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Mother! (2017)
2/10
Jennifer Lawrence is the most overrated actress in Hollywood
9 September 2017
Warning: Spoilers
As the eponymous 'mother', Jennifer Lawrence confirms her status as the most overrated star in Hollywood. She completely takes me out of the film with her blank stare, and hammy, overbaked reaction shots.

I would rank 'mother!' up there as one of her most miscast roles, along with an embittered housewife in American Hustle (Lawrence was decades too young and tried to overcompensate for the lack of life experience and talent by over-acting and screeching) and Silver Linings Playbook (Lawrence's simplistic interpretation of a person suffering from mental issues, by screaming and looking dead behind the eyes, stole an Oscar from the truly deserving Emmanuelle Riva).

To this day, Lawrence's Oscar is the most undeserved, the most egregious case of a terrible, shallow performance beating a terrific one in Riva's superhuman transformation.

Darren Aronofsky is to pretension what Jennifer Lawrence is to bad acting, so he clearly think he has something to say with 'mother!', and licentiously wastes our time in doing so. But ultimately, his film is as ropey and creaky as the house Lawrence and Bardem's characters inhabit. Ultraviolence is thrown into the mix into the third act in an attempt to evoke a response from the audience, but the allegories are all a bit try hard and on the nose. The result is a maelstrom of GCSE-level metaphors where nothing makes sense that is difficult to watch because it is so sophomorically executed.

The film gets 2 out of 10. 1 star for Michelle Pfeiffer's villainous turn, which evoked more of a visceral response in me than Jlaw's nativity play-esque acting could ever dream of doing. Another star for the ubiquitous Domhnall Gleeson, bravely playing against type and unafraid to bare his teeth.

Don't waste your time with this.
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8/10
Exciting and Surprisingly Dark Stuff.
15 July 2009
16-year-old Harry Potter is now in Sixth form at Hogwarts. However, with Voldemort still at large, now with a growing entourage of Death Eaters out to get him, he could be forgiven for putting academics at the back of his mind. Danger is brewing aplenty, including a very ominous meeting occurring between Narcissa Malfoy, Draco's mother, and the ever-ambiguous Professor Snape. What's more, the teenagers Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ron's sister Ginny struggle with their feelings for each other, causing a complicated mess of emotions. Dark times, indeed.

As with all five of its predecessors, Harry Potter VI is suitably pretty to look at, a masterclass in the art of gliding cinematography. Filmed in ominous navy hues, it lacks the strokes of life that the earlier films' bright colours evoked, though, with such grim themes as death, murder, power and hidden secrets, it seems about fair, and makes me wonder in what colours the final installment will be painted. Hand-held camera is employed in the odd scene and this gives the film a grainier edge, which is done well. At times, one wonders if David Yates fancies himself a bit of a Terrence Malick with the odd lingering shot too many, and on the whole, it contributes the the visual flair of the film, which is surprisingly sensual at times, yet harshly austere at others. One cannot fault the CGI, however, which intricately creates some of Rowling's best ideas - the dreams sequences are atmospheric and chilling, Weasley's Wizarding Weezes looked like a place that every child wants to go to. Sound also plays a big role in Harry Potter VI; in a few crucial scenes it is employed to create a menacing presence and the claustrophobic, nauseous sound effects, coupled with the images, do just that.

The cinematography, however, is not the only reason I derived pleasure from looking at this film. On a superficial level, there are two other rather nice things to look at in Half-Blood Prince, and I do believe their names are Tom Felton and Rupert bunging Grint. Rupert Grint gives yet another stellar comedic turn; without giving too much away, a scene where he consumes something intended for Harry and bears the consequences is one of the funniest things you'll see in the cinema all year, and it is Rupert's impeccable timing that gives it such warm humour. On the other end of the spectrum stands Tom Felton. Rather, stands Tom Felton in a black suit, hair gelled back, an expression on his face that is both terrifying and terrified. In Half-Blood Prince the novel, I felt real pathos for Draco, no matter how nasty a person he was, and thankfully this has translated onto screen. Felton gives a terrific performance, in one vital showdown we see the side of him that has hidden behind the bullying demeanor for so long.

Sadly, the rest of the cast are not so talented. Emma Watson, after many years, still has no clue how to act. It's very sad because in the books, I absolutely adore Hermione, and in the sixth book I found her loveliest, both caring and perceptive to Harry's feelings for Ginny as well as vulnerable in her own love for Ron, as well as completely oblivious to just how amazing she was, which of course made her even lovelier in my eyes. Emma Watson conveys absolutely zero of this, and instead spent the entire film giving her eyebrows free rein to dance. Emma Watson will be pleased to hear that another actress has surpassed her poorness in acting. Whereas Watson overacts to the point of incredulity, Bonnie Wright is so dull that she could put out a fire just by looking at it. Her lack of chemistry with Radcliffe is absolutely embarrassing. Daniel Radcliffe himself seems to be battling against the waxwork model of himself at Taussads for the accolade of being most wooden actor. There are some scenes in this film which require a level of emotional maturity and empathy, and Radcliffe just reverts to what can only be reading the lines off the autocue. Nice.

Thankfully, in a world where badness is balanced out by good, there are some truly talented performances in Half-Blood Prince. Everything Miss Evanna Lynch touches is magic, her Irish accents only contributes to her sense of whimsical charm, and I thought it inspired for the filmmakers to kit her out in a lion costume pre-Quidditch game; she looked adorable. You can tell Helena Bonham Carter is having a whale of a time as Bellatrix, as she reeks havoc all round and generally brings the house down, and Jim Broadbent captures Professor Slughorn very well. The screenplay is a bit duff, the film feels too episodic and disjointed and as ever, too much of the novel has been omitted. However, the episodic nature is not totally bad; in a few scenes, we see Draco lingering around the sidelines menacingly, which is a nice little touch. The humour, when it comes, is welcome - Rupert Grint the court jester, and Jessie Cave, as Lavender Brown, his clingy girlfriend, is utterly hilarious. There are also moments which genuinely scared me. Therefore, I find myself saying what I always say when another Harry Potter movie comes out: I was entertained no end, I laughed and giggled, I fancied Rupert Grint and despised Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson. When all is said and done, however, it sits my favourite film of 2009 so far.
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WALL·E (2008)
9/10
A Delight.
7 August 2008
It's several hundred years into the future and grubby little Wall.E is the last remaining robot on Earth, programmed to collect garbage around the world. By now the Earth has become such an unliveable mass of scum and debris that the humans had vacated the planet long ago, shirking responsibility for the mess they made to live it large in space.

Wall.E's only company is a little cockroach that follows him about, until one day a spaceship lands in his vicinity, bringing with it Eve, a high-tech, no-nonsense pod robot that has been programmed to search for traces of life on Earth. Wall.E spies on Eve, and he is in turns bewildered and bewitched by her, but the principle emotion he feels toward her is love. So much love, in fact, that when the spaceship comes back to take Eve back, he follows his Goddess onto the 'ship and it takes them to where all the humans have relocated; floated around in Space and with no intention of going home.

Any initial doubts I had about whether Pixar could pull off a futuristic robot movie were immediately quashed when we were introduced to the enigmatic robot himself. Wall.E's existence is a mundane one; forcing rubbish into cube after cube, which he piles together to make towers of rubbish, but he finds pleasures in the household items he encounters – a spoon, a light, a bra. Back in his "home" – an upturned schoolbus he resides in, he gathers together all the items he collects, and falls asleep Hello, Dolly!, from which he becomes particularly fascinated with the act of holding hands, and wishes he has someone to do it with.

The romance between Wall.E and Eve is believable (yes, believable!) and poignant; I had tears in my eyes when he was tending to her and holding an umbrella to shield her from the rain, even though it resulted in himself getting electrocuted. Though the film is about robots (humans don't feature until the second half, and even then they are just fat rolls operating electrical chairs, a sad reminder of where our society is headed) and the only words exchanged by the two leads are each others' names, this is one of the must "humane" movies I have ever seen, with a lot of soul.

