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Eastern Promises

dir: David Cronenberg
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Eastern Promises, being a David Cronenberg film, promises more than it should and delivers more than you’d expect. There’s no shortage of flicks out there about organised crime, but it takes a unique one to stand out from the morass.

A look at the Russian mafia isn’t exactly new either. But the screenplay by Stephen Knight and the whole bloody production, overseen by one of the masters of cinema (even if he is Canadian), creates a living, breathing, unnerving story about, amongst other things, how nasty old people can be.

A pregnant fourteen-year-old girl (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) staggers into a chemist, bleeding all over the place. She gives birth to a tiny girl later in hospital, and promptly dies. The midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts) searches the poor girl’s belongings to find out where she comes from so see can give the little baby (who she’s named Christina, in honour of rapidly approaching Christmas) to her family.

The problem is, all she has to go on is a diary in Russian. Anna has a Russian background, but needs the diary to be translated. Propelling the plot forward, she also finds a card which directs her to a Russian restaurant called the Trans-Siberian in the heart of London.

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Zodiac

dir: David Fincher
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The director with one of the most variable records in Hollywood has returned to us mere plebs with a police procedural flick about the hunt for the Zodiac killer.

Fincher’s flicks have an almost odd-even quality, in that he has a good film follow a mediocre one with grim predictability. I don’t have to nuts and bolts it for you: suffice to say I really like half of his movies, and am indifferent to the other half, and they follow each other like night follows day, like hangover follows drinking binge.

I can’t really say if Zodiac breaks the cycle, because the formula would require that a good film follow his last mediocre one, being Panic Room. But I can’t say that it blew my socks off.

It’s just over two and a half hours long, which in itself is no crime. As long as it does something magical with that time, who would complain. It’s just that, for my money, it is two and a half hours of tedium with no pay off.

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Macbeth

dir: Geoffrey Wright
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With the last 20 or so murders that occurred in during the so-called Melbourne Underworld war, I guess it seemed like a good idea to combine the Shakespeare play about ruthless ambition and the crime pages of the daily newspapers. A natural alliance, like whisky and baby formula, or dope and speed.

They decide to play it fairly straight, despite the contemporary and Melbournian setting, and keep the language as the Bard would have liked it. So the dialogue hasn’t been made modern with people saying ‘like’ or ‘whatever’ all the time.

Macbeth (Sam Worthington) loyal to mobster king Duncan (Gary Sweet), oversees something like a drug deal gone wrong that results in lots of dead Asians. Victorious, Macbeth is commended by the king and seems like he’s on top of the world.

Whilst taking drugs, he sees three jailbait redhead witches, who tell him he will be king.

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Harsh Times

dir: David Ayer
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This was touted as a kind of follow-up to Training Day, since it had the same writer involved, now graduating to the big leagues by taking on directorial duties as well. Hoo-fucking-ray. And since we were told it would be a sequel to that horribly scripted film with incredible performances, we could look forward to more of the same.

Denzel got the Oscar for Training Day, but I don’t think Harsh Times is going to win any awards, despite having exactly the same quantity of overacting in it. Substitute Christian Bale in place of Denzel, and make him a returned Ranger veteran with post traumatic stress disorder instead of being a nasty, corrupt cop, and you have Harsh Times, set on the mean streets of San Andreas. I mean, Los Angeles.

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Running Scared

dir: Wayne Kramer
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Running Scared is two hours long, and over the course of those two hours it tries to ensure that at least some element will offend everyone. It is loud, extremely violent, profane, visually aggressive and completely over the top. It is thus, for me, a very entertaining film.

It also has an entertaining performance by Paul Walker, which I never thought were words I would ever write down in a review. As an actor I’ve generally considered him to be the acting equivalent of elevator music, though now that I’ve used that phrase, I’m trying to recall the last time I heard elevator music. I don’t think it’s been in the last fifteen years, so there could be an entire confused generation of people who’ve never heard of elevator music (or muzak, as it used to be known), and are now despondent and heartbroken. For that I am truly sorry.

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Freedomland

dir: Joe Roth
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As the old phrase goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It’s also drenched in an oil slick of egotism, smug righteousness and self-delusion.

Freedomland is a terrible mess of a film made by a director who hasn’t made a semi-decent movie in his entire career, unless you count Revenge of the Nerds II.

