Tag Archives: Julianne Moore

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

I was a little late to the party with the first Kingsman movie. When I finally watched it after hearing all the rave reviews, I inevitably a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very good movie, full of energy and fuelled with sharp humour and one-liners, plus some exquisitely filmed action sequences (the church one in particular) by director Matthew Vaughn (did you know he’s married to Claudia Schiffer?), who already one of my favourite directors because of Kick-Ass and X-men: First Class. So perhaps my expectations were too high, or perhaps the film didn’t quite hit all the right notes for me — sometimes it just went a little too far for my liking with the crassness. I am one of several people who thought the final gag ended the movie on a sour note.

Accordingly, my expectations for the sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, were therefore significantly lower. It dropped even more after I glanced some pretty unflattering early reviews suggesting the second instalment had lost the magic of the first. For me, the first film wasn’t magical anyway. And so it surprises me to say that I actually enjoyed The Golden Circle. There was a lot I didn’t like about it, but as a popcorn experience, I still felt it had enough entertainment, humour and fresh ideas to make it a fun time at the cinema.

As with most sequels of this nature, The Golden Circle picks up a little while after the end of the first film, with Taron Egerton’s “Eggsy” well into his new career as a secret service agent for the Kingsman. He’s had a lot of growing up to do since the “death” of his mentor (played by Colin Firth) in the first film and continues to rely on the intel offered by agent Merlin (Mark Strong) and good friend Roxy (Sophie Cookson). But a blast from the past comes back to haunt him, along with a brand new, ruthless villain played by Julianne Moore. This eventually leads them to a trip to the United States, where they encounter their American counterparts, the Statesman, featuring the likes of Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, Pedro Pascal (Oberyn!) and Jeff Bridges.

It’s a solid storyline that expands on the mythology of the original while introducing fresh faces and ideas. The way the Statesman mirrors the Kingsman is pretty witty, though it’s a shame that we couldn’t have seen a little more of them in action throughout the movie (perhaps in the third film?). The smart gadgets are as innovative as they were in the first film, and the action sequences are generally well choreographed, albeit lacking an iconic scene like the church one from the first film (more on this later). I also admit there are plenty of great jokes — typically sharp one-liners — that made me laugh out loud multiple times.

On the flip side, The Golden Circle is also riddled with problems. The first one arrives very early on in the film: Over-reliance on CGI. I like the camera movements and the pace of the action sequences, but it is so obviously cartoonish that it strips away reality and a sense of genuine tension. The car chase and Julianne Moore’s pet dogs, in particular,  just came across as too fake. Speaking of Julianne Moore, I love her and think she’s fantastic in pretty much everything she’s in, except here. It felt like she was acting in a different movie to everyone else. Part of it is the writing, part of it is the way she portrays the character.

Secondly, there are also quite a few misses with the humour this time around, with another crass idea that went a little too far again and made me cringe (not in a good way). I don’t mind rude jokes, though I don’t think they suit a film like this. It cheapens the otherwise classy feel of the production. There’s also a very famous celebrity who plays himself throughout the movie. The schtick works well at first before he comes back again and again and you realise it’s not a cameo but an idea that has been stretched way too thin.

Thirdly — and I don’t consider this a spoiler because it’s in all the trailers and posters — the return of Colin Firth. I understand the desire to bring him back given that he was an integral part of the success of the first film, but the whole arc containing his character took the sequel backwards instead of forward. When someone can die so comprehensively and then come back with ease, it really takes away from the emotions of the storyline.

Having said all that, I liked The Golden Circle for what it was—a fun sequel that tries to amp up on everything the original provided. I think Matthew Vaughn had the right idea because that’s what sequels generally need to do in order to please the audience, but there were just too many missteps along the way to make it as good as we all wanted it to be. Nevertheless, I grinned, I laughed, and I was entertained. That’s good enough for me.

3.25 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: Seventh Son (2014)

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Seventh Son is a bleak illustration of just how difficult it is to make a good fantasy film in a single instalment.

