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Griity, realistic - fantasy
20 July 2009
From 'Cathy Come Home' to 'Kes through to 'Raining Stones' to 'The Wind That Shakes The Barley' the constant element of a Ken Loach film is striking realism. Everything is so natural, so ordinary that you stop looking at a story unfold on a big screen but look out at life going on through a massive window in the corner of the cinema. People talk like real people talk not to advance a story but to say what they're thinking, they talk over each other, round each other and sometimes stumble over their words. Events don't take place in a neat progressive order – they just happen, the way life happens. And yet Loach still manages to construct and set out these moments and these characters to tell a coherent natural story with a beginning, middle and end. Even when making a fantasy about a middle-aged man and his imaginary friend he doesn't alter the realism and naturalism of his approach one little bit.

Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) is on the verge of a complete breakdown moving from depression to despair. He lives with his two stepsons who treat him with contempt and use his house as a doss-house for their mates. He is still haunted by his biggest regret in his life – walking out on Lily (Stephanie Bishop) his first wife and first love nearly thirty years earlier when their daughter was still a toddler. When that now grown up daughter approaches him to help with looking after her child he realises Lily is going to become a part of his life again and he is terrified of how to deal with it or indeed if he can. His friends see that he is falling apart and rally around and try to help but it is his idol Eric Cantona (Eric Cantona) who he turns to for advice on how to cope. Cantona isn't there of course, it's all in his head but you get the impression that Eric B. knows that and that that's not the point anyway. It helps.

Although this is not necessarily a comedy it has like all of Ken Loache's films some very funny moments and some very funny characters. It has some very brutal ones too. A gentle domestic scene is suddenly interrupted by a shocking and very noisy home invasion – Eric's stepsons get caught up with gangland killers – and Eric himself gets (very) publicly humiliated by that gang's leader. But at its heart this is a feel-good film and leaves you with a satisfied grin and a real sense of justice being done. – And Cantona is damn good too!
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Pour elle (2008)
Classy french thriller
20 July 2009
Julien and Lisa are a happy loving couple living quiet, ordinary lives in their quiet, ordinary apartment with their baby son Oscar. Then one evening the doorbell rings, Julien opens the door and their lives are thrown into chaos. Police swarm into the apartment, pounce on Lisa and arrest her for the murder of her boss. Three years later Lisa has lost her last appeal against her 20 year jail term and is finally giving up hope – and giving up on life. She stops taking insulin trying to slowly commit suicide. Julien is a desperate man. He tracks down a notorious criminal who has written a best-selling book on his several successful escapes from prison. And so his plan begins. 'Anything For her' is a typical solid French thriller. There are no sudden twists or turns in a plot that relies on the natural tension of the situation to keep it going. The meticulous planning of the jail-break is compelling as you watch Julien turn his apartment into effectively an operations room. The walls are lined with maps and photographs, with graphs and plane schedules, and with heavily underlined questions such as "Escape Route?" He tells Lisa nothing about what he's doing and begs her to just hang on. He intends to sell her mother's house to raise the money they'll need to start a new life but then Lisa is told she is to be transferred to another prison and so Julien must speed up his plans and raise the money somewhere else. The tension and the pressure of it on Julien is almost unbearable and never lets up. The director is determined that there be no distraction from this, his main focus of the film and quickly shows, practically at the start, what actually happened to Lisa's boss so that that whole aspect of the story is quickly dismissed and forgotten about. It's not an all-out masterpiece by any means but it is a very entertaining, at times gripping film that does exactly what it says on the tin. Vincent Lindon is practically a veteran of these things and forces you to feel real empathy for Julien while Diane Kruger does well with what is really a much smaller part, fully conveying the nightmare of prison life and the physical decline it brings.
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Tense and exciting
20 July 2009
I often tell people that if they want to see a film – avoid the trailer. In the case of 'Mark of an Angel' I'd tell them to avoid the poster. While so many trailers these days seem to be potted synopses of the whole film ('Public Enemies' being a massive case in point) the tag-line of this film may give a way a crucial plot element of the story. Which would be a pity as this is a really first-class film. Class being the operative word given the acting talent on show here.

