes in existence, he must choose between upholding his morals and a grizzly death at the hands of his people.

Daybreakers is one of the smartest vampire films I have ever seen. By making vampirism a universal trait, the writers have taken a good deal of the gimmick out of it. The movie is less about vampires as it is two warring clans of people both facing extinction. Granted, there are a lot of clever inserts pertaining to how society would change if vampires were the ruling class, but those feel more in line with societal alterations of a dystopian story. I thought the cars fitted with shields for driving during the day and the underground walking tunnels designed as a subway of sorts to help them avoid sunlight were brilliant. I also really loved the little depictions of vampire traits that still seem really cool to us but are played with such normalcy by the characters (child vampires, dark subway tunnels lit by glowing, yellow eyes, and toothpaste advertisements featuring fanged models).

Daybreakers is a dystopian film and the Spierig brothers, who both wrote and directed the film, were obviously striving to create exactly that. All of the classic elements are here: the stark hierarchy of society, those in power lying to the masses and hiding a crippling problem, the lone hero questioning the system, and the constant scapegoating. It’s also a commentary on our current society and how our dependence on oil has the potential to undo our way of life. But on an even broader scale, it’s about how absolute power corrupts even the most inherently powerful beings. I loved watching Edward’s Montag-like journey from moody distrust, to unwilling conspirator, to outright defiance. I also loved Sam Neil in the Big Brother role. All of these elements mix nicely with a dark, cold overtone to the vampire world to establish Daybreakers as much more of a sci-fi film than a horror film. I felt a far stronger Blade Runner vibe from this film than anything else and that really impressed me.

Don’t let the intelligence of this film lead you to believe it is boring. Daybreakers delivers the action and the gore when it needs to. The Spierig brothers don a third set of hats for this film in that they also worked on the special effects; no stretch for them given that they did all of the visual effects for their first film Undead. There is some gorgeous brutality in this film that really needs to be seen. I think my favorite scene was a slow motion, wide-angle view of an absolute bloodbath between a horde of vampires that had the entire audience howling with delight. The deformed vampire creatures born of starvation are vicious as hell and the dispatch of one these creatures in particular was spectacular. I love that the Spierig brothers still know how to use corn syrup and latex as aptly as they do CG.

I love Daybreakers. It will sit on my top shelf of vampire films in good company with the likes of The Lost Boys, Near Dark, and Let the Right One In. The reason this movie works so well is that the Spierig brothers demonstrate terrific writing prowess first, then competent directing skills, and finally a knack for visual effects. From the page to the execution these guys nail it and the result is something truly remarkable. It doesn’t hurt that they were able to pull not only Ethan Hawke and Sam Neil but also Fantastic Fest V workhorse Willem Dafoe; Mr. Chaos Reigns! Seriously, the guy was in three Fantastic Fest films this year. This is a great example of how a filmmaker (or filmmakers) can take an old hat concept, deconstruct the genre in which it typically exists, and piece together a brilliant, unique viewing experience.

The Upside: It is a dystopian, sci-fi vampire film that is every bit as entertaining as it is thought-provoking.

The Downside: If your penchant is whiny, wussy vamp love stories, you will be sorely disappointed

On The Side: For their next project, the Spierig brothers are apparently working on a remake of the classic Errol Flynn swashbuckler Captain Blood.


By Brian Salisbury

category: Interesting Articles

Did You Hear About the Morgans?—Film Review

     

As with most mainstream comedies, you get nearly all of the story line and most of the best jokes in "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" from its trailer. This fish-out-of-water romantic comedy about a warring upscale Manhattan couple forcibly relocated to the American heartland is marginally better than writer-director Marc Lawrence's "Music and Lyrics" and "Two Weeks Notice," but not even the estimable comic chops of Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker can lift it above the level of ordinary.

The titular couple is Paul and Meryl, whose marriage is on the rocks because of his recent infidelity. Now Paul's desperately trying to get her back, but his attempt at reconciliation is dashed when they stumble on to a murder and are forced to enter the Witness Protection Program.

Safely ensconced in a small Wyoming town under the watchful eyes of the local sheriff (Sam Elliott) and his shotgun-toting wife (Mary Steenburgen), they find themselves gradually warming up to each other again while dealing with their cell phone-free cultural dislocation. This includes shopping at the local big-box store, milking cows, shooting guns and running away from the occasional bear.

Meanwhile, they're being pursued by the vengeful hit man (Michael Kelly), who eventually shows up for the inevitable climactic shootout.

Offsetting the story's predictability is Lawrence's ability to craft genuinely funny one-liners, which are expertly delivered by Parker in a variation of her high-strung Carrie Bradshaw character and Grant with his amusingly droll laid-back manner.

Happily, the Midwestern characters are not reduced to stereotypes, with Elliott and Steenburgen quite winning as the Morgans' protectors and Wilford Brimley providing some fun moments as a cantankerous cafe owner.

On the minus side, Elisabeth Moss is utterly wasted as Meryl's no-nonsense personal assistant, even if she does get to show a more glamorous side than with her "Mad Men" character.


By Frank Scheck

category: Film Reviews

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Sherlock Holmes—Film Review

     

In this corner is Guy Ritchie, master of visual con-game action movies that tend toward all-style-no-substance. In that corner is Sherlock Holmes, the cerebral master sleuth who solves crimes with quiet deduction, intense concentration and a seven-percent solution. It's no contest: The winner is Ritchie in a pyrotechnical knockout.