Having heard all sorts of terrible things about it, I knew it was probably not going to be great, but as a sucker for epic fantasy action flicks, this one was supposed to have it all: a seemingly interesting plot about the “special” seventh son of a seventh son; witches and monster hunters; swords and magic; shape-shifters, snarling dragons, dudes with four arms, dudes who turn into bears and giant lizards — all of it presented with stunning special effects; and an impressive all-star cast featuring Jeff Bridges, Ben Barnes (best known as Prince and then King Caspian in the Narnia series), Julianne Moore, Kit Harington (Jon Snow), Olivia Williams, Antje Trauer (from Pandorum), Alicia Vikander (who is apparently going to be huge after Ex Machina becomes a global hit), Jason Scott Lee and Djimon Hounsou.

And yet, Seventh Son failed to exceed my low expectations. Cliched, predictable, dull, with stock characters and a disappointing climax, the only thing it really had going for it were some impressive special effects and a handful of nice action sequences. Sadly, what everyone said about it turned out to be true.

The film is based on the novel The Spook’s Apprentice by Joseph Delaney, which is actually the first in a series of books about a 12-year-old boy named Tom Ward, who as the seventh son of a seventh son is able to see supernatural things others cannot. His parents apprentice him to a Spook — basically a ghost/monster hunter of sorts — named Gregory, and so begins his adventure into a world of crazy stuff.

But while The Wardstone Chronicles, as the series is known, has 16 books, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Seventh Son is going to be a one-and-done effort given how cursed the entire production was. Ben Barnes was a late replacement for Sam Claflin. Filming began back in March 2012, with a target release date in February 2013. But the special effects team went bust and had to get a court-issued payment of US$5m to finish their work on the film. The guy who was supposed to complete the score left due to scheduling conflicts and they had to get someone else. Legendary Films then parted ways with distributor Warner Bros. The film was eventually released in France late last year and most other regions in February, a delay of almost three years from the initial target. When a film gets delayed that long you just know that no one involved thought highly enough of it to try and get it pushed through.

The finished product, as you might expect, is a bit of a mess. The biggest problem is the complete lack of character development, especially for Tom Ward. It appeared they made a decision early on to focus on the film’s bigger star, Jeff Bridges, who plays the master Spook to the apprentice. Bridges was given top billing and probably equal screen time to Barnes, and they made the story more about him than its titular character.

The Spook is an intriguing character, but it defeats the purpose when the supposedly central protagonist, the Seventh Son, turns out to be a character you don’t care about and can’t really be bothered to get to know. In this film, Tom Ward is the most vanilla hero you could possibly come up with. We know he’s a cliched farmer’s son who grew up not knowing anything about the real world or his destiny. And apart from that, we don’t learn much more about his personality throughout the rest of the film, except that he’s a little horny and has no problem bending the rules for sexy ladies (in this case Alicia Vikander, who plays a witch — setting up the typical “star-crossed lovers” dynamic).

Ben Barnes, whom I’ve always thought is one of the prettiest actors of his generation, gets little to work with here. He’s a fine actor, but with such a thin plot and character there’s not much he can do to turn Tom Ward into a protagonist audiences can give a shit about. Jeff Bridges slurs his way through like he’s still The Dude from The Big Lebowski, while Julianne Moore is probably willing to hand back her Oscar to pretend she was never the baddie/witch/dragon lady she played in this film.

With the exception of a couple of relatively exciting, CGI-filled set action pieces, Seventh Son is a failure that never manages to escape an air of familiarity and predictability. The source material may have had a genuinely interesting world to offer, though it’s sadly something audiences would never know from watching this film. It’s easy to blame the script or the direction of Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov (who has received a couple of Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Film), but the reality is that it’s just extraordinarily difficult to make a decent epic fantasy in a standalone film, especially one that’s 102 minutes. It’s no wonder why the gold standards of the genre are Lord of the Rings, which is basically three three-hour films, and Game of Thrones, which is 10 hours per season.

Ultimately, Seventh Son is not terrible — it’s just another major disappointment. It’s a film that felt like it set out with high ambitions but everything about it suggests that it was aiming low.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Maps to the Stars (2014)

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David Cronenberg is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re going to get.

Of his last five films, the only one I’ve yet to see is A Dangerous Method (2011). A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) were fabulous, but I found Cosmopolis (2012) to be dull and pretentious. His latest effort, Maps to the Stars, is actually similar stylistically to Cosmopolis, though this time — perhaps due to the subject matter and the performances — I found the satire funny, biting and creepy, and the overall experience positively uncomfortable.

