Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Movie Review: Walking With Dinosaurs (2014)

While, at first glance, it’s an easy assumption to make that the director has sole creative control over a film, there’s also the matter of the producers to consider. The producers and production companies attached to a film are the money backing it, and they get a considerable amount of sway over what ends up in the final product; they can pull funding to the film if they don’t agree with what the director wants to do with it. Sure, you will occasionally get the auteurs that partially or even entirely fund their own movies themselves, but in the Hollywood system this isn’t always the case. Not to say that this is always a bad thing, mind you; just that it occasionally leads to bad decisions. To further illustrate this, let’s get started with today’s film: This is Walking With Dinosaurs.

The plot: Patchi (played by Justin Long) is a Pachyrhinosaurus and the runt of his litter, often being bullied by his older brother Scowler (played by Skyler Stone). As Patchi grows up, he begins to learn his true place with the herd and, with the help of his friend Alex (played by John Leguizamo) and his love interest Juniper (played by Tiya Sircar), he must contest his brother as the leader of the herd.
This is a spectacular looking film with some outstanding special effects work: The attention to detail on the dinosaurs is truly a marvel to behold and shows a lot of care and effort was put into it. Not only that, the CGI is extremely well-integrated with the live-action footage they shot for it. After seeing films like The Legend Of Hercules that botched that integration up as badly as they did, this is very welcoming to see. The musical score is also excellent; while it does a couple of spots where it doesn’t quite match the action, like the music being a bit too upbeat for the relatively mellow actions of the dinosaurs on screen, it mostly does a great job at accompanying the film. Unfortunately, as good as these two are, they are severely hurt by an executive addition to the film: Voice acting.

In a move that shows not only how little faith movie studios have in the intelligence of their audiences, but also how important creative control is, 20th Century Fox made the decision to include voice acting for the main dinosaurs as a means of better connecting the audience with the characters on screen. What we end up with as a result of this some of the most annoying and child-pandering voice acting of any film this year. It’s bad enough that the voice actors themselves are bad and aren’t capable of doing this kind of work justice, but they are given some truly horrendous dialogue to spew out as well. We’re talking near-endless bodily function jokes, pointless allusions to future history that pretty much breaks any possible immersion, not to mention Leguizamo as our annoying-as-hell narrator. Leguizamo as Alex never once shuts up and keeps commenting and cracking jokes about what’s happening in-film, almost as if the studio-hired writer felt the need to mock the “boring” silent action that was there before; Skyler Stone turns Scowler into a jock stereotype, and an excessively obnoxious one at that; Justin Long in now way has the ability to convey the emotion needed just through voiceover; and Tiya Sircar is about as plain a love interest as you can find.

To make matters even worse, the four voice actors that listed in the plot synopsis? That’s it as far as the voice cast goes. They couldn’t even be bothered to fill in the cast properly, just scraping by with the bare minimum amount of effort. The voice acting doesn’t even match the animation half the time anyway; more than a few times in this movie, we have actors saying lines that aren’t timed properly with what we see, like one scene where Patchi says to run away from a Gorgosaurus that isn’t even on screen until after he says it. Pair this with a very out-of-nowhere and pointless framing device of the nephew of an paleontologist who is told the events of the film by Alex in the present, which serves to do nothing but pad out the running time, yet another bad idea since one of the few good things I can say about this movie is that it is mercifully short.

While all of this sounds bad on its own (and it is), it’s even worse when you consider what the original plan for the film was: No dialogue, no narration just the visuals and the music to tell the story. Even though I think that at least some narration would have helped with this, like something along the lines of David Attenborough to help illustrate enough of what’s on screen to maintain that feel of a nature documentary which it seems like the original film was going for, that concept sounds like it could have been at least a good film, or even something great if treated properly. Instead, what we end up getting is a studio that is too afraid to take risks and going for the easy option to (supposedly) appease younger audiences. If the last few years have taught us anything, with the successes of How To Train Your Dragon, Frozen and everything Laika has brought to cinemas thus far, it’s that audiences are more than willing to try new things and don’t need to be talked down to to enjoy themselves, even younger audiences. This is the kind of cynicism, that children are stupid and will watch anything, which is hurting the film industry as a whole.

All in all, this is a perfect example of fixing what isn’t broken: They took what was originally a great idea, with a documentary-style nature film about dinosaurs, and filled it with bad voice acting and horrible dialogue in a vain attempt to keep the interest of children who would watch it; the voice overs are seriously bad enough to negate what works about this film. This should go down in legend as a monument to bad ideas. It’s worse than I, Frankenstein as, despite having far superior special effects, the horrible production choices here far outweigh whatever good this film once had. However, it’s still not as bad as Love Is Now, which offended me on a more personal level. This isn’t even a film I can recommend for kids as a rental, where parents could leave them to be supervised by Uncle TV for an hour and a half; if a fan edit crops up that removes all of the stupid voiceover and just sticks with the original idea for the film, maybe then I could recommend checking it out. Until then, this should be avoided at all costs.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Movie Review: August: Osage County (2014)

On the surface, it seems that adapting a work of theatre into a movie would be a lot easier than adapting from a different work like a book or a video game, and to a degree it is. But they are still two different media, however similar they may be, and in order to do it right it can’t just be a simple copy-and-paste job.  For a good example of stage to screen adaptation done right, look at 11 Things I Hate About You, a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming Of The Shrew: It took what is, in the modern age, the most difficult Shakespeare work to portray due its rather screwed-up gender politics and essentially left only the framework and changed the rest in order to make it work, and for the most part it did. A bad example of this? … Let’s get into today’s film: This is August: Osage County.

The plot: After the disappearance of Beverly Weston (played by Sam Shepard), his estranged family reunite at his house in the titular Osage County in Colorado. As secrets and underlying tensions are revealed, numerous fights break out amongst them, but maybe there is a chance that they can reconcile their differences and at least find some togetherness in the wake of this event.

This is a great ensemble cast to have in a single film: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin; it reads like a film buff’s wet dream, and it all leads into great performances from our actors… sort of, and it is here that we get to the ugly side of adaptation. Their performances would great if this was a traditional theatre performance of the story, where such things like the ability to see more of the actors’ faces and read their emotions don’t exist. Instead, what we get here is a lot of overacting and melodrama that strains on whatever emotional impact the story could have had under different circumstances. What’s more, the premise is almost beat-for-beat the same as This Is Where I Leave You, and for as many issues as I had with that film, I can at least see that they were acting within the parameters of a film and were able to get some decent emotion out of the proceedings at times. I’m not saying that their acting is terrible, mind you: Streep exhibits a lot of woozy authority as Violet, Beverly’s wife and the matriarch of the family, a role that would’ve been played by Faye Dunaway were this made 30 years ago given how boisterous she gets at times.

Of course, as was the case with Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, if the script and characters fitted with that kind of melodrama then their performances could have worked. Unfortunately, what we do get is a host of characters are each their special brand of unlikable. *SPOILERS* Throughout the film, certain characters end up confessing to adultery, incest and even one gets caught in the midst of possible pedophilia. Now, as bad as this all sounds, it might have worked were it framed in the right way; not every fictional character has to be moral, as fiction would be decidedly boring if they were. However, how they are framed in this film is that not only do they feel justified in what they are doing, but that the audience should feel pity for them because of it. To put in the simplest possible terms why this fails on all accounts, here’s the play-by-play on the potential pedophilia scene: Jean (played by Abigail Breslin), the daughter of Barbara (played by Julia Roberts), is smoking weed with the fiancée of Karen (played by Juliette Lewis), one of Barbara’s sisters. He has his shirt open, it seems like they’re getting close and Jean is only 14 years old. Then Johnna, Violet’s caregiver, brains the fiancée with a shovel after she sees them together (one of the few good parts of the entire film) then Karen takes him inside. When the fiancée is taken inside, although it is buried a bit under the rest of the audio, you can hear him say “She told me she was 15!” We’ll ignore the fact that this is an incredibly stupid thing to say, and instead focus on when Barbara confronts Karen inside. She then proceeds to say that her fiancée isn’t entirely to blame for whatever may have happened and that Jean must have had a part in it too. This film has been billed on more than a few sites as being a ‘black comedy’, same as the previously reviewed Horrible Bosses 2, but at least there it had actual jokes written into the script. Not all of them worked, and some of them definitely went too far, but at least it framed itself as a comedy with punchlines in it. Here, all we have to go on is morally vile and rather stupid people doing horrible things to one another and doing their best to justify it by pushing the blame onto others; either I’m missing the joke or my complaints about adaptation failure are pointless since the source material was absolute garbage to begin with. What makes matter worse is that, whenever this film tries to have more emotional moments and make us care about the main characters, it almost wants us to forget how putrid these people are and feel sorry for them because of how dysfunctional their lives are. Sorry, but no dice.

