Following up Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) was always going to be a tough prospect for director Zhang Yimou, having proved himself adept at capturing majestic martial arts fighting to go with his lush visual style and twisted personal histories. Here he focuses on the 10th Century Tang Dynasty in China as Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat) returns to his palace in the Forbidden City to a plot to force his abdication.
Close To Home is a very accomplished debut full-length feature from Israeli directors Dalia Hagar and Vidi Bilu. Coming out of their own experiences the pair have crafted a personal tale around the relationship two young women, however, this is not just about friendship or growing up — the film follows the women through their compulsory military service: this is a film which takes a personal route to touch on both individual and also more wider issues, though steering carefully clear of any preaching.
“Everybody has a secret. What’s yours?” asks the tagline for the new film from Bobcat Goldthwait (best known to the world for his classic display as Zed in the Police Academy franchise), Sleeping Dogs. The film is a cheeky and slightly twisted romantic comedy, breathing new life into a much trodden and often rubbish genre.
After the Wedding was nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Academy Award but lost out, alongside the hotly-tipped Pan’s Labyrinth, to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others. This winner was a bit of a surprise to some of us in the UK, although probably just because it was only Pan’s Labyrinth which had played here and as that was an undoubtedly impressive film it seemed a strong bet. However, the category was generally pretty strong throughout, with Deepa Mehta’s Water and the French/North African WWII drama Days of Glory also both recieving much positive press; and After the Wedding from director Susanne Bier, is accordingly a worthy nominee.
Frostbite is the first feature from Swedish director Anders Banke and pits horror against comedy within a narrative pitting a seemingly dull northern town’s folk against a band of fierce vampires. Frostbite takes place in Swedish lapland, the land of the polar night, where there’s a whole month to wait until sunrise — the perfect dwelling zone then for creatures of darkness.
Why do so many thrillers have to build up so well only to throw in the towel at the very end and feel the need to resort to stupid plot twists? Previous outer space thrillers Red Planet (Antony Hoffman, 2000) and Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma, 2000) are prime culprits but there are countless others I don’t even want to think about. Thankfully Sunshine doesn’t suffer quite the same dire fate as those mentioned but it is a space thriller that verges on greatness before pulling the rug out on itself in search of a dramatic climax.
The euphoria of turtlemania now just a distant memory from the early 1990s, those heroes in a half shell are back on the big screen boasting a new look and fan base. Gone are the rubber suits and real actors to be replaced by a hip CGI look that gives this series reboot a more accomplished look. Sadly the charm has also been sucked dry in what is at best an exercise in advertising for ancillary markets and surely numerous sequels.
When 300 Spartans confronted an advancing Persian army of tens of thousands in 480BC, it became a legendary battle. Despite overwhelming odds, the few fended off the many for three days and, with their extreme strength and courage, secured their place in history. 300 captures the story as a bloody and violent conflict laced with lashings of style aided by CGI backgrounds and enough six packs for the whole of England to get drunk.
Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was one of the films of 2004, it’s surreal moments as Jim Carrey’s mind had Kate Winslet deleted from it providing startling imagery fuelled by a director’s imagination hard at work. To follow it up, Gondry has produced another uncanny and tremendously amusing story featuring spurned lovers, enabling him to enter the dreamy mind of Stephane Miroux (Gael Garcia Bernal) — a creative thinker caught between fantasy and reality.
If riding a burning motorbike as a flaming skeleton dressed in leathers sounds cool, you can be envious of Nicolas Cage doing just that in Ghost Rider. But any envy is burnt away to despair when this un-engaging attempt at starting a franchise misfires with bland acting and non-event set pieces.
After the incredible success of 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright had audiences and critics waiting with bated breath and high expectations. And so arrives Hot Fuzz, with the team this time turning their attention to the action genre and, unsurprisingly bearing in mind the closeness of the Pegg/Frost friendship, the buddy-cop film. As with the previous effort though this is not just a parody and there’s no straight piss-taking, instead it’s a carefully crafted homage, celebrating as well as hamming up the conventions of films obviously held dearly, though with at least a vaguely wry smile, by the filmmakers.
Jon Heder, eh? The Napoleon Dynamite (2004) star has been lumbered in uninspiring copycat roles since his breakout success and here’s another one. Despite co-starring Billy Bob Thornton and having Todd ‘Old School’ Phillips at the helm, there was barely even one memorable moment.
Kim Chapiron’s debut feature is an engaging one, no mean feat when considering that the premise is of city folks going to the country only to encounter some unnatural types and situations on the weird and nasty side of normal — a story which has oft been trodden out and, in works like Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972), The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977) and Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971), hit some impressive highs. Chapiron’s tale is obviously influenced by these and the similar yet crafts a modern feature with some distinctive characteristics and impressive twists.