Maps to the Stars is a really strange film that defies categorisation. It’s a drama and black comedy, but also has elements of a psychological thriller and supernatural horror.  What it definitely is, however, is a scathing take on Hollywood, an acidic satire on all the excess, the pretentiousness, the opportunity-seeking, the backstabbing, the heartlessness, and above all the destructive lifestyles of America’s rich and famous. Far from the glamour we typically associate with stardom and wealth, Maps to the Stars not just brings celebrities down to our level — it pushes them below acceptable levels of decency and humanity. 

Without giving too much away, the plot revolves around two women — Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), a scarred young woman (literally, she has burn scars on her face and neck) who just made her way to Hollywood, and Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging actress hoping to land a major role as her legendary late mother. Key characters in their world include Jerome (Robert Pattinson), an aspiring actor making a living as a limo driver for the stars; rising teen actor Benjie (Evan Bird), his manager mother (Olivia Williams) and his New Age guru father (John Cusack). They are all linked in one way or another, though part of the allure of the film comes from finding out what the connections are.

The script by Bruce Wagner explores the depravity and debauchery head on, tackling taboo themes, gross-out subjects and uncomfortable scenes that will either make you squirm or prompt nervous laughter.

Like Cosmopolis, there is a surreal feel to the film. The exposition is kept to a minimum so you have to really pay attention to the dialogue or you won’t know what’s going on. Even then I still had no idea where it was heading, though it didn’t matter because I couldn’t turn away. It was at times hilarious, sometimes frightening and occasionally sickening — but always fascinating.

The performances are another reason why the film is more enjoyable than it probably should have been. Julianne Moore may have just won an Oscar for Still Alice, but I actually think she is even better here. While Havana might not be a likeable character, she definitely is authentic and comes across as painfully real, and it accentuates what a remarkable actress Moore is when you contrast this role — which reminds of what Lindsay Lohan will probably be like in 20-30 years — with her character in Still Alice.

Mia Wasikowska is also brilliant as the quirky Agatha, and Robert Pattinson does a solid job of helping us forget that he was ever Edward Cullen. The other standout for me has to be Evan Bird, who despite his weird look and body (it’s hard to tell how old he is) manages a convincing portrayal of a bratty, disrespectful, almost Bieber-like teen star. He’s hilarious.

On the whole, Maps to the Stars is a wild ride full of gasp-worthy moments. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I hope people who appreciate this type of dark humour and satire will get a kick out of it like I did.

4 stars out of 5

What’s awesome and what sucked at Oscars 2015

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Another year, another Oscars.

As with the last two years, I had a blast consulting for Taiwan’s TV broadcast team, who continue to awe me with their superhuman skills and awesomeness. Last year was a breeze with Ellen hosting, but we knew things would be tougher this year with Neil Patrick Harris doing his extravagant song and dance numbers. As it turned out, it wasn’t too bad, with the majority of the event going according to script.

Anyway, here’s what I thought was awesome about this year’s Oscars and what I thought sucked about it.

Awesome: My predictions

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I correctly predicted the winners of 15 categories:

-Best Picture (Birdman)
-Best Actress (Julianne Moore)
-Best Director (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
-Best Supporting Actor (JK Simmons)
-Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette)
-Original Screenplay (Birdman)
-Animated Feature (Big Hero 6)
-Original Score (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
-Original Song (Selma)
-Documentary Feature (CitizenFour)
-Production Design (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
-Visual Effects (Interstellar)
-Sound Editing (American Sniper)
-Sound Mixing (Whiplash)
-Makeup and Hair (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

Even more awesome than getting these right is that in two categories the film I thought should win rather will win actually took home the gong:

-Best Actor (Eddie Redmayne) — I thought Michael Keaton had it in the bag, and judging from Batman’s reaction (and aggressive gum-chewing) it appeared he thought he had it in the bag too
– Adapted Screenplay (The Imitation Game) — I thought they’d give it to Whiplash, to be honest

My misses turned out to be:
-Editing (Whiplash)
-Cinematography (Birdman)
-Costume Design (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
-Animated Short (Feast)
-Documentary Short (Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1)
-Foreign Language Film (Ida).

In hindsight I should have gotten at least a couple of the first three right (the others were just wild guesses) but stupidly thought the Academy was going to give us some surprises.

Sucked: Boyhood not winning Best Picture or Best Director

I picked Birdman for both, but it doesn’t mean I’m not salty that Boyhood missed out on Best Picture and Best Director for Richard Linklater. Technically, Birdman is a brilliant film, but if we’re talking about the most revolutionary film, the most emotionally resonant film, the most memorable film, then Boyhood wins hands down. It’s not even close.

