Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The Lovely Bones (2010)

WARNING: THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS.

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Plot Summary: The film centres on a young girl who has been murdered and watches over her family - and her killer - from heaven. She must weigh her desire for vengeance against her desire for her family to heal.

At this stage in the game, with eleven days until the Oscar winners are announced, it’s hard to believe that The Lovely Bones was ever mooted as a heavyweight contender for the awards season. Alice Sebold’s novel was always going to be a tough piece to adapt but many believed, based on his work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, that Peter Jackson was up to it. However, since its release State-side the film has been savagely ripped to pieces by film critics and the general public alike and barely features among the final list of Oscar nominees. While The Lovely Bones does indulge Jackson’s weaknesses as a storyteller it is not the spectacular cinematic failure many will have you believe.

The film is set in the set in the early 70’s and the period details give a good sense of the times. Technology, clothes, hair and even colour scheme all combine to create a believable 1970’s for the events to unfold in. Jackson does not jump straight into the action either; an adequate amount of film is spent at the beginning of the film establishing Susie Salmon as a real person with whom the audience can identify with. These achievements would mean nothing, of course, if the acting were not up to scratch but thankfully each cast member brings to the table a credible performance. Relative unknown Saoirse Ronan does a good job (if at times a little overplayed) with a difficult role at such an early age and Susan Sarandon is a joy to watch, bringing some much-needed comedic relief to proceedings. Even Mark Wahlberg (who too often fails to convince) is decent as the obsessed father, unable to let go and grieve his loss.

It is, however, Stanley Tucci, as the calm and collected yet highly dangerous paedophile George Harvey, who ultimately steals the show. The afterlife sections, while sometimes slightly too obvious in their symbolism, are brilliantly rendered and really make the film look unique. When Susie is indulging her fantasies the images are shot in a spectrum of beautifully bright colours and are full of wonder. Two of the films best scenes, though, occur when Susie’s purgatory turns darker; a shocking revelation in a bloodied bathroom and later, a Gondryesque walk through the crime scenes of Harvey’s previous victims display touches of brilliance. At times, The Lovely Bones is also highly suspenseful. The scene in which Susie is captured by Harvey and when Susie’s sister sneaks into his home are both hair raisingly tense, and show a masterful command of the screen by Jackson (the former would most definitely not be improved, as many have suggested, by a more explicit depiction of her demise).

Nonetheless, The Lovely Bones does have its fair share of flaws. Probably the most apparent problem is that there is simply too much going on in the film that it never really does any of the plot strands justice. The movie is a cocktail of suspense thriller, fantasy, police procedural, family drama and serial killer film and while each of the different ingredients are dealt with well, they’re poorly edited together and never fleshed out enough. This problem goes hand in hand with Jackson’s previously mentioned directorial weakness; lack of control in terms of sentimentality and running time. These two issues threatened to ruin both Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and King Kong but with The Lovely Bones he has finally gone overboard and the film suffers for it. The ending to the film is highly drawn out, with an excruciatingly cheesy moment in which Susie is allowed back to Earth so she can finally receive her first kiss and a completely unnecessary epilogue in which Harvey meets his fate in the form of a falling icicle.

Other, unrelated failings are also present in The Lovely Bones. The film spends a good amount of time setting up the Salmon family unit that once Susie is dead its depiction of their grief is sorely lacking in comparison. Sure, the audience are giving a few fleeting moments in which we see family members crying and holding each other but we never really get a full sense of the emotional trauma that the loss of a family member can inflict. This is not helped by the sudden introduction of Grandma Lynn which, while still entertaining in itself, infringes on our emotional response to Susie’s death and seems totally off with the tone of the film up to that point. Despite these problems The Lovely Bones is still a solid and enjoyable experience; it’s just a shame Jackson couldn’t have reigned it in a little as the film we’re left with is somewhat of a missed opportunity rather than the Oscar worthy achievement it had the potential to be.

Final Verdict: 6/10.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Tony (2010)

WARNING: THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS.

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Plot Summary: A thriller centred on a serial killer in a rundown London suburb.

