Thursday, September 28, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

From competitive sports, common wisdom has inherited certain cliches, one of those being: "there can be only one winner". Those who espouse this axiom will tell you that as people, we can fall into one of two categories: 'winners' or 'losers'. (Generally speaking though, it's the people who have just won that come out with stuff like this. Twelfth place just doesn't get the same publicity!)

In "Little Miss Sunshine" we are introduced to the Hoovers, a family populated almost exclusively by losers. Each is in assorted stages of loserdom (denial, depression, anger) and employing various coping mechanisms to deal with the harsh reality of their predicaments: suicide, heroin, vows of silence...

Now at first glance, this may not sound the stuff of a light-hearted comedy with a heart of gold and a brain to boot, but as most right-thinking comedy fans will tell you: the best comic characters are downtrodden, and certainly not winners. For whatever perverse reason, the misfortunes of tragic characters have always been a source of comedy gold (think David Brent, Basil Fawlty, Alan Partridge..), and the misfortunes of the male leads in "Little Miss Sunshine" are no small potatoes: Richard (Greg Kinnear)'s career (as a motivational speaker, ironically) is in freefall. Grandpa Edwin (Alan Arkin) is snorting heroin, "because I'm old." Dwayne (Paul Dano) is fifteen, and has taken a vow of silence, inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche. And Frank (Steve Carell's character), well, let's just say he's at a bit of a low point.

However, in the midst of all this disappointment is the blissfully innocent seven-year-old Abigail, who receives the news that she has won a place in the 'Little Miss Sunshine' kids beauty pageant. Richard and Sheryl (Olive's mom, played by Toni Collette) immediately argue over how the trip to California can be achieved - an early indicaton to us of their rapidly disintegrating relationship - and the eventual solution reached is that the whole family pile into a beaten up VW Van, and drive the 800 miles cross-country to the pageant...

The mix of characters in Little Miss Sunshine is brilliantly devised, and just as well portrayed by an excellent cast. Alan Arkin, playing Richard's father, is grizzled and abrasive. Dwayne is in the last place he wants to be, although he slowly develops a relationship with his morose uncle Frank. Richard (Kinnear) is relentlessly positive in the face of his failing career and marriage, continually referring to his '9 step plan' to success ad nauseam, much to the annoyance of anyone within earshot. The enforced interaction in the van is great to watch, with Olive's walkman a useful device to allow Grandpa Arkin vent his spleen at any opportunity, driving his son (Kinnear) crazy.

I won't give anything away about the second or third acts of the movie, but I can safely say the pageant scenes from the little miss sunshine contest are like nothing else you'll have seen in a movie!

Despite of (or possibly thanks to) its population of tragic losers, "Little Miss Sunshine" is a charming, bright comedy, poignant in its more thoughtful moments. The central themes of ambition and disappointment, or winning versus losing, permeate the words and deeds of the Hoover family, and will leave you with a smile on your face, and maybe even something to think about when the credits roll... you never know!

Verdict: Warm, sad and funny, a slow-burning comedy that shouldn't disappoint.
Rating: 8/10

Monday, September 25, 2006


If an episode of the OC had been guest-written by Raymond Chandler, the hybrid would have been almost as strangely compelling as 'Brick', a movie which was actually written and directed by a man named Rian Johnson. As unusual as it is smart, Brick is one of those sleeper movies that will only grow in popularity as more people see it on DVD.

'Brick', in a nutshell, is the story of high-school student Brendan and his undercover mission to find his ex-girlfriend's killer. Brendan's investigation ultimately proves that he is attending quite possibly the most gritty and dangerous high school in the world, but that does not detract in the least from the intricate and cleverly woven yarn that is gradually revealed to us over the hour and forty minutes of so of this movie.

Brick is made in the noir style (think Chinatown, and if you haven't seen Chinatown, rent that first!) with all the associated intrigue, deceipt and twists and turns. What sets it apart from other examples of noir movies is that, rather than being set against the backdrop of a 1950's detective's beat, the events of Brick present themselves against the unlikely backdrop of an apple pie U.S. high school... I'm going to find it hard to finish this review without using the word 'juxtaposition', but I'll give it a go... ah dammit!

This awkward setting for a noir thriller, fortunately, works. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who will be familiar to most from TV show "Third Rock from the Sun", is coldly effective as Brendan, a resourceful, intelligent kid with just about the wits necessary to keep his head above water the deeper he gets into this intriguing story. The teens in this school are all playing each other, and the more Brendan digs, the more it seems that everybody has an angle..

