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The 2004 Paralympics approach and bitter rivals USA and Canada prepare to fight tooth and claw for the gold medal in Murderball aka Wheelchair rugby. The rivalry is amplified by the USA's former coach, Joe Soares, defecting to coach the Canadian team something that adds more fuel to the fire of this brutal and awesome sport.
In the history of the sports movie/documentary we are normally served with a dish that includes, corn, cheese and any ingredient from cliché 101. The subject matter that Henry Rubin and Dana Shapiro deliver here could easily have included all of the above. These guys are in wheelchairs, they are trying to accomplish something; we want you to cheer at the screen etcetera and the rest. Not so. This is pure genre-reinvention and laudation at some of the most athletic men seen in cinema sport. Oh and they happen to be in wheelchairs.
Now, when the Olympics has passed and all the pomp and ceremony done with, the Paralympians would come out to have their go, something that was (we can say it) sometimes considered slightly patronising a few years back. If any of that sentiment remains, this film has a job of schooling you.
Murderball is played with four players a side on a traditional basketball court. You get one point for crossing the line with the ball. Each player has a disability score from 0.5-3.5 and no team can have more than 8 points. Oh and you are allowed to smash all shades of Hades out of your opponents.
It is with this premise that the film takes us on a sporting ride and a journey about true strength and emotion that sidesteps any candy-flossed sentimentality that would tarnish an outstanding film.
The tension to the Games is heightened with the running feud between nations. Soares who was left out by the selectors steps across the boarder to coach Canada all to the chant of "traitor" and a plethora of expletives coming from USA's main man Mark Zupan (a beast of a player). It's all in sporting spirit but the conflict is both hilarious and dangerous as we see how badly all these men want to win.
The game sequences are excellent, simply because the sport is and everything is laid out bare. But it is the in-betweens that captures the audience as we see the team, get drunk, get laid and the invisible disabilities that could have crushed these giants. From former football jock Zupan (who was hurt in a road accident) to the recently injured Keith (a lover of Motocross) we feel for them but never do we pity them. It is Keith's story that sharpens the film, as he is still coming to terms with his accident and then he meets Zupan and we immediately see the spark re-ignite in his eyes as he tries out Zupan's chair.
This is fast paced action of a sports movie that exposes the souls of men without any cheap romantics. We see the suffering and the liberation through the sport and now audiences will be seeking their own Murderball tickets come London 2012.
Everything Is Illuminated (2005)
A fresh and funny look on one of history's nightmare
Everything Is Illuminated A young Jewish American searches for the woman that helped his grandfather escape Nazi persecution while embarking on a cross-European tour with some unlikely associates.
Liev Schreiber makes his directorial debut with a playful angst usually associated with his acting ethos. When successful actors decide to sit in the director's chair, we usually get a biographical glimpse at the souls beneath the acting mask- Check. We usually get a mishmash of genres- Check. But what we normally do not get is an insightful original film which is credible, intelligent and moving.
Elijah Wood plays Jonathan, an inquisitive young boy who collects pieces of life as he goes. He is on a mission to find a woman in a photograph. The sepia picture bears his grandfather (an uncanny resemblance to him) and the woman. To aid his journey he enlists the help of travel guides that comprise of a Hip-Hop loving break-dancer, Alex (Eugene Hutz), his apathetic and perma-vexed grandfather (Boris Leskin) and his dog- Sammy Davis Junior Jr! What ensues is essentially a comedy. There is an un-patronisingly simple introduction with voice-overs. Alex's is especially funny as he educates his younger brother on the year 1969, proving how popular he is with the chicks and break-dancing thus setting him up as Jonathan's antithesis.
Schreiber begins to break down the characters as they progress and the comedy acts as an intentional veil to what is a story about three people linked to the holocaust who do not really know themselves. All three hold the film with tenderness and authenticity something Schreiber was unlikely to get wrong and as enchanting and fantastical as the film is, the horrors that are allowed to crack through, i.e. the past are presented in an almost palatable tone (incidental music, cinematography) which make them all the more unsettling.
As the unlikely group finally find the town they seek they learn of the true atrocities that occurred and find out a lot about who they really are.
