Category Archives: 2014

Movie Review: The Pyramid (2014)

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Call me a sucker for punishment.

I am one of those losers who watches movies knowing there is a 99.9% chance that it will be crap because I still hold out hope that it might be good. And so I decided to watch The Pyramid, the latest found footage debacle about a group of archaeologists and filmmakers who stumble onto a fictional new pyramid discovered in Egypt. Sounds like a brilliant, original idea bursting with potential, doesn’t it?

But perhaps it was my fascination with pyramids and pyramid curses that drew me to the film, or maybe it was my hope that a movie with a cast that includes recognisable names (at least for me) such as Dennis O’Hare and Ashley Hinshaw couldn’t possibly be that awful. Whatever the reasons, I ignored the warning signs, jus like the idiots in the movie, and took the plunge.

And it didn’t pay off.

To be fair, The Pyramid is not worse than most similar films made in recent years. The closest thing it resembles is last year’s As Above, So Below, which follows an attractive female expert into the Paris Catacombs with a film crew. Naturally, scary stuff happens and people die in gruesome ways. Here, Ashley Hinshaw is the attractive expert, and together with her father (O’Hare) and a film crew, they venture deep into a new and unusual four-sided pyramid (they usually have five, if you count the base). The difference, however, is that the film is not nearly as scary, nor is it as clever.

For starters, the believability factor is down because we know the pyramid they enter doesn’t exist in real life. Secondly, it’s totally unsubtle in its execution, going with cliched scare tactics that get old real quick. The progression of the plot is also formulaic to the extreme, to the extent where you can tell who is going to get picked off next. But the biggest difference between this and As Above, So Below is that the latter at least takes advantage of its claustrophobic setting and goes for some psychological horror, whereas The Pyramid wastes its opportunities by going with the typical curse and monsters routine.

The only thing that worked for me was the crazy monster cats (that didn’t even look realistic because of the poor CGI), and that’s only because feral cats freak me out. Most other people would have found it hilariously stupid.

On top of all that, the characters are typically uninteresting and annoying, and the dialogue is trite, though at least they do like to tell each other how moronic they are when they make dumb and nonsensical remarks.

Remarkably, The Pyramid is not the worst film of its kind. One advantage I can think of is that despite it technically being a “found footage” movie, the whole concept goes out the window quickly and audiences will soon find themselves seeing shots that could not have possibly been captured by any of the cameras on the characters. For some that is a negative, though for me it was great to be able to actually see what’s going on and not feel nauseated from all the shaky footage.

The other positive I can think of is that the film, as hackneyed as it is, never pretends to be anything else. It plays to curiosities about the pyramids and Egyptian legends, and offers a few cheap scares some audiences will feel comfortable with because it’s what they’re used to. For everyone else, it’s better to believe the movie is cursed.

2 stars out of 5

2014 Movie Blitz: Part VI

Kill the Messenger (2014)

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Surprised this one didn’t get more burn.

This is the true story of Gary Webb, played by the brilliant Jeremy Renner, a journalist who uncovers the CIA’s role in importing crack cocaine into the US to secretly fund the Nicaraguan contra rebels. OK, so maybe the CIA didn’t import the drugs themselves, but they acquiesced in stopping it and they knew that it was going mostly to impoverished black communities. That’s pretty huge news, right? But for whatever reason the story, much like this film, slipped under the radar.

The film had a big cast too that included the likes of Ray Liotta, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega, Oliver Platt, Andy Garcia, Michael Sheen and Robert Patrick. It’s hard hitting, gripping and gritty, and though it might not be the most exciting film, it certainly kept me entertained and emotionally invested in Webb’s plight.

Renner is sensational in this, proving once again that he can be believable no matter what kind of character he plays. Webb is a complex character and Renner brings out his fear, frustration and anger in perfect abundance. The moral of the story, as always, is to not mess with the US government because they will mess you up tenfold in return.

3.75 stars out of 5

The Best of Me (2014)

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Ever since The Notebook, his debut novel, Nicholas Sparks has been trying to recreate the magic with clones of his most beloved work. The Best of Me is his latest attempt, and frankly, it stinks.