Damn, even that song they played every time they discussed the movie during the ceremony still gave me the chills every time.

The snub is worse than Forrest Gump beating Shawshank in 1995, or Crash’s highway robbery of Brokeback Mountain in 2006. This kind of moronic shit seems to happen every decade or so, where the Best Picture winner might be a very good film in its own right but doesn’t hold a candle to the film that should have won when you look back years later.

As for Best Director, I can see why Iñárritu won. Birdman is exceptionally directed, and in any other year I wouldn’t complain. But man, Linklater spent 12 years on this movie, and managed to turn 12 years of footage into one coherent, well-paced, and moving drama. The ambition, the foresight, the planning and the skill required to pull something like this off is unparalleled in the history of cinema, and yet Linklater somehow managed it. For me, that deserves the win.

Can’t decide if awesome or sucked: NPH as host

I can’t lie. I thought NPH was going to be the best Oscars host EVER, or at least the best since Billy Crystal. The track record was too good to ignore and his Tony’s performance was jaw-dropping.

But for whatever reason, whenever anyone hosts the Oscars they seem hamstrung by the occasion and end up producing something less than what they’re capable of. Last year Ellen was too safe. The year before, Seth McFarlane was too crass. And do I even dare mention the disaster that was Anne Hathaway (not her fault) and James Franco (all his fault)?

NPH’s opening number was solid — good supporting acts with Anna Kendrick and Jack Black plus some impressive special effects. But it felt like he was holding back.

NPH’s jokes were largely deadpan, with a few eliciting chuckles but others falling flat. I think he’s the type of charming performer who does best in planned situations, because let’s face it, his improvisation could have been a lot better. The Birdman underwear stunt was a good idea, I suppose, but it generated more shocks than humour. On the whole, however, he was perfectly adequate.

I’d give NPH a solid B- on the Oscars host scale, where Billy Crystal at his best is an A+ and James Franco is an F.

Sucked: NPH’s prediction box

NPH getting Octavia Spencer to look after a glass box containing a brief case with supposed predictions he wrote several days in advance probably seemed like a good idea on paper. A bit of magic. An elaborate set up. However, the great reveal at the end — which was supposed to be NPH’s final hurrah — turned out to be a shithouse dud. Maybe he had to rush because they were running over time. Or maybe the writers couldn’t come up with anything witty backstage. But man, what a downer to end the night. He probably should have closed with another musical number if time had allowed it.

Sucked even more: reactions to NPH’s performance

Look, say NPH was unfunny and crap if you want to, but all this stuff about him being racist, insensitive and offensive is just plain dumb.  People either think too much or not enough; they jump to conclusions and make connections that aren’t really there. The complained about him “picking on” the black celebrities in the audience, such as getting David Oyelowo to read out a bad joke about the Annie remake in his exquisite British accent. They called him racist for getting Octavia Spender from the movie The Help, to “help” him look after his glass box. They said he made fun for fat people for telling her she can’t go off to get snacks.

Seriously, people! Get a hold of yourselves! They were jokes! Bad jokes, perhaps, but jokes nonetheless. Did it occur to you that he was just trying to diversify the ceremony given its highly publicized excess of white nominees? Maybe he didn’t even get a choice and was told to do so by organisers, the same people who ensured that there was an abundance of black presenters throughout the evening.

I’m telling you, the offense is misplaced. If you’re going to be offended, be offended because you expected better jokes from NPH, not because he was being insensitive.

Can’t decide if awesome or sucked: Spreading the wealth

For the first time I can remember, every single Best Picture nominee took home at least one award. And this is in an era when there are eight nominees as opposed to the old five. Maybe it’s a reflection of a world where everyone’s a winner these days.

Birdman was of course the biggest winner with four — Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Cinematography. The Grand Budapest Hotel was the second biggest winner as it took home a total of four gongs: three technical awards — Makeup and Hair, Costume Design, Production Design — and Original Score. Whiplash was next with three — Best Supporting Actor for JK Simmons, Editing and Sound Mixing.

The others had one each. American Sniper had Sound Editing. Eddie Redmayne took home Best Actor, the only award for The Theory of Everything. The Imitation Game got Best Adapted Screenplay. Selma got Best Original Song for Glory. And Boyhood had the deserved Best Supporting Actress for Patricia Arquette.

