Category Archives: 2009

Movie Review: The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)

As far as I can recall, the last film I awarded 5-stars was the Japanese film Okuribito (aka Departures), which won the Best Foreign Film category at the 2009 Oscars.  So I was understandably excited when I attended the screening of the Argentine film El secreto de sus ojos (English title: The Secret in Their Eyes), the 2010 Oscars’ Best Foreign Film winner.

While The Secret in Their Eyes was ultimately not a 5-star film in my opinion, and despite not having seen any of the other nominees in the category, I do think it is a worthy Oscar winner.

The Secret in Their Eyes won Best Spanish Language Foreign Film at the Goya Awards in 2009, and it’s easy to see why.  The film, directed by Juan J Campanella, is fascinating, compelling and complex.  From the script to the direction to the performances, the entire production oozes class and style.

It tells the story of a recently retired federal justice agent, Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darin), who is writing a novel about a 25-year-old rape and murder case (back in 1974) that continues to haunt him.  The film moves back and forth between the past and the “present” (ie 1999) as Darin’s investigations lead him down a path that will change his life forever.

The core plot of The Secret in Their Eyes is very strong, but there are also plenty of intriguing subplots revolving around Espósito’s life — such as his alcoholic partner Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) and his boss Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil), the woman he longs for but can’t have.  And of course, there is the escalating political violence in Buenos Aires brewing in the background the entire time.

The performances from the three leads are impeccable, but special mention is reserved for Pablo Rago, who plays the grieving husband Morales, and Javier Gudino, who gives a chilling performance as the prime suspect Gomez.  While neither dominates screen time, these two characters anchor the most dramatic scenes throughout the film.

Speaking of dramatic scenes, there is a masterful 5-minute sequence in a football stadium that is all filmed in one long take.

Having praised the film, there are some complaints.  The first, and my main gripe, is that the film could have been tighter.  The pace is steady, although there were times when I felt a conversation outstayed its welcome or a scene dragged on for too long.  There was also a slight tendency for repetition to bring out character traits (eg Sandoval) that did get a bit tedious eventually.  If these things were finessed a little to bring the running time down from a long 127 minutes to a more manageable 115-120, the film would have been even better.

Secondly, The Secret in Their Eyes stretches the believability factor far more than it should.  There are quite a few coincidences and unlikely occurrences that have to be tolerated in order for the film to work.  To be honest, it didn’t bother me too much but I can understand it if others thought it was too fanciful.

Thirdly, just a small complaint about the make-up to convey the 25-year age difference.  It wasn’t bad, but it could have been a lot better, especially for the leads (who mainly just changed hair styles and colour).

The Secret in Their Eyes doesn’t have a premise or story that will necessarily blow anyone away, but for the most part, it is a mesmerizing, satisfying experience.  It knows when to push the right buttons and how to create the right atmosphere, whether it is brutality, fear, tension, creepiness, excitement, loneliness, love, hate, or pain.  There is an abundance of powerful imagery and memorable dialogue to go along with its messages about our lives and memories, meaning it will likely be one of those films that will resonate long after you have walked out of the cinema.

4.5 stars out of 5!

DVD Review: A Serious Man (2009)

I am admittedly biased when it comes to films by the Coen brothers.  After all, they are the creators of one of my favourite films of all time, Fargo, and plenty of classics such as The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men.

Their latest project, the black comedy A Serious Man, has received little commercial fanfare despite being widely acclaimed by critics as well as receiving multiple award nominations (including Best Picture at the Oscars).  I wouldn’t say A Serious Man ranks right up there as the Coen brothers’ best work, but I think it is certainly one of their better films, one that will almost certainly achieve cult status (if it hasn’t already).

A Serious Man tells the story of an ordinary, rather spineless Jewish man in the 1960s who is struggling with everything that is happening in his life, from his health to his family to his job as a physics professor.  It is supposed to be loosely based on the book of Job from the Old Testament.

