Bittersweet biography dealing with Australian concert pianist David Helfgott who suffered from mental illness. Most of the film concerns his formative years as a musical prodigy. He escapes the tyrannical rule of his father who disowns him after he departs for London upon being offered a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. Armin Mueller-Stahl makes an indelible impression as his domineering father in a truly unsympathetic portrayal. Helfgott’s ongoing obsession with executing Rachmaninoff’s technically demanding Piano Concerto No. 3 ultimately reaches an exhilarating manic apex. The narrative is a bit murky when it comes to Helfgott’s subsequent psychological breakdown. Are his problems caused by the virtually unplayable composition or the result of physical and mental abuse by his father? It’s never quite clear, but regardless, the scene that highlights the performance of this piece is a beautifully edited sequence of talent and dementia. Geoffrey Rush won the Best Actor Oscar for his work in the role of the virtuoso as an adult, but Noah Taylor actually registers much more screen time with his sensitive depiction as the adolescent David.
Archive for February, 2011
Suspenseful thriller about a prominent doctor who awakens from a coma and finds that his wife does not recognize him. Films involving mind games and assumed identities are plentiful, but the psychological mystery rises above the average action fare through its tightly edited sequences. The car chases are particularly exceptional. As the plot thickens it becomes irresistibly compelling. The stunning cinematography and lush music lend the Berlin setting a gorgeous feel. The style is intoxicating. Granted the implausible subject won’t win any awards, but that‘s not the point. The story is entertaining as all get-out. Actor Liam Neeson brings real gravitas to the role. At one point, his character tells a baddie, “I didn’t forget everything. I remember how to kill you, a–hole.” It’s a tribute to his delivery that we laugh with him, not at him. The talented Bruno Ganz is spellbinding in a supporting part as a retired spy. All in all, the proceedings may give the viewer a slight case of déjà vu. Put this type of adventure in Alfred Hitchcock’s hands and you get North by Northwest. Director Jaume Collet-Serra is no Hitchcock, but he obviously has a flair for what makes a viscerally exciting movie. In 2011, that’s more than enough.
Wry ensemble film begins by paraphrasing Shakespeare with the quote, “Life was full of sound and fury, and in the end signified nothing.” With a meek start like that, the director has all but guaranteed a trivial movie to follow. Woody Allen’s umpteenth reflection on cheating and relationships follows a pair of married couples. As in most Woody Allen comedies there are multiple characters and storylines. In this case, the script feels unfocused and mundane. An exciting development regarding Josh Brolin’s character, a struggling writer, materializes about two-thirds of the way through. Without giving anything away, the situation concerns his new book and an acquaintance who is in a coma. But just when the action starts to get interesting, the film literally stops, robbed of a conclusion. Somewhere there is a wonderful little movie buried in this script. If Allen had focused on taking this idea to a clever conclusion, the story might have been a bit more engaging. Unfortunately as it stands, many plot threads are left dangling. True to it’s opening quote, we’re left with nothing.
Trashy actioner about a highly skilled former Mexican Federal turned renegade. He’s hired by a shady businessman to assassinate a senator campaigning against illegal immigrants. Unfortunately director Robert Rodriguez’s tribute to 70s exploitation films like Death Wish fails when it plays it conventionally straight. This would have worked better as unadulterated parody, but it frequently succumbs to the flaws it’s trying to make fun of. The beheadings, stabbings and bullets exploding through human flesh are unending. If you can stomach all the bloodshed, the picture does have moments where it shows a sense of humor. In one cartoonishly violent display, Machete stabs an attacker, reaches into his chest, grabs his small intensive and then uses it as a rope to swing down to the next floor. That scene works because it’s ridiculously creative, but more often than not, its heavy-handed carnage is depressing. It is in fact the non plus ultra of violence. Machete’s origins rest in a fake movie trailer that appeared in the box office failure Grindhouse. It probably should have remained that way. It was a lot funnier as a two-minute teaser.
Fish-out-of-water comedy about a naïve insurance agent sent to a trade conference after the company’s original representative dies. Occasional raunchy humor is infused with a surprising amount of warmth that runs throughout the picture. Star Ed Helms is Tim Lippe, a blissfully naive salesman. The plot takes off when our hero arrives and forms a friendship with three of the convention veterans. John C. Reilly is the obnoxiously crude one, Isiah Whitlock Jr. compensates by being unexpectedly conservative and kind of square. But most atypical of all is Anne Heche who has never been this genuine and likeable. She’s practically wholesome save for the fact that she plays a cheating spouse. The camaraderie of this foursome is infectious. They grow on you. I’m not sure why, but their exploits which involve drinking, drugs and a prostitute, feel somehow poignant. The story is awfully slight. But as a document of an innocent who is tempted by debauchery, it easily becomes a celebration of sweet middle American charm.
