Tag Archives: Steve Carrell

The Big Short (2015)

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Wasn’t sure what to expect from The Big Short, the true story of how a bunch of brokers and fund managers made billions from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Though I majored in finance for my business degree at university, I never really developed a passion for all the complex financial products, especially derivatives, and the last thing I wanted to see was a movie about the industry and how it works.

Dudes and dudettes, my concerns were misplaced. The Big Short turned out to be a highly entertaining and fascinating riot of a comedy that ranks up there as one of my most enjoyed movie experiences of the year. Apart from finally getting a clue about what actually happened in 2008, I laughed my butt off at the wicked and witty humour. And yet, amid all the fast-paced explanations and hilarity, the film doesn’t forget that millions of people lost their jobs and homes because of the greed  and incompetence of those who run our financial systems.

It’s difficult to balance jokes and paying respect to what is a massive tragedy for so many people, particularly one that’s still fresh in our memories, which is why full credit must go to director and co-writer Adam McKay. It’s even more impressive when you consider that McKay, an SNL alum, is the guy who previously gave us farcical comedies such as Anchorman, Talledega Nights and Step Brothers.

McKay steps up in a big way, using a clever and innovative storytelling methods that include breaking the fourth wall and getting seemingly random celebrities to explain complex financial concepts in layman’s terms. As you would expect, there are plenty of explanations in this film, though it’s always done in a fun way that’s relevant to that point in the plot. The pieces are always moving so it never feels like things are constantly starting and stopping. You may not understand the concepts completely, but most regular viewers should garner enough knowledge to get by. Despite all the financial jargon, I felt like I was watching an exciting heist film.

Of course, the A-list cast is another huge reason to see this film. Christian Bale, who got another Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actor), portrays Dr Michael Burry, the only character to use his actual name for the movie and the guy who first discovered that it would only be a matter of time before the US housing market faces a complete collapse. To be honest, I don’t know if Bale deserves the nomination, for if it were up to me I’d probably give it to Steve Carrell, a hedge fund manager approached by Ryan Gosling’s slick bond salesman to invest in credit default swaps. Carrell steals the show a little bit in my opinion and is arguably even better than he was in Foxcatcher.

This trio of big names are backed up by a whole host of solid supporting actors. The most notable is Brad Pitt, who co-produced the film and plays a former banker with a pessimistic view of the system. He is flanked by two very impressive youngsters, John Magaro and Finn Wittrock, who plays a couple of up-and-coming hedge fund guys who started out in their garage. Others recognisable names like Rafe Spall, Melissa Leo, Marisa Tomei round out a spectacular ensemble cast that rivals Spotlight for most impressive of the year.

Earlier today I was just telling a friend — who thought the film might be boring — that The Big Short reminds me a little of The Wolf of Wall Street but without all the swearing and debauchery. I say that not just because both are about the corruption of the financial sector, but because of the rapid pace and machine-gun dialogue, the sharp wit, the light tone layered with dark themes, and the impeccable comedic timing. While I can’t quite compare my enjoyment of The Big Short to the epic levels of fun I had with The Wolf of Wall Street, I still consider it a smashing success, a delightful mix of learning and humour that deserves its reputation as one of the year’s top flicks.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Foxcatcher (2014)

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If you don’t know the true story behind Foxcatcher, then I suggest you avoid reading anything about the movie — apart from this spoiler-free review, of course — and anything about its real-life characters, American Olympic wrestling brothers Dave and Mark Schultz, as well as multimillionaire philanthropist John du Pont.

I know I say that about every movie, but in this case it’s really for your own good. Foxcatcher is one of those slow, contemplative films so doused in melancholy that you know it will either end up turning around into something inspirational or that something tragic is going to happen. Not knowing what will transpire, however, makes all the difference in the world in terms of the film’s emotional payoff after sitting through more than two hours of anticipation.

That’s not to say Foxcatcher doesn’t deliver the goods if you know the background, for it’s a story so remarkable — with characters so conducive to psychological drama — that you’ll tend to forget it’s all based on true events.

