Tag Archives: Meryl Streep

Movie Review: The Giver (2014)

the giver

The Giver is the latest big screen adaptation of a popular teen sci-fi novel (this one’s based on Lois Lowry’s 1993 book of the same name). But anyone expecting another Hunger Games or Divergent is likely to be disappointed. While The Giver is not a complete waste of time as it explores, maybe intelligently for some, familiar themes about free will and dystopian and utopian societies, in the end there’s just not enough there — whether it’s action, romance, heart or genuine substance — to call it a worthwhile experience.

The story is set several decades into the future, in which a post-war community comes up with the brilliant idea of erasing everyone’s memory in a bid to create a world of peaceful co-existence. Additionally, everyone is assigned to preselected families and jobs, and have to live by a strict set of rules, one of which gives Katie Holmes the opportunity to say, “Precision of language!” a lot. Doesn’t sound like utopia, but I suppose the idea is that ignorance is bliss.

Our 16-year-old protagonist, Jonas (Aussie Brenton Thwaites in yet another Hollywood role), is assigned by the community’s chief elder (Meryl Streep) to the most important role in the community, the next Receiver of Memories, meaning he must become an apprentice to the current receiver, The Giver (Jeff Bridges). Naturally, as the plot necessitates, the more memories of the past Jonas receives, the more he begins to question the validity of the whole regime. Boom shakalaka!

The Giver comes across as a bizarre crossbreed between Pleasantville and Divergent, where people pigeonholed into rigid categories by an authoritarian system shake things up by inevitably giving in to the urges of human nature. And like Divergent, it’s one of those films where you get the sneaking suspicion that the story works much better on the page than the screen because of its high concept premise. There’s no denying that the central conceit of the film is difficult to swallow, and if you think too much you’ll just get tangled up in the web of common sense and logic fails.

Still, I quite liked the pleasing visual style of Aussie director Philip Noyce, and it’s never a bad thing when screen legends Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges are involved. The surprising stand out for me, however, has to be Katie Holmes as Jonas’s mother, though I suppose she has an unfair advantage when it comes to acting zombie-esque in a cult like environment after being married to Tom Cruise for all those years. By the way, Taylor Swift is also in this, and as expected she is a singing robot.

In the end, The Giver feels like a valiant effort at bringing to life a beloved novel, but the various elements just don’t quite come together. This is a film I think lovers of the book might be able to enjoy a lot, though for me it felt like there were more than just a few pieces of the puzzle missing.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Into the Woods (2014)

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Sometimes you just have to go against the grain. Despite the awesome ensemble cast, the reputation of stylish director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Pirates of the Caribbean 4), the box office and critical success, there is only one thing I am certain of: Into the Woods is a shit film.

Based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name, Into the Woods cleverly builds a world combining several Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales such as Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk. At the centre of the story is a couple played by Emily Blunt and James Corden, who come in touch with all these classic fairy tale characters as they try and break a curse that has prevented them from having a child.

It sounds like a fun idea, and for the first few minutes of the film (at least) it was not difficult to see the potential of the premise. You get a bunch of big name stars — from Meryl Streep (whom I cannot believe was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for this role at the upcoming Oscars) and Anna Kendrick to Chris Pine and Johnny Depp — playing wacky characters. The tone is light and tongue-in-cheek, and the script makes good use of our knowledge (and the characters’ lack of knowledge) of the fairy tales they’re in.

And so it came as a slow and painful shock to me that Into the Woods simply didn’t work as a feature film. It may have as a Broadway musical — I don’t know because I haven’t seen it — but I found myself not caring much for the story or the characters. There are some admittedly funny moments, many of which are sarcastic or involve Billy Magnussen, who plays Rapunzel’s unfortunate prince, though the whole “turning fairy tales on their head” gimmick grew tiring in a hurry.

At 124 minutes, the film is far too long and the dark final act dragged on for what felt like an eternity. I actually thought the movie was already long when it hit its faux ending much earlier and had to be forced to endure about another 20 minutes of soulless mayhem.

Strictly speaking there’s nothing wrong with the production per se, though as a whole Into the Woods failed to engage me. I couldn’t get into the story because it was so all over the place, I didn’t get into the songs because there was nothing resembling a catchy melody or song, and I didn’t care about anything or anyone because there was no heart or genuine emotion.

