Category Archives: 2014

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

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Say what you want about the man’s morally questionable private life, but when it comes to movies, Woody Allen only has good ones and disappointing ones, because even at their worst his films are still pretty watchable.

Sadly, I place Magic in the Moonlight in the disappointing category — though only relative to my high expectations. With a charming cast headed by Colin Firth and Emma Stone and an intriguing premise about magicians and psychics, I had been hoping for a magical experience (no pun intended) in the vein of Midnight in Paris, one of my faves from 2011. Woody was coming off the awesome Blue Jasmine in 2013, so I thought the momentum could carry over.

Alas, the romantic comedy never quite got there for me. It’s a sweet flick good enough to deliver a few laughs and enchanting moments, though it is also so slight and forgettable that it’s hard to place the movie anywhere but in the middle of the road in Woody Allen’s formidable filmography.

The film did hook me in straight away. Set in the late 1920s, the story is focused on a paranormal debunker named Stanley (Colin Firth), who earns his money in disguise as Wei Ling Soo, a world famous illusionist from the Orient. Stanley’s world is turned upside down when he meets a young clairvoyant and mystic named Sophie (Emma Stone), who begins to confound him with what appear to be genuine abilities.

Despite the age gap (what else did you expect from Woody?), the chemistry between Firth and Stone is fantastic, even though the latter doesn’t totally convince as someone from that era. I enjoyed watching the two grow close through an assortment of witty banter and neurosis typically found in Woody Allen movies. The humour is light but effective, but what kept my interest more than anything was the mystery of Sophie’s abilities and the impact it had on a hardcore sceptic convinced of the randomness and meaninglessness of the universe.

The supporting characters are also funny albeit being more like caricatures. I particularly enjoyed the performances of Hamish Linklater as Brice, a well-meaning and very wealthy young man pining after Sophie, Marcia Gay Harden as Sophie’s protective mother, and Aussie legend Jackie Weaver as Grace, a grieving widow perfect for Sophie to exhibit her powers.

I agree Magic in the Moonlight is an interesting and pleasant film to watch — it’s just not the kind of film that will wow you or raise your pulse or even generate any kind of noticeable emotional response. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just would have preferred more energy and a greater sense of wonder to make me care more about the story and the characters.

Perhaps “disappointing” is being harsh, since I enjoyed Magic in the Moonlight for what it was — a bit of lighthearted fun you’ll probably never think of again once the end credits roll. I wanted a little more from Woody than just that, though it’s still not a bad film to check out when you feel like simply sitting back and relaxing on a boring afternoon.

3.25 stars out of 5

2014 Movie Blitz: Part IX

This could be the last blitz before my best of and worst of list for 2014.

St Vincent (2014)

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I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It’s a simple premise we’ve seen countless times — a grumpy old man befriends a youngster, and they each end up learning something profound from the unconventional relationship. But in this case, the superb cast led by Bill Murray, doing what he does best, makes St Vincent a funny, poignant movie that won’t blow you away but will have you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside by the time the credits start rolling.

Murray plays the titular Vincent, a mysterious, reclusive old man with a sharp tongue and sharper attitude. Struggling single mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door, and Vincent, almost by accident, starts teaching Oliver the ways of life. Naomi Watts plays Vincent’s Russian “lady friend.”

Murray has turned his grumpy, deadpan face down to perfection, and it’s on full display in this film. It’s a shame we don’t see him much in movies these days because the man is a true comedy genius. It was also good to see Melissa McCarthy play a straight character for once and doing it so well. She’s much more than just a stock character — you really feel for her — and she has great chemistry and timing with Murray when they’re engaged in one of their hilarious spats.

I thought Naomi Watts was a bit of A strange casting choice for her character, but apart from that St Vincent ticks all the right boxes for a touching and funny drama parents can enjoy with their kids (I’d say 12 and above).

3.5 stars out of 5

The Drop (2014)

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This is one of those gritty and brooding crime dramas that’s neither forgettable nor particularly memorable. I thought it was pretty decent because of a smart script, confident direction, and strong performances from the brilliant Tom Hardy and the legendary James Gandolfini in one of his final roles.

Basically, the plot revolves around Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), a bartender who works a bar run by Gandolfini’s character, Cousin Marv. Marv used to own the establishment but sold it to Chechen gangsters, and now the bar is a “drop” point for illegal funds. Later, a robbery sets the story in motion, and Bob finds himself being targeted by both the cops and the robbers.

Much of the story centres Bob’s relationship with a neighbourhood girl played by Noomi Rapace and a dog. It’s one of those films where you feel as though something is brooding and tension is always building, but you’re not sure of where it is all heading.

The cast is superb, especially Hardy, who is a man of few words but conveys many emotions just from looks and expressions, yet it is often difficult to figure out exactly what is going through his head.

It’s a violent film that doesn’t necessarily shy away from crime drama cliches but is still clever and different enough to distinguish itself from the pack.

