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I Am Legend (Lawrence, USA, 2007) April 7, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 2000s, Drama, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Sci-fi/Fantasy , add a comment

I Am Legend (Lawrence, USA, 2007)

Dir. Francis Lawrence; starring Will Smith, Alice Braga

It’s surprising to see such a restrained, mannered big-budget Hollywood film delivered by music video director Francis Lawrence. Lawrence failed to ignite much devotion from casual comic book fans with his muddled adaptation Constantine, so it’s refreshing to see a young director, bred on the quick-fix conventions of recent blockbusters, produce such an interesting, and at times, powerful film.

I Am Legend sees Will Smith’s military scientist Robert Neville stuck in a post-apocalyptic New York City alone when a cancer cure turns the populace into flesh-eating, genetically-mutated zombies. He is entirely alone apart from loyal pet dog Sam. Lawrence mixes some beautifully haunting images of a desolate city with flashbacks of an earlier period when the virus began to spread. In present day, Neville travels by daylight, broadcasting everyday on radio in the hope of finding more survivors. By night, when the mutated humans come out to feed, he works in his fortress-like laboratory desperately trying to find a cure.

The film may be littered with plot holes but this doesn’t detract from Neville’s story. This is indeed a character study of an obsessed but decaying man, dealing with a loss of lives he feels responsible for, and who, imprisoned in the endless expanse of an empty city, begins to mentally and physically breakdown. Although immune to the virus, he is not immune to its destructive affect on the modern, thriving society he can only remember in dreams. Now he only has his work and the dog for company. Finding a cure is as much a delusion as it is a compulsion. It’s the only thing he has left to live for.

Will Smith portrays Neville as a brilliant mind on the brink of insanity. His daily jaunts to the local video store see him talking to the mannequins as if they were real patrons, and he even believes one of them is flirting with him. Seeing this very logical scientist lose all sense of reality is as much tragic as it is heartfelt. When he does finally meet a survivor he can’t deal with them being in his life, in his space. He has become so overwhelmed with a single goal, and so accustomed to a life without interaction with any other human being, he’s almost unwilling to accept he’s not alone.

Lawrence doesn’t confuse the issue with too much exposition. Much of the background story is left unnourished - we don’t know why Neville and his dog are immune to the virus, or why the mutations are harmed by sunlight (apart from it being a generic part of a Vampire’s make-up). Lawrence, on the other hand, forces us to focus on Neville’s adaptation to this new world - the pseudo-caveman with all the mod-con gadgets in the world but no one to share them with. But, the film could have done without the poor execution of special-effects for the mutations themselves. There isn’t the sense of authenticity shown in the likes of 28 Days Later as the zombies in I Am Legend look like something cut and pasted from Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy.

While Lawrence resorts to convention at the end, the climax is not without its considerable surprises. As Bob Marley’s Redemption Song plays over the credits, I Am Legend leaves you with a sense of the human spirit, and the strength of that spirit when faced with even the most impossible situation. It’s hardly a perfect film but with Lawrence’s assured direction and Will Smith’s captivating one-man show, I Am Legend deserves an audience.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Juno (Reitman, USA/Canada, 2007) March 31, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 2000s, Drama, Film reviews , 1 comment so far

Dir. Jason Reitman; written by Diablo Cody; starring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Thirlby, Eileen Pedde, Rainn[sic] Wilson, Emily Perkins

It’s obvious why Juno has been lavished with praise from critics and filmgoers alike. There’s a brilliant central performance from Ellen Page (who, while looking the sixteen years of her character, is a relative veteran of film and television having being in the business for more than ten years when Juno started shooting), and a terrifically idiosyncratic and perceptive screenplay from debut writer Diablo Cody. Cody’s script is defiantly gendered but that’s part of its charm: an intelligent, witty film of high school pregnancy that seeks to draw light on an under-nourished and important issue from the female perspective. And it works particularly well because Page is so beautifully immersed in the character of Juno – the girl who gets pregnant and decides instead of abortion she will allow a couple who can’t have children adopt her baby.

