Tag Archives: Jennifer Lawrence

Passengers (2016)

You got Morten Tyldum, the guy who directed The Imitation Game, one of my favourite movies of 2014, paired with two of the hottest movie stars around, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. There was every reason to be optimistic about Passengers. And yet the reception of the posters was negative, as was the reaction to the early trailers (which I largely avoided). On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a fairly sad rating of 31%. My expectations were naturally lowered, but the premise — about two people who somehow wake up decades before everyone else on a spaceship heading to a new colony — was intriguing enough to entice me into watching it at the cinema.

Verdict? I don’t regret spending the money. Despite all the negativity, Passengers was a couple of hours of solid entertainment featuring two very attractive and likable leads. It wasn’t the thought-provoking experience I had hoped for, but it was fun and watchable. Unfortunately, I just think there were a lot of missed opportunities throughout.

Without giving too much away, I feel like the movie didn’t have a clear idea of what it wanted to be. It’s a science-fiction film where the science is clearly a little iffy, even for a complete science retard like myself. Some aspects lacked logic and common sense, while others were conveniently shaped to fit the narrative. It’s also, as many know, a romance, but then it’s also a mystery of sorts as well as an action thriller at times. There’s also a good dose of comedy here and there. It tries to be so many different things at the same time, and it ends up creating tonal issues and never going into any depth on the most interesting themes or questions. I don’t necessarily have a problem with shallow—it’s just disappointing when a film hints at more depth but doesn’t pursue that path.

The first part of the film is the strongest and the most fascinating because of how it sets up its major turning point. It’s still actually quite good after that point, though at some stage in the second act I started feeling like the film was being pulled in too many different directions. And the third act just got too much for me. I kept hoping that certain cliched or preposterous things would not happen, and every damn time it happened like I had feared. Whereas The Imitation Game was such a controlled piece of filmmaking, Passengers was all over the place.

Still, there are worse things to do than watching pretty people like Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence run around on the big screen. Both performances are actually really good, especially Lawrence, who handles the emotional scenes particularly well. As expected, their chemistry is fantastic. If you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know Michael Sheen also has a sizable role, and there are a couple of other big name actors who make appearances (one of them for literally just a few seconds). Its just a visually impressive film to watch overall, with slick set designs and excellent special effects.

By the end of it, I didn’t find myself annoyed, angry, or disappointed. Passengers wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be, but it’s certainly nowhere near as bad as I had braced myself for. As shallow and unremarkable as the film is, it’s at least fun, entertaining, and nice to look at.

3.25 stars out of 5

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

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X-Men: Apocalypse is Fox’s answer to Warner Bros’ Batman v Superman and Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. Like those blockbusters, it’s also an action- and effects-packed event film stacked with superheroes, stars and extremely high stakes. I loved First Class and Days of Future Past, the first two films in the McAvoy-Fassbender reboot, and so I was really looking forward to Apocalypse, with the brilliant Oscar Isaac as the titular mutant villain with powers unlike anything we’ve seen before.

But for whatever reason, the hype surrounding Apocalpyse just prior to its release has been surprisingly subdued. It might be that audiences are finally starting to suffer from superhero fatigue, or perhaps it’s the lukewarm early reviews it has received from some critics. There are claims that it’s boring, underwhelming and lacks logic, and I’ve even come across accusations of Jennifer Lawrence phoning it in with her performance as shapeshifter Mystique.

Well, I have no idea what all these critics are talking about, because I just watched it and thought it was awesome. I don’t know if it’s because of lowered expectations, but Apocalypse was nearly everything I had hoped it would be. Amazing cast, solid action, just enough drama and humour, and a fantastic villain worthy of the film’s title. It’s almost as though I watched a different version of the movie.

The plot is of course very simple. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), possibly the most badass mutant in history, awakes from his slumber in the 1980s and decides to…er…bring about the apocalypse on Earth. But first he goes about landing his Four Horsemen, and you’ll know who they are if you’ve seen the posters and/or trailer. I know what you’re thinking — why would someone as powerful as Apocalpyse even need minions? The film doesn’t spell it out, but I thought the reason was obvious.

Who can stop him? The X-Men, of course. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is now running his school for gifted kids like it’s Hogwarts, with Hank McCoy, aka Beast (Nicholas Hoult), by his side. Meanwhile, Mystique, kind of a hero among mutants since the events of Days of Future Past, is still out there doing her thing, while antihero Erik Lennsher, aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender), has moved on with his life.