Beauty dominates practically every frame. The initial scenes of Wall.E captured the desolate, crumbling state of Earth, but Pixar has found loveliness in the most unexpected of places. This is Pixar's most ambitious movie to date, and the landscapes and details are appropriately cinematic (the planet is captured with such meticulous pans and fade-outs that it feels almost Shawshank Redemptionly, no real surprise when we consider that Roger Deakins worked as a visual consultant on the movie). Another filmmaker who helped make The Shawshank Redemption the masterpiece that it was, Thomas Newman, also contributed to Wall.E, and his score, whilst not matching his personal best of the other Pixar movie he wrote for, Finding Nemo, still ranks as one of his best, particularly in his usage of the harp, which lends an otherworldly feel to the film throughout.

(Ahem. Sorry for all the references to The Shawshank Redemption here.) My only qualm with Wall.E is that there isn't enough humour in the movie. In a way, this is Pixar's darkest movie to date; with its messages about society's need to wake up to the problem of global pollution, commercialism, mass obesity and whatnot. The cheeky filmmakers even managed to slip in their own message to Disney; when the president in the old clip says "stay in the course." But all this means that, whilst there's the odd visual gag or two, Wall.E is not really all that funny, with no definite belly laughs. With last year's Ratatouille also failing to tickle my funny bones, I worry that Pixar are becoming darker and darker these days, and leaving the comedic roots that served them so well in the past.

However, despite the fact that I cried more than I laughed, Wall.E still gets a resouding thumbs up from me. The animation is flawless, the entertainment is countless and for once, I became interested in sci-fi. And the denouement shows that it's not too late; redemption is still available and we can still save the world if we really want to.
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All About Eve (1950)
10/10
Lovely.
5 July 2008
All About Eve came out in 1950, the same year as Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder's subversive portrayal of Hollywood and its actors. Mankiewicz was equally scathing in his look at the world of Broadway stage, portraying the mythical ruthlessness and petulance of stage actors. Both were big hits, and All About Eve was nominated for a record fourteen Oscars, winning six, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing. It's the best film about theatre that I've seen, also happening to say more about the film industry too. Sunset Boulevard might be the film about stars that dwell in the glory days of the past and live in self-delusion, but All About Eve shows how they got like that.

Like Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve tells its story in the form of a flashback. It all kicks off with the presentation of a prestigious stage-acting award to the eponymous Eve Harrington, accompanied by the commentary of theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). He introduces us to the players in the world of Broadway before we go 9 months back in history before Eve was a star. The film then charts the story Eve and how she has wormed her way into the acting clan. She does so by getting into a circle of theatre friends around an aging (and insecure about it) actress Margo Channing, whom she attempts to be a protégé of, using her a persona of friendliness and self-deprecation to mask a sinister plan of getting to the top.

All About Eve is an absolute treat in terms of acting. The role of the older actress, Margo Channing, was considered for a range of in-form actresses, from Gertrude Lawrence (wanted script changes that the director did not), Susan Hayward (too young), Claudette Colbert (pulled out back injury), Marlene Dietrich (Mankiewicz didn't love her), and Ingrid Bergman (would not leave Italy) before Bette Davis was finally chosen. And it's the role of her lifetime, playing a character that ran only too true – a brilliant actress, but one who felt her time was running out. Bette Davis knew she was handed a dream role when she was cast as the resolute diva caught up in the throes of mid-life crisis both on- and off-stage, and she's amazing her in performance. She's selfish and tough yet at the same time, vulnerable and insecure. Getting suspicious about her increasingly distrustful follower Eve, Margo lets her friends know that she doesn't trust her, though they, taken to Eve's put-on niceness, disagree, mistaking her fear for jealousy and harshness. Not willing to resolve the problem in a dignified way, Margo goes on a rampage and has a go at anyone who comes near her. Bette Davis was born to play Margo Channing and, in my opinion, is even better than Swanson in Sunset Blvd. She can be a catty cow or a coy pussycat, and Davis loves every scene she gets to tear into. At the same time, however, she evokes real sympathy for Margo. The film may be titled All About Eve, but Margo is and always will be the real star of the movie.

Her supporting cast are to die for. Celeste Holm is excellent as Margo's sensible best friend, who at first is on Eve's side but eventually sees how conniving she can be and how ruthless she is in climbing to the top. When she took on the narration, I just got the feeling that things would turn out alright for Margo. She's the closest character to any of the audience throughout the movie, as, she is pretty much a spectator herself. Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe are a joy in their respective roles as Margo's boyfriend and playwright. George Sanders plays his trademark role as the cad with such cynicism and unfriendliness that it's no wonder he bagged the Oscar. As the diabolical theatre critic, he has some of the best lines of the movie. Thelma Ritter again proves why she is the best supporting player in the biz - as coarse but loyal Birdie Coonan, a member of Margo's "drone". Anne Baxter is pretty good as the sneaky Eve, though obviously my opinion of her performance is tainted by the fact that I despise her character (realistic as it was). There's even space for a Marylin Monroe cameo, in which she steals the show in the dumb-blonde role that she would carry for the rest of her acting life.

All About Eve's screenplay is another one of its assets. Written by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz from the Mary Orr play "The Wisdom of Eve," it features strong characters and great dialogue that is witty, bitching and biting. Despite its running time, at nearly 2 and a half hours, it never drags on. Each of the characters are so perfectly drawn, you could imagine them doing things just like that in the 50s. Femininity, aging, betrayal, manipulation and ambition are just a few of the themes touched upon in All About Eve. It's funny, but it's also a lot cleverer than it looks. It's got melodrama, yet somehow never goes over the top. All About Eve takes the age-old story of a young performer buttering up an old one, with the intention of usurping them, but makes it into something new, something utterly brilliant. Not to be missed.
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Atonement (2007)
9/10
Beautiful, sad, and McAvoy excels as usual.
26 August 2007
Warning: Spoilers
13-year-old Briony Tallis is a girl with a huge imagination who loves to write. The film starts at her completion of a play, "The Trials of Arabella", a morality tale on love and the dangers of being too hasty with one's emotions. From her opening line in the prologue, various multisyllabic words that I didn't understand were employed, and the audience giggles at her pretension: evidently, this is a girl whose world is shaped with words, regardless of whether or not she understands them. Witnessing her sister Cecilia dive into a pool as their housekeeper's son Robbie watches after her, Briony pictures as scene she has no understanding of, and, by the end of the day, she will have changed lives for the worse, and she will spend the rest of her life regretting and trying to atone this mistake.

The first act of the film, set in the picturesque country house, effectively conveys the sweltering heat of the British Summer and the mental unrest that comes with it. The camera never stays still, and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey even used Christian Dior stockings over the lenses to portray the heat and its effects on the residents. As Briony starts thinking about what she doesn't understand, trying to write a play of it, Dario Marianelli's haunting score, which features the rhythmic tapping of typewriter keys, reverberates in the background, to continually remind the audience that something bad is about to happen. The dramatic quality of the film is heightened with different events are replayed from different perspectives to show what something has the appearance of being, and what it really is. This device, though not new, works excellently for Atonement.

The second act of the film, set 4 years later, is much grittier and less pretty to watch. Robbie is now a soldier in France, and pines to get back to Cecelia. The horrors of war are not underplayed, and in one excellently-filmed tracking shot, the camera meanders through a chaotic mess of soldiers. Robbie, who had turned out so well before, has not lost practically all of his beauty, and retains only his accent. Similarly, back at home, soldiers with all sorts of disturbing injuries are shown. It is refreshing to see a film that, rather than portraying the war as some sort of patriotic honour, instead shows the horror and suffering that it causes.

