Sunday, November 30, 2008

Black Book (2006)



(Image from IMP Awards)


Black Book (2006)

The gorgeous Carice van Houten is easily one of the main draws of 'Black Book', and not just because of her looks but because her stellar performance is the highlight of an otherwise unexceptional film. Van Houten plays Rachel Stein, a Jewish woman in the Netherlands during World War II who, after the brutal murder of her family, joins the Dutch resistance and infiltrates the Gestapo headquarters in The Hague. There she seduces the officer in charge, Ludwig M√ľntze (Sebastian Koch), but starts to fall for him when she realizes that he's actually a decent sort who likes to collect stamps instead of kill people. When the resistance uses her to try and help some captured prisoners while also trying to figure out who has been selling out Jews - like Rachel's parents - to the Nazis, she finds herself in an increasingly dangerous position.

Paul Verhoeven is the master of gratuitous violence, nudiy, and sex, and he doesn't dissapoint with this film, and neither does van Houten. Puerile elements aside, the journey Rachel goes through is harrowing and van Houten completely sells the character and her predicament, being sympathetic and convincing as a resourceful woman forced to go to extremes for the cause. She is by far and away the best thing about the film. The rest of it is pretty good as well but doesn't really fire on all cylinders; the film shifts somewhat uncomfortably between historical drama and cheesy action thriller, with the plotting and characterization often being more like a Hollywood summer blockbuster than a sober European war film. Some of the action scenes seem strangely surreal and at odds with the generally realistic tone the film usually maintains.

Having got those negatives out of the way, I can say that 'Black Book' is well acted and visually quite appealing, and while the writing may raise a few chuckles it is still strong enough to make for a gripping experience. As director, Verhoeven manages to conjure some tense scenes and more than a few horrific moments, as he often does, but there's very little in the way of overt humour in the film. Which is a shame, since black comedy is something the man does well, and it wouldn't have been especially jarring since the tone of the film is already fairly erratic.

Overall, a good film that comes across as more superficial and less weighty than most serious WWII movies; still, it's a fine piece of entertainment that features an excellent central performance to hold it together.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

No End in Sight (2007)



(Image from IMP Awards)


No End in Sight (2007)

'No End in Sight' is a devastating indictment of the misguided Iraq war, a documentary that presents, soberly, the facts and testimony from people intimately involved with the war and subsequent occupation. Much of the content shouldn't be a major revelation for anyone who has been paying attention over the last few years, but there is an undeniable power in this recap of the sequence of idiotic and callous decisions that were made; the end result is two hours of film that leaves one's mind reeling with incredulity and anger. It's a reminder that not only was the war unjustified from the outset, but that it was mismanaged from the outset as well. Things never had to get as bad as they have done, and the people to blame are still sitting smug and secure in the knowledge that they'll never be called to answer for what they did to Iraq (among the many other dubious things that they did, but that's outside the scope of this film).

Alright, so far this isn't much of a review. I'm not really sure what more to say about a film that is essentially archive footage and interviews. It's expertly edited and structured, and looks about as slick and professional as a documentary can get. Written and directed by Charles Ferguson, it seems to cover every relevant detail with an intellectual detachment and presents a lucid analysis of how events played out. Even the narration is low key - Michael Moore this ain't - but while it doesn't attempt to be overly dramatic, much of what is presented will still get your blood boiling, while the remainder will have you laughing at the tragi-comic nature of it all. Perhaps the only frustrating thing about the film is that it never answers the question 'why?', but seeing as that's open to so much debate and speculation, I can understand why it never goes there.

Overall, a terrific documentary and a must see, even for those who are familiar with the subject matter.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)


(Image from IMP Awards)


Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)

A true story about three mixed race Aboriginal girls who were taken from their homes and who subsequently escaped their settlement and headed home - a 1500 mile journey along one of Australia's so called 'rabbit proof' fences. The film is credited with igniting debate on the issue of the 'stolen generations', mixed race children who were forcibly 'resettled' away from their families for various misguided reasons. The narrative is about as straightforward as it gets - the three girls are grabbed from their home in one of the film's early and most powerful scenes, and are transported to a settlement for mixed race children; they promptly escape and head for home, and are pursued first by a skilled Aboriginal tracker, and later by the police. Their story becomes something of a sensation throughout Australia, and as a result the girls are given aid by helpful strangers along the way.

