True Grit – Review

True Grit (2010) 

Directed by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen. Starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper

Oh dear, I am not going to be very popular with what I am about to say. Because somehow the unwritten rule about movie reviews of the last few years seems to be that you’re not supposed to speak evil about the Coen Brothers: “they can do no wrong” in the eyes of movie critics and cinema lovers everywhere, and even when they do take a misstep, somehow that gets quickly erased from everybody’s memory as if  it was only a bad dream (like in the case of Intolerable Cruelty for example, or The Ladykillers).

My  relationship with the Coen brothers has been one of love and hate throughout the years. I have seen every movie they have made but  I have got a few confessions to make: I am one of the few people who thought the last 20 minutes of No Country for Old Men were a bit indulgent (though the previous 100 minutes very so good and cinematically perfect that in the end I forgave them for everything) and I was one of those who thought Burn after reading was just simply idiotic. I am also one of the (apparently) few people who didn’t really get A Serious Man, but having said that I loved The Big LebowskiRaising Arizona and still think that with Fargo they reached perfection (Oh, I do love that one!).

Yet, “True Grit” has very little of the Coen’s finger prints on it: a few cold jokes towards the beginning maybe, some beautiful visuals, but that’s pretty much about it. The movie is a pure and simple Western, just like the ones they used to make in the 50s and 60s, and probably just like the one they have been remaking. “True Grit” was also the 1969 movie for which John Wayne won his only Oscar. Though Ethan Coen said that the film was more a faithful adaptation to the novel with the same title written in 1968 by Charles Portis.

But enough history also because I haven’t seen the previous version and I haven’t read the novel, so I am just judging this 2010 “True Grit” on its own merit.

For a start, I have some real problem with the main character of the piece: the girl played by Hailee Steinfeld who’s supposed to be 14 and yet somehow speaks and acts like somebody who’s experienced a full life. You’re supposed to take that for granted right from the start, without any real reason behind it, or without being given much background. Well, I just couldn’t quite buy it, and was never quite comfortable with her character throughout the movie. As a result I ended up not caring about her at all. I’m not criticising Hailee Steinfeld’s performance (which was actually rather good), but more the character herself.

Then we have Matt Damon whose performance is probably masked by his fake mustaches and the big hat, because it wasn’t very apparent to me. His character (like many others in this movie)  is pretty much a one-dimensional one, and even his changes of heart are all so predictable that actually they end up being part of his “one-dimensionality”. Josh Brolin who in the last few years is having the time of his life and is enjoying a great comeback, is in for about 10 minutes, so it’s not even worth talking about him. Same goes for Barry Pepper.

Most of the dialogue in the movie has apparently been lifted from the pages of the original novel, which proves once again that something that works on paper doesn’t necessarily work on a movie (a vice-versa or course). Some of the best lines or jokes belong to Jeff Bridges. However most of them felt quite flat to me, nor particularly clever  or surprising. Also I have to confess that between Jeff’s mumbling (erm… sorry, acting) and the thick accent, I must have missed quite a few of them. And it looks like I wasn’t the only one in the theatre where I was.

Not that it matter a lot. Ultimately the film has a very familiar story, with very familiar characters in a very familiar setting. All too familiar in fact, thus without much emotional drive or drama. It all feels rather cold and it really shouldn’t, because this is certainly not an action film, so it should at least been a character piece.

Maybe my tastes are not refined enough, maybe it’s my slight ignorance for John Ford’s movies and my lack of love for John Wayne and Westerns in general, however I can safely say that this is not a movie for everyone. Some people will love it for what it is “a cold and mannered art western” (as the Hollywood Reporter called it), but it is definitely for a more grown up type of audience, certainly not a crowd pleaser in my view.

On its defense I have to say that the movie does look absolutely beautiful which is why I am feeling almost a bit guilty in saying that I didn’t like it . It’s almost  like saying that I don’t like John Ford.

Roger Deakins‘s cinematography rarely disappoints, and certainly in this one it is a work of wonder: from the cold snowy landscapes, to the great wide sunsets.

Carter Burwell’s score contains one of the most memorable and hummable tune  I can remember this year: it alternates understated cues, emotional piano moments, and grand sweeping themes (to match the widescreen vistas) and yet that too feels like it mainly belongs to a different film. Somehow the emotion that the music tries to raise don’t quite match the stark cold approach to the film.

