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Punisher: War Zone (2009) Director Lexi Alexander 8 February 2009

Posted by jordanfarley in Cinema Review.
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After two previous stabs at the vigilante justice of Frank Castle (including Dolph Lundgren’s awful 1988 direct to video cheese fest and the far superior but flawed Tom Jane version from 2004) the makers of Punisher: War Zone have finally hit on a satisfactory formula for one of the most violent comic book characters there is.

Ray Stevenson (Rome’s Titus Pullo) plays the former undercover agent who after loosing his family in a mob killing takes justice into his own hands and punishes the guilty. The film forgoes any origin story to get straight into the action and boy does it start with a bang. War Zone contains some of the most vicious and gory deaths I have ever seen. Bones break in their hundreds and bullets fly in their thousands with suitably copious amounts of the red stuff. The purpose of all this violence? After accidentally killing an undercover FBI agent Frank vows to walk away from his line of work suffering from the guilt of leaving a mother and child fatherless. But when it turns out that the mobster the undercover agent was working for Billy Russoti is after the mother and child Castle takes action to protect them. The problem is Castle already killed Russoti once, at least he though he did when Castle put him through a glass smashing machine. Turns out he didn’t die but the experience completely destroyed Russoti’s face and now re-born Jigsaw he’s out for revenge.

The plot, like in most films of this kind, is largely inconsequential and a means for us to move from one action scene to the next, and in that respect the screenplay for War Zone does its job beautifully. Castle, like in the Tom Jane version, is a difficult character to sympathise with. We like him purely because he is tough and (mostly) does the right thing, dealing out real justice to the bad guys. But the fact he is largely silent and has to do little more than look moody and fight means it can feel like there’s little to grab onto at times, though Stevenson does well with what he’s got and makes a convincing killing machine when fully fitted out in the Punisher garb.

Dominic West plays Jigsaw in a suitably over the top manner befitting a comic book villain, but one can’t help feel but underwhelmed by such simple characters after Heath Ledger’s multi faceted portrayal of the definitive comic book villain. The rest of War Zone’s cast generally ranges from bad to worse with the long lost Wayne Knight in the thankless role of Castle’s arms/tech supplier micro, a terrible Dash Mihok as nervy head of the police’s Punisher task force Martin Soap and fellow brit Colin Salmon once again sporting his bizarre American accent. Worst of all however is an actor I hate so irrationally that it threatens to destroy any positive feelings towards films I see him in and that’s Doug Hutchinson. I won’t go into it here but he’s almost unwatchable as Loony Bin Jim (cause he’s a nutter you see), a horribly cliched psychotic character who has somehow developed acrobatic abilities rivalling the world’s best gymnasts despite being locked in a mental home for what must be a significant amount of time.

Where the film really shines is in its tone. It’s got the feel of the world just about right (although that’s coming from someone who’s read very little Punisher in the past). There are some moments of dark humour which feel a little out of place but this is mostly the ultra-violent revenge fest we were all hoping the first one would be. Some of the kills defy belief. Literally punching someones face in, check, exploding heads, check, impalement, check, it’s all here and then some. If you like your films violent and loud you will love this. It’s also refreshing to see a character who makes almost entirely rational decisions (ie. rational being the decisions I would have made in the same situation) even if they aren’t the ones that fit the cliche of the anti hero.

The film failed to light up the box office in America but director Lexi Alexander’s neon saturated Punisher is a much better version of the character’s story than the oddly toned, overacted and underwhelming Tom Jane version, at least they manage to set this one mostly at night time. The most enjoyable movie of the year so far. Not brilliant by any stretch of the imagination but a film I would gladly watch again.

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2009) Director David Fincher 8 February 2009

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I have been awaiting Benjamin Button for some time now with equal parts anticipation and trepidation. Anticipation for the arrival of another David Fincher film in cinemas and trepidation because it looked like such a radical departure from his previous dark, edgy masterpieces. There was one thing we all knew for sure that Benjamin Button would be and that was beautiful, but does this tale of a man aging backwards live up to Fincher’s formidable talents? Unfortunately no.

The story itself is loosely based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story in which the eponymous Benjamin is born an old man (though the size of a baby, which doesn’t make sense within the film’s logic where Benjamin getting younger and thus smaller) and gradually gets younger, fitter and more handsome. While those around him suffer from the effects of a worn out body Benjamin gets that out of the way in the first few decades of his life rather than the last. To paraphrase Fincher the film presents the audience with the unexceptional life of an extraordinary man, and it is perhaps this which is Benjamin Button’s biggest failing.

