Tuesday, October 20, 2009
I'll be taking a break from adding reviews because I am now in Tanzania working in a rural hospital for the next 6 weeks. I've just uploaded reviews for the last 2 films I saw in Malta, which are released tomorrow. I also got to watch The Hurt Locker on the plane to here, which was quite great, so I might add a review at some point. Otherwise, I'll be back on the island, and back adding reviews, in the first week of December (just in time for the festive films and for the Oscar-bait movie releases). Bye for now....
- Released Internationally on 28/05/09
- Released in Malta by KRS on 21/10/09
Showing in Real3D at Empire Cinemas, Buġibba and in 2D everywhere else
In a nutshell
When was the last time you saw an adventure film who's hero had dentures, a creaky back and used a walking frame? No, not Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I mean a proper senior citizen who won't shirk away from using his dentures in combat if the need arises. And this wonderful vintage hero is only one of the many great, original joys of Pixar and Disney's latest offering.
We first meet Carl when he's a wide-eyed young boy who thrives on adventure stories and dreams of the wilderness, with a burning desire to emulate his hero, the great explorer Charles Muntz. After this brief introduction we're treated to possibly the highlight of the film - a simple but elegant montage of Carl's life, as he grows from strapping young man to shuffling old fellow. The montage could have been a short film of its own - it's beautifully done. Without needing any words, the director helps us fall in love with this little old man in just a few minutes, as we skip through his balloon-man job, penniless but lovely marriage, touching married life, and all that follows. As so often happens, his childhood dreams get shelved in favour of more practical projects that arise, and Carl's dreams of exotic travel never materialise.
Sticking to his old ways, Carl fights off developers to keep his rickety old house intact, and refuses to budge. He may not be a spring chicken, but like a smaller version of Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, he laughs off any suggestions of retirement homes. But when he can't hold out any longer, his old promise to visit Angel Falls in Venezuela stirs him up and he does the unthinkable. Add hundreds of helium balloons to a tiny wooden house and you have a good old-fashioned fairytale on your hands, kept reasonably believable by some deft storytelling and animation. This is one of the joys of Pixar and Disney films - they're not afraid to make a film about an old man steering a floating house, and they even manage to make it warm, moving and important.
The trip is exciting enough (as one would expect, given the mode of transport) but once he gets to South America the real peril starts. In true adventure-story tradition, the eclectic mix of sidekicks helps lift the story and make the protagonist a man who faces decisions and changes over the course of the story. With him from takeoff is the wonderful Russell, a not-too-bright but completely genuine budding boy scout, who's sense of pride and exhilaration probably reminds Carl of a younger him. The relationship between the two burgeons as expected, but the predictability doesn't detract anything from the chemistry these two animated characters manage to show. Also on board, at first quite reluctantly, are Kevin, an inappropriately-named designer bird in need of assistance, and Dug, a hilariously dim dog who talks thanks to a device similar to the monkey's one in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.
Between moving reminders of age's merciless progress, and endless fine humour, there's an action adventure worthy of any blockbuster film, with breathtaking locations, fancy gadgets and an unstable nemesis who might have spent too much time away from polite society. From high-flying hand-to-hand combat aboard zeppelins, to authentic dogfights in the skies, this film propels the ageing Carl where Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker and James Bond have gone before. But most importantly the film never takes itself too seriously, whilst on the other hand never seeming held back by the fact that it's an animated film.
Many Pixar regulars contributed to making this another star entry in the Pixar/Disney collection. Pete Docter, who directed Monsters Inc. and co-wrote Toy Story and WALL-E, wrote and directed this time around. John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, who brought us A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo respectively, are the producers. Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music, The Insider) provides the menacing voice of Muntz, whilst voice actor Ed Asner is the gruff voice of Carl. Composer Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) conjures up a wonderfully waltzy main theme that can be moulded to suit the sentimental early scenes, as well as serve as a heroic fanfare to complement the action later on.
