2LDK

2LDK

How 2LDK came about is, you have director Yukihiko Tsutsumi sitting down with Ryuhei Kitamura sometime in 2002. And these guys, they like film, they certainly like each other. So the idea comes up maybe they should work together. Tsutsumi tells the story over and over, how neither of them are drinkers, how the restaurant they chose was perfect for their decision. While the world got sloshed, they set the rules for the Duel Project:

– 60 minutes long, 2 films, no R-18 rating.
– One set each. No one is allowed to leave.
– Two actors, both male, or both female.
– Both films must operate on the same budget.
– Both films must contain ‘mysterious’ similarities.
– Whoever attracts the least amount of business loses.
– Whoever attracts a higher TV audience wins a special award.
– Any director who makes a profit may receive a bonus.
– No complaints if we just do one movie together.

The result is a lovely mess. Kitamura went off to create Aragami, a blazing long old-school swordfight of a film. As for Tsutsumi, well – both directors agree he got the better end of the deal. The premise: two young model-actresses (Lana and Nozomi, played by Maho Nonami and Eiko Koike), both working for the same talent agency, come to lethal blows one terrible night over an upcoming role. The battleground: a “two-bedroom one-living dining kitchen” in central Tokyo. It’s a rather up-scale place; we learn quickly that the girls are guests, that the owner is away on some business or another. There is a “half-character” parrot overseeing the atrium. There are swords and sharp corners all about. There are eggs and chainsaws and fountains and electrical hazards. You can imagine.

Watching these girls brawl is far more fun than it ought to be. This is a movie you can’t help but tell your friends about, even if you don’t find much in the story. For enthusiasts, it’s easy to recommend: the way you watch, say, Suicide Circle for its moments, you watch 2LDK for the duration. Entertaining and digestible, it’s short enough – and surprisingly cute enough – to merit repeat viewings, in mixed company, even in the same night. And it’s likely to hold attention.

But does all this make the movie good? Well… it depends. How much you value any portion of 2LDK may bank on how much you know, or care to know, about its origin. To me, 2LDK needs the backstory to be what it is. To some, take away the ladder and what you’ve got is really not a lot apart from so much obvious dialogue and popcorn violence. TLA Releasing seems to have understood this in putting the DVD together. If you find that at 70 minutes the movie doesn’t qualify, then the hour-plus of featurettes and interviews are very welcome, and perhaps a little bit necessary. It certainly helps the purchase. It also results in a good deal more insight and background than I’ve been able to include here.

And then: 2LDK is alone in distribution (in North America), while an Aragami/2LDK box set has been available in Japan since January. Who made this decision? Tsutsumi’s half certainly isn’t lost without its pair, but especially under the Dual Project heading, it look a bit lonely, if not silly, on the shelf. What makes it so acceptable is knowing that “silly” is the heart of the thing.

Translation notes: Shohei Ikeda

2LDK
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2LDK (2002)
Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi
Stars Maho Nonami, Eiko Koike
Genre Thriller, Action

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Steamboy (Suchîmubîi)

After revolutionising Anime in 1988 with Akira, director Katsuhiro Otomo has now turned his attentions to Victorian England in his latest animation feature. Manchester schoolboy Ray Steam (voiced by Anna Paquin, X-Men‘s Rogue) is given a mysterious steam ball by his wild-eyed and white-haired inventor grandfather Lloyd (Patrick Stewart), and warned to guard it with his life. Lloyd also breaks the news to the young lad that his scientist father Dr Eddie Steam has died while working on an experiment. Promptly after this dire news, Ray is chased across Manchester’s countryside by delegates from the weapon-building O’Hara Foundation who covet the steam ball’s immense industrial power.

The steamball—one of three, of which the company already hold the other two—is a hybrid invention that combines extreme density and extreme pressure, and the three steamballs together are capable of easily powering an entire nation. Thus, the weapon-inventing, building and supplying O’Hara foundation has much to gain from capturing this boy and his inheritance. In a visually stunning and suspenseful scene, Ray attempts to transfer the steamball to government official Robert Stevens, who is riding down to London on the train. As Ray follows alongside Steven’s carriage, propelled by his own invention—an early protoype of a motorbike—the Foundation’s men arrive on a Heath Robinson-esque mind-boggling air machine that looms high and large over the train. The animation flows effortlessly, the battle of the machines is breathtaking, and the scene whips by at breakneck pace. Soon after, Ray and the steamball are kidnapped by the Foundation and taken to London.

