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Black Swan (2010)
1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
My favourite Aronofsky to date, 1 February 2011

It takes the terrestrial story of a ballerina desperate for the role of the Swan Queen in "Swan Lake", a part requiring her to dance both the white and black swan, and turns it into a psychosexual, brooding and horrific descent into a personal Hell. Aronofsky does clearly have a taste for the theme of a personal descent or journey; in some way or another the idea has been the subject of every film he has made so far. This could be a complaint about him being "samey", but he does it with such verve every time, each film so vivid and unique an experience on its own, it is impossible to moan.

Upon seeing "Black Swan" the first time through, I found myself rather numb; the film is so vivid, I knew what I had seen was good, but it was hard for me to discern whether I had actually enjoyed it. Having seen it twice now, I can confirm it is a masterpiece; it moved me far closer to tears on a few occasions the second time through, and is my personal favourite of Aronofsky's work so far.

What is fascinating about the film is that a lot of the ideas are long-held penchants of foreign art house and horror. Indeed, I take a rather sadistic pleasure, as a fan of the director, from the thought that a lot of people walking into the film, believing they are getting an average thriller, might be rather shocked by the unexpected elements. Once over the standard setup, the film rapidly takes you on a trip into a world of competition, obsession, self-harm, duality, sexuality, violence, psychosis and body-horror....oh, and overbearing mothers! We watch the whole thing through the eyes of Nina, played with ridiculous dedication and power by Natalie Portman, whilst the pressure of the role and obsession with being perfect ruins her mind, splits her personality, and drives her to ever-worsening degrees of paranoia. On the point of performances, I also give praise to the always-overlooked Vincent Cassel, whose acting I recognised, on second viewing, to be far more precise and thoughtful than I first gave credit for.

Anybody familiar with his previous efforts, "Pi" and "Requiem For A Dream", will already know how well Aronofsky can put the broken psyche on screen, and anyone who has seen "The Fountain" and "The Wrestler" will understand how ambitious, daring, and emotional a filmmaker he is. With "Black Swan" he manages to inject all of those elements into one piece of cinema; it is intense, emotional, dark, upsetting, intimate and beautiful, haunting and bold. The colour schemes, the staging of scenes, Clint Mansell's original score, the editing and sound; everything is so well-orchestrated, with nearly every scene being essay-worthy, that although not always hugely original in his techniques with this one, Aronofsky has made a film so startling, so hard to forget, it is impossible to not be in complete awe by the time the credits role

0 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Blistering!, 22 January 2011

My introduction to the screen presence that is Edward Norton, this film is astonishing. Norton OWNS this movie, and apparently not just on screen; legend has it that Tony Kaye disowned his film, as he was ultimately not happy with how it came out, and that there was major turmoil between him and the principal cast. You would not know, going by what you get as the final product (it makes me curious how different Kaye's vision was to begin with).

A powerful piece of work from beginning to end, it is uncompromising. It presents the story very much from a "Devil's Advocate" point of view; Norton's character is presented as intelligent, and in his twisted way, a caring brother, son and boyfriend. It presents the neo-Nazi argument as one that you can ALMOST understand and empathise with. Some would say this is dangerous, but I believe it is just honest and intelligent storytelling.

It is not just in the way the story is told that it pulls no punches; the violence is tough and unflinching, showing just a bit more than you feel you need to see, to drive the point home. The now infamous "bite the kerb" scene remains one that scars you for some time. The film's finale is still one of the most surprising, shocking and poignant I can think of. The message of the film regarding hate and anger is brilliantly stated in the final act. Performances from a stellar cast, headed by Ed Norton in what remains his most controversial and powerful screen role.

Approach with some caution, but definitely approach!

Magnolia (1999)
8 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
Strange and brilliant, 22 January 2011

My real introduction to P. T Anderson, the man who would go on to create "There Will Be Blood", this film is not one you watch lightly, but rather one you set aside a whole evening for, lights out, preferably alone or with someone equally as enthusiastic (as is the case with most of his work) and engross yourself in for a good three hours.

That three hours is an unusual urban tale in which a host of strangers' stories intertwine, each affecting another in some way. The film is about death, regret and lost opportunities (uplifting stuff!) It is moving beyond measure, a good 90% of the film set to a stunning soundtrack, including powerfully relevant tracks by Aimee Mann, that becomes as vivid and important a character as any of the screen players.

This is unconventional cinema that requires some patience, but rewards that patience massively, with great, complex characters, played by a top-notch cast amongst whom there is not a weak link: Tom Cruise is a perfect scumbag with whom we empathise anyway; Julianne Moore is at career-best as a woman who was a gold-digging leach, and who then fell in love with a man whose fate is now out of everyone's hands; William H Macy is an ex boy-genius, now a lost soul just looking to fit in for once, and the young Jeremy Blackman is the current boy-genius, sadly destined to follow in his footsteps. We have Philip Seymour Hoffman, who it would appear can do no wrong, in a relatively small but impacting role as a carer, John C. Reilly as a devoutly religious cop, who is in love with a cocaine-addicted no-hoper, played with intensity by Melora Walters. And there's plenty more...

