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Monday, 10 March 2008

Bella


Jose and Nina work in a New York restaurant. He’s the chef and she’s a waitress. Together they walk out on their tyrannical boss. Over the course of the day they become friends, and catch the train out to a beachside suburb to have a big old Mexican feast with Jose’s parents. Along the way life-changing decisions are made.

Nina (Tammy Blanchard) is pregnant, you see. She’s got no money and she’s all alone in the big city. Jose (played by Mexican pop and TV star Eduardo Verastegui) can’t quite hide his good looks behind a shaggy beard, but there’s something tragic in his eyes. What is his terrible secret?

Winner of the People’s Choice Award at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, Bella is a sweet, good-looking film with a gorgeous tinkly musical score and a pair of likeable leads. The script is undeveloped, tending towards soapy cliché. Still, the film paints a very pretty picture of melting-pot New York, complete with the colorful ‘ethnic’ family who cook spicy food together, say grace in Spanish, then drink and dance the night away. Overly familiar, yes, but still charming.

Rochelle Siemienowicz
(This review first appeared in The Big Issue, #298)

In the Valley of Elah


When Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker) goes AWOL on his first weekend back from a tour of duty in Iraq, his father Hank (Tommy Lee Jones) doesn’t hesitate to join in the search. A former military policeman who served in Vietnam, Hank knows the kind of trouble a soldier can get in fresh back from a war. But as he investigates the disappearance alongside local detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), he soon realises that his son and the soldiers he was with are in more trouble than just another drunken weekend.

This might present itself as a searing indictment of how America throws away its fighting men, but only because writer/director Paul Haggis (Crash) does a solid job of hiding this film’s many cliches under a thick layer of topicality. The performances are strong, the characters are skillfully-written, the mystery ticks along nicely and the film’s atmosphere is suitably bleak. Basically, it’s a well-made crime film. But despite all of Haggis’ shrill and painfully obvious moralising, this is still little more than another clue-laden mystery being solved by a grizzled veteran and a sexy newcomer to the force.

Anthony Morris
(This review first appeared in The Big Issue, #298)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly


Like a deep-sea diver trapped underwater, Jean-Dominique Bauby lived the last year of his life unable to move or speak. Only his left eyelid remained mobile, and using a system of blinks he dictated the memoir upon which this film is based. Directed by Julian Schnabel (When Night Falls), it’s a strange, beautiful and claustrophobic film, shot largely from the point of view of Bauby (Mathieu Amalric). The initial scenes are blurry and incomplete as Bauby struggles to bring into focus the sea-green walls of his hospital room, the roses in a vase, and the team of gawping medical specialists. As the film progresses, and Bauby’s imagination and memories roam free like a butterfly, the camera pulls back almost euphorically.

This isn’t an easy triumph-of the-will story. The scenes between Bauby and his father (Max von Sydow) are almost unbearably poignant. So too with his ex-wife (Emmanuelle Seigner) and their three children. Yet the film’s achievement is that it’s not pity we feel for this ‘locked-in’ man, but empathy – and a recognition that for most of us, there will come a time when consciousness outlasts mobility.

Rochelle Siemienowicz
(This review first appeared in The Big Issue, #297)

Night


When the sun sets the world becomes an entirely different place: exciting, romantic, dangerous, and mysterious. How do different people experience the hours between dusk and dawn? What does the darkness mean and how does it structure our lives? This documentary essay by Lawrence Johnston (director of Life and Eternity) attempts to tease out these ideas, combining interviews, spectacular cinematography and a lush symphonic musical score by composer Cezary Skubiszewski. Think Koyaanisqatsi or Baraka with a nocturnal theme. But where those films seemed coldly anthropological, this one feels warm and personal; pleasantly humane, and very home-grown.

