Tag Archives: Movie Reviews

Review: Black Swan

Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassell, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Nina Sayers is a young ballet dancer with a New York troupe. Nina is totally dedicated to her craft, to the exclusion of all else. Reserved, naive and driven, Nina’s pursuit of perfection is stretched to breaking point when she wins the lead in Swan Lake. Called on to portray both the white swan, for which she is perfectly suited, and the black swan, which requires her to tap into the passions she works so hard to control, Nina begins to descend into paranoia and madness.

Black Swan is the movie that everyone is talking about, it seems. It’s already being mentioned in the same breath as Oscar, and it’s easy to see why. With his previous movie, The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky dealt with the struggles of a man who had made it to the top and fallen. This time around his focus turns to a woman struggling to make it to that top. Each film deals with success, viewed from different ends of the journey. However, Black Swan is the far darker journey of the two.

Those with no interest in ballet may be put off by the movie’s setting, but the truth is Black Swan is no more about ballet than Psycho was about hotels. Nina’s desperate struggle to be the best, and to win the approval of those around her is as universal a theme as any, and although we are given a solid lesson in the ruthlessness and competitiveness of the ballet world, Black Swan is more concerned in following Nina’s descent into hell. This it does, and it doesn’t pull punches along the way. Layered, sometimes disturbing and always engaging, Black Swan is an enthralling portrayal of a disintegrating psyche.

Central to the film’s success, of course, is the performance of Natalie Portman as Nina. For an hour and forty minutes the camera never leaves her side and Portman is absolutely fantastic. Her portrayal of the increasingly fractured Nina is flawless, never hitting an off-note, never anything less than utterly convincing. Just as the story of Nina mirrors the famous ballet she is performing, so the dedication to her craft of Portman mirrors that of her character. It’s the perfect fusion of actor and role and if, by the end, you are not completely invested in Nina’s fate then you should probably check your pulse.

Behind you!

Revolving around Portman are an equally accomplished troupe. Vincent Cassell tones down his usual mania as Nina’s passionate director, Barbara Hershey is subtle and sometimes chilling as her overbearing mother, and Mila Kunis is excellent as the far more unrestrained Lily, yang to Nina’s yin and focus of Nina’s paranoia. And holding it all together is the assured work of Aronofsky, who never allows his direction to become showy, distracting or intrusive, despite the constant scrutiny of Portman’s increasingly tortured face.

One of the best psychological thrillers for a long while, with moments both horrific and moving, Black Swan is well worth your time. The Oscars are now only two months away and if Natalie Portman doesn’t walk away with the Best Actress statuette it will be very hard for the Academy to justify.

Rating - 5 Stars

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Review: Buried

Starring: Ryan Reynolds

Director: Rodrigo Cortés

Iraq based Truck driver Paul Conroy wakes up in the dark. He flicks on his lighter to find himself buried in a wooden coffin, with a cell phone and a torch. What follows is a race against time as Paul tries desperately to find out why he is there, and get himself rescued.

The last movie I reviewed was Devil, a movie set almost entirely in an elevator. Almost entirely, that is. Going one step further, Buried manages to contain its entire 90-minute running time within the confines of a small, wooden coffin. That it does this without once slipping into tedium is nothing short of a miracle. This success is achieved due to two things: Rodrigo Cortés’ direction and Ryan Reynolds performance. Without these two aspects working in tandem, Buried would have failed miserably.

Logically, it should be very easy to hate Ryan Reynolds. The guy is successful, good-looking and has the kind of abs you usually only see in a Marvel comic, but what he also has is an easy-going charm that, to-date, has defined his work. It’s a huge credit to him then that he ditches the reliance on all the above when called on to carry an entire movie alone. For 90 minutes Reynolds is dirty, crazed, barely visible and utterly convincing. Rodrigo Cortés, in only his second feature, does a fantastic job of keeping things visually interesting given the confines he has to work with and squeezes every ounce of claustrophobia from those confines. Within 10 minutes of Buried’s opening, you feel as if you are laying in that coffin yourself. By the end, you just want to run outside and kiss the ground.

Another thing that makes Buried stand out is the plot itself. While it would have been fairly easy to stick to familiar thriller territory when dealing with the reasons why Paul Conroy was buried alive, the decision to place him and the events surrounding him in occupied Iraq allows the movie to make some small comment on the state of affairs in Saddam’s former country. While this may not be to everyone’s taste, it’s a brave move and one which screenwriter Chris Sparling never allows to become preachy or overwhelm the action.

