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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The conclusion everyone deserves.
How do you possibly live up to The Dark Knight? A question that has been asked by many people, not least Christopher Nolan, the man trusted with the unenviable task of following the aforementioned blockbuster with a suitable conclusion for his take on the Batman mythos. A job made even trickier by the fact that, unlike Spider-Man 3 (which was meant to have a follow-up) or X-Men: The Last Stand (which might still get one), The Dark Knight Rises has been described by all the people involved in its making as the final chapter, the definitive end point for Nolan's Bat-saga. So the question remains: how do you live up to The Dark Knight? Answer: you don't. But you still deliver an intelligent, riveting piece of filmmaking that proves to be a worthy epilogue.
When we last saw Batman (Christian Bale), he had vanished into the shadows, taking the fall for the death and crimes of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, briefly featured in archive footage). Eight years have passed since that night, and the Caped Crusader has disappeared from Gotham City. Bruce Wayne has similarly withdrawn from public life, convinced there is nothing left that is worth living for, much to the chagrin of Alfred (Michael Caine). That is, until something happens that changes Bruce's dual life: the arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist bent on the destruction of Gotham, who is capable of breaking Batman both physically and spiritually. With a little help from his old allies (Gary Oldman's Jim Gordon, Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox) and some new faces (Joseph Gordon-Levitt as police officer John Blake and Anne Hathaway as "cat burglar" Selina Kyle), the Dark Knight has to return to save his city from annihilation. But what price will he have to pay?
The defining characteristic of Nolan's Bat-films has always been the grounded, reality-based look at the different tropes of the superhero genre, and this chapter shows the director at his most ambitious, throwing in overt references to financial crisis and the US government's attitude towards terrorists (complete with a brief scene featuring the President which, thankfully, doesn't slip into Roland Emmerich territory). These themes are perfectly encapsulated in the figure of Bane, an intriguing villain who, despite never reaching the heights of Heath Ledger's Joker, remains a frightening presence and acts as the main connecting tissue to ideas first touched upon in Batman Begins, which provides the jumping point for many of The Dark Knight Rise's most poignant scenes.
That said, Nolan's ambition is also the film's biggest flaw: even at an impressive 164 minutes, the film feels too short to squeeze in everything he has to say as he tries to bring the trilogy full circle (cue Liam Neeson and Cillian Murphy cameos). This is most obvious in the third act, a rushed, action-packed affair that also suffers from unexpectedly contrived plotting. A given in any other superhero film, it comes as a surprise that Nolan, famous for bending or even breaking narrative conventions (he killed off the hero's love interest halfway through the second movie, for crying out loud), should in this case resort to a more predictable climax, effectively embracing the comic-book roots that the trilogy had, thus far, left in a corner. This also accounts for a couple of fan-baiting twists that may prove amusing to some, irritating to others.
Nevertheless, the film's heart is in the right place: after the Joker-centric mayhem of The Dark Knight, the focus in this installment is once again on Bruce Wayne, whose personal journey has been the trilogy's emotional anchor. Bale, who's always been perfect in the role, goes even further this time around with his portrayal of a broken man, touchingly aided by similarly compelling performances by Caine and Oldman. And it's testament to Nolan's skill that, even though some of the new characters inevitably get more attention (Hardy gives Bane the on-screen dignity he was shamefully denied in Batman & Robin, while Hathaway's introductory scene alone would justify a spin-off for her Selina), none of the supporting roles feel like afterthoughts, even when it looks like actors of the caliber of Marion Cotillard and Matthew Modine come off as shortchanged in terms of presence.
Darker and more brutal than its predecessors, The Dark Knight Rises still offers a glimmer of hope, and is therefore a fitting epilogue for what is, at this point, the best superhero series put to film. And while the conclusion doesn't exactly live up to what can only be described as sky-high expectations, one should not overlook the fact that this has the guts to actually be THE end. And given the circumstances, it's exactly what we need, and what we deserve.
In the beginning, there was Alien...
Prometheus was always going to be a double-edged sword: on the one hand, you have Ridley Scott returning to the genre (and the franchise) that made his name, and pre-release info - be it trailers or the riveting viral videos hinting at important plot elements - suggested it would be a most welcome return; on the other, the Alien franchise has had a rather difficult life for the best part of two decades, due mainly to the disappointing Alien: Resurrection, which, ironically, killed the official series, and the mediocre Alien vs. Predator films, which tarnished the brand's legacy in much worse ways. In other words, this prequel (which isn't really a prequel) has a tough job to pull off.
After a spellbinding prologue, we find ourselves in the year 2093, on the scientific exploration spacecraft Prometheus. The ship is headed to a planetoid called LV-233, based on findings by archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), who believe the human race was created by an alien species they refer to as Engineers (i.e. the creature Alien fans call the Space Jockey). With funding provided by the presumed dead Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the expedition's goal is to find evidence of the existence of the Engineers. However, problems arise on two fronts: given the Weyland Corporation's involvement, company representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and android David (Michael Fassbender) may have a hidden agenda; and the Engineers might not be as peaceful as expected.
Originally conceived as a straightforward prequel to Alien, the script of Prometheus was subsequently reworked into a standalone effort that remains set in the same universe. This is the film's smartest idea, as it ditches the usual prequel shortcomings (namely knowing exactly how it's going to end) and establishes its own identity, whilst retaining references to the larger franchise, and Scott's original contribution in particular. It is also, however, the movie's biggest flaw, in that the screenplay, credited to both Jon Spaihts (who wrote the first, more prequel-like draft) and Damon Lindelof (who revised the story and mythology), is an uneven affair. The general plot structure is solid, but occasional snippets of dialogue are cringe-worthy, one scene in particular is dramatically pointless and some characters are underdeveloped. Forgivable in a run-of-the-mill monster movie, perhaps, but less so in a film that downplays the horror angle - the tag-line "In space, no one can hear you scream" would feel out of place this time around - in favor of bigger ideas and themes.
This isn't to say, though, that smarts and scares can't coexist. In fact, Scott, ever the talented visionary, constructs imagery that is both breathtakingly beautiful (the aforementioned prologue, which is among the finest sequences in the director's career) and quite shocking, notably a much talked-about surgery sequence that is every bit as intense (and somewhat disgusting) as one would expect from the original Alien man. Prometheus may look more polished than its predecessors, but that doesn't reduce the film's stark visual impact, which is a suitable complement to the deeper themes at play, combining leftover ideas from the established franchise (the deleterious role of corporations) with a new, bold look at the essence of human nature.
Which leads to the movie's greatest achievement: the character of David. A mixture of Pinocchio and Roy Batty, childishly curious and inhumanly lethal at the same time he's a gratifyingly complex and intriguing creation, played to unsettling perfection by Fassbender, who is the standout in the cast. The other performances are a bit hit-and-miss (due to the writing), but equally deserving of mention are the most un-Ripley-like Rapace, the delightfully cold Theron and a remarkable Pearce, whose extended cameo requires him to play a man more than twice his age. In the end, though, the real star of the show is Scott, whose untarnished cinematic eye, enhanced by a clever use of 3D, ensures that the journey will be worthwhile. There are a few bumps (including a final scene that is little more than gratuitous fan-bait), but overall this is a decent rebirth for the Alien saga, laying the ground for what could be an interesting extension of the franchise.