Perhaps that’s too strong of a word, but I feel like if you’ve seen one Nicholas Sparks movie you’ve seen it all. This one, in particular, embraces the formula to the letter. An innocent romance between young star-crossed lovers, who end up being separated for some painful reason. Years later, they reunited by chance and rekindle the passion, lamenting how things could have been, before finishing with a bittersweet ending that aims to be both tragic and moving. If you haven’t noticed, that description matches both The Notebook and The Best of Me.

James Marsden, who played the third wheel the girl dumps in The Notebook gets an opportunity to redeem himself as the male lead this time, while Michelle Monaghan earns her paycheck as the rich girl who falls for the poor boy. The film also utilises flashbacks, in which the younger characters are played by Aussie Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato, respectively. One problem with this arrangement is that James Marsden (41) looks a little too young and Luke Bracey a little too old (25) for them to be versions of the same character 21 years apart, though the bigger issue is that the two actors look absolutely nothing alike! Seriously, they might as well have gotten Samuel L Jackson to play the older version because the resemblance is zero.

Fans looking for the same thing will probably love it — explains why they keep rolling these movies out — but for me this film was just so much saccharine fluff. You can clearly see the plot points it’s trying to hit along the way, including the contrived ending you could see coming a mile away, and if you don’t buy into the characters there’s not much of a chance you’ll feel anything for them. There was one good scene between Monaghan and the actor who plays her douchey husband, Sebastian Arcelus, when they’re at the dinner table and you can see why their marriage isn’t working out, but apart from that The Best of Me won’t bring out the best of anyone who watches it.

1.75 stars out of 5

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death (2014)

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I can’t remember much about The Woman in Black except that Daniel Radcliffe is in it and that the film was surprisingly good and scary. The sequel, Angel of Death, on the other hand, is bland and boring.

There is a connection between the two films — being the haunted house — but they have a different cast and different directors and screenwriters. Susan Hill, who wrote the book the first film was adapted from, helped with coming up with the story, but if I didn’t know that I would have thought she simply sold the rights in return for an easy paycheck.

Angel of Death follows a boarding school teacher (Phoebe Fox) and a bunch of students forced to evacuate their boarding school during World War II. Of course, then end up at the Eel Marsh House where the Woman in Black resides. Spooky stuff starts to happen, and there’s a mystery behind the haunting that needs to be figured out. All fairly standard horror tropes.

The best thing the film has going for it is the creepy atmosphere of the house and the fact that children are involved (also scary), though the narrative progresses slowly and there are too many lulls in between the attempts at scares, which aren’t really scary with the exception of a couple of well-timed moments. On the whole, this is a straight-to-DVD-quality horror sequel fans of the original will likely be disappointed with.

2 stars out of 5

If I Stay (2014)

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Chloe Moretz is growing up quickly, and this is a bold choice for her to venture into supernatural teen romantic drama territory (which I argue is even bolder than her young prostitute stint in Denzel’s The Equalizer). If I Stay, based on the novel of the same name by Gayle Forman, tells the story of a teenage cellist named Mia who falls into a coma following a devastating car accident with her family. The twist is that Mia’s soul is still hanging around outside her body, kind of in a limbo state, and she must decide whether she wants to move on to the afterlife or stay to be with her rock band musician boyfriend (Jamie Blackley).

It’s not a terrible film, but If I Stay didn’t do much for me. The narrative jumps around, with a few scenes in the present and plenty of flashbacks that trace the progress of the romance, which came across as fairly stereotypical and without anything fresh to offer. There was a heavy focus on music, given that they are both musicians and all, but I didn’t care much for either of their musical tastes. I thought its central conceit — the whole should I stay or should I go thing — was interesting, though the execution felt like it was trying to milk tears from audiences as opposed to letting the moving drama speak  for itself. Some parts worked, while others came across as clear attempts at manipulation.