P.T. Anderson's ability to manage tone is remarkable, the film at once funny, heart-warming, sad and heartbreaking, part music video (at one point quite literally), and with a surreal final act, which can put some people off, but whose religious reference is important to those who would understand it. Anderson is a fascinating filmmaker, and love or hate it, you certainly won't walk away from "Magnolia" unchallenged or without reaction. He would go on to up his game with "There Will Be Blood", but this is nevertheless a superb and strange drama that has high impact.

12 out of 20 people found the following review useful:
A sad case.., 15 January 2011

I love extreme cinema; I'm a fan of David Cronenberg, Takashi Miike, Gasper Noe (to a degree) and Pascal Laugier, the latter of whom brought us the wonderful "Martyrs". I watched "The Human Centipede" without batting an eyelid, "Saw" and "Hostel" are child's play to me, and so it is fair to say I'm not a prude, and I don't react in an over-dramatic, over-sensitive way to this type of thing. With that point made, I will say now that I would not recommend this film to anybody. Let me begin, though, with a few of the things that I did actually admire about "A Serbian Film".

I can genuinely see (though some would argue this) that there was an honest and sincere attempt here to make a critique on Serbian life; there is a visual metaphor intended, which is why much of the film plays out with a sense of hyper-reality more akin to a David Lynch film (though I stress I am not comparing these two film makers at all). The film is shot rather well in HD, put together professionally, and the nasty, gory parts look pretty convincing. In short, the director does know what he's doing, as far basic film-making goes. The performances were nowhere near as bad as I was expecting for a film such as this, and I can see that the lead man, his wife, and the director in the film, are all probably regarded as serious actors in Serbia. Most notable, the music was well used; the grinding, industrial soundtrack gets under your skin, but would actually work even better if it had been set against more appropriate cinematography; as it stands, it frequently looks like a Nine Inch Nails music video. This brings me nicely to the points that make it so bad.

I mentioned the lack of synergy between image and music. The film's idea is exploitation, the music is exploitation, and yet the shooting style is polished and perfect, an awful choice. When you watch "8MM", like the film or not, one of the great effects it has is to make you feel dirty, to get under your skin in the worst way and stay there. Despite the graphic nature of certain scenes in "A Serbian Film", the gore being well done, the music perfectly enhancing that, watching such a good-looking piece does distance you a bit, and dulls the exploitation effect. Now that's not to say that certain scenes didn't get my heart rate up and make me feel uncomfortable, but it was nevertheless not as powerful, due to the chosen film stock and style.

I had no problem with the infamous scenes, as some seem to have. These scenes are graphic, and hugely uncomfortable to watch, not simply because they are bloody or nasty (I can watch that fine); their effect is powerful because of the context, in certain cases the dialogue, and the metaphor that is being laid out. In other words it is the subtext and what the scenes make you feel, as opposed to simply what you are being made to watch, that have the impact. It is only the fact we know this is fiction that makes watching them bearable; you are able to rationalise and know that what you're watching is not real. In what seems to have fast become the most infamous and controversial scene, the idea presented is actually not as graphic as some would make out, the act only really being inferred as opposed to fully shown, but what you see and hear is enough to shred your nerves. Whether you can take the ideas presented without switching off is a case of personal boundary, I suppose, but I would be lying if I said that I did not find the scenes powerful, tough, distressing, and that they didn't drive home the essential cultural premise of the story very well.

The problem occurs close to an hour in, where all sense of that premise starts to get lost. The film quickly becomes incoherent, absurd, and even darkly funny; though not the intention of the scenes, there were a couple of points that made me laugh out loud. The film loses you as an audience, simply because it has no restraint; they try so hard to make something graphic and extreme, hoping this alone, driven by a premise of a political comment, will make the work important and crucial cinema. Instead it becomes ridiculous. So yes the film goes too far, but not in the way a more conservative type might suggest. For all its controversy and nastiness, in my opinion the film's biggest crime was to become silly, which is a sadness, because up to a point, as nasty and flawed as it is, I did understand what I was watching.

This is a film that I wish I could say is not for everyone, but which I admire, as it IS a film of ideas and anger, a volatile reaction to the state's mistreatment of its people, and fascism that has plagued the country's history. Sadly, I have to say that a potentially powerful piece of work was undermined, solely by the filmmakers turning it into parody.

