Tag Archives: true story

Dunkirk (2017) (IMAX)

In anticipation of the release of Christopher Nolan’s new WWII epic Dunkirk, I was chatting with a friend last night about Nolan’s impressive back catalogue: Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar — arguably four of my top 100 movies of all time, or at least in the top 200 (or maybe 300? I’ve never tried to do a list). Nolan is that great of a filmmaker, and that’s why I’m always excited whenever he announces a new project.

Accordingly, I went to watch the very first session of Dunkirk today, and in recommended IMAX too. And I’m glad I did, because the 70mm film is a beautiful, visceral spectacle where the sense of immersion is amplified by the IMAX screen and incredible sound and soundtrack. It’s about as close as you can get to being in the action while sitting comfortably in your cinema chair.

Perhaps in response to the backlash of the complexity and melodrama of Interstellar, Nolan went for a much simpler film this time in Dunkirk, based on the true story of the Dunkirk evacuation during WWII as Allied soldiers found themselves under siege from the Germans in the Battle of France. It’s a lesson in “showing” rather than “telling”, as Dunkirk is all about a visual narration of what the soldiers experienced on the land, on the sea, and in the air. It features an ensemble cast with some notable names (Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy,  Mark Rylance, Harry Styles, and so forth) but not a whole lot of dialogue. It is sometimes chaotic and there’s a sense of not knowing exactly what is going on at times, which I felt was aimed at reflecting the sentiments of the soldiers living through the ordeal.

Unlike some war films you may have seen recently, such as Hacksaw Ridge or 13 HoursDunkirk is less about exalting heroism and patriotism and more about the realities of survival. It’s about ordinary people trying to get back to their families no matter what and civilians putting their lives on the line to serve their country. As noted above, the narrative is split into three strands — a group of soldiers trying to get home on the land, a civilian mobilised by the military to rescue the stranded soldiers on the sea, and two fighter jet pilots taking on enemy fire in the air. The three strands intersect, though the film does not follow a linear timeline, primarily for narrative and tension creation purposes. Despite this and the lack of one central protagonist, the film does feel cohesive and compelling thanks to the cast of great actors who can get the most out of just a few lines and facial expressions.

Nolan has come out and criticised streaming platform Netflix for its awkward foray into feature film productions. With Dunkirk, you can see why he feels that way because it’s a film that really needs to be seen on the big screen, preferably an IMAX one. It puts you right between the gunfire and the torpedoes and the corpses, with a booming soundtrack that keeps ratcheting up the tension and crisp sound effects that make you jump with every bullet that shoots by your ear.

The sheer scale is amazing, with breathtaking sweeping shots of the beach and the sea and the horizon, while the fighter jet sequences made it felt like you were sitting inside one as it turned and dipped and shot at enemy aircraft with machine guns. It felt like a movie without CGI because everything just seemed so seamlessly grounded in reality. And interestingly, there’s very little blood and gore in the movie for the sake of a more viewer-friending rating from the censors, but it somehow gets away with it. I do wonder, however, if the impact would have been even greater if Nolan ignored the classification and just went down the flying limbs route, or whether that would have instead taken away from the aspect of the war he was trying to depict.

At 106 minutes, Dunkirk is short for both a Nolan film and a war film, but I think that was all it needed given the intensity audiences have to sit through. Without a doubt, it’s one of the best cinematic experiences of the year, though it’s also a film that speaks more to the senses than your mind and heart. While there are indeed some subtle moving moments throughout the film, it is not as emotionally resonating as I hoped it would be, probably because of the way the narrative and characters are structured. I admire the film from a technical perspective and for the epic sensory experience it delivers, but years from now I may not look back upon it as fondly as some of Nolan’s other classics.

4.5 stars out of 5

PS: Unfortunately for my wife, the immersive experience got too much for her (probably a combination of the size of the screen, the blaring sounds and the camera movements) and she had to leave the cinema to throw up. She hadn’t done that since we watched Cloverfield back in 2008.

