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Thursday, 24 April 2008

Gone Baby Gone (2)

When a four year-old girl goes missing from her low-rent Boston neighbourhood, there’s a media frenzy. Gun-toting policemen stand helplessly around the empty house, without any leads to follow. It’s no wonder the missing child’s aunt turns to local private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his lover Angie (Michelle Monaghan). They may look impossibly young, but they know these streets. They grew up here. And besides, when they meet the child’s cokehead mother (Amy Ryan) they know there’s more to the story. Reluctantly, the police chief (Morgan Freeman) and his experienced detective (Ed Harris) admit they can use the help.

Ben Affleck’s directorial debut is grimy, intriguing and soulful. Based on the novel by Denis Lehane (Mystic River), it’s a superior police procedural that’s constantly surprising, right up until the final haunting scene. Primarily concerned with the moral dilemmas of its central characters, the film creates a troublingly authentic world where children are constantly at risk – not just from random perverts or kidnappers, but from poverty, neglect and the sheer hopelessness of their rusted-out Boston suburb. And finally, here’s a detective who’s young, confused and not quite cool.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Gone Baby Gone

The idea of Ben Affleck, director, might be a slightly worrying one - after all, even great actors usually make for bad directors - but with Gone Baby Gone Affleck signals that he might be able to pull off a career change. It doesn't hurt that he's working from a novel by Dennis Lehane, author of (amongst other things) Mystic River, who provides a twisty and morally ambiguous plot and a slew of complex characters for Affleck to work with. Set in Affleck's home town of Boston, the story begins with the disappearance of a four year-old girl. Local P.I. Patrick (played by Affleck's brother Casey) is asked to take on the case by the missing girl's aunt (Amy Madigan), and while it's a little out of his league he steps up to bat, receiving grudging help from local law enforcement (including Morgan Freeman as the local chief and Ed Harris as one of the detectives). But it doesn't take long for the case to take some dark turns, and considering that the missing girl's mum (Amy Ryan) is probably the last person you'd want to be in charge of a kid it's hardly surprising that this film's morality is hardly black and white. Affleck clearly knows the physical territory and his storytelling skills are in pretty good shape, but it's the many excellent performances that make this such a compelling (if bleak) film to watch. Casey Affleck, who was excellent in last year's The Assassination of Jesse James is just as good here, never letting us get fully comfortable with a character lesser films would leave as a simple audience stand-in. Great crime films are also explorations of human nature (even if only on the level of "why do people steal?"); thoughtful and thought-provoking while still managing to deliver plenty of crime thrills and chills, Affleck has made a great crime film here.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #423)

Friday, 11 April 2008

Lars and the Real Girl (2)

When 27 year-old Lars (Ryan Gosling) announces that he has a girlfriend, his brother (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) are overjoyed and relieved. Finally this lonely misfit – a man who flinches from all physical touch – has found someone to love. They’re less happy when they actually meet ‘Bianca’, who turns out to be a life-size anatomically correct silicone sex doll bought off the internet. They consult the wise family doctor (Patricia Clarkson) who advises them to go along with the delusion.

Director Craig Gillespie and writer Nancy Oliver (Six Feet Under) have created a gentle and compassionate film that transcends its tacky premise. Perhaps it’s a bit cowardly of them to keep the romance ‘chaste’, but then this film is really about tolerance and tolerance, as we see the whole town working hard to make Lars happy inside his fantasy. Gosling gives a brilliant tightrope-walking performance. His journey towards wholeness is never overstated and always mysterious. It’s a measure of the film’s success that by its conclusion we’ve come to accept Bianca as a real girl who might just get up and walk away.

Rochelle Siemienowicz,

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Lars and the Real Girl

First, a disclaimer: a few years back I was researching an article (that was never written) about the topic of 'real girls' - expensive sex dolls that look a lot closer to reality than the inflatable kind, usually purchased by lonely men who form a disturbingly strong attachment to them. And in researching this article, I dug up a lot of facts about the kind of guys who own these dolls - facts that made it all but impossible to believe a second of the supposedly heart-warming tale of decent midwestern guy Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) and his relationship with one of these 'real girls'. Admittedly he's shown as a fairly introverted type who can't handle even the slightest amount of actual human contact, but when he turns up at the home of his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) with Bianca, a 'real doll' he claims is a missionary he met on the internet that's when I started getting the willies. And despite the film's wholesome tone of near fantasy as those around Lars go along with what is either a delusion or an act on his part - he even insists that Bianca 'sleep' in another room until they get to know each other better - it became increasingly difficult to see this film as the light and sweet quasi-comedy it was trying to be. Clearly those involved felt that a movie where a shy, introverted guy uses a sex doll to teach himself how to deal with other people - it's hardly a spoiler to reveal that Lars does eventually fall for an actual living person - should be a sweet and quirky story, and they do pretty much everything right to get that result. But the reality of these 'real girls' is just so creepy and disturbing (lets just say that their owners often break them doing whatever it is they're doing with them) that - for me at least - it just kept getting in the way.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #423)