3.5 stars out of 5

By the Gun (2014)

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By comparison to the film above, By the Gun is a much weaker and forgettable crime drama. Ben Barnes plays Nick Tortano, a low-level mobster who wants to “be someone.”

So he works under a Boston crime boss played by Harvey Keitel, starts dating his estranged daughter (Leighton Meester) and recklessly gets himself into a lot of shit as he tries to make a name for himself. Something’s gotta give!

I like Ben Barnes. He’s one of the prettiest actors around and he’s a stage actor who can clearly act. But as hard as he tried, he didn’t convince me here as a Boston gangster. Maybe that’s why he’s stuck with roles like Prince Caspian and high-profile flops like Dorian Gray and Seventh Son.

By the Gun has enough grit but not enough originality to sustain its 109-minute running time. I didn’t care much for the characters nor their predicaments, and when that happens a crime drama is destined for failure. It’s not poorly made, it’s just so average that you start to forget about it as soon as the credits roll.

2.5 stars out of 5

Son of a Gun (2014)

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So many guns in this movie review blitz! Son of a Gun is a fairly compelling Australian crime drama with similar themes to the masterful Animal Kingdom. It’s not as good, of course, but by Aussie movie standards it’s not bad.

Rising star Brenton Thwaites, who is just everywhere these days, plays JR, a young convict who becomes acquainted with a notorious robber played by Ewan McGregor. Upon his release, JR is introduced to a mob boss, this beginning a life of crime where the stakes continue to be escalated and things spiral out of control before JR realises he is in way over his head.

Like Animal Kingdom, this is a crime drama seen from the point of view of a naive man-child, learning the brutalities of the world with one frightening lesson after another. It’s a twisted coming-of-age story of sorts, filled with thumping violence and rounded characters.

It’s unfair beyond that to compare the two films. Son of a Gun isn’t on the same level in terms of tension, intensity and plot or character development, and it’s much less effective at veering away from genre cliches, especially as the film nears its finale.

What does give it extra brownie points are the performances of McGregor, still one of the most reliable actors around, and rising superstar Alicia Vikander (who has like five movies out this year), who brings more depth than one would expect for a supposed token female love interest. I’m still waiting to see though why Thwaites, as solid as he is, is snapping up so many roles in Hollywood.

On the whole, Son of a Gun struggles to separate itself from similar films in the genre the way Animal Kingdom did, but thanks to the awesomeness of Ewan McGregor and Alicia Vikander, it manages enough appeal to drag it over the line in my books.

3.25 stars out of 5

2014 Movie Blitz: Part VIII

Cut Bank (2014)

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This was a strange attempt to emulate the magic of Fargo, one of my favourite movies of all time.

The story begins when the central character, played by Liam Hemsworth, accidentally films a supposed murder in the corn fields of the titular small town while training his girlfriend (fellow Aussie Teresa Palmer) for a beauty pageant. But nothing is as it first seems, and soon  Billy Bob Thornton and John Malkovich are on the case. Bruce Dern plays an old nutjob and mailman, while Michael Stuhlbarg plays a psychotic killer. Oliver Platt rounds out the star-studded cast.

Just like Fargo, Cut Bank is brutally violent and has plenty of unexpected events where the shit keeps hitting the fan and the mess keeps getting murkier and out of control. It even has a big Native American dude playing a tough guy. But it’s nowhere near as darkly comedic, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some viewers fail to  get the humour amid all the carnage and mayhem. It’s also not as intelligent or original. Watchable? Yes. Good? Not quite.

One of the biggest problems with the movie is Liam Hemsworth, who hasn’t really done anything that deserves praise thus far in his career. Yeah sure, he’s in The Hunger Games, but in that he’s a distant third fiddle who is more of a minor character than a major one. The charisma of his elder brother just isn’t there.

There are some decent moments, most involving Bruce Dern, and also when Teresa Palmer performs for the pageant, but for those most part Cut Bank doesn’t deserve anything more than a straight-to-DVD fate.

2.5 stars out of 5

Time Lapse (2014)

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This low-budget time travel thriller went completely under my radar. It’s better than the most recent time travel film I watched before it, Project Almanac, and the superb storytelling is good enough to make up for most of its flaws.

The premise of Time Lapse is simple. A guy, his girlfriend and best friend, all living under the same roof, discover a camera machine in a neighbour’s house that takes periodic photos through their apartment window. The photos reveal the scene in the apartment exactly 24 hours into the future.

Writer and debut director Bradley D King does a solid job of getting the most out of this interesting idea, taking advantage of the notion that the protagonists can use the device to send messages to their past selves but also requiring them to act out what they see in the photo 24 hours later to avoid a time travel paradox. It raises questions of free will, fate and whether we can really change the future.

I liked how the movie utilises a limited form of time travel that doesn’t require special effects, and how it focuses on the relationship dynamics of the three central characters. The ending is also quite clever and requires a bit of thought for everything to fall into place.

