Category Archives: 2013

Coherence (2013)

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So this friend of mine has been passing me a bunch of film recommendations. One of them is a film I had never heard of before, Coherence, which by most accounts is a really good sci-fi flick and nowhere near as obscure as I thought.

After checking it out the other night and rewatching it yesterday, I can confirm that it is indeed a wonderful little sci-fi film that proves you don’t need much of a budget to create a compelling, thought-provoking story.

The premise is simple. A comet is passing by and strange phenomena is starting to happen all around. On this night, a group of friends meet up for a dinner party, and not long after, they start experiencing some really weird stuff. I’d recommend avoiding reviews that give away the film’s core sci-fi concepts as I really enjoyed going into this one completely blind, with no knowledge of whether it was going to be a mystery or thriller or horror.

The most impressive thing about Coherence is that it manages to feel quite grounded despite dealing with some very “out there” ideas and moments. It’s a true team effort, with the direction and screenplay by James Ward Byrkit as well as the stellar cast all playing a role in infusing unexpected realism to what could have been quite a farcical situation. Instead, the film turned out to be tense and unsettling, with the claustrophobic setting adding to the sense of growing fear and paranoia.

None of the names on the cast jumped out at me except for Nicholas Brendon from TV’s Buffy and Elizabeth Gracen, though my knowledge of the latter comes from her reputation as the actress who once had a one-night stand with Bill Clinton. The protagonist is played by Emily Baldoni (née Foxler), who previously had roles in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and The Lost Tribe (also known as Primevil or Primal in Australia). She’s also very good.

Coherence is the type of film you must really pay attention or you’ll quickly lose track of what’s going on, and probably requires multiple viewings to unpackage all the complexities and intricacies of the plot. But don’t worry, the dialogue is mostly easy to follow and it’s nowhere as difficult to decipher as say the time-travel cult classic Primer. I did, however, get more out of it in the second viewing.

It is of course still a very small budget, small-scale “ideas” film, and as such expectations need to be kept in check. I’d rank Coherence a notch above a really awesome feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. It’s original, it’s smart, it’s well made and it’s an intriguing experience I recommend heartily.

4 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part IX

This is the last one. Seriously. The best and worst of 2013 coming right up after this!

The Family (2013)

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Robert De Niro may be a legend, but his career choices are inching closer and closer to Nicholas Cage territory with every mediocre film he decides to star in. The Family, on its face, should not have fallen into that category, as it’s directed by legendary Frenchman Luc Besson and features an all-star cast including Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones and Glee‘s Dianna Agron. But somehow, this uneven, largely unfunny black comedy manages to turn itself into a mess that De Niro will likely want to pretend never existed.

De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, Mafia boss who turns to snitching after an attempt on his life. So together with his wife (Pfeiffer) and two kids (Agron and John D’Leo), they relocate to France under a witness protection program under the supervision of FBI agent Stansfield (Jones).

It’s an interesting premise brimming with potential. The central joke is that, as a Mafia family, they can’t be normal even if they tried. They’re scheming sociopaths and borderline psychopaths who just can’t play along and pretend to be a normal family. De Niro can’t stop killing people who offend him; Pfeiffer loves burning stuff down; Agron has a violent streak in her; and D’Leo is a scheming weasel who is the ultimate reconnaissance expert.

There are several key problems with The Family. The first is that Besson never gets the tone quite right. It’s a very dark comedy accompanied by over-the-top violence, but the violence itself is not funny like it is for a film like say Pulp Fiction or Fargo. It felt like the violence never found its role properly.

Secondly, all the central characters are just a little off, and as a result they don’t come across as likable. And it’s hard to root for them when you don’t like them very much. But you can tell Besson is trying to make them likable, which is why it was so strange watching them on screen.

And thirdly, and very strangely, Besson makes French people look like complete a-holes. I understand it was necessary to some extent so that the family can rain their vengeance upon them, but in my opinion it felt obligatory and unnecessary. I know the French are supposed to dislike Americans and vice versa, but this was too much. And they all spoke surprisingly good English too.

In the end I just couldn’t bring myself to like this one. Despite the strong cast, legendary director and best of intentions, The Family is a top-grade disappointment.

2 stars out of 5

Welcome to the Punch (2013)

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First of all, Welcome to the Punch is a really horrible title for this movie. It makes it sound like an action comedy, when in fact it is a gritty action thriller. But apart from that, it’s actually not a bad British cops and robbers flick with some solid performances, stylish action sequences and a few interesting twists and turns.

James McAvoy is Max Lewinsky, a headstrong London cop determined to catch Icelandic criminal Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong), who has surfaced after his son was involved in a heist gone wrong. It’s a complicated case that has been a major headache for the police, and so Lewinsky and his partner Sarah Hawks (Andrea Riseborough) are frequently met with internal opposition — opposition that might be intended to impede their progress, and the only person they appear to have in their corner is their superior, Thomas Geiger (The Walking Dead‘s David Morrisey).

What follows is an intriguing game of cat and mouse that features a lot of well executed gunfights. The plot is a little convoluted for my liking, and I admit McAvoy’s protagonist is somewhat douchey, but on the whole I enjoyed the friend-or-foe dynamic between him and the intense and charismatic Strong, whom I believe has a dominating’s screen presence that is second to none.

Welcome to the Punch is not a superior thriller, but it’s a damn serviceable one that can be quite enjoyable if you go in with moderate expectations. Recommended DVD rental.

3.5 stars 

Devil’s Knot (2013)

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I’m always intrigued by Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s take on grief and loss, and so I was somewhat disappointed to hear lukewarm reviews for Devil’s Knot, a dramatization of the true story of the notorious West Memphis Three. Well guess what, I ended up being riveted by the movie from start to finish, so much so that I went on to devour all four documentaries made on the subject — Paradise Lost and its two sequels, and last year’s West of Memphis, made by Lord of the Rings maestro Peter Jackson and wife Fran Walsh.

The true story, for those unfamiliar, takes place in 1993 and begins when three young boys in West Memphis disappear one afternoon and are later found dead, naked, tied up and mutilated. Given that hysteria surrounding Satanic worship was at a peak, it came as no surprise that police targeted local “white trash” teenage outcast Damien Echols and his two friends, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley — the trio that would later be known as the West Memphis Three.

The evidence against them is supposedly strong (Misskelley, who is borderline retarded, confesses), and the penalty is potentially death. This leads anti-capital punishment advocate and private investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth) to lend his services to the overwhelmed defense team. Lax starts out only wanting to prevent the boys from being executed, but the more he digs, the more he becomes convinced that the teens are innocent. On the other hand, Pamela Hobbs (a frumpy Reese Witherspoon, who was pregnant at time of filming), the mother of one of the victims, struggles to deal with her son’s death and the subsequent media circus.