At the Foundation’s London headquarters – a giant cylindrical steam castle floating over the Thames – Ray discovers his estranged father (voiced by Alfred Molina, Dr Octopus of Spider Man 2 ). It turns out that rumours of his death have been greatly exaggerated, and that Eddie has instead fallen out with his father Lloyd over their joint creation of the steam balls, and is now working for the Foundation. Lloyd soon arrives to help out Ray, and refuses to apologise for saying Ray’s father has died, for “when a man crosses the line into pure evil, then he’s as good as dead”. This is followed through in Eddie’s visual appearance. Due to a horrendous industrial accident, he has become part man and machine and is transformed almost beyond his son’s recognition. The meeting of the evil half-robotic father and innocent moralistic son results in a full-on Return of the Jedi moment, as Ray is torn between serving his persuasive but demented father and the Foundation, and handing over the steam ball to the English government who have equally dubious and warring intentions.

Costing around $20 million to produce and with a total ten years in the making, Steamboy is one of the most expensive Japanese animations of all time and consequently is beautiful to look at. Disappointingly though, the visuals are badly let down by a poorly organised narrative and—aside from the three leads described above—weak vocal characterisation. The Northern accents in the first part of the film are unconvincing, the various locations are not clearly demarcated, and the final act is utterly confusing.

Additionally, many things occur in Steamboy which appear to make no sense and add nothing to the plot. The head of the O’Hara foundation has a young American daughter called Scarlett, but there seems to be no reason why there should be any Gone with the Wind references, and when Ray’s grandfather Lloyd appears in London to battle his evil son Eddie, he spends his time capering around almost naked, clad only in torn-up shorts and with his bony old chest on permanent display. The saving grace is that Lloyd is voiced by Patrick Stewart, who confers an air of Jean-Luc Picard dignity on the proceedings, and both Paquin and Molina turn in strong vocal performances. Despite all the film’s evident problems, Steamboy’s action set-pieces are so exciting and intense, and the animation so fluid, that, in the end, you may well forgive the film its structural flaws and succumb entirely to Otomo’s stunning steam-powered world.

Steamboy (Suchîmubîi) (2004)
Dir. Katsuhiro Otomo
Stars: Anna Paquin, Patrick Stewart, Alfred Molina (English language voices)
Genre: Animation, Fantasy

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Dancer in the Dark

Dancer in the Dark

Dancer in the Dark premiered in Cannes in 2000 with a lot of expectation surrounding it, due in part to the fact that director Lars Von Trier has a tradition of bringing great films to the Croisette (Breaking the Waves won the Special Jury Award in 1996, and Europa also won special mentions in 1991). The movie had some previous publicity thanks to acclaimed singer Björk—who had the lead in the film—and the reputed clashes between her and Von Trier. Dancer in the Dark ended up winning two top honors at the festival: the Palm D’Or and the Best Actress award for Björk (whose song, I’ve seen it All, from the soundtrack, was also nominated for an Oscar in the Best Original Song category).

The film revolves around Selma (Björk), a Czech immigrant factory worker. She sublets a small trailer in the yard of an American family, in 1950s rural America (when the witch hunting for communists was in full bloom, which is noticeable as the story unravels). Selma is going blind due to a hereditary genetic condition, and knows that her son, Gene (Vladica Kostic), will suffer the same fate if he does not get specialist surgery. She works long hours in a factory, plus night shifts and other jobs, so she can save as much money as possible to pay for Gene’s operation.

Her only escape is her love of musicals: in her few spare hours she is also training for the lead part in a local presentation of The Sound of Music. And although she can’t see anymore, she attends matinees of Busby Berkeley movies with her friend Cathy (played by Catherine Deneuve). The drama starts to unfold the moment that Bill (David Morse), a police officer and also Selma’s landlord, steals her saved money. It’s a downward spiral for Selma from that point on.

Filmed on digital video by Robby Müller—who also shot Breaking the Waves—and choreographed by Vincent Patterson, the film intersects Selma’s bleak life with glorious musical numbers, meant to represent her escape from reality (beautifully illustrated in the number I’ve Seen it All, where the audience come to terms with Selma’s blindness).

Dancer in the Dark ends up being more than just a traditional musical thanks to Von Trier’s ability to film stories that require a leap of faith. In much the same way we had to believe in Bess, Emily Watson’s character, in Breaking the Waves, and her ultimate sacrifice, Selma’s character requires the same belief from us: all her hardship, all her pain, are meant to equally save someone. Björk ends up being the soul of the film in more than one sense—her performance is so terribly heartfelt and painfully real, that you can’t help being moved—she embodies all that mothers stand for, and in the musical numbers, her voice and sheer presence shine through. Also responsible for the soundtrack (with the help of her usual collaborator, LFO’s Mark Bell), Björk deservedly won praise and awards for the film. The rest of the supporting cast is equally top notch, from Catherine Deneuve (who crumbles her usual icy visage in the fnal moments of the film), to David Morse’s Bill, Peter Stormare as the loveable Jeff and Cara Semour’s Linda (Bill’s wife, who lives under the erroneous belief that all is well in her household).

