Tag Archives: michael fassbender

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Unlike the majority of the movie-going audience, I was one of those people who really enjoyed 2012’s Prometheus. While I acknowledged its flaws and all the nonsensical, I found myself captivated by the horror and action elements as well as the creature designs and mythology of the universe it had created.

Fast forward now to Alien: Covenant, which is carrying high expectations given Ridley Scott’s return to form following The Martian. Whereas Prometheus tried to shy away from a direct connection to the Alien franchise, the title of this sequel indicates that they are fully embracing it this time. The trailers also showed that the movie appeared to be returning to the horror roots of the original. To be honest, even though I thought the trailers looked good, I wasn’t all that sold on Alien: Covenant because it felt like it was trying too hard to recapture the magic of the original, putting it at risk of resorting to cliches and thinly veiled homages.

Turned out I was wrong. Alien: Covenant is without a doubt a true sequel to Prometheus, but it also fails to duplicate the sense of genuine terror that made Alien so great and the awesome action that made Aliens an instant classic.

The story picks up about a decade after the Prometheus went missing, with the Covenant carrying a new crew and a whole bunch of colonists and embryos in cryosleep. The only waking member when the film starts is Walter (Michael Fassbender), an android with the same likeness as David from Prometheus. Naturally, stuff happens, and the crew finds themselves on a detour where deadly alien life may or may not be lurking.

The cast is led by the brilliant Assbender (he bends so much ass in this film) and Katherine Waterston as Daniels, with a surprisingly effective dramatic performance by usual stoner Danny McBride and the typically reliable Billy Crudup. There are about half a dozen other supporting characters, but none of them are particularly memorable, which is one of the key problems I had with the film. In fact, apart from Assbender, no one really stands out, not even Waterston, who falls way short of channeling her inner Ellen Ripley. Despite the similar height and the hair, it’s not even close.

You don’t need to have seen Prometheus to understand what happens in this film, though it certainly helps. That said, I can still imagine a lot of people being confused as to what’s going on with the plot, especially regarding what happened on the planet on which the characters find themselves on. Even I had to go back and read up on Prometheus again on Wikipedia to give myself a bit of a refresher on all the stuff about the mysterious Engineers and so forth.

However, the most important reason people will watch Alien: Covenant is for the horror/action, and the film does enough to satisfy, for the most part. Notwithstanding a couple of scenarios I found somewhat tacky, most of the horror sequences in the film deliver, with one in particular standing out from the first half of the movie. I liked that the film did not shy away from the gore and some very disgusting visuals, though I felt not enough time was spent on building up the suspense. I also enjoyed the evolution of the creatures throughout the film until we see the classic facehuggers and of course the first xenomorph. Kudos for using mostly animatronics for the creature effects as they simply look a lot more realistic than CGI.

So I found myself frightened, disgusted and excited at various parts throughout the 123-minute movie, but never truly terrified like I was for Alien or on the edge of my seat like I was for Aliens.  Considering it also had a plot that was probably more convoluted than necessary, a fairly predictable ending, and a lack of memorable characters, Alien: Covenant was clearly not as good as I wanted it to be. Despite enjoying it for what it was and being engaged all the way through, I actually think I prefer Prometheus more.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: I just heard they are filming the sequel to Alien: Covenant starting next year.

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

I don’t like to just accept the word of other people when it comes to shit movies. I have to experience it for myself before I can call a movie shit. And so, despite the negative reviews, I decided to throw down some cash to watch Assassin’s Creed, the long awaited adaptation of the popular video game franchise that I have always wanted to but never played. And NOW, I can finally say it: Assassin’s Creed is indeed shit. Very shit.

Like Warcraft before it, Assassin’s Creed was hailed as the possible saviour of the future of game-to-film adaptations. There was certainly every reason to be optimistic: It is directed by Aussie filmmaker Justin Kurzel, who first shot to fame with the harrowing true story Snowtown. Kurzel has a way with gripping storytelling and a flair for visuals, and seems to always manage to bring out the best of his actors, as he did with Michael Fassbender (henceforth “Assbender”) and Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard in Macbeth. And guess who also stars in Assassin’s Creed? Yes, Assbender and Cotillard, plus Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons, Silver Bear winner Charlotte Rampling, Brendan Gleeson and Omar Little himself from The Wire (ie, Michael K Williams). So you know they had every intention making a great movie.

Sadly, it feels like Assassin’s Creed to was doomed to failure from the start. Sure, the visuals are great — it’s exactly as how I imagined an adaptation would look from the snippets of the game I’ve seen. The action is solid (though not spectacular — I felt it could have been more inventive and there was a lot of killing but not much “assassinating”). The performers do their best to give emotion to their wooden lines of exposition. However, nothing could save Assassin’s Creed from its ridiculously silly and non-sensical premise and convoluted plot.

