Tag Archives: Corey Stoll

Movie Review: Dark Places (2015)

dark places

Dark Places, adapted from Gillian Flynn’s second novel of the same name, is a film that likely would not have been made without the success of Gone Girl, her third book. While Dark Places is a fine book, it’s not the game-changer like Gone Girl was, and correspondingly, the film is not quite in the same league as David Fincher’s extraordinary film adaptation from last year.

With that said, Dark Places, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, is still a solid mystery-thriller that turned out much better than the TV movie-style mediocrity I had been expecting. Part of it is because of the talented cast featuring the star power of Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Chloe Moretz and Tye Sheridan, though I suspect it is more because the producers knew they couldn’t turn in a half-hearted effort because they knew Gone Girl was going to raise the bar extremely high (even though the two films were shot at around the same time).

Twenty-eight years ago, Libby Day’s mother (Christina Hendricks) and two sisters are brutally slaughtered, and only other surviving sibling, her brother Ben, is convicted for their murder. In present day, having exhausted all the sympathy and goodwill handouts in the world, Libby (Charlize Theron) finds herself in desperate need of money, forcing her to agree to help out — in exchange for payment — a nerdy “Murder Club” (these things actually exist) seeking to “solve” her cold case. Together with the club’s treasurer, Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult), Libby reluctantly begins investigating what really happened all those years ago.

The film goes back and forth in time, focusing on Libby in the present and Ben (old Corey Stoll and young Tye Sheridan) in the past. Gradually the layers of the mystery are pealed back, and Libby discovers that her brother may not have been who she thought he was.

Sounds fascinating, right? And I haven’t even discussed one of the prominent themes of the film, devil worship and satanic rituals, a topic that was sending shock-waves of fear through the community back in the 80s.

I was sceptical of the casting of Theron in the beginning because the Libby Day of the book was short and frumpy. It’s true that Charlize is too tall and glamorous to fit that description no matter how hard she tries, though her performance is convincing enough for the physical discrepancy to be a moot point.

It was also good to see Theron re-teaming with Hoult after working together for Mad Max: Fury Road, albeit in completely different roles and circumstances. Hoult is solid despite not really getting to do much to show off what he can do. The same goes for Stoll, who is everywhere these days, while Sheridan gets to do more but can’t exactly capitalise on the opportunity.

The two who steal the show are Chloe Moretz and Christina Hendricks. Moretz, as the Ben’s wild girlfriend Diondra, stands out because she’s such a strong and dominatin personality. Hendricks stands out for another reason — she looks virtually unrecognisable as a struggling single mother, looking as plain as can be with virtually no make-up.

It’s a good cast with good performances, but if we’re being honest we’d admit that they were chosen for star power as opposed to fit for their characters.

Dark Places never bores and remains interesting as long as the mystery is in play. My issues with the film are largely as same as the book — it never lets up to the potential of its premise. The progression is too straightforward, the turns and revelations not explosive enough. There’s not a whole lot to separate it from your run-of-the-mill mystery-thriller. With a no-name cast and smaller budget, this would have been a straight-to-DVD or TV movie.

However, it would have been a pretty good straight-to-DVD or TV movie, and the fact that the production is as high-profile as it is means Dark Places is still better than the majority of films in the same genre, even the theatrical releases.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Ant-Man (2015)

ant man

Paul Rudd gives new meaning to the term “shrinkage.”

All things considered, Ant-Man turned out much better than expected. That said, I’d still preach caution against reading too many overly positive reviews.

That’s what happens with expectations sometimes. People were initially lukewarm on Ant-Man, then they were completely down on it, and now they’re really high on it, perhaps even too high on it. My verdict is that it’s a very solid film, a very funny film, one that might fit uncomfortably in the Marvel cinematic universe but offers a great time as an independent movie experience. Its ambitions are so underwhelming that it’s hard to rank it up there among the other Marvel superhits, though I feel it is strong enough to not drag the franchise down and deserves a place in the hierarchy as one of the more different and refreshing efforts.

One of my favourite actors, Paul Rudd, plays Scott Lang, a Robin Hood-type burglar who is offered an opportunity for redemption by becoming Ant-Man, a superhero capable of shrinking himself down to Honey I Shrunk the Kid proportions and control armies of different breeds of ants. I’ve been a fan of Rudd since Clueless — which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year — and never thought he would manage to survive in Hollywood this long (while Alicia Silverstone basically disappeared into obscurity). But here he is, and he’s excellent as Lang, who makes the most of Rudd’s dry personality as well as his underrated acting chops. The understated Rudd doesn’t dominate the film, and I think that’s a good thing because it plays into the whole apologetic feel of Ant-Man as a superhero.

The plot is fairly standard and revolves around the concept of family, in particular father-and-daughter relationships. In this regard the theme is played out brilliantly by Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly, who star as scientist Hank Pym and estranged daughter Hope van Dyne, respectively. I hadn’t seen Douglas on screen for a while and I had forgotten what a brilliant actor and screen presence he is. He’s a major reason why the film is as good as it is.

On the villain side, the ubiquitous Corey Stoll (naturally bald this time) is Darren Cross, a former protege of Pym who is close to perfecting a similar shrinking suit called the Yellowjacket. I love Stoll as much as the next heterosexual man, but his character in this is pretty one-dimensional and not particularly memorable. Can’t blame the man for collecting cheques when they keep flooding in, though.

