Tag Archives: Rachel McAdams

Doctor Strange (2016)

Not quite sure how it is possible that I watched Doctor Strange when it first came out but have been too busy to get around to the review until now. Luckily, I have a good memory when it comes to movies (terrible memory for everything else).

The latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was considered a risky one because of the relatively unknown character and all the mystical mumbo jumbo the studio feared could turn people off. Further, it’s directed by Scott Derrickson, whose most notable films up to that point were Sinister, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Deliver Us from Evil. And on top of that, some people lost their PC minds and accused Marvel/Disney of whitewashing when Tilda Swinton was cast as the Ancient One.

Of course, all fears were unfounded. This is the Marvel juggernaut we’re talking about! After so many incredibly successful films, Marvel has figured out the winning formula that continues to elude DC. It’s all about fun, excitement, spectacle and giving audiences a great time at the cinema. Doctor Strange is no different.

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as Dr Stephen Strange, a brilliant neurosurgeon who is, frankly, a bit of a dick at the start of the movie, especially to his colleague and ex, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). Following a devastating accident, Strange embarks on a journey of healing and character development through learning the mystic arts in a place called Kamar-Taj from the Ancient One, a beautifully bald Tilda Swinton. It’s very important, because a traitor by the name of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is hell bent on at wreaking havoc on the world.

Doctor Strange is a great example of how to execute a superhero origins story. You get a clear idea of who the character is at the start of the film and follow them on their journey to becoming who they are destined to be. The technical stuff is explained in a simple and understandable way that doesn’t get bogged down in the details. The training sequences are interesting and packed with out action so as to not be too boring, and our hero isn’t too powerful right out of the gate because he needs room to grow. There are good laughs along the way and the action is creative, inventive and spectacularly choreographed.

What sets Doctor Strange apart from the previous Marvel films is the psychedelic, mesmerising visuals and special effects. If you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know there’s all that world-folding and morphing stuff that feels like Inception on steroids. And it’s not merely eye-candy either, as the ever-shifting worlds and parallel universes blend in seamlessly with the action and the storyline.

The cast is easily one of the best in the Marvel franchise, with established names and Oscar nominees galore. As I said already, Benedict Cumberbatch was perfectly cast, exuding the initial arrogance and the later shift in his character wonderfully, without taking himself too seriously or coming across as too goofy. Rachel McAdams redeems herself from Southpaw and really adds to her character, while you can never go wrong with Mads Mikkelsen in any role. His villain is admittedly a little weak, as are most Marvel villains, though he does the best he could with the material he’s been given. Stealing the show are Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One (laying to rest some of the whitewashing complaints) and Benedict Wong as…Wong, a master of the mystic arts who protects their secret books and relics. On the other hand, I personally thought Oscar-nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor overcooked his performance as fellow mystic warrior Karl Mordo. It’s good to show some emotion, but there wasn’t any need for 12 Years a Slave emotion in a Marvel movie.

On the whole, I really enjoyed Doctor Strange, though I certainly wouldn’t put it near the top of the Marvel films to date. Great cast, solid execution, nice action, and a visual feast at times, but nothing really extraordinary to elevate it to the level of the top solo films of the main Avengers (I’m talking Iron Man, Winter Soldier, Civil War, etc). The final confrontation was also somewhat anti-climatic. I’d put Doctor Strange at around the same level as Ant-Man — ie, a second-tier Marvel film but great popcorn fun nonetheless.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: Apparently, Doctor Strange will make an appearance in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.

Spotlight (2015)

spotlight

I had relatively high expectations going into Spotlight, the film that appears headed straight for this year’s Best Picture Oscar if critics are to be believed. For the most part, the hype is justified.

Most people know about the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse by priests, but not nearly as many people know about the journalists who uncovered the story. Spotlight is the fascinating true story about the eponymous team from the Boston Globe that worked tirelessly to expose the systemic child abuse being swept under the rug by the Catholic Church for decades.

Like all good true stories, this one feels meticulously researched and respectful to the subject. From the very start, you get a great sense of something remarkable brewing, and director and co-writer Tom McCarthy does a commendably patient job in allowing the characters and story to develop, much like how a real journalistic investigation peels back the layers bit by bit, with the occasional exciting breakthrough. The way McCarthy depicts the subtle push-back from the predominantly Catholic community in Boston helps explain why this dirty secret stayed a secret for so long. The pacing is so important to a film like this, and McCarthy manages to get it perfect.

The film also features without a doubt the best ensemble cast of the year, led by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Billy Crudup and Stanley Tucci. The great thing about the cast is that they’re not just there to create an impressive list of names — each of them has a key role to play and they all deliver memorable performances. It’s hard to think of another instance in recent years where so many big names are so balanced that each can have such meaty roles in the same movie.

The thing that impressed me the most about the Spotlight is the way it portrays the church and the Boston Globe journalists. As disappointing and infuriating it is to learn about the extent of the cover-up, I never got the feeling that the Catholic Church was being vilified beyond what the facts implied. The same goes for the portrayals of the Spotlight Team — they’re neither saints nor heroes, just a bunch of journalists who are extremely dedicated to their jobs (and who make me ashamed to think I once considered myself a semi-journalist). This even-handed approach makes cannot be understated — it makes all the difference in a movie like this.