Don’t let that rather dry description put you off this film.  To be honest, there isn’t all that much of a ‘story’.  A Serious Man is really more like a series of interconnected events that keep happening around the central character Larry Gopnik (played by the brilliant, but largely unknown actor Michael Stuhlbarg).

But somehow, the Coen brothers manage to make A Serious Man compelling and compulsive.  I couldn’t stop watching as one thing after another hits poor Larry, seemingly at random.  You simply don’t know what to expect.

I love the Coen brothers’ brand of humour — that insanely dark, quirky, random humour that pops out of nowhere and is equally hilarious and disturbing.  In A Serious Man, the laughs are somewhat sporadic, but they are always brilliant and strangely insightful.  My favourite sequences involve Larry and a Korean student named Clive (as well as Clive’s father), who is trying to reverse an F grade that would cause him to lose his scholarship.

As much as I enjoyed A Serious Man, I can understand if others hate it.  The Coen brothers often make such polarising films and it’s never possible to please everyone.  Parts of the film are slow, and on the surface at least, it sometimes feels like the narrative has no direction.  There is a very odd prologue set in the early 20th century at the beginning that has seemingly no connection to the rest of the film.  And if you thought the ending in No Country for Old Men was messy and unsatisfying, wait till you see this one.

Having said all that, I enjoyed every minute of A Single Man.

4.5 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: New York, I Love You (2009)

I just went to see a screening of New York, I Love You, a collection of 10 short films masquerading as a full-length feature.  Despite having one of the most amazing ensemble casts ever, it was no good.  No good at all.

New York, I Love You comes to us from the producers of the French film Paris, je t’aime (ie “Paris, I Love You”) and has basically the same concept.  All stories take place in the city of New York, and each one is about love, or the search for love (which is often confused for sex).  Apart from that, they are entirely different and standalone pieces, even though it is put together as though it is a single film.  Characters from one story might make a cameo in another every now and then — and there’s one character, a girl who walks around New York carrying a video camera, that I suppose links the pieces together — but there’s absolutely no connection between the stories.

You can’t discuss this movie without talking about the actors that make up the ensemble cast.  Just off the top of my head, there was: Natalie Portman, Shia LaBeouf, Ethan Hawke, Bradley Cooper, Hayden Christensen, Anton Yelchin, Blake Lively, Orlando Bloom, Chris Cooper, Christina Ricci, Julie Christie, James Caan, Rachel Bilson, Andy Garcia, Robin Wright Penn, Jacinda Barrett, Maggie Q and Shu Qi.  Brett Ratner directed one of the stories and Natalie Portman wrote and directed another.

I guess the whole point of New York, I Love You was to show off New York as a city, and to make some sort of general comment about the “moments” and “connections” people make, whether it is with a completely random stranger or with someone you’ve been with for 60 years.

Needless to say, I struggled with this movie.  Putting aside that I did not know it was really a collection of short films as opposed to a segmented narrative (eg Love Actually, Crash, He’s Just Not That Into You, Valentines Day), many of the stories didn’t work for me.

That’s what happens when you combine what is essentially 10 films written and directed by different people.  There is no consistency in the style or the tone or the feel of each one (for instance, some stories used internal dialogue; another had a narrator).  More importantly, many of the situations and much of the dialogue felt contrived.  It was very uncomfortable watching something you know is trying to manipulate your emotions in a hurry because it only has 10 minutes in which to do it.  I often found myself shaking my head wondering who on the planet reacts and talks like that to random strangers!

The short films all certainly had a lot of style — with the pretty shots, arty imagery and poetic chit chat — but there was rarely enough substance to establish an emotional connection.  And besides, even if you did connect with a particular character, you may never see them again anyway.

