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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

300 (2007) - Zack Snyder

Zack Snyder arrived on the movie scene in 2004 with a remake of George A. Romero's landmark zombie film, Dawn of the Dead. No where close to as good as the original, it was still a worthy effort when judged by itself. And now we have his follow up, an adaptation of Frank Miller's comic book, 300. Set in 480 B.C., Persian King Xerxes has taken over a large proportion of the known world. He arrives in Greece and sends an emissary to Sparta with a simple proposition- capitulate or perish. Leonidas, king of the warrior race of Spartans, quickly dispatches the emissary and marches to Thermopylae, a 12-meter wide pass in the mountains, with 300 of his best soldiers. Here, they will make their stand against Xerxes' army of 200,000. Meanwhile, Leonidas' wife, Queen Gorgo attempts, using any means, to convince the Spartan council to join the fight.

First and foremost, let's establish one thing you should remember while watching this movie. While the Battle Of Thermopylae did actually happen in 480 B.C., the creators state quite categorically, that this movie is not a history lesson. It's fact inspired fantasy. And man alive, what a great piece of fantasy this is. The plot is paper thin. Bad guys make a threat, good guys ignore, good guys mount a heroic last stand to inspire a nation. Having read the graphic novel some years back, I was quite intrigued as to what Snyder would make of the source material. Shot almost entirely against green screen, the movie is incredibly stylized. Snyder captures the visual style of the comic perfectly, while putting his own spin on proceedings. While Sin City, Miller's last comic to be translated to the screen was shot in the same manner, 300 just takes to the screen better, while offering a little more in the entertainment stakes.
The film is incredibly violent. Limbs and head are lobbed off with abandon as the Spartans push back wave after wave of Persian troops. Gerard Butler plays the Scottish, sorry, Spartan King Leonidas with gusto. He screams line after line of inspirational slogans at his scantily clad troops as they work themselves up into a frenzy of bloodlust and patriotism. A Spartan warrior's greatest honor is to die on the battlefield, so you can imagine what their attitudes will be like. The battle scenes themselves are like a frenetic ballet punctuated with slow-mo. They are pure fantasy, so were the battle scenes in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and 300's offerings rightly take their place amongst those, and the likes of Braveheart.

Honestly, the film is pure machismo and violence. If you're looking for something with a thick, engaging plot, look elsewhere. But if you're looking for something that wont test you and looks fantastic, check out this piece of pure entertainment. Fantastic.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

HALF NELSON (2006) - Ryan Fleck

One of the actors nominated for an Oscar this year was Ryan Gosling, star of Half Nelson. Gosling plays Dan Dunne, an eight-grade Brooklyn school teacher. Aside from teaching the teenagers in his class the history of civil rights, Dunne spends his time doing crack, going to clubs in an attempt to find some worthy human contact and procrastinating over a children's book he is supposed to be writing about dialectics. While doing drugs in the locker room of the school where he teaches, Dunne is found by Drey (Shareeka Epps), one of the students in Dunne's class and a player on the basketball team Dunne coaches. She helps Dunne get over this particularly bad episode, and the two strike up a friendship. Both are dependent on drugs in different ways. Dunne, the addict, and Drey, who's family is torn apart by drugs. Dunne becomes concerned for Drey as a drug dealer who lives close to Drey takes an interest in the young girl.

Half Nelson is one of those films that falls into the genre occupied by other such notable films as Dead Poet's Society. Yet the film manages to avoid the pitfalls that can come with films about characters hitting rock-bottom and finding redemption in youth. Writer/director Ryan Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden avoid over sentimentality by underplaying the emotions in each scene. Luckily for the filmmakers, their cast is fantastic. Gosling is brilliant as the teacher who stresses to his students the importance of history as opposed to just learning the facts while struggling with an increasingly distressing drug habit. And Shareeka Epps proves herself an actor to watch as Dunne's student who is concerned for her teacher while trying to avoid falling into a lifestyle that landed her brother in jail. The film avoids all the cliches that accompany other films of it's type, and with a brilliantly subtle cast and excellent writing and directing, Half Nelson is definitely worth checking out.

Half Nelson @ IMDB

ALPHA DOG (2006) - Nick Cassavetes

Based on the true-story of Jesse James Hollywood, a southern California drug dealer, and the youngest person ever to make the FBI's 10 most wanted list, Alpha Dog brings together a cast of young actors headed by Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster and Brittney-Spears-trainwreck-escapee, Justin Timberlake. Hirsch plays Johnny Truelove, the fictitious version of Jesse James Hollywood. One of his clients, meth-addled psycho Jake Mazursky (Foster) refuses to pay Truelove the money he owes him, so Truelove and his cronies (Timberlake, Shawn Hatosy) kidnap Mazursky's younger brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin) and hold him as collateral until Jake pays up. Mazursky's parents involve the police, and Truelove and his gang realize they're in a mess way over their heads, with time and options running out.

