Tag Archives: Natalie Portman

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)

prideprejudicezombies

I rolled my eyes when I first heard years ago that Hollywood was adapting Seth Grahame-Smith’s zombie mash-up of Jane Austen’s classic novel. I rolled my eyes back to centre when I found out Natalie Portman was going to play the lead role, and then I completely forgot about it as the film steered off into production hell.

Then out of nowhere, the film was done. Portman is now an Oscar winner (Black Swan, 2011) and only a producer on the film, with rising star Lily James replacing her as heroine Elizabeth Bennet. I still wasn’t too interested in the film, though I was willing to give it more of a chance because I was one of the six people in the world who actually liked a similar film — at least conceptually — Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (which came out in 2012). Still, I thought the book was a gimmicky idea and the film was going to be the same.

Now that I’ve watched it, I can say that my reservations about it being gimmicky were largely misplaced. Grahame-Smith’s book basically took the original Pride and Prejudice (which is no longer protected by copyright) and added his own bits and pieces (pun intended) about zombies, so the basic structure of Austen’s novel is still there. The film version, accordingly, is the same. You still have the core plot and the same characters. The main difference is that they now live in a world of zombies and the Bennet family and the lovely Mr Darcy are all kick-ass zombie killers.

It sounds stupid and it is, though credit to director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) for finding the right tone — one that doesn’t take itself very seriously but also controlled enough so that it doesn’t spiral into a complete farce. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is more or less what you’d expect — lots of crazy zombie killing action and some light horror-comedy — except it’s surprisingly well-executed enough to not overdo it, so you don’t get tired of the zombie angle quickly or get bored by the period drama romance at the heart of the story.

The film survives from a disastrous collapse because they actually cast solid dramatic actors across the board. Lily James is excellent as Elizabeth Bennet, while Sam Riley (On the Road) makes a decent Mr Darcy. Throw in the likes of Jack Huston and Lena Headey, as well as young up-and-comers like Aussie Bella Heathcote and Douglas Booth (Noah), and you have yourself a nice ensemble cast who can carry their dramatic scenes well enough when there is no carnage on screen. The standout, however, has to be Dr Who himself, Matt Smith, who plays a hilarious version of Mr Collins.

The problem with P&P&Z is that it doesn’t do any particular thing well. It’s got comedy, but it’s more likely to put a brief smile on your face than elicit genuine laughs. It’s got horror, but there’s nothing that will make your hairs stand, give you the chills or make you jump in your seat. It’s got drama and romance, but if you wanted to watch that you’d just watch any of the many other P&P adaptations out there. And it’s got action, but it’s neither very stylish and exciting  (like say Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), nor is it very witty and creative (like say Shaun of the Dead).

So what we end up with is a surprisingly acceptable movie that’s enjoyable enough for killing 108 minutes of your spare time, but with no elements you haven’t already seen — and done better — in other genre films. It’s neither the total disaster I thought it might be nor the kind of genre-bending fun thrill ride it could have been.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Thor: The Dark World (2013)

thor the dark world poster

I liked the first Thor movie more than I expected thanks to the crafty direction of Kenneth Brannagh and the performances of Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman, which struck the right balance between fantasy and reality and humour and seriousness in the Norse god adventure. The success of that film and The Avengers always meant a sequel was forthcoming, but could it be done correctly without Brannagh at the helm?

I suppose the answer is yes, but there is still something about Thor: The Dark World that makes it feel a little pedestrian compared to some of the heavyweights in the Marvel universe. There is nothing, strictly speaking, wrong with it, but I don’t think it would have made much of a difference had they skipped it entirely and moved straight on to The Avengers sequel scheduled for next year.

Like Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World is set after the events of The Avengers. And like the first film, it splits screen time between Thor’s world of Asgard and Earth. The story is frankly too complicated and convoluted for me to even try and explain, but all that needs to be known is that the Asgardians are facing an threat from an alien race because of yet another magical weapon (this one’s called the Aether) and Thor must enlist the aid of his imprisoned adopted brother Loki (the brilliant Tom Hiddleston) to get the job done. Meanwhile on Earth, his love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) conveniently stumble onto portals that can transport them into other worlds.