If someone out there has written a thesis or considers themselves an expert in ‘epic movies’, I ask on behalf of film fans everywhere: explain to Friedberg and Seltzer what an ‘epic movie’ really is, because they have no idea. A more accurate title for this would be something like Blockbuster Movie to describe the majority of the spoofs here, or Epicly Bad Movie to describe its (lack of) quality.
A blockbuster action film with a political message, Blood Diamond is the kind of popcorn movie that wants to make you think not just on your way back to the car but also when you visit a jewellers. Its incisive commentary on the African conflict diamond trade blended with fast-paced chases, shoot-outs and a high level of mistrust ensure you are entertained as well as educated.
Are barriers of language and nationality forcing us all apart and making us disconnected from others? Acclaimed Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu believes we are with Babel, inspired by the Biblical tale of the Tower of Babel which was built by mankind seeking to reach unto Heaven. Angering God, he destroyed the tower and forced us to speak different languages — ultimately scattering us across the planet. Inarritu wants us to see the confusion caused the lack of cross-cultural understanding and does so in a heartbreaking yet frustrating fusion of four narratives.
Kelly Reichardt’s award winner and festival favourite Old Joy is a triumph of minimalism, a near sublime amble into a relationship between two old friends via the gorgeous surroundings of Oregon’s Cascade mountain range. Its bare narrative is presented softly and smoothly, in fact the film is almost an essay on subtlety.
I’m sure you’ve all heard the critics slate The Fountain, suggesting it is writer/director Darren Aronofky’s folly and booing it at the Venice Film Festival world premiere. Harsh reviews may have done irreparable damage to its reputation, yet a more accurate indication to its quality is the 10-minute standing ovation that met it at the close of the public performance at the Venice festival. The Fountain is an exceptional piece of cinema aiming to be true to a vision rather than pander to those unwilling to engage with it on every level.
Neil Burger’s first project since his interesting debut Interview With The Assassin back in 2002 is a artistically directed piece of intrigue and romanticism, bringing, after The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006) magic once agin to the fore of our cinema screens. Based on Stephen Millhauser’s short story, the film is a period piece shot through a period lens — the story taking place in Vienna at the turn of the century and being made to look like that through various filters and effects — soft focuses, sepia tones and irises — sometimes giving a similar feel to John Huston’s literally artistic portrayal of Toulouse Lautrec in turn of the century Paris — Moulin Rouge (1952).
Writing this post-Oscar nominations, you will probably be aware that star Will Smith has scored his second nomination for Best Actor. He first was for an impressive portrait of Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann’s Ali (2001) and is again in line for one of those golden statuettes with The Pursuit of Happyness, a depressing yet uplifting true tale of one man’s bid to break free of a life going nowhere fast and see out a seemingly impossible dream.
Seventeen years ago we all thought Rocky V (John G. Avildsen, 1990) had put the veteran screen fighter out for the count. A lame story about Rocky taking fighter Tommy “Machine” Gunn (Tommy Morrison) under his wing and culminating in a street fight climax was a knock out blow to the franchise. No one thought Rocky would be making a comeback. Yet, to many people’s amazement and the joy of many others, here he is back in the ring for what probably will be the last round.
After the gritty and gripping cop thriller Narc in 2002, writer/director Joe Carnahan was looking like hot property. He was signed onto Mission: Impossible 3, but left due to creative differences with star Tom Cruise to make Smokin’ Aces with full control. I, for one, was relieved he was holding true to his beliefs…until I saw this disjointed and rather self-indulgent sub-Tarantino tosh.
There are more than three million migrant workers living and working in Britain today, in key roles on which our economy depends yet with no rights or protection. Ghosts documents the harrowing experiences many of these face — forced into near-slave labour to fill our supermarket shelves for little reward. Although fictional, it is based on fact and the tragedy of Morecombe Bay when 23 Chinese workers lost their lives cockling in February 2004.
Mel Gibson angered plenty of people when he released The Passion of The Christ back in 2004. It was expected to be a flop by many as not only was it a brutal piece of cinema on a controversial subject, it also relied on subtitles as it was shot in Aramaic and Hebrew. Yet it grossed millions. Even so, eyebrows were raised once when Gibson announced his next directing project would be a foreign-language epic about the Mayan civilization. But this is not another historical lesson; rather it is a blockbuster action film. Placing emphasis once again on visual imagery and human defiance, the links with the Mayan civilisation are just the basis for a kidnap-escape-chase movie. On those terms, it is excellent popcorn fare.
Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, best known for Hollywood action spectaculars such as Robocop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997) as well as the flesh-filled Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995), marks his return to the Netherlands with an intelligent and gripping World War Two drama. Set against the dying months of the war, Black Book is a fast-paced thriller about young Jewish singer Rachel Steinn (Carice van Houten) who joins the Resistance in The Hague after her parents are brutally murdered in front of her. Verhoeven clearly wanted to produce something special after the 23-year wait for him to produce another Dutch film, and the great news is this is one of his most accomplished pieces of work.