Deepwater Horizon (2016)

I finally got around to watching Deepwater Horizon, hailed by many as one of the biggest “pleasant surprises” of 2016. I intentionally avoided the trailer and the poster looked fairly generic, so I wasn’t really sure of what to expect. I had seen Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg collaborate on Lone Survivor, which was pretty decent, and I heard their next project, Patriots Day, is a real winner. Incidentally, all three movies are based on true stories.

Anyway, while I knew Deepwater Horizon was about the 2010 explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I had expected the movie to be an action flick where Marky Mark springs into action to save the day. I couldn’t have been more wrong. What I got instead was a pure disaster movie with incredible tension and spectacular visuals, while at the same time remaining respectful to those who sadly lost their lives in the tragedy. There are heroic elements, but the characters are not painted as heroes, merely victims.

The film begins as you would expect a film of this kind to begin, introducing us to the key characters and their normal lives. There is a bit of a lead-up to the beginning of the disaster itself, though it never comes across as time filler. The ominous vibe is handled really well, and even though you know what’s about to happen there is still a sense of unease and dread.

And when it finally hits — wow. I have not been so afraid of fire since watching Backdraft as a kid — which incidentally also starred Kurt Russell. In fact, Deepwater Horizon actually reminds me a lot of Backdraft, from the sense of danger to the deft explanations of the technical aspects of the science. Not that you need to know how oil rigs work to enjoy the movie, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

I’m sure Berg took a lot of liberties in the telling of the story, but it felt real, looked real, and sounded real. The visuals and sound are both very important because there are so many explosions and fires, and for the most part, the special effects are seamless. You feel the force of it all, without ever feeling like it’s just CGI.

Sure, there is not much time for character development. That said, you do get a sense of who each character is, though I’m not sure if that’s good writing/directing or just because there are so many recognisable faces. You’ve got Marky Mark and Kurt Russell, of course, as members of the rig team. Kate Hudson plays Marky Mark’s wife, while John Malkovich, as you would expect, plays a dickish BP executive. Gina Rodriguez plays a rig navigation office, and Dylan O’Brien (the lead from the Maze Runner franchise) is member of the drilling team.

In all, Deepwater Horizon is deserving of its “highly underrated” status. Accuracy aside, it’s a shame the film didn’t even make back its budget because it is definitely one of the more spectacular movies of 2016. It’s very hard to pull off a serious disaster movie that is not only gripping but has a bit of heart as well. Berg manages to do it without ever making the film feel exploitative. Definitely worth catching this one if you haven’t already.

4 stars out of 5

Sully (2016)

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Clint Eastwood. Tom Hanks. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

And seriously, nothing did in Sully, the true story of the US Airways Flight 1549 “crash” in 2009. I’m assuming there are people out there who might not know what happened (you never know), so I’ll just leave it at that.

As the title suggests, the film revolves around the flight’s captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, played by reliable Tom Hanks.  The film is not just a CGI-filled re-enactment of a famous event, but also looks into who Sully is as a person, how he became that person, and the fall out from the incident that changed his life and that of 154 others on board the fateful plane.

Other notable members of the cast include Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles, Sully’s co-pilot, Laura Linney as Sully’s wife, and Anna Gunn (from Breaking Bad) as a member of the crash investigation team. Special mention also goes to Holt McCallany as Mike Cleary, a particularly antagonistic member of the crash investigators who stands out, not as a “bad guy” but as someone who adds a lot of the tension to the drama.

I knew, in the safe hands of Eastwood and Hanks, that Sully was likely going to be a very good movie. Not surprisingly, it absolutely is, with fantastic performances, visually thrilling sequences, and heartfelt drama, but without going overboard in terms of painting Sully as some kind of saintly hero. I was surprised, however, by the structure, progression, and focus of the film—in a good way.

