Tag Archives: Kate Mara

Morgan (2016)

Just about every year, there are a couple of movie releases that will take me by surprise. They kind of popped up out of nowhere, with no buzz or early trailers, but feature a cast of big Hollywood names. Morgan is one such film.

The first time I actually saw snippets of the Morgan trailer and poster was actually the weekend before its release. I had never heard of it and couldn’t believe it when I found out that it starred the likes of Kate Mara, Rose Leslie, Paul Giamatti, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Yeoh, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook (soon to be seen as the main villain in Logan), and Anya Taylor-Joy (who was absolutely brilliant in The Witch).

The poster seemed intriguing as well, dominated by a dark, hooded figure I could only presume was the eponymous protagonist (or antagonist, if you will). The trailer gave away wait too much as usual, but essentially, Kate Mara plays some sort of risk assessment manager who ventures into a secluded research facility that managed to genetically engineer a synthetic human being, ie Morgan (played by Anya Taylor-Joy). Pretty much everyone else in the cast is a scientist or a handler of some sort.

I was definitely intrigued. It seemed like a thinking person’s horror movie, with elements of Ex Machina and shades of the underrated Splice. Yes, it is yet another one of those “man should not mess with nature” or “living creatures should not be kept in captivity” cautionary tales, but the fact that such a great cast had faith in the project suggested to me that it would be worth watching.

Well, I was about half right. Morgan turned out to be borderline watchable. What started off as a compelling premise and some early tension soon crumbled into predictability and genre tropes. We all know Morgan’s not as innocent as she seems and that she will get out of her glass box eventually. But instead of pursuing the more interesting and thought-provoking opportunities the premise offers, Luke Scott, the son of legendary director Ridley (who produced the film), chose to indulge in the usual slasher and horror cliches. The action isn’t handled too shabbily, though it would be a stretch to call it outstanding. Same goes for the horror elements — Morgan (both the character and the film itself) never really scared me.

At some point in the movie, it also became impossible to not guess the “twist” at the end. It’s just so obvious and telegraphed that when it is finally revealed there is no sense of shock whatsoever.

Still, I have to be fair. Morgan is still at least serviceable and better than most of the straight-to-DVD horror-thrillers these days. The initial set-up is interesting, I’ll give it that, and the execution — whether it is the action, tension, or horror — is passable. Throw in a star-studded cast who genuinely seemed to put in effort rather than mail it in for a paycheck, and you end up with a movie that isn’t a complete waste of time but could have been so much better.

2.5 stars out of 5

The Martian (2015)

The Martian Launch One Sheet

After a long and agonising delay brought on by unforeseen circumstances (sick kid), I finally got to see Ridley Scott’s The Martian, one of my most anticipated movies of the year. And it was well worth the wait.

I had been hoping to see the film before all the positive buzz hit (93% Rottan Tomatoes, 81% Metacritic) hit the web so I wouldn’t develop unrealistic expectations. That didn’t happen, and yet the film somehow managed to live up to the hype for me.

If you’ve heard anything about this movie at all, you’ll know it’s about an astronaut named Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who finds himself stranded on Mars. The premise can’t be a spoiler. I knew a little more than that before going in, but for the most part I was prepared for anything.

There have been a lot of comparisons thrown around. Most would have heard of the inevitable comments regarding Interstellar because — spoiler-alert for those who haven’t seen it yet — both films star Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain. And in both films Damon happens to be an astronaut stuck on a distant planet.

There are also many who have called it “Castaway on Mars” or “Life of Pi in Space” and so forth. It is true that The Martian has elements of all these movies, but it is also vastly different and stands very well on its own.

Personally, I would say that the film is like the perfect love child of Interstellar, Gravity and Apollo 13. It has the big ideas and spectacle of Interstellar without all the fantastical/theoretical mumble jumbo that turned a lot of people off. It has the beauty, tension and thrills of Gravity without the eerie silence and lack of character interaction and development. And the Apollo 13-esque tactic of cutting back and forth with ground control on Earth makes the story about more than just one person and breaks up the monotony of space travel and a life of solitude on a barren planet.

There are so many things to like about this movie. For starters, The Martian is ingenious. It’s one of the smartest films I’ve seen in recent years. I’m not sure how legit the science is (and there’s a lot of it), but all of it feels credible. I would imagine you’d need to be at least a semi-expert or very knowledgeable in certain fields to be able to poke holes in the story; for most general audiences it wouldn’t matter. And as a member of the uneducated general audience I found it all absolutely fascinating. I was engrossed.