Everyone goes home perhaps not happy, but at least not empty handed. Even getting one of those Lego Oscar statuettes wouldn’t have been too bad.

Awesome: Everything is Awesome!

The most exciting part of the entire evening, and certainly the most scintillating performance in recent Oscars memory, has to be Everything is Awesome from The Lego Movie, as performed by Tegan and Sara and The Lonely Island. I knew the song wasn’t going to win, and they probably did as well, which is why they put in all their efforts in making the performance such an enjoyable one. And let’s face it, the movie should have not only been nominated for Best Animated Feature — it probably should have won it.

Awesome: Lady Gaga being normal and singing The Sound of Music medley

What’s going on with Lady Gaga? First she gets engaged, then she performs with Tony Bennett at the Grammy’s. And now she’s singing a Sound of Music medley at the Oscars? Has she become…conventional? Normal?

Whatever it is, she’s awesome. And her performance was awesome. She sounded like someone who could be singing in leading roles in Disney cartoons.

Sucked: John Travolta

I had a feeling they were going to do something to rectify John Travolta’s flub of Idina Menzel’s name (who has since become Adele Dazeem) at the Oscars last year. But that effort totally back fired with Travolta coming across like a total sleaze and mental case by touching Menzel’s face about four thousand times, or four thousand times too many.

Things got worse when people started pointing out what a douche he also was on the red carpet, when he grabbed Scarlett Johansson’s waist from behind and planted a big wet smooch for no apparent reason. The look she gave to the camera afterward said it all.

Awesome: Glory

Interesting that the musical performances, usually the most boring part of the Oscars, turned out to be the highlights of this year’s ceremony. Common and John Legend’s performance of Glory from Selma was a tour de force, bringing audiences to tears. David Oyelowo was captured with tears streaming all over his face. Oprah of course was crying. And for some reason even Chris Pine had a salty discharge running down his cheek. As my wife said, you never know with these great actors whether it’s genuine!

To top it off, Common and John Legend backed up the performance with one of, if not the best, speech of the night when they captured the award for Best Original Song shortly after. It was clearly prepared in advance, but it sent one of the two strongest messages of the night — the other being Patricia Arquette’s plea for gender equality.

Sucked: Nothing for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Take a good look at this photo. It is an ape. Riding a horse. With a gun in his hand. You can’t tell me this is not the best thing ever.

And yet not a single award. It even lost out on its only nomination for Best Visual Effects to Interstellar. Disgrace.

I’m hoping the Academy is doing what it did with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, when they waited for the final film, The Return of the King, to rain down the accolades it deserves. July 2016 is when the third film in the Apes series will be released, so I guess Oscars 2017 will be the year! Bwahahahaha!

Movie Review: Still Alice (2014)

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Note: Getting this review in just before they announce Best Actress at the Oscars!

I was in the mood to be depressed, so I went head and watched Still Alice, a sobering drama about a renowned linguistics professor’s battle with early onset Alzheimer’s.

It’s a respectable take on the illness that doesn’t go the whole way in capturing the worst the disease, preferring to leave its titular character with her dignity in tact. In that sense, Still Alice isn’t as quite as heartbreaking as I braced myself for (I had the Kleenex ready and everything), though the film surprised me with its gripping depiction of Alice’s family members and the way each of them reacts to the devastating news.

Based on the novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, Still Alice begins with Dr Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) celebrating her 50th birthday. With a successful career, a loving husband and three fully grown children, there’s not much more she could ask for.

But of course, the signs of the illness soon begin to manifest, randomly, sporadically, and with varying degrees of seriousness. Co-sreenwriters and directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland — along with Moore in perhaps the best performance of her stellar career — do a solid job of conveying the initial shock and confusion from the onset of the symptoms. From a forgotten word here or a misplaced item there and getting gradually shittier at Words with Friends (I enjoyed this especially), to getting lost in what should be a familiar place, the trio manage to capture the angst as well as the physical disorientation through the use of camera panning and blurred backgrounds.

Moore’s deteriorating appearance is also used to match her crumbling mind. In the beginning I remarked on how amazing she looks for a 50 year old (54 in real life), though as the film progressed she grew increasingly lined and disheveled — though let’s face it, still pretty good for a 5o-year-old Academic who squeezed out three children.

