You wait all month for a review and then two come along at once!

Posted on October 24, 2010. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , |

Hello much neglected readers!

I’m not going to start yet another post with apologies for absence, but I will say this: turns out at med school they expect you to do some work. Who’d have thought?

Anyhoo, to make up for my startling lack of posts I’m bringing you a double feature of reviews.  Two movies which at first seem pretty different but are linked by some common themes.  And the fact that they are both pretty damn good.

Harry Brown

This was a film I’d heard of but never really found out about.  Michael Caine is usually a safe bet though so I gave it a whirl.

On the back of the box it says “contains scenes of violence, hard drug use and strong language.” They aren’t kidding.  All of that takes place within the first five minutes of the film, with films shot on shaky hand-held cameras to mimic the paradoxically named “Happy Slapping” videos.

Perhaps I should backtrack a bit; Harry Brown takes place on a generic estate completely taken over by a gang of what the news like to refer to as “Youths” who are now terrorising the residents.  There are some strong performances amongst the younger cast, including Jack O’ Connell (AKA Cook from Skins) and Ben Drew, who really is chilling as the sociopathic gang leader Noel.  The big name here though is Michael Caine as the eponymous Brown, and he is just as strong as everyone would expect him to be.  Emily Mortimer also plays well as the slightly stereotypical but nonetheless realistic female DI who is ignored by both her superiors and subordinates.  None of the characters are given distinct back stories, instead we are given clues to their pasts and left to make up the rest for ourselves.  For example, we are told Mortimer’s character chose to work on the troubled estate when she could have had a much easier job, but when you couple that with the opening scene you can formulate your own theory as to why she wants to work here. (I’m being deliberately cryptic to avoid spoilers, but if you’re interested drop me a comment.)

This stark narrative style is crucial to fit in with the realism of the movie.  There is a very bare score, only at a couple of key dramatic moments, otherwise the sound you hear is being played out on screen.  The performances are rough, not actually coming across as “performances” but almost as if this was a documentary.  I think that’s what makes the film affecting, the fact that even though it isn’t a true story, it could be.

The plot isn’t exactly shocking, as Brown loses everything at the hands of the gangs he decided to take a stand, but at the same time nothing feels predictable.  The aforementioned violence is also skilfully used, not in any way gratuitous and again reflecting a realism that in the end makes the films far more frightening than any drawn out horror could.

Not in any way an uplifting film, but I would definitely recommend Harry Brown as a great depiction of what the politicians really mean when they say “Broken Britain.”

The Pianist

Perhaps not a natural double feature with a film about British gang culture, but both Harry Brown and The Pianist explore themes of oppression, fear and the senselessness of random violence that make them quite ripe for comparison.

Like Harry Brown, The Pianist is a very minimalist film.  The score is sparingly used, mainly consisting of (obviously) a few movements of piano score.  This film is also strongly focussed on the realism, made all the more distressing by the fact that this is a true story.

The movie tells of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman and his ordeal during the Nazi occupation.  I think the most powerful message in the film is the irrational nature of the Nazi violence towards Jews.  It seems impossible that they got away with such random acts of violence, yet we understand that there was very little the Jewish population could do to stand up against such vicious hatred.  The scenes I found the most distressing involved random members of a line up being picked out and shot.  Imagine living in those kind of conditions, where you could be killed at any moment for absolutely no reason.

Adrien Brody is very strong as Szpilman (well, he did win an Oscar) at times carrying the whole movie alone with little or no dialogue.  Special mention has to be given to Thomas Kretschmann also, as SS officer Wilm Hosenfeld.  The counterpart between him and Szpilman towards the end of the film is perfect in its symplicity, and the role reversal at the very end is a great twist on everything we’ve witnessed so far.

A lot of movies of this nature are described as “harrowing” but I think The Pianist is one of the few films which actually deserves that description.  The first half is particularly hard to watch, but never self-indulgent.  Brody charts Szpilman’s decline well and at times it is hard to understand why he would want to carry on, but there is a turning point about half way through the film, where we see that he has survived this far and is going to continue fighting in the face of utter hopelessness, which gives what could be a soul-destroying movie a surprisingly uplifting message.