While Spotlight is an exceptionally well-made film that ticks all the boxes, it’s not the kind of jaw-dropping experience that will have most casual viewers running out of the cinema declaring that it’s the best thing they’ve seen this year. Personally, I appreciated the film more than I was entertained, excited or thrilled by it.

That said, it’s not that kind of film. In some ways, Spotlight reminds me a little of last year’s Best Picture winner, Birdman, in that the film has it all on paper — intriguing premise, masterful direction, great script and terrific performances — but doesn’t quite hit it out of the park in terms of building an emotional connection . The difference, however, is that I found Spotlight to be the much more involving and compelling film because it at least made me care for the characters and what they were fighting to unveil, as gut-wrenching (especially as a parent) as it was to watch at times.

In all, Spotlight is a fantastic film with an important story to tell, and it’s told brilliantly with a superb cast and outstanding performances. While I consider it a riveting drama that’s perhaps easier to admire than enjoy, that should not stop it from being regarded as one of the best films of the year.

4.5 stars out of 5

PS: Shockingly, the last film Tom McCarthy wrote and directed was the Adam Sandler comedy The Cobbler.

Aloha (2015)

aloha

It’s so unfortunate that Aloha, the new Cameron Crowe film, will forever be remembered for its supposed “whitewashing” and controversial casting of Emma Stone as a quarter-Hawaiian character. Because what it should really be remembered for is being a shit movie.

Truth be told, I was ready to play devil’s advocate. I had planned to be the guy to tell everyone to lay off this film. Seriously, all that furore over the lack of Hawaiians and the casting. Who gives a shit? It’s Crowe’s movie. It’s his prerogative to focus on whatever characters he wants, cast whoever he wants. Why can’t a film based in Hawaii focus on white characters? Are there no white people in Hawaii? Are there no white soldiers based there? Why must he tell the story you think he should tell rather than the story he wants to tell? Call it bad casting or writing, but don’t make it political. It would be a different story if the film was based on true events, but it’s not, so what’s the big deal?

To be fair, Stone’s character might have attracted less attention had she not been blonde and her surname not been “Ng”. It may have been wiser to make her say one-eighth or even one-sixteenth Hawaiian, or change the last name to something more Anglo. But you’re telling me there are no blonde quarter-Hawaiians in this world? Or that there are no blonde Ngs on this planet? (Apparently the character was based on a real-life red-head). Don’t shit on the movie because of that — not when there are so many other things you should be shitting on the movie for.

Let’s start with the premise. Bradley Cooper is Brian Gilcrest, a disillusioned, cynical former soldier who has become a contractor for a billionaire played by Bill Murray. Gilcrest goes to Hawaii to help negotiate a deal with a Hawaiian king to support the launch of a private satellite, and while there, he meets young and naive pilot Allison Ng (Stone) and bumps into his ex-girlfriend Tracy (Rachel McAdams), who is now married to Woody (John Krasinski) and has two kids.

If that sounds boring to you, that’s because it is. Crowe’s got some interesting ideas on his CV, such as Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, We Bought a Zoo, but Aloha is not one of them. The film never seems to be able to settle on a proper focus, drifting around aimlessly between Gilcrest’s work and his relationships with Ng and Tracy. The problem is, none of those three things are compelling. They’re either uninteresting, cliched or predictable. Crowe is usually pretty good tricking audiences into falling for sentimentality, though in this case I thought all the tactics were far too obvious.

To make matters worse, none of the characters are charismatic, which is an amazing feat given that it stars three of the most charismatic actors around today in Cooper, Stone and McAdams. Gilcrest just seems blase all the time, while Ng is overly enthusiastic about everything, to the extent that her character feels contrived. Tracy isn’t very sympathetic either, and Woody only has a few scenes to provide comedic relief.

Speaking of which, though the film is promoted as a comedy-drama, Aloha is almost completely devoid of laughs. I can’t think of a single joke in the film apart from one very strange scene towards the end, though it is so different in tone to the rest of the film that it just becomes jarring.

I suppose Crowe was aiming for a Hawaiian-themed film similar to Alexander Payne’s 2011 effort The Descendants (the one with George Clooney and Shailene Woodley). That one was also a laid back drama with familial themes, but it was also much better crafted and a lot funnier. Aloha, on the other hand, is all over the place, with a dull premise, poor storytelling and characters not worth caring for. I kept wondering how such a simple story could be such a struggle to follow, and then I realised it was because I simply didn’t care enough. Even without the controversy, Aloha is a real mess, one that even its talented cast could not salvage.

1.75 stars out of 5

Southpaw (2015)

Southpaw-Teaser-Poster

I still remember when I saw the first promo pic of Jake Gyllenhaal’s bloodied, ripped body for Southpaw, and turning gay for a second or two. Gyllenhaal had been in pretty good shape for Prince of Persia and Love and Other Drugs, though the intense boxing training he underwent for Southpaw took his physique to a level that even earned praise from the world’s most renowned bodybuilder, The Terminator himself (during a joint appearance on the Graham Norton Show).

What excited me more than Gyllenhaal’s physique was the promise of a genuinely good boxing movie. As an avid fan of the sweet science, I know just how rare boxing movies are, and how virtually non-existent good boxing movies are. But Fuqua has proven himself to be a skilled director through stellar efforts such as Training Day, Shooter, Olympus Has Fallen and The Equalizer, and the Oscar-nominated Gyllenhaal was coming off a downright phenomenal performance in Nightcrawler. Surely the two of them together could produce some magic.