Chloe Moretz, who is very good as usual, tries really hard to make it work. Unfortunately, while I can see how some viewers would fall in love with this movie, for me, If I Stay is a film that fails to fulfill the potential of its premise.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Seventh Son (2014)

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Seventh Son is a bleak illustration of just how difficult it is to make a good fantasy film in a single instalment.

Having heard all sorts of terrible things about it, I knew it was probably not going to be great, but as a sucker for epic fantasy action flicks, this one was supposed to have it all: a seemingly interesting plot about the “special” seventh son of a seventh son; witches and monster hunters; swords and magic; shape-shifters, snarling dragons, dudes with four arms, dudes who turn into bears and giant lizards — all of it presented with stunning special effects; and an impressive all-star cast featuring Jeff Bridges, Ben Barnes (best known as Prince and then King Caspian in the Narnia series), Julianne Moore, Kit Harington (Jon Snow), Olivia Williams, Antje Trauer (from Pandorum), Alicia Vikander (who is apparently going to be huge after Ex Machina becomes a global hit), Jason Scott Lee and Djimon Hounsou.

And yet, Seventh Son failed to exceed my low expectations. Cliched, predictable, dull, with stock characters and a disappointing climax, the only thing it really had going for it were some impressive special effects and a handful of nice action sequences. Sadly, what everyone said about it turned out to be true.

The film is based on the novel The Spook’s Apprentice by Joseph Delaney, which is actually the first in a series of books about a 12-year-old boy named Tom Ward, who as the seventh son of a seventh son is able to see supernatural things others cannot. His parents apprentice him to a Spook — basically a ghost/monster hunter of sorts — named Gregory, and so begins his adventure into a world of crazy stuff.

But while The Wardstone Chronicles, as the series is known, has 16 books, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Seventh Son is going to be a one-and-done effort given how cursed the entire production was. Ben Barnes was a late replacement for Sam Claflin. Filming began back in March 2012, with a target release date in February 2013. But the special effects team went bust and had to get a court-issued payment of US$5m to finish their work on the film. The guy who was supposed to complete the score left due to scheduling conflicts and they had to get someone else. Legendary Films then parted ways with distributor Warner Bros. The film was eventually released in France late last year and most other regions in February, a delay of almost three years from the initial target. When a film gets delayed that long you just know that no one involved thought highly enough of it to try and get it pushed through.

The finished product, as you might expect, is a bit of a mess. The biggest problem is the complete lack of character development, especially for Tom Ward. It appeared they made a decision early on to focus on the film’s bigger star, Jeff Bridges, who plays the master Spook to the apprentice. Bridges was given top billing and probably equal screen time to Barnes, and they made the story more about him than its titular character.

The Spook is an intriguing character, but it defeats the purpose when the supposedly central protagonist, the Seventh Son, turns out to be a character you don’t care about and can’t really be bothered to get to know. In this film, Tom Ward is the most vanilla hero you could possibly come up with. We know he’s a cliched farmer’s son who grew up not knowing anything about the real world or his destiny. And apart from that, we don’t learn much more about his personality throughout the rest of the film, except that he’s a little horny and has no problem bending the rules for sexy ladies (in this case Alicia Vikander, who plays a witch — setting up the typical “star-crossed lovers” dynamic).

Ben Barnes, whom I’ve always thought is one of the prettiest actors of his generation, gets little to work with here. He’s a fine actor, but with such a thin plot and character there’s not much he can do to turn Tom Ward into a protagonist audiences can give a shit about. Jeff Bridges slurs his way through like he’s still The Dude from The Big Lebowski, while Julianne Moore is probably willing to hand back her Oscar to pretend she was never the baddie/witch/dragon lady she played in this film.

With the exception of a couple of relatively exciting, CGI-filled set action pieces, Seventh Son is a failure that never manages to escape an air of familiarity and predictability. The source material may have had a genuinely interesting world to offer, though it’s sadly something audiences would never know from watching this film. It’s easy to blame the script or the direction of Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov (who has received a couple of Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Film), but the reality is that it’s just extraordinarily difficult to make a decent epic fantasy in a standalone film, especially one that’s 102 minutes. It’s no wonder why the gold standards of the genre are Lord of the Rings, which is basically three three-hour films, and Game of Thrones, which is 10 hours per season.