The plot itself, for such a fantastic conceit is surprisingly dull. Very little of interest happens throughout the course of Benjamin’s life. Of course one could argue that just because Button doesn’t take a Forrest Gumpesque tour through all the major historical events of his lifetime doesn’t mean the ‘normal’ events of his life are inconsequential (they certainly aren’t), but I had a very real sense of ‘so what’ for much of Benjamin Button’s mammoth screen time. In fact the highlight of the film for me came at the time of Benjamin’s death as a young child. Horrifying, upsetting and genuinely affecting it’s bizarre to say that the death of the main character is the best part of a film but Fincher handles dark so much better than twee and saccharine that it’s hardly surprising.

The easiest way to sum up the film is as a much better looking but duller Forrest Gump. The two films share a screenwriter in Eric Roth and the similarities are obvious even down to the catch phrases of the two films ‘you never know what you’re gonna get’ and ‘you never know what’s coming for ya’. It’s not a real problem but you will get a serious case of deja vu throughout Benjamin Button.

The large cast all do a pretty sterling job with what they’ve got. The two leads Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett do as much as one would expect from actors of their calibre, but no more. It’s also questionable how much of the performance can be labelled Pitt’s as other actors portray old man Benjamin (with Pitt’s face digitally transposed completely convincingly on top) for a great deal of the film’s run time. Taraji P. Henson also stands out as Benjamin’s adoptive mother Queenie, though the strong black New Orleans mother figure is a character we have seen countless times before.

Where the film really shines however is in its technical execution. Fincher has done some of the best work of his career here. There’s not a shot in the entire 166 minute running time that isn’t beautiful to look at. The visual effects are nigh on perfect for how complicated they must have been (though there are a few dodgy moments and the ‘smoothing’ effect making Pitt and Blanchett look younger still looks as bad as it did in X-men 3 when the technique was used to make Ian Mckellen and Patrick Stewart de-age). The music as well is at times touching but doesn’t really help add any dramatic weight to events or move perceptions on from this being an account of a relatively unexceptional life told in an almost unbearably sweet way.

Fincher then comes off best out of all this. There is no doubt he is one of the most talented film makers working in Hollywood today and after this technical marvel let down by a dull screenplay we all hope he returns to the edgy dark material he is perfectly suited for.

Doubt (2009) Director John Patrick Shanley 8 February 2009

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One thing you don’t hear about Doubt is that director John Patrick Shanley’s last directorial effort was the bizarre Tom Hanks film Joe Versus the Volcano. It’s strange that the man behind one of Tom Hanks’ truly bad films could craft a film of such (apparent) intelligence and maturity but a lot can happen over the course of 19 years.

In Doubt Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius a nun and iron-fisted principal of St. Nicholas Catholic School in the Bronx. Sister Aloysius does not take kindly to the priest, Father Flynn, (the excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his attempts to make the school a friendlier environment for its students. When the suspicions of a young nun, Sister James (Amy Adams) seem to indicate that Father Flynn may have acted inappropriately with a black student Sister Aloysius has all she needs to confront Flynn in a one minded drive to force him to confess guilt.

It will be very clear to even the most casual cinema goer that Doubt is based on a stage play, not just because of the limited confinements of the school, but also because it is a character study which practically sets the screen alight with its electric dialogue and dramatic confrontations between Flynn and Aloysius. The plot itself is also very stagey. It is supposed to be ambiguous as to whether Flynn is guilty or not but it’s quite apparent by the end where the film makers’ sympathies lie. The unfortunate result of this is that the story itself doesn’t really satisfy, but where Doubt really shines is in its performances.

Streep just noses it as the best of the bunch. She has served up very few bad performances in a lengthy career (except Mama Mia of course!) and rightly deserves the title of best of her generation. People have probably lost count by now of how many Oscar nods she’s had over the years and it’s got to the point now where they don’t actually bother giving her that many awards as it’s a given her performance will be among the best in any given year. Here she plays the strict nun to a tee. Admittedly it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before in Black Narcissus or The Magdalene Sisters but Streep seems to elicit so much fear from her co-workers that it’s hard for some of that not to rub off on the audience. She plays the little moments where she lets her guard down well, but big drama is Streep’s forte and it’s in the showdowns with Father Flynn that she impresses most. Her only slip up is unfortunately the horrible final scene where Aloysius’ emotional final speech is likely to elicit laughs rather than tears.