Putting aside the merits of the film, Devil’s Knot is one of those films that’s inherently compulsive to watch simply because of the subject matter. It’s a true story that’s stranger than fiction, complete with a long list of potential suspects, intriguing characters, bizarre pieces of evidence and mass hysteria. The police witch hunt and incompetence is undeniable. And yet, at the end of the day, there are no definitive answers, only suspicions.

I suppose that is why critics were harsh on the film, with many calling it a “frustrating” experience because of the lack of a genuine resolution. I do agree with that to some point, but at the same time it does point us in a certain direction and asks us to draw our own conclusions as to the guilt of the West Memphis Three and the “alternate” suspects. Maybe that was the point Egoyan was trying to get across — that is, this is perhaps a mystery we’ll never truly get to the bottom of, and many true crime stories of immense loss fall in the same category.

For me, this was fantastic filmmaking, backed up by excellent performances. The initial pain and devastating felt real. The subsequent anger and thirst for revenge felt real. And that feeling when everything you thought to be true is turned upside down was expertly delivered. My main complaint about it is how abruptly it ends and how it required a long slab of writing onscreen to explain an aftermath that would extend for another 18 years.

Now having seen all the documentaries, I sort of understand why critics say Devil’s Knot did not provide any new insight and really had nothing to add. I don’t agree. While the film only captures a fraction of all there is to tell, and dramatizes scenes that are already captured in the documentaries, I still think there is something to be gained from the viewing experience. It’s a different medium with a different style, and as a result the emotional impact is also completely different. Perhaps my opinion would be different had I watched the documentaries first, but since I did not, and did not know how things turned out in the end, I found Devil’s Knot to be one of the most haunting and engrossing films of the year. I’d definitely recommend it for people who haven’t seen the documentaries and know little of the true story.

4 stars out of 5

Homefront (2013)

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Feels like we’ve seen it all before, but what the heck. A bit more ass-kicking from  Jason Statham is rarely ever a bad thing.

In Homefront, Statham plays an undercover DEA agent who relocates to a country town with his young daughter after his cover is blown. And guess what? the place is running amok with the rednecks and hillbillies, who present themselves as perfect fodder for Statham to beat the crap out of them.

But wait, there’s more. After a run in with a hillbilly woman played by Kate Bosworth and her fat bully son, Statham becomes embroiled in an increasingly dangerous dispute with her brother and local meth kingpin, James Franco. Yes, James Franco!

From there it’s all very predictable. A lot of danger and a lot of ass kicking. It’s a fairly run-of-the-mill action thriller that reminds me of those low-budget 80s classics, though I must say I enjoyed it somewhat on a pure entertainment level. If you want to see Franco get the shit kicked out of him then this is the movie for you. The story is actually based on a book that has been adapted into a screenplay by none other than Sylvester Stallone, so you know it’s overcharged with masculinity and macho dialogue. And of course, realism is not a priority.

I was also surprised by the cast. Apart from Statham, Bosworth and Franco, there was also Winona Ryder in a strange role as Franco’s ex-girlfriend, and everybody’s favourite prison guard from Shawshank, Clancy Brown, playing the local sheriff.

The trailers made Homefront look much more A-grade and intriguing than it really is. I’m not saying it’s bad — as I said I rather enjoyed it — though ultimately it is one of those forgettable films that don’t really matter, and without its all-star cast, it’s hard to see how this film could have gotten a cinematic release.

3 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part VIII

Why the heck not?

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

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I admit I didn’t know a whole lot about Nelson Mandela’s life outside of him ending apartheid in South Africa and his long prison term, which is why I was particularly interested drawn to Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, based on his autobiography.

I had previously seen Morgan Freeman (his Hollywood doppelganger) as Mandela in Invictusso I had my doubts when I discovered that in this film he’s portrayed by strapping British actor Idris Elba, best known as crime kingpin Stringer Bell in The Wire and more recently in Pacific Rim.

While I was wrong about the casting of Elba, who turned out to be magnificent in the role despite being four inches taller than the real Mandela at 6’4″, Long Walk to Freedom turned out to be a disappointment, more a telemovie than the definitive adaptation of the great man’s life.

The film essentially begins with a fully-grown Mandela who is already a lawyer in South Africa and beginning to gain a broader interest in fighting for the rights of his people. From there, the film is a fairly straightforward blow-bu-blow account of his life, from organising protests to his imprisonment and eventual release. None of it is poorly executed or lacks subtlety, but at the same time the pulse of the film is so flat that it had trouble sustaining my interest. There, I said it: I was bored.

Thought I haven’t compared Elba and a young Mandela side by side, I believe there is some resemblance, or at least the performance is so good that it made me believe there is one. Far from a glorified hero, Elba portrays Mandela as a complex, flawed man who cheated on his wife and neglected his family for his cause. It’s still a respectful portrayal because you ultimately come to see his growth as a leader and person, and the remarkable change he brought to the world through his inspiring resolve and perseverance.

Another aspect that pleased me was the portrayal of Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, played by Brit Naomi Harris. We usually only hear about Mandela’s greatness but here we also learn about what an amazing woman Madikizela-Mandela is and her significant contributions to the plight of her people and especially South African women.

Unfortunately, two stellar performances weren’t quite enough to elevate Long Walk to Freedom into a superior biopic. A less conventional approach would have been welcome to give the film more layers and nuance. As it stands,  it’s still a passable Mandela flick, just not a great one.

3 stars out of 5

Wolf Creek 2 (2013)

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Wolf Creek, released in 2005, was Australia capitalising on the torture porn era ushered in by the Saw and Hostel movies. I personally though it was overrated, but it did have a couple of things going for it: a very uniquely Australian villain played by John Jarratt, who is as amusing as he is terrifying, and the “based on a true story” tag thanks to Ivan Milat and the disappearance of British backpacker Peter Falconio — which highlight the dangers of the vast Australian outback.

So eight years later, we have the obligatory low-budget sequel, which brings back Jarratt as maniacal serial killer Mick Taylor and a bunch of poor foreigners waiting to be tortured and slaughtered.

The film starts off as camp as can be, with Mick taking on a couple of cookie-cutter dickhead cops. It doesn’t make much sense but at least it sets the stage for the carnage that is yet to come. A film like this is always bound to contain gratuitous and over-the-top violence. Wolf Creek 2 embraces its destiny and just goes for it.

There’s not much by way of plot or character development. Mick picks up a German couple (one of them’s played by an Aussie) and then a Pom (also played by an Aussie, Ryan Corr of TV’s Packed to the Rafters fame). Be prepared for a lot of screaming, a lot of stupidity, and loads of visceral, extreme acts of violence.

Surprisingly, it’s quite effective as a torture porn horror, with moments that will make you cringe and others that challenge you not to look away. The tension is there, even though it doesn’t feel real and some suspension of disbelief is mandatory.

