Rosewater Review – Tears of a Satirist


Director: Jon Stewart

Writers: Jon Stewart (screenplay), Maziar Bahari, Aimee Molloy (book)

Stars: Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Dimitri Leonidas, Haluk Bilginer


Release date: November 14th, 2014

Distributor: Open Road Films

Country: USA

Running time: 103 minutes


 

3½/5

Best part: Gael Garcia Bernal.

Worst part: The stylistic flourishes.

Over the past decade, one man – picking apart globe-spanning wars, the global warming debate, social and cultural shifts, and the Global Financial Crisis – has fought tooth-and-nail to speak his mind. Keeping political figures, A-listers, and social icons honest, late-night TV satirist Jon Stewart has raised The Daily Show from middling returns to renowned ratings successes. Known for his groundbreaking monologues and charisma, it’s difficult not to become entranced by his mannerisms and viewpoints.

Gael Garcia Bernal.

Gael Garcia Bernal.

Last year, Stewart stepped away from his hit news-comedy extravaganza to follow his dreams. Handing the reigns over to British Comedian John Oliver, Stewart spent three months (From early June to late August) directing and writing his first feature production. Rosewater, a movie with a title much lighter than its content, is a worthwhile experiment. Stewart places media analysis on a higher pedestal than anything else. The movie chronicles one of the past decade’s most gruelling true stories. Set in 2009, it captures a specific time in Iran’s history. That year, the country’s citizens locked horns over a major question: Who should be leading the country? President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, having driven Iran into multiple crises, was pitted against promising opposition hopefuls Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. We follow London-based journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), an expectant dad tasked with covering the election and civil unrest. Filming interviews with politicians and voters on both sides, his work pulls everyone together as the election reaches breaking point. As the conflict shifts from words to war, our camera-clutching reporter captures and publishes footage of a violent protest. From there, Ahmadinejad-leaning authorities seek to ruin Bahari’s immediate future. Threatened with ridiculous accusations, the government attempts to break our bubbly journalist.

Bernal & Kim Bodnia.

Bernal & Kim Bodnia.

Overshadowing Stewart’s notable ambitions, Rosewater, from first inklings of its creation to release, has suffered major criticism from the Iranian Government and state TV hubs. Accused of consulting the CIA and top-tier Zionists, the media personality proves even his harshest critics wrong here. Certainly, the movie resembles a high-minded vanity project. Sporting his stark wit, watchability, and overwhelming intelligence, his first feature is essentially a two-hour rant against some of the world’s most despicable people. Adapting Bahari and Aimee Mallory’s memoir Then They Came for Me, Stewart has taken notes from Hollywood’s best and brightest. Ironically, having been jokingly accused of plagiarism by Ben Affleck, Stewarts’ feature stands proudly alongside Argo. Similarly to Affleck’s Oscar-winning effort, this political drama revels in its creator’s confidence, verve, and will to succeed. Crafting a highly liberal stance against global injustice and ignorance, the movie’s viewpoints on geo-politics and foreign policy ring true. Unafraid of the facts, Rosewater‘s post-9/11 commentary fits between jingoistic and patronising. Unlike most modern political-drama/thrillers, the movie revels in its smaller moments. The first act, outlining our lead character’s daring mission, crafts several thought-provoking dialogue sequences and enlightening touches. After local driver Davood(Dimitri Leonidas)’s introduction, Rosewater delves enthusiastically  into Bahari’s mindset. Driven by the truth, the movie’s protagonist is worth capturing on camera and sharing with the world. Despite the intentional tonal shifts, this political-drama works as a docudrama/historical account more so than a work of art.

“You have a real weapon and you choose not to use it.” (Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), Rosewater).

Bernal & Dimitri Leonidas.

Bernal & Dimitri Leonidas.

Despite the compelling story and characters, Stewart’s stylistic choices dilute Rosewater‘s potency. Throwing subtitles, news clips, hashtags, and flashbacks across the screen, his erratic flourishes distract from the message. In addition, the supporting characters, despite their emotional and thematic relevance, receive minimal development. Tackling biased news media and government policies erratically, the movie occasionally resembles  an extended Daily Show episode. In fact, show regular Jason Jones – an intrinsic part of the true story – re-lives his experiences here. Before crossing over into self-indulgence, the over-the-top first half gives way to the gripping and electrifying second half. Whilst Bahari is sent to Evin prison for treason, the movie rapidly switches from tepid political-thriller to meaningful prison-drama. Charting Bahari’s behaviour throughout his 118-day incarceration, Stewart’s direction transitions from manic to subdued to gritty. Threatened with life-long imprisonment and execution, Bahari’s story lingers in the consciousness. The opening, beyond describing rosewater’s spiritual powers, outlines Stewart’s agenda. Oddly enough, the title specifically refers to the lead torturer(Kim Bodnia)’s codename. Matching “Rosewater” at every turn, their spirited debates – referring to Bahari’s love of Western culture – are worth the admission cost. Bernal overcomes ethnic obstacles (a Mexican A-lister cast as a real-life Iranian subject) to envelop the role. Boosting his already-impressive resume, the underrated character-actor delivers a grounded and multi-layered turn.

Stewart, transitioning beautifully from late-night satire to political-thriller/docudrama, has his heart in the right place. His style, despite several overblown visual flourishes, matures throughout Rosewater‘s gripping second half. Defined by its raw emotional impact, Bernal’s magnetic performance, and inspiring prison-drama story, the movie makes for a commendable and spirited first effort. Walking the thin line between comedy and drama, its immense intelligence, brawn, and appeal are worth lobbying for.

Verdict: A heartening and worthwhile first feature.

Whiplash Review – Symphonic Psychopathy


Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Damien Chazelle

Stars: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser


Release date: October 10th, 2014

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Country: USA

Running time: 106 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Teller and Simmons.

Worst part: The relationship sub-plot.

Even the most cynical person on Earth will admit that music is a valuable art form. As a universal language, the medium can bring people together and tear others apart. From the first note to the last, a track can turn sombre morsels into happy-go-lucky specimens. From gospel to blues ‘n’ roots to rock, music genres – like movie genres – rise and fall depending on the surrounding pop-cultural landscape. Whiplash, a small-scale drama with big aspirations, meticulously examines the miasmic world of jazz.

Miles Teller.

The idea for Whiplash, similarly to a classic album, simmered for several years before seeing the green light. Based on writer/director Damien Chazelle’s horrific music school experiences, his 85-page screenplay treatment hit Hollywood’s notorious Black-list. After gaining interest, he adapted 15 pages of his original effort into an 18-minute short film. Boosted by Hollywood’s occasional-stroke-of-genius methods, this first-feature – a $3.3 million/19-day-shoot production – lands smoother than Miles Davis’ silk threads. The story, like the scintillating tunes blaring throughout, flows with as much intensity, prowess, and class as humanly possible. In fact, it takes this ‘humanly possible’ idea, and re-moulds it into something truly extraordinary. Spirited twenty-something Andrew (Miles Teller) studies the jazz drums morning noon, and night. Hitting his strides at America’s top music school, the Schaffer Conservatory of Music, the ambitious youngster’s life couldn’t be better. Dating candy-bar girl Nicole (Melissa Benoist), he yields vivid dreams about his immediate future. Picked by renowned studio jazz band conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Andrew is unaware of what’s about to happen. In their first practice session together, Fletcher throws a chair at Andrew before slapping him repeatedly and screaming profanities. From there, Andrew is in it for the long haul.

