Tag Archives: ending

Ben-Hur (2016)

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I must begin this review with a caveat: I have not seen the 1959 version of Ben-Hur, which won a record 11 Academy Awards (tied with Titanic and Return of the King for the all-time record), and so I have the luxury of not having to compare this ill-fated remake/reimagining to that film. And what an ill-fated effort this is, earning measly US$23.7 million at the international box office (to date) against a US$100 million budget. It has become the unfortunate poster child of a disappointing summer of blockbuster flops.

In my humble opinion, however, this new version of Ben-Hur is, for the most part, not bad. I was rooting for it to be good while expecting it to be horrible, but for the majority of the 123-minute running time, I found myself pleasantly surprised. Problems aside, this was a very watchable movie fuelled by excellent performances and a couple of spectacular sequences. Sadly — and I’ll get to this later — the ending was one of the worst of any movie I’ve seen in a very long time, and still leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian auteur who gave us Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (one of those films everyone hated but I loved), Ben-Hur retells the classic Biblical story of adoptive brothers Judah (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell), who go from best friends to mortal enemies against the backdrop of the Roman control of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro). It’s an epic tale of brotherhood, betrayal and revenge, and of course — as it also stars Morgan Freeman — redemption.

As sceptical as I was, Ben-Hur managed to suck me in right from the get-go. Part of it is simply that it’s a great story, though much of the credit has to go to the two super-talented leads, Jack Huston and Tony Kebbell (who will always be Koba to me), who act the shit out of their roles to elevate the film above the quality of the writing. Their chemistry made their brotherhood and friendship believable, and I could see the torment in their eyes when fate tore them apart.

Then there’s the action, which was generally very exciting and well-executed. The highlights are a gut-wrenching sequence on the high seas, and of course the chariot race. Some may accuse those scenes of being too reliant on CGI, but I honestly thought they looked realistic enough to get a pass. Special mention goes to the long shots of landscapes and especially the chariot racing stadium, which have a tendency to look fake in other films but were close to perfect here. If there is a complaint, it’s that the editing was too choppy due to the need to maintain the PG-13 rating. It got so bad that a key moment in the race was lost amid the confusion (I know I wasn’t the only one because I heard two separate groups of people talking about the same thing immediately after the film). I hate it when films undercut themselves in this way.

Nonetheless, the core of Ben-Hur is solid, and if it weren’t for a bunch of nagging problems, the film could have been a contender for most underrated movie of the year. First off, the look of most of the characters don’t feel quite right. There’s just too much of a modern vibe, from their hairstyles to the costumes. And don’t even get me started on Morgan Freeman’s dreadlocks. It was the most visually jarring hairdo in cinema since Tom Hank’s abomination in The Da Vinci Code.

On top of that, the film has a few pacing issues. While it does not feel like a long movie, there are moments where the film sags because it wastes too much time on things that are unimportant. I can’t go into specifics without spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Finally, there’s that ending. Had the film ended 5 minutes earlier, I would have liked it a lot more. But they had to go and ruin it with a cop-out ending that totally undermined the emotional payoff the film had been building up to for 2 hours. I understand, with the heavy religious undertones (which I didn’t mind), that it was an attempt to deliver a final message. As well-intentioned as it may be, the ending came across as forced and unnecessary. Honestly, it would have been preferable had they just pretended the entire movie was just a dream. It wasn’t just the decision to end the movie in this way either. Even the final scene and song they chose to accompany it irked me — as Donald Trump would say — “bigly.”

On the whole, however, I would still say Ben-Hur is a better movie than I had anticipated. It’s hard to get the bad ending out of my head, but there are enough positives to this remake to render it not a complete waste of time. I’m glad I saw it despite the negative reviews.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Goodnight Mommy (2015)

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Let me just put this out there. Goodnight Mommy, the Austrian film also known as Ich Seh Ich Seh, is one of the scariest, most messed up movies I’ve ever seen. If you have children as well then forget about it. Sleeping after watching this film is going to be difficult.

Written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, the story revolves around nine-year-old twin boys Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz). It’s summer, and they don’t have much to do on the beautiful estate they live on in the Austrian countryside other than roam around, collect beetles, feed stray cats and do curious kid stuff. Then one day, their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns with her face all wrapped up in bandages, apparently after plastic surgery. Apart from the freaky bandages, she seems different somehow, and after a while the boys start to suspect that the woman they call mommy might not be their real mother.