"Sherlock Holmes" goes wrong in many ways except for one -- at the boxoffice. Credit action uber-producer Joel Silver for recognizing that the only way to revive Sherlock Holmes for contemporary audiences is by turning him into Jason Bourne and hiring someone like Ritchie to overload the senses with chases, fights, effects, editing, bombastic noise and music. Warner Bros. should have a large hit this holiday season with "(Not) Sherlock Holmes."

Even the Holmes/Watson pairing is odd, but if the film concentrated at all on character, it might have worked. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law certainly don't fit previous castings, which is fine, only they're a little too much alike. Both are glib, smart, good-looking guys and fine actors of about the same age and build. If Downey would hand his pipe to Law, they could switch roles from scene to scene.

The two banter a lot with faux hostility, which adds little to what the film takes for wit and subtracts a good deal from whatever suspense the action is meant to generate. If the protagonists crack wise, what danger can they possibly be in?

Each is given a love interest of sorts: Kelly Reilly as Watson's fiancee, who doesn't much care for his pal, and Rachel McAdams as "the only woman ever to have bested Holmes." All of which might have been interesting if the women didn't disappear for chunks of the movie.

The plot? Wish you hadn't asked. One is not meant to completely understand it, of course; you never do in a Ritchie movie. McAdams' Irene Adler drops by Baker Street when Holmes is in one of his stir-crazy fits -- this happens whenever he's between cases. She pays him to find a missing midget.

Before Holmes can say, "The game's afoot," he and a reluctant Watson are ensnared with ritualistic murders, black magic, a diabolical magician (Mark Strong), a resurrection from the grave and an attack on Parliament right out of the Gunpower Plot of 1605. All that's missing is Guy Fawkes.

As is Ritchie's signature style, as fast as the movie flies by, it can abruptly freeze and backtrack to show audiences what they missed but Holmes did not: the muddy boot, a key dropped into a shirt, a blank bullet slipped into a gun chamber. Or the film can flash ahead, as in a completely gratuitous bare-knuckle fight Holmes engages in, where he imagines in slow and stop motion the next one-two-three moves that will cripple his opponent.

The sets and CGI backdrops give Ritchie a post-Industrial Revolution London of grimy backstreets, congested thoroughfares and a bustling, bridge-building riverfront that's an ancestor to the milieu for his modern gangster films. Philippe Rousselot's cinematography smoothy marries the various components, the great matte shots and CGI into a smart-looking film.

Hans Zimmer has composed better film scores but none noisier than this one. It begins with banging drums, then descends into a cacophony of sounds from furious fiddles to Irish airs. This film is never quiet.

It also doesn't operate at less than warp speed. So there is no time for Downey and Law to develop anything more than a jaunty repartee. Because this is Holmes and Watson we clearly haven't met before, one wonders: How did they meet and why is Watson's medical practice in Holmes' Baker Street flat? What binds them together other than this being a buddy movie?

Downey plays the detective as if he were -- and there are literary grounds for this -- under the influence of any number of substances. He treats the world as a reality belonging to others but not his, one where he might investigate its phenomenon but never get much involved.

Law's Watson pleads for a normal life that would include a wife and his own domicile but acts more like a confirmed bachelor. Yes, their relationship does have a latent homoerotic undertone.

McAdams and Reilly do well with thinly written roles, delivering enough energy and wit to give their few scenes a spark. Strong makes a menacing presence -- something like a Bond villain, two dimensional yet memorable -- and Eddie Marsan has fun with Holmes' long-suffering Scotland Yard counterpart, Inspector Lestrade.


By Kirk Honeycutt

category: Film Reviews

Nowhere Boy—Film Review

     

Of all Anthony Minghella's legacies to the world of cinema, among the most valuable may yet turn out to be the movie career of Sam Taylor Wood, the artist he far-sightedly mentored when she turned to film directing. Admittedly, this was a career with a dodgy start. I occasionally wake up screaming at the memory of Death Valley, the short piece she contributed to Destricted, the 2006 compilation film on erotic themes, which showed a man masturbating alone in the desert, while making startlingly unattractive gurning expressions. But then two years later, in collaboration with Minghella and screenwriter Patrick Marber, Taylor Wood directed the excellent short film Love You More: the story of two 1970s teenagers finding each other to a soundtrack provided by Buzzcocks.

Now she's stepped up to her first feature, scripted by Matt Greenhalgh, and it's a very confident, solidly fashioned early-60s period piece about the troubled teenage years of lairy, mouthy John Lennon — played by 19-year-old newcomer Aaron Johnson. As a video-artist's cinema debut, this is certainly a conventional project, compared to, say, Steve McQueen's Hunger or Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno's Zidane, but it's handsomely made, with ringingly heartfelt performances, and it's an intriguing pre-history of the Beatles showing the painful, human cost of being swingingly liberated and famous.

Perhaps Taylor Wood's wittiest touch is to begin her film with the first, jangling chord from A Hard Day's Night, which is simply allowed to hang there unresolved in the silence – a weirdly atonal effect, replacing the song's happy connotations with something more disturbing: a harbinger of something momentous. Young John lives with his formidable but loving Aunt Mimi, a stickler for manners and standards, played by Kristin Scott Thomas – casting that perhaps makes Aunt Mimi posher than is strictly biographically accurate. John doesn't know quite why he doesn't live with his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), though he has a vague understanding that she had a nervous breakdown after he was born. He is astounded one day to find that she lives just a few streets away, and his reunion with her is like a passionate, furtive love affair, with Julia as the mistress and Mimi the wronged wife. As played by Duff, Julia is affectionate, fun, naughty and needy, and crucially instills in John a love of rock'n'roll. The stage is set for a painfully Freudian love triangle. For John, music is the only escape.