The film also introduces (in some cases re-introduces) us to younger versions of familiar names, like Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Also returning to reprise their roles are Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggert and Evan Peters as Quicksilver. Additionally, there’s a nice little extended cameo that’s unfortunately been spoiled by the final trailer.

First of all, I want to discuss the character  of Apocalypse. Yes, he is cliched in that he’s an all-powerful villain hell bent on destroying the world for some reason. But honestly, with a name like that, what else could he have been without diverting too far from the comics? If you accept that the constraints of the character are unavoidable, everything else about him is awesome.

For all the negativity of when the photos of Apocalpyse were “leaked” more than a year ago, I thought he actually looked pretty good for a blue skinned villain. I’m glad they went the prosthetics route rather than CGI, giving him a sense of realism the character badly needed. The voice, added and modified in post-production, is also really cool (it’s hard to explain, just have to listen for yourself).

Apocalpyse’s assortment of powers is also impressive, and we at least get to know why he is as powerful as he is. I think the film gets it right in terms of just how powerful and invincible he is. He needs to be powerful enough to be intimidating and more formidable than anything we’ve seen in the past, but not so omnipotent that it becomes silly or ridiculous in the sense that the good guys still have to be able to stop him somehow in the end.

And what really elevates Apocalypse above just another cliched villain is the marvellous performance of Oscar Isaac. Despite being covered head to toe in heavy make-up and prosthetics, he carries the character with the right amount of menace, persuasiveness and god-like mentality. I’m sure the character would have been much less convincing without an actor of Isaac’s calibre and gravitas.

As for the other performances, first prize goes to Assbender. This dude always brings it, and once again he makes Magneto the most interesting character in the X-Men universe. He was bending asses left and right like he was bending metal. As with other X-Men films, it’s an ensemble cast with no real main lead, but in this one Magneto provides the emotional core in the same way Mystique did in Days of Future Past. His counterpart, McAvoy, also brought it as Professor X, and I was glad to see him contribute to some of the lighter moments of the movie, especially in his interactions with Rose Byrne. And I also found no fault with Jennifer Lawrence whatsoever. Sure, she’s not going to be winning any Oscars as Mystique, but I really couldn’t tell why her performance justified complaint. She wasn’t even in her blue makeup very much in this one. Take away her flatter delivery on a couple of the cheesier lines and she’s as good as she’s always been in this franchise.

Kudos to the kids who play the younger versions of Cyclops, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler too. Cyclops has always drawn the short straw in these X-Men movies, so it’s good to finally see him get a bit of an origins story and a much-needed personality. I’ve always thought of Tye Sheridan as a potential star, and hopefully he can continue as the future leader of the X-Men if they continue to make further entries in this franchise. Sophie Turner has a pivotal role as Jean Grey and she seems to have brought that Sansa Stark vulnerability and hidden strength along with her to this role. Kodi Smit-McPhee is also a standout, making Nightcrawler one of the most likable characters in the movie.

The one who steals the show again is Evan Peter’s Quicksilver, who has another fantastic super-speed sequence and delivers the best comic relief in the same way that Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) did in Civil War. Speaking of Civil WarApocalypse also does a similarly good job of spreading the love between the characters so that everyone gets enough screen time and their own chance to shine. Ensemble movies like these are like giant puzzles with lots of moving pieces, and director Bryan Singer nails the complex task impressively.

Having said that, Apocalypse is by no means a perfect movie. While Apocalypse may have reasonable motives for his actions, it’s not as apparent with his Four Horsemen. Other than Magneto, their reasons for following a villain determined to destroy the world are rather weak, especially Psylocke (Olivia Munn), who looks great in her skimpy outfit but doesn’t get to do a whole lot to develop her character. In fact, we have almost no idea who she is or what she’s about.

The action sequences as a whole are fine, though I felt the fight scenes could have been a little more creative. Nonetheless, it’s still better than what we got in Batman v Superman. The climatic battle at the end is long and well-executed. While it’s not in the same league as Civil War’s “airport scene”, it does make good use of the characters and their respective powers. Unfortunately, I did find all the destruction a little numbing and lacking in spectacle. If you’ve seen the planet get annihilated once, you seen it thousand times, and in this regard Apocalypse does not offer any new intrigue or perspective. One reason could be because we hardly even see any humans in the movie. Although we’re talking about the end of the whole world, the stakes appear to only involve the mutants, and all the human deaths (and there are a lot of them) aren’t made to feel like they matter at all.

The special effects are generally good enough, though there are some moments — particular the wide angle shots of landscapes from afar — look too CGI-ish. I also wasn’t a fan of the video-game quality of the opening sequence.