Maybe it’s my bias against fairy tale “reimaginings” or my inability to get most musicals, most notably the big screen adaptation of Les Miserables from 2012. But  even had I approached it a clean slate I just don’t see how I could have come to a different conclusion — and that’s the film is strangely detached, unexciting, and far too long.  It’s a pretty movie to look at and I have the utmost respect for the talented cast on the screen, though these positives alone are insufficient to drag Into the Woods out of the shitter.

2 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part VI

I think this will be my final 2013 movie blitz. There may be more films to see, but if I don’t stop now I’ll never get to my best of and worst of lists for 2013. So here goes. It’s a good one.

Oculus (2013)

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I heard some good things about this horror flick, starring Dr Who’s Karen Gillan, about a pair of siblings who had their lives apparently destroyed by a cursed/haunted antique mirror. Years later, with the pair grown up, they try and fulfill their childhood promise — destroy the mirror, or die trying!

It sounds like a bit of a trite plot, I know, but Oculus deserves credit for a couple of things. First of all, it’s different to most of the haunted house movies out there in that it puts a creative twist on things with the mirror. Secondly, it cleverly tracks two parallel storylines, one from the siblings’ childhood and one from the present, providing an unusual but surprisingly effective contrast that adds suspense and ties the narrative together with a single thread. Thirdly, it makes good use of modern technology — ie, security cameras, etc — to help “capture” the ghosts and its bizarre powers, but without taking a “found footage” approach that could have ruined the entire thing.

I hadn’t seen Karen Gillan in anything before but she’s excellent here as the sister who is convinced she’s doing the right thing. Brenton Thwaites plays her brother, who just got out of a mental institution, and he’s pretty good too because I had no idea he’s an Aussie and Home & Away alumnus! Rory Chochrane, who I’ve seen in a bunch of things including Argo, plays the dad, and Katee Sachhoff, who’s been in 24 and Riddick (but best known for Battlestar Galactica) plays the mother.

There are some things in the film that don’t work quite as well and may come across as silly or just the usual stupid things characters in horror movies do, and the ending was extremely predictable (I guessed it as soon as I saw something about 20 minutes in), but on the whole Oculus is one of the better supernatural horror flicks in recent years. Made on a relatively shoestring $5 million budget, the film is smart and original, and it has a genuinely creepy atmosphere with some solid scares without being completely dependent on “boo!” moments. Excellent sequel potential as well. It may not be quite as good as I had expected after hearing the rave reviews, but at the very least it will make an excellent DVD or on-demand choice for a rainy night in.

3.5 stars out of 5

Enemy (2013)

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Jake Gyllenhaal has been in some movies that can challenge the brain a little bit, like Source Code and of course his breakthrough film Donnie Darko. Well, Enemy, based on José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double, is way more insane than all of his other films put together. In fact, I still have no idea what I just watched. There are plenty of theories out there, but I’m in the camp of people who think it’s pretty much all BS. It’s the most mind-boggling movie I’ve seen since Mulholland Drive.

The premise is not hard to follow. Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a lonely history professor, rents a movie one night and sees an actor who looks exactly like him. And so he seeks out his doppelganger and finds Anthony, a bit actor who has a much more aggressive personality. The rest of the film is about them being spooked out by it and then trying to figure out how to handle the situation, or even take advantage of it.

In some ways, Enemy can be categorized as an erotic thriller because both Adam and Anthony have partners (girlfriend and pregnant wife) and it is for some reason quite sexually charged. But there is something about the film that is just “off.” There is a surreal feel to the experience, which is slow and contemplative but also magnetically compelling. The people don’t act and react like normal people, and some of the decisions they make and things they say are downright baffling. It comes across as a twisted parable of some kind as opposed to any attempt at a “realistic” film.

And the ending, of course, is the big WTF moment. Some will say it’s brilliant, others will say it’s the stupidest thing they’ve ever seen — but I think most will agree that it is indeed shocking.

This is a difficult film to rate because while I admit it was tense while I watched it and admired the performance from Gyllenhaal, I am also annoyed that I had to effectively sit through something I’ll probably never understand. And the thing is, that’s likely the way it was intended.

2.5 stars out of 5

August: Osage County (2013)

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Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, August: Osage County is more or less an acting exhibition from a superstar cast including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts (both nominated for Oscars in their respective roles), Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, Juliette Lewis (remember her?!) and Abigail Breslin.

