Tag Archives: Naomi Watts

Movie Review: Birdman (2014)

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I was real amped up to see Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I had zero idea what it was about and had only seen the poster and flashes of the trailer — but I was convinced it would be brilliant from all the critical acclaim and award nominations. Even word-of-mouth reviews were overwhelmingly positive, with only one claim of apparent “pretentiousness.”

And so it saddens me to say I found Birdman a relative disappointment. It’s indeed a remarkable film that deserves the accolades — whether it is the stylish and complex direction of Alejandro González Iñárritu, the worthy Oscar-nominated performances of Michael Keaton, Emma Stone and Edward Norton, or the ridiculously impressive script (co-written by Iñárritu) — but the totality of the viewing experience felt ultimately hollow. It’s a technically amazing work of art that didn’t connect with me at a deeper level for whatever reason.

Birdman is a coal-black comedy; a filmmakers’ film for Hollywood and Broadway insiders. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a former Hollywood star who once found fame as the masked superhero Birdman but now finds himself fading into obscurity in the internet age. To regain relevance and self-respect, he writes, directs and produces an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story — with himself in the lead role, of course — on Broadway. That’s the core of the film, though there are always subplots spiralling around him, from his feisty rehab-returned daughter (Emma Stone) and ex-wife (Amy Ryan) to his undermining new star recruit (Edward Norton) and occasional fling (Andrea Riseborough). Also in the all-star cast are Naomi Watts, playing a first-time Broadway performer, a slimmed-down and surprisingly serious Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s lawyer, and Lindsay Duncan as a theater critic out to get him. On top of all that, Riggan has his old character Birdman talking in his ear all the time, AND he might have actual superpowers.

It’s a delicious mess of interesting ideas and characters that moves around at neck-breaking pace, but the script and direction of Iñárritu manages to keep Birdman a very tight and controlled experience where everything is by design. One of the most noticeable things about the film is the deliberate lack of cuts. Apart from a few minor exceptions, most of the movie rolls along as though it was filmed in one long continuous take, with the camera moving around from one set piece to another and following one character after another. On the one hand it keeps the pace up and the action fluid without breaks, much like real life, while on the other it provides a nice contrast to the stage production depicted in the film. I was impressed by it (as I was when I saw Gravity the year before) and didn’t find it a distraction, though at times it felt like a decision intended to add to the “wow” factor of the film’s technical superiority as opposed to something that adds substance to the film’s narrative.

The film also weaves multiple ideas and techniques in a clever way by embracing traditional movie cliches — the aging actor’s last hurrah, the rebellious offspring, the egotistical performer trying to steal the limelight, the biased critic, etc — and putting a twist on it. The choice of Michael Keaton as Riggan/Birdman was obviously intentional, given that Keaton hasn’t exactly done much since he played another masked crusader all those years ago, and I doubt it’s a coincidence that Edward Norton was chosen to play an actor with a reputation of being difficult to work with. Yet both guys run with the roles and deliver arguably two of the best male performances of the year to nab well-deserved Oscar nominations.

With all these established names in the cast, it’s probably more difficult for the acting to be poor in this film than for it to be absolutely terrific, and even watching it you get the sense that the actors are having a lot of fun showing off what they can do.

I actually think Birdman is in some ways very similar to The Grand Budapest Hotel (review here), coincidentally another Best Picture nominee leading the Oscars pack with nine nominations. Both critically-acclaimed films are tightly wound and have bold, supremely confident scripts filled with rapid-fire dialogue that will probably be used as examples in screenwriter classes around the world. Both are also clever comedies, though the humour in Birdman is darker and more subtle.

Just like The Grand Budapest Hotel, however, I also found Birdman difficult to form an emotional connection with. In both cases I was in awe of the production — the script, the direction and the acting — and yet I wouldn’t consider either one as a film I loved, a profound experience, or something I would want to watch over and over again. To put it another way — I can point to truly great things about the films rather than point to the films as truly great. The individual components of Birdman are undoubtedly top-class, but the whole came across less than the sum of its parts. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Birdman or was not entertained by it, it’s just that I found myself more impressed by it than being genuinely fond of it.

3.75 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part III

Diana (2013)

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Sixteen years after her tragic death, someone finally decided to make a big Princess Diana movie. But of all the types of films that could have been made, director Oliver Hirschbiegel (The Invasion) went for a sappy, melodramatic borefest that focuses on a very short period of her life.

Look, Diana is not as bad as some critics have made it out to be (ie, worst movie of the year), but it has been understandably panned because of expectations. Based on the book Diana: Her Last Love by Kate Snell, the film targets the tumultuous love affair between Diana (Naomi Watts) and British Pakistani doctor Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews, henceforth referred to as Sayid from Lost!!!).

