Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Soloist

The Soloist


  • Released Internationally on 24/04/09
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 30/09/09


In a nutshell

Steve Lopez is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. One day he bumps into an unusual street act – an eccentric homeless man with hints of musical greatness. He delves deeper, and the friendship that forms between them changes both their lives in subtle but significant ways.

The real Steve Lopez

The two main characters in this tale are real and this story happened a few years ago in Los Angeles. After a series of columns chronicling his encounters, Steve Lopez published a book, on which this screenplay is based. The man we’re presented with doesn’t aspire to any great nobility or selflessness – he’s after a good story. But as he returns to the homeless man’s haunts again and again for the next chapter of his story, he can’t help being drawn in and trying to help bring this man’s life back on track. What he slowly realises, however, is that not all change is good, or desired.

The real Nathaniel Ayers

Nathaniel is quite a sight. With a patchwork wardrobe and all his possessions in one shopping cart, he roams the streets, taking in the sights and sounds of LA, but never leaving the world of his own. His pressure of speech reveals a turbulent flow of thought, genius and anxiety going through his head. In brief flashbacks we learn how a childhood dedicated to music quickly revealed a talent far beyond his peers, and how he was ushered out of his parent’s poor neighbourhood and into one of the country’s finest music schools. Then the voices started, and all alone in a big city Nathaniel is slowly driven from the road of musical concentration, and out of his apartment. He’s scared to return home, for fear of the voices returning, and a homeless man is born.

The real LA

Filmed on location in Los Angeles, the film makes extensive use of the real location nicknamed Skid Row, ‘home’ to a huge community of homeless people, and a hub of social outcasts and problems. Driven by his curiosity and work, Lopez ventures deep into this scary landscape, and slowly earns Nathaniel’s trust whilst keeping him among the structures he’s come to call home. The film doesn’t do LA any favours, but is a harsh reminder of the often unseen horrors that exist in even the most lauded cities.

Who’s in it?

The resurgence of Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin, Iron Man, Tropic Thunder) continues with his portrayal of Steve Lopez. At times unlikeable, at times confused, but ultimately passionate and with past hurts of his own, he provides the average man that the audience can relate to. Sadly far from average is the man racked by schizophrenia, brought to life convincingly by Jamie Foxx (Ray, Collateral). The usual Foxx image is quickly forgotten thanks to a combination of hair, makeup and pained acting. The always interesting Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich, Capote) is Lopez’s ex-wife, editor, and point of reference. Sitting in the director’s chair is Joe Wright, who already has two gems under his belt – Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. He’s possibly to blame for the erratic editing and filming that proves unsettling through most of the film, and ultimately holds the film down.

In the end

It’s hard to pick out anything wrong with The Soloist, but there’s something in the final product that doesn’t gel as well as it should. Which is a pity, because with such a good story, and two such fine actors, this could have been something truly great.





http://www.apple.com/trailers/paramount/thesoloist/ (High-res QuickTime)


Monday, September 21, 2009

District 9

District 9

  • Released Internationally on 13/08/09
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 09/09/09 (how appropriate)

In a nutshell

Blurring the line between immigrants and aliens, this original and gripping science-fiction film from South Africa puts extra-terrestrials in a whole new light.


The film wastes no time in presenting the striking image of an enormous spacecraft hovering ominously over the Johannesburg skyline. The engaging mock-documentary style mixes in a few interviews with news footage to quickly explain how 28 years ago this massive mothership appeared in the sky, came to standstill, and then did nothing. After much debate, we humans decided to break in, and a million weak, malnourished and generally docile aliens were found inside. With the eyes of the world watching, the South African government did the noble thing and gave them asylum in a fenced district – District 9.

Illegal immigrants

The metaphor for illegal immigration is immediately apparent, also thanks to not-so-subtle imagery. The aliens are treated by Johannesburg residents as a drain on resources, a nuisance, and a potential source of crime and danger. The town is full of signs prohibiting their entrance, they are nicknamed ‘prawns’ due to their appearance, and as the years go by the government is pressured into somehow getting rid of them. A huge eviction campaign is started, with plans to shift the entire prawn population to a ‘tent city’ far from the city centre.

Wikus Van De Merwe

During the opening documentary-style scenes, we are given a quick tour of the operation headquarters by a geeky-looking type who seems eager to impress. Wikus (impressive newcomer Sharlto Copley) is put in charge of the evacuation, thanks to some good old favouritism, and we join him on the much-advertised first day of the project. The replies his fellow colleagues give during interviews give us a sense that something is going to go incredibly wrong, but we are initially in the dark as to the nature or scale of the problem.