That’s all I’d like to say about that, and I’d recommend avoiding all spoilers so the film can wreak maximum havoc on your psyche. Since watching the film I’ve read some ridiculous reviews — from respected publications, no less — that give away some of the best aspects about the film, even just from the review’s bloody headline. Stay way from that shit. If you can, rest assured that you’ll be creeped out, feel very uncomfortable, get queasy, and challenge yourself to keep watching as the film continues to grow darker and crazier before spiraling out of control towards a chilling and jaw-dropping climax.

I didn’t know what kind of movie it was going to be at first. Admittedly, it begins slow, and all throughout the pace is deliberate and controlled. It’s a minimalist production with a simply story and not a lot of dialogue. Not everything the characters do appear to be logical. I can understand if some people find it boring and tune out early. I can also definitely understand if some can’t stick around to the end because they can’t bear the terror.

But man, the atmosphere is so unsettling. The suspense keeps growing and the core mystery — whether the boys are being paranoid or if “mommy” isn’t who she says she is — keeps the tension on high gear. The storytelling is tightly wound and the point of view is subversive. It doesn’t go as far as transcending the genre but it sure pushes the boundaries. Fantastic use of silence too to maximise the persistent uneasiness.

The mother with the bandaged face creepy. Identical twins, let’s face it, are super creepy, especially when they wear the same stuff. There’s just something sinister about kids who never have any facial expressions so you have no idea what’s going on in their little heads. The beetles and bugs are gross. There are visceral dream sequences that are both eerie and shocking. It’s the kind of horror that makes your skin crawl and the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. And the stuff that happens in the second half of the movie is messed up shit. I don’t recall one cliched “boo” scare throughout the entire movie, and yet I don’t remember feeling this nervous and squirming in my seat this much in a movie for a very long time.

Actually, if you can stomach it, Goodnight Mommy is a movie that demands at least one repeat viewing. I suppose the film could be viewed as an exploration of familial trust, paranoia and trauma. There are multiple layers to the story and lots of little hints you’ll be unlikely to catch the first time around. While it is undoubtedly a horror, the film has many psychological thriller elements in that many things only make sense at the end when you start to understand the psychological reasoning behind the characters’ motivations, actions and reactions.

Goodnight Mommy is not a great movie if we’re talking about having an “enjoyable” experience, but if you want to be freaked out, this movie is the shit. And isn’t that what we want from our horror movies? For them to freak the crap out of us?

5 stars out of 5

PS: The film was first screened last year but is only getting a limited release in the US next month.

Movie Review: Gone Girl (2014)

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I honestly had no idea what to expect when I rushed to see Gone Girl, the highly-anticipated adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s breakthrough novel directed by the legendary David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club, Seven). The early buzz was overwhelmingly positive, but through word-of-mouth I also learned that many who had read the book first found the film underwhelming.

As a huge fan of the book, I can’t say that surprises me. A significant part of Gone Girl’s allure stems from its delicious twists and turns, and knowing exactly how things will turn out will obviously dampen the experience. There’s just no way around it. No one would be able to enjoy The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense as much if the twists in those films had been spoiled in advance either.

With that in mind, I thought Gone Girl was brilliant. I had been curious to see how Fincher would handle the multi-layered material, the difficult themes, the portrayal of the main characters and the controversial ending — and he delivered about as well as I could have imagined, with a steady, confident, yet understated control that captures the tones and essence of Flynn’s writing.

Keeping in line with my usual effort to be as spoiler-free as I can, I thought adapting Gone Girl to the screen would have been a nightmare because of its multiple view points, shifts in time, and the clever use of a diary plot device. I was therefore surprised at how seemingly straightforward it was for Fincher and Flynn, who adapted her own novel, to make everything work so well. The result was a film that followed the novel — both in plot and progression — very closely, so much so that I can’t think of any salient things that didn’t make the jump successfully.

If you’ve seem the trailer or heard about the film in passing you’ll know the story is about a beautiful woman (Rosamund Pike) who goes missing in a small town and her husband (Ben Affleck) becoming the prime suspect for her murder because he’s not acting the way a loving husband would. It sounds like such a simple, cliched premise, and yet the amazing thing about Gone Girl is that it explodes and snowballs into so much more, asking complex questions about relationships, marriage, parents, children, sacrifice, compromise, honesty, sexual politics, the economy, the public psyche and role of the media. I could probably write an entire essay about all the things about the book/film that fascinate me, but that would involve dreaded spoilers, and I can’t possibly have that. What’s relevant is that all these questions from the movie are also asked in the film, and that’s what kept me interested and on the edge of my seat.

I had mixed feelings when I heard about the casting. I love Ben Affleck as a director, but as some of you may know, I’m not the biggest fan of his acting. As the douchey Nick Dunne, however, Affleck has found a role that was custom made for him, and he absolutely blitzes it. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to call it the best performance of his entire career. I’m not encouraging award voters to jump on Affleck’s bandwagon, but if they did I would resent it a lot less than when they went nuts for Matthew McConaughey.