And that’s the central conceit of the story. Juno is an atypical sixteen year old teenager with her own oddball characteristics. She’s trying to find her own identity (Cody’s script never resorts to the sort cliche that gives the character all the answers by the closing credits) and her best friend Bleeker (Michael Cera) is trying to find his own too. One evening they decide to have sex and Juno gets pregnant. At first believing abortion is the only option, she gives up on the idea when she realises she can help a couple who cannot have children get their wish. That brings her to the attention of Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman), a successful suburban couple who desperately want children but can’t get pregnant. During the pregnancy Juno gets closer to the couple on an individual basis. She sees in Vanessa a love of children and of life, something she herself could not comprehend when contemplating abortion; while Mark is the sort of man Juno can relate to on a personal level, each having a love of music, horror movies, and pop-culture. And inevitably, Juno begins to come round to the idea pregnancy isn’t the life-destroying burden she thought it was.

It’s apparent in the film that no matter how you govern teenage sex, relationships - whether they be between a pair of sixteen year olds losing their virginity or a thirty-something married couple - don’t always work the way you’d like them to. That, in itself, isn’t very profound, but Cody stylishly places it in the same bracket as the vilification of abortion and teenager sex and the inherent hypocrisy in conservative ideology on the subject. The film treats young people with a lot of respect, as it does the single parent, in that because an adult couple may have financial security, they may not have security in their relationship. Juno breaks down those sugar-coated ideals of the perfect American family and lays them bare for a young audience to interpret them as they see fit.

There’s a great dynamic between Juno and Mark in that they appear more compatible as a couple than he and Vanessa. They share the same taste in music and films, and Juno is fascinated by Mark’s job as a songwriter. It’s obvious that Mark sees in Juno the youthful exuberance he once had. He feels the baby may stifle his own creative desires, and the thought of impending responsibility frightens him. Indeed, it’s interesting how Cody sees the man as the most perturbed over the whole adoption, even more so than expectant mother Juno. Director Jason Reitman brilliantly displays Juno and Mark’s relationship, hinting at physical attraction, but above all showing the fragile nature of so-called love and marriage. In a way, it’s the insecurity of security.

But the film works so well because of the performance of Ellen Page. She’s irresistibly good – it’s the sort of standout performance akin to Jon Heder in Napoleon Dynamite that places a young actor on the proverbial map. Aside from both films being named after their teenager title characters, Juno shares a lot in common with Jared Hess’ high school nerd Napoleon. These characters are ostracized by their peers, and have become disillusioned with the monotony of their lives. And, both films celebrate the idea of the individual over socially acceptable clique. No less importantly, they both also feature fantastic alternative rock soundtracks. Page embodies Juno’s idiosyncrasies as if she had lived the character in a previous life – she’s tenacious, cool, smart and quick-thinking, but she’s also troubled, mindful of her own responsibility but proactive in her mistakes. Page has the look of a young actress but the quality and command of an experienced one.

Juno is a measured, thoughtful, and insightful commentary on modern teenager life, relationships, sex, and pregnancy. Diablo Cody’s brilliant script is funny and tragic, drawing on a very authentic representation of its characters with the sumptuous Juno at its centre. With Ellen Page’s commanding yet beautifully mannered performance, Juno is destined to become one of the most talked about teen comedy-dramas of the decade.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada, 2007)

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 2000s, Drama, Film reviews, Crime , add a comment

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada, 2007)
Dir. David Cronenberg; starring Naomi Watts, Viggo Mortensen

Eastern Promises starts in typical Cronenberg fashion. As a Russian Mafiosi is getting his hair cut in a small salon, a mentally disabled man walks in and starts talking to the hairdresser. The three men are the only people in the salon. The hairdresser asks the man to shave the customer. He hands him the razor blade. Suddenly the man bursts into rage, taking the razor to the customer’s throat and, in true Cronenberg style, slicing it from ear to ear with blood gushing, breathless detail. This is our introduction to the Russian criminal underworld in London.

