Tag Archives: Joel Edgerton

Black Mass (2015)

black mass

I was a little sceptical about Black Mass in the beginning because Johnny Depp has lost a lot of credibility in recent years due to his odd character choices. The first thing you notice about the poster is the makeover Depp undergoes for the role of Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, with the balding head, patchy grey hair and fake wrinkles — it looked good enough but also jarring, much like Leo DiCaprio in J. Edgar.

But then I saw the rest of the ridiculous cast — Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson, Peter Saarsgard and Jesse “Meth Damon” Plemons from Breaking Bad — and I knew my fears were likely misplaced.

Black Mass is much more than just a return to form for Depp — it’s a fantastic crime drama that gripped me from the very first scene and continued to tighten its hold as Bulger grew in both status and ruthlessness.

Based on the non-fiction book of the same name, Black Mass follows Bulger’s rise from small-time mobster to one of the most notorious organised crime bosses in America during the 70s and 80s. How he gets there is what this film is all about; it’s a dark and sordid journey full of underhanded deals, double-crossing, and above all, loyalty. There are a lot of blurred lines in this world, one of which involves Whitey’s brother Billy (Cumberbatch), a member of the Massachusetts senate, with the other revolving around John Conolly (Edgerton), an FBI agent who grew up worshipping the badass Whitey back when they were kids.

In some ways, Black Mass is quite a conventional crime drama in that it focuses on a turbulent world and the characters that inhabit it, with plenty of brutality and violence to keep audiences at the edge of their seats. There’s no shortage of death or cursing, and there’s no black and white, only shades of grey.

The film’s director, Scott Cooper, who last helmed Out of the Furnace with Christian Bale, brings his gritty sensibilities to Black Mass. As with that film, the tone is dark, the mood grim, and the atmosphere intense. Despite there not being any major ups and downs or particularly climatic encounters, especially action-wise, Cooper nonetheless found a way to maintain my attention, and even as the film ends after a solid 122 minutes, I felt as though I could have easily watched another hour of that world and those characters.

The performance of Johnny Depp as Bulger has been highly touted and rightly so. It’s almost strange seeing him not being some sort of fantastical weirdo, but he pulls off the brooding, vicious villain so well that you soon forget about all the make up and prosthetics. Though he doesn’t show much emotion, Depp’s Bulger is genuinely terrifying and unpredictable. Most of the film’s tension comes directly from him.

While Depp may very well receive an Oscar nomination for his performance, another guy who probably deserves it just as much is Joel Edgerton. His portrayal of FBI agent Connolly is brilliant, and in many ways he is the true lead of the movie because Bulger doesn’t have much character development to work with. First Edgerton gives us The Gift, and now he rewards us with this performance. The talented dude is just a legend who continues to make all Aussies proud.

On the whole, Black Mass is a riveting true story fueled by a star-studded cast and outstanding performances all round, especially from Depp and Edgerton. It has all the elements of a great crime drama, and while it’s not on the level of the classics like The Godfather, Goodfellas, Heat, and so forth, it’s still an engrossing and captivating experience in its own right.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Gift (2015)

gift

I’ve always been a big fan of Joel Edgerton, one of the most underrated and talented actors to come out of Australia in recent years. And I’ve now become a super huge fan after seeing his directorial debut, The Gift, a seemingly cookie-cutter suburban thriller that’s anything but.

Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play Simon and Robin, a couple who move from Chicago to LA for reasons that become apparent as the movie progresses. Shortly after moving in, they bump into Gordon “Gordo” Mosley, played by Edgerton, who claims to have gone to high school with Simon decades ago. And so begins an awkward and tense relationship between the couple and the mysterious blast from the past, who as the title and trailer suggest, likes to deliver creepy gifts to their doorstep.