The issues at stake

Besides the focus on tensions between locals and immigrants, the film also delves into the artillery issue, with large corporations putting lives at risk in the search for dominance in the weapons market. These dubious ethics and the overriding racial conflicts manage to lift this film high above similar outings in the genre. The middle section of the film relies less on the documentary style and progresses like a thoroughbred sci-fi action film, but the hand-held camera work and overall style maintain the sense of realism and urgency that makes this film so distinctive.

Who’s in it?

Young South African director and visual effects artists Neill Blomkamp made a short film in 2005 entitled ‘Alive in Joburg’ (available online here). This film is a development of that 6-minute film into a fuller story, and was made with support from Peter Jackson’s production company. There are no big names on show, nor are they missed. The two principal actors both contributed to the original short, and they do a fine job, as do all the cast and crew. The visual effects are effective without ever being overdone, and the sparse score is a fine finishing touch.

In the end

Whilst borrowing concepts from Aliens, Independence Day and even The Fly, this film stands out as wonderfully original film, and should also appeal to those not usually drawn towards sci-fi. One of the best films of the year, and hopefully the start of a fruitful and entertaining directing career.



http://www.apple.com/trailers/sony_pictures/district9/ (High-res Quicktime)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs


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


Showing in Real3D at Empire Cinemas, Buġibba and in 2D everywhere else

In a nutshell

Based on the children’s book, this gourmet computer-animated disaster movie blends comedy, science-fiction and drama to bring an impressive array of great new characters to the screen.


Like all great fairytales, this one kicks off in a quaint imaginary town – a seaside haven on a tiny island underneath the ‘A’ of ‘Atlantic’. The town thrives on the sardine industry, and every family business is built on sardines. Then one day, the world at large realises that ‘sardines are super gross’, and suddenly the future of the town looks fishy. Enter Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader, Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder).


Flint has dreamed of being an inventor since he was a few feet tall, and his mind is always set on the next great idea. Not deterred by the failure of most of his ideas, he sets his sights on saving his hometown with the invention of a machine that, to put it simply, makes food out of water. Flint is a wonderful character that draws from fictional inventors we’ve seen over the decades – complete with zany haircut, lab coat, lack of social skills and the ultimate back-yard laboratory which could rival Dexter’s.


Over on mainland USA, aspiring weather girl Sam Sparks (Anna Faris, Scary Movie, Observe and Report), lands the job of covering the worthless news story of the opening of this tiny town’s ‘Sardine Land’ theme park, but she gets more than she bargained for when shortly after arriving she witnesses the unintentional launch of Flint’s latest invention into the atmosphere. As the two, who have more in common than initially apparent, meet, it starts raining burgers.

Food glorious food

What follows is a wonderful feast of animation, as the town is whipped into a feeding frenzy over Lockwood’s invention and its resulting weather phenomena. From his lab Flint takes everyone’s orders and the town is covered in favourite foods three times a day, at mealtimes. But gluttony and chaos risk destroying the town, and in true disaster-movie style the entire world is soon at stake.

Quite a character

Endearing as the main couple may be, they are nearly outdone by the impressive host of supporting characters. After endless sequels in the computer-animation field, it’s wonderful to find something so fresh and new, with so many great new faces. Flint’s father, who epitomises the strong and silent type, manages to look hilarious and yet be the emotional anchor of Flint’s adventures. He is brought to life by the voice talent of James Caan (The Godfather, Mickey Blue Eyes). Equally funny is the local police chief Earl Devereaux, voiced to perfection by none other than Mr. T (of The A-Team fame), a Johnny Bravo-type cop who is convinced that Flint is up to no good. The greedy and manipulative mayor is given ample pantomime malevolence by Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead, Spider-man). Last but not least, the undistinguished cameraman Manny (Benjamin Bratt, The Woodsman, Miss Congeniality) rises from obscurity in the finale to provide some of the humorous highpoints.

In the end

With the exponentially increasing output of computer-animated films, it’s inevitable that some miss-hits wouldn’t reach the lofty standards set by Toy Story and friends. Thankfully, this film manages to be up to scratch in every department – the animation is a joy to behold, the story is crazy but not without heart, and the laughs are frequent. It may be loads of nonsense, but it’s great fun.







Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Funny People

Funny People


  • Released Internationally on 31/07/09
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 16/09/09


In a nutshell

The man behind nearly all the great ‘bromantic’ comedies of the past four years has written and directed his third film, and this time around it's as much dark drama as raunchy comedy.

Funny people?

The title doesn't necessarily refer to what the protagonists are doing on screen. It refers to the type of people whose lives we are delving into, because this is a poignant and thought-provoking few months behind the scenes in the lives of a few fledgling comedians and one established superstar. It’s written and directed by Judd Apatow, who wrote and directed The 40 year-old Virgin and Knocked Up, as well as producing and/or writing a host of other recent comedies.

