Thursday, 29 December 2011

Best Films of 2011

It's hard to list the best films of 2011 when I haven't yet seen all of them (including a few that have been getting Golden Globe and SAG nominations) so this is just a list of films I've seen this year that I loved.

1) Incendies – One of the most disturbingly powerful films I’ve ever seen. Tragic, confronting and devastating. Not for the faint hearted.

2) Snowtown – Another grossly confronting film and a great piece of Australian cinema. You will feel utter disgust watching this film. It's based on a true story of one of Australia's worst serial killers. I had to look away several times.

3) X-Men: First Class – It may be an unusual choice for the top 10, but with so many terrible comic book adaptations lately, this film was a real winner. It's what a superhero action film is supposed to be.

4) Black Swan – Amazing film and amazing performances by Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. Great psychological thriller.

5) Midnight In Paris – Beautiful film about following your heart and your dreams. Woody Allen is a genius.

6) Moneyball – Insightful film about the sporting world. Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill are brilliant. You don't have to like sport to enjoy this film.

7) 127 Hours – Danny Boyle is such a great film-maker that he can make a film where 90 per cent of it involves one man stuck in a rock. James Franco gave, arguably, the performance of his career to date (his performance in James Dean was also outstanding).

8) The Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Motion capture technology at its finest, proving that audiences can have an emotional connection with a character created with this technology.

9) Melancholia – It seems you either really love or really hate Lars Von Trier. I thought this film was intense, amazing and thought-provoking. If only it were a little shorter.

10) The Tree of Life – Gorgeous cinematography and a gripping performance from Brad Pitt. This film works on so many levels.

Notable mentions:
The Lincoln Lawyer – Matthew McConaughey showed us he can actually act when he's not concerned about prancing around shirtless. A great example of a suspense drama.

Rabbit Hole – Dark and moving. Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart give great performances in this sad story of how a couple cope with the loss of a child. Heartbreaking to watch.

Bridesmaids – Showed us that women are just as capable as men of being totally gross and hilarious.

The Beaver – Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster work perfectly together. Say what you want about Mel the man, but Mel the actor is sublime.

Horrible Bosses – Hilarious and entertaining. An all-star cast that delivers the goods.

Drive – Well paced, great directing and lots of creative ways to kill people.

Top 10 disappointments of the year:

1) Your Highness – Not even James Franco could save this film.
2) Larry Crowne – Nothing could save Tom Hanks' career after this flop.
2) The Three Musketeers – I have never looked down at my watch more during a film.
4) Tangled – I couldn't even finish this children's film.
5) Zookeeper – Could have been so much better, but the laughs fall flat.
5) Jack and Jill – Oh Adam Sandler, what were you thinking?
7) Green Lantern – If Ryan Reynolds had not been in this film, I would have walked out.
8) Captain America: The First Avenger – Should have been so much better.
8) Shark Night 3D – So bad, it was good. Unless you're a shark fan or a fan of watching teenagers being eaten by sharks, this film offers very little.
9) Insidious – Not scary, not entertaining. Just bad.

What are your hit and miss films of the year?

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

DIRECTED BY: Guy Ritchie
WRITTEN BY: Michele Mulroney, Kieran Mulroney
STARRING: Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, Jared Harris, Stephen Fry, Noomi Rapace.
RATING: 2 stars

I really like Robert Downey Jr. He has so much charm and appeal, you would think he would be an ideal dinner guest. I also really like Guy Ritchie as a director. He has a specific style that works in films, like Snatch, and he makes typical fight sequences so much more exciting to watch. Unfortunately, my adulation of Downey Jr and Ritchie does not extend to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. I don't know what happened with this film, it had so much potential, but in the end, not much happened at all. There were several climaxes that became anti-climaxes and I wound up looking at my watch a few times and thinking, "Is it going to end soon?" That's not what you want from a film.

In a sequel to the 2009 film, Sherlock Holmes (Downey Jr) returns for what is not exactly an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's short story, The Final Problem, but certainly has some elements of it. After some suspicious bombings around Europe, Holmes starts to investigate his arch enemy Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). It seems that with the help of an anarchist group, Moriarty wants to cause a European war. He is also buying some weapon manufacturing companies. Holmes and Dr Watson (Jude Law) team up with Holmes's brother, Mycroft (Stephen Fry), and Sim (Noomi Rapace), a Gypsy fortune teller, to stop Moriarty.