I also thought the movie had a good dose of comedy — many tongue-in-cheek and self-referential — notwithstanding some very heavy scenes, but I felt some of the transitions between the different tones could have been smoother.

Lastly, the 144-minute running time is long, but the storytelling is tight enough to not make the film drag. Could it have been shorter? Of course. But it’s not a huge problem because the pacing is sound and the narrative isn’t all over the place like that other superhero movie released earlier this year (cough, BvS, cough).

In all, X-Men: Apocalypse is a really enjoyable and satisfying experience that should set the blueprint for Marvel’s Infinity Wars in that it will also be about a bunch of superheroes with different powers teaming up to take on a single supervillain (ie, Thanos). I’ll have to watch First Class and Days of Future Past again, but at the moment I would rank Apocalypse just behind those two, which from memory had stronger plots, more of a “wow” factor and the advantage of freshness. However, in the scheme of all X-Men movies (there are nine if you include Deadpool and two Wolverine movies), Apocalypse is definitely in the top 5 for me, possibly even higher.

4 stars out of 5

PS: There is a post-credits scene, but without any knowledge of the comics it doesn’t really mean anything to me.

Joy (2015)

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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

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)

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I didn’t have high hopes for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2. Apart from having heard mixed things about it, Mockingjay is my least favourite book of the trilogy, plus I felt Part 1 was a relative disappointment given the bar set by the first two entries. Bearing that in mind, the final film instalment turned out better than expected, superior to Part 1 but still a few grades behind The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.

The biggest problem I had with it still stems from the fact that the final book was split into two films. It’s no secret I hate such greedy decisions, especially when the third book is, in my mind, the weakest and least action-packed of the lot. And yet, they somehow managed to base two movies on it, resulting in a whopping 260 minutes of screen time — 123 minutes (Part 1) + 137 minutes (Part 2).

I still believe they could have easily adapted Mockingjay into a 150-minute movie, or even a 165-minute movie, and the result would have been spectacular. It’s not hard to see where they could have trimmed the fat. The vast majority of Part 1 was pretty much all fat. I can’t even recall three significant plot points from that entire movie.

Similarly, the first part of Part 2 was a little slow for my liking, even though it picks up right at the cliffhanger Part 1 left off (the two films were actually shot simultaneously). For those who don’t remember, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has gone nuts, and Katniss the Mockingjay (Jennifer Lawrence) is still obsessing about killing the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), while Gale (Liam Hemsworth) continues to be the equivalent of Taylor Lautner from Twilight, and Woody Harrelson continues to look drunk. In the meantime, Julianne Moore’s President Coin continues to rally the rebels as they prepare for a final assault on the Capitol. Oh, and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman continues to look very much alive as head gamesmaker Plutarch thanks to the wonders of modern technology.

The star-studded cast of Oscar winners has always been one of the biggest strengths of the Hunger Games franchise, and in this final film they certainly don’t disappoint. As trite as some of the verbal confrontations are, these great actors manage to make them as dramatic and believable as they could have been.

Watching this film, however, I got the sense that it was made with more the hardcore fans in mind, as real time and effort was put into building the dynamics between the characters for maximum emotional impact. There is no shortage of long, lingering takes for those who want to savour every last second these characters appear on the big screen. That’s great for fanatics who are genuinely and emotionally invested in the story, but for casual viewers like me, who may have read the books but can’t remember much about them, all that shit is kinda boring.

The pace and excitement do pick up considerably as Katniss and her propaganda film making crew led wonderfully by Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer make their final journey toward the centre of the Capitol, but there are a lot of things about this part of the movie that don’t make much sense if you think about it. The execution might be strong, but there’s no denying that the plotline is somewhat contrived and filled with a sense of inevitability. Maze Runner: Scorch Trials got ridiculed for following the typical “point A to Point B” template, so I don’t see why the Hunger Games should get a free pass.

Anyway, while the production itself is top notch as always, I felt there were a lot of missed opportunities. Some of the “big” moments could have been handled better — at times it was rushed, others were telegraphed miles in advance. Further, we also don’t get to see all the action because the entire film is based around Katniss’s point of view. So much of the climatic large-scale action I would have loved to have seen was only told to us after the fact or implied. I understand that’s how it was with the book too, but that’s an instance where I wouldn’t have minded had they deviated from the source material.

That said, the smaller-scale action scenes we ended up getting featured some excellent set pieces that were more thrilling and frightening than I had anticipated. It fits in well with the dark tones and melancholy draped over the entire movie. I actually quite liked how a major young adult franchise went for a realistic and bittersweet note in its finale rather than the typical sentimental and uplifting one, and I even found myself a little moved by the end of it all.