George Simmons

Apatow was Adam Sandler's flatmate a while back, a role which included filming Sandler during his frequent prank calling. He wrote the role of comedy megastar George Simmons specifically for Sandler, and he starts off the film with actual footage of their teenage antics. Simmons is an established comedian with a number of blockbusters under his belt, a mansion one is likely to get lost in, and a suitably over-the-top celebrity lifestyle full of autographs, women and money. But a check-up shows some nasty blood counts and within a few minutes of the film starting he learns that he has acute leukaemia, and it doesn't look rosy. He walks out of the clinic stunned, and inevitably starts viewing life differently.

Ira Wright

Over on the low-budget side of town, aspiring stand-up comedian Ira (a role written for Seth Rogen - Knocked Up, Pineapple Express) is struggling to make ends meet, and his stage career is cough-starting and spluttering. It doesn't help that his two flatmates and fellow comics Mark (Jason Schwartzman, from Rushmore, in a wonderfully laid-back role) and Leo (Jonah Hill, from Superbad, playing his usual self) are getting more work than he is. But after Simmons shows up at the stand-up club and takes to the stage before him, they meet and exchange compliments, and Simmons ends up giving him a call asking for some writing work and hiring him as his assistant.

Estranged people

As Ira learns about Simmons’ death sentence, he encourages him to reach out to his loved ones, rather than keep the news secret. The problem is, Simmons’ glitzy life has left all his friends and family out in the cold and his life is full of employees, not friends. He takes Ira’s advice though, and reaches for the phone to try and build bridges with the many people he has hurt over the years. This brings new warmth into his life, and everyone around him starts noticing his new improved self.

The one that got away

Top of his ‘to phone’ list is the previous love of his life, Laura (Leslie Mann, from Knocked Up, and Apatow’s wife) who is now married and a mother of two kids after leaving Simmons due to his infidelity. They reunite and realise that there’s still something there, but she is torn between the feelings for him and the normality and stability of life with her kids and husband (Eric Bana, from Munich and Star Trek, in a hilarious and effortless supporting role).

Nothing wrong, nothing usual

It’s hard to pinpoint anything wrong with Funny People. The acting is consistently strong and switches seamlessly from comedy to drama, and the script from Apatow is the best he’s written yet. And despite its excessive length there’s an air of quality and meaning to every scene. But the overall feeling is a very mixed and awkward one, as was possibly intended by Apatow. The film doesn’t fit into any neat category, and one could be forgiven for not knowing whether to literally laugh or cry. Like a Monty Python sketch, the high-points are frequent and throughout, rather than building to any grand finale or punch-line.

In the end

One has to admire Apatow for bringing this script to the screen, because it is a very daring move after the huge success he has enjoyed with his more straightforward comedy. The dark nature of most of this film isn’t comfortable viewing, and the feeling as the end credits roll is ambiguous. A moving portrayal of changing priorities in life, sprinkled with an occasional oasis of crude comic relief.





http://www.apple.com/trailers/universal/funnypeople/ (High-res QuickTime)


Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Time Traveller’s Wife

Time Traveller's Wife

  • Released Internationally on 14/08/09
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 09/09/09

In a nutshell

Based on the best-selling novel, this is the unusual love story between a normal woman and a man afflicted with unintentional, unpredictable and often unsafe time travel.

Land of the lost 2?

As an addition to the long list of stories about time travel, this one can claim to have a number of truly original concepts and ideas, and it manages to feel fresh and innovative. Henry DeTamble is an average-looking young librarian who often disappears without warning and then re-materialises after a variable amount of time, in his birthday suit. Where he goes can be past, present or future, although he seems to have a preference for major events in his life, which pull him in 'like gravity'. He takes nothing with him, and can spend anything from minutes to weeks in his destination date, so he usually has to resort to stealing, breaking-in and running to avoid being arrested as a streaker.

Where's the love?

Despite the elaborate time-travel aspect of this story, the titular reference to his wife, Clare, is due to the fact that the main focus here is the love story, and how time-travel threatens to tear them apart. After meeting Clare and starting a relationship, Henry finds himself often travelling back to her childhood, where he meets her, and therefore the chronology of their love-life is not exactly run-of-the-mill.

A blessing and a curse

I recently had the pleasure of reading Audrey Niffenegger's wonderfully conceived debut novel, from which this screenplay was adapted by Bruce Joel Rubin (who previously penned numerous successful films including that other unconventional love story, Ghost). The upside was naturally that I could devour every page of the book not knowing what lay ahead, but the downside is how it affected my viewing of the film. The intricate unfolding of relationships over time is handled masterfully in the book, and with adequate explanation but no spoon-feeding, the bigger picture falls into place beautifully. The detail and explanation also serves the very important role of adding an appropriate amount of credibility to the premise, and avoiding lacunae in the time-travel logic.

