Tag Archives: Bradley Cooper

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Guardians of the Galaxy was a huge surprise hit in 2014, one that I enjoyed a lot but didn’t love as much as most. It was fun, quirky, referential and vibrant, with a fantastic cast that catapulted Chris Pratt to superstardom. Naturally, this made me concerned about the inevitable sequel, Vol, 2,  because I knew it would be facing unreasonable expectations and must find ways to rekindle the magic of the original while also coming up with something fresh.

For the most part, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 lives up to the bare minimum of expectations without doing much more. It builds upon the mythology of the first film, giving us a new adventure with a more personal slant, further opportunities for character development and building team chemistry, and still plenty of nostalgia and irreverent humour to put a smile on our faces. Like its predecessor, Vol. 2 was a fun couple of hours, but it also did not wow me in the way the best Marvel films tend to do.

Set no long after the events of the original, the Guardians of the Galaxy — Peter Quill (Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Badley Cooper) and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) — are now working together to fight an inter-dimensional monster at the behest of the Sovereign race, basically a bunch of uptight people in gold paint led by the statuesque Ayesha (Aussie Elizabeth Debicki). When the Guardians fall out of favour with the Sovereigns, Quill’s adoptive father Yondu (Michael Rooker) is hired to capture them. This leads to an encounter with Ego the living planet (Kurt Russell), a celestial being who reveals himself as having a connection to Quill. By Ego’s side is Mantis (Pom Kleentieff), a socially awkward girl with emphatic powers and antennae on her head.

Guardians has a different vibe to the other Marvel films because of its unabashed wackiness and irreverent tone. Groot and Rocket aren’t supposed to work as characters, but they do because of the superb writing and direction of James Gunn, whose talents are again on full display here. With bright colours, well-choreographed comic book space action, likable characters, fast and furious jokes, classic 80s music, and the cuteness of Baby Groot, Vol. 2 is a light and fun popcorn experience.

The cast is of course fabulous. Pratt looks very comfortable as Quill and spews out a bunch of witty wisecracks, though the majority of the comic relief this time goes to Drax, especially in his interactions with Mantis. And while cute doesn’t usually do much for me, Baby Groot does have a few nice moments. Yondu gets a bigger role this time and Rooker really shines by giving the character a lot of heart. Bradley and Saldana provide more of the emotional punch this time around with their character arcs, in particular Gamora’s relationship with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan).  That’s already a great cast, and I haven’t even mentioned legends Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone (who has a cameo), in their first reunion since Tango and Cash 28 years ago!

That said, I do have quite a few issues with Vol. 2. For starters, while I did laugh quite a few times at the gags, I found the humour a lot more hit and miss this time around, with some of the jokes coming across as too obvious. The biggest issue I had, however, was the actual plot, because it feels like not much actually happens. There’s a long lull after the Guardians encounter Ego, and I actually found myself a little bored by some of the slower sequences during this phase. It just didn’t feel like there was enough substance to justify a 136-minute running time.

So yeah, though I wasn’t disappointed in Vol. 2, I was hoping for a bit more. In terms of quality and entertainment value, the drop-off from its predecessor is not huge, but at the same time it felt like a somewhat safe sequel that does not go beyond to deliver what could have been a special experience. Instead, it’s just a solid albeit unspectacular continuation of the story.

3.25 stars out of 5

Joy (2015)

Jennifer-Lawrence-Joy-Movie-Poster

David O’Russell must really love Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. The latest collaboration of this celebrated trio is Joy, a loosely based biopic on the life of American inventor Joy Mangano. While it is a solid film fueled by yet another Academy Award-nominated performance by Jennifer Lawrence, it’s also clear that Joy is a much weaker motion picture than Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. And I t’s not even a debate.

It’s hard to review Joy without discussing Mangano’s life, and I suppose certain details may be considered spoilers if you’ve never heard of her or see the trailer (or even just the poster). But since this is Spoiler-Free Reviews, I’m just going to assume that you don’t know anything at all other the basic premise: Joy is a single mother struggling to make ends meet while taking care of everyone in her family from her parents (played by Robert De Niro and Virginia Madsen) to her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez). And yet, she still dreams big, and as the opening caption of the film will tell you, she is an inspirational woman.

As such, there is a sense of inevitability about the movie even if you don’t know who Joy Mangano is. She goes through plenty of heartache and frustration and despair, but you do get the sense that everything will eventually be okay in the end. Credit to O’Russell for still keeping the story relatively intriguing, with moments of hard-hitting drama and tension — though very little comedy, which begs the question why it is listed as a comedy-drama and was nominated as a comedy at the Golden Globes (I guess if The Martian is a comedy then any movie could be one too). The pacing could have been better, as it does drag at times and feels longer than its already-long 124-minute running time.

The Academy must also love Jennifer Lawrence because I’m not sure her performance in Joy was one of the top 5 female performances of the year. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really really good, probably top 10, as she completely drives the movie from start to finish, though I still got the feeling that she was probably miscast — she simply looks too young and fresh-faced to be totally convincing as a single mother of three who has lived a really hard life.

Apart from Lawrence, the rest of the supporting cast deliver fine performances as well. It’s more or less expected when you have the likes of De Niro, Bradley Cooper and Isabella Rossellini on the roster. However, Lawrence is the clear standout, and despite my misgivings about the suitability of her casting, she gives it everything she has to elevate the movie above what it otherwise would have been in less capable hands.

This is not Lawrence’s fault, but I also felt the film was lionising the protagonist a little too much. Joy is practically a saint in this movie and it never changes despite some really nasty stuff happening to her. It may be all true, but it would have been nice to see more “human” emotions from her character to keep it interesting.

Overally, Joy is a solid and occasionally very good biographical drama thanks to the direction of O’Russell and a great performance from Lawrence. The problems I had with it perhaps lay more with the script than anything else. It’s an inspirational story, but it’s one that also feels overlong and somewhat repetitive in that it keeps putting Joy down so that we can all feel the joy (pun intended) when things finally start going right for her. The result is O’Russell’s least impressive effort in recent years, though by most other standards it’s still a pretty enjoyable film.

3.5 stars out of 5

Burnt (2015)

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I wasn’t all that interested in seeing Burnt, a film about a good-looking but emotionally damaged chef played by Bradley Cooper. And as it turns out, I probably should have stayed away, because I sure got burnt by it.

At least it starts off well. We find out that Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper), a former hotshot chef in Paris, is returning from some kind of self-imposed exile and is ready to take over the London culinary scene by storm. And he has a clear goal in mind: his third Michelin star.

The big names flash up during the opening credits: Sienna Miller, Daniel Bruhl, Alicia Vikander, Uma Thurman, Emma Thompson. It was looking really promising, and I foolishly got my hopes up.

Burnt does have some positives. The stars do deliver in terms of performances, with Cooper and Miller in particular exhibiting enough thespian skills to make us believe that they are top-class chefs (that said, Bruhl, who I loved in Drive, was quite hard to understand because of his fast-talking/accent). The dramatic kitchen scenes can be intense, and people who like watching those cooking shows with screaming head chefs will appreciate all the swearing and humiliation. And of course there’s the food porn. There wasn’t an overemphasis on the culinary delights, but they sure did look very delicate and delicious. That said, I don’t think director John Wells (August: Osage County) did enough to sell the food — other food-themed films like The Hundred-Foot Journey and Chef did a better job of making me salivate.

The fundamental problem with Burnt is that Cooper’s character, Adam Jones, is a dickhead. And not just a little one. A massively conceited, bitter, douchey, self-important, vile, and unrepentant dickhead who doesn’t deserve our sympathy or empathy. I get that they’re trying to make him unappealing so that he can be redeemed — that’s blatantly obvious from the start — but his antics just build up so much animosity that it makes it impossible to care or root for the character. By the time he’s ready to be likable it’s already far too late.

Jones isn’t the only one, either. In fact, it’s hard to find one character you can truly root for in the movie. Some of them are okay, I suppose, but no one who can really make you care enough to develop a genuine emotional connection to the story. Maybe you need to have worked in that type of high-stress environment to understand how these people think and function, but I grew frustrated from not giving a darn about their personal predicaments.

I got the feel when watching this film that it was trying to be a hard-hitting, edgy, compelling drama, though when you strip away all the big names, yelling and the cooking it’s really just a cliched redemption story. I can’t go into specifics without revealing spoilers, but it’s not hard to guess how certain plot points are played out.

On the whole, Burnt was a disappointment. To sum up the experience with food puns (naturally) — despite the pretty presentation and fancy names, Burnt was an overcooked effort with too much bitterness, ultimately leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Boom.

2 stars out of 5

Aloha (2015)

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It’s so unfortunate that Aloha, the new Cameron Crowe film, will forever be remembered for its supposed “whitewashing” and controversial casting of Emma Stone as a quarter-Hawaiian character. Because what it should really be remembered for is being a shit movie.

Truth be told, I was ready to play devil’s advocate. I had planned to be the guy to tell everyone to lay off this film. Seriously, all that furore over the lack of Hawaiians and the casting. Who gives a shit? It’s Crowe’s movie. It’s his prerogative to focus on whatever characters he wants, cast whoever he wants. Why can’t a film based in Hawaii focus on white characters? Are there no white people in Hawaii? Are there no white soldiers based there? Why must he tell the story you think he should tell rather than the story he wants to tell? Call it bad casting or writing, but don’t make it political. It would be a different story if the film was based on true events, but it’s not, so what’s the big deal?

To be fair, Stone’s character might have attracted less attention had she not been blonde and her surname not been “Ng”. It may have been wiser to make her say one-eighth or even one-sixteenth Hawaiian, or change the last name to something more Anglo. But you’re telling me there are no blonde quarter-Hawaiians in this world? Or that there are no blonde Ngs on this planet? (Apparently the character was based on a real-life red-head). Don’t shit on the movie because of that — not when there are so many other things you should be shitting on the movie for.

Let’s start with the premise. Bradley Cooper is Brian Gilcrest, a disillusioned, cynical former soldier who has become a contractor for a billionaire played by Bill Murray. Gilcrest goes to Hawaii to help negotiate a deal with a Hawaiian king to support the launch of a private satellite, and while there, he meets young and naive pilot Allison Ng (Stone) and bumps into his ex-girlfriend Tracy (Rachel McAdams), who is now married to Woody (John Krasinski) and has two kids.

If that sounds boring to you, that’s because it is. Crowe’s got some interesting ideas on his CV, such as Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, We Bought a Zoo, but Aloha is not one of them. The film never seems to be able to settle on a proper focus, drifting around aimlessly between Gilcrest’s work and his relationships with Ng and Tracy. The problem is, none of those three things are compelling. They’re either uninteresting, cliched or predictable. Crowe is usually pretty good tricking audiences into falling for sentimentality, though in this case I thought all the tactics were far too obvious.

To make matters worse, none of the characters are charismatic, which is an amazing feat given that it stars three of the most charismatic actors around today in Cooper, Stone and McAdams. Gilcrest just seems blase all the time, while Ng is overly enthusiastic about everything, to the extent that her character feels contrived. Tracy isn’t very sympathetic either, and Woody only has a few scenes to provide comedic relief.

Speaking of which, though the film is promoted as a comedy-drama, Aloha is almost completely devoid of laughs. I can’t think of a single joke in the film apart from one very strange scene towards the end, though it is so different in tone to the rest of the film that it just becomes jarring.

I suppose Crowe was aiming for a Hawaiian-themed film similar to Alexander Payne’s 2011 effort The Descendants (the one with George Clooney and Shailene Woodley). That one was also a laid back drama with familial themes, but it was also much better crafted and a lot funnier. Aloha, on the other hand, is all over the place, with a dull premise, poor storytelling and characters not worth caring for. I kept wondering how such a simple story could be such a struggle to follow, and then I realised it was because I simply didn’t care enough. Even without the controversy, Aloha is a real mess, one that even its talented cast could not salvage.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Serena (2014)

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The first two times Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper collaborated on a film (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) the results were spectacular, earning the duo three Oscar nominations and a win. Their third joint effort, unfortunately, is a huge misstep for everyone involved.

Set in 1930s America, Serena focuses on a young logging businessman played by Bradley Cooper, who becomes enchanted by a beautiful young blonde. The titular Serena is not just some trophy wife either, as she proves herself to be a strong, intelligent and astute woman who doubles as a valuable business partner.

That’s about as much as I can divulge about the plot without spoilers, because the biggest problem with the film is that I’m not even sure how to describe it. Is it a drama? A romance? A thriller? A Western?! All or none of the above?

The frustrating thing about Serena is that I couldn’t figure out where it was going or what it was trying to achieve. The first half or so felt like it was simply going through the motions while trying to set something up down the track, though the twists in the plot end up coming across as somewhat random and surprising in a WTF way. So after all that, this is what the movie’s about? Maybe I missed all the clues and subtle hints along the way, but it felt like I had been watching a completely different film when it suddenly decided to go off the rails.

The script was adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name by Ron Rash, which, from what I have read, differs significantly from the film. I had a feeling that might have been the case because it’s obvious there’s much about the movie that didn’t turn out the way it was envisioned.

The performances were good, but you already knew that was the case with two top-class actors at the peak of their powers. The problem is that Bradley’s character is an unlikable, spineless schmuck who generates no empathy or sympathy, while Lawrence is miscast as the blonde bombshell. Her youth worked to her advantage in both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but here her babyfaced sweetness doesn’t match the tragedy-hardened demeanour her character demands.

The supporting cast also features some impressive names such as Toby Jones, who sleepwalks through the thankless role of the local sheriff, and chameleon Rhys Ifans, who plays a bizarre logger with an unexplored past and personality.

On the whole, Serena fizzles by failing to provide its A-class actors with roles suited to their strengths or a coherent script with a clear direction. The result is a strange and unsatisfactory experience that will leave many viewers scratching their heads wondering how such a quality production could have gone so wrong.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: American Sniper (2014)

I still say there's a lot of Jason Batemen from this angle
I still say there’s a lot of Jason Batemen from this angle
Every Clint Eastwood film these days is a must-see for me, and American Sniper — which happens to be his first Best Picture nomination since 2007’s Letters From Iwo Jima — is of course no different.

The film is less a war movie per se than a biopic of, or perhaps a tribute to, US war hero Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), the most lethal sniper in American military history. Yes, that means Kyle has the most confirmed kills, a staggering number most people cannot even comprehend. He was so good, in fact, that US enemies put a sizable bounty on his head.

The verdict? American Sniper is not quite what I had expected. With Eastwood, you know you’re going to get a very steady, subtle hand, with an almost muted style that somehow generates volumes of emotion and tension. In the case of this film, however, the emotions felt a little suppressed — much like how Kyle suppressed his in real life — and I wonder if it was a deliberate decision on Eastwood’s part to take such an understated approach.

Given that Kyle spends a lot of time on the battlefield (he served four tours), it’s no surprise that American Sniper is one of Eastwood’s more action-packed efforts, relatively speaking, though audiences expecting an all-out thrill ride are likely to be disappointed. The action in American Sniper, though at times aptly tense, is sporadic and aimed more at character development than providing visceral shocks, but there should be enough to keep most war-hungry viewers satisfied.

The focus of the film is firmly on Kyle, who is depicted as an extremely polite and selfless soldier devoted to his job of protecting marines on the field. That devotion, however, comes at a steep price, namely his relationship with his wife (played by Sienna Miller), children, and his mental health. Kyle wasn’t allowed to discriminate between his targets, which forced him to do some very difficult things in the line of duty, and despite his insistence that he only cared about saving the lives of the marines, there’s no doubt that his actions bred a darkness that haunted him even after he returned home.

And that’s the heart of American Sniper — the struggle between duty to country and duty to loved ones, the irreversible damage to a person’s soul from being exposed to the horrors of war, and especially dealing with the terrible decisions one must make.

All of this is brought out by Bradley Cooper’s astounding portrayal of Kyle. He might not have resembled Kyle in terms of facial features (Chris Pratt comes to mind, and apparently he was Cooper’s choice too had he not been cast), but Cooper bulked up to at least provide the same flavour of masculine beefiness. More importantly, he manages to channel Kyle’s demons so audiences can at least attempt to comprehend his inner conflicts and turmoil. It’s a nuanced performance that doesn’t build Kyle up as some kind of saint, but simply gives you a good sense of who he is and what he stands for — from his no-nonsense “yes mam, no mam” demeanour to the his uncomfortable awkwardness in the face of praise and gratitude.

The rest of the supporting cast, including the likes of Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner and Eric Close — is solid but intentionally low-key, which is necessary for the film to maintain its focus on the protagonist. Sienna Miller does what she has to, though I wish her character would have displayed more depth than the typical soldier’s wife anguishing for her husband’s return.

For those who don’t know about what happens to Kyle, I won’t spoil it by revealing the ending of the film, though I believe the quiet approach had a lot to do with certain restrictions imposed by the timing of the film’s release. At a hefty 134 minutes, it was probably a good time to wrap things up anyway.

I don’t necessarily agree with complaints that American Sniper is a pro-war movie that justifies US actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. As with most Hollywood productions, there are probably lots of factual inaccuracies, and the portrayal of Iraqis are admittedly simplified and weak, but the thing to remember is that this is a biopic told through Kyle’s eyes. For me, it’s important to separate Kyle’s story, regardless of whether his views are right of wrong, from any supposed underlying message being promoted by the film.

My problem with American Sniper lies more in the film’s relative lack of emotional impact and resonance. It’s as though the film stuck too close to Kyle, to the point where his own emotional detachment ended up getting passed on to us. Having seen the likes of Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima, Mystic River and even Changeling and Gran Torino, I know just how good Eastwood can be at tugging the heart strings and making me feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. As well made as the film is, there wasn’t nearly as much of that sort of brilliance in American Sniper — at least not executed as effectively — and as a result I found it less engrossing than some of Eastwood’s finest works.

Nonetheless, a slightly above-average Clint Eastwood film still classifies as a very good film by almost every other standard.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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I hadn’t initially planned on watching the latest Marvel entry, Guardians of the Galaxy, which seemed like a strange turn for the multi-billion-dollar film franchise into less grounded, more childish territory with a talking raccoon and a giant walking tree. Word of mouth that reached me all said it was “OK” or “Pretty good,” though I was astounded by the number of positive reviews I saw online, including an incredible 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Considering Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, probably the best movie of the year (let’s face facts here), only got 91% (about 9% too low), I knew it was only right for me to lay down some dough to watch Guardians on the big screen.

My verdict trickles closer to the word-of-mouth reviews I personally encountered, which is that it’s pretty good, definitely better than original expectations (from the time I saw the trailers), but not quite as good as the glowing reviews it’s been receiving. It’s solid popcorn entertainment, plenty of fun, frequently funny and always engaging, though ultimately still a second-tier franchise when ranked among its peers in the Marvel universe.

The core of the story is virtually identical to The Avengers — a bad guy teams up with another bad guy (with resources) to get their hands on a powerful object, and the only people who can stop them is a team of heroes with different strengths and conflicting personalities. The first half introduces the characters as they “get to know each other,” so to speak, and in the second half they learn to work together and become greater than the sum of their parts. Sound familiar?

Instead of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and The Hulk (plus Black Widow and Hawk Eye), we have Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) — a wise-cracking, smart-aleck human thief abducted by aliens as a child; Gamora (Zoe Saldana) — a green humanoid alien surgically enhanced by her father and the film’s antagonist to be a killing machine; Drax the Destroyer (David Bautista) — a powerful pink humanoid alien with lots of scars/tattoos and bent on revenge; Rocket (Bradley Cooper) — a CGI talking genius raccoon made from lab experiments; and Groot (Vin Diesel) — a CGI tree-like humanoid with lots of special abilities but a limited vocabulary.

It’s not the Avengers, but this bunch is still pretty solid team where each member plays off the others really well. Chris Pratt, all buffed up for the role, is a larrikin whose sole remaining connection to Earth is his cassette walkman and classic mixtapes, a gag the film executes wonderfully without milking it. He’s no slouch, but his main purpose is to play the human character we can connect with and to provide the laughs. Zoe Saldana, having played a blue alien in Avatar, goes green this time, and she’s the straight face of the group, while David Bautista is the hothead/meat-head with a broken heart. What surprised me were Rocket and Groot, both of whom I thought were going to be lame, but instead they probably turned out to be the film’s most likable characters. Considering the overall tone of the film, a talking raccoon and a walking tree didn’t feel out of place at all.

The supporting cast is also formidable — Glenn Close, John C Reilly, Benicio Del Toro, Karen Gillan and Djimon Hounsou, with Michael Rooker (Daryl’s hillbilly brother from The Walking Dead) as Star-Lord’s mentor, and The Hobbit elf Lee Pace as the destructive villain, Ronan the Accuser, who is no doubt powerful but somewhat lame because of his typical (boring) motivations.

The best way to describe the film’s general feel is cheeky and exciting. Apart from the introductory sequence, none of the film is based on Earth, meaning it’s all crazy alien business we don’t have to take too seriously. Overall, the film’s laugh quotient isn’t as high as I expected, especially because the humour is sometimes obvious and geared towards younger/dumber audiences. I personally thought there could have been more wit and sharper jokes, though it’s still frequently amusing enough to make the film a fun ride.

The action is varied and visually spectacular — largely thanks to superb special effects we tend to take for granted these days. It’s not quite edge-of-your-seat stuff, though it’s clever, creative and amusing enough to be plenty of fun.  And importantly, it feels as though the action never stops. Even when there’s no fighting there are always people walking, in the forefront or in the background, and if they’re standing still it’s because they’re on a speedy spacecraft. It gives the film a frenetic pace that never seems to slow.

The disadvantage of this film compared to The Avengers is that the characters themselves, as great as they are, don’t generate any excitement. With The Avengers, much of the attraction comes from the concept of putting all these fantastic superheroes together. With Guardians of the Galaxy, however, most viewers outside of hardcore fans won’t know who our heroes are, meaning more time has to be spent building them up from scratch. The Avengers superheroes already have cache entering the film, whereas here they have to earn our trust and affection. On the other hand, the advantage of this set-up is that there are no expectations or baggage. We expected The Avengers to deliver; no one really expected much out of Guardians of the Galaxy, allowing it to pleasantly surprise. Full credit has to go to director James Dunn (who also co-wrote the screenplay) in taking what was probably an experimental franchise — a year before the release of The Avengers 2 — and turning it into such a good-natured, family-oriented hit.

I’ve seen some people write that Guardians of the Galaxy is better than The Avengers, but that’s just borderline insaniquarium. Calling it “Baby Avengers,” however, would be doing the film a disservice. It is what it is: two hours of top-notch popcorn fun that’s quickly forgotten as soon as the credits roll (or in this case, the conclusion of the crazy post-credits scene).

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: American Hustle (2013)

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The highly anticipated American Hustle reunites acclaimed director David O’Russell (Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter) with the stars from his two previous films, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, and Christian Bale and Amy Adams – and the result is arguably his best film yet.

Set in the late 1970s, the movie is very very loosely based on a true story, thus prompting the line “Some of this actually happened” at the beginning of the film. I don’t want to give the plot away, so I’ll just provide a basic premise by saying that Christian Bale and Amy Adams play a pair of low-level con men (or should that be con people?) who bite off a little more than they can chew when they team up with Bradley Cooper. Jennifer Lawrence plays Bale’s wife and Jeremy Renner plays a mayor. The brilliant cast is topped off by the likes of Louis CK, Michael Pena and Robert De Niro.

As the title suggests (it was originally titled American Bullshit), the film is all about scamming people in an era when people are a little more naïve and trusting than they are now. It’s technically an entertaining caper drama, but American Hustle is also one of the sharpest, wittiest and funniest black comedies of the year. Though they are very different movies, the offbeat tone of the film is similar to Silver Linings Playbook, so if you enjoyed that you’ll love this.

The wonderful characters are what make American Hustle such a pleasure to watch, and each of them stand out in their own way. The film is almost like an intertwining collection of fascinating character studies, and what’s more is that the chemistry between all of them is amazing — the way they play off each other, react to each other and talk to each other. Just rapid fire nuggets of gold all the way.

Christian Bale is his usual solid self, but again went the extra mile by piling on the pounds and shaving part of his head to make himself look like a fatty with an elaborate comb-over. He is the only man in Hollywood who can go from this:

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Empire of the Sun (1987)

To this:

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American Psycho (2000)

To this:

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The Machinist (2004)

To this:

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Batman Begins (2005)

 To this:

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The Fighter (2010)

To this:

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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

And now to this:

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American Hustle (2013)

Bradley Cooper is as good as he was in Silver Linings Playbook, and I think Amy Adams has never been better. Of the three leads she is probably the one likeliest to win an Oscar.

I am of course biased about this, but I reckon Jennifer Lawrence absolutely stole the show. She is just magnificent, so natural, so delightful, so hilarious; a laugh a second and full of impact in every scene she’s in. Jeremy Renner delivers an understated but important performance, and Michael Pena’s comedic chops shine through despite few words. I was ready to call this the best ensemble cast of the year and I didn’t even know Robert De Niro and Louis CK were in it!

The film is arguably a little too long at 138 minutes, but the script is tight and the dialogue razor sharp. O’Russell’s direction is enthusiastic and vibrant and again, the performances are just ridiculous. I don’t doubt that it is the best ensemble cast of any film in 2013, and I expect a load of Oscar nominations coming the film’s way. The film has already garnered 7 Golden Globe nominations, with O’Russell’s direction and screenplay and the four leads all earning nods along with the film itself.

I don’t know if the film will win Best Picture or if it will go down as a borderline classic, but American Hustle is certainly one of the best films of the year. A pure joy to watch.

4.5 stars out of 5

PS: It also has probably the best soundtrack of the year!

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 7

Dark Shadows (2012)

dark shadows

During my 9 month studying at Cambridge between 2008-2009, the only extra-curricular event I attended without being invited is a session about Dark Shadows, the cult American gothic soap opera from the 1960s. I didn’t know anything about the show at all, but it was about TV/entertainment and it had a horror slant to it, so I figured it was good enough for someone bored out of their mind from reading law textbooks all day. So on that afternoon, I saw an episode of the show, and heard that a movie version was in the works directed by Tim Burton, and of course, Johnny Depp. I thought it had potential.

Fast forward to last year, and Dark Shadows the movie was finally here, with Depp as the protagonist vampire Barnabas Collins and Eva Green as his jealous ex-lover. The all-star cast also features Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Chloe Grace Moretz and Jackie Earle Haley.

Though technically a horror, Dark Shadows intended to be a campy comedy about a vampire locked away for two centuries before being released in 1972. Most of the jokes, therefore, stem from Depp’s clueless attitude towards the “modern” world and the people who inhabit it, kind of like Brendan Fraser in Encino Man.

Unfortunately, while not horrible, Dark Shadows was rather lame and elicited few chuckles. It was pretty to look at, but the whole film was a tiring affair with obvious gags and not a lot of life (and I don’t mean that as a joke because vampires are supposed to be dead). To be fair, it was always going to be a difficult task to make a film based on a 60s TV show, but in this case it had me wondering whether they completely wasted their own and everyone else’s time. There just wasn’t anything inspiring or memorable about it. Encino Man was so bad it was awesome. Dark Shadows isn’t anything.

2 stars out of 5

The Words (2012)

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A seemingly interesting film that really doesn’t say much in the end. Bradley Cooper plays (like he does in Limitless) an impossibly handsome but struggling writer, who finds a riveting manuscript he decides to pass off as his own. But of course, he was never going to get away with it, and must face the consequences, including answering to his wife, Zoe Saldana.

To make matters more complicated, Cooper and Saldana’s story is actually a book written by Dennis Quaid, and he’s unveiling the story at a public reading. Meanwhile, there’s Olivia Wilde, an attendee at the reading who gets cozy with Quaid but can’t figure out how much of the story is autobiographical. And to really mess with you, when Cooper is confronted by the real author, he is told the story of how the manuscript came to be.

On the surface, The Words looks like three-tiered a morality tale, a story within a story within a story that tells us it’s naughty to steal someone’s work. And for most of the movie, I was hoping it would turn out to be something really intelligent and thought-provoking. But eventually I realized that it was just a bunch of contrived plot tricks masquerading as a clever movie, one that never really provides any answers or a satisfactory conclusion.

That said, as I kept hoping to be impressed and was curious about the questions the film raised, I was completely engaged for the majority of the film’s 96-minute running time. Unfortunately the payoff was a huge disappointment, but at least it wasn’t boring.

2.5 stars out of 5

PS: Ironically, the film was accused of having ripped off a German novel (true fact).

The Five Year Engagement (2012)

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I thought The Five Year Engagement looked like a pretty “meh” film from the trailers, to be honest, but in the end I was pleasantly surprised by how funny, warm and genuine it felt.

Emily Blunt and Jason Segel, who have amazing chemistry in this, are a couple who get engaged but then for various reasons are unable to marry and keep extending the engagement (for guess how long?). From work to deaths to misunderstandings and mishaps and temptations, the engagement just keeps going and going. I thought it would get tedious after a while but somehow director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) keeps it interesting by varying things up with jokes couples can relate to, plus the occasional bit of wacky or random humor.

It’s one of those films where you’re likely to find yourself rooting for them to stay together because the leads and the characters they are playing are so likable and they make such a sweet couple, but at the same time the circumstances make you wonder whether things are just not meant to be. As a result the film’s tone is infused with a sense of bittersweet melancholy — that mixes unexpectedly well with the light humour.

I wouldn’t call it an excellent film, but The Five Year Engagement is certainly one of the better rom-coms of the year.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Babymakers (2012)

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This was another attempt to cash in on the adult comedy market with a crude, outrageous jokes, but according to Wikipedia the film made about $8,000. I don’t think it’s that bad, but it’s not particularly funny and there’s nothing really helping it stand out from the rest of the pack.

Olivia Munn (The Newsroom) and Paul Schneider (Parks & Recreation) are a couple trying to get pregnant without much luck. Schneider discovers that his boys aren’t exactly swimming but remembers that he used to donate regularly to the local sperm bank years ago, when his boys were more capable swimmers.

But for some reason the bank won’t budge and Schneider intends to break in to steal his “stuff”, along with his buddies and a “professional” played by the film’s director, Jay Chandrasekhar. Craziness ensues.

Sounds like a fun premise — a heist film where the bank is filled with something other than money — and I have to admit there were moments when The Babymakers elicited a chuckle here and there. But the humour was too sporadic and was overshadowed by all the gross-out stuff that was completely unnecessary (sperm plays a large role, as you can imagine) and frankly not all that funny. And the film just trips and falls flat on its face by the end.

I like Olivia Munn from watching The Newsroom and she does have some comedic chops, as does Schneider, but sadly The Babymakers’ few good jokes were lost in a sea of crap ones.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

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OK, I can see why the ladies love Ryan Gosling. If nothing else, the guy knows how to choose his roles.

We’re barely halfway through the year, but rest assured that The Place Beyond the Pines will be in my top 10 for 2013. As epic crime dramas go, they don’t get much better than this. Much like how Gosling’s 2011 classic, Drive, hypnotized me from the opening scene, Pines had me gripped all the way through. (But don’t be mistaken into thinking that the two films are in any way similar)

Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance (who previously collaborated with Gosling on the depressing Blue Valentine), Pines is an unusual film in that it abandons the traditional three act structure film students are told to adhere to. I guess you could treat it as three interconnected three-act pieces, or just one massive three-part epic. Whatever it is, it’s awesome.

It’s hard to go into plot details without giving away spoilers, so I’ll try my best to skirt around the edges. Ryan Gosling plays a circus motorcycle stunt rider who is forced to settle down when an old fling played by Eva Mendes drops a bombshell: they have a son. To make ends meet, Gosling finds a job at a shady auto shop run by Aussie Ben Mendelsohn, who teaches him how to earn lots of cash by making the most of Gosling’s amazing riding skills.

Meanwhile, Bradley Cooper plays a low-ranking but intelligent and ambitious cop who is given an opportunity to rise up the ranks, but at a cost that will challenge his sense of righteousness and morality. It’s probably not a spoiler to say that Ray Liotta plays a corrupt officer — I mean, what else could he be?

I don’t think the storyline itself is necessarily very original, but Cianfrance’s storytelling is sublime. He is a master of subtlety, atmosphere and tone — the film is dark, sombre and intentionally slow in some parts, but it draws you in with skillfully crafted tension and refuses to let go. Perhaps it was overly ambitious in some respects, though I can’t fault Cianfrance for trying.

The performances are some of the best I’ve seen this year. Gosling’s at his charismatic, brooding and vulnerable best — that I am used to by now — though I was completely blindsided by Cooper, who probably delivered the performance of a lifetime. He received an Oscar nomination for Silver Linings Playbook, but he is arguably even better here.

I just loved it from start to finish and was blown away by the conclusion. Pines won’t be for everyone, but those who get it will jump on the bandwagon.

4.5 out of 5!