J. K. Simmons.

J.K. Simmons.

Fletcher, to motivate terrified students, tells a hearty story about influential musician Charlie Parker. In 1936, at Kansas City’s Reno Club, a 16-year-old Parker got up on stage to perform ‘I Got Rhythm’ on the saxophone. Whilst bombing spectacularly, the drummer, Jo Jones, lobbed a cymbal at his head to the crowd’s approval. Parker, after a year of intensive practice, returned to the venue and made history. If this tale interests you, then Whiplash will suit your tastes perfectly. Following up Inside Llewyn Davis, this psychological-drama delivers an equally impressive ode to a specific genre. Jumping back to a better time, the movie’s infatuation with soulful hits and inspirational artists hits its audience with bass-drum-like momentum. From the opening scene – depicting Andrew and Fletcher’s first interaction – onwards, the movie crafts a spirited dynamic between two enthralling professionals. Going Full Metal Jacket within the first half-hour, Whiplash‘s student/mentor relationship turns up the heat, stakes, and emotional resonance. Delivering some of cinema’s most brutal insults, Chazelle’s screenplay echoes Aaron Sorkin’s more focused works. Like The Social Network, egos, personalities, and tempers clash like warring, blood-thirsty factions. Switching from Brassed Off to The Master to Black Swan, Whiplash conducts a seasoned and visceral performance throughout its taut run-time. Chazelle’s style – defined by quick cuts, whip-pans, close-ups, and a saturated colour palette – elevates each set piece. The heart-thumping climax, set at New York’s Carnegie Hall, delivers actioner-like thrills and sports-drama bravado.

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job'”. (Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Whiplash).

Teller & Simmons.

Teller & Simmons.

Despite the overworked premise, Whiplash never walks to the beat of its own drum. The central conflict, beyond the trauma and rage, delivers blackly comedic moments. “Are you one of those…single tear people”, Fletcher asks Andrew as his reputation and defences crumble. Throughout this fear-and-potential-driven experience, Andrew and Fletcher’s feud sends characters and film-goers into a tailspin. Andrew – praising music religiously – treats each sound, music page, and instrument with greater affection than most. Seeing his father (Paul Reiser) and girlfriend as mindless distractions, his anti-social behaviour wrestles with Fletcher’s sociopathic teaching methods. Fletcher, looking for the next big jazz talent, switches gears every few seconds. One second, he’s chatting heartily with old friends. The next, he’s berating his pupils over physical features, wrong notes, and slight mishaps. Despite the shocking behaviour, his intentions become clear and, to a certain extent, believable. Obliterating the “good job” approach, his style births classic hits and memorable musicians. Teller and Simmons bolster the movie’s relentless tempo. Adapting to the blood-sweat-and-tears role, Teller delivers his most commendable performance yet. Drumming with immense power, the Spectacular Now leads improves upon his skills here. Simmons, known for the Spider-Man trilogy and Juno, excels as the mighty mentor ruling his rhythmically sound version of hell.

Boiling Whiplash down to its most salient conceits, Chazelle teaches us a valuable lesson: don’t meet your heroes. More importantly, if you do meet them, don’t work for them. This drama-thriller is a cautionary tale about the dangers of ambition and expectations. Driven by our leads’ momentous conflict, the movie’s cynicism and snarky wit might prove too much for some. However, the compelling story and fun performances deliver a beat worth tapping to.

Verdict: A rhythmic and sumptuous drama.

The Drop Review – Gangster’s Paradise


Director: Michael R. Roskam

Writer: Dennis Lehane (screenplay & short story)

Stars: Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, Matthias Schoenaerts


Release date: September 12th, 2014

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 106 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Hardy & Gandolfini.

Worst part: The heavy-handed symbolism.

In the 1990s, TV producer, writer, and director David Chase took a big chance on an intriguing premise. Showcasing one crime family’s good times and bad blood, HBO’s The Sopranos reigned supreme from 1999 to 2007. Thanks to its immense prowess, Hollywood recognised the hype and made many film and TV copycats. Despite the arresting Godfather-like concept, the world became awe-struck by its portly leading man – James Gandolfini.

Tom Hardy & James Gandolfini.

Latching on to The Sopranos and James Gandolfini’s aura, crime-drama The Drop pays tribute to lost people and genres. Honouring the character-actor’s immense career and persona, the movie lingers on many intriguing elements. As the latest in a string of existential crime-thrillers, the movie throws the studio system, the gangster-thriller genre, and Middle America to the wolves. Oddly enough, despite Gandolfini’s immense acclaim, the late Tinseltown icon is not the movie’s lead. In fact, along the way, we uncover several mesmerising aspects. The Drop revolves around one of America’s most dilapidated neighbourhoods. The story focuses on a modest watering hole – tucked inside Brooklyn, New York – known to some of America’s crummiest low-lifes. Cousin Marv’s, housing many strong whiskeys and nasty surprises, is run by socially awkward bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy). Taking orders from Marv (Gandolfini), Bob runs the joint more diligently than his own life. Working extensive shifts, our lead floats through a tiresome routine. Forced to confront unlikable citizens, Bob and Marv understand the rules of the game. Marv, having handed the bar over to the Chechen mob several years earlier, succumbs to immense stress and emotional detachment. Despite the subdued drama, the movie lays everything out on the table.

Noomi Rapace.

Noomi Rapace.

Embracing its simple-yet-effective premise, The Drop is a chilling and resonant crime-thriller. In fact, the story delves into the ‘drop bar’ world. Used to launder pockets of cash from suspect business dealings, Cousin Marv’s becomes this dynamic narrative’s heart. After a frightening robbery, the movie drops its guard and delivers a moody and philosophical tale. The central plot-line, dealing with the mob wanting its missing $5000 back, propels the otherwise stagnant narrative. Based on Dennis Lehane’s short story Animal Rescue, The Drop relies on Lehane’s style for drama and thrills. Similarly to previous Lehane adaptations, Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River, visceral moments and comedic riffs complement one another. Subbing multiple players into the game, Bob and Marv become intent on settling the score and keeping everything flowing smoothly. Bob – introduced to a lost, injured puppy and Nadia (Noomi Rapace) within minutes – becomes a fascinating specimen. As our hearts melt for his new four-legged friend, The Drop becomes more approachable and entertaining. Flipping through gangster/crime-thriller tropes, the story occasionally creaks and groans. Compared to recent revenge fantasies including Blue Ruin, Killing Them Softly, and Cold in July, its airlessness and ponderousness may deter some viewers. However, the emotional core remains strong throughout. As Bob and Nadia’s friendship develops, the emotional resonance covers up the glaring flaws.

