Film Review: The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud

29/09/2010

The Death and Life of Charlie St Cloud is undeniably schmaltzy. This is fine if you are looking for a sentimental film that isn’t too taxing, but not so good if you expect more from your viewing experience.

Charlie and his younger brother Sam are inseparable. When Sam dies in a car accident, Charlie is still able to see his younger brother everyday at the spot they used to hang out. Charlie’s devotion to Sam is tested when a girl comes into his life…

Although it deals with the serious subject of death, Charlie St Cloud keeps the tone light. Whilst there isn’t a great deal of humour in the film, there also isn’t the sombreness you might expect. The moments of sadness featured are more fleeting than dwelled upon.

At the heart of the film is the rather formidable theme of grief and moving on in life following a death. Given the fantastic nature of Charlie St. Cloud, however, this message is sometimes treated rather whimsically. The film cuts straight from Charlie finding out his brother has died in the car accident to Sam’s funeral. By not exhibiting Charlie’s initial shock and grief at his brother’s death, it lessens the impact of their first meeting. This should be a moment of great effect for Charlie, but it does not carry the force it should.

It is not difficult to feel empathy for the character of Charlie to begin with. It is also understandable why he has put his life on hold to retain the bond with his sibling. Where the character jars is in his relationship with his love interest Tess. At first he comes across as social awkward, in keeping with the fact that he does not spend much time in the company of others. Nevertheless, on their date he becomes instantly comfortable with romancing her; quite a contrast with his behaviour only a scene previously. Thus, here lies the fundamental flaw of Charlie St. Cloud; it does not allow the central character the time to appropriately develop, so lacks authenticity.

Zac Efron does a decent job as protagonist Charlie. His prettiness does detract somewhat in moments of anguish, however. Whilst his looks have undoubtedly helped him in the past, they may hinder Efron from gaining grittier roles. Augustus Prew brings some much needed humour to proceedings as Charlie’s friend Alastair. Charlie St. Cloud is beautifully shot, with director Burr Steers making the most of the picturesque location.

Unless you have a penchant for the saccharine, Charlie St. Cloud shouldn’t be high on your viewing agenda. Avid Efron fans, however, will surely check it out.


Film Review: Devil

27/09/2010

Devil confirms that nothing should be advertised with M. Night Shyamalan’s name attached. No good can come of it; he would be better off working under a pseudonym if he wants people to go and see his films in the future.

Following a mysterious suicide, five strangers get trapped in the lift of a high-rise building. Police and security have a battle against the clock to rescue them after strange things start to occur…

Devil was directed by John Erick Dowdle, based on a story by producer Shyamalan. Both are to blame for the cinematic mess that is this film. Predominantly, however, it is the lack of an interesting narrative that is the major issue. The film begins with a voiceover explaining that the devil sometimes takes human form in order to walk among us and take the souls of the fallen. The intention is to create an exciting premise where the mystery is which character is in actual fact the devil. Nevertheless, it is difficult to care about these characters when there is a serious lack of development. Furthermore, Devil does little to distinguish itself from other films on a similar theme. There is a lack of mythology, which could have given a depth to the narrative. Conversely, Devil lacks the gore and the tension to make it an appealing addition to the horror genre.

The scenes that take place in the elevator should generate apprehension and terror, but the sub-standard direction leaves a lot to be desired. Whilst the quick editing and accompanying sound should produce tension, the frequent plunges into darkness become tiresome when they should have the opposite effect. Thus, by cloaking the violence Devil is not a gore-fest, yet it does not have the gravitas to become a psychological horror either. In fact, there is very little to sustain the interest.

The dialogue is at times terrible, particularly the narration of security guard Ramirez, which is intermittently laughable. Whilst the voiceover in the beginning of the film serves to set the scene, the frequent narration does nothing to progress the narrative or to give insight to the flimsy plot.  

The acting is passable; though it is clear the cast aren’t helped by the awful dialogue. Logan Marshall-Green does well to display a sense of fear and aggression, given the circumstances. Geoffrey Arend brings a few moments of humour in the earlier scenes of the film.

Devil is the type of film you see on the television and feel that you’ve wasted an hour and a half watching it. After seeing it for free, I felt overcharged.


Film Review: Taxi Driver

25/09/2010

Taxi Driver is one of Martin Scorsese’s best films, featuring one of Robert De Niro’s finest performances and Paul Schrader’s excellent screenplay. Simply put, it is one of the greatest films in cinematic history.

