Archive for November, 2009

Julie & Julia (2009)

Posted in 2009, Based on True Events, Comedy, Drama with tags , , , , , , , on November 11, 2009 by filmglutton

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Julie & Julia is set in the late 40s/early 50s as Julia Child (Meryl Streep), the American woman who became a household name due to her bestselling book Mastering the Art of French Cooking and had her TV show, fulfils a desire to take cooking lessons while living in Paris. The film is also set in New York in the 2000s, as Julie Powell (Amy Adams) starts a blog where she will chronicle her attempts to cook all 524 of Julia’s recipes in one year. It moves back and forth between the two storylines, showing how these women are connected by their love of cooking. They are also both married to very patient and loving husbands; Stanley Tucci plays Paul Child and Chris Messina plays Julie’s husband Eric.
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This is a really warm and charming film. All of the performances are strong – they really make this film. Meryl Streep steals the show as usual, but Tucci is good as her husband and Adams makes Julie, a somewhat self-centred character, sympathetic and likeable. Julia Child is the kind of woman you would either love or hate in real life. She has so much spirit, but she is also full-on. I loved her in this, probably because Streep is so empathetic. There is an undercurrent of sadness that Julia and Paul don’t have any children. Julie and her husband are refreshingly ordinary, they just look so normal. As I’ve said, Julie is a bit self-obsessed, but it’s a bit understandable when we see her friends. They are extremely self-centred, and a blog is Julie’s chance to be heard. Despite seeming self-centred, she is actually very empathetic and gets genuinely emotional about the people that call her at work every day. Julie needs to feel validated; we recognise this desire in ourselves, and thus we understand her faults.

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The problem with the film is that you never really connect with the characters. That sounds like I’m going back on everything I said, but let me explain. I was interested in the characters and their storylines, but I never felt that the stakes were very high. It never felt like they were going to fail, thus taking away a lot of potential drama. This film could potentially be quite forgettable.

Overall Julie & Julia is an enjoyable film that is elevated by fine production and great acting. Women of all ages and older men will like this movie.

My Rating: 1111

Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

Posted in 2009, Australian, Based on True Events, Drama, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2009 by filmglutton

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Mao’s Last Dancer is based on the best-selling autobiography by Li Cunxin.

The film opens with Li (Chi Cao) arriving at Houston, Texas, then flashes back to 1972. Here Li is an 11-year-old in the Shandong province of China. The country is floundering under Communism; his family are peasants, and there is hardly enough food to go around. Life is hard when there are seven children to support. His Dia (his father, played by Wang Shuangbao) tells his the parable of a frog stuck in a well who longs to escape to the beautiful world beyond. Li feels as though he, too, is a frog stuck in a well. His life changes when representatives from the Beijing Dance Academy come to his school. The representatives almost leave, but the young teacher points out Li at the last moment. This twist of fate drastically changes his life. He progresses through the try-outs and wins a full scholarship to the school. He has been given an amazing opportunity, and he is a hero in his village, yet young Li doesn’t want to leave his family, especially his beloved Niang (his mother, played by Joan Chen). She helps him see how lucky he is and that this is his great chance to escape the poverty – to escape the well. Li initially hates the academy, and he longs for home. Eventually, though, he finds the enjoyment in ballet.

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I don’t want to give away too many plot points, though you will already know the story if you have read the book or seen the trailer (why must they always ruin the movie with the trailer?!) This is an amazing, almost unbelievable story about fate and triumph and family and love – a true rags-to-riches.

The dancing, choreographed by Graham Murphy, is simply spectacular, and it doesn’t completely take over the storyline, which should please more sceptical members of the audience. The actors are all adequate but there are no stand-out performances here. Kyle MacLachlan and Bruce Greenwood are the most recognisable cast members. Mao’s Last Dancer had a seemingly decent budget but it was actually quite small if you take into account the sheer breadth of the story. Beresford’s decision to shoot in Sydney instead of Houston may not bother most members of the crowd but it annoyed me, especially because the building used for Li’s house in Houston is actually in my suburb. The crowd scenes obviously had about 20 extras, and there is one really bad sequence with a warrior shooting an arrow…I laughed out loud, and it wasn’t supposed to be funny. The film is quite clichéd, and the suspenseful moments aren’t particularly suspenseful.

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I’ve read the book, so comparisons are unavoidable. I would have to have liked to have seen more screen time dedicated to his early days with his family and also at the dance academy. In the book you really got a chance to know and love the family, but the opening of the film moves extremely quickly. I just felt there was way too much time dedicated to his time in Houston, which is arguably the least interesting part of his life story. The film begins in a non-linear fashion, going back and forward between China and America, but then becomes linear somewhere along the way. This bothered me. Jan Sardi said that they started the film in America because they thought they would alienate audiences if the first 20 minutes of the film was entirely Chinese. I wouldn’t have minded. As it is, the structure of the opening forty minutes or so is quite jarring.