Elijah wood is as authentic as usual, bringing his usual innocence and strength to the screen. Formally a resident good in Lord of the Rings and a resident evil in Sin City he plays Jonathan with aplomb as he is bombarded with culture shocks and a quest for truth. Boris Leskin as the grandfather also delivers his angst and frustration at the youths with great humour and conviction as his own past is unravelled. However, it is Eugene Hutz as Alex that makes the show. The director using that old trade of translation misunderstandings to create and maintain a humour that is actually funny and not gimmicky.
Schreiber has delivered an enchanting debut that has both heart and soul. The continuous score and beautiful photography creates a fairy tale haze around a story about identity, truth and family. If there was a complaint, it would be the speed at which the film changes direction; though this could have been intentional it may not sit well with all. Nevertheless this is a sterling effort that delivers great comedy and bonding between an unlikely group while dissecting another aspect of the horrors of World War 2 in a completely fresh fashion.
Shooting Dogs (2005)
Powerful, Touching and Human
In 1994 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda. During this time a school comes under siege. How far would you go to help save lives? The atrocities in Rwanda went somewhat unnoticed as the world watched and winced before changing their TV channels. The UN blundered while describing the events as "acts of genocide" as opposed to the genocide it so clearly was. John Hurt and Hugh Dancy star in this powerful and touching story of hope, fear and humanity.
Set in the Ecole Technique Officielle (ETO), a high school in Kigali, John Hurt plays Christopher a priest who has seen his share of tribulations and clings to what hope he has left while Joe (Hugh Dancy) is embroiled in the horrors that unravel at the school as the hope he had begins to slide.
Michael Caton- Jones is a director who has previously delved deeply into relationships in 'This Boy's Life' and 'City by the Sea'. In Shooting Dogs his exposition of humanity is excellently portrayed in what essentially has the make up of a Hollywood horror story. As the Hutu's seize power, Tutsi's and their supporters gradually come under fire as the school is besieged and machetes dictate who lives and dies.
Despite the characters being fictionalized the events took place and what we are presented with is a powerful and truly disturbing picture as no punches are pulled and the true terrors exposed. This acts both as a wake-up call and homage to those who died and those who survived the atrocities.
Father Christopher, played by John Hurt, is the lynch pin in this nightmarish scenario. Having been weathered by a life of strain his last strands of hope are fading as the chaos descends upon his school. As usual Hurt's performances stretch beyond impeccable to a level of authenticity one could only expect from someone who was actually there. As with Joe, whose childlike naivety is broken down gradually until he becomes a shadow of his former self, contrasting Christopher. The director uses a young Tutsi girl, Maria (Claire Hope-Ashley), to introduce and somewhat narrate the proceedings as an unsteady UN-laced serenity is transformed into a time of fear and suffering. (The title comes from the fact the UN were killing dogs that fed on decomposing bodies but could never fire shots against those wielding machetes.) This is a flawless film in its delivery and character portrayal. The cast and crew were made up of survivors and those linked closely to the events so the film has already had the authenticity in its bones. Hotel Rwanda approached the subject matter from a different angle- a story about heroism. This film shares the same theme but it is the basic approach that sharpens the emotions and the human elements that set it apart from other films of this nature.
From the playful opening scenes to the carnage that ensues, the audience cannot help but be enthralled and engrossed by man's potential for good and totally disgusted by his potential for evil.
More of an experiment than a movie, take a blanket with you
David McKean takes us on a roller-coaster journey of dreams and fantasies with a touch of child-like innocence. Mirrormask is a story about a strained mother-daughter relationship that takes a turn for the worse when the mother (Gina McKee) falls ill. Helena, played by Stephanie Leonidas has to find the Mirrormask to save her.
This film lends itself to the standard coming of age tale, where a child is trapped in a fantasy land of in a dream-state seeking a key to unlock her maturity. And so it is in Mirrormask. We meet the family, including Rob Brydon of BBC comic fame, working at their family business, the circus which acts as an ideal presetting to the fantasy that ensues.