In the end
I've said it before and I predict I'll be saying it in future - Pixar and Disney have done it again. As they've been doing on a yearly basis since Toy Story, they've released yet another spectacular film which isn't only one of the best animated films of the year, but one of the best films in any genre. I wouldn’t say that Up is as much of a masterpiece as Finding Nemo and WALL-E, but it could partly be due to my getting used to their standards of excellence. It's hardly surprising any more that the animation and effects are beautifully done, but once again they've written a heart-warming story that is fresh, moving, and hugely entertaining.
http://www.apple.com/trailers/disney/up/ (High-Res QuickTime)
- Released Internationally on 03/04/09
- Released in Malta by KRS on 21/10/09
In a nutshell
James was planning a legendary trip to Europe during his last summer before going to college, but his parents’ financial cutbacks force him to spend his summer at the other end of the spectrum – attending to the arcades at the local Luna Park.
The first impression this film gives isn’t very promising, but it fortunately turns out to be a wrong one. The opening scenes are typical of many recent sex comedies, with college students convening on someone’s house to drink themselves into oblivion and discuss loss of virginity. Coupled with the fact that Greg Mottola, the director, previously brought us the entertaining but formulaic Superbad, I was expecting more of the same.
But once the opening scenes are over, and we realise James’ (Jesse Eisenberg) dreams of a chick-filled summer are fading, the film drops the relentless frat-boy dialogue and focuses on his real and pressing problem of finding a summer job to finance his college education. The only job he finds is the one he was trying to avoid – Adventureland. The local amusement park isn’t half as exciting as the name would suggest, and he even misses out on the slight excitement of manning the rides by being assigned to the arcade games.
I really started getting interested in this unusual film when James started meeting his colleagues at the park. Martin Starr (Knocked Up, Superbad) is a wonderful character as the all-round loser with insight, Joel. His anti-hero persona fits in perfectly with his mind-numbing job, and it takes James a while to access the wealth beneath the surface. Bill Hader (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) is his usual enthusiastic self as the park manager. Kristen Stewart (Into the Wild, Twilight) is once again well-cast as the sexy but reserved love interest, Em, who manages to seem both very interesting and emotionally damaged. But the most surprising character was Ryan Reynolds (The Proposal, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) as Mike, the park handyman. Shedding his usual funny-guy image, he makes Mike a dark and unsettling character, which both James and probably the audience are unsure about. His involvement with Em is definitely not the stuff of romantic comedies.
In the end
Although on very small scale, the drama is very realistic and is both well-written and well-acted. Many of the peripheral characters are the usual stereotypes, but the main three are definitely not, and they make for refreshing and interesting viewing.
http://www.apple.com/trailers/miramax/adventureland/ (High-res QuickTime)
Tuesday, October 06, 2009
- Released Internationally on 07/08/09
- Released in Malta by KRS on 07/10/09
In an eggshell
Based on two true stories, this mouth-watering film chronicles how American cooking legend Julia Child ended up in the kitchen, and how 21st Century blogging sensation Julie Powell was inspired by her to get her life in order.
Less known this side of the Atlantic, Julia Child is something of an institution over in America. After living in France for many years due to her husband’s diplomatic postings, she grew to love French cooking, and learnt the art to very high standards in order to pass the time. Her love of eating and cooking grew into a book project with French co-authors, because she was shocked to find that nobody had ever published a French cookery book in plain English. She therefore invested all her time and experience into a guide for ‘servantless’ American housewives. The success that followed led to television cooking specials, more books, and celebrity chefs as we know them today.
A sure sign of the times, this film can claim to be the first major release to be based on a blog. I’m assuming you know what a blog is (since you’re reading one now), but back in 2002 they were in their infancy. Julie Powell, newly married and reluctantly moving further from the city centre, was in an emotionally draining cubicle job handling post-9/11 complaints, and seeing her dream of becoming a writer slipping away. After much encouragement from her husband, she hatched the Julie/Julia project, a daunting attempt to cook her way through all 524 recipes in Child’s first book, within a year, and blog about the experience. She felt it would bring discipline and purpose to her life, and it turns out she got the recipe right. What started as simply something to do started attracting an increasing following, and she eventually went on to reach her goal, publish the writings as a book, and be a writer (now also with a film adaptation).
Through the eyes of a child
Meryl Streep, yet again, is excellent. She becomes Julia Child so convincingly, yet she doesn’t let the mannerisms, shrill voice and bubbly character stop her from turning in some fine acting. Child was an immense woman at over six feet, with an infectious laugh and voice that gave her no-nonsense approach such appeal with her audience (you can have a look here). With the help of various clever Gandalf/hobbit-style camera tricks, Streep towers over her co-stars and becomes Julia. The sheer joy she exudes on moving to Paris helps her settle in and love the locals, and this sincere love for the French way of life is what she gave back in her book.