All in all, this is a complete disaster. The acting is misplaced and doesn’t work within the film’s context of being a film, the writing paints every character as being nasty to everyone around them and in no way deserving of sympathy and the adaptation, even coming from someone who isn’t familiar with the original work, outright fails out of not seeming to realize the different requirements of screen and stage. It’s worse than Annie, as at the very least that film had some new ideas on how to adapt from stage to screen, but it still isn’t as bad as Planes: Fire And Rescue, which has far worse production values. Don’t let the admittedly attractive cast list fool you; there is nothing good to be found here.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Movie Review- The Hobbit- The Battle Of The Five Armies (2014)

Peter Jackson may serve as one of the greatest cinematic success stories in recent memory: From his humble beginnings with bat-shit insane cult films like Bad Taste, Meet The Feebles and Braindead, he went on to craft himself as a directing legend through his adaptation of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, making himself one of the most critically and financially successful filmmakers of all time. Not only that, Weta Digital, a special effects company co-founded by Jackson himself, has also become a powerhouse in Hollywood due to their work on the LOTR films and have gone on to do SFX work for films like Avatar, The Avengers and the Planet Of The Apes reboot series. Today’s film marks the end of an era, as after 13 years and over a thousand minutes of screen time, this is the (supposed) final film Peter Jackson will make based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. It has a lot to live up to, to put it mildly. This is The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies.

The plot: Not long after Bilbo (played by Martin Freeman), Thorin (played by Richard Armitage) and his company of dwarves drive Smaug (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) out of their ancestral home of Erebor, armies of men, elves and Orcs seek to lay claim to the riches within the mountain. As Thorin’s isolation grows deeper, and Gandalf’s (played by Ian McKellen) desperation to keep the peace increases, the Five Armies rally at the Lonely Mountain for the final battle that will decide not only the victor of the mountain, but also help decide the fate of Middle-Earth.

We’re talking about Peter Jackson here, so it goes without saying: This. Is. Beautiful. Jackson’s perfectionism and attention to detail is all on display here with the same gorgeous landscapes, world-building and grand scale as all of his previous Tolkienian efforts. Weta Digital continues to build their near-immaculate portfolio with great creature design and animation, proving why they are the top dogs of the industry far as I’m concerned. The cast all bring their A-game to this film, with even the minor cameos giving good performances in this: Freeman and McKellen are great as always in their roles, Armitage gets a chance to flex some dramatic muscle with how his character develops in this film, Cumberbatch is still intimidating as both Smaug and the Necromancer, Luke Evans does a great job as Bard and a surprise Billy Connolly as the dwarf Dáin is engaging in his role.

However, this film has got a couple of rather large issues; the biggest of them all would have to be the content of the film itself. Imagine, if you will, that The Two Towers solely consisted of the battle of Helm’s Deep and nothing else. That is this movie: The titular Battle Of The Five Armies makes up for about 90-95% of the overall running time, and while having a battle this big in your movie may seem good on paper, it doesn’t work nearly as well in practice. Say what you will about the previous Hobbit films, at least they had the good sense to vary the action on screen: The first film had scenes like Bilbo’s encounter with the trolls and the dwarves fighting the goblins in the Misty Mountains; the second film had the trippy sequence in Mirkwood and the company confronting Smaug in Erebor. By comparison, the majority of the action takes place in the plains and mountains outside of Erebor and rarely if ever leave them.  Don’t get me wrong: The action itself is well-directed, acted and animated, with Howard Shore’s amazing score to back it. It’s just that, regardless of how good it is, it gets more than a little monotonous before too long. Every so often, we get intercuts of the characters reacting to said action and the consequences of it, which admittedly is done well, but the majority of the film is one very long action set piece. This is exactly what many other critics feared it would be and it pains me to say that they called it.

Admittedly, this film does try its hand at dramatic story-telling alongside the action, but even that doesn’t feel like it was handled well: Thorin’s character arc of suffering from dragon sickness (or gold fever, in layman’s terms) feels like it was rushed, an impressive feat for a movie that reaches nearly 2 and a half hours; both Bilbo and Smaug are poorly handled here, with the former being pushed to the side for a lot of it and the latter *SPOILERS* being killed off rather unceremoniously before the opening credits even start; plot points about certain parties’ reasons for wanting to claim the Lonely Mountain aren’t given resolution (although I highly suspect this being a case of ‘Buy the extended edition’ syndrome); and the ending… anyone out there who was annoyed by how the first movie and even Return Of The King were resolved will be equally annoyed by this because they pull the exact same Deus Ex Aquilla crap here as well. Bear in mind that I actually didn’t take as much issue with this when it happened the first two times, but this time it seriously got to me. Honestly, the best part of the film is the brief epilogue with Bilbo returning to the Shire, which leads into an ending that perfectly syncs with the Fellowship Of The Ring and links the two trilogies together; it makes for the funniest and most thematically strong part of the film.

All in all, this is still Jackson-grade production work with great acting, direction and effects work. However, the story feels very thin and just serves as the framework for the big climatic battle that cap off this trilogy of films, and knowing that this epic saga ends with what is undoubtedly the weakest of all six films is very disheartening. After how much I loved The Desolation Of Smaug from last year, this is extremely disappointing. It ranks higher than The Babadook, since this doesn’t have any unbearably annoying characters like the child in that film, but below Penguins Of Madagascar, which was simply more fun and engaging to watch. This is worth seeing as a finale to the story, but I can’t say that it’s a satisfying finale.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Movie Review: Night At The Museum: Secret Of The Tomb (2014)

It’s a very bittersweet experience seeing a film like this; Robin Williams is one of my favourite comedians of all time with a wide pedigree of talent (despite a couple of film clunkers) whether it’s his excellent stand-up shows, his classic film roles like the Genie in Aladdin and Peter Pan in Hook, or his surprising talent at darker roles like One Hour Photo and his guest spot on Law & Order: SVU (Seriously, he is kind of terrifying there). It is a tragedy when anyone dies, but knowing who he was and how it happened… I’m getting choked up as I write this just thinking about it. But his works still remain to warm the hearts and tickle the funnybones of audiences for a long while yet; I firmly believe that men live on so long as they are remembered, and I doubt that Williams will be forgotten anytime soon. With that, let’s take a look at his final live-action film role that was also dedicated to his memory: This is Night At The Museum: Secret Of The Tomb.

The plot: Larry Daley (played by Ben Stiller) discovers that the ancient Egyptian tablet that brings the museum exhibits to life every night is starting to fade. With the aid of his friends in the museum, including Theodore Roosevelt (played by Robin Williams) and Ahkmenrah (played by Rami Malek), he makes his way to the British Museum of Natural History to find Ahkmenrah’s father (played by Ben Kingsley) and hopefully restore the tablet before the exhibits stop moving for good.

As with the previous two films, we have a cast full of capable comedic actors. Also as with the previous two films, they aren’t given that much material to work with. Stiller seems to be stuck with the same awkward comedy writers have been giving him for the last few years, which largely makes for rather dull thuds rather than jokes that land. For everyone else, while they have built some good chemistry with each other that makes for good rapport between characters and decent performances, they suffer from reading off the same script as Stiller. It is nice seeing Dick van Dyke again though, albeit in a small cameo. The new cast members we get are mixed at best: Ben Kingsley has a very minor role and just does what he does considering; Dan Stevens as Lancelot seems to get the role with the most meat on it and does a great job at pulling off the Arthurian grandiosity that it calls for; and then we get to Rebel Wilson as the night guard of the British Museum. As much as I don’t want to slag off Rebel too much, as she isn’t a bad actor by any stretch… she is annoying to the point of unwatchable in this film. She gets the definite short end of the stick with the writing, as the script doesn’t seem to know what to do with her other than just make her abrasive. Well, well done on that front but that doesn’t make her funny.

Aside from the jokes, this is a pretty flimsy script in terms of story; it somehow manages to have even less story than the last film. The plot boils down to this: Tablet losing power, go to British museum, get way to save it from Kingsley that is amazingly simple (like, almost insulting easy), restore tablet, roll credits. Then again, the Night At The Museum films are less about plot and more about spectacle: It uses the plot as a thinly disguised excuse to string together creative ways of museum exhibits coming to life, which admittedly is done fine here. The definite highlight in that regard would have to be when Daley ends up inside an M.C. Escher painting, with a very interesting visual style to go along with it. However, what character plot is used in this film only really applies to two characters: Daley and Sir Lancelot. Daley and his relationship with his son, and his realization that he needs to let his son discover his own path in the world, is the big subplot of the film and to call it hackneyed is an understatement; it’s one of those plot threads where literally everyone sees the right thing to do except for the man himself, which is annoying to see in any medium. To help drive the point home, we have Lancelot talking of the son’s potential and a weird running joke about a wax Neanderthal that was sculpted to look like Daley (and is also played by Ben Stiller) and who thinks that Daley is his father. While the former is fine given the subplot, the latter is confusing for one simple reason: Because of the make-up work, they managed to make Stiller not look recognizably like himself… when his character’s entire reason for being is to make a joke about how similar he looks to another character played by himself. This might be the biggest failed running joke of the year, and it’s kind of amazing how badly it is botched. The overall subplot, though, is something we have seen in countless other films and is mostly just boring at this rate.