That’s all I can say about the plot without giving away spoilers, and on the face of that description, The Gift may dredge up memories of 90s surburban/family thrillers like Pacific Heights and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. But even if that’s all it is — ie, a typical genre film — The Gift is a pretty good one. With well-developed characters, an uneasy atmosphere and genuine edge-of-your-seat suspense, it’s already a few steps ahead of more recent efforts such as 1999’s Arlington Road, 2001’s Domestic Disturbance and 2008’s Lakeview Terrace.

However, The Gift is much more than a typical genre film. It’s a subversive journey full of twists and turns, challenging audiences to put aside preconceived notions. Edgerton’s direction and script (yes, he wrote it too) plays with our knowledge and expectation of such thrillers, manipulating us into thinking one way and then shocking us with another. But it’s not all about tricking us either, as there are times when he chooses more conventional thriller paths and cliches — it’s just that we never know which approach he will take. It’s clear Edgerton, with his wealth of experience as an actor, knows how certain filmmaking techniques will make audiences think and feel, and he has taken full advantage of that.

I don’t want to overstate things here — we’re not talking about genius-level brilliance like The Usual Suspects or anything like that — though for a debut feature it’s hard to deny that Edgerton is impressive and has a wonderful future ahead of him if he decides to focus on more behind-the-camera work.

Full credit too to the cast. I love Jason Bateman, so don’t get me wrong, but he’s always more or less playing a variation of  Michael Bluth from Arrested Development (think about it — Horrible Bosses, The Switch, The Change-Up, Identity Thief, Couples Retreat, This is Where I Leave You, etc). The Gift is the first time I’ve seen him play a completely different character, and I’m frankly quite shocked by how great of a dramatic actor he is. It’s the best performance I’ve seen from him by far.

The lovely Rebecca Hall also gets to show off her acting chops more than I’ve seen from her in any film probably since Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In many ways, she’s actually the centre of the film, as audiences are closer to her point of view than anyone else’s. She’s vulnerable, she’s sympathetic and she’s tough when she needs to be. It’s a complex, multi-layered performance and Hall hits it out of the park.

By comparison, I was actually least wowed by Edgerton’s own performance, which is still a very good one but more difficult to gauge because Gordo is the “outsider” of the story. Edgerton undergoes a bit of a physical transformation to play this role, dying his hair red and dialling the creepiness meter to the max to make audiences as standoffish about Gordo as the protagonists are.

Also worthy of mention is Allison Tolman from TV’s Fargo. She only has a small role as the neighbour, but she manages to make her character more noticeable and memorable than it otherwise would have been.

As clever and crafty as The Gift is, the film does descend into more familiar thriller territory in its third act, veering towards improbable and preposterous plot developments that don’t always make sense. Some might think this “ruins” the film; for me, it’s just the consequence of trying too hard to come up with an explosive climax, a trap that — let’s face it — 99% of thrillers fall into. It’s not bad, it’s just a missed opportunity to take the film to the next level.

A less than optimal conclusion notwithstanding, The Gift is a superb thriller fuelled by skilfully moulded tension and conflicts, strong performances and a promising directorial debut from Joel Edgerton. I hope this film will open the door for us to see more efforts like this from him down the track.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

exodus

Seriously, I don’t understand why Exodus: Gods and Kings only has a 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. OK, so it’s not Gladiator, but is Ridley Scott’s Bible epic still entertaining? Yes. Is it still engaging? At least half of it is. And is it epic? Absolutely.

For starters, you don’t need to know anything about the Bible to enjoy the film, though some knowledge won’t preclude you from having a good time either. I’ve heard the story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt heaps of times and vaguely remember that Disney moviethough most of what’s remaining in my memory is in bits and pieces. In short, Moses (Christian Bale) is an Egyptian prince from 1300 BCE who “discovers” that he is actually Hebrew and, after an encounter with the famous burning bush, decides to call upon his “brother” Ramesses II (Joel Edgerton) to “let my people go” (he doesn’t say this in the movie, but it’s the only line I remember from The Prince of Egypt).

