- Released Internationally on 31/10/08
- Released in Malta by KRS on 25/03/09
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Friday, March 20, 2009
- Released Internationally on 25/12/08
- Released in Malta by KRS on 18/03/09
In a nutshell
Fr. Flynn is a charismatic, progressive young priest in a small Catholic parish in the Bronx, New York. He also teaches in the attached Catholic school, which is run by the Sisters of Charity of New York, under the iron fist of Sister Aloysius. She becomes convinced that he has abused a vulnerable boy in the school, and despite not having any evidence or witnesses she sets out to bring him down.
Adapted from the Pulitzer-prize winning play Doubt: A Parable, this film is predictably short on the action front, but more than makes up for it with its sharp dialogue and powerful performances. Set nearly entirely between the four walls of the church and school, the story is built around four or five key sequences, including two wonderfully orchestrated confrontations between Fr. Flynn and Sr. Aloysius. The dark corridors of the nunnery, the grey skies seen through the occasional window, and the dark, oppressive bonnets worn by all the nuns help to add to the sense of starkness and piety. The sparse score by Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings) and the occasional Christmas hymn complete the effect.
The great Meryl Streep, unrecognizable as the care-free woman who danced and sang her way through Mamma Mia! only last summer, is terrifying as Sister Aloysius. With a name that conjures up a few memories of similar characters from my own school years, she is utterly believable as the one thing all her students, and colleagues, are afraid of. Once she has her own certainty of Fr. Flynn’s wrongdoing, she will stop at nothing in the pursuit of virtue, even if it means “taking a step away from God”.
“The dragon is hungry”
Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote, Magnolia) is equally impressive as Fr. Flynn. Whether standing at his pulpit, or mingling with his students, he draws us in, getting us on his side against this monster everyone should be terrified of. This is the beauty of the story – the characters’ doubts become our own, and from scene to scene we must re-evaluate what we have seen and heard to try and reach our own conclusion, and take sides.
Not so minor roles
Amy Adams (Enchanted, Charlie Wilson’s War) is Sister James, a young, naive nun who dutifully obeys Sister Aloysius’ command to be on the lookout, but who after reporting some oddities is then repulsed by the huge chaos she has created. And rounding off the four main characters is Viola Davis (Syriana, Disturbia) as the mother of the boy in question. Not since Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love has so much praise and attention been given to such a brief role – she only has one speaking seen and a few more seconds on screen. But she turns everything inside out by defying Sister Aloysius and, incredibly at first, not giving the reaction one would expect from a mother. Her impassioned plea is startling, yet possibly the wisest of all the conflicting views, and her role is as pivotal as the other three.
In the end
John Patrick Shanley, who wrote the play, has adapted it for the screen himself, and also directs. He fleshes it out with a few mood-setting outdoor scenes and some background characters, but ultimately it’s his writing when the four main characters face-off that makes the film. Small in scope, and essentially just a detailed study of four different reactions to one dubious occurrence, this is a film that should get you thinking and taking sides, whether you’re a firm believer, a non-believer, or someone with doubts.
http://www.apple.com/trailers/miramax/doubt/ (High-res Quicktime)
Thursday, March 19, 2009
- Released Internationally on 24/08/07
- Released in Malta by KRS on 29/10/08. Wide release on 11/03/09
(Romanian with English subtitles)
In a nutshell
Otilia and Gabriela are two university students who share a room in mid-80s communist Romania. Otilia offers to help the timid and clueless Gabriela arrange and go through with an illegal abortion, and the whole experience proves to be a complex and harrowing experience for both of them. Set and filmed in Bucharest, the film gained international attention after winning the Palme D’Or at the 2007 Cannes film festival.
Sad but true
Director and writer Cristian Mungiu based his screenplay on a true story, and he gives us a detailed look at the day that these two students promise to never talk about again. From the early morning preparations as they leave their dorm and set out for the hotel, through the meeting and dealing with the so-called ‘Mr. Bebe’, who carries out the clandestine terminations, we see through Otilia’s eyes the dread and frustration as the desperate day unfolds. The lengths she goes through for her hapless friend are amazing, but not a single event of the day rings untrue, as these very detailed and authentic characters live through their ordeal.