Ultimately, Mockingjay – Part 2 is a mixed bag. I had no problem with all the “character  development” sequences that ate up much of the screen time, though I couldn’t help feel that there were too many superfluous scenes and moments that just dragged on a few seconds too long. It may be a speckle of shit here and speckle of shit there, but eventually the shit adds up. I will admit that I liked the film a lot more by the end of it than at about the halfway mark. If I had cared more about the story and characters I might have not minded the “shitty” bits as much, but either way I still think Mockingjay – Part 2 could have been a lot better.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Insurgent (2015)

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Let’s just be upfront about this. The Divergent series is to the Hunger Games what Percy Jackson is to Harry Potter. It’ll always be the less attractive, less appealing, shittier cousin.

It might be unfair to Shailene Woodley, who might be every bit as capable as Jennifer Lawrence in playing a strong, albeit unwilling action hero, though it remains unavoidable that the two franchises will always be compared to each other.

And accordingly, Insurgent compares unfavourably to Catching Fire as the second instalment of a post-apocalyptic teen franchise. It’s not badly made, but if you didn’t enjoy the first film all that much — put me in that category — then it’s unlikely this one will change your mind about the series.

One thing the film does well is in reminding us of the story, or explaining it to newcomers, using a short voiceover that more or less summarises the premise — ie, the future world, following an extinction event of sorts, splits humans into specific groups because it helps maintain peace. Everyone is put into either Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), or Erudite (the intelligent), or they are Factionless and ostracised from the community.

Woodley plays Tris, a teenage girl who happens to be Divergent, meaning she has elements of multiple groups and therefore can’t be squeezed into any. Big deal, right? Well apparently, yes, because evildoers led by Kate Winslet want to hunt her down and kill her.

All this is explained efficiently at the beginning so there’s not a lot of confusion. From there, Tris, her loverboy (Theo James), brother (Ansel Elgort, incidentally her loverboy from The Fault in Our Stars and Mr Fantastic (Miles Teller) find themselves on the run and scheming to defeat Winslet and her goons.

They meet people like Octavia Spencer and discover that James’s mother is Naomi Watts, but the whole focus of the film is about a secret box that came out of nowhere but is supposed to hold some really important info. And guess who is the only person that can open it? Yeah, you guessed it. There’s more of those virtual reality trials they had from the first film, and you can pretty much guess what happens in the end.

The problem I had with Divergent was that I couldn’t buy the concept of a society where everyone can be categorised by a single trait. With Insurgent, it’s more about not buying this whole “box” business. It seems like something conjured up to help create a point for the story to continue, and it makes the narrative predictable and cliched.

I don’t want to make it sound like Insurgent is a bad movie, because it’s not. It’s decently made with enough passion and quality performances from quality actors. But for me it was just such a “meh”‘experience. I was only mildly interested and entertained, and frankly, it just didn’t do much for me at all. I have doubts the next part in the series, Allegiant, annoyingly split into two parts as well, will be able to change that.

2.5 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: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (2014)

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If I’m going to be honest then I might as well say it: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is a well-executed disappointment.

I had expected this to be the case when I heard that they were, like every other successful major book franchise these days, splitting the final book of the series into two films. This lit up alarm bells in my mind straight away, because having read the books, I already knew that  Mockingjay had the least amount of action and “wow factor” of the trilogy. It may have barely worked for Harry Potter and Twilight, but the final books of those series are nearly double the length of Mockingjay. 

The story picks up when Catching Fire left off: after destroying the Quarter Quell Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is rescued by the mysterious District 13 while her games partner, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), remains a captive of the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). With no more excuses to toss her back into the arena, this time the film is all about surviving on the outside and being groomed by District 13 president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) into the “Mockingjay”, the symbol of the rebellion against the Capitol.

Consequently, Mockingjay  is a very different film compared to the other two. It’s darker and arguably even more intense because there’s a lot more death and destruction and the stakes are no longer just confined to the artificial world of the Hunger Games. The fate of Katniss, all the people she cares about, and even the entire world, lies in her unwilling teenage hands. Rather then making observations about the world of reality television, Mockingjay  explores political propaganda and the sacrifices of rebellion and consequences of war. It’s heavy stuff, but for the most part these themes are handled effectively and delicately.

The decision to split the final book meant that director Francis Lawrence (who did Catching Fire) was forced to stretch about 390 pages of material over what I presume will be about 240-250 minutes. By comparison, the adaptation of Catching Fire was 391 pages into 146 minutes, while for The Hunger Games it was 374 pages into 142 minutes. The first two adaptations were taut and action-packed affairs that largely kept close to the book editions. On the other hand, even if you litter Mockingjay with some additions not from the book, it’s just technically impossible for the film to keep pace with its predecessors.

