Tag Archives: crime

Movie Review: Foxcatcher (2014)

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If you don’t know the true story behind Foxcatcher, then I suggest you avoid reading anything about the movie — apart from this spoiler-free review, of course — and anything about its real-life characters, American Olympic wrestling brothers Dave and Mark Schultz, as well as multimillionaire philanthropist John du Pont.

I know I say that about every movie, but in this case it’s really for your own good. Foxcatcher is one of those slow, contemplative films so doused in melancholy that you know it will either end up turning around into something inspirational or that something tragic is going to happen. Not knowing what will transpire, however, makes all the difference in the world in terms of the film’s emotional payoff after sitting through more than two hours of anticipation.

That’s not to say Foxcatcher doesn’t deliver the goods if you know the background, for it’s a story so remarkable — with characters so conducive to psychological drama — that you’ll tend to forget it’s all based on true events.

There’s the young wrestler, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), who has low self-worth — despite being an Olympic gold medalist — from living in his older brother’s shadow and a lack of financial stability. There’s Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), the more confident and savvy of the siblings whose career is tied down by his commitment to his wife (Sienna Miller) and children. And then there’s John du Pont (Steve Carell), the old, mysterious loner with mommy issues who wants to use his incredible wealth and power to build a patriotic national wrestling team with the Schultz brothers as his headliners.

Together, they form a tense triangle of power politics driven by money, loyalty, manipulation and control, all of which takes place before a backdrop of the competitive and often cutthroat world of amateur wrestling.

That description may make Foxcatcher sound like some kind of exciting thriller, though the pace is actually deliberately snail-like at times, full of solitary moments of silence, contemplation and self-reflection. Even the wrestling scenes are intentionally muted so that you don’t get any of that manufactured adrenaline that typically comes with Hollywood spots movies. But the emotions are undoubtedly there, and they actually feel more genuine and amplified. Those who have seen director Bennett Miller’s other acclaimed films Capote and Moneyball, will have an idea of the style I am referring to.

The three main actors have received critical acclaim for their performances, especially Carell and Ruffalo, who received Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. To be honest, I actually liked Tatum’s performance the most. Far from just a beefcake, he was terrific at projecting Mark’s obvious lack of self-esteem and desire for approval. Ruffalo was very good too, though he’s always at that level, while I would have been fine had Carell missed out on he nomination in favour of Selma‘s David Oyelowo. Not to say Carell wasn’t great in this, but he still reminded me of Steve Carell behind all the makeup.

Interestingly, after watching the film, I went online to check out what their real-life counterparts looked like. I was surprised to discover that none of them really had much of a resemblance, except for maybe Tatum, though it’s a stretch to call him a lookalike of Mark Schultz.

One of the things about the film that I liked — but recognise others might be frustrated by — is how the relationships, motives and states of mind of the characters are left ambiguous and open to interpretation. Was it mentor and student, coach and wrestler, father and son, brother and brother, or all of the above? And was I imagining things or was there even something sexual lurking beneath the surface? I have a feeling Miller wanted to let the audience decide for themselves so they can try to make sense of why things turned out the way they did in the end.

That said, Mark Schultz and some other wrestlers have already confirmed that Foxcatcher more or less made up the dynamics of the relationships and the character traits of the central trio. For the record, however, Schultz eventually recanted some of his criticisms of the film and against Bennett (who is up for Best Director), saying that he “loved” the film.

I personally found Du Pont to be by far the most fascinating character, and was naturally disappointed that his psyche was not explored in as much depth as it probably ought to have been. That said, such an endeavour would have added more time to a movie that was already feeling a little on the long side, and in any case I understand that the screenplay was based on Mark Schultz’s book and thus from his perspective.

Flaws and creative licenses aside, Foxcatcher works as a compelling yet disturbing drama powered by three excellent performances and the direction of a master storyteller. I have a feeling it will go down as one of the more memorable films of 2014.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Good People (2014)

Good People New Poster

Interesting premise, but that’s unfortunately the only genuinely good thing I can say about Good People, a violent thriller starring James Franco and Kate Hudson as an American couple in London who of discover a bag of dirty money.

