Redemption (Hummingbird)


Don't keep Jason Statham waiting for his drink.

Don’t keep Jason Statham waiting for his drink.

(2013) Action (Roadside Attractions) Jason Statham, Agata Buzek, Vicki McClure, Benedict Wong, Ger Ryan, Youssef Kerkour, Anthony Morris, Victoria Bewick, Christian Brassington, Danny Webb, Sang Lui, Bruce Want, Dai Bradley, Siobhan Hewlett, Steven Beard, Ian Pirie, Lillie Buttery, Macey Chipping, Emily Lue Fong, Michelle Lee. Directed by Steven Knight

We all do things we’re not proud of. It’s just a part of living and learning. Sometimes we do and say things we wish we could take back. Sometimes we make decisions that upon reflection were unwise or thoughtless. Other times we do things out of self-interest that end up having unintended consequences. Still other times we do things we know are wrong but we do them anyway. The ramifications of the latter can be devastating.

Joseph Smith (Statham) – not the Mormon leader – is a British soldier in Afghanistan. He has deserted from the army and lives on the streets of London, a homeless alcoholic. He’s also suffering from major PTSD, often seeing hallucinations of hummingbirds. He shares a cardboard box with Isabel (Bewick), a drug-addicted prostitute who’s also homeless. The two are set upon one night by thugs who snatch Isabel and chase Joseph off. He finds his way into a very snazzy flat – one in which the wealthy owner will be leaving conveniently vacant for 8 months, returning on October 1st as Joseph discovers on the answering machine.

Rather than wallow in the new found luxury, Joseph decides to change his life around. He shaves, puts on a new suit and with the help of a conveniently left credit card reinvents his image. He becomes Joseph Jones and even gets a job washing dishes in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. When some rowdy customers need to be evicted, Joseph evicts them none too gently, catching the eye of his employer Choy (Wong) who is impressed and makes Joseph his driver/enforcer. Now known as Crazy Joey, Joseph spends a lot of his new salary on feeding the homeless, and thanking the comely Sister Cristina (Buzek) who runs the soup kitchen that fed him while he was on the streets. The two strike up one of those more-than-friendship things. He even has enough to help out the wife (McClure) and kids he left behind.

Then he finds out that Isabel was beaten to death and dumped in the Thames. Once he gets over his grief, he knows that his time in the flat is running out and Sister Cristina is off to do missionary work in Sierra Leone – coincidentally, on the same day. He has one more job to do before he returns to his homeless, drunk existence – revenge before redemption.

This is the directorial debut of Knight, best known for writing the gritty David Cronenberg film Eastern Promises and there’s a similar vibe here. The seedy side of London is filmed unapologetically and without accusation – this is just the way things are, that’s all. No pointing fingers, no sermonizing. Everyone has their story and Joseph has his (and yes, we do find out what happened in Afghanistan to drive him AWOL and to the streets of London).

Statham is the premiere action star going, even more so than Liam Neeson in that Statham is more bred for the type of role than Neeson who had a thriving dramatic career and an Oscar to his credit before changing paths into the ass-kicking one. But, like Neeson, Statham has some acting chops – perhaps not quite to the degree of Neeson – but there nonetheless. The main complaint about Statham is that he doesn’t seem to portray a lot of emotions other than anger, bonhomie and cheerfulness. It’s a fair enough criticism, but it can’t be made here as we see Statham at his most emotionally vulnerable maybe ever. He also kicks plenty of butt however, so no worries on that score.

Knight, who co-wrote the movie, gets the benefit of cinematographer Chris Menges who gives us plenty of neon-lit images, some of which are pretty scintillating. However, the thing that kind of puzzles me is that Knight, who is quite a good writer judging on his resume, put so many frankly unbelievable coincidences in the script. For example, who would leave an expensive flat vacant for eight months without someone checking on it at least periodically, or without a security system installed?

Statham’s performance thankfully elevates the movie beyond its writing flaws. This isn’t going to be the movie that elevates him beyond the typical action roles he gets, but it’s certainly another brick in that particular wall. In the meantime, we can enjoy him at his butt-kicking best.

WHY RENT THIS: Statham is always entertaining. Some pretty nifty fight scenes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Requires too much stretching of the imagination. Been there done that plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Brutal violence, graphic nudity and lots of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed almost entirely at night in environs in London where homeless people hang out; several also served as extras in the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.7M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/Streaming), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Safe
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Search for General Tso

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In Her Skin (I Am You)


In Your Skin

Ruth Bradley literally leads Kate Bell down the garden path.