So basically, the movie starts after Diania has divorced Prince Charles (who’s not even in it) and ends at her death a couple of years later. It suggests that she really only went out with Dodi Fayed, her last boyfriend, because she was trying to make Sayid jealous (and you don’t want to do that to Sayid!).

The problem with the movie is not that it is a romance. The problem is that it’s a very boring romance. They eat, they talk, the have sex, then they fight because Sayid doesn’t like the attention that comes with dating the most famous woman in the world. Then she wins him back, and the same cycle continues.

Naomi Watts delivers a good, albeit unconvincing performance as Princess Diana. By that I mean she did her best with the hair and the mannerisms and so forth, but she still looked and felt like Naomi Watts to me. Sayid, on the other hand, was great – at torturing people, that is — this time with boring conversations and tamper tantrums.

People who go into Diana thinking they are watching a biopic about the Princess’s life will be bitterly disappointed because it’s actually a romance that spans for just two years of her life, with the only other thing it touches upon being her fight against eradicating land mines. People who go into the film knowing all of this will still be disappointed because it’s crap.

2 stars out of 5

Oldboy (2013)

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I haven’t seen the original Korean version of Oldboy, which is based on a Japanese manga and widely regarded as a cult classic, but by all accounts it is miles better than Spike Lee’s US version, one of the biggest critical and box office bombs of 2013.

The premise behind Oldboy is fascinating enough, which is why I guess they decided to adapt it for American audiences. A fat douchebag played by Josh Brolin is imprisoned in a hotel room for reasons unknown to him for a whopping 20 years, with nothing but basic amenities and a TV set. When he is eventually set free after doing nothing except preparing for vengeance, he goes on a violent spree to find out who ruined his life, and why.

The problem with Oldboy is that the tone of it is all over the place and never feels quite right. It’s a crazy premise with a lot of gaps in logic and common sense, and the film can’t figure out whether it wants to be realistic or surreal. There are moments when the film feels like a comical farce, such as when Brolin takes on whole gangs of goons, but there are other times when the film feels dead serious and very disturbing.

And as for the mystery itself, though it keeps up the film’s intrigue factor it’s not really anything mindblowing, and the motivations actually turn out to be quite simple in the end. That said, the whole process of getting to that point is so ludicrous that the film falls apart when it is revealed why Brolin was imprisoned for so long. You also know that there is of course a twist, but it’s pretty easy to guess if you ask me.

Brolin is a good actor so you know he delivers here, but physically and with his performance, but it’s surprising how little he ages over the course of the 20 years, looking old when he went in and young when he came out. Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of the twins), who was brilliant in Martha Marcy May Marlene, is also very good but feels underutilized as this is such a male-dominated movie. In terms of the supporting cast, I was surprised to see Sharlto Copley put on a fake British accent, but I was very happy to see Samuel L Jackson launch some of his patented expletives while being tortured.

I don’t know if I will see the Korean original now that I’ve seen Lee’s version, but my guess is that if you’ve seen the Korean version you should avoid the American one. I don’t deny that Oldboy starts off on a fascinating note and is occasionally entertaining, but there were simply too many obvious problems with it for me to be fully engaged with it.

2.75 stars out of 5

PS: I find it interesting that both Lee and Brolin were annoyed that the studio cut the film from its original length of 140 minutes, which they believed was a superior version, to a more manageable 105 minutes. Perhaps a director’s cut will better do the film justice.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

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I remember seeing a shaky, grainy video of a young black man being pinned down and then shot by police a few years back, but like many of these viral videos it was quickly shifted to the back of my mind. Little did I know that the short piece of footage would go on to inspire a critically-acclaimed film that would in the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for US dramatic film at 2013 Sundance.

Fruitvale Station, written and directed by Ryan Coogler (in his feature debut), tells of the story of what happened to 22-year-old Oscar Grant on the final day of his life. It could have easily been boring, or worse, melodramatic and manipulative, but instead Coogler has produced a powerful film driven by a dynamic performance from Michael B Jordan (whom I had seen recently in the underrated Chronicle).

The impressive thing about Fruitvale Station is that the events leading up to the shooting, which take up the vast majority of the 85-minute running time, do not feel like pointless filler. We get to learn what kind of person Oscar Grant is, what he has been through and what he has ahead of him. He isn’t painted as some kind of hero or flawless guy – he’s just a normal African American male from a disadvantaged background trying to get through life and be there for his young daughter.