The original actually had plenty of what I call “filler” moments, which made it a bore to sit through. But Wolf Creek 2 disposes all the formalities to give viewers what they want almost straight away. As a motion picture it’s much rougher around the edges, but in terms of pure entertainment value it arguably trumps its predecessor.

Wolf Creek 2 is B-grade rubbish, all the way down to its laughable and cliched ending, but it knows what it is and at least tries to have a good time on its way to the dumpster.

2.5 stars out of 5

Thanks for Sharing (2013)

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Thanks for Sharing is a comedy about three very different men with sex addiction. There’s Adam (Mark Ruffalo), a spunky single guy who has no problem attracting the ladies but wants to start dating again after five very difficult years of self-restraint. There’s Mike (a silver-haired Tim Robbins), a veteran who believes he has turned the corner and acts as a big brother-type to the others at their support group, but doesn’t give much support at home to his drug-addict son. And thirdly, there’s Neil (Josh Gad), a tubby, sweaty sexual deviant who has banned himself from the subway so he’ll stop rubbing himself up against random women.

This is more or less what I expect from a comedy-drama about sex addiction. There are amusing observations and situations the protagonists have to deal with, but also a much darker side to their impulses which inevitably become more serious as the film progresses. It’s not exactly lighthearted but it’s not depressing either. Shame this is not.

The tone of the film actually reminds me of another Mark Ruffalo film I saw last year, The Kids Are All Right, about same sex parenting. As a comedy, however, Thank for Sharing is not in the same class. The majority of the laughs come from the awkwardness of Josh Gad’s character, who shoulders the load in that department, while the arcs of Ruffalo and in particular Tim Robbins are more heavy duty.

In addition to the solid performances of the three male leads, the film also boasts an excellent supporting cast, with the standouts being Gwyneth Paltrow as Ruffalo’s love interest and Pink (as Alecia Moore, her real name) as a female sex addict who befriends Gad’s character. Patrick Fugit, who plays Tim Robbin’s son, is also fantastic, as their explosive relationship is perhaps the most emotional and compelling in the entire movie.

Thanks for Sharing is an interesting take on sex addiction as it offers three perspectives from three very different characters. It’s lightly amusing and the drama is well-executed, but perhaps because the focus is split in so many directions it lacks the depth required to be an exceptional film on the subject. I enjoyed it as much as a film like this can be enjoyed — that is, a solid DVD rental, but not much more than that.

3.25 stars out of 5

Out of the Furnace (2013)

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If gritty, brooding crime dramas is your thing, then Out of the Furnace is just the film for you.

Produced by Ridley Scott and Leo DiCaprio and directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), the film stars chameleon Christian Bale as Russell Baze, a likable guy who seems to be on a friendly basis with everyone on both sides of the law. Like his dying father before him, Russell works at a steel mill in a small town and enjoys a steady relationship with his girlfriend, played by Zoe Saldana. Life for him would be stable if it weren’t for his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), an Iraq war veteran who has trouble coping with an uncertain future.

A tragic accident strikes, and Russell ends up incarcerated. In the meantime, Rodney becomes involved in the shady world of underground bare-knuckle fighting under the management of Willem Dafoe. Once Russell gets out (of the furnace, so to speak), he is immediately thrown into the proverbial fire when Rodney is linked up with violent hillbilly Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) and bites off more than he can chew.

At its heart, this is a film about family, regret and living with the consequences of one’s decisions. Some critics have been scathing about its masculinity and testosterone-filled violence, though personally I found it to be an intense, entertaining experience. The pace is a little too contemplative for my liking, but I liked the old-fashioned themes of redemption and thought the action was well-executed.

The biggest strength of the film still has to be the performances, which are sensational all round. Woody Harrelson, in particular, once again shows us what an underrated actor he is with a terrifying portrayal of a brutal redneck. The script does have a few holes in it, but I was hooked on the bleak tones, which reminded me a little of one of my favourite movies of 2011 (directed by Casey Affleck’s big brother), The Town. And like that film, this one turns a fairly run-of-the-mill plot into an engaging, engrossing drama with explosive sequences.

The result is a raw, in-your-face, uncompromising film that will probably divide viewers. It becomes more conventional as it progresses towards a painful, semi-ambiguous ending, and it does have the occasional clunky scene, though overall I thought it was awesome.

4 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part VII

I know I saw no more 2013 movie blitzes, but I lied. So here’s another one with some high profile flicks.

The Butler (2013)

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The natural inclination is to assume that The Butler is the black Forrest Gump — a simple unassuming man who happens to be a bystander in major historical events that shaped the world.

But that’s not really fair. For starters, The Butler is a “true story”, apparently, as it is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, a real-life African-American butler who worked for the White House for 34 years. Here he is renamed Cecil Gaines and is played by Forest Whitaker. Secondly, most of the film is focused on the civil rights movement in the 1960s, contrasting Cecil’s desire to just “do his job” at the White House against his son Louis’s (David Oyelowo) active involvement. Thirdly, The Butler is nothing like Forrest Gump in that it is a serious drama almost devoid of humor. And lastly, The Butler stars Oprah!

The film is directed by Lee Daniels, who was at the helm of the award-winning Precious back in 2009. That was a small budget, personal drama, whereas this is an ambitious epic filled with major Hollywood stars, though the general feel of the films are largely similar. In other words, it is engaging, never really dull, but never superior entertainment. And depending on your perspective, you may find it either emotionally satisfying or too obviously manipulative. 

I have heard mixed reviews about the film, which reflects my feelings toward it. The performances are brilliant — there is no doubt about that and I don’t think anyone expected anything less with this cast. That said, I found the casting a little bit jarring. With the exception of the little known David Oyelowo, just about everyone else is a recognizable star. You have Mariah Carey playing Cecil’s mother in a small cameo, Terrence Howard as a neighbour, Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz as co-workers, and a whole bunch of big names playing American presidents — Robin Williams is Eisenhower, James Marston is JFK, Liev Schreiber is Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack is Richard Nixon, and strangely, Alan Rickman is Ronald Reagan. That doesn’t even include all the other recognisable names such as Jane Fonda, Minka Kelly, Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, and so forth. And of course, there’s Oprah, who is an excellent actress but too…Oprah…to avoid being a distraction.

It was interesting watching the historical events unfold, though if you are not American, and in particular African-American, the emotional impact may be less powerful. More importantly, Cecil Gaines was not a particularly charming protagonist — he had his moments, but by and large he was a very muted, restrained man, and anytime he did something out of the ordinary it felt overly sentimental. I’m not saying there wasn’t any subtlety, though the nuances definitely could have been handled better. The relationship that drove the movie, that between father and son, was executed well, but I think the film undercuts itself with too much obviously intentional melodrama that audiences who know what they’re in for will easily see through. 

3 stars out of 5

The Counselor (2013)

The Counselor

The Counselor is one of those WTF movies where there are a lot of big names attached and you can’t figure out why. It’s based on an original screenplay by Cormick McCarthy, whose novels have been adapted into solid films such as No Country for Old Men and The Road. It’s directed by the legendary ridley Scott and features an all star cast including Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt. But the film — and I have to be honest here — is crap.