Anyway, there’s lots of Thor hammer action, epic battle scenes and a good dose of comedy that aligns the tone of the movie with Joss Whedon’s wit in The Avengers. The charisma and chemistry of Hemsworth and Hiddleston provide the backbone to the movie and keep it afloat throughout all the muddled exposition, though Portman feels like a bit of an unwilling participant who’s only there because she’s contractually obliged. Kat Dennings, who plays Portman’s sidekick, gets to stand out more by providing the quirky one-liners, while Stellan Skarsgard provides a welcome return as Dr Selvig, a physicist who is now questioning is own sanity after what he has experienced.

The Thor franchise has always been the most difficult to translate to the screen out of all the other Avengers heroes and director Alan Taylor deserves a lot of credit for the solid action sequences and for finding the right vibe for a film about alien warriors in two very different worlds. And kudos for creating a sequel that is more personal and different to the original rather than just doing the exact same thing except with bigger noises and brighter special effects like what MIchael Bay did in the Transformers franchise.

Having said all that, I found the experience of watching Thor: The Dark Work somewhat tedious at times. Perhaps you need to be a fan of the comic to get into it because I didn’t think it was doing much more than scraping the surface and going through the motions without the same enthusiasm as its predecessor.

The final battle sequences in London provide something different but there was no exhilaration because both Thor and his adversary are so bloody indestructible. The fight reminded a lot of Superman vs Zod in Man of Steel, in which two dudes just keep throwing each other through a lot of buildings without hurting each other.

So, despite reasonable expectations, I came away relatively disappointed with Thor: The Dark World. Technically speaking it ticks the right boxes for a superhero sequel, but with so many similar flicks in recent years it struggles to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack.

3 stars out of 5

PS: And what the heck was that post-credits scene?

Mega Catch-up Movie Blitz (Part 5)

A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (2011)

I have always been a fan of the Harold and Kumar series despite its tendency to be very hit-and-miss. And you really can’t go wrong with any film that features Neil Patrick Harris.

In this third installment, Harold (John Cho) has married his dream girl Maria (from the first film) and works on Wall Street. Kumar (Kal Penn) is still the same old stoner who failed to become a doctor after flunking a drug test. It’s Christmas, and of course, the dynamic duo team up for one more wild adventure. This time, it’s finding a Christmas tree.

To be honest, A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas is perhaps the lamest of the trilogy. It doesn’t quite have the freshness of White Castle or the outrageousness of Guantanamo Bay. This is a “family” film, so to speak. But you know what? It’s still freaking funny a lot of the time.

As usual, there are some dud jokes thrown in there, but the good thing about there having been two earlier films is that you know Harold and Kumar’s personalities so well now that the laughs all come fairly easily.

Great to see Cho and Penn back in awesome form. Penn, in particular, had to resign from his post in the Obama administration to take the role, and there is a cracker of a joke about that in the movie. Needless to say, Neil Patrick Harris, who is supposed to have been fatally wounded in the second film, is back, and in peak condition. The always intimidating Danny Trejo (I last saw him in Machete…actually, in the PS3 game, The Fight) is also pretty good as Maria’s dad.

3D Christmas will probably go down as the weakest film in the series but fans of the two stoners will no doubt still be able to find plenty of amusement from it.

3.25 stars out of 5

Haywire (2011)

Okay, so Steve Soderbergh, the Oscar-winning director of Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Oceans Eleven and Contagion is a pretty big deal. No wonder he managed to get guys like Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas and Michael Fassbender to be in an action flick headed by an MMA star, Gina Carano.

Basically, Carano is a government agent who gets set up. Bad idea, because she knows how to kick some serious male ass. The story is a little convoluted for my liking but part of it has to do with Soderbergh’s distinctive style. Whenever the film gets into the fight scenes, however, the story is happy to take a back seat.