Aaron Johnson gives a perfectly decent performance as Lennon, and if he seems a little out of his depth – well, maybe that's because Lennon himself was out of his depth at this stage in his life. Inevitably, the action centres on John – and Julia and Mimi, who are, by rights, the movie's real stars, get relegated to supporting roles. Nonetheless, this is a handsome film made with real flair.


By Peter Bradshaw

category: Film Reviews

Nine—Film Review

     

Listen: can you hear a sort of whooshing and gurgling? That is the sound of Daniel Day-Lewis flushing his mystique down the toilet. He has mystifyingly taken the non-singing lead in a musical that is hideously naff, shallow, creepingly misogynist, badly acted and as phoney as a three-lire bill.

It is adapted from a 1980s Broadway musical, which in turn was loosely based on Fellini's classic 8½, about a movie director suffering from creative crisis and beset by anxieties and memories. Every scintilla of Fellini's subversion, anarchy and brilliance is utterly expunged by this crass dinner-theatre treatment, directed by Rob Marshall in the same unvarying and strident way he made Chicago.

Daniel Day-Lewis has a silly Italian-a accent-a, playing the great film-maker, surrounded by the women-a in his life-a. These are Penélope Cruz as the mistress, Marion Cotillard as the wife, Nicole Kidman as the leading lady, Judi Dench as the sharp-tongued confidante and - oh, Dio - stately Sophia Loren as the ghostly visitation of his dead mum. There is plenty of dubious pseudo-celebration of women, which masks a tacky and fastidious condescension.

As for Day-Lewis himself, how could he do this to us? Only by taking the lead in a remake of Sex Lives of the Potato Men could he disillusion us any more. The method acting king! The paragon of serious technique! The guy who supposedly doesn't just take any old silly role! And the man who has actually lived in Italy and has presumably met-a real-a Italians-a! To quote the title of a well-known film, Mr Day-Lewis, Mamma Mia!


By Peter Bradshaw

category: Film Reviews

Monday, 21 December 2009

How Big is Oxford University

     

The Oxford University (also known as the University of Oxford) is the oldest surviving tertiary schools among the English speaking countries. The university has 38 colleges and four divisions, namely the Humanities Division, the Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division, the Medical Sciences Division as well as the Social Sciences Division. The school offers four undergraduate degrees, which are the Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Fine Art, Bachelor of Theology and the Bachelor of Education. To know more about this tertiary school, it is best to start with the size of Oxford University.

The Demography of Oxford University

How big is Oxford University? One way of determining the size of the university is by looking at the total population of undergraduate students and post graduate students. The total number of students in the school is 19,486. The estimated population of undergraduates is 11,300 while the population of post graduates is 7,380.

Another way of measuring the size of a university is by looking at its colleges and departments. The colleges in the university include the All Souls College, the Mansfield College, the Merton College and the Saint Peter’s College. Some of the departments of the university are the Oxford Institute of Aging, the John Adams Institute for Accelerator Science, the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology as well as the Institute of Archaeology.

Additional Information and Other Important Details

The campus of this educational institution features various buildings and structures. To aid students, the university features the biggest university library system in Great Britain. Students can find at least 100 libraries within the premises of the school. The library system has at least nine million printed materials. The main library of the school, the Bodleian Library has priceless collections of written works of former British political leaders. In addition to these, the library also holds the Gutenberg Bible.

Aside from libraries, other structures that people can find are museums. These include the Museum of the History of Science, the Ashmolean Museum, the University Museum of Natural History as well as the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The University of Oxford has an endowment of 3.6 billion pounds in 2006. The total income posted by the educational institution in 2007 was 755 million pounds. Because of the strong reputation of the school on empirical studies, the university won research grants from the public sector and private corporations in 2008 amounting to 285 million pounds. To improve the skills of students in conducting research, the university established the John Fell OUP Research Fund.


Original article source

Boat Race trial abandoned as Oxford University crew become waterlogged

     

Oxford University were forced to abandon their Boat Race trial eights race on the Thames after one of their crews became waterlogged in white-capped conditions.

Both Oxford and Cambridge were testing their squads but the Dark Blues had the worst of the weather for their race between 'Pinky' and 'Perky', and the conditions combined with a failing electric pump to leave Pinky waterlogged before they reached St Paul's School.

"They were so waterlogged, and by the time they lined up for the restart I could see a couple of the guys going hypothermic, so I decided not to take the risk," Oxford coach Sean Bowden said.

Cambridge by comparison finished the course and gave a new boat on loan from Italian manufacturers Filippi a thorough test in flatter conditions.

Cambridge president Deaglan McEachern, rowing in 'Spaghetti', had the satisfaction of beating 'Sauerkraut', rowing in the more traditional Empacher boat type from Germany, by more than five lengths after a swift start.

"It was surprising, I expected them to go down the course side by side," said Light Blues coach Chris Nilsson, who had seen his two matched crews finish the Fairbairns race in Cambridge less than half a second apart a fortnight earlier.

The odds of an Italian shell taking part in the Boat Race on April 3 may have improved a little. Both universities go to a training camp in the New Year before selecting the 2010 Blue boats.