I don’t think this story has been taken to its full potential. This could have and should have been an incredible film, because Li Cunxin’s life has been incredible. Mao’s Last Dancer falls a little flat, which is so unfortunate. However, it is still a really enjoyable film, and the emotion is really there, particularly between Li and his parents. I was so moved by the ending, I absolutely bawled my eyes out in the last few scenes, I seriously did.

The film has taken more than $13 million at the box office in Australia so far, the highest grossing Australian film of the year at the local box office. I think this just shows that Australian films can be successful when they deal with universally themes, rather than stories with very narrow appeal (they are usually either dark drug dramas or stupid comedies). This is a film that the whole family can really enjoy, and the cultural diversity ensures a wide audience. I’d recommend this film to anyone, but you should also read the book afterwards because there is so much more to love about Li Cunxin that isn’t touched on in the movie. I wish this had been an even better film.

My rating: 1112

Deep Impact (1998)

Posted in 1998, Action, Drama, Reviews, Thriller with tags , , , , , , , on November 11, 2009 by filmglutton

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High school student Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) spots something strange with his telescope as he stargazes near the local observatory. Marcus Wolf discovers it’s a comet, but he is killed in a car accident before he can alert anyone. Fast-forward a year, and the government has decided it must destroy the comet so it does not collide with the Earth. They have a very ambitious and ludicrous plan to land on the comet and detonate it; retired astronaut Spurgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall) is scouted to lead the mission because he landed on the moon once, so he has the best chance of landing on the comet, dammit! There are other various story arcs and characters in the film. Leo lives with his parents and has a crush on Sarah (Leelee Sobieski), the girl-next-door. Leo becomes a minor celebrity once the President (Morgan Freeman) breaks the news to the nation – they have named the comet Wolf-Biederman. Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni) plays an ambitious journalist who has a meteoric (pun intended) rise in the industry because she sort-of uncovered the story. She becomes lead anchor on the story. Her arc also revolves around her relationships with her mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and her father (Maximillian Schell), who has recently remarried to a woman only 2 years older than his daughter.

 

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The beginning of the film is really slow moving, with too much time dedicated to convenient character drama. When I think back to more successful disaster films like The Day After Tomorrow, which jumps right into the disaster in the opening act, Deep Impact seems positively frustrating in comparison. The idea of the disaster is introduced in the early scenes, but it then moves away from this to focus on the blissfully unaware characters. The troubled relationship between Tea Leoni and her father is particularly drawn-out, although I did like the ultimate pay-off in that story arc. Elijah Wood and Leelee Sobieski are both good in their roles, and I think we most connect with these characters. Morgan Freeman plays the President with his usual resonant voice.

Obviously the most interesting part begins when the comet actually hits (the scenes in outer space were supposed to be thrilling but are quite preposterous). The real entertainment value of Deep Impact lies in the excitement and horror as we see well-known cities and landmarks destroyed by something out of our control. As a young girl the image of that giant tidal wave, in conjunction with Titanic, made me quite fearful of water! Even though the special effects might be a little bit dated, they are nonetheless spectacular. These kinds of movies are interesting because they spark a few paranoid questions – Could this ever happen? What would we do? Would I survive? Who really cares?

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Deep Impact is a true film of the 90s, a time when disaster films were very much in vogue. It’s not great by any standards but it is pure entertainment, and you may just be on the edge of your seat in the final act. Not bad to watch on a quiet night in.

My rating: 111

Whip It (2009)

Posted in 2009, Comedy, Drama, Reviews, Teen with tags , , , , , , on November 6, 2009 by filmglutton

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Whip It is Drew Barrymore’s first foray into directing – quite a long time coming considering she has been acting and producing business for so long.

The movie focuses on Bliss (Ellen Page), a 17-year-old living in Bodeen, Texas, a small town in close proximity to Austin. Bliss is a bit of a misfit. She’s a student at the local high school (though we only see her at school in one brief scene) and works at the Oink Joint, a tacky takeaway store. Bliss’ best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) also works at Oink Joint and they have a lot of fun teasing their supervisor ‘Birdman’ (Carlo Alban). Both of them want to get out and see the world, with Pash hoping for an Ivy League education and Bliss hoping to do anything but beauty pageants. Her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) makes both Bliss and her younger daughter Shania (Eulala Scheel) participate in pageant after pageant, reliving a bit of her own lost youth. Bliss’ father Earl (Daniel Stern) is a football fan and is more encouraging of Bliss, wanting her to do something she enjoys. One day while shopping in Austin Bliss sees a flyer for a roller derby display, which she and Pash attend. After telling one of the ‘Hurl Scouts’ that they are her new heroes, she is encouraged to attend tryouts. Finally Bliss has something to aim for; she practise with old Barbie skates until she has the hang of it again, and she makes it into the team because of her great speed. She calls herself Babe Ruthless. From here the plot moves between the Roller Derby games, where the Hurl Scouts try to actually win some games, and Bliss’ relationship with her parents, from whom she keeps roller derby a secret.