There is a sense of inevitability running through the first part of the film, but it conjures up a feeling of dread rather than predictability. And when Oscar and his friends are accosted by police at Fruitvale Station, the “incident” itself is handled with a lot of raw emotion but also even-handedness. It doesn’t try to portray the cops as super evil or play up the race angle – it’s just one of those things where egos got the better of both sides and someone ended up doing something incredibly stupid and tragic.

I don’t know how accurate the film is compared to the real events, though some have criticized the film for inaccuracies and omissions, arguably to drive the filmmaker’s agenda for victim’s rights. All I can say is that from what I have seen, Fruitvale Station is a very impressive debut, a devastating, poignant drama that goes far beyond what was captured on a mobile phone camera back in 2009.

4 stars out of 5

Despicable Me 2 (2013)

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I was pleasantly surprised by the first Despicable Me, which, like many recent animated features, decided to focus on a villain (voiced by Steve Carrell) who’s not really such a bad guy. It was funny enough in places, sweet because of the little kids he eventually adopts, and cute because of those crazy minions, who are about to get their own spin-off movie.

Despicable Me 2 did not have to be made, but the success of the original guaranteed it. It follows on from the first film, with Carrell’s ex-villain, Gru, trying to juggle the responsibilities of looking after three little girls (Margo, Edith and Agnes). To get the ball rolling, the writers went for the most obvious plot device, which is to get the authorities (in this case the Anti-Villain League, or AVL) to recruit Gru and his villainous talents to help them catch a new villain.

I didn’t find Despicable Me 2 as funny as the first one. The story, largely surrounding Gru and his potential love interest Lucy (voiced by Kristen Wiig), felt a little forced, and the attempts at humour appeared more geared towards younger audiences.

People who like the minions will get a kick out of this one, but personally I think a lot of their charisma has already dried up because it’s obvious they are trying too hard to be cute. Even the efforts to make the trio of little girls sweet may have gone overboard, making the overall tone of the film somewhat saccharine.

I’m surprised the film has been nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars this year. I’m not saying that it’s bad, but for me it was just serviceable and at best a fairly average sequel that’s clearly just trying to cash in.

2.75 stars out of 5

Final Post-Oscars Movie Blitz

I’ve reviewed every Best Picture nominee from this year’s Oscars, so now I will get the rest of the Oscar-related reviews over and done with in one fell swoop. The five films below all missed out on a Best Picture nomination but were all nominated for at least one other award.

The Master (2012)

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Nomination(s): Joaquin Phoenix (Best Actor), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Best Supporting Actor), Amy Adams (Best Supporting Actress)

I was a little disappointed in The Master because I am incredibly fascinated by Scientology (and this was supposed to be a veiled depiction of its founder, L Ron Hubbard) and I love all three leads and writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, who blew me away with his previous effort, There Will Be Blood.

Joaquin plays an ex-soldier who is sex-obsessed and a drunk. He stumbles across a cult called The Cause, ruled by Hoffman and his wife, played by Adams. He gets involved in the cult but has trouble following rules and keeping his emotions in check because he is so damaged.

While it was skillfully made, carefully paced and driven by three of the best performances of 2012 (in particular the lads), The Master was more about how and why people get sucked into cults (in general) rather than a Scientology expose. It is artistic and intentionally slow in parts, much like There Will Be Blood, but lacks the same edge-of-your-seat tension and explosiveness. For me it was just a little too flat and detached to pull me all the way into the story.

3 stars out of 5

PS: Maybe I was expecting too much, or maybe I was just thinking about this whenever I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman and couldn’t take him seriously.

The Impossible (2012)

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Nomination(s): Naomi Watts (Best Actress)

I was wary of this film as I’m usually wary of tear jerkers, but this turned out to be one of the better ones, and not just because it’s based on a true story. Well, the true story involved a Spanish family caught in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but the filmmakers decided to turn them into a British family. I didn’t have a problem with that — they had to do what they had to do to sell film.

The movie works better if you don’t know how it ends, so if you haven’t seen it, avoid finding out. The special effects and the make-up are amazing, and the moment the tsunami hits is as realistic (and terrifying) as you could have hoped it to be.

But such a film wouldn’t work if it didn’t strike the right emotional cords, and the right emotional cords would not be struck if the performances didn’t hit their mark. In this regard The Impossible delivers because Naomi Watts is stunning as the battered mother, and Ewan McGregor is also very good as the distraught father. The one who links the film together, however, is young newcomer Tom Holland, who plays the eldest son of the family.

I didn’t shed any tears but the emotions did get to me, and that’s already quite an impressive feat because I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.