By Rachel Quarrell

Shakira addresses Oxford University students

     

Pop star Shakira trod in the footsteps of Winston Churchill and the Dalai Lama on Monday when she addressed the Oxford Student Union.

Wearing a pink dress, the Hips Don’t Lie singer told the 400 assembled students that it was a "privilege" to appear on the stage of the famous debating society.

“I’m mystified as to why you are here, as there won’t be any singing or any hip shaking whatsoever,” she joked.

The Colombian star spoke about her music career and charity work for half an hour, focusing on the role of universal education in promoting world peace.

"That is how I want the youth of 2060 to see us," said the 32-year-old Unicef goodwill ambassador.

"That in 2010, world education became more important than world domination."


original article source

Friday, 18 December 2009

Avatar—Film Review

     

A dozen years later, James Cameron has proven his point: He is king of the world.

As commander-in-chief of an army of visual-effects technicians, creature designers, motion-capture mavens, stunt performers, dancers, actors and music and sound magicians, he brings science-fiction movies into the 21st century with the jaw-dropping wonder that is "Avatar." And he did it almost from scratch.

There is no underlying novel or myth to generate his story. He certainly draws deeply on Westerns, going back to "The Vanishing American" and, in particular, "Dances With Wolves." And the American tragedy in Vietnam informs much of his story. But then all great stories build on the past.

After writing this story many years ago, he discovered that the technology he needed to make it happen did not exist. So, he went out and created it in collaboration with the best effects minds in the business. This is motion capture brought to a new high where every detail of the actors' performances gets preserved in the final CG character as they appear on the screen. Yes, those eyes are no longer dead holes but big and expressive, almost dominating the wide and long alien faces.

The movie is 161 minutes and flies by in a rush. Repeat business? You bet. "Titanic"-level business? That level may never be reached again, but Fox will see more than enough grosses worldwide to cover its bet on Cameron.

But let's cut to the chase: A fully believable, flesh-and-blood (albeit not human flesh and blood) romance is the beating heart of "Avatar." Cameron has never made a movie just to show off visual pyrotechnics: Every bit of technology in "Avatar" serves the greater purpose of a deeply felt love story.

The story takes place in 2154, three decades after a multinational corporation has established a mining colony on Pandora, a planet light years from Earth. A toxic environment and hostile natives -- one corporate apparatchik calls the locals "blue monkeys" -- forces the conglom to engage with Pandora by proxy. Humans dwell in oxygen-drenched cocoons but move out into mines or to confront the planet's hostile creatures in hugely fortified armor and robotics or -- as avatars.

The protagonist, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is a disabled former Marine who takes his late twin brother's place in the avatar program, a sort of bone thrown to the scientific community by the corporation in hopes that the study of Pandora and its population might create a more peaceful planet.

Without any training, Jake suddenly must learn how to link his consciousness to an avatar, a remotely controlled biological body that mixes human DNA with that of the native population, the Na'vi. Since he is incautious and overly curious, he immediately rushes into the fresh air -- to a native -- to throw open Pandora's many boxes.

What a glory Cameron has created for Jake to romp in, all in a crisp 3D realism. It's every fairy tale about flying dragons, magic plants, weirdly hypnotic creepy-crawlies and feral dogs rolled up into a rain forest with a highly advanced spiritual design. It seems -- although the scientists led by Sigourney Weaver's top doc have barely scratched the surface -- a flow of energy ripples through the roots of trees and the spores of the plants, which the Na'vi know how to tap into.

The center of life is a holy tree where tribal memories and the wisdom of their ancestors is theirs for the asking. This is what the humans want to strip mine.

Jake manages to get taken in by one tribe where a powerful, Amazonian named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) takes him under her wing to teach him how to live in the forest, speak the language and honor the traditions of nature. Yes, they fall in love but Cameron has never been a sentimentalist: He makes it tough on his love birds.

They must overcome obstacles and learn each other's heart. The Na'vi have a saying, "I see you," which goes beyond the visual. It means I see into you and know your heart.

In his months with the Na'vi, Jake experiences their life as the "true world" and that inside his crippled body locked in a coffin-like transponding device, where he can control his avatar, is as the "dream." The switch to the other side is gradual for his body remains with the human colony while his consciousness is sometimes elsewhere.

He provides solid intelligence about the Na'vi defensive capabilities to Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the ramrod head of security for the mining consortium and the movie's villain. But as Jake comes to see things through Neytiri's eyes, he hopes to establish enough trust between the humans and the natives to negotiate a peace. But the corporation wants the land the Na'vi occupy for its valuable raw material so the Colonel sees no purpose in this.

The battle for Pandora occupies much of the final third of the film. The planet's animal life -- the creatures of the ground and air -- give battle along with the Na'vi, but they come up against projectiles, bombs and armor that seemingly will be their ruin.

As with everything in "Avatar," Cameron has coolly thought things through. With every visual tool he can muster, he takes viewers through the battle like a master tactician, demonstrating how every turn in the fight, every valiant death or cowardly act, changes its course. The screen is alive with more action and the soundtrack pops with more robust music than any dozen sci-fi shoot-'em-ups you care to mention.

In years of development and four years of production no detail in the pic is unimportant. Cameron's collaborators excel beginning with the actors. Whether in human shape or as natives, they all bring terrific vitality to their roles.

Mauro Fiore's cinematography is dazzling as it melts all the visual elements into a science-fiction whole. You believe in Pandora. Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg's design brings Cameron's screenplay to life with disarming ease.

