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True Grit (2010)
Subtle, moving storytelling
[5 Stars] The Coens have many sides. Take the last four years to demonstrate this. They won a slew of Oscars for No Country for Old Men, a bleak, brilliant, brutal Neo-Western, with darkness in its soul. Then, they went utterly wacky with the bizarre, out-of-control hilarity of Burn After Reading. After that, they kept the absurdity and brought back some darkness, for the strange, existential, black comedy A Serious Man. There is no connecting line between these films, but now they appear to have gone around in a circle to the western with True Grit, though this time it is a very old-fashioned western.
There has been some discussion about whether or not this is a remake of the 1969, John Wayne film, or a new adaptation of the original novel. I am fortunate, perhaps, in having neither seen the original adaptation or having read the book, so I came to this with fresh eyes. The result was to see the true side of the Coens, and the only side which matters: these two are utterly superlative storytellers.
The film follows Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year old girl who is determined to see justice done on Tom Chaney, the man who shot her father. She is outwardly quite cold, cuttingly intelligent, moral and hard as nails. For the role, the Coen's found a very capable young actress in the form of Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld. The nature of her character makes her performance somewhat restrained, but it is subtle and steely. She is utterly believable in every moment.
Mattie forms an unlikely alliance with Rooster Cogburn, a drunk US Marshall with a personal history more colourful than Tony Curtis'. He, however, tries to have her taken home, whilst he goes in search of Chaney with a Texas Ranger on the outlaw's trail, LaBoeuf, but she chases them down and they go off on the hunt for their man. Cogburn and LeBeouf jostle with each other for Mattie's respect, both of them harsh and with their flaws. Cogburn is another triumph for Jeff Bridges (as if he needed one). Though it is very hard to understand all of what he is saying through his thick drawl, his face pierces through the darkness of the cinema and is enthralling. You can't help but be a little bit in awe of him.
Matt Damon, meanwhile, appears to have been somewhat overlooked by the Oscars for what is another excellent performance. His LaBoeuf is the more human of the two in appearance, but is the lesser of the two parts. Cogburn gets more time, more depth and detail, whilst LaBoeuf's travails mean that Damon has not got so much to work with, but he is brilliant with what he has.
The Coens let the film trickle along as they take their time, the stoicism of the central characters belying what is going on underneath. One gets the sense that every second has been meticulously constructed. It thrills when Mattie crosses a river, unnerves when a man in a bear-suit comes out of the snow, shocks when a knife is wielded without thought. Gun shots crack like thunder. Roger Deakins' cinematography takes the breath away. Carter Burwell's score complements every moment perfectly, All serves to keep the audience enthralled, but there seems to be an endless aimlessness about the film (which is kind of the point), but everyone should feel in safe hands. This is after all the Coens.
Sure enough, the last twenty minutes are a brilliant climax, bristling with shocks and excitement, where its deeply moving emotional core develops. The climactic riding sequence is spine-tinglingly beautiful and tugs at the heartstrings with barely a word being said. It is brutal but wonderful.
This may not be the masterpiece which No Country was, but it is a far subtler, more heartfelt piece. The effect on me has grown and grown since I left the cinema, its build-up leading to the most fantastic, if saddening, pay-off. It gave me tingles down my spine, beauty in my eyes, awe in my heart and a feeling of wonder in my seat. I urge you to go and see it.
The Fighter (2010)
The high quality of the acting belies The Fighter's ordinariness
[3 Stars] "The Fighter" arrived on these shores adorned with nominations and plaudits aplenty. Some went so far as to say that the film was "the best boxing film since Rocky", Esquire magazine having apparently missed "Raging Bull" altogether. It is a shame, therefore, that the actual film should be so thoroughly ordinary.
It is not a bad film at all. It is solid, pretty watchable, pretty interesting fare. The true story of Micky Ward's rise in boxing is one of those stories which sport throws up that seems born for Hollywood. But, Hollywood this is. The film is clichéd and predictable. It says very little but portrays a story of hard circumstances overcome in a manner which is more populist than the film's box office would suggest, the film's harder side counting against it there.
It is however nothing extraordinary. David O. Russell certainly brings an ounce of originality with the frenetic style of the film fast moving cameras, numerous cuts, characters jabbering over each other on and off screen but none of this makes the film more gripping or appears to serve any real purpose. It jogs along following the expected path solid, good, occasionally funny, and unremarkable. The victories do not seem to matter as much as they should. The trials and lows of the film are not very affecting. Nothing stands out.
