Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Appaloosa Title

  • Released Internationally on 19/09/08
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 29/10/08

Preview (01/10/08)

In a nutshell

Set in the late 19th century, this is a western about two friends who help defend a small town from a threatening rancher, but whose friendship is itself threatened when an attractive widow arrives in town.

Who’s in it?

Ed Harris, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay, plays Virgin Cole, the older of the two lawmen, while Viggo Mortensen plays his sidekick. Jeremy Irons is the bad guy, and Renée Zellweger is the lass who stirs things up.

Why we’re hyped

Although there’s no doubting his credentials as an actor, this is only Harris’ second outing as a director. He passed the test with flying colours on his first film – the acclaimed artist biopic Pollock, in which he also starred as the troubled painter. Viggo Mortensen is quickly becoming one of the most reliable leading men around, and he was easily one of last year’s most interesting characters when he transformed himself into a Russian mobster for Eastern Promises. The quality of westerns has varied greatly over the past twenty years, but last year saw a mini-revival with two beautiful old-fashioned westerns – 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Let’s hope this one follows that trend.

Review (28/10/08)

Wild Wild West

Ed Harris has crafted a memorable western which delivers all the ingredients westerns are famous for. Within minutes of the opening credits, it's clearly evident who the bad guy is - Jeremy Irons need only use his grim stare and his rumbling rich voice to leave us no doubt as to which side he's on. Him and his henchman are immediately up to no good, and before long the good guys come riding into town to save the day. Over the next two hours we have lawmen, saloons, horses, fist-fights, shootouts, and loads of wonderful scenery, and it's all a joy to watch.

Just a Western?

I'm not fond of those who define films simply by their genre. Westerns very often get pigeon-holed as if they're all variations on the same theme, when really the setting is just providing a back-drop for a story, just like a science-fiction film or a romantic comedy. And like any genre, a western with a limp story often ends up as a drag, whilst westerns with a great plot at their core often work wonderfully as a film. This one falls into the latter category. What starts off as a simple good vs. bad challenge soon rides off at a tangent as a feisty love interest strolls into town. Things get complicated, and before long we're being led on a chase across the Mexican desert.

Very Viggo

Despite great turnouts from Harris, Irons and Zellweger, Viggo Mortensen is the one who steals the show. Once again, he inhabits an oddball character with a distinct appearance - this time he has complex facial hair to go with his outfit - and says volumes with just a few words. In last year's Eastern Promises, he was the quiet man in the corner who turned out to be the most reliable man around, and here again he is happy to live in the shadow of his mentor, Cole, but it turns out he could be the only one we can truly depend on. His acting is superb, and his collection of wonderful characters here gets another worthy addition.

Cowboys have feelings too

At points the plot does slow down, as our two peace-keepers discuss the intricacies of the human heart and how to handle the new love interest, but this gives them an added dimension, rather than weaken their tough-guy appearance. They may be confused about women, but they're still the best shots for miles around. The scenes between Mortensen and Harris range from average to wonderful, and the chemistry between them as a partnership provides the only enduring relationship of the film.

In the end

Despite a slightly protracted ending, the film builds to its satisfying conclusion and leaves no frayed ends. Irrespective of the genre, this is a good story which is worth watching, and the characters add substance to an wonderfully-directed film. Even if westerns don't usually float your boat, you should give this one a try.



Thursday, October 23, 2008

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

HSM3 Title

  • Released Internationally on 22/10/08
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 24/10/08


In a nutshell

Judging from the title, you might think that this film is simply a musical, set in a high-school, and that there were two other similar films that came before it. And you'd be right.

What about 1 and 2?

Even the most avid-cinema goer can be excused for missing out on this film's predecessors, because the first two installments of this explosive franchise were made for TV, and then went straight to DVD. Back in 2006 Disney launched the first High School Musical film on their Disney Channel, and it was an instant success on both sides of the Atlantic. The tale of young love amidst high-school feuds spawned massive DVD, soundtrack, game, book and even theatre sales, and like most succesful things nowadays, a sequel soon followed. Needless to say, the sequel was even more successful, and the teenage stars were thrust into the spotlight. As testimony to the exponential success of the franchise, Disney opted to give this third film a theatrical launch, rather than a TV run, and we can expect to be seeing HSM merchandise everywhere very soon.

But what about plot?

Don't worry if you've missed the previous two - this sort of film doesn't need a Usual Suspects-type plot, and you're guaranteed to know exactly what's going on even if you're meeting these young stars for the first time. As expected, there's lots of pubescent romance in the air, and this being their senior year, the students are also plagued with the tough decision about which university to go to, if they're accepted. This might be an alien concept for us Maltese, but we've watched enough American Pie and Saved by the Bell to know how the system works.