I don’t know much about Carano and I don’t care much for MMA, but I suppose the action in Haywire is pretty cool, somewhat Bourne-like in its pace, brutality and supposed realism, except with a less shaky camera and an actress that really knows what she is doing when she’s bouncing off walls, bashing heads in and choking people into submission. As a thespian though, I think Carano still has some work to do. Not horrible by any means, but could be better.

At the end of the day, Haywire is a decent action flick – but it just won’t be a very memorable one.

3 stars out of 5

Hesher (2011)

I’m a huge fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Tremendous talent and versatility. And there’s no one quite like him in Hollywood. I was recommended Hesher by a bunch of people and I had a ball with it. The big surprise is that the screenplay was co-written by Aussie David Michod, the genius behind one of the best films from last year, Animal Kingdom.

It’s a highly-random, WTF kind of movie about this dude, Hesher (played by Gordon-Levitt), who intrudes the life of a weird little boy called TJ. He’s dirty and scruffy, walks around bare-chested, has awesome tattoos, smokes a lot, and does heaps of crazy and random things. To be honest, he doesn’t do a lot, and the things he does don’t always make sense. He’s just…there.

It’s really hard to describe what this movie is about or why it is so compelling to watch. The comedy in it is jet black. It’s not for everyone but I laughed out loud frequently and ferociously. Unbelievably, it has Natalie Portman in it. And she’s funny too, in a strange kind of way.

Towards the end, the movie moves ever so slightly from its path of irreverence to toss in some unexpected poignancy. It was something I had dreaded but surprisingly, it worked, in a Hesher kind of way. It’s not the kind of movie I would put in any “best of the year” lists, but it’s one I could definitely see becoming a cult classic.

4 stars out of 5

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

This was a film that divided critics and viewers alike. Some thought it was a heartfelt tribute to those who lost loved ones in 9/11. Others thought it was a pretentious, manipulating tear-jerker that failed to hit the mark.

I belonged to the latter.

The idea, based on a 2005 book of the same name, is not bad. A kid (Thomas Horn – who, amazingly, became an actor after competing on Jeopardy) loses his father (Tom Hanks) in 9/11. He finds a key in his father’s belongings and sets out on scavenger hunt through the five boroughs of NYC to find out what it opens, meeting a bunch of people along the way.

For starters, you need to be able to buy into the whole premise about there being something magical about this kid’s adventure. I didn’t have a problem with that. What I had a massive problem with was the kid, who comes across as someone who will grow up into one of the most annoying and obnoxious adults on the planet. I’m not entirely sure if it is the character or the performance, but it’s probably a lot of both.

For me, the whole thing just felt wrong. I didn’t find it entertaining or exciting. I found it desperately trying to elicit an emotional response, one that I could not squeeze out. I was surprised, because the director, Stephen Daldry, was previously at the helm of The Reader, which had its flaws but was on the whole pretty good.

The film was not poorly made, but personally, I hated it. It must be one of the worst Best Picture nominees at the Oscars – ever.

1.75 stars out of 5

DVD Review: Your Highness (2011)

Amazingly, when I searched for this movie poster with the search term ‘Your Highness’, most of the results featured pictures of Natalie Portman’s infamous butt scene.

Your Highness is the ultimate ‘stoner’ movie.  The writers were likely stoned when they wrote the ‘script’.  The director and actors were probably stoned when they shot the film.  And as the title of the film suggests, you most definitely have to be stoned (or 8 years old, probably both) to find it funny.  Sadly for me, I wasn’t.  My single feeble attempt in Amsterdam several years ago (with a space cake and lollipop) did nothing except put me to sleep.  A great sleep, mind you, but nevertheless…

I actually had relatively high expectations for Your Highness.  I’m a big fan of Pineapple Express, which featured the two lead stars of this film, Danny McBride and James Franco. This time, they are two polar-opposite princes, and it’s not hard to guess which one is the prince charming and which one is the slacker.  Throw in two of my favourite actresses, Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel, and put them all in a farcical high fantasy setting — the potential for belly-ripping laughs was enormous.