There’s the young wrestler, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), who has low self-worth — despite being an Olympic gold medalist — from living in his older brother’s shadow and a lack of financial stability. There’s Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), the more confident and savvy of the siblings whose career is tied down by his commitment to his wife (Sienna Miller) and children. And then there’s John du Pont (Steve Carell), the old, mysterious loner with mommy issues who wants to use his incredible wealth and power to build a patriotic national wrestling team with the Schultz brothers as his headliners.

Together, they form a tense triangle of power politics driven by money, loyalty, manipulation and control, all of which takes place before a backdrop of the competitive and often cutthroat world of amateur wrestling.

That description may make Foxcatcher sound like some kind of exciting thriller, though the pace is actually deliberately snail-like at times, full of solitary moments of silence, contemplation and self-reflection. Even the wrestling scenes are intentionally muted so that you don’t get any of that manufactured adrenaline that typically comes with Hollywood spots movies. But the emotions are undoubtedly there, and they actually feel more genuine and amplified. Those who have seen director Bennett Miller’s other acclaimed films Capote and Moneyball, will have an idea of the style I am referring to.

The three main actors have received critical acclaim for their performances, especially Carell and Ruffalo, who received Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. To be honest, I actually liked Tatum’s performance the most. Far from just a beefcake, he was terrific at projecting Mark’s obvious lack of self-esteem and desire for approval. Ruffalo was very good too, though he’s always at that level, while I would have been fine had Carell missed out on he nomination in favour of Selma‘s David Oyelowo. Not to say Carell wasn’t great in this, but he still reminded me of Steve Carell behind all the makeup.

Interestingly, after watching the film, I went online to check out what their real-life counterparts looked like. I was surprised to discover that none of them really had much of a resemblance, except for maybe Tatum, though it’s a stretch to call him a lookalike of Mark Schultz.

One of the things about the film that I liked — but recognise others might be frustrated by — is how the relationships, motives and states of mind of the characters are left ambiguous and open to interpretation. Was it mentor and student, coach and wrestler, father and son, brother and brother, or all of the above? And was I imagining things or was there even something sexual lurking beneath the surface? I have a feeling Miller wanted to let the audience decide for themselves so they can try to make sense of why things turned out the way they did in the end.

That said, Mark Schultz and some other wrestlers have already confirmed that Foxcatcher more or less made up the dynamics of the relationships and the character traits of the central trio. For the record, however, Schultz eventually recanted some of his criticisms of the film and against Bennett (who is up for Best Director), saying that he “loved” the film.

I personally found Du Pont to be by far the most fascinating character, and was naturally disappointed that his psyche was not explored in as much depth as it probably ought to have been. That said, such an endeavour would have added more time to a movie that was already feeling a little on the long side, and in any case I understand that the screenplay was based on Mark Schultz’s book and thus from his perspective.

Flaws and creative licenses aside, Foxcatcher works as a compelling yet disturbing drama powered by three excellent performances and the direction of a master storyteller. I have a feeling it will go down as one of the more memorable films of 2014.

4 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part VII

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

The Butler (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars out of 5

The Counselor (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

1.75 stars out of 5

The Way Way Back (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars out of 5

Drinking Buddies (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

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The original Anchorman, released 10 years ago, is remembered as a classic of random laughs and weirdness, hilarious political incorrectness, memorable characters and masterful improvised dialogue. It’s not actually as funny or as good as you remember it to be, but that’s the way it goes sometimes with movies that end up developing its own legend.

In all likelihood, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, will not be as revered as its predecessor, but the truth is that it’s probably just as funny and irreverent. If you enjoyed the zaniness of the original and developed an affection for the characters, then there’s a good chance you’ll have a great time with this one too.

The “legend” picks up several years after the end of the first film, with Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) sharing anchor duties with his now-wife, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate). Their boss, played by Harrison Ford, drops a bombshell on Ron and his ego is too fragile to take the hit. Just when he’s down in the dumps, he gets a visit from an exec played by Dylan Baker (I’ll always remember him as the deranged dad from Happiness), who offers him a job on a new 24-hour news network that no one in the industry thinks will succeed. The story really begins from here, as Ron starts to track down his own team of misfits including Champ Kind (David Koechner), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and Brick Tamland (Steve Carrell), and together they head to New York to challenge the big boys of national TV.