Sandrine Bonnaire can do no wrong (unless it's required of her) and Catherine Frot has long since masked the art of barely suppressed tension and panic. Here she really brings it to the fore as she stars as Elsa, a woman with a long history of depression who develops a fascination with a seven year old girl she sees at a birthday party when she comes to collect her son. Determined to find out more about the girl she uses her son as a way in to the family ensuring that he befriends the girl's brother so that she can then befriend the girl's mother Claire (Bonnaire). She uses her son more and more in her pursuit of this obsession telling her employees that he is seriously ill so that she can run off and resume her stalking. She tells her parents she is dating so that they will baby-sit and she can do the same thing. At first Claire doesn't suspect anything but gradually notices that Elsa is paying too much attention to Lola – the girl in question. Meanwhile we are starting to realise why. Throughout the film you are not so much on the edge of your seat as pressed back into it. The tension as you wait desperately for Elsa to be found out is excruciating and when one particularly dramatic scene ends with what would normally be seen as the cop-out of Elsa suddenly waking up – you are just hugely relieved – they haven't caught her yet. And that's the thing – your sympathy is completely with Elsa, you cringe as she keeps accidentally turning up at every event involving Lola and her mother and you shudder as you watch this woman falling slowly apart. Frot really lays it on in this but Sandrine Bonnaire certainly holds her own when it comes her turn to convey the creeping (and increasing ) fear of this woman that is taking hold of her. There is one scene which is pure Hitchcock and clearly meant to be. Lola is performing in a ballet watched by her parents and brother in the audience. Claire notices her looking offstage to the wings a lot and when she turns herself she catches a glimpse of someone there. Is it Elsa? She can't be sure and she keeps straining between dancers to see but only gets the briefest of fleeting glances. It's an incredibly tense sequence of "Is it her?"/ "Is it not her?" made all the more so by the fact that we know – it is. Add to that the fact that the ballet the girls are dancing to is a musical simulation of a clock – ("Tick Tock" "Tick Tock") - and you're now pressed back into the seat behind you. This really is great stuff.
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A lovely film
20 July 2009
The title of this film is particularly apt in light of what it presents and how it does so. Obviously every photograph is an everlasting moment in itself but in this film they are moments that represent a time and a place. Maria Larsson's pictures show the plight of the poor in early 20th century Sweden; the Red Rallies that were sweeping through Europe and the coming of war through to the restoring of peace. All these events and how they affect the ordinary people of her little town are recorded faithfully by this simple downtrodden housewife in between fending off her drunken husband's advances and raising the seven or so children that result. While there isn't so much a plot to 'Everlasting Moments' there is still an engaging story. It opens in 1907 when Maria discovers a camera she had won some years before and put away and forgotten about. Times are hard and her first thought is to sell it and she heads to the local photographic shop run by Sebastien Federson. He manages to persuade her to wait a while, to try and get some use of the camera first before she decides to get rid of it and pretty soon Maria is hooked on her new hobby. Meanwhile her husband Sigge flits from job to job and pub to pub and makes home-life more and more a living hell. Maria keeps her camera a secret from him for as long as she can and uses it as her only means of escape – she can't possibly leave her marriage, tearing asunder what God has joined together. While Sigge is all but openly unfaithful she herself has a chaste, platonic love with her mentor Sebastien. As Everlasting Moments takes you on its journey you just go with the flow, you forget that at some point this film is going to come to an end and in a way you don't really want it to. The acting all round is excellent and appropriately enough the photography is striking. The entire film looks like a faded photograph from the era, it's shot in colour but you have to regularly remind yourself of the fact by spotting something of colour in the scene. This just adds to the atmosphere, the feeling that you are not watching a film set in the early 1900s but in fact at a play - being performed in the early 1900s.
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Funny and touching
17 July 2009
Most great actors when they feel they have amassed a distinguished body of work tend to rest on their laurels and just churn out pretty bog standard stuff in their later years. Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro seem to be doing it of late with "Hide & Seek" and "88 Minutes" not to mention their joint effort "Righteous Kill" while Laurence Olivier long ago pioneered the process with such beauties as "The Jazz Singer" and "The Betsy". Michael Caine however seems to have gone the opposite route. While his long career is dotted with some minor classics it is also flooded with some major turds. In fact between "Sleuth" (1972) and – "Sleuth" (2007) there has been "The Man Who Would Be King" –"Hannah And Her Sisters" - "Mona Lisa" but there has also been "The Hand" – "The Swarm" – "Jaws: The Revenge" - "Blame It On Rio" (a lot of)etc. Recently though Michael Caine clearly feels he has his money made and can afford to be to be a lot more selective in his choice of roles. He has had a consistent run of well received performances in well-received films and has become an integral part of the revitalised Batman franchise. His latest choice is possibly one of his best performances. In "Is Anybody there" he plays "The Amazing Clarence" a former magician who is forced by increasing dementia to move into a nursing home, very much against his will. The nursing home is also home to 10 year old Edward whose parents own and run the place. He is just as unhappy to be there as Clarence is and inevitably a prickly friendship develops between the (very) cantankerous old man and the (very) cheeky young boy. Edward is fascinated with death and ghosts, hardly surprising given his environment and Clarence teaches him magic tricks to try and pull him out of this morbidity and encourages him to make friends with kids his own age. Indeed Edward does start to impress his class-mates with his magic tricks (particularly the ones involving fire) and he decides to have a birthday party at the home – with Clarence as the entertainment. But Clarence's Alzheimers is getting worse and he is becoming more and more forgetful, when it matters most. This is a beautifully acted film by both Caine and Bill Milner as Edward. Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey perform solidly as the parents while the residents of the home are played by a number of established faces including Leslie Phillips as a man with a passion for telling very dirty jokes – particularly to members of the clergy. The film is full of dark humour but is never patronising and frequently very moving. While Clarence's decline is a bit rapid - more of a plummet into full senility than a descent - it is still very well handled and ultimately leads to a very touching finale.
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State of Play (2009)
Very watchable - holds the interest
17 July 2009
Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is a crusading politician who is trying to prosecute a private military company which he believes plans to take over the country's defense forces. When his secretary is killed in a Subway accident and he breaks down on hearing the news it becomes clear that he was having an affair with her and a scandal breaks loose. Collins' old college pal Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe),a reporter with the Washington Globe suspects a smear campaign and believes that the girl was murdered. He sets out to investigate with young rookie Della Frye (Rachel McAdam) at his side urged on by Helen Mirren's litany of Queen's English swear words. State of Play is a brisk entertaining film that passes the time easily enough. There's not a lot of tension or suspense to be had and the final twist feels very tagged on (and completely unnecessary) but the pacing never flags and the film is never less than interesting. It's helped a great deal by the excellent cast who manage to overcome some pretty dodgy clichés in their characters. Russell Crowe's first appearance shows him every inch the scruffy movie reporter. He drives a beaten up old car listening to old Irish rebel songs on his radio and throwing an empty peanut bag onto the growing pile on his back-seat. – It's a wonder he doesn't smoke. Helen Mirren meanwhile is the typical hard-bitten, tough as nails editor – a woman who tells it like it is, even when it isn't. Almost every line of hers is cringe-worthy right up to "I can't protect you anymore, you're on your own" yet she makes it work and you get on with the plot. Rachel McAdam is excellent too and more than holds her own in her scenes with Crowe. – One recommendation that this film has going for it is that it has made me curious to see the original BBC series on which it was based – so much so that I've ordered the DVD.
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Star Trek (2009)
Solid Entertainment
17 July 2009
Although I have always thoroughly enjoyed the series and followed it on and off through its different incarnations, I have never really been a devoted Trekker or mad fan. (I don't have any of the box-sets, I've never been to a convention and my Klingon is basic Leaving Cert.) This probably makes me the perfect audience for this film – someone who enjoys the franchise but not obsessively so. JJ Abrahms has been at pains to point out he was never a great follower of the show and has proudly boasted of his ignorance of much of its key history – he didn't know Spock was half human for example. This inevitably had the faithful up in arms when the project was announced – a bit like asking a Marxist atheist to make a film about the life of Christ! As it turns out the film has been embraced warmly by faithful and fickle alike – with the fundamentalist hold-outs forming a small minority. The original series never took itself seriously and neither does this film. It is first and foremost an entertainment designed for an audience not for a cult. Having said that it does not simply play it for laughs (although it is at times very, very funny) nor, thank God, does it ever descend into camp. It is brash, exciting, dramatic, fast-moving and just basically damn good. There are also a few sly winks to clichés of the series – the crew's first away mission involves Kirk; Sulu; McCoy and – Oleson. Guess what happens to Oleson. Also there is the thrill of seeing the various long established characters at their first appearance – "Hi I'm Chekhov"; "Hi I'm Captain Pike" etc. and the fun of comparing these young actor's interpretation of roles we're so familiar with in their later incarnations. Karl Urban's Bones McCoy is uncanny while Simon Pegg's Scotty is nothing like James Doohan's (his Scottish accent is too realistic) but still a great character creation in its own right. The film is lifted up also by the appearance of fairly heavy-weight actors in small but significant cameos – Ben Cross; Bruce Greenwood; Winona Ryder ("Hi I'm Mammy Spock") and of course Leonard Nimoy is in their too.
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Gran Torino (2008)
'Vintage' Eastwood
16 July 2009
Clint Eastwood can't put a foot wrong these days. Ever since 'Mystic River' he has been putting out cinematic gems and 'Gran Torino' is no exception. Plus he's even in this one as well! When we first meet Walt Kowalski it is in a church and he is standing by his wife's coffin glaring down the aisle at the mourners as they take their places. As his grown-up sons and their children arrive he snarls in their direction making no effort to hide his contempt. Walt snarls a lot in this film and never more so when confronted by his disappointing offspring.

