Tag Archives: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Snowden (2016)

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I was really looking forward to Snowden for a couple of reasons. First, because it’s directed by Oliver Stone. Secondly, because I’m fascinated by Edward Snowden’s story and feel like I already know a lot about it, and was interested to see what kind of take Stone would have on the man and his story.

Oliver Stone doesn’t always make great movies, but he’s a director who I will always watch because of his track record. And for the record, I quite liked his last movie, Savages. When it comes to grit and drama, there are few American directors in his class.

The verdict? Snowden is a very solid movie, but sadly it’s nowhere near a great one. I might even call it a little disappointing, if only because I was expecting a lot more.

For those who have been living under a rock for the last three years, Snowden is a biographical film about former CIA and NSA contractor Edward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who shocked the world in 2013 when he stole and gave to the media classified documents exposing that the US government is conducting illegal mass surveillance on not just foreign countries but their own people.

The film doesn’t tell us much about Snowden’s birth or family, instead choosing to follow him starting from his early years in the military. I don’t know how accurate the film is when it comes to certain details about Snowden’s character and history, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Stone had made up a lot of stuff (his track record is a little iffy).

In this film, Snowden is portrayed as a surprisingly normal guy (I was thinking socially awkward, reclusive, arrogant). Well, apart from the fact he’s a tech genius. He starts off as a patriot with relatively conservative political leanings, and ends up as a liberal hero some call a traitor to his own country. And make no mistake, Snowden is presented as a hero in the film. I would have preferred some ambiguity because these are clearly some very complex issues here, but it’s obvious which side Stone stands on. That said, I do appreciate that Snowden’s heroic image isn’t stuffed down our throats all the way (at least not until the end).

For what is supposedly a “political thriller”, Snowden is relatively tame in terms of action, and there’s also a lot less suspense than I had anticipated. The film is never boring, but I expected the film to spend more time on how he stole the classified information and how he escaped from Hong Kong to Russia. The latter, in particular, was dealt with rather quickly and without any drama, which I felt was a missed opportunity.

What the film does well is in portraying the relationship between Snowden and his long-term girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley. It’s a central part of his life and the source of most of the film’s drama. The two of them have surprisingly good chemistry and their performances are elevated as a result.

Speaking of performances, Gordon-Levitt is phenomenal as Snowden. I was one of the many who raised an eyebrow when I heard he was cast, given the seeming lack of physical resemblance. Seriously, I don’t know how they did it, but he is totally Snowden in the film. Apart from getting the voice right, he gets the look right too. There were a few shots, especially in the Hong Kong hotel, where the similarities were stunning. Not sure if Gordon-Levitt will get an Oscar nomination for the performance because the film hasn’t been received that well, though I would certainly not be annoyed if he received the honour.

Apart from Gordon-Levitt and Woodley, the rest of the cast is solid too. Chameleon Melissa Leo plays documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, while Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson play the journalists who break Snowden’s story. Timothy Oliphant plays a CIA agent, Scott Eastwood is an NSA supervisor, and Ben Schnetzer, the apprentice wizard in Warcraft, portrays a tech wizard this time. The one casting choice I didn’t like was Nicholas Cage, in a small role as a teacher in the CIA, because he’s Nicholas Cage, and it’s hard for me to take anything seriously when I see his face these days. I was also not a fan of Snowden’s CIA mentor, played by Rhys Ifans. The performance itself was fine, but the character was too much of a caricature.

And I don’t know if this counts as a spoiler—it’s not a plot spoiler—but skip this paragraph if you don’t want to find out. Anyway, I don’t like how the real Edward Snowden makes an appearance at the end of the film. Throughout the entire movie he is Joseph Gordon Levitt, but this changes in the final minutes, first with protesters holding photos of the real Snowden, and then the appearance of Snowden himself. It takes you out of the reality the film had built over the last two hours. More importantly, it also reminds you that Gordon-Levitt doesn’t actually look or sound as much like Snowden as you thought he did during the film.

In sum, Snowden gets just a moderately above-average grade from me. I had expected an intelligent, exciting thriller (think Argo) that tackles Snowden’s actions and the consequences of his actions—from the both sides of the debate. Instead, I got a milder, one-sided version that failed to make the most of its opportunities.

3.25 stars out of 5

The Walk (2015)

the walk

To be honest, I’m a little surprised at the overwhelmingly positive reviews received by The Walk, the true-story retelling of Frenchman Philippe Petit’s daring wire walk between New York’s Twin Towers back in 1974. It’s not that the film is bad — it’s just that it had so much going against it.

