Film Review by Emma Champion: Harry Brown (2009) – starring Michael Caine

Harry Brown

Michael Caine is, arguably, Britain’s highest commodity when it comes to character actors.  With an illustrious career that has spanned five decades and is still going strong, at age 72, the man knows no bounds.  What is utterly bewildering above all of this, however, is his ability to push beyond his own boundaries, challenging himself still at this late stage in the game.  Not content with resting on his laurels and playing the easy, more obvious roles, Caine still has the courage to opt for a challenge.  Perhaps that’s the secret behind the longevity of his career.  Like he recently told Total Film magazine, “I remember saying, rather wisely, on one of my first interviews, that my greatest talent was survival.”

Survival is, of course, the very skill Caine’s latest character is forced to perfect.  Harry Brown (2009) paints a very dark and all-too-real picture of street culture in twenty-first century London, and the affects it has on those caught in the crossfire – quite literally at times.  Harry (Michael Caine) lives on a run-down estate in suburban London.  When his wife passes away following a long bout of illness, Harry’s only remaining friend is his pub-buddy and chess partner, Leonard (Harry Potter’s David Bradley).  Following a confession from Leonard that he is being terrorised by a gang of local youths, the police arrive at Harry’s door to inform him of Leonard’s death – the result of a brutal attack.  Harry could never have known how he would react to this news, nor could he have predicted the action he would be forced to take…

Harry Brown is an exception piece of film making.  Director Daniel Barber has outdone himself with this, his debut full-length feature.  He chooses to open his movie with handheld camera footage of what is essentially a drive-by shooting, which has a high impact and stark contrast to the stillness of the scenes that follow.  Therein lays Barber’s genius – his ability to balance his film with equal measures of chaos and calm.  He has delivered a film which feels relevant and contemporary, as well as classic and smart.

The film, however, belongs to Michael Caine.  His delicate, maintained and slow-building portrayal of Harry is a veritable education for anyone in any doubt about “how it’s done”.  The opening credits declare that “Michael Caine is Harry Brown”, and he is, with every fibre of his being, and every ounce of his experience and talent.  Look out for the scene near the beginning when Harry is stood doing his dishes.  Caine has an uncanny knack for injecting magic into the most mundane of actions.  His character moves along an unlikely arc, which sees his Harry transform from defeated old man to take-charge vigilante.  On paper, a man of seventy-odd waving a gun around and giving those pesky hoodies what-for might read as ridiculous.  Caine makes it plausible, believable, and genuine.

This film might not be everyone’s cup-of-tea (cover your ears during the police interrogation scenes if you’re easily offended), but that in no way detracts from the fact that this is slick, savvy and street-smart.  Many have referred to this as a reactionary piece, in light of the rise in gang culture and gun/knife-related crime.  If that is the case, then the consensus is unmistakable – we as a society want rid, and, along with Harry, we’ll fight it all the way.

Highly recommended.


Emma Champion



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Film Review by Emma Champion: The Fourth Kind (2009) – starring Milla Jojovich

Milla Jojovich might just be the ultimate in metaphorical Marmite.  People either love her backlog, or hate it.  Personally, I have to opt for the latter, with turkeys such as the abysmal Ultraviolet (2006), the Resident Evil trilogy (2002-2007) and Return to the Blue Lagoon (1991) on her CV.  However, one must note that she does occasionally get it right, with star turns in films such as The Fifth Element (1998), The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999) and Zoolander (2001).

Thankfully for all of us, Ms. Jojovich has got it right this time; her latest offering a chilling and disturbing account of one woman’s determination to uncover the ugly truth in a remote Alaskan town – namely The Fourth Kind (2009).