The bizarre absurdity of Anchorman 2 is no doubt an acquired taste. If you get it, however, chances are you’ll love it. Without giving too much away, there are some brilliant sequences that will either have you clutching your gut in laughter or shaking your head at the stupidity of it all. There are also some skits that pay homage to some of the classic moments in the original, including a really epic climax that keeps rolling in one huge surprise after another (best to avoid spoilers). You have to give props to Ferrell and his crew for not sticking to conventions and really going for the weirdest, most non-nonsensical shit they could come up with. While it’s still often hit and miss, the hits are usually big hits, and the misses can be swept aside rather quickly because the gags keep coming at a furious pace.

Even if you take all the randomness aside, Anchorman 2 still has some clever satire and witty social commentary weaved into its narrative tapestry. Again, I don’t want to play spoiler, but let’s just say it takes a fairly sharp stab at the state of Western media networks today and makes intelligent use of information we know in the present but won’t be known to the characters for a decade or two.

For me, Anchorman 2 is still never quite as funny as it should be or thinks it is. I kept feeling like the actors were having a better time than I was, and I sense the reason they even made the sequel in the first place is because they all loved hanging out with each other so much. The chemistry between the characters is definitely there, but if you’re not in the right mood then some of the gags will come across as lame and unfunny. Steve Carrell’s mentally challenged Brick, for example, is more creepily insane than ever, and this time they’ve paired him up with a female version of his character, Chani, played by Kristen Wiig. It was one of those things where you’re thinking, “This should be really hilarious,” but in the end turns out to be “meh”.

That said, Anchorman 2 still probably has one of the highest laughs per minute ratios of any film released in 2013. Part of the reason is that there are so many strong characters that you’ll likely find at least a couple of them funny. My personal favourites were Paul Rudd’s sex-obsessed Brian Fantana and, surprisingly, Ron Burgundy himself, who seems somehow both wiser and dumber than he was the last time around. James Marsden, who plays the new network’s douchebag poster child, and Greg Kinnear, who plays Christina Applegate’s lover/psychologist, are the highlights from the supporting cast. And if you like seeing a lot of A-list stars doing things you wouldn’t expect of them, you’ll love all the great cameos in this too.

Ultimately, despite its flaws — including the excessive running time of 119 minutes — I think there is enough quality stuff packed into Anchorman 2 to call it a worthy sequel. It’s never easy living up to expectations following a cult classic original, but even after 10 years the story and the characters’ goofy charm have not waned. Not everything works, but when things occasionally fall into place the result is comedy magic.

3.75 stars out of 5

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 11

Safe House (2012)

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Denzel Washington plays an ex-CIA operative who turns rogue and becomes an international criminal who, unsurprisingly,  appears to be more than meets the eye. Ryan Reynolds plays a low-level CIA agent who is tasked with looking after Denzel when the latter is captured and brought to a South African safe house (hence the title. Disaster strikes, and Reynolds is thrust into a dangerous situation in which he must figure out who he can trust in order to discover the truth behind everything.

It’s the type of basic premise we have seen dozens of times before (albeit with slight variations) — where a decent but relatively inexperienced guy out of his depth is paired with a slick professional and there is a big conspiracy waiting to be unveiled (is this considered a huge spoiler?).

I don’t mind these movies per se, but I’m a bit sick of the whole “Denzel is so cool” routine we seem to be getting in just about every film we see him in these days. You know, charismatic, super cool under pressure, extremely gifted in firefights and hand-to-hand combat, acts like he doesn’t give a crap about anything but cares deeply about doing the right thing in accordance with his own principles. As for Reynolds, I’m assuming he just played exactly the same type of character in RIPD (which I haven’t seen yet but will).

