Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011)
Comedy, Drama, Romance, 107 minutes
Directed by Lasse Hallström
Starring Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas and Amr Waked

Some movies are written off because of their titles and it takes a while for them to gain an audience. Few people knew what The Shawshank Redemption was before it was released on VHS. Another confusing title is The World's Fastest Indian. Is it about an athlete of some kind? While other movies, such as Freedom Writers and The Reader, simply sound boring. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is in danger of being dismissed due to its title, but that would be a mistake.

Dr. Alfred Jones (McGregor) is a fisheries expert, and he seems like a boring man. His existence is dull and safe. His relationship with his wife is one of mutual tolerance, and they do not share the same passions. He only drinks alcohol on the weekend, and only after 7pm. Nobody takes him seriously at work either, so he has little to look forward to.

Sheikh Muhammed (Waked) is a keen fisherman, but that's not an easy hobby to satisfy when you are surrounded by sand. He recruits a team to investigate the possibility of building a river in the desert, and populating it with salmon, so that he can pursue his passion for fishing. Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Blunt) is given the task of recruiting Jones and anyone or anything else that might be needed to complete the project. She's in a new relationship and loves a soldier, but that is put on hold when he is called up for duty.

The movie is heavily influenced by romance. Harriet is in a hopeful new relationship, Jones is in a tired marriage, and could there even be the possibility of romance between the two with them working so closely together? The other main element is humor. The largely British cast influences the tone, and the humor is more subtle and understated than in typical North American comedies. I found myself smiling often, rather than laughing out loud. Most of the laughs come at the expense of Jones, who is set in his routines and is a quirky individual.

Jones doesn't treat the project seriously because it sounds so ludicrous, but his outlook changes when he meets Sheikh Muhammed, who is one of the most likable characters in the movie.

Blunt is not a typical beauty, but she's a good actress. I was impressed with her performances in Sunshine Cleaning and The Adjustment Bureau, and she's just as effective in this movie. She has a certain warmth and vulnerability that works well for a romantic lead. McGregor most recently caught my attention in The Ghost Writer, and he plays Jones perfectly.

However, the movie is more than a romantic comedy. The two leads are required to pull off several emotional scenes, especially in the final act.

One character who elicits laughs in every scene in which she appears is Patricia Maxwell (Thomas), who plays the British Prime Minister's aide. She's the main villain in the story and is always out to manipulate the situation in order to gain votes and positive mentions in the newspapers.

I'm not entirely sure who the movie is aimed at, but it worked for me. It won't change your life with a dramatic message that you've never seen before, but it's an enjoyable place to visit for a while.

The Blu-ray presentation is strong and the desert scenes look particularly impressive. Special features are sparse and total just over 16 minutes.

Overall score 3.75/5

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Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Master (Theatrical Review)

The Master (2012)
Drama, 137 minutes
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams

Every once in a while, a film is created by a visionary director at the top of his game, with memorable performances from some of the best actors working today, resulting in a cohesive, moving and powerful story that fully resonates with me.

This is not one of those times.

The Master is populated by unlikable characters who do nothing to redeem themselves at any point in the film.

The bulk of the story takes place in 1950. Freddie Quell (Phoenix) is an able-bodied seaman who has trouble adapting to life after the war. He may have been mentally disturbed before that, but we aren't shown enough of his background to make that determination.

We are shown something of Quell's attempts to hold down a regular job -- he seems to have a gift for photography -- but he's quick to anger and attacks one of his customers without apparent provocation. He's also an alcoholic, and we see him drinking all manner of questionable substances, some of which appear to be potentially lethal. When he's accused of poisoning someone with one of his concoctions, he seeks refuge on a ship.

This is where the film gives the audience a glimmer of hope that it will develop into something interesting. This ship is run by Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), who claims to be a writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher, and a great many more things. Dodd is fascinated by human beings and psychology, and wants to understand Quell and help him with his obvious anger issues. Dodd has his own way of doing things and his psychoanalysis produces the most memorable scenes in the movie.

Dodd is married to Peggy (Adams), but she's just as unpleasant as the rest of the characters. She barely had any lines, and most of the ones she did have were obscene.

Quell frequently fantasizes about women, as outlined in an early masturbation scene on the beach with a girl fashioned out of sand. This theme is continued when he pictures women naked at a gathering.

If this were a story about Dodd's quest to heal Quell, I might be satisfied with it, but the plot meanders along without any obvious conclusion.

I consider myself a patient viewer, and I appreciate all manner of films that have slow plots, hidden messages, and flawed characters. Unfortunately, The Master left me disappointed.

The final 30 minutes were thought-provoking. I found myself thinking whether I should walk out, and whether anyone would mind if I were to take off my right shoe and scratch my foot. I also wondered whether time was moving differently all of a sudden, and if this was the same Paul Thomas Anderson who gave is There Will Be Blood and Magnolia.

The individual components of the film were mostly in place; the acting was fine, the cinematography and score worked, and Anderson presented a convincing picture of New York in the 1950s. What wasn't present was a coherent story or a reason to care about these miserable characters.

I doubt that Amy Adams will ever work for Disney again after some of the words that came out of her mouth.

Overall score 2/5

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Friday, October 12, 2012

Seven Psychopaths (Theatrical Review)

Seven Psychopaths (2012)
Comedy, Crime, 109 minutes
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton, Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko

I've been waiting for the release of Seven Psychopaths ever since I learned that Martin McDonagh was writing and directing. If you have seen In Bruges, you'll know that McDonagh has a dark sense of humor, not too far removed from something Quentin Tarantino might be involved with.

Does Seven Psychopaths match the brilliance of In Bruges? Not quite, but it's still an entertaining movie.