Not your average popcorn flick
The day is divided into sequences according to the changing locations, and each one is filmed with very long shots, creating a very unsettling sense of being there. If you like your films fast and furious, this might not be your cup of tea. The skills of the actors are all the more evident, as they take us through seemingly interminable scenes without missing a beat. It’s almost as if you’re watching a deranged reality-show, with real life unfolding at its normal pace as you stare on from your hidden camera.
As each lengthy scene progresses, the feeling of uneasiness builds. With the life of the girl at stake, both health-wise and legally, each moment of the day is fraught with importance. In possibly the best sequence, Otilia has to leave her friend for a while as she is obliged to attend a dinner party at her boyfriend’s house. She sits, silent, at the rowdy table as conversation flies around her, and we all know her mind is elsewhere. Faintly, in the background, the phone starts ringing, but the happy dinner guests are oblivious. It continues to ring, and she fears the worst. It’s simple, but eerily effective.
In the end
Films like this stand out because of how different they are. One might be forgiven for thinking that all films fall into certain cookie-cutter categories, as dictated by Hollywood. But we should remind ourselves that there’s a whole world of cinema out there, with certainly as much variety in quality as big-budget films themselves. Language barriers and accessibility are a problem, but thankfully once in a while something like a Palme D’Or can bring something like this to our screens. If you’re not in the mood for lighter fare, and if you want to see something very different, and very well-made, you can’t go wrong with this.
http://www.apple.com/trailers/independent/4months3weeks2days/ (High-res Quicktime)
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
- Released Internationally on 25/12/08
- Released in Malta by KRS on 18/03/09
In a nutshell
Back in 2005 John Grogan, an American journalist, published a memoir entitled Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog, which chronicled a turbulent thirteen-year relationship with his pet Labrador. A huge bestseller, the book was later adapted as a children’s book, and has now made the predictable, but much-welcomed leap to the big screen.
Evil with a dog face
Soon after marrying his girlfriend Jenny, John Grogan moved with her to Florida where they could pursue their journalist careers in a sunny climate. Originally bought as a present for Jenny, as an attempt to temporarily quell her maternal instincts, Marley proved to be a handful from the start, and quickly turned the couple’s life, and house, upside down. He never fit in with the expected norms of canine behaviour, and no amount of training, discipline or attention could calm him down. Named after the Jamaican reggae legend, he was never quite as laid-back.
Paws for thought
Although marketed as a romantic comedy about a dog, the film pleasantly surprises by being far more than the title would have us believe. Over the thirteen years of Marley’s frantic life, Jenny and John rush through their thirties, have three children, move house, make tough career decisions, and have their relationship severely tested by all of the above. A catalyst for change, and yet a constant feature throughout, Marley is simply one of the many factors in their family’s story.
A different breed of romantic comedy
The triumph of this film is that is successfully manages to portray a very convincing relationship filled with life’s tough decisions, without ever becoming too sombre or preachy. Dogs and palm beaches aside, these are life events that everyone comes across, whether now, ten years ago, or in ten year’s time. Marley’s antics manage to keep the pace quick and the tone light, but the film delves far deeper than your average romantic comedy, and is all the more involving for it. The thirteen years fly by, at one point thanks to a wonderfully conceived and edited ‘two-year montage’, but the key life moments stick in the mind, largely thanks to Jennifer Aniston’s compelling portrayal.
Who’s in it?
Owen Wilson (Wedding Crashers, The Royal Tenenbaums) slips easily into the role of likeable, laid-back John who is now facing some issues with settling down. Aniston shines as Jenny, and will hopefully move onto even more demanding roles rather than remaining typecast in romantic comedies. Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine, Edward Scissorhands) is entertaining as usual in his small role as John’s tough but well-meaning editor, and Kathleen Turner (Romancing the Stone, The Accidental Tourist) makes an awkward and brief cameo as a dog trainer with mettle. David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) juggles the pathos and the craziness well as director, and manages to cover a lot of ground in just under two hours.