Look, Safe House isn’t bad — there’s intensity, action, suspense and a few semi-predictable twists here and there — but there is nothing that makes it memorable or stand out. In fact, I had forgotten a lot of the details and had to give myself a little refresher on YouTube and Wikipedia just to write this review. The performances are solid, but I didn’t like how the action sequences were edited with those quick, choppy cuts that prevent you from seeing exactly what is happening.

On the whole just an OK thriller that fails to live up to its full potential despite Denzel and an all-star cast that also features Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson.

2.75 stars out of 5

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

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I swear I still intend to get to the acclaimed book on which this film is based, written by Stephen Chbosky. I’ve heard so many people rave on about the book that it would be an injustice for me to ignore it. Interestingly, the film version is directed by the author, who wrote the screenplay as well. Usually it’s a recipe for disaster to place so much of a story in the hands of a single person, but in this case it was complete justified because The Perks of Being a Wallflower turned out to be one of the best coming-of-age movies I’ve seen in a long time.

Charlie, played by Percy Jackson‘s Logan Lerman, is a high school freshman dealing with a traumatic loss from the year before. Shy and withdrawn, he is a wallflower, someone who observes but is never really part of the story — until he meets step-siblings Sam and Patrick, played by Emma Watson (Harry Potter) and Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin), who accept him as part of their group.

Without going into too much more detail, this is a story about the loss of innocence, friendship, falling in love, loyalty, betrayal, and all those things many of us go through as we grow into adults. With full control over the material, Chbosky delivers an extremely genuine and heartfelt story told through a sensitive and delicate lens that I’m sure will be easy for many teens to relate to and conjure up a deep sense of nostalgia in adults. It’s hard to explain except to say that I connected with this film more than I thought I would and that I fully believed in the story from start to finish. Yes it is sentimental in parts but not overly so.

I’m astounded that Chbosky has only previously directed one other film, in 1995. The tone and atmosphere he creates in The Perks of Being a Wallflower is masterful and reflects just how in command of the material he is. He must also be credited for eliciting the best performances I have ever seen from Logan Lerman and Emma Watson. Let’s face it, Percy Jackson and The Three Musketeers are not the best films for a thespian to show off their acting talents, but Lerman is unbelievably believable as the mild-mannered Charlie who is immediately likable but is also clearly holding onto something that prevents him from opening up. Your heart goes out to him. The only complaints could be that he is not quite young-looking enough to pull off a freshman or that he is too good looking to play such a loner.

As for Emma Watson, wow. I always thought she was the most talented out of the Harry Potter trio, but here she completely sheds the shackles of Hermoine and gives us the best performance of her career. The same can be said for Ezra Miller, whom I thought would forever be trapped in my nightmares as the horrific Kevin (from We Need to Talk About Kevin, one of the best movies of 2011). Here he is a completely different character as the giddy and affable Patrick and totally made me forget that he butchered a bunch of kids in his previous role.

In some ways, The Perks of Being a Wallflower might oversimplify or even glamorize some difficult issues in adolescent life, but for me it’s a small flaw in an otherwise brilliant motion picture.

4.5 stars out of 5

PS: I’m almost doing The Perks of Being a Wallflower a disservice by reviewing it as part of a four-film movie blitz, because it deserves a solo review of its own. But I am lazy and I can’t be bothered.

Deadfall (2012)

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A stylish crime drama of intersecting subplots that feels strangely complicated but is actually very straightforward.

Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde play a pair of siblings on the run after a casino heist has gone horribly wrong. For some reason they must split up so they could reach their goal of making it across the Canadian border under blizzard conditions, kicking off a string of violent events and coincidences that eventually all comes to a head in a climatic flurry. The film is powered by an A-list cast that also features Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim), Kate Mara (House of Cards), Kris Krisofferson, Treat Williams and Sissy Spacek.

I found Deadfall a difficult film to grasp because it seems to be moving along confidently, taking the audience in several directions seemingly without aim, but there is actually an underlying strategy all along to pull all the strands together by the end. But at the end of it all, I said to myself, “Is that it?” Despite the intrigue, I was left wondering what the fuss was all about.