The performances of the central trio — Danielle Panabaker, Matt O’Leary and George Finn — are also strong, taking attention away from the aspects that don’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense, or reactions that stretch credulity. I thought it was pretty silly, for instance, for them to try to get rich through betting with dodgy bookies. A lotto ticket would have been so much easier and less dangerous.

Flaws aside, it’s still a solid piece of sci-fi entertainment, with enough intrigue and character development to deliver a thought-provoking experience.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Skeleton Twins (2014)

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Don’t think you’re in for a comedy just because you see Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader on the cover. The Skeleton Twins is one of the saddest and most depressing films I’ve seen in a while.

The comedic duo play fraternal twins Maggie and Milo. I don’t want to spoil too much, so let’s just say both are going through a lot in their lives and are likely suffering from depression. Milo’s problems are a lot more overt because he’s gay (and obviously so) and has a dark past, while Maggie’s are more hidden under the surface because she appears to have a wonderful marriage to a lovely, gregarious husband (played by Luke Wilson).

Deep down, however, both are broken, and the film is about how they deal with life’s disappointments and messy situations. There are scenes of genuine heartbreak that really resonated with me, in particular some of the one-on-one conversations involving Milo, and much of the credit has to go to both Wiig and Hader for turning in such fantastic dramatic performances. Hader, in particular, is so convincing as a gay man that I had to check his Wikipedia page just to make sure he’s not gay in real life.

The pair are funny when they want to be, though it’s usually a one-liner here or a mildly humorous situation there; the overall melancholic tone never goes away in this film, a brutally honest look at life without rose-tinted lenses, full of difficult stretches and little moments of joy and laughter.

It’s undoubtedly well-made and driven by superb performances, which also include Modern Family‘s Ty Burrell and Boyd Holbrook, whose Aussie accent barely gets over the line for me (it’s just a hard accent for Americans to do, I guess). That said, I don’t usually like such dark, depressing films because they put such a downer on my mood. I suppose I’ll have to make an exception for The Skeleton Twins, as it has enough sweetness and poignancy to justify a hearty recommendation.

3.5 stars out of 5

Annie (2014)

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Am I crazy, or is the universally panned remake of Annie actually not that bad? I had basically put off watching the film (I’m not that interested in musicals anyway) because of all the bad reviews, so I entered this without any expectations. I came out of it pleasantly surprised. Yes it’s cliched and saccharine and Cameron Diaz overacts even more that usual, but I still thought Annie got the job done with some nice homages to the original 1982 film, a modern makeover, some clever jokes, and a couple of catchy — albeit super autotuned — tunes.

Quvenzhané Wallis (who rose to stardom after earning an Oscar nomination for Beasts of the Southern Wild) plays the titular character, Annie Bennett, an orphan who longs to one day meet her real parents. She’s stuck with the nasty and single Miss Hannigan (Diaz) in foster care, I suppose for the government funding, until one day a stroke of luck makes her cross paths with mobile phone mogul and germaphobe William Stacks (Foxx). Sensing an opportunity, Stacks’ mayoral race campaign manager (Bobby Cannavale) gets Stacks to temporarily take Annie into his care to boost his popularity. And you know the rest.

The singing is OK — it’s at least better than Mamma Mia (Pierce Brosnan still gives me nightmares). Cameron Diaz isn’t great, and Rose Byrne is decent, but Jamie Foxx has a nice set of chords. I’m sure there’s a lot of autotune, but that’s what you’re expected to get these days when you cast a musical for star power as opposed to singing. The songs are relatively catchy, better than a lot of other musicals in recent years, and songs only pop up when they need to, unlike say Les Miserables where just about every line comes with a melody.

Look, it’s not great, but the tone is light and lively, and Jamie Foxx and Rose Byrne are funny enough to carry this well-intentioned remake through to the end, hitting a fair share of right notes along the way. I don’t get why people had such an acidic reaction to it.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: When the Game Stands Tall (2014)

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American football movies are a dime a dozen, but few have stood out to me like When the Game Stands Tall, the remarkable true story of legendary high school coach Bob Ladouceur, who led California’s De La Salle Spartans to a record 151 consecutive victories. Unfortunately, I’m going to remember this one for all the wrong reasons.

I give every movie, no matter how bad they might seem, a fighting chance. But it took just a couple of minutes before I told the guy next to me, “This is really bad.”

From the first scenes I could tell this was going to be one corny, sentimental journey riddled with cliches and painfully obvious plot points that hit all the boiler plate markers at exactly the moments you’d expect them to. I was of course right, as the film stayed true to itself all the way to the predictable end.

Instead of the uplifting emotions the film was aiming for, all I got was manipulation as obvious as dogs’ balls. Insane amounts of awkward, expository dialogue; catchphrases and monologues you expect to only hear on televised evangelist sermons or sports parodies; cringeworthy moments and characters galore. It’s laughably bad (I’m not exaggerating; I literally laughed out loud several times at the unintentional humour).