To read my full review - Click HERE

The Heartbreak Kid (Farrelly/Farrelly, USA, 2007) March 30, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 2000s, Film reviews, Romance , add a comment

I wouldn’t begin to entertain the idea the team of Farrelly and Farrelly needed a hit: they’ve given us some of the finest slapstick comedies of the 1990s, but The Heartbreak Kid arrives at time when the Farrelly product has lost some of its shine.

Give the comedy writer-director-producer duo some credit. They helped launch the careers of Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller, released one of the most successful comedies of the 1990s in There’s Something About Mary, and one of the decades finest in Dumb and Dumber. But their brand of humour, based on the most simple and obvious elements of social and cultural dysfunction was wearing thin even before the 90s came to an end. If Me, Myself and Irene’s split-personality Jim Carrey could be forgiven because it held at its core an endearing romantic relationship thanks to Renee Zellweger’s love interest, it was ultimately, a Carrey cash-in. When… [MORE]

Three and Out (Jonathan Gershfield, UK, 2008) March 22, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 2000s, Film reviews , add a comment

Dir. Jonathan Gershfield; starring MacKenzie Crook, Colm Meaney, Imelda Staunton, Gemma Arterton

As an amiable comic character offering diverting, often amusing sidekick turns to Hollywood big boys, Mackenzie Crook has carved a niche as Britain’s current exponent of the craft. Finding fame and fortune as the churlish idiot in Ricky Gervais’ genius BBC sitcom The Office, Crook’s saturnine impulses have transposed well across the Pacific with stand out moments in Pirates of the Caribbean and The Brothers Grimm. But, like any great endeavour, there comes a time when we all have to go it alone. Gervais has shown his old pal the way. Now, with Jonathan Gershfield in the director’s chair, Crook sheds the support act in favour of the limelight.

Crook plays Paul Callow, a London underground train driver, who has the unfortunate misfortune of killing two despondent travellers when they fling themselves in front of his locomotive. Finding out his employers offer a payout if any driver manages to dispose of three people in a single month (the mental trauma being too much to take of course), Paul sets out to find a suicidal maniac willing to exchange London Bridge for Oxford Circus station and the 10.05 to Notting Hill. Finding Colm Meaney’s Tommy Cassidy perched precariously on one of London’s overpasses, Paul persuades the bedraggled man to change his suicide plans. Tommy, at the end of his tether, agrees on the basis he can right some of his wrongs during the few days he has left.

The film essentially plays on the old buddy theme. Paul accompanies Tommy when he visits an old friend to recapture a valuable ring he once lost, and later the pair head to Tommy’s family home in search of his wife and daughter. Along the way they learn broken dreams and heartbreak aren’t uncommon. In that sense, the film offers nothing new, basing its story on what is a macabre premise, but the Crook and Meaney make it work with energetic performances. Meaney, the sort of actor you’ve seen a hundred times but can’t put a name to, makes Tommy a likeable rogue even if he’s self-defeating attitude abrogates life.

Crook’s unruffled persona driven by the promise of financial gain and the beautiful hillside cottage he craves is the perfect foil to Tommy’s cynicism. The introduction of Imelda Staunton adds gravitas to an already experienced cast, while a surprisingly scene-stealing turn from ex-Atomic Kitten Kerry Katona provides one of the films most amusing moments.

Three and Out sees director Jonathan Gershfield transition from the television arena (directing such BBC comedies as sketch show Big Train and cultural satire Dead Ringers) to feature length film. Consequently, he shows a competent grasp of situational comedy. One of the film’s best scenes sees the intrepid twosome break into a house looking for Tommy’s cherished ring. Finding the ring on a sleeping woman’s finger, Tommy squirts soap on her hand in an attempt to get it off. All this is done in the dark whilst trying not to wake the woman and her husband. Of course, their silent fumbling doesn’t stay quiet for long. When the sleeping couple awake, and Tommy and Paul duck under the bed, she inadvertently misinterprets the soap on her hand and face for something quite different, turning to her husband with a disdainful expression. It’s a moment of immature sexual innuendo but it works perfectly well.

