Monthly Archives: December 2010

Review – The Way Back (12a) [2010]

Star Rating: 3/5

Travelling can often be long and boring, regardless of whether it is on a bus down the road or on an aeroplane across the world. Alas, despite one heck of a trek, one feels much the same whilst sitting through The Way Back.

The film is based on true events as described in the book, The Long Walk, by Slawomir Rawicz. (The book, however, has recently been proven to be a work of fiction.) The story centres on six men, who escaped from a Siberian gulag in the winter of 1940 and made their way south to India on foot. The distance alone sounds daunting to even the most determined of souls. The inhospitable terrain and harsh weather conditions make the task Herculean, if not outright impossible.

Janusz, played by Jim Sturgess, leads the way through the fierce snow storm. The blizzard is so strong they have to cover their faces in order to see where they're going.

The director, Peter Weir (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Truman Show, Gallipoli) certainly captures the difficulties the heroes face. From the bitingly cold, white desert of Siberia to the scorching heat of the Mongolian/Chinese one, the struggle to keep on going is vividly portrayed. The lack of food and water is a constant problem. Hunger, thirst, cold and skin problems are a constant reminder of the fragility of mankind against unforgiving mother-nature.

Yet, throughout the movie, one wonders what the goals of the main characters are. Once they have escaped, then what? One gets the impression that escaping from the gulag is the end in and of itself; which, of course, it cannot be.

An even greater travesty for The Way Back is that, whilst the acting is generally good, the key characters do not develop. Worse, Weir fails to make us empathise with the heroes. With the exceptions of the American ‘Mister’ Smith (Ed Harris – A Beautiful Mind, A History of Violence), the criminal Valka (Colin Farrell – Phone Booth, Miami Vice, SWAT), and Irena (Saoirse Ronan – Atonement, The Lovely Bones) for being a woman; the other characters do not stand out: Janusz (Jim Sturgess – Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, 21, One Day), Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean – 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, The Paper will be Blue), Zoran (Dragos Bucur – Tuesday After Christmas, The Godmother) and Andrei (Dejan Angelov – Scorpius Gigantus, Until Death) all seem to merge into the same kind-hearted character. Whilst benevolence in such situations is to be admired, it makes it hard to differentiate them; especially as they all look the same dirty, scraggy outlaws.

The accents are also disappointing. Apart from with Colin Farrell, there is little consistency in the actors’ Slavic accents. (Ed Harris uses his American accent throughout the film so is exempt from criticism.) For some of the time, their accents are surprisingly good. But just as one starts to believe that they could actually be Polish or Russian (depending upon where they claim to be from in the vast USSR), out pops their real accents to undo it all. One would have thought that an experienced director, like Weir, would have noticed this during filming. Evidently not.

The party have to endure seemingly endless baron planes during their trek. The baking-hot, sandy deserts of Mongolia and China are just as cruel as snowy Siberia.

Another noticeable thing about the main characters is that none of them make an attempt to violate Irena. This is more than a tad surprising considering that some of these men had been in the gulags for years, and so would not have had the company of a woman for equally as long. Also, bearing in mind the Red Army’s behaviour in Eastern Europe in the latter part of World War II, the characters’ disinterest in Irena appears wholly inaccurate within the historical context. (Not that I am condoning rape amongst former gulag prisoners, of course.)

One thing the film gets right, historically, is the way the gulags were run. Hardened criminals were virtually given carte blanche to terrorise other inmates; especially if they were political prisoners. In addition, the topography throughout the movie, which the National Geographic channel helped to choose, is wonderful.

However, whilst one can appreciate picturesque landscapes, a film that lasts more than two hours has to give its audience more to enjoy than mere terrain. Although The Way Back had to be long to ensure the audience grasps the extent of the distance the main characters walked; not enough happens to them to sustain the viewers’ interest and concentration. Ironically, one comes out of this film thinking that, despite witnessing a journey from Siberia to India, they had not seen much.

