Friday, 28 January 2011


Rapunzel, the young girl with the long hair, lives in a tall tower with Gothel, an elderly witch who kidnapped Rapunzel as a baby after learning her hair had the magical power to heal the sick and to keep her young, and now raises her as her own. Yet, she yearns to leave the tower to watch the floating lights which appear every year on her birthday. When Flynn Rider, a young thief looking for a place to hide, turns up, an opportunity presents itself for Rapunzel to leave the tower and begin an adventure which has repercussions for everyone involved...

Since I’ve started this blog, I have (somewhat) voluntarily lifted my self-imposed embargo on animated films; I’ve been catching up on the Pixar films I’ve missed – I’m yet to see a bad one of those. I’ve also watched Shrek 4 (atrocious) and Shrek 1 (OK, not as great as has been made out) due to finally developing an interest. This brings me to this: My first Disney film in at least 10 years, which just so happens to be Disney’s 50th animated feature. So what did I think? It was... Interesting.

Rapunzel is a story that has been done to death in various mediums, appearing in Shrek the Third and even Barbie got her own version in 2002. Now, we have a Disney version, but is it really? All the marketing suggests not: Calling the story Tangled makes it far less gender specific, and there’s been an awful lot of focus on the male lead as well as Rapunzel. You might think they were trying to market a princess film to boys. So what’s different? Well, this time, Rapunzel’s a confident and assertive young woman who isn’t technically rescued from her tower but choose to leave of her own fruition. Also, this time around, her hair has magical qualities, able to heal the wounded and restore youth, which explains why the evil witch Gothel kidnapped her and kept her in the tower.

In a way it’s good that Disney have taken their own twist on a classic story, but it almost feels wrong that they’ve messed around with folklore and legend; it’s almost akin to the Twilight series messing around with vampires. The difference is, whereas Twilight is trash, this was actually alright. It’s got something for everyone really: Rapunzel is obviously for the girls, along with all the musical numbers. Flynn Rider is for the boys, as well as all the fighting/action sequences. For the adults, the film’s a nice combination of comedy and drama, or at least there’s enough to keep you sitting through it for its 90 minutes without wanting to claw your face off. Particularly at the end, there’s a scene which could potentially be tear-inducing: it’s no ‘toys in the incinerator’ but it might set a few people off.

As for the film itself, the animation looks very sharp and it’s the first animated feature I’ve seen which has gotten hair and water pretty near perfect. The hair was, of course, pretty important to get right, and they’ve achieved it. I get the feeling their quest to perfect digital hair was the main reason why Tangled has become the second most expensive production of all time, costing a huge $260 million. What, 260 million dollars on drawings?! Did they colour it with gold?! Never mind that, yes, it looked really good, but I did not see this in 3D, so I can’t attest to how god that’ll be, though if Toy Story 3 was anything to go by, it’ll probably be top class with plenty of hair-whipping back and forth.

One thing which is troubling me is the voice cast. The voice of Rapunzel is Mandy Moore, someone who has been out of public consciousness for years, and the voice of Flynn is Zachary Levi, the guy from Chuck. They’re fine, but it just seems like a couple of weird choices for such a high-profile film. Mandy Moore was obviously chosen for her singing ability, which has become an important part of Rapunzel’s legend, and Zachary Levi chosen to give a comic twist to the bravado and masculinity of Flynn. There aren’t really any big names in the supporting cast either, only Brad Garrett (from Everybody Loves Raymond), Ron Perlman (from Hellboy) and Jeffrey Tambor (from Arrested Development) – No major Hollywood celebrities. In comparison, Dreamworks had Will Ferrell and Brad Pitt in their last feature. Can you see the disparity?

Overall, it’s not the best animated film I’ve seen the last few months, but in no way is it the worst. It seems like this might be Disney’s attempt at creating their own Shrek, and I would say this one’s better, but that’s not really saying a lot given my opinion of Shrek. It’s nice, good combination of everything you’d want to see from a modern family film, and it doesn’t seem to drag at any point, it keeps itself going all the way until the end. Unfortunately, there are about five different stories going on all at once, so at times you do face the risk of becoming tangled in the plot. See what I did there?