Yet, Gershfield’s talents don’t stretch to being able to cover up holes in the plot. Nor does he manage the tone of the film with the sort of assuredness shown in the more comedic sequences. If the predictability of the plot doesn’t let the film down, the rather downbeat ending certainly does. And, while Gershfield tries to overcome this with a contrived love story (with Gemma Arterton’s limited range), the conclusion betrays the lightweight misadventures and heartfelt friendship built up between Paul and Tommy. For a film that ultimately looks at the upside of assisted suicide, the conclusion could have been handled with more care.

Three and Out, like star MacKenzie Crook, is amiable, diverting, and often very funny. While it suffers from a plot that doesn’t work and a muddled tone, the performances of the principle cast give it a likable energy that is endearing and at times heartwarming.

Rating: 3 out of 5

In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, UK/USA, 2008) March 9, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 2000s, Drama, Film reviews, Crime , add a comment

Dir. Martin McDonagh; starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes

In Bruges is a curious film from fledgling English director Martin McDonagh. It tells the tale of two contract killers holed up in the historic Belgium city of the film’s title awaiting further orders after a botched assassination. However, interestingly rather than detrimentally, the film plays much like an action movie without any action, as if the more lively aspects of the plot happen before the movie begins and after it finishes. Unsurprisingly, it’s because of this the film is hard to place in a conventional sense. And, ultimately, it’s all the better for it.

Colin Farrell plays Ray, a man who has found his calling under the tutelage of hit-man veteran Ken (Brendan Gleeson). The pair check into a Bruges hotel booked for them by boss Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes) after completing a mission in London. McDonagh plays on the generation gap between Ray and Ken: they’re like father and son on holiday together. Ray can’t stand Bruges, it doesn’t offer him any excitement. Ken, on the other hand, loves the preserved city and its historic buildings and picturesque cobbled streets.

But Ken sees something in Ray’s youthful vitality that mirrors his own introduction to the world of contract killing. He also sees the pain and anguish that first got his young student into the game, and which was exacerbated by his accidental killing of a child on his first assignment. McDonagh focuses all his early attention on this parental-like relationship between the two hit-men, providing some lovely moments of endearing humour and poignant sadness.

The film’s pedestrian pace shows its roots in the western genre. In Bruges is very much a thinly-veiled European-based western in the conventional sense: it has the anti-hero characters fighting a cause beneath the law, the one town setting which the hit-men walk into at the beginning of the film, and the final shoot out. But McDonagh never allows the film, even during the almost plot-less first half, to become… [More]

Full review posted HERE

Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, USA, 2008) March 6, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Horror, 2000s, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Sci-fi/Fantasy , add a comment

Dir. Matt Reeves; starring Michael Stahl-David, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Mike Vogel

I was like many intrigued by Cloverfield’s marketing campaign: the unnamed movie with a poster that depicted a decapitated Statue of Liberty. The trailer, which first appeared alongside the release of Transformers during the summer of 2007, showed the home video footage of a seemingly serene New York city party being interrupted by first the indication of an earthquake, then an explosion in a nearby building. Producer J.J. Abrams, who gave the world the television series Lost amongst many other production and writing credits, provided the mere hint of disaster with Cloverfield’s initial promotion. But the adventure story masked within wasn’t given traditional genre convention, there was no clarity to the good or evil, it was simply that old curse of the video tape: just as we are about to get to the best bit the machine chews the cassette.

Unfortunately, Abrams ability to market the movie and create media hype is a genius that ends there. As I suspected, Cloverfield is the accumulation of several other better films, and the lack of footage in the trailer not only hides the true nature of the story but also poor plotting, bad acting, and a complete lack of originality. The film is clearly the big-budget regurgitation of the YouTube online video revolution where shaky cameras have become a part of our media diet. In that same instance, Cloverfield plays into reality television’s penchant for actuality, while playing off what made The Blair Witch Project so successful. But it ends up feeling like the b-roll footage from 1998’s Godzilla. As if we’re shown these catastrophic events - not in brilliant 35mm widescreen with grandiose helicopter shots and dazzling special-effects - but by Joe Street, running terrified around New York city with his hi-def video camera.