Dancer in the Dark is a film that stays with you, not only for its intensity and drama, but also because of its beauty and otherworldly moments where Selma, like the audience, escapes from her everyday life.

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Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Director Lars Von Trier
Stars Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Cara Seymour, Joel Grey, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgard
Genre Drama

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16 Blocks

Find out our 16 blocks movie review.

16 Blocks

Some movie plots seem to have been plucked out of the air on a “what if…” basis, taking some absurd notion to its logical conclusion. Take Phone Booth(2002) for example. The what if… in that feature was whether it’d be possible to keep Colin Farrell in a phone booth for an entire movie. Doesn’t necessarily sound good on paper, but the resulting movie was better than it had any right to be. Another example would be Speed (1994). It’s not hard to imagine the studio execs arching their eyebrows and saying, “I’ve got this right: it’s set on a bus that can’t go slower than thirty miles an hour…?”

Take yet another what if… scenario: what if Bruce Willis had to transport a prisoner 16 blocks and it took him the whole damn movie to do it? Sounds crazy, but that movie got made.

Bruce Willis plays Jack Mosley, a tired, middle-aged cop, who has to mop his brow at the top of a flight of stairs and owns the kind of moustache last seen on the Village People. He’s awoken from his weary, drunken trance when the prisoner he’s been ordered to take to a grand jury hearing just 16 blocks away is the victim of an attempted assassination. It turns out that the prisoner, Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), is a crucial witness in a police corruption trial and now half the NYPD want him dead. Rather than turn a blind eye to Eddie’s murder—something, it’s implied, he may have done in the past—Mosley gains a conscience and makes it his business to get Eddie to court, even if it kills him.

Leading the corrupt police is Mosely‘s former partner, Frank Nugent (played by the excellent David Morse), a gritty, gum chewing, morally dubious detective of the kind that populated crime movies of the 70s. In fact, the whole movie has a 70s vibe to it, thanks to the timeless New York backdrop and overcast skies.

The movie ducks and weaves through New York’s Chinatown, through its sweatshop basements and rooftops as Mosely and Eddie try and stay one step ahead of the cops on their tail. There‘s a slight touch of 24 to the proceedings as it largely happens in real time (Eddie has to get to court before 10am or the jury will be dismissed).

Willis is spot on as the fatigued Mosely, although the mumbling Mos Def is an acquired taste with his relentless chatter. Richard Donner‘s direction is assured and dynamic, and he has no need to rely on any flashy techniques to tell the story. The plot is always interesting, constantly lurching in new directions, although there is probably one twist and turn too many by the time the credits roll.

The film is as much character study as it is action movie: Donner takes the time to invest the main trio with real personalities, and it pays dividends because 16 Blocks has more depth than most action movies coming out of Hollywood combined. It does have its flaws and plot holes you could drive and ambulance (or two) through, but works perfectly adequately as a solid and intelligent piece of action entertainment.

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16 Blocks (2006)
Director Richard Donner
Stars Bruce Willis, Mos Def, David Morse, Jenna Stern, Casey Sander, David Zayas
Genre Drama, Action

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Mission Impossible III

Mission Impossible III

The Summer blockbuster season is officially upon us and first out of the gate is Mission Impossible III, the latest instalment of the Tom Cruise action franchise based on the TV series that ran from 1966 to 1973 about a group of secret agents working for the US government. The movies are high octane entertainment, with the elaborate plotting of the TV shows making way for explosions and car chases.

The series has had an illustrious series of directors with Brian De Palma taking the reigns in 1996, followed by John Woo in 2000. Now, Alias and Lost creator JJ Abrams has his name on the director’s chair, and adds a playful sense of mystery to the proceedings.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Owen Davian, a powerful bad guy who appears to be some kind of top-end arms dealer. Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is brought out of retirement to lead a trio of agents—Luther Strickell (Ving Rhames), Declan (Jonathon Rhys Meyers) and Zhen (Maggie Q)—to rescue an IMF operative kidnapped by Davian. The mission fails when an explosive planted in the operative’s head explodes.

The team manage to discover that Davian is planning on selling a hugely expensive weapon code named The Rabbit’s Foot to a Middle Eastern country, so they track him down to the Vatican City and kidnap him. Davian himself is then spectacularly rescued, and takes revenge on Hunt by threatening to kill his new wife Julia (the elfin-nosed Michelle Monaghan) unless he gets the Rabbit’s Foot and delivers it to Davian within 48 hours.