A Dangerous Method (2011)
Method and Madness
Given his entire filmography is concerned with themes linked to man's identity and the complexities of human sexuality, David Cronenberg is, on paper at least, the ideal director for A Dangerous Method, a movie dealing with the birth of psychoanalysis. Then again, the film is also a bit of an odd fit for him, since the script by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) doesn't really lend itself to the outbursts of graphic violence that permeate the Canadian auteur's body of work. The result, first witnessed at the Venice Film Festival (after the film had allegedly been rejected by Cronenberg's fest of choice, Cannes), is an interesting but somewhat hollow entry in the director's admirable career.
Ostensibly about the professional relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), A Dangerous Method is in reality more concerned with the bond between Jung and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a young woman sent to his clinic in Zurich since her mental condition is an ideal subject for his research. Sabina, it turns out, is incredibly well-read, and soon progresses from patient to assistant, much to the amusement of Freud, who corresponds regularly with Jung about their mutual scientific interests and also meets the young woman on a few occasions. The relationship between the three evolves in even stranger ways as time passes, with Sabina taking an unexpected place in Jung's heart...
With its combination of psychoanalysis and sex, the story - perhaps familiar to European film buffs thanks to Roberto Faenza's Italian-language take on the same subject - has all the right characteristics to be vintage Cronenberg (hints of which are offered in the opening and closing credits via Howard Shore's music). And yet there's something missing: whereas the reconstruction of Vienna in the early 20th century is impeccable, the director appears to be less interested in the actual development of story and character, with a rather detached approach that suggests he's almost working on autopilot. That having said, part of the blame can be laid on Hampton, whose screenplay only glosses over key details of the story, leaving us with a quite simplified, "safe" version of events (the sex is unusually tame and unchallenging for a Cronenberg film).
The performances are a mixed bag as well: Knightley, stuck with the showy role, is unbearably OTT in the first 30 minutes, shouting and shaking endlessly before she eventually tones down the mania and focuses on finding the character, complete with a solid Russian accent. At the other end of the spectrum is Mortensen, pitch-perfect from the start but criminally underused, especially considering his past associations with Cronenberg. And then there's Fassbender, quietly intense and generally up to the task, were it not for his decision to speak RP English when he and Mortensen, who adopts a German accent, are supposed to be from the same country (this is even more perplexing if one thinks of Fassbender's flawless mastery of German).
A Dangerous Method is thus a textbook case of a film that, while not disappointing in the strict sense of the word, comes off as a minor effort in a generally spotless filmography. But even on an off-day, Cronenberg deserves to be seen at least once. Just don't expect another History of Violence...
Scream 4 (2011)
Same franchise, new decade
Back in 1996, the first Scream was a breath of fresh air in the American horror film landscape: a smart, self-aware slasher movie that poked fun at the genre's various rules while still managing to be genuinely scary. In the fifteen years that have passed since the film made its debut, US horror has taken a turn for the worse, with an endless stream of remakes, torture porn and whatnot. Scream itself suffered from the law of diminished returns, with the third installment in particular being perceived by most as a tired repetition of the same old formula. It is therefore safe to say that it took a lot of guts (pun intended) to decide that Ghostface and his victims were ripe for a reinvention, with original director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson still on board. Well, that gutsy decision paid off, because Scream 4 is easily a match for the original in terms of quality.
This time around, the people of Woodsboro seem to be enjoying some well-deserved peace and quiet, since the only murders taking place now are in the latest episodes of the Stab franchise. That is, until a couple of teens are savagely butchered and some of their friends start receiving creepy phone calls (Scream veteran Roger Jackson is, as always, supplying the voice). One of these young potential victims is Jill Roberts (Emma Roberts), the cousin of Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) - who, coincidentally, is returning to her home town to promote a new book. Naturally, it doesn't take long before she and her old friends, Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and former reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), end up on the killer's radar, and with the new trends in horror cinema, there are some new rules to pay attention to...
The big risk with Scream 4 was that it could all too easily turn into a bad joke, given the genre's lackluster form of late (a phenomenon Craven is well aware of, having even produced two remakes of his own films, although it must be said those were slightly better than most of their peers) and the fact that the first movie was itself made fun of in the inaugural Scary Movie (funnily enough, one of the new characters is played by funny-man Anthony Anderson, who had a prominent role in Scary Movie 3). The solution? Acknowledge the ridiculous nature of it all. The first ten minutes alone are a masterpiece of meta-cinema and self-mockery, with the very concept of movies-within-movies (alongside pointless sequels and torture porn) being the target of one of Williamson's jokes.
In fact, the events of Scream 4 are deliberately structured so as to mirror those of the original franchise-starter, which allows for some neat reflections on the concept of remakes and reboots. And yet, despite all the laughs and reinventions, this is still very much a Scream movie, and not just because Campbell, Cox and Arquette are back. Ghostface remains an iconic villain, and the scary scenes really go for the jugular. Sure, the last 20 minutes get a little close to self-parody, and, with the exception of Roberts (and Rory Culkin), the younger cast isn't that impressive. Then again, since they are typical horror movie victims, maybe that's part of the joke.
According to this film, the first rule of remakes is "Don't f*ck with the original". On those terms, Scream 4 is quite a success, as it sticks to what made the first episode work while providing a 21st century twist. Maybe it isn't enough to launch a new trilogy, but on its own terms it's an efficient mixture of gore and fun.
Doctor Who: The Idiot's Lantern (2006)
TV's bad, you know...
Remember the Dickens episode in the first season? Well, The Idiot's Lantern marks the return of writer Mark Gatiss to the series with another quirky, inventive tale, one that has a bit of social critique to it: it's all about the negative influence of television.
Back on normal Earth, the Doctor and Rose head for what they think is 1958 Las Vegas, only to realize they're in good old England a few years before that. The Queen's imminent coronation is shaping up to be a big event, followed all around the country via television. Only something seems to be out of the ordinary: as Rose points out, there are a few too many TV sets available for the time period, and police officers hiding under blankets who drag away random people is a strange sight. And what if the old story of TV sucking your brain out were true? Yep, it's an ordinary day for the Doctor...
Hitting the right balance between funny and creepy, Gatiss' script is everything a good Doctor Who story should be: entertaining, suspenseful, magical and quintessentially British. The villainous Wire, played by Maureen Lipman, is a memorable creation that is bound to give viewers of a certain age bad dreams related to television, and the inventive way the plot works around an established historic event is wonderfully mad and brilliant. The best bit, however, has to be at the beginning of the episode, when Rose and the Doctor step out of the TARDIS in perfect American '50s attire. Who would have thought David Tennant could make a good Fonz?
The Rite (2011)
"What were you expecting? Spinning heads and pea soup?"
The Rite is an odd film, at least in terms of how it's been marketed: on the one hand, it sets out to be a realistic look at the practice of exorcisms, complete with "based on true events" caption at the beginning. On the other, director Mikael Hafström (him of 1408 fame) and star Anthony Hopkins are better known for work that veers closer to straight-out horror, making The Rite look like some kind of pale imitation of The Exorcist (incidentally also based on a true story, according to writer William Peter Blatty). The result is a slightly schizophrenic picture that doesn't quite know in which genre to remain. It's also a consistent source of good fun, meaning it manages to remain perfectly watchable from start to finish.
