Tag Archives: musical

2014 Movie Blitz: Part VIII

Cut Bank (2014)

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This was a strange attempt to emulate the magic of Fargo, one of my favourite movies of all time.

The story begins when the central character, played by Liam Hemsworth, accidentally films a supposed murder in the corn fields of the titular small town while training his girlfriend (fellow Aussie Teresa Palmer) for a beauty pageant. But nothing is as it first seems, and soon  Billy Bob Thornton and John Malkovich are on the case. Bruce Dern plays an old nutjob and mailman, while Michael Stuhlbarg plays a psychotic killer. Oliver Platt rounds out the star-studded cast.

Just like Fargo, Cut Bank is brutally violent and has plenty of unexpected events where the shit keeps hitting the fan and the mess keeps getting murkier and out of control. It even has a big Native American dude playing a tough guy. But it’s nowhere near as darkly comedic, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some viewers fail to  get the humour amid all the carnage and mayhem. It’s also not as intelligent or original. Watchable? Yes. Good? Not quite.

One of the biggest problems with the movie is Liam Hemsworth, who hasn’t really done anything that deserves praise thus far in his career. Yeah sure, he’s in The Hunger Games, but in that he’s a distant third fiddle who is more of a minor character than a major one. The charisma of his elder brother just isn’t there.

There are some decent moments, most involving Bruce Dern, and also when Teresa Palmer performs for the pageant, but for those most part Cut Bank doesn’t deserve anything more than a straight-to-DVD fate.

2.5 stars out of 5

Time Lapse (2014)

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This low-budget time travel thriller went completely under my radar. It’s better than the most recent time travel film I watched before it, Project Almanac, and the superb storytelling is good enough to make up for most of its flaws.

The premise of Time Lapse is simple. A guy, his girlfriend and best friend, all living under the same roof, discover a camera machine in a neighbour’s house that takes periodic photos through their apartment window. The photos reveal the scene in the apartment exactly 24 hours into the future.

Writer and debut director Bradley D King does a solid job of getting the most out of this interesting idea, taking advantage of the notion that the protagonists can use the device to send messages to their past selves but also requiring them to act out what they see in the photo 24 hours later to avoid a time travel paradox. It raises questions of free will, fate and whether we can really change the future.

I liked how the movie utilises a limited form of time travel that doesn’t require special effects, and how it focuses on the relationship dynamics of the three central characters. The ending is also quite clever and requires a bit of thought for everything to fall into place.

The performances of the central trio — Danielle Panabaker, Matt O’Leary and George Finn — are also strong, taking attention away from the aspects that don’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense, or reactions that stretch credulity. I thought it was pretty silly, for instance, for them to try to get rich through betting with dodgy bookies. A lotto ticket would have been so much easier and less dangerous.

Flaws aside, it’s still a solid piece of sci-fi entertainment, with enough intrigue and character development to deliver a thought-provoking experience.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Skeleton Twins (2014)

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Don’t think you’re in for a comedy just because you see Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader on the cover. The Skeleton Twins is one of the saddest and most depressing films I’ve seen in a while.

The comedic duo play fraternal twins Maggie and Milo. I don’t want to spoil too much, so let’s just say both are going through a lot in their lives and are likely suffering from depression. Milo’s problems are a lot more overt because he’s gay (and obviously so) and has a dark past, while Maggie’s are more hidden under the surface because she appears to have a wonderful marriage to a lovely, gregarious husband (played by Luke Wilson).

Deep down, however, both are broken, and the film is about how they deal with life’s disappointments and messy situations. There are scenes of genuine heartbreak that really resonated with me, in particular some of the one-on-one conversations involving Milo, and much of the credit has to go to both Wiig and Hader for turning in such fantastic dramatic performances. Hader, in particular, is so convincing as a gay man that I had to check his Wikipedia page just to make sure he’s not gay in real life.

The pair are funny when they want to be, though it’s usually a one-liner here or a mildly humorous situation there; the overall melancholic tone never goes away in this film, a brutally honest look at life without rose-tinted lenses, full of difficult stretches and little moments of joy and laughter.

It’s undoubtedly well-made and driven by superb performances, which also include Modern Family‘s Ty Burrell and Boyd Holbrook, whose Aussie accent barely gets over the line for me (it’s just a hard accent for Americans to do, I guess). That said, I don’t usually like such dark, depressing films because they put such a downer on my mood. I suppose I’ll have to make an exception for The Skeleton Twins, as it has enough sweetness and poignancy to justify a hearty recommendation.