Fassbender plays eponymous Counseler, a lawyer of some sort who gets in over his head when he becomes involved in a drug deal with Mexican cartels. The film features a lot of conversations that appeared to have no direct relation to the plot, and they speak in ways that make you feel like there is some big mystery involved when things are actually very straightforward and simple. It is also a film that fancies itself as a bit of an erotic thriller — there is some raunchy pillow talk between Fassbender and his in-film girlfriend Cruz, and Cameron Diaz makes love to a car. Yes, you read that correctly.

It is quite a violent film, though there is really only one scene that made me a little squirmish. People who hate Brad Pitt should love it.

My main problem with this movie is that it tries too hard to create an atmosphere it does not deserve. The makers of the movie talk about things such as greed, primal instincts and dealing with the consequences of our choices, but at the end of the day it’s just about a guy who gets into a drug deal, things go wrong and shit happens. Except not a whole lot actually happens. For all the talking and acting, it is shocking how little action and suspense there is.

So despite the big names and the solid performances, The Counselor has to be one of the year’s biggest disappointments. We know Cormick McCarthy can be brilliant, but this is him at his pretentious worst.

1.75 stars out of 5

The Way Way Back (2013)

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A film that should have gotten way more buzz than it did. Coming of age films aren’t what they used to be, which is why The Way Way Back is such a refreshing and yet nostalgic breath of fresh air.

Liam James is quite the revelation as 14-year-old Duncan, and awkward, withdrawn and humorless teenager who reluctantly goes on a summer holiday to a small seaside town with his mother (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and his typical teenage daughter (Steph Ramsey). 

Being the way that he is, Duncan naturally hates it there as everyone else seems to be having the time of their lives without him. But then he meets two people who change his life. The first is the pretty older daughter of a neighbour, played by AnnaSophia Robb, who seems to be more intrigued by Duncan’s odd personality than hanging out with other popular girls her age. The second is the manager of the local water park, played by Sam Rockwell, a carefree dude who is full of fun and jokes but appears to be stuck permanently in a state of arrested development.

Before long Duncan begins working at the water park and gets to know a whole host of quirky, oddball characters. While he struggles at home dealing with his family life, he begins coming out of his shell at work where everything seems to flourish for him.

At first glance this is the type of film we all feel like we have seen before, but there is just something about it that works. 

My guess starts with the immensely likable characters who all have their own quirks and are believable despite not being developed to perfection. Duncan, to be brutally honest, comes across initially as a potential mass shooting waiting to happen, but then we fall in love with his innocence and naivete. He makes you want to root for him, and that’s very important.

Rockwell is also brilliant as the lovable larrikin, the type of big brother we all wished we had. Even Steve Carell is brilliant playing against type as the douche bag villain who is not necessarily a terrible guy but whose judgmental attitude and selfish motivations we instantly recognize.

Additionally they are a bunch of scene stealing minor characters, from Allison Janney’s talkative neighbour and Toni Collette conflicted mother to Maya Rudolph’s  frustrated water park employee. All of them are memorable in their own way.

While there is nothing remarkable about it, The Way Way Back is a delight. It’s sweet, funny, heartfelt and powered by great characters and performances. It’s a pleasant surprise and one of my underrated hits of 2013.

4 stars out of 5

Drinking Buddies (2013)

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I heard about Drinking Buddies through word-of-mouth. It’s an indie film with Hollywood stars; an exploration of workplace relationships that relies predominantly on improvised dialogue.

Olivia Wilde stars as Kate, a pretty girl who is mutually attracted to her co-worker Luke (Jake Johnson) at a Chicago brewery. Unfortunately for both of them, they are each involved in a relationship with someone else. For Kate, it’s a casual boyfriend (Ron Livingston), but for Like, it’s a little more serious with his steady girlfriend (Anna Kendrick).

The strength of Drinking Buddies lies in the performances, which feel very natural (probably because of all the improv), and as a result the relationships also come across as genuine.

It’s an interesting premise, one most of us who have worked closely with others in a group environment can relate to, and in this case everything is accentuated because their inhibitions are lowered by the constant presence of alcohol.

It asks us what the boundaries are in a supposed “platonic” relationship between co-workers. It’s one thing to be attracted to someone, but it’s another when it comes out to acting out forbidden desires. What is the line and what constitutes crossing it?

My main gripe with the film. and the primary reason I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to, was that I couldn’t bring myself to like either Kate or Luke, in particular Kate.

Without giving too much away, I was uncomfortable with the way they acted around each other, and, without revealing how far things go, I felt they crossed a lot of lines even early on.

I kept feeling like they kind of deserved each other, but I wasn’t rooting for them to be together because I didn’t care for them. By contrast, I developed much more sympathy for their significant others, even though they arguably crossed more lines than Kate and Luke.

Still, this was a well-made, well-performed drama that tackles some complex and thought-provoking issues. I just wish I liked it more.

2.5 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part VI

I think this will be my final 2013 movie blitz. There may be more films to see, but if I don’t stop now I’ll never get to my best of and worst of lists for 2013. So here goes. It’s a good one.

Oculus (2013)

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I heard some good things about this horror flick, starring Dr Who’s Karen Gillan, about a pair of siblings who had their lives apparently destroyed by a cursed/haunted antique mirror. Years later, with the pair grown up, they try and fulfill their childhood promise — destroy the mirror, or die trying!

It sounds like a bit of a trite plot, I know, but Oculus deserves credit for a couple of things. First of all, it’s different to most of the haunted house movies out there in that it puts a creative twist on things with the mirror. Secondly, it cleverly tracks two parallel storylines, one from the siblings’ childhood and one from the present, providing an unusual but surprisingly effective contrast that adds suspense and ties the narrative together with a single thread. Thirdly, it makes good use of modern technology — ie, security cameras, etc — to help “capture” the ghosts and its bizarre powers, but without taking a “found footage” approach that could have ruined the entire thing.

I hadn’t seen Karen Gillan in anything before but she’s excellent here as the sister who is convinced she’s doing the right thing. Brenton Thwaites plays her brother, who just got out of a mental institution, and he’s pretty good too because I had no idea he’s an Aussie and Home & Away alumnus! Rory Chochrane, who I’ve seen in a bunch of things including Argo, plays the dad, and Katee Sachhoff, who’s been in 24 and Riddick (but best known for Battlestar Galactica) plays the mother.

There are some things in the film that don’t work quite as well and may come across as silly or just the usual stupid things characters in horror movies do, and the ending was extremely predictable (I guessed it as soon as I saw something about 20 minutes in), but on the whole Oculus is one of the better supernatural horror flicks in recent years. Made on a relatively shoestring $5 million budget, the film is smart and original, and it has a genuinely creepy atmosphere with some solid scares without being completely dependent on “boo!” moments. Excellent sequel potential as well. It may not be quite as good as I had expected after hearing the rave reviews, but at the very least it will make an excellent DVD or on-demand choice for a rainy night in.