(2009) True Crime Drama (IFC) Guy Pearce, Miranda Otto, Ruth Bradley, Sam Neill, Kate Bell, Khan Chittenden, Graeme Blundell, John Butler, Justine Clarke, Diane Craig, Jack Finsterer, Rebecca Gibney, Eugene Gilfedder, Jeremy Sims, Steven Vidler. Directed by Simone North

 

Very few of us are genuinely happy with who we are. Some of us long to change certain things about ourselves, be it our physical appearance or our own natures. Sometimes this self-loathing leads to a hatred for everyone who at least on the surface appears to have everything we want.

Rachel Barber (Bell) is one of those that looks to have everything anyone could want. Beautiful and graceful, training to become a ballet dancer who one day will dance for a world class company, happy and well-adjusted, she has parents (Pearce, Otto) who adore her and a handsome boyfriend named Manni (Chittenden) who is head over heels for her.

Caroline Reid (Bradley), who was once Rachel’s babysitter, is in the other class. She isn’t conventionally pretty, struggles with her weight, and has less of a bright future before her. Her parents’ divorce really affected her deeply and from that arose anger issues that have given her a hair-trigger temper, prone to rages that are truly terrifying. Her father (Neill) is wealthy and distant, tending to be more critical than loving although he does love her in his own way.

When Rachel fails to return home after dance practice, her parents are alarmed. This just isn’t like their daughter at all. The police seem disinterested in finding their girl; they chalk it up as a runaway situation, which mystifies Manni who tells her everything but didn’t tell her that she had any idea about running off. Even Caroline, surly at best, expresses concern. The Barbers, desperate to find their daughter, decide to search on their own with the police scarcely willing to help.

Tragically, the Barbers are searching in vain. Their dearest Rachel is already gone, brutally murdered at the hands of her trusted friend and former babysitter Caroline. The deed was done as part of a twisted, psychotic attempt of Caroline to transform herself into Rachel, the only way the girl thought she had of ever having the things she wanted.

The movie is told from three differing points of view; that of the Barbers, of Caroline and of Rachel herself. North, in an attempt I suppose to take some artistic license, jumps wildly between time frames which is often confusing. Still, North gets the benefit of some riveting performances.

Bradley, an Irish actress, was someone I hadn’t seen much of (if anything) prior to this film but she nails the role. You feel like you as a viewer are walking on eggshells every time Caroline is onscreen; she can be sweetness and light but can explode into a volcanic eruption of rage without warning or cause. Her self-loathing is palpable as is her need for her father’s acknowledgment, something she can never get – the way she wants, in any case. You never really understand the motives, but then you can’t really understand crazy unless you are a lunatic yourself.

Pearce and Otto are two of the most dependable actors working today and as the parents their grief and worry consume them, sometimes leading to conflict between their characters. They are both sympathetic but imperfect adding a touch of realism to the film. It isn’t always easy to watch them, but it never feels anything but genuine.

Speaking of realism and genuine, the murder scene is quite horrific and very tough to watch. It doesn’t pull any punches and there’s nothing about it that is clean or easy. I very much suggest that those who are easily upset by those sorts of things to think twice before viewing.

This is definitely a flawed film but it is still quite good nevertheless. North excels at keeping a sense of tension even when it is obvious what is about to occur or what has already occurred. For those of us in America who are mostly unfamiliar with the case (it was front page news in Oz so Aussie readers may be far more familiar with the events in the film than us Yanks) there is an element of suspense that is well-appreciated. Like the Barbers, North doesn’t always do the right thing here but she does her best and even if she makes mistakes they are at least honest ones. She has a good deal of talent and I look forward to seeing what the future has in store for her.

WHY RENT THIS: Extremely well-acted. Tense and suspenseful, even though it is pretty obvious even to those unfamiliar with the case how it’s going to end up. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Time jumping confuses the viewer unnecessarily. Tries too hard in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie is intense in places and the murder scene might be too much for the sensitive. There’s also a few instances of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bell and Chittenden, girlfriend and boyfriend in the film, also played girlfriend and boyfriend in the Australian TV series “Blue Water High.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some cast interviews that get highly emotional.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Data not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Taking Lives

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Instinct

First Position


First Position

Gaya Bommer-Yemini and Aron Bell pensively await their turn onstage.

(2011) Documentary (IFC/Sundance Selects) Aran Bell, Gaya Bommer-Yemini, Michaela Deprince, Jules Jarvis Fogarty, Miko Fogarty, Rebecca Houseknecht, Joan Sebastian Zamora, Denys Ganio, Viktor Kabaniaev, Mia Deprince. Directed by Bess Kargman

 

I must first admit to not being a ballet aficionado. I don’t know a pas de deux from joie de vivre. I know my sister took lessons when I was a kid and I’ve seen productions of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker thanks to parents who hoped to (quite without effect, sadly) expand my horizons artistically speaking. Like opera, dance in general and ballet in particular never appealed to me.