While the incident indeed lies at its heart, the film does not simply set it up chronologically as you would expect, filling up time and dragging it out before a climatic finish. Instead, it cleverly utilises a series of flashbacks and other cinematic devices to gradually build things up a very gratifying conclusion. It was a little slower than I would have liked at the beginning, but Eastwood’s steady-paced storytelling soon began to take effect, and by about the midway mark I was fully engrossed in the story.

The crash itself was portrayed splendidly. I’ll admit that the CGI was not perfect, but even though everyone knew what would happen, Eastwood still managed to create a gripping sequence that had me at the edge of my seat. That’s masterful filmmaking.

The emotional impact of Sully might not be as intense as some of my favourite Eastwood films such as Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, Hereafter, and Letters from Iwo Jima, but keep in mind this is also not the same kind of movie. Sully is about a great man and the hope and inspiration he represents, and in my view it’s better and more effective in generating these feelings than Invictus. Not sure if the movie is going to get much love from Oscar voters this year, but I think it could very well be Eastwood’s best film since 2008’s Gran Torino.

4 stars out of 5

Our Brand Is Crisis (2015)

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I thought I was done with 2015 movies, but I was on a short flight today and Our Brand Is Crisis turned out the be the only movie I hadn’t yet seen, so I thought, “Why not?”

I had very little interest in this movie when I saw the poster and trailer for it. Basically, Sandra Bullock plays a crazy political fixer who will do whatever it takes to help her candidate win. She’s apparently “the best”, but for some reason she has stepped away from the game for years and lives out in the middle of nowhere.

So when two American campaigners played by the fantastic Ann Dowd (from Compliance) and Falcon (ie, Anthony Mackie) are hired by a Bolivian candidate (Joaquim de Almeida) for a struggling presidential campaign, they decide to entice Bullock out of retirement so she can go up against her arch nemesis, a skeletal, sleazy SOB by the name of Candy (played by Billy Bob Thornton). Joining the team are the marketing guru (played by the guy who recently lost his legs to Superman, ie, Scoot McNairy) and a miraculously good investigator who can also speak Spanish (Zoe Kazan).

And so begins a battle of wits between the two fixers, who continue to raise the stakes and become more relentless in their pursuit of victory at any cost. It’s a film set on the campaign trail, tackling one sneaky tactic at a time, and with periodic updates of poll numbers to let us know how far away we are from the climax.

So I’ll just come out and say it: Our Brand Is Crisis is a weird film. First of all, it’s a fictionalized account of a true story and actually shares the same name as a 2005 documentary. In other words, pretty much everything is fiction except for the broad premise of an American campaign team working on a Bolivian election. So it’s kind of real but not real, and the film is kind of a drama, kind of a comedy and kind of satire, but it’s not really any of those either. It doesn’t really know what it wants to be. The film begins with a serious vibe, making me think that we were going down the route of something like say The Ides of March or Primary Colors. But then it goes all goofy and jokey, with fairly standard gags and slapstick humour. There’s even the impassioned (campy) speech by Bullock’s character that made me feel like I was watching Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in Scandal. And then at the end, political commentary competently takes over and tries to convince you that it’s deeper and more meaningful than it really is.

Secondly, as the film is set in Bolivia, you have the politicians and locals speaking Spanish, while the American campaigners speak English. I’m sure that’s what actually happened in real life as well, but it just seems like a lot of work for everyone involved, including the audience.

Thirdly, Billy Bob’s Candy is a weird antagonist. He starts off as a caricature, and you only get more and more surface with him, but never any depth. He’s kind of just there to irk and egg on Bullock, because by the end of it all you still don’t really know what to think about the guy.

Having said that, the film is passable from a entertainment perspective. Bullock does her usual thing and it works to a degree, though her character isn’t likable enough for you to want to genuinely root for her. Her team is actually where the fun is at, but unfortunately there’s not enough screen time to go around for everybody. They all get a nice little intro but then get shoved to the side and basically forgotten. Scoot McNairy was a lot of fun but doesn’t get much to do, which also goes for Dowd and Kazan. Mackie, in particular, is under-utilised and you never get a proper picture of who he is.