Biography loosely based on Ip Man, grandmaster of the martial art Wing Chun and early mentor to actor Bruce Lee. Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen plays the legendary martial artist. He presents him as a humble man who lives in an unobtrusive manner. His understated performance adds significantly to this character driven film. Yen’s subtle interpretation is diametrically opposed to the story’s oversimplification of his life, however. The narrative can be rather fawning at times. The script glorifies him as an invincible saint. Any viewer will be able to predict how the showdowns will end even before they begin. Nevertheless, the fight sequences are highlighted by choreography that is nothing less than extraordinary. They are a definite high point. In one particularly stunning scene, Ip Man chooses to battle ten men in retaliation for the death of his friend. It’s an exhilarating display worth the price of admission. If you’re looking for a penetrating historical biography, look elsewhere, but if you desire an entertaining story with astonishing action, you won’t be disappointed.
Unrelentingly bleak drama about a father with a terminal illness trying to set his affairs in order, even if it means breaking the law. The slums of Barcelona are the backdrop for this chronicle of random events near the end of a man’s life. The many characters and catastrophes initially lack focus to tie them all together. What ultimately unites them is actor Javier Bardem at the film’s center. His sheer desperation is felt in every scene whether depicting his battle with cancer or his dealings in the criminal underworld. The moments he spends with his kids are refreshingly poignant. They provide some solace in a story that wallows in one heartbreaking incident after another. Many scenes document the unmitigated ugliness of life. It can be quite harrowing, The seemingly unending barrage of tragedies makes Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables seem like a comedy by comparison. Biutiful is a difficult movie to like, but it’s too powerful to dismiss. See it for Javier Bardem’s memorable performance.
A painfully slow, uneventful, but very pretty animated film. An aging magician bonds with a young girl who is one of the few people still captivated by his tricks. With virtually no dialogue, this drama is essentially a silent film. The story is a melancholy mood piece, the entire plot carried by musical cues. Every now and then there’s a grunt or a mumble from a character to remind us that they’re human. Undeniably beautifully drawn the old fashioned way, without the use of computers. That’s admirable. It’s pretty to look at, but then so is a bouquet of flowers. Earning universal acclaim with critics championing it for its beauty, it was even nominated for Best Animated Film at the Oscars, edging out the much more deserving choices of Despicable Me and Tangled. However I cannot mistake beauty for depth. If that were the case, a sunset would be the most lovely film ever made. How to explain the widespread praise this movie has gotten? Perhaps it comforts the masses into feeling cultured and highbrow for supporting French Indie animation in a way that promoting a more mainstream (read Disney) motion picture does not. I suppose it’s the same habit that causes pseudo-intellectuals to exalt books like Pilgrim’s Progress or Paradise Lost over literature that the public actually enjoys. I’m not afraid to say it. Those books are boring and so is The Illusionist.
Who knew that back in 1956 when little Patty McCormack played Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed, that it would lead to an entire genre, the “evil child” film? What once was a uniquely deviant idea has now become the norm. Indeed, these days whenever a youngster starts to exhibit some antisocial tendencies, we expect them to be the devil incarnate. The trick is to bring innovation to the genre. Young actress Isabelle Fuhrman is suitably creepy as 9 year old Esther. She’s good. At home, her adoptive parents also have a deaf-mute daughter named Max and her relationship with Esther is unexpectedly touching at first. Their friendly bond as supportive sisters suffering from being different, is a detail that could have been explored with more depth. Perhaps she is just misunderstood? Later, when she attends school and attracts the nasty taunts of a fellow student, the script plants the malevolent notion that we might actually want little Esther to take revenge on this nasty classmate. That’s an interesting concept. Sadly, the plot ignores those ideas and deteriorates into formula. Esther illogically turns on every person who has ever supported her, making her motivation nonsensical. The story is even plagued by several “Surprise! It’s not over yet” endings. By the time this overlong movie tediously concludes, we’ve already ceased to care. [Footnote: Star Vera Farmiga also played the mother of an evil child in the similarly themed Joshua in 2007, a superior film]
Unsettling drama about the events that lead a Florida teen, who is bullied physically and verbally by his best friend, to tragedy. Director Larry Clark deals with the darker side of adolescence, kids from wealthy homes without any guidance or respect for authority. His themes of rampant sex, illegal drug use and disaffected teens are all on display here. Indeed this suburban tale of nihilism documents their abundant depravity. The cinematography teeters between exploitative on the one hand and boldly candid on the other. Does he mean to condemn their behavior or capitalize on it? Larry Clark has a leering eye and his camera lingers in ways that will repel many. Beneath the voyeuristic surface, however, there is much to recommend. The performances are searing. Brad Renfro as surfer Marty embodies just the right amount of helplessness and intensity that makes his character so compelling and Rachel Miner as his girlfriend Lisa, incredibly integrates both cunning calculation and wayward negligence in the same person. When you combine all this with the fact that this actually happened, it makes for a memorable trip into an adolescent world you’ve never seen (or hope to never see for that matter).