Rating: ***1/2

Friday, 21 January 2011

Black Swan

Nina Meyers is a part of a New York City ballet company, casting a new star for the lead role in their production of Swan Lake. When Nina is given her chance, she struggles with the duality of her position; her innocent White Swan is near-perfect, but her seductive Black Swan lack the necessary passion, and her director Thomas is losing patience. But when Lily, a new recruit to the company with a dark side, begins to catch her attention, can she unlock her own darker side in order to pull off the Black Swan?

Darren Aronofsky has acquired a reputation of making beautiful looking films throughout his career, but it’s only in the last few years, specifically with The Wrestler, has his ability to create a strong and engaging narrative been recognised. Indeed, The Wrestler set a high bar for him to reach with his new film, Black Swan. So does he match it? CAN he match it? No. He surpasses it. Black Swan is, quite simply, a piece of art. The visuals are epic, the story is insane and the performances are fantastic. I was blown away.

The Wrestler was a rich story with heart and an exceptional lead performance by Mickey Rourke. Black Swan is a descent into madness with an equally exceptional lead performance by Natalie Portman, all scored by Clint Mansell. It’s easy to compare The Wrestler with Black Swan, stories about theatre and how the performance affects the character, but the comparison ends there. Whereas The Wrestler is a documentary-style story with heart that leaves you feeling with that warm, glowing feeling afterwards, Black Swan is a documentary-style story which takes a dark twist and just leaves you feeling stunned. Honestly, stunned. Is it a psychological thriller though? I dare say it’s more of a psychological horror, though you’ll have to take your own interpretation from this.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, the new Swan Queen, and it’s an unbelievable performance. She looks painfully thin, showing a lot of dedication for the role. On top of that, her ballet dancing is great. I’m no expert, and I’ve heard reactions of professional ballet dancers saying it’s sloppy, but through my amateur eyes? It was great. It was never going to be perfect, but then neither was Mickey Rourke’s wrestling – It was good enough to pull off the role. But besides that, Portman plays the role of someone slowly spiralling into madness with great aplomb. The ballet becomes secondary, taking a back seat to the study of this character as she begins to fall apart when her moment to shine arrives. Saying that, it’s also an excellent showing by Mila Kunis, playing Lily, her rival. Portman and Kunis play off of one another, emphasising the contrast between Portman’s repressed mummy’s girl and Kunis’s darker wild child. Vincent Cassel is an odd bit of casting as the director Thomas, but his role is less as the director and more of the sexy guy to flirt with Nina, and he does that well enough. Special mention to Winona Ryder for what is, surprisingly, a fantastic fleeting cameo as the replaced star of the ballet company, look out for her.

What makes this film great is Aronofsky. Whereas he starts off with a typical Aronofsky-esque story, he takes a left turn halfway through and introduces a certain amount of Hitchcock-ian psychological thriller with a dose of Argento-esque horror. It’s an intriguing mix, and it’ll keep you fixed and engrossed, or at least it kept me hooked. How he portrays Nina’s descent is masterful: It’s not just the hallucinations, it’s the little things. Things like switching Portman and Kunis’s roles for just the most fleeting of glimpses, things like the ongoing saga of Nina’s rash/scratching. It builds up nicely throughout, including a highly passionate (and well spoken of) lesbian sex scene, and keeps on building and building, leading to an intense finale that I haven’t seen the likes of since... The Wrestler.

I feel it only right to give you fair warning though: This film will not be for everyone. Experience tells me that a film like this will attract just as many haters as it will lovers, it is cinematic Marmite. A fair amount of viewers will not be attach themselves to this and just won’t get it. Some people will find it too odd or too slow or too different. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World suffered from the same problem. Sometimes, films can be a bit too visually unique for people and that’s totally understandable. Me? I love it when the boundaries are pushed, I love seeing experimentation and uniqueness. It’s what drew me to Scott Pilgrim, and it’s what’s drawn me to this.

