Monday, 19 March 2012

That was the week that was (12 - 18 March)

Reviews for seven films coming up this week (which I think may be a record number so far this year). Quite a mixed bag, too - we've got everything from an Oscar winning family drama to a lowbrow buddy cop comedy, and from a Turkish crime procedural to a South Korean Western. It's going to be good, clean fun for all the family...

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

This is the movie that cleaned up at the 1980 Academy Awards, defeating all-comers to claim the Oscars for Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director and, most importantly, Best Picture. All That Jazz, Breaking Away, Norma Rae, Apocalypse Now: your boys took one HELL of a beating! Now, to be honest, of those four other films, I've only seen Apocalypse Now, and while I don't think this film is quite up to the standards of that wonderful Vietnam epic, Kramer vs. Kramer has a lot going for it. The plot sees go-getting advertising executive Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffmann) come home from another long, successful day at the office to discover that his neglected wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) is in the process of leaving him. As a result of this, Ted is forced to take on board the family duties that he'd been shirking for so long, and take responsibility for raising his six year old son. What could have made for a rather drippy, sentimental made-for-TV drama has been transformed into a truly excellent movie by the care which was taken in every aspect of the filmmaking process. The script is top notch - warm, humane and surprisingly funny, and there are no bad guys here, just flawed human beings trying the best that they can to live their lives. Both Hoffmann (in particular) and Streep are excellent in the central roles, and the film comes to a thrilling climax as husband and wife go through a custody battle for their son. Though some of the attitudes towards woman on display in this film may now seem a little dated, it's still a very good picture indeed.

Rating: 9/10

Maria Full of Grace (2004)

From the troubles of (comparatively) wealthy native New Yorkers to the life and death struggles of recent immigrants to the Big Apple - this is a look into the lives of Colombian drugs mules. Our protagonist here is Maria Alvarez, a 17 year old girl from a small town in Colombia. Having recently quit her depressing, dead end job in a flower factory, and on discovering that she is pregnant, Maria is tempted by what she thinks will be easy money as a mule on the Bogota - New York route. Sadly, she discovers that her new occupation is anything but easy. Not only does she have to swallow fifty or so pellets filled with cocaine (which could be lethal if any of those pellets were to leak), but she also has to deal with the unpleasant individuals she is working for, and contend with the suspicions of the US customs officials. This is a thought provoking and interesting film, which includes impressive attention to detail in its observations about life in Colombia and provides highly plausible reasons as to why somebody would risk their life in such a hazardous line of work. Catalina Sandino Moreno (who was Oscar nominated for her performance) is excellent in the lead role, establishing a sympathetic, vulnerable character who learns to fend for herself over the course of her journey. My only issue with this one would be with the ending, which felt a little rushed, and not entirely plausible. Otherwise, this is a very strong effort from first time director Joshua Marston.

Rating: 7/10

21 Jump Street (2012)

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum team up for this mash up between two well-worn genres - the high school comedy and the buddy cop picture. Very loosely based on the '80s TV show which launched Johnny Depp's career, Hill and Tatum play a couple of recruits fresh from police academy, who are sent back to high school as part of an undercover operation to bring down a drugs ring. As always seems to be the case with partners in buddy cop movies, the pair are like chalk and cheese. Hill plays Schmidt, a nerdy and highly intelligent individual who has a tendency to freeze under pressure, while Tatum is Jenko, a dumb (but generally kind-hearted) jock who is able to ace the physical aspects of police work, but can't remember the words to the Miranda rights speech. I wasn't entirely sure that this one would come off, but to my surprise, the film was actually very funny, albeit in a highly puerile way. Jonah Hill plays another of his motor-mouthed, wise cracking characters, and if you liked him in Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, this is another performance which could be right up your alley. Even the normally wooden Channing Tatum, who I've never really rated previously, isn't too bad in this one.  The wheels start to come off somewhat in the overcooked ending, which eschews laughs in favour of an epic car chase and gun battle, but by that stage, the film had generated more than enough goodwill. This is a far better film than I expected and leads me to think that it might be worth mashing up some other tired genres in an effort to create something new and exciting. Perhaps a mixture of science fiction and weepy melodrama might work - I'm thinking along the lines of Steel Magnolias... In Space. Hollywood producers - I await your call.

Rating: 7/10

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

Following the surprisingly good 21 Jump Street on Friday, I took a second trip to the cinema the following day to catch another police themed picture, one which takes a rather more serious look at the thin blue line. Instead of madcap, foulmouthed antics in a Californian high school, here we have a solemn and ponderously paced procedural set in the remote Turkish province of Anatolia. The story takes place over the course of a single day, as a group of police officers, together with a doctor and a state prosecutor, take a murder suspect out on a hunt for a body he claims to have buried. At the risk of sounding like a philistine (though, like Ivan the tennis pro in The Squid and the Whale, that's probably what I am), I found this one to be just too slow for my tastes. Events progress at a glacial pace, as the characters move from one prospective site to another, exchanging small conversational nuggets as they go. I appreciate that some of the camerawork here is quite breath-taking, and that some of the shots were brilliantly composed by director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, but I could really have used a bit more excitement - my attention was really flagging by the end of the movie's lengthy running time. That doesn't mean that I'm going to give up on artier films altogether; there have been a number of slower paced, foreign films which I've really enjoyed over the last few years, including Four Months, Three Days and Two Days, The White Ribbon, The Consequences of Love, Au Revoir Les Enfants and Tony Manero. All the same, I can't see myself returning to this particular flick in a hurry.