Insomniac Travis Bickle drives a taxi in New York City at night. Gradually, Bickle’s instability is revealed as his disgust with the city grows, leading to him making some life-changing choices…

Taxi Driver is an affecting film because it works on numerous levels. It is both a study of violence and a violent film. Taxi Driver depicts Bickle’s disgust at the violence that surrounds him, yet later reveals his inclination to turn to this same method to make his stand. Whilst the climax of the film is famously desaturated to lessen to the effect of the gore, this does not detract overly from this incredibly violent scene. Although the graphic nature of the climax may be shocking to viewers, it is depicted as an act of heroism by the media in the film. Thus, Taxi Driver offers a view of violence in society but remains refreshingly ambiguous in passing judgement.

To describe Travis Bickle simply as an anti-hero does a disservice to the complexity of the character. Schrader has constructed such an intricate protagonist in Bickle. He elicits both sympathy and aversion from the audience. Bickle exhibits in awkwardness in social situations which is sometimes difficult to watch. At the same time, some of his actions appear antagonistic for both other characters in the film and the audience watching. Bickle describes himself as “God’s lonely man”; a very perceptive description of his isolation. This facet of his character is quite relatable, and stands in contrast to other aspects of his personality.

Robert De Niro gives an exceptional performance as Bickle. He truly inhabits the character, portraying his mental disturbance through more subtle tics as well as the troublesome nature of his narrations. Jodie Foster is convincing as young prostitute Iris; she is remarkably solid considering her young age. Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy is the other woman is Bickle’s life. There is quite a divergence between these two females; each of them fuelling his motivation in different ways.

Taxi Driver offers us the final score of legendary composer Bernard Herrmann. And what a score it is. Ranging from a laid-back sax solo to a thunderous rumble, Herrmann’s music is the perfect accompaniment to the visuals, setting the tone for the film.

As a tale of urban alienation, Taxi Driver remains unrivalled. Often movies are described as “must-see” films. In the case of this 1976 classic, that really is the most fitting label.

Taxi Driver was screened at Brewer Street Car Park by the Jameson Cult Film Club. It was introduced by Riz Ahmed.


Film Review: The Hole

24/09/2010

Every film seems to get a 12A rating nowadays. If The Exorcist was released today, it would probably be rated 12A. Which may not be a ludicrous as it sounds, because The Hole is more frightening than The Exorcist. Strange but true, as the old television show of the same name informed us.

Teenager Dane and his younger brother Lucas discover a mysterious hole in the basement of their house, after moving to a new town. As the pair try to figure out the origins of the hole with their neighbour Julie, strange occurrences begin to take place…

Considering that the movie is aimed at a family audience and has child protagonists, The Hole is just about the scariest film of the year. What makes the frights so effective is the dependence on common fears. Whilst not every viewer will hold the same fears as the ones depicted, they are nonetheless universal enough that most can relate.

What heightens the tension in The Hole is the lack of authority figures. Whilst the boys live with their mother, she is frequently at work, and always out of the picture when supernatural incidents occur. Although on the one hand it is difficult to believe that Lucas or Dane will meet a grisly fate because of their ages and the nature of the film, on the other the brothers are put in pretty perilous situations.

Narrative-wise, The Hole offers nothing really original. It is quite typical of a supernatural, haunted-house style film. However, Joe Dante’s film excels in its execution of the chilling moments, which arise frequently. Like some of the best supernatural horror films, The Hole plays on the principle that it is the unknown that is most frightening. Therefore it is the scenes that suggest supernatural activity (through camera work, sound and editing), but show very little that are most potent. There is a real tension generated throughout the film, one that is only let down by the very last segment.

The performances of the cast are good overall. Chris Massoglia and Nathan Gamble at times seem to show a lack of apprehension at circumstances, but perhaps this is intentional given the target audience. Javier Navarrete’s score is highly effective; sound in this film goes a long way to generate tension. The art direction of the climax is pleasing, even if the scene itself is lacklustre compared to what precedes it.

The Hole is a film that should satisfy adult horror fans, despite being marketed at a family demographic. Take the kids; it will be character building for them.


Film Review: The Town

21/09/2010

Like a phoenix risen from the ashes of Gigli and Jersey Girl, Ben Affleck lives up to his early promise with the accomplished crime thriller The Town. The film deserves its place at the top of the United States box office, and will most likely replicate this success when it is released in the UK this weekend.

Bank robber Doug McKray decides to befriend a woman who was taken hostage by his crew, to discover how much she has told police. When a relationship flourishes between the two, Doug finds it difficult to balance this new development with his life of crime…

Affleck proves himself to be a competent director with The Town. He appears as adept in directing big action sequences as he does with the quieter, more emotional scenes. The action scenes in particular are frenetic in their editing; cutting frequently between long shots, close-ups and different points of view. This goes a long way to generate the tension that runs throughout the film.

The Town deftly manoeuvres between the gritty reality of crime and poverty and a high-octane action movie. The film works well as it does not allow itself to get too entrenched in the pessimism of deprivation, yet at the same time has more depth than most run-of-the-mill action thrillers. To some, the romance between Doug and Claire may seem contrived, but it is integral in its function as a catalyst to propel the events that follow.