In what could only be a nod to David Lean with his country houses, upper middle classes and epic romances, Joe Wright chose for his actors to give performances of the pre-Lee Strasburg era. And the cast rise up to the challenge admirably. As the young Briony, Saoirse Ronan is pitch-perfect, conveying her youthful innocence as well as whiny nosiness. Her sense of knowing about things she clearly doesn't is infuriating, but Ronan prevents us from denouncing her entirely, reminding us that she is, after all, just a child. Keira Knightley, who will be keen to forget her "performance" in her other 2007 venture, Pirates of the Caribbean III, doesn't do anything majorly wrong here, and at times even earns the audience's respect and sympathies as the loyal lover. Romola Garai plays the older, more wise Briony with conviction and a touch of sadness.

But the star of the show is the one, the only, James McAvoy. In the Q&A that followed the screening of the film, director Joe Wright described Robbie as the highest form of a human being, and he is. Even after he is put in the war to avoid staying in prison for longer, he does not whinge about it, but instead, gets through the day with the hope of seeing Cecelia guiding him through. James McAvoy plays this special individual with compassion and understanding. He has the accent and physicality of Robbie down to a T, but, more importantly, conveys his goodness, without ever having to resort to histrionics. McAvoy's performance is a masterclass in subtle acting. In some pivotal scenes, it is actually his beautiful blue eyes that do the acting more than anything, and they speak more words than Briony's ostentatious prose ever could.

There is more than a little similarity between Atonement and The Go-Between. Both tell of love between different classes, and an intruding message carrier between the two. Furthermore, Sarah Greenwood's sensuous set design (in the first act) and accurate war holes (in the second), along with the sound design, which features buzzing bees, works cleverly on a subconscious level to add to the tension. Indeed, Atonement is a technically and visually stunning film. The hues in the first act are almost overly saturated with richness, and this contrasts starkly to the second act, where cold hospital wards and mucky brown war dugouts fill the screen. The costumes are all realistic and accurate, though I personally favour the glamorous designs of the first half, which include a mesmerizing green dress that Cecelia wears. The cinematography, which encompasses long takes, tracking shots, lingering pans all attribute to the visual flair of the movie. But the key stylistic element that stood out for me, was the score. The piano theme is elegiac and melancholy, and the cello and violins also add to the sadness of the romance. Also, the use of a typewriter as an instrument, though started oddly, soon becomes infectious and it even forces its way into viewer's minds, making Robbie's note (and the consequences) unforgettable.

Joe Wright and Working Title have made a film to be proud of. Amidst some incredible scenes (such as an extremely erotic library non-reading session between Robbie and Cecelia). The quality and calibre of films that Working Title have turned out recently have been brilliant (Pride & Prejudice, Hot Fuzz, etc) and Atonement ranks up there along with my personal favourites Dead Man Walking and The Hudsucker Proxy. It is a wonderfully crafted, beautifully lush and immensely moving film that shows, above all, how storytelling can both destroy and heal.
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8/10
Not without its flaws, but highly entertaining.
14 July 2007
After his fourth traumatic year at Hogwarts that ended with a showdown with the franchise's very own Mr Bad, Lord Voldemort, it doesn't seem too much for Harry Potter to be asking for a peaceful Summer. However, he doesn't get such a wish – from the opening scene in which Harry and his despised cousin Dudley have close encounters of the life-threatening kind with two dementors in an underground passage, it is clear that Voldemort has unfinished business with the scarred lad, and that he has every intention of finishing it. Plus, nearly everyone in Harry's school believe him to be a liar, Professor Dumbledore refuses to look him in the eye, his friends don't understand him, and, on top of that, Harry must grapple with the skills required in mastering his first kiss. My, my, aren't teenage lives complicated?!

A word of warning. This is not a film for the uninitiated. If "patronum", "Avada Kedavra" and "ministry of Magic" sound like code to you, then best avoid watching this. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix makes no attempt to guide the newbies along the story (and rightly so, because any attempt at that would detract from the film and patronize its viewers). To fully comprehend the plot, you must have seen the four previous films as well as read the book from which this film is based.

The film itself is a wonderful jumble of goods, bads, and uglies. There is plenty to enjoy here, starting with the flawless turn from Imelda Staunton as the sadistic Dolores Umbridge. The woman who we are so used to seeing in roles as the sweet old lady, whether it be in Shakespeare in Love, or her Oscar-nominated turn in Vera Drake, her performance here is a shock and a half. Kitted out from head to toe in pink and sporting a sugary air, we soon find that Umbridge, whose methods of punishment include using quills that protract blood on her students, is anything but sweet. Staunton captures Umbridge's ruthless oiliness perfectly; never before has evil been such fun to watch.

Rupert Grint is also a joy. His ginger hair, large blue eyes, bumbling demeanour and spot-on comedy timing make him the true star of the show, and every scene that he features in benefits as a result of his appearance. Simply put, he is Godly. Sadly, the other two teen stars are nowhere near as good as Grint; Radcliffe, who gave an adequate performance in the West End's Equus, is back to his shoddy self here with an array of overreaching facial expressions and laughable deliveries of his lines. He is most embarrassing of all in the lead-up to kissing Cho Chang, in which everyone in my cinema was collapsing with laughter at his "performance." But it gets even worst, for Emma Watson, aspiring Cambridge student, World Peace Representative (probably) and general object of annoyance to average, frumpy teenage girls such as myself, gave a performance that was so awful, it damn near lost me the will to live. She just couldn't portray any of her emotions convincingly, and just settled for saying the lines that were written for her. Whereas Hermione was one of my favourite characters in the book due to her kindness, knowledge and appreciation for others' feelings, Emma's presentation of Hermione makes her insufferable and punch-worthy. It ain't good.

The two "actors" aside, my main other foible with this film was how it cut/altered some very important details of the book. For example, in the book, it is Kreacher who betrays Sirius and puts him in danger. The appearance of Snape's past as a hated and bullied student is also poorly put together and left to linger rather than properly dealt with. The Cho Chang storyline is pitiful, whereas in the book, we had been led to see that she wasn't all that she had cracked up to be as a person, in the film, she is the sketchiest of sketches and written off practically before she has begun. In terms of 2007 releases, only Pirates of the Caribbean III had more plot holes than this.

That said, I had a huge amount of fun in the 2 and a half hours that this film played, with three newcomers to this movie, Yates (director), Michael Goldenberg (screenwriter) and Hooper (composer). The direction was apt, not perfect, but acceptable. The score was acceptable. The visual effects were stunning, especially in the climactic finale between Dumbeldore's Army and Voldemort's Deatheaters, led by Jason Isaacs, where an entire storeroom containing shelved globes containing prophecies, one of which concerns Harry. It is here that Helena Bonham Carter emerges as Bellatrix Lestrange, one of the final and greatest joys of the film. Laughing manically and sporting long hair greasier than a Professor Snape-Cristiano Ronaldo mixup, she makes the most of her limited screen time to deliver one of the best performances in all the Harry Potter movies. Utterly haunting.

Thus, verily I say, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a worthwhile outing. If you can put up with the abomination commonly known as "Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson trying to act", as well as the slightly pretentious over-editing of Harry's dream sequences, not to mention the ten thousand odd plot holes, then you should venture out to the cinema to see this. Not capital film-making, but, as I'm yet to see Ratatouille and The Simpsons movie, about as good as you'll get this Summer from the cinema.
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9/10
Beautifully created movie about growing up.
12 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
It's Sheffield, early 1980s, and eight talented students have achieved top grades at A-level and have Oxbridge in their sights. The problem? "They're clever but they're crass." So along comes Stephen Campbell Moore, a radical History teacher to change their manners, style, and even teach them to change History... Sadly, the boys' new found adoration for History and the musings of Nietzsche mean that their interest in the lessons of homosexual teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths, excellent) is displaced, and this film, with its many themes lined up, examines the school, its students and learning History.

