Genre: WesternDirectors: Ethan & Joel Coen Writers: Ethan & Joel Coen, based on the novel of the same name by Charles Portis Cast: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper Running Length: 110 minutes Synopsis: Set in the Old West around the end of the 19th century, 14-year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is out to seek vengeance for her murdered father. The murderer is a man called Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) who has fled into Indian territory after committing the crime. As the local law enforcement is no help, Mattie instead seeks out the help of a bounty hunter Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a tough drunkard who’s supposed to be at the top of his game. Although initially disinterested in the chase, Cogburn has a change of heart when Mattie offers a handsome reward. Also accompanying Mattie and Cogburn is LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who is hunting Chaney for the assassination of a Senator. A curious camaraderie forms between the trio, and the tough journey tests their mettle, especially for Mattie. Review: True Grit sticks so true to the Western formula that it’s almost shocking that the usually quirky, offbeat Coen Brothers are behind the film. Although this is ostensibly a remake of the 1969 film starring the iconic John Wayne, this version by the Coens should more accurately be considered as a standalone interpretation of the Charles Portis novel. With a deft mix of comedy, character study and good old hardcore Western action, True Grit is one of the best Western films in recent years (in fact probably the best since Unforgiven), but remains a tough sell to audiences who are not fans of the genre. There are a number of good performances to be found in True Grit. Jeff Bridges wisely chooses not to emulate John Wayne’s (Oscar winning) performance in the 1969 film, but actually puts across a better, more nuanced performance than what Wayne managed to achieve. There are still traces of Wayne’s Cogburn in Bridges’ portrayal, but these are kept to a minimum and it never feels like a facsimile. However, it is unlikely that Jeff Bridge’s Oscar nomination this year will lead to a win. Matt Damon is also understatedly effective as LaBoeuf, and apart from Mattie is probably the next most likeable character in the film. However, the true standout is newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who delivers the difficult dialogue with ease, and with a very believable, fiercely committed portrayal, Steinfeld’s Mattie easily becomes the emotional centre of the film. It’s far easier to be vested in this Mattie’s outcome than in the original film, as Kim Darby’s performance and role was eclipsed by John Wayne’s star power. Like many Westerns, the pacing of True Grit is slow and deliberate. Audiences who are able to settle into the groove of the movie will find themselves enjoying a film with a strong plot and amazing aesthetics (Roger Deakins’ cinematography is nothing short of flawless). However, there’s a good reason why Westerns have fallen out of favour even amongst directors, and the bottom line is that most cinemagoers simply aren’t patient enough for slow burn movies like this one. Rating: * * * (out of four stars)
Director: Danny Boyle
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Director: Dennis Dugan
Genre: ThrillerDirector: Darren Aronofsky Writers: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin Cast: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder Running Length: 107 minutes Synopsis: Nina Sawyer (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina in a New York City ballet company whose entire life revolves around dance. She still lives with her obsessive and oppressive former ballerina mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), who smothers her with attention and control. When the company’s artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for the opening production of their new season, Swan Lake, Nina becomes his first choice. However, newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) is a potential threat as Leroy is impressed with her as well. Swan Lake requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan and the Black Swan, and whilst the innocent Nina is a perfect White Swan, the bohemian Lily is the perfect personification of the Black Swan. As Nina struggles to expand her abilities to become both Swans, she gets in touch with her dark side, but this is not without consequences. Review: If your purpose of watching a movie is to relax and enjoy yourself, Black Swan should definitely stay off your to-watch list. This is an intense psychological thriller that makes for largely uneasy viewing, since the film is essentially about a young ballerina who descends into madness. Aronofsky may have moved from the more violent world of wrestling to the seemingly more docile art form of ballet, but the film suggests that high art may just be as much of a bloodsport. For those who have the stomach for it, however, will find that Black Swan boasts a number of excellent performances, even if the film itself lacks a little finesse and subtlety. As the film is told from the perspective of Nina, it’s a fractured take on reality, and the lines between her troubled imagination and the real world are blurred considerably. Aronofsky is intentionally oblique when crossing between the two realities, and this does add an interesting dimension to the film. The audience is left guessing about what is real and what isn’t, and even the conclusion of the film is somewhat open-ended. Where Aronofsky fumbles is his insistence on bashing the audience over the head with his light/dark themes, repeatedly using different