“There are some sins that you commit, that you can’t come back from, no matter how hard you try.” (Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), The Drop).

Hardy & Matthias Schoenaerts.

Hardy & Matthias Schoenaerts.

Sticking by Lehane’s solid screenplay, director Michael R. Roskam (Bullhead) brings the swagger and tempo. Coming from a distinctive European cinema background, his style delivers succinct and invigorating bursts of energy. Focusing on humanity and humility, his adaptation balances the crime, romance, and violence with panache and vigour. Bringing Bullhead star Matthias Schoenaerts with him from Belgium (playing seedy badass Eric Deeds), the director takes full control. As egos and tempers clash, Roskam fuses typical  gangster tropes with peculiar flourishes. Experimenting with light and shadow, the bar setting immediately lights up. Dank and sterile, the establishment is a breeding ground for scum and chaos. Throughout the climax, the overcrowded hangout sees sparks, slurs, and bullets. Roskam’s atmospheric direction crafts an earthy and eclectic version of the suburbs. Depicting Brooklyn’s most disturbing and undignified shades, it pays homage to the early Martin Scorsese era. However, despite Lehane and Roskam’s successes, viewers will fall for our two charismatic leads. Hardy – having brought charm to toughies like Locke, Warrior, and Lawless – fits comfortably into this hard-as-nails role. Switching between blisteringly harsh and endearingly sweet, his nuanced performance – aided by a pitch-perfect accent – is an instant drawcard. Despite playing a similar character to Soprano, Gandolfini deserves credit for his haunting and visceral turn. Sparring with Hardy throughout, the movie shimmers whenever the man sniffles, snorts, and wheezes.

Hardy and Gandolfini’s signature dialogue sequence is worth the admission cost. Marv, outlining his former prowess, reflects upon a time since lost. Showcasing the man’s immense talents, this sequence marks a stellar career cut short. Like our lead characters, The Drop strives for respect and earns it long before its explosive last act. Thanks to the immersive performances, tense set pieces, and attention to detail, this crime-thriller is one of 2014’s most deserving successes.

Verdict: A scintillating and well-crafted crime-thriller.

’71 Review – Worst. Day. Ever.


Director: Yann Demange

Writer: Gregory Burke

Stars: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, Sam Reid, Paul Anderson


Release date: October 10th, 2014

Distributors: StudioCanal, Roadside Attractions

Country: UK

Running time: 99 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Jack O’Connell.

Worst part: The generic villains.

Each cinema industry has its share of touchy topics used to puzzle history buffs, attract film buffs, and educate mass audiences. These subjects – marked by historical events and/or societal, cultural, political, and economic issues – make for haunting stories. Vying for Oscar contention, Hollywood’s offerings depict shocking accounts of harrowing stories. Utilising their resources, other countries – no matter which side of the western/eastern hemisphere their on – seek to primarily inform viewers.

Jack O’Connell.

Surprisingly, groundbreaking British feature ’71, despite the controversial road taken, never focuses specifically on its subject. Despite the inconceivable issues effecting Northern Ireland, the movie side-steps anything remotely distressing or subjective. Overlooking the anger, tyranny, and sadness, the movie instead tackles action-thriller tropes to tell a simple yet effective tale. This 1971-set feature, presenting itself like prime film-festival material, starts off like most military dramas. Training for warfare, British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) believes he can help change war-torn Northern Ireland. Shifting comfortably between tests, the heroic grunt is chosen for a dangerous and life-altering mission. The soldier follows orders and delivers impressive results without breaking a sweat. Beyond this, Hook continually visits his former children’s home to see his younger brother – and remaining loved one – Derren (Henry Verity). One day, as his base is transported to Belfast, the conflict reaches its most vicious and distressing point yet. Arriving the night before, the unit’s optimistic leader, Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid), expects absolute perfection from his fresh-faced recruits. However, as the unit descends upon Falls Road, their inclusion is met with urine-and-faeces-filled balloons and bags thrown by local youths. Conducting house-by-house incursions, the unit is met with angry residents and hostile rioters.

O’Connell in action.

Of course, nothing goes according to plan. As the riot reaches breaking point, Hook and another soldier, Thommo (Jack Lowden), become from the group and left for dead during the retreat. From the first action sequence onwards, ’71, set one year before Bloody Sunday, depicts a vacuous war zone between several motivated, honour-starved factions. Like Hook, the narrative runs rampant through action clichés, visual metaphors, and tough characters. Unlike most IRA/Troubles movies, designed to discuss specific events in detail (Bloody Sunday, Hidden Agenda), the movie throws the geo-political/ethno-nationalist conflict into the background. Some may see ’71 as a gross misjudgment. Across the kinetic 99-minute run-time, whilst dodging the “too soon” argument, we follow our able-bodied lead throughout the worst day of his life. At first, he’s a confident soldier embracing the campaign’s many challenges. Lacking political or social viewpoints, the movie rests squarely on Hook’s shoulders. Focusing on rebellious children and adolescent soldiers, this action-thriller crafts a refreshing and prescient take on its resonant subject matter. Presenting hidden truths and notable viewpoints, ’71 objectively depicts each relevant faction. Delivering vital information through exposition, it depicts the Catholic Nationalists, Protestant Loyalists, Irish Republican Army, Military Reaction Force, and Royal Ulster Constabulary carefully and considerately.

“Posh c*nts telling thick c*unts to kill poor c*nts.” (Eamon (Richard Dormer), ’71)

Our tried-and-tested hero.

Aiming for ‘grey’, its realistic take depicts eery streets lit by torched cars and molotov cocktails. Stepping around bad blood and cruel motivations, ’71 becomes a survival-action flick similar to The Raid: Redemption, Assault on Precinct 13, and Die Hard. Unlike most copy-cats, it embraces each trope whilst elevating the tempo. Avoiding Behind Enemy Lines‘ jingoistic aftertaste, it balances style and substance succinctly. TV director Yann Demange handles his first feature’s £5 million budget effectively. Experimenting with unique camera, lighting, and sound techniques, his style fits the narrative like a uniform. Utilising shaky-cam and quick cuts, the chase sequences ratchet up the tension. As our factions track Hook down, Yemange heightens the grit and stakes. After locals Brigid (Charlie Murphy) and Eamon (Richard Dormer) rescue our hero, the last act turns their apartment block into a labyrinthine maze. Despite the thrills, its contrivances and implausibles spoil the fun. In addition, the over-the-top antagonists distort the narrative. However, the movie’s stellar performances outweigh the negatives. O’Connell – hitting the big-time in 2014 with this, 300: Rise of an Empire, Starred Up, and Unbroken – is revelatory as the out-of-his depth antagonist. Conveying a plethora of emotions, his performance bolsters the adrenaline-charged, man-against-the-world role. In addition, Sean Harris and Paul Anderson excel as two MRF officers teetering on the edge. Meanwhile, David Wilmot delivers several laughs as a slimy rebel leader.