Instead, much of the story is spent on a wide-eyed Bolivian youngster who is a fervent supporter and works as a campaign assistant simply because of a brush with the candidate as a child. We’ve seen the “enthusiastic young man gets disillusioned with politics” angle countless times in movies like this, and while this one wasn’t badly done, it just felt like time could have been better served on what makes the movie different, rather than the same.

In all, Our Brand Is Crisis is a shade-above-average politics film that never ends up as intriguing, funny or profound as it wants to be. It’s watchable for a flight film, but that’s about as far as I’ll go.

2.75 stars out of 5

Spotlight (2015)

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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.

The Revenant (2015)

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I wasn’t as big of a fan of Birdman, last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, as most other people, as sublime an example of filmmaking as it is. Nor was I rooting for its director, Alejandro G Iñárritu, to win Best Director, not because he wasn’t deserving, but because I was rooting for Boyhood‘s Richard Linklater. This year, however, with just a couple of weeks before the Oscars, I’m seriously leaning towards rooting for both the director and his movie, The Revenant, without a doubt one of the most remarkably executed, jaw-droppingly beautiful and suffocatingly intense films of the year.

The film is loosely based on the story of 1820s frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who was among a group of military hunters attacked by Native Americans in the wilderness. There is another major event that happens after this which I’m not going to share for the sake of those who haven’t seen the trailer. Yes, it’s in the trailer, but I was one of those people who saw the trailer after the movie and thought it gave away too much, spoiling a lot of big plot points.

Anyway, The Revenant is as harrowing of a movie experience as you can imagine. Centred around themes of survival, revenge and redemption, the film is highlighted by its brutal, visceral violence, juxtaposed against the harsh and unforgiving, but undeniably majestic beauty of the Lousiana Purchase landscape.

I was blown away. Part of it is Iñárritu’s spectacular visual style, filled with long takes and sweeping, constantly moving shots. The scenes are so fluid, so perfectly choreographed, the camera angles so unique — it’s the type of thing I thought was only possible in animation or video games, never in live-action feature films. I’m sure there are plenty of special effects, but it’s all done so seamlessly that the visual experience comes across as terrifyingly real. With the possible exception of his friend and fellow Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, I don’t think anyone else could have done it with as much flair as Iñárritu.

Despite a 156-minute running time, which may be too long for some, there is never a dull moment. The film is always moving along, the story always progressing. As a fetishist for watching personal hardships in the wild (one of my favourite movies is Into the Wild, and I also really liked Reese Witherspoon’s Wild from a year ago), I loved the torturous solitary survival scenes. I don’t exactly know why — maybe it’s the man vs wild dynamic or the exhilaration from seeing the ultimate will to survive, or perhaps I just have problems.

The quieter moments have the effect of amping up the several major action set pieces in the film, which are among the most amazing I’ve seen this year alongside Mad Max: Fury Road. Everything is presumably choreographed but looks and feels raw and realistic, making the experience so much more tense than the modern CGI-dominated superhero action we’re accustomed to these days.

I read about the horror stories in making this film, how nearly everything was shot in natural light, an astounding feat in itself. I’m sure it was as freezing as it looked on screen, and Leo, who just picked up the Golden Globe for Best Actor, absolutely deserves his first Oscar for his portrayal of Glass. With not much dialogue to deliver, it’s a much more subtle performance than what he delivered in The Wolf of Wall Street, but boy did he go through hell to get the job done. His dedication and professionalism notwithstanding the success he has already achieved is impressive.

Likewise, kudos to the rest of the super cast, which includes Tom Hardy, Will Poulter and Domnhall Gleeson. Hardy, in particular, gives a marvellous performance that’s much more nuanced than it would have been in lesser hands, and I’m pretty certain an Oscar nomination is heading his way (though I’d still say Mark Rylance from Bridge of Spies is the favourite.