Semi Pro

Will Ferrell has made a career out of sports comedies, and it's high time he made a dud. Semi Pro is not a dud. But it is a little wobbly in parts, which is probably a good sign that perhaps this genre needs a bit of a break for now. It's the 1970's, and Jackie Moon (Ferrell) has taken his profits from his number one single 'Love You Sexy' and purchased American Basketball Association team the Flint Tropics. he's not just the owner, and he's not just the coach: he's also their star player - not their best player, that would be 'Downtown' Malone (Andre 3000). But when the ABA announces that it';s merging with the NBA, and the Tropics aren't making the cut, Moon throws a hissy fit until the rules are changed so that it's the top four finishing teams that'll survive. But the tropics still stink, so Moon hires championship player Ed (Woody Harrelson), who really seems to have come in from another, straighter movie as he has his own subplot about coming back to town to win back his old girl (who's current man loves Ed the player so much he doesn't care what they get up to) while Moon's off wrestling a killer bear. But being all over the place is what gets this film over the line, as the weird tone swings somehow keep things fresh even as some of the funnier characters (notably Wil Arnett's surly sports commentator) are sidelined towards the end. And the comedy is pretty good too, most notable a gun-toting card game scene early on that's a sure-fire classic. Fans of foul-mouthed comedy swearing will be especially happy with a lot of the dialogue here; the family that hurried their little kids out of the screening I saw can attest to that.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #423)

How She Move

It's easy to spot a decent dance movie: it's the movie that's full of dancing. It might sound obvious - and that's because it is - but time and time and time again movie-makers forget that audiences have come to see dancing and not endless scenes where a bunch of grimly urban types sulk around letting us know that it's tough out there on the streets and the only way to survive is to do a bunch of choreographed dance movies with your homies. Which is a long way of saying that How She Move doesn't contain anywhere near enough scenes in which our heroine does, in fact, move.

Kicked out of private school because her parents spent all the tuition money on trying to keep her junkie sister alive - guess what, they failed - Raya (Rutina Wesley) returns home to the projects, where everyone hates her because that's how they roll. Eventually she makes some friends, only then they start hating her again, then they don't, then there's a big dance competition called Step Monster, and the movie Step Monster was a dozen times better than this movie and it didn't have any dancing in it at all. The problem is simple: nowhere near enough dancing, and way too many scenes dragging things down as characters hate on each other for reasons that seem more than a little blurry. Even the traditional "my parents don't understand that I need to dance!" subplot doesn't work here, mostly because the mum is so angry and negative that she'd hate anything her daughter wanted to do up to and including taking a bath. And if all that isn't reason enough to steer clear, the title's bad english. Avoid.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #423)

The Secret of the Grain

60-year old Slimane (Habib Boufares) is an Arab immigrant living in a small port town in the south of France. Having worked at the local shipyard for 30 years he’s devastated to be laid off. He devises a plan to open up a small business – a couscous restaurant on a renovated barge. The chef will be his cranky ex-wife Souad, while his gaggle of grown-up kids will help. But the real assistant is Slimane’s step-daughter Rym (a luminous Hafsia Herzi) whose brash confidence and tenderhearted intelligence cut through all the red tape of French bureaucracy.

Tunisian writer-director Abedellatif Kechiche (Games of Love and Chance) takes his time (148 mins) to paint a rich ethnographic portrait of this large and conflicted immigrant family. There are long meandering scenes encompassing food, arguments and seemingly trivial chat. (One entire scene is devoted to the cost of disposable nappies.) Yet it’s this detail that gives the film its almost documentary power, and subverts any tendencies towards the ‘opening up a restaurant’ movie clich├ęs. Quietly building to a sudden desperate crescendo, the film’s conclusion makes new sense of everything that has gone before.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Step Up 2 The Streets

We all know what to expect from dance movies: silly plots in which good looking dancers battle lame 'urban' problems about 'keeping it real' and 'staying true to the street' while also rebelling against stuffy teachers - said battles and rebellions taking the form of insanely complicated dance routines. And so what? Every genre has it's cliches, and the important thing is whether they're handled well - which surprisingly, Step Up 2 for the most part does. There's no denying that the story - in which our sexy sweat pants wearing heroine is given one last chance to go straight by enrolling in the Baltimore Institute for the Arts, only to find that her ghetto dance crew doesn't fit in with her new life and her new life doesn't like the way she moves - is pretty silly. But the typical multi-racial 'crew' she puts together to battle at 'the streets' (an underground dance contest) is even sillier, including a hunky jock, an Asian stereotype bordering on the offensive, an amazingly nerdy guy (who ends up scoring the hottest chick in school) and a bunch of back-up dancers. Which is a welcome sign that this isn't taking itself too seriously. The dancing is pretty good, the tone is light and fun, and if you're a fan of amazingly brilliant US crime series set in Baltimore The Wire, then this film's Baltimore setting is gold on it's own. If only gay stick-up artist Omar and his shotgun had made a cameo...