The character arc involving Sir Lancelot, however, is where the film hits some major good points. *SPOILERS* His existential crisis about being a wax sculpture and that Lancelot himself doesn’t historically exist, which feels like it was cut from the same cloth as the original Toy Story, on its own makes for good writing moments and a new take on the overall idea, that I honestly thought would have been explored in the series prior to this film, but then we get a credo from Roosevelt about the nature of museum exhibits and how they inspire and teach people that thickens it into something that, in a stronger film, could have made for something amazing. It’s still good here, but it is hurt by its proximity to a monkey stopping a lava flow with his urine. Lancelot as a character, admittedly, is a bit abrasive once he starts talking (Him fighting the triceratops skeleton was cool to watch, though) but once he makes a heel turn the character reaches the stronger points of his character arc, with a little help from some surprise cameos.

All in all, this is just okay. The humour is very hit-and-miss and the returning cast does well with the roles they have grown comfortable with over three films. The script has some clever moments, with a nice explanation for the MacGuffin tablet, but the truly inspired moments are few and far between. In terms of being Williams’ swan song, his final scene in this film is kind of beautiful and adds even more to the idea of inspiring others with your image; for an actor like him, it’s actually a pretty good note to end on. This film ranks higher than The House Of Magic, as the writers here at least tried for some nuance, but just below The Muppets Most Wanted, which had better comedic writing. It's an okay film to take the kids to, but it doesn't have a whole lot for older audiences.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Movie Review: Into The Woods (2014)

One of the bigger things that I’ve started doing as a result of my movie-watching is that great cinematic tradition of the double feature, only setting up my own with two films that start and end close enough to each other. Hell, back when I was first starting films as religiously as I do now, I’d even do quadruple features and that inevitably involved movies that couldn’t have any less to do with each other. Last time I remember watching multiple films at the cinema in one day, I went out to see The Invisible Woman (which was decent), Chinese Puzzle (which was really good), Only Lovers Left Alive (which was fantastic) and Any Day Now (which was rage-inducing), meaning I saw a historical piece, a French comedy, an artsy film and a wannabe Oscar-bait film in one sitting; variety is the jam on the toast of life. Since I’ve started writing reviews on this blog, I’ve promised myself that I wouldn’t make a habit of doing this, as I work better writing reviews immediately after watching the film in question. Christmas Day, however, I made an exception as they were doing a few special advanced screenings of films that won’t be out officially till next year; no way I’m missing that. The two I saw that day were The Imitation Game and the film I'm covering today: Into The Woods.

The plot: A baker and his wife (played by James Corden and Emily Blunt respectively) have been cursed by a witch (played by Meryl Streep) so that they can never have children. In order to stop the curse, they need to retrieve four items: A cow as white as milk, a hood as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold; but in order to collect them, they run into some rather familiar characters.

Words cannot express how happy I am to see James Corden in a big Hollywood production; the fact that it’s a musical makes it even better. Not only that, he manages to stand well right alongside this pretty high-profile cast list, all of whom do extremely well for the most part: Meryl Streep puts her pipes to better use than the last movie musical she was in (The dog’s breakfast that is Mamma Mia!) and gives her role the kind of screen presence and power that it needs; Emily Blunt, even considering everyone else’s performances, does the best job of any of them in being able to equally act and sing and shows off some impressive singing ability to boot; Lilla Crawford, in her film debut, turns what could have been a rather annoying portrayal of Little Red Riding Hood into a rather endearing scamp for lack of a better term; Chris Pine goes full camp here, with easily one of the funniest musical number performances of the last few years as Prince Charming; Daniel Huttlestone, who did a great job in 2012’s Les Miserables, brings his best to this film also as Jack; Anna Kendricks continues to be the most successful survivor of the Twilight series with a great performance as Cinderella; and Johnny Depp, in a rather casting choice for the Wolf, gives major ick factor with some rather… unsettling undertones in his performance of Hello, Little Girl, but nevertheless does well bringing back that voice that helped make Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd as good as it was. Really, the only weak spots I can gleam are Mackenzie Mauzy as Rapunzel and Billy Magnussen as her Prince, and that’s only because they aren’t in a whole lot of the movie despite how beautiful Mauzy’s singing voice is.

In terms of highlights, musically speaking, there are some definite gems in this already jewel-encrusted production: Agony has Pine going all-out and gloriously over-the-top and managing to impress despite my skepticism about his casting; the prologue song is as great as ever, with the entire cast meshing together in a way that sets a great precedent for the rest of the film; Last Midnight, the witch’s big number, has Streep giving the sort of performance that makes careers but is undoubtedly a highlight for her far as I’m concerned; and Your Fault, the singular song that shows why Stephen Sondheim is a goddamn genius, is performed with the kind of nimbleness needed for this complex of a singing arrangement.

Now, for the business of the talking the musical itself, and bear in mind that this is my very first experience with the material at all: As Marvel has no doubt shown over the last several years, geeks have a real thing for shared universes; creating a shared universe for Grimm fairy tales, especially with how it is written here, is a great move and very well handled with the meshing of these different tales not only working but also managing to wring some real emotion and heart out of the resulting soup of stories. However, a major sticking point for me, aside from how it felt overlong at times and a couple of plot threads that are left hanging a bit, is the ending. Not only does the ending feel abrupt, it also is more than a little underwhelming and somehow feels like that something got lost in translation from stage to screen. Kind of odd that I’d get this feeling, considering the original creators Sondheim and James Lapine scored and wrote this film respectively, but I’m sure I’ll get confirmation once I seek out the musical proper, which is definitely a good idea if this film is anything to go by.

All in all, this is a very entertaining watch. The cast all do a great job in their roles and manage to balance the acting/singing dynamic that some film musicals seem to inexplicably miss along the way, all backed by Sondheim’s amazing song creations, Lapine’s fantastical script and director Rob Marshall doing very well at tying it all together. It fares better than The Equalizer, as this without a doubt is a lot more creative with its story, but it’s not as good as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and that might just be my weakness for comic book films showing. For any lovers of the musical genre, this is definitely one to check out.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Movie Review: The Imitation Game (2014)

Looks like it’s typecast time again, this time turning our spotlight on Benedict Cumberbatch who has made a real name for himself in the last few years playing neurotic and narcissistic geniuses both fictional (the titular detective in Sherlock) and non-fictional (Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate). In fact, Cumberbatch is getting so close to absolute overexposure that he might as well be called Rule 63 Jennifer Lawrence at this rate. However, also like Lawrence, his performances in films are pretty much guaranteed to be good even if he isn’t always in the best films (August: Osage County, The Fifth Estate, Star Trek: Into Darkness depending on who you ask) so I’m not in a good enough position to complain about that. What do we get with today’s film? Time to find out: This is The Imitation Game.

The plot: Mathematician Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is hired to help the British military crack the Enigma Code that the Nazis use to scramble their radio messages, designing a special machine to do so. As the work he and his team have to do becomes more complex, and certain personal details about Turing himself are on the verge of becoming public, Turing will have to keep more than just his own secrets in order to survive.

Even without highlighting Cumberbatch, the cast here all do an outstanding job: Matthew Goode does well as Turing’s rival and eventually friend Hugh Alexander, whose transition between the two is a lot smoother than in most other films that feature such a turn; Charles Dance makes a decent role out of his admittedly stalely written part of Cdr. Denniston, showing the kind of authority and presence needed for the role; Mark Strong is very captivating as the shadowy head of MI6 Stewart Menzies; Rory Kinnear shows real conviction as Nock, a detective who investigates Turing years after working on the Enigma code after a supposed robbery; and Keira Knightley does a surprisingly good job interacting with Cumberbatch and even managing to keep toe-to-toe with him at points. I say surprising, because the last film I saw her in was A Dangerous Method, where her annoying Dr. Ruth Westheimer voice made for one of the worse parts of an already dismal watch; thankfully, nowhere the case here.

Now to actually discuss Cumberbatch in the role and it is here that I officially include my disclaimer about not looking for perfect historical accuracy; I’m judging this film, and every aspect thereupon, on its own merits alone. Cumberbatch infuses his performance with a certain awkwardness that is to be expected from such a role, but it’s different from, say, his portrayal of Sherlock: Where Sherlock was socially awkward because he understand social interaction and the human psyche better in theory than in practice, Turing is socially awkward because he genuinely doesn’t understand social interaction. He has a far better understanding of mathematics, and through that the ideas of computing and artificial intelligence, and uses that as his only basis on which to judge human behaviour. To show this, we will have scenes of Turing discuss breaking the code of the Enigma machine juxtaposed with him trying to figure out what his colleagues are actually saying, through their own code of regular human speech. Considering Alan Turing (retroactive as it may have been) showed signs of having ASD in real life, this is actually a rather accurate and fitting portrayal of someone with autism trying to get a hang of social interaction; it feels pretty familiar to me, at the very least. Not to say that he never interacts with others socially; it’s just that, when he does, he does it in so matter-of-factly that it could easily come across as either forced or just plain trolling, but Cumberbatch pulls it off like it’s second nature to him. He also does extraordinarily at showing some of the more tragic parts of Alan Turing’s life, particularly when exploring his homosexuality. The ending, *SPOILERS* which shows him after his sentencing for ‘gross indecency’ being physically crippled due to his court-mandated hormonal therapy to help curb his homosexual desires (Way to go, 1950’s!), is crushing enough just to think about but Cumberbatch makes the result absolutely heart-breaking, especially considering how Turing ultimately ended up taking his own life in the end.