It's a simple but emotionally evocative tale - I can't think of a basic narrative that is more immediately engaging than the quest for freedom against improbable odds and the struggle for survival such a quest entails. The cast is full of unknowns - apart from the jarring appearance of Kenneth Branagh - and all of the actors do terrific work, particularly the three girls the story revolves around. The writing hits all the right emotional beats; the characters might be a bit sketchy, but are sufficiently fleshed out for the story they are in. I have one major complaint about the film - the storytelling feels somewhat ordinary, with scenes rarely creating a sense of fear or hopelessness or of awe at how remarkable the girls' journey is. This is probably due more to the somewhat ordinary directing rather than the writing. There are some stunning visuals in there, however, particularly of the desolate and oppressive Australian outback (much like 'The Proposition'!)

'Rabbit Proof Fence' is a well made, inspirational film that falls short of being something truly special, but still packs quite a punch. The fact that it's based on true events does, as is often the case, give it some added gravitas, especially in the epilogue which features some of the real individuals portrayed in the film.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Death Proof (2007)



(Image from IMP Awards)


Death Proof (2007)

'Death Proof' is Quentin Tarantino's half of the 'Grindhouse' double bill, with the other half being Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror. Tonally it comes across as more 'serious' than 'Planet Terror', and features a lot of the witty, verbose dialogue and character exchanges that Tarantino is famous for. The story is about a stunt man, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russel), a serial killer who uses his specially rigged 'death proof' stunt car to kill women. Significant portions of the film are devoted to introducing Stuntman Mike's victims - in fact I'd say the majority of the film focuses on the women - who are played by a selection of luscious ladies including Rosario Dawson, Rose McGowan, Sydney Poitier, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and stuntwoman Zoe Bell as herself. Quentin Tarantino also has a bit part as a bartender.

The character exchanges are fun but seem to go on for a bit (this is the standalone international version, which is about 25 minutes longer than the original 'double bill' cut). I didn't much care for the semi serious tone of what is essentially meant to be a B-movie - the quality of the film is just too high for it to be a real grindhouse flick, and most of the actors are, ironically, too good in their roles. Kurt Russell is the exception, it must be said, because he seems to relish going over the top as the sadistic stuntman. Zoe Bell is also a laugh and terrific in the action scenes where she is obviously doing her own (dangerous) stunts.

Overall, it's not as fun as Planet Terror but still quite different and worth a watch, especially for fans of Tarantino's work. I'm not that big a fan of the guy to be honest, and this isn't one of his best efforts, but it's still fairly enjoyable stuff.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Proposition (2005)



(Image from IMP Awards)


The Proposition (2005)

Apart from the fact that it was a western set in Australia, I knew very little about this film, and was thus pleasantly surprised by it - it's not often I go into a film cold these days. The story, set in late 18th century Australia, starts off with criminal Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and brother Mike (Richard Wilson) being captured by Captain Stanley (Ray Winston). Stanley offers Charlie a proposition - find and kill the leader of the 'Burns gang', eldest brother Arthur (Danny Huston), or youngster Mike dies within 9 days. The Burns gang has committed heinous crimes and are despised by the townspeople, and Arthur is now a recluse who hides away in the mountains. Charlie sets off to find Arthur, and Captain Stanley takes Mike back into town as a prisoner but faces hostility from the townsfolk, who are impatient and want swift retribution. Stanley's wife Martha (Emily Watson) - who like her husband is from England and foreign to the harsh outback - begins to get involved in proceedings despite his attempts to keep her sheltered and safe because her friend was murdered by the Burns gang.

The opening scene lulls you into thinking that the film might be predictable, but the story veers into unexpected territory early on. Expectations are subverted, and I'd go so far as to say that Ray Winston's Stanley is the real star of the film, and not Pierce. The story becomes more about his efforts to protect his wife from the ugliness of his job while dealing with the hostility of his own men and the town, who become restless with the waiting and angered by rumours that Stanley has cut a deal and intends to let the prisoner go. Meanwhile, in the secondary narrative thread Charlie heads off into the mountains in search of his brother, ostensibly to kill him, but there is some ambiguity about his intentions, possibly even ambivalence. Characters in this film aren't straightforward and predictable, with most being multi faceted and interesting, and in the case of Arthur, downright frightening.

There are aspects relating to racial tensions between the whites and aboriginals in the story, but this is secondary to the primary themes of family, loyalty, and (sometimes perverse) justice. The film is stark and uncompromising in its depiction of cruelty and brutality, as bleak as the harsh outback where much of the action takes place. Pearce is fine in his role, but it's Ray Winstone who shines as a character whose depiction transitions from loathsome to dignified and decent; Emily Watson is also excellent as the out of place wife becoming acclimatized to the harsh new world she finds herself in. There are plenty of other very good performances in the mix, including John Hurt as a bounty hunter, and Danny Huston's portrayal of Arthur. There's not much action in the film, but there is some cringe inducing violence that might put off the squeamish.