Hoffman, like Streep, never seems to put a foot wrong. One thing you can say for him is that he certainly gives it his all, whoever he is playing, and Father Flynn is one of the best roles of his career so far. It’s unfortunate that he won his Oscar for Capote where an earlier release date seemed to blind everyone to the fact that Toby Jones’ Capote in Infamous was much better, as here he shows the skills of a true craftsman. For much of the film we are left in little doubt that Flynn is a strong figure, a leader of men, strict at times but caring, sympathetic and above all human. Hoffman plays the character brilliantly, he becomes instantly endearing but then again something always feels a little off. He can shout with the best of ’em and again the second battle of words between Flynn and Aloysius proves to be his acting crescendo. If the acting gig falls through it’s also quite clear he could have a lucrative career as a preacher if his ability to give a sermon here is anything to go by.

Saucer eyed Sister James is handled well by Amy Adams who only suffers from being placed alongside two of the best actors in Hollywood today. Adams is perfectly suited to naive, uncertain characters and is probably the character the audience will find themselves sympathising with most as their allegiances are torn between Flynn and Aloysius. Oscar nominated Viola Davis also does well in her short time on screen as the mother of the boy allegedly abused by Father Flynn. It’s a testament to her abilities that we are still able to sympathise with the character after the disgusting stance she takes on what has happened during her discussion with Sister Aloysius.

Shanley does a decent enough job adapting his stage play for the screen though the direction does feel a little overwrought at times. The frequent use of dutch angles (where the camera is put on a tilt) in such a naturally creepy environment, coupled with the downright scary music and sound effects make Doubt feel more like a gothic horror than drama.

Doubt is clearly not a film for everyone. If you like your dramas overblown and your acting as shouty as possible then you’ll no doubt love this but it treads a very fine line between breathtaking and ridiculous, though thankfully for me at least it was more the case of the former.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2009) Director Peter Sollett 5 February 2009

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The movie with the worst title of the month hit screens this week but despite the embarrassing name and the prospect of Michael Cera playing exactly the same character he has in everything so far (from Arrested Development to Juno), Nick and Norah proves to be the perfect antidote to the awards season overdose of self aggrandising ‘important’ films like Milk, Revolutionary Road and The Reader.

Like I said Cera plays Nick (who might as well be called Paulie Bleaker or Evan for all the similarities to those characters) who has been dumped by his long term girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena) and is up to volume 12 of the break up compilation CDs he has been giving her when the film opens. Needless to say heartless Tris puts these CDs straight in the bin where Norah (Kat Dennings from The 40-yr Old Virgin) retrieves them, appreciating Nicks mutual taste in music and falling for him despite never actually having seen him. Nick is a member of a gay band called ‘The Jerk Offs’ and it is at one of their gigs that Nick and Norah are finally pushed together in admittedly tenuous circumstances, but it makes you smile if you go along with the fairy tale fell of it all.

The two of them are out in New York particularly late on this night to try and find cult band Where’s Fluffy? Presumably the equivalent of if The Beatles had played secret gigs back in their heyday. It’s a plot device purely to keep them out on the streets so late (as is the disappearance of Norah’s extremely drunk friend Caroline) but it works. The film is admittedly light on story, the main dramatic tension being whether Nick and Norah will ever get together in spite of their exes (Tris and Jay Baruchel as Tal) clinging on to them for their own selfish reasons. We are never left in any doubt it will all work out, but that’s not the point of these films. Nick and Norah will keep you smiling throughout (apart from a disgusting and misplaced subplot involving a piece of gum that feels more like it belongs in a Farrelly Brothers movie) while its whimsical and quirky style will leave you either in love with New York or with an intense hatred of its ‘hip’ pretenses.

It’s all standard Cera stuff here, quirky, awkward interactions with females and with that bizarre face which looks like a cross between a melon and an orc from Lord of the Rings. Kat Dennings is brilliant as Norah, again playing that social outcast with a heart of gold role really well, especially compared to ice cold and two faced Tris, but I can see people finding her performance irritating and I had a few people tell me they couldn’t stand her constant bitching. The real standouts however are the friends. Rafi Gavron (first seen in the late Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering) is hilarious as Nick’s gay friend Dev and along with Thom and their Beefy friend (his name is reveled late in the film so I won’t spoil it for you) they are perhaps the first non-stereotypical presentation of homosexuals on film I have ever seen. Ari Graynor is also outstanding as Norah’s wasted friend Caroline. Her portrayal of a young girl so much out of it she is no longer aware of where or even who she is is scarily authentic and brought up a lot of good (or should that be bad?) memories.