For starters, Petit’s story was already told in the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary, Man on Wire. Usually when there’s a brilliant documentary on a subject already, especially one mingled with well-received re-enactments, the dramatisation is inevitably compared, and usually unfavourably.

Secondly, Petit is played by American actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I love the guy and think he’s a great actor, but the self-confessed Francophile is still not French. He apparently speaks fluent French and got the seal of approval from his French co-stars, but of course there will still be those who say his accent (either in French or his French-accented English) isn’t genuine enough.

Thirdly, despite it being the story of a Frenchman, the movie is still made for English-speaking audiences, meaning the majority of the movie will still have to be in English. This means they had to find ways to make the French characters speak a lot more English than they otherwise would, and to some that could come across as forced.

Notwithstanding these disadvantages, The Walk received a scores of 85% on Rotten Tomatoes and 78% on Metacritic, with many praising the performances and director Robert Zemeckis’s ability to create and build tension when the majority of audiences already know the outcome.

I agree that Zemeckis and Gordon-Levitt both did a fantastic job of dramatising the true story. Petit is a likable protagonist, a dreamer with dreams of grandeur, and his journey is craftily developed, with energy and thrills, to make us care about him and his plight. I was worried that the film could be boring given that it is largely focused on the Twin Tower walk, but it does a good job of not making it feel like the process — of scouting the premises, finding the right people and equipment, evading authorities and ensuring safety — was merely time filler before the climax.

And yes, the climax is an impressive piece of modern-day movie wizardry, much longer than one would expect and filled with more tension than I had imagined. There is of course ample CGI in all their aerial scenes,  and fortunately the special effects are realistic enough — for the most part — to not take you out of the moment.

Having said that, I personally felt the disadvantages I listed above did take away something from the overall experience. I haven’t seen Man on Wire, so I can’t compare, so my main qualm about the movie is the fact that they are forced to speak so much English. The idea is that Petit is trying to learn English for his Twin Tower walk, so he says it as often as he can, but I can’t help but think of it as a little contrived. I understand the delicate balance between appealing to English-speaking audiences and authenticity, though in this case I feel authenticity took a big hit.

The other problem is of course the sense of inevitability that comes with a true story. You know he’s going to end up walking on the wire, so everything that happens beforehand, as well done as it is, doesn’t quite have the same intensity. And I’m also terrified of heights, but the scenes of Petit walking the wire didn’t scare me as much as I thought they would. I don’t know if it’s because of some minor, almost unnoticeable flaws in the CGI or because I know the outcome — either way, it just didn’t quite get there for me.

So ultimately, The Walk wasn’t quite the captivating and eye-popping experience I had hoped it would be. Despite strong performances from a great cast that also includes French actress Charlotte Le Bon (from The Hundred-Foot Journey), Ben Kingsley and James Badge Dale and the usual impressive direction from Zemeckis, I felt the movie just had too many inherent obstacles to overcome. Perhaps I would have had a different impression had I seen the movie on the big screen and especially in IMAX, which by all accounts is spectacular stuff.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Citizenfour (2014)

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For a couple of months in mid-2013, my daily reporting work revolved around Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA contractor who spilled the beans on the unfathomable level of US surveillance on its own citizens and people around the world. The story was first broken by The Guardian after Snowden contacted journalists Gleen Greenwald and MacASkill, but what few people knew at the time was that there was a documentary filmmaker, Laura Poitras, hanging around throughout the entire scandal.

Citizenfour is the product of all those hours Poitras, who won the Best Documentary Oscar for it in February, spent on the Snowden affair. Poitras was there when Snowden was hiding away at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, and captured large amounts of footage that was condensed down into some captivating interviews and conversations for the purposes of the film.

To be fair, the project pretty much fell into her lap because it was Snowden who first contacted her back in January 2013, in an exchange that formed the opening scenes of the film. She had already been working on a doco about post-9/11 government surveillance, and Snowden felt she would be the perfect candidate to record the political atomic bomb he was about to drop.

The Snowden affair has polarised the public. There are those who hail him as a hero for uncovering unconscionable conduct on the part of the US government, while others call him a traitor and want him punished for treason. Putting aside personal beliefs on what he did was right or wrong or 50 shades of grey (I have mixed emotions about it myself), Citizenfour has also polarised the public. There are those who found it absolutely compelling, while others were bored out of their minds.

