Monday, February 28, 2011

February DVD Picks

The Messenger

Post 9/11 the film world hasn’t dealt with war in a very successful way, and apart from some notable exceptions (The Hurt Locker and In the Valley of Elah) films tackling the Middle East and America’s military involvement have been both critical and commercial disappointments. Often lacking any sense of subtlety or with a holier-than-thou attitude filmmakers have failed to grasp the complexity and moral ambiguity of war and its impact on those who fight in it. Then comes along Israeli director Oren Moverman (whose writing credits include I’m Not There) with his directorial debut, The Messenger and he illustrates the tragedy of war without massive explosions, gun fire and fanfare.

The Messenger follows Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster, 30 Days of Night) an injured Iraq War veteran, who due to his commendations has been assigned to the Casualty Notification Unit. Taken under the wing of Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson, Zombieland), the pair travel to tell next of kin of war fatalities, racing against the 24-hour news stations to be first to break the terrible news. Going through a carefully structured practice of informing the next of kin, the soldiers must remain clinically detached and most importantly avoid physical contact. Being the bearer of bad news sees the men bond as they are hit with the gamut of loss and the varied ways grief affects the relatives, from sorrow to anger, devastation to denial. Being the messenger weighs heavily on Montgomery and he finds himself drawn to a war widow (Samantha Morton, In America) who takes the news of her husband’s death in a unexpected way.

It is surprising given the quality of the performances from Foster and Harrelson (who was Oscar nominated last year) that this excellent film didn’t have a bigger cinema run. The supporting cast includes Steve Buscemi (The Big Lebowski) and Jena Malone (Donnie Darko) who add their talents to this film as it explores the consequences of war on those tasked to carry it out and those who are left behind.

This film seemingly focuses on a very small part of the US military, but as it explores themes of trauma, grief and masculinity it delivers a very powerful anti-war message.


Whoa, so what to say about one of the most dark satires of recent time. Greek film Dogtooth was a surprise pick in this year’s Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. Usually erring more on the side of conservatism the Academy Awards shocked many by including Yorgos Lanthimos‘ film in its short list. Violent, sexually explicit and disturbing, Dogtooth tells the story of a family that lives in isolation, and is definitely not a film to sit down and watch with family members.

We are never really told why parents, played by Christos Stergioglou and Michelle Valley, decided to keep their children, two daughters and a son, from experiencing the outside world. Whether it is a twisted form of protection or a reaction to some event in their lives, the three adult children (who appear to be in their twenties) have been psychological abused by their deeply disturbed parents and kept imprisoned in a house on the outskirts of town. Without any outside influence the children have failed to mentally mature, they are naive and have a behavioural age of ten year olds.

Keeping the children from leaving the house, the parents have created stories about the outside world that has convinced the children that until they lose their ‘dogtooth’ they are not capable of surviving outside the perimeters of their family home. The film feels like a social experiment gone very very very wrong. Messing with a topic we usually consider sacred, the family- Dogtooth’s characters create an alternative reality in the film, and in their insular world commit some of the ultimate taboos. With strong performances from the cast especially Aggeliki Papoulia, who plays the older daughter. The scenes incorporating Flashdance, Rocky and Jaws are treats for cinephile viewers and offer some darkly comical moments.

This isn’t a film you enjoy watching (hopefully), it is more about exploring theme. Taking the nuclear family unit and perverting it, Dogtooth has received much praise from critics for its deadpan delivery and lack of sensationalism, with director Lanthimos being heralded as an important new voice in European cinema. The film has an intriguing premise and love it or loathe it you have to admire the audacity and commitment of the filmmakers and cast.

Images provided by Madman

First published on Trespass

Sunday, February 27, 2011


To say Unknown is perfectly adequate cinema-fare sounds like a negative appraisal of the Liam Neeson (Taken, Schindler’s List) vehicle, but it isn’t meant to. Giving audiences everything it promises in the trailer, Unknown requires very little mental energy to follow. With no aspirations above its genre, Unknown embraces the implausibility of its tale and delivers fun but rather forgettable viewing.

Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris, a biologist who has travelled to Berlin with his wife Elizabeth (January Jones, Mad Men) to give a presentation at an important biotechnology conference. After the couple arrive at their hotel Martin realises he’s left his briefcase at the airport. Jumping into a taxi manned by Gina (Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds) he rushes to retrieve it, only to be waylaid by a freak accident that leaves him in a coma for days. After waking Martin finds another man (Aidan Quinn, Sarah’s Key) has taken over his life and that his wife has no recollection of him. Has his memory been confused by the accident, is he going mad, or is something more sinister going on?

Elizabeth Harris (January Jones)

Unknown is blessed with a good cast, including some fantastic German actors. Kruger is obviously completely miscast as a taxi-driver, but she doesn’t let this put her off delivering a strong performance. Bruno Ganz (The Reader, Downfall) as Ernst Jürgen, an ex-Stasi private investigator brings a nuanced performance that deserves to be in a far better film. His scene opposite Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) contains the best dialogue in a film centred on strong action sequences.

Martin Harris (Liam Neeson), Gina (Diane Kruger) and Ernst (Bruno Ganz)

Neeson is obviously the driving force in the film and while it isn’t clear when he became a thinking man’s action hero, here he is yet again in high-speed car chases and fighting off would-be assassins. If you enjoyed Neeson’s recent turn in Taken (2008), you are probably going to enjoy this film as well.

Unknown doesn’t pull off its climax despite building momentum and sadly the ending sees the film crumple in a heap. Certainly if you thought too hard about the plot and its many gaping holes your head might explode, but this really is a film with no pretences of being art or breaking new ground, it is a paint-by-numbers thriller. Very light on substance Unknown is probably best relished on DVD or as part of the in-flight entertainment it is sure to become.

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First published on Trespass

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Inside Job

We’ve all sat in the cinema terrified by a knife-wielding psychopath on screen, or a liver-eating genius. We’ve subtly tried to avoid looking as suspense grows and we know some sort of evil incarnation is lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce on a nubile Hollywood starlet. Horror films offer harmless thrills, the usual reaction after been frightened is laughter as we realise something rather inane has got the better of us just for a moment. However the new documentary Inside Job, which looks at the causes and consequences of the 2008 economic collapse, is truly terrifying cinema-viewing, and there will be no nervous giggling after watching this film.

Charles Ferguson the filmmaker behind 2007’s No End In Sight, which investigated America’s complete mishandling and lack of understanding of Iraq in the lead up to and during the first year of invasion, has taken on a humongous task. Using the 109 mins running time to try and understand and explain the reasons for the economic crisis and the roles that different groups played in the collapse, Ferguson conducts a series of interviews with Economists, Lobbyists, Advisors, Politicians, Bankers, Regulators and Journalists. Narrated by actor Matt Damon, the documentary examines the historical background and increasing deregulation of banking in the US, the criminalisation of an industry and the on-going problems and issues that are impeding any reform even after massive bailouts.

Christine Lagarde- The French Minister of Finance, Economic Affairs,
Industry and Employment

The wealth and greed of Wall Street comes as no surprise with the obvious villains of the piece being companies like Goldman and Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Bear Stearns. By now most of us understand that the root cause of the recent stock-market crash has to do with deregulation, and that the subprime mortgaging system and something called ‘derivatives’ led us to the brink of an economic Armageddon. But as the film delves deeper into banking and investment practices and the use Credit Default Swaps (CDS) the true ethics of modern banking are revealed. Watching this doco you feel first angry then afraid. You certainly never fully appreciated the immense greed that permeates not just the banking institutions but that has also corrupted many of those who are meant to keep checks on the industry and the academics who are suppose to advise and lead it.

Robert Gnaizda- General Counsel and Policy Director of the Greenlining Institute in Berkeley

Thankfully for those less economically-minded the film gives succinct explanations of complicated financial practices, without making you feel like you are being talked down to. Ferguson is a consummate interviewer and while he has final editing powers, many of his more hostile interviewees fall prey to their own egos. More often than not it is what they won’t and don’t say that proves to be the most telling.