Tackling this harrowing conflict with style and gusto, ’71 is a great first effort and brilliant slice of escapism. The movie – switching between war-drama, political-thriller, and hardcore action flick – is an exercise in controlled chaos. Refusing to take sides, this action-thriller never bogs itself down in Left or Right viewpoints. In fact, this modest and invigorating effort is summed up by one line: “Posh cnts telling thick cnts to kill poor c*nts”.

Verdict: A potent and intensifying action-thriller.

Men, Women & Children Review – Social Melodrama


Director: Jason Reitman

Writers: Jason Reitman, Erin Cressida Wilson (screenplay), Chad Kultgen (novel)

Stars: Rosmarie DeWitt, Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer


Release date: October 1st, 2014

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 119 minutes


 

2/5

Best part: The dynamic performances.

Worst part: The heavy-handed message.

In the age of…whoa, whoa, whoa! There is no way, in the name of God and Mother Nature’s big, blue Earth, I can or should start a review of ‘indie’ dramedy Men, Women & Children with that cliché! Such clichés, used throughout most ‘perils of social media’ articles/news stories etc., sum up everything wrong with modern entertainment/journalism. News and entertainment media, from big-budget schlockers to the independent idea mills, should always be divorcing themselves from convention.

Rosemarie DeWitt & Adam Sandler.

Sadly, no one informed Men, Women & Children‘s cast and crew of this. Hoping we’ll look up its release date and/or wait anxiously for the next trailer’s release, the marketing campaign tries to lure us into its conventional worldview. Obsessed with the zeitgeist, this dramedy honestly believes it’s delivering the last word on the subject. It expects everyone – from top-tier critics to average film-goers – to sit up and listen. The movie – examining the dangers of social media, pop-culture, and sex – wants us to look in the mirror at judge ourselves for everything we’ve done wrong. Unaware of its flaws, the movie is a virus no contraceptive or firewall could ever hope to destroy. This blunt and irritable mess starts off with a symbol floating through another symbol whilst drifting past more symbols. In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 into the endless void of space. Blaring cheery greetings in 57 languages, smooth jazz sounds, and animal noises, astronomer Carl Sagan’s recording was designed to communicate with extraterrestrials. Explained via sprightly, useless narration (Emma Thompson), the movie falls back down to Earth. It then flicks through multiple story-lines. Inter-connecting through friendships, relationships, and coincidences, these stories craft a never-ending narrative about the digital age’s pros and cons.

Dean Norris & Judy Greer.

Dean Norris & Judy Greer.

Despite the amount of story-lines and characters, Men, Women & Children is about as lifeless and mechanical as The Cloud. The movie handles dating divorcees (Dean Norris and Judy Greer), first loves (Ansel Elgort and Kaitly Dever), promiscuous teenagers (Olivia Crocicchia), porn-obsessed youngsters (Travis Tope), paranoid parents (Jennifer Garner), and much more. Before I bin this dramedy and press ‘Empty Trash’, allow me to activate my newly devised ‘Angry Critic’ app and explain why I hate it. Here’s what you should know before seeing Men, Women & Children – the title is plural for a reason! Each story-line, featuring several flawed characters each, gets a significant amount of screen-time. One particular story-line – involving married couple Rachel and Don Truby (Rosemarie DeWitt and Adam Sandler)’s debaucherous, internet-fuelled indiscretions – should have been the central conceit. Unfortunately, this over-long and simplistic black comedy’s remaining story-lines needed more time to install, run, and update. The first third, designed specifically to introduce each plot-thread, is chock-a-block with meet cutes and dilemma-causing scenarios. Meanwhile, the last third lives to resolve said preposterous, cynical, and inconsequential strands. This leaves only middle third to solidify each thread’s existence. Flipping iPad style through each sub-plot, character arc, theme, issue, and conflict, not one story-line is successfully developed or treated with care. Several threads, including the Truby’s oldest son’s porn addiction and one cheerleader’s eating disorder conflict, are worth erasing.

“I think if I disappeared tomorrow, the universe wouldn’t really notice.” (Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort), Men, Women & Children).

Ansel Elgort & Kaitlyn Dever.

Set primarily in suburbia and high school, the movie longs to examine ‘relatable’ and ‘ordinary’ people. However, writer/director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) – adapting Chad Kultgen’s novel – talks down to the public throughout this unrealistic and overbearing cautionary tale. Stepping into Sam Mendes and Todd Solondz’ worlds, Reitman’s snark and smarts dropped in favour of a discomforting tone and laboured pacing. The thirty-something filmmaker – following up confused romantic-drama Labor Day – crafts shallow depictions of monogamy, bulimia, obsession, temptation, infidelity, existential crises, celebrity, familial issues, and (anti)social media. Fusing this mean-spirited narrative with this overt sentimentality, it’s a peculiar mix of Dazed and ConfusedCrash, and Parenthood. Highlighting the obvious metaphors, Reitman’s aggressive agenda infects his visual style. Throwing text messages, chat windows, and URL bars across the screen, this useless technique overcooks the convoluted story. Highlighting each character’s indiscretions, the director’s techniques send shivers down the spine. The performers – a mix of A-listers, character-actors, and up-and-comers – bolster the underdeveloped roles. Sandler, making a major career switch, elevates his introverted character. Garner, Greer, and Norris are worthwhile distractions in this debilitating after school special.

Men, Women & Children‘s poster sums up everything about the final product – it’s ugly, misjudged, and features recognisable people hidden by a bevy of smartphones and smart-asses. Despite the ambition, this suburban dramedy – from 1% completion to 100% – mistakes convolution for complexity. Reitman, fusing indie sensibilities with Hollywood prowess and minor studio interference, delivers his second consecutive foible. Despite the flaws, the performers admirable tackle the material. In particular, hearing Thompson say: “titty-f*cking cum queen” is almost worth it. LOL, smiley emoticon.

Verdict: Reitman’s second consecutive failure.

The Imitation Game Review – A Puzzling Enigma


Director: Morten Tyldum

Writers: Graham Moore (screenplay), Andrew Hodges (book)

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong

TIG


Release date: November 14th, 2014

Distributors: StudioCanal, The Weinstein Company

Countries: UK, USA

Running time: 114 minutes


 

3½/5

Best part: The charming performances.

Worst part: The last 15-20 minutes.

Mathematician, logician, computer scientist, cryptanalyst. Worthy of this Tony Stark-esque description, one aspiring man one undertook these phenomenal professions simultaneously. The man, subject of front-running Oscar contender The Imitation Game, is one of history’s bravest and most inspirational people. In fact, his momentous inventions and experiments have paved the way for some of modern civilisation’s most valuable technological advancements.

Benedict Cumberbatch & Charles Dance.

