Monday, January 31, 2011

More Bite-sized reviews

An invigorating fresh restart to the flagging Bond franchise, this is how reboots ought to be done. Gritty, realistic and very kinetic, yet retaining some of that Bond glamour, this film gives 007 a much-needed update for the 21st Century. Eva Green also makes a fetching Bond Girl and Jeffery Wright one of my favourite Felix Leiters.

A creative and original high-concept piece of sci-fi animation that is impossibly endearing as well. The story of a 700 year-old robot who finds love is sure to touch even the hardest of hearts. The emotion in the film is unforced, pure and very tangible. As usual, the Pixar team seems to have done a good deal of research, and the depiction of autonomous artificial intelligence and the workings of a “space cruise ship” are pretty plausible. Many winning comedic moments abound, and props have to be given to the Pixar team for being able to tell the story in the first 20 or so minutes with no dialogue.
4.5/5 STARS

The quintessential 90s action-thriller, featuring Kurt Russell and his team of soldiers kicking terrorist butt onboard a hijacked 747. Nothing extraordinary, but terrific fun anyway. Also features Halle Berry early in her film career, as a flight attendant. The movie takes itself fairly seriously, so the tense moments are indeed nail-biting, and the action sequences suitably thrilling. It is a little scary to watch this after 9/11, though. It's mainly great because Steven Seagal's character dies really early on in the film. Whoops, spoiler alert there.


It was hard for me to sit through this film, because it was a big parade of wasted opportunities. The filmmakers had a good true story for their source material, good casting with Meryl Streep and most of the other actors, and best of all good music. But it was all lost on a terrible screenplay and clumsy direction from Wes Craven - who is evidently more comfortable with horror and suspense thriller movies. By the time the late Isaac Stern and other very famous real-life violinists walk onto the Carnegie Hall stage, I felt numbed and unaffected. This is terrible because, as a former violin student who still plays for fun, that could have been the big fireworks ending. It wasn't.
2.5/5 STARS

A magical triumph on many levels, this is storytelling at its most extraordinary. Tom Hanks carries the film just as much as the film carries him, his superb Oscar-winning performance as the simpleton in extraordinary circumstances is in turn bolstered by intriguing supporting characters, lovely period mise en scene and visual effects that allowed Hanks to shake hands with John F Kennedy. A moviegoing experience that will leave you transformed.
4.5/5 STARS

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

83rd Academy Awards: Nominations

It's that time of the year again, when the nominees are announced, the pundits bristle with excitement, and everyone has their opinions on whether the choices were too predictable and who they think got snubbed. And, to fill up the space and pad the entry out, here is a full list of the nominees!

Best Motion Picture of the Year
Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids are All Right
The King's Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Annette Bening (The Kids are All Right)
Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone)
Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)

Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
Javier Bardem (Biutiful)
Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
Colin Firth (The King's Speech)
James Franco (127 Hours)
Jeff Bridges (True Grit)

Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Christian Bale (The Fighter)
John Hawkes (Winter's Bone)
Jeremy Renner (The Town)
Mark Ruffalo (The Kids are All Right)
Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech)

Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Amy Adams (The Fighter)
Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech)
Melissa Leo (The Fighter)
Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)
Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom)

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year
How to Train Your Dragon
The Illusionist
Toy Story 3

Best Documentary Short Subject
Killing in the Name
Poster Girl
Strangers No More
Sun Come Up
The Warriors of Qiugang

Best Short Film (Animated)
Day & Night Teddy Newton
The Gruffalo Jakob Schuh and Max Lang
Let's Pollute Geefwee Boedoe
The Lost Thing Shaun Tan and Andrew Ruhemann
Madagascar, carnet de voyage (Madagascar, a Journey Diary) Bastien Dubois

Best Short Film (Live Action)
The Confession Tanel Toom
The Crush Michael Creagh
God of Love Luke Matheny
Na Wewe Ivan Goldschmidt
Wish 143 Ian Barnes and Samantha Waite

Achievement in Art Direction
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
The King's Speech
True Grit

Achievement in Cinematography
Black Swan (Matthew Libatique)
Inception (Wally Pfister)
The King's Speech (Danny Cohen)
The Social Network (Jeff Cronenweth)
True Grit (Roger Deakins)

Achievement in Costume Design
Alice in Wonderland (Colleen Atwood)
I Am Love (Antonella Cannarozzi)
The King's Speech (Jenny Beaven)
The Tempest (Sandy Powell)
True Grit (Mary Zophres)

Achievement in Directing
Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)
David O. Russell (The Fighter)
Tom Hooper (The King's Speech)
David Fincher (The Social Network)
Joel and Ethan Coen (True Grit)