The Rabbit’s Foot is the biggest MacGuffin of all time: neither we nor the characters ever find out what it actually is, it’s just a device to set the battles between Davian and Hunt in motion. In fact the plot is faintly ridiculous and really makes very little sense, but no matter: I enjoyed the ride and that’s all that counts. Surprisingly, the best performance in this film doesn’t come from Hoffman, who’s simply a one-note baddie with no room for development, but rather Laurence Fishburne, who plays Hunt’s boss John Brassel and is given some excellent lines to chew on. Simon Pegg puts in a nice little cameo as a nerdy computer operator in a role that was apparently originally slated for Ricky Gervais.

It’s pretty much action all the way, with only momentary pauses for breath as the drama lurches from the US to Germany to Shanghai leaving a trail of destruction and spent shell casings. Abrams proves himself to be adept at handling the mayhem, employing a gritty, motion sickness-inducing hand-held camera style. He’s slated to direct the next Star Trek movie, a Kirk and Spock prequel, due for release in 2008, but there’s no doubt he’ll be in demand to direct other glossy action flicks.

M:I:3 is probably the best Mission Impossible movie so far, but it’s still dumbed-down entertainment that makes the average James Bond film look like Ingmar Bergman. But this is the nature of summer blockbusters and if you go in with low expectations, you’ll be rewarded with an frantic, adrenaline-charged movie that allows you to park your brain next to your popcorn for two hours and enjoy our favourite Scientologist kicking some ass.

There’s a small easter egg for Lost fans should you decide to sit through the credits. The last company thanked before the lights come up is The Hanso Foundation.

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Mission Impossible III (2006)
Director JJ Abrams
Stars Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Genre Action

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The Da Vinci Code

It’s difficult to know quite why, but The Da Vinci Code, cribbed from a number of dubious sources and reading like a poorly written airport novel, has become a world-wide phenomenon. Author Dan Brown has managed to sell over 60 million copies of the book and it was inevitable that the mystery thriller would be turned into a movie. The book has been dogged by controversy since its release, with sceptics, scientists, historians and religious groups jumping up and down like crazed baboons denouncing its inaccuracies. But it’s worth pointing out again, that this is a work of fiction, and although many ideas have been borrowed from books that purport to be historical fact, anyone treating this cobbled-together story as a guide to the real mysteries of the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail needs their head testing.

So while other people are tying themselves in knots fretting that in reality the Louvre‘s restrooms only have liquid soap, so how could the GPS transmitter slipped into Robert Langdon‘s pocket be embedded in a bar of soap and flung from the restroom window? and other deviations from the real world, this review will be looking at how the movie works as a film. After all, if you’re investing in some popcorn, you want to know if the movie is any good, not that the Catholic prelature Opus Dei is up in arms about how they’ve been misrepresented as nothing more than self-flagellating murderers.

But we’re jumping slightly ahead of ourselves, so let’s backtrack and find out who Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is. He is, in fact, a professor of Religious Symbology at Harvard University and is in Paris to give a lecture. Sharp eyed viewers will notice that amongst the symbols shown during his presentation is the Apple “clover” (⌘) symbol used on Mac keyboards. It’s presumably an Easter Egg, the relevance of which becomes obvious as the movie progresses.

Following Langdon’s presentation the French police ask if he can help them with a strange, ritualistic murder. He’s taken to the Louvre where the stripped body of Jacques Saunière, the museum’s curator, lies amid strange symbols and puzzles sketched on the floor in his blood. Langdon becomes the prime suspect in the murder case but is helped to flee from the Louvre by Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a French government cryptographer, who suddenly appears with a message for him. Quite how she knows that captain Bezu Fache (Jean Reno) of the Direction Centrale de la Police Judiciaire, the French criminal investigation police, is planning on framing Langdon, or how she knows that he has a GPS transmitter in his pocket is never explained and is one of the many plot holes that drives a wedge between the viewer and the action.

The pair escape and try and solve the mystery that Saunière left behind, while avoiding the police and Silas (Paul Bettany with dyed hair and a set of unconvincing contact lenses), an albino agent of Opus Dei, who is not averse to shooting people and whipping himself. Certainly, the Silas in the movie is a less complex character than the one in the book, who at least questions whether killing people is the right thing to do.

