Friday, July 31, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123

The Taking of Pelham 123


  • Released Internationally on 12/06/09
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 31/07/09


In a nutshell

There's a subway station in the Bronx, New York City called Pelham Bay Park. A train used to leave there every day at 1:23 pm, bound south for Brooklyn Bridge. Today, it's getting held up.


This pretty straightforward hostage drama was published as a novel in 1973, and made into a successful action film in 1974, starring Robert Shaw (of Jaws fame) as the hijacker and Walter Matthau as the train dispatcher and negotiator. It has now been updated for post-9/11 New York and the Wi-Fi age, whilst leaving the telephone duet at the core of the film largely unchanged.

A day in the life

The film opens with scenes of a typical day in down-town New York, which includes commuters making their way across the grid, and the sun streaming in between the skyscrapers. Director Tony Scott (Top Gun, True Romance) applies his recent quick-cut, fast-paced style to the prologue, before delving right into the action. A menacing-looking John Travolta takes his place amongst the throngs of passengers, as his shady-looking associates converge on the titular train. In a swiftly-orchestrated move he commandeers the driver’s seat, and steers the train to exactly where he wants it.

Who you gonna call?

Elsewhere in Manhattan, civil servant Walter Garber is settling down to another morning of monitoring the metro from his desk in the subway control centre. Recently demoted to his current status pending the results of an investigation, he is not in the best of moods, and when the Pelham train stops moving on his wall display, he radios in to ask what's wrong. Thus starts one of the more exciting days of his life. Denzel Washington had recently worked with Scott on Man on Fire and Déjà Vu, but his character here is much lower on ego and thrill-seeking. When he realises he's on the radio with a potential terrorist, he feels he's not the man for the job, but unluckily for him Travolta's character insists that he is.

Not so different

After recently starring as a curvy woman in Hairspray and a heroic dog in Bolt, Travolta dons tattoos and a goatee to complete the hostile appearance of his foul-mouthed criminal, ‘Ryder’. Organised and assertive, although prone to bouts of aggression, he courts Garber in a waltz of dialogue and negotiations. Whilst the hostage situation itself isn't so different from countless similar films, what adds a bit of an edge to this story is the back-story of the main characters involved. Not satisfied with simply making monetary demands, Ryder gives a one-hour deadline for delivery of the cash, and then spends a good part of that hour questioning and philosophizing with Garber. The issue of Garber's pending investigation is brought to the fore, and Ryder plays on his failings and compares them to his own. The mind games continue when the New York mayor shows up (James Gandolfini - The Sopranos, The Man Who Wasn't There), and Ryder preys on his recent public scandals to evoke an angry response. Ultimately, the three characters are using the dramatic events of the day to seek redemption, and to try and set the record straight.

Anyone else?

Rounding off the cast is John Turturro (Transformers, Barton Fink) as the head of the NYPD hostage team, whom Ryder refuses to speak to and who has to do his work through Garber, and Luis Guzmán (Punch-Drunk Love, Out of Sight) as Ryder's main henchman and possibly his weakest link. The acting is serviceable, with Washington the most convincing as the insecure yet resourceful dispatcher. Travolta seems as bit too over the top as he shouts out obscenities, but the insane glint in his eye serves him well in the role.

In the end

The story is engaging, as most hostage dramas tend to be, and the film doesn't outstay its welcome. By wisely focusing on the characters involved as much as the action, the film manages to add a level of sophistication, but the ending is predictable and nothing new. This is an entertaining way to spend an evening, but I suspect it would take another remake for this film to be remembered in twenty year's time.


Mark's Mark - 6/10


Trailer: (High-res QuickTime)


Saturday, July 18, 2009




  • Released Internationally on 08/07/09
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 18/07/09


In a nutshell

When comedian Sasha Baron Cohen invaded both sides of the Atlantic with his daring and brilliant Da Ali G Show, his titular character was flanked by two other creations who made brief appearances throughout the show. The first, Borat, got his own hugely successful feature film in 2006. Now it's Brüno's turn.

Ich bin Brüno!