Individually, some of the stories were pretty good, witty and insightful.  My favourite one was a short conversation between Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q.  A couple of others, the one with Anton Yelchin and the one with the old couple, were decent.  However, not all of them hit the mark.  One or two were actually quite boring or irritating.  And the worst part about this being a collection of short films is that about half of them (or more) had a twist ending.  Usually one or two in a film is fine, but when it keeps happening over and over, it can start to get a bit tedious.

I would have very much preferred it had they simply presented the movie as 10 short films written and directed by different people, and broken them up accordingly without trying to force an unnecessary link between them.  Knowing when one short story ended and another began would have helped me reset and watch the next one with a clean slate.  Instead, the “combined” collection we ended up with felt uneven, disjointed and lacking in direction.

New York, I Love You is technically sound, shows New York in a nice light, and features an amazing cast — but so what?  It wasn’t enjoyable and that’s all that mattered in the end.

1.5 out of 5 stars!

Movie Review: Ninja Assassin (2009)

Ninja Assassin is a movie likely to polarise viewers.  On the one hand, you have the anime generation numb to the gory violence cheering on every move of the spectacular ninja Raizo (played by Korean actor/popstar Rain).  On the other, there will be those outraged by the excessive blood and carnage, wondering how a movie like this ever got made.

Personally, I didn’t mind all that ridiculous gore.  They are ninja assassins!  That’s what happens when sharp weapons make contact with human bodies!  I did get a nasty visceral shock at the beginning, especially during the opening sequence, but by the end I was starting to get used to it.  It’s actually no worse than films like Saw and Hostel.

So Ninja Assassin had a cool, manga-esque concept.  Young kids kidnapped by some clandestine clan and trained to become super weapon-wielding, kung-fu assassins who kill people in the goriest ways imaginable.  The ninjas move in and out of the shadows like ghosts and no one can touch them.  They are every nerdy kid’s wet dream.

The fight scenes are pretty amazing.  They all looked like they knew what they were doing, and each sequence was wonderfully choreographed and executed.  Knowing a little about Rain (who was previously seen by American audiences in Speed Racer) before the movie, I was impressed by his drastic improvement in English as well as his astounding physical transformation.  I read elsewhere that Rain trained so hard for this film that he vomited after training almost every day.

Rain Ninja Assassin
Korean star Rain may have worked out a little for his role as Raizo

Now that we’ve gotten the positives out of the way, allow me to rip into the rest of Ninja Assassin.  The director, Australian James McTeigue, wasn’t really the problem.  He had previously directed V for Vendetta, so it’s obvious the man has some skill and ability.

The biggest issue I had with the film was the fact that everything else about it, apart from the fight scenes, felt hopelessly amateurish.  It would have been almost better had there been no plot at all.  Raizo is just this killing machine who harbours resentment against his old clan and for some reason decides to save a Europol agent played by Naomie Harris.  These two never click, and its painful watching them try.  The rest of the characters are better ignored, and apart from that, there’s really not much left of the film.

If Ninja Assassins was slightly more credible apart from the fight scenes, it could have had the potential to be a cult classic.  All it needed was a proper plot, more interesting characters and subplots worth caring about.  It didn’t need to be convincing — just more intriguing.  Unfortunately, however, I feel it was ultimately a waste of a promising opportunity.

2 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: Brothers (2009)

Brothers is an emotionally charged war/family drama that really surprised me.  I didn’t think it would be this good.

Based on the 2004 Danish film Brødre, it stars Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, and Jake Gyllenhaal, and is directed by Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father).  It tells the story of the Cahill family, focusing on the relationships between the brothers Sam (Maguire), a US soldier, and Tommy (Gyllenhaal), his ex-con brother, and Sam’s wife Grace (Portman).  Of course, the less known about the plot the better.

When I first came across the trailer, a few thoughts raced through my head.  One, this is one heck of a stellar cast.  Two, the story looks kind of interesting.  Three, Natalie Portman looks so pretty.  But then…four, this looks like a blatant rip off of Pearl Harbor, except with no special effects and proper actors!

