Thursday, September 28, 2006

Trust the Man

"Have a little faith Toby, the world is not against you"

David Duchovny
Julianne Moore
Billy Crudup
Maggie Gyllenhaal

Directed by:
Bart Freundlich

Written By:
Bart Freundlich

My rating: 2/5

Despite a horrible marketing campaign which gave this film the veneer of a straight-to-video teen movie, the impressive cast made me doubt the frothy exterior. For the first hour, this veneer of over-sentimental rom-com is completely absent. The film begins as a snappy, down-to-earth examination of how relationships can go wrong even when the couple are deeply in love.

The couples in question are Tom and Rebecca (Duchovny and Moore) who are married with children and very much still happy and in love. However, a lack of sex, and Tom's re-adjustment to being a house-husband is causing problems for them and we slowly see the marriage disintegrate. This relationship was captivating because the director kept it clear that the couple loved each other, thus focussing the audience on the fact that their problem was really just a lack of proper communication.

The second couple is Toby and Elaine (Crudup and Gyllenhaal), who have been together for seven years and are only now facing issues of impending domesticity. They are far less interesting because Toby is a totally unlikeable slacker who doesn't deserve Elaine and it is hard for the viewer to hope for this relationship to work.

Unfortunately, the second two acts seem to focus mainly on Toby and Elaine. This is where the film begins to show that rom-com veneer again. The third act becomes needlessly over-the-top, therefore cheapening any of the cleverness and genuinity of what started out as a decent examination of the microcosm that is the modern marriage.

The film is worth a look for the performances of David Duchovny and Julianne Moore but overall, it is a frustrating waste of what should have been an interesting film.

- Charlene Lydon 28/9/06

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Black Dahlia

"I think you'd rather fuck me than kill me. But I don't think you have the balls to do either".

Josh Hartnett
Aaron Eckhart
Hilary Swank
Scarlett Johannson

Written By:
Josh Friedman

Directed By:
Brian de Palma

My rating 3.5/5

The Black Dahlia is a fictionalised account of the solving of the notorious murder of young actress Elizabeth Shortt in Hollywood in 1947. It is told from the perspective of a young naiive cop who gets dragged into the case from a number of different angles and slowly manages to tie the angles together to create an interesting story of how and why this crime was committed. All the basic film noir elements are there: good cops, bad cops, drugs, gangsters, the best friend's girl, the femme fatale and the twisting storyline. These elements combine nicely to create a story which works most of the time, but fails to keep the viewer enthralled throughout.

By far the most promising thing about Brian de Palma's adaptation of James Ellroy's sleazy Hollywood novel was the possibility of how attractive it could look. The smoky, erotic underbelly of 1940s LA is the perfect setting for De Palma's distinctive visual style. The film completely proved itself to be worth the price of admission for this alone. It looks beautiful from the first frame to the last. The composition of the shots, the costume design, the colours and the immaculate beauty of the cast really provides the essence of "old Hollywood". It is a treat for the eyes and an exercise in aesthetics just to view it.

Josh Hartnett plays the sweet but naiive "good cop" opposite Aaron Eckhart's hot-tempered "bad cop". Both are wholesomely handsome American men, beefy and square-jawed. The ladies are equally as glamorous with Scarlett Johannson pumping her red lips up to inhuman proportions to give us a pout that the sirens of the past could only dream about. Hilary Swank for once wears a dress and slinks her body around the film so fluidly that we wonder why she usually insists on playing genderless characters. Both actresses do a wonderful job but the biggest credit must go to Mia Kirschner for her potrayal of the titular Black Dahlia. Despite her characters' short, posthumous screentime, she delivers a character as deep and twisted as any other in the film.

The film's major problem was in the script. If the plot flowed as easily as the dialogue the film may have become a classic alongside Ellroy's other Hollywood set crime thriller, LA Confidential. However, too much of the first and second acts are focussed on the lives of the cops and not enough attention paid to the fasinating case of the Black Dahlia murder. By the third act, the story has become so convoluted that the audience have nowehere specific to focus their attention and therefore stop caring as the film reaches it's twisting climax.

-Charlene Lydon 28/9/06

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Right at Your Door

Rory Cochrane
Mary McCormack

Written By:
Chris Gorak

Directed By:
Chris Gorak

My rating: 3/5

The basic premise of this film is one that intrigued me in its simplicity. The story takes place in Los Angeles where a series of "dirty bombs" (germ warfare) have been detonated all over the city. All residents are told to seal up their houses and not allow people who may be contaminated indoors. This puts our hero Brad (Rory Cochrane) in the awkward position of having to tell his wife Lexi (Mary McCormack) who he loves more than anything in the world that she must remain outside in the chaos.