That said, I was engaged and kept wondering what was going on through the majority of the 94-minute running time. I suppose you could call it dark, character-driven film, but then again I didn’t really care for any of the characters. Could it be described as a B-grade movie masquerading as an A-grade movie because of its sound technical efficiency and the super cast? I dunno. I can’t decide whether I liked the film, disliked the film, or if I am just indifferent about it. Meh.

2.5 stars out of 5

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

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Every now and then comes along a really interesting idea for a movie and the execution is nearly good enough to pull it off, but for whatever reason just doesn’t quite get there. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, starring Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley, is such a film. It starts off brilliantly and has its fair share of genuine laughs and oddly comical moments all the way through, but unfortunately it loses steam halfway through and drifts towards a rather disappointing final act.

The film starts off with the announcement that the world, as we know it, is coming to an end. A giant asteroid is coming to Earth and there’s no Bruce Willis to save us. With just three weeks until impact, the world is understandably flipped into chaos (with drugs and suicides and looting and guilt-free sex dominating), but at the same time there are many lost and lonely individuals out there who have no idea how they are going to spend the last few days of their lives. Steve Carrell, whose wife leaves him in the opening scene, is one of them, until he meets Knightley, who had just broken up with her boyfriend and has no chance to see her family in England one last time.

Seeking a Friend could be described as a road trip comedy-drama, but it’s really a fascinating imagining of how the world would react if everyone thought they had just days to live. Would you keep working in your job because you have nothing else better to do? Or would you stay with family and go have beach BBQs all day? Or will you go crazy and break every law you can think of, just for the sake of it? A lot of the things depicted in this film, as random and outrageous and hilarious as they are, strangely ring true. I laughed often and hard, especially early on.

I’ve never been a big fan of either Carrell or Knightley, so I was shocked to discover that I really liked both of them in this. Despite the age gap (51 to 28), they had a comfortable rapport and a sweetness to them, and the resulting banter was sharp and clicking.

However, perhaps feeling like it cannot be a pure comedy with no emotion (given it is the end of the world, after all), the film starts to become more personal and begins venturing into light melodrama, regretfully sucking out its earlier charm. The closer it got to the end, the more flat and uninteresting things got. Some of the attempts are indeed poignant, but frankly I just wanted more laughs.

3.5 stars out of 5

Recent Movie Reviews: Part I

My furious rally continues. Here are a bunch of 2013 movies I have yet to review, four at a time. Here is the first wave.

The Call (2013)

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Ever since Catwoman I have been wary of anything Halle Berry does. The Call, about a woman at an emergency call center, did not sound very appealing to me, but positive word of mouth got me to change my mind.

I’m glad I watched it in the end because The Call is a thrill ride that manages to keep up the suspense for the majority of its 94-minute running time. Berry, the call center worker, is haunted by a previous call which resulted in the death of a young girl. Months later, she takes another call, this time from another teenager played by Abrigail Breslin (she’s growing up real fast), who has been abducted by possibly the same guy.

Much of the film follows Berry on the phone as she tries to figure out how to keep the girl alive and how to track down her kidnapper. I was impressed with how director Brad Anderson (The Machinist) kept coming up with different ways to keep the ball rolling without making it seem repetitive or too ridiculous.

That said, I was really irritated by the stupidity of Breslin’s character and her incessant screaming and whining (all to her detriment) — and a part of me really wanted her to get killed — though to be fair if she wasn’t so stupid she probably would have been rescued in about 20 minutes and there would be nothing left to film.

On the whole I really enjoyed The Call, which was on its way to being a huge surprise hit for me until the moronic ending that made absolutely no sense whatsoever and downgraded my rating by at least half a star.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

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I was one of those kids who loved magic growing up and bought magic kits and had dreams of becoming a magician some day (like David Copperfield). So while The Incredible Wonderstone looked pretty awful from the posters and trailer I was willing to give it a go. Besides, it has Steve Buscemi, the greatest actor of all time.

Well, it wasn’t very good, but it wasn’t disastrous either. Steve Carrell and Buscemi are best buds and old school magicians performing in Vegas, but their act is getting old and their thunder is being stolen by new “street” magicians such as Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) — an obvious caricature of douches like Criss Angel and David Blaine.