Brüno is a flamboyantly gay Austrian TV presenter who hosts a show about fashion until his antics make him lose favour in the style world. Hungry for celebrity status, he heads to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming "the biggest Austrian celebrity since Hitler." He tries everything, from interviewing celebrities to outrageous appearances on talk shows, but ultimately he realises that he must convert to heterosexuality if he is to have his shot at stardom.


If you're new to the unconventional genius of Sasha Baron Cohen, what's on your screen might take some explaining. From his original TV show onwards he has always transformed himself into his three characters and then infiltrated everyday situations and interviews, with hilarious results captured on camera. In Borat, his Kazakhstani alter-ego fumbled around America and was met with ridicule, amusement and anger. But in doing so he exposed impressive, genuine displays of ignorance, snobbery, racism and fanaticism. This time around the main targets are of course the homophobes, especially the bible-wielding fundamentalist pastors of the US who set out to ‘convert’ gays. They prove to be easy prey.

Is it real?

Cohen has always defended his work as completely authentic, which he often has to do considering how perfectly staged it all may seem. The proof that Borat wasn't staged and scripted was the alleged onslaught of lawsuits which the production company had to face after its release, from the various individuals exposed in the film. In short, these people thought they were passing their close-minded remarks in front of an unknown journalist from some frozen corner of the ex-Soviet Union, but they ended up on the big screen across the world. This time around his claims are similar, however Bruno contains much more story backbone to tie the 'real' scenes together, and these parts drag the film down because the comedy isn't real or exciting.

What works

The fun of Brüno in his original TV appearances was his subtle bashing of the entire fashion industry, but this is sadly relegated to only the prologue of his adventures here. Some of the segments are as daring and fun as anything Baron Cohen’s three characters have done before - especially the attempt to film an amorous advance on US presidential candidate Ron Paul, a stripped-down interview with Paula Abdul, and 'Straight Dave's cage fights which were organised in Arkansas and drew a predictably rowdy and intolerant crowd, before giving them exactly what they didn’t want to see. The scenes involving parents desperate to get their children involved in a high-profile photo shoot are also quite shocking, and wonderfully done.

What doesn’t

Many of the remaining scenes strain to entertain. While Borat revealed shocking intolerances amongst its involuntary protagonists, the reactions to Brüno are sometimes understandable considering the crudeness they are witnessing. Sure, it's amusing to watch, but it stops at that. The final scenes try to add some sort of closure by dragging in top musicians for a grand finale, but it ends on a flat note and adds nothing to what has come before.

In ze end

Borat was daring, fresh and incredibly funny to watch. Brüno has its moments, but they're unfortunately few and far between. The character himself is just as fun and well-developed, but in the search for something bolder and funnier than his predecessor, he's just too much.




Trailer: (High-res QuickTime)


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter 6


  • Released Internationally on 15/07/09
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 15/07/09


In a nutshell

If you’ve never heard of Harry Potter, yet you’re reading this review, then it looks like you’ve got Wi-Fi in your cave. Harry and friends are now in their sixth and supposedly penultimate scholastic year at Hogwarts, and the threat to the world posed by the rising dark wizards is growing.

So where were we?

If you’ve never read the books or if, like yours truly, you read it on release four years ago and have forgotten most of the details, there are some major plot points in store for you during this sixth year. The new potions teacher, Professor Slughorn, allows Harry into his class despite his results of the previous year, and during the first lesson Harry comes across an old potions textbook full of annotations and scribbling. The comments help him whiz through his potions classes and even learn a few new spells, but he wonders who the ‘Half-Blood Prince’ that the book once belonged to, was or is.

The Horcrux of the matter

Dumbledore, in the meantime, is busy collecting distant memories which once belonged to Tom Riddle, or Voldemort as it now seems permissible to call him. He shares these memories with Harry and together they set out to locate and destroy the numerous horcruxes – significant trinkets in which the dark lord appears to have stored parts of himself. By destroying the parts they hope to weaken the whole, but the objects prove to be extremely well-guarded and dangerous to one’s health.