Best Documentary Feature
Exit through the Gift Shop Banksy, director (Paranoid Pictures)
Gasland Josh Fox, director (Gasland Productions, LLC)
Inside Job Charles Ferguson, director (Representational Pictures)
Restrepo Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, directors (Outpost Films)
Waste Land Lucy Walker, director (Almega Projects)

Achievement in Makeup
Barney's Version
The Way Back
The Wolfman

Achievement in Film Editing
Black Swan (Andrew Weisblum)
The Fighter (Pamela Martin)
The King's Speech (Tariq Anwar)
127 Hours (Jon Harris)
The Social Network (Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall)

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
Biutiful (Mexico)
Dogtooth (Greece)
In a Better World (Denmark)
Incendies (Canada)
Hors la Loi (Algeria)

Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score)
How to Train Your Dragon (John Powell)
Inception (Hans Zimmer)
The King's Speech (Alexandre Desplat)
127 Hours (A.R. Rahman)
The Social Network (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross)

Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Song)
"Coming Home" from Country Strong Music and Lyric by Tom Douglas, Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey
"I See the Light" from Tangled Music and Lyric by Alan Menken Lyric by Glenn Slater
"If I Rise" from 127 Hours Music by A.R. Rahman Lyric by Dido and Rollo Armstrong
"We Belong Together" from Toy Story 3 Music and Lyric by Randy Newman

Achievement in Sound Editing
Toy Story 3
TRON: Legacy
True Grit

Achievement in Sound Mixing
The King's Speech
The Social Network
True Grit

Achievement in Visual Effects
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Iron Man 2

Adapted Screenplay

127 Hours (Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle)
The Social Network (Aaron Sorkin)
Toy Story 3 (Michael Arndt, story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich)
True Grit (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)
Winter's Bone (Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini)

Original Screenplay
Another Year (Mike Leigh)
The Fighter (Paul Attanasio, Lewis Colich, Eric Johnson, Scott Silverand Paul Tamasy)
Inception (Christopher Nolan)
The Kids are All Right (Stuart Blumberg and Lisa Cholodenko)
The King's Speech (David Seidler)

 I don't think I'm much of a film snob - I don't mean "snob" as a bad thing. I guess I'm not really a connoisseur, and I love big-budget Hollywood blockbusters as much as the next guy, and generally only watch such "big" films in theatres. I've not seen a good number of the films that have been nominated - mostly because many have yet to be released here in Singapore. The King's Speech seems to dominate the list here. From the trailers and the hype and reviews, it looks like a really good film, and it has everything the Academy adores: a real-life basis, a period setting, maverick characters and skilled actors.

I'm glad that Inception has the nominations that it's got - the Academy generally turns their noses up at the big, popular films for the major awards categories. However, I will join in the chorus and I have to agree that not giving Christopher Nolan a Best Director nomination for that film is quite a snub. Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher and the Coen Brothers are pretty safe bets: they've all been nominated or won Oscars before. I think Nolan does deserve at the very least a nomination.

As usual, I'll zoom in on the "Best Visual Effects" category, one that is overlooked by most analysts and pundits. Here, I think the big crime is not nominating TRON: Legacy. That film was nothing if not brilliant visual effects. Most of the nominated movies did indeed feature good visual effects, and it seems Inception is a shoo-in for this category. However, it is surprising that Hereafter was nominated in this category. I just saw the movie last night, and the visual effects sequences were decent, but nowhere near outstanding or Oscar-worthy. And, compared to the other nominated films, the visual effects played a much smaller role in Hereafter. Odd.

Also, the selections for Best Animated Feature are interesting. Only three films are nominated - Toy Story 3 is pretty much a surefire winner, How To Train Your Dragon is a good choice, but nobody has really heard of the much smaller film, The Illusionist. It surprises me that Tangled was not nominated. Also, Pixar has once again made an animated film that is nominated for the Best Picture category as well - following last year's Up. It's only the third time this has happened, the first with Disney's Beauty and the Beast (which lost to The Silence of the Lambs).

I'm looking forward to the ceremony, which will be interesting because besides being nominated, James Franco is also the host, alongside Anne Hathaway. I was not a big fan of last year's ceremony, hosted by Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. The Academy is aiming for younger-and-hotter hosts, and I'm sure it will be a hoot.



Starring: Matt Damon, Cecile de France, Frankie McLaren, George McLaren
Directed by: Clint Eastwood

            Next to “what is the meaning of life”, the most-asked philosophical/existential question is probably “what happens after life?” This is an idea that has been explored on screen and has been a fixation of mass media for the longest time. After geriatric astronauts, boxers, chasing people off his lawn with a shotgun, and a certain South-African rugby team, director Clint Eastwood turns his attention to this very question.