Or so I thought.

And so it pains me to say that Southpaw was a huge disappointment, probably my biggest disappointment of the year so far. Despite packing so much promise, the film turned out to be a two-hour cliche fest filled with predictable plot points, stereotypes and unrealistic depictions of the boxing world. Not even Fuqua’s solid direction or Gyllenhaal’s abs could save it.

The story revolves around Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal), a hard-nosed, temperamental world champion light-heavyweight boxer raised through Brooklyn’s tough orphanage system with his beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams). All boxing movies are ultimately underdog stories, and Southpaw is no different, regardless of whether the protagonist starts from the bottom or from the top.

I don’t want to divulge much more about the plot than that, though if you’ve seen a single trailer or read any reviews with spoilers (most of them have) you’ll pretty much be able to guess all the main plot points from start to finish. Actually, you might be able to do that even if you haven’t.

There were multiple times during the film when I thought, I hope cliche X doesn’t happen next because it sure looks like it’s gonna happen! And then of course, BOOM, it happens exactly the way I feared. You may not be able to pinpoint exactly where you’ve seen specific plot points or scenes before, but it will all certainly feel very familiar. For some audiences, that safe feeling of predictability is welcome, but for me it was a low blow.

My problems with the movie really begin with the title, Southpaw. As a natural left-hander myself, I was hoping to see a southpaw protagonist as the title suggests. But guess what? The title is misleading! It’s not completely irrelevant to the story, but it’s almost as though they thought, hey, Southpaw would be a nice name for a boxing movie, nearly finish filming it, and then suddenly realise, Oh shit, we need to do something about that title! (The real reason is because the film was originally written for Eminem, a lefty in real life).

Next, I found the world in the movie to be lacking in authenticity. It’s hard for me to get into details without giving away spoilers, but essentially the boxing world that is depicted in the film is not how things work in real life. Not for big time boxing stars in the modern era (and that’s what Hope is — white, undefeated, exciting style, good-looking, etc). Everything from the promotional aspects to the financial aspects is manipulated to suit the narrative, and it sticks out like dogs balls for people who know a thing or two about how the frustratingly rigid fight game works these days.

These are just some general comments and not spoilers, but basically top-tier pay-per-view events need at least several months to promote. Even the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, the biggest fight in boxing history, had about three months, and that was regarded as the absolute minimum even taking into account that the fight didn’t need a typical promotional tour because it would sell itself. Top-tier PPV draws and their promoters — on both sides — would not take on megafights at short notice (you need at least an eight-week training camp). Popular former champions — especially those still in their physical prime — wield considerable clout in the sport and will have no problem finding a manager or setting up a fight people will pay to see. And the amount of money PPV stars make these days is easily in the millions per fight, and if you’ve had a long and successful career you’ll be set for life many times over. We’re not even talking about the generational stars like Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, who have in excess of US$400 million each in career ring earnings. Even second-tier or third-tier guys a lot of casual fans might not have heard of, like Paulie Malignaggi from Brooklyn, who boasts a modest career record of 33-7 (with 7 KOs) and generally fights on the undercards of big bouts, has an estimated net worth of about US$8 million. I’m not saying that the film ignores all these things completely, but just that it glosses over them with convenient cliches.

And for all the talk about brutally realistic boxing sequences and really getting punched, I actually didn’t find them that authentic. Kudos for getting real HBO commentators Jim Lampley and Roy Jones Jr and ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr and using the same cameras as the PPV telecasts, but if you watch a lot of real boxing you might think some of the fight scenes in Southpaw look quite choreographed. Not all of them, but the close ups in particular look very methodical. It might be the slightly exaggerated reactions to the punches or the studio-made sound effects, or perhaps it’s the stark contrast between the unorthodox brawling style of Hope and real world-class boxers. Granted, we’re a long way away from the arcade-game boxing of the early Rocky movies, though in terms of authenticity, Southpaw‘s fight scenes are still a notch or two below Ali and The Fighter (which have the advantage of real footage to emulate) and probably fall on the same level as Rocky Balboa. Watch them on YouTube and see if you agree. In fact, the most naturalistic boxing scenes in the entire film were from a short sparring session featuring real professional fighter Victor Ortiz.

The biggest problem with the movie is the lazy script. I mean, come on, naming the central character “Hope” so you can toss in a bunch of puns isn’t exactly subtle. Apart from the boxing issues I noted above, there are a lot of little nagging things. If you break down the major themes and plot points in the story — I’m not going to spell them out — you’ll see that they’ve pretty much all been recycled from the Rocky franchise. There are also unresolved issues that shouldn’t be unresolved, like a major incident early in the film (given away in the trailers) that is kind of forgotten until it is disposed of at the end with a throwaway line. And the fact that it was unresolved in the first place lacks logic and common sense.

Some of the errors are littered throughout the dialogue and can be glaring. I’m going to break a rule here and divulge a couple of mini-spoilers, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know. Otherwise, highlight the white text below to read me rant. 

At the start of the film, a reporter asks Hope whether there is anyone left for him to fight. Seconds later, Hope’s arch nemesis, a top up-and-coming fighter he has never faced, appears and challenges him to a bout. Why would the reporter ask such a stupid question when the answer is so obviously standing right there? The commentary written for the HBO commentators also has these problems, such as moronically declaring that a previously undefeated fighter’s career is over after one loss.