As Affleck’s other half, Rosamund Pike is a low-key choice for Amy Dunne considering all the other big names that were being rumored for the role at the time. I didn’t love her performance at the beginning, but there were reasons for the way she acted the way she did, and by the end of the film I was sold.

The supporting cast was also very strong. When I first heard Neil Patrick Harris was involved I was still picturing him as his alter ego in Harold & Kumar, so I thought he would be cast as Nick’s flamboyant lawyer Tanner Bolt. Instead, he was fantastic as Amy’s wealthy, creepy ex-boyfriend Desi, and the even bigger shock was that Tyler Perry (yes, Tyler Perry!) was awesome as Tanner Bolt. Those casting choices completely bowled me over.

I was also impressed with the performances in two supporting female roles — Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister Margo, and Kim Dickens as lead detective Rhonda Boney. Both extremely important characters who served their functions well without stealing the show from the stars of the show.

The film is quite long at 149 minutes and occasionally feels like it, especially towards the end as the story searches for the perfect point to end on. But Fincher’s pacing is superb, and his ability to manage the subtle shifts in the film’s tone throughout all its twists and turns — it’s sometimes drama, sometimes black comedy, sometimes horror — is what glues the story together. A lesser director might have turned Gone Girl into a clunky mess, but Fincher gets it just right.

The ending is something I was curious to see because apparently Flynn had “rewritten” it for the big screen, though the changes are more artificial than substantial. I’m not disappointed, however, because I loved the book’s chilling ending.

Having said all that, I’m sure I am less enthusiastic about the movie than I would have been had I not read the book first. It helps that I have a terrible memory and that I read it more than a year ago, but like I said, there’s just no way around it. I’d say that the book is better at keeping the twists hidden while the movie can struggle to conceal what’s coming, though that’s a natural advantage given that readers can be manipulated easier on the page than on the screen. Still, I would recommend those who have seen the movie to give the book a try, and vice versa, because the two present two rather different, but equally rewarding experiences.

4.25 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part VI

I think this will be my final 2013 movie blitz. There may be more films to see, but if I don’t stop now I’ll never get to my best of and worst of lists for 2013. So here goes. It’s a good one.

Oculus (2013)

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I heard some good things about this horror flick, starring Dr Who’s Karen Gillan, about a pair of siblings who had their lives apparently destroyed by a cursed/haunted antique mirror. Years later, with the pair grown up, they try and fulfill their childhood promise — destroy the mirror, or die trying!

It sounds like a bit of a trite plot, I know, but Oculus deserves credit for a couple of things. First of all, it’s different to most of the haunted house movies out there in that it puts a creative twist on things with the mirror. Secondly, it cleverly tracks two parallel storylines, one from the siblings’ childhood and one from the present, providing an unusual but surprisingly effective contrast that adds suspense and ties the narrative together with a single thread. Thirdly, it makes good use of modern technology — ie, security cameras, etc — to help “capture” the ghosts and its bizarre powers, but without taking a “found footage” approach that could have ruined the entire thing.

I hadn’t seen Karen Gillan in anything before but she’s excellent here as the sister who is convinced she’s doing the right thing. Brenton Thwaites plays her brother, who just got out of a mental institution, and he’s pretty good too because I had no idea he’s an Aussie and Home & Away alumnus! Rory Chochrane, who I’ve seen in a bunch of things including Argo, plays the dad, and Katee Sachhoff, who’s been in 24 and Riddick (but best known for Battlestar Galactica) plays the mother.

There are some things in the film that don’t work quite as well and may come across as silly or just the usual stupid things characters in horror movies do, and the ending was extremely predictable (I guessed it as soon as I saw something about 20 minutes in), but on the whole Oculus is one of the better supernatural horror flicks in recent years. Made on a relatively shoestring $5 million budget, the film is smart and original, and it has a genuinely creepy atmosphere with some solid scares without being completely dependent on “boo!” moments. Excellent sequel potential as well. It may not be quite as good as I had expected after hearing the rave reviews, but at the very least it will make an excellent DVD or on-demand choice for a rainy night in.

3.5 stars out of 5

Enemy (2013)

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Jake Gyllenhaal has been in some movies that can challenge the brain a little bit, like Source Code and of course his breakthrough film Donnie Darko. Well, Enemy, based on José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double, is way more insane than all of his other films put together. In fact, I still have no idea what I just watched. There are plenty of theories out there, but I’m in the camp of people who think it’s pretty much all BS. It’s the most mind-boggling movie I’ve seen since Mulholland Drive.

