Tag Archives: Leighton Meester

2014 Movie Blitz: Part IX

This could be the last blitz before my best of and worst of list for 2014.

St Vincent (2014)

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I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It’s a simple premise we’ve seen countless times — a grumpy old man befriends a youngster, and they each end up learning something profound from the unconventional relationship. But in this case, the superb cast led by Bill Murray, doing what he does best, makes St Vincent a funny, poignant movie that won’t blow you away but will have you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside by the time the credits start rolling.

Murray plays the titular Vincent, a mysterious, reclusive old man with a sharp tongue and sharper attitude. Struggling single mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door, and Vincent, almost by accident, starts teaching Oliver the ways of life. Naomi Watts plays Vincent’s Russian “lady friend.”

Murray has turned his grumpy, deadpan face down to perfection, and it’s on full display in this film. It’s a shame we don’t see him much in movies these days because the man is a true comedy genius. It was also good to see Melissa McCarthy play a straight character for once and doing it so well. She’s much more than just a stock character — you really feel for her — and she has great chemistry and timing with Murray when they’re engaged in one of their hilarious spats.

I thought Naomi Watts was a bit of A strange casting choice for her character, but apart from that St Vincent ticks all the right boxes for a touching and funny drama parents can enjoy with their kids (I’d say 12 and above).

3.5 stars out of 5

The Drop (2014)

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This is one of those gritty and brooding crime dramas that’s neither forgettable nor particularly memorable. I thought it was pretty decent because of a smart script, confident direction, and strong performances from the brilliant Tom Hardy and the legendary James Gandolfini in one of his final roles.

Basically, the plot revolves around Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), a bartender who works a bar run by Gandolfini’s character, Cousin Marv. Marv used to own the establishment but sold it to Chechen gangsters, and now the bar is a “drop” point for illegal funds. Later, a robbery sets the story in motion, and Bob finds himself being targeted by both the cops and the robbers.

Much of the story centres Bob’s relationship with a neighbourhood girl played by Noomi Rapace and a dog. It’s one of those films where you feel as though something is brooding and tension is always building, but you’re not sure of where it is all heading.

The cast is superb, especially Hardy, who is a man of few words but conveys many emotions just from looks and expressions, yet it is often difficult to figure out exactly what is going through his head.

It’s a violent film that doesn’t necessarily shy away from crime drama cliches but is still clever and different enough to distinguish itself from the pack.

3.5 stars out of 5

By the Gun (2014)

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By comparison to the film above, By the Gun is a much weaker and forgettable crime drama. Ben Barnes plays Nick Tortano, a low-level mobster who wants to “be someone.”

So he works under a Boston crime boss played by Harvey Keitel, starts dating his estranged daughter (Leighton Meester) and recklessly gets himself into a lot of shit as he tries to make a name for himself. Something’s gotta give!

I like Ben Barnes. He’s one of the prettiest actors around and he’s a stage actor who can clearly act. But as hard as he tried, he didn’t convince me here as a Boston gangster. Maybe that’s why he’s stuck with roles like Prince Caspian and high-profile flops like Dorian Gray and Seventh Son.

By the Gun has enough grit but not enough originality to sustain its 109-minute running time. I didn’t care much for the characters nor their predicaments, and when that happens a crime drama is destined for failure. It’s not poorly made, it’s just so average that you start to forget about it as soon as the credits roll.

2.5 stars out of 5

Son of a Gun (2014)

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So many guns in this movie review blitz! Son of a Gun is a fairly compelling Australian crime drama with similar themes to the masterful Animal Kingdom. It’s not as good, of course, but by Aussie movie standards it’s not bad.

Rising star Brenton Thwaites, who is just everywhere these days, plays JR, a young convict who becomes acquainted with a notorious robber played by Ewan McGregor. Upon his release, JR is introduced to a mob boss, this beginning a life of crime where the stakes continue to be escalated and things spiral out of control before JR realises he is in way over his head.

Like Animal Kingdom, this is a crime drama seen from the point of view of a naive man-child, learning the brutalities of the world with one frightening lesson after another. It’s a twisted coming-of-age story of sorts, filled with thumping violence and rounded characters.

It’s unfair beyond that to compare the two films. Son of a Gun isn’t on the same level in terms of tension, intensity and plot or character development, and it’s much less effective at veering away from genre cliches, especially as the film nears its finale.

What does give it extra brownie points are the performances of McGregor, still one of the most reliable actors around, and rising superstar Alicia Vikander (who has like five movies out this year), who brings more depth than one would expect for a supposed token female love interest. I’m still waiting to see though why Thwaites, as solid as he is, is snapping up so many roles in Hollywood.

On the whole, Son of a Gun struggles to separate itself from similar films in the genre the way Animal Kingdom did, but thanks to the awesomeness of Ewan McGregor and Alicia Vikander, it manages enough appeal to drag it over the line in my books.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Judge (2014)

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I hadn’t seen any engaging dramas for a while, so I thought I’d go and check out The Judge, a film about a hotshot lawyer (Robert Downey Jr) who returns home and defends his estranged father (Robert Duvall), an elderly and well respected judge, against a serious crime.