Ultimately, Seventh Son is not terrible — it’s just another major disappointment. It’s a film that felt like it set out with high ambitions but everything about it suggests that it was aiming low.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: White Bird in a Blizzard (2014)

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There was something about White Bird in a Blizzard that drew me to it right from the beginning. Perhaps it’s the typically brilliant Shailene Woodley, who plays a teenager trying to come to terms with her mother’s sudden disappearance. Perhaps it’s the sultry Eva Green, who delivers a wickedly delicious performance as Woodley’s mother in extended flashbacks and dream sequences. Or maybe it’s just the overall feel crafted by writer and director Gregg Araki, who adapted the screenplay from the novel of the same name by Laura Kasischke. Whatever it is, White Bird in a Blizzard is a strange experience — not exactly satisfying, but definitely captivating.

Part mystery-thriller, part suburban drama, part coming-of-age/sexual awakening, White Bird in a Blizzard is set in 1988, when 17-year-old Kat Connors (Woodley) returns home one day to discover that her mother Eve (Green) has disappeared without a trace, leaving her wimpy father Brock (Christopher Meloni) in a depressed daze.

Eve had been acting increasingly bizarrely leading up to her disappearance, clearly unhappy with her marriage and life, and perhaps even jealous of her daughter’s blossoming sexuality and new dim-witted boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez). Did Eve simply run off to start a new life, why did someone kill her? And why does Phil seem to be hiding something? To make things more complicated, Kat begins to develop an interest in the hot detective (Thomas Jane) investigating her mother’s case.

I’m not usually into suburban dramas per se, though this one had a quirky, slightly surreal edge to it that made it different and interesting. It reminded me a little of that dreamy 80s TV show, Twin Peaks, where everything and everyone’s just a little off, and the mood is darkly comedic but also uncomfortable.

Stories like this have been done many times before, but never quite like this. Woodley is wonderful as always, even though her character might not be entirely likable or convincing. Eva Green is so funny in this. From her snappy weirdness to the death stares she gives to Meloni, Green had me smirking and giggling despite understanding the genuine sadness she must feel from her uneventful existence.

While it’s not a superior drama, mystery- thriller, comedy or coming-of-age film, White Bird in a Blizzard is a fleetingly enjoyable experience. You might not fully believe in it or its characters, but you’ll have a hard time not feeling compelled to keep watching.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

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Seriously, I don’t understand why Exodus: Gods and Kings only has a 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. OK, so it’s not Gladiator, but is Ridley Scott’s Bible epic still entertaining? Yes. Is it still engaging? At least half of it is. And is it epic? Absolutely.

For starters, you don’t need to know anything about the Bible to enjoy the film, though some knowledge won’t preclude you from having a good time either. I’ve heard the story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt heaps of times and vaguely remember that Disney moviethough most of what’s remaining in my memory is in bits and pieces. In short, Moses (Christian Bale) is an Egyptian prince from 1300 BCE who “discovers” that he is actually Hebrew and, after an encounter with the famous burning bush, decides to call upon his “brother” Ramesses II (Joel Edgerton) to “let my people go” (he doesn’t say this in the movie, but it’s the only line I remember from The Prince of Egypt).

Ridley Scott does a solid job of keeping the movie as grounded as possible given the subject matter, reminding audiences of the superstitions of the time. The problem, of course, is that it’s only possible to keep a Bible story grounded to a certain extent. While Scott leaves open the door for the theory that Moses is just imagining all his encounters with God (Bale actually said he believes Moses was schizophrenic), there are aspects of the story that cannot work without the presence of a supernatural power. He finds semi-rational reasons for the plagues and a certain Red Sea incident, but those familiar with Exodus will know that God’s fingerprints can’t be erased from the tale.

The other enviable thing Scott does is that he — along with Bale and Edgerton — makes both Moses and Ramesses very human characters. Both actors are terrific. Moses rails against God throughout the film for his barbarism and cruelty, and his faith is anything but unshakable. Ramesses, on the other hand, is not a typical villain — he grows into one almost out of necessity, but you can see that he has a softer side, and that his refusal to let the Hebrew slaves go stems from economic concerns as much as ego. The title Gods and Kings is an apt one.

