Reviews

Winter’s Bone

Debra Granik takes us deep into the Ozark Mountains in Missouri with Winter’s Bone, where  17 year old Ree Dolly struggles to take care of her 12 and 6 year old brother and sister while her father is in jail and her mother is mentally ill. The sheriff tells her that if her father doesn’t show up for his trial, the family will lose their house as it was put down as collateral for bail. Ree then sets off on a  journey to find her father, which proves to be extremely dangerous as she is dragged into a community of violent crystal meth addicted country folk, who are set on scaring her to keep her silent. Her tattoo covered wife beating uncle, Teardrop, won’t help and as she is met with closed doors from aggressive strangers she is forced into extreme actions.

The harsh rural landscape emulates Ree’s struggles in poverty and sets an eery atmosphere for the dramatic events which unfold. We are transported into a bleak reality where independence is a necessity from a young age (we witness a 6 year old girl shooting a squirrel with a hunting rifle) and where life’s horizons go as far as joining the army (providing a tempting $40,000) or being confined to domestic bliss.

Part of the feeling of authenticity from the film comes from the fact that this is a cultural reality for many people and while we are guided through banjo playing parties where people eat fried deer and have unique speech patterns (which I found often tricky to decipher) y’all get a sense that the bleak social deprivation is genuinely problematic in the deep south.

The acting was superb, especially that of Jennifer Lawrence in the role of Ree Dolly, who is rumoured for Academy nominations next year, while the film has already received a deserving win of the Grand Jury Prize from Sundance earlier this year.

Winter’s Bone is  showing at Dundee Contemporary Arts until Friday.

-Flossie Topping

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Eat Pray Love

Kate Bone has little appetite for Julia Roberts’ latest comeback.

Eat Pray Love
Directed by Ryan Murphy, 2010
133 minutes
2/4 stars

Perhaps it’s because I am a bit of a literary snob (although I feel licence should be granted here as an English student) but I have never been enamoured with the kind of popular ‘Chic-Lit’ novels exemplified by Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. I therefore confess I went into the cinema not as a devotee of the worldwide phenomenon but merely as an admirer of the smouldering good looks of Javier Bardem and the prospect of two hours of pure escapism.

The story of a divorcee Liz (Julia Roberts) leaving behind her mundane city life in search of exotic food, men and spiritual contentment promised a refreshing change from the generic Rom-Com formula which has become all too familiar. However, I was disappointed by the film’s many pitfalls. If, like me, you haven’t read Gilbert’s original memoir, you may find the structure rather baffling:  Liz travels between New York, Rome and Bali seemingly without a sense of progression, which results in a lack of cohesion between the major chapters in the film.  Despite compelling performances from the supporting cast, a weak script and Roberts’ own limitations as an actress mean we are never able to fully empathise with her character, who at times appears distant and self-absorbed.  Moreover, the central premise of the film (the search for identity through adopting the practices of different cultures) ends up feeling clichéd and superficial rather than poignant and revealing.  My Italian friend was mortified by the outrageous stereotypes on offer in the form of Liz’s Roman friends, whose sentimental speeches contribute to the sense of the characters being cartoon-like rather than real individuals. Bardem, arguably the most talented of the actors on offer, was clearly enticed by the money rather than a dazzling script as his character is bland and one-dimensional; a watered- down version of his role in Woody Allen’s Vicky, Christina, Barcelona.

Ultimately therefore, Ryan Murphy’s adaptation falls short of being a compelling tale of self-discovery and female empowerment. Nevertheless, if you just fancy a girly night out at the cinema (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) then there’s more than enough eye candy and stunning shots of India to keep you interested.

Kate Bone

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Alice in Wonderland

Minnie McIntyre finds wasted potential and little else in Burton’s pretty Underland

Alice in Wonderland
Directed by Tim Burton, 2010
108 minutes
2.5/4 stars

Inevitably, the adventurous adaptation Alice in Wonderland will disappoint any fan of the original story. Tim Burton’s film follows a grown-up Alice through Wonderland, or Underland, ten years after she first entered it as a child. Burton does an outstanding job of creating a captivating fantasy Wonderland: the 3D special effects enhance the bizarre world in which cats disappear, frogs wear tail-coats, and rocking-horses fly. The original Alice in Wonderland’s nonsense land of anthropomorphic nature is well captured. The visuals are the best aspect of the film, and make it well worth seeing. However, Alice, (Mia Wasikowska) in every way a stranger to the beautiful fantasy land, is insincere and rigid, far from the Alice one imagines as a child. The film strays from the original story and depicts Alice several years later, as a grown woman. Her final return to reality at the end of the film is wet and uninteresting and ruins the film.

Although Johnny Depp’s lively performance as the mad Hatter is excellent, the character itself doesn’t quite meet expectations by being overly sentimental at times.  Helena Bonham Carter’s performance of the Queen of Hearts is superb however, and her castle and minions are fantastic. The animated Tweedledee and Tweedledum are a comical duo, and worth noting is the uncanny resemblance they have with their voice-actor, Matt Lucas.

Alice in Wonderland could have been Tim Burton’s greatest film yet. With so much potential for creativity, and with the technology to match, he could have made something equal to Nightmare Before Christmas or Big Fish. The altered storyline and flat lead character shatter this potential, but nevertheless it is an entertaining film.

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The Hurt Locker: not worth buying?

James Williamson feels let down by the British DVD for the six-time BAFTA winner

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 2008
131 minutes
2/4 stars


For those who prefer to ignore the hype surrounding the awards season, The Hurt Locker is an Iraq War drama which follows an Explosive Ordanance Disposal unit in their struggle to survive their dangerous task. The tone of the film is immediately set by the gruesome fate of the units leader, and things only get worse for remaining team members Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) with the arrival of their new leader, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner)it isnt long before Jamess risk-taking puts the entire team in danger.

