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Olympus Has Fallen - Film Review

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Modern cinema revels so frequently in destruction and chaos that it is extraordinary that a film as unambitious and appalling as Olympus Has Fallen can surprise you in the way that it fetishises big guns, explosions, high body counts and the demolition of various American monuments. Mindless blockbusters like this sell to teenage boys on the promise of more explosions and less brains. This is more disturbing considering how long the film lingers over people blown to bits and buildings destroyed. Derivative and poorly scripted, Olympus Has Fallen will put you to sleep with its sluggish pacing and relentlessly dull action scenes, or make your skin crawl with its chest-beating and laughable celebration of all things born in good old USA.

The director was Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter), who has a long history as a music video artist. He directed the music video for the song Gangsta's Paradise by rapper Coolio and worked with Prince and Stevie Wonder too. Here he has paired with novice screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikit to make a rip-off of the popular Clint Eastwood vehicle In the Line of Fire. Eastwood played an ageing secret service agent, whose inner demon was that he failed to save John F. Kennedy, and a lunatic stalking him was going to murder the new President. The film excelled because of the limited physicality of its central character and the suggestion of murder instead of outright gunfire. Where's the tension in Olympus when the main character is bulletproof, fall proof and endlessly resourceful, able to pummel goons with a statue of Honest Abe?

Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is a Secret Service guard of the American President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), who is devastated when he fails to save the President's wife in a car accident. Eighteen months later, Mike is now working in the Treasury Department near the White House. Asher is holding a meeting with the President of South Korea, but they are ambushed by Korean soldiers and a traitorous secret service officer and taken hostage in the underground bunker of the White House. North Korean terrorist Kang (Rick Yune) demands that the President's staff (including Melissa Leo) handover the three codes to the USA's nuclear weapons and withdraw their soldiers from the DMZ area. Mike tries to infiltrate the building, rescue Asher's son Connor (Finley Jacobsen) and then the President. He conferences with acting President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), and assures his partner Leah (Radha Mitchell) of his wellbeing. 

A potentially chilling and timely premise of the threat of North Korea is handled amateurishly by Fuqua. The opening scenes between Asher and his son in Camp David substitute characterisation for cheery mawkishness, and the bombastic, over the top attack on the White House lacks important narrative details. Who knew that it was so comfortable to enter US airspace with fighter-bombers? I found the fear mongering and jingoism in this overlong sequence as repelling as the body count. Asian terrorists pop out of nowhere, either wearing suicide bombs or firing rocket launchers. Few films in recent memory have been as profoundly racist and geocentric as this.

The action sequences that follow hinge on cheap patriotic sentiment, including an unintentionally comical image of an American flag falling in slow motion, but without any deeper themes or meaning, they become boring and repetitive. The violence is incredibly sadistic, including one unwatchable beating, or blurred because of the incoherence of Fuqua's overwrought handheld cameras and dim lighting. One interesting technical feat was that the film was shot in Louisiana not Washington and 1300 special effects shots, along with sets, were used to recreate the White House and other stunts.

However, it is still disturbing that the people involved with this dreck view it seriously and as ideologically significant. In an interview Gerard Butler, who also produced the film, endorsed its overt patriotism: "You come out of there with so much patriotism and you feel inspired because really at the end of the day the essence of the story, it's a hero's journey." Patriotism is not an appropriate excuse for demonising other cultures and working as hard as possible to inflate people's fears through post-9/11 jingoism. Films are often divorced from responsibility because they are fictional but where do we draw the line? You can only hope that the people watching this mindless bloodbath will see it for how ridiculous and infantile it is. 

Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os) - Film Review

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French director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) counters a disjointed script with fascinating conceptual details, beautiful images and intense moments of raw acting. Rust and Bone is equally mesmerising as it is clumsy, but that it is ever touching is a result of some skillful albeit undisciplined filmmaking. 

The film's story belongs to Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a hardened man looking for a place to stay with his young son Sam (Armand Verdure). With little money, they house together in the home of Ali's sister Anna (Corinne Masiero). Finding work as a bouncer at a nightclub, Ali breaks up a fight and escorts Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) home.

Stephanie is an orca whale trainer at Marineworld but after a freak accident at a show she is hospitalised and wakes up to find that both her legs have been amputated. Depressed and broken, she calls Ali for assistance and comes to realise that with the rest of her body intact she is still capable of living. Meanwhile, to make money Ali participates in sweaty, unofficial kickboxing matches.

As with Audiard's previous film A Prophet, a gritty prison crime drama, the director contrasts agonising moments of pain and violence with images that are brimming with meaning and beauty. The tone is consistent but there are bumps in the script, written by the director and Thomas Bidegain. The book they've adapted, "Rust and Bone", is by Canadian author Craig Davidson, and is comprised of a number of short stories.