The film does have its weaknesses. First of all, at 150 minutes, it is far too long and didn’t need to be. There is a lengthy chunk in the middle of the film that sags, so much so I’d probably go as far as to call it dull. People who know the story well might find it disappointing that there aren’t more surprises, as the film appears to be going through the motions at times and does little to halt the plodding. It’s not until the final hour that the pace begins to pick up with the arrival of the plagues and the actual exodus, both of which are executed very well with eye-popping special effects. The spectacle of the final hour alone makes the film worth watching.

If you ask me why the film has done so poorly with critics, my guess is that it doesn’t follow the Bible close enough for the uber-religious folk, and yet it’s also not rational enough for non-religious people looking for a “realistic” depiction of the story. As a result, the movie straddles both markets and finds itself stuck in a no-win situation. Bale’s comments about Moses being one of the “most barbaric” people he’s ever read about sure didn’t help, and neither did criticisms of the all-white casting of the main cast (which was, let’s face it, necessary for the film to be financed in the first place).

Personally, I don’t really care one way or the other. I’m just glad this is a Bible film that delivers on the spectacular visuals and doesn’t ram its self-righteous message down throats without giving audiences an opportunity to think for themselves.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Begin Again (2014)

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Every now and then we all need a movie that will put us in a good mood, something light that will make us smile without making us think too much. Begin Again is such a film.

First of all, it stars the affable Mark Ruffalo and Kiera Knightley as two depressed individuals who pick themselves back up with the power of music. Ruffalo is Dan, a music agency exec whose professional and personal life is in tatters when he comes across Gretta (Knightley), a British singer-songwriter coming to still coming to grips with the actions of her douchebag rising star boyfriend (played by real-life douchebag Adam Levine from Maroon Five).

Together, they try to produce an album full of catchy tunes, shunning the traditional studio route for cheaper outdoor recording with the help of friends and family, including Dan’s precocious daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and Gretta’s musician buddy (James Corden), and developing an unlikely friendship along the way.

Director John Carney, who gave us the Irish musical film Once, again rides the charm and chemistry of his actors in delivering a fun, enchanting experience filled with light humour, heartfelt drama and ample doses of sweetness. Think Music and Lyrics but much less deliberate, cliched, saccharine and sentimental.

The music, most of which is written by Gregg Alexander — best known as the front man of the New Radicals (you know, “You Only Get What You Give”) — is also perfectly accommodating to my laid-back, commercial-oriented taste. It’s listener-friendly stuff you’ll find yourself looking for after the movie on YouTube or Spotify. The hit single from the soundtrack, “Lost Stars”, was nominated for Best Original Song at this year’s Oscars and performed live — brilliantly too — at the ceremony by Levine. The biggest surprise, however, is that the song is even better when sung by Knightley, whom I would have never guessed has such a beautiful voice. I’ve always liked Kiera, but this movie takes it to another level.

Begin Again might not make any critics lists for best movies of the year, but it’s difficult to actually find much wrong with this lovely and satisfying experience. I liked the characters, I liked the songs, the singing, the New York setting, and the way certain dynamics were left slightly ambiguous. There is a freshness to the film that is rarely seen in romantic comedies these days, though you can’t even really call it a rom-com because it so cleverly avoids the tropes of the genre. A feel-good movie of the best kind.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Maps to the Stars (2014)

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David Cronenberg is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re going to get.

Of his last five films, the only one I’ve yet to see is A Dangerous Method (2011). A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) were fabulous, but I found Cosmopolis (2012) to be dull and pretentious. His latest effort, Maps to the Stars, is actually similar stylistically to Cosmopolis, though this time — perhaps due to the subject matter and the performances — I found the satire funny, biting and creepy, and the overall experience positively uncomfortable.