I can see where both sides are coming from. I think this is a film where the viewer needs to have some level of interest in the subject, be passionate about the ideas behind it, and perhaps even know the background enough to realise how remarkable the footage is they’re seeing on screen. Those exclusive up-close-and-personal interviews and footage of Snowden are gold, and Poitras knows it. She obviously has an agenda, or else she wouldn’t have been making a doco about government surveillance, though she does a good job of letting the footage speak for itself rather than ram a political message down the audiences’ throats. By crafting the story chronologically, the narrative unveils almost like a political thriller, and the explanations are simple enough, for the most part, that viewers should be able to understand, or at least have a basic grasp of, the surveillance concepts described throughout the film.

On the other hand, if you don’t really know about the story or if government surveillance doesn’t bother you one way or another, Citizenfour could come across as a bit of a drag. There are typed conversations re-enacted on computer screens, which rarely works in fictional movies, and long conversations about technical things and legal ramifications. Even if they recognise that it is a well-made film about an important topic, audiences could find sitting through all the court hearings toward the end too much to handle.

For me, the interest came less from the topic and more about the subject, Snowden himself. From the moment his identity became public, Snowden has been written about ad nauseam, but this film offers the first real opportunity for people to decide for themselves what kind of person he is. And honestly, I think the film confirms my suspicions that there’s just something off about the guy. He’s clearly intelligent and articulate, and I don’t doubt he believes what he is doing is right, though Snowden does come across as someone with a messiah complex that’s not too far off from the vibe of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. You just have to wonder about his motivations when you know he had the foresight to contact a documentary filmmaker months before he knew the whole thing would blow up.

Having said that, I like him a lot more now after having watched John Oliver’s recent interview of him in Moscow (the Snowden section begins from about the 13:40 mark).

Anyway, Citizenfour is a film everyone should see because of what it is about, but Poitras has not made it a film for everyone. While I acknowledge its importance, the skilful filmmaking, and marvel at the footage of Snowden the film managed to capture, Citizenfour was a relative disappointment for me, especially given all the critical accolades and the fact that it was regarded by the Academy as the best doco of 2014. I never found it boring like some others have, but the film was not quite as fascinating or as thrilling as I had hoped it would be. Perhaps the Oliver Stone dramatization currently in the works, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden and Melissa Leo as Poitras, will be able to bridge the shortfalls.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

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It’s hard to believe, but Sin City, the mini masterpiece based on Frank Miller’s graphic novels, was released back in 2005. It was stylistic, brutal, violent, lurid, sexual, and unlike anything we had seen before. It was obvious that a sequel was forthcoming, though no one expected that it would be another nine years before Sin City: A Dame to Kill For would take hit the big screen.

A lot has happened over the last nine years, including the release of several comparable movies, most of which have not been very memorable. As a result, much of the anticipation that would have come from a Sin City sequel had it been made immediately after the original has dissipated. Without the advantages of surprise, novelty and unique visuals, Sin City 2 never really had a chance to live up to its predecessor. The fact that it was a box office flop confirmed my suspicions.

That said, I still had quite a good time with this one. I only remember bits and pieces of the original, and I am glad to say it did not matter all that much. Again, it’s more about the style than the substance, the titillation than the emotion. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Sin City 2 brings back some old faces and introduces some new ones in essentially two separate stories of revenge. The first one revolves around Josh Brolin’s character Dwight,  a tough guy still smitten with the woman who broke his heart. The woman, Ava, is played by the smoking Eva Green, who does an excellent job of making audiences believe that she is indeed a dame who can make a man kill for her. Other characters in this story are played by Rosario Dawson, Jamie King, Ray Liotta, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, Dennis Haysbert (President David Palmer from 24!) and Jamie Chung.

The second story focuses on Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a cocky young gambler who seems to always have luck on his side — that is until he runs into ruthless crime boss Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), the father of the Yellow Bastard from the first film. Bruce Willis returns in what is essentially a cameo, and Jessica Alba does slightly more this time than just dance without stripping, though not much more.

Both stories are interesting in their own way, but they don’t have much of a connection other than Mickey Rourke’s character Marv, who appears throughout as a bridge between the different acts. I think that the scattered narrative was also the approach in the original, but for some reason I remember it to be darker, more violent and more captivating.

The sequel’s still a very stylish film that emulates a lot of what made the original successful, including visuals featuring animation, black and white spliced with an eye-catching primary colour, and loads of bone-crunching violence to go with the squishy sound effects. The characters are comic book caricatures, but they’re very intriguing caricatures played by great actors. Despite possessing so many of the same elements as its predecessor, however, the impact this time around is just not the same.

To be honest I think the film would have worked much better had it be turned into a late-night TV series, with each act representing one 30-minute episode. As a 102-minute feature it just felt like they were forcing several unrelated stories into an uncomfortable package that doesn’t even try to live up the the hype and anticipation built up over the last nine years. Still, as someone who really enjoyed the original I must say I didn’t mind the sequel at all, as un-epic as it was. All style and very little substance rarely works, but in the case of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For it’s about as good as it can get.