I haven’t played the game so I don’t really know how much the script is based on the game, but essentially, there is some ancient mystical item called the Apple of Eden (roll eyes), which contains the genetic code for free will. You read that correctly. The Knights Templar want it for world domination, and the Assassin Order (why not just call it Assassin’s Creed?) are a clandestine group sworn to protect it. I could probably work with that premise, except they chose to set the film in the present day and have a scientist (Cotillard) send a descendant of one of the assassins (Assbender) — who, by the way, looks exactly the same as his ancestor — back to the past using some sci-fi machine to access his “gene memory” so they can trace the Apple of Eden back to the days of the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century. Yeah.

I knew the film was in trouble right from the opening text explaining the above premise on the screen. It’s just too non-sensical and unnecessarily complex for a movie like this. Kudos for making everyone speak Spanish for the 15th century scenes, but apart from that, the decision to have this dual timeline made it virtually impossible for Assassin’s Creed to be any good. Knowing that everything you see from the 15th century has already happened and cannot be changed (it is, after all, just “gene memory”) really saps the excitement and tension out of it. And let’s face it: None of it makes any sense. The modern rock music choices were also quite jarring, kind of like how Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit was blamed for ruining Pan in 2015. Rather than wasting all this time on this split/dual timeline, they could put more effort into character development, of which there was virtually none to speak of.

As I mentioned earlier, Assbender and Cotillard do their best, though all throughout they had this sad look on their faces that screamed, “This isn’t working.” I actually whispered to myself during the movie, “What the f*&% is going on?”, and, I kid you not, only to hear Assbender’s character say the exact same line just seconds later.

Some ideas work well for games but stink for movies. I’m more convinced than ever that Assassin’s Creed is a perfect example of this. The filmmakers were probably afraid of offending the game’s fanbase and tried to mirror the premise as closely as possible. It’s a fatal mistake that crushed any opportunity for the movie to succeed. Instead of a film that gives hope to future video game adaptations, Assassin’s Creed should make film studios very, very afraid. If all this talented cast and crew can produce is an incoherent, ludicrous, lifeless piece of garbage, what chance does everyone else have?

1.5 stars out of 5

PS: I forgot to mention the anti-climatic ending that presumes a sequel is coming. Assassin’s Creed has made around US$150m off a US$125m budget, so that should (with the addition of marketing costs) equate to a loss that will keep everyone safe from a sequel.

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

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X-Men: Apocalypse is Fox’s answer to Warner Bros’ Batman v Superman and Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. Like those blockbusters, it’s also an action- and effects-packed event film stacked with superheroes, stars and extremely high stakes. I loved First Class and Days of Future Past, the first two films in the McAvoy-Fassbender reboot, and so I was really looking forward to Apocalypse, with the brilliant Oscar Isaac as the titular mutant villain with powers unlike anything we’ve seen before.

But for whatever reason, the hype surrounding Apocalpyse just prior to its release has been surprisingly subdued. It might be that audiences are finally starting to suffer from superhero fatigue, or perhaps it’s the lukewarm early reviews it has received from some critics. There are claims that it’s boring, underwhelming and lacks logic, and I’ve even come across accusations of Jennifer Lawrence phoning it in with her performance as shapeshifter Mystique.

Well, I have no idea what all these critics are talking about, because I just watched it and thought it was awesome. I don’t know if it’s because of lowered expectations, but Apocalypse was nearly everything I had hoped it would be. Amazing cast, solid action, just enough drama and humour, and a fantastic villain worthy of the film’s title. It’s almost as though I watched a different version of the movie.

The plot is of course very simple. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), possibly the most badass mutant in history, awakes from his slumber in the 1980s and decides to…er…bring about the apocalypse on Earth. But first he goes about landing his Four Horsemen, and you’ll know who they are if you’ve seen the posters and/or trailer. I know what you’re thinking — why would someone as powerful as Apocalpyse even need minions? The film doesn’t spell it out, but I thought the reason was obvious.

Who can stop him? The X-Men, of course. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is now running his school for gifted kids like it’s Hogwarts, with Hank McCoy, aka Beast (Nicholas Hoult), by his side. Meanwhile, Mystique, kind of a hero among mutants since the events of Days of Future Past, is still out there doing her thing, while antihero Erik Lennsher, aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender), has moved on with his life.

The film also introduces (in some cases re-introduces) us to younger versions of familiar names, like Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Also returning to reprise their roles are Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggert and Evan Peters as Quicksilver. Additionally, there’s a nice little extended cameo that’s unfortunately been spoiled by the final trailer.

First of all, I want to discuss the character  of Apocalypse. Yes, he is cliched in that he’s an all-powerful villain hell bent on destroying the world for some reason. But honestly, with a name like that, what else could he have been without diverting too far from the comics? If you accept that the constraints of the character are unavoidable, everything else about him is awesome.

For all the negativity of when the photos of Apocalpyse were “leaked” more than a year ago, I thought he actually looked pretty good for a blue skinned villain. I’m glad they went the prosthetics route rather than CGI, giving him a sense of realism the character badly needed. The voice, added and modified in post-production, is also really cool (it’s hard to explain, just have to listen for yourself).