Understandably, I wasn’t particularly eager to go see this documentary by first-time feature director Kargman as the subject matter didn’t appeal to me much. You may well have the same prejudice in that regard as I do. However, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to love, or even know much about ballet in order to enjoy First Position.

The movie chronicles six young people ranging in age from ten to seventeen as they prepare for one of the premiere ballet competitions in the world – the Youth America Grand Prix. At stake are scholarships at prestigious academies (for younger participants) and even placements in world class ballet companies around the world. For many, this is the means to achieve a dream.

Aran (age 11) is a Navy brat, his father stationed in Italy. There, Aran is trained by a dour French instructor (Ganio) in Rome, a two hour drive from their home. His father arranged to be stationed there so that his son might continue to receive instruction. Even to an untrained eye like man, Aran has enormous potential. Graceful and precise, he makes complex moves look effortless. His dancing inspired Gaya, an Israeli, to take up ballet which is fortunate for she is a legitimate talent in her own right. She also has a major crush on Aran.

Michaela (age 14) was adopted by an elderly Jewish couple from Philadelphia from her home in war-torn Sierra Leone. A chance look at a dance magazine with a beautiful ballerina, nearly ecstatic with joy, seized Michaela’s imagination and turned her on the road to the YAGP. Along the way she must fight the mistaken perception that African-descended dancers lack the grace and elegance to be great ballet dancers – Michaela not only has grace and elegance, she has charm and wisdom as well. Her story is perhaps the most emotionally moving in the entire film.

Joan (age 16) lives in the violent Columbian city of Cali. Realizing early that he has a gift, his family sent him alone to New York City for further training. He misses his family terribly, and his family worries that he is eating too much American fast food (he’s not; most of his meals consist of rice, beans and some sort of protein mixed in). Joan, matinee idol handsome and with a spectacular body, looks to be a marquee dancer if only he can get noticed.

Miko (age 12) is a very talented dancer while her brother Jules (age 10) is less committed. Their mother is a combination of a stage mom and a Jewish mom; pushing both her children towards excellence. When both qualify for the semi-finals of the YAGP; when one of them chooses to drop ballet because it isn’t what they want to do with their lives, she is devastated. She and her Silicon Valley entrepreneur husband have moved from Palo Alto to Walnut Creek (about  a two hour drive) to be closer to the ballet teacher Miko likes (her husband moved the business there as well which I’m sure didn’t sit too well with his employees). That teacher, Viktor, is impressed with Miko and amused by Jules who is more of a typical kid. Viktor isn’t afraid to override the instructions of the meddling mom from time to time.

Only Rebecca (age 17) fits the stereotype of the ballerina; feminine almost to a fault, pretty and blonde with a preference for all things pink, a cheerleader in school and a princess in all else. She lives in suburban Maryland and unlike most of the other kids who have devoted their lives to their art to the point where all of them are home schooled, Rebecca attends high school and pretty much has a normal life. That doesn’t diminish her desire to be a ballerina however and she is hoping desperately that the representatives of the ballet companies who are attending the YAGP will not only notice her looks but also her legitimate talent as well and offer her a job.

The film looks at the things that these kids do to pursue their dream; the injuries (one of the competitors severely injures their Achilles tendon on the eve of the finals in New York City), the ridicule from other kids (at least one of the children depicted here was pulled from attending public school because of it) and the dedication to hours and hours of practice which is oftentimes painful, leaving the kids exhausted and sore. Like Olympic athletes, these kids have a dream and their parents are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.

It turns out that the YAGP helped select the kids for Kargman to follow (which she did for a year) which is a little bit disturbing – how objective were the filmmakers when it came to showing some of the negative aspects of these kinds of competition such as the stress that it puts on the kids and the financial strain it puts on families. However, it does show kids doing some amazing things – the five who compete in the finals are all incredible dancers, particularly Aran who steals the show whenever he is dancing.

I will say that this doesn’t really inspire me to get season tickets to the Orlando Ballet Theatre, or to seek out performances on DVD or PBS. However, it does give me a new-found respect for the kids who work as hard as any athlete to succeed – and the families that sacrifice to give them the opportunity.

NOTE: While the film played at the Florida Film Festival last month, I was unable to see it. It is playing at the Enzian today and tomorrow.

REASONS TO GO: Some breathtaking moments of dance. Engaging kids are not only photogenic but articulate as well.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes seems like a bit of an advertisement for the YAGP.

FAMILY VALUES: Generally suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kargman took ballet lessons and considered dancing professionally until she was 14, when she chose to pursue other interests.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are stellar.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spellbound

COSTUME LOVERS: The tutus and costumes are varied; Aran’s for example are made for him by a professional costumer in Chicago, while Michaela’s are made by her mom. Joan wears only a simple pair of tights.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT:Defendor

Black Swan


Black Swan

The stuff that nightmares are made of.