The film actually starts toward the end of the winning streak, beginning on such a high that you know exactly where it is going to go: fall from grace, start over, work hard, minor conflicts along the way, big “f*%$ yeah!” climax at the end.

The themes are ones you’ve seen a million times. Doubts about God, passion railroaded by health, neglecting family for job, battling poverty, overbearing parents, and the jock “brotherhood.” Players clash, family members clash, but everything they say is cliched and none of it feels genuine. Everything is shoved in your face like someone handing out flyers on a street corner. The worst was the vomit-inducing heart-to-hearts between the players before the big game, barely outdoing the “inspiring” visit to see rehabilitating war veterans to give them a new perspective. Of course, this visit never happened in real life.

On top of all that, the film’s characters are harder to fathom existing than the team’s impressive winning streak. Fair enough, they attended a Catholic school and Ladouceur is, by all accounts, extremely devout, but seriously, come on. I know he’s played by Jim Caviezel, but in this film, Ladouceur is more Jesus than Jesus. He’s the complete opposite of every caricature “win at all costs” evil high school sports coach in film history. He cares for everyone (I mean really really cares), puts players before wins, always knows what’s right, spews Bible verses verbatim. And his biggest flaw is — wait for it — is that he’s a closet smoker. God forbid! He even as an obnoxious assistant coach to make him look even holier.

Among the players, the two that stand out are Ladouceur’s son Danny, played by Matthew Daddario, brother to the smoking Alexandra Daddario, and the fictional running back Chris Ryan, played by The Hunger Games‘ Alexander Ludwig. Much of the focus is placed on Ryan’s relationship with his father, played by Shawshank guard Clancy Brown, who is a caricature that combines every repugnant high school sports dad ever depicted on screen.

The only thing I can honestly say the film has going for it is some well-executed football game action. The plays look real enough to me, and even when you know what’s going to happen they offer a bit of a rush. But a lot of football films have good game sequences, and it’s not enough to offset the plethora of negatives.

When the Game Stands Tall might not be the worst film of 2014, but it will likely go down as the most unbearable. As well-intentioned as it may have been, even Jesus couldn’t bring salvation to this hackneyed melodrama.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Paddington (2014)

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If you had asked me to jot down the 10 major releases of 2014 that I had no interest in seeing, I’m fairly certain that Paddington would have been on that list, and near the top too.

Paddington bear is beloved in children’s literature, which usually means disaster when it comes to big screen adaptations. Besides, I don’t know much about the character myself, don’t care much for it, and I don’t particularly like family or children’s films. Throw in the typically overrated Nicole Kidman in the cast, and it’s no surprise Paddington barely registered a peep on my movie radar.

And yet, the 98% Rotten Tomatoes rating enticed me to give it a try when I had nothing else better to do. I still didn’t expect it to be good because I figured the positive reviews were judging it from the standpoint of a family/children’s film.

I was of course wrong. Even taking into account my low expectations, Paddington turned out to be one of my surprise hits of 2014. It’s not a groundbreaking family film by any means, but the humour and tone are so well-crafted that adults might end up enjoying it more than the kids.

The plot is formulaic: an English-speaking Peruvian bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) somehow ends up in London and is adopted by a typical family who name him after the station where they found him. The mother (Sally Hawkins) and her two kids welcome Paddington with open arms, but the dad (Hugh Bonneville from Downton Abbey), a risk analyst, can’t wait to get rid of the troublesome bear.

As you would expect, there are fish-out-of-the-water experiences for Paddington as he tries to acclimatise himself to human life, baddies (led by Nicole Kidman) who want to stuff him, and opportunities for the dad to accept Paddington into his family and his heart.

None of this is mildly surprising. What is surprising is that Paddington is genuinely funny and filled with feel-good fun. Much of the brilliance stems from the decision to have everyone in the movie accept the existence of a talking bear with a non-chalant, “so what?” attitude. No one he comes in contact with is shocked, and the reaction is typically more one of disdain for his scruffy appearance. This durable gag is backed up by a plenty of deadpan humour, especially from Bonneville, who strangely reminded me of a likable version of Piers Morgan. He is absolutely fantastic.

It’s a shame the lovely Sally Hawkins doesn’t get to do much here, though other characters, such as Nicole Kidman’s villain and Peter Capaldi’s grumpy neighbour, manage to pick up the slack. Most of the laughs in this film are light, but they are mostly witty and come regularly. I never expected to laugh this much in a family film with a CGI bear.

At the end of the day, Paddington is still a formulaic family film with a bear whose cuteness has no influence on me. But despite not being my cup of tea on paper, I ended up having a blast because comedy does not discriminate. Funny is funny no matter what genre. I’m glad I gave Paddington a chance and I hope everyone will too.

4 stars out of 5

2014 Movie Blitz: Part VII

The Forger (2014)

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It feels like John Travolta hasn’t done anything in a while, or at least anything worth mentioning. His latest effort, The Forger, is unlikely to alter that perception.