3.5 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part II

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013)

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 I for one thought the first film Percy Jackson & The Lighting Thief, was underrated. Berated as a Harry Potter clone, I thought it was a fairly solid action-adventure flick that differentiated itself with its Greek mythology angle. Nothing special but certainly not horrible.

Given that it was a box office success, it’s no surprise that they went on to make a sequel, based on the second novel in the Rick Riordan’s series. This time there’s no world discovery phase as Percy Jackson (Lerman Logan) is already living at CampHalf-Blood (the offspring of Greek gods).

The story focuses on this special force field that protects the camp after a girl sacrificed herself and became a huge tree (yeah, I didn’t get it either). Of course, the tree is dying and Percy and his friends need to track down the Golden Fleece from the Sea of Monsters to heal the tree. There are raging mechanical bulls and predictable prophecies and other naughty half-god kids getting in Percy’s way. Oh, and Percy discovers her has a half-brother who only has one eye (he’s a Cyclops).

It still feels derivative, but like its predecessor, Sea of Monsters offers sufficient entertainment, humor and special effects (though the effects are barely passable because they look video gamey in several places) for fans of the series. There’s plenty of running around and pretty magic-fuelled action sequences, though I have to admit I had a bit of trouble keep track of the convoluted plot and the plethora of characters.

Regardless, pretty much anything with Alexandra Daddario (who plays Annabeth, the Hermione of the series) is worth watching in my books.

3 stars out of 5

Monsters University (2013)

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It’s quite unusual for an animated sequel, or any sequel for that matter, to come 12 years after the original, but that’s what they’ve done for Monsters University, which is actually a prequel to 2001’s Monsters Inc.

I saw Monsters Inc when it came out at the cinemas but don’t recall it being particularly good, certainly not in the same league as Toy Story. Which is why it surprises me to say that Monsters University is an excellent animated film and a strong prequel that outshines its predecessor (or is that sequel?).

Set at an undisclosed number of years before Monsters Inc, Monsters University details how one-eyed green monster Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and huge dotty monster Sulley went from rivals to best pals and from students at a “scare” university to owners of the company we know they will one day run.

The film is driven by the stark contrast between our two protagonists – Mike is ambitious and determined but lacks the physical attributes to be a scarer, while the privileged Sulley has all the attributes of a wonderful scarer except he lacks motivation and desire. Naturally, the two clash heads early on, but circumstances force them to work together as they participate in the university’s annual Scare Games.

Despite my bias against animations, the bottom line is that Monsters University is very funny and is a film that can be enjoyed equally by both children and adults. The writers do a great job of taking advantage of the comedic opportunities and stereotypes offered by the university setting and display witty creativity in the monster designs and the overall concept of the Scare Games.

The voice performances are brilliant. Crystal and Goodman go without saying but I was also impressed by the great supporting cast that included the likes of Steve Buscemi, Charlie Day, Nathan Fillion, Alfred Molina, Bill Hader and Helen Mirren.

Definitely one of the better animated films I’ve seen in recent years.

3.75 stars out of 5

Run (2013)

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Run is a gimmick movie about the growing phenomenon known as “Parkour”, which is basically free running. I could explain it, but you’re better off watching this video below.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tznXBzETFUI

In short, Parkour is insane stuff, so you can imagine that a movie about it would be pretty cool. Run’s Parkour sequences are choreographed very well, but that’s about the only strength of the movie because everything else about it, from the plot to the acting, was frighteningly bad.

The story revolves around a 17-year-old kid played by William Moseley (Peter from the Narnia series!) who is a Parkour expert on the run with his criminal father played by Adrian Pasdar (yes, the dude who flies in Heroes!). He hides his identity at his new school but still ends up making friends with a bunch of kids who are, surprise surprise, also into Parkour!

There’s some juvenile stuff, some teen romance, and eventually when the bad guys (headed by Eric Roberts, brother of Julia) catch up to them they must use their Parkour skills to escape and defeat their enemies.

I guess if you watch the film simply for the Parkour sequences and ignore the laughable acting, the cringeworthy romances and the contrived plot, then Run is arguably a fairly entertaining movie. But then again, there are so many great Parkour clips available on YouTube now that you don’t need to watch a movie to see these amazing acrobatics. That said, having not been familiar with Parkour before, I didn’t mind it too much.

2 stars out of 5

Don Jon (2013)

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I have a sizable man-crush on Joseph Gordon Levitt like most heterosexual males, and so I was really looking forward to Don Jon a project written and directed by the man himself.