The idea from these stories have been borrowed and developed for a whole new story and the two central characters were also written anew for the screen. Some of the theories of physicality are smart, but the pastiche format of the book is too evident at times. The story structure feels episodic, which leaves powerful images, like Stephanie's reunion with the whale, as singular, isolated moments.

The trajectory of the narrative is often stifled as we wait for new plot points to gain punctuality. An underdeveloped subplot surrounding Ali's security employment for example hinges on a sizeable coincidence to drive the story into its final act.

The film is better as a critique of the way people fail to appreciate their own bodies, until they reach catastrophic event that makes them rethink their physicality.

The tight framing of the characters from the waist up removes any consciousness of the rest of their bodies. This reflects the lack of self-worth in their lives as they are only concerned by primal instincts of survival, like relying on other people to mentally or physically carry them (a pertinent image), or scavenging for food in this downtrodden economic period.

The disunity between belief and the primal thought is shown in two juxtaposing moments. Stephanie is filmed through a long lens, standing alone as the mould for her prosthetic limbs sets. The shot seems isolating but the visibility of her own being reminds her that is she still alive and capable.

The film then cuts to shot Ali sitting down at a computer, with only half his body visible, watching brawls on the internet. It shows the immaturity of his self-preservation in using his body for money and what he calls "fun". In this instance, the combination of theme and content is startlingly articulate.  

Audiard is less confident with romantic sentimentalism. Both characters begin to inspire each other's belief in their own physical capabilities but it's an uneven theme. Ali convinces Stephanie to sleep with him to see if her body is still functional. We know that he is promiscuous so is he just using her? The question lingers.

Less convincing is when Ali claws back into the match when he sees Stephanie walking towards the fighting pitch or when she is hired to become a money handler for the fights, despite seeing the brutality and juvenility. It softens the opportunity for more explosive conflict between the leads.

The actors, as naturalistic as they are, are a little reminiscent of the film. There are flashes of brilliance, including scenes of unprecedented emotional strain. But then there are stretches where Cotillard's reserved performance makes you long for more perpetuated tension and drama. It's an affecting and sometimes beautiful film but you will have to wait for its best moments. 

Why Tomb Raider Failed as a Reboot

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There is a creative strain in both films and gaming where old franchises are being resuscitated and updated to appeal to the modern senses. Arguably, the most successful film reboot of recent years was Batman Begins, directed by Christopher Nolan. Rather than merely redressing what we already knew about Batman, the film gave new insight into why Bruce Wayne transformed himself into a crime fighter and where his moral values stemmed from.

Although working in a separate medium, Crystal Dynamics' cinematic reboot of Tomb Raider is a missed opportunity to offer similar insights into the beginnings of their popular heroine Lara Croft. Rather than critiquing the game's mechanics, I will provide a discourse as to why I believe the story fails to establish Lara's background and personal values and why her psychological transformation is undermined by the conventions of the action genre.

One of the major reasons why Tomb Raider fails as a reboot is because its narrative never justifies itself as one. Consider the opening sequence on the ship the Endurance. The developers rest on the assumption that gamers already know who Lara is, opting to breeze through the introduction without dedicating any time to establishing her history, personality and inner life.  

What sort of person was Lara as a student? What was her relationship to her parents? How did they feel about her going on this expedition? The game is high impatient, skimming past these details so that it never earns the moments to make us care about Lara before putting her in danger.

The game attempts to characterise Lara as a survivor with her voice-over suggesting she looks inside herself for inspiration and drive: "When life flashes before us, we find something. Something that keeps us going." This is true to Bruce Wayne's character whose guilt over his parents' death forwarded his sense for justice. Yet what is the inner motive in Tomb Raider? The game briefly suggests its Lara's guilt for deciding to sail into the storm and being shipwrecked.

However, when the game attempts to draw power from Lara's heritage, lines such as "You're a Croft" are weightless and hollow because in the vacuum of this story we don't know the value of her legacy. Listen to another self-reflection at the end of the game: "I resented my father," Lara says. This revelation rings false because a thread of conflict between Lara and her father is never established consistently throughout the narrative.

Further, what new characteristics do we learn about Lara from this reboot? She's tenacious and brave in saving her friends but aren't those qualities already typical of the character? The thudding moroseness of the games grizzled tone also denies Lara any self-awareness or wit, meaning her personality lacks the charisma and spark of her archrival Nathan Drake, whose comedic energy perfectly matches Uncharted's unique comic book aesthetic.

Beyond her grit and toughness, Lara feels interchangeable, lacking idiosyncrasies to distinguish her from other gaming characters. The simplicity of her personality results from the game's dependency on action, rather than a willingness to explore a psychological transformation. While being strangled, Lara wrestles a pistol free and through a series of button prompts she shoots her attacker dead. This was deemed a significant turning point by the developers, as it's the first person Lara has ever killed.

Yet kills in the game don't form psychological barriers - they're treated as bonuses. Once the player regains control they guide Lara to the next room and shoot another two men dead. "XP" points are earned and can be used to upgrade weapons to find more elaborate ways of killing henchmen, including setting them on fire.