            The film features three simultaneous subplots. We have reluctant former professional psychic George Lonegan (Damon), French author-journalist Marie Lelay (de France) and twin British boys Marcus (Frankie McLaren) and Jason (George McLaren). They each have struggles that stem from an experience of the afterlife in one form or another.

            George is content working a blue-collar job as a forklift driver, as he attempts to shake off the emotional torment of conducting psychic readings and helping clients talk to their deceased love ones, even as his brother Billy (Jay Mohr) insists that George should continue to make money using his “gift”.

            While on assignment in Thailand, Marie is caught in the middle of a violent tsunami, and is briefly on the receiving end of a near-death experience. Back in Paris, she has trouble at work as a television interview program host, and decides to investigate the phenomenon of near-death experiences, writing a book about it.

            Marcus and Jason stick by their alcoholic, heroin-addicted mother Jackie (Lyndsey Marshal) – the slightly older Jason chatty, cheerful and always looking out for Marcus. Suddenly, Marcus is forced to deal with a tragic and startling loss, separated from her mother as she is sent for rehabilitation, and this time without Jason to count on as big brother.

            For a film focusing on the spirit realm, Hereafter is decidedly down to earth, and it works. The characters are all regular people and are immediately relatable. A big problem with a lot of supernatural dramas is that they often provide little elements from real life for their audience to cling to. That is not in short supply here – the factory worker, schoolboy and journalist very real and very vulnerable.

            Clint Eastwood is recognised as a smart director, and that is on show here. He walks right up to a cliché, and then carefully takes two steps back. Many elements and character traits are comfortably familiar but never feel contrived or forced. This is also to writer Peter Morgan’s credit, balancing all the right ingredients.
However, the main issue with the film is its fragmented nature. Eastwood tries almost too hard to give each of the three subplots equal screen time, and as the movie hits the halfway mark and is neck-deep in the story, it is easy to lose track of the plot and perhaps even lose touch with the individual characters.

            It is a good thing then that the actors do a mighty fine job holding it all together. Matt Damon is brilliant as the anchor character of the film. His George is unflinchingly real and workman-like, first subtly likeable as an everyman protagonist and second, convincing as a man who really can talk to the dead. We get to see just how much his past as a professional psychic interferes in his everyday life, right down to a potential relationship with the nice fellow student at a cooking class and the new girl in town, Melanie (Bryce Dallas-Howard) – and also glimpse his love for Charles Dickens audio books.

            Cecile de France is also very good – for Western audiences most familiar with her role in Around the World in Eighty Days, seeing de France at her dramatic best is a welcome treat. A good part of her scenes are in French, effectively removing any problems she may have language-wise. Her character behaves just as a real woman might after a traumatic incident, and that instinctive spark of a journalist and writer makes the character fresh and quite interesting. As Marie learns more of the little-known realities of near-death experiences, we learn more about her.

            Oftentimes, kid actors can make or break a film regardless of their heavyweight, grown-up co-stars. Eastwood cast the real-life twins and first-time actors because he “didn’t want child actors who’d been over-instructed in child acting 101”. George is a better actor than Frankie, but Frankie’s character Marcus is the one who gets more screen time. Frankie seems stiff at times, but it does fit the personality of the shy and introspective Marcus quite well.

            Tonally, the film is sure-footed and consistent. The mise en scene is unflinchingly realistic and bleak; no effort is made to glamourise any of the locales (even including London and Paris), and it works. Eastwood delivers some gorgeous and cleverly-framed shots, but he is far from a flashy director, and is wisely hesitant to put a “stamp” all over the film. 

The flashy special effects are mainly reserved for the frightening and intense tsunami scene that opens the film – it’s not as photo-realistic as audiences have come to expect, but it does the job and sets the movie up well. The film is leavened with a tiny sprinkling of humour – the sequence in which Marcus visits several amusingly incompetent “psychics” is sad but also darkly funny.
            It feels very good to step into the theatre, sit down and watch an actual film. Not some crazy over-budgeted 3D extravaganza, nor a tiny pretentious arthouse flick – a good old-fashioned movie. Those have their place, but the place for films like Hereafter seems to be getting smaller and smaller, and that’s why it’s nice to see movies like that getting made. It’s thoughtful, meditative, meandering tone may not sit well with restless moviegoers, but where it matters – on an emotional level – Hereafter certainly resonates.


Jedd Jong