I know the book on which the film is based, written and originally self-published by Andy Weir, has been panned by many for alleged “bad writing.” Be that as it may, the thought that Weir has built into the story and the science behind it is remarkable. It’s at least as impressive as say the work Dan Brown (a fellow oft-criticised writer) puts into blending history, religion and architecture into his novels. I can’t help but be happy for his success.

Secondly, the “action” sequences — if you can call them that — are well-executed. When you feel the tension and the adrenaline even when you know what is going to happen, and when you don’t notice the CGI even though you know most of it probably is, you know they’re doing a good job.

The other thing that stands out about The Martian is that it is surprisingly funny. That is not to say that the film is a comedy by any stretch, though it is without a doubt filled with more laughs than Interstellar, Gravity and Apollo 13 — combined.

The main reason is because of Watney’s personality, which is, for the most part, optimistic and stoic despite the odds against him. He’s a guy who tries to see the lighter side of things and can find humour in the most dire of predicaments. Because sometimes, that’s all you can do. It fits in well with the uplifting and occasionally fun tone the film tries to convey. Some might complain that it glosses over the darker aspects of the tale — the isolation, the stress, the fragile emotional state — but ultimately this is not that kind of movie, and I am glad it didn’t go down that path.

As clever and funny The Martian is, I also found myself unexpectedly moved by the drama. At its heart, it’s a simple story about one man’s unrelenting will to survive. It’s about finding solutions to problems as they arise, one at a time. It’s about human kinship and international solidarity. Ridley Scott does a great job of developing the characters into likable people we care about, not just Watney but the entire extended cast. There’s no real villain in the story, just a bunch of people doing what they think is best in a very difficult situation. The relationships and dynamics are set up early and skilfully so the emotional payoffs work when they eventually have to.

Kudos of course to the spectacular cast. Apart from Damon and Chastain there’s also Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA, Chiwetel Ejiofor as NASA’s Mars mission director, Sean Bean as the spacecrafts’s crew commander and Kristen Wiig as NASA spokesperson, plus Michael Pena, Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan as crew members. Everyone’s fantastic, and I also enjoyed the witty references to films that some of the actors have been in it are affiliated with.

At 2 hours and 22 minutes, the length is perfect. It never feels too long; there is always something going on, and I was always either being amused or thrilled or educated. I was certainly always entertained.

While The Martian doesn’t necessarily have the feel of a masterpiece — it’s not as epic as say Interstellar or as majestic or awe-inspiring as Gravity — it delivers as good of a time as I’ve had at the cinemas this year or any year.

5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Fantastic Four (2015)

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So I ignored the warnings and went to see the new Fantastic Four reboot. I knew the odds weren’t good — critics were shut out of preview screenings and there were rumblings of a mess behind the scenes with director Josh Trank, the promising filmmaker who brought us Chronicle, one of the few watchable found footage films in history. Early reviews have been borderline terrifying.

Still, I wanted to decide for myself. I think Trank is a good director with a distinct visual flair and approach to characters, and I loved the casting of fresh, up-and-coming names such as Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B Jordan and Jamie Bell. The trailers looked fantastic too, so I figured things couldn’t be that horrible.

And honestly, it’s not THAT bad. Certainly not 9% Rotten Tomatoes bad. For starters, it’s very different to the 2005 film, the only things from which I remember were the campiness and Jessica Alba’s abysmal blonde dye job. So that’s a good thing. Secondly, the young performers are all terrific dramatic actors who provide solid efforts across the board. Thirdly, Trank maintains much of his unique visual style. It’s a little dark, a little gritty, and the effects have an impressive realism to them when they probably would be cartoonish in lesser hands.

That said, I can’t deny that Fantastic Four is a savage mess. The tone, the pacing and the script are all over the place. Something must have gone very wrong during the filming and editing process because there was so much potential. If only the pieces could have been put together in the right way the film could have been a smash.

The story starts off with plenty of intrigue. A fifth grade genius, Reed Richards (who grows up to be Miles Teller), designs a teleportation device which he powers up with the aide of a classmate, Ben Grimm (who grows up to be Jamie Bell). Seven years later, their work is discovered by Franklin Storm (Reg E Cathey), who hires Richards to work alongside his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara) and the pioneer of the project, Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Franklin’s troubled biological son Johnny (Michael B Jordan) also gets involved.