But is it any good? Well, yes and no. I kind of understand why the film was awarded the dubious honour of “Not-So-Obviously Worst Film” by the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle, because without all the great performances it is just an average, albeit hysterical family drama sprinkled with a dash of occasional black humour.

The plot centers around Meryl Streep’s cancer-ridden, snarky matriarch of the family, Violet, who also has an addiction to narcotics. Her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard) disappears, then turns up dead, and the rest of her family shows up for the funeral, including her eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin); her sister and her sister’s husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their loser son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch); her middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson); and her youngest daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) and her sleazy fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney).

From there, it’s just a whole lotta acting from one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled. It’s intense and it’s heavy, with a lot of shouting and swearing matches, arguments and people flipping out. Some of it is funny — it is, after all, a dark comedy of sorts — but there’s nothing about August: Osage County that made me forget I was watching great actors as opposed to great characters. I enjoyed watching Hollywood heavyweights go at it and I was impressed with how it was put together, but ultimately it was a hollow experience lacking in that resonating quality of top dramas.

3 stars out of 5

Mud (2012)

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Technically, Mud is a 2012 film, but I’m adding it here because it didn’t get a wide release until May 2013. It’s marketed as a Matthew McConaughey vehicle and is one of the first films in his amazing run from Magic Mike to his Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club and the acclaimed True Detective — but this is really a coming-of-age story about a teenager living off the banks of the Arkansas River.

That teenager, Ellis, is played by Tye Sheridan, a rising star who has been in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and will soon be seen in the adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. His strong portrayal of a likable protagonist fuels Mud, one of those throwback films that captures the innocence, hope and heartbreak of adolescence. Instead of loitering the streets, Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) invent their own adventures by climbing trees and scavenging the woods. They are wary of strangers but more curious rather than afraid of them. And even when they do teenager things (like say vulgar things and punch people) there’s a childlike naivete to them that’s endearing. It’s not clear what time period the film is set in (it could be the present), but the rural backdrop away from the modern vices of smartphones and the internet definitely goes a long way to achieving the nuances writer and director Jeff Nichols was aiming for.

One day Ellis, whose parents are struggling both financially and in their marriage, comes across a tree with an abandoned boat stuck on it. The boat is occupied by the titular Mud (McConaughey), an enigmatic squatter with a mysterious background that involves a pretty but damaged blonde called Juniper (played by Reese Witherspoon). Ellis and Neckbone befriend Mud and become his little helpers, though they don’t realise that their benevolence could end up putting their lives in danger.

McConaughey has gotten a lot of praise for his performance as Mud. In my opinion, after having seen a plethora of interviews around his Oscar win, he only deserves half of the credit because was he simply playing himself. Mud is an eccentric fellow who says weird stuff that sounds profound but is really quite stupid, or pretentious even. That’s McConaughey!

Anyway, despite my prejudices against Mr Alright Alright Alright, I can’t deny Mud is a superior coming-of-age flick that brings back warm memories of classics like Stand By Me and of course Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. It’s a good-looking film with fantastic cinematography, solid performances (with a cast that also includes Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard and Sarah Paulson) and plenty of heart. It’s slightly overlong at 130 minutes given its deliberately managed pace, though having said that I was engaged throughout. A pleasant surprise.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

I really enjoyed Up and I thought Coraline was pretty good, but I still don’t consider myself a big fan of animated films.  However, Fantastic Mr Fox is making me reconsider that stance once again.

Initially, I had very little interest in seeing Fantastic Mr Fox – at first glance it looked like one of those weird, unappealing, low-quality stop-motion animations – but a couple of friends told me it was fantastic, and after all, the film is based on the book by Roald Dahl, just my favourite author growing up.

So I watched it, having no recollection of the book (which I am pretty sure I read years ago), and laughed harder than I ever thought I would. 

Fantastic Mr Fox (directed by Wes Anderson – The Darjeeling Limited, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) has my type of humour.  It’s dry, deadpan, random and crazy.  It’s quite Simpsonesque in many ways.  There’s a few clever recurring jokes that never seem to get old, and it’s a film that fully utilises the stop-motion animation techniques to maximise the hilarity.  Who would have thought jerky movements could be so funny?

George Clooney is perfect as the titular character Mr Fox.  His deadpan delivery and voice, which sometimes irritates me, was spot on here.  Supporting Clooney is a wonderful voice cast, including Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Michael Gambon, Owen Wilson and Willem Dafoe, though none stand out as much as Clooney does.