The main concern of the film isn't horror, but faith. Specifically, it's all about one Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue) trying to reconnect with his beliefs. Having studied to become a priest in an attempt to get away from the family business (his father, played by Rutger Hauer, is a mortician), he finds himself questioning that decision. The solution, according to Father Matthew (Toby Jones), is to attend an exorcism course in Rome (Pope John Paul II supposedly suggested every diocese should need an exorcist, and was said to have performed the rite personally in his younger years). The teacher, Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds), recommends that Michael spend some time with a Welsh priest, Lucas Trevant (Hopkins), known among his peers for his unorthodox methods. And that's when things start getting interesting...
For about an hour, The Rite is every bit as serious about its subject matter as The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Sure, there's an ominous feel all the way through, with clever camera work, cinematography, editing and music, but the film really appears to be more about mood and thematic depth than jump-scares (although that area is covered with a predictable scene involving cats) and gross-out. The script even appears to be sending up audience expectations with a neat quip about The Exorcist, which simultaneously acknowledges the latter as an unreachable milestone.
However, at some point Hafström is expected to deliver the goods, if only for box office reasons, therefore ditching the attention to character that made Evil his masterwork and choosing to go for "proper" horror instead. Perhaps it was inevitable, as the presence of genre veterans Hopkins and Hauer (shamefully never in the same scene) seems to indicate, but that doesn't mean there isn't a correct way to do it. Toned-down, effective exorcism scenes fall under the appropriate category; an all-stops-pulled dream sequence that is essentially five minutes of pure WTF writing, is just plain wrong, and paves the way for a climax that, for all its entertainment value, is depressingly predictable.
Thank the silver screen gods, then, for Hopkins. The cast does an overall good job (although Alice Braga is stuck with a pointless role), but it's the former Hannibal Lecter who really carries the picture, knowing exactly when to unleash his OTT instincts and when to restrain himself, giving a performance so riotous and fun to watch it sort of makes up for the by-numbers third act. Whether he's taunting a demon in Italian or making fun of his Welsh roots (surely the movie's most ridiculously iconic moment), he's a pure joy to behold, and the main reason why The Rite doesn't fall apart in the conflict between serious filmmaking and pandering to audience tastes. Turns out it isn't really about faith at all - it's about the protagonist proving, once again, how ace he can be.
Gnomeo & Juliet (2011)
The Bard gets animated
No other writer lends himself to so many different film interpretations as William Shakespeare, whose plays have spawned musicals (West Side Story), teen comedies (10 Things I Hate About You), even cartoons (though not credited as such, Hamlet is an obvious source of inspiration for The Lion King). The latter genre is used again for a peculiar take on Romeo and Juliet, put together with CGI under Disney's Touchstone banner.
The film takes place in the present day, where Montague and Capulet no longer are two warring families, but simply two next-door neighbors who just don't get along. This animosity is also found in their adjacent gardens, where the gnomes, much like the toys in Toy Story, come to life when no one's watching. The blue gnomes, led by Lady Blueberry (Maggie Smith), belong to Mrs. Montague, while Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) and his red acolytes belong to Mr. Capulet. Their mission is to find new ways to make the enemy garden look bad, and it all goes well - so to speak - until a full-scale war erupts, and star-crossed lovers Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) find themselves caught in the middle...
The material is an unusual choice for Disney, which traditionally favors straightforward adaptations of popular stories (albeit with necessary alterations) over postmodern riffs that combine tribute and spoof. This take on Shakespeare's tragedy would probably be better suited for a Dreamworks treatment, as they make no mystery of having older audiences in mind. Disney, on the other hand, is torn between pandering to younger viewers and giving Bard aficionados the fun yet intelligent picture they crave and deserve. Sure, there are in-jokes galore (the house numbers 2B and Not 2B are the standout), but the third act is particularly underwhelming, with too much screen-time for the mandatory talking animal sidekick (an annoying flamingo, voiced by Disney mainstay Jim Cummings) and a climax that has inevitably been altered - presumably - to keep the kids from crying.
When it works, however, Gnomeo & Juliet is an absolute joy: the opening send-up of the play's prologue set the tone quite nicely, Elton John's contribution to the soundtrack is faultless, and the voice cast is a hoot. Aside from the filmmakers having the nerve of putting Jason Statham and Ozzy Osbourne in the same film as Smith and Caine (surely a once in a lifetime kind of thing), the idea of incorporating Shakespeare himself as a character (voiced by Patrick Stewart) and having him criticize the film's plot detours is the self-mocking stroke of genius there should be more of throughout the movie.
All in all, this is a nice little film that is worth watching for entertainment value. It suffers from some lazy writing and questionable gags (shouldn't the Terrafirminator be voiced by Arnold Schwarzenegger instead of Hulk Hogan?), but it contains enough Shakespearean wit and invention to make for a fun 82 minutes.
Interesting, but hardly biutiful...
Biutiful is a departure and a confirmation for Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu: on the one hand, it is another study of lives gone awry, with no punches pulled in regards to the misery experienced by the characters; on the other, it's the first film he's made he parted ways with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who preferred to move on to other projects after Babel. Biutiful proves two things: firstly, Inarritu remains very good at constructing memorable images; secondly, these aren't worth quite as much without Arriaga's words.
Set in Barcelona, the film ditches the filmmaker's traditional fragmented, multi-character narrative, focusing solely on one imposing figure: Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a man who has to deal with his own imminent death from cancer, a dire relationship with his family (wife, kids and brother), his ties to local criminal activities and, more generally, the ugliness he sees every day walking down the streets. Surely the (intentionally misspelled) title must be ironic.
Working on the script himself, Inarritu goes for a simpler story, but doesn't renounce his penchant for harrowing material. In fact, Biutiful is undoubtedly the least cheerful film he's directed to this day, and that's saying something. His depiction of a gray, ugly Barcelona is faultless, exposing the city's seedy underbelly and disease (both physical and spiritual) with genuine, relentless storytelling passion. However, this is also detrimental to the film's impact: without Arriaga's more experienced take on the subject, the director doesn't know when to stop, throwing in one tragedy after another for the best part of the movie's 148 minutes, with no pause for breathing. It's almost too bleak, too tragic, to fully convince as a drama.
Does this mean all the praise Inarritu has received in the past was premature? Not really. Even his detractors usually acknowledge his talent with actors, and in this case, perhaps being aware of the script's shortcomings, he has hit the jackpot: from start to finish, Bardem is a revelation, justly awarded with the Best Actor prize in Cannes. Sure, he's always been a gifted thespian, and no stranger to difficult parts (see The Sea Inside), but here he's really in a class of his own. Communicating with his sad, tired eyes rather than his broken voice, he carries the whole picture with a stoic dignity that is always gripping and heartbreaking.
While easy to mock and criticize, Biutiful, for all its flaws, warrants at least one viewing on the grounds that it proves beyond doubt that sometimes a truly astounding performance can save an otherwise mediocre film.
127 Hours (2010)
A true story that looks fake
From the get-go, people were skeptical about this film adaptation of Aron Ralston's autobiography Between a Rock and a Hard Place, and for good reason: it's hard to make a compelling drama about a man who spent five days of his life stuck in a canyon. Or, as Danny Boyle puts it: "The audience has to care for the entire 127 hours, not just the last 40 minutes" (the contents of which it's best not to disclose in case someone isn't aware of how the story ends). Now, it is remarkable, even commendable, that Boyle used his newfound respectability (read: post-Oscar rise in fame) to get this seemingly impossible project off the ground, but throughout the film there's an awkward truth that emerges: he wasn't the right director for this project.