I feel bad for Jake Gyllenhaal because it’s obvious he put a lot of work and effort into this role. But surely a guy who has been in so many fantastic movies can tell Southpaw isn’t very good. It would have been interesting had Eminem gotten the role instead, but clearly Gyllenhaal is the better actor and stronger screen presence. Oh well, at least he got really ripped and learned how to box. And Eminem still got to a write a song for the movie.

As for the rest of the cast, Forest Whitaker does his usual shtick as an old trainer with serious skills and a heart of gold. It’s the type of role the Oscar-winner can sleepwalk through, and probably did. I like the guy who plays Hope’s nemesis, Miguel Gomez, who might not be a great actor but at least looks like a boxer. The problem for me is that he keeps reminding me of his character in TV’s campy zombie show The Strain. Rachel McAdams doesn’t get to do much, and the young girl who plays their daughter, Oona Laurence, doesn’t particularly stand out, though I blame some of that on the dialogue given to her. No such excuse for Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who plays Hope’s manager. He’s flat-out horrible.

A lot of my harshness in this review stems from expectations and my fondness for the sport. Casual viewers who don’t think as much about the intricacies and are simply looking for an uplifting sports movie might find it a lot more enjoyable than I did. I wish I felt differently about the movie because I can see what they were trying to do with it — an underdog story of redemption that’s character-focused and fuelled by a moving father-daughter relationship — but ultimately the script and execution is so heavy-handed that I couldn’t see past all the flaws.

If I have to end this review with a boxing analogy I would say this: They say the  most devastating knockout punches in boxing are the ones you don’t see coming. Southpaw may hit very hard, but it’s nowhere near as effective as it should be because you can see all the punches coming from a mile away.

2 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part V

The movie blitz is back, and there are some interesting new entries.

Nurse 3D (2013)

nurse-3d-movie-poster

Riding high from her star turn in Boardwalk Empire, Paz de la Huerta gets cast in Nurse 3D, a campy horror film where she gets to play Abby, a crazy nurse who seduces her “deserving” victims before killing them. If anything, Nurse 3D knows exactly what kind of film it wants to be — sexy, bloody, gory and campy. The kind of film you scream and laugh to, depending on your disposition.

The poor woman who gets her life turned upside down by Abby is Danni, played by 30 Rocks‘ Katrina Bowden. There’s some sex, plenty of nudity, and no shortage of gruesome kills and bloody aftermaths. There is definitely a market for this kind of film, and for me it’s preferably to other trite attempts such as the Piranha 3D franchise.

Paz de la Huerta certainly has a screen presence, but I really don’t know what to make of her. She has a nice figure, I suppose, one she is not afraid to show off, but she has a weird face. As for her acting, I can’t really tell if she is really good at trying to be bad, making her really good, or just bad.

Anyway, I didn’t hate the movie and found it occasionally fun, which is surprising, but I think you have to have a certain type of taste to be able to embrace it.

2.75 stars out of 5

PS: I watched this in 2D, but I can’t really see why this would be a worthwhile 3D film unless you want blood and boobs popping at your face.

Knights of Badassdom (2013)

knights_of_badassdom_xlg

Knights of Badassdom is for anyone who enjoyed the live action role-playing scenes in Role Models. It’s basically about a bunch of live action role-playing dudes played by an all-star cast including Aussie Ryan Kwanten (from True Blood), Steve Zahn, Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones), Summer Glau (Serenity) and Margarita Levieva (recently seen in Revenge) who bite off more than they can chew when an evil demon is unleashed from the underworld during a major event.

There are lots of nerd jokes, great puns and one-liners, but as is usually the case with such films it’s not quite as funny as you think it should be. That said, there are some solid moments that had me giggling and even laughing out loud. The violence, blood and gore are all intentionally fake and silly, but I suppose you can still call it a “horror.” It should come as no surprise that a flick with a name like Knights of Badassdom is not a good movie. It’s is a complete farce and it knows it, but the problem is that it’s not quite bad enough to be a so-bad-it’s-good type of film. So it’s not very good, but it’s not bad enough to be great. Does that make sense?

Nonetheless, consider all the problems the film went through to get released, it could have been much worse. It had a really troubled production because filming began in 2010 and was in post-production in 2012, but took another year before it was given a limited release. My wife gave up on it after about 2 minutes as she mumbled something along the lines of it being the stupidest thing she had ever seen. But I persevered and had a reasonably good time with it. Not a bad party flick, especially if everyone is drunk or stoned.

3 stars out of 5

Enough Said (2013)

enoughsaid

Enough Said is a nice little romantic comedy that I would never have seen in a million years had it not starred Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine from Seinfeld, aka the greatest TV actress of all time) and James Gandolfini in one of his final roles before his tragic passing.

The film’s premise is simple. A freelance masseuse (Louis-Dreyfus) goes to a party and meets a fellow divorced fellow (Gandolfini) and they start a relationship. But there are some wrinkles to this relationship, wrinkles I can’t discuss without giving part of the plot away. For me, it was pretty foreseeable, but for others it might come as a twist.