'The Proposition' is an excellent film, one that, despite having a lot going on, develops its storylines to culminate in a fitting, if slightly predictable, climax. It's a fine blend of character drama and tension, a film that creates an oppressively atmospheric setting. Director John Hillcoat's next film is an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road', which I hear is also very bleak and stark; based on this evidence, he seems the right man for the job (though, to be fair early word on that film has been mixed).

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Veronica Mars - Season 3 (2006-2007)


(Image from Wikipedia)


Veronica Mars - Season 3 (2006-2007)

I've given a fair account of the first and second seasons of this detective drama series, and since much of what was said in those reviews still applies, this review is going to be quick.

Time moves on, and Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) and her pals are all out of school and (a tad conveniently) still together in Neptune, attending the nearby Hearst College. This season sees a departure from the earlier structure of having one ongoing mystery throughout and instead features mini mysteries that each last about a quarter of the season. I found this to be an improvement over the sometimes contrived season long mystery that often felt artificially dragged out and often lost focus. The heart of the show remains the relationship between Veronica and her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni), and the scenes between them are as terrific as ever. Her on again off again relationship with bad boy Logan (Jason Dohring) is interesting at times but becomes repetitive and forgettable after a while.

The mysteries themselves are fairly well done, but it's the characters and dialogue that make this show, and this season sees a slight dip in form. The acerbic banter isn't as prevalent, and while our heroes go through tough times the show feels a bit more light hearted. Some of the cynicism and edginess is missing. The supporting cast is also expanded and as a result characters wind up a little thin, and keep dipping in and out of the show sporadically.

Still, these aren't drastic changes, and overall the final season of 'Vernoica Mars' is still very good. Stylish, well acted, and well written... it's a shame it got cancelled, but on the plus side I suppose it didn't end up growing long in the tooth either - though, in this show's case it could have grown with the character, as a brief concept clip for future seasons showing Veronica as a rookie at the FBI demonstrated (sadly the clip doesn't seem to have the charm of the show). Who knows, perhaps someday 'Vernoica Mars' can return, reborn as a drama set in the adult world?

Monday, November 17, 2008

30 Rock - Season 2 (2007-2008)


(Image from Wikipedia)


30 Rock - Season 2 (2007-2008)

I think I somehow imagined that I'd have time to review this show properly for its second season, but since it did the unthinkable and got renewed for a third, I'll delay writing anything substantial about it till its eventual cancellation, when I will probably rant and rave and bitch and moan about great shows getting canceled.

'30 Rock' is the awesome comedy series created by and starring headline grabbing Sarah Palin impersonator Tina Fey. It revolves around the production of Fey's character Liz Lemon's TV sketch programme, 'The Girly Show', and all the people involved in it, from the ultra conservative Republican running the company (Alec Baldwin) right down to the simpleton page from hicksville (Jack McBrayer). The stories are unconventional and unpredictable, and often quite surreal; Fey and her team are unafraid of revelling in their geekiness from time to time, a fact that thrills me no end. What other show would cite Sarah Connor as an example of a great single mom?

Overall, the second season isn't quite as strong as the first and obviously lacks the element of surprise that heralded the show's arrival, but it falls only just short, and is still one of the funniest and quirkiest comedies out there. The cast is uniformly terrific and even the most minor character makes an impression, though it was a little disappointing to find that many of them have been relegated further down the food chain to the status of really really minor characters; these guys are gold and should be used more! Oh, and Alec Baldwin is still amazing - just watch his impression of a black family in one of the early episodes if you need proof!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)



(Image from Wikipedia)


Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)

This film is probably more famous for what it's about than for being a classic of cinema. And that's probably because it ain't all that great a film. The story in a nutshell - Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn) are a well off liberal married couple whose daughter Joey (Katherine Houghton) surprises them by bringing home a black man she intends to marry, Dr. John Prentice (Sydney Poitier). The parents are forced to confront their own, probably subconscious and unacknowledged racial bias while coming to terms with their daughter's whirlwind romance and the consequences an inter-racial marriage might have for the entire family. The film is basically a talky drama where the characters awkwardly discuss the situation and all of its ramifications as the parents try to decide whether they can give their blessing.