Beyond the positives, The Imitation Game presents key World War II figure Alan Turing’s life as a battle between arrogance and modesty. Early on, after his introduction into British Intelligence’s darkest depths, the game-changing scientist compares himself to Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. Refusing to promote his sterling accomplishments, the twenty-something compliments the aforementioned geniuses for making momentous strides at younger ages. From there, this spy-drama depicts his momentous journey. The movie, despite the premise, starts off in a different part of his life. In 1951,  after examining a suspicious robbery at Turing(Benedict Cumberbatch)’s Manchester abode, the lead investigator, Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear), seeks to learn more about him. Unexpectedly, his mission kickstarts a baffling chain of events. During an interrogation, Turing relays his life story. Jumping back to WWII, the movie then kick-starts its central plot-line. Turing – transported to top-secret Government Code and Cypher School, Bletchley Park – butts heads with Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance). Adjusting to the experience, the aspirational yet anti-social brainiac grates against fellow academics including Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Carincross (Allen Leech), and Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard). Enlisting British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s support, our team sets out to crack Nazi Germany’s notorious Enigma Code with Turing’s £100,000 code-deciphering machine.

Mark Strong.

Mark Strong.

The Imitation Game‘s convoluted premise appears tiresome and confusing. Largely ignored by the public, average film-goers might skip it in favour of Channing Tatum’s latest psychological-thriller (Foxcatcher) or Tim Burton’s latest visual splendour (Big Eyes). With said big names vying for our attention, the movie may only resonate with a select few. However, the movie charts one of modern history’s greatest stories. The central plot-line – pitting Turing against colleagues, higher-ups, underrated newcomer Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), and MI6 representative Maj. Gen. Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) – clicks like Turing’s inventions. Inspired heavily by The Social Network and A Beautiful Mind, this plot-line delivers a fun assortment of pithy dialogue, intricate flourishes, and Oscar-calibre moments. As the clock ticks down, this story-thread simmers over the proverbial fires of war. Uncovering a web of conspiracy and degradation, this small-scale thriller discusses modern political and technological issues. With freedom at stake, this docudrama places us in Turing’s blockish shoes. As battles rage on across the channel, the ego-driven feuds become increasingly more interesting. Punctuated by dynamic turns from the enthralling cast, certain scenes summarise the story’s immense worth. Unfortunately, director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) and screenwriter Graham Moore don’t trust in this plot-line. Interested more so in politics than action, our filmmaker and writer craft a meaningful tale about code-breakers and desk jockeys. However, narrative’s gear-churning shifts distort the pacing and tension. Hindering the touching personal moments, its non-linear structure lessens the impact.

“Sometimes, it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” (Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), The Imitation Game).

Our code-cracking team.

Our code-cracking team.

Jumping between this story-line, the ’51 investigation, and Turing’s childhood, screen-time is needlessly confiscated from vital moments. Adding little to The Imitation Game‘s narrative, two of said plot-lines merely lessen the impact. Delivering corny dialogue and heavy-handed symbolism, the boarding school sequences become major distractions. Despite the magnetic first-two thirds, the last act speeds through plot-points, historical moments, and revelations similarly to Turing code-breaking process. Skimming over thematically resonant moments, the movie relies too much on its last few scenes and closing inter-titles. The underlying conflict, concerning Turing’s sexual orientation, is scarcely commented on. Thanks to its simple-minded liberal message, it becomes a King’s Speech-esque Oscar-baiter. Despite the issues, it combines Britain’s brightest talents to achieve a commendable vision. Separating the movie’s three time periods, Maria Djurkovic’s production design paints a haunting picture of the era. Capturing Tyldum’s attention to detail, each shot houses a rich representation of WWII England. In addition, Alexandre Desplat’s score delivers emotional weight throughout. In addition, Cumberbatch’s performance and Turing’s arc are worth the admission cost. Being one of the movie’s many skinny, Lizard-like cast members, the British actor – in his first scene with Dance – establishes himself as one of cinema’s most alluring talents. Strong, Knightley, Goode, and Dance deliver nuanced turns in compelling roles.

Turing, whose public backlash and conviction for gross indecency led to his suicide at 41, proved one person, against all odds, can make a difference. Like our inquisitive and socially awkward subject, The Imitation Game cracks the vital codes and pushes the right buttons to achieve significant results. Despite the typical Weinstein Company production issues, this historical-drama places its circuit boards and wires together in an effective sequence.

Verdict: A compelling and witty docudrama.

Camp X-Ray Review – The K-Stew Redemption


Director: Peter Sattler

Writer: Peter Sattler

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Peyman Moaadi, Lane Garrison, John Carroll Lynch


Release date: October 17th, 2014

Distributor: IFC Films 

Country: USA

Running time: 117 minutes


 

 

4/5

Best part: Stewart and Moaadi.

Worst part: The irritating supporting characters.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, the United States of America, considered to be the most stable country on Earth, did everything it could to respond. Sadly, what happened next crafted a chain of events the world is still unable to break. Along with the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and 2003 overhaul of Iraq, America struck the Middle-Eastern world with indescribable force. In addition, as highlighted in  independent drama Camp X-Ray, one particular issue reshaped the world’s stance on the West.

Kristen Stewart.

Kristen Stewart.

Guantanamo Bay, created specifically to house persons of interest, was a torture chamber shadowed by the US Government. With several horrific cases making the news, something needed to be done. Thankfully, this place is no longer a problem. Why am I examining this topic? Well, because everyone deserves to gain a thorough understanding of our world. Camp X-Ray, despite only scraping the tip of the iceberg, is a fine example of cinema’s raw power. Ambitiously, the movie depicts one Army private’s brief stint in this nightmarish facility. Despite the questionable premise, it’s the people involved that push viewers in the right direction. In the opening two scenes, we get a brief glimpse into the events of 9/11 and Amir Ali(Peyman Moaadi)’s day-to-day existence. Ali, a lonely and humble simpleton, doesn’t seem like much of a threat. However, whilst in Salat (Islamic ritualistic prayer), he is abducted from Germany and moved halfway around the world to Guantanamo. Treated like an animal, he spends eight years in confinement. We then meet our other protagonist, Private First Class Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart).

Peyman Moaadi.

Peyman Moaadi.

Thanks to a subdued marketing campaign and well-earned award contention, Camp X-Ray is one of 2014’s most alluring indie releases. Refusing to boast its lead actor’s stardom, the movie aims for film festival crowds and strictly adult audiences. In fact, I doubt Twilight fans would be willing to watch K-Stew be kicked, spat on, or covered in excrement by vicious detainees. Interestingly enough, the title only refers to one part of the compound. Whilst watching this stirring drama, many viewers’ jaws will drop uncontrollably. Throughout the 117-minute run-time, the “I can’t believe this actually happened!” thought became lodged in my skull like a rogue piece of shrapnel. The narrative, crafting a slice-of-life account, drags us through each stage of Guantanamo’s gruelling processes. Graphic designer turned writer/director Peter Sattler, despite the fictional story, gathers enough research to make each frame feel genuine. Following Cole’s potent story, from her discomforting initiation to tender bond with Ali and more, Settler’s purposeful style illuminates our lead characters’ words and actions. In most sequences, Sattler’s less-is-more approach cranks the tension up to 11. Capturing the most mundane parts of Cole’s job, the movie never attempts to manipulate us. Oddly enough, despite the aforementioned faeces incident, Sattler’s succinct screenplay is more about telling than showing. The quieter moments, defined by searing dialogue and charming comedic jabs, cement this prison drama as a muted mix of The Shawshank Redemption and Zero Dark Thirty.