Players who earn enough kills are rewarded in the game's achievement sections with badges titled: "Widowmaker", "Gunslinger", and "Opportunist". Whenever Lara's dialogue grows angrier in tone, the effect is cosmetic. There are no psychological repercussions to her kills, or any insight into how murder affects the person she used to be because her character doesn't exist prior to the Endurance.  

Tomb Raider shouldn't be exclusively criticised for failing as a reboot but it amplifies the disharmony between games and storytelling. Do gamers care about being emotionally attached to who they are controlling? If so, how much playing time are they willing to sacrifice if developers are to dedicate longer stretches to characters and exposition? 

Great storytelling is a result of time management, particularly how much information can be conveyed about a character in only a few scenes. Recently, I've seen an increasing number of Hollywood films sacrificing the opening thirty minutes to dive into the action sooner, rather than developing their characters and their motives.

This leaves a separate, irresolvable question about which medium is imitating who first. Tomb Raider rests in both camps. It wants to be a highly cinematic reboot, ala Batman Begins, but like most games, it doesn't dedicate the time to understand its central character. It leaves Lara functioning more like an avatar than a compelling figure, whose origin roots we can fully invest into.   

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone - Film Review

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Reviewed on March 15th, 2013
Roadshow presents a film directed by Don Scardino
Screenplay by Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley
Story by Jonathan M. Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Tyler Mitchell and Chad Kultgen
Starring: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini, Jim Carrey and Olivia Wilde
Running Time: 100 minutes
Rating: M
Released: March 14th, 2013

What attracted experienced actors Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi and Alan Arkin to such a miserable screenplay? Barely raising a laugh, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is frightfully dull and predictable, the work of four screenwriters and Don Scardino, an experienced TV director. The best they've been able to provide a richly talented cast is a script that has no urgency, no surprises or any memorable jokes. 

Do you remember this story? There are two strands: a shallow, self-absorbed man, who treats people poorly, loses his privileges in life. He comes to realise that he needs to rejuvenate himself, understand how much friendship means to him, and that he can share talent X again.

If you know this story and have already started reaching for the bucket then you don't need to see Burt Wonderstone. It's as though the filmmakers are sharing a private joke in the cynical and contemptuous way the movie purports to being about celebrities reinventing themselves. "New equals value," we're told. This is from a film that gleefully wastes its stars on a story so tired its growing mould.

Carell is Wonderstone, a magician who has been with his stage partner Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) since they were children. Wonderstone is rude, arrogant and a womaniser. He doesn't respect his staff, including Anton and the stage assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde). He also doesn't want to change the same routine he's been performing for years. But the show's numbers are down and the owner of the Vegas casino (James Gandolfini) isn't happy and wants new material. After trying a new stunt, Anton is injured and leaves the partnership.

Meanwhile, radical new magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), who specialises in tricks involving mutilation, begins to steal Burt's spotlight. Having blown all his money, Burt is left to fend on his own. After trying to gather help from Jane, he resorts to performing magic tricks in a retirement home, where he meets his childhood idol, former magician Rance Holloway (Arkin). He urges Burt to regain some of his passion.

Steve Carell is an often brilliant comedian when he strikes the right notes between an Ordinary Joe, deadpan and just plain daft. With his hangdog expressions, he's akin to playing middle-aged men in crisis. He does this very well. But "pompous" and "womaniser" are not words that I would ever associate with him. He's completely miscast, and overplays his hand at making Burt mean-spirited and arrogant. There's no consistency in his acting style either. The forced snootiness disappears once we reach the second of three long acts.

There's really only a skeleton of an old, worn-out story for everyone else to work through here. Characterisation remains achingly thin, with the supporting roles never developed beyond their familiar archetypes: remember the friend, the romance interest, the boss and the rival? Each of these elements feels like it's been punched out by a production line or a marketing committee, especially the romance, where Carell is courting Jane, played by an actress twenty years younger than him.

Director Scardino has worked on television shows like The West Wing, Ed and 30 Rock but his contribution here is lazy. There are poorly written and directed scenes, where characters literally sit down to explain the trajectory of each new act. It's been crafted without a feeling for tension, pacing and most importantly, big laughs. The slapstick gags are dumb and obvious, consisting of people falling over, being shot with a nail gun and various other forms of self-harm. If the movie does have anything to say it is about how long people can survive off the same old shtick. But it's a question of self-interest, tested to embarrassing and unfunny new lows.

Oz the Great and Powerful (3D) - Film Review

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To be clear, Oz the Great and Powerful is not a prequel to the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. It is a precursor to the book by L. Frank Baum, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz". As a children's author Baum wrote 14 books about Oz but he never explored the backstory of the faux-wizard.

It is a relief to say that director Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Spider-Man) has made an origins film about the wizard, where the world of Oz is not only realised in stunning detail but plays host to a richly characterised anti-hero, who like the audience, comes to realise the power of illusion.