A great film can be many things but, for me at least, the best films display either; a masterful level of artistry on a grand scale (Goodfellas, Seven Samurai) or an ability to get under my skin and truly move me (Control, The Haunting). Tony falls squarely into the latter category and has to be the best film I’ve seen so far this year. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that most people have even heard of the film at all. It’s a low-budget British film that had a very limited release earlier in the month and, in what is becoming somewhat of a trend amongst similar films, went onto be released on DVD a mere three days later. This is a crying shame because Tony is a highly affecting film on the subject, the likes of which have not been seen since indie classics such as Deranged or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

Tony perfectly subverts the standard serial killer clich├ęs in a number of ways. The audience are given no ‘normal man goes crazy’ first act, there are no police hot on Tony’s tracks and in a final stroke of brilliance he is not arrested or killed, but merely seen wandering the streets of London in solitude as the credits roll over the screen. The film is closer in tone to a kitchen-sink drama than Silence of the Lambs; a lot of the time we simply follow Tony walking around a drab looking Hackney or sitting around in his squalid flat in a council estate. The murders, and subsequent attempts to conceal the evidence, are shot in a documentary style while Tony goes through the motions in a calm and methodical manner. You’ll find no over-stylisation here; instead of glamorising these acts the film-makers have taken a more sobering, realistic approach which gives the film a highly disturbing feel. The film never becomes tedious however, as the tension is always taut and several red-herrings keep you guessing.

The central performance by relative newcomer Peter Ferdinando is outstanding and it would come as no surprise to me if we begin to see more of him in future productions. Ferdinando brings to Tony a fragile, lonely side which by no means makes the audience feel sorry for him but adds depth to a character that could easily have been one-dimensional and derivative. As the film progresses one begins to get a sense of his mental state, without it edging into pop-psychology territory. Tony wanders the streets of London talking openly to strangers, hanging out with drug addicts and going to a prostitute for company. Tony doesn’t kill because his Daddy sexually abused him; he’s a social outcast in a highly hostile and alienating environment who doesn’t know how to deal with it. Similarities to real-life murderer Dennis Nilsen are apparent but never overplayed and bring to the film a further sense of horrifying realism. Tony is most definitely not a sunny character-study but black humour runs throughout the film and keeps it from taking itself too seriously.

The camerawork and cinematography are particularly affecting and add much to the almost sickening atmosphere prevalent throughout the film. As mentioned, the film mostly employs modern documentary camerawork, but moments such as a long take of Tony’s ‘waste’ sinking to the bottom of a pitch-black canal or Tony’s figure shrouded in darkness waiting for the lift doors to close really enhance the feeling of his warped world. One extremely clever piece of camerawork starts as what simply appears to be a shot from behind a partially closed door, but quickly it becomes apparent, when a hand reaches out, that it’s actually a trapped victim’s point-of-view. Additionally, the soundtrack provided by British band ‘The The’ is aptly sinister, dark and moving.

Complaints could be levelled at Tony’s reliance on cultural stereotyping within the working classes but these characters (aggressive chavs, heartless dole officers and strung-out druggies) are extremely convincing and add to the general feel of moral depravity underlining the film. Others would protest that the film adds very little to the genre, especially since it bares many similarities to the previously mentioned Henry, but those films are now dreadfully dated and few are set in inner-city London or told in such a direct manner. My only grievance is that the film is too short; coming in at just under an hour and twenty minutes long. I could have happily watched a three hour version of Tony and did, admittedly, feel a little short-changed. Nevertheless, and while clearly not for everyone, Tony is a highly gripping and uncompromisingly bleak film and one that will stay with you for days, if not weeks, after it has finished.

Final Verdict: 9/10

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Ponyo on the Cliff (2010)

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Plot Summary: An animated adventure centred on a 5-year-old boy and his relationship with a goldfish princess who longs to become human.

Since the terrible miss-fire that was Tales from Earthsea (directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro) Studio Ghibli has had a lot to answer for. Thankfully Ponyo, which was released way back in 2008 in Japan, is a strong return to form and is a timely reminder of the magical animation the studio is capable of. Many critics would have you believe that this is a merely ‘kid’s film’, but that is to miss the point entirely. Hayao Miyazaki has oft been quoted as stating that his films are not exclusively for children, but also for the child inside of adults. Taken on these terms Ponyo reveals itself to audiences, child and adult alike, as a beautiful display of the human capability for creativity and imagination.

Story-wise, Ponyo is essentially The Little Mermaid by way of Miyazaki. Unlike the Disney version however, and as standard for the director, there is little threat from an antagonist and the film moves at a much slower, relaxed pace. This slow pace allows the audience to really connect with the two main characters. For example one prolonged scene (which also happens to be one of the films finest) simply depicts a meal on a rainy evening but helps to create real, rounded representations of children and their interaction with each other. The film is highly entertaining from start to finish due to its lovable characters, uniquely enjoyable moments and striking visuals. In terms of themes, the familiar Miyazaki trademarks centred on the environment and the nature of family unites are present and correct but never threaten to overthrow the concise but thoroughly touching narrative.