Is Grease still the word?

Inevitably, this franchise will be compared to the numerous classic college musicals that came before it, but to be fair the filmmakers don't seem keen on trying to do anything too new - they're just repackaging a winning formula for today's teenagers. And it evidently works. We might all know the lyrics to the Grease songs, but I doubt too many of today's teenagers have seen the actual film. So maybe this will be a good introduction to the world of musicals, and they can then go dig up the old VHSs in their parents' cupboards.

The low

The songs are proving to be one of the film's main selling points, but to my ears they don't have the memorable class of other respected musicals, and I could only hum one or two of the tunes once the credits finished rolling. And the pop beats often sound a bit out of place when characters are bursting into song on rooftops and in treehouses. Many of the characters come acorss as two-dimensional stereotypes, but I guess that can be forgiven since what we're being offered here is a fun showcase of song and dance, with little else.

The high

As a show, the film excels. From the first to the last number, one can clearly see that the focus is on making each musical number a wonderfully choreographed tableau of colour and movement. The actors are wonderful, and one can only wonder what an exhaustive selection process Disney must have been through to find this bunch of fresh-faced singers and dancers. The rooftop sequence and the junkyard number stand out for their style and inventiveness respectively, and there are also a number of large-scale Bob Fosse-style numbers for cabaret lovers. Whether they're dancing with basketballs or paying homage to films they're only just old enough to see, these entertainers make sure the colour and fun runs throughout the film's entire duration. With regards to what Disney is presenting to it's viewers, one can't help but commend the good clean fun this film represents. Parents can rest assured that these dance-crazy students don't smoke, don't drink, don't swear, don't go beyond kissing, and yet they have a great time. So maybe we've reached a point where we need more films like these to show our children.

Who's in it?

Kenny Ortega, the hugely experienced and talented choreographer who oversaw the first two films, returns as director and choreographer for the third. With films like Dirty Dancing, and shows for artists like Michael Jackson and Madonna under his belt, this showman is largely responsible for Disney's recent domination of the teen market, also due to his recent Hannah Montana tour. The two main actors are Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron (who looks uncannily like our very own Fabrizio Faniello), and they're accompanied by a host of other talented youngsters, including the show-stealing Lucas Grabeel.

In the end

I can fully understand how children and teenagers would gobble this franchise up, and these young stars are destined to be plastered on bedroom walls for years to come. As a film, the plot and characters are simple, but as a visual feast the musical numbers are extremely well done. I doubt anyone will be singing these songs in 20 years time, but I for one had a reasonably fun time watching them.




Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Eagle Eye

Eagle Eye Title

  • Released Internationally on 25/09/08
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 22/10/08


In a nutshell

This technology-laden thriller combines government surveillance paranoia with modern-day omnipresent technology, and just might make you pause the next time you’re about to switch on your mobile phone.

Who’s in it?

Rising star Shia LaBeouf, who in a short span of time has gone from teenage nobody to Indiana Jones’ sidekick, takes on his first adult role as a college dropout whose life is turned upside down when a woman’s voice at the other end of a phone call starts ordering him around and displaying unnerving power over, and knowledge about, his surroundings. He’s soon thrust into an adventure with another unwilling participant – a single mother who has received similar phone calls and instructions, portrayed by Michelle Monaghan. Before they know it, they’re being framed as terrorists and have too much to risk if they don’t play along and follow orders. Rosario Dawson is one of the government agents trying to track down who is who, and Billy Bob Thornton gives a solid supporting role as the FBI agent who’s determined to find out who’s on which side. The uncredited but all-so important uncanny female voice which runs the show belongs to Julianne Moore. The film was conceived and executively produced by none other than Mr. Spielberg, and is directed by relative newcomer D.J. Caruso (Disturbia, Taking Lives, The Salton Sea).

In theory

Spielberg apparently hatched this idea a number of years back, and wanted to make a film about today’s technology that would make audiences feel insecure about the devices around them which they have begun to take for granted. In that respect, the concept sets out reasonably well. Like a number of films we’ve seen in past years, this one reminds us how things we do every day, like use a credit card, walk past a CCTV camera, or use a mobile phone, could potentially be giving away loads of information about us, for whoever is interested (and equipped enough) to see and store.