This is not to say the film is bad — far from it. The overall standard of the production is still very good, on par with its predecessors. Lawrence makes the most of what little action he has to play with, creating some marvellous set pieces filled with high intensity that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats. The additional running time also afforded more opportunities for contemplation and character development, taking the accumulated emotions from the two earlier films and building them up to the next level.

The performances are still top notch. Jennifer Lawrence may have had a tumultuous time recently, but in the Hunger Games world she’s as solid as ever. This was arguably the most difficult performance for her thus far because in this film she has to be a “bad actress” at times and a genuinely inspiring icon at others, and sometimes somewhere along that spectrum — and yet she manages to knock it out of the park. Josh Hutcherson doesn’t get to do nearly as much in this one, but the scenes he’s in are dynamite. Liam Hemsworth, on the other hand, is relatively wooden by comparison. Gale is one of those key characters who has a bit of a raw deal in this story because he’s never really central to the narrative, and Hemsworth doesn’t do much to elevate the character above that.

New additions like the ever-reliable Julianne Moore and Game of Thrones‘s Natalie Dormer are positives to the ensemble while also boosting star power, though for me the standout supporting performance still has to be the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose presence as former head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee makes you realise just how much of a loss his death is to the acting community. It was initially a little jarring to see him on screen, but he’s so good that after a while you just see him as the character rather than the deceased actor.

My difficulties with the film ultimately lie in what comes between all of its well-executed moments. Every now and then a scene feels a tad longer than it needed to be. Some reactions and conversations are drawn out when they probably didn’t have to be. It may be imperceptible at first, but they adds up over the course of the film and stick out like obvious time-fillers by the end. You could even argue that, with the exception of a couple of key occurrences, the entire film was one long, unnecessary filler.

It’s a shame, because I think Mockingjay had the potential to be one heck of a 140-150 minute movie that could have been on the same level as the first two films in terms of overall quality. Instead, they had to be greedy and split the book into two films, meaning that each one would be that much slower and that much less eventful. When you break it down, not a whole lot happens in this film. The impact of this decision becomes pronounced when the film ends on what’s supposed to be a semi-cliffhanger but feels more like an anti-climatic “is that it?”

If you’re a fan of the franchise then you’ll have no choice but to watch Mockingjay, Part 1 and then Part II when it comes out next year. And it annoys me that I’ll have to spend double the money for the series finale when a book perfect for a single film adaptation is being stretched unnaturally into two. I’m not saying Part I isn’t still a relatively entertaining and enjoyable experience; I’m just saying it isn’t as good as The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, and more importantly, not as good as it could have and should have been.

3.25 stars out of 5

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

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X-Men: Days of Future Past, my second-most anticipated film of 2014, has done the impossible by living up to the loftiest of expectations.

I was sceptical at first when I heard that they were making this film, an ambitious attempt to combine the old X-Men franchise (X-Men, X2 and The Last Stand) with the new, younger reboot of X-Men: First Class, while also not forgetting about the two spin-off Wolverine films. It was potentially more difficult than The Avengers, as it not only features characters across different sub-franchises but also adds the wrinkle of time travel to the mix.

But I had forgotten one thing about this seventh X-Men film: Bryan Singer, the director of the original X-Men and X2, was back at the helm, and anyone who could managed to handle multi-layered complexity of The Usual Suspects should not be underestimated. And sure enough, Singer delivers, giving us arguably the best one yet.

What makes Days of Future Past so fantastic is what made it seem appealing on paper — bringing together all our favourite characters, past and present. There’s the old and young Professor X (Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy), the old and young Magneto (Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender), a young Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), and a young Beast (Nicholas Hoult), together with the familiar faces of Storm (Halle Berry), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Iceman Shawn Ashmore) and Colossus (Daniel Cudmore). The only guy who didn’t have to worry about all the ageing was of course the ageless Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who once again takes centre stage as the face of the franchise.

The genius of the film is making all of these bits and pieces fit together, given it is virtually impossible to give everyone sufficient screen time and worthy stuff to do. The solution turned out to be quite simple, with the story writers (Simon Kinberg, Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, with Kinberg penning the screenplay) going for what made the most sense. That is, tailor the story to focus on a handful of the franchise’s most popular characters and Hollywood’s hottest actors of the moment, and allow them to drive the time travel narrative. At the same time, the lesser characters are not forgotten either, though they are limited to key supporting roles and timely cameos. A bit of fresh blood is also injected with the introduction of a few new characters, most notably Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing as portal opening mutant Blink, to liven things up and appeal to the international market.