Apocalpyse’s assortment of powers is also impressive, and we at least get to know why he is as powerful as he is. I think the film gets it right in terms of just how powerful and invincible he is. He needs to be powerful enough to be intimidating and more formidable than anything we’ve seen in the past, but not so omnipotent that it becomes silly or ridiculous in the sense that the good guys still have to be able to stop him somehow in the end.

And what really elevates Apocalypse above just another cliched villain is the marvellous performance of Oscar Isaac. Despite being covered head to toe in heavy make-up and prosthetics, he carries the character with the right amount of menace, persuasiveness and god-like mentality. I’m sure the character would have been much less convincing without an actor of Isaac’s calibre and gravitas.

As for the other performances, first prize goes to Assbender. This dude always brings it, and once again he makes Magneto the most interesting character in the X-Men universe. He was bending asses left and right like he was bending metal. As with other X-Men films, it’s an ensemble cast with no real main lead, but in this one Magneto provides the emotional core in the same way Mystique did in Days of Future Past. His counterpart, McAvoy, also brought it as Professor X, and I was glad to see him contribute to some of the lighter moments of the movie, especially in his interactions with Rose Byrne. And I also found no fault with Jennifer Lawrence whatsoever. Sure, she’s not going to be winning any Oscars as Mystique, but I really couldn’t tell why her performance justified complaint. She wasn’t even in her blue makeup very much in this one. Take away her flatter delivery on a couple of the cheesier lines and she’s as good as she’s always been in this franchise.

Kudos to the kids who play the younger versions of Cyclops, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler too. Cyclops has always drawn the short straw in these X-Men movies, so it’s good to finally see him get a bit of an origins story and a much-needed personality. I’ve always thought of Tye Sheridan as a potential star, and hopefully he can continue as the future leader of the X-Men if they continue to make further entries in this franchise. Sophie Turner has a pivotal role as Jean Grey and she seems to have brought that Sansa Stark vulnerability and hidden strength along with her to this role. Kodi Smit-McPhee is also a standout, making Nightcrawler one of the most likable characters in the movie.

The one who steals the show again is Evan Peter’s Quicksilver, who has another fantastic super-speed sequence and delivers the best comic relief in the same way that Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) did in Civil War. Speaking of Civil WarApocalypse also does a similarly good job of spreading the love between the characters so that everyone gets enough screen time and their own chance to shine. Ensemble movies like these are like giant puzzles with lots of moving pieces, and director Bryan Singer nails the complex task impressively.

Having said that, Apocalypse is by no means a perfect movie. While Apocalypse may have reasonable motives for his actions, it’s not as apparent with his Four Horsemen. Other than Magneto, their reasons for following a villain determined to destroy the world are rather weak, especially Psylocke (Olivia Munn), who looks great in her skimpy outfit but doesn’t get to do a whole lot to develop her character. In fact, we have almost no idea who she is or what she’s about.

The action sequences as a whole are fine, though I felt the fight scenes could have been a little more creative. Nonetheless, it’s still better than what we got in Batman v Superman. The climatic battle at the end is long and well-executed. While it’s not in the same league as Civil War’s “airport scene”, it does make good use of the characters and their respective powers. Unfortunately, I did find all the destruction a little numbing and lacking in spectacle. If you’ve seen the planet get annihilated once, you seen it thousand times, and in this regard Apocalypse does not offer any new intrigue or perspective. One reason could be because we hardly even see any humans in the movie. Although we’re talking about the end of the whole world, the stakes appear to only involve the mutants, and all the human deaths (and there are a lot of them) aren’t made to feel like they matter at all.

The special effects are generally good enough, though there are some moments — particular the wide angle shots of landscapes from afar — look too CGI-ish. I also wasn’t a fan of the video-game quality of the opening sequence.

I also thought the movie had a good dose of comedy — many tongue-in-cheek and self-referential — notwithstanding some very heavy scenes, but I felt some of the transitions between the different tones could have been smoother.

Lastly, the 144-minute running time is long, but the storytelling is tight enough to not make the film drag. Could it have been shorter? Of course. But it’s not a huge problem because the pacing is sound and the narrative isn’t all over the place like that other superhero movie released earlier this year (cough, BvS, cough).

In all, X-Men: Apocalypse is a really enjoyable and satisfying experience that should set the blueprint for Marvel’s Infinity Wars in that it will also be about a bunch of superheroes with different powers teaming up to take on a single supervillain (ie, Thanos). I’ll have to watch First Class and Days of Future Past again, but at the moment I would rank Apocalypse just behind those two, which from memory had stronger plots, more of a “wow” factor and the advantage of freshness. However, in the scheme of all X-Men movies (there are nine if you include Deadpool and two Wolverine movies), Apocalypse is definitely in the top 5 for me, possibly even higher.

4 stars out of 5

PS: There is a post-credits scene, but without any knowledge of the comics it doesn’t really mean anything to me.