As protagonist Doug, Affleck is measured in revealing his feelings; maintaining a calm that make the spurts of aggression or emotion appear authentic and in-keeping with the character. There are the prerequisite shades of grey so ingrained in a character such as this. Neither wholly good nor bad, Doug weighs heavy with the burden of his actions but strives for something more than the Charlestown way.

Jeremy Renner is excellent as loose-cannon best friend Jem. Renner effectively portrays the violence of the character, thus illustrating a stark contrast between the outlook and ideals of the two best friends. Blake Lively gives an admirable performance as the sister of Jem, and sometime girlfriend of Doug. Lively exhibits a range greater than her Gossip Girl appearances would suggest. Elsewhere, both Jon Hamm and Rebecca Hall put in decent performances in their respective roles.

The Town is an effective thriller precisely because it maintains the element of suspense throughout. It is never clear which way events will turn, or exactly how the film will reach its conclusion. Affleck’s aptitude for suspense demonstrated in The Town will undoubtedly produce much anticipation for his next effort.


Film Review: The Other Guys

20/09/2010

The Other Guys is not as funny as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. That is not to say it isn’t a decent comedy, but merely that it does not reach the peaks of hilarity of Adam McKay’s 2004 film. Contending with the likes of Date Night and Dinner for Schmucks, however, The Other Guys becomes one of the better comedies of 2010.

Detective Terry Hoitz is sick of doing paperwork for hero cops Highsmith and Danson. When the opportunity arises, Hoitz and his reluctant partner Allen Gamble attempt to fill their shoes, but things don’t go according to plan…

 The Other Guys combines elements of the buddy cop movie, comedy and action to produce a very entertaining film. Whilst the narrative is linear and fairly predictable, the film amuses sufficiently so that this is not a problem. For example, juxtaposing a headstrong, aggressive cop with a goofy and more placid partner is not highly original, yet the relationship works due to a good script and chemistry between the pair.

The Other Guys is successful because of the various strands of humour at play. On a surface level, the antagonism (intentional or not) of Gamble towards Hoitz, and Hoitz reaction to this is a great source of amusement, particularly in the first half of the film. Elsewhere, the humour is sometimes juvenile but good fun nonetheless. The multiple references featured in the film (everything from Derek Jeter to Enron to Star Wars) are also a site for comedy, although sadly a number of these may be lost on some audience members. Finally, The Other Guys works well in the way in the way it skewers the conventions of the action and crime film. Hardened cop Hoitz has become adept in ballet only to make fun of the kids who took ballet, whilst Captain Gene Mauch also works a part-time job in retail.

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg work well as the odd couple, with Wahlberg sending up his alpha male image. Eva Mendes performs well as Gamble’s unlikely wife. The Other Guys provides a welcome return to the mainstream for Michael Keaton, whose flair for comedy remains as strong as ever.

Coming at the end of a season bereft of good comedies, The Other Guys is an excellent caper; perfect if you want to switch your brain off and have a few laughs.


Film Review: Winter’s Bone

18/09/2010

Winter’s Bone is an unremittingly bleak film, yet at the same time it is absorbing for the entire duration.

Seventeen-year-old Ree takes care of her mentally ill mother and two younger siblings in an isolated Ozark Mountain community. When she finds out her father has put up their house has collateral for his bail and is now missing, Ree takes it upon herself to track him down…

Winter’s Bone is a slow-moving, but engrossing film. The strength of the film lies in the performances of the cast, the atmosphere generated, and the unfolding of what is a very simple narrative. Winter’s Bone is a mystery where information is revealed little by little, thus engaging the audience throughout.

The film also depicts the harsh realities of poor communities living in more isolated parts of America. Ree and her family seem to survive day by day, often relying on the charity of neighbours and family. The poverty exhibited in the film is just about as big a contrast as you can get to the glitziness of Hollywood.

Jennifer Lawrence gives a tremendous performance as teenager Ree. It is an understated portrayal that is overwhelmingly convincing. Ree’s struggle is at times difficult to watch, but Lawrence brings a determination to the role that is quite affecting. John Hawkes puts in a good turn as Ree’s reluctant uncle Teardrop; he effectively represents the darkness of the character that occasionally gives way to tenderness for his family.

Debra Granik’s direction is composed, often contrasting the sparseness of the landscape with the claustrophobia of the small homes. The cinematography and art direction have generated a palette almost desaturated of strong colour. Along with the effective use of sound, this creates a memorable but not a comfortable atmosphere.

Winter’s Bone is unlikely to become an instant favourite with most, due to the bleak tone of the film. It is, however, an affecting picture that deserves the critical accolades bestowed upon it.