Different time, different place
The film follows the two story lines deftly, and despite them being on different continents and in different centuries the various parallels are highlighted as the two projects take shape. Amy Adams, who co-starred with Streep in last year’s Doubt, portrays Julie Powell and the struggles of her annus mirabilis are intriguing to watch. It is in fact quite a nice surprise that the film manages to be so entertaining and engaging, seeing as half of it is essentially about an average person’s self-serving in-house project. But I guess that’s one of the plus points of blogging – Powell’s thoughts and troubles struck a chord with her unknown audience, and eventually with publishers, and now with cinemagoers.
The most evident and significant parallel between the two stories is the unfaltering support these two woman had from their dedicated husbands. Both marriages appear passionate and respectful, and both husbands are depicted as admirable in almost every way. Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada, The Terminal) is quietly brilliant as Mr. Child, and Chris Messina (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) is equally admirable as Mr. Powell.
The book was adapted for the screen and directed by one of the queens of romantic comedy – Nora Ephron. The director of lasting favourites such as When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail manages to lift the film from being simply another biopic, and she laces it with so much fun and great food that it’s easy to be swept up in the enthusiasm. Very little goes wrong in these two stories, and there’s very little not to like about these two characters. Just make sure you eat something beforehand, because I sat through it on an empty stomach and it was delicious torture.
- Released Internationally on 17/07/09
- Released in Malta by KRS on 07/10/09
In a nutshell
"This is a story of boy meets girl. But you should know up front, this is not a love story.”
The above warning opens the film, so don't take it out on me for spoiling any surprises. A few breaths later, the solemn narrator (veteran voice actor Richard McGonagle) also provides an explanatory note about the film's title. Summer is the name of the girl in question. The boy, a young romantic named Tom, is an architect who somehow ends up working in a greeting card company, writing those funny or touching few lines inside the cards we buy for loved ones. He's not particularly fond of his workplace, until Summer breezes in to work as his boss' assistant. Thus begins Day 1.
The days between
As expected the film covers the 500 eventful days in this love-struck man's life, from the moment he sets eyes on Summer, to the time he finally manages to move on. The film jumps back and forth between various key days amongst those 500, and very early on we meet him on a particularly bad day, when he has been unceremoniously dumped. By slowly unveiling his states of misery and elation in different points in the relationship, the non-linear narrative of the film manages to be interesting and occasionally surprising, without getting too complicated.
Love is grand
Resisting his pathetic advances at first, Summer eventually warms to his boyish charm and something more than friendship blossoms, despite her being adamant about not wanting a relationship. As tends to happen, he quickly falls head over heels in love, and before you know it even strangers in the street seem friendlier, and his walk to work becomes a march of fresh air and a bouncy celebration of what's right in the world (as well as a hilarious set-piece resembling something out of Enchanted). Everything about Summer makes him glow - her knees, her hair, her lips, her quirks. His work performance follows suit, but we all know it's short lived.
Despite returning his affections, Summer isn't exactly skipping to work herself, and once some bickering and strained feelings set in, she calls it a day. Shocked to his core, Tom unravels within days, reduced to a bed-bound depressive wreck and eventually risking his health and job. Everything about Summer makes him seethe - her knees, her hair, her lips, her quirks. He looks back in anger, and like every heartbroken young man he declares that he doesn't want to get over her - he wants her back. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who looks uncannily like the late Heath Ledger, and who appeared opposite him in 10 Things I Hate About You) is instantly likeable as Tom, whilst managing to symbolise pathetic love-casualties everywhere.
The only advice his friends, co-workers and sister can offer him is a selection of overused clichés of the 'many fish' variety, but ultimately Tom manages to slowly stagger to his feet and get his life back on track. Like the rest of the film, his attempt at recovery and closure is complex but refreshingly genuine and realistic. This persistent sense of realism is largely due to the wonderful performance by Zooey Deschanel (The Happening, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). Her Summer is a true girl next door - a three-dimensional, lovely yet flawed person whom we can easily fall in love with one minute and despise the next. Her unconventional portrayal is possibly the one ingredient that makes this romantic comedy trump many of its peers.