The result is a fairly straightforward and surprisingly unconvoluted storyline about a dystopian future ruled by unstoppable mutant-killing robots called Sentinels, who have just about wiped out all of humanity. To save the world, Professor X and Magneto come together in China and get Kitty Pryde to use her powers to send the consciousness of Wolverine — the only one whose body and mind can withstand the rigours of distant time travel — back into the body of his younger self to change the course of history. This task involves convincing mortal enemies, the young Professor X — who has become a shell of his former self and is being looked after by a young Beast — and the young Magneto — who is in a high security cell after assassinating a historical figure — to work together and stop the young shapeshifter Mystique from killing Boliva Trask (Peter Dinklage from Game of Thrones), and thereby setting off the Sentinel program.

So in one fell swoop the plot manages to combine the thespians playing the old and young Professor X and Magneto (Stewart, McAvoy, McKellen and Fassbender); make Wolverine (Jackman), the face of the X-Men and its most beloved mutant, the film’s central character; substantially elevate the status and screen time of Hollywood’s “it” girl, Lawrence, as well her rising star beau in real life, Hoult; and introduce a new human character in the shape of the award-winning and super-duper awesome Dinklage. Instead of overwhelming audiences by splitting time and subplots between a whole bunch of characters, the story is driven by these eight brilliant core actors (and six characters) — and it’s all by design.

One supporting character who nearly stole the show for me was Quicksilver (Evan Peters, seen recently in American Horror Story), the lightning speed teenage mutant whom the X-Men seek to help them bust Magneto out of prison. He’s a fabulous character, both in terms of his abilities and his demeanour, and owns the most impressive set-piece sequence in the entire film when we see what the world feels like for him when he moves at top speed. It’s great to know he’ll be back in the 2016 sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse (and make sure you stay for the post-credits scene right at the end for a sneak preview!).

So Days of Future Past is a lot of fun, even though it appears to take itself quite seriously (albeit with the occasional joke or one-liner). It’s a really clever film, not just for the way it brings the characters together through the time travel concept, but also in the way it redefines history through mutant interference, from the Cuban Missile Crisis and the JFK assassination to the Vietnam War. The action sequences and are also executed well, allowing each of the mutants to show off their powers in eye-popping fashion, but without feeling we’re just watching a bunch of special effects. It’s amazing what good actors and adept choreography can do.

The final product is an intelligent, satisfying, well-acted and thoroughly entertaining X-Men flick that is epic in scope but stays under control by limiting the focus to the franchise’s most marketable stars and characters. There are plenty of nods and winks to the earlier entries in the series and the cameos will make loyal fans very happy, but even if you are a first-timer to the franchise the plot is unconfusing enough to be easily followed. The 132-minute running time is only a tad long, and there are perhaps one or two brief lulls along the way, but on the whole there isn’t much to complain about Days of Future Past. 

4.25 stars out of 5!

PS: Interestingly, the character of Quicksilver (a different version of him) will also appear in the next Avengers movie, but he will be played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson of Kick-Ass and Godzilla fame.

2014 Oscar Predictions: Who Should Win and Who Will

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With just a handful of days before the 86th Academy Awards, and having just completed my sweep of the Best Picture nominees, it’s time for my annual Oscar predictions!

This has been a fantastic year in cinema — much better than the lackluster year before — with some very deserving nominees that could have crushed last year’s field. Again, true stories have paved the way, with six of the nine Best Picture nominees all supposedly based on or inspired by real events. And to make things more exciting, it’s quite an open field this year, with several intriguing possibilities in all the major categories.

So, without further ado, these are my picks.

Best Picture: (click on the film for my review)

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
The Wold of Wall Street

Comments: An impressive field this year where I awarded at least 4.5 stars to six of the nine films and at least four stars to all but one. There is no clear cut favourite, with early frontrunner  American Hustle seemingly falling behind Golden Globe winner 12 Years a Slave. The critically acclaimed Gravity also lurks, though at the moment it appears the Best Picture award is down to a two-horse race. I love a bit of suspense.

Prediction: 12 Years a Slave — ticks the right boxes for a Best Picture winner and it appears there’s too much momentum to slow it down now.
Dark horse: American Hustle — the early favourite could have grabbed enough votes before voting closed.
Should win: Gravity — a transcendent movie experience that will become the most memorable film of the lot years down the track.