But as it turned out, Your Highness was 102 minutes of adolescent, poorly conceived sex, penis and gay jokes and gags, laced with copious amounts of mostly ill-timed profanity (well-timed profanity can be funny).  If you were as high as the people who made the film, maybe you would have found it as funny as they did, but I simply found it, for the most part, incredibly lame.  A few mild cackles here and there, but nothing approaching a genuine laugh.

I really don’t understand what they were trying to achieve with this.  As a comedy, it wasn’t funny, or at least nowhere near funny enough.  As a fantasy, it was cliched, unimaginative and lacking in wonder (and the special effects were atrocious, though perhaps intentionally so).  As an action film, the fight scenes were tame and lethargic.  Calling it ‘mediocre’ would be a huge compliment.

After doing some research, I discovered that the dialogue for Your Highness was ‘entirely improvised’, save for a basic written outline by scriptwriters Ben Best and Danny McBride.  That explains a lot.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Thor (2011)

Thor was one of those movies that had me intrigued as soon as it was announced.  Of all the superhero premises, this one had ‘disaster’ written all over it more than any other.  A magical hammer, the God of Thunder, guys dressed in shiny armour fighting blue giants that can turn things into ice.  Not exactly the type of material that you’d think would make a good, (at least) semi-serious film set partially on present-day Earth.

But then enter director Kenneth Branagh (you know, the guy that does all the Shakespeare stuff), throw in Aussie Chris Hemsworth (probably best known by non-Aussies as Kirk’s dad in the Star Trek reboot), Academy Award winners Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins, and all of a sudden the film starts having potential.  Could they make this farcical premise work?

Well, yeah, they did.  About as well as I could have imagined.

Thor, like the other successful Marvel adaptations (especially the first Iron Man), is great fun, a rollicking good time.  It’s visually spectacular, with tremendous action, a likable protagonist and occasional laughs that hit the right spot.

Chris Hemsworth really buffed up for this role and does a solid job as the charming titular character, ensuring certain stardom for years to come.  Natalie Portman’s role is largely limited to ‘intelligent love interest’, but she’s always nice to look at and have around.  And when you have the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard and Rene Russo in supporting roles, you know things can’t be too bad.

Considering how badly things could have turned out, Thor was almost a minor miracle.  While it is certainly not perfect, I found myself taking all the ‘other worldly stuff’ seriously enough to be laughing along with the movie as opposed to laughing at it.  It was slightly uneven at times, given the contrast between Thor’s supernatural world of Asgard (reminded me of a futuristic Clash of the Titans-type place) and some ordinary small town in New Mexico, but for the most part it worked.

On the other hand, while Branagh is no doubt very capable in creating drama, I did find some of the fight scenes a little lacking.  Interestingly, it was the scenes that featured only actors and no special effects that worked best — the action scenes that relied heavily on CGI, probably because of the way they were shot (too many cuts), didn’t quite pack the same punch.

That said, I was impressed with how Branagh allowed Thor to be a part of the Marvel universe (in light of the upcoming The Avengers film) while giving the film its own voice and style.  Pulling off a film like this where the supernatural and science co-exist peacefully was no mean feat.  This was a terrific introduction to a character that I’ll be happy to see again when The Avengers is finally released in May 2012.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: I saw this film in 2D, but it was bloody hard to find a cinema and a session that did not screen the film in 3D only.  Ridiculous.  Spare a thought for the people who don’t want to waste their money on 3D!

PPS: Look out for Jeremy Renner in an extended cameo.  I was surprised to see him but after some research it looks like he’ll be a key figure in The Avengers film.

PPPS: Make sure you stay until after the credits — there is a scene with Samuel L Jackson at the end which could potentially be relevant for The Avengers or a Thor sequel.