It was a clever idea to make the subject of the illness a top linguistics professor who appeared to have everything, allowing the contrast ensuing from her illness to be even more stark. It’s bad enough for ordinary people, but for someone for whom words and language are her pride and define who she is, the blow must be incomprehensible. I know some will whine about how lucky Alice is to have money and family support compared to others suffering the disease, though it’s not the movie’s fault that it can only focus on one story.

I knew Moore was in it and is a favourite for Best Actress at this year’s Oscars, but I had no idea there were so many big stars in it. Alec Baldwin delivers a controlled, layered performance as Alice’s husband John, a brilliant researcher in his own right who struggles to deal with not only his wife’s deteriorating mental capacity but also the impact on his own career. The way he deals with losing he woman he has loved for so long, especially her losing perhaps the biggest reason for his love — her sharp mind and fierce career ambitions — is truly heart wrenching in more ways than one.

Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish (from Weeds) play Alice’s three children, each of whom reacts differently to the diagnosis. Stewart, who gets the meatiest role of the three, is especially good, displaying a tenderness and non-constipated demeanour I thought I would never see again after “The Saga”. But to her credit, she has proven that there is life after Twilight.

The main complaint I can make against the movie is that it plays out too conventionally, pretty much the way I anticipated a movie about Alzheimer’s to go. The film alludes to how bad things will eventually get, but spares us the pain of actually seeing it. Maintaining the dignity of sufferers and reminding us that she is “still Alice” no matter what, appears to be a priority. Some will applaud the sensitivity of the approach, while others will say it sanitises reality. Everyone will have an opinion on how it affects the film, though it is undeniable that it would could have been edgier had it dared to venture a little further from expectations.

And for all the great depiction of Alice’s family, the film did very little to look at how her relationship evolved with her friends. In fact, I don’t even remember her having any friends at all.

It is not an easy movie to watch, and it’s hard to call it an enjoyable experience. If it’s superb performances and depressingly gripping drama you’re after, however, it’s hard to go past Still Alice. The script is perhaps too conventional for the film to be something truly special, but Moore’s performance elevates it far above what it would otherwise have been.

3.5 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

Movie Review: Non-Stop (2014)

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It’s kind of crazy that we now automatically associate Liam Neeson with action thrillers, but that’s what he’s been giving us time after time since 2008. His latest, Non-Stop, is another solid entry that is, uh, non-stop entertainment from the get-go, and despite its implausibility and flaws, is arguably his strongest effort since Taken, one of the best in the genre in more than a decade.

When director Jaume Collet-Serra teamed up with Liam Neeson in 2011 they delivered Unknown, a fairly interesting action-mystery that kept audiences guessing until it collapsed under the pressure of being forced to provide answers. Non-Stop has that similar semi-surreal feel to it where the mystery is seemingly too bizarre to be real, but in my opinion it is more thrilling, more riveting and more daring, and even though the explanation is expectedly a letdown, it’s actually not too lame, relatively speaking.

Neeson plays Bill Marks, a US federal air marshal battling some personal demons. He is assigned to a flight from New York to London, and shortly after takeoff, begins receiving strange messages on his secure phone line telling him that passengers will be killed unless a ransom is paid. Without divulging too much more, the mystery begins to get stranger and stranger the more Marks tries to find out who is responsible. It’s a classic “locked room mystery” set on a plane, where any one of the 150 passengers — including the pilots, the crew and the passengers — could be the culprit.

That’s the wonderful thing about Non-Stop, which takes full advantage of the situation to deliver clues, red herrings and misdirection at a frantic pace to keep audiences off edge. The script and Collet-Serra’s direction cleverly bring out suspect after suspect, each of whom seem equally capable of being the villain. I would be very surprised if any audience members managed to solve the mystery in advance.

And the action, considering the confined space, is well executed too, gradually ramping up to a climatic finish. There are no breaks in the pace, an impressive feat given the 106-minute running time. The initial scenes are intentionally blurry and choppy so there is minimal set up, and audiences are soon thrust into a white-knuckle roller coaster ride that never stops twist and turning.

Liam Neeson, even at 61, is perfect as Marks and looks like he can still kick plenty of ass for at least another 5 years. I was also surprised at some of the big names and familiar faces in the supporting cast. There’s the always pleasant Julianne Moore as the mysterious stranger in the seat next to Marks, Downton Abbey star Michelle Dockery as his trusted air hostess, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as another hostess, model Bar Paly as a skanky seductress in first class, and Scoot McNairy (Argo, Killing Them Softly) and Corey Stoll (House of Cards) as suspicious passengers.