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The film is a technical marvel in 3D and overcomes many of the format's shortcomings. Filmmaker and author Lenny Lipton states that stereoscopic cinema (3D imaging), films with the added illusion of depth, is mostly projected using digital projectors and is what he calls 'field-sequential'. He argues that illumination is decreased by fifty percent because the light is divided between both of our eyes.

Further, the polarizer filters in the 3D glasses block the light from the screen so that each eye sees a different image but the lighting is dimmed. A footlambert (fl) is the unit of measurement for illumination and film critic Roger Ebert believes regular film projection offers 15fLs, whereas 3D films only display between three and six foot-lamberts.

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The art design Oz has been meticulously planned to address these issues by brightening the screen and reducing the gloom. Primary colours are well-chosen and employed spectacularly, showcasing plants and vegetation by using red, yellow and green palettes that saturate the frames with colour and light. The widescreen ratio also combines effortlessly with Raimi's formal control to showcase these sumptuous features.

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Watch as the camera crabs sideways while Oz walks with his friends down the yellow brick road. The fluidity of the camera as it drifts across the frame accentuates the spatial width and depth of the world and provides us with enough time to absorb many of these visual treats. Together, the high contrast lighting effects and 3D depths make this an incredibly beautiful film.

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Not all the scenes are shot in colour though. The opening scenes in Kansas, 1905, are photographed in black and white and use a 4:39 box ratio, like the 39 film. These scenes are valuable, establishing Oz's personality as a magician who treats the people around him like they are props in a trick. He lies to women, giving several of them the same music box, and he sees no reason to befriend his assistant Frank (Zac Braff). He doesn't even deem himself as worthy enough to be with Annie (Michelle Williams) either.  

Chased by an unhappy strongman, he jumps into a hot air balloon, unaware of the tornado that will whisk him away to Oz. One of the first people that Oz meets is Theodora (Mila Kunis), a timid and brittle witch, who falls in love with him, telling him that he is a great wizard.  As she leads him to Emerald City, they meet a talking monkey Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), who accompanies them.

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Arriving at the city, Oz is introduced to Theodora's sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who stresses he'll have all the riches he wants once he defeats the white witch Glinda (Michelle Williams again). Oz travels with Finley to find her and they discover a pintsized China Girl (voiced by Joey King), who needs repairing and insists on joining them.

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The film balances precariously on James Franco's performance and his expressive face punctuates every lie and self-serving opportunity of the wizard. Enlivened by Franco's infectious and cheeky comic energy, Oz becomes an unlikely and funny anti-hero, weaseling his way through situations but learning to utilise his powers of deception in clever ways, without drastically changing his personality.

Baum always believed in empowered women and the three witches each feel distinctive in their presence on screen. They're great examples of how efficiently women can be used in modern blockbusters. Michelle Williams, with her face never short of emotion, brings gentleness and sincerity to Glinda, even when she becomes aware of the deception around her.

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Many scenes in the film are accompanied by the power of deception, lies and illumination. Since Baum was against violent resolutions, the battles in this film are unique in their tactics of trickery. The people of Quadling Country can't kill so there's a clever visual scene where scarecrows are dollied across an open field to draw out an army of winged monkeys into a bloodless trap.

Additionally, a projector Oz uses late in the film echoes the very formal features of cinema used to create this extraordinary and beautiful world. Though the film concludes without a bookend to determine whether the Land of Oz is real or a dream, the magic has you believing for this long that it's best not to question the sleight of hand. 

Side Effects - Film Review

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Reviewed on March 1st, 2013 
Roadshow presents a film directed by Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay by Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum
Running Time: 106 minutes
Rating: MA15+
Released: February 28th, 2013

Some of his films have been far more successful than others, but regardless I admire that he is a director who refuses to conform and is willing to take risks. Isn't it concerning then that a filmmaker who can make their own artistic choices in the face of a dominant studio system is now considering retirement or an extensive break? Side Effects wouldn't be a disastrous project to end his career on, but rather a minor footnote that shows glimpses of the director's best qualities.  As a director Steven Soderbergh has enjoyed surprising us. He is one of the most diverse filmmakers working today, having made small independent and highly experimental films, stylish and intelligent thrillers, but also less ambitious production line blockbusters. He understands the technical components of cinema as knowledgably as any filmmaker, opting to trial unique stylistic and formal techniques.

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One of these assets retained here is Soderbergh's ability to direct actors. He draws out two strong lead performances, which both thrive from some gasping moments of tension and drama. But Scott Z. Burns' script has convoluted plot twists and deep strains of credibility that soften the film's impact. 

Emily (Rooney Mara) is a young woman welcoming the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) after a four year stint in prison. He is set free after his involvement with a crime related to insider trading. Emily seems unhappy that Martin is already talking about a new investment deal. Slipping into a depressive state, Emily enters her car and then drives it straight into a brick wall.

