The Way Back – Review

THE WAY BACK  

Directed by Peter Weir. Starring Jim SturgessColin FarrellDejan AngelovDragos BucurEd HarrisMark Strong

Based on a supposedly true memoir (possibly even ghostwritten) by Slavomir Rawicz called The Long Walk, (no, not the one by Stephen King), it tells the story of a polish prisoner and his companions escaping labour camp in Siberia in the 1940s and basically walking all the way across, Mongolia, China, the Himalayas and then into India.

I am sure your geography is pretty good, but just to refresh it a little bit I took the liberty of attaching a map to this post, just to show you how bloody far it is!!

It is an amazing story, so amazing that people argue whether it’s actually true or not. However, the movie goes beyond all that: yes it is a story about the journey, but also about the human endurance, about bonding with friends,  and ultimately about people prevailing over the adversities.

I find this film particularly hard to review: I saw it a few days ago, but resisted from writing anything about it, as I wanted to wait for the film to sink in.

My first reaction was that the pace  of the film seemed to be a bit off. It is a long one for sure, and yet I felt, for the first time in a while, that actually it could have gained more pathos by being even a touch longer. I couldn’t help feeling there must be a lot of material somewhere in the editing room that didn’t quite make the final cut, most of which at the expense of the characters and their relation with one another.

It all seemed oddly fast in places. For example, in one scene people argue with each other, in the next one (few days later) they were all talking normally. At some point they were all suspicious about a new girl joining their group, the next moment they were talking to her and revealing their deepest emotions.

This particularly happens towards the beginning of the film and it made me feel a bit uneasy about it all.

I do wonder if it would have been better to get rid off one of the characters and concentrate more on the fewer of them. It’s interesting to notice that well into the film I still had no idea how many people were actually on the journey and who was who.

I can’t wait to see a possible director’s cut on DVD (or even better ono BluRay): I’m sure the film could only improve by being a little bit more drawn out. I can’t quite believe I’m hearing myself saying that, but it is after all a film about an incredible long journey, so it’s fair enough to have a film which feels  just as long.

Having said all this, the whole thing just looks beautiful! I was quite surprised to see the National Geographic logo at the front, but having seen the film, somehow it all makes sense. Those grand landscapes and vistas make it look like one of their best documentaries.

Performances are strong throughout. Jim Sturgess was chosen by the director on the basis of “Across the Universe” (a film which has been panned in this country and yet loved in many others… in which case I’d consider myself a foreigner).  Colin Farrell is the quirkiest of the all (what a surprise) and I really enjoyed watching him. And Ed Harris, who plays his age, pulls out one of the most rounded characters of the whole piece.

I was also a bit surprised to see a caption at the front of the film basically giving away the ending ( I won’t do here, don’t worry) which actually, when it finally comes, feels rushed and a bit “tagged on” and left me with a slight sour taste in my mouth.

And it’s a real shame, because on the whole, this is a solid film, quite understated (including the music, which could have gone so syrupy/hollywood grand and instead, thankfully was kept quite restrained) , with a good story and good performances. I would recommend it to anyone., even though it might not make it to the Oscars…

7/10

The Fighter – Review

The Fighter (2010)

Directed by David O. Russell. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams

This was an unexpected surprise! After seen the trailer for “The Fighter” I didn’t really think much of it. Then I saw that it was directed by David O. Russel and remembered how much I hated I Heart Huckabees. Oh dear, I thought to myself, this isn’t going to be a happy viewing… Oh, how I was wrong!!!

This is now probably in my top 10 film of the year (or even top 5 dare I say).

The trailer makes it look like another film about a boxer, filled with violence for the latest testosterone generation, yet this film is as much as boxing as the first Rocky was, actually even less. And just like that film (I’m sorry but the parallel is inevitable), it’s a story about an underdog, a rag-to-riches tale, a story about characters more than anything else.

At the centre of the action is the relationship between  two brothers: the boxer “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) who helped train him.

At this point I must confess my complete ignorance about any type of sports. So much so that I had never even head of Micky Ward so the whole turn of events was a complete surprise (including the ending).

The thing that will strike anyone watching the film is the acting of pretty much everybody in it.

Once again (as he had done for the Machinist in 2003) Christian Bale has lost a lot of weight reportedly by eating very little. He researched the part by taking notes on Eklund’s mannerisms and recording conversations for the character’s distinct accent. Apparently he even stayed in character throughout filming. Well, whatever he did, it really works. Bale transformed himself completely for this film and it’s hard to believe that he’s the same person behind the cape in Batman or even in Terminator: salvation.