3.5 stars out of 5

Enemy (2013)

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Jake Gyllenhaal has been in some movies that can challenge the brain a little bit, like Source Code and of course his breakthrough film Donnie Darko. Well, Enemy, based on José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double, is way more insane than all of his other films put together. In fact, I still have no idea what I just watched. There are plenty of theories out there, but I’m in the camp of people who think it’s pretty much all BS. It’s the most mind-boggling movie I’ve seen since Mulholland Drive.

The premise is not hard to follow. Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a lonely history professor, rents a movie one night and sees an actor who looks exactly like him. And so he seeks out his doppelganger and finds Anthony, a bit actor who has a much more aggressive personality. The rest of the film is about them being spooked out by it and then trying to figure out how to handle the situation, or even take advantage of it.

In some ways, Enemy can be categorized as an erotic thriller because both Adam and Anthony have partners (girlfriend and pregnant wife) and it is for some reason quite sexually charged. But there is something about the film that is just “off.” There is a surreal feel to the experience, which is slow and contemplative but also magnetically compelling. The people don’t act and react like normal people, and some of the decisions they make and things they say are downright baffling. It comes across as a twisted parable of some kind as opposed to any attempt at a “realistic” film.

And the ending, of course, is the big WTF moment. Some will say it’s brilliant, others will say it’s the stupidest thing they’ve ever seen — but I think most will agree that it is indeed shocking.

This is a difficult film to rate because while I admit it was tense while I watched it and admired the performance from Gyllenhaal, I am also annoyed that I had to effectively sit through something I’ll probably never understand. And the thing is, that’s likely the way it was intended.

2.5 stars out of 5

August: Osage County (2013)

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Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, August: Osage County is more or less an acting exhibition from a superstar cast including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts (both nominated for Oscars in their respective roles), Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, Juliette Lewis (remember her?!) and Abigail Breslin.

But is it any good? Well, yes and no. I kind of understand why the film was awarded the dubious honour of “Not-So-Obviously Worst Film” by the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle, because without all the great performances it is just an average, albeit hysterical family drama sprinkled with a dash of occasional black humour.

The plot centers around Meryl Streep’s cancer-ridden, snarky matriarch of the family, Violet, who also has an addiction to narcotics. Her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard) disappears, then turns up dead, and the rest of her family shows up for the funeral, including her eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin); her sister and her sister’s husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their loser son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch); her middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson); and her youngest daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) and her sleazy fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney).

From there, it’s just a whole lotta acting from one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled. It’s intense and it’s heavy, with a lot of shouting and swearing matches, arguments and people flipping out. Some of it is funny — it is, after all, a dark comedy of sorts — but there’s nothing about August: Osage County that made me forget I was watching great actors as opposed to great characters. I enjoyed watching Hollywood heavyweights go at it and I was impressed with how it was put together, but ultimately it was a hollow experience lacking in that resonating quality of top dramas.

3 stars out of 5

Mud (2012)

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Technically, Mud is a 2012 film, but I’m adding it here because it didn’t get a wide release until May 2013. It’s marketed as a Matthew McConaughey vehicle and is one of the first films in his amazing run from Magic Mike to his Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club and the acclaimed True Detective — but this is really a coming-of-age story about a teenager living off the banks of the Arkansas River.

That teenager, Ellis, is played by Tye Sheridan, a rising star who has been in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and will soon be seen in the adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. His strong portrayal of a likable protagonist fuels Mud, one of those throwback films that captures the innocence, hope and heartbreak of adolescence. Instead of loitering the streets, Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) invent their own adventures by climbing trees and scavenging the woods. They are wary of strangers but more curious rather than afraid of them. And even when they do teenager things (like say vulgar things and punch people) there’s a childlike naivete to them that’s endearing. It’s not clear what time period the film is set in (it could be the present), but the rural backdrop away from the modern vices of smartphones and the internet definitely goes a long way to achieving the nuances writer and director Jeff Nichols was aiming for.

One day Ellis, whose parents are struggling both financially and in their marriage, comes across a tree with an abandoned boat stuck on it. The boat is occupied by the titular Mud (McConaughey), an enigmatic squatter with a mysterious background that involves a pretty but damaged blonde called Juniper (played by Reese Witherspoon). Ellis and Neckbone befriend Mud and become his little helpers, though they don’t realise that their benevolence could end up putting their lives in danger.

McConaughey has gotten a lot of praise for his performance as Mud. In my opinion, after having seen a plethora of interviews around his Oscar win, he only deserves half of the credit because was he simply playing himself. Mud is an eccentric fellow who says weird stuff that sounds profound but is really quite stupid, or pretentious even. That’s McConaughey!

Anyway, despite my prejudices against Mr Alright Alright Alright, I can’t deny Mud is a superior coming-of-age flick that brings back warm memories of classics like Stand By Me and of course Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. It’s a good-looking film with fantastic cinematography, solid performances (with a cast that also includes Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard and Sarah Paulson) and plenty of heart. It’s slightly overlong at 130 minutes given its deliberately managed pace, though having said that I was engaged throughout. A pleasant surprise.

3.75 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part V

The movie blitz is back, and there are some interesting new entries.

Nurse 3D (2013)

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Riding high from her star turn in Boardwalk Empire, Paz de la Huerta gets cast in Nurse 3D, a campy horror film where she gets to play Abby, a crazy nurse who seduces her “deserving” victims before killing them. If anything, Nurse 3D knows exactly what kind of film it wants to be — sexy, bloody, gory and campy. The kind of film you scream and laugh to, depending on your disposition.

The poor woman who gets her life turned upside down by Abby is Danni, played by 30 Rocks‘ Katrina Bowden. There’s some sex, plenty of nudity, and no shortage of gruesome kills and bloody aftermaths. There is definitely a market for this kind of film, and for me it’s preferably to other trite attempts such as the Piranha 3D franchise.

Paz de la Huerta certainly has a screen presence, but I really don’t know what to make of her. She has a nice figure, I suppose, one she is not afraid to show off, but she has a weird face. As for her acting, I can’t really tell if she is really good at trying to be bad, making her really good, or just bad.

Anyway, I didn’t hate the movie and found it occasionally fun, which is surprising, but I think you have to have a certain type of taste to be able to embrace it.

2.75 stars out of 5

PS: I watched this in 2D, but I can’t really see why this would be a worthwhile 3D film unless you want blood and boobs popping at your face.

Knights of Badassdom (2013)

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Knights of Badassdom is for anyone who enjoyed the live action role-playing scenes in Role Models. It’s basically about a bunch of live action role-playing dudes played by an all-star cast including Aussie Ryan Kwanten (from True Blood), Steve Zahn, Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones), Summer Glau (Serenity) and Margarita Levieva (recently seen in Revenge) who bite off more than they can chew when an evil demon is unleashed from the underworld during a major event.