In the end
Whatever your age, something should strike a chord here, and as mentioned above the relationship between Jenny and John is as much the focus as the titular dog. If you’re a dog lover, this should be a treat, whereas if you’re not, you’ll probably still find it hard to resist Marley’s enduring appeal, and especially the film’s charm.
http://www.apple.com/trailers/fox/marleyandme/ (High-res Quicktime)
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
- Released Internationally on 06/03/09
- Released in Malta by KRS on 06/03/09
In a nutshell
Showered with reverential praise in the comic book world, Watchmen was published as a 12-part graphic novel in the 80s. A multifaceted, dark tale of superheroes in a realistic, present-day world, it has finally made the ambitious jump to be big screen as a single film, albeit just shy of three hours long.
Smells like the 80s
Set in 1985, the film opens with the murder of a certain Edward Blake, later revealed to be the masked superhero ‘The Comedian’. As the back-story unfolds, we learn how masked vigilantes like him have been an essential part of American society for a number of decades, often playing an important role in key historic events. From WW2 to the cold war, superheroes are a daily part of the headlines. It turns out the Vietnam war was in fact won by the Americans, thanks to a healthy dose of heroics, thus helping Nixon get elected to his third term in office. But as these heroes fall out of favour, they become outlawed in 1977.
As the various masked crusaders fade into retirement, descend into madness, or meet an early demise, two continue to work for the government past the ‘77 ban – the now deceased ‘Comedian’, and a rather blue, serene guy of moderate build, Dr. Manhattan. The latter is shown to be the only hero with supernatural powers, as a result of a freak lab accident when younger. The most interesting of the heroes, a lithe, ferocious little guy with Rorschach blots on his mask (and hence known as, you guessed it, Rorschach) continues to operate in the shadows, running from the law and keeping his own agenda. The Comedian’s demise sets him thinking, and he seeks out the other ‘watchmen’ to seek their help with retribution.
By way of introductions
After starting off with the murder, the film has decades of back-story to go through before returning to the present and continuing with the plot. Whilst done by means of different chapters in the novel, this must have been one of the most daunting tasks facing the filmmakers, but they pull it off in style. Ironically, the complex, multi-thread first half of the film was the part I found most enjoyable. The cutting back and forth between the present and the past manages to remain clear, relevant, and most importantly entertaining, despite having to dish out background information on all the superheroes, including a lot of detail about The Comedian himself. Unfortunately, this excellent momentum and editing tapers off in the second half of the film, although the ending manages to be both satisfying and unpredictable.
Watch and listen
As in previous comic book adaptations, the director benefits from having excellent source material, from which, besides the story, he can lift the look of the characters and environment, as well as the action. In fact certain scenes are reproduced exactly from the novel, thus remaining faithful to the author’s vision, and probably pleasing comic book fans. But where this film excels, and stands out as a fresh artwork of its own, is in the sound arena. Boasting a collection of song classics that would make Tarantino proud, the film is punctuated with wonderfully orchestrated scenes that mix music and visuals to perfection. The comedian is brutally murdered to the mellow sounds of Nat King Cole’s ‘Unforgettable’, which is exactly what the scene is, his funeral starts off with Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence’, and a later tender moment is scored with Leonard Cohen’s often covered ‘Hallelujah’. There’s even a nod to Apocalypse Now as Dr. Manhattan cleaves through the Vietnam battlefields to the sound of Wagner. But the most memorable sequence, and in my opinion the highpoint of the film, is the opening credits. Reworking Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-changing’ to cover six minutes of flashbacks, the sequence moves through American history, with key events set up as frozen tableaus, showing the impact of superheroes on the past. It is one of the best opening credit sequences I have ever seen. Sadly, the original score by composer Tyler Bates doesn’t rise to the same level as the songs and as in his previous weak efforts is serviceable, but forgettable.
Who’s in it?