The History Boys is a film I connect and love for many reasons. The performances are stellar, and Stephen Campbell Moore and Samuel Barnett are standouts in the film, for their portrayals of the creative, innovative teacher and the sweet, sensitive gay teenager respectively. Samuel Barnett especially; he basically owned this movie, and every scene that he was in, I adored. He gives his gawky character such a tenderness of spirit and kind soul that it's impossible not to love him.

But every member of the cast is a treat to watch; Dominic Cooper embracing the lead with vivacity, charm, and that raffish charm of an 80s teenager. Richard Griffiths is also excellent, and lends some warmth to his potentially disturbing portrayal of a man with an unnatural penchant for groping his students in return for a student-led lesson such as "How to use the present subjunctive in a French brothel". The cast bind the wonderful Alan Bennett script together beautifully, and the chemistry and rapport between all the characters is unmatched, natural, and a total delight to watch. This by-the-book adaptation of Bennett's play doesn't add anything to the play, but that's simply a good thing, because the genius and vibrancy of the play is fabulous already.

Though depicting a High school in the 80s, I could still connect with this movie with my 21st century ideals. The teacher/student frictions and development of their relationship and respect is well-drawn and intelligent. The wit in which the process of getting into Oxbridge is shown, is reflective of nowadays, and there are one-liners here that are bound to raise a smile ("History? It's just one effing thing after another, isn't it?). Lastly, a cool 80s soundtrack guides our protagonists through the story with ease and warmth.

A fantastically enjoyable, uplifting experience, The History Boys can be enjoyed by everyone, from a Cambridge-educated boffin to someone who just wants a laugh. You'll end up being drawn in by each character, hoping for their successes, and being moved by the relationships depicted in the movie. The best film of the year so far; it even makes you remember the good things about History...
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9/10
Tense and exciting.
15 October 2006
Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), an ex-tennis player, unhappily married to Margot (Grace Kelly), correctly guesses that she has been cheating, with Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Mark writes crime stories. Unbeknown to Margot and Mark, Tony knows about the affair, and wants to teach Margot a little lesson, by taking away the thing that is her life. But, being too guileful to do it himself, Wendice blackmails one of his old school friends into murdering her, and the essential thing to doing it is his latchkey.

Dial M for Murder succeeds on many levels, and it is largely thanks to some superb dialogue, written from a tricksy-yet-capable script that never gets too deep. The cast are a treat. Ray Milland is an absolute gem, extremely sly and dispassionate, yet a character so full of self-assurance that one almost sides with him. Grace Kelly completes her great year (she gave an Oscar-winning performance in The Country Girl and also starred in Rear Window) by emanating the poised, beautiful being, that is vulnerable, yet oddly unassailable. And it's weird in that even though she's cheating on her husband, you care for her a lot more than him (although that could do with the fact that he's trying to kill her...) And John Williams, as the police detective, is quite wonderful.

Alfred Hitchcock manipulates and enthrals his audience here like the master that he is. Each scene has a sense of direction, great pacing, and is staged realistically. Stunning full colour photography and a haunting, atmospheric score from Dimitri Tiomkin complete this great package. The ending, when it comes, feels a little too nice to be truly realistic, but that is my only major quibble with an otherwise highly entertaining, thrilling movie.
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Walk the Line (2005)
8/10
Toe-tappingly good fun.
12 October 2006
Before watching this film, I had my doubts. Johnny Cash is one of my favourite country singers, nay, singers of all time, and I was unsure as whether, as with other mediocre biopics, namely the flashy Ray, could do him enough justice. As it turned out, Johnny gets the film he deserves, and, what's more, Walk the Line got me extremely interested in the work of his wife, June Carter Cash.

Covering 20 years of his life, including Cash's rise into fame and delve into near-self-destruction, James Mangold concentrates on the key things in his life – his music, the drugs, and his all-consuming, untameable love for the very special June Carter Cash. It is as a romance that Walk the Line truly shines. In real life, Johnny and June didn't get together until 20 years since their first meeting, and that they could wait that long for each other, is quite poignant.

Holding the film together are the Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning figures of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, and their chemistry pretty much carries the film. When they're together, they both dazzle, gelling perfectly, whether it's a bout of verbal jesting, they're doing a duet, or just chatting. Phoenix captures the tortured soul of Cash eloquently in one of his finest performances, and one that exudes that dangerous yet enthralling edge of danger present in Cash. His singing voice resembles that of Cash's, yet he never resorts to downright imitation, which only adds to the viewing pleasure.

But the shining star of the film is Reese Witherspoon, as June Carter Cash. She plays the singer-songwriter-country music star that grabbed the attentions of Johnny Cash, but proved a hard win, forcing him to quit his narcotic dependence and violent self-destruction before she'd consider him. Although many have disliked Witherspoon's work her, I simply adore it. She makes June a truly memorable, Crouchesque, person. For the audience, she can be goofy and lovable, but alone, with Johnny, she displays a vulnerable side. Witherspoon here radiates a strong, feminist, yet effortlessly lovable vibe, and every scene she appears in, she steals.

The look and feel of Johnny's time are captured well in the set design and T-Bone Burnett guitar-led score, and the costumes are nothing short of sublime. The dressing of Cash is inspired, but it is June's clothes – floral print, pink, domestic, or snazzy, that, again, steal the show. Each of Reese's costumes captures the mood of her characters.

There's also great fun to be had in the musical numbers. Ring of Fire and Jukebox Blues allow the audience to get their toes tapping, but my favourite number is the performance of Jackson, where their unmatched chemistry is showcased in one of my favourite songs of all-time. Like the film, this song is entertaining, sweet, and more intelligent than frequently given credit for.
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The Queen (2006)
8/10
Pointed and Impartial. Mirren is superb.
27 September 2006
On the 1st of September 1997, the world saw tragedy. In the turmoil that followed, Princess Diana's death was blamed on the Media, the driver, and an entire array of others, before the upset and ill-meant malaise of the public was turned sneeringly to the Royal Family. In this film, we get a glimpse of what life was like inside Buckingham Palace, and whether The Queen (played here by Helen Mirren) was being cold and uncaring, or, if she was the one who was suffering most of all.

Director Stephen Frears recreates one week in 1997 with intelligent, deft strokes. The presentation of Princess Diana is artfully done in news snippets and archive footage, which brilliantly demonstrates the high impact her being had on people. The design of The Queen's home and her surroundings are convincing without being overly showy, and the Alexandre Desplat score is by turns dark, sad, and grand, perfectly summarizing the mindset of those involved.

But the film belongs to Helen Mirren, who takes on of her most challenging roles and showing us that behind the Queen lay a person, and one with feelings. In her role as the reigning lady, she is the epitome of suppressed disappointment and hurt. The Queen chose not to make a parade of her feelings in response to Diana's death, and, though the nation hated her for it, we learn here that it is not because she did not care, but because she honestly thought it the right thing to do.

As a young and newly elected Tony Blair with big aspirations and an even bigger grin, Michael Sheen is freakishly good as the Prime Minister. His performance shows a likable side of the prime minister in his refusal to side with the public over the denouncement of The Queen for her actions, and his attempts to make The Queen limit the damage that she has made is the basis for a very insightful story.

Other delights in this film come in some high-brow one-liners and some other good performances, but the best thing about it is how it manages to make you think, and even empathise with a group of people that you never saw yourself giving a toss about. At under 100 minutes, The Queen is funny, pointed and highly intelligent, showing that, as always, there are two sides to every story.
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Volver (I) (2006)
9/10
Heart-warming stuff.
19 September 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Pedro Almodovar's 2004 Hitchcockian effort, Bad Education, proved to be a polarizing force. Volver found plaudits amongst nearly every critic, and that is because amongst the father-stabbing, singalongs and appearances of ghosts, Almodovar has truly found his niche.

Penelope Cruz plays the put-upon mother Raimunda, who, straight after attending the dusty town of La Mancha to attend to her mother's grave, finds herself husbandless, thanks to her own daughter. So far, so convoluted. But there's more. Her sister, Sole (Lola Deunas) thinks she's seeing the ghost of her dead mother, and their friend Augustina tries to find out the truth about her own mother, before time runs out and cancer gets the best of her.