Maps to the Stars is a really strange film that defies categorisation. It’s a drama and black comedy, but also has elements of a psychological thriller and supernatural horror.  What it definitely is, however, is a scathing take on Hollywood, an acidic satire on all the excess, the pretentiousness, the opportunity-seeking, the backstabbing, the heartlessness, and above all the destructive lifestyles of America’s rich and famous. Far from the glamour we typically associate with stardom and wealth, Maps to the Stars not just brings celebrities down to our level — it pushes them below acceptable levels of decency and humanity. 

Without giving too much away, the plot revolves around two women — Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), a scarred young woman (literally, she has burn scars on her face and neck) who just made her way to Hollywood, and Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging actress hoping to land a major role as her legendary late mother. Key characters in their world include Jerome (Robert Pattinson), an aspiring actor making a living as a limo driver for the stars; rising teen actor Benjie (Evan Bird), his manager mother (Olivia Williams) and his New Age guru father (John Cusack). They are all linked in one way or another, though part of the allure of the film comes from finding out what the connections are.

The script by Bruce Wagner explores the depravity and debauchery head on, tackling taboo themes, gross-out subjects and uncomfortable scenes that will either make you squirm or prompt nervous laughter.

Like Cosmopolis, there is a surreal feel to the film. The exposition is kept to a minimum so you have to really pay attention to the dialogue or you won’t know what’s going on. Even then I still had no idea where it was heading, though it didn’t matter because I couldn’t turn away. It was at times hilarious, sometimes frightening and occasionally sickening — but always fascinating.

The performances are another reason why the film is more enjoyable than it probably should have been. Julianne Moore may have just won an Oscar for Still Alice, but I actually think she is even better here. While Havana might not be a likeable character, she definitely is authentic and comes across as painfully real, and it accentuates what a remarkable actress Moore is when you contrast this role — which reminds of what Lindsay Lohan will probably be like in 20-30 years — with her character in Still Alice.

Mia Wasikowska is also brilliant as the quirky Agatha, and Robert Pattinson does a solid job of helping us forget that he was ever Edward Cullen. The other standout for me has to be Evan Bird, who despite his weird look and body (it’s hard to tell how old he is) manages a convincing portrayal of a bratty, disrespectful, almost Bieber-like teen star. He’s hilarious.

On the whole, Maps to the Stars is a wild ride full of gasp-worthy moments. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I hope people who appreciate this type of dark humour and satire will get a kick out of it like I did.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Unbroken (2014)

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Angelina Jolie has been tipped as a filmmaker to watch for the future, so I was naturally drawn to her third and latest directorial effort, Unbroken, a biopic about the remarkable life of US Olympian and WWII prisoner of war Louis Zamperini.

To be frank, I was a little disappointed with Unbroken given its subject and celebrated director and screenwriting team (that includes one of my faves, the Coen Brothers). It’s solid, there is no denying that, though I don’t think the film did very much in elevating Zamperini’s inspirational life significantly above what one would have expected simply from reading a basic bio of his experiences. While it depicts Zamperini as an amazing individual, Unbroken fails to distinguish itself from all of the other POW stories.

Jolie begins with a typical in media res approach that introduced Zamperini as a member of a US bomber squad on a mission against the Japanese-occupied Island of Nauru in 1943. As expected, the film reverts to flashback mode shortly after, showing Zamperini’s childhood in California as a troubled kid. From there, Jolie adopts a surprisingly linear, conventional narrative, focusing on Zamperini’s Olympic career before moving onto his role in WWII.

Zamperini is indeed worthy of respect for his astounding resiliency and will to survive, but the film focuses too much on this one aspect of his personality. The narrative is pretty much just him overcoming one hardship after another. He’s like a human version of that annoying Chumbawamba song — he gets knocked down but he gets up again, and again and again and again. Jolie doesn’t do much to mix things up other than emphasise the sadistic nature of his Japanese captors (in particular a one-dimensional corporal known as “Bird” played by Japanese recording artist Miyavi) and play up Zamperini’s glorious moments of triumph.