Slow West (2015)

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I’m getting close to finishing off my list of 2015 films to watch so I can finally do my best of and worst of lists. One film that was suddenly added to the list was Slow West, a little-known Western that caught my eye after it found its way onto a couple of “Best of 2015” lists I came across.

Created by first-time writer and director John Maclean, Slow West stands out because it is so darn unusual. It may star Michael Fassbender and recognisable names such as Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn, but it’s understandable why the film got so little buzz among mainstream audiences and media even though it won jury prize at Sundance.

The premise is weird: McPhee plays Jay, a young Scottish man who heads to the American West to search for his love. There, he encounters Silas (Assbender), a bounty hunter who offers to protect him along the way in exchange for payment. But ulterior motives are involved and Jay doesn’t really know if he should be terrified of Silas or trust the bounty hunter with his life — or both.

It’s not easy to describe the kind of film Slow West is. The title is apt because it is a Western and the pace is slow. It’s an atypical coming-of-age film that’s pretty to look at, quirky, awkward, darkly comedic and slightly absurd, but also extremely violent. This sweet juxtaposition reminds me a little of Fargo, both the movie and the TV show, which I think just are two of the greatest things ever made. If you’ve seen the movie or the show you’ll have an idea of what I mean, though in my opinion Slow West isn’t quite up to the level of those masterpieces.

Smit-McPhee, who a lot of people don’t realise is Aussie, is carving out quite a career for himself despite not growing up looking like a traditional heartthrob. The Road, Let Me In and soon X-Men: Apocalypse as Nightcrawler; the 19-year-old is sure picking a lot of great roles. He’s excellent in Slow West, exuding a quiet charm and resiliency despite playing essentially quite a wimpy character.

Likewise, Assbender is totally bending asses again left and right as the cool bounty hunter. It’s good to see him produce and star in a small film like this while making all these huge blockbusters, and putting in equal effort to make his characters come to life no matter the size of the role or the budget.

As much as I enjoyed it, I recognise Slow West is likely to polarise audiences. It has elements that critics love (92% on Rotten Tomatoes), but may be too weird and slow — even at just 84 minutes — for mainstream audiences. Personally, I found it to be nice little film, interesting and funny enough to sustain my interest until the wild and gripping climax. While I wouldn’t place it in my top 10 of 2015, I appreciate it for what it is and look forward to seeing Maclean had in store for us next.

3.5 stars out of 5

Steve Jobs (2015)

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Artwork courtesy of Sydney artist Hubert Widjaya

I must reassess my judgment that Jobs, the Steve Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher released earlier in the year, isn’t very good because it only covers a small segment of the Apple founder’s life. Now I am convinced that it’s not very good because, well, it simply isn’t.

The reason? I recently watched Steve Jobs, the second Steve Jobs biopic of 2015, and the one that actually took its time to develop into something worthwhile. Strangely, it’s an anti-biopic of sorts, choosing to eschew conventional storytelling in favour of behind-the-scenes looks at three separate Apple product launches that are presented virtually  in real time, with a few snippets of flashbacks, news footage and other footage to fill in the gaps.

I was initially not a fan of the idea, thinking it might come across as gimmicky and failing to present a complete picture. But as it turns out, they totally nailed it, delivering a powerful, dramatic and insightful film that captures one of the most iconic innovators of this generation better than I could have ever expected. It’s proof that unconventional approaches can work if the right people are involved and it’s executed the right way.

Credit should be shared across the board, starting with director Danny Boyle (who won the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire in 2008) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. This was a difficult project for a myriad of reasons, the first of which being that Boyle wasn’t even supposed to be directing in the first place. Sorkin had originally written the script with David Fincher in mind, aiming to emulate the success of their previous collaboration, The Social Network. But then Fincher dropped out due to contractual reasons, and Boyle took over a project that was already in mid-flight and custom built for someone else. The actor playing Jobs was supposed to be Christian Bale, and then Leo DiCaprio, and then Bale again, but eventually they settled on Michael Fassbender, whose casting raised eyebrows due to the complete lack of physical resemblance.

And yet, Boyle was able to steer the ship around in the right direction, executing Sorkin’s tightly-wound, threatre-style screenplay into an intense and captivating drama. There are shades of The Social Network in Steve Jobs as both films portray unlikable geniuses who go on to accomplish amazing things, though Boyle adds his lighter touch to the tone and aesthetics so that it doesn’t feel quite as dark.

And Sorkin, of course, did a fantastic job with the script. When I first head that it was going to be “based on” the definitive biography written by Walter Isaacson — one of the most comprehensive and detailed biographies I’ve read — I thought the film was going to be a chronological, step-by-step telling of Jobs’ life story. Instead, what Sorkin did was just take the product launches and a bunch of characters, some personal details and the interactions between them, and essentially craft a brand new story of his own. It’s highlighted by Sorkin’s trademark rapid-fire dialogue and his unique brand of high-voltage conversational conflicts, but at the same time he’s paying careful attention to the transformation of the characters over the years while staying true to the core facts.