That is with the exception of the acting, which is fantastic. Christian Bale has received all of the nominations for his bold and flashy performance as Micky Ward's crack-addict brother, Dicky Ecklund, and rightly so. After the disappointment of his dull turn in "Public Enemies", this is Bale back on form. However, as he acknowledged when accepting his Golden Globe, he wouldn't have got away with it without the sterling work from Mark Wahlberg, whose understated central turn is lead-acting at its best. He is always interesting, always gripping and gives the film its drive. He makes it watchable.
In the supporting roles, there is seemingly a great battle going on between Amy Adams and Melissa Leo for the supporting actress gongs this year, and rightly so. Adams continues to establish herself as an extremely versatile and effective young actress with a great future ahead of her. However, it is Leo who should triumph for her barnstorming performance of the battle-axe mother of the two brothers. She is absolutely brutal on screen and entertaining. Though her character as written is slightly monotonous, she manages to disguise this very adroitly.
However, the film leaves its audience impressed by the quality of the acting but unimpressed by the film as a whole. Frankly, there are better ways to spend seven or eight pounds. Get "Raging Bull" out on DVD, or organise a whip-round so that Esquire can watch "Raging Bull". As for "The Fighter", it shall dimly fade, but the performances will remain as fine examples of the actor's craft.
Black Swan (2010)
Mad, bad and extraordinary to watch
Black Swan is beautiful, engrossing, crazy, over-the-top, on-the-money, unrelenting, unforgiving, incredible, insidious, ridiculous, brilliant, intoxicating, exhilarating, mad, bad, dangerous and stunning. Not to mention disturbing. And bonkers. It is a film which inspires many adjectives. It may not be everybody's cup of tea, but it is undeniably an incredible experience.
It is hard to know where to begin, because the film is so much. It is horror, ballet, psychological thriller, comedy, coming-of-age tale and family drama. Darren Aronofsky hasn't held anything back. This could have been a fairly straightforward character piece, probably starring a second-rate actress which would have garnered her a Best Actress nomination and been middle of the road and solid. But, Aronofsky has taken that and turned it up to eleven.
He is helped by the fact that Natalie Portman is much more than a second rate Actress. Here, she truly excels as Nina. Her character is charged with playing two separate roles, and, in a way, so is she, but Portman must bring the White and Black Nina's into one character in the end, recognisable in one moment.
This is not a story about a fall into darkness. This is a story about a duality. Nina's sweetness and innocence is unhealthy, particularly in her over-sheltered relationship with her mother, played brilliantly by Barbara Hershey. She is immature more than anything else and has to grow. Of course, this is not a coming-of-age tale through and through. It is about the insanity and pressure of young adulthood, the drive of ambition, the craving of perfection. Portman puts all of this across brilliantly, with great support from Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassell, and a very fine cameo-esque performance from Winona Ryder, who is strikingly convincing as a disturbed woman whose career hasn't gone to plan. I wonder why she got cast for that role though.
All of whom remain under the guise of Aronofsky. In this film though he starts it quietly with a girl dreaming and waking up in a quiet, beautiful, princess' bedroom, surrounded by pinks and whites, Aronofsky quickly begins the crescendo of noise, tension and madness which lasts and grows through the whole film. There is no respite. A lot has been made of the lesbian scene between Portman and Kunis. Frankly, at first it's a relief seemingly a moment of quiet but Aronofsky is not in the mood for titillation. He is in the mood to drive his audience mad.
The whole thing continues to build, knowingly over-the-top and funny with it. Nina's paranoia and hallucinations likewise grow, and, by the end, I had not got the foggiest of what was real and what was not. The ending was baffling, to the extent that it made "Inception" look simple. But, I came out and was thrilled and filled with energy. Those who are unsure should go, because even if you don't like it, it's an experience which is well worth having. Besides, the level of craft and acting here is exceptional, and there is entertainment and great fun to be had as well.
Four Stars out of Five
The King's Speech (2010)
What a film should be
[5 Stars] If the basic aim of any film review is to tell the reader whether or not to go and spend their money on a film, let me fulfil that now: go and see this film, because it is almost the very definition of your money's worth. Director Tom Hooper has delivered a witty, engrossing, moving and thrilling film, driven by an excellent script from David Seidler and an exemplary cast, led by two terrific performances from Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush.