Jojovich plays Dr Abbey Tyler, a psychologist who quickly discovers that many of her patients are experiencing the same hallucination – an owl at their window at night, followed by a presence in the room and fear beyond measure.  When these patients begin to exhibit symptoms of extreme mental instability, Dr Tyler’s credibility comes into question, especially since her husband was killed mysteriously as he slept beside her a few years earlier.  However, when Dr Tyler is regressed by her close friend Abel (the always-watchable Elias Koteas), it becomes apparent that the owl may have paid her a visit or two also…

This film’s strength lies in its unique format – an ingenious use of split screen to depict not only the dramatized action, but also to simultaneously display what director, Olatunde Osunsanmi, claims to be “real footage” of the therapy sessions on which the film’s narrative is based.  In a move not often seen in cinema, Jojovich herself announces at the beginning that she will be playing the role of Dr Tyler and warns that some may find the “actual” footage disturbing; this creates a theatrical, almost Brechtian experience for the audience – one which creates distance between you and the film, and causes you to buy into the validity of the footage from the offset.  Look for the scene in which a desperate Tommy (Corey Johnson) holds his wife and children at gunpoint, whilst “real” footage playing adjacent to the action shows the supposed “actual” event unfold, as caught on the cameras of police cars parked outside the family’s home;  simply stunning.

And so, we are drawn into an inner conflict – one which has us wondering exactly how “real” this footage actually is.  In addition to this, the film is laced with “real” audio – panicked 911 calls to the local Sheriff’s office, for example – the most spine-tingling of which is the voice of the intruder, who speaks in an ancient Sumarian dialect, much to the fascination of Dr Awolowa Odusami (Hakeem Kae Kazeem), an expert called in to assist.

Fans of horror and science-fiction alike will be drawn to this truly original effort, which, by all accounts, was made on a shoe-string budget was lots of love and tender care.  It is my belief that the “real” footage is the product of a very clever, Blair Witch-esque viral campaign, set up as far back as August on the internet to convince potential viewers of this picture that what they are about to witness is true.  If this is the case, Olatunde Osunsanmi is a very shrewd filmmaker indeed, placing himself in the same illustrious category as the likes of M. Night Shyamalan and JJ Abrams.

This piece builds tension and toys with convention in ways not seen in cinema for a long, long time.   Osunsanmi plays into the audience’s fascination with reality television and asks us all to question how much of what we see we can believe.  Real or not, this film is executed with a degree of sheer perfection, and achieves the desired effect – that of pure terror.

Recommended to all who are brave enough to take a look.

Emma Champion



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Film Review by Emma Champion: Couples Retreat (2009) – starring Vince Vaughn

Vince Vaughn has, for a long time now, fancied himself as a hard-hitter in the movie biz.  He has tried his hand at the serious acting – Return to Paradise (1998), The Lost World (1997) – reinvented himself as a comedy king – Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004), Wedding Crashers (2005) – and dated A-Listers – Jennifer Aniston (2006).  Lol.

Now he has turned his hand to producing.  Starting with Made (2001), Vaughn has now produced six movies, all of which he has starred in, and two of them were penned by the man himself also.  It is a veritable barrage of talent he is sending our way on paper…so why isn’t any of that translating to screen?

Couples Retreat (2009) is Vaughn’s latest offering, and co-stars his multiple-collaborator Jon Favreau (or “Fav” as he is referred to by Hollywood-insider types).  It tells the story of a couple heading for divorce that see an opportunity to enter into a relationship therapy/island retreat hybrid programme, which they can only afford if their friends – three additional couples – come along for the ride.  Of course, unforeseen hyjinks ensue, and raucous laughter is enjoyed by all.

Or so you would think.  Like Vaughn himself, this movie is good on paper, but in reality is something else entirely.  The gags seem obvious and misfire repeatedly as a result – the little boy going number one and two in a bathroom outlet showroom (Jackass: The Movie (2002) anyone?), the sexually explicit yoga instructor, and the degradation of Léon (1994) star, Jean Reno as the quirky, new age therapist, Marcel.

The film is also laced with plenty of cringe-worthy pointlessness.  The shark-infested waters of the Eden resort bring nothing to the narrative; neither does the strange video game segment at the movie’s mid-way point.  Any film which feels it has to feature a Guitar Hero battle, using split screen and neon graphics for emphasis, has surely lost its way?