With his wife now gone Walt lives alone with just his dog for company the only white man in a district that has become predominantly Korean. Not exactly the ideal milieu for a Korean war veteran and he makes his dislike for his neighbours very clear – and very often. Then one night when he catches the kid from next door trying to steal his Gran Torino he is dragged into the family's life and his own is changed forever.

This apparently has been Eastwood's most successful film ever taking in over 140 Million dollars at the U.S. box office alone. It's a success that's richly deserved and if as rumoured it is Clint's final appearance as an actor then it's a fine performance to close on. Looking every day of his 79 years he still manages to convey real menace from Walt when he takes on the local gang and you know whose side you'd want to be on. There had been stories circulating before the film's release that this was actually a final 'Dirty Harry' movie (which may have accounted for its enormous success) and while Walt Kowalski is not Harry Callaghan he's just as compelling and entertaining a character made all the more so by the great grizzled performance on show here.
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Wonderful film
16 July 2009
"Let The Right One In" has been variously acclaimed as 'A Chilling Fairytale'; 'Horror film of the century'; "Unforgettable Cinema"; "Instant Classic" etc. and apart from the last which is a contradiction in terms deserves all the acclaim. But it is much more than just a horror story, more like it is a coming of age story of first love – with vampires. Oskar is a lonely outsider, all but ignored by his separated parents and bullied cruelly by his classmates. When Eli and her 'guardian' move in next door his interest is piqued by the fact that she never goes out by day and the windows in her flat are all blacked up. For her part Eli is drawn to Oskar although at their first meeting she tells him "We can never be friends". Meanwhile her guardian is out hunting for Eli's latest feed, a batch of fresh blood.