And as an extra proof of how good Christian Bale is in the film, when during the end credits we are treated with some real footage of the real people in the film, we can be amazed by how similar his mannerism and accents are.

Because of the part itself, Bale is really the one who steals the show every time he’s on-screen, however Mark Wahlberg is also very good too in a much more understated act, which almost goes unnoticed. Never for a moment you doubt that he’s actually anything but a boxer (apparently he even had a boxing ring in his back garden during the making of this film).

But the big surprise for me was Melissa Leo who plays the mother in the film: a relatively unknown actress and yet a great force of nature in the Fighter.

The film is very nicely balanced, has a very good pace, a tight script and a nicely controlled and never showy direction. The only noticeable choice was the way they decided to film the few fight sequences in the film, by using video as opposed to film (or at least it look that way), by making the inter-cutting with the real footage seamless.

This is a beautiful movie which probably hasn’t got anything new that we haven’t seen before but it’s got a moving story that rings true at every step and will make you laugh, cry and cheer all the way to the last frame and it’s done with such simplicity and sincerity that it’s hard not to admire.

8.5/10


Tron: Legacy – Review

TRON: LEGACY (2010) 

Directed by Joseph Kosinski. Starring Jeff BridgesGarrett HedlundOlivia Wilde

Before I start trashing this film the way it really deserves, I should probably admit I was never a real fan of the original. It’s the kind of film that people always seemed to admire for its technical achievement, but even as a kid I never quite got into it. In fact, dare I say, I remember thinking it was all rather boring and overly complicated. Let’s just face it, most of the fun and the enjoyment in that first film was actually watching the video-games-like sequences (and yet even those, I remember thinking even at the time, were over-edited and I couldn’t quite enjoy them fully). The rest was pretty forgettable.
Of course, back in the 80s I probably had the video games, I had the little Mattel characters, and even a notebook for school with Tron written on it… but back then, the times were different and there wasn’t much to choose from for a boy of ten like me.

Anyway, it doesn’t look like I am the only one who thinks that, since the first TRON ranks pretty low on the internet movie database and rotten tomatoes gives it an unremarkable 68% (Most of which surely has got to do with the nostalgia factor). Hence the reason why it took them almost 30 years to make a sequel.

Having said all this, I can safely say that Tron Legacy manages to stay true to the original: it’s just as complicated and confusing in its “story”, the video-games-like sequences are just as messy and over-edited as the original and the special effects want to be absolutely amazing, but actually when you really look at them closely they’re not as successful as they’re trying to make you believe.

Much has been talked about the CGI wizardry that has allowed Jeff Bridges to look 30 years younger. Well, sadly, we are still a few years away to make that trick seamless. Even in Benjamin Button the effect on Brad Pitt young just about worked, but was still the least convincing of them all. Though it will probably look just about OK once the film comes out on a DVD (not so sure about the BluRay actually), certainly on the big screen, the effect on Jeff Bridges’ face doesn’t look quite right. Human skin has always been troublesome on GCI and this film proves it again. The result is a weird plastic feel that actually reduces his real facial expression. One of my readers said it made him look like “prince charming” from the Shrek movies, which I think it hits the nail right on the head!! Interestingly it seemed to work better in the scenes which were masked  and filtered through a TV screen (as if they were part of archive footage), which proves that even the makers were quite aware of the limitations.

The film is quite a visual feast for the eye, as special effects and production design fight for attention in every single frame of the film , but it’s all so hyper-real and over-blown that, to be honest, I found it hard to be swept away by any of it. I do recognize some of its value (which is why I am giving it 5 stars and not 2 stars), but all this visual extravaganza cannot make up for the lack of  any clear and interesting storytelling. And this is, at the end of the day, the most important factor in a film, any film, whether it’s an action piece or a drama, or a cartoon.: you’ve got to like the story! You’ve got to sympathize with the characters or at least be interested in them. In the case of Tron:Legacy  I was pretty confused all the way through (but sadly not in a “Inception” sort of confusion where, being confused is part of the fun. This was just confusing because it was badly told!).

I am not really sure who is this film for? Fans of the first one? Well, there are not too many out there.

