Tag Archives: Ben Mendelsohn

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

I literally have 60 movie reviews in my backlog and probably won’t be able to get to any of them for at least another week, but I’m sure this queue-jumping exception is acceptable. I had been looking forward to the first Star Wars spinoff, Rogue One, since The Force Awakens made the whole world blow its collective load a year ago, and I’m happy to say it was well worth the wait.

For those who might still be confused, Rogue One is set before the start of the original Star Wars film from 1977, now known as A New Hope (Episode IV). Directed by Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla), the film tells the untold story about a bunch of rebels who risk their lives to steal the plans to the Death Star. It was quite a risk and an experimentation of sorts for Disney and Lucasfilm, as this is the first film in the franchise outside of the main storyline. It is also quite different in tone to the other Star Wars films in that it is actually a war movie (as opposed to space opera).

Well, the experiment paid off. Rogue One has a great story, wonderful characters (both new and old), a cast filled with some of my favourite actors, beautiful visuals and action, a grand new music score that contains traces of the classic one, an appropriate dose of nostalgia, and ample surprises and Easter eggs for the geeks.

First of all, all the concerns about the film prior to its release turned out to be unfounded. Some were worried about Gareth Edwards not being a great storyteller (I was one of those people as I thought his debut film Monsters was far too slow, and while I really liked his version of Godzilla, storytelling was not one of its strengths). Others panicked when there was talk of extensive reshoots or lost their minds because the trailer or posters weren’t as good as they had hoped.

I don’t know about the process, but the finished product was a success. Admittedly, the film starts off a little slow, though it never loses sight of the narrative thread or the focus on the characters. It builds things up throughout the course of the first hour or so, and by the second hour I found myself immersed in the story, the action, and the emotions. Yes, it’s darker in tone than what we’re used to and there is far less humour, but that’s how it was meant to be. Perhaps it wasn’t this way before, and the ordered reshoots rectified the problems. In any case, it was impossible to tell what was reshot because it all blended together seamlessly in the end.

The other interesting thing is that I don’t recall the majority of the scenes or dialogue from the trailers being in the actual film, which is extremely rare — but I love it. I’m always complaining about trailers giving away too much, and in this case it was turned out to be a pleasant surprise. If only they could do that for all trailers — give you a hint of what the movie is about using footage and dialogue that’s not actually in the movie!

 

Visuals is one of Edwards’ strengths, so I knew I would not be disappointed. Rogue One is visually stunning but different in feel to the other Star Wars films. It’s grittier and utilises a darker palette with a narrower colour range, one that really suits the tone of the film. The space battle sequences are some of the best I’ve ever seen in a Star Wars film, though I do wish there could have been more close-range combat.

The other thing that stood out for me about the film was the superb cast and outstanding performances. It has by far the best cast ever assembled for a Star Wars flick and contains some of my favourite actors: Oscar-nominee Felicity Jones, Y Tu Mamá También’s Diego Luna, the awesome Mads Mikkelson and Forest Whitaker, Aussie legend Ben Mendelsohn, rising star Riz Ahmed from The Night Of, ass-kicking martial arts star Donnie Yen, and the vocal talents of Alan Tudyk as bot K-2SO. All of them have real meat to their roles, and it’s hard to pick a standout from this list. I will say though that Mikkelson and Mendelsohn elevated their characters far above what they otherwise would have been had “average” actors been cast in their roles instead. The only disappointment is that the film did not have enough screen time to go around between all of them.

There are also a lot of links and connections to the Star Wars universe — I got all the major references but I’m sure I missed a lot of the Easter eggs. Oh, and there are plenty of appearances and cameos that will make the geeks spray their shorts.  I won’t give anything away except to say that movies these days can feature actors who are no longer alive or don’t look the same anymore. The technology is not quite 100%, but it’s better than what we’ve seen in most other films that have tried it.

I had many hopes for Rogue One in terms of what and who I wanted to see before I watched it. I would say they were pretty much all fulfilled, though I could not help but want more of certain characters and sequences. It’s like I got a taste of several cakes I wanted to try without being able to eat any whole slice. And as I result, while I was pleased, I was not pleased as thoroughly as I would have liked. I understand at 133 minutes the film was already pushing its running time too far, so maybe the extended version will show us what ended up on the cutting room floor.

On the whole, I give Rogue One a big thumbs up. The Force Awakens is fun family entertainment driven by nostalgia and perhaps a little too much rehashing for some, but it is light and simple enough that even non-fans of the Star Wars universe could enjoy. Rogue One is original, gritty, intense, and made more for the hardcore fans (which I don’t consider myself part of). Two very different films I enjoyed in very different ways. I wouldn’t say it’s quite as good as some of the early buzz from the premiere suggests it is (ie as good as A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back), though it’s definitely good enough that I want to watch it again soon — and possibly again after that.

4 stars out of 5

Slow West (2015)

slowwest

I’m getting close to finishing off my list of 2015 films to watch so I can finally do my best of and worst of lists. One film that was suddenly added to the list was Slow West, a little-known Western that caught my eye after it found its way onto a couple of “Best of 2015” lists I came across.