At the end of the day, it’s really just a weird little story with some weird big laughs, but I have a feeling Fantastic Mr Fox could become a classic in years to come.

4 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: It’s Complicated (2009)

It’s Complicated is actually relatively simple: a woman, her ex-husband, and the new guy in her life.

It’s directed by Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give, The Holiday and What Women Want), so you have a fair idea of what to expect (don’t worry, I almost vomited too).  Mature, romantic, lightly comedic and more seriously dramatic than it should be.  Ultimately, a decent film but not a great one.

What makes It’s Complicated better than I expected is the excellent cast.  People are going to have their opinions on Meryl Streep, but I think the woman is capable of anything.  Seriously, she could probably play Neo better than Keanu in The Matrix, or the Wolf better than Jason Bateman in Teen Wolf Too.  She’s that good, and her performance as Jane is no exception.

Interestingly, Jane is also a fantastic cook.  Streep already played Julia Child in Julie & Julia, and now she gives us more food porn to make us hungry in It’s Complicated.  Not that I am complaining.  The delightful food is definitely more enticing than the old people sex that we have to put up with.  Though to Meyer’s (and Streep’s) credit, that aspect of the film was nowhere near as bad as I imagined it would be.

Alec Baldwin is also terrific as the ex-husband.  He surprised me, actually, because although Jake should be a hated character, Baldwin’s charm manages to make him endearing.  The best actor of the Baldwin brothers, for sure.

Steve Martin, on the other hand, looked…weird.  Is he getting botox injections or plugs or both?  I wouldn’t let someone that looks like that (with a creepy smile to boot) near my kids (in the event that I ever have any).  But apart from that, he was great.  A subtle, controlled performance as Adam, the other guy.

It was also good to see Hunter Parrish (Silas from Weeds) in there, even though he played the pansy son who didn’t really do anything.  Oh, and John Krasinski (from the American version of The Office) as Harley, the future son-in-law, provided the best laughs.

Speaking of laughs, there weren’t that many.  That’s my main gripe with It’s Complicated.  There were plenty of amusing lines, but few were laugh-out-loud funny.  In addition, most of the best jokes were already spoiled by the advertisements which I accidentally came across (at a time I didn’t think I’d end up seeing the film).  Don’t you hate it when that happens?

When all said and done, It’s Complicated was kind of enjoyable.  Interesting premise, amusing, and both lighthearted and serious, but nothing special.  I can see young people struggling with this one given how “adult” it is, but the oldies should love it.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Julie & Julia (2009)

When I first saw the poster for Julie & Julia, I literally went ‘meh’.  A drama with Meryl Streep and Amy Adams as the two leads?  I enjoyed Doubt (which they starred in together in 2008) but this so didn’t look like my type of movie.

However, I later found out that the film was about food.  And that it was based on not one, but two intertwining true stories.  And most of all, the book upon which the film was based arose out of a blog!  That was when the aspiring writer inside convinced me I had to watch it.

I don’t like to spoil the plot, but in this case it helps to provide a bit of background.  Julia Child (Meryl Streep) is a famous American chef and author (pardon my ignorance), and Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is an average woman who attempts to cook every recipe in her cookbook in a year while chronicling her experiences in a blog.  The movie somehow manages to switch seamlessly between the two women – Julia in the 1950s as she learns to cook and piece together her cookbook, and Julie in 2002 she develops her blog project into a web sensation.

So how was it?

Written and directed by Nora Ephron (who last worked on Bewitched in 2005, but also did Sleepless in Seattle), Julie & Julia is very much a relationship drama that seeks to appeal to a predominantly female audience.  The main male characters, Julie and Julia’s husbands (played by Chris Messina and Stanley Tucci, respectively), are portrayed as virtual saints who are completely devoted to their wives.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it made me wish there was more tension in their lives than just burnt stews in the oven.

To be frank, it still wasn’t my type of movie.  The stories of the two women were somewhat interesting.  The food appeared to be absolutely divine.  The performances were superb (as you would expect from Streep and Adams).  Some bits were quite humorous.  And yet, it didn’t do a whole lot for me.  It’s not that it was bland.  It’s just that I wasn’t as absorbed as I thought I would be.  Maybe it’s just me.