But that’s the point isn’t it. Take an everyman and his expensive Christmas gift, and follow his plight as he tries to escape a city under siege. Yet while Cloverfield might seem like a unique piece of entertainment it’s rather insulting. After all, the events depicted in the movie are nothing more than a fantastical retelling of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York. Isn’t it rather insensitive that, ultimately, the film is nothing more than a perfectly executed exercise in commercial productivity?

It is difficult not to compare Cloverfield with The Blair Witch… [MORE]

Full review featured on Helium - Click HERE 

Halloween (Rob Zombie, USA, 2007) February 28, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Horror, 2000s, Film reviews , 3 comments

Dir. Rob Zombie; starring Malcolm McDowell, Scout Taylor-Compton, Danny Trejo, Brad Dourif

If there’s one thing you learn from watching Rob Zombie movies apart from what your insides look like, it’s: don’t watch Rob Zombie movies. Zombie is the picture postcard of MTV-generation trash that has spilled into the cinematic mainstream. His films are eye-candy to the uninitiated (or should that be uneducated), appealing largely, and unfortunately, to the mass teen market bred on quick-fixes, episodic action-orientated TV shows, and, seemingly, naked girls.

It’s a shame Zombie should turn his creative-eye to the Halloween franchise. It would appear that, even though the series hardly requires any more instalments, Hollywood (more precisely, the Weinsteins) is happy to tread well-worn ground in the hope of appealing to a ready-made audience. The series as a whole had already lost much of the shine made by John Carpenter. His Halloween film from 1978 was not only one of the greatest horror movies ever made, but a defining moment in horror movie lore. Some of the sequels were also entertaining in their own right, especially Jamie Lee Curtis’ return to scream-queen action in Halloween H20, but as more and more movies came out, Michael Myers became just another hokey anti-hero in the mould of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees.

Why make another is a question for the marketers. Since there seemed little more to add to the continuing story, somewhere along the line Zombie must have had the thought: remake the classic original. What he didn’t take into consideration was: remaking a film known and loved by so many is almost… [READ MORE]

Comparing John Carpenter’s original Halloween with Rob Zombie’s remake

Aside from the great gulf in quality between John Carpenter’s classic 1978 slasher and Rob Zombie’s post-Scream back story-cum-remake, the new film couldn’t be more different from the original.

The original Halloween was a benchmark in horror. It set new standards that would become convention in movies that followed like Friday The 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street. Heavily influenced by Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, Halloween became the trend-setter of slasher movie lore. Essentially, to remake Halloween – a classic film loved by so many – was an impossible task. It’s like trying to remake Citizen Kane or The Godfather: you’d be fighting a losing battle.

Halloween circa 2007 is more a quick-fix marketing ploy, intended to hit a ready-made audience than an artistic cinematic endeavour. Employing the limited talents of Rob Zombie – the pin-up of MTV generation trash – to not only write but direct the new film, indicated the studio (read: the Weinsteins) weren’t interested in remaking quality just inventing box office profit.

I suppose you can give the movie’s producers credit for providing viewers with something new. Every remake, after all, has to add something to up the ante (that’s why I’ve always ignored Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho). Halloween 07 adds back story to Michael Myers. Unfortunately… [READ MORE]

Iron Man (Jon Favreau, USA, 2008) February 25, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 2000s, Film reviews, Action/Adventure , 2 comments

Dir. Jon Favreau; starring Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Leslie Bibb

Iron Man, partly through sheer entertainment but more so through quality, highlights the deficiencies of Spiderman and its ilk. There is little hiding my dislike of Sam Raimi’s Spiderman franchise, a set of films which, along with X-Men, Hulk, Ghost Rider, Superman Returns and a long list of others, have turned me away from Hollywood’s penchant for the superhero. Small mercy’s aside – Hellboy, Batman Begins/The Dark Knight, Fantastic Four, Unbreakable – the new breed of superhero lacks the sort of creative muscle Superman and Batman were brandishing back in the 1970s and 1980s. What Jon Favreau’s Iron Man highlights is the fact superhero films can still be good movies under the merchandised gloss of their action set-pieces. It also examples the glaring flaws of the Spiderman franchise, a set of films only worthwhile to film students as how not to do teen romance.