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #422)

Horton Hears a Who

Dr Suess has had a nightmare run at the cinema of late, and it's a sign of just how well-loved he is that ever after such cinematic stinkers as The Cat in the Hat and The Grinch Hollywood still thought they could lure audiences back into another film based on his work. But while both those films were live-action disasters, Horton is all-CGI, and whether it's the freedom that comes with not having to build a film around an actor in a costume or the desire to actually make a film that's more than a mish-mash of references and jokes, the result is a Suess film that - for once - is more Suess than suss. Horton (the voice of Jim Carrey, who played the Grinch in The Grinch) is a mildly erratic but kind-hearted elephant content to mess around in the jungle - until one day he hears a tiny voice coming from a even tinier speck as it drifts past. Anyone else would ignore it, but he tracks the speck down (cue plenty of surprisingly decent sight gags as an elephant rumbles through the jungle after a teeny-tiny speck) and discovers that the speck is in fact home to an entire world called Whoville, where the Mayor (the voice of Steve Carell) has things tough enough without learning that his entire world is just a tiny speck that could be destroyed at any moment. Horton's problem is getting the speck somewhere safe while the rest of the jungle's residents think his crazy talk about a tiny world is upsetting the balance of things; the Mayor has to persuade a city where nothing has ever gone wrong that there could be some very big trouble ahead. This is a great kids movie that won't bore grown-ups: both Horton and the Mayor's stories are equally interesting, the jokes are almost always funny, the serious moments aren't belaboured, and while the tone is a little uneven (in padding out Suess's short book liberties have been taken and they don't always fit) there's a lot more good than bad. It's not perfect - there's a final musical number that's just wrong - but for once a bit of Dr Suess' magic has made it onto the screen.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #422)

Drillbit Taylor

When three high school freshmen become the target of some particularly vicious bullies, they're forced to hire a bodyguard to help them make it through the day. Unfortunately, the bodyguard they hire is a homeless army deserter more interested in milking them for all their cash then bailing to Canada than taking on the bullies. It's not exactly the comedy set-up of the year - unless that year is 1983 - but Drillbit Taylor manages to not only avoid the stench of a lame 80's teen comedy but stand up as a funny film in it's own right thanks to a couple of winning factors. Firstly, the trio of victims - fat would-be white rapper Ryan (Troy Gentile), super-skinny glasses guy Wade (Nate Hartley) and creepy midget Emmit (David Dorfman) - are really nerdy. As in, actually real-life nerdy, not Hollywood 's idea of nerdy (which is still amazingly cool) nerdy. So it's easy to see why they're getting picked on, and as they're nice (and funny) guys, we feel their pain. We also feel their pain because the bullies are really, really nasty. As in, they'd kill you with their bare hands and laugh while doing it nasty. So hiring a bodyguard seems like a logical response. And then there's Owen Wilson as Drillbit, as charming and as funny as ever, making a fairly scuzzy character seem like a great guy you'd want to hang out with even when he's doing things wrong. He's even able to make Drillbit's inevitable change of heart seem like more than just the usual lame plot twist. In short, the many funny jokes are grounded in what feels like reality: if you've ever been bullied (and who hasn't), then you'll get a lot of laughs out of this one.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #422)

Be Kind Rewind

Most Hollywood movies based around a gimmick don't have anything else to recommend them: the problem with Be Kind Rewind is that it has so much going on around it's central idea that it gets swamped. So what really should be nothing more than a movie in which Jack Black and Mos Def make shoddy home-made versions of Hollywood blockbusters like Robocop and Ghostbusters - and seriously, that idea alone is more than enough to get people into a cinema - instead becomes in the hands of director Michel Gondry (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) a bloated salute to the power of imagination to bring a community together... through making dodgy versions of old Hollywood blockbusters. The set-up feels both rushed and drawn out, as if Gondry knew he had to explain what was going to happen but wasn't really interested in getting it right: Def works at the tatty video-only store owned by Danny Glover, while Black lives next door to a power station he thinks is warping his mind. And maybe he's right: he's crazy enough to get magnetised during a botched sabotage effort, and it's his magnetism that erases the store's tapes. So when Mia Farrow wants to rent Ghostbusters and threatens to report Def to Glover when he says he doesn't have it, they decide to make their own version. The idea takes off, and soon the whole neighbourhood is clamouring to see their versions of the old classics... because not only does no-one have a DVD player, they also don't have access to YouTube. We only get to see snippets of the fake movies, which is a massive shame as they're the best things in the film. Instead, we get plenty of crowd shots of the local community, because community's important and... well, exactly what this has to do with remaking old movies is never really made clear. And that's this films problem: so much of it is just thrown away (including the great main idea) that what's supposedly important might as well be thrown away too.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #422)