Well, I was wrong.  The first half of the film went pretty much according to script (it was essentially revealed by the trailer anyway — another reason I hate them), and it had me worried.  The sequence of events was predictable and the characters felt a little too scripted.

But somehow, the second half of the film took off, and the story went in a direction that caught me off guard completely.  I was so glad they didn’t go down the traditional route, which would have been very tempting.  Instead, they focused on other, more compelling issues, and added little twists to what I thought would have been stock-standard dramatic scenes.  Yes, it’s essentially just a family melodrama, but by the end, I was totally captivated and emotionally engaged.

Some fantastic performances anchor the film.  Of course, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman are superb as always, but it’s Tobey Maguire that stands out most amongst the three, even if it’s primarily because of his character.  He’s had some very impressive performances in his career, but I think this might be the best I’ve seen him.  His physical transformation was very unsettling, and most of all he created a believable and sympathetic character.

If there is a complaint it’s that the film felt longer than it’s 105-minute running time, and there’s something about the oldest daughter, played by Bailee Madison, that didn’t quite feel authentic to me, as terrific an actress as she is.  But notwithstanding that, I found Brothers to be a very worthwhile experience.

4 out of 5 stars!

Movie Review: Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009)

I just saw an advanced screening of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (advanced for where I’m from, anyway), an erotically charged French drama directed by Jan Kounen.  It’s based on the book “Coco & Igor” by Chris Greenhalgh, which chronicled the relationship between fashion icon Coco Chanel and married Russian composer Igor Stravinsky in turbulent 1920s Paris.

(This film is not to be confused with Coco avant Chanel, the Anne Fontaine film released around the same time starring Audrey Tautou (which I haven’t seen).)

I must admit, I did not have very high expectations for the film, because I usually don’t have a thing for relationship-based dramas set in the past (though there have been a few exceptions).  And I suppose those low expectations were somewhat justified in the end.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is a finely crafted film.  You can tell director Jan Kounen has skill, and everything from the classical music to the meticulous sets to the costumes were all first rate.  The performances were also terrific, with Mads Mikkelsen (he was the villain in Casino Royale and is also in Clash of the Titans!) as the tortured genius Igor and Anna Mouglalis (French actress and Chanel “muse” who does promotion for the brand) as Coco.  Mouglalis in particular was amazing.  I didn’t know much about Coco Chanel, but it feels like Mouglalis really brought her to life, from her voice and demeanor to that high-powered “cold hard bitch” vibe she exudes so effortlessly.

However, while the film is well made, there’s really not a whole of lot of substance.  Given the title, there is a certain inevitability throughout, and the film progresses like a slow-moving train wreck.  You know what’s going to happen and accordingly there’s not a lot of excitement.  The sexual tension and family turmoil is there, so it kept me from switching off completely, but the story simply isn’t compelling enough to make me want to keep watching.

It was also very difficult to connect with these two “titans” of their respective arts.  Neither are very likable, so it was hard to care about what happens to them.  Consequently, the ending, which I think was intended to be emotionally powerful, didn’t work at all for me.

So yes, a good effort, but not enough to be entertaining or emotionally engaging.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish name:  Män som hatar kvinnor or Men Who Hate Women) is a fantastic adaptation of the first book of the best-selling “Millennium Trilogy” by late Swedish author Stieg Larsson (see my book review here).

The film has a classic mystery suspense thriller plot.  It tells the story of a wealthy industrialist, Henrik Vanger, who is convinced that someone in his dysfunctional family killed his beloved niece more than 40 years ago.  In a final effort to solve the mystery, he hires Mikael Blomkvist, a recently disgraced journalist facing prison time for libel.  Running parallel to this storyline is the tale of the dangerous and vulnerable security specialist Lisbeth Salander, the titular character.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the type of film that will make you like the book more.  When I read the book, I wondered how the heck they would be able to fit the extremely long and complex novel into a single film.  But somehow, the screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg managed to take the best of the book and squeeze it into the 152-minute running time.  All of the essential elements are there, including the key characters, almost all of the investigative events, and the majority of the subplots.  A few relationships and subplots may have missed the cut, but I think making things a little simpler actually helps the film.