3.75 stars out of 5

The Sessions (2012)

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Nomination(s): Helen Hunt (Best Supporting Actress)

If you want to be crass about it, The Sessions is a true story about a horny disabled guy’s mission to get laid. John Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, a poet who has lived with an iron lung after being struck down by polio as a child. He is paralyzed from the neck down and requires near-constant care for life’s most basic activities.

Mark has a sharp mind and an even sharper wit, and he’s also a smooth talker, a charmer and a flirt. If he was able-bodied he’d probably be quite a ladies man, which is why he is so frustrated that he can’t get a girlfriend, or simply someone to help him lose his virginity.

Enter Helen Hunt, a “sex surrogate” who specializes in cases like Mark’s. The two have a limited six sessions together, but things don’t turn out the way Mark had envisioned. Naturally, instead of just a physical relationship, both of them undergo emotional changes that will affect their lives forever.

Sounds like an uncomfortable movie, doesn’t it? But The Sessions is poignant and surprisingly hilarious, tackling the sex with humour and wit. It doesn’t shy away from it — Hunt goes the “full Helen” for the first time since The Waterdance in 1992, when she played the girlfriend of a paralyzed writer — but the sessions are skillfully portrayed and have a gentle and lighthearted feel to them.

Emotionally, I didn’t connect with the film as much as I thought I would, but I was still impressed by how funny it was (especially Hawkes’ exchanges with a priest played by William H Macy) and the way director Ben Lewin (a former Aussie barrister!) handled the difficult subject matter.

3.5 stars out of 5

Brave (2012)

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Won: Best Animated Film

I had only seen one other animated film nominee and that was Wreck-it Ralph (the others were Frankenweenie, ParaNorman and The Pirates! Band of Misfits), which I liked but thought didn’t fulfill its full potential. If I had to compare the two then Brave would have gotten my vote too.

That said, Brave, while a very good animated film, is not in the same league as former winners such as Toy Story 3 and Up. It’s is an ambitious story set in the Scottish Highlands about a girl who refuses to accept her fate by expressing the desire to not marry, setting off a chain of events that predictably teaches us to follow our hearts before leading to an obvious conclusion.

It has a strong female protagonist voiced by Kelly Macdonald and with Emma Thompson as her overbearing mother and Billy Connolly has her stubborn father. The Scottish accents were finely tuned to ensure audiences could understand them.

Notwithstanding the predictable underlying message and ending, I found Brave generally enjoyable and amusing and one of the stronger Pixar efforts I’ve seen over the years. But if this was the best animated film of the year I think it was probably a relatively weak field.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Invisible War (2012)

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Nomination(s): Best Documentary Feature

The Invisible War lost out to Searching For Sugarman for Best Documentary, meaning the latter must be one heck of a film because the former is one of the best and most important documentaries I’ve ever seen.

The film documents sexual assault in the US military, and the stories you will hear are shocking and sickening and will probably infuriate you. It’s not just the assaults, but the trauma the victims have to continue to suffer when they are ignored, blamed and/or ostracized by the military while the perpetrators continue to roam free and even get promoted.

The filmmakers do a fantastic job of letting the facts, the statistics and the victims speak for themselves, and the commendable research and interviews provide a broad spectrum of victims (predominantly female but also male) and loved ones. It’s heartbreaking to watch at times but it’s a film I would recommend everyone to watch.

The film has already sparked some changes in the way the military handles assault cases and will hopefully continue to do a lot more. This is what’s happening to the men and women who serve their country and it’s unacceptable.

Putting aside all the anger, The Invisible War is simply a finely crafted documentary that will keep you engrossed.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Dream House (2011)

At first glance, Dream House appears like your run-of-the-mill haunted house movie.  A young couple moves into a new house, spooky stuff happens, yada yada yada, you know the rest.  But while Dream House is not a particularly good horror film (in some ways it’s not even a proper horror), I do have to say that it is different to what you would ordinarily expect from a movie of this kind.

Daniel Craig is Will Atenton, a successful book publisher who leaves his profession to move from New York to New England with his wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) and his two little girls.  Everything is fine until weird stuff starts happening and Will starts to believe that their dream house has a past that will come back to haunt them.  Someone who knows more than they are letting on is their neighbour, played by Naomi Watts.

Up until this point it’s all pretty cookie-cutter stuff, but Dream House breaks away from the expected trajectory by throwing a curve ball midway through.  It’s not an unexpected twist, but the timing of the twist is curious as it’s usually reserved for the final act.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really do a whole lot for the film, which is, for the most part, plodding and lacking in both scares or thrills.  It takes the wind out of the sails too early and shifts the focus to melodrama, which simply doesn’t work without the character foundations required.  I guess the only benefit is that it keeps you interested in how they are going to fill up the remainder of the 92-minute running time.