If there is something to nitpick, it would probably be that it is sometimes a little difficult to decipher what some of the characters are saying because of the way they spoke back then, coupled with the mumbling and the twang. That said, this is the type of film you can watch and figure out without understanding a single word of the dialogue.

When all the elements are put together, it’s hard for me to deny that The Revenant is anything but a modern masterpiece. The combination of Iñárritu’s visual style, strong script and masterful pacing, combined with the simple yet intense plot and fabulous performances, results in a unique journey that ranks right at the top of my 2015 cinematic experiences.

5 stars out of 5!

The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

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Most people have probably heard of the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a bunch of elite college students in 1971 got more than they bargained for when they volunteered for an unusual psychological study to play either inmates and guards in a simulated prison environment. There have been a few movies based on the concept, most notably the 2010 film The Experiment (starring Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker), but I wasn’t aware of a film that tried to depict the actual events — until now.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is largely based on the book by Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, the man who conducted the study back in 1971 to test the hypothesis that the personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behaviour between them. And so begins a fascinating look into the complex and unexpected dynamics between power and authority, subservience and rebellion, empathy and cruelty. It’s not just the inmates and guards either — the effects of the experiment extended to the teachers and the supervisors, and even to the relationship between Zimbardo and his girlfriend, who happens to be a former student of his.

This is by no means an easy film to watch — some parts are unbearably tense, others just plain unbearable — but it’s one that absolutely captivated me from start to finish. Part of it is indeed the intrigue of the premise itself, though it would be unfair to attribute it all to that since I basically already knew what would happen and what the outcome would be.

It is a low budget film, but it’s also a film that didn’t need much of a budget because almost all of it is set in the simulated prison on the university campus. The filmmakers do a fantastic job of creating a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia, and most importantly they somehow manage to make you believe what is happening on screen despite how little sense it seems to make. It made me incredulous, it made me angry, and it made me sad — it’s one of those surreal experiences that make you question what you think you know about human nature and even yourself.

The film is far from fast-paced, though there’s always enough drama and tension — notwithstanding some repetitiveness — to compel me to keep watching. I suspect it will be remembered as a polarising film, and I can definitely understand if some people dislike it for its dark tones and ugliness.

First announced in 2002,  The Stanford Prison Experiment was in developmental hell for a dozen years before unknown director Kyle Patrick Alvarez managed to get it done with a brilliant cast of established actors and up-and-coming stars.

Headlining the performers is Billy Crudup, who plays the well-intentioned Zimbardo, with a whole bunch of recognisable names — or at least faces — filling out the other roles. These include Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and soon-to-be Flash in the new DC cinematic universe), Michael Angarano (The Final Kingdom, Red State), Tye Sheridan (Mud, Tree of Life, and soon-to-be young Cyclops in X-Men: Apocalypse), Logan Miller (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), James Frecheville (the fantastic Aussie man-child from Animal Kingdom), Johnny Simmons (Jennifer’s Body, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Ki Hong Lee (The Maze Runner series), Jack Kilmer (Palo Alto; Val Kilmer’s son), Thomas Mann (Project X, Me Earl and the Dying Girl, Barely Lethal), Olivia Thirlby (Juno, Dredd), and Nelsan Ellis (True Blood).

Interestingly, the script is co-written by Christoper McQuarrie, best known for winning the screenplay Oscar for The Usual Suspects and more recently for writing Edge of Tomorrow and directing the awesome Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

As uncomfortable and frustrating as it is, I think The Stanford Prison Experiment is a brilliant film that will have you asking yourself how you might react in their situations. Though it’s based on events that are more than 40 years old, the concepts and themes remain as relevant today as they did then, perhaps even more so in light of what we now know since the outbreak of the War on Terror. Thanks to the wonderful performances from the talented cast, a great script and skillful filmmaking, I found myself engrossed in the experiment, much like its participants. It’s a chilling and troubling experience that deserves a lot more attention and discussion than it’s been receiving.