Barney Frank- Democratic Representative for the state of Massachusetts

Offering a comprehensive understanding of the financial meltdown and its causes, Inside Job is a highly accomplished documentary. Unlike Horror movies where you can remind yourself it isn’t real, it is hard not to leave this doco with a sense of dread, because those responsible for the World’s recent economic woes are still in the driving seat and despite the political promise of regulations, little to nothing has really changed.

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First published on Trespass

The Red Chapel

In the centre: Simon Jul Jørgensen and Jacob Nossell

The first film up in the 2011 program is highly original Danish Documentary, The Red Chapel. Filmmaker Mads Brügger’s gonzo project won the World Cinema Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Taking two Danish-Korean comedians to one of the world’s most restrictive dictatorships, Brügger’s aim was to expose the true nature of North Korea’s oppressive and ruthless regime. Brügger travels with Simon Jul Jørgensen and Jacob Nossell, both of whom were adopted from Korea as infants, to North Korea posing as a small, socialist Danish theatre group named The Red Chapel. The group and accompanying camera crew are given permission to enter the usually closed off country under the pretext that they will give a performance encouraging cultural exchange.

The documentary follows the group developing a comedy show in ‘collaboration’ with their minders and assigned Korean theatre director, whilst being given the ‘official’ sightseeing tour of Pyongyang. As pressure increases to please the state-appointed guides, the moral ambiguity of the director Brügger comes into question as he increasingly ignores the protests of his companions.

Jacob, who was 18 at the time of filming is handicapped with spastic paralysis, is both the victim and hero of the film. Choosing to travel to a country that is accused of killing disabled children at birth, Jacob wanted to use the film to prove that he was as capable as anyone else. However both the official regime and Brügger had other ideas and want to use him for their own propaganda.

Jacob and director Mads Brügger with their minders at a peace rally

Funny, curious and outrageous in equal measures, The Red Chapel is much more than simply an exploration of a totalitarian regime, it is an exercise in the ethics of filmmaking.While this film is an example of incredibly brave documentary-making it is also a study in manipulation. The North Korean regime wants to manipulate the filmmaker, the filmmaker in turn manipulates his subjects. Brügger recognises his single-mindedness but does nothing to correct it, asserting that showing the truth behind the dictatorship’s façade is more important than the feelings of both Simon and Jacob. You also have to wonder whether anybody considered the potential consequences for the local people who they duped?

Brügger’s cunning coupled with unparalleled bravado sees him, Simon and Jacob undermining and mocking the regime in ways that are both outlandishly hilarious and insightful. This documentary is bold and brash and at times touches on the absurd as it explores North Korea.

It is one thing to assert that humour can subvert political oppression, it is quite another thing to prove it. This truly is a film that has to be seen to be believed.

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First published on Trespass

Friday, February 25, 2011

No Strings Attached

From out of the romcom wilderness comes No Strings Attached, an inoffensive, oft entertaining and even occasionally funny addition to the genre. Whilst the Brits have Richard Curtis’ multi-storied outings like Love Actually (2003) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), it is Hollywood and its usual cast of actresses who have come to dominant the field. Kate Hudson, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Katherine Heigl seem to work on rotation opposite male leads like Matthew McConaughey and the menfolk that make up the cast of Grey’s Anatomy.

Romcoms frequently set up unrealistic ideals about love and relationships, as more often than not the genre revolves around a seemingly unsuitable couple getting it together. And No Strings Attached is no different, but it does stands out from the condescending/nauseating masses thanks to its strong female cast. Natalie Portman, Greta Gerwig (Greenberg), Olivia Thrilby (Juno) and Lake Bell (It’s Complicated) give the audience more to chew on with their performances. Yes they still fit into the archetypal romcom female roles, but there are glimpses where the characters play against convention, and this adds some colour to a generally formulaic film.