High school magical

On a much lighter note, the students of Hogwarts are growing steadily and, as happens, hormones start to fly. The crushing interests of the main trio continue to provide amusement without becoming too frivolous, but Professor Slughorn concocts some love potion which adds to the emotional chaos. It’s a much needed break from the dark clouds gathering outside the castle walls.

Chance of rain

This is undoubtedly the darkest film of the franchise so far, both thematically and literally. From the cloudy skies that frame the main title, and the opening Death Eater attack on London, the gloom and doom rarely lifts, and the film rushes towards its poignant ending, and onto the next film. Things have changed since the magical, colourful fun of the first film, and some scenes are vicious and terrifying, but wonderfully done. The antics of Draco Malfoy take centre stage, and his rivalry with Potter reaches boiling point in bloody fashion.

Cast a spell

The cast continues to grow from film to film, as more characters join the fray, and more respected British actors add their names to the list. The main new face this time is Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge!, the latest Indiana Jones) as the eccentric Horace Slughorn. Michael Gambon (Layer Cake) and Alan Rickman (Die Hard, Love Actually) continue to excel as Dumbledore and Snape, respectively, while recent addition Helena Bonham Carter (Fight Club) adds her unique zany touch to the role of Bellatrix Lestrange. The main trio of ‘child’ actors (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint) are now in their late teens or early twenties, and have grown into the roles of Harry, Hermione and Ron to make them their own. Radcliffe still suffers from frequent wooden acting, but he fits the part of troubled Harry well, and is now indelibly associated with the character. Everyone else (who survived the last film) is also back, mostly in minor parts, except for Ralph Fiennes, since Voldemort only appears fleetingly this time around. His ominous presence is everywhere, however, and the chilling flashbacks are brought to life by Fiennes’ nephew, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin.

Still in the hot-seat

After switching between various directors, composers and other crew for the first few films, the producers have now settled on a fixed team for the home stretch, to bring continuity to the conclusion of this epic franchise. Director David Yates (The Girl in the Café) returns after directing the fifth film, and is already at work on the next one. Writer Steve Kloves, who adapted the first four novels, is also back, after sitting-out the fifth, and is responsible for the mammoth task of adapting the climactic seventh book into a two-part finale. Yates’ own choice of composer, Nicholas Hooper, builds on a couple of the themes he introduced in the last film, and also adds a lot of dark new material for the film’s unsettling confrontation scenes and gothic finale. He has totally done away with the well-known Potter themes which John Williams established in the first three outings, and the instantly-recognizable Hedwig’s Theme is notable by its absence. This is unfortunate, and one hopes that the musical motifs return in the finale, since they are an essential part of the franchise’s identity.

What doesn’t work

Like the fourth and fifth films before it, the main complaint this time around is one of omission. From Goblet of Fire onwards, the books were thick, chunky sagas packed with detail, yet highly readable. Compressing so much into a film without reaching Gone with the Wind proportions inevitably leads to many plot points being left out or merely hinted at, and many parts being rushed. Only two of the Voldemort flashbacks are seen, for example, but it’s a credit to the adaptation that the omissions are merely noted, not detrimental to the film’s plot. The film also suffers from the lack of a proper opening or ending, since this is very much an ongoing saga, and this part merely a chapter. Some sort of coda is fashioned out of the last scenes, but the cliff-hanger ending is inevitable, and makes the wait until next year seem all the longer.

What does

These minor gripes aside, the film impresses on numerous levels. The dark, menacing look adds greatly to the current state of affairs, and the attacks on central London and on the Weasley residence have a terrifying urgency which keeps one wary of what tragedy is coming next. A simple, bloodless curse on a student in the snowy surroundings of Hogwarts is turned into a petrifying spectacle, and even the dazzling Quidditch scenes (it’s a wizard sport) are shrouded in inclement weather. The visual effects are uniformly brilliant, but always secondary to the story. Most importantly, there’s a great feeling of familiarity and nostalgia about the whole school and the characters we have followed for nearly a decade – something which makes the attack on their safety all the more sinister.

In the end?