Jim Henson's production workshop lent a hand to the film contributing its knowledge and wisdom to the scary and beautiful creatures strewn within this fantasy. As Helena dreams, she takes on a world where she has all the answers but does not realise it yet. Jason Barry plays her side-kick, Valentine as the pair encounter all sorts of creatures and solve riddles to find the Mirrormask.
So here it is, we have seen Jim Henson's maverick creations in Labyrinth and David McKean's animation abilities (including being a conceptual artist on the first Harry Potter movie) but the eye candy is all we get- great for kids but parents accompanying their ankle-biters may be left a little wanting. The film is undoubtedly beautiful and a fantasy unlike any you've seen before but that seems to be it. The plot is simple and relinquishes depth for image and creative design. A powerful family drama could have been the driving force for this animated fantasy but it seems that this is overlooked in return for beautiful creatures and constant exploration of different worlds.
All performances are good. Leonidas having to act the majority of the film in front of a blue screen and Jason Barry lending some great comedy but that all lies too thin on a film that essentially has no story. Nevertheless the children in the audience will not mind as there is enough to keep their eyeballs twitching with intrigue as we see talking cats, a funny librarian (voiced by Stephen Fry) and some of the most bizarre creations since Jim Henson last got involved in a project.
fresh, fun, funny- fact
'A man or woman of all work' is indeed what Matt Dillon is in this out-there adaptation of Bukowski stories. Bent Hamer directs in this brilliant and quirky tale of a man who walks through life doing odd-jobs to fund his booze, gambling and womanising habits.
Henry Chinaski is made real by the always brilliant Matt Dillon. It really is no surprise that Hollywood's former pin-up embodies the part so well, as his perfected mix of sleaze and slack minded cool have made him the renowned actor he is. From 'Over the Edge' in 1979, the award winning 'Drugstore Cowboy' and his recent role as the scarred cop in 'Crash', Dillon really has the ability to expose man's flaws and run to a bar with them.
The film is spliced from various Bukowski writings and follows Chinaski (his alter-ego) around town as he drinks from job to job occasionally taking time to get fired and get laid. Lily Taylor and Marisa Tomei play two of Chinaski's bed-pals with equal sleaze and conviction.
This is not your usual movie in terms of subject matter and execution. It takes a Norwegian director, committed actors and a fantastic performance from Dillon to pull off a story that really is as much a Homage to Bukowski but also a bold attempt to deliver something different, a word not regularly accepted in today's Hollywood run industry. (Hence some of the finance coming from Japan).
From our introduction to Chinaski's routines of getting work and drinking; then losing work and drinking to watching what is essentially a horrible man (his treatment of woman, his lack of respect for anything) we are never really meant to like him. So why do we? It isn't just the looks or square jaw of the lead (Bukowski was the complete opposite) or his fantastic humorous charm but what lies beneath those eyes. Dillon has always been able to make the jerk likable. In this case, we do because he's funny and because we get a tiny glimpse of background reasoning why this man is so talented and yet so flawed. (The real Bukowski suffered a tough childhood and Chinaski's family is only referenced to in a hilarious scene of steak and ass- you'll see what I mean ).
Bent Hamer has accomplished a feat pretty standard in European film-making traditions- light comedy with black undertones outside of the rules of the usual three part formation. This tale could have started anywhere and ended anywhere in this man's life as the selling point it simply having Dillon on screen as this character- that is the story.
Bukowski was a genius who stuck to his loose morality with his back to society. It should be noted that he held down jobs for long periods, one for 12 years while doing what he did best, drinking and gambling but the only time he truly engaged was when he was observing for his writings, looking for funding i.e. work or needed a female drink buddy. He later had works published, hung around with Sean Penn (also considered for the role) and U2 dedicated a song to him.
The cast and crew have created a delightful fresh film that is both funny and dark. The performances are as authentic as ever with a mention going to Lily Taylor's career best performance. This film is a Jack of all trades and seems to have mastered a new one with the tone and atmosphere set perfectly to mirror the down and dirty LA Bukowski became part of.