Ridley Scott does a solid job of keeping the movie as grounded as possible given the subject matter, reminding audiences of the superstitions of the time. The problem, of course, is that it’s only possible to keep a Bible story grounded to a certain extent. While Scott leaves open the door for the theory that Moses is just imagining all his encounters with God (Bale actually said he believes Moses was schizophrenic), there are aspects of the story that cannot work without the presence of a supernatural power. He finds semi-rational reasons for the plagues and a certain Red Sea incident, but those familiar with Exodus will know that God’s fingerprints can’t be erased from the tale.

The other enviable thing Scott does is that he — along with Bale and Edgerton — makes both Moses and Ramesses very human characters. Both actors are terrific. Moses rails against God throughout the film for his barbarism and cruelty, and his faith is anything but unshakable. Ramesses, on the other hand, is not a typical villain — he grows into one almost out of necessity, but you can see that he has a softer side, and that his refusal to let the Hebrew slaves go stems from economic concerns as much as ego. The title Gods and Kings is an apt one.

The film does have its weaknesses. First of all, at 150 minutes, it is far too long and didn’t need to be. There is a lengthy chunk in the middle of the film that sags, so much so I’d probably go as far as to call it dull. People who know the story well might find it disappointing that there aren’t more surprises, as the film appears to be going through the motions at times and does little to halt the plodding. It’s not until the final hour that the pace begins to pick up with the arrival of the plagues and the actual exodus, both of which are executed very well with eye-popping special effects. The spectacle of the final hour alone makes the film worth watching.

If you ask me why the film has done so poorly with critics, my guess is that it doesn’t follow the Bible close enough for the uber-religious folk, and yet it’s also not rational enough for non-religious people looking for a “realistic” depiction of the story. As a result, the movie straddles both markets and finds itself stuck in a no-win situation. Bale’s comments about Moses being one of the “most barbaric” people he’s ever read about sure didn’t help, and neither did criticisms of the all-white casting of the main cast (which was, let’s face it, necessary for the film to be financed in the first place).

Personally, I don’t really care one way or the other. I’m just glad this is a Bible film that delivers on the spectacular visuals and doesn’t ram its self-righteous message down throats without giving audiences an opportunity to think for themselves.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Rover (2014)

the-rover-poster

The Rover is David Michod’s highly-anticipated follow-up to one of the best Australian movies of all-time, 2010’s Animal Kingdom. Set in a world 10 years after a global economic collapse, the film stars Guy Pearce as a quiet and relentless anti-hero who sets out to retrieve his car from a band of robbers on the run, and during his journey forms a strange and uneasy bond with the abandoned brother of one of the robbers, played by Robert Pattinson.

I had very high expectations for The Rover because Animal Kingdom (review here) is THE film that restored my faith in Aussie movies. And like Animal KingdomThe Rover is a confident piece of filmmaking that is bleak, tense and uncompromising. But at the end of the day, I still have to consider The Rover somewhat of a disappointment even though it was probably exactly the way Michod wanted it to be.

The film is set entirely in Australia and has been marketed as a modern Western of sorts, taking advantage of Australia’s hot, dry air and sandy, desolate landscapes. It’s a visually impressive film, but it’s also one that doesn’t explain anything to its audience. There’s no voice-over or extensive opening crawl that explains to us how or why the economic collapse happened or what the world has become. All we know is that we’re in Australia, and it’s been 10 years since the collapse. Consequently, much of the intrigue of the film comes from discovering what the world is like (I won’t spoil too much), though you have to keep your eyes and ears open because all of it comes in little bits and pieces.

What it creates is an unsettling experience where you don’t really know what is happening and what will happen next. You are forced to put the pieces together to understand how this new world works and what the characters’ motivations are and why they’ve become the people they are. That’s what makes the film, despite it’s deliberately slow and considered pace, so compelling and compulsive to watch. It’s a fairly typical hook, but Michod’s direction and the screenplay by Michod and Joel Edgerton are so confident and understated that you never feel manipulated.