Emma (Natalie Portman) and Patrice (Greta Gerwig)

Portman stars as Emma, a doctor in-residence whose 80-hour working week doesn’t leave time for romance and who nullifies the potential for heartbreak by avoiding commitment. When Emma bumps into an old acquaintance, Adam (Ashton Kutcher) the pair develop a ‘no strings attached’ sexual arrangement, revolving around booty calls. It isn’t hard to guess where the story will go from there, but even though the storyline is predictable there is still some fun to be had in its telling.

No Strings Attached is definitely not without its weak points and the movie completely runs out of steam towards the end. Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) turns up as a respected doctor, but his role goes absolutely nowhere. Adam’s subplot with his aging TV star father, Alvin (Kevin Klein) is also pretty limited, and while British actress Ophelia Lovibond (Nowhere Boy) is fun as Alvin’s much younger girlfriend Vanessa, these characters take away more than they add to the major plot.

Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma (Natalie Portman)

Director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Kindergarten Cop) certainly hasn’t done anything ground-breaking or original with this film, but he gets points for dealing with the topic of sex in an unusually adult way for a comedy. Lacking raunch (and foreplay) the film’s sex scenes are light-hearted, but they also depict sex as healthy and normal, something rarely seen in comedies or, in fact, mainstream films.

The film’s male cast is weak and it is definitely the females who do the heavy lifting in this film. Portman’s recent attention for her fantastic performance in the much lauded Black Swan is undoubtedly giving No Strings Attached a massive push in the publicity stakes. As romcoms go this is a cut above average and makes for easy, pleasant but quickly forgettable viewing.

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First published on Trespass

Down Terrace

Down Terrace is a low budget British crime film from first-time director, Ben Wheatley. Set in the coastal city of Brighton, the film follows a criminal family, headed by patriarch and ex-hippie Bill (Robert Hill) who runs clubs and drugs for his bosses in London. His henchmen include his troubled son Karl (Robin Hill), his brother-in-law Eric (David Schaal, The Office and The In-Betweeners) and the hapless Garvey (Tony Way). The film begins with father and son leaving court after being cleared, of exactly what charges we are never told, and returning to their small terrace home where seemingly devoted mother and wife Maggie (Julia Deakin, Spaced) is waiting. However all is not well with this criminal unit. There is an informant in their midst. Betrayal and murder sees the family implode as the offender is sought out.

Wheatley co-wrote the script with Robin Hill. They have been writing and shooting shorts together for a number of years, often filming at Robin’s parent’s house on Down Terrace and starring his father, Robert. The writing pair decided they wanted to shoot a full-length film. As it needed to be something they could make on a small budget it had to feature Robert and Robin and be able to be filmed at the house on Down Terrace. And that’s how the idea for the film began.

Karl (Robin Hill)

The end result is a gangster film, but unlike anything you’ve come to expect. This is a film completely devoid of the glamour that often accompanies movies about professional criminals. Taking elements of the crime genre the film’s real focus is on the corrosive nature of a dysfunctional family. This darkly comical piece is populated by characters whose danger derives from how emotionally-stunted they are. Karl, a man in his thirties, lives like an overgrown teenager in his parent’s home, smothered by manipulative parents. Maggie is perhaps the most disturbed (giving Jackie Weaver’s matriarch in Animal Kingdom a good run for her money), as she at first appears to be a reasonably caring mother and wife, but when her true nature is revealed she is terrifying.

Down Terrace is a great example of clever filmmaking working within tight parameters but creating something exciting and fresh. The script highlights the productions natural strengths, the strong bond between real-life father and son Robert and Robin; the limited locations help exaggerate the claustrophobic and paranoid nature of the crumbling family.

Maggie (Julia Deakin) and Bill (Robert Hill)

Down Terrace is a surprising film, fitting in more to the kitchen sink drama mould of British filmmaking than the thumping soundtrack and bravado of Guy Richie’s criminal visions. No doubt this is an off-kilter gangster film, but somehow the occasionally shocking violence and the comedic elements combine to make something charmingly original.

Images provided by Madman

First Published on Trespass