The film moves quickly and while you might wonder how such a premise can be stretched to 90 minutes, it succeeds very well. It captures the frustration, panic and desperation perfectly and shows the wide range of emotions the characters go through.

The longer the characters are isolated from each other, the more paranoid the film becomes. They can't trust the police, they can't trust the media. They have no idea whether or not they are being told the truth and don't know where to go for help. All they have been told is to stay where they are until help comes.

This paranoia is heightened by the fact that the film shows events only from Brad's point of view. The audience knows as little as he does and can only guess alongside him about what is to become of them.

The major failing of this film is in its ending. Throughout the film, I had a nagging feeling that they wouldn't know how to end it and create some big twist to remedy this. I was correct. While the twist was logical and not altogether awful, I just felt that a simpler ending would have been more poignant. For a film that invests so much of itself in the emotions of the characters, it suffers from detracting from intimacy at the end.

Unfortunately, a weak ending is something a film can't quite recover from. Having said that, however, it is still certainly worth a look for the great lead performances and the hugely captivating story.

- Charlene Lydon 13/9/06

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

Richard: Oh my God, I'm getting pulled over. Everyone, just... pretend to be normal

Steve Carell
Paul Dano
Alan Arkin
Greg Kinnear
Abigail Breslin
Toni Collette

Written By:
Michael Arndt

Directed By:
Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris

My rating 3.5/5

The first feature film by music video directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton is a real accomplishment in modern independent cinema. While it treads the old ground of classics like The Royal Tenenbaums or even The Simpsons which lovingly poke fun at dysfuntional families, it has gathered together such an almighty ensemble cast that many of the films flaws are forgiveable.

The story centres around the Hoover family. Richard and Sheryl are the parents, dishevelled and clinging to a tiny hope of success; the children, Olive and Duane, are polar opposites but seem to maintain the closest bond of the film. Duane is an angry teenager who hasn't spoken in months due to a vow of silence in honour of Friedrich Nietzche. Olive is a bright, sweet, adorable 7 year old who, by default, has won a place in a state beauty pageant. They are joined by Sheryl's suicidal gay brother Frank and Richard's cranky, heroin-addicted dad. Every single performance is this film is so spot-on that you almost feel sorry to leave these characters as the film ends. The cast are among the best ensemble casts ever to grace the silver screen. As they all have their background in comedy (except for Abigail Breslin who is too young to have a background in anything), they understand all about timing and which notes to strike between comedy and tragedy.

What this film lacks is a great script. While it has some wonderful elements, it does seem at times quite lazy and disjointed. There are some comic moments which felt a bit too slapstick for the film and while these scenes were funny, they never quite fit into the film. Also, the film hints at some rather disturbing issues about the relationship between granddaughter and grandfather which are never properly addressed.

Having said that, there is some choice dialogue in the film, most of which is wonderfully delivered by Alan Arkin as Grandpa.

The strongest theme of the film is that you are only a loser by not attempting to do something. It is in this that the key to each character lies. It relates to Uncle Frank as he comes to the realisation that his suicide attempt was just an easy way out, Duanes vow of silence is an attempt to accomplish something, and the whole family taking a road trip they can't afford in order to take pudgy, bespectacled Olive to a futile beauty pageant also ties strongly into this message.

The family's old Volkswagon van becomes a character in the story too as it's gradual dilapidation reflects the family's ever more disastrous journey. One by one, the characters worst fears are realised and their dreams shattered but the film focuses on how these experiences make people grow and learn. This is what I believe makes this film about a family who keep on losing such a cheerful experience.

Despite its flaws, I recommend seeing this film for it's superb characters and it's inspiring message. Also, to try predict which of the four worthy men will be honoured with a Best Supporting Actor nomination next spring.

- Charlene Lydon 12/9/06


Penelope Cruz
Carmen Maura
Lola Duenas

Written By:
Pedro Almodovar

Directed By:
Pedro Almodovar
My rating: 4/5

To really love this film, I believe the viewer must be able to love Almodovar, as this work embodies every style and flourish that has become synonymous with his name. He is rather hit and miss with audiences. Some lap up his distinctive visuals, his adoring portraits of women and his tall tales. Others, however, find his melodrama a bit too much and no amount of saccharine imagery can make up for this.

Lets take this review from the point of view of someone who likes Almodovar. Such a viewer would probably find this film delightful in a number of ways. It is classic Almodovar in its structure, storytelling, characterisation and visual style. From the outset, the audience is presented with a technicolour extravagaza which blazes with sultry red and vibrant blue. Every shot is composed beautifully to augment the humanity and beauty of our heroines.