Langdon and Sophie discover that the mystery is somehow related to the Holy Grail and a cover-up perpetuated by the Church for centuries. They seek refuge with the ridiculously named Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), a self-proclaimed expert on the Priory of Sion, a secret organisation thought to be safeguarding the Holy Grail, and whose member have included Sir Isaac Newton and Leonardo Da Vinci. With Fache and the French police still hot on their tail, they make their escape in Teabing’s private jet and continue their search in London, finally ending up at the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, allegedly built by the Knights Templar.

The movie seems to follow the same pattern continuously: solve a puzzle, do some running; solve a puzzle, do some running and so on. This lack of variation becomes a bit wearing after a while, despite the best efforts of the cast to inject some excitement into proceedings. Not withstanding its hokey source material, the book did have the potential to be a great movie, but somehow Ron Howard’s direction feels leaden, and slightly by-the-numbers. Certainly the screeplay, by Akiva Goldsman (who worked with Howard on the wonderful Cinderella Man) sticks to the novel’s convoluted plot a little too closely for fear of alienating the hardcore fans, but inevitably allows some of Dan Brown’s poor writing to creep in. Something a little more adventurous from both Howard and Goldsman could have given this movie a lift and allowed the actors to do more than spout exposition every couple of minutes.

Having said that, the movie is not so bad that it deserves to the critical mauling it has already experienced in some quarters (which could be explained by a Da Vinci Code backlash from a media that has been saturated with Dan Brown’s novel for years). Whatever the reason, the movie is bogged down by its complexity and hindered by dull direction and stodgy performances from the key actors, who have all done much better work elsewhere. The movie is a below average, tedious potboiler, not a disaster, but is not Ron Howard’s finest hour, and certainly not the movie Tom Hanks will be remembered for.

The Da Vinci Code (2006)
Dir. Ron Howard
Stars: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Jean Reno, Paul Bettany, Alfred Molina
Genre: Drama, Action, Thriller

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District 13

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District 13

For anyone who associates French films with moody, slow paced black & white art-house fare filled with meaningful looks and aloof Frenchmen smoking Gauloises, this is sure to disappoint. For those look more favourably upon Hollywood popcorn action extravaganzas it should prove to be something of an eye-opener.

With Luc Besson (Nikita, Léon, Taxi, The Fifth Element) both producing the film and co-writing the screenplay, this film wasn’t terribly likely to offend me but I had no idea how first-time director Pierre Morel would handle the job. Having left the screening with a wry smile on my face and looking forward to the 60 mile trip home on my motorbike at what might be termed “legally questionable speeds”, suffice to say that I wouldn’t object to seeing more of his work in the future.

The movie is set in 2013, and dispenses with the American “80 Marlboro a day” voiceover introduction in favour of a slightly more subtle treatment (plus subtitles for the non-francophones) to bring us up to pace with the next seven years of our future – a future in which the suburbs of Paris are beset by crime, with the notorious District 13 having been cordoned off from the urbane centre-ville by vast concrete security walls and police checkpoints for the thick end of three years.

Leïto (David Belle) is seemly the only good guy in a bad area, trying to keep the dealers and pimps away from his block by playing off against local gang overlord Taha (Bibi Naceri) and his goons. Ultimately he falls foul of Taha and ends up in prison, from which he escapes during a prisoner transfer with an undercover cop (and martial arts expert) as his accomplice…

Now, I should point out that much of the early criticism of this film has been on grounds of plot, and I’d have to say that it is indeed the weak point – it’s simple, somewhat derivative fare.

Here’s the breakdown – good guy tries to keep his little part of a decaying urban landscape semi-clean, good guy loses out to bad guy, good guys’ sister gets turned into junkie concubine by bad guy, bad guy ends up in possession of dangerous weapon while good guy does upside-down situps in jail, good guy gets picked to act as guide to even more good guy undercover cop Damian (Cyril Raffaelli) , good guy cop earns grudging respect from good guy criminal, buddy movie ensues. Fights happen, good guys win, girl immediately and miraculously de-toxes in the blink of an eye, everyone likes happily ever after.

So why watch such one-dimensional near-future societal-decay nonsense? Because it’s bloody spectacular, that’s why!

David Belle is one of the originators of Le Parkour, or Free Running as the more anglo-centric media would have it. Still greek to you? If you’re a brit, do you remember the BBC ident with the bloke running and jumping across rooftops to get home to watch telly? Well that bloke was David Belle, and there was no wire work or camera trickery involved – he really can leap (between) tall buildings in a single bound.

Belle’s philosophy of Parkour is the fluid progress from A to B without being hindered by structures or other obstacles, and I’d love to know how the cameras keep up with him. Some of the stunts and action sequences are absolutely breathtaking – all the more so when you realise that he did them himself and with little or no safety equipment.