James Horner's score never intrudes but subtly eggs the action on while the editing attributed to Cameron, Stephen Rivkin and John Refoua maintains a breathless pace that exhilarates rather than fatigues. Not a minute is wasted; there is no down time.

The only question is: How will Cameron ever top this?


By Kirk Honeycutt

category: Film Reviews

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Cracks—Film Review

     

Eva Green successfully leaves Bond behind as a free-spirited teacher at a British girls boarding school who isn't all she's cracked up to be in the erotically-laced period drama, "Cracks."

Marking an assured feature debut by Jordan Scott (the daughter of Sir Ridley), the gorgeously appointed film might have benefited from a subtler touch, especially in its later frames, but the performances she coaxes from her all-female cast receive top marks.

Placement with a specialty outfit is a no-brainer.

The year is 1934, but you wouldn't necessarily know it the way Green's Miss G struts down the halls of the elite girls' school where she instructs her swimming students that desire is the most important aspect of life.

With her cigarettes and silk pants she's the embodiment of cool sensuality, but the arrival of an exotic Spanish student (Maria Valverde) causes irreparable fissures to form in that carefully cultivated facade.

Adapted by Scott, Ben Court and Caroline Ip from the novel by Sheila Kohler, the film neatly sets up the inevitable triangular power struggle between popular Miss G, the new girl and the resident mean girl (the superb Juno Temple), but once the heated plot kicks into gear, Scott gets a little heavy-handed with all those meaningful glances.

But she lends just the right weight to that tangible sexual tension hanging in the air and elicits confident performances, especially from Temple and Green, whose disarming stare can go from sultry to intimidating with the unblinking of an eye.

Production contributions are top drawer, led by cinematographer John Mathieson (a frequent collaborator of her father's), whose radiant compositions -- particularly those slow-motion diving sequences -- strike the desired sensual chord.


By Michael Rechtshaffen

category: Film Reviews

Alvin And The Chipmunks 2 : The Squeakquel—Film Review

     

Given that Alvin and chums originally started out in 1958 as a trio of high-pitched recording artists, it’s only right that this live-action ‘squeakquel’ should begin with the furry little CG blighters wooing a concert crowd with a raucous Kinks cover. Unfortunately, it’s the film’s only highlight – if the sight of three annoying furballs murdering ‘You Really Got Me’ can be considered a highlight.

I’d like to think the filmmakers had a lengthy deliberation about a storyline, but I suspect they simply caught an episode of ‘The X Factor’ and the recently released ‘Bandslam’ and thought a premise involving a self-centred Alvin, a rival group of female chipmunks (The Chipettes) and a college talent contest would prove a mighty good wheeze. And, indeed, that might have been the case had the story any semblance of… a story. Instead, what we’re offered is a succession of lifeless scenes punctuated by pratfalls that only a handful of kids in the audience found funny. Next.


By Derek Adams

category: Film Reviews

Tuesday, 08 December 2009

Where the Wild Things Are—Film Review

     

An illustrated children's book that consists of nine sentences and 20 pages does not immediately suggest a feature film adaptation. Nonetheless, Spike Jonze has fearlessly plunged ahead to weave whimsical movie magic to bring Maurice Sendak's 1963 "Where the Wild Things Are" to the screen.

The story, as millions of children and grown children know, tells of a rambunctious boy, sent to bed without his supper, who then encounters fearsome-looking but surprisingly gentle creatures when his bedroom turns into a mysterious forest. The film does surmount one of its two difficult challenges: Through puppetry and computer animation, the filmmaking teams have successfully put a world of childhood imagination on the screen. Where the film falters is Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers' adaptation, which fails to invest this world with strong emotions.

Children might enjoy the goofy monsters and their fights and squabbles, but adults likely are to grow weary of the repetitiveness. In the end, the book probably was too slender to support a 102-minute movie. Without a quest to propel the story, such as Dorothy's journey in "The Wizard of Oz," the movie turns into an afternoon-special with an easily digested moral that fails to grab youngsters by the collar and shake them up with an exciting adventure.

A viewer is encouraged to see that Max's (Max Records) rough play with the family dog and his snowball fights with neighborhood kids are angry reactions to a home life that disturbs him. His single mom (Catherine Keener) must juggle demanding work assignments and a new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) while perhaps neglecting her impressionable son.

An older sister's self-absorption and a science teacher's declaration that one day the sun will die don't help matters. Nonetheless, the boy is too much of a brat to elicit much sympathy. And his adventures with the Wild Things never captivate a viewer.

Rather than being exiled to his room, the boy, clad in only a wolf costume, runs away into the night. He discovers a sailboat that transports him to the faraway land of Wild Things, creatures that nurture childlike ambitions and grudges.

It is not long before he declares himself a Viking king. Swallowing anything the wee lad says, the monsters nominate him to be their king, too. He readily accepts and promises to keep them happy and safe. Max is about to learn the first lesson of a politician: Be careful about what you promise a potential constituency.

The monsters carry on like children themselves. They wish to sleep in piles of furry bodies, think and behave with a child's self-righteousness and are swift to perceive any slight. The large costume suits, courtesy of Jim Henson Co.'s Creature Shop, achieve a remarkable semblance to the witty illustrations of Sendak (who as one of the film's producers was heavily involved in overseeing the page-to-screen transition).

The Wild Things are overgrown dolls with expressive, feral faces and often lighter-than-air bodies. (Sendak reportedly based his monsters on family members studied intently as a child.) They rather like to bash things but are quick to realize that little gets accomplished by such actions.