characters as mouthpieces to reinforce the black swan / white swan dichotomy. It almost borders on self parody and is one of the reasons why the screenplay didn’t work entirely for me. Much like The King’s Speech, the best thing about Black Swan is the performances found within. Natalie Portman, in particular, puts forth a tour de force turn as the troubled protagonist, and it is easy to tell she had literally poured her heart and soul into bringing Nina to life, warts and all. Portman also underwent months of intensive dance training to prepare for the role, and Aronofsky had stated that much of the dancing in the movie is performed by Portman herself, and the body double coming into play only in wider shots. It is little wonder that Portman is the frontrunner for acting nominations this awards season, and it is deservedly so. Mila Kunis also deserves kudos for her portrayal as the free spirited Lily, and because her character is viewed through Nina’s eyes, she has to inhabit a number of wide-ranging personas all of which Kunis manages to nail. It may be unflattering to compare Black Swan to roadkill, but the comparison is an apt one. This is a largely unattractive take on ballet, a drastic departure from many similarly-themed movies. Whilst the movie takes itself too seriously despite some rather eye-roll worthy plot points – a similarly crazed ex-prima donna? A controlling, smothering mother straight out from the Mommy Dearest handbook? – there’s a magnetic quality about the film that makes you unable to tear your eyes away. Imperfect as it is, Black Swan makes for very compelling viewing. Rating: * * * (out of four stars)
Director: Tom Hooper
Writer: David Seidler
Cast: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall
Running Length: 118 minutes
Synopsis: Beginning in 1925, The King’s Speech tells the story of Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the second son of King George V (Michael Gambon). As he’s not the eldest son, he is not expected to ascend to the throne. However, when his older brother Prince Edward (Guy Pearce) abdicates after the death of their father, the unwilling Prince Albert is forced to take his brother’s place. Albert’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) is equally unwilling to take up residence in Buckingham Palace. Also, the King is expected to make live speeches over the radio, another problem arises – Albert has a severe stuttering problem, and renders him virtually incapable of public speaking. In an attempt to rid himself of this speech impediment, he seeks out Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech therapist harking from Australia and is known for his unorthodox (but effective) methods. The importance of overcoming his stutter is increased when the world is on the brink of descending into another World War, and Albert has to inspire and lead his people into war.
Review: The synopsis for The King’s Speech may make it out to be a stuffy, boring biopic, but the end result is anything but. In fact, The King’s Speech is likely to be one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences in 2011, with an accessible, fascinating storyline (and a true one, at that), and some of the best ensemble acting I have seen in years. All the acting award nominations and accolades that the cast have received so far this awards season are truly deserving. Coupled with the polished, rousing screenplay and the assured direction of Tom Hooper, and it’s easy to see why The King’s Speech will end up as one of the best films in 2011 despite its early release date.
There’s no denying that Colin Firth is an excellent actor, and in The King’s Speech he gives a performance that mirrors Helen Mirren’s equally brilliant turn as Queen Elizabeth in The Queen. Firth completely immerses himself in the role, effectively transforming into Prince Albert, and easily becomes the emotional centre of the movie. It’s not easy acting out a convincing stutter, but Firth more or less nails it. Colin Firth deserves not just his Oscar nomination, but the win itself.
Geoffrey Rush has the unenviable task of being cast opposite Firth as his foil, but Rush more than holds his own with a equally good performance as the quirky speech therapist who doesn’t quite know how to deal with a “celebrity client” like Prince Albert. Helena Bonham Carter is delightful in her small number of scenes, and the added bonus is that both these supporting actors have very good chemistry with Firth. Even the minor characters are rather impressive – Timothy Spall does a pretty convincing interpretation of Winston Churchill, and Michael Gambon exudes a regal air as King George V, amongst others. Fans of the Pride and Prejudice mini-series that made Colin Firth a household name would also be pleased to note that Jennifer Ehle, his co-star in the series, also shares screen time with him in The King’s Speech as Lionel’s wife (this is their first collaboration since P&P).
The final scene of the movie, which revolves around the delivery of the titular speech, is a stellar example of top-notch filmmaking – the environment is sparsely adorned both visually and aurally, and only the two performers, Rush and Firth, factor into the scene. Hooper leads the audience into focusing on the back-and-forth that occurs between the two actors during the delivery of the speech, and when it concludes, it’s almost impossible to not feel a sense of exhilaration at what had just transpired. There’s no fancy camerawork, no visual trickery, and definitely no 3D – The King’s Speech harkens back to a time where films are taken solely on their core merits and not the pointless frills, and this it does very, very well.
Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)