I think my enjoyment of the movie was somewhat hampered by my poor historical knowledge, and a couple of times I got a bit lost, particularly when two very similar looking blonde heroines got involved, but this movie is more about the overall impact than the details.  It is constantly compared to Schindler’s List which I (shockingly) haven’t seen, but the muted palette of colours did draw some comparisons even in my unenlightened mind, particularly when some bright red trams appeared towards the end.

Both The Pianist and Harry Brown are stories of men who lose everything.  Both our protagonists are standing up against extreme forms of what is essentially bullying, although obviously to a far greater extent in the former.  I would say that Harry Brown is actually the sadder of the two films, because while Szpilman gains a shred of his old life back at the end, Brown is left with nothing and no one.  Perhaps the fundamental difference is that while Szpilmanvis just trying to survive, Brown is driven by revenge, which is in itself destructive.

The power of both films is in their realism.  The barren cinematography and sound hammer this home, leaving the viewer unsettled in the knowledge that the events of The Pianist are true, and those of Harry Brown could be.

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The 12 films of Christmas, Part Three: Christmas Eve!

Posted on December 24, 2009. Filed under: Ramblings | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Here we are with the third and final part of my 12 films of Christmas. The deckies are up, the presents are wrapped, the turkey’s defrosting and there’s only one thing left to do; get in those final few films to really get you in the mood!

Before I get going, a quick reminder of the 12 so far:

12. The Nightmare Before Christmas
11. Die Hard
10. Edward Scissorhands
9. Love Actually
8. The Grinch
7. Home Alone
6. Miracle on 34th Street
5. The Santa Clause

Onto the top 4 then. Here’s my recommendations for what to watch on Christmas Eve and one for Christmas Day.

A Muppet Christmas Carol

OK, so I have a confession to make. I’ve cheated and already watched this one.  Christmas just isn’t Christmas without the Muppets. As I’ve said to Caz, as far as I’m concerned this is the definitive version of the Dickens classic (although I haven’t seen the newest offering.)  For starters Michael Caine sings in it!  All the music is great and the puppets are woven seamlessly into the human cast to make what is actually a very truthful rendition of the classic Christmas tale.  Although I do blame Jim Henson for my misguided belief that there were two Marley brothers (and that Scrooge’s first job was in a rubber chicken factory :P)

At some point during Christmas you have to see a version of A Christmas Carol. And if you’re me, this is the one you’re reaching for.

Getting into the evening now with: The Snowman

When I rule the world I’m passing a law that says everyone has to watch this on Christmas Eve.  It’s only 26 minutes long, there’s barely any speaking in it and the ending is one of the most heartbreaking on screen, but it is Christmas for me.  Howard Blake’s score is iconic, as is the animation, and for me as well as (probably) hundreds of other children it used to be the last thing I’d watch before I went to bed on Christmas Eve.  In the last couple of years however, it’s been replaced by my next choice…

Possibly a controversial one here…: The Polar Express

This was one of the first pioneers into the world of 3D cinema and therefore has some rollercoaster train rides to make the most of the effects and some slightly strange looking animation for which it’s got a bit of stick over the last few years. I’ve recently said I’m not that into the whole 3D thing (…until I see Avatar…) so you might be wondering what it’s doing at the top of my list. Let me explain.

I have never seen this film in 3D.  In fact the whole 3D thing only came to my attention because I was looking into the rollercoaster scenes.  So when I saw this film I wasn’t judging it on visual effects but on the story.  True, the animation of the people is a little off, mainly because it’s layered over actual performances, but I kinda like the fact that you can just about recognise Tom Hanks in each of the 6 characters he portrays.  I also think the plot is original and perfect for Christmas Eve.  Again, the idea of people not believing in Santa is used a lot this time of year, but the train for non-believers is a new one, and the juxtaposition between the different children works well.  My favourite theme in the movie though is the bells, such an essential part of the whole Santa image and used cleverly in this film.