The voice actors couldn't be better. James Gandolfini plays the pack leader, Carol, who looks avidly for purpose in life and thinks Max might provide the key. Catherine O'Hara is the sardonic, pessimistic Judith, all mouth and one horn growing incongruously out of her nose; Forest Whitaker is her patient and possibly adoring companion, Ira; Paul Dano is a put-upon goat; Chris Cooper plays the birdlike, kinetic Douglas; and Lauren Ambrose is the aloof KW.

Virtually plotless escapades in monster land feature the building of a fort and a dirt-clod fight, all things that Max instigates without any thought about how these activities will fulfill his promises to the gang. They don't, causing him to realize that "it's hard to be a family."

The Australian production takes huge advantage of the hills, sand dunes and shores of the outer Melbourne area to create the changeable landscapes of this other world. Cinematographer Lance Acord, Jonze's collaborator on "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," superbly integrates the imaginative with the real, and K.K. Barrett's design further enhances this "real" fantasy, a far cry from the studio-bound phantasms of old. A rock-pop score by Karen O and Carter Burwell tries too hard and at too loud a pitch.


By Kirk Honeycutt

category: Film Reviews

Wednesday, 02 December 2009

The White Ribbon—Film Review

     

The White Ribbon is a ghost story without a ghost, a whodunnit without a denouement, a historical parable without a lesson, and for two and a half hours, this unforgettably disturbing and mysterious film leads its viewers alongside an abyss of anxiety.

It has chilling brilliance and icy exactitude, filmed in black and white with the lustre of liquid nitrogen, and its director, Michael Haneke, achieves a new refinement of mastery and audacity. He has created a film whose superb technical finish and closure seems to me in contrast to its status as an "open" text, a work which resists clear interpretation. It reminded me of the group-guilt dramas of Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Max Frisch, and also the 1980 novel Wie Deutsch Ist Es? by Walter Abish, in which the son of a 1944 anti-Hitler plotter, who has just testified against a gang of fellow terrorists, returns to West Germany from France in the 1970s and asks himself how much of his homeland is in his soul. How German is it? Applied to The White Ribbon, the answer to this question can only be: very, very German indeed.

The setting is a remote village in northern Germany, in 1913, an outwardly placid but actually dysfunctional and repressive society, plagued with anonymous, retaliatory acts of malice and spite. The local doctor (Rainer Bock), out riding one day, is painfully thrown from his horse because a trip-wire was strung between two trees, and steathily removed by unseen hands after the incident. The infant son of the local Baron (Ulrich Tukur) is abducted and later found in a local woodland, badly beaten with a cane. A boy with Down's syndrome is similarly assaulted and almost blinded. In addition to these unsolved crimes, there are, enigmatically, others with perpetrators whose guilt is plain, such as the destruction of a cabbage crop by an embittered farmhand.

The movie is narrated in voiceover by the local teacher (Christian Friedel), now an old man, who explicitly announces that these painful events "could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country". Could they? And what is the narrator's motive in remembering or misremembering these events? Could it be that, having presumably lived through both world wars, and very possibly achieved an important social standing in Germany, his own hindsight is questionable?

At the heart of everything is the pastor – an outstanding performance from Burghart Klaussner. He is a severe disciplinarian who rules his household with a rod of iron and insists on his family tradition of the "white ribbon" for wrongdoers, symbolising purity. His errant children have to wear the humiliating white ribbon tied around their arm until their father is convinced they are cleansed. The white ribbon could be the ancestor of the Jewish yellow star, or the Nazi armband. Or both. Or neither.

Haneke establishes a web of motive, and moreover suggests the ways in which the victims of some punishment could be displacing revenge on to people easier to attack than their actual tormentors. A group of local children, who appear to go around together in unwholesome intimacy like the blond devils in The Village of the Damned, could be the culprits. Yet there are others with grievances. The midwife and mother of the child with Down's syndrome, played by Susanne Lothar, is having an unhappy affair with the doctor, who treats her cruelly, and she further has evidence that he is abusing his 14-year-old daughter Anna. The scene in which Anna's tiny brother, wandering the house wakefully in the middle of the night, stumbles upon his father and sister together, is a masterpiece of ambiguous horror.

This is a place in which secrets can be kept for ever, revealing themselves only indirectly, in sociopathic symptoms. When war arrives in 1914, it is almost a relief: a sweeping away of all these festering resentments – like smashing the window in a stifling sick-room. Haneke is however also suggesting that Germany's 20th-century wars are merely a continuation of this sickness on a bigger scale, though the link can never be clearly, definitively made. His villagers are convulsed by an enemy within, and although the Baron employs a number of Polish estate workers, there is no quasi-Jewish outsider upon whom the community focuses its fear.

Within this puzzle, Haneke constructs scenes and sequences that are instant classics. The schoolmaster is conducting a delicate courtship of a local young woman, and despite Haneke's reputation for darkness, this plot-strand is gentle, touching and humorous – difficult though that may be to believe. Anna's little brother has the existence of death explained to him, and the result is funny and shocking at once, and the same goes for the sub-plot that follows from the pastor's little son asking if he can keep a caged bird, like the one his father has, and the consequence is both unsettling and poignant.

In the end, there is no solution to the mystery; it could be that history and human agency are unknowable, untreatable, or it could be that the Nazi generation grew up with unexpired resentment and the frustration of not getting a solution – and the director wishes us to hear the malign echoes of that word. This is a profoundly disquieting movie, superbly acted and directed. Its sinister riddle glitters more fiercely each time I watch it.