Overall, it’s hard for me NOT to be glowing about this film. Yes, it’s a film about ballet, but it’s a ballet story in the same way The Wrestler was a film about wrestling; it’s more about the character and the study of. It looks great, it sounds great, it’s acted superbly, it’s been written brilliantly and it’s all directed astutely and sharply. Aronofsky doesn’t miss a beat; he may well be the new king of film psychology. Just think of this as The Wrestler as written by H.P. Lovecraft and directed by Stanley Kubrick and you’ll be somewhere near what this film achieves. That’s right, I just compared Aronofsky to Kubrick. THAT is how good this is. In fact, it’s so good, there’ll be no catchy line to finish, simply a word: Breathtaking.

Rating: *****

Monday, 17 January 2011

The King's Speech

The Prince Albert, The Duke of York, is blighted by a crippling stammer and lives in the shadow of his father, King George V, and his brother, The Prince of Wales. When his wife Elizabeth finds a speech therapist in Lionel Logue, an Australian now living in London, it seems finally The Prince (or ‘Bertie’) is finally making progress in conquering his affliction. But when his father dies, his brother seems more concerned with an American divorcee than his kingly responsibilities and the threat of war looms once again, Bertie finds himself ascending to the throne. Can he fight his numerous problems and concerns and be the commanding voice his country needs him to be?

I warn you, this may not be a long review. Everything that has to be said about The King’s Speech has already been said. Numerous times. Repeatedly. Nonetheless, I shall give this a go. So what can be said of The King’s Speech? It is a rather British film about a rather British story, you’ll understand. But does that mean it’s good? As fun as it would be to go against the consensus, the consensus is right. It IS good.

Straight off, I’ll hit the nail on the head. Yes, Colin Firth is excellent, he will probably win Best Actor at the Oscars this year and it is fully deserved, he’s completely convincing and plays Bertie absolutely to a tee, straight down the line. Amongst all this high praise for Firth though, it seems Geoffrey Rush is the forgotten man of The King’s Speech. His turn as Lionel Logue is masterful, delivering a heady mix of humour, emotion and eccentricity, becoming not just Bertie’s therapist, but his confidant as well. The relationship the two of them build is strong, and the two actors have a great chemistry on screen, playing off of one another to deliver a couple of fantastic performances. It’s a shame only one of these performances will be remembered. Even Helena Bonham Carter deserves praise here too; she’s not in the same league as Firth and Rush, but she’s still very good. To be honest, it’s just nice seeing her in something other than a bloody Tim Burton film.

What this film constantly falls back on is its source material: The script. It’s really well written, and is well informed by a stringent following of the history. Now clearly, things had to change for the sake of the film; the timeline of events is shortened somewhat and certain attitudes towards certain German dictators are played down, but that was inevitable. It’s the great attention to detail and reconstruction of these events which make the film so engaging. You can certainly tell that this started life as a potential stage play, what with the large focus on dialogue and a de-emphasis on action and change of scenery. That probably works in its favour, as it allows Rush and Firth to explore their characters, it allows the story to be more subtly told and it allows for the pace to remain slow and methodical, which is absolutely appropriate for the subject matter.

This now means that more praise needs to be heaped upon Tom Hooper, the director. He’s definitely established a ‘look’; this film is visually akin to The Damned United, his previous film. In many ways, they’re both very similar as far as they both portray historical events with a commanding lead character, producing fine performances from the actors. Michael Sheen and Colin Firth both owe Hooper an awful lot. Stemming from his years of experience directing TV dramas like John Adams and Longford, his eye for placing focus in the right place at the right time becomes evident, as does his unique visual style of placing characters against an emphasis on the grand scale of the environment the characters find themselves in. It’s not conventional, but it works: Never before has a microphone become such an object of intimidation.