It's an interesting film, one that touches on many of the race issues that were (and are, I suppose) prevalent at the time. The problem is how obvious and unsubtle the film is, verbalizing its ideas in a didactic manner that borders on patronizing. Subtle the script ain't, and it's a testament to the film's powerhouse stars that they managed to allay its failings and elevate the film into something that commands one's attention. While all of the characters are given a fair amount of personality, in the case of daughter Joey her overly overt sweetness and naivety starts to grate after a while.

My main qualm with the film is the way it stacks the odds in favour of its argument before arriving at an ending that, despite all of the hand wringing by the characters, is a foregone conclusion. Consider that the character of Dr. John Prentice is so impossibly awesome and decent that he beggars belief; black or not, the guy's a hell of a catch by any standard. And this is the part that bugs me - it's like the film is saying "look, this guy's black but he's also an incredible human being, alright?" What if he hadn't been such a great guy, would he have somehow been less acceptable to Joey's parents? Now that would have been an interesting scenario! I get that part of what the film is saying is that, despite how great Dr. Prentice is the parents are still filled with doubt, but I think this aspect of the story winds up being a betrayal of the broader theme of racial equality. It's like Dr. Prentice is acceptable because he's exceptional.

The other thing that bugs me is how the parents sit around contemplating the race issue while ignoring the more salient fact that their daughter is about to marry someone she's just met, a notion that would concern parents in the real world, especially ones who have children as seemingly naive as Joey.

Ultimately 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner' is a decent enough film with a message that it delivers very clearly, but with little subtlety or intelligence. Definitely worth watching at least for its historical significance and for the central performances, but don't expect to be blown away or have your world view shaken, as the film really is unquestionably a product of its time.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

3:10 to Yuma (2007)



(Image from IMP Awards)


3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Russel Crowe plays charismatic criminal legend Ben Wade and Christian Bale the poor, grim rancher Dan Evans who helps escort the captured Wade to the 3:10 train to Yuma in this western action film. As the story begins, we find Evans desperate to keep his farm from being taken away - this desperation leads to him volunteering, for a tidy sum of money, to join a small group on what seems to be a fools errand trying to escort Wade; it's a fools errand because they are being chased by Wade's terrifying gang of cutthroats who are hellbent on rescuing their boss. Evans' group are slowly picked apart on the journey by various threats, including Wade himself, who regards the whole escapade with wry amusement. Evans leaves his family behind at his ranch, but his elder son William - who is somewhat ashamed of his father and idolizes Wade - sneaks out after the group and winds up joining them mid mission. Consequently there's some family bonding and friendships are forged amidst the shoot outs and horse chases.

'3:10 to Yuma' is a pretty good film but seems to just miss the mark of being really good or even great in virtually all departments. Many of its major story beats are predictable and don't really generate much suspense, and the script doesn't fully succeed in selling the grudging camaraderie between Wade and Evans. There's also something a bit unbelievable about the whole thing - Wade seems capable of walking all over these guys at any moment and is ridiculously cocky, but the escort group don't take even the most basic precautions to protect themselves; as a result it's a little hard to sympathize with them when they start being killed. The whole father son thing had the potential to resonate but never really gets there.

The same missing of the mark is true of the scattered action scenes, which are fun but are also over the top and unconvincing, especially the final shootout which makes little sense and never makes you feel like anything's at stake. The performances of the two stars are solid - the naturally charismatic Crowe just cruises along while Bale is as reliable as ever in creating a somber and grim hero possessing quiet dignity - but the real highlight is the supporting role played by Ben Foster as Wade's cold, ruthless, unwaveringly loyal and effortlessly cool second in command Charlie Prince. Logan Lerman does a decent job as Evans' son William. Virtually everyone else is given little to do and is thus forgettable.

Despite all of my complaints, the whole thing comes together very well and is a fine piece of entertainment that's well above average. The story is compelling, the characters are interesting, the action scenes are, overall, fairly exciting, and the performances are good all things considered. It's just that the whole time I was watching it I was thinking that it really could have been better. Still, well worth a watch, and I loved the ending, which has some badass moments.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Get away from her you BITCH!*

Ever since reading this chap's spot-on review of Aliens, I had the movie stuck in my head - it was demanding to be watched! And so, watch it I did, and I was once again struck by how involving the film was despite the fact that it held no surprises for me. One of the best sci-fi action films ever made, and one everyone should watch (after watching part 1, that is). No full review here, because I just don't have the time to do it justice... Just watch the damned thing already!

*If you've seen the movie, you know what this line is all about!