By Peter Bradshaw

category: Film Reviews

Me and Orson Welles—Film Review

     

At the heart of Me and Orson Welles is an uncanny impersonation of the young Orson Welles by English actor Christian McKay. He does resemble the "boy genius" a bit, but more crucially his voice is perfect. He's nailed every vocal nuance that contributed to Welles' acting performances and larger-than-life personality. McKay has previously done a one-man show as Welles and, in a way, this movie is a continuation of that show.

Not that the always surprising Richard Linklater doesn't surround McKay's Orson with a memorable cast that plays real and imaginary characters who were a part of Welles’ Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar in 1937. All spark to life quite nicely. Yet you get the feeling that if Orson were to vanish, their life lights would dim precipitously.

There is an audience for this film. Fans of two indie mavericks, Linklater and Welles, for one. The film is a must for lovers and students of the theatre. Ditto that for admirers of terrific acting. But this all adds up to an art-house audience.

The film, written by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, derives from Robert Kaplow's carefully researched historical novel about the legendary 1937 New York stage production. Shakespeare's play was pared down to 90 minutes and performed on a bare stage, covered with platforms at various heights, with the actors all wearing Fascist uniforms. It was a critical triumph.

Kaplow and now Linklater's story imagines that a high -chool student, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), who loves theatre and music, wanders by the restored 41st Street theatre and is hired by an impetuous Welles for a minor though key role.

Through Richard's eyes, we watch the show take shape in its last week, moving from near-catastrophe to artistic victory while its director and star (Welles played Brutus) throws off brilliant though often contradictory ideas, sneaks off to trysts with willing actresses and assistants, continues the radio show that pays the bills and never apologizes for his raging ego.

Richard becomes romantically involved with Welles' ambitious assistant Sonja (Claire Danes), rubs shoulders with the likes of Mercury co-founder John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), future movie star Joseph Cotten (James Tuper) and Mercury star George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) and sees how art involves a certain amount of artifice. Or B.S., as Sonja puts it.

The film gets off to a halting start with too many talky scenes setting things up. The movie hits its stride as the Richard-Sonja romance heats up and Welles buckles down to business. Efron holds his own against Welles/McKay, which is no easy task. He seems a bit mature for a high-school student, though. He's more a college sophomore.

Danes plays a potentially off-putting role with charm and verve. Other standouts include Kelly Reilly as the show's female star Muriel Brassler and Al Weaver as designer Sam Leve, whose original stage design for Julius Caesar was copied by the filmmakers to insure authenticity.

In the end, though, Linklater's film is about Orson Welles, not the Me. The film does analyze his artistic process and his perhaps already damaged psyche with a degree of hindsight, giving him a speech of self-assessment the real Orson would have been incapable of in 1937.

That the boy wonder became an old-age parody of himself as much through his own self-destructiveness as the misdeeds of others informs every moment of McKay's great performance. The film ends on a note of supreme happiness and hope, though, both for Orson and for Richard. After all, the future still lies ahead.


By Kirk Honeycutt

category: Film Reviews

The Descent: Part 2—Film Review

     

A traumatised woman whose daughter has died, and who is being tortured by nightmares about her previous encounter with the monsters who slaughtered her friends, is forced to revisit their lair with a new and sceptical bunch of hunters - and this time round there's more crawlers to deal with than ever before. But that's enough about James Cameron's Aliens. What's the deal with The Descent: Part 2?

The Descent, you'll remember, was the original 'chicks with picks' flick. There were others - The Cave and, er, that's it. I dunno, you wait forever for a movie about sightless cave monsters relying on sound waves to molest a bunch of explorers, then two scurry along at once. But what The Abyss was to the deeply forgettable Deep Star Six, so Neil Marshall's infinitely superior The Descent is to the aforementioned Lena Headey bomb; an instant modern horror classic, pushing numerous primal buttons to do with claustrophobia, fears of the dark, and gore. Lots of lovely gore. More gore than Lesley Gore. Gorier than Vidal. It was also much praised at the time for featuring supposedly realistic female characters (by genre standards, at least), even if those women truthfully seemed about as believable as a bunch of pals in a Pringles commercial. Just the fact that a director whose previous film featured absurdly over-the-top alpha-males had made a so-called 'women's horror', the yin to Dog Soldiers' yang, was something to make a noise about.

The Descent would gain even darker (if unwanted) currency when a London double decker bus carrying a promotional banner for the film was ripped apart by a suicide bomb on 7 July 2005, killing 13 people. Amid the twisted metal of the No.30, the poster tagline survived, mockingly intact: "Outright terror". But above all else, the most important factor in the Descent's fortunes was that it was a British film that cleaned up, big time. Although the movie had been predicated on a UK based business model, nobody had foreseen just how astoundingly well it was going to perform overseas. Given its returns, then, this sequel was utterly inevitable. As inevitable, in fact, as Neil Marshall taking an exec producer's role and tossing the directorial baton to somebody else. In this case, former Eden Lake editor Jon Harris.

"Everybody be kind to Jon," urged a heavily-pregnant Shauna Macdonald, somewhat embarrassingly, from the stage at Film4 FrightFest 2009, where The Descent: Part 2 had its UK premiere. "He may not be Neil Marshall - but he may be even better." Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves, eh. But you know what? Shauna might just be onto something. Because amazingly enough, this is one of those very rare and special occasions when a horror sequel (scratch that - any movie sequel) doesn't totally and utterly suck. Surely reason alone to raise a glass of Cava or two.