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Review – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (PG) [2010]

Star Rating: 3/5

The Chronicles of Narnia series is much like Ronseal, the woodstain/wood-die product.  The Narnia series does ‘exactly what it says on the tin’ and the third instalment in the series, The Voyage of the Dan Treader, is no different.

Unlike in the first film (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe) and the second one (Prince Caspian), Edmund (Skandar Keynes – Narnia series) and Lucy (Georgie Henley – Narnia series) return to the world of Narnia without Peter (William Moseley – Narnia series) and Susan (Anna Popplewell – The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Narnia Series).The latter two are too old for another adventure. In their stead, Lucy’s and Edmund’s obnoxious cousin Eustace (Will Poulter – Son of Rambow, The Revenant) enters the fray.

King Caspian and Edmund are delighted to see one another again. Caspian will need Edmund’s ability to wield a sword if he is to emerge victorious once more.

This time, Edmund, Lucy and Eustace have been sent back to Narnia to join King Caspian (Ben Barnes – Prince Caspian, Dorian Gray, Seventh Son) on board the king’s ship, the Dawn Treader. Caspian is on a quest to find the seven lost swords and banish the evil that resides on a dark island far away… as well as within themselves. For how the main characters evade their various temptations will be equally as tough as acquiring the swords.

The plot for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is meant for children, so it’s easy to follow and far from complex. Although almost two hours long, neither a child nor an adult is likely to be bored throughout the movie. Indeed, the film is entertaining.

Yet, aside from the entertainment value, the acting and the dialogue are so bad it makes the three main characters in the Harry Potter series seem decent. (Anyone who’s read my review of the Deathly Hallows: Part I, will know what I think of them.) Keynes and Henley have failed to grow into Edmund and Lucy respectively over the years; whilst Barnes’ acting seems to get worse every time he appears on screen.

Eustace holding a sword on the Dawn Treader as he attempts to defeat Reepicheep the mouse. These two are undoubtedly these two most hilarious characters in the film.

Arguably, the exceptions to this are Poulter’s performance as Eustace and the mouse, Reepicheep (voice by Simon Pegg – Hot Fuzz, Star Trek). Eustace, despite being annoying and an unbearably difficult young boy, who detests being in Narnia almost to the bitter end, is actually quite funny. (Whether he’d be quite so funny if one had to look after him in real life is another matter.) Reepicheep, as a professional ‘swordsmouse’ that never shuts up, is similarly amusing.

Additionally, unlike in the Harry Potter films and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the special effects here are nothing special. This is disappointing because there is little reason for the director, Michael Apted (The World is Not Enough, Enigma), to have done them poorly; other than, perhaps, a lack of enthusiasm for the project.

Then again, children are not really going to notice such details. Nor are they going to care if the acting or the dialogue is terrible. They just want to see a fun film they can follow and enjoy. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, like the two other films in the franchise, fulfils this criterion. That it is watchable for adults is a bonus.

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Review – The Tourist (12a) [2010]

Star Rating: 3.5/5

When a guy generally sits on a train (or a bus or an aeroplane for that matter), he hopes and prays that a drop-dead gorgeous girl sits either next to or opposite him. Alas, this generally does not happen. Similarly, when two or more star actors combine for a film, the movie usually does not live up to its expectations. The Tourist is a casualty of this syndrome.

Nevertheless, Frank (Johnny Depp – Pirates of the Caribbean I, II, III & IV, Sweeney Todd, Alice In Wonderland), a single and simple maths teacher from Wisconsin, has a dream come true at the start of the film when the stunning Elise (Angelina Jolie – Salt, Wanted, Mr. & Mrs. Smith) sits opposite him on a train to Venice. Better still, she is interested in him. Unfortunately for Frank (if there is such a thing as ‘misfortune’ in this scenario), Elise is being followed by Scotland Yard and by Reginald Shaw (Steven Berkoff – A Clockwork Orange, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), a murderous mafia boss. Both parties are after her husband, Alexander. Elise intends to use Frank as a decoy, to dupe the authorities and Shaw into believing that Frank is her husband.