Having said that, The Rover can also be considered somewhat dull and nonsensical. Some of the slower scenes drag and don’t work as well as they should, and when you break the film down, it’s really quite a stupid story masquerading as something more profound. You can call much of the seemingly random stuff in it “realistic” and “unexpected”,  or you can call it “contradictory” and “pointless.”

The film offers more of an experience than a story in that you are just thrown into it and made to observe for about 100 minutes, and you come out of it knowing only what is shown to you on the screen. It intentionally under-utilizes its innovative setting, so much so that you might think it’s a waste, and anyone expecting to get a complete picture of a post-economic-collapse world will feel as though they’ve been cheated.

Despite what can be perceived as flaws, I found The Rover to be highly watchable thanks to the performances of two leads. We already know what we’re going to get from Guy Pearce, who honestly has to be one of the most under-appreciated A-listers ever (seriously, does anyone even remember that he was in Best Picture winners such as The King’s Speech and The Hurt Locker, and played the lead role in films like The Count of Monte Cristo, The Road, Memento, LA Confidential, The Time Machine  and Lockout, as well as the villain in Iron Man 3 and Prometheus?). But my goodness, did anyone think Robert Pattinson would be exceptional as well?  People said he was good outside the Twilight films (eg, Remember Me, Cosmopolis, Water for Elephants), but I thought he was just OK in those movies. Here, he is genuinely believable as a weak, slow-witted American redneck with stained teeth, and I’d be totally OK if he received some awards recognition for this performance (especially since he’s evidently trying so hard to break out of Edward Cullen mode).

Still, The Rover is nowhere near as exhilarating as Animal Kingdom, which may have set the bar too high. I applaud Michod for trying something different and a little daring for his sophomore feature rather than going down the commercial route (that’s probably coming next in his adaptation of the Afghan war book, The Operations, by the late Michael Hastings, and will reportedly start Brad Pitt), but I do wish The Rover could have been a more complete, satisfying story, rather than what ultimately feels like a short story stretched into a semi-experimental full-length feature.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Great Gatsby (2013) (2D)

the-great-gatsby-poster1

I was kinda afraid of watching Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (it’s not just The Great Gatsby, it’s “Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby“!) because of all the hype surrounding it, especially in Australia. Described as a lavish production with A-list actors such as Leo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan, the film is said to be an ambitious adaptation of one of the greatest novels ever written.

I am ashamed to say I have never read Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece, but I thought it would provide a fresher experience of the film version. It probably did, because the film was much better than I expected, though it did leave me wondering why it was such a great story, suggesting perhaps Luhrmann spent too much time on all the eye candy and razzle dazzle and not enough on the heart of the tale.

Set in Long Island in 1922, The Great Gatsby is told in retrospect from a sanitarium by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who befriends the titular Jay Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio), a mysterious millionaire who loves to throw lavish parties. The story, however, is really about the relationship between Gatsby and his long lost love, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), Nick’s cousin. The problem is, Daisy is married to wealthy heir Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).

This is a Baz Luhrmann film, so I got what I expected in terms of flashiness — vibrant colours, stunning costumes, spectacular sets and beautiful cinematography. So if you’re after a visual spectacle, The Great Gatsby certainly delivers. I saw the film in 2D, though I doubt you’d get a more immersive experience if you shelled out the extra bucks for 3D.

On the other hand, The Great Gatsby is a melodrama — and a fairly interesting one with a lot of layers — but I don’t feel as though Luhrmann really captured the complexity or its heart of the source material. I mean, there must be a good reason why the story has resonated for nearly 9 decades, but I didn’t sense anything special while watching the film.

The performances were great across the board. Leo is Leo and he captures the enigmatic Gatsby wonderfully with the right amount of charm, and later, pain and vulnerability, though the standout for me was probably Edgerton’s Buchanan. At first I didn’t think he would be right for the role, but he surprised me — again. Is there any doubt now that he is Australia’s most underrated export?