The focus and common thread running through the narrative is Jobs’ relationship with Lisa, the daughter he vehemently denied for most of the early years of her life. This relationship is the “pulse” of the film, and from memory Sorkin gets the father-daughter dynamic — at least as it feels in Isaacson’s book — right on the button.

Sorkin’s best work usually comes when he’s confined by a set of parameters (like for this film and The Social Network), as opposed to when he’s given unfettered authority over the material (like for The Newsroom). It’s a minor travesty that Sorkin wasn’t nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the upcoming Academy Awards because there’s no one else on the planet who could have written a masterful script like this.

The performances also play a huge part. Assbender has bent asses before, but never quite like this. Yes, you worry about the lack of physical similarities between him and Steve Jobs, but he is so utterly brilliant in this role that you essentially forget about it by the end of the film. He embodied Jobs — or at least Sorkin’s version of him — so completely that he makes the character his own, so much so that he actually begins to physically resemble Jobs more by the film’s final act. There is no comparison between Assbender’s performance and that of Ashton Kutcher, who may have looked more like Jobs than his counterpart but was ultimately doing an impersonation.

The two main supporting roles — Kate Winslet as marketing exec and confidant Joanna Hoffman, and Jeff Daniels as former Apple CEO and mentor John Sculley — are also worthy of praise. Winslet, ever the chameleon, instantly makes Hoffman the most likeable character in the entire film, not just because she’s one of the only people who sees Jobs for who he is and dares to stand up to him, but also because she makes Jobs more human by accentuating both both his flaws and virtues. Winslet also does a cracking accent too, and her Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress is well deserved.

Daniels, on the other hand, gets to handle some of the most explosive dialogue in the film as Sculley, the man forever blamed for ousting Jobs from Apple back in the 1990s. He’s solid as usual, though my guess is that Academy voters overlooked him because he comes across as too similar in feel to Will McAvoy, his character in The Newsroom.

Other quality actors fill up the cast, including Inherent Vice‘s Katherine Waterston, A Serious Man‘s Michael Stuhlbarg and rising Aussie star Sarah Snook. The one that stands out, however, is Seth Rogen as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Frankly, I never thought Rogen could play anyone other than a stoner, and it’s kinda weird — but very welcoming — that he holds his own against Assbender.

The problems I have with Steve Jobs are simple. First of all, despite my praise for Sorkin’s masterful screenwriting, the film is still limited in scope. As well as he did in presenting us with a layered picture of Jobs, we’re still only getting three product launches, and they’re likely not be the ones that you envisaged. I wanted more, perhaps in the form of an additional launch or extended flashbacks, but with a hefty 122-minute running time already the film risked becoming too much to swallow.

Secondly, it’s hard to accept the film as a biopic when most, if not all, the scenes and conversations are merely figments of Sorkin’s imagination. It’s more or less historical fiction, and as such, you can only consider it a piece of entertainment as opposed to any kind of legitimate portrayal of Jobs’ legacy. It’s similar to Sorkin’s version of Zuckerberg in The Social Network, except even more fictionalised. Apparently there are those who say Sorkin, Boyle and Assbender got Jobs completely wrong, while there are others who say the unflattering depiction of Jobs is actually going easy on him. It’s not a criticism per se, though it is weird that a movie called Steve Jobs doesn’t accurately portray the man, especially when it is promoted as being based on the only authorised biography of the subject.

Steve Jobs is ultimately a work of fiction featuring the names of real people, but boy is it a wonderful work of fiction. To be able to capture the essence of such a remarkably successful and complex man in a two-hour movie across three real-time set pieces — irrespective of how it compares to the real-life version —  is an astonishing feat in itself. Limitations aside, it’s a superbly directed, written and performed drama that also happens to be entertaining and inspirational.

4.25 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part VII

I know I saw no more 2013 movie blitzes, but I lied. So here’s another one with some high profile flicks.

The Butler (2013)

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The natural inclination is to assume that The Butler is the black Forrest Gump — a simple unassuming man who happens to be a bystander in major historical events that shaped the world.

But that’s not really fair. For starters, The Butler is a “true story”, apparently, as it is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, a real-life African-American butler who worked for the White House for 34 years. Here he is renamed Cecil Gaines and is played by Forest Whitaker. Secondly, most of the film is focused on the civil rights movement in the 1960s, contrasting Cecil’s desire to just “do his job” at the White House against his son Louis’s (David Oyelowo) active involvement. Thirdly, The Butler is nothing like Forrest Gump in that it is a serious drama almost devoid of humor. And lastly, The Butler stars Oprah!

The film is directed by Lee Daniels, who was at the helm of the award-winning Precious back in 2009. That was a small budget, personal drama, whereas this is an ambitious epic filled with major Hollywood stars, though the general feel of the films are largely similar. In other words, it is engaging, never really dull, but never superior entertainment. And depending on your perspective, you may find it either emotionally satisfying or too obviously manipulative. 