“It’s not as black and white as they said it was going to be.” (PFC Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart), Camp X-Ray).

Life in Guantanamo Bay.

Life in Guantanamo Bay.

Despite lacking the aforementioned movies’ prowess, Camp X-Ray delivers many heartfelt moments, cracking lines, and thought-provoking viewpoints. Powered by Sattler’s tell-don’t-show approach, the supporting characters serve to summarise his agenda. In fact, these caricatures’ cruel words and disgraceful actions become overbearing. However, among the existential angst and political jabs, Camp X-Ray‘s central dynamic steadily turns this political-thriller  into a fascinating and sweet pseudo-fairytale. As our lead character’s time runs out, varying conflicts and complications play out with maximum effect. Yearning for masculine qualities, our lead warps and twists herself around the system. Afraid of consequences and responsibilities, Cole’s arc delivers an emotionally resonant experience. Beyond Sattler’s profound character development, credit belongs to Stewart for shedding her persona and becoming something else entirely. Ridding herself of the ongoing backlash, this ambitious project illuminates her immense magnetism and range. Utilising her slender figure and distinctive facial features, Stewart adapts to every situation and flourish. Stuck primarily in close up, she and Sattler’s intimate style bolster this meaningful journey. Aiding Stewart throughout, Moaadi – known primarily for breakout Iranian drama, A Separation – is blindingly charismatic as a sorrowful victim hidden deep within hell. Adding comedic hints when required, his bountiful performance elevates this sombre character study.

Despite switching between ever-so-slight Left and Right viewpoints, forcing Camp X-Ray to apologise on behalf of the US Government whilst applauding its stance on terrorism, the end result deserves our immediate attention. Telling a heart-breaking story about the West, Middle-East, and everywhere in between, this prison drama delivers a full-strength assault on the heart, mind, and senses. As a performance piece for one of Hollywood’s most underrated actresses, this is a sure-fire indie-drama highlight.

Verdict: Stewart’s I-told-you-so vehicle.

Dracula Untold Review – Toothless Trash


Director: Gary Shore

Writers: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless (screenplay), Bram Stoker (novel)

Stars: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Charles Dance


Release date: October 3rd, 2013

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Countries: USA, UK 

Running time: 92 minutes


 

1½/5

Best part: The production values.

Worst part: The overbearing performances.

Since Hollywood’s transition from ‘classic’ to ‘modern’, big-budget entertainment has focused entirely on sex appeal. Defined by awe, devilishness, and attractiveness, Tinseltown promotes aesthetic beauty over substance. Even the idea of ‘style’ itself – distinguishing one’s work from everything else – has been watered down to an extraneous extent. Now that the studio system has exhausted trends like fairytale adaptations, comic book movies, and nostalgic actioners, the world’s biggest media hub is turning cannibalistic. Dracula Untold may be the high point of blockbuster/remake/reboot fatigue. What’s next, a cuddly wolfman? A sensitive mummy? a sexy invisible man? Good luck, Universal!

Luke Evans as Vlad III Tepes/Count Dracula.

Recently, there have been several similar big-budget extravaganzas. Most of them, Twilight included, are directed at teenage girls. While some of them are mindless adaptations of classic  texts. All of them, however, bend vampire mythology to their will. Mixing classic horror with explosive action and sappy romance, Dracula Untold is a horrific experiment in itself. Staggering toward its release date, this action-horror flick means little to either the people involved or those watching it. We begin with a highlight reel of one of history’s most disturbing people. We first meet Vlad III Tepes aka Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) in a rushed opening sequence. Depicting his fearsome fighting skills and determination, Vlad’s reputation is built on the bones of fallen enemies and kingdoms. The movie jumps forward to the central conceit, and Vlad has become a cunning warrior keeping guard of his people. Tracking a battalion of Turkish soldiers, our ‘hero’ and his men head to Broken Tooth Mountain to find answers. Instead, Vlad – the expedition’s sole survivor – unearths the world’s most terrifying secret. Vlad must also keep his home, Castle Dracula, out of the Turkish army’s hands. Led by Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper), the army asks for 1000 able-bodied boys in exchange for ever-lasting peace.

Dominic Cooper.

As the land’s most fearless and skilled warrior, Vlad refuses to go down without a fight. Keeping his wife, Mirena (Sarah Gadon), and child, Ingeras (Art Parkinson), away from the Turkish forces, our lead character takes on the world’s largest army. As the launchpad for Universal’s new Avengers-style franchise, Dracula Untold has been whittled down by the studio, director, screenwriters, and editor. Turning potentially-entertaining material into October-bound schlock, this production wastes several opportunities. The story, spoiled thanks to an egregious marketing campaign, is messier than a corpse in Dracula’s possession. The aforementioned opening, delivering cold-blooded exposition with static images, doesn’t deliver anything original or interesting. Those wary of the original material might stand a chance of following this sequence. However, those without said knowledge might become lost. From there, the movie leaps between concepts without purpose or warning. The first 15 minutes promises a down-and dirty superhero origin story/reboot for the archetypal vampire character. Showing off his powers – turning into a swarm of bats and utilising infra-red vision –  it defines our lead character’s inner conflict with visual effects and tiresome cliches. The movie also throws two more story-lines at us. The love story and medieval warfare sub-plots turn this straight-forward actioner into a convoluted foible. Transforming this alluring villain into a misunderstood anti-hero, the movie delivers nothing for viewers to sink their teeth into.

“Do you think you are alive because you can fight? You are alive because of what I did to save you!” (Vlad/Dracula (Luke Evans), Dracula Untold).

Charles Dance.

I could say Dracula Untold “lacks bite” or “sucks”, but that would be too damn easy. The biggest problem resides within its flesh and blood: it takes itself way too seriously! The performances, drifting between maudlin and over-the-top, are difficult to comprehend. Evans, despite the charisma and immense physicality, never meshes with his fruitful character. Gadon is underused in her plot-device role. While Cooper makes for an unconvincing Middle-Eastern/moustache-twirling villain. However, Game of Thrones actor Charles Dance heartily tackles his make-up-induced role. Quicker than you can say: “Transylvania”, Matt Sazama and Burk Shapless’ screenplay delves into sprawling conflicts, overblown speeches, and Greek tragedy-like drama. Giving the story or characters little development, the alliance switches, noble sacrifices, and revelations become increasingly stupid. Speed-reading the original text, the movie pretends to understand Stoker’s words. Explaining everything with stilted exposition and silly one-liners, its thrills are few and far between. While its comedic moments fall flatter than the lid of Dracula’s coffin. Lacking experience, first-time feature director Gary Shore succumbs to the monsters leering over him. Bullied by producers and studio executives, Shore turns this gothic staple into a transparent actioner. Despite the immense budget (for a British production), his action-direction hammers the stake into the heart. Thanks to quick cuts, shaking cameras, and shoddy camera angles, the action is incomprehensible. Despite the sword-and-sandal vibe, the video-game-like sequences shrink the story’s heart and brains. However, thanks to sterling sets, costume designs, and cinematography, the production values elevate it above I, Frankenstein (but that’s not saying much).