In his deftly-weaved, beautifully portrait of the fairer sex, Almodovar's touches are bold and brilliant, every scene resonating a vibrancy and unforgettable soul that is very appealing. In the lead role, Penelope Cruz gives one of the best performances of the year. As Raimunda, she is outspoken, risk-taking, and harbours a troubled secret about her daughter. The plot turns, suffice to say are as audacious as that of any Alomodovarian plot, but Volver impacts for its huge heart. You will love this women and care about their every move.

The melodramatic, offbeat style that the film is made suits it perfectly, and Cruz, Duenas, Maura and Portillo give performances that impress and involve. Although the film, written specially for Cruz, essentially belongs to her and the independent, individual character of Raimunda, Maura, as the ghostly figure of her mother, is sad and funny, and perfectly in control of a performance that could easily slip into farce. Portillo is as impressive, and in a key scene involving a decision made on live TV, every nuance of her acting is effective in the heart-wrenching scene.

Regular Almodovar collaborator, Alberto Iglesias, tunes his musical skills to perfection, and, through pizzicato-led interludes and frames saturated with colour, Almodovar's canny direction shines. He presents us a story as big-hearted and loving as many you're likely to find this year, and, despite there being some shocking plot twists, you'll still come out of Volver with a positive outlook on life. There's a lot of ground covered here, from severing drinks to parental atonement, but every scene has something great to it, thanks to a lovely screenplay that is by turns witty, bright, disturbing and heartbreaking. Mature, beautifully told and wonderfully acted, Volver is worth returning to.
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5/10
Sloppy. Sloppy.
18 August 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I sat through Pirates of the Caribbean II without any particular expectations, and it was probably better than way, because, had I looked forward to it, I think I would have walked out feeling very, very disappointed. Where the first film was fun, fresh, entertaining and showed flashes of brilliance, the second has been put together with far less consideration to the art of film-making, and with more of an interested eye for the bank statements.

The performances range from acceptable to atrocious. Depp gives his Captain Jack Sparrow the same humour and alcohol-addled craziness that he did with the first. This is both and bad; whilst he is fun to watch and occasionally near-funny, there are hardly any surprises. Pride & Prejudice's Tom Hollander is the shining star of this film, and steals every single scene he's in, a feat made more impressive if you consider that his character is one of the most poorly written of all time. Orlando Bloom is absolutely, horrifyingly, frighteningly awful, and one wonders how good an agent he must have bagged himself to continue getting himself film roles when he's just so bad. And to round off this acting "ensemble," is Keira Knightley, who seems to want the world to forget that she has given an Oscar-nominated performance. It doesn't help that Elizabeth Swann is no Elizabeth Bennet, but Knightley is so utterly frustrating in her constant pouting that one can't help wishing that her character will quickly disappear.

Plot holes are rife and ridiculous. For five whole minutes, I sat there, puzzling over just how did Elizabeth become such a dab hand at swordplay? But the biggest plot hole comes at the end, where you can practically hear Bruckheimer's purse strings anticipating a stretch. Like the rest of the film, the score is below-par, with Hans Zimmer carelessly shoving together the leftovers from his scores to The Da Vinci Code and Gladiator. But the icing on the distasteful cake here is the sloppy, sloppy, screenplay, which made me groan at least 10 times, a record only matched by films such as Crash (2004) and Signs. From the lame jokes as old as the Black Pearl to the clunky, laughable dialogue, there's a rusty jewel of a bad screen writing feat achieved in always every minute of running time. That 4 people were involved in the writing makes the script even more shameful; they were clearly drunk the entire time.

I make it sound as if the film has no saving grace. Admittedly, this is not quite true. Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man's Chest does not set out to be a masterpiece, it aims to be entertainment, and there are the odd moments of surprise and amusement to be found. Some of the undersea scenes invoke the same ghoulishness as felt with the first, and, at times, you can leave you brain at home and attempt to enjoy it. But then I remember the simple thing that is logic, and this film is certainly lacking in it.
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9/10
Shakespeare made sexy for the teen generation.
17 August 2006
Everyone is familiar with William Shakespeare's boy-meets-girl love story, and it has already been interpreted into films, plays, TV adaptations and songs. But Baz Luhrmann gives this world-known love story a modern-day twist, setting it in Verona Beach, and piling on the religious imagery. The result is quite spectacular.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes play the star-crossed lovers, and, whilst the latter is sadly a little bland, never truly convincing us in her portrayal of Juliet's loss of innocence or torment of feelings towards the foe, DiCaprio completely redeems her performance. He is a revelation. His Romeo is a wonderful mix of sad eloquence, a loving heart and a troubled soul, and all these elements come together beautifully in a performance hotter than a pepper sprout, with more layers than the proverbial onion. He is the very embodiment of sexy in his role. There is an extremely alluring way in which his character is filmed, which only enhances Romeo as a lover. This is epitomized in the opening shot of him, where the Leo is illuminated illustriously against the sunlight, and Radiohead's languid, sexy tune "Talk Show Host" plays.

The film itself has "sexy" written all over it, and, with the Gen X teenagers as his target audience, I don't think Luhrmann would have things any other way. But, unlike with that atrocity Moulin Rouge!, with Romeo + Juliet, the over-stylization is appropriate, making the movie more accessible to teens, for example, through gun warfare rather than swordplay, and the canny symbolisation of Queen Mab as a drug. But perhaps the most ingenious stylistic technique here is the slap-in-face Shakespearean references, which range from a ball called the Merchant of Venice, to 'Such stuff as dreams are made on' from The Tempest, making the film an absolute goldmine for trivia fans.

Style aside, there is more than enough substance. Romeo is presented exactly as the play does – at first, the mawkish, gawky, lovesick teenager, then, the fickle boy, and finally, the devoted and caring lover, and much of this loyalty to the play is due to the screenplay from Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, which maintains the original memorable dialogue and descriptions, but also dares to stray from the sidewalk in some of the plot turns, and the film completely benefits from it. The set designs are intricate and beautiful, and suit every frame of the film perfectly, and the icing on the cake is the music. Craig Armstrong's score for the swimming pool scene is as stunning as it is original, and the use of non-original music, from Kym Mazelle to The Cardigans, give the film the added edge of cool, making Romeo + Juliet one of the boldest, sassiest and most unforgettable adaptations to date, and English Lit. GCSE has been made far more digestible for us kids across England. It's what Shakespeare would have wanted. A-.
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8/10
Thrilling, Entertaining and Occasionally Smart.
8 May 2006
J.J. Abrams, creator of Lost, takes on the third instalment of the action franchise, which sees human yo-yo Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) in rare human mode as he plans on making an early retirement to be with his nurse wife (Michelle Monaghan), only to be go on another impossible mission as he plans catching sadistic arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). To aid him are Ving Rhames, Jonathon Rhys-Meyers and Maggie Q, and, this being a third, there are gadgets, explosions, sets and plot twists like now other.

You've got to hand it to Abrams – he certainly knows how to keep an audience on their toes. Drawing on a few of his popular plot devices from Lost (flashbacks, a crescendo to the turning point), he sets us up neatly into his little world, where Ethan Hunt is now a man trying to live a normal life. Whilst that scenario may be a hard to buy, this is redeemed by the many action scenes in the film which are each exhilarating. To go into detail would be spoiling it, but let's just say there is an extremely breathtaking sequence involving a fulcrum, an amusing one involving Tom Cruise disguising himself as someone, and lastly, but by no means least a helicopter chase which is utterly awe-inspiring and barely lets the audience pause for breath. All this, and you get a Michael Giacchino score that perfectly blends action, anxiety, fear and anger.