The overall writing, not just that centered on Turing, is very well-done: The dialogue has that kind of dry wit that I’ve come to love from British films and television and the actors carry it off with just the right amount of venom to make it stick and get some chuckles out of the audience; and as a story, it does a great job at building tension over Turing’s progress with the bombe he constructed to decode Enigma, even considering the historical nature of the story where the events are set in stone. One definite highlight of the film is the moral dilemma Turing and his group find themselves in *SPOILERSAGAIN* when they finally decrypt the Enigma code but know that they have to be careful with how much they can let the enemy know that they know; as a result, they inevitably have to let some Nazi attacks happen to prevent suspicion, permitting a necessary evil for a greater good. Actually, speaking of the Nazi attacks, the CGI shots used for the planes and the bombs they drop might be the only real down point of the film; to put it mildly, it looks rather silly but thankfully there aren’t too many of them to detract from the film in any real way.

All in all, even if you’re going into this without any knowledge about Alan Turing and his accomplishments, this is a definite winner. The outstanding cast, led by a top-of-his-game Cumberbatch, does wonders with the witty and well-crafted script they have been given; how this screenplay ended up on the Black List for as long as it did, I’ll never know. It fares better than Interstellar, as this doesn’t feature an ending that throws everything into a mass of confusion, but it ranks just below The Lego Movie, which has a core message that is more widespread in who it will appeal to, myself included. This gets a definite recommendation, especially for fans of Cumberbatch’s work as this might be his best performance to date.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Movie Review: Nebraska (2014)

Escapism is a peculiar thing: By its very nature, it is meant to help us escape from the real world through fiction, yet it seems to affect us more the closer to reality it is. Maybe it’s because it helps give a better view of our own lives through an outside observer, or maybe it’s just because we like the idea of familiarity in an unfamiliar place, but for whatever the reason this seems to be the case. Personally, I use escapist fiction as therapy: A means for me to cathartically let free whatever pent-up feelings and emotions I have, be they anger, melancholy, giddiness, thirst for knowledge or what have you, in a way that doesn’t interfere with those around me. With this idea of therapeutic escapism in mind, let’s look at today’s film: This is Nebraska.

The plot: Woody (played by Bruce Dern) receives a letter announcing that he won a $1 million sweepstakes and to come to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect it. His sons David (played by Will Forte) and Ross (played by Bob Odenkirk), along with Woody’s wife Kate (played by June Squibb), try to tell him that it is an obvious mail scam but he is still determined to collect his winnings. David eventually decides to drive him on a road trip to Lincoln, if for nothing more than to get him to shut up about it.

I’ll admit, this was a hard film for me to pin down and I’m still not sure if I entirely get it. However, from what I have managed to gleam of it, this is a very impressive script with subtle yet very emotional writing. On the way to Lincoln, Woody and David arrive in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska and, upon talking with family and old friends, Woody’s past gets dug up for better and for worse: His struggles after returning from Vietnam, his constant drinking, his purportedly bad money-handling, not to mention his romantic relationships. It seems that everyone in this film is fixated, sometimes to an unhealthy degree, with what has been and gone, save for one person: Woody himself. Woody focuses far more on the present, wanting to just the most of what little time he has left being as content as he can be given his circumstances. Not only that, he wants to do the best he can for his sons as well, leave them with memories that keep him in their minds as more than just a drunk with a pipe dream. This latter point is made even better because of how good Dern and Forte are at portraying that father-son relationship. The director, Alexander Payne, reportedly signed on Forte to be in the role because he would be more believable in said role and he isn’t half wrong. Forte may have more experience with straight-up comedies, as his history as a cast member Saturday Night Live and the voice of Lincoln in The Lego Movie, but here he shows a lot of talent in a more serious role. This is The Judge levels of believability that these two actors could be real father and son, if not more so.

All this is easily enough for a film to go on, but a little further digging shows something else that actually hits even closer to home and it all leads back to what I started this review talking about: Escapism. Throughout the film, Woody’s family does their best to convince him, and everyone he tells the news to, that he didn’t actually win anything and that he’s just chasing a fantasy. However, it can easily be argued that, despite how distant Woody seems to be at times, he is aware that the $1 million is just a fantasy but he is chasing it regardless… and no-one can blame him. Even before the road trip begins, we already see him using alcohol to get away from everything and given how much of a cad Kate is to him, I hardly blame him. Kate, while it is clear that she loves him, is completely unable to hold her tongue about what she thinks of people, least of all her husband: Very controlling, very negative, very condescending at times, and while her performance does lead to some laughs in that kooky grandmother kind of way, there’s a definite annoyance with the character as well. Not only that, it is clear that Woody likes the positive attention he gets from the people of Hawthorne find out about his ‘winnings’, who congratulate him and cheer him on. Of course, with adoration comes people wanting to settle old debts, some going to rather extreme lengths to do so, but that only adds to it: *SPOILERS* When the townspeople get a hold of the sweepstakes letter, and realize that he hasn’t won anything, you can visibly see Woody weaken as if something has been taken from him like going after that fortune was the only thing keeping him going, making a rather heart-breaking moment.

To add to this, it seems like David shares in his father’s want to escape from how sucky the real world can be. We are shown that David is also unhappy with his life, going through a recent breakup and lack of business at his work, and almost seems to want to chase his father’s fantasy as well. He is shown numerous in the film being the enabler to his father’s wishes like agreeing to drive him to Lincoln in the first place and having drinks with him despite Woody’s problems with alcohol. He admits that he is going along with the charade as a means of just pleasing his dad, but you can definitely see how much that means to him through the writing and how well Forte plays the role. This eventually culminates in a pretty outstanding ending, where both Woody and David’s character arcs reach their pinnacle and result in one of the heart-warming moments in cinema this year.

All in all, this is a bit of a slow burner but a very solid film. With how well the script, the performances and the direction, not to mention the simple but fitting musical score, all fit together here, I’d be surprised if this didn’t become a go-to film for study in high schools and universities. At its core, this is a film about trying to escape from the present reality, all the while trying to let go of the past; I’m sure there are at least a few people who can see some truth in that. This ranks higher than Fat Pizza Vs. Housos, as the enjoyment gotten here is a lot more mindful, but just under Dallas Buyers Club, which hits even harder emotionally. No question, I recommend checking this one out.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Movie Review: Annie (2014)

I’ve gone into films with low expectations before: The Best Of Me, Tammy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. However, of everything I’ve gone out to see this year (including a couple that I have yet to see), this is undoubtedly the one I was dreading the most. Whether it was my attachment to the 1982 version, the snippet of the music I got from the trailer or the general impression I got from its attempts to modernize the script, I couldn’t be looking forward to this any less. Really, the best thing connected to this film for me for the longest time was this tweet from one of my favourite rappers:

Can't say I disagree with him, either; as much as I prefer to let a film speak for itself without getting hit by my preconceptions as it talks, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t factor into the viewing experience. That said, as we look at today’s film, I will do my best to put my initial impressions to one side and let it stand or fall on its own: This is the 2014 remake of Annie.

The plot: Annie (played by Quvenzhané Wallis) is a foster child living in New York under the tipsy eye of Miss Hannigan (played by Cameron Diaz) when she literally runs into Will Stacks (played by Jamie Foxx), a business tycoon who’s running for Mayor of New York. After their chance encounter results in an increase in the polls, Guy (played by Bobby Cannavale), Will’s political advisor, thinks that Annie should stay with Will for a few weeks to give him some better publicity. As Annie spends time with them, Will and his assistant Grace (played by Rose Byrne) grow a liking to her and Annie might have found the family she has been looking for after all.

Most of the cast do a good job in their roles: Wallis shows off how she became the youngest actress to be nominated for an Oscar with a performance that can stand next to the older actors with ease; Diaz, while not having nearly as much screen presence as Carol Burnett, does well with how this film’s interpretation of Hannigan is written; and Foxx fills his rather assholey character with enough charisma to make for the best thing in the movie. Probably the main fault with the casting is Bobby Cannavale, who despite his rather impressive output in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is underwhelming in his role here, over trying at every turn to be funny and just coming across as annoying. Why he is trying so hard to be funny, however, is just one item on the laundry list of problems with this movie.

Pretense, much like irony, privilege and ethics in video game journalism, is so over-used by people who don’t know its real meaning that it has all but lost that meaning. It is mostly used in relation to more artsy films that are so obtuse in how they are made or in the message they’re trying to convey that they confuse the audience, with pretense being the easy word to fall back on to describe it. So why am I using it to describe this big-budget Hollywood musical? Because this film tries so hard to poke fun at its source material, and the musical genre in general, for how hokey it is that it fails to see just how hokey it itself is being. The literal first thing we see is a red-haired girl called Annie talking in front of her class and being mocked for being too boring, followed swiftly by our film’s Annie who engages her audience into an instrumental number that ends with the entire class cheering. I refrain from calling this blatant because it only gets worse from there: Constant in-jokes about the original film, fourth wall jokes about the characters singing out of nowhere; none of which actually land and instead are just annoying to sit through.