What really makes Ponyo stand out is its breathtaking animation. In designing the look of the film Miyazaki seemingly took inspiration from another Studio Ghibli film, My Neighbors the Yamadas, in terms of its pastel colours and sketch-like character design. This results in a visual style which fits the aquatic theme and the more playful and relaxed tone of the film. Technically, the animation is outstanding. Two scenes spring to mind which actually shocked me in terms of their attention to detail (an early underwater scene in which literally hundreds of individually animated species of fish roam the ocean) and sense of movement and fluidity (a later scene in which Ponyo runs in and out of a raging sea storm of giant fish).

The images on display here really help to capture a true sense of childlike wonder and innocence rarely seen in contemporary animation. If I have any gripe about Ponyo, it would be that although I enjoyed the tone of the film, it still feels a little too lightweight. Even My Neighbor Totoro, which most closely resembles Ponyo in terms of its childlike outlook and atmosphere, dealt with a difficult subject underneath the surface (a father that works away from home hardly compares to dealing with the loss of your mother). Additionally, even though Ghibli films are notorious for having unconventional narrative structures, the ending to Ponyo felt a little melodramatic and awkward in comparison to the rest of the film. Nevertheless, Ponyo is a great addition to the Ghibli cannon and is highly recommended to anyone who is willing to tap into their childhood imagination and relish a time before taxes and housework.

Final Verdict: 8/10

Monday, 8 February 2010

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2010)

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Plot Summary: In Harlem, an overweight, illiterate teen who is pregnant with her second child is invited to enrol in an alternative school in hopes that her life can head in a new direction.

I’ll be honest; I usually find it very hard to invest in films such as Precious. Films that try so very obviously to throw as many shocking and horrible scenarios at the audience turn me off and I find their attempt so see-through and laboured that I cannot connect with the characters on any level. However, due to the level of praise Lee Daniels’s new film has garnered I found it hard to ignore and I’m glad I gave it a chance. Precious, despite some glaring technical missteps is in fact a thoroughly moving and engaging film about an important topic not often given appropriate attention.

The Precious of the title, played by Gabourey Sidibe, is the heart and soul of the movie. She carries the film, and it is on her merits that the film depends. Thankfully, Sidibe plunges face-first into the (emotionally dense and highly self-deprecating) role, not merely acting as Precious, but becoming her. In fact, Sidibe’s performance is so believable that it’s hard to believe this was, at the time, her first acting gig. Precious, despite her background, is not the most likeable of characters but Sidibe brings a tenderness and optimism to the role which (along with a surprisingly bearable narration) helps keep audiences on her side. The acting on display in Precious is sublime from start to finish with inspired casting of supporting characters from Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey and yes, even Lenny Kravitz.

Indeed, without such an astonishingly strong cast of actors the film wouldn’t carry half the emotional punch it delivers. The film’s plot delves into some very dark places and deals with issues revolving around broken families (unconventional doesn’t even begin to cover it), the state benefit system and African-American working class life in an insightful and affecting manner without ever becoming too preachy. While the film deals with issues that many would rather ignore it never feels like a lecture and acts as a powerful reminder of how wrong things can when people are pushed to the edges of society. Consequently, and particularly towards the end of the film, things get extremely heavy, providing some of the most emotionally difficult and moving cinema I have experienced for a long while.

Nevertheless, there are numerous technical misgivings which undercut much of the drama on display and, to an extent, ruin what could have been one of the year’s finest films. Formally, the film plays with a lot of different styles which sometimes pay off, but mostly fall flat. For instance, the use of Precious’s fantasy scenes were an understandable decision but were often cut into the action rather abruptly. The editing of these scenes felt awkward and misplaced, continually taking us out of the moment at all the wrong times. Some of these stylistic choices, such as when Precious looks into the mirror and sees a skinny white girl, are artfully implemented but most seem overwhelming and tacked-on.

Additionally, a cheap use of slow motion occurs whenever Precious is physically abused by others, removing the impact of the violence and ultimately coming off as cheesy when the film should be at its most traumatic. The placing and choice of music is also often bizarre and off-putting. It rarely seems to adequately match the atmosphere of the scene it accompanies. Regardless, Precious still manages comes off as a highly engaging experience, and one which I would highly recommend to anyone who is even remotely interested in the social issues it raises.

Final Verdict: 7/10

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The Road (2010)

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Plot Summary: A post-apocalyptic tale of a man and his son trying to survive by any means possible.