Mamma Mia! (2008)
2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Nothing could save this..., 15 January 2011

I resisted for so long, but I figured it only fair to give "Mamma Mia" a fair hearing, and tried very hard to go in with an open mind. It is fair to say I'm no Abba fan, but I am a fan of some of the players in this film, and so thought there could be an element of watch-ability to this adaption of what I understand to be a popular musical. With that in mind, and understanding it was only supposed to be a light romp, I was ready to give it a fair go.

I was wrong, there was barely anything close to watchable about this attempt at a film. I say barely, because I did get a kick from watching those members of the cast who clearly treated this as a holiday, Julie Walters and Colin Firth, for example, having a great deal of fun on a Greek Island, generally messing about, singing Abba songs badly, and in Walters' case, I believe genuinely being at various stages of inebriation whilst filming.....throughout the entire production! We have Meryl Streep taking the whole thing far too seriously (I love Meryl's acting abilities, but here is not the place to be doing it like this), Colin Firth looking decidedly uncomfortable with every passing scene (the gradual realisation that he has signed up to make a piece of crap?), and everyone else (barring Julie Wlaters, as previously mentioned) giving a hugely forgettable, unfunny, and for the most part stupid performance.

This does not, however, include Pierce Brosnan. When I was told his singing is awful, I thought people were exaggerating, and even his performance of "S.O.S." is passable for a man who "can't sing". Of course, little did I know that he performs one of the closing numbers; did nobody, at any point, realise this was ear-bleedingly atrocious and think to overdub with....someone else?? It really IS that bad, and for this reason, I fear HIS performance will never be forgotten....sadly.

As musicals go (I would point out that I have no problem with, and even like a good musical), this is a disgrace to the genre. The idea is stupid, plot points created purely to crowbar more Abba songs in, and the story rapidly goes out the window anyway, the film quickly becoming a pastiche of a load of pretty good actors prancing about. Its colourfulness and playfulness become spirit-crushing and headache- inducing, and even for the most ardent Abba fan, I find it hard to believe the songs come through and save the day.

I am aware this review marks me out to be a grumpy, egotistical geek, and perhaps that is so, but make no mistake, I can do fun! I like fun, jolly romps, but I could not enjoy this film on any level, even an ironic "isn't this funny" one. No, it is not funny, I am getting bored, and TIRED! Jesus, this film drags! People moaned about the ending of "Return Of The King" being "too many endings", but at least the idea was to tie up all the characters' stories and actually close the film. "Mamma Mia" ends...then it ends...and then it seems to end again! I kid you not, I'm sure it must be close to ten minutes, waiting for the credits to roll. And all because we need more songs, apparently. I have never been this close to clawing my eyes out.

You couldn't pay me to put myself through this torture again.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Incredible, dark and beautiful, 6 January 2011

David Lynch uses his most dark and beautiful imagery in his longest film of the "Los Angeles 3". The film preceded by "Lost Highway" and "Mullholland Drive", it takes the themes of identity and the Los Angeles culture, present in those films, and explores them to their fullest degree.

A twisted love story, a trip into a fractured mind, a look at the darkness of human nature, a psychosis of a woman lost? Whatever this film is, it seems certainly to be about, among a great deal of other things, women; it says to me that Lynch cherishes them. Whether she be a downtrodden prostitute, or a million dollar starlet, the message about the oneness of being is quite beautiful.

For its three hours it transfixes you, pulls you in. An incredible, overlooked performance from the wonderful Laura Dern, gorgeous but nightmarish images, a sound production that is second to none, a finale that seems to be the perfect, emotional close to a film that, like all his abstract work, you understand in your heart long before you ever will in your head. If you're willing to go with it, this is stunning.

As a sidenote, "Inland Empire" also contains what I believe to be one of the most unexpectedly frightening images in the history of cinema; certainly an image that haunts you for a long time!

18 out of 32 people found the following review useful:
What the hell is this?, 6 January 2011

After the soaring success and near hysteria over "The Sixth Sense", a hysteria I didn't think it worthy of I might add, M. Night Shyamalan has failed to achieve the same level of success with subsequent efforts. I think it fair to say, however, that with each one he has gradually succeeded in becoming one of the most frustrating directors in the history of cinema. His initial ideas aren't at all bad (on the contrary, the ideas for his films tend to be rather compelling), but I have become rather accustomed to the fact that he nearly always drops the ball, the only variable from one film to the next being when this is going to happen. I say nearly, because in fairness "Signs" was a pretty well-crafted, gripping piece of work, albeit with a rather tenuous conclusion.

It turns out, with "The Happening", the ball is dropped rather quickly, and never really gets picked up again. It opens well enough, the first five minutes throwing us straight into the bizarre events, and fully achieves the intended audience reaction of, "What is going on?" Then we're back to that frustration, with our attention very quickly being drawn to other issues, like the misjudged pacing, the 'made for television" shooting style, the clunky dialogue that is often nothing more than plot exposition, and the pastiche performances that appear to have actually been directed to be as hammy and obvious as possible, because you don't get this level of awful by accident.