In the end, I was probably more appreciative of The Great Gatsby than I thought I would be. I’ve never been a huge fan of Luhrmann’s style, which regularly struck me as more style over substance — and while The Great Gatsby probably falls into that category as well, there was more substance than I had anticipated, powered by some excellent performances. It’s a big, extravagant production that I enjoyed, but when you strip away all the glitz and glamour it felt like just another story. And surely the story of The Great Gatsby, widely regarded as one of the greatest American novels ever written, is more than that.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: I did love the soundtrack.

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Print

This was the film everybody knew was coming when US President Barack Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden had been killed in a raid in Pakistan in the early hours of May 2, 2011. I remember thinking at the time that the film was most probably going to be another “Team America!” (f*%k yeah!) style-film like Act of Valor (which I am yet to review) and that it was most likely going to suck balls.

But then I heard that the film was going to be directed by Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow, who gave us Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, and more importantly, she had already been planning a film about the hunt for Bin Laden for years and done stacks of background research that could be imported over to this new project.

The result, Zero Dark Thirty, is a tense, meticulously crafted, superbly acted and unsensationalized account of the 10-year hunt for in Laden since 9/11. While I don’t agree with a lot of American critics who are calling it the best film of the year — I actually think it’s an inferior film to The Hurt Locker — I was still fascinated and riveted by this film from start to finish. The final extended raid sequence, which is like another film in itself, felt so authentic that I almost thought I was watching a documentary with actual footage of the assault on Bin Laden’s compound.

This speaks volumes about Bigelow’s ability as a director. We know how the story begins and how it ends, but somehow she still manages to create tension and drama with everything in between. The story focuses on Maya, a young federal agent played by Jessica Chastain (who picked up the Golden Globe and is a favourite for the Oscars) whose job description consists of only one thing: find Bin Laden. We follow Maya for a decade as she endures numerous close calls and goes from green rookie to seasoned veteran, from a novice interrogator (aka torturer) to one of the most instrumental contributors in locating Bin Laden and ultimately convincing the White House to carry out the raid.

Chastain, with her obsessive work ethic and feistiness, is the heart and soul of the film and rightfully deserves the Oscar nomination. A couple of Aussies, Jason Clarke and Joel Edgerton (both of whom will be seen next in The Great Gatsby) also shine in pivotal roles. The most recognizable members of the cast, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler and James Gandolfini, are also stellar and surprisingly non-distracting.

Some say Zero Dark Thirty is a controversial film because of its supposedly pro-torture stance. Yes, it shows torture and the torture being effective in getting terror suspects to talk, but I don’t think that is necessarily saying torture is a good thing. The fact is, the US government did torture terror suspects (though the extent is disputed by officials), and it probably worked. But it’s not just that — I think Bigelow was trying to show the audience the price America had to pay to get their man, and questions us whether it was worth it. In that sense it’s arguable that Zero Dark Thirty is in fact an anti-torture movie. But to be honest I don’t really care. It’s just a movie.

There are parts of the 160-minute film that some viewers will find a little slow. I’ve been addicted to Homeland lately so all that espionage talk and the insights into the politics of politics was right up my alley, though I admit there was, naturally, a sense of inevitability to the whole thing. This is why I still think The Hurt Locker is a better film, but there is no doubt that Zero Dark Thirty will go down in history as the far more memorable one.

4 stars out of 5

PS: The trailer to the sequel below.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfD6-5Qf-cc

Movie Review: The Thing (2011)

I haven’t seen John Carpenter’s 1982 original and went into the new version of The Thing believing that it was a remake.  Interestingly, while the premise is somewhat similar, the 2011 version is not a remake and not a sequel, but a prequel.  Apparently those who have seen the 1982 film will understand why some things in the 2011 version turn out the way they do.

Anyway, I digress.  Either as a prequel or a standalone film, The Thing works on some levels as a sci-fi horror but fails to be nearly as effective as it could have been.  It contains a solid performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead (the object of Michael Cera’s affection in Scott Pilgrim vs the World), who channels her inner Ellen Ripley, some freaky special effects and a whole lotta paranoia, but I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I had seen it all before (and this is without seeing the original).