Gordon-Levitt plays an Italian-American stud, Jon, who loves the ladies but loves whacking off to porn even more, even when he starts dating the drop dead gorgeous Scarlett Johansson, a 10 out of 10 according to Jon’s crude rating scale.

The film is more or less a critique of the modern superficial male, who objectifies women and can’t figure out why they don’t feel physical or emotional fulfilment even when they dating a girl most men can only dream of being with. It also says something about the modern superficial female, who holds men to an impossible standard by comparing them to the perfect male characters from unrealistic rom-coms.

As cynical as that is, Don Jon does offer up some hope as Jon begins to undergo changes after meeting a mature-age classmate played by the wonderful Julianne Moore. But can he stop jerking off to porn in favour of real sex? That’s the real question.

I really wanted to like Don Jon, and there are indeed things to like about it, such as the performance of Gordon-Levitt and some witty interactions between the characters, including with his father (Tony Danza!). But as well-made and edgy as it is, it’s just not quite good enough to be great. The film is promoted as a comedy-drama, but the jokes are more “nice observation” or “I can relate to that” rather than stuff that will make you laugh out loud. And much of it is so brutally honest that it becomes extremely uncomfortable, especially if you are a guy, but my guess is that cringe is exactly what Gordon-Levitt intended.

It’s a nice little directorial debut for Gordon-Levitt that showcases the talent and potential he has as a filmmaker, but Don Jon falls short of being the memorable smash hit I hoped it would be.

3.25 stars out of 5

Mega Catch-up Movie Blitz (Part 7)

I think we’re slowly getting there, but there are still a few more installments to come in what feels like a never-ending movie blitz.

Melancholia (2011)

Lars von Trier makes some strange films, and Melancholia is one of them. To be honest, had I watched this film a few years ago I would have categorised it as another contrived arty farty film that bores with pretentious pretty images and little substance, but I guess as I get older I am starting to appreciate these kind of things better.

I’m not sure if this is a spoiler but Melancholia is actually an apocalypse movie. Well, it’s actually a family drama disguised as an apocalypse movie, so don’t expect to see any asteroids or Bruce Willis blowing stuff up. The first half is set at Kirsten Dunst and Alexander Skarsgard’s dysfunctional wedding, where a lot of melodrama happens, and the second half is about the aftermath and how they deal with their impending doom.

I’ll admit, there is some interesting stuff here. The film is lovely to look at and full of, um, melancholy, as the title suggests, and Kirsten Dunst has arguably never been better as the depressed bride. But it’s not really my type of movie, and there is a lotta fluff. I mean, can we really say it’s not gratuitous to have a naked Kirsten Dunst laying on the grass under the moonlight? Not that I’m complaining, but still.

3 out of 5

One Day (2011)

One depressing film to the next. One Day is based on the book of the same title by David Nicholls and focuses on the relationship between Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess, not the serial killer), following them every day on July 15 from 1988 to 2011.

That sounds like an interesting idea for a novel but a potentially and brutally boring one for a movie if handled poorly. Fortunately, Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education) has enough tricks up her sleeve to keep the film compelling enough to keep me intrigued for the majority of its 108-minute running time. The dialogue is crisp and the chemistry between the two leads, powered by strong performances, feels genuine, although Hathway’s accent has apparently been criticised for its inconsistency.

On the other hand, there is the unavoidable monotony of the film’s structure and the occasionally strained melodrama that is more infuriating than romantic. I have to admit that the ending got to me, which was surprising because I didn’t really believe I cared about the characters until then.

3.25 stars out of 5

The Whistleblower (2011)

The Whistleblower tells the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz), a US police officer who goes to post-war Bosnia to work for a security company under the UN where she discovers a shocking human trafficking ring. When she tries to lift the lid on the crimes she finds herself being stifled by the UN at every turn because it does not want to lose its lucrative security contracts.

I was really captivated by this powerful film from start to finish, although I suspect it was more the harrowing subject matter than anything else. It’s revolting what some people would do to make a buck and watching officials perpetrate abuse against the very people they were paid to protect is deeply disturbing.

This bleak but inspiring film is driven by a super performance from Rachel Weisz, even if she is far too pretty to play the role. In many ways, it’s a typical woman-against-the-system type of movie, but I found it surprisingly effective due to the sense of paranoia and frustration created by debut Canadian director Larysa Kondracki. I’d definitely recommend catching this on DVD if you haven’t already.