The story of George VI, one of Britain's finest modern monarchs, and his struggle with his stammer has usually been a footnote in the history of the 20th century, swept aside by the tempest and tumult of the Second World War and the defeat of the Nazis. However, this film finds the deeply human story of the man who had been bullied by many crucial figures in his childhood and had developed a stammer, and found himself in the unwanted position of voice of a nation at the time of its greatest trial.
Firth is quite magnificent. Whilst Rush's Lionel Logue (the controversial speech therapist) has many of the best lines and is utterly charming, it is the power of Firth's subtle performance which makes the film so gripping. Far beyond the perfect representation of a stammerer that he delivers, one is with Firth's "Bertie" all the way, delighting in his charming story-telling with his children, and weeping with him as he discloses the surprising harshness of his childhood.
All of this builds and swells, never once dropping pace or losing the audience's interest. The final speech is utterly thrilling and spine-tingling, the perfect climax of a film which has made you laugh, cry and told a quite wonderful and inspiring story.
127 Hours (2010)
Gruelling and gripping
[4 Stars] This is a film made with Boyle's characteristic energy and intensity. The brutal story of Aaron Ralston's struggle to survive when he got trapped in the middle of nowhere, with only a rock on his arm preventing his escape, is brought vividly to life, primarily through an inventive script which manages to make one man in a hole for five days and a bit utterly engrossing, as well as a spectacular central performance from James Franco who is utterly believable in every second of arrogance, strife and madness.
The scene where Ralston finally forces his way free through very drastic means is suitably gruelling and difficult to watch, but it is not gratuitous.
It is curious to know what you're getting out of this film. Boyle has described it as "a feel-good film". Though it has life-affirming and uplifting elements, it is too gruelling to be described as that. Ultimately, it is a testament to very great value of personal relationships, that are so easy to take for granted.
Not one of Boyle's very finest, but another excellent film which is well worth the money.
Magnificent entertainment delivers one of the best of the series
It is somewhat amazing to think that this series is coming to an end. When it first started, eight years ago, it seemed to be a very dull transfer to screen but, under the guidance of some fine directors, the films have become highlights of a year's releases. With "Half-Blood Prince" we have the best of the films since Alfonso Cuaron's "Prisoner of Azkaban". Though some problems remain, this is a thoroughly entertaining, highly effective, visually arresting piece of work which can be enjoyed by young and old alike.
Director David Yates made his first Potter film last time round, with "Order of the Phoenix", which is the worst of the books. Here, he has the return of the stock writer of the series, Steve Kloves, and a tighter, more exciting book to work with. He is directing the final parts of the saga and you can feel that he is holding himself back before a final assault on a salivating audience but not enough to stop this from being a top quality piece of blockbuster entertainment and fine storytelling.
Yates understands the world he is working in and the audience (or should that be audiences) he is playing to, maintaining a balance throughout between the traditional darkness (now darker than before) and the lightness and wonder of J.K. Rowling's universe. He opens with a brutal scene of destruction, before following it with a brief spell-casting scene where the youthful wonder of Harry allows the audience to immerse themselves once more in the world of Potter. The film is long but it merits every minute of its running time and feels a lot shorter than some of the bloated early instalments (though plot is largely favoured over character here). Yates also has a visual style which is breathtaking. The design of the world is as complete and absorbing as ever and it is shot brilliantly, whilst the visual effects are staggering. Despite the huge computer-generated arsenal at his disposal, Yates's directorial style remains subtle and effective. He makes his audience laugh (the return of Kloves to writing duties after a one film break leading to a return of wit), scream and sit on the edge of their seats as he moves effortlessly from light comedy to grand set piece to an absorbing, dramatic moment.
As always, the cast of great British thesps excel. Michael Gambon is terrific as Dumbledore in his role's biggest film. Alan Rickman is his usual self, having enormous fun as Snape, though not as much fun as Helena Bonham Carter appears to be having as Bellatrix Lestrange. But the standout of the established actors is Jim Broadbent as Professor Slughorn who is a magnetic and charismatic presence. The younger actors have improved once more. For the lead three, these are their best performances yet, but they still haven't delivered really exceptional performances, though Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) is surprisingly strong in an expanded role, whilst Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood) and Jessie Cave (Lavender Brown) are really impressive.