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Despite only minor injuries, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) insists on keeping Emily in hospital so that he can treat her depression. When she fails to respond to antidepressants Banks seeks help from Emily's former psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who suggests using an experimental drug named Ablixa. The drug causes Emily to start sleep walking and she enters into some disturbing behavior that has her in trouble with the law. 

Soderbergh has a stylistic repertoire that allows him to construct visual representations of mental illness but also actions devoid of personal intention. "Depression is the inability to construct a future," we're told. Soderbergh's directional choices are highly persuasive of this nihilistic idea, manipulating us through the tight framing the faces of his actors, while simultaneously blurring the backdrops around them.

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These close-up shots successfully provide Rooney Mara with the time to express the physicality and twitchy mindset within her character with great conviction. By focusing on the faces on the actors, the thematic implication is that there is nothing but the conflicted emotional headspace of the characters, with Emily withdrawing her personal responsibility by not having control over her emotions, and supposedly any deliberateness in her actions.

As the film's cinematographer, using his alias name Peter Andrews, Soderbergh has also been particular with colour schemes and filters, using them to deconstruct consciousness and intent. Filming within constricted offices spaces and apartments, he relies on white and grey tones and colour desaturation to harnesses the seemingly emotionless state of Emily's mind. She describes herself as having as having a "poisonous fog bank rolling into my mind", and the highly sterilized, bleak look of this film creates a visual artifice, reflecting how removed she appears to be of feelings and consciousness.

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The influence of consciousness is imperative to the narrative's ideology as much as the visual design. It is described as being able to provide context for meaning and actions. Before and after the film's twist, this raises some genuinely interesting questions: without consciousness how can one prove intent? Would Banks for example have treated Emily differently if she wasn't a woman? Is Emily's crime free from conviction because she was sleep walking and therefore unaware of her actions?

The repercussion of these questions is found in the collapse of Jude Law's character and his personal life. The tension is raised as he becomes emotionally fragile, with his marriage collapsing, but also suspicions about his past with another patient. The obsessive characteristics that Jude Law provides show that he is capable of being a believably affected and tormented character actor. Watching him eventually claw back his life and unravel the mystery using his resources and intelligence becomes thrilling in parts.

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However, late in the film the plotting becomes needlessly heavy and the twist which directs the back-end of the film is explained so neatly that I wanted to resist its convenience. Knowing the film's revelation also dilutes the moral complexity of those questions about consciousness and intent in more conventional methods of the thriller genre. But when the performances and the visuals are this rich and brimming with meaning it reminds you of Soderbergh's best qualities as a director. He's capable of better films but he would still be a great loss to this industry. 

The Last Stand - Film Review

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Reviewed on February 18th, 2013
Roadshow presents a film directed by Jee-woon Kim
Screenplay by Andrew Knauer and Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Peter Stormare, Eduardo Noriega, Luis Guzman, Jaimie Alexander, Zach Gilford, Johnny Knoxville and Rodrigo Santoro
Running Time: 107 minutes
Rating: MA15+
Released: February 21st, 2013

If this is Arnold Schwarzenegger's comeback then his best days are behind him. After ending his political career as Governor of California, this is the Austrian's first solo vehicle in ten years: a colossal fizzer that would leave his most adamant fans impatient by the halfway mark. On its first weekend in the US, the film opened at a miserable ninth place, collecting just six million dollars and never looked like improving. How did this happen to one of the most recognised action heroes in movie history?

Age isn't a factor to me. Schwarzenegger is now sixty-five, which might seem like zimmer frame territory for his work, but there are older stars like Clint Eastwood who are still raking in the dollars. Bluntly, Schwarzenegger hasn't made a great film since the Nineties. The Terminator films still rate as the apex of the modern action genre, but the series faded after the second movie. His best films were always boosted by a mixture of humour and technology, and the ability to soften the malice of the violence through one-liners and clever self-parody. However, these are no longer his own idiosyncratic qualities to make him seem unique again.

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The high level of gory violence that marked his early films is now frowned upon by studios because it weakens the bankability and the likelihood of roping in younger demographics. Ideologically, Arnold also belongs in a bygone era too. He is a renowned Republican, who once admired Richard Nixon. His films are similarly ingrained in archaic, conservative values of one man, separate from government, who can save the world. But this culture of Reaganism is dead now and action films, like The Dark Knight, have becomes infinitely more sophisticated in blurring the lines between good and evil.

Nonetheless, The Last Stand is as conservative a film as Schwarzenegger has ever made. He plays Sheriff Ray Owens, who guards the dusty town of Sommerton in Arizona. He's surrounded by a small ground of deputies, which include: Mike (Luis Guzmán), Sarah (Jaimie Alexander) and Jerry (Zach Gilford). They deal with the town's small problems and eccentrics, including Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville), who is a weapons collector and local inmate Frank (Rodrigo Santoro). Ray is also suspicious of a pair of seedy goons that are making their way through the town, one of whom is named Burrell (Peter Stormare).