4 stars out of 5

50/50 (2011)

Seth Rogen movies are often hit and miss for me, but 50/50 might very well be the best Seth Rogen movie ever because he’s only a supporting character. Thankfully, 50/50 is dominated by the wonderful Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who continues to demonstrate his range as Adam, a 27-year-old who finds out that he has cancer. The film is based on the real-life experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser and is directed by Jonathan Levine, who has done a bunch of films I’ve never heard of people.

I’m not ordinarily a fan of comedy dramas, or dramedies, as they are known, because they tend to be stuck painfully in the middle by being neither truly funny nor dramatic. But if they’re all like 50/50 then maybe I would have loved them from the beginning.

This is a real eye-opener and crowd-pleaser that manages to be both genuinely funny and moving. How people deal with cancer is an interesting area that is seldom attempted in cinema, let alone a young man who has his entire life ahead of him, with all those hopes and dreams waiting to be fulfilled. You would think it’s destined to be a bleak film or a disturbing black comedy, but 50/50 reflects life and all its amusing complications and contradictions far better than anyone could have expected.

Perhaps the film works so well is because it contains jokes that worked in reality. I know the fact it’s a true story is likely to be the reason why Rogen shines as Adam’s best friend, because he played the same role in real life to Reiser. He essentially plays himself, generally insensitive, crass and vulgar, but shows flashes of humanity and decency when he needs to. He’s funny in doses but doesn’t annoy, which is when he’s at his best. Rogen should consider retiring right here because it’s unlikely he’ll ever top this performance.

This is a thought-provoking, sweet and touching film that’s as good as any comedy or drama I’ve seen this year.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Looper (2012)

I love time travel films, and one of my favourites of all-time also had Bruce Willis in it (Twelve Monkeys, of course). Given that I have also recently developed a man-crush on Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Looper appeared to be a tailor-made film for me.

The movie is set in the year 2044 and the future of that future is 2074, a time when time travel has finally been invented (I still have a chance to live to that day, so fingers crossed that this is based on a true story). Unfortunately, time travel is outlawed then but is still being used by criminal organizations, which need a “looper” to help them in the past when they transport things back over from the future. Gordon-Levitt is a young looper. Bruce Willis is him in 30 years. I can’t say why, but they don’t like each other.

It may sound complicated but I actually found Looper to be a really straightforward time-travel movie. The mechanics and laws of time travel in the film’s universe are sufficiently described in the beginning and there’s not much to be confused about, which is why I was really confused by all these reviewers saying that the film was confusing. Some even compared it to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, which I found strange because they are nothing alike apart from the fact that both star Gordon-Levitt.

Looper is an unusual and unusually clever time-travel film in the sense that it’s more of a character movie about how people deal with the effects of time travel rather than the time travel itself. From that perspective it means less trying to figure out what’s going on/pointing out gaps in logic and more just enjoying the movie for its action and freaky futuristic stuff.

It’s always hard to review a movie like this without slipping in unnecessary spoilers, so all I will say is that it also stars Emily Blunt and is in part related to genetic mutations which occur naturally in the human body at some point in the future (I am begging for this to be based on a true story).

Some people have criticized the decision to use prosthetics and make-up on Gordon-Levitt to make him look like a young Bruce Willis. I thought it was awesome. I have to admit, the thin-framed Gordon Levitt is one of the last actors I would have pictured playing John “Yippee-ki-yay” McClane, but the prosthetics made me believe he could have eventually grown to look like him. He still looks like Gordon-Levitt but it also reminds you a little of Bruce Willis – I don’t get what the big deal is.

Despite my praises, I think there is something missing from Looper that prevents it from being a time-travel classic like Twelve Monkeys, Back to the Future, Terminator 2, and so forth. The film has a great premise, interesting characters, solid action and enough twists and turns to make it a highly enjoyable experience, but perhaps it lacked the grand vision and scale that would have pushed it to that next level.

4 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: Premium Rush (2012)

Unfortunately, Premium Rush is not quite premium. It’s fresh, occasionally thrilling and funny,  and I respect what director David Koepp (Ghost Town, Secret Window) was aiming for, but for all its action the film deserved a much better script.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has certainly been shooting up my list of favourite actors as of late, plays Wilee, a bicycle messenger in New York City. The dude is nuts: weaves through rush hour traffic at top speeds, does crazy stunts and doesn’t even have brakes on his treasured bike. And he’s also a walking (riding) cliche: a clever kid who dropped out of law school so he can earn peanuts while putting his life in danger on the road every day — because it’s cool, I guess.