Depp and Jolie gazing at one another as they dance at a ball. When it comes to glamour, there is only one winner.

Frank has no idea about any of this. As Frank, Depp plays a very different character to the intense, weird roles that he has done in previous films. (Think the barber in Sweeney Todd or Willy Wonker in Charlie In The Chocolate Factory.) In The Tourist, Depp plays a bumbling fool, who is in shock that a woman as striking as Elise would want him. Frank is totally infatuated with Elise throughout the movie and Depp does well to constantly remind us of this without being cringe-worthy. Not only is he nervous and uncertain of himself around her; whenever Elise speaks of her husband, one sees a twinkle of crushing depression form in Frank’s eyes as well as a lump develop in his throat. As a result, one has nothing but empathy for Frank: there are few things more gut-wrenching than going out with a girl and having to listen to her talk about how much she loves someone else; especially if you fancy her.

However, as good as Depp is, Jolie outclasses him. As Elise, Jolie plays a cunning, strong-willed and intimidatingly beautiful, high-class woman. The way she dresses, walks and talks (the English accent, last heard when Jolie starred as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, definitely adds to the appeal) make her the object of fascination throughout the film. That we are unsure for more or less the whole film whose side she’s on ensures she is an enigma. This is far from frustrating. Rather, this has the effect of increasing Elise’s/Jolie’s attractiveness several times over.

Depp and Jolie enjoying Venice's romantic charm as they take an evening boat ride.

Whilst Depp and Jolie play very well, the plot is nothing special and has holes in it that must be taken with a pinch of salt. Although the storyline is quite entertaining and full of twists (some of which are quite predictable); at times, particularly in the middle of the film, it can be a bit dull. If one were harsh, one could even go so far as to argue that it is not the storyline but the two main characters that keep the audience interested. That is never a good sign for a movie.

The choice of Venice for a location is a refreshing change. This film could easily have been shot in any of the over-used major cities in films (like London, New York, LA, Paris or Rome amongst many others). Yet, Venice has its unique allure, which is quite well captured throughout the film. The movie also reveals other not-so-wonderful aspects of Venice, and Italy in general, such as corruption within the police. But that is beside the point.

All in all, The Tourist is a tad disappointing. The actors and the charm of Venice undoubtedly make up for many of the shortfalls in the plot. Yet, even if the storyline has its flaws for much of the film, the ending is a different matter altogether. The ending is nothing short of brilliance and will leave one feeling very satisfied indeed.

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Review – The American (15) [2010]

Star Rating: 2/5

When one thinks of a spy film, the Bourne series, Munich and Salt spring to mind. Those movies were action packed and fast-paced; and in Salt, one at least watches Angelina Jolie wearing tightly fitted costumes and doing all kinds of interesting stunts and kicks. The American, on other hand, has little of these qualities; and George Clooney (From Dusk Til Dawn, Ocean’s Eleven, The Ides of March), playing the role of an American spy in Italy, fails to appeal to the audience in the same way that Matt Damon, Eric Bana and Jolie do in their respective films.

Clooney making out with Violente Placido at a picturesque and secluded stream.

In saying that, the director, Anton Corbijn (Control), has deliberately gone for a very different type of spy film relative to other recent movies within the genre. He has gone for an artistic film. One is forced to admire the beautiful Italian sceneries as well as tolerate the silence that dominates much of the film. The lack of dialogue in The American is reminiscent to Francis Coppola’s Lost In Translation. Consequently, there are numerous (and arguably pointless) scenes of Clooney alone, saying nothing. A lot of the time, the same is true when Clooney is with people. Questions asked to him are often left unanswered, which is poor-show from Corbijn.