On the other hand, the inspiring climb to success of both women was pretty cool.  There’s just something about watching other writers ‘make it’ that gets me all excited.

So to sum it all up, a good movie, but not really for me.

3 stars out of 5!

Oscars/Golden Globes Film Reviews Part III

I’ve done it.  I finally managed to watch all the Oscar/Golden Globe nominated films I could possibly get to before the Oscar ceremony on Sunday!

Here’s the third instalment of my short Flixter film reviews and possibly the best of the lot!  The first instalment can be found here (Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, The Wrestler, The Reader, Vicki Cristina Barcelona, In Bruges, Pineapple Express, Burn After Reading, Tropic Thunder, Changeling, Mamma Mia, The Dark Knight and Kung Fu Panda) and the second here (WALL-E and Gran Torino).

Again, ratings are out of 5 stars.

rachel-getting-married1Rachel Getting Married (3.5 stars)

Years of suppressed family emotions explode around a family wedding. Well-written script with some clever dialogue and witty interactions, even though this type of drama would not be everyone’s cup of tea. A remarkable performance by Anne Hathway (I didn’t know she could act this well) and a solid supporting cast. Not all of it worked but enough of it did.

 

doubt1Doubt (3.5 stars)

Extraordinary performances all round (Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman as always, but Amy Adams really stole the show as the doubting nun), but it was an obvious play adaptation with lots and lots of talking. The characters were extremely well defined, though I couldn’t help but feel there was a certain clunkiness in the way things panned out. Not to take away too much from this film because it tackles many of the themes very cleverly through subtle actions and explosive dialogue.  Doubt is indeed an apt title for this film.

 

milkMilk (4 stars)

True story about the first openly gay public official in America.  Pretty incredible movie and a ridiculously superb performance by Sean Penn. It was entertaining, informative, frightening and enlightening all at the same time. Hard to believe it was only 30 years ago that this happened in our world. I particularly liked the ending where they showed the real life counterparts of the actors.

 

revolutionary-roadRevolutionary Road (4 stars)

It’s hard to know where to begin with a movie that explores the essence of life, love, marriage, children, work, dreams, hopes and reality. It is so rare to see such a brutal, honest, emotional portrayal of suburban and married life, no matter what era. Granted, some people won’t get it for one reason or another, but those that do will find a story that will resonate with them for a long time. All performances are outstanding – I know Kate Winslet has gotten all the attention for this role and The Reader, but Leonardo DiCaprio is really her equal in this film, and it’s a shame he didn’t get the same recognition. Michael Shannon was also brilliant and stole every scene he was in.

 

benjamin-buttonThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button (4.5 stars)

A strange premise but an ultimately rewarding film. The make up and special effects are the best I’ve ever seen, both the ageing and the de-ageing stuff is just phenomenal. The film works not really as a running narrative but rather as a series of moments, like its tagline. I found it very captivating to go through the journey of life with this bizarre character, through his ups and downs, flaws and all. There are some minor problems and it is a tad too long, plus Brad Pitt wasn’t truly able to capture the nuances of the ageing process (he acted like the way he looked rather than the age he was) – however, I think when it’s all said and done this is one of the more memorable movies in recent years.

*     *     *

NB: Just a few words about my rating and review system.  First and foremost, they are taken directly from Flixter, so are always short.  I don’t like to discuss too much plot in my reviews because I think it ruins a movie.  Which is why (even though I can’t help but watch them) I generally dislike previews because they tend to give away too much by revealing the best bits and almost always contain spoilers.  I also hate long reviews that reveal too much plot (this happens a lot these days in reviews I read) – what’s the point of telling everyone what the entire film is about?  With my ratings, they are out of 5 and are entirely subjective, always decided on the spot based on gut instinct after viewing.  I never re-adjust a rating afterward and I don’t compare them to previous ratings – hence two films can have the same rating but I may think one is better than the other.  Also, I tend to find there is a significant difference between 2.5 stars (below average) and 3 stars (good) and 3.5 stars (pretty good) and 4 stars (excellent), more so than other half-star differences.

Lastly, the only 5 star film reviewed in these 3 posts is The Wrestler, which I think is the best film I’ve seen so far this year.  For the Best Picture Oscar nominees, The Reader and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button are tied with 4.5 stars, but I think the latter is the film I prefer.  Though it is a moot point anyway since Slumdog Millionaire is going to win!