Wednesday, July 7, 2010

DVD-Review: Little Fish

Film:  Little Fish

Starring:  Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Dustin Nguyen, Sam Neill, Martin Henderson, Joel Tobeck

Director:  Rowan Woods
 
Screenwriter:  Jacqueline Perske

Based on a short film by Rowan Woods called Tran the Man, Little Fish is about a woman trying to turn her life around after beating her drug habit, but no matter what that life keeps rearing its ugly head and she must take extreme measures to start fresh.

Cate Blanchett is Tracy, a manager at a local video store who dreams up the idea of expanding the business to the internet.  Sadly, she doesn't have the money to do it.  Her brother, Ray (Martin Henderson) meanwhile, is still involved in drug dealing, despite her best efforts to steer him otherwise.  Then there's Lionel (Hugo Weaving), an addict who finds himself cut off from his supplier (Sam Neill) who claims to be retiring from the business.  Tracy as a thing for Lionel, but his drug habit gets in the way.

Enter Jonny (Dustin Nguyen) an old flame from the past who says he's cleaned up his act and has become a successful stock broker.  He emulates all that Tracy wants: a clean life and a successful one.  She falls hard for him, and hopes he can not only help her out but her brother, too.

But things aren't as they seem.  Trust becomes an issue for not only Tracy everyone around her as well, as she struggles to put her life and theirs on the straight and narrow.

It's a dark film, although it still has some glimmer of hope to it, unlike Rowan Woods's previous films such as the aforementioned short Tran the Man, and the full-length feature The Boys.

Tran in Tran the Man was the nickname of Ray's character (then played by David Wenham), given to him by the Vietnamese he worked with in the Asian market in downtown Sydney.  The Ray of the short film is very much like Tracy of the theatrical film, although he is a dealer in this case and not a user.  This Ray wants to leave the dirty life behind him, but his brother (Donnie Moss played by Rowan Woods) does all he can to stop him from doing so.

In the feature film, Moss is not Ray's brother, but someone who works for the main supplier (aka The Jockey played by Sam Neill).  As in the short film Moss is not someone to mess with.

The cinematography between the two films is similar merely in it's opening and closing scenes, which is a nice touch and connects it to the short film.  I think they did a great job of taking a 10 minute story and expanding it to a full piece.  I wasn't sure how they'd do it, but it worked for me.

The cast is stellar.  Cate and Hugo are excellent as always.  I truly enjoy watching Hugo Weaving's films.  Dustin Nguyen is great here.  He is a highly underrated actor who deserves more screen time in the industry.

I was pleasantly surprised by Little Fish.  It is quite a gem of a film.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Review: Pope Joan

Film:  Pope Joan

Starring:  Johanna Wokalek, David Wenham, John Goodman, Ian Glen, Edward Petherbridge

Director: Sönke Wortmann
 
Screenwriter:  Donna Woolfolk Cross (novel), Heinrich Hadding (screenplay), Sönke Wortmann (screenplay)

Although not released in the US yet, I was able to obtain a DVD from Germany and see this film.  Mired in controversy, Pope Joan is about a woman (played by German actress Johanna Wokalek) who apparently became Pope without anyone realizing that she was female until she gave birth to a child.

The film and the novel carry the story a bit further by introducing a love interest named Gerold (David Wenham), who would do anything for her, including keeping her dark secret.

The film depicts Joan's life from childhood through to adulthood where she is often met with resistance from her peers when she demonstrates her knowledge for the Catholic teachings.  The idea of a female going to school, especially a Catholic one, was forbidden in those times, and yet she was allowed in by people who saw the intelligence she had.

But it is in the midst of war that she rushes off to join a monastery, cutting her hair and hiding the fact that she is a woman.  When she encounters Gerold sometime later, she tells him it's too late for her to go back, to leave the monastic life and her duty to the current Pope.

And so the story goes.  When I first saw this film I was concerned about whether it would see any screens in the US due not only to the fact that it's about a female Pope, which is blasphemy in the Catholic Church, but also because she practices infidelity as a monk and as a Pope, breaking her vows.  The latter is so relevant to today's scandals with the church that I suspect it would cause some controversy to see such a film released here.

Sure enough, last week the press was filled with reports of the Vatican denouncing the film.  Newspapers from all over the world have carried the story, while countries such as Germany (where the film was made) and Italy saw a strong showing at the box office for the movie.

I think the story is interesting, although parts of it made me a bit uncomfortable, and I'm not even Christian.  Despite the fact that Gerold doesn't show his love to Joan until she's a young woman, one has to wonder what thoughts were in his head when he met her as a child in her early (or pre-) teens.  And the fact that she broke her vows with him while living the monastic life also is a cause of discomfort.

My favorite scene is when Gerold suspects Joan is alive and nearby when her predecessor uses a cunning trick both Gerold and Joan had learned earlier on in the film.  The look on Gerrold's face is priceless, and who wouldn't laugh at John Goodman as the Pope acting out that scene.

I'm a big fan of David Wenham and while he does a great job here, he looks too close to Faramir (his role from Lord of the Rings).  David manages to always choose the right parts, though.  He rarely takes a role on a film that gets unnoticed.  Occasionally he'll take small roles in big films and that pays off just as much as taking on a major part in another project.  It always works out for him and his career always gets a bit of a boost from the experience.

I feared John Goodman would take the film down, but I forgot what a good, likable actor he is.  I always liked him, even in Roseanne, a TV show I loved to hate for many reasons I won't go into here.  He's terrific as the Pope who precedes Joan, and he does an excellent job.  I just wish he had never done that silly King Ralph movie years ago.