If you haven’t seen it (or heard of it) I can’t recommend it more. It’s become a staple of our family Christmas, one which I will definitely be watching tonight.

So, that’s Christmas Eve sorted. Off to bed now or Santa wont come.  I have one more film for you, to watch tomorrow after your turkey.  In a way it’s a predictable choice, although you might not recognise it at first…

My Christmas Day film is: Chicken Run!

Is there anything more British than Aardman animation? When the rest of the world was wowing with CGI and the first of the Pixar sensations, Nick Park got out the plasticine and started building.

Chicken Run is a great film, full of dry humour, an awesome voice cast (Mel Gibson, Jane Horrocks, Miranda Richardson, Timothy Spall) and fun for all the family.  It’s great for any occasion, so why Christmas? Simple.

Chicken Run is The Great Escape, possible the most watched film at Christmas. Only it’s the less boring, less depressing, far more fun version of the same story, which in my opinion is infinitely better for you while you try to work out if you have any space left for that green triangle Quality Street.  Steve McQueen and his motorbike might be what most people reach for on Christmas Day, but I’ll take a rooster on a tricycle any day.

And that’s it. Christmas wrapped up in 12 great movies. All that’s left to say is Merry Christmas to all of you! I hope you all have a great time with whatever you’re doing.

I’ll be back in the New Year for this blog’s first birthday.

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Great Expectations

Posted on March 7, 2009. Filed under: Movies to see before you die | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Tonight I found myself with some free time on my hands, which is becoming increasingly unusual for me, so I decided to re-visit the most hyped film of last year: The Dark Knight.

Raving about the brilliance of the film is old news, but I realised as I was watching it that there was no way it was ever going to live up to the expectations people had for it.  Don’t get me wrong, I think its a great movie, and Heath Ledger is in a league of his own when it comes to performance, but I too fell victim to the hype and found myself rating this movie higher than perhaps it deserved when I first saw it in the cinema.

The cast is something to be envied, including star turns by Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, and the special effects are pretty awesome.  Christian Bale also plays well, although I find his “bat-voice” increasingly difficult to take seriously.  The main problem with the film is its length; clocking in at 2 hours 25 mins which I think must be something of a record for comic book films, and there are sections that feel slow, mainly because you’re just waiting for Ledger to reappear on screen.

*update: I thought it was long, then I saw Watchmen!*

It falls foul of the same problem that Spiderman 3 had: one two many villains.  Even though the signposting for the transformation of Dent into Twoface is a delight to comic book geeks, it feels like the final half hour is actually another short film tacked on at the end, which could legitimatley have been saved for a sequel, especially since the actual ending is so clearly gearing up for one.   In general the plot is good, but there are sections which are confusing.  I’m still not that sure what’s going on in the car park at the beginning with all the copycat batmen….

Basically it boils down to this: The Dark Knight is an average film catapulted to mega-success simply because of Heath Ledger.  I would like to believe that if the tragedy which brought the film into the media spotlight had not happened, the film would still have enjoyed the same hype on the basis of what really is an astounding performance.  The scenes in the jail are creepily reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs and everything about the characterisation is completely unique.  I guess we’ll never know,  but it just goes to show that when tragedy is involved even critics draw in their claws and choose to overlook faults in favour of seeing the good.

Case in point: I’m a Marvel girl, I’ve never liked DC or Batman, mainly on the basis that he has one of the lamest costumes in superhero history!  But I desperately wanted to see Dark Knight.  Now, I have always been a Heath Ledger fan, and that was a big part of it, but I can’t help wondering if I’d have heard so much about his performance if he hadn’t died.  I still maintain that it was for Brokeback Mountain that he deserved the Oscar.

I love Dark Knight, and I think everyone should see it, but without Heath Ledger, I don’t think I’ll be fighting to see the next one.

why so serious?

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