There are lots of nerd jokes, great puns and one-liners, but as is usually the case with such films it’s not quite as funny as you think it should be. That said, there are some solid moments that had me giggling and even laughing out loud. The violence, blood and gore are all intentionally fake and silly, but I suppose you can still call it a “horror.” It should come as no surprise that a flick with a name like Knights of Badassdom is not a good movie. It’s is a complete farce and it knows it, but the problem is that it’s not quite bad enough to be a so-bad-it’s-good type of film. So it’s not very good, but it’s not bad enough to be great. Does that make sense?

Nonetheless, consider all the problems the film went through to get released, it could have been much worse. It had a really troubled production because filming began in 2010 and was in post-production in 2012, but took another year before it was given a limited release. My wife gave up on it after about 2 minutes as she mumbled something along the lines of it being the stupidest thing she had ever seen. But I persevered and had a reasonably good time with it. Not a bad party flick, especially if everyone is drunk or stoned.

3 stars out of 5

Enough Said (2013)

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Enough Said is a nice little romantic comedy that I would never have seen in a million years had it not starred Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine from Seinfeld, aka the greatest TV actress of all time) and James Gandolfini in one of his final roles before his tragic passing.

The film’s premise is simple. A freelance masseuse (Louis-Dreyfus) goes to a party and meets a fellow divorced fellow (Gandolfini) and they start a relationship. But there are some wrinkles to this relationship, wrinkles I can’t discuss without giving part of the plot away. For me, it was pretty foreseeable, but for others it might come as a twist.

The strength of the film lies in the performances from two of the greatest TV actors of their generation, or any generation (plus the likes of Catherine Keener and Toni Collette in her original Aussie accent), and an extremely witty script by Nicole Holofcener, who also directed the film. It’s rare to see a drama that involves mainly people conversing with each other being so engaging. It may be just me, but I noticed a ton of Seinfeld references in there, which I loved, of course, but apart from that the hilarious one-liners just kept rolling out along with the sharp dialogue.

Leaving the humour aside, the drama is also surprisingly warm, insightful and poignant, and dare I say, realistic. There’s nothing about the film that really stands out (it’s not a film you’ll likely remember years down the track), but for me it’s a sweet little gem I’d definitely nominate to people looking for a DVD recommendation.

3.75 stars out of 5

About Time (2013)

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The poster for About Time almost put me off watching it. A smiling Rachel McAdams and a gingery British fellow (Domhnall Gleeson, whom I had only previously seen in an episode of the brilliant sci-fi series Black Mirror — if you discount the last couple of Harry Potter flicks) standing in the rain. It looked like a romantic-comedy version of The Notebook.

But, as is almost always the case, I was wrong. About Time, in my humble opinion, is probably the best romantic-comedy of 2013. Not that the field is strong, but at least it’s not the worst.

The premise is that Gleeson’s character, Tim, can time travel, like all the other men in his family, including his father (Bill Nighy). He doesn’t develop this ability or find out about it until he’s 21, but once he does, he tries to take full advantage of it. Everyone has different purposes for time travel, be it money or career, but for Tim it’s all about love. And that’s where Rachel McAdams’s character, Mary, comes in.

The bulk of the film is about their romance, as it should be. I mean, come on, who won’t fall for Rachel McAdams? Tim makes good use of his time travelling to woo Mary, but he also discovers that his ability has certain limitations. .

And no, it’s nothing like that other time travel film Rachel McAdams starred in, The Time Traveler’s WifeAbout Time is written and directed by Tony Curtis, who is responsible for penning the scripts for British romantic-comedy classics such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Love Actually (which he directed too), as well as Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. So hopefully that gives you an idea of the feel of the film and the type of comedy in it.

It dragged on towards the end of its 123-minute running time, but for the most part I simply adored this film. Not there there isn’t anything to complain about — the time travel rules, for example, don’t make any sense if you think about it, and Tim and Mary’s relationship is far too smooth and lacking in conflict. But I’m willing to overlook all of that because there is a sweetness and tenderness to the film that just warmed me up inside. And it’s not just the romance, but the moving relationships Tim has with his father and his sister (played by Lydia Wilson) also got to me as well. Very few, if any, romantic-comedies resonate with me (the last one was probably 500 Days of Summer), so I’m glad I was fortunate enough to have given About Time a shot.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Fifth Estate (2013)

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I finally got around to watching The Fifth Estate, the dramatization of the whole Wikileaks saga starring the marvellous Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange. The film is directed by Bill Condon, probably best known for the final two instalments of the Twilight Saga, and like those films, it was released to mixed reviews.

The Fifth Estate is more or less a more “grown up” attempt to replicate the tension and drama of The Social Network (you know, the one about the founding of Facebook). Like Mark Zuckerberg, Aussie Julian Assange is a brilliant but douchey loner who invents something that will change the world. It brings him fame (though in this case not fortune) and the notoriety he craves, but his growing ego also leads to a falling out with a close friend, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (the Eduardo Saverin of this story). The other major difference to The Social Network is that the stakes are much higher — it’s about lives rather than just money.

The film is based on Domscheit-Berg’s side of the story, and Assange publicly bashed the film without having seen it (he said he read the screenplay), calling it a “serious propaganda attack on WikiLeaks and the integrity of its staff” and a  “lie built upon a lie.” He even implored Cumberbatch not to take the role, though he apparently tried to get his ghostwriter Andrew O’Hagan to split the fee for the latter to act as a consultant on the film. None of this is surprising if the version of Assange depicted in the film is anything close to the real deal — ie, an megalomaniac, a weirdo and a dickhead.

Some critics such as Mark Kermode said they found the handling of the film “too even-handed,” though I felt it was just right. Wikileaks is depicted as both a positive and a negative, which it is, but also as a dangerous tool that can cause real risk to innocent lives if put in reckless hands. As for the depiction of Assange, he is shown as a flawed character, to put it nicely. I don’t think they were trying to hold back on what they thought of him.

The performances are what really drive the film. Cumberbatch doesn’t look much like Assange, even with the white hair, but he nailed the voice and the Aussie accent. Assange said it was “grating” to hear someone who isn’t Australian do an Australian accent and an impersonation of his voice, but if that’s the case then he must find it grating listening to himself, because Assange was close to perfection.

I became a fan of Daniel Bruhl after seeing him in the underrated Rush, and he was also very good here as Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Cumberbatch outshone him because he is Assange, but Bruhl held his own as protagonist audiences can relate to. The rest of the supporting cast, which includes Anthony Mackie, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney and David Thewlis as Nick Davies from The Guardian,  was also solid.