Kung fu (2004)
Let's Chow on some cerebral cornflakes
Stephen Chow has problems. He's one of Asia's biggest stars but he has subject matters that seem too flimsy for his versatile personality. So what's the solution? Make them edgy, or garnish his ideas with deep and troubled characters, which can sometimes be negative. What he does, is add zang and plenty of people getting seven shades of Asia beaten out of them in his latest offering - Kung Fu Hustle.
The man who brought you Shaolin Soccer, the kung fu versus premiership rumble, is back with a film that blends immiscible themes akin to an oil/water/fire combo. But there is talent here, something reminiscent of the Coen brothers in their complexity and setting up camp in leftfield.
The multi-talented Chow directs and he does that well. He writes and he does that well. As the lead, Sing, he does that very well as he morphs into a comedian that can and will split your sides (and I'm not just talking about laughter) Set in pre-revolution China, Kung Fu Hustle is a brutal take on gang warfare within a seemingly peaceful community. Despite Matrix-esquire choreography and special effects, the film remains serene in a child-like way. Chow clearly had fun writing and performing in what is essentially a comedy.
We witness a turf war erupt between the Axe Gang and the residents of Pig Sty Alley, neither of which are clever names, as the Axe Gang begin by chopping and scalping and the residents rise from their squalor and use their combat aptitudes to complete the David and Goliath analogy. Sing and his overweight bumbling sidekick are caught in the middle as he pretends to be a member of the Axe Gang and helps the feud escalate.
In all Kung Fu Hustle succeeds because it does what it says on the tin. It is a well envisaged roller coaster of a movie that has naïve comedic value and almost lends the film innocence. This is blended surprisingly well without glitches as comedy turns to brutal violence in some amazing set pieces that see people hacked, kicked, slapped and musically destroyed in one of the closing scenes (you'll see what I mean).
The characters are well thought out and lend their own comedy and fighting skills to the setup. Note the chain smoking landlady and the song and dance routines that on the surface seem ludicrous but add bonus comedy value as you know someone is about to have their teeth cut out or met with the 'Hand of God'- a brilliant scene that ends the film.
Another worthy attempt by Mr Chow, creating 95 minutes of well thought (and fought) out, thoughtless action! Phew
Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)
Tut Tut and Tut
When a tag line bears "From the producers of Training Day" and Ethan Hawke leads, you think you are about to embark on an original, gritty, siege drama, that cuts through the standard Hollywood cop bull so often sprayed across our theatre screens- or so you would think.
The difficulty with trying to remake a classic is, well, the original. Horror maestro- John carpenter succeeded with his 1976 thriller by stripping the plot down to the basics: Both police and crooks alike are in trouble. There's a storm and everyone has a pretty good chance of dying, oh and there's loads of bad guys coming. All these ingredients make for a tasty brew of genre splicing accomplishment. There are no smoke or mirrors as the original plays out like a zombie movie where the heroes have no chance.
In the folding chair is Jean-François Richet who creates a promising opening sequence. Hawke gives us a taste of his Oscar nominated capabilities straight off of his "officer Jake Hoyt" in Training Day. As Roenick, Hawke, loses his team, during a drug-bust, setting up the clichéd scarred-cop who's after redemption. The effectiveness and credibility given to the opening sequence is lost as the assault on the precinct ensues. We have a glimpse of undercover police work, the dangers and (in)effectiveness but then the 'good guys inside versus the bad guys outside' plot just doesn't hold you firmly enough to avoid slipping from your chair into a comatose state or making for the exist pulling strands of hair from your head protesting against remakes.
This film is clearly a "pay-the-rent-issue," another opportunity for studios to cash in on old hats. Maria Bello takes the strong female lead but is perma-exposed solely to avoid the film inducing mass-sleep (a good move if you ask me) and the Training Day references (I counted 7), ranging from the same names (Jake, Smiley) being used and the same lines being spat.
Note: Not all is bad with Hollywood's latest dust-off. Wide-angle action shots increase the sense of isolation and it holds its own tension-wise as the snow engulfs the soon to be doomed precinct 13. Viewers may think they have developed psychic ability as the predictable plot drools to an expected climax.