Rating: 5/10

Black Death (2010)

Set against the backdrop of an Olde England ravaged by the first outbreak of the bubonic plague, we follow a small but fearsome cadre of soldiers who have been tasked with rooting out witches amongst their midst. The group's latest mission leads them into a rural backwater, in search of a village which seems to have been untouched by the disease. The rumour is that the villagers have fallen under the spell of a beautiful sorceress, renounced their Christianity and taken to necromancy in a bid to save themselves from the Black Death... The subject of religious faith is still a highly emotive and controversial issue in today's society, but whereas these days, we're more likely to see a war of words between atheists and believers, back in medieval times, matters seem to have been resolved by torturing your opponent into submission. Anyway, it all makes for an interesting horror move, featuring a strong and diverse cast of mostly British actors - particularly impressive are Sean Bean, Carice Van Houten, Eddie Redmayne and John Lynch. It is also rather reminiscent of The Wicker Man - with both movies containing a common theme of pitting the Christian beliefs of an outsider against the pagan ways of a remote group. This one was directed by Bristol's own Christopher Smith, for whom I've previously had mixed feelings - I thoroughly enjoyed his 'Shining on a boat' movie Triangle, but hated Severance (reviewed here: On balance, I have to say that it's the best of Smith's films to date, and it's well worth checking out.

Rating: 8/10

Inland Empire (2006)

David Lynch's most recent film takes us weirdly deep into his deeply weird subconscious. We're provided with a relatively conventional narrative at first; Laura Dern plays Nikki Grace, a successful Hollywood actress who has just discovered that she will be playing the lead in a new film entitled "On High in Blue Tomorrows". However, she is warned by a sinister neighbour that the production is doomed - the picture is a remake of a never completed Polish film in which both of the leads were murdered. One day, whilst looking around the studio backlots, Nikki wanders through a stage door and enters another world. From this point onwards, the narrative thread disappears almost altogether, and we are presented with a nightmarish kaleidoscope of strange and haunting sights. These include a family of well-dressed rabbits who appear to be starring in a bizarre sitcom, an interview between an abused woman and an almost mute government functionary in a dingy, green tinged bunker, a Greek chorus of Sunset Strip hookers who occasionally burst into song and dance routines, and scenes from a spooky Polish séance - all of which are watched on a television screen by a tearful woman in a low rent hotel room. To be honest, I had almost no idea what was going on most of the time, and I'm not sure that there is any rational explanation for the events which occur in the final two thirds of the film's running time. Nevertheless, this is a movie which will stay with me for a long time. I felt completely transfixed - almost hypnotised - by what I was watching on the screen. The film provides that combination of awe and terror which I haven't experienced since I last saw David Lynch's masterpiece, Mulholland Drive. I should also point out that sound mixing for this film is quite brilliant; the strange, discordant noises in the background create an atmosphere of dread - and are occasionally punctuated with loud, violent bursts which almost made me jump out of my seat. A word of warning, though - this isn't a film for viewers who prefer a movie in which everything can be rationalised and explained - as far as I can tell, though there are certain common recurring themes and motifs, there isn't any real rhyme or reason to much of what you see and hear; the film follows a dream logic of its own. As a pure cinematic experience though, it's hard to beat.

Rating: 9/10

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

You may recall that I mentioned a few weeks back that almost every Korean film I have seen to date is incredibly dark and gruesome. Well, here we have a film (and from the maker of notable Korean horror shows I Saw the Devil and A Tale of Two Sisters, no less) that is far more upbeat and cheerful. The trappings of the Western genre are taken into the unfamiliar surroundings of 1940s Manchuria, with our three eponymous characters fighting it out over a treasure map said to lead its holder to buried treasure, left behind by the deposed Qing dynasty. The 'Good' here is the least interesting character - he's simply a sharp shooting bounty hunter looking to bring the other two characters to justice. The 'Bad' is rather more engaging - he's a well-dressed dandy with a short temper and a nasty habit of shooting any of his underlings who he perceives as having slighted him. Finally we have The 'Weird', a clumsy petty criminal and motorcycle enthusiast, who stumbles across the map by mistake but is determined to keep hold of it. As the trio race across the region, they are closely followed by a gang of bandits and the occupying Japanese army, all of whom leave behind a trail of mayhem in their wake...  All in all, it's good fun (if a bit silly) and the numerous action sequences are put together in an entertaining, hyperkinetic style by director Jeen-woo Kim. It's probably not one which is going to live long in the memory, but I enjoyed it all the same.

Rating: 7/10

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