A shame, since the story could lend itself to a good movie, provided certain adjustments were made. As Ralston recounts in his book, he should have told someone where he was going on that fateful day in 2003, when his latest mountain trip turned into a nightmare: stuck between a huge boulder and the mountain wall and unable to move, he quickly ran out of supplies and optimism, giving in to hallucinations and video-messages to his loved ones. Then, on the fifth day, he came up with a brave, shocking solution.
The challenge, according to Boyle, was making 127 Hours a film that worked as a full dramatic unit, not just a money shot with an irrelevant build-up. His passion for the project was so big that, for the first time in his career, he has also worked on the script (alongside Slumdog Millionaire partner Simon Beaufoy). And for the first fifteen minutes or so, it looks like he's nailed the tone, capturing Aron's euphoria and naivety as he prepares for the hike, arrives at the canyon and interacts with two attractive girls (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) before his unfortunate experience. It's an approach that has worked before - the fun before the tragedy - and it sets up the plot nicely.
Unfortunately, once Ralston is stuck (and Boyle with him, so to speak), the director has to figure out how to make the film gripping without leaving the canyon. His solution? He doesn't, allowing for several hallucination and dream sequences that allow him to expand the cast (Kate Burton and Treat Williams as the parents, Lizzy Caplan as the younger sister) and, more importantly, show off his visual trademarks once again. And there lies the real problem with 127 Hours: given the harrowing and very real subject matter, a certain restraint would be expected. Instead, the film is closer in tone to Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, meaning the true story displayed on screen looks too fake and movie-like to fully convince. Okay, so the scenes in question are justified in terms of narrative (Ralston himself has admitted he was hallucinating), but playing them on a loop, like Boyle does (seriously, there's a dream sequence every five minutes), makes for a very repetitive and dull viewing.
This also impacts on the central performance, arguably the film's main talking point. Though his talent has never been in question, be it as James Dean, Spider-Man's best friend or a comedy drug dealer, James Franco is justly regarded as one of the finest actors of his generation. However, he's never had to carry an entire movie (well, most of it) like he does here, and it's truly sad that Boyle struggles to keep his camera still, because the pain and despair reflected on Franco's face is the kind of a stuff that, if the overall movie were stronger, would definitely be worthy of an Oscar. Even if the growth (or rather lack thereof) of his facial hair over those five days is absolutely unrealistic.
On paper, the combination of material, star and filmmaker was a good match. At the end of it all, though, the result is uneven and unconvincing, and it's all due to the director. Don't get me wrong, Danny Boyle is a very talented filmmaker. It's just that until he finds a way to keep his more visionary instincts in check, he should stay away from movies like this one.
Get Him to the Greek (2010)
The Russell Brand Show
Although the lead role was ostensibly played by Jason Segel, many reckon (and justifiably so) that Forgetting Sarah Marshall really belonged to Russell Brand, whose deranged - and, to some degree, autobiographical - performance as a womanizing, junkie pop star was a consistent laugh magnet. Not a big surprise, then, to find out that the character received his own movie, albeit described in official circles as a "semi-sequel" instead of a "spin-off" to avoid comparisons with previous, failed attempts to flesh out minor characters from popular films. Well, one thing is certain: for all its flaws (and there are a few), Get Him to the Greek is no Evan Almighty.
Aside from Brand reprising his role as Aldous Snow, the only other on-screen link with Sarah Marshall, not counting a brief but fun cameo by Kristen Bell, is Jonah Hill, playing a different character this time. Gone is Matthew, the hotel employee with a weird fixation for Aldous; welcome Aaron, a California record company employee with a weird fixation for Aldous. In fact, he suggests that, in order to boost the company's success, they bring the British singer from London to L.A. for a big comeback concert. His boss Sergio (P. Diddy) agrees, on one condition: Aaron himself has less than three days to get Snow across the Atlantic. This proves to be more difficult than anticipated, as Aldous is off the wagon, pining over former flame Jackie Q (Rose Byrne) and generally prone to behavior that could wreck the whole operation. To quote Bette Davis, "It's gonna be a bumpy ride".
With no aid from Segel (who participated merely as a songwriter), returning director Nicholas Stoller is on scripting duty as well, and retains the first film's showbiz satire angle. While that got a bit out of hand last time, a tighter focus (solely the music industry) allows for greater, more genuine laughs: as in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Aldous' outrageous lyrics are a hoot, and the presence of all the genre clichés - sex, drugs, booze, family issues, slutty girlfriends, et al - feels less trite and predictable than usual. Then again, not many movies begin with the "hero" proudly proclaiming himself "the African Jesus".
On the flip-side, the rom-com material isn't equally strong, the main "arc" - Aaron's strained relationship with his girlfriend (Elizabeth Moss) - being a rather conventional and tired plot device that fails to convince throughout, climaxing in a cringe-worthy Chasing Amy spoof that wouldn't be bad if the storyline had been developed more carefully. A shame, because Moss, who proved to be the best thing in the dull Did You Hear about the Morgans?, shows once again that she has comedic skills to be reckoned with. The rest of the cast is just as reliable: the spotlight is inevitably on Brand, but the real standouts are P. Diddy's hilariously foulmouthed manager and Rose Byrne's spot-on "troubled" British singer, showing off a knack for comedy never even hinted at in her previous roles (well, 28 Weeks Later... is hardly laughing matter).
All in all, perfectly acceptable Apatow stuff: inconsistent but solid laughs, a game cast, terrific soundtrack and some neat movie references. Hardly a genre classic, but the Kubrick joke alone makes it worthwhile.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
Sex, Lies and Rock Stars
In the expanded Judd Apatow universe, Jason Segel has always had the role of the oddball character, be it on TV in Freaks and Geeks or, later on, Undeclared, or in Apatow's directorial effort Knocked Up. Now, following the lead of former co-star Seth Rogen, he takes his stab at starring in a picture, with an additional, significant contribution in the form of the screenplay (with Apatow producing, of course). And despite the implications of the title, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a more than decent effort.
Segel plays Peter Bretter, a TV composer who gets unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend, small-screen star Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell in slightly self-spoofing mode) while in the buff. As per the recommendation of his brother (Bill Hader), he goes to Hawaii on a little trip to find happiness again. And it all seems to go well, what with the company of hotel employees Rachel (Mila Kunis) and Matthew (Jonah Hill) and surfing instructor Chuck (Paul Rudd). However, one big problem has to be dealt with: Sarah is also there, with her new boyfriend Aldous Snow (Russell Brand)...
Sticking close to the Apatow template (hence the presence of regular players Rudd, Hill and Hader), Forgetting Sarah Marshall attempts to deftly mix sweeter material and rude comedy. The former comes in the form of Peter's very real and affecting relationship with Rachel; the latter is best embodied by Segel's infamous full frontal nude scenes (based on real events, apparently). The balance works quite well but is somewhat disturbed by Segel and director Nicholas Stoller's show business-satirizing agenda. Some ideas (the Seinfeld reference, a Dracula musical with puppets) work brilliantly, others - including the titular character - fall a bit flat.