There isn’t much end to speak of, and the end titles are merely a weighted pause until the adventures resume. It’s hard to say that this is the best Potter yet, since the bar was raised so high by Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix, but this is very much the top-shelf filmmaking we have come to expect of the franchise. As we head towards the climactic duel between good and very evil, the film adaptations seem to be in good hands, and despite the time limitations they do the books ample justice.




Trailer: (High-res QuickTime)


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Last Chance Harvey

Last Chance Harvey


  • Released Internationally on 25/12/08
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 15/07/09


In a nutshell

Harvey is going through a rough patch. Kate has just about given up on love. They bump into each amidst the bustle of London and thanks to some perseverance on Harvey's part an unconventional love story takes its first steps.

Not the best of weekends

Having given up his dream of becoming a jazz pianist, grey-haired Harvey pays the bills by composing jingles, but a batch of fresh composers risk making his job obsolete. He travels across the Atlantic for his estranged daughter's wedding, only to find that she has asked her stepfather to walk her down the aisle. Trying to drown his doldrums in an airport bar, he strikes up a conversation with Kate, and despite her best attempts to read her book, he keeps it going.

Who needs Paris?

Along with the two central characters, London is very much on display as the setting for their awkward romance. Like Love Actually, Notting Hill, Wimbledon and many others before them, there's something familiar and (ironically) warm about romantic comedies set along the Thames. As they stroll down the South Bank or rush through Heathrow, it all seems extremely believable and natural.

Who's in it?

The main strength of this unpretentious tale is watching two veteran actors at the top of their game as they feed off each other with ease. Dustin Hoffman plays the withdrawn, clumsy Harvey who's ready to drop everything for a chance to bring love back into his life. Emma Thompson is the very British Kate who has lost faith in men as a species and resigned herself to a life of caring for her widowed mother (veteran actress Eileen Atkins) and escaping into trashy novels for her dose of romance. That the spark between them lasts the weekend is a testimony to the high-calibre acting and the well-written script. Director Joel Hopkins makes an impressive mainstream debut as both writer and director, and allegedly wrote the story with these two main actors in mind.

In the end

It's all very predictable and if you've seen the trailer than you've seen most of it, but the effortless acting makes this romantic comedy stand out.





Trailer in High-res Quicktime


Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Hangover


  • Released Internationally on 05/06/09
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 05/07/09

In a nutshell

Like Rachel before him, Doug is getting married. Shortly before the big date, as per tradition, he heads out for a last night of manly fun with his close friends. Things get ever so slightly out of hand.

Who needs stars?

Doug (Justin Bartha – National Treasure) is treated to this most extravagant of nights by his two best friends – Phil and Stu. Bradley Cooper (Wedding Crashers, He’s Just Not That Into You) is Phil – a teacher who’s married, with a son, and who’s dying for a wild night out. Ed Helms more or less reprises his role as Andrew Bernard on TV’s The Office as the straight-laced Stu, who likes to do things by the book, mostly because he’s kept on a very short leash by his domineering girlfriend. The cast of relative unknowns is crowned by a breakthrough performance from comedian Zach Galifianakis (Into The Wild, What Happens in Vegas), who steals the show as Alan – the weird, inappropriate and withdrawn brother of the bride. A self-confessed loser, he tags along with the only friends he knows, and is a joy to watch. Making a bit of a comeback into mainstream is Heather Graham (Boogie Nights, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me) doing her usual portrayal of a dumb blonde, as ‘Jade’ the stripper with a heart of gold.

A night to remember?

After bonding on the road to Vegas, the guys check-in, toast the wild night ahead, and the rest is history. One of the greatest strengths of this wonderful ride is the way the writers and director have structured it to keep us interested. The actual events of the wild night are never shown, except in CCTV footage, wedding photos, and on the faces of its scarred victims.

The morning after the night before

A very early scene allows us to glimpse just how bad things are going to get, before we jump back to the arrival in Vegas. After their toast to get the night going, we jump forward to the titular hangover. The three friends wake up in their luxury suite to find teeth missing, abandoned babies crying, miscellaneous wild cats in the bathroom, general chaos and evidence of wild partying, but no groom.