Easily the most insensitive part of this film’s need to mock everything that it itself is being is when Will takes Annie to the movies: Moonquake Lake, a pretty obvious spoof of paranormal romances like Twilight, with Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Rihanna lining their wallets with some random cameos. Grace makes mention of how Will’s mobile phone company paid 500 grand for product placement in the film, and then says that said product placement is the only thing keeping the film industry going. I cannot express in mere words how angry I was in the cinema hearing this cynical drivel in a film that’s this focus-grouped. However, this line has a bit more relevancy to the film proper once delved into a little bit: Sure, product placement may not be as integral to films as this claims (Unless your name is Michael Bay), but product placement does play a crucial part in another visual medium: Music videos, especially over the last decade or so. While in context to films in general it’s almost offensive in how little respect it has for the art of filmmaking, it makes perfect sense in context to this film as, with how shallow the end product is, this film is little more than a glorified long-form music video. What makes this even funnier is that the movie-in-a-movie is credited to Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the filmmakers who managed to churn out the surprising successes of 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie. I can only laugh at this, considering how much better a job Lord and Miller would have done with this film and its intent, ignoring how 22 Jump Street turned out.

While it may seem unfair of me to bag out this film for the changes in music from the original, since the 1982 version wasn’t exactly pragmatic in following the stage musical (I want NYC, dammit!), this is beyond the pale in how badly it treats the music. What’s worse is that the soundtrack had a very interesting idea buried in there somewhere: Whenever the orphans are singing, like in Maybe or Hard Knock Life, they make their own instrumentation; Thumping of brooms and mops on the floor to make the driving beat of Hard Knock Life, and hand claps and chest slaps for Maybe. During the opening credits, we get literal music of the city with car horns, bike bells and street musicians adding to the instrumentation. Then, there is a scene later on at a museum event for Will Stacks’ company where Annie sings Opportunity with an orchestra backing her. This could have made for a nice musical arc and added a layer to the overall film, if it weren’t for the fact that the above songs as well as every other one in this film still have studio instrumentation, shattering whatever nuance the soundtrack could have had. Said instrumentation is loud and very hip-hop with its thumping drums and stabs of brass, which detracts from the soundtrack immensely by all sounding extremely generic. To make matters worse, we have also have the scourge of Auto-Tune to deal with as well, most notably in their rendition of Tomorrow where it is more obvious than everywhere else that it’s being used. The singers themselves are a mixed bag: As Willow “Whip Your Hair” Smith was originally cast to be Annie, Wallis sounds golden by comparison and even standalone; Foxx, the only member of the cast who has some history as a singer, further proves why he is the best thing about this film; Byrne is way too soft-spoken to be made out half of the time; Diaz is just average; and Cannavale is incredibly bland, so they mercifully only give him one song to sing in.

I was originally just going to forgo any direct comparisons with the 1982 film, but since the film itself didn’t refrain from doing just that I won’t either. This is a remake of Annie in the same way that David Cronenberg’s The Fly is a remake: Only the framework of the story survived the adaptation process, in terms of story. While modernizing the plot of Annie isn’t a bad idea in it of itself, how it was done here is another matter. To start things off, we have Oliver Warbucks being renamed William Stacks. They literally named the American billionaire Bill Stacks, a name that sounds like the result of mating a lame rapper with a V.I.L.E. henchman. We also have the former’s relatively downplayed conservatism and elitism dialed up heavily with Bill’s visible disdain to be near the other 99%, showing the kind of modernizing and heavy-handedness that has made recent Dr. Seuss adaptations so bad. The plot’s linchpin, the reason why Will brings in Annie in the first place, is extremely cynical and something that should not be associated with a musical that is, at its heart, feel-good entertainment for the whole family. The biggest offence, however, is how they handled Rooster, famously played in the original by Tim Curry: Neither he or Lily St. Regis are in this version. The closest we get is Guy, who essentially carries out the same plan and whose actor tries desperately to ape Curry in his performance with numerous attempts to chew on the scenery and take the spotlight much like Curry did. Unfortunately, Cannavale abjectly fails at this and both he and the film as a whole come out worse because of it.

All in all, this is a train wreck. While with a mostly decent cast and some good ideas peppered throughout, the writing is hypocritical to an astounding degree, the changes to the original range from passable to dumbfounding, the music is cheap and not in any way fun and the plain disrespect that this film has for the source material makes it a painful watch. Jay-Z needs to stop producing movies, if this and The Great Gatsby are anything to go by. It’s worse than Love Is Now, as this seemed to dedicate more time to offending my sensibilities, but it’s still not as bad as Planes: Fire And Rescue, as this film at least had some good intentions behind its plastic veneer. Unless you actively want a nice heaping load of cinematic coal this Christmas, and you don't feel right about taking advantage of the recent Sony hack to get a copy of it, this is one to avoid.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Movie Review: The Babadook (2014)

Today’s film almost seems like the ultimate underdog story: A filmmaking debut from an Australian director/writer partially funded by Kickstarter and given a wide release in both Australia and the U.S. to massive critical hype. This is the kind of production that gives me serious pride in my country and what its creative minds can accomplish, as well as some faith in my own creative ambitions knowing that others have paved the way. However, much like films, a great story only means as much as what results from it. As such, it’s time to engage in some more horror for the holidays: This is The Babadook.

The plot: Amelia (played by Essie Davis) finds a storybook about the Babadook to read to her son Samuel (played by Noah Wiseman), but he soon believes that the Babadook is real and is haunting them. As Samuel grows more erratic in trying to kill the Babadook, Amelia begins to notice a strange presence in their house as well and begins to crack.

This movie was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival and it very much looks like porn for cinephiles: Dense with visual language where every shot feels like they were researched to within an inch of their lives in order to give the precise effect the director intends. Not only does this look nice, but a lot of care and effort was put into the atmosphere and overall scare factor of the film as well. A great example of this would have to be the titular Babadook: Anytime we hear or see it, it’s never obnoxiously loud or aiming for jump scares; rather, we get low but definitely menacing sounds coming from it that don’t startle but rather creep under the skin, along with a rather amazing effect in that the Babadook will sometimes move in faster motions but somehow don’t notice induce that jump-scare effect while still being unsettling.

Once we get into the writing, however, we see exactly what aspect got more of the attention. Not to say that the writing is bad per se, but rather you can definitely tell that this film puts a lot more emphasis on how it looks and feels rather than how it reads and for the most part it works. One theme in particular that stuck out, a clear example of the film’s academic approach at work, is Amelia’s sexual frustration. With one of the key pre-film plot points is a car accident that killed Amelia’s husband, along with a few character moments that highlight said frustrations, it adds some surprising layers to events in the third act that warrant some reading into. The director, Jennifer Kent, apparently did some understudying with indie king of depression Lars Von Trier and you can see traces of that in this film with both its look and some of its writing aspects.

Throughout the film, we are given small hints that The Babadook might just be a figment of one or both of the main characters’ imaginations and said hints are delivered with a refreshing amount of subtlety that complements the story rather well. As the pieces begin to fall into place and Amelia becomes more and more deranged as the film goes on, the tension reaches every breaking point as you’re still not 100% sure whether the Babadook is real or it is just the actions of an insane Amelia. *SPOILERS* However, once we get to the ending, it’s made painfully aware that the film did too good a job at setting up Amelia as being behind it all and all that effort is wasted as it is revealed that the Babadook is indeed real. Now, this is a fairly standard route for a story like this to take but this might be one of the few times when the story would greatly benefit from not having confirmed supernatural elements to it; from the setup, it feels like this is going in the direction of The Number 23 with its ending, only better, but it doesn’t deliver on the setup much to my disappointment. To make matters worse, the ending is… kind of bizarre and not in any good way. After Amelia stands up to the Babadook, it stays at their house as what I can only assume is a pet. This is a serious letdown and a bit too goofy for this kind of story; especially considering how much more intense it was getting leading up to the climax.

However, with that said, quite a lot of the film’s bulk is underwhelming for one simple reason: Samuel. Samuel might be one of the most irritating characters I’ve seen in a movie this year, if not the most irritating. Sure, he’s only irritating in that real world sense in that he acts like a normal six-year old kid, flaws and all, but his constant screaming and general annoyances severely detract from most of the film’s buildup. This is a major problem considering one of the most important elements of the production is the relationship between Samuel and his mother, with a lot of the tension coming from not knowing exactly what Amelia is going to do to Samuel; since Samuel pretty much sucks up a lot of good points whenever he’s onscreen, I doubt it was the filmmaker’s intent for the audience to be rooting for Amelia to give this film a downer ending. That might sound callous, and that’s because it is, but the kid seriously gets that unwatchable at points.