The lead performances are equally uneven: though he lacks the weird charm of Seth Rogen, Segel is a likable protagonist; Bell, on the other hand, is stuck with a very clichéd character and isn't able to elevate her above a basic starlet caricature. The supporting cast is, fortunately, up to the challenge and effectively lifts up the movie. Best of the bunch is Brand, also in a vaguely autobiographical zone as a British rock star with various addictions. Profane, honest and hilarious, it's no wonder he got his own movie recently.
In short, Forgetting Sarah Marshall isn't exactly the best of the Apatow bunch, but it's got solid laughs, an ace soundtrack and, for better or worse, Jason Segel's penis. Oh, and did I mention the Dracula puppet musical?
Season of the Witch (2011)
Where's the magic?
Nicolas Cage. Magic. Blockbuster. A familiar combination, since Dominic Sena's Season of the Witch hits theaters only a few months after The Sorcerer's Apprentice (whose producer Jerry Bruckheimer, in the oddest of coincidences, worked with both star and director on Gone in 60 Seconds, eleven years back). While the latter was a by-numbers Disney effort (plenty of effects, a general lack of heart), Sena's latest work manages to also be quite a bit boring and occasionally ludicrous.
This time, Cage doesn't play a magician, but a crusader who, having witnessed too much bloodshed, runs off to Europe with his fellow soldier and best friend (Ron Perlman). They discover a plague-ridden landscape where witch hunts are an everyday routine, and eventually make it to a village where they encounter a priest (Stephen Campbell Moore) who needs help taking a potential witch (Claire Foy) to a monastery, where she will face trial. Assisted by a loyal knight (Ulrich Thomsen) and an eager youngster (Robert Sheehan), they begin a perilous journey that will test their faith in every possible way.
The storyline certainly had enough spark to produce an interesting movie, but Sena messes with the final product by not knowing what to aim for: depending on the section, Season of the Witch is a historical drama, a thriller with hints of the supernatural or, at worst, a clumsy meld of horror and fantasy (then again, what should we expect from a film that shares its title with the third Halloween flick?). Setting aside factual inaccuracies, namely the fact that the Crusades, witch hunts and black plague didn't occur simultaneously (and what's with Cage's sudden bout of modern cursing in a Medieval setting?), the uneven tone kicks in after a moderately promising first half, leaving room for basic plotting that culminates in a ghastly genre switch and a most annoying "twist".
The acting is a similar mixed bag: Cage does his usual generic blockbuster shtick, which jars considerably with the gravitas coming from Thomsen and, to a lesser extent, Sheehan, both of whom are taking the film far more seriously than required. A cameo by Christopher Lee - who actually looks more like Max von Sydow - livens things up despite its brevity (even Tim Burton has given him more screen time), and the joy of seeing him and Perlman - lovable as always - in the same movie could make up for the rest if the second half of the picture wasn't so shoddy. As for the witches (yes, they do appear in a few scenes), well... they look like cheaper versions of Doctor Who's Weeping Angels, minus the scares.
Season of the Witch could have been interesting, but it comes off as a bland blockbuster with very little to go for it. Sure, it's got Ron Perlman head-butting a demon, but is that enough? Afraid not.
Doctor Who: The Age of Steel (2006)
The Cyber-army arrives!
With the exception of a rather bland new catchphrase ("Delete!" being an obvious poor imitation of the Daleks' "Exterminate!"), the return of the Cybermen at the close of the previous episode made for a terrific cliffhanger, paving the way for an even better follow-up.
After narrowly escaping death, the Doctor and his gang need to figure out how to neutralize the Cybermen before it's too late (they are already transforming most of the city) and, on a side note, get back to their own universe so that the various parallel worlds don't start collapsing on each other. Mickey is going through some changes of his own thanks to the encounter with his local counterpart Ricky, which might change the dynamic of the time-traveling trio for good. As for the delusional John Lumic, he is about to discover the downside of an alliance with the Cybermen...
Fast-paced, grittier and more dramatic than the previous part, The Age of Steel is a neat conclusion that also leaves the door open for further story lines, with the parallel universe thread having a certain Star Trek vibe. The Cybermen are treated with the respect such iconic villains deserve (well, minus the aforementioned catchphrase), and, biggest surprise of all, Noel Clarke manages to make Mickey truly interesting for the first time, courtesy of the smart material given to the character. Based on this (and similarities with Season 1), the remaining episodes are a very exciting prospect.
Doctor Who: Rise of the Cybermen (2006)
When Rusell T. Davies became head writer of the revived Doctor Who, he dictated that the stories be kept as simple as possible in order to avoid alienating new audiences. In particular, no space travel unless it involved humans settled on another planet. Rise of the Cybermen, which comes shortly after that continuity-embracing yarn that was School Reunion, dares to break that rule by taking our characters to a place never before explored, even in the original series.
Still "stuck" with Mickey, the Doctor and Rose witness the impossible - a TARDIS malfunction that causes them to end up in a parallel world. They're on Earth, all right, but it's a bit different: Rose was never born, her father Pete (Shaun Dingwall) is still alive, and Mickey's counterpart is called Ricky (a nice reference to Eccleston's name-calling in the first season). Most notably, though, there's been a significant evolution in the field of cybernetics, with one John Lumic (Roger Lloyd-Pack, last seen playing David Tennant's father in the fourth Harry Potter film) determined to use the new technology to create a new robotic body that will contain his brain once a terminal disease has disposed of him. Inevitably, the gang is drawn to Cybus Industries: Rose is eager to meet her long lost "father", while the Doctor suspects something evil is lurking in the shadows...
While the title pretty much gives away the plot (especially if you're an old school fan), this remains an entertaining and thrilling story that effortlessly blends old mythology and new story lines, using the classic "alt-world" gimmick (see Star Trek and Buffy) for great dramatic and comic effect. On the minus side, Mickey is more annoying than usual, and Lloyd-Pack is the show's most wooden villain so far. But hey, the cliffhanger is a surefire guarantee the conclusion will be worth watching.
During the original run of Doctor Who, the mere idea of any kind of romance between the Doctor and his companions was deemed ridiculous (although we know that he had a family at one point, what with Susan calling him "grandfather" and all). The new series, on the other hand, has a lot of fun with the main character's attitude (or lack thereof) towards the opposite sex: by the admission of writer Steven Moffat, his episode The Doctor Dances was, starting with the title, a blatant sexual metaphor, and it's only fitting that his third Who script deal with the unthinkable - the Doctor in love.
Having solved the Krillitane mess, the Time Lord, Rose and Mickey end up on a spaceship in the 51st century that, weirdly enough, contains bits of the 18th century, specifically the life of French noblewoman Madame de Pompadour (Sophia Myles). The Doctor communicates with her at various points in her life through a fireplace, and a bond forms between the two. Unfortunately, time is running out, and the Doctor needs to figure out how he can save her from the attack of clockwork "monsters".
Touching, poetic and magical, The Girl in the Fireplace continues the fairy tale motif present in Moffat's previous scripts, explicitly borrowing from C.S. Lewis to concoct a truly timeless and tragic love story between the dark future and the brightly lit, stunningly executed past. Whereas previous episodes were meant to establish Tennant as the new Doctor, this story sees him go beyond that and play a wide range of emotions alongside the equally superb Myles, who is the real heart of this beautiful tale. Not that the romantic feel gets in the way of some traditional Doctor Who silliness - no other show would probably get away with a brilliantly daft shot of a horse on a spaceship.