Johanna Wokalek is excellent as Joan.  She's easy to watch and very likable.

The ending is terrific.  It's a nice touch.

It'll be interesting to see if this film gets released here in the US, and - if so - what the reaction will be to it by the general audience.

DVD-Review: Angel-A

Film:  Angel-A

Starring:  Jamel Debbouze, Rie Rasmussen, Gilbert Melki, Serge Riaboukine

Director:  Luc Besson
 
Screenwriter:  Luc Besson

French with English Subtitles

Luc Besson is one of those filmmakers who can really surprise you.  Some of his films are truly amazing, while others feel a little flat.  One thing's for certain, he always experiments with this work and never restricts himself.  Angel-A is one of those films.

Angel-A is a fairly recent film (2005) shot entirely in black and white, giving it a 1940's film noir appeal to it.

The film is about a man whose at the end of his rope and in debt to the mob when out of the blue a woman enters his life and changes it.  And we soon learn why.  As the title suggests, she's an angel, but it's not as easy as all that as the movie reveals.

Jamel Debbouze is terrific as the troubled André.  I found his first scene amusing, because as he's trying to buy himself from time to acquire the money he needs to pay back his debt, he tells his "creditors" that he's originally from New York.  What makes this interesting is not the fact that I'm watching a French language film about a man from New York, but the fact that the details aren't missed in the scene.  He speaks slowly and carefully either as one trying to find the right words to say, or - better yet - as an American still finding his tongue in the French language.  I was really amused by that scene.

Another amusing thing is the casting of Rie Rasmussen as Angel-A.  She's excellent, but I found myself reminded somewhat of Milla Jovovich's character in that other Luc Besson film The Fifth Element, or Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner.  Tall and leggy, Angel-A is dressed in a black leather micro-mini and is sporting a sexy, platinum blond, bob haircut.  As expected she enamors all the men she encounters, and yet, she's smart and sassy to boot.  She's definitely a woman of the 21st Century... at least on film.

Both main characters are lively, multi-dimensional and fun to watch.  Sometimes one has to question why an angel would do the things Angel-A does, but as the film unfolds the answers become crystal clear and sometimes what you think you see or hear, isn't exactly what's really happening.

I highly recommend this movie.  It's one of Besson's best of the ones I've seen so far.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Review: City Island

Film:  City Island

Starring:  Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies, Steven Strait, Dominik García-Lorido, Ezra Miller, Emily Mortimer, Alan Arkin

Director:  Raymond De Felitta
 
Screenwriter:  Raymond De Felitta

Sometimes before I write a review I'll troll around the internet to read others views of the film.  It doesn't influence what I write about.  Instead it inspires me to forge ahead with my own views.

A few critics complained that this film was too overloaded.  I disagree.  When you have a dysfunctional ensemble cast, and when the plot synopsis tells the audience that each family member has a secret, you're bound to have to follow a lot of subplots.  In this day and age of Lost, Heroes, Flash Forward and all the other ensemble works out there, this is an inevitable path to be taken.

Ironically, I had a much harder time getting into the TV shows above than I did this movie.  The multiple characters and their stories didn't bother me as much as some of the implausible, silly, and over-the-top scenes.  I had trouble with the tension and the arguing, but I knew we'd get past that eventually.  I was as uncomfortable as Tony (Steven Strait) who spends his first day in the Rizzo household listening to the yelling around the table between Vince Sr. (Andy Garcia), his wive Joyce (Julianna Margulies) and their kids (Dominik García-Lorido and Ezra Miller).  The tension in the room was deeply felt by me, which means I guess it worked.

As for the secrets, yes they all have them, but they're not so monumental that they're unsolvable.  That was the other complaint some critics had.  They said the ending was predictable or too easy.  My view is after all the hiding and arguing for an hour and forty minutes, resolving the problem is the only way to calm down from this roller coaster adventure.  I loved the ending.  It was the best part.  Maybe it was the fact that the film was over, or the hope that they'd stop being so suspicious of each other.

The daughter, Vivian (I wonder if Joyce complained about how all the kids are somewhat named after her husband), has her own secret, but the plot device used in the film bothered me.  She'd be on the phone complaining about how badly she wanted to get back to work.  It's almost like she loved her job.  She occasionally sounded as if she didn't enjoy college, which sort of defeats the ending.

Vince Jr., meanwhile, has a fetish, but he's also an annoying prat, who thinks he's better than anyone, but in the end I realized he just felt the same way toward his parents as they did each other.  He was following their model.  He wasn't proud of them, and thought they were as childish as he was.

I'm not going to do what the other critics do and give away the plot and its secrets, however, they're a bit on the unbelievable side.  Some are really mild, such as smoking when they had said they had quit, etc.  Others are somewhat more tangible and deal mainly with self-esteem issues, especially considering the fact that Joyce and Vince tend to argue about each other's lack of a college education and a real job.

There are parts that are a bit silly, like imitating Marlon Brando during an acting audition for a Martin Scorsese movie.  What happened immediately after was fun and somewhat believable, but the Brando bit was ridiculous.

Some parts are endearing, like one involving the next door neighbor.  At first one has to wonder where that was going, but soon enough it turns into a really nice side story.

Andy Garcia is a good actor and I often enjoy his work, although sometimes I wonder if he's channeling Al Pacino in some of his films, this one being no exception.  That said, his performance was the richest, most enjoyable of the whole movie.  I think he did a great job with the material.