I have heard mixed reviews about the film, which reflects my feelings toward it. The performances are brilliant — there is no doubt about that and I don’t think anyone expected anything less with this cast. That said, I found the casting a little bit jarring. With the exception of the little known David Oyelowo, just about everyone else is a recognizable star. You have Mariah Carey playing Cecil’s mother in a small cameo, Terrence Howard as a neighbour, Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz as co-workers, and a whole bunch of big names playing American presidents — Robin Williams is Eisenhower, James Marston is JFK, Liev Schreiber is Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack is Richard Nixon, and strangely, Alan Rickman is Ronald Reagan. That doesn’t even include all the other recognisable names such as Jane Fonda, Minka Kelly, Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, and so forth. And of course, there’s Oprah, who is an excellent actress but too…Oprah…to avoid being a distraction.

It was interesting watching the historical events unfold, though if you are not American, and in particular African-American, the emotional impact may be less powerful. More importantly, Cecil Gaines was not a particularly charming protagonist — he had his moments, but by and large he was a very muted, restrained man, and anytime he did something out of the ordinary it felt overly sentimental. I’m not saying there wasn’t any subtlety, though the nuances definitely could have been handled better. The relationship that drove the movie, that between father and son, was executed well, but I think the film undercuts itself with too much obviously intentional melodrama that audiences who know what they’re in for will easily see through. 

3 stars out of 5

The Counselor (2013)

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The Counselor is one of those WTF movies where there are a lot of big names attached and you can’t figure out why. It’s based on an original screenplay by Cormick McCarthy, whose novels have been adapted into solid films such as No Country for Old Men and The Road. It’s directed by the legendary ridley Scott and features an all star cast including Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt. But the film — and I have to be honest here — is crap.

Fassbender plays eponymous Counseler, a lawyer of some sort who gets in over his head when he becomes involved in a drug deal with Mexican cartels. The film features a lot of conversations that appeared to have no direct relation to the plot, and they speak in ways that make you feel like there is some big mystery involved when things are actually very straightforward and simple. It is also a film that fancies itself as a bit of an erotic thriller — there is some raunchy pillow talk between Fassbender and his in-film girlfriend Cruz, and Cameron Diaz makes love to a car. Yes, you read that correctly.

It is quite a violent film, though there is really only one scene that made me a little squirmish. People who hate Brad Pitt should love it.

My main problem with this movie is that it tries too hard to create an atmosphere it does not deserve. The makers of the movie talk about things such as greed, primal instincts and dealing with the consequences of our choices, but at the end of the day it’s just about a guy who gets into a drug deal, things go wrong and shit happens. Except not a whole lot actually happens. For all the talking and acting, it is shocking how little action and suspense there is.

So despite the big names and the solid performances, The Counselor has to be one of the year’s biggest disappointments. We know Cormick McCarthy can be brilliant, but this is him at his pretentious worst.

1.75 stars out of 5

The Way Way Back (2013)

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A film that should have gotten way more buzz than it did. Coming of age films aren’t what they used to be, which is why The Way Way Back is such a refreshing and yet nostalgic breath of fresh air.

Liam James is quite the revelation as 14-year-old Duncan, and awkward, withdrawn and humorless teenager who reluctantly goes on a summer holiday to a small seaside town with his mother (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and his typical teenage daughter (Steph Ramsey). 

Being the way that he is, Duncan naturally hates it there as everyone else seems to be having the time of their lives without him. But then he meets two people who change his life. The first is the pretty older daughter of a neighbour, played by AnnaSophia Robb, who seems to be more intrigued by Duncan’s odd personality than hanging out with other popular girls her age. The second is the manager of the local water park, played by Sam Rockwell, a carefree dude who is full of fun and jokes but appears to be stuck permanently in a state of arrested development.

Before long Duncan begins working at the water park and gets to know a whole host of quirky, oddball characters. While he struggles at home dealing with his family life, he begins coming out of his shell at work where everything seems to flourish for him.

At first glance this is the type of film we all feel like we have seen before, but there is just something about it that works. 

My guess starts with the immensely likable characters who all have their own quirks and are believable despite not being developed to perfection. Duncan, to be brutally honest, comes across initially as a potential mass shooting waiting to happen, but then we fall in love with his innocence and naivete. He makes you want to root for him, and that’s very important.

Rockwell is also brilliant as the lovable larrikin, the type of big brother we all wished we had. Even Steve Carell is brilliant playing against type as the douche bag villain who is not necessarily a terrible guy but whose judgmental attitude and selfish motivations we instantly recognize.

Additionally they are a bunch of scene stealing minor characters, from Allison Janney’s talkative neighbour and Toni Collette conflicted mother to Maya Rudolph’s  frustrated water park employee. All of them are memorable in their own way.

While there is nothing remarkable about it, The Way Way Back is a delight. It’s sweet, funny, heartfelt and powered by great characters and performances. It’s a pleasant surprise and one of my underrated hits of 2013.