In this moody crime drama Travolta plays a master forger of masterpieces (I know, he looks just like one, right?), who strikes a deal with nasty gangsters to get out of jail earlier. Of course, it’s because they want him for his skills so they can commit a robbery, but you could forget that watching this film because most of the time is spent on the relationship between Travolta and his son (Tye Sheridan), who sadly is dying from cancer. Christopher Plummer plays Travolta’s dad and Abigail Spencer (from Suits) plays a detective on his track.

As a crime thriller The Forger is terrible. There’s no suspense and no feeling that any of it even matters. It’s no wonder the film is universally panned for how boring it is.

As a father-son drama, on the other hand, I think there are some nice moments stemming from this wish-granting subplot Travolta gets into. Consequently, I don’t think the film is as bad as it has been made out to be.

Travolta is pretty much always the same as he’s always been, though I believe the tragic death of his teenage son a few years back may have prompted him to take on this role and given his performance an added layer of emotion. Christopher Plummer is always good, but it’s Tye Sheridan who stands out by proving once again (after Mud with Mr Alright Alright McConaughey) that he has a bright future ahead of him.

It’s obviously not great, and most critics seem to disagree, but I don’t think The Forger is a bad random DVD hire.

3 stars out of 5

The Loft (2014)

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Every now and then you get a film like The Loft — a forgettable B-grade thriller with a roster full of recognisable names and faces. In this case we’re talking Karl Urban, James Marsden, Wentworth Miller, Eric Stonestreet and the Transformers blonde Aussie duo of Rachael Taylor and Isabelle Lucas.

It’s hard to give you an idea of what the film is about without a little detail. Basically, the loft is a sleaze-pad shared by five married friends (the above four actors plus Matthias Schoenaerts) to use for rendezvous with girlfriends, mistresses, one-night stands and so forth. Classy, I know.

But of course, something terrible happens and they have to figure out how to resolve the problem and solve a mystery while they’re at it. It’s actually a remake of a Dutch-language Belgian film from 2008 that must have done well enough to get Hollywood’s attention.

On paper it looks good. Respectable, good-looking cast, a locked room mystery of sorts with flashbacks and a whole load of twists and turns that will kind of keep you guessing. I can see the attraction of such a project.

However, The Loft has a fatal flaw: the characters are just so sleazy, so disgusting, so despicable and such degenerates that they are completely unworthy of sympathy and incapable of invoking any empathy. They’re more than just people with loose morals — some of them are genuinely sick.

As a result you’re just watching a bunch of dickheads get what they deserve and a couple of cardboard female characters act like a couple of cardboard female characters.

That said, you don’t necessarily have to like or care about he characters for a movie to work. Unfortunately, The Loft doesn’t have the requisite elements to qualify as a guilty pleasure. It’s just not satisfying enough, not intelligent enough, not campy enough and not so-bad-it’s-good enough.

Despite all this, the film passes as a watchable DVD or VOD experience owing to its star-studded cast and having just enough intrigue to not be boring. Just don’t expect too much.

2.5 stars out of 5

The Gambler

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I really wanted to give The Gambler its own individual post, but sadly it doesn’t deserve it. I was naturally partial to this film given that it is the follow-up effort of Rupert Wyatt, director of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and I desperately wanted The Gambler to be awesome.

However, while the film does have some intriguing aspects and nice moments, I can’t in good conscience proclaim it a good movie.

A remake of the 1974 film starring James Caan, The Gambler is the tale of Marky Mark Whalberg’s Jim Bennett, a literature professor with a crippling gambling addiction. He’s one of those “all or nothing” guys who never knows when to quit, and the self-destructive habit pushes him to the edge after he begins borrowing money from the wrong people (John Goodman, Michael K Williams, etc), much to the disappointment of his wealthy mother (Jessica Lange, who is excellent in her few scenes).

Wyatt infuses the film with a lot of style and a deliberate pace that results in a completely different type of experience to Apes. It’s not unentertaining and never gets dull, but there’s ultimately not enough substance to elevate it to what it could have been.

Part of the reason is that Bennett isn’t a very likable character. He’s interesting, but he’s also a complete asshole, making him hard to root for or sympathise with. Marky Mark is pretty good, so it’s not his fault.

I’m also deducting some points for the film’s depiction of a basketball game, which is so ridiculous and unrealistic that it saps much of the tension of what is supposed to be a climactic part of the film. Thankfully the gambling scenes were executed much better.

I really wanted to like The Gambler more, but unfortunately it’s just an average and somewhat forgettable remake.

2.5 stars out of 5

This Is Where I Leave You (2014)

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This Is Where I Leave You is a “light and nice” family drama film (ie, about a family, as opposed to for the family) bolstered by one of the best ensemble casts of 2014.