Despite the minor positives, Dracula Untold succumbs to a mystifying and laughable case of prequelitis. Telegraphing specific events ahead of time, the movie tests its audience’s patience. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Dracula suffocating aura lingering overhead, this action-oriented version is a spineless adaptation of Stoker’s masterpiece. Despite the brief run-time, the movie becomes as deadly to cinema as sunlight to a bloodsucker.

Verdict: A stake through Universal’s heart.

Gone Girl Review – Till Death…


Director: David Fincher

Writer: Gillian Flynn (screenplay & novel)

Stars: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry


Release date: October 3rd, 2014 

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 149 minutes


5/5

Best part: Fincher’s direction.

Worst part: Minor book-to-film translation issues.

Movies and relationships – despite the major differences between fantasy and reality – share one vital similarity. Oddly enough, these two ‘necessities’ rely on first impressions. A good first impression can make for blissful rewards, while a bad one can turn smiles into frowns. Tinseltown’s latest smash hit crime-thriller/marriage deterrent Gone Girl makes it mark within its first few moments. In its second scene, one of our two lead characters, standing next to a wheelie bin, looks around the neighbourhood before skulking back into his/her house.

Ben Affleck as struggling journo/murder suspect Nick Dunne.

Analysing this one uneventful moment, Gone Girl‘s audience could piece a million ideas together to create a billion different interpretations. In a year of shlocky actioners and dodgy biopics, the movie pick critics and film-goers up off the ground. We can all rest easy, thanks to this pulsating crime-thriller. We can now look forward to a potentially ingenious Oscar season. Obviously, I fell in love with this movie and might never let go. Thanks to its commendable cast and crew, this is 2014’s best movie. So, what is it about? Well, that is certainly an interesting question. The aforementioned lead is Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a disgruntled writer dangling on the thinnest moral tightrope imaginable. The bin scene delivers only a minuscule look into his existence. Kicking off in the present, the narrative scours through his hit-and-miss past. Early on, we witness a younger, more confident Nick introducing himself to alluring femme fatale Amy (Rosamund Pike). Hitting it off immediately, our cute characters ignite the ultimate topsy-turvy relationship. At first, our lovebirds float through life in each other’s arms. Bolstered by kinky sex and likeable personalities, their coupling seems perfect. However, soon after Nick and Amy’s wedding, life swings the one-two punch of a recession and mass lay-offs. Following Nick’s twin sister Margo(Carrie Coon)’s advice, our leads move from New York to his hometown of North Carthage, Missouri. On their fifth anniversary, Nick comes home to find a crime scene. Amy has been kidnapped, and detectives Boney (Kim Dickens) and Gulpin (Patrick Fugit) are on the case.

Rosamund Pike as mousey housewife/victim Amy Elliot Dunne.

From here, I promise to stick to my specific criticisms about the final product. In doing so, I will be avoiding Gone Girl‘s jaw-dropping twists and turns. Based on tabloid journalist turned novelist Gillian Flynn’s best-selling beach-read, the movie elegantly tackles several genre tropes and thrilling ideas. Faithful to said momentous page-turner, Gone Girl hands screenplay duties over to Flynn. Gracefully, Flynn develops a straight-to-the-point translation of her own material. The novel – telling a slinky and cynical story about marriage’s ups, downs, and left turns – tip-toes between plot-points and chapters. This adaptation, though aided by Flynn’s succinct screenplay, is bolstered by mega-successful psychological-thriller filmmaker David Fincher (Fight Club, Seven). Along with the aforementioned modern classics, Fincher’s no-nonsense direction has delivered such gut-wrenchers as The Game, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake. Like his Stieg Larsson adaptation, his take on Flynn’s novel amplifies the emotional resonance and stakes. Examining the text’s denotations and connotations with microscope-like focus, his style aptly suits the narrative. Amy – the missing gorgeous, white woman – sends the world into a tailspin. Meanwhile, Nick, a handsome journalist sulking inside their McMansion, becomes the prime suspect. The first half, setting up its story and character threads, omits the fat and lovingly nurtures its more-important concepts. Thanks to Fincher’s non-linear style, aided by chapter-defining fade-ins/outs, the narrative peels back story-lines with fingernail-like sharpness and intensity. Relishing in Amy’s oppressive diary entries, Fincher and Flynn craft an alarming tale of regret, temptation, monogamy, and gender politics. Adding to the overbearing cynicism, the story even pits Amy against her mother’s notorious literature creation ‘Amazing Amy’. Slithering around one another, these people are despicable, desperate, and just plain fascinating!

“I will practice believing my husband loves me. But I could be wrong.” (Amy Elliot Dunne (Rosamund Pike), Gone Girl).

Tyler Perry as top-shelf attorney Tanner Bolt.

As a pulpy, trashy, and intriguing mystery-thriller, Gone Girl makes airport novels, Hollywood cinema, and Affleck look so damn irresistible. Affleck, coming off an Oscar win and a major career resurgence, makes the most of this experience. Shedding his polarising persona, the A-lister succumbs to the character. However, credit belongs to Pike for perfecting her indelible role. Delivering multiple turns within one performance, the British character actress deserves the Oscar win. In addition, the stunt casting works wonders. Neil Patrick Harris goes full ‘One Hour Photo‘ in his disturbing role. Tyler Perry delivers a charismatic turn as ego-driven attorney Tanner Bolt. Boosting everyone’s careers, Fincher is the all-seeing, all-knowing God of big-budget filmmaking. Dissecting Nick and Amy’s marriage like a water-logged body, the movie delivers several arresting surprises and hurl-inducing moments. Certain scenes, testing each viewer’s tolerance levels, lodge themselves in the consciousness. Throughout the second half, in which character psyches are repeatedly broken and remoulded, the narrative delves into its own unabashed insanity. In fusing 1940s film noir, 1980/90s Brian de Palma/Paul Verhoeven fare, and modern kidnap-thrillers, this mystery-thriller crafts an unconscionable swagger. As the cameras and Nancy Grace-like newscasters obliterate Nick’s life, Fincher – like with previous efforts – beheads 24-hour news media, police ignorance, and studio-driven dross. In fact, the movie points out its own quirks; calling attention to everything meta, symbolic, and cliched. Matching Flynn’s sarcasm, Fincher’s blackly comedic humour is worth the admission cost. Gone Girl‘s technical precision stands out above almost anything else in 2014. Jeff Cronenweth’s handsome cinematography, highlighting Fincher’s signature style, lends pathos to this gruelling experience. In addition, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score boosts their already impressive oeuvre.