4 stars out of 5

Drinking Buddies (2013)

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I heard about Drinking Buddies through word-of-mouth. It’s an indie film with Hollywood stars; an exploration of workplace relationships that relies predominantly on improvised dialogue.

Olivia Wilde stars as Kate, a pretty girl who is mutually attracted to her co-worker Luke (Jake Johnson) at a Chicago brewery. Unfortunately for both of them, they are each involved in a relationship with someone else. For Kate, it’s a casual boyfriend (Ron Livingston), but for Like, it’s a little more serious with his steady girlfriend (Anna Kendrick).

The strength of Drinking Buddies lies in the performances, which feel very natural (probably because of all the improv), and as a result the relationships also come across as genuine.

It’s an interesting premise, one most of us who have worked closely with others in a group environment can relate to, and in this case everything is accentuated because their inhibitions are lowered by the constant presence of alcohol.

It asks us what the boundaries are in a supposed “platonic” relationship between co-workers. It’s one thing to be attracted to someone, but it’s another when it comes out to acting out forbidden desires. What is the line and what constitutes crossing it?

My main gripe with the film. and the primary reason I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to, was that I couldn’t bring myself to like either Kate or Luke, in particular Kate.

Without giving too much away, I was uncomfortable with the way they acted around each other, and, without revealing how far things go, I felt they crossed a lot of lines even early on.

I kept feeling like they kind of deserved each other, but I wasn’t rooting for them to be together because I didn’t care for them. By contrast, I developed much more sympathy for their significant others, even though they arguably crossed more lines than Kate and Luke.

Still, this was a well-made, well-performed drama that tackles some complex and thought-provoking issues. I just wish I liked it more.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Prometheus (2D) (2012)

I just watched one of my most anticipated films of the year, Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s is-it-or-isn’t-it prequel to Alien, his 1979 classic. There is an answer to that question but it’s not a particularly important one, because Prometheus stands on it’s own extremely well. It’s not the classic Alien or Aliens is, but hey, few films are. If you measure the film by the impossible standards of those films, of course it is going to fall short. But by ordinary standards this film is freaking awesome. Visually stunning, with excellent performances and plenty of suspense. It’s not groundbreaking by any means but takes the successful Alien/s formula and places it on a much larger and different angled palette.

Set late in this century, it tells the story of a group of private sector space travellers who head to the moon of a distant planet to seek the origins of mankind. What they find, of course, is not quite what they expected.

This is a very different film to those in the Alien franchise (I am going to pretend, by the way, that the Alien vs Predator pieces of crap never existed). This is a ‘big ideas’ movie, or at least it tries to be one, and the scale and grandeur dwarfs anything that has been attempted in those earlier films. The special effects and the sets and make up are simply mind-blowing. The introductory scene sets the tone perfectly and is one of the best I have seen in a very long time.

At it’s heart though, Prometheus is still a sci-fi mystery horror, and in that regard it delivers. Even when you have a fair idea of what is likely to happen it’s still suspenseful — and often, extremely gross. It has scare tactics that will remind viewers of the Alien franchise though I wouldn’t call it ‘recycled.’ There are also one or two memorable scenes that will probably linger in the back of my mind forever.

The screenplay is written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof. Spaihts previously wrote the script for The Darkest Hour, which was a horrible movie but not because of the writing (I thought the idea was decent). Lindelof, on the other hand, is the co-creator of and writer for one of the most fascinating and frustrating TV shows of all time, Lost, and his fingerprints are all over this one.

On the bright side, the plot unravels like a brilliant mystery, akin to slowly peeling off the layers a giant onion. When you’re not terrified you’re fully engaged trying to figure out what the heck is going on. On the other hand, Prometheus is full of plot holes, loose ends and unexplained stuff that will frustrate a lot of viewers to no end. It’s almost as though it was written with a sequel in mind, or perhaps, like Lost, the writers just did what they thought was cool at the time without giving much thought to whether they could make sense of it later, if at all.

Being a film about finding the origins of man, there are of course some philosophical considerations. On this point I felt Prometheus was also very Lost-like; that is, a lot of interesting questions but not a lot of answers, a lot of style but not a whole lot of substance. That said, I didn’t really care. Intellectual stimulation was not high on the list of reasons why I wanted to watch this film.

The cast is super. Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce. No weak link in that line up. The Assbender, though, is the clear standout as David, a mesmerising guy you quickly find out is not quite the same as the others. It’s not a stretch to say the Assbender carries the bulk of this film. 300, Centurion, Inglourious Basterds, X-Men: First Class, Shame and now Prometheus. The dude has become one of my favourite actors.

Rapace gives a sound effort as scientist Elizabeth Shaw, though it’s rather unfair to compare her to Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) because they are such different personalities. Unfortunately, she doesn’t even channel her inner Lisbeth Salander, which might leave some of her Dragon Tattoo fans disappointed. Despite her name being the first in the credits, Rapace doesn’t stand out throughout the first half of the film, which I’m not sure is by design. However, she does have one ripper of a scene later on, possibly the best sequence in the entire film (and an instant classic), and more or less redeems herself by the end.