The premise is not hard to follow. Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a lonely history professor, rents a movie one night and sees an actor who looks exactly like him. And so he seeks out his doppelganger and finds Anthony, a bit actor who has a much more aggressive personality. The rest of the film is about them being spooked out by it and then trying to figure out how to handle the situation, or even take advantage of it.

In some ways, Enemy can be categorized as an erotic thriller because both Adam and Anthony have partners (girlfriend and pregnant wife) and it is for some reason quite sexually charged. But there is something about the film that is just “off.” There is a surreal feel to the experience, which is slow and contemplative but also magnetically compelling. The people don’t act and react like normal people, and some of the decisions they make and things they say are downright baffling. It comes across as a twisted parable of some kind as opposed to any attempt at a “realistic” film.

And the ending, of course, is the big WTF moment. Some will say it’s brilliant, others will say it’s the stupidest thing they’ve ever seen — but I think most will agree that it is indeed shocking.

This is a difficult film to rate because while I admit it was tense while I watched it and admired the performance from Gyllenhaal, I am also annoyed that I had to effectively sit through something I’ll probably never understand. And the thing is, that’s likely the way it was intended.

2.5 stars out of 5

August: Osage County (2013)

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Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, August: Osage County is more or less an acting exhibition from a superstar cast including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts (both nominated for Oscars in their respective roles), Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, Juliette Lewis (remember her?!) and Abigail Breslin.

But is it any good? Well, yes and no. I kind of understand why the film was awarded the dubious honour of “Not-So-Obviously Worst Film” by the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle, because without all the great performances it is just an average, albeit hysterical family drama sprinkled with a dash of occasional black humour.

The plot centers around Meryl Streep’s cancer-ridden, snarky matriarch of the family, Violet, who also has an addiction to narcotics. Her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard) disappears, then turns up dead, and the rest of her family shows up for the funeral, including her eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin); her sister and her sister’s husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their loser son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch); her middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson); and her youngest daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) and her sleazy fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney).

From there, it’s just a whole lotta acting from one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled. It’s intense and it’s heavy, with a lot of shouting and swearing matches, arguments and people flipping out. Some of it is funny — it is, after all, a dark comedy of sorts — but there’s nothing about August: Osage County that made me forget I was watching great actors as opposed to great characters. I enjoyed watching Hollywood heavyweights go at it and I was impressed with how it was put together, but ultimately it was a hollow experience lacking in that resonating quality of top dramas.

3 stars out of 5

Mud (2012)

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Technically, Mud is a 2012 film, but I’m adding it here because it didn’t get a wide release until May 2013. It’s marketed as a Matthew McConaughey vehicle and is one of the first films in his amazing run from Magic Mike to his Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club and the acclaimed True Detective — but this is really a coming-of-age story about a teenager living off the banks of the Arkansas River.

That teenager, Ellis, is played by Tye Sheridan, a rising star who has been in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and will soon be seen in the adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. His strong portrayal of a likable protagonist fuels Mud, one of those throwback films that captures the innocence, hope and heartbreak of adolescence. Instead of loitering the streets, Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) invent their own adventures by climbing trees and scavenging the woods. They are wary of strangers but more curious rather than afraid of them. And even when they do teenager things (like say vulgar things and punch people) there’s a childlike naivete to them that’s endearing. It’s not clear what time period the film is set in (it could be the present), but the rural backdrop away from the modern vices of smartphones and the internet definitely goes a long way to achieving the nuances writer and director Jeff Nichols was aiming for.

One day Ellis, whose parents are struggling both financially and in their marriage, comes across a tree with an abandoned boat stuck on it. The boat is occupied by the titular Mud (McConaughey), an enigmatic squatter with a mysterious background that involves a pretty but damaged blonde called Juniper (played by Reese Witherspoon). Ellis and Neckbone befriend Mud and become his little helpers, though they don’t realise that their benevolence could end up putting their lives in danger.

McConaughey has gotten a lot of praise for his performance as Mud. In my opinion, after having seen a plethora of interviews around his Oscar win, he only deserves half of the credit because was he simply playing himself. Mud is an eccentric fellow who says weird stuff that sounds profound but is really quite stupid, or pretentious even. That’s McConaughey!

Anyway, despite my prejudices against Mr Alright Alright Alright, I can’t deny Mud is a superior coming-of-age flick that brings back warm memories of classics like Stand By Me and of course Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. It’s a good-looking film with fantastic cinematography, solid performances (with a cast that also includes Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard and Sarah Paulson) and plenty of heart. It’s slightly overlong at 130 minutes given its deliberately managed pace, though having said that I was engaged throughout. A pleasant surprise.

3.75 stars out of 5