It’s based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Tropper and is directed by Shawn Levy, best known for the Night at the Museum films, Date Night and The Internship. This one is better than all those films because of its depth and cast, but the overall feel is somewhat similar — some humour, a dash of gentle drama, and a sugary vibe that takes the heaviness off its life lessons.

Jason Bateman plays Judd Altman, who returns to his hometown following a death in the family and amid person turmoil in his life. There he is reunited with his three siblings (Tina Fey, Corey Stoll and Adam Driver) and their liberal mother (Jane Fonda), and the film follows their lives over the next few days as they deal with their personal issues and relationships.

Rounding out the amazing cast are names like Rose Byrne, Dax Shepherd, Timothy Oliphant, Connie Britton, Kathryn Hahn and Abigail Spencer.

They laugh, they cry, they fight and they reflect on life, pondering what could have been and where they are heading. Everyone is at a different stage in life and has problems and regrets they must face.

It is, however, nothing like August: Osage County, another recent family drama with a huge cast. That was heavy stuff and full of emotionally-draining drama; this is much mellower and aims for sweet poignancy and sentimental reflection. Some moments work, very well even, while others feel like it’s trying too hard.

The result is a mixed bag. It’s not my type of film, to be honest, but the cast is so spectacular that you can’t help be drawn in. Each actor plays to their strengths when it comes to the comedy, and you can see their respective personalities shining through. The humour is light but it’s funny enough for the most part, and the drama is sufficiently engaging though ultimately fails to offer anything new. It’s unfortunate, because it’s a waste of the massive pool of talent squeezed into the film.

This Is Where I Leave You is not bad, but it’s certainly nothing special. I quite liked it despite feeling underwhelmed by its failure to come close to reaching its full potential.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Heaven Is for Real (2014)

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When I read Heaven Is for Real by pastor Todd Burpo (and Lynn Vincent) last year (review here) , the movie trailer for the adaption had just been released. It looked pretty good, but I was curious as to how they would tackle some of the book’s trickier elements.

I got my answer recently when I grabbed a copy of Heaven Is for Real, starring Greg Kinnear as Burpo, Kelly Reilly as his wife, and with Randall Wallace (Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Braveheart) directing and co-writing the script. I still don’t know if heaven is for real, but I do know if there is a hell it would involve watching Heaven Is for Real on loop for eternity.

Look, it’s not a bad film, strictly speaking, but it’s so obviously directed at a certain group of audiences — Christians who already have their minds made up or desperately long for confirmations like this one — that it leaves no room for interpretation or imagination. Leaving aside the debate over whether the experience is real or not (something I don’t want to get into because it has little to do with the merits of the movie), I found the film much less effective than the book. The characters didn’t convince me and the depictions of heaven and Jesus were as awkward as you’d expect them to be.

From what I remember, the screenplay follows the book quite closely. Burpo is a pastor hit by a string a bad luck, from his personal health to finance problems. During a family trip his four-year-old son, Colton, falls perilously ill and requires surgery to save his life. Even though the surgery report suggests that he did not have a near-death-experience (both his heart and brain were fine), Colton starts to tell his dad that he went to heaven — where he hung out with Jesus, angels, the whole shebang — and came back to tell the tale. He also saw some deceased family members he never met and witnessed some things when he was floating around.

Burpo, despite being a pastor, has his doubts about what Colton says he experienced, though he seems like he wants to believe the little boy. His wife, on the other hand, pretty much dismisses it as a child’s imagination. When the story gets out, others are naturally not so kind and give the family a hard time.

The positive things I can think of about this movie are…well, Greg Kinnear is pretty good, and the kid who plays Colton (Connor Corum) is cute, even though the way he spoke sometimes made it hard to understand what he’s saying. Wallace also does a fairly good job with what I call the John Edward moments — ie when Colton says something about the dead he couldn’t have known! Apart from that, I can’t really think of anything nice to say.

I understand the source material is difficult to adapt to the screen, which is why I thought they might tinker with it to make things more subtle and leave room for viewers to decide for themselves whether what Colton experienced was real, made up, or a hallucination. Give us the pros and the cons, make us think and question our beliefs, wherever they may lean.

This is what Jesus apparently looks like, according to Colton Burpo, as painted by Lithuanian prodigy Akiane Kramarik
This is what Jesus supposedly looks like, according to Colton Burpo, as painted by American prodigy Akiane Kramarik

Instead, the film takes a very straightforward approach and essentially presents Colton’s story as real, complete with a visual retelling of his experience, such as seeing angels, chatting with Jesus (face covered by shadows, but still, with the white robes and sandals and all), hanging out in “Heaven park” and so forth. It’s more vague in the book, but in the movie, we have no choice but to be shown what it’s like, and the results are lamer than I anticipated. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it tacky, but I was laughing for the wrong reasons. Rather than making the experience more real and tangible, the depiction had the opposite effect of making it less believable.

