Monthly Archives: September 2011

Review – Warrior (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 3.5/5

The trailer for Warrior gives the movie the air of another-The Fighter. The comparison is quite natural; both films appear, ostensibly, to be about fighters in a ring. But for many reasons Warrior cannot be equated with the excellent The Fighter.

Tess (Jennifer Morrison) with her husband, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), discussing the idea of him fighting again.

Warrior is about two estranged and very different brothers, Brendan (Joel Edgerton – Animal Kingdom, Wish You Were Here, Zero Dark Thirty) and Tommy (Tom Hardy – Bronson, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, This Means War), who compete in a mixed martial arts competition. Brendan is a former fighter, but now married to the pretty Tess (Jennifer Morrison – Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Star Trek, Knife Fight), and a high-school teacher by trade. He and his wife are struggling with debts, and the bank is threatening to evict them from their home. Such is their plight, Brendan hires a personal trainer, Frank (Frank Grillo – Minority Report, Mother’s Day, End of Watch), and returns to the ring to make some money.

Tommy enters the competition for different reasons. Tommy has returned home from army duty in Iraq, and needs to be cleaned up from his pill-taking, alcoholic lifestyle. Using his now-sober father, Paddy (Nick Nolte – The Thin Red Line, Hotel Rwanda, The Gangster Squad), who was a boxer in his day, as his trainer, Tommy gets in shape for the competition.

Whilst simple, Warrior’s plot is (painfully) slow. The film is 140 minutes long, and it could feel a lot longer for those who become bored with the movie’s sluggish pace. Also, the last hour becomes predictable and cliché. Some thought that The Fighter became ‘too Hollywood’ by the end. There might be some truth in that; nevertheless that movie is based on a true story, so it cannot, to an extent, be helped. This is not the case for Warrior, meaning it has no excuse for becoming cliché.

Brendan making his comeback in the ring.

Moreover, there are inconsistencies in the storyline, which become ridiculous during the fighting scenes. The background of the main characters, despite being hinted at often, is also (irritatingly) not explained. By the end of the movie, one is no closer to understanding why the brothers became estranged from each other, and their father.

Warrior’s storyline may have its flaws, but the dialogue is very well written and feels realistic. This is aided by the main actors delivering strong and convincing performances. As Brendan, Joel Edgerton does a fine and consistent job, playing a level-headed and resilient man, despite his understandable stresses. No-one would realise that Edgerton is Australian either from this performance, as his soft Pittsburgh accent remains intact throughout the film.

Similarly, no-one would know that Tom Hardy is English from Warrior. As Tommy, Hardy admirably plays a troubled, insecure and aloof individual, who gets through his days by drinking and taking drugs. Tommy may not be a kind character, but the way he walks with his head down, and the dark circles under his eyes are indicative of his internal difficulties.

It is a shame for Hardy (and Edgerton for that matter) that their characters’ backgrounds are not dealt with, because that would have, perhaps, enhanced their respective characters from two-and-a-half to three dimensions. Furthermore, for Hardy, playing a drug addict draws (unfair) parallels with Christian Bale’s Oscar-winning performance in The Fighter. In this proxy fight before they go head-to-head in The Dark Knight Rises, as Bane and Batman, respectively, it is the latter who comes out on top. This is because Hardy has a less-challenging role as the lazy, slurring stoner, whilst Bale played the demanding crazy, brimming-with-energy crack addict.

The leading actors give worthwhile performances in Warrior, and the same can be said for the supporting cast, particularly Nick Nolte and Jennifer Morrison, even if they vary slightly in quality. Nolte, playing a reforming alcoholic who has found Jesus, plays very well when on screen. When he shows emotion, one does genuinely empathise with Paddy’s predicament (even if he has brought most of his problems upon himself). Surprisingly, one does not feel similarly vis-à-vis Morrison’s character, Tess. This is partly because Tess has not been given much personality, and because Morrison doesn’t make one feel the desperate nature of Tess’s situation.

The younger brother, Tommy (Tom Hardy), at the tournament. His muscular frame suggests that he’s ready to take on anyone.