All in all, this is extremely flawed but an admittedly decent horror film. While the cinematic language can get a little too obtuse at times for people who don’t study film theory (And yes, despite all my pretenses of knowing what I’m talking about concerning films, that includes myself) and it is let down by an underwhelming ending, the scares build up to a good crescendo and the Babadook itself is a rather ingenious bit of creature creation. It is, at the very least, a sign of good things to come and I hope Kent continues to make films and ever improving on her craft. It’s better than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as the story ideas here showed quite a lot of promise, more so than any that that movie offered, but it ranks below Penguins Of Madagascar, which simply gave me mor enjoyment. Feel free to leave a comment below with your own thoughts on the movie; this is another critical hit that I’m not as fussed about, so I’m fully prepared for whatever vitriol may come my way for this unpopular opinion of the film.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Movie Review: The Water Diviner (2014)

Every so often, an actor will step forward and decide that they want to become a director and make their own movie. This can sometimes lead to great things: Clint Eastwood has had a very prolific and critically-praised track record of directorial efforts over the last decade or so and Ben Affleck made a major comeback in Hollywood with films like The Town and Argo. However, it can also lead to rather disastrous things: William Shatner made a dog’s breakfast out of Star Trek V, Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights is one of his many cinematic punchlines, and the less said about the brain-melting confusion that is Crispin Glover’s What Is It?, the better. Today’s film is the directorial debut of love-him-or-hate-him actor Russell Crowe: This is The Water Diviner.

The plot: In the wake of the Battle of Gallipoli, Connor (played by Russell Crowe) travels to Turkey in order to locate his sons who were ANZAC soldiers. When he discovers that one of them may still be alive, he clings onto hope and tries to locate him in the midst of open hostilities between the Turks, the English and the Greeks.

There were three warning signs that this film was going to be bad: One, it stars Jai Courtney, a man who is a sentient red flag for bad movies at this rate; two, it’s a theatrical release that lists Channel Seven Australia as one of its production companies; three, the only one of its two writers with previous credits, Andrew Knight, is largely known for comedic works, mostly associated with the D Generation like Fast Forward and Full Frontal. The first sign turned out to be a rather weird high point, because Jai Courtney is one of the few actors in this movie that looks like he’s even trying. I may bash Jai’s lousy skills at picking decent scripts, but his acting is not being brought into question here in any way. Special props should also be given to Yilmaz Erdogan as Major Hasan, who does a good job with his rather layered character as a Turkish soldier who helps Connor find his sons, Ryan Corr as one of Connor’s sons Arthur, who is a keystone in the most emotional scene of the film, and Jacqueline McKenzie as Connor’s wife Eliza, who gives a performance with more depth to it in her minimal time on screen than most of the others do in the entire movie. Everyone else, Crowe included, comes across as either broadly drawn, cold, texting in their performances, or all of the above in a few rare cases. Crowe shows the kind of blandness that he has gotten a bad reputation for giving, Dylan Georgiades as Orhan is annoying in that way that only awkward child actors can manage and Dan Wyllie plays the most stereotypical British army officer I’ve ever seen outside of a proper comedy.

The second sign results in a film that looks unbelievably cheap. For a start, the sound mixing is off by miles with this weird running motif of isolating a single diegetic sound and playing just that in some scenes, even in places where it doesn’t feel right to do so like when a scene of Russell Crowe walking into the distance has the sound of shoveling dirt into his wife’s grave played over it and nothing else. Sure, the idea could have worked but the execution left a lot to be desired. We also get a lot of random slow-mo shots, in one case for only a literal second of screen time, with no narrative reason or point. It's almost as if the film itself knows how slap shod it is, considering how often this film will suddenly start a fight scene with Connor and whatever soldiers are in his way; sure, it's a nice reprieve from the nothing that is the majority of the film, but it's distracting and more than a little jarring with how out-of-nowhere it gets before too long. However, as annoying as all these are, they are frankly small potatoes compared to one of the biggest sins you can commit in a theatrically released film: Recycling footage. Whenever this film shows scenes set during the Battle of Gallipoli, most of it is just the same shots shown each time as if this was a dodgy straight-to-DVD action movie. Far as I’m concerned, no matter how small your production and/or budget, that is just plain unacceptable for an audience paying movie ticket prices.

The third sign resulted not so much in a film that felt more like an awkward comedy than a drama, as one would expect, but rather a film that is badly written in many other ways. We have a plot that largely meanders around its supposed crux of Connor finding his sons dead or alive, and that’s assuming that that is even the intent of the film in the first place. The trailer for this movie makes it look like some kind of mystery/suspense thriller involving Connor finding some kind of secret about the one son that he couldn’t find the remains of. What we actually get is nowhere near that enticing: Rather, the story has maybe enough plot for a 45 minute TV show episode (Fitting, given writer Andrew Knight’s primary experience in television) but is padded out with what are essentially plot roadblocks. The main thing that lengthens this film is that there are a handful of people who won’t let Connor go to where he needs to go for various and occasionally baffling reasons; if they weren’t there, this would probably only run long enough to be a Tropfest entry if that. To add to this, there is something seriously bizarre concerning Connor as a character that is never really given notice. At first glance, having a main character who is a water diviner sounds off because, quite frankly, water divining is right up there with phrenology and medical leeches in terms of scientific accuracy, but it gets even weirder the longer it carries on. The character in-film admits that his water divining doesn’t always work, but then we get several dream sequences peppered throughout that seem to lead Connor to where he needs to be in the plot. If they came right out and said that he had something mystical about him then fine (Hell, it might have actually opened the way for more dramatic opportunities) but instead we’re only left with a general inkling that Russell Crowe might be a wizard.

However, for all the crap I give this film, it does have one good thing going for it throughout: The Turks. Connor’s relationship with Hasan makes for the only genuine regular interaction between characters in this film and the underlying theme of how badly the battle affected the Turks is pretty bold for a film of this kind. We are shown that, in contrast to Connor’s desire to find his sons, that the Turkish army suffered heavy casualties as well and yet the ANZACs that now occupy their country aren’t lifting a finger to find their remains on the battlefield. There’s also an interesting motif of how, throughout the film, the Turks help Connor out the most: The English just want him gone, the ANZACs are ineffective and the Greeks just try to kill him. Given how patriotic we can get when it comes to the ANZACs, it's an exceptionally bold move to show the Turks as even-handedly as they did here and, in the hands of a far better director, could've potentially made for a seriously powerful and necessary look at Australian racial sensitivities connected to Gallipoli. Oh well.

All in all, this is a shocker. Russell Crowe joins the Hollywood shitlist of actors who should never be given the director’s chair again with a debut that has a cast that is half phoning it in and half doing their best with the little that they’re given, a production crew that cuts corners like they’re trying to make a paper snowflake on film and a script that needed major doctoring before it could even pass for a TV episode. It ranks worse than Exodus: Gods And Kings, which at least had a couple of decent ideas that were carried out well, but better than The Hundred-Foot Journey, as at least this film didn’t feel like it wasted my time as much as that did.

As always, feel free to leave a comment below with your own thoughts on the movie, or if you simply want to provide some feedback on the review itself.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Movie Review: 12 Years A Slave (2014)

While the film season in the U.S. sees January/February as the dumping ground for the previous year’s leftovers, it’s the complete opposite case in Australia. The beginning of the year marks Oscar season, the time when all the big awards contenders that haven’t already been released are brought to the masses en masse. Since my recent cinematic compulsion began a few months after that season, I unfortunately missed more than a few of them. As my inevitable year-end lists would be conspicuously incomplete without mention of such films, I plan on using my new-found extra time to look back and see as many of these as possible before the New Year. As such, what better way to start than with one of the biggest critical darlings of that season? This is 12 Years A Slave.

The plot: Solomon (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man in the 1800’s, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Over the next 12 years, he endures what can only loosely be called life as a slave worker in one of the bleakest periods of human history.

The cast here is nigh-on impeccable: Chiwetel does an amazing job as Solomon, portraying all of the raw despair and at times betrayal that his character suffers with laser-precision; Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch play two oddly contrasting slave owners with the sort of finesse that should be expected from either actor and Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey is nothing short of heartbreaking throughout, making for the most emotional part of an already intense production. Cumberbatch and Fassbender represent a major point in this film’s favour: How balanced its depiction of white people is. This may sound odd for me to highlight, but it is a stereotypical depiction of slave owners for them to be one-dimensional monsters with no sense of remorse or humanity. Here, through these two as well as numerous other actors, we are shown more fleshed out and human portrayals of these people. True, we’re still dealing with characters who see human life as property, but seeing such characters as more than just simple demons for the audience to use as their One Minute Hate is a refreshing touch to the overall story. The direction, likewise, is outstanding: Steve McQueen, a man who must have parents who are the biggest film nerds ever by his name alone, shows a great eye for cinema with the way this film is shot, particular the use of long shots in a few key scenes. The long shot of Solomon as he waits for his master to free him from a noose is a seriously harrowing image to see, even considering how the bleak the film is as a whole.