There's a lot happening in this film and yet nothing really happens at all. Ritchie does his best to add some spice by using his distinctive slow-motion shots during action sequences. The slow-motion is used to show audiences what Holmes plans to do in a fight and then we see the action unfold at a quicker pace. This is done a few times throughout the film, but none in a more effective way than in the confronting scene between Holmes and Moriarty, when both men plot the steps of their battle, including their moves and expected counter-moves, in their minds before beginning the struggle. The slow-motion technique is also used in a chase scene in a forest where bullets are seen hitting trees and only just missing Holmes and his crew. It's exciting to watch.

Unfortunately, that's where my praise ends. Although there are a few laughs in this film, there aren’t enough. The chemistry between Downey Jr and Law is minimal, and the female cast do nothing to add any life to the characterisations. At least Fry is entertaining, but even he doesn't quite fulfil expectations.

The first Sherlock Holmes film was average. Unfortunately, A Game of Shadows is below average. Apparently there are plans for a third instalment if this film is successful. Let's hope not. I would rather re-watch Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang for my Downey Jr fix.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

We Bought A Zoo

DIRECTED BY: Cameron Crowe
WRITTEN BY: Aline Brosh McKenna, Cameron Crowe
STARRING: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johannson, Thomas Hadden Church, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones.
RATING: 3.5 stars

I was loving this film so much until the final 20 minutes threatened to ruin all the fun. It was like Walt Disney had sent Mickey Mouse to spread some sparkly magic over the film to give it a lame and ridiculous ending. Why couldn't they have kept it more realistically emotional and heartfelt? It really is a beautiful concept though, and a film worth seeing.

Based on a book written by Benjamin Mee, We Bought A Zoo tells the true story of Benjamin (Matt Damon) a journalist who has lost his wife to illness and is now struggling to raise their children Dylan (Colin Ford) and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) alone. With Dylan struggling to stay focused at school, Benjamin decides to move his family to a new home and finds the perfect house away from the city. The only problem is that the house is on the property of a run-down zoo and if they want the house, they have to keep the animals too. The family then works with staff, including workaholic zoo keeper Kelly (Scarlett Johannson) to make sure the zoo is ready in time for its grand opening.

Writer and director Cameron Crowe has struggled in the past decade to give audiences an engaging film, but this is probably his best work since Jerry McGuire (because I controversially didn't like Almost Famous). It's not as good, but it explores the same sort of idea about finding value in your life and doing what you love. While the film is about a zoo, it's really about a family's struggle to cope with death. The zoo is just a tool and a catalyst to help the family move on after their tragic loss.

What makes the film really successful though is Matt Damon's convincing performance. Arguably Hollywood's most likeable actor, Damon plays the everyday man well. His character is a father torn between his grief over losing the love of his life and his desire to live an adventure with his children, who are also struggling to cope with the loss of their mother. There are some powerful scenes in the film in which Damon cries, yells and crumbles before our eyes, and his performance is memorable. One scene in particular with Ford is particularly moving and even realistically funny in the end.

Thomas Haden Church provides a lot of laughs as Duncan, Benjamin's older accountant brother, who is constantly telling him what a terrible idea it is to waste his money on a zoo. Speaking of comedic moments, this film does what The Zookeeper failed to do earlier this year - use animals in a funny way. Snakes let loose on zoo grounds, an escaped grizzly bear and a close encounter with a lion provide both laughs and poignant moments. Not to mention the powerful scenes with a sick tiger. Kudos also to Jones who must be the cutest little girl in Hollywood. She has some great scenes, especially when she blurts out personal facts to complete strangers.

We Bought A Zoo doesn't quite achieve everything it sets out to do, and I'm still trying to figure out who thought it was a good idea to cast Scarlett Johannson in this film, but it is a sweet summer indulgence for children and adults alike. If you love animals, you won't want to miss this film.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Best Christmas Films

Top 10 Christmas Films (in no particular order):

It's A Wonderful Life, 1946 – When a man tries to commit suicide on Christmas Eve, a guardian angel shows him what his hometown would be like if he had never lived. You will cry.