The new Cormac McCarthy adaptation, after No Country For Old Men (great) and All The Pretty Horses (not so great), has had a bumpy road to cinema screens. The Road was originally meant to be released towards the end of 2008 but, as is becoming all too common for The Weinstein Company, it didn’t see the light of day until November 2009. During this period of time the usual delayed-film-fears began to settle in as seen with many similar releases before it. Thankfully, as the final film illustrates, these fears were proven to be entirely weightless. The Road, although not for everyone, is an extremely realistic and dark portrayal of a bleak post-apocalyptic world and the lengths a man will go to in order to protect his son.

The post-apocalyptic world that ‘Father’ and ‘Boy’ (neither are named throughout, a perfect illustration of their disenchanted existence and depiction of a society in which names are no longer needed) inhabit is beautifully captured visually throughout the film. The CGI assisted sets look more than convincing, as breathtakingly dilapidated and desolate urban images dominate The Road. The cinematography follows suit, drenching the screen in an oppressive grey spectrum of hopelessness. Likewise the make-up and costume department do a fantastic job of making the characters look like they’re living everyday as their last with a near-unrecognisable appearance by Robert Duvall and Viggo Mortensen literally looking as if he’s about to starve to death throughout. All these elements, along with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s suitable dark and eerie soundtrack, create a grimly realistic atmosphere which may turn some viewers off, but will press all the right buttons for others.

Accordingly the film moves at a slow pace, any ‘action’ scenes are far and few between and often scenes depict nothing more than father and son looking for food or shelter and walking down motorways in silence. This is not to say that the film is devoid of any narrative substance as several suspenseful and harsh scenes (such as the horrifying discovery of malnourished people being stored in a basement by a group of cannibals) most certainly make their mark. Contrasting these scenes are flashbacks to the time before things changed (the film doesn’t explain what caused the apocalypse, leaving the audience to decide) which add real emotional depth to the proceedings and shed light on our main characters plight.

Furthermore, not a single actor turns in a bad performance. Mortensen brilliantly portrays a broken, obsessively protective father who is not always likeable but whose actions are thoroughly understandable. Charlize Theron is pitch-perfect as the mother who has lost all hope and even Kodi Smit-McPhee is believable (if not a little trying at times) as their fragile son. If The Road has one drawback, it is that the film may be too restrained for its own good. For all its atmospheric achievements perhaps the film could have benefited from a stronger narrative thread or threat as I felt slightly unsatisfied with the amount of drama present. Regardless, The Road is highly recommended to anyone who appreciates a slower film and can stomach an examination into the darker side of humanity and its potential for cruelty.

Final Verdict: 8/10

Monday, 1 February 2010

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

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Plot Summary: Detective Sherlock Holmes and his stalwart partner Watson engage in a battle of wits and brawn with a nemesis whose plot is a threat to all of England.

It’s been a long while since Sherlock Holmes has graced our screens and the nature of his return (or ‘reboot’ to use the popular term) seemed at first determined to shake as many apple carts as possible. Casting an American as the long-beloved English lead? Choosing Guy Richie, famous for depicting hyper-fast gangster violence and foul-mouthery, as director? Turning Holmes into a ‘kick-ass, ask questions later’ action hero? These risks, however, pay off in spades as the new Sherlock Holmes film manages to find the perfect balance between the traditional mystery investigations and Victorian London locales of old while injecting a new sense of humour and action into the mix.

The key to Sherlock Holmes's success lies in the depiction of, and chemistry between, Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law as John Watson. Both actors do their roles more than justice, with Downey Jr. in particular bringing to the role a slacker playfulness, not seen before in previous Holmes incarnations, while still managing to convince the audience of his brilliance as a detective (and of his English accent). The banter between the two actors is witty and thoroughly enjoyable; it’s enough to make you believe the two have known each other as long as their fictional counter-parts. Meanwhile Guy Richie manages to rein in his usual kinetic style of film-making just enough as to not disrupt the tone of the film and still keep it visually interesting enough.

The action is exciting and shot well without going too overboard, while the slow-motion breakdowns of Holmes’s fight moves are especially impressive. Additional, as with Lock, Stock and RockNRolla before it, Sherlock Holmes continues Richie’s love-affair with his hometown by depicting a truly alive Victorian London via an authentic combination of period sets and striking CGI backgrounds. The only elements that let the film down are drawn-out pacing and a less-than threatening villain. The film has so much to set up and takes so long doing so that towards the end the pace starts to lag and you may find yourself wondering which scene will be the last, especially as the ending is more than predictable. Mark Strong, meanwhile, does a competent job as the evil Lord Blackwood but isn’t particularly memorable and never poses much of a threat to Holmes. Ultimately, however, Sherlock Holmes feels like a breath of fresh air for a somewhat dated franchise and provides a highly entertaining cinema-going experience.

Final Verdict: 7/10