Given that most of the stuff in the story happens on computers, which is very boring, The Fifth Estate tries to spice things up by building a frenetic pace through tense chatrooms, busy newsrooms and a sense of paranoia from being spied on or even chased by authorities. It’s well-intentioned, but unlike The Social Network, it doesn’t have Aaron Sorkin penning the script and thus misses a certain snappiness to the drama and in particular the dialogue. That’s perhaps its biggest downfall, though I still think it’s a worthwhile film to watch if you have an interest in Wikileaks and/or the truth vs security debate.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Book Thief (2013)

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I consider myself a fan of Markus Zusak’s The Boof Thief, one of the most acclaimed novels to come from an Australian author in recent years. I only gave it 3.5/5 in my review, but I was impressed with the idea of a Holocaust story narrated by Death and centering on a young German girl rather than a Jew. And perhaps more pertinent is the fact that I became enamored with Zusak’s writing style and his journey towards success, an inspiring story for all aspiring writers about the necessity of hard work and dedication.

When the book started making every best-seller and critics list I knew a movie adaptation would be forthcoming, but I knew whoever made it would have their work cut out for them. Would they make Death the narrator in the film version as well? Who would do the voice? Was it going to be in English, like the novel, or in more realistic German? And when you strip the book down, not a lot of exciting incidents happen throughout — so how were they going to make it more exciting for a screen audience?

As it turned out, my fears were more or less realized in the film version of The Book Thief, directed by Downton Abbey’s Brian Percival. In an attempt to capture the essence and the quirks of the book, the film was trapped by a number of obstacles and failed to deliver the same emotional punch as its source material. It wasn’t terrible by any means — there were poignant moments and some strong performances — but it bordered on dull at times and missed out on an opportunity to create the resonating experience that the book was.

The story, which begins in 1938, is simple. Young Liesel Meminger (Canadian teen actress Sophie Nelisse) is entrusted to lovely foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) following the death of her brother. The narrative then follows young Liesel as she lives through the Holocaust, making friends, hiding Jews and stealing, of course, books. It’s a relatively small-scale movie in that it focuses on only a few characters, but the larger events of that time are not ignored.

The most positive elements of the film come straight from the book, being the humanity it depicts in one of the darkest times in human history. The suffering and brutality is there, but it’s not an in-your-face kind of story that tries to shock you with the visceral horrors of war. The focus is more on the Liesel and the children, the good Germans, and the little decisions they had to make to deal with the atrocities happening around them every day. The whole feel of the film is different to most WWII films I’ve seen in the past. I wouldn’t call it “sanitized”, but it is the kind of Holocaust film that can be watched by the whole family.

Geoffrey Rush, who is magnificent as always, provides warmth and humour as a wonderful man who needs to balance what he believes in against the safety of his family. Emily Watson is also very good — though not exactly who I pictured from reading the books — as the foster mother who has a heart of gold behind her snarky exterior.

On the other hand, the things that didn’t work also didn’t work because they were taken straight from the book. The idea of having Death narrate the story is a clever literary device that has become one of the defining characteristics of the novel, but it hasn’t translated well to the screen and comes across as gimmicky without really adding much to the film. Death is voiced by British stage actor Roger Allam, who doesn’t a fine job, though it’s not the type of voice I imagined when I was reading the book (this is subjective, of course). But he doesn’t really do anything except pop up on rare occasions to sneak in a word or two, and it’s jarring because it’s easy to forget that he’s even part of the story. I had the same problem when I read the book, but it wasn’t anywhere near as uncomfortable as it was in the film.

The other problem is that, when you start stripping away Zusack’s beautifully storytelling, you realise that not a whole lot of stuff really happens in terms of physical action. Not to say that nothing happens, but it becomes more difficult to generate excitement when this kind of story is translated to the screen. Coupled with its overlong 131-minute running time, there are times when The Book Thief feels plodding. The ending, in particular, comes on a strange note and somewhat abruptly. It worked well in the book, but not so much in the film.

I sound a little harsher than I mean to be because there are some well-executed elements and a warmth and humanity in The Book Thief that make it a worthwhile movie to watch. Perhaps my expectations were too high and the things about the adaptation that didn’t work clouded my overall judgment of the film. Maybe they needed to deviate from the source material to make the film a more memorable experience, but as it stands I think it was merely a passable adaptation of a beloved novel.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Nymphomaniac (2013)

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The Nymphomaniac posters are hilarious

I don’t consider myself a fan of Lars von Trier, but I do admire his ambition, tendency to take risks and willingness to attempt something a little different to what we’re used to seeing. His latest writer/director effort, Nymphomaniac, is a 4-hour epic split into two parts, contains a whole load of big Hollywood names, and features highly explicit sex scenes. I didn’t think I’d like it, but to my own amazement, I did.

The film starts off when an injured middle-aged woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is found in an alley by a middle-aged man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). At Joe’s request, Seligman takes her home to attend to her wounds, and soon after she begins telling him her adventurous life story as a nymphomaniac, someone addicted to sex. In Volume I, the young Joe is played mostly by rail-thin Franco-English actress Stacy Martin, while the majority of Volume II reverts back to the older Gainsbrough.

The total length of the two parts is a whopping 241 minutes (with an additional 28 minutes in the uncut version I didn’t see). Even with an intermission, the film is a challenge for any moviegoer.

But it wasn’t as much of a challenge as I anticipated, because for the most part, Nymphomaniac is entertaining (or at least extremely fascinating) cinema; and no, it’s not because of the explicit sex scenes. First of all, you would be mistaken to catch this film if you’re only interested in the sex. if you are, then I’d recommend watching porn instead, because to be honest, the cut version I watched is not that bad. There are scenes that show what appear to be real sex acts featuring real genitalia, but as we’ve been told, they don’t belong to the actors you see on screen. It’s either done by prosthetics or porn actors and then digitally inserted (get that joke?) through movie magic. Some scenes are titillating, many others are not, and several even verge on gross. In any case, there are certainly plenty of other contemporary movies that are equal or worse in terms of explicitness, with the brilliant Blue is the Warmest Color being a recent candidate that springs to mind.

Instead, watch Nymphomaniac because it’s a very interesting movie with great characters played by a wonderful cast. Joe is a brilliant creation, someone born with a natural appetite for all things sexual. While she continuously questions the morality of her behaviour, she is not ashamed of it. For those who have seen Shame, Joe provides a thought-provoking contrast to Michael Fassbender’s character. Seligman, on the other hand, provides perfect balance to Joe through his asexuality, his wide knowledge of the world, and his ability to link them to Joe’s experiences. There’s an air of surrealism that feels just right when the two of them talk, and I couldn’t help but be captivated by their every word.

Stacy Martin, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard take up the majority of the screen time, but there are also plenty of other big names such as Shia LeBeouf, Christian Slater, Connie Nielsen, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman and Willem Dafoe. Shia LeBeouf has fallen off the wagon as of late, but he thankfully kept his douchebagginess to a minimum in this film. It’s just a shame he can’t do a proper British accent and can’t help but look annoying. On the other hand, the standout for me is clearly Uma Thurman, who steals the show with a farcical sequence as a scorned wife.