The rest of the cast did well too.  There were scenes I truly enjoyed from each one of them, despite not loving the film wholeheartedly.  Emily Mortimer is in this (see my review of Harry Brown), but again she shows quite a bit of insecurity.  I'll admit that I've only seen her in three films including this one, but so far they all show a very soft, somewhat vulnerable person.  I need to see some of her other work, before I make a solid judgment of her acting choices.

Alan Arkin is totally underutilized here.  His role looked more like a cameo than anything else.

If you like to watch a bunch of Italian-American New Yorkers argue a lot, then this is your film. Otherwise, rent it or wait until it's on TV somewhere.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Review: Winter's Bone

Film:  Winter's Bone

Starring:  Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Shelley Waggener, Lauren Sweetser, Ashlee Thompson, William White, Casey MacLaren, Isaiah Stone, Valerie Richards, Beth Domann, Tate Taylor, Cody Brown, Cheryl Lee

Director:  Debra Granik
 
Screenwriter:  Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini

Novel: Daniel Woodrell

There's a sense of desolation watching Winter's Bone, but also a strong determination and a feeling of solidarity and community in this back country area, where people keep to themselves, but still lend a hand when one of their own is in need.

Rees, a seventeen year-old who is left raising her two siblings and ailing mother, while her father has disappeared after putting up her home toward his bail, which means that if Reese doesn't find him, her family will be homeless. So she must track him down for the sake of her family, finding herself deeper and deeper into the seedy world where her father once thrived.

While this mystery thriller keeps us guessing as to what happened to her father, it's really an exciting character essay on life in the Ozarks, and an analysis of human nature and trust among neighbors and family.

The cast is fantastic.  I didn't recognize Cheryl Lee, but she was great in a very small, but rich role as one of Rees's father's ex-girlfriends.  Jennifer Hawkins is fantastic as Rees, and John Hawkes is excellent as Teardrop.

Producer  Kathryn Dean was the guest at the Q&A.  She spoke about how many of the cast were locals, who at first were apprehensive about the film, but soon warmed up to it and enjoyed taking part in the story.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Review: Solitary Man

Film:  Solitary Man

Starring:  Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Mary-Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer, Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg

Director:  Brian Koppelman and David Levien
 
Screenwriter:  Brian Koppelman

Do you ever get the feeling that if films didn't have a moral, they'd be totally different?

Solitary Man is the story of a man whose indiscretions lead to loads of problems.  This is what they want us to believe.  This sixty year-old, divorced man, who prefers his women of the late-teens-to-early-twenties variety, is a true charmer.  He's charmed his entire family, his work contacts and - of course - any woman that he sees as a potential sex partner.  Unfortunately for him his actions cause him to lose all the things that once meant something to him.

The problem is that by the middle of the film, despite his steady decline, I sat there asking myself if rather than being shown the repercussions of Ben Kalmen's (Michael Douglas) lascivious behavior, we were actually seeing a view of the ideal fantasy every man has, veiled in a morality story about how this man's behavior has ruined his life.  I can see the intended parallels in this film between Ben's lifestyle and what he was trying to avoid, but they weren't enough to make me believe that the morality story really was the initial vision of the writer.
 
Like any message-laden film, you sit and ask yourself how Ben got to this point and are rewarded with an explanation at the end.  However, I wonder if the reveal was worth the 90 minute journey to get there, especially when the revelation was something used in another, similar situation in another film made roughly 25 years prior that I happened to watch the night before I saw this one.  How ironic is that?

Perhaps this story would have been better told in less time?  Some scenes just seemed to drag a bit too long to get it's point across.  This after writer/co-director Brian Koppelman said he had to cut out scenes after a few screenings because he discovered the audiences were smarter than he had thought.

My main issues with this film included the following:

1.  If you lost all your money and couldn't afford anything, would you still be driving a fancy Mercedes?  Maybe some car aficionados out there can tell me if that was an older model left over from the height of Ben's car selling days, or a freebie he managed to sweet talk off an old friend.

2.  If someone gave you some hefty blows to your groin and kidney area and threatened to do worse if you didn't leave tomorrow, would you stay yet another day (I'm talking about after he leaves the hospital)?

3.  I would have liked to have seen a bit more of Ben's earlier life when he was married to give the film a bigger impact, rather than only giving us a hint of it at the beginning.

4.  The friendship between Ben and Jimmy (Danny DeVito) was lacking.  The two actors are close friends in real life, so you'd think the chemistry would ooze out on screen, but it didn't.

The acting was good all around, and the film was far from boring, but when a movie makes me ask, "Why am I being shown this?" in the middle, then there's something missing.

 Directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Koppelman wrote the screenplay) were guests at the screening.  Koppelman said he was fascinated by a man who would live like Ben Kalman and wanted to write a film about someone like that.

They said that Michael Douglas really immersed himself in the part.  They told of how he would just personify the character as if he were really the man himself.

DVD-Review: Lucky You

Film:  Lucky You

Starring: Drew Barrymore, Eric Bana, Robert Duvall, Robert Downey Jr., Deborah Messing

Director: Curtis Hanson
 
Screenwriter: Eric Roth and Curtis Hanson

Why?  What prompted Drew Barrymore to play yet another naive innocent in some vacuous film?  I ask this question of Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. although neither of these two were naive innocents, and the latter Robert's role was only about 5 minutes long.

The premise of the film is the analysis of the life of Huck (yes, as in Huckleberry) Cheever, a full-time gambler who can win successfully, but doesn't know when to stop.  Compulsive is the word.  He falls for Billie (Drew), who is in town visiting her sister (Deborah Messing), who warns Billie against Huck.  She falls for him anyway, thinking him a lost soul who can be changed.

It doesn't matter that when she tells him that she got a job and he offers to celebrate, he takes her $1,000 in traveler's checks and has her cash them in for chips so they can gamble.  That's how they celebrate her job.  She sits there asking stupid questions and looking goofy and stupid, while he bids and bets her money.  They win, of course, but what if he hadn't.  Would she have slept with him later?  Would she have been as shocked when she discovered he had he stole money from her handbag?  Did she really think he wouldn't do that?

In the end she supposedly teaches him a valuable moral lesson, but it's lost in the lack of chemistry. It just wasn't there.  It wasn't felt.  Maybe it's because we hear and see stories about people in Huck's position not being able to rehabilitate themselves without going to Gamblers Anonymous.  Just saying it won't happen again, just isn't enough.

As for the poker playing that goes on throughout the film, it bothered me.  Not because I'm not a gambler or because I'm unfamiliar with how to play Texas Hold-em, but moreso because it just seemed to emphasize the depravity of it all.  The whole thing was done with such a depressing feel, as if they wanted to send a subtle message such as, "Kids, don't try this at home."

The final scenes at the tournament are entertaining, but there's no sense of anticipation.  There's no feeling of excitement.  In a why I knew the outcome and it's a bit anti-climactic, just like most of this film.

I should mention that this DVD was for sale in the $1 bin and my friends and I watched it not sure what to expect.  What we all agreed with in the end was that it wasn't even worth the $1 that was paid for it.

Review: New York Street Games

Film:  New York Street Games

Starring: (as themselves) Keith David, Joe Pantoliano, Ray Romano, Hector Elizondo (also narrated), Regis Philbin, Whoopie Goldberg, Mike Starr, David Proval, Robert Klein, Robert Costanzo, Vinny Vella, Robert Moresco, Mark R. Harris, C. Everett Koop, Curtis Sliwa, Butch Barbella and Beverly R. Kahler

Director: Matthew Levy
 
Official Site: http://www.newyorkstreetgames.com/

Where were you in the 1950's, 60's or 70's?  Did you hang out with your friends playing stickball, hopscotch or handball?  Then this film is for you.

If you have never experienced what it was like playing street games as a kid, you'll enjoy this film because it might even inspire you to grab your friends together for a friendly game of Stoopball.

This documentary is a fun nostalgia trip back to a time when playing in the streets of New York was considered a safe thing to do.  There was a mutual respect between drivers and kids, and there was no feeling of fear.  The neighborhood was a community.

These days it's difficult to see that anywhere, but there are people who are trying to revive interests in these games by promoting them in a safe environment, such as a playing field or in a section of the city that's closed off for special events.

So if you want to learn more about these great games or revisit your youth, I suggest this film wholeheartedly.  Right now it's available for preorder on their website (linked above).

Oh, and bye the way, I spent 8 years in New York in the 1970's, playing handball among other things, so while I didn't play in the street like these kids did, I did feel a sense of nostalgia.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Review: Letters to Juliet

Film:  Letters to Juliet

Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Vanessa Redgrave, Gael García Bernal, Christopher Egan, Franco Nero

Director: Gary Winick
 
Screenwriter: Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan

The title sounds endearing enough, and even the premise sounded good.  A woman on vacation in Verona, Italy stumbles upon the "Secretaries of Juliet" who write advice to the lovelorn.  Being a writer herself and a bit of a romantic, she joins in, because her fiance is too busy darting around the country getting tips, treats and cooking lessons, as well as making contacts for his new restaurant which he is opening in New York.  She stumbles across a 50 year old letter and decides to reply to it, which leads her on an adventure helping a woman find her lost love.

Sadly, that's where the fun ends.  If you're into saccharine, chick-flick romances, then this is your kind of film.  No one dies at the end, thankfully.  That would have been too much for me.  I lost interest in chick-flicks, when I saw a few in one year that all had the similar outcome:  kill off someone to make the audience of mainly females cry.  "What a cheap shot," I had thought in my pre-teens after seeing a few films use this gimmick.  Since then I choose my girl-films very carefully and watch with a wary eye.

This film had some good aspects to it:  The scenery of course, and Vanessa Redgrave.  In fact, her quest to find her long-lost boyfriend is what really makes the film interesting.  She's searching for her long lost Lorenzo, but there are so many with the same surname, that it seems he's impossible to find.

I laughed only once, and that's when one of the Lorenzos says, "I am your Lorenzo," followed by his wife shouting out the window, "Take him!  Take him!"

That, sadly was the best part of the movie.

I would have enjoyed it even more if it was Vanessa's film of her alone pursuing this goal.  However, it's all about who you cast in these films, and you need some young, up and coming actress to be the lead.

The events that lead up to the quest are what hurts the film.  They're too easy or too quickly established.  Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) just happens to follow this woman who just took down a bunch of letters written to "Juliet" that were tacked on a wall.  And the Secretaries of Juliet welcome her in without blinking an eye.  They are also surprisingly open about what they're doing, while the real Secretaries of Juliet are closed off to the public and restrict any visitor access.

Other things just happen too quickly.  Sophie writes a letter to Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), and suddenly - poof - Claire arrives in Verona.  I don't know how long it takes for a letter to arrive in England from Italy, but from the US it can take up to 2 weeks depending upon where in the country it's sent from and going to.

Then my least favorite overused cliche, the "sexual tension" that's introduced.  This is another exhausted gimmick in chick-flicks these days.  Woman meets man, they argue quite often, they fall in love.  The end.

I love the film industry.  I really do.  However, when they can't think of original ideas and keep borrowing the same old ones, it's pretty darned sad.

So yes, Sophie and Charlie (Christopher Egan) clash at first.  Then of course you know what's going to happen.  I was rolling my eyes the instant he snapped at her, which was in the very first scene.

And talk about a stereotypical stuffy Englishman!  Claire tries to explain away that it's just a family trait, but how many times have we seen this played out?

Other things that didn't work:

1.  Amanda Seyfried walking like she's either doing a runway fashion show or scowling at the world.  She'd just finish laughing or smiling at something or experiencing a pleasant situation, then as she walks away she scowls with this blank expression on her face.  She does this for a good portion of the film.  Perhaps it's the fact that she's from New York, but I found it very pretentious and a bit cold.

2.  Maybe it's my independent spirit, but if you're a gung ho gal who wants to go from a fact checker to a writer, and you have the guts to invite yourself on a road trip, why can't you rent a car or go on a bus tour of Tuscany, rather than let your busy fiance ruin it for you?  One of you might respond that she didn't have the guts at first, but I disagree.  I really don't know what changed her in the film.  She didn't really change all that much.

3.  And that could have been my other problem.  At the end Sophie tells her fiance, Victor, that she's changed, but all that changed were external, aside from her feelings toward him.  There is no moment where we see a transformation.  She doesn't really change in this film.  The only person who does is Charlie.  This should have been his movie with Vanessa.  That would have worked even better.

So if you can get past the simplistic, childish young romance that plays out around Claire's story, then go see the film.  In fact, rent it so you can fast forward to Vanessa's scenes and the scenery.

Director Gary Vinick visited for the Q&A and talked about how he put the film together and what it was like working with Vanessa Redgrave.  He said Vanessa was always very particular about her scenes and would know everyone's lines and place in a scene.

He casted Amanda first, and once he had her, the studio was happy.

He said their only hardship was the heat in Italy and the working habits of the crew.  Unlike the US that has a standard 12 hour filming day with potential for overtime going an additional 2-4 hours a day, Italian's are more strict, adhering to 10 hours with little or no overtime. So this added days to filming and greatly cut the number of days they had planned to film in New York.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Review: Harry Brown

Film:  Harry Brown

Starring: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Charlie Creed-Miles, David Bradley, Iain Glen, Sean Harris, Ben Drew, Jack O'Connell, Jamal Downey, Lee Oakes, Joseph Gilgun, Liam Cunningham

Director: Daniel Barber
 
Screenwriter: Gary Young
 
Vigilante films have been around for several years, so it's hard sometimes to make ones that can be considered unique.  They're really designed to tap into our sense of fantasy justice.  While the methods are illegal, we all secretly wish to exact revenge in some way shape or form.  An eye for an eye, and all that.  And since we can't do that within the realms of reality, it's a great release to see someone do it on screen.  This film is no exception to both situations:  being cliche and tapping into a fantasy. 
 
Like most films in this genre, this film is a bit predictable in places.  For one thing, you know that one day Harry Brown (Michael Caine) will avenge the wrongdoings done to his friend.  Being a British film, the cliches go a bit further.  I've watched (and continue to watch) British mysteries and comedies, and there's a theme that seems to occur quite often where management is depicted as a bunch of imbeciles with no real-world experience, who somehow wind up running a squad of police officers.  They seem to be more concerned with their own prestige and the art of mapping a process on paper, rather than what's really happening around them.  And they don't seem to rely on their own officer's judgements.
 
I don't know about you, but if I were a Superintendent and my Detective Inspector told me that an ex-marine was killing off gang members, I'd take notice, despite the fact that the ex-marine in question is in his 70's.  Films like these are about the art of surprise and good aim, and not about whether you can chase after someone and kick their butt.  The gang members in this film are depicted as a bunch of short-fused, trigger happy, power hungry punks, and not special forces trained, ninja fighters.  So could an old marksman take them out?  Absolutely, despite the fact that the marksman in question has emphysema.  It's not about stamina.  It's about cunning, timing and aim.  So I found the tired plot of the conceited, image conscious Superintendent a bit... well... tired.
 
Emily Mortimer was pretty good as the Detective Inspector, although there were some scenes in which she seemed a bit too weak.  I had trouble with the scene where she apparently had whiplash, but was able to carry her unconscious partner with his arm draped over her back.  She couldn't take her hand off her neck, but yet she could carry him without crying out in pain.  Granted, Harry was helping her carry him, or was she helping Harry carry him?  I'm not too sure.

Another unbelieveable moment is when Harry manages to get back to his home amidst the chaos around him.  He just materialized.  I turned to a friend and quipped, "How did he get there?"  My friend replied, "He knows Batman."
 
Michael Caine did a fantastic job of portraying Harry.  He always manages to bring depth to his characters.  Adding to that was the director's vision of showing Harry's world as meticulously neat and clean, and organized, while the rest of the world around him was in chaos.  The close-ups of Harry and his morning ritual at the beginning of the film was a nice touch and gave us some insight into Harry's life without any need for narration or dialog.  I thought that was very well done.
 
Overall the film is watchable and kept my interest.  It follows the predictability of its genre, but does not become repetitious or boring.
 
Actress Emily Mortimer visited the screening and imparted some interesting trivia about the film.  She said that Michael Caine was a very funny man, and a joy to work with.  He revealed that he was born in the housing estate (equivalent to what we in the US would call "the projects") where they filmed.  Also, she said that there was a mural of Michael on the building of his Get Carter character.  She said he spent a lot of time bonding with the kids who played extras in the film, some of whom were in gangs.  She said they were excited to work on the film, and he spent a lot of time talking with them.
 
 
 
Emily herself said she had a great time playing such a unique character, and enjoyed working with Michael Caine on the film.  She said he made her laugh quite often.  Emily researched her part by spending the day with a female Detective Inspector who told her what the job entailed and what she would encounter. 

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Review: The Shine of Rainbows

Film: A Shine of Rainbows

Starring: Connie Nielsen, Aidan Quinn, John Bell, Jack Gleeson, Tara Alice Scully, Niamh Shaw

Director: Vic Sarin

Screenwriters: Vic Sarin, Catherine Spear, Dennis Foon
 
Adapted from the novel by Lillian Beckwith.
 
I've always liked Aiden Quinn.  He brings a lot of depth to his characters and always makes them interesting to watch.  This film is no exception.  He plays a gruff, hard working man who doesn't openly show his emotions, except to his wife, played by Connie Nielsen, who charms us with her "colorful" view of life.  There are layers to this man, but it seems only she is able to bring out the best in him.
 
It is she who brings life to those around her, and happiness to an orphan boy she rescues from the city and brings home to an island off the Irish coast.  The boy, Tomas, who is portrayed by John Bell, is adorable as the shy, stammering ten year-old, struggling to be accepted by his adoptive family.  The new mother is the easy part.  She knew she wanted him the moment she saw him.  The father (referred to as "Himself") is a struggle, and this film is about that relationship and how it evolves, and the trials that bring them together.
 
What helps Tomas come out of his shell is his sense of responsibility.  He takes to his chores with a sense of pride of place.  He is happy on that island, and he wants to prove it by doing his share.  He hopes that the more he shows his eagerness to do the tasks, the more his new father will accept him.
 
But there is one role he takes on with fervor, and that's of caring for a beached young seal.  The seal in some ways represents Tomas' sense of isolation and desire to survive any challenge.  Tomas, understanding this, insists he will come to feed the seal every day to keep it alive long enough to return to its family.  He nicknames the animal "Smudge", perhaps as an analogy of how he felt in the big city orphanage while he was there, being put down by his classmates and wishing to disappear.
 
Color plays a big role in this movie.  Tomas' new mother thrives in it and loves to decorate her home and herself with vibrant colors.  Even the first scene in the orphanage plays with color.  The environment is all gray or black-and-white, but take note of the drawing that Tomas is making.  There is color, while the games the other kids play with are dark and monotone.  When Tomas meets his new mother, color brightens his life from then on, while gray is used for those insecure moments when Tomas is uncertain of himself or what he should do.
 
The film is entertaining and great family viewing. The acting is superb all around, and newcomer John Bell is fantastic as Tomas.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Belated-Review: Up in the Air

Film: Up in the Air
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, and Jason Bateman.

Director: Jason Reitman

Screenwriter: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner
 
An Oscar nominated film sparks so many thoughts in my mind, including the key one:  "Well, it must be good!"
 
Was it?
 
I'm not sure.  When first asked what I thought about the film, I said tentatively that I liked it.  The theme had taken me by surprise a bit,  and I wasn't sure what kind of message it was sending.  But after I thought about it for a few hours I came to realize that while the film was entertaining, the contradictions within it were too perplexing for me to give it a whole-hearted positive response.
 
Let's take Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a young woman, fresh out of Harvard, who creates a computer program that promises to save her company money by delivering bad news via the internet rather than in person.  You see, Natalie works for a firm that's hired by corporations that don't have the backbone to face their employees and fire them in person.  So this firm is hired, and people are flown all over the United States to do the unenviable job.
 
But Natalie wants to go one step further, and have the firm itself use a less interactive method of doing the job by telling them via computer screen. 
 
You've been fired.  Have a nice day!
 
The irony in all this is Natalie herself.  She too seems distant and emotionless, seeing life as a collection of organized, planned events rather than anything emotional.  So far she fits the profile of someone who would come up with this electronic firing device.  However,when she is "fired" from her relationship by her suddenly ex-boyfriend via text, she's stunned.  How could he be so cold?  I don't know, Natalie.  Why don't you ask your computer?
 
Suddenly, Natalie starts to dissect her colleague, Ryan Bingham's (George Clooney) life.  Ryan is someone who loves jetting around the country, racking up frequent flyer miles in order to hit the platinum status.  He doesn't mind meeting people face to face and telling them the bad news, mainly because he always has a way of dealing with it:  He has no attachments to anything.  He barely stays in one place and does not have a real home to go to.  However, Natalie intervenes, not only by changing his job role, but also questioning his motivations and aspirations.
 
Normally I wouldn't have a problem with someone questioning another's life, but in this instance I really didn't think Natalie had the authority, nor the emotional experience to criticize as she did.  She's the one who provided an insensitive means of breaking bad news to people, and has a very unrealistic way of living life.  And yet she's questioning his?
 
Could it be that she had an epiphany when her boyfriend broke up with her?  If so, I didn't see it.
 
One could argue that Natalie is an emotional being, given the fact that she gave up her job aspirations to follow her fiance to wherever his career took him.  But we soon learn that she did it because it was what was planned in her life.  It was the thing to do.  At least that's how she matter-of-factly put it in her almost monotone, robotic voice.
 
Now, I can understand the way this film is presented, showing us Ryan's lifestyle and how he interacts with people, especially in regards to the questions that are raised to him and how he evaluates them and his own life, but I cannot accept Natalie. Why does he listen to her at all? What wisdom does she provide?
 
The rest of the cast were much better and fit the theme of the film quite nicely.  I always enjoy Vera Farmiga's films, and she does a great job here as Alex.  Some people had a problem with Alex, but I didn't.  She wanted the life Ryan had.
 
I also liked Jason Bateman as Craig Gregory, Ryan's boss.  I almost didn't recognize him.  I had no problem with this character whatsoever.
 
Then there's Ryan's family, who seem to be falling apart at the seams, despite the fact that his sister is getting married.  I liked them, although - again - Ryan finds his life being questioned, this time by the eldest of his two sisters.  She asks him why he isn't married or settled down, while she's recently separated and living in a hotel.
 
They do seem happy, however, especially because they believe in the family unit and that families should stick together while things seem to be falling apart around them.  But are they truly, deeply happy?  No.  No one is happy when their marriage is crumbling.  Is she finding reassurance in her sister's upcoming nuptuals?  Perhaps. Either that, or she's hopeful for her sister to have a better life and is using the wedding as an excuse to get her mind off her own problems.
 
So what are we learning from this film?  What I can tell is that this film is not about the usual belief that one needs a home or a family to make them happy.  This time around it's more about the definition of happiness and the ideal vs the reality.   The sad part is that Ryan's version of happiness, while in doubt, is so radically different than the definition, and it paints the rest of the world as miserably unhappy.  And while I agree that we should do what makes us happy and not be influenced by others' definitions of happiness, I did find this film a bit depressing in the end.
 
One thought this film raised with me was the saying, "Consider the source."  So many times we encounter unsolicited advice or criticism from people.  Sometimes we take it to heart, especially if we hear it so many times from different sources.  Sometimes the advice is worthwhile an meaningful.  Other times it's perplexing that people feel they must question something that makes you happy.  And when you look at those people posing the question and see their lives as somewhat unfulfilled, you have to ask yourself if you should really ponder their criticisms and possibly change your life to meet the ideal?  Or do you take into account that despite their questions, they aren't as happy as you and you should rejoice in your unique choice of what makes you happy?
 
Obviously it's the latter, but we don't always respond like that right away, at least not all of us.  And I think that's what this film is showing us.  It's showing us what happens when enough people question your motivation.  Should you change it?  Ryan ponders this question.
 
So consider the source... good advice, especially in this film.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Review: Handsome Harry

Film:  Handsome Harry 

Starring: Jamey Sheridan, Steve Buscemi, Mariann Mayberry, Aidan Quinn, John Savage, Campbell Scott, Titus Welliver, Karen Young 

Director: Bette Gordon 

Screenwriter: Nicholas T. Proferes

Handsome Harry is in fact very attractive.  So much so that he's managed to become somewhat of an iconic figure in the town where he lives.  The locals at his favorite cafe seem to live vicariously through him.  And women can't seem to get enough of him.

But a violent act from his past haunts him and his ex-Navy friends, as he honors the deathbed request of one of them to ask forgiveness from the unfortunate victim of their actions from thirty years ago.

And so it begins, and very well, I might add.  I really liked Harry from the beginning and was very interested in his story.  In fact all the characters in this film are played with such depth, I couldn't help but want to know more about all of them.

But it is Harry's journey we are following, and the whys and wherefores, not only behind the incident in his past, but behind the facade of Handsome Harry, and Jamey Sheridan as Harry does a fantastic job with this complex role.

I highly recommend this film.  The acting is superb by all, and the story is really compelling.  The music is fantastic too.

Director Bette Gordon appeared at the screening and talked about the process of making the film.  She told us how a friend had asked her for her opinion on his script, and she was so excited about it, that she asked him if she could film it. 

Jamey Sheridan worked with her before and she knew he was the ideal person to play Harry.  The rest of the cast fell in love with the script and were eager to take part.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Review: The City of Your Final Destination

Film:  The City of Your Final Destination

Starring:  Anthony Hopkins, Omar Metwally, Laura Linney, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Hiroyuki Sanada, Norma Aleandro, Alexandra Maria Lara

Director: James Ivory

Screenwriter: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Novelist: Peter Cameron

Produced and Distributed by: Merchant Ivory Films

I watched this film the other night at a preview screening, and I felt like I was watching something I had seen before.  The opening credits looked so familiar to me.  However, once the action started I realized it wasn’t something I had seen, and yet the familiarity remained.

The plot is one that’s been played out before.  A stranger intrudes into the lives of a family who in this case have shut themselves away from the outside world.  Other films may depict these people as being trapped only in their own minds, while this one shows them locked away – either by choice or by circumstance – in a remote mansion in Uruguay.  Granted, these people are wrapped up with their own issues, hiding away from the world, and at times seemingly hiding some deep dark secret.  However, as with other films of this ilk, they soon learn from the stranger, and the stranger in this case learns from the family.

And so that’s it in a nutshell without giving you any details or spoiling the plot for you.

The familiarity of this premise, the similarity in plot disappointed me a little.  It made the film too predictable for me.  Anyone who has seen these kinds of movies knows what will eventually happen in a broad sense:  Someone will change, lives will alter.  And In some ways you can tell from the beginning whether it’ll end happily or not.

When I hear the name Merchant Ivory, I think of grandiose, costume dramas.  And while they have done some modern films, and do them quite effectively, this one felt very low budget.  However, given the the locale, I'm trying to accept the possibility that the quality of the cinematography was intentional to make us feel like we’re there in that countryside with these people.

