Archive for the 2009 Category

Adventureland (2009)

Posted in 2009, Drama, Romance, Teen with tags , , , on December 15, 2009 by filmglutton

Adventureland, set in 1987, focuses on recent college graduate James (Jesse Eisenberg). James has planned a summer trip to Europe with friends, followed by a journalism post-grad degree at Columbia University. His plans unravel when his parents tell him they can no longer afford to fund his trip and that he must get a job if he wants to make it to Columbia. So James, with limited work experience, has no other choice than to get a job at Adventureland, a run-down theme park in his hometown of Pittsburgh. We can all relate: that sucks. The job is far from glamorous, but James meets an eclectic group of young people his own age, including the alluring Em (Kristen Stewart), with whom he embarks on a tentative friendship/relationship.

Adventureland was directed by Greg Mottola, who also directed the hit teen film Superbad. I haven’t seen Superbad, but I rented this after reading a few favourable reviews. I’m glad I did. Adventureland was a really enjoyable film, a sweet exploration of the lives of these 20-something people who are trying to figure out what they want. I think that’s a strength of the film, it shows 20-somethings for what we are: slightly older teens with more freedom. We don’t hit our 20s and suddenly grow up, have corporate jobs. Most 20-somethings are still unsettled and changing university degrees or careers. I thought this film captured the age group really well.

The performances are good. Jesse Eisenberg is really likeable and natural as James (and he actually looks around the right age, which is a rare thing); he might draw comparisons with Michael Cera, but he is less awkward (and less funny, I guess). Kirsten Stewart is quietly charming as Em. I haven’t seen enough of her to judge if she is a versatile actress, but I really like her onscreen, I can’t help but be drawn to her. So much better that her work in Twilight, which was released at the cinemas not long before this one. All of the supporting cast are good too (Ryan Reynolds has a small role), and I liked that they weren’t insantly recognisable, it made me feel like these could all be real people, unlike the shallow, fake versions of real people that we so often see.

I think this was billed as a comedy-drama, but it’s not actually very funny. In fact, the parts where it tries to be funny (such as with the immature ex-friend who keeps hitting James in the crotch) are quite unfunny and a little annoying. I also didn’t particularly like Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the managers of Adventureland. This film is not an absurd comedy (as I’ve heard Superbad was), and these two were a little over-pronounced in their roles, desperately trying to milk laughs but falling a bit flat (especially Wiig; I quite like her, but I swear she does the same thing in every film…)

This is much better than standard teen fare, but there is something missing, even though the performances are good and the story is quite fresh. I think the problem is that, as a drama, it lacks emotional punch (I know I just said a similar thing about Julie and Julia, but emotion matters, dammit!). The narrative development is fine and the characters themselves do experience turbulent emotions, but as an audience member you never feel too connected to the characters. You might recognise them, but you don’t really empathise or worry about what will happen to them. I hate melodrama, but a more focused emotional through-line would have been nice.

Still a film worth watching on a quiet night in. It might have some cliches, but it is well executed…and hey, who doesn’t love the eighties?!

My Rating:

Advertisements

Julie & Julia (2009)

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

julie1

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.
julie2

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.

julie3

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

mao1

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.

mao2

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.

mao3

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

Whip It (2009)

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

whipit1

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.

whipit4

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).

whipit3

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.

whipit2

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

Public Enemies (2009)

Posted in 2009, Action, Based on True Events, Drama, Reviews, Thriller with tags , , , , , on August 6, 2009 by filmglutton

publicenemies1

Based on a true story, Public Enemies is about infamous American outlaw John Dillinger. The film opens in 1933 with Dillinger staging a daring escape from the Indiana State Penitentiary. From here he and his gang embark on a series of bank robberies, quickly and effortlessly stealing thousands of dollars with every hit. Between prison stints Dillinger falls in love with Billie (Marion Cotillard), a woman he meets at a restaurant. Dillinger is regarded by law enforcement as being public enemy number one, so top dog Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is enlisted to apprehend him.

publicenemies2

I went into the film knowing next to nothing about the story. All I knew was that both Johnny Depp and Christian Bale were in it – good enough for me! Unfortunately, the film left me feeling a little “whelmed”. The characters are rather one-dimensional, and they don’t really develop over the course of the narrative. Even Johnny Depp, as brilliant as he is, has very little to do. Christian Bale tends to play one-note characters, and Purvis is no different – it’s a shame, because he has shown himself to be a capable actor. The narrative is a bit messy and confusing, particularly in the middle section. The action sequences, while highly energetic, are hard to follow. This is partly because you are unsure of the characters (they all look a bit the same in their black coats and hats), but also because the movie was shot on HD instead of film. With HD the picture is so sharp, lacking the slightly softer movements seen on film. I found it very hard to focus on anything when there was a lot of action on the screen, particularly as a lot of it was handheld. One of the most chaotic scenes, a night-time gunfight, is especially hard to watch – my eyes were feeling rather tired by the end! I think it’s great that HD has a place in modern filmmaking (gives us financially-challenged filmmakers a bit of hope!), but it certainly has its limitations.

publicenemies3

The film seemed to run for too long, but my main issue was that it lacked any real emotional impact. There were only a few moments where I really felt anything for the characters (and that mainly came in moments of violence, most notably when Billie is in custody). I think that was the main problem with Public Enemies – it didn’t make me care for characters. In fact, I had a very flippant attitude towards their fates. I was taken on their journey but was never really bothered about what happened to them.

publicenemies4

All in all this is quite an enjoyable film. John Dillinger is an intriguing historical character and he makes for a good cinematic suject. There is nothing especially bad about Public Enemies, but nothing really stands out either. The film isn’t memorable but it’s not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

My rating: 111