The film, the feature debut of Danish director Henrik Ruben Genz, starts off relatively well, with a robbery-gone-wrong scenario that leaves a bunch of ruthless criminals desperate to get their hands on money they think they deserve. Enter Tom (Franco) and Anna (Hudson) Wright, a couple who relocated to the UK for a new start after the financial crisis. Things aren’t much better for them in London, but that hasn’t stopped Anna pining for a baby.

Things supposedly make a turn for the better when the couple discover the robbery money, which can make a lot of their financial problems go away. But of course, it also brings along with it a whole bunch of new problems. It’s one of those “What would you do in the same situation?” ideas, and for the first half of the movie or so I understood where they were going with it.

But as the film progressed it started falling into the trap of a typical crappy Hollywood thriller, where things start getting more and more ridiculous and idiotic. There’s a lot of stuff here that fails the smell test of basic logic and common sense, and before long the whole thing crumbles into an expected bloodbath with a predictable and utterly unrealistic ending. Making the couple American while setting the story in the London also didn’t add anything.

Genz’s style is dark and somber, which matches the tone of the film well. He’s also pretty adept at creating tension through visceral violence, which worked to the film’s advantage in the first half until it became a little too much to swallow. There’s just nothing particularly exciting or fresh with his approach though.

As for the performances…I’m not much of a fan of either lead, and they haven’t exactly won me over after watching this movie. Franco was a little better — you can tell he’s trying to put on a serious face — but Hudson was just plain weird. Some of the blame has to go to the script, which made her inconsistent and unlikable. And that’s one of the main problems of the film — you’re not actually rooting for the protagonists to make it out alive because they don’t really deserve to. Tom Wilkinson plays a detective who gets caught up in the mess and he’s just a completely unbelievable character.

In the end, Good People turned out to be a forgettable disappointment. I didn’t have high expectations to begin with, but this was at best a pedestrian DVD rental or late-night cable movie you stumble upon, not a film worthy of a cinematic release.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

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You can always trust Liam Neeson to find someone, then kill them.

That is why A Walk Among the Tombstones, a crime thriller based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Lawrence Block, was the perfect role for Neeson and his brooding, single-minded charisma.

Set in 1999, the film stars Neeson as Matthew Scudder, a former cop who retired eight years ago and has become an unlicensed private detective-slash-fixer or sorts. He is recruited to a drug dealer whose wife went missing, and the story opens up from there into a dark, violent journey where only Scudder’s very particular set of skills can save the day.

Don’t for one second think, however, that A Walk Among the Tombstones is anything like Taken. Yes, Neeson is a badass, but Tombstone is less action and a lot more grit and atmosphere. The first half of the film, at least, is essentially a detective film where Scudder tries to track down the sadistic perpetrators through their past crimes. He enlists the help of a street kid by the name of TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), whom he takes under his wing a little bit, and in return TJ acts as the catalyst for Scudder’s character development.

As the story progresses it morphs into a kidnap film, and then finally an old-fashioned action thriller. The action is relatively spare, but when there is action it is usually brutal and effective. I think director-writer Scott Frank (best known for penning screenplays to top-notch films like Minority Report, Out of Sight and Get Shorty) does an excellent job of keeping the film’s tones dark, but not so dark that it makes the film unpleasant to watch, and bloody but not gratuitously so. His direction is also quite stylish and makes an effort to bring back the feel of the 1990s.

While A Walk Among the Tombstones doesn’t exactly avoid genre cliches, it features a compelling storyline, strong direction and performances, and action and suspense at just the right pace. It certainly held my attention from start to finish. In fact, if you don’t count his cameo in The Dark Knight Rises and his voice performance in The Lego Movie, one could make the argument that Tombstones is Neeson’s best movie since Taken.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

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Sequels to thrillers — even ones that aren’t very good — are never as good as the original. Or at least that was what I thought before I watched The Purge: Anarchy.