Doctor Who: School Reunion (2006)
The return of Sarah Jane
School Reunion marks a turning point in the revived Doctor Who series, which some had, up to this point, viewed as a reboot of the original series, rather than a straight continuation (despite sly allusions to past adventures and the Doctor's previous incarnations). As of this episode, the show is proud to acknowledge and pay tribute to its rich history, starting with a story that, in true DW fashion, deftly mixes warmth, excitement and silliness.
After the future (New Earth) and the past (Tooth and Claw), this time it's contemporary London that needs help, again: a race called the Krillitane, under the command of the enigmatic Mr. Finch (Anthony Head), has infiltrated a school, using children as tools to construct a powerful weapon. Also undercover in the same facility is the Doctor who, assisted by Rose and Mickey, poses as a teacher to find a solution to the planet's latest problem. Lucky for him, he can count on some extra help, in the unexpected shape of former companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) and her mechanical pet K-9 (voiced by John Leeson).
While remaining a great adventure - save for some customary sub-par effects shots - in its own right, this spooky story written by Toby Whithouse works best as a treat for seasoned Who fans: the Doctor, now officially described as the tenth incarnation of the character, must deal with the sudden return of familiar faces. And what faces: Sladen, a favorite among past companions, is a joy to watch, especially when she compares experiences with Rose and brings up the inevitable question: how long before the Doctor moves on again? Leeson's K-9 is also one of those adorably silly ideas that work perfectly (and to increase the nostalgia effect, the original prop is used in the episode). As for the new characters, the Krillitane are an intriguing creation, and Head (at one point considered to play the Doctor in the ill-fated 1996 TV movie) has a lot of fun playing bad, complete with a clever in-joke at the expense of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans.
In short: the Doctor, Sarah Jane, K-9, aliens and the guy who used to play Giles (or, staying in BBC territory, the Prime Minister in Little Britain). What's not to love about that?
Doctor Who: Tooth and Claw (2006)
An Alien Werewolf in Scotland
Having started in a not entirely satisfactory fashion with premiere episode New Earth, the second season of Doctor Who ups its game considerably with this second offering, another Russell T. Davies-penned adventure that ditches other planets in favor of a (sort of) historical adventure that deftly mixes the show's trademark humor with some genuine horror.
Having left New Earth, the Doctor's plan was to take Rose back to 1979, a year he likes for many reasons (one of them being the Muppet movie). However, due to a TARDIS mishap, they find themselves in 1879, more specifically in Scotland, where they run into a vacationing Queen Victoria (Pauline Collins). The Doctor poses as a Scottish physician to gain access to her entourage, and soon discovers something dangerous is in the working: a conspiracy involving deranged monks and an alien entity in the shape of a werewolf...
While there is a bit of mythology in the script (the name Torchwood is mentioned once again), Tooth and Claw works perfectly as a self-contained story with hints of John Landis, most explicitly in a wonderful scene where the Doctor and Rose, while hiding from the wolf, giddily express their excitement about the situation. The wolf itself is a credible threat, although a couple of shots are slightly let down by the visual effects. As for Collins, who continues the tradition of portraying real people in the series (following Simon Callow's class act as Dickens in The Unquiet Dead), her rendition of Victoria is suitably cold and amusing. Plus, the in-joke of the Doctor faking a Scottish accent (Tennant's own, in fact), followed Rose trying to do the same with appalling results, is one of the funniest moments in the series so far.
The Boat That Rocked (2009)
There are two recurring elements in Richard Curtis' filmography (besides Hugh Grant and loads of swearing, that is): awkward romances and great soundtracks. While the former has always been the best known, Curtis now tries to rectify it with his second directorial effort, The Boat that Rocked, which firmly places the emphasis on music. With the occasional romantic moment along the way.
Partly based on real events, the movie deals with the struggles faced by rock and pop music to emerge in England in the early '60s, when the BBC only played one hour of that music per day. The solution: pirate radio stations, situated in the North Sea, playing rock music 24/7. The young protagonist of the film, one Carl (Jim Sturridge) is sent to help on the boat that broadcasts Radio Rock, and ends up sharing experiences with the eccentric manager (Bill Nighy) and the DJs, which include the sardonic Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the philandering Gavin (Rhys Ifans) and the weirdly lovable Doctor Dave (Nick Frost). Their biggest problem: the British government, specifically an uptight minister (Kenneth Branagh) who intends to shut down pirate radio for good.
With romance taking a step back (albeit with enough room for a fun subplot or two), The Boat that Rocked is an affectionate and irreverent tribute to a lost era, deftly blending the right tunes - "Wouldn't It Be Nice" plays during a scene that gleefully spoof Titanic - and a mix of sweet and raunchy comedy, with the latter having a more prominent spot in this very guy-centric picture (a scene involving the use of the F-word on the radio also serves as satire, given the picture itself, released almost 50 years after the events, is R-rated for its liberal use of expletives). Strangely enough, though, the political bit of the story, while benefiting from a brilliantly stiff-upper-lipped Branagh, is the weaker section of the film, if only because Curtis, famously unable to restrain himself at times, overplays the joke of an assistant (Jack Davenport) being named Twatt - a poor hangover from the fourth Blackadder series that becomes grating after the first few times.
Then again, such issues are compensated by a lively pace, creative camera work and energetic performances. Sturridge does a good job as the audience surrogate getting us acquainted with the team, but the show is inevitably stolen by the more consummate players and, despite Hoffman's riotous work, the best laughs are inevitably British, with Nighy and Ifans delivering their customary Curtis-inspired performances and Frost proving he doesn't need Simon Pegg to shine. And for all the male-dominated atmosphere, fun cameos by January Jones and Emma Thompson make for some truly funny moments.
In other words, The Boat that Rocked isn't exactly as good as Curtis' biggest hits (then again, not many films can match Four Weddings and a Funeral), but as a piece of excellently scored and foul-mouthed escapism it's quite brilliant on its own terms. Only a real Twatt wouldn't want to watch it.
An action comedy, starring Bruce Willis in self-referential (and slightly self-spoofing) mode? Yeah, Cop Out wasn't that great. Fortunately, Red is a stronger piece of material for two reasons: first of all, it's based on a really good comic-book by genre maestro Warren Ellis; secondly, Willis isn't paired with Tracy Morgan, but a talented ensemble including Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren.
The former John McClane plays Frank Moses, a retired man who spends his days sitting around the house, reading trashy romance novels and talking on the phone with an attractive woman (Mary-Louise Parker) working for the pension office. After a failed hit on his life, Frank - who is revealed to be a former CIA operative - discovers he's been labeled RED (Retired Extremely Dangerous) and decides to get to the bottom of the story with the help of a few ex-colleagues (Freeman, Malkovich, Mirren) and former enemies (Brian Cox), while a young, ambitious agent (Karl Urban) is on his trail.
With the comedy/action balance firmly in place and the "old people" angle (minor roles are played by veterans like Richard Dreyfuss and Ernest Borgnine) being a big part of the film's appeal, it could be easy to mistake it for an Expendables rip-off (Willis being in both movies is another element to consider). However, Red is a different beast: the tone is less tongue-in-cheek (there's no equivalent of the Stallone/Schwarzenegger encounter), and, with the exception of Willis, none of the actors have a reputation as actions stars, though they've all had experience in the genre, including Mirren (she previously played an assassin in Shadowboxer). As such, the film is a fun piece of entertainment that takes itself seriously enough to not become ridiculous, but is allowed to play with genre conventions.