Make no mistake; this is a classically scripted cliché that can only be above average, due to Hawke's performance. The mere screen presence of the supporting cast sees Gabriel Byrnes' bad guy underused and Laurence Fishburne's crime lord too ambiguous to feel or hate him. Ja Rule is pointless as the third-person referring 'Smiley' but John Leguizamo puts in a comic performance as an anxious drug addict. The biggest positive would be Hawke making the most of his material but it is hard to say how the film would fair without his acting weight
"not well" springs to mind.
Lord of War (2005)
Hmmm, Adnrew Niccol really has a lot on his mind....
Nicolas Cage leads as Yuri Orlov, an arms dealer that believes his trade is fair, so to speak, and that he is doing his job, well. Director Andrew Niccol offers another social assessment, this time scraping a little bit more bone.
Niccol tackled social discrimination in the form of genetics in Gattaca, the world's lust for tele-visual junk in The Truman Show and now he resides in the helmer's chair for the Lord of War, a tongue in cheek look at the world's arms trade and the politicians and warlords that pay for Cage's designer lifestyle and maintain his designer wife.
Mr Niccol is a man that has a clear vision. His previous works all engaged the audience with an underdog, someone that society has said has no chance who eventually circumvents the odds and liberates themselves. This film however is a little trickier to decipher.
The opening shot trails across a sea of bullets and lands on Cage, explaining the woeful truth via his jobs description: "1 out of every twelve people on the planet has a gun, my job is to figure out how to arm the other eleven," and then we are taken on a clever life cycle of a bullet from it's birth to it finding it's home - a child's head. Indeed, tongue-in-cheek, indeed the opening sequence is laced with brutal cynicism but is Niccol wagging his finger or trying to provide us with a vehicle where we, the popcorn chewing audience, make our minds up? Both methinks, but the answer is hard to figure out. Possibly due to the subject matter or the reality that there are Yuri Orlovs everywhere, courtesy of none of the characters being romanticised- there are no good guys or bad guys as such.
However, on closer inspection it is clear Niccol wanted to create a pure anti-hero, someone who cares for his family and his wife but has the moral unwavering of a government assassin, which is essentially what Cages' Yuri is. The film works very well as a blasé report of a trade that seems futile to try and stop despite peoples' efforts. One said person is Vitaly (Jared Leto) who's flawed Adonis is present again in this role and is compelling to watch as his morals outweigh his brother's and provides a good contrast. Ethan Hawke, continues to reinforce his Oscar nominated calibre as an Interpol agent constantly outwitted and outranked by Cage and his supporters (i.e. customers)..
This is a good film, that explores subject matter that hasn't really been tackled in this vein. All performances from the lead, Bridget Moynahan as Yuri's wife to Ian Holm's rival arms dealer are concrete.
Andrew Niccol has provided yet another interesting social critique that may hit harder than his others but nevertheless should be appreciated for its audacity if not for its unsettling truths that (maybe) should have been tackled a while ago.
Hustle & Flow (2005)
A fresh take on music movies
Movies and music, that's the winning combo when it comes to industry amalgams but haven't we seen it all? We have the good; The Bodyguard and 8 Mile, the bad Honey and the downright ugly aka Glitter (put the crossbow down, I had to mention it). However, this John Singleton produced flick snipes at the genre from a different angle.
The increasingly talented Terence Howard (recently seen in Ray and Crash), plays DJay, a pimp turned rapper who wants to prove his worth and swap his tricks for a trade in America's crunked up south.
Newcomer Craig Brewer takes the helm as we visit Memphis and see it through the eyes of the down but not outters consisting of DJay and his working girls. When he reunites with school friend Key (Anthony Anderson) they decide to take charge of their lives and realise their dream by putting together a demo tape of their skills, with the hope of hitting the big time.
This is not a bad movie, in fact Howard is equally as convincing as a pimp with a newly found heart and as a rapper, something that was both a bold and a fruitful choice. If the star hadn't convinced on any level it is a sure-fire guess to say a non-rapper would never be allowed to rap in a movie, but he did and he did it well.