The cast in themselves are a treat. Tom Cruise, though not given the most trying of tasks in playing an action hero, does a good job with his usual intensity. In the action scenes, his facial expressions are concentrated and focused and utterly convincing. However, Cruise fails in having any genuine chemistry with Michelle Monaghan, for and the romance comes across as rather bland. This is not aided with the poor writing in these scenes. Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Maggie Q merely look cool as his helpers, and Laurence Fisburne and Billy Crudup successfully bring that edge of moral ambiguity to their characters. And Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellently malicious as the elusive and extremely dangerous Davian, shining in his lizard-eyed role and bringing some genuine terror to the villain. His scenes aside Tom Cruise are superb, as they practically tremble in tension and quiet hatred on both characters parts.

You will go to see Mission Impossible III expecting some grand-scale set pieces, and you will not be disappointed here. Each one of the four is masterfully executed, with a breezy slickness that is both cool and exciting. We're talking non-stop action, occasionally interspersed with those corny Hollywood love formulae, cruising as "emotion." Its big, its bombastic, and it could be the Summer blockbuster of the year.
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9/10
Devilishly funny.
27 April 2006
When possible Duke Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price)'s mother dies, she leaves him a dying wish of being buried in his aristocratic family's plot who have shunned her all her life, he sets about getting it done. Imagine his fury and dismay when they say no. He sets about getting revenge, as well as winning the heart of the mercenary woman he loves through murdering each of the eight d'Ascoyne family members that stand between him and a title, riches, and everything that he feels he deserves.

Wearing the Ealing black comedy streak on its sleeve and gleefully black, Kind Hearts and Coronets has got to be one of the funniest films about murder to be made. Much of this owes kudos to Alec Guinness' fantastic performance, a true tour-de-force in comedy. He plays all eight of the family members, from the suffragette feminist Lady Agatha d'Ascoyne, to the dull and dim Reverend d'Ascoyne with commendable diversity, changing his tone, stature, facial expressions and accent to play each character as if they were a completely new person. Such a performance could only prepare us for good things, which Guinness then continued to deliver.

That said, Dennis Price takes the lead excellently. As Louis Mazzini d'Ascoyne, he murders, poisons and drowns each of the characters without a sense of remorse that could seem cold and inhumane, but the audience find amusing. We eagerly await his calculation of the death of another, because we know it will have hilarious consequences, and the plot never holds back. However, his dry narration tells a story that hides a sad tinge, as well as delivering sardonic social commentary on post-war Britain, where the gold digging (played with disgusting sugariness by Joan Greenwood) women were everywhere and to some people, rank was all that mattered. This is what makes each of the deaths so comical, giving us a little glee that the snobs are getting what they deserve.

For those who don't want to watch a film for the history lesson, no fear – Kind Hearts and Coronets truly shines as a comedy. Even now, the one-liners and biting irony rings and every scene has a joke to laugh at. Under director Robert Hamer's ultra-capable hands, a warm-hearted satire has been crafted. You really can't get much better, or much intelligent than this.
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9/10
Sweet, romantic, entertaining.
24 April 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Jane Austen's timeless novel of misunderstandings, pride, and narrow-mindedness is taken by Joe Wright and his capable team of Working Title to bring us the love story of Lizzy Bennet and Mr. Darcy, two people who couldn't be more right for each other.

The story takes place in Georgian times, when the rule of entail means that, with five daughters, the Bennet family inheritance is likely to be passed on to the closet living male, the dim-witted, sycophantic Mr Collins. Things start looking good when the sweet-tempered Mr Bingley joins Longbourne, and instantly takes a liking to Jane, the oldest daughter. The introduction between Lizzy (the second daughter), and his friend, Mr Darcy couldn't be more different though, as Mr. Darcy rudely snubs Lizzy, and she makes a vowel never to dance with him. But through various circumstances including Mr Collins, the ambiguous Mr Wickham and Elizabeth's visit to Pemberley, the two characters are brought closer and closer together.

As many Working Title titles, from Bridget Jones' Diary, to Notting Hill, all contain traces of Austen, it seems only fair that their interpretation of her greatest novel should rank amongst their best films. And I would like to think of the film as an "interpretation" rather than an "adaptation," because, on the whole, there are many things in the film that I expected differently, having read the novel. Mr Collins, for example, played with restrained humility here by Tom Hollander, could have been more of a toady. The change of setting of Darcy's first proposal in the rain, was also a pleasant surprise, as, on the big screen, the rain just adds that extra oomph to the anger felt by Lizzy. So, on the whole, though the film has not been as true as it could to the novel, I'm willing to overlook most of this, as by adding these touches, the story has been made accessible for the 20th century.

Keira Knightley received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress as the literary hero Elizabeth Bennet, in a relatively unbaity role, as, compared to recent Best Actress nominees, she does very little crying, sighing, or worrying. Although I wouldn't hurry to say it was deserved, one thing is for certain: it is her performance here is her best work by far. As Lizzy, she is playful, tomboyish and witty, and, if she did giggle too much, this is redeemed by the poignancy to which she plays the caring sister, loyal friend, and clever daughter. Matthew "Spooks" MacFayden is less capable as Mr. Darcy, underplaying the aloofness and giving somewhat of a wooden performance. As the sardonic Mr. Bennet, Donald Sutherland gives a moving performance, shining especially in the final scene, and Brenda Blethlyn uses her fussy mother neuroses to hilarious degree as the effortlessly annoying Mrs Bennet. Rosamund Pike, Tom Hollander and Judi Dench offer fine support, though Jena Malone is both too grating and too American as Lydia.

There is a gorgeous yet understated way in which costume designers, art decorators and the director of photography have brought the look of the Georgian middle class to us. The Bennet household, for one, delicately juxtaposes paintings and floor rugs with Mrs. Bennet's signature untidiness, and the opening sequence, in which Lizzy is followed around the garden, and the colours in the sky are captured on screen, is a feast for the eyes. Special kudos to Jacqueline Duran for her excellent costume design, which is appropriately earthy and simple, yet helps each of the actors shine in their personas. And to close this winning bundle, expert pianist Dario Marianelli calls on his Purcell and Beethoven influences to score the film, fuelling much of the romance, tension and atmosphere.

As a great fan of the novel I feared that I may be too strict on the film, but it truly is a very enjoyable experience. Whilst it might not be quite as exquisite as Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, it sits up there as one of the better Jane Austen adaptations to come along in a long time. Go in without wanting to scrutinise every detail, and you will find a joyful love story, funny, sweet and relevant in equal measure.
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Heartbreakers (2001)
8/10
Great fun!
17 April 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Mercenary mother-and-daughter Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love-Hewitt have cruised their way through life by cheating money out of various men with the tactic of mother marrying rich man, then conveniently catching him with another woman, the strategically placed daughter. This way only gets them so far, when, fresh of such a con with Ray Liotta, their hard earned cash is taken right out of their hands from their dear friends the IRS, and they decide to target the big guns in the form of multi-billionaire Gene Hackman.

With a tacky premise such as this, it may seem somewhat of an embarrassment to have some talents (and Jennifer Love-Hewitt) involved. But it pays off surprisingly well. Heartbreakers is not a film that tries to be revolutionary in any way, just good entertainment, and that it is. Weaver is hilarious as the old-age goldigger, and Gene Hackman coughs and curses appropriately through his carcinogenic, repulsive richman. But for quality comedic turns, the best is by Ray Liotta, as the resentful ex who refuses to forgive and forget, who apes his own GoodFellas turn, freaky style, with laugh-out-loud consequences. From the younger actors, Jennifer Love-Hewitt is less capable, her constant bitchy act getting somewhat annoying. Her love interest, played by Chasing Amy's Jason Lee, is more likable, utterly adorable in his naivety and dedication (some would say stupidity) to his wretched girlfriend, who originally only pretends to be interested in him for his money, but ends up falling for him.