So on this day, Wilee picks up a package from his alma mater to deliver to Chinatown, and as it turns out, some corrupt cop (played by Michael Shannon) wants it real bad. You don’t really find out the details of this mystery from the start but the film gradually fills you in as it moves along using time-jumping flashbacks and rewinds, usually when it’s taking a break from all the high speed chases.

Premium Rush is an interesting idea (although perhaps not an original one — it’s being sued for copying the novel The Ultimate Rush, about a rollerblading messenger who gets mixed up with some baddies). But I was concerned about how this film, even at a brisk 91 minutes, could keep up the adrenaline rush that it promises to deliver.

For the most part, the film delivers in terms of providing white knuckle action. The bicycle scenes are pure insanity, almost making you like these bike messengers that you would ordinarily want to murder for acting so recklessly on the road. I’m sure quite a lot of special effects and CGI are used in delivering the action, but the scenes generally look very realistic. If you stick around during the credits you’ll see that Gordon-Levitt clearly did some of his own stunts.

Where Premium Rush fails is the script. The so-called mystery plot device inserted to maintain audience interest is unnecessarily convoluted and filled with Asian stereotypes that border on offensive. (I know the film predominantly caters towards Western audiences, but surely they could have hired actors who can actually speak Chinese? Come on!).

The dialogue had a few funny lines sprinkled throughout but on the whole it was atrocious. This was the type of film where every time the characters spoke you had to deduct points. There was one particular bar scene between Gordon Levitt and his (ex?) girlfriend, played by Dania Ramirez from Heroesthat evoked one of my worst cinematic cringes so far this year.

Gordon-Levitt is believable and likable as the smooth-taking and fast-riding Wilee, as I expected he would be, but Michael Shannon felt somewhat over the top as the crazy immoral cop. But at least he had fun with it. The one I have to single out is Jamie Chung, who has to win some sort of award for the worst fake Chinese accent of all-time. This is really more the casting agent’s fault than hers because apparently Chung is a second generation Korean-American who really has no business trying to speak Chinese or put on a fake Chinese accent. It was horrible and shows just how few roles there are for Asian actresses in Hollywood.

Overall, Premium Rush is strictly an escapist popcorn movie that’s all style and very little substance. The film had its share of cool and exciting moments, but unless you’re really into bike riding it’s unlikely you’ll find it anything more than slightly above average. I enjoyed the action but the various flaws bothered me too much for me to give it anything higher than…

3 stars out of 5

Mega Catch-up Movie Blitz (Part 5)

A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (2011)

I have always been a fan of the Harold and Kumar series despite its tendency to be very hit-and-miss. And you really can’t go wrong with any film that features Neil Patrick Harris.

In this third installment, Harold (John Cho) has married his dream girl Maria (from the first film) and works on Wall Street. Kumar (Kal Penn) is still the same old stoner who failed to become a doctor after flunking a drug test. It’s Christmas, and of course, the dynamic duo team up for one more wild adventure. This time, it’s finding a Christmas tree.

To be honest, A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas is perhaps the lamest of the trilogy. It doesn’t quite have the freshness of White Castle or the outrageousness of Guantanamo Bay. This is a “family” film, so to speak. But you know what? It’s still freaking funny a lot of the time.

As usual, there are some dud jokes thrown in there, but the good thing about there having been two earlier films is that you know Harold and Kumar’s personalities so well now that the laughs all come fairly easily.

Great to see Cho and Penn back in awesome form. Penn, in particular, had to resign from his post in the Obama administration to take the role, and there is a cracker of a joke about that in the movie. Needless to say, Neil Patrick Harris, who is supposed to have been fatally wounded in the second film, is back, and in peak condition. The always intimidating Danny Trejo (I last saw him in Machete…actually, in the PS3 game, The Fight) is also pretty good as Maria’s dad.

3D Christmas will probably go down as the weakest film in the series but fans of the two stoners will no doubt still be able to find plenty of amusement from it.

3.25 stars out of 5

Haywire (2011)

Okay, so Steve Soderbergh, the Oscar-winning director of Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Oceans Eleven and Contagion is a pretty big deal. No wonder he managed to get guys like Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas and Michael Fassbender to be in an action flick headed by an MMA star, Gina Carano.

Basically, Carano is a government agent who gets set up. Bad idea, because she knows how to kick some serious male ass. The story is a little convoluted for my liking but part of it has to do with Soderbergh’s distinctive style. Whenever the film gets into the fight scenes, however, the story is happy to take a back seat.

I don’t know much about Carano and I don’t care much for MMA, but I suppose the action in Haywire is pretty cool, somewhat Bourne-like in its pace, brutality and supposed realism, except with a less shaky camera and an actress that really knows what she is doing when she’s bouncing off walls, bashing heads in and choking people into submission. As a thespian though, I think Carano still has some work to do. Not horrible by any means, but could be better.