The graphic novel was written by Alan Moore, who also wrote V for Vendetta, and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Much of the film’s credit obviously goes to them. Zack Synder, who successfully adapted another graphic novel, 300, took on the huge task of directing this complex saga, and as mentioned above his efforts in the first act are very effective. Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children) provides narration as well as a vicious performance as Rorschach, and Patrick Wilson (Angels in America, Little Children) is Nite Owl II. Carla Gugino (Sin City) acts her age in flashbacks as Silk Spectre, and also appears in the present as the ageing mother of Silk Spectre II, played by Malin Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid). Billy Crudup (Big Fish, Almost Famous) is the past, face and voice of Dr. Manhattan, whilst the allegedly smartest guy on earth, Ozymandias is portrayed by Matthew Goode (Match Point, last year’s Brideshead Revisited).
In the end
This is definitely not a film for everyone. Comic-book adaptations tend to go down very well with certain viewers, and not so well with many others. Personally, I think they can vary in quality, just like any other genre. This ambitious, complex film benefits from having excellent source material, and therefore a great story, but ultimately suffers due to having so much ground to cover in the space of one film. Still, it starts impressively and manages to end on a high, despite sagging a bit in the middle. The graphic violence, sometimes stylized, but often not, might be hard to stomach, but it remains faithful to the novel, and adds to the dark nature of the world being portrayed. Despite its flaws, this is the first head-turning release of the year, and is a visual and aural feast you should see on the big screen.
http://www.apple.com/trailers/wb/watchmen/ (High-res Quicktime)
Tuesday, March 03, 2009
- Released Internationally on 26/11/08
- Released in Malta by KRS on 04/03/09
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the United States. That was way back in 1977, but his life and story still resonates today. Only a year later, not yet 50, he was assassinated by a former colleague, but like all great activists his work and vision carried on and grew beyond his death, thanks to the consciousness and momentum he had helped create.
Not your average biopic
In the tradition of other portrayals of historic figures such as Gandhi, the film opens with the announcement of his assassination, yet then manages to be a relevant and absorbing film despite having already delivered its ending. Milk was largely unknown outside the US prior to the release of this film, which allows the plot and character to unfold with an element of novelty, despite being largely faithful to historic facts. We first meet Milk in hippie attire as a 40-year old who’s new to San Francisco, but over the next 8 years of his life we witness a physical and aspirational transformation that helps him overcome two electoral defeats and find the strength to finally gain his historic win, changing the lives of many homosexuals nationwide in the process.
Relevant then, relevant now
At the time, the main news items that drove Milk to start campaigning were the ongoing debates and referendums seeking to limit the employment rights of gay teachers in various states. Despite his achievements, we can fast-forward 30 years to today, when some of the same states are debating civil rights for gays, mostly involving marriage and adoption, and the issue is now one affecting the entire western world. At the time of writing, Milk has just won two Oscars – for Best Original Screenplay and for Best Actor, and both recipients gave impassioned acceptance speeches about this very current issue, highlighting how topical it is, and what a personal project this was for them.
“All men are created equal”
Dustin Lance Black, who penned the script based on historical archives and a couple of biographies, is a gay activist himself, and a lot of his previous work has involved gay issues. His screenplay manages to portray Milk as a true-life character, with both his flaws and fortes, and also includes a number of inspiring scenes of Milk addressing public gatherings, which help add the appropriate sense of occasion and history to the events on screen. Acclaimed director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, Elephant) is also openly gay, although his previous work has covered a broad range of issues and characters, without focusing much on homosexuality. His deft touch is visible everywhere, as he melds archival footage and newsreels with new material, yet never crossing into that ‘documentary’ feel, and telling Milk’s story as a story, not merely a sequence of events.
The focus of the film remains, and will probably remain, Sean Penn’s masterful performance as the titular character. Despite having the potential advantage of portraying a lesser known character, he still makes the physical resemblance remarkable, as confirmed by the real life photos shown during the end credits (I love it when they do that – it adds so much to what you’ve just seen). Ever since seeing the amazing trailer (see below) last summer, I was impressed by how different Penn looked. Subtle differences, such as mannerisms, posture and voice, help you completely forget the Sean Penn you might remember from Mystic River or Dead Man Walking. Whilst watching Frost/Nixon earlier this year, I felt that I was watching an incredible piece of acting. With Milk, it was only after the film that I realised how immersed into the character Penn had been, and how I had thought of him simply as Harvey Milk for over two hours.