So yeah, Prometheus is pretty cool. Flawed but very enjoyable if you can look past its most egregious problems. At the end of the day, I didn’t watch Prometheus expecting it to be as good as Alien/s. I didn’t watch it expecting to gain more insights about where we came from. I watched it expecting to be entertained, awed and terrified for a couple of hours. And I was.

4.25 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: Shame (2011)

Writer-director Steve McQueen’s sex-addict movie, Shame, has been the talk of the town lately because of Hollywood’s biggest new star, lead actor Michael Fassbender’s…um…”assbender”.

Fassbender’s appendage, which is on full display in the film, has been the subject of a slew of jokes, including from George Clooney, who asked during his Golden Globes acceptance speech if Fassbender had ever played golf with his hands tied behind his back (other jokes include “Fassbender puts pornstars to Shame“, “Fassbender has nothing to he aShamed of”, “Fassbender puts Vincent Gallo to Shame”, “Fassbender is going to be starring in Boogie Nights 2: No Prosthetics Needed“, etc). (Okay, I made pretty much all of them up.)

Oh, yes, what’s the film about?  Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, a successful New Yorker who just can’t keep it in his pants.  The guy just needs it all the time, wherever, whoever, you name it.  And he’s not even the master of his domain, if you know what I mean.  It’s actually quite debilitating and not as exciting as it seems.  His sister Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan, shows up out of nowhere and turns Brandon’s life upside down.  Sissy has some serious issues of her own, and it’s obvious they are both trying to forget their troubled past, which is hinted but never revealed.

You would think that a film about a sex addict would be a comedy, but Shame is extremely dark and depressing, pretty much all the way through.   Like most addictions, Brandon’s issues are deeply rooted (pun intended), and McQueen does not glamorise it at all, making his best efforts to convey the condition in a realistic manner.  It’s portrayed not a whole lot differently to any type of serious addiction, be it drugs or alcohol — though I wouldn’t say the film is as harrowing as say Requiem for a Dream.

Despite the film being centred around sex, it’s not gratuitous — though there is a fair bit of it, there’s not nearly as much sex and nudity as one would expect.  Credit to McQueen for showing enough to convey what’s necessary but not to the point where it becomes exploitative.

I haven’t seen all of the Oscar best actor nominees, so I can’t make a definitive statement — but it’s a minor travesty that Fassbender, who also starred in McQueen’s acclaimed debut, Hunger,  was not given the nod this year for his daring, brilliant, controlled performance.  Without him, I’m not sure how this film would have turned out.  Also very impressive is Carey Mulligan, who hadn’t jumped out at me before in previous roles but was particularly effective here as the needy, disruptive Sissy.  The singing scene was a little cringeworthy but everything else was solid.

Shame is very much an indie drama film, so it’s not going to be for everyone.  There are long, lingering shots and plenty of conversation and silence.  But at the end of the day, everything is there for a reason and as a result the film works as a piece of compelling cinema.  It’s a an effective and disturbing portrayal of an addiction that robs the afflicted of their ability to make an emotional connection with other people.  I was riveted from start to finish.

4 stars out of 5

 

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class (2011)

If X-Men Origins: Wolverine was economy, the X-Men Trilogy was business, then X-Men: First Class was definitely….first class.

That was lame, but X-Men: First Class really is one of the best superhero origin/reboot movies I’ve seen. And I’m not even that big a fan of the X-Men in general. Actually, simply put, it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

First Class takes us way back to the very beginning, when Magneto was just Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) and Professor X was just Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). Even though we know who they will ultimately become, it was still a blast seeing them develop from children into adults, adults into best friends, and best friends into mortal enemies. And all of it takes place during (alternate) versions of real historic events, such as the Holocaust and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Although it’s a long movie at 132 minutes, First Class is an incredibly tight film that fits in not only the life stories of both Magneto and Professor X, but also features the back stories of a bunch of other key characters (such as Mystique and Beast), some of whom appeared in the X-Men Trilogy, others laying the foundations for future characters (though you probably need to watch carefully or do a bit of post-film research, like I did, to understand the connections — as well as the inconsistencies).

There are also many allusions to future events and several delicious cameos that fans of the previous films and of the franchise in general will lap up.

Everything about First Class, whether it’s the drama, the action, the make-up, the special effects, the pacing or the character development, is handled very well by director Matthew Vaughn (Stardust, Kickass), but what elevated the film beyond anything I could have expected were the performances of the stars, in particular Fassbender, McAvoy and Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw. These three superb actors brought their difficult characters to life and proved that good actors do make a huge difference, even in superhero movies.

Apparently, First Class is just the first of a new trilogy and the next two films are currently in development. No matter what they do, I just hope they can keep Fassbender and McAvoy and maintain this level of excellence. Considering how high they’ve set the bar, that’s not going to be easy.

4.25 stars out of 5