Lastly, director Gavin O’Connor (Tumbleweeds, Miracle, Pride & Glory) has put Warrior together quite well. The scenes flow smoothly one after the other, but the choice of music is perplexing. For much of the first half of the film, there is little music (which is fine); yet, the second half is filled with a bizarre mix of standard boxing music and a Beethoven symphony. Beethoven and martial arts are a curious mix.

All-in-all, Warrior is an agonisingly slow film and pitiably cliché. It has acting of great quality, but by not elucidating upon the characters properly O’Connor misses the chance for his movie to be potentially nominated for awards. The Fighter had no such deficiencies. One nil to Batman.

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Review – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 4/5

The Bourne series, 24 and Munich, in their different ways, show audiences that the world of the secret services is a murky one, where mistrust and paranoia are rife. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (TTSS) may not be a standard catch-and-shoot the bad guy thriller. Nevertheless, with a star-studded cast, TTSS is an excellent, if puzzling, portrayal of the nature of the top echelons of the secret services.

George Smiley (Gary Oldman), adopting his standard pose, explains a few things to his assistant, Peter Guillam, in one of the secret places where they do their work.

TTSS is based on the novel by John Le Carré, who worked for the best part of 20 years in MI5 and MI6; the movie is also a shortened remake of the 1979 TV series. TTSS is set in early-1970s Britain, during the Cold War. There is a mole in the ‘Circus’, the MI6 internal nickname for the highest levels of the British intelligence services. Someone is giving classified information to a Soviet agent called Polyakov (Konstantin Khabenskiy – Wanted). But who is it?

Control (John Hurt – V For Vendetta, Harry Potter VII(i) & VII(ii), Immortals) brings back his former colleague, George Smiley (Gary Oldman – Air Force One, Harry Potter III-V & VII(ii), The Dark Knight Rises), from retirement in order to discover who is behind the leak. But Smiley and his personal assistant, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch – Atonemment, Star Trek II, The Hobbit II), must do their work in secret. This is to make sure that the other members of the ‘Circus’ – Percy Alleline (Toby Jones – Frost/Nixon, Captain America: The First Avenger, Snow White and the Huntsman), Bill Hayden (Colin Firth – The Importance of Being Earnest, The King’s Speech, Before I Go To Sleep), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds – Munich, Harry Potter VII(ii), The Debt) and Toby Esterhase (David Denick – War Horse, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) – don’t find out what they’re up to. Any one of them could be the traitor.

The plot for TTSS may sound straight forward, but it is not. Rather, it is slow and very confusing. The movie is also hard to follow because it does not follow a linear timeframe. Viewers are rarely certain if they’re watching the past or the present. Moreover, the director, Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In), does not give the complete context of the story; for example, there is no hint of the five Cambridge pro-Soviet traitors that riddles the book.

Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) looking through files to find information on the mole.

This is not to say that Alfredson has made a bad film. On the contrary, the slowness of TTSS is, arguably, a reflection of the world of espionage, which Le Carré, who assisted in the movie’s production, understands so well. Seen in this light, even the many seemingly pointless short, silent scenes of Smiley going into a room or a house on his own have a purpose, since they give TTSS a greater feel for the workings of MI6.

In addition, the brilliant acting throughout the movie aids our understanding of the type of people that tend to be at the top echelons of the secret services. A lecturer of mine at university told me that Hilter’s military intelligence chief (and double-agent), Wilhelm Canaris, upheld a persona to make it seem to others that he was not on the ball. In a similar vein, all the men in the ‘Circus’ in TTSS have their manufactured character guises. No-one in the film has this more than Smiley. In the lead role, the ever-sound Gary Oldman plays Smiley exceptionally well. Whilst no James Bond, Oldman never loses his concentration as Smiley; he always remains head-down, calm and monotonous, yet perspicacious, even when there is emotion stirring within him. It is a shame for Oldman that many subtleties of Smiley’s character, from the book and the TV series, have been taken out by Alfredson.

All of the supporting cast suffer from the same problems. Everyone plays very well, but since the film is only 127 minutes (and may seem longer to those not enjoying it), there is not enough time for all of the nine main characters, including Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong – Kick-Ass, The Eagle, Zero Dark Thirty) and Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy – Layer Cake, Inception, Warrior), to have real depth. To the cast’s credit, none of them appear shallow on screen, and some of them are given the time to express themselves to a degree.

Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) as the active secret agent on the streets to help find people who may be connected to the mole.

The impressive acting is matched by the settings throughout TTSS. From the clothes; to the hairstyles; to the cars; to the fax machines (and lack of mobile phones); to the smoking, everything has the appearance of the late-1960s/early-1970s. Remarkably, nothing is out of place.

The music used throughout the film is, perhaps, the exception to this. While the music is not of its era, its strangeness, more often than not, enhances the confounding plot and the tension in some of the scenes.

TTSS is not a conventional spy/secret-agent thriller. The film moves at a measured pace and is very confusing to the extent that one may go home without having completely understood the movie. One may even need to be a fan of this niche genre to truly appreciate it. Yet, with fantastic acting – particularly from Gary Oldman – TTSS depicts its era and the underhandedness of the inner workings of the top levels of the secret services down to a tee.

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Review – The Skin I Live In (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 4/5

For a psychological thriller to be worth its while, it invariably has to venture into disturbing realms to the extent that one wonders what sort of a person came up with the ideas. This was arguably the case with Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and Darren Aranofsky’s Requiem For A Dream and Black Swan. The Skin I Live In, despite being very different to the above-mentioned films, successfully takes us once again into this unsettling territory.

Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) giving the classic 007 pose.

The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito) is a Spanish film, based on Thierry Jonquet’s book, Tarantula. The movie centres round Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas – The Mask of Zorro, Shrek I-IV, Puss In Boots), a genius but deeply troubled plastic surgeon, who specialises in (unethical) skin repair and enhancement. After his teenage daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez – Shiver, Cowards, The Pelayos), is raped by a boy her own age, called Vicente (Jan Cornet – The Night of the Brother, Camino, Red Lights), Robert decides to kidnap Vicente and punish him. But what does Robert plan to do with Vicente? Does the former wish to use the latter as his laboratorial guinea pig? Or does Robert have something more distressing in mind?

The plot is intelligent and absorbing, with a very unnerving twist. (Don’t worry, no spoilers in this review.) Yet, the storyline suffers from a general lack of clarity. First, one has difficulty knowing which year he/she is watching. Scenes may roll into one another smoothly, but the film skips regularly back and forth over a six year period in a confusing way. Second, one is never sure of Robert’s intentions, even by the end.

Moreover, there are some loose-ends in the plot, and other parts of it are left without purpose or proper explanation, such as the sub-story near the beginning about Robert’s half-brother, Zeca (Roberto Álamo – Football Days, Take My Eyes). Arguably, the reason for the lack of clarity is because the director, Pedro Almodóvar (Talk To Her, Volver, Mina), has gone for a more artistic-style of film, like Lost In Translation and The American. This means that there is relatively little dialogue throughout The Skin I Live In. Instead, one has to figure out the message of the scene via, at times, ambiguous expressions and body-language, particularly from the main character, Robert.

Robert after finding his daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez), raped.

Playing Robert, the James Bond-/George Clooney-esq Banderas is without doubt the star of the film. In a superb display, Banderas exemplifies an intelligent, stony-faced man filled with tragedy, spite and (perturbing) ambition. No other member of the cast comes close to his level of performance. Marisa Paredes (All About My Mother, The Devil’s Backbone, Mina) may not do a bad job playing Robert’s mother, Marilia. But Marilia lacks the depth of Robert’s personality, which is revealed when she is given the chance to explain herself during a heart-to-heart with the gorgeous Vera (Elena Anaya – Talk To Her, Van Helsing, Room In Rome). Similarly, Elena Anaya, Jan Corbit and Roberto Álamo suffer from the same problems, and aren’t given ample time to express themselves. This, just like aspects of the plot, is to the movie’s detriment.

The quality of some of the acting lets the film down; yet, the same cannot be said for the music. It might sound unconventional and strange, but apart from the one scene with techno music (which is completely out of place) the music achieves Almodóvar’s ambition of giving the scene an ominous and tense feel. (One strike at high a piano key every few seconds; one hit of the drum over the same amount of time; and regular short, sharp notes from string-instruments are not classic ways of building eeriness or tension. Then again, it makes a refreshing change from tacky horror films, like Scream and The Eye, which adopt unbearably long notes from string-instruments, followed by a sudden crescendo to make viewers jump out of their skin.)