Where’s the groom?

As breakfast starts to slowly cure their numbing headaches, amusement gives way to panic as the three start to realise just how much they got up to last night. What follows is a hectic forty-eight hour race to somehow locate their friend and right the wrongs they don’t even recall doing. Police cars, random acts of aggression by thugs, hospital bracelets, wedding souvenirs and a surprise hotel visit by Mike Tyson help to slowly unravel the itinerary, whilst keeping the audience guessing as to the groom’s fate.

Nearly all fun and games

Only a few things jar in this impressively consistent comedy. Without any real bad guy, the script conjures up an Asian gangster, but although starting hilariously the subplot fizzles out as the character becomes stereotypical and a bit overdone. The film is only slightly too long, but at least all of the antics on screen are heading towards the films’ necessary conclusion, rather than thrown in for their own hilarity’s sake. Any feelings of disappointment one may harbour during the film’s predictable ending are thrown out the window during the wonderful end credits, which complete the film cleverly and end it on a very high note.

In the end

Director Todd Philips (Road Trip, Old School, as well as a contribution to Borat) and writers Scott Moore and Jon Lucas (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) have sneaked past the effects-laden blockbusters of the summer to deliver a very unique and very entertaining comedy. Amidst the array of recent ‘bro-mantic comedies’, this one stands out thanks to its script, performances and overall sense of craziness. It’s boisterous, irreverent and yet surprisingly coherent fun, and possibly the best guy movie of the decade so far.


Trailer: (High-res QuickTime)

Thursday, July 02, 2009

My Sister’s Keeper

My Sister's Keeper


  • Released Internationally on 26/06/09
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 01/07/09


In a nutshell

Based on the novel by bestselling author Jodi Picoult, this heart-wrenching drama about the rather unconventional way that a closely-knit family handles the terminal illness of one of its members is packed with powerful performances, a moving story and a number of important issues.


Like the book, the film starts with the narration of Anna (Abigail Breslin, proving that her star turn in Little Miss Sunshine was no fluke) who calmly explains how her birth was no accident – she was engineered by her parents and doctors so as to be a perfect genetic match for her elder sister. Thus starts a traumatic childhood of blood donations, bone marrow transplants and various other procedures which Anna goes through in order to help treat her sister, who has a rare form of leukaemia. Then, at age 11, she seems to have had enough, and trots off to a high-powered attorney to sue her parents for the right to her own body, and refuses to donate the kidney that will save her sister’s life.


Despite this shocking turn of events, there seems to be no love lost between sisters. The balding but still smiling Kate (impressive newcomer Sofia Vassilieva) seems to take everything in her stride, and is possibly the only person holding it together as her illness brings her family tumbling down. In a series of flashbacks we meet the earlier Kate and join her on the emotional highpoints of her seemingly all-too-short life, including small doses of love and laughter amidst higher doses of hospitals and drugs.


With her every step of the way is her mother, brought vividly to life by an extremely talented Cameron Diaz. It’s a relief to see her shine in roles like this and Being John Malkovich, which are often forgotten amongst her flashier roles like Charlie’s Angels. Giving up her job, most of her life and possibly her marriage, Sara is determined to stop at nothing to keep her daughter alive, and cannot imagine why her other daughter would do such a horrific thing as sue her and put her sister at risk. Her journey and change over the course of the film is written, acted and handled wonderfully and convincingly.


The sadly underused Jason Patric (Narc, Sleepers) is Brian, the silent but determined father who works in the shadows to keep his fragile family together, and seems to be the one who truly knows what’s best for them. His devotion to his daughter sometimes leaves his son Jesse (Evan Ellingson – 24, CSI: Miami) in the cold, but the troubled teenager proves essential in the film’s resolution.


Once again, it’s a joy to watch Alec Baldwin (The Departed, 30 Rock, The Cooler) in action. The revitalised star brings zest and charisma to the delicate role of the rich attorney who decides to take on the legal case. His character’s brief but major role also provides just the right touches of humour, when they are most needed. He shares the commanding court scenes with Judge De Salvo (Joan Cusack – In & Out, Working Girl, Arlington Rd.) whose painful history puts her in an ideal situation to deftly manage this life-and-death case.