Is it a film for kids? Don’t think so: they would certainly get lost in the mambo-jumbo story.

Is it a film for video-games lovers? Probably, though I can name hundreds of much more exciting games to play.

Is it a film for girls in love with Garrett Hedlund? Well, there’s plenty of him in here and he does an OK job with the material he’s given, but to be honest that’s not a good enough reason for watching this film.

Is it a film for geeks or special effects lovers? Well, I am one of those, and I can tell you that I wasn’t really taken by any it. It all may look slick and stylish and it’s all just an upgraded version of the previous film, with very little originality.

Even the action sequences seemed just a modern version of the previous ones, with some added 3D Fx. Ah yes, I was almost forgetting the 3D factor. Right at the beginning some weird caption tells you that some of the scenes are supposed to look 2D and that you should keep your 3D glasses on all the time. What it actually means is that the 3D only kicks in once the main characters enters the virtual world of video-games (quite a bad choice if you ask me, especially because it misses quite a few opportunities in the first part of the film to make the action a bit more exciting). Once we finally get to “virtual world” or cyber-word or whatever you wanna call it, after the first few minutes you’re in 3D you actually almost forget you’re watching it in 3D (I say almost because the headache that the 3D glasses give you is still there).  I was so surprised by how badly the 3D is used on this film. Even the flying sequences didn’t seem to draw me in  ( and those are notoriously good on 3D, see Avatar and even the awful Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole). Am I alone on this one? I usually love 3D… I seem to remember the motorbike sequences on the first Tron being a lot more exciting than in this (or is it because I was 10 at the time?).

On the acting side of things (and I am aware that one doesn’t really go and see Tron for the acting), Jeff Bridges in his older self (not the plastic young version) seems a little bit embarrassed to be in this film, in a mixture of the Dude and a Jedi knight… And talking about Star Wars, not only Jeff Bridges dresses like a Jedi and the special effects are sometimes reminiscent of the Attack of the Clones,  but even the main protagonist, Garrett Hedlund looks a bit like Hayden Christensen.And finally  Michael Sheen, is now the parody of himself and doesn’t seem to have any more regard for choosing whatever part in whatever film as long as he gets paid (well, who could blame him? I’d probably do the same).

So, to wrap it all up: the story is a mess, the script if basically riddled with clichés, bad lines and jokes that are so poorly timed and unfunny that in the screening where I was NOBODY laughed, and finally the visual effects are so unreal and overblown that they fail to amaze.

One the positive side, the soundtrack is awesome. Nothing new, of course, it sounds a lot like Batman, Inception and the Bourne films, but it’s still pretty good (though there was probably too much music throughout).

I was ready to love this one, we so need a new sci-fi film to take the crown, but I was really disappointed at this revamped TRON and actually even a bit bored. Sorry Disney

Made in Dagenham – Review

Made in Dagenham (2010) 

Directed by Nigel Cole. Starring Sally HawkinsBob HoskinsAndrea RiseboroughRosamund Pike

I’ve finally managed to catch up with this film after hearing only good reviews from esteemed journalists and friends. So let’s say my expectation were fairly high (which is always pretty dangerous). On the whole I was a bit disappointed by how average it all was.

To be fair, the story itself is the best thing: how a group of female workers at  the Ford Dagenham car plant decided to go on strike protesting against sexual discrimination and asking for equal pay. It’s not just interesting and quite gripping but it’s also unbelievably true… Even more unbelievable to think that all this was just 40 years ago. Unfortunately, the story itself, as you can see, can be told in about a sentence or two. So after a while the film actually drags a bit and plays out pretty much as expected, by numbers.

It is a typical British film in a way: its pace, its gritty locations, its gray colours, even weather itself is very British. Nothing wrong with that, of course, expect this is all really superficial. The direction is pretty nonexistent and misses all the right moments. So much so that the supposedly funny scenes are without laughter and the moments where you should feel something (maybe even cry) are so cold and contrived that you’ll end up feeling absolutely nothing.

The script pretty basic and actually quite weak in places. There are scenes in which characters reveal their true motives to each other, in the lamest and laziest way, with dialogue that  rings so annoyingly  untrue, even though it’s all supposed to be a real story: for example the scene where Bob Hoskins tells, out of the blue, that the reason why he wants to help out is because his difficult childhood, is really contrived! And then later on in the film, there’s a very similar moment in which Rosamund Pike (who at least is good with the little she’s been given) tells Sally Hawkins how she feels. My God, do people really talk like that?