The film’s quirky style is not going to be to everyone’s taste but what the film does have gong for it is one of the best soundtracks this year. It’s to be expected for a film with ‘playlist‘ in its title but if you are a fan of this kind of music you will be in heaven in Nick and Norah. The songs all perfectly complement the action onscreen, and in most cases give an extra level of depth you certainly wouldn’t have had without. The only problem is if you’re not a particularly big fan of the i-pod generations choice of hip choonage there’s a risk you could spend the vast majority of the film wishing you were in The Reader instead. Needless to say though if you liked Cera’s previous efforts and films like Almost Famous or Empire Records you will love Nick and Norah’s innocent journey into the night. The Cera schtick is getting a little thin now though.

Rachael Getting Married (2009) Director Jonathan Demme 5 February 2009

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Rachael Getting Married is a film that’s not going to appeal to everyone. By putting Anne Hathaway in a movie about marriage you immediately alienate half of your male audience (see also this months reportedly terrible Bride Wars), however Rachael Getting Married is a surprisingly accomplished film for an actress at such an early stage in her career and an undeniably powerful experience for viewers.

Hathaway plays Kym who at the start of the film is released from rehab to attend the wedding of her sister Rachael (Rosemarie DeWitt). Kym is clearly the black sheep of the family and it seems that every conversation she enters into breaks down into an argument, whether it be with her sister who fears Rachaels narcissism will spoil her big day or her father who is more caring and concerned about his daughter than Rachael could possibly hope for, though she only sees it as constant monitoring. There is a history behind the reasons behind Kym entering rehab which is key to the dramatic revelations of the film so I won’t go into them here but it is a sob story which I’m sure I’ve heard in another film somewhere before, but that’s not the point, it’s how these characters cope with facing the demons which they have never fully reconciled which is so affecting.

Hathaway is amazing as Kym. Although I had seen her do serious well in the past (Brokeback Mountain) I wasn’t expecting her performance here to live up to the Oscar nomination. Boy was I wrong. She shows more range in the opening 15 minutes than Winslet does throughout the whole of The Reader (though not as much as Winslet’s performance in Revolutionary Road), starting out as the tough girl, unprepared to listen to those around her, ignoring their heartfelt intentions to help her and perfectly playing the spoilt brat who is upset by the fact that her sister’s wedding is taking the spotlight away from her. Some moments are a little in your face (such as at the rehearsal dinner where Kym’s dislike of her sister’s best friend Emma is shown by pointlessly long shots of her morose face) but there are uncountable moments of pure acting genius such as the confrontation between a distraught Kym and her mother (Debra Winger), and the subsequent breakdown.

The rest of the cast are also very accomplished, there’s not really a duff performance among them (Rosemarie DeWitt and Bill Irwin as the father are particularly good), and although there are a few stilted moments you can almost dismiss them because of the way Demme has chosen to shoot the film. He employs a handheld documentary style which gives the film a well shot home video feel, almost like there should be some people who mess up what they are trying to say or do strange things purely because of circumstance.

My few complaints with the film are that it can feel a little melodramatic at times and certain plot points are left deliberately vague and open ended, no doubt to increase the feel that we are merely observers in this snapshot of a complex life story, but it often serves to confuse rather than intrigue. There are also a number of plot developments which rely on coincidence rather than logical progression which annoy rather than have the impact they are supposed to. The wedding itself is also a very heavy handed multi-cultural affair. It’s obvious the film-makers were trying to make a point by having a mixed race marriage seem perfectly normal (the issue of race is never raised once) but the overlong rehearsal performances of various different cultural dances and music and their performances again at the wedding (which must take up a good 20-30 minutes in total) just annoy rather than impress. These scenes could have easily been cut while still making the same point.

Demme has spent several years in the film making wilderness since his startling success with Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, with a few documentaries and two pretty average remakes of Charade (The Truth About Charlie) and The Manchurian Candidate to his name, but with Rachael Getting Married he is back on his A-game. Undeniably powerful, albeit a little bit heavy handed at times, and with one of the best female lead performances this year, the film is a must see.