As you probably already know, the experiment leads them to develop an assortment of superpowers. The problem is that at least half the film is about getting to this point, and by the time they get there there’s not much time for much else. Consequently, the film feels like the extended pilot of a TV series where everything is about setting the stage for the future. It’s an origins film that spends all its time on the origin part and doesn’t give our new heroes enough time to bond and form a real team. Certain arcs and character development sequences take far too long, while areas you would have thought are important end up being rushed or skipped over entirely. In a typical film, characters are supposed to grow from point A to point B; this film spends most of its time stuck at A and teleports to B at the very end.

It felt like they had to fit a 3-hour movie in 2 hours but couldn’t decide or agree on which bits to emphasise and which bits to cut. It’s as though everyone involved in the project expected there to be more sequels and thought it was therefore okay to deliver an incomplete first film.

The signals of messiness are sprinkled throughout the movie. It starts off with a cutesy, innocent vibe infused with some light humour, but the lengthy middle section is dead serious and flat — and worst of all, boring. The best and most compelling part of the film is when they travel via the machine and seeing their transformations for the first time. It’s basically a horror film at this point — and a very good one too — but it fits uncomfortably into the overall picture. The final climax reverts to more typical action hero cliches, which it inevitably had to do, though it’s clunkily thrown together and basically discards the tensions between the characters built up throughout the film. The “hero” speeches and dialogue as the film nears the finish line also comes across as forced and arbitrary.

The script struggles as well. There are aspects that fail the logic test, and the characters’ motivations don’t always make sense. The result is a story that tries to be more grounded than the film it is rebooting but ends up lacking credibility.

It’s unfortunate that Fantastic Four turned out the way it did because there was so much potential. While it will ultimately be remembered as a failure, the film still had a few solid moments and some flashes of brilliance that sadly remind us of what it could have been.

Some day we might hear what really happened behind the scenes. At the moment a sequel is scheduled for a June 2017 release, but it remains to be seen whether they will really go ahead with it given the poor reviews and lower-than-projected earnings. I will no doubt be in the minority, but I still want to see it made. Fantastic Four was not so bad that it can’t be redeemed by a great sequel.

2.75 stars out of 5

PS: Trank, who was painted as a tyrant by some reports, is either shifting the blame or genuinely had his hands tied by his bosses. In response to the negative feedback, Trank posted and hen quickly deleted this message on Twitter: “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.”

Movie Review: Transcendence (2014)

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Count me as one of the few people who don’t think Transcendence sucked balls.

I admit, given the hype surrounding the script and the star-studded cast, that the film is a relative disappointment, but I still found it to be an intriguing take on the man-vs-computer concept that’s thought-provoking on some levels and at least never boring.

Johnny Depp plays Dr Will Caster, a brilliant scientist who plans to develop a sentient computer that he predicts will create a technological singularity, or in his words, “transcendence”. His wife, Evelyn, is played by the wonderful Rebecca Hall, and his best friend is Max, played by Paul Bettany.

Of course, there are people out there somewhat uneasy about the possibility of such a creation, and they plan an attempt to derail the whole thing. One thing leads to another and soon Will is forced to insert his consciousness into a quantum computer in a attempt to cheat death. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it worked, and the rest of the movie is all about the consequences of this and questioning whether the computer really is Will’s consciousness or just an imitation of it.

Trascendence, made for $100 million and made only $90 million at the box office, was both a commercial and critical failure for debut director Wally Pfister, previously best known for his cinematography work on Chris Nolan films (Memento, Batman Trilogy, Inception). Despite the film’s unique visual flair, the film was savaged for its lack of logic — even within its limited sci-fi story universe — and bad science, and it also didn’t help that it was released amid the recent Johnny Depp backlash.

For me, Transcendence may have failed to deliver the philosophical sci-fi experience it was trying to achieve, but it’s still not a bad film about the dangers and limits of technology and artificial intelligence. I thought it started off well in drawing audiences in and developing the relationships between the characters, which I thought proved crucial down the line in heightening and contrasting their feelings and emotions.

It’s far from the first sci-fi film to tackle the “control or be controlled by technology” premise, but Transcendence does feature some interesting ideas that I hadn’t seen or thought about before. I won’t give those things way except to say that it takes us not only out of the cyberworld and the world of the physical, but also ventures into the world of the metaphysical. The ramifications take us much farther than say something like 2008’s Eagle Eye or even last year’s brilliant Her (which is a vastly superior film, by the way).

Though the science is extremely sketchy (even for someone as clueless about science as me), I thought both the script (by Jack Paglen) and the direction did a fairly good job of blurring the specifics and using misdirection to fudge things so we simply have to take what is happening on screen at face value. The problem is that fudging can only take audiences so far, and at some stage the whole facade begins to crumble because the computer keeps doing impossible things on the one hand but doing impossibly stupid/illogical things on the other. And once you start to ask yourself why a computer this intelligent and omniscient would do this or not do that, it’s too late — the entire premise of the film collapses in a hurry. The irony is that for what is supposed to be a thinking-man’s sci-fi, thinking too much is the last thing you should do if you want to remain engaged.