Post Oscars Film Blitz

I was supposed to review these films one by one, but I really couldn’t be bothered.  So I decided to lump them into a ‘post Oscars’ film blitz, as all of these films were a part of the Oscars.  Kind of.

Here we go…

Rabbit Hole (2010)

I’m not usually into depressing films, but I was in a good mood and thought, why the heck not?  And seriously, they don’t get much more depressing than Rabbit Hole (I haven’t seen Blue Valentine yet, might add it to the list later).

For those who don’t know what it’s about, let’s just say it’s about profound grief and loss, and how to deal with it and move on.  It stars Nicole Kidman in her Oscar-nominated performance, Aaron Eckhart, Diane Wiest and Sandra Oh.

It’s an extremely powerful film, I’ll admit that, and it has some surprisingly amusing sequences, but on the whole, Rabbit Hole is a pretty rough 91 minutes to sit through.  I don’t know what else to say without giving away too much.

As for the performances, I know Kidman got all the kudos, but it beats me how after so many years she still can’t pin down that American accent!  In all honesty, I preferred Eckhart.  I found his scenes more engaging and wondered how Kidman got the nomination and he didn’t.

3.5 stars out of 5

Inside Job (2010)

I rushed out to see Inside Job after it won the Oscar for Best Documentary.  It’s essentially a film that attempts to explain how the Global Financial Crisis (ie the one we’re still recovering from) happened, and tries to apportion the blame to the various parties involved.

Ultimately, despite learning a great deal about the history of the financial markets, the financial instruments, and the GFC itself, I was a little disappointed.  Props for making this film because I know a lot of people (myself included) would like to know just what the heck happened, and how it happened.  However, I did find it somewhat dry in parts and a little too preachy, especially towards the end.  Just listen to director Charles Ferguson’s acceptance speech at the Oscars and you’ll get what I mean.

I am by no means trying to defend the greed and the corruption that plagued the system and led to the collapse, but I think it would have been good to see more of the human side of the crisis.  Rather than simply painting them as the ‘bad guys’ in all of this, I wanted to see what was going through the minds of these bankers and executives as they raked in the money without regard for the consequences — and I wanted to see how the crisis affected the lives of people on all levels of income and wealth.

It was an interesting film and an important one, but apart from a lot of anger and frustration, I didn’t get the deeper emotional connection and understanding I was expecting.

3.5 stars out of 5

No Strings Attached (2011)

This film was obviously not nominated for an Oscar, but the star, Natalie Portman, did win a Best Actress Oscar for another film (Black Swan), so I guess that’s my Oscar connection to justify this film being in the post.

I remember before the Oscars there were people saying that No Strings Attached is potentially so bad that it might derail Natalie’s Oscar chances.  Well, it turned out to be much ado about nothing.  And besides, No Strings Attached was not that bad anyway.  It was just average, which is not horrible considering that most rom-coms these days are.

Portman’s Emma and Ashton Kutcher’s Adam met when they were teenagers at some camp, and kept bumping into each other over the years.  Then Adam’s dad, played by Kevin Kline, does something despicable and sends Adam into a bender and eventually Emma’s house.  Yada, yada, yada, you know what happens, but they decide to have a ‘no strings attached’ relationship.  And yada, yada, yada, you know what happens in the end.

The film started off promisingly enough.  Director Ivan Reitman (pretty mixed bag as a director) infuses the story with quirky humour and likable characters (essential for a good rom-com).  There are some genuinely amusing moments and one-liners littered throughout, though mostly at the beginning.  Kutcher is kind of always the same — with that cheery, but mopey/dopey looking dude-face, while Portman gets to show her less serious side (with shades of her Saturday Night Live performances?).  The chemistry is there, which I must admit surprised me.

As usual, the rom-com shifts from comedy to romance as it strolls along to the predictable finale, and that’s where No Strings Attached fails to bring something fresh to the table.  And for what is really a sweet film at heart, it is inexplicably and unnecessarily dirty — I blame that on all the Judd Apatow films in recent years.