Almost inevitably, the plot is on the thinner side of things, primarily because the original comic is only used as the basis of the first five minutes. After that, it's up to the screenwriters to come up with a worthy follow-up plot: intriguing, but hardly more unpredictable than the average action movie. That it stays believable and enjoyable is, obviously, due to the cast: everyone appears to be enjoying themselves, particularly Malkovich who has another go at his more manic turns (see Burn After Reading), and the younger players - Parker, Urban, Julian McMahon - are up to the challenge. As for Willis, his solid and entertaining lead role ensures Cop Out is nothing more than a distant memory.
Red may not be the best comic-book adaptation of 2010 (hello, Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim), but it's got the humor and energy to provide a nice couple of hours at the movies, plus characters that would be fun to watch again. A Malkovich-centric spin-off, perhaps?
Cop Out (2010)
Kevin Smith, where art thou?
In 2008, a Kevin Smith film became quite famous, even before its release, due to problems with the MPAA (aside from the actual rating, the posters and the title gave censors and advertisers more than one headache). That movie was Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and based on that evidence, similar fuss about his latest film being named Cop Out (slang for avoiding responsibilities) instead of the original A Couple of Dicks - a double entendre that at least tried to have some of the subtlety Zack and Miri threw out of the window - seemed to suggest another laugh-fest was in the making. Alas, the Cop Out that eventually made it to theaters is Smith's most disappointing picture to date (yep, even the generally derided Mallrats is better).
Drawing inspiration from '80s action films (hence Harold Feltermeyer's rather enjoyable score), the film tells the story of two NYPD cops, mismatched buddies Jimmy Monroe (Bruce Willis) and Paul Hodges (Tracy Morgan), who have managed to work together for nine years despite frequently driving each other crazy. The same can't be said for Jimmy's home life: he's divorced and about to face the humiliation of watching his daughter (Michelle Trachtenberg) get her wedding paid for by her stepfather (Jason Lee). The only option, it would seem, is to sell a rare baseball card. When said card gets stolen, Jimmy and Paul's investigation leads to them getting involved in something bigger, which has ties to one of their other cases. Oh, and the paranoid Paul is worried his wife (Rashida Jones) might be cheating on him.
On paper, this all sounds like a lot of fun. After all, Smith has virtually shaped his career on variations of the buddy movie formula, minus the action bits: Dante and Randal, Banky and Holden, Jay and Silent Bob, Zack and Miri. Why, then, doesn't Cop Out work on the same level? Part of the problem lies in the picture's tone, shifting between heartfelt tribute to the genre (the aforementioned soundtrack) and clumsy spoof. The biggest issue, however, is the fact that Smith didn't write the script himself. Instead, he took a screenplay by Robb and Mark Cullen and didn't bother polishing it, leaving the conventional plot and trite dialogue intact. Not surprisingly, the most amusing scene is the one where Paul "interrogates" a suspect by throwing out random movie quotes (although the Die Hard joke falls flat); everywhere else, the "original" writing struggles to elicit the same giggles.
And what of the acting, usually safe ground in the director's work (even Jennifer Lopez wasn't half bad in Jersey Girl)? Well, the smaller roles are, as ever, perfectly cast, from Lee's slimy stepfather to the hilarious detective duo played by Kevin Pollak and Adam Brody, not to mention a scene-stealing cameo by Seann William Scott on traditional, foul-mouthed form. The leads, on the other hand, are mismatched in terms of performance: while Willis is quite amusing (his trademark charm prevents him from being completely unlikable), Morgan's one-note shtick, which provides so many laugh-out-loud moments on 30 Rock, becomes grating when stretched over an entire film. No wonder his on-screen wife should feel tempted to have an affair.
Bottom line: Cop Out is an uneven mix of elements that work quite well separately but make for an unappealing blend if combined. Next time, Smith should stick to his own material: another View Askew story, maybe?
Black Swan (2010)
A nightmarish dance
Black Swan was one of the most anticipated movies of the 2010 Venice Film Festival (which is where I saw it), due to Darren Aronofsky's Golden Lion victory two years earlier for The Wrestler. After its premiere screening, on the opening night no less, it was met with conflicting reactions, ranging from sky-high praise to utter indifference, with some even calling it Aronofsky's worst picture alongside the hugely underrated The Fountain. Were such comments deserved? Absolutely not, but that doesn't mean Black Swan is a masterpiece either. In fact, it is fair to call it Aronofsky's least accomplished piece of work.
Set in the very familiar (from Aronofsky's films, that is) contemporary New York, Black Sawn is a dark, psychological thriller about two women: Nina (Natalie Portman) and Lily (Mila Kunis). The former is a young, promising member of a local ballet company, which the latter has recently joined. When company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) announces his next project is going to be a revival of Swan Lake, he states that Nina is the ideal replacement for former star Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), who is about to retire due to her age. However, Nina has to prove herself worthy of the double role of the fair and innocent Swan Queen and the deceptive, seductive Black Swan, or she will also be replaced. Fearing Lily might steal her thunder, Nina grows more paranoid by the day, while also tapping into her repressed sexuality to find her inner Black Swan.
Despite the alleged "indie" tag (the film is distributed by Fox Searchlight, whose parent company previously financed The Fountain), Black Swan is very much a studio effort, with a budget that, while relatively low (13 million dollars), is more than the cost of Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler put together (The Fountain, on the other hand, remains Aronofsky's priciest picture). In fact, comparisons with The Wrestler - the director himself has said the two movies are companion pieces - highlight where Black Swan derails: whereas the Mickey Rourke-starring drama was a truly independent film, not to mention Aronofsky's best (and in no small measure because of his decision to let go of his usual directorial tricks), the ballet thriller is a compromise between a studio product - evident in the classic theme, akin to All About Eve, and the cast - and the filmmaker's personal vision, which reverts to Requiem for a Dream sensibilities for a story he didn't write himself.
Not that it's necessarily a bad thing: in its most inspired moments, Black Swan is an exquisite picture, pulsating with life and filled with indelible, nightmarish images that showcase the heroine's gradual descent into madness, all coordinated with beautiful choreography and impeccable musical cues. Unfortunately, the second half proves to be too weird for its own good, with a shift in tone that aims for visceral horror - think Polanski mixed with early Cronenberg - but gets caught up in some decidedly embarrassing moments, most notably the bulk of scenes involving a hammy Barbara Hershey as Nina's overbearing mother.
And yet it holds up until the end, and not just thanks to a lesbian sex scene that is bound to become a guilty pleasure lynch-pin. While the director's idiosyncrasies may get out of hand, his cast is fully committed and delivers solid work throughout (well, minus Hershey): Cassel is as enjoyably nasty as ever, and Kunis, who unexpectedly won the Mastroianni Award in Venice, finally sheds off the memory of Max Payne and American Psycho 2 and establishes herself as a promising dramatic actress. As for Portman, her schizophrenic role is one of the bravest she's ever tackled, and she remains a majestic, compelling presence for the duration of the movie, while Ryder nearly manages to steal her thunder with just a handful of scenes that ring scarily true: being herself in her late thirties during the shoot, the actress knows all too well what it's like to risk becoming a has-been, and gives an angry, unforgettable performance that should get her an Oscar.
Black Swan is a dazzling, spellbinding and frustrating picture. Tonally uneven and occasionally self-indulgent, it nevertheless manages to seduce and intrigue and, at its best, reminds us that Aronofsky is one of the most original and visionary names in contemporary American cinema.