I can understand why the film has received mixed reviews, but personally I thought it was a well-acted family drama with a nice legal slant. It is too cliched and melodramatic to be a top-level film or Oscar material, though it doesn’t mean that it’s not good enough to fall somewhere between the next couple of rungs on the ladder.

I was far from optimistic that the film would deliver during its early scenes, when we were introduced to Hank Palmer (Downey Jr), an arrogant, selfish and extremely capable lawyer with no moral compass or qualms about setting guilty men free. And when he was forced to return to his country-town home in Indiana, the path of the character journey laid out in front of the audience just seemed way too obvious.

The truth is, The Judge rarely deviates from this path. There core of the film revolves around the damaged father-son relationship and the high-stakes court trial. While both aspects are admittedly executed well by director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers), the film never manages to shake off that air of familiarity. Even the progression of the plot is expected — there are moments of bonding and conflict between father and son, as well as typical ups and downs in court. And we know the answers to the central mysteries of the film — the reason for their estrangement and the judge’s guilt — will come down to a climatic courtroom scene at the end.

General predictability is undoubtedly a problem with the film, though my concerns lie more with its excess of not-particularly-original subplots. There’s the whole hotshot-returns-to-home-he’s-trying-to-forget angle. There’s the ex-girlfriend (Vera Farmiga) he abandoned whom he still clearly has feelings for. There’s the cute daughter (Emma Tremblay) he is trying to connect with and trying to introduce to his father for the first time. There’s his strained relationship with the two brothers he left behind — the older one (Vincent D’Onofrio) whose once promising future was destroyed by a tragic accident, and the younger one (Jeremy Strong) who suffers from a mental disability. There’s even the prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton) on a mission of revenge and justice.

All of these subplots get enough screen time to be intriguing, but none receive sufficient attention to be satisfying. As a result the film’s focus is needlessly scattered and the tonal shifts sometimes come across as far from seamless.

Having said all that, The Judge is saved by it’s super ensemble cast, who elevate the script far above its value on paper. Whenever you throw award-winning and respected veteran thespians like Downey Jr, Duvall, Farmiga, Thornton and D’Onofrio together you know you’re in for some quality drama. Not everything worked, but there are some effective scenes scattered throughout the film. Thanks to the skill and chemistry of the cast, several set pieces that would have been trite and sappy in lesser hands ended up being quite emotional and engrossing.

Theoretically, a cynic like me should have disliked The Judge, a drama that embraces rather than avoids dramatic and courtroom cliches. To my surprise, however, I didn’t mind it, even when I knew I was being manipulated by scenarios similar to ones I had probably seen dozens of times before. It’s by no means perfect, and I don’t deny that it lacks the style and substance required to make it a memorable film, but I confess The Judge pulled enough of my heartstrings for me to call it a worthwhile and appreciable experience.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Date Night (2010)

I like both Steve Carrell and Tina Fey.  More correctly, I admire their talents, but I wouldn’t call myself a huge fan of either comedian.

That’s kind of the way I felt with their collaborative effort, Date Night.  It’s pretty good and I liked the jokes, but it’s not a film I’d really want to see again.  There was nothing wrong with it, but for some reason I just don’t like it as much as I thought I would.

Date Night is directed by Shawn Levy, who was at the helm of one my most hated movies of all time, Just Married, though he did do better with Night at the Museum.

It tells the story of the Fosters, a married couple (Carrell and Fey) with two kids who find their lives becoming too routine, predictable and boring.  But then, on a night out in an attempt to spice up their old romance, the couple become the victims of mistaken identity, which then spirals into a wild and ridiculous ride with hilarious consequences.

It’s one of those films with a decent premise that is more revealing about human nature and real life than we would like to think (with all the stuff about married couples becoming “roommates” over time), but at the same time so many of the jokes are just so outrageous and insane that it’s impossible to take the film seriously.  I won’t ruin the jokes by hinting at what they are, but there were more than a few sequences when I laughed hard and loud.

Date Night’s biggest strength is the comedic pairing of Carrell and Fey, who are both experienced and charismatic performers with the ability to improvise.  As evident from the credits scenes, these two ad-libbed a lot of their lines and a lot of them were probably better than the scripted dialogue.

The second biggest strength of Date Night is the awesome supporting cast.  I absolutely loved all the names in there, from James Franco and Mila Kunis to Leighton Meester, Mark Ruffalo, Ray Liotta, William Fichtner, JB Smoove, and of course Marky Mark Wahlberg.  Each added a different comedic element to the film and elevated the film several levels above what Carrell and Fey would have been able to do on their own.

Having said all of that, I don’t think Date Night will go down as a particularly memorable film in the annals of comedy cinema.  It is very funny at times, but there’s nothing about it that stands out as especially outstanding.  Maybe it’s because I simply don’t like Carrell and Fey enough, and I don’t know why.

3.5 stars out of 5