The story revolves around a family of women from La Mancha whose mother returns from the dead to set things right with her daughters and help dying friends through their time of suffering.

The first half hour of Volver slowly...very slowly...sets up the rather complicated story that takes up the final two acts. It drags a bit despite some moments of high drama. I was just starting to think this was going to be a major disappointment when the story properly unfolded, pulling the audience in and climbing higher and higher into the preposterousness we have come to expect from Mr Almodovar's stories. Never one to fear being over-the-top, Almodovar has a unique skill for reining in the craziness by focussing on the journey of the characters and not the story itself.

This film, more so than many of his films, has a distinct lack of respect for the male sex. It contains no admirable men. One loutish perverted husband, one cheating incestuous husband, and a landlord, bitter at being rejected by Raimunda (Cruz). The women are strictly single and well capable of managing by themselves, even into old age. At every opportunity, the camera uses Laura Mulvey's theory of the "male gaze" to mock men's inability to focus on anything other than the female form. An example of this is an overhead shot of Raimunda washing dishes. Half the screen is looking down at her ample cleavage, the other half shows her washing a large kitchen knife which is important to the story later. It makes one think that Almodovar is challenging the men to pay attention to the knife, despite the cleavage.

The performances by these women, as in all of Almodovar's work is astonishing. Each woman, ages ranging from 15 years to 80 years, produce remarkable, well-rounded characters and their joint Best Actress awards at Cannes were certainly deserved.

If you are a fan of Almodovar you should see it because it embodies everything he is so highly regarded for. If you are not familiar with him, perhaps you should give this a try. If you like it, chances are you may have found a new favourite director, or at least a refreshing antidote to the summer blockbuster season.

- Charlene Lydon 12/9/06

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Wicker Man (2006)

Edward Malus: "I only care about the law, sister"

Nicolas Cage
Ellen Burstyn
Kate Beahan

Written By:
Neil La Bute

Directed By:
Neil La Bute

My rating: 1/5 (the 1 is for unintentional hilarity)

**Warning: Contains minor spoilers

To say this film is "so bad it's good" would be an insult to Ed Wood and his cohorts. This film is "so bad I had a great time laughing at it" is a better way to put it. The heavy-handed plotting, silly ending and dreadful acting allowed plenty for room for mocking.

This film does not deliver a serious, genuine attempt to update the story of the original "The Wicker Man" (1973) for the 21st century. I can't imagine how anyone felt that a film set in a remote, ageless island off Scotland actually needed to be updated but, clearly, Neil La Bute did. This film is such a huge departure from La Bute's previous work that perhaps this is how the script ended up feeling like the heavy handed work of a teenage horror movie fan.

From La Bute's earlier films ("In the Company of Men"(1997), Your Friends & Neighbours (1998)) one could expect a subtle, emotional look at the human condition and the inner-workings of the mind of our doomed hero. This film could not be more far removed. The focus of the film is on the mystery and on Nicolas Cage running around waving his gun and punching various women from the island. The character of Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee in the original) is replaced with Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn) and an island full of power-mad women.

The film's plot was also changed remarkably from the original. Firstly, the hero is neither a virgin, nor a devout Christian (two very important details in the original). Secondly there was an added sub-plot involving a tragic car crash in which a little girl was killed that has left a psychological mark on Cage's character. One can only assume this was put in to help the audience understand his desperation to find the missing child. However, to also add that the missing girl is his daughter means that the sub-plot had absolutely no purpose except to allow the director some stylish flashbacks/hallucinations.

Overall, the acting was all horrible. Especially from the usually dependably Nicolas Cage. His jet black hair and heavy, obvious make-up made him look like a cabaret performer and his behavioural inconsistency made this film almost unbearable to watch.

On a slightly positive note, there was some very lovely scenery on the island and some of the cinematography was pretty. Overall, however, the film just didn't create any sense of claustrophobia or that sick feeling in your gut that senses the hero's impending doom. To begin comparing it to the original would be a whole other essay and I will not even get started on it here.

To sum it up, the storyline is full of nonsense, the ending is laughable, the acting is appalling and the only thing I and recommend it for is a very hearty laugh. I did actually enjoy laughing throughout it at the ridiculous exploits of Cage (i.e., punching out a female islander just to take her bear costume).

Let this disaster be a lesson to Hollywood and usually competant director like Mr. La Bute...leave well enough alone and spend your money on a cinematic re-release of the original if you're desperate to keep making money off it!

-Charlene Lydon 7/9/06