Die Hard, 1988 – New York policeman John McClane attends the company Christmas party of his estranged wife, who is a businesswoman in Los Angeles. Terrorists threaten to ruin the festivities. Some of the best one-liners in film history.

Miracle On 34th Street, 1947 and remade in 1994 – A department store Santa restores a little girl's faith at Christmas. A true classic.

Home Alone, 1990 – Kevin McCallister, 8, is mistakenly left behind when his family flies to Paris for their Christmas vacation. He then cleverly fights some bad guys in some very funny moments. Who doesn’t love this film?

Bridget Jones's Diary, 2001 – Maybe not technically a Christmas film as such, but it has a great Christmas scene with Colin Firth in one of the ugliest and most embarrassing festive jumpers ever known to man.

Love Actually, 2003 – Tells the story of eight couples dealing with their love lives in loosely interrelated plots during the festive season in London. Much better than other films of its type like Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve.

Trading Places, 1983 – A rich man and a poor man switch classes as part of a social experiment during the festive season. Great comedy.

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, 1989 – The Griswold family plans turn to disaster at Christmas. There's a reason why this film is on television every Christmas.

The Gremlins, 1984 – Careful what gifts you give people at Christmas! Every child of the 80's can recite the Gremlin rules: keep it out of daylight; never get it wet; and never, ever, feed it after midnight.

Giant, 1956 – Although not technically, a Christmas film, there is a memorable Christmas scene. This was James Dean's last film before his tragic death, and with his character aging into his senior years, the film shows audiences what might have been if the legendary actor had lived a longer life.

Notable mentions, some of which aren't technically Christmas films either, but have Christmas scenes in them:

Stepmum, 1998 – A memorable family Christmas scene. Susan Sarandon is amazing in this film.

Citizen Kane, 1941 – A young Kane receives a sled as a Christmas gift. How could I not mention one of the greatest films ever made?

Donnie Brasco, 1997 – An FBI agent infiltrates the Mafia. In one scene the characters celebrate Christmas by exchanging cards stuffed with money.

Batman Returns, 1992 – Batman fights the Penguin, Catwoman, and a corrupt industrialist during Christmas.

The Godfather, 1972 – Christmas in 1945 is the backdrop for several murders by the Mafia. Still one of the greatest films ever made.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, 2005 – A crook poses as an actor and gets tangled up in a crime during a Christmas setting. Hilarious. Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jnr are fantastic!

Goodfellas, 1990 – In one scene the mobsters celebrate Christmas after pulling off a heist.

Little Women, 1933, 1978 and 1994 – Includes scenes of the family during Christmas. One of the greatest novels ever written and the films do it justice.

Mean Girls, 2004 – A teenage outsider learns about school cliques. Includes a scene where girls sing and dance to Jingle Bell Rock. Even men like this teenage romantic comedy.

Lethal Weapon, 1987 – A young, depressed policeman partners with a veteran officer to solve a murder during the Christmas period. One of the best buddy action films.

L.A. Confidential, 1997 – While investigating a Christmas Eve massacre, three detectives uncover corruption.

When Harry Met Sally, 1989 – Has several Christmas and New Year's scenes. It also happens to be one of the best romantic comedies of all time.

I'm sure I've missed some great films, so please add your suggestions, and have a very Merry Christmas :)

Monday, 12 December 2011

Happy Feet Two

DIRECTED BY: George Miller
WRITTEN BY: George Miller, Gary Eck, Warren Coleman, Paul Livingston
STARRING: Elijah Wood, Hank Azaria, Robin Williams, Pink, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon
RATING: 2.5 stars

The first Happy Feet film was mildly entertaining, but I don't think anyone actually asked for a sequel. We've been given one anyway and I'm probably in the minority when I say I think the sequel is slightly better than the original, though neither film is all that good.

In Happy Feet Two, Mumble (Elijah Wood) and Gloria (Pink, replacing the late Brittany Murphy) have a young son named Erik (Ava Acres) who is not so keen on dancing. Erik is teased by the other penguins so he runs away and meets a penguin named Sven (Hank Azaria) who can fly. There is no way that Mumble can compete with Erik's new hero, until another global warming disaster threatens the Emperor penguin community and it's up to Mumble to save them all. Meanwhile, Will the Krill (Brad Pitt) decides he wants to be independent rather than at the bottom of the food chain with all the other krill in his swarm, but his buddy Bill the Krill (Matt Damon) is not as prepared for their adventure. The two plots are mostly kept separate until towards the end, and even then are not really tied very closely together.