One of my primary complaints with the novel was the amount of exposition — there were so many biographies and backstories that I felt it sagged the plot and the pace.  But the film version got around most of these problems without compromising the intelligent and complex storyline.  Sometimes a short scene or conversation, or even just a look, replaced pages and pages of exposition from the book.  A fantastic adaptation.

What really sets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo apart from your average thriller is the main characters.  Of course, everyone talks about Salander, one of the most intriguing characters to be portrayed on screen in recent years, played perfectly by Noomi Rapace.  But I also think Blomkvist, played by veteran actor Michael Nyqvist, is a highly interesting character.  All the minor characters are well cast and well played too.  A high quality production whichever way I look at it.

A great start to the Millennium Trilogy.  I can’t wait to see the next two films.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Precious (2009)

Some have called Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” By Sapphire (I find this long title hugely annoying so I will just call the film Precious) the “dark” version of The Blind Side (a triumphant story about how a poor black kid overcomes impossible odds to become “somebody”).  Precious similarly tackles the demoralising aspect of African American life, but in a more confronting, uncompromising way — drenched in poverty, illiteracy, obesity, disease, domestic violence and sexual abuse — though unlike The Blind Side, there’s no rich white family to turn it into a fairytale.

It tells the story of Precious Jones, an  illiterate, obese, African American girl living in a dysfunctional household with her mother in Harlem.  At just 16 years of age, Precious is pregnant with her second child.  You can imagine what her life is like.  It’s incredibly bleak.  There’s not much hope for someone like her in this world, or so it would appear.

I’m not quite sure what to make of Precious.  On the one hand, you feel an incredible amount of pity for Precious.  She didn’t ask to be born into this life.  Her mother is an abomination.  It’s a damnation of American life and culture, in particular African American life and culture.

On the other hand, I didn’t get much out of it.  It’s not enjoyable, and for the most part, is an extremely depressing experience.  I was engaged by the story, but there wasn’t much to get excited about for the 110-minute running time.

I will say, though, that the performances were outstanding.  Now that I’ve seen it, I agree whole-heartedly that Mo’Nique deserved the Oscar as Precious’ mother.  She’s a hard, terrifying woman, who is so disillusioned with her own life that she does nothing to prevent her daughter from heading down the same hopeless path, or worse.

Gabourey Sidibe, in her debut role, is also very good as the titular character, but I don’t think she is as remarkable as she’s been hyped up to be.

The two music superstars deserve special mention.  Mariah “Glitter” Carey is actually pretty adequate as a frumpy, plain, welfare social worker, and Lenny Kravitz is almost unrecognisable as a friendly male nurse.

Lastly, I wonder whether the fact that Precious is NOT a true story had any impact on my impression of it.  One of the reasons why The Blind Side got away with a lot of the corny melodrama is because we know it’s ultimately based on true events.  I’m not sure whether it affected me or not, but knowing that Precious Jones is not a real person may have subconsciously brought out the cynic in me.  After all, author Sapphire appears to have crammed all the worst possible attributes and circumstances imaginable into a single character, and in doing so, puts the film and character at risk of being perceived as manipulation.

Look, it’s a good film, but I’m just sayin’.

3.5 stars out of 5

DVD Review: 500 Days of Summer (2009)

[I was supposed to put this into my second DVD Blitz, but the film was too good for me to not give it its own review]

For months I’ve been hearing and reading about the praises raining down on 500 Days of Summer, the romantic drama-comedy directed by first-time feature director Marc Webb and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber.  Naturally, this made me a sceptic.  How good could a seemingly light-hearted romantic comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel be?

Well, I finally found out on DVD over the weekend.  And I fell in love with it.