Now for the part of the review that is guaranteed to piss some people off: While this film is undeniably well-made and well-acted, and I understand that the setting is one that should by all means be shown as dark and depressing, this film is too depressing. It is seriously draining in how bleak it is, a factor that unfortunately saps away at a lot of the film’s strengths. The best, and really the only, way to illustrate this is by comparison: Earlier this year, we had These Final Hours, a film about one man’s actions during the last hours before Earth is destroyed. The film, naturally, is very bleak and disheartening but it at least had the foresight to include small beats to break up the depressing tone so as not to overload the audience; every so often, there’d be a character moment of kindness and/or hope that would raise the mood slightly, something that made the overall production easier to swallow. Then again, I’d be perfectly fine with this kind of mood in film if there was some greater purpose to it, but whatever purpose lies at the heart of this film feels disjointed at best. Why do I say this? Well, here is where we delve into one of the only sticks in the mud when it comes to the cast: Brad Pitt as Samuel Bass. Now, Pitt is by no means a bad actor, but his casting is why he is getting mentioned here. *SPOILERS* It is as a result of Samuel and his interaction with Solomon that Solomon is eventually freed from his servitude, and the first scene we see with Samuel is of him lecturing Fassbender’s Edwin Epps about how black and white people are no different from each other and no-one should be forced into this kind of lifestyle. To say that this feels out of place would be an understatement and the fact that Pitt himself is a producer on the film only makes this feel worse. Samuel has all of two scenes in the film during the third act: He talks to Epps about how wrong he is for owning slaves, and then talking with Solomon about getting his free papers. Removed from however the events went in reality (This story is adapted from a memoir of the real-life Solomon Northup), I can’t help but see this as a moment of ego stroking for Pitt, detracting heavily from the already dismal proceedings. I get the importance of this kind of story; my own government’s treatment of asylum seekers is enough to make me realize that this is a book that needed to be adapted for the wider public. However, as a whole, this doesn’t feel like the right way to convey said story and the message at its heart.

All in all, this film is a depressing experience and not in a good way. A good depressing film is one that makes you feel down but also feels like it deserves such emotions and is rewarding as an experience; a bad depressing film is one that just makes you feel down and doesn’t offer much in way of justification for such. Maybe it’s also a slight case of overhype, but for whatever the reason this did not resonate with me as it has with so many others. It has a great cast and a great director behind it, and I get that such a setting needs an appropriately bleak tone, but “Too much of a good thing” definitely applies here. It is by no means a bad movie; but its unrelenting bleak tone is far more than I am able to take. This ranks higher than Chef, as what is good about this film is a lot more consistent throughout, but below Blended, and if the notion of an Adam Sandler film being more emotionally affecting than this sounds off-putting, trust me when I say that I get it. As a film critic, I cannot bring myself to give that high a recommendation to this film. However, as a simple human being, I recommend that everyone see this movie at least once; this is something that needs to be seen, as far as I’m concerned.

Movie Review: PK (2014)

It’s one thing to go into a film with a general assumption about whether it’ll be good or bad based on what you know about the film beforehand. It’s quite another thing, however, when you go into a film without any idea what to expect because, quite frankly, you don’t know thing one about the film itself. Granted, this is far less a case for people who do the sensible thing and choose what they see at the cinema, but for critics who have to see and give an opinion on as many movies that come out as possible (or idiots like me who have a compulsion to do a similar thing), there can be the occasional blinder. The last time this happened for me personally, funnily enough, was on another Bollywood movie called Happy New Year, which I have reviewed previously. This is another one of those occasions: This is PK.

The plot: Tipsy (played by Aamir Khan) is an alien who lands on Earth and immediately gets the remote to his spaceship stolen, leaving him stranded. He soon turns to God and a local TV reporter Jaggu (played by Anushka Sharma) to help him get it back, and has to confront a big-time godman Tapasvi (played by Saurabh Shukla) along the way.

I don’t like making assumptions about other cultures, but consider that I have minimal at best experience with Bollywood films. As such, this is a lot less focused on the music than I am used to. With Kick and Happy New Year, the musical numbers were diversions from the main story and were occasionally jarring; here, the music complements the action rather well. We’re dealing with comedy, so we get some goofy songs like Tharki Chokro as well as some more romantic numbers like Love Is A Waste Of Time. The music itself is very lively with a lot of orchestral elements, making for an energetic and vibrant soundtrack. Easily, the highlight would have to be Bhagwan Hai Kahan Re Tu, where Tipsy sings about his attempts to find and talk to God. It’s the kind of song that encapsulates the core of the film’s intent, and that core is something that honestly needs to exist in Western cinemas.

We’ve seen fish out of water stories with aliens before, and some have even tackled similar subject matter to this before, but this is certainly a refreshing take on an old idea. It takes a certain kind of writer to properly portray that feeling of not knowing thing one about where you are, what to do or what to say, especially through the eyes of a literal alien, but the writing here combined with Aamir’s great performance pulls it off rather well. He has a very Mr. Bean-like innocence to him that makes his actions and decisions kind of adorkable, but not to the point where he comes across as annoying at any point. We see Tipsy interact with human commerce and religion, pointing out how little sense they both make at their respective bottom lines (e.g. Pieces of paper with people’s faces on them, but only specific pieces of paper, are traded for goods and favors from deities), and also how muddled various religions can make things for people who don’t know what they believe in (e.g. Some cultures wear white at weddings, other wear white at funerals). With so many different faiths saying contradictory things to one another, as well as holding traditions that would be baffling to most outsiders at first, it’s easy to see how confusing it could be for someone in Tipsy’s position. As the numerous theologies start to congeal and form something cohesive to Tipsy, the script becomes even sharper as a religious satire and actually began to win my heart a little. Now, this may all sound a tad sacrilegious but let’s be clear here: This film isn’t attacking religion. This film is attacking organized religion; you know, the people who claim that you can simply buy your way to salvation by forking over money for trinkets or simple donations in the three digit or higher bracket. I’ve discussed before some of my own religious beliefs and how I have a very live-and-let-live approach to other people’s beliefs, but I vehemently have no patience for people like this and personally think that there’s a special place in damnation just for them. Even with all that said, this film is surprisingly balanced with its approach to faith. While it does have some barbs to throw through Tipsy’s eyes at some aspects of religion as being partially nonsensical, Tapasvi brings up at least a couple of good points about how faith gives people the comfort they need to carry on with their lives. Best, and possibly weakest, part of the film has to be the climax where Tipsy and Tapasvi have a televised religious debate: Best, because it contains some of the most poignant writing I've seen in quite a while; worst, because there is one part that is... questionable. No spoilers here, because this is genuinely one to check out for yourself, but in retrospect it seems extremely obvious that this would happen and it's slightly hackneyed. However, even with that in mind, it's well-handled for what it is.

All in all, given how I went into this film knowing next to nothing about it, this is an extremely pleasant surprise. If you are fine with watching films like Dogma or The Invention Of Lying without getting too offended, then this is definitely one to check out: The acting is superb with Aamir doing a fantastic job as Tipsy; the music is lively and does well at accompanying the film; the romantic side of things thankfully avoids a lot of the more aggravating clichés of the rom-com; and the writing is almost Douglas Adams-esque in its poignancy and wit. Talking about religion, especially in this format, is like poking a hive full of angry bees; thankfully, this film’s writing is nimble enough to avoid getting stung and share the honey that rests inside. This ranks higher than Noah, as the themes of faith are explored in a greater variety here, but not as high as How To Train Your Dragon 2, which hits harder on the emotional side of things.

But, what did you think of the movie? Clever and thought-provoking? Offensive and blasphemous? All of the above? Somewhere in between? Whatever the case, feel free to leave a comment below with your own thoughts of the movie.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Movie Review: Horrible Bosses 2 (2014)

Given my compulsion to review every new film I see, I will inevitably come across some films that are easier to talk about than others; whether it’s because it’s easier to talk about bad films than good ones or because some films engage me more and leave me more to work with in terms of writing, not every film will give me the same amount of content. This is such an occasion, only for different reasons than usual. It isn’t because this film is entirely good, leaving me with less to talk about, nor did it fail to leave me with much to talk about. No, this time the difficulty in writing a review for this movie is, put simply, because it is just plain unpleasant to recollect. We’ll get to exactly why that is in due time, but for now let’s get started with the review proper: This is Horrible Bosses 2.

The plot: Nick, Dale and Kurt (played by Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis respectively) go into business together with a gadget called the Shower Buddy. They negotiate a business deal with Burt Hanson (played by Christoph Waltz) who then screws them over and leaves them in debt. As revenge, they arrange to hold his Burt’s son Rex (played by Chris Pine) hostage to get ransom money from Burt. Things go awry, however, when Rex discovers the plan… and wants in.

As part of my preparation for whatever I go to see in the cinema, if it’s a part of a series, I will usually go back and watch whatever films came before it to get more of an idea of what I’m getting myself into. For example, when Step Up: All In came out, I went back and watched the first four Step Up films before going to see it. As such, I went ahead and caught up on the first Horrible Bosses movie and… it’s alright. It had a lot of problems, like the overabundance of jokes about male rape along with subsequent brushing-off of male rape as not being a big deal by some of the main characters, but after it got past the first act it picked up the pace and managed to deliver a decent enough movie, provided you are willing to stick out for the long haul. How does this film hold up by comparison? Somehow, it is both better and worse than that movie was. Regardless, however, this is very much a proper continuation of the previous film for better or for worse: For better because it at least feels like this film has some partial reason to exist as a means of continuing the story; for worse because it heavily assumes that you have the previous film fresh in your memory when seeing this one, given the nature of a lot of the callbacks to that film are read.