While there are a few frightening moments in the film it never sets out for cheap shocks. When Eli suddenly attacks one of her victims from above it isn't just a sudden ZAP! and she's in but rather a silent swoop from the sky making the scene all the more chilling. The horror of this story is in the setting not the action, it is in what Eli is rather than what she does. She is neither the Gothic nor glamorous vampire we are used to but rather a frightened little girl who will never grow up. When Oskar asks her if she really is 12 years old, the same age as him she replies "Yes, but I've been this age for a long time." As the couple are drawn more and more together their need for each other and their tenderness with each other becomes all the more heartbreaking because it is so inevitably doomed. At one point Eli leaves a morning note for Oskar in her flat advising him of all the usual precautions to take, don't go into her room, close all doors, keep out all light etc. and finishes with "I really like you". I wasn't the only one in the cinema who suddenly had something in his eye at that point.

Eli is played by Lina Leanderson and Oskar by Kare Hedebrant who both give perfect performances by virtue of the fact you don't notice they are giving any performance. They are completely natural on screen which is just as well as they are in nearly every shot. I highly recommend seeing this film as soon as possible – especially with the recent announcement of a Hollywood remake.
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The Uninvited (2009)
Pretty Ordinary
16 July 2009
Having witnessed her mother's death in an explosion Anna has been understandably traumatised and has spent 10 months in a psychiatric hospital recovering. When she returns to the family home she finds that Mommy's former nurse has become Daddy's current girlfriend. Something neither she nor her sister Alex are too happy about. They soon start to believe that she killed their mother and now has similar plans for them. The fact that Anna's mother appears to her (a lot) wailing and screaming and pointing fingers convinces them further and they set out to stop her. 'The Uninvited' isn't a particularly bad film, but it's not a particularly good one either. It's just ordinary. It plods along without any real pacing or tension throwing in a few horror sequences that you know are going to end with everything back to normal as soon as Anna blinks. All the old clichés are rolled out including the children are scary one first used in 'The Shining'. Inevitably there is a major twist at the end that will knock you sideways and while it is well handled it is as so much else in the film nothing new. I can think of a number of other films which used a variation of this climax and some did it better.
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Katyn (2007)
Epic and Heartbreaking
15 July 2009
From start to finish Katyn is a film of devastation and outrage. Even the opening scene brings the blood to full boiling point. Refugees fleeing the German invasion from the West run headlong into refugees fleeing the Russian invasion from the East. Eventually they are sandwiched between these two armies, Soviets and Nazis who laugh and greet each other as friendly rivals while the prisoners look on wondering just who their captors are. The Polish army is split into infantry men and officers and it is the Soviet army who march off the latter – to the forests of Katyn. These men are the intellectuals and professionals of Polish society, the doctors the lawyers and the teachers, the men that would be needed to build Poland's future – if anyone was going to let it have one.

Andrzej Wajda is a legendary Polish film-maker who grew up and was trained in his craft under the Communist regime of the Warsaw Pact. The same communist regime who for decades suppressed the truth about what happened in Katyn forest – the slaughter and mass burial of 20,000 Polish officers, including Wajda's own father. Finally at the age of 83 he has the chance to tell the story he has always wanted to tell and he pulls out all the stops in doing so. This is a grand sweeping epic to rival the likes of 'Dr. Zhivago' yet still manages to concentrate on the intimate details of the destroyed lives left behind. It is a very angry film that still manages to be restrained. The actual massacre itself is shown as a calm methodical process performed by stoic, emotionless Soviet soldiers slaughtering animals in an abattoir. The only thing to ruffle the smoothness of the operation is the struggle and panic of each victim as one by one they realise at the last minute what's being done to them.

The murders themselves are only part of the story however. There is also its legacy. With Poland in ruins at the end of the war and no-one left to re-build it the communists took over and formed the Warsaw pact. The Katyn massacre was clearly a NAZI war-crime and it was a crime to say otherwise. To make matters worse it was a lie that was rolled out again and again as propaganda - how much better off the people of Poland were under the regime that had defeated the Nazis, who had killed their innocent sons and husbands. Everyone knew the truth but everyone had to tell the lie and many were destroyed by it. All of this is conveyed so well in a film that will make you angry and frustrated at the monumental injustice of it all. It is also a film that will stay with you long after you've left the cinema.
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