However, the real strength of this film is its excellent story-telling. It never lets the pace drop and has some very gripping scenes. The grand set pieces are all carried off with aplomb. The final horcrux sequence is as gripping as it is in the book and brought to life with great visual verve. But, the bit after that (yes, that bit), isn't as gutting as it perhaps should be. Perhaps that's because the end of the book is so memorable that, those who know it's coming, pre-empt it, but it still feels a little undercooked. Then again, Yates has said that he's holding himself back, but he demonstrates here, with an excellent film, that he can deliver. Roll on the grand finale.
Breathtaking, entertaining and brilliant
Ridley Scott was drawn to direct this project by a painting entitled "Thumbs down", which depicted a scene (seen a few times in the film) where a gladiator is sentenced to death by the emperor. It is a moment of pure theatre and that is part of the cinematic appeal of the idea of Rome an idea which had for forty years or so been ignored. Scott's resulting vision was an epic which has been one of the most influential films of the decade.
The story is epic in scope, but powerful in its detail. Maximus, general of the armies of the north, is favoured by the Emperor to become the protector of Rome. The Emperor's son, Commodus, kills his father before this happens and condemns Maximus to death. Maximus escapes execution and flees to his home where he finds his wife and child murdered. He is caught by slave traders and becomes a popular gladiator intent on revenge. The work on the script should not be underestimated as this is an effective story of a man trying to avenge his family and, on some level, get home.
Maximus sees Russell Crowe in one of his finest performances. He brings charisma and magnetism to the screen which makes Maximus sympathetic and engaging for both genders: a proper, fully developed character and not just an action hero to be adored by teenage boys. Joaquin Phoenix was underrated as Commodus, bringing to bear insecurity and weakness with a terrifying edge, making him one of the greatest villains of recent years. Richard Harris's appearance is all too brief in this film but is memorable enough to be counted as his last great performance. Oliver Reed meets Crowe's performance stroke for stroke and is a great presence in this film (his performance became noted for being completed with the aid of CGI after his death toward the end of filming).
Scott, however, is the real star of this film, making a world as rich and detailed as the one he created in "Blade Runner" and delivering a terrific story masterfully. The film looks stunning and has a fine Hans Zimmer score. Once again, the computer effects were another step forward (the Coliseum was largely created by visual effects) and have not dated much in nearly ten years.
The film's influence cannot be denied (wheat is now a staple image of otherworldliness) and the decade that has followed has been stuffed with historical epics ("Troy", "Alexander", "300"), none of which have been as successful or as effective. Its claim to greatness however comes from its ability to satisfy those who had come for story and character and those who came for action and excitement. It is the ultimate blockbuster.
The Lion King (1994)
An absolute classic
This was Disney's B-movie production. The studio was convinced that the following year's "Pocahontas" was going to rake in the cash and the praise. However, armed with a story lifted from "Hamlet" and some of the all-time great Disney songs, "The Lion King" became the last great film to come out of Disney's hand-drawn animations, and the last in a golden era which included "Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast". The young generation who grew up with this film have a level of affection for it that very few films have achieved. Their parents have a similar fondness for it. Now, some years on, that young generation can appreciate it as a family film once more with their children, but can also appreciate the superior level of craft which is in this film.
From the breathtaking opening, the power of the songs is immediately apparent. "The Circle of Life" with the sun breaking across the plain is striking and iconic, for parent and child alike. The energy of "I just can't wait to be king" is contrasted with the scheming moodiness of "Be Prepared". "Hakuna Matata" is still adored and is delightfully witty (it has the most intelligent fart joke ever) and "Can you feel the love tonight?" is up there with "Beauty and the Beast" in the pantheon of great Disney love songs.
The songs complement a story which is simple, effective and daring. Like many of the best Disney films, there is darkness here that the young viewer can deal with but gives the film added depth. The death of Mufasa can still bring the butchest teenager to tears. However, there is also a wealth of humour which ranges from intelligent and witty to absurd and hilarious ("What do you want me to do? Dress in drag and do the hula?"). Also, this is a proper story. The trials of Simba are thoroughly engaging and the world he finds himself in is richly populated by entertaining characters. The stand outs are the comic Timon and Pumbaa and Jeremy Irons's deliciously voiced villain, Scar ("I'm surrounded by idiots.").
The film is also a fine example of technical class. It looks stunning one of Disney's most beautifully drawn films has a fine score by Hans Zimmer to accompany the award winning songs and was a major step forward in CG effects the thrilling stampede sequence being almost entirely created in computers.