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Meanwhile in L.A., Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) is a dangerous criminal who has escaped custody. Pursued by Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker), Cortez uses a high powered sports car to elude capture and takes a female agent hostage. He plans on crossing the Mexican border via a bridge through Sommerton. Ray and his team have to prepare for a surge by Cortez and his mini army of highly powered thugs, who are looking for a clear exit route.

There are vague strands of a Western here, with Schwarzenegger playing the role of an honest lawman, who wants to protect his town against the more contemporary city folk. But for a long period the film is terribly lethargic, devoid of energy, and its narrative contains no surprises, lacking a unique story hook or concept. Korean director Jee-woon Kim's also makes the fatal flaw of relegating the film's megastar to the backseat. Too much time is spent with Cortez's sports car, a painfully indiscreet vehicle for someone evading the law, and having the side characters dominate the action scenes.

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Arnold only becomes involved in the second half but few of the stunts seem to test his ageing joints. His first big action scenes, firing a shotgun from a truck and unloading a Gatling gun from the back of a school bus, both have him sitting stationary. His character is also caught between two conflicting tones. In the first half there are close-ups of Arnold's weathered, stony face, examining his wrinkles and fake tan, as he fires off lines like: "I've seen enough blood and death. I know what's coming."

But late in the film, Kim also tests his hand with slapstick comedy and then fetishising those high powered weapons. It doesn't gel and Kim's choppy visual style leaves the action cold too. The only distinct set pieces are the two climaxes: one in a cornfield with hidden cars and then a clumsily staged and embarrassing showdown on a bridge. This over-edited fistfight combines the worst of Lethal Weapon and World Wrestling, on top of a cringing, conservative message about keeping illegal immigrants at bay.

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Perhaps with all that gunfire though, Arnold's film didn't fail because it was dated. Instead, maybe his most lead-heavy films, especially this one, are a sad reminder of those real would-be cowboys today, who'd like to look down the scope of their guns and say: "I'm the sheriff."

West of Memphis - Film Review

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West of Memphis is a documentary of such clarity and precision that its findings will leave you rattled by a heinous crime but also convinced by how methodically researched and argued it is. This is a powerful example of how cinema can be used as an expression of fact and director Amy Berg utilises this strength to persuade and then allow you to draw your own conclusions about the tragic case.

With a story that reads like a Hollywood thriller, and one that has been embraced by celebrities in several different ways, there are numerous facets to the tragedy that are examined in great detail. Although the case has been covered between three HBO films called Paradise Lost, this is one single film that reflects on the police corruption, sensationalism and the way that minorities and people of low economic status are discriminated against.

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The film documents a terrible crime in the city of Memphis in 1993, where three boys were found dead. Their bodies were also mutilated and this was said to be part of a satanic ritual. The satanic element of the crime led the police to arrest three teenagers who became known as the West Memphis Three.

Damien Echols' interest in dark magic made him an easy target for the police and was sentenced to death. The other two boys were Jessie Misskelley, Jr., who people said was mentally handicapped, and Jason Baldwin, whose brave decision would affect the lives of the other as much as his own. These two were both given life sentences. The boys would spend eighteen years in prison, but due to the efforts of people fighting for their innocence they were able to enter a complicated plea asserting their innocence but acknowledging the states guilty ruling too. They were released from prison the very same day.

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The documentary is insightful towards the inconsistencies of policing methods and the evidence used to convict the teens. Police interview recordings show how they interrogated rather than interviewed the boys and then coached the confessions from them, drawing the answers they wanted to hear. Years later, witnesses also admitted to lying and changing their stories too. Another important lapse is the discovery of the murder weapon, the knife. Its location was predetermined so early that the media was alerted before it was found. The markings on the bodies are also said to be from an animal like a turtle, not the knife.

A crucial turning point in the documentary is when the film argues persistently about the suspicion of Terry Hobbs. He was the stepfather of one of the victims, Stevie Edward Branch. Venturing onto Hobbs' own personal blog, he is still adamant that there is only speculation about the murders, citing an article from the father of one of the boys, who revokes the claims made against Hobbs. I wonder what the father will make of this film. It covers Hobbs' own violent history, including domestic assault, as well as his constant passivity towards questions over his flawed alibi. By the end of the film I was certain he was guilty.

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Numerous famous people also believed in the innocence of these teens too, the most prominent of which is filmmaker Peter Jackson. He helped arrange for sophisticated legal aids to be brought in and to reassess the case. Other celebrities like Johnny Depp and various singers addressed the issue. It is also interesting to note how this story is being addressed by Hollywood too in a feature film.

It's not hard to see why. The crux of this story could be read as a feel good story about bravery and the determination for the truth. But it is also a sad story about damaged relationships, including Hobbs' own daughter Amanda, who had a fractured life. While in gaol, Damien started a relationship with Lorri Davis from the outside. She supplied him with books and they decided to wed before he was free. 