The Purge (review here) was a promising film released last year that failed to live up to expectations. It revolved around the concept of a yearly Purge, where all citizens are free to do whatever they want — steal, rape, kill — without any legal repercussions whatsoever. It’s supposed to cleanse the soul, or something like that, so that they won’t feel the urge to do it on the 364 other days of the year. Apparently, it works, as violent crime has become almost nonexistent.

Notwithstanding an all star cast including Ethan Hawke and Game of Thrones queen Lena Headey, The Purge missed a great opportunity to create something thought-provoking and original, instead opting for a typical home invasion thriller involving creepy, deranged, mask-wearing intruders. It had its moments, though the experience ultimately felt hollow.

On its face, The Purge: Anarchy seems like one of those B-grade, straight to DVD type sequels. No returning actors or characters (I believe with the exception of one), no big names, and noticeably less marketing. And yet, somehow, it ended up being a more rewarding experience than the original by taking a approach that better utilizes its unique premise.

Instead of focusing on a single family in their home on the yearly Purge night, Anarchy splits the attention between three groups of people with different motivations and socioeconomic backgrounds — a Hispanic mother and daughter pair (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul) caught up in the carnage when their apartment is attacked; a white couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) trying to get to safety after their car broke down; and a police sergeant (Frank Grillo) hell-bent on seeking revenge against people who he believes ruined his life.

In contrast to The Purge’s creepy, claustrophobic atmosphere, Anarchy is more of a direct action thriller with a typical narrative thread in which a group of people must come together for a common cause: survival.

By taking this approach, Anarchy is able to explore the concept of the Purge with more depth and from more perspectives than its predecessor. It tackles the question of why the Purge was implemented in the first place and ponders the social, political and economic fallout from such a decision. Who does the Purge benefit most? Which people are most vulnerable? Are the underlying justifications more sinister than we realize?

This is not to say Anarchy is a great film. The film had a budget of just 9 million, and sometimes it showed, from the distinct lack of star power To the largely unimpressive action scenes. There is nothing special about the acting, and the stock standard characters were often annoying in their stereotypical reactions to situations. I also expected more originality and creativity in some of the deranged discoveries you would come across in a world like this, but they ended up being rather uninspiring and predictable.

Having said that, Anarchy does do better than its predecessor in making the most of the premise, resulting in a more complete and satisfying film. Given that the Purge happens every year, this is one of those franchises that can roll out a new film every summer. And apparently the wheels are already in motion for a third film, a prequel that well look at the events surrounding the very first Purge. Maybe it can continue to iron out the kinks and become one of those film series that can keep improving as it expands on the world it has built.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Cold War (2012)

I am cynical when it comes to Hong Kong and Taiwanese films because they rarely live up to expectations, but word of mouth got me interested in Cold War, a big-budget effort that has been promoted as “the best Hong Kong movie in the last 10 years.”

I was warned before watching Cold War that while I cannot compare it to first class Hollywood productions, it’s pretty good “for a Hong Kong movie.” That’s pretty much my assessment of the movie too.

The title of the movie refers to the code name given to a police operation after a busy shopping district explodes and a van carrying five officers and weapons suddenly goes missing. One of the officers happens to be the son of the deputy commissioner of police (Tony Leung), currently filling in as acting commissioner.

The incident escalates tensions in an already tense Hong Kong police department, which has been eager to promote the region as the “safest city in Asia.” There are internal power plays between Leung’s character, who is in charge of the “operations” side of things, and the character played by Aaron Kwok, the deputy commissioner on the “management” side of the department. Both men apparently want to solve the case, but at the same time they are jostling for the head job as the commissioner is set to retire.