The problem, I think, is that Jolie was too in awe of her subject, whom she has met and was still alive during filming. As a result, the film became essentially a work of hero worship that never really managed to explore his character like it should have. It’s strange, but even though it is a biopic I still don’t feel like I really got to know Zamperini as a person other than that he he managed to live through a lot of terrible things. I can only imagine how much edgier and how much more depth the film would have had had Jolie been able to maintain a bit of distance from her protagonist.

Failing to meet expectations aside, Unbroken is a well-intentioned effort and a very watchable film. Jolie’s direction is not flashy, though she infuses her images — some handsome, others bleak — with passion and control. Shades of Clint Eastwood, perhaps? And the story is undoubtedly inspirational because its true; the performance of Jack O’Connell as Zamperini is quite good, and the supporting cast featuring the likes of Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund and Jai Courtney all fill out their respective roles impressively. The film has moments I really liked and found emotionally rewarding, but also others (including the final climax) that were heavy-handed and too obviously geared towards sentimentality. On the whole, I still think it’s a film worth watching because Zamperini’s story is such an extraordinary one, though it’s a shame Jolie could not have wielded her Malificent magic to turn it into something special.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: A Most Violent Year (2014)

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Now that the Oscars are over I’m going to continue my movie reviews with a huge snub. For whatever reason, the critically acclaimed A Most Violent Year was not even on any radars this Oscars season, which is strange considering it features so many critic-pleasing characteristics — a unique premise, moral quandaries, superb performances, gripping drama, crafty action, and that solemn, Oscar-bait feel of a top-class production.

Written and directed by JC Chandor (previously best known for Margin Call), A Most Violent Year is set in 1981, widely regarded as one of New York’s most violent years. Oscar Isaac (Finding Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January) is Abel Morales, the seemingly upright owner of a heating oil company on the verge of a major breakthrough. But when his oil trucks begin to get hijacked, making him to lose not just money but also precious reputation, Abel finds himself being painted into a corner and forced to take drastic action. At the same time, a local assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) begins to target Abel for alleged anti-competitive practices and tax evasion.

A Most Violent Year, despite its name, is not a particularly violent movie by today’s standards. What it lacks in violence, the film makes up in tension, atmosphere and style, though the presentation is grounded firmly in reality. In an age where protagonists are typically remarkable people with otherworldly skills, experiences or attributes, Abel is portrayed as an ordinary man with real fears and emotions like you and me. Unlike typical modern crime thrillers, are no criminal masterminds in this film, no outrageous coincidences, no expert marksmen or world-class racing car drivers in getaway cars.

And yet, rather than coming across as dull, the film becomes actually more compelling because it enables us to genuinely sympathise and empathise with the characters and their predicaments. Overexposure to onscreen surrealism has made most of us numb, so it’s refreshing to be reminded that, hey, guns are scary; dealing with mafia people is scary; burglars are scary; police looking into your business — even if it’s perfectly legitimate — is scary.

None of this would have been possible, of course, without Chandor’s skilful direction and script, which prove that he is a filmmaker who has clearly studied the classic works of the genre and the techniques of the masters. Rather than loud and shaky, the action sequences are smooth, slick and suspenseful, notwithstanding the lack of explosions and rapid cuts. Rather than pretentious and dull, the silences and lingering shots actually have meaning.

The other key element is the central performance by Isaac, who is destined for stardom and will apparently appear in the next Star Wars movies. He’s a tremendous talent who deserved recognition for this controlled and charismatic performance where anger, desperation and fear are all delivered with nuance and subtlety. It’s perhaps not a stretch to say he channels a young Al Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone.

All of the supporting actors are very good too, especially Jessica Chastain as Abel’s astute wife, whose father is implied as not being the most upstanding citizen. David Oyelowo, who got a whole lot of attention at the Oscars ceremony for his Selma snub, is also solid, as are Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer and Elyes Gabel as one of Abel’s troubled employees.

I will readily admit that it is not a film for most modern average movie-goers, who tend to expect a lot of things to happen on the screen at all times. A Most Violent Year has a deliberately measured pace I would have found slow in my youth, and it adopts a “less in more” mentality in its execution some might find dull. While it is undeniably interesting, I would not be surprised if others wonder what the fuss is all about.