3 stars out of 5

Love and Other Drugs (2010)

The Oscar connections are getting more tenuous.  Love and Other Drugs features Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, the latter of which…hosted the Oscars this year!

Anyway, this is one of those films that I liked more than I should have.  It was marketed as a laugh-out-loud, silly rom-com about two promiscuous people, but that’s really only half true — because the second half, which is completely different to the first, is kind of a depressing ‘disease romance’ (I just made that up).  To me, both halves were pretty good, even though that does make for a fairly uneven film.

What I liked about the first half was the insight into the pharmaceutical industry and in particular medical reps who try and sell drugs to doctors.  And the start of the Viagra craze is always a fascinating thing to relive.  I think the film handled that part very well.  As for the second half, while the laughs died out quickly, I did find myself unexpectedly moved by the story and the emotions of the characters.

So yeah, I enjoyed it.

3.75 stars out of 5

Burlesque (2010)

Mmm…Cher once won an Oscar, and let’s face it, Christina Aguilera never will.  And it won a Golden Globe (a pre-cursor to the Oscars) for Best Original Song.  Oh, and Cher got a Razzie (the opposite of the Oscars) nomination for it this year!

Using the typical ‘small town girl in big city’ template, Burlesque follows Christina as she finds herself working in a burlesque bar (called ‘Burlesque’) where she’s just waiting to be discovered.  Cher is the owner, Kristen Bell is the rival, Eric Dane is the tempter, and Cam Gigandet is the potential love interest.  Fill in the blanks yourself and toss in a bunch of musical song and dance numbers from Christina and Cher, and that’s the movie in a nutshell.

Is it horrible?  No.  I actually expected a lot less, though I would have preferred it if they just went along for the ride and not taken themselves so seriously (because the unintended effect is quite comical).  At the end of the day, Burlesque is a Christina vehicle, and it certainly shows off her spectacular voice and not-too-shabby acting abilities.  It’s campy, musical and melodramatic, just as you would expect it to be.  And while it’s certainly nothing special, it is better than the Britney equivalent (Crossroads).

2.5 stars out of 5

My 2011 Oscar Predictions: Who Should Win and Who Will

Source: Oscars.com

Well, the nominations for the 2011 Academy Awards are finally out, and as usual, there were few surprises.  Overall, I think 2011 was a pretty solid year for cinema, with some standout films, unique films, classic films and groundbreaking films.  Of course, there were some duds too, but apart from the massive overkill of pointless 3D films, I’d say it was a good year for cinemagoers.

As per the last couple of years, it’s time for me to predict the winners!  Here goes.

To read on click on ‘more…’

Continue reading My 2011 Oscar Predictions: Who Should Win and Who Will

Movie Review: Black Swan (2010)

I find it strange that director Darren Aronofsky calls Black Swan a ‘companion piece’ to his 2008 film The Wrestler (probably my favourite film of that year) because while they are both excellent, they are completely different films.

This one is about a New York ballet production of Swan Lake and the rivalry and obsession between two dancers (played by Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis) that spirals into deadly madness.

I’ve been a fan of Portman since Leon (or The Professional), and this is perhaps her best performance.  It didn’t surprise me that she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress and is the heavy favourite at the Oscars.  The supporting cast was also terrific, in particular Barbara Hershey as the frighteningly overbearing mother.  Vincent Cassel’s sleazy ballet director and Winona Ryder’s ageing dancer were also solid.

Unlike The Wrestler, which is a moving drama, Black Swan is as dark and disturbing a psychological thriller I’ve ever come across.  At times it plays out like a horror film, making the audience squirm in their seats and challenging us not to look away.  It’s a beautiful, atmospheric, chilling, masterfully directed film that kept me at the edge of my seat, even though for much of the 108-minute running time I was struggling to put the pieces together.

As Nate from TheNinthDragonKing said, the movie is at times reminiscent of David Lynch’s wonderful but hugely frustrating Mulholland Drive — except in my opinion Black Swan is less confusing and has an ending that doesn’t disappoint.

4.25 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: 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!