The strength of the film lies in the performances from two of the greatest TV actors of their generation, or any generation (plus the likes of Catherine Keener and Toni Collette in her original Aussie accent), and an extremely witty script by Nicole Holofcener, who also directed the film. It’s rare to see a drama that involves mainly people conversing with each other being so engaging. It may be just me, but I noticed a ton of Seinfeld references in there, which I loved, of course, but apart from that the hilarious one-liners just kept rolling out along with the sharp dialogue.

Leaving the humour aside, the drama is also surprisingly warm, insightful and poignant, and dare I say, realistic. There’s nothing about the film that really stands out (it’s not a film you’ll likely remember years down the track), but for me it’s a sweet little gem I’d definitely nominate to people looking for a DVD recommendation.

3.75 stars out of 5

About Time (2013)

abouttime

The poster for About Time almost put me off watching it. A smiling Rachel McAdams and a gingery British fellow (Domhnall Gleeson, whom I had only previously seen in an episode of the brilliant sci-fi series Black Mirror — if you discount the last couple of Harry Potter flicks) standing in the rain. It looked like a romantic-comedy version of The Notebook.

But, as is almost always the case, I was wrong. About Time, in my humble opinion, is probably the best romantic-comedy of 2013. Not that the field is strong, but at least it’s not the worst.

The premise is that Gleeson’s character, Tim, can time travel, like all the other men in his family, including his father (Bill Nighy). He doesn’t develop this ability or find out about it until he’s 21, but once he does, he tries to take full advantage of it. Everyone has different purposes for time travel, be it money or career, but for Tim it’s all about love. And that’s where Rachel McAdams’s character, Mary, comes in.

The bulk of the film is about their romance, as it should be. I mean, come on, who won’t fall for Rachel McAdams? Tim makes good use of his time travelling to woo Mary, but he also discovers that his ability has certain limitations. .

And no, it’s nothing like that other time travel film Rachel McAdams starred in, The Time Traveler’s WifeAbout Time is written and directed by Tony Curtis, who is responsible for penning the scripts for British romantic-comedy classics such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Love Actually (which he directed too), as well as Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. So hopefully that gives you an idea of the feel of the film and the type of comedy in it.

It dragged on towards the end of its 123-minute running time, but for the most part I simply adored this film. Not there there isn’t anything to complain about — the time travel rules, for example, don’t make any sense if you think about it, and Tim and Mary’s relationship is far too smooth and lacking in conflict. But I’m willing to overlook all of that because there is a sweetness and tenderness to the film that just warmed me up inside. And it’s not just the romance, but the moving relationships Tim has with his father and his sister (played by Lydia Wilson) also got to me as well. Very few, if any, romantic-comedies resonate with me (the last one was probably 500 Days of Summer), so I’m glad I was fortunate enough to have given About Time a shot.

4 stars out of 5

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 14

Movies reviewed: Cloud Atlas, About Cherry, Dredd, To the Wonder

This is probably going to be my last 2012 movie blitz (at least for now) because I’ve promised to do my best and worst of 2012 before the end of this year and the days are running out! I believe I only have about 4 movies left to watch (I’ve discarded the rest), but since none of them will likely make either list I’m just going to leave them for later.

If this is indeed the last one then I’m going out on a high as this blitz is a great one, packed with some high-profile flicks from 2012.

Cloud Atlas (2012)

CloudAtlas-Poster

Cloud Atlas was one of my most anticipated movies of 2012, but for some reason the film either (1) never made it to Taiwanese cinemas; or (2) was only showing for such a short time that I missed it completely. I’m not sure what happened because it had been slated to be Oscar bait and one of the biggest blockbusters of the year, but perhaps it was the furore over the Asian-izing of white actors that sunk the film even before it made its way to Asian shores.

I finally got around to watching it the other day, and my reaction to it is mixed. I can see why it was so polarizing – there are elements about it which are amazing, but on the other hand it felt like an ambitious film like this was doomed to failure from the start. Success or failure, Cloud Atlas is without a doubt one of the most ambitious films ever made, and kudos must go to the Wachowskis (for those who don’t know, they are no longer the Wachowski “brothers” because one of them is now a “sister”) for even attempting a film of this size and complexity.

Spanning nearly 3 hours, Cloud Atlas is an epic set across six time periods, from the mid-1800s to the 24th century. Each period is played by more or less the same set of actors playing different characters, and that is where the ridiculed makeup and special effects come in (I’ll get to that in a sec). The reason why they got the same actors to play characters in different time periods is because they are supposed to be reincarnates from different lives, and the film is pretty much an exploration of the idea that people go through life after life, that they are bound to certain people in each life, and that actions in one life can affect or shape lives in the future.

The narrative jumps around between the six time periods, which can be confusing and daunting for some, but for the most part the Wachowskis do a stellar job of keeping the story flowing and bringing its core concepts to the forefront. That said, with so many interlocking stories and characters, it is difficult to afford all of them enough time to develop, and as a result I found parts of the film unsatisfying and lacking in emotional depth. There is a payoff at the end, but it took a very long time to get there.

The all-star cast is blameless in all of this. Really, how can you complain about the likes of Tom Hanks, HalleBerry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant? Each of them play a wide range of characters from good to evil, and they each do it convincingly, as far as performances are concerned. What didn’t work so well was the makeup and effects needed to transform those actors from one race to another. This was something that didn’t pose a problem in the novel, and it’s hard to fault the Wachowskis for trying to overcome the issue by, for example, turning Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving into slanty-eyed Asians, and HalleBerry and Korean actress Doona Bae into white women. As good as makeup is these days, the results were laughable in many of the cases, especially for Sturgess and Weaving, who look like absolute freaks and more Alien than Asian.