I'd like to think that Heartbreakers had set out to be more than a generic comedy, and to be a film with a few lessons to teach about love. However, in its 2 hours, it ends up using the standard template. Girls tricks boy, girl falls in love with boy, girl regrets mistake, etc. For that, the film seems pretty average. There are severe plot holes and thinly sketched characters too, plus the fact that the women's aspirations can fall from billions to millions in the space of seconds – it just doesn't make sense. There are additional problems that blaze out so obviously that they are impossible to ignore. But for the most part, this is a superior romantic comedy, with some excellent moments. A key one is when Weaver, keen to prove that she is, ahem, Russian, does her rendition of The Beatles' "Back in U.S.S.R." There are some snappy one-liners, amusing physical comedy (Gene Hackman dying never seemed so funny). The direction is nothing special, but the stars raise their mediocre material and aim for comedy heaven, often reaching it, in a deeply entertaining, sometimes sweet, movie.
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9/10
The best Agatha Christie adaptation by far.
17 April 2006
When an old, poorly-healthed judge Wilfrid Robarts is approached one night with a baffling case concerning Leonard Vole, the accused, it is up to him to try and find out what really went on. This job is not made easy for him when he meets the accused's cold wife, played with ice intensity Marlene Dietrich, who, for some reason, seems to be working against her husband. Who is really telling the truth? Anybody who knows Agatha Christie will know that nothing is ever how it seems. Just when you think you've found a red herring, you find out that you were right along… to then find out that everything was a bluff. Or something. So the plot twists, even for those who are familiar with Christie, will always surprise. And nobody is better chosen to adapt her play than Billy Wilder, one of Hollywood's best capable, adaptable directors. He classily uses the courtroom backdrop with deft ingénue, creating a film with courtroom drama elements, as well as petty comedy and sizzling suspense, all brought together by the excellent performances.

As the grumpy defence lawyer with an overbearing nurse, Charles Laughton combines comedy and drama excellently, never failing to make us smile, but also shining at the dramatic moments. Elsa Lanchester, who was married to Laughton in real-life, has great chemistry with him in their light-hearted banter. The other performance in the film that stands out is from Marlene Dietrich, as Vole's ambiguous wife. As Christine, she uses her wintry persona to perfect effect, creating a character that is as intriguing as she is dislikeable.

A few tiny quibbles. The plot, though interesting, could never happen in real life. Things work out just a tiny bit too conveniently. But overall, this is a finely made, superbly acted, and very gripping mystery. Another hit for Mr. Wilder. Check it out.

A-
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Junebug (2005)
8/10
Amy Adams stands out in a low-key, insightful character piece.
17 April 2006
Warning: Spoilers
When Art dealer Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz, never better) travels to the South meet an Artist about his weird drawings, she decides to visit her husband's family whilst she's at it. He hasn't been in correspondence with them for over three years, and why that is is left unrevealed. She meets them – her mother in law (Celia Weston), father in law (Scott Wilson), brother in law (Benjamin Mckenzie), and his perky, pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams). Only Ashley extends a warm welcome, as everyone else pronounces Madeleine too clever, too pretty and too successful to be considered family. Her visit brings some home truths that the family had been putting off. Or, waiting for someone to blame on.

There is something about Junebug that will surprise everyone. It's not the weird opening sequence, where some men randomly shout into space. It's not the surprise of seeing Schindler's List's Embeth Davitz finally get a film role that she deserves. No, it is that you are actually impressed by the acting from The O.C.'s Benjamin Mckenzie (shortened to "Ben" here). As Johnny, he is a definite sourpuss, rude, inattentive to his loving wife, but perhaps, as the film hints, just using his rude exterior to hide a feeling of failure inside. Ben Mackenzie makes his character surprisingly well layered, revelling in the quietly sad scenes – he tries to tape a show about meercats for his wife but can't, and ends up taking it out on her. As his very different brother, Alessandro Nivola is as good, in his unaffected, cheerfulness. Embeth Davidtz shines too, in a different role as Madeleine, a woman trying constantly to make a good impression, but always failing. Her character is given extra depth during her many scenes during Amy Adams, especially in their snug little session over her nails. But the film belongs to Amy Adams, the actress that brought the film out of obscurity with her Oscar nomination. In Ashley, we find liveliness, humour and a soul not to be put out easily. Her love for her under-achieving husband is touching and each time he knocks her back, she fights back playfully, covering up her own insecurities, which are all revealed in her tragic hospital scene. It was a performance that could have easily been annoying or repetitive, but Ashley's spirit is so free, Adams' performance perfectly heartfelt.

Not much happens plot-wise, but Junebug is one of those films that are all the better for it. Director Phil Morrison has expertly created a story, with real characters, out of the petty everyday things. Although scenes with the Artist feel a little underdone, though they also play a part in showing the importance of family. Madeleine's visit proves to be unsuccessful not only because she is disliked by her husband's family, but because her actions clumsily reveal things about them, things that they'd rather not admit to. That Junebug never properly reaches a conclusion merely adds to the film's sophistication, but on my part, I probably would have liked to see what happens if Madeline and George went back a year later. Because though Ashley had big dreams, the sad fact is that they probably all would have gone unfulfilled. Everyone has aspirations, and some people can stand in the way of others.

B+
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Le Boucher (1970)
8/10
A subtle mystery.
3 April 2006
Amongst the guests at a wedding are a Helene, a lonely teacher, played by Stephane Audran, and an ex-army butcher (Jean Yanne). Against their differences, the two develop a friendship. However, in the town there lurks a serial killer, and that killer may or may not be the butcher himself. Plagued with feelings of doubt and fear, Helene finds herself constantly at tenterhooks regarding her new friend (of sorts), and surprises and shocks are placed intricately until the very last frames.

At 90 minutes, this mystery feels longer than it is, and that may be due to some of the stylistic techniques adapted by director Chabrol, such as the languid and very sparse use of camera movement, and shots of the bells to contribute to a sense of time. Content-wise, he borrows from Hitchcock, using themes of shared secrets, obsession and moral ambiguity. These themes are used well, creating appropriate amounts of suspense and anticipation in the viewer, and Chabrol plays with his audience deftly, placing surprises and non-surprises in sequence so that we are every bit as nervy as Audran. He is less concerned with explaining the motives for the killings than just presenting them, and for that, and chilling atmosphere of indifference is created throughout the film.

The two leads are strong in their performances, and the slow, fragile romance between them is as credible as it is integral to the plot. In particular, Stephane Audran shines, as a woman who begins, poised, content and assured, only to finish ruffled and perhaps, as the ending shot shows, a little ruined by the events that she has witnessed. The film is carried along by an eerie, quasi-apocalyptic score by Pierre Janse and Domonique Zardi, which haunts long after the film has ended.

If the ending does feel like somewhat of a copout, that may because we as the audience have viewed one plot twist too many, and the frequency and slightness at which each twist is revealed diminishes its impact somewhat. But for the most part, this is good film-making; quite unpretentious, coolly aloof, and the subtle delivery only works to its advantage.

B+
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9/10
Intelligent, Provocative, Atmospheric.
27 March 2006
William Wyler's atmospheric drama has two teachers (Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine) be accused of lesbianism by a guileful schoolgirl, and then have that rumour ruin their job, their lives and their friendship.

Somewhat of a taboo for the 60s, Wyler bravely tackles the subject with honesty and integrity, and his cast work well to bring the tense atmosphere to us. As the engaged, straight, Miss Wright, Audrey Hepburn suffers commendably, fighting always for the truth – as she sees it, and as a result, losing her fiancée. Shirley MacLaine is the more ambiguous character of the two. It is not on whether the allegations were true (it is clear from the off that they are just slander of the worst kind from a bored, vindictive little girl) that the mystery of the film lies, but in whether her character does secretly love Hepburns', as more than a friend.

The children are less apt in their roles. None of them have names worth remembering, but the main one who spreads the rumours does it with such exaggerated facial expressions that it is difficult at times of most intense drama not to laugh, and the other girl, who aids her in the spreading of lies, is also laughable in her "fear." However, if the intention was to make us dislike the children as much as possible, then they have succeeded.