This is a ultimately story about a good man trying to survive in a corrupt world, and having to make some very difficult choices and compromises along the way. Gritty and brooding, and powered by Chandor’s self-assured approach, A Most Violent Year harks back to crime classics like Goodfellas, Heat and even The Godfather. It’s of course not quite on the level of those epics, but it is still a classy, well-executed film that commands your attention and respect.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Still Alice (2014)

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Note: Getting this review in just before they announce Best Actress at the Oscars!

I was in the mood to be depressed, so I went head and watched Still Alice, a sobering drama about a renowned linguistics professor’s battle with early onset Alzheimer’s.

It’s a respectable take on the illness that doesn’t go the whole way in capturing the worst the disease, preferring to leave its titular character with her dignity in tact. In that sense, Still Alice isn’t as quite as heartbreaking as I braced myself for (I had the Kleenex ready and everything), though the film surprised me with its gripping depiction of Alice’s family members and the way each of them reacts to the devastating news.

Based on the novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, Still Alice begins with Dr Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) celebrating her 50th birthday. With a successful career, a loving husband and three fully grown children, there’s not much more she could ask for.

But of course, the signs of the illness soon begin to manifest, randomly, sporadically, and with varying degrees of seriousness. Co-sreenwriters and directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland — along with Moore in perhaps the best performance of her stellar career — do a solid job of conveying the initial shock and confusion from the onset of the symptoms. From a forgotten word here or a misplaced item there and getting gradually shittier at Words with Friends (I enjoyed this especially), to getting lost in what should be a familiar place, the trio manage to capture the angst as well as the physical disorientation through the use of camera panning and blurred backgrounds.

Moore’s deteriorating appearance is also used to match her crumbling mind. In the beginning I remarked on how amazing she looks for a 50 year old (54 in real life), though as the film progressed she grew increasingly lined and disheveled — though let’s face it, still pretty good for a 5o-year-old Academic who squeezed out three children.

It was a clever idea to make the subject of the illness a top linguistics professor who appeared to have everything, allowing the contrast ensuing from her illness to be even more stark. It’s bad enough for ordinary people, but for someone for whom words and language are her pride and define who she is, the blow must be incomprehensible. I know some will whine about how lucky Alice is to have money and family support compared to others suffering the disease, though it’s not the movie’s fault that it can only focus on one story.

I knew Moore was in it and is a favourite for Best Actress at this year’s Oscars, but I had no idea there were so many big stars in it. Alec Baldwin delivers a controlled, layered performance as Alice’s husband John, a brilliant researcher in his own right who struggles to deal with not only his wife’s deteriorating mental capacity but also the impact on his own career. The way he deals with losing he woman he has loved for so long, especially her losing perhaps the biggest reason for his love — her sharp mind and fierce career ambitions — is truly heart wrenching in more ways than one.

Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish (from Weeds) play Alice’s three children, each of whom reacts differently to the diagnosis. Stewart, who gets the meatiest role of the three, is especially good, displaying a tenderness and non-constipated demeanour I thought I would never see again after “The Saga”. But to her credit, she has proven that there is life after Twilight.

The main complaint I can make against the movie is that it plays out too conventionally, pretty much the way I anticipated a movie about Alzheimer’s to go. The film alludes to how bad things will eventually get, but spares us the pain of actually seeing it. Maintaining the dignity of sufferers and reminding us that she is “still Alice” no matter what, appears to be a priority. Some will applaud the sensitivity of the approach, while others will say it sanitises reality. Everyone will have an opinion on how it affects the film, though it is undeniable that it would could have been edgier had it dared to venture a little further from expectations.

And for all the great depiction of Alice’s family, the film did very little to look at how her relationship evolved with her friends. In fact, I don’t even remember her having any friends at all.

It is not an easy movie to watch, and it’s hard to call it an enjoyable experience. If it’s superb performances and depressingly gripping drama you’re after, however, it’s hard to go past Still Alice. The script is perhaps too conventional for the film to be something truly special, but Moore’s performance elevates it far above what it would otherwise have been.

3.5 stars out of 5