Sometimes it’s a bit too ordinary. The musings and ramblings of unidentified interviewees on the voice-track seem banal, while interviews to-camera (you may recognize Bill Henson, Christos Tsolkias and Adam Elliot) work at odds with the ethereal visuals from director of photography Laurie McInnes. What lingers in the memory are the superb stop-motion sequences of stars, moons, fireworks and urban lightscapes – mainly of Sydney. Ultimately the film reinforces the fact that for all our fascination with the night, like cave-men of old, huddling round the campfire, we humans are really creatures of the light.

Rochelle Siemienowicz
(This review first appeared in The Big Issue, #297)

There Will be Blood

An epic character study worthy of comparison to Citizen Kane, this sparse, bleak, and enthralling film has seemingly come out of nowhere. At least, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights) has never made anything like it. Much of the credit though belongs to a riveting performance from Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, this film’s central – and in many ways, only – character.

Working a silver mine in America’s south west during the 19th century, Plainview strikes oil and makes his fortune. A co-worker’s accidental death leaves him with an adoptive son, and word of a farm where oil bubbles from the ground leads him to New Boston. His operation brings prosperity to the town – a prosperity that local evangelical preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) believes he’s owed.

Battling Eli, fate, and his own bitter nature, Plainview is an all-too-human monster given ferocious life by Day-Lewis. An amazing, almost horror-movie soundtrack (from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood) only adds to the ominous, driving tone. Blood has flaws: the focus on Plainview shuts out the supporting cast, and the final scene is perhaps a step too far. But what truly memorable film is perfect?

Anthony Morris
(This review appeared in The Big Issue, #297)

Monday, 3 March 2008

We Own the Night

The year is 1988, and Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) is managing a big-deal nightclub in New Jersey. Everything is going great - until his straight-arrow police captain brother (Mark Wahlberg) starts raiding the club trying to flush out the drug dealers that are hanging out there. Bobby isn't exactly close to the law and order side of the family even before his police chief father (Robert Duvall) starts warning him that he's going to have to choose a side. But when the drug dealers start to strike back he realises that neither side is messing around, and being out in the middle is the most dangerous place to be. With a decent story that's always moving forward and a range of quality performances, this should be at the very least an enjoyable crime saga. Unfortunately, it's the character side of things that lets it down. Populated almost entirely by two-dimensional cliches who aren't the brightest sparks to begin with, they end up being dragged along by the plot, changing from free-wheeling hedonists to driven machines of vengeance at the scriptwriter's whim. If this had been slightly more plot-driven (like the upcoming and far superior Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) the weakness in the characters wouldn't matter so much. But this story is driven by pitting brother against brother, and when they're both hollow caricatures there's not much else to say.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #421)

The Bucket List

It's a sad fact that some people go to the movies with the firm and steady desire not to be surprised. They don't care that the essence of good story-telling is the twist that's both surprising and inevitable: they want to know what they're getting, and that's all they want to get. For those people, we have The Bucket List. Jack Nicholson plays a feisty, randy old bugger (once again) while Morgan Freeman plays a wise and worldly gentlemen of advanced age (as usual) who find themselves sharing a hospital room as the pair of them face death from terminal illness. Fortunately, Jack's character is amazingly rich, while Morgan's character is worldy wise, so together they decide to make a list of all the things they want to do before they die and then spend a fortune doing them across the globe. And so they do, bickering all the while even as they gradually become firm friends, and for anyone who though this film might decide to lay off the cliches the news just gets worse as they each decide to heal the others emotional problems. Those of a sour disposition might wonder how a terminally ill man of 60-something could go skydiving and not bust a hip, or bed a stewardess a third his age (not a highlight of the film), or do pretty much anything else this film has Morgan and Jack doing. Those of a cynical nature might query how open to letting a near-stranger tell them how to live their lives someone of their age would really be. But they'd both be missing the point: this is a silly, feel-good fairy tale designed to do nothing more than hit buttons worn dull by familiarity for ninety minutes. If that sounds okay to you, go for it.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #421)