Created by first-time writer and director John Maclean, Slow West stands out because it is so darn unusual. It may star Michael Fassbender and recognisable names such as Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn, but it’s understandable why the film got so little buzz among mainstream audiences and media even though it won jury prize at Sundance.

The premise is weird: McPhee plays Jay, a young Scottish man who heads to the American West to search for his love. There, he encounters Silas (Assbender), a bounty hunter who offers to protect him along the way in exchange for payment. But ulterior motives are involved and Jay doesn’t really know if he should be terrified of Silas or trust the bounty hunter with his life — or both.

It’s not easy to describe the kind of film Slow West is. The title is apt because it is a Western and the pace is slow. It’s an atypical coming-of-age film that’s pretty to look at, quirky, awkward, darkly comedic and slightly absurd, but also extremely violent. This sweet juxtaposition reminds me a little of Fargo, both the movie and the TV show, which I think just are two of the greatest things ever made. If you’ve seen the movie or the show you’ll have an idea of what I mean, though in my opinion Slow West isn’t quite up to the level of those masterpieces.

Smit-McPhee, who a lot of people don’t realise is Aussie, is carving out quite a career for himself despite not growing up looking like a traditional heartthrob. The Road, Let Me In and soon X-Men: Apocalypse as Nightcrawler; the 19-year-old is sure picking a lot of great roles. He’s excellent in Slow West, exuding a quiet charm and resiliency despite playing essentially quite a wimpy character.

Likewise, Assbender is totally bending asses again left and right as the cool bounty hunter. It’s good to see him produce and star in a small film like this while making all these huge blockbusters, and putting in equal effort to make his characters come to life no matter the size of the role or the budget.

As much as I enjoyed it, I recognise Slow West is likely to polarise audiences. It has elements that critics love (92% on Rotten Tomatoes), but may be too weird and slow — even at just 84 minutes — for mainstream audiences. Personally, I found it to be nice little film, interesting and funny enough to sustain my interest until the wild and gripping climax. While I wouldn’t place it in my top 10 of 2015, I appreciate it for what it is and look forward to seeing Maclean had in store for us next.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Animal Kingdom (2010)

Animal Kingdom opens around Australia on 3 June 2010

People like me are what’s wrong with the Australian film industry.  My initial reaction to Aussie films is always one of scepticism and prejudice.  If it’s Australian, then chances are, it’s crap.  I’m sure I am not alone in holding this kind of biased sentiment against locally produced films.  Is it because of the poor track record?  Is it because they try too hard to make something edgy?  Or is it because we’re so used to the big bucks spent on Hollywood movies that we look down upon the locals who make their films on, relatively speaking, shoestring budgets?

I don’t know what it is, but what I do know is that Animal Kingdom, the Australian film written and directed by David Michod, is the real deal.  The film may have won the World Cinema dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, but it wasn’t until I watched it at a screening last week that it stripped away my prejudice against it and most Australian films in general.

Animal Kingdom is an explosive crime drama set in Melbourne suburbia.  The story is told through the eyes of 17-year-old Josh ‘J’ Cody (James Frecheville), who is thrust into the world of crime when he is forced to go live with his grandmother ‘Smurf’ (Jacki Weaver) and his three uncles — Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford).  They are a family of relatively small-time armed robbers and drug-traffickers, but their time is coming to an end thanks to a gang of renegade detectives who are taking the law into their own hands.  As J finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into their world, Animal Kingdom becomes a frightening tale of survival, as J is torn between his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), self-preservation and loyalties to his family.

If there is one word I could use to describe Animal Kingdom, it would be “riveting”.  Even though it is classified as a “crime drama”, the majority of the tension (and man, there is edge-of-your-seat tension throughout the entire film) stems from the relationships and power struggles between members of the Cody family.

Debut director Michod has created an incredibly intense world that is terrifying, claustrophobic and deeply personal.  When you are a 17-year-old and this is the only life you’ve ever known, where do you go?  Who do you turn to for help?

Animal Kingdom is a film that twists and turns, and although there is a certain feeling of inevitability, you never quite know exactly what is going to happen next.  What struck me as particularly brilliant was how well each of the characters were drawn out.  With the exception of perhaps Pope’s best friend Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton) and senior cop Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), every key character in this film is multi-dimensional and never turn out to be as they first appear.  They each have such strong personalities and traits that their interactions are always bound to produce fireworks and/or make you feel unsettled.

I used to have this idea that all the ‘good’ Australian actors end up overseas, but the performances in Animal Kingdom blew me away.  First-timer James Frecheville gives a wonderfully controlled performance as the protagonist J — a subdued man-child who prefers to be unseen but is forced to come out of his shell as matters spiral out of control.  While Stapleton and Ford both give solid performances, the standouts have to be Ben Mendelsohn’s Pope and Jacki Weaver’s Smurf, the two menacing and psychotic heads of the family.

Animal Kingdom should not be mistaken for an action-thriller.  I wouldn’t describe the pace as slow, but at 112 minutes it does feel like a long movie, especially towards the end when it took a while to come to the final resolution.

All I can say is go see it, not because we should support the Australian film industry but because it is genuinely a terrific film.  I do hope it does well at the box office, especially amongst locals.  It is by far the best Australian film I’ve seen since the 2001 Lantana.

4.5 stars out of 5!