Tony Scott's train ride
Say what you want about Tony Scott and the overall quality of his body of work, but at least he's reliable when it comes to delivering spectacular action and good thrills, not to mention a fun performance from Denzel Washington, for whom Unstoppable is the fifth collaboration with the director. Sometimes, however, the basic ingredients aren't quite enough, as seen in Scott's previous film, the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, whose train-based scenario is reworked in this new movie, which is partly based on a true story.
The title might sound like a sci-fi story (that's what I believed when I first heard it, having no prior knowledge of the film's content), but it's actually about a speeding train that, unmanned and packed with lethal chemical products, could cause major damage throughout the populated areas nearby. The man upstairs (Kevin Dunn) is more concerned about financial consequences than human lives, and so it's up to an unlikely pair of heroes to try and stop the train: Frank Barnes (Washington), an engineer who thinks he doesn't have much to lose anyway, and Will Colson (Chris Pine), a young conductor with marital problems. Their only ally is yardmaster Connie Hooper, who provides updates and advice via radio frequencies.
It all sounds very good, and yet the feeling remains that something went wrong along the way, starting with the material itself: despite the "true story" tag, the plot feels hollow and riddled with stereotypes, be it the incompetent boss or the "old vs. young" debate that stems from the team-up of Frank and Will. There's also a huge plausibility issue: sure, having live news coverage of the events is a valid storytelling device in terms of narrative vantage points, but who would actually send a news helicopter within 300 feet of something that is likely to blow up? Even by Hollywood standards, that's too much to ask for in the suspension of disbelief department.
On the positive side, Washington is as charismatic as ever, Pine does a good down-to-earth version of his Captain Kirk, and Dawson gives valid support. The real triumph, though, is entirely behind the camera: an assured professional, Scott directs with passion an energy, infusing the key scenes with a vibrancy that, paired with his technical collaborators (most notably editor Chris Lebenzon and composer Harry Gregson-Williams), ensures that, when it's good, Unstoppable is quite a fun ride. Sadly, that doesn't occur all too often, and by the time the race comes to an end the picture has run out of steam as well. Perhaps the material was just too "normal" by the director's standards: where's a cartoonish villain when you need one?
Lost: The Hunting Party (2006)
"This is our island."
After the more character-driven stories in the past three episodes, The Hunting Party, written by Elizabeth Sarnoff and, making her Lost debut, Christina M. Kim, brings the mythology back to the fore with a tight, tense series of events involving a threat not seen since Exodus: the Others.
It all starts with Michael incapacitating Jack and Locke and leaving them locked up in the hatch while he goes into the jungle, armed with a shotgun, to look for Walt, but not before telling them the computer "isn't what it seems". Helped by Kate and Sawyer, the two men are freed and decide to go after Michael, accompanied by the still recovering James Ford (Sawyer's real name, used by Locke during a conversation between the two). During the search, they run into the Others and are confronted by the bearded man (M.C. Gainey) who abducted Walt.
The flashbacks are all about jack, and once again father issues are part of the matter, as the doctor and his old man discuss the chances of success in performing surgery on a man with spinal cancer. The patient's daughter chose Jack specifically because of his apparently miraculous operation on Sarah, and asks him to perform another miracle for her family's sake. Things get complicated when Christian begins to suspect the relationship between the two might get past professional bounds.
Considering that Sarnoff wrote the excellent What Kate Did, it's odd that this episode's flashbacks don't add much of substance, be it to Jack's actual back-story (although it's good to see John Terry and Julie Bowen again) or the present-day ramifications of his past actions. Where the episode does succeed, however, is in creating a suspenseful mood that never relents, and re-introducing a creepy villain like Gainey, who delivers one of the show's best lines: "This isn't your island. This is our island. And the only reason you're living on it, is because we allow you to live on it." In other words: there's an all-out war in the making, a prospect that effectively sets the tone for the remainder of the season.
Lost: The 23rd Psalm (2006)
SPOILER: Due to his cryptic behavior, as well as the fact that Oz veteran Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays him, Mr. Eko was, from the start, the most interesting addition to the castaway group in the second season of Lost. And now, thanks to Lindelof and Cuse, he finally gets his own episode, the religiously themed The 23rd Psalm.
Religion plays a significant role in the present day events, since Claire notices Eko's Biblical leanings and mentions the Virgin Mary statue Charlie retrieved in the previous season. Upon hearing of this, Eko takes the statue and reveals that it contains heroin, thus deteriorating Charlie's relationship with Claire. He then asks the former rock star to take him to the plane, of which he appears to have intimate knowledge. Meanwhile, Michael, unaware of the warning about misuse of the hatch computer, asks if he can take Kate's shift, allowing him to continue communicating in secret with Walt.
The plane's origin is explained in the flashbacks, which are set in guerrilla-torn Nigeria. Eko, having shown a predisposition for violence since childhood (similarly to the actor's Oz character, Simon Adebisi), has become a powerful warlord, a position that puts him at odds with his brother, a priest. The latter is selling Virgin Mary statues to raise money for polio vaccines, but Eko thinks they would be better used to smuggle drugs out of the country. And thus begins a series of events that will end with a crashed plane and two dead bodies, as established in Season One.
The episode, which takes its title from a piece of scripture that has been used many times in movies and television (the one about the Valley of the Shadow of Death), sheds some necessary light on Eko, giving him a back-story that also paves the way for some social commentary (much like Sayid's past as a Saddam-employed torturer), and defines him as a person already deeply tied to the series' mythology (case in point: his encounter with the Smoke Monster). Also notable, in terms of ongoing arcs, the Michael/Walt subplot which keeps suggesting a dark payoff, and a reminder of Charlie's troubled past, with one revelatory scene in particular serving as a warm-up for future installments. Good thing he didn't want anyone to get the wrong idea of the situation...
Lost: What Kate Did (2005)
Fathers and daughters
SPOILER: This is another brilliant case of "does exactly what it says on the tin": the title of the episode is What Kate Did, and what the writing team made up of Steven Maeda and Craig Wright does is precisely what fans have asked for since the show began - reveal why Kate Austen was on the run. And it's every bit as good as it sounds.
On the Island, the castaways are preparing for Shannon's funeral, while Jack keeps watching over a convalescent Sawyer and Locke sets up shifts to push the button in the hatch now that Desmond is gone, striking a friendship of sorts with Mr. Eko in the process. Kate, meanwhile, fears she is going insane after seeing a black horse in the jungle, which leads to her having a talk with Sawyer on the subject of mental instability, and Michael discovers a way to get in touch with his captive son.
As for what Kate did, it turns out she murdered her abusive stepfather by blowing up his house. She was arrested by US Marshal Grant (Fredric Lehne, always a welcome presence) but managed to escape - a black horse was involved, weirdly enough - and confronted her birth parents about her crime, making a shocking discovery about her step-dad.
What Kate Did is a spellbinding combination of standalone character bits and relevant mythology plotting: in the former camp, we have all scenes featuring Evageline Lilly, whose performance hits all the right notes and remains sympathetic even in the darkest moments; in the latter, we have the bond between Locke and Eko, which is strengthened by the appearance of another Marvin Candle tape, and two climactic revelations that suggest the rest of the season will amp up the danger factor. Oh, and did I mention Kate and Jack kiss?