But is that reason enough to bash the whole film? I don’t think so. They did the best they could under the circumstances, but for many people it will mean putting aside the absurdity of the characters’ appearances to enjoy the movie.

Like it or hate it, Cloud Atlas is a memorable film. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s the masterpiece it set out to be, though it is certainly not the spectacular turd that some critics and audiences have labelled it. If you can ignore the freaky faces and immerse yourself into the story, Cloud Atlas could be one of the most enjoyable experiences of the year, complete with well-executed action and eye-popping special effects. I’ve heard on numerous occasions that it is a film that requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate, so on my first (and possibly last) viewing I’ll give it…

3.5 stars out of 5

About Cherry (2012)

cherry

The film is called About Cherry, but it’s really not about much at all. Technically, it’s about a naïve and pretty girl (Cherry — -played by Ashley Hinshaw, who had a small part in the underrated Chronicle) who sinks into the world of pornography, but in reality it’s just about a girl who decided to get into porn for a quick buck.

I thought it would a good, or at least interesting, film because it was backed by a strong cast of supporting stars headed by James Franco, Dev Patel, Heather Graham and Lili Taylor. I’m not sure why they were drawn to this project, the directorial debut of American author, journalist and activist Stephen Elliott, but I doubt this will end up being a film placed high on their respective CVs.

The biggest problem with About Cherry is the titular character, who is played well by Hinshaw but offers no real redeeming qualities or genuine personality. She’s just a girl who wanted to make money, and saw porn as an easy route (no pun intended). There’s no manipulation, no exploitation, no coercion or persuasion – it’s just a consenting adult wanting to make money. And that doesn’t make for very compelling viewing.

Sure, her career creates some friction in her life – with her best friend (Patel) who is painfully and obviously in love with her, a fact she has no trouble using and abusing to her advantage; with her boyfriend (Franco), a druggie lawyer; and her mother (Taylor), a deadbeat alcoholic – but honestly, it’s not that bad.

We don’t really gain an insight into why Cherry went down this path or why it escalated from solo pics to real sex, apart from the suggestion that her mother is a loser and she wants to get away from her. And besides, all these relationships are not resolved properly, with the James Franco arc being particularly bizarre, almost as though he decided to quit the film midway through the shoot and they had to come up with a rushed solution.

The film is made slightly more interesting by the presence of Graham, who plays a porno director who becomes infatuated with Cherry to the detriment of her long-term relationship. But the way this part of the story is wrapped up is stupid and could be perceived as an insulting message about the nature of human sexuality.

In the end, apart from the soft core porn scenes there just isn’t a lot to like about the movie. It’s not poorly made, and the performances are decent, but it’s hard to a connect with a film on an emotional level when the characters feel so remote and uninteresting. Maybe I missed the point of About Cherry completely. Frankly, I don’t care.

1.5 stars out of 5

Dredd (2012)

dredd

It’s unfortunate that the comic strip hero Judge Dredd almost always conjures up the image of Sly Stallone mumbling about something incoherent, with Sandra Bullock beside him wondering what the hell she’s doing. This “remake”, just Dredd, probably won’t erase the memory of the 1995 disaster, but it’s nonetheless a much much better film that’s surprisingly effective and exciting.

For starters, Dredd knows exactly the type of action film it wanted to be – brutal, violent, unflinching, dark, gritty and littered with hints of political messages. This time Karl Urban (who never shows his face) plays Dredd, a Judge who plays judge, jury and executioner in a dystopic future world. Most of the action takes place in a massive slum building block controlled by drug lord Ma-Ma, played awesomely by Lena Heady (from 300 and Game of Thrones). Dredd and a new recruit with psychic powers (Olivia Thilrby) are sent to investigate the building after a brutal execution-style killing, and find themselves trapped against a whole army of criminals.

It’s a fairly simple Die Hard premise, though the look and feel of the film is closer to a futuristic version of the 2011 Indonesia masterpiece The Raid: Redemption – and it would be unfair to suggest Dredd is anywhere near as good as either film. But for the most part, Dredd is effective and should appeal to fans of the source material.

While the plot leans close to predictable, the action is explosive and thrilling, the special effects are sharp and the dialogue is darkly humorous. Plus Karl Urban and Lena Heady are just so good. It’s not quite enough to elevate Dredd above the rest of 2012’s top action flicks, but it’s not far too from the apex of the pack.

3.75 stars out of 5

To the Wonder (2012)

TotheWonder

The title of Terrence Malick’s latest romantic drama, To the Wonder, is very apt, as I am still wondering what the hell I watched. I’ve given Malick a lot of tries through the years, starting with The Thin Red Line, The New World and Tree of Life, and I’ve come away disappointed every time despite all the praises and accolades.

Like those films, my guess is that To the Wonder will polarise audiences, with some critics loving it (as evidenced by its Golden Lion nomination at the 2012 Venice Film Festival) and the majority of audiences hating it. I am siding with the latter.

The premise of the film seems harmless enough – a Ukrainian woman played by Olga Kurylenko moves to the US after meeting Ben Affleck’s character in Paris. She feels isolated and she returns to France – during which time Affleck dates Rachel McAdams – and then returns to try and rekindle the relationship.