Marty (Farrell) is a struggling screenwriter, who has decided on little more than the title, Seven Psychopaths. The problem is, he wants his psychopaths to be Buddhist, and he can't see how they would go around killing people. He decides to make one Amish instead, for no particular reason. Marty doesn't have a clue about writing.

His friends, Billy (Rockwell) and Hans (Walken), make money by dognapping and returning the animals to their owners in order to claim the reward money. This backfires when they inadvertently take a dog belonging to Charlie (Harrelson), who is some kind of crime lord. You only have to read the tag on the collar of his beloved Shih Tzu to understand Charlie's outlook on life.

Seven Psychopaths is a comedy. It's also extremely violent at times, and has more than its fair share of foul language (including the word that almost every woman detests), with brief nudity and occasional racist remarks. But it's obvious that everything is tongue-in-cheek. It's almost impossible to mistake the movie for a serious drama; it's a fun ride, and the R-rated material does not seem offensive or out of place.

I've already mentioned Tarantino, and for good reason. The genre and setting are almost irrelevant; this is an exercise in style, and you'll either love it or hate it. Dialogue is everything in this type of movie and most of the writing is inventive, witty and intelligent. The opening scene is reminiscent of Pulp Fiction, with two hit men talking nonsense. The scene ends in an unexpected way, and I won't reveal it here, but it sets the tone for the whole movie.

McDonagh is aware of the course that Hollywood action movies are supposed to follow, and Seven Psychopaths challenges those expectations. One character suggests that they pitch a tent in the middle of the desert so they can just sit there and talk, rather than having a traditional shootout with the bad guys. In response, his friend asks whether this is a French movie. It's that kind of humor. Another interchange observes that women have a rough deal in this story; when they aren't being verbally abused, they are in danger of being removed permanently.

I won't say any more about the plot because it's enjoyable seeing things gradually unfold on the screen, except to say that my favorite scene featured Hans making a suggestion about how to end the movie. Walken's comic timing is excellent as always, and his scenes are funnier when you think about some of the characters he has played in the past.

The movie features good performances from Rockwell, Walken, Harrelson and Farrell in particular, although nobody else delivers a weak performance. The audience in my theater laughed often, and occasionally groaned at the unexpected violent scenes. If you go in expecting a dark comedy along the lines of In Bruges, Fargo, or The Guard, you'll likely enjoy the experience. The pacing feels just right.

One thing I should add is that it's best to sit through the credits, or you will miss the final scene.

I'm looking forward to the Blu-ray and the next McDonagh movie. It would be fun to see Brendan Gleeson involved too.

Overall score 4/5

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Saturday, October 6, 2012

Taken 2 (Theatrical Review)

Taken 2 (2012)
Action, Crime, Drama (91 minutes)
Directed by Olivier Megaton
Starring Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace and Famke Janssen

I knew nothing about Taken when it was released in 2008, but it proved to be one of the best action movies I had ever seen. There was just enough information about the characters to care about them, and the action was intense and rather elegant.

That shouldn't surprise me because Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen wrote the script. Besson had previously grabbed my attention with Léon: The Professional, which is one of the best action movies ever made. La Femme Nikita was another notable triumph. I mention all that to explain why I was already sold on the idea of Taken 2 as soon as it was announced.

So, did it meet my lofty expectations?

The opening scenes were something of a surprise with Bryan Mills (Neeson) interacting with his ex-wife, Lenore (Janssen), and daughter, Kim (Grace) extensively. I like that we are shown how Mills has grown closer to Lenore. In the original movie, she was cold and spiteful, but the two are clearly on better terms now that Mills has used his skills to rescue Kim from her kidnappers. It made perfect sense and rang true for me.

The plot is simple. If you remember Marko from the first movie, you'll probably know that he was part of an Albanian gang. In Taken 2, Marko's father is obsessed with avenging the death of his son. He's not interested in why Marko was killed, or that he was guilty of many crimes, he's only interested in seeing Mills killed. When Mills takes Lenore and Kim on vacation to Istanbul, Marko's father instructs his gang to capture Mills and his family. He partly succeeds, but Kim escapes.

The opening setup is quite long and thorough, and I remember thinking that more than half the audience were probably anxious to see Neeson get on with the task of eliminating the opposition in as many unique and violent ways as possible. However, once the action starts, it's relentless and intense. We see car chases, shootouts, fights, threats, brief torture, and a rapidly increasing body count.

Mills wants Kim to stay out of danger, but eventually enlists her help. I'm half expecting a sequel called 'Miss Taken.'

It's unrealistic to expect a movie of this nature to be completely plausible. After all, the basic premise is that a 60-year-old man is capable of defeating gangs armed with automatic weapons. The method Mills uses to escape his kidnappers is so simple that I have to wonder why he didn't do it about 30 minutes earlier, but I'll forgive that.

The ending was quite inventive, and paves the way for another sequel should Neeson and the cast want to reprise their roles a third time.

I did have a few minor complaints, such as the kidnappers talking in English when it's obvious that they would stick to Albanian. Another minor annoyance was the use of shaky cam shots throughout most of the intense action scenes. There's a fine line between adding excitement and losing track of the events on the screen. The line was crossed a few times.

Overall, I was happy with Taken 2. It delivered more of what I liked about the first movie and added depth to the relationships between the main characters. I don't think it's quite as good as Taken because we now know what Mills is capable of, and some of the pleasure of the first movie was seeing Mills demonstrate his unique set of skills for the first time.

Taken 2 definitely works better if you have seen the first installment. Some of the actions and dialogue are direct references to events from the first movie, and you will miss some of the humor if you aren't aware of past events.

Fans of Taken will be more than happy with this worthy sequel.

Two things to remember:

1) Never agree to go on vacation with Bryan Mills.
2) If Neeson uses your taxi cab, you probably won't see it in one piece again.

Overall score 4.5/5

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