There are few people I would consider to be a comedy genius but Robin Williams (Ramon and Lovelace) and Azaria are two of them. Their presence in Happy Feet Two is enough to make the film entertaining. Pitt and Damon are also very funny with their strange krill bromance while Pink provides some great tunes throughout the film. The real emotion and heart, however, comes from Wood and Acres who give great performances as father and son. Acres is especially good in one scene when she sings a beautiful song about Mumble. It's a very touching moment.

3D is so expensive for the average family to pay and, while I enjoyed aspects of the 3D effects, it probably isn't worth paying the extra money for it. So yes, the penguins are cute, the choreography is great and the songs are fun, but what we get in this sequel is pretty much what we got in the original film. Let's hope George Miller doesn't bother with a third instalment.

Sunday, 11 December 2011


DIRECTED BY: Lars von Trier
WRITTEN BY: Lars von Trier
STARRING: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Kiefer Sutherland.
RATING: 3.5 stars

If you want to see a film that washes over you with simple dialogue, plain characters and a straight plot, then don't see Melancholia. But, if you want to see a film that challenges you to analyse your way of life and how you deal with stress and anxiety, then art-house film Melancholia is perfect for you. This existential science-fiction film ties in themes of fear, death, depression and the end of the world without being over-the-top or ridiculous. Melancholia is essentially an apocalyptic disaster film for viewers more interested in people, rather than blowing things up. Sorry, Will Smith.

The long, slow-motion prologue may put off some viewers, but if you know anything about writer/director Lars Von Trier then you know to expect a film that's a little different. After the introduction, in which we see the world ending, we jump back in time to the night of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael's (Alexander Skarsgard) wedding. Justine is struggling to find happiness, even though she is marrying a man who loves her and is supportive of her during her bouts of depression. The extravagant wedding was paid for by Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Meanwhile, a rogue planet called Melancholia is coming towards Earth and Claire is struggling to hide her anxiety that the planet will destroy the world.

The film is a great examination of how depression can overrun our lives and consume us so that we cannot even enjoy moments where we should be at our happiest. In amongst all the drama is also some very funny moments to lighten the mood a little. Sutherland's character has some funny lines during the wedding, as he struggles with his mother-in-law's own kind of crazy. But the biggest laughs come from the wedding planner who refuses to look at Justine because she ruined “his” wedding. In fact, all the performances are very strong, especially from the leading ladies. Dunst in particular seems to have come up with a performance that is so unlike anything we've seen from her before. It's no wonder she's been getting so much praise and accolades for her performance. The use of music is also effective in this film and the cinematography is beautiful.

Ironically, on the day I saw this film, we had a lunar eclipse, which made me reflect even more on the film. Melancholia may be a little slow-paced, and it certainly isn't the feel-good film of the year, but it is full of layers of metaphors and substance, which so many films these days seem to lack. You will be thinking about the film for days later.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

New Year's Eve

DIRECTED BY: Gary Marshall
WRITTEN BY: Katherine Fugate
RATING: 3 stars

As Katherine Heigl's character says in New Year's Eve, “There's going to be more celebrities here than rehab.” I'm going to attempt to list the long and impressive cast in this film, so you'll forgive me if the list goes on too long and/or if I miss some people: Jon Bon Jovi, Josh Duhamel, Hilary Swank, Sarah Jessica Parker, Katherine Heigl, Zac Efron, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Biel, Robert De Niro, Halle Berry, Cary Elwes, Joey McIntyre, Alyssa Milano, Seth Myers, Abigail Breslin, Sophia Vergara, Ashton Kutcher, Lea Michele, James Belushi, Cherry Jones, Ludacris, Hector Elizondo and Matthew Broderick.

Still with me? In what has become its own genre these days, there seems to be a film for just about every holiday and occasion whereby several short stories unfold over the course of a two-hour film until all the stories eventually tie together in some way. From the makers of Valentine's Day, we now have New Year's Eve, a film that shows audiences a seemingly typical New Year's Eve in New York.