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Best Actor

Christian Bale (American Hustle)
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Comments: A real open race this year, with the buzz surrounding Chiwetel Ejiofor’s amazing performance in 12 Years a Slave pushing him slightly ahead at this stage. But losing weight for a role is always a winner’s signpost, and Matthew McConaughey sure lost a lot of weight for Dallas Buyers Club, so he could certainly also take home the award. Bruce Dern, as the oldie, is the sentimental favourite as the insufferable father in Nebraska, while Leo and Batman (no, not Ben Affleck) are also still in it with a chance. Anyone could win this one.

Prediction: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Dark horse: Matthew McConaughey
Should win: Chiwetel Ejiofor — in a year of sensational performances, I simply have to go with the one I believe is the best of the lot, by a hair or two. I do think Leo’s performance in The Wolf of Wall Street would have been deserving in almost any other year, and I was genuinely moved and impressed by Bruce Dern in Nebraska. I’d be happy if any of those three won it.

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Best Actress:

Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Judi Dench (Philomena)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

Comments: What a crazy field this year, with all former winners except for Amy Adams, who is no slouch with five career nominations. The only one I haven’t seen out of the five is Meryl in August: Osage County (I intend to see it soon), but we pretty much know by now what we’re going to get with her every time. Another open race, with the award reportedly being “Cate Blanchett’s to lose” until the resurfacing of the Woody Allen scandal took the shine off her recent wins at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs. Right now I’d say it’s a two-horse race between Blanchett and Adams; a three-horse race if you consider the fact that you can never count out Meryl.

Prediction: Amy Adams — I’m going for the upset! Seriously, it’s a toss up between Adams and Blanchett, but I think the Woody Allen thing plus Amy being the only winless nominee could finally get her over the line this time. If we’re talking about the best performance it’ll probably be Meryl every time, but these awards are so political that it’s hard to predict what will happen.
Dark horse: Cate Blanchett — really the favourite as opposed to the dark horse.
Should win: Cate Blanchett

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Best Supporting Actor:

Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

Comments: The hardest to pick of the lot, in my opinion, and I’ve seen all of the films! Newcomer Barkhad Abdi has the surprise element going for him but it’s hard to imagine voters picking him over his more famous counterparts. The only guy I can’t see winning is Jonah Hill, because let’s face it, the world as we know it would end if Jonah Hill becomes an Oscar winner. On the other hand, Cooper and Fassbender’s statuses as sex symbols could also cost them with voters, so I’m inclined to go with…

Prediction: Jared Leto — historically speaking, people who undergo dramatic physical transformations have a good chance of winning. Nicole Kidman (nose) in The Hours, Halle Berry (plain) in Monster’s Ball, Charlize Theron (fat and uglified) in Monster are just some examples, but they were all Best Actress winners. I’m pretty much picking Leto, who plays a transsexual AIDS sufferer, by default, however, as I can find potential reasons for not choosing the other guys.
Dark horse: Barkhad Abdi — he’s pretty much the Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) this year, a feel good story about a guy with no acting experience. If voters can’t decide among the other nominees he could come out ahead.
Should win: Michael Fassbender — tough choice but I thought he was incredible in such a difficult role in 12 Years a Slave.

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Best Supporting Actress:

Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
June Squibb (Nebraska)

Comments: Another relatively open field with the tortured Lupita Nyong’o from 12 Years a Slave regarded as the slight favourite ahead of Jennifer Lawrence. But I think Sally Hawkins was fantastic in Blue Jasmine and I fell in love with June Squibb after seeing Nebraska, so I don’t think it’s necessarily a foregone conclusion that it’s a two-horse race.

Prediction: Lupita Nyong’o — I’d say Jennifer Lawrence would have won it had she not already picked up Best Actress last year for Silver Linings Playbook.
Dark horse: Jennifer Lawrence — but everyone loves her so much that she might just win it anyway.
Should win: June Squibb — she stole every scene she was in in Nebraska and delivered the biggest laughs in one of the funniest films of the year.

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Best Director:

David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity)
Alexander Payne (Nebraska)
Steve McQueen (Steve McQueen)
Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Comments: A toss up between Steve McQueen, who could become the first ever black director to win the award, and Alfonso Cuarón, whose incredible vision gave us the masterpiece Gravity.

Prediction: Steve McQueen — remember the year when Denzel didn’t deserve it but won for Training Day anyway because it was all about the first black winner for Best Actor? I have a feeling history is about to repeat itself, except McQueen actually deserves it.
Dark horse: Alfonso Cuarón — it’s hard to imagine a film as great as Gravity not getting anything other than the technical awards.
Should win: Alfonso Cuarón — I know I said McQueen deserves to win, but in my opinion Cuarón deserves it more for sticking to his guns despite pressure from producers and delivering one of the most amazing movie experiences of the last decade. Those trademark long, seemingly uncut sequences throughout the film were magical.