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There are a lot of minor characters in this, most of whom are pretty forgettable. Juliette Lewis, Kristen Wiig, Zoe Bell and Eve all have small roles as part of the Hurl Scouts. Drew Barrymore cast herself in a small part, and Bliss has a love interest in Oliver (Landon Pigg) – I found him to be really insipid and annoying. Overall the cast is strong, especially Ellen Page, who is always likeable onscreen. I also really liked Alia Shawkat, whom I hadn’t seen before (yes, I know she is in Arrested Development, one day I will get around to it).

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The roller derby sequences are handled quite well; they are exciting and the constant commentary helps us understand what is happening in the sport. I think it’s great that they’ve taken this sport and glorified it on film…you know, girl power and all that. I’d say this film would most appeal to girls in their early to mid teens. Apparently all the actors did their own skating, and it certainly looks very believable. There is nothing too racy apart from Bliss and Oliver kissing underwater and stripping their clothes, and a bit of underage drinking.

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Whip It isn’t particularly fresh or new, and it is certainly bogged down a bit by cliché, but it does stand out amongst sports films, mainly because Roller Derby strikes us as something new and exciting. It has your typical teen angst, teen finding an outlet to express her true personality, parents disagreeing etc, and of course it builds to a grand final game. There is something quite strange about the tone of the film; it’s as if it doesn’t know its genre, doesn’t quite know if it’s aiming for indie or commercial or comedy or drama. And, as I’ve already noted, the romance seemed a little forced. However, Whip It is and enjoyable film that’s better than most other teen flicks out there.

My Rating: 1112

Hocus Pocus (1993)

Posted in 1993, Comedy, Kids/Family, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on November 6, 2009 by filmglutton

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I watched Hocus Pocus last week in the spirit of Halloween – not that we really celebrate Halloween in Australia, but Hocus Pocus was one of my favourites when I was a kid. So how does it fare now?

Firstly the plot. The film opens in Salem, Massachusetts in the late 1600s, where Thackery Binx (Sean Murray) attempts to save his younger sister Emily from three witches who live in the woods. Winifred (Bette Midler), Mary (Kathy Najimy) and Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) and the Sanderson sisters, striving to be young forever by sucking the lifeforce from young children. Thackery is too late to save his sister, and the witches turn him into an immortal black cat. The sisters are caught and hanged (how, aren’t they witches??). Before they die, however, they manage to cast a curse from their spellbook which will raise them from the dead if a virgin lights the black candle in their house.

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Fast-forward three-hundred years, and the Sanderson house is now a museum steeped in superstition. Max (Omri Katz) has just moved to Salem from California with his parents and younger sister Dani (Thora Birch). He is extremely cynical and really doesn’t appreciate his new town’s fascination with Halloween. When his parents go out to a Halloween party Max is forced to take Dani trick-or-treating, much to his horror, and is bullied by some guys from school. Oh, the teen angst! Anyway, he meets up with his crush from school, Allison (Vinessa Shaw), and they go to the Sanderson museum. Thackery Binx is still lurking about but he fails to stop Max from lighting the Black Candle, bringing the witches back to life! Max, Allison, Dani and Binx manage to escape, stealing their spellbook. From here the plot becomes a witch-hunt (pun intended), with the Sanderson sisters needing to get their book back before sunrise so they can become truly immortal.

This movie is a lot of fun, though not as funny as it could be. It was directed by Kenny Ortega, which surprised me. I know he is known now for High School Musical (don’t hold that against him) but he is also a well-known choreographer…no real dance sequences here! Hocus Pocus is classic Disney, featuring unhelpful adults and heroic kids! Katz and Shaw are fine, but Birch is the standout amongst the younger set. All three of the witches are great, and they all look like they’re having a lot of fun, especially Better Midler, who shines in this role. She gets most of the good lines and gets to be delightfully wicked! One of the best scenes is when the sisters do a rendition of I Put a Spell on You. Bette Midler has obviously had a huge singing career, SJP has done quite a bit of Broadway, and Kathy Najimy had just done Sister Act, so the song is in good hands!

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I really miss these kind of movies. Maybe I’m biased because I was young during that time, but I really feel like the 90s was a great time for family/kids entertainment. I just think of films like Home Alone, Beethoven, Free Willy, Addams Family, Sister Act, Homeward Bound, A Little Princess, The Parent Trap, the Mighty Ducks…and of course Disney animation. There was a real market for films that both kids and adults could enjoy. One of my favourite films from childhood was Mrs Doubtfire, which is probably more of a comedy for adults, but that just shows that family films of the 90s had broad audience appeal. There are very few movies like that today; there are lots of animations (especially with Disney competitors like Dreamworks) but not many live-action family films. It seems that Disney released a lot of those live-action films (even Sister Act was Touchstone, which is owned by Disney) but they don’t do it much anymore. It’s a shame.

Ok getting of my soapbox now. There is nothing too offensive here, and nothing too scary either, even for little kids. Kids will love Binx especially – who doesn’t love a charming talking cat?! The special effects aren’t too bad either, maybe a little bit dated but hey, it was made 16 years ago (now I feel old). There are quite a few knowing references to virginity, but seriously, kids won’t even notice. Overall this is an enjoyable film from Disney with some fun performances, especially from Bette Midler. Good for kids.

My Rating: 111

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I PUT A SPELL ON YOU