It’s funny how they managed to make a true story seem to un-real!

Even Miranda Richardson‘s depiction as  the Secretary of State is so over the top that you almost wonder whether she’s even realized she’s not on a Harry Potter set anymore.

Almost every single character in this film is a two-dimensional caricature, purely functional to the story: they can all be described with one adjective each. Most of the men act as the baddies, as if they were performing to 5 years old children, in the most ludicrous way. Was that really the only way to make the women appear stronger in the film?

The only one who attempts to do something a little bit more interesting is Richard Schiff, but unfortunately there isn’t enough of him to make him an interesting character anyway.

Once again, the Bob Hoskins‘s character (A union shop steward) is a one-dimensional one too. The moment where he quotes Carl Marx, is just one of the several contrived moments in the script, aiming for an easy punch-line, but actually contributing to make it even more un-real . Are we really supposed to believe that a character like him, really knows Carl Marx by heart?

Not to mention all the silly subplot which, on paper should really make the characters more real, but in practice end up being “so what?” moments. For example, what’s all the business with that woman with the sick husband (and the suicide too!!)? How is that meant to fit into the story? Are we meant to feel something for her? Because if that’s the case, I didn’t really feel anything about it.

And what about all the stuff with the bullied son at the beginning? Why is that subplot even there at all?

But the most awkward element of them all is Sally Hawkins‘s performance as Rita O’Grady. She’s supposed to be the strong woman who says “enough is enough” (in fact you can even see the real person in some real footage used during the end credits) and yet for most first half of the film she’s constantly acting as an incredibly shy  woman. Her mannerism is just wrong for the type of person she’s supposed to be. How she lowers her eyes every time she needs to talk so someone, or her stuttering and feeble tone of voice whilst she should actually be the strong one. wasn’t Rita O’Grady the woman who managed to rally all the others and convince them to join her in a strike for the right of equal pay. Well, in this film I get no sense at all that she could be a leader…

It’s a real pity, because a story like that really deserved something a lot better than this film.

6/10

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: part 1 – Review

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1   (7.5/10)

Directed by David Yates. Starring Bill NighyEmma WatsonRichard Griffiths,Daniel RadcliffeJulie WaltersBonnie WrightRupert GrintAlan RickmanRalph FiennesHelena Bonham CarterJason Isaacs (hello), Tom FeltonTimothy SpallMichael GambonRobbie ColtraneBrendan GleesonJames PhelpsOliver PhelpsMark WilliamsDomhnall GleesonClémence PoésyJohn HurtDavid ThewlisRhys IfansImelda Staunton

(SOME SPOILERS AHEAD)

Right from the very start, when the Warner Bros logo appears, this film feels different. The colours are gray and muted, the sound is a low rumble and even the famous theme from John Williams seems to have given way to a much darker drone. It doesn’t even feel like a Harry Potter movie anymore. It makes the first Chris Columbus movies feel like they are from a whole different universe. And this feeling stayed with me right until the end…

For the last few instalments of the series (possibly from number 3 onwards) we’ve been hearing a lot of “this one is darker” type of lines being bantered about, whether from the critics, the fans or even the film-makers themselves. But it’s never been more true than in this final chapter.

And yet, this is not just a darker and scarier film, it is also a much more mature one too. It’s as if the film-makers have grown together with thier viewers (who are now 10 years older than they were when the first movie got released)

A few years ago, when we first heard about the fact that the seventh and final book was going to be divided into two films, we all cynically thought straight away: “They really want to squeeze every single penny out of this last one, those greedy people”.  And I am sure that must have been one of the reasons, however director David Yates has been able to take advantage of this extra time to give the story a certain amount of depth, sophistication and gravitas that was missing from all the previous instalments.

The pace is a lot slower, for a start. Of course, you get some cracking action scenes too (a particular good one through the Dartfor Tunnel), some great visuals, whether just the perfect vistas and landscapes, the inventive special effects (the scene, in the trailer too,  where there are about 8 different Potters, is all done in one perfect 360 degree shot) and there’s even a beautiful short animation sequence (where “The Tale of the Three Brothers”, is shown as a shadow-play and that by itself should almost be nominated for an Oscar for BEST animated short), but the real core of the movie this time are actually the 3 main characters. Their dialogue scenes take centre stage and are played in the most realistic possible way, with long silences, pauses and meaningful looks.