Overall, though it may be a conventional story of a man overcoming his fears and problems with the help of another man against a historical context, it transcends that and becomes something more, something strangely reminiscent of Rain Man. It’s serious drama with a hint of humour thrown in, charming and witty, almost touching; it's never a chore to watch, it's a joy. This all results in this becoming somewhat of a feel good film, due in no small part to how Firth commands the screen and attaches the audience to the plight of his character. But enough of Firth, I’ll let the Academy praise him on my behalf.

Rating: *****

Thursday, 6 January 2011

127 Hours

Aron Ralston is a climber and canyoneer who becomes trapped in a canyon in Utah after a fall while exploring leaves his arm pinned to the wall of the canyon by an immovable boulder. Whilst down there, he tries his best to escape and survive, but as time goes on, his supplies slowly start to run out, as well as his options...

How do you follow up a film which won you 4 Golden Globes, 7 BAFTA's and 8 Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Picture? In the case of Danny Boyle, you follow it up with the true story of a mountaineer who spends 5 days trapped in a canyon in Utah. Odd choice, no? Even at any other time for any other director, it's a weird story to adapt into a major motion picture, but nonetheless here we have 127 Hours. So does it work? Incredibly, yes. It's a story which places a huge emphasis on cinematography, direction and performance and luckily, the film excels itself in all 3 departments.

It's surprising to say that for a film which holds no surprises (everyone must surely know the plot by now given all the media attention it's been given), it actually conjures up some hidden treats. The way the story is told is brilliant and authentic (helped no less from some strong source material and input from Ralston himself), the cinematography switches effortlessly between the grandiose and the intimate, and the performance by James Franco is extraordinarily strong which, for a film with one character for 85% of its run time, is absolutely vital to the success of the film.

James Franco delivers his best performance to date, or at least the best I've seen. He starts off portraying Ralston as "batshit crazy", leaping into a role he's played many times before in various Seth Rogen films. It's once Ralston becomes trapped in the canyon that Franco excels himself. He plays his role to a tee; a man desperate to escape, scared, anxious but also clever and a survivalist. You as the audience go through what Franco as Ralston goes through, it's an engaging and surprisingly relatable experience, it's personal and emotional. In short, it's just brilliant.

No doubt, this is due to the direction of Danny Boyle. He takes on a near-impossible task with this film, filming one man for over an hour in a cramped, claustrophobic environment, and yet Boyle pulls it off just as he has done with every other film he's done in his career so far; 127 Hours is testament to the fact that Danny Boyle has become one of the most reliable directors of the last 15 years. Everything he does just seems to turn to gold, he has the ability to take any genre and create a great film. Trainspotting is one of the best British films of all time, 28 Days Later has become a great horror film, Sunshine is a highly underrated science fiction film, Slumdog Millionaire is critically one of the best films of all time and now 127 Hours can be placed amongst his best works as a truly great drama.

What makes this film stand out amongst his other works is that he splits the screen time evenly between classical, cinematic fixed camera shots and documentary style handheld realism. By creating a document aesthetic rather than a film aesthetic, 127 Hours is able to tell the story in a very real way; you go through what Ralston goes through. The anxiety, the claustrophobia, the dehydration, the hallucinations and ultimately the pain of the amputation. Just a quick note on THAT scene: It looks good, but it's not gory. It's realistic; this is no Hammer Horror buckets-o-blood affair. It's certainly not as bad as it's been hyped up to be, but it's certainly not easy viewing watching a man try and break his own arm before cutting it of with a blunt penknife. It's not easy viewing because it's not meant to be. In fact, after watch his character go through all the hallucinations and failed efforts to free himself, the amputation comes as somewhat of a relief.

Overall, it's another great Danny Boyle film, plain and simple. He may be annoyed that he got beaten to the punch in the 'uncomfortable claustrophobia' genre by Buried, but he need not worry; as good as Buried is, 127 Hours is better. It's engrossing, involving, personal and sad yet redemptive all at the same time. This is perfect fodder for one of those cheesy afternoon movies but no worry, this is film making at its finest. It's amazing how well those 127 hours fit so nicely into a compact 90 minutes.

Rating: ****1/2