Weepy but wonderful

Director and co-writer Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook, John Q) is a master at making the audience reach for the tissues, but rarely at the expense of the pace and realism of the plot. Apart from a few changes to the ending, he manages to bring the spirit of the book to the big screen gracefully and colourfully. I’m quite sure that the scenes of Kate enjoying her first date and dance, as well as various other key moments in the film, are enough to cause a lump in the throat of even the toughest Saw fan. Some scenes might seem like extended Grey’s Anatomy sequences, with gentle voiceover and pensive ballads in the background, but it’s excusable considering the human tragedy at hand.

In the end

Emotionally draining human dramas might not be your idea of a summer night at the cinema, but miss this at your own peril. Very often the saddest films are the best ones, and this is definitely one of my picks for the year so far. Great acting all around and a story that offers enough surprises to keep us involved are the key to this film’s appeal. Depressing as the subject matter may sound, the film tackles extremely important ethical questions about quality of life, the medicalisation of illness, and the process of saying goodbye. And whether we like it or not, these are issues that are somehow present in everybody’s lives. The most moving release of the year so far.




Trailer: (High-res QuickTime)


Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

Ice Age 3

  • Released Internationally on 01/07/09
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 01/07/09
Showing in RealD (3D) at Empire Cinemas, Bugibba, and 2D elsewhere

In an acorn shell

In 2002 we were introduced to the unlikely team composed of a mammoth, a sloth and a sabre-toothed cat, as they migrated across prehistoric earth to avoid the ice age. Their path was crossed by the wordless, but highly frustrated Scrat, some sort of sabre-toothed squirrel without lady luck on his side. In 2006 they had a Meltdown, and now they’re sharing the screen with other prehistoric beasts.

Creature comforts

The odd but amusing match of species that were such a hit the first time around are all still here, and voiced by the same actors. Ray Romano (of Everybody Loves Raymond fame) is Manny, an insecure woolly mammoth who this time is on the brink of fatherhood because Ellie (Queen Latifah, Chicago, Stranger Than Fiction) is expecting. One of the new characters in the second instalment, she returns with a prominent role and adds a necessary female touch to proceedings. John Leguizamo (Moulin Rouge!, The Happening) is Sid the sloth, whose noble intentions make up for his simple nature. Envying Manny’s upcoming family role, he covets three eggs he stumbles upon, and ends up the unlikely father of three baby T-Rexs, whose natural mother is highly unamused. Diego the big cat (Denis Leary – The Thomas Crown Affair) is losing his edge as a predator, and leaves the pack to go seeking adventure, but he soon realises that he already had all the excitement he needs.

In with the new

Despite Scrat being possibly the most amusing element of the first film, his antics have now started to wear thin, and this film introduces a female counterpart to spice up the proceedings. Despite the filmmakers’ best efforts, however, Scrat remains nothing but a subplot, and a repetitive and eventually annoying one at that. On the other hand, the main new character, Buck the weasel, is fresher and much more interesting. Brought to life by the wonderful Simon Pegg (Star Trek, Shaun of the Dead), his daredevil ways help the other characters navigate through the dinosaur’s habitat in one piece. He too starts to grow tedious, however, and the character isn’t exploited well enough due to a simplistic and often flat script.

Harmless amusement

Fine art, this is not. And nowadays we’ve come to expect much more from major animated releases, with DreamWorks and Pixar managing to meld powerful storytelling and subtle humour for adults with fun and spectacle for the little ones. This offering veers more towards the latter, with lots of physical humour and crude jokes, but not much depth or soul. Not to mention the confusing evolutionary timeline and geographical layout of the iced world in question.

In the end

Kids will probably love it, and everyone should manage a chuckle or two, but not even the cute baby mammoths and dinosaurs save this franchise from feeling overstretched.


Trailer: (High-Res QuickTime)