This was a generation defining film, far superior and far more successful than "Pocahontas" (the VHS was the highest seller of all time). It was and is adored by millions. It has been somewhat forgotten, particularly after the advent of CG animation two years later with the magnificent "Toy Story". This film, however, deserves better as it is an undoubted classic to be enjoyed by young and old alike.
Sunset Blvd. (1950)
A chilling, brilliant and iconic piece of cinema
Billy Wilder's haunting and masterful tale of possession and fallen glory remains one of the most iconic, entertaining and disturbing films ever produced. It's focus on the great lost generation of silent films stars and its unforgiving look at the cut throat and fickle world of Hollywood is chilling and, at its heart, are two magnificent performances from William Holden and, especially, Gloria Swanson as the reclusive, fallen star, Norma Desmond. It is a work of utter genius reflected by its oft quoted lines ("All right, Mr. DeMille. I'm ready for my close up.") and memorable visuals (the body floating in the swimming pool).
The story of the chance meeting of down on his luck writer, Joe Gillis, with the former silent movie star, Norma Desmond, is brilliantly written (the film was a deserving recipient of the Oscar for screenplay). Gillis is an unscrupulous and seemingly hopeless dreamer, out of money and out of time. Desmond is similarly hopeless, but tragically so. She is not the architect of her own despair, but has been abandoned by everyone and yet is determined that she is still desired and loved by the "millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen". She sits in a Kubla Khan as detailed and as haunting as Citizen Kane's, protected by her mysterious butler (an effective Erich von Stroheim, who later dismissed his part in the film as "that butler role").
The treatment of Desmond is distressing, and Gillis joins the fun, leading her on and taking her money, before he suddenly realises that he is trapped. Gillis is not as inhuman as he perhaps needs to be to follow the road he has started on and he is, thus, doomed. He cannot leave Desmond, who will undoubtedly kill herself in despair and is unable to write the script that may make him or be with the women he loves. The villain is Hollywood and its cut-throat and unforgiving nature which is brutal on its people and impossible for a man with the smallest slice of conscience.
This was a brave film for Wilder to make, not so much biting the hand that fed him but cooking it in butter and serving it to the dogs. However, he got away with it and no wonder why. Even the hardest man had to step back and acknowledge the brilliance of craft, the harshness of wit and power of storytelling in this film. It is brutal, dark and excellent in every way.
United 93 (2006)
Staggering and sensitive piece of work
Paul Greengrass's bold dramatisation of the horrific events of September 11th 2001 was one of the biggest risks taken in cinema in the first few years of 21st century. The importance of the event was undeniable, but the emotions which it had naturally aroused in those personally involved in the story and the vast majority of the world's public made this subject incredibly delicate. However, with this film, Greengrass met the many challenges that came with it and established himself as one of the most talented and important filmmakers of the day.
The power of this film comes almost entirely from the genius of Greengrass and his script, his style and his execution of a brilliant and sensitive piece of film-making. The film is not a simple docudrama (it is so much more than that). It is a true to the events but takes the licence necessary to turn it in to a story with intelligent perception of what happened but an emotional heart which makes this very difficult subject as gripping and moving as it deserves and needs to be. Bravely, however, this film takes on the subject of the hijackers without reducing them to inhuman psychopaths but portrays them as misguided human beings. Before one of them gets on the doomed flight to carry out their terrible plan, he gets on the phone and simply says "I love you" a touch of genuine class from Greengrass.
For Greengrass's sensitive handling of the story he is to be praised (he only proceeded with the film once he had gained the consent of all the families of United 93, who co-operated with his research), but his realisation of the story on screen is the real triumph. His (now much-imitated) hand-held style, which is exhilarating in the "Bourne" films, is brilliant here at bringing across the terror and chaos in the air a style he contrasts with the scenes on the ground were the chaos is viewed through a far more stable and controlled eye. The sheer lack of order and control that occurred on the ground that day with the air-traffic controllers and the federal government is brought home brilliantly, with some of the crucial real life figures re-enacting what happened that day.
All of this would still have been rather pointless had it not been for the power of the story being told. The courage of the passengers is incredibly powerful and a testament to the human spirit which seemed so absent that day. The final part of the film in which the fight back happens is a stupendous bit of cinema. Moving and haunting it is an absolutely perfect ending to an absolutely brilliant bit of film which left me (and still leaves me) speechless, with chills running up and down my spine.