There are a few decent jokes in Burt Wonderstone, but most of them come courtesy of the crazy antics of Carrey, who is the best he has been in a very long time (considering his last few live action films were Mr Poppers Penguins, I Love You Philip Morris, Yes Man and The Number 23 — yikes). The late great James Gandolfini and Alan Arkin are also excellent in supporting roles, but Carrell is just not very likable and Buscemi’s talents are completely wasted. And Olivia Wilde is painfully miscast as the love interest who is just too young for Carrell.

In the endBurt Wonderstone just isn’t consistently funny enough to make it a good film and completely fizzles as it enters the final act, which is a shame because it started off quite strongly.

2.75 stars out of 5

Now You See Me (2013)

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Another magic movie, but Now You See Me, unlike Burt Wonderstone, actually received good word of mouth despite lukewarm reviews from critics.

As for me, I have mixed feelings about it too. I think it is a fantastic concept — four magicians of diverse skills (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco) are brought together by a mysterious leader who gets them to perform otherworldly but legally questionable acts, while a detective (Mark Ruffalo) is hot on their feels trying to figure out how the stunts were carried out so he can arrest them. It’s an alluring premise for a caper movie and the magic tricks, some of which are explained, are fun to watch and debunk.

On the other hand, the film is kinda rough around the edges and suffers from a lack of precision. There is almost no character development and the dialogue is atrocious, giving the film a B-grade feel and a sense that the talents of the all-star cast are being wasted. All the effort was put into the the style but not enough attention was paid to the substance.

The film relies on its twists and turns to keep audiences intrigued, but for me the big reveal was rather predictable (maybe I’ve seen too many movies). Still, I had a good time with it, though it was so unmemorable that I had totally forgotten to review it until now.

3.25 stars out of 5

Warm Bodies (2013)

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A zombie movie from the perspective of a zombie sounded like it had potential for some great laughs. And the first few moments of Warm Bodies were indeed promising as we watched zombies wander around aimlessly and trying to communicate through a series of hilarious grunts.

But Warm Bodies is really a romantic comedy masquerading as a zombie movie, which is a good thing because the zombie gimmick gets old pretty quickly. It has obvious allusions to Romeo & Juliet, as our protagonist zombie (arguably the best looking zombie in movie history), Nicholas Hoult, is named “R”, while his love interest, Aussie Teresa Palmer, is “Julie”.

To make the film work as a romantic comedy, many fundamental rules we know about zombies are bent, if not broken. I didn’t have a problem with that per se because it was important to look at the zombies as the “good guys”, but I didn’t think it was necessary to create another breed of zombies, known as “Bonies”, so we are clear who the real “bad guys” are.

So Warm Bodies was just OK for me. It had a great premise and a few early laughs, but as a romantic comedy it wasn’t particularly romantic or funny once the zombie gimmick ran its course. It’s not a bad date movie because it is sweet and has charm, but I think it falls way short of the cult classic status it was perhaps aiming for.

3 stars out of 5

PS: That’s four very average movies.

Movie Review: Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)

Never been a huge fan of ‘romantic dramedies’ (thanks, Mr Judd Apatow) but Crazy, Stupid, Love is somewhat of an exception.  While it’s far too long and suffers from some of the tonal unevenness often seen in such films, I found myself thoroughly enjoying this clever meshing of different stories about the beauty, excitement, angst and heartbreak of love and life.

Crazy, Stupid, Love is driven by several damaged but very likeable characters.  There’s Cal (Steve Carrell), a middle-aged man who discovers his wife (Julianne Moore) has been cheating on him with a colleague (Kevin Bacon).  There’s Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a wealthy playboy and expert in the art of seduction who takes Cal under his wing until he meets Hannah (Emma Stone), a young lawyer stuck with a loser boyfriend.  And there’s Cal’s 13-year-old son Robbie (Jonah Bobo), who is obsessively in love with his babysitter Jessica, (Analeigh Tipton — who apparently was a high ranking contestant on America’s Next Top Model?!), who has a secret crush of her own.