The standard underdog making it to the big time route has been bypassed and replaced with a story that hold's your attention and has an unpredictable and real conclusion.
Amongst Flow's supporting cast, Isaac Hayes takes stage as the bar-owner who puts DJay in touch with the hometown's former star- Skinny Black, played sneeringly by Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges. As well as these two familiar songsters, Anthony Anderson and DJ Qualls, of Road Trip fame, make up the group and put in solid performances. The female cast who constitute DJay's trade are Eminem's ex-girlfriend in 8 Mile, Taryn Manning and Paula Jai Parker as the outspoken Lexus, again all providing non-sterling but convincing turns as part of the phat pack.
But it is Taraji P. Henson's part as the heavily pregnant Nola who catches the eye as a sweet and naïve part of the outfit. It is her who seems to be the only person that allows DJay to relinquish his sometimes brutal pimp suit and put on something more responsible and caring as he ventures out hustling for his right to fame.
This is not your standard cheer at the screen rise-to-fame story that Americans seem to love, too much. What it is, is a well thought out project that takes you on a journey of trials and tribulations that are the all more convincing when performances by Howard, Manning and Henson garnish the story.
Bullet Boy (2004)
Real, affected and nightmarish.
Saul Dibb's debut feature stars So Solid's Ashley 'Asher D' Walters as Ricky, a parolee returning to Hackney's infamous murder mile. He is hoping to remain on the straight and narrow but this proves difficult as he's re-encompassed by the same violent climate he left and the need to maintain honour while preserving his reputation is the code to live by.
There is little to fault this British Movie. Shot on 16mm and on a tight budget of ca.48k, what we are given is a fly-on-the-wall view of life on the streets and the futility of Britain's gun culture. This didn't have to be shot in Hackney, but anywhere would have suited the scenario of disadvantaged youths trying to keep their heads above water in the increasingly gangsterish streets of Britain.
Dibb, the director, is very careful not to preach to us. The closet similarities and comparisons made will point an out-dated and clichéd finger at John Singleton's 'Boyz in da Hood' and Spike Lee's 'Do The Right Thing'. Although these two films crystallised (inner) racial feuding and violence in America, Dibb keeps his message a little closer to his chest as the audience decide who's the true hero, villain or victim - if any. This film plays as a theatrically scripted tragedy, which is sensed from the opening where the young Curtis (Luke Fraser) goes to meet his paroled brother.
It is hard to pinpoint the film's genre and exactly what the plot is. Largely unknown actors, a purpose-built raggedy script (with plenty of improv) revolving on just-happen-to-be circumstances leads to a sense of a horrific reality. Here, kids try to become men too young, and violence is the sole key to respect even if it is borne from a childish dispute like a minor traffic incident as in the film.
It works and it works very well. All character development is sidelined for a streamed view of street life. Clare Perkins plays the mother who has no control over her boys despite her strenuous efforts, the reformed Preacher (Curtis Walker) and Wisdom (Leon Black) all have their own back story, which we are told in a sentence, focusing our attentions on the Brothers. Each character represents a social template in one of life's cycles, Ricky and Wisdom are the present and his younger brother could easily be the future while the rest of the cast represent those inadvertently embroiled in street politics and gun ethics.
Massive Attack's Robert Del Naja delivers a haunting theme to end the movie, as the filmmakers ask no questions but leave them in sight. Dibb, who is traditionally a documentary maker is all too aware of how to enter the psyche of gritty subject matter with previous works on street life and shop lifting he wants us to see all the angles, the choices these people make and their consequences. It is then up to us to draw our own conclusions.
Ricky wants to be the ideal brother for Curtis but the street will not let him. He wants to knock some sense into his over zealous friend Wisdom but loyalty won't let him. Curtis is a lovable character because he has the innocence of youth, which his environment is too eager to snatch as (peer) pressures encroach on him and his brother's good intentions are contrasted by the actuality of his actions. Curtis is the natural choice to become a Bullet Boy, like others around him and the responsibility is left to the one character that should traditionally have none.
This is a powerful fete in film-making and serves topic matter that is relevant and garnished with gritty realism that you cannot help but feel for all those involved.