Even the music is a lot more subtle and understated, aside from being of course a lot darker. There’s a particular chase scene in a forest towards the second half of the movie, where unexpectedly, they decided not to play any music at all, just letting the sound effects play through: that is very very unusual for a blockbuster of this calibre.

The film bravely takes a lot of risks, on one hand, by veering away from what kids are probably expecting, but at the same time it’ll give fans a real treat (and it might even change the minds of some of those Harry Potter haters)! It is a film about emotions, about characters, about friendship first and foremost and it all happens to take place in a magical world. It’s what every single avid Harry Potter reader has been waiting for years.

In a way, the mood of the film is much closer to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, not just in the muted colors of the landscape, or in the grittier looks of the characters (even Harry Potter looks dirtier this time and has even got a bit of a beard!), but in the way it’s paced and constructed.

It’s essentially a road movie (it’s also the first film to be Hogward-free. We only get one quick glimpse of the train going to the school, but that’s about it). There are much fewer laughs throughout and most of them come from Ron (Rupert Grint), but somehow when they do come, they seem to work a lot better than they ever did. Maybe because the whole film is so tense that you are  just craving for a moment to relax let the tension fade. And this is by no means a criticism, in fact, quite the opposite.

The film starts with a perfectly pitched montage scene where we see all the various characters leaving their homes and getting ready to meet. The soundtrack at this point seems to be straight our of one of the Bourne movies, or the recent Batman films by Christopher Nolan. There’s an uneasy tension running all the way through, which just makes you very uncomfortable (and I mean that as a compliment). That feeling somehow permeates the rest of the movie too.

We then cut to a scene where Voldemort, his Death Eaters & Co are all sitting around a table. Floating above them, the body of one of their young victim. Blood dripping from her face, her head bent backwards… This feels almost like the exorcist more than Harry  Potter!

Don’t take me wrong. Kids will be terrified, but will most likely love it too (after all, kids love to get scared… Or at least I used to!).

By all means, this isn’t a masterpiece. For all the tension, the great atmosphere and all the brave intentions, there are some slightly clunky moments here and there too. For example the scene where Ron comes back and rejoins the group, feels a bit “out of the blue” and could have been handled in a better way. Also some of the dialogue doesn’t quite ring true and too many characters come in and out like bell-boys in a hotel. But it’s interesting to notice how most of the stuff that doesn’t quite work in the film, has actually been lifted straight from the books. I think once again the film exposes the weaknesses of the book (which c’mon let’s face it, however gripping, it wasn’t really a great piece of writing. I loved it, in fact I loved the whole series, but I recognize its limits).

The acting from the three main characters still feels a bit dodgy from time to time. They all really try their best: Emma Watson is the best she’s ever been (sadly that doesn’t really mean a lot) and though she even manages to shed a tear at some point, most of her lines fall pretty flat. Daniel Radcliffe does his usual thing where he seems to act with all his body, except his eyes (he seems to like to show tension by stretching his whole body forward) and finally Rupert Grint, who seems to have gained a bit too much weight, but he’s still the best of the three and also he has the best lines. However there’s a good chemistry between all of them. Clearly having worked together for so many films has created a bond between them: some of that shows in the film too.

It is also a real joy to see so many of the other old characters back, even if most of them are around for just for one scene. This series has now officially become the “who’s who” of British Cinema (I was a bit sad that Maggie Smith was not around for this one, but as all the people who have read the book know, she’ll be back in the next one, in style!)

So on the whole, the film deserves a lot of respect for taking brave decisions which are probably going against your typical Hollywood blockbuster, let alone a Harry Potter movie. Mind you, it’s easier to be brave when you have something like this in your hands, this was always going to be a winner with the public! Now it might probably get some new fans from those picky critics out there.

Anyway, it’s good to see them trying something different. It’s good to see them slowing down a bit and taking good care of their characters. It’s good to see them trying to be more mature and stir away from cheesy cliches. I can see why this is JK Rowling’s favorite movie.

I was happy with it too… but then again, I love Harry Potter, so I am probably biased.

Summer 2011 cannot be here soon enough. And after that? Oh dear, I am already so sad that it’s all going to be over…

7.5/10

PS. If you liked this review, leave us a message.

My letter published on the Evening Standard

Check out my little email that got published on the Evening Standard about the BAFTA Awards

%d bloggers like this: