Review: Shutter Island

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The Pitch: In their fourth movie together, Scorsese tried to drive DiCaprio to madness.

The Review: Ever go to the freezer for chocolate ice cream, because you think you have luxury chocolate ice cream and it’s one of the best things ever? Except when you look in the freezer, there’s only vanilla. It’s nice and all, but you were really in the mood for chocolate. Well, this similarly promises something for the first half an hour or so, then turns out to be something entirely different, and not as satisfying as what you thought you were getting.

Mind you, what’s here is pretty good. Martin Scorsese is probably the greatest living American director and the class shows in both the direction and the cinematography, with a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere enhancing many of the later scenes.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Leonardo Di Caprio, but he turns in some excellent work here, nuanced and restrained to just the right degree. No-one else has much chance to show range, but there isn’t a false note among the cast.

And when the truth is finally revealed, it turns out to be more chocolate frozen yoghurt – an ending that makes more of what’s gone before and is closer to what you wanted, but still never quite fulfils that original promise.

Why see it at the cinema: Scorsese’s masterful direction and the sharp cinematography, coupled with some very striking images.

The Score: 8/10

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor)

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The Pitch: A conventional murder mystery wrapped in unconventional trappings, with a true 21st century heroine.

The Review: I love Swedish films, it seems. (Not something you would have admitted to in public a few years ago.) But rather than its clichéd reputation, Sweden is now turning out high quality movies with a distinctive slant, and after last year’s Let The Right One In comes a Scandanavian take on a murder mystery.

Things are never quite what they seem for large periods, and that all helps to create a wonderful atmosphere through which the film canters at a satisfying pace for most of its running time. Noomi Rapace is the standout as the brutalised Goth hacker who finds a connection with a disgraced journalist – Morse and Lewis this isn’t.

It’s also fascinating to see the level of detail, with clues painstakingly placed together, and eventually every thread pulled together – which may be the film’s only real shortcoming, as the villain of the piece is uncovered with more than half an hour to go, and an almost Lord Of The Rings level of endings kicks in, with even a spot of globetrotting thrown in.

But a word of warning – this is not a film for the faint hearted, featuring as it does a rather uncompromising rape sequence early on. However, as with much in the film, first impressions are thankfully deceiving and this act is soon turned on his head – we can only hope that the remaining two books in the series, already filmed, manage to maintain this high standard.

Why see it at the cinema: Movies like this need to be supported at the cinema, otherwise the inevitable Hollywood remake and its ilk will end up taking over completely.  Additionally, as the tension ramps up as the film goes on, it’s best seen with a large crowd.

The Score: 9/10

Review: Alice in Wonderland

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The Pitch: Curiouser and curiouser. Less and less curious, and coming straight out of the looking glass at you!

The Review: It’s amazing how long it’s been since Tim Burton made a live action feature film based entirely on an original idea. Some of his efforts of the last decade have been spectacular, and some abysmal. But what he really works best with is a cast of odd characters and licence to allow his imagination to run riot.

Such a disappointment, then, that his Alice turns out to be a homogenised, Disneyfied version of Lewis Carroll’s classic book. Much of the fault lies in the script, which picks up only odd elements of the two Alice books, then builds them around a conventional narrative and uses Alice’s experiences in ‘Underland’ to act as a representation of her underplayed real life dilemmas. It all finishes off with a ‘Lord of the Rings’ style tacked-on ending, and evrything feels too conventional to truly excite.

The characters are all one dimensional, except in the visual sense, but that’s how they’re supposed to be. Mia Wasikowska and Johnny Depp get to add in a few subtle shades, but this is more about the third dimension, and another worrying example of the trend to 3D movies with shallow and unfulfilling storytelling.

Why see it at the cinema: Despite the 3D being largely pointless, it is well done, and currently the only way to see this properly is on a big screen.

The Score: 5/10

Review: Crazy Heart

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The Pitch: Jeff Bridges goes for the Oscar, but does he deserve it for this?

The Review: I have to be honest – I’m about as much of a fan of country music as I am of having pirahnas put down my trousers. So my hope here was always that the movie could stand on its own terms, and allow the music to complement it.

And what is here is a strong character study, centring around former Jeff Bridges’ Bad, who’s in love with a whisky bottle, but now falling for Maggie Gyllenhall’s journalist.

Bridges and Gyllenhall are both excellent, as you’d expect, and Colin Farrell does what he can with a limited role. But this is more about the characters than the story, which is slight and never really rises above TV movie melodrama.

Thankfully, some of the music is actually very good, and helps us to warm to the central pairing. But the best country music comes from pain, like the pain of trouser pirahnas, and there’s maybe not enough here on screen to bring the whole thing together – at least the ending doesn’t quite follow the expected path.

Why see it at the cinema: Bridges does actually manage to hold the screen for the running time, so see him on the biggest one you can.

The Score: 6/10

Review: Exit Through The Gift Shop

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The Pitch: Art meets life meets art, with its good friends sarcasm and irony.

The Review: Banksy is a modern phenomenon. Love him, loathe him or really not care, he is the foremost proponent of the street art movement, and has regularly hit the headlines over the last 10 years.

So after moving into galleries, he’s now taken his work to the cinema, in the form of this documentary – although that may be making too strong a claim to its grasp on the truth. In this film, narrated by Rhys Ifans to add credibility to the story, we hear overlapping stories of Banksy having a film made by him by a French nutjob, and then Banksy making a film about him instead.

And the end result is rather good. By turns thought provoking and highly amusing, the overall effect seems to be to puncture the pomopsity of art, and to question its meaning and very existence at certain levels. But there’s a strong narrative to the structure, setting up some big laughs, and the ‘characters’ are oddly likeable.

The only real remaining question is exactly what’s happening. Is Thierry real? Is he actually Banksy? Maybe that’s missing the point somewhat – and thankfully an answer isn’t required to enjoy what’s on offer.

Why see it at the cinema: To truly appreciate the qualities (or lack thereof) of Thierry’s first film attempt.

The Score: 8/10

Review: The Last Station

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The Pitch: Old man with long beard writes longer books, shouts at wife and rides trains.

The Review: Right, then. An adaptation about the last year of the life of the man who wrote War and Peace, filled with some heavyweight actors and all set in picture-book scenery that wouldn’t look out of place in a Jane Austen adaptation. Sounds delightful.

Wait! Come back! This is quite good, and not what you’d expect at all. Turns out Tolstoy, here warmly filled in by Christopher Plummer, wasn’t quite able to live up to his own ideals. So he gets to have some fun, and so do we.

But any movie that picks up two Academy Award noms for acting is, sooner or later, going to pile on the big acting scenes, and this doesn’t disappoint. Plummer and Mirren are both excellent, and McAvoy and Giamatti give deftly pitched support.

Michael Hoffman keeps things moving expertly, never letting the pace flag, and using the setting to the best advantage, until the station-set finale where all the pieces come together. A life-affirming comment on love and a subtle discussion on principles and morals, in a very enjoyable package.

Why see it at the cinema: To best appreciate the lush visuals and the sense of scale of the station.

The Score: 8/10

Review: Youth in Revolt

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The Pitch: Michael Cera and his super bad imaginary friend.

The Review: Some actors seem to be able to inhabit a wild variety of characters, looking outwardly the same each time but able to change voice, behavioural characteristics and appearance to disappear seamlessly into a role. And then there’s Michael Cera.

Practically a poster boy for mumbling, awkward teens, Cera has the schtick honed to a tee, but in every major movie he’s been in, it’s been the same every time. So there’s no real surprises here when his character is the same kind of frustrated loser that he’s portrayed in everything from Superbad onwards.

So it’s fun to see him cut loose here with a second character, Francois, who gives him a chance to stretch a little. It’s basically the same character with the morals stripped away, and it allows him to have some fun, both with and in the role.

The story is a sort of Junior Fight Club with more flirting than fighting, but it doesn’t always follow the predictable path, and there are a few excellent set pieces. Justin Long sets up a couple of those, and gets to have most fun with his support role. There are some slightly out of place animated interludes that don’t gel as well as they might have, but overall this is a fun ride, worth taking either side of your personality to.

Why see it at the cinema: There are some laugh out loud funny set pieces, so see them in a crowd – you’ll enjoy them more.

The Score: 7/10

Review: Micmacs à tire-larigot

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The Pitch: French oddballs do a Yojimbo with arms manufacturers.

The Review: The first foreign language film I ever saw at the cinema was Jeunet and Caro’s ‘The City Of Lost Children’. Jeunet has had a fascinating career, from the horrors (most of them unintentional) of Alien Resurrection to the charm and sweetness of Amelie. So for me, it’s fascinating to see how far he’s come.

And actually, it’s pretty much full circle. After his adaptation of Life of Pi fell through, he’s gone back to his roots and built a slight confection, full of charm and oddness but light on story or character development.

Another way to think of would be if M.C. Escher and Heath Robinson had co-directed a remake of Ocean’s Eleven, with a French Mr. Bean in the central role. All of the group bring a particular skill to the party, but it’s little more than a collection of set pieces, each one more ingenious than the last.

However, everything is so well constructed it’s hard not to warm to what’s on offer. As long as you don’t have expectations of sweeping narratives or life-changing character arcs, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

Why see it at the cinema: To fully take in the amazing level of background detail normally reserved for Pixar animations.

The Score: 7/10

Review: The Lovely Bones

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The Pitch: Peter Jackson finds a slightly smaller fantasy book to get his teeth into, this time with darker undertones.

The Review: Sometimes on paper, a director and an adaptation seem a natural fit. Here’s a novel, with fantasy elements but grounded in reality, requiring both a deft touch with actors and material, and also the ability to marshal special effects effectively and blend them into the story. Peter Jackson, anyone? Surely the man who gave us the Lord of the Rings movies and Heavenly Creatures can pull this off?

Sadly, no. There are some incredibly effective passages here, in particular the scenes just before and after the murder, and also scenes heavily spoiled in the trailer where Susie’s sister goes looking for evidence, and Jackson ramps up the tension like a master.

In addition, the acting is first rate all round – some have more to do than others, but those with the big scenes deliver every time. Stanley Tucci is the obvious standout, but Rachel Weisz and Saoirse Ronan also get moments to shine.

But the whole overall is less than the sum of its parts. For the large part, it feels like Suzie has the occasional nightmare while waiting at an amazing amusement part before going on holiday, rather than being stuck in a purgatorial dilemma. Pacing in the middle act also suffers badly, and by the end you’re left feeling largely unsatisfied. A shame.

Why see it at the cinema: The afterlife sequences are undeniably visually impressive, and the tense chase scenes will benefit from the collective experience.

The Score: 6/10

Review: The Crazies

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The Pitch: Small Town In Iowa Of The Dead.

The Review: Ever since Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later, there’s been a renaissance in zombie movies and other similar horror movies. So is there anything left to offer to the zombie-type horror movie?

Well yes, but not a huge amount. Remaking movies that you’ve not heard of is probably better than a dodgy remake of a classic, but there’s only glimmers of new ideas here – some of the best moments have not only been used in other recent movies, but sometimes get a repeat airing within the running time of this movie.

Most of the characters are cyphers, but you’re still left occasionally guessing as to who will make it out alive. Sadly, some gaping holes in the logic undermine what momentum the movie has built up, and by the end some occasionally effective moments are all that linger, rather than the film itself.

Why see it at the cinema: Horror films are always better when they get the benefit of the collective shock experience, and this is no exception.

The Score: 5/10