There’s more to the story than that, which makes the film sound more complicated than it really is. I have a feeling it’s intentional. The truth is, Cold War has a rather standard plot that takes a few pages out of another crafty and highly successful Hong Kong film franchise, Infernal Affairs (remade into the Oscar-winning The Departed).

The strengths of the film lie in the interesting power play between the two leads and the twists and turns in the evolving plot, although I can’t say they weren’t predictable. The action sequences are well-done and realistic, although some of the special effects could have been a lot more polished.

Directors/co-writers Sunny Luk and Longman Leung have a certain visual style that borrows from Hollywood but retains a Hong Kong flavor, which is nice, but they do have a tendency to over-sensationalize things. We are regularly made to feel or expect that a certain scene, incident or character is supposed to have a particular significance, only to find out later that it meant nothing, or that the character was only minor and would never be seen again for the rest of the movie.

One of the introductory scenes exemplifies this perfectly. We see a half-naked girl in her underwear walking to a fridge to get a drink (with a particular focus on her swinging backside) when armed police bust in and forces what looks like a cup of faeces into her sleeping boyfriend’s mouth. It’s a provocative scene that raises a lot of questions, but it turns out that the guy was actually just a police IT expert who forgot to answer his phone (making what just happened seem extremely over the top). We don’t get to see the girl again, and the guy disappears after a couple of scenes later, making me wonder what the point of the whole thing was other than to make a big deal out of nothing.

This happens a lot, albeit mostly at the beginning. A lot of characters are given solid introductions (I presume because they are all considered “stars” in the industry), but apart from the two leads, we don’t get any development or insight into any of them. They come and go, in what are essentially cameo roles, but it feel as though they had their roles cut substantially in the editing room. I’d like to think the directors were trying to throw audiences off intentionally but I think that would be giving them too much credit.

The performances of Kwok and Leung are very strong, and carry the film a long way. The most important supporting character, an anti-corruption officer played by Cantopop singer Aarif Rahman, is passable, though his voice is really irritating, while the lead female role given to Charlie Yeung was botched because Yeung can’t act (and you don’t have to understand Cantonese to see that).

So I highly doubt Cold War is the best Hong Kong movie of the last decade as it boldly proclaims, but despite the flaws and rough edges it does have some commendable qualities, with occasional moments of tension, excitement and intrigue. The ending suggests that there will be at least one sequel to come, and while I might eventually watch it I think it will most probably be on DVD.

3 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!

DVD Review: Eastern Promises (2007)

I had been wanting to watch Eastern Promises since it was first released in 2007 but never got around to it until now.  Directed by David Cronenberg (The Fly, A History of Violence) and starring Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl, Eastern Promises is a brutal, uncompromising story about a British mid-wife (Watts) who becomes involved with the Russian mafia after coming across the diary of a young girl.

It’s an incredibly dark film that has won acclaim for its realistic portrayal of the Russian mafia in the UK, right down to the tattoos their bodies are covered with.  The film was nominated for three Golden Globes (including Best Picture — Drama), and Viggo was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar (but lost it to Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood).

Eastern Promises is not an easy film to watch.  It’s hard to call it “enjoyable” because of how deeply depressing and violent it is, not to mention the mumbling (though apparently incredibly accurate) Russian accents.  But at the same time, I couldn’t help but be engrossed in the film because it kept taking me deeper and deeper into this frightening world, and there were plenty of unexpected twists and turns that kept me on my toes, uncertain as to what might happen next.  Thanks to Cronenberg, there is also this creepy, unsettling tone underlying the entire film.

Of course, there is the one scene that everyone talks about which I won’t spoil, but it’s an absolutely remarkable piece of visceral cinematic brilliance.

And you can’t appraise this film without talking about Viggo Mortensen’s performance.  It’s hard to believe watching this man on screen that he was once Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings, or the loving father from The Road.  He’s an insanely good actor and in any other year he probably would have won the Oscar for his portrayal of Nikolai, the family’s “driver”.

4 out of 5 stars!