The cast here have a lot of fun with their roles and that makes way for the audience to have fun watching them: A returning Jason Bateman continues to do a great job as the straight man in the main trio; Jamie Foxx does a bit more scene-stealing here, and feels slightly shoehorned into the story as a result, but he still has that charisma that helped make his role in the original so memorable; and Kevin Spacey returns for a few scenes to make some of the film’s best moments once again. On top of the returning cast, we also have some newcomers: Christoph Waltz has made a major name for himself in the last few years for playing fun villains and he adds another notch to that bedpost here. He may not be as deliciously vile as the bosses were previously, but he manages to pull off his role with the right amount of hateable and watchable. Chris Pine, however, is an entirely different story: He is absolutely amazing in his role as Rex. He undoubtedly has the most fun out of all the actors and turns that into the best performance of the movie; every second he’s on screen, he has insane comedic energy that keeps audiences engaged regardless of what’s going on in-scene. The downside of the cast, unfortunately, is Day and Sudeikis as the other two leads. They have a little too much fun and seem to slack off a bit in terms of their performances. Sure, Day has a couple of moments where he is able to make his mark, but otherwise the two of them seem to stay in neutral for the majority of the film.

People who say that comedy isn’t an exact science have yet to see this movie. I’ve seen films before with predictable jokes, but it’s not until this film that I have come across predictable character dynamics, or at least to this degree. Here’s pretty much every interaction between the three mains: Nick is the straight man, Kurt is the pronounced asshole (at least, more so than the others) and Dale is the Galifianakis wannabe; whenever someone suggests something, Kurt and Dale immediately agree with it until someone else (usually Nick) points out a flaw with it and then they immediately agree with that instead. Rinse and repeat a few times per scene and you have the interactions. In terms of content, I am extremely thankful that they decided to dial down the reprehensible male rape jokes. However, to replace it, they decided to crank up the gay jokes in their place, which only slightly less obnoxious. My own sexual preferences notwithstanding, I do not get why this is still a go-to brand of comedy; it rarely comes across as funny to me and it’s one of the few things that I actively question why other people find it funny. Call me a killjoy if you want, it’s just how I feel about the whole thing. However, with that said, whenever this film makes a good joke, it aims well and brings major laughs with it. What’s more, once this film gets into a rhythm, it can deliver strings of good jokes that definitely help improve this film. The comedy, put simply, is a mixed bag: When it’s good, it’s really good; when it’s bad, it’s quite irritating.

This is a decent plot, if slightly predictable concerning the ending. I won't spoil it here, but it’s something that is lampshaded in-film because of how obvious it is (Although, admittedly, said predictable moment is still handled well). Rather than going with Sequel Rule #34, the writers make a genuine attempt to tell a different story, while still keeping continuity with the original. The way it keeps continuity is to be commended as well: Plot points in the previous film that were left open are continued here, and even points that were resolved lead to some decision made by the heroes in this film. It all goes well… until the ending. It is here that we are greeted with the main reason why this film is so unpleasant to recall. This ending leaves a proper foul taste in the mouth, and kind of sullies a lot of the good that came before it. After the climax, there’s a short epilogue that shows what happens to the characters after the fact, and we get a solid punch to the face with what seems like all of the date rape jokes that they refrained from using earlier all at once. Not only that, while the first film had an ending that felt triumphant and saw our main characters in a better place than they were when they started, here we are left with them in a worse position than they were in before, Day perhaps the most so (Again, spoilers, but his resolution is the entire reason the epilogue feels so bad).

All in all, while a marked improvement over the original in some respects, this still has a lot of issues. What’s worse is that, in all honesty, most of these issues could have been forgiven had it not been for the sucker punch of an epilogue that just sours the production as a whole. However, I still give this film a recommendation, if for nothing more than to see Chris Pine give one of his best performances to date. This ranks higher than Love, Rosie, as the writing here felt like more effort was put into it, but lower than Edge Of Tomorrow, everyone’s favourite cinematic roadblock, as that film was a lot more consistent with its good points.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Movie Review: Paddington (2014)

When one of the most prominent trailers for your film contains your main character licking earwax from a toothbrush, you can be forgiven for assuming the worst. Add to that that we’re dealing with a film aimed primarily at kids and we’re dealing with a high probability of running from the theatre wanting to burn everything. I have never read any of the original books, and only have marginal knowledge about the character itself; this means that I only had the very disheartening trailer to go on. This is the kind of recipe that results in clouds of thick black smoke, melted lab equipment and possibly the need for several HAZMAT suits. What does this cook up in practice? Let’s dig in and find out: This is Paddington.

The plot: After an earthquake destroys his home in Peru, Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) travels to London in search of a new home. He comes across Mr. Brown (played by Hugh Bonneville) and his family, who reluctantly lets them take Paddington in until he finds a proper home. Paddington has to find a home, all the while avoiding Millicent (played by Nicole Kidman), an insane taxidermist who wants to stuff and mount him in an exhibition at the Natural History Museum.

Director/co-writer Paul King has an… interesting filmography: On one hand, he’s worked on cult British comedies like The Mighty Boosh and Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace; on the other hand, he also directed the television equivalent of exsanguination that is Come Fly With Me. This film, initially, feels like it would be outside of his rather darker comfort zone, but it doesn’t take long for this film to prove that assumption wrong. The humour here is very evenly balanced for both age groups, like a true family film should be, and it largely succeeds with its jokes. Sure, there are a few groaners like a brief foray into drag comedy (Something that is only done right about 0.001% of the time) and the aforementioned earwax scene which, after seeing it so many times in the trailer, I just flat out didn’t look at when it was on-screen, but those aren’t enough to detract too much from the jokes that work. I hate to sound elitist when it comes to what I personally find funny (oh, why stop now?), but I have a great affinity for that pronounced British sense of humour and this film is riddled with it. Perhaps a little too much, as some of the smaller jokes are bits of wordplay on British slang that isn’t really used anywhere else.

Even removed from the comedic side of things, this is pretty well-written in terms of dialogue and plot. While we do get some typical hallmarks of the fish-out-of-water story, like the characters who irrationally don’t like the main character and the third act “They don’t want me here anymore” cliché, but I can at least say that this film handles them well for the most part. The initial disdain is brief and the transition from that to friendship is a lot smoother than I’ve seen in other films. As for the third act cliché… yeah, that’s probably the biggest strike against this film: For the rest of the running time, it seems to be poking fun at its own story quirks, as well as some of its cheesier moments, but then that plot point comes in and the heart sinks just a bit. Thankfully, it picks right back up again without much delay, so at least isn’t as big a problem as it could have been. The plot is a lot more focused than one would expect, too: There’s never a point in the film where it feels like the writers are dragging their feet to fill up the running time. Not only that, there is proper thought put into some rather crucial plot elements, such as the villain’s motives and the reasons for why Paddington goes to London; put simply, a bear that can talk English walking around London and not constantly having phone cameras pointed at him is the furthest your disbelief will be suspended. It may seem extremely cynical to put special mention to the writers of a family film doing their friggin’ jobs and actually writing a good script, but after Planes: Fire And Rescue, I have learnt to appreciate such things even more.

The cast all do a spectacular job with their respective roles. Ben Whishaw and Hugh Bonneville, whose respective careers have made tremendous leaps and bounds into the Hollywood mainstream in the last few years, play very well against each other as the sugar and salt at the core of the film; Peter Capaldi, despite his relatively smaller role, has some fun with his role and makes for some good comedy with his interactions with Millicent and Mr. Brown; Julie Walters pretty much steals every scene she’s in; Jim Broadbent, despite his distracting attempt at a German (I think?) accent, does well with his largely expository role; and Matt Lucas has a bordering-on-cameo role that is actually enjoyable to watch and not grating as per his Little Britain caricatures. Nicole Kidman shows a definite improvement from her performance in Before I Go To Sleep, but I would have to say that she is the weak link in the cast list. Sure, she does well as the crazy villain, but it definitely feels like there is something missing from it. Then again, the last time we got Kidman as the villain in a family film was in The Golden Compass and the less said about that the better.

All in all, this is the perfect kind of movie to see during the holiday season, whether you go with your kids or just go on your own. It’s tailor-made to give the audience that warm fuzzy feeling that only good family films can manage, and it pulls it off rather well with good comedy, a great cast list and a lively Calypso soundtrack. I admittedly went into this expecting it to be boring at best and, if I didn’t have to see it for a review, I would have just ignored; please don’t make that mistake and check it out for yourself. It ranks higher than The Maze Runner, as this was more consistently good, but just below Fat Pizza Vs. Housos, where the manic energy of the comedy kept me more engaged.

But, what did you think of it? Love it? Hate it? Indifferent to it? Whatever the case, feel free to leave a comment below and give us your own thoughts on the movie.