With a film like Non-Stop you obviously can’t take things too seriously or think too much, because the moment you do it all starts to unravel. There are about half a dozen problems with the way the plot progressed and the way the characters reacted, just off the top of my head, but I didn’t let them get to me during the film because I was having too much fun going along for the ride.

The dialogue and character interactions are also cheesy and “scripted” in that they in no way resemble reality, but none of these issues are deal breakers either. They serve their minimum purpose so we can get on with what we want to see, and that’s Liam Neeson being a badass.

Ultimately, I found Non-Stop to be one of the stronger action thrillers I’ve seen in some time. It plays to its strengths, shies away from its weaknesses and milks an intriguing scenario for all it’s worth. The unfortunate reminder of topical events (ie, missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370) is of course pure coincidence, but it does make one ponder how secure commercial flights really are in the post-911 age.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Carrie (2013)

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I guess it was only going to be matter of time before they attempted another remake of Carrie, the classic 1976 horror film based on Stephen King’s first published novel of the same name. Technically, this is just another adaptation of King’s novel (there was another TV movie version made in 2002, and an ill-advised “sequel” in 1999), though the standard it will be compared against will always be the version that made Sissy Spacek famous and boosted the careers of Nancy Allen and John Travolta.

This time, the film stars Chloe Grace Moretz as the bullied but “gifted” school girl Carrie White and Julianne Moore as her religious fanatic mother. Judy Greer plays Carrie’s sympathetic gym teacher, which is unfortunate for a horror movie because I will always think of her as the crazy secretary in Arrested Development.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1alISOTGfE

Anyway, it’s hard for me review this new Carrie objectively as a standalone film because it is so close to the original film and fails to offer anything genuinely new apart from improved special effects and some updated technology in the lives of the students (such as smartphones and YouTube). This is not to say it’s a bad film, because it’s actually a pretty good remake driven by excellent performances from the two female leads. Moore, in particular, was absolutely freaky and helps you understand why Carrie turned out the way she did. The real question is why they felt the need to make it again when the original was so iconic and still remains effective. 

If you have not seen the 1976 film and don’t know what happens in the story then you could find Carrie a terrifying experience. There are some effective horror moments executed craftily by director Kimberly Peirce, whose previous works include Boys Don’t Cry and Stop-Loss. For me, however, it was difficult to truly enjoy Carrie because I knew what was coming. Everything that happens in the first half of the film boils down to that one pivotal moment, that one key scene — and most people should know what I’m talking about here — so there was a sense of inevitability throughout the whole thing. It’s just not the same when you are expecting it.

I do have a few other problems with this version as well. For starters, Chloe Grace Moretz is just too damn pretty to be the Carrie White, even when she’s “uglied up”. Even if she’s brought up by a lunatic and socially inept it’s difficult to imagine her being such a target. Secondly, the “villain” of the movie, a girl named Chris, was too one-dimensional and evil, while her friend Sue, was too “nice”. I know that’s how the story goes but a little more nuance would have been welcome.

Carrie 1976 is widely regarded as a landmark horror film and garnered Oscar nominations for the two leads. Carrie 2013 is still a decent horror movie and a pretty good remake, but that’s all it can hope to be.

3.5 stars out of 5

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 9

This latest tranche has a political flavour…kind of…

Act of Valor (2012)

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Just the title alone made me sceptical of this film, essentially a US Army recruitment video starring real-life soldiers. There must be people who lapped up the salty patriotism and corny melodrama of Act of Valor, but I was not one of them.

The plot — and there is a plot — is not important, and to be honest, I don’t remember much of it. The story focuses on a team of Navy Seals who have to shot and blow up enemies who pose a threat to freedom in the United States. Terrorists, that is.

The action scenes are well-choreographed, I don’t dispute that. Apparently they are realistic, but the shaky camera movements were too much for me. I had trouble telling what was happening when they had the helmet-mounted cameras and a few of the scenes made me feel nauseated.

