Sunday, April 24, 2011

Winter's Bone

Year: 2010
Director: Debra Granik
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes

Plot: 17 year old Ree Dolly lives in the Ozark Mountain caring for her two younger siblings and her mentally unwell mother. When her good for nothing father jumps bail, she is forced to find him before his court date is up or risk losing their house.

Review: I chanced upon the DVD of this film as I visited the DVD store yesterday, and just had to pick this up. Simply because, out of the ten Best Picture nominees at the recent Oscars, Winter's Bone was one of two film nominees I hadn't seen yet.

I find it odd that this film is being marketed as a thriller, when it has very few to no thrills in it. Sure, there is an underlying sense of dread, some danger here and there, and the film is a dark and gritty view of small town life away from the big cities, but thrills? No. I wouldn't call this a thriller, but instead a well made drama.

Director Debra Granik does a great job in keeping the audience interested in the story. The pace is slow but the runtime isn't too long, so you wouldn't feel bored. Granik lets the audience see the story through Ree's eyes as the camera follows her around all the way, so we learn everything the same time she does. The cinematography is also excellent as cameraman Michael McDonough points his lens at the vast landscapes of forests, hills and trees. Occasionally he'll set his camera on dead objects like tree stumps, wooden tables and a trampoline outside Ree's house, to further capture the silence of life in these parts. One thing that did stick out like a sore thumb was a short black and white sequence of a squirrel about halfway through the picture. I had no idea why that was there.

Jennifer Lawrence is great as Ree, showing her courage and determination to find her father, even if she has to get herself into situations that would put her life in danger. She may be new to the film industry, but she is more than capable of carrying herself in the lead role. John Hawkes is excellent as her drug snorting uncle Teardrop, who initially comes off as a pretty mean and scary guy, but in the second half of the film becomes more accomodating to Ree. Hawkes is a revelation here for me, because I'm used to seeing him excel in bit supporting roles in films like From Dusk Till Dawn and Identity, where he usually plays a nervous guy. But here, he's downright intimidating, and would have nailed the Oscar he was nominated for if not for Christian Bale being nominated in the same year.

If there's one thing I found very interesting about Winter's Bone, is the fact that even in small towns that run on cattle, firewood and the like, there still exists and underworld society, in this case, one that is fueled by drugs. Even in this world, away from the big city, there is a mob boss, and asking the wrong questions could get you killed. You'd never expect that if you're a city guy like me.

Overall, Winter's Bone is a nice way to spend 100 minutes if you like good cinematography and great performances. (3.5/5)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Source Code

Year: 2011
Director: Duncan Jones
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright

Plot: Captain Colter Stevens, a US helicopter pilot, wakes up inside a body of another man onboard a train that subsequently blows up. He then learns that he is part of a program called Source Code, which allows him to relive the last eight minutes of that man's life. He is tasked to find out who planted the bomb on the train so that the military can prevent another disaster. And he has to keep on reliving the same eight minutes until he is successful.

Review: Source Code seemed like a great idea for a sci-fi thriller. It's a marriage of Groundhog Day and the famous 80s TV series Quantum Leap. In fact, Quantum Leap star Scott Bakula lends his voice here as Colter's father when they speak on the phone, and it is a fitting nod to the TV show I grew up watching.

I remembered watching Duncan Jones' first effort Moon, and I didn't quite get it at first, but then I realized that it was not just a sci-fi flick, it was a character study. Source Code is nowhere near as deep or complex as Moon, but it is just as fascinating. Jones certainly has a great eye for science fiction as he is capable of connecting with the audience despite using a lot of technical jargon. He skilfully balances the drama with the science fiction side of the film, thereby grounding the story and making it more than just another Starship Troopers or a bad episode of Star Trek.

If you've seen Groundhog Day, or episodes of TV sci-fi shows where the same thing happens repeatedly in the same space of time, then you'll be familiar with what happens here, as Colter keeps seeing the same things over and over. But thankfully, you'll never get tired of it, which is the beauty of the film. As he takes different approaches to the task, different things happen, and in turn we root for him to succeed all the way.

The film moves at a smooth pace and at a short 93 minutes, does not overstay its welcome, and yet manages to deliver a story that is mind blowing and heart breaking at the same time. Kudos to Jones for doing that.

Jake Gyllenhaal is a perfect choice for Colter Stevens as he convincingly conveys his character's varying emotions, from confusion to frustration to sadness and at the end, determination. Big things are in store for him in the near future. Michelle Monaghan plays off of Gyllenhaal well as the love interest who is a passenger on the ill-fated train. Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright round up the cast nicely as the Source Code operators, the former being the sympathetic one and the latter as the one who isn't.

Overall, I had fun with this film, and I wonder what Duncan Jones, the son of the famous David Bowie, will do next. (4/5)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sucker Punch

Year: 2011
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Scott Glenn

Plot: Set in the 1960s, the film focuses on a young girl, recently orphaned, who is sent to a mental hospital by her wicked stepfather. There, she befriends four other girls, and as they plan their escape, she imagines a parallel world where they become warriors on a handful of missions, which coincide with the escape plan.

Review: That plot summary was not easy to write. But then again, Sucker Punch isn't just a film. It's part guilty pleasure, part music video, part video game, and if you stay till the end credits roll, it's part Broadway too.

Zack Snyder has always been a master of visual style, and here he shows us why yet again. For every action sequence, there's a musical number, and a lot of slow mo is used, combined with some neat camera tricks that takes the audience up, over, upside down and pretty much everywhere else. Snyder also deserves credit for filming the fight sequences properly, which means no close up shots that blur the moves.

