Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Film Review Roundup: January-February

The King’s Speech

(Directed by Tom Hooper, running time 188 minutes)

Colin Firth is up for a string of awards the second time round after A Single Man playing King George VI, thrust into his royal duties who with the help of an unorthodox speech therapist played by Geoffrey Rush attempts to treat his stutter, which as a public speaker for the entire British Empire, such an issue is hardly good for morale. Despite being hit over the head with the heavy historical background and pure drama, the most interesting exchanges come from the dialogue itself between Firth and Rush, with the latter being the more memorable performance with his wit and light approach, occasionally stepping over into the comedic spotlight and considering all the just praise Firth has received, you know you’re getting a genuine top notch character piece.

Also starring Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon and Helena Bonham Carter.

127 Hours

(Directed by Danny Boyle, running time 94 minutes)

Throwing us another curve ball in terms of premise, Danny Boyle continues the tradition of delivering new and interesting pieces of film. This time around it’s the true story of Aron Ralston, played by James Franco, a mountain climber who is trapped in an open cavern after a rock wedges his arm against the wall, left there for over 5 days before amputating his own arm. Playing most of the film solo, Franco doesn’t hold back with his performance of the real-life counter-part, going through stages of desperation, anger, sorrow and even partial insanity. The film doesn’t hold back in emphasizing the gravity of his peril, with the most unforgettable moment being the said amputation of his arm. Despite the many violent films I’ve seen, this was the most “real” in highlighting the pain. Simply put, this is high caliber acting on display.

Also starring a rock and a hard place.

The Way Back

(Directed by Peter Weir, running time 133 minutes)

A lesser known World War II historical piece, Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrel (with a decent non-Irish accent this time) and Alexander Potocean are just part of the group of escapees from a Soviet gulag located deep within the frozen Siberian woodlands. Against all the elements, the group traverses through miles upon miles of harsh terrain, all the way to the Indian sub-continent, hopefully securing their freedom. Despite quite literally being a film about traveling, the character development and interaction with some strong performances makes for a well paced tale of struggle. Coupled with great cinematography and natural locations, this is probably one of the most underrated films recently.

NOTE: Having said that, I’ve also discovered that the UK release date WAS in 2010, meaning this most likely would have made the top nine list.

Also starring Saoirse Ronan, Dragos Bucur and Gustaf Skarsgard.

The Fighter

(Directed by David O. Russell, running time 115 minutes)

With already plenty of boxing-focused dramas up for the shiny statues over the decades, The Fighter appears to still be able to hold its own and not become an also ran. Based on a true life story, Mark Wahlberg plays an amateur boxer, close to his family including his unruly brother played by Christian Bale (who hasn’t looked this malnourished since The Machinist). It may be your typical story of the low commoner reaching new heights through sport, yet being based on a true story you can’t really fault it if you feel some aspects fall apart and/or resolve themselves. Plus all the turmoil that comes with it is still fresh, along with top-notch performances that carry the entire picture... yes, Wahlberg to.

Also starring Amy Adams, Melissa Leo and Jack McGee.

The Green Hornet (3D)

(Directed by Michel Gondry, running time 119 minutes)

With DC and Marvel freshly tapped, even the lesser known crime fighters are getting the big screen makeovers. The initially odd choice Seth Rogen plays the said valiant vespa along with his significantly more interesting sidekick Kato played by Jay Chou as they attempt to clean up the mean streets made the way they are by “Chudnofsky” played by Christoph Waltz, how to pronounce his name being something of a recurring joke. Despite some decent choreography and special effects action sequences, with the 3D effects being noticeably on par (which in my book rates it as not 'entirely pointless'), this humor-laden comic adaptation only reaches half of the mark away from a true comedic showcase. While enjoyable enough, it’s also by the numbers that in turn makes it mostly forgettable.

Also starring Cameron Diaz, David Harbour and Tom Wilkinson.


(Directed by Greg Mottola, running time 104 minutes)

The always enjoyable comedy film duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are back again on the big screen, this time NOT under the direction of Edgar Wright (meaning the third Blood and Ice Cream film is still in waiting) playing a pair of nerdy British tourists in America on a road tour following Comic-Con who inadvertently stumble upon an extraterrestrial Area 51 runaway named Paul, voiced by Seth Rogen (this time being a fitting choice). Even though being from an advanced alien race, Paul is more akin to party going hitchhiker, making up plenty of humor itself. The entire cast gives well-played out comedy performances and on the whole are likable characters. Despite some erratic pacing and a shoe-horned romance subplot, this above and beyond road trip will most likely reel in the laughs, not to mention are few well placed geek culture references. While far from the tier of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Paul is still an enjoyable and a worthy film of its cast.