Best Original Screenplay:

American Hustle (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell)
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)
Dallas Buyers Club (Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack)
Her (Spike Jonze)
Nebraska (Bob Nelson)

Comments: A no-brainer that the winner should be the incredible Her, which would have probably been a piece of crap but for the script by Spike Jonze. Don’t get me wrong, all the original screenplays are great, but Her is just on another level.

Prediction: Spike Jonze (Her) — it’s his to lose.
Dark horse: Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine) — maybe some people out there still like Woody.
Should win: Spike Jonze (Her)

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke)
Captain Phillips (Billy Ray)
Philomena (Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope)
12 Years a Slave (John Ridley)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Terence Winter)

Comments: Another difficult choice to make, but it’s hard to see voters passing on the wonderful adaptation of the book of the same name by John Ridley for 12 Years a Slave. Usually the screenplay and Best Picture go hand in hand, so it’s hard to see this one going to anyone else.

Prediction: John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)
Dark horse: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight) — everyone loves these guys.
Should win: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight) — after three brilliant films, I think some recognition should go to Linklater, Delpy and Hawke. After all, the trilogy is mainly all talking, and yet after nearly 300 minutes of it we still can’t get enough of these brutally honest and lovable characters.

OK, so that takes care of the major categories. As for the rest of the nominees, I will just list them and highlight the predicted winner in bold, then add my thoughts on the category.

Visual EffectsGravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger, Star Trek Into Darkness
Comments: As impressive as the effects were in all the nominees, this one is a no brainer and a near lock.

Animated FeatureThe Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest and Celestine, Frozen, The Wind Rises
Comments: I’ve only seen Frozen and Despicable Me 2 out of this list, but it seems to me like a pretty weak field this year.

Animated ShortFeral, Get a Horse, Mr Hublot, Possessions, Room on the Broom
Comments: No idea, so I went with the best title.

Documentary FeatureThe Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, The Square, 20 Feet From Stardom
Comments: I intend to see some of these eventually, but for now I’m going with the one that’s getting a lot of hype.

Documentary ShortCaveDigger, Facing Fear, Karama Has No Walls, The Lady in Number Six: Music Saved My Life, Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
Comments: No idea, but the ones with the really long names annoy me.

Foreign Language FilmThe Broken Circle Breakdown, The Great Beauty, The Hunt, The Missing Picture, Omar
Comments: Haven’t seen any of these yet, but The Huntwith the awesome Mads Mikkelsen, is apparently extremely good.

Live Action ShortAquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me), Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything), Helium, Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?), The Voorman Problem
Comments: Why do short films have to have such bloody long names?

CinematographyThe Grandmaster, Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Prisoners
Comments: I expect Gravity to sweep most of the minor awards it’s nominated for, though the cinematography in both The Grandmaster and Nebraska were excellent.

Costume DesignAmerican Hustle, The Grandmaster, The Great Gatsby, The Invisible Woman, 12 Years a Slave
Comments: The Great Gatsby was considered a relative disappointment overall, but its glitzy costumes should get some consolation.

Makeup and HairstylingDallas Buyers Club, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, The Lone Ranger
Comments: Considering the other nominees, I’d say this one’s a lock.

Original ScoreThe Book Thief, Gravity, Her, Philomena, Saving Mr Banks
Comments: I’d like to say Gravity or Her, but considering how important the music was in Saving Mr Banks (which I watched last night), I think it’ll take home the gong.

Original SongHappy (Despicable Me 2), Let It Go (Frozen), The Moon Song (Her), Ordinary Love (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)
Comments: I think Let It Go is the best song of the lot, but the U2 factor and the Mandela factor will make Ordinary Love hard to beat.

Production DesignAmerican Hustle, Gravity, The Great Gatsby, Her, 12 Years a Slave
Comments: A bit of a stab in the dark here, but as American Hustle isn’t getting a whole lotta love I think it has to take home something, though having said that, the production design was pretty good.

EditingAmerican Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave
Comments: Hard one to pick, but let’s face it, the editing in Gravity was amazing. Captain Phillips could be a dark horse.

Sound Editing: All Is Lost, Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Lone Survivor
Comments: Again I’m going with the brilliant Gravity with Captain Phillips being the dark horse.

Sound MixingCaptain Phillips, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Inside Llewyn Davis, Lone Survivor
Comments: Ditto as per above.

I’ll be checking back to see how many I get right on Oscar night!

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!