Belle has been somewhat sidelined by the English speaking media in their coverage of Le Parkour, as they have favoured the more stylised and ostentatious path taken by the british Urban Freeflow crew and their French inspiration, Sebastien Foucan (who co-founded Le Parkour with Belle, but later fell out over “artistic differences”). Belle has little time for the flips and tricks favoured by the UF team, preferring the more direct path and advocating grace and speed over flair and ostentation.

To counterpoint Belle’s relentless forward speed and flow, Cyril Raffaelli brings martial arts prowess to the mix as über-cop Damian, along with a good helping of gymnastic skill. As a first class martial artist, Rafaelli works superbly alongside Belle to provide explosive combat sequences punctuated by typically wry buddy-movie dialogue.

Sure, he’s no Van Damme… but that’s a good thing. He fights hard, never once does the splits supported by two chairs, and doesn’t get beaten to a pulp only to make a last-gasp heroic comeback with an amazing spinning kick. He just beats the crap out of people with flourish, style, wit, and breathtaking pace.

For those looking for some female eye-candy to round out the muscle-fest, Leïto’s sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) is easy on the eye albeit in a “cute but crazy french chick with a gun” kind of way.

Overall the plot is derivative, the ending is a let-down, and the characters aren’t likely to rival a more rounded, character-driven piece, but as an example of action-packed film-making it’s truly excellent.

If you want depth of characterisation, riveting dialogue, or a life-changing experience then this is not the film for you.

If, on the other hand you want 85 minutes of entertaining action that beats recent Hollywood fare to the ground without dropping its cigarette and then stands on its opponents throat until it turns blue, you could do worse than hand over your hard-earned cash and grab a ticket for District 13.

“Super cool”.

District 13
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District 13 (2006)
Director Pierre Morel
Stars Cyril Raffaelli, David Belle, Tony d’Amario, Bibi Naceri, Dany Verissimo
Genre Action

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X-Men 3: The Last Stand

What can be said about the latest round of comic book translations that hasn’t already been said? As a self-professed graphic novel fanboy, I expect these movies to be pale reflections of the true glory that they attempt to mirror and so far I haven’t been massively disappointed. The best thing that can happen to a guy like me—someone who’s been reading X-Men comics since he was about ten—is that I’m finally able to draw a distinction between the movies and the comic books they try to exploit, or I garner enough self control to never watch the movies. Sadly this isn’t going to happen any time soon, so you’re always going to hear from people like me ranting about how the movies are just badly diluted versions of the comic books ad infinitum.

X-Men 3 brings back all the characters from the previous two movies: Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Professor Xavier, all those guys that look super-cool as they slice and dice through a fictional world that’s threatened by a new strand of humanity: the Mutants. But sadly, characters are not all it resurrects. It brings back the plot from the previous movies too. The Mutants are getting a hard time of it, people don’t like them because they’re different. The old form of humanity feel threatened by change and have the means to do something about it. The evil Mutants aren’t going to take this lying down… As you watch it, there’s a definite feeling that you’ve seen this film before.

As metaphors for racism go, the Mutant issue was always an interesting one. You can do a lot with it. It raises all sorts of intriguing questions with regards to civil rights, even touching on the current political climate of terrorism and pre-emptive action. The movie takes the potentially absorbing premise of the Mutants beginning to get organised and strike back against the humans who have threatened to end their society, but sadly does very little with it. The problem is that we’ve still seen it all before, in X-Men 1 and 2.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s entertaining, moderately diverting and has cool special effects. I don’t think that you’ll walk away from the movie theatre feeling like you’ve wasted your money. However, you might feel a little disappointed that the writers didn’t give the premise a bit more time, a little but more consideration. It has too many irrelevant characters, too many unexamined plot-lines, and too many undeveloped ideas.

Admittedly X-Men 3 has had a troubled production history with Bryan Singer, the director of the first two instalments leaving to helm the troubled Superman Returns (only to be replaced by Brett Ratner, who left the Superman project). If you stir in endless re-writes and petulant actors, particularly Halle Berry, who jumped back on board when her career nosedived following the awful Catwoman (2004) it’s surprising that the movie got made at all; although it’s likely that this is the last time we’ll see the current cast step out as X-Men.

The movie is a disappointment for fans (despite the inclusion of the Sentinels in an early scene as a nod to the hardcore X-Men zealots) and is potentially confusing for regular moviegoers with no vested interest in the franchise. The movie is in fact rather like X-Men baddie Juggernaut (played incongruously by Vinnie Jones in a muscle suit) who likes nothing better than to mindlessly crash through walls in an unstoppable fashion. Entertaining, but slightly pointless.