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Furthermore, the film is also an examination of the impulsiveness of small, insulated communities to demand answers, whether they are accurate or not. One man interviewed states: "The community was relieved to have someone behind bars. They didn't have to be scared anymore". I hope these layers, along with the fear of the unknown and religious fanaticism, aren't lost in the fictional adaptation.

It is difficult to state what makes the documentary so compelling. The true story speaks for itself: it's embedded in many complex twists and examples corruption and the failure of the justice system. But it is the coherency of the material, the clarity of the filmmaker's arguments, including how this content is presented through techniques like juxtaposition, which casts this as a thoroughly researched piece. It supplies two of the most important staples of any documentary: it informs and convinces.

Lincoln - Film Review

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Reviewed on February 4th, 2013
Fox 
presents a film directed by Steven Spielberg 
Screenplay by Tony Kushner, based on the book 'Team of Rivals' by Doris Kearns Goodwin 
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader and John Hawkes
Running Time: 150 minutes
Rating: M
Released: February 7th, 2013

Are films too conveniently timed to coincide with contemporary moments or do they force us to address the unwanted memories and atrocities of the past? To this day, America struggles to address its racial history, determined to shield itself from its ugly and divided past, particularly in pop culture. Only two years ago an edition of Mark Twain's novel "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1884) was published replacing the word n**ger with "slave".

The same attitude applies in Hollywood. Director Spike Lee declared he wouldn't view Quentin Tarantino's slave-Western Django Unchained, as it would be insulting to his ancestors. The film has also been criticised for the frequency of the word n**ger too. However, this year Steve McQueen (Shame) will also be releasing a film called Twelve Years a Slave and the frequency of slavery as a film topic could infer that there is genuine interest in exploring the subject as a result of recent America history.   

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Yet despite documenting Abraham Lincoln's efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln isn't concerned with foreshadowing modern history, like Obama's 2008 inauguration. Spielberg bought the rights to Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals" before it was written in the early part of the last decade. The film began development under the Bush administration and Spielberg stated in an interview with the ABC: "It's not about America today, but it has tremendous repercussions looking back about what America could be today under the right leadership".

Spielberg is deemed one of the most iconic Hollywood filmmakers since Frank Capra. Through cinema he has recreated some of the most important historical events of the last century, including the Holocaust (Schindler's List) and the Invasion of Normandy (Saving Private Ryan). He is a great fit for this material but like Capra, he is susceptible to over sentimentalising his most work, as was the case recently with War Horse (2011).

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Through their films both directors have shared a vision of America becoming an idealised land of equality. For Spielberg, this stemmed from childhood as he was tormented for being Jewish and admitted to being embarrassed by his heritage. After 9/11, the way that the Bush administration shattered relations with the Middle East stung Spielberg's American Dream.

Hence, Lincoln is a film concerned by the need for great leadership and social equality, though at the expense of bending the political and legal rules. The haunting image of a pile of amputated limbs, thrown into a ditch, visualises the film's moral dilemma and poses a question to the War on Terror itself: in times of conflict, how long can a political party withhold change before engaging with social reform?  

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Following his re-election, President Lincoln (a magnificent, chameleon performance by Daniel Day-Lewis) faces pressure to end the Civil War and abolish slavery. Yet he is reminded by his staff, including William Seward (David Strathairn), that ending the war before the vote will mean there is no reason to emancipate slavery: "It's either the amendment or this confederate peace, you cannot have both." Lincoln is also urged by wife Mary-Todd (Sally Field) to end the war because their eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is determined to enlist in the army. Lincoln requires twenty votes to pass the motion, including votes from the Democratic Party, and enlists some men (John Hawkes, James Spader) to offer jobs as bribes to those who will support the vote.

What's surprising about the film is that despite encompassing many of Spielberg's staples, the lost child, an anti-war message and social and racial equality, it is without the director's usual preachiness and cinematic gaudiness. The narrative is conventionally structured but resembles a play rather than an epic. The screenplay by playwright Tony Kusher (Angels in America) gives the film and its backroom drama well researched and highly colourful conversations to work through. I did find some of the political terminology, combined with Early Modern English ("buzzard's guts!" "water closet"), to be intimidating at times though. 

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Buoying the film past these challenging moments is the amount of humour and wit. There are hilarious conversations and anecdotes in the film, which are respected by Spielberg's restrained direction. The colours are gloomy and drab and the camerawork is sparse. The film is mostly compromised of men talking in rooms and the containment of these scenes is a reminder of, for better or worse, where leadership begins and ends. Relying heavily on the charisma of the cast is an intelligent move by Spielberg as no one here is anything less than convincing. Tommy Lee Jones is hugely enjoyable in a highly theatrical turn as Thaddeus Stevens, whose public image and values are tested as he momentarily suppresses his passion and fierceness to help his party secure the vote.