A coffin in Iraq, where the reception is better than in Epsom, Surrey

Buried is one of those movies where everything that has to work does work. A career-best turn from Reynolds should see him emerge from the cocky-wiseguy shtick into more accomplished roles and Cortés will be one to watch in the future. If there is a downside to this movie, it is only that it perhaps signposts the final outcome a little too clearly, but at least it is the outcome the movie deserves. Much recommended.

Rating - 4 Stars

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Review: Devil

Starring: Chris Messina, Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O’Hara.

Director: John Erik Dowdle.

Writer: Brian Nelson.

On a particularly gloomy day in Philadelphia, five unrelated people get trapped in an office building elevator. As the security teams, and a jaded cop, watch them on a camera and try to get to them out, the group of five find themselves being picked off one-by-one. Someone in that elevator is not who they say they are. Is The Devil in disguise?

M. Night Shyamalan’s reputation has taken some heavy knocks over the last few years, and most of them somewhat deservedly. The writer and director was cursed by a stunning debut, The Sixth Sense, which he has struggled to live up to. The grossly self-indulgent The Lady in the Water marked the end of Shyamalan’s honeymoon period with Hollywood, and neither the foolish The Happening or The Last Airbender have done much to repair the damage. Still, Universal have made much of his involvement in Devil, a film for which he has only a producer and story credit.

Devil hinges on a commonplace idea crammed into an unusual setting. You don’t have to dig very far to find movies concerning a group of people being murdered one-by-one, with the certainty that someone in the group is responsible. But squeezing that dynamic into a small metal box is inspired. Screenwriters will tell you that one of the hardest things to do is the single-location movie. It’s no mean feat keeping the audience interested in a story which never moves. So it’s to Devil’s credit that, despite its flaws, it never loses your interest. The action is split between the five people in the elevator and those working around the building to get them out, and while it never lingers too long in either setting, it would have been fascinating to see the story told only from the perspective of those trapped.

Movies which are confined this way rely heavily on the quality of the performances, and the cast of B-list actors more than hold their own. A genuine sense of claustrophobia and fear permeates the elevator scenes, as it becomes clear that any one of these people could be responsible for what is going on. There are a handful of effective scares and an unsettling atmosphere in places, but unfortunately Devil is not as terrifying as you might have hoped.

I know, I know. The 'who farted' gag is way too easy.

What really lets Devil down in the end is the occasionally clunky dialogue (‘You must consider that one of those people is The Devil’), and some dreadfully clumsy exposition in the form of a narrator relaying a story he was told as a child. It’s just a little too heavy-handed and spoils the intrigue.

Devil is not a wasted opportunity at all, it’s an effective horror movie built around a great idea. It just could have been a little scarier, and a little less eager to make sure we get what’s going on. That aside, if you’re looking for a supernatural thriller for a cold Saturday night, you could do a lot worse. After all, it’s a hell of a lot better than The Lady in the Water or The Happening.

Rating - 3 Stars

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Review: Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle

Director: Jon Favreau

I loved the first Iron Man movie. Robert Downey Jr. was an inspired choice to play egocentric genius Tony Stark, the metal-clad supertoy, and director Jon Favreau perfectly mixed the comic book’s more serious themes with a great sense of fun. And surprisingly, fun is something that has gone missing with many comic book adaptations lately, with darkness becoming de rigueur for superheroes, and that is Iron Man 2′s main problem. Where’s the fun gone?

Don’t get me wrong, I totally enjoyed Iron Man 2. It’s not a bad movie at all. Downey Jr. is as entertaining as ever. Mickey Rourke is the perfect mumbling bad guy, as Russian-physicist-with-a-grudge Ivan Vanko. Sam Rockwell is the perfect shouting bad guy, as weapons-developer-with-a-grudge, Justin Hammer. The plot touches on many of the original comic’s storylines, if only very briefly in the case of Stark’s descent into alcoholism. Yet somehow, it just isn’t as much fun as Iron Man’s original outing. Iron Man 2 also suffers from that common second instalment issue – trying to cram too much into one story. Where Iron Man was a streamlined, efficient piece of storytelling, Iron Man 2 gets bogged down in the attempt to tell several stories at once, while also squishing in some prep for the forthcoming Avengers movie. There’s just a little too much going on.

Robert Downey Jr. practises safe sex.

One more thing. Sooner or later Iron Man’s enemies are going to have to start evolving beyond other iron men. That will tire very quickly. Iron Man 2 is not the worst sequel ever made, not by a long shot, but it does fall short of its predecessor.

Rating - 3 Stars