X-Men 3: The Last Stand (2006)
Dir. Brett Ratner
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Kelsey Grammer, Patrick Stewart
Genre: Action, Fantasy

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United 93

Director Paul Greengrass’s new film United 93 has attracted both praise and criticism for its portrayal of one of America’s worst atrocities. Since its release in the USA some critics have said that the film was insensitive, arguing that it has trivialised horrific events too fresh in the memories of a country still trying to come to terms with the terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001.

This reviewer believes those criticisms do the film and the families of the crew and passengers of United Airlines flight 93 a great disservice. United 93 is one of only a few films made after 11th September 2001 that have attempted to chronicle an epoch making event in America’s history with impartiality and sympathy. Greengrass and the actors worked closely with the families to ensure their relatives and spouses were accurately portrayed. Of course, no-one really knows what happened on board United Airlines 93, as there were no survivors. But by using the available material and eyewitness accounts, and taking his group of actors through an intense rehearsal process Greengrass has created a tense and believable plot that rings true.

Filmed in almost real time United 93 begins with sunrise over New York. The first scene in the film is that of the hijackers of United Airlines 93 in their hotel room as they prepare for their mission. As they say their prayers one of the hijackers informs his colleagues “it is time”. The hijackers begin their journey to Newark International Airport; the audience can see the World Trade Centre standing ominously in the distance as the men arrive at the airport.

The hijackers enter the airport, expressionless and focused on their mission. Each man passes through the metal detectors raising no suspicious glances from the few police officers patrolling the airport. The men walk towards the departure lounge and wait to board United Airline 93.

On board United Airline 93 the flight attendants prepare the aeroplane for its next flight to San Francisco, talking and gossiping about their forthcoming plans. Nothing seems out of the ordinary as the flight attendants check stocks and supplies. The two pilots, Captain Jason M. Dahl (J J Johnson) and First Officer LeRoy Homer (Gary Commock) carry out their routine checks, discussing maintenance issues with the runway crew and protocol with the flight attendants.

The film takes the audience to other locations integral to the story; first the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) operations command centre in Herndon, Virginia where Ben Sliney (playing himself) is starting his first day as national operations manager at the FAA and is being briefed on the day’s schedule.

At Newark International Airport the passengers are called to board United Airline 93. In the cockpit the two pilots run through some final pre-flight checks, Captain Dahl tells First Officer Homer that he is planning to take his wife to Europe to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

As the morning in New York progresses the film moves to Boston air traffic control. The flight controllers monitor the movements of all the aeroplanes currently in the sky until one of the flight controllers loses contact with one of the aeroplanes – American Airline 11.

The flight controller tries frantically to re-establish contact with American Airline 11. The flight controller informs the manager that he believes the aeroplane may have been hijacked after hearing an unidentified voice in the cockpit.

While Boston air traffic control monitor American Airline 11 they notice it is dropping altitude and changing direction, heading towards Manhattan. The situation is reported to the FAA’s operation centre in Herndon and the Northeast Air Defence Sector (NEADS) where there is some scepticism that it is a hijacking. Ben Sliney instructs his staff to monitor the situation and report to him with updates.

After a short delay due to air traffic, United Airlines 93 takes off from Newark International Airport. During the flight the aeroplane flies past the World Trade Centre, which is visible from the window one of the hijackers is sitting next to.

Boston air traffic control continues to monitor American Airline 11 several minutes later until it disappears from their screens. News circulates at the FAA, NEADS and Boston air traffic control that an aeroplane has crashed into the World Trade Centre. The full extent of the damage to the build is unknown until staff at the three organisations see the news footage from CNN.

Within a few more minutes Boston air traffic control loses contact with United Airlines 175. The staff in the control tower at Newark Airport can see United Airlines 175 travelling at speed and low altitude towards Manhattan soon after they see the aeroplane crash into the south tower of the World Trade Centre, there is stunned silence.

There is confusion at Herndon and NEADS as attempts are made to get accurate information about the location of the aeroplanes and military support; aeroplanes already in the air are warned of possible “cockpit intrusion”.

The hijackers on United Airline 93 steel themselves to hijack the aeroplane. They storm the cockpit and take control of the aeroplane. The startled passengers and aircrew are forced to remain in their seats as the aeroplane changes course, heading towards Washington. Several passengers and aircrew have been killed.

Some of the passengers use their mobile phones to call relatives and loves one to tell of them of the situation on the aeroplane. The passengers soon learn that two other aeroplanes were hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Centre. Knowing that they may not survive the hijacking some of the passengers plan to recapture the aeroplane from the hijackers.