Robert's captive, Vicente (Jan Cornet), chained to a wall and drinking from a bucket.

Just as the music sounds odd throughout The Skin I Live In, so too are the aesthetics. Robert’s stunning mansion-cum-residency for his ‘patients’ is filled with large paintings of naked people, with unnaturally round heads and no faces. Just by seeing these, one gets the impression that Robert has some weird tastes long before the film comes to its mentally repelling and horrifying conclusion.

Ultimately, The Skin I Live In has its drawbacks and could have been less confusing. Nevertheless, Antonio Banderas performs brilliantly; and the unconventional nature of the film and the unusual storyline make for psychosomatically disturbing viewing. To Almodóvar’s credit, the film is not just a spin-off of an Aranofsky movie, and adds something new to the genre. Still though, just like with other psychological thrillers, by the end of The Skin I Live In one is likely to question the (in)sanity of the man who put this film together.

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Review – Friends With Benefits (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 3/5

Six months ago, the light-hearted No Strings Attached came out. It starred Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, and explored the idea of whether or not friends could have sexual relations devoid of emotion. Friends With Benefits deals again with this issue, just with better jokes and more sex.

Dylan and Jamie making their pact to have 'no emotions, just sex.'

Friends With Benefits centres round Jamie (Mila Kunis – Family Guy, Black Swan, Oz: The Great and Powerful) and Dylan (Justin Timberlake – Alpha Dog, The Social Network, In Time), both of whom are ‘emotionally damaged’ after being dumped by their respective boyfriend and girlfriend. Jamie is a head-hunter, who flies Dylan over from LA to New York to recruit him for the advertising firm, GQ. No sooner does Dylan get off the plane, the two of them strike up a friendship that soon goes beyond the borders of a platonic relationship. The question is: can they keep it up without falling for one another?

The storyline is enjoyable and far from intense. Friends With Benefits is filled with sex scenes, but lacks the volume of nudity seen in Love & Other Drugs. However, just like in No Strings Attached, Friends With Benefits becomes predictable and a little cliché by the end (as is to be expected from a romantic comedy). Even the key song of the film, the normally very pleasant Closing Time by Semisonic, feels a little overused and cheesy by the end.

Dylan's sister, Annie (Jenna Elfman). She cannot believe that her brother is not going out with Jamie.

Over-all, director-producer, Will Gluck (Easy A, Fired Up!), has put the film together nicely. There are some corny moments and conveniences in the plot, but it could have been so much worse, as The Back-Up Plan and Valentine’s Day illustrate. Likewise, the dialogue and the acting are not terrible either. There is some good banter between the appealing Jamie and Dylan, which will make the audience laugh. The humour in Friends With Benefits may lack the sophistication of that in One Day; nevertheless, it is not slapstick.

Out of the two main characters, Mila Kunis steals the show. Indeed, she is the star of the movie. Not only is Kunis strikingly attractive (even in the mornings after a steamy night), her character, Jamie, has a fun and lively personality that is the envy of single men (and possibly some married ones too). Additionally, when Jamie needs to be severe or upset, Kunis makes it look genuine. This is not the case with Justin Timberlake. Playing the young, up-coming, smooth-talking manager, he does just fine. Yet, when he attempts to be serious he looks like a petulant child not getting his way.

Dylan and Jamie going for a walk in the park.

The characters and the storyline in Friends With Benefits have their flaws. Both of the key players lack depth; as does the rest of the cast, with perhaps the exception of Dylan’s father (Richard Jenkins – Changing Lanes, Burn After Reading, The Cabin in the Woods). Moreover, the movie does not adequately explain why Dylan and Jamie are ‘emotionally screwed up’. (Then again, this is a romantic comedy. What was one expecting?)

For those who enjoyed No Strings Attached, there is little doubt that they will enjoy Friends With Benefits too. The latter film is fun and, in Jamie (Mila Kunis), has a girl that is the stuff of dreams. Furthermore, the movie has some amusing jokes, and enables the audience to switch off whilst watching two good-looking people making out with one another regularly. Whether one will come out believing that a friend with benefits is possible is another matter.

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