Gone with the Wind 2?

Unfortunately, since like most films this one clocks in at less than two hours, some trimming was necessary. I doubt that attempting to cram everything into a sprawling four-hour epic would have done justice to the book, or that it would have been very watchable, however this inevitable rushed result has some major flaws. First of all, the film doesn't manage to 'sell' the concept of Henry's genetic illness as well as the book, due to lack of detail and explanation, and I feel this is essential if the audience is to embrace this love story. Secondly, entire swathes of sub-plot are dropped without a mention, making the story seem a bit two-dimensional. Lastly, the book owed a lot of its gripping nature to the balance between the heartfelt and timeless romance between Henry and Clare, and the grisly and often shocking violence and trauma that affect their lives. These traumas are largely smoothed over in the script, resulting in a saccharine film with a PG-13 rating, but less edge and drama.

Who's in it?

Eric Bana (Troy, Munich) is the man with the time-management issues, and a radiant Rachel McAdams (The Notebook, Wedding Crashers) is his patient and suffering wife. Henry's only hope for a normal life, geneticist Dr. Kendrick, is portrayed by Steve Tobolowsky (Memento, Groundhog Day), and his close friend Gomez by Ron Livingston (TV’s Sex and the City and Band of Brothers). Robert Schwentke (Flightplan) was the man in the director’s chair.

In the end

It’s hard to pinpoint anything in the film that is bad, but the film never really takes off or feels truly magical. The performances are occasionally bland, and if they’re not feeling it, I doubt many of the audience will. It’s probably unfair to compare it to the book, but the film doesn’t seem to manage to be the timeless romance it sets out to be. By all means watch the film, but do yourself a favour and savour the book first.



http://www.apple.com/trailers/newline/thetimetravelerswife/ (High-res QuickTime)

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Land of the Lost

Land of the Lost


  • Released Internationally on 05/06/09
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 02/09/09


In a nutshell

Based on the science-fiction TV show from the 70s, this adventure ride mixes time travel and what is fast-becoming Will Ferrell's trademark type of humour.

Lost in space

When I heard about this film and saw the promotional material, I was looking forward to a silly but fun mix of thrills and laughs. Unfortunately the focus here is firmly on the silly. The plot, for example. When it comes to plot, every time travel tale requires a certain amount of suspension of belief, however, that doesn’t mean you have to treat your audience like toddlers. The ‘plot’ here has to be seen to be disbelieved. Rick Marshall (Will Ferrell) is a zany and rather unorthodox scientist who has dedicated most of his life and a hefty sum of taxpayer's money to the invention of the ‘tachyon amplifier’, a backpack-sized contraption that looks like something a ghostbuster would wear, but which he claims can take him hurtling through time and space. Not surprisingly, it does, and before we know it Marshall, an enthusiastic student fan of his (the very British Anna Friel), and an incredulous redneck (Danny McBride - Tropic Thunder, Pineapple Express) are squinting into the sun on a desert alien landscape.

The lost world

Having very briefly skimmed over the details about how exactly our adventurous trio got there, and exactly where (when?) they are, the action kicks in. We first meet one of the locals, Chaka (newcomer Jorma Taccone, in a ridiculous low-budget costume), and then a rather grumpy Tyrannosaurus rex catches wind of our heroes, and proceeds to chase them for the remainder of the film. The dinosaurs and landscapes are all very eye-catching, and one has to assume that that’s where most of the film’s budget was spent (as opposed to costume design and polishing the script).

Lost in translation

Just when the film is starting to look like a Jurassic comedy, a whole new breed of villain arrives on the scene. Unfortunately inherited from the TV series, and inexplicably left looking exactly like they did in the 70s, the so-called Sleestaks look like sleep-walking mini-Godzillas, and seem horribly out of place next to the genuinely menacing and much better-looking T-rex. This clashing of 70s homage and 00s special effects is found throughout the film, and makes one wonder whether the crew actually knew what sort of film they wanted to make.

In the end

Despite all the above, at least director Brad Silberling (Casper, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) manages to provide a number of scenes where Ferrell and McBride’s off-kilter comedy gets to shine, resulting in some of the less cringe-worthy scenes. Ferrell’s starry-eyed enthusiasm and unfounded savoir-faire perfectly fit his role here, and despite the flaws around him he remains a joy to watch. Apart from that, this is one big, misguided mess.


Mark's Mark 5 out of 10



http://www.apple.com/trailers/universal/landofthelost/ (High-res QuickTime)