That’s a deal killer for most viewers, but let’s face it, it’s not the first time a sci-fi film has failed to make sense. In my humble opinion, the obvious holes are what prevent Transcendence from being a great sci-fi, rather than what make it a completely unwatchable movie. There are enough positive things about it to not call the film a waste of time.

For starters, the eerie feeling the film generates is genuine. While it’s not a horror film per se, some of the things the computer is capable of in the film are genuinely creepy and will make you think twice about handing your life over to artificial intelligence. Secondly, the cast is awesome and contains big names I didn’t even realise were in it. In addition to the aforementioned trio of Depp, Hall and Bettany, there’s also Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Kate Mara. None of them get to do much, but a bit of added star power never hurt anybody (except in those Expendables movies). And thirdly, the film is stylish, imaginative and not as predictable as you’d expect. It’s well-made, solidly paced over the course of its 120-minute running time, and is never in danger of being a snoozer. That’s already more than you can say about most sci-fi flicks these days.

At the end of the day, Transcendence is never quite as intelligent or philosophical as it set out to be, nor is it as action-packed or exciting as a traditional sci-fi blockbuster. That said, I think those who approach it with an open mind will be pleasantly surprised by how much it has to offer.

3.5 stars out of 5

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 11

Safe House (2012)

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Denzel Washington plays an ex-CIA operative who turns rogue and becomes an international criminal who, unsurprisingly,  appears to be more than meets the eye. Ryan Reynolds plays a low-level CIA agent who is tasked with looking after Denzel when the latter is captured and brought to a South African safe house (hence the title. Disaster strikes, and Reynolds is thrust into a dangerous situation in which he must figure out who he can trust in order to discover the truth behind everything.

It’s the type of basic premise we have seen dozens of times before (albeit with slight variations) — where a decent but relatively inexperienced guy out of his depth is paired with a slick professional and there is a big conspiracy waiting to be unveiled (is this considered a huge spoiler?).

I don’t mind these movies per se, but I’m a bit sick of the whole “Denzel is so cool” routine we seem to be getting in just about every film we see him in these days. You know, charismatic, super cool under pressure, extremely gifted in firefights and hand-to-hand combat, acts like he doesn’t give a crap about anything but cares deeply about doing the right thing in accordance with his own principles. As for Reynolds, I’m assuming he just played exactly the same type of character in RIPD (which I haven’t seen yet but will).

Look, Safe House isn’t bad — there’s intensity, action, suspense and a few semi-predictable twists here and there — but there is nothing that makes it memorable or stand out. In fact, I had forgotten a lot of the details and had to give myself a little refresher on YouTube and Wikipedia just to write this review. The performances are solid, but I didn’t like how the action sequences were edited with those quick, choppy cuts that prevent you from seeing exactly what is happening.

On the whole just an OK thriller that fails to live up to its full potential despite Denzel and an all-star cast that also features Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson.

2.75 stars out of 5

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

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I swear I still intend to get to the acclaimed book on which this film is based, written by Stephen Chbosky. I’ve heard so many people rave on about the book that it would be an injustice for me to ignore it. Interestingly, the film version is directed by the author, who wrote the screenplay as well. Usually it’s a recipe for disaster to place so much of a story in the hands of a single person, but in this case it was complete justified because The Perks of Being a Wallflower turned out to be one of the best coming-of-age movies I’ve seen in a long time.

Charlie, played by Percy Jackson‘s Logan Lerman, is a high school freshman dealing with a traumatic loss from the year before. Shy and withdrawn, he is a wallflower, someone who observes but is never really part of the story — until he meets step-siblings Sam and Patrick, played by Emma Watson (Harry Potter) and Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin), who accept him as part of their group.

Without going into too much more detail, this is a story about the loss of innocence, friendship, falling in love, loyalty, betrayal, and all those things many of us go through as we grow into adults. With full control over the material, Chbosky delivers an extremely genuine and heartfelt story told through a sensitive and delicate lens that I’m sure will be easy for many teens to relate to and conjure up a deep sense of nostalgia in adults. It’s hard to explain except to say that I connected with this film more than I thought I would and that I fully believed in the story from start to finish. Yes it is sentimental in parts but not overly so.