One of the few cinematic moments is an opening scene where we see the abstract images from Lincoln's dream about a ship. He later says in the film: "We're whalers!" This reflects the same themes equal to Herman Melville's novel "Moby-Dick" (1851): a Manifest Destiny and the impossible search for equality. Spielberg and Lincoln therefore share a collective and optimistic dream for America, but the director resists lingering over the film's contemporary relevance. His film and its necessity for leadership achieves an applicability that extends far beyond what has happened in the last four years of American history and surges deep into an uncertain future.  

Zero Dark Thirty - Film Review

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Reviewed on January 28th, 2013
Icon presents a film directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay by Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke and Mark Strong
Running Time: 157 minutes
Rating: M
Released: January 31st, 2013


In his book "What is Cinema?" film theorist André Bazin stated: "But realism in art can only be achieved in one way - through artifice. Every form of aesthetic must necessarily choose between what is worth preserving and what should be discarded, and what should not even be considered." Realism in cinema is therefore determined by an audio-visual language that differs from real life. Any compression or fragmentations of events are a result of the limitations of the time, space and technique of the screen. A filmmaker is responsible for selecting these techniques within the frame of the narrative.

Looking to cinematise the lead up and execution of Operation Neptune Spear, the hunt and assassination of Osama Bin Laden, Kathryn Bigelow and journalist turned screenwriter Mark Boal compress facts and timelines and omit significant figures from this decade-long search. However, the film moves through a decade long period with such ease that the realism is never compromised. It sidesteps Hollywood clichés and sentimentality as comfortably as few others have done before it. Boal's script is clear of tragic back stories, its character development is quietly stated and its moral compass, if there is one, lingers under the film's surface.

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The film has been described as being in the tradition of "New Journalism": a method of journalism that adds subjectivity rather than an objective perspective to the facts. It is an appropriate means of describing the film because even as it condenses multiple real world terrorist attacks over the years, from 9/11 to a bombing in London, the impact is still extremely shattering to the audience and its characters. The attacks grow increasingly personal to the film's lead subject Maya (Jessica Chastain at her most intense and emotive), a CIA operative who spends over a decade looking for clues on the whereabouts of Bin Laden.

Contributing to the film's authenticity, Zero Dark Thirty makes fewer concessions than Bigelow's previous film The Hurt Locker (2009), which to avoid any political waves, was purposely coy on its subject of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This uncompromising nature is immediate from early scenes where torture is used to extract information from a prisoner. Both Democrats and Republicans alike have been publicly critical of the film, deeming the use of enhanced torture techniques to track Bin Laden is inaccurate and that the film praises torture an effective means of investigation.

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This is a misjudgement and hypocritical given the extensive amount of research assistance by the CIA, the Department of Defense and the White House, who provided extensive interviews and documents about the operation. The interrogation scenes are, as they should be, ugly and difficult to watch. A man is strung up by his wrists, punched, stripped down and shoved into a box. His answers are varied, unclear and unhelpful. We see the stress that these moments place on the interrogator (played by Jason Clarke). It is difficult work and impractical compared to other advanced techniques, like aerial surveillance. An important subtextual development is how these techniques are gradually being phased out, which is true given the closure of the black list sites and the outlaw of enhanced torture techniques.

If the film does have a message my interpretation is that it is, in many ways, a film about how vacant revenge and obsession can be. Maya's entrance to the film is through one of these horrific interrogations, which she is not mentally prepared to engage. A deep focus shot of the room frames Maya in the background. The shot shows her isolated from the action, true to her inexperience, and her face conveys great discomfort in watching the interrogation unfold. She arrives in a dark suit, unideal for waterboarding prisoners, and when asked to participate she is clumsy in handling the situation.

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Yet her inexperience also provides compelling movement in Boal's screenplay. As the terrorist attacks mount over the years and the deaths become more personal, Maya's viridity is dissolved and replaced with increasingly determined anger. This change is also complimented by through the costumes, as Maya's clothes become more combat-like, and her dialogue which grows more sadistic: "I'm going to smoke everyone involved in this op and then I'm going to kill Bin Laden". These fascist undertones, also echoed by Mark Strong as the head of Counter Terrorism at the CIA, are dispelled by how tactful much of the film is, particularly the meticulous and intense raid on the compound.

Like The Hurt Locker, the film isn't politically right or left. Once the breathless mission is over and the objective is 'won' the film obtains a brief but powerful feeling of melancholy. There are no 'hooahs' or flag waving. Maya's tears are not ones of joy or relief but unfulfillment. In a single close-up shot, her face reflects the hollow aftermath of conquering our enemies, and I think, the ambiguity around the next chapter of global terrorism. 'Zero Dark Thirty' itself is a military phrase, referring to the early dawn, once darkness has passed. What follows from this moment? It is an unexpected and brave question to end this long but supremely crafted docudrama.