3.5 stars out of 5

Annie (2014)

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Am I crazy, or is the universally panned remake of Annie actually not that bad? I had basically put off watching the film (I’m not that interested in musicals anyway) because of all the bad reviews, so I entered this without any expectations. I came out of it pleasantly surprised. Yes it’s cliched and saccharine and Cameron Diaz overacts even more that usual, but I still thought Annie got the job done with some nice homages to the original 1982 film, a modern makeover, some clever jokes, and a couple of catchy — albeit super autotuned — tunes.

Quvenzhané Wallis (who rose to stardom after earning an Oscar nomination for Beasts of the Southern Wild) plays the titular character, Annie Bennett, an orphan who longs to one day meet her real parents. She’s stuck with the nasty and single Miss Hannigan (Diaz) in foster care, I suppose for the government funding, until one day a stroke of luck makes her cross paths with mobile phone mogul and germaphobe William Stacks (Foxx). Sensing an opportunity, Stacks’ mayoral race campaign manager (Bobby Cannavale) gets Stacks to temporarily take Annie into his care to boost his popularity. And you know the rest.

The singing is OK — it’s at least better than Mamma Mia (Pierce Brosnan still gives me nightmares). Cameron Diaz isn’t great, and Rose Byrne is decent, but Jamie Foxx has a nice set of chords. I’m sure there’s a lot of autotune, but that’s what you’re expected to get these days when you cast a musical for star power as opposed to singing. The songs are relatively catchy, better than a lot of other musicals in recent years, and songs only pop up when they need to, unlike say Les Miserables where just about every line comes with a melody.

Look, it’s not great, but the tone is light and lively, and Jamie Foxx and Rose Byrne are funny enough to carry this well-intentioned remake through to the end, hitting a fair share of right notes along the way. I don’t get why people had such an acidic reaction to it.

3 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

Movie Review: Les Misérables (2012)

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I’m sorry, but Les Misérables is overrated. Or perhaps more accurately, it just wasn’t for me.

Director Tom Hooper, coming off his 2011 Oscars triumph with The King’s Speech, appeared to have a winner on his hands. One of the most beloved musicals of all-time. The likable singing and dancing Hugh Jackman as the protagonist Jean Valjean. Probably the hottest actress on the planet right now, Anne Hathaway, to play poor Fantine and sing the classic “I Dreamed a Dream.” Amanda Seyfried. Russell Crowe. Even Helena Bonham Carter and Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen). It was a sure hit and an Oscar certainty.

But Les Misérables ended up getting mixed reviews from critics, and I find myself siding with those who didn’t fall for its charm. Those who love the musical will love this film no matter what, but I  personally found it to be an exhausting and often dull experience that I couldn’t really get into until it was almost over. Technically, the film is supposedly quite a remarkable achievement, with spectacular sets, strong performances and a lot of long single takes and live singing (rather than recorded in post-production like most other musicals). But really, who cares about all of that if the film isn’t any good in the end?

I had never seen a stage production of the musical so I’ll assume there are others who aren’t familiar with the plot. The story is set in 1815 and Jackman’s Valjean is a thief who is paroled by Crowe’s ruthless prison guard Javert after years of imprisonment. Basically, Valjean decides to turn his life around and be a good guy and Javert can’t seem to let go of the past. It’s a miserable time to be alive (hence the title) and the remainder of the film focuses on the struggles of the masses, Jackman trying to be good, and Crowe not letting him. It goes on for years and years.

The biggest problem with Les Misérables is that 99.9% of all vocal interactions between characters is sung. There is essentially no dialogue except a stray word here or there. As a result, we get a lot of long singing monologues where we have to listen really carefully to the lyrics (which is not always clear) just to figure out what the heck is going on.

That can get annoying and takes time to get used to, but fine, it’s a musical, so I get that. What bothered me more was that most of this talk-singing was awful to listen to. Not that the actors’ voices were bad — it’s just that there’s no real tune or melody. It just sounds like a bunch of people playing a lame game where they have to sing everything and are making up the tune as they go along. It’s really monotonous and challenges the audience not to tune out, so to speak, after a little while.

Yes, there is a handful of REAL musical numbers that are pretty good, with Hathaway’s much-lauded “I Dreamed a Dream” number being the highlight, as well as Carter and Borat’s “Master of the House” (which I was familiar with through that Seinfeld episode with Elaine’s dad and Jerry’s inside-out coat), but these are few and far in between. The vast majority of the film was dominated by this crappy talk-singing or sing-talking and I just could not stand it.

The performances were good, I’ll admit that, but was Hathaway’s performance really that good? Oscar-favourite good? I personally think it’s a little overrated, especially considering (spoiler alert!)  she only has a few minutes of screen time. Then again, Judi Dench won for something like 9 minutes of acting in Shakespeare in Love, so why the heck not?