OK, so a decision was made to appease the target audience by shoving Colton’s experience in our faces so we’d believe him, but then why make his parents such unreasonable skeptics? This was something that just didn’t sit well with me. Maybe I am overestimating the faith of American pastors, but I thought it was odd for Todd to be so desperate to search for a “rational” explanation to his son’s experience. He’s in church every Sunday trying to convince everyone how wonderful God is, so if anyone was to jump to conclusions, he’d be the perfect candidate. And he’s actually the person most willing to take a leap of faith. It made even less sense to me that his wife — who married a pastor, goes to all his sermons and sings (terribly) regularly in the church choir — would so readily dismiss Colton’s experience and refuse to even contemplate the possibility that his experience could have been real.

Is the whole point of this to tell Christians that it’s OK to have doubts but you still ultimately need to have faith in God? Or are the filmmakers so naive that they think this approach would connect with non-believers or fence-sitters and convince them to start believing? Maybe I’m giving them too much credit by thinking that the film is aimed only at Christians and wannabe believers.

And I don’t know if it is because I had read the book and already knew what he was going to say, because I didn’t find any of the drama particularly engrossing. They tried to add in some extra conflict that wasn’t there, and it showed. It wasn’t as trite as it could have been, but it was intentionally sappy and had a TV-movie vibe to the heavy-handed execution.

Notwithstanding everything I’ve written here, I didn’t hate Heaven Is for Real. It’s a film that knew what it was doing and who it was catering to. It’s just not very good and not very convincing. All things considered, it’s not nearly as bad as it could have been, and it’s certainly not as good as it had the potential to be.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

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Being a movie nut, I was recently confronted with a frightening situation where I had almost zero new films to watch on two short flights to and back from a holiday to Japan. There’s only so many times a man can watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (and trust me, it was tempting to experience its awesomeness again), but in the end I went with probably the only film on the roster I would have watched under normal circumstances, Clouds of Sils Maria.

This is a weird one because the trailers made it look like some sexy thriller, but in actuality it’s an arty farty piece that throws a lot of subtle considerations your way without really coming out and saying anything.

Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, a successful but ageing actress who scored her break years ago by playing the young lead in the film and stage versions of Maloja Snake, written by some old dude named Wilhelm. It’s about a tempestuous lesbian relationship between a young woman and an old woman that ends in tragedy. In present day, Wilhelm carks it, but Maria is presented with the opportunity to star in the remake of  Maloja Snake, this time as the older woman. Adding to the intrigue is that she has a trustworthy assistant played brilliantly by Kristen Stewart, whose relationship with her at times appears to mirror that of the play. At the same time, the new choice for the young lead, played by Chloe Grace Moretz, has a completely different take on the character Maria thought she knew better than anyone.

So as you can see, this is a film with plenty of intricacies and parallels and layers, many of which are pointed out by the characters themselves in those pretentious discussions I used to partake in with my writing and film classmates (in class only, of course, because we had to). It’s an interesting film to watch because it makes you think, and it’s helped by the wonderful performances from the trio of central female characters, in particular Kristen Stewart, who proves once again that Twilight can turn even the most talented of thespians into a flaming turd. Don’t just take it from me. Stewart actually won a Best Supporting Actress at the Cesars (or the French Oscars, if you will).

I wasn’t drugged up on this flight, so it’s no excuse that the film — at an understandable 123 minutes — began to lose me towards the end. One of the film’s best attributes is that you never really know where it is heading, but eventually I didn’t really care. Perhaps it was all those annoying announcements they have to deliver every few minutes in three different languages that forced the film to be paused multiple times throughout, or maybe it’s because I started to see through its pretentiousness.

Still, for a mid-flight movie, Clouds of Maria Sils more than performs its duty. It has a clever premise and strong performances that challenge you to contemplate its subtleties and layered depth, though the experience was ultimately a pretty hollow one.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Water Diviner (2014)

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Russell Crowe fancies himself as the world’s greatest actor, so I was curious to see how he would fare in his directorial debut, The Water Diviner, about a grieving father’s quest to find his three missing sons in Turkey following the end of World War I.

The film is “inspired by a true story,” whatever that means, and while it is largely grounded in reality it has a somewhat “magical” feel, where audiences are supposed to be believe in miracles and that “everything happens for a reason”. I don’t want to say it is a bad film, because it’s not, though after hearing Crowe talk it up so much and describing how much effort and passion and experience he poured into the production, not to mention its win for Best Picture at the AACTA Awards (shared with Babadook), my immediate response after watching it was: “That’s it?”

It’s an Aussie production through-and-through, with a mostly Australian cast and crew that features one prominent recognisable foreign signee, the lovely Olga Kurylenko, as a widowed Turkish hotelier. Crowe apparently just wanted to focus on directing, but the film producers wouldn’t give the movie the green light without him in the starring role. Russell was said to have put the crew through a rigorous boot camp to prepare them physically and mentally for their roles, and raved on about how he felt he was the only person in the world who could do the film justice. Despite this being his first film as director, he believed he had more experience than most directors — including Ridley Scott — given his 30 years as an actor in the industry.