Alpha Dog suffers from one huge problem, and surprisingly, it's not the acting (although there are some appalling performances). The script is appalling. The dialogue sounds as though it was written by an obsessed Keanu Reeves fan. Every character reacts with a 'dude' or a 'whoah' and little else. There is not one likeable character in the film. Even Zack, the kidnapee, the character we're supposed to feel sympathetic towards, is incredibly naive and annoying. Everyone else in the film seems to have their heads jammed firmly where the sun doesn't shine. Not one of them seems to have an iota of sense. The performances range from mildly interesting from Foster, to somewhat adequate from Timberlake (although maybe he shouldn't hand in the notice at the day-job just yet) to appalling from pretty much everyone else. Bruce Willis pops up, but is inconsequential. And then there's Sharon Stone. If there's one reason to see this film, it's her. But not for the reasons you may think. At one point, she dons a fat suit for one of the most unintentionally funny scenes of the year. She looks like she just left the set of Eddie Murphy's latest gravitationally-challenged comedy. Other than that, there's no reason to see the film. Director Nick Cassavetes is less interested in plot development than promoting the SoCal gangsta lifestyle,yo! And for this reason, the film fails. Rubbish.

Alpha Dog @ IMDB

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (2006) - Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood delivers the second part of his Iwo Jima saga, after Flags of our Fathers, with Letters From Iwo Jima. This time, the film centers on the struggle of the Japanese soldiers who struggle to hold the island with little in the way of supplies, and struggling to avoid catching dysentery. The film is anchored by a fantastic performance by Ken Watanabe (Batman Begins, The Last Samurai). Watanabe plays General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, a man transferred to Iwo Jima to over see the Japenese forces shortly before the American landings. His unorthodox approach of commanding his troops causes descent among his staff. Among the soldiers is Saigo, a poor young baker drafted into the army who questions the purpose of holding the island while suffering the rigid discipline of the Japanese army.

There is a sombre and sad tone that runs through Letters From Iwo Jima. As well as the soldiers, we know what is coming. There is to be no heroic sacrifice. There is no way out of the impending doom. The soldiers are locked in a bitter conflict amongst themselves between modern warfare and the ideology of honorable sacrifice by dying in battle. The traditionalists will die no matter at whose hands it is, their enemies' or their own. But many young soldiers just want to go home to their families.

Eastwood is an excellent director as is evident here. By showing us insights into the central characters' pasts, we are connect with the soldiers more. Only one of their stories is out of place and unnecessary amongst the others. The acting is excellent from all involved. But while Iwo Jima was one of the longest battles of the Second World War, focus is shifted away from the actual fighting and focuses on the men involved. And in that sense, we don't get a feeling for the scope of the battle. The actual raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima is relegated to the background of one short scene. However, this is an excellent film and one that should rightly take it's place amongst the great war epics.

Letters From Iwo Jima @ IMDB

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Retro Cut!! COME AND SEE (1985) - Elem Klimov

The Second World War is one of those subjects that provides filmmakers with an almost endless supply of stories. Hollywood has produced hundreds of films on the subject, but Come and See, produced by Russian filmmaker Elem Klimov in 1985 is as far removed from these types of films as possible.
Set in Byelorussia in 1943, the film's 'hero' is Florya, a teenager from a small, poor village. The film opens with Florya digging a rifle out of a grave in preparation for joining the local resistance forces. Much to the consternation of his mother, Florya leaves home and is brought to the partisan stronghold in a local forest, as they prepare to mount an attack on the invading German army. But seeing Florya's youth and inexperience, the partisans leave Florya behind. Rejected and disappointed, Florya wanders into the forest, where he meets a teenage girl. The two frolic and play in the forest until they are interrupted by a barrage of artillery and incoming German paratroopers. They escape back to Florya's village where they find everybody slaughtered. They meet with a group of refugees, and Florya and a small group of men go off to find food for the survivors. Florya ends up at another village where he witnesses the extermination of the villagers at the hands of the sadistic German soldiers first hand.

Come and See is an assault on the senses. It's more a coming of age story than a war movie. It's a harrowing experience, but is crafted so well that the experience is worth the discomfort. The images and sounds are created in a way that makes you feel like you're stumbling through some surreal nightmare. It's reminiscent of the Do Lung bridge sequence in Apocalypse Now as the insanity of what's going on is portrayed through the cinematography and set pieces. There is a sense of dread that hangs over the film, and while very little fighting or killing is seen for two thirds of the film, you know that there is something coming, and it's not going to be pleasant.
The acting, from all involved, is outstanding. Aleksei Kravchenko, who plays Florya physically ages throughout the film, transforming from a wide-eyed innocent teenager to almost an old man by the end of the film. And after experiencing Florya's journey, you can completely empathize with his transformation.
Come and See is essential viewing. No other film I've ever seen portrays the true horrors of war in a more accurate fashion. The film may prove too much for some viewers, but those brave enough to sit through the whole thing will be rewarded with one of the most engrossing studies of war they're ever likely to come across. Absolutely essential viewing, but a film few people have heard of.

Come and See @ IMDB

Come and See is available from all the usual online DVD shops. You know the ones I'm talking about!