I do, on the other hand, have to defend Russell Crowe a little bit here. Crowe has been panned for his singing, but I thought he was perfectly adequate. A little wooden, perhaps, but he’s freaking Pavarotti compared to Pierce Brosnan in Mama Mia.

Anyway, Les Misérables turned out to be a huge disappointment. It probably would have been great as a stage show, and Hooper has basically shot an extravagant stage show on film, but that’s why we have different media formats. I finally got into the story and the characters towards the latter part of the film’s third act, but by then it was too little too late.

2 stars out of 5

PS: Dang, the trailer made the film look so awesome. If only it really was.

Movie Review: Pitch Perfect (2012)

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Pitch Perfect by Hubert Widjaya — watercolor and pen on Canson paper.

Note: Huge shoutout to Sydney artist Hubert Widjaya for providing the wonderful artwork for this post. See below for a casual chat we had about the film following my review.

I’m not ordinarily a fan of musicals, especially ones that look like they are riding the wave of a popular trend to make a quick buck at the box office. But as it turned out, Pitch Perfect was one of the my biggest surprises of 2012, and I must admit that I was completely wrong to prejudge the film as simply a two-hour episode of Glee.

So what made Pitch Perfect so good? It had a formulaic premise — a new girl, played by Anna Kendrick (Twilight, Up in the Air, 50/50, End of Watch — she’s obviously killing it right now) joins an all-girl a cappella group full of misfits and leads them against a rival campy all-boy group in a battle to capture the national title. It was also a little hit and miss at times, as most comedies involving teens and college students can be.

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Original film poster

But Pitch Perfect was funny — very funny, and unexpectedly so. Full credit to director Jason Moore (former TV director) and screenwriter Kay Cannon (who worked on 30 Rock — that explains a lot) for making the humour dry, quirky and satirical, without overstepping the mark (for the most part).

Massive kudos to Aussie Rebel Wilson, who appears to be conquering Hollywood with one scene-stealing role after another. Here she plays Fat Amy, easily the standout character of the whole group and the provider of the best laughs. The rest of the cast, which includes Skylar Astin (Spring Awakening), Anna Camp (The Help) and Brittany Snow (Hairspray), as well as the always welcome Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, were also all very good.

Oh yes, and the singing. I was pleasantly surprised by how excellent it was, especially considering much of the main cast, as far as I know, aren’t known for their vocal cords. I’ve only ever heard bits and pieces of Glee but it was easily just as good as any of the singing in that.

Singing is, of course, just half of the equation. What made Pitch Perfect a real treat for me was the classic songs covered by the singers. If you grew up in the 80s and 90s, you’ll find yourself nodding along to the Bangles, Ace of Base and the theme from The Breakfast Club, among others, many of which are given fresh interpretations or mixed with more recent hits to form catchy medleys.

While you’re likely to forget about Pitch Perfect in a couple of years, you’re also likely to have a great time while watching it. I certainly did.

Conversation with HW:

PJM: Are you a fan of Glee? Chances are, Pitch Perfect is  an attempt to cash in on the success of Glee, which I thought would have been a recipe for disaster, but I think they pulled it off. What did you think?

HW: Haven’t seen Glee. Judging by the ads Glee looks like its aimed at a girly/female audience, whereas Pitch Perfect had a streetwise chick vibe — which is why I saw it. It solidly lived up to expectation. Great one liners and natural performances.

PJM: Who were the standouts for you?

HW: I have only seen Rebel Wilson in this, but can see why she’s popular. She has a sweet but dirty vibe, and isn’t forcing her charisma, which she does apparently in Bridesmaids. Anna Kendrick though is a standout; she brings the heart, and sweet emotional center to what could have been a low-brow teen flick. In fact, it loses a star for two ill-judged vomit scenes. Like they were trying to appeal to teen boy market.

PJM: I never expected Anna Kendrick to have such a great set of pipes.

HW: You’ve raised a good point. Do you know if they all sing for real or if it’s dubbed?

PJM: I understand it’s all real voices but recorded in the studio. It’s not live like in Les Miserables.

HW: Right.

PJM: How does this film compare to other musicals you’ve seen in recent years, if any?

HW: Only really seen Chicago I think at the cinema, but that was brilliant too. Pitch Perfect was almost like two forms of entertainment for the price of one. A movie and entertaining songs within. Where does it lose marks for you?

PJM: It’s not really losing marks as opposed to not gaining marks. Some of the jokes were a little hit and miss and enjoyment depends on your musical tastes. It’s a good film for people who grew up on the classic songs they sing but have not given up on more modern hits. So what would you give it out of five?

HW: A solid, sing songy 4 stars.

PJM: Me too. 4 stars out of 5.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F03N-ApQdmw