And yet, The Water Diviner, notwithstanding its touching premise, turned out to be not all that much better than a glorified TV movie. It is well-researched and provides the historical background from both sides — notwithstanding typical accusations of inaccuracies — and there are undeniably moving moments, dramatic scenes and nicely choreographed war sequences, though many of the positives are undone by a sappy tone and corny melodrama. The contrived romance between Crowe’s and Kurylenko’s characters, in particular, was completely unnecessary and took away the focus from the film’s heart, which is a father’s grief and the love for his sons.

Led by Crowe’s typical self-assuredness, the performances from the cast are decent. Jai Courtney, who seems to be everywhere these days, plays an ANZAC captain who has his doubts about the Aussie farmer’s quest. Jacqueline McKenzie has a small role as Crowe’s depressed wife, while Packed to the Rafters star Ryan Corr plays one of Crowe’s sons. Isabelle Lucas is for some strange reason in it, looking way too thin as a basically pointless side character.

Perhaps its the budget or time constraints, but The Water Diviner fails to deliver the sweeping epic it appears to have set out to be. Instead, it’s a solid and even occasionally good, but ultimately unspectacular film that likely won’t have producers rushing to ask Crowe to direct their future projects.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Citizenfour (2014)

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For a couple of months in mid-2013, my daily reporting work revolved around Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA contractor who spilled the beans on the unfathomable level of US surveillance on its own citizens and people around the world. The story was first broken by The Guardian after Snowden contacted journalists Gleen Greenwald and MacASkill, but what few people knew at the time was that there was a documentary filmmaker, Laura Poitras, hanging around throughout the entire scandal.

Citizenfour is the product of all those hours Poitras, who won the Best Documentary Oscar for it in February, spent on the Snowden affair. Poitras was there when Snowden was hiding away at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, and captured large amounts of footage that was condensed down into some captivating interviews and conversations for the purposes of the film.

To be fair, the project pretty much fell into her lap because it was Snowden who first contacted her back in January 2013, in an exchange that formed the opening scenes of the film. She had already been working on a doco about post-9/11 government surveillance, and Snowden felt she would be the perfect candidate to record the political atomic bomb he was about to drop.

The Snowden affair has polarised the public. There are those who hail him as a hero for uncovering unconscionable conduct on the part of the US government, while others call him a traitor and want him punished for treason. Putting aside personal beliefs on what he did was right or wrong or 50 shades of grey (I have mixed emotions about it myself), Citizenfour has also polarised the public. There are those who found it absolutely compelling, while others were bored out of their minds.

I can see where both sides are coming from. I think this is a film where the viewer needs to have some level of interest in the subject, be passionate about the ideas behind it, and perhaps even know the background enough to realise how remarkable the footage is they’re seeing on screen. Those exclusive up-close-and-personal interviews and footage of Snowden are gold, and Poitras knows it. She obviously has an agenda, or else she wouldn’t have been making a doco about government surveillance, though she does a good job of letting the footage speak for itself rather than ram a political message down the audiences’ throats. By crafting the story chronologically, the narrative unveils almost like a political thriller, and the explanations are simple enough, for the most part, that viewers should be able to understand, or at least have a basic grasp of, the surveillance concepts described throughout the film.

On the other hand, if you don’t really know about the story or if government surveillance doesn’t bother you one way or another, Citizenfour could come across as a bit of a drag. There are typed conversations re-enacted on computer screens, which rarely works in fictional movies, and long conversations about technical things and legal ramifications. Even if they recognise that it is a well-made film about an important topic, audiences could find sitting through all the court hearings toward the end too much to handle.

For me, the interest came less from the topic and more about the subject, Snowden himself. From the moment his identity became public, Snowden has been written about ad nauseam, but this film offers the first real opportunity for people to decide for themselves what kind of person he is. And honestly, I think the film confirms my suspicions that there’s just something off about the guy. He’s clearly intelligent and articulate, and I don’t doubt he believes what he is doing is right, though Snowden does come across as someone with a messiah complex that’s not too far off from the vibe of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. You just have to wonder about his motivations when you know he had the foresight to contact a documentary filmmaker months before he knew the whole thing would blow up.

Having said that, I like him a lot more now after having watched John Oliver’s recent interview of him in Moscow (the Snowden section begins from about the 13:40 mark).

Anyway, Citizenfour is a film everyone should see because of what it is about, but Poitras has not made it a film for everyone. While I acknowledge its importance, the skilful filmmaking, and marvel at the footage of Snowden the film managed to capture, Citizenfour was a relative disappointment for me, especially given all the critical accolades and the fact that it was regarded by the Academy as the best doco of 2014. I never found it boring like some others have, but the film was not quite as fascinating or as thrilling as I had hoped it would be. Perhaps the Oliver Stone dramatization currently in the works, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden and Melissa Leo as Poitras, will be able to bridge the shortfalls.

3.5 stars out of 5