Thomas E Burnett Jr. (Christian Clemenson), Jeremy Glick (Peter Herman) and Mark Bingham (Cheyenne Jackson), three of the passengers onboard United Airlines 93, lead the plan to storm the cockpit with assistance of Trish Gates (Sandra Bradshaw) one of the air attendants.

The heightened sense of drama on the aeroplane, at NEADS and Herndon is palpable. Major James Fox (playing himself) at NEADS is frantically trying to get his superiors to provide more military support to and contact the President and Vice-President for authorisation to shot down United Airlines 93.

Ben Sliney and his team begin the process of closing America’s airspace. Sliney declares that “we’re at war with someone” and until that threat is known no aeroplanes enter the USA.

The remainder of film focuses on the passengers of United Airlines 93 as they tackle the hijackers and storm the cockpit. The last few minutes of the film are truly heart stopping as the aeroplane noses dives and the passengers frantically try and wrestle control of the aeroplane from one of the hijackers.

United 93 is a profoundly intense and emotional film that will leave audiences silent at the end. It was hard for this reviewer not to hope that in some Hollywood way the passengers would successfully overpower the hijackers and avert disaster.

It has been five years since the events portrayed in United 93 took place but the images and stories of that day are still harrowing and awe-inspiring. Greengrass has an excellent pedigree in producing movies that mix documentary themes with naturalistic performances (such as 2002’s Bloody Sunday about the Irish civil rights protest march of 1972 that ended in a massacre by British troops) and thankfully United 93 is not the flag-waving, patriotic flight of fancy some feared, but rather gives the audience a human face to the tragedy and a real and palpable sense of the magnitude of 11th September 2001.

United 93 (2006)
Dir. Paul Greengrass
Stars: Christian Clemenson, Trish Gates, Polly Adams, Cheyenne Jackson, Ben Sliney
Genre: Drama

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Down in the Valley

Down in the Valley Movie Review Poster

Down in the Valley

It’s difficult not to feel a little uneasy when Tobe Sommers (Evan Rachel Wood), a high school senior from the San Fernando Valley, picks up easy going Harlan (Ed Norton) at a gas station and flirts shamelessly with him at the beach. Despite Harlan’s apparent laid-back nature, the age difference between him and Tobe causes her father Wade (the always excellent David Morse) to be immediately suspicious of his motives. There’s more than a hint of Lolita about the very young-looking Tobe, and is an early hint that this film isn’t destined for a happy ending.

Harlan, with more than a whiff of James Dean about his quiff, seems to have stepped out of the Wild West, with his ranching skills, cowboy hat and twin holstered pistols. But it quickly transpires that his story of coming from South Dakota may not be true, and his insouciant naïvety masks a dangerous and delusional fantasist.

Harlan develops an obsession with Tobe, befriends her younger brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin) and believes they can all run away together to start a new life. But things start to unravel when Harlan gets wasted in his motel room following a confrontation with Wade and shoots a mirror. The motel manageress throws him out and Harlan starts living rough, turning to petty crime to stay alive. But his determination to be reunited with Tobe leads to a bloody tragedy befitting a modern-day Western.

Writer/Director David Jacobson and cinematographer Enrique Chediak turn the bleached bones of San Fernando’s anonymous freeways, intersections and culverts into a modern day desert wasteland. The movie is shot in anamorphic widescreen to lend it a sense of the flat emptiness that is typical of the Western, but makes the urban setting seem alien and off-kilter.

Norton, who co-produced Down in the Valley, is never less than superb, giving a finely nuanced performance that strikes the perfect balance between mental instability and plausibility. Evan Rachel Wood is fantastic, too, gradually realising that things with Harlan are not what they seem, but refusing to accept the inevitable.

Bruce Dern, a veteran of many Westerns including Hang ‘Em High (1968) and The Cowboys (1972), has a cameo as Charlie, a volatile rancher who owns a horse that Harlan is fond of stealing and riding through the Valley.

Jacobson takes a bag of genres including the Dysfunctional Family and the Western, gives it an almighty shake and pours the results onto the cinema screen. It’s a brave movie that doesn’t always work—especially when Harlan and Lonnie are on the run from Wade and end up in a Wild West film set in the middle of nowhere—but is darkly compulsive viewing for its duration. The movie’s producers have taken a gamble; and it’s one that on balance, and rather unexpectedly, has paid off.

Down in the Valley
7.5 / 10 Pixelsurgeon Verdict
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Additional Information

Down in the Valley (2005)
Director David Jacobson
Stars Edward Norton, Evan Rachel Wood, David Morse, Rory Culkin, Bruce Dern
Genre Drama, Western

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