The plot isn’t the worst thing about this film, nor are (all) the acting performances, or its pacing or length, width or girth. The biggest problem is Julianne Moore’s performance as one of the main characters. For someone who’s considered to be so good, goddamn does she stink up the joint with her surreal attempts to act ‘down’. She is completely and fundamentally unbelievable in the role.

She plays Brenda, a recovering junkie whose son has gone missing. She works at a community outreach centre near some New Jersey projects, and tells police that she was carjacked with her son in the back seat on the way home.

Because her brother is a policeman in an adjoining borough, and because she’s white, the police go berserk on the projects, locking them down in order to find the kid.

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Miami Vice

dir: Michael Mann
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The world was crying out for a film version of Miami Vice the way that the world was crying out for a remake of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Mind Your Language or Filthy, Rich and Catflap. Yet, here it is, and here we are again, staring down the barrel of yet another review for a film that really shouldn’t exist.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. Michael Mann is a wonderful director, and the film is competently and professionally well made. But it just doesn’t matter. I’ve had more heated experiences chatting to tombstones at the Carlton cemetery in a drunken stupor. Me, not the tombstones, though they were probably stoned (insert canned laughter here).

Some reviewers have had the temerity to say the film has nothing to do with the original series. I can only guess that these reviewers never watched that pastel and neon suffused series, and don’t really know what they’re talking about.

Apart from the grainy cinematography, this could virtually be a two hour version of a Miami Vice episode. The script for the film is lifted from an early first season episode. The only major difference is that there is plenty more swearing, violence and fucking than they ever could have shown on the telly.

Sweet, tender fucking. Not actual fucking of course. But, you know, it’s something different.

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Brick

dir: Rian Johnson
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Brick has a central conceit who presence balances the movie on a knife’s edge of being tolerable or intolerable: if you can stomach teenagers (or actors pretending to be teenagers) chewing over the hard-boiled dialogue of 40s noir in a contemporary setting, then you might enjoy Brick. If not, Brick will be one of the more pointless experiences you will endure this or any other year.

Brick has dialogue sometimes so hard to say and so hard to understand that you wonder if you’re watching a National Geographic documentary about some hitherto unknown American tribe discovered in the ruins of an ancient mall. But therein, for me at least, lies the fun. The director had been trying to get this project off the ground for nearly a decade, and has succeeded where so many others would have given up or caved in to soulless studio reps.

Take the thickened plot and chewy dialogue out, and you’re left with nothing of interest to anyone. Leave it in, and you get something that works most of the time, falters at others, but still remains interesting throughout. This first time director’s mistakes are sometimes as interesting as the times when he gets it right.

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Departed, The

dir: Martin Scorsese
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The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s remake of the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs (Wu jian dao) manages something few remakes ever do: it improves on the original and contributes something more than just proving that there are no new ideas left in Hollywood.

People will argue endlessly over which is the better film, but it’s an irrelevant argument. Both films stand independently of each other, and do what they do best in their own ways. It’s not a competition, after all.

Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan take as much as they need from the original script, and add enough distinctive original material to make the film their own. They go to a lot of trouble to add substantial detail to make the story look like a product of its place and time, which makes many of the more central characters seem more believable.

The story is transplanted from Hong Kong to Boston, and the villains are transformed from triad gangsters to an Irish mob led by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). With the location change, the premise remains the same: two men pretend to be something they are not.

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Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

dir: Chan-wook Park
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Considering the sheer quantity of crap that comes out at the cinemas and on DVD, it’s refreshing to occasionally get excited about a specific director’s work. It’s a grand affair to ‘discover’ a director whose work you’ve known nothing about before, whose work opens up a whole new world for you. You search out their earlier films, and you eagerly anticipate their new flicks.

The Chan-wook Park film I saw was Oldboy, just before the Lumiere cinema shut down, a year or two ago. The film, to put it mildly, and Americanly, rocked my world. It was a revelation, and not only did I set out to find out if his other films were as masterful, but I also became even more interested in checking out Korean films in general.

If you’re lucky, when this happens, you discover that the director and his people are even better film makers than you expected from the first effort you got to see. If you’re unlucky, you find out they’re a lucky bunch of hacks and their one good film was a fluke. You know, like Star Wars.

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