His investigation uncovers a web of drugs, violence, murder, and ultimately the answer he is looking for. Not only who killed Emily, but why? The story is very well paced, and once I had got to grips with the dialogue, which is maddeningly difficult to understand at times, I found I was gripped. The characters are all noir stereotypes (the dark anti-hero, the muscle man, the king pin, the victim, the femme fatale) but they are all played to a tee, and the unusual setting for this style of movie keeps the audience guessing, right to the end.

I can only recommend 'Brick' as a surprisingly effective suspense thriller. Well acted and tautly directed with fizzingly dense, but ultimately meaningful, witty dialogue, Brick will surprise you, and reward you for taking the time out to watch.

Verdict: Gripping, intelligent, a real treat.
Rating: 8/10

Sunday, September 24, 2006

V for Vendetta

As a reformed Matrix nut, I was willing to wait a while after 'Revelations' before I rushed out to see another Wachowski brothers offering, but I have to say that V for Vendetta is an interesting little movie. Now before I get into this, I should point out that in the closing credits, V for Vendetta is described as 'based on a graphic novel.' For the uninitiated, this is like a comic book, only with more gravitas... Graphic Novels are generally not episodic, so do not have a 'to be continued..' waiting for you on the last page. (Just as well, as they're generally about twice the price of a regular novel). Anyway, armed with this knowledge, you would be wise to prepare yourself for a mature, brooding, dark story in V for Vendetta. And you would be right. For graphic novels, think themes of emotional resonance, as opposed to the comic book style, where the dolphins have laser beams on their heads...

It appears that heroes from graphic novels are not as formulaic or straight forward as their comic book cousins. The standard ingredients of a superhero comic book story (mask, superhuman strength, well-equipped lair) are here, but are not at the forefront of what makes V for Vendetta interesting. V's origins are revealed, but is 'becoming' is more tragic than your standard comic boook fare. Also, the V character never once removes his mask (which begs the question, was Hugo Weaving ever on set at all, or did he just do a Pixar-style voice-over from a studio somewhere?) .

Natalie Portman's character has far more screen-time than V, and their relationship is definitely not your orthodox super-hero/screen belle type deal. The relationship between V and Evie (Natalie Portman's character) , while tender and ultimately very intense, is a million miles from Lois and Clark. If you have seen the trailer for this movie, with Natalie Portman's sporting a shaved head, you have a clue as to how much fun she has in this movie...

So to cover the plot, V is set in the near future in a dystopic England, the government is a totalitarian-style regime with a menacing John Hurt in the seat of power. Curfews are in place, and the corrupt secret police patrol the streets at night. V encounters Evie when she has a run in with the secret police, saves her from a pretty nasty fate, and then takes her to a show of his handiwork: namely a fairly extravagant terrorist act. Evie, who works at BTN (the 2015 equivalent of the BBC) becomes properly embroiled in V's schemes when he takes over the network, broadcasting a promise to the nation that he will return on Guy Fawkes night the following year to blow up the houses of parliament.

V's broadcast has an impact the downtrodden people of England, who ready themselves for his return, unsettling the political establishment, while the propaganda of BTN attempts to convince them of V's demise, and the importance of maintaining the status quo. While the people await V's return, a cop (Stephen Rea) investigating the whereabouts of the terrorist finds himself drawn into a mysterious cover-up, and it is through this plot line that we learn of V's origins.

The themes tackled in V for Vendetta are not light-weight, and in some areas you get the sense its scope is a little too ambitious. However, it is a memorable movie and I'd recommend it on the basis that Weaving's dialogue, while at times extremely complicated, is delivered with ease and in a manner that warms you to the character. Natalie Portman has some great moments in V, but her accent is 'fairly dodgy' (as she might say). That said, Weaving sports a mask for this entire film, so she is acting for both of them in their scenes together, and she does a good job. The movie is book-ended with two special-effects driven moments, but for the most part, this is a film about what makes people tick... you know, emotionally and that. If you are expecting a crash-bang-wallop bullet-time-laden kung-fu-fest, go rent the first matrix movie (or possibly the second). If you want something a little off-beat, with a dark, brooding story and a small dose of breathtaking knife-wielding lunacy, then 'V for Vendetta' may be the one for you.

Verdict: Smart, dark, very nice to look at, but a little too ambitious.
Rating: 6/10

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