But in typical Malick fashion, To the Wonder is all about the arty farty, the beautiful imagery, the barely decipherable whispering monologues (luckily this time there’s no Nick Nolte) and people dancing and prancing around in the meadows, staring out the windows, running around and flailing their arms about like lunatics.

All of this is done in rapid cuts (in one instance you get what feels like 100 snippets of two people frollicking through a cornfield) and minimal, almost inhuman dialogue, which makes it an unusual viewing experience but also a very annoying one. In short, To the Wonder is REALLY self-indulgent.

Maybe some viewers can appreciate the beauty of it all and understand what Malick is trying to do with this movie, but I found it emotionally unsatisfying and bordering on laughable. I thought I would love a film where Ben Affleck says almost nothing and where Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams are the lead actresses, but for most of the painfully long 113-minute running time I was either confused or irritated by it. Javier Bardem playing a priest who questions his faith was pretty funny though, albeit unintentionally.

Bad films that are supposed to be bad I can take, but pretentious films like To the Wonder really get to me. Or maybe we’ve all been fooled and it’s supposed to be a parody, though that doesn’t make the movie any better.

1 star out of 5

Movie Review: Midnight in Paris (2011)

It’s 2012 already but I’m still trying to finish off my 2011 movie reviews so I can do my annual top 10 list.

I still have a quite a few to go, but I’m pretty sure Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is going to be on that list. Starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates and co, Midnight in Paris is one of those rare, magical delights that I just couldn’t help but fall in love with.

Even though I had seen a couple of trailers, I mistakenly thought Midnight in Paris was one of those lazy, forgettable romantic “dramedies” with a bit of predictable quirkiness and lots of pretty scenes of Paris.  While it is indeed a quasi-love letter to the beautiful city, I couldn’t have been more wrong about everything else.  Without giving too much away, I would classify it as a “fantastical” romantic comedy.

It tells the story of Gil (Wilson), an engaged Hollywood scriptwriter working on his first novel, who travels to Paris on a vacation with his fiance Inez (McAdams) and her wealthy parents.  By chance, they bump into Inez’s pompous, insufferable friend Paul (Sheen), who loves to grab the spotlight and take the wind out of Gil’s sails.  Feeling rejected and dejected, Gil decides take a solo stroll through the streets of Paris one evening, thus beginning an unexpected and mystical adventure  involving a whole cast of fascinating characters.  I didn’t know about this aspect of the film so it came to me as a wonderful surprise, and being a writer made it even more glorious.

Despite the scandals in his personal life, it’s hard to not admire Woody Allen as genius filmmaker.  He has made some pretty decent but flawed films in recent years (Whatever Works, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Scoop and Match Point, to name a few), but Midnight in Paris has to be one of his best in quite some time.  The characters are rich and the dialogue is sublime.  The one-liners are hilarious.  And the idea itself is brilliant.  At just 94 minutes, the film is short and sweet, allowing a swift pace.  It might not be a particularly deep film, but the sweet, light-hearted and wondrous vibe that Allen threads throughout the whole film makes it a joy to watch.

The role of Gil was made for Owen Wilson, and he shines here as the affable, slightly dorky Gil.  McAdams is also very good as the spoiled, irritating finance, and Michael Sheen is, as expected, marvellous as the pseudo-intellectual douchebag Paul.  Marion Cotillard is sexy and alluring, but for me, the one who steals the show in a minor role is French actress Lea Seydoux (who was recently an assassin in MI4).  But with the likes of Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody and French First Lady Carla Bruni, it’s hard to pick any holes in the cast or performances.

Midnight in Paris is by no means a perfect film, but I connected with it in a way I never thought I would.  As far as short, witty, memorable films are concerned, this one is right up there in my personal pantheon.

5 out of 5 stars!

Qantas In-Flight Movie Blitz!

I need to get this one out quickly because all of the movies are fading fast from my memory.  On my trip to China a couple of months ago I saw 2 movies on the flight there and 2 on the way back.  Keep in mind that I was under the influence of anti-anxiety medication for all 4 films.

Thanks to Qantas for having such a terrific collection of reasonably new films, even in economy.  I’ll let all the safety issues slide this time.

The Switch (2010)

Huge fan of Jason Bateman (largely because of Arrested Development) but not much of a fan of Jennifer Aniston.  Unfortunately, the Aniston factor overrode the Bateman factor on this film about a dude (Bateman) who switched the sperm sample used for the artificial insemination of his best friend (Aniston).

This was a strange film.  The main problem is that while it’s an interesting idea, there’s just nothing fresh about it.  Its biggest sin is that it’s supposed to be a comedy but it’s not particularly funny.  Damn you, Aniston.

1.75 stars out of 5

Conviction (2010)

This was one of those inspirational true stories starring Hilary Swank.  She plays Betty Ann Waters, a remarkable woman who went to law school and became a lawyer just so she could prove her brother’s innocence.  That’s dedication for you.

While Conviction was good, anchored by the usual strong performance by Swank and also by Sam Rockwell as her brother Kenneth, it wasn’t as good as I thought it would be.  It was dramatic but occasionally slow, heartfelt but occasionally melodramatic.  Good but not great.