But the main problem with Act of Valor, apart from the cookie-cutter plot, is the unintentional Team America: World Police feel that runs throughout the whole film. Much of it stems from dramatic score and the really really really atrocious lines spewed out by the really really really wooden “actors.” They just didn’t feel like real people. It was so bad that it was often either hilarious or distracting, or both. No offense to the soldiers, but it was akin to letting Stallone and The Rock go fight real terrorists on behalf of their country.

2 stars out of 5

PS: The mix of shaky camera movements and over-the-board heroism was enough to do this to me.

 

Game Change (2012)

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A great film for anyone interested in just how stupid Sarah Palin really is. Game Change is based on the true story of the 2008 Republican ticket of John McCain and Palin, and it’s a ripper. Sharp, funny and at times bewildering, it provides a fascinating insight into US presidential elections and the campaign strategies that direct the outcome. And above all, it reveals just how insane the Republicans were to take on a risk like Palin, who was believed to be a potential game changer — and she was, just not the way they wanted.

I loved the Tina Fey impersonations but Julianne Moore is equally brilliant in this more serious portrayal of Palin, who is depicted as an ambitious, self-righteous but incredibly naive and ignorant politician. Most of her most famous gaffes are repeated in the film, and they’re still just as funny. But it was also easy to see why the Republicans were so enamored with her in the beginning and so frustrated with her by the end. They essentially created a monster and didn’t know how to rein her back in.

Ed Harris was surprisingly good as John McCain, who I’ve always liked and was portrayed as a very decent man who really had no idea what he was getting himself into with Palin. The rest of the supporting cast, headed by Woody Harrelson as senior campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, was also excellent. Just a classy production all round.

Of course, the accuracy of the events depicted in the film have been disputed, but I’d like to think it captured the spirit of the campaign. Besides, both Palin and McCain, who said the film was inaccurate, never even saw it.

I really enjoyed it, even though it did have quite a strong TV-movie atmosphere.

PS: Here’s a scene by scene comparison between Palin and Moore.

4 stars out of 5

The Campaign (2012)

The Campaign

While we’re on the subject of election campaigns, I’d like to review The Campaign, a pretty stock standard Will Ferrell farce about two numskulls vying for a congressional seat in a small town.

Ferrell plays his usual douche self who expects to earn another trip to DC unopposed, but a semi-retarded man played by Zach Galifianakis is somehow manipulated by corrupt businessmen to run against Ferrell so they can profit from a Chinese company (go figure). Retardation ensues as the two start getting down and dirty with outrageous plots to derail the other’s campaign.

If you know Ferrell’s brand of comedy and Galifianakis’s brand of comedy then it’s likely The Campaign will offer few surprises. It’s a lot of stupidity and randomness for about 85 minutes, a welcome length because the film starts to lose steam towards the end.

That said, there are some decent moments in The Campaign, and if you were lucky to have missed the spoilers in the trailers then you might find it rather enjoyable. Many of the jokes are borderline offensive or just plain offensive, but because they are almost always self-deprecating and take jabs at the usual politician antics they aren’t difficult to stomach or even appreciate. Both Ferrell and Galifianakis are in fine form and they do have nice chemistry on screen together.

At the end of the day, The Campaign is a forgettable comedy, but it’s also a pretty damn funny one (for the most part).

3.5 stars out of 5

The Watch (2012)

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Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn were pretty good together in Dodgeball, so I thought would give The Watch a shot. Without giving too much away (and there are potential spoilers), it’s about a bunch of average guys who decide to form a neighbourhood watch when locals start dying under weird circumstances.

The main foursome who form the neighbourhood watch are Stiller, Vaughn, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade (an English comedian I’ve never heard of). They get up to stupid, juvenile stuff, predictably, until a discovery that puts their lives in real danger. There’s a lot of screaming in feigned fear and plenty of vulgar and sexualised jokes but sadly not a lot of originality or wit. In fact, I found the whole film strangely dull despite all the energetic stuff that was happening on screen.

Part of the problem is that Stiller and Vaughn (and to some extent Hill) seem to be playing the exact same characters with the same personalities and traits in every movie. Stiller is the bumbling nice guy who wants to be something more, and Vaughn is the deadpan specialist, while Hill is the awkward fatty. There’s just nothing fresh about it and they feel like actors playing themselves rather than characters.

I’ll admit, there were a few times in The Watch where the inner juvenile in me found a joke in the film funny — but these moments were few and far in between. As much I as enjoy these group buddy movies as much as the next guy, this one was uninspiring and forgettable.

2.5 stars out of 5