It’s a ridiculously amazing ensemble cast that also features the always-brilliant Marisa Tomei (who almost steals the show) and everybody’s favourite husband from Fargo, John Carroll Lynch.  The performances really elevate the overall quality of the film, and I was personally surprised by Carrell’s drama acting chops as well as Gosling’s comedic acting chops.  For me, the standouts were Tomei, Gosling, Bobo and Tipton, but there were no weak links.

What impressed me most about Crazy, Stupid, Love was that the comedy side of it was genuinely funny (perhaps not gut bustingly so but amusing enough) and the drama side of it was actually romantic and emotionally effective too.  There aren’t many romantic dramedies I can think of in recent times that tick both boxes.  It also did a fabulous job of linking all the characters and stories together in a way many ensemble cast stories do but in a cleverer way.  This was not one of those sugar-coated, lovey-dovey movies with a predictable ending, even though it’s at times (bitter)sweet and full of heart.

I still don’t like romantic dramedies but if they can all be like Crazy, Stupid, Love (except a little shorter than its 118-minute-but-felt- longer running time) then I might be more willing to give them a try.

4 stars out of 5

Start of Year DVD Blitz: Part II

As Frank Costanza once said: ‘You want it?  You got it!’  Four more movie reviews to continue my Start of Year DVD Blitz.  I predict there will probably be one more after this.  Maybe two.  Or three.

Beautiful Kate (2009)

If Animal Kingdom was 2010’s best Aussie film, then Beautiful Kate was most probably the cream of the 2009 crop of Australian cinema.

In many ways, this was a typical Aussie film — low budget, set in the outback, sad and depressing.  But for some reason I was really affected by the emotions of this splendid movie directed by Rachel Ward.

It’s based on an American story by Newton Thornburg but adapted to Australian conditions, and tells the story of Ned (Ben Mendelsohn), a writer to returns home with his young girlfriend (Maeve Dermody) to his dying father (Bryan Brown) and younger sister (Rachel Griffiths).  Ned’s past his replayed through various flashbacks, most of which revolve around his twin sister Kate (Sophie Lowe) and their tragic youth.

This was the type of film that, perhaps as recent as two or three years ago, I might have scoffed at as another boring old Aussie flick.  But I was never bored with Beautiful Kate.  Because it deals with taboo subjects and has a lot of powerful scenes, I found myself engrossed.  A few sequences towards the end may have overstepped the mark, but this was still a small triumph.

4.25 stars out of 5

Creation (2009)

Paul Bettany is fast becoming one of my favourite actors, and Creation, in which he plays Charles Darwin, may be his best performance to date.

I’ve always been fascinated with the struggle between science and religion, and Creation is at the very heart of this battle, telling the story of how Darwin came about to write On the Origin of Species, one of the most important works ever written (for those who don’t know, it is considered the foundation of the theory of evolution).

I thought a film about writing a book would be rather dull, but boy was I wrong.

Little did I know, Darwin (a fellow Cambridge student — I remember walking past the house where he once lived) was once quite religious, and his wife and first cousin, Emma (played by Bettany’s real life wife Jennifer Connelly) was a deeply devout Christian.  And so it was actually a gargantuan struggle for Darwin to write what he did.

Bettany’s marvellous performance drives this film from start to finish, and I was amazed how moved I was by his story and his relationship with his eldest daughter Annie.  The narrative jumps around back and forth in time quite a bit, which was distracting at first (because I could only gauge the time through how much Bettany’s hairline had receded), but once I ot used to it I was completely captivated by this fascinating film.  The final scene was perhaps a little contrived but it didn’t dampen the experience for me.

I know a lot of people were underwhelmed by this film, but not me.  I loved it.

4.5 stars out of 5

Despicable Me (2010)

Universal’s first foray into CGI animated features was a success.  I can’t believe I had almost zero interest in this film before, which utilises the vocal talents of Steve Carrell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand and Will Arnett.  Perhaps it was the lack of promotion, but Despicable Me was every bit as good as, if not better than, Megamind, that other animated feature about a villain with a heart.