It ends as it did before, with a woman's arm clawing its way out of a woodland pit. And admittedly, it's a familiar retread through that ancient Appalachian cave system. (And yes, pretty much a thematic retread of Aliens too, with much attendant mother-and-daughter subtexts.) This time round, frazzled Sarah Carter (Macdonald) is helping the authorities with their inquiries: that's Gavan O'Herlihy's grizzled idiot, Sheriff Vaines ("My gun stays with me"), and Deputy Rios (Krysten Cummings), who've discovered fellow caver Juno's blood type on Sarah's clothes and are slightly sceptical about her tales of blind, albino Trogs. Aiding the trio are climbing specialists Greg (Joshua Dallas), Cath (Anna Skellern) and Dan (Douglas Hodge); and yep, the first Trog-treat might as well have a target tattooed on their forehead, with the logo "Me First" in the centre.

Along the way there are rats, Trog poo, ropes of drool, a big surprise, and more gore than you can shake a gnawed leg bone at. Never mind Aeneid and Enoch Powell's "Tiber foaming with much blood": you want carnage? This movie has oceans of haemoglobin, and geysers of guts. As in the original, the interplay of light and shade is also handled very effectively. A German language website reviewing this film describes Shauna's "pretty face scattered with summer rungs", a lovely phrase which may have lost something in the translation, but you know exactly what they mean. On the downside, characterisation and dialogue have predictably taken a battering ("There's a mountain full of caves and fuck all time"), and some fans of the original are going to be annoyed that this sticks so safely and slavishly to the tried and tested formula.

That said, this should in no way embarrass or hamstring a first-time director. It delivers the goods as they say. A third film is surely on the cards, no doubt in 3D. But in order to retain any good will, this series is going to have to do the one thing our Crawler friends have demonstrably failed to do. Evolve.


Review by: Ali Catterall

category: Film Reviews

The Box—Film Review

     

I can’t imagine that adapting a short story that’s already been adapted into an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” and attempting to extend it into a feature length is an easy task. Especially when the original story has that built-in single-note ethical spin that seemed perfect for Serling and company to weave into their morality tales. There was a chance that Richard Kelly could have built a huge framework for The Box around a single ominous punchline. A chance. But to no avail.

A mysterious stranger named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) delivers a box to the doorstep of Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) and gives them the opportunity to push a button that will kill someone they don’t know and earn them a tax-free million.

The central premise of the film is a fairly fascinating moral question of how much another person’s life is worth and what lengths you’d go to set your finances in order. But that heavy lifting was really done when author Richard Matheson wrote the story in the first place. In fact, most of the heavy lifting of this film comes not from Richard Kelly, but from either the source material or the original episode. Adding onto the pile, Kelly creates a longer narrative about a middle class couple that spends too much money, drives a really, really nice car, and can’t afford to send their child to private school anymore on discount.

If it seems like I have little sympathy for their situation, you probably won’t either.

And really, without that sympathy – without a true question of what depths one would have to go to before they take someone else’s life – the rest of the story falls pretty flat.

It also falls flat because the acting from Cameron Diaz is about as good as a regional theater actress stumbling her way through a Tennessee Williams play. Her southern accent is atrocious and she delivers almost every line with a incredible lack of emotion. On the other end of the spectrum is Frank Langella who places a quiet, business-like creepiness (even if his CGI scarring helps him sometimes and hurts him in others) onto the table next his diabolical box. Marsden is also a stand out, a great actor in a good role who is only hampered occasionally from some flowery dialog that even he seems to get sick at the sound of.

I also feel compelled to mention the score because of just how incredibly beautiful it is. It’s strange and experimental, beautiful and haunting, but it doesn’t belong anywhere this movie. Even as transcendent as it is, it plunks down into inappropriate times during scenes that almost give a Ba-Bum-Bum! quality to some of the dramatics.

On the whole, the moments before the button-pushing question is answered aren’t played to much intensity. Neither is the rest of the film. It’s also a mess in the same way that plagues all of Kelly’s work and it could use a keen editing knife to help it make more sense. However, unlike Donnie Darko, Kelly seems desperate to overexplain and infantalize his audience. He comes off as if he believes he’s the first person to ever understand his primer on Sartre – the directorial version of the kid waving his hand in the back of your philosophy class just a little too desperate to prove he knows the answer. He achieves this hand-waving through far too many scenes of exposition for things which come naturally out of the context (and even repeats some of the exposition or has random characters enter a scene solely to ask a question that will lead to more exposition and then dip back off-camera only to be seen as “NASA Worker #2″ or “Reporter in back of room” in the credits).

Without those moments, and with some far better acting from the lead, the movie could have been a great, strange entry. Instead, it ends up being fairly tedious with some weird moments that work sincerely and others that really add nothing to the story or the characters (like an abandoned chance at salvation, and a moment where a character is in one place and then another through the magic of editing).

While it seems natural for any movie or story with a moral question at its center to leave audiences discussing the conundrum afterwards, my friends and I stood around in the lobby instead questioning whether or not we should have bothered going to see The Box in the first place.

The Upside: Some good performances from Marsden and Langella, and several scenes that are really rewarding.

The Downside: A muddled story that doesn’t line up, a score that doesn’t line up, and a director who can’t be esoteric without attempting to let you know what he means.

On the Side: Richard Matheson is still alive, so he can watch it!


Posted by Dr. Cole Abaius

category: Film Reviews

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