Out of the closet and onto the streets
Complementing Penn, and never overshadowed by him, is the rest of the impressive cast. James Franco (Pineapple Express, Spider-man) starts off the film as Milk’s new lover, and their rocky relationship provides a backbone to Milk’s political career. Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild, Speed Racer) is Cleve Jones, one of his most resourceful campaigners, and Diego Luna (Frida, The Terminal) is the next “Mrs. Milk”, who feels neglected by Harvey’s focus on politics and not on their budding relationship. The increasingly notable Josh Brolin (W., No Country for Old Men) gives a brief but complex portrayal of Milk’s political colleague and potential adversary, who may have orientation issues of his own beneath his bullish, traditional exterior. Held together by a mix of songs from the era, and sombre, elegant score from veteran composer Danny Elfman, the film has class written all over it, and is as entertaining as it is relevant.
- Released Internationally on 12/11/08
- Released in Malta by KRS on 28/02/09
Slumdog is the most celebrated film of the year. Why?
A. It is one of the few feel-good movies of the year
In an eventful year, in which a new era of leadership and optimism was ushered into the United States, but also in which a global recession started to spread from the world’s largest economies to the dinner tables of families everywhere, it would seem understandable that viewers would opt for lighter fare when selecting their film for a night out. And in usual fashion, the winter months have been populated with moving, brilliant, but often heavy and demanding dramas, which have failed to light up the box-office like the thrill-rides released last summer. Which is why Slumdog Millionaire stands out. Refreshingly original, it chronicles the participation of Jamal, a low-class teenager from the slums of Mumbai, as he amazes audiences en route to the final questions of the quiz show ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’.
B. It is a rags-to-riches tale of love and success
As he battles through question after question, we follow him on his incredible journey from his days as a trouble-making street-kid running from the police, through his teenage years with his brother after the murder of their mother, through to his current hot-seat. The plight of the children in the slums, and their eventual exploitation by organised crime posing as orphanages, is far from ‘feel-good’, and makes for impressive viewing. But Jamal and his brother survive the toughest of situations, and manage to carve out a living on their own. Joining them on their childhood journey is fellow orphan Latika, whom Jamal likes from an early age, but who gets left behind and ends up in unpleasant company. Never forgetting her, Jamal remains determined to find his one true love, and eventually takes part in the quiz show because he knows she’ll be watching. The love story isn’t flawless, but the script manages to avoid it seeming like Jamal simply needs the money to attract her.
C. It is a technically brilliant high-speed ride through India
Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) has been the target of most of the praise and awards heaped on this film, and it’s easy to see why. For most of its running time, the film intertwines three plot lines – the actual quiz show, the flashbacks to Jamal’s childhood, and the police interrogation of Jamal to see if he is cheating. Still, the film runs slickly, without ever getting confusing, and manages to pack in pathos, humour and excitement in equal measure. After the tense prologue, the wonderful title sequence is a vivid introduction to the slums of Mumbai, India’s so-called ‘maximum city’, as the children are chased off an airfield by the police. Like most memorable sequences in the film, it all rushes past to the sound of A.R. Rahman’s pulsating songs. The prolific composer, one of the hottest in Bollywood, provides big beats as well as soothing score throughout the film, and makes it sound just as great as it looks. The Indian children who portray the trio as children and teenagers are similarly impressive, as are Dev Patel and the luminous Freida Pinto as the adult Jamal and Latika.
D. It is written
Ultimately, it’s hard to single out one or two reasons for Slumdog’s success. It’s just one of those films where everything falls into place, and you realise you’re watching something fresh, exciting and unique. The scenes in Mumbai won’t have you booking flights anytime soon, but out of the filth and abuse comes a heart-warming love story, and a hero worth rooting for.