(2010) Psychological Horror (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Sergio Torrado, Mark Margolis, Tina Sloan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The pursuit of perfection in art is a long-standing tradition. It is a noble ambition but it is not without its pitfalls. Perfection is a very lofty goal and the closer one gets, the sharper the knives that guard the way there.

Nina (Portman) is a ballerina who has spent her entire life dancing, looking for that elusive opportunity – to dance the White Swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, perhaps the most famous ballet of them all. She has been relegated to the company, much to the display of her mother Erica (Hershey), who is an ex-dancer herself and with whom Nina lives in a small, dingy apartment.

When prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Ryder) is abruptly dismissed from the troupe by artistic director Thomas Leroy (Cassel), suddenly Nina’s goal is very much in reach. However, Leroy wants to “re-imagine” the classic ballet, so he wants the same dancer to dance both the White Swan (symbolizing the pure and virginal) as well as the Black Swan (symbolizing the evil and sexual). It is normally performed with two different dancers for good reason; the two roles require completely different psychologies from those who dance them.

Nina believes she can dance both roles, but Leroy is reluctant; she’s fine as the White Swan, but lacks the sensuality and aggressiveness that the Black Swan demands. Newcomer Lily (Kunis) seems to have the Black Swan down but lacks the precision and discipline required to do the White Swan. After Leroy, who has a long-standing reputation as a manipulator who takes sexual advantage of his dancers (he was also Beth’s lover) attempts to kiss Nina and gets a bitten lip for his trouble, he changes his mind and believes she has some of the Black Swan within her.

At first Nina and Erica are overjoyed, but the walls begin to crumble. The stress of dancing both parts begins to eat away at Nina’s already-fragile psyche (she is into self-mutilation in a big way) and she begins to see some scary visions of black swans and imagines that Lily is out to get her. Nina’s own burgeoning sexuality begins to waken and with it awakens the Black Swan, Nina’s own dark side come to life.

Aronofsky who last directed The Wrestler (which is his most straightforward film to date) is well-known for being unafraid to explore the psyche, and for facing the darkness as well as the light. This may be his best film to date in many ways; certainly I felt that it is one of the most artistically gifted movies of the year.

Part of that belongs to Natalie Portman. She has received an Oscar nomination for her role as Nina, and quite frankly, if it were up to me I’d give it to her now. This is not only the best performance of the year it is one of the best ever. Portman has to go to some raw and sexual places in this movie, exploring places that most people never share with others. She masturbates, has sex with a woman and slowly loses her mind until she finally embraces her dark side. It’s a brilliant and brave performance and is the main reason you should go and see this movie.

However, you should be warned – Aronofsky relies very much on shaky, hand-held camera work in the film. I understand that he was trying to capture the kineticism of dance. However, I personally am prone to vertigo and so I have a particular sensitivity to these kinds of things. I got physically ill during the course of this movie and I would think most people with balance issues are going to do the same. I think the technique was used far too much during the movie and I downgraded it several pegs because of it. Even those not afflicted with my issues reported some queasiness watching the movie.

The supporting cast is very good, particularly Cassel as the arrogant director who is nothing short of a sexual predator. He is arrogant and self-centered, not a villain precisely but certainly someone who mercilessly pushes Nina down the road to madness. Kunis does some career enhancement work as the sexually aggressive dancer who may or may not be manipulating Nina. This is a side of her we’ve never seen and Kunis shows off not only her sexuality but a dark side that is at odds with her image. This should certainly erase all thoughts of “That 70s Show” from your head.  Best of all is Hershey as the high-strung mom. Hershey has aged nicely but you’d never know it here; she is lined and careworn, a shade too skinny and probably in need of a long vacation. She makes you nervous every time she’s onscreen which is exactly right for the character. Her overprotectiveness has warped Nina and you wonder if mommy dearest might not be the sickest one in the movie.

I admire the ambitions of Darren Aronofsky and I especially admire Portman’s brave performance. This is a movie that will be starting some conversations for quite awhile if I don’t miss my guess. It’s a shame that the movie had the physical effect on me that it did; this could easily have gotten a much higher rating than it did.

REASONS TO GO: Natalie Portman gives one of the best performances you’ll ever see. A very realistic backstage look at an art form where discipline is brutal and absolute.

REASONS TO STAY: Handheld cam excess makes it dizziness inducing. Some of the psychological aspects are confusing and disjointed.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some intense scenes of sexuality including some same-sex and masturbation scenes, as well as some disturbing images.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of the film, Natalie Portman sustained twisted and dislocated ribs as well as a concussion.

HOME OR THEATER: Given the penchant for shaky-cam, I’d say home is better.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Motherhood