There are, however, laughs to be had.  You will find yourself riddled with guilty amusement when their holiday rep introduces himself as “Sctanley – spelled with a ‘C’”; at Dave’s “asstastic” alarm code; and at any scene which features the fantastic Jason Bateman – the film’s one saving grace.

Every once in a while, all you want out of a trip to the cinema is to watch something that doesn’t require a lot of thought; where one’s brain can happily switch off for a couple of hours and gently dribble soggily out of one’s ear.  This is one of those movies.  Fans of Vaughn’s work will be charmed by this piece, as well as anyone who appreciates the film’s core message; which is that couples can become so embroiled in the daily grind that they forget who they are and why they came together in the first place, and the importance of reconnecting with one’s partner.  Admirable as that is, the delivery of the message is not as dignified as the message itself.

A fair effort – approach with caution, and very little expectation.


Emma Champion


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Film Review by Emma Champion: Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” (2009) – Kenny Ortega (Director)

This Is It

Kenny Ortega knows how to couple movies and music and the stage.  Having choreographed Dirty Dancing (1987), and directed all three instalments of the High School Musical franchise (2006-2008), this is a man who recognises the power of music and dance when brought to the big screen.

Ortega has acted as stage director large-scale tours and has directed the music videos of many a fine musical artist.  The list of people he has collaborated with during his career ranges from Madonna to Miley Cyrus.  However, Ortega built up a special, working relationship with the late Michael Jackson, after creating both Jackson’s Dangerous and HIStory World Tours.  It is no surprise then, that Jackson called upon Ortega to help him create what would have been the most important set of shows of the fifty-year-old King of Pop’s career.

In Michael Jackson’s This Is It (2009) we are given front-row seats to the show that never was, and are treated to a rare insight into the approach Jackson took to his work.  Ever the perfectionist, Jackson repeatedly insists that details are tweaked to his liking, whilst remaining ever gracious and polite.  “I’m asking with the love,” he says at one point – this was his way of letting his crew know that he meant no disrespect.

Ortega is featured heavily in this picture, and is, in turn, as courteous and respectful when addressing Jackson; calling him “Sir”, carefully wording his questions and responses with the right vocabulary, and exchanging terms of affection with the singer throughout the documentary.  Their friendship was undoubtedly a special thing, as well as the magic of their professional teaming.

This Is It is obviously far removed from the usual cinema fare.  Being a documentary, and one that strives to show you what this concert would have been like, it is a truly unique experience.  What you take from it as viewer (and, indeed, listener) is that Jackson was an artist who still had so much more to give; who, for a man of fifty, still had the moves and the voice to back up his celebrity status.  In watching this film, you are glimpsing magic, and all tabloid speculation is forgotten.  It is written on the faces of the dancers hired for the show – they are in the room as this wonder is happening before their eyes, and they KNOW how lucky they are to be witnesses to it.  Also, it is in those tiny moments that let us know Jackson was satisfied in his work – look for the smile which crosses his face just before the lights fade after They Don’t Really Care About Us.  It is the stuff goose pimples are made of.

What this film achieves is to successfully place us, the audience in that room as well.  Your gaze will be fixed, your ears pricked, and you will be drawn into a world which sadly no longer exists.  This Is It is a movie to be savoured for its originality, cherished for its honesty, and appreciated for its tribute to Michael himself.  He announced the O2 shows as his “final curtain call”.  He could not have known just how final it would be.  However, even death has not stopped him from showing us what he had in store for us.

This Is it is an essential watch for any die-hard Michael Jackson fan, for anyone who has an appreciation for his music, and for anyone with a desire to see true artistic genius at work.  Whilst uplifting and awe-inspiring, it will beg the sorrowful question: Are we likely to see a talent as raw and as rare as this emerge ever again?

Highly recommended.


Emma Champion


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