The editing and pace of the movie is all rather slow, once again paying homage to the old Westerns our fathers probably grew up with. It does pick up a bit towards the very end, but to at that point, it is all just too late.

Unfortunately as we all know beautiful visuals, big names and a lovely tune can only take you so far, after a while if you’re not engaged with the story or the characters you’ll just find yourself looking at your watch more times than you should, and that’s never a good sign.

I must confess I was a bit bored.

6/10

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

Shutter Island – BluRay Review

SHUTTER ISLAND – (6.5/10)

Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Leonardo DiCaprioMark RuffaloBen KingsleyMax von Sydow

I am assuming that if you are reading this, you’ve probably already seen the film. If you haven’t and you don’t want to know how it all ends, please stop now as this review will be full of SPOILERS.

The film has been around for almost a year now and it’s even out on DVD and Bluray but it recently popped up again on the pages of Variety, Screen International and The Hollywood Reporter in a big campaign “for your consideration” as Paramount is trying to push it for the forthcoming awards season.

The Cinematography

Well, for a start the film is just too long (it’s at least 25 minutes too long, if not more) and it’s just too pleased with its mood and its look. In a way it’s just too self-indulgent.

There are just too many characters, most of whom have to go through long tortuous scenes with dialogue full of exposition (including the “shock” ending which is played out with Ben Kingsley basically having to explain the whole film to Di Caprio).

And it’s a shame because the whole thing looks beautiful! Scorsese obviously knows his cinema history and pays homage to so many classics of film noir and from the 50s, from Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor, to The Snake Pit, to Hitchcock’s Spellbound and even Psycho at one point.

This is as dark as it gets in terms of mood, colours, and the whole atmosphere of the film itself. It’s all enhanced by the strangest music, assembled from previously recorded material and assembled for the film by Robbie Robertson (most of which sounds just like a horn sound from a boat).

And yet the film’s main problem is that the whole thing is played out like a big mystery heading towards the final “shocking revelation” and yet the audience is always miles ahead of the main character played (impeccably, I should say) by Leonardo DiCaprio. Let’s face it, you know pretty much from the very start that he is mad.

The constant dreams and flashbacks that Di Caprio has, the weird encounters with some of the characters in the film (particularly Patricia Clarkson) are pretty much telegraphing the fact that Di Caprio is seriously disturbed, so much so that when a piece of paper turns up saying that there’s another patient in the island we all know that it’s him! (Especially if we have seen films like Angel’s Heart, where a very similar trick is played).

The film tries to mess things up adding a series of red herring to divert the attention of the audience, but in fact, all they seem to do is to make the film a bit too slow and heavy.

When the ending finally comes, it all feels like A) something which we half knew already and B) a bit of a cheap trick. Also, let’s face it, a film that spends the last 20 minutes explaining to you everything you’ve been watching up until that moment in a long dialogue scene has something seriously wrong going for it.

And it’s a real shame because the story itself is actually rather good, including that very last line in the film where you get the feeling that Di Caprio is faking his madness in order to get lobotomized and not have to live with the pain of his guilt and sorrow anymore. It’s a beautifully handled and very sublte scene.

In fact, I must confess I probably enjoyed Shutter Island more on a second viewing on the bluray, where I wasn’t so confused by all the names and characters and I knew what to focus on and how I should have interpreted all those long dialogue scenes, which on a first viewing don’t make a lot of sense.

Don’t take me wrong, I don’t mind being confused in films, but as long as me being confused is actually the intent of the film-makers. If I start wondering “who was that guy again?” then the film has failed to tell me a clear story.

If I were to judge this movie on the basis of its visual style and its atmosphere I would probably give it a 9/10, the acting is superb (Di Caprio is always good, that’s now not even debatable), so is Mark Ruffalo, and it’s nice to see Ben Kingsley playing against expectations, but I found the movie is just let down by a lack of editorial judgement which should have made it a lot tighter.

On a technical note, the transfer on the Bluray is perfect, and so is the audio, as you would expect from a movie of this calibre. However the extras were pretty thin.

6.5/10 (though I really want to give it more)

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