The acting is very well done, however, although while I like Laura Linney, I find her playing one of two character types in most of her films:  the neurotic or the bitchy.  Sometimes she plays both.  I won’t tell you which one she is here, in case you want to see this movie.  I will say that her character is the only American living full-time in the house having married the late writer Jules Gund, a German who fled Nazism with his parents and older brother in WWII.

Jules was a novelist, although he had only written one book, The Gondola.  Still, his life and his death interest Omar (Omar Metwally) who travels to Uruguay from Coloroado with the goal of obtaining the family’s authorization for him to write a biography of the reclusive author.

Omar is a nice young man, who is very polite and considerate, and perhaps a bit in need of a backbone.  He often struggles with assertiveness, somewhat stubborn and proud trying to show he can handle himself, but he doesn’t always succeed.

Omar is the exact opposite of his bossy girlfriend, Diedre (Alexandra Maria Lara), who orders hm around like a strict parent.

We soon meet the residents of the Gund household in Uruguay (anyone remember the popular stuffed animal in the 1980’s?  “Gotta get a Gund!”  Imagine that ringing in Omar’s head for the entire trip to the country).

In addition to Caroline (Linney), there’s Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a British waif with a romantic spirit.  She has a smart, pretty young daughter named Portia.  There’s also Adam (Antony Hopkins), Jules’s older brother, a gay man who worries that his lover of 25 years, Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada), is throwing his life away by staying with him.

This film had some really nice moments, like the scene between Adam and Pete where they discuss their relationship.  In fact all the scenes with Antony Hopkins were my favorites.   Hiroyuki Sanada is great, too, and very nice on the eyes.

All the characters, but one, are likeable.  I won’t say whom in case you decide to go see this film.

There were times when I couldn’t tell if this was supposed to be a comedy or not.  There were a few funny scenes, and others seemed like a weak attempt at comedy, but no one in the theatre laughed, including me.  Omar occasionally comes across as a misfit, but a loveable one, but his fumbles seemed like an attempt at humor.  And some of the witty dialog is more amusing than funny.  Other scenes seemed forced.

Based on a novel by Peter Cameron, this film seemed filled with holes.  I know that most adadptations leave out things that are elaborated in the original novels, but this film seemed to gloss over things too much, or hint at subjects that were either skipped or edited out for length.

For example, the explanation behind Jules’s death seemed weak to me.  It didn’t make sense, and in some ways it almost sounded like a joke.  At one point after the revelation there’s a mental image flashed on the screen for a moment, depicting what apparently was the cause of Jules's demise.  Sadly, it looked comical, but no one laughed.  Also, there was no real climactic scene in this film.  Everything seemed to be played down.

I found it ironic that Diedre was either German or Austrian, given the accent she had, and yet that wasn’t even touched upon.  Given the fact that the Gunds were German, I thought it would make for an interesting analysis, but perhaps this was left for the audience to ponder.   Instead Diedre seemed like a deer in headlights, despite her dogged and unwavering determination.  Either way, I felt like so much more could have been explored in this film that just wasn’t.

Speaking of which, the ending seemed forced and rushed.  Nothing seemed to make sense.  Why did he wait so long?  Did he feel guilty?  An English Lit professor who can’t write a letter, and yet wanted to write a biography?  And what did this have to do with a dog in a swamp?

Don’t get me wrong.  If you don’t think too much it’s an entertaining film to just sit through and observe, but  it’s a two hour movie and it did start to drag at some point, especially when I had an idea of how it would end.  It was just getting there that didn’t quite work totally for me.

After the film the costume designer (Carol Ramsey) answered questions about her work on the project.  She had worked on six Merchant Ivory films, each one having a different feel and mood in the wardrobe.  One thing she said that puzzled me was that they went to Argentina to research wardrobe and culture, rather than Uruguay, where the filming took place.  Argentina was where they filmed the movie.


Carol was a very interesting speaker, and I often enjoy the guests at this series, whether they're actors (Woody Harrelson visited last year promoting The Messenger), or crew.

Carol talked about how she usually has ten weeks prior to filming to do the costumes.  The wardrobe in this film consisted of designer pieces, local Argentinian fashions, and items made by Carol herself.  One dress she designed had so much material in the skirt that it weighed down the dress and stretched the material on the hanger, making it too long for Charlotte to wear.  It took Carol over an hour to trim the length of the skirt.  She showed us the spool of the fabric which was roughly 50 yards long.  Incredible!

~Monica

Introducing....

Hello and welcome to Rice Paper's Film Reviews.  I developed this place because my friends told me I should start a blog to share my reviews with others after reading them in e-mails and message boards.

So here I am.

I'm not a professional critic, so I don't get any preview screeners.  That said in addition to going to movies like everyone else I attend some screenings at events in my area.  These screenings focus mainly on independent, foreign and/or art films or major studio films that are in limited release.

From time to time I might post some reviews on films that have already been out for a while, both major studio releases, as well as independent films.  I might also toss out one that's out on DVD.  This is purely to spark some discussion.  For example, I'm eager to chat with you and get your feedback on Up in the Air, which I saw a few weeks ago.

Lurkers and readers who prefer not to comment are welcome as well.  Everyone is invited to read or read and comment.

I'll start off with a new film that's being released this coming weekend, called The City of Your Final Destination.  So stand by for the review in my next post.

For more about me and my industry experience check out my website:

http://ricepaper.tripod.com/index.html

It's a work in progress.  I opened this site in the late 90's, then transferred everything to MySpace.  I decided to move things off from there and back onto this site.  So I'm still adding to it.  I hope to get it all up to date very soon.

Thanks for visiting!
Monica