3.25 stars out of 5

SPOILERS: By the way, this was not mentioned in the film, but Kenneth Waters actually fell off a wall and died just 6 months after his release from prison (where he spent around 20 years).  That’s just so brutal I’m lost for words.

Tamara Drewe (2010)

I recently checked out the comic book from which this film was based, and I must say I found it a little boring.  The film, on the other hand, was a surprising delight.  It’s one of those well-made little films that explores human nature.  It stars Gemma Arterton as the titular character, who returns home to a small village in England to sell the house she inherited from her deceased mother.

I guess a part of the reason I liked the film was because Tamara is a journalist and the film is set around a writers’ retreat, which provided many opportunities for clever humour.  It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but Tamara Drewe was probably the best film out of the 4.

3.5 stars out of 5

Morning Glory (2010)

This was a coming-of-age film about the morning television industry and the crazy stuff that goes on behind the scenes.  I really like Rachel McAdams and she does a great job here as the young up-and-comer on the show ‘DayBreak’.  Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton are also both very good as the anchors.

It’s a charming film because of the characters and performances but unfortunately not as enjoyable as I thought it would be.  Even though there haven’t been very many films with the same subject matter, I somehow felt like I had seen it all before.  Perhaps all such films have the same formula?  Or perhaps I’m just not really into the world of morning TV?

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

I admit I don’t know a whole lot about the Sherlock Holmes created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I may have read a few story books or seen a couple of TV shows about the super sleuth as a child, but on the whole my memory is pretty fuzzy.

Accordingly, when I watched the new film Sherlock Holmes directed by Guy Ritchie, I didn’t have a pre-conceived notion of how the character was supposed to behave.  I understand a lot of old school fans may be quite appalled at the way Sir Conan’s creation has been butchered in this ‘re-invention’ (in the same way I was devastated with what Hollywood did with Astro Boy), but I didn’t have such a problem.

With that in mind, I quite liked it!  That’s saying a lot because I haven’t liked a Guy Ritchie film since Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (and I didn’t even like that very much).

(Read the rest of the review by clicking on ‘More…’)

Continue reading Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Movie Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)

the_time_travelers_wife_poster

I had been wanting to watch the big screen adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s bestseller The Time Traveler’s Wife ever since I heard it was being made (it was actually optioned by Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt before the novel was even published).

It is such a beautiful book, taking a seemingly ridiculous, science-fictionesque premise to deliver a tragic love story that somehow works.  One of those rare stories that made the outrageous feel normal because the characters and what they felt for each other was so painfully real.

I’m glad to say that the film version, while not perfect by any means, is very good, capturing the essence of the relationship between Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana), a man with a genetic disorder that causes him to unintentionally and periodically time travel, and Claire Abshire (Rachel McAdams), the girl he was destined to fall in love with.

Of course, the success of a movie like this depends largely on the performances of the leads.  When I first heard that Eric Bana was cast as Henry, I was sceptical because he didn’t appear to fit the novel’s description.  But as I watched him, it became clear to me that he was spot on for the role.  He captures Henry’s love, pain and fear so well in a wonderfully controlled performance.  On the other hand, it doesn’t matter who Rachel McAdams plays.  She is so sweet, beautiful and classy that it’s not hard to believe anyone will fall madly in love with her.

However, a person’s enjoyment of the movie may well depend on how much they can accept the time travelling premise.  If you find the idea stupid, then it’s unlikely you’ll give the film much of a chance.  I think it’s quite possible for someone, especially if they haven’t read the book, to get a bit confused with all the travelling back and forth through time.  It’s easy to put up your hands and say ‘this is all too silly’ and let it overshadow the central love story.  On the other hand, if you can overlook some of the unexplained holes in the logic and just accept the premise (a pre-requisite for sci-fi films), then you may find yourself absorbed in Henry and Claire’s complex relationship.  For me personally, it was the type of film where the flaws become easier to forgive because it knows how to tug the heart strings.

Keeping in mind that the novel is 546 pages and spans a lifetime, the film adaptation is surprisingly short, clocking in at only 108 minutes.  This naturally means that the film lacks the full emotional depth of the novel (few films can match the novel in that regard anyway).  In condensing the book to fit the screen, characters were cut, roles were reduced and subplots were canned.  Nevertheless, I believe this actually worked in the film’s favour rather than against it.  It kept the focus solely on Claire and Henry’s relationship, and prevented the story from dragging on too long, which it did start to feel towards the final quarter.  It would have been very easy to make this a 2 hour 45 minute-plus movie, but I applaud the restraint from director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan) in keeping the running time manageable.  Trying to be truthful to the source material while keeping the film from being overlong can be a tough balance, but for the most part I think Schwentke and screenwriters Jeremy Leven (The Notebook) and Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost) did a decent job in the circumstances.

Perhaps I am a little biased because I’m a big fan of the two leads, but I believe  The Time Traveler’s Wife is a solid adaptation of a novel that was extremely difficult to adapt.  Those who are fans of the novel will likely either love it or hate it.  As for newcomers to this story, I’m not sure, but judging from the number of red, watery eyes I witnessed stepping out of the cinema (including my wife’s), my guess is that more people than not will be moved by it.

4 out of 5 stars!

[PS: I was surprised that the film relied mostly on make-up and not technology to show the aging process (which, after Benjamin Button, we know can do an extraordinary job).  Unfortunately this means the physical transformations of the characters are not as pronounced as they could have been.]