In the end
The ‘love’ section at any DVD store is quite crowded, but with different facets, settings and characters we are occasionally still treated to something fresh and memorable. This unassuming film doesn’t try to be too epic or authoritative on the subject, but by narrowing its focus it manages to hit many nails on many heads, and also to be one of the most pleasant films of the year.
http://www.apple.com/trailers/fox_searchlight/500daysofsummer/ (High-res QuickTime)
Monday, October 05, 2009
- Released Internationally on 10/07/08 and 07/01/09 (2-Part version)
- Released in Malta by KRS on 30/09/09
In a nutshell
Chinese director John Woo, who has made some of the better American action films of the past two decades, returns to his roots to bring us an epic slice of his homeland’s history.
A bit of history
For those of us not versed in the ancient history of China, the film opens with a brief explanatory note. This film is set around 208 AD, when the Han Dynasty was crumbling to an end, making way for the period of disunity known as the Three Kingdoms period. Intricate details are not essential to the enjoyment of this retelling, but the film manages to impress on the audience the large scope and significance of the grand Battle of Red Cliffs, which brought about this turning point in Chinese history, and which is the subject of this ambitious film.
With numerous writing, production and direction credits under his belt, John Woo crossed over to Hollywood in the early 90s and directed a string of hard-hitting action films. He established his own very visual style with the huge hits Broken Arrow, Face/Off and Mission: Impossible 2, with trademark slow-motion balletic action sequences and numerous doves flying around to enhance the aura. He has now returned to the Chinese film industry to direct a screenplay he helped develop himself, and thankfully his skills are very much on display, whilst keeping slow-mo and doves to a minimum.
Abridged Western version
The film was made in two parts, totalling over four and a half hours, and released as two separate films in the Far East. The film was a huge success and it now the most successful entirely Chinese film ever made (which came in handy since it was the most expensive one too). This summer, and trimmed down two and a half cut was unveiled for Western audiences, so that the film could be released as a whole. Despite entire sub plot and lengthy scenes being given the axe, the resulting film manages to be very self-sufficient and coherent, although those enthralled by the epic would do well to seek out the original versions.
More than war?
The film is to all intents and purposes a simple A versus B story. ‘A’ being the ruthless Prime Minister Cao Cao and ‘B’ being an alliance between the two great warlords of southern China Liu Bei and Sun Quan. The films quickly sets this grand battle up, and then regales us with all the strategies, backhand moves, preparations and passion that goes into this extensive war, without ever becoming tedious or detailed. The final act of the film presents the culmination of all the preparations, with a staggered and masterful assault on Cao Cao’s forces, who are however fully aware of the oncoming attack. In a male-dominated film, the subplot of the wife of one of Sun Quan’s viceroys adds some much needed warmth and intimacy to the proceedings, and her valiant attempt to do her bit for victory plays a pivotal role in the battle’s outcome.
This being an entirely local production, I for one was completely unfamiliar with all the cast and crew apart from Woo. The size of the production, however, was enough to attract many of the most established and respected Chinese names to the film, and the result is an ensemble cast that shows no cracks and keeps the focus firmly on the important war at hand. Standouts are veteran actor Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (Internal Affairs, Hero) as the viceroy Zhou Yu, whose righteous poise and calculated actions help inspire his army, and clearly show us which side we’d rather be on. Takeshi Kaneshiro (House of Flying Daggers) is also wonderful as the strategist Zhuge Liang, and his changing expressions foretell the shifting fortunes of the war.
When action of such a huge proportion is concerned, special effects play a vital role, and here they are up to the task. With helps from thousands of extras from the Chinese army, Woo manages to make the battle scenes entirely believable as mammoth set pieces, and there’s no doubting that a whole dynasty is at stake here. The final assault unleashes all that we have seen accumulating, and is a battle of Helm’s Deep proportions. The computer-generated images are only slightly weak when it comes to scenes on the river, but ultimately they are very sufficient, and hardly a distraction. The script manages to entertain us with the unusual strategies and tricks of war, without becoming too complex, and the battle occasionally springs surprises that even William Wallace would be proud of.
In the end
The first half hour had me dreading a tedious war film that more resembles a documentary re-telling of history, but the film picks up pace and John Woo manages to make us care about his characters and marvel at their expertise in the strategy room and on the battle field. This film should appeal both to history buffs and to lovers of epic battle films, and is a well-made and enjoyable advertisement for Chinese cinema.
http://www.apple.com/trailers/magnolia/redcliff/ (High-res QuickTime)