John Stark is the genius inventor and owner of a military weapons manufacturing company. He’s got everything he ever wanted – women, money, power. When the convoy he’s travelling in is ambushed in Afghanistan, he’s captured and forced to build weaponry for a violent insurgent group. Instead of building a weapon for the group holding him captive, he creates a device he can use to escape with. The device, a reinforced iron suit powered by a tiny nuclear reactor, provides the user with power, protection and ammunition. Finishing the suit, Stark escapes, heading home to perfect the design and add some innovative touches. But, when he thinks all is safe, the iron suit is put the test once again when he discovers the real reason why he was held captive in the Middle East.

Favreau’s Iron Man stakes its claims in a grounded reality governed by technological advancement. This makes the titular character a more authentic proposition. But Favreau also underpins the fantastic with a very contemporary theme – how technology interacts with our lives, and the endless moral dilemma of military weaponry.

Some have criticized Favreau for taking the more realistic elements from the comic book for Iron Man’s first cinematic endeavors but that’s what makes his film so successful. Iron Man, far from being a superhero with supernatural powers, uses technology to dominate his enemies. This in turn highlights the film’s theme of power and greed. If the world’s most powerful weapons can be made, bought and used by the most powerful nation on earth, their mere existence (and destructive capabilities) becomes attractive to those with less than humane ideals. As Stark questions after his captivity, should weapons of strategic and/or mass destruction be built in the first place? For all their protective capabilities, they are only non-destructive if left unused, and as he finds out, no matter what policies are put in place to ensure weapons are in the right hands, they can and indeed do fall into the wrong ones.

Iron Man’s penchant for authentic if far-reaching science is also seen in Jeff Bridges’ cyborg monstrosity which becomes Stark’s chief villain. It’s a predictable plotline – Bridges hardly hides his hatred for the man who has everything: it’s all in those cold, calculating eyes – but he makes a sadistic and believable baddie in the mould of Lex Luther. The film becomes less interesting when the two metal goliath’s go hammer and tongue but at least Favreau gives so… [Please read my full review HERE]

Children of Men (2006, USA/UK, 2006) February 22, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 2000s, Drama, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Sci-fi/Fantasy, Crime , add a comment

Alfonso Cuaron’s bleak but brilliant film set in a self-destructive future born out of fascist authoritarianism and humanity’s loss of fertility is a damning, uncompromising picture of one possible eventuality. As a picture postcard of what a British National Party-run Britain could be, Cuaron’s film is the perfect antidote to their political and cultural ignorance. The film is deeply affecting, not just in its graphic depiction of violence and a society overrun by narcissism and government indignation, but in its believable view of a future not too distant from our own. Children of Men is a fascinating, original and frightening film that cuts so closely to the bone it actually hurts.

Clive Owen plays Dillon, a working man who has left his activism days behind him. When an old flame (Julianne Moore) arrives with a proposition, he finds himself thrust into a political nightmare. Britain, in the 2020’s is, like every other nation on earth, dying out. Infertility has taken hold. No babies have been born for nearly twenty years and when the youngest man on earth is murdered, the tabloid news has, as you’d expect, nothing better to focus on. Migration has become a thing of the past in the United Kingdom. All non-Brits are holed up in detention camps not unlike Nazi ghettos during World War 2, and random acts of brutality and murder are rife. Dillon is tasked to help a refugee escape the country. What he doesn’t know is that a miracle has occurred - the girl is pregnant. However, after Moore’s character is brutally killed by her own people, Dillon finds himself trying to escape the police who wrongly believe…[MORE]

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