Clooney, refreshingly, is not his usual charming self in The American. He cuts a sombre and lonely person throughout much of the film. Even in scenes when he is with people, like when he is with the priest having religious conversations or when he is with the escort/prostitute, Clara (Violenta Placido), Clooney is almost always distant, cold and unable to speak his mind. One imagines this could be indicative of spies in general: they can’t reveal their real jobs as that would most likely endanger their lives, their mission and their country. Occasionally, we see the paranoia that goes through the mind of a spy; for example, the constant look over the shoulder. But Clooney does not capture a spy’s paranoia as well as the actors in Munich do, which is a shame for him. That is not to say that Clooney does a bad job in this film. But devoid of a script, not to mention his smooth-tongue and amiable smile, he is not the same actor.

Clooney holding a rifle with a silencer as he practices his shooting accuracy.

Still, Clooney is one of the few bright spots in The American. (Other decent aspects include the gorgeous women he meets and sleeps with.) Irritatingly, the storyline, if there is one at all, has no context. Throughout the film, one wonders: why Clooney is in this small town in Italy; who he’s working for; who he’s targeting; and if he is an asset or a liability to his organisation. If the plot were fast-moving, Corbijn might have gotten away with this. But as it is slow, the movie is disinteresting and boring.

What’s more, The American is not especially entertaining. It does not matter how picturesque the Italian landscapes are or if some of the paranoia’s of being a spy are illustrated; a film’s first job is to entertain. Thus, Corbijn has let down Clooney as well as his audience.

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Review – Unstoppable (12a) [2010]

Star Rating: 4/5

A film about a runaway freight train was never going to be a classic. Like The Taking of Pelham 123, Speed and Gone in Sixty Seconds, to mention three of countless such films, one could only hope that this film would be entertaining and nerve-racking. It is both!

When I first saw the trailer for Unstoppable, it reminded me of an episode from Thomas The Tank Engine, entitled The Runaway. As a kid, seeing Thomas steaming away without his driver and fireman made my heart pound every time. Except, this film is not about a little tank engine with two coaches running down a harmless train line. Unstoppable is based on true events about an unmanned monster freight-train, half a mile long, travelling at such a speed it can demolish anything in its wake. Worse, it is coupled to wagons containing highly inflammable/explosive materials, going through populated areas and heading straight towards a curve at Stanton, a densely populated town in southern Pennsylvania. Worse still, a group of school-children heading for a field trip, are on the same line as the runaway train heading for a collision!

Will and Frank on a siding trying to work out how they are going to stop the train

If the situation is not enough to put one on edge; the director, Tony Scott (Top Gun, The Taking of Pelham 123, Stoker), constantly changes scenes back and forth during conversations between officials, managers and the main characters to induce further panic into the audience. The fast-beats, the crescendos and the sudden silences ensure that viewers will never take their eyes of the screen.

Unlike the plot and the music, the acting is not as dramatic. Indeed, one thing that should be noted is how un-melodramatic and realistic the acting is. Frank (Denzel Washington – American Gangster, The Inside Man) and Will (Chris Pine – Star Trek I & II, This Means War), as normal railway drivers, do not have the most challenging of roles. Yet, they play them well without reverting to cringe-worthy clichés. Despite understanding the gravity of the situation, and reacting to it in the best way they feel they can; Frank and Will spare some time for banter and heart-to-heart conversations. After-all, what else can they do in their train’s cabin whilst they hurry along the line to try and catch the monster freight-train?

Nothing gets in the way of the monster runaway train.

The realism of their roles is similarly reflected by the behaviour of their manager, Connie (Rosario Dawson – Sin City, Trance), who wants to save as many lives as possible; and her boss, Galvin (Kevin Dunn – Transformers), who has several factors to take into account, such as commercial, financial, damage to infrastructure and, lastly, human life. Connie and Galvin are constantly on the phone to one another (as well as to Frank), trying to solve the problem as to how to stop the train. Whilst on the phone, they speak in a relatively cordial manner; off the phone, the number of expletives they shout about one another is both realistic and funny. Indeed, one could imagine this occurring in an office in an under-pressure situation.

The realistic elements to the film, the music and the plot make for easy and entertaining viewing. By no means is Unstoppable a five-star film; but one’s adrenaline will be doing overtime long before the end of the movie.

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