One storyline follows a caterer named Laura (Heigl) who is catering an important New Year's Eve event when she runs into her famous rock star ex-boyfriend Jensen (Bon Jovi). The party is being hosted by rich man Sam (Duhamel) who is looking for a woman he met last New Year's Eve. Meanwhile, Kim (Sarah Jessica Parker) is struggling to deal with her teenage daughter Hailey (Breslin) while Kim's brother Paul (Efron) tries to make Ingrid's (Pfeiffer) dreams come true in exchange for some tickets to Sam's party. He is also trying to convince his room-mate Randy (Kutcher) to join him at the party but Randy is against celebrating New Year's Eve. He ends up stuck in an elevator with Elise (Michele) who panics about missing her dream opportunity to sing with Jensen in Times Square. Meanwhile, at a hospital, two couples compete to win some prize money for having the first baby born in the new year while a nurse (Berry) cares for dying man Stan (De Niro). As all these stories unfold, Claire (Swank) is struggling as the New Year's Eve organiser in Times Square to make sure the famous ball drops at midnight.

If you're wondering how they can get a cast this eclectic for a romantic comedy, it's because it requires little work for the actors who only have a few scenes. It's also due to well-respected director, Gary Marshall who manages to bring out the best in his cast. There's no earth-shattering performances, but everyone does a relatively good job.

I'm renowned for being cynical about romantic comedies, but I do like these types of films because I invest less in the characters and story-lines, so I can enjoy them for what they are without being too picky about how unrealistic they are. The main problem with this film is that there are so many sub-plots going on that the film cannot accommodate them in two hours. We end up with a bunch of underdeveloped plots and characters. This is a shame because there are actually some potentially good plots I would have liked to have been fleshed out. The singing scenes are also a little cringe worthy. I adore Bon Jovi, but his duet with Glee star Michele, who I also usually like, just seemed like another Glee episode.

This film is certainly not breaking any new ground, but it delivers exactly what it promises its target audience of females. Don't take it too seriously, just enjoy it for what it is.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Dolphin Tale

DIRECTED BY: Charles Martin Smith
WRITTEN BY: Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi
STARRING: Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Harry Connick Jr, Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman,
RATING: 4 stars

I'm warning you from the start – you need to bring tissues if you're going to see Dolphin Tale. This film is basically Free Willy with a dolphin; it's cute, it's sentimental, it's sad, it's uplifting and it's certainly corny at times. Dolphin Tale is pretty much everything you want a family summer film to be. It also has a great moral to the story that is sure to teach children a valuable lesson about acceptance and overcoming adversity.

Inspired by a true story, Dolphin Tale is about a young boy named Nelson (Nathan Gamble) who is a loner, struggling in school and has only his older cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell) in the army to look up to as a male role model. One day, a fisherman and Nelson find a bottle nose dolphin named Winter washed up on the beach, stuck in a crab trap that has crippled her tail. Nelson and Winter strike up an immediate bond and soon Nelson is helping Winter with her rehabilitation at a marine hospital, led by Dr Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr) and his daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff). To save Winter's life, Nelson seeks the help of eccentric prosthetics doctor Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) to create a new tail for Winter.

The 3D effects add a nice touch to this film, mostly due to the playful way the effects are used with the dolphins. The acting is nothing mind-blowing but everyone gives a solid performance, including Ashley Judd as Nelson's mother and Kris Kristofferson as Hazel's grandfather. The stronger performances come from the lead actors – the children – Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff, who are raw and emotional. But the real star of the film is, of course, Winter the dolphin. If you don't fall in love with this animal, you have no soul.

My main criticism of the film is its length, which is about one hour and 45 minutes. It packs in a lot of details and sub-plots, such as Kyle's war sub-plot and the possibility for the marine hospital closing down, which both tie in quite nicely as a juxtaposition of what's happening in the main storyline with Winter. The problem is, because the film is trying to pull at your heart strings on so many levels with each sub-plot, it takes time to build that emotional connection with the story and the characters. Unfortunately, it takes a little too long. For a family film where children are supposed to sit still for an extended period of time, it really should have been about 15 minutes shorter.

Nonetheless, with so many animation films coming up over the summer for children, it's nice to see an inspiring and adorable family film with real people and one of the cutest animals in the world. If you have children prone to nagging you about being bored over the holidays, take them to see Dolphin Tale – you'll all enjoy it. Just remember those tissues!