Even if an actor isn't particularly great, it takes a special talent to draw a performance from them that is as plastic as the plant they end up talking to. Mark Wahlberg is a perfectly competent actor; he won't be winning any "Best Actor" Oscars anytime soon, but it is fair to say he serves his purpose in a film, so you have to wonder how on earth it is that every line he delivers is stilted and unreal. At first I wondered if it was his discomfort with the material, but quickly realised this phenomenon applied to pretty much the entire cast; actors you recognise as good at what they do, looking completely out of their depth, a very strange experience.

A big issue I very quickly had with "The Happening" was the nasty sense I got of being patronised, and it even reached a point where I genuinely wondered if Shyamalan had decided with this film to do nothing more than make fun of his audience. As is nearly always the case, he develops ideas far above his station, and his view of himself as a visionary and hugely clever director gets the better of him. The problem being that this time, I suspect even he got lost in the ideas. With plot points and explanations (or lack thereof) being contradictory, it begins to feel as though he really never knew how he was going to resolve what he had set up in the first place, and so resorted to making it up as he went along. He ends up relying on the sound-bite that "we'll never really know everything", and expects that to be an acceptable coat hook on which to hang any unaddressed issue. This film does not give license for that, and the result is that he simply loses your trust.

So was there anything I liked? As I say, the premise is good, and the score works as best as it can with such an awful set of images. Note to director: Attempting to personify the wind with 'dramatic' shots of fields is not innovative, it's just stupid! After films like "Unbreakable", "The Village" and "Lady in the Water", all of which hit a different level of failure, you would think he would begin to accept he is simply an "ideas man", eat some humble pie, and pass all future thoughts on to somebody who can actually turn his ideas, which are more often than not perfectly fine unto themselves, into good pieces of cinema. Of course he doesn't! Instead, we get "The Happening", with Shyamalan once again doing everything (writing, producing and directing), and once again messing it up very badly! Better luck next time.

The Birds (1963)
2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Lightyears ahead, 2 January 2011

Alfred Hitchcock was simply a master, and arguments can be had until Kingdom come as to which of his classics was the best, but at the end of the day it can only ever be subjective. I am aware that there is an argument for both "Strangers On A Train" and "Vertigo" as his best, but as much as I love theme, "The Birds" is my favourite.

I actually think the film itself sags a little in the front half, and I'm not a huge fan of Tippi Hedren, but that all falls away when you look at how brilliantly executed this film is. Technically, Hitchcock was light years ahead of his time, using a record number of trick-shots, and for such a dated film, the effects still look amazing, to the point where I wonder, "How did he manage that?" Exciting filmmaking from a man who, if alive today, would still be showing the rest of them how it is done.

3 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Perfect war movie, 2 January 2011

He could be cold, harsh and mechanical with his style, precise as a surgeon's knife, and some didn't like that, but who better to make a film, not about war, but about the dehumanisation of the process, but Stanley Kubrick? The fact his vision of the story was so clinical really helped make this, quietly, the best war film ever made; Stanely never did things by halves.

Every frame is weighted with oppression, each moment is saying something; every line, every gesture, delivered to fit Kubrick's vision. It made a star of Lee Ermey, whose Drill Sergeant was terrifyingly real, primarily because that is what he was in reality.

Like all of Kubrick's work, this film contains iconic imagery that sears into your mind's eye and becomes very hard to erase; the final scenes, and the film's closing, with its perfect marriage of image, sound, and music, haunt you and leave you reflecting on the last 2 two hours.

Life-changing, life-affirming, 2 January 2011

Incredible to think that, like "It's A Wonderful Life", this film did not do well when it was released. The name, plus the fact it is a prison movie, plus the heavyweight tag-line, just didn't capture people's imagination. With its release on video and word-of-mouth, something changed, and now it is widely considered one of the greatest films of all time.

The reason is simple: from start to finish, "The Shawshank Redemption" is about as close to perfect as a film like this comes. The best adaption Frank Darabont has made from a Stephen King story, despite a couple of liberties taken (most notably, Red is not a black American, but a white Irishman in King's original), the whole thing works so well, you would not change a single detail! It is crafted impeccably; every scene is a masterpiece, and the performance from every single person involved is spot-on. An epic tale that works on any level you want it to; a simple prison drama, an examination of political corruption, a religious allegory, and so much in between; like "Lord Of The Rings", the metaphor is practically endless.

Perhaps it is because of this fact that so many people return to this film; it doesn't matter what time of life you see it, what you are going through, or how you choose to accept the film, it will always offer you something. That really is quite special. A story of hope that can be genuinely life-changing, and life-affirming. A gem of a movie

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