500 Days of Summer tells the story of Tom (Gordon-Levitt), a young man working for a greeting card company who meets Summer (Deschanel), the girl of his dreams.  There’s just one problem: Summer doesn’t believe in love.  Director Marc Webb describes it as more of a coming-of-age story than a romantic comedy, though I’d like to think of it as both.

It’s not easy to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes 500 Days of Summer so endearing.  Is it the non-linear progression?  No, that actually got me a little confused and annoyed at times.  Could it be the creative visual style and the innovative storytelling techniques?  I liked it, but I don’t think so.  Maybe it was the characters, the way the conventional male-female relationship stereotypes were flipped on their head.  But surely this isn’t the first time this has been done.  Could it be the main leads?  Well, Zooey Deschanel is very cute and I think Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives the performance of his career, but no, I don’t think so.  And while it is a funny film, it’s not constantly or outrageously hilarious.  The laughs come from very random and quirky comments and moments, which are brilliantly conceived, but I’ve seen funnier films in the last couple of years.

So what is it that made the film so enjoyable and delightful?  I don’t know.  Perhaps it’s all of the above.  Or none.  Love isn’t rational anyway.

The film just has this incredibly sweet sensation to it.  It captures that feeling of falling hopelessly in love, the passion, the despair, the heartbreak, and the bitter-sweet aftermath.  I can’t think of another film that has done it this well, this real, with so much creativity, and so much heart. And with a cracker of a soundtrack too.

5 out of 5 stars!

[PS: Maybe I will have another opinion of it upon a second viewing.  I did, after all, watch this on the eve of my two-year wedding anniversary.]

Movie Review: Invictus (2009)

I decided a while ago that Clint Eastwood doesn’t make bad movies.  Some are exceptional, of course, but none fall below “very good”.  Invictus, his latest film starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela (who else?) and Matt Damon as François Pienaar, captain of South African rugby team, is one of Eastwood’s weaker films.  But it is still, well, very good.

Invictus is a rather formulaic story about two men – one a politician, the other a sports star – who attempt to unite a nation through the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  There’s the set up, the journey, and the climax – all the elements of an inspirational sports movie are there.

But the thing is, Invictus is a true story.  From the history to the main characters to the events that changed the world, almost all of the film is true. That’s what makes Invictus so amazing.  There’s no artificial manipulation injected to make you feel inspired.  Knowing that the things depicted actually happened is more than enough to give you goosebumps.  Even if you know what happens from start to finish, Invictus is still a worthwhile experience.  If you don’t know anything about what happened, even better.

However, I had a couple of problems with the film.

First, though I usually enjoy Clint’s imagery, some of the stuff in Invictus felt a little heavy handed.  When you can tell immediately what the director is trying to achieve with a shot or a sequence of shots, regardless of how well-intentioned it is, you get the feeling that you’re being manipulated.  That happens a few times in Invictus.

Second, the depiction of rugby wasn’t very satisfying.  Part of this is because the film is confined to what happened in real life, though it wouldn’t have hurt to make the games a little more exciting.  People who have never watched the sport won’t have much of a clue what is going on, and frankly, will probably think it is a boring, brutish game where all points are scored on penalty kicks.  It would have made things more riveting had they at least tried to show some of the sublime running and passing the game is known for, rather than simply tackles and scrums which make the sport appear like a constant mass orgy.

As for the performances, both Freeman and Damon are very good, although I wouldn’t have handed either Oscar nominations.  There was never any question that Freeman is the perfect actor to play Nelson Mandela, and Damon’s stocky physique (despite his height) makes him a believable rugby player.  Maybe it’s because the two actors fit the roles so well physically that their performances don’t stand out as much.

So, I found Invictus to be a very good film that fell a couple of notches short of great.  In my opinion, it’s one of those movies where you marvel at the true story and the real-life people depicted in it more than the quality of the film itself.

3.5 stars out of 5