I’m astounded that Chbosky has only previously directed one other film, in 1995. The tone and atmosphere he creates in The Perks of Being a Wallflower is masterful and reflects just how in command of the material he is. He must also be credited for eliciting the best performances I have ever seen from Logan Lerman and Emma Watson. Let’s face it, Percy Jackson and The Three Musketeers are not the best films for a thespian to show off their acting talents, but Lerman is unbelievably believable as the mild-mannered Charlie who is immediately likable but is also clearly holding onto something that prevents him from opening up. Your heart goes out to him. The only complaints could be that he is not quite young-looking enough to pull off a freshman or that he is too good looking to play such a loner.

As for Emma Watson, wow. I always thought she was the most talented out of the Harry Potter trio, but here she completely sheds the shackles of Hermoine and gives us the best performance of her career. The same can be said for Ezra Miller, whom I thought would forever be trapped in my nightmares as the horrific Kevin (from We Need to Talk About Kevin, one of the best movies of 2011). Here he is a completely different character as the giddy and affable Patrick and totally made me forget that he butchered a bunch of kids in his previous role.

In some ways, The Perks of Being a Wallflower might oversimplify or even glamorize some difficult issues in adolescent life, but for me it’s a small flaw in an otherwise brilliant motion picture.

4.5 stars out of 5

PS: I’m almost doing The Perks of Being a Wallflower a disservice by reviewing it as part of a four-film movie blitz, because it deserves a solo review of its own. But I am lazy and I can’t be bothered.

Deadfall (2012)

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A stylish crime drama of intersecting subplots that feels strangely complicated but is actually very straightforward.

Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde play a pair of siblings on the run after a casino heist has gone horribly wrong. For some reason they must split up so they could reach their goal of making it across the Canadian border under blizzard conditions, kicking off a string of violent events and coincidences that eventually all comes to a head in a climatic flurry. The film is powered by an A-list cast that also features Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim), Kate Mara (House of Cards), Kris Krisofferson, Treat Williams and Sissy Spacek.

I found Deadfall a difficult film to grasp because it seems to be moving along confidently, taking the audience in several directions seemingly without aim, but there is actually an underlying strategy all along to pull all the strands together by the end. But at the end of it all, I said to myself, “Is that it?” Despite the intrigue, I was left wondering what the fuss was all about.

That said, I was engaged and kept wondering what was going on through the majority of the 94-minute running time. I suppose you could call it dark, character-driven film, but then again I didn’t really care for any of the characters. Could it be described as a B-grade movie masquerading as an A-grade movie because of its sound technical efficiency and the super cast? I dunno. I can’t decide whether I liked the film, disliked the film, or if I am just indifferent about it. Meh.

2.5 stars out of 5

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

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Every now and then comes along a really interesting idea for a movie and the execution is nearly good enough to pull it off, but for whatever reason just doesn’t quite get there. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, starring Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley, is such a film. It starts off brilliantly and has its fair share of genuine laughs and oddly comical moments all the way through, but unfortunately it loses steam halfway through and drifts towards a rather disappointing final act.

The film starts off with the announcement that the world, as we know it, is coming to an end. A giant asteroid is coming to Earth and there’s no Bruce Willis to save us. With just three weeks until impact, the world is understandably flipped into chaos (with drugs and suicides and looting and guilt-free sex dominating), but at the same time there are many lost and lonely individuals out there who have no idea how they are going to spend the last few days of their lives. Steve Carrell, whose wife leaves him in the opening scene, is one of them, until he meets Knightley, who had just broken up with her boyfriend and has no chance to see her family in England one last time.

Seeking a Friend could be described as a road trip comedy-drama, but it’s really a fascinating imagining of how the world would react if everyone thought they had just days to live. Would you keep working in your job because you have nothing else better to do? Or would you stay with family and go have beach BBQs all day? Or will you go crazy and break every law you can think of, just for the sake of it? A lot of the things depicted in this film, as random and outrageous and hilarious as they are, strangely ring true. I laughed often and hard, especially early on.

I’ve never been a big fan of either Carrell or Knightley, so I was shocked to discover that I really liked both of them in this. Despite the age gap (51 to 28), they had a comfortable rapport and a sweetness to them, and the resulting banter was sharp and clicking.

However, perhaps feeling like it cannot be a pure comedy with no emotion (given it is the end of the world, after all), the film starts to become more personal and begins venturing into light melodrama, regretfully sucking out its earlier charm. The closer it got to the end, the more flat and uninteresting things got. Some of the attempts are indeed poignant, but frankly I just wanted more laughs.

3.5 stars out of 5