In practice

Where the film fails, however, is managing to present the above concept credibly. Apparently set in the present, and using what appears to be today’s technology, the plot stars off being believable but eventually veers remarkably off-track. When random phones on sleeping train-passengers start flashing out orders to the main protagonists, you realise it’s time to suspend belief, in a big way. Which is a pity, because the laughable coincidences and exaggerations detract from the real-life paranoia this film could have induced.

In the end

Having said that, this doesn’t mean the film cannot be enjoyed as a pure slice of thrilling fun. The pace is very quick and never slacks, and we’re taken along for a breathless ride. A large number of twists, turns and action sequences help keep the film interesting, as the two main characters are steered to what appears to be an impossible resolution. The acting is solid throughout, and the effects do their job nicely. There’s no denying that this is a fun ride, but what starts out trying to be realistic soon runs off into far-fetched fiction. So you can sit back and enjoy an above-average thriller, but don’t worry about leaving your mobile phone on.





Sunday, October 05, 2008

How To Lose Friends & Alienate People

How To Lose Friends and Alienate People Title2

  • Released Internationally on 03/10/08
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 08/10/08


In a nutshell

Based on the true-life account of a British journalist trying to make it in New York when he’s offered a job by a high-profile celebrity magazine, this film follows him as he strives to stick to his journalist ethics without ticking off all the stars and colleagues he meets.

Simon Pegg

The name might not ring any bells, but this guy has ‘rising star’ written all over him. He burst into public consciousness back in 2004 when he co-wrote and starred in the truly brilliant ‘Shaun of the Dead’ comedy, which he recently followed up successfully with ‘Hot Fuzz’ (also great) and ‘Run, Fat boy, Run’. This is probably his highest-profile assignment to date, and his face will soon be plastered everywhere when he plays Scotty in the upcoming Star Trek revamp. He benefits from average-Joe looks, which allow him to take on roles which the audience can easily relate to, and he does physical and verbal comedy wonderfully – all traits that are put to very good use here. When we first meet him, his character Sidney Young is running a tiny and frustrating magazine back in the UK, but he soon gets noticed and is flown out to New York to work for the very sort of corporation he used to ridicule. Needless to say, he takes some time to fit in.

Megan Fox

Another new name. Another rapidly rising star. This stunning young actress gave the Transformers a run for their money in terms of eye-candy, and here she slips very easily into the role of a fictional starlet who’s just hit the big-time and is suddenly grabbing all the limelight with a big movie role and some crafty paparazzi stunts. She proves to be the one thing that can tear Sidney down from his ethical high-horse, and get him to accept that he needs to rub a few celebrity backs if his career is going to head anywhere. Throughout the film, he slowly but surely gets drawn into the celebrity game, but as he gains favour with the A-list crowd, he loses favour with those closest to him, and with us in the cinema seats.

Kirsten Dunst

Providing most of the emotional backbone to the story, the reliable and likeable Kirsten Dunst plays Alison Olsen, who is one of the first people Sidney clashes with on arriving in New York, but who eventually shows that deep down she resents the celebrity culture and is made of stronger stuff. She plays second fiddle to Megan Fox in the glamour and glitz departments, but Sidney eventually realises the importance of friendship over fluff.

Jeff Bridges

The Dude himself, the versatile and criminally underrated Jeff Bridges, recovers from his clash with Iron Man earlier this year to play Clayton Harding, the powerful and influential editor of the fictional ‘Sharps’ magazine (the memoir had Sidney working for Vanity Fair, but all names have been fictionalised here). Despite having risen to the top thanks to a symbiotic relationship with the stars, Harding still harbours a bit of nostalgia for the times when he used to tear the celebrities down, which is why he hired Sidney, and why on occasion he gives him free rein to try new ideas for the magazine. This provides most of the food for thought this film serves up – in this age of celebrity blogs and endless paparazzi stories, and where stardom can be obtained thanks to a few well-planned stunts, without any particular need for talent, we’re given some insight into the power of the media, and how they often decide the fates of those they cover. Amongst the many comedy gems throughout the film, we get a couple of references to Bridges’ cult role in The Big Lebowski, with Sidney mistaking the name of his landlady, and one of Harding’s executives having White Russians as his drink of choice.

In the end

Much like The Devil Wears Prada, this film offers us humble mortals an amusing glimpse into the offices of high-flying magazine headquarters, and manages to make us doubt what we read off the news rack. And much like Tropic Thunder, it manages to remove some of the shine that the media has encased Hollywood celebrities with over the years. A good mix of British humour and Hollywood glamour, with Simon Pegg delivering another good performance as he saves us from the inflated egos of stardom.