As for the CGI used to depict the fantasy worlds, it is nothing short of spectacular. We have WWI trenches filled with zombie Germans, a castle with a dragon, a Japanese fort with demon samurais and a train with robot warriors. It all looks damn awesome, even though you know that the girls are really fighting nothing during filming, you sure don't feel or notice it on screen.

Emily Browning, who plays the lead girl Baby Doll, excels in the fight sequences but her acting is a bit bland. However, she makes up for it by contributing her voice to a few songs used in the film. The standout number would be Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) which is played at the beginning of the film. I must say, Browning has good vocals. Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone, who play sisters Sweet Pea and Rocket, are the best ones in the acting department here. Their conflict on whether or not to escape is well executed. Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung don't get to do much here, but fill their roles as best they can. Carla Gugino lends some good support as the girls' instructor, Mdm Gorski, while Oscar Isaac makes a pretty good villain as their pimp in the fantasy world. Poor Scott Glenn however, gets the Yoda like role of the Wise Man, their guide in the fantasy missions, who has the corniest lines ever heard on film.

Despite all the outstanding visuals, Sucker Punch is still a bit of a mess plotwise. Sure, I can dig the parallel fantasy/reality universe thing, but compared to Snyder's previous work on 300 and Watchmen, it's rather flimsy. In fact, Sucker Punch is rather an acquired taste. Either you like it (or at least get it), or you hate it and call it crap. A few patrons walked out of the theatre when I saw this yesterday, so I'm guessing they're of the latter group.

In summary, Sucker Punch is a visual feast and more likely a favourite amongst men who love seeing sexy women fight with guns and swords, but if you want something meatier, this probably isn't your cup of tea. (3.5/5)

Monday, April 04, 2011

The Eagle

Year: 2011
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong

Plot: Set in 140 AD, twenty years after the Roman empire's Ninth Legion disappears in Scotland, along with their eagle standard, young centurion Marcus Aquila, son of the commander of the Ninth Legion, sets out across Hadrian's Wall along with his British slave Esca, to find the eagle and restore his father's honour.

Review: There aren't many medieval epic films out there worth remembering, other than Braveheart or Gladiator. The Eagle isn't close to sharing the same accolades as those two films, but the setting does remind me of King Arthur, starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley. Except in The Eagle, there are no female love interests.

Kevin Macdonald, who directed the wonderful The Last King Of Scotland, manages to balance the drama and action well here, though the fight scenes aren't much to shout about. He was wise to hire Anthony Dod Mantle (127 Hours) as his cameraman, as we are treated to the vast and beautiful landscape of valleys, hills and mountainsides during Marcus and Esca's journey to the north.

The story actually focuses more on honour and respect than anything else. Marcus seeks to regain the honour that was lost when his father and the Ninth Legion disappeared without a trace, and is willing to do what no other Roman dares to do. Esca, despite his hatred for Marcus and his kind, for invading his country and killing his family, shows a sense of honour of his own by staying with Marcus when it matters. The two men's relationship drives the film, though I sensed that more could have been done to establish their eventual mutual respect for one another.

Channing Tatum is well known for being a wooden actor, but I'm happy to report that he has improved a lot here. Sure, he's a long way from being exceptionally good, but to his credit, he makes his character more believable than any other character he's played before. Jamie Bell fares better of course, with his Esca telling so much from his facial expressions alone. Bell and Tatum play off each other well here, and it is much appreciated, for The Eagle relies heavily on that.

Overall, The Eagle may not be as memorable as other films of the same mould, but it's worth a watch if you have 2 hours to spare. Some decent acting, good cinematography and a well told story never hurt anyone. (3.5/5)

Friday, April 01, 2011


Year: 2011
Director: Gore Verbinski
Voice cast: Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Abigail Breslin, Harry Dean Stanton, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Timothy Olyphant, Alfred Molina

Plot: A pet chameleon falls out of his terrarium and onto a desert highway, and eventually winds up in Dirt, a small town in the west that needs a new sheriff.

Review: The most interesting thing about Rango is the fact that it leans more towards a western than being an animated feature. Sure, it is animation, but the western element of it is most prevalent. Despite it being co-produced by Nickelodeon, I suspect Rango wouldn't be popular amongst anyone aged below ten, evidenced by the somewhat impatient kids in the audience when I went to see this. Westerns after all can be slow at times.

But is Rango any good? By golly, it is. Gore Verbinski, who directed Johnny Depp in all three Pirates Of The Caribbean films, directs him again here, except you only hear Depp's voice and not see him, though Rango looks a lot like Depp even as a chameleon. Under Verbinski's direction, the film is solid entertainment for 107 minutes as we watch Rango and other desert animals like lizards, turtles, frogs and mice interact as if we were watching Tombstone. The animation is also top notch, with every scale and hair looking very real.

The story begins, hilariously enough, with a quartet of owls in a Mariachi band telling Rango's story, and from time to time they pop up with a short musical number and some narration, which is brilliant. Rango, we learn, is a chameleon living in his own world in a glass jar, until he winds up in the desert next to the highway in spectacular fashion. On the advice of an armadillo, he heads for Dirt, and learns that they have a water problem. Rango accidentally becomes a hero after an encounter with a hawk, and becomes their sheriff.

However, when he attempts to solve their water crisis, he goes head to head with Dirt's conniving Mayor, voiced by Ned Beatty, who already did a great job playing the villain in Toy Story 3 last year, and does even better here. We also get the distinctive voice of Bill Nighy as a rattlesnake gunslinger and Timothy Olyphant gets to channel Clint Eastwood as the Spirit of the West. Depp is of course, charismatic even as a chameleon, and he owns nearly every scene he's in.

Overall, I enjoyed Rango, even when it was a tad slow at times. If you love westerns, you can't miss this. Of course, it's still more of an homage to westerns instead of actually being a western, but it works nonetheless. Good stuff. (4/5)


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