The plot is episodic in nature, as the unit is threatened by an escalating series of perilous situations. The relationships of the three men subtly tie these encounters together, and the more disparate sections provide insight into their psyches. Jeremy Renner shines, making Williams extreme nature believable. Director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break) and screenwriter Mark Boal (In the Valley of Elah) are clearly fascinated by the mentality of those who choose such a hazardous occupation. The gripping film they created has extended that fascination to audiences and critics alike.
Unfortunately, the DVD package does not share the film’s captivating qualities. While there is nothing wrong with its sound or visual quality, the extras are sorely lacking. The Behind the Scenes feature is only twelve minutes, mainly consisting of the casts comments on characters and themes with only occasional sound bites from Bigelow or Boal. Just one brief segment gives insight into the actual making of the film, and there is obvious reuse of footage from the supplementary cast interviews. There is no separate interview with either director or writer and no commentary track, a strange omission in the British version, as it does exist for the Region 1 (North American) version.
Renting or downloading the Oscar contender on iTunes without the extras may be a better option than the £9.99 most retailers are charging for the full package. With such limited special features, this is a great film on a meagre DVD.

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Dirty Harry

Ross Dickie is disappointed in Daniel Barber’s first feature film.
Harry Brown
Directed by Daniel Barber, 2009
103 minutes
2/4 stars
Daniel Barber first turned heads in 2008 when his short film The Tonto Woman, based on the story by Elmore Leonard, was nominated for an Oscar. His 2009 feature film debut sees Michael Caine taking up the title role of Harry Brown, a former marine turned vigilante pensioner. Set on a dilapidated council estate in South London, Harry spends his days playing chess with Leonard (David Bradley) and steering clear of the menacing hoodies who loiter in the estate’s underpass. When Leonard is brutally murdered and an ineffective police force fails to punish those responsible, our hero takes matters into his own hands. Starting with the crazed junkies/gun nuts and working his way up, Harry sets out on a bloody mission to avenge the death of his friend and clean up the estate. Sometimes an ASBO just isn’t enough.

Martin Ruhe’s compelling cinematography is one of the film’s only redeeming features. Despite its gritty and often shocking subject matter, this is undoubtedly one of the most beautifully shot films out this year. The acting is equally gripping, and Caine’s faultless portrayal of the eponymous Harry Brown provides the story with a much-needed injection of believability.

However, on all other fronts, this is a film which fails to distinguish itself from the pack. The word which springs to mind is ‘overkill’, particularly with regards to the last thirty minutes. Brown doesn’t suddenly transform into Rambo, but the director goes a bit too far. As D.I. Frampton (Emily Mortimer) points out, “It’s not Northern Ireland Harry,” yet this is precisely the image the end of the film evokes. The result is a film that can’t decide what it wants to be: social commentary or mindless action entertainment?

Harry Brown and Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, released in 2008, are at opposite ends of the vigilante pensioner genre. Where Eastwood’s film is often humorous and morally ambiguous, Daniel Barber’s is dark and uncompromising. Both promise much and yet ultimately do not quite live up to expectations. Perhaps there is a truly great film somewhere in between the two? How about John McClane as an O.A.P? Just when he thought he might get some peace and quiet a group of international terrorists lay siege to his nursing home. Now there’s a film I would like to see.

Published 26 November 2009

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Fantastic Mr. Fox is truly. . . awesome

Flossie Topping rediscovers the joy of animated films

Fantastic Mr. Fox
Directed by Wes Anderson, 2009
87 minutes
3/4 stars

When I heard about the filmic adaptation of Roald Dahl’s  Fantastic Mr. Fox, I was sure I wouldn’t see it. For one, animation is not my thing. CGI brings me out in a rash and the ongoing trend of adapting children’s fiction has begun to bore me.  But when I heard that the film was made using stop motion (think Wallace and Gromit with vulpine heroes) and written by Wes Anderson, director of The Darjeeling Limited  and The Royal Tenenbaums, my mind quickly changed.

The quirky, unexpected humour of Anderson’s screenplay is carried off perfectly by a hidden all-star cast. George Clooney plays the sly lead Mr Fox, joined by Meryl Streep as his wife and Bill Murray as the family’s fast-talking property lawyer, fittingly named Badger.

The story begins in the English countryside with Mr Fox, legend amongst animals for his chicken thievery, about to give up his work for a higher calling: being a newspaper columnist. But he’s unable to relinquish the thrill of the chase and returns for three  big  last jobs in the form of a trio of English farmers.  With accents that contrast those of the American good guys, the villains – farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, who subsist on beans and ciderare voiced by British actors Brian Cox, Hugo Guinness, and Michael Gambon.

Consumed by greed, the farmers plot against the animals and decimate Mr Fox’s home, but the fox family outsmarts the humans and digs themselves out. The story continues with a frantic chase, several epic fight sequences involving martial arts and explosions with smoke made out of wispy cotton wool, all set to music by the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys.
Anderson innovates the somewhat predictable parable of human greed and animal bravery by denying his furry protagonists the cute-and-fluffy treatment. The heroes of Fantastic Mr. Fox aren’t Bambi-variety mammals, thankfully, and their quirks keep the film from descending into cliché.

If you don’t enjoy seeing foxes, with breasts, doing yoga, drinking champagne and talking about their credit rating, this original film probably isn’t for you.  Otherwise, it’s thoroughly entertaining.
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