At the end of the day, Haywire is a decent action flick – but it just won’t be a very memorable one.

3 stars out of 5

Hesher (2011)

I’m a huge fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Tremendous talent and versatility. And there’s no one quite like him in Hollywood. I was recommended Hesher by a bunch of people and I had a ball with it. The big surprise is that the screenplay was co-written by Aussie David Michod, the genius behind one of the best films from last year, Animal Kingdom.

It’s a highly-random, WTF kind of movie about this dude, Hesher (played by Gordon-Levitt), who intrudes the life of a weird little boy called TJ. He’s dirty and scruffy, walks around bare-chested, has awesome tattoos, smokes a lot, and does heaps of crazy and random things. To be honest, he doesn’t do a lot, and the things he does don’t always make sense. He’s just…there.

It’s really hard to describe what this movie is about or why it is so compelling to watch. The comedy in it is jet black. It’s not for everyone but I laughed out loud frequently and ferociously. Unbelievably, it has Natalie Portman in it. And she’s funny too, in a strange kind of way.

Towards the end, the movie moves ever so slightly from its path of irreverence to toss in some unexpected poignancy. It was something I had dreaded but surprisingly, it worked, in a Hesher kind of way. It’s not the kind of movie I would put in any “best of the year” lists, but it’s one I could definitely see becoming a cult classic.

4 stars out of 5

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

This was a film that divided critics and viewers alike. Some thought it was a heartfelt tribute to those who lost loved ones in 9/11. Others thought it was a pretentious, manipulating tear-jerker that failed to hit the mark.

I belonged to the latter.

The idea, based on a 2005 book of the same name, is not bad. A kid (Thomas Horn – who, amazingly, became an actor after competing on Jeopardy) loses his father (Tom Hanks) in 9/11. He finds a key in his father’s belongings and sets out on scavenger hunt through the five boroughs of NYC to find out what it opens, meeting a bunch of people along the way.

For starters, you need to be able to buy into the whole premise about there being something magical about this kid’s adventure. I didn’t have a problem with that. What I had a massive problem with was the kid, who comes across as someone who will grow up into one of the most annoying and obnoxious adults on the planet. I’m not entirely sure if it is the character or the performance, but it’s probably a lot of both.

For me, the whole thing just felt wrong. I didn’t find it entertaining or exciting. I found it desperately trying to elicit an emotional response, one that I could not squeeze out. I was surprised, because the director, Stephen Daldry, was previously at the helm of The Reader, which had its flaws but was on the whole pretty good.

The film was not poorly made, but personally, I hated it. It must be one of the worst Best Picture nominees at the Oscars – ever.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Inception (2010)

Spoiler Free!

Inception blew my mind.  It really did.  Christopher Nolan (writer, director, producer ) is a genius.

I tried my very best to avoid reading any reviews or anything associated with the film before watching it and I would recommend anyone else who hasn’t seen it to do the same.  Nevertheless, in the last few days all I’ve been hearing is how fantastic and unbelievable this film is and how I’ve got to watch it.

It sure seems like everybody’s been watching Inception, or at least trying to.  Word of mouth about the film must be spreading fast.  My first attempt, a 4:10pm session was completely sold out, so we bought tickets for the 5pm session.  That one was eventually sold out too.  Not a single seat left.  And when we left the cinema, people were already lining up for the next session.

To be honest, I wouldn’t know how to explain the plot of the film without giving anything away even if I wanted to.  So I’ll just skip straight to the critique.

Inception is mind bogglingly brilliant.  It’s one of the most original, interesting and entertaining films I’ve seen.  Ever. It’s the type of film that not just requires, but demands multiple viewings just to get your head around it all.  I’m not sure that’s even possible with so many layers and interpretations to sort through.  I paid careful attention the whole way through but there were times when I just had to accept what they were saying and what was happening and just go with the flow.  I plan to watch it again soon.

Leonardo DiCaprio leads a super cast including Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Tom Berenger and even Michael Caine.  Each role is weighty, signficant and important, and the performances were simply picture perfect.

Christopher Nolan has done such an incredible job with this film.  Having just studied screenwriting it frightens me how terrific the screenplay is.  For such a complicated, difficult storyline the general aspects of the film were surprisingly easy to follow and understand.  There is just so much confidence in his direction.  Even the special effects were amazing — at no time did I think I was watching CGI.  This is a master filmmaker who knows what he’s doing and he’s doing it at the height of his powers.

Best film of the year.

5 out of 5 stars!