4.5 stars out of 5

True Story (2015)

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When you think of Jonah Hill and James Franco in a movie called True Story, the last thing you’d expect is a serious drama about a journalist and a suspected killer (you’re probably thinking a homo-erotic stoner comedy). That’s perhaps why their latest collaboration hasn’t done well with critics (45% Rotten Tomatoes) or at the box office (US$5.1 million).

To be honest, while the film has its fair share of flaws, I didn’t think it was bad at all. It’s a really fascinating true story that explores the complex relationship between two interesting characters with questionable motives.

Hill plays Michael Finkel, a journalist whose career is in tatters after his editors at the New York Times discover that he was not entirely truthful in his latest feature article. While scrambling for work back home in Montana with his wife Jill (Felicity Jones), he stumbles upon a unique opportunity: a man who charged with multiple homicides, Christian Longo (Franco), was using Finkel’s identity while on the run.

Sensing a book in the vein of the classic The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, Finkel visits Longo in prison and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. Much of the film revolves around the face-to-face meetings between the two, with each gradually opening up and divulging more about their personalities. Finkel sees the relationship as his chance for career redemption, but also begins to develop a kinship with the charming suspect, who remains evasive about his role in the deaths, if any.

I like how the story develops before Longo’s trial, so the court scenes end up being the film’s climax. True Story‘s biggest problem is that it fails to take full advantage of the intrigue due to a long and slow-burning middle patch where the narrative stalls. It’s an unfortunate lull, because it’s supposed to be the time when the story digs below the surface to get to the core of the characters, or at least build them up sufficiently for the climatic finish.

As a result, True Story lacks that heart-pounding suspense and the bone-chilling sensations a more effective film would have brought out of the premise. It’s like all the ingredients are there, but the chef couldn’t quite put them together the right way to maximise the tastiness of the dish. When I was watching the film I wondered whether it might have been more suited to being a stage production. Interestingly, the director of the film, Rupert Goold, is known predominantly as a theater director and had only made two Shakespearean TV films before this one.

Still, Hill and Franco deliver solid performances and exude expected chemistry. While the film is no doubt duller than it ought to have been, it certainly has more depth than your average Law & Order episode. Fans of the two actors and those interested in true crime stories could be pleasantly surprised.

3.5 stars out of 5

Everest (2015)

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I never got into mountain-climbing and I have never really got why people would be so into it. That has definitely not changed after Everest, the true story of the 1996 commercial expedition to climb the world’s highest mountain.

It’s a well-knowing incident, but as this is Spoiler-free Reviews, I’m going to assume nothing. That said, the fact that a movie was made about it means everything obviously wasn’t smooth sailing.

The biggest draw card of Everest is the star-studded ensemble cast, one of the most impressive of the year. There’s Aussie Jason Clarke, who doesn’t put much effort into his Kiwi accent as New Zealand guide Rob Hall, and Kiera Knightley, who plays his pregnant wife. There’s Josh Brolin, who plays American climber Beck Weathers, with an almost unrecognisable (especially if you have been watching House of Cards) Robin Wright as his wife.

I would say those two are the primary focus, with supporting roles filled out by Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, Sam Worthington, Michael Kelly, Emily Watson, Martin Henderson and Elizabeth Debicki. It’s an impressive list, but it doesn’t feel like a film merely trying to attract audiences with big names.

The start of the film plays out like you would expect, educating us about Everest while introducing to us all the various characters. The problems with the film, however, emerge quickly after that.

The feeling I got was that Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur tried too hard to make a film that is not only realistic but more importantly remains respectful to the real-life people involved in the incident. People often complain when a movie “based on a true story” deviates too far from what really happened, and Everest probably suffers from the reverse of that because it just feels like nothing particularly exciting actually happens. The decision to take very few liberties (at least this was the feeling I got from watching it) and sticking to facts inevitably takes a lot away from the movie experience. It actually made me wonder whether they should have just made a documentary with some dramatic re-enactments instead.