I really wanted to like Dream House because I’m a fan of the genre and all three leads (in fact, it’s where Craig and Weisz fell in love and ended up getting married — which explains their solid chemistry), and despite not expecting very much out of it I still came away disappointed by the stale pace and dearth of scares.  The negatives could have been somewhat mitigated had the drama been more moving but it failed in that regard too.  Strangely, the film has a pretty awesome soundtrack, but when that’s the most redeeming thing about a film you know it can’t be good.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Fair Game (2010)


Fair Game commences across Australia on 25 November 2010

I’m just going to come out and say it.  Fair Game is one of the best political drama-thriller I’ve seen in a long time.  And no, I’m not talking about the Cindy Crawford, Billy Baldwin classic of 1995.  This Fair Game stars Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, and tells the amazing true story of Valerie Plame, a former CIA operative, and her husband, former US ambassador Joe Wilson.

Admittedly, as a non-American, I knew very little about Plame’s story when I went to the screening, and I made a conscious effort to steer clear of any spoilers.  So I’m going to try and not give anything away here, except to say that Plame worked as a CIA operative and the story is set around the time the US made the decision to invade Iraq based on faulty WMD intelligence. Both Plame and Wilson played roles in that intelligence gathering process.

Directed by Doug Liman (best known for The Bourne Identity and Mr & Mrs Smith), Fair Game is carried by its riveting plot and dynamite performances from Watts and Penn, who should both be in the running for Oscar nominations.  It provides a fascinating insight into how the US manipulated the intelligence to skew their decision towards war, and the devastating impact on the lives of those who tried to unveil the truth.

At its heart, Fair Game is about the relationship between husband and wife, and the strain their jobs and beliefs puts on it.  Watts and Penn’s performances more than make up for any deficiencies in the script, bringing Plame and Wilson to life.  This was so important because the film would fall apart if the audience doesn’t care about the characters and what happens to them.

On the other hand, Fair Game is far more than a domestic drama.  There is tension all throughout the 106-minute running time (very suitable length for a movie of this kind) — from Plame’s dangerous operations in the field to even just a seemingly friendly dinner party.  There are no slow bits.

Of course, there are people out there who will already know a great deal about “The Plame Affair”, and have their opinions of the couple.  And if that opinion is negative, then they will probably hate this film, because it does come across as a little self-righteous.  It is, after all, based on books written by Plame and Wilson, so we effectively only get their side of the story.  I also read in the press materials that because of “national security” reasons, the filmmakers had to sidestep certain things and fictionalise certain aspects of the film, such as particular situations or characters by depicting something or someone “similar” as opposed to the real thing.  So yes, the “true story” part needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

But to me, Fair Game is just a great story, fabulously told and wonderfully acted.

4.5 stars out of 5!

DVD Review: Eastern Promises (2007)

I had been wanting to watch Eastern Promises since it was first released in 2007 but never got around to it until now.  Directed by David Cronenberg (The Fly, A History of Violence) and starring Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl, Eastern Promises is a brutal, uncompromising story about a British mid-wife (Watts) who becomes involved with the Russian mafia after coming across the diary of a young girl.

It’s an incredibly dark film that has won acclaim for its realistic portrayal of the Russian mafia in the UK, right down to the tattoos their bodies are covered with.  The film was nominated for three Golden Globes (including Best Picture — Drama), and Viggo was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar (but lost it to Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood).

Eastern Promises is not an easy film to watch.  It’s hard to call it “enjoyable” because of how deeply depressing and violent it is, not to mention the mumbling (though apparently incredibly accurate) Russian accents.  But at the same time, I couldn’t help but be engrossed in the film because it kept taking me deeper and deeper into this frightening world, and there were plenty of unexpected twists and turns that kept me on my toes, uncertain as to what might happen next.  Thanks to Cronenberg, there is also this creepy, unsettling tone underlying the entire film.

Of course, there is the one scene that everyone talks about which I won’t spoil, but it’s an absolutely remarkable piece of visceral cinematic brilliance.

And you can’t appraise this film without talking about Viggo Mortensen’s performance.  It’s hard to believe watching this man on screen that he was once Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings, or the loving father from The Road.  He’s an insanely good actor and in any other year he probably would have won the Oscar for his portrayal of Nikolai, the family’s “driver”.

4 out of 5 stars!