But the message is clear – lies of such a powerful decree – even if they are spawned off what is guessed to be the truth, will damage others. It's a hefty topic, and one that lacks slightly, due to the censorship of the time, no doubt, but the behaviour and actions of the characters still ring true today – the hypocrisy of the kind aunt, the spreading of cruel lies just for fun, the boyfriend's abandonment, and how, at the end of the day, it is always the innocent that suffer, yet some, like Hepburn's character, are brave enough to walk out in the public, with their head held high in the air, because they know they were innocent.
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8/10
A sweet romcom about love (yes, I'm serious).
27 March 2006
Better late than never, so they say...

On a night playing Poker with three bawdy men, Andy Stitzer (the excellent newcomer to the Frat Pack scene, Steve Carell), a geeky toy-collector reveals that he has never done the dirty. Digs and mockery ensue, but the men also vow to get Andy to end his shameful virginity and find him a woman. Chest waxing and loose women follow, as well as a whole lot of male self-deprecation in Jud Apatow's silly, sweet and appropriately raunchy romantic comedy.

As a protagonist, Andy is a deeply likable, if slightly kooky guy. He rides a bicycle to work. He carefully paints his toy figurines, whilst chatting to them. And he only has eyes for Trish, an eBay entrepreneur from across the road. Trish is played by Catherine Keener, and it is her chemistry with Steve Carell that elevates this film above the generic gross-out formula. Their romance is presented in a careful, convincing way, without holding back on the jokes, but cleverly using Andy's virginity as both a convenience (the couple spend their time doing other things, such as conversing, flirting, or kissing) as well an obstacle (Trish cannot wait to get into Andy's pants, but he's still scared), that, only solidifies the belief in the pair's love for each other.

The supporting cast, whilst not quite to the standard of the leads, hold their roles well. Paul Rudd is funny is the guy who is still hung up on his heartless ex-girlfriend, whilst Romany Malco also amuses, though his character does nothing to dispel the African American infidel stereotype. However, despite that little hiccup, 40-Year-Old is extremely well written, for it blends comedy, drama and romance deftly, as well as creating two leads that we care about, amongst the bawdy humour, which, at some points, proves to be the movie's low point.

There are other flaws too, of course. There are lines that begin "I know you're gay because…" which only manage a raised eyebrow, and the less said about that weird singsong at the end, the better. The running time of 2 hours is also to be questioned (romcoms are always like, 90 mins. Didn't you know that?) But for its faults, The 40-Year-Old Virgin is a hilarious film, sometimes painfully so, but one that never fails to entertain.

B
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One of the Best Films of the 40s.
20 March 2006
Mildred Pierce is not having a good day. After an argument with her husband (chiefly about how she spoils her daughter), he leaves her for another woman. She turns to her daughter Veda for consolation, who merely whines about the state of a dress her mother has spent money on for her. Desperate to gain her daughter's affections, Mildred finds a job as a waitress, and soon after gains the qualifications to launch her own brand of catering, gaining her success and wealth, as well as the attentions of a wealthy playboy Monte Beragon. But what Mildred really wants – the love of her daughter Veda is still not received, and despite going to extreme lengths, never receives it.

In the lead role, Joan Crawford is superb. In a time when melodrama was all the fashion, she goes all out in her performance, exhibiting a wide range of emotions. But despite the over-the-topness of her style of acting, she manages to make her character believable and accessible, and the audience are able to feel her love for her daughter, if not understand it. Veda is a black-hearted brat, and Ann Blyth captures the sneaky cruelty of her with frightening accuracy. The women are joined by an array of talented male players too.

There's a clever storytelling device that has been adopted for this movie, of telling the story of Mildred's life back in flashbacks. That, aided with Mildred's narration, gives the film a hard, film-noir, edge, and there is plenty of 40s style suspense presented to us by capable hands. Under the direction of movie luminary Michael Curtiz, this is further accentuated. But Mildred Pierce is in essence a melodrama (Max Steiner scoring? Hello?), and an extremely fine one too. Though the characters we meet are all quite detestable, Mildred, brought to us with perfect care by Crawford, is one that we're rooting for throughout.
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Finding Nemo (2003)
10/10
Swimming with Sharks is a Whale of a Time
20 March 2006
Marlin, a nervous and neurotic clownfish is heavily overprotective of his son Nemo, who only wants to explore the sea in its entirety. When Nemo gets caught by a scuba diver and taken away, it is up to Marlin to swallow his own fears and find Nemo. The ensuing search and rescue organized by the him is a mass effort by swimming and flying creatures of all sizes and personalities, such as a threesome of vegetarian sharks, a fish with short term memory and an aged turtle, all helping him realise the error of his ways in restricting himself to just his home.

As charming as it is beautiful, Finding Nemo is a joy, both visually and cinematically. The characters are all so appealing and sweet that you want to hug each and every one of them, Nemo and Dory in particular. But the film transcends above just a generic animated film, for there are lessons to be learnt by it too. The film often tells a children's tale from an adult's point of view, with risky situations and emotional soul-searching putting stress on a disjointed family.

The sea is brought to us in such a memorable and unique way that there is brilliance and beauty in every frame. The animation is of all time high for Pixar, and the sound mixing and editing are also to be credited, as they capture the heart of the sea creditably. But perhaps the best thing about the film is the musical score by Thomas Newman. He creates the essence of the sea, as well as the emotions felt by the fish throughout. Note the masterwork that occurs as an upbeat, jovial number quickly escalates into something darker in a matter of minutes. In short, the music is superb.

The voice cast are capable and cannily chosen, from young Alexander Gould as the naïve Nemo, as well as Albert Brooks as the bumbling Marlin. But the star of the show is Ellen DeGeneres as Dory. As the forgetful but caring fish, she is sweet and soulful, and provides much of the comedy of the film. But the humour is also provided by the great script, which delivers a potentially dull story with wit and soul, and shies away from the sentimentality that could so easily arise of a Disney film. And the jokes, what jokes – from satire, spoof and slapstick, they'll be a one-liner for everybody here.

Gorgeous to look at and utterly adorable, Finding Nemo sets the standard for how animated movies should being terms of entertainment value as well as story and themes – ending with the touching, thought-provoking message of how too much protectiveness on the parent's side will repel, but, no matter how independent a child (or fish) believes themselves to be, they'll always need their parents.
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10/10
Heartbreak in the High Hills of No Man's Land.
13 March 2006
The trauma of war has been an issue much covered in cinema, but in this film, we are shown the impact that it has on those who are most innocent of all – the children. The orphaned children are a range of interesting characters presented to us here, from Satellite, a sharp TV programmer to Pashow, an armless but still doggedly determined boy. The supporting children are shown as bright eyed watchers of war, eagerly awaiting it so that they can try their hand at the missiles, which, at first sounds amusing, but then escalates into something much more horrific, and we follow their misadventures through grainy camera-work, improvised dialogue and flashbacks.

The performances delivered by the children are nothing short of astounding. In the lead, Soran Ebrahim is in parts a mixture of caprice, zest and energy, and it is he who grasps our heart and makes for the first, slightly more light-hearted part of the film. In a completely different role, Avaz Latif is the film's heartbreak, and the one that endures the worst. Her performance is wordless, but she manages to portray all her deepest emotions through a look or gesture. When we delve deeper into the plot to realise exactly how much her character has suffered, it is then that the horror of war kicks in.

Turtles Can Fly is not one for the easily depressed. Truth be told, after watching it, I was still in tears for several minutes, utterly helpless and wishing that something could be done about the constant loss of innocence. Its message is blatant, and though a bleak one, presented in a harsh, disturbing war, makes a welcome change from all the Left, Right and Centre propaganda given to us in the Media. Turtles is a film that speaks for itself; no advertising needed.
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