To be fair, it’s not an action movie and the film is much more about the dramatic elements and the psychological anguish than anything else. However, Everest doesn’t quite get that right either, as I felt it lacked the emotional punch I had been hoping for. It stems from the plodding narrative and the simple fact that there are too many characters to keep track of, thereby diluting the connection to each individual character and their respective predicaments.

And I don’t know if this only applied to me, but there were also times when I struggled to tell who was who because everyone was dressed in full snow gear with their faces covered and ice pelting down on them.

The result is a film that never comes close to heart-pounding suspense and moving drama it was marketed as having. Despite the great cast and solid performances all round, Everest ends up being a well-made and respectable true-story film but also ultimately a hollow affair.

3 stars out of 5

Black Mass (2015)

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I was a little sceptical about Black Mass in the beginning because Johnny Depp has lost a lot of credibility in recent years due to his odd character choices. The first thing you notice about the poster is the makeover Depp undergoes for the role of Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, with the balding head, patchy grey hair and fake wrinkles — it looked good enough but also jarring, much like Leo DiCaprio in J. Edgar.

But then I saw the rest of the ridiculous cast — Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson, Peter Saarsgard and Jesse “Meth Damon” Plemons from Breaking Bad — and I knew my fears were likely misplaced.

Black Mass is much more than just a return to form for Depp — it’s a fantastic crime drama that gripped me from the very first scene and continued to tighten its hold as Bulger grew in both status and ruthlessness.

Based on the non-fiction book of the same name, Black Mass follows Bulger’s rise from small-time mobster to one of the most notorious organised crime bosses in America during the 70s and 80s. How he gets there is what this film is all about; it’s a dark and sordid journey full of underhanded deals, double-crossing, and above all, loyalty. There are a lot of blurred lines in this world, one of which involves Whitey’s brother Billy (Cumberbatch), a member of the Massachusetts senate, with the other revolving around John Conolly (Edgerton), an FBI agent who grew up worshipping the badass Whitey back when they were kids.

In some ways, Black Mass is quite a conventional crime drama in that it focuses on a turbulent world and the characters that inhabit it, with plenty of brutality and violence to keep audiences at the edge of their seats. There’s no shortage of death or cursing, and there’s no black and white, only shades of grey.

The film’s director, Scott Cooper, who last helmed Out of the Furnace with Christian Bale, brings his gritty sensibilities to Black Mass. As with that film, the tone is dark, the mood grim, and the atmosphere intense. Despite there not being any major ups and downs or particularly climatic encounters, especially action-wise, Cooper nonetheless found a way to maintain my attention, and even as the film ends after a solid 122 minutes, I felt as though I could have easily watched another hour of that world and those characters.

The performance of Johnny Depp as Bulger has been highly touted and rightly so. It’s almost strange seeing him not being some sort of fantastical weirdo, but he pulls off the brooding, vicious villain so well that you soon forget about all the make up and prosthetics. Though he doesn’t show much emotion, Depp’s Bulger is genuinely terrifying and unpredictable. Most of the film’s tension comes directly from him.

While Depp may very well receive an Oscar nomination for his performance, another guy who probably deserves it just as much is Joel Edgerton. His portrayal of FBI agent Connolly is brilliant, and in many ways he is the true lead of the movie because Bulger doesn’t have much character development to work with. First Edgerton gives us The Gift, and now he rewards us with this performance. The talented dude is just a legend who continues to make all Aussies proud.

On the whole, Black Mass is a riveting true story fueled by a star-studded cast and outstanding performances all round, especially from Depp and Edgerton. It has all the elements of a great crime drama, and while it’s not on the level of the classics like The Godfather, Goodfellas, Heat, and so forth, it’s still an engrossing and captivating experience in its own right.

4 stars out of 5