And that leads me into the thing that surprised me most about Nymphomaniac — it’s actually really really funny. My kind of black comedy all the way. The Uma Thurman sequence is genuinely laugh-out-loud stuff, and there are plenty of others littered throughout the film, including how Joe got her first job and how she subsequently performed her duties. The train competition scenes were also brilliantly executed — awkward and painful, but amusing and insightful at the same time.

Not everything in the film worked though, and there were portions, especially in Volume II, where I found it difficult to sustain my attention. It might be because I had already sat through three hours, but it might also be because the film was starting to lose its edge. The transition from the young Joe to the old Joe was also jarring because of the sudden switch between actresses. Part of the problem is because Charlotte Gainsbourg looks really young for her age and looks nothing like Stacy Martin other than their thin figures, and another part of the problem is that Shia LaBeouf’s character doesn’t age until the end. I’m sure there could have been a better way.

Anyway, if you treat Nymphomaniac as two separate films, as some have done, it’s likely you’ll prefer one Volume over the other. Personally, I thought Volume I was much more enjoyable. It’s lighter, funnier and more playful, whereas Volume II becomes much serious and tragic as Joe’s adventures get darker and darker in her desire to feel something. I also don’t get S&M at all, so maybe that played a factor too.

On the whole, I came away surprised by how much I enjoyed Nymphomaniac because I only watched it to see what all the fuss was about. Instead, I not only liked it, I liked it for reasons I had not expected. It might very well be my favourite Lars von Trier film.

3.75 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part IV

Dead Man Down (2013)

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Colin Farrell is back as his gritty self in Dead Man Down, a neo-noir thriller that’s not bad but probably at best a good video/DVD rental.

Farrell plays Victor, a seemingly depressed fellow who works for a ruthless drug kingpin, Alphonse, played by Terrence Howard. Alphonse is receiving death threats, and it seems Victor might not be who he really says he is. At the same time, he starts seeing a scarred woman across the road, played by the original girl with the dragon tattoo, Noomi Rapace. It’s all dark and gloomy; people are scheming, and many of them are going to die.

The cast is excellent, and there’s not much to complain about the aforementioned trio of Farrell, Howard and Rapace. The supporting cast which includes Dominic Cooper, Armand Assante, F Murray Abraham and Isabelle Huppert is also very strong.

I wouldn’t call Dead Man Down boring, but it’s not exactly super exciting either. There are a few moments of tension, but for the most part it’s just a bunch of moody gangsters plotting to kill each other. It’s a dark and serious tale of vengeance, but there’s nothing really helping it stand out from a lot of similar flicks that have been released on the market over the years. There are some interesting plot twists which can be viewed as genius or absurd, depending on your point of view, but at the end of the day it’s just a decent albeit forgettable thriller.

2.75 stars out of 5

Phantom (2013)

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Submarine movies were pretty popular for a while (The Hunt for Red October, K-19, U571), so I was looking forward to seeing Phantom, supposedly based on a classified true story about how Russia and the US came perilously close to coming to blows during the Cold War.

Unfortunately, despite the great cast headed by Ed Harris, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Shredder (William Fichtner), Phantom turned out to be a strangely dull and unfulfilling film that fails to live up to expectations.

The first thing that should be noted is that the story is told from the Soviet’s perspective and all the aforementioned actors play Russians. But of course, they speak English, which already removes a layer of realism to the narrative.

Putting that aside, Phantom struggles because it’s not exciting. Submarine movies are known for their claustrophobic tension and friction between members when critical life-altering decisions need to be made. Phantom has those elements too, but for some reason the film’s pulse is flat and never projects a genuine sense of the scope of the danger. I thought this was perhaps it’s because we know nothing will happen, though the brilliant Thirteen Days, about the Cuban missile crisis, shared the same problem and was absolutely riveting cinema.

And the whole time I was watching the film I couldn’t stop thinking that I was listening to Fox Mulder because even as a Russian Duchovny can’t seem to get rid of that hypnotic voice.

It also has a really bizarre ending that is completely at odds with the rest of the film.

2.25 stars out of 5

The Numbers Station (2013)

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Is John Cusack still an A-list star? The Numbers Station suggests that he isn’t one any more.

It’s not a bad film, but it’s not a very good one either. Cusack plays a burned-out CIA operative who is sent to a secret US numbers station in the UK countryside. It’s basically a government information station that transmits secret messages via code, and Cusack has to protect it from attackers along with a female agent played by Malin Ackerman.

Of course, the station comes under attack, and Cusack is told that help will come in four hours. Meanwhile, he is given an order to secure the station by killing those related to the compromise. There’s a bigger plot involved that could effectively change the world, but that’s about as far as I’ll go with the spoilers. To be honest I found it a little too confusing and convoluted to remember anyway.

Cusack and Ackerman are good individually, but they don’t develop any genuine chemistry. The numbers station concept itself I also found very interesting, and some of the shootouts are well-executed, but for some reason it just didn’t give off the vibe of a high quality action-thriller. Was it because they were mostly stuck in one place? Was the plot unnecessarily convoluted? Was it just a lack of freshness in the way the story unfolded? Or a little bit of all of the above?

In any case, I felt The Numbers Station was somewhat of a letdown because it had the potential to be a lot more than what it was — which is passable, but forgettable entertainment.

2.75 stars out of 5

The Lifeguard (2013)

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The Lifeguard, produced, written, and directed by Liz W Garcia, is an interesting little indie film about a depressed 29-year-old journalist (Kristen Bell in a daring performance) who leaves her life in New York to head back to her small hometown in Connecticut, where she begins working as a lifeguard at the local pool. There she meets a bunch of local kids and begins a relationship with one of them (David Lambert).

It’s a deeply personal film about life’s disappointments, failed expectations and vulnerability that comes from loneliness and isolation. It’s one of those films where you either connect with it or you don’t, and given the closeness in age between myself and Kristen’s character I could definitely feel her pain and frustration.

As good as Bell is in this film, her thunder was stolen a little bit by Mamie Gummer, a high school assistant principal who is coming to terms with the problems in her own life and marriage. The only thing I had seen Gummer in before was The Good Wife, where she plays a really annoying bitch of a lawyer, but here she is a revelation.

On the other hand, I don’t think The Lifeguard is ultimately anything special. There are some mildly amusing moments here and there but I think it would be false advertising to add “comedy” to film’s categorization as a drama. This is a serious film that with a melancholic tone, and as such it’s not easy to develop a lot of enthusiasm for the story. And as is usually the case with such films you have a pretty good idea of how it’s going to end.

Still, I quite liked it, though I also recognize that it probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

3.5 stars out of 5