The Thing (2011) tells the story of a group of researchers who head to a Norwegian base camp to examine a “discovery” from Antarctica.  As it turns out, the discovery is not quite as dead as they thought it was, and soon the base is turned upside down, with people dying gruesome deaths and the survivors not knowing who they can trust.  There’s tension and there’s paranoia and there’s chills (it is, after all, based in the ice).  As far as freaky scares go, The Thing delivers.  The titular character is a nasty, “WTF is that?” piece of work and kudos must go out to the special effects team that created it.

As I said, I haven’t seen the 1982 film, so I cannot comment on whether the 2011 film compares favourably (though from most accounts it doesn’t).  What I can say is that it is certainly better than the vast majority of films in recent years that have been reboots, remakes, sequels, prequels or spin-offs of other popular/famous horror  films or franchises (eg, those Alien, Predator, Alien vs Predator, Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddie vs Jason, Saw, Final Destination filmsetc).  That said, there wasn’t anything particularly clever or special about this film either, and it’s highly unlikely that it will have the longevity of the original, which is still often brought up as a horror classic.

At the end of the day, The Thing (2011) is what it is — a solid prequel that doesn’t nearly live up to the highly touted original but doesn’t crap all over its legacy either.

3 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: Warrior (2011)

I still don’t really “get” MMA (mixed martial arts) — whenever I see it on TV it reminds me of a prison shower — but Warrior, starring Aussie Joel Edgerton and Inception‘s and soon to be The Dark Knight Rises’s Tom Hardy, has convinced me to give the sport a second look.

Warrior is, without a doubt, the best MMA movie of all time (given that the competition includes Never Back Down I and II, Fighting and Undisputed II and III), and is arguably one of the best films of the year.  You might say it’s 2011’s The Fighter (the true story of Micky Ward starring Marky Mark and Batman) — a riveting family drama disguised as a violent sports film.

Without the benefit of a “true story” behind it, Warrior does have the danger of being construed as cliched, but as always, it’s all about the execution of the story.  I don’t want to give too much away because the mysteries of the relationships play a big part in the film’s allure and sustaining the drama.  Tom Hardy is Tommy, a child wrestling prodigy who escaped his abusive father (and trainer) with his mother as a teenager.  Edgerton is his big brother Brendan, a former UFC fighter turned struggling physics teacher.  Nick Nolte plays their reformed father.  The event that brings them all together is Sparta, a $5 million winner-takes-all grand prix-style MMA tournament featuring the world’s top fighters, including a frightening undefeated Russian champion.

There is a sense of inevitability in this Gavin O’Connor film (he also wrote the script and co-produced), but it hardly matters because Warrior is a genuinely moving, gripping and explosive drama that touches on such universal themes as forgiveness, redemption and unbreakable familial bonds.  I don’t think the film would be what it is without the top-notch performances of its three stars.  Tom Hardy brings a brooding, tragic presence to the enigmatic Tommy, while Edgerton is picture perfect as the underdog fighting for his family.  And Nolte pretty much has his mumbling old man thing down pat, and is perhaps the most heartbreaking character of them all.

As for the fight scenes — while they are secondary to the film’s drama, and keeping in mind that I’m not a regular viewer of MMA, I personally thought they looked fantastic, as good as any film about fighting I’ve seen.  There were some fast cuts and rapidly changing angles, but I never lost track of what the fighters were doing, and most of all I found the choreography highly engaging and exciting.  There is perhaps an element of implausibility in how the story and/or fights unfold, but everything is handled with so much skill and sufficient subtlety that it becomes forgiveable.

Warrior made an emotional connection with me which made the film enormously satisfying to watch.  I’m not sure if it’ll be the same upon a second viewing or years on later, but for now, in my mind, it’s one of the best fighting movies ever.

4.75 stars out of 5!