Also starring Kristen Wiig, Jason Bateman and Bill Hader.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Film Review: Black Swan

(Directed by Darren Aronofsky, running time 108 minutes)

I’ve come to realize that in a Darren Aronofsky film, achievement is either out of reach or only obtainable through painful struggle or worse. While not necessarily a negative point, it does prepare one’s self prior to viewing. You’ll at least be prepared for the worse. More interesting though is this notion in itself is not really a “spoiler” for Black Swan, at least not for those who are familiar with Aronofsky’s work. If you’re not however... let’s just say that the trailer for the UK version is somewhat misleading.

That’s not to say the trailer completely is edited for marketing’s sake. The basic theme literally is one girl’s struggle to obtain her highest goal. Said girl is Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman, an aspiring talented young ballet performer. Despite the hidden strength that ballet requires, Nina is more of a full grown child, still showing timid behavior, prudishness and social ignorance, all of which seem to stem from her reclusive home life with just her over bearing mother who is also under the same mind set towards her daughter and who might just be compensating for her own lost days and passion for the dance. When her theater begins to recruit and train for a supposed different take on the classic ballet “Swan Lake”, Nina is perfect to play the role of the beautiful and elegant white swan... however it is a duel role requiring to play the alter-ego black swan, passionate, wild and loose... basically what Nina isn’t, so naturally training for such a role quickly becomes a full time obsession.

To throw a spanner into the works, the theater also receives a new recruit named Lily, played by Mila Kunis who actually seems perfect for the role of the black swan. As Nina begins to practice more and more, she begins to change in personality... but also in mentality, encouraged further by Lily’s wild and active presence. The is the prime focus of the film, the psychological changes Nina goes through and while to others she may appear in desperate need to break the routine, being an already fragile mind such changes take form in sudden, often times twisted manifestations. To give one example, throughout the film Nina develops scratches on her back, sometimes even bleeding to the concern of her mother and others yet the wound from only Nina’s perspective takes on a different form. Without spoiling anything, such obscure, even disturbing imagery best described as Cronenberg style body horror is what tempts the audience to keep watching (even though at times causing some to turn away) as throughout there is no clear picture to what these manifestations are or why they are happening and what you do witness may not be true to life... or not. Some might call these sequences more akin to a horror film yet being lightly spread throughout, it never really feels out of place from the drama.

It quickly invokes the same style of psychological torment of Aronofsky’s famous Requiem for a Dream, and just a with that film, one would go far as to call the film depressing at times. By no means on the same level as his previous “reaching for prozac” setup but still comes full circle back to the initial notion from the start of this article. Such is the case with Winona Ryder who plays a side role as the original top performer at the theater before being forced to retire, Nina’s new found popularity as the next star not being particularly good PR, which obviously leads to a break down that itself begins to haunt Nina and the audience.

One the side of performances, Portman who in the past has settled for just "being there" (glares at Star War I, II & III) truly does give her best as a fragile mind that has only just begun to grow while cracking down the middle. Mila Kunis who before was something of an unknown (seriously, Meg Griffin!?) has been able herself to pack a punch and leave with something memorable. Another role of note however comes from the character Thomas Leroy the theater director, played by Vincent Cassel who at first appears as your typical perverted old teacher archetype but instead becomes in Nina’s mind as something of a sexual liberator, as someone who is trying to help a servilely repressed woman. It’s a particularly profuse role and one that carries more weight within the narrative than as first expected and one whose overall character might divide audiences.

In the most straight forward of senses, labeling the pictures as a “ballet drama” like some trailers mentioned at the start would be something as to limit the potential audience (yes, there’s still that “girly” view of the practice). Ballet however is something of a vintage form of art and as with any art can come the negative psychological aspect from those already near to breaking point. Instead Black Swan presents us with a story of obsession and (a late) liberation of one’s life within the role of a high class performance. While less degrading to it’s characters like Requiem while also being less true to life like The Wrestler, the film is still a worthy companion piece that pulls all the punches to deliver a film that is both elegant and twisted and clearly some of the best performances of it’s actors and actresses so far.