Despite the wheelie-bin scene’s infinite importance, the scene before it sums up Gone Girl‘s insatiable   prowess. Nick, looking at the back of his wife’s head, discusses his overwhelming desire to break her skull and learn her many saucy secrets. The following two hours does this with style, gusto, and chills. Thanks to Flynn’s taut screenplay and Fincher’s vigorous direction, this adaptation succeeds where similar efforts fail. Like Fincher’s previous efforts, Gone Girl takes the genre, eviscerates it, reshapes it, and dares others to do better. It’s a worthwhile experience…just don’t watch it with your significant other!

Verdict: A pulpy and confronting mystery-thriller.

Maps to the Stars Review – Hollyood Horror Story


Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: Bruce Wagner

Stars: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson


Release date: September 26th, 2014

Distributors: Entertainment One, Focus World

Countries: USA, Canada

Running time: 112 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Cronenberg’s direction.

Worst part: The dodgy CGI.

Certainly, the sunny labyrinth of Los Angeles – sheltered by the Hollywood sign and supported by the Walk of Fame – wields many sights worth exploring. Indeed, anyone living outside the City of Angels has an idea of what’s on offer. As the hub of commercial entertainment, us Westerners rely on Hollywood to keep us engaged and relaxed. However, those who live in or have visited the landmark town know its many filthy secrets. Every inch of LA, from Compton to Santa Monica to Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, is covered in a layer of scum. This is reflected in Tinseltown’s latest bout of self-deprecation, Maps to the Stars.

Julianne Moore & Mia Wasikowska.

With Maps to the Stars, a big-name director, commendable screenwriter, and several A-listers got together to kickstart the project. Despite the cast and crew’s immense buying power, this satirical-drama holds up on its own. Combating all forms of criticism, it’s difficult not to applaud the movie’s raw pride. This crime-thriller, taking on everything and everyone around it, breaks off into several valuable strands. Its narrative follows the Weiss family’s peculiar lifestyle. As one of (fictional) Hollywood’s most prestigious and ballsy families, the Weiss’ represent the archetypal Beverly Hills dynasty. The husband/father figure, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a gutsy self-help guru/psychotherapist making his fortune from TV appearances and manuals. Obsessed with book tours and reputations, Stafford turns away from chaos and despair. The wife/mother figure, Cristina (Olivia Williams), is her thirteen-year-old son’s manic-depressive manager. Suffocating her child with pills and diet plans, her fragile frame of mind threatens to hurriedly destroy everything in her radius. The aforementioned son, Benjie (Evan Bird), is a mega-successful sitcom star bouncing back from a recent stint in a drug rehabilitation program. At the worst time possible, the daughter, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), leaves a Floridian sanatorium to reconnect with her family.

John Cusack & Evan Bird.

John Cusack & Evan Bird.

Why was Agatha situated so far away from her family? What happened to the family before we met them, exactly?  Why is she covered in horrific scars? I can’t tell anyone, as it would ruin Maps to the Stars‘ immense enjoyment factor. Inhaling The Shining, Sunset Boulevard, American Beauty, and Mulholland Drive, the movie fuses self-reflexive humour with confronting drama-thriller tropes. From the first frame onwards, writer Bruce Wagner – apparently on a hell-bent mission to skewer Tinseltown left, right, and centre – outlines his viewpoints and ideologies for the audience. In doing so, Wagner – basing his screenplay on his experiences whilst comparing it to Paul Eluard’s poem ‘Liberte’ – allows us to shape our own analyses. Adding obvious titbits to each line, Wagner illuminates the puzzle pieces throughout. The narrative, pieced together in varying ways depending on one’s knowledge of the industry, comments on modern showbiz’s pros and cons. Examining Hollywood’s cynical business decisions and shallow inhabitants, the narrative evenly spreads itself over several intriguing plot-strands and character arcs. Despite the compelling   material, Maps to the Stars never establishes a lead character. Early on, Agatha worms her way into Beverly Hills through a friendship with limo driver/actor/writer Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson). Thanks to her Twitter-based attachment to Carrie Fisher, this bizarre character becomes ageing actress/sexual abuse victim Havana Segrand(Julianne Moore)’s “chore whore” (personal assistant). Havana longs for a remake of a feature originally starring her deceased mother (Sarah Gadon). This satirical-drama, giving its characters many physical, spiritual, and psychological afflictions, waits for its subjects to unravel like a faux-Gucci outfit.

“On the stairs of death I write your name, Liberty.” (Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), Maps to the Stars).

Robert Pattinson.

Robert Pattinson.

Flipping between plot-strands, this psychological-thriller relies on its severe, agenda-setting methodology. Despite Wagner’s piercing dialogue and searing commentary, credit belongs to renowned  Canadian director David Cronenberg (Videodrome, The Fly) for keeping everything under the surface. With each passing second, the master filmmaker supports Wagner’s argument by examining at his overwhelming viewpoints. Eclipsing his anti-establishment bottle flick Cosmopolis, Cronenberg hits a nerve most avoid like the plague. Like his 2012 limo-set drama, his cold, distant direction matches the agenda at every turn. Despite the tonal inconsistency, the filmmaker leaps between sub-plots with ease and determination. Sending shivers down the spine, his style amplifies the disgusting things our characters say and do. Learning from experience, his direction throws us normal folk into the chaos. His studio meetings, filmed entirely in medium close-ups, comes off like interrogations. Grappling with temptation, obsession, and greed, Cronenberg’s visual flourishes amplify the intensity. Amplified by Howard Shore’s piercing drum-lines and Peter Suschitzky’s mesmerising cinematography, the movie’s many climaxes and revelations hit like rejections. Unlike his more recent efforts (A History of Violence, A Dangerous Method), Cronenberg’s touch, like plastic surgery, rests on and under the surface. Tearing down egos and backstabbers, our talented performers capture a soap opera-like aura impeccably. Moore examines her searing role with gusto and vigour. Meddling with a despicable character (celebrating after a fellow actress drops out of a role due to tragic circumstances), she strips everything down to the bare essentials.

Within Hollywood’s bright lights, gorgeous landmarks, and raging parties, a disease – turning fame and fortune into despicable traits – seeks to destroy everything. Causing LA’s dirt-covered veneer, this scourge of reality TV and tabloid media has severely degraded the glamour. Despite the overbearing agenda, Maps to the Stars has the cojones to bludgen Hollywood with its own golden statuettes. Thanks to scintillating performances, pithy dialogue, and kinetic visuals, this satirical-drama is Cronenberg’s best effort since Eastern Promises.

Verdict: A compelling and confronting satirical-drama.