Despicable Me has a pretty familiar core — a bad guy who wants to be worse, but through a bunch of little orphans, becomes good.  However, I loved the humour, which uses a combination of clever references to real life, slap stick and outrageous jokes.  The kids are also very cute.  Not much to dislike here, though I grant you that this will unlikely go down as one of the more memorable animated features.

Nonetheless, I had a great time with it.  Not sure if it can challenge the other nominees in the best animated film category this year at the Golden Globes (Tangled, Toy Story 3, How to Train Your Dragon, The Illusionist) but it will sure give them a run for their money.  Or at least it should, anyway.

4 stars out of 5

Notorious (2009)

I was desperate to see this one (even though I’m not a huge fan of hard core rap) because I had always been fascinated by the Notorious BIG and that whole East Coast-West Coast feud thing with Tupac, which probably led to both their deaths.  I finally got a chance to watch Notorious the other day and it was just okay — a biopic where the subject and story were absolutely fascinating but the film’s execution was somewhat lacking.

The life of Christopher Wallace, aka Notorious BIG, aka Biggie Smalls, is one of rags to riches that was ultimately cut short at the age of 24.  The man was built like a barrel, but he was a rapping genius and had a way with the ladies.  I got to see all of that, but I still didn’t really feel like I got the essence of the man.  I’m not sure if it was the script or the performance of Jamal Woolard, but BIG never shone through, even though he narrated the freaking film.  Perhaps it’s because he was portrayed as not a particularly likeable guy — a bit of a sleeze, a serial cheater and prone to outbursts of violence, especially towards women.

Interestingly, I thought the two most sympathetic characters in the whole film were Puff Daddy (played by Derek Luke) and BIG’s mother Voletta Wallace (Angela Bassett) — and as it turned out, they were both producers of the film.

For a biopic, 123 minutes is not especially long, but Notorious felt long.  I did enjoy it because I was interested in the subject and his life, but this was a film that could have been so much better.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Date Night (2010)

I like both Steve Carrell and Tina Fey.  More correctly, I admire their talents, but I wouldn’t call myself a huge fan of either comedian.

That’s kind of the way I felt with their collaborative effort, Date Night.  It’s pretty good and I liked the jokes, but it’s not a film I’d really want to see again.  There was nothing wrong with it, but for some reason I just don’t like it as much as I thought I would.

Date Night is directed by Shawn Levy, who was at the helm of one my most hated movies of all time, Just Married, though he did do better with Night at the Museum.

It tells the story of the Fosters, a married couple (Carrell and Fey) with two kids who find their lives becoming too routine, predictable and boring.  But then, on a night out in an attempt to spice up their old romance, the couple become the victims of mistaken identity, which then spirals into a wild and ridiculous ride with hilarious consequences.

It’s one of those films with a decent premise that is more revealing about human nature and real life than we would like to think (with all the stuff about married couples becoming “roommates” over time), but at the same time so many of the jokes are just so outrageous and insane that it’s impossible to take the film seriously.  I won’t ruin the jokes by hinting at what they are, but there were more than a few sequences when I laughed hard and loud.

Date Night’s biggest strength is the comedic pairing of Carrell and Fey, who are both experienced and charismatic performers with the ability to improvise.  As evident from the credits scenes, these two ad-libbed a lot of their lines and a lot of them were probably better than the scripted dialogue.

The second biggest strength of Date Night is the awesome supporting cast.  I absolutely loved all the names in there, from James Franco and Mila Kunis to Leighton Meester, Mark Ruffalo, Ray Liotta, William Fichtner, JB Smoove, and of course Marky Mark Wahlberg.  Each added a different comedic element to the film and elevated the film several levels above what Carrell and Fey would have been able to do on their own.

Having said all of that, I don’t think Date Night will go down as a particularly memorable film in the annals of comedy cinema.  It is very funny at times, but there’s nothing about it that stands out as especially outstanding.  Maybe it’s because I simply don’t like Carrell and Fey enough, and I don’t know why.

3.5 stars out of 5