Providing additional comic relief are Michael Pena, recording artist T.I. and David Dastmalchian. Pena in particular is at his blistering best, and those who enjoy his style of comedy will have a blast as he rolls off his awesome “tip montages”. Rudd, confined to being the “hero”, almost takes a back seat to all these supporting characters, and fortunately they make the most of the opportunities.

The special effects are of course cool and there are some innovative ideas when Lang is shrunken down to insect size. The film is often silly and it knows it, and the concept alone provides many inherent chances for laughter. One of its biggest strengths is that it straddles the line between comedy and farce very well so that it doesn’t cheapen this massive and complex universe Marvel has been building up since 2008 when it released the first Iron Man.

And that’s pretty good when you realise that Ant-Man originally had disaster written all over it. An idea for an adaptation of the Marvel comic arose back in the 1980s, though nothing came out of it. Then in 2003, Edgar Wright, best known for his Three Flavours Cornette trilogy of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, became the driving force behind the project, even penning a script and participating in the casting process. But last year, Wright dropped out due to the dreaded “creative differences” excuse and the project brought on a new director, Peyton Reed, best known for Bring It On but had turned in three pretty mediocre efforts since (Down With Love, The Break-Up and Yes Man).

So we’re talking multiple re-writes, different fingers in the pie and a last-minute change of director. The general sentiment was that the film, already facing an uphill battle because of its high concept premise, would be a disastrous mess. It also didn’t help that critics were iffy about Paul Rudd, who has carved out an impressive career as a dry comedic actor but had yet to prove that he could carry a leading superhero role from a juggernaut franchise like Marvel.

Accordingly, almost everyone was pleasantly surprised that Ant-Man defied predictions and turned out to be really good. And it is. I liked it a lot. It was probably exactly what Marvel needed after exhausting everyone with one big blockbuster after another featuring more and more superheros and villains whose powers are growing out of control.

Despite many references to the Marvel universe — such as the Avengers and Age of Ultron, not to mention several notable cameos — Ant-Man works well as a standalone flick that isn’t a spoof but also doesn’t take itself as seriously as the other Marvel entries. It’s more self-contained, more self-aware, smaller and neater, and arguably the funniest Marvel superhero movie to date along with Guardians of the Galaxy.

While there are going to be more superhero films combining all of these various strands in the upcoming “Phase Three” of Marvels cinematic universe, which will begin with Captain America: Civil War next year and end with Avengers: The Infinity Wars Part II and Inhumans in 2019, Ant-Man offers fans a much-needed breather from the familiarities of the Marvel money-making machine. It’s not the type of film that will wow you with mindblowing visuals, creativity or action. What if offers instead is good-natured, light-hearted fun that’s as self-deprecating as its lead star, something many audiences might actually prefer as a change of pace to the excesses of the more “marquee” names. Just keep in mind, however, that it is simply a good film that exceeds low expectations rather than something truly extraordinary that shits all over all its more well-known siblings.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: I fully recommend this video of Paul Rudd from Conan, which includes an “exclusive” clip from the movie.

2014 Movie Blitz: Part VII

The Forger (2014)

The-Forger

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars out of 5

The Loft (2014)

loft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5 stars out of 5

The Gambler

gambler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5 stars out of 5

This Is Where I Leave You (2014)

this-is-where-i-leave-you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Good Lie (2014)

good_lie

The Good Lie is probably the best of all the films I caught on two red eye flights recently. Starring Reese Witherspoon, it tells the story of four Sudanese refugees after they win a lottery for relocation to the United States. Sure, it’s a Hollywood production, but for the most part this is an educational, eye-opening and deeply moving drama with fundamental themes that anyone should be able to appreciate.

The movie starts off with a recount of the Second Sudanese Civil War between 1983 and 2005, and how the four protagonists — three boys and a girl — became a part of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, basically tribal children who were displaced or orphaned during this period and ended up in refugee camps.

The foursome are given a second chance at life when they win the relocation lottery to the US, and the next part of the movie details their profound culture shock after their arrival. Some of it is quite amusing, though I wonder how much of it was exaggerated for effect.

With the help of Carrie Davis (Witherspoon), a woman with a job placement agency, the boys (the girl was separated from them for stupid bureaucracy reasons) start working in menial jobs in factories and supermarkets, wondering if this is all their lives in this strange and new land will offer them.

I had concerns that The Good Lie was going to be one of those “Americans are so awesome for helping out these refugees” type of movies, with Witherspoon’s character as some sort of selfless hero, though I’m glad to say this was not the case. The focus of the film is firmly on the four refugees (in particular the three boys), who are all well-developed, strong characters with individual personalities. The film is seen through their point of view, and the the bond that they have growing up together is the true heart of the story. Even their little frictions and fights are fascinating to watch.

The acting from the largely unknown cast is superb, and Witherspoon delivers a steady performance that doesn’t steal the limelight. It helps that her character is seemingly normal and doesn’t have a god complex. It was also good to see House of Cards and The Strain’s Corey Stoll in a supporting role as helpful friend Jack.

I was really touched by this film despite its fairly by-the-numbers approach. It’s heartbreaking but does not come across as manipulative, with light bits of humour sprinkled throughout. While there are some inevitable cliches, the depictions of both the Sudanese and American characters are executed with respect thanks to the steady hands of director Philippe Falardeau